Thursday, 8 November 2007
Order of Business.
It is proposed to take No. 1, Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill 2007 [Seanad] — Second Stage and No. 13, statements on the Government statement on the Irish language and the Coimisiún na Gaeltachta Report 2002. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the proceedings on No. 13 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.30 p.m. and the following arrangements shall apply: (i) the statements of a Minister or Minister of State and of the main spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case; (ii) statements of each other Member called shall not exceed ten minutes; (iii) Members may share time; and (iv) a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed five minutes.
I welcome the Minister, another royal, taking the Order of Business. It is the first time I have seen Deputy Dempsey take the Order of Business. I thought he was going to be unaccompanied but he has a Minister for Education and Science, of more than two years experience, with him, which is welcome.
On No. 13, my party is anxious that more time be made available to discuss the Irish language and perhaps another occasion, if not today, could be found when the issue could be debated again.
I wish to know if there will be an opportunity today for the Taoiseach to correct the record of yesterday, where he indicated the Minister for Health and Children first knew of the problems in Portlaoise on 29 August 2007.
Deputy Bruton, we are dealing with a proposal. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 13, statements on the Government statement on the Irish language and the Coimisiún na Gaeltachta Report 2002, agreed?
I am here long enough to know also that it is perfectly correct for an Opposition party to indicate reluctance to take business until other matters are dealt with. That has been a long-held tradition and we have seen many occasions on which the House divided on such an issue. I do not propose to divide the House on this issue but it is correct to draw attention to the fact that the Taoiseach misled the Dáil when he indicated that the Minister for Health and Children only knew of this issue in 2007 when it transpired that she knew of it two years earlier. The Taoiseach should indicate at some point that he misinformed the House.
On the same issue, I remind the Minister that it was the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, who raised this issue with the Taoiseach yesterday. The Taoiseach is required not only to clarify the matter to the House but also to Deputy Gilmore because it is now acknowledged that the letters referred to by Deputy Gilmore yesterday, setting out the situation and the concerns about Portlaoise, were written and sent to the relevant authorities as early as the middle of 2005. The chief executive officer of the HSE, Professor Brendan Drumm, confirmed that in detail at a meeting this morning. Are arrangements being made by the Taoiseach to correct the record of the House?
I wish to ask about legislation in the Minister for Transport's own area. I have an interesting document here, dated August 2000, in which the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, indicated she would be establishing a Dublin transport authority and introducing competition on the bus services within Dublin. She helpfully set an indication that this legislation would be completed by late 2002. Five years later and 250,000 houses have been built, many of them with no public transport service; no additional buses were provided to Dublin bus; 300,000 additional cars were bought in the Dublin area; and our climate change targets have been completely breached. Much of this goes back to the failure of the Government to do as it said in 2000, namely, to introduce legislation to provide a framework for the proper planning and delivery of public transport in the city.
Was this performance on promised legislation one of the benchmarks used to decide that Ministers and senior civil servants in the Department of Transport warranted a massive increase in pay? Will he bring a Supplementary Estimate before the House to indicate how his Department will fund the extra pay for these public servants? Will this money be found by making cutbacks elsewhere, as we have seen in other areas where people who are very vulnerable have suffered cutbacks? What is the Minister's plan on how these two issues will be dealt with?
The first matter concerns the Office of the Ceann Comhairle. At the meeting earlier facilitated by the Ceann Comhairle, I asked Professor Drumm if he would arrange a meeting under the auspices of the Ceann Comhairle with the women Members of the Dáil and Seanad to deal with the issue of fear which affects so many women in this country who have had a mammography or who have not had one.
We have been down this road with Professor Drumm before. When the Ceann Comhairle was present, I felt the quality of, and attention to, replies by HSE senior executives was somewhat sharper than when they met groups of Deputies on their own.
Today is the first anniversary of the Dublin Transport Authority team report. The Minister for Transport's predecessor promised that the consultation would be completed and he would publish a Bill before Christmas of last year. This month is also the second anniversary of the publication of Transport 21. Almost all the major projects in regard to public transport and Transport 21, including the improvements in transport infrastructure, the metros in Dublin and the improvements in rail lines, are significantly behind schedule and the budget demands on them have grown very significantly.
What are the Minister's proposals to deal with the promises made by Government on Transport 21 and last year's promised legislation? We face a wet day in Dublin and while the Minister has a ministerial car, for most other people it means chaos on the trains and buses. It will be difficult even to get a taxi in Dublin today.
As I said, work is continuing on the Dublin Transport Authority Bill and we expect to publish it during this session, which is up to the end of January. The Deputy is being very selective in regard to Transport 21. Most of the national roads projects this year under Transport 21 have been completed on, or ahead of, schedule. All the seven projects opened to date have been——
Will the Government have a debate on Transport 21 and the public transport element? The Minister talked about the roads element, which is important, although primarily for private vehicles. We want to talk about public transport, namely, trains and buses which were promised but which are not there. It will be hard to get a taxi in Dublin city today.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, said at a conference on sustainable development yesterday that more needs to be done to ensure we have sustainable development in the future. Does that mean the Government might legislate to prevent rezoning decisions by councillors from Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, the Minister's partners in Government, which lead to unsustainable development, urban sprawl and bad environmental consequences, for example, rezoning land which is not near good public transport links?
I will if I can but I am sure the Ceann Comhairle will let me know if I am not. Professor Drumm told us this morning the Government promised a national rehabilitation centre for Cork in 2001. That has not happened and he said it was up to Government to make it happen. What is the situation in regard to that promise?
I refer to the Noise Bill which is expected in 2008. What penalties are envisaged for tenants who engage in anti-social behaviour but who are not traceable? Ultimately, the penalties will fall on landlords if there is to be proper monitoring.
The Roads Bill is before the House. There has been an outstanding issue where roads built in the 1980s and early 1990s, which do not comply with environmental noise levels, are being investigated by local authorities. There does not seem to be a deadline on the legislation on when these noise pollution measures will be imposed on roads. Responsibility for many roads is moving to the Minister's Department from local authorities. Will the Minister comment on that?
People need not be concerned about the fact that non-national roads are moving to my Department. I have plenty of experience in that area and will be well able to handle them. On the Noise Bill which will strengthen the legislative basis to address local neighbourhood environmental noise issues, the background proposals are being drafted and we expect to publish the Bill some time late in 2008.
We had 15 commitments from the Minister for Education and Science that the Student Support Bill would be published. Of course, most of these commitments were given before the last election. Will the Bill be introduced in the House before Christmas given that students will want this new system in place by September of next year? The last time I asked this question I was informed the Government had agreed the heads of the Bill.
When will the social housing miscellaneous Bill come before the House? It will enable tenants of local authority apartments and condominiums to buy their properties. At present they are discriminated against because they cannot do so.
Given the continued threat to patients' well-being caused by the HSE's cost-cutting exercise, when can we expect the Pharmacy (No. 2) Bill to come before the House? Will it be brought forward in light of the disintegration of the health services?
——that he was unable to allow a particular question. I very much appreciate the personal tone of the letter. However, this related to a question on provisional drivers and their involvement in accidents in recent years. I was informed by the questions office that a precedent had been set to the effect that such questions were not in order and the Minister was not accountable to the House. I have set many precedents in this area over the years. This question has been answered many times and all the relevant information has been provided. The Minister must have been able to refer to that information when he made his decision on provisional driving licences and again when he swung a handbrake turn and reversed the whole procedure a few days later. I put it to the Ceann Comhairle that he contact the questions office in his superior mode and perhaps inform the officials there that we intend to pursue this issue on the basis of positive precedent.
Many Members will have been asked to support a campaign calling for action on climate change. It involves setting a target of reducing carbon emissions by 3% each year. Does the Government intend to develop a framework within which the target can be achieved? What would be the consequences within that framework of failing to meet the target?
The Ceann Comhairle ruled an earlier speaker out of order because the point he was making was "outside the compass of this conversation". I think the nursing home legislation that is promised is within the compass of this conversation.
When will that legislation be published? The Chair might rule me out of order if I try to raise a related question. Is the money that has been set aside to refund people who should not have been charged for long-term care in nursing homes ring-fenced? Most of it was not spent this year even though it had been allocated. Will it be ring-fenced and kept for that purpose?
Will the Ceann Comhairle assist me by trying to find out which Minister or Minister of State is responsible for inland fisheries? Which Department has responsibility for this matter? I am finding it difficult to get this information. I know that salmon are covered by a certain Minister when they are at sea, but I think another Minister looks after them when they are in our inland waterways.
I tabled a number of questions yesterday to the Minister for Transport, but they were ruled out of order. I wanted to find out how many people in County Mayo have first, second and third provisional licences. I was told that the Minister has no responsibility in that respect. Have they taken that away from the Minister and the Department?
I would like to ask a second question of the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, who is responsible for signage. Many of the signs in Gaeltacht areas have been changed from English to Irish. Are the officials in the Department and the local authorities unable to spell? A number of signs throughout the Gaeltacht are misspelt.
As Deputies are aware, significant changes have been made to the arrangements for the forthcoming budget. The Minister for Finance intends to publish the Estimates at the same time as the Budget Statement. Opposition Deputies, including finance spokespersons, do not receive a copy of the Budget Statement until the Minister rises to deliver it in the House. It used to be the case that Estimates were published approximately three weeks before budget day. Line Ministers used to give press conferences in their Departments explaining the Estimates and outlining their budgetary proposals for the following year. Will the Minister arrange a detailed briefing for Opposition finance spokespersons in particular, so we can understand how this year's budget will be dealt with? This item will also be of significance to the media.
The Minister for Finance will produce a statement of between 100 and 200 pages, outlining his budget and his Estimates. Nobody other than the members of the Cabinet will be notified in advance about the contents of the Minister's speech. It will be extremely difficult for Opposition finance spokespersons and line spokespersons to identify the Minister's intentions, particularly in respect of Estimates provisions. The outlook that was published recently deals only with existing levels of service. It is important that the Government co-operates with Opposition finance spokespeople. Arrangements should be put in place well in advance of budget day so we can ascertain how the budget will be dealt with.
The committee was claiming credit for it. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Cowen, will take on board what Deputy Burton has said as he tries to be as helpful as possible to the Opposition in his usual manner.
Our difficulty this year is that the Estimates process will be absorbed into the budget. We have no problem with that in principle and the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, correctly mentioned that we were in favour of that reform, but the difficulty is that the Estimates will not be announced until they are revealed with the Budget Statement. We need advance notice of the intentions of the Estimates.
In the past, every line Minister held a press conference in his or her Department to outline the details of the Estimate proposals. That is all gone this year. We understand the reform. We are not as intellectually challenged as the Minister for Transport seems to think we are. We are seeking arrangements which will facilitate Deputies and the media as we try to develop a comprehensive understanding of what the Minister for Finance is proposing. We are asking for fairly detailed arrangements to be put in place to allow the Opposition to do its job in the Dáil on budget day.
The change that is occurring is radical. When Deputies are given details of the Estimates, the budget and the tax changes at the same time, they will need to know what is being proposed. Traditionally, the Estimates Volume does not reveal what is being proposed — that is revealed separately in press releases — which makes it very difficult to respond. We need to have some structure whereby the House can make sense of what is being proposed, have a meaningful debate on the budget and make decisions on funding late into the night of 5 December. This is not a trivial issue and I hope the Ceann Comhairle will put his mind to it.
It is well known that these arrangements are ultimately a matter for the House, not for the Chair. I cannot bring it any further than that. Certain points have been well made by Deputies Burton and Bruton, but we have to move on.
The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, is aware that almost 3,000 people will descend on Trim next week to object to a proposal to put power lines over ground in County Meath. Will the Minister, who represents that county as a Deputy, bring this issue to the Cabinet table?
Secondary legislation might be needed to deal with the problem I wish to raise. People with intellectual disabilities cannot receive payment under the residential institutions repayments scheme. I understand it will require a ministerial order or some form of secondary legislation to allow this to happen. I ask the Minister to inform me of the situation.
I understand a number of Departments were bringing reports to the Cabinet for the preparation of heads of a Bill to legislate for housing management companies. This is an area which is in need of legislation. There is ongoing chaos in estates in the greater Dublin area and young householders are being treated disgracefully. When will the Minister be in a position to introduce and enact a Bill to legislate for this important business?