Wednesday, 12 February 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 2, Unclaimed Life Assurance Policies Bill 2002 – Second Stage, to conclude at 1 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Senators may share time – Committee Stage of the Bill will be taken at 4 p.m., to conclude not later than 6 p.m.; notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders relative to private business, No. 1, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Charters Amendment) Bill 2002 – Second Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude at 4 p.m.; No. 9, motion No. 24, to be taken from 6p.m. to 8 p.m. These times are aspirational. There will be a sos between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.
Will the Leader explain the reason the Government has ordered Second Stage and Committee Stage of the Unclaimed Life Assurance Policies Bill 2002 to be taken on the same day? I am sure she will agree precedent has been that Second Stage is taken on one day, with Committee and Report Stages taken on other days.
I will leave the subversion issue for the Leader as she is well able to deal with it.
I ask the Leader to obtain answers to two questions from her colleagues in Government. The Official Secrets Act 1963 has, to a greater extent than any other Act, embraced the culture of secrecy in our public administration. In 1997 a select committee of the other House, chaired by a former colleague of mine, Deputy Charles Flanagan, proposed the repeal of the Official Secrets Act. Does the Government have proposals to act on the committee's recommendation? The repeal of the Official Secrets Act would constitute the single most important step towards smashing secrecy in our public administration and embracing the principle of accountability that we are all trying to promote in public life?
It is my understanding that the budget of the Office of the Ombudsman has been slashed by some 15% to 20% this year, a move which does little to encourage the notion that members of the public can have issues arising from their dealings with the public administration investigated through that office. This is a retrograde step which needs to be highlighted because the Act establishing the Office of the Ombudsman has done more to expose bureaucracy and the culture of secrecy in our public administration than any other Act passed by the Oireachtas.
Less than a week after the issue was debated in the Houses, it seems ridiculous to have to ask the Leader to have a member of the Government come before the House to explain precisely what is its policy on the possibility of war in Iraq. The current approach appears to be based on the good cop, bad cop routine, with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs choosing to speak in humanitarian terms here last week, whereas the Minister reportedly spoke in belligerent terms in the Dáil yesterday. An inspired leak also appeared in The Irish Times this morning essentially stating that Government policy would be to support whatever America does.
The leak was clearly inspired. One would expect the Fianna Fáil Party to take an issue which involves a risk to 12 million children as seriously as the rest of us and at least avoid heckling when it is raised. I ask for clarity from the Government on its position in the event that the United Nations does not pass a second resolution next Friday. I am aware of everybody else's position, including that of most European Governments, yet I do not know the position of our Government because it speaks out of both sides of its mouth, which should not come as a surprise.
In recent months I have called on a number of occasions for a debate on housing in light of the fact that the Taoiseach appears to be coming round to the view, after many years, that something should be done about the hoarding and price of building land. It would be appropriate for us to have a debate on housing and the price of building land and I would welcome an investigation into the ownership of building land.
Most Members will agree that another issue the House could usefully debate is Northern Ireland. I would welcome a debate because I would like to discuss a particular party which appears to be in a position to be pacific in this part of the country and act in a militarist way north of the Border. It is a most extraordinary partitionist position for a political party which claims to be republican in that it supports paramilitarism in the North yet claims to be the leader of a pacifist movement in the South. I would like an opportunity to discuss those contradictions and many others and I suggest to the Leader that a debate on Northern Ireland would be useful.
I want to use my position here to raise an issue which is of local but also national concern, namely, the fact that Cork city will be the European City of Culture in two years. A major issue is developing in Cork about the future of the School of Music. If there is not a Government decision to proceed with the building of the School of Music in Cork, there will be an end to formal music education there. The current position is impossible and untenable and if a decision is not forthcoming, I ask the Leader to use her considerable good offices to try to persuade the Government to do something about it.
The Order of Business is satisfactory. I want to raise the question of Iraq. We had a good debate on Iraq last week and we established the views of this House. It is now in the hands of the Government to make a decision so it is not necessary to continually debate it here. We have given our views and the Government now must make the decision.
Now is the time for a debate on Northern Ireland because the Government needs to hear an expression of views in that regard.
We had an interesting debate on crime recently but since then we have learned that there are now 15 murder cases outstanding in the Limerick area. I understand the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is hoping to transfer the Special Criminal Court to Limerick but he must ensure that he continues to deal with that issue with vigour. I understand it takes two to three years to bring a murder case to trial. In the United States they do not talk about crime as much as public safety. We talk about public safety for our citizens, but if murder cases are not reaching trial for three years the Minister must take action. It is not a question of public safety if criminal cases take that length of time to come to court. I understand that is the position. I would like the Minister to confirm it and to ensure that he exercises the same vigour in this area as he has done in others.
I take Senator's Quinn's point that we have debated Iraq. Many Members contributed to the debate and the views of the House were clear on it, but it would be wrong to let the statement pass which suggested that anybody in this country, whether in the Government or otherwise, would condone the killing of 12 million children, which is the way it was represented. As far as I am aware the Government's position is clear on the matter. We are hopeful that a peaceful settlement can be reached in this dispute. In the event of military action we would want it to have the authority of the United Nations by way of another resolution and it would be wrong of us to anticipate the outcome of those events.
A European directive on the protection of 34 special areas of conservation and the policy of alternative energy, particularly wind energy, could have profound implications for Ireland because the areas listed are mainly situated on mountains or in bogs, which are very suitable for wind energy. I warn the House that this issue will be a flash point in rural areas in the near future because many farmers are looking to wind energy as an alternative source of income. In addition, many communities also obtain a dividend from the people who invest in wind energy projects. I would like the Government to carefully examine the impact this directive will have in rural areas and I forewarn the House that it will become a hot topic.
I endorse what the Deputy Leader and Senator Quinn said about the question of Iraq. One can only assume that Senator Ryan suffers from the type of advanced amnesia that affects academics in the context of debates of this nature. When he comes out into the sunlight, I would suggest that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minster of State, Deputy Kitt, have given the utmost clarity to the Irish position.
I compliment the Minister for Foreign Affairs who – for the first time as a Foreign Minister – delineated the difference between military and political neutrality. This country will make its decision in light of inspector Hans Blix's report next Friday. To use football parlance, I ask the Leader to keep her eye on the ball in terms of what is happening in the region in general.
There is a growing crisis in North Korea and a number of humanitarian issues have come to light there. The potential loss of 12 million lives in Iraq, which I hope will not happen, is already a reality in North Korea. It is a country which, in economic terms, is a basket case. The world humanitarian agencies are attempting to stem the flow of disaster and hunger in that area and there is an opportunity for the House to debate the potential crisis building in North Korea, which has threatened a nuclear strike on the American forces in the area. Perhaps this House might devote itself to debating the global issues involving Iraq and North Korea at some time of the Leader's choosing.
I realise we had a useful debate on the situation in Iraq last week, but there are media reports this morning of a significant shift in Government policy in that we would abandon our United Nations commitments and unilaterally declare support for the United States action against Iraq. That is a significant move in terms of our foreign policy and one which cannot go without debate in this House.
I make the request in light of the significant shift in Government policy.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come before the House to explain to Members and, in particular, to the women of Ireland the reason he has failed to extend the BreastCheck national breast screening programme? He promised last year that it would be extended nationally by the end of 2002. I draw the Leader's attention to the fact that in north Tipperary alone, there will be 45 unpredicted early cancers as a result of the failure of the Government to extend this vitally important programme.
I remind the Leader again, although I realise it is not her fault, that the Minister for Transport still has not published the strategic rail review.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Science to come before the House to debate the radical reorganisation he has already set in train in his Department, particularly in the light of the Cromien report published a number of years ago in which some key recommendations were put forward? A number of community-based structures were set up by the Government in recent years, but the Department of Education and Science is one of the Departments deemed to be not responsible enough to reach down to the communities because of structural difficulties. In light of that and a number of other concerns expressed, it would be helpful if the Minister came before the House to advise us on the interesting proposal he has now set in train and the decision he has made.
There is total confusion with regard to the provisional driving licence system involving over 300,000 people, including the leader of our country. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Transport to come before the House to debate the proposed measures under consideration and his plans to reform the licensing system. It is important to debate this issue soon as many jobs are at stake. Many elderly widows took up driving after their husbands died to get to the local post office or church and are now very confused. Some of my constituents have applied for tests but have been told they cannot be tested until the end of the year.
Yes, distinguished. Will she intervene with the current Minister for Education and Science regarding the ASTI ballot next month on the supervision and substitution proposals? Today we have seen that in the Minister's county the cost of supervision and substitution is twice what it would be if the teachers were doing it. According to the statement of the principals and managers of schools, this episode is having particularly difficult consequences for discipline, which is breaking down in some schools. If this did not cause additional funds, I could accept the Minister's stance but it is costing twice as much, which is unbelievable. Those involved should be called together – management, principals and the ASTI – to pre-empt any future deadlock.
I ask the Leader to contact the Minister with responsibility for insurance matters as we will have a serious situation this St. Patrick's Day. It would be inappropriate if ours was the only country in the world with no festivals on 17 March, a day celebrated in America and other parts of the world reached by the Irish diaspora. It would be ironic if ours was the only country which could not hold a festival that day but there are serious issues regarding insurance problems in this area. I ask the Leader to intervene.
Will the Leader contact the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to confirm that the dispute between the Irish Dental Association and her Department is near a resolution as reported in the media earlier this week? I would appreciate the Minister coming to the House to clarify the issue.
Senator Hayes asked about Second Stage of the Unclaimed Life Assurance Policies Bill. It is due to conclude at 1 p.m. As Committee Stage is due to be taken at 4 p.m., there will be a three hour gap. Normally it would be better to have a longer gap but it is better to take Report Stage later. Those who have tabled Committee Stage amendments can proceed with them. Having Report Stage the next day will allow those who will feel their amendments did not get due consideration to table them again. There is more need for a gap between Committee and Report Stages, particularly as the Committee Stage amendments for the Bill have already been tabled.
Senator Hayes also asked about the Official Secrets Act 1963. An all-party committee issued a report in 1997 calling for the Act to be repealed. I will inquire as to whether there is a plan to repeal it. The Senator also said the Ombudsman's budget had been slashed by 15%. Knowing the Ombudsman as we do, that will not halt him. He is very punctilious about his duties and has done great service to the country.
I am not sure in what category we would put Senator Ryan. The nature of the person infuses the debate. The Government has been quite clear. It is awaiting what the chief weapons inspector says on Friday to the United Nations, with which we are linked, whatever it says or does.
People are talking about leaks to the newspapers. Sometimes that is done for good reasons, at other times for mischievous reasons; one does not really know.
Senator Ryan wanted a debate on housing. Senator O'Toole and his comrades – comrades being the right word – managed to include the need for housing in the new programme, which is good. However, without making a political point, Mark Fitzgerald of Sherry Fitzgerald announced this morning that all of us who are middle-aged should leave our houses to live far away and give our houses to others. That is a ridiculous, sexist proposal. I am not giving out about Mark Fitzgerald—
Senator Ryan also wanted a debate on Northern Ireland, as did Senator Quinn. I will try to arrange it. The Taoiseach is travelling to the North today to meet the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. I apologise for not covering these matters already but there was a diversion. Regarding Cork as European City of Culture and the School of Music, the Department of Finance is considering the issue. I hope it will make an announcement shortly.
I thank Senator Quinn for his remarks on the debate last week, which went an hour and a half beyond the allotted time. The debate lasted only 40 minutes in the Dáil but there were terrific contributions from all sides here. The Senator also raised the delay in bringing cases to trial. Sometimes it takes three years for a case to come to trial, which is a long time for justice to be seen to be done.
Senator Finucane raised the matter of the 34 special protection areas for saving energy and warned of the effects on the countryside if wind energy is pursued in each of the areas in question. I find that wind energy always provokes huge debate and antagonism, yet one sees wind energy projects in other countries.
Yes. Senator Mooney said correctly that there was clarity in the Government's views on Iraq and called for further debate on North Korea.
Senator O'Meara asked for the Minister for Health and Children to come into the House to discuss the BreastCheck programme. Senator Coghlan raised the same matter in relation to County Kerry yesterday.
We have asked the Minister to come to discuss it. Senator O'Meara also asked about the strategic transport review by the Department of Transport. The Minister for Transport has not yet brought it to Cabinet which would want to see it before we get our hands on it.
Senator Fitzgerald asked for the Minister for Education and Science to discuss with the House how he proposes to implement the recommendations contained in the Cromein report. While the process has already started, it would be a useful debate.
Senator Bannon asked for clarification of the situation regarding provisional licences. I agree with him that this is not just an issue for elderly widows, worries were occasioned by the statement that appeared to mean that a person could not drive without an accompanying fully licensed driver but there has been some diminution of that stance since. The Minister for Transport should come before the House, however, because this is a real issue in rural areas.
Senator Ulick Burke asked about the ASTI, of which I was a member for many years. It is rare that teachers turn down money. This is an internal conflict at the level of the union executive. Principals and vice-principals are exercised by what will now happen but there can be no change. The TUI is running the system satisfactorily. In some schools where both unions have members it is being run satisfactorily. On this occasion the Minister for Education and Science is right, they must make up their minds. I now understand the ASTI will not accept benchmarking either, turning down a rise of 13%. It also sounds as if it will turn down the supervision arrangements. There cannot be intervention on the issue because the TUI is already running the system. The Minister could not intervene and I would not encourage him to do so.
Senator McHugh asked about insurance for festivals. There is a Bill in the Dáil that deals with licensing for outdoor events. It will be a useful vehicle for raising the insurance issue when it comes before the Seanad next week. People living in villages, towns and cities find insurance costs for festivals prohibitive.
Senator Coghlan asked about the Minister for Transport's proposals for a regulator. When I asked the Minister about the matter, he said there would be an interim regulator within two weeks. The position will not require legislation because of its interim nature. Legislation will then be prepared for a full-time regulator.