Wednesday, 1 December 2010
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. a6, motion re leave to introduce Supplementary Estimate; No. b6, motion re referral of Supplementary Estimate to select committee; No. 15 - Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2010 - Second Stage (resumed); and No. a15 - Statements on the EU-IMF programme for Ireland and the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 (resumed). It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that No. a6 and, subject to the agreement of No. a6, No. b6, referral to Select Committee, shall be decided without debate and any divisions demanded on Nos. a6 and b6 shall be taken forthwith; the proceedings on the resumed Second Stage of No. 15 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 1.30 p.m. today; and Private Members' Business shall be No. 81, motion re stability and the budgetary process (resumed), to conclude at 8.30 p.m. tonight, if not previously concluded.
There are two proposals to be put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with Nos. a6 and b6, motions re leave to introduce and referral of Supplementary Estimates to select committee without debate agreed to?
No, it is not agreed to. Before agreeing, I seek clarification from the Taoiseach. I refer again to the matter I raised with him yesterday regarding the constitutionality of the IMF agreement. Has the Taoiseach sought legal advice in respect of the position he has taken in this House in response to this Deputy and others? Has the Taoiseach referred the matter to the Attorney General?
All too sadly, it has everything to do with it. Finally, when will the memorandum of agreement, as well as any other technical data pertaining to that agreement, be published? While I will reserve my final point to the Order of Business proper in respect of promised legislation, what steps, if any, has the Taoiseach taken to establish the accuracy of the position he argues, namely, that it is within the bounds of the Constitution? I contend that it is not.
With respect, I do not stand up here every day to have a blistering row with the Ceann Comhairle. It is in the context of the Order of Business. Today's business provides for the continuation of statements that commenced yesterday.
I am sure the Deputy will have ample opportunity, during the statements and questions later this evening, to pose that question. However, this is proposal No. 1, which is not relevant to the point being raised by the Deputy on the Order of Business.
On the Order of Business, perhaps the Whips might make arrangements for a short statement from and some questions to the Minister for Transport in respect of the gridlock that has been caused nationwide because of this short cold snap? As for the meetings that have taken place between the NRA, the meteorological personnel and so on, I understand the Minister and the Cabinet have only been briefed today on what is the status.
Very well. If it is not true, it is all the more reason for the Minister to appear in the House and at the least, explain to the nation what are their ministerial and governmental guidelines to the authorities in respect of Government policy in this regard. It is important to remember that all over the country, elderly people are trying to go about their little bits of business on footpaths that are exceptionally dangerous and very slippy.
We have all heard reports of people with sprained ankles and broken legs, etc., which is a cause of great trauma to them. There is confusion in many people's minds with regard to the extent of their liability, if any, if they clean the footpaths in front of their premises or places of business.
I know there is a clear position on this. It is important for the Government to spell out whether shopkeepers and householders who clean the footpaths in front of their premises are liable if somebody falls. It would be appropriate for the Minister for Transport to set aside half an hour for a short statement and a couple of questions.
We have set out the Order of Business for the day. It was insisted on yesterday that we proceed with the proposals that are before us. If it is possible for the Whips to provide for half an hour within that timeframe, without changing it, I am sure that can be looked at in an effort to be helpful.
The interagency co-ordination group has been meeting since this spell of bad weather began. The Ministers for Transport, Defence and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government attended this morning's meeting. An emergency co-ordination mechanism is in place to deal with these sorts of situations. It has been up and running.
The Deputy sought clarification and advice with regard to liability for members of the public when clearing snow from outside residential and business premises. There is clear advice from the Attorney General. The issue of liability does not arise for snow that is cleared in a safe manner. If a pavement is cleared in a manner that disposes of snow so as not to create any obstacle or hazard, there is no issue of liability. I think common sense prevails.
We have sufficient reserves of salt. This issue arose last year when we had a very bad spell. We have over 80,000 tonnes in reserve. I think another 50,000 tonnes have been obtained by the NRA. The amount that is usually used in a typical winter period, from November to March, is 60,000 tonnes. There are stocks in place. Indeed, the main roads which take 60% of total traffic and 80% of commercial traffic are being salted on an ongoing basis. It is a priority issue. Other roads are also being dealt with as a priority issue by local authorities. Of course we would advise people to take public transport where possible. It is important that we look out for our neighbours, particularly the elderly, and make sure they are looked after.
I understand that three sets of documents need to be completed arising from the EU-IMF agreement. First, a letter and a memorandum dealing with economic and financial policy needs to be communicated to the IMF and the EU institutions. Second, a memorandum of understanding must be concluded in respect of the EU funds. Third, there are operational agreements dealing with matters, including the quarterly review, etc. When is it intended that those documents will be concluded? When will they be laid before the House? Will they be laid before the House before they are communicated to the international bodies concerned?
The Government's statement at the weekend on the joint EU-IMF programme referred to a commitment to introduce a fiscal responsibility law, including a medium-term expenditure framework with binding multi-annual ceilings on expenditure in each year. Can the Taoiseach confirm that is the case? When will such legislation be introduced in the House? What stage of preparation is it at?
What are the Taoiseach's intentions with regard to a finance Bill? Is it intended that the Dáil will reconvene after Christmas? If so, when is it intended that the Dáil will reconvene and when will a finance Bill be presented to the House?
The draft documents are being finalised, as Deputies are aware. I think they are going to ECOFIN next week. The Minister for Finance intends to circulate the up-to-date draft documents that have been referred to when he makes his contribution in the House at approximately 3.45 p.m. this afternoon. They will be available before they are finalised on 6 and 7 December next. I think those are the dates on which that will happen.
The finance Bill will be taken in the new year. It has to be prepared. First of all, we have to get our budget through. That is the first priority. That will take place next week. Legislation will have to be prepared thereafter. It will be debated and legislated for in the normal way as soon as possible. It will be in the new year. There will be a return to the Dáil. We have not yet decided what the date will be.
I will communicate with the Minister for Finance regarding the up-to-date position on how the fiscal responsibility law will be proceeded with. I will ask him to refer to it in his speech this afternoon.
I understand from the Taoiseach's response to Deputy Gilmore that these documents in draft form will be open to Members of the House some time later today. Is that what the Taoiseach is suggesting? Is he indicating that they will be merely concluded today, and will not be seen until later this week? The memorandum of understanding is a critical document, in terms of the detail applying to the arrangement. When will these documents be laid before Members of this House? When will the Opposition parties have sight of the detail contained in them?
I would like to ask again about the statements on the IMF-EU agreement. The absence of a voting opportunity for Members at the end of the debate is the subject of my objection to the Order of Business. Has the Taoiseach sought legal advice on the matter? Has he referred it to the Attorney General? Can he answer the questions that have been asked in the House about the constitutionality of the steps the Government is taking?
The finance and social welfare Bills are usually taken as part of the outworking of the budget each year. It has already been indicated that other legislation is expected this year. Does that include legislation to take €40 per week from those who depend on the minimum wage? That is what will really happen across the board, based on a 40-hour working week. Is legislation planned to give effect to the reduction in the minimum wage? Does the Government intend to introduce other legislation in the aftermath of next week's budget to give effect to the measures it is planning?
Obviously, I cannot announce the budget in advance. It will be announced next Tuesday. The legislative arrangements that will have to be put in place to give effect to the budget will take place consequent to the announcement. I presume the Deputy will accept that I cannot indicate what is in the budget at this point.
On the question of the availability of documentation in draft form, the Minister for Finance intends to circulate the documents with his speech this afternoon, as I have said, so that people can peruse them and see where they are at.
On the question of the constitutionality of our approach, the Deputy can take it that Attorneys General are in attendance and give their advice when we conduct these discussions and when the Government makes decisions. I assure the House that the clear and unambiguous advice is that it is totally within the competence of the Executive to undertake these agreements. It is in compliance with Article 29.4 of the Constitution.
Is it not the Government's intention to introduce legislation in addition to that giving effect to such budgetary measures? The Government signalled such an intention as part of its four year plan. Is there legislation in that regard pending?
The terms and conditions that apply to the drawing down of funds include structural changes such as the reduction in the minimum wage. The timeline, etc., set out in the documentation will be dealt with accordingly.
Those were the conditions on which this facility can be drawn down.
I have two matters to raise. Given the weather situation and the economic uncertainty faced by people, I ask the Taoiseach about the status of the insurance indemnity Bill and when it is expected to be brought to the House. This Bill would at least offer protection from fly-by-night operators, uninsured doctors. The second matter I wish to raise is the issue of the interest rate on the memorandum of understanding. The Taoiseach stated yesterday that Greece was looking for the same terms and conditions and has received them.
I hope I may be allowed to finish my question. If the Ceann Comhairle will allow me explain it will be simple enough. Given the known difficulties associated with the accounting and annual reports supplied by Greece, is there any inference that the same difficulties apply to the Irish situation? Why are we being treated the same way?
In the current weather conditions, thousands of people on low incomes are desperately worried about whether they will be able to pay their electricity and gas bills. The carbon levy was introduced in the last budget and the Government promised there would be compensatory measures for people on low incomes. That never happened. The EU and IMF agreement will double the carbon levy.
Before the Ceann Comhairle interrupts me I am allowed to ask about the programme for Government. Under the renewed programme for Government the Taoiseach made a specific commitment that a fuel poverty strategy would be published in 2009. Other countries have fuel poverty strategies which are deliberately designed to protect people on low incomes, particularly elderly people at risk of fuel poverty.
Before I call the Taoiseach to reply, I wish to make this point. The issue of the programme for Government is not a catch-all provision to allow Members to raise issues on the Order of Business. Standing Order 26 is quite specific regarding promised legislation. That is the difficulty we have. I have advised the Deputy to submit the information being sought to the line Minister and I am sure he will be more than willing to accommodate the Deputy.
I do not wish to be argumentative but I have been here quite a long time. May I say to the Ceann Comhairle that over many years, the Opposition has been able to raise issues relating to the programme for Government. If the Ceann Comhairle wishes to change the rules, I suggest that would have to go through the normal channels but the precedent is established over many years-----
The Ceann Comhairle is changing Standing Orders by degrees and without consultation, as Deputy McManus said. In my time in this House the rule has always been that the programme for Government or any aspects of it, are eligible for raising on the Order of Business in the normal course of events.
I asked a perfectly valid question. This was a very clear commitment, which would require legislation, and the Taoiseach has to explain to the House how it is that people on low incomes are terrified to keep themselves warm because of the increased costs of energy. The Taoiseach gave an undertaking and it is written in the programme for Government, to protect those people. Two thousand people die every year from cold-related illnesses-----
I do not wish to cross the Ceann Comhairle at any time. An affordable energy strategy is being drawn up. In this winter season, more than €240 million will be made available by the Government under various household packages such as the national fuel allowance and free electricity and gas allowance. The household benefits package in 2009 extended the period by two weeks from 30 to 32 weeks. There have also been increases in welfare payments throughout our period in Government by over 88% at a time when the rate of inflation was 20%. The record of Government for looking after the elderly and making basic provision for them stands in stark contrast to some of the rather measly increases we saw when the Opposition was in government.
This is my last intervention on this matter. I do not argue with the Taoiseach about the existing supports. The Taoiseach and his Government made a specific commitment to have a fuel poverty strategy in 2009. I want to know why they did not keep their promise.
An affordable energy strategy is being prepared. In the meantime, this Government has made real improvements which are well above the cost of living increases at a time of severe economic and financial crisis. We have been able not only to maintain but to increase them and to extend the period in 2009 at a time when the economy was contracting by 10%.
I am loth to raise this issue but I note the Bill for the direct election of a mayor for Dublin was back on the Order Paper yet the mental capacity Bill, which is a much more important piece of legislation vital for many more people and will have a greater impact on people's lives than any directly elected mayor of any city not just Dublin, is not. When will the mental capacity Bill be brought to the House?
On the same matter, in answer to the point made by Deputy Kathleen Lynch, which is a very important matter, the absence of the mental capacity Bill's passage is the reason the Government is giving for the failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is quite scandalous that the ratification-----
I am not. In so far as the Ceann Comhairle has stated this, with regard to his interpretation and the advice he is receiving on Standing Order 26, that Standing Order is not based on the legislation as announced within this Chamber; it is legislation anticipated from public statements requiring legislation inside or outside the House-----
Frankly, I have asked several times about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been signed but not ratified. It has been communicated to me in writing that the reason it is not ratified is because we are awaiting the passage of the mental capacity Bill. Deputy Kathleen Lynch has asked about the Bill and she is entirely right. She is also entirely right to draw a contrast between a Bill that is urgently needed so that we might establish some humane standards and a fit of nonsense that has been going on from someone else.
That Bill is due to be published this session. For the purposes of reply and to put it in my own words, having listened to the Deputy's point, the ratification of conventions can only occur when the necessary legislation is in place to implement the convention. Other countries ratify conventions and have no domestic framework for them. It is preferable that we bring forward the legislation which is being published this session. All the stakeholders have been involved in its preparation. The Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, who has responsibility for this area, is satisfied that it can be published this session. Once the Bill is implemented, we can consider ratifying the convention.
When is it intended to introduce the collective investment schemes consolidation Bill, whose aim is to update legislation on collective investment schemes generally? Particularly in view of the events of the last week, it would be appropriate to introduce it at the earliest opportunity.
That is peculiar. There is another Bill I want to ask about. Although it must be a moot point at this stage, the purpose of the international agreements Bill is "to amend the Bretton Woods Agreement Act 1957 to provide for Ireland's membership of the IMF's new arrangements to borrow, NAB", which is very appropriate in the present context.
As Deputy Howlin said, NAB is an appropriate name for what is happening. The purpose of the Bill is also stated as being "to make available Ireland's share to NAB". Is it intended to bring that Bill before the House, in view of the vulnerable position in which we find ourselves?
I ask the Taoiseach to give a commitment to instruct his Whip to make sure that the first available slot will be used to take Report and Final Stages of the Bill so that it may be passed before Christmas. Tens of thousands of people are affected by management company issues and have been waiting six or seven years for legislation-----