Tuesday, 22 November 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is Nos. 1 and 2. No. 1 is a referral motion whereby the subject matter of Nos. 11 and 12 on today's Order Paper are being referred to the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources for consideration. No. 11 concerns the postponement of the elections of the regional fisheries boards due to the recent Government decision to restructure the inland fisheries sector. No. 12 concerns a change in the fees for licences issued or renewed on or after 1 January 2006. No. 1 will be taken without debate. No. 2, Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2005 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes each and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes each, and the Minister is to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.
On 12 December a new motorway will be opened between Kinnegad and Kilcock, of which I am sure the Leader is aware. That is great news for those who can afford to travel on it but I have a question for the Government. The toll on this new stretch of motorway will be €2.40 each way but there is a condition attached to the contract to the effect that if five cars or more are queuing at the toll booths at any given time, the barriers will automatically open allowing all the cars through. If it is possible to do that on a new stretch of motorway, why can the same rule not apply to those who are sitting in the largest car park in the country, the M50, on a daily basis? Every day commuters must sit in their cars on the M50 while approximately 100 cars queue to get through the toll booth. Why must drivers from Dublin, Kildare, Meath and other counties endure that when the practice on the new motorway will allow a much more consumer friendly policy when it comes to opening the barriers? We need statements on that.
I am aware there is an historic problem to do with the contract on the M50, which other Senators have raised consistently in the House, but this discrimination regarding tolling policies must end. We must free up the space for those who have to use the M50 on a daily basis to commute across our city and introduce some equity to the issue of tolling. That is an issue I would like debated in the House if the Leader would be good enough to provide an opportunity between now and 12 December, when the new road will be opened.
On the second matter, I raised some time ago the problem of car trafficking North and South and homes being burgled to obtain keys to cars that are then stolen from outside people's homes. Will the Leader speak to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to determine if a new law could be framed that would make breaking and entering with the intention of stealing car keys a new offence? That would be a serious deterrent to those involved in this activity. We also need greater co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána because as we saw in Firhouse last week, the car used in that double murder came from Northern Ireland. I ask the Government to take this issue seriously. Car trafficking North and South and into Britain is a major problem, not just here in Dublin but in other urban centres. Cars are being stolen to order and a new law must be framed to come down strongly on those involved in this type of action.
You may have noticed, a Chathaoirligh, an article in today's Irish Independent on school league tables which, more than anything else, shows how unreliable they are but that is not the point I wish to have discussed. I ask the Leader to provide an opportunity to discuss the fact that this country is developing into one where not just the quality of a school but the quality of education is determined by the letters after a person's name, which is appalling. I grew up around very educated people but 95% of them never went to third level. It is an appalling idea that our education system will be judged now on the number of students schools send to third level and, even worse, that people will be judged by the number of degrees they attain without any reference to the qualities we are trying to inculcate in a new generation of Irish people, qualities such as justice, mercy, tolerance, articulation, leadership, creativity and art history. They cannot be measured but they are by far the most important requirement. In a previous life I am sure the Leader would have agreed with me on that.
This country produced The Chieftains, Brendan Behan, senior civil servants, politicians and leaders of political parties who never had a third level qualification. I believe I am entitled to say that representing third level graduates in this august assembly. I would never have thought a third level qualification was an essential requirement to an educated person and it is appalling that we are going down that road. It is no wonder we are producing people who do not have time for or toleration or understanding of each other and all the difficulties our society is facing. I am sure the Minister for Education and Science will be happy to discuss this issue. Senator Ormonde shares many of my views on this issue, as I am sure does the Leader.
A month ago, I raised the need for a debate in this House on supports for alternative energy. I also pointed to the significant number of newspaper articles on the necessity of looking to nuclear energy as a means of dealing with our energy requirements. The British Prime Minister put forward the same proposal yesterday.
There is no doubt that there is major interest in this area. The debate I have called for should encompass an examination of wind energy for domestic uses, solar energy for heating and domestic uses, and proper incentives and supports for biofuels and alternative energy sources, be they wood pellets or whatever. The time for this debate is before the budget. There are actions we can take to deal with the problems relating to the Kyoto Protocol. Nuclear energy is not necessary at this time. I welcome a debate to focus people's mind on this issue.
I support Senator O'Toole's comments on the school league tables published in various newspapers, some of which have indicated different results although published on the same week. Although the purpose of these tables is allegedly to provide transparency, they contain many inconsistencies. For example, a school may be included on the basis that it caters for repeat leaving certificate students but this may not be the case in another year.
The focus on these leagues tables ignores the reality that the vast majority of parents send their children to the local school, most of which are non-fee paying. These schools cater for the needs of their community and do not discriminate against children on the basis of nationality or special needs. We must provide far more support for such schools in terms of the funding of education.
It is reported today that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is bringing a range of anti-crime measures, including electronic tagging, to the Cabinet. I was struck by his statement that he was still undecided on the merits of tagging and was unsure whether such a system would be less expensive than other measures, particularly in the probation and welfare service area.
Why is the Minister introducing measures of whose merits he is unconvinced? He seems to be introducing an increasing amount of legislation. On the other hand, however, we discovered during last week's debate in this House that many of the measures included in the Children Act 2001 have not been implemented. Some of them, such as community service for youth offenders, are shown to be less expensive than the favoured method of dealing with the relevant crime, which is generally detention.
According to this morning's newspapers, the report of the Director of Public Prosecutions has highlighted that 40% of Garda files do not lead to criminal charges, mainly due to a lack of evidence. This shows that what is most needed is enforcement of laws already on the Statute Book and the provision of the necessary resources to deal with crime, as opposed to more window-dressing in the form of measures in which the Minister does not have much faith.
I strongly endorse what Senators O'Toole and Tuffy said about league tables. Newspapers publish ropy tables and say it is the duty of the Government to publish accurate tables in their place. In Tipperary yesterday, the Minister for Education and Science strongly refuted the idea that the Government should provide any sanction to that proposal.
We should debate this as much for the benefit of the media as for others. It implies that the best or most worthy schools are those that send the most people to third level education and that others, which may be operating in the inner city or teaching people from deprived backgrounds, are the least worthy schools. The educational philosophy behind it is outrageous and encourages simplistic snobbery and one-upmanship. There are many good reasons people may not wish to go to third level. This matter must be thoroughly debated and the media pressure should be firmly resisted.
I also read the Sunday newspaper that outlined the top 200 schools based on the criterion of what percentage of their pupils went to universities. What struck me was Senator Mansergh's comments on this article's creation of a type of snobbery. In the reality of modern Ireland, approximately 40% of all jobs are created in the building industry. Regarding crafts and the recent skills document, many of the skills we need are in the building industry and crafts area. The Leader may remember when we discussed apprenticeships.
I welcome the recent expansion of the apprenticeship concept as these are the types of skills required. I assure the House that there are people in the crafts area who earn far more money in the marketplace than many people with PhDs, those in universities and so on.
This type of publicity in respect of leagues is erroneous as it depends on what percentage of pupils go on to attend universities. I appreciate that many schools are so broad based that they absorb the people who wish to go into the skilled areas in the marketplace where jobs exist. The reality is that it is often quite difficult to get jobs based on degrees.
I reflect the views expressed by many Senators on the points system and league tables. It worries me that we have this clinical approach to education. Young people of 17 or 18 years of age with leaving certificates behave as 12 year olds because they never had a chance to grow up in a natural way, think about themselves as people, know the values around them and be involved in other aspects of life rather than learning by rote in order to gain points for third level educations.
It concerns me that there is no educational philosophy. I would welcome a debate to squash what is occurring, namely, every school being measured by progression levels into third level education. If this is the way forward, I will fight it. I do not want a system of education that does not develop personalities and values in our young people. People of 21 years of age do not know how to behave. All that matters to them is that they have degrees or achieved a certain number of points. There is nothing wrong with getting points as long as one achieves a balance between identity, self-esteem, personality development and education.
I endorse Members' comments on the points system but will take it further. The logic of what Members are saying is that the points system should be abolished and replaced by something broader, namely, different types of criteria for judging people and different qualifications for entry to third level education, which I favour. I hope that those who knock the points system would also favour its replacement by a set of criteria that reflects the benefits of a broader education, which is important. It is a radical suggestion but is inexorably the logic of what is being said in the House today.
I thank Senator Brian Hayes for raising the issue of tolls on the new motorway. He is correct as we need an urgent statement from the Minister for Transport about what is happening in respect of the M50. I do not know whether the House is aware of it but talks have been taking place concerning the West Link toll plaza, to which the Senator referred, at a torturously slow pace between the National Roads Authority and National Toll Roads. NTR is dragging its feet and trying to delay matters as much as possible, at which it is being very successful.
The House should also be aware that the original agreement to which Senator Hayes referred ties the Government to an extraordinary degree. However, it contains an option of which the Government should now avail. This is referred to as the nuclear option by those in the transport world. The option is for tolls on the M50 to be set at zero. It is in the Government's power, and nobody else's, and not National Toll Roads, to set the price of the toll. Under the agreement and at any stage it likes, the Government can set the toll at zero. This will obviously involve compensating National Toll Roads but it is time that option was considered and we moved inexorably to the buy-out that would follow.
The budget will be announced soon and the Government, for once, has an enormous amount of money. This is the time to do it. Every day, a massive clog occurs at the toll bridge. The Government has the money to buy it out; let us go ahead and do it.
I too support those who asked for a debate on the values in the education system. It is a pity if we divert ourselves from that debate by having a witch-hunt in the press every time any of these issues is raised. Sadly what the press is doing is reflecting the values in the wider society, the schools and of the parents. The House should have a debate which reinstates the dignity of work so that people are not chasing after worthless university degrees because somehow, they are socially thought to be superior to the very skills that we need in society.
Regional technical colleges are the great glory of this country and drove the Celtic tiger. There is not one of them that does not want to be a university but, in my view, they should be going in the other direction and this is the debate the House should have.
I am in agreement with the statements of many Senators on the lists of feeder schools which were published yesterday and the farcical situation which has developed with regard to them. On close examination of the lists published yesterday in The Irish Times, I noted that one school which is known to me had a figure of 50% of its pupils going to third level institutions, despite the fact that the school has been closed for the past two years.
This is a list for the academic year 2004-05. All I can make out of it is the person who undertook the initiative in the first place is totally unaware of the reality or else misinterpreted the figures presented. If the statistics sourced under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that a student was enrolled in one school and went to another school for the final year from which he or she progressed into a third level institution, that means the whole thing is farcical.
These statistics clearly highlight the divisiveness within the educational system, whereby certain what are termed "top schools", fee-paying and otherwise, particularly in Dublin, are providing no facilities whatever for people with special needs——
——and for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Anything the Minister can do to divert attention from these feeder lists which are a farcical exercise is to be welcomed. Certain schools are at the top of this so-called league, while being socially divisive at the same time by providing no facilities for people with special needs who are as entitled as anybody else to proper facilities or even the best facilities in the country.
We in this House and you, a Chathaoirligh, have often spoken about the need to maintain the dignity of the House. I commend the Leader who yesterday represented this establishment with extraordinary courage, patience and tolerance when she came under an onslaught from callers, some of whom were all right but some of whom were ignorant in the extreme in the personal grudge they had against the race of politicians. The Leader did a good day's work on behalf of all of us for which I thank her.
I was rather entertained earlier as I did not realise there were non-existent schools. Perhaps that is where I should send my non-existent children. I also noted there was not a single Protestant school among them. They are all single-sex schools and all, with one exception, I think, are run by members of religious orders. That is interesting in light of the kind of negative debate we have been having and in which I participated. It indicates the contribution that some of these people have made.
I ask for a debate on Tibet, if possible before Christmas. I attended a meeting in Edinburgh with the Dalai Lama and we drafted an Edinburgh declaration. It is rather long but I will try to digest it and put some of the points in a motion. This man has been abandoned. He is one person who stood for peace when everybody else around the globe was trying to achieve their objectives by violence. We should recognise that and help his people in their desperation.
We all received an interesting document from the Dublin City Business Association. The document refers to the drinks industry, its powerful lobbying, the destructive character it has taken on, the volume of sales, the targeting of vulnerable groups and associated crime. It also highlights the virtual disempowerment of local residential communities and local authorities to successfully object to the granting and renewal of alcohol licences within their area.
The document comes from a significant group whose members are not hysterics. These are people committed to the business life of our capital city. They have produced a three-page document indicating the damage that is being done by alcohol abuse and I would like this serious communication discussed in Seanad Éireann.
I support my colleagues seeking a debate on education. I ask the Leader to extend that debate to agriculture because while the agricultural sector was never more educated, it was never more under threat than at present.
It is important that we have a debate on agricultural issues, particularly sugar beet and the WTO talks, to encourage and support our Minister in her fight to keep the farming sector alive. A recent report indicated the number of full-time farmers will have reduced from the present level of 40,000 to 10,000 by 2025 which spells disaster for this country. I live near Thurles, in Tipperary, which is still coming to terms with the closure of the local sugar factory. It is vital that we get behind the Department and the Minister to support the fight to keep the sugar industry alive in this country.
I add my support to the call for a debate on education. Of course one need not have had third level education to have an important job but one may be badly paid even though one's job is important. Perhaps one may not even have had second level education.
How many Senators read today's report in the health supplement of The Irish Times by Ms Katherine Holmquist about the level of education among cleaners in our hospitals? The article points out that their pay is €10 an hour at best, that many of them feel their literacy is so poor they could not go forward for promotion, that most of them are women and that a very large number of them left school before the age of 15.
We should examine this issue to see how the schools these people attended explain the fact that they ran into such a terrible situation. These people have values and many of them are heads of households which is why they must maintain themselves in these jobs. These jobs are important. Recently we spoke of the horrific hygiene report on hospitals. We concentrate on what people with third level education should be doing instead of trying to see how we could help those who, in fact, are trying to deal with cleaning up our hospitals. When we have that debate, I hope we will also consider those who do not get through second level education.
I call on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to urgently explain to the House why speed limits are not being obeyed throughout the country. Last week I drove to Athlone to give a speech on women in business. All the way there, I saw that every speed limit was broken, including those in the towns and villages I passed through. We are a laughing stock. Every weekend people are being killed on the roads yet there is no outcry. Why is there no protest about the innocent people being killed due to lack of implementation of traffic laws by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda?
A leading oncologist, a former consultant in Waterford Regional Hospital, in a recent open letter to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children outlined the plight of cancer patients in the south and south east. The lack of designated beds in wards for cancer patients was highlighted. No dignity can be afforded to patients or their families in very difficult times, which is unacceptable in this day and age. He also highlighted the failure to extend BreastCheck to counties such as Waterford and stated that the late detection of cancers is costing lives. The sooner we have a debate on every aspect of cancer, the better. I call for that debate at the earliest possible date.
I support the call made by Senator Coonan in regard to agriculture. The Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food met last week in this regard. The devastating effect globalisation will have on this country is frightening. I am glad Senator Coonan stated there should be all-party support for the Minister for Agriculture and Food. The Government should remind Mr. Mandelson that he is Commissioner for the European Union, not the United Kingdom.
It was reported today that the UK Government is planning to announce sometime this week its support for an investigation into new nuclear power stations. The aspect of the newspaper report that struck me was the statement that stations are expected to be built on existing sites to reduce opposition and to speed up procedures. Senators Henry, Ross and Norris have in the past expressed their views on Sellafield very strongly. This is the time for the Taoiseach to move — before announcements are made — so that we will not be trying to change something that has already happened but will influence it before the first decisions are made.
Senator Brian Hayes noted that the new stretch of motorway from Kinnegad to Kilcock will be tolled at €2.40 per journey and that the barriers will open if five cars or more are queueing. He asked that this should be applied retrospectively to the M50 tolling arrangements. The situation for anyone on that road is miserable. Even at noon today, as I travelled around the M50 roundabout, there were long queues for the toll booths.
Senator Hayes also raised the North-South car trafficking issue. He urged the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce a new law to deal with thieves breaking and entering and choosing cars. There should be greater liaison between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána on this matter.
Senator O'Toole referred to the schools league tables. I fully agree with his comments. It was farcical and ludicrous. There is a school in a disadvantaged area in Athlone, St. Aloysius's, which was No. 4 in both The Sunday Times and the Irish Independent, but was not mentioned in The Irish Times. The school concentrates on repeat leaving certificates. It is admirable that there is a strong wish for more education among parents, but the idea that a school should be judged on the numbers that go on to third level is wrong. That should not be the basis for a league table. This is all being done under the guise of transparency, openness, freedom of information, etc., in an effort to ascertain how schools are run.
Schools are about imparting knowledge and life skills so that whole people emerge who have within themselves the necessary bulwarks to stand up to life. Senator O'Toole is correct in his comments. For a person to be valued on the basis of the letters after his or her name is ludicrous. The Senator spoke about toleration and understanding and said that such qualities are forgotten in the rat race that ensues.
Senator O'Toole also asked for a debate on alternative energy, including wind energy and the incentives for its use. The debate on the Book of Estimates is scheduled for Thursday when, as he knows, anything may be raised. Perhaps this matter could be brought up then.
Senator Tuffy referred to the schools league tables and noted that most schools are not fee paying institutions. I agree with her. The school to which I referred is not nor are some others which were identified.
Senator Tuffy also raised the issue of electronic tagging and suggested the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform did not appear to be sure about it. She said it would be far better if existing measures were implemented rather than embarking on new ones. The Senator also expressed concern that in too many instances charges were not be made in respect of files sent to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Senator Mansergh agreed with the comments on league tables. I agree with him when he said what is happening is an outrage against education philosophy. Unfortunately, this is also creeping into third level with the introduction of performance measurement and related appraisal initiatives. It is wrong when one reflects on the ideal of a university education. The Senator said this trend in the media should be resisted.
I could not agree more with Senator Finucane as regards crafts and apprenticeships. One can rarely get a plumber or a carpenter and they are paid enormous sums of money. Senator Ormonde decries the league table ethos that is emerging and says we should squash the opinion that only third level qualifications are desirable and worth fighting for.
Senator Ross spoke about a replacement of the penalty points system. Talks are in progress but they are excruciatingly slow and do not appear to be going anywhere. The Senator also spoke of what he termed a "nuclear option" to the effect that the Government can set toll charges at zero. He noted that the money for this was made available in the budget. Perhaps that matter, too, might be raised during the debate on the Book of Estimates.
Senator Maurice Hayes spoke of values in the education system, a matter we need to debate together with the chasing worthless university degrees. The House heard some comments on that last week when reference was made to the Barry McSweeney case.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to feeder schools and the ludicrous situation of a school which no longer exists but which the league tables indicate as a feeder school to universities. This is leading to social division in education and as the numbers game increases this will continue to happen. I commend the Senator on his comments on facilities in the so-called top posh schools for special needs pupils.
They will not take them in because they might disturb their leisurely rise through the league table. Schools were never meant to be socially divisive, but rather places where people could assume an equality of purpose in their lives.
Senator Coonan spoke about the need for a debate on agriculture. The Minister and her colleagues are in Brussels. There was a strong call last week for a debate on agriculture this week. We spoke to the Minister but we were told that she would be in Brussels for a full week and that her Ministers of State would be with her. I received a note to the effect that statements on the WTO talks will be in the schedule for next week. The Minister was very keen to attend, but could not do so because of her commitments.
She was from Kildare. Senator Norris had a meeting in Edinburgh with the Dalai Lama. He also spoke about the Dublin City Business Association document, which is all about drinking and more drinking. Senator Henry called for an education debate. I read the report mentioned by the Senator and I thought the aspect on the cleanliness in hospitals was amazing. The women cleaners were concerned about their literacy skills and the fact that they were being paid very little.
Senator White spoke about the lack of observance of speed limits on our roads and how the laws are not being implemented. She went to Athlone to give a speech, which was appreciated there. I notice she went straight from there to Madrid to watch a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. I hope she was supporting Barcelona.