Wednesday, 12 November 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No.1, Containment of Nuclear Weapons Bill 2000 – Report Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m; No. 2, Sea Pollution (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4 p.m; No. 3, Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Bill 2003 – all Stages, to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6 p.m. with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, other contributions not to exceed eight minutes and Members may share time – for the information of Senators, the Bill literally comprises two lines; and No. 17, motion No. 33, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Last week many colleagues raised the issue of embryonic stem cell research and a pending decision of the European Council on potential funding in this area in the future. The Leader said she would do her best to see if a debate could be organised, particularly given the current position of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on this matter, which seems to be at variance with a committee of the House. I know the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will go back to the committee, but a debate in plenary session of this House would be very important. Could that be organised over the next week or so or at least prior to the decision on 27 November?
On an entirely different matter, as part of the benchmarking awards, local government in this country will have to shell out €161 million to pay for this award locally. The Government's latest position is that this would have to be found from existing resources in local authorities throughout the country. If that remains the position, as I understand it does, every householder in the country will have to pay at least an additional €130 next year to fund this new award. If the Government decides not to bail out the local authorities they will have two options, one to hike up charges and the other to cut back services. What are we going to have next year?
I would like the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come into the House for a debate on local government funding. Benchmarking was put to the people as part of the brave new world beginning on 1 January next, but it is the taxpayers who will foot the bill, nationally and locally. The Government is not giving one additional cent to the local authorities in this regard. We need a debate on this issue as soon as possible and I urge the Leader to act on the matter.
Yesterday, Senator McCarthy sought a debate on the prisons issue. We need to know what is going on in this matter. Can the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to explain to us what he is thinking of doing? It may be that he has the answers but I do not understand the issue, no one else does and I have been trying to get information on the row between the prison officers and the Department or the Irish Prison Service.
The Prison Officers Association has put forward a proposal to save €30 million annually in prison overtime and this is not being discussed by any of the parties. There may be issues here that I do not understand. I am very slow to get involved in industrial relations issues on the floor of the House.
Indeed. These things are better left to the experts, however, I would like to hear why, with such goodwill on both sides, a resolution to the problem cannot be found or why it cannot be dealt with by a third party. It seems that people are taking strong positions unnecessarily and that we are walking ourselves into trouble, which we do not need to do.
People talk about the closure of some of the prisons and Spike Island is one that comes to mind. Spike Island is a very successful prison and there is a huge educational and rehabilitative element in much of what it is doing. It would be a huge loss to the system.
I do not purport to be an expert in this area but I see there are issues which need to be addressed. The Prison Officers Association is making serious attempts to move the matter forward. The association may not be completely right and the Minister's ideas may not be completely right either. It is time we heard the arguments on both sides so we can come to a conclusion as to how the matter should be moved forward before we find ourselves in another huge mess.
I support Senator O'Toole on the prisons issue and on what was said here yesterday. I am at a loss to know who will run the two prisons to be withdrawn from the supervision of the Irish Prison Service. Will it be a management consultant? What is going on?
I am discomfited by Ministers who produce diversions. For the past 12 months the smoking ban controversy took the heat off the Minister for Health and Children. I suspect this issue is intended to take the heat off the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform at a time when many of our urban areas are terrified by rampant gangland crime, which is apparently making huge parts of the country ungovernable. It creates a wonderful smokescreen to raise the issue of prison officers' overtime, which obviously needs to be resolved.
Last week I asked for a debate on embryonic stem cell research. This matter urgently needs to be debated before the Government makes a decision about how it is going to deal with an EU proposal. This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, it is wrong in principle for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to become the arbiter of ethical decisions. Second, after the shock of the first Nice treaty referendum we thought we had moved away from the secretive EU decision making that characterised our relationship with the EU. It is still not clear whether the Government believes it needs to have the approval of the Oireachtas before it decides an issue like this. If the Government believes it can make whatever policy it likes in Europe without reference to the Oireachtas that is a recipe for trouble down the line. Ireland's attitude to the EU will be damaged and people will believe they have no say in the decision-making process. It is urgent that we have a debate, not at some vague time in the future but before 27 November, when this decision will be taken. An Oireachtas committee has already made its views known. It is time the Oireachtas was heard on the issue. It would be profoundly wrong to do otherwise.
It seems increasingly necessary that we have a debate on Aer Rianta.
It is unclear what motivated the decision to go the route chosen by the Government. Neither business, commercial nor other logic supports it. Ideology is a factor, but that is a bad basis on which to make pragmatic business or political decisions. One should pick what works. All the published advice says this is not a good business decision. We do not know what other advice is available because the Minister for Transport will not publish it. Therefore, I would like us to debate the matter. I ask the Leader to ask her good friend, the Minister, to publish all of the background information.
In the Dáil yesterday the Taoiseach said new primary legislation would be needed to help the Health and Safety Authority to enforce the smoking ban. We now have two Bills dealing with insurance and one dealing with smoking which are due to be passed by both Houses before Christmas. Does the Leader know when any of them will be published?
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the issue of advertising to children? The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has invited submissions on this matter. If the Oireachtas debated this issue, particularly at this time of year when we see the continual daily intrusion into the lives of children and their exploitation, Members could put their views on the record and these could be submitted to the commission.
Yesterday, I requested that the Minister come to the House to answer questions on the Irish Prison Service. I have read in a newspaper a statement from the Prison Officers Association that more than 600 prisoners are on the run. They have absconded from open prisons, failed to return from temporary release, left hospitals, left their escorts or escaped in a number of other ways. Is this true? If so it adds a worrying dimension to the situation.
I join the call for a debate on the question of levies on the building of new houses. In today's newspaper I read of a proposal to impose levies amounting to €28,000 on stand-alone properties. Galway County Council has confirmed that there are proposals for a levy of between €5,000 and €8,000.
Irrespective of the amount of the levies, we should debate this issue. Levies and development charges have been introduced with no explanation as to the services being provided, apart from water, roads, sewerage and other such amenities. When we debated the issue of bin charges, reference was made to paying for a local authority service. In the case of building levies, however, people do not see what service they are paying for. It is important to debate this issue when levies have risen to the present level.
If the Cathaoirleach wants to continue I will not interrupt him. I support the call by Senator Ryan for a debate on Aer Rianta as it is important to hold one at this time. I travelled through Dublin Airport on Monday. It is a complete shambles. While Senator Ryan and I might not agree about the direction Aer Rianta and airports should take, the consumer is suffering as a result of the political paralysis and the extraordinary carry on that is going on at the top level.
It is time the House faced up to the fact that some strange things are happening. When the Minister declared yesterday that there are forces frustrating what he wants to do, the House is entitled to know what he is talking about. This matter is of great importance to tourism, imports and exports and all sorts of areas that are vital to the economy. Forces that we apparently do not understand are frustrating this. I ask the Leader to consider inviting the Minister for Transport to the House to explain what he means by saying forces are at work, why he is being frustrated and, particularly, that he identifies the source of leaks from Cabinet that are obviously frustrating the wishes of the Government.
I refer to the call for a debate on the prison issue. While prison officers do a difficult job, it must be recognised that changes are long overdue. Given there are more prison officers than prisoners and costs exceed those anywhere else in Europe, it is important that we look at this issue.
I couple this with the call for the debate on Aer Rianta and the difficult industrial relations circumstances regarding the implementation of Government policy. This highlights the need for a debate on the broader issue of trade unionism in the public services. The progressive and constructive relationship between trade unions and employers in the private sector that has evolved during the years of partnership has not been replicated in the public sector. There is a need for debate on this. We might get a more enlightened approach from trade unionism.
I fully support the call from all sides of the House regarding the debate on the proposals on prison reform made by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Minister responded to the gangland murders in Limerick and the collapse of the Limerick murder trial by saying he would not be goaded into a knee-jerk reaction. However, his announcement yesterday is a typical knee-jerk reaction. He is facing a major confrontation. I agree there is a need to deal with the issue of overtime for prison officers, but we also need an urgent debate on the matter.
One of the omissions from the Minister's recommendations relates to prison visiting committees. We have called time and again for a debate on this matter. Some time ago, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, suggested it would be a good idea to include former reformed inmates on restructured visiting committees as they could bring their unique insight, expertise and experience to bear. The idea was castigated by elements in the media. While I support it, it needs to be done in the context of a clear, crisp and analytical debate.
Two Senators have called for a debate on stem cell research and I agree with this. Senator Ryan mentioned the Oireachtas having an input into decisions made in Europe. This is important, particularly in the question of embryonic stem cell research and EU proposal 2003/390/EC, which deals with funding requests. The Oireachtas committee made a decision that has received unanimous support from both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties. We live in a representative democracy and every issue does not go before the people. There was spontaneous opposition to this proposal in committee. While the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is not a member of my party, I suggest that she reflect that democratic view and become part of the minority blocking group against this proposal.
I seek clarification on a procedural matter from either the Cathaoirleach or the Leader. While I would like to table a matter on the Adjournment on the future of Nenagh hospital, I am not sure if I should put it to the Minister for Health and Children or the Minister for Defence.
The Cathaoirleach knows that I always play by the rules. I would like to know from the Minister for Defence where he was and what he did at Cabinet when the Hanly report came before him. Only when he saw 1,000 people in a packed hall in Nenagh did he suddenly realise he had a problem regarding the operation of the health services, not only in north Tipperary but across the country—
Senator Leyden should allow me to continue. I am seeking a debate on planning issues. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, was critical of the dictatorial approach taken by some planners to one-off housing. It is important we debate this matter. There are currently several plans in the public domain yet nobody knows where we are going on this.
I wish to raise a matter on the disability Bill. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform commissioned Professor Nolan of the ESRI to draw up a report on the disability Bill. He has poured cold water on the possibility of the Bill adopting a rights-based approach. When will the Bill be published? Will it be rights-based and if not, does the Leader consider it worthwhile introducing it.
The Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, should resign his position.
Yesterday in Dublin west, another man was murdered. This is the 20th murder involving the use of firearms. It now appears a life can be taken at any time. This is one death too many. We have called on the Minister – we have debated this matter many times – to outline to this House how he intends dealing with this problem. All the Minister can say at a time when there is so much crime on our streets is that he is to close some of our prisons.
I support Senator Brian Hayes's call for the Minister with responsibility for local government to come to this House to outline how it is our local authorities will pay benchmarking Those in the commercial sector will have to foot this bill. It is unacceptable that local authority services will be cut as a result and the Minister should come to this House to explain to us when he intends adequately funding local authorities.
Will the Leader tell the House the current position regarding Coillte and forestry policy? Is it true – the Leader may not know this but perhaps she can inquire about the matter – that the Government has decided to transfer Coillte and forestry policy from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture and Food? Is such a proposal in the offing? I would like to hear the Leader's comments in that regard.
I understand the PIAB Bill will soon be published. Will it be initiated in this House and if so, when? I support Senator Ross's remarks on Aer Rianta. There is something sinister afoot about which we deserve to be informed.
Will the Leader request the Minister for Education and Science to come to this House to discuss funding in education? We now face the situation where teachers and parents on boards of management at primary school level are to strike until they get the refurbishment programmes promised for the past two years. We are led to believe there will be further cuts in spending in this area. There are also proposals at third level for drastic cuts in funding for capital work. The end result will be that graduates, which we badly need in certain specialised areas, will not come through the system to regenerate our economy. There is an urgent need for the Minister for Education and Science to outline to this House his policy on funding of capital works in the education sector.
I support Senator Bannon's remarks on planning matters. I wish to put on record how inappropriate it was for the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to use the facilities of a conference to criticise the managerial and planning staff in Galway County Council.
Will the Leader request the Minister for Finance to urgently come to this House to discuss the decentralisation process? Last year we were assured it would take place this autumn. I now hear rumours, from a very good source, that it is to be deferred until after the next local elections. It is disgraceful that we have been strung along in this manner. It is pathetic that Fianna Fáil and PD Senators and Deputies have published statements in local papers in this regard and yet they have done nothing about it in concrete terms.
I remind the House that motor tax increases were introduced approximately one year ago. That increase was, at the time, passed off as of benefit to us in terms of our roads. It has now emerged that not one extra penny was spent on our roads. I agree with the comments of colleagues on development charges. It is outrageous that on the anniversary of the abolition of the first-time buyer's grant we are now faced with a first-time buyer's tax. Every local authority in the country will increase its development charges by thousands of euro.
I also ask that the Leader request the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to meet with us in this House. We have learned today that €108 million will be spent on CPOs for the new Kilcullen-Waterford motorway. What is the position of the Progressive Democrats on this motorway? Is it to go ahead? I cannot obtain a reply to that question. The signals coming from the Progressive Democrats are conflicting. We are speaking here about taxpayers' money.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the need to have a debate on stem cell research before 27 November. We will put that matter on the agenda if we can get the appropriate Minister to come to the House. There is a difficulty for the Minister concerned. The Tánaiste's EU duties include that topic – I can understand the reason that is so – yet the matter does not come within the remit of the Department for which she has responsibility. It will be difficult to find a Minister who can deal with the issue but I will continue to seek one out.
Senators say €160 million is to be spent on benchmarking for local authority employees. I imagine they are well due that money. Senator Brian Hayes alleges that each person would have to pay €133 to fund this payment.
The Estimates will be published on Thursday. There has been a great deal of debate on the need for finance in various sectors. We should await publication of the Estimates in which, I am sure, the increases needed will be included. Senator O'Toole said that he cannot understand why there are not co-operative talks between the two sides. Each has ideas, but they do not seem to be coming together on them. We will see what develops over the next few days on that. Senator Ryan raised the question of who will run the two prisons, Loughan House and The Curragh, which are to be taken from the prison service. He wondered if it was a tactic to divert attention from the everyday issue of crime. For a long time, the Minister, Deputy McDowell, and his Department have sought a useful debate with the prison officers, but neither side seems to have arrived at that point.
Senator Ryan also raised embryonic stem cell research, a matter on which I am in complete agreement with him. I am sure all Senators are getting letters, e-mails and faxes on the issue. Everyone is getting very worked up about it. We must have the issue explained. The Senator referred to the secretive EU. I fully agree because we have been talking about that in our own committee. We must know on most issues what exactly the European Union plans rather than have it pounce something on us about which we are not clear.
Senator Ryan also asked about the possibility of providing time for a debate on Aer Rianta. We have been informed that an Aer Rianta Bill will be published next week. We have also been told that it will be taken in the Seanad. The Senator has asked for a debate and that will take place. I do not know what is happening, since what has emerged can only have come from one level, as we know. We have been told that the Bill is due next week, and that it will be taken in this House. We must wait to see if that is correct.
Senator Cox asked for a debate on advertising aimed at children and how it affects them. There have been many calls about that, and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, also spoke about it. Senator Finucane read that 600 prisoners are on the loose for various reasons, perhaps not having returned after parole. I do not know if that figure is correct. It was in the newspapers, and we can seek to clarify it. If it is correct, it seems a huge number. Senator Kitt asked for a debate on the development charges. I have a note on that, received from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government this morning, which I will read at the end. Senator Ross wants a debate on Aer Rianta. He said that forces were frustrating the Minister, the same claim made in a newspaper this morning. Documents were released, I assume from the Cabinet or its environs, as Cabinet documents come to the Cabinet table and are then taken away again. The Minister would probably like to know himself where they came from.
Senator Jim Walsh is keen to have a wider debate on public sector employees, particularly the prison officers and Aer Rianta. Senator Higgins asked for a debate on crime. The Minister had said that there should be no knee-jerk reaction to this matter. The current debate about prisons seems to him to be a knee-jerk reaction. I hope that more details will emerge in coming days. There is a strategy involved on both sides. One hopes that they can get align their strategies to bring matters to a proper conclusion. The Senator quoted the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher, who suggested that there should be ex-prisoners on prisoners' visiting committees, only to be shouted down. I thought that a very sensible suggestion, as no one would know more about what goes on in prisons than ex-prisoners. The Senator asked about the Indecon report commissioned by the Government. I hope that we will get a chance, now that the legislative pace is accelerating, to debate the report.
Senator Leyden asked about development charges. He was in fine form, if a little noisy. Senator Bannon asked about benchmarking and the whole issue of planning and development charges. We will have to arrange a debate on that, as it is too big a topic for an Adjournment debate. Senator McCarthy asked about a disability Bill. The Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill is on Second Stage in the Dáil. We have asked about the major disability Bill on several occasions, but have no idea when it is coming or what it will contain. I know from people who have taken part in the process that consultations involving those who will be affected by the Bill are ongoing. I do not know if it contains what the Senator referred to, but there was a debate this morning. Professor Brian Nolan has come out with a report, but I am not clear from it whether he is in favour of rights. The report seems to go half way towards that stance. The Senator went on to talk about the Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith.
Senator Terry spoke about the naked crime on the streets. There is truth in that. I have spoken to people who feel they are no longer safe. I suppose that some of us always have that feeling, but it is particularly prevalent now. The Minister informed me that he wishes to come into the House to discuss the issue. However, society has a role too. Senator Terry also spoke about benchmarking. The Estimates are due to be published this week. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has said that his Estimates will show a fair increase in funding for Garda activities. We look forward to that.
Senator Coghlan asked about Coillte. I can confirm that it is to move to the Department of Agriculture and Food. Everyone I wish to address has vanished, although I do not single out the Senator. I do not know when the move will occur. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board Bill will be a Seanad Bill. That will be taken next week, and we should have the Bill today. It is a very long Bill and will require much debate when it comes here. Senator Coghlan also supported Senator Ross's comments on Aer Rianta.
The report is not a discussion document, and I do not think it was ever intended to be such. Senator Ulick Burke asked about funding for education. We will have the Estimates on Thursday, and everyone will know the position then. He also called for a debate on planning. Senator Browne called for a debate on the decentralisation process and the road to Waterford. We keep hearing about "the road to". It could be the road to Rio.
No, the Senator may not come in. I have made a ruling, which she should respect. The Senator should resume her seat.
For the information of the House, a Government amendment to the Private Members' motion will be circulated immediately after the Order of Business.
Order of Business agreed to.