Tuesday, 28 June 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive. No. 1, the Registration of Deeds and Title Bill 2004 — Report and Final Stages to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than3.15 p.m.; No 2, the Maritime Safety Bill 2004 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] — Report and Final Stages to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.45 p.m.; No. 3, if the Maritime Safety Bill 2004 is passed, a motion for earlier signature of the Bill to be taken immediately on the conclusion of No. 2; No. 4, Grangegorman Development Agency Bill 2004 — Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7.30 p.m.; No. 5 Investment Funds, Companies and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2005 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] 2005 — Report and Final Stages to be taken at 7.30 p.m., to conclude at 8 p.m.; No. 6 if the Investment Funds, Companies and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2005 is passed, a motion for earlier signature of the Bill to be taken immediately on the conclusion of No. 5; and No. 7, Garda Síochána Bill 2004 — Report and Final Stages to be taken at 8 p.m., to conclude not later than 10 p.m. That does not actually refer to Final Stages, that is the terminology used, as Senators know.
She would, I am sure, agree this House has a proud and distinguished record of debating amendments on Report and Final Stages when a Bill comes back here from the other House. Does she also agree there is still a fair degree of public concern about the fact that most of the 138 amendments were not debated in the other House last week and that we have an important job to do this week?
Will the Leader give me a firm commitment that the Government will not apply the guillotine to this Bill at any stage this week? If we do not manage to debate the 138 amendments this week this side of the House is willing to meet next week to go through those amendments, to ensure proper public scrutiny in the Houses of the Oireachtas of the amendments concerned.
I am aware they will be grouped, and that is the normal procedure. However, irrespective of the grouping, very substantial matters must be discussed, and this House has a very proud history of doing a job that the other House, for one reason or another, sometimes cannot do. I want to be assured that the Government will not apply a guillotine in this House.
On another issue to do with business scheduled for later this week, No. 15 is a report from the Committee on Health and Children on the risk equalisation scheme 2005. Perhaps time might be allocated with the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on Thursday morning to debate the issue, given what is currently in the public domain. It would be appropriate for us to have a debate for an hour or two, since we are set to approve reports from the Committee on Health and Children. Perhaps the Government might concede that.
Last week the Government issued two very important public statements, one on child care and the other on housing. It was a disgrace that two such significant Government announcements were not debated in either House of the Oireachtas. There was room for them in press conferences and in spinning to the media, but no discussion in either House. There has been no opportunity for the Opposition to question the statements' significance. No other Parliament in the world would tolerate that, and it is very important that, where the Government makes a major public statement, it ensures the Houses of the Oireachtas have an opportunity to test it and that it is made in plenary session of one or other House. It is a disgrace that that did not occur. The Taoiseach has time on a Thursday to open chip shops all over the city but not to attend either House of the Oireachtas. That is an example of the continual dumbing down ofParliament for which the Government has been responsible for the past nine years.
The Taoiseach is my constituency representative, and generally speaking I get on fairly well with him. However, Senator Brian Hayes's point is perfectly appropriate. If the Taoiseach is in charge of the Government of this country, his primary responsibility is to be inParliament to answer the difficult questions. He is not simply to be a glad-handler or official opener of everything. I remember one city manager who was described as somebody who would attend the opening of an envelope. In this case, it might not even have to be that. The use of the word "opening" on an invitation would be enough to draw the attention of the Taoiseach.
It is the other side of his very engaging human qualities.
I believe all of us, including the Leader, would welcome some kind of consistency in the hours we meet although I know the difficulties she sometimes faces in arranging that. We are all involved in public life. Sometimes we are asked to commit ourselves to working lunches a week or even a month or two in advance. Then, if we meet at 12 p.m., 12.30 p.m. or 1 p.m., as we have tended to do recently, one has to cancel such engagements at the last minute.
Perhaps I might raise two more questions very briefly. I compliment Senator Leyden on introducing his Bill, which is extremely important. It addresses a real human problem regarding the location of wills in the aftermath of someone's death. He explained it extremely well on the one o'clock news. As a long-time member of this House, I very much welcome the positive publicity gained for it through a Government Member, who described himself with uncharacteristic modesty as a backbencher, using this House's facility to introduce a Bill. I am glad the Senator got Government support and that of coalition colleagues. I am sure that support will also be forthcoming from this side of the House. As a member of the Independent group, I will be reintroducing a new version of the Bill that I put forward, the Civil Registration Bill 2003, since the Government has once again shown an inability to grapple with the issue, and has characteristically kicked it into a committee. I am waiting. The committee will have reported by the autumn at which stage I will go to work on this matter hammer and tongs. We are lagging behind disastrously in the area of civil registration. Switzerland recently became the sixteenth country in Europe to introduce legislation in this regard. It is disgraceful that we are so far behind because the Government will not bite the bullet.
I ask for a continuing debate on Iraq. This is particularly important in light of recent international reports, published in the United States, which have begun to focus on the use of Shannon Airport in the process of extraordinary rendition. We must clean up our act now that the outside world has got wind of this story. I and others informed police about a prima facie case involving the criminal use of the aircraft in question, but nothing was done. As a Parliament, we are entitled to some answers on these issues.
It appears that people who are kidnapped with a view to being tortured in some of the most nasty regimes in the world are immune from the attentions of our security services. That is disgraceful.
We will deal today with the Maritime Safety Bill 2004. I compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, on the thorough and detailed explanations supplied to Oireachtas Members in regard to the 85 amendments to this Bill. This is in stark contrast to the blank page of explanation in regard to the far more numerous amendments to the Garda Síochána Bill 2004 which were rushed through Dáil Éireann last week.
I expect no more from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Parliament is an inconvenience for that Department and rights are something it seems to abolish with enthusiasm. This House is entitled to a proper explanation of complex amendments to legislation with which it has already dealt. Instead, however, there will be only long scripts delivered by a Minister and, if we are lucky, a copy of the script. This is unsatisfactory and not the way to do business. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is a model of good practice in this regard. Perhaps it could send somebody to teach manners to those in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
This weekend, at a rock concert in Croke Park, the Taoiseach was yet again deservedly booed for his betrayal of the poor of the world. The lead singer of U2 pointed out this betrayal and the young people in attendance responded appropriately. If Fianna Fáil could come to appreciate that promises made should be kept, this country would have much better policies.
The people of Ireland are far better than Fianna Fáil imagine. When an alternative Government promises there will be legislation to guarantee the commitment made in regard to overseas development aid, that promise will be kept and implemented and the people will respond accordingly. The Government should be ashamed of itself. The young people of this country demonstrated their feelings on the matter at the weekend.
I support the Leader of the Opposition in regard to risk equalisation. It is high time we had a debate on this matter given that the Tánaiste is ideologically assaulting a successful public enterprise in the interests of protecting private enterprise. Her attempt to undermine the VHI in the interests of two private companies is disgraceful.
I wish to express my thanks to Senator Norris for his generosity of spirit in supporting my Registration of Wills Bill 2005. Will the Leader accommodate the Second Reading of this Bill, which is No. 12 on today's Order Paper, in the early part of the autumn session? I thank her, the Government Whip, Senator Moylan, the Government spokesman on health and children, Senator Glynn, and all my colleagues on this side of the House for their generosity and support without which I could not have published this Bill. I also thank the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party for endorsing it.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and his able staff, including Deirdre Lane and Jodie Blake, the Bills Office and all those involved for their work. I also thank the Tánaiste who indicated her willingness to engage with this Bill and who will hopefully give it her full support when it comes before the House during the autumn session.
I support the calls that have been made for an urgent debate on the Tánaiste's decision on risk equalisation. It effectively means the Tánaiste is sanctioning a substantial increase in premiums to be paid by VHI subscribers, which will follow in quick succession on the increases of the past 12 months. The anticipated increase means that premiums will have increased by approximately 35% in the past year. As Senator Ryan noted, the explanation given by the Tánaiste for her decision yesterday is unacceptable to most involved in the health sector, particularly the unions, who have expressed total dismay. It is unfortunate that Irish subscribers will have to subsidise British people involved with BUPA Ireland. I hope that before the end of this session, the Leader will ask the Tánaiste to come here to fully explain her decision.
On the subject of child care, Senator Brian Hayes noted earlier the significant announcement made last week by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform with regard to school age child care. This needs to be debated. We seem to be gaining momentum on the issue of child care but it must be pointed out that no regulations exist in the area of school age child care. At present, anybody can establish an after-school child care service or a service for school age children. There are no inspections or regulation. A set of guidelines is only now emerging. It is clearly an important issue.
I ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to this House at the earliest available opportunity so we may discuss this and related child care issues.
This morning, I was pleased to be present when the Ombudsman for Children published her first annual report. She pointed out that some vulnerable children are not covered by the legislation, for example, children who enter Garda stations and unaccompanied minors who seek asylum here. The Ombudsman for Children asks that these groups be covered by legislation. This House has an obligation to take up that call and to ensure that she is given the powers she needs in order to protect all children and, in particular, children who otherwise will not have a voice, champion or advocate.
As we approach the end of the session, I will be a slight irritant to the Leader by restating that, in the forthcoming session, a debate or statements should be considered on the update on the task force on emigration. I am pleased to inform the House that, as a result of its intervention last week and the comments it made on RTE's proposed exclusion of the Irish in Britain as a result of moving sports programmes to RTE, the station is examining the situation and intends monitoring it throughout July. It is conscious of the Irish in Britain and beyond and acknowledges that fact. There was no intent on its part to disenfranchise them in any way. It is important that this House should be a forum for such issues. I hope the Leader will consider giving time to the Minister for Foreign Affairs so he may inform us what is being done in terms of the task force's recommendations.
Notwithstanding the vitriolic attack of Senator Ryan, which one comes to expect although he is a lovely man outside the House——
I support the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, in his call for a debate on risk equalisation. Yesterday's decision was a terrible mistake. It is worth pointing out that BUPA makes 17% profit in Ireland, in comparison to 5% profit in its UK operation. The recent statement by BUPA that it would pull out of the Irish market if risk equalisation were introduced was both childish and nonsensical. It will result in either VHI subscribers facing further increases or eating into the VHI reserves. If we are to have genuine competition in the market, risk equalisation should be introduced. It is also worth pointing out——
I also ask the Leader to inquire from the Tánaiste about the report on sudden adult death which was due out last May and still has not been published. I ask her to find out when exactly it will be published.
On Friday the Minister for Agriculture and Food will be in the House to discuss the Veterinary Practice Bill. It might be an opportune time to have a debate on the sugar beet industry. We have a meeting tonight in Carlow with the beet growers. It is a major issue and it would be remiss of us to go into the summer recess without having a debate.
Senator O'Meara referred to the report of the Ombudsman for Children published today. This detailed report requires urgency and should be debated soon although I am sure it is not possible to do so this week. We had a debate here last week about prisons but one of the points to which Senator O'Meara did not refer was one made by the Ombudsman for Children on the difficulty judges have in deciding where to send a teenager, for example. In some cases where parents have begged the judges to put the child away because he or she is creating problems, the judges are loath to do so because they do not have prisons in which to put them. This is an area in which the Ombudsman for Children is not covered by the legislation passed comparatively recently. It is time for us to examine this again.
I will add one more point on risk equalisation. I know the Tánaiste's ambition and objective is to ensure competition in favour of customers. I believe she would welcome the opportunity to come here to debate this, to argue her case and to hear the views of those of us who want to stress that we all have the same objective of good value for customers. She believes this is the way to do it while some in this House do not believe it is. Let us hear her views.
I second the proposal for a debate on the EU plans for the sugar industry. I know decisions are not to be taken until November but this is a critical matter for this country. Brazil currently has 29% of world markets. The ACP countries, about which much concern has been expressed in this House in the past, are totally opposed to what is being proposed by the EU Commission. There is an important issue to debate and we have the right to have our own needs met here. Does anyone think the United States of America would allow one of its agriculture sectors and interests to be closed down just because the WTO suggested it?
He is correct, however, in his last point about agriculture. I, too, join with other speakers in calling on the Minister for Agriculture and Food, when she comes to the House on Friday, to remain for another hour to discuss both the beet sector and wider issues affecting agriculture. We could have a useful debate in that regard.
On the issue of risk equalisation in health insurance, I would like to know what happened between last Thursday, when the Minister for Health and Children in the health committee appeared to be very much of the opinion that risk equalisation should be introduced, and last evening when the announcement was made. The Minister appears to have had a complete change of mind. We could have a useful discussion in the House with the Minister on that topic this week if it could be arranged on Friday.
My final point is about the Taoiseach's announcement with regard to social and affordable housing. I agree with other speakers that the way it was announced was inappropriate but it was announced two or three times previously.
It is inappropriate that the Government should engage in some type of side deals with developers to dispose of valuable city centre landbanks with the promise of social and affordable housing being built on the outskirts of Dublin city.
Either the Taoiseach or his brother, who is the Minister of State responsible for housing, should be invited to come into the House to discuss the criteria used in disposing of the site that I understand has been passed on already. There has been no disclosure of the criteria used in disposing of that site.
I realise it will not be possible now to ask the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, to come into the House before the summer break but will the Leader ask him to immediately put in place a team of independent engineers to carry out an assessment of the structure at the National Aquatic Centre? We heard recently that further problems have arisen with the centre in terms of thousands, or perhaps millions, of gallons of water leaking from that structure. That is in addition to all the other problems, some of which are sub judice and into which I will not go. That centre in my area of Dublin 15 was closed down for nearly six months because of storm damage and the delays in getting it repaired. These problems are in addition to a litany of events that have gone wrong——
We have requested a debate on housing on several occasions but this has not taken place. The Taoiseach is out at chip shops or tile stores making announcements with regard to land swaps with some of his own cronies in order to provide affordable houses. This is shameful.
The issue is one I have raised with the Leader on numerous occasions, namely, the contribution local authorities must pay for water and sewerage services. In most cases, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is seeking 20% of the total. In some cases, tenders were awarded more than a year ago but the Department is still seeking a 20% contribution. The local authorities in question cannot come up with that contribution so the clock is still ticking in regard to the tenders. If this is the case, it is easy to understand why there are overruns on most of the capital projects managed by local authorities.
If at all possible, I ask the Leader to arrange before Friday for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House or to make a statement on the farcical situation concerning the contributions that must be made by local authorities for water services. In some cases, local authorities must re-advertise and seek new tenders — one can imagine the cost of this in terms of the abuse of taxpayers' and ratepayers' money. The Leader should seek a solution as a matter of urgency.
In Brussels on 14 July — in little over a fortnight's time — the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers will have its first discussion on the proposals concerning the sugar beet industry. I support colleagues who call for a debate with the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the matter. It is important that the Minister goes to Brussels with the full support of all Members and parties in the House and the Oireachtas. She will be defending an integral part of Irish agriculture and the tillage industry. It is important she gets a result and that she has the full support of all Members in that regard. The House should be in a position to offer the Minister its full support. She might be able to remain for an extra half an hour or an hour on Friday to discuss the sugar industry.
As a customer of the VHI, I am concerned about the future of health insurance in this country. However, as one who advocates competition, I am aware that the whole concept of risk equalisation poses many serious questions. I am on record in the House as expressing scepticism about the concept of risk equalisation. While my colleagues are concerned that the Minister did not make a decision yesterday, the Tánaiste is apparently awaiting a decision on the future of the VHI. I hope that in the coming weeks and months we will have a mature debate on risk equalisation, which I do not believe to be all it is made out to be. There are hundreds of thousands of Irish BUPA customers and we should be aware of their interests.
On an international issue, the House has discussed the issues of Iraq, the Middle East and Sudan in recent months, and rightly so. However, in the past month, a shocking episode has been ongoing in Zimbabwe——
——-where the President, who appears to be going from bad to mad, is literally crushing hundreds of thousands of houses and moving almost a million people from their homesteads. I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Foreign Affairs to highlight, at European and UN level, this appalling act of barbarity by Robert Mugabe. There was a time the Members of these Houses and others supported that president for what he was trying to do for his country. However, we should now be prepared to say he is a shocking example of all that is bad in a dictator.
I join with Senator Paddy Burke in calling for urgent action by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to deal with the crisis in sewerage systems throughout the country. In many cases the crisis relates to financing and the finance to be provided by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. In many villages and towns this presents a real problem as it prevents growth. It also puts pressure on one-off rural housing, a matter often debated in this House, and is a significant problem in the planning sector. If the towns were provided with water and sewerage schemes there would not be the same demand for one-off housing.
A ridiculous situation is developing in many villages in Clare where local people cannot find a house in the village or town because there is no water or sewerage scheme to facilitate them, yet they are denied permission for one-off housing in rural areas. We need action on this matter before the end of the summer.
I could equally seek a commitment that there be no filibustering but then I would be told I was being pejorative. We have allocated seven and a half hours on Report and Final Stages. It is a fair amount of time. There was a lengthy debate on the Bill when it was before the House during which many amendments were made. Arising from the debate in the Dáil there have been a considerable number of amendments. We hope that the proposed arrangements will allow for the passage of the Bill in reasonably good time. An allocation of seven and a half hours is significant but if Senators want to sit on Friday afternoon it would be a matter of seeing if the Minister is free.
I thank the Leader for giving way. Is it possible that the House would give notice of the grouping arrangement well in advance of 7.15 p.m? The problem is the Opposition has not seen the grouping arrangement and does not know how many groups there are. I say that with reference to all sides. There will be significant groups of amendments but we will only be able to speak once.
That is a good suggestion as it would allow Members to plan their time. I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Clerk for facilitating it. If it is used properly, an allocation of seven and a half hours is fair. With no disrespect to the other House, much of the debate on the Bill was hot air.
Senator Brian Hayes also asked for a debate on risk equalisation. Can he manage a debate on two sheets of paper? I will ask the Tánaiste if she has an hour at her disposal this week when she could come to the House.
The Senator went on to make a valid point on the recent important announcements on child care and housing. He said such announcements should be made in the Houses of the Oireachtas. To my knowledge the announcement on child care was made by one party and was not a Government announcement.
Senator Norris said the Taoiseach was his constituency Deputy and that the other side of his amenability and agreeableness was his glad-handling, with which the Senator does not agree. That is Senator Norris's opinion and he is entitled to say it. I am sorry if his luncheon appointment clashed with our 1.30 p.m. start, but today's schedule is very full.
I strongly object to that. My luncheon appointment was an important business affair and not a matter of my private arrangements. The Leader should withdraw that remark. It is extremely insulting to somebody who devotes his life to public work.
I thank Senator Norris for his congratulations to Senator Leyden on the introduction of the Registration of Wills Bill. Levity aside, it is good that a Senator is introducing a Private Members' Bill. Senator Ross introduced one previously, as did Senators Norris, Daly, Quinn and Cummins. It is good that legislators introduce such Bills. I congratulate Senator Leyden. He has asked if his Bill can be taken early in the new session and I hope we will be able to accommodate that. The Senator is a shining star.
Senator Norris also raised the matter of flights in and out of Shannon Airport, a matter to which he has devoted some time. Senator Ryan congratulated the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on the excellent way the amendments to the Maritime Safety Bill have been put forward and explained. He expressed a wish that the same would happen with the complex amendments to the Garda Síochána Bill.
Senator Ryan also raised the matter of the booing of the Taoiseach at the rock concert in Croke Park. It is very bad manners for any section of an audience to boo a person in authority, no matter if it is Pat Rabbitte or Enda Kenny who is Taoiseach. A Taoiseach should not be booed.
We will not discuss what happened at the U2 concert on the Order of Business. Order please. We have much business to get through today, but at the rate we are going, we will not get started until 3 p.m. I would like to get down to business.
I agree. I am sorry, but I was provoked and am equally provocative. I will stop. Senator Dooley is young, as are my two sons, so I go by what those nice young people say.
Senator Ryan said that Fianna Fáil does not understand the meaning of a promise. We do.
The Senator also wants a debate on risk equalisation, as does Senator Ulick Burke. It is a difficult matter. I do not know if we will have the time.
Senator Leyden asked about the Registration of Wills Bill 2005. I have said it will be introduced early in the new session.
Senator O'Meara spoke about child care. The report of the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, is worth debating. I heard her talking about children at risk on the radio this morning. I did not attend the launch of the report.
Senator Mooney asked me to arrange a debate early in the new session on foreign affairs and emigration. He clearly specified the amount of money that has been allocated by the Government to overseas development aid.
Senator Browne also called for a debate on risk equalisation. He asked when the report on sudden adult death syndrome will be published. I understand there was another death of that nature last week. The Senator also spoke about the sugar beet industry. We are endeavouring to find an additional hour for a debate on the matter. I do not yet know the outcome of that process.
Senator Quinn discussed the report of the Ombudsman for Children. He mentioned that judges face difficulties when deciding where to send — I hesitate to use the phrase — recalcitrant children. The Senator's view on risk equalisation is refreshing and interesting.
Senator Mansergh mentioned that the Taoiseach answers far more questions in the Dáil than some of his predecessors. I do not want to provoke a debate on the matter. He also asked for a debate on the EU sugar plans.
Senator John Paul Phelan agreed with those who said we need to have a debate on risk equalisation. He argued that a quango is being established to deal with social and affordable housing. If the Senator comes to Athlone, he will see that a great deal of excellent social and affordable housing has been built there.
Senator Terry said that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism should publish the reports on the National Aquatic Centre. She suggested that the Minister should ask a group of independent engineers to inspect the structure and produce a report on foot of that. It is a fair point.
Senator Bannon also raised concerns about social and affordable housing. I also invite him to come to Athlone.
Senator Paddy Burke said he has met many councillors — I wish him good luck on his odyssey — and that they are expressing concern about the development of water and sewerage schemes. I agree with the Senator that it is a huge issue. It was also raised by Senator Dooley. Difficulties and delays are being caused by the requirement for local authorities to make contributions for water and sewerage services. I will raise the fair point made by the Senators with the relevant Minister.
Senator Bradford supported the calls for a debate on the sugar beet industry. The Minister in question will be defending the case of this country's agricultural industry in Brussels on 14 July. The Senator also spoke about risk equalisation. Like Senator Quinn, he considered the matter in a practical manner. Many questions have to be asked about it.
I agree with Senator Bradford's comments on Zimbabwe. I would like to understand why towns are being destroyed. Perhaps the sight of them offends Robert Mugabe's eyes. The Senator called on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to muster opposition at EU and UN level to Mr. Mugabe, who is a dictator.
Senator Dooley argued that there is a crisis in water and sewerage schemes throughout the country. Like Senator Paddy Burke, he must be visiting many local authority members. Both of them made the same point.
Could I make a point about the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2001-06? I have been reprimanded in a note I have received from outside. Big brother is looking in. The child care programme was a Government policy announced last Wednesday. The Minister had received extra funding from the Department of Finance to proceed with the programme. It was not a Progressive Democrats launch.