Thursday, 11 December 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No.1, a referral motion, to be taken without debate, whereby the subject matter of No. 13 on today's Order Paper is being referred to the Joint Committee on Health and Children for consideration. The Health Insurance (Amendment) Acts 2001 and 2003 include provisions relating to the introduction of a risk equalisation scheme. It is now considered necessary to make amendments to two of the definitions contained in that scheme; No. 2, a procedural motion agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on the attendance of Seán Ó Neachtáin, MEP, in the House this afternoon, with the arrangements as outlined in the motion; No. 3, a procedural motion agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on the attendance of Avril Doyle, MEP, in the House this afternoon, with the arrangements as outlined in the motion; No. 4, a procedural motion agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on the attendance of Brian Crowley, MEP, in the House this afternoon, with the arrangements as outlined in the motion; and, No.5, Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Report and Final Stages to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, to conclude no later than 1 p.m.
The two issues I wish to raise relate to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the first of which is the independent report by the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority on insurance costs. Any of us would be shocked, given lower insurance and litigation costs, that the Irish motorist is still fleeced. Given that there are only eight insurance companies in the Irish market it is difficult to reconcile the differential between quotes of €1,100 and €6,000. I appreciate the Minister has instructed people to shop around and that is good advice. I ask her also to intervene with the insurance industry to ask them to at least pass on the savings made to the consumer.
The second point I wish to raise has the potential to be a time bomb in 2005. There is a huge problem in regard to the shortage of nurses, particularly in the intensive care units of our hospitals. More than 5,000 nurses have come from overseas, 90% of whom are Filipino. In the Mater Hospital, 80% of the nurses in the intensive care unit are Filipino. They have become a vital component in the health care industry here and are employed on two year contracts. Given the tight budgetary constraints of health boards, the contracts are renewed on a three monthly or six monthly basis. Many of the nurses are based in Dublin and have no living-out allowance owing to the high rental costs in Dublin. When their husbands come here, they are debarred from being considered for work permits. In the context of the health care industry, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment must look at this issue because these nurses are attracted to countries such as Australia. They can even go to Belfast where they can get a permit for their husbands if they decide to work there. They have been attracted to the United States where they undergo an examination. In 2002, the three year diploma course became a four year degree course. In 2005, no Irish nurses will come on stream from the hospitals and we will face a potential time bomb. At present, approximately 1,600 Irish nurses come on stream each year. I ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to look at this issue and do something about work permits with a view to our being compatible with other overseas countries. I appreciate I have been allowed considerable latitude on this issue. There was a tragedy recently in Crumlin Hospital due to a lack of staff in the intensive care unit. This could happen in other hospitals and the Minister for Health and Children should remove any impediments to the recruitment of nurses.
Yesterday was International Human Rights Day but we did not mark it in this House. I ask the Leader if we could mark it with discussions on a series of human rights issues. To mark the day yesterday, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties organised a lecture by Mr. Mike Posner from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York. It was very interesting and would have been useful in the context of the debates we have had in this House because he spoke from inside America about the erosion of human rights by the Bush Administration and the impact that has on other countries which imitate it. America celebrated International Human Rights Day by killing another six children in Afghanistan to add to the nine it killed the previous day. The Israelis are consistently involved in similar operations.
We should place in that perspective our own performance of our duties towards our citizens, particularly regarding the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the constitutional requirement on the State to vindicate the right to life of its citizens. That was not done. I ask for a debate, in the context of human rights, on the Barron report. Among other points, there are reproaches in it of the Oireachtas and, in particular, of the Government of the time for not pursuing the information it clearly had and for not vindicating the human rights of the ordinary citizens who were going about their business in the city of Dublin and the town of Monaghan. It may have been a political decision and it may be that it was an "appalling vista", to quote the late Lord Denning, but appalling vistas must be faced sooner or later. If they are avoided, they just become worse. I call for a debate on human rights generally and also a separate debate on the Barron report.
We should discuss electronic voting before we finally cross the legal hurdle and sign a contract. Deputy Seán Power, who obviously is not anti-Government, has come up with interesting information about the possible technical dangers of electronic voting, the degree of error and the lack of a paper trail. It would be worthwhile to examine the issue. Ireland is different from countries like Australia, where there are massive distances to be confronted, or America, where there are massive populations to be confronted. Before we spend €50 million on installing a system that may not be appropriate for this country, we should examine it in detail.
I agree with the points made yesterday about the reaction to the Barron report on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. We should not rush to judgment but it is imperative that both the British and Irish Governments take the lead in terms of where we go next. What is the next step? We owe this not only to the victims, but to their families and the survivors who suffered such grievous loss on that fateful day 29 years ago.
Electronic voting was discussed at the meeting of the Committee on the Environment and Local Government. I was not at the meeting because I was engaged in a debate in this House, but expert advice revealed a degree of doubt about the electronic voting system. A number of academics, including a PhD student, were present and they were well versed on the issue. They pointed out flaws in the system. The chairman of the committee, Deputy Seán Power, is writing to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to convey the committee's reservations. It is imperative that the Minister looks at what we now know about electronic voting and considers ways to resolve difficulties with the system. The local and European elections are in June 2004 and a substantial amount of money is being spent on electronic voting not just on implementing the system, but on advertising it. It is imperative that it is examined and I ask the Leader to convey that message to the Minister and get a response.
Insurance was mentioned again this morning, an issue that has been raised in this House many times. The comments by the Tánaiste that people should shop around have been widely remarked upon in the media. Good news should also be put on the record. For the past couple of years, for small businesses, the arrival of a renewal notice heralded higher prices. This morning, however, my renewal notice arrived and the cost has been reduced from €16,000 to €9,900 as a result of shopping around. Instead of waiting for the Government to act, we can shop around and it will lead to cheaper policy costs. I reduced my car insurance this week from €1,310 to €868 by shopping around. All Members should advise the public to shop around.
The comments of the Tánaiste will stand the test of time.
The Tánaiste is well aware of the issues related to work permits. I agree with Senator Finucane about permits for the spouses of nurses and the Tánaiste is addressing the problem.
The IRFU has presented its plans for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road as a national stadium. Could the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism come to the House as soon as possible to indicate what the Government proposes to do about the development of a stadium? The Government scuppered the FAI's plans for Eircom park, which would be up and running now if it was not for the promise of the Bertie Bowl. There are now plans before the Government and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism should tell us what decision has been made as soon as possible. This is of paramount importance when we consider forthcoming soccer and rugby internationals.
There was a death in Waterford Regional Hospital last year from legionnaire's disease and the report of the inquiry was published yesterday. It stated that the air and water quality in every hospital should be examined. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to explain what steps he is taking to ensure action is taken on the findings of the inquiry as soon as possible?
I support Senator Finucane's call for a debate on insurance and on other sectors. I take on board Senator Morrissey's point that there is an onus on consumers to shop around and, thus, generate the competition that leads to best prices. The Central Bank, however, issued a report yesterday that showed that interest rates on both deposit and loan accounts are not as favourable here as they are in other euro zone areas. The Tánaiste's investigation into dentists, doctors, solicitors and other professions indicates that we should have a debate on price control. The Tánaiste opposes price controls – she supports market forces – but where there is an obvious failure, the State has a duty to intervene to ensure consumers get value for money. People are now going to Northern Ireland to get dental treatment at a fraction of the cost of treatment here. I was in the North recently and I came across people who were there for that purpose. It highlights our failure to achieve competitive prices. The debate should also cover non-productive areas, such as barristers' fees, that are fleecing the productive sector of the economy and affecting economic growth. The Leader might get ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to look at the mechanisms for public hearings by committees of the House. The non-compellability of witnesses is a fundamental flaw in the apparatus and operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas and it does not appear to be addressed at all. It is not a matter for Government but for the Houses to take the initiative in this regard. Perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of the Seanad might do this and in conjunction with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in the Dáil take legal advice and come to some conclusions.
Some months ago when the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was in the House I pointed out that it had been brought to my attention that there were very serious difficulties regarding the supervision of children in the care of the State in some areas. We read in newspaper reports yesterday and today that two very young girls in the care of health boards are pregnant. I do not know if these pregnancies occurred before the children went into the care of the State but there are serious difficulties in finding adequate and well-trained staff to supervise them. I have talked to the Minister of State outside the House too about this but I would like the Leader to invite him back so that we can address this very serious issue because if we take children into our care we all have a responsibility to ensure they are adequately supervised. I am very slow to criticise the health boards because they have serious problems trying to find staff to deal with these children. Nevertheless we must address the issue because they are some of the most vulnerable children in the State.
I support the proposal by Senators Norris and McCarthy for a debate on the report of the inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. It is very important that we analyse this detailed report in the new year and hold a discussion with maybe an opportunity for the families to respond to the report, through the Seanad. I ask the Leader to provide for a detailed debate on this in the new year.
I hope the Leader will respond to that. I support the call by my esteemed colleague Senator Feighan from Boyle, County Roscommon for a discussion in the new year about the decentralisation plans. The Government will still consider Boyle and I will lend my full support to the campaign by Michael J. Smith, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Boyle and others.
To ensure that we get at least three out of the five seats in north Roscommon in the election next June it is crucial we have a decision regarding decentralisation to Boyle.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach may be able to give me some guidance on another issue.
I wish to have an opportunity next Tuesday to make a personal statement to refute allegations by RTE and its biased reporting of health issues. The station is always biased on issues of health. I want to refute that and I will not be blacklisted.
I support those previous speakers who have asked for a debate on insurance costs. There is no doubt that the costs are coming down. There is evidence of that and one insurance company is advertising insurance for young people. Two years ago someone aged 18, 19, 20 or 22 would not even get a quote. I am glad that this company is offering insurance for 22 year olds at €79 per month. That is some turnaround, thanks to Deputy Noel Treacy who initiated the Motor Insurance Advisory Board and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Bill which we passed last week.
It was her Bill and it is making a difference. Like Senator Finucane I read in the newspaper this morning about two quotes to one individual with a difference of €5,000 between them. There is something wrong when that happens. We should debate it here and if necessary bring in the insurance companies.
We have debated decentralisation and have lobbied for it for four years. While I acknowledge and respect Senator Leyden's good intentions regarding future decentralisation there is a saying to which the people of Boyle and north Roscommon have listened, namely, "actions speak louder than words".
Can the Leader arrange for a debate on electronic voting and the proposals contained therein? I was listening to the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government yesterday and two Labour Party consultants suggested that one in 1,000 results might be inaccurate. As the advertising for the National Lottery says, "It could be you". There are over 1,000 candidates standing in the local elections and 500 candidates for the general election and such inaccuracy would be intolerable. We need clarity on this because it is far too serious in a democracy to have a hitch that might technically prevent a government taking power. It could have many very serious consequences. Even at a local level one inaccurate result would be wrong.
Can the Leader also please organise a debate on the professions in the new term? This should refer particularly to monopolies, restrictive practices and self-governance.
A commitment was given in the 2002 election on the Irish language. On the other side of the House Senator Ó Murchú is a persuasive advocate for the language but it is not recognised officially at EU level. We should keep our eye on the ball regarding a vote that is coming up at EU level at which we will have an opportunity to make Irish an officially recognised language. There are three important aspects to this issue. First, if an Irish applicant were to apply for a job at European level, he or she would need two languages. However, Irish is not recognised as a second language in that context and such an applicant would need to have French, Spanish, German or some other European language. Addressing this issue would present an employment opportunity for Irish citizens to work in Europe. Second, it is a matter of national pride that Irish should be recognised as an official language. We have been negotiating for such recognition since 1972. In 1972, under a Fianna Fáil-led Government, the ball was missed. Fianna Fáil is good at going back 30 to 40 years in regard to Fine Gael. In 1972, we had an opportunity to make the Irish language recognised at European level. I am not a politician who tends to go back that far—
—but that is done by some Members on the other side of the House. In 1972 we missed the ball in this regard and we should not miss it again. There are up to 20 or 21 other recognised European languages and even accession states are being earmarked as countries whose languages will be recognised at European level. Is the Government not interested in the Irish language?
I support Senator McHugh's comments. As I said on previous occasions, a debate on this issue would be helpful. I could return the compliment to the Senator on his advocacy of the Irish language. I have heard him contribute to debates in support of it on many occasions. It would be helpful if we could establish unanimity within the House on this issue. There is a case for Irish being recognised as an official language in European affairs.
On another issue, the Taoiseach was correct in his comment on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings when he said, time does not dim the requirement for answers. Anybody watching the misfortunate families on television would have seen that their grief is still palpable. They are looking to us for protection and representation. The suggestion that in some way we should keep the lid on this horrific issue lest we might offend our nearest neighbour, Britain, is not tenable because it is a sovereign Government, subject to the requirements of compliance with human rights and international law.
I support Senator Finucane's points on insurance, the recommendations of the report of the Financial Services Regulatory Authority and the points made by many other speakers concerning the vital question of insurance costs. As that report has shown, there are wide variations and huge discrepancies in the premiums quoted by various companies. As has been said by many speakers, including Senator Morrissey, shopping around is essential. It was good to hear Senator Morrissey's good news story, but many people would not be as versatile or as much on the ball as he was. I think the Tánaiste would like to take an interest in this, perhaps through some agency. It should not be the case in this small market that there is such wide discrepancy and variation. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate, as was called for, on this important subject, as well as bringing it to the attention of the Tánaiste.
I support the many speakers, including Senator Hanafin, who raised a question about electronic voting. It is open to—
Yesterday, I sat through the presentation by Mr. Justice Barron. It was a sad occasion. It highlighted the indifference of our political leaders at the time to the suffering caused and to responding to the biggest single bombing at any time during the 30 years' war in the North. There needs to be a Hutton style inquiry before which people such as former Prime Ministers, Foreign and Justice Ministers will have to appear to explain why—
Having sat through the presentation all yesterday afternoon, it is important to convey the feeling that prevailed. Files are missing in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which is a serious matter.
Last Friday in Dublin Castle the Taoiseach, Deputy Ahern, said that one of the priorities of the Irish Presidency will be driving the EU initiative on the reform of the United Nations. I said previously that we should have a debate on the reform of the United Nations. To me, the United Nations is a group of allies, but unfortunately the latest development in American imperialism of the current US Government is its declaration that it will not allow France, Germany and Russia to tender for contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq. The US Government is forbidding three members of the United Nations Security Council to tender for contracts worth some $18.6 million because they did not agree with its position on the war in Iraq.
Yes, on the reform of the United Nations. I draw Members' attention to this latest development by the current Administration, which does not reflect the views of all American people or politicians. It is very serious and we cannot be indifferent to it. We cannot let it pass over our heads as happened in regard to other events. The subject of the Barron report was left to somebody else to get to the bottom of. We have to react.
Halburton, the company of the United States Vice-President, Dick Cheney, is getting twice as much money per gallon of oil from Kuwait into Iraq—
It is important to record that we strongly support and commend the Minister's efforts in bringing about the establishment of a press council and urge its establishment with all haste.
There can be no hiding place for anybody who did not do what he or she should have done regarding the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I ask for a debate on the matter and support those who have already called for one.
If such proceedings involve bringing over people from across the water and if they are culpable in some way, then hard cheese. If they did not do what they should have done at the time, they must be brought forward and shamed before the people of this country.
I support the calls for a debate on electronic voting. People have talked about the possibility of inaccuracies but, to my knowledge, there have been many inaccuracies in the current system which were observed in the last number of elections.
In principle, we should be in favour of electronic voting. The day of the long counts should not be allowed to continue. It is not a spectator sport for candidates.
Senator Norris raised the matter of the Hospital Sweepstakes earlier in the week and I support what he said, but the Tánaiste provided a financial package to some of the workers. I have been making the same point for many years regarding farm labourers who worked under the Land Commission. The Leas-Chathaoirleach knows that in his own county and in County Cavan, parts of the Land Commission remain. There was an appalling situation for farm labourers who got virtually nothing when the Land Commission closed down. A committee of this House should consider a package for them, similar to what other workers received. I would like the support of the House in this matter. I hope we will have a debate in the House or that the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food would consider the matter.
I commend the patience of the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
Senator Finucane, the acting leader of the Opposition, noted the report of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority and asserted that Irish motorists are being fleeced due to the disparity in insurance rates. The Senator also raised the urgent issue regarding Filipino nurses whose spouses are not allowed Irish work permits and who must subsequently leave their nursing jobs because both partners cannot work. Such joint employment is possible for these people in Northern Ireland. Senator Finucane also noted that because of the changeover to the four year degree in nursing, there will be a year in which the colleges of nursing will have no graduate output. I am sure the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, are considering this matter.
Yesterday was International Human Rights Day. Senator Norris spoke of the killing of children in Iraq and suggested we look at the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in the context of human rights. He and Senator McCarthy also raised the issue of electronic voting.
The Barron report will be considered by a joint committee, some members of which sit in this House and will constitute a strong presence. Any Senator can attend joint committee hearings and any Senator who is a committee member can contribute as can attendees.
I thank Senator Walsh for that clarification. We can get further clarification if needed, but I understand that any Member of this House can attend the sub-committee meeting. It is important that as many of us as can attend do so, particularly on the days when evidence is being taken. I spoke to members of the Taoiseach's office who recommend that we do not discuss the matter in either Chamber of the House. I can speak only for this House. The Taoiseach does not recommend a discussion on the matter prior to the completion of the hearings and the issuing to both Houses of the report. We can then discuss the matter freely. I recommend that anyone who wishes to attend meetings of the sub-committee should do so, take notes and reflect on the matter. The bombings were dreadful. As Senator Ó Murchú said, time does not dim what happened, but rather accentuates it. Where do we go to next? This question was raised on "Morning Ireland" this morning in an excellent programme which presented every point of view. The course we take now is the business of the sub-committee, which will look into the matter comprehensively.
As Senators Norris and McCarthy noted, the misgivings expressed by the committee considering electronic voting are justified. I hope the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, will address the issue in this House in the next session.
Senator Morrissey brought good tidings of great joy prior to Christmas. His savings on his business and car insurance were amazing. We would like to hear later how he secured these rates.
Senator Cummins spoke of the IRFU development of the Lansdowne Road rugby stadium and asked that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, attend the House. The Senator also drew attention to the sad death from legionnaire's disease of a female patient in Waterford and asked that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, comment thereon.
Senator Jim Walsh raised various issues including insurance rates, bank interest and loan rates, and price controls for the medical, dental and legal professions. He made the fair point that the non-productive segments of life are overwhelming the productive segments with costs. That is a fair point. Senator Walsh also asked if the Committee on Procedure and Privileges could look into the compellability issue and he has made a formal request about this. Senator Henry noted the potential dangers for young children in care. The health boards act in loco parentis for all of us. I do not know the circumstances of the cases involving the two young girls mentioned by the Senator, or when and how they became pregnant. I will ask the relevant Minister to attend the House to provide some clarification of these sad events.
Senator Leyden spoke of the Barron report. With his colleague Senator Feighan he also took up the cudgel on behalf of Boyle's claim as a town suitable for the decentralisation programme. Senator Leyden spoke of being muzzled but I will not go into that.
Senator Scanlon spoke about insurance rates. This House did great work on the insurance issue during this term, and we should take some credit. We had a very full debate on the matter. It was also raised during Private Members' business. We had before us the Tánaiste's Bill on the matter, which is only now going before committee. We worked hard to get the Bill before the House in order to debate it thoroughly and not be rushed into it in half a day's sitting next Thursday. We exercised our minds greatly on insurance matters and I hope the proof of that will be seen in the type of dramatic results Senator Morrissey has noted.
Senator Hanafin commented on electronic voting and echoed Senator Walsh's call for a debate on the monopolies and restrictive practices of many professional bodies. The position of the Irish language in the EU was adverted to by Senators McHugh and Ó Murchú. The point made was a fair one. We regard Irish as our national language and it should be similarly regarded at EU level. As the Senators said, it is a matter of national pride.
Referring to the Barron report, Senator Ó Murchú said we should not seek to brush matters under the carpet but bring them into the open, no matter who may be at fault. Senator Coghlan noted the substantial differences in insurance costs. Senator While called for a Hutton-style inquiry following the Barron report, as well as for a debate on the reform of the United Nations. She pointed out that only businesses in countries which supported the American war or invasion effort in Iraq are being allowed to seek the rebuilding contracts on offer there.
Senator Glynn called for a debate on the proposed press council. We had a very good debate on that matter this week, and as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, attended the House just yesterday for three hours, I will not ask him to do so again in the near future. He spoke at the outset of the debate and at its conclusion, and made sound sense.
Senator Kitt raised the matters of electronic voting and the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes. He raised a point, which was brought to my attention last weekend, about labourers who were employed under the Land Commission. When the Land Commission ceased these men found themselves in a similar position to their female counterparts in the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes. We could raise this point with the relevant Minister.
Order of Business agreed to.