Wednesday, 23 March 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No.1, Veterinary Practice Bill 2004 — Committee Stage (resumed) to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 1 p.m. Last night, much great work was done on the Bill and more than 80 amendments were dealt with most adequately. Another 50 or 60 remain and I commend all of the participants. No. 2, Finance Bill 2005 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m.; No. 3, motion for earlier signature of the Finance Bill 2005, to be taken immediately without debate on the conclusion of No. 2., if the latter passes this House; and No. 22, motion 11, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1 p.m to 2.30 p.m.
Some years ago, after a strong campaign in this House launched by Senator Quinn, the Government accepted the principle of penalty points as a means to reduce road fatalities and change driver behaviour. However, we now have an admission from Garda members that they are being directed to go to certain areas of the country to push up detection rates, thereby increasing penalties for drivers who were slightly over the limit.
We are all familiar with the situation described some years ago by the former Senator, Willie Farrell, as a garda with a hairdryer stood at a junction, wishing to take out a number of motorists. However, there is a major difference between proper enforcement of the penalty points system and merely frustrating motorists in the manner that was eloquently described by gardaí at their recent conference. Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Transport or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on this matter in the coming months, particularly as Garda time is being wasted in trying to frustrate motorists in the way I have described?
The Government should fully support Commissioner Charlie McCreevy's attempt to introduce the services directive through the European Commission. I accept that there are difficulties in France at present because of the impending referendum but logic demands that if there is a single economic zone, there should also a single services market to match it. Senator Ross and others indicated yesterday that a cartel has operated in the banking sector in this country for many years. Competition is the best way to take that cartel out of operation. It is only right that European consumers should be able to obtain the benefits offered by service providers throughout the EU.
Commissioner McCreevy is correct to push this agenda. I accept that it was initiated by his predecessor but Mr. McCreevy has inherited responsibility for steering through the directive. Due to the current difficulties in France, it is crucial that the Commission and the Council support Commissioner McCreevy in his attempts to introduce greater competition and greater protection for consumers as a means of taking on cartels and other protected interests in the European Union.
I completely reject the criticism of the Garda. This is the kind of argument constantly used by politicians. Both sides of the House passed the legislation in question. The legislation was introduced by one side and was implemented by the other side following the change of Government in 1996. Attitudes changed on both sides immediately.
As I understand it, Senator Brian Hayes said that gardaí are being directed by certain members of the force to increase the number of penalty points given. When the legislation was introduced, the only objections to the speed limits came from these benches. Senator Ross and I proposed that there should also be a capacity to have a minimum speed limit and that this power should be given to local authorities. There was no support for our proposal. People are now shedding crocodile tears and criticising gardaí for implementing the stupid laws that we passed. Some of the speed limits are far too low and some of them are far too high. It is up to us to change those limits and not to blame the Garda for implementing legislation passed by the Houses, however well or officiously they do it. It is too easy to blame those at the end of the line. As Senator Brian Hayes stated, individual gardaí operating speed monitoring equipment will be held to blame. That is understandable. However, whether it is on his or her volition or on the authority or at the direction of senior gardaí, he or she is merely implementing a law that was passed with acclamation from both sides of the House. The idea that more discretion should be given to local authorities should not even be entertained.
Another issue of relevance this week is the circulation of frightening statistics on class sizes and teacher numbers by the Irish National Teachers Organisation. I support the point that Senator Browne made yesterday that the Minister for Education and Science should provide an indication of her thinking on class sizes, special educational needs, rural schools, etc. The Leader will be sympathetic about these issues because she tried to address them when there were far fewer resources available. There will be 1,700 teachers available for employment in primary schools in 2006. If a situation arises where there are untrained personnel in schools, 1,000 or more teachers unemployed and excessively large classes, there will be absolute outrage on the part of parents.
I do not wish to incur Senator O'Toole's wrath by criticising the Garda but it would be useful if the Leader could obtain information from the Minister for Transport about the intensity of road traffic enforcement on those roads identified as giving rise to the greatest number of fatalities. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there is fairly intensive speed limit patrolling on dual carriageways and motorways. Is there a Garda policy which states that speed limits should be most rigorously enforced, as ought to be the case, on those stretches of national primary routes that have been identified as having the highest fatality rates? This is not a criticism, it is merely a valid question that deserves an answer.
Although it took two efforts on the part of the Department of Transport to confirm this, I understand that all heavy goods vehicles are meant to be fitted with regulators which prevent them from exceeding 55 mph. When I first inquired about this with the Department, I was informed that there is no such regulation. The Road Haulage Association indicated that the regulation does exist. When I checked again with the Department, I was informed that the regulation does exist and I was kindly supplied with a copy of it. Everybody's experience is that HGVs travel at 60 mph on main roads and at 70 mph on motorways. I regularly drive from Cork to Dublin and I am in a position to state that 90% of these vehicles drive in excess of the maximum speed of which they are supposed to be capable. Who has the responsibility of enforcing speed limits for heavy goods vehicles?
One of the irritations that arises in respect of road traffic and policing is the lack of consistency in terms of enforcing the law. People get away with offences in certain areas which they cannot get away with in others. Reference was made previously to the position vis-a-vis the Naas dual carriageway and, in particular, the stretch thereof from Naas to Clondalkin. There is a 60 km/h speed limit operating on that route. With the exception of tractors, every other vehicle travels faster on that road than they did when the 60 mph speed limit applied. People know they can exceed the speed limit with impunity. They are also aware that if they slowed down to 36 mph, there would be utter chaos. We must ask whether local authorities are living in the real world when it comes to the speed limits being introduced.
With regard to penalty points, it was originally stated this morning that the Garda sergeant in question was asking for a change in legislation. However, he indicated at the end of the programme that he was not seeking this but rather a change in practice.
On the issue of trucks, people who travel regularly on the stretch of road to which I refer will be aware that a large number of trucks do not have rear number plates. How can gardaí detect anything in respect of these vehicles if they do not have any identification marks on them? We could possibly debate this issue.
The single market in services could perhaps form part of a debate on the Stability and Growth Pact and general European issues. The Single Market has been in place for many years. We are meant to have an open market in terms of capital goods, services and labour but it appears that such a market does not apply in respect of services. The need for such a market is obvious. Commissioner Wallström came before the Joint Committee on European Affairs last week and I questioned her about inconsistencies in the EU. I referred to the case of Intel in north Kildare which could have received assistance and which seemed to qualify therefor, particularly on the basis that it is a high-tech operation. Large countries such as France and Germany disregard the provisions of the Stability and Growth Pact with impunity but Ireland was rapped on the knuckles when it breached the pact. The effect of what is happening will be to drive up interest rates and inflation in the European Union, which will have a direct effect on Ireland. If the Union is serious about having the EU constitution adopted, it should consider some of these matters.
I support Senator Brian Hayes, who was responding to statements made at the conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors. I am glad this was spoken about because, at the end of the day, the association desires a sense of tolerance towards the restrictions imposed. Gardaí have favourite locations. As the Cathaoirleach knows, their favourite target in our county is the new dual carriageway outside Limerick, where they actually stop people before 8 a.m. on Sundays to penalise them. Perhaps the gardaí are being directed from on high but there must be a sense of tolerance.
Some of the changes in the area of speed limits have been silly. There is an 80 km/h limit on most regional roads but a plethora of these signs were erected on narrow culs-de-sac, which possibly did not have speed limits in the past. People were complaining about speeding in these areas and now 80 km/h signs have been erected.
The signs have remained in these areas despite the issue being brought to the attention of local authorities. I criticise the stupidity and folly of this. We understand the necessity for the penalty points system but there must also be a sense of tolerance and fair play. This is what the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors was seeking.
I raised the issue of the weighted type of assistance that has been introduced for special needs on a recent Adjournment at the Cathaoirleach's courtesy, which began as a serious matter and will become even more so. Whether a report is from speech and language therapists or occupational psychologists, if it mentions the words "mild mental handicap", the people involved will be automatically categorised as ineligible for special one-to-one tuition. Dyslexics who previously received two and a half hours every week spread over five days will no longer be entitled to this and will be placed in a group environment.
The Minister for Education and Science stated she was carrying out further research on the issue. As a result, what will be implemented at local level from September 2005 onwards is in accordance with the directing guidelines. As soon as the Minister finished her research there was a positive statement on the matter. We have all encountered frustrated parents. There is much talk about special needs and now is our opportunity to put it into positive practice. The changes that have taken place will have negative consequences for the education system and will lead to problems in the future.
Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the commercial ethics and social responsibility of public limited companies, particularly those in receipt of State aid and tax incentives? Further to the Bank of Ireland "slash and burn" practice witnessed in recent days, Kerry Group, a public limited company, has decided to terminate the contracts of 12 small milk hauliers in the Clare region. This type of behaviour is reprehensible and must not be allowed to continue. A debate in this House would be useful. I promote the withdrawal of State aid and tax incentives from companies that dominate their positions and flout the law in this way.
Unfortunately so. I call for an agreement on minimum polling standards and an absolute ban on such polls during election campaigns. Will the Leader arrange a debate on this matter?
I agree with Senators Brian Hayes and Dardis on the issue they raised. This is at the core of what the European Union should be about, the single market in services, the single economic zone and so on. It behoves us to give our support to Commissioner McCreevy on the matter.
The Government has put much effort and energy into road safety and I support the call for a debate on this issue. If we have reached a point where the enforcers of the law ask for a change in practice, it behoves us to listen to them. We no longer require anecdotal evidence as the gardaí themselves are calling the penalty points system into question. It is imperative to have a debate on this issue if such is the case.
I agree with Senator Morrissey and thank Senator Brian Hayes for raising this issue. We should discuss the system if the gardaí are concerned about the imposition of penalty points. I was one of those who wholeheartedly welcomed the imposition of penalty points on the basis that they save lives. It cannot be argued that we oppose penalty points if this is the case.
However, there is much seemingly uninterpretable and conflicting evidence that these points do not save lives and some of this evidence comes from the Department of Transport. It would be useful if the Minister told this House what are the latest statistics or conclusions of the Government on the practice of penalty points. I believe they save lives.
I will confess some interest in this. Recently, I opened my post at home and the first letter was a fine of €80 for speeding. The second letter I opened——
——over two days, which I have no quarrel with beyond it costing me €160. However, it is important that the gardaí impose these fines with a certain amount of flexibility and that the cameras put into these areas can be changed, as the speed limits in some places defy logic. Not in my case, though. I was wrong and am one of the worst drivers in the House by far.
Penalty points may not be an appropriate issue for the House today. On another topic, the Senators who spoke about the serious developments with regard to the breach in the Stability and Growth Pact in Europe deserve to be heard. There must be a hearing because, as Senator Dardis said, Ireland received a serious ticking off for breaching the rules. Why should we put up with the bullying tactics of France and Germany? Why are there different rules for the French and the Germans? There is no point in being an equal member of a community dominated by the French and the Germans. The rules are breached every time their economies experience trouble or they have electoral and referendum reasons for doing something. It is time to send the message that we are not prepared to put up with this and will vote against the European constitution if we have to. We do not wish to do so but we are opposed to such behaviour.
I would welcome a discussion on the so-called Bolkestein directive in order to clarify it in our minds. Competition in the overpriced services sector is important but we must have an assurance that people from abroad working here have the proper verifiable social protection. This is an issue of much concern in Ireland and not just France. We must be cautious, pragmatic and principled about an issue that will have long-term implications for the acceptability of the EU constitution.
The concept of the nationalspatial strategy is very good. The strategy was designed to bring about balanced regional development. What has happened to the implementation of the strategy and what is the timetable? Dublin city is all over the place——
It is all over Leinster and has extended to Carlow, Dundalk and Longford. There are major gridlock problems on the approaches to the city every morning. There was supposed to be a focus on several areas in the midlands. Gateway status was given to Mullingar and Athlone, with hub status given to a number of other towns in the region. There seems to be no investment in those areas and I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House to debate the issue of the roll out of the national spatial strategy.
I join with other Senators in asking the Leader for a debate on road safety, particularly in the light of the AGSI conference and its call for a change in practice on the part of the Garda Síochána. I do not think Senator Brian Hayes was being critical of the Garda, I understood exactly what he meant. If we had a little less stick and a little more carrot we might have a safer environment. Former Senator Farrell called me at 8 a.m. and asked me to raise the issue of road safety. When I heard the Leader of the Opposition refer to Senator Farrell, I realised he must have approached him even earlier.
As many people in this House will be aware, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, Rory O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell and the Maguires of Fermanagh, along with their families, left Ireland forever in an event known as the flight of the earls. The date was 14 September 1607 and the place of departure was Rathmullan, County Donegal. This was of major importance to Ireland as it drew a symbolic line between the Gaelic way of life, with its richness of tradition and the new modern Ireland, with its centralised control and imported customs. I am asking the Government, through the Leader, to put in place adequate resources to allow the group in Rathmullan to organise a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the flight of the earls. This is not just a once off event; it is a symbolic occasion involving people North and South. This event will encourage and facilitate co-operation between people on both sides of the Border. The only way we will move forward, in terms of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, is if we have co-operation. This symbolic celebration could contribute towards relieving the political stalemate and there are two and a half years in which to organise it.
Senator Scanlon has asked for a debate on sustainable development. In that context, the ESRI report published this morning shows that County Leitrim has the highest level of second homes in the country. The excellent Government initiative to repopulate the county through tax incentives has now proven to be an opportunity for speculators and those with plenty of money. While these people are welcome, the initiative has not addressed the repopulation issue. In the light of that development, it is ironic that County Leitrim will be split politically because there is a lower population base than there should be, despite the fact that the Government initially set about repopulating the county through the tax incentive scheme.
Perhaps tax incentives of this nature should have been more focused so that the population would have increased. As a result of the tax incentives, one in four houses is owned by wealthy people from outside the county, which means that those who are living in the county or wish to live there cannot afford to buy houses in Leitrim. In that context, I ask the Leader for an urgent debate on sustainable development in order that we can examine this aspect of the tax incentive scheme. It is a sad state of affairs that County Leitrim will be split politically at a time when we would have hoped that there would be more people living there.
I support the call for a debate on road safety. The AGSI questioned whether the current actions of the Garda Síochána are actually contributing to road safety. Senator Brian Hayes did not criticise the Garda, but pointed out its concerns. I would like to add another dimension to the debate. The AGSI has said that gardaí come under a productivity clause and are mandated to issue a set number of tickets every week or every month. The productivity requirement is coming directly from the Government——
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce what the AGSI is seeking, namely a transport unit that could examine the roadworthiness of both trucks and cars. The Garda is not able to do this at the moment. How often have the members, while driving under the speed limit, been overtaken by what one would call a bone shaker, with the front and back wheels rattling? The Garda Síochána is not in a position to implement that element of road safety because it is being forced to deliver a certain number of summons by the Government.
I hereby request the Leader, Senator O'Rourke, to arrange for an emergency debate on the crisis in the accident and emergency department in Roscommon County Hospital, where 13 patients were on trolleys on 21 March. Having allocated €8 million to the new accident and emergency department in Roscommon, which was officially opened by the Taoiseach on 4 February, nine of the——
Would it be possible to have a debate on the provision of cancer care throughout the country? Within the past week or so one of the consultant oncologists in the southern region of the Health Service Executive resigned. This leaves only one oncologist in that area. It is ironic that the remaining person was previously in Waterford, in the former South Eastern Health Board area, and is now in a worse situation.
These people left their posts because of the under-resourcing of the service. It is estimated that in the next ten to 15 years there will be a 40% increase in the incidence of cancer. The radiotherapy service problem in Waterford continues. It would be appropriate to have a debate about cancer care services.
I join Senator Kenneally in calling for a debate on cancer care. Before Christmas the people from Waterford picketed outside Leinster House seeking radiotherapy services in their region. There are no plans for radiotherapy services north of the line between Dublin and Galway. We in those counties wish to make our case for this service.
I join with other Senators in calling on the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to discuss the safety aspects of the traffic regulations and their enforcement. Like Senator Ross I have broken the law and have four penalty points. I received two on the Lucan bypass when I was driving at 52 mph. A Concorde could have landed at the same time. I picked up the others on other roads——
There is such a thing as private confession.
It was interesting that the focus this morning was on speed, and the emphasis on speed limits at particular points on the road, all arising from the recent comments of Garda sergeants and inspectors.
Senator Brian Hayes pointed out that the problem is the operation of the law rather than the law itself. He added that there seems to be a compulsory aspect to producing tickets and fines and so on. It would be useful to debate this matter.
It was heartening to hear Senator Brian Hayes supporting our EU Commissioner on the services directive. I agree that, true to form, he is quite rightly stirring the pot.
Senator O'Toole said we cannot complain about the traffic legislation but that the complaint was about its implementation. He took up the Irish National Teachers Organisation's point about class sizes. We all received invitations to schools in our areas during the week and that process continues, which is helpful.
Senator Ryan spoke about the intensity with which the gardaí enforce speed limits. He also mentioned that HGVs are able to pass people proceeding at a reasonable speed. Indeed, when they pass, one inhales the fumes from their exhaust. Senator Dardis referred to the inconsistency in enforcing speed limits. I see the problem as the consistency with which certain places are perpetually patrolled but I have received neither a penalty point nor a summons.
Senator Dardis also referred to the local authorities and a need for a change in practice. Senator Finucane mentioned the culs-de-sac where the speed limit is 80 km/h which is ridiculous.
Senator Dardis also raised the inconsistency of the EU policy on services, particularly in regard to Intel which is a high technology business. France and Germany ignore the Stability and Growth Pact.
Senator Finucane supported Senator Brian Hayes and mentioned the silly signs for 80 km/h which are located in the most incongruous of places, where if one were to drive at 80 km/h one would end up in a ditch. The Senator also asked about the weighted assistance circular. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, is considering that but is none too pleased with it and seeks to have it reviewed.
Senator Dooley asked for a debate on ethical standards in companies with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He cited events in a particular company.
Senator Coghlan asked for a debate on polling standards and Senator Feighan echoed the point. That is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Some years ago the then Minister, Pádraig Flynn, sought to introduce a stay on opinion polls for up to two weeks prior to polling day. The then Opposition voted it down.
I agree with Senator Coghlan. I was at the receiving end of a rogue poll in Westmeath five days before the election. I intended to take action on it. I found out who was behind it and what it was about.
It said there was no need to vote for me because I would top the poll anyway.
Senator Morrissey agreed with the Garda authorities' call for a change in practice. When we hold a debate on road traffic offences, Senator Ross would like to discuss the statistics. He confessed to having been caught speeding in the same place on two days running, as a result of which he incurred four penalty points and a fine of €160.
Senator Ross also spoke about the equal membership of the European Union, on which I agree. Senator Mansergh mentioned the Bolkestein directive, and said we should be pragmatic and reasonable. France and Germany have only to raise their noses and things change yet in principle we are equal around the table.
Senator Bannon is very keen on the spatial strategy and wants more people living in Longford. I suppose that is in order to swell his vote.
Senator Feeney wants a debate on the road safety strategy and hopes there will be no fatalities over the Easter weekend.
Senator McHugh gave a wonderful history lesson on the flight of the earls in 1607. It was well done. He said a group in Rathmullan requires funding to highlight properly the anniversary of this event in 2007. He made the point that it marked the transition from Irish ways and customs to imported practices. That was an important time. I will pass that request on to the Taoiseach's office.
Senator Mooney asked for a debate on sustainable development and the ESRI report. He referred to the political split in Leitrim. The relevant Bill will come before us soon and no doubt the Senator will make his points forcibly then.
Senator Coonan spoke about road safety and the productivity clause which he claims the gardaí are compelled to effect.
Senator Leyden wants an emergency debate on the health service. It would be useful if he could put forward his case on Roscommon hospital. Senator Feighan helpfully supported Senator Leyden.
Senator Feighan also raised the matter of the flawed opinion poll. I would welcome positive action on that.
Senator Kenneally wants a debate on cancer services throughout the country. Senator MacSharry supported his request and also called for a debate on the safety aspects of driving at speed. He also raised the matter of penalty points but was too polite to press it.