Wednesday, 11 June 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, statements on the humanitarian situation in post-war Iraq, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 2 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, the Minister to be called to reply not later than ten minutes prior to the conclusion of the statements; No. 2, Criminal Justice (Illicit Traffic by Sea) Bill 2000 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.30 p.m.; No. 3, statements on autism, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed seven minutes, and on which Members may share time, the Minister to be called to reply not later than ten minutes prior to the conclusion of the statements; and No. 13, motion No. 32, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be a sos from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
I wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business that, on the conclusion of No. 3, statements on the recent European Central Bank interest rate cut take place. There was cross-party agreement in the House yesterday that we should address this issue. Some banks are moving in the desired direction, but a number of culprits have not done so. It is important that the House debates the issue at some stage today, preferably with the Minister for Finance present. If he cannot be here, we will debate the issue ourselves. A one hour debate on this at the conclusion of No. 3 would help us to speak with one voice about the outrageous position put forward by some establishment members of the banking system. Members need to speak, as one, today. Will the Deputy Leader consider my amendment?
Later today, the Public Offices Commission will publish the details relating to expenditure by candidates in last year's general election. While we welcome that as an important move towards some element of transparency in terms of election spending, of greater concern is the proposal by Government – it has not yet been officially announced – to extend and increase the amount that can be spent during elections. This would be a detrimental step and, before the Government formally arrives at a position by way of an amendment to the Electoral Acts, a debate should take place in this House on the issue. Those of us involved in party politics resent the fact that we must raise money for our political parties. We should not increase the amounts of money to be spent on elections. It is bad for democracy. We need time for the current election spending limits to take root within the political system. Will the Deputy Leader provide time for a debate over the next week or so in which we can speak to the Government before proposals are produced?
I second the amendment by Senator Brian Hayes to the Order of Business. We raised the issue of the banks yesterday. It is no accident that they happen to be moving in concert with each other. A cartel is in operation and it smacks of conspiracy. If it is, it is in breach of serious criminal legislation and would constitute a criminal act.
I am not reassured and I am certainly not happy just because a few crumbs were dropped from the table yesterday that this is no longer an issue. We need to make clear that, as public representatives, we do not accept that people can be trodden upon. Someone asked yesterday what I meant by competition and competitiveness. It involves not just first-time buyers, but small businesses and people with overdrafts. A variety of people are affected by this. The most profitable banks in Europe should at least be prepared to give back to the people what has been given to them by the EU. It is excruciating. While it is unimportant to them, it is hugely important to those dependent on them. I formally second the motion.
A new portrait of the President has recently been hung in the entrance hall of Leinster House, which is appropriate. However, this means that her portrait is on the right as one enters, with those of people from the Fianna Fáil wing of Irish politics, while those of people from the Fine Gael side are on the left with that of Robert Emmet, whose portrait is in place for the year to celebrate his bicentennial. It is appalling that there is no portrait of anyone to represent the left side of Irish politics.
I am not blaming the Committee on Procedure and Privileges for this – I thought the House might offer its views. I am sure the senior partners in Government who are worried about Irish life moving too far to the right would be very supportive of what I have said. I ask the House to support me in this matter in order that we may have balance in all things.
I fully support the call for a debate on the banking system. I was astonished to hear about the high level of prices in Ireland on a radio programme as I was driving to Dublin this morning. The chairman of the Competition Authority was a participant in the debate, as was the chairman of the Consumers Association of Ireland and the chief executive of RGDATA. The Director of Consumer Affairs refused to participate on the grounds that it was not a matter in which the director had any responsibility, being to do with inflation. I am beginning to wonder what job the director actually does. We now know that the banks ripped us off from 1999 to 2002 during the period of transition to the single currency. It is time the House had a look at the role of the Director of Consumer Affairs.
The issue of race and immigration is important. We had an interesting and colourful contribution from one Member on the Government side during the passage of the recent legislation dealing with the accession countries. In Cork an interesting and disgusting display took place during the last general election campaign. I know the attitude of the Government to this because one of the central figures in that display subsequently became Chairman of an Oireachtas committee but I am a little disturbed to find that Fine Gael is recruiting the other half of that "Dumb and Dumber" set.
Seán Lemass, Countess Markievicz and that fine leader Tom Johnson represent the left on the walls of this House.
Will the Deputy Leader organise, between now and the recess, a debate on the OECD report on the economy? This report would be a very good peg on which to hang an economic debate because it shows that, far from squandering the boom, we are holding on so far to the gains we have made.
Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come into the House to deal with yesterday's admission by the chief executive of the IDA of its failure to bring industry into the regions, particularly the BMW region? Various Members on this side of the House have requested a debate on the region and the failure of the Government to acknowledge that it has failed to bring infrastructure and jobs into it. By 2006, all the regions will have to compete on equal terms for new jobs. The fact that only seven of the 20 projects taking place this year will be outside Dublin and only one will be in the BMW region is an indictment of the failure of the Government, and the Minister in particular, to provide jobs in the region, despite the fact that it is the policy of the IDA to bring jobs to the regions on an equity basis. It is of the utmost importance that we deal with this before we close the hatches on the BMW region.
I ask the Deputy Leader to send a message to the Israeli ambassador in Dublin about the attempted assassination of the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, by the Israeli Government in the Gaza Strip yesterday. As the road map for peace is being negotiated among the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is a very provocative act by a democratic government to carry out an assassination attempt on a Hamas leader. The attempt has inflamed the atmosphere in the region. A woman was murdered by the Israelis during the attempted assassination while a young girl is in intensive care. As a democratic House, we should condemn the actions of the Israeli Government and appeal to Hamas and the Palestinians to show restraint in the face of this massive provocation. We should also try to ensure the peace talks are not derailed by the Israeli Government. I cannot understand—
I have no difficulty in agreeing with Senator Leyden. Yesterday's attempted assassination was a very dangerous course of action for the Israeli Government. Now perhaps Mr. Bush will feel like revising his description of Mr. Sharon as a man of peace.
Yesterday I asked that we might use the time allowed for statements on Iraq to formally pass the resolution in the name of the Independent Members which was unanimously passed by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Leader said she would consider it and did not seem to have any great difficulty with it but nothing was said. Could I have an undertaking that this can be done? It should be reasonably easy to find a formula whereby that simple and uncontroversial motion could be passed, unless there were strong objections from Members, in the context of statements on Iraq. This would be very helpful. Perhaps the Deputy Leader will give us an indication of whether this is possible. I emphasise that it was passed unanimously by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, which included Government members. It is quite reasonable that we should simply take it to be passed in the House, especially if there is no strong objection from any Member.
We should ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House and explain the arbitrary transfer of jurisdiction under the equality legislation from the Equality Authority to the District Court, an astonishing development. The District Courts, in their wisdom, have indicated that they regard the licensed vintners as having used this tactic as an attempt to subvert the law. This means that the Minister is assisting a very powerful vested interest and lobby group in subverting the operation of legislation passed by this House, which is perfectly entitled to an explanation.
I call on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to consider introducing legislation to withhold public funding from political parties which do not achieve the 30% target of the United Nations for participation in parliament by women.
In The Irish Times today there is a United Nations report to the effect that Ireland is one of the worst countries in Europe in this regard and, in the world league of countries, comes behind 12 African countries. Eritrea, Angola and Rwanda have more women parliamentarians than Ireland. It is no coincidence that the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland, where there are positive political programmes to secure the election of women to parliament, also have the best family protection and social policies and are peaceful and prosperous countries.
This is the same Government which introduced a 100% increase in bank and ATM charges in the most recent budget. Senator Mansergh has called for a debate on the economy. All of us have received a copy of a little blue book last week – the Government's progress report on broken promises for the period June 2002 to June 2003. It is important that we debate this document which has cost taxpayers something in the region of €100,000 to produce, including contributions by spin-doctors, party hacks, former advisers, etc.
I request a debate on the evolving open skies policy of the European Union and its implications for Ireland, particularly for Shannon Airport and the west in relation to tourism, industry and jobs. I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss this very topical matter with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan. As this is a very important issue for tourism in the west, we should have an opportunity to discuss the evolving situation before the House adjourns for the summer recess.
I agree with Senator White's comments in relation to female participation, not only in the Houses of the Oireachtas but in Irish politics generally. I should point out to the Senator, in case she is not already aware of it, that the Labour Party has achieved 40% female representation in this House and over 30% in our parliamentary party.
It can be done. I certainly encourage Senator White's efforts in that regard.
This week and next some very important discussions are taking place in Brussels on the Fischler CAP reform proposals which will have a major effect on the economy, particularly in relation to life in rural areas. I ask the Leader to make time available, as soon as the discussions are finalised, for a full debate in this House on the outcome. I wish the Minister for Agriculture and Food well in the discussions.
I also call for a debate at the earliest possible opportunity on the position of the Minister for Transport in relation to the open skies policy, specifically how it will affect Shannon Airport and the mid-west region.
I join my colleagues on the other side of the House in calling for a debate on interest rates and the failure of the banks to adhere to the guidance of the ECB. It is outrageous that there are still a number of banks which have not gone along with the greater good. I am not necessarily applying the same pressure in calling for a debate today but, certainly, at the earliest convenience with a view to using the good offices of this House to echo the sentiments which many have expressed.
On another issue, I join my colleague from County Clare, Senator Daly, in seeking a debate as early as possible on the gateway policy which Shannon Airport currently enjoys. There is concern in every town and village throughout the mid-west region. It is not just the interest of the airport that is in jeopardy. There is also great concern among the wider audience, including every small business, hotel, shop and restaurant throughout the county and the mid-west region. I strongly support Senator Daly's call for an early debate.
I support the previous speaker in relation to the open skies policy. I listened to the recent comments of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, on the issue. Whenever there were fundamental changes in relation to Shannon Airport, the respective Ministers involved were the former Deputy Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Deputy Brian Cowen, now Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan. Accordingly, Senators on the other side of the House should direct their criticisms at their Leader and the Minister involved. That is the direction from which the change of policy is coming. The Minister for Transport attended a meeting in Europe—
Over the last month I have asked on a couple of occasions that the Minister for Health and Children provide the House with information on the basis of the expert advice he was getting in relation to SARS and the Special Olympics. I regret that this information has not been made available. It would be helpful, even at this late hour, if we knew who was coming to Ireland and under what terms, what was the perceived threat and what steps were being taken to deal with it. Incidentally, I have spent the last few days at a hugely prestigious conference of the world newspaper industry, a very important event to have in Ireland. I was delighted to see delegations from Toronto, Singapore and Beijing and wondered as to what different criteria might apply to them, as compared to the Special Olympians.
On another point, I support Senator Norris's request to have his motion and that of his colleagues embodied in the debate today. It would be helpful, if they would agree, simply to ask the American and British authorities to carry out their responsibilities under the Geneva Convention, without using the terms "occupation" and "occupying". If one is trying to influence somebody, it does not really help to use terms which they find derogatory.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes in raising the issue of possible increases in spending limits, as reported in the media in recent days. I request the Deputy Leader of the House to arrange for the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make a statement in this House as to his intentions in relation to increasing spending limits. One of the main features of last year's general election was the very long run into it. Prior to "flag fall"– the official announcement of the campaign – the Government squandered hundreds of thousands of euro on billboards and electioneering.
I agree with the call by my colleague, Senator Ulick Burke, for the Leader to ask the Tánaiste to come to the House to debate the IDA's successes in the BMW region. Since the Government policy was introduced in 1999 the objective of putting 50% of all new projects into the BMW region has been a resounding success. While there have been only seven projects in 2003, we are still in the middle of the year and we have no reason to believe that it will not continue to be a resounding success. However, it would be useful to have the Tánaiste here to debate that matter and also, because it is linked, to debate the OECD report so that we can get some of the facts into the public domain and get away from the sensationalist scare tactics which people have been preaching through the media about the OECD report.
The Government scuppered plans by the FAI to build its own stadium a couple of years ago on the promise of a new national stadium. It now appears from the newspapers this morning that the Progressive Democrats have scuppered plans for this national stadium.
I ask the Leader to call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, to investigate fully the incident which took place on Sunday evening after a GAA match in Casement Park. The incident happened in Portadown when supporters from Monaghan were travelling home by bus. Four buses were stoned. It is completely unacceptable that on a Sunday evening, between approximately 6 o'clock and 7 o'clock, supporters travelling home in two coaches and two minibuses were stoned and windows in a bus were broken. A lady is in the Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin suffering an eye injury. It has been confirmed that the Garda in Monaghan are to take statements from the people concerned, but I certainly want the Minister for Foreign Affairs to have this incident fully investigated and to ensure that the like of it should never happen again. GAA games are sporting—
—fiasco of the overnight deregulation and the catastrophic effect it has had, even from the point of view that now one in five taxi-drivers has a criminal record and the undue hardship which is been put on the taxi-drivers' families. Will he state when he plans to act on the report of the Taxi Hardship Panel? Will he give them the compensation the panel decided or will he increase it, which is what Members want?
I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to clarify his own position. Last week we heard Deputy O'Donnell state that the Progressive Democrats have broken no promises made during the last general election, but certainly Senator Dardis made a promise to landowners in south Kildare regarding the new motorway—
I support the call for a debate on the banks and financial institutions. It is scarcely credible that almost a week later some of the major players have not moved an iota. I would hate to think that there is any kind of conspiracy, that some of them are acting in concert or that there is a cartel. I would like to hear the Deputy Leader's views on it because I think this House is united.
Would the Deputy Leader state if the Government is considering putting the Ombudsman's office on a constitutional basis and if it is considering extending its remit, as I believe it should, to cover non-commercial semi-State bodies and public hospitals? If we are to have a happy citizenry, the more queries the Ombudsman's office can deal with, the better for our democracy.
I want to add my weight to the call for an urgent debate on the open skies policy. I agree with the call by Senators Daly and O'Meara for the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, to come to the House urgently because it is important that we discuss this. Regional aviation is an important issue for industrial, economic and social development.
I join my colleaugue, Senator Ulick Burke, in calling for a debate on the IDA report. When we joined the EEC in 1973, the expectation was that the rising tide of Social and Cohesion Funds would lift all boats but it has not. From the point of view of the Border, midlands and western region, we have been stuck in the shallows and, as the figures published yesterday prove conclusively, we are not getting anything like the largesse of which we were told.
The second issue is an announcement last week by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that he was to review the workings and costs of tribunals of inquiry. That is urgently needed. Yesterday the newspapers told us that the Flood tribunal could run for another 15 to 20 years. Considering the costs involved therein, it is time to apply the brakes or certainly to conduct a review.
On the issue of costs, in a tribunal in which I am involved, the Morris tribunal, there is separate legal representation, each consisting of a junior counsel, a senior counsel and a solicitor, for the Garda Commissioner, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors and the Garda Representative Association. That is a frightening extravagance. It is exorbitant. They have a commonality of interests and they should be represented by one legal team.
I thank all the Senators for their interventions this morning. Senator Brian Hayes, the leader of the Opposition, moved an amendment which was seconded by Senator O'Toole. Senators Ryan, Bannon, Dooley and Coghlan also spoke about the same issue, the reduction in interest rates by the ECB and the tardiness of the banks in passing on the reduction. There is a important competition issue here. We are all being asked to have a competitive economy and obviously one of the key factors in all of that is the cost of funds to small businesses. It is quite obvious that the margin being charged by the banks, relative to that on which they are getting their own funds, is a high one and is a multiple of the margins elsewhere in the European Union. Although it is an important issue, we cannot find time to discuss it today.
Incidentally, I did a sum on the back of an envelope yesterday evening. As I understand it, 0.5% of the €46 billion outstanding in mortgages amounts to €230 million per annum or €630,000 per day. The mortgage book accounts for one third of total lending and therefore it is a very serious issue. It is an issue which the House should debate but unfortunately we will not be able to do so today.
The matter of election spending was raised by Senator Brian Hayes. I am not aware of proposals to increase the spending limit but I will certainly make inquiries in that regard. If there are such proposals, I am sure they will come before the House in due course to be debated.
The portrait of the President was raised by Senator O'Toole. You yourself remarked on it, a Chathaoirligh. It is primarily a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, but it is important that in any country the portrait of the head of state should be in the parliament and it is common practice throughout the world. It is a matter for Committee on Procedure and Privileges to decide what others might be there.
On Senator Ryan's shift on the trade union movement, I will leave it to the domestic squabbling between the various Members on the other side of the House to sort that one out. He seemed to have a difficulty with Fine Gael rather than with the Government on the matter of race and immigration, and we will leave him to sort that one out with Fine Gael.
Senator Mansergh raised the issue of the OECD report on the economy. I am glad that he stressed the many positive aspects of that report. There have been calls over several weeks, including one from myself, to have that issue debated and it would be important to reach it before the end of the session.
Senators Ulick Burke, Higgins and MacSharry spoke about the need for investment and jobs in the west. It has been a consistent Government policy, and especially the policy of the Tánaiste, that the regions should benefit from investment and job creation. It was also a consistent policy of the previous Government. It is a successful policy. Job creation is happening very successfully despite the downturn in the economy. The OECD has reported that we are still managing the economy well and I do not believe the Government has a case to answer in that regard.
People who invest large sums of money make hard-headed decisions and it is up to the Government to facilitate their investment in the west, but it is the case that many companies still prefer to be near the capital city, irrespective of what country it is.
I agree with the point made by Senator Leyden regarding the situation in Israel. It is outrageous and totally unacceptable that Dr. Rantisi should be targeted by helicopter gunships. The use of violence on both sides is making it more difficult to achieve the goals of the road map for peace.
I refer to the point made by Senator Norris and wish to explain to the Senator that there was confusion about this matter. The Leader was under the impression yesterday that the House was dealing with No. 28 rather than No. 29 on the Order Paper. The inquiries made were with regard to No. 28 and there was definitely a difficulty about the use of the word "occupation". I agree with the point made by Senator Maurice Hayes on the matter. I would be quite happy to accept No. 29.
Senator White raised the matter of the 30% quota for women. I am opposed to quotas in general but I take the Senator's point. The Progressive Democrats have a very proud record in this respect and we have a party leader who is a woman.
Senator Hayes is correct. At one time the PD representation in the Seanad was 50% female and that is because there were two of us. I agree it is an important issue. If the Leader were present she might say that women have more sense than to participate in politics but I will leave her to answer for herself.
Senator Bannon spoke about the banks and the OECD report and the review of An Agreed Programme for Government. The review sets out explicitly and clearly the achievements of this Government over the past year.
Thank you for your protection, a Chathaoirligh. Senators Daly, O'Meara, Dooley and Finucane raised the open skies policy and the Shannon gateway issue. It is an important matter and we will make time for a debate. It has an impact on tourism and business in the west and is related to the question asked about the IDA and investment.
Senator O'Meara raised the matter of CAP reform, which is a critical and important issue. The talks are due to conclude on Friday. Whether or not they have reached a conclusion, the House should give the matter its attention. It marks a radical shift in the way that the Common Agriculture Policy is being organised.
I have already referred to the point made by Senator Maurice Hayes about the motion. I do not disagree with him about SARS and the Special Olympics. The expert group has been making its position clear but perhaps not with the clarity that the House requires. I note his views on the newspaper editors.
Senator Cummins raised the matter of the stadium. There is general agreement that a stadium is needed and the only question is its location. That is where the difference of opinion lies. I am confident that difference can be resolved and that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism will come to the House to give his views on the matter.
I agree with Senator O'Brien's views on the incident that took place outside Portadown involving the Monaghan supporters travelling from a GAA match. It is appalling that anybody attending any sporting fixture anywhere in this island should be subjected to that sort of violence. It is unacceptable and the authorities will be made aware of the dissatisfaction in Monaghan and throughout the country with regard to that matter.
Senator Burke raised the issue of taxis, which can be referred to during the debate on transport in Dublin. I hope the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, will attend the debate and I am confident he will be happy to deal with it. Yesterday the Taoiseach indicated that legislation to deal with the regulatory aspects of the business will be introduced before the summer recess.
The point was raised, it was left hanging and I am not allowing it to be used in the manner in which the Opposition Members are trying to use it. I believe there should be an extra road to Waterford. I think it is a waste of €850 million to build a motorway – end of story.
I must be allowed defend myself. Senator Coghlan made an intervention with regard to the Ombudsman. I do not know whether or not it is proposed to have a constitutional provision with regard to the Ombudsman. I take his point that it would be desirable for the Ombudsman to investigate complaints regarding non-commercial semi-State companies.