Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act 1996, to be taken without debate; No. 2, motion re the Irish Nationality and Citizenship and Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2003, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 3, Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and to conclude not later than 2 p.m. Spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and other Senators for ten minutes. The Minister will be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; No. 4, motion re the Budget Statement of the Minister for Finance, to be taken from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and other Senators for eight minutes. Members may share time and the Minister will be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the debate. There will be an extended sos from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. because of the Budget Statement.
A serious matter came before the Special Criminal Court yesterday. It concerns the conviction and sentencing of two named individuals, both of whom are activists within the Sinn Féin Party, which is a registered political party in the State. When I raised this matter in the House on 6 October I asked the Government to ensure that the 20 or 30 Members of this assembly and the other assembly be informed of the fact that they were being spied upon during 2002. Has the Government taken action on that matter?
If this matter had related to a member of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party, not only would there be a national outcry but there would be demands for a tribunal of investigation to be established as soon as possible. Here we have a political party under the guise of a paramilitary organisation which seems to think it can get away with this behaviour without any comment from its leadership or action by the members concerned. This is a very serious matter. Some people may not want me to raise it because they feel it should be swept under the carpet in view of the sensitivities of the Northern peace process. I say this because it must be said and because this is a democracy. The Irish people have elected Members to this assembly and the other Assembly and those Members have a right to go about their business without being interfered with by this neo-fascist group. I ask the Government to ensure that those named individuals who have been spied upon, interfered with and had their privacy put to one side be informed of that fact as soon as possible.
I agree with the points raised by Senator Brian Hayes. The issue of interference with Members of the Oireachtas when going about their business is covered clearly in the Constitution. I welcome yesterday's clear and unambiguous statement by the Taoiseach that the convictions of yesterday could not be covered by the Good Friday Agreement and that these people will serve their full sentences. The issues raised by Senator Brian Hayes need to be addressed.
The Leader may have misunderstood a point I made yesterday when I raised No. 25 on the Order Paper, relating to the committee which is considering the Judge Curtin matter. The House has a clear rule that we do not discuss this matter in the House and everyone has accepted that rule. However, I asked that the Seanad receive formal reports on the ongoing business of that committee, which was set up at our behest. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss the matter with the members or Chairman of the committee because that would be to compromise the work of the committee, and of the House if the matter ever comes back to us.
I wish to say one more sentence on this issue. I promise you, a Chathaoirligh, that if what I say is out of line I will take it back. It is inappropriate for us to get running reports on what is happening at that committee via the national media. There has been another move forward today but why are we not being told about these matters in a formal manner? All I am saying is that it is wrong.
I appreciate the Senator's point but the terms of reference of the committee state that "following the completion of its proceedings the Select Committee shall furnish a report of these proceedings to the Seanad, together with appropriate transcripts and associated audio-visual material, if any, as the committee sees fit."
This is a crucial matter and the House is entitled to at least get reports of what is going on. We should not be left wondering. I will leave it at that and will not mention it again but I feel there is an issue here concerning how we do our business.
I also wish to raise the issue of the report yesterday from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about building houses. Some 48,000 local authority houses were scheduled to be built over the past ten years but in the event only 37,000 were constructed. Therefore, 10,000 more houses could have been built. I do not know about the rights and wrongs of this matter but I am appalled because we have raised the shortage of housing repeatedly in the House. Where is the problem here? This is another issue relating to what we discussed concerning Seanad reform. We could have close relations with groups, such as local authority representatives.
This is the second time I have made this suggestion to the Leader. I would like us to discuss housing with local authority representatives — the people who elect most of the Members here — to find the answer. Is there a problem with the process, the money or the way in which decisions are implemented?
For whatever reason, some 10,000 houses remain unbuilt which have been approved — money was allocated to build them, people are queuing up to live in them and they should be built. That cannot be right, so I would like the situation explained to us. Let us see where the problem lies so that we can deal with it. The Leader should invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who I am sure would be delighted to discuss it with us, to the House. I also wish to take the matter a step further by having a consultation process with local authority members who know the situation inside out. I do not pretend to know about it so let us have a discussion with them. We should grant them that level of recognition which, during our discussions with them over the past few years, we said we would. I look forward to the Leader's reply on those issues.
Senator O'Toole has given a good illustration of the failure of local democracy in this country because essentially city and county managers can do what they like and members of local authorities rarely find out until afterwards. A fundamental restoration of real local democracy is required whereby people can discover what is going on and be responsible for policy, instead of getting blamed for other people's decisions which is the usual fate of local authority members.
I am unhappy with the idea that a matter such as that covered by No. 1 on the Order Paper should pass through the Houses of the Oireachtas without debate. This involves depriving people of their liberty. We may debate whether it is necessary but these provisions are for the extended detention of people suspected of drug trafficking. We may or may not need those powers but I find it extraordinary that such a decision, to extend those powers for another year, would pass through the Oireachtas without a debate. I will not call a vote on the matter but I wish to inform the Leader that, as leader of the Labour Party group, I am unhappy that something as fundamental as the deprivation of people's liberty should ever go through without a debate in the Houses, as distinct from a debate in committee. It would be a good idea for a committee to review this matter but the report of the committee ought to be debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
A number of matters appeared in this morning's media which should give us great cause for concern. I cannot recall the figures but it appears to me that if we had the road fatality rates of a country like Sweden, between 200 and 300 Irish people would be alive who are killed here in road accidents every year. A survey was published this morning suggesting that 85% of drivers admit to regularly and deliberately breaking speed limits. Over 20% admit to driving when they had taken alcohol and I presume that to mean that they were aware of being in breach of the rules. The evidence shows that it is young men in particular who break the rules. We have the astonishing situation that young men are more successful in the driving test than young women. Those figures were produced by the Department of Transport. Therefore, we appear to have an extraordinarily inconsistent set of policies on driving, drivers and enforcing the rules. Incidentally, the people who broke the rules all thought they were great drivers. Less than 1% of them admitted to being bad drivers, while the remainder considered that they were good, very good or excellent.
We have a horrendous accident rate. Peculiar things are occurring in driving tests whereby the gender deemed to be better at passing the driving test is more at risk on the road. We desperately need to examine seriously the proper enforcement of our driving regulations. Where we enforce the rules, as for example with the smoking ban, and when people believe the rules will be enforced, we have a 97% rate of compliance. We must assume, therefore, that the reason people ignore the rules on drinking and speeding are because they have a reasonable expectation that the rules will not be enforced.
I agree fully with Senator Brian Hayes. There is something sinister about senior officials of a political party using paramilitary activities to find out information about the private lives of Members of the Oireachtas. That is not part of healthy, normal politics and nobody should excuse it or fudge over it, whatever the delicacy of the matter. It is a sinister development which can lead us only in one direction that will undermine democracy.
I join with Senator Brian Hayes and Senator Ryan as regards the sentencing in the Special Criminal Court yesterday. There is a complacency in tolerating the unconstitutional behaviour and activities of certain members of Sinn Féin. It is not acceptable that we should allow double standards. No party has any right to claim to be fully democratic if it engages in such activities. For a party to accept an À la carte version of democracy is intolerable. It would be irresponsible of this House, its Members and anybody else who supports democratic principles to allow this to go unchallenged. I ask the Leader to establish two points from the Government, if she can — first, to identify all Members of the Oireachtas who were on this list and, second, to confirm whether these Members have been told they were, or are being, spied upon.
The Leader should send a letter to the leadership of Sinn Féin pointing out that this is unacceptable and ask for an unequivocal statement condemning these activities. If we truly believe in democracy and want Sinn Fein to come into the democratic system, it must come in fully. I call on all Members of the House to support the sentiments that have been expressed here this morning.
In order to be helpful to Senator O'Toole, as a member of the committee, I can say that we have always refrained from commenting on this matter even though we have listened to contributions regarding it in the Chamber. As regards the terms of reference set down for the committee, there is no provision for interim reports to this House or the Lower House. The only provision is that at the end of it, we will——
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I just wanted to clarify that matter.
As a public representative for the mid-west region, I welcome the news from Ryanair and its chief executive and the management at Shannon Airport with regard to an expansion of routes from the Shannon area. It will be for the overall benefit of the mid-west region. I hope that Ryanair will expand further. I compliment the new management structure on its initiative in rapidly attracting new business. It is extremely important for the future of Shannon.
Senator Ryan referred to the statistics produced in a survey on driving and the fact that drivers confirmed they had taken alcohol before driving. We should also note another recent survey which shows that serious fatalities on the roads are happening between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. and in many cases involve younger drivers. In 80% of cases alcohol was involved. The Garda needs to pay attention to this area to try to curb such activity. In many cases people feel as no gardaí will be present on the roads between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. they can delay returning home on the basis that they will avoid Garda cars with the result that they may be taking unnecessary chances.
Will Second Stage of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill be completed today or will it also be taken on another day? I join colleagues in expressing concern about the housing issue. I understand the Government made money available, which was not taken up by local authorities, except in Limerick where building completions reached 104% of the quota. The authority there should be congratulated on its achievement. On top of that we received a document from the Department of Finance regarding additional moneys required. A sum of €14 million is required for asylum seekers' housing, etc. I am concerned as I do not believe these premises are inspected for fire, safety and health, as they should be. The Minister should be required to ensure this is done.
As the Leader and you, a Chathaoirligh, have been so helpful, I would like to ask the Leader if she would again raise the question of the Gulfstream jet in the light of the "Kalla Fakta" television programme broadcast by a Swedish television station on 22 November, which demonstrated that since October 2001, the aeroplane completed 72 operations in over 30 countries. The aeroplane's routes always take the same pattern. After take-off from its home base in Smithfield, North Carolina, it makes a short stop at Dulles Airport in Washington, close to the CIA headquarters. After crossing the Atlantic it makes stops in places——
Shannon is listed first then Frankfurt and Prague. Thereafter, it flies exclusively to countries with which the United States is allied in its so-called war against terror, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. These are countries where prisoners are kept and interrogated, far beyond the reach of American or international law
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on housing. The report reads very badly given that money has been allocated to local authorities. It is extraordinary that some local authorities have reached their targets while others have not. Questions need to be asked as to why this is so.
This matter should be a priority as many areas have been let down. On another issue, I ask the Leader to organise a debate on our competitiveness. As we know, Ireland is the third most expensive country in the EU and Dublin is the fourth most expensive capital after Paris, London and Copenhagen. We are pricing ourselves out of the tourism market as evidenced by a 7% drop in tourists visiting the country in the past three months. The price of goods and services are completely out of control as shown on the Fine Gael website.
I join Senator O'Toole in asking for a debate on housing. The rate of construction of housing is very uneven across the country. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has received a number of applications from local authorities for affordable housing, which should be fast-tracked, particularly given that land is now becoming available from health boards and because of road development. Those applications should be addressed quickly by the Department to allow us to have the housing for which we have already made provision. An early debate on the matter would be useful.
The Motor Insurance Advisory Board issued its final report yesterday. Some of the functions of that authority will be transferred to the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. It would be timely and appropriate for us to debate the whole industry, particularly the findings of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board and where we go from here. Ms Dorothea Dowling gave a very good interview on RTE's "Five Seven Live" radio programme yesterday evening in which she expressed some reservations about the way forward.
I refer to the matter raised by Senator Brian Hayes and indeed to the fact that it was raised at all. I do not believe Members are in the least endangering the peace process or negotiations in Northern Ireland, as these are the very matters that need to be clarified by other parties in Northern Ireland. We have moved on from the guns, which have been largely silent for a while, to all these other activities. What is now required is the decommissioning of mindsets as well as other things. While the fact that it has happened might cause a flurry for a moment or two, raising the matter in the House can do nothing but good to the ongoing discussions.
I remind the House and the Leader that today is the United Nations World Day of AIDS. I ask the Leader to have the Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid come to the House in the new year to debate Irish aid to address this problem. It would be churlish not to recognise the American contribution to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, as outlined by the American ambassador in today's newspapers. I hope any Irish aid would not be trammelled and restricted in the same way as America's by the refusal to help bodies advocating the use of condoms as a preventive measure.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister for Education and Science in the new year on the OECD report on higher education, which would be very appropriate to this body.
I support what Senator Maurice Hayes has said regarding United Nations World Day of AIDS. It is worrying and distressing to see the increasing number of deaths in the world due to AIDS and the many children orphaned as a result. This causes great distress and heartache to many families. We must also recognise the increasing number of AIDS victims in this State, which has increased by 10% since 2002. A debate on AIDS both globally and in Ireland is timely. The sexual activity of young Irish people is causing the spread of many sexually-transmitted diseases and we must face this issue. Will the Leader organise such a debate in the House?
Concern has been expressed over the emergence of off-licences following changes in the habits of people consuming alcohol. The concern relates to a deficiency in the planning laws which allows someone to change the use of a premises without the approval of the planning authority. Local councillors would like an input into the change of use of a premises from another commercial activity to an off-licence. We are talking about deaths on the roads a result of drink driving but it is becoming easier for people to buy alcohol in an unregulated environment. Will the Leader consider what might be required and contact the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with a view to introducing legislation?
I have two pieces of bad news related to the Government's tendency to put things on the long finger. It was announced at the weekend that speed cameras which were to come into operation have now been deferred until 2006. We have talked this morning about death on the roads. Can the Leader confirm that the Road Traffic Bill next week will give us the opportunity to discuss traffic accidents and speed cameras that will help reduce the number of deaths?
The other bad news was the information in the Forfás report that we have only achieved 2% broadband penetration, one of the lowest rates anticipated in Europe. We set out to make ourselves the Internet hub of Europe ten years ago and the Government confirmed that challenge five years ago. If we have only achieved 2% penetration, it is evidence that we are also putting this matter on the long finger. I urge the Leader to encourage the Government to move on this issue.
I support those speakers who have asked for a debate on housing. Some local authorities have fulfilled their obligations, with Waterford achieving 104%. County Sligo is also well up there. Local authorities can buy houses but the price ceiling is set at a very low level, although it is acceptable in County Sligo, where a three-bedroom semi-detached house can be bought for €155,000. I am aware, however, of students who live away from home in major cities who put their names on the housing list to get rent allowance. I would like a full debate where housing need could be assessed. There are thousands of people on housing lists who do not need a house at all.
I appreciate the ruling that it is not in order but perhaps the Leader might say something in regard to likely future Government policy in the area. Specifically, she might like to comment on the provision of the much-needed second terminal at Dublin Airport.
I support the call for a debate on housing. I welcome the provision of 39,000 houses in the past ten years but recognise the shortfall of 9,000 houses and the problems being faced by local authorities. It is time for the Minister to take the matter on board. We saw how €353 million was paid out in rent supplement in the past year. An assessment of needs is being carried out by local authorities and people are asking what the future holds. Will local authorities stop building houses?
I am concerned about the loss of 9,000 houses when local authorities are renting houses from builders over a ten-year period. That money could be better spent buying the houses.
I also welcome the good news for Shannon Airport. It is the first break the new airport authority has got and is welcome. If it brings another 1.5 million tourists into the mid-west in the next year, the board should be congratulated.
Unfortunately, the meeting is during Seanad sitting hours so we cannot partake. As a result of the smoking ban and the increase in drinking in the home, a social and health challenge regarding smoking in the home has arisen. Those who originally went to the pub for a drink and a smoke are now smoking at home in front of their children. They are not out doing press ups and sit ups, they did not change their habits and now they smoke at home. Children do not have a choice and must put up with it. That is one of the challenges the vintners will put to us and when we meet them, I would like all Members of this House and the Leader to have an open ear——
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children to the House to explain the crisis in accident and emergency departments, where, according to the nurses' union, 175 patients were on trolleys yesterday? In Tallaght Hospital, 59 patients were on trolleys, the hospital ran out of extra trolleys and an accident victim had to wait in an ambulance. This is unacceptable and the Minister for Health and Children should be invited to the House to explain what will be done about the situation.
Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, raised yesterday's court finding about the two Sinn Féin activists. I can only repeat what the Taoiseach said in the Dáil yesterday. This is a serious business in a democracy and I am conscious of what Senator Maurice Hayes said which lent some texture to the matter. I regard it as extremely serious. As the Cathaoirleach knows the matter was discussed yesterday in committee. I thank the Senator for raising it and, indeed, he also debated the matter well on "Morning Ireland" today. Senator O'Toole asserted that those involved should not be covered by the Good Friday Agreement. The Taoiseach mentioned that yesterday in the Dáil when he said whatever sentences they receive would not be covered by the Good Friday Agreement.
The terms of reference of the Curtin inquiry provide that it will make one report to this House. That will be done and there will not be an interim report.
Senator O'Toole raised the matter of social housing and the local authorities. It would be easy for us to damn all county managers or housing authorities. What has happened appears to be very patchy. Some counties have fulfilled the duties imposed upon them and some have not. It is a matter of getting the land, making the appropriate planning arrangements etc. However, it is a serious matter, with so many people on the housing list and houses laid out but not built. A gap exists and money is being provided, so I would agree there is a need for action in this regard. The Senator asked whether the House could set up a standing committee to meet the local authorities and find out what they are doing about housing. That is a matter which the leaders of the various groups in the House might talk about after the Order of Business. It would be a useful exercise.
Senator Ryan wanted to debate No. 1 on the Order Paper. I am always slightly at odds when I read out that there will not be a debate on a particular matter. I am conscious that four Members of this House serve on the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights — Senators Jim Walsh, Kitt, Terry and Tuffy. Clearly, that committee has debated the matter.
On another occasion I said I was open to a suggestion that we debate particular matters. Clearly we cannot do it now, but perhaps if there is a concerted demand for it, the House will take it on another occasion. I take the Senator's point. He spoke about Sweden and the diminished road fatality statistics there. Drivers here regularly drive and speed after drinking and, despite the enforcement of the driving regulations, do not foresee that they will be stopped. Most people have such a dread of being stopped by the Garda they are afraid to venture behind the wheel if they have consumed any alcohol.
The Senator saw what happened as regards the Sinn Féin activists as a sinister development, which indeed it is. Senator Minihan said there cannot be an À la carte approach to democracy and that it was unacceptable. He has asked if I should write to the Sinn Féin leadership, conveying the views of this House. I have no difficulty with that and will do so.
Senator Finucane also raised the matter of the Curtin report. He welcomed the good news about Shannon.
In fact it was an excellent debate last night and it went on until ten minutes to eight, with great input from all parties and every side of the House. Senator Norris raised the matter of houses for asylum seekers. I have every confidence that they are subjected to housing and fire inspections and all that.
I would be doubtful of that, but I can inquire. I cannot see how the inspection of houses can be ruled out because they are to be inhabited by asylum seekers. The Senator also requested that I should ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs about further revelations as regards trips by the particular aircraft he referred to yesterday. This is being dealt with. I am putting arrangements in place as regards what the Senator and I discussed.
On housing, Senator Ormonde made the point that some local authorities are fulfilling their obligations in this area and some are not. Therefore, to damn all local authorities outright is incorrect. I did not know what Senator Bannon said the first time; I regret I could not hear him.
Senator Bannon asked for a debate on competitiveness and said there was a decrease in the number of tourists coming to Ireland. Senator Kitt asked for a debate on housing and Senator McCarthy raised the matter of insurance, particularly as there appear to be developments in that whole area. It is still somewhat early, but we will make inquiries. Senator Maurice Hayes asked for the question of overseas development aid to be addressed in the House. I had anticipated such a debate after Christmas. I had also pencilled in the OECD's excellent report on education for debate, to be attended by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. As I said earlier, Senator Maurice Hayes gave texture to what Senator Brian Hayes said about the current Sinn Féin activity. It brought balance to the debate on the matter.
I had intended to mention world AIDS day, as raised by Senator Terry. All over the world today people should reserve some time to reflect on this. The AIDS-HIV statistics in Ireland are up by 10%, which is an enormous increase.
Senator Dooley spoke about planning and filling stations. I find it amusing that Statoil and Esso have proudly announced they have 24 petrol stations where wine may be bought. One may buy oil and wine together. If one is driving, however——
Senator Dooley asked whether there should be legislation as regards a change of usage. I always thought that if one changed what one was doing, change of usage planning had to be applied for. Senator Quinn raised the matter of the speed cameras and the Road Traffic Bill 2004. He asked me to confirm whether the House may discuss those matters next week. I can only give what I regard as general wisdom on the matter. One may range far and wide on Second Stage of a Bill, but that is up to the Cathaoirleach or whoever is in the Chair.
Generally speaking, if it is in connection with traffic and a road traffic Bill, there is plenty of scope for debate.
On the matter of 2% penetration of broadband, I agree that is serious. Senator Scanlon raised the housing debate also and said that the trend was generally patchy, one county being good and another bad. He said there are underlying reasons for that. Senator Coghlan should read page 5 for himself. I have read it and know what it is about. He is acting as a type of tempter to me, but I will not go down that road.
Senator Brennan spoke about housing and welcomed the news about Shannon as well. I had forgotten about the vintners' invitation, but I do not know whether Senator McHugh is going to be the super-nanny of Ireland, saying one cannot drink or smoke at home.
On a point of clarification, I raised an important issue as regards young children being subjected to cigarette smoke in the home. They do not have a choice. It is a serious matter as regards health and I do not think it deserves such a condescending reply. I take offence to that, on behalf of children——
Senator Feighan asked if the Minister for Health and Children would come into the House to explain the reason many people are awaiting admission to hospitals through accident and emergency units. With regard to requests for further interesting debates in the House, between now and Christmas there will not be much time for extra-legislative debates. However, we will see what time is available and try to move on some of them.