Thursday, 6 March 2003
Order of Business.
Today's Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Diseases of Animals Act 1966, to be taken without debate; and No. 2, Local Government Bill 2003 – Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude at 2 p.m.
Last Tuesday a Fine Gael amendment asking for a hearing by the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Services was defeated by the Government, yet yesterday the joint committee decided to open hearings on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill next week. Can the Leader give a commitment that no discussion on Committee Stage of the Bill will take place in the House until the joint committee hearings have concluded? Fine Gael welcomes the Government's U-turn on this matter and the fact that the Information Commissioner, the NUJ, other interested parties and the five wise men and women will be given an opportunity to have a say at the joint commitee next week. We welcome that.
Will the Leader make time available next week for a debate on Northern Ireland, to inform Senators about the state of progress in the current talks? I would like to be helpful to the Government because there is a cross-party position on this matter. I support the Government's position with regard to the imposition of sanctions on parties which do not live up to their obligations. We have reached endgame and we must make it clear to parties which have a paramilitary operation running in tandem with their political operations that this cannot continue. A debate on this matter next week would help us to articulate many of the points discussed in recent weeks.
On yesterday's Order of Business the Leader indicated that a matter would conclude at a certain time. I misinterpreted that to mean that the discussion would finish at that time, rather than that Committee Stage of the Bill would finish at that time. I wish to be absolutely clear about what is proposed for today.
I fully accept that. However, there was a misunderstanding on this side of the House. I am not saying the Leader caused it deliberately. Are we saying that Committee Stage of the Local Government Bill 2003 will conclude today when people are finished talking about it rather than there being a guillotine? I think the Leader made it clear today that it will continue for as long as Senators wish beyond 2 p.m., but I do not expect it to take that long.
I wish to address an issue raised by Senator Brian Hayes, which we have already raised two or three times. During the Second Stage debate on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003, every speaker raised the question of consultation, which the Minister acknowledged in his reply. He also indicated that consultation with people had not taken place and that only reports which were two or three years old were consulted. In that sense it was a very poor response.
The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service has now decided to accept representations and engage in consultations on this issue. Nobody will disagree that the taking of Committee Stage before hearing what committees have to say undermines their work, shows disrespect for their status and ridicules the process of consultation.
Another option would be for the Committee on Finance and the Public Service to go into select committee of the Seanad if it wished in order to have its discussion. We have never done that before and I am not proposing that we do so, but Committee Stage should be deferred until the committee has concluded its business to allow us recognise its work and importance and the importance of consultation. Consultation may not change anything, but at least the process will have taken place. Will the Leader communicate with the appropriate Department to ensure it takes place prior to Committee Stage?
Maybe I should. Nobody on this side of the House thought there was a time limit on the debate last night. If the Leader wants to suggest to us that we are all incapable of understanding the simplicities of the English language, let her do so. However, the truth is—
I was going to say more but I am glad it has been clarified.
I support my two colleagues, Senators Brian Hayes and O'Toole, on the need to delay the next stage of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003 because there is a Bill on today's Order Paper in the name of the Labour Party that would meet the Government's single biggest problem, which is the release of Government papers. This would enable us to have an intelligent and reasonably paced deliberation on the future operation of the Freedom of Information Act by extending the time restriction on the release of papers to six years. If the Leader wants to deal with this major Government concern, she can accept our Bill for debate and we will facilitate its passage. She should do so rather than have us participate in the potential farce of debating amendments and topics that will be overtaken by the conclusions and deliberations of a joint committee of both Houses. The latter course would waste parliamentary time, particularly when we seem to be very busy.
Senators should have a good look at yesterday's edition of The Star, now the most widely circulated newspaper in the country, because I could not have written its editorial even at my most vituperative. The editorial presents a very easily understood analysis of what is wrong with the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which will enlighten even the most obdurate of Members opposite. I suggest that everybody read it because—
I am sorry to sound like a cracked record, but yesterday 12 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed. The eyes of the world seem to have moved away from a cycle of horrific violence. As I keep saying, one of the two countries involved in that cycle is accepted as a part of the family of democratic nations. If we believe that the issue of the future is to be the triumph of democratic values over various forms of extremism, it is the duty of the democratic world to rein in the abuse of power by a democracy and to contribute to the end of suicide bombings. I call for a debate on this matter because the scale of the incessant killing is becoming grotesque. It is quite clear that the perpetration of the next killing will solve nothing. The killings are causing endless misery for thousands of families.
I have been approached about the Government's decision to terminate the back to education allowance. Will the Leader allow us to have a debate on second-chance education, in respect of which the allowance was particularly helpful?
I agree that we could do with a debate on Northern Ireland. Like Senator Brian Hayes, I fully support the Government's view on sanctions. I am sick of a party which gets any credit it can from the activities of paramilitarism and, in the next breath, pretends it has no connection with paramilitarism. It cannot have it both ways and it is time that this was sorted out once and for all. I want to see Sinn Féin become a serious political party and an end to ambiguities about where it stands on the issue of violence. It is extraordinary that it is pacifist in the South and militarist in the North and I cannot find anything more partitionist than that.
Like Senator Ryan, I call for an urgent debate on the Middle East, particularly Palestine and Israel. The Palestinians have been subjected to a process for many decades that will result in their extermination if it is not stopped. I know the Israelis live in constant fear of suicide bombings, but Israel has one of the most right-wing governments in the world and nobody is doing anything about it. The issue needs to return to the front pages of our newspapers. I do not know what effect our deliberations will have on the conflict, but I ask the Leader to allow a debate on it as soon as possible.
I fully agree with Senators Ryan and Lydon that there is a need for a debate on Palestine. When Minister of State at the Department of Defence, I undertook two trips to south Lebanon where I witnessed at first hand the tremendous work of the Irish troops under the banner of the United Nations with UNIFIL. While I returned home with a great sense of pride, the visit left me with one of my most lasting memories. I was taken to the site of a shelter where over 120 women and children were the subject of an attack as deliberate as yesterday's. To see on a wall the blood of innocent women and children brings home forcefully the need for a debate in this House to discover if we can help to bring sanity to bear in a small and modest way. These circumstances are intolerable and they will escalate with consequences for everybody involved.
Everybody in the Western Health Board area was shocked the other day to discover that the board had a surplus of €8 million at a time when there were huge cut backs in services for those with a mental illness, the elderly and the community. Any health board which gets its auditing and management procedures so wrong and stands over such gross infliction of hardship at a time when other boards are crying out—
The ground rents system is a cause of daily concern for thousands. Is it possible for the Leader to invite the appropriate Minister to discuss this issue with the House? The system is antiquated and feudal and belongs to another era.
It should have disappeared as the winds of history blew. It is most unfair and repugnant to our concept of independence that people who have inhabited a house all their lives, as did their people before them, must live with such uncertainty. When the lease on the house expires, the tenants will be expected to pay a substantial part of its market value. It is time to examine the historical solution to this question and conclude the matter once and for all. I would welcome a debate on the issue.
Appropriate action has been taken to address road safety. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to ascertain what can be done to ensure safety on our lakes, canals and rivers. Westmeath is the lakes county and I am not a killjoy. While I love to see sports activities taking place on our lakes, I recognise the problem of speedboat and jet-ski enthusiasts who disregard other lake users. I suggest that to discontinue this practice we should provide boats of all sizes with licence numbers to help determine who the owners are. There have been grave incidents.
Os rud é go bhfuair Séamus de Brún bás, ba mhaith liom iarraidh ar an gCeannaire ráitais ar an dteanga Gaeilge chomh luath agus is féidir. In view of the fact that we have lost a great champion of the Irish language and our traditions, we should arrange for statements on the use of the language. A recent survey has shown that there has even been a decline in its use in Gaeltacht areas.
I agree with the remarks Senators on this side have made in relation to the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill through the House. As the Information Commissioner and members of the high level group will appear before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, it is imperative that the House delays its consideration of Committee Stage. It would be poor practice to fail to wait to hear the views of the joint committee and, in particular, the Information Commissioner. Will the Leader ensure Committee Stage is postponed and that Committee and Report Stages are taken during separate weeks?
The Leader will know that I raised serious concerns about the effective suspension in north Tipperary of the physically disabled person's grant a few weeks ago. It has now come to my attention that the crisis is national and that people with severe disabilities—
I join previous speakers in calling for a debate on the Middle East with particular reference to Israel. Valid points have been made, particularly by Senator Higgins, who aptly described circumstances in south Lebanon. We have a contribution to make. It would be appropriate, therefore, for the House to discuss the matter. Our long tradition of service in the Middle East means that notice is taken of what the Irish people have to say. A debate would be timely and welcome.
I join Senator Brian Hayes in complimenting the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the role he has played with regard to prison visiting committees. There is no puncture in the system.
To be helpful to Senator Ó Murchú on the vexatious issue of ground rent I wish to point out that in 1996 the spokesman on law reform, Dr. Michael Woods, moved a Private Members' Bill on this issue. It is still there and I think it could be resuscitated by the Government to activate this project.
There is much concern around the country about primary schools. It is a bit rich where schools are classified as being rat-infested and the Department of Education and Science say that there is minor funding available for those schools. Some €2.5 billion is projected to be raised by the Office of Public Works in the sale of buildings and property no longer required, and that money should be ringfenced to give urgent funding to those schools.
I join with those who seek a debate in relation to the Palestinian situation. The activities in Palestine are unacceptable and the mistakes made in other jurisdictions seem to be repeated there.
I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. In the current situation we must welcome the improving relations between this island and our neighbouring island and between North and South. That does not impose an obligation on us to have collective amnesia and in that regard I ask the Leader if she could arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement in the House regarding the reported continuing lack of co-operation with the Barron inquiry by the British authorities. The Barron inquiry is investigating the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The remarks of Lord Denning about an appalling vista certainly apply if a Government becomes involved in subversive activities. Coupled with the recent previews of the biography of Michael Stone—
I ask the Leader to invite the Tánaiste to come to the House for a debate on the implications of the recently announced changes in national policy in relation to community employment schemes, FÁS schemes, the back to work enterprise allowance schemes and the back to work employment schemes. In recent times there has been a cut of 13,000 in community employment schemes and we are promised a further cut of 20% by the end of this year.
The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed this year as the International Year of Fresh Water. A number of initiatives is being taken and an international world conference is being held in Japan in a few weeks. I ask the Leader to ascertain what the Government proposes as an initiative to recognise that event.
Yesterday morning during the debate in this House, allegations were made that Ministers concealed information and that I as a Minister—
My point is that an allegation was made that I was less than forthcoming with the truth in replying to Dáil questions when I was the Minister. I refute that and say that at no time during my period in both Houses – which amounts to over 30 years – have I been untruthful in any way.
The savage cutbacks imposed in the recent budget and Finance Bill are coming home to roost in the farming community with the announcement yesterday by Teagasc that a number of offices are to be closed. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food to make a statement on this matter. Farmers are protesting at the increased levies and charges which are being imposed on them and which they are being asked to carry at a time when processors are showing significant increases in profits. They are planning to withhold cattle from the factories next week.
Senator Ryan spoke about people going back to education and having a second chance. It is important to realise that some people do not even get a first chance in education. Will the Leader clarify when she plans to take the excellent motion by the Independent group, No. 12 on the Order Paper, which urges the Government to provide adequate occupational and speech therapy on an ongoing basis for children with autism. It is now March and there is a six-month period before the new academic year. We are talking about creating a lot of new stand-alone units in schools—
I ask the Leader to request that the Tánaiste come to the House to discuss what seems to be a conflict of interest between her Department and her efforts and endeavours to provide industry and a recent statement by the leader of an American corporation that the red tape and bureaucracy of the IDA was the reason it withdrew from providing jobs in Ballinasloe. If a State agency which is charged with responsibility for developing—
Senator Brian Hayes raised the matter of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill and that the finance committee is meeting next week. He asked for a cast iron guarantee which I cannot give him, that this Bill would not emerge on Committee Stage. I am unable to give that assurance.
It is not unbelievable. I am telling the Senator the truth. That is the situation. I can understand the request for a debate on Northern Ireland. I believe great progress was made this week in the talks and I was very pleased to hear both the Minister, Deputy McDowell, and the Taoiseach say that. A debate at this point would not be appropriate but I will think about it.
Senator Terry, the Minister and all our Members made interesting contributions to the debate last night.
He has a healthy colour.
Senator O'Toole brought up the same issue as Senator Brian Hayes on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill. I do not mean to be acrimonious but Senator Ryan has a very good way of putting things. I read the Official Report. I said Private Members' Business would conclude not later than 9 p.m. I do not know where the Senator went to school but I know that the word "conclude" means finish. "Conclude" is a parliamentary term for finish. There is no point trying to impute another word. The "blacks" show what I said.
Senators Lydon and Ryan asked for a debate on the Palestinian issue. Senator Higgins spoke about his experiences in the Middle East. He also referred to the Western Health Board, a matter which would make for a useful Adjournment debate.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the need for legislation to deal with ground rents. The Cathaoirleach has ruled we will not discuss the issue raised by Senator Ross.
Senator Glynn raised the issue of safety on waterways. There is a constant problem in this regard on lakes in County Westmeath. The Senator asked for the Minister, Deputy Ahern, to come to the House to debate the matter. He also asked for a debate on the Irish language, which would be helpful.
Senator O'Meara referred to the joint committee and the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill. She also referred to the disabled person's grant which has been extended to other counties, bar north Tipperary. Was the issue raised in the House?
The Senator asked that some of the bounty from the sale of Office of Public Works and other sites go towards the building programme for primary schools. I think the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, would agree. Consideration is being given to having the Minister of State at the Department of Fincane, Deputy Parlon, come to the House to discuss the programme relating to the sale of property.
Senator Jim Walsh asked for a debate on the Palestinian situation. He also asked for a debate on Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
Senator Daly referred to the United Nations Year of Fresh Water. He asked about the plans of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to commemorate the event. He also indicated his disavowal of what was said by Senators during the debate, particularly about his term in office.
Yes. Senator Coonan referred to Teagasc and the Minister for Agriculture and Food. The closure of Teagasc offices was not announced yesterday. I read about it approximately one month ago. I do not know whether it is a proper rationalisation measure. I will speak to the Minister on the issue.
Senator Browne referred to autism and the need for proper speech therapy programmes. Independent Senators asked for a similar debate.
Senator Ulick Burke asked for a debate on IDA policy while Senator Daly asked for a rebuttal to be made in the House.