Thursday, 8 April 2004
Order of Business.
Will the Leader indicate when it is intended to bring the social welfare (amendment) (No. 3) Bill before the House to allow for the Government's U-turn in respect of cutbacks against widows? I take this opportunity of apologising to every Member of the House opposite on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for allowing them to vote against a measure they did not believe in on 24 March——
Given that the Government has now, thankfully, yielded on this cutback against widows, what about the other 15 cutbacks that were announced in the Social Welfare Bill and in the Finance Bill this year? When will we see the other about-turn on those measures? Will the Leader provide time for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come into the House to state categorically that the Government will bring in legislation to allow for this U-turn so that widows will not lose out financially? It is important that she is on the record of this House in that regard rather than running outside the House on Spy Wednesday and leaving her colleagues in the lurch.
On an entirely separate matter, on Tuesday Senators Ó Murchú and Bradford raised the issue of the way we deal with victims of the 35 years or so of violence in Northern Ireland. There is an open debate on this issue. A former leader of my party has outlined his support for a truth and reconciliation commission. I remain to be convinced of the need for such a commission but it appears that if we are to have an inquiry in respect of one of the unfortunate victims caught up in the Northern Ireland situation we must have an inquiry in respect of all the victims. There would be merit in this House debating the way we deal with the victims of Northern Ireland violence because they are the forgotten group. They have not been dealt with adequately in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and if there is to be any review of the Agreement, we need to review how we deal with the victims of that violence, North and South. We cannot have a hierarchy of victims. We cannot ensure that one group of victims is dealt with by way of an inquiry while another group is forgotten. A debate on that matter in the House would be very useful because there are many voices which would add to such a debate.
I would like to raise two issues, and perhaps we could have a debate on them in the weeks following the Easter recess. The first is No. 10 on the non-Government motions list in my name and those of Senators Norris, O'Toole and Henry. The reason I believe it would be appropriate to raise it now is because it relates to declarations of interests. Our own declarations of interests will be released shortly, as will those of the Members of the Dáil — that is a different and debatable issue — but I have a real problem with two groups which do not have to issue their declarations of interests, one of which is the Judiciary. I have never been able to understand the reason judges who make important decisions which affect a large number of people do not have to declare their interests and assets when making those decisions in case a serious conflict of interest arises.
The other problem is that a presidential election is coming up and it would appear that if any candidate is nominated from the Dáil or the Seanad, their declarations of interests will be in the public arena but if the sitting President goes forward, she will not have to declare her assets. That is an unfair position in which to put people because information on one candidate will be in the public arena but information on the other will not. A sitting President has to sign law and refer matters to the Supreme Court and those assets which he or she holds may involve them in a conflict of interest. No. 14, motion No. 10, on the Order Paper is now particularly relevant in terms of a presidential contest.
We need a commitment to a debate on the issue of property. Yesterday's report represents a superb platform for debate for this House and it would be appropriate to discuss it here. I congratulate the chairman of that committee on somehow persuading all those diverse opinions to sign a report of that sort. While I do not agree with it all — nobody could — it raises extremely relevant, pertinent and controversial issues, which we should take the lead in debating in this House.
While I do not want to refer to the particular report in any detail, it is a model of how the Oireachtas can deal with a difficult and controversial issue and establish a consensus view. Another difficult issue has now been presented to us, which could still be addressed by that process.
We could solve a problem, if it exists, by a process of consensus and agreement, which would eliminate the risk so eloquently described by Senator Minihan last night of a debate degenerating into something most unpleasant and untoward. We could still refer the question of a proper definition of citizenship to the same committee that was able to deal expeditiously and efficiently with the question of property and I wish we would do so.
Last week in Iraq four Americans were brutally murdered under conditions that nobody could justify. Yesterday a rocket was fired at a mosque. It is time that countries like ours demanded a fundamental change in the way in which Iraq is being governed and the way in which so-called security is being protected in Iraq, and raised questions about the definition of freedom, which bans newspapers. It is almost impossible to ban a newspaper in the United States no matter what it incites. Armed militia can make the most extraordinary claims and because the United States is in many ways a free society, such things cannot be banned. Apparently in Iraq, the same apostles of freedom banned a newspaper and, as a result, created the circumstances under which many young Americans and many more Iraqis have been killed.
It is worth recording that objective analysts have concluded that at least 10,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the past year. Mr. Hans Blix now believes that the situation for ordinary Iraqis is worse than it was under the brutal regime ofSaddam Hussein. It is time for Ireland, which currently holds the Presidency of the EU, to initiate a serious debate based on more than US interests and sloganeering.
I compliment the widows of Ireland on the effectiveness of the lobby they conducted, which transformed Fianna Fáil back to somewhere it used to be, on the side of the excluded and marginalised. Perhaps it is an augury of a future in which Fianna Fáil rediscovers its roots.
I have not shifted all my life; it is Fianna Fáil that moved. In the process of rediscovering itself, perhaps it could look at the other 15 cuts and in particular, given the daft notions that emanate from the Minister for Education and Science occasionally, it could look at the back to education allowance and its effective destruction as an encouragement to those from underprivileged backgrounds to continue in education, which is one of the stated objectives of the Minister for Education and Science. The back to education allowance was a simple, effective and workable way to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Could we occasionally hear from somebody here about the process of government? A description was given yesterday in another place of a fairly chaotic process of government, in which Ministers were continually interrupted by people bringing delegations to meet Ministers to such an extent that people could not remember who they had met or what business they were doing that day. What sort of system of government is governed by perpetual interruptions by delegations? I thought we had a system of collective government. I now know it is a system of collective interruption.
I wish to highlight a worrying development in some areas of Dublin whereby a number of GPs in the city have requested the health board to fund security men for their surgeries. There has been an upsurge in violent attacks on GPs and their staff. According to the GPs, this is as a result of the numbers on methadone treatment and is at its worst during long weekends and holiday time. I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the matter. A number of organisations around the city have pointed out that there is an upsurge in the use of cocaine particularly among young people, which should also be debated as soon as possible.
I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Science to take action as quickly as possible on a report issued today by the INTO which indicates the number of male primary teachers is declining at an alarming rate. The Cathaoirleach will be aware of the concern expressed by the GAA over the years at the decline in participation in hurling as a consequence. Other social problems will result because of the decline in the number of male teachers at primary level.
During those formative years it is important to have a gender balance. Operating within the legal framework, the Minister should create a mechanism to address this gender imbalance. Action needs to be taken as quickly as possible as we approach the period during which recruitment to the teacher training colleges will take place. Over the past five years, only 10% of students were male, which will have very serious consequences. Of approximately 25,000 primary teachers, only 17% are male. The age profile of those clearly indicate that there will be a serious decline in coming years.
I support what Senator Brian Hayes and Senator Ryan said about the back to education allowance. We discussed this matter in the House before Christmas and concerns were expressed by many in the disadvantaged sector. This should be the next cutback on which to have an assault.
Yesterday on the Order of Business, I raised the case of the murdered solicitor Mr. Pat Finucane in the context of a public inquiry. As the House is aware, this case was one of the subjects dealt with by Judge Cory with regards collusion by the security forces in a number of murders in Northern Ireland. The public inquiry obviously will not happen in the near future. Nationalist and Unionist tears are deserving of equal compassion and consideration. I am very supportive of the point made by Senator Brian Hayes on this matter. I met a large group of families here in recent weeks, all of whom lost loved ones in the North of Ireland. It was most emotional to listen to their experiences. Ultimately, humanity must underlie everything we do on this matter. We must respect everybody's rights in this regard. I would be very supportive of any forum or method by which this can be done.
The All-Party Committee on the Constitution, of which I am a member, yesterday launched a report on property rights. The Taoiseach, who requested the report, ironically was unable to launch it because he was appearing before the Mahon tribunal, which is examining certain land rezoning and corrupt payment issues. The report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution contains measures which could deal with the issue of land speculation and any corrupt payments by capping the price of land and so on. I ask that the Leader invite the Taoiseach to come to the House to update us on whether the Government will implement the measures contained in the report as speedily as possible.
I would like clarification of the announcement today of the reversal of the cut in unemployment benefit for widows. The position in that regard is unclear from the newspaper reports. What will be the position of lone parents who lost the same entitlement in respect of stamps paid? Will the decision to cut their entitlements also be reversed because not to do so would be very unfair? I welcome the proposed reversal of the decision in regard to widows.
Given the report in today's newspapers that the Road Safety Authority is of the opinion that one third of all fatal road accidents and one quarter of accidents involving pedestrians are alcohol related, will the Leader ask the Minister for Transport to make a special plea to all road users this weekend to slow down and not to drink and drive and to ask pedestrians to take care on their way home? Perhaps next Tuesday we will read that there have been no fatal accidents on our roads over the weekend.
The Mental Health Commission strategic plan was recently published and sets out the objectives of that body for the coming years. I have raised this issue on several occasions in the House. It is important that plan is implemented. The dreadful facilities and accommodation in some of our mental institutions have been raised on many occasions. It is important the Minister for Health and Children comes to the House as soon as possible with a commitment to provide funding to implement that plan, which is vitally important. It is the first of such plans to come on stream.
It is also important the House holds a debate on planning issues as soon as possible in light of the proposed changes to the regulations on motorways, landfill sites and incinerators and the proposed zoning of land in that regard in close proximity to towns and villages. The Government is considering a number of proposals for hazardous waste sites. Rumour has it that one of those sites will be located in the north Midlands. The Curragh was mentioned as was a location close to the homes of the Leader and I.
It is important this issue is not dealt with in a cloak and dagger manner and that there is transparency. The public should be told the truth in terms of the location of such facilities. The Government is saying one thing and local councillors, in the run up to the local elections, are saying something else. We want the facts before the local and European elections.
I agree with Senator Tuffy that we should have a debate on the report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution. It would be worthwhile teasing out what action it is necessary for the Government to take. While it may be unprecedented, it would be appropriate to invite the chairman, Deputy Naughen, who has done a great deal of work on this issue, to attend the House to deliberate on it. We have invited MEPs to the House and it should also be possible to invite a Deputy because he is familiar with the matter.
Senator Ryan has a short memory. The former president of his party, Proinsias De Rossa, when Minister for Social Welfare gave a £1.80 per week increase to the elderly.
Irrespective of certain statements, we should reflect on what will happen on 11 June. I say that not as regards the merits or demerits of the legislation in terms of citizenship or constitutional review but, on the day, there will be four ballot sheets available——
Many of the people who turn up to vote will be non-nationals eligible to vote in the local election and not the European election or the referendum. Two specific functions of the machines will be turned off. There will be much confusion on the day.
I am speaking about a specific technical situation. There will be other reviews of the Constitution later in the year possibly as regards this House and other issues that may arise. It will then be appropriate to discuss the rights of citizenship in a calm collected manner followed by a referendum later in the year.
On many occasions, I have raised the issue of the non-recruitment of 2,000 extra gardaí since the last election. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has once again highlighted the need for these extra gardaí. I hope it is not a case of more election promises.
The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors has stated that the number of armed detectives in the Cavan-Monaghan region has been cut by half. No new detective has been appointed in the past 12 years. There are still many serious threats to the security of the State. Criminals are aware of the problems within the Garda Síochána and are aware of the lack of gardaí being appointed. They are targeting particular areas of the country. In the past six weeks my shop and others have been cased by such criminals. There will be a serious crime epidemic in the next six months unless something is done and the gardaí get the resources necessary to tackle increasing crime. In six months' time, I do not want the Minister to come into this House and say that we are tackling it. I want it tackled now, because crime and drugs will be prevalent in our constituencies unless we get those 2,000 gardaí promised at the last general election.
I am very glad that voices on all sides of this House have contributed to a reconsideration of widows' benefit. It shows the value of debating legislation properly in this House. An ability to correct one's position when, upon full reflection, it is found that it may not be tenable, is a great political strength and not a weakness.
On a technical point, last week a subcommittee of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights issued its consideration of the Barron report. Since that report was made to the two Houses of the Oireachtas, for the Government to take that further it must be debated in both the Dáil and the Seanad. I therefore ask the Leader to arrange that at an early date so it might then be formally raised by the Government with its British counterpart. We should have a debate early after the resumption of sittings.
So far this year, 100 people have died on the roads, 20 more than last year. That shows the penalty points system has failed miserably. It is time the Government led by example. We have heard about a dedicated Garda traffic corps being set up. The Taoiseach has said that it will go ahead, but the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has said it will not. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, does not know what is to happen. It is time we achieved clarity on the issue. We need a dedicated traffic corps, not just for the weekend, as Senator Kitt said, but all the time. It is appalling that a quarter of fatalities involved pedestrians. It is time we brought in laws in this House to force pedestrians to wear bright, reflective clothing on roads. That would help cut down fatalities. There is an onus on pedestrians to wear bright clothes and we can play a role in that.
Recently I have heard rumours about the introduction of a zero alcohol limit for drivers. I would be completely opposed, since it would be the death knell for rural communities. While I accept that alcohol is a factor in some fatalities, it would be an absolutely knee-jerk reaction. I have previously raised in the House the incidence of drugs being found in the bodies of people involved in fatalities. We must accept that drug-driving is also a significant issue. Drugs also impair people's vision. We should examine that area too.
I agree with Senator Ulick Burke aboutprimary teachers. There is a wider issue, and the lack of promotional prospects for teachers is reflected in the lack of male teachers applying for positions. We all accept that teachers have a very good starting salary, but that remains on a plateau for a long time. It is important we acknowledge that women teachers do great work in sport. However, it is important that men have a substantial role in teaching too. As a teacher, I was amazed when parents came in to see me. Their children might have a male teacher for the first time ever in fifth or sixth class and be very apprehensive. After a few weeks, they would accept it. It is appalling that children get as far as fifth or sixth class without ever having a male teacher.
In the new term, perhaps we might have a debate on the tribunals again. People have certainly been bemused lately that we currently have a prisoner and a former prisoner asking questions at tribunals and masquerading as senior counsel when they are barely out of jail themselves or are currently in jail. That is farcical, and we should examine the whole purpose of tribunals. I also raised the issue of senior counsel quizzing people about donations when it emerges that the same people are earning five times that amount per day.
I strongly support the remarks of Senators Ó Murchú and Hayes pertaining to the victims of violence in the North of Ireland and elsewhere. Recently, I was present when a group came down and met members of all parties. The revelations made on that occasion were heartbreaking to say the least. I am a great believer in and supporter of members of the security forces, like everyone else in this House and outside it, I am sure. However, when they are involved in betraying the trust of those who pay their wages through taxation by colluding with murderers to kill decent, innocent people, it is time to stand up and call a halt. I strongly support the concept of a public inquiry into this matter. I am disappointed the inquiry pertaining to the murder of Pat Finucane has been postponed, though I do not know for how long or whether it is with a small or large "p". I hope that it proceeds as soon as possible.
On another matter, there is strong evidence to suggest that society is inclined to look the other way on the pushing of soft drugs such as marijuana and cannabis, the attitude being that it is normal nowadays. Cannabis and marijuana are gateway drugs and are themselves the pathway to disaster for many young people. We have had many debates, but I ask for another in this House with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to explore ways and means and perhaps make suggestions whereby new laws could be brought into force to combat this very serious matter.
The Senator has been allowed enough latitude. Before I call the Leader, I would like to point out that a point of order must relate to procedures, order in the House, or Standing Orders. It seeks a ruling on a matter which the Chair can decide. It is not a mechanism for intervention or interruption on the Order of Business.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, asked about the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan. He was appreciative of her about-turn but asked what we had done about it. We have done a great deal about it, and I am very pleased that she has done that. The Senator asked how it was to come about. It does not require legislation and will come into force very quickly through regulation. The Senator also spoke about the victims of violence, speaking about Senators Ó Murchú and Bradford and how we deal with victims of violence from all groups rather than concentrating on one sector.
Senator Ross mentioned the declaration of interest — motion No. 10 on the non-Government motions list. He asked about the Judiciary and its interests, as well as those of a sitting President. The Standards in Public Office Commission has been set up by legislation to deal with such matters. I understand, though I have no knowledge of the matter other than through my personal dealings as a Senator, that from time to time it reviews the circumstances under which various groups must declare an interest. I have no difficulty in passing on the Senator's suggestion to the commission.
Senator Brendan Ryan raised the property report. We should debate that in this House immediately when we return, since it is very comprehensive and requires intense reading. However, it is very worthwhile doing so, and I hope we can show a range of views. The Senator also mentioned Iraq, and of course the situation there is terrible. Hans Blix was correct when he said it is worse now than it ever was, even in the time of Saddam, evil as he was. The Senator complimented the widows on their campaign. I too thought they ran a very good campaign. They were full of dignity and yet did not go on about it. The back to education allowance is something we should hone in on and I had hoped the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, would have been able to come to the House before Easter, but that was not possible. It is hoped he can address the House early in the new term.
Senator Brady spoke about general practitioners, some of whom need security for their surgeries because of methadone. He has asked for a debate on the drugs issue. We received a comprehensive report on drugs in recent days from the National Drugs Advisory Board. That could be the main feature of the debate, which will take place after Easter.
Senator Ulick Burke spoke about male teachers. Despite what he said about the relatively low number of men in teaching, it is male teachers who are appointed principals. He said that only 17% of teachers in primary schools are male, yet something like 80% of principal posts are held by men. That is another question altogether and it is extraordinary. I agree that combined male and female influences on young people in schools are good. I have often thought it harks back to the idea that when children start primary school, normally at aged four, they are still regarded as being just out of infancy. It is a wrong notion, perhaps, but it is generally accepted that a woman might be a better influence on the child at that particular stage. Men cannot be given extra allowances simply because they are male. That would be absurd. However, this is a social issue that needs to be debated. Teaching is a good career but I do not know how we can approach a debate on the issue. There is a need for gender balance in primary schools. In secondary schools and comprehensives, etc, the balance is much fairer.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the Pat Finucane case. He agreed with Senator Hayes about the levels of anguish among Nationalists and Unionists. He said the anguish is the same and that humanity should be the bottom line in dealing with such matters.
Senator Tuffy, who is a distinguished member, along with others, of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, dealt with property rights and land speculation and asked if the Taoiseach would address the House. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, would be the appropriate person to talk about it because it falls into his lap. She asked about the lone parent's entitlement and that will be queried. They are caught in the same trap, I believe.
Senator Kett made a plea for the curtailment of drink this bank holiday weekend, given that so many people will be on the roads. It would be amazing if we could have an accident-free holiday weekend. However, it would be well worthwhile.
Senator Bannon is welcome back to the House. I know he was not well.
He asked for a debate on the Mental Health Commission with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin. He and I will have to get together on the subject of incinerators.
Senator Leyden raised the All-Party Committee on the Constitution's property report and referred to a previous Minister, which cannot be allowed. He also raised the subject of electronic voting. I dismiss the notion that he raised it unwittingly. He made the strong point in the full of his wits——
——and the European elections. We will have to wait for 1 May to get the report from the good men and true of the relevant committee on electronic voting.
Senator Feighan has consistently raised the question of the 2,000 extra gardaí. He said that he has been threatened in recent times on many occasions in his own emporium.
Senator Mansergh noted that it was a mark of strength for people to change their minds when a matter was being reviewed. On the Barron report, we are awaiting notification from the Taoiseach's office that it can be debated in the Seanad because it has to be discussed in the both Houses. It is hoped that notification will have been received when the Houses resume afterEaster and that it can be done then.
Senator Browne, noting that 100 people had died, asked about the dedicated traffic corps. He also raised the question of primary teachers and asked about the purpose of salaries for those conducting tribunals.
Senator Glynn talked about the plight of all persuasions in the North and referred to the fact that some of the security forces who are supposed to be in charge are invoking other methods of doing their business. His views on drugs coincide with those of Senator Brady and we will try to have a comprehensive debate on this subject after Easter.
I wish the Cathaoirleach and all the Members of the House a happy Easter.