Thursday, 29 April 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, An Bord Bia (Amendment) Bill 2003 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 11.30 a.m.; No. 2, Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Bill 2003 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 11.30 a.m. and to conclude not later than 12.30 p.m.; No. 3, Transfer of Execution of Sentences Bill 2003 — Committee Stage, to be taken immediately at the conclusion of No. 2 until 1 p.m.; and No. 4, statements on road safety with particular reference to the penalty points system, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
At the recent annual conference of the Irish Medical Organisation in Killarney it was stated that doctors were concerned that many people were no longer availing of health care. This is especially the case for people who are just above the income limit for medical cards and who cannot afford to visit the doctor or to pay prescription charges. IMO delegates expressed concern about the long-term welfare of this category of people.
The Government health strategy document includes a pledge to increase the eligibility limit to give those on low incomes the chance to obtain a medical card. The Government gave a commitment to provide 200,000 extra medical cards during its term in office, yet, according to a statement this week, the number of medical cards has fallen by almost 100,000 because people are slipping outside the income eligibility limit. The Leader should state what the Government intends to do about this matter.
In her recently published annual report, the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, stated that the largest category of complaints received concerned planning permission decisions. Ms O'Reilly particularly voiced her concern about the lack of enforcement orders being carried out by local authorities regarding breaches of planning guidelines. She stated that she will take more forceful action in this area within the ambit of her office.
A recent "Prime Time" programme broadcast graphic examples of abuse in the planning system. In that context, the Leader should arrange for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to attend the House to discuss planning enforcement and the draft guidelines on one-off rural housing. This is an issue which impacts on most public representatives and causes the greatest public concern and grief.
Yesterday, I sought the Leader's advice on how she would deal with the question of impeachment were it to arise in the House. I look forward to receiving the Leader's advice on this matter and we should certainly have it by early next week. I am particularly concerned that we should have some way of approaching the issue of impeachment. The Leader should indicate the rules we will have to observe if we go through with it. The Constitution merely states that impeachment should be undertaken for "stated misbehaviour". This means that we are required to come to a conclusion on that matter, which means that we must have something in front of us. I am sure the Cathaoirleach would agree with me in this regard.
I promise I will not mention the actual case but I ask the Leader that, as regards any case with which we might have to deal, the pleadings and the book of evidence, which are with the DPP at this point, should be made available to every Member of both Houses who will have to reach a conclusion. We should also have the Garda Síochána report on the case in addition to the Government's position. There must also be some way to recognise the tenets of natural justice to the extent that the person involved would have an opportunity to make a case in his defence, although I am not sure how that would happen. I do not want a situation where the Government makes a decision on Monday and we are faced with having to do something about that three days later. In the last three days I have raised this in a way which is amenable to the Chair's ruling. I have not made and will not make any comment on the case. However, we must recognise our constitutional responsibility to come to a conclusion on this matter, if that arises, and we must have a basis for coming to that conclusion.
In any situation like this, it would be appalling if a whip were applied. In all such cases of impeachment there should be an absolutely free vote. This is not a party issue and people should come to a conclusion themselves by assessing the information they have in front of them.
Aspects of this matter were dealt with by the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, possibly in its fourth report, when it outlined how an impeachment might be dealt with. There may be issues involved which would require constitutional change and with which we cannot deal, but we could receive clear guidelines on other matters. We should keep all of that in mind before going further. I would also like to hear the views of the Cathaoirleach, sooner rather than later.
We recently dealt with the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Bill and Members on both sides were very concerned about issues such as presenting cases and the protection of people's rights. It has not received much publicity but the Human Rights Commission also dealt with this Bill, because it was referred to that body by the Law Society, which was opposed to the legislation. The Human Rights Commission has come down very firmly in favour of the Bill, stating that it is quite in order. The commission also raised a number of issues which were raised by Senators and it has also advised the PIAB that those matters should be looked at very carefully in the implementation of the Bill. Members' contributions were heard and there can be progress on this matter.
Clarification on how the House would deal with impeachment would be welcomed by all parties. Although we are only in the realm of speculation at this stage, such clarification would be useful to all parties.
I agree with Senator Finucane's comments on the planning issue, which has been dealt with recently by the media. There is a perception among people that only big, well-connected developers have real access to planners and the planning process, while the ordinary person in the street feels his or her case is not being heard. That is a matter of concern because it is inaccurate, but that perception is abroad and should be addressed. It is seriously undermining any sense that the planning process is independent and above reproach.
Implementation is very important in this area, particularly in light of the comments of the Ombudsman, but there is a resource issue involved here. Most local authorities do not have the resources to put in place an entire network of personnel to ensure planning conditions are enforced. This is a very labour intensive and time consuming area which needs more attention and resources. The Leader should ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to inform the House specifically of his plans to ensure local authorities can carry out their duty to ensure planning conditions are implemented and to ensure people have confidence in the planning process.
I ask the Leader to provide time for a debate on the failure of the Government to implement the recommendations of the task force report on child care. Some of those recommendations, such as the establishment of county child care committees and so on, have been put in place, although implementation has been laborious and tedious.
There is a range of recommendations in that report on the provision of child care, particularly for working parents and the resources needed to ensure standards are upheld and that everyone who needs access to child care gets it. That is still not the case. I ask the Leader to put this important matter on her list for a debate. Many thousands of children are in pre-school and other child care facilities every day of the week throughout the country and, as legislators, we need to pay attention to standards and how that area is regulated.
I am serious. It is a dangerous practice that is on the increase and much concern has been expressed about it.
I strongly support the remarks made by Senator O'Meara and others on the planning issues raised. All local authorities that have responsibility for planning should review their county development plans. The question of local need is being interpreted in a particular way by a significant number of planners. That people who have a long association with an area are not getting planning permission is a disgrace.
On the matter raised by Senator Finucane, he will be aware the Government has created a number of jobs. As the provision of medical cards is income related, it would be reasonable to assume that given the increase in employment, there would be a reduction in the number of medical cards.
I ask the Leader to ask the Tánaiste to come to the House to debate the question of food costs, particularly the charging mechanisms of the major supermarket groupings. Last week, a representative of Tesco said it had the highest profits in the world from its Irish outlets. Yesterday, Londis said it had 10% gross profit from its outlets here. All of these profits are made on the backs of Irish consumers. It is of the utmost importance that the Minister shows concern about the escalating costs and profits of all the supermarkets. Many of those supermarket chains make their profits at the expense of small Irish business people who have had to carry the can in the past. When times were bad, many of those gave credit. There is no such thing as credit in the major supermarkets and no recognition of the customer's identity or importance. Will the Tánaiste came before the House and make a decision on what can be done about our label as having the dearest foods in Europe at a time when we can produce so many quality products? The consumer is being completely ripped off.
As we approach the local elections, most local authorities have ceased to operate the disabled person's maintenance grant because of a shortage of funding. Of all the groups and areas where funding is required, this is one that any Government and any Minister with responsibility for the provision of funding for any scheme operated by local authorities cannot allow to stagnate and die. There are thousands of applications waiting from all over the country. Many of the applications for very basic requirements are being denied. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make funding available.
In view of yesterday's announcements, I ask the Leader if there will be new seating realignments on the other side of the House for voting and identification purposes.
On a previous occasion I raised the case of the young Tipperary man who is serving a life sentence in an English jail, the champion jockey, Christy McGrath from Carrick-on-Suir. There is a growing body of evidence that this is another miscarriage of justice. Within the last year, a man from Clonmel who had served 25 years was released and it was accepted that there had been a miscarriage of justice.
I attended a meeting in the House of Commons last Tuesday which was hosted by one of the local MPs. Mr. McGrath's family, the Tipperary Association and various bodies were present. They are demanding an appeal hearing for this young man. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has met the family. A petition stating there are serious doubts in this case has been signed by 48 MPs and I believe that number will rise to 100 MPs. Mr. McGrath has been in prison for four years and it should not take another 20 or 25 years to resolve his case. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to update the House on the case. It is vital that urgent action is taken by the House. This young man is now in a very serious state of ill-health and is not receiving the required medical attention.
I ask the Leader to invite the appropriate Minister to the House to discuss an issue which arose as a result of a court case yesterday. I am aware the Cathaoirleach does not wish me to mention the specific court case and I do not wish to do so, except to raise the issue around which it revolves, which is banking, non-resident accounts, people not paying the correct amount of tax in that regard and people inducing others not to pay the correct amount of tax. I do not want a debate on that particular case but on why it is that there are so many individuals who are victims of the issue of non-payment of DIRT and so many bankers have got clean away.
Where there are guilty parties and individuals who have done things which were against the law, some of the banks have solved their little problem by paying €30 million in one case and €90 million in the case of AIB using shareholders' money for crimes for which their employees were guilty. There are also very high profile cases where people who were involved have paid an extremely high penalty for things which they were under pressure from their superiors to do.
On the issue of costs, individuals, whether they are guilty or innocent, have to pay millions to try to clear their names or to prove themselves innocent in these areas. Some of them make serious mistakes in taking cases. The banks, however, when forced to defend this practice, do so with other people's money. We are seeing a series of cases where individuals have paid a heavy price for fairly minor offences, while banks hide behind the guise of anonymity and pay no price.
I join Senator Ross in calling for a debate on this serious matter. Many people are paying a high cost as a result of the circumstances surrounding non-resident accounts and DIRT, whereas faceless institutions, namely, banks, are paying a marginal penalty. Where were the corporate policy executives who designed the products employees were forced by their superiors to sell to individuals? Every Member of the House probably knows ten widows or other citizens who had to pay thousands of euro in penalties because they cashed in accounts worth a few thousand euro to invest in non-resident accounts on the advice of bank managers who were under pressure from higher authorities which nobody, it appears, is in a position to name. The account holders were ignorant of the implications, legal or otherwise, and did not know they were doing anything wrong.
On the issue of planning, I agree with calls to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government before the House to debate local government funding and ensure local authorities are adequately resourced. While the Minister has taken important steps to address rural planning guidelines, the gross inconsistencies in the approach of An Bord Pleanála need to be urgently addressed. We have seen cases of its local inspectors, who are familiar with the sites in question, recommending a decision on an application which is then overturned by the board.
Such a debate should also address the right to object to planning applications because it is unacceptable that a person from Dublin with a summer house in County Sligo is in a position to impede others building a home in which they need to live.
Pension provision has, correctly, been widely discussed in recent years. Occasionally, however, the pensions industry produces a crazy idea to encourage people to take out pensions. In recent days, the craziest proposal of all emerged from the Irish Insurance Federation. I understand the federation has met or will meet the Minister for Social and Family Affairs this week to discuss its idea of pensions for babies which would entail encouraging parents and grandparents to take out and fund pensions for babies within a few weeks of birth.
On several occasions, I asked the Minister the reason she has not addressed the inadequate pensions of many people who have reached or are about to reach pension age and whose pensions have been eroded and mismanaged by pension fund companies.
Yes. The Minister should dismiss the proposal for parents to fund their babies' pensions at a time when they are trying to pay a mortgage and numerous other expenses and perhaps fund education, or grandparents funding their grandchildren's pensions when their own pensions are inadequate due to mismanagement.
I welcome the call for a debate on DIRT evasion and would like to see a holistic approach taken to such a debate. I remember a time when people queued to collect their interest, as it was so significant. There are no queues today but the past is a different place. We should look at the reasons people were tempted to obtain a non-resident account. At that time, vast sums of money were leaving the country. I do not wish to excuse anybody, but was there a failure to provide an instrument whereby people could obtain tax-free or low tax interest? It should have been at a rate which did not create a temptation to go abroad. That incentive was not there. People paid tax at the top marginal rate at that time and on interest. The high interest rate they were getting was therefore of no real value to them.
I support Senator Finucane's call for an urgent review of the income guidelines for medical cards. At the recent conference in Killarney, doctors were unanimous in their concern that many patients on low incomes who deserved medical cards did not have them. There are not enough medical cards and the Government does not seem to care. The failure to increase these income guidelines is akin to another stealth tax.
There are problems throughout Ireland with enforcement orders for planning permission. A lackadaisical approach is adopted by staff in some local authorities, although I appreciate there are severe staffing problems that must also be rectified. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should come before this House for a debate on the issue. People are losing confidence in the planning process.
I support Senator O'Toole's call that constitutional requirements are fully met if the House has to deal with impeachment in due course following a Government decision. My final question relates to the future of Aer Rianta and the Great Southern Hotel group and I know the Leader would like to oblige me and the House by answering.
I agree with what the previous speakers said about the income limits for medical cards. It was one of the promises made during the last general election and has not been delivered on. This is having a detrimental effect on many families and should be reviewed as soon as possible.
Senator Ross expressed what has been on many people's minds for a long time. There is a perception that the leading financial institutions got away scot free on the issue of DIRT evasion. That needs to be rectified.
The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism should come into the House to discuss the future of the national theatre and the provision of a new site. We have the playwrights and the actors and the interest in theatre but there is a question mark over the facilities.
The local elections will take place in approximately six weeks. Two or three days after the 1999 local elections, I and a Fianna Fáil Deputy, who is now the Chief Whip, raised with the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, the need to put measures in place to encourage voter turnout. In 1999, only a little over half the electorate voted in the local elections and this was regarded as a problem. The Minister promised us he would put in place plans and initiatives to improve voter turnout. Sadly, nothing appears to have happened. Will the Leader take steps, even at this late stage, to make some effort to encourage the public to participate in the local and European elections and at least ensure that 50% of the electorate vote? From our perspective, it will be a failure on our part if there is a lower turnout than 50%.
The electronic voting roadshow, which we are told is up and running, is not proving successful to date.
There was a major campaign in the three constituencies in which electronic voting was to take place for four or five months before the 2002 general election. There has been no effort to sell electronic voting in the vast majority of towns and villages throughout the country although the local elections are only six weeks away. I do not know whether the Government is expecting that we will not have electronic voting on the day or whether it is awaiting the report of the commission. If voting is to be by electronic means, we have a duty to ensure the public knows about the system. We are told tens of millions of euro are to be spent on the campaign. Where is the campaign? Literature has not been provided to any house in the country.
Senator Finucane pointed out that the Government promised to issue 200,000 medical cards during its lifetime, but that the number of medical cards has fallen. However, as Senator Glynn pointed out, this is because more people are employed and have better salaries. However, I take the point about incomes being just above the eligibility limit. Not a weekend goes by during which we do not encounter cases of individuals who are just €10 or €20 above the limit. This is such a minimal amount to warrant depriving one of a very good support. We will endeavour to invite the Minister to the House to discuss the matter.
Senator Finucane also referred to the Ombudsman and planning complaints. We all received copies of the Ombudsman's report and we hope to debate it the week after next. We cannot discuss it next week because we have to deal with Bills.
Senator O'Toole asked how the House would deal with a question of impeachment were it to arise. I feel very strongly that, irrespective of whether there is an immediate case, as parliamentarians we should know our rights and duties and how we should go about them. It is such an enormous constitutional matter and we are empowered by the Constitution to deal with it. I am glad the Cathaoirleach is meeting people, but everybody is a little in the dark because I believe the question of impeachment has never arisen. We need to know how we should carry out our duties and we require some clarity in this regard.
The Senator also said the Human Rights Commission has come out in favour of some of the points raised about the PIAB. I am glad this has happened.
Senator O'Meara referred to the need to clarify certain planning matters and also the need for more resources for compliance. County councils often tell one that they need more resources for compliance but I wonder if they could try harder. However, that is my just my view.
The Senator also referred to the failure to implement the child care recommendations. We should have a debate on the guidelines on child care. When a case arises which gives cause for much concern, people ask about the guidelines and about what was supposed to be done. We will endeavour to arrange this debate.
Senator Glynn is worried about jaywalking, a matter he raised before. I suppose pedestrians would say they are hard done by. I walk to and from the House on good days. I am afraid I am a great jaywalker if I get the chance because one must wait for traffic lights for what seems like a never-ending length of time. When I am driving I do not like people jaywalking but when I am walking, I do it myself. When in cities in the UK, Europe or elsewhere, I can never get over people's total obedience to traffic lights.
I agree it is prevalent; I just feel the need for a confession. The Senator also raised planning and the need for a debate on that matter.
Senator Ulick Burke called for the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come to the House. Tesco's admission that its mark-up is higher here than in any other country is remarkable. All of us who flock to Tesco and other stores to do our shopping do so in the belief that we are getting food cheaper. It comes back to the old adage which the Tánaiste has repeated frequently that one should shop around. Time, more than anything else, stops people going from one place to another. The Tánaiste is good at coming to the House when required so we will ask her to deal with that issue.
I share the concern about the disabled person's grant. I do not know what is happening in other counties, but the money has dried up in my county and in the town council area. It must be money which is ring-fenced and there can be no spill over from another area. I will seek to have the matter addressed in the House and to get answers.
I was asked if there would be new seating and voting arrangements. There will not, but Senator Brennan is a good person, a fine public representative.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the case of Christy McGrath in the UK and the possibility of it being a miscarriage of justice. I know he has spoken to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It is a worthy case and I am glad the Tipperary Association is taking up the matter.
The issue raised by Senator Ross is not a new one for him. He has spoken and written frequently about how the main culprits in fraudulent non-payment of tax are higher up people who remain faceless and nameless. It is a disgrace. Nobody condones anyone selling a product which is not correct or which carries with it the whiff of tax evasion, but there are bigger culprits. The Senator has sought a debate on finance and he is right. He has written correctly and strongly on that issue.
The issue was taken up with great passion by Senator MacSharry. He expressed the need for justice in all areas in that regard. I do not know how this can be done, but a debate on finance would be of benefit. Senator MacSharry also talked about planning and local authority funding, in particular. He spoke about people who do not live in an area making pious objections to an individual's right to build a house.
Senator Terry spoke about pensions for babies. I am not laughing; I just think it is so inappropriate. I know the Labour Party had a worthy idea, which the Labour Party in the UK had as well, namely, a bonus for those reaching 18 years of age.
It is a completely different matter. The reason I say it is that people think it is the same but it is not. That is a type of savings scheme which is a different issue. The Irish Insurance Federation has apparently come up with this wonderful idea. I will ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come to the House to discuss it.
Senator Hanafin called for a debate on banking. There was enormous taxation at the time referred to but that does not excuse what happened. The holding of offshore accounts was illegal and wrong. Senator Hanafin's point was that any debate on the matter should be holistic.
Senator Coghlan called for a review of the medical card scheme. How can we solve the problem of people being just over the limit? No matter how high the limit, someone will always be just above it. He also raised the question of the Great Southern Hotels. If the hotels are sold, I assume they will be sold individually and not as a group.
Senator John Paul Phelan echoed Senator Coghlan's concern regarding medical cards. I had hoped the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism would come to the House to discuss the national theatre, which Senator Phelan has raised on previous occasions. However, he is busy with EU and other tourism duties this week. I hope we will have that debate the week after next.
Senator Bradford raised the matter of voter turnout and electronic voting. The great and the good, the members of the commission established to review electronic voting, are due to report tomorrow. The Government has undertaken to go along with what the commission puts forward. We must await that report.