Tuesday, 24 May 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the report of the national task force on obesity 2005, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes. Next week the Disability Bill will be before the House, as it is to be concluded this Thursday in the Dáil. If it comes before the House I can guarantee that every Senator will have time to speak if he or she wishes to do so. It is very important legislation and we are going to give it all the time it should receive.
I am sure the House is united in offering our sympathies to the families of the young people killed on our roads yesterday, and in offering our best wishes to those who were injured as a result of the carnage in County Meath. While it is far too early to draw any conclusions from the appalling accident involving the school bus, at some point in the near future there might be an opportunity for the Minister for Transport to attend the House — possibly with the Minister for Education and Science — to set out the criteria involved in transporting children on school buses. The issue has been raised on countless occasions before now. There are genuine concerns about overcrowding on these buses, in addition to the issue of seat belts which are mandatory for mini-buses but not larger buses. Another issue concerns the age of the fleet of vehicles involved in providing the school bus service. We should examine those matters over the coming weeks, while today being mindful of the terrible tragedy for those communities in County Meath, particularly in the Navan area.
I welcome what the Leader had to say about the Disability Bill. Every Member of the House has been lobbied by many groups and individuals outside the House. This is an important piece of legislation so we should take our time to debate it. I welcome the Leader's comments, therefore, that everyone will be able to contribute to the forthcoming debate on that Bill.
Some weeks ago, following the UK elections, there was a call for a debate on Northern Ireland, which was echoed on both sides of the House. The need for such a debate can be seen from today's report by the Independent Monitoring Commission, which has identified a campaign of targeting, training and recruitment by paramilitary organisations, in addition to their links with criminality. The IMC report covers not just republican paramilitaries but also loyalist ones. It is noteworthy that the commission recommends that a financial penalty should continue to be imposed on the PUP, a party that is directly linked to one of the loyalist organisations.
The publication of that report today provides the initiative for us to debate those matters, and related ones, over the coming weeks. I ask the Leader to organise such a debate.
I also welcome the commitment given by the Leader on the forthcoming debate on the Disability Bill. It is crucially important that Members be able to deal with the issues that have been raised repeatedly over the past two years by various groups and individuals.
As regards the tragedy in County Meath, after the Omagh bombing I visited some of the schools whose pupils had been killed in the explosion. Similarly, I spoke with teachers and the school authorities following the Dunblane tragedy in Scotland. One of the problems that exists in such situations in Britain, Ireland and even the United States, is how to deal with crises affecting schools.
There is no properly understood psychological or psychiatric method of dealing with such crises. Small things can become major problems, including how a school deals with media inquiries and whether individual or group counselling should be employed. Another issue is whether survivors should be encouraged to return to the scene of the accident and, thus, relive it. The roles of families and friends are also important in this respect. Other key questions include whether grieving is best done individually or collectively and the impact of grieving from one person to another. There is also an impact within school classrooms. Major issues are involved here, yet there is no proper way of dealing with such circumstances. It would be helpful to have a model from which to work.
This was a major tragedy but one death in a school can be tragic also. I saw the effect on a school where a child had been inadvertently dragged along by a bus and died as a result. I saw another case where an oil tanker inadvertently killed a child in a school yard. Such tragedies affect schools and their surrounding communities. The question is how such matters should be dealt with. It would be helpful if the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children would put together some plan for dealing with such situations, which could then be made available to schools. Some years ago, I tried to initiate such a process and made some progress on it. However, this needs to be done professionally and in an organised and focused manner.
I also wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the families of those who died in yesterday's tragic accident. At present we do not know what caused the accident but when we find out, it would be useful to debate the safety of public transport, including school transport. We should not rush to recommendations at this early stage but should concentrate on supporting all of those who have been affected by the dreadful tragedy in County Meath.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the taxation system? I commend RTE on last night's edition of "Prime Time". It was public service broadcasting at its best that investigated and highlighted an aspect of public life and administration that must be examined. Members of the Oireachtas must debate the inequity of our taxation system and the continuing existence of a golden circle.
Will the Leader advise when the Minister for Health and Children will come to address the House, especially with regard to the capital programme for hospitals, the business plan for the Health Service Executive and her ambitions for the recommendations contained in the Hanly report?
I join previous speakers in extending my sympathy and that of my party to the families who were bereaved by yesterday's horrific accident in County Meath, and to those in the wider community who must be feeling a great deal of pain today. All parents see their children off to school and all parents expect their children to come home. Such an incident must have a terrible impact on them, the other schoolchildren and the wider community. Many schoolchildren affected by this tragedy will shortly begin their examinations. Having heard Senator O'Toole speak about the impact on children, we hope the various counselling services will be able to deal with this efficiently and professionally and bring some succour to the families and wider community. As events unfold in the weeks and months ahead, the relevant debate will take place in this House at the appropriate time.
I join Senator Brian Hayes in calling for a debate on Northern Ireland in the near future. Following the British general election and in light of the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission today, a debate would be timely and I hope the Leader will facilitate it.
I welcome the Leader's comments on the Disability Bill. It is legislation that requires time for debate and I am grateful that she has made clear that as much time as is required will be made available.
I welcome the decision to have a proper debate on the Disability Bill because many of us have been getting telephone calls on this issue. We are all aware of the major march that will take place tomorrow to highlight how dissatisfied many of the disability organisations are about the Bill.
I ask the Leader once more to speak to the Minister for Education and Science about special needs education provision at primary level. The schools have been notified of their allocation of resource teachers and there is deep unhappiness that many children will not receive two and a half hours special needs tuition. In many rural schools, a child in the system with dyslexia will continue to get two and a half hours tuition while another child starting out will not. Schools in rural areas with fewer than 100 pupils will not benefit from the new weighting system.
The Minister will get representations from Oireachtas Members from the west Limerick area on this issue because we are aware of the concerns that have been expressed. West Limerick is no different from other rural areas in terms of schools. I ask the Leader to speak to the Minister about this. It must be addressed on a needs basis; if there is a needs requirement, it must be responded to accordingly. If we do not respond, the implications of the nursing home charges could be faced again in the future because primary school children are being deprived of vital education in their formative years. It is an important issue that I wish to see addressed.
I wish to extend my sympathy to the families bereaved by the awful crash in County Meath. I support Senator O'Toole's comments on how post-traumatic stress that can arise from such an event should be handled. I do not know if there is any hard or fast model that can be introduced as each child has a different personality type. However, it needs to be teased out with collective responsibility. Clinical and educational psychologists, counsellors and teachers need to be involved in this process. It is necessary to think this out more for future reference. There will be many traumatised leaving certificate students going into examinations who will need all the support we can give them at this time.
I join with my colleagues in offering my sympathy to the parents, teachers and young schoolfellows of the five young girls killed yesterday. It is shocking they were cut off at this age in their teen years. From what I heard on the radio, they were all pleasant and intelligent people who would have made a great contribution to life.
I raised this issue in the House on 2 December 1998, with particular reference to special schools. There were discrepancies between the measures taken for the safety of children attending special schools with two or three students occupying one seat and a lack of safety belts on buses. I suppose this is not an appropriate moment——
However, one can also say it is time these warnings were listened to. I wanted to raise it in a way that was not confrontational. However, when these issues are raised, we are always told it is not an appropriate moment. When is it an appropriate moment?
I have consistently raised the issue of how asylum seekers are stuffed into hostels, which are not inspected for fire safety. This is another tragedy waiting to happen. However, we will be told again, this is not an appropriate moment to raise it. I am raising it now before there is a tragedy. Unless we act responsibly towards those people, stuffed into unhealthy fire hazards, mainly on the north side of Dublin city, there will be a tragedy with ten or 20 people killed and again we will be told it is not an appropriate moment.
Will the Leader organise a debate on the working conditions obtaining on the MV Normandy? Workers on the ship, most of whom are from Latvia, are paid approximately half the national minimum wage, required to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day with no holidays. The company was already involved in a scandal concerning the employment of a beautician who was paid €1 an hour. This matter needs to be addressed. Again, when it is almost over, because we are alerted by Deputy Joe Higgins, we take up the issue of the Gama workers. We now know we have a similar situation with an Irish company.
I join in expressing deep sympathy following the awful tragedy yesterday. When considering the issues that may arise when the full reports are completed, the Government should be guided by the same principle that guided the Leader with regard to railways when she was Minister for Public Enterprise. We cannot scrimp on safety.
I would like to see the Government decision on the introduction of post codes debated in the House. It is important that this be done in a manner friendly to the ordinary household and individual. Ordinary citizens can remember their own addresses, those of their nearest and dearest and of their close friends, but once one must use a code such as "ALW5XZ", for example, then every time one addresses a letter one must look up the numbers.
We succeeded in terms of having a user-friendly arrangement for car registration, including the year of registration, the country name and so on. That undoubtedly was an aid to memory. I hope that those devising the postal codes will not just give us a jungle of numbers but something which will be a serious aid to memory. Otherwise, the benefit will go only to businesses trying to push material at people, and the private household will suffer the cost.
I wish to be associated with the words of sympathy extended to the families of the young girls who died following the tragic accident yesterday when coming from school. I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Education and Science to make available whatever personnel and resources there are in her and other Departments to help and support not only the bereaved families but also the wider school community and the small rural communities from which the students came. I ask that this request be urgently responded to by the Minister. Many of the students in the schools involved are only days away from starting their examinations, and for them to adjust so quickly from such a scene of trauma to an examination environment will be very difficult. Whatever can be done must be done for the wider school community, including the student body, teachers, management, parents, and all those affected.
In 1998, eight children died on their way to and from school in accidents involving school buses. There was an outcry on that occasion, with a review called for. The review took place in 1999. Its results were analysed and we were told the recommendations would be implemented. In 2001 another review was undertaken on the safety of the school bus fleet, which told us of its inadequacies. I agree with Senator Norris that to some people it may not seem appropriate that we mention this now, but when is it appropriate? The urgency existed even before 1998.
Some 150,000 students travel to school each day. Despite yesterday's terrible tragedy, and other previous such tragedies, we are lucky that there have not been more catastrophes. I implore the Leader to request that whatever the Minister for Education and Science must do regarding introducing legislation with her colleague, the Minister for Transport, should be done as a matter of urgency, so that at the start of the new academic year, this danger involving the transport of children to school would be eliminated.
I support Senator Finucane in his request for the disability issue to be revisited in a serious manner. The Leader tells us that the legislation will be taken before this House next week, which we welcome, but the Minister for State with responsibility for guiding it through has clearly stated that it his intention not to change from the resource-based Bill he is bringing forward. That is the terrible decision which is causing parents and other concerned groups to march through the streets of Dublin next Thursday.
I convey my deepest sympathies to the families affected by the dreadful crash yesterday. I agree with Senators Norris and Burke that there have been problems with school transport for years and this was an accident waiting to happen. Two other Members of this House, Senator Jim Higgins and former Senator Denis Naughten, also raised this issue consistently over the years.
I was involved in a crash four years ago involving schoolchildren and a bus and it was the worst thing that happened to me. I cannot imagine how the families are feeling today, not to mention the drivers involved. I call for an urgent debate on this issue and whatever legislation is needed should be introduced immediately. I was aghast to discover this morning that it is legal to carry over 70 people on buses designed to accommodate 53. That loophole in the law must be closed off and we must do everything in our power to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.
I ask the Leader to speak to the Minister for Education and Science about the recent announcement she made regarding resource teachers. This issue is proving problematic in rural and urban areas. I am aware of a situation where two schools in the same town have received different allocations of resource teachers. One school has fewer teachers than the other, even though it has more pupils. Furthermore, there appears to be no formal appeal mechanism. I appreciate that the Department has a difficult job, but the schools that are unhappy with their allocation of teachers should be able to enter a formal appeals system to highlight their needs and make their case. I ask the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science.
I join with colleagues in offering my sincere sympathy to the families and the communities of Kentstown and Navan on the tragic deaths of five young people. It would be remiss of us if we did not pay tribute to the emergency services who did Trojan work yesterday; the Garda, the ambulance and fire services, doctors and nurses and all those involved. We owe all of those people a great debt of gratitude.
Senator Brian Hayes spoke about the carnage in County Meath yesterday and that is the only way to describe it. I propose to have a minute's silence at the end of my reply, if the Chair is amenable. It is very sad to think of those five young girls, four of whom attended the same school. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, visited the schools last night, having cancelled a planned trip to Brussels. I am sure she is overwhelmed by the grief of the people, as are we all.
Senator Brian Hayes also asked for a debate on Northern Ireland, which would be appropriate. However, we may be under time constraints because we want to devote as much of our time as possible to the Disability Bill.
Senator O'Toole made the point that there was no template in place to help those in schools to cope with such a crisis. It would be possible to have the shape of a template on how to deal with such a situation, but a lot depends on the character and strength of individual pupils and their families as to how they cope. There is a template for the emergency services and, as SenatorCummins pointed out, they responded to the situation with great alacrity.
Senator O'Meara joined in the expressions of sympathy. She wants a debate on taxation, in particular with regard to inequities — I did not see the "Prime Time" programme which highlighted these. She also asked whether the Minister for Health and Children would come to the House. We have asked her and if time allows we will have her here.
Senator Minihan expressed his sympathy to the families and wider community devastated by the tragedy. I listened to the Loreto nun on the radio this morning and it was an awful story to have to hear. The Senator agrees we should have a debate on Northern Ireland.
Senator Finucane mentioned the march tomorrow to highlight dissatisfaction with the Disability Bill. He wants a debate on special needs, particularly with regard to rural schools whose students have special needs.
Senator Ormonde supports Senator O'Toole's call for professional counselling for those affected by the tragedy. Every help should be given. The nun I heard on the radio spoke about what would be done and mentioned what the Minister for Education and Science said would be available. She said they would work together on a professional plan for the young people.
Senator Norris expressed sympathy to all involved. He raised the matter of special schools. This tragedy did not concern a special school transport issue. I know everybody has something to say about school transport, but this was not a very old bus and there was a seat for every pupil on it.
I expect we will know soon how the accident occurred. For the record, it was not an old bus and there was a seat for everybody. Senator Norris also raised the dangerous overcrowding of hostels with asylum seekers. I passed on the Senator's views to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he raised this matter previously. I agree with the Senator that the way the situation regarding the MVNormandy has been allowed to develop seems chaotic.
Senator Mansergh raised the matter of postal codes. I do not understand what they are about; the Senator will have to give us a seminar on the matter.
Senator Ulick Burke sympathised with the families in Meath affected by the tragedy. Based on what the Loreto nun I heard said, the Minister for Education and Science has said that her Department will make resources available for counselling. The Senator asked for a review of school transport for the coming school year. He also supports the call for a review of the Disability Bill on which we will have a debate.
Senator Browne supports the call for debate on school transport. He raised the issue of resource teachers and mentioned two schools in a town that got different allocations, with the school with fewer pupils getting more than the larger school. He called for an appeal mechanism. Normally any such system has an appeals mechanism included.
Senator Cummins paid tribute to the emergency services. I agree they displayed a strong and powerful response to the emergency.
With the Cathaoirleach's permission, I propose a minute's silence as a mark of respect.