Tuesday, 11 March 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Broadcasting (Major Events Television Coverage) (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business until 4 p.m.; No. 2, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Committee Stage, to be taken—
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 2 be deleted. On Thursday the Government proposes to take Report Stage of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill in the House at the same time that a committee of the Houses is considering the matter. This is an unprecedented move. If the Cathaoirleach had allowed me to finish, he would have heard me say I believe an amendment to Standing Orders is required if such a move is to be considered. That is the reason an emergency meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges should now take place. Senators O'Toole and Ryan made this request on Friday.
It is time the Government took the House seriously. We will go through a charade this afternoon. Two members of the Government are no longer with us and we would have more success were we to have a live link with the paddocks at Cheltenham. It is most unfair to Members that the Minister and Minister of State responsible for this legislation will not come before the House today. A Minister with no responsibility for the legislation will come here to defend it. It is utterly wrong that this procedure should be upheld.
I know this is not the view of the Leader and I know she is under instruction. We object to this procedure in the strongest possible terms. I ask the saner members of the Government to reconsider this issue. This is not the way to conduct business; it is, in effect, the Government giving the "Harvey Smith" to the House.
I second Senator Brian Hayes's proposal. In my 15 or 16 years in the House, it is without precedent that a request from three groups for a special meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges would not be conceded. While I accept the Chair has the authority to do this, I do not think it is correct. The issue was raised out of concern about the way business is conducted in the House. This is a real issue and the House will be brought into disrepute in the business it will deal with this week.
The committee system and structures and the relationship between Members and the legislative process are important. It is unacceptable that a committee of the House is consulting on a Bill without considering either what we have to say or the outcome of consultation. This is appalling and I can find no logic in the Government's position. We are awaiting the outcome of those negotiations. Under the terms of the original Act, the Information Commissioner is entitled to give a view on the operation of the Act and he will do so within the next 12 hours. That we are not to have that available to us when we are dealing with Committee Stage cannot be accepted or justified. It is completely wrong. We are ignoring the Information Commissioner, users and a committee and rushing the Bill through the House without the Minister.
I have no objection to Ministers taking time off – they are hard working and entitled to do so. They can be away and we can defer considering the legislation. There is no need to deal with the Bill this week. Let us not become involved in an argument regarding their whereabouts. If they have to be elsewhere, for whatever reason, that is their business. However, they should be here to bring the legislation through the House. The effect of this is that no amendment will be accepted. The Minister dealing with the legislation will take the brunt of the Opposition's opprobrium and will not be in a position to deal with it.
Colleagues on the Government benches hold views on this legislation that are not dissimilar to mine. I know this because I re-read the debate on the original legislation, which came before the House in 1997. I know the view Members hold, but they have been silenced and told what to do. It is like "The Silence of the Lambs" on the Government side. The fact that they do not have views to offer indicates that something is wrong.
The last time something was rushed through in this way was when we dealt with the rod licence legislation. What we are doing is utterly wrong and we will pay the price for it. It does not reflect well on any of us. It is distasteful that we find ourselves in this position. I firmly believe that Members from the Government parties hold my view and that there are things which could be done.
I wish to make one final point. There is a degree of goodwill on this side of the House. There are certain changes to the Act that must be made and it should be acknowledged that time and again Members on this side of the House have said as much. They agreed that changes would have to be made and said they would support them. There were issues relating to Cabinet confidentiality which had to be dealt with.
New Senators might not be aware of this but there is nothing written anywhere to prevent long speeches on the Order of Business, except that it takes time from other Members. The record shows that a former Leader of the House spoke for 45 minutes on the Order of Business. It can be done, although I do not intend to do so at this stage.
The image of the House is at risk and the way we conduct our business has been brought into disrepute. This is food for the cynics. I second the amendment.
I support the amendment before the House. I do not support the Order of Business which is a farce, nothing more, nothing less. A Bill of such magnitude which deals with the accountability of Government decisions is being rammed through the House with speed and in the absence of the Minister involved. Not only is he absent – he also has shown his contemptuous attitude by publicly declaring that he is leaving the country while the Bill is being dealt with in this House. The House and the legislation are being treated with utter contempt.
I am disappointed, a Chathaoirligh, that you were unable to respond to the request from this side of the House to convene a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to discuss the matter. It is reprehensible to commence Committee Stage of the Bill while we are awaiting the results of the discussions at the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service on the legislation. It is unprecedented to proceed with Committee Stage of legislation before an Oireachtas committee has discussed the matters at the heart of it. The legislation deals with extremely serious issues, of which the most fundamental is the accountability of Government decisions. The decision of the Government to ride roughshod over a fundamental principle of our democracy, because it can, is an abuse of power and cannot be supported.
Freedom of information does not appear to be required when documents and reports are being leaked prematurely from the task force on medical staffing. Will the Leader of the House give a commitment that when the report is published, it will be brought before the House and the Minister will be invited to the House to discuss it? It is causing great concern. The leaked report, published in today's Irish Independent, indicates that some hospitals will be downgraded. This is causing unnecessary anxiety to staff and patients, particularly in hospitals such as Roscommon County Hospital where €8 million is being spent on the development of an accident and emergency department. Other developments are on stream as part of the major development of the hospital.
The same applies to Portiuncula Hospital which the Western Health Board bought in 2001 for €14 million. I was chairman of the board at the time. It is obvious that the Government will not buy a hospital for €14 million and then decide to remove some of its services. That would be ludicrous. I am amazed that these reports—
I accept the Chair's ruling. I got bad advice from Senator O'Toole. It is a matter for the House to discuss a report. I am appalled by organisations and those who mischievously leak reports to try to undermine them before they are published. It is a matter for the Government and the House. I ask the Leader of the House to deal with this issue in March, if possible.
I support the amendment proposed by Senator Brian Hayes and seconded by Senator O'Toole. There is great concern about a leaked report from the Garda authorities on the penalty points system. What is happening now will lead to an epidemic of leaked reports in future.
I find it rather strange that the Information Commissioner, whose remit includes the freedom of information legislation, was not even consulted when the report came out. The information was revealed as a result of freedom of information requests made by our party leader, Deputy Kenny, to the Department of Finance.
Unlike Senator O'Toole, I deplore the absence of the Minister for Finance and his Minister of State who are in Cheltenham. Is it any wonder that people feel the Government is arrogant and contemptful towards them when one sees such a situation? I abhor the fact that the Minister and Minister of State, who piloted this legislation through the House earlier, will not be here to deal with it this week. Many of us like horse racing and we could be in Cheltenham, too, if we so wished.
I wish to raise an issue that I know is of concern to many Members and to the wider community. I refer to the plight of our elderly emigrants, particularly in Britain, many of whom feel deserted and are living in deprived, insecure conditions. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, raised this issue yesterday and went as far as to say that it was payback time for these emigrants.
It is estimated that over the years such emigrants invested up to £2 billion here in repatriated earnings, which many people consider provided the seed capital for the affluence we enjoy today. It would be wrong of us to ignore them and turn our backs at this stage. They are entitled to a dividend from the prosperity we currently enjoy. The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, should attend the House to discuss the matter with us.
I endorse the comments made on both sides of the House about leaked documents. A serious issue arose yesterday concerning a leaked document on the penalty points system. It appears that some sabotage is going on regarding a very important programme that was launched by the Minister for Transport. We have heard that RTE obtained a report on the penalty points system, which seemed to spin in favour of the Garda Síochána.
If there is any question of the Garda Síochána spontaneously sabotaging a Government policy which aims to save lives, it is a serious matter. If that is the case, it is time we had a debate about the role of the Garda Síochána and what they are up to. Let us hope they are not acting as some sort of autonomous republic, independent of the Minister to whom they are answerable.
It is important that we have a debate on this issue. Why are we sending so many patients abroad when we are funding a report, the findings of which recommend reducing the number of original hospitals to 11? That is scandalous. In addition, accident and emergency services in hospitals are being downgraded. The people will not tolerate this. It is important that we have a proper debate on this issue and not one in which Members will be hoodwinked. In that context, I refer to the motion introduced by the Progressive Democrats last week which welcomed what the Government is spending on the health services at a time when it is not spending anything on them.
I support what other Members said about the leaked reports. What is happening concerning those reports is disgraceful. I refer not only to the report in regard to the penalty points system but also the Hanley report on the task force on medical manpower, to which reference was made. That report examined services in the Mid-Western Health Board area and Eastern Area Health Authority and concluded that many regional hospitals should be downgraded. I understand that other hospitals are to suffer the same fate. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the Hanley report.
The issue concerning Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, affects not only the west but also the midlands. A public meeting on this issue will be held in Athlone in the coming days. Other issues involving the funding of the health services and the future of the health board structure will soon be the subject of debate. Therefore, it would be timely to have a debate on the health services as soon as possible.
I support Senator Ó Murchú's call for the Minister, Deputy Ó Cúiv, to come before the House to discuss the issue of Irish emigrants. I note he is quoted today as saying that it is payback time for these emigrants and that many of them are worse off in their host countries than they would be here. I would like the Minister to explain what the Government is doing to support those emigrants, particularly those who would like to return here but are prohibited from doing so because of the cost of housing. What is done to ensure the availability of housing for emigrants who wish to return to Ireland?
I join previous speakers in raising the issue of leaked documents, particularly the document leaked by gardaí in recent days. This is a serious issue given that gardaí are trusted as the custodians of the security of the State and its institutions. If such leaks are taking place, I ask the Leader to inquire from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if it is his intention to hold an inquiry into the matter. Regardless of the contents of the leak, the fundamental issue is that, as Senator Ross stated, custodians of the security of this State leaked a document. There are serious questions regarding the motives behind this leak. On the other hand, we should congratulate the Garda, regardless of its motives, on its efficiency in carrying out a review in such a short period. Considering that the penalty points system was only introduced in November, one begs to question the motives behind the review and the purpose of this leak. I ask the Leader to take up this matter with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform as a matter of urgency.
With regard to the question of leaks, it is a feature of political life that virtually every Minister leaks information. If Senator Leyden is in the situation of never having committed a sin, then of course he is entitled to cast a stone. My understanding is that virtually all Ministers leak information from time to time. What is unusual about the matter raised by Senators Finucane and Ross about the Garda—
—is that it has not been established that it was the Garda which leaked the document. However, it was certainly unusual that the Garda established a body to monitor and review a situation and published a report after a mere three months. That does look a little like jockeying for position and ordinary members of the public – I include myself in this – would, I imagine, be concerned that this is a kind of bargaining lever the Garda is using in order to obtain either more pay or additional personnel.
The Cathaoirleach has divined it; that is precisely what I am seeking. I support my colleagues in requesting such a debate.
I also want to seek a debate on another matter. When will the Leader consider taking No. 16, motion No. 14, on Tibet or a similar motion? There is a serious reason that such a motion should be taken. Questions were recently asked in the Dáil about Tibet and the Minister, Deputy Cowen, gave the following reply:
On 3 December I set out the approach of Ireland and our EU partners to Tibet. There has been no change of policy in this regard. In common with its EU partners, Ireland regards Tibet as an integral part of China and the Government of the People's Republic of China as the only legal Government of China.
That is not true. It is time we called the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the House to explain why such a violent and undiscussed change of policy has taken place.
When we entered diplomatic relations with China in 1979 no mention was made of this in the discussions or exchanges of documents. The former Fianna Fáil Minister, the excellent Frank Aiken, in debates at the United Nations in 1961 and 1965—
I support my colleagues' amendment to the Order of Business. I regard the Cathaoirleach and the Leader as fine officers of the Seanad and decent people. They have been placed in a most invidious position because they and the Seanad are being run by the bully boys of the Dáil, with a contempt for democracy and the people. It is no wonder the profession of politics is held in contempt when a Bill is rammed through Parliament in the absence of information from the Information Commissioner—
I support the remarks of Senator Leyden and others regarding the leaked reports. I also call for a press council to be established. Such a request has been made on many occasions. Some of the local and national newspaper reports on these leaks have no basis in fact, but the corrected versions of events do not enjoy the same status in the newspapers as the incorrect reports that preceded them. It seems that if the truth stands in the way of a story, then the story wins every time.
I also wish to raise the leaked report, which seems to concern many Senators. I am particularly concerned by the Garda report on the penalty points system, which is good and has been shown to save lives. If the situation is as reported, however, it is a serious concern. The system must run properly so that people have faith in it and lives are saved. We have raised the issue of Garda resources on many occasions. Where are the additional 2,000 gardaí that were promised by the Government?
I look forward to the debate on hospitals, a matter in respect of which I am in absolute opposition to almost everything which has been said so far. I hope people do not play politics with hospitals because they are far too important. We should not toss around words like "downgrading". It is a question of whether one wants five or six hospitals in the premier league or two dozen in the third division. I know which option I would take.
I find it ironic that Members are getting into a lather about leaks and freedom of information. It is an indication of the complexity of the subject. In a previous incarnation, I used to investigate leaks and I generally found they were more a case of the reservoir overflowing than of information being deliberately leaked. I would not put all the blame on the press.
The last point I wish to make has been made more difficult by Senator Norris because I do not want to throw accusations around. With regard to the dignity of the House, it is a pity the relevant Minister will not be here when serious legislation, the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, is being taken. While I support large parts of the Bill, other significant sections of it could be improved on Committee Stage. We cannot, however, do anything on Committee Stage if the relevant Minister is not present.
I agree with previous speakers' calls for the Minister for Health and Children to come before the House to debate the leaked report of the task force on medical staffing, particularly in light of the news that major cuts are being announced in the Mater Hospital today. This is a worrying development which throws the health strategy into chaos. When the main hospital in Dublin is cutting jobs and beds it calls into question plans to improve services and increase bed capacity.
If implemented, the findings of the leaked report would mean that counties such as Kerry, Mayo, Donegal and Kilkenny will have no regional hospital. I ask Senator Maurice Hayes to consider the recent case of a woman from Carlow who almost choked while driving to hospital in Kilkenny with a bone stuck in her throat. How would she have felt if, as a result of the implementation of this leaked report, she had to travel to Waterford?
I am appalled by the Minister for Transport's reaction to the leaked report of the Garda internal audit. He seems to be more concerned with the leak than with the report's contents. The Minister has not come before the House for some time. We should debate this issue. We were given an assurance that a Garda traffic corps would be established, yet we now have reports that these plans have been dropped. A traffic corps is of utmost importance in operating the penalty points system.
I seek a debate on transport. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Transport to come before the House to debate the many overruns in major transport projects. These are having a serious effect on other projects in the queue for funding. The issue should be debated as a matter of urgency.
I am alarmed and concerned by the verbal attack by members of the Government parties on members of the Garda Síochána. I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come before the House to debate the reason the Garda Síochána is not being given the additional resources, manpower and equipment it needs to enforce the legislation introduced by the Government. I demand an explanation regarding the reason the Garda is being attacked by a Government which is taking a position best described as trying to shoot the messenger.
Senator Brian Hayes proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, on which I expect there will be a vote. He spoke about the Minister with responsibility for the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill not being present. An excellent Minister of State will come into the House to deal with the Bill and I know all Senators will observe the courtesies in that regard.
Senator O'Toole seconded Senator Brian Hayes's motion. He spoke about the Information Commissioner and the fact that useful amendments were often tabled on Committee Stage which made good changes to legislation and wondered if that would happen on this occasion. Senator O'Meara agreed with the two earlier speakers and said it was an abuse of power.
Senator Leyden raised the matter of the Hanly report referred to in the newspapers today. I understand there are two major reports, the Brennan report and the Hanly report, and as soon as they are officially issued, they could be the focus for a useful debate in the House.
Senator Finucane supported Senator Brian Hayes and said that while some Senators were not critical of the Ministers' absence, he was on this occasion.
Senator Ó Murchú, echoing a speech which I understand the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs gave in County Mayo, spoke about the plight of elderly emigrants who, he said, were now entitled to a dividend from our current prosperity. Senator Tuffy supported Senator Ó Murchú on the question of emigrants, in particular the housing needed for elderly emigrants returning to this country. We will ask the Minister when he can come to the House to talk about the issue.
Senator Ross raised the issue of the penalty points report which he said appeared to have been leaked by the Garda. We do not know who leaked it—
—but it is a difficult situation when a strategy worked out by the Minister and the Government was proving to be such a major success in that the number of fatal accidents, in particular, had declined greatly, about which everybody is very pleased. The concern now is that people will again get careless on the road. Very few are speeding and it would be a great pity if that practice was to resume.
Apparently, Senator Mansergh got a good tip—
Senator Bannon talked about hospitals and asked about the need to treat patients outside the country when reports were being issued about hospitals here. I would welcome a debate on the Hanly and Brennan reports when they are issued. Senator Kitt referred to the position in which Portiuncula Hospital found itself following the report in the newspapers.
Senator Minihan referred to the leaked Garda report. It appears that way but we must await developments in that regard. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was quite explicit. As I understand it, he did not berate anybody but simply made clear that he had not been asked for extra resources. Senator Norris asked whether it was the Garda which had leaked the report. We should suspend judgment until we know more. The Senator also called for a debate on No. 14 on the Order Paper, an extensive motion about Tibet. He also supported Senator Brian Hayes.
Senator Terry mentioned the Garda report. However it came about, it is a very serious matter because of the effect it could have on behaviour on the roads which was motivated in the main by the possibility of being caught speeding and picking up penalty points. The Senator also welcomed the opening of the National Aquatic Centre. It is wonderful that it will be available for the Special Olympics. I will leave her to take up with the Taoiseach the question of how he got from one place to another.
Senator Browne also mentioned the Garda report and the dangerous side effects it could have while Senator Paddy Burke asked the Minister for Transport to come to the House to discuss the overrun on transport projects. Senator Coonan said the Government was attacking the Garda Síochána. I did not hear any Minister attacking the force in any way. We, in the House, are careful to say we cannot state categorically who leaked the report.