Seanad Éireann Debate
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 14:30:00
Machnamh agus Paidir.
Reflection and Prayer.
Business of Seanad
The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to reinstate full funding to the local improvement scheme and community involvement scheme, encompassing funding for both private and public lanes.
I have also received notice from Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Education and Skills to clarify the proposed new criteria for allocation of DEIS schools.
I have also received notice from Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the HSE's stance not to pay the workers providing homeless services in Galway and other areas, in view of the Labour Court’s recommended hourly rate for overnight working, that time spent on overnight, sleep-over duty should be acknowledged as constituting working time, and that workers should be paid the national minimum hourly rate of €9.25 for this duty.
I have also received notice from Senator Colm Burke of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Health to put in place a system which would enable parents to access respite care for a son or daughter who is residing with them but who is now over 18 years of age.
I have also received notice from Senator Terry Leyden of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to introduce new wind energy development guidelines on noise, proximity and shadow flicker as a matter of urgency.
I have also received notice from Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Health to intervene and ensure the HSE urgently advertises for a replacement paediatric endocrinologist at Sligo University Hospital to protect this specialist service for children in Donegal and the region and to outline his plans to address the ongoing crisis in diabetes care in Donegal.
I have also received notice from Senator Máire Devine of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Health to provide an update on the approval process for psychiatric centres abroad in which Irish children were placed in the past two years, in light of the Channel 4 "Dispatches" documentary, "Under Lock and Key".
I have also received notice from Senator Tim Lombard of the following matter:
The need for the Minster for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to make a statement regarding the success of the low cost loan scheme for farmers - the agriculture cashflow support loan scheme - and whether he plans to propose renewal of this scheme in the 2018 budget.
I have also received notice from Senator Frank Feighan of the following matter:
The need for the Minister for Health to explore all options to extend the emergency aeromedical service based at Custume Barracks in Athlone to a night-time service.
I regard the matters raised by the Senators as suitable for discussion. I have selected Senators Noone, Murnane O’Connor, Ó Clochartaigh and Burke and they will be taken now. Senators Leyden, Mac Lochlainn, Devine, Lombard and Feighan may give notice on another day of the matters they wish to raise.
Roads Maintenance Funding
Senator Catherine Noone: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this matter. The Commencement matter speaks for itself. Will the Minister consider reinstating full funding to the local improvement scheme and community involvement scheme encompassing funding for both private and public lanes? Funding for these schemes was removed during the recession. Due to the major cutbacks it was necessary for the Department to cease making separate allocations to local authorities in respect of the local improvement schemes. I ask the Minister to consider reinstating them as a completely separate scheme to the community involvement schemes. Furthermore these schemes should have completely separate funding from the local improvement scheme and the community involvement scheme. Separate funding would facilitate the acceptance of an increased number of applications. I would further like to highlight the importance such schemes have with regard to the development of rural Ireland and enhancing rural living. The Government has shown commitment to this by appointing a Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs and improvement. It is something that should be a priority. In many parts of Ireland, old country roads and lanes have become damaged over the years and are in bad need of repair. Having access to schemes such as the LIS would assist those living and working in rural regions of Ireland to travel and work more efficiently and safely in their localities once they have availed of the scheme. I welcome the Minister's response.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Shane Ross): I thank Senator Noone for the opportunity to address this very important matter. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the council's own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the council.
Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network.
There have been large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past number of years because of the national financial position. The focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal for this reason.
Senator Catherine Noone: I thank the Minister for his reply. I appreciate why the focus has been on the maintenance and renewal of public roads over the past number of years. I am delighted he mentioned the programme for Government and the fact that it is a priority to reintroduce the LIS. He said he will review the scope for making a separate grant allocation once the planned review of the capital plan is completed. What is the approximate timeframe for that?
Deputy Shane Ross: I hope the review will be completed towards the end of this year. Funding for LIS and CIS has been included in the Department's submission to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's review of the capital plan. Once this has been finalised, the Minister can review the scope for providing ring-fenced funding for these schemes. In the interim, both schemes will remain in place with no separate allocation.
Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor: The DEIS plan for 2017 sets out the Department's vision for education for better opportunities for those communities at risk of disadvantage and social inclusion. The plan, based on a review of the DEIS programme, is to implement a robust framework identification for schools for effective resource allocation to improve the learning experience and outcomes of pupils in DEIS schools and to support and foster best practice in schools through interagency collaborations. DEIS is about delivering equality of opportunity in schools and prioritising educational needs of children and young people in disadvantaged communities from preschool through to second level education between the ages of three and 18. There are two primary schools in my area, Scoil Mhuire gan Smál, a girls' school and Bishop Foley memorial school, a boys' school. Sons and daughters from the same families attend these schools. I could give many examples from Carlow, Tullow and Bagenalstown where that is happening. One has two schools side by side where the same families are sending their children and one is a DEIS school, while the other is not. There is no need for this to happen and I cannot understand why it is allowed.
The proposal to use postcodes will not work either as the lack of a local authority building in recent years means that many social welfare dependent families are living in private estates under the rent assistance scheme. Postcodes will not reflect the true extent of social welfare dependent families using schools. I suggest a combination of postcodes and social welfare data would provide a truer reflection of the reality. Tullow and Bagenalstown definitely include disadvantaged areas, for example, but no work has been done in the past few years to zone areas as disadvantaged. This really needs to be looked at.
The review in 2017 extended the programme, but this extension was only the same addition. In my area of Carlow-Kilkenny which includes Bagenalstown only one school was accepted into the DEIS programme. The manner in which schools are identified needs to change and the DEIS programme needs to be extended to include more schools to support vulnerable pupils in areas of disadvantage to give them the best chance in life. The new identification model has identified that there are disadvantaged schools which were not previously included in the DEIS programme and that their level of disadvantage was significantly higher than that of many schools already included in the programme. What the new programme indicates is that there are schools that are more disadvantaged that are not getting into the programme and that there is no help for them. That is unacceptable. We now live in a multicultural society with language barriers, but this issue is not being addressed by the Minister. However, I notice that new schools are automatically classed as DEIS schools. I ask the Minister to ensure all schools which have applied for DEIS status, particularly in disadvantaged areas, will be looked at in a new programme. I represent my area across Carlow, Tullow and Bagenalstown, as some from Kilkenny have. This has done nothing for schools which are in disadvantaged areas and which are in urgent need but which have been forgotten.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Richard Bruton): I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to discuss this matter as there are a number of things about which she is simply wrong and which I need to correct. I must ensure people understand what is happening. If there are two schools side by side and one has DEIS status, that relates back to the old scheme. There are 836 schools included in the old scheme and the problem is that it was quite random about how schools were included. Sometimes it was left entirely to the principal to submit material. The scheme was drawn up in a haphazard way. Some schools did not bother to apply, while others were very diligent. The designation that resulted was arbitrary. What we are now doing is adopting a scientific approach. It is not based on postcodes as the Senator suggested but on a small area analysis conducted by the CSO. It takes the children enrolled in a school and looks at the small area in which they are located. It is related to the disadvantage associated with the area from which the pupils come. It is not the area where the school is located but the area from which the pupils are drawn. Typically, one will have a high concentration of pupils from the area relatively close to the school and it may be a designated disadvantaged area as demonstrated by an examination of lone parents, population trends, parental education status, unemployment levels and occupations. It is an established, statistical method of assessing disadvantage and we are using the statistical source from the CSO. It is based on the census. We also marry the information with the actual pupil enrolment figures. The advantage is that we can update the information on a continuous basis and look at new census information and changing enrolments in the school. It is entirely objective and goes right back to the areas from which pupils are drawn.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The schools were selected on the basis of greatest disadvantage. It represents less than 2% of all schools. As such, I could paper the wall with the submissions received from people who say there is another school here and another school there which should have been considered. However, that is the reality. I would love to have more money to extend the scheme.
The Senator asked if there were schools outside the disadvantaged areas included in the old scheme which had a higher level of disadvantage. That is absolutely true. On this occasion I could only bring in at the very highest concentration of disadvantage in what was called the urban band 1. That was the cut-off point at which I introduced the 79 schools.
The issue raised by the Senator, which was raised by others in the media, on whether we should be dropping schools out of the scheme, I decided it would be unfair to pull the rug from under schools which had disadvantage status over time in a sudden move of this nature. We will look at all elements. For schools which felt they should have been in the scheme, we have a verification process. Around July we will be looking at the new census data, which will become available on a small area basis. We will be re-examining all schools, not just those which complained but every school in the country on an equal basis, and their current enrolment, the actual children and the new 2016 data. If there are schools which are shown to be at the highest levels of concentration, we will move to bring them in at the earliest point.
I have also indicated this is a model which I am trying to refine over time. I do not like the cliff edge, in or out approach which is a feature of this. I want to look at the instruments within the policy, as well as the needs of the school, to develop a more flexible model over time which will ensure a school's needs are responded to in the way that is most appropriate. That will take time to develop. I am also open to refining it if people want to see new criteria examined from the Central Statistics Office range of data. The ones it has selected, such as unemployment, occupation and education of parent, are the best predictors of educational disadvantage.
This is a journey. This has not been touched since 2009 and not one single school was brought into the scheme. Now we are bringing in some schools. I know there are plenty more which we could bring in but I hope over time we can. Over time, we will also have to transition out, as well as transition in, schools because that is the nature of this process.
Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor: I am delighted the Minister will not use the postal codes for determining DEIS status because it would not be suitable. When the children in a family go to two different schools but where one is designated DEIS and the other is not, it is a significant issue. The Minister needs to put a programme in place for disadvantaged areas which have been forgotten. Since 2009, no programme has been put together for areas designated as disadvantaged. It is actually getting worse. This is why many schools which did not qualify to go on the scheme urgently need to do so.
Deputy Richard Bruton: To put this in context, many schools which are unhappy they did not get a DEIS designation point out all the children they have with special needs or with language difficulties. The DEIS programme costs €100 million and is just one instrument we use in education policy to help children who otherwise might struggle. We have language support for children who do not have English as their first language. We have special needs interventions which cost €1.5 billion and we have increased resource teachers by 41% over the past five years. Even in the difficult times, we kept investing.
There is a range of supports and DEIS is one of them. It is an area-based disadvantage scheme which has the potential to grow in the future. Apart from the €100 million I put in, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs puts in about €25 million in school completion and school liaison programmes. The Minister for Social Protection puts in €25 million, a figure which will increase this year, in the school meals programme. We are expanding and reviewing both the home school liaison and the completion programmes to make them more effective. This is a work in progress.
An Cathaoirleach: It is great to see a Minister who has two full handles on the brief and can talk ad lib on the topic without having to read a script prepared by somebody else. It is refreshing for this House and I thank the Minister.
Business of Seanad
An Cathaoirleach: I have just ascertained that the Minister has been called to the other House for a vote. The bells are still ringing so that we will have at least ten minutes to wait. I am not sure that we can get the two matters in so I suggest a break until 3.05 p.m. when we will hopefully fit in the two outstanding Commencement matters. Gabh mo leithscéal.
Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Unfortunately, owing to the voting taking place in the Lower House, the Minister who is due to take the next two Commencement matters cannot be here. Therefore, I have to propose a suspension of the sitting until 3.30 p.m.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: This is unacceptable. We have Commencement matters which are due to be taken and this should not be happening. We appreciate the problem, but perhaps it might be recorded that we are unhappy that Ministers are not in a position to take the Commencement matters. It shows disregard for the House.
Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): I accept that. It also affects Senator Colm Burke. All I can do is apologies and propose that the sitting be suspended until 3.30 p.m. when we will have the Order of Business.
Order of Business
An Cathaoirleach: I call the House to order. Before I call on the Acting Leader, Senator Noone, to outline the Order of Business, I want to apologise to Senators Ó Clochartaigh and Colm Burke. Due to votes in the other House the Minister, who had been scheduled to reply to their Commencement matters, had to leave. The matter was outside of my control and I shall facilitate them another time.
Senator Catherine Noone: The Order of Business is No. 1 as stated on the Order Paper; and No. 2, Companies (Amendment) Bill 2017, Second Stage to be taken at 4.45 p.m. with time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Senator Catherine Ardagh: I would like to again raise the issue of housing, in particular the Government's failure to meet social housing needs across the country. New statistics are alarming because they show that only one new modular home has been built in this city. As much as €40 million has been spent on hotels and 300 houses had been promised up until 1 July yet, as we know, only one has been built. The target in the housing action plan is that 1,000 new homes will be constructed in 2017. The original target was 5,000 but it will not be achieved. We know from statistics that up to 10,000 new homes are required each year to meet the demand for housing. That is absolutely appalling. The Minister must come to this House to urgently address this matter. We need a proper social housing building programme like we had in the 1950s. The Minister must accept this and forget about public private partnerships. The Government must start to build houses for people.
The second matter that I would like to raise is a good news story. I congratulate the community in Ballyfermot that organised a Passion festival over the weekend that was comprised of workshops, plays and equestrian exhibitions. I congratulate them on their community spirit. The manner in which they organised the festival should be a model for other communities across the country.
I remind the House that today is the 50th anniversary of the free travel pass, introduced by a Fianna Fáil Government. This policy is one of the great success stories of our State and a welcome return to those who have contributed to our country. I hope that the Government will continue and, perhaps, extend the free travel pass scheme throughout the country such that the Bus Éireann dispute will be resolved.
Senator Rose Conway-Walsh: I commend the Irish Postmasters Union on its protest this morning outside the Taoiseach's offices. I know they did not do that lightly but out of desperation in terms of what is happening to rural post offices. I call on the Government to immediately implement the recommendations of the Kerr report. It is vital that our post offices remain open. They are a vibrant and essential part of our communities. We must stand with the Irish Postmasters Union to ensure that further post offices are not closed and that some of those already closed are re-opened.
I would also like to indicate my opposition and that of Sinn Féin to the reports in today's newspapers that home care for the elderly is to be means tested. I have a clear message for this or any Government that tries to do that - it is not going to happen. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have persecuted the elderly and most vulnerable in our communities in terms of health care and home care. I have said often enough that in my own county Fianna Fáil cut 32,000 hours in one year alone. This was followed by a cut of thousands more hours by Fine Gael, which continues to have a devastating effect on the elderly and other services such as acute hospital services, which are already over-stretched. Sinn Féin has long campaigned for home care to be on a statutory footing. I welcome the review by the Health Research Board but it must never be used as an excuse to means test the home help service. I suggest that instead of paying civil servants to forensically examine the bank and credit union accounts of elderly citizens so as to extrapolate every last cent from them, the Government should spend that money on upholding the right to health care, including the right to home help, of all of our citizens.
Senator Frances Black: Today, I wish to highlight an issue around direct provision. Our treatment of the thousands of people in direct provision throughout this country is nothing short of a scandal. A country coming to terms with the awful abuse inflicted on people in the mother and baby homes, the Magdalen laundries and other State and religious institutions is now sowing the seeds for future shame. The treatment of people fleeing some of the worst abuses around the world is shameful. The fact that adults and children have to live on €19.10 and €9.60 per week, respectively, means they are treated as second class citizens and not given the respect they deserve. Direct provision is operated as a profit-making enterprise by private companies and individuals. Barlow Properties Limited in Cork has received €40 million from the State for running five direct provision centres. East Coast Catering has received €90 million since 2000. Bridgestock, based in Roscommon, has received at least €68 million for its role in running direct provision centres. Is this the best use of our resources? People in direct provision do not have cooking facilities, which leads to children not learning how to cook as they have never seen their parents do so. In Northern Ireland, asylum seekers have cooking facilities. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work and they are not entitled to social welfare benefits. They are also excluded from social housing and free third level education. Former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness has predicted that a future Government will end up publicly apologising for damage done by the direct provision system.
The Health Service Executive has documented the negative health effects on asylum seekers of not being able to work. It reported this lack of entitlement to work when this restriction extends over a long period may further compound mental health issues, with boredom, depression, a sense of isolation and loss of self-esteem commonly reported symptoms. A shocking statistic is that depression and mental health problems in the direct provision system are up to five times higher than in the wider community. A study carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons found the length of the asylum process was associated with an increase in psychiatric disorders. The State has an obligation to treat people in direct provision with dignity and respect. This can only be achieved when there is an admission by the Government that the conditions in the centres are below standard and the facilities are improved. Children who live in direct provision must be allowed to continue their education by receiving free third level education. I ask the Acting Leader when does the Government intend to address the issue of direct provision, which was initially intended as a stopgap measure before people's asylum application cases were heard.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I join others in expressing hope we will see resolution of the Bus Éireann strike in the talks at the Labour Court, which are due to take place this afternoon. We all regret the fact that talks broke down late last night at the Workplace Relations Commission.
I ask the Leader for support in drafting an all-party motion condemning the appalling chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria last week, in the town of Khan Sheikhun, leaving dreadful carnage in its week, with the 89 people we saw dead, hundreds more injured and the terrible pictures we saw of suffering children and other civilians in the wake of those attacks. It is clear that, as one diplomat put it, Russia was either complicit or incompetent and certainly involved in the strike. I see the G7 leaders have not, in fact, reached an agreement on sanctions for Russia this afternoon and divisions are emerging as to the best way forward in terms of resolving the dreadful war in Syria. Certainly what last week has shown us is there can be no place for President Assad in the future of Syria, and he has reached yet another milestone in his dreadful treatment of his own people. I ask the Acting Leader that we might come together, as we did previously at the time of the bombing of Aleppo, to draft a motion condemning Syria and its Russian allies for the chemical weapons attack, calling for accountability for the perpetrators and calling for united international action against the Syrian regime of Assad.
I also ask the Acting Leader for debate on policing and express regret and concern the Tánaiste did not attend the AGSI conference. At a time of crisis in policing, it would have been appropriate for her, or at least a Minister of State in her place, to have attended the conference. It is the norm for the Minister with responsibility for justice to attend. There has been a good deal of adverse commentary from among the middle management ranks of the Garda as a result of this.
Tomorrow at 11 a.m. on Kildare Street outside Leinster House we will have an Oireachtas all-party cyclists' group convening for a photo opportunity. All Members and colleagues are welcome to come along and bring their bicycles. Members of the Dublin Cycling Campaign will be present, with extra bicycles for people who cannot bring their own. It is important to have an all-party cyclists' group. We had one in previous sessions of the Seanad and Dáil. The event tomorrow is to highlight the importance of promoting cycling and road safety, particularly given the high number of cyclists recently killed on our roads. In particular, we will seek support for the Bill proposed in the Dáil by Deputy Ciaran Cannon and the Minister of State, Deputy Regina Doherty, on the Road Traffic (Minimum Passing Distance of Cyclists) Bill and look for an increase in budget resources for cycling infrastructure. I ask anyone who is interested in joining us to come along just for ten minutes at the front of Leinster House at 11 a.m.
Senator Maura Hopkins: I raise concerns regarding stroke services. This morning, the Irish Heart Foundation launched its stroke manifesto. I, the Irish Heart Foundation, the many people throughout the country who have had strokes and their families have a number of very serious concerns. While we know there have been improvements, particularly in terms of acute care, there are serious challenges with regard to access to specialist and timely rehabilitation. We know that stroke is the biggest cause of adult physical disability in this country. We know that access to specialist and timely rehabilitation can improve patient outcomes. We also know that there are significant challenges in community settings with regard to long-term support and long-term rehabilitation for people who are living in the community. We also need to ensure that we avoid the prospect of people going to long-term care when they could be cared for at home with proper supports.
I also raise concerns over the prevention end. GPs should routinely carry out A-fib and blood pressure screening, which must be part of the new GP contract. We need to recognise the urgency with which changes need to be made with regard to stroke services. The Irish Heart Foundation is not asking for more resources. It is asking for a restructuring of services putting more money into rehabilitation and community services so that we are not spending increased unnecessary amounts of money on long-term care.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan: The Acting Leader may have noted a statement by business leaders in the North this morning calling on the parties to work together to restore devolved government. They stated that stable government was needed to guarantee peace, to attract investment, to deliver job creation and to advance social progress. I support that statement and their call on the political parties in the North to get together and work together to get devolved government back on track.
The alternative, as every Member here will know, is shocking. It will be the return of direct British rule into this country, something that I and most people here would see as a retrograde step. There are always differences in politics, but the differences dividing the two main parties fade into insignificance when one thinks of the reality of the reintroduction of British rule into this country. I call on the main parties there to do what politicians are meant to do and work out a deal. It is not easy to work out a deal especially when they do not have the support-----
The last time I spoke on the North here, I was chastised by Sinn Féin Members as if I had no right to speak on the North. I am very proud of the record of my people and my background in getting the British out of our part of the country.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan: It is not easy. It was not easy for Fianna Fáil to go into a confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael. It was not easy for Fine Gael to accept it and to have to trim its sails, but that is the reality of politics. It is time to grow up. We cannot be calling on the British Prime Minister, the American President and everybody else around the world to jump to attention. It must be done for ourselves. I emphasise that expression.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Ní bheidh mé ar fáil tarraingt isteach sa díospóireacht sin ag an bpointe sin mar tá rud éigin eile le rá agam. We were to debate an issue on the Commencement. I appreciate there was a difficulty with that and I accept the Cathaoirleach's apology and that the situation was unavoidable. I met some of the workers, known as the sleepover workers, who work for agencies that get section 39 funding from the HSE in organisations such as Galway Simon, COPE, etc. Up to 2014 these workers were subject to a Labour Court ruling that acknowledged that the time they spent on those sleepovers in the work environment are to be acknowledged as working time, that they should be paid at the minimum wage and that was to be implemented across the sector. I understand the HSE pays its staff who do similar work but that the agencies did not because they did not have the funding through the HSE. There has been a subsequent increase to the minimum wage. At the time and to the present day, those workers still only get €4.50 an hour for their night shifts. Some of those shifts can be up to 17 hours long. It is totally and utterly unacceptable. I understand that in the organisations in Galway alone there may be over 120 or 130 people affected. These people, as they said to me yesterday, are the real front-line workers in this scenario. They are working with people who have severe addiction, alcohol and mental health issues. They are keeping them off the streets. They are keeping them alive in many cases. They have been very patient. They are not the type of people who want to go out on strike because they know if they do lives will be put in jeopardy. They have been balloted by their union, IMPACT, for industrial action and I support that call. The issue we need to raise with the Minister is whether the Government accepts the Labour Court recommendation? Will it direct the HSE to make the moneys available to these agencies so they can support these workers?
In light of us not being able to have the debate today, will the Acting Leader contact the relevant Minister of State's office? I understand she is amendable. She was here earlier and had a written statement prepared which she might make available to us so we can try to move the issue on.
Senator Maria Byrne: I welcome that an additional 47,000 school children will benefit from school meals and school breakfasts. They will join the other 200,000. It is a joint initiative between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection. It is very positive. They have written to a number of schools that are not considered DEIS schools. I encourage all schools that have received the letter to take up this offer. It has been proven in the past that having a good healthy breakfast helps performance in school. I compliment both Departments. It is a very positive initiative. I encourage all schools that have received a letter to take up the offer.
Senator Lynn Ruane: I join with Senator Ardagh in congratulating the Ballyfermot community where I attended the re-enactment of the passion of the Christ over the past two days. It was a live play for two days. I commend the parish in Ballyfermot which participated and allowed the use of the church for what might have been seen as a very modern day telling of the story of Christ. Jesus was played by a woman. There was a live eviction. It was very topical. It says a lot about the church in Ballyfermot that it played a part, got involved and attended the event for the two days even though it was a redoing of the passion of the Christ.
I mark this week by acknowledging something that could tie in with moving the Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill 2016 along a bit. My friend William Maughan and his girlfriend were murdered this week two years ago. It was a double murder. His girlfriend Anna was pregnant at the time. It was a huge tragedy for the community of Tallaght and for the Traveller community, which William was from. William was murdered. The bodies have not been found. He was murdered because he refused to do certain things for a criminal gang. It would be ideal for us to call on the Tánaiste to come in to discuss criminality and the routes out of criminality for people who want to change the course of their lives. There are people who, in trying to do so, are losing their lives. We should look at how we can create some sort of support for people who are looking to move out of criminality. I send condolences to the Maughan family and hope some progress is being made in recovering the bodies of William and Anna.
Senator Terry Leyden: I welcome the decision by the Government this morning on the relocation of families affected by serious flooding. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, on a voluntary scheme of relocation. There are situations in certain parts of Ireland, particularly down in the callows in south Roscommon and along the River Shannon, where flooding will just not be solved. It is a voluntary scheme which has about €2 million this year. Every case should be taken on its merits. Lough Funshinagh is rising all the time now compared to some years ago.
Nothing is really new about these policies. In 1978, I was a Deputy and we relocated families in the Clonown area of south Roscommon. There was not much of a fanfare about it. We did it through the Fianna Fáil Party and realistically so. Nothing is particularly new about this. I do not mind the Government parties copying a good policy that was in place a long time ago; that is welcome. I have come across cases where there is continuous flooding and the only solution is to move to higher ground. It is a tragedy to see families displaced by flooding. It was a terrible year but I am delighted to welcome the scheme. There was also a similar scheme in south Roscommon in the 1950s. The River Shannon has been a great asset but it has also been a great problem for the people of the Clonown area, in particular. I wish the scheme well and I hope people will be assisted to relocate on a voluntary basis.
However, I would like to raise a question about the Luas. Anybody walking through the city of Dublin can see the extraordinary disruption and mayhem that is being caused. As many others and I predicted over the past 20 years, the construction of an on-street tram network has created catastrophic conflict with the other traffic coming into the city. That is the reason for pushing it into side streets and pedestrianising College Green. It is an absolute mess and it will be infested with electronic lines to run the trams and so on. They have a completely half-assed approach to the whole thing and I use that phrase deliberately because I was down Marlborough Street a week or so ago where there were decent men working. I said, "I see you are doing half of one side of the pavement. When are you doing the other half?" They replied they were not. Half a footpath on one side of a street where Luas tracks are being laid is being repaired and nothing is being done on the other side. Parnell Street is an absolute disaster. One is taking one's life in one's hands if one walks down Parnell Street given how uneven and broken is the pavement. They are doing half the pavement on only one side as well. This is appalling in the centre of a capital city.
We should try to have a proper, joined-up approach. Vienna was at the stage we are at now in respect of developing a light tram system in the centre of the city. In 1974, they conducted a review and on expert advice, they pulled it. The city has many trams but they all run on the outskirts of the city. The central core of the city is reserved for underground rail. The city architect of Vienna said exactly what I said about the electrical lines for the trams creating a visual obstruction. He said that this is a beautiful city and tourists have not come here to see a spaghetti of electric lights. I hope we can have a debate on transport in Dublin, particularly an underground option. We need to think again. We have the tram, which we cannot unravel now, but we should have an underground system. Dublin is the only capital city in the EU that does not have one.
Senator Colm Burke: It is important to respond to the criticism of the home care package in the context of the discussion document. The Minister has examined the provision of home care in four different countries. The document is opening up the debate on home care. I am a little disappointed that it is being criticised when it is barely off the printer. The issue is one for public debate and I look forward to hearing concrete proposals from Sinn Féin, particularly on how it would fund home care. We are facing major demographic changes as people live longer, with the number of people aged over 65 set to increase from 600,000 to more than 1 million. We must plan for this scenario and the Minister of State with responsibility for older people is setting out a clear plan for how we will move forward in this matter.
Senator Colm Burke: Sinn Féin is very good at supporting water wasters. I am concerned it will propose wasting more money. Are Sinn Féin Senators embarrassed by confirmation that the party supports water wasters, as it has done for the past 12 months? It charges people in Northern Ireland for water but seems to have a problem doing so down here.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I spoke previously about the difficulties asylum seekers have faced since the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015. People requesting asylum must first outline their case in a lengthy document of some 60 pages, which they are required to return not later than 20 working days from the receipt of the international protection questionnaire, or IPO 2 form, and covering letter from the authorities. This 20-day deadline continues to be an insufficient period to answer fully all questions on the IPO 2 application form and avail of subsidised legal advice or associated language translation assistance.
As matters stand, many asylum seekers do not know how or where to get legal advice and such counsel is essential when completing such a significant document. The international protection office stated it will be flexible regarding this deadline, which it describes as administrative, and I have no doubt it means to be flexible. While this clarification is welcome, it is a temporary and informal approach which does not go far enough to allay anxiety among refugees fleeing persecution or those who face a real risk of suffering serious harm in other countries.
For this reason, I call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality to consider extending the deadline to at least 25 working days to help all applicants. I urge the Minister to do this now to avoid further confusion and distress and ensure there are no unnecessary delays in processing applications in the new system. Anecdotally, I am hearing that legal services are under severe pressure, which is causing a major backlog. I heard, for example, that no applicants were interviewed in the international protection office last week because of this backlog. The State runs a risk of a court challenge being made to the current time limit for the return of the form because it is proving to be unworkable based on the anecdotal reports I am hearing about the backlog in the system and the difficulties asylum seekers and applicants face.
I ask the Minister not only to consider extending the deadline but also to review the length of the IPO 2 application form to assess whether it can be streamlined and made shorter. Delays in determining asylum cases mean individuals will spend more time in direct provision centres instead of being swiftly integrated into society as welcome migrants. Perhaps we can return to this issue during the rescheduled debate.
I note with concern allegations that appeared in a Sunday newspaper at the weekend claiming that residents at a direct provision centre in Mosney were paying higher than average prices for basic food items at an on-site store. I do not know if the claims are true but they are very serious and should be investigated by the Department.
Senator Tim Lombard: I have raised previously the absence of guidelines on solar farms. The epidemic of planning permission grants for solar farms over the past 12 months to keep Ireland lighting 24/7 needs to be dealt with legislatively and guidelines need to be put in place. Today in Kinsale, County Cork, planning permission was granted for another solar farm by An Bord Pleanála against its own inspector’s report. Proper legislation needs to be put in place. When the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, addresses the issue of renewable energy feed-in tariffs in the next few months, he will have to look at the number of solar farms because we have a major glut of them. An Bord Pleanála’s decision today proved we have a glut with the inspector doing one thing and the board doing another. This is an important issue and we need to legislate for guidelines in this area sooner rather than later.
Senator Máire Devine: It is apt timing that this representative of "wasters.com" throughout this country will raise the issue of Ireland’s water and the water commission which continues to sit in session today to discuss its report on the future of our water. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of people have marched through our capital, as well as various cities, towns and villages, demanding domestic water charges be abolished, never to return, including charges for group schemes, the metering programme to be scrapped as soon as possible, and the assurance we need for our children’s children's inheritance, namely, a referendum to guarantee public ownership of our water.
The adage "a week is a long time in politics" is also apt. A few short days ago, the majority of the 20-member water committee, including the flip-flop Fianna Fáil Party, which was the bright original spark for the water charges, indicated contentment with the draft report. Lo and behold, however, just yesterday supposed fresh legal advice from the same senior counsel - I do not know how that happened - allowed a U-turn. The U-turn will put the emphasis on its own interpretation of the European Union's Water Framework Directive.
Senator Máire Devine: I am talking on the back of the protest at the weekend and that Fianna Fáil is not quite ready to pull the Government down. Accordingly, it is acquiescing to the demands of Fine Gael and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to save face.
The important point from the wonderful protest and demonstration on Saturday is that the wasters in this country will not give up and allow the sneaky back door privatisation agenda. No matter how far it is pushed forward, it will not be a viable option. The law has been used to override the democratic opinion of the nation, of the hundreds of thousands who have protested and voted-in a majority of Deputies in the last election who were for the abolition of charges, with Fianna Fáil coming in at the last minute for the suspension of water charges.
Senator Máire Devine: Senator Colm Burke referred to water charges in the North. He sounds like a disgruntled and ignorant broken record. It is about time he educated himself. We will do a statement on that matter if he needs it.
An Cathaoirleach: I remind Senators, whether it is on Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or Government policy, on the Order of Business, they should raise an issue and ask a question of the Leader. It is not a contest between the various parties on various policies. It is unwise to go down that road as it only leads to tit-for-tat. I am getting a bit fed up of it up here, day in and day out. Many Members are to blame on both sides.
Senator Gerry Horkan: I will certainly try not to continue in the vein the Cathaoirleach is complaining about. Senator Ardagh raised the issue of the 50th anniversary of the free travel scheme. It was a provision from Charles J. Haughey's first budget when he was Minister for Finance and it has been a fantastic success over the years. I do not believe any Government will try to remove it. Many people cannot really benefit from the free travel pass because Bus Éireann buses are in the 19th day of not serving residents. It creates huge problems for people who use the bus services, including students trying to get to school and to work. I am not talking about school buses but about people trying to get to college. Equally, there are problems for older people who may not be in a position to drive any more or do not have a car. It also causes problems for our tourism industry.
We should remind the Minister that, as well as having responsibility for transport, he also has responsibility for tourism. He is responsible, as the 100% shareholder on our behalf in Bus Éireann, for having an involvement in this. It is not good enough that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is going around saying it is nothing to do with him. Bus Éireann was probably the jewel in the crown of CIE for many years. It was the company which required the least subsidy. It is losing €9 million a year at the moment. It losing €500,000 a day during this strike. We have already managed to have Bus Éireann lose more money in the last 19 days than it lost in the entire last year, based on the figures available, which puts the company in very serious financial difficulty. I call on the Minister to come to the House and explain to us exactly why he will not get involved. I never mentioned a chequebook, and I do not think many people mentioned chequebooks, but he is required to get involved. The fact that it does not affect his own constituency is not a reason that the Minister should not get involved with Bus Éireann.
When the National Transport Authority was set up, it gave private licences to private operators who operated directly. That took many customers away from Expressway because, understandably, if one wants to go from Galway to Dublin, one would prefer to go direct rather than to go through ten or 11 towns, or 18 or 19 towns - whatever the number - along the way. If Expressway is now operating what is effectively a public service obligation, PSO, service, because it has lost all its main revenue from the customers who are now gone, it is important that we get the Minister in here to explain and express our own issues.
My second, smaller point is that I will be supporting Senator Ivana Bacik. The all-party cycling group is a great idea. I cycle in here as regularly and often as I can, and home as well. It is subject to weather conditions and other things, but it is a great way to get around. I think Bus Éireann-----
Senator Frank Feighan: I ask some Members to look at last weekend's Sunday Business Post in which Mr. Eamon Delaney from the Hibernia Forum wrote a very interesting article about Ireland and the Commonwealth. It reinforces my views that there is no better time than now to rejoin or else be an associate member of the Commonwealth of Nations. He went on to say that Éamon de Valera and Kevin O'Higgins were active members of the Commonwealth. In 1949, a Fine Gael Government, trying to outdo Fianna Fáil, effectively helped reinforce partition of Ireland with a rash act. We accidentally left the Commonwealth and did not really engage any more. Mr. Delaney more or less said that, with Brexit looming, we are dependent on the UK for trade and commerce and he feels that associate status and working together would make Ireland very influential. He went on to say, and I have heard these feelings expressed, that the USA is looking to come on board as either an associate or member of the Commonwealth of Nations. He feels that there is no better time to increase those political and economic links with the UK.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: I had the pleasure of visiting Kinsale two weeks ago, where I was a guest at the presentation of awards at Kinsale Community School, which is probably one of the most finely-run schools in the country. It strikes me that as we approach Easter and the education conference week, this House should acknowledge the tremendous contribution made by education to the economy, the work of teachers throughout this country-----
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: -----and the effort and the time they put in, far outside the classroom, for things like extra-curricular activities. We should acknowledge that. We should also acknowledge the fact that, despite the difficulties in dual union second level schools, they have continued to deliver the curriculum at the highest possible level throughout the school year. I ask that we have a debate in the House solely on the future of further education. What is the plan? We are still slightly adrift, despite the establishment of SOLAS for many years. I would like the Minister to come to the House to debate the subject.
Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor: I, too, have concerns about the report that the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Helen McEntee, is to publish a report from the health review board on the care of elderly persons living at home. People are growing older and there are stress and worry for families who do not know how much care will cost them. There are families who are losing their homes because they are paying so much for care. We need to address that issue. The other concern is that this is to be the first statutory scheme of home care to be introduced in Ireland. There are 5,200 elderly persons on waiting lists for either the home care package, home help or another support. That is unacceptable. The Minister of State must come to the House to address these issues which are of concern. They are being raised with us in our clinics by families for whom they are a worry. Elderly people can no longer afford to pay such an amount and it will be a large sum. While the report has not yet being brought before the House, the main thing is for the Minister of State to ensure people will be able to afford to pay for care. There is no point in putting stress on families and the elderly.
I refer to the strike at Shelbourne Park greyhound stadium and the closure of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium. I welcome those who are present from the Greyhound Owners and Breeders Federation. I have been involved with greyhounds all my life and have bred, trained and raced them. What happened at Harold's Cross was heavy-handed. There was no judgment on the loans which were being serviced. In 2016, €15.5 million was provided for the greyhound industry and the figure this year will be €16.7 million for the greyhound and horse racing industries. There is a betting levy of 1% which was introduced a couple of years ago and raised an extra €1 million. This year it could bring in €2 million to €3 million because online betting is going through the roof owing to the use of mobile phones and other technology. Can we not tell the banks that we can do a deal? We can take the money and repay the loan. It is a legacy issue and I am not here to blame anyone for it. However, staff at Shelbourne Park greyhound stadium have been out of pocket for the past ten weeks, as are farmers, trainers and others who have expenses to meet, including bookmakers who rely for their living on racing at Shelbourne Park and Harold's Cross. Everybody is pointing the finger. The Irish Greyhound Board states it cannot do anything, as does the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. However, the race tracks at Harold's Cross and Shelbourne Park are closed. It is a disgrace. I appeal for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come to the House and someone to take responsibility for this issue. Somebody must do so. It is not good enough to blame somebody else. Let us do what needs to be done. It is sad to see that there will be no Easter cup and that there is a possibility this year that there could be no Irish greyhound derby. Is that not sad? Let somebody take responsibility for this issue and let us have something done.
Senator Catherine Noone: I will respond to all of the Senators who raised matters on the Order of Business. Senator Ardagh raised the issue of rapid housing and I take her comments on board. Significant pressure has been put on local authorities to respond positively, including a quicker procurement competition. The timeframe, apart from the Poppintree project, is for tenants to be housed as soon as possible and local authorities are being put under a lot of pressure to get people into houses by 2017. I am certainly willing to ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss the matter. I also note the Senator's comments, and those of Senator Ruane, about the festival in Ballyfermot, which sounds like a very positive event. Along with Senator Horkan, she also mentioned the 50th anniversary of the free travel pass, which no one would dispute has been a very positive thing for the country.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of the Irish Postmasters Union strike. The Government remains committed to a viable post office network. There has been considerable change in postal services, nationally and internationally, but the commitment is still there. I am willing to ask the Minister to come to the House for a general discussion on the matter, perhaps after Easter. Along with other Senators, the Senator also raised the issue of the elderly home care package. I heard the Minister on the radio this morning. This is a discussion document and nothing has been decided. There is to be a public consultation but there has been an acknowledgement that the existing system is in need of some repair. There is no doubt that the Minister is open on this and the Senators who raised the issue are entitled to make positive suggestions on the document. We need to have patience and not to assume the worst. The Minister has acknowledged that there are problems with the existing system and we should remain open-minded and positive about what can be achieved in this area.
Senator Black asked about direct provision, which is very serious, especially in the case of children. The Minister of State has been bereaved and we apologise for the fact that the schedule needed to be amended. Following the Senator's and Senator Mullen's comments, a debate would be very useful and it would afford them the opportunity to raise the issues they raised passionately today.
Senator Bacik raised the Bus Éireann dispute. I was very disappointed that the series of WRC discussions ended without agreement. Today is day 19 of the all-out strike but it has been referred to the Labour Court and both sides will engage with the court as it seeks to resolve the outstanding issues. We all hope to see a fair and acceptable deal emerge so that the disruption to people's travel arrangements, about which Senator Horkan spoke, can end as soon as possible.
Senator Bacik also raised the horrific events in Idlib in Syria, which are completely unacceptable. We all condemn the attack unreservedly, which underlines the need for full accountability for war crimes in Syria. I would agree to the joint motion the Senator suggested in this regard. She also spoke about the Garda conference. My understanding is that the Minister's diary would not allow it and the Minister of State was unavailable, having been bereaved. I will, however, pass on her comments. As for the cyclists group, I urge Members to support her in her efforts, which have been ongoing for a number of years.
Senator Hopkins asked about stroke services, which is a very serious issue for many families throughout the country. There have been improvements in acute care. The Senator raised the problems there have been with rehabilitation and I will ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss the issue. Senator O'Sullivan raised a very important issue regarding Northern Ireland and urged support for Northern Ireland politicians to come together and make an agreement that is palatable to all sides. Nobody wants Northern Ireland to be ruled from Westminster again. That would be a very retrograde step, and I would certainly support the Senator in her comments.
I agree to provide the written statement from the Minister. She had it in her hand here earlier but because of a vote in the Dáil was unable to deliver it. I will ensure it is e-mailed to Senator Ó Clochartaigh. The issues that he raised are very significant. There are people working in very difficult areas for those who need support. The Minister is agreeable and I will make sure that happens.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the positive development of 47,000 school meals being provided in a collaboration between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection. We all should hope for a good uptake on this. It is very positive and it is also an opportunity to ensure positive nutrition and to provide children who may not otherwise have received a very nourishing breakfast with food. We often hear that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I would be concerned that this a good quality meal, and we will see that as the scheme is rolled out.
I have mentioned already the festival in Ballyfermot. Senator Ruane also raised the issue of two individuals in her constituency who were murdered, which is a tragedy. I pass on my condolences to the families. A debate in this House on criminality and the routes out of it in the near future, perhaps after Easter, is a very constructive suggestion.
Senator Leyden, in an unusual move, is positive about the new scheme introduced by Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, concerning the relocation of families affected by flooding and moving them to higher ground. I acknowledge his positive comments.
Senator Norris raised the issue of the debate which had to be adjourned, which I have explained. He also raised the issue of the Luas. I share his frustrations in many ways, but we must be patient in the name of progress. Construction started in June 2013 and it is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2017. An additional ten million passengers will use this new network. Anyone who uses the existing network finds it a very beneficial mode of transport. The cost of the project is €368 million and it is one of the largest capital investment projects undertaken by the Government. There will be 13 new stops, with eight in the core city area, and it will connect the two existing lines, which is positive. I share the Senator's frustration on the way that it has disrupted the centre of the city. He also asked for a wider debate on transport, which I agree would be a useful one.
Senator Colm Burke referred to the issue of home care packages and I have already spoken about that issue. Senator Mullen raised the asylum seeker issue and the International Protection Act 2015. It is a reasonable suggestion that the time be extended from 20 to 25 days but I do not know what the reaction of the Minister might be to that. I am certainly willing to pass on the Senator's comments. I have mentioned already that a debate on asylum seekers and direct provision by way of update, if nothing else, as to how Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is progressing with his work in this area would be useful. I know he feels very passionately about the area of direct provision, in particular.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of solar farms, which I must confess I do not know much about. It would be good to hear from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on that, and if legislation is required, we should certainly bring it into being.
Senator Devine raised the issue of Irish Water and without getting into the politics of it I will say that the committee is still in session. It is hearing legal evidence, based on the wish of the Senator's party, among others, to hear that legal evidence in the committee. It was happening until quite recently and has now been adjourned to 5.30 p.m., to the best of my knowledge. It is very evident that no party in the Houses of the Oireachtas wishes for Irish Water to be privatised, so it is a non-issue. The committee is still ongoing and we will all hope for a positive outcome from that. Perhaps some people will not because they have made such a platform of Irish Water that they will miss it when it is resolved. Some people will not because some have made such a platform of Irish Water that they will miss it when the issue is resolved.
I have addressed the issue raised by Senator Horkan, the 50th anniversary of free travel and Bus Éireann strikes, satisfactorily I hope. Senator Feighan raised an issue which he has raised several times in the House about the Commonwealth. Certainly with Brexit looming we do have to come up with ideas and perhaps open the debate on our history. I would be willing to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House. Perhaps this issue could be discussed in the context of an overall debate on innovative ways to deal with Brexit although we have assigned one day a week to Brexit. Maybe that could be brought up at the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Senator Craughwell brought up the issue of the Kinsale community school which he visited recently and wanted to acknowledge education practitioners throughout the country. We all acknowledge the essential work they do on a daily basis. A debate on further education would be useful. SOLAS exists but an update from the Minister for Education and Skills on it after Easter would be good.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of home care packages and the discussion document which has been published today by the Minister. It is a discussion document and we have the right, as does the public, to contribute to that. I think we would all agree with Senator Butler that the Irish ladies soccer team deserves congratulations on its win last night. Although they have been negative for the past few weeks the publicity for the issue has been positive. I think many more people attended the match and the timing of the match was good because children were off school and were able to attend. I also note the Senator's comments on Harold's Cross and Shelbourne Park. The situation is a mess and I will certainly attend the briefing to hear from representatives of the greyhound industry. If there is anything that can be done by the Government I am sure it will be done but my understanding is that there were serious debts involved and the Harold's Cross situation was restructured in order to satisfy those. Obviously it is a very important industry in Ireland, along with horse racing. We all have a great affection for greyhound racing and if there is anything the Minister can do I am sure he will do it.
Companies (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor): I am pleased to bring the Companies (Amendment) Bill 2017 before the Seanad today. This is a short Bill, comprising only two sections dealing with a particular and discrete issue in the law on financial reporting by companies, namely, the application of section 279 of the Companies Act 2014 which permits certain companies to prepare and file Companies Act financial statements using the American standard known as US Generally Accepted Accounting Principals, or US GAAP. As matters stand, this section will no longer apply after December 2020.
As many Senator's are aware, the Government’s original intention was to address this issue as part of the companies (statutory audits) Bill. In February, we published the general scheme of the audits Bill and drafting is well under way. It is my intention to bring it to the Oireachtas in the autumn. However, since the publication of the general scheme, there have been calls by companies that use section 279 and some Members of the Oireachtas, including Senators, to bring this particular provision forward earlier. I am pleased to note, therefore, that the Government has responded to these calls by bringing forward this Bill in a short period. I will shortly speak in greater detail on the content of the Bill and hope Senators will agree it is appropriate.
While the Bill may be short, the history of this issue is not. It is the general rule of Irish company law that companies prepare and file financial statements using the international financial reporting standards, IFRS, as adopted by the European Union or in accordance with the provisions of the EU accounting directive using the Irish generally accepted accounting practices. If a company is listed on a regulated market within the European Union, it must use the IFRS standards. Section 279 of the Companies Act 2014 is an exception to this general rule. The section was first introduced in the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and subsequently amended in the Companies (Amendment) Act 2012. Most recently, the 2012 provision was re-enacted in the Companies Act 2014.
The section permits companies that are not listed on a regulated market in the EU and meet certain other criteria to prepare and file their financial statements using US GAAP, rather than either IFRS or Irish GAAP. This provision was intended to facilitate companies that are registered in Ireland but listed in the United States. Once a company is listed in the US, it is subject to the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission and obliged to prepare and file financial statements in the US in accordance with US GAAP. Without section 279, such a company would also have to prepare and file a separate set of financial statements using IFRS or Irish GAAP. In other words, it would have to prepare two very different sets of financial statements in respect of the same financial year. At the time the provision was introduced, the Oireachtas accepted that such a requirement would impose an administrative burden on the companies in question that was not merited. The Oireachtas also framed the provision as a temporary measure, with an end point after which it could not be used. This was due to an expectation that the Securities and Exchange Commission would permit the use of IFRS for the relevant companies. There were also international efforts toward convergence between US GAAP and lFRS.
The Securities and Exchange Commission still does not permit IFRS for companies known as US domestic issuers and it seems unlikely it will do so in the near future. Furthermore, the discussions on convergence have not come to a conclusion. Given that the circumstances that gave rise to the provision still pertain, it is appropriate to review the end date before it passes. The current deadline in section 279 is that it will only apply for financial years ending not later than 31 December 2020. As a result, companies will no longer be able to avail of this provision for financial years that end after that date. From that date onwards, they will be required to prepare financial statements in both US GAAP in the US and either IFRS or Irish GAAP in Ireland. Last September, the Department conducted a public consultation process on section 279. In particular, it asked for views on whether the deadline should be extended. If so, it asked for views on the length of time that would be appropriate. The Department received 23 submissions, all of which are published on the Department’s website. All those who responded supported the extension of the deadline. While a few stakeholders looked for longer or open ended timeframes, most settled on an additional ten years.
The Department also spoke with the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority. The views of the Minister for Finance were also sought. As a result, the Government has agreed that the deadline should be extended by a further ten years. The main reasons for this decision include that the public consultation showed support for an extension among stakeholders such as members of the accounting profession and representative bodies of business. There were no objections. Second, the circumstances that gave rise to the deadline in section 279 have not improved. Third, the relevant companies have been using US GAAP for several years now, so it is easier to compare historical figures if the format remains the same in future. Moreover, neither the Department nor the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority is aware of any complaints about the use of US GAAP in Ireland. Accordingly, section 1 of the Bill provides that section 279 will continue to apply to financial years ending no later than 31 December 2030. Apart from the deadline, one of the other conditions in section 279 is that the financial statements must still comply with the financial reporting requirements of Part 6 and its associated Schedules in the Companies Act. In other words, these financial statements must be in line with our national law. This important obligation will remain unchanged by today’s Bill.
As well as extending the deadline, the Bill has a second purpose, which is to address the fact that the use of section 279 is not entirely without concern. Some of the companies that qualify to use US GAAP are companies that came to Ireland from the US following a so-called inversion process. Many of these companies have brought or grown their investment in Ireland. In some cases, their businesses in Ireland are substantial. Nevertheless, inversions can be damaging to Ireland’s international reputation. As Senators may be aware, they have received negative attention in the US. Ireland’s standing abroad must be borne in mind. The availability of section 279 for companies has been suggested as a potential factor in attracting US companies that are inverting to Ireland. In that light, the proposal in the Bill to extend the deadline in section 279 could be seen as a measure to encourage more inversions in future. Accordingly, the Government is proposing to close off section 279 at this time to any new companies. Therefore, section 1 of the Bill introduces a new criterion for qualification. That new criterion is the requirement that a company has been registered in Ireland before the commencement of this Bill. In summary, section 1 of the Bill extends the deadline for companies using US GAAP for a further ten years, bringing that deadline to the end of 2030. Section 1 also provides that any company that forms after the Bill comes into operation will not be eligible.
Before I conclude, I will briefly deal with the timing of the Bill. The existing deadline of the year 2020 may seem a long way off now but the companies that rely on section 279 consider it a tight timetable. They have made representations to the Government and Members of this House asking that the Oireachtas reconsider that deadline at this stage, rather than in a few months' time as originally intended. This is for two reasons. First, the companies will need to introduce new accounting systems to prepare financial statements in either IFRS or Irish GAAP. Second, both IFRS and Irish GAAP require comparative information in respect of the preceding financial year. This information must be restated in terms of IFRS or Irish GAAP, as the case may be, when IFRS or Irish GAAP is first used. In effect, this requires restatement of two earlier balance sheets. If the current deadline of 2020 stands, the companies are clear that they will need to start their preparations straight away. The Government accepts that the companies need clarity now as to whether the deadline in section 279 is to be extended. For that reason, we have agreed to introduce the provisions that are now in section 1 of this Bill earlier than was originally planned, as part of the forthcoming statutory audits Bill. For the same reason, the Government has also placed a priority on the enactment of this Bill.
The Bill represents a timely and flexible response to the needs of enterprise and to the concerns for our long-term reputation. It respects the importance of transparency for third parties. They will continue to have access to financial information in a format that is comparable with the information that is already available on these companies. Finally, it respects the policy of proportionate regulation. I commend the Bill to the House.
Senator Aidan Davitt: Fianna Fáil supports the swift introduction into Irish law of the Companies (Amendment) Bill 2017, which will extend the current expiry date of 31 December 2020 to enable qualifying companies, incorporated in Ireland, to prepare and file financial statements using US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP, rather than International Financial Reporting Standards, IFRS. The extension is for ten years to December 2030.
In 2009, under a Fianna Fáil-led Government, a temporary exemption was introduced that enabled companies to prepare their financial statements in accordance with US GAAP. This was subsequently referenced under section 279(2) of the Companies Act 2014. The Bill will give long overdue legal certainty and clarity to the companies concerned by strengthening the regulatory competitiveness of Ireland in this area and secure jobs in the medium term. This is more salient than ever with Brexit on the horizon and a more competitive business landscape likely in the US under the new Administration. There was an impending requirement for SEC-listed and Irish incorporated companies to file accounts under both US GAAP and IFRS. However, a previous convergence project between both standards has stalled. Fianna Fáil has pressed for this expiry extension over the past 18 months and on Committee and Report Stages of the Companies (Accounting) Bill 2016 in the Dáil, in order to safeguard 8,000 highly-skilled jobs. Legal certainty was urgently needed by these companies which, in the absence of an extension to the 2020 expiry date, would have had to start making extensive preparations to meet new standards under IFRS guidelines. The deadline for the 2020 expiry date would effectively be 2018. It has been estimated that the cost of introducing and implementing the IFRS requirements would be a minimum of $20 million before the end of each company’s financial year in 2017 due to reallocation and introduction of extra resources and staff training while streamlining the different systems required to meet these compliance obligations.
It was only after Fianna Fáil indicated on Report Stage of the Companies (Accounting) Bill 2016 in the Dáil that we were going to introduce an amendment in the Seanad to extend the current expiry date that the Minister magically at the eleventh hour was able to fast forward legislative proposals at Cabinet last week to show cause on this issue. Therefore, the flagged amendment by Fianna Fáil has expedited the legislative process for this issue and, thankfully, awoken the Government.
Senator Michael McDowell: I, too, welcome the legislation and support its passage in early course. It seems to me that we should do everything we can to facilitate reasonable accommodation of the companies to which this legislation will be of benefit in current circumstances and as a matter of general policy. Am I right in thinking that we are just dealing with Second Stage today?
The other point I was going to make is that I am slightly perplexed, although I take it on good faith from the Minister, as to why section 2(2) was inserted at all. Is it suggested that the amendment to be made by paragraphs (a) and (b) of section 1 might be made on a different day from the amendment made in paragraph (c) or will it all be done at one time? If it is not, why are we providing that the Minister can appoint different days for different provisions to come into effect? On the logic of the Minister's own statement, it seems to me that it should all commence as one package. Rather than delay things and propose amendments or the deletion of section 2(2), if the Minister is indicating to the House that it is her intention to commencement everything on a particular day as an entire complete package and as quickly as possible after the Bill has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, I am happy. However, I do not know why the boiler plate commencement provision allowing for different provisions to be commenced on different days has been inserted into the text of the legislation if it is intended to bring it into operation as quickly as possible after the Houses have enacted it.
Senator Michael McDowell: She can deal with it in her response. Apart from that, I wish the Minister well and I commend the Fianna Fáil Party on having created the conditions under which the matter has been brought to an early conclusion, I hope, in this House.
There is not much to say on this short Bill other than to say that I welcome the amendment to the Companies Act. Sinn Féin is happy that the benefits of the continuation of section 279 are not compromised by damages to the Exchequer. In short, the Bill extends the deadline in section 279 of the Companies Act 2014 to December 2030 so that certain companies can continue to prepare and file their financial statements using the American accounting standards. The amendment also provides that the exemption in section 279 will not be available to companies that do not avail of it now. I recognise that both the US generally accepted accounting standards and the international reporting mechanisms are to a high standard. This continued exemption provides an ease of doing business and spares some companies the associated costs of switching systems.
I have examined the various submissions on the Department's website regarding the Bill. It is fair to say that the extension is largely uncontentious and welcomed by most. Of the 23 submissions received, 22 stated that the deadline should be extended. Only one submission - that of the Irish Tax Institute - did not make a recommendation. The submission by Chambers Ireland argued that failure to allow for an extension would result in a significant cost to companies and that extending the provision would maintain Ireland's international competitiveness.
I welcome that companies will not endure excessive costs if we pass the legislation. Excessive costs for businesses would be of no benefit to the Exchequer. There is no reason to add financial pressures to the companies that currently avail of the exemption. Ensuring that companies will not come under excessive financial pressures also ensures that the ordinary workers of Ireland will not suffer under business that is being compromised by undue costs. Overall, I welcome the extension of the provision within the Companies Act. It makes Ireland a more attractive destination for some companies, with no apparent cost to the ordinary Irish citizen.
I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome and commend the Bill. Contrary to the assertions of my colleague, Senator Aidan Davitt, who probably had to read a script prepared by Fianna Fáil HQ, this comes as a result of multiple sides of the House being canvassed by major international companies that will be subjected to what I think we all agree would be unnecessary cost. It was one of the few things that united us all at the Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. There was no dissenting voice. This was an issue that had to be addressed. It was originally intended that the Minister would deal with it in the statutory auditing legislation, but it was decided that it would be provided for in separate legislation. We also did not want it to delay the Companies (Accounting) Bill, as that is very important to small business, which wanted it expedited as quickly as possible. The Minister has been as good as her word. Having been canvassed by various companies, I canvassed her on it. It made absolute sense to the Department and the Minister and I think we are all agreed that it was something that needed to be done and done quickly to give comfort to companies which would have been exposed to millions of euros of unnecessary expense.
When we speak as a House on helping business to create more employment, whether it be that of small or medium enterprises, home-grown businesses or foreign direct investment and multinationals, we all have one purpose at heart, which is not to create unnecessary expense for business. This was a classic case. I, therefore, commend the Minister on taking such speedy action. It is important that we remember where we were. I am not trying to score political points. These are just facts.
Senator James Reilly: This is important. We may forget that the level of unemployment was at more than 15%. It is down to 6.4%. More than 2 million people are back at work, but we have to fight for every job and ensure that every business gets every opportunity to create that extra job. We want SMEs to be successful. One extra job in every SME means 80,000 more jobs overall. Extra jobs in existing FDI companies are also very important and we should not create unnecessary problems for them. We all need to be vigilant and we are all open to people approaching us if they come with sensible solutions to what look like problems we can all grasp and deal with.
The Minister has been very quick to respond. She said it was a short Bill but I am reminded as I often am by a certain party who is near and dear to me that good goods come in small parcels. The Bill is indeed that. It is short and to the point but it is also very effective and necessary. I welcome it and commend the Minister on it. I thank all of my colleagues in the Seanad for supporting it and also the jobs committee which was unanimous on the issue. I thank the Department also for its sterling work in getting the Bill together so quickly.
Senator Michael McDowell: In my brevity, I omitted something I ask the Minister to address. Is the Minister in a position to say whether the Bill and the other Bill when passed will be consolidated into a single version of the Companies Act available to the public?
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor): I thank all the Senators for their cross-party support. My approach is to do the best thing no matter who puts it forward. I note to Senator Davitt that the supply and confidence agreement is working. I had intended to put this through in the statutory audits Bill but I am delighted that we could get it through this way. I thank the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the jobs committee and my own officials for the work they do on all the Bills we are bringing through.
Senator McDowell asked about the implementation of the legislation. My intention is to bring it in as soon as possible and on the one day. The Bill uses the standard language which the Senator will understand with his knowledge of legalese. That is how it is stated but we intend to do it on the one day. On his last question, we also intend to put the legislation together.
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