Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003 — Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 1.30 p.m. with contributions of spokespersons at 20 minutes and other Members at 15 minutes; No. 2, statements on autism (resumed), to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude at 4 p.m. with the contributions of Members at ten minutes; No. 3, Criminal Justice (Joint Investigation Teams) Bill 2003 — Report and Final Stages to be taken at 4 p.m. and No. 4, Transfer of Execution of Sentences Bill 2003 — Report and Final Stages to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3 and to conclude no later than 5 p.m.; and No. 18, motion No. 19, to be taken from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
Senator Quinn spoke yesterday on the Order of Business about the report published in Britain on police and vetting procedures following the Huntley case, and the appalling lack of vetting procedures for persons who work with children. Does the Leader agree this matter is urgent in our jurisdiction? My party published a White Paper on this issue over six months ago and received a commitment from the Government that legislation would be forthcoming as soon as possible to introduce a proper vetting procedure for teachers, health care workers and those involved in non-governmental agencies who work with children to provide a safe environment for them. We must ensure that people in contact with children are properly vetted and that procedures are observed. Following the example in Northern Ireland where a good procedure was recently introduced, when will legislation be forthcoming here? Does the Leader agree it is urgent that we protect children wherever they are and ensure that those in contact with them are of the highest standard, do not have a criminal record and that there is nothing untoward in their background? We have much to learn from the Huntley case and this is a priority for the Government.
In light of a second issue raised on the Order of Business yesterday, concerning persons who enter the country legally but find it virtually impossible to bring their family or friends here for a short holiday, will the Leader invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform here to discuss this? I came across a case recently in my constituency of a Nigerian who has been naturalised and is married to an Irish citizen, with whom he has two Irish citizen children, experiencing such difficulties.
Recently this man's father, who is a judge of the Nigerian court, attempted to visit his grandchildren and was refused entry. If a judge from another country is refused entry, how difficult must it be for everyone else? We need to debate this matter with the Minister. It seems that people from some countries are automatically refused on the basis of their location. The Minister should come into the House to explain policy in this area and amend it where appropriate to ensure that those who come here legally are entitled to bring their families and friends here for a short time.
Yesterday on the Order of Business speakers on the Government side raised the question of the additional costs to people of the NCT. Senator Feighan raised this issue a few months ago when he said the testers were under pressure to fail more cars in order to generate more income. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, is considering privatising speed camera operators on a similar basis. We have seen the result of the privatisation of parking control in Dublin, its cost to drivers and the officious and unfriendly way in which it is being implemented. It would be very helpful, particularly for the Government side, if we had a discussion on the cost of privatisation to the consumer. It would allow us to see the direction in which the Government is heading and where market forces are leading us. It might be of assistance if the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, came to the House for that debate in order that he could make a contribution.
The issues we are considering currently make one wonder who is in charge and what will be the outcome of the various decisions being made. One Minister is going to drive a motorway through the Hill of Tara, while another is going to smash up three airports with one blow. There was a time when Fianna Fáil backbenchers would defy the whip if somebody interfered with one airport. Now, however, one can bury three of them and everybody just takes it and blames the Progressive Democrats. Who is in charge——
A member of Cork City Council who is not a member of my party came across a line of clamped cars recently in an area where signs indicating that there was no parking were not in evidence and where there were no double yellow lines etc. When he volunteered to photograph the clampers while they removed the clamps and innocent citizens paid up, the clampers promptly took off the clamps and absconded without further difficulties. There is a problem with privatised agencies whose sense of what is the way to enforce the law is different from that of the public service. This is becoming a major issue.
Another issue where difficulties are arising relates to the grading of guesthouses. This is now done by a privatised agency. The best guesthouse in the west Kerry Gaeltacht does not have Bord Fáilte approval because the inspector who viewed it took a different view from that of the health board about some facilities. She insisted that her view was superior to that of the health board and, as a result, the owner of the guesthouse stated she would do without Bord Fáilte approval. There is a difficulty with privatised agencies which believe they are above the law and which lack the ethos of the public service.
By definition, I was raised a long time ago.
Would it be possible to have a serious debate on the issue of equality at some stage? There has been an outbreak of compassion on the opposite side of the House which has, in turn, produced an outbreak of self-righteous rhetoric from the minor party in Government. Some of that rhetoric deserves to be debated within a political forum in which people can be challenged. It is frustrating that all of these great philosophical speeches are being made outside the Houses of the Oireachtas where serious debate cannot take place. I call for a debate on this matter because I would like to hear how somebody in Government can justify the sustaining of inequality as an incentive. I would also like to be informed as to how a member of Government could believe that Ireland is somehow superior in the way it does its business to countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Austria and The Netherlands. People are saying outside the Houses of the Oireachtas that we have done better than those countries. We have not done so and the people are aware of that fact.
In the local and European elections, the people made a statement because they know what prosperity should provide and they are aware that this has not been provided. The fundamental issue in this country is that of inequality and the institutionalisation thereof. It is time this matter was debated in the House by Government and Opposition Members rather than being exclusively monopolised by Government Ministers making speeches, as Senator O'Toole stated, largely to party workers.
Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Health and Children, prior to the summer recess, to discuss the ever-growing epidemic of queues of people in A & E departments waiting to get on to trolleys? This phenomenon is usually experienced during the winter months but it is now happening during the summer. What is the Government doing to remedy it? Each day, millions of euro are rolling back into the economy as a result of tax evaders making settlements with the Revenue Commissioners. What will the Minister for Health and Children do regarding emergency provision during the summer months? That an overcrowding in accident and emergency departments can be permitted in a prosperous country like this must be addressed in this House before the summer recess.
I support Senator O'Toole's remarks on the NCT. I recently participated in a protest march at a local testing centre in Abbeyfeale. Some 500 people participated in that march, which was symptomatic of the frustration people feel about the NCT and the perception that vehicles are being failed for minor reasons. If one wishes to analyse the results of the local and European elections, the poor showing of the Government parties is a consequence of a combination of small issues like this which are causing great frustration to the general public. There is amazement that a private company has received the NCT contract for the entire country. Senator O'Toole is correct when he speaks of the bestowal of responsibility for speed testing etc. on a private company and the possibility that speed cameras will be placed in secret locations that will be difficult for motorists to identify. Currently many gardaí are pinpointing the areas on modern motorways where there are no traffic hazards and a very low incidence of accidents and are often going for the soft option in terms of penalising people with penalty points. People are becoming increasingly frustrated and there is a perception that big brother is constantly watching them.
I recently made representations on behalf of a young Irish person living in England who wanted to visit the United States. I am currently involved in the case of a young Irish man who married an American citizen while he was in the United States. They both returned to Ireland and are currently experiencing immigration difficulties. I found the United States Embassy exceptionally helpful, courteous and humane. I contrast this with the case of the young Pakistani doctor working and living in Ireland, married to an Irish woman who is expecting their first child and was refused a visa to allow his parents to visit Ireland for the happy occasion of his child's birth. It is important that the impression does not go abroad that we are constantly making representations for Irish people who wish to visit other countries but are not prepared to reciprocate when the shoe is on the other foot.
I support Senator Brian Hayes and Senator Ó Murchú in their call for a debate on the rationale or lack of regarding the issuing of visitor visas. Recently a member of the Nigerian Government could not visit Ireland for the occasion of his son's conferral at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. A senior official from the EU's Danube Waterway project was refused a visitor visa, presumably because he is Romanian, to attend the marriage of his son, who is employed in an important role in the Irish health service, to an Irish citizen. A retired Russian doctor whose daughter is married to an Irish citizen and who has been employed in our universities for the past 12 years was also refused a visitor's visa. The list goes on and it is shameful.
I support the discussions due to take place this weekend between the Taoiseach and the President of the United States, Mr. George W. Bush. I remind the House of the request I raised last January, which was conveyed by the Leader and her office to the Taoiseach. This issue relates to the many young undocumented Irish people resident in the United States who are unable to return home for funerals, weddings or other family occasions. I spoke to one woman who has three daughters in the United States for five years, four and a half years and four years, respectively. Irrespective of whether one agrees with the visit of President Bush, who is welcome here as far as I am concerned, his visit presents a great opportunity to welcome the leader of the United States as he meets the potential President of the European Union on an equal footing.
He is also potentially the President of the Commission. Our Leader has used her office very well in conveying issues raised here to Departments. I request that she convey to the Taoiseach that he should mention the plight of the many Irish in America who cannot come home.
I support what Senator Morrissey said about the dreadful state of accident and emergency departments and hospitals in general. I remind him that he is a member of a party in Government. In his area of west Dublin, an accident and emergency department has been completed for up to 12 months but has not been opened.
I agree, but it is also my entitlement to point out the irony.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to allow time to debate the recent SMI report? The report includes details on the closure of some Garda stations but we do not know which stations are due for closure. The only thing we know is that they will not be in Laois or Offaly because the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, told us that. It is important that the Minister would come in here and that we would have a general debate on the deployment of Garda, the delivery of 2,000 extra gardaí, the closure of Garda stations and related matters. I would welcome such a debate as soon as possible.
I am sorry if I lower the tone of the debate by not being abusive of anybody. I strongly support Senators Ó Murchú and Henry on visas, particularly for temporary visitors. It is shameful how we treat people. It is extremely difficult for the Taoiseach to ask for special treatment for Irish people in America when we are denying the same sort of thing to people here. I accept that problems exist but I do not see any difficulty in some of the cases I wrote about. It should be possible to work out a sensible system of guarantees, sureties or other such measures.
I also support the plea of Senator Brian Hayes for urgent attention on the vetting and checking system for people working with children. One can get odd jobs in life. I was involved in developing the Northern Ireland system after Kincora some 20 years ago and the model that was developed in response to that could be used. It is important that it should be looked at in tandem here and in Northern Ireland because as well as protecting our children here, the movement of trained personnel North and South requires that they be subjected to the same degree of checking and vetting. Whatever is done should be done in consultation with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the North. It would appear to be a suitable matter for a North-South body.
Will the Leader give an indication of when we might take motion No. 18 in the names of the Independent Senators? The motion notes the favourable report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport which investigated the proposal for a metro in Dublin, a project in which this House has taken a consistent interest.
I support Senator Morrissey and I regard it as commendable of him. It shows he is a man of conscience and is prepared to raise these questions which are not comfortable for Government, although every Government has to deal with them. It is extraordinary that so many modern facilities all over the country are lying idle and are not staffed.
There was a classic case in the past few days of a man waiting several days on a hospital trolley. He went to the lavatory and his trolley was taken. The nursing staff suggested he find another trolley for himself. Matters have reached a terrible state of pressure.
I support my colleagues with regard to the granting of visas. An impressive list was given by Senator Henry. International academic conferences often encounter this trouble. A distinguished young woman from Beirut, who is a Joycean scholar, was arbitrarily refused a visa, presumably because they saw the word Beirut and associated it with being a hot spot 20 years ago. My office made representations and she was immediately given a visa. She was pathetically grateful but it made me feel that we are presenting ourselves as a Third World country if a proper vetting system is not in place.
I ask the Leader to seek an opinion from the Attorney General on the status of President Bush while he is in this country. Some senior lawyers have suggested he might be vulnerable to arrest because he has clearly broken international law. He has broken the precepts of the Nuremberg trials by declaring an unprovoked, aggressive war. He has broken his own domestic law, international law and human rights law. Many people are of the opinion that he could be indicted under Irish law which requires that people involved in torture are investigated. There is no doubt he was involved in torture, despite the recent squirting out of a smokescreen about torture in the past day. I wish to know his status. I am not asking the Attorney General to arrest him but, on a legal point, is he vulnerable theoretically to arrest on Irish soil?
I ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to explain his position on the recent proposed increase of 3.8% in charges by the VHI. This comes on the back of increases of 8.5% and 18% in the past two years. The VHI made a profit of €34 million up to the end of February 2003 and I regard it as a little rich of the company to look for a further increase. This will be an extra burden on the taxpayer and on those who need health insurance.
It is confusing that Irish delegations can go to the United States on St. Patrick's Day and meet with the Governor of New York and the President of the United States, yet when President Bush comes to Ireland, all politicians and business leaders seem to be excluded from meeting him. Are we allowed to meet him when he comes to our country or must we go to the United States all the time?
Once again yesterday I was approached by young people with open buckets looking for charitable donations. I raised this matter in the House on occasions in the past. There is a need for some extra controls on charities. In An Agreed Programme for Government in 2002, the Government stated the need to reform the law relating to charities. In 2003 the Law Society reported on the need for reform of the law on charities. A Government White Paper on supporting voluntary activity was published in 2000. A consultation paper was issued by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, entitled Establishing a Modern Statutory Framework for Charity. There has been much talk and many promises but very little action. Will the Government carry through on what has been promised?
I support my colleagues who asked for a debate with the Minister for Health and Children. It is an urgent matter and a crisis has been reached. I welcome the response from Senator Morrissey and from the distinguished Minister for Defence yesterday in the other House when he acknowledged that a problem exists. It is not good enough for a Minister to acknowledge the problem; the Minister for Health and Children needs to do something about it. He should come before the House to debate the issue and inform us, now that the local elections are over, as to where the Hanly report stands and whether it will be implemented in full.
I ask the Leader to seek an explanation from the Minister for Health and Children as to the reason a ward in the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Limerick was closed for a week and patients booted out when there is a crisis in the mid-west region, with thousands of people waiting for a bed in the hospital. They must now put up with the consequences of a ward being closed to facilitate the Bush entourage.
This is a desperate measure and an awful example of discrimination against the ordinary people of the mid-west. It is unacceptable and unnecessary in view of the current crisis facing the regional hospital in Limerick where people are lying on trolleys in corridors. To close a whole ward and virtually a full wing of the hospital is unacceptable and I ask the Leader for an explanation.
Senator Brian Hayes, as Leader of the Opposition, raised an issue Senator Quinn referred to yesterday, namely, the vetting procedures for those caring for children at all levels. I understand this has proved a thorny issue. I discussed the matter with a member of the Government yesterday who informed me the Government is approaching a resolution, although I do not know what will be the details. The Senator asked when legislation would be forthcoming. The example set in the Soham case in England is a timely one for us and we need framework legislation to address the issue. The highest standards must apply to those in charge of vulnerable people. I will seek a decision or an update on the matter.
I am amazed the issue of visas has been raised by all sides. I am currently dealing with two such cases. Senator Norris appears to have secured instant action on his application for a person to come here to visit a person legally resident here. Are decisions on allowing people to come here made in an arbitrary or random matter? A framework should be in place. We have heard about judges, members of governments, physicists and ordinary parents who want to visit their grown up children here. I had not realised the issue was such a problem but that is clearly the case. I will endeavour to speak to the office of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to obtain information on the standards applied.
It would be wrong if these decisions were arbitrary, even worse than not allowing anyone to enter the country. Senator O'Toole raised the extra costs arising from the privatisation of the NCT and the proposed privatisation of speed cameras. The latter proposal would be a serious development. We are grumbling about being penalised for travelling at 33 or 34 kph in a 30 kph zone but privatisation would result in being penalised for travelling at 31 kph in a 30 kph zone. The citizen would lose out if a private agency was given responsibility.
It was interesting to note Senator O'Toole point out that Senator Ross could reply to his points in a debate. It is good to have such individuality among the Independents.
Senator Ryan also raised the issue of privatisation, citing a west Kerry guesthouse which did not receive approval because different people had different ideas and the privatised agency responsible for inspections does not operate a standard. I confess to a private interest in this issue as my second son was involved when Bord Fáilte inspected hotels and guesthouses. I used to receive constant calls from people complaining about decisions but always told callers that the matter had nothing to do with me and they should take it up with my son. He is no longer with the organisation and inspections are now in the hands of a private firm.
As regards Senator Ryan's request for a debate on equality, the matter was raised in the House about two weeks ago when we had a lively discussion of the topic on the Order of Business, with Senators taking different views on it.
We could ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come before the House to discuss the issue.
Senator Morrissey called on the Minister for Health and Children to explain what is happening regarding the accident and emergency unit at Blanchardstown hospital. This is a free Chamber in which Members can raise issues and the Senator has raised this.
Senator Finucane again raised the issue of national car testing. People are frantic about the changes that are taking place in road safety regulations and they do not know quite where they stand. A total of 200,000 people have received notification of penalty points and they were silent during the election campaign. Who will tell a candidate calling at his or her door that he or she has been docked two points?
Mostly it was not raised. If one is travelling at 80 mph in a 60 mph zone, one should be penalised, but if travelling at 52 mph in a 50 mph zone or 33 mph in a 30 mph, it is entirely silly to be penalised. I did not get my penalty point notification yet for being over the speed limit in a 50 mph zone but it is on the way. The Senator also referred to the people with whom he wished to deal.
Senator Ó Murchú is one of five Members who raised visa difficulties. Senator Henry cited the case of a member of the Nigerian Government, a Romanian engineer and a physicist, all of whom could not get into the State. It is elitist to refer to such individuals but at least they can prove their place in society in their countries of origin. It beggars belief that somebody who wished to attend a wedding was refused a visa. We give out about other countries but we are operating this system ourselves.
Senator Leyden referred to undocumented Irish people in the US saying this should be on the agenda of the meeting of the next President of the European Commission and the US President. I will forward that to his office because it would be useful.
Senator Terry agreed with Senator Morrissey regarding the €5 million needed in their constituency to open the accident and emergency facility, which has been ready for some time. The Senator sought a debate with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the SMI report which deals with the closure of Garda stations and Garda strength. The Minister remains firmly committed to recruiting extra gardaí and creating a fuss about that.
I hope the commitment will be implemented in the short term. The programme for Government stated the gardaí would be recruited over the five-year term. The Minister remains committed to this and there will be movement shortly.
Senator Maurice Hayes referred to the visa system and highlighted his experience of the vetting of people in care.
Senator Norris raised motion No. 18 tabled by the Independent Members regarding the report of the transport committee, which recommended the construction of a metro system. That has always been the Senator's policy. He also referred to the visa policy. He asked me to inquire about the status of President Bush when he is here and I will do that.
Senator Feighan raised the proposed 3.8% VHI price increase. This is modest compared to other years but it will impose a burden. He also asked why President Bush would not meet us all but he will only be here for a short time. He would not have time to meet us all.
Senator Quinn referred to the need to reform legislation relating to charities, collections and so on. Various Governments have talked about this and various documents have been published. There was an effort to reform this legislation in 1997 but it did not come to anything. It should be done because, while somebody may legitimately represent a charity and conduct collections, one wonders sometimes what it is about, where the money is going and whether the collections are regulated. They should be properly regulated rather than adopting regulations that are a nuisance to people. I will endeavour to speak to the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Social and Family Affairs about this.
Senator Coonan mentioned the health crisis and sought a debate on the mid-west. The Cathaoirleach said that would be suitable for an Adjournment debate if the Senator had a particular case in mind.