Wednesday, 21 January 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, a sessional order, as agreed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, to be taken without debate; No. 2, statements on the report, Review of Access to Mental Health Services for People with Intellectual Disabilities, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the contribution of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes, those of all others not to exceed eight minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and No. 16, motion No. 24, to be taken from 5 p.m to 7 p.m.
On a point of information, the House will not sit tomorrow until 11.15 a.m. because of a ministerial commitment, rather than at 10.30 a.m.
Some time ago the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, stated that he was extremely concerned about criminal activity funding a political party. He was referring specifically to Sinn Féin and was basing his concern on Garda intelligence. There is much concern about Sinn Féin and the political network it has built up. Many people appear to be working on a voluntary basis in consistency offices. If there is credibility to what the Minister has said, it behoves him to call in the Criminal Assets Bureau to identify whether there is a link and to do something about it.
I would like the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, to come to the House to explain what is happening in regard to Aer Rianta. He had ambitious plans and he is almost like the sultan of spin as far as the newspapers are concerned in regard to the breaking up of Aer Rianta. I do not know the level of consultations the Minister had with the trade unions preceding the proposal to break up Aer Rianta. The threat to Aer Rianta, Dublin Airport and the other airports is like the sword of Damocles hanging over the issue of their closure. I am extremely concerned about the image it projects of this country at a sensitive time when we are hosting the EU Presidency and when the ten accession states are to join. I would like harmonious discussions to take place and the Minister to come to this House to explain what is happening in regard to the dismantling of Aer Rianta as we know it.
I also wish to raise that issue, although I do not believe it would be helped too much by the introduction of the Minister at this stage. I have previously asked for debates on industrial relations. Something sad has happened to this country in recent times. If any of us faced a situation where our job security or that of our children, friends or neighbours was suddenly undermined, we would fight for protection and security of tenure in a way that was fully understood by all. That is all that is being done by these workers at the airport. They are not trying to hold the country to ransom or to close down Aer Rianta or the airport. They are not trying to embarrass the Presidency; they are trying to protect themselves and their duty and responsibility to their families, children and so on. Perhaps criticisms could be made as to how people go about doing that. However, I recognise that the Minister has at least tried to meet their needs, inform them of their rights and give them that sense of security. I hope that is happening today, namely, that those two issues are being bridged.
It is extraordinary that we have reached a situation where the national newspapers day in, day out consider with contempt the idea that people would want security of tenure in their employment. If any of us in any job — apart from our current job — were told our jobs were at risk, whether they were or not, one could imagine the fear and shock it would create. I ask for understanding in that regard. It may well be that people have other things to say about Aer Rianta but what the workers have asked for, that is, security of tenure and understanding of the business plan for the future, is reasonable. The Minister has responded positively and I hope both sides can bridge that gap and sort the matter out. When that is out of the way, I would like the Minister to come to the House to talk to us.
I wish to raise another issue. As somebody who does not depend on local authority members for support, I regard the recent comments made about hardworking, decent and poorly rewarded Dublin city councillors as objectionable. I seek nothing from local authority members—
On the Order of Business, has there been any progress on Committee Stage of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill 2002? This extremely important legislation has been on our Order Paper for so long that, if it were a Private Members' motion, it might almost have dropped off by now. There are also several other pieces of legislation which have not yet been introduced or debated on Second Stage. I would be grateful if the Leader could let me know about them.
Following on Senator O'Toole's contribution, last week Eircom yet again increased line rentals, giving an increase of 25% in 12 months. I do not know with any certainty the intricacies of what is now a very secretive and private company. However, I know that, if it were a State-owned company, it would not have increased its line rentals by 25% in the past 12 months because of the political pressure that would have been exerted. It appears that the privatisation of Eircom has been a monumental failure in that its primary objective was to provide people with a better service than that which had been available. There is now a considerable case for leaving Eircom wherever it is but returning the telecommunications infrastructure to public ownership, which it should never have left as it is a natural monopoly. Quite clearly, this natural monopoly is ruthless. It has been spending more on dividends for the owners than on investment in telecommunications infrastructure by a factor of two to one over the past 12 months. There is a considerable case for examining that.
In this context, notions about how to reorganise our airports which are not based on practical information to demonstrate that they would be better are ideologically driven and therefore inherently threatening to the public good. I still wish that we might have a debate in which the reasons for a particular decision being taken might be articulated to us. I hope the reasons are more than the Minister simply feeling it was a good idea.
I want to draw the House's attention briefly to the following matter. A whole list of papers was introduced because we were missing for a while, one of which is the annual accounts of a university for 2000. Another four constitute the annual accounts of a major health board for 2001. I do not know how either of those institutions can be regarded as being able to explain where money is going if its accounting is so out of date that we are talking about papers from three and two years ago respectively. Speaking as one who believes in public bodies, enterprise and money, that is wrong.
As Members know, I withdrew from the Sub-committee on Seanad Reform. I did so because, perhaps sentimentally, I believe this House of the Oireachtas is very important. When major decisions about how this House conducts its business are taken outside this House, it makes a mockery of Seanad reform. Membership of the Oireachtas Commission should have been decided by discussion with and the agreement of Members of this House. That this did not happen is a travesty.
On the last point, without reopening the debate, perhaps I might say that it was done without debate by agreement. I am confident the commission was established under statute and that the statutory provisions relating to its establishment were complied with in full.
It is important the Seanad takes cognisance of the fact that Ireland holds the Presidency of the European Union and I wish the Taoiseach and the Government well in that onerous task as did the leader of the Opposition in the Dáil. This is the appropriate House in which to debate some of the issues arising from the comprehensive programme for the Irish Presidency. The Seanad is well equipped and should be the forum in which European matters are debated in full. This document gives us much ground for debate. Therefore, I recommend that the Leader arranges an early debate on the future of Europe, enlargement, the Convention and the Irish Presidency.
Since the House adjourned, there has been a spate of adverse publicity regarding the huge hike in prices to the extent that we now find ourselves perched at the top of the league of costly countries in Europe and it is doing enormous damage. In a year in which we are supposed to have an increase in tourism revenue, this type of publicity is doing huge damage to the reputation of the country and it must be tackled.
A good illustration of how serious is the situation is that last year there was a mass exodus of people to do their shopping across the Border in Northern Ireland. Senator Ryan has already referred to the 25% increase in Eircom rental charges. At a time when international oil prices are down, our oil, petrol, diesel and home heating oil prices have risen. This is a huge problem. The Tánaiste has said she is concerned about the matter. She stated that competition is the answer and urged us to shop around. However, this is not working. We are definitely living in "rip-off Ireland" and we need to address it as a matter of urgency. In that context, I request an urgent debate on the matter at the earliest possible date.
As spokesperson on European affairs, I wish the Taoiseach and the Government well over the next six months. I re-echo the points raised by Senator Dardis in regard to how best we can solve the outstanding issues and come to a successful conclusion in six months' time. Will the Leader arrange for such debates since there is no better place than the Seanad in which to outline the position on outstanding problems?
I did some homework during the holidays and I wish to congratulate the Leader and the House because, of the 46 Bills signed into law during 2003, more than half — a total of 26 — originated in the Seanad. In that context, I remind the Government that work is being done in this House even without the proposed reforms and I urge it to use this House in the manner in which the Leader has managed to coax it to in the past year.
I am taking my cue from Senator O'Toole in reflecting my particular concerns. Will the Leader indicate when the Bill to amend the constituencies will be introduced, following the recommendation of the so-called independent commission which has pronounced that Leitrim will no longer exist as a county? This is a battle we thought had been won, and that the war was over, 20 years ago. However, we have returned to it again as my county has been split geographically in order to accommodate some grander scheme of things.
I call on the Leader to use her good offices to ask the appropriate State authority to do more to keep deer in and sheep out. Poachers and bandits have been roaming the countryside where I come from recently and, unfortunately and sadly, they are on the increase. They have been shooting native red deer, a protected species, and using their antlers as trophies—
Yes, I would welcome a debate and I seek your guidance, a Chathaoirligh, in this regard. Perhaps the Leader could have a word with the appropriate Minister. I have great sympathy for farmers, particularly around Kilgarvan, whose lands are overrun by the deer but, on the other hand, other farmers have a few thousand sheep where they should not be. This needs to be regularised.
Many Members have sought a debate regarding planning and An Bord Pleanála and the Leader is anxious to accommodate us. However, the board's independence must not be used as an excuse for the absence of accountability. While everybody accepts the law under which the board can, in its wisdom, disagree with its own inspectors' reports, it should, on each count, spell out why it has overruled the report. In terms of openness and transparency, that has not been seen to be done in at least one recent instance.
I refer to the threatened strike by Aer Rianta workers tomorrow. I support the calls by other Members for the Minister for Transport to attend the House to debate this issue. Aer Rianta was not established as a job creation or a job retention agency. It was given a management function to look after our airports, a critical part of the State's infrastructure. At a time when record numbers of travellers are passing through our airports and the economy has emerged from a downturn, it is appalling that one union at Dublin Airport can try to hold the country to ransom. I do not mind whether the union calls off the strike tomorrow but I object to it threatening to strike in any event. The Minister should come to the House and spell out what is happening so that we can support his attempts to break up Aer Rianta. Risk takers and investors in Ireland do not have job security but they pay their taxes so that the economy can go on.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House for a serious debate on incineration? It is time for the Government to be serious about waste management and the protection of the environment.
The people need clarity. The Minister for Health and Children is advocating a ban on smoking in public establishments in the interests of health and safety while the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government appears to be committed to managing waste by way of incineration rather than by reducing, minimising and recycling. He is taking the lazy option that will affect the health of the people.
I support what my colleague, Senator O'Toole, said regarding the remarks of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.
Arising from a speech made by President Bush on 7 January last about the future of immigrants in the United States, particularly Mexicans, I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the plight of undocumented Irish people in the United States.
They are going through a difficult time at present. They cannot return to Ireland for funerals, weddings or other family occasions because they are in danger of being stopped at airports when going back. The plight of these people is a serious matter and the House should arrange a debate as soon as possible to discuss the proposals by President Bush and the reaction of the Government and our ambassador in the United States.
Donnelly and Morrisson visas were excellent and provided security for Irish people in the United States of America. We should campaign to bring about a similar arrangement for Irish people living in the United States of America at present. I call on the Leader to give this matter priority in this parliamentary term.
We have enormous influence in the United States and we should use it, particularly during the Presidency. On 1 May we will allow ten countries free access to the labour market in Ireland. Surely the United States could help our undocumented emigrants in the United States.
I support the request for a debate on the possible strikes at the airports. I do not know, nor does anybody in this House, whether they will take place. There is a case to be made for pointing out to those who are holding the nation to ransom that Sustaining Progress promised industrial peace. It seems to me that the Sustaining Progress agreement is only meant to be kept by one side and not by the other and that SIPTU and any other little branch of it — it may not involve the main union, I do not know about the internal workings of trades unions — can hold the country to ransom at will.
My second point is a very serious one. Last May, Senator O'Toole and I introduced a motion calling for an examination of the activities of auctioneers. The Minister came to the House and pledged that a commission would be set up to look into the activities of auctioneers and to make recommendations with a view to regulating the area or introducing legislation. I gather from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform this morning that nothing has been done about that matter.
No such body has been set up. I ask the Leader to consider making representations to the Department that if pledges of that sort are made to this House, they should be kept and not just put on the long finger.
I too wish to join with previous speakers in calling for a debate on the issue of planning which has been requested by a number of Senators over the past 18 months. Week after week there are examples of why such a debate is justified. I agree with the comments made by Senator Coghlan but the crucial point is the discrepancy in the planning system. A planning authority grants or refuses a permission which is upheld by the inspectorate and is in turn overturned by the board, sometimes on the whim of three or four objections made to An Bord Pleanála. A better system is required and we need to return to the principle of the common good. I hope the Leader can facilitate a debate in this term.
On the matter of waste management, I think we have learned one thing today and we need a debate on the matter if for no other reason than to clarify and explain it to members of the Opposition because obviously they are at loggerheads among themselves as to their strategy. A debate would be a useful exercise.
I am one of the people who has raised questions both inside and outside this House about the activities of Sinn Féin and the funding of political parties and I recently called for an examination of this issue by the CAB. I remind Senator Finucane that it is imperative to maintain the independence of the CAB. We cannot have a situation where a Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform can issue directions to the CAB. We must respect the fact that it is an independent body.
I agree with the comments of and the request by Senator Leyden for a debate on undocumented Irish people in the United States. This was a major political issue ten or 14 years ago and was apparently resolved for a few years. There are many indications that the problem has returned to cause grave difficulty for a large number of Irish people in the United States. At a time when the American authorities are examining ways to resolve the undocumented situation in the case of Mexicans and others, we should use our political influence to try to bring some degree of redress to a sizeable number of Irish people in the United States.
Both the Leader and I spoke on a related issue at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday afternoon. The position of elderly Irish people in Britain was the subject of an excellent "Prime Time" television programme before Christmas which showed very clearly and sadly the significant social, economic and health problems faced by a very sizeable number of elderly Irish people in London and throughout Britain. These are people who went to work in Britain in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. They often have no social insurance records or entitlements and live in very poor economic circumstances. The Oireachtas has a duty to try to respond to the problems faced by those people. It would be helpful to initiate a debate on the subject.
Some time ago I asked for a debate on the future of agriculture and the long-term strategy for Irish agriculture. I am pleased that the Minister has put in place a forum to be chaired by a former colleague, Mr. Alan Dukes, but there should be a political input and this House is an ideal forum to debate a long-term strategy to keep the farmers of Ireland farming and to give young people in agriculture some hope that they will have a future there.
Many speakers have supported Senators Finucane and O'Toole in seeking a debate on Aer Rianta. I ask the Leader to schedule the debate so that it deals with the fundamental issues rather than just the strike. It should deal with matters such as benchmarking, where the salaries of people in the public service were brought up to the levels of those in the private sector. Conditions should also apply to the public service as is the case in the private sector. There are no guarantees on jobs or on the performance of a company. These are always subject to the vagaries of trade. There is a need to instil in the public service that efficiency, productivity and customer service are the only fundamental safeguards people have in their employment security. I have considerable sympathy with the Minister for Transport as he has many difficult areas with which to deal. He should be encouraged and complimented for taking the initiative on these matters.
I ask the Leader to either broaden this debate or hold a separate debate on competition as it affects the public service. There are many areas in which the State is inclined to buttress the public service to the disadvantage of the private sector. Eircom, which is now a private company, brings with it the culture it had when it was in the public service. The idea of increasing its lines significantly is to enable it to retain customers, which in turn disadvantages other companies that might compete with it to get those customers. The ESB and the area of electricity supply needs to be investigated. RTE now gets 95% of the licence fee. There are some very good broadcasters, which are disadvantaged, and competition may be skewed as a result.
I fully concur with Senator Leyden's comments about Irish people of illegal status in the United States. We should play a part in assisting up to 30,000 such people. Given the large number of Irish Americans, we should use every lobby to get these people legitimised.
I agree with Senator Bradford's call for support for the Irish in Britain. There has been considerable discrimination over many decades against the Irish in Britain both from the establishment and as a result of the general culture in certain parts of Britain. On several occasions I have heard Senator Mooney raise this issue, which has existed for some time. We should ensure that a concerted effort is made by the Government to assist people who find themselves severely disadvantaged in those areas and this House should give its full backing to some voluntary or State supported initiative to address the issue.
Since we last met the Minister for Education and Science has directed the inspectorate in his Department to adopt an investigative role in that he directed it to check schools on 23 December to see which teachers were present. As a former Minister of Education, the Leader would have valued the advisory and supportive role of the inspectorate at all times. It was a complete departure from precedent for it to adopt this investigative role. In doing this, the Minister has lost the trust of the majority of teachers and boards of management have questioned his credibility. Where is he going and what is his vision of education? He has now embarked on a new vision for education.
I am. The Minister has questioned the examinations process. He has called in what heretofore would have been termed the partners in education. He has now told the teachers they are no longer to be at the front of the class. Where are they to go?
At one stage, the Minister wanted to ensure teachers were in class and now he does not want them to stand in front of the class. The Minister's credibility is fading quickly. He should come to the House to outline his vision, if he has any, for education.
I support Senator Higgins in his call for a debate on inflation, which is important for competitiveness and jobs not least in the context of enlargement. We all welcome the reduction of inflation to considerably below 2%. At the tourism briefings, which have been referred to, accommodation prices are deemed to be pretty competitive. There was a 6% increase in tourism last year, despite all the difficulties experienced. The real problem lies in the area of food and drink. I am also glad that insurance costs are showing signs of decreasing.
In the context of tomorrow's threatened strike, I hope the constructive principles of social partnership will be applied by all sides. That means that everyone must be prepared to give and take. I accept Senator O'Toole's point that the Minister has given reassurances where concerns existed previously and that this provides a basis for the strike to be called off.
Last week, the CSO published figures for relative incomes per county and region. This information dispelled the myth of the rich south-east. The figure for relative incomes in County Carlow was below those for many, if not all, of the counties in the BMW region. I ask the Leader to make time available for a debate on this issue in order that we might rectify the disparity that exists in terms of relative incomes throughout the country. Perhaps we might address that imbalance when the next round of talks on Objective One status and EU funding takes place.
I also ask that if the Minister for Transport comes before the House, we be allowed to raise the issue of proper planning in the area of transport. It is proposed to add a new lane to the M50. This work will commence long before it should because those who planned the original motorway and thought it would last a long time were proven totally wrong. We are informed that adding a new lane to the M50 will allow it to last for another 15 years. Unfortunately, the credibility of these planners is at risk. We should debate this matter in order to discover the identities of these experts and the level of accuracy they have achieved in terms of forward planning. Are we making adequate plans for the future or, even with an extended M50, will we be faced with another fiasco in five or ten years?
I echo calls for a debate on emigration in order to ensure that those who left our shores in the 1950s and 1960s will be looked after properly by the State. Many of these people worked in England and they sent back remittances to their families in this country. In many cases, they endured difficult circumstances including being paid on the lump, with no social security, being obliged to have their cheques cashed in pubs, the landlords of which took a percentage and worked off that evening's or weekend's drink against the cheques they held. These people were left in poor financial circumstances and it is incumbent on us to look after those who were generous to us in the past and who find themselves in difficult circumstances. I would welcome a debate on this matter.
That is right. I apologise, I was thinking about something else. Senator Finucane referred to the remarks of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in respect of funding for Sinn Féin. I will ask the Minister to clarify those remarks and indicate what he is doing about that matter.
Senators Finucane and O'Toole referred to the Minister for Transport and the Aer Rianta dispute. I understand that discussions are taking place at present and I hope that they prove fruitful. Senator O'Toole also referred to people's right to put forward their views about their jobs and job security. Senator O'Toole also spoke about the decent work done by councillors throughout the country.
Senator Ryan asked about the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill. I inquire about that legislation periodically and, as stated previously, many hundreds of submissions have been received in respect of it. When it reappears, it will be a completely new Bill. However, there is no likelihood that this important legislation will come before us in the short term.
Senator Ryan also stated that we are supposed to be receiving better service from Eircom, which is clearly not the case. He went on to talk about the airports and their possible break-up, etc. The Senator also referred to the most recent annual accounts of a university for 2000 and of a major health board for 2001. It is not good enough that accounts detailing the conduct and activities of those bodies in the intervening years have not yet been produced. When he was Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey insisted that State boards and other organisations should submit their end of year reports within six to nine months. The bodies to which the Senator referred must be reminded of their responsibilities in this area.
Senator Ryan has withdrawn from the Sub-committee on Seanad Reform. The sub-committee has done its work and the Senator was there until the end. I thank him for his contribution and I hope he might reconsider his position.
Senators Dardis and Ormonde expressed good wishes to the Taoiseach during Ireland's Presidency of the EU. I am glad to inform the House that the Taoiseach will be present on Thursday of next week to discuss our plans for Europe and for enlargement. I am sure Senator Ormonde will be my party's lead speaker during that debate.
Senator Higgins requested a debate on high prices and rip-off Ireland. Members of the Senator's party and Senator Leyden will have a great deal to say on that matter. Senator Leyden was involved in a debate on it on his website. Such a debate should be held. It is amazing that, despite what appear to be price rises, our inflation rate has fallen so low.
I thank Senator Quinn for his compliments about the amount of good work the House did during the last session. Senator Mooney referred to the constituency review. I wish to place on record my opinion that the review is independent.
Senator Coghlan expressed concerns about native red deer and the fact that they are in danger. I will endeavour to arrange for the Minister for Agriculture and Food to come before the House for a debate on that matter. The Senator also referred to the need to introduce planning reform as soon as possible.
Senator Morrissey referred to Aer Rianta. Workers have a constitutional right to take strike action. I do not agree with the threatened strike at Aer Rianta. However, as a general principle, workers have a right to strike which is enshrined in our Constitution. I hope the talks will be successful and that the strike will not proceed.
Senator Bannon is not here.
Senator Bannon also requested that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government come before the House for a debate on incineration.
Senator Leyden referred to the plight of the undocumented Irish in the US. In light of President Bush's recent initiative and the history of the Donnelly and Morrison visas, which were of great value to Irish people, we will have a debate on that matter.
Senator Ross requested that the Minister for Transport come before the House. I do not know whether the Minister could shed much light on the situation because the talks are ongoing. However, a general debate on the proposed break-up would be useful. On foot of the Senator's request, I will inquire about the proposed commission to investigate the activities of auctioneers.
Senator Minihan referred to planning. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is to issue guidelines in the near future. I will inquire about the exact date for the publication. The Senator also stated that the CAB is independent. Senator Finucane also raised this matter in the context that the Minister made a statement about it or commented on it in an interview. Senator Bradford agreed with the remarks of Senator Leyden and also requested a debate on agriculture.
Senator Jim Walsh requested a debate to deal with issues such as benchmarking etc., and decried the concept that people could hold down jobs forever. The Senator echoed calls for a debate on the Irish in Britain and also sought debates on the ESB and RTE.
Senator Ulick Burke spoke about the Minister for Education and Science, who is seeking contributions to his vision debate on education. It is a good idea. Everyone should contribute to a debate on education, particularly one that has the word "vision" in its title and which involves looking to the future. I understand the Senator's feelings about the other matter but it is also part of benchmarking. That is what the Minister was upholding.
Senator Mansergh supported Senator Higgins's call for a debate on inflation and spoke about seeking consensus on Aer Rianta. Senator Browne asked about the CSO figures on the south-east and wanted to know the identity of these transport experts who are now deciding there will be extra lanes on the M50. Senator Hanafin sought a debate on emigration and on documenting how much emigrants contributed to this country as a result of their work.