Thursday, 5 December 2002
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, National Tourism Development Authority Bill, 2002 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken from 11.25 a.m. to 12.15 p.m. because the Minister is at a meeting of a select committee until 11.20 a.m.; No. 2, statements on the national spatial strategy, to be taken at 12.15 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time. It is hoped statements will conclude at 4 p.m. The leader of the Fine Gael group asked yesterday if we could extend the time for this debate. A revised schedule was sent to Senators.
I want to raise two matters on the Order of Business. The Leader is probably aware that yesterday when the Minister for Finance was speaking, the report of the independent Estimates review committee or the three wise men was published. Perhaps we could have a debate before Christmas on this short, concise and profound report and its recommendations for raising revenue. There is consensus among all political parties about the way in which the tax system is constructed. People will not move towards the taxation of labour and there seems to be little appetite for the taxation of profits or capital. It seems inevitable that additional sources of revenue must be found in the years ahead if we want to provide better public services. While there might be a number of politically difficult issues to debate in the report, I would welcome such a debate in the House with the Minister for Finance. I am not sure if he has been in the House since it was reconstituted after the Seanad elections. Perhaps the Leader will ask him to come to discuss the report.
Will the Leader intervene with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to see if security can be provided to ensure the Belvedere sleep-out, which takes place every Christmas, takes place this year? I understand the school authorities cannot allow the sleep-out in Dublin city centre because of the threat to students in the school. That is a horrendous indictment of our society. The sleep-out has happened for the past 15 to 20 years and raised significant amounts for the homeless in Dublin. If young people cannot avail of the opportunity to give of their time between now and Christmas to raise money for the needy, it is a terrible indictment of our modern society. I ask the Leader to directly intervene with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the issue.
I also want to raise the issue of the three wise men, An Bord Snip or whatever the people who resurrect themselves every decade for one thing or another call themselves. This is part of the continuing process of conditioning all of us for hard times ahead. I point out to Members, particularly on the Government side, that there was an upbeat view of the economy in yesterday's Budget Statement, if people take time to read it. There was talk of growth in GDP and exports and a reduction in inflation after next year. On this basis, we should not consider disimprovements in the public service. There must always be restraint and cost-effectiveness, but it is not about restraining services.
Those who sit in the Department of Finance and claw their way through this are going through what Barry Desmond referred to years ago as the Asgard list, when they went through every possible way of saving money in the State, beginning with the sale of the Asgard. There are individuals in the Department of Finance who kept their heads down during the good times, but who are now sticking their chests out and declaring they are back because they are only happy when times are bad. Whatever about calling a halt to the reduction in public services, it would be utterly unacceptable, in the context of the Minister's prognosis for the economy, to cut back on hard won public services, whether in health or education. Everyone in the House, regardless of the political divide or who they represent, knows this is the case. It is about getting good value and doing it well, not about cutting back. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that we need to record our opinions on these issues and I would welcome a debate.
I agree with Senators Brian Hayes and O'Toole on this occasion. In the institutes of technology sector, in which I work, the number of students has doubled in the last ten years, the number of administrative staff has increased by an even greater factor and the number of lecturers has gone up by 10%. The result is extraordinary and the same is true in many areas of public service provision. There has been a huge explosion in the numbers of specialist bureaucrats with a limited expansion in the numbers of coalface service providers. If restructuring is to take place, I suggest the Government start at the top rather than at the bottom, as has traditionally been the case. The people who have made the mess are those with managerial responsibility who appointed many of the wrong people to unnecessary jobs.
The report of the three middle-aged men reflects their priorities consistently.
Cuts are suggested in child care provision, child benefit and housing, while increases in third level fees are proposed. I say without reservation that the report represents a set of perspectives and priorities which reflect the experiences of the people who wrote it. Is it the Government's intention to raise third level fees to €1,000 next year? That is the one recommendation in the report to which I cannot get a response from anybody.
Yesterday, the Israeli Prime Minister made proposals for a Palestinian state, which, if anyone else had made them, would have caused the world to fall over in hysterical laughter. He proposes to retain 60% of the territory Israel has occupied illegally and to tell the proposed state whom it can have as its leader. We should have a debate on the Middle East to discuss Iraq and the Palestine-Israeli conflict because morality is becoming so selective on the world stage that the word begins to sound like a term of hypocrisy. The high levels of morality that apply to dealings with Iraq are suspended when looking in the direction of Israel. It is time we had a consistent stance on the Middle East.
I reiterate calls made during the week for a debate on An Bord Pleanála and some of its decisions. During that debate, I would like to refer to decisions it has not been taking, given that in my constituency there is a factory which has had to seek an overseas location due to the failure of the body to make a judgment. This morning, I received a letter from An Bord Pleanála indicating that there is a further delay, the third it has imposed on the development of the factory in question. It is unacceptable and represents a potential loss of 60 jobs, which is the reason we should have that debate without delay.
I raised a very important issue four weeks ago and it has remained unresolved in the interim. The Revenue Commissioners have refused to implement a recommendation of the ombudsman regarding the discrimination in taxation against two widows. The matter is of such importance that the ombudsman deemed it necessary to commission a special report and to set it before the Oireachtas, yet four weeks later nothing has happened. To put it crudely, giving the two fingers to the ombudsman and his staff sets a very dangerous precedent and undermines them and their work. Unless this matter is resolved immediately, we might as well abandon completely the office of ombudsman, which is the reason the matter is worthy of a special debate in this House. Given the seriousness of the matter, we need to find out exactly what is happening. If the Revenue Commissioners are to win we can forget the office of ombudsman.
I second Senator Ryan's proposal to have a debate on the Middle East. As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, this House has a long and noble tradition of debating middle-eastern issues and I cannot help but reflect on the relevance of Winston Churchill's comment that, as the world moved on, the grey steeples of Fermanagh and south Tyrone continued to emerge unscathed. We seem constantly to focus on the unfortunate region in question, in regard to which there have been significant developments over the last six months.
We have seen the horrific killings in Kenya of Israeli citizens, which I condemn unreservedly, and the interesting – I put it no more strongly than that – proposals regarding a Palestinian state. Violence continues in Israel and Palestine and it is important that we debate the issue. I realise that time is of the essence and I ask the Leader to allow Government time for a debate on developments in the Middle East, if not before Christmas, then at the earliest opportunity.
I support my colleagues, particularly Senator Brian Hayes, in expressing concern about the Belvedere sleep-out, which I have witnessed on many occasions at this time of year. I was not aware that it was threatened in this way, but I am not at all surprised that it appears the safety of those involved cannot be guaranteed. I have raised such issues many times in the past. Why should anybody show surprise at this when we have recently seen Spar shops in that area of the inner city licensed to sell beer to the public, the Ambassador cinema become an enormous pub for youths and reports that St. Mary's Church is to accommodate 2,000 young people? I warned about this for a long time, but nothing seems to have been done.
With regard to the troika of senior and distinguished civil servants that has produced a report, I support calls for a debate. However, denigrating them is not going to advance anyone's argument. They have done us a real service by producing a report which most politicians would be afraid to sign their names to and by raising real issues. They should be complimented for so doing, but the analysis on this side of the House has been slightly cynical in contending that the report provides a smoke screen for the Minister. In one sense the civil servants are right and we should thank God that they have been there to do this work. They are independent people who have looked at a critical matter, made recommendations and provided politicians with an opportunity to point to and examine what the experts say. We should do that. I am amazed that socialists say the children of millionaires should get the same allowance as everyone else and I am in complete favour of means tests.
Will the Leader get definitive clarification from the Minister for Finance as to his intention to cut the number of public service staff by 5,000 as indicated in the budget? Will she point out to the Minister the crisis in education where up to 40,000 primary school pupils are being taught by untrained teachers? A freeze on appointments indicates that rather than the promised reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio, we will see an increase. Educational support services will be pushed further into crisis because of the failure to make appointments to, for example, the psychological service. Those support mechanisms are very much needed. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister, particularly in the area of education—
I support Senator Higgins in his request for the Revenue Commissioners to refund the interest to both widows on the basis of the Ombudsman's report. The Ombudsman does a responsible job and should not be taken lightly. I have spoken to the Revenue Commissioners on this issue and I am aware that they are concerned that this will open the floodgates with regard to other claims, not of that nature but where there may have been negligence on its part. In regard to DIRT accounts, the Revenue is imposing interest on penalties and will continue to do so. Therefore, Revenue cannot have it both ways. I firmly support the request of Senator Higgins.
I join my colleagues in calling for a debate on the Middle East. I avail of this opportunity to congratulate and welcome back from Greece my constituency colleague, Senator Leyden, who did great work.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Defence to the House. There is a plan by Brigadier General Swords regarding rationalisation of military installations. Will the Minister confirm or deny that the barracks in Boyle and Castlerea are at risk? This is a matter of grave concern to the personnel and others in these areas. Will the Minister come before the House to confirm or deny that this report exists?
I return to an issue I raised some weeks ago, namely, the Supreme Court decision on barring orders which deemed that they are unconstitutional. I thank the Leader for bringing this matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I understand the Minister indicated that legislation would be in place to deal with this matter prior to Christmas. I am extremely concerned that legislation will not be in place. We are coming up to a period when families – women and, in certain situations, men – are at risk and the law will be unable to protect them. This is a serious issue for many people. I regret the matter will not be resolved before the biggest festive season which sees many put at risk.
In his budget speech, the Minister for Finance referred to the fact that he intends to introduce a tax on carbon emissions by 2004. We should support such a tax if it changes our behaviour rather than raises revenue. When it introduced the tax on plastic bags, the Government aimed not at raising revenue but at changing behaviour and that tax has been a wonderful success. The carbon emissions tax could operate in a similar fashion.
I spent yesterday evening with Robert Kennedy Junior, an environmental lawyer from the United States, who was on a one day visit to Ireland. He asked what we are doing to ensure that we have sustainable development and if it is high on our agenda. I had to admit that I did not think it was high on our agenda. I ask the Leader to place on our agenda in the near future the question of whether we are protecting the environment in a way that we will not just inherit it from our ancestors but that we will borrow it from our children. I believe the latter is the terminology used by those involved in the environmental area? This matter should be placed high on our agenda in the coming months to ensure we are ready for the tax when it is imposed.
I ask the Leader to raise the issue of broadband roll-out in the south-east region with the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern. I read in the newspapers this morning that a decision appears to have been made by the Department of Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources regarding broadband roll-out in the south-east. The south-east regional authority was the lead authority for the Serpant project, which was due to commence in January or February 2003. It appears the Department has indicated money is not available for the 19 local broadband networks which were due to be set up in the country despite constant assurances given before and after the election. It also appears that the south-east project has been shelved indefinitely. There is even no confirmation that it be launched in 2004.
I again ask Leader to arrange a debate on the BMW region. I cannot understand the Leader's reluctance to arrange such a debate because that region forms part of her constituency. In light of the many cutbacks that have been made, it is important to see whether the BMW region is getting its fair share of the cake.
When is it proposed to take the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill?
A few weeks ago the National Roads Authority published a list of 20 road projects which would not proceed next year due to lack of funding. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Transport to come before the House to outline which projects will proceed and which will not?
The Minister for the Environment and Local Government stated that the finance for the N9 is available, while the National Roads Authority say it is not available. Will the Minister come before the House, as soon as possible, to explain what finance has been provided and for what projects?
Will the Leader update the House on the social inclusion policy? People are being forced into substandard accommodation because of the Government's policy and the capping of the rent supplement, which I raised yesterday. How will the marginalised fit into society? I understand a social inclusion policy exists, but it has been thrown out the window due to recent Government cutbacks.
The Fine Gael leader in the House, Senator Brian Hayes, asked if the report of the, as he referred to them, "three wise men", could be debated. When we entered office in 1987, there were big headlines from the Department of Finance saying all trains were to stop in Athlone. The other headline was that all capital projects, including major bridges, were to be stopped. That would have left the new bridge at Athlone suspended half way.
The three wise men – they are three public servants – have done a good deal of fine work. The purpose of those lists is often to frighten people so that when one is at Cabinet, one takes other severe decisions. It is better to hold on to something in particular because of the fear of meeting something worse. It is a list of things that will frighten and some of its contents will be realised. It is good that the report has been published. It means we cannot run around with FOI requests asking who said what and to whom. It is all in print and should be debated.
It would be a good idea. The Senator also inquired about the Belvedere sleep-out. I understand that the Garda used to facilitate this fine exercise in fundraising for the homeless. I will contact the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform today to see whether additional measures can be taken to allow these young people to continue the good work done at Christmas in previous years.
Senator O'Toole agreed that the report of the "three wise men" should be debated and condemned the disimprovements in public services. The published report will form an interesting part of our debate in the coming weeks. Senator Ryan agreed with previous speakers on this issue and referred to the growth of the technology sector. He also raised the issue of the Israeli Prime Minister's proposals for the Palestinian state and sought debate on the Middle East.
Senators Higgins and Finucane referred to the lack of comment by Revenue on the Ombudsman's statement regarding discrimination against two widows. That issue would be a suitable matter for the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service to debate. Senator Higgins is a member of that committee, as are Senators Mansergh O'Toole and White, who is not present.
I suggest the Senator raise the matter as an urgent issue at the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service.
Senator Mooney referred to the need for wider debate on various international issues. I will try to facilitate him in this regard.
Senator Norris agreed that we should look at spending throughout the public services and indicated that we should focus on the needy, rather than spreading expenditure over many areas. I agree because those in real need would benefit. The Senator also raised the issue of the inner city, St. Mary's Church and other areas which have been rededicated to booze.
Senator Ulick Burke inquired about public service numbers. He pointed out that over five years staff numbers in the public service rose by 50,000. The decrease in numbers by 5,000 will be over three years and will not have immediate effect. The reduction will be effected through natural wastage. Public service numbers, particularly in regard to health and education, will be an ongoing matter for debate.
Senator Feighan praised Senator Leyden for his humanitarian gesture. In my opinion we should all do so. The Senator travelled at his own expense to give a reference for Eamon Donnellan of Cloonfad, County Roscommon. This man was declared innocent by the High Court on 3 December and was released immediately. I congratulate Senator Leyden on his intervention.
Senator Terry inquired about barring orders and I passed on to her information I received from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell. He intends to have this matter dealt with before Christmas, which is a particularly dangerous period in regard to the issue.
Senator Paddy Burke implied that I showed reluctance to arrange the debate he requires. I remind him that I have a national constituency now and that the Minister who was in charge has moved elsewhere. The Senator wants a full debate on the issue. I am not reluctant at all, but I am not the Minister. However, we will try to get the new Minister to come to the House to debate the issue.