Header Item Prelude
 Header Item Business of Seanad
 Header Item Order of Business
 Header Item Action Plan for Jobs 2014: Statements
 Header Item Standing Orders: Motion
 Header Item Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2014: Second Stage
 Header Item Homeless Persons: Statements
 Header Item Adjournment Matters
 Header Item Tenant Purchase Scheme Administration

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Seanad Éireann Debate

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Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10:30

Machnamh agus Paidir.

Reflection and Prayer.


Business of Seanad

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I have received notice from Senator Colm Burke that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to outline the proposals for the introduction of a scheme that will allow local authority tenants to purchase the properties in which they reside.

I have also received notice from Senator Michael Mullins of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to intervene with the management of An Post in order to postpone a decision to close Cappataggle post office, County Galway on 31 December and to enable further discussions to take place with the local community concerning the possibility of developing a strategic plan to grow the business in order that a vital community service can be retained.

I regard the matter raised by Senator Colm Burke as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment and it will be taken at the conclusion of business. I regret that I have had to rule out of order the matter raised by Senator Michael Mullins, as the Minister has no official responsibility in the matter.

Order of Business

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the Action Plan for Jobs 2014, to be taken at 11.45 a.m. and conclude not later than 1.15 p.m., with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 1.10 p.m.; No. 2, motion re Standing Orders 82B and 82C concerning the attendance of committee members at meetings of the committee inquiring into the banking crisis, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and conclude not later than 3 p.m., with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed five minutes - I know that a similar motion was passed without debate in the other House, but if any Senator wishes to contribute to the debate on the motion, they are welcome to do so; No. 3, Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2014 - Second Stage, to be taken at 3 p.m., with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 4, statements on homelessness, to be taken at 7 p.m. and conclude not later than 9 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 8.55 p.m.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien I thank the Leader for outlining the business for today and particularly for allowing time to debate the motions concerning the two Standing Orders which need to be discussed.

  I request we have a debate at the appropriate time - probably be in the new year - on the HIQA report on the National Ambulance Service. This is an issue that has been discussed in the House over a number of years. I have mentioned issues related to the great work done by Dublin Fire Brigade, its ambulance service and the National Ambulance Service, but we need to look towards the creation of one combined emergency medical service system. I have read through much of the report but the headlines do not tell the full story. It is quite a complex situation with regard to resourcing and areas of responsibility. When Members have had an opportunity to read the report, it would be useful to have a debate on it early in the new year. I ask the Leader to organise it.

  It is welcome that a debate on the issue of homelessness, with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, in attendance, will take place this evening. I know that there was a vote on the issue yesterday and people are genuinely concerned. I know that some Senators would accuse other colleagues of mock outrage, but that is not the case. I am in receipt of correspondence from Dublin City Council through the leader of the Fianna Fáil group, Councillor Paul McCauliffe. As far back as 6 November all group leaders of the city council groups - the Labour Party, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Independents and Fianna Fáil - have been seeking a meeting with the Minister through the office of the Lord Mayor, Christy Burke, to discuss the urgent need for action to be taken to tackle homelessness in Dublin city. Following a series of e-mails, the Minister's office eventually came back and scheduled a meeting for Wednesday, 26 November, but a few days prior to that meeting an e-mail was received stating that the Minister's office had phoned to cancel that meeting. It stated the situation with Irish Water and water charges over the previous two weeks had impacted greatly on this diary and his staff were in the process of rescheduling meetings. It also stated that they would be in touch to discuss and agree and alternative date as soon as possible. The city councillors had flagged the issue. I am chair of the regional drugs task force in north County Dublin and I am very familiar with the issue of homelessness, and much of the cause of it is related to drug and alcohol abuse, although not all of it is. I am glad that the Minister will at least be coming into the House this evening. However, the priority of homelessness was obviously not high on his agenda when he saw fit to cancel a meeting with the leaders of the groups on Dublin City Council and said he had other issues to deal with. The leaders of those groups had been seeking a meeting with him since he took over as Minister. I would like us to have a proper debate on this issue this evening and for people to come forward with some solutions. One idea I have, which the Minister should examine, is to take account of the infrastructure that is already in place such as the regional drugs and alcohol task forces, groups such as the Fr. Peter McVerry Trust, the Simon Community and others, and to have a specific conference on this issue to examine ways to solve the problems. The Minister has not shown up to now that he views homelessness in Dublin as a priority and that fact is borne out from his cancellation of the meeting with elected members of Dublin City Council. I hope he uses the debate we will have later to state that he will prioritise this issue.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I thank the Leader for arranging a debate on the motions concerning Standing Orders 82B and 82C around the conduct of the committee of inquiry into the banking crisis. We had a long meeting of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges about that matter last night.

  I offer congratulations to Senator Susan O'Keeffe who is the chair of Yeats2015, which was officially launched in the Arts Club last night. Many colleagues were in attendance and it was an excellent launch. I commend the Senator for her work.

  In respect of homelessness, the Leader has organised a debate this evening with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, in attendance. As I said yesterday, all of us should very much welcome the Minister's immediate response to the terrible tragedy of the death of Jonathan Corrie-----

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien He cancelled a meeting with the leaders of the groups on Dublin City Council.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik -----in convening a special forum on homelessness for tomorrow.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien Yes, but why? He did it because someone had died.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am not sure if colleagues in the Opposition are fully aware that the Minister has invited in the chief executive officers of the four Dublin local authorities, the Lord Mayor of Dublin City, the cathaoirligh of South Dublin, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Fingal county councils and the non-governmental organisations working in the sector, and he is also meeting the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin. Clearly, there is a role for all those stakeholders in seeking to address this very serious problem. I spoke about this yesterday, as did many other Members. There are very particular issues involved. The Simon Community recently closed 37 units of accommodation for the homeless on Seán MacDermott Street and there have been calls that they should be immediately reopened. The Catholic Housing Aid Society has been in dispute over levels of rent and therefore 99 new units of accommodation on Gardiner Street have not been opened. There is some spare capacity. I know Archbishop Martin has sought to intervene there and that a good deal of work has been done to try to ensure that this large housing complex in the heart of the north inner city, which scandalously has been lying empty for more than six months, should be opened to provide facilities for people who are homeless. There is a good deal of work that needs to be done. I welcome the fact that this special forum has been convened by the Minister for tomorrow. It is a very prompt response by him. He will speak more about that in the House tonight. Colleagues on both side should acknowledge the work that is being done on this issue.

  I also welcome the announcement made yesterday of the reopening by the Irish Government of the hooded men case in the European Court of Human Rights. Tribute should be paid to the RTE investigative journalism team whose work led to the reopening of this case and to the uncovering of new evidence. That should be welcomed on all sides of the House.

  I had previously sought a debate on third level education, in particular on issues around gender among academics in third level. I note a new study shows there are very low levels of women's representation among senior academics across the third level sector, in particular in certain universities. I raised that in this House in the context of the successful case taken by Micheline Sheehy Skeffington against NUI Galway, but it is clearly an issue that goes beyond NUI Galway. I again ask the Leader for a debate on that issue in the new year.

  In the context of education, I ask colleagues to have a read of Tom Collins's excellent article in today's edition of The Irish Times making the pedagogical case for changes to junior cycle assessment to ensure it is more student-centred with more emphasis on continuous assessment. That is something all of us engaged in education should acknowledge.

Senator Sean D. Barrett: Information on Sean D. Barrett Zoom on Sean D. Barrett I welcome the statement by a Government spokesman that it is looking into the future development of the property tax as a tax base. The fear would be that at next review the property tax would be 70% more expensive than now, which would be a serious problem in a period when there has been no increase in real incomes.

  I note the report on the ambulance service and the statement by the chairman of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association that we have developed in Ireland a misuse of ambulance service which he said should not be tolerated. He said: "There should be some sort of a charge, because people do abuse it. We have instances of that - we have our regular callers." He also said: "If [the people abusing the system] are on a medical card, it should be three strikes and you lose it." This is an expensive service. It is needed for vital purposes and to have it used as some kind of taxi, as seems to be implied by the statement of the chairman of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, is a travesty. I hope that problem can be tackled.

Senator Hildegarde Naughton: Information on Hildegarde Naughton Zoom on Hildegarde Naughton I note there is speculation this morning regarding renewed talks with a view to averting further industrial action by teachers over the junior certificate reforms. I would welcome any engagement on both sides and call on Dr. Pauric Travers to reconvene talks before Christmas to avoid any further disruption to students and parents.

Senator Denis O'Donovan: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I ask the Leader to arrange for an urgent debate, with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, in attendance, on the crisis facing dairy farmers with the new proposals and with the abolition of quotas.  The quota system which was imposed on us by Europe was a retrograde step and it was wrong. However, that is history now. There is good news and bad news. What happened when the quotas were imposed in the area in which I live is that in excess of 50% of farmers got out of milk because it was not viable. My difficulty is that apart from the proposed price structure next year where farmers will be asked to produce milk at cost, with little or no profit - as little as 1 cent or 2 cent per litre - we could face a serious crisis, which will have a knock-on effect on companies such as Glanbia and other major producers if they do not have a supply of milk. My concern is that many young farmers have borrowed and are developing and expanding their herds and facilities for new production. The Minister, with the help of our new Commissioner in Europe, Mr. Phil Hogan, should seriously seek to ensure we do not have a catastrophic situation in the new year. There is a significant difficulty. The New Zealand model is based on producing milk at 21 cent and 22 cent a litre. It is not possible to achieve milk production at such cost in Ireland. In New Zealand there are huge factory farms where 2,000 and 3,000 cows are milked. I do not wish such a model to be replicated in this country as it would bring an end to family farms where farmers milk between 80 and 120 cows. That would be a sad day. We need urgent and early intervention as much concern and worry is evident.

  I did not speak on the matter yesterday, but I express my sympathy on the death of the man who died on the streets of Dublin. There is much talk of the 99 units, or however many, in the north inner city currently lying idle. Archbishop Martin made inquiries on the matter yesterday. The matter should be investigated as the organisation describes itself as a Catholic one. When the Archbishop inquired about the reason for the delay in the houses in question being ready for use by those who are homeless or need shelter he was told to basically get lost, that it was none of his concern, and that even though the organisation is described as a Catholic one, that it is a non-denominational organisation. That fact should be highlighted.

Senator John Kelly: Information on John Kelly Zoom on John Kelly I call on the Leader to bring to the House the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, in order that we can have a debate on issues that have been ongoing in recent years in terms of people's difficulty obtaining the carer's allowance. It appears that in most cases people are initially refused the carer's allowance and they must jump through many hoops. Eventually, 50% of appeals find in favour of the applicant. I believe an issue arises in the Department in that regard. People who seek the carer's allowance are frustrated. I am aware of a mother who receives carer's allowance whose child is just over 16 years of age. The child was getting a domiciliary care allowance and the mother was in receipt of the carer's allowance. When the child reached the age of 16 years, he was transferred to a disability allowance but the mother's carer's allowance is now being reassessed. When I telephoned the Department to inquire about the matter, I was informed that there were different criteria for assessing entitlement to carer's allowance for a child over 16 years than for one under 16. The person to whom I spoke would not be more specific than that. It is very important that we would have a debate in the House because if one talks to anyone who is either applying for or receiving carer's allowance, he or she is frustrated by the system.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Information on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Zoom on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a dhéanamh le cairde agus muintir Jonathan Corrie, a fuarthas caillte ar an tsráid taobh amuigh anseo. Bhí sé uafásach brónach agus an-truamhéileach bheith in éineacht le cuid acu tráthnóna inné. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

  I raise an issue which we have debated previously but it is important that we would do it again, namely, the Government's proposals on the rural development programme, RDP. I received a copy of a document containing the observations on the rural development programme from 2014 to 2020, which have come back from the Commission. It lists hundreds of issues the Commission has raised on the Government's proposals on the rural development programme. I was part of a delegation that travelled to Brussels recently to discuss the way the Leader programme is to be implemented. It would seem that the Commission is very much in line with what people on the ground in this country say, in particular the hill farmers who will protest about issues relating to the GLAS scheme in Castlebar on Friday. They are concerned at the way the rules on commonage will be imposed. They are also concerned at the way the Leader programme is to become more centralised through the local government structure. Given that 266 recommendations and-or questions have been raised by the EU Commission on the RDP, there is a need for a rethink on it. Many issues relating to it have been raised by Senators on all sides of the House. Perhaps we should have a debate on the recommendations that have been made and the clarification that has been sought in order that we can properly discuss the issue so that the rural development programme proposed by the State suits the needs of the people on the ground and is a good programme for the future.

Senator Michael Comiskey: Information on Michael Comiskey Zoom on Michael Comiskey I agree with my colleague, Senator Denis O'Donovan, on the worrying report by Teagasc on the dairy industry. We must take action and call on the Minister to do all in his power to alleviate any hardship that could be caused to farmers. I also call on the new Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, to ensure at EU level that the base price of milk is brought in line with the cost of production, which is approximately 28 cent a litre in this country. That is at a bare minimum. Such a measure must be introduced to alleviate further hardship on farm families. I spoke to a farmer this morning who has got out of suckler cows and invested in more dairy cows. The situation will have a considerable effect on people who have now decided to put all of their eggs in the one basket. They could find themselves in great difficulty from 2015 on. We must take heed of what has been reported by Teagasc and do whatever we can to alleviate further problems.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden Zoom on Terry Leyden I agree with what Senator Ivana Bacik said on the decision by the Government yesterday to reopen the case on torture in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I commend the Government under the former Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, former Minister for Justice, Des O'Malley and Paddy Hillery, who was then Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had the courage of their conviction to take the original case on behalf of people who were tortured in Northern Ireland. The case was inconclusive from the point of view that torture was considered not to have taken place. The RTE investigative unit, which has had its difficulties over the years, has proved very successful in regard to the case. Excellent work was done by RTE. As the public service broadcaster, RTE has the resources and ability to highlight the case. The outcome of the case could have international repercussions. I am delighted the Government had the courage of its convictions yesterday to make the decision, because the deadline is Thursday, 4 December. The outcome will be watched by people throughout the world, including those connected with Guantanamo Bay, which was used for the purpose of torture, yet which was concluded not to have taken place in that case. The Israelis will also be interested in the outcome of the case in terms of claims of torture by Palestine. The case is very serious. I wish the team representing the case success in the European Court of Human Rights. I hope the outcome will be a clear statement that torture was used in Northern Ireland. A degrading abuse of power was evident. People were thrown from a helicopter and were also assaulted. What went on in the northern part of this country was outrageous. I am pleased the Government has the courage of its convictions to follow up the case, irrespective of the outcome.

Senator Michael Mullins: Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I support the words of Senator Terry Leyden in very much welcoming the fact that the Government has supported the opening of the inquiry into the hooded men case. It was an appalling vista and it is good that it will be addressed even at this late stage.

  I ask that the Leader would allow the House to have a debate at some stage on Irish Aid and its effectiveness. I very much welcome the report by the OECD development assistance committee, which reported yesterday that Ireland continues to excel in delivering effective aid. The peer review that took place was an in-depth review of each country's aid programme and it was carried out by peers in other government aid programmes. In this case the review was carried out by Austria and Portugal with Lithuania as an observer.  It was conducted over the course of a year. The report shows that Ireland continues to be a world leader in effectively tackling hunger and poverty and assisting the world's poorest communities. As citizens, we can be particularly proud of the work being done on our behalf by Irish Aid and the difference it makes to millions of people around the world. To put it in context, extreme poverty has been reduced by half since 1990 and 17,000 fewer children die each day. However, it remains the case that one in nine people worldwide remain hungry. Ireland spends 20% of its development budget fighting hunger and is working hard to galvanise international action. Next year, Ireland will contribute in the region of €600 million in overseas development assistance, which is a significant amount. For this reason and to assure Irish people that this aid is being spent well and that progress is being made in the poorest regions, it is important we have a debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on our overseas development aid budget.

  Later today we will have a debate on homelessness. If we can be seen to be world leaders in developing assistance and aid internationally surely we should be able to tackle a much smaller scale problem in our own country. I look forward to the forum being convened tomorrow by the Minister in that regard.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell As someone who many would say has a big heart, I also have a tricky heart and as I have had to use the ambulance service on a number of occasions I know that lying in bed waiting for an ambulance is not something I relish. As stated yesterday in this House, were I living in rural Ireland I would probably not be alive today. I would welcome a debate on ambulance services. I am particularly concerned not about misuse of ambulances by people but misuse of them by the health service in terms of the number of patients on ambulance trolleys in our accident and emergency departments, which leads to the immobilisation and unavailability of the ambulance service.

  I have previously raised the issue of rent control in the House. The importance of rent control is now more obvious in the context of the issue of homelessness now in the public domain. I mentioned some days ago that I was conducting a survey across county councils. To date, more than 70% of the respondents have asked that rent controls be implemented. There is something fundamentally wrong with people profiteering from the housing crisis in Ireland. In my opinion this is a societal rather than Government problem. At the same time, the line Minister should come to this House for a debate on the issue. I call on the Leader to organise a debate on the housing crisis with the line Minister tomorrow.

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke I welcome yesterday's report on the ambulance service by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, to the Joint Committee on Health and Children. I agree with Senator Darragh O'Brien that people who work in the ambulance service provide an excellent service and are extremely committed and dedicated to their jobs. In this regard, I would like to read into the record of this House an extract from the HIQA report. It states:

Many managers outlined that they had changed roles with the service in recent times. Some of these staff reported to us that they did not have formal job descriptions which outline the specifics of their roles and the aligned responsibilities. More worryingly, some staff reported to us that while they had accepted new positions within the service they did not have the appropriate technical knowledge.

That is extremely worrying. It ties in with an issue I identified six months ago, namely, the transfer-promotion of 1,100 HSE staff to new roles in respect of which they had not undergone any job interview. Is the same happening in the ambulance service? Are people hiding behind the recruitment embargo and promoting people to positions for which they are not suitably qualified? According to the HIQA report this is what is happening. It is about time we addressed the problem within the public service of people being given jobs for which they do not have the required skills. It is time we had a debate on this matter. The day of people being able to hide behind the recruitment embargo is over. The job of Government is to provide services for the general public. We are now finding that some of the people providing those services do not have the skills, knowledge or technical know-how to do so. It is time we had a debate on the issue and time people stopped hiding behind the recruitment embargo.

Senator Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne Cuirim fáilte roimh scéal a fheicim sa Meath Chronicle an tseachtain seo, ag rá go bhfuil poist nua i gcomhlacht nua ag teacht go Baile Ghib i nGaeltacht Chontae na Mí. Nuair a bhí díospóireacht againn sa Teach seo ar an Athló maidir le dúnadh monarchan i mBaile Ghib sa bhliain 2012, dúirt mé leis an Aire Stáit a bhí ann ag an am gur cheart dó, agus d'Údarás na Gaeltachta freisin, gach iarracht a dhéanamh jabanna agus poist nua a chur ar fáil sa Ghaeltacht. I read an article in The Meath Chronicle this week in regard to a jobs announcement in Baile Ghib i nGaeltacht in County Meath. I hope it is true. I expect that it is. More than two years ago, I raised on the Adjournment the need for Údarás na Gaeltachta and the then Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, to make every effort to provide new jobs in the Gibbstown area following the closure of a factory there. If these jobs do transpire - I sincerely hope and expect that they will - this will be welcome news for Baile Ghib i nGaeltacht in County Meath.

Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan I welcome the Exchequer returns as further evidence of our economic recovery, one which is being seen by everybody in terms of increased footfall on our streets and in our shops. From what I have heard from many Senators, we are all feeling it a little in our pockets in terms of increased accommodation costs in Dublin. I also welcome NAMA's continuing progress. It has now paid off €15.1 billion in bonds and will today pay off a further €1 billion bond. I welcome its involvement in the development of the 400,000 sq. ft. Boland's Mills site which will cost €150 million and will address shortfalls in office and rental accommodation. It should be noted today that NAMA will have paid off all bonds by 2018, which is two years ahead of schedule. This is a sign of further good progress. Please God at the end of it all there will be a profit for the State, which would be very welcome.

  Senator Darragh O'Brien referred to homelessness. In this regard, I would like to reiterate what I said yesterday. I believe the Lord Mayor, Christy Burke, has been doing great work. Dublin City Council is also to be commended for its provision of €2.44 million towards emergency accommodation and a further €2.5 million to various charities, including the Fr. Peter McVerry Trust, the Simon Community and others, in respect of their important work in this area. As stated yesterday, more sheltered accommodation should be provided through Dublin City Council. As pointed out, there are a number of idle buildings throughout Dublin city and perhaps through the good offices of Dublin City Council some of them can be obtained and used to provide short-term accommodation for homeless people.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Feargal Quinn Zoom on Feargal Quinn I agree entirely with Senator Paul Coghlan's remarks about the Exchequer returns, behind which is another figure that is even more promising, namely, the competitiveness figures which indicate that Ireland has become much more competitive. That we allowed our costs to get out of control during the good years caused real difficulty. All of the current statistics in terms of competitiveness indicate we are in a much stronger position for the future. Let us ensure we protect ourselves and do not make the same mistakes we made in the past.

  I am looking forward to the debate tonight on homelessness. The real problem in this regard is that we do not have sufficient houses or other types of accommodation in which to house people because over the years we got into the habit of building outwards rather than upwards.  In other countries, there has been a tendency to build much taller buildings. We made mistakes in Ballymun some 30 or 40 years ago. In general terms, though, making better use of land in this way would enable us to support the infrastructure. If we continue building houses outwards rather than upwards, each with its own garden and space, the schools, shops and infrastructure that are necessary to follow through on that policy will also have to be built. Making better use of our land by building upwards rather than outwards is worthy of consideration in the near future.

Senator Terry Brennan: Information on Terry Brennan Zoom on Terry Brennan I welcome the National Roads Authority's minor works scheme for next year. I am particularly pleased to see that a further section of the busy Barronstown-Hackballscross N53 has been included. It is substandard in several places. This work will ameliorate one of those sections. The proposed extension will go from the newly realigned section at Newtownbalregan to Barronstown, 1 km west of the Hackballscross junction. These improvements will further enhance the route's consistency and integrate with the previously completed schemes. As well as improving road safety and capacity, the improvements to date have included overtaking sections and led to improved journey times and access from the north west to Dundalk and the M1.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden Zoom on Terry Leyden Well done and congratulations.

Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú I concur with Senator Terry Leyden's comments on RTE, which has done the nation and human rights a great service. Its investigation into torture in Northern Ireland was meticulous. Without that work, the torture would have been forgotten. It is important that no state can feel immune where torture and war crimes are concerned. Such things are counterproductive in Northern Ireland. The history of torture down the decades has led to a feeling that the vulnerable will not be protected or vindicated. When people are in captivity, they are particularly vulnerable. In a time of conflict, the net can be spread wide. For this reason, innocent people will always suffer. The House debated the Palestinian issue. There is no doubt but that Israel committed war crimes. It is important that the influence, contacts or power that a state has are not used to prevent it from being held accountable. Where sanctions are required, they should be imposed. The issue of torture in Northern Ireland has been hanging around for a long time. It can be brought to a conclusion and those responsible held accountable. As long as the issue remains, it will add to the difficulties experienced on the island.

Senator John Gilroy: Information on John Gilroy Zoom on John Gilroy A great deal of pious angst has recently been expressed in the Chamber about homelessness, which is a significant problem. The recent events that occurred close to this House demonstrated the urgency of the situation. It might be more relevant to make my next point during our debate this evening but, at a recent meeting of Dublin City Council, which has operational responsibility for homelessness, the Labour Party proposed making an extra €4 million available to tackle the homelessness crisis. The Labour Party and the Green Party were the only ones to support the proposal. Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil voted against it.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien It was in the context of the property tax. That is quite unfair.

Senator John Gilroy: Information on John Gilroy Zoom on John Gilroy When I hear the expressions on what is a dreadful situation, I am thoroughly disgusted by parties' hypocrisy and point scoring in this House.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien Fine Gael also voted against it.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Senator John Gilroy to continue, without interruption.

Senator John Gilroy: Information on John Gilroy Zoom on John Gilroy When they have an opportunity to do something about it, they do not. They prefer to score political points.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Information on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Zoom on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Rubbish.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien Senator John Gilroy's colleague is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, who is responsible for the budget.

(Interruptions).

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Senator John Gilroy to continue, without interruption.

Senator John Gilroy: Information on John Gilroy Zoom on John Gilroy At October's meeting of Fingal County Council, the same decision was taken. When the Labour Party proposed to reduce property tax to 10% from 15% and to make approximately €2 million available to tackle the homelessness crisis, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil voted against it. Their members come to this House and-----

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien And Fine Gael. It was not-----

(Interruptions).

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Senator John Gilroy to continue, without interruption.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien It had to do with housing.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Information on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Zoom on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Senator John Gilroy is waffling again.

Senator John Gilroy: Information on John Gilroy Zoom on John Gilroy It has to do with tackling the crisis of homelessness.

Senator Darragh O'Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien Zoom on Darragh O'Brien It was not specifically about homelessness.

Senator John Gilroy: Information on John Gilroy Zoom on John Gilroy Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil want to give a few pounds to the middle class for electoral advantage. When they have an opportunity to do something about a real crisis, they do nothing. It is as simple as that.

Senator James Heffernan: Information on James Heffernan Zoom on James Heffernan I concur with Senator John Gilroy's comments. The same point was eloquently made on radio by Councillor Dermot Lacey yesterday. People have operated a populist position on property charges which has perhaps resulted in services not being delivered.

  I wish to discuss the issue of the Aughinish Alumina plant in Askeaton in west Limerick. No bond against the company has been secured by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The bauxite waste pools contain corrosive elements and irritants. Should an accident occur, the potential consequence would put Haulbowline in the ha'penny place. The director general of the EPA, Ms Laura Burke, attended the environmental committee a couple of weeks ago. The only conclusion that I can reach is that the EPA is still operating light-touch regulation. It needs to revert to being the watchdog against big industry. It should protect the environment, as its name suggests, but it should also be responsible for protecting communities and human and animal health. At the same meeting of the environment committee, Ms Burke stated she had no objection to the establishment of an environmental ombudsman, as was recommended to the previous Government's environment Minister. That proposal has not progressed one bit. If the EPA does not object to the idea of an ombudsman who would investigate people's complaints against the agency, I do not know why the current Minister has not established one. He needs to attend the House for a debate on the EPA and the establishment of an environmental ombudsman.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney Last weekend I attended the official opening of a heritage centre in the village of Kiltyclogher in north Leitrim, close to the home of the Irish patriot Seán Mac Diarmada. The centre was initiated by the local community council and funded by Leitrim County Council and the peace and reconciliation fund. Its opening was hosted by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys. We were delighted to welcome her to County Leitrim. Will the Leader establish the Government's marketing plans to attract visitors to places like Kiltyclogher that are economically disadvantaged? The heritage centre, which is a wonderful asset to the village and the county in general, is housed in a former courthouse that is linked to the restored cottage where Seán Mac Diarmada was born and reared. Government money will be invested this year and next to provide better access to the village for visitors.  I am anxious to explore the Government's marketing plans because the perception is that all the 1916 commemorations will happen in Dublin and nowhere else. I would like to see more visitors to the Seán Mac Diarmada homestead and the village of Kiltyclogher which would be of enormous economic benefit to the area. It is important for the Government to outline its plans. The same could be true of other locations associated with the signatories who did not all come from Dublin. We have a dual interest in the 1916 Rising in that not only is County Leitrim proud to have been the home of Seán Mac Diarmada but also that the parents of Thomas McDonagh were from Carrigallen, County Leitrim. There are two reasons for us to be anxious to ensure County Leitrim would be put on the map in the context of the 1916 commemorations in order that people can have the opportunity to visit. However, it will be down to the Government to promote this aim. I would be very keen to explore it. The Government plans for the 1916 commemorations seem to be very fuzzy.

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy speaking a few days ago pierced people's hearts when she said that 800 children in Ireland were made homeless in the first ten months of the year and that in November, 45 families had lost their homes. Speaking on this issue she said that the Government, if it raised the rent supplement for people who are in danger of being evicted from their homes, would solve the problem overnight. It is very simple to deal with it. I am dealing with an issue near where I live in which the landlord of a woman with four children raised the rent. I will not name the Independent Deputy who, I have been told, advised the woman to leave the home and she would get a house. The woman's emotions and feelings were manipulated by devious means by an Independent Deputy. All of us who were involved in campaigning in the recent by-election recognise this. Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy has said there is a radical increase in inequality in this country, even though unemployment is falling. She also said that a quarter of children in Ireland are living in poverty. It is good that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is having the conference of all the CEOs and mayors of the local authorities tomorrow. The 1916 Proclamation states we should treat all of the children equally. I call for a debate on the increase in inequality, the number of children living in poverty and what austerity has done to people on the fringes of our society.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Information on Brian Ó Domhnaill Zoom on Brian Ó Domhnaill I call for a debate on the foreign aid we provide, mentioned by Senator Michael Mullins. The recently published OECD report on foreign aid stated that all of the €600 million a year spent on foreign aid is borrowed and paid for by the taxpayer. Approximately 75% of that money actually goes to banks and other institutions and does not get fed down to the people on the ground. We should have a debate. In light of the homelessness situation in this country, as a society we have to decide where we want to spend money, where we want to spend money that is not borrowed, and how we want to look after our own people in the overall context of solidarity and poverty.

Senator Michael Mullins: Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins Disgraceful.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Information on Brian Ó Domhnaill Zoom on Brian Ó Domhnaill We have a poverty crisis in every constituency in the country. We can blame whomever we like for that poverty. The Government has a responsibility to defend the rights of every citizen and not just the rich and the bankers. We should have a debate on where that money is spent and whether the Government has carried out economic appraisals of how the money is spent. The information made available to me is that no such appraisal has been carried out.

  I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate in the presence of the Minister for Justice and Equality and any other relevant Minister on the issue of private investigations and private investigators. A newspaper article on the subject was published earlier this week. Over the weekend I met three families on whom private investigative reports had been carried out by insurance companies, by a bank and by the HSE. Some of the information collated by the insurance company was used by the Department of Social Protection in making a decision on whether an individual was entitled to carer's allowance, which is disgraceful behaviour. It is a totally unregulated industry. Not only were the individuals followed by private investigators, who are paid approximately €100 an hour, but children were followed, and photographs and video recordings were taken. Movements, including following people to the toilet, were observed in cafeterias. I have read some of the report. It is alarming.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Is the Senator looking for a debate on the issue?

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Information on Brian Ó Domhnaill Zoom on Brian Ó Domhnaill We need to clamp down on the issue immediately. Willy-nilly people inside and outside the State are carrying out private surveillance on citizens for reasons best known to banks, perhaps Departments and insurance companies. It is disgraceful behaviour in any democracy.

Senator John Crown: Information on John Crown Zoom on John Crown I acknowledge the co-operation of my friend and colleague, Senator Rónán Mullen, for allowing me to speak first in order that he can second my amendment to the Order of Business. I propose that the Minister for Health or the Minister of State at the Department of Health come to the House to brief us urgently on what is happening with obstetrical care. It is now more than two years since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway. We have since highlighted many other occasions where there have been concerns about the adequacy of the resourcing of obstetrical care. We have had one entire inquiry about another episode in a hospital in another part of the country. A common theme across all of these is a desperate, unbelievable shortage of obstetricians per head of population, placing an inappropriate burden of responsibility on trainee doctors. Trainee doctors are there exclusively to train; that is why they are there. The service should not depend on the labour of trainee doctors; we should be educating trainee doctors. Unfortunately, we have a shortage of fully trained specialists and it is much easier to have departures from the high quality care we would have. Much phraseology was tossed around in recent years about the superlative quality of maternal care in Ireland and that it was the safest country to have a baby. We now know that is not the case. It is a very safe country and we have wonderful doctors and midwives but just do not have enough of them.

  In the past 24 hours Sam Coulter Smith has highlighted another glaring problem. None of the three maternity hospitals in Dublin which are among the three largest delivery units for babies in Europe has an adult intensive care unit. This means that anyone who develops a serious medical complication must be transferred from the campus of the maternity hospital to another hospital. Once there is that kind of blockage in the care of a patient, be it transferring them to a neurosurgery centre to a cardiac centre or to an intensive-care unit, there will inevitably be delays. A degree of triage starts to creep in and occasionally, sadly, there will be an outcome that is inferior. I acknowledge that not every hospital can have every facility. However, there is clearly something wrong when three of the largest maternity hospitals in Europe are in one city and not one of them can have an intensive care unit. That is wrong.

  I ask for the Minister to come to us today because I am not one bit happy. I have raised the issue of obstetrical care on a number of occasions in a number of contexts and we still have not had a clear answer. There has been huge debate over whether it is suitable to locate a children's hospital some place because of car parking, bus stops and such things. There has been a totally inadequate debate on the issue of where our young women - in some cases slightly older women - go to have babies and the level of support for them.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I am very happy to second Senator John Crown's amendment. He has expressed the issue of urgency very clearly.  Creidim féin gur chóir don Aire sinsireach teacht isteach, mar tá ceist tromchúiseach eile ardaithe anois faoi bhronnadh na gconarthaí le haghaidh seirbhísí a sholáthar do na hospidéil san iarthar. I would like the Minister for Health to come to the House himself because I also want him to address the serious concerns that have been raised in the media and by others about the award of contracts for the provision of information technology services to the group of hospitals in the HSE north-west region, recently rebranded Saolta. The contract to provide these services was awarded to Northgate plc, a British company, and the value of the contract has not been disclosed by the HSE, but The Irish Timeshas reported that a senior member of management with Saolta was previously a consultant with that company. It is also clear from that The Irish Timesreport that Northgate was the only company invited to bid for this contract.

We have a problem which has arisen before in relation to this hospital group and the tendering for contracts. This hospital group includes - Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh raised this issue previously - major hospitals in Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon and Galway. Previously there was a contract for a report on the provision of maternity services. Again, only one body or group was invited to tender for it and that organisation had an association with the then chairman of the hospital group. It was on foot of that, it appears, that this chairman resigned. In order to maintain public confidence in the management of these major hospitals, the Minister for Health must address certain key questions in the House. What was the value of the contract for IT services? In the light of that value, did the tendering processes follow correct procedure? Was the Department of Health and the then Minister aware of the possible tendering anomalies to which I am referring in the context of Northgate plc when the other issue was raised previously in the Seanad? If so, why was no advertence made to that fact? The Minister gave an assurance that there would be no further breaches in procurement matters. If the Minister knew at that time that there had already been a significant breach, a serious issue is raised by his not adverting to that fact. If it happened subsequently, what does that say about the attitude of this particular hospital group to the question of appropriate tendering and procurement requirements? It would raise questions if there was any conflict of interest or commercial connection between any member of senior management of those hospitals-----

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke It might be more appropriate to raise that issue on the Adjournment.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I am asking for the Minister to come to the House because if there was any commercial connection, whether as a consultant at any stage or whatever, between any member of senior management of those hospitals and the company that received the contract, it would raise serious issues. The current CEO is due to finish his term as CEO of the north west hospital group, Saolta, at the end of this year and he is due to go on to the north-eastern region. If there were any issue here, it would raise questions about his ability to transfer to that role.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke The Senator is way over time.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen At the very least, it seems that there would have to be a suspension of the appointment until there was full clarity that nothing inappropriate has taken place. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister here. I would be delighted if he would address Senator John Crown's serious issue, but there is a serious issue of-----

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Is the Senator seconding the amendment?

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I am seconding Senator John Crown's amendment and asking the Leader if the Minister for Health could come to the House to discuss the serious issue I have raised.

Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford Zoom on Paul Bradford I support the previous interventions of Senators John Crown and Rónán Mullen. Both have raised matters of profound importance. The purpose of politics and of the Houses of the Oireachtas is to discuss such matters in a timely fashion, not once the horse has bolted. I hope the Minister will be in a position to come before us sometime this afternoon by agreement. I also want to support the comments of a number of colleagues who expressed their concern about the possible future crisis next year in the dairy industry. A very well informed report was published by Teagasc yesterday, which highlighted the dangers facing Irish farmers in respect of the price of milk next year. Sadly, we should not be surprised by this, because when one relies on world markets and international pricing trends, things can go up and down and one is never in full control of the situation. There was a huge degree of heralding of the end of the milk quota regime. There was a huge degree of ministerial and Government congratulations about the future development of the dairy industry and the expansion and the jobs that would flow. We have seen this across the townlands and the parishes of this country, where people are seriously increasing dairy herd size and people who have not been dairy farming for the past 20 or 30 years now intend to invest. We must ask ourselves whether a property-type boom could now hit Irish agriculture unless we manage this expansion in a careful fashion. One cannot have a permanent bonanza. One cannot keep increasing production and expect prices to remain solid. We must be realistic. In fairness, the Minister is meeting the IFA dairy committee this afternoon and other such meetings are planned, but it would be helpful if the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, could come to the House in the near future to debate in a realistic fashion the challenges as well as the opportunities facing the Irish dairy industry, Irish agriculture and all the jobs that depend on it.

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins Senators Darragh O'Brien, Sean D. Barrett, Gerard P. Craughwell and Colm Burke spoke about the ambulance service and HIQA's report. We can certainly try to have a debate on the issue. There was a comprehensive debate on the subject at the joint Oireachtas committee yesterday and we do not want duplication both at the committee and in the House. However, the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, has agreed to come to the House in early January for statements on the health service plan, as requested; therefore, there may be an opportunity to discuss the matter with him during that debate.

  Senator Ivana Bacik raised a number of items. She especially welcomed the decision by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Government on the hooded men case, a matter that was also referred to by Senators Terry Leyden, Michael Mullins and Labhrás Ó Murchú. It was also raised yesterday when Senator Mark Daly castigated the Government for not taking action. I am sure he will be in the House next week to welcome the Government's stance on the issue.

  Senator Sean D. Barrett also spoke about the National Ambulance Service, a matter to which I have referred.

  Senator Hildegarde Naughton spoke about the teachers' dispute and called for Dr. Pauric Travers to reconvene the talks at the earliest opportunity. We all hope the talks will be reconvened, before Christmas if possible, to resolve the dispute. It is in nobody's interests to have such disputes and the only way they can be resolved is through negotiation. I hope Dr. Travers will reconvene the talks as a matter of urgency and that all sides to the dispute will respond favourably.

  Senators Denis O'Donovan and Paul Bradford spoke about the difficulties that might accrue in the milk sector next year. Teagasc and the farming organisations are looking for an increase in the intervention price. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, will be in the House next week to speak about the issue of sustainability and I have asked him to also address the crisis that may occur in the milk sector. I hope we will have an opportunity, therefore, to discuss the matter with him next week.

  Senator John Kelly discussed the difficulties with carer's allowance. He might table an Adjournment matter on the subject to receive a specific answer.

  Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh spoke about the rural development programme. As he stated, only two weeks ago we debated the CEDRA report, but he is calling for a further debate on the rural development programme. We will try to get the Minister to come to the House to discuss that matter.

  Senator Michael Comiskey also discussed the concerns of Teagasc, a matter to which I have referred.

  Senators Michael Mullins and Brian Ó Domhnaill called for a debate on Irish Aid and the recent OECD report in which Ireland was complimented on its support for many worthwhile projects. Obviously, there is a difference of opinion between the two Senators on this issue, but I agree that we should have a debate on Irish Aid soon. We will probably have it in the new year.   Senator Thomas Byrne welcomed the announcement of new jobs in the Gaeltacht area of County Meath. This news should be welcomed by all Members.

  Senator Paul Coghlan welcomed the Exchequer returns. He also welcomed the proposal from NAMA on the redevelopment of the Boland's Mill site. He complimented Dublin City Council on its work for homeless persons.

  Senator Feargal Quinn stressed the importance of competitiveness in the economy. I note that figures released this morning show that the unemployment rate has fallen to 10.7%. This is another very good indicator for the economy.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Feargal Quinn Zoom on Feargal Quinn Hear, hear.

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins The Senator also referred to housing density. This is a matter we should discuss with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. I will try to arrange a debate on the overall housing sector which could contemplate the issue of rent controls, to which Senator Gerard P. Craughwell referred. Such a debate is overdue.

  Senator Terry Brennan welcomed the allocation of funding under the minor works scheme to tackle problems at some accident black spots and other road safety issues.

  Senator John Gilroy referred to the record of various parties represented on councils on the issue of homelessness.

  Senator James Heffernan questioned the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in the case of a site in Askeaton. I suggest he table an Adjournment matter to obtain a reply to his specific query.

  Senator Paschal Mooney referred to the Government's marketing plans to attract visitors to the houses of Seán Mac Diarmada and Thomas MacDonagh. I will raise this matter with the relevant Minister. I am sure Fáilte Ireland also has a role to play in it.

  Senator Mary White referred to the issue of rent supplement. It is one of the only issues on which I would disagree with Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy who stated the problem of homelessness would be solved if rent supplement was increased. If it were to be increased, landlords would raise rents again.

  Senator John Crown proposed an amendment to the Order of Business on obstetric care and the need to employ more obstetricians. As the Senator is aware, advertisements have appeared in the newspapers to fill vacant obstetrician posts in many hospitals. As stated, the Minister for Health was before the House only a couple of weeks ago when we engaged with him in a comprehensive debate on the health service. I do not know if the issue about which the Senator is concerned was raised at that point.

  Senator Michael Mullins referred to the provision of information technology services within HSE hospital groups and the suggestion that the tendering process in this regard might have been flawed in some way. As the Cathaoirleach mentioned, I suggest the Senator raise the matter on the Adjournment to obtain a reply from the Minister to his specific query.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Senator John Crown has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on the adequacy of resourcing for obstetrical care in maternity hospitals be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Senator John Crown: Information on John Crown Zoom on John Crown Yes.

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 21; Níl, 25.

Níl
Information on Paul Bradford   Zoom on Paul Bradford   Bradford, Paul. Information on Ivana Bacik   Zoom on Ivana Bacik   Bacik, Ivana.
Information on Thomas Byrne   Zoom on Thomas Byrne   Byrne, Thomas. Information on Terry Brennan   Zoom on Terry Brennan   Brennan, Terry.
Information on Gerard P. Craughwell   Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell   Craughwell, Gerard P. Information on Colm Burke   Zoom on Colm Burke   Burke, Colm.
Information on John Crown   Zoom on John Crown   Crown, John. Information on Eamonn Coghlan   Zoom on Eamonn Coghlan   Coghlan, Eamonn.
Information on David Cullinane   Zoom on David Cullinane   Cullinane, David. Information on Paul Coghlan   Zoom on Paul Coghlan   Coghlan, Paul.
Information on Mark Daly   Zoom on Mark Daly   Daly, Mark. Information on Michael Comiskey   Zoom on Michael Comiskey   Comiskey, Michael.
Information on Fidelma Healy Eames   Zoom on Fidelma Healy Eames   Healy Eames, Fidelma. Information on Martin Conway   Zoom on Martin Conway   Conway, Martin.
Information on James Heffernan   Zoom on James Heffernan   Heffernan, James. Information on Maurice Cummins   Zoom on Maurice Cummins   Cummins, Maurice.
Information on Terry Leyden   Zoom on Terry Leyden   Leyden, Terry. Information on John Gilroy   Zoom on John Gilroy   Gilroy, John.
Information on Paschal Mooney   Zoom on Paschal Mooney   Mooney, Paschal. Information on Aideen Hayden   Zoom on Aideen Hayden   Hayden, Aideen.
Information on Rónán Mullen   Zoom on Rónán Mullen   Mullen, Rónán. Information on Imelda Henry   Zoom on Imelda Henry   Henry, Imelda.
Information on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh   Zoom on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh   Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor. Information on Lorraine Higgins   Zoom on Lorraine Higgins   Higgins, Lorraine.
Information on Brian Ó Domhnaill   Zoom on Brian Ó Domhnaill   Ó Domhnaill, Brian. Information on Cáit Keane   Zoom on Cáit Keane   Keane, Cáit.
Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú   Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú   Ó Murchú, Labhrás. Information on John Kelly   Zoom on John Kelly   Kelly, John.
Information on Darragh O'Brien   Zoom on Darragh O'Brien   O'Brien, Darragh. Information on Marie Moloney   Zoom on Marie Moloney   Moloney, Marie.
Information on Denis O'Donovan   Zoom on Denis O'Donovan   O'Donovan, Denis. Information on Mary Moran   Zoom on Mary Moran   Moran, Mary.
Information on Averil Power   Zoom on Averil Power   Power, Averil. Information on Michael Mullins   Zoom on Michael Mullins   Mullins, Michael.
Information on Feargal Quinn   Zoom on Feargal Quinn   Quinn, Feargal. Information on Hildegarde Naughton   Zoom on Hildegarde Naughton   Naughton, Hildegarde.
Information on Kathryn Reilly   Zoom on Kathryn Reilly   Reilly, Kathryn. Information on Catherine Noone   Zoom on Catherine Noone   Noone, Catherine.
Information on Mary M. White   Zoom on Mary M. White   White, Mary M. Information on Mary Ann O'Brien   Zoom on Mary Ann O'Brien   O'Brien, Mary Ann.
Information on Diarmuid Wilson   Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson   Wilson, Diarmuid. Information on Pat O'Neill   Zoom on Pat O'Neill   O'Neill, Pat.
  Information on Tom Sheahan   Zoom on Tom Sheahan   Sheahan, Tom.
  Information on Jillian van Turnhout   Zoom on Jillian van Turnhout   van Turnhout, Jillian.
  Information on John Whelan   Zoom on John Whelan   Whelan, John.
  Information on Katherine Zappone   Zoom on Katherine Zappone   Zappone, Katherine.


Tellers: Tá, Senators John Crown and Rónán Mullen; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.

Amendment declared lost.

  Order of Business agreed to.

Action Plan for Jobs 2014: Statements

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and invite him to make his opening contribution.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton): Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I will keep my opening statement brief to allow time to respond to issues raised by Senators.

  The central challenge we have as a nation is to address the employment situation. The crash saw the wiping out of some 20% of all jobs in the private sector in the space of three and a half years. It was an extraordinary degree of attrition which put the country on its back. The impact on people's lives was enormous and there was a range of knock-on effects on our public finances. It left us unable to raise money to fund services.  It had an impact on the banking system and filtered right through the economy. It has been a huge challenge to fix many elements destroyed by the crash. Central to this was employment. The idea behind the Action Plan for Jobs was that every Department and Government agency had a shared responsibility in addressing the challenge. There was no element of Government that could not look at some element of its work and change it to make it easier for enterprise to create employment and for people to get jobs. This was the central focus of the plan. It was also determined that this was not to be a grandiose strategy; it was to be very much action oriented. Actions were to be delivered quarter by quarter, with timelines and benchmarks for delivery. It was not a grandiose plan in which we hoped to be somewhere or other in five years time and then we would forget about it and see how things played out. It was going to be driven quarter by quarter and Department by Department.

The other innovative element, apart from, if one likes, working across the silos of Government, was that the delivery of those targets was to be monitored from the Taoiseach's office, with a name and shame approach where there was a failure to deliver. It created an environment where there was real pressure to deliver on changes that were believed possible of making a difference and to deliver on them in time.

In simple terms, it boiled down to two clear ambitions. One was to create 100,000 additional jobs, the other to become the best small country in which to do business, both by 2016. We were very clear on what it was we were about. It is worth reflecting on how much progress has been made on those central targets. We have about 80,000 net additional people at work since the Action Plan for Jobs was launched. It started with a very strong performance by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland companies building in the export market, improving competitiveness, going further afield, doubling the number of trade missions and really going after those markets. Now it has extended into other sectors.The construction and retail sectors, which are the bread basket of a lot of employment, are now also recovering. We are well within reach of hitting, and exceeding, the 100,000 figure by 2016. If one nets out the fact that the public sector has been shrinking in recent years, the private sector has probably already hit 100,000 additional people at work. The plan in terms of employment is delivering.

On the second indicator, becoming the best small country in which to do business, we closely track various competitiveness indicators. We have improved on all of them. Our ranking has gone from 24th to 15th place in terms of world competitiveness. It has improved four places to 13th, out of 189 countries, in terms of ease of doing business. Fortune magazine has indicated we have the best business environment for foreign investment. We are making real progress built on changes which have been introduced, improved competitiveness in certain sectors and reforms in the way we deliver across a range of services, whether it be work permits, skills, or the many other things which make up the business environment. That is why the Action Plan for Jobs, with the breadth of its ambition and the number of Departments participating in it, has been so important.

In terms of how we structure the plan each year, it looks at key areas, including skills, tax, access to finance and measures in which Government influences the environment for doing business, whether it be wage-setting mechanisms, the employment permit systems or licensing arrangements. The plan looks at research and development and the extent to which our research and development is oriented towards business and getting business engagement. It looks at infrastructures. It also looks at sectors where we have real opportunity to drive change. Entrepreneurship is a very significant theme this year. Two thirds of all new jobs come from businesses in the first five years of their existence. A good environment is now emerging for start-ups, but they took a huge pounding in the recession. The number of start-ups collapsed by approximately 30%. We need to drive that rate back up but we also need to drive up the survivorship rate. Although they created 100,000 jobs, half of the companies formed during the crash years failed. If we can improve the start-up flow, reduce the number of them falling by the wayside and see more of them grow to scale, we can dramatically transform the employment environment. That is the ambition.

We are also looking at sectors such as manufacturing which got squeezed out during the building boom. Costs went awry and manufacturing was put to one side as a sector in which we could not compete. It is very much a sector in which we can compete. We have to be innovative to compete in it but it has huge advantages in terms of its regional spread. It is spread throughout the country and it is much easier to drive employment in it. Some of our best exemplars of manufacturing innovation are companies like Dairymaster in County Kerry, Combilift in County Monaghan and Ribworld in County Tipperary. These are businesses in regional and sometimes rural locations which are delivering global standards from an enterprise base. We need to nurture these as well as focus on the ICT sector and other sectors that are clearly going to shape the business environment in the future. We have looked at areas such as the food sector, financial services and tourism and have tried to make changes that would help these sectors grow.

We have also looked at what we call disruptive reforms. These are changes that will impact across numerous sectors. Energy usage and efficiency, use of renewables, smart buildings and smart use of resources are already important and will become increasingly so in the coming years with the pressure on climate change and so on.

Senator Feargal Quinn will know more than most that retail is changing dramatically and that more and more business is migrating online. A relatively small share of the Irish business done online is actually done in Ireland. Someone else is going to eat our lunch if we do not see more businesses move online and have trading platforms online which can win new business for them.

Big data is another area which is going to change the environment and the sort of business models that succeed. Increasingly, with the Internet of things, our capacity to have smart equipment that can be monitored remotely and collect a myriad of data on performance is going to transform manufacturing and homes and so forth. The sort of businesses that will thrive in that sort of environment will be different from traditional ones. We need to move rapidly to understand what big data will do for enterprise and how we position ourselves to take advantage of these opportunities.

That is the backdrop. We are trying to do a number of things at the same time, some of them very short term. Some are things we can fix in the next 12 months. Some look to the medium term and, for instance, the changes needed in our skills environment. Even in the area of health - I see Senator John Crown is here - we are looking at how an innovation hub can be created in the health sector in order that innovative companies can get a chance to test technologies within our health system. One of the best ways of growing companies is for them to get a reference sale from an Irish multinational or an Irish public service body. That is a huge reference sale if a business is trying to go overseas.

Last week we had our first trade mission in Ireland. For the first time, we brought 150 Irish sub-supply companies to meet 75 multinationals based in Ireland to try to improve access to their supply chains. It is a regular thing to take high-performing companies to China, India or elsewhere, but a lot of procurement possibilities are available on our doorstep. If we can get into the supply chains here, there is a chance to get into global supply chains and to build those companies.

That is the concept behind it. We are currently preparing the action plan for 2015. We engaged in a consultative process with various sectors, representative groups, trade unions and so forth and we are now moving to pull together the sort of changes we can make in 2015 that will make a difference. Some of them have been flagged in the budget. Others will be flagged in the action plan when it is published early in the new year.

I am very eager to hear suggestions from Senators on areas in which they feel the Government could do better, opportunities that the Government is missing, areas where the boot is pinching, businesses which are trying to create employment, or opportunities where people who have been out of work could be brought in. The Pathways to Work strategy is very much at the core of this.  We have tested many new approaches. Some of them get public criticism, but I would strongly defend programmes like JobBridge because they give work experience to people who have no such experience, they have a high job placement ratio and they are helping to reverse one of the big problems caused by the crash. Younger workers were most affected by the crash, by and large. Most people in the older age categories did relatively well. There was a sort of last in, first out policy. The impact on the younger age cohorts was enormous. We have to do things to help younger people back into the workforce. That is a very clear target in some of these programmes.

  I will leave it at that. I welcome contributions Senators might wish to make.

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White I welcome the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, to the Seanad for this debate. I relish the opportunity to lead the Fianna Fáil contribution to the debate on the Action Plan for Jobs. The action plan and the accompanying quarterly progress reports represent an excellent initiative on the part of this Government. The reports provide transparency with regard to multiple governmental actions, each of which influences job creation and entrepreneurship in its own way. The policy statement on entrepreneurship in Ireland, which was published recently, is a welcome addition. I am speaking on behalf of my party, and also as an entrepreneur as the co-founder of Lir Chocolates. I have been a nominee to the Seanad of the Irish Exporters Association since 2002. I take a keen interest in policies that encourage exports. As a supporter of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises association, ISME, I follow closely how the State and the banks relate to the small and medium-sized enterprise sector and to the self-employed. Of course, we welcome the decline in unemployment. I understood that the current rate was 11.1%, but I heard this morning in the Seanad-----

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton It is now 10.7%.

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White I do not know what the source of that figure is.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton That is the live register figure. As it is based on the quarterly national household survey, it is the authoritative number.

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White Within this broadly encouraging national picture, I want to focus on what we must do better if we are to inspire hope that Ireland can provide a better future for many of our fellow citizens who do not share this belief. I referred this morning to Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy's suggestion that 800 children in Ireland were made homeless in the first ten months of this year and that 45 families were made homeless last month. That is the reality.

  We are still failing to capitalise on the full potential of the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. According to the latest ISME quarterly bank watch survey, as published on 2 December, 50% of companies that applied for bank funding in the last three months were refused. The decision of Danske Bank and Rabobank to exit the Irish market has left many small and medium-sized enterprises with significant problems in getting the existing banks to refinance their loans. The head of the Credit Review Office, Mr. John Trethowan, who is usually quite measured, sounded the alarm bells when he said that this refinancing "will be a challenge for the wider economy and recovery" with significant numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises "exhibiting some form of financially challenged condition" and the remaining banks applying "strict lending policies and limited risk appetites". I appeal to the Minister to address this "challenge for the wider economy and recovery" by seeking greater transparency in the murky world of banks and small and medium-sized enterprises and getting a better response to the legitimate lending and refinancing needs of such enterprises. I have spoken in this House previously about my doubts that the new strategic bank corporation will improve credit access, given that the existing banks will still be responsible for taking credit decisions and risks. I strongly encourage the Minister to support Mr. Trethowan's recommendation that the microfinance scheme loan limit should be increased from the current €25,000 to at least €50,000 and possibly to €100,000. I assure the Minister that Mr. Trethowan knows what he is talking about.

  We should do more to capitalise on the massive untapped potential of women as entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurship policy paper I mentioned earlier shows that a man in Ireland is 1.9 times more likely than a woman to be "an early stage entrepreneur". The ratio has been improving, and we are now level with the average across the 28 EU member states. In the words of the policy document, "it still shows untapped potential amongst female entrepreneurs". There has been an increase in the number of female-led projects approved by Enterprise Ireland. Sixteen female-led projects were supported financially by Enterprise Ireland in 2012, but this number had increased to 41 by last year. This is surely a vindication of the responsiveness of women to the specific initiatives taken to encourage them as entrepreneurs. If we do not develop the full potential of half of the population by getting more women to be more active as entrepreneurs, we will not develop the full potential of the country. We need to see more women in the technology sector. We should actively oppose the male-dominated "testosterone-fuelled Silicon Valley" practices that were eloquently described by Karlin Lillington in an article in The Irish Times on 20 November last. I am sure the Minister read the article, which was entitled, Boys being boys' attitude in the tech sector needs to end. The new chief executive officer of Enterprise Ireland, Julie Sinnamon, is in a unique position as the first female head of an organisation that is charged with encouraging more female entrepreneurs. I encourage the Minister to support the expansion of Enterprise Ireland's ambitious women initiatives and to increase the annual funding for the female feasibility funds and the start-up funds.

  There is a real danger of a divide between Dublin and the rest of Ireland when it comes to providing modern facilities and encouraging entrepreneurs. There are real fears in most of the country that the economic recovery is mostly evident in Dublin and will not spread to their areas. I am sure the Minister is aware of the concern in the regions that foreign direct investment is increasingly concentrated in Dublin and Cork. As Senator Paschal Mooney has pointed out, County Leitrim got just one visit from IDA Ireland in recent years. It appears that most of the high-potential projects approved by IDA Ireland and the vast bulk of the seed capital and venture capital funds are concentrated in Dublin and Cork, with some presence in Limerick and Galway. It is in the interests of balanced regional development and the economic vibrancy of all counties and regions for imaginative ways to be found to foster high-potential start-ups in all regions to a much greater extent. We need to capitalise on the existing business know-how in the area, the expertise of the nearest universities and colleges of technology and the third level education of the sons and daughters who leave their native areas. We have to capitalise on the abilities of people who are leaving by encouraging them to stay. I strongly support the recommendation on page 49 of the Minister's entrepreneurship policy statement that we need "to build world class entrepreneurial hubs and achieve greater regional spread of such hubs". It is imperative for the Minister to roll out as a matter of urgency the specific initiatives needed to implement this regional ambition.

  We must all unite to convince our fellow citizens that Ireland can provide a better future for them. I refer particularly to the long-term unemployed and to the graduates who are leaving our shores. I understand that 56% of unemployed people are deemed to be long-term unemployed because they have been out of work for over a year. I do not deny that this number has decreased. Half of the graduates who leave have jobs already. We must address this issue in Ireland. Why are these graduates not staying? I understand that many people want to spread their wings by going abroad and learning new things, which is natural and inevitable, but one often hears people asking why they should stay in Ireland in light of the pessimistic atmosphere here. I am concerned about the economic loss caused by the departure of so many young people with valuable skills and education. Despite the economic recovery, approximately 80,000 people, half of whom were Irish nationals, emigrated in the year to last April. The Australian Government is delighted that so many skilled people from Ireland are taking up jobs there. Their skills, training and education which were paid for by the Irish taxpayer, are welcomed in Australia.

  I draw the Minister's attention to a report I discovered last week, which relates to the effects of the recession on Ireland's older people. The report which is part of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, TILDA, was published on 4 November last.  Mothers of adult emigrants who left Ireland during the recession are now more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health issues than those whose children are still living in Ireland. The study indicates that despite the fact that older people in Ireland lost 45% of their financial assets, it has not affected them mentally. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing has drawn our attention for the first time to the fact that when children emigrate, mothers get depressed. The same extent of depression does not affect fathers. That is another issue to be considered. I was rushing a bit, but I compliment the Minister on his efforts.

Senator Hildegarde Naughton: Information on Hildegarde Naughton Zoom on Hildegarde Naughton I welcome the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton. The Opposition of every hue has been calling for spending increases on every conceivable project since this Government entered office. I suppose that is the wont of opposition. Unfortunately, the previous Government never had difficulty with answering these calls with large sums of money obtained from an unsustainable over-reliance on taxation from the property sector. It was an easy but self-defeating way to govern, as we now know to our cost. There is no doubt, however, that increases in spending in various sectors are warranted and, as the economy continues to improve, further appropriate increases will occur. That process was started in the most recent budget.

  The only way to have sustainable public services is to have them underpinned by taxation arising from high rates of employment in sectors that are strong and growing. The previous Government cost this State 320,000 jobs, which were lost before actions were taken by the Government to arrest that landslide. Thanks to the previous mishandling of the economy, Irish unemployment almost trebled, peaking at 15.1% in mid 2012. Since then, the Government, through the Action Plan for Jobs, has been unrelenting in focusing on getting the country back to work. Two and a half years later the success can be seen, with today's figures indicating our unemployment rate is at 10.7%, with the prediction that it will continue to fall.

  I will quote from the OECD report on Ireland's Action Plan for Jobs, APJ. It indicates "The APJ's most striking innovation in the Irish public policy context is a co-ordination mechanism that ensures high-level political buy-in and oversight, whole-of-government engagement and the establishment of quarterly targets underpinned by a robust monitoring system." As Senators will gather, this is both praise for the job undertaken and an implied criticism of previous public policy. We have a terrible record of such policy initiatives being announced with fanfare and being left wither on the vine. For the first time in any area, the Action Plan for Jobs was underpinned by total cross-government co­ordination, targets and timeframes. There was complete political buy-in. The plans and follow-up steps were published, and the Government is completely open in publishing the targets met and those which have not been met. The Minister is held responsible when targets are not achieved and praised when they are. To date, I am glad to say, an overwhelming majority of the input has been praise. This is an experience that can be transferred to other areas of policy.

  I will refer to another OECD comment. Unlike other areas of recession in Europe, Ireland alone has changed its employment mix, ensuring that highly skilled workers gained employment. That reflects our warranted change from traditional, low-tech industry to creating employment opportunities that cater for our increasingly well qualified people. The OECD also confirms that we are well on track to deliver the 100,000 jobs promised by 2016. It also notes that the target of 2.1 million people in employment by 2020 is firmly within our grasp. Although we can never create enough jobs quickly enough, the story so far is one of positive progression and that is to be welcomed. I fully support the continuation of the current policy.

  There are two linked issues I wish to highlight, namely, the small and medium enterprise, SME, sector and the question of "red tape". There are approximately 300,000 SMEs in Ireland and they are, as the Minister will acknowledge, the lifeblood of our economy. That is particularly true in terms of creating employment. It is also the case that these businesses have a disproportionate reliance on the banking sector for their external funding requirements. The banking crisis had a crippling effect on this sector but I note from recent statistics that the banks are again lending in this area. AIB this week indicated it had increased lending to SME's by 60%, which should be welcomed. However, the potential game-changer for SMEs and their capability to create employment is the advent of the Government's Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland legislation. The fiscal discipline shown by Government to date enabled the creation of this fund to support our indigenous industry.

  There are valuable initiatives such as the National Pensions Reserve Fund delivering €850 million of funds in a range of supports for the SME sector, the pillar bank lending targets being increased to €4 billion each, a seed and venture capital scheme run by Enterprise Ireland worth up to €700 million, the development capital scheme worth €225 million to support growing mid-sized indigenous companies and the Credit Review Office recruiting additional staff to support monitoring work. In his preparations for next year's budget, I urge the Minister to stress to the Minister for Finance what is still a high cost of doing business in this country. Employers' PRSI, for example, is still far too high, and the Minister should try to ameliorate that burden in the next budget.

  With regard to red tape, I note the Minister has, among other measures, increased the number of businesses exempt from the requirement to hire external auditors to the maximum level permitted under EU law. In that regard, I urge the Minister to continue to review the constriction on SMEs in this area. Regulation should be suitably strict but not so severe as to stifle job creation. According to the recent World Bank Doing Business report, Ireland is ranked 13th in the world and second in Europe in terms of the ease of doing business but that survey was conducted with the heads of multinationals and not our own indigenous business owners, who would have a different view. The World Bank report is welcome but we cannot rest on our laurels and I again urge the Minister to review the area.

  The plan has been shown to work, with 80,000 net jobs created. This shows that in public policy terms, a positive plan, properly resourced with exacting standards which are properly monitored, can work. I congratulate the Minister on his achievements to date.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Feargal Quinn Zoom on Feargal Quinn I welcome the Minister and it was delightful to hear him speak. He did not read from any script and his speech came from the heart. His ability and control of his brief are very clear. Yesterday, I attended the innovation showcase and if anybody else had the chance to go, they know it was worthwhile. I only gave myself a couple of hours there but I could have spent much longer there. It was interesting to see thousands of people at the Convention Centre dealing with information and communications technology, food, health, manufacturing and materials, business processes and energy. They were linking with and learning from each other. I congratulate people on the work being done. It has been interesting to hear Senators Hildegarde Naughton and Mary White speak, as they both made a great deal of sense. I hope the Minister can develop some ideas from their contributions to today's debate.

  There is potential for the Government to set more concrete targets in the Action Plan for Jobs. In particular, we should be looking to be one of the top five countries in the world to set up a business; according to the World Bank's Doing Business report, Ireland is only ranked 19th in the world. We have work to do in that regard. It takes four procedures and as long as six days to start a business in Ireland, which is simply too long. It is a real disincentive for people in establishing a business. In New Zealand it takes just one procedure and half a day to set up a business, with a cost of just €100. The procedure to set up a business in New Zealand can be done totally online and we should aim towards this benchmark. It should be possible to set up a business in Ireland with just one procedure in one day at a very low cost.

  Specifically in Ireland, the four procedures to set up a company are as follows: the founder of a company swears before a commissioner of oaths; the relevant parties need to file necessary materials with the Companies Registration Office; a company seal must be procured; and the parties must register for corporation tax, PAYE, PRSI and VAT with the Revenue Commissioners. These four procedures could be done totally online, in one place for a maximum once-off payment of say €50. Will the Minister indicate if we are moving in this direction at all? We could go through the process electronically, so it would be very easy for people trying to set up a business. New Zealand has set the conditions to set up a business with one procedure and less than one day and we could set that target in the next action plan for jobs. It could happen in two years. In the European Union alone, Portugal, Belgium, Slovenia and Lithuania are ahead of us in terms of ease of establishing a business, so we can do a lot better. Will the Minister comment on whether he would be open to setting this target in the next action plan for jobs?  The more businesses we encourage to start, the better. Whether they fail is not the issue. We should encourage the formation of businesses, as the Minister said.

With regard to the overall ease of doing business, Singapore is ranked No. 1 in the world by the World Bank while Ireland is ranked No. 13. We should set a goal to break into the top ten in the next Action Plan for Jobs. That would be a good, concrete target.

One of the main issues affecting retailers remains upward-only rent reviews. We have to make progress on this issue because it would be a massive benefit to retail businesses, not to mention the wider economy. Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party promised in their election manifestos to tackle upward-only rents, but nothing has been done. I raised this issue previously and it is the elephant in the room. The House passed a motion in this regard and it was accepted that we would do something about this issue, but nothing has happened since.

The third issue I wish to raise relates to languages and business. I have a daughter married in Paris. She has four children, one of whom has just graduated from Shanghai University with a masters degree. It is interesting to observe that other countries are doing so much more with languages and not just European languages. The Government sought submissions relating to the Action Plan for Jobs on designing a languages strategy by next summer to create more jobs. It has been stressed in the Government consultation document that there is a need to develop language skills for emerging or expanding markets such as China. EUROSTAT recently reported that Ireland had the lowest level of foreign language tuition in Europe, and that the study of at least one foreign language at primary school level had become compulsory in every European country except Ireland. This is sending the wrong message if the Government is serious about crucial matters like job creation.

IBEC recently recommended that all students should have a strong early foundation in the core subjects of mathematics and science and literacy in two modern languages. I am a huge enthusiast of the Michel Thomas method, which I have mentioned previously to the Minister. It teaches language without having to study grammar. The Guardianreported that when Michel Thomas taught French in a disadvantaged school in London for a week:

He astounded staff at a school in north London by teaching a group of teenagers deemed incapable of learning languages. In one week, they learned the amount of French it normally takes five years to acquire.

I recall going to the Gaeltacht. I learned more Irish in three weeks than I had in three years learning grammar.

  As Senator Hildegarde Naughton alluded to, we should get rid of redundant regulations to help businesses. I have raised this point previously and something which is not addressed in the Action Plan for Jobs is the question of whether small businesses should be subject to the same regulations as big businesses. In France, for instance, small businesses are not subject to the same rules as large multinationals and rules come into effect if a business employs more than 50 people. The Government should consider giving an exemption in certain cases. The Action Plan for Jobs makes refers to "reduced costs though smart regulation". Why do we not move beyond smart regulation and get rid of some regulations completely to make it easier for business? We also need to look to abolish regulations that are redundant. We have done a little of this but not nearly enough. The UK has introduced an interesting concept, which is to take out two older regulations for every new regulation introduced. That is a great idea.

  I refer to crowdfunding. I am involved with Linked Finance. I am a great believer in crowdfunding, but we could do with regulation. Some people are afraid. There is uncertainty around the crowdfunding process, particularly due to lack of regulation.   The new Action Plan for Jobs 2015 must make much more concrete reference to crowdfunding and, in particular, to state whether the Government will bring in legislation in this area.

  Banque de France has a credit register in France which allows lenders see at a glance the creditworthiness of thousands of companies. This sets the conditions for further investment. I understand that the European Central Bank is building a cross-border database for the same purpose.

  There is a need to collect data on employment outcomes. We have a problem that is very much related to job creation, which should be considered in the next action plan. When students graduate, we do not systematically collect, analyse and distribute information on what they end up doing, be it in employment or further education. There are opportunities in this regard. I have been involved for some time with Springboard. I am impressed with this programme. The Minister mentioned JobBridge and what these programmes can do.

  The Minister can initiate a number of measures in the next action plan. I had a visit recently from a man I met in China some time back. He brought six investors from China to Europe and the two countries they visited were Ireland and Holland. That was the result of personal contacts. I had met him some years ago. He visited Ireland, spent two days here and then travelled to Holland to spend a few days there. Well done to them for picking Ireland. It was probably due to personal contacts, but it gave me the opportunity to explain to them what we do here.

  I am impressed by what Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and the Minister and his team are doing. I hope they will continue with the same enthusiasm they have shown up to now.

Senator John Kelly: Information on John Kelly Zoom on John Kelly I welcome the Minister. I compliment him and the Minister for Social Protection on many of the initiatives they have introduced in recent years, which are working well. A great deal of good work has been done to create jobs and there has not been enough appreciation of what has been happening considering the position we were in a number of years ago. The unemployment rate is down to 10.7% and 144,000 people have left the live register over the past 12 months. Another 150 new jobs were announced earlier.

  The youth development initiative will deliver an additional 1,500 places for disadvantaged young people aged between 18 and 24. The JobsPlus scheme, which I first suggested three years ago to my party, has been modified to deal with those aged under 25 years in order that they do not have to wait 12 months on the live register. If they are on the live register for four months, they can qualify for the scheme. There has been progress on the Youth Guarantee implementation plan. Approximately 16,500 of the 28,000 places had been taken up by the end of October. Pathways to Work is working well while 60% of those who participate in the JobBridge scheme secure full-time work subsequently. During the week beginning 17 November, 1,755 new jobs were announced involving 16 companies in six counties. The following week, 1,800 new jobs were announced by five companies in counties Dublin, Laois and Galway The unemployment rate has decreased for the 28th month in a row.

  Major new supports for job creation were delivered in quarter 3 under the Action Plan for Jobs and the agrifood industry was on show during a trade mission to China. Many good initiatives are taking place. A new Youth Guarantee initiative was announced to further help those aged under 25 to secure employment.

  Senator Mary White raised the issue of the difficulty of acquiring credit from the banks. However, 56% of the appeals to the Credit Review Office have been upheld in favour of the borrower. Eight out of ten SMEs have reported higher sales over the past six months, according to the SME credit demand survey.

  I have a number of suggestions for the Minister, one of which relates to commercial rates. Many businesses, including hotels, closed during the crash and if they are to reopen, they will need a break on rates in a phased basis in order they can re-establish themselves over a period of, say, three years. A pilot valuation project is under way, which assesses small pubs in certain counties. They are being assessed on the basis of turnover and profit and not square footage. For example, if one walks down Shop Street in Galway, every pub is full. There are people falling out the door onto the street. Those pubs pay the same rates as a pub two miles outside the city in which there are two customers at night. That is wrong.   Where such pilot schemes have been put in place, they have proven to be successful. The businesses which are making the most money are paying higher rates, while smaller businesses are not. The way to deal with this matter is to take it away from the Valuation Office and transfer responsibility for it to the Revenue, which has all the relevant figures available to it - including those relating to turnover and profit - in order to set commercial rates.

  On the previous occasion on which the Minister came before the House I raised the issue of a Saudi Arabian businessman who wanted to come here to do business with a company in Galway. The individual in question encountered major difficulties over a six-month period while attempting to do so. His requests for permission to do business here were continually refused for various reasons. The Minister pursued the matter on my behalf and the relevant Department wrote to him providing incorrect information. I was obliged to contact it and highlight the fact that it had provided information that was incorrect. Eventually, the man to whom I refer was granted permission to do business with the company in Galway. Thankfully, even though frustrated and in circumstances where most people would have done so, he did not give up on his quest. He has subsequently invested millions of euro in the company in question and has given those involved with it hope for the future. I cannot say much more about the issue but I hope that matters will improve for the company.

  The Saudi Arabian businessman to whom I refer spent four or five months trying to obtain a visa to enter the country. Ultimately, he was successful in doing so. Yesterday, I was contacted by an Irish national in respect of three Libyan businessmen who want to come to Ireland in order to buy cattle for live export. One of these individuals has been in Ankara for the past 19 days waiting to obtain a visa. Surely there is a need to deal with this matter on the basis of better interdepartmental co-operation. Another Department is delaying the Minister's Department in the context of attracting both jobs and investment to Ireland. Perhaps he will outline his views on the matter.

  Previous speakers referred to balanced regional development. For the past three years I have been informing people in Roscommon that things are great in Dublin and that there is no sign of a recession here. From a business perspective, pubs and hotels are full and shops are busy. Everything is going well in Dublin. The position elsewhere is not the same. When I return home each week, I see the opposite of what I see in Dublin. There is nothing happening outside the capital. We are doing nothing to help small businesses or attract industries to rural areas. Representatives from IDA Ireland have visited Roscommon on three or four occasions in the past five years but nothing has resulted from those visits. What can the Minister's Department and IDA Ireland do to encourage businesses to create jobs in the west?

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney I welcome the Minister. We all join him in welcoming the continuing reduction in the unemployment figures. However, to pick up on the theme explored by Senator John Kelly, this is not much comfort to people in the part of the country in which I reside. On Friday last, 160 people walked out of their employment at the former MBNA facility in Carrick-on-Shannon and will not be returning. The Minister is aware of the facility and has visited it on a number of occasions. I appreciate the fact that he is also aware of the impact of the continuing loss of jobs there. The question we must ask is what is happening. This is a state-of-the-art facility and the workforce there has developed skills relating to the financial services sector. This makes the members of that workforce somewhat unique in my part of the country. All of that to which I refer will be lost unless immediate action is taken to try to attract study visits to Carrick-on-Shannon from potential employers.

  I am not going to seek to be negative in my contribution to this debate, but, God knows, I have reasons to be negative with regard to job creation in County Leitrim. There are some great positives in evidence. Will the Minister address the MNBA issue and provide some indication of what is happening with regard to either the provision of alternative employment or the restructuring of the facility? What is IDA Ireland doing about the matter at present? Is the Minister in possession of any information he could provide to the House in order to give some sort of comfort to the people in my area?

  There is another issue which I would like the Minister to address. Why is it that so many jobs are being created in Dublin?

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton On a point of information-----

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney The Minister can answer my questions when he is replying to the debate.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I will grant the Minister some latitude, but he should remember that he will have an opportunity to reply to the debate.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney I only have six minutes in which to make my contribution.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I apologise for intervening, but what the Senator said is just not true.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney The perception in areas outside Dublin-----

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton It is a perception.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney -----is that the vast majority of jobs in the high-tech sector are going to Dublin.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton Therefore, the Senator is referring to high-tech jobs.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney I was about to develop the point that, presumably, one of the main reasons for this is that clusters have been created in the Dublin docklands, where Google, Facebook and other companies established their European headquarters. Subsequently, even more high-tech jobs have been created in the area in question. The Web Summit, which took place recently and which has been held here for a number of years, is very much focused on developing and improving those clusters by creating more high-tech jobs. That is my perception. I accept that jobs have also been created in Cork and Galway. However, earlier today it was announced that another high-tech company is to create 150 new jobs in the capital. Why did that company choose Dublin, which seems to be crowded with high-tech businesses? Dublin is becoming Silicon Valley, Irish style. I do not in any way begrudge the jobs in question being created in Dublin, especially as they contribute to the economy of the city and the greater Dublin area and also to the national economy. However, will the Minister indicate why an over-proportionate number of these jobs are being created in Dublin at the expense of other major centres and why smaller centres are not gaining at all?

  If I am correct about the cluster effect, when he was in Drumshanbo the Minister would have visited the food hub. Over 40 people are employed by the eight companies which form this hub. The companies involved are involved in distilling, brewing and baking. In addition, there is a FETAC level 5 course relating to the hospital sector on offer at the hub and some 50% of those who graduate from it obtain employment. Can Drumshanbo use the hub, which has established itself as a centre of food excellence, to attract more jobs? This is a community-inspired concept which has already created real jobs and the indications are that it is going to create even more. Will the Minister indicate if it would be possible to attract even more companies to the hub? In the context of study visits, could IDA Ireland refocus its efforts to concentrate on companies which might be involved in activities similar to those carried out by the businesses already located at the hub? Would what I am suggesting reflect Government policy or is there an insistence the IDA Ireland should visit counties only because specific companies might be interested in establishing particular operations there? I am seeking to discover the criteria IDA Ireland applies in the context of study visits. How does it grade particular locations and what are its priorities in the context of trying to attract potential investors? Is the food hub to which I refer an advantage for Drumshanbo in this regard? Would its existence lead IDA Ireland to seek to attract suitable companies with a view to their establishing new industries there?

  I do not wish to be in any way churlish or negative. I want to be as positive as possible. In the context of the Carrick-on-Shannon situation, I hope the Minister will redouble his efforts. It seems a crying shame that 160 jobs have been lost and that the skills and expertise which have been built up in Leitrim's county town over many years may also be lost forever.

Senator Terry Brennan: Information on Terry Brennan Zoom on Terry Brennan Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Seanad. Creating new jobs will continue to be the top priority for the Government. Too many people throughout the country have yet to see evidence of the recovery that is taking place. That is why the Government designated 2014 as the year for jobs.  It is critical to create more jobs and to improve living standards. Just as we had a plan to exit the bailout, we now have a plan for the creation of jobs. The Action Plan for Jobs 2014 has a strong focus on the domestic economy, improving competitiveness and supporting our entrepreneurs and small businesses. There can be no let-up in the Minister's effort until we return to full employment.

  The Government came to office when Ireland was losing 7,000 jobs each month. Now we are gaining 5,000 jobs per month. We must not forget this. I honestly believe we are wrong not to blow our trumpet more about generating these jobs. We should be highlighting the facts more vociferously and more often.

  We can afford to be more confident about our prospects than at any time since the crisis began. It is now time to focus on the future and finishing the job of economic recovery, of creating more jobs and building a better Ireland. To do we need to focus on supporting the construction industry, which has gone from being overblown during the boom to being undersized in its wake.

  Some two and a half years ago when the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation published the first Action Plan for Jobs he stated there is no big bang solution to the employment crisis. We need to build systematically brick by brick a sustainable growing economy which can create the jobs we need. During the past two years we have been grinding out the reforms very successfully and have implemented more than 500 actions to improve our competitiveness, support Irish and multinational companies and target sectors of potential. The Minister is not blowing his trumpet often enough. We have seen the results. Our competitiveness rankings are improving, our exports are growing and we are now creating jobs faster than any other economy in the EU. Despite this, many people are not experiencing the impact of these results and we have a long way to go, but real progress is being made. Where previously we shed 1,600 jobs per week, we are now benefiting from an additional 1,200 jobs a week. That is great news.

  A couple of years ago I identified in this Chamber what I believe is an absolute necessity, that is, the development of small industrial sites. From my experience in the Border county of County Louth, I am aware of four SMEs which I have been following from their inception. In two cases these small enterprises are exporting to the five continents of the world. One business, which has between 12 and 15 employees, was started in the kitchen and developed to the space in the garage, but due to the lack of available space, they had to go to Northern Ireland. They have grown to the extent that they cannot expand any further because of the lack of space in the unit in Northern Ireland. I know of three other similar cases of growth. I think it should be the aim to create facilities through IDA Ireland and in co-operation with local authorities in order that we establish developed industrial sites of a couple of thousand square feet to avail of the opportunity. I am from the Cooley Peninsula and I see that the local SMEs have to cross the Border to Northern Ireland to get adequate space in these industrial units. The four local concerns employ 60 people between them, some of whom are from the Cooley Peninsula. There is an opportunity to develop small-scale sites in different parts of the county to facilitate the SME sector.

  It would be remiss of me not to congratulate the Minister. He speaks with great enthusiasm and gusto and he is doing a fantastic job.

Senator David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane I welcome the Minister and thank him for taking statements on this issue. He has been in the House several times to be held to account as well as to outline his initiatives and the Government policies on jobs. That should be commended.

  It is difficult in the time available to critique Government policy, to commend it and offer solutions. I tend to do my work in the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and I have published a comprehensive report on the south-east economic development strategy which sets out a number of very clear actions, many of which have not been implemented. These actions are realistic, practical and deliverable. They need to be delivered.

  I have taken on the responsibility of publishing on behalf of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation a report on low pay and the living wage. That is important in the context of the contribution I will make because unemployment is moving in the right direction, in terms of fewer people being unemployed and more jobs being created. We should commend the Government on the positive initiatives it has undertaken. There are areas of concern in relation to the overall figures of which policymakers and Government need to be conscious.

  Ireland has the third highest rate of underemployment in the European Union, with 127,300 workers across the State underemployed. We know that more than 400,000 people have emigrated. If they were still here, the unemployment figure would be much higher. Many people are on labour activation courses, having come off the liver register, but are not in employment. I accept that more people are in work, more jobs have been created, and fewer people are unemployed, but we must look at the complete picture. While some of it is down to the positive work of the Government, much is also down to the fact that entrepreneurs and business people are doing their best in difficult circumstances, especially in the SME area. High levels of low pay and underemployment will undermine the sustainability of the economic recovery and deepen inequality.

  The lopsided economic development has been mentioned. The south east was the area with the highest unemployment rate in the State, but now we are the second highest. Obviously there have been some interventions with more jobs being created. We are no longer the unemployment blackspot or region with the highest rate and have been replaced by the midlands. It shows that those areas of the south east and the midlands are not getting the attention they need and we are not creating the jobs to the extent that we should. I have no difficulty with clustering jobs in Dublin, such as high-tech jobs because that is good for the entire State. We also must have similar clustering in the regions. The south east, as Members know, has major high-tech industries and technology linking in with the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow. We also do very well in life sciences and in the pharmaceutical, farming and agribusiness sectors. We have to look at the strengths of all of the region and then put in place policies that play to those strengths, exploit them and address the weaknesses. That is what the Government should do. While some of that is being done in the south east and I welcome some of the positive interventions the Minister has made, we still have a long way to go in the south east, the midlands and other parts of the country. Many people in Waterford say to me, but it might be a perception, that when they turn on the radio, they hear about jobs being created in Dublin, Cork and Galway but seldom an announcement about the creation of jobs in Waterford.  We have had some recovery but nothing like the scale we have seen in bigger cities. That creates a perception and, for many, a reality that we have a two-tier economic recovery; that there is a greater recovery in bigger urban centres, but not so much outside Cork and Dublin, and to a lesser extent Galway also.

  I wish to deal with some of the issues arising from the Minister's strategy, including the jobs plan. When the Government announced the credit guarantee scheme two years ago, the Minister told us that €450 million would be available to benefit 5,600 businesses creating 4,000 jobs in three years. The Government has clearly fallen short on those figures. The volume of loans guaranteed to date is €15 million - which is far short of what the target was meant to be - creating 110 companies and creating 870 jobs. I am not benchmarking the Minister against my aspirations, but I am doing so against the targets set by the Minister and the Government.

  The promised credit guarantee Bill is supposed to address shortfalls in the original scheme. It was due to be published during the current Dáil session but we have seen no sign of it. I am being told that I must conclude but in six minutes it is difficult to make a constructive, wholesome contribution on an issue as important as jobs.

  While I welcome some of the positive contributions and interventions that have been made by the Government, we still have a long way to go. Unemployment is still far too high and we have a problem concerning regional development. The current administration and leadership of IDA Ireland seem to have a different mind-set and a more positive outlook on regional development than their predecessors. I welcome that because it will be good news for the south east as well. We need to look holistically at this matter. In addition, the Minister needs to work with his partners in Government.

  One of the big issues in the south east was the creation of a university but that seems to have fallen apart at the seams. I am sure the Minister recognises it would be a game-changer in terms of job creation in the region.

  There should be a joined-up approach between Cabinet Ministers who should be alert to all these issues. They should be providing solutions not just for the bigger urban centres of Dublin, Cork and Galway but also for Waterford and other cities, in addition to rural areas.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson For the information of colleagues, according to the Order of the House, I have to call the Minister to reply at 1.10 p.m. Unless the acting Leader agrees to extend the time, not everybody will have an opportunity to speak. I have three Members offering and would like to facilitate them, but I would have to seek an extension.

Senator Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne I have a one-minute question.

Senator Lorraine Higgins: Information on Lorraine Higgins Zoom on Lorraine Higgins I am happy to share time with Senator Michael Mullins.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Lorraine Higgins: Information on Lorraine Higgins Zoom on Lorraine Higgins I welcome the Minister and commend the Government's Action Plan for Jobs. The Minister's input has reaped significant rewards after one of the most challenging economic periods on record, both nationally and internationally. In reflecting on the performance of the Action Plan for Jobs, it is important to consider all that this programme has achieved. As it stands, just under 80,000 additional people are at work compared to 2012 when the Government launched and began implementing the action plan. Jobs recovery has now taken hold, broadening and deepening across the country with seven out of eight regions showing job gains since the action plan first commenced.

  Employment has increased in 11 out of 14 sectors of the economy in the past year, with increases particularly focused on key domestic economic areas such as construction and retail, which is most welcome. Just under 100,000 additional people are at work in the private sector today compared to when the action plan was launched in quarter 1 of 2012. Most significantly, unemployment is now at 10.9%, the lowest level since March 2009. There is no doubt that this marks a major turning point in Ireland's recovery and shows how decisions taken by this Government are turning the tide for Irish people.

  I wish to raise one issue that has been brought to my attention. Greencore, one of Ireland's most successful companies nationally and internationally, was recently reported in the UK media concerning its recruitment of employees from Hungary to serve the needs of its Northampton plant. After reading this article, a constituent contacted my office in Galway querying why a company with such strong Irish ties is not attempting to recruit Irish workers in a similar fashion. What can the Minister do to ensure that a similar practice is not employed by this company's Irish operations or by any other Irish company?

  I appreciate that there is a cost differential to be taken into consideration, as well as the practicalities involved. I want to make it clear that I am not against the free movement of people throughout the European Union. Nevertheless, in the light of Ireland's blossoming recovery, we must emphasise the important role that Irish businesses can play in supporting Irish workers and the economy. As Ireland returns to prosperity, I urge the Minister to call upon companies to hire Irish in so far as possible and to buy Irish wherever possible in order to support our country further.

Senator Michael Mullins: Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I welcome the Minister and compliment him on the tenacity with which he has been driving the Action Plan for Jobs in the past three years. It is clearly working. When the Government took office, we were haemorrhaging jobs at an alarming rate. Today's CSO figures, however, show that we have the lowest rate of unemployment for several years at 10.7%. That is to be welcomed. Over 144,000 people have left the live register in the past year.

  We all welcome the significant job announcements around the country in the past year in particular. We appreciate that companies will decide to locate where they see fit. We also need to address the issue of balanced regional development and ensure IDA Ireland is working to spread jobs throughout the country. In the past decade my own town of Ballinasloe has lost 1,000 industrial jobs. I was disappointed with the recent response I got from Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland on the level of visits to Ballinasloe. This town is in the centre of Ireland, on the motorway and has an excellent infrastructure. It also has good housing, as well as affordable available development land much of which is State-owned. A town that was capable of attracting two major multinationals in the 1970s is not seen as capable of attracting significant industry now. That issue needs to be examined.

  The issue of competitiveness has been referred to and I agree with everything Senator Feargal Quinn said in that regard. I am somewhat concerned that demands for wage increases are premature. I would prefer to see people's disposable income being enhanced by adjustments to our taxation system and a reduction in the USC. We need to do everything possible to keep business competitive so that we can continue to attract jobs at the current rate.

  Online retail is getting away from traditional retail, but the latter sector is still creating many jobs in small towns and villages. We need to examine rates, parking charges and everything else that makes it difficult for the retail sector. We will resume this debate early in the new year when the Action Plan for Jobs 2015 is on stream. In the meantime, I compliment the Minister on what he has been doing so far. I urge him to continue the good work.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson Senator Thomas Byrne wishes to share time with Senator Fidelma Healy Eames.

Senator Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne I was struck by Senator HIldegarde Naughton's speech when she referred to the fall in unemployment. She is correct, but she should look at the figures from 1997 onwards when there were 1 million people employed in the country. It went up to 2 million and then went down temporarily. We are working constructively with the Government, in so far as we can, to get that employment figure back up to 2.1 million. Huge progress was made under the Fianna Fáil Government in that long period before the crash.

  This morning the Meath Chronicle and Cavan and Westmeath Herald reported an imminent jobs announcement in Gibbstown, County Meath, or Baile Ghib. I suppose that is connected to Údarás na Gaeltachta, as well as the Minister's Department. Can the Minister give us details of that matter?

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Information on Fidelma Healy Eames Zoom on Fidelma Healy Eames The Minister is very welcome and I thank him for listening. There is no doubt that progress is being made but more can be made. The key area that many Senators have touched on is the need for regional recovery, as well as recovery in the larger cities.  I am thinking particularly of rural Ireland. The Minister can make the nation more tax competitive. The World Economic Report has well documented that we are way behind the United Kingdom. We rank 93rd for tax competitiveness out of 144 countries, compared with the United Kingdom which ranks 33rd. SMEs in Galway tell me they are being offered six months' free rates and rent to open businesses in the United Kingdom. That could be just an office for export purposes, which would be fine. It could, however, mean moving the operation and losing jobs here too. We would then face not only a brain drain but an SME drain which we must counteract.

  Capital gains tax here is absolutely out of whack. If I sell my business here I pay 40% capital gains tax but if I go 60 miles up the road to Northern Ireland I would get all the plum rewards for setting up a business in the United Kingdom. We cannot afford our nearest neighbours being that tax competitive. When our foreign direct investment, FDI, offer was so attractive Prime Minister Cameron and the UK Government got up on their high horse and told us where to go. What are we saying to them about their attractiveness for SMEs? Probably nothing because when we deal with other countries in Europe our self-esteem is very low. We have to step up to the mark. We are a sovereign nation, although a member of the European Union. We are well able to do business. We are a creative and innovative nation. We are a resilient people but let us not be sold out by our tax policies.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton): Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton The Government now has well over €3 billion in an alternative to bank finance in the marketplace. We are putting in other things because banks will be more risk averse. To be fair to the banks the refusal rates, as reported by a Red C survey, are falling. They are down from 30% to 19%. There is some growth in credit from the banking system. There is change afoot but we are not where we want to be.

  I doubt Senators would be able to list the top three regions for employment growth since the recovery started. They are the Border region at a figure of 10%, the south east at 9% and the midlands at 7%. The figure for Dublin is 5%.

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White The Minister can see in the Action Plan for Jobs where he needs to get more balance.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton These are Central Statistics Office figures. There is a perception that all jobs are going to Dublin, but that is not borne out by the statistics. There is a good spread. I agree with Senators that we need a stronger regional strategy.

  I will be the first Minister to put in place a regional enterprise strategy, which I will do in the next 12 months. We will go into each region, sit down with the stakeholders, decide where the competitive strengths are, and to take up Senator Mooney’s point, the Drumshanbo food cluster is a real strength and can be developed. We will want to give a leg up to companies that have the capacity and ambition to build and export. Yes, by all means, there should be a regional enterprise strategy but we need a realistic debate about this. Senator Mary White knows particularly well that FDI companies represent 8% of our employment. A total of 92% of employment is in sectors driven by Irish-based companies. Too much of the regional debate is just about IDA Ireland. It has a role but the 92% have a very important role. We need to develop entrepreneurship.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney That is exactly the point I was trying to make about the food cluster.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I agree. Many sectors such as food, tourism, engineering and agricultural machinery have a strong regional base where we are competitive and can grow more competitive companies. That will be a focus. The total focus in this debate on how many IDA Ireland visits came to X, Y or Z town or village is not a realistic way to build the competitive strengths of our regions. We have to consider sectors that we can grow in those regions-----

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White On the point where I referred to Senator Paschal Mooney, the MBNA is-----

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I will get to the-----

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White He said 1%.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton Senator Hildegarde Naughton asked if employer's PRSI is too high. We brought down the low rate temporarily. That was funded by the pension levy which has been dropped. It did have an impact that we saw on tourism and other sectors. We are moving to a point where we can start selectively to consider taxes where the boot is pinching and the Minister for Finance will do that each year.

  We are considering the audit exemption and there will be a heavy emphasis in next year’s plan on how to make it easier to do business. Sometimes that is through quicker processing of work permits and sometimes reform of company law. We will soon, with the Senators’ support, have new company legislation, which will be like Delaware. It will be the best in class. It will be simple, quick and easy to set up a company. To answer Senator Feargal Quinn, I will study those four procedures and see what we can do about them. I will not make a commitment-----

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney I hope we do not get the reputation Delaware has for some of its companies.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton We will not.

  The Senator should give me a list of the things on which we can have a small business exemption and I will consider them. Most regulation concerns the environment and protection of workers. We protect people with good reason. These are good standards for doing business. We do not want to dilute important ones. We can consider flexibility for some companies. Crowd funding has potential. It is probably untested. I will look to see if we can do something in that area. It is one in which several Deputies and Senators are interested.

  I agree absolutely that we need to get more information out about how students fare. The fact that some areas of engineering get a 100% placement and could get 200% if we had the places does not get through to career guidance counsellors or to parents who are influencing the choices. The information on where the new economy is creating employment is not flowing back effectively into the education system.

  Senator John Kelly asked whether we can move from valuation to turnover and profit. That really involves a corporate tax, not a property tax. I have seen the revaluation which is based on the rental value in Waterford where it causes as much frustration as gain. I cannot remember whether it was hotels or nursing homes that saw a big increase in valuation. Industry saw improvement. Other sectors saw damage. Revaluation is not a universal boon. If one is trying to raise €500 million, revaluation is only sharing it out among businesses, it is not reducing the amount. We need to focus on trying to reduce the €500 million and every local authority is reducing its business rates. I am not sure about shifting to profits. That is not the basis for a property tax. There is a debate about whether it should be site value. If the Senator can give me examples of the Libyan involvement, we can examine the individual cases to see what went wrong. I would be very keen to look at that issue.

  IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are searching their portfolios to identify companies that could use the MBNA workforce. There is a stronger business process outsourcing sector with a lot of strong regional companies. I am determined to keep after that opportunity. I dealt with Drumshanbo and absolutely agree with Senator Paschal Mooney.

Senator Paschal Mooney: Information on Paschal Mooney Zoom on Paschal Mooney Does the Minister have any specifics on Carrick-on-Shannon?

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I have no specifics. Several leads are being followed but like all of these matters, they are commercially sensitive and we do not discuss people’s interests in public. There is a joint IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland task force because it is equally attractive to both and we are pursuing that aspect. If the Senator gives us examples of the shortage of suitable buildings in Border regions, we can examine them. We have not been in the business of building advance buildings for a long time.  We have done it very strategically in Waterford, Athlone and Letterkenny in the area of medical technology. We are looking very strategically at some buildings. If there are companies that are that strong, I am surprised the sector is not able to respond to the demand.

I agree with Senator David Cullinane that the credit guarantee scheme needs to be improved. We intend to improve it. The Senator, in terms of his statement that 400,000 people have emigrated, tends to distort the statistics in that the figure represents the gross number of people who have emigrated. The net figure is 100,000 and that is falling. Many Polish workers have left Ireland and the statistic in that regard is reflected in the emigration statistics referenced by the Senator. I agree that emigration is too high but the only response to an emigration challenge is job creation. Some 80,000 jobs have been created and emigration has decreased by 34,000 or 30%. We need to sustain that and the best way of doing so is further job creation.

I agree with the general view that we need more regional focus. IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland plans which will be put in place following each agency's strategy review will include greater focus on regional development because I have insisted on that focus. Also, the broader regional enterprise strategy will tap into other stakeholders in the region. We learned from the south east that collaboration across stakeholders can be as good in the creation of a hub as is finding new money.

I take the point made by Senator Michael Mullins regarding IDA Ireland visits. We need to examine the strengths of villages and towns around their broad competitive advantage and the sectors therein that are strong and then build upon that. If as part of that IDA Ireland involvement is required it will be forthcoming. We need a broader view of the growth of the regions.

Reference was made to the need for a hire Irish policy. I do not think that is possible. There is in place a hire EU policy which provides that under work permits one cannot recruit internationally unless it is not possible to fill a post with an EU person. This is the basis of our work permits system and will continue to be our policy. Clearly we have obligations to everybody equally.

I will not comment on speculation in the Meath Chronicle and Cavan and Westmeath Herald. I can assure Senator Thomas Byrne that we continue to work hard for that area.

Senator Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne Is a jobs announcement expected this week?

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I am unsure of what issue Senator Fidelma Healy Eames was raising in terms of tax competitiveness. Ireland is the most competitive in terms of corporate tax.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Information on Fidelma Healy Eames Zoom on Fidelma Healy Eames I was referring to taxes on SMEs.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton Personal tax rates are decreasing, which as the Senator will be aware were raised during the crisis to levels that are too high. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have indicated that we are now firmly on a downwards route in this regard, with reductions in the USC and in the top rate of income tax. We are pretty tax competitive but we can do more. The CGT rate is 33% rather than 40%, although I think it was Sinn Féin that proposed it be set at 40%. Capital gains tax is always under scrutiny. I believe we should examine the issue of CGT for entrepreneurs rather than CGT generally. If there is any case to be made, it is entrepreneurs who should be given the opportunity to realise the benefits up to a certain threshold, which I understand applies in the United Kingdom. Some of those practises are worthy of examination.

Acting Chairman (Senator Marie Moloney): Information on Marie Moloney Zoom on Marie Moloney I thank the Minister for his responses and for coming to the House for this debate.

Standing Orders: Motion

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins I move:

That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the following additional Standing Orders be adopted as Standing Orders of Seanad Éireann relative to Public Business:

Absence for witness evidence

82B. (1) Subject to Standing Order 82C, in the event of any member of a Committee which is conducting a Part 2 inquiry (where the inquiry has the power to make findings of fact) being absent for any witness evidence at a meeting of the Committee, a member nominated by the Committee shall table a motion for a Resolution of Seanad Éireann to remove the member from the Committee in accordance with section 20(4) of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013 and Standing Order 89 shall not apply.

(2) For the purpose of this Standing Order and Standing Order 82C, a witness is any person giving oral evidence to the Committee save for employees of, and any person with technical knowledge or expertise engaged by, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.

Absence for witness evidence due to exceptional circumstances

82C. Where a member of a Committee which is conducting a Part 2 inquiry (where the inquiry has the power to make findings of fact) is or will be absent for any witness evidence at a meeting of the Committee, and the Committee agrees that the absence is due to exceptional circumstances:

(1) it may decide not to proceed with the witness evidence or to postpone the commencement of the witness evidence; or

(2) where the Committee is of the view that it is necessary to proceed with the witness evidence, it may, following the consideration of legal advice, proceed with the meeting where:
(a) the witness consents to having their evidence heard without the member; and

(b) the witness agrees to any other measures that, according to the legal advice given to the Committee, is necessary and/or appropriate,
and the member nominated by the Committee will not table a motion (under Standing Order 82B) for a Resolution to remove the member from the Committee.'."

This motion was discussed at length by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges yesterday evening. It was also taken without debate in the other House. I am sure there will not be much debate on it in this House. While what is proposed is fairly straightforward Members now have an opportunity to speak on it if they wish.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I thank the Leader for allowing time for debate on this motion. However, as the Leader said there was a full discussion on these proposed changes to Standing Orders at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges last night. I was happy to second the motion put forward at that meeting in the context that the committee of inquiry had been seeking these changes to ensure the efficient and effective conduct of its important work inquiring into the banking collapse and circumstances surrounding it. The changes are self-evident and will assist in the expeditious conduct of the banking inquiry.

  Question put and agreed to.

  Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.

  3 o’clock

Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2014: Second Stage

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I welcome the Minister of State.

Senator John Crown: Information on John Crown Zoom on John Crown I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, to answer formally on behalf of the Government for this Bill. I also take the opportunity to wish him the best in his future endeavours in his portfolio. He has a strong personal and professional commitment to the issues of equality and human rights and I am delighted that he is the person who has been chosen to represent the Government's arguments with respect to this Bill.

  As the Minister of State will be aware, transparency and accountability are two of the cornerstones of public life and public governance in democratic countries. The formal institutions of State have certain obligations to behalf in a democratic fashion and as well as that, in order to challenge them, we have always tried to encourage an enthusiastic, but fair-minded, cadre of journalists and other commentators and critics to question Government policy on behalf of the people.

  We are lucky in this country. In other countries these can be dangerous occupations. Sadly, in the world today there are journalists still languishing in prison; others have been shot, executed or tortured for having the temerity to disagree with the policies of the governments where they live. Sometimes we do not appreciate enough what a privilege it is to live in a democracy where people still have these freedoms and where they are cherished and, in general, well respected by Government. There are, however, subtle forms of soft power in this country which, if misused, can sometimes have the effect of silencing, quashing and disincentivising dissent. Certainly, in politics, we have often commented on the issue of the Whip system and the way that parliamentary accountability in the country appears to be somewhat less than it is in other democracies because of the strength of the Whip system, difficulties with freedom of information, etc. These all are issues which can provide hurdles to full transparency and accountability.

  In addition, we have perhaps a more highly entrenched constitutional position in support of the concept of defence from defamation in this country with a constitutional recognition of the right of an individual to having his or her good name. In my brief career to date, this is the fifth piece of attempted legislation I have introduced here and three of them have revolved around issues of transparency and accountability. The first was an attempt to regularise a position which had become topical for various reasons at that time concerning overtures which were made to the Judiciary by politicians with respect to the outcome of criminal cases. The second related to transparency around the issue of Government's interaction with the tobacco sector. The third is this Bill.

  The Bill is an attempt to de-fang one weapon which sometimes is used inappropriately by public bodies in defence of their position against valid criticism. The specific incident which provoked me into thinking of this Bill involved a general practitioner, Dr. Rúairí Hanley, who was writing for the Irish Independent and who wrote a column on what was at the time a very controversial issue. The Minister of State and Members of this House and the other House will be well familiar with the controversy that arose with respect to the apparent change in medical cards and the rules for getting a medical card. This was a controversy which, understandably, attracted passionate contributions from those who felt that there had been a row-back in the provision of what were called "discretionary medical cards" and those who defended the Government and the HSE's position stating not only was there no row-back, but such a thing as a discretionary medical card had never existed. I will be the first to admit that nobody was acting in bad faith in this debate and those on the Government side and the HSE side certainly were dealing with a situation of terribly constrained resources and an attempt to arrange priorities for healthcare spending, but those on the other side of the argument were aware that it was not only Government who had hard choices to make. They were aware that citizens sometimes had hard choices to make in their own homes and in their own hearts about matters such as whether they will pay for this drug, seeing as they have lost their medical card, or whether they will pay for the rent or for food. These were trying issues.

  Dr. Hanley wrote an article in which he suggested the HSE was terrifying medical card holders with the prospect of their medical card being withdrawn. He received from the HSE's public relations department a reply which dealt not only with the substance of the issue but also with its view that he made charges with which the HSE disagreed. As a consequence it threatened him with unspecified other actions in defence of the good name of the HSE. It struck me at the time that this was wrong. In the first instance, the person who should have been replying to Dr. Hanley was somebody from the substantive chain of command of the HSE who was involved in decisions with regard to medical cards and medical card policy and should not have been a professional public relations officer in the public employ.

  The Minister of State and I have not had the opportunity to interact too often previously, but I wish him to know that this is a bugbear of mine. I believe there should be no professional public relations professionals employed anywhere in the public service. Public servants should perform their duties and their reputation should rest on the quality with which they do so. Public relations professionals, by definition, are professionals who have a client-attorney relationship with the person who pays them. Their job is not to foster communications, it is to make their employer look good. This is not something which we should be subsidising in the State. Staff should be their own PR agents in the public service.

  With respect to the specifics of this issue, I was troubled that the reply came from a PR person and that the entity, the HSE - I use it specifically in this case, but this is a more general charge - would decide that it had something called its own good name which, as an abstraction, was so deserving of defence that the HSE could use legal challenges to those who would criticise it. In the area of public policy, we need to be able to criticise the public bodies. We need to be able to criticise and challenge those who work in those bodies to defend the bodies on their track record, not on some vague abstract such as the good name of the organisation.

  The Bill does not prevent individuals who work in the public service from defending their good name. We have a tradition, in the Oireachtas in general, of not being unnecessarily critical of individual public services who, by and large, do their job in a responsible way. Often these are difficult and thankless jobs and the often do not get much thanks from persons such as myself. I am sorry if I sometimes appear to cross a boundary in that regard.

  We are not trying to prevent any individual from protecting his or her good name, but we do not believe that the bodies corporate should have an abstract right to defend the good name of the organisation using defamation charges. That is why the most we can do - we are not able to ban their resort to defamation - is strike a strong symbolic blow against it by limiting the damages which they are able to claim.

  This short Bill has three sections. The first provides a broad definition of the public bodies which will come under the scope of the legislation. We believe we have managed to cover all the gaps for the 700 plus public bodies and, I do not mean to use the word uncharitably, "quangos" which still exist. There has been a certain culling of quangos in the tenure of this Government, but we estimate that there are still more than 700 of them. It will also apply to bodies in which the Government holds a majority shareholding, bodies which are set up by Statute and bodies in which the relevant Minister is the only shareholder.   Section 3 is a technical provision dealing with how appeals from a High Court case to the Supreme Court will be handled in the light of the legislation. Section 4 is a technical set of instructions outlining how judges may instruct juries in the interpretation of the law in the context of these provisions.

  I take the opportunity to thank Shane Kenneally and Aoife O'Toole who work in my office for their efforts in preparing this legislation. Shane has been a major contributor to the design of all five of the attempts at legislation that we have advanced.

  We had a promise of new politics when the Government came to power. Some three years into its tenure, a certain scepticism was expressed about how realistically that pre-election commitment to new politics had translated into action. However, I have seen signals in recent months that there has been something of a realignment and in this respect this commitment is perhaps assuming some priority on the Government's legislative agenda. I was very heartened, for instance, when the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, did not reject the amendment we advanced to the Health (General Practitioner Service) Bill 2014 which had the effect of preventing the insertion of a gagging clause into any contract GPs would have to sign. That was very forward thinking of the Minister and I am grateful to him for it.

  I will be equally grateful to the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, today if he sees fit to accept this modest Bill. His doing so would send a powerful signal that there is a commitment on the part of the Government to transparency and accountability and fostering constructive criticism without people being able to reach for the nearest defamation lawyer when they hear something they do not like.

Senator Sean D. Barrett: Information on Sean D. Barrett Zoom on Sean D. Barrett I welcome the Minister of the State. It is an honour to second the Bill brought forward by Senator John Crown. There are several distinguished debaters on the Government benches today and I look forward to a stimulating discussion on the right to free speech.

  Article 40.6.1° of the Constitution begins:

The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:-

i The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.

The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.

It is wonderful that "criticism of Government policy" is included as a right of citizens in our Constitution. Transparency and accountability are the essence of why we are here. I do not wish to go over old ground, but I will observe that it was part of why this House was endorsed in the referendum. People like the idea that persons such as Mary Robinson and Owen Lancelot Sheehy Skeffington in the past and Senator David Norris today have come here to express views. Great debates take place up and down the length of this country, in clubs and pubs, all the time and they must be allowed to continue. Indeed, some would say the capacity to engage in that type of debate is one of the great discerning characteristics of Irish people.

  I speak as one for whom the provisions of the Bill have a personal resonance in that I once found myself in the position that a State body found something I wrote objectionable. I admired the lawyers who stood by me on that occasion, but it was an eye opener to see the other side, with a massive number of lawyers plugged into the national debt, so to speak, in an effort to prevent publication. Happily, the result was the one I was seeking. This thin-skinned approach to the expression of public opinion is not suited to the type of world in which we live. A nation that faced such a crisis as we did in 2008 to 2011 must have full scope for criticism of what went wrong at that time. We in this House have a duty to stand over every penny that is spent. It is what those who voted for us want us to do. Let us stand up for a society where opinions are freely expressed without people reaching for the defamation lawyer.

  An item in one of the newspapers today sets out the view of a person working in the ambulance service that this vital service is being abused. He expresses the opinion that a person who miscalls the ambulance service three times should lose his or her medical card. It is helpful to nobody if every person who has legitimately called an ambulance should claim to have been maligned and defamed by this individual articulating the view that some people misuse the service. It is that notion of a type of collective destruction of what people feel is their right to a good name. There has been too much of that and the individual in question is entitled to express his views about the ambulance service. Likewise the Galway poet - I will not be more specific than that in case there is defamation involved - who said of a certain welfare officer in Galway that he was so stingy in giving out the money that one might think it was his own money. That is a legitimate expression and there is no call for every staff member of the welfare service in the city of Galway saying they have been defamed.

  I agree with Senator John Crown that public bodies should not have public relations departments. Let the people we pay heavily to manage some of these large organisations come out and engage in a public debate. Resorting to lawyers because people have legitimate complaints and criticism of public policy is not acceptable. That type of criticism is part of the normal cut and thrust of debate. Senator Crown has suggested that if one is really thin-skinned, one may have €1 in damages. Those who feel inclined to take such cases should grow up and engage in proper public debate. The public is entitled to ask questions and have answers to those questions. It is a right enshrined in the Constitution and is at the core of our democracy.

  It is an honour to second this Bill and I hope the Government will look upon it favourably. Its acceptance would be a meaningful reform initiative which serves to enhance transparency, accountability and public debate. We have made huge progress in recent years such that people who were previously outside our democracy and, in some cases, resorting to physical force are now inside it and engaged in democratic debate. This Bill is a logical development of that process. It would be a terrific boost for democracy and free speech in this country if the Government were to accept it.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin): Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin I commend the Senators for bringing forward this Bill which the Government does not intend to oppose. I agree with the points made regarding the beauty and fragility of free speech and democracy. Some weeks ago I was stuck in traffic outside the Romanian embassy when I saw long queues of Romanians living in Ireland waiting to vote in the elections in their home country. It was to see people willing to queue for six or seven hours for the chance to cast their ballot. We in this county can sometimes be complacent regarding the nature of free speech and our capacity to engage in the democratic process.

  Senator Sean D. Barrett referred to the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. I certainly have changed my position since that referendum and am more appreciative of the richness of debate in this House and what it brings to the business of the Oireachtas. Senator Ivana Bacik will be delighted to hear it.

  This short Bill seeks to amend the Defamation Act 2009 on the relatively narrow issue of the bringing of defamation proceedings by corporate bodies under section 12 of the Act. The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, considers that the Bill as drafted is deficient and would require extensive further examination and amendment. On a preliminary examination, we have a number of substantial concerns which I will present in due course.

  The present legal position is that the Defamation Act provides, at section 12, that:

The provisions of this Act apply to a body corporate as they apply to a natural person, and a body corporate may bring a defamation action under this Act in respect of a statement concerning it that it claims is defamatory whether or not it has incurred or is likely to incur financial loss as a result of the publication of that statement.

 This provision sought to recognise the full commercial and non-commercial importance of a body corporate's reputation and to protect that reputation against defamatory statements, even in situations in which it might be difficult to prove or to measure resulting financial loss. For example, it might be difficult if a company had recently started up or just entered a new market, or if the main impact of the defamatory publication was to make it difficult to recruit or retain staff or to cause distrust in relations with core partners such as banks, customers, or trade unions. Under section 12, a body corporate which is not involved in commerce is similarly entitled to protect its reputation against defamatory statements, regardless of whether it operates in the public or the private sector, even if it is not suffering identifiable financial loss. The 2009 Act also provides for a number of statutory defences to a defamation action - the defences of truth, absolute or qualified privilege, honest opinion and fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest.

Having set out the current position, I would like to comment on the changes proposed by the Bill before the House. This legislation would amend just three sections of the Defamation Act 2009: section 12, which provides that bodies corporate can bring defamation proceedings; section 13, which allows for the Supreme Court, on appeal, to revise the amount of damages awarded for defamation in the High Court by a jury; and section 31, which lists various factors the court must take into account when deciding on an award of damages for defamation. All of the changes proposed in this Bill relate to the bringing of defamation proceedings by bodies corporate under section 12 of the 2009 Act. The central change in the Bill is the proposed new subsection 12(2), which would radically limit the damages that could be awarded to specified types of corporate bodies, in a defamation case, to a nominal €1. As the proposed changes to sections 13 and 31 are ancillary in nature, I will concentrate my remarks on the proposed changes to section 12.

As I have indicated, the Minister considers that the Bill as drafted is deficient and would require extensive further examination and amendment. I will set out some of her reservations, which are based on a preliminary examination of this legislation. The Bill's central proposal is to impose a limit of €1 on the damages that could be awarded in a defamation case to any of the very wide range of bodies corporate listed in the proposed section 12(3). The text provides that a court may not even consider any higher award, irrespective of the nature and extent of the damage actually suffered. This radical proposed intervention would require very careful scrutiny, including with regard to its constitutionality. The Bill would impose this new limit on any body which falls into any of the extraordinarily broad and diverse list of categories set out in the proposed section 12(3). The Bill defines any body covered by this list as a "public body". We have serious concerns about the excessively broad scope of the list. I will explain those concerns briefly. The stated objective of the Bill is to limit the damages that public bodies can be awarded in defamation cases, apparently with a view to discouraging them from bringing defamation proceedings. The list proposed in section 12(3) seems to fundamentally confuse different sorts of public and corporate bodies. As a result, it includes in the Bill many bodies that do not seem relevant to the Bill's objectives.

We have to bear in mind that the bodies we know as public bodies are a diverse mix, including bodies incorporated under the Companies Acts, under other statutes, or in some cases under charter. They include bodies which have corporate identity and entities which do not. Some of these bodies have commercial purposes or activities, while others are non-commercial. Many of our commercial State-sponsored bodies operate and compete in markets alongside private company competitors. I will give some non-exhaustive examples. The list includes bodies which are not corporate, which means they were never eligible to bring defamation proceedings under section 12 of the 2009 Act and are, therefore, not relevant to the purpose of this Bill. For example, the Departments of State, listed in the proposed section 12(3)(a) are not bodies corporate. Similarly, it is not clear that all of the diverse public health bodies listed in the proposed section 12(3)(h) would be bodies corporate.

The list also includes bodies which are not public. That is a problem because a body that is included in the list is defined by section 12(2) of the Bill as a "public body". For example, the entities established by charter that are included in the proposed sections 12(3)(b) and 12(3)(g) are not necessarily public bodies. The list also includes undefined bodies. Half of the eight categories in the list - those proposed in sections 12(3)(b), 12(3)(d), 12(3)(f) and 12(3)(g) - refer to "entities". As this term has no legal definition, it may be difficult to decide what bodies fall into these categories. The list also includes bodies which are public but commercial. The proposed sections 12(3)(b),12(3)(c), 12(3)(d), 12(3)(e) and 12(3)(f) appear to cover a wide range of State-sponsored bodies with commercial activities. This means that under the Bill, a commercial State-sponsored body that suffers financial losses due to a defamatory publication could not recover more than nominal damages, while one of its competitors operating in the same market would not be subject to any such limit.

The list also includes charter bodies, which may be corporate and public but not governmental. The proposed section 12(3)(b) includes in the list any body which is "an entity established by charter". This group seems to include bodies established by charter such as Trinity College, the Incorporated Law Society and the Royal College of Surgeons. It is not clear whether the Bill intends to impose a €1 limit on the damages that can be awarded in a defamation claim by any of these or similar bodies. Section 13 of the Bill, which refers to appeals in defamation cases, identifies the Supreme Court as the normal appellate court from the High Court. Since this Bill was published, significant changes have been made to the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction. I refer to the coming into effect on 28 October 2014 of the amendments provided for in the Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution, and the establishment of the Court of Appeal on 28 October 2014 under that amendment. In addition, the wording of the proposed section 13(1)(b), unlike the proposed section 13(1)(a), does not seem to indicate what the appellate court may substitute for an award of nominal damages made by the High Court under the Bill.

Furthermore, the Bill proposes the substantial approach of imposing a far-reaching limit to redress in any defamation action taken by a broad range of corporate bodies, in pursuit of an objective which appears quite disproportionate. The Bill's stated intention is to prevent public bodies from using the resources of the State to issue defamation proceedings to influence comment by the press and public. In practice, defamation proceedings by public bodies are very rare. It can hardly be argued that the press or the public in Ireland are reluctant to enter into robust criticism and debate regarding the actions and policies of public bodies. This Bill seems at best a legislative sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. The Defamation Act which is just five years old and was debated in some detail in both Houses in 2009 represents a recent and well thought-out balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to protection of good name and reputation.

I have highlighted non-exhaustively some of the numerous questions that have arisen in our preliminary examination of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2014. More time is needed to consider the Bill in detail and further assess its potential wide-ranging implications. The Office of the Attorney General also needs to be consulted, as do the Departments and State agencies potentially involved. Section 5 of the 2009 Act already provides for a statutory review of the Act's operation, to be commenced within five years after the passing of the Act and to be completed within a year. Preparations for this statutory review have already begun within the Department of Justice and Equality. Subject to the reservations I have mentioned, the Minister considers that there may be a case in principle for reviewing the specific question of whether and to what extent a public body which is a corporate body should be entitled to bring a defamation action under section 12 of the 2009 Act and for assessing to what extent such an action remains relevant and appropriate. Such a review will need to take careful account of the many different types of public bodies which are corporate bodies. In particular, the issue being raised in this Bill is just one piece of a large and complex jigsaw. It would be unwise to treat it in isolation, particularly outside the context of the imminent statutory review of the 2009 Act. That review offers a valuable opportunity for consultation and discussion with stakeholders on this question and on the wider context of the Defamation Act overall, and should be fully used. The Government will not oppose the motion before the House today. In view of the reservations I have set out, however, further examination and substantial amendment of the Bill will be required and proposed by the Government on Committee Stage.

Senator Mark Daly: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I also thank Senators John Crown and Sean D. Barrett and especially Mr. Shane Conneely for their work on this important legislation which relates to the awesome and overwhelming power of the State to silence people who have information and wish to criticise the State.  The Minister for Health spoke yesterday about the ambulance service. I have had meetings with paramedics who raised concerns with me many months ago. They cannot simply come forward and give the powerful testimony of what they have seen and what they know is wrong with the system, which is a matter of life or death to those who will need their services.

  Our protection of whistleblowers has been poor. In 2002 the Irish Bank Officials Association, IBOA, asked for whistleblower legislation to protect people in the financial services industry. The reply from the State, the civil servants who guard that famous building where all our legislation originates - it is not this building because more often than not it comes from the civil servants - was that we needed a more comprehensive Bill. It is not enough for the financial services to have whistleblower protection. We must have it for everybody. If that had been in place between 2005 and 2008 would people have come forward to say the place is going to explode and Anglo Irish Bank is a shell of a company? Perhaps they would. The civil servant who raised it in the Department of Finance was ostracised and had no protection. Those who criticised it were vilified. The power of the State against the individual is awesome and overwhelming.

  The case of Louise O’Keeffe is connected to this. She took on the State and the State informed her and everybody else when she was defeated in the High Court that it would clean her out, for what she had done. When the Supreme Court gave its ruling the State wrote to all those who had taken cases against it saying their cases were exactly the same as hers and that they would lose as she did, and would lose their houses. Many backed down. She took it to the European Court which thankfully reversed the decision of the Supreme Court. The State again wrote to all those people and told them this time that their cases were different from hers. That is the awesome power of the State against the individual. At every opportunity we must take the power from the State and give it to the individual.

  Senator John Crown is quite clear about the defamation being limited to €1 but it does not mean that there cannot be special damages. If somebody makes reckless allegations for example that the electricity from the ESB causes cancer but electricity from another supplier does not, the ESB can take an action and be awarded only €1 under this legislation but special damages can be awarded. It offers protection to the State body but also guards against reckless behaviour by citizens.

  We want to encourage the citizens in a country where there is little courage and little support for whistleblowers. A person would want to be very brave to come forward against the State because of its awesome and overwhelming power. As Senator Sean D. Barrett pointed out, not only does it have overwhelming power but it can use all its resources, financial and other, against the individual. In a country that has suffered for so long because of the silence of those who knew better, and knew much more than they were ever willing to tell, people must be encouraged in every way possible to bring forward what they know and tell it to the public and the press. If those paramedics spoke on radio and television and said it was a fact the whistleblower legislation might protect them from being absolutely destroyed by their management. I know many who would come forward if they did not feel the overwhelming power of the State to destroy them and take everything they have. If the Government gave them every possible protection they would speak out. Speaking out is vital. It has not happened enough. The financial crash happened and the child abuse issue went on for so long because those who knew did not have the courage and were not given the protection, I do not know in which order. I often feel they did not have the courage, but the protection was not there either. We have to rebalance and overbalance it. The power rests with the State. It must rest with the citizen.

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke I welcome the publication of this Bill. It is important to have a debate about freedom of speech. For a second while listening to Senator Mark Daly, I wondered if I was involved in a debate in North Korea because he gave the impression that there was no free speech in this country. I remind him-----

Senator Mark Daly: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly It can be costly. It might not be free that often.

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke I remind the Senator that his party was in government in 2004 when my legal office identified a major defect in legislation involving people in nursing homes. We found that 80% of their pension was being deducted and no legislation gave power to the health boards to do that. The response of the Government in 2004 was to immediately rush legislation through the Dáil and the Seanad in three days which tried to make legislation retrospective. In fairness to the then President, Mrs. Mary McAleese, she had the foresight to send that Bill to the Supreme Court and in February 2005 the Supreme Court struck the legislation down. It is nice that I should be able to remind the Senator that his party was in power when that occurred, just in case he thinks the decision was made by civil servants. That was a decision made by his party when it was in power.

  This Bill is welcome because the Minister of State outlined quite clearly that section 5 of the Defamation Act 2009 states that it must be reviewed within five years. That review is now being carried out. It is important for this debate to take place as part of that review procedure. The day of passing legislation which is set in stone forever is over. Circumstances change all the time. It is important that we respond to those changes.

  I will give an example of my concern about this Bill. If someone made adverse comments about something the Voluntary Health Insurance, VHI, a State entity, was doing, that detrimentally affected its ability to compete on the market this legislation would impose restrictions on it. That is a cause for concern especially when one considers that VHI competes with non-State organisations. The Minister of State referred to this aspect of the draft Bill.

  The 2009 Act clearly sets out a defence of the truth being told. It is a defence to plead absolute privilege, qualified privilege, honest opinion, fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest. People are not restricted from criticising State entities or companies or organisations such as the Health Service Executive, HSE. It is important that organisations are criticised. Yesterday, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children heard a very robust presentation from the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, criticising aspects of the management of the ambulance service. I raised already in the House this morning the fact that people at management level acknowledge they do not have the skills.  HIQA is doing a very job in highlighting this issue. It is not leaving itself exposed by making this criticism because it is a valid criticism. While the debate is welcome, we need to be careful to ensure there is balance. The Defamation Act 2009 provides that balance. Certainly let us review it and this is the process for doing that. As a Member who has been involved in bringing forward Private Members' Bills there is a great deal of work involved and I compliment Senator John Crown and his staff and everyone involved on bringing it forward because it forces onto the floor of the House a debate on this matter. It also ensures that everyone has the right to put forward an opinion on how to deal with legislation in this area in the future. I welcome the Senator's contribution. I hope his concerns can be dealt with in the review and, if necessary, in amending legislation.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Feargal Quinn Zoom on Feargal Quinn The Minister of State is very welcome and I am delighted to see him in the House again.

  This short Bill, the Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2014 is worthy of consideration. I am delighted to see that the Minister of State will consider it. Senator John Crown and his team have come up with very sensible legislation. It is good for the customer, which is the taxpayer, who will not have to fork out money for actions by public bodies.

  Senator John Crown referred to PR companies and expressed his concern about these companies. I remember some ten years ago, the then Minister for Health speaking to me about the number of quangos, although the Minister of State is loath to use that term, that were around the country. What really got to him was that whenever one of these bodies wanted an appointment with him, a PR company made the appointment. Sometimes there were two quangos in the same town doing the same job and each had a PR company. I can understand Senator John Crown's concern about that matter. The legislation will also bring us in line with the United Kingdom and the United States. It is worth noting that in some other jurisdictions public bodies are allowed to sue in cases where there may be a major negative financial impact on them. It would be interesting to hear from the experts in that area. The Minister of State has touched on it. In many countries there are laws in place to prevent public bodies from suing for defamation because public bodies are not seen as having a ‘reputation’ entitled to protection. In Article 1, a human rights organisation points out that public bodies are "abstract entities without a profit motive, they lack an emotional or financial interest in preventing damage to their good name". While the European Court of Human Rights has not called for a blanket ban on defamation claims by public bodies, it has held, “The limits of permissible criticism are wider with regard to the Government than in relation to a private citizen, or even a politician.”. If we prevent public bodies from suing for defamation it may encourage more free speech. The concept with which Senator John Crown has come up is that public bodies may sue for defamation but they are limited to one euro. That makes a great deal of sense.

  Do we have figures on how much money has been spent by public bodies in suing for defamation in the past? I would not be surprised if Senator John Crown has that information for the past number of years. I would like to learn how much taxpayer's money has been spent. If we do not know, we need as a starting point to have more transparency in this area.

  I was listening to the Minister of State as he spoke, and he referred to a symbolic gesture of limiting it to €I, which I though was well thought out. He referred to the very radical proposed intention and pointed out a number of concerns. I was urging the Minister of State to accept the Bill on Second Stage and debate these concerns on Committee Stage. The Minister of State certainly caught me on the hop because in the very last line of his speech he states exactly that this is what he would do. I was listening to what he was saying rather than reading it in advance. He did catch me by surprise because that is exactly what I hoped would happen. It is not, however, enough because in the past I have seen the Government accept a Bill on Second Stage and we never heard another word about it. I am delighted to hear the Minister of State say "substantial amendment of the Bill will be required and proposed by the Government on Committee Stage." I hope the Committee Stage debate will happen soon. I congratulate the Minister of State on accepting the gist of the Bill and Senators John Crown and Sean D. Barrett for coming up with the concept which is worthy of consideration. However, some of the points made by the Minister of State are worthy of consideration also, but they can be sorted out.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin to the Chamber. I welcome his comments on the Seanad, in particular his change of view. I am very heartened to hear that, as we all are in this House. I would like to think we have brought about his change of view through our work and contributions

Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin I can change my mind again.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik That is a threat.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway The of State is honest.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik It is certainly honest. I commend Senators John Crown, Sean D. Barrett and Mark Daly on bringing forward this Bill, in particular Senator John Crown who introduced it on 3 July. It exemplifies the best work of the Seanad when we bring forward Private Members' Bills that are accepted by the Government. I welcome the Government's decision to accept it.

  I, too, happened to see the queues of people queuing up at the Romanian embassy to vote. I think there were so many people that in the end some of them were not accommodated by the embassy in voting in a very tightly contested presidential election in Romania. It should make us appreciate our democratic systems more. The real strength of a democracy is when the Legislature is strong, when the Oireachtas is strong. When we see Private Members' Bill coming forward, that is a real mark of strength. I speak as somebody who has had Private Members' Bills accepted.

  I agree with the point made by Senator Fearga Quinn in terms of the delay in bringing the Bill to Committee Stage. That can be a problem, but I take heart from the fact that a review process is already built into the Defamation Act 2009. This will clearly feed into it. I think we can anticipate this will come forward.

  The Minister of State and I have been working on the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill which is languishing on Committee Stage in this House. I know that there have been difficulties in bringing forward Government amendments, but I am very hopeful, as I know he is, that we will see these amendments brought forward very early in the new year. That should encourage us in terms of the processing of Private Members' Bills. It does take time, but we have had some successes in this House in that respect.

  I have another point on the Seanad before turning to the specifics of the Bill. The heads of the sexual offences Bill were introduced last week by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, which I greatly welcomed, particularly the provision on the purchase of sex. I ask the Minister of State and the Minister that the Bill be initiated in this House. We have had a good record of debates on Bills that have been initiated in this House. The Department for Justice and Equality, not just under this Minister but under previous Ministers, has been particularly good at commencing Bills in this House. I would ask that this might be done as quite a number of us were very active in the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality when it did a report which led to some of the provisions of the Bill.

  The Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2014 is seeking to amend the Defamation Act 2009, on which we had extensive debates in this House and in the other House. That Bill was a very comprehensive codifying Bill seeking to establish the balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to the protection of one's good name and reputation. Clearly, it brought in many constitutional considerations. The Bill raises a significantly important point, which seeks to restrain the use of defamation proceedings by public bodies as a response to critical or public comment. I think Senator Crown speaks of this as potentially offering an unwarranted curb on free expression, that the balance is weighted against the rights to fair comment and freedom of expression. Having listened carefully to Senator John Crown's speech, in which he refers specifically to the HSE, that seems to be a particular focus of the Bill. I note also from the Minister of State's comments, however, that the definitions of public body in the Bill appear to be far wider than just the HSE and it covers entities - the non legal term of entity - which may have unforeseen consequences. I can see that is one area where there would need to be very careful review and amendment. Senator Sean D. Barrett and I were particularly interested to hear the Minister of State say Trinity College Dublin would potentially be covered by the Bill in its current form.   The other interesting point is that we would all agree that defamation law generally should not be used in this way, but I would reflect on the Minister of State's comment that this is relatively rare. Most public bodies - I admit I am not so aware of the HSE's policy - do not tend to take defamation proceedings. In fact, the most recent case in which defamation and public bodies are associated in the public mind was the case earlier this year, where we saw RTE - in my view and the view of many of us - caving in too early to a threat of defamation against it by private individuals and organisations. I am, of course, referring to the incident in which Rory O'Neill made certain comments on the Brendan O'Connor show, which were then targeted by various people, who sought to sue RTE for defamation, and RTE then settled very quickly and paid damages. The targeting of public bodies in defamation suits may be a bigger issue, but that is something we would have to tease out.

  I take the point that this is one issue that must be considered in any overall review of the Defamation Act, but I will conclude by saying that the most pressing issue in the Defamation Act of 2009 which requires review, is section 36, which, as everyone knows, created a new statutory offence of blasphemy. In this House, Senator David Norris and I in particular were very critical of that Bill. It was introduced by then Minister, Dermot Ahern, as a late amendment. Nobody was quite sure why, but he said there was an urgent need to introduce a new statutory offence of blasphemy. There was no case for urgency as far as I was concerned, and there has been much criticism, nationally and internationally, by human rights bodies of this definition of blasphemy. To return to the theme of democracy, it is inappropriate in a modern democracy to have this sort of provision, which can be used to bolster prejudice against different religions. We have seen blasphemy used in Islamic countries to bolster prejudice against Christians and Christian religions. Proper law on incitement to religious hatred, refinement of that law, would be much more appropriate than imposing a €20,000 fine on anyone who blasphemes. The Constitutional Convention has recommended that the offence be removed from the Constitution, but in a review of the 2009 Act we could certainly just look at removing section 36.

Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Information on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Zoom on Trevor Ó Clochartaigh Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Cé go bhfuilimid beagáinín amhrasach faoi chuid de na forálacha a bhaineann leis an mBille seo, táimid ag tacú leis le dul ar aghaidh go dtí an chéad chéim eile den reachtaíocht. Measaim go bhfuil cuid de na himní a bhí againn léirithe chomh maith ag an Aire Stáit, agus go mb'fhéidir go mbeimid in ann leasuithe a chur chun cinn a thiocfadh chun tairbhe na reachtaíochta. Despite having reservations about the Bill, we in Sinn Féin believe it to be well intentioned and will support its passage to Committee Stage. It is welcome that the Government has seen fit and the Minister of State has indicated that he will allow that to happen. An rud is annamh is iontach, mar a deirimid i nGaeilge, ach is maith ann é agus is maith é an Aire Stáit as ucht a bheith sásta an chrógacht sin a thaispeáint agus a rud féin a dhéanamh, mar ní dhéanann gach Aire é sin.

  Having spoken to Senator John Crown, we understand the background to the Bill and we support the spirit out of which it was born. The Senator spoke about a situation where the HSE issued a statement concerning medical cards, alleging that public figures were making defamatory statements about its handling of the affair. We feel this is ridiculous given the HSE's handling of the particular issues, which was nothing short of shambolic in its own right. However, we have certain reservations regarding the Bill.

  When defining a public body, the Bill goes so far as to include "any voluntary or joint board hospitals and other body which receives grants from the Department of Health". We are concerned that this could affect community organisations in receipt of funding from the Department of Health and it may be unnecessary and ill-placed.

  The Bill also refers to both the High Court and Supreme Court when taking defamation proceedings. I understood that defamation cases could also be taken in the Circuit Court to the tune of €50,000. This seems to be a flaw in the Bill in that it would create a loophole, although perhaps I could be corrected on that issue. We do not want to create legal loopholes in our legislation and this is something we should seek to clarify and possibly amend on Committee Stage, if necessary. The Bill may also have a number of unintended consequences which have been overlooked by the drafters such as the one I have outlined regarding the other bodies that receive grants from the Department of Health. However, this is something that can be amended and we feel that should happen.

  Sinn Féin also believes people should be able to criticise public bodies without fear of being hauled through the courts and punished financially. However, we do not believe this is necessarily the right way to go about this. We must ensure we are striking the right balance between not inhibiting citizens from expressing concern with certain public bodies while also ensuring public bodies have a right to their good name, in the same way as any individual. It is unfair to have a situation where an individual can make all sorts of wild allegations against a public body with the result that it is left in a situation where it has no way of defending itself. That would be irresponsible.

  I reiterate that we support the spirit of the Bill from Senator John Crown and other Senators. We do not think the Bill, as drafted, is correct, but we support its passage to Committee Stage and will seek to amend it should it get there. Ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis na Seanadóirí faoin mBille a thabhairt chun cinn agus tá áthas orm bheith in ann tacú leis go dtí an chéad chéim eile.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I thank Senator Colm Burke for stepping in on my behalf earlier and welcome the Minister of State to the House again. The Minister of State breathes fresh air in a political system and culture that needs to be shaken up and fundamentally changed.

  Senator John Crown's Bill also echoes the type of fresh air and grown-up politics we need in this country. I am glad that the Government, at least on this occasion, is not opposing the Bill on Second Stage. I hope that this will follow through into Committee and Report Stages because the time has come in this and the Lower House for us to take a more mature approach to Private Members' Bills that come from people with certain expertise such as Senators John Crown, Sean D. Barrett and others. It is a pity that this culture which is beginning slowly but surely to happen in this House, under the leadership of Senators Maurice Cummins and Ivana Bacik, is not shown in the Dáil. The people voted to keep this House and we are slowly taking baby steps to acknowledge the fact that the people voted to keep this House by taking a mature approach to Private Members' Bills.

  The vast majority of people - in fact, all the Members elected to this House whom I know - are here because they want to do the right thing for Ireland, for the citizens of Ireland and for the people who pay taxes and find themselves in some cases without jobs and so on. People who find themselves being defamed by institutions are citizens and taxpayers also. I acknowledge the example Senator Ivana Bacik gave about RTE. RTE acted in extreme haste in that particular case. It was probably afraid of potential bullying and just gave in, which is a shame, because it is not what I would call fair process. Similarly, organisations such as the HSE, and their power, wealth and status in society, can bully ordinary individual citizens. They can threaten to sue someone for defamation. It makes sense that one would be talking about damages of €1 and that it would certainly be curtailed. I welcome the Bill which is necessary. I look forward to seeing how it progresses on Committee Stage because the Minister of State has rightly pointed out that there are concerns about the Bill, but they are technical concerns, I hope, and can be dealt with on Committee Stage. I would like to see the same mature engagement on Committee Stage from all sides on the Bill that we are seeing today. I hope we will improve in a small way the defamation laws in this country as a result.

Senator John Crown: Information on John Crown Zoom on John Crown I thank in particular the Minister of State. We talked earlier about the new politics and we have seen a good example of a very constructive approach. I was humbled by the detailed and appropriately forensic analysis of the legal deficiencies in the Bill, which were pointed out, and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to have so much free legal advice as I have had this afternoon. We will eagerly await Committee Stage amendments and will look at them very constructively. The Minister of State has demonstrated commitment to new politics because the reflex position in this House seems to be that if an idea comes from the Opposition, it will fall into one of two categories. Category 1 is, "It is a terrible idea and we are rejecting it," while category 2 is, "It is a good idea, you have not done a very good job on it and we will be back with something better." It is rare that we see the third category. Senator Feargal Quinn has been very good at it and I have been lucky with another Bill or two down the years when the Government side will say, "Actually, this is not a bad idea and we think it may actually be something we can build."  I thank the Minister of State.

  With regard to the question about the rarity of the event, although the event may be rare, the threat is not quite as rare. There can be instances of a thinly veiled resort to this threat. I am a student of science and I use statistics so I do not like to delve into anecdotes. Nevertheless, I am aware, anecdotally, of a number of cases where the threat has been mentioned or is implicit in a reply to criticism.

  The broad scope of the organisations that would be covered exercised us quite a bit and the Government is correct in that there may be specific cases where we would need to work out if organisations have legitimate interests. The question of special damages is not dealt with by the Bill. This relates to cases where it is judicially decided that, as distinct from the theory of defamation, a company is at the receiving end of unfair or inaccurate criticism by a commercial competitor. The best example in theory would be VHI, although I am not here to criticise that company today. If in order to get commercial advantage it was alleged that VHI, the only shareholder of which is the Minister for Health and which will be covered under the Bill, was selling a deficient product, the Bill would not stop VHI from claiming for special damages. However, the pure abstract concept of claiming for defamation would be denied. We should remember that not every entity is VHI and this would also have covered NAMA or Irish Water. There can be cases made that there are appropriate targets which might be tempted to resort to this kind of defence.

  We get very spiritual at times, but when I hear of the Minister of State's conversion to rectitude on Seanad reform, like that conversion on the road to Damascus, we should remember there is more joy in heaven over one sheep that returns to the fold than over 100 which have never strayed.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway It is welcome.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I thank the Senator for the ecclesiastical conclusion.

  Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Next Tuesday.

  Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 9 December 2014.

  Sitting suspended at 4.05 p.m. and resumed at 7 p.m.

  7 o’clock

Homeless Persons: Statements

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, back to the House.

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Alan Kelly): Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I thank the Cathaoirleach and Senators for providing me with the opportunity to speak on this important issue. Homelessness is a destructive social condition that can wreak havoc on human dignity and well-being. It is a complex phenomenon and solutions are about much more than simply funding and accommodation. The problems that contribute to homelessness can relate to both personal circumstances and wider social issues. Therefore, addressing homelessness requires an integrated approach across Government and across society.

  Everyone here is all too aware of the tragedy which occurred earlier in the week very close to this House. Senators will join me in expressing our sincere condolences to the family, relatives and friends of the deceased, Jonathan Corrie. To die in a doorway on a winter's night is an appalling tragedy that should not happen. That Mr. Corrie's death occurred just metres from these buildings gives us all cause for reflection on this highly complex issue. I appreciate all the sincere commentary we have had in both the Dáil and the Seanad in recent days as to how we can address this at Government level and by engaging more broadly with society. There are no simple, one-off solutions and every person who finds himself or herself in the unfortunate and vulnerable situation of being homeless will face a different set of circumstances.

  It is very important, especially in the run-up to Christmas, for this House to discuss issues of homelessness generally, recognise what is being done to address it, debate where more could be done and identify how we can better collaborate. It is important to acknowledge that much is being done across Government and its agencies to deal with this issue. Homelessness has always been and will remain a priority for me. It is an issue about which I have quite a lot of knowledge, for many different reasons, and a topic that is close to my heart. I am acutely aware of the challenges posed by homelessness and, since becoming Minister, I have given the highest possible priority, working with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, to taking urgent action to tackle it. I will now outline to Senators some of the main measures already in place or about to come on stream.

  First, I have made significant funding available to housing authorities for refurbishing vacant units. This is a priority because it can provide much-needed homes for homeless households in a relatively short period of time. There are 655 units in Dublin city that, with refurbishment, can be returned to productive use. Work has started on 245 of these, and a further 410 should be completed over the next four months. Although I represent Tipperary, I know this city very well, having lived and worked here for nine years. When I became Minister, I could not fathom why "voids", as we call them - that is, social housing units that are boarded up and currently unavailable for housing - were being left vacant for such lengthy periods. This was deeply frustrating. Dublin City Council has risen to the challenge of ensuring as many of these units as possible are turned around and made available to people very quickly.

  Second, I have written to all housing authorities urging them to give priority to homeless households in their housing allocations schemes. Data on the actual 2014 allocations will be analysed in the new year and, if progress is not satisfactory, I will be issuing a direction that a significant proportion of housing allocations go to homeless households. I have made my position clear in this regard to all local authorities. If a substantial increase in allocations to homeless people is not achieved, I will issue a direction that it be done. My objective is that 25% of allocations should go to homeless people, particularly those in long-term homelessness. Housing authorities have the power and authority to manage allocations and it is vital that they use those powers if an end to involuntary long-term homelessness is to be achieved.

  Third, I will be signing regulations shortly to provide for the housing assistance payment scheme to be rolled out in the Dublin region on a pilot basis for homeless households. Fourth, I am making an additional €10.5 million in funding available nationally in 2015 for homeless accommodation and related services, an increase of more than 20%. In addition, in recognition of the immediate pressures in the Dublin area, I provided a €4 million supplementary allocation to Dublin City Council in recent days. This was done in a context where the council had voted down an increase in its budget for homeless services. However, it is important to be aware that solving this problem is not all down to funding. I will go to the Cabinet and fight for more funding if that is needed, but it is not all that is required. It is also about processes and ensuring everybody is working together.   I hope Members will agree that the ultimate solution to ending homelessness in the long term is to increase the supply of homes. A dramatic increase in the supply of homes in the medium term is necessary. Last week I launched the Government's new six year social housing strategy which sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion. The strategy restores the State to a central position in the provision of social housing through a resumption of direct building on a significant scale by local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs. This will be supplemented with the housing assistance payment and rental accommodation schemes, which aim to meet the housing needs of more than 70,000 households.

  As I noted, homelessness is a complex issue and rough sleeping is its most disturbing manifestation. Some 168 individuals were identified in the count of rough sleepers in Dublin, conducted on the night of 11 November. Worryingly, this is an increase of 20% on the figure of 139 individuals recorded during November 2013, and highlights the scale of the issue.

  While the factors leading to rough sleeping are complex, this does not take away from the fact that it is not acceptable that people should not sleep on the streets of our major urban centres. In response to the issue of rough sleeping, the Dublin housing authorities have established a new Housing First service which has been operational since 1 October 2014. This service is being provided through Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust and has responsibility for engaging and responding to the accommodation and support needs of people sleeping rough in the Dublin region. It is expected that this Housing First service will secure a minimum of 140 tenancies for long-term homeless individuals over a three year period.

  Arrangements are also under way since the November rough sleeper count took place to increase the emergency bed capacity in Dublin. The number of emergency accommodation beds available in the Dublin region, including hotel beds, was 1,526. The Dublin housing authorities have indicated that an additional 164 emergency beds are now being added to the system; some of these are already operational and all but 20 of the 164 additional beds will be in place within the next two weeks. The remainder will come on-stream in the first week in January.

  Other work that is under way is the continuation of the prevention campaign, run by Threshold in conjunction with Dublin City Council and the Department of Social Protection. The new service has played an important part in assisting in raising awareness among families and others of their tenants' rights and where to go for support. More than 2,350 calls have been made to the service to date and it is playing a really important part in helping to stem the flow of families becoming homeless. The tenancy sustainment protocol between Dublin City Council, the Department of Social Protection, the other Dublin housing authorities and Threshold as part of that prevention campaign has supported in excess 200 households to remain in rented accommodation which was under threat due to inability to pay increased rents.

  All of these actions are part of the Government's wider implementation plan on the State's response to homelessness. Given the homelessness pressures in the capital, Dublin City Council also has an action plan in place as part of this wider national plan. I can assure the House that the Government is fully committed to tackling the issue of homelessness. In February 2013, we published our homelessness policy statement in which we outlined our aim to end involuntary long-term homelessness by the end of 2016. The implementation plan outlines how the 2016 objectives can be achieved. The plan contains in excess of 80 actions. It will be no small undertaking to achieve this target, but it is something that has to be achieved and it will be achieved. I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure we deliver. However, we will achieve much more for homeless people by working on a collaborative basis. That is what the summit tomorrow is all about. My priority for tomorrow is to bring everyone together to discuss this very serious issue to see how we can work better together collectively. The requirements of the State and the support of the Government will be made available. I have outlined some of the various actions we have taken, all of which are moving in the right direction. We need to ensure that working together as a Government with the local authorities, the various NGOs, the State agencies, the HSE and other agencies that we can have processes in place that ensure people are not falling between the cracks. There is no best practice way of dealing with this issue. I am sure everybody agrees with this.

  All individual cases are different. We need to ensure we provide the supports and not just the accommodation. If it was a case of just providing the accommodation I am sure we could do that, but we also need to provide the accommodation with the services and supports for the people who find themselves in this situation. Everyone's situation is different, whether it is a family in a vulnerable financial situation or a person with complex issues with drug addiction, mental health issues or whatever else. We need to ensure everybody is working together to ensure the needs of all these people are met. The aim is to see if we can solidify on that and if we can plug any gaps. There may be some new ideas. I have often said nobody has a monopoly of ideas or ways of doing things.

  I am going into this summit with an open mind. I intend to implement the strategy we have already designed but I also want people to work with me. I want to ensure all the accommodation services provided by the NGOs are achieving what was intended. I want to see accommodation that is available for people, which is currently not in use, being opened up. It is not something over which I have full control but it is time we tackled the issue as to why accommodation provided by some organisations is not yet open and how we can help them to do this. We need to get through that issue. There is a whole range of other issues involved.

  I was very taken by the statement of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and others who will attend the summit tomorrow, on the manner in which they will help to address this issue. Everyone has a role. I will take all advice and help in the right spirit. This important issue is above the normal political debate. It is an issue of society and one that collectively we all want dealt with in the best way possible.

Senator Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne I thank Minister of State for coming to the House. A cross-party and a cross-sectoral approach should be adopted but that is not to say the Government cannot do more and that we should not point out to the Government where we think policies are failing and must be changed. We have a number of ideas and pictures of homelessness. There is the poor unfortunate person who has got into addiction difficulties or family troubles. We know that only too well. I express my sympathy to the friends and family of Mr. Corrie. I do not know anything about him and do not attribute those characteristics to him. That he died puts a shame on all of us here.

  There is one image of the homeless. I have been informed by local authority staff in County Meath that image is not typical of the people presenting as homeless in County Meath. I was told today that long gone is the average picture of the alcoholic or the drug addict presenting in Navan for homeless accommodation. The typical client of the emergency housing services in County Meath at present is the working poor. As of last week, 560 people in my own county, presented as homeless this year. Their circumstances are all different. Many of them are the working poor who cannot afford rents and cannot afford to live in accommodation in their own county. For many of them it is not their own county as they may have moved from Dublin where rents are even more expensive. In County Meath there are only four houses available that come under any of the rental supplement thresholds - two bed apartments in a rural town in north Meath and a rural town in south Meath.  There were only two available. Out of a total of four, only two were available to recipients of rent supplement. There is nothing out there for people to rent. The average rent in County Meath is nearly 50% higher than the rent supplement threshold. It is not possible to rent a property - there is nothing available. In a town in south County Meath a man was sleeping rough last night and homeless services personnel are well aware of the situation. There was a family - thankfully it was during the summer - who were living in a tent near a town in south County Meath. The parents had to tell their child that they were on holidays. They had been put out of their house because they could not afford the rent. That is the reality.

  Ideally, housing costs should equate to 30% of net income. If one wanted to rent in Ashbourne, for example, one would have to be earning €3,000 net per month. If an average family wanted to rent a three-bedroom house in Kells, they would need to be earning €2,373 per month because the average rent for one of the four properties available to rent is €712 per month. In the most expensive area for renting which is Slane, there are six properties available with an average rent of €1,125 per month. That means that one would have to be earning almost €4,000 per month for that rent to equate to 30% of income. The typical person cannot afford this. I know of a public servant who earns around €2,000 net per month who cannot afford €1,000 per month in rent. It is simply unaffordable. In the town in question, there are only two properties available to let anyway and I do not know if the landlords would accept rent supplement. That person, quite frankly, would be better off on social welfare.

   There are people all over the place who are receiving notices from their landlords that their rent is increasing or that the properties they are renting are being sold. In most cases they are getting the appropriate amount of notice and the landlords are entitled, by law, to put them out. What do they do then? They ring up homeless services in County Meath and if they are from Dunboyne, Navan or Kells they often have to go elsewhere to be housed. It is very difficult to house people. I have seen families split up, with women being accommodated in women's shelters and men sleeping on the floor in their parents' houses. That is not even as bad as it gets. That is the picture now. Families are being split up because they cannot afford their rent. We must supply housing urgently, although I am not talking about a bonanza for developers. The Government must play its part and treat this issue with the urgency it deserves. This situation will get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

  There is certainly a huge problem with people sleeping rough in Dublin and there is also some of it in my own county. The biggest problem in Meath, however, is the fact that ordinary working families cannot afford rental properties. On the issue of rent supplement, all of the relevant organisations are saying that it must be increased and I agree with them. Anyone in receipt of rent supplement in County Meath must be falsifying the forms and I do not blame them. They must be paying money under the counter to landlords because there are no properties available at the rent supplement caps. That must be happening wholesale. I understand that community welfare officers have discretion to increase the rent supplement but they do not do so, from what I have been told. They generally do not do it. County council staff have told me that they can always justify expenditure on emergency accommodation and the same should apply in the Department of Social Protection. Community welfare officers should be given a lot more discretion by their bosses to increase rent supplement payments. Kildare was given an increase although I am not sure if it matches the levels of rent in that county. County Meath was not given an increase for some reason.

  People are being pushed to the pin of their collar financially and are being squeezed out of their homes. When people ring me and other public representatives we do not know what to say to them. We can make representations to the local authorities but if the latter do not have housing available, what can be done? That is what it comes down to in the end. We must increase the supply of housing and also make sure the relevant agencies are dealing with one another more effectively. County councils should be able to ask community welfare officers to increase the rent supplement in certain cases and the community welfare officers should do so. If it is an emergency, they must do it. As we can find money for other emergencies, we must find money for this.

  I have invited a formerly homeless man to come to the House tomorrow to speak to Members. I hope it will be helpful to Members. He has been an advocate for housing for homeless people for a long time. He slept in hostels and homeless shelters for two years and has many ideas on the issue. I am sure some of the men and women on the streets now could tell us a thing or two about what should be done. They are at the coalface; we are not. We have all met them and spoken to them, but we need to hear their views on the issue.

  Let us not forget the working poor. They are at the coalface of contributing to the economic recovery that we hope is coming but they cannot afford to live in a house. It is madness. If the Minister can solve that problem we will do whatever we can to support him. We really need the Minister to solve this problem.

Senator Cáit Keane: Information on Cáit Keane Zoom on Cáit Keane I am delighted to be speaking on this issue. I welcome the Minister for this debate. It is a very sad day for everybody but particularly for the Corrie family. I extend my sympathy to them. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

  As the Minister has said, homelessness has many and varied facets. The Government has launched a major initiative to address it. It is tragic that just after the major initiative was launched this very sad death occurred. The 2020 construction initiative was launched last May. A lot of the 72 actions in the plan have come too late for Mr. Corrie, but I hope there will not be another Mr. Corrie on our watch.

  Having been a councillor for over 20 years on South Dublin County Council I have dealt with a lot of people who were looking for homes or who were about to lose their homes. In many cases, there was nothing suitable available, particularly for single men. This is an area where prevention is always better than cure. There must be a cross-cutting theme between Departments of Health, and the Environment, Community and Local Government, and the local authorities. Tomorrow's forum, initiated by the Minister, will bring all of the relevant groups together to ensure there is a cross-cutting theme and to try to prevent and stamp it out before it gets any worse.

  As Senator Thomas Byrne pointed out, there are people who are presenting as homeless now who would never have presented before because of the increases in rents. However, there is a danger in increasing the rent caps because ruthless landlords might see that as an opportunity. I commend the many voluntary groups working with the homeless, providing them with shelter and food, including the Simon Community, the Peter McVerry Trust, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Crosscare. We should be very thankful to them because without their voluntary work we would be in a far worse place. There have been cutbacks in the funding to such voluntary services and that should be looked at. We must ensure that they are able to continue to do their valuable work.

  There are many reasons people such as Mr. Corrie become homeless. Not everyone is suited to the type of emergency accommodation that is offered or available and perhaps Mr. Corrie was one of those people. It is a great pity. Different types of accommodation suit different people. We do not have specialist services in this country for people who refuse accommodation, for whatever reason. Perhaps we do not have enough wet hostels. Some people may not want to go into a hostel because they cannot have a drink or if people like to drink, they may down a bottle before they go in. That is bad. We do not have enough special accommodation; nor do we have enough people with the skills and experience to understand the needs of people on the street. The problems cannot be hived off into A, B or C. There is more to homelessness than just providing housing. Services are also needed. There are many reasons people become homeless, including behavioural issues and social phobias which can prevent people from making proper use of existing services. The needs of people with mental health problems, alcohol or drug dependency and so forth are not being met effectively by the homeless, mainstream and voluntary services.  The latter have been put to the pin of their collar to provide services. I should, of course, also mention that victims of domestic violence can become homeless.

  A case management approach should be taken in respect of each of the 168 people living rough on the streets of Dublin. Such an approach would ensure we would know the reason they are homeless and the nature of the problems they are experiencing. A number of key groups are potentially at risk of becoming homeless, including those leaving institutional care - whether custodial or health-related - and young people leaving care. A strategy was drawn up in this regard in 2005 or 2006. While there have been improvements, these have not reached the standard required. I heard a girl interviewed on radio last week who stated that her brother became homeless when he left a care situation. Obviously, he did not avail of follow-up supports. There are some such supports in place but they are not adequate. A system should be put in place under the auspices of the preventive strategy to monitor those who may be at risk of becoming homeless when they leave institutional or other care. This matter must be addressed, particularly in terms of the fact that one arm of the State appears to be causing trouble for another. It would be much better if State agencies and entities worked together.

  Those who become homeless suffer poor health and lose contact with family and friends and often have a history of being in institutional care or of being involved in criminal or antisocial activity. Research from the United States shows that high-quality child care and early education can provide enriching experiences that promote children's positive and healthy development. I often refer to the importance of child care and will continue to do so, particularly as children can teach their parents. If families are involved in dealing with matters together, it can lead to situations being dealt with before they really develop. Work can be done with the Department of Health in respect of this issue because Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, comes within its remit. We must try to ensure that children who are living in hostels, who are in care, who are homeless or who are at risk all receive preschool education.

  Mothers are often turfed out of hotels or whatever and are obliged to walk the streets with their children. Those children are as entitled to receive preschool education as any of their peers. They should not be obliged to walk the streets. For every €1,000 the State invests in making interventions in respect of children between the ages of two and five, it achieves a dividend of €100,000. I am not just saying this, evidence from the United States and elsewhere indicates that it is the case. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in the United States requires that homeless children of preschool age have equal access to the same public preschool programmes as children who are not homeless. Under the case management system in the United States, the authorities are able to identify homeless people who have children and can make provision for them to attend preschool facilities. Such facilities might not be in the immediate vicinity but they are usually somewhere close by.

  There is a need to collect better data regarding the nature and causes of homelessness and to use consistent methodologies in respect of the information gap. There is also a need to improve co-ordination of capital. The Minister outlined the new initiatives that have been introduced. In that regard, €10 million from the local authority capital assistance scheme was allocated to Dublin City Council and last month an additional €4 million was provided. The Minister referred to the length of time it takes to get void social housing units back into use. It is seven months since €35 million was made available for the refurbishment of these voids. I am concerned about this matter because the units in question do not have to be built from scratch, they merely need to be refurbished. I accept that it took some time for the capital to come on stream but only a few of the units in question have come back into use. When the Minister addressed the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht yesterday, he emphasised the need to speed up the process relating to the refurbishment of voids.

  I am sure we will revisit this matter because it cannot be dealt with in a single debate. When we do so, I hope the news relating to it will be better than is the case today. There has, however, been an element of good news in that additional money is being allocated.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout: Information on Jillian van Turnhout Zoom on Jillian van Turnhout I welcome the Minister. According to the Simon Community, the official count for rough sleepers last month was 168. This represents a 30% increase in the period since spring of this year. The number is double that which obtained in November 2012. This is a time of many sickening firsts and all-time highs. For example, there are now over 1,600 adults and 680 children in emergency accommodation, which has never happened before. Some 39% of those 1,600 adults are women. Again, that has never happened before. Emergency accommodation is turning into long-term accommodation with no viable options on to which people can transition. This has also never happened before. Many people have given up seeking emergency accommodation, while others believe themselves to be safer on the streets than in such accommodation. As Senator Thomas Byrne outlined, individuals and families are being evicted from private rental properties every day because they are unable to meet rent increases in an unfettered market.

  We all agree that we have an emergency on our hands. The numbers of people on the streets are increasing steadily and we need to act. Any action we take must be real and must not be a knee-jerk, panicky reaction to the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie. We must put in place a dedicated and sustained response that deals with the crisis holistically. This is not just a homelessness crisis, it is a housing crisis. The housing crisis to which I refer is characterised by a shortage in the social housing sector and a serious lack of affordability in the private rental sector and is being exacerbated by an absence in rent regulation, a rent supplement scheme which is completely out of sync with actual rental prices and the absence of measures to prohibit landlords discriminating against tenants who are on rent supplement. The unprecedented crisis in the social housing and private rental sectors means that non-typical individuals are either being placed at risk of homelessness or are actually becoming homeless. For example, there are as many as 150 families in emergency hotel accommodation. The majority of these families have been pushed out of the private rental sector by spiralling rents. Aside from the massive cost to the State, this hotel and bed-and-breakfast accommodation is completely inappropriate and hugely disruptive for families and children - some of whom may be obliged to move schools as a result of being in such accommodation - and is potentially unsafe. I call on Government to family-proof all forms of emergency accommodation immediately and to co-ordinate with the Child and Family Agency and emergency accommodation staff in respect of child protection.

  This crisis is putting unprecedented pressure on front-line services and pushing those more typically vulnerable to homelessness, namely, those with addiction issues and mental health difficulties, children who are becoming too old to be held in care by the State and the victims of domestic violence, further and further out onto the margins. These people only resurface to public and political attention when one of them dies sleeping rough on the doorstep of a building near the national Parliament.

  A recently published report compiled by consultants for the Private Residential Tenancies Board indicates that rent control would make the housing market worse. Focus Ireland rejected this finding and maintains that rent regulation is a crucial part of a suite of measures which should include an increase in rent supplement to reflect the actual cost of rent and tax breaks for landlords to encourage them to rent their properties. I also subscribe to a measure of rent regulation against an index - as is the case in many other European countries - or in line with inflation. Many of the initiatives which have been taken are to be commended but there are nearly always caveats attached to these. For example, Housing 2020 and the recently announced social housing strategy are welcome but, realistically, meaningful delivery on these is 18 months to two years away. The new rent increase protocol agreed with the Department of Social Protection for families at imminent risk of homelessness is only available in Dublin. What is really needed is a level of flexibility throughout the system and at an earlier juncture. The housing assistance payment has received a positive response from landlords because it is a guaranteed "around rental" payment but it does not prohibit them from refusing to accept tenants who are in receipt of financial support. How are people to find suitable accommodation within the maximum rent limits? Excellent recommendations have been made in respect of these and many other matters by Focus Ireland, Threshold, Dublin Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust. The solutions are available, they just need to be implemented.

  I wish to briefly discuss something a number of colleagues in this House said yesterday concerning Jonathan Corrie and the fact that he had declined to take up all offers of assistance and accommodation made to him during the 30 years for which he was homeless. I did not know Jonathan Corrie. I sympathise deeply with his friends and family following his death. I do not know what was his mental health status. Examples of people failing to take up an intervention and seemingly choosing to remain homeless need to be viewed in the light of the report recently compiled by the Dublin Simon Community which contains statistics indicating that 71% of its service users have mental health difficulties. Of these individuals, 63% have been diagnosed with depression, 46% have been diagnosed with anxiety, 11% have been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a further 11% have been diagnosed with psychosis. A very high proportion of people who are homeless have addiction issues.  Furthermore, a very high proportion of people who have a mental health difficulty also have an addiction issue.

  I call on the Government to urgently implement the key recommendations from Mental Health Reform who are represented in the Visitors Gallery: fully staff homeless outreach mental health teams; ring-fence local authority housing for people being discharged from psychiatric hospitals; and provide on-tap, in-house mental health expertise within homeless services, for example, Merchants Quay Ireland has an in-house mental health nurse full time, to provide support to clients other staff members are concerned about. There are anecdotal reports to show this works because it has reduced the number of people having to access mental health supports through accident and emergency departments when in a crisis. We need to establish a dual diagnosis service for people with a mental health and addiction or alcohol misuse problem. This is long overdue. We have the reports, the plans and the expertise, particularly in the non-governmental organisation community. We need sustained and persistent action.

Senator Aideen Hayden: Information on Aideen Hayden Zoom on Aideen Hayden I welcome the Minister and hope he will be here again soon to discuss the social housing strategy and to have a more wide-ranging discussion on the private rental sector. We could expand the debate on homelessness into one that concerns the private rental sector. I also extend my sympathy to the family of Jonathan Corrie. No society can call itself civilised when people are sleeping on the streets. I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the special forum on homelessness to be held tomorrow. The people he is gathering together, the local authorities, the elected representatives and members of the voluntary organisations are the ones with the real capacity to provide solutions to the problems we face. It is a positive development to include Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and I welcome his commitment to bringing on stream church property to house homeless people.

  It is unfortunate that Jonathan Corrie’s life has had a lot of media attention in the past three days. It has got much more attention than he got when he was alive. A certain amount of the media reporting focused on certain issues in his past and his history of substance abuse. It is important to bear in mind that we are facing a serious crisis in homelessness today. It did not start yesterday or the day before but we have to acknowledge its changing nature. The real issue we see now that we did not see five or six years ago is that people are homeless today because housing is too expensive.

  I am chairperson of Threshold the national housing charity. I welcome the people in the Visitors Gallery from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the Peter McVerry Trust. I commend the work of other voluntary organisations, Focus Ireland, the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. One might get the impression because there has been so much talk about homelessness recently that frontline organisations have not been grappling seriously with this problem for a long time. We are very much ad idem about what needs to be done. Almost every voluntary organisation that I am aware of cites the significant increase in rents as a major cause of homelessness. Almost without exception every voluntary organisation that I am aware of has said that we absolutely must change the rules on rent supplement and increase the rent caps. Anybody can read the daft.ie survey and see that €950 will not secure family accommodation in the Dublin region. That is a fact. Last October, Threshold published a report which stated that 50% of social welfare tenants getting rent supplement were topping up their rental payments out of their social welfare payments. They were going without food and heat and putting their children into poverty because they could not afford to pay their rents.

  We could talk for a long time about how in the past 25 years we came to depend on rent supplement and why so many people live in the private rental sector instead of social housing where they ought to be with the kind of security that would give them. The fact is they are living in the private rental sector. The State cannot pretend they are living anywhere else. The Minister cannot turn around and pretend that a real rent is €950 when actually it is €1,400. We have to step up to the plate because people are losing their homes day in and day out because they cannot afford to pay those rents.

  I have heard the argument that if we pay real rents we will push the rental values up. I have looked at rental values over the past few years. There were three successive cuts in rent supplement over several years and not once did rents fall. We have to consider the evidence for saying that if we increase rent supplement we will push up overall rental values. The issue is more significant than this. It is a question of who stays in their home. Our priority has to be keeping people in their homes and preventing them from losing them. All the voluntary organisations have seen people who say they could keep the roof over their heads for €100, €150 or €200.

  I was gratified to hear the Minister mention the tenancy protection service. Since it was set up in June it received 2,560 calls, of which 1,111 families were at immediate risk of losing their homes. To date 313 tenancies have been protected. They have got into the protocol. That is a little like the aeroplanes hovering over Heathrow Airport. They have to land eventually. We can say that the service has been successful in the short term in protecting people but the problem is bigger than that. While I very much admire what the Minister has done on social housing construction, with the best will in the world, we are 12 to 18 months away from providing any real new social housing construction. I respect the fact that the Minister has approximately 600 voids coming on stream and has pledged 25% of them to people who are homeless. However, 1,111 families are at immediate risk of losing their homes. That figure is escalating daily. We have to accept that if we are going to depend on the market to house people privately, we will have to pay market rents because if we do not they will be displaced by people who can afford to pay more.

  I know that the Minister is concerned about constitutional issues arising from rent certainty. DKM Economic Consultants was against it but the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, has come out in favour of it. Every voluntary organisation that I am aware of has come out in favour of it. People need certainty. They need to know that their kids will be in the same school in a year’s time. Nobody is suggesting landlords should not get a fair return. That is why I do not believe there will be constitutional issues. That return, however, has to be limited by the consumer price index or some reasonable rate of return if that money was invested in Government bonds and so forth, taking the cost of providing that rental accommodation into account. I ask the Minister to consider that issue again.

  We were spending €512 million on rent supplement in 2010. We are spending €344 million on it in 2014. Some of that drop is due to people returning to work, which is excellent but a significant amount of it is due to the fact that people simply cannot access housing at those rent supplement limits. I ask the Minister to ring-fence rent supplement, ensure every penny in rent supplement stays in rent supplement and does not go into anybody else’s budget.

Senator Sean D. Barrett: Information on Sean D. Barrett Zoom on Sean D. Barrett I welcome the Minister. We all wish him every success in bringing his talents and energies to dealing with this problem. I am delighted he is tackling the slow turnover of local authority houses when they become vacant. A former Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Willie Penrose, was examining derelict sites.  I do not know whether he is any help in getting sites for housing. We heard that the refusal rate of ghost estate houses by local authorities was something like 90%. Those houses are there and it would take very little to bring many of them up to a habitable standard. As Senator Aideen Hayden said, it will take a long time to bring other new accommodation on stream.

One must admit that we have housing that is not affordable in the full sense. The construction industry must be confronted about that. We had the worst price performance in the boom. The Economistmonitored house prices across all the OECD countries and Ireland had by far the highest price increase. Last week, the Governor of the Central Bank noted a 42% increase in house prices. What is wrong with the Irish construction industry? Why are its costs excessive compared to Germany, even, as people like Ronan Lyons in TCD has documented? Why has it generated no productivity performance like the rest of us, including the public sector, have in the economy in the past few years? We have houses that cost far too much to build. Brendan Burgess gave evidence to the finance committee last week that taxes, VAT, levies and planning laws add €67,000 to the price of a €200,000 house. That is worth exploring.

Why have we pushed housing out of the reach of so many people? It was a bonanza that local authorities all cashed in on with development levies and so on, but it is time to stop that because we will have a serious social problem and a serious economic problem also. High house prices push up our costs as an economy. This has become a serious issue. We need reforms on social housing. As the Minister knows, Dr. Garret FitzGerald chaired the Lord Mayor's commission on housing in Dublin in 1992 and again he pointed out that the houses were expensive to build, expensive to maintain, both on the cost side and regarding the demands of the tenants, and the rents were low. It was extremely difficult and they had to be given away virtually as gifts to the tenants. Rents should be linked to the incomes of the people in those houses. We gave away the social housing stock we had to tackle these problems in the 1990s. Those problems must be addressed - the high administration costs and also certain social aspects. We cannot see headlines describing the Minister's proposals as "a bonanza for the construction industry" any longer. We must look at people who flip houses and earn massive capital gains. The housing market is for shelter, not for capital gains acquisition and not for tax reduction purposes. That nexus between banking and building must also be examined.

In these grim times, there may be a social bonus that is not expected when the Minister tackles the housing problem. We have tended to stress the social aspect, perhaps because of the tragic events across the street, but much US research shows that keys can solve social problems. Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said: "If you move people into permanent supportive housing first, and then give them help, it seems to work better. It is intuitive, in a way. People do better when they have stability." Another study from Georgia showed that a person who stayed in an emergency shelter or transitional housing was five times as likely as someone who received a rapid rehousing to become homeless again. Perhaps our ambassador in Washington could help the Minister on the Housing First programme, which, like the Minister's speech, enjoys bipartisan support in the United States. Social problems can be solved by giving people the stability. A Colorado study found that the average homeless person cost the state $43,000 a year, while housing that person would cost just $17,000. If the Minister can solve the other problems by giving people keys, a property and a whole door for themselves, he is entitled to ask some of the other Ministers around the Cabinet table for assistance in his housing programme.

The success of the Housing First programme, on a bipartisan basis, in New York and other parts of the United States indicates that it is a model to follow. We must, however, confront what happened social housing the last time we tried it and it was so expensive that we virtually gave it away, and tackle the question of why the building industry in general in Ireland is so non-cost-competitive by international standards. I would add to that the short-term solutions I mentioned, with looking at how many social problems we could solve if the Minister had enough money in his housing budget. The keys could solve those problems. The Minister's attendance in the House is deeply appreciated.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I also welcome the Minister. This is our first opportunity to welcome him since his significant announcement last week about a multi-annual social housing programme, which is ultimately the one way of reducing homelessness. As we all know, homelessness is a very complex problem, which requires multi-agency intervention to resolve. Many homeless people unfortunately have drink problems and other addiction problems and from a health perspective we need a significant increase in the number of addiction counsellors in Dublin and other cities. The Minister is working on some practical things and the round-table meeting he has organised tomorrow involving the CEOs of the various local authorities, who have a critical role to play in this, along with the NGOs and the support services, etc., is very welcome.

  One thing we could do - I suggest the Minister look into doing it - is to bring in legislation to cap rents because there is nothing in the free market to stop rents increasing. If rents go up 10%, that will affect another tranche of individuals, who will struggle to pay it. If they go up by 20%, it will hit yet another tranche of individuals and families who are not in a position to cope. We cannot have a situation where families are in hotel rooms. That is not acceptable. The free market is a great thing in some ways, but we need some sort of legislative cap on rents. We must also ensure that when people find themselves in a situation where their rents are increased, support services are there to advise them, whether it is a contact in local authorities to advise them how to deal with or negotiate with their landlords, or what their rights are, or perhaps the PRTB could facilitate advising and helping individuals who might not be able to advocate for themselves, to equip and assist them in advocating.

  It is a desperate crisis and coming up to Christmas, the last thing we want to be talking about in this House is homelessness. Unfortunately, we will never eliminate it, but we must try to get it under control. Homelessness is a factor in most world cities. I would love to know where best practice is, and if there is a best practice in terms of dealing with it. The only way we can deal with it is by ensuring we put as many resources as possible into areas like addiction - in terms of drugs, alcoholism, and so on.

  We had a very successful rural resettlement programme in the 1980s and early 1990s, where the depopulation of rural Ireland facilitated bringing families out of Dublin and settling them in villages. That was very successful in parts of north Clare, which the Minister would know of, in places like Moy and Mullagh in County Clare, where families are settled and have integrated completely with the community. I suggest that where there are ghost estates that are under the control of NAMA, if it were possible to make those estates homes, or at least acceptable accommodation, and to offer people on the social housing lists in Dublin, for example, the opportunity to move to a rural environment, one would be surprised by the number of people on the social housing list in Dublin who would relish the opportunity to move to a rural area. It would also help with school numbers and so on.

  We must think outside the box. In fairness to this Minister, he has been in office for 16 or 17 weeks and he has already had to deal with a significant water difficulty and this homelessness issue. He is getting down and playing ground hurling to resolve it because he knows that everyone deserves to have a roof over their head. I wish him well in that endeavour and we are only too happy to do anything we can in the Seanad in fomenting debate and coming up with ideas and suggestions.

Senator Katherine Zappone: Information on Katherine Zappone Zoom on Katherine Zappone I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad. My hope is the fruits of our exchange this evening will assist him in his preparations for the homelessness summit which has been convened for tomorrow and any work subsequent to it.

  An immense ethical imperative has arisen in the wake of Jonathan Corrie's death. It obliges all those with homes to be involved in supporting a solution for those who have no homes. That is, perhaps, the best way to offer our sympathy. The Minister will be aware that homelessness and sleeping rough arises out of complex causes. As identified by him in his recently published housing strategy, the under-funding for the provision of social housing and rising rents in the private sector are the principal underlying causes of the housing crisis and the increasing number of families losing their homes.

  I would like to focus on some elements of a sustainable solution that could be considered and may need to be incorporated into the Minister's ambitious and welcome plans thus far. First, in terms of the outcome of the summit, will the Minister put in place a five or ten-point plan to solve the problem of a sufficient, consistent supply of emergency accommodation and will he put in place a practical and implementable urgent timeframe within which to deliver sufficiency and consistency? Who will be charged with monitoring this? Second, is there a need for legislative changes, which was also mentioned by other Senators, in terms of the intense debate around whether rents should be controlled in order to curb unsustainable increases and to increase stability and certainty with regard to individuals and families having a home? Whereas it may not be wise to cap rents, are the Minister and the Government pursuing any type of legislative change to provide a graded-type of control to rents or to provide longer notice periods or extend the security of tenure provisions in the Residential Tenancies Act?

  Another gap in our legislation not commented on as much that may require change is the fact that there is no legal obligation on local authorities to provide shelter. When an individual or family becomes homeless and presents to a local authority, as much as that local authority wants to provide shelter, it is sometimes unable to do so. If our laws included a legal obligation to provide shelter would such a catalyst spark other changes downstream in order that no one individual or family ends up living in a car or on the street if willing to accept the accommodation offered?

  Third is the need to increase the rent supplement, about which others have spoken. If the Minister or the Government have ruled out any legislative changes to place restrictions on rent - I do think that is not wise - are they not then obliged to find a sustainable way to increase rent supplement? Should it not be one or the other or, perhaps, even both? Fourth, a coherence of strategies is also important. For strategies to cohere they must not contradict each other. News reports today indicate that NAMA has started paying off the second half of its €30.2 billion debt with the repayment of a €1 billion bond. We are also told that it is on track to return a modest profit to the Exchequer. In a recent article published in The Irish Times Dr. Rory Hearne makes the charge that the Minister's housing strategy failed to reform NAMA and that this leaves Government policy with a fundamental contradiction. He argues that NAMA's objective to achieve a maximum commercial return to the State is fuelling high rents by pandering to investors. For example, as part of its strategy to sell units at the highest price, NAMA recently advertised that a portfolio of properties would provide a residential rent income of €10.6 million. NAMA also has the mandate to contribute to the social and economic development of the State and does so by way of a special purpose vehicle set up to sell or lease NAMA residential properties for social housing. Dr. Hearne says that the housing strategy should have ensured that NAMA delivers far more than the 2,250 social housing units by 2020 that are incorporated into that strategy. If this means that NAMA does not make a profit those who will be most affected will be the private investors rather than the Irish people who paid for the write down of the loans, some of whom are now homeless.

  We are all in agreement that emergency accommodation is required but the underlying social problems and solutions lie much deeper. Ireland needs a massive social reinvestment to tackle those problems and a comprehensive and coherent approach to our economic and social policies.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey.

Senator Susan O'Keeffe: Information on Susan O'Keeffe Zoom on Susan O'Keeffe I will make only a brief contribution as much has been already said. In terms of the summit to be held tomorrow, two things need to emerge. In calling a summit any Minister or body raises an enormous expectation of some solution. It is clear there are no easy solutions. People like Senator Aideen Hayden and others in the Visitors Gallery have been working for decades trying to solve the problem of housing.

  In holding a summit tomorrow, at least two things need to happen. First, at the end of the summit politics must have been taken out of this. All of us in this House would like to see a roof over peoples' heads and people cared for by the State, yet there are many people who persist in playing politics with homelessness. Scaremongering and screaming do not help. If we are to have a summit it ought to be one that takes the politics out of this issue.

  Second, whatever is decided there will be a cost involved. The Minister said earlier that this is not really a matter of funding. In regard to the emergency aspects of homelessness, anyone who has ever been on the street with homeless people, as I know people in the Visitors Gallery have been, as I have been, will know that many of them have extraordinary difficulties in their lives. While provision of a tent, van or caravan for a night is fine, it will not solve the problem. There is a need for outreach programmes and mental health and addiction services for the specific group of rough sleepers. That costs time and money and requires a programme. There is no point in pretending that in providing one or 20 additional beds we are going to solve the problems for this particular group of people. We know that for some people, taking up a bed is not what they know how to or want to do, or they have had it all before and do not want it anymore. They need something more. Therefore, if following the summit, 30 additional beds are provided that will not solve that problem. I do not want the end result to be 30 additional beds because 30 additional beds will only solve the problem for a week, possibly, or even one day.

  For me, the emergency crisis we are in is I hope the purpose of the summit. Some of the matters outlined by the Minister in his programme announcement last week are good in terms of the need for a longer term solution to housing up to 2020 in order to address some of the problems that have arisen in the past 20 years. The proposals around investment in the construction of more houses and the restoration of void houses and so on are also welcome. However, in terms of this crisis area, without a coherent strategy - I do not know if the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health will attend the summit tomorrow - or joined-up thinking between the Departments on this issue, a coherent solution will never be found.

  It is interesting perhaps to look back to 2006, when the Simon Community reported that there were 55 untimely deaths of people who were homeless that year. That is more than one death a week. This happened in 2006 when the garden appeared to be very rosy. We have not travelled far since in that we are still talking about the homeless. A summit will not solve that problem. It will crystalise it for a moment and gather people, but what is needed is a commitment to spending money seriously on the people who really need it. They need much more than a roof over their heads.

Senator Kathryn Reilly: Information on Kathryn Reilly Zoom on Kathryn Reilly I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey. I also wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the family and friends of the late Jonathan Corrie.  While the time allocated to the debate is welcome, it is tragic that it has taken the death of a citizen on our doorstep for it to be put on the agenda of both Houses this week. It is clear that the late Jonathan Corrie, like many others, has been failed by the State in myriad ways. As previous speakers said, it was not just in terms of housing, but the holistic measures needed by people who become homeless. Respected campaigners such as Fr. Peter McVerry, the Simon Community and Focus Ireland have repeatedly called for the provision of emergency accommodation to deal with the current homelessness crisis, yet the gravity of the issue has largely been ignored and there has been a refusal, for example, to introduce rent controls, to protect tenants or to take serious measures to tackle the housing issue before homelessness takes root. I very much agree with Senator Jillian van Turnhout who stated it is a housing crisis, not a homelessness crisis.

A state that cannot provide shelter and housing for its own people is by any measure a failed state. At least 2,500 adults and 800 children are in emergency accommodation currently nationally. The vast majority of them are in Dublin with the remainder primarily to be found in large urban centres such as Cork and Limerick. The reasons for people availing of emergency accommodation are not complicated. They are victims of the housing crisis and the economic collapse, which is still real for many people. As many speakers said, there are a number of issues to which a holistic response is needed across Departments and agencies. People need immediate shelter and care, but they also need a longer term plan, including a home to move into and protection from rent hikes and repossessions.

Efforts have been made to address this but the housing budget, for example, this year was €1 billion less than in 2008. Any increase in that is welcome but the additional €36 million a year that has been allocated will not solve the crisis. Efforts have also been made to massage the housing needs statistics by designating HAP recipients as appropriately housed. There are 74,000 people on rent supplement, almost all of whom are on housing waiting lists. The HAP would remove them from the lists but not house them adequately.

Private rented accommodation rates are unsustainable and many rent supplement households have lost their homes in recent times. The Government plans to continue to spend more than €500 million on private rent subsidies but nothing is being done to house the families concerned. This is a devastating crisis, which requires immediate action to keep people in their homes, to provide accommodation for those who lost theirs and to build homes to overcome the need for emergency accommodation and end long-term homelessness. We cannot continue as we have for the past three years waiting for what Fr. Peter McVerry called "a tsunami of homelessness". The Government has hinted at a greater role for voluntary bodies and while they provide a great service and have an important role to play, they cannot solve the problem and they should not be expected to.

Writing in theIrish Examinertoday, Ruairi McKiernan, a social campaigner and member of the Council of State, referred to the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a winner of the 2013 World Habitat Award and the brainchild of a non-profit organisation, Community Solutions. This campaign is an ambitious, community-led movement, which has led to permanent housing for more than 105,000 chronically homeless Americans in under four years and the campaign seeks to end a reliance on hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and homeless shelters. Instead, it advocates that the homeless should be given housing and supports without delay. It supports 186 communities to work together to end homelessness in a co-ordinated national effort. Each community signs up free and reports its housing placements each month towards meeting an ambitious, measurable and timebound goal. He mentions in the article that this idea is currently being supported by Ashoka Ireland. Is the Minster of State aware of this? Has there been any engagement with this group on the issue?

Detailed plans are needed for investment in follow-on housing for those in emergency accommodation with targets and deadlines. There is obviously an urgent need for intervention in the private housing market to ensure empty properties are occupied. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke I welcome the Minister of State. It is important to acknowledge the work of many groups on the housing issue, in particular the Simon Community, local authorities, the Housing First service and Threshold, and that of the people who work for them on a voluntary basis. It is not an easy issue to resolve. I recall Cork County Council trying to open a wet shelter in the city when I was a member seven or eight years ago. The reason we wanted to open it was the number of people on the street who would not or could not access the Simon Community facility because they would not comply with the rules, particularly in the context of the consumption of alcohol. We opened the wet shelter and I recall the resistance in the local area to it. However, we achieved a compromise and proceeded to open it. That was long before the current crisis when plenty of property was available.

  I also recall visiting a centre in Dublin a number of years ago which was run by someone I know well. There were 18 people in it at any given time and they had all been living on the street. It was not a case of moving from the street back into permanent accommodation. They went through a rehabilitation process. Many of them were involved in drugs or serious drinking and the programme was designed to help them to get used to permanent accommodation and address the difficulties they had to go through in adjusting from the way of life they were living. It is not, therefore, a problem that can be sorted out overnight, especially for those who have lived for a long time on the streets.

  On the housing issue, we need to examine how local authorities have been utilised and how the available funding has been used. I am not satisfied that money is being used well for local authority housing. There are many unanswered questions, which it appears some local authorities do not want to answer. I tabled an Adjournment debate recently about this. On the one hand, the Government provides money, but then we find a substantial delay in the spending of the money to refurbish accommodation and bring it back into use for people who badly need it. It is also strange that it took 12 weeks to restore an electricity connection to a house, which was recently refurbished by a local authority. I raised this issue at an earlier meeting. The house was vacant for those 12 weeks because the local authority and the ESB have to take ten steps to provide the connection. That is unacceptable, especially when there is such a demand for housing, and that issue needs to resolved.

  Many people want to downsize from three and four bedroom houses and they are pleading with local authorities to allow them to do so. Their children have grown up and moved on and may not even be living in the country. They want to downsize to a one or two bedroom apartment because of the cost of heating and maintaining the house. Local authorities appear to be unable to deal with this serious issue.

  Another issue relates to the houses of elderly people who are admitted to nursing homes which are left vacant. Once this happens, they are liable to be damaged. I have come across a number of cases where that has occurred.  The person is not going to return home from the nursing home. There is no other member of the family remaining in the house.

  Another example is where someone dies. Houses might be left vacant for anything up to 18 months or two years after someone dying. He or she was the only person left in the house. The house is surrendered back to the local authority within three to four weeks of the person's death and yet 18 months or two years later the house is still vacant. Those are issues that are within our control and we could deal with them in a faster way. We need to fast-track how we deal with these issues. I am speaking about local authorities throughout the country. The lack of accountability needs to be tackled.

  I wish to touch on our housing policy generally. We need to look for alternatives to what we have had for the last 50, 60 and 70 years. I have raised this issue in this House before. If one looks to Germany, a person can rent a house and the situation is somewhat permanent as the person has the property for 20 years. The person will be on a very low rent, but is responsible for the maintenance of the property. The person provides the furnishings, including a fitted kitchen and bathroom. However, it is possible to borrow the money to do these works, and at the same time the person is in the property at a low rent. We need to look seriously at alternatives that are working across the European Union. We have failed to do this. We have stuck with old policies and old ways of doing things. We have not been prepared to look at new ideas. We need to do this and we need to do it urgently.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell I have a written speech with some lovely statistics in it on homelessness. However, it really does not mean a whole lot. Homelessness is about life chances. As people speak here tonight, I think back on my life and I think back to a time in 1983 when our business went bust. Lady Luck is either with you or against you. I was on the brink of handing up my house, which would have rendered me, my wife and two children homeless. I cannot say enough about my wife and how she got me through that period. Life chances changed my life. I got a break.

  May Jonathan Corrie rest in peace. We would not be here tonight talking about this issue but for him. If his life is to mean anything, it has to mean a change of mindset. It has to mean that we, as legislators, stop thinking about rules and regulations and start thinking about solutions. Allocating €35 million to this or €50 million to that, for things which are going to be delivered over so many years, is not where it is all at. Where it is all at is the 168 or so people who are on the streets tonight, freezing cold. Some may die and some may not. Every one of them, at some stage, put a smile on a mother's face or had a present from a sister or brother.

  We talk about alcoholism and drug abuse when we talk about homelessness. One of the great things about life is when you are really down and the world is kicking you, it is absolutely marvellous to be able to take a drink and forget about it all. The problem is whether you can get up the following morning and get on with life. That is the difference. Some people are so beaten they cannot. When we talk about people falling on hard times in this country, we are not satisfied they are on hard times and that we can intervene there and then. We wait for them to get into worse situations before we intervene. Official Ireland is the most difficult and heartless place. However, the people who work in official Ireland are not heartless people. They have sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers. Some of them have people who are homeless.

  There will always be people who will want to sleep on the streets, and there is nothing we can do about that. However, if we are serious about tackling homelessness, we have to talk about mindsets. We have to introduce an understanding of homelessness to our education system. We have to train gardaí, nurses, teachers, librarians and so forth to call for intervention there and then when they see a problem and not wait until the problem becomes so serious that we finish up with what we have seen this week.

  I will be honest with the Minister of State. Every day I get off the Luas and walk to Leinster house, I pass homeless people. To my shame, my absolute shame, I turn my head the other way. I turn it the other way because they scare the living hell out of me, because one day I could have been there or I may be there at some stage in the future. None of us knows what life will bring. We have to stop the blame game, because a lot of it goes on in the world.

  A task group is being put together tomorrow. I ask the Minister of State that the first thing the task group does is authorise Civil Defence to come out straight away. Homelessness is not a Christmas problem. It is a problem in society and it will go on until hell freezes over. However, we have spent millions of euro in this country building a fantastic set of equipment for situations of national catastrophe. Civil Defence co-ordinates this task. I would like it on the road tomorrow night erecting shelters, temporary as they may be. Every year for as long as I have lived, I have heard people saying we cannot ignore the homeless at Christmas. What is the difference between 25 December and 26 December? If a person is homeless, there is none.

  We were recently told NAMA is going to return a profit. Do we need the profit? If there are buildings, whether residential or commercial, which can be turned into family accommodation, let us do that. Let us look at the way families can be housed. Senator Martin Conway spoke about the rural relocation scheme. If there are families homeless in Dublin or in any other city today who are willing to relocate to another part of the country and be given some form of subvention to keep them in body and soul until they get on their feet, let us look at that as a possibility. Homelessness is not a Christmas problem. It is a long-term problem and we need a long-term plan.

  Langfords Hotel, in town, is locked up and has been for a number of years. Let us break down the doors, open it up, and make accommodation available. We saw this weekend how a 40-foot trailer can be turned into living accommodation over the course of a weekend at a cost of no more than €20,000. The Irish Glass Bottle site is somewhere we could put God knows how many hundred converted 40-foot trailers. Let us look at solutions such as this.

  I apologise for being annoyed about this, but I cannot come to terms with it. I cannot even look at the people sitting in the Visitors Gallery because what separates them from me is they are able to look at a homeless person as another human being. To my shame, I have looked at homeless people as some lesser form of human and deeply regret it.

Senator Marie Moloney: Information on Marie Moloney Zoom on Marie Moloney I welcome the Minister of State. I echo the sentiments of other speakers and extend my sincere condolences to the family of the late Jonathan Corrie. I wonder what he would have said if he was told last week that he would be the instigator of a national debate in both Houses of the Oireachtas, adjacent to where he chose to lay down every night and under the shadow of which he drew his last breath, that his name would be known the length and breadth of Ireland and that he would hit the headlines of every newspaper in this country. He would probably have laughed at the idea. However, that is exactly what has happened.

  Homelessness, in particular those who sleep rough, has been the topic of much debate and conversation of late and not just because of the death of Jonathan Corrie. We are all very aware that homelessness has become an escalating problem, particularly in Dublin and other largely populated areas, which is why the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has made constructive and very welcome moves to address the growing problem.

  Homelessness is not as far away as people may think, as we found out to our detriment, literally, this week. It really can happen to anyone. It is very rarely a choice.  Can my colleagues imagine how they could end up homeless, the course their lives might take to find themselves without a roof over their heads? What if one of my colleagues lost a wife, husband or child? What if their business had to close down or they lost their job? What if their rent was increased and they could not afford to stay in their home? What if they suffered from a mental illness or an addiction? Every organisation that deals with homelessness worldwide hears stories like this on a daily basis. Focus Ireland estimates there are up to 5,000 homeless people in Ireland at any one time. By homeless, I do not just mean sleeping rough on the street; it is much wider than that. With rising rents and mortgage arrears there are now also more families at risk of losing their home than ever before.

  While it appears that Jonathan Corrie was a troubled man and had many issues to deal with, he also personifies those who are homeless and, in particular, those who are sleeping rough. He is the face, the name, the man, the human being whom many of us see every day of the week as we walk though the streets of Dublin. How many of us in this room would take the time to stop and speak to the Jonathan Corries of this world? How many of us do the practical things as individuals that could help alleviate their problems in the short term, if only in a small way? I do not mean to give them money as sometimes this is only fuelling an addiction. Do we stop to buy them a hot drink, a sandwich or a hot meal? It is in these Houses that we can address the problem in the long term, but we can also help on the streets. I know that the Minister is doing his best with limited funds to alleviate the housing problem and to address the problem of homelessness and sleeping rough. For the first time in many years we have a housing strategy. This should have been done years ago, when money was not an obstacle.

  We must stop scoring political points and work together as united, elected representatives to help stop the rot and do what we can together to prevent homelessness and sleeping rough. A good example of what could have been done is when the Labour Party representatives on Dublin City Council proposed a 7.5% cut to property tax instead of a 15% cut, in order to channel funding towards homelessness. It was voted down by those who hold the balance of power on the council. The records speak for themselves and I am not even going to name the parties and independents who voted this proposal down because, as I have said, it is not a time for political point-scoring.

  For God's sake and the sake of those on the street who need our help, let us stop talking and do something constructive about it. Let us row in behind the Minister's plans and help the organisations that are in place to help the vulnerable people who cannot help themselves. As a Government, we have only got so much money, and every day one organisation or another is saying that we have to invest money in their particular field, be it the ambulance service, the disability service, agriculture, education, health, housing or the Garda. All of these are very worthwhile causes, but we need to have an honest conversation and admit that there is just not enough money to do everything we want to do all in one go. We cannot do the miracles of the loaves and fishes. Let us, as elected representatives, be honest and prioritise where serious funding can be directed to make realistic differences. I am calling on all parties to get our priorities right and to work together to make a difference. Let us provide single units for the Jonathan Corries of this world.

  I commend the work of the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, Threshold, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Simon Communities and indeed Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on agreeing to open up premises to help alleviate the ongoing problem of homelessness. I ask the landlords at this emotive time to make the generous gesture of lowering rents and coming halfway to meeting the Government on the caps. The Government must make the move to meet the caps aso.

  Let us make a difference, in this case the difference between a night under the sky and a night in a warm bed. I commend the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, for their work to date in tackling the problem, but I must echo the calls for an increase in the rent caps. Where I come from, to rent a house in Killarney is way more expensive than a house in Tralee. There should not just be a blanket cap across the country. I know they are different in Dublin. It should be based on the rents of the area in which we live. We are encouraging tenants to make under-the-counter payments and we are encouraging the black market. Landlords are getting tax-free top-ups under the counter because that is the only way the tenant can secure the accommodation. We need to stamp this out.

  Like other Senators, I could speak for the whole night on this issue, but I can see that the Acting Chairman is calling time. There will be further debate on the issue.

Senator James Heffernan: Information on James Heffernan Zoom on James Heffernan I welcome the Minister of State. Unfortunately, I did not hear the speech of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and as I cannot seem to get a copy of it, I apologise if I go back over points that have already been covered. I welcome the forum the Minister has put together, although it is a little behind schedule. I do not know what was happening for the previous 15 or 20 years that something was not put together. I hope it will not just become a token gesture because the issue is in the media spotlight. I hope it is really followed through on and that we are updated on the outcomes and have an input as elected representatives. There is a huge disconnect.

  "Teardrop John" was found dead on the steps across the road from here the other morning. It was a horrible way to die and it was certainly very poignant. It brought the issues home to everyone and asked serious questions of us, but it did so because it happened outside our door here. If we are talking about a man being found dead on the steps of the Parliament, it is bad, but I am ashamed to say all of our national monuments in the city centre have people sleeping on their steps.

  I took part in the homeless count in the last fortnight, and I can assure the Minister of State it was a very sobering experience. I went with two other people who are involved in services for homeless people. We started at the corner of O'Connell Bridge and went along the north side of the river, down past Liberty Hall, up past the Custom House, around Busáras and back down Talbot Street to O'Connell Street - just that rectangle. There was a lad sleeping on the steps of Liberty Hall, there were people at the Custom House, across the road from Jimmy Connolly's monument, and at the Store Street Garda station there were about five lads inside the station. In fairness to the gardaí they had let them in because it was a cold, wet night and the gardaí kind of turned a blind eye to the people sleeping there.

  When we came up onto Talbot Street, we went in the door of an Internet café owned by a Chinese gentleman. He knew what we were there for because obviously he has experienced it before. He pointed around at the people who were there and said that 80% were homeless. The place was black with people. They were stretched out on chairs at computer desks to get in out of the cold and rain. Most of the people we came across were single men and most of them were foreign nationals as well. That shocked me, to be honest, because we speak a lot about rights for our undocumented Irish in America. I met a lot of Paddies in London who were rough sleepers and had fallen on hard times, and perhaps the drink had got hold of them or whatever else. Unfortunately, that problem is reversed here, in that we have people coming from different countries with a very poor level of English and they are the lads who are huddled in threes and fours in doorways for warmth and their own protection. I put it to the Minister of State that some form of an amnesty should be given because these lads are afraid of coming forward to the services.  They are afraid to give their names and details for fear of what might happen to them given the poor experiences they have had in that respect in the countries from which they come. I ask that some form of an amnesty be given to such immigrants who find themselves in such circumstances on the streets.

  Things are bad enough for a person sleeping rough on the streets and there are no facilities for them. It is not as if they can get up in the morning, brush their teeth, wash their face and go for a shower, the basic essentials that we take for granted. They do not have facilities in which to do that. I was in an organisation in Merchants Quay earlier today and know the services being provided by it. Its finances are stretched and it is doing a bloody fine job with very few resources.

  I welcome what is being done and the money being spent. I take account of Senator Marie Moloney's point that when it was put to parties in Dublin City Council whether a tax should be put back into pockets of the wealthy such as those living Ailesbury Road, or the money should be used to build houses for the homeless, the so-called left-wing parties - the Fianna Fáilers, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and Sinn Féin - voted against it. It was a Labour Party proposal and I commend the Labour Party councillors for doing that in Dublin City Council, but they were not listened to in that respect. It comes down to priorities, especially political priorities from a political class. The Minister of State's Department was able to spend. I could be wrong on this, but I calculate there are approximately 200,000 houses that have a private well. Each of those households was given €100 a few weeks ago. If my maths serve me right, does that calculation work out at €20 million? I do not know if that figure is correct, having worked it out off the top of my head.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I am going to have to cut the Senator off.

Senator James Heffernan: Information on James Heffernan Zoom on James Heffernan I have been to Sao Paulo and have stepped over people in that city in Brazil and the scene I saw there of people stretched out all over the place was unbelievable. One sees the same in Delhi in India.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins The Senator has way exceeded his time.

Senator James Heffernan: Information on James Heffernan Zoom on James Heffernan What is happening on the streets of Dublin is very similar.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I must call Senator Diarmuid Wilson.

Senator James Heffernan: Information on James Heffernan Zoom on James Heffernan I apologise, but I have a few brief questions.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I have given the Senator considerable latitude.

Senator James Heffernan: Information on James Heffernan Zoom on James Heffernan I acknowledge that and thank the Acting Chairman. Can the Minister of State give a breakdown of where the allocation of €50 million will be spent? How much is the Government spending on housing homeless people in hotel style and apartment style accommodation, as such money could be spent much more wisely?

  I was going to mention the rural resettlement programme, but I will leave it at that. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, and also thank the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, who was here before him for his contribution. I also welcome those who work on the front line of this crisis who are in the Visitors Gallery who know at first hand exactly what type of crisis we have on the streets.

  We are here because of Jonathan Corrie. We are not here because he died but because of where he died, which was fewer than 50 m from the gates of the building in which we are having this debate. I hope, like everybody who made a contribution, that some good comes out of this unfortunate man's early demise.

  People find themselves homeless for very many reasons, whether it be drug or alcohol-related, coming from a broken home or broken relationship or having a mental difficulty of one kind or another, but the reality of the situation, regardless of how they find themselves homeless - I accept what Senator Aideen Hayden said that the nature of homelessness has changed in recent years - is that this should be dealt with. Primarily from my experience, those we see sleeping on our streets at night, and in the middle of day because some of the them are afraid to sleep at night, unfortunately have some difficulties as I outlined. It is an indictment on all of us from all political parties and none that this situation has been tolerated and allowed to develop over the decades. While I accept that there will always be people who are going to sleep on the streets - that will be their choice - it would be the choice of the vast majority of those who are forced to sleep on the streets to have a warm bed to lie in at night.

  It is also worth pointing out that the right to property is enshrined in the Constitution and I believe the right to shelter should be enshrined in it. We are here as result of Mr. Corrie's death. The Minister and the Minister of State will meet the stakeholders tomorrow and I hope something urgent and immediate will come from it.

  While we have a bigger problem with people losing their homes, whether as a result of being evicted by the banks because they cannot pay their mortgages or by the landlords because they cannot pay their rents, the immediate problem we have are the Jonathan Corries of this world. That should be tackled as a matter of urgency.

  I pay tribute to everybody who is involved in working with the homeless throughout the State, be it the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the churches, the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Point, etc. I am aware that in naming them I may leave somebody out. There are a large number of voluntary organisations dealing with the homeless and I wish them well. I hope some good will come from this debate. I challenge each and everyone of us in this House to reconvene on this topic in the first week we resume in January to see what progress has been made in providing shelter. There is an onus on us to do that and to do it on a monthly basis until we have some type of a satisfactory outcome.

  I wish the Minister of State and his colleague, the Minister, well. It is not easy. If it was easy, it would have been addressed a long time ago. The cynics say the homeless do not vote and, therefore, they are not a priority. Let us prove them wrong.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Paudie Coffey): Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey I thank all Senators from all sides of the House for their contributions. This has been a very poignant and important debate. It is only correct that the Houses of the Oireachtas should debate such important issues. It is important also - I agree with Senator Diarmuid Wilson - that we constantly evaluate progress or otherwise. That is the measure that there should be of us, as legislators, and society also. We all agree that homelessness is unacceptable in any society and a problem that we must all strive together to end and to which we must try to find solutions.

  I, too, wish to be associated with the vote of sympathy on the recent and very sad and tragic passing of Jonathan Corrie not very far from here in tragic circumstances.  It is unacceptable that 168 individuals are sleeping on the streets of the capital city and over 2,500 adults, including 361 families, are in State-funded emergency accommodation across the country. As we all know, those families include children. Our level of homelessness might be very low by international comparison, but this should not make us complacent in any way. There can be no let-up in our efforts in this area until we have achieved our objective of ending involuntary long-term homelessness.

  Many issues have been raised by Senators. The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, took note of much of what was said during the first hour of the debate. We will take the various ideas and proposals back with us. I have been noting the various issues that have been raised while I have been here. I will not go through them in detail. We have noted them and we will bring them to the forum also. In his opening address, the Minister outlined a number of significant actions that are being implemented to address the immediate issues of homelessness. Every effort is being made to ensure a bed for the night is available to everyone who needs a place to sleep this winter. It should be acknowledged, however, that the provision of emergency accommodation is not a viable long-term solution to homelessness. The Government's homelessness policy statement emphasises a housing-led approach to homelessness which is about accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness.

  The issues of rising rents and sourcing suitable accommodation, especially in the Dublin area and other large urban centres, have been discussed on the floor of the House this evening. The fundamental reason for the increase in rents is the lack of supply of housing units. Increasing public and private housing supply is a critical issue. Earlier this year, the Government published the Construction 2020 strategy for the renewal of the construction sector, for which I now have responsibility. The strategy includes a commitment to formulate a social housing strategy, and such a strategy was published last week. The social housing strategy sets out an ambitious agenda for ramping up significantly the delivery of social housing in the coming years. It has been mentioned that the social housing strategy sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion over six years. It will restore the central role of the State in the provision of social housing through the resumption of direct building on a significant scale by local authorities and approved housing bodies. The delivery of housing units, as part of the implementation of the social housing strategy, is critical. As many Senators have said this evening, we will not achieve our objectives unless all stakeholders work together in a collaborative, focused and determined manner.

  With regard to rent control, the Private Residential Tenancies Board was asked to conduct a study to explore options for addressing the difficulties being experienced in segments of the private rented sector due to rising rents and to report back with policy options. I note the various concerns that have been expressed by Senators about increasing rents and the rent control solutions they have proposed. The report produced by the board, Rent Stability in the Private Rented Sector, includes an examination of rent regulation regimes in other countries and proposes for consideration a series of rent stability policy options. The options proposed relate to rent regulation at one end of the spectrum and to measures aimed at increasing awareness of tenant rights under the existing legislation at the other end of it. I reiterate that it is critical to highlight the fact that tenants have rights. I ask all Senators and the media to do so. There is evidence that people are leaving their houses, unfortunately, because they are not fully aware of their rights. We all have a role in addressing that deficit. It is critical that people are fully aware of all their rights before they are forced out of their houses. We will have to join stakeholders in carefully considering the options proposed in the Private Residential Tenancies Board's report before we decide on the best policies to address the current difficulties in the market.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell I apologise for interrupting the Minister of State. I ask him to comment on whether it would be possible for a cap or a freeze to be imposed on rents right now. Is that being considered?

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.

Deputy Paudie Coffey: Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey The Department is listening to the stakeholders involved in this sector. The Private Residential Tenancies Board commissioned the report. The experts who advise the Department have shown that increases in rent supplement tend to inflate the rental market. Such an approach can have casualties, unintended or otherwise. I will be addressing the question of rent supplement in a moment. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection is responsible for the issue of rent supplement which has been raised during this debate. She is acutely aware of the difficulties people are experiencing in maintaining affordable rented accommodation in the current market in which supply is constrained. An increase in rent supplement rental limits might not be the solution to the problem, as it is likely that it would add to rental inflation. It would have an impact not only on rent supplement recipients, but also on the wider rental sector. This would affect many lower income workers, families and students.

  I understand the Tánaiste intends to keep the issue of rent supplement under close review. It should be noted that officers administering rent supplement throughout the country have considerable experience in dealing with customers. They make every effort to ensure the accommodation needs of such people are met, including through the use of discretionary statutory powers as necessary. It is not often understood that social welfare officers have discretionary powers to address specific issues in individual circumstances in order to keep people in their homes. They do exercise that discretion. In the light of the particular concentration of the homelessness problem in the Dublin area, the Department of Social Protection has agreed a tenancy sustainment protocol with the Dublin local authorities and voluntary organisations so families on rent supplement that are at risk of losing their accommodation can have more timely and appropriate interventions made on their behalf.

  As the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, noted in his opening statement, the issue of homelessness is complex. Many Senators have outlined the various complexities associated with this important issue. It is about much more than funding and money. It is important to acknowledge that statutory responsibility for the provision of accommodation for homeless people rests with individual housing authorities. The solution has to involve more than just the housing authority. I agree with Senators who have said that a more holistic approach needs to be taken. It is vital that we fully address the health care and social supports required by homeless people. The HSE plays a critically important role in this area. As well as providing a national framework of policy, legislation and funding, my Department’s role with regard to homelessness is to ensure all the relevant parties come together to provide the integrated and holistic response required to deliver on the Government’s priority to end long-term involuntary homelessness.

  As Members will be aware, a special forum on homelessness is being convened in the Custom House tomorrow afternoon. The Minister and I will attend meetings with the political and executive leaders of the Dublin local authorities and representatives of voluntary organisations working in the homeless area. I do not mean to be patronising when I acknowledge the work of the non-governmental organisations in the voluntary sector, the charities and everybody else who gives of their time to help homeless people in trying and difficult circumstances. That should always be acknowledged on the floor of this House and the other House. I commend everyone involved in this area. I reiterate on behalf of the Government, particularly the Minister, that no stone will be left unturned in dealing with this issue, particularly as we approach Christmas. Tomorrow's forum will give us an opportunity to see what further collective actions can be taken by the Government, the housing authorities and the voluntary sector. We can achieve success by bringing together our collective resources, expertise and thinking and, more importantly, our actions and solutions. I have no doubt that if we work together, we can ensure we achieve our goal for the benefit of those who are most in need of our support.

  I am encouraged by the proactive and positive approach that has been taken during this evening's debate. We all acknowledge that nothing is to be gained from political point-scoring. In 2007, when I was my party's spokesperson on the environment in this House - I was sitting where Senator Diarmuid Wilson is now sitting - I debated this issue with the former Minister of State, Michael Finneran. We had many homeless people on our streets at that time, as we have now. We must consistently and continually face up to the challenges we encounter not just as legislators and policy makers, but as a society. I welcome the suggestion that we continuously evaluate and examine what we are doing, what is not working and what can work. I hope tomorrow's summit can be a benchmark in this regard. That will be the case if all sectors come together collectively to try to find the solutions we so badly want to achieve.

Acting Chairman (Senator Michael Mullins): Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I thank the Minister of State. When is it proposed to sit again?

Senator Cáit Keane: Information on Cáit Keane Zoom on Cáit Keane Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.

  9 o’clock

Adjournment Matters

Tenant Purchase Scheme Administration

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke I realise the Minister of State has had a long day and apologise, therefore, for detaining him so late in the evening. A large number of people in local authority housing wish to purchase their home, but there is no scheme in place to allow them to do so. In many cases, tenants have been living in the same property for a long time, but there is no private housing available in the area. There are several advantages to introducing a scheme to allow such persons to purchase their home from the local authority. First, it will provide moneys for councils. Second, the people who purchase their homes will expend money in refurbishing them. Third, there is a significant social benefit in having a mix of private and local authority housing in an estate in terms of ensuring stable communities and so on. I have seen this happen with older estates in Cork city which were built as local authority housing but have now largely passed into private ownership.

  Under the previous scheme regulations, tenants who purchased their home from a local authority and wished to sell it within 25 years had to secure the consent of the local authority to do so. An additional requirement was that the person to whom the former tenant was selling must be in need of housing. I have no difficulty with these regulations being retained. The time has come to give serious consideration to introducing a scheme that will allow local authority tenants to purchase the homes they have occupied for lengthy periods. People in these circumstances want to continue to live and work in the area they call home.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Paudie Coffey): Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and am pleased to report progress on the matters he has raised. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 enacted earlier this year provides for a new scheme for the purchase of existing local authority houses to replace the 1995 tenant purchase scheme. The Social Housing Strategy 2020 approved by the Government and published last week includes a commitment to introduce the new tenant purchase scheme by the second quarter of 2015.

  The new scheme will operate along incremental purchase lines, similar to the two purchase schemes in place for local authority apartments and new local authority houses. This purchase model involves discounts for purchasers linked to household income and a discount-related charge on the property that reduces to nil over a "charge period", unless the house is resold or the purchaser fails to comply with conditions of the sale. Where the tenant purchaser resells the property before the end of the charge period, he or she will be required to pay back to the housing authority a portion of any profits arising from the sale, thereby compensating the State for its loss on the original sale of the property and generating funds for the local authority to invest in new social housing or refurbishment of existing housing.

  Under the 1995 scheme, discounts were related to the length of tenancy rather than income, with no provision for the State to share in any profits arising from the resale of dwellings. In contrast, discounts under the new incremental purchase model are much higher than under the 1995 scheme and, because the discounts are income-related, they will enable tenants to purchase their homes earlier in their tenancies than was the case under previous schemes. The new scheme will encourage tenant purchasers to remain in their dwellings for a reasonable length of time after purchase, thus fostering stable and sustainable communities.

  The detailed terms of the new scheme will be prescribed in regulations under the 2014 Act, including the minimum income threshold for eligibility and the income-related discounts to be provided. While no decision has been taken on the details of the new scheme, the existing incremental purchase schemes are indicative of what may be put in place. Under these schemes, tenants must have a minimum gross income with their spouse or partner of €15,000 and may qualify for discounts off the purchase price of 40%, 50% or 60%, depending on their income. The period of the local authority charge is 20, 25 or 30 years, depending on the discount given to the tenant purchaser.

  The Senator can look forward with confidence to a new tenant purchase scheme that will enable local authority tenants to purchase their dwellings at a substantial discount, while also promoting sustainable communities and generating additional funding for local authorities to use for social housing purposes.

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and I am delighted that the new scheme will be up and running shortly.

  The Seanad adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 4 December 2014.


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