Thursday, 6 February 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No.2, statements on Iraq, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, all other Senators will have ten minutes and time may be shared. A tentative finishing time of 1.30 p.m. is proposed because I have managed to speak with only one of the Whips. The debate may continue for a short time beyond 1.30 p.m., depending on how it develops. We shall monitor events as they unfold.
The Education (Welfare) Act, passed by this House and the Dáil in 2000, has not come into effect. The 30 to 40 truancy or school attendance officers provided under the Act are no longer performing their roles because of a bureaucratic mess involving the National Education Welfare Board and the union. This is scandalous. Children in Dublin and every other city and town play truant every day, but we do not have any facility to follow up on them to ensure that they get back into mainstream education. I ask the Leader, who is a distinguished former Minister for Education, to intervene directly with the Government with regard to this matter. Legislation produced by both Houses of the Oireachtas and enacted for over two years is not in effect and this is having dangerous consequences.
Yesterday, over 8,000 students were on the streets of Dublin to oppose the mooted abolition of free third level fees by the Minister for Education and Science. As a former Minister for Education, will the Leader explain her views on the matter in light of the new, independent role she enjoys in this House.
The House should be reminded that the legislation to which Senator Brian Hayes referred was substantially amended by the Seanad. When we proposed to shorten the commencement date, this House was given undertakings that the Act would come into operation very quickly and that everything was in order for it to proceed. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
I wish to raise an issue related to the Shannon River Council Bill, with which the Cathaoirleach will be familiar and which I expect Fianna Fáil Members to support with alacrity since it originated with the distinguished Members on the Government side. Senator Daly, an experienced member of the Fianna Fáil group, brought forward the Bill with the support of the House. However, when the Government was elected to power, I regret to say that, in an amazing turn of events, it ignored the legislation.
I raise this matter without any attempt to embarrass the Cathaoirleach. Many Members of the House come from constituencies on both sides of the River Shannon. The Government should indicate when it intends to reintroduce the legislation. I have sought to raise the importance of the issue at other fora in an attempt to focus attention on it. I would appreciate it if the Members on the Government side supported the Bill.
Last week Senator Browne raised the issue of lack of funding for and proposed closure of educational centres in various areas throughout the country. I hope the Leader will be able to address the Senator's concerns. In the context of the modernisation required at all levels of the education sector, such centres are crucial. This is a matter of extreme importance and I look forward to a response in respect of it.
It is the practice of the House to give latitude to the leaders of the parties and groups. In view of this, I ask them to confine themselves to the Order of Business and not to comment on remarks made by other leaders, etc. If such behaviour continues, I will have to withdraw the facility.
She is also a most distinguished Leader of the House.
On yesterday's Order of Business, I inquired about the Government's plans to amend the Freedom of Information Act. This morning's revelations that the Department of Education and Science has used virtually every possible exemption to refuse disclosure of information on the peculiar agreement between the Government and the religious orders on the question of compensation is a cause of concern. For example, the Department has invoked the provision on privacy when the religious orders have indicated they have no difficulties with the disclosure of material.
Will the Leader ascertain if there has been a change in Government policy on what should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act and are today's revelations a prelude to amendments to the Act? The possibility of limitless public exposure to compensation claims in this area and the protection of the religious orders is extremely serious. Apparently, the public is not to know the basis of the agreement between the orders and the Government.
To clarify a point that arose yesterday, anybody who knows me would be aware that I did not suggest that there should be armed soldiers on the streets. I said I was astonished – I continue to be – at the priorities of the Government with regard to the issue of crime. Last night, three teenagers were shot in Dublin. I presume they were accused of misbehaviour. If it transpires it was an act of armed vigilantism, it will be a further symptom of the decline in confidence by citizens in the capacity of the State to protect them. That should be the central priority of the Government, rather than the defence of United States military interests at Shannon Airport.
Two weeks ago I called for a debate on agriculture and I am surprised my request did not receive more support. The Fischler proposals will have a profound effect not only on farming, but also on the processing industry and the entire economy. It is important that the House give immediate and serious consideration to this grave matter so that our views can be communicated to the Government.
I agree with the views expressed by my colleague, Senator Brian Hayes. There is huge resistance to the Government's attack on the youth of the country, evident in the abolition of the summer school fees and the increase in college registration charges by almost 7%. Yesterday, approximately 10,000 young people from all parts of the country converged on this city to protest against the proposed return of third level fees. I understand the Minister for Education and Science is preparing a report and it is important that the House debate the issue.
There was widespread surprise at the announcement on "Morning Ireland" by the general secretary of IMPACT that there is a dispute between education welfare officers in Dublin and the Education Welfare Board. To the best of my knowledge, this morning's announcement is the first indication of the dispute. Those who have been directed and given guidance and who are, therefore, empowered and obliged to attend for work are sitting in their offices. While a transition period can be painful, in this instance from the position of attendance officer to education welfare officer, I call on the education welfare officers to return to full duty in Dublin – they are on full duty elsewhere in the country – pending the outcome of negotiations and in the interests of children who are most at risk.
I support the call by Senator Brian Hayes for a debate on the dispute involving the former school attendance officers. I understand approximately 40 are involved and they are anxious to work. However, they need to be recognised as education welfare officers. This is crucially important because, as was said in the debate to which Senator O'Toole referred, children, particularly in deprived areas, who slip through the net once are often gone for good if they are not caught quickly. Moneys raised by the CAB should be returned to these areas to fund the Breaking the Cycle scheme up to university level.
Despite the protests outside the Oireachtas yesterday, I support the Minister for Education and Science in re-examining the question of third level fees. Funding should be channelled directly to those in need of grants and there should be means testing of fees to help those who most need this education. The current system provides a nice cushion for the middle classes, which was not the intention.
I ask the Leader to note that, as I understand it, all Members received a letter in the form of a circular from Jive Ace Productions. The Church of Scientology is at it again. We should give consideration to this matter because, even though the leaflet makes no reference to scientology, it suggests its involvement in anti-drugs campaigns, etc. It is sinister that the Church of Scientology can conceal its identity in this way.
I reinforce the request made yesterday through the Leader to the Minister for Finance to make a statement on the state of the public finances and the economy. Examining the Exchequer returns I discovered that tax revenue rose by 10% in the first month of this year. This is very healthy, even compared with good years, and something one would never have discovered from the purveyors of gloom who, like Old Testament prophets, are the sort of people on whose faces, as the Leader says, one never sees a smile.
I support Senator Dardis's request for a debate on agriculture. It is very important that the farm organisations are part of the social partnership agreement because there are many challenges and difficulties ahead.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes. The Leader of the House and other Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats politicians should come clean regarding their positions on the introduction of third level fees. Despite what people like Senator Norris are saying, the available evidence shows that the participation rate of people from all social backgrounds has improved since the abolition of third level fees.
I request the Leader to raise with the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, the health and safety concerns of construction workers who marched in Dublin yesterday. It is a matter of concern that only 20 inspectors have been appointed to cover the entire country at a time when the construction industry is working at 100% capacity. The Minister of State must consider the deeply felt views of many workers in the construction industry regarding health and safety matters with a view to having the main contractors take responsibility for health and safety on their sites.
I also support my colleague, Senator Brian Hayes, in requesting the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Science to explain to the House how he intends to resolve the dispute between the school attendance officers and his Department. This issue is having an effect on our streets. I listened to a report on the radio this morning on children as young as 12 years who refuse to go to school and for whom no one is taking responsibility. The Leader should also ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to intervene in the matter. The children concerned are falling through the education net and will fall into crime. Dealing with them at a later date will cost the State considerable amounts of money whereas if money were spent on intervening at an early stage, serious problems would not be created.
I support the call of Senator Dardis that the Minister for Agriculture and Food be invited to come to the House as soon as he possibly can in order that discussions can take place on the Fischler proposals and their impact on farming, the agriculture industry and rural Ireland in general.
Will the Leader outline to the House the Government's intentions regarding the mooted proposals that An Post cut postal deliveries to three or four days per week and the suggestion that different postal rates would apply to different parts of the country? Surely that would be blatantly discriminatory against everyone living beyond the Pale.
I support the calls for the implementation of the Education (Welfare) Act and to have the officers working as soon as possible. When the legislation was passed in the Oireachtas, I understood the officers would be working from July of last year. As Senator Fitzgerald said, it is regrettable that they are working in their offices but not on the ground. When the legislation comes into effect, I hope the local committees will be incorporated in the system and their local knowledge used by the education welfare officers when they take up their positions.
It was only when I rang the Department of Social and Family Affairs on behalf of my local GAA club that I discovered that the student summer job scheme had been abolished. This has come as a thunderbolt. Community organisations have their projects and schemes in place and there was an anticipation that a good scheme offering 200 hours of community work at the princely sum of €770 would be available this year. This is a retrograde step which should be debated in the House. Summer is four months away and the collective will of the majority of Members of both Houses could reverse this decision. The economy is contracting, jobs are going, it is difficult to get into the United States and opportunities for students are negligible.
Will the Leader invite the chief executive officer of Irish Rail to outline to the House what has been done to upgrade the railway lines? I know the company's slogan says it is getting there but last Monday many of my constituents complained about the Dublin to Sligo line. The train from Sligo was 20 minutes late getting in to Dublin and half an hour late getting back from Dublin to Sligo. There was no heat on the train and no one from Irish Rail explained the position to the passengers. This is inexcusable. An apology should be forthcoming from the company.
Will the Leader indicate to the House who is responsible for monitoring licences issued by the Environmental Protection Agency for the disposal of litter? Yesterday, in the Leader's neighbouring county sludge was illegally disposed of. The sludge originated from local authorities. Carriers of litter and refuse are supposed to be licensed hauliers, yet last Thursday evening near the Leader's doorstep a truck carrying a consignment of litter being, I think, illegally transported from Cork to Northern Ireland overturned. The driver of the truck disappeared, indicating that something was wrong. On examination, some of the litter was found to have originated in Departments and agencies. When the Minister was here yesterday, I asked him to reply and he went silent. He was upset that I had asked him the question.
I support my colleague, Senator Feighan, but first I acknowledge the vast improvements on the Dublin to Sligo railway line. I am sure Senator Feighan would acknowledge these also. However, there has been a great disimprovement in the service on the line. We no longer have a dining car on the Sligo to Dublin train and will not have one until matters improve radically. I add my support to Senator Feighan's call for the Leader to get some answers for us from the Minister. The train from Dublin to Sligo is like the slow boat to China.
Senators Brian Hayes, O'Toole, Bannon, Terry and Kitt inquired about the Education (Welfare) Act, which was to be implemented in June 2001. In one way or another, it is a disgrace some of the provisions contained in the legislation are not being implemented. I understand, however, that, with the exception of the part to which Senator Hayes referred, the Act has come into force in its entirety. I hope to obtain from the Minister a definite answer about that section of the Act by Tuesday next.
This matter was debated on radio this morning. The confidence or boldness of the young fellow who responded to the interviewer was evident. Those children do not give a damn whether they are at school or not and that is folly on their part. This is another matter for the education welfare officers, whose job it is to identify those playing truant. These officers cannot do their work at present because of what seems to be an inter-union dispute. Senator Fitzgerald stated that, for the good of young people, the officers should return to work.
Senator Hayes also said that, in light of my new independent role, he would like to hear my view on various matters and third level fees, in particular. We will all express our view on that matter soon because the report is due to be published.
Senator O'Toole raised the matter of Senator Daly's Shannon River Council Bill—
At present, he is a distinguished Senator. Senator O'Toole asked if I could check the current status of the Bill. All I can say is that the River Shannon is still there. I will check the position vis-à-vis the Bill.
I do not know from where the issue of the teachers' centres originated, I just saw some references being made to it. Senator O'Toole asked if I can ascertain the exact position and I will do so.
I notice that Senator Ryan used the word "subvert" instead of the word "amend". There is quite a difference between the two.
Senator Ryan asked if it is proposed to amend the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of Education and Science deals with CORI on behalf of the Catholic schools and institutions. I do not know if it is proposed to amend the Act in terms of dealing with that issue, but I can inquire about the matter on the Senator's behalf. I am confident that whatever information exists will be revealed, but in what fashion I do not know. Senator Ryan also referred to the behaviour of armed vigilantes.
Senators Hayes, Bannon and Tuffy sought a debate on college fees, a matter on which Senator Norris holds an opposite point of view. Senator Norris referred also to the circular he received from the Church of Scientology which puts itself forward as a drug-busting organisation, but which, in fact, is intent on implementing a much more malign manifesto. I agree with the Senator it is a scary organisation. While the Church of Scientology did not write to me, it wrote to Senator Dardis. That organisation was exposed on "Liveline" by Joe Duffy, who did a good job in that regard.
Senators Mansergh, Dardis and Callanan requested a debate on agriculture and, in particular, the Fischler proposals. Senator Mansergh also called for a debate on the financial figures. To show the generosity of Fianna Fáil, it is hoped that, in our Private Members' time next week, we will have a debate on one of the two matters to which the Senator referred. It is proof of our generosity of spirit that we are devoting our time to these matters.
Senator Brennan expressed concern about construction workers and the need for responsibility to be placed firmly on construction firms to ensure they pay more attention to health and safety legislation.
Senator Terry requested that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come before the House. We will be enticing him to be present for an open debate in the near future.
Senator Coghlan raised the matter of An Post. I did not hear any proposals from An Post that it is about to reduce its service to three or four days. There is an onus on An Post to have a universal service to every area of the country every day, except Saturdays and Sundays. I do not know where that rumour arose, but to my knowledge there is no veracity to it.
Senator Higgins raised the issue of the summer jobs scheme. I read about it in either the Estimates or the Budget Statement. It was announced and in the public domain. The Senator is of the view that it has only come to light now. It was a good scheme and did much good work in the area of sporting facilities, particularly around the country. An announcement to the effect that the scheme would be brought to an end was certainly made.
Senator Feighan wants the chief executive officer of Irish Rail to come before the House. That would not be appropriate, but the person in question could go before the Joint Committee on Transport, which, to use a travel term, is the "appropriate destination".
The Senator also referred to the Sligo-Dublin train as did Senator Feeney, who said it was like the slow boat to China. I suggest that would be a good matter for an Adjournment debate, particularly if the Senators wish to join forces in respect of it.
Senator Burke asked about EPA licences. It was indicated on television yesterday that the sludge seems to have originated from the local authority. In that context, I found strange that the manager of the authority was interviewed and was extremely pious in what he said. The Senator said the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, was upset. It would take a fair amount to upset the Minister. I do not know if a query from the Senator—