Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, European Convention on Human Rights Bill 2001 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 4.30 p.m.; No. 2, motion re Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time, the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than 5.25 p.m.; No. 3, Arts Bill 2002 – Second Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 7.30 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 ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage at approximately 7.20 p.m.; No. 4, Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2002 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 7.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 8.30 p.m.
The Order of Business is agreed as far as Fine Gael is concerned. As the Leader knows, we will conclude our consideration of Report Stage of the European Convention on Human Rights Bill 2001 later today. Last week Dr. Maureen Gaffney and her colleagues at the National Economic and Social Forum produced a fine report on the lack of rights given to same sex couples. The report included a number of recommendations concerning the rights of such couples. It suggested that such people should have the right to adequate pension and inheritance cover and that such partnerships should have civil recognition. It was found last week that 9% of the population of the State were unmarried but cohabiting. This specific group, which is growing all the time, is given very few rights in the community.
Will the Leader agree to a debate on this issue at some stage? Perhaps it will not be possible to have such a debate before the recess. It is quite clear that many people such as those involved in same sex relationships and cohabiting couples are involved in relationships which are outside the traditional family type. The fact that those involved in cohabiting relationships, in particular, have virtually no rights has fundamental implications for tax and pension provisions. The House could use its particular role, experience and knowledge to make suggestions in relation to this area, on which there should be a debate in the House in the coming months, perhaps in the next session, when we can draw on the recommendations of last week's report. Such a debate would be very useful.
The House should note the fact that benchmarking awards will be paid to politicians during the course of this month and next month. We will not receive the payments before anyone else but at the same time as most of the rest of the public service. I would like to make two points about this development, which is crucially important. Any moneys to be allocated have been hard won and hard fought across the negotiating table. Cases were made by people like me on behalf of various groups. At no time was it envisaged that people were seeking more than they deserved or was it suggested that anyone got more than they deserved. I am not even slightly impressed by those publicly sending money back in respect of increases which have been hard fought.
Some may be better able than others to afford to send back money. It is an easy way to receive positive and warm acknowledgement and affirmation from the public. Any increases received by any group such as politicians, teachers or anyone else as a result of benchmarking were hard earned and well deserved. This should be made clear.
The benchmarking process also includes a real commitment to restructuring and modernisation. Over the last week many have asked what politicians will do to earn their increases. It is not true that we will decide to talk longer and louder to earn the extra moneys we will be given but we should make a commitment to restructuring and modernisation. It is more important than ever that we focus on the work of the sub-committee reviewing the Seanad. Each group and party should make a public commitment to making changes, some of which might be uncomfortable, to show that we are prepared to make and live with changes and make them work.
Some groups such as retired teachers are paid on a monthly basis rather than on a fortnightly basis as is the case with their colleagues. I would like the Leader to ask the Department of Finance to explain the reason retired people cannot avail of fortnightly payments. The frequency of payment is important to those on lower incomes when structuring their weeks. I would like a response on this issue.
Nobody who watched the performance at Croke Park on Saturday night when the Special Olympics World Summer Games were opened could have failed to have been impressed by the huge level of goodwill and sense of celebration of people with disabilities. This is also true of those who participated in or observed the torch runs in towns throughout Ireland last week. The goodwill and positive feeling in relation to those who have come to visit us from around the world are huge. It is notable that the role of people with disabilities and their sense of difference are being properly and rightly celebrated, probably for the first time in our history.
Is it not ironic that, at the same time, disability groups throughout the country are discovering, as a result of cuts in community employment schemes and a narrow attitude on the part of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment regarding the operation of such schemes, that services for people with disabilities will be closed down in the coming weeks and months. This is an extraordinary situation. In the interim, the Oireachtas is still awaiting the introduction of a rights-based disability Bill. This is more than ironic; it is nothing short of a disgrace.
The outcome of the discussions at a European level in regard to the Fischler proposals on agricultural reform are still awaited. Even though it is not known when the talks will conclude, I request that the Leader ensure, in so far as is possible, that time will be set aside for the House to debate the outcome of the discussions, which are the cause of a great deal of concern.
I support the call by Senator Brian Hayes for a debate on the report of the National Economic and Social Forum to mark how far we have come on equality issues but also to outline how much remains to be done on that front.
Will the Leader arrange for the appropriate Minister or Ministers to come before the House for a detailed debate on the urgent matter of planning and, more specifically, to debate the appropriateness going forward of State funding for organisations, the integrity of which must be called into question? Members know to what I am alluding in this regard. I refer to the organisations which persist in implementing a policy that is obstructionist in nature. Bearing in mind that the State promotes urban and rural renewal, the approach of these organisations, which benefit from State funding, is unacceptable. There is a need for an urgent debate on this matter because action is needed.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Transport to come before the House for a debate on road tolling charges? At present, the Irish Road Haulage Association is boycotting the Drogheda bypass. Hauliers have justifiable grievances against high toll charges, which are a further burden on the industry in addition to high motor taxation, high fuel costs—
—and several other costs that have been imposed by the Government. It is time for a serious debate on this issue.
The roads that are being improved by the Department of Transport are much the better for it. We have a huge number of bottlenecks in respect of which action must be taken. We must also provide facilities for hauliers. No matter where one goes in the EU, facilities are available every 30 kilometres or so for drivers to take breaks in the interests of health and safety. It is important that we debate this issue, particularly in terms of the lack of facilities for hauliers. It is also important—
I support Senator MacSharry's call for a debate. I am aware that one State-funded organisation has objected to a €40 million development in Sligo town. That is wrong.
On Saturday morning last, a distressed parent came to me in regard to the high cost of motor insurance which has forced his son, daughter-in-law and grandchild to return to England. The young man, who has a good job, paid a premium of €4,000 for his car insurance. He had a slight accident on a narrow road – it was a 50-50 situation. The insurance company settled the claim without his permission for €1,000. That increased his insurance by €3,500 in that year, despite the fact that the claim was only €1,000. His premium is now €7,500. Through the good offices of the Cathaoirleach, I request that somebody in the office of the Insurance Ombudsman be made directly responsible for dealing with what is happening to young people in relation to the cost of motor insurance.
A Freeman of the city of Dublin, Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of the Burmese people, has been imprisoned in Burma for over a month by the military Government, although there is no charge or conviction against her. People in this country, especially the members of Burma Action Ireland, have expressed grave concern to me about her safety and, indeed, her health. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to write immediately to the military Government, expressing our concern about this lady? Also, I request a debate in this House, before the end of this session, on the abuse of human rights in Burma, an issue in which many in this country have taken great interest.
I support the call for a debate on planning, particularly in so far as it relates to rural development. I am glad to note that South Tipperary County Council has not adopted its county development plan, having refused on two occasions to do so, because of the issues relating to restrictions on new houses in rural areas. I understand several other counties are doing likewise. I have also notified the counties concerned of the existence of a body in Britain, to which I referred previously and which has a particular section dealing with planning matters in Ireland, which it does not regard as a foreign country. I regard the situation as a very worrying one, on which a debate in this House could focus.
I also refer to a matter I raised in the House two weeks ago – the reported possible closure of unit 88, the Irish language section of the Revenue Commissioners. As I mentioned on that occasion, it has been one of the bright lights in terms of recognition of this being a bilingual State. I am glad to report to the House that the closure will not now take place. There is also some better news in that I understand this particular service will now be extended to all the regional offices.
I add that I greatly welcome the opening of a beautiful new gaelscoil in Tullamore yesterday. That is another good sign for the status of the Irish language, about which all of us should have a positive feeling.
Yesterday and today, we have heard of two further broken promises from the Minister for Education and Science. Yesterday, we learned of cutbacks affecting 300 additional discretionary teacher posts throughout the country, affecting up to 700 schools. As a result, certain minority subjects will have to be withdrawn, with particular reference to physics and chemistry for leaving certificate. It is very difficult to reconcile this action by the Minister with his utterances in this House only a month ago, indicating his support for the sciences.
The current withdrawal of support by the Minister will affect many small schools which, over the years, have fundraised to provide such subjects and eventually secured recognition from the Department. Yet, the Minister expects teachers, without any facilities, to introduce a new science curriculum at junior certificate level. I am not sure whether he is aware of the fact that, on the one hand, he is promoting science while, on the other hand, he is killing it off at another level. That is despite the encouragement he has got from IBEC, Forfás and the trade unions on the necessity of those subjects in education. Perhaps if the Leader were to approach the Minister, he might be favourably disposed towards reviewing his decision in this regard. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come into the House for a debate?
It was announced today that St. Mary's school for girls with impaired vision would close. This means they will not have anywhere to continue their education in September. I know some girls with impaired vision from rural Ireland must travel to Belfast for residential education. We were promised a centre of excellence but the Minister for Education and Science has broken that promise. I ask him to come into the House and tell us about his two broken promises.
Would it be possible to arrange a debate in the House on fisheries? Perhaps the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources would come into the House for such a debate. He has been here on a number of occasions but it has always been in relation to communications matters. There is an urgent need for a debate on fisheries. A decision was taken in recent days on the doubling of charges at the five major fishing ports around the country. There is much difficulty in the industry following the renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy. The negotiations on the 50 mile box are ongoing. This is a difficult time for fishermen and their difficulties are compounded by these draconian increases in charges. It would be useful if we could have a debate in the House.
I want two issues in relation to next year's local elections discussed in the House in the presence of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The first refers to the election turnout which, as we know, has been falling dramatically in recent years. The first time I stood in the local elections in 1985 almost 65% of the people voted. If current trends are anything to go by, the turnout next summer will probably be between 40% and 45%. All political parties must address this issue. We should consider the introduction of measures such as weekend or two day voting to stem the tide. This issue needs to be urgently addressed by the House and the Minister.
The second issue relates to electronic voting, the concept of which all political parties support. However, the system which has been introduced is open to question. As late as last month, a report was issued by a computer scientist in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth which highlighted the possibility of the system being open to abuse. We need to address these issues as a matter of urgency and have a debate on them with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
I support Senator Ulick Burke's request for the Minister for Education and Science to come into the House to enlighten us about the two issues which seem to have caused confusion among the public. The first relates to St. Mary's school for visually impaired girls. We all agree that if such a facility was not available even for six pupils, as is the case currently, it would be unsatisfactory. However, my understanding from the Department and the media is that consultations are taking place between the Department and the authorities involved to put appropriate alternative arrangements in place. The order has confirmed publicly that the facilities and services will not be withdrawn pending the establishment of such facilities.
As regards concessionary posts for curricular needs, does the Leader agree that the Minister has not broken any promises? The number of second level teachers has increased substantially from a low figure in 1997 to 25,500. The pupil-teacher ratio, for example, has decreased from 16 to 14 and is projected to be approximately 13.6 this year. This is happening at a time when pupil numbers at second level schools, particularly over the past seven years, have fallen dramatically.
Does the Leader agree that for the first time an independent appeals procedure has been put in place and that schools which are vulnerable to losing minority subjects, such as those to which Senator Ulick Burke referred, can make such an appeal?
My hair is getting longer – I think I would pass for the Senator.
Three young men died last week in a car crash near where I live. Perhaps it is only when something happens close to one's home that one realises the huge tragedy of the road deaths we hear about on the radio every day. It is unlikely that we can solve this problem, but there are some things we can do. Would it be possible to bring the Minister responsible here for a debate on provisional driving licences? I have mentioned this many times before. Hundreds of thousands of those who are driving have never passed a test and there is a six-month wait for tests in many parts of the country. This is something we can grab hold of and deal with.
The tragedy of the deaths of three young men is not unusual nowadays, although three deaths in one car is perhaps a little unusual. Every day since then we have read of more deaths on the road. We can do something about this. Let us make sure the Minister tells us what he intends to do.
I support Senator Fitzgerald on the issue of St. Mary's in Blackrock. The sisters have agreed that no changes will take place until an alternative is put in place. Furthermore, negotiations are continuing among the parents, the Rosminians and the Department regarding the centre of excellence. It would be premature to write it off at this stage.
Before the Special Olympics began, I raised the issue of the many people who have disabilities. Those people were hoping that the Special Olympics would put the spotlight on them and it has. As Senator O'Meara said, the country really has risen to the occasion and this has focused attention on those with disabilities, but the Government must hang its head in shame over our treatment of them. Many of these people will be without services very shortly. The Minister should come here and explain why he is not delivering a service to those people. It is shaming for all of us, especially the Government.
I agree with my colleague regarding the debate on tolling, but I also call publicly on the Irish Road Haulage Association to call off its boycott. I hope the Minister for Transport will play a constructive role in organising a meeting with the IRHA immediately to prevent any future tragedies on the Slane-Drogheda route.
I agree with Senator Feargal Quinn about the recent tragic deaths in Dublin. I ask the Leader to pass on to the Minister for Transport a suggestion that he should consider using more radio advertisements to warn about the dangers of speeding. While TV advertisements are effective in a way, although they have been proven not to reduce road deaths, cars do not have televisions. Most road deaths occur late at night. Constant radio advertisements reminding us to slow down and wear our seat belts while in the car might be more effective in reducing the incidence of death.
I share the concerns of my colleagues regarding the tragic incident in which three young people were killed. I am not sure what we can do. Perhaps a debate on the matter would allow the House to contribute ideas, but I am at a loss. There has been a most scarifying series of advertisements on television and if that did not put people off, I do not know what will. Young people are like that, unfortunately. Particularly after an examination, they have a feeling of exuberance and exhilaration – they think they are indestructible and can do anything.
I feel desperately sorry for the driver of that car. If I had been one of the people in that car I would prefer not to have survived, because the burden on that poor man, who is just starting his life, and his family will be so destructive. I support the call for a debate on this matter, but I am impoverished – I have nothing to offer. I cannot think of anything further that can be done, but perhaps some of my colleagues can.
On the question of disabilities, as an Independent I believe it is important that we approach the issue in a constructive light. I am tired of people saying it is the Government's fault, the Government's responsibility. I prefer a more constructive approach. There is no question that one can criticise the Government, but the wonderful celebration of the Special Olympics provides an opportunity for the Government to review the situation in a positive light and give encouragement to people.
We have all been moved by the Special Olympics, but what a contrast with the other Olympic Games, with its sleazy, wretched, money-driven, drug-crazed, power-mad context. That is what passes for the Olympic Games nowadays. Compare that with this wonderful celebration of the human spirit that is so totally different. We are lucky to have had this opportunity here and we have an Irish element in the creation of the games in Eunice Shriver, who is a member of the Kennedy family. We can be pleased about that.
I support Senator Brian Hayes's comments about looking again at the question of same sex couples, but also everybody outside marriage, particularly because of a report produced by the National Economic and Social Forum, in the launch of which I will be taking part tomorrow. It is important, a Chathaoirligh, and a good reason for having a debate, as this is an independent, non-partisan body clearly calling for this.
We had a debate in the House, and in the Leader of the House we have somebody who introduced the first item, which is often forgotten, of non-discrimination, in the protocol that went right through the health service before the criminal law was changed. For that reason it would be appropriate if we had another debate, if possible, and perhaps facilitate the introduction of a domestic partnership Bill through this House.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, talked about the NESF report, which is to be issued tomorrow, relating to the rights of cohabiting couples, including same sex couples. We have come far when a body like the NESF can issue such a report and have it debated. That is good, open and promising. One of the earlier debates on this issue took place in this House in Private Members' time on a motion put forward by the Independent Group. It was a very responsible, calm and interesting debate. We will see after the publication of the report when we can have a further debate.
Senator O'Toole raised the issue of people sending back their benchmarking money. We did not get it yet. A person debating on "Morning Ireland" stated that it was not benchmarking that was at issue, rather that he was redistributing the money due to him on relinquishing his county council seat while remaining a Deputy. I did not hear of anybody sending it back, but since we have not received the money it would be hard to do so. We rely on Senator O'Toole to ensure that it comes. We have always acknowledged that the money was indeed "hard fought for".
The Senator also made a good point in asking all of us in view of our benchmarking to look seriously at Seanad reform and the necessary changes, which will not always be very comfortable, in the Senator's words. I hope that is the way the issue will be treated.
The issue of retired teachers being paid on a fortnightly rather than a monthly basis and allowing them to plan their incomes in a better fashion is very important and could be brought to the attention of the Minister for Finance.
I agree with Senator O'Meara that the way people responded to the Special Olympics was an affirmation of everything that was right in the world and presented the most marvellous and inspirational spectacle, which includes listening on a daily basis to the progress of the athletes. Senator O'Meara states that a disability Bill, based on a rights principle, should be introduced. I understand that the relevant Minister is working hard on that matter. Speaking on behalf of the Government parties, I can say that while a lot has been done, much more remains to be done. There will never be a perfect world in which every wrong can be righted, but I agree with the Senator that there is more to do.
Senator O'Meara also requested a debate on agriculture, which is very important. However, we should wait until final agreement has been reached on the Fischler proposals before engaging in such a debate.
Senators MacSharry and Scanlon raised the issue of planning, in respect of which several Senators sought a debate. Such a debate had been scheduled but, unfortunately, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, was in hospital for ten days with a back injury. I will arrange time for such a debate. I take the Senator's point about organisations which are in receipt of State support and which, in turn, are stopping major and important urban developments.
Senator Bannon has a difficulty with the cost of road tolls. I understand that all of the new major roads will be tolled, which is the way of the future. As Senator Browne said, I wish that the Irish Road Haulage Association would halt its boycott of the Drogheda bypass because its members are using a very dangerous bridge on an alternative route. The bypass has improved matters to a great extent.
Senator Scanlon referred to a €4,000 insurance premium for a young driver, which is exorbitant. Insurance costs for young drivers and small businesses are retarding progress because people cannot afford to pay them. The Tánaiste is working hard on these issues but, given the horrific tale outlined by the Senator, progress cannot come soon enough.
As Senator Henry correctly pointed out, the freedom of the City of Dublin has been granted to the leader of the opposition in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi. I will be glad to raise the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen. The measures being taken against Aung San Suu Kyi appear to have become more repressive, including the type of surveillance to which she has been subjected.
Senator Ulick Burke mentioned the withdrawal of discretionary posts. As Senators who worked in the teaching profession are aware, there is a good appeals mechanism for such posts at second level. Most cases are dealt with fairly, as Senator Fitzgerald said. I take Senator Ulick Burke's point about the science subjects because physics and chemistry should be part of the school curriculum in a modern country such as ours, although there has been a falling off in the number of students studying them.
Senator Brady mentioned the school for girls with impaired vision, which is a matter for discussion between the relevant authorities and the Rosminians, who are coming to an arrangement about the girls' education. While the number of girls involved is small, it is important that they should receive a proper education and I am sure that adequate arrangements will be made in that regard.
As Senator Bradford said, it would be worthwhile dealing on a cross-party basis with the subjects of voter turnout and electronic voting. They are matters which affect all of us. Voter turnout is declining everywhere, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Ireland. A new group headed by Mr. David Begg which will examine various aspects of our democracy held an interesting meeting in the Oak Room in the Mansion House earlier. One of its aims is to increase voter turnout.
I will ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government whether his Department has produced a definitive report on the flaws, failings and good points of the electronic voting system. Under our system, one presses a button and a vote is cast. We gave out about the long count prior to the election of President Bush but there was a way to check the result the later. I will try to fit in a debate on this.
Senator Fitzgerald also referred to St. Mary's school and discretionary teaching posts, while Senator Quinn raised the deaths of three young men last week and asked what were the Minister for Transport's plans to deal with the number of provisional driving licence holders. There was a great deal of debate about this issue but it has died down. The number of provisional licence holders is huge and it would be a major task to put a shape on it. However, a number of fatalities involve provisional drivers.
While Senators Terry and O'Meara praised the great attention being paid to people with disabilities, Senator Terry highlighted the loss of jobs on community employment schemes for such people. That is one area in which schemes cannot be cut back. The administrators of community employment are trying to do this but everybody says the arts and the maintenance of parks are important. However, those who care for people with disabilities in a particularly intimate way as personal assistants are the most important. I will establish how the schemes can be streamlined in order that they can be kept in employment.
Senator Norris was constructive in his comments on disability. He is correct that the issue is significant. Families of people with disabilities have highlighted this because they are so open, involved and constructive themselves. It is a wonderful lesson to everybody. The Senator supported the call by Senator Brian Hayes for a debate on the NESF report following its publication tomorrow.