Thursday, 12 May 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on sustainable rural housing guidelines, resumed, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 12.30 p.m., with the contributions of Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements. Today's schedule indicated that statements would conclude at 1.30 p.m. and I am sure many speakers on all sides of the House will wish to contribute. However, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, is taking the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005 in the Dáil and has to be there at 12.30 p.m. He wishes to conclude this debate in the Seanad because he was very taken by all that had been said in the House on the last occasion. In view of this we are concluding the debate at an earlier time which I regret. The Minister also very much regrets it. However, the issue was dealt with comprehensively on the last occasion.
Does the Leader agree that one of the central notions of a republic is the idea that majority communities have the responsibility to look after minority groups or denominations? Does she also agree that the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish community here in Dublin must be deplored and condemned by all right thinking people? We have seen a spate of these attacks since November last year. Swastikas have been placed on the marvellous Jewish Museum, just off the South Circular Road and insulting slogans have been daubed in the Jewish graveyard in Dolphin's Barn and in other parts of the city. I ask the Leader to relay my comments to the Chief Rabbi. This attack was appalling because it was racist in intent.
We have a responsibility as members of other faiths and groups to protect small denominations in this State. The Jewish community has made an immense contribution not only to the social and professional life of Ireland, but also to its political life. All the major political parties have had Jewish representatives who have played a significant role through the years. I ask that the House should be at one in condemning those attacks and calling on the idiots involved to realise the offence they are giving to a small community.
Will the Leader arrange in the next two weeks for the Minister of State with responsibility for the decentralisation debacle, Deputy Parlon, to come to the House to take questions from Senators rather than reading statements? We have simple questions to put to him. The Government will become involved in needless industrial problems if it pursues its policy of telling Dublin-based civil servants that if they do not transfer to other parts other country, they will be denied promotional opportunities and will not obtain similarly-skilled employment in Dublin. This is horrendous bullying and harassment of civil servants. My party was attacked recently for seeking value for money in the public sector by some Chianti quaffing socialists. I do not refer to the Labour Party.
Recently, the Leader agreed to my request for a debate on the western rail corridor report on the basis it would be published, as she was informed, in April. We are halfway through May and I still have not seen the report. I am concerned that somebody has a vested interest in not producing the report. Government Members, including Senators Kitt and Dooley, have raised this issue and we should have a debate on it.
I have been asked regularly over the past year by a number of my constituents in the North why RTE cannot be received throughout that jurisdiction. If there is to be an understanding between people North and South of the Border, the same television stations should be available in all parts of the island so there is communication and a cultural link between people. As a spin-off of the Good Friday Agreement and given the need to bring people closer together, it would be helpful if RTE were available in all parts of Northern Ireland. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come to the House to discuss this issue?
I support the request made by Senator Brian Hayes regarding the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon. His remarks yesterday were disturbing. The Taoiseach and the Minister of State have made much of their claim that no civil servants will be made compulsorily redundant as a result of decentralisation but it is becoming increasingly clear from the bullying and threatening tone of the Minister of State that this reassurance does not count for much. They may not receive their P45s but many civil servants who work in technical or specialist grades run the risk of being given meaningless jobs or no job at all if they do not do the Government's bidding on this matter. There is scope for a debate and a question and answer session with the Minister of State would be useful.
Postal services have been debated in the House previously but it would be useful to do so again. There is a perception that the reduction in postal services and the closure of post offices is an exclusively rural phenomenon. However, the post office in Coolock in my area of Dublin is under threat. This follows the closure of post offices in Donnycarney, Clontarf and Marino in my constituency. It is striking that these closures are not part of a planned programme but are opportunistic in that An Post closes post offices following the retirement of a postmaster or postmistress. I ask for a further debate not only on the closure of post offices, but also on the availability of postal services generally.
I commend the Garda Commissioner, Noel Conroy, and the force on their vigilance and on their proposal for a clampdown on road traffic offences this weekend to address the significant loss of life on our roads. I call on the Leader to schedule a further debate on road safety and on what other steps can be taken in this regard. I hope this will be a golden weekend in Ireland with no fatalities. Last weekend, six people died while last year one motorcyclist was killed every week. It is a terrible statistic, which has resulted in much hardship for families.
Reference was made at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business to the number of single drivers involved in crashes in the early hours of the morning. The circumstances surrounding those tragic accidents should be seriously investigated. We should all assist and support the Garda. The upcoming campaign should be conducted 365 days a year and not only over 48 hours this weekend. I commend the Garda and the House should give the force its full support to keep up the good work to ensure there will be no fatalities on our roads this weekend.
I support Senator McDowell's call for a debate on postal services. It is high time the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources came to the House to clarify his intentions regarding the post office network. The ongoing delay in decisions on the future of post offices is creating a great deal of anxiety among customers, postmasters and postmistresses. The Government should ensure social welfare payments continue to be made through post offices. It is alarming that the Department of Agriculture and Food is sending notices to farmers encouraging them to use banks for their single payments. They should be given the choice of using banks or offices. This would be another way to help save our rural post offices.
Postmasters are paid €12,000 per annum, on average, while a number earn less than €3,000 per annum. It is a great concern that they earn significantly less than the average industrial wage. A total of 16 postmasters are over 90 years, a further 47 are over 80 and 175 are over 70.
I am glad Senator O'Toole raised the issue of the McCann report, which is due to be published this weekend. I welcome the Minister of Transport's visit to Castlebar and Tuam tomorrow to discuss the issue further and, hopefully, to give his approval for the opening of the western rail corridor.
I refer to the "Prime Time" report on planning and the need for a register, which was mentioned on "Morning Ireland" earlier. Mr. David Grant was the example given on "Prime Time". It is important that a register be set up as house construction costs enough without the added expense of people giving bad advice. I hope planners and architects will have a register, as exists in other professions, so this entire area is brought up to the standard people expect, particularly young people in the process of house building.
I concur with Senator Kitt. I raised this matter several times and I mentioned that particular gentleman last week. He has been given permission for further hostel developments even though he placed lives in danger and was served with a fire notice, which he ignored by appealing it.
I also support what Senator Brian Hayes stated on the attacks on the Jewish community. I have been critical of certain aspects of Israeli policy but that is legitimate criticism of a Government with which many Israeli and Jewish people concur. There is absolutely no excuse for these shameful attacks. It would be a good idea if the remarks passed in this House were sent to the Chief Rabbi. I attended a wonderful ceremony in Belvedere College a few weeks ago to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen, where three Irish Jewish survivors of Belsen and Auschwitz were also in attendance. How can we hold our heads up when swastikas are daubed on the Jewish Museum on Walworth Road? I condemn this. We should continue to have such ceremonies because young people do not know the horrors that went on during the Second World War.
I share the concerns expressed by the Labour Party about decentralisation, in particular the addition of inappropriate movements to the coercion that is now involved. There is no central supervision on costs and there is no cost benefit analysis. The unions asked for an independent analysis and independent costing but this has never been done. This will be another example of wasting public money. That leads to the question of the fiasco in Kilkenny where a project to deal with flooding was costed at £8 million, equivalent to €13 million, but is now costing €48 million and the designers did not even get the salmon run correct. It is absolutely mad. There seems to be no control over the way money is spent.
Senator Ross raised the issue of toll roads. We are being walked into a further development of these which will not be to the benefit of the taxpayers. Finally, I ask——
I ask for a discussion on the situation in Iraq, especially in light of further developments today when more people were killed in another suicide bombing and the American Senate committee is peddling the same weary old lies about Mr. George Galloway that were exploded in a British court, using the same old forged documents. The committee seems to be absolutely impotent in confronting the criminality of its own Government in conducting the war on Iraq. It could conduct an inquiry into the sex life of Mr. Bill Clinton and this rubbish about Mr. George Galloway but it cannot confront the illegality of its own policies.
Senator O'Toole raised a relevant point on the availability of RTE throughout Northern Ireland. Whatever reasons, technical or political, existed in the past for such an inadequacy, they are certainly gone at this stage. We are all proud of RTE in so far as it adopts a balanced approach to both national and international events. I recently hosted a group from the Unionist and loyalist community in Northern Ireland. It was a convivial meeting but I was surprised that one of them admitted she had never heard of a particular county to which I made reference. That shows a ghetto mentality still exists, and one way of breaking it down is using the broadcasting service. The advantage of RTE is that it is a public broadcasting service and so does not have a conflict between profit and principle. I fully support Senator O'Toole and we should try to pursue this with both the Government and RTE.
I support the call from colleagues for a debate on the post office network and my query is related. I have received many complaints in recent weeks and months from elderly constituents who find it virtually impossible to make direct telephone contact with a number of State boards and bodies and semi-State agencies, particularly the ESB and Eircom. After numerous minutes waiting for an answer, they are put through to one automated answering machine after another and referred from button "a" to button "b" to button "c". It is unfair that when elderly constituents have a minor query on a telephone or electricity bill they are unable to make contact with a person in charge.
We should tell these State agencies that a system made up only of automated machines should not be imposed on the paying public. I ask the Leader to ensure that some reasonable customer service will be provided and that when an individual has a query they deal with a person and not a machine.
I join with other colleagues in calling for a debate on decentralisation. I have sympathy with civil and public servants who find themselves in the position of having to move location in order to further their career, but we now have the principle of benchmarking and in the private sector it is not unusual for people to have to move to further their careers or to remain with the same company.
It is important we do not lose sight of what decentralisation is about. It is about decluttering this city and overcoming some of its infrastructural problems, and building rural Ireland in line with the commitment of this Government in the national spatial strategy——
I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Agriculture and Food to extend the date for lodging single payment application forms with the Department. An examination in recent days showed that fewer than 30,000 applications have been lodged. This means that over 100,000 more applications have yet to be received just a few days before the deadline. Ordinary people who contacted the Department of Agriculture and Food helpline with queries were unable to get a satisfactory answer as it was clogged with calls and worse still, the people taking charge of applications on behalf of many farmers could not access the helpline either.
The Department has now stated a penalty of 4% per day will apply on late applications received between 16 May and 10 June. That is over the top but we can expect nothing more than the imposition of such a penalty from some of the people in the Department of Agriculture and Food. This is a serious matter because it deals with the single payment to be established for years to come, and will have a major bearing on the future livelihood of many farmers. I appeal to the Leader to request the Minister for Agriculture and Food to extend it. Despite the fact that she must comply with European regulations and other reasons given, it is important that a flexible approach is taken to this issue within reason and that it is extended to 10 June at least.
That is quite original; I have not heard it before. I concur with Senators Ó Murchú and O'Toole, and when the Six Counties get sorted out, I will just nip across the Border. We have had the special privilege in Donegal over the past six months of being visited by several Ministers including Deputies Cowen, Hanafin, O'Donoghue, who came three times and is there again today, Roche, Martin, who came twice——
My point is that while Donegal has had the special privilege of these visits, the people of the county are not interested in a decentralised Cabinet on tour en masse but in decentralised jobs. I look forward to the debate on decentralisation and to the comments of Senator Dooley and the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, who is the boy we want up in Donegal.
I join colleagues in calling for the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Parlon, to come to the House to answer questions on his brief. While he is here, he might also answer questions on the flood relief scheme in Kilkenny, to which Senator Norris referred. I raised the matter of the scheme with the Minister of State here a number of months ago and he dismissed it with his usual arrogance. It is time the Minister of State climbed down from his high horse and began to answer serious questions on overspending in the flood relief scheme in Kilkenny and other serious instances of overspending on infrastructural projects nationally.
Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the scheme of early retirement for farmers which was introduced a number of years ago? While the scheme has been successful in its overall aim to reduce the average age among farmers, the pension payments farmers receive under it have not increased since its introduction. I acknowledge that the scheme is funded by the EU and that a case in this regard will have to be taken to Europe, but it is time we started the debate domestically. It is especially urgent at this point in time as the payments retired farmers receive for lands have reduced dramatically on foot of changes in the Common Agricultural Policy. It is unacceptable in this day and age that people are receiving the same level of payments from the farm retirement scheme that they received ten years ago. No other group in society continues to receive payments at a ten year old rate.
Many issues have been discussed today, but the one which needs to be highlighted again is the matter of the anti-Semitic slogans which have been daubed on the Jewish Museum. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to treat the matter very seriously? I grew up in a period of serious conflict in Ireland during which one saw slogans such as "Brits out, peace in" or "IRA" which caused great embarrassment and anxiety to local communities as well as to visitors. The slogans on the Jewish Museum are the work either of mindless thugs or a sinister group and the House must ensure the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law comes here to treat the matter urgently. These serious incidents cannot be allowed to escalate.
Senator Brian Hayes spoke about the definition of a "republic". I agree with him that one of a republic's characteristics is that those who can look after those who cannot. The Senator bemoaned the anti-Semitic attacks in Dublin and asked that our comments be conveyed to the Chief Rabbi, which we will be glad to do. The Senator referred to the many valued Jewish members of the political establishment including the Briscoe family, Mr. Goldberg, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of the Labour Party. I will convey the regret of the House to the Chief Rabbi.
Senator Brian Hayes said he wanted the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to attend to answer questions on decentralisation. As next week's schedule is more or less established, we will seek to have the Minister of State attend the week after.
Senator O'Toole referred to the western rail corridor. Senator Kitt tells me the McCann report is due to be published today or at the weekend. The Minister for Transport will go to Castlebar to meet those with an interest in the matter. Senator O'Toole asked why RTE cannot be received in some parts of the North, which is a debate of several years standing. We have never been given a satisfactory reply on it. I will again seek to discover the reason. The Senator was correct to say that if one knows how other people live their lives, one has a better idea of what motivates or bothers them. While there may be technical issues involved, one would have thought that any hindrances could have been removed by now.
Senator McDowell said he was disturbed by the tone of Deputy Parlon's radio interview this morning, especially as it related to specialist or technical grades within the Civil Service. Senator McDowell asked also if we could arrange a general debate on postal services.
Senator Leyden commended the planned clampdown on road traffic offences on all major roads this weekend which he hopes will lead progressively to safer driving. The Senator indicated that one motorcyclist a week was killed last year. I am amazed at the conduct of motorcyclists and do not know how they manage to complete their journeys safely. Motorcyclists can appear to one's right and left on the road without one noticing what they are at.
Senator Bannon raised the matters of postal services and single farm payments. He said also that the elderly age profile among postmasters was because people cannot be encouraged to take up the job.
Senator Kitt called for the registration of architects, which is a matter Senator Norris raised in the House previously. Senator Norris spoke about the Jewish community, decentralisation, the debacle of the flood relief project in Kilkenny, Iraq, somebody's sex life, tired old documents and George Galloway.
Senator Ó Murchú said he was proud of RTE and asked why the broadcaster does not spread its wings to let everyone know what it is doing. Senator Bradford called for a debate on postal services and said the elderly found it difficult to get answers when they made inquiries by phone. I fully agree with his comments. When one makes a call one hears stirring music like Fontenoy which goes on and on before being asked to press various buttons. People should answer the phones, speak clearly and put one through to the right person.
Senator Dooley called for a debate on decentralisation and Senator Ulick Burke said the date for single payments should be extended. Senator Ulick Burke painted a very black picture. I have received a note to the effect that the Department of Agriculture and Food has extended the opening hours of all district veterinary offices. They were open until midnight on Saturday and Sunday last weekend and will be again this weekend. The offices will be open next Monday night until midnight also and during normal office hours thereafter. While contact will be telephonic rather than personal, the Minister and her executives have made an effort to open offices for long periods.
Senator McHugh who it seems does not like visiting Ministers spoke about decentralisation. He said Deputy Parlon was "the boy", but I would say it is Senator McHugh who is the boy. We will endeavour to have the Minister of State attend. I am sure he will agree.
Senator John Paul Phelan called for Deputy Parlon to attend to discuss overspending on the flood relief project in Kilkenny. The Senator also called for a discussion with the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the relative decrease in payments to farmers under the early retirement scheme.
Senator Feighan bemoaned the anti-Jewish slogans and called for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attend to the matter immediately. The Minister was here last night during a very vivid debate — which I watched on the monitors — and spoke for 40 minutes off the cuff. I will not ask him to attend again.
I mistook the Senator. The Minister was called "cowardly" last night. There are many adjectives one could use to describe many people, but "cowardly" is not one I would use to describe the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.