Thursday, 21 April 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on accident and emergency services, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes. Senators may share time. The Minister shall be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the debate.
The Fine Gael Party agrees to the Order of Business. I am grateful to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, for agreeing to come before the House to take this important debate.
I raise an issue related to consumer rights and the rights of farmers. As the Acting Leader will be aware given his expertise in this area, lamb farmers in the past week experienced a reduction of 20% in the price per head of lamb brought to meat factories. It is astonishing that the meat factories announced a 20% reduction in price throughout the country on one day. Would it not be appropriate for the Competition Authority to launch a major investigation into what appears to be a cartel operating in the meat industry?
Despite the 20% reduction in lamb prices paid by the factories, consumers will not pay a reduced price for lamb and, most important, French companies which import the product from Ireland will not see a reduction in price. Will the Government consider launching a major investigation into this area through the Competition Authority because consumers and farmers will lose out? It is not right that this price reduction can take effect throughout the country on a single day. As a competitive issue affecting the future of the agricultural sector, the matter should be investigated without delay.
While it was not my intention to raise the same issue as Senator Brian Hayes, I support his comments. When I raised this issue last year I investigated the price of lamb in four different parts of France and contacted the president of the IFA to ask why Irish lamb is cheaper in all parts of France than in supermarkets here. I also discussed the matter with a Seanad colleague who has some knowledge in these matters but is not present this morning. I have failed so far to get an answer to my question as to why Irish lamb can be sold more cheaply in France than Ireland. Something significant is wrong and Senator Brian Hayes has raised an issue of merit. I pleaded with the IFA to get involved because this is the type of issue which would bind people together in support of farming and agriculture.
On a related issue, I have been waiting and watching for the publication of the report of the consumer strategy group which I understand was completed two months ago. I may be wrong but it does not appear to have been published, unless it was launched quietly in the past fortnight. I understand the report proposes some degree of consumer involvement in planning, which is a frightening prospect. I am told it also proposes the establishment of a super-regulator to regulate the regulators and the removal of the retail prices order, the issue which receives most publicity. In addition, it appears the report also proposes significant changes in the area of consumer protection and the offices dealing with it. These issues should be discussed along with the matter raised by Senator Brian Hayes as they are all interlinked. We need some answers.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food or the appropriate Minister should answer two simple questions. Why is Irish meat sold more cheaply in France than in Ireland and why are reductions in the wholesale price of meat never passed on to the consumer? Those at both ends, the farm gate and the consumer, lose out as a result, which is not acceptable. I fully support Senator Hayes's comments on the issue.
A leaked version of the report to which Senator O'Toole referred features on the front page of today's edition of The Irish Times. Among other findings, it concludes without equivocation that Irish consumers are being ripped off. The report as leaked states that even if one takes all the other issues such as insurance into consideration, Irish consumers are still paying excessively high prices. It recommends a much more powerful body to be an advocate of consumers as well as the regulator.
However, the Department of Finance objects to such a body on the grounds of costs. It is difficult to figure that one out. One has every consumer in the country being ripped off, and for the sake of €7 million or €8 million the Department of Finance does not want an agency with the teeth and resources to deal with it. Collectively, we will pay billions to save the Department of Finance €8.5 million. Undoubtedly, the logic is peculiar.
Another newspaper report this morning suggests that Irish road haulage vehicles travelling through the United Kingdom have an alarmingly high failure rate when stopped by UK Department of Transport officials. Even more alarmingly, the failure rate in the United Kingdom is much higher than the failure rate here.
Those of us who have the misfortune to travel on Irish roads on a regular basis have good reason to be worried about the speed at which road haulage vehicles travel, the loads carried and the driving practices of many of the drivers. If one adds the fact that the vehicles themselves are unsafe, it is no surprise that we have such accident level. For the record, 3% of all vehicles on the road are heavy goods vehicles, but they are involved in 10% of fatalities. That alone ought to be a warning to us as should the British figures.
I call for a debate in this House on road safety yet again. Last night, there was another series of horrific accidents. In the course of the debate, we should talk about driver testing. It is astonishing that more women than men fail driving tests whereas insurance companies have unquestionable evidence that women are better drivers than men. This raises a serious question.
I join with those who want the Leader of the House to write to the Vatican to wish Pope Benedict XVI the best in his onerous duties.
This House would benefit from a debate on competition. There is no doubt but that vigorous competition drives productivity, growth and innovation and provides value for all. On numerous occasions, I have requested a debate on the duopoly that exists between Vodafone and O2. We pay significantly higher prices than the rest of Europe and the moneys expended by Irish people are going to foreign companies. This is welcome, in that we are an open trading nation. However, it is unfortunate that we do not ask these foreign companies to provide good competition. We should support the regulator and make the regulator aware that this House is in favour of the 3G licence being opened up and that the virtual suppliers, that is the MVNO suppliers, should be granted licences as speedily as possible for the benefit of the consumer, who pays over the odds.
I support the previous speakers on the consumer strategy report. Its contents appeared in the Irish Independent some weeks ago and have been elaborated in more detail in The Irish Times today. It contains many recommendations of various strategies that should be deployed to bring down prices and to be pro-consumer. It suggests the appointment of an enforcer for the consumer area. I fully support the statements made by Senator O'Toole. It would be most remiss if we did not have an enforcer due to lack of resources in the Department of Finance. We already have several regulators such as ComReg and the energy regulator. This approach has greater validity than ever.
Deputy Martin's tenure as Minister in the Department of Health and Children will be remembered best for the smoking ban, if nothing else. If he wants a challenge and wishes to take on a particular issue as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, this document provides him with a very good touchstone from which to work for the next few years. Much of the emphasis and focus in the report will be on the groceries order. I wish to make it plain that like most rural people, I would be extremely concerned if the ban on below cost sales was ended. It could have a profound impact on many businesses. The ban was introduced during the collapse of the H. Williams group back in the early 1980s. It has as much validity today as it had then.
I ask the Acting Leader to arrange for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, to come into this House to discuss both consumer issues and competition in general. He is a new Minister in the Department and I would be very interested to establish his intentions over the next two years.
I support the remarks of Senator Brian Hayes and others on this issue. I am delighted to hear this particular item is on the agenda. When we have that debate, which hopefully will take place soon, it would be opportune to exhort the Minister to bring forward regulations which will make it mandatory for restaurant owners and other food outlets to provide an itemised bill. Currently, there is an obligation through regulation and legislation for the proprietor to display the menu and cost of each item. However there is no legal obligation on the restaurateur to itemise the bill. One finds that in a number of restaurants, the menu will state "No itemised bills given". There are no marks for guessing why.
I join with Members in expressing concern about the plight of Irish consumers. Today, the newspapers are quoting from a report that states that the Irish consumer is not getting a fair deal. However, I worry about the removal of the prohibition on below cost selling. This will be the death knell of small retail grocery stores.
It gives the enormous multinational chains an unfair advantage. Although there may be immediate small gains for individual consumers, ultimately it will be negative for them.
I wish to raise another issue. Last week, we referred to the worrying situation where a security test of some kind took place at Dublin Airport. At the time, I felt it was a media-driven event, akin to bringing a cardboard box marked "bomb" into Windsor Castle. I am unsure of the value of such exercises. However, I am particularly concerned as it has been suggested in the newspapers and broadcast media that a real live explosive, known as C4, was introduced through Dublin Airport as part of the exercise. We are entitled to know if this was the case. Were live explosives introduced? This material is volatile and can be triggered by movement and microwave radiation. It is an absurd situation if, in order to test safety procedures, we exposed passengers to danger.
I wish to draw Members' attention to an article in today's edition of the Irish Independent. It refers to the proceedings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights yesterday, when it met people from all over Ireland who run crèches and nurseries. Strident presentations were given by the crèche representatives, who stated that many of them from disadvantaged areas did not know whether they will be funded after 31 August 2005. I am aware that we had a debate in this House on this issue. However, it is an appalling way to run any business if one does not know whether one has the money to pay one's staff after 31 August. I call upon the Government to undertake a ten year strategy on child care, supported by all Members of the House——
I join with Senator Brian Hayes and other speakers in supporting the call for action by the Government on behalf of the farming community. It is not accidental that every Monday morning, every factory comes up with the same quote for beef. A similar situation is arising in the lamb trade. This is peak season for lamb production, while the autumn is the peak season for cattle production. The factories will quote the same price every morning. The existence of a cartel among the factories is obvious.
It is also worrying that the only people who have been brought before the courts, threatened and fined by the Competition Authority are the leaders of the farming organisations. The authority appears to ignore the operations of the factories. The Government needs to have a policy that will provide competition and the only way forward for the farming community is to concentrate on the live export trade, which is something it has failed to do in previous years. This issue is urgent because the farming community is suffering from a double blow.
The Acting Leader should ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House and explain his proposals regarding the nitrates directive because this has been a bad week for farmers. The Minister for Agriculture and Food has washed her hands of these regulations and left them to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This situation is not satisfactory and we need an immediate explanation from the Government. The nitrates directive is a very important issue for farmers, who are under threat from this Government.
I support Senator Ryan's call for a debate on roads and on heavy vehicles in particular. We should also address road surfaces, which are heavily potholed in some areas. In a recent case involving a car accident where a woman lost her unborn child, the driver was found not guilty of dangerous driving because he lost control of his car due to the poor surface of the road. I am familiar with the road in question, which was churned up for decades by heavy vehicles. The damage inflicted by heavy vehicles on road surfaces is a very serious problem. The overloading of heavy vehicles, as Senator Ryan has noted, is an extremely important issue, which we need to address as soon as possible.
I support the points made by Senator White and compliment her on the way she has focused on the child care issue in the House.
Regarding the Dublin waste water plant, how could the Government and Dublin City Council have got it so wrong? Previously in this House, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stated that the plant was the model for the rest of the country. I ask the Acting Leader to arrange a debate on public private partnerships and design, build and operate schemes and how they will operate in view of what has happened at the plant.
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is looking for up to 20% contributions from local authorities around the country to provide waste water facilities. This is placing a considerable burden on towns like Castlebar and Ennis. What is the position regarding Dublin city? Will the business community, which has already paid the contribution, have to cough up again to prop up the public private partnership that has been arranged and was hailed as the Rolls Royce of all waste water plants by the previous Minister, Deputy Cullen? It appears that the Fianna Fáil slogan, "A lot done, more to do" is apt in these circumstances.
I ask the Acting Leader to invite the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to explain the following excerpt from a Department press statement: "124 schools to progress through the architectural planning process". I do not know who writes these press statements but they are very difficult to understand. I know of two primary schools in Carlow that are listed. I telephoned both schools and was told they were now at the same stage for two years. This press statement is worthless because there is nothing new in it.
We urgently need to have a debate on this matter and to get the Minister to come to the House. She likes drip feeding stories. At least with her predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey, we knew where we stood on the school building programme. Now we have no idea how it is progressing and schools are completely confused. Schools are mired in the architectural planning process and do not know whether they can apply for planning permission or put out tenders. It is not sufficient for the Government to leave schools in limbo.
I seek an urgent debate and would appreciate if the Acting Leader could provide me with an answer before the end of the day. We are being very badly treated. Members of the Oireachtas deserve better than these information leaflets which clearly lack detail.
I support Senator White's arguments concerning child care. I also support her call for the child care issue to be removed from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We can see that the equal opportunities child care programme is a sham. Yesterday at the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, it was clear that individuals from around the country who are attempting to run crèches do not know if they will be able to stay open beyond August 2005. These people urgently need to know whether they will be given staffing grants to ensure that children have places in August and that parents will be able to go to work or undertake training after August.
This issue urgently needs to be addressed. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not seriously addressing this issue, or indeed the entire child care issue. We urgently need a debate and the Minister should come to the House and outline his immediate plans for child care. Child care should be removed from the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and a separate Department to take care of all child care issues should be established.
I support the Leader of the Opposition's comments concerning the current state of the sheep industry and what is happening at the factories. It is only fair to point out that lamb imports are what really create the problems. I support Senator Brian Hayes's remarks about the Competition Authority because there is no doubt that a cartel of factories has been operating in this country for many years. I expect my fellow Senators to support me when I say that the issue will only be resolved when the farming organisations and the processors come together and try to resolve it.
Reference was made to the Government's work in the agriculture sector. We must recognise that the farming organisations give considerable support to this Government, in particular to Deputy Joe Walsh when he was Minister for Agriculture. We must accept that the same support and recognition of good representation by the current Minister, Deputy Mary Coughlan, is also present in the farming organisations.
Regarding the nitrates directive, it is fine to play politics——
I will finish on this note. The nitrates directive was announced in 1990 and no Government took it up. It is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister, Deputy Roche, has the confidence to do the best job possible regarding the directive.
Regarding child care, it is worth pointing out that if the equal opportunities child care programme was not being driven by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it would not be driven by any Department. While I support calls for handing child care over to a single Department, our current position regarding child care policy is totally ad hoc. I attended the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights yesterday and listened to many groups, including the ADM and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform speak about the equal opportunities child care programme. It is clear that the Department of Finance is currently holding up the entire process. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has to go cap in hand to the Department of Finance to get funding to continue providing staffing grants to disadvantaged families and children who otherwise will not be able to access employment and training unless these great facilities in place throughout the country are supported. I am not defending the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
We have had debates on child care, many of which I called for. We must continue to have these debates as the area is now opening up. We will not develop a policy until the Government gets its head around a simple fact, that one cannot have quality child care in this or any other country unless one is prepared to spend money. We are going nowhere until the Department of Finance accepts this.
There is a common theme in many of this morning's interventions. Senators Brian Hayes, O'Toole, Ryan, Hanafin, Finucane, Norris, Coonan and Callanan raised the matters of lamb prices and consumer rights. It is damaging to farm incomes if there is a drop in lamb prices. The Competition Authority examined this issue in respect of beef and a report was prepared by Professor Seamus Sheehy. No evidence of collusion was found. This is not to say most fair minded people do not believe that when people decide on the same price in the same week for the same animals, they are not talking to one another. They must be. This puts both the farmer and the consumer in vulnerable positions.
Prices are lower in France because it is a large and lucrative market with much intense competition. The consumer strategy group's report should be debated and No. 13 on the Order Paper deals with matters of competition and consumer rights. As several speakers have already intervened, I will recommend to the Leader that we begin again ab initio .
I agree with the points made about the groceries order. It is interesting that in many parts of Ireland where there has rapid development, corner shops and convenience stores have reappeared and do a good job in serving the local community. Were the groceries order removed, much of this important local service would be lost and we would return to a situation of large hypermarkets on the edges of towns. This is undesirable and I would be a supporter of the maintenance of the groceries order.
Legislation came before the House giving rights of initiation to the Competition Authority without the need for referral by the Minister, which will make the authority aware of the views and concerns of the House. Senator Glynn was quite correct when he raised the issue of itemised restaurant bills, a matter of vital interest to the consumer. One should know what one is paying in restaurants and elsewhere and this issue should be brought to the attention of the Competition Authority. We must legislate if required but the consumer has a role in insisting on an itemised bill.
Senators Ryan and Henry raised the matters of road haulage and the quality of our roads. I share Senator Ryan's views on the high failure rate in England in regard to speed and danger. When one drives to and from Dublin every day, one sees a number of trucks without matching registration plates or no registration plates at all.
I do not know how the Garda can trace people who have done something wrong short of stopping them at the time. This may be deliberate. This is a question of implementation and enforcement of the law, which is a matter we can bring to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
On driving tests, failure rates and the relative success of men and women, I had thought mischievously that the higher failure rate among women might indicate they are better drivers but it would be wrong to suggest that one would be a better driver on the road after failing one's test.
The newly elected Pope was referred to by Senator Hanafin and was also discussed on yesterday's Order of Business. I wish His Holiness well in his onerous responsibilities. We were encouraged by some of his remarks when he spoke during a morning mass yesterday, 20 April. Senator Hanafin has also consistently raised the matter of the regulator's role in telephone charges and we should debate it more fully in the House.
Senator Norris raised the issue of security checks at Dublin Airport. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, dealt with this matter in this House on 20 April when he said: "I wish to state categorically that no explosives, detonators, guns or live ammunition were used during those tests. Media speculation that such items were used is totally unfounded." There is a degree of scaremongering about this but one should not condone the lapses in the security system that appear to have occurred in Dublin Airport.
Senators White, Henry, Terry and O'Meara spoke about the meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights of 20 April 2005 and the comments made therein regarding the funding of crèches and nurseries. This is an important issue and must be given serious attention. Senator White called for a ten year strategy on child care. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with special responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, are doing a good job in this area but it would be useful to examine whether the matter should be reallocated to another Department.
Senator O'Meara made a good point about the body of equality legislation that has come through the Houses. I recall former Deputy Mervyn Taylor when he was a Minister of State. All of the equality legislation and embedding of children's rights into Irish law came through his former Department. When debates are requested, the Minister and Minister of State have always been available to this House and are happy engage with the Members on these matters.
Senator Coonan raised the issue of the nitrates directive, which is related to Senator Brian Hayes' point. This is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and is a directive with which we must try to comply. Cross-compliance increasingly applies in the agricultural funding given to farmers. One must protect the environment if one is to receive payments from the European Union. Senator Callanan raised a similar issue. Cork County Council was the first council in the country to introduce regulations for the spreading of slurry and the application of fertilisers to land in 1990.
Some counties have been better than others in this regard.
There is a particular spot on the Naas bypass with a 120 km/h speed limit that, if one were to hit it at the right angle at that speed, would result in serious consequences. It was partially repaired in recent weeks but these situations are unacceptable. Something must be done about them.
With regard to the potential cost of the Dublin waste water plant, this is the "polluter pays" principle. It is one of the best plants in the world. Unfortunately, it has not done everything since its commissioning that it should have done. It was pointed out on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme that the material coming from the plant is now in pellet form, a cake with 25% moisture that does not work properly. People do not wish this material to be put in Dublin Bay, to be incinerated or spread on land. What will we do with it? Speaking as an agriculturist, the material that is being spread on Irish farmlands is perfectly safe and is a good means of disposing of the waste from the plant. It is a practice that should continue. Some spurious figures were trotted out this morning which were well rebutted by the person who spoke on "Morning Ireland". I cannot speak about the school in question as I do not know it but €935 million has been spent since 1999 and it must have been spent on something. It is wrong to say there is a total blockage in the system. Schools are being built and others are being improved. Senator Callanan made a reasonable point about the factories and the farm organisations getting together.