Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 15, Competition (Amendment) Bill 2011 - Order for Report, Report and Final Stages; and No. 16, Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011 - Second Stage (resumed). Private Members' business shall be No. 39, motion re community employment schemes (resumed), to conclude at 9 p.m., if not previously concluded.
Last evening, an appalling situation was revealed by the "Prime Time Investigates" programme on RTE, which dealt with prostitution and the illegal trafficking of women for prostitution in this country. The story that was portrayed was an horrific one, which represents a blight on our society and also has a strong European dimension. What we witnessed was a fundamental denial of the most basic human rights for women, much of it organised by various rings of people engaged in trafficking. There is endangerment and enslavement of women, as well as health and safety issues. The programme for Government lists the criminal law (sexual offences) Bill, which is intended to implement the EU directive on trafficking. Will the Taoiseach give Members a timetable for the publication of this Bill, because it would help address some of the issues raised in the programme yesterday?
Another important Bill in this regard is the criminal justice (proceeds of crime) Bill. This aims to strengthen the Criminal Assets Bureau, which has an important role to play in pursuing the organisers of these trafficking rings who are deeply embedded in prostitution. Can the Taoiseach indicate when the Government intends to publish that Bill? Is he satisfied with the resources available within the Garda Síochána to tackle this issue? Very low numbers of gardaí are involved directly in this area.
Although I did not see the programme referred to by the Deputy, I believe it showed the appalling abuse of women throughout the country. The Minister for Justice and Equality is considering criminal law in this area. The criminal law (sexual offences) Bill is due to be introduced to the House later in 2012. The Ruhama group, which works with women who are exploited and other persons so affected, is to be complimented on what it does. The Minister is also considering a number of structures under which the purchase of sex can be criminalised, as is the case in Sweden and a number of other locations. The programme makers are to be complimented on bringing this into the public domain. The use and abuse of these women by Irish men seems to have been extraordinarily prevalent. The Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Bill will be introduced later in 2012 and the Minister is actively considering several options that might be available to him in that regard.
Tá cúpla ceist ar dtús faoi reachtaíocht atá fógraithe. On 26 January, the Tánaiste told the Dáil the Government is not considering legislation to introduce a system of attachment orders, which would allow money to be taken from wages or social welfare payments so the Government can implement the punitive household and septic tank charges. However, in a written reply to my colleague, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, the Minister for Justice and Equality said that such legislation is being prepared. Can the Taoiseach clarify this? Does the Government intend to bring forward such legislation? Will there be a facility to collect fines through attachment of earnings or reductions in social welfare payments? Has there been any consultation between the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Social Protection? If this Bill is to be published, when does the Taoiseach expect that to happen? Is the Tánaiste aware of this and, if not, will the Taoiseach tell him? Perhaps as Leader of the Labour Party he is too ashamed to admit it.
There is no legislation contemplated here, but the Minister is examining a more efficient way of collecting fines. I will have the situation clarified for the Deputy but, as I understand it, the introduction of such legislation is not contemplated. There are some constitutional difficulties with it but the Minister is looking at a far more efficient method of collecting fines where they are properly levied by the courts.
I am advised that the Minister for Justice and Equality said that this would be part of the Fines Bill. I look forward to receiving clarification from the Taoiseach on that.
The other issue is that the Taoiseach has promised on a number of occasions to meet with Opposition leaders to discuss the constitutional convention. I have written to him in some detail about that. Second, the Taoiseach will be aware that all Senators and Deputies, including members of the Taoiseach's party, from the region served by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda have signed a request to the Government to institute an inquiry into allegations of abuse in that hospital. The Taoiseach also promised to meet with us about it, but there is no sign of any meeting.
I did. There are questions down for answer in the Dáil next Tuesday regarding the constitutional convention. We discussed this in the Cabinet yesterday and I hope to brief Deputy Adams and Deputy Martin in the next couple of weeks. I will be able to expand on it in replying to next Tuesday's questions. My schedule is a little busy during the next three weeks but I am conscious that I gave an undertaking to meet Deputies and Senators from the north-east region. I will do that as soon as I can fit a two hour section into the schedule.
When will the promised legislation to allow previously self-employed people to claim social welfare be introduced? They are now in limbo through no fault of their own. The legislation was promised by the Minister for Social Protection. These people not only paid taxes all their lives but they also acted as tax collectors for the State.
The second question relates to the local government reform Bill being brought forward by the Minister for septic tanks. Is the Government aware of the very serious situation with An Bord Pleanála?
On the first question, I am advised by the Minister for Social Protection that the advisory group on social welfare is examining the question raised by Deputy Healy-Rae. It will report later in the year with a number of recommendations covering a range of issues in the social welfare area, including this matter. The Deputy's remarks about An Bord Pleanála are not relevant in the context of pending legislation.
Can the Taoiseach give an indication as to when the promised legislation on the national vetting bureau will be brought before the House? It is a matter of great importance. Can he also clarify the position on it because there has been publicity about some of the potential shortcomings in that area? Some people are considered to be exempt such as bus drivers, school caretakers and so forth. Over the years some people have been in a very privileged position and have had ease of access to children and, tragically, in some cases that resulted in the widespread abuse of children. Can the Taoiseach allay our fears and ensure some of those categories will be dealt with?
A great deal of work has been completed on this and the entire spectrum has been covered. That Bill is expected to be published in this session and I expect there will be a comprehensive discussion on it by all Members when it is before the House. The issues the Deputy correctly raises will be addressed in the legislation.
Apropos the matter raised by the Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Micheál Martin, this is an acknowledgment of something all Members have raised in the House in the past. There is urgent necessity for legislative measures and I compliment the Taoiseach on his response.
There is another issue I have raised repeatedly in the House, including from the Opposition benches five, ten and 15 years ago. It is the growth of organised crime. Every time we read the newspapers or listen to the news we see increasing evidence of its growth.
Yes, a plethora of legislation is promised. For some reason, there appears to be difficulty in taking organised criminals off the streets. They cannot be put out of action, decommissioned or drawn to the side. They are at liberty to pursue their crime. It is the only industry that is growing.
This is a matter of the greatest concern. There is no fixed date for the introduction of the bail Bill. Obviously, the Minister for Justice and Equality is acutely aware of the impact of organised crime on the country. That is partly why the Government approved the appointment of 33 senior Garda officers yesterday. I hope that will lead, in some way, towards getting information that will deal with the situation so that people can be brought before the courts and put behind bars if the courts so decide.
I have two questions for the Taoiseach. Tá a fhios agam gur cuireadh ráiteas amach inné faoi dtaobh den Bhille Gaeltachta. Cén uair a mbeidh an Bille seo foilsithe, cén uair a mbeidh sé ag dul tré Thithe an Oireachtas agus cén uair a thuigeann an Taoiseach a mbeidh deireadh le Bord Údarás na Gaeltachta mar atá sé tofa go daonlathach agus go mbeidh sé á cheapadh? An féidir leis an Taoiseach eolas a thabhairt don Teach ar an cheist sin?
The second question relates to the promised legislation to extend the remit of the Freedom of Information Act to a number of bodies. I wish to focus in particular on the extension of freedom of information to the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. It is crucial that this is brought before the House as soon as possible. I would hazard a guess that no party or Deputy would oppose the extension of freedom of information to NAMA, given that the agency is handling billions of euro worth of assets on behalf of the State. It was revealed a fortnight ago that NAMA would set up another agency - a qualified investment fund - within itself. Yesterday Deputy Gerry Adams revealed that in the last two years €27.5 million had been spent by NAMA on legal advice. NAMA will now set up another agency within itself which will be able to acquire assets from the agency which in the first instance it acquired from the banks. These assets will all have to be revalued by the same legal professionals. Arthur Cox was paid €3 million in legal expenses and we know it carried out work for the banks that had not even been tendered for. We know the Department for Finance has given money to other agencies for work that was not tendered for. There is, therefore, a need to lift the hood on NAMA. When will the promised legislation to extend the Freedom of Information Acts to NAMA be brought forward and why does the Minister not sign a ministerial order to give effect to it immediately?
Tar éis an díospóireacht a bhí ag an Rialtas inné, tá cead tugtha ag an Aire glacadh leis an mBille nua maidir le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta agus beidh sé tugtha isteach sa Teach sar i bhfad. Tá an obair sin ar siúl faoi láthair. Ba cheart go mbéadh an Bille achtaithe sula mbéadh na toghcháin le bheith ann.
The Bill relating to freedom of information will be introduced later this year. A number of areas require discussion and analysis before the Minister can move on it.
The firms which tender to give legal advice to NAMA are selected from panels established following a competitive tendering process. Individual assignments are normally awarded after the receipt of further tenders designed to ensure the most competitive pricing for the assignments. The legal costs incurred in 2010 and 2011 were related to legal due diligence on loans NAMA had acquired from the participating institutions. Arising from reviews, questions were raised about the enforceability of security in certain cases. As a result, legal discounts amounting to €368 million were imposed which reduced accordingly the acquisition cost of the loans. This relates to the first five tranches only. The saving to the State in carrying out this due diligence was a large multiple of the legal costs incurred. The legal due diligence costs are fully recoverable from the financial institutions.
The Minister for Finance has already signalled publicly that he is looking at the structure of NAMA, on which some initial work has been carried out. He hopes to have others appointed to a group which can look at what might be possible in terms of changing the structure. It is difficult to find competent people from this country who can do this work. This is a small country and persons with competence in this field may have a direct or indirect connection with a property owner or a property associated with the NAMA portfolio. The Deputy will, therefore, understand the Minister's reticence in not being too hasty. He is anxious to find people who are really competent and who do not have a connection with anyone or anything associated with NAMA.
With regard to the Water Services (Amendment) Bill, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government stated on 26 January that the €50 charge was enshrined in primary legislation. In answering a question put by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae he said it would take a vote in the House to alter that charge. He also said that in his lifetime or in that of the Government he would not do this. Nevertheless, he came to my county of Tipperary-----
-----and announced that the charge was being reduced by 95%. With Deputies Brian Stanley, Niall Collins and others, I was in the Chamber when the Minister answered the question. What does the record of the House mean?
Please do, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Minister stated clearly that it would take a vote in the House to alter the €50 charge. He has now done it on a whim and announced it in Tipperary South because he is under pressure.
The Minister has made it clear that he intends to publish guidelines in a few weeks time. This will be followed by a consultation process and the guidelines will be approved by the House. The Minister was very clear when he spoke in Dundrum. He was welcomed to County Tipperary-----
I wish to raise a serious issue and ask Deputies to give me time. I, too, raise the scandals and horrors portrayed in last night's "Prime Time" television programme and congratulate the makers of the programme. I recently met Ruhama, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the organisers of the Turn off the Red Light campaign. What is going on is scandalous. Women are being trafficked into Ireland under false pretences and forced into prostitution. They are also being trafficked around the country. I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin that not enough gardaí are involved in tackling this issue. I know the Minister is involved in a consultation process which I hope will conclude soon. I intend to raise the matter at the Joint Committee of Justice, Defence and Equality. The use of websites needs to be included in any legislation introduced. Those organising the websites used are making millions every year as thousands os women are advertising on them for which they are being charged €700 a week. Legislation must be introduced to stamp out these websites.
I have already commented on the appalling abuse and trafficking of women around the country that was evident on last night's programme which I did not see but about which I heard this morning. The Garda and the Ministers for Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs will be anxious to ensure something is done about this.
It is difficult to legislate for websites hosted outside the country. That is the scale of the challenges we face because of the way technology has moved and the information available worldwide. While the Internet brings potential for advancement in many ways, it also brings opportunities to engage in this kind of activity which is destructive of people's rights and personalities. The issue will be reacted to by the Government.
Sexual offences legislation will be brought before the House later this year. I hope everyone will be able to contribute fully and comprehensively when it is debated.
The Taoiseach will be aware that much of the work of the Residential Tenancies Board which regulates the private rental sector is taken up by disputes between landlords and tenants regarding deposits. Many of the tenants involved, owing to the inadequate supply of social housing, are on low incomes. In that context, when will the promised legislation to reform the Residential Tenancies Act be brought before the House and will it include a deposit retention scheme for which organisations such as Threshold have been calling for some time?
What is the status of the further education and training authority Bill which is required to set up Solas? The Taoiseach has acknowledged this morning that the biggest challenge facing the country is presented by the jobs crisis. Crucial to tackling that is an organisation which is fit for purpose to ensure people get the training they need. I recently met some local officials that would be involved in the set up of this new organisation and they are really up for it. They really want to do a fine job for these people and give them the hope and support they need, but for that to happen this Bill must be in place.
It is due later on in the year. This is an absolute priority of the Government. Next week the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation hopes to launch his jobs action plan and that will be followed by implementation of the Pathways to Work programme by the Minister for Social Protection. FÁS is being discontinued and there is a movement towards Solas and the NEIS programme under the Department of Education and Skills.
The Deputy has rightly identified this issue as being absolutely critical for young people in particular. He will hear more about that in the near future. I cannot give him an exact time for the legislation, but we are starting work on making this happen.
The issue of social protection entitlements for self-employed was raised earlier. That matter is a priority of the social protection committee, of which I am member. Any Member of the House is welcome to attend such meetings to discuss the issue if he or she feels it is a priority. I would like to ask the Taoiseach to row in behind that issue and give support to our efforts.
Would it be possible to set aside some time to discuss the desperate humanitarian situation in Syria at the moment? It is a terrible situation and it would be worthwhile discussing it in the House.
The review group on social welfare is looking at the issue of the self-employed. This matter has been raised for quite some time. The situation might have been beneficial when times were good for the self-employed, but obviously when things get bad, it is not so easy.
The Tánaiste is in Washington today talking to people associated with the illegal emigrant issue and a number of other issues. He is also due to meet the UN Security Council. I have read the reports from the Middle East about the abomination that is taking place in Syria, where people are being abused, murdered and raped. All of the evidence from the city of Homs speaks for itself. This is something that has been decried by Europe, where a number of countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria. It is an issue of strategic focus by the US Secretary of State. It is an issue of grave concern internationally. I hope the pressure being brought to bear will lead to a resolution to this conflict as soon as possible. These people are being murdered in their own country and what is going on is an abomination on mankind.
The finance Bill is being published today. What is the precise timetable for the Bill?
Would it not be appropriate to table an amendment to the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011 to deal with the issue the Taoiseach addressed earlier, namely, the contempt shown to workers by the likes of the Vita Cortex and La Senza bosses? Apart from the contempt and disgraceful abuse of workers, does the Taoiseach not find it humiliating that the political establishment at the very top in this country is forced to humiliate itself, begging these people to do something when they should be compelled to do it by law or face the consequences?
I have already said that the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement examined the evidence in its possession in respect of Vita Cortex and it found that it was insufficient to take legal action against the company. When the social protection Bill is published, it will provide an opportunity to the Deputy and everybody else to make these points.
Given that cancer figures in Ireland are predicted to rise by 72% by 2030, can the Taoiseach provide a definite date for the publication of the public health (sunbeds) Bill? I have inquired about this Bill on a number of occasions. In fact, I raised it almost exactly two years ago, on 7 February 2010, and I was told that legislation was forthcoming. To date, nothing has happened and I would appreciate an update on when this important Bill is coming before the House.
Where is the regulation Bill on subcontractors? Many subcontractors have got on to me, stating that the figure of €200,000 in the Bill is very high in light of the direction the economy has taken. One could build many houses now for €200,000, given the way things have gone. The figure should be brought down to €50,000 or €100,000 to protect these subcontractors.
The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, is dealing with this. I had a discussion with him recently about it. I cannot give the Deputy an exact time for it, but we will report on the progress that he is making about it.