Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 24, statements on European Council, Brussels; No. 12, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann for a Council decision on setting up the standing committee on operational co-operation on internal security; and No. 25 - Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 [Seanad] - Second Stage (resumed).
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the proceedings on No. 24 shall, if not previously concluded be brought to a conclusion after 85 minutes and the following arrangements shall apply. The statements shall be confined to the Taoiseach and the main spokespersons for Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin who shall be called upon in that order and who may share their time which shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case. The Minister or Minister of State shall take questions for a period not exceeding 20 minutes and shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed five minutes.
The suspension of the sitting under Standing Order 23(1) shall take place at 1.30 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 24, whichever is the later, until 2.30 p.m.
The proceedings on No. 12 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 45 minutes and the following arrangements shall apply. The speeches shall be confined to a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order and who may share their time which shall not exceed ten minutes in each case. A Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply, which shall not exceed five minutes. Private Members' business shall be No. 80, motion re banking crisis, resumed, to conclude at 8.30 p.m. if not previously concluded.
There are three proposals to be put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 24 agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal relating to the suspension of sitting under Standing Order 23(1) agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 12 agreed to?
Have the arrangements for the proposed new standing committee been discussed with the other Government colleagues in the Green Party? Will the Taoiseach clarify whether any engagement with the Green Party has taken place on this matter?
This morning I arrived here early and until 10.30 endeavoured to contact the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I tried the switchboard line, the direct line to the Minister's office and even the 1890 number but all were out of service. I got no response from the Minister's office here in the ministerial block.
Has the Taoiseach had the opportunity to discuss this matter with the leader of the Green Party and his colleagues? Where does the Taoiseach think he might be? I did not see him here all day yesterday. I saw him on the television news on the plinth last evening.
-----is suffering from some fit of pique over recent matters of discussion between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party or at least whether he is suffering from some sort of a fit in any event? Will the Taoiseach clarify where he is and whether he will present himself in the Chamber today?
I note the comments made yesterday by the Minister for Health and Children when she stated she believed that in time the VHI would be subject to regulatory control, as is the Government's commitment. European Commissioner McCreevy has written about his concern that the VHI is not subject to regulatory control. Yesterday, the Minister pointed out that a number of difficulties arise with regard to risk equalisation and all that goes along with it. However, she stated that she intends to bring recommendations to Government in a few weeks. I assume this will require legislation but it is not mentioned on the A, B or C lists. Will the Taoiseach confirm that he expects recommendations to be brought before the Cabinet by the Minister for Health and Children in a few weeks? Will the drafting of legislation be required subsequently? This is a matter of concern for many consumers.
Is the Taoiseach being fully briefed on the ongoing discussions on the devolution of policing and justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly? Is it his intention to make a statement to the House or to brief leaders of Opposition parties on what is happening?
The Minister for Health and Children set out the position on the question of the private health insurance market and the policy options available. It is also important to state that she is committed to developing during the session a comprehensive set of measures to bring stability to the private health insurance market. This includes a regulatory status and the sustainable structure of capitalisation of the VHI. Many issues are being examined and I cannot anticipate Government discussion or decisions. It is being dealt with by the Minister and will be brought to the Government in due course.
On the devolution of policing and justice matters in Northern Ireland, talks are ongoing and these matters are being dealt with in direct discussions by the parties themselves. We have to hope a successful outcome will come to those discussions. It is important that this be the case. I impressed the urgency of the situation on the Prime Minister when I met him recently.
About 100 flights in and out of Ireland have been cancelled this afternoon as a result of industrial action taken by air traffic controllers. Spokespersons for both the Irish Aviation Authority and the trade union concerned were on television last night and they effectively said that this was going to escalate. One spokesperson stated that more air traffic controllers were likely to be suspended, while the other warned that there would be more industrial action as a consequence. Whatever the issues in dispute, what is happening is disproportionate in terms of disruption to the travelling public and the country's reputation.
If this type of thing had happened at any time over the past 20 years, there would have been a mechanism for dealing with it under the social partnership process. However, as a result of the Government ending the social partnership process before Christmas, there is no longer a mechanism for dealing with this kind of dispute and for the national implementation body to intervene and knock heads together. What arrangements are being made for the Minister for Transport to report to the House on what is happening? What efforts is the Taoiseach making to bring that dispute to an end and ensure that people are able to travel?
When will the commencement order be made to give effect to the cutting of pay, which was legislated for and passed by the Oireachtas - against the wishes of the Labour Party - before Christmas?
There is a special notice question on the issue and it will be dealt with in detail at that time. It is important that this matter be resolved as quickly as possible. There is industrial relations machinery available to assist at the Labour Court.
Of course. That was always the case when something like this happens, as the Deputy knows himself from his previous existence. For an essential service like this, one would hope that both sides would abide by a code of conduct and the procedures in place for these matters. Given the inconvenience that will now be visited on people who are travelling from our airports, it is incumbent on both sides to use the industrial relations machinery that is available in order to resolve whatever problems have arisen. In situations such as this, we should not see the travelling public inconvenienced as a result of whatever differences of opinion exist.
In respect of the Deputy's second question, I must get the details he seeks from the Department of Finance.
The legislative programme just published contains the prescription charges Bill, which proposes to give effect to the disgraceful measure in the budget to impose charges for prescriptions on medical card holders. When will the prescription charges Bill be published? Would the Taoiseach avail of the opportunity, after careful reflection, not to proceed with this proposal? Given that this Bill will fundamentally alter the medical card scheme, what is the position of the Government in respect of the eligibility for health and personal services Bill? I have asked this question year after year, but the Government always claims not to be in a position to indicate when it will be published. Does the Taoiseach accept that this is a very important Bill? Given the other changes taking place, there is an increased urgency in bringing forward that Bill. Is the Government refusing to publish the Bill, given our individual or collective eligibility for health and personal social services?
The prescription Bill, which will hit the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable, is quite reflective of the Government's priorities, while the drugs referencing Bill is back on white page in Section C, at No. 71. Can the Taoiseach explain to the people of Ireland why he is showing such enthusiasm and urgency to nail the most vulnerable in this society in order to save €25 million? If he went after the drugs companies, he would save over €200 million by my reckoning, and at least €171 million by his own reckoning.
The veterinary practices (amendment) Bill should be expedited in the interests of farmers in Ireland. It appears from the programme presented to us yesterday that it is not a Government priority. Coming from a rural constituency, the Taoiseach knows there is much demand for this Bill. Can he be more specific on when this Bill will be published?
Like other colleagues, I was unable to get through to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government this morning, nor was I able to get a reply from the Dáil office. In the absence of the Minister, can I ask the Taoiseach if the Government intends to introduce a relocation package for people whose houses have been flooded and who cannot or will not go back to them?
I am very concerned about the people in my own constituency and elsewhere who are now out of their houses for over a month. They are heating two houses and they cannot go back to their own house. I am simply asking the Taoiseach whether there will be a compensation package to allow people to relocate, as there was in 1995 when we were in Government.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the Government amendment to tonight's Labour Party motion. Section 33 AK of the Central Bank Act 2003 expressly forbids the Governor, currently Professor Patrick Honohan, from publicly discussing or disclosing any commercially confidential information in respect of any regulated firm or entity.
That applies to the Financial Regulator and it is also a clause in the current NAMA legislation. It seems that the Governor is legally prohibited from coming in and discussing the kind of review that the Government has outlined in its amendment to the Labour Party motion.
In that case, I will ask the Taoiseach a separate question. In the context of the proposals regarding the Governor of the Central Bank, has the Government taken legal advice as to whether fresh legislation is required to allow the Governor communicate with the Oireachtas committee and act in the way described by the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance in their comments? Is specific legislation required and-or the suspension of section 33AK of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act?
On a second matter, the Order Paper features a proposal to have a new Central Bank Bill. Is it proposed to have the legislation in place before the inquiry commences or subsequently? The Bill could be the mechanism by which the Governor, Professor Honohan, is given the legal powers of inquiry the Government has-----
However, section 33AK explicitly forbids the Governor of the Central Bank from bringing any information into the public domain that is in any way sensitive. It is reasonable to ask the Taoiseach if the Government will introduce fresh legislation or amend existing legislation and when it will introduce the Central Bank Bill.
Allow me to give it and we can then proceed with the business of the House. The Central Bank Bill is to come before the House this year. We have agreed a range of reforms to financial regulatory structures. The aim is that the associated legislation will be put before the Oireachtas for consideration as soon as possible. In regard to the specific job the Governor has been asked to do - a scoping exercise, as outlined by the Minister for Finance - he can and will do this job and has agreed to do it.
Section 33 of the Central Bank Act expressly forbids the Governor of the Central Bank from doing this. I ask the Taoiseach whether he can resolve this conundrum because legally Professor Honohan is gagged and may not, under the provisions of section 33 of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act, come before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service or any other committee to discuss-----
I had hoped the Minister for Education and Science would be present for my question on the removal of special needs assistants from schools. However, I am aware the Taoiseach has a particular interest in this area. The suspension of the Disability Act and Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act has allowed this to take place. There was to be a review of all schools which employed special needs assistance.
Yes, I promise I will be in order. Although one third of all schools have been reviewed, the Minister has issued an order that special needs assistants are to be removed. Under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, this would not be possible without the review having been done. The review is not complete and the Act has been suspended. This is the only occasion in my experience that this has occurred with legislation.
Will the suspension of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act be lifted and will the Taoiseach instruct the Minister for Education and Science to stop issuing orders to fire special needs assistants until the review has been completed?
I understand the mental capacity Bill will be taken this session. On the other matter, the scheme has not changed and the criteria for the allocation of special needs assistants remains the same. If a pupil qualifies for support, a special needs assistant post will continue to be provided. The only thing that is happening is that surplus posts are being withdrawn. There is no question of posts being removed from schools where they meet the scheme's criteria. There is also no question of posts being left in schools indefinitely where they are deemed to be surplus to the care needs of pupils.
On secondary legislation, parents, medics and the Garda Síochána are seriously concerned about the sale of psychoactive substances in so-called head shops. I understand the Minister for Health and Children must introduce secondary legislation under the Misuse of Drugs Acts of 1977 and 1984 to control the sale of substances in such shops. When will legislation be introduced? I also understand the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, is considering the introduction of additional legislation to control the operation of these premises. When will this legislation be introduced?
I raised this issue last year and some measures were taken thereafter. It is urgent, however, that further controls are imposed on head shops. Young people are buying substances which are clearly causing them damage. While the Minister responded relatively quickly on the issue of magic mushrooms, an urgent response is also required on this matter.
On the same subject, the Minister promised to examine this issue and introduce legislation as a matter of urgency. Children are being deleteriously affected by this problem. There have been admissions to psychiatric hospitals and at least one death has occurred. We have also had cases of serious injury caused by people jumping off roofs and so forth. This is a serious issue which must not remain unaddressed. There are two angles to tackling it, namely, the control of substances through the Irish Medicines Board and Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the use of planning laws to put these shops out of business. Head shops are not subject to any planning restrictions and may be established anywhere. This issue should be addressed by our invisible Minister, wherever he is.
This is the one of the most pressing issues which should be addressed by legislation and one of the most insidious developments in recent months. There are 13 head shops in my constituency, two more than there were last week. They are doing significant business by selling substances which mimic illegal drugs such as cannabis. These shops are also mislabelling and misbranding. The fronts of these shops feature images of cannabis and drugs in the form of heroin or other substances banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Notwithstanding this, as the ingredients have not been defined in the Act, the Garda cannot use existing legislation to tackle the problem. The Garda Síochána cannot use existing legislation to tackle this problem. What we have missed in the past is an early response to a new development that took place with regard to drug abuse.
This is one of the biggest issues. A request has been made for a response from the Government but there has been no response to date. Some 100 shops have sprouted up in the country in the past two to three months. They are particularly to be found in urban areas where there are high levels of drug abuse.
The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, has a working group in place to review the legislative situation to see how we can assist to ensure the situation is not abused. I hear what Deputies are saying and I will take the matter up with Deputy Curran.
If I understood the Taoiseach's reply to Deputy Burton, he said that amending legislation will be published to change the existing law that disbars the Governor of the Central Bank from reporting on any matter relating to the institutions he is responsible for supervising. How can there be a preliminary investigation by the Governor if he is disbarred by law? Is the Taoiseach persuaded that it is in the best interests of the Central Bank that the new chief executive is responsible for investigating his own staff and possible failures that may have occurred in the past? Is that prudent?
The point I was making was that, in line with Government intentions to bring forward regulatory change, the Central Bank Bill is being brought forward in the first half of the year. An independent point was proffered by Deputy Burton. Professor Honohan has not indicated any problem in respect of doing the scoping exercise he was asked to do by the Government. I do not accept there is validity to the contention made by Deputies since it was brought forward on the floor of the House this morning. I am not aware of a problem and have had no indication from the Governor that it is the case.
The Minister for Finance can clarify this position in the afternoon. I understand there is no issue because the scoping issue the Central Bank has been asked to undertake will allow the Oireachtas to determine the terms of reference arising from that and these may be considered subsequently by a commission of investigation.
I have a question on existing and promised legislation. In September and more recently on 10 December, I tabled a question to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the number of persons imprisoned arising from the provisions of various criminal justice Acts passed by this House in the past year. No answer was provided, just a vague answer going around in circles in the usual way. Deputy Joe Costello raised the question of increased criminal activity yesterday morning. What are the other items of justice legislation, with particular reference to the curtailing of criminal activity, along the lines suggested when the legislation was introduced last summer? The suggestion was that criminal gang leaders would be put behind bars and put out of action and that law and order would be restored to the country.
I am not elaborating. There is a plethora of further legislation on the Order Paper. We were told, and this side of the House agrees, that this legislation was necessary. What has been the effect of that legislation since it was introduced? Will further legislation be required and what is that further legislation? Is it listed on the Order Paper? The bail (amendment) Bill is promised-----
The Adjournment is another matter, as the Ceann Comhairle knows quite well from sitting in this House for a number of years. If a Member is unlucky enough to get a matter on the Adjournment, one may get an invisible Minister or a Minister with no responsibility for that area.
I am not abusing the Order of Business. I am sorry but I must insist on this. For too long in this House we have been subject to this contempt from Ministers and the Government on a daily basis. Some of them do not come into the House. I have received a reply to a parliamentary question suggesting I should write to the Minister. All he has to do is read the newspaper, it has all the information he requires. Is it intended to put into effect the legislation passed by this House? Will the bail (amendment) Bill have the impact we have not yet seen?
I ask the Ceann Comhairle to bear with me. Current management has the reins until 2 February, then Kraft takes over. I suggest that the Taoiseach or the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment meet with Kraft in order to maintain current staffing levels and explore the opportunities that exist with Kraft coming into this country so that there may be job creation.
I refer to an item of pending legislation, the environment (miscellaneous provisions) Bill. Will the Minister take the opportunity to appoint an easily identifiable central figure who will be responsible for making sure there is a sufficient reservoir of salt in the country, much as we do with our oil reserves? Someone keeps an eye on this and knows how much oil is in the country at any one time. Met Éireann was able to predict how long the cold spell would last yet we did not have anyone who could take control and ensure we had adequate salt supplies for the duration. It will happen again and we need someone appointed. The opportunity is there.
I ask the assistance of the Ceann Comhairle in regard to a Private Members' Bill on the Order Paper, the Small Claims (Protection of Small Businesses) Bill. This was introduced to the House by the Fine Gael Party seven months ago. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform endeavoured to revert to us in respect of the Bill and, in fairness to him, he implemented the major provisions by means of statutory instrument. In recognition of a rare occasion when the Government has implemented legislation proposed by the Opposition, I would like the assistance of the Ceann Comhairle in removing this from the Order Paper for next week.
Deputies Ó Caoláin and Reilly raised the matter of important reforming health legislation that is put on the long finger. Another matter is the nurses and midwives Bill, which was supposed to be published as a priority in the last session. It was listed to be published in the last session and now it is listed for this session. My fear is that the Bill to charge medical cardholders and those with long-term illness for their medication may be given priority over other items of legislation that were to be given priority. Will those other items of legislation, particularly the nurses and midwives Bill on the priority list, be taken before the Bill that will charge medical card patients for their prescriptions? It is outrageous that the Government can prioritise certain Bills that penalise the poorest and sickest members of our society, but cannot prioritise other Bills that have been on the list for years and are very important in terms of the operation of the health services. Can I get some kind of a guarantee that we might get the nurses and midwives Bill before we get the Bill that will charge people for their prescriptions?
I would like to ask the Taoiseach whether any of the promised legislation under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government proposes to review the extent to which local authorities are accountable for the water crisis we have seen, particularly in Dublin city but also in other parts of the country, over the past two weeks. It is a pretty serious situation.