Wednesday, 8 February 2006
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is Nos. 1, 2 and 20, motion 25. No. 1, statements on a strategy for men's health, resumed, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m. Senators will have ten minutes each and the Minister shall be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements; No. 2, statements on funding for third level education and the Fottrell report, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. until 5 p.m. Spokespersons will have 15 minutes each and other Senators will have ten minutes each. The Minister shall be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and No. 20, motion 25, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. to 3.15 p.m.
After every weekend we wake up to graphic photographs in the national newspapers of mangled cars and human tragedies. So far this year over 50 lives have been lost on our roads. The National Roads Authority has today published a report which is a shocking indictment of what has happened over the past few years. It points out that everybody became ultra-cautious on the roads after the introduction of the penalty points system in November 2002, but that now there is a desperate laxity in the enforcement of the measures and speeding is endemic. The report states conclusively that the vast majority of articulated trucks and buses break the speed limit.
We all know that if one travels to Dublin on the motorway at the maximum limit of 120 km/h one sees cars zooming past. Many of them have Northern Irish registrations and 20% of the people caught last year could not be pinpointed because of that. There is a deficiency in our ability to catch those people for breaking the speed limits on our roads and it sets a bad example for other motorists. The British-Irish Council meets on a regular basis and should discuss those issues and come up with a solution.
The Rules of the Road booklet is available in various bookshops around the country, at a cost of €2.50. I spoke to somebody in a bookshop in Limerick this morning and was told an increasing number of eastern Europeans, particularly Polish, ask for the booklet. We go to a lot of trouble ensuring all our publications are translated into the Irish language. In recognition of the immigrant population in this country, who have been involved in many accidents, I suggest we translate Rules of the Road into the relevant languages. If a local newspaper like the Limerick Leader can translate news reports into the languages of the area's various ethnic communities, it is possible to translate the Rules of the Road. It is not simply a matter of jumping on the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, because an interdepartmental group at ministerial level is now responsible for different aspects of road safety. Given that the Taoiseach is in charge of the group, the time for pussy-footing is over.
The report due to be published today contains a shocking indictment of the current situation. We may have a materialistic society in terms of the Celtic tiger but what about the quality of life? Members of this House have highlighted their concerns on this matter and I too want to see a full debate on the NRA report. Between 2002 and 2005, speeding offences have increased by 800%, yet only three speed cameras have been installed around the country. Almost daily, an accident occurs involving a truck, many of which are in contravention of the rules requiring them to install tachographs to regulate their speed. Urgent action is needed if we are to address this problem in a multi-stranded way. Let us discuss that report in this House so that we can reflect the people's concerns.
Last week, Senator Feighan raised the issue of planning and, in particular, the rejection of a proposal for an eco-friendly development on Lough Key. This issue was also raised on a number of occasions by Senator MacSharry. I ask that we return to No. 13, statements on planning and related issues, because every time I meet people who are trying to put together environmentally sensitive projects intended to bring added value to areas in the west of Ireland, I find they have experienced unnecessary difficulties in terms of developing infrastructure.
What is the situation with regard to legislation on major infrastructural projects? We need to address these issues in a manner that is fair to the environment, the people and the need for proper development of rural communities. Vague reasons are often given for the designation of special areas of conservation and it is not always understandable why some areas are treated differently from others. It is right that some areas are protected by strict rules but we would have more confidence in the system if these rules were made clear. Given that An Bord Pleanála often holds different views from those outlined in the various county development plans, how can ordinary people negotiate the planning system? It is blocking development and denuding aspects of the west of Ireland.
A great woman was buried yesterday — Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King. She should be an object lesson for many on this island, in that her response to the brutal murder of her husband was to redouble her commitment to non-violence. Many people could do worse than to follow her example. She was an extraordinary and inspiring woman.
Senator Finucane is correct. Almost to the point of monotony, I have raised the——
——NRA reports on breaches of speed limits by heavy goods vehicles. This is a serious matter. The NRA reported that 100% of single-decker buses on motorways and 90% of trucks and rigid vehicles were in breach of the speed limit. The average speed of heavy goods vehicles was 53 mph in the second last survey, even though they are not supposed to be able to travel faster than 55 mph because of the way in which they are constructed. In light of this crisis, I do not ask for a debate on road safety, although that is always necessary, but on the NRA report on speed limits. I have repeatedly raised these issues with Ministers and received their replies but I cannot find out the numbers of prosecutions of truck drivers for breaking speed limits. Neither the Garda nor the Department of Transport knows the answer. The report, which is extremely frightening, suggests that while car drivers on main roads and motorways are improving, everybody else is becoming worse, spectacularly so in some cases. We need to focus on this matter.
I also ask the Leader to organise a debate on immigration. When this matter was rightly raised by my party leader, he was called a number of names for doing so. We all now accept the need to work on the issues of integration, workers' rights, wage degradation and job displacement. Bank economists have issued mealy-mouthed claims that these issues have not been proven, which is as close as one can get to declaring a problem exists without actually saying so. We need to debate these matters, not in order to show hostility to immigrants, who are welcome, but to ensure them the Irish standards of living to which they are entitled.
In terms of looking to the future, I draw the House's attention to an article in today's newspapers. The Swedish Government has established a committee which will plan for Sweden's transformation to an oil-free economy over the next 15 years because it has decided there is no future in the oil-based economy. We do not seem to be able to deal with simple matters such as water or air pollution yet another country, which we should emulate in terms of its combination of social progress and economic development, is planning how to move away from a dependence on oil. We will probably collide with the crisis without giving thought to it. I concur with Senator Finucane's demand for a debate on energy, during which the Government could discuss its strategy over the next 15 years to deal with the imminent shortage and escalating costs of hydrocarbon fuels.
When will this House again debate legislation?
There is probably no point in tabling an amendment to the Order of Business this morning, but I appeal to the Leader, if possible, to arrange an immediate debate on the decision of the Dublin Airport Authority to appoint advisers to deal with the sale of the Great Southern Hotels. It is perfectly legitimate for the authority to appoint an advisory group but to set the finality of the decision before that group advises is scandalous. I admit I am completely biased because there are two group hotels in my constituency and I recognise the important part they have played in the development of tourism in Ireland. Were it not for the Corrib Great Southern Hotel developing the biggest conference centre in the west, there would be no conference business in Galway. I appeal to the Leader for a debate, if not today then tomorrow so that we can consider the best strategy. It is not appropriate to simply dump the family silver for short-term commercial gain.
I support Senator Cox in her request for an urgent debate on the Great Southern Hotels issue. In recent years, all members in this House have voiced their concerns about the lack of access to specialist health care in all parts of the country. They have drawn attention to the unacceptable delays and long waiting lists for such care. An article in The Irish Times today clearly indicates that there is a need for co-operation between private and public health care providers. Such co-operation does not exist, particularly in the western Health Service Executive area. It is galling, to say the least, to see that for services such as radiotherapy, cardiology and orthopaedics, where there are long waiting lists, people must go from Galway to Dublin, England, Scotland or Belfast to access such specialist therapies, despite the fact that the Galway Clinic has offered 20% of its bed capacity to the public sector. That offer has been ignored and the clinic is being bypassed.
We cannot say that funding is the difficulty because last year €200 million was returned by the Department of Health and Children to the Exchequer. In the last two months of 2005 approximately 200 people passed the doors of the Galway Clinic on their way to obtain treatment in England. How can we say that we have co-operation within the health service, particularly in the west, where access is a real problem? The waiting time for access to radiotherapy services in St. Luke's in Dublin is ten to 12 weeks but we have a state-of-the-art facility in Galway which is being bypassed. Every effort was made by the authorities in the Galway Clinic to co-operate with the HSE, during the planning, construction and administration phases of the project but this was cast aside and ignored.
I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Health and Children would knock heads together to ensure that the HSE and those who are offering valuable services to those in need in the west co-operate with each other. The Minister herself must take some of the blame for this problem. Senator McHugh has on several occasions asked for co-operation between the HSE northern area and the authorities in Northern Ireland with regard to facilities that might be available in Derry. However, the Minister decided that she would provide access to services, in co-operation with the Northern Ireland health services, in Belfast. Why was Galway ignored? I urge the Leader to request that the Minister for Health and Children carries out an urgent review of co-operation between the HSE and private sector health service providers.
I echo the sentiments of Senator Cox and would welcome a debate on the future of the Great Southern Hotels. Such a debate is long overdue. Only 18 months ago these Houses gave a remit to the airport authorities to compete independently of each other. The Dublin Airport Authority has now set out its stall on where it wishes to go. Its core business is in developing Dublin Airport to meet the demands of over 1 million new passengers per year, including building a new terminal.
The 2 million workers in this country would be amused by the notion that this or any Government would be involved in running hotels. It is outlandish that a premium brand like the Great Southern Hotels, in premium locations, should be making a loss. The Government does not want to be the parent of an unwanted child, allowing it to wilt and eventually be put up for a fire sale. It is now time that this unhealthy flower be allowed bloom in the sunshine of a thriving economy.
I support Senators Finucane and Ryan in their call for a debate on road safety, particularly in light of the NRA report. Senator Finucane is correct regarding the Northern Ireland situation. It should be quite an easy matter of adjustment to make it possible to include Northern-registered cars in our penalty points system. That is a very good, practical suggestion. There are also improvements that can be made domestically and locally. One of the reasons speed limits are not respected and are broken is that they are chaotic and incoherent. They do not deserve respect. There are motorways where speed limits change for arbitrary and capricious reasons, for example, and that reduces public respect.
There is also the issue of road surfaces. There were two desperately tragic incidents recently, one where a bright and talented young woman was killed in the west because the road surface laid by the local authority was flawed, the other where a school bus crashed for the same reason. We have our own house to put in order. In Germany, for example, driving lessons are a compulsory part of the school curriculum and that is something we should consider.
Senator Ryan also raised the question of immigration, which has become a thorny point in light of the new child care benefits. I spoke on child care in this House and was a dissenting voice among the chorus of demands for more money for parents. I made the point that there was a certain amount of sentimentality at play, as well as vote-buying. Today's newspapers report that queries to the Department regarding the new child care payment of €1,000, have increased from 20 per week to 200. Approximately 90% of the callers were Irish and the overwhelming majority wanted to know if the payment would coincide with the holiday period. I wonder how much the children will see of the €1,000 payment. This shows a level of materialism and selfishness in our society. I said as much during the last debate and was howled down in the Chamber. Then I went to the bar afterwards for coffee and my colleagues told me that I was right but they would not dare say so.
We have spoken recently about the issue of censorship in the light of controversial cartoons and so forth. We must also examine censorship in this country with regard to advertising for events, particularly of a political nature. I have received communication from people who had an advertisement broadcast once on RTE 1 radio. The advertisement itself was simple. It stated that AFrI and Front Line — two reputable organisations — were inviting the public to a conference entitled Shining Lights on Human Rights, at the Féile Bríde in Kildare town, featuring eyewitness accounts from the Niger Delta, Rossport, Darfur, Iraq and Shannon Airport. It went on to state that tickets and information were available by calling a particular telephone number. The advertisement was pulled because it was deemed to be political. That is too politically correct.
I recently attended the launch of a book called Guantanamo Jihad, held in the former St. Mary's Church, now a restaurant, on Mary Street in Dublin. The launch was moved from Kilmainham Jail because the authorities there were unhappy about the fact that some of the attendees would be wearing orange uniforms, similar to those worn by detainees in Guantanamo. Kilmainham Jail is one of our State operations. We should not close down political debate. There are difficulties because pressure groups would want to put blunt political messages across. However, to pull advertisements for a meeting is an over-reaction. Citizens are entitled to information and we should examine this area.
I join other Senators in calling for a debate on yesterday's NRA report, particularly on speed limits. We have debated drink driving and dangerous driving many times but this time, if we concentrate on speed limits, we might achieve something.
Following on the point made by Senator Finucane on the high percentage of Northern drivers, as someone living in the north west in a Border region, I know first hand how Northern drivers flaunt the law. It is as if they are giving two fingers to people in this jurisdiction. They drive at unmercifully high speed in a dangerous and reckless fashion. I have raised this at the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body and I raised it again two weeks ago in this House. I hope the issue will be raised in Killarney at Easter because now is an opportune time. It would not take much to bring them within the legislative framework of this jurisdiction.
I am glad to note Members are getting exercised about the Great Southern Hotels. I have been expressing concern about the group for some time and on every occasion, and very firmly on the last occasion, the Leader assured me that the best guarantee the group had was the rock solid view of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism that it would remain in State ownership. The matter came before Cabinet yesterday. Has the green light now been given to a sale? That is the message that came across last night and this morning. We are aware of the views of the Dublin Airport Authority, which should never have been entrusted with the ownership of the group.
They could and I support the calls for a debate on the issue. The Leader has been a loyal supporter of the group down the years. How did it go from being so profitable to making such losses? Does the Government intend to sell the group's hotels collectively or individually?
I will outline a snapshot of what appeared in the newspapers over the weekend: terror attacks, a man attacked at home, an armed robbery, theft and burglaries under investigation, bicycles stolen, an armed gang robbed a shop owner, an attempted car theft, a house ransacked, a windscreen smashed, a pier damaged, windows smashed, a vehicle broken into, cinema theft, an attempted break in, the theft of a home-made trailer, a car burnt out, a house broken into, a rural pub burgled again, an architects office targeted and a shooting of a young man.
This is not an international snapshot, we are not talking about the Gaza Strip or a major city, we are talking about Donegal. These stories appeared in the local newspapers in Donegal last weekend detailing activities within a seven-day period. These incidents are mainly happening in Border areas of the county. It is evident that the gardaí in the region are underresourced. I have mentioned before that we are situated beside the fourth largest city in Ireland, Derry, and we do not take that into consideration when deploying Garda resources.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must address this issue. People are living in fear and do not feel safe in their own homes. We must do something about it. We are enacting legislation that will criminalise farmers and fishermen for minor misdemeanours while 29% of crime in Donegal is undetected. If we do not do something about this, people will take the law into their own hands in Border areas and we do not want that to happen.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on planning, with particular emphasis on the approach taken by prescribed organisations, such as the NRA. At the moment the NRA is objecting to people who are trying to build off national secondary roads. This causes untold anxiety for young couples who fail to get planning permission on their own land because the only access is via national secondary roads.
We must also focus on Dúchas, which has not gone away. It objects to special areas of conservation and national heritage areas. It even objects to proposed areas that have not yet been prescribed, creating significant difficulties. There are many areas around Lough Derg and in west and north County Clare where it is objecting to projects based on environmentally-friendly approaches.
I support the calls for a debate on the Great Southern Hotels. It is important that we debate what the Dublin Airport Authority is doing.
I am particularly keen to facilitate the Government rather than the Opposition. It is important to discuss this because the Government's response is so extraordinary. It has noted the Dublin Airport Authority's decision to sell the Great Southern Hotels. It is the first time in the history of the State that the Government has noted anything as an official policy. It is important that we have an early indication of what is happening.
There was a very strange statement from a Government spokesman last night who said that the Government's attitude is that it will not immediately block this decision. That means it will block it later on. It has set up the most obvious method of blocking anything by sending the matter to a group of advisers. Advisers are not necessary when deciding whether to sell the Great Southern Hotels. Let us have a debate rather than an ideological approach to the issue.
I have no doubt the Labour Party will return to Senator Ryan. It is important that the House takes a lead on issues of this nature and is not left behind. The decision on the proposed sale will be postponed until after the next general election unless we flex our muscles and force the Government to make a move rather than pussy-footing around.
I also seek a debate on the Great Southern Hotels. Senator Cox mentioned that two of the group's hotels are located in Galway city. The Corrib Great Southern Hotel is well known for its conference business, with the teachers unions, in particular, holding their annual conferences there on occasion. I hope any debate on the issue would be open-ended.
I am concerned at the lack of public residential centres for those affected by excessive and binge drinking. One such centre attached to St. Brigid's Hospital in Ballinasloe has closed. Unfortunately, it appears all centres of this type are located in private hospitals which admit only those who have private insurance cover or can afford the expensive charges. I hope some public residential units will be restored in public hospitals, even if they provide accommodation for only one or two nights. I ask that this proposal be pursued and request that it be discussed as part of a health debate.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business. We all detect great discontent among the Government parties on the issue of the sale of the Great Southern Hotels.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to come before the House for a debate on the roll-out of broadband to the regions. In its programme for Government in the run-up to the last general election, the Government highlighted the fact that it would be in a position to roll out broadband to the regions by 2006. The lack of progress in this regard is stifling development in rural areas and there is widespread discontent at the lack of interest the Government has shown in rolling out broadband to the regions.
I request an urgent debate on this issue because chambers of commerce, industrialists, farming organisations and many others with an interest in the development of rural areas feel let down by the Government's lack of interest in this area. One need only talk to people who have served on the Midland Regional Authority to sense how badly let down by the Government they feel.
The quality of our regional and county roads was raised. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, to the House to take part in a debate on funding for local authorities. Despite promises made by the Government, the funding position of local authorities continues to deteriorate. Grants for county roads have been reduced in some areas this year and less funding is available for local improvement schemes.
By seconding Senator Ross's proposal, Senator Bannon has deprived me of the pleasure of flexing my muscles and showing solidarity on the Independent benches. I support the amendment not least on account of the work done by Eileen O'Mara Walsh some years ago in putting the Great Southern Hotel Group back on track.
I seek a debate on an issue raised by Senator Ulick Burke, namely, the fact that the National Treatment Purchase Fund does not appear to have accepted an offer from the Galway Clinic. Dr. James Sheehan, the founder and main owner of the Galway Clinic, has written on this topic. The problem with the National Treatment Purchase Fund is that it does not disclose what it is paying for various procedures, whether carried out in England, Belfast, Dublin or elsewhere. While patient convenience is extremely important, we also need to know the proposed costs in the various centres which put themselves forward as suitable candidates for providing treatment under the fund.
Public hospitals must disclose everything in their case mix. Senators will have noted that many public hospitals lost funding in recent weeks because their case mix was considered inadequate. I ask that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, come before the House to discuss the case mix in public hospitals and the financial position of the National Treatment Purchase Plan in terms of what it pays for various procedures. To date the fund has refused to show the necessary transparency.
Before I call the Leader, I point out that the number of Senators who contribute on the Order of Business is often fewer than the number who contributed before we extended the time available for the Order of Business from 30 to 40 minutes. We used the full 40 minutes today and I ask Senators to refrain from elaborating at length on the points they make in their contributions to ensure all Members who wish to speak have an opportunity to do so. While I allowed latitude today, I will not be able to do so on every occasion. I appeal to Senators to be as brief as possible when explaining the reasons they raise matters and to refrain from starting a debate on them.
Senator Finucane, the Acting Leader of the Opposition, spoke passionately about the facts outlined in the NRA report. He made a good point that the Rules of the Road booklet is printed in English only, which is indicative of our view that everyone should speak English. It would be good if the booklet were translated into Polish, as is the case with reports in the Limerick Leader. The NRA report is a wake-up call. The problem of lorries overtaking cars on the road, which all of us have experienced, has been discussed in the House for a long time.
Senator O'Toole called for a debate on planning and asked when a Bill will be introduced on major infrastructural projects. The legislation in question features in section A of the Government's list of Bills for publication during this session. The Senator also seeks a debate on energy.
I join Senator Ryan in noting the death of Coretta Scott King, a woman of peace who could easily have become a bitter person given the manner of her husband's death. He also raised the NRA report on breaches of speed limits and seeks debates on immigration and the Swedish Government's decision to establish a committee to plan for the country's transformation into an oil-free economy over the next 15 years. Shivers run down our spines when we hear people refer to the diminishing role of oil. Its importance will not diminish but its price will rise so high that no one will be able to purchase it.
The Senator also asked when the House would debate legislation. We have pushed many Bills through the House and they are piled up in the Dáil, which is not dealing with them. I cannot force the other House to do its business. There is no way it will get through all the Bills waiting to be taken and if the Seanad processes further Bills, they will be added to the pile. We are trying to have decent debates. I wish the Dáil would do its business but it engages in much toing and froing, which often means legislation is not coped with. The Bill on the National, Social and Economic Development Office has just been passed in the Dáil and will be taken here next week.
Senator Cox raised the issue of the Great Southern Hotels. She said they have a history of tourism development and that we should not sell the family silver. Senator Ulick Burke spoke about lack of access to specialist health care, particularly to radiotherapy and cardiac treatment for which people have to travel considerable distances. He asked why Galway is ignored and requested that the Minister for Health and Children come to the House. Senator Morrissey also called for a debate on the Great Southern Hotels. He said the group owns a premium brand and should be performing powerfully in economic terms. Speaking on "Morning Ireland" Senator Morrissey took the view that the Cabinet had made the decision, but it has not.
Senator Norris spoke about the NRA report and road surfaces. We know of two related cases, the young woman from Mayo and the Navan accident, both of which were very sad. The Senator also spoke about the child care supplement for children under six years and said he was howled down. It would be difficult to howl down Senator Norris.
I see nothing wrong with parents using the money to take their children on holiday to the seaside. It is good for children to travel.
Senator Feeney spoke about speed limits and the NRA. She asked for alignment on policing of Northern drivers and it would be a useful topic in Killarney. Senator Coghlan spoke about the Great Southern Hotels. The greatest guarantee is that the Taoiseach holidays there and two of the hotels are in Deputy O'Donoghue's constituency. I always held fast to that.
I do not know if we can get the Minister. Senator McHugh gave us a snapshot of the accelerating crime scene in Donegal and asked for more Garda resources there.
Senator Dooley called for a debate on planning, particularly in County Clare where Dúchas has objected to projects in areas that are not yet labelled as special conservation areas. Senator Ross put forward an amendment to the Order of Business, seconded by Senator Bannon, that we discuss the Great Southern Hotels on which he wants this House to force the Government to come to a decision. Senator Kitt spoke on the Great Southern Hotels and also referred to excessive drinking and residential units where people can get treatment for alcoholism. That could usefully arise on tomorrow's debate on mental health.
Senator Bannon spoke about bringing broadband to the regions. He said the grants to councils had fallen but they have risen, ranging from 9% to 17%. He cannot tell an untruth and expect us not to dispute it. We all got the allocations and they have increased significantly. Senator Bannon ran before he could be challenged.
Senator Henry raised the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which I find a mysterious body. I am in communication with it about a particular case but it is difficult to get anybody on the telephone although a nice lady did ring me back. While it is said to be the eighth wonder of the world, I cannot agree.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 18 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Mary Henry, Michael McCarthy, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)
Against the motion: 25 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, John Gerard Hanafin, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, John Minihan, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Norris and Ross; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.