Wednesday, 2 June 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, and No. 25, motion No. 20. In addition, an earlier signature motion in respect of the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill 2004 will be taken at a convenient point, if the Bill is passed by the Dáil. No. 1 is a report of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges recommending changes in the Standing Orders relative to procedure in the case of a resolution calling for the removal of a judge for stated misbehaviour or incapacity — the report has been circulated to Members and this item is to be taken without debate; Nos. 2 to 5, inclusive, are motions referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, which has completed its deliberations, to be taken without debate; No. 6 is a motion calling for the removal of a judge for stated misbehaviour or incapacity, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 25, motion No. 20; No. 7 is the Health (Amendment) Bill 2004 — Report and Final Stages to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 12.15 p.m.; No. 8 is the Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 — Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 12.15 p.m. and to conclude no later than 1.30 p.m.; and No. 9 is statements on the report on Seanad reform, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. until 5 p.m., with contributions from Members of 15 minutes each. Notwithstanding anything in Standing Order 43, No. 25, motion 20, is to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m.
We agree with the Order of Business as proposed by the Leader and to the taking of these important matters in the course of the day.
Perhaps the Leader might find out from the Taoiseach why, on a recent visit to Colombia, he chose to meet the President of that country specifically to deal with one issue, namely, the three people convicted of travelling on false passports. I would have thought it quite unusual, where someone has been convicted of a rather serious charge in that he has conveniently decided to travel on an illegal and false passport, clearly having shown no fidelity to this State, that the Taoiseach should take up the matter as President of the European Union with the President of Colombia. That is quite strange.
I agree with the comments of Deputy Fiona O'Malley of the Progressive Democrats at the weekend concerning the matter. It is clearly serious if people choose to travel on illegal passports and show no sense of loyalty to their own country in so doing. Given the background of those people, with their connections with the IRA, it is most strange and absurd that the Taoiseach should choose to meet the President of Colombia on the issue. I would appreciate some clarity on this point in the course of the Taoiseach's comments in coming days.
We have all been struck by the recent revelations in the Irish banking sector. I am aware of comments made in this and the other House over the last few weeks on the matter. I make this point strongly. The greatest power rests in the hands of the Irish people if they wish to show their disgust at recent scandals in one bank. The power they have is to move their accounts. Consumers in this country have power when they show institutions and big, multinational companies that they are totally opposed to their actions. We saw that some years ago regarding Shell. Many institutions in this country have not been fleecing people, the Irish credit union movement being one very good example. If people are really disgusted at what they see in the Irish banking sector, they should move their accounts to other banks. We need more competition, and banks will cop on to the kind of illegal activity in which they have been engaged and the lack of moral guidance they have shown the country if they lose accounts.
I also agree to the Order of Business.
I would be grateful if the Leader would take up the following matter. Problems have been experienced regarding medical practitioners giving treatment to patients that has not been to their benefit. However, something can be done regarding those people, as appeals can be made to the Medical Council on their behalf. However, if people are not medically qualified and describe themselves as health professionals, counsellors or social care workers, there is no recourse for patients who feel they have been badly treated. A health and social care professionals Bill has been promised for years. In the Government's spring programme of legislation, it was stated that this would be published before the end of the session. We are now in the summer session, and the programme for legislation once again states that the health and social care professionals Bill will be published before the end of the session. I have been watching this and talking about it for years, and I have been on to the Department on numerous occasions with absolutely no satisfaction. That is not the case with the other Bills which appeared in the legislative programme at the same time, such as the Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 and the Health (Amendment) Bill 2004, with which we are dealing today. These will all be passed. However, this important legislation, which is not party political, appears to be getting nowhere in the Department of Health and Children. I ask the Leader to try to ensure a sense of urgency about the issue. It could easily be brought before this House because it is not party political and there are plenty of Members here who could debate it very well.
I ask the Leader to invite the appropriate Minister to the House to discuss the issue raised by Senator Brian Hayes, namely, the three investigations into AIB. I would like to hear, in particular, what is being done by the Government to ensure a speedy conclusion of those inquiries, co-ordination between the three investigating authorities and public disclosure of the findings. It is important and in the public interest that these investigations take place as quickly as possible.
As regards the general issue of financial institutions, the Government did not follow up on the view expressed by the sub-committee of the Committee of Public Accounts in the DIRT inquiry that the banking system should be required to make financial restitution for any complicity in large scale tax evasion and fraud. I ask that the Government reconsider this view. As Senator Hayes said, it is important that the public is compensated for any such wrongdoing by financial institutions.
The Government survey of 2,000 motorists, one of the largest of its type carried out in Europe, revealed that 68% of drivers tested who were in excess of the alcohol limit also tested positive as regards one or more drugs. There was a particularly high incidence of positive drug readings among young male drivers who were tested. Obviously, this has serious implications as regards fatalities on our roads. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to the House to let us know what the Government is doing to address this problem. It is not a new problem, but it is growing and could have a major bearing on road deaths if it is not addressed.
All of us are disturbed at what has been happening in some of our financial institutions. However, we need to keep matters in perspective. The point about the people who received publicity in the past week is essentially that they got caught. It is not necessarily the case that everything else is all right. I noticed an article in one of the newspapers yesterday headlined, "Crocodile tears mask a culture of greed", and today, in the same newspaper, a director of corporate governance talks about the effects of very low standards in public and corporate life. We need to be aware that not all forms of corporate greed necessarily involve either legal or ethical wrongdoing as such. It is shocking that a chairman, chief executive and director of a newspaper should receive annual increases last year of 40%, 50% and 67%. If Senator O'Toole's people put in such claims there would, rightly, be outrage. We need a good example from the top. It is lucky that the little people have more sense.
I also want to highlight the fact that there is now a great lack of trust in some of our financial institutions. I agree fully with Senator Mansergh and what he said. If we cannot have trust in the people who are at the top of these institutions, how can we have full confidence about what is happening to our money? Many customers feel aggrieved at what is going on and I again link that to how pensions are being dealt with for people who pay into occupational pension schemes. The same people deal with the pension industry. We need urgently to widen the investigation into how they deal with this and the connections between them and the remuneration and benefits they gain from that. Many have lost trust in that system.
In our recent election canvas many of us have heard major concern expressed on the doorsteps about the level of anti-social behaviour on our streets and in our communities. We have often discussed this here but the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is taking no action on it. There is a lawless group of people at large in society who believe they can do whatever they wish and no action is being taken. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should come here and outline for us once again what he will do to tackle the high levels of anti-social behaviour in our communities.
I do so because it was a strange case from the outset. The prosecution brought forward some questionable witnesses. There are even suggestions that some of those will be tried for perjury. At the same time there were witnesses from the other side, including from our diplomatic service who must be taken into account where credibility is concerned. The Taoiseach did what any leader of a sovereign country would do, namely ensure the safety of citizens of the country when they are abroad. He was very balanced and made two good points, namely that a senior judge could be appointed to examine the situation, or the three men could be allowed home if a guarantee were given that they would return in the event of an appeal. That it took up to eight months to give a verdict reflects on the legal system in Colombia. On the positive side it also suggests that this case has been examined very closely. The men were acquitted of the major charge which is important. I compliment the Taoiseach on his role in this regard.
There is a possibility that when a story hits the headlines, such as the scandals in the financial institutions, it distracts our attention from some other areas on which we should focus. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Tom Kitt, yesterday brought Bono to a meeting of EU development ministers to draw attention to our responsibility for reaching the target of giving 0.7% of our gross national product for development aid. Senator Henry has raised this on many occasions. Let us make sure we keep our attention on the issue because an interesting figure was cited for several countries which had aimed at targets but did not realise that as they became wealthier the percentage would involve more money. The point was well made that as a country becomes wealthier its percentage contribution increases in value. That is a good sign because it means that a country is wealthier and is therefore able to afford it. We are falling short. We have set a target for 2007 but we are only half way there and we must focus our attention on that.
The Minister for Transport spoke about the number of no-shows for driving tests and seemed surprised at this. If one must delay 12 months before receiving an appointment one cannot be expected to remember the appointment. The Minister is taking some steps but he could take more to ensure greater safety on our roads by not allowing so many people to drive without having passed a driving test and on provisional licences. We should take an immediate step on this because something much more urgent needs to be done than has recently been done.
I am disappointed Senator Brian Hayes has not informed himself properly and in detail about the Taoiseach's meeting on Friday night in Colombia. As President of the EU, the Taoiseach was hosting a meeting with Latin American leaders. He spoke to President Uriba of Colombia and put a very significant proposal to him for the safe return of the men.
Senator Brian Hayes has not allowed me to speak, although I listened to him. The bottom line is that these men have served their time for carrying false passports and should be sent home immediately. That is the opinion of Judge Jairo Acosta. He also accused witnesses involved in the main charge against the men of committing perjury. Those witnesses were put forward by the attorney general who is now appealing the decision.
I wish to raise an issue that concerns many people. In the past we were all extensively lobbied about St. John's wort, a medication sold in health shops. The Irish Medicines Board decreed that it could only be bought on prescription and, at the time, there was a furore over it. However, a person could establish a clinic in Killaloe and give out cancer therapy treatment to vulnerable people in the final stages of cancer, for which they paid €10,000. Legislation must be tightened up in this area to prevent cowboy medical practitioners setting up such facilities in future to prey on vulnerable people.
I understand the Minister for Health and Children has expressed concern and I urge him to expedite the tightening up of legislation in this area. A shocking situation has developed. Media attention has focused on this——
I support the points raised by Senator Henry regarding the new professional health care Bill due to come before the House. Semi-professionals, who call themselves professionals, have attended courses that are not validated. These courses are mushrooming throughout the country and there is a strong case for addressing this anomaly. In many cases, people operate as counsellors and we do not know where they got their qualifications.
This debate should also be widened to include education, to examine courses which produce people who are not suitably qualified to take on any role in the therapeutic area. This issue should be incorporated in the debate regarding professionals and semi-professionals operating within the health service. Such a debate is urgently required and I ask the Leader to facilitate it, as this is a significant issue that is being raised in newspapers, on radio and television. I regularly hear of this mushrooming of counsellors, as they call themselves, who appear from nowhere. We do not know what kind of course they have attended or if the course was validated.
I support the Senator Terry's remarks in respect of anti-social behaviour, a matter that is being raised on the doorsteps. There seems to be a great deal of law but very little order in the country at present. That is because the Government did not implement its proposal to provide 2,000 additional gardaí, which has led to the situation with which we are currently faced.
Will the Leader make time available for a debate on the payment of VAT by charities? These organisations cannot recoup that money when it has been paid. They pay over €18 million each year to the State and cannot get it back. The cost of this for charitable organisations is enormous. Every euro the State collects is one less spent on services to help the elderly, the needy, the disabled and others in our society. The Government must display some political will in respect of this matter and deal with it swiftly. I request a debate on this issue and I hope it will take place in the near future because many people are contributing voluntarily of their time and are obliged to pay VAT etc., into the Government's coffers. That is grossly unfair, particularly in the post-Celtic tiger era.
I support the comments made about financial institutions. When the House discussed the naming of people who had offshore accounts, I made the point that the banking fraternity had not been mentioned in any newspaper reports. It is disappointing and disturbing to hear that members of that fraternity were involved in illegal activity. I hope we can have a debate on this matter because issues have also arisen in respect of foreign exchange transactions.
Senator Brian Hayes referred to people moving their accounts. I wish that life was that simple. In many smaller towns, people do not have that option. The opposite is, in fact, the case because banks are withdrawing their services and closing branches in many towns throughout the country. There is a serious election issue in Carraroe at present because people do not have access to a banking service. We should call on the banks to ensure the policy of closing branches does not continue. While, as Senator Brian Hayes stated, the credit unions have a role in this area, An Post also has a role to play in respect of banking. Banks are withdrawing from our smaller towns and I do not want to see that process continuing. We should have a debate on the issue as soon as possible.
Will the Leader indicate whether the Minister for Education and Science will be coming before the House before the recess? Reports in today's newspapers indicate there is going to be a change in the variety of assessments used at leaving certificate level and that the NCCA proposes to abolish the transition year and the LCVP. Among the new assessment methods listed by the NCCA are written, oral, aural, portfolio, etc. I do not know what other methods are being proposed as the new way forward. The Minister has wasted €648,000, of which €44,000 was given to guest chairpersons, to promote himself at 17 meetings throughout the country. How can we have any confidence in him?
I support those who called for a debate on the financial services industry. I am conscious that previously we needed to regulate aspects such as redemption fees — in some cases couples who wanted to pay off a loan early were charged a six months' redemption fee — or the need to introduce an APR because the industry was hiding costs such as monthly or annual interest repayment charges which were costing the consumer more but were not presented as doing so.
We need this debate in light of current events, including the foreign exchange difficulties, the mis-selling of life policies to cover mortgages and the selling of non-resident accounts, for which the banks have a huge responsibility. They must shoulder the blame because those accounts were actively sold. Rather than people coming into the bank to look for them, the banks asked them if they would like to open a non-resident account. This must be examined in the context of the people who are now doing so well in the banking industry and earning such large sums. I do not begrudge them a cent of what they earn but they get large salaries, bonuses and preferential rates on loans-——
They also get profit sharing, bonuses and expenses. Even their cups of coffee are paid for, but they do not seem to know from where extra funds come. Greed is not good and this must be addressed. "To whom much is given, much will be expected", not a minimum standard.
On a number of occasions over the past 12 months I have raised the matter of our failure to take any meaningful measures to promote the local elections and to encourage people to vote. Our local elections are only a week away. However, the Minister has compounded the problem by deciding that polling stations should close at 9 p.m. on voting day, Friday, 11 June. This is inexcusable in the middle of summer.
Polling stations have closed previously at 10 p.m. This is a poor signal from the Government. Even at this late stage, I ask the Minister to reconsider allowing the stations to close at 10 p.m. Workers and students returning home should be allowed the extra hour for voting. If we are serious about promoting democracy, we should take the simple straightforward measure of extending the opening hours of polling stations.
I support the remarks made by Senator Finucane on the clinic in Killaloe. I was contacted recently by the widow of one of those who died, who related some disturbing facts to me. Whoever said that there are people in jail for less, there is no doubt about it being true in the case of these two doctors who, although they have been struck off the medical register, were practising alternative medicine. There is a legislative void here which must be filled as a matter of urgency. I appeal to the Leader to urge the Minister to come to the House as soon as possible to inform us of when he will introduce the appropriate legislation. This is a terrible situation and I will have much more to say when we have a debate on the matter.
The Western Health Board made a decision yesterday to defer the opening of an orthopaedic unit for Mayo General Hospital. This unit has cost more than €10 million, interviews were held for over 70 jobs, advertisements were placed and professional people promised jobs have moved to Castlebar in anticipation of the opening of the unit in July.
The current position is that a patient who enters Mayo General Hospital for orthopaedic attention is put on a waiting list, supposedly for Galway. However, the patient is never called. This is a scandal. It is outrageous that people are told they are being put on a waiting list but, at the same time, they are never called for orthopaedic attention.
I urge the Leader to call on the Minister for Health and Children to intervene in this case and to ensure the orthopaedic unit for Mayo General Hospital opens as scheduled this July. A considerable amount of taxpayers' money has been spent on this project.
I ask that the Minister with responsibility for energy come into the House to debate possible energy alternatives to oil. We realise how vulnerable is the world economy when problems occur in Saudi Arabia and oil prices increase. I am particularly mindful of people involved in the transport sector who have been hard hit of late. Such price increases coupled with the changes in the benefit-in-kind provisions in the last budget will force many of them out of business. Further increases are predicted in petrol and diesel prices.
I welcome the report, as outlined by Senator Tuffy, on drug-taking and driving. Its findings help to explain why there are many road traffic fatalities at weekends involving young males who have not been drinking. In that context, there could well be a link between drug-taking and driving. We should explore this matter. I am aware the EU is collating data from all EU member states on this matter this month and that some member states are engaged in positive work in this area. We should invite the Minister for Transport to the House to debate this matter.
Regarding the exchange between Senator Brian Hayes and Senator White——
I join my colleagues in calling for a debate on the financial services sector. The morale among the thousands of staff in the banking sector is at an all time low. We should at least highlight the effect these revelations are having on the staff.
Three weeks ago the Leader complimented me on praising the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the way he handled the May Day celebrations. On this occasion, I ask her to arrange for the Minister to come to the House to ask him why he intends to close rural Garda stations. With the escalating drugs crisis and the failure of the Government to recruit the additional 2,000 gardaí promised, it is high time the Minister felt some heat from Senators regarding this issue.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, asked for an explanation of the Taoiseach's meeting with the President of Colombia regarding the Colombian three and the circumstances in which it was held. I understand he met him in his capacity as President of the EU when he visited Mexico.
The Senator went on to talk about the banking sector and suggested, as is usual in consumer matters, that customers should move their business. However, Senator Kitt raised the point that if one lives in rural Ireland, it is not easy to move one's business. It is easy to move one's business if one is a depositor, but far more difficult to do so if one is a borrower. I accept there is a need for a debate on this matter.
Senator Henry asked when a Bill to deal with health and social care professionals will be introduced, given that it is on the legislative agenda for introduction this term. I will make inquiries as the need for the Bill has become urgent. It appears matters must become urgent before we deal with them.
Senator Tuffy called for the three investigations into AIB to be debated here and for the banks which escaped retribution to be made pay. She also raised the matter of the survey of 2,000 motorists, in respect of many of whom there was evidence of drug-taking, and the likelihood that such drug abuse can result in accidents.
Senator Mansergh spoke about the financial institutions and corporate governance. What I find dismaying about all of this is that it is never the ordinary man or woman behind the counter, with whom we deal when we go about our business, who is found to have done anything wrong. It appears to me that such wrongdoing is always found at the highest levels and not among the lower ranks. Officials in the lower ranks work behind the counter and are visible when people go to banks to do their business. Every time something untoward and strongly dubious emerges, we are told "that is the end of it now, there will be no more". Those involved say they will clean up, wash up and make everybody pure. It does not happen like that, however, as another wave of revelations is always on its way. It is important that we acknowledge that such problems do not start at the lower level of banking activity — they are found at a much higher level of governance.
I applaud the Taoiseach for his clear remarks in the Dáil yesterday about the idea that we should not talk about this matter because Ireland's international reputation for probity will somehow be affected and people will be alarmed. Ireland is well able to handle itself. The idea that we should not talk about the matter is erroneous. Only if we speak out to show our dismay and disgust at what has happened will we have some hope of remedying the problem.
Senator Terry agreed with Senator Mansergh about the banking issue. She also referred to the pension schemes, about which we will have a debate. She spoke about law and order. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform cannot go to every part of Ireland with a bata mór to introduce law and order. The very good public order Acts should be implemented.
Senator Ó Murchú expressed a different view about the Colombia three and the Taoiseach's behaviour in respect of that issue. The Taoiseach proposed a decent plan which, if implemented, would provide a way out of the impasse.
Senator Quinn spoke about development aid. He made the useful point that as our GDP increases, so does the amount of aid we have to provide to meet the 0.7% target. He also referred to the Minister for Transport's comments about those who do not show up for driving tests.
Senator White expressed her disappointment at the comments of Senator Brian Hayes.
Senator Finucane raised the issue of St John's wort, about which there was a huge furore when it was decided that it would only be available on prescription. It developed into a big campaign. Legislation is needed to deal with the cowboys who are operating in the pseudo-medical system. He also referred to an episode in Killaloe.
Senator Ormonde spoke about semi-professional people who are posing as professionals and adopting titles they have not gained through study, training or the acquisition of degrees. The number of counsellors is mushrooming, as the Senator said. She also spoke about alternative health. There is a clear case for alternative therapies, which are recognised if practised correctly. We should be concerned about the incorrect practice of alternative therapy. Senator Glynn spoke about the legislative void in that regard.
Senator Bannon spoke about law and order and the payment of VAT by charities.
Senator Kitt said that the recent events in financial institutions are "disturbing". He mentioned that many banks have withdrawn from small towns. I recall attending many public meetings on the matter, in Kilbeggan and other areas. When we forced the pace, the banks said they would retain limited services on certain days. There is an arrogance in the banks' lack of a public service ethic. They do not consider that they have a duty to serve their customers. The Cathaoirleach will recall that if one went to see one's bank manager many years ago, one did so in trepidation. One wondered what he might say, but now he wonders what one might say to him. It is a useful reversal.
Senator Ulick Burke asked whether the Minister for Education and Science will be coming to the House to discuss the NCCA. I have heard about the alternative methods of assessment, which the Senator favours. I established the NCCA, which is a great body. It sometimes has wild notions and pushes out the frontiers so that perhaps lesser measures are accepted. It is proper in that it leads us to think about educational issues. However, there is no way out of examinations because they are the best test of people and how they perform. Senator Ulick Burke also asked about the meetings, 15 out of 17 of which I understand the Minister for Education and Science attended at which he sat at the back rather than disport himself at the top table. I was not present at any of the meetings but a friend was and told me he came in quietly and sat at the back. The CSO figures indicate a rising number of primary school teachers in the system, which is good news.
Senator Hanafin requested a debate on the financial institutions and spoke about greed. I agree with Senator Bradford that polling stations should be open until 10 p.m. If one leaves Dublin at 7 p.m., one will not reach Athlone by 9 p.m. The fact that polling stations are open at 7 a.m. is of no use if one works in Dublin and must get back down the country by 9 p.m. The issue was raised with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting but the times had already been set. I acknowledge that returning officers and staff will be at their stations for 14 hours but they are well fed and watered during the course of the day. An extension of the polling time to 10 p.m. would mean that people travelling home from Dublin at 7 p.m. would be able to cast their vote.
Senator Glynn referred to the legislative void, which is an exact description, in regard to alternative medicine. Alternative medicine will have to be made subject to regulation, notwithstanding the fact that much of it is good. Senator Paddy Burke asked about the Western Health Board. I find it odd that Senators take the trouble to raise a matter and I take the trouble to listen and answer but some Senators have vanished by the time I do so. It is rude. I am not referring just to Senator Paddy Burke, but also to Senators on this side of the House.
Senator Paddy Burke raised the deferral by the Western Health Board of the opening of the orthopaedic unit at Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar, with the result that patients have to go elsewhere for treatment. Senator Browne raised the importance of finding an alternative to oil as a fuel source given its rising cost — I wish there was one. He also requested that the Minister for Transport or another responsible Minister come before the House to discuss the effects of drugs in terms of accidents which are occurring in the early hours of the morning. Senator Feighan raised the issue of the financial services sector and also called on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come before the House.