Thursday, 30 September 2004
Order of Business.
We agree with the Order of Business today. It is important that as many voices as possible are heard on the major issue of Seanad reform. If this House can do one thing over the course of the four or five years that we have the privilege of serving as Members it is to commit to the process of Seanad reform. This is a cross-party matter. I commit myself and my party commits itself to the process.
Later today the Taoiseach and the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, will meet the political leadership of the DUP. It is a significant meeting and an historic one because it is the first time the DUP has met any Government Ministers in Dublin to discuss political matters in Northern Ireland and the ongoing peace process. It is incumbent on all of us to wish those involved in the meeting well today.
I join with Senators Ormonde and Maurice Hayes who asked yesterday for a debate on Northern Ireland at some stage over the next two weeks. The public needs to know what is happening. While we have confidence in our political leaders and in both Governments to work through all the remaining difficulties with the parties, the House would benefit from statements on Northern Ireland, particularly in light of today's meeting.
I welcome that meeting and congratulate those behind the initiative to set it up. Nothing is more important to the people of this country, North and South, and on these islands than to resolve the outstanding difficulties in the peace process and to remove the barriers to making the restoration of the institutions and the executive in Northern Ireland a reality. I wish those involved in the talks today well.
Many of the issues we have discussed over the past two years about the House can be brought together in the debate on Seanad reform and it is crucially important that people express their views at this time.
There is another issue I would like the Leader to consider. We have talked before about consultation and last night when we discussed services for people with disabilities I raised the issue. Prior to the Second Stage debate on the Disability Bill we should give ourselves enough time for formal consultation with interest groups to enable Members on both sides of the House to hear what is happening in this area. The Government consulted these people at length and the legislation grew out of that process. It would be useful to ask them what they think of the legislation and what issues arise from it. This would inform both sides of the House, regardless of party affiliations. It need not happen in the Chamber but we should set up a formal meeting to hear these people's views and Members can then decide whether to take them on board.
Yesterday on the Order of Business Senator Ulick Burke raised a question about public private partnerships, citing significant figures from the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. These must be of concern to everybody. I am completely committed to the concept of public private partnerships and fought hard to get the trade union movement to support them. This is completely different in Ireland from anywhere else in Europe.
Later in the debate Senator Scanlon spoke about the satisfaction of clients with these partnerships, namely, schools, parents, teachers and so on. This issue deserves consideration. If the scheme runs over budget but provides a good service does the Comptroller and Auditor General take account of the fact that schools are built two years earlier than projected, that there is no cost for maintenance for 20 years and that the level of support is better than ever before? Does he quantify these factors? If not, Senator Ulick Burke's comments are crucial and we need assurance that we are getting value for money although that does not detract from the importance of the principle of public private partnerships. I have raised this matter with the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service and he has agreed to put it on the committee's agenda. It is important that people contribute to that discussion.
During the debate on the Aer Lingus Act 2004 there was much discussion of its impact on the public. A number of speakers on the Government side referred to the position of the chief executive, Ms Margaret Sweeney. I do not know this woman and I have no brief on her behalf. However, there are serious questions to be asked. We legislated for this matter and, from what I can see, Ms Sweeney is doing an excellent job and has stood up to people, where necessary. What is the Government's position on this issue? I would like a clear indication on how we reached the current position where the recently appointed chief executive of a State company does not know where she stands. By common consent, this woman is doing a very good job and has shown extraordinary courage in standing up to some of the bullies in the industry, with some of whom the Leader will be familiar.
I also welcome the ongoing debate on Seanad reform. Everyone is aware that the House and its Members have a serious responsibility in terms of the consideration of such reform. We are all committed to it. This is an important debate and I commend the Leader on the commitment she has shown in this area.
On behalf of my party, I welcome the Reverend Ian Paisley and the DUP delegation to Dublin for what is an historic day. Many of us would never have believed it possible for this to happen, particularly in the context of what we hope will be an historic breakthrough. All our best wishes go to the delegation and to everybody involved in the talks which will hopefully lead to the progress we all want to see in Northern Ireland. I wish the new Minister for Foreign Affairs well in that regard.
On the subject of new Ministers, the appointment of the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, to the Department of Health and Children is generating a certain fear and trepidation in some parts of the country. I refer, in particular, to the areas in which are situated the 26 hospitals earmarked for downgrading in the Hanly report. I listened carefully to the Tánaiste's remarks from the Dáil yesterday, as played on "Morning Ireland" earlier, and I welcome what appears to be her very open attitude to the concepts of equality of access, quality health care and very high standards of delivery. We all want to see these being put in place. However, there is a genuine fear abroad regarding what the implementation, in its entirety, of the Hanly report will mean and questions remain as to whether it is the Tánaiste's intention to implement it in full.
Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come before the House at the earliest opportunity to outline, as broadly and in as much detail as possible, her intentions regarding health policy? I and many others have open minds in respect of those intentions and I look forward to hearing them. I assure her that the communities to which I refer will continue to fight hard for local access to quality acute care.
I wish to echo the remarks of Senators Brian Hayes and O'Meara regarding the historic events taking place today. I welcome the fact that representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party are coming to Dublin to meet the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, the Taoiseach and others. I hope this will lead to progress. I accept that progress was made at the meeting at Leeds Castle and it is hoped that we will reach the point where devolved government can be restored to Northern Ireland and arms will be permanently taken out of use. I know everyone involved will make a genuine effort. It would be useful if we were to review progress on the entire peace process and not just today's meeting. Perhaps the Leader could organise a debate on that matter in the next week or so in order that we can discuss the issues involved. Senators Maurice Hayes and Mansergh made similar points yesterday.
It is important to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in Government and to wish the members of the new Cabinet well in their onerous responsibilities. It would be particularly appropriate for the House to mark the elevation of the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin to a senior Cabinet position, particularly in light of the fact that her brother is a sitting Senator and that her father was a very distinguished Member of the House for many years. I also wish to express my good wishes to Deputy Seán Power, my constituency colleague, on becoming a Minister of State and to the others who have become Ministers.
It would also be appropriate to recognise the work done by the outgoing members of the Cabinet——
——unlike many Opposition Members in this House, recognised the fact that the country is going well and stated he hopes he can make it go better. At least he accepted that.
I wish to particularly single out the work done by the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Joe Walsh, during the long period he spent in that office. He protected the farming, agriculture and food industries in this country in a very effective manner for a long period. That Ireland remained free of foot and mouth disease had a great deal to do with his actions. In addition, he conducted the CAP reform and WTO talks extremely well and we owe him a significant debt of gratitude.
My final point relates to the Tánaiste becoming Minister for Health and Children. She has always shown herself to be available and I am sure that in this instance she will be only too happy to come before the House to explain her policies in detail. We will try to arrange this.
It would be remiss of me to allow the day to pass without complimenting the Taoiseach on his activities yesterday, particularly as, for the first time in his term of office, he admitted the complete failure of the Government to deliver on the promises made in the run-up to the most recent general election. There was great evidence of the latter yesterday when he sacked those in his team who were not performing.
Approximately 3,000 crimes are committed in this country each day and many of them are not being investigated because the morale of the Garda Síochána is at an all-time low. The Taoiseach did not take decisive action yesterday in respect of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who has presided over these developments.
The structures for the new Health Service Executive were put in place before the Minister, Deputy Martin, moved from the Department of Health and Children. It is important that these structures should be the subject of a debate because one bureaucratic system is replacing another and I do not see where savings will be made on behalf of the taxpayer or from where funding will be diverted to avert the chaos and crisis in the health service. I call for a debate on the matter.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the national drugs strategy? The Minister of State with responsibility in the area, Deputy Noel Ahern, has advertised for submissions from the public in respect of this matter because the problem is actually getting worse, not just in Dublin, but in other parts of the country, despite the provision of major resources. It would be timely for the House to debate this matter.
The peace process is about inclusion and that means including the DUP as much as Sinn Féin. Today's meeting is very important. If things go right in the next few weeks we might even be in a position to move beyond the peace process and achieve successful implementation.
I congratulate our first woman Minister for Agriculture and Food.
It is a very important step forward. We all know women have played a significant, if often not particularly recognised, part in farming over many years.
I also congratulate the Tánaiste on her appointment as Minister for Health and Children. If any fear and trembling is to be done it might be in the Irish Hospital Consultants Association. In her previous incarnation, she has shown an ability to take on the insurance industry and to improve performance. It would be very welcome if her reforming edge takes on some of the vested interests in the health sector.
Earlier in the year I raised the issue of some unscrupulous people erecting posters claiming they could cure cancer for a sum of money. Some local authorities prosecuted them under the Litter Pollution Act. However, far greater penalties should be imposed on such people. It has recently come to my notice that newspapers have carried advertisements since June claiming to cure cancer and various other ailments. Surely the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland should take action over these newspaper advertisements. I am more interested in having laws to prevent such people from profiting from the misery and suffering of others. The relevant Minister, possibly the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, should examine this matter. If laws are not already in place they should be introduced to deal with such unscrupulous people. Nothing is worse than people profiting from the misery of others. I ask the Leader to act on this matter.
It is appropriate that I too should join in welcoming the visit of my friends and neighbours in the DUP to Dublin. These are people I have met and with whom I have done business over the years. They are formidable people and represent a formidable body of opinion. I thoroughly concur with Senator Mansergh about the importance of inclusiveness. I am encouraged by the atmosphere in which the meeting will take place. It is an indication of normalisation and how far we have moved away from overt conflict when people are prepared to come here and meet.
Like other Members I would welcome a debate on health and not only because we have a new Minister, whom I congratulate. I read the proposals for new health areas. An area from Thurles to Buncrana and from Loop Head to Bloody Foreland does not make much administrative sense and perhaps we should reconsider that.
It is a pity that we use that sort of shorthand. It is appropriate for hospitals to give up some surgical interventions so they are better able to look after chronic diseases and diseases of the aged — a subject which interests me more every morning when I look in the mirror.
I wish to reassure any members of the farming community who might be surprised or concerned about having a woman Minister. Members of the Ulster Farmers Union would say they had their best Minister ever when Bríd Rodgers held that post.
I support Senator O'Toole in what he said regarding my comments yesterday on the overrun of costs of projects in education. I welcome the fact that five projects have come off that long list. However, I am concerned that because it was a pilot scheme, the new Minister is bound to review this particular public private partnership scheme, which will inevitably cause delay for many projects already on stream. I wish the Minister Deputy Hanafin success in her new portfolio.
I ask the Leader to request the new Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come to the House as quickly as possible in view of the escalating costs of energy across the board, particularly electricity. The ESB has a virtual monopoly and it is blatantly preventing others from producing alternative energy from renewable sources by not allowing them access to the national grid. The Minister should intervene quickly to free up the production area.
Many individuals and community groups have spent considerable resources in providing plans for the production of electricity from alternative sources but the ESB is not allowing access. The ESB receives subsidies which are not available to other potential producers. The ESB claims other producers are too expensive while blatantly ignoring that it is subsidised. The new Minister should revisit this matter and open up the whole area of energy production and its cost.
I ask the Leader to arrange a broad debate during this term under the general heading of international terrorism. During our break events at Beslan in Ossetia shocked us all. Perhaps the Leader might write a letter of support from this House to the Russian ambassador. These terrible events were probably unique. In the past, the face of evil has tried to hide itself. However, this was the first time terrorists prepared to murder innocent children were shown on prime time television, which shocked us as it shocked the world. Here as in Europe we are looking for an age of enlightenment involving tolerance for different views while holding our own views dear and getting on with living with others. It is very difficult to reconcile this with people who it seems have not even reached the age of reason. The Russian authorities must maintain the rule of law and the rule of international law. They face challenging times.
I read with great interest the tourist figures that have been bandied about for the past month. I am somewhat confused as all tourist operators as well as those involved in hotels, pubs and bed and breakfast accommodation have told me that the tourist figures are down. Who collates these figures? Are they independent? Is every Ryanair and Aer Lingus passenger deemed to be a tourist? Fewer tourists are coming to the country than two years ago and tourism is unbalanced. The area around Dublin and the east coast is getting the lion's share of tourists. Further west and on the west coast there are significant difficulties. What criteria are used to collate these figures? Are they independent? We must ensure that is the case.
I support the remarks of Senator Cummins on a matter I raised previously in the House. Clearly a legislative void needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
In the course of the local elections campaign, I met a lady whose husband was "treated" by some of the people in question. If we are talking about the same people, I understand that some of them have been struck off the register. However, they are allowed to practise alternative medicine because of the existing situation. Dick Turpin was a decent man — at least he wore a mask — but these people are outrageous. The tale the lady told me about her dear departed husband would make a good storyline in a horror film. It is outrageous. They should be put out of business as soon as possible. It is terrible that the only rap they have been given so far is a litter fine. It is outrageous.
I join Senators Cummins and Glynn regarding the issue they raised. It is unspeakable that people can get away with claiming in an advertisement that they can cure such critical illnesses as cancers and strokes. When I listened to a radio programme during the week, I heard the story of a person who lost a loved one to cancer approximately two years ago. The person, who was rational and logical, said that in the height of their desperation and sorrow they would have been tempted to contact these people to try to avail of the hope which was being offered. It is unforgivable that the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland only has guidelines which are not necessarily cast in stone. This matter needs to be debated and examined with a view to introducing punishments for those who claim to offer cures for illnesses such as those I have mentioned and who take advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable.
I congratulate the Deputies who were promoted yesterday and are now Ministers and Ministers of State. I pay tribute to my constituency colleague, the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Joe Walsh. I made my views known around the time of his announcement. He will be remembered for his skilful negotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy. The manner in which he defended this country against the blight of foot and mouth disease was very skilful. Ireland would have suffered a massive disaster if that had not been the case. I estimate that he was appointed to the Cabinet on four occasions between 1992 and June 2002. He spent five years as a Minister of State. It is a major tribute to anyone to have been a Member of the House for 27 years and to have spent almost 15 years as a Minister.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the new Minister for Transport as soon as possible. I recognise that he has been given a complex brief and that it will take him some time to read himself into certain important matters. However, as I outlined yesterday, there are particular difficulties in the mid-west in respect of Aer Lingus and the new airport authority. We should widen the discussion to include the rail strategy, especially as the second Luas line has come on stream in recent days. I would like an update in the House about the activities of the working group on the western rail corridor and the state of that project. The outgoing Minister was supportive of the rail spur to Shannon Airport. He was in the final throes of announcing funding for that project. I would like progress to be made in that regard as quickly as possible. A debate would be welcome.
I wish the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, well. I hope he has an enjoyable time in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We worked quite well with him in this House. He was supportive of us on many occasions. I wish those Ministers who are retiring well, particularly the former Minister for the mid-west, Deputy Michael Smith, who gave tremendous service to the region and the country. I wish him well in his retirement.
We will not differ about Killarney — we have never done so — or about the national parks in County Donegal and the Burren. Some administrative changes have been made in the promotion of the tourism business, especially in respect of the various regions. As the heat is off, the tourism season has finished and plans have been made for next year, this an opportune time to ask the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to clarify the areas which are under his responsibility. There is some overlapping at present in that regard.
I join other Senators in congratulating the newly appointed Ministers and Ministers of State, particularly Deputy Killeen, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, who was reappointed.
I appreciate Senator Brian Hayes's remarks about Seanad reform. We have managed the reform process on a cross-party basis and I hope it continues that way. I hope there will be a fine debate here today and that everybody will wish to speak. Today is the second day of the debate, but I do not know if it will continue into a third day. We will endeavour to prolong the debate because I understand that some Senators who wish to speak cannot be present today, for one reason or another.
Senator Brian Hayes also discussed today's meeting of representatives of the Government and Dr. Ian Paisley. It is quite amazing that we are debating Dr. Paisley's arrival in Dublin today in such an open, frank and welcoming manner in one of the legislative Chambers of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Given that snowballs were thrown at a previous Head of Government almost 40 years ago, today's meeting is a welcome step on a long odyssey which has involved journeys between North and South. I thank Senator Hayes for raising the matter, as others did. We should formally welcome the DUP leader and his delegation to Dublin today and wish the talks well. The historic nature of this fundamental step will become clear only with a little hindsight. We discussed yesterday the need for a debate on Northern Ireland. I hope it can be arranged within two weeks.
Many Senators called for Ministers to come to the House to discuss various issues. With the agreement of the Cathaoirleach and other Senators, I propose to have a rolling debate with the new Ministers in the House. I will endeavour to arrange for a Minister to come to the House each week to lay out his or her stall. It would be good for Ministers to have to read themselves into their briefs precisely and quickly and to outline their priorities for the next two or three years. Such debates would give Ministers a platform, lead to good discussions and give Ministers a clear thrust as they go about their duties. I will endeavour to arrange such debates, but I do not know if they can start next week because the business for then has almost been formulated. I will start today to make moves to arrange the debates. I think they would be useful for the House, the Ministers and the country.
I share Senator O'Toole's thoughts on disability, which I have discussed with the Deputy Leader, Senator Dardis. The Government has a significant disability agenda, involving the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 and the Disability Bill 2004. The Seanad reform report recommends that the House should meet all the interested parties here — I do not know if that could be cleared — or in another room as part of a formal consultative process. I know the interested parties were formally consulted before the Bill was formulated, but the Seanad reform sub-committee heard that people would also like to engage in a consultative process about legislation before it is discussed by Senators. Perhaps such a discussion could become combative — I do not know — but Senator O'Toole's idea is a fine one and we will endeavour to see how we can proceed with it. Such a process would be suited to the Bills in question.
Regarding a debate on public private partnerships, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and perhaps the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, or the new Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, would be very interested in having one here. Perhaps it would be a good topic for Private Members' business, but that is a matter for other parties; we have had ours.
Senator O'Toole referred to someone whose name I will not say, but we know whom he meant and the CEO of Aer Rianta. In the debate in this House, I spoke very strongly, saying that I could not understand the punitive nature of a clause in that Bill which specifically marked her out for demolition. I had never seen the like in any Bill or legislation before, despite my long experience. I had never seen such a determined, pointed assault on a specific position or person. I will endeavour to find out what the situation is, but yesterday I got the records and looked at what I said. I see that Senator Daly remembers it too. It was most remarkable. She is a very fine woman.
I thank Senator O'Meara for the Labour Party's warm welcome to Dr. Paisley and for raising the historic nature of what is happening. I will ask my friend and colleague, Senator Dardis, to exert some of his considerable influence over the Tánaiste so that she might be our first guest in the House in this roll-out of policies and public submissions on health policy. Senator Dardis requested a debate on Northern Ireland issues, including Dr. Paisley's visit. There was also the matter of the new Cabinet. In particular, the Senator spoke of Commissioner McCreevy and former Minister, Deputy Joe Walsh, with whom I know he has very strong lines of communication.
Today is Senator Bannon's day as we will have the new gardaí about whom he has spoken here and for whom he has toiled. The extra gardaí will be brought into play on a rolling basis. The Senator also spoke about crime and the health services.
Senator Brady called for what would be a very useful mid-term debate on the drugs strategy. The Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, is seeking submissions, and we in this House could provide one. Senator Coghlan raised the powers of the Ombudsman. I do not know if she is seeking to have her powers extended, but I will endeavour to find out for him.
Senator Mansergh mentioned the peace process and the fact that we now have our first woman Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan. It is quite startling. In Northern Ireland, there was also a very fine woman Minister. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, will be excellent in her position. When Senator O'Meara spoke, she said that there was considerable alarm, fear and trembling among health practitioners and so on regarding the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. Senator Mansergh spoke about the IHC. I know from the 12 weeks in which I was in the Department of Health and Children as Minister that trepidation would be very good for them; I would prescribe it in large doses.
I hope its members are full of fear and trembling today.
Senator Cummins raised a serious and startling issue. I met a woman whose husband had been taken in by one of the posters on the road to Waterford, which I myself saw, which proclaimed that the advertiser could cure cancer. Imagine putting that up on a poster in a field. Senator McCarthy raised the issue of advertising standards, saying that they need to be more specific, and I will come to that.
Senator Maurice Hayes welcomed his friends and neighbours, who are extremely formidable. He is formidable himself. He also spoke of the extensive health areas which must be dealt with and age-related diseases. I share his thoughts on that matter.
The Senator is kind to say so.
Senator Ulick Burke mentioned the pilot schemes, the public private partnerships and the Minister responsible for energy. There is a need for a debate on that matter. The issue of access to the grid does not seem to have developed at all and there is no more freedom. Senator Hanafin mentioned international terrorism. The mind goes off an issue very quickly. We were all horrified at that awful event in Beslan. Imagine children of that age suffering in that way. The Senator is seeking a debate on international terrorism and we will endeavour to arrange it.
Senator Feighan raised tourism numbers. Every hotel, guesthouse, shop and facility is saying that its visitor numbers are down, yet we keep reading that they are up. I am indebted to Senator Mansergh for pointing out that the CSO collects tourism figures, so they should be objective. However, a different methodology may be used. Does everyone on a Ryanair or Aer Lingus flight constitute a tourist, although they may only have been shopping in London or have attended a match? The Minister does not need to read himself into this brief, as he is already immersed. We will endeavour to get him as quickly as possible. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.
Senator Glynn spoke about alternative medicine. There is both proper and pseudo-alternative medicine. The people to whom he refers and the type of medicine they are parading are preying on people when they are extremely low and would grasp at any straw for comfort.
Senator McCarthy welcomed the new Ministers and Ministers of State. The former Minister, Deputy Joe Walsh, comes from the Senator's area, and he has long collaborated with him. Advertising standards are loose rather than precise in their application. The latter is necessary to counter the torment of the advertising referred to by Senator McCarthy and others.
Senator Dooley welcomed the new Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, and had great praise for his predecessor. He would like the Minister to come here to discuss the rail strategy, the western rail corridor, the Shannon rail spur and various issues which affect the mid-west. Senator Daly also mentioned tourism policy, very generously paying tribute to his two colleagues, the two Clare Ministers.