Tuesday, 20 May 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 2, Criminal Justice (Joint Investigation Teams) Bill 2003 – Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 4.30 p.m., and No. 3, Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2002 – Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2, or at 4.30 p.m., if the debate has not concluded earlier, and conclude not later than 6p.m.
I request the Leader to reconsider the Order of Business in view of the information to hand concerning the schools building programme. It would be worthwhile for the House to debate the issue and hear statements from Senators and the Minister for Education and Science. One of the reasons the Freedom of Information Bill was debated so vigorously by both sides of the House was that it gave us an opportunity to see the reasons behind the decisions made by the Government. It has now come to light that the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, was complicit in a range of activities which, in effect, put children's education at risk.
The decisions taken by the Government before the last general election were scandalous. We now know that in January 2002 the primary school building unit of the Department of Education and Science highlighted to the then Minister the misleading slant on the information purporting to come from the unit, the authority of which was totally undermined. In February 2002 the then Minister was warned about the information he was sending to Fianna Fáil backbenchers. The building unit asked him to ensure the language was changed to avoid negative wording.
We need a full debate on this issue. If public policy is being determined purely on the basis of politics, as happened at the last general election, it is scandalous. I ask for a debate to take place today with statements on the subject. The Leader of the House is a former member of that Cabinet and the distinguished representative of the Government in this House. Will she stand over the actions of her colleague, Deputy Woods? Does she defend them? Untold hardship has been caused to communities which want the schools building programme advanced. They should not have to be satisfied with the whims of the Fianna Fáil Party as it prepares for an election. An urgent debate is required. The truth has been exposed: the people were conned at the last general election.
Perhaps I could be of some help in that regard. As I said last week, we now have a Minister or former Minister being hung out to dry every week and nobody knows what going on. I do not know what is going on in the area of education. I have restrained myself from discussing it for the last year but my sabbatical is finished.
What is happening in the area of third level education? We might get a view on the matter tomorrow night when we see the Government amendment to the motion on Private Members' Business. We will also see the position of the Progressive Democrats on the matter. I intend to approach party members to see whether they will support the motion and the debate should be useful.
In order to be helpful, I draw the attention of the Cathaoirleach to the Order Paper. At a time when there has never been such chaos in education, notice should be taken of the second statutory paper laid before the House today. It is a fine, colourful piece of documentation – Department of Education and Science – Statement of Strategy, 2003-2005. Nothing would be more appropriate for us to discuss – as the Cathaoirleach knows, it is quite in order to discuss papers laid before the House on the Order of Business. I ask that this fine document which deals with how we should create policy and provides for detailed planning for meeting accommodation needs at first and second level, be discussed today. In order to accommodate Senators' requests on this matter, I ask that an amendment be made to the Order of Business to this effect. We could arrange for the discussion to take place at 6 p.m. to give Members a chance to read through the document and give the Minister or somebody from the Department a chance to deal with it, although, as we have found out, it is not necessary to have the Minister for Education and Science here to discuss education strategy or policy. We might well do better with other Ministers or former Ministers.
I remind Senators that some months ago there was a huge response on the other side of the House to a very casual remark made by Senator Ulick Burke to the effect that the misinformation around the time of the general election, including in the Leader's constituency, led to Members losing their seats, including the Leader. This issue has been clearly put on the agenda but I do not know the truth of it.
I am not as sure as Senator Brian Hayes about whether the former Minister was misleading us. Perhaps he did secure the money and, if so, what happened in the meantime. A good question is what happened before and after that when communities were given commitments which have not been met. This issue involves more than pure politics. We are all hit by it; we are all accused of telling lies to the electorate. I would like to know what is going on. This is a good example in that context. I formally make the proposal that we take this item at 6 p.m.
I support Senator Brian Hayes's proposal to change the Order of Business. We urgently need to debate this issue. Irrespective of the motives of the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, we need to find out what lay behind his announcement in relation to funding prior to the general election and his statement yesterday to the effect that he did not know what had happened to the funding since. As Senator O'Toole said, there is a problem regarding accountability for funding for schools' programmes. The way the issue has been handled by the Government is a disgrace. There is also the question of schools which have not been included in the latest list and have not been included in lists of schools' building works this year. Where do they stand and what is being done to address their needs for temporary accommodation, school refurbishment or permanent school buildings? I support Senator Brian Hayes's proposal.
I raise a matter that is entirely non-contentious and have an interest to declare – I am a member of the committee of patrons of the Special Olympics. I hope this issue can be dealt with in an entirely non-political way. Those involved in organising the Special Olympics would not like it any other way. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Health and Children to make available the advice he received which led to the decision on some of the athletes who were asked not to travel? I have enormous sympathy for the Minister in the matter. When a Minister refers a matter to a committee of experts, there is little he or she can do without creating another row but take the advice offered. There are strong precedents in ordinary life of persons seeking a second medical opinion and many a life, including political ones, has been saved by doing so. It would be helpful if we knew that this matter was being kept under review and that there was the continuing possibility of a review.
I formally second Senator O'Toole's proposed amendment to the Order of Business in regard to the schools building programme. I do not know who has been misleading who. I am not making allegations against anybody but there has been a frightful level of misinformation and the matter needs to be cleared up urgently.
On a separate matter, will the Leader outline to the House, in so far as she may be aware of it, as I am sure she is, the Government's current thinking on the groceries order? Last week the Tánaiste seemed to indicate that she might be in favour of its repeal, in spite of the fact that on 24 October 2000, following extensive consultations, she had upheld the order. In a press release at the time she stated she was doing so in the interests of consumers. We are aware that the Consumers Association of Ireland, farming bodies, ISME, the social partners and many others have all spoken in favour of its retention. I am not aware of any clamour for its repeal. I do not believe it would do any good, rather it could do a good deal of damage. I look forward to hearing what the Leader has to say on the matter.
I had intended to second the proposal by my colleague, Senator O'Toole, but was gazumped by the representative from County Kerry. He is, however, most welcome. This shows what broad appeal the matter has.
I ask the Leader to find out something for me on a matter of some importance. There was a debate in the United Nations human rights area on the subject of extending protections on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the Irish delegation unexpectedly abstained. It was confronted by a coalition involving Muslim countries and the Vatican. Newspaper reports suggest there was lobbying by the Vatican to get Ireland to abstain. That would be regrettable. Will the Leader inquire from the Minister for Foreign Affairs if this is the case? I will also try to find this out under the Freedom of Information Act. As a member of various human rights groups, I am aware that in South America and many other countries people are routinely imprisoned, tortured and murdered on accusations about their sexual orientation. If freedom of sexual orientation is not a civil or human right, I simply do not know what constitutes such a right. I would like some explanation with regard to why Ireland changed its support for this type of human right at the meeting to which I refer.
A motion has been tabled on the subject of Iraq. The situation in that country becomes a matter of increasing concern each day. There have been reports today that Iraqi nuclear facilities are not being protected and that local villagers are breaking in, looting them and removing radioactive material which is leading to pollution. There are already reports of radiation sickness developing. Who knows where some of this material might go? It could certainly end up in the wrong hands. In view of the Americans' alleged interest in weapons of mass destruction, it seems astonishing that they should so casually permit this dangerous material to be dispersed throughout Iraq.
There were newspaper reports at the weekend that St. Mary's Church, which is just off O'Connell Street and which is being converted into a super-pub – a licence for which was obtained under the law, which means one cannot challenge it although one might want to challenge the law – also received a heritage grant for this conversion. That is astonishing. A similar situation obtained in respect of St. George's Church. This type of behaviour is extraordinarily insensitive and strange. I worked in the area of conservation and heritage for many years and I know that it is damned difficult to obtain a grant of any kind. When a church – which had the Grinling Gibbons carvings stripped out of it when it was not properly attended to – is given a heritage grant to allow it to be converted into a pub, I begin to wonder about people's values.
Will the Leader make time available in the coming weeks to allow the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, update the House on how the working groups are coming to a final decision during the lead-in to the presentation of the Convention on the Future of Europe's final report in June? That is an important issue and it is not receiving sufficient publicity.
I have repeatedly sought statements on planning legislation and how it relates to regulations and by-laws. There is considerable confusion in this area and it would be no harm to arrange a debate to allow us to revisit that legislation because I am not sure whether parts of it are working very well. Such a debate could incorporate a consideration of the activities of An Bord Pleanála and An Taisce. It could also look at how they operate in tune with the legislation and how best we can work, in a complementary manner, for the good of the environment.
Will the Leader consider the possibility of inviting the Minister for Transport to return to the House to discuss the penalty points system and insurance? The insurance companies are seeking to gain access to information regarding those who have amassed penalty points and are considering rewarding only those with zero penalty points. This is grossly unfair. People should be allowed a period of grace or should be allowed to accumulate two or possibly four points before they are penalised on their insurance. Given that Hibernian made €30 million in profits last year, one can understand why the insurance companies want access to this information. It is important to debate the possibility of putting in place a threshold before which penalty points cannot be used against people who are already crippled by excessive insurance premiums.
I agree with Senator Ormonde in her request for the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, to come before the House to hear statements or, possibly, a debate on the future of Europe. This is a most important period, given that the Convention on the Future of Europe is moving forward. Reports at the weekend about what was said by the chairman of the convention, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, are, to say the least, a matter of concern. As the convention concludes its work and the Intergovernmental Conference takes over, it would be useful if Members had an opportunity to address the relevant issues.
There was a very good debate in the House recently about road safety. At the time it seemed that the introduction of penalty points was working. Last weekend has proved how dangerous the roads are and how our safety on the roads is held by a very delicate thread. I believe the Minister's heart is in the right place and I would like him to be invited to the House. Senator Browne has proposed a debate on penalty points particularly in regard to insurance. We must do all we can to reduce the horrific incidence of carnage on the roads. The Minister is capable of doing something and we should encourage him to do so.
I strongly agree with the point made by Senator Norris about appropriate uses of churches. In Aberdeen there are ex-churches, now night-clubs, which offer for sale cocktails called the Seven Deadly Sins. It is an invitation to mock religion. There should be some limits on what former churches are used for.
I would welcome an informed debate on primary school buildings. As a candidate in the last general election my impression was that it was one of the biggest issues in the election. People were coming from every quarter looking for commitments.
It is, a Chathaoirligh. Emerging from all this confusion, the building unit of the Department of Education and Children has been replaced by an emergency response unit. This morning a full list of schools was published. The clock is being turned back by at least a decade and we will see the re-emergence of the shanty towns around the schools of Ireland.
We are welcoming that time once more and it is a retrograde step.
I ask that the Minister come to the House and declare once and for all, without any further confusion, what his policy is and not allow it to be dictated, as today's newspapers suggest, by the cumanns and the various constituencies. He should come to the House as a matter of urgency.
Are we to have a debate on the 14-page spin doctor's document presented by Fianna Fáil to defend themselves? They are trying to defend themselves on broken promises given since the last general election. We want to prove to the electorate that they were conned. When given the opportunity we will prove that to the electorate.
I ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to this House to debate the report of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. The report highlights a huge problem in Longford-Westmeath General Hospital in regard to facilities for premature babies. It is important not to allow a similar situation to happen in the Midland Health Board region as happened in Monaghan. It is important for the Minister to come to this House to ensure the proper facilities for premature babies are put in place in the Longford-Westmeath General Hospital in Mullingar. This issue must be addressed immediately.
At this important time, I want to address a question to the Leader. Over the past number of weeks there have been conflicting reports from Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil Ministers regarding their attitude to the possible reintroduction of third level fees. Given that students are just two weeks away from the leaving certificate examination, it is important to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
I sympathise with the Leader of the House. Hers was not the only constituency where promises were made in relation to primary schools which were not delivered on. In my county, Kilkenny, the two Fianna Fáil Deputies who were returned made commitments about schools in Cuffesgrange and the Rower, projects which were to be completed this year and have not been completed.
I join with Senator Brian Hayes and Senator O'Toole in their request for a thorough debate on the primary schools building programme. It is obvious to everyone that commitments were entered into which have not been honoured and we need to discuss it this House.
I support my colleagues who called for a debate on education. The Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, said she did not know what to believe because she did not have concrete evidence. I can tell her that the Minister for Defence, Deputy Smith, organised a public meeting in Littleton one week prior to last year's general election where he produced a letter from the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods—
With regard to Progressive Democrats Members, Senator Minihan has gone back into hospital for a check up. We were gracious enough to send good wishes to Senator Cummins and should do the same now for Senator Minihan. Senator Dardis told the Whip last week that he would not be here today. We are delighted that Senator Kate Walsh, a respected Member of the House, is present.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the issue of school buildings and sought an immediate debate. Senator O'Toole wanted the debate to take place at 6 p.m. I accept that Opposition parties wish to have votes and so forth but it is impossible for me to rub a magic lamp and immediately produce a Minister. It cannot and does not happen. It should not happen because Ministers would not be free to attend.
Senator O'Toole asked that the strategy statement from the Department of Education and Science be discussed at 6 p.m. Again, it would be difficult to find a Minister and it is not good practice to have debates without a Minister being present.
We did it once before and it is not a good idea. The point of a debate is to address a Minister. Senator Tuffy supported Senators Brian Hayes and O'Toole about school accommodation and expressed herself strongly on the matter.
Senator Maurice Hayes, a patron of the Special Olympics, asked that the Minister for Health and Children publish the medical advice he received from the high level group. If the Minister had not sought a report from a high level group, he would have been damned also. Just imagine how the condemnations would flow if something happened to a group which arrived here. However, I will try to get the report published.
Senator Coghlan also asked about the groceries order. I only heard the Tánaiste talk about the size of stores and supermarkets. I did not hear anything about the groceries order. As there were articles published afterwards, perhaps she is considering it. If she is, she will come to the House and discuss it.
Senator Norris asked if and why the Irish delegation abstained in a debate on human rights and sexual orientation at the United Nations. We should inquire into the matter and bring the debate to this House. With regard to post-war Iraq, I agree with the Senator. It is one of the two matters which constantly arise in the House on which I am trying to arrange a debate next week. The Senator mentioned that St. Mary's Church was to be a super pub, which sounds horrendous, and that heritage grants would be provided for the conversion, which I doubt.
Senator Ormonde asked that the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, come to the House to keep Members abreast of developments in the crucial time before the debate on the Convention on the Future of Europe. Senator Browne referred to the schools building programme and asked that the Minister for Transport come to the House this week to discuss penalty points and insurance. The Minister was here last week to discuss those issues.
I cannot have Ministers coming to the House week after week every time something happens. He or the Minister of State will be in the House tomorrow to discuss the Booz, Allen, Hamilton report. Just because a policy twists the following week does not mean a Minister will immediately appear before the House again.
Senator MacSharry supported Senator Ormonde's call for a debate on Europe, particularly now when matters are reaching a crucial point.
Senator Quinn referred to the weekend figures for fatalities on our roads, by which everyone was shocked. People are very punctilious when a new stricture is introduced, but they become more lax as time goes on. The issue should be discussed.
—and his robust defence of Deputy Michael Woods.
Senators Ulick Burke and Bannon also requested a debate on education. I explained to Senator Bannon about the number of Progressive Democrat Senators present and I know he would wish Senator Minihan a speedy recovery.
We would be delighted to debate the 14 page defence that Fianna Fáil has published, would we not? Would we not?
Senator Bannon also referred to the care of premature babies in Longford-Westmeath General Hospital and we will ask for clarification on that matter.
Senator Phelan also asked for a debate on third level education. It is nice that everyone has such high regard for me and my constituency.
It is too late now. What happened happened.
Senator Coonan called for a debate on school accommodation. He also requested that the Minister for Defence come before the House to discuss the Defence Forces. Does the Senator not see enough of the Minister in his constituency?