Thursday, 8 May 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, motion to refer to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service the subject matter of No. 15 on today's Order Paper concerning the draft Civil Service Code of Standards and Behaviour, the purpose of which is to draw together the various existing rules governing the behaviour of civil servants and address other issues which have come to the fore in more recent years, and which have not been the subject of specific instructions, to be taken without debate; No. 2, statements on the recently published national standards for foster care, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time; No. 3, statements on Northern Ireland, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes. It was put to me that all speakers should have ten minutes and they may share time if they so wish. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
We agree to the Order of Business as proposed by the Leader and I thank her for so quickly organising the debate on Northern Ireland, which will be very useful in terms of getting the response of Government in the House and the response of colleagues to the current situation there.
I would like to raise an issue arising from a report in one of today's newspapers to the effect that the Catholic bishops may veto a merger that is likely to take place between the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scout Association of Ireland. As Members know, scouting in this country from the early part of the last century was divided on denominational lines. The notion that the Catholic bishops could veto such a merger is quite sectarian and I ask them to reconsider such a position, if that is the position.
I also say to the bishops through this House that this State lectures the citizens of Northern Ireland on a regular basis about tolerance, reconciliation, and the need for ecumenism on all sides, but we need to show these values in this State too. Is it not outrageous that 30,000 kids cannot come together in an organisation which has done so much to help children over the past 100 years or so, since the days of Baden Powell? This House should take a firm position on this issue and support the merger between the Catholic Boy Scouts and the Scout Association of Ireland at a time when it is difficult to get volunteers to help such organisations in their excellent work. I take this opportunity to make this point on the Order of Business because we should say it. We always speak about reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Let us show some reconciliation in this State too.
It is worth noting the point made by Senator Brian Hayes but it is also worth noting that both Houses of the Oireachtas legislated in recent times to make it legal to discriminate on the grounds of religion in every primary school and institute of education. We should not stop at the scouts. We are now paying the price of the so-called equal status legislation which has introduced discrimination, legislation which we on these benches opposed all the way but which is now being applied to the scouts too. There is no question but that discrimination, apartheid, is endemic. The leaders of two churches in this country argued with me that I was unfair in my comments about them when I objected to this legislation. This is what is happening now. Senator Brian Hayes is absolutely correct, but nobody cares that for the past 100 years a non-believer could not become a boy scout or a girl guide. That is the other side of it, which nobody cares much about. That is the way it has been structured.
On the Order of Business yesterday, the Cathaoirleach responded to a matter raised by Senator Glynn about Kilbeggan racetrack. We have had many debates in this House about the importance of rural Ireland, about the cutting back of resources and infrastructure. Every time this issue arises it relates to a small issue in a small constituency in the middle of nowhere, and nobody cares about it. This is the kind of thing this House should be taking an interest in, not because of Kilbeggan in County Westmeath, but because a resource is being taken away from a small place.
I tried to book in some months ago for yesterday's meeting in Kilbeggan. There is no hotel in Kilbeggan. The only infrastructure it has is its racetrack. I decided to book into Ballinrobe for tonight's race meeting there, but there is no hotel there either, and the next cutback may affect its racetrack. Infrastructure in rural Ireland is being repeatedly pulled back, and all the attractions that might be there for people – lakes, racetracks or walkways – are being taken away. I would urge the Leader of the House to continue her efforts to get support on these issues. I could give 24 more examples, going round every town in Ireland showing lost infrastructure. There is no hotel in Kilrush, which the Cathaoirleach's Government said would be an ideal place for decentralisation. It would, but it is dying on its feet while it is waiting. We are pulling away from these towns all the time.
We have had various requests over some time for a debate on competitiveness, as well as comments about public servants and public service benchmarking. We ought to have that debate, because virtually all the media people who criticise benchmarking are paid a hell of a lot better than 95% of the public servants they criticise. They have managed to benchmark themselves during the great boom years, with levels of salary that most public servants, or indeed Members of the Oireachtas, could never aspire to. People in glasshouses have been given the same advice for generations and they should be very wary of pointing fingers at others.
I apologise. The second thing is that benchmarking was entered into because the same people who are now criticising it took great exception to the old concept of relativities in the public service and wanted something based on private sector practice. The problem was that the private sector demanded that all the records of the benchmarking body be destroyed, so we do not know how that body came to any of its conclusions.
It is a bit ridiculous to blame the people who have to some degree benefited from benchmarking for the incompetence – or the perceived incompetence – with which benchmarking was carried out because we cannot judge how decisions were arrived at. If we are to have a debate in this House about competitiveness, benchmarking and related issues, we ought not to talk merely about the public servants, only some of whom have benefited significantly. We need to talk also about the process, the thinking, the strange logic which demands that something be done, and then, when that turns out to benefit people who supposedly should not benefit, puts the blame on these beneficiaries for entering into the process. The trouble is that benchmarking went wrong from the point of view of those who promoted it – not, incidentally, the public services unions.
We need a serious debate about competitiveness because there is an opinion abroad that wages are the cause of whatever problems the country has regarding competitiveness, though the appreciation of the euro is probably a far more significant factor. I know the Government is engaged in serious reflection on competitiveness and the economy, and this House could contribute.
I would like this House to hear at an early stage the position of the Government on the new US, British and Spanish resolution in the UN Security Council regarding sanctions against Iraq. My understanding was that sanctions were imposed on Iraq not because we did not like the regime, but because we were not satisfied that the country had got rid of its weapons of mass destruction. If the United States, Britain and Spain want to certify that Iraq no longer has these weapons, then the sanctions can be dropped. It appears now that we are to be asked to drop the sanctions even though we are assured that the weapons are still there. I would like to hear the Government view.
I agree completely with Senator O'Toole. The logic behind so much of our infrastructural development is to follow the market, which greatly pressurises the Dublin area, whereas the correct process would be to drive the market in a different direction. Otherwise we will end up with a grossly overpopulated east coast and a completely depopulated western section, for no reason other than lack of proper planning.
I ask the Leader, and Senator O'Brien, our spokesperson on rural development, to have a debate on this very important subject as soon as possible. I thank Senator O'Toole for his very kind support on the issue I raised yesterday pertaining to Kilbeggan racetrack. While it might be the preserve of the Turf Club to grant or refuse a licence, it has thrown out the baby with the bath-water. There is no cognisance whatsoever given to such situations in rural Ireland. The infrastructure is being taken away. The racetrack is all that Kilbeggan has, apart from Locke's Distillery, which is a help, but in terms of the local economy, the existence and operation of the racecourse is paramount to Kilbeggan and to mid-Westmeath as a whole. We all know what the paragon of virtue in relation to planning, namely An Taisce, is doing to rural Ireland. The sooner we have this debate, the better.
I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of Senator Ryan regarding competitiveness, and the comments made in relation to benchmarking by fat-cat chief executives of companies. Senator Ross's adjunct to the Sunday Independent business section carried a banner headline last week regarding six or seven chief executives, all of whom were earning more than €1 million per annum. There is no chief executive today who merits such a salary. Many of them run ailing companies and it is time that shareholders took control for themselves.
In this House yesterday, reference was made by Senator White to The Economist. This week's issue carries a very serious article in relation to Ireland under the heading, "Ireland and Alcohol: Sláinte". Regarding Ireland's industrial performance, it quotes one estimate putting the overall cost of excessive boozing at nearly 2% of GDP in lower productivity resulting from drinkers not turning up for work, and from extra crime, particularly violence on our streets. That is a very damning and damaging article. I know we have debated the alcohol problem ad nauseam, yet when an international publication, read throughout the world, pens material like this, nothing is more calculated to damage Ireland's prospects. If a foreign industrialist is seeking to locate outside his country, he will certainly shy away from Ireland on the basis of this article.
Until now we have tended to internalise the problem in terms of social costs. It is a serious new development when a world-renowned publication focuses on this issue with regard to productivity. This needs to be addressed, not by denying the article, but by addressing the fundamental truth that there is an alcohol epidemic in this country that is causing an awful lot of damage. This should be brought to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance. It should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Not for the first time this week I find myself supporting Senator Brian Hayes, in this case on the question of the boy scouts. I think it is deplorable that the bishops should have intervened in the way they have. I know people on both sides of the scouting movement who have been working with great courage, diligence and perseverance in recent years to bring this merger about. They have dealt with issues such as emblems and displays etc., in an exemplary way. It is particularly important in relation to Northern Ireland. At a time when we should be bringing people together, anything that drives them apart is to be deplored.
Following on from Senator Higgins's intervention, anything that brings young people together in an ethos of public and community service is one of the best ways of giving them an alternative to the pub. If public money is going to these organisations, the Ministers involved should look carefully at them if they are acting in a way that is divisive, rather than healing.
I draw the Leader's attention to the decision by the European Commission to take Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to implement the fourth motor insurance directive. While this should have been done by July 2002, it has not yet been done. This is another example of the lack of attention we have paid to car insurance. We have called a number of times in recent yearsfor something to be done about it. That we are to be taken to court by the Commission shows the lack of interest Ireland has taken in the issue. While I do not know whether we need a debate here, the Minister's attention should be drawn to this.
I share the views expressed by Senators Higgins and others about the drink epidemic in this country. This is a great country for passing laws. While we have many laws addressing this issue they are not enforced. As legislators we have done our job. It is time resources were provided, if they are not already in place, to ensure more enforcement. We are all aware of gardaí who are intimidated when they sit in patrol cars outside night clubs, chippers etc., and are afraid for their lives to get out of their cars in case they will be attacked. Enforcement is the issue.
This House has a long and impressive record of debate on rural development. In light of remarks and media attention that has been focused on the International Fund for Ireland in recent days, I ask the Leader to provide for a debate on its annual report as we have traditionally debated it in this House. I take the opportunity to refute the points made by the American financial watchdog committee, a body similar to our Public Accounts Committee in that it investigates government spending. To suggest the International Fund for Ireland is a "pork barrel" initiative does grave disservice not only to Willie McCarter and the board of the International Fund for Ireland, but also to those who have received help and assistance.
America is the key donor to the fund and those of us who have had exchanges with American congressmen know of their strong support and commitment to the continuance of this initiative that has helped to maintain, and in some cases restore, the fabric of life in the Border counties, North and South. American congressmen reiterated their commitment to this in their most recent visit here. I appreciate the Cathaoirleach's flexibility in allowing me talk about this in the context of seeking a debate. While President Bush is attempting to reduce the annual American donation from $25 million to $6 million, Irish-American congressmen have resisted this and wish to ensure that it is maintained at its current levels. I publicly acknowledge the debt the people of the Border counties owe to this fine fund and the donor countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
This House recently debated the issue of crime, with particular reference to assaults in Dublin and other areas, with the Minster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Regrettably for the Minister and his family, this was followed by an assault on his son that was publicised in the newspapers. I understand since then that the Minister has instigated an inquiry with the chief superintendent in order to establish where the leaked information that went to the press originated. At a time of scant resources it is unnecessary to embark on a witch-hunt on the paper involved. For a Cabinet that selectively leaks information when it is strategic to do so, to order an investigation such as this reeks of hypocrisy.
Without prejudice to the cogent case made by the two Senators Hayes on scouting, it is important to bear in mind that all traditions, including minority traditions, like to have some institutions that reflect their ethos while being open to others. Schools are the most obvious of these institutions. There is a fine line between desirable integration and respect for different traditions.
I agree with most that Senator Ryan said on the subject of benchmarking, with one exception. I believe the process was competently carried out. The proof of this is that it has been adopted and accepted, broadly speaking, by the trade union movement and other social partners. Statistics released yesterday showed that last year, our annual wage rises, having been at the top of the scale in 2001, had moved down the list quite a bit. There will be a debate on social partnership next week. I also thank the Leader for organising a debate on Northern Ireland.
I support the points ably made by Senator Higgins regarding our difficulties with alcohol and support his call to bring the article he quoted to the notice of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We have a serious problem in providing an alternative to the pub. As Senator Ryan and others have said, excessive drinking is seriously impinging on our competitiveness. Even if the article is somewhat erroneous – sadly I do not think so – it provides a frightful perception and will adversely impact on foreign industrialists and others. Perhaps we could have a further debate on the matter in due course.
Will the Leader inform the House when Committee Stage of the Companies (Auditing and Accounting) Bill will be taken? When will the Redundancy Payments Bill, published yesterday, come before the House?
Like Senator Mansergh, I agree with what Senators Brian Hayes and Maurice Hayes have said. Respect for minorities who may want to maintain their identities should also be borne in mind. Whereas the motives of those in the majority church may be ones that we criticise, there may not be enthusiasm for this from all minorities. I would hate to think that they would have something imposed on them – in respect of the area of scouting – which they did not want. I do not know enough about the matter, but we should be sensitive about it.
Senator Ryan is correct that we should have a debate on competitiveness. This is an extremely important and relevant matter and, as Senator Higgins said, one of the most major ingredients of competitiveness is pay. Let us include in this executive pay. It is not just remuneration packages of €1 million per year that are in question; there is at least one chief executive who is receiving nearly €2 million per year. Senator Ryan is again correct when he says that people from the top of business and industry and IBEC should not lecture us about our pay when, without accountability, they award themselves such enormous amounts.
Politicians have a very bad reputation with the public. There is a very low participation rate in politics. Last week, a survey showed that few young people are interested. Young people visit the Chamber each day and watch what is happening. We need to give good example and we can do so by working an extra day. I sincerely mean that.
Will the Leader request the Minister for Education and Science to come before the House to discuss the fact that, within days, students will sit the leaving certificate examination and, as of now, they are uncertain about their future in third level? The Minister has flown many kites during the past six months with regard to his intentions. This has caused great concern among parents and students as to whether they will be capable of financing and resourcing their participation in third level education in the coming year. Will the Leader request the Minister to come before the House and indicate clearly his intentions on this matter and not to fudge it any longer?
Senator Coghlan raised the issue of Dúchas yesterday. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has done a great disservice to the country by dissolving Dúchas, the agency which had been built up and which was beginning to have a currency with the public in regard to the built heritage. It would be a retrograde step if the Minister has yielded to pressure from the building construction industry to abolish this agency. I hope he will come before the House and indicate his reasons for the abolition of Dúchas.
Over three and a half years ago the Minister for Finance announced that the decentralisation programme would focus on areas which had not previously benefited from it. The Leader promised a debate on decentralisation before Easter. Such a debate is urgent because the junior partner in the Government appears to be promising jobs. I hope those jobs will come to areas that have not already benefited.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, raised the matter of the merger between the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scouts Association and stated that this would provide a good example, particularly if the influence of the Catholic Church, which stated that it would not support such a move, was not brought to bear. It was interesting to listen to the various points raised by Senators. I share Senator Brian Hayes's view, namely, that it should proceed. This matter involves young people, public service and equipping them with life skills. I hope the bishops will rethink their position.
Senator O'Toole said the equal status legislation is reinforcing discrimination. Everyone from County Westmeath was delighted when he raised the issue of Kilbeggan racecourse. As I said yesterday, it is not a matter for the Turf Club but rather for the Racing Board. I met the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, last night and had a lengthy conversation with him and he assured me he is attending to matter and hopefully there will be a positive outcome. I agree with Senator O'Toole about the rural resource aspect. Whatever about hotels, and Kilbeggan is in the vicinity of some very good hotels in Athlone and other areas, the racetrack brings much income to the town of Kilbeggan. Senator Glynn also referred to this matter, on which we are of one mind.
Senator Ryan called for a debate on competitiveness and the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress. I hope to have that debate next week.
The Senator also called for a debate on the sanctions against Iraq which is a foreign affairs matter. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Tom Kitt, is abroad but I shall raise the matter with him on his return.
She made a good speech yesterday in the United States. The Senator is correct in saying that the more we speak about it the more we highlight the problem. It is not that alcohol is bad, but rather that the abuse of alcohol is bad. We are all being led to be furtive about drinking a glass of wine or whatever. There is no need to be furtive about that. Alcohol in moderation is good for one. I am not a doctor, but I believe that to be the case. The abuse of alcohol is wrong and, as the Senator stated, it leads to a lack of competitiveness.
Senator Maurice Hayes supported Senator Brian Hayes's call for a merger of the scouting organisations and referred to its potential for the development young people. He referred to the provision of public money under national lottery or youth funding. I could be wrong about both organisations receiving such funding, but I know that one receives considerable public moneys.
If so, that is a matter that should be considered.
Senator Quinn said we are being tardy in regard to the implementation of the insurance directive. We hope to have the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, come before the House next week to debate the penalty points system and car insurance, for which he is responsible. I have made a request to have him present for the debate on Private Members' Business.
Senator Mooney spoke about the enforcement of drink sanctions. He also decried what the watchdog body in the United State was saying or doing about the International Fund for Ireland.
Senator Finucane referred to the crime issue. I take issue with his remarks about the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It was the Minister's son who was involved in the incident and what happens one's child is a very private matter. Any father or mother would wish to safeguard his or her children. I felt this strongly when I read about the matter.
Senator Mansergh said different religions need pockets of life in which they could preserve a distinct ethos. There is nothing wrong with that point of view, which was echoed in the House and is very interesting. We are hoping to have a debate on benchmarking next week.
Senator Coghlan also mentioned the abuse of alcohol. The Redundancy Payments Bill will be debated next week while Committee Stage of the Companies (Auditing and Accounting) Bill will be debated the following week.
Senator Ross said the question of respect for minorities was a sensitive issue. There is no doubt that it is. Schooling is one area where it has worked very well, despite the fact that community schools and colleges respect all religions. The Senator also asked for a debate on competitiveness, with which I agree. It is not true to say we awarded ourselves a pay rise. It was awarded to the public service by the benchmarking committee and it is up to anybody who does not wish to take the money to send it back.
Senator Ulick Burke asked that the Minister for Education and Science clarify the question of third level fees. I agree with him. He also spoke about Dúchas, about which his colleague, Senator Coghlan, spoke yesterday. Senator Coghlan agreed with the measure. He is winking at me now.
Yesterday Senator Coghlan agreed with the disbandment of Dúchas. Opposition Members are allowed to have their differences.
Senator Feighan returned to his constant theme and he is right. He is looking for decentralisation, I expect to Boyle. Senator Leyden constantly seeks this also. I take his point and we will seek to have the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to come to the House to discuss the matter. We will try to get the Minister of State but the list is growing.
The back-to-education allowance was raised by several Senators. I note a letter from the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, which, at least, gives alleviation to postgraduate students.