Thursday, 1 February 2007
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 2, the Prisons Bill 2006 [Seanad] — Second Stage. It is proposed, not withstanding anything in Standing Orders, that parliamentary questions for answer next week on EU matters shall be taken on the same day as statements on the EU Council Meeting in Brussels scheduled to be taken on Wednesday, 7 February 2007 and to be moved to be taken first as ordinary oral questions to the Taoiseach on that day. Private Members' Business shall be No. 67, motion re cancer services, resumed, to be taken immediately after the Order of Business and to conclude after 90 minutes.
I understand we are to discuss the Moriarty tribunal in the House on 15 February by way of statements only. Can I have an assurance from the Tánaiste that adequate time will be given for questions and answers at the end of that period?
What is the Government's response in respect of the risk equalisation legislation? Is it necessary to amend it in view of the welcome announcement yesterday of the safeguarding of jobs in Fermoy? Is it the view of the Tánaiste and the Government that the new company will have to pay risk equalisation?
I asked if it is necessary to amend the legislation.
As someone who believes in inequality in Irish society, the Tánaiste has allowed the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency to close down on a day that the Committee of Public Accounts found the Government collectively responsible for the wastage——
——of €35 million in respect of the Media Lab project. In the context of company law, does the Tánaiste intend to introduce any flexibility for an agency which has done so much good work for those who have experienced domestic violence? The agency must close under the Companies Act.
The agency has closed down because the Tánaiste did not give it sufficient money. Under the Companies Act, it is bound to close down. Will the Tánaiste do something about it?
Has the Government consulted all the parties in Northern Ireland in respect of the all-island committee which might meet in the precincts of Leinster House? I understood there was to be cross-participation by all parties. Has the Tánaiste discussed this with all the parties or is it some type of side deal?
The Tánaiste has been very forthright in condemning Fine Gael proposals in respect of amending the bail laws to give judges the right to electronically tag persons whose whereabouts the gardaí believe should be known. Today there is evidence of a person who raped an elderly widow having 60 convictions and who was out on bail when that happened.
The Deputy cannot walk into the House on a Thursday morning and ask five or six questions which are more appropriate to line Ministers. As he is the leader of a party, the Chair is flexible with the Deputy but it cannot go any further.
All these questions are about legislation. Does the Tánaiste intend to amend the bail laws to allow judges have the authority, if they see fit, to electronically tag persons who look for bail? In the case to which I referred, a person with 60 convictions raped a 75-year-old widow.
In regard to the Moriarty report, the Deputy will be aware there was discussion between the Whips on the format of the debate on that subject in this House. No final agreement has been reached.
In regard to risk equalisation, the Deputy will be aware that legislation on health insurance is promised and the consideration of the Cabinet will be directed to the Barrington report when it is available and also to the Competition Authority report when it comes to hand.
In regard to domestic violence, I have not closed anything. I have guaranteed that funding will continue to the agency in question, which comprises four people and one full-time member. It has dealt with fewer than 40 people over five years. Many agencies in the country are funded by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey. It is not true to state this is a national agency or that its funding has been curtailed. I have made it very clear that its funding will continue until such time as a decision is made on an appropriate national approach to domestic violence.
The committee on all-island matters is being discussed. There will be discussion with party leaders of all eligible parties North and South.
In regard to bail, as I have indicated, a major package on criminal justice and policing will come before the House in the next few weeks.
It will be fully debated in this House and everybody will have the opportunity to put forward their ideas. The bail issue will be dealt with in that context.
The debate on the Moriarty report will not be decided by the Whips but by the Government which may choose to consult the Whips. Will the Tánaiste stand over a situation where work over almost ten years will not be permitted to be subject to a question and answer session in the House, given his record on this side of the House when the subject matter of this report was sitting where he is now ?
In terms of the schedule of business for next week, I notice there is a motion to withdraw the money advice bureau service Bill. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, promised that this Bill would cap interest rates by moneylenders. He resiled from that position but he got a few weekends out of it.
The two of us did a couple of programmes and he told us he was going to introduce a new Bill. Will the Tánaiste show me where the new Bill is on the schedule?
Is the arrangement in regard to a North-South committee of Deputies and MPs a side deal between the Taoiseach and Sinn Féin or was the Tánaiste party to it? Since it is with MPs rather than MLAs, have the Unionist parties been consulted about their participation in it? The Tánaiste will recall that the work of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution recommended that it would be on a cross-community basis. Will he advise us on that point?
I cannot remember the name of the Bill but it was the subject matter of a famous press conference on 10 October last on the steps of Government Buildings when the Tánaiste said to the Taoiseach "I think we got away with it". The Tánaiste promised there would be urgent legislation. I have the statement from the press conference somewhere. When will that Bill, whatever it is called, be brought before the House? Does the Tánaiste still think he got away with it?
With regard to the Moriarty tribunal report, the Deputy seems to imply he cannot put down questions other than during the debate. Of course, he is mistaken. The House provides that the Deputy can put down questions at any point.
With regard to Deputy Brennan's Bill, he will bring the text of a better Bill to the Government in the next three weeks. In those circumstances it would be wrong to leave two Bills lying on the Order Paper.
The Government has considered the issue of the committee and I have been fully consulted regarding the committee to be established.
There will be full dialogue with all party leaders in this House and in Northern Ireland. The SDLP, Sinn Féin and the unionist parties in Northern Ireland will all be consulted.
With regard to the ethics legislation, I must correct the record of the House. Deputy Rabbitte has a capacity for misquoting people. The phrase the media picked up was, "we survived that". That was what was said.
I did not say "we got away with it". While I am correcting the record I must say to Deputy Kenny that I did not say inequality was good for anything either.
We should check the record for an accurate recall of what was said.
I ask the Tánaiste to reflect on the call for statements on the Moriarty report. There is a world of difference between questions tabled for written or even oral reply and exchanges in the Dáil Chamber. Given his legal background, I am sure he appreciates that.
Following the number of tragedies suffered on trawlers during the Christmas and new year period, will the Tánaiste urgently bring forward the merchant shipping (safety convention) Bill which will implement the amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention? The Bill is listed as No. 68 in the Government legislative programme for spring 2007 but no indication is given on the list of when the Bill will be introduced. Does the Tánaiste agree there is a need for urgency in matters dealing with safety at sea, particularly following recent experiences and the growing pressure on families involved in fishing and merchant shipping?
When a tribunal report is being discussed in the House it is not usual for Members to question each other on it. The House has considered many tribunal reports in the last year or two and there has never been a question and answer session, as far as I can recollect.
It is not possible, at this stage, to indicate when the legislation referred to by Deputy Sargent will be brought before the House. I must stress that safety at sea does not depend on the passing of that legislation. Trawler safety must be acted upon regardless of legislation or international conventions.
As a man who has often boasted of his anxiety to comply with ethical requirements, is the Tánaiste prepared to bring forward an amendment or appendage to the ethics Bill which would protect taxpayers from the antics of certain Ministers?
I can give the Deputy an answer. The ethics legislation will be published this year. There is a mechanism for saving the people from foolish expenditure.
It is called the electoral process. It is the process whereby the electorate were saved from having €200 million spent on a taxi hardship fund and hundreds of millions of euro spent on compensating Telecom shareholders during the last five years.
The Tánaiste is pretty good at taking a prompt but he does not understand the question. The Government is in control of business. The Select Committee has considered the Bill and the scheduling of Report Stage is a matter for the Chief Whip, who is sitting behind the Tánaiste.
It is the Government's intention to get through the legislative programme as efficiently as possible. The Deputy might reflect on the following fact.
In one week this summer, on Tuesday we spent 55 minutes on the Order of Business, on Wednesday we spent an hour and ten minutes and on Thursday we spent an hour and 45 minutes.
I remind the Tánaiste that if people who occupy the seat he occupies now had answered questions to elected people in the House we would not have had the Moriarty tribunal, that spent ten years trying to get answers to questions that Deputy McDowell and his like have refused to answer. The Tánaiste is a disgrace.
The Government promised two Bills on the subject of fines. The Fines Bill was to provide for the updating and indexation of fines and related matters, and the Enforcement of Fines Bill was to end imprisonment, where practicable, for inability to pay fines and to provide for new ways of enforcing the payment of fines. Yesterday, the Fines Bill was circulated and the promotion of the Bill seems to suggest it will end imprisonment for inability to pay fines. Of course, it does no such thing. Will we see the enforcement of fines Bill in the life of the Government to end imprisonment, where practicable, for inability to pay fines?
The Fines Bill was circulated yesterday. It provides for the payment of fines by instalments. Other legislation is being considered for the recovery of fines by way of imposition on wages and other payments due to people. The second Bill is being worked on in my Department.
In the meantime, I wish to make two points. First, it is necessary there should be some sanction for those who do not pay fines imposed on them by the courts.
Second, the new legislation will make it possible for those who do not have this sum of money available to them immediately to pay it by means of instalments.
When Members are called by the Chair to put their question, the Tánaiste, or whatever Government Member is responding, is entitled to be heard in silence. If the House does not want that, we will move directly onto the next business.
As the Deputy is aware, the immigration and residence Bill is promised legislation. It has been the subject of extensive consultation and will be published during this session. As I indicated to the Law Society, consideration is being given to requiring certain high risk abusers of the asylum seeking process to remain in one place while their applications are being considered.
While no legislation is promised in respect of this issue, for the information of the House and those who may be affected, I have spoken to the Minister for Education and Science today and the website is now working. She personally witnessed its operation. Moreover, any person who is worried about the situation is free to send a postal application, as long as they get a certificate of postage for today.
I ask people to use the website, which is operational today. If they have any doubts or difficulties, they should go to a post office and send in a form with a certificate of postage.
I have already indicated there is promised legislation, a report from the Barrington group and a report from the Competition Authority. When the Government has considered the aforementioned reports, the issues raised by the Deputy will be fully addressed in the context of that legislation.
Expectations were raised last week when the Tánaiste publically declared his support for new legislation on management companies. Is it intended to introduce new legislation within the lifetime of the Government to deal with this issue?
It is the Government's intention to legislate in this area. However, as the Deputy is probably aware, having paid attention to what happened at the conference organised by the Government, the exact nature of such legislation is still the subject matter of consultation among stakeholders and interested parties.
Last night, the Minister of State with responsibility for children briefed the Opposition spokespersons on justice in respect of Government thinking on a referendum to protect children and to give them greater rights in the Constitution. Although a briefing document has been circulated, obviously the spokespersons must see the specific wording. What timeframe is envisaged by the Government to deal with this matter? It will require careful consideration by the House, as well as a subsequent period of reflection for the public. From the guidelines issued, I understand there are five separate proposals, which constitutes a considerable block of words to be inserted in the Constitution. I seek an indication from the Tánaiste regarding a preferred timeframe for the implementation of this matter and for putting this issue to the people. I understand this matter was discussed by the Cabinet this week.
The Taoiseach has already indicated the overall position in this regard. Under the referendum legislation, as the Deputy is aware, all legislation to amend the Constitution must pass through both Houses of the Oireachtas. Subsequently, a period must elapse before it can be put before the people. It is a well-defined process. There is also the question of the establishment of a commission to provide independent guidance to people in respect of the contents of the legislation.
First, the Government is anxious to receive the general response of the Opposition parties and other interested stakeholders. It will be greatly interested to see the Opposition's response to the briefing received last night.
The Ceann Comhairle should listen for a second. There is no point in having an Order of Business if questions are simply ignored. I put it to the Ceann Comhairle that he has a responsibility to at least ensure that questions are answered.
In response to Deputy Howlin's point, the Government intends to deal with this matter as quickly as possible. If there is all-party agreement on this issue it will happen much faster than if there is not. This is how things happen in this House.
In answer to the Deputy's question, the Government intends to proceed with an amendment along these lines before the next general election, if possible.