Thursday, 19 June 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, the European Convention on Human Rights Bill 2001 – Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m.; No. 2, statements on the OECD economic survey of Ireland of May 2003, to be taken from 2.30 p.m. until 5 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons to be 15 minutes and other Senators ten minutes and on which Senators may share time; and No. 3, the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2003 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 5 p.m. There will be a sos between 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m.
There is no way that we can take the Intoxicating Liquor Bill before statements on the OECD report because the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be taking oral questions in the Lower House during the time allocated for those statements.
I wish to continue my protest in respect of No. 3, the Intoxicating Liquor Bill. We are not giving this Bill enough time. The dilemma for the Opposition is the shortage of time between Second Stage and Committee Stage. There is evidence that, where we do not spend enough time on legislation, mistakes are made. This is an important Bill which, as a colleague said yesterday, involves seven other items of legislation. We need more time and I ask the Leader to reconsider that matter, particularly in light of the considerable workload justice spokespersons' on all sides had yesterday.
No. 16 on the Order Paper is a motion requiring that the Offences Against the State Act 1998 continue in force for another year until 30 June 2004. Will the Leader give a commitment to debate this motion next week? This draconian legislation was introduced as a result of the Omagh bombing. A commitment was given to the Opposition at the time that the stringent powers it contains would be debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas on a yearly basis. We should continue this practice because the Government should give us its assessment as to why there is a need for this legislation to continue in force and we should always remember the reason this legislation was introduced, namely, the appalling atrocity at Omagh. There will be an opportunity next week for the Leader to arrange a debate on the motion in question in order to allow the Government respond to points raised. I am aware that, at present, there is an individual before the courts on foot of the provisions of the Act. I will not comment on that, other than to say that there is at least one case before courts as a result of the legislation and it would be good if the House was to debate it at some point next week.
It was a matter of concern to all of us to again hear Professor Niamh Brennan on radio this morning defending the position of her committee and her recommendations on consultants' contracts of employment. This is an issue that we must address. I have not heard an adequate explanation as to why it was not accepted. This matter is being discussed in the Lower House tomorrow. When will the Seanad be given an opportunity to discuss the health report, which is crucial, and the detail contained therein?
It is also crucial that Members put on the record what they wish to see in place. I do not know exactly what we need to look for in a health service, but making structural and administrative changes will not improve the position. We should have a full day's debate or, at the very least, a half day's debate on this matter. It cannot be put to rest without being dealt with by both Houses of the Oireachtas. I do not fully understand what the Government has in mind, but we are entitled to get an outline of what is intended and to respond to it as best we can.
No. 5 on the Order Paper is Committee Stage of the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003, on which we recently had a long debate at Second Stage. The Bill seems to have been dropped into limbo. Perhaps the Leader could indicate whether there is some difficulty with it. Serious issues were raised, not least by people on the Government side of the House. I am wondering what the problem is. Many questions are being asked about it.
I hope the Leader can assure us that the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill 2002 will not be taken before the summer, so that it is not sprung on the House. I share fully Senator Brian Hayes's view that whatever the urgencies of Government positions, the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2003 makes reference to 14 other pieces of legislation. The Minister has made it clear that the whole area of regulation of intoxicating liquor sales is desperately in need of codification. To his credit he has said he will do so. It makes it difficult for spokespersons for the Opposition in particular. There are probably some people in Fianna Fáil who can remember when they were in Opposition and therefore realise the difficulties. The Opposition does not have the resources of the Civil Service to do all this work. To take Committee Stage so soon is not the way we should do our business. In this I do not blame the Leader because I have evidence of her willingness to stand up for this House on this matter. I want to emphasise that this is not the way this House should do its business.
I want to raise only one real issue on the Order of Business because it is hugely important. Last night I was looking at RTE's website and I saw a little headline in the corner of the business section which indicated the Railway Procurement Agency had now discovered that the Dublin metro could be constructed for €2.6 billion. This morning that had gone up to €3.4 billion, but it was originally €4.8 billion. The report indicated the construction time could be 2.5 years instead of seven. It said agency officials came to these conclusions because they had been in touch with Professor Manuel Maynar Melis, the director general of transport infrastructure in Madrid, who had supervised the construction of the Madrid metro.
If a State agency is capable of that level of erroneous estimations, it should be sacked. I wish to be explicit: if a student of mine did a crude assessment of the capital cost of a chemical plant and forgot to compare it with what was happening in the real world, he or she would fail. What happened here is that some genius decided to do an estimate, obviously without reference to what was happening in the rest of the world. As far as I am concerned, that is incompetence on a scale to which there is only one response. They should be sacked and replaced by somebody who can do the job properly.
I would like to raise the serious issue of the alarming increase recently in the number of deaths from motorcycle accidents. Over the last weekend, for instance, there were two, if not more. I know the Minister for Transport has plans in this area and perhaps, through the Leader, we could ask him to come to the House in the near future to discuss them.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of Defence to the House with regard to the re-organisation of the FCA, the reserve defence force. I understand he set up review and steering groups and now he has an implementation group in place with regard to reducing numbers. He is considering the amalgamation of the 16th and 17th Infantry Battalions. In my own area, the midlands, I believe the numbers have reduced from 300 to 180. It is important that we have a debate on the entire matter.
On No. 14, when does the Leader expect to have a debate on the review of the licensing system as experienced by local radio stations? This is particularly relevant because of the decision by the Independent Broadcasting Commission to withdraw the franchise from North West Radio, without any great reason. I want the circumstances surrounding this decision to be investigated. It means the loss of 35 jobs in the north-west area of Sligo.
I have a vested interest in this. I listen to North West and Mid West Radio and out of all the radio stations they are on the top—
I fully support Senator Ryan's remarks about the metro. We had a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport this morning which was addressed by Professor Melis, the man responsible for constructing the undergound in Madrid. It is important that we look at it again because it was this House, on foot of an amendment of mine, that initiated the whole question of the metro. We have in the Leader somebody who has very considerable experience in this area. Professor Melis also said there were five times too many people involved in the project. He has got it down even further. We were told €4.8 billion; it is down now to €1.05 billion, in other words one quarter what we were told and it can be put in, with his advice, by Christmas 2006 – forget 2016.
There are certain things we need to do and this is what I want to propose, because I believe it is extremely important. Professor Melis said they cleared the way and they could not have done it without the co-operation of their parliamentary colleagues, the legislators, because they had to make certain provisions in Madrid with regard, for example, to the ownership of the ground. Here, as in Paris, the ownership goes right down to the centre of the earth. It is one of these legal fictions. We need to amend that so that everything below 25 metres, for the purpose of public infrastructure, belongs to the State. They were able to do that in Madrid. I suggested to the joint committee that we should establish a group to look at all the legislative proposals that need to be put together for them to clear the decks completely in a compendium-type Bill. I suggest that with the expertise of the Leader, a former distinguished Minister for Transport, the Seanad could be the House to introduce the legislation to clear the way. It needs to be done immediately, if we are going to start in spring, as Professor Melis suggested.
A concerned constituent has written to me because of an apparent decision by An Post to cease the sale of international reply coupons. These are used for returning a manuscript to a foreign country, for example. It is a disadvantage to certain elements of our society if An Post has decided to stop them.
I ask that the Parliamentary Bulletin, which will do damage to the Oireachtas, be withdrawn. It contains a couple of paragraphs about the election, pictures which take up half a page and a chapter on the parliamentary committees, in which Members, with the exception of university Senators, are listed by order of election. This means that I come last, but never mind. There is then another picture which takes up half a page, followed by the number of days on which the Houses sat. The latter shows that the Dáil sat only once between 1 July 2002 and 30 September 2002. It sat for a total of five days during the entire period, while the Seanad only sat for two days.
Could the Committee on Procedure and Privileges consider the matter? The bulletin states that there were no private notice questions, statements or Private Members' business during the period in question and that only one Adjournment matter was tabled in each House.
I support the comments of Senator Ryan and those of Senator Norris – with whom I am in agreement for the second time this week – in regard to the Railway Procurement Agency. The Minister should be commended because he took the initiative to involve the Spanish and draw a comparison with their experiences, thus giving rise to the potential savings.
I agree that the future of the Railway Procurement Agency must be in serious doubt. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of a total disregard across the public services for any commitment to obtaining value for money. I am disappointed that we have not had a debate on value for money in terms of capital and public expenditure in the public service, particularly as I have requested such a debate on three occasions. I again appeal to the Leader to have an early debate on this subject. Such a debate would provide an ideal opportunity for the House to leave party politics aside and lead the way in respect of this matter.
I support Senator Brian Hayes's request for a debate on the Offences Against the State Act 1998 and its draconian provisions and the stark contrast between the security forces in the South, which are taking all the necessary steps, and those in Northern Ireland, which are going in the opposite direction.
Will the Leader give way to calls for a debate on the health strategy and the health reports? If we want value for money, it can be sought in a range of areas, including the health services and local government. Professor Brennan's comments about consultants' contracts and all the vested interests and professions call into question much of the public comment on the strategy to the effect the removal of councillors will, in some way, benefit the health services. If the vested interest of the professions were removed and we made the health services accountable to councillors at local level, we would be going in a better direction.
Last week, I welcomed the decision of the European Parliament to vote in favour of the preservation of the Irish Box. However, it transpires that the bureaucrats of the Commission in Brussels are working hard to further reduce the Irish Box north of Galway. This is a serious issue and it is important that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, keeps his eye on the ball in negotiations at the Council of Ministers. Greencastle and Killybegs fishermen already received a hammering in respect of the nine day rule. We certainly do not want further restrictions of the Irish box and an influx of Spanish fishermen.
Yesterday, having perused the Brennan and Prospectus reports on the reform of the health service, I was taken aback at the level of accountancy they contain. I ask the Leader to obtain an assurance from the Minister for Health and Children that this will not impact on hospitals in peripheral areas.
I support the call for a debate on the health service reports, but the crisis in hospitals is not being helped by some petty actions that have been taken. Many elderly people manage to maintain an independent living because of home helps. There has been a huge reduction throughout the country in the number of hours that home helps can spend with people. This is having a knock-on effect, meaning that those who could be independent at home are finding themselves in casualty departments. Some are trying to do work they are unable to do and others are being neglected. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come before the House to explain exactly how much money is being saved by curtailing the number of hours that home helps can spend with people? We will then be able to see if this is having a much more serious knock-on effect than was expected.
I support Senator Leyden's call for a debate on No. 14 as soon as possible. There is much annoyance in the north-west because of a decision taken by six members of a board – even though there should have been ten members on it – which affected the entire north-west region in terms of radio listenership.
I support previous speakers who raised questions regarding the Railway Procurement Agency. The credibility of the senior executives of the agency has been seriously strained. How much research did they carry out to establish the values involved and to what degree did they examine better practice in other countries which have established a similar service? I compliment the Minister and his officials on having the initiative to bring in representatives from Madrid and exposing the problems that exist. It begs many questions when we see a headline stating that the financial quantification should be €1.4 billion less than that which was originally envisaged. The degree of the research carried out in estimating the costs of projects of this nature calls into question the value for money we get from such projects.
I support Senator Brady in his call for a discussion on the road safety aspects of motorcycles. There was a tragic accident last week in my county of Clare in which a young man on a motorbike was killed. The attitude to motorcycle accidents does not seem to be the same as that to other accidents in terms of the introduction of penalty points. This should be examined at the earliest opportunity. There are far more motorbikes in use in rural areas that there were in the past. This may have to do with the high price young people have to pay for insurance. Their only affordable means of transport is the motorbike.
Another aspect of road safety which is of concern to me – it is evident at this time of the year – is the illegal sale of strawberries, apples, etc., on some of the main roads. I have seen a number of quite dangerous late braking manoeuvres involving people who decided, at the last possible moment, to stop to buy these products.
I support the calls for a debate on health. The proposal that the Minister made yesterday seems exciting and interesting. With the changing of the structures in the health service and the demise of the health boards, the House should recognise the huge input of local politicians and councillors on those health boards over the years. There is almost an inference in some media commentaries that the problems in the health service had a lot to do with councillors and the people that worked on the health boards. We should ignore this and pay a debt of gratitude to those who served selflessly on the boards for many years.
As I speak, registers are being drawn up by each county council of listed buildings in their area. There are thousands of such buildings. Many of the owners are pleased because they have certain facades on their shops and, perhaps, sash windows. The Government has provided only a pittance for the work involved. Roscommon County Council has only €40,000, yet 300 or 400 houses are being listed on the council register, which works out at not more than €100 per house. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come before the House to outline his proposals, ensuring this gesture is backed by the provision of sufficient finance?
I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the current problems facing infrastructural projects around the country. I have just come from the meeting with Professor Maynar Melis which was a breath of fresh air. He has predicted that the metro will cost only €1 billion. The Rail Procurement Agency knocked €1 billon off, leaving the cost at €3 billion. There are serious questions to be asked of the State agencies involved in transport issues and it is time we had a proper debate in the House.
I support Senator McHugh on the attempts that should have been made at the Commission not to dismantle conservation measures put in place to protect fisheries. especially Irish fisheries. Members will be aware that a concerted effort is being made to dismantle some of these conservation measures. This will have a damaging effect on the Irish fishing business and the industry generally.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, raised the fast pace at which the Intoxicating Liquor Bill is being dealt with. I ascertained that it is listed for debate in the other House on Tuesday next. Therefore it was not a scare story that we had to get it through quickly. I wish we had more time to debate it but that is not possible on this occasion.
I note his call for a debate on No. 16, the review of the Offences Against the State Act. We talked about it this morning in the office. Time will be made available for such a debate but of what duration I am not sure.
I am seeking a longer period for the debate. I agree with the Senator that the matter requires debate. Senator O'Toole called for a debate on health. Such a debate is not taking place in the Dáil tomorrow, but rather tomorrow week. The Minister is coming to the House for the debate before the recess. The Senator asked also about the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 and why it is languishing on Committee Stage. I shall find out for him.
Senator Ryan asked about the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill. We will not have it back in the House before we break up. He asked also about the speed with which the Intoxicating Liquor Bill is being debated. It is a good Bill and the Minister has said it is part of a process. Committee Stage of the Bill will be debated this afternoon. He also mentioned the Rail Procurement Agency and said it should get the boot. I sound a note of caution. While the figures today look good – and I would be delighted if that was how the project proceeded – sometimes the promise of such reductions is not fulfilled. The learned professor said it was done in Madrid. We need legislation to deal with matters relating to the depth under the ground, who owns what and so on. There will be no system of appeals or tribunals in these cases. Whether Ireland is ready for the swift changeover is another matter. Any reduction in costs would be welcome. We are all full of courage about the Rail Procurement Agency today but we may not be on another occasion.
Senator Brady asked if the Minister for Transport could come before the House to discuss the incidence of accidents involving the death of motorcyclists. The number of such deaths has increased. It appears that the careful driving by motorists is not reflected in the behaviour of motorcyclists. That matter is worthy of debate.
Senator Leyden asked for a debate on No. 14 which is concerned with North West Radio. That call was echoed later. I would agree with such a debate.
Senator Norris asked about the Dublin metro and the introduction of composite legislation which would encompass all the matters to which the professor from Madrid referred. We will propose that it be debated here but obviously it will have to be prepared. I do not know anything about the international coupon and An Post. I am at a loss to know but I will inquire about it. I read the parliamentary document to which he referred and I was astounded. I could express stronger views. I note my colleague here—
As the Cathaoirleach rightly said, it is a matter for Committee on Procedure and Privileges and that is where we will bring it.
Senator Jim Walsh called for a debate on value for money, with particular reference to the ongoing debate about the Rail Procurement Agency. He agreed with Deputy Brian Hayes on the call for a debate on the Offences Against the State Act. Also he called for a debate on the health strategy and the health report. It was a pleasure to listen to Professor Brennan this morning speak about consultants' contracts. She was a good speaker to whom one would listen carefully.
Senator McHugh raised the issue of the Irish Box. The MEPs voted in favour of it and he said the Commission is working to diminish it. I hope to have the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, here for a debate before we break up.
Senator McCarthy asked about the level of accountancy in the Brennan and Prospectus reports. We have to get value for money or we will not have enough to put into the health services. Senator Henry raised the issue of the home help service. That is a recurring theme right across the country. It arises from the fact that the elderly can remain in their homes provided there is adequate home help. In its own way it is a money saver if beds are not taken up.
Senator Scanlon echoed Senator Leyden's call for a debate on North West Radio. Senator Finucane raised the Rail Procurement Agency. Senator Dooley called for a debate on the road safety as it pertains to motorcyclists and the illegal selling of vegetables at the side of the road. I do not know whether it is legal but it is causing people to stop quickly to buy their produce. Perhaps there should be some regulation governing it. He supported the call for a debate on the health services. Senator Dooley also wished to pay tribute to local councillors. They are not gone yet but I am sure we will do that.
Senator Feighan asked about the listed buildings in each county and said Roscommon County Council has received €40,000 which will not go far. We shall ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about that matter. Senator Browne raised the issue of the Rail Procurement Agency. Senator Daly supported Senator McHugh's call on the Commission's efforts to row back on the MEPs vote regarding the Irish Box.