Tales from the Upper House

In what may be the last Seanad, Galway senator Fidelma Healy Eames writes a weekly blog on the happenings in Ireland’s Upper House.

The GAA is a fine example of an organisation not afraid of change; not afraid to invest in a world class stadium; brave to modify some of their historical tenets to reflect a changed world. The club and county structure provide a fantastic means to relay back to HQ what is happening on the ground. If rules of the game need to be changed, after proposals, discussion and a vote, they are changed, the sport no less engaging. Politics should pay heed.

On Wednesday’s Order of Business I argued for the Seanad to have the power to compel high-ranking public officials to appear before the House on issues of public interest. I was moved to make the demand after hearing of the number of business plans submitted by companies to the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA ), that appear to be summarily rejected. These plans run into tens of hundreds of pages, take considerable business time and monies in the range of, wait for it . . . €40,000-€240,000 euro to prepare, money that could be used towards paying down the initial debt due to the taxpayer. My fear . . . NAMA is becoming but a new unwieldy state bureaucracy.

On Thursday, Fianna Fáil's Mark Daly took up the baton, requesting the Attorney General to come before the House on the NAMA legislation. "People whose assets are in NAMA are now buying back their assets at below market value", he said. I look forward to continuing the spotlight on this issue.

In January of this year, Fine Gael published its tourism policy. "Putting Tourism at the Centre of Economic Recovery" argued for a common sense and joined up thinking approach to the tourism sector - a sector that felt the recession first, and perhaps the deepest. The Government has taken speedy and decisive action and the Government's May 10 Jobs Budget responded to the challenge. The Government announced a cut in the VAT rate from 13.5 per cent to nine per cent on tourism related goods and services. Employer PRSI workers earning below €356 a week has been halved. It is estimated that it will positively affect 600,000 workers.

Wednesday is the day for Private Members’ motions in the Seanad. Fine Gael's motion on the Tourism industry saw Minister Leo Varadkar come before the House. I reported to the House the regional, and in particular, the Galway experience of the sector.

"A Galway hotelier informed me that every 50 visitors using his restaurant means he can hire one person. If this figure is extrapolated it shows that for every one million tourists coming to Ireland, there is a potential for 20,000 jobs to be created. I look forward to Ryanair and Aer Lingus taking up the challenge afforded them when we abolished the airport tax."

I also emphasised the importance of regional infrastructure in order to disperse tourists from outside the Capital. Minister Varadkar advised that in the context of the Shannon stopover that, 'there are some cases where it is right to subvent air travel but they are relatively few’. I requested the Minister to consider the Joint Labour Committees (JLCs ), and wages index in the context of the Tourism sector and Sunday working time. Labour costs are a key determinant of our competitiveness. Small, family-owned tourism businesses are crying out for a level playing pitch. Why, for example, should JLCs mean Galway is more costly per Sunday hour than Dublin? I am open to be convinced.

Last week’s Prime Time Investigates series showed up the serious problems with the State’s care service. The frontline of our health system is feeling the strains of funding cuts.

My adjournment motion on Wednesday sought to focus on Community Health care staffing in Galway. A worrying picture is emerging in the areas of Child Developmental Checks and BCG immunisation. I have been reliably informed that 50 per cent of children have yet to receive the BCG. Even more worrying is the fact that 800 non-national 'high risk' children have yet to be immunised against TB in Galway. Due to the public sector recruitment embargo, departing doctors have not been replaced. I fear the incidence of TB could very well rise. Minister of Health, Dr James Reilly has been directly informed of the situation.

This Seanad, despite perception, has all the ingredients for a relevant tool of the people in order to raise issues of national and regional importance. But, it will only ever be as good as the powers conferred on it. The Oireachtas Committee on Procedures and Privileges (CPP ) can take that first step and amend the internal rules of the House - like the GAA - to reflect a changed time.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, Ph.D. is a Galway-based Fine Gael

senator and the party spokesperson on Education and Skills.

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