Wednesday, 26 May 2004
Order of Business.
The Government wishes to make important changes to the business of the Seanad for today and tomorrow. With the permission of the Cathaoirleach, I would like to announce these changes.
The Order of Business is No. 1, a referral motion whereby the subject matter of motion No. 22 on today's Order Paper is being referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights for discussion — there is an explanation of it on the Order Paper — and it will be taken without debate; No. 2, a referral motion whereby the subject matter of motion No. 21 on today's Order Paper is being referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights for discussion, to be taken without debate; No. 3, the Health (Amendment) Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; No. 4, the Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 — Committee Stage, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. until 3.30 p.m.; No. 5, statements on the current situation in the Middle East, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. until 5 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes; and No. 24, motion 19, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
I will now outline the changes which I assure the House are not being made on the basis of caprice or fickleness. They concern important matters which have been conveyed to me by the Government. First, the Interpretation Bill will not be debated today; Committee Stage will be taken next week. Second, an amendment to the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunity of Witnesses) Act 1997 will be debated in the Dáil tomorrow and will be taken here subsequently. I wanted to tell Members about it today so it would not be sprung on them tomorrow. That amendment will be taken in the Dáil in the afternoon and depending on the way the time factor operates in the Dáil, we expect to debate it in the Seanad at 4 p.m. Third, a copy of the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill 2004 was put in Members' pigeonholes this morning. That Bill will be taken tomorrow between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. It is an urgent matter related to a James Joyce exhibition and his family's copyright.
I understand the urgency with which the Government is bringing forward these two legislative measures. One in particular about which there has been a degree of discussion is the issue of compellability and changing the 1997 Act to allow judges to be compelled to attend a committee of the House to give evidence. While it is important the Bill is passed tomorrow, I ask the Leader to ensure it is published and given to Members as soon as possible. It is a relatively short Bill, but it is important that we receive it because it is unusual for Second, Committee and Report Stages to be taken in one fell swoop. It is important that the Bill is published so that Members on all sides will have a chance to see it as soon as possible.
Last week a very positive decision was taken on the publication of whole school assessment reports, which I welcome. Will the Leader provide time, at the earliest possible juncture, to allow the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to deal with that issue and the issue of the publication of examination results as a means of giving full information to parents? For too long in our education system parents have been left in the dark, talked down to and had insufficient rights. The publication of whole school assessments will not only help parents, teachers and school management in terms of the assessment of that school by an independent authority, but it will also help teachers. Teachers have nothing to be frightened about when it comes to the publication of these reports because it highlights the lack of resources that need to be put in place in our primary and secondary school system. I welcome the publication of these reports. This is a good day for accountability in our education system. We need a very strong voice for parents in the school system and we must ensure their voice is heard.
The Minister for Education and Science should come to the House, respond to this issue and set out his views concerning the other matter at the earliest possible time. I ask the Leader to provide time for this as soon as possible.
It is important to note that the courts cleared the publication of extracts from school reports. This does not do justice to school authorities. I hope the Minister will urge the publication of complete reports, which deal with school management, school resources, geographical problems, special needs, disadvantage and other issues. The complete report gives a clear view of what staff, teachers, principal teachers and boards of management must cope with with limited resources.
The legislation which is to be published today brings us back to the issue I raised last week. The urgency to change compellability legislation is connected to the Government's thinking on another matter, which we are not discussing. On that other matter, I have said on at least four occasions that we are making things up as we go along and we will get it wrong. This question should have been thought of a fortnight ago. I do not blame anyone and I do not oppose the legislation. I merely alert Members to the fact that someone ought to have spotted the need for this measure sooner.
There was outrage when a court case collapsed on a technicality. We will be crucified, and rightly so, when — not if — we get this wrong. Every day raises a new difficulty. I do not blame any Member of this House for that but I do not believe it will work for us. Members of the Oireachtas will be left carrying the can because it will be the last body to deal with the issue and it is here that it will go wrong. Currently there is no determination as to how we will deal with it. I am grossly uncomfortable with what we are about to do.
I am grateful to the Leader for setting up a meeting with the Attorney General last week. We were all impressed by the Attorney General's commitment to due process, fair procedures and total probity in how we do our business. I hope his advice is listened to and acted upon.
A Member on the Government side expressed concern at the cost of telephone calls. Before that Member was elected, the House had long discussions about the selling of Eircom and that it would not result in cheap telephone calls, despite the fact that everyone on the Government side said it would. We now know that the breaking up of the three Aer Rianta airports will raise the cost of air travel. Whether or not this is a good or bad idea is a separate issue. The decision now being taken by Government will place an additional cost on passengers using the airports. This is agreed by all parties. Let us at least know what we are doing when we do it.
I concur with Senator O'Toole's remarks regarding compellability legislation, which we are to see tomorrow. There is a clear issue of separation of powers here. We are aware of the reasons why the legislation must be changed but there are possible constitutional implications in that change. While we understand the reason this legislation is being proceeded with fairly quickly, it would not do any harm to wait a few days. This would allow the issue to be publicly teased while people with constitutional and legal expertise voiced a view publicly as to the implications of the legislation, which we have not yet seen. While we understand the need for the legislation, a few more days discussion would have been desirable before we do anything further. I do not see that anything would be prejudiced by allowing that. I am concerned that we will deal with the legislation in only a few hours tomorrow.
I welcome the decision in principle by Trinity College, Dublin, to increase its percentage intake of undergraduates from what it calls "non-traditional backgrounds". We have been spectacularly unsuccessful in producing a dramatic improvement in the participation of students from non-traditional, or disadvantaged, backgrounds in third level education, particularly in the universities. There is much evidence that the most successful measures have been those which seek to link colleges with particular primary and secondary schools and identify particular students who can progress. We should place on the record of this House, not least because we have representatives here of the graduates of that university——
——that this is a positive measure even though it is a back-handed acknowledgement of our failure to date to address this issue. That decision also raises an issue worthy of debate in this House, namely, the funding of universities in general as it clearly will have implications in that regard. There have been indications in recent years that some of the colleges have moved to increase their intake of overseas students simply because they are more profitable in terms of tuition fees. There are clear implications for all the universities, including Trinity College, if the Government does not get to grips with this issue and set out a funding mechanism for the years ahead. That issue is worthy of discussion in this House.
I would like the House to discuss, particularly taking account of the groups that will protest outside today, the appropriate fiscal response to the rise in oil prices to hauliers and drivers. While it would be superficially attractive to have the Exchequer act as a cushion, it would blunt the signals. There is evidence that the rise in oil prices is related to long-term supply difficulties in terms of the growth of economies in places such as China and India. It is important we are reminded yet again of the need to conserve energy and to use it efficiently.
In that regard, I congratulate the Minister for Transport on his decision to re-open the Cork-Midleton railway line.
I support my colleagues' request that the Minister for Education and Science come to this House to discuss the matter of school assessment. It is regrettable we have received only a partial report on the pilot scheme which has been in place for a number of years. It is worth noting that all partners in education welcomed participation in whole school assessment. However, it is unfair of sections of the media to isolate particular items within that report and to infer that something was wrong with any particular school.
It is further regrettable that representatives of certain parents groups cannot accept the report as a partial one and have criticised the efforts and endeavours of what has been made public. It is important that the Minister for Education and Science comes to this House as a matter of urgency to clearly outline his Department's intentions regarding what will happen with future publications.
I ask the Leader to seek assurances from the Minister for Education and Science on a related matter. Information made available today indicates a shortage of experienced markers for junior and leaving certificate examinations. We know the majority of markers will be students or recently graduated personnel. This will lead to similar situations as arose in the past of very serious inconsistencies within subject areas and grading. It is important the Minister makes every effort to deal with this matter.
Recruitment in this area commenced last November-December. It is unsatisfactory that the Minister and his Department have left it until a few days before the examinations commence to indicate there will not be an experienced panel of markers for our junior and leaving certificate examinations. It is important the Minister clarifies the position as a matter of urgency.
I note with interest this morning the profitability of Vodafone, the largest supplier in the mobile telephony market in this country. I request a debate on the telecommunications market. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is to be commended for ensuring the regulator has put in place a system whereby NVNOs will be on offer very shortly, thereby increasing competition in the market. Similar competition is being provided by Meteor and the 3G licence. I suggest that during the debate the House reminds the profit-making companies of the ethos and wishes of the people that it should not be a profitability game at any cost. I refer specifically to the type of videos that could be streamed through 3G mobile phones.
In a discussion of the telecommunications market, it is good to remind ourselves of the use made of the money raised by the flotation of Eircom. Last year, when the markets were not performing particularly well, one could not pick up a newspaper without reading that the national pension fund was down by certain amounts. Now that the markets have more than recovered and our futures have been secured again, it shows this money was spent very wisely. The Minister concerned and the Minister for Finance should be commended for their work.
I ask the Leader if the period allotted for statements on the Middle East could be treated in the manner of a rolling debate which the House had on a previous occasion. It would allow for the debate to be adjourned and resumed if speakers were still waiting to contribute.
I thank Senator McDowell for his kind words about Trinity College. I am a graduate and one of its several distinguished representatives in the House. Modesty being one our principal characteristics, I am referring to the distinction of my colleagues. I am very proud of Trinity this morning. In a period of cutbacks, it is making a substantial investment in areas of disadvantage. The college is committing itself to 15% and it has contact with schools in those areas. The point was made this morning by the spokeswoman for the university that it is very important for the Government to become involved at primary and even pre-school level. All of us in this House have made that point in debates on education.
I recently visited the Marlborough Street Central Model School reading day. It is part of the Breaking the Cycle programme where the children are taken at a certain stage but they are dumped back out again. I reiterate the best investment the Government can make in education to conquer the problem of drugs, and everything else in the inner city, is to keep the programme going from primary school up to university. The first couple of doctors, vets or architects who graduate will be the role models.
I wish to raise two other matters.
I will do so as briefly as I can, but they are serious matters. I brought the first matter to the attention of the House a few years ago and the same talented young person has contacted me. He is the founder, chief executive, managing director and all the rest of a successful high-tech company. He instituted a pension scheme and he was singled out for special examination by the insurance company because of his sexual orientation, about which he was required to be open under the terms of the life assurance scheme. He was prepared to do that but he has recently been involved in a top-up scheme for himself and the other employees and he has been singled out again. The insurance company contacted his doctor with his agreement. It now requires him and his partner, who are in a stable, monogamous relationship, to subject themselves to HIV tests. This is a modestly invasive procedure. I do not think an insurance company is entitled to direct somebody, simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, to undergo this medical procedure before they are given insurance. I ask the Leader to allow time for this matter to be discussed.
My colleague, Senator O'Toole, has raised concerns about the serious legislative measures being contemplated in a rush. The question of compellability may raise constitutional issues. There is a kind of syndrome here. We have received repeated complaints about a rush in sensitive areas of which the citizenship referendum is another example. A former distinguished Member of this House, Maurice Manning, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, stated the referendum may in itself raise issues relating to the protection of human rights. He also complained about the lack of consultation with the Human Rights Commission or the Joint Committee on the Constitution in advance of a decision being taken and stated that the proposal had not been adequately researched or analysed.
In view of the dreadful gridlock on the N17 from Claremorris to Tuam and Galway, it is urgent that decision is taken. I pay tribute to the Leader for her work in setting up a study group on the issue.
I request a debate on waste management in view of the fact that private groups are making applications for landfills at a time when local authorities have drawn up very good plans for waste management. Landfills are supposed to form part of a regional waste management policy and it is urgent that we tackle this matter.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for providing funding to extract gases from landfill, including the sites in Ballinasloe and, I understand, Limerick. This is a positive development. When private groups are competing with public groups on the location of landfills, it begs the question as to what rationale will apply with regard to waste management.
I support Senator Mansergh's comments on the road haulage industry, which I believe will hold a dignified protest today. The industry rarely protests in front of Leinster House but it has genuine cause for concern. Haulage is a highly competitive business in which it is difficult to pass on costs to manufacturers or end users, as the case may be. In such circumstances, the sector should be closely monitored by the Government because the Minister for Finance may be required to intervene to reduce revenue from the costs of diesel in order to alleviate the financial cost and distress suffered by the haulage industry. I am interested in learning what form of intervention the Minister may make.
I support calls for a debate on whole school assessment for a number of reasons, mainly the ongoing media publication of selective information about the performance of schools which is the most damaging development in this area. A recent court decision, to which previous speakers referred, is a further reason to have a debate. I understand 19 pilot projects are under way in this area, mainly in primary schools but also in secondary schools. The completion of one such project was publicised last week and pro and contra views were expressed on it.
A wider issue arises as to the right to know of parents and students and their rights to have the maximum amount of information made available to them in a balanced and constructive manner. The attitude I have encountered is that the Minister was correct to tackle this issue in the first instance because it was inevitable, given ongoing developments, that it would have to be faced. I would welcome a debate as soon as it is deemed appropriate by the Minister and the Leader so we can hear the Minister's proposals, possibly of an interim nature, as to what structured format will eventually emerge for making the maximum amount of information available to students and parents about the performance of schools. The debate should also examine how we do our business in and obtain value for money from our school structures.
Everybody welcomes the initiative announced by Trinity College, to which Senators referred. It is laudable that a college, which in the past has wrongly been referred to as exclusive, is reaching out more meaningfully to the community. It is welcome that the college is targeting non-traditional students.
DCU has introduced many initiatives in this regard since its establishment as a university. A number of centres on the north side of Dublin promote the intake of students in that category in DCU. I am glad Senator McDowell stated the Ministers must face up to the issue of university funding. The issue has been debated previously but further elaboration on it would be welcome. I look forward to the Senator's comments in this regard.
I have sought a debate on pensions on a number of occasions. I ask the Leader to ensure such a debate is held before the summer recess. It is important in light of the irregularities that have been highlighted in one of our major banks. I would like an opportunity to point out several irregularities in the pensions industry. Senator Hanafin mentioned the Eircom flotation and stated the position has improved. People's pensions depend on the performance of their companies and some are retiring only to find their occupational pension benefits are not what they expected. Many employees are being asked to pay additional sums into their pension funds because there is a shortfall. This is one of many problems, which must be addressed, and I ask the Leader to schedule a debate before the summer recess.
Will the Leader contact the Ministers for Agriculture and Food and Environment, Heritage and Local Government about the nitrates directive? The House had a debate on agriculture a number of weeks ago but, as is the case with many issues, no action has been taken. The proposed limit on organic nitrates under the directive is 170 kg per hectare per annum, which is in stark contract to the 250 kg limit proposed for most other member states, including Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Farming organisations have made a good case that the domestic limit should be increased to 210 kg per hectare per annum. Everybody is unclear as to whether the advice on the directive is being given by officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Teagasc or elsewhere. I urge the Leader to ask the relevant Ministers to ensure the proposed limit is increased in line with Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU.
I refer to the question of transport and fuel costs. The Minister for Transport should be reminded there is a significant difference between prices north and south of the Border and he should be careful not to do something that would put industry in Northern Ireland at an even greater disadvantage and that would increase cross-Border smuggling, which is engaged in by all sorts of dodgy people.
I am also concerned that we might run into constitutional difficulties regarding the proposed compellability legislation. Last week I supported the discussion of the issues arising from a well known case by a committee of the House. The discussion has taken place and I am glad to hear Senator O'Toole's comment that it went well. However, it would be helpful if another means could be found to bring other Members into the loop to give us some idea of the proposed timetable.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food to explain and intervene in the disastrous decision by Teagasc to proceed with phase 2 of the closure of many of its offices nationwide? I find it very callous that it has already taken a decision to close these offices but decided to wait until after the local elections. Will the Minister intervene to ensure these offices are kept open?
Before I reply on the Order of Business, I again ask the Cathaoirleach to allow me make a short statement. A meeting, to be held at 4.30 p.m. this afternoon, has been arranged with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Chief Whip for the representatives of the groups from the Seanad who met the Attorney General last week regarding the motions on the forthcoming legislation. The meeting may also be attended by an Independent Member and Senator Maurice Hayes. This may help in the matters about which some Senators have expressed disquiet this morning.
Senator Brian Hayes asked when we would see the amendment to the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunity of Witnesses) Act 1997. It is proposed that it will be in the Dáil in the morning and I hope it will be available to us this evening. In any case, we will know following the meeting at 4.30 p.m.
The Senator also raised the issue of school results and the strong voice of parents who have lobbied for their publication for a long time. I, too, am concerned by the fragmented way in which some of these results, but not all, are being dealt with by newspapers and that we are not getting a whole-school result. A whole-school result stretches beyond examination results and refers to many other factors, including children's character and development.
Senator Joe O'Toole made the point that we are only seeing extracts from school reports. I, too, was glad that we could meet the Attorney General yesterday. The Senator spoke of the unknown vista that is opening up in front of us all. I agree with him in this regard. I hope that every time we receive further information and put it together, the appropriate course of action will be taken. For all us, it is still an untrodden path, which makes the matter much more difficult. There is no template to copy and on which to draw.
Senator O'Toole also referred to the breaking up of the three Aer Rianta airports. In fact, the relevant Bill was to come before us next week. We had received information from the Minister's office that the Minister wished to introduce it in the House next week. We did not receive any information to the contrary but we read in the newspaper that the Bill is not being produced this week. The Minister is correct to go slower and consider the views of all the participating parties.
Senator McDowell mentioned the constitutional implications of whatever legislation will come before us. I hope we will be able to tease out this a little more this evening at 4.30 p.m.
The Senator also referred to Trinity College. The college's decision provides a marvellous injection of hope for young people. Trinity College, which could have been regarded in some misguided way as elitist, but not any more, has a strong tradition on the access programme for young people from disadvantaged areas. It is really putting its money where its mouth is and doing something very strong in this area. This morning, the representative of the college made it very clear that the college's proposal will become a protocol with which it will continue. It is a very positive move for education.
Senator Mansergh alluded to the appropriate fiscal response to rising oil prices. If one adopts a lax or interventionist response, this sends its own message. Therefore, I hope this matter will rectify itself.
The Senator also congratulated the Minister for Transport on the Mallow-Cork-Midleton line. The go-ahead for this project had been given before I left office as Minister for Public Enterprise. However, when one is gone, one is gone, and one cannot——
I notice incoming Ministers want to claim credit for what is good, but if it is not good they want to shove it back. Senator Ulick Burke spoke about whole school assessment and I take his point completely. Parents and teachers know that just crude partial results do not reflect a child's progress in a school. Children develop at different rates and some develop later than others. I agree the Minister should give us his thoughts on his plan in this regard.
Senator Hanafin requested a debate on telecoms. I thank the Senator for mentioning the good use made of the €4 billion. I agree with Senator Norris in calling for a rolling debate on the Middle East. This matter was debated in the Dáil last week and it would be good to address the topic in a rolling fashion. The Senator also spoke about a person he knows — I understand why he does not want to give names.
This person wishes to top up his policy and has been asked to undertake a medical with regard to HIV. The Deputy Leader advises me that someone taking out a very large insurance policy waives the right to privacy in such matters. While I do not know, this seems to be the case.
Senator Kitt wants a debate on waste management and I will ask to have one. He also asked whether the western rail line will be reopened. Senator Finucane called for the Minister for Finance to play an interventionist role in easing the fuel price hike affecting road haulage business. Senator Fitzgerald called for a debate on whole school assessment. The Senator's interest in and knowledge of such matters is considerable. He also spoke about the funding of Trinity College. The funding of universities is hugely important given that they now seem much more willing to expand and to have both a commercial role and a role of care for the disadvantaged in society.
Senator Terry asked for a debate on pensions, which we will have before the summer recess. Senator John Paul Phelan spoke about the nitrates directive. Those of us who have been canvassing in rural areas have heard this topic being raised loudly. As the Senator knows, responsibility for this directive falls between two Ministers.
Senator Maurice Hayes pointed out the North-South oil price differential that could arise were a particular line taken. He also spoke of his concerns about the pending compellability legislation, which we share. I am strongly of the view that we do not want to rush legislation. We have a fairly decent record of not doing so. However, circumstances have arisen in which both the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill and the amendment to the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunity of Witnesses) Act 1997 must be taken in a brisk fashion. We will have to try to guard ourselves against anything untoward, which might happen.
Senator Feighan spoke about the second phase of closures of Teagasc stations. I will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Agriculture and Food.