Thursday, 15 November 2007
Order of Business
Will the Tánaiste comment on the situation we face next week with the serious challenge to the future of Aer Lingus? Is he happy that existing industrial machinery has the capacity to deal with this potentially very serious conflict?
I understand the Government intends to move ahead next week with the Tribunal of Inquiry Bill 2005. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will recall that when he spoke from the benches last year he urged the Government not to move ahead with this Bill while the Mahon tribunal sat. I regard this move as being quite sinister. The Taoiseach has already had four days before the Mahon tribunal and is due to appear again for another four days before Christmas. Obviously, a majority of people do not believe his explanations for large cash lodgments to his account. In that sense I regard the moving of this tribunal Bill, with a possibility of it being able to close down a tribunal, as quite sinister.
There is a danger that this will be seen as intimidating a tribunal looking into the Taoiseach's personal finances. In fact, the legislation was deferred last year so that the tribunal could continue without that threat hanging over it. If it was relevant then, it is even more relevant now. I wonder is it just coincidence or the lack of legislation that five days after the Taoiseach started giving his evidence this Bill was reactivated. The Tánaiste is heading into a hell of a row here.
On the same issue, as I understand it, the judge in the Moriarty tribunal has indicated that there are to be no more public hearings and Judge Mahon has indicated that he will be in a position to wind up the Mahon tribunal and finish its work next year. The question arises as to what is the purpose of this.
The Bill was originally published in November 2006. We did not hear much about it until the Taoiseach was going before the tribunals. At that point the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform decided that the Bill was urgent and should be taken. At that stage, when the Labour Party objected, supported strongly then by the Green Party——
The Bill was discussed with the whips and has been on the Order Paper for some time. There was no objection to it being taken next week. The contentions of the Opposition are without foundation.
The idea that bringing forward amending legislation in respect of a tribunal of inquiries Act that dates back to 1924 should in some way represent "potential intimidation" of existing tribunals is nonsense. The tribunals are carrying on independently. In the case of the Mahon tribunal, it has indicated when it wishes to end its public hearings next year. This issue has been on the Order Paper for some time and predates such considerations. I do not see any connection whatsoever between both issues, except as another example of political opportunism by the Opposition.
When the Government should have plenty of other legislation to introduce, I regard the introduction of this Bill next week as a signal of intimidation to a tribunal, given that the Taoiseach is due to appear again for further investigations about his personal finances when clearly a majority of people in the country do not believe him.
I wish to make one final point on the Tánaiste's comments. Essentially, it is provocative to introduce the Bill at this time, given that the most important officeholder in the country, namely, the Taoiseach, is due to appear before one of these tribunals again shortly.
Since we are talking about the schedule for next week, I notice a number of statements are scheduled for next week. Can the Tánaiste provide time at some stage in the near future to discuss the MacEntee report, which is long promised by the Taoiseach? It deals with an investigation into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the need for a proper full public inquiry into them. We have been promised such a debate, yet next week we are scheduling debates which are time fillers.
Given that we are scheduling two periods of statements next week, where are the Bills we should be discussing, such as the Irish sports council (amendment) Bill, the student support Bill and the employment law compliance Bill? A range of Bills was promised before the end of this session and we could be using our time more productively next week.
I understand the former Chairman of that committee, Deputy Ardagh, is continuing with the committee's deliberations on the work that has been done in regard to that matter. It is intended that the Bills referred to will be published during the course of this session.
With Ireland third from the bottom of 30 countries in the OECD for average download speeds and €4 billion required for a new State-wide fibre optic network, what legislation, if any, is pending to update Ireland's communications system?
I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the arrangements for the budget and the fact that budget day will now include Estimates. I raised this issue with him some time ago and neither he nor his Department has given any indication of what the detailed arrangments will be in terms of publishing along with the budget, a Book of Estimates. Will separate statements be available on the contents of the Estimates on a Department by Department basis, or will it be the case, as on Estimates day, that Ministers will hold separate press briefings to which, obviously, the Opposition will have no access? It will certainly make our work on budget day, and that of the media, very difficult, unless the Tánaiste decides to spoonfeed the media and leave us in the dark?
The arrangements for the budget are based on reforms I have been introducing in recent years. As the Deputy pointed out, there will be a unified budget on this occasion where items of expenditure and taxation will be dealt with on budget day. This was something which had been recommended by committees of the House in the past and in previous reports.
The benefits of the new arrangements are that since the pre-budget outlook has been published, in the case of this year, far earlier than would have been the case in the Abridged Estimates Volume, it has provided an excellent opportunity for the Opposition to come forward with what its budget might contain since it has the ELS provision.
What we will get from the Opposition is the usual; we will have some spokespersons talking about what should be the macroeconomic position while other spokespersons will say we are not spending half enough.
I am sure the usual incoherence of the Opposition will be repeated this year, as in previous years. I note the Opposition has never yet published an alternative budget, unlike Fianna Fáil in Opposition.
Before the budget reform process, output statements are supposed to be published. Is the Tánaiste preparing an output statement on the extra productivity we can expect from members of Government as a consequence of their extraordinary pay increases?
I hope I am in order in asking to do the sort of thing I presume the Minister is serious about intending when he introduces budget reform. The first thing I would like to have is a costing of the different elements in the Government's own programme for Government. When I asked the Minister for such a costing, he refused to provide it. In the run-up to an election, every political party is obliged to provide costings, yet the Government is asking us to prepare proposals for a budget while the Tánaiste will not provide those costings.
Will we see a Supplementary Estimate to deal with the cost of the higher remuneration settlement? This is costing €16 million. I do not know whether the Tánaiste has €16 million in loose change hanging around, but we deserve to see where the money is coming from and what services will be cut back in order to make room for the pay increases of the Minister and his colleagues. We also deserve to see what decisions have already been taken by the Government, which have not been provided in the ELS, so that we can look at the pending decisions already taken and make a mature decision on what should be in the budget.
None of this is being offered. The Minister wants to talk about reform but not provide the substance to deliver it.
A couple of inaccurate statements have been made by Deputy Bruton which I wish to clarify. He failed to point out that the increases from the higher remuneration body are being paid in three phases. Five per cent is being paid back to the date of the report's presentation in September. It is not a question of a payment of €16 million coming out of this year's Estimate at all, as the Deputy should know if he had read——
Before we get into the millions and the billions of the budget, I am afraid we are not starting off on a very good footing if Deputy Bruton cannot divide 16 by three yet. Not all of that €16 million relates——
What I have noticed in the House is that Deputy Bruton is great at asking questions and being listened to in silence but immediately when he gets a response that is accurate he starts shouting down the Government. I have noticed that is the tactic here the whole time. When Deputy Bruton puts his assertions in the House, I want to clarify them for the purpose of accuracy since he is someone who talks a lot about accuracy himself.
As Deputy Bruton well knows, not all of that money relates to politicians' pay, but if he wants to continue misrepresenting that position, I am sure he will continue to do so because he will probably see some political capital being made out of it.
All of these issues will be dealt with in terms of decisions on the Supplementary Estimates, not in regard to this matter. Decisions on departmental Estimates will be made in the course of the next few weeks. That is always the case as the final balances emerge.
Regarding the budget reform process, it is a more transparent process. For a number of weeks now the Opposition Members have had to hand the existing level of service provision for next year. I will be bringing forward the Government's policies based on the current economic situation, the projected outturn, next year's projected growth rates and what we expect to do in terms of expenditure and taxation. There will be an opportunity on the same day for Deputy Bruton and other Deputies here to do the same but if it is anything like the costings that emerged from that side of the House before the last election, I will not hold my breath.
——section C lists Bills in respect of which heads have yet to be approved by Government. Has the Government evaluated any of the 41 Bills on that list? They are all promised for next year and the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have indicated previously in the House that they will be published before the end of this session. Since Christmas is coming, and we are all looking forward to it, the Tánaiste might tell us whether the heads of any of those 41 Bills have been discussed by Government.
It would be best if the Deputy put down a parliamentary question on that matter. I could not say, with accuracy, the number of those 41 Bills that have come before Cabinet at various periods of discussion.
I want to raise two issues. First, we are approaching Christmas and we were promised a new scheme for nursing home subvention would be in place on 1 January. When will the nursing home Bill come before the House because many people in my constituency are experiencing problems? Second, when will we have a further debate on agriculture in the House? A young farmer telephoned my home last night. His father died at 50 years of age. He could not take out administration and he is now caught in a situation where he will be unable to get any grant aid. It is essential that a debate be held on the future, if any, of farming in this country.
There is growing concern that medical card patients, particularly elderly people, may not be able to get their prescriptions filled from 1 December because of a dispute between the Health Service Executive and pharmacists. Will the Tánaiste indicate if it is intended to amend the Competition Act or to take the Labour Party Bill tabled by Deputy Michael D. Higgins to amend it to find a mechanism to address this issue, which is causing enormous concern?
If it is not intended to amend the Competition Act, does the Government have some other mechanism of providing for meaningful negotiations because the process that was set up, which we thought was making progress last week, effectively has broken down?
On the same issue, the Taoiseach is on the record of the Dáil as having promised that this issue will be addressed in the opening stages of the partnership talks. When it was not addressed he appeared to accept the principle that legislation would then be necessary. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the Government either intends to introduce amending legislation to the Competition Act that is currently undermining the trade union legislation——
With regard to the local government Bill and as outlined in the programme for Government, a commitment was made that a Green Paper on local government would be brought before the House within six months of the parties going into Government. That six months ends in mid-December. Can the Tánaiste indicate if that Green Paper will come before the House for debate before the Christmas recess?
From my knowledge of the position it is unlikely to be published before Christmas. Work is continuing on that matter in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I understand it can be expected before the end of the first half of next year.
I always understood that our primary purpose in this assembly, as legislators, is to make law but we now find ourselves in a situation where there is no legislation ready to debate in the House yet guillotines are imposed on the small items of legislation that come before the House, even if they are not necessary, as was demonstrated yesterday. Instead of the Opposition calling for a debate on various issues of concern to the public, we now have the Government proposing motherhood and apple pie type proposals. It will have a debate on young people's issues or climate change — pure fillers in a parliamentary sense — without a motion being tabled.
Arising from the change of format, on the Order of Business can we now ask the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or whoever is acting on behalf of the Government on the day about promised debates for the next six months because they appear to roll on as pure fillers?
In 2002 the Government commissioned Deloitte & Touche to do a review of Coastguard stations and it made numerous recommendations. The then Minister with responsibility in this area, Deputy Dermot Ahern, signed off on one recommendation that Valentia and Malin Head would be the two main Coastguard stations. My colleague, Deputy Sheehan, is aware of that also. In 2006 that decision was changed at a whim.
The Maritime Safety Bill is a Bill to empower the Minister to give directions to have ships moved in the interests of safety, security and heritage protection at sea; to transfer to the Minister the power to give effect to the international regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea; to establish maritime safety codes of practice; and to amend the Merchant Shipping Acts 1952 to 1993. It is intended that this Bill will require detailed legal examination, which will take some time. The Bill is not progressing as quickly as one would have liked but it appears to me that the issues raised by Deputy McHugh could be considered as part of his contribution on Second Stage of the Bill.
We have discussed ours. Perhaps the Green Party could discuss its own the next time.
Do the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and his Department intend to do anything in respect of building regulations? The implementation of deficient regulations is an ongoing disaster in terms of infill and other materials.
We have been told the building regulations are grossly deficient. Many young couples and householders are repaying mortgages on houses that are in significant negative equity.
Regarding the Minister for Transport's deadline of 30 June 2008, will driver testing legislation be introduced during the coming months given recent media reports concerning wide discrepancies in pass rates in different test centres, particularly those run by the SGS organisation?
No further legislation is required to ensure increased capacity to address the driver testing issue resulting from the proposed changes announced by the Minister recently.
This week, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government answered oral questions in the House. I do not know whether the matter referred to by Deputy Broughan was of sufficient priority to raise it at the time, but a parliamentary question would elicit accurate information.
The Dáil must give its consent or otherwise to sending troops to Chad. According to the available information, it will be a serious issue and a dangerous mission. When will the House discuss a resolution to send troops to Chad?