Wednesday, 23 November 2005
Order of Business (Resumed).
I join with Senators Brian Hayes and Ó Murchú in seeking a debate on Northern Ireland. Apart from the local government issue, other aspects can usefully be discussed at this stage. Advances have been made in recent months but the interplay between North and South, North-South bodies and interparliamentary co-operation are fundamental areas for discussion.
The proposed changes to local government should be discussed in that debate. Consultation has been going on for at least the past two years with local government bodies in Northern Ireland with regard to changes. Those bodies are particularly disappointed that the outcome is more or less in line with the original suggestion by a previous Secretary of State with regard to the number of councils that would be established, namely, there is to be a reduction from 26 to seven councils, which is at the lower end of what was expected. Most of those involved in local government were hoping that there would be at least ten to 12 councils, a number to which I would subscribe. There is need for a greater number of councils to ensure full participation.
I support the call by Senator O'Toole on Garda involvement in tackling crime. What he said in regard to Limerick was absolutely correct in that tremendous progress has been made recently. I would like the House to discuss change, particularly with regard to the offence of being a member of a criminal gang, which has proved difficult to define precisely. We recently saw serious Irish criminals brought to heel in Belgium, where that offence was one of the charges levied at them. As legislators, we need to consider this area in order to assist gardaí in tackling serious crime.
I am shocked to discover that obesity and related illnesses killed up to 2,500 Irish people last year. This society is not doing enough to ensure this illness is cured and the Government allocated a paltry €3 million to tackling it. The House should debate the issue because it needs to be addressed. Many young people are dying needlessly because not enough attention is paid to this area.
I too support the request for a debate on Northern Ireland, particularly in regard to the local government proposals. I generally support Senator Ó Murchú's point that the proposals are too functional and miss out on essential democracy. The process was begun by the former Executive — I believe it did so in an exercise in self-preservation, but that is by the way — and has been discussed for a number of years.
What is now at issue is not the fact of change but the number of local authorities. As Senator Walsh stated, to have between 12 and 15 councils would be about right. Otherwise, we run the danger of the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland and virtual repartitioning on sectarian lines. The next step would be the demand for separate police forces on those lines. What began as a non-political exercise has become highly charged with politics and the wrong decisions have been made.
I support the call to invite the Minister for Transport to the House to debate the condition of the school bus fleet, particularly in rural areas. Much is expected of the system but many of the buses operating throughout rural Ireland are in a very poor condition. A child recently told me that pupils travel to school each morning in bone-shakers. Some pupils must leave their homes at 7 a.m. to catch school buses. It is important that this issue be debated and that we would bring the school bus fleet to an acceptable standard. The system is fairly satisfactory in cities and major towns but rural areas seem to be neglected.
I support my colleague, Senator Feighan, with regard to his call for a debate on obesity. Across Europe, more than 300,000 children are overweight or suffering from obesity and this figure is rising by approximately 10,000 per year. Serious health problems will result if the problem is not addressed. A debate in the House is warranted.
The Director of Public Prosecutions published a report this week which is worthy of consideration for a debate in the House. The report suggests that one third of Garda cases fail to reach the courts due to a lack of evidence and that only two out of every five cases reach the courts. I do not know the reason for this outcome but, in business, if ten products were produced but only three succeeded in getting to the market, it would be considered very inefficient. The report of the DPP is worthy of consideration for debate.
I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland, particularly in regard to local government. However, I caution that we should first have a debate on local government in this State, particularly with regard to better local government and customer-friendly services. The Government has imposed an embargo on 860 local government posts and the quality of service has been affected as a result. In Tipperary north, for example, planners cannot be appointed permanently and this is leading to an inconsistency in service. The frustration being experienced by the public as regards local government needs to be addressed urgently. For example, I recently waited on hold for 31 minutes on a telephone to the strains of "Have I told you lately that I love you?" If that is the quality of service that better local government can offer in the Republic of Ireland, then I would forewarn the people in Northern Ireland. This matter needs to be addressed. Employees in local government are being offered temporary contracts. That means good people move on after a short period of time. This needs to be addressed. In Tipperary north there are more planners than tourists.
I hope the House is aware that a large head of steam is building up on both sides of the Atlantic, and has been prominent in the media in the past few days, concerning the activities of multinationals in this country and the tax rate they enjoy. It appears, because of what is happening in the United States, and here as well, that there is danger in the undergrowth of some fundamental change in the treatment of multinationals, not necessarily in Ireland, but in the United States.
A presidential commission is looking at their taxation regimes and what is known as transfer pricing, which is their means of not repatriating money back to America. There have been a number of high profile cases involving at least one person, I will not name him, taking large sums of money through a perfectly legitimate tax loophole. The problem is that Ireland may be looked upon by the United States as a tax haven, and is being referred to as such in the Wall Street Journal.
There will be calls on this side of the Atlantic for the 12.5% corporation tax to be raised. The House should be alerted to the fact that extremely important implications are involved for the economy in the event of any change in the rules applying to multinationals and we should hold a debate on the matter. People should be warned that this is one of the most important parts of the economy. The Government should be aware of that and should take the necessary measures to protect us from any attack on that tax break.
Within the next few weeks I understand the redress board will stop taking applications from people entitled to compensation for abuse suffered in various institutions. One of the points made very strongly to us by a number of people all over the country is the restriction on applying to the board being experienced by many of the people who were resident in Magdalen laundries. On the basis of correspondence I received from the Minister, the Department has decided that the laundries were different from some of the institutions covered by the Act, in that some of the people who worked in them did not come directly from institutions. They might have been over 16 years of age when they were placed in laundries and, therefore, the State does not have responsibility for them.
However, I ask that this whole issue be debated by the House as a matter of urgency. People who watched the various programmes over the past few years, on the Magdalen laundries in particular, would be horrified to know that some, if not most, of the victims of abuse in those institutions were not eligible for compensation from the Residential Institutions Redress Board because of the way the Act is written.
The State has a responsibility to these unfortunate people. If the Act needs to be looked at again, to be broadened or a new compensation system has to be put in place, that should be done. There is a moral obligation to try to include the maximum number of victims. All of these people suffered horrendously, through no fault of their own. It is dreadfully unfair if the redress board is not empowered to assist and compensate them.
As regards the issue of the redress board, it has also come to my attention in the past 12 months that people who attended the orthopaedic hospital in Clontarf are experiencing difficulties because this institution was not included. I support the call for a debate on this issue.
As regards education, there are three or four other issues that are current. One of these is the drive by some elements of the media for league tables. That might have been discussed yesterday or last week. However, given the agenda apparently being driven by certain elements of the media and others, it would do no harm to include this in a composite debate on education, perhaps identifying up to five of the serious current issues. I support Senator Bradford's call for a debate.
I join with the Cathaoirleach in extending a welcome to our Swiss colleagues who are here today.
Senators Brian Hayes, Ryan, Ó Murchú, Walsh, Maurice Hayes and Coonan raised the matter of Northern Ireland. I still believe we should have a debate on the wider aspects of the whole situation, particularly with regard to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive.
I take the point that has been made as regards the councils and note it is proposed to reduce the number from 27 to seven. Even if Northern Ireland is overgoverned, as has been asserted, that appears to be a draconian reduction. It is primarily an internal matter, of course, but I echo the point made by several speakers to the effect that the system of local government that operates in Northern Ireland contributed significantly to cross-community understanding and was part of the impetus within the peace process. From that viewpoint they had an important role to play and it is one that should be borne in mind. We will see whether a debate may be arranged to discuss this and the wider implications at an early date.
Senators Brian Hayes and Bannon spoke about school transport. Senator Hayes referred to the Navan bus crash. I understand the Director of Public Prosecutions is to bring a prosecution, so it is not appropriate to comment on that particular aspect of the case. However, I take the point made by the Senator. In any situation of this nature the families should be the first people to receive the report. I am sure the Government and the Minister will be mindful of that fact.
I support the points made by Senator O'Toole as regards the Garda in Limerick and join in his congratulations on the work it is doing. As regards alternative energy, an opportunity exists for sugar beet and other crops to be used. As time goes on and fossil fuels become scarce and prices go up, the economics of this issue will increasingly come into focus. The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is looking at this matter, together with wind and other forms of energy. While the tax incentives are being reviewed, fairly critically and correctly in some cases, they all have a role in promoting issues of this nature. Tax incentives have a role to play because as matters stand, some of these initiatives can operate on a negative energy balance. It costs as much in energy to produce them as what emanates from them.
As regards Senator Ryan's comments on the suspension of party members, I will bring them to the attention of the former Member of the Oireachtas, Desmond O'Malley, who has some personal experience of this matter.
Senators Ryan and Kenneally spoke about the need for a health debate. Senator Kenneally raised the matter of oncology. The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has always been amenable to discussing her brief in the Seanad. I am sure she will do so again, if requested, and we shall see if this can be done.
As regards the report on the Shell pipeline raised by Senator Finucane, I note it was prepared by the Centre for Public Inquiry. The author of the report was one of the unsuccessful applicants for the Government report. With regard to contacts that were made with An Bord Pleanála and so on, it was a major national project that was subject to exhaustive public consultation and to the proper regulatory process.
I echo what Senator Kenneally said about the policing of fisheries. There is a disproportionate concentration on the smaller, more vulnerable fishermen and perhaps not enough on those who are doing the most damage. The Senator makes a reasonable point about policing being proportionate and his comments should be brought to the attention of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
There will be two hours to debate the motion on Iraq, the use of white phosphorous and so on. It is standard practice for an amendment to be put down in the name of the Leader of the House. I will be supporting the amendment.
Senator Walsh spoke about criminal gangs. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform made the point that it may be difficult to secure convictions in this area, but the measures being brought forward by the Minister are needed and they respond to many calls made in this House to deal with these matters. We look forward to debating that legislation when it comes before the House.
Senator Feighan made a good point regarding obesity. It is particularly a problem with children. There are on-going campaigns on this issue, one of which was prominent in yesterday's newspapers. Senators Feighan and Bannon referred to this issue and there is more progress to be made in this area.
Senator Quinn referred to the report of the Director of Public Prosecutions which stated that one third of cases do not reach the courts. It could be interpreted that gardaí are attentive in bringing forward the evidence they have and it is up to the DPP to make an independent assessment. It could be said that the gardaí are doing their job properly, but that if there is not enough evidence, the DPP must make a decision on whether the case should proceed or not.
Senator Coonan spoke about local government in this State and the planners that work in them. I sympathise with his complaint about the service the local authorities provide because we have all had the experience of being put on hold when calling their offices, only then getting through to voicemail. It is just as well he did not have to listen to "Puppet on a string" when he was on hold. We have had many debates on local government and perhaps we should have another one in the near future.
Senator Ross spoke about multinationals. That matter can be examined tomorrow when there is a debate on the Estimates. It is a matter of national sovereignty for us to determine our own tax rates, which has been institutionalised in the various European treaties that we signed.
I have much sympathy with what Senator Bradford said about the Residential Institutions Redress Board. I know that some institutions have been excluded, including the Magdalen laundries. Senator Fitzgerald raised the matter of the orthopaedic hospital in Clontarf. I am not sure what we can do about that, but I will bring it to the attention of the relevant Minister. Whether institutions are within the scope of the scheme or not, people who have been badly dealt with by the State should have some form of redress. Senator Fitzgerald also spoke about education.