Thursday, 6 October 2005
Order of Business.
Before outlining the Order of Business, I wish to comment on the arrangements for this afternoon. The Taoiseach will be here from 12.45 p.m. to 1.30 p.m. and the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Tom Kitt, will be here from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. I am anxious that the spokesperson of each group has a chance to speak when the Taoiseach is present so that he can hear those Senators' views. The proposed timeframe will facilitate that. I hope that is in order with Members.
The Order of Business today is Nos. 1, 2 and 3. No. 1 is a motion, to be taken without debate, referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights which has completed its deliberations; No. 2 is statements on the Corrib gas field to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 12.45 p.m. Spokespersons have ten minutes each and other Senators have seven minutes each. Members may share time. The Minister will be called to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and, No. 3 is statements on Northern Ireland to be taken at 12.45 p.m. to conclude at 2.30 p.m. Spokespersons or leaders of the groups have six minutes each and all other Senators have five minutes each. Members may share time.
The Taoiseach will be in the Seanad next Thursday for the debate on Europe from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
I thank the Leader for making those arrangements for statements on Northern Ireland, a debate which has been sought by Members from all sides of the House for some months. Does the Leader know when the tribunals of inquiry Bill will be brought before the House? The Bill is intended to regulate the costs to the Exchequer of barristers and solicitors who represent various parties before tribunals. However, we need new legislation not just relating to costs for barristers and solicitors but also to regulate the costs of consultants who work for Departments. This year in excess of €100 million will be spent by the taxpayer on consultancies in Departments. We must call a halt to this now. Legislation is needed to regularise the way those costs are established and value for money audits are required to ensure that we get far better value for money than has been achieved in the past.
The Taoiseach openly told the Dáil yesterday, with regard to the PPARS project, that the consultants were paid too much. The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, described the payments as "extraordinary and excessive". The aforementioned are the CEO and deputy CEO of Ireland plc and they must explain who bears responsibility for this mess. This is an endemic problem in Government in recent years, particularly the last eight years, with major decisions being hived off to consultants who are delighted to do this work for Government. It has a very negative effect on the Civil Service and public administration and goes against the strategic management initiative that the Government has promoted in recent years. We need root and branch reform and new legislation in this area to ensure better value for money so that the taxpayer is not ripped off in future.
There is an item on the Order Paper of the Dáil today welcoming an initiative by US Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy to introduce a new Bill to help the undocumented Irish living in the United States. The Leader and other Senators are part of a sub-committee of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs that has been working on this issue. The motion before the Dáil today is an all-party one and I ask the Leader to provide time in this House next week to have a debate on the issue because there is strong interest in it among Senators from both sides.
I wish to make another request of the Leader that we discuss the Irish Ferries issue. I raised the matter yesterday and later in the afternoon I heard a remarkable statement from IBEC blaming the trade unions for the proposals from Irish Ferries management. That is a bit like blaming Strongbow for coming ashore in 1169 and causing the 30 years of struggle in Northern Ireland. I have also become aware of a more serious proposal emerging from Irish Ferries. It appears that it intends to re-fit its ships and has done a deal to exploit thousands of workers from South America. They are planning to put vents along the sides of their ships, chain the workforce to the car decks, fit them out with oars to save on fuel and pay them in mirrors, bottles of whiskey and tobacco. This will save thousands, if not millions of euro per annum, allow the company to continue in operation and save the economy. We should all look forward to the next dastardly proposal from Irish Ferries. Apparently, the chief executive of IBEC is prepared to sit on top of the pile with his whip to ensure that the Captain Bligh of the Irish economy will get further blood, sweat and tears out of its workforce. We need to discuss what is going on here and the difficulties facing the economy if we allow the management of Irish Ferries to run riot and bring us back not just 20 years, but much farther.
Senator Mooney and myself were part of an Oireachtas delegation that met Senator McCain recently. He told us that it would be helpful if there was all-party support in both Houses of the Oireachtas for himself and Senator Kennedy. I support the call from Senator Brian Hayes for a debate and I am sure the Leader will be more than happy to facilitate us, particularly as Senator McCain has said that it would be helpful for him to be able to say, on the floor of the House in the United States, that he had the support of both Houses of the Irish Parliament.
We need to broaden the debate with regard to Irish Ferries. A very disturbing fact appeared in the recent tax figures released by the Government, namely, that even though there are an extra 90,000 people at work, there was no significant increase in income tax returns. This suggests that a large number of the extra people at work are being paid close to the minimum wage. If that is happening, we are further exacerbating the situation whereby the proportion of people at work who are poor is increasing while the proportion of people who are not at work and are poor is decreasing. That is not a great way to run a country, to have an increasing number of people who are poor and at work. We must examine this issue because if there is considerable displacement of Irish workers by immigrant workers who are forced, because of the absence of a welfare safety net, to work for whatever they are offered, then the situation is serious. We may see a scenario where Irish people and immigrants will end up competing for poorly paid jobs, in a race to the bottom. That is not what anybody wants, or at least I hope that is the case.
The Government was, apparently, going to ban alcohol advertising but has changed its mind and is now going to work on a code of practice but codes of practice have never worked. I have spent most of my political career watching the tobacco industry promise code after code of practice. I know of one major player in the drinks industry which is funding a university study to find out about attitudes to alcohol, even though it is already spending approximately ten times more on its own private research. The university funding is simply a gloss to give a good impression. The company can already provide a wealth of attitudinal information because it spends a fortune on exploring its market. If we leave the control of alcohol advertising to those who make money from alcohol, there is only one, inevitable, outcome. We are now in a situation where a number of Government policies that I believe were worthwhile, including imposing a tax on chewing gum and banning alcohol advertising, have been defused by intensive lobbying by industry. I am unhappy with the degree to which the Government is capitulating to industry lobbies on issues related to public health and the environment.
He had a think-in with all of the experts that have given us gridlock in Dublin in recent years. I was surprised by one of the items reported, that consideration was being given to removing some widened footpaths and mini-roundabouts that have been put into many housing estates in Dublin, at a cost of millions of euro. Such facilities were intended to force motorists out of Dublin, which is Government policy. I urge the Leader to arrange for us to have a discussion with Deputy Callely after his think-in with the transport exports who have given us gridlock in Dublin.
I agree with my colleague, Senator O'Toole, that we need a debate on Irish Ferries. I raised the issue on the Adjournment of the House last night, and while I appreciate the response from the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, we would all benefit from a wide-ranging discussion on where we are going with Irish Ferries.
I support Senator Brian Hayes' comments on consultants. I raised the matter on a previous occasion in this House, when I referred to the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, who had approximately 130 studies and reports carried out during his period as Minister. Many of those reports have gathered dust. Departments often adopt an easy approach to hiding problems by engaging consultants to examine them. There is inadequate recognition of the resources within Departments, which have employees who are qualified to carry out such studies. Over the last few days the debate on PPARS and its cost has focused attention on the area of consultancy, about which a more enlightened approach must be taken. I was appalled to hear the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, refer to excesses of expenditure as minuscule in the context of the overall budget. Deputy Dempsey cannot be living in the real world if he regards €150 million as minuscule.
The western railway inter-county committee held a meeting yesterday. That committee was founded by Fr. Micheál MacGréil approximately 25 years ago and has the support of local authorities from Sligo to Limerick. There was a strong feeling among committee members that, although there is much speculation about metro development, port tunnels and outer ring roads, there has been very little mention of the western rail corridor. The committee believes that a political decision to give the go-ahead for the corridor should be taken. As there is an underspend in the BMW region, will the Leader arrange a debate on this issue? It could be included in an upcoming debate on transport.
I have a front page article from the 31 March 1999 edition of Medicine Weekly, an Irish medical newspaper, dealing with reform of the Medical Practitioners Act 1978, which has been promised since the early 1990s. I do not know what one could call its problems now but the article states that the Department of Health and Children had many problems in 1999 and that it would take five or six years to introduce new legislation. That time has passed and both the medical profession and general public have asked that legislation be brought forward with speed, as changes are needed in how the medical profession is regulated. There should be more lay involvement in the Medical Council. Does the Leader possess any influence over the Department to determine whether the proposed legislation could be introduced to this House? Members from all sides would be willing to begin work on this issue. It is urgent legislation but if "urgent" means five or six years, we will wait another five or six years if something is not said to the Department now.
I would welcome a debate on the relationship between informed public service decision-making in a complex world and the use of outside consultancies, which is a form of upmarket outsourcing. The health system is experiencing problems with its computer system, which should make us reflect somewhat. We have decided to centralise the health service and abolish the health boards. We were promised this would lead to greater efficiencies but it is a rather obvious example of centralisation leading to considerably greater inefficiency in the short term.
I would not be surprised if eight health boards around the country were to develop different practices to a degree, which decentralisation is all about. A lesson we should learn is that changing structures do not necessarily solve underlying problems and can sometimes exacerbate them. Having said this, we are committed to working with the Health Service Executive. We want it to be successful and get over its teething problems. We should not have any illusions about the sources of some of the problems.
I support remarks made by Senators Brian Hayes and Finucane regarding the hiring of consultants by various Departments. Over the past number of days, the Taoiseach has stated that much of this type of work within his Department was done by civil servants, all of whom are capable according to him, which I believe.
The Tánaiste has said that employing expensive consultants has become too much of a habit in Departments in recent years. It is quite obvious that the Taoiseach must issue a decree on this matter to all Departments. I am delighted to hear that his Department has such capable civil servants and am sure the same is the case throughout the Civil Service.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to the House in order to debate the effects of the high cost of fuel on the economy? Consumer prices have gone through the roof recently. This year alone there has been a 30% increase in the price of heating oil and a 25% increase in the price of petrol and diesel at service stations throughout the country.
We must take action immediately as high prices are having a profound effect on our economy and the cost of living. The Government must reduce the rate of excise duty on fuels. If not, a very serious crisis will have occurred by the beginning of 2006. It is important to have a debate on this important issue. We need an anti-inflation package immediately and to roll back the cost of energy to services within our economy.
Yesterday's business was conducted in accordance with the Order of Business, which was agreed in his presence yesterday morning and called for the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to conclude no later than 4.55 p.m. The Chair acted in accordance with this order, which I hope will be clear to the Senator in future.
I support the proposition to not only debate the employment of consultants by Departments but the entire strategic management initiative, as it would allow me to indulge one of my prejudices as a former civil servant, namely, the use of consultants.
There are cheaper ways to achieve one's aims. Individuals rather than large organisations can be brought in. On the matter of computer programmes, the only consolation is that this also happens in other jurisdictions. I have witnessed many such events. They all arise from people pursuing the Holy Grail of a universal system to answer all of their problems.
We are getting reports this morning of concern being expressed for children dropped off unsupervised at schools at least an hour before their schools open. This is a result of both parents working and needing to leave their homes earlier than should be the case because they must travel in heavy traffic to drop their children off at school at 8 a.m. or earlier in some cases. I ask that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House or that we address this issue and see if it is possible to put in place a system whereby, at the very least, children are supervised during this time. Following on from our debate yesterday on early childhood learning, this situation is a knock-on effect of the Celtic tiger and our lack of proper public transport and measures to enable people to balance work and life. Children are suffering in this situation, which needs to be addressed.
I ask the Leader to arrange a most urgent debate next week on domestic violence against women. Two days ago, the Leader and I attended the launch of the statistics on the national helpline. One in seven women in Ireland suffers from domestic abuse. We need a serious debate with the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Frank Fahey, who was superb at the launch of the statistics. He needs to come to the House and talk about how we can improve the Domestic Violence Act 1996 and how we can protect children from abusive fathers.
I ask the Leader if we could have a debate on Iraq. We have a tradition of looking at the situation in that country and current developments there are very worrying. Last week, American forces decided to enter the city of Haditha in military form and attacked two cars containing families fleeing. Ten people were killed, including three children. Very little is done about keeping this under review. The British army also got itself into a very difficult situation in Basra with two undercover SAS agents who were disguised as Arab mercenaries and carried guns and ammunition. I asked what the Colombia Three were doing in Colombia and I ask the same question on the same principle about the British army in this case. What were these agents doing? This question was neglected by the British media.
We should examine the question of asylum seekers. A report in Metro magazine told the story of a young Nigerian man who came to this country five years ago. He applied for asylum and was turned down. He then applied on humanitarian grounds and was again turned down. He was served a deportation order and committed suicide, leaving a partner and a small child, whose fate is also uncertain. We are told that these people are not serious and that their stories are cock-and-bull. The situation was serious enough for the man in question to prefer to take his own life rather than be returned to Nigeria.
I support Senator Morrissey's call for a debate on the transport system in Dublin. It would be an opportunity for us to vigorously reintroduce, as this House did very effectively with support from all quarters, the notion of the only sensible solution — a metro.
There have been a number of comments regarding the implications for the economy in general and employment in particular of the situation involving Irish Ferries. I support these calls for a debate but I ask for the debate to be broadened into the areas of industrial relations and partnership. While the Irish Ferries situation represents one extreme, the other side of that coin is the announcement yesterday that IMPACT would now join the medical unions in obstructing the introduction of a socially aware initiative by the Government, which is the introduction of 200,000 medical cards.
If people are participating in partnership and availing of benchmarking, productivity should be a factor. That somebody is doing extra work should not be a means of extracting more money from employers. This does not happen in the private sector but is endemic in the public sector.
I join Senator Kitt in calling for a debate on the western rail corridor. Everything is in place for this decision and it requires funding in the next budget. We need cross-party support on this issue. We know that Iarnród Éireann has been very slow to invest in the west of Ireland and it will have to be brought kicking and screaming to ensure that it does invest in the western rail corridor.
I agree with the call for a debate on US visas and the Bill proposed by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain. We all have constituents — mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters — who are concerned that their loved ones cannot return home for events like weddings and funerals. We need cross-party support on this very important issue.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to address the House in connection with comparative pricing. The director of telecommunications regulation, Etain Doyle, has done a very good job in ensuring competition, particularly in the mobile phone market. With the different types of offers that are available in the landline market, such as weekend minutes, night rates, evening rates, looped rates and different times, it is very difficult for the consumer to know what he or she is comparing the offer with. It would be beneficial if there was a comparative register.
I support the call by Senator Brian Hayes for a debate on the PPARS system and the role of consultants. I am personally aware of a director of nursing in Carlow who retired over it because it was so unworkable. She was continually told that nurses on night time duty had to stop work at 4 a.m. and all her protestations and representations on the issue were ignored. I am also aware of a major factory in Carlow that used this system worldwide. While it has had some teething difficulties, the company has not spent €70 million on a consultant's report on it and it has worked well for tens of thousands of employees. There is certainly a big contrast between the private and public sectors on this issue.
I also agree with Senator Terry regarding the issue of children being left at school, an issue I raised previously. The fact that children are left off at schools before the official school starting time and kept at schools after school officially ends is a serious issue about which there appear to be no clear guidelines. I have put down questions and have raised the matter on the Adjournment. The answer we always receive is that it is a legal issue and depending on every case, a decision will be reached. It is time that the Minister for Education and Science came off the fence and gave clear guidelines to both teachers, schools and parents who must leave children in school before the official start time because it is unfair on everyone involved.
I neglected to say that Members can share their time during the debate in the early afternoon.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the issue of tribunals. I know he raised the legislation on tribunals as a lead-in to his major point but I have the information about legislation on tribunals of inquiry with me. It will be published during this session by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and we will seek to have it introduced in this House. Senator Brian Hayes then called for legislation on consultants' costs. I think he said €100 million had been paid in such costs and that there should be legislation to govern this. I do not know if this is anticipated; other interesting comments were also made on that matter.
Senator Brian Hayes also asked about the undocumented Irish, which is the shorthand term we use. We discussed a debate on this issue this morning. The debate will be scheduled for either the coming week or the following week. We want to invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to the House but his diary looks fairly full next week. We had already asked for this but I thank the Senator for reminding me. I accompanied some members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs to Washington D.C., and we discussed the matter with Senator John McCain and others. Two Bills were mooted at the time but the current Bill won through. It contains a very good safeguard that allows Irish people to come back home to go to family events and return to the US. It is a very worthwhile Bill and Senator McCain has asked that the Houses of the Oireachtas support it. He would use this support in his promulgation of the Bill, which would be a good idea. We will hopefully have the debate next week. I will know later on.
Senator O'Toole raised the Irish Ferries debate and IBEC's role in it. I find IBEC's comments on this issue very disquieting. There may be faults on both sides but we do not know. We need to have a debate on the matter, rather than it being a brief item on the Adjournment. We will try to arrange a debate for next week.
Senator Ryan raised the issue of the Bill proposed by Senator McCain. We hope to consider the Bill next week. I thank the Senator for his support in this matter.
Senator Ryan said also that although there are more people in employment there is less revenue buoyancy from that employment. Thankfully, quite a number of people on low incomes have escaped the tax net following the last budget and I hope the same will be true of the forthcoming budget. That might explain this anomaly although I have not seen that aspect written about. The Senator, however, seeks an explanation.
I fully agree with Senator Ryan's point about alcohol advertising. All inducements to either smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol should be muted. Codes of practice do not work for anything. They sound wonderful in theory, and I suppose everyone adopting them does so with good intentions but these whittle away.
It was a good idea to curb alcohol advertising because one sees on television images of cool young people going out drinking. There are also the advertisements sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government showing the outcome when someone who drinks and then drives. I am surprised one such advertisement has been dropped. I do not know whether it is a result of lobbying or something else.
Senator Morrissey wants the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, to come to the House. Think-ins are a good idea. Some Senators had a think-in recently but I do not know the outcome.
We will invite the Minister of State to attend the House because the Senator wanted to raise other matters with him. The Senator also mentioned the issue of Irish Ferries.
Senator Finucane spoke about consultants. I recognise that he raised the matter last week as acting leader of the Opposition, before it had reached its present crescendo. He called into question the comments made by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey. I was often caught in this situation. The problem is that one never hears the full sentence. A comment such as that made by the Minister is never put in context with the result that one is then regarded with odium. If one reads the full comment the seemingly wild comment makes more sense. That is how it works. I believe the Minister was the victim of that type of reporting.
Senator Kitt raised a query about the western rail corridor. We have a query too about the Mullingar to Athlone rail line and are preparing a strong case which I hope the Senators will support, as we supported Senator Kitt.
I will not be provoked. Senator Henry asked about the medical practitioners Bill. The urgent date now mooted seems to be mid-2006, which is not much comfort to the Senator.
Senator Mansergh requested a debate on the competency within the public service and the use of outside consultancies. I do not know how all of that could be managed in a debate but it is a useful suggestion which was also taken up by Senator Maurice Hayes.
Senator Coghlan said employing consultancies is too habit-forming. There is a case for considering this. Within Departments people might say they do not have the capacity to deal with an obtuse topic and send for Deloitte & Touche or whoever. This echoes Senator Maurice Hayes' point about the lack of capacity to deal with an issue. The consultants will be somewhat wary of tendering for those contracts for fear they will be criticised in the Dáil and Seanad.
Senator Bannon mentioned the price of fuel in the economy. I am equally concerned about the price of fuel for elderly people. Their fuel allowance is a fixed sum that does not even approach the price of a bag of coal. The Department of Social and Family Affairs must consider this in the context of the budget. Senator Bannon suggests dropping the tax take on fuel but that would simply be an excuse to increase the price again when there was less——
Following on Senator Mansergh's point, Senator Maurice Hayes made a thoughtful contribution about building up capacity in the Civil Service. He suggested buying the competency into a Department, even if only on a contract basis. He also said there are computer glitches around the world. I had a feeling computers were not everything they were made out to be.
Like Senator Terry, I was alarmed to hear the report about children being dropped to school an hour before the school opened. I do not understand how that can happen because there are legal and insurance reasons why children cannot be supervised there. It is an issue which must be included in the child care debate of which it forms part. The Senator wants the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to discuss this issue.
Senator White called for a debate on domestic violence, which we hope to have. Senator Norris asked for a debate on Iraq. We are angling for that debate to take place next week too. He also made a point about asylum seekers, a topic we could debate. There will be a Europe-wide directive on asylum seekers. I had not realised the law in other countries is much more severe than it is here.
Senator Jim Walsh wants a debate on Irish Ferries. He also raised the matter by which we were all struck this morning, namely, the obstruction of the issuing of extra medical cards. Everyone in this House wants those cards to be issued. Professor Monaghan of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul spoke about the matter on "Morning Ireland" today, as did Gerard Barry from the Health Service Employers Agency who was adamant that it would happen. I hope it will.
Senator Feighan called for a debate on the western rail corridor and the visas for the undocumented Irish in America. Senator Hanafin wants the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come to the House to debate comparative pricing. There was also good report on that topic on "Morning Ireland".
Senator Browne mentioned the role of consultancies and the issue of young children left at school prior to school opening.