Thursday, 12 December 2002
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, motion relating to the power of detention and re-arrest, a measure referred by the Seanad to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights which is returned following discussion, without debate; No. 2, motion to refer a proposal providing for heavier penalties for specific acts against the environment, for example bad oil spills, to the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government; No. 3, National Tourism Development Authority Bill, 2002 – Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage, to conclude not later than 12.30 p.m.; No. 4, Appropriation Bill, 2002 – All Stages, from 12.30 p.m. to 3 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and all other Senators not to exceed six minutes and on which Members may share time; and No. 5, Appropriation Bill, 2002 – motion for earlier signature, without debate, to be taken immediately upon the conclusion of No. 4.
I cannot agree to the Order of Business this morning unless the Leader can provide time today to allow the Minister for Health and Children to come before the House to make an urgent statement concerning the tragedy that occurred in the Cavan-Monaghan area in recent days. Members on both sides of the House are aware of the tragedy concerning a woman who was six months pregnant and lost her baby as a result of what would seem to be bureaucratic bungling between a number of hospitals in the region.
While I am aware the Minister has launched an immediate investigation which will be carried out by the North Eastern Health Board, it would be entirely wrong for the House to adjourn today without the Minister coming here to make a statement on this important matter. It is not just important to the region, but it has significance to other hospitals throughout the country. As the Leader is aware, the Monaghan Hospital Action Group has been protesting on our doorstep for some months to highlight the difficulties concerning that hospital. It is only right that there should be a statement from either the Minister for Health and Children or one of the three Ministers of State at the Department. The Leader should allow for a debate between the Minister and a number of colleagues from all sides of the House. Unless provision is made now for such a debate, my group cannot support the Order of Business as proposed.
I wish to ask the Leader a serious question, which follows on from an issue Senator Brian Hayes raised yesterday concerning the banks. Once again the banks are not passing on last week's ECB interest rate cut of 0.5%. This is a very important issue which continues to arise. The House needs to draw attention to the ingenuity and capacity of the major banks in this country to slip some of this money into their pockets along the way. I will not belabour the point, but the ECB cuts rates to give a boost to the European economy if it is sluggish. It does not do so in order that Irish banks can put their hands in the pockets of consumers here, but this is what is happening. They are doing this in all sorts of devious ways.
There has been much discussion about tax by stealth. What the banks are doing to consumers is robbery by stealth. We should debate this matter in order to highlight what is happening and put these people under extreme pressure because they will otherwise continue to act in this way for as long as they are allowed to do so. Members of the public do not realise they are being deceived. When presented with a reduction in rates, people are not aware that it is not the full reduction.
Even though it is not done with any malice aforethought, we seem to be limiting debate on important issues. I do not know from where the idea to limit speaking times on the Appropriation Bill to ten minutes and six minutes comes – I presume an agreement was reached between some of the parties – but the Bill is, to put it mildly, extremely wide ranging in that it covers all categories of Government expenditure. While most Senators may be able to confine their contribution to ten minutes, it is farcical to ask one to limit one's speech to six minutes.
I support the comments of Senator Brian Hayes. The tragedy in County Monaghan is of a scale and intensity that deserves an immediate explanation. We have a flawed system of waiting for the conclusions of a detailed investigation in order to defuse the issue. We should be made aware immediately of the information the Minister and the relevant health board have to hand. If there are gaps or uncertainties, they should be teased out. The Houses of the Oireachtas should be informed immediately of all available information where circumstances such as these arise. Otherwise, it will be leaked in dribs and drabs via other agencies or family members of the poor woman in question. Without a proper process of issuing statements in the House, the position regarding public information will become much worse.
On a related issue, I ask that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House to discuss in detail his apparent decision to reduce the number of special teachers in primary schools. The Department quotes figures on the percentage of primary schoolchildren receiving special education in comparison with the rest of Europe. Given that we have a higher pupil-teacher ratio in comparison with the rest of Europe, it comes as no surprise that more children here need special assistance. To cut back on the number of special teachers without addressing the fundamental problem of the pupil-teacher ratio will, therefore, make a bad situation worse.
Will the Leader indicate her plans regarding No. 6, Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill, 2002? This is a complex issue which should be dealt with at a reasonable and rational pace in order that Members have sufficient time to hear and reflect on the views of others.
Does the Leader agree that the Minister for Education and Science's intention is to conduct an audit and wide-ranging review of all special needs in the education system? Does she also agree that if Senators had listened to the INTO representative this morning, they would have established that ongoing consultations have taken place with the union representing teachers in the special needs area? Does she commend conducting such a review and comparative analysis with Europe? Does she further agree that we have made commendable and laudable progress in terms of the pupil-teacher ratio, particularly during the past five years?
The Leader may recall that, on the Order of Business on Tuesday, I raised the closure of Miza Ireland in Roscrea, County Tipperary, and asked her to call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to intervene urgently. I regret that she did not respond to my request and that the Tánaiste failed to intervene. I ask her to invite the Tánaiste to the House as a matter of urgency in order to outline the packages and assistance available to the workers of Miza Ireland who lost their jobs yesterday afternoon which, unfortunately, coincides with the lead-up to Christmas and outline the job creation plans, if any, she has for north Tipperary. This area has become a black spot since the closure of at least five major companies in the past 18 months, which is an outrageous record for any Government. The Minister has failed to visit County Tipperary since the first closure was announced. It is poor consolation to the workers of Miza Ireland that she is able to take a helicopter to Ballinamore, County Leitrim, to open an off-licence, yet she will not come to north Tipperary to look after the well-being of the workers.
It is not often that we compliment Ministers on their actions. Usually, we want them to address the House or answer questions on their recommendations. The decision of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that padded cells are no longer acceptable in our prisons is a huge leap forward for prisoners suffering from mental illness.
I support Senator Brian Hayes in regard to the most unfortunate incident in County Monaghan. It appears there is a shocking shortfall, if not a total absence, of accident and emergency services in the county. Some well-informed medical professionals have stated this type of tragic incident could potentially occur in as many as 5% of cases.
The Leader indicated either yesterday or on Tuesday that it would be necessary next week to take all Stages of some Bills on the same day. This is a most unusual practice. Will she indicate which Bills she has in mind?
In view of the complex and multifaceted set of decisions due to be taken this weekend in the course of negotiations in Copenhagen on issues such as the Convention on the Future of Europe, not to mention EU membership for Turkey and Cyprus, the Rapid Reaction Force and relations with NATO, will the Leader indicate a definitive timeframe for holding a debate on Europe?
I support Senator Brian Hayes's call for a discussion on the situation at Monaghan hospital. As he correctly stated, people have been campaigning outside the House for a considerable length of time and, obviously, there are strong feelings in this regard. The situation, where a woman was turned away from the hospital, is quite tragic. She was having a difficult time in labour and the ambulance had to stop. The child was born alive and survived until it reached Cavan hospital, but died shortly afterwards. There was a suggestion on radio this morning that the child might have lived had it been given appropriate medical treatment. That is an appalling prospect and a cruel thing for the mother. I hope she did not hear the report. It is appropriate that we should discuss the situation.
I refer to what my colleague, Senator Ryan, said about the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey. I understand the Minister is not restricting the number of special teachers but has instituted an audit. That is perfectly reasonable and more Departments should take action of this kind. We should not be afraid to face facts and the resources of the State, which are now limited, should be targeted and directed in the most appropriate—
I seem to do that so easily. I apologise.
I wish to say something in a non-speechifying manner about a subject that is often raised here, that is, the coverage of the House by the media. I compliment RTÉ in one sense because, in its coverage of both Houses, particularly the Seanad, it no longer just relies on sound bites and allows sufficient time for Members to develop an argument. That is a welcome development. As well as criticising the media, we should recognise when it does things for the benefit of the Seanad and the public.
Having said that, the Leader and I agreed yesterday evening that we had had an excellent and significant debate on the drinks industry. It was important that coverage should have been given to the debate so that young people, adults, parents and the authorities know what is being said on these subjects in the Oireachtas, but there was not a peep about it. One journalist, who has been praised before, attempted to have material printed in the newspapers but it was excised because it is easier to include the Minister's speech. That is not acceptable. There was not a whisper on RTÉ. I said RTÉ gives good coverage and I know there are time constraints, but yesterday's was a really significant debate on important issues that affect people's lives. The health and welfare of the country were raised but there was not a peep about the debate.
I happened to glance at the proceedings of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food. I would not usually spend time viewing its proceedings, but they were actually superb. The contribution of Senator Callanan, in particular, was quite outstanding. It is a pity that contribution was not reported.
I support Senator Ross's call that the House put whatever pressure it can on the banks. The ECB has awarded a 0.5% reduction in interest rates. However, if there had been an increase, everyone in the House and elsewhere would be paying it by now. It is regrettable that the banks have not passed on the 0.5% reduction and we should put whatever pressure we can on them to ensure they do so.
Will the Leader give serious consideration to moving No. 11, motion 7, on the Order Paper from non-Government business to Government business in light of the recent budget, the cutbacks in rural and western areas and the lone furrow Senator Paddy Burke has been ploughing in regard to the Border, midland and western region? Like Senator White, I am a newcomer to the House and I do not know whether it would be possible to hear the comments of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on this matter as well. When I tabled the motion, it related to the Gaeltacht region but, three months later, the situation has changed. There is a feeling of neglect in rural areas and we need a debate as a matter of urgency. Will the Leader consider my request?
Senator Ross rightly mentioned the 0.5% reduction in ECB interest rates. On previous occasions the Oireachtas has obliged financial institutions by abolishing items such as redemption fees, which were iniquitous, and applications fees, which were unjust. Unless rates are voluntarily reduced on time, we should consider legislating so the banks pass on interest rate reductions immediately.
The House should extend its thoughts to the workers of Miza. It is particularly poignant that they have lost their jobs at Christmas time. There is a guaranteed market for the product and I understand it is the overhang of a large amount debt which is causing problems for the company. Our thoughts are with the workers at this time.
I am delighted to see the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill, 2002, on the Order Paper and I congratulate the Leader on bringing it before the Seanad because it will receive a good initial examination here. I join Senator Feeney in saying how glad I am that padded cells are being phased out of prisons. I do not know where these prisoners will be put because there are dreadful problems in the Central Mental Hospital, but it is good that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is making an effort in this regard. I congratulate the Irish Penal Reform Trust on the work it has done in this area.
I support Senator Norris's comments on the lack of coverage of serious debates which take place in the House. I also agree with him in regard to the debate on alcohol abuse because we all know it is a serious problem. There was an informed debate here yesterday in which many Members participated. It should have been possible for the media to give some balanced coverage of that debate.
I support the call for a debate on human rights. It is a pity we have to make a few rushed comments on human rights on the Order of Business. I particularly admire Senator White's tenacity in that regard. She went to Colombia, at great inconvenience to herself, and showed great courage while there. Any legislature would be delighted to have a person prepared to undertake such a mission. This is underlined by the fact former US President Carter received the Nobel peace prize, particularly for his work in the area of human rights. He was demonised for visiting Iraq and other places because it was not politically correct to do so, but he was, nonetheless, awarded the Nobel peace prize. I hope the Cathaoirleach will accommodate Senator White in arranging a debate on human rights in the near future. I would like to hear her report on the Colombia—
There is a great deal of concern and anger in the west at the manner in which the Government has treated the Western Development Commission. I call on the relevant Minister to come to the House to outline what plans he has to secure the future of the commission, which is needed in the west.
Senator Brian Hayes stated he would not agree to the Order of Business unless the Minister for Health and Children came to the House to discuss the incident at Monaghan General Hospital. While I cannot get hold of him, I understand the Senator's position. It was a terrible and extremely tragic incident. The Minister has ordered an inquiry about which we will be informed as quickly as possible. I send my sympathies to the young mother who has lost her baby. It is a sad and poignant case on which all of us would like to have a debate as soon as possible.
Senator Ross and others referred to banks not passing on last week's interest rate cut by the ECB. It is robbery. Usually, when banks are mentioned in this context, they are being robbed. However, they are robbing us instead of somebody robbing them. I will write to the Irish Bankers Federation later to find out how much money we, as consumers, have lost as a result of the non-implementation of the 0.5% interest rate reduction as soon as the announcement was made by the ECB. It is a considerable amount. The banks have learned nothing following the DIRT inquiry.
As Senator Ross pointed out, the cut was made to boost sluggish economies in Europe and 0.5% is a considerable reduction. His point is well made and should be taken up immediately.
The Senator also referred to the Appropriation Bill. While it must be passed quickly for early signature because of the measures it contains, the House always has an extended debate on it following the Christmas recess.
Senator Ryan supported Senator Hayes on the Monaghan matter. He also raised the plans of the Minister for Education and Science. My understanding is the issue is, not whether teachers will be appointed, but where they will be appointed. In other words, teachers will be appointed where they are most needed and the number of appointments will not be affected. I will have the matter clarified.
Senators Ryan and Henry asked about the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill. Senator Henry first raised the Bill with me a few months ago. She agrees with Senator Feeney's comments on the use of padded cells and her praise for the Minister's directive about their use. I met the Minister approximately six weeks ago and told him we were keen to have the Bill initiated in the Seanad. He has agreed to our request and it is scheduled for the first week of the new session.
Senator Fitzgerald correctly pointed out a review of all special needs in schools would be undertaken by the Department of Education and Science to which the Minister is committed. I do not know the reason we are afraid to debate such issues because they relate to disadvantaged young students and the more they are targeted the better. I cannot understand the reason all farmers and pupils want to be classed as disadvantaged. Surely they would like to be advantaged sometimes.
Senator Coghlan supported Senator Hayes on the Monaghan issue and wanted to know what Bills would be introduced in the House prior to Christmas. We are still in negotiations, which it is hoped will conclude later. However, next Tuesday all Stages of the domestic violence legislation, which will address amendments to barring orders, will be taken. The Senator's colleague, Senator Terry, has been up-front about her desire to have the legislation in place prior to Christmas. I am in negotiations on other Bills.
Senator Coghlan referred to the important decisions that will be taken at the EU summit in Copenhagen and sought a debate on European issues. I hope the Cathaoirleach will call a meeting of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges because special debates on such matters can only be agreed by that committee.
Senator White referred to the trial in Colombia. The House is glad she attended the trial and she was very courageous. I do not know many people who would taken off like that. The Cathaoirleach stated the Senator could raise the issue next Thursday via a written request. I am also aware she is returning to Colombia on 3 February next.
Senator Norris referred to the reporting of the incident in Monaghan. When I heard the report on radio, I hoped the woman involved had not heard it because it inferred that if she had been taken somewhere other than Monaghan General Hospital, it would have made a difference. Perhaps the journalist did not intend to report the story in that way.
The Senator also referred to the audit of special needs teachers. I had a discussion with him last night and agreed that the debate on alcohol abuse among young people was outstanding. There was a great deal of insight, knowledge, compassion and realism in the contributions. It was such a thorough debate that I came into the House and spoke to the Chief Whip and the Acting Chairman. I asked the Acting Chairman to adjourn the debate until after Christmas and that was done.
Senator Norris also referred to RTÉ's coverage of the House. RTÉ has limited time available for "Oireachtas Report" and is doing its best. It is dipping into Seanad proceedings more than has been the case, similar to the newspapers, particularly The Irish Times. Jimmy Walsh and RTÉ do their best. However, it has occurred to me that representatives of the various groupings in the House should ask the executives in RTÉ and TV3 for a meeting in order that we can outline our concerns in that regard. That would be worthwhile. They will argue they are doing their best, but it would be no harm to meet the broadcasters formally to express our point of view.
Senator Hanafin suggested that if the lending institutions do not voluntarily reduce mortgage interest rates immediately legislation should be considered to compel them to do so. The Senator also expressed regret at what is happening at Miza pharmaceutical plant in Roscrea. Senator Coonan suggested that the Tánaiste and Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Employment attend the House to debate the implications. I met the Tánaiste yesterday when she expressed the wish to attend the House. A debate will be arranged. I understand redundancies are under discussion in the social partnership talks.
Senator Feighan referred to the anger in the west about proposals to abolish the Western Development Commission. There are no such proposals. The three advisers to the Minister for Finance suggested it should be abolished but all of these matters are for review. If there is an overlapping of bureaucracies it is better to ensure that funding is maintained and better targeted.