Thursday, 15 May 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2002 – Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 1.30 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 Senators may share time, the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than 15 minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage at approximately 1.15 p.m.; and No. 2, earlier signature motion in respect of the Redundancy Payments Bill 2003, to be taken without debate at 3.45 p.m.
The House will suspend its business at the conclusion of No. 1 at approximately 1.30 p.m. until 3.45 p.m., to allow the Redundancy Payments Bill 2003 to be debated by the Dáil. If the Bill is passed in the other House, No. 2 will be taken by the Seanad at 3.45 p.m., without debate.
Will the Leader make available to the Opposition the Government's proposed legislative programme for the rest of this session? It is right that the Opposition should be made aware of the Government's legislative plans for the remaining five to seven weeks. I understand 11 Seanad Bills, which received extensive consideration in this House, have yet to be placed on the Dáil Order Paper. I ask the Leader to make available to Opposition Senators the Government's precise legislative programme between now and the end of this session.
The Cathaoirleach and other Members will be aware that in the Dáil yesterday the Taoiseach stated only the super-rich should have to pay third level fees. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, believes that if one takes three holidays per year, one should not have to pay fees. Will the Leader make time available today for the Minister to make a statement in the House, particularly in light of the fact that my party raised this matter last October and the Minister had no difficulty coming before us on that occasion? Would it be possible to arrange an emergency debate for today?
There is considerable muddle surrounding this issue. The Minster seems intent on another Kamikaze run concerning his proposal in this area. It is clear that he has no support from the Government or Opposition benches, that he has been dumped upon by the Taoiseach and that he is going to be left on very difficult ground.
I ask the Leader to arrange, at the earliest opportunity, a debate on this issue. Students going to college this autumn need to know the position in order to make plans. Every time they try to get clarity on this matter, another Government Minister, Deputy or Senator undermines the very Minister they claim to support. It is a shameful position and that is why we need an emergency debate.
I support fully the points made by Senator Brian Hayes. I speak as one who did not support the abolition of third level fees because I did not believe it was the best way of dealing with the money. However, once it was done, people changed their arrangements and cashed in education policies, new expectations were created and people had new dependencies. It would be outrageous to pull the rug from under them now. The latter is a point of which people are well aware. More important, however, is the needless concern among parents and students about what will happen in the future in respect of this matter.
Every week, a different Minister is hung out to dry in order to soften them up for the next step. It was Deputy Martin last week and it is Deputy Noel Dempsey this week. The only support Ministers get is from Members on this side of the House who, it appears, understand and have sympathy for them. What is happening is outrageous. We are surely entitled to an explanation. Let a representative of the Government come before the House and do their worst. Lets us hear what they have to say and we can then deal with it. This uncertainty is like a form of intellectual terrorism being brought to bear on people who do not have the ability to reply. It is completely wrong and I support the view that the Minister should come before the House to outline his views. Perhaps we should have another Minister on the following day to outline different views because there does not seem to be any Government position on this matter. We do not know where we are going.
Any amount or figure will not be acceptable to anyone anywhere. If somebody wants to come before the House and say that the figure to be written into legislation will be "five times the industrial wage" it might be possible to discuss matters at that stage. However, the way things are going, we will not be prepared to accept the thin edge of the wedge in the future.
On a technical point, when does the Leader propose to take any amendments that might be made in the Dáil to the Redundancy Payments Bill if the only business ordered after 1.30 p.m. is the early signature motion? The Dáil might – in my view it should – dramatically amend the Bill. I say this to be helpful though the rest of what I have to say will not be quite so helpful.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to insert, before No. 1, statements on the proposal to reintroduce third level fees. I do this not just because I am opposed to it in principle, but because, as two previous speakers said, of the extraordinary and ongoing confusion.
I consulted the Revenue Commissioners' report for the latest figures – Revenue is a leisurely body, so the latest figures are a couple of years out of date – to find that only 1.5% of taxpayers, including married couples, have incomes in excess of €100,000 per year. Am I to believe that every student applying for third level education is to be processed through a means test in order to find this 1.5%, or perhaps 3% because rich people go to college in greater proportions? Perhaps 3% or 4% will pay fees.
On the other hand, only 8% of taxpayers have incomes in excess of €50,000. I advise people not to listen to the Taoiseach but to listen instead to the Minister for Education and Science. It will not be those earning over €150,000 who will pay because they only make up 1.5% of taxpayers. The simplest thing to do with such people would be one of the following: introduce a new rate of tax for incomes in excess of €100,000, which would more than cover what they are going to pay in third level fees; return capital gains tax to previous levels, which would more than cover—
It is for that reason that I know I will not test the limits of the Cathaoirleach's patience.
Many parents have children going into third level education for the first time in September. They do not know what their budget should be for next year and the Government will not tell them. This is the most urgent aspect of the matter. People are entitled to know what they will have to pay for their children's third level education next year. It may be fine for the Taoiseach and Ministers with enormous incomes to leave such things in a state of uncertainty. Ordinary people have to budget for such matters but the Government has left them floundering and in a state of uncertainty and I, therefore, move that we discuss this matter first this morning.
Will the Leader, in the context of the need for continuous improvement of our maternity services, ask the Minister for Health and Children to come before the House to debate the issue of securing additional funding for health boards to allow them to continue or to introduce the home birth and domino birth schemes in their areas? A difficult decision was recently made by the Western Health Board to transfer funding from one scheme – the home birth scheme – to fund the important post of a neonatologist. I would like the Minister to come before the House to hear statements on this issue. If we could find additional ring-fenced funding, we could introduce these schemes on a nationwide basis nationwide and ensure that women would have a choice.
I wish to raise with the Leader reports that the State is going to make land available to building developers for the purpose of constructing affordable housing, as well as other possibilities for freeing up land – such as a referendum on property rights – enhanced compulsory purchase orders and a "use it or lose it" clause in planning conditions attaching to grants or permissions. How does the Government propose to tie down the builders? The Taoiseach has stated that a mere 19 building developers control all of the commuter belt land around Dublin.
Many of us have proposed recently that the State should free up surplus land for local authorities. It should lay down strict conditions as to how local authorities should proceed. I am concerned about this and ask the Leader to arrange an urgent debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. It is important that the matter is discussed. The intention seems good, but I do not know how it will work in practice as there could be pitfalls and dangers involved. I am sure the Leader will give consideration to an early debate.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Ryan.
I wish to raise the issue of the difficulties for students in getting visas, particularly J1 visas, to visit the United States. A number of people have contacted me this matter and there are articles about it in today's newspapers. I understand there could be a backlog of six to seven weeks in the processing of J1 visas. Will the Leader indicate whether we can make direct contact with the American Embassy or will she invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come before the House to discuss this matter? It is important we discuss it now so that we can deal with the backlog of applications.
Under the non-Government motions on the Order Paper, the university Senators have tabled motion No. 28 regarding the obligations under the Geneva Convention of the occupying forces in Iraq to the people of that country. In view of the fact that it appears that these people are being shabbily treated at present and that Mr. Rumsfeld has threatened to use muscle – I would have thought that using brains would have been more appropriate – to deal with the situation there. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come before the House next week to discuss this issue?
With reference to the third level funding debate, which is rightly in the public arena, a concern was expressed about the Minister being hung out to dry. I reassure the Member who raised that concern that our Ministers are quite robust and they have no great difficulty in that regard. I have every confidence that they are able to stand their own corners.
As a result of the anomalies in the area of third level funding, there is a moral obligation on any Government – where such anomalies are so evident – that the issue be addressed and constantly reviewed. In that regard, the public debate is quite healthy. The concern that has been expressed about parents' worry and anxiety refers to very wealthy parents and only them, which is clear from what has been said.
I support the requests from various Members on this side of the House for an immediate statement from the Minister for Education and Science to indicate whether he is going to take responsibility for the area of education and this particular matter. I know that on the other side of the House, behind the Leader, there are dissenting voices in regard to what the Minister and the Government are proposing to do.
They are everywhere. They are sitting behind the Minister in the Dáil as well. When we brought a motion before the House last October, the Minister stated that he was reintroducing fees in order to refinance access for the disadvantaged to education. A week or two later the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Coughlan, withdrew the back to education allowances. Thankfully, they have been returned as a result of an amendment tabled in this House.
In response to what Senator Brady said, children are preparing for their leaving certificate examinations this week. Those children are under enough stress already without having to worry whether they will get access to third level education or how, if they are successful in that regard, their parents will be able to provide the necessary finance.
I want to raise another matter. I ask the Leader to request the Minister to come before the House to clear up the position in respect of this matter, once and for all, in order that we can know where we stand. I hope we do not return to a situation where covenants will be allowed. It is the old scapegoat. We abolish fees at a certain level and then introduce covenants—
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come before the House as a matter of urgency? Over the years the Department of Lands acquired lands for forestry at ridiculously low prices from various people who had commonage and other lands. In some cases, Coillte is now offering some of this land for sale at exorbitant prices. The Minister should direct that lands adjacent to growth centres in urban areas which are suitable for housing should be released by Coillte at reasonable prices in order that housing can be made accessible to people who need it. This would relieve the housing crisis to some extent. Coillte creamed off €11 million in the past year and that matter should not be allowed to pass without discussion.
I wish to request an urgent debate on sport. We discussed this matter in the past and there is a recognition that we need to debate the national stadium project and examine the development of a world class sports campus. It would be useful to have a debate in the House on that matter and I ask that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, be asked to come before the House at the earliest convenience to discuss that matter. We have had numerous discussions on crime in society over the past few weeks and the recognition that much of this behaviour develops at an early age, particularly in regard to underage offenders abusing alcohol and matters of that nature. We must recognise the need for a world class sports campus, including a national stadium, in this country and I would welcome a debate on that.
The Government yesterday announced the setting up of an Oireachtas joint committee on competitiveness. I congratulate it on doing so. I was out of the country yesterday, but I read that Ireland is no longer among the top ten most competitive countries in the world. I gather that we have slipped from ninth to eleventh; the European newspapers only gave the top ten countries. I was disappointed to see we were no longer in the top ten, although they gave the bottom ten also and we are a long way from that. If an Oireachtas joint committee is to be set up to deal with this area, we must ensure it works with a degree of professionalism and that it sets deadlines rather than just targets. This is an essential area because it is concerned with our economic development in the coming years and it would be a shame if the joint committee was used to give jobs to party hacks. I hope that will not happen—
I apologise for asking a question about a minor matter. Among all the big guns, I feel as if I am using a pea-shooter. The matter to which I wish to refer is one of local interest. Senator McHugh yesterday raised the question of roaming charges for mobile phones, which is important both symbolically and practically. When the Leader raises that matter with the Minister, will she also consider asking about postal charges? If one posts a letter in Newry to an address in Dundalk, one pays for a European stamp which is 12p dearer than a first class stamp, whereas one can buy an internal UK stamp to send a letter to London. Thanks to the bounty of the Seanad, I am not sure whether the same applies here. However, it appears to be an inhibition on trade and it is something to which North-South bodies might turn their attention.
Yesterday, the Minister for Transport came before the House and we had quite a beneficial debate. I ask the Leader to invite him to return to debate the arbitration process. Mr. Padraic White, the chairman of the Rail Procurement Agency, recently expressed deep concern at the level of compensation, as have others involved in the infrastructural projects. A half acre of land was sold recently in Dublin for €3.65 million. That is unsustainable.
Following on from the Minister for Transport's comments yesterday, I ask the Leader to invite the Tánaiste to come before the House in order that we might inquire about the pressure she is applying to the insurance area. The penalty points system has been in operation for six months and there has been a reduction in the number of road deaths, which has resulted in massive savings for insurance companies. Much more pressure should be exerted on them to reduce their premia immediately. The Minister referred to many of the steps being taken by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and it would be helpful if she outlined to the House what she is doing in response to the 69 recommendations in the MIAB report published last year.
She did not earn political kudos. She did good work as Minister for underprivileged young people but the political expediency of abolishing third level fees meant that young people in the lower economic social group were not looked after. The abolition of fees was totally unjust. I have a serious problem with the fact that so many young people who enter the workforce following the completion of the leaving certificate pay taxes to enhance the educational qualifications of the middle classes.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many third level students abstain from attending universities and colleges once they receive their grant cheques. The Minister for Education and Science is correct to enter into a public debate on whether the legislation should be revised. I attended the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting this week and the issue is in good hands.
Every health board is conducting what the Government calls a review of health services but cutbacks are taking place as a result, particularly in regard to the home help service, an issue on which I have received numerous representations in the past month. There have been major cutbacks and we would be hypocritical, as Oireachtas Members, if we did not recognise this fact. The Minister for Health and Children should be invited to the House to engage in a serious debate about what is happening in this area. I have received representations from elderly and disabled people who are badly in need of home help in the midlands, about whom the Leader will be aware. Home helps have had their hours cut significantly in recent months to try to balance the books.
A vulnerable section of the community is being attacked. We should not allow this to happen.
I support the call for a debate on third level fees because I do not like the terminology the Government is using. There are references from time to time to middle class, wealthy families. However, middle income earners would be hit by third level fees.
I support Senator Coghlan's comments on the housing issue and compliment the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, on his recent statements. I ask the Leader to invite him to the House to discuss the issue of social and affordable housing and ask him to take into account the vast amount of serviced land being held by local authorities in his proposals.
I support Senator Ryan's amendment to the Order of Business in order that we can discuss the proposal to reintroduce third level fees. Deputy Batt O'Keeffe admitted in yesterday's Irish Independent that participation at third level by those in lower and middle income groups had increased substantially.
Participation by all socio-economic groups has increased since the abolition of third level fees. The Government is not only trying to hit middle income earners but also the PAYE sector. No matter what the income threshold is, PAYE workers would be hit unfairly.
Senator Henry's request for a debate on post-war Iraq is timely, particularly in regard to the humanitarian issues involved. The spotlight is not on them currently but it behoves the House to get involved in the debate. While these issues are pushed onto the back pages, there is a great deal of suffering as a result of the war and we should be involved in the debate.
I seek a debate on tourism, which will focus on this year's season. There is no doubt that stiff challenges are coming down the road and world events will impact with a devastating effect on tourism. A great job is being done by representatives of the tourism industry, North and South. I also give great credit to Aer Lingus as it penetrates new markets and brings more Americans to Ireland. However, apart from its importance to the economy, tourism benefits many isolated areas. It would be helpful if the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism could come to the House for a debate.
It is surprising and disconcerting to hear ideologically bound parties departing from their ideologies to support opposition for the sake of opposition.
I support the proposals regarding land banks. A total of 19 people are hoarding land around Dublin city.
I call on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come to the House to explain a blunder in waste management plans, the intention of which is to reduce and minimise waste, not use landfill sites. However, when county councils dig up roads and remove tar, they cannot take it to a landfill site and it must be transported 30 miles to the nearest dump because it is considered a hazardous material. I would like the Minister to investigate this serious matter.
The Leader of the Opposition asked for a copy of the Government's legislative programme between now and 4 July. I will arrange to have it circulated. He also raised the issue of third level fees and sought time for a debate later this morning. One cannot snap one's fingers and summon a Minister just like that. A Minister's day is packed. The Senator is right to request a debate but—
Furthermore, the Cabinet has not yet discussed the matter. It would be wrong to discuss it here prior to submission to the Cabinet of a proper memorandum from the Minister. We had a good parliamentary party meeting on the matter at which over 24 members spoke. While various points of view were expressed, I am not in favour of the reintroduction of tuition fees.
Let us not pretend it is big news. I only say it because the Opposition states there is dissent. Of course, there is. We are entitled to hold different points of view. We contributed to the debate openly and honestly and were listened to in the same manner.
Senator O'Toole agreed with Senator Brian Hayes and asked for debate on the matter. I have just been explaining the reason there cannot be one.
Senator Ryan asked how it would affect the Seanad resumption at 3.45 p.m. if there was an amendment in the Dáil to the Redundancy Payments Bill. When I spoke about the resumption of business, I was careful to include the proviso, "If the Bill is passed". If there is an amendment, we will telephone spokespersons and arrange for them to be present for the debate. The Senator also gave us the statistics for those earning over €50,000 or €100,000 contained in the latest Revenue statements.
Senator Cox raised the issue of the home births scheme, an issue which concerns both women and men. The home births and Domino schemes have been a success. The Minister for Health and Children is interested in introducing the scheme in different health board areas. It is important that women have the choice to opt for home births, the money for which should be ring-fenced within the health boards.
Senator Coghlan seconded Senator Ryan's proposed amendment on the issue of third level fees. He also asked how we would tie down builders. The purpose of the review by the all-party committee on the Constitution of the ownership of land and how it can be released is to deal with this issue.
Senator Kitt asked about J1 visas. We will pose a query to the American Embassy.
Senator Fitzgerald spoke about a review of third level fees. I agree that the more openness there is about the matter the better. I am not allowed to say what happened. Meetings at which everyone can openly express his or her opinion are a more modern way to do business rather than having a cloak and dagger situation. Clarity is needed. Parents are upset about not knowing what the future holds. The quicker they know the sooner they can make arrangements.
Senator Quinn stated Ireland was 11th in the competitiveness league and suggested that the new committee on competitiveness should have members genuinely interested in the topic. Senator Maurice Hayes, taking up what Senator McHugh said yesterday about roaming telephone charges, asked about postal charges and said the imbalance between the two jurisdictions acted as an inhibition on trade.
Everybody is entitled to his or her opinion.
Senator Bannon asked about cutbacks in the home help service. There have been cutbacks but individual cases are being looked at and help provided.
Senator Brennan wants the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, to come to the House to debate the issue of serviced land and its release by county councils for much needed housing while Senator Tuffy said the PAYE sector would be most hit by the reintroduction of tuition fees because its earnings are upfront.
Senator Ó Murchú asked for debate on tourism. He also supported the call for a debate on post-war Iraq which I will try to arrange for the week after next.
Senator Hanafin, displaying the varied views within the party, spoke about the review of third level fees. He also supported the proposals made regarding land banks, an issue which will be embraced. I asked yesterday about the constitutional review and was told the issue of land banks would be embraced in the study. Senator Feighan raised the matter of a waste management plan.
We will all receive notice of what is on the agenda for next week. Many Senators have asked about the debate on decentralisation. It will take place next week.