Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Road Traffic and Transport Bill 2006 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business. As all Stages of the Bill are to be taken this afternoon, it is proposed that Second Stage will conclude no later than 5.10 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed six minutes. Senators may share time and the Minister will be called upon to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage, and Committee and Remaining Stages will be taken at 5.10 p.m. and conclude no later than 5.30 p.m.; No. 2, statements on the 2005 annual report of the National Development Finance Agency will be taken at 5.30 p.m. and conclude no later than 7 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed six minutes. The Minister will be called upon to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements.
When the Garda Síochána Act was debated in this House, the issue of Garda reservists was prominent. Members from all sides argued for moderation, calm and dialogue between representatives of the gardaí through the Garda Representative Association, the Minister and the Commissioner. This issue has been simmering for some time. I fundamentally agree with the GRA position, supported by the new Garda inspectorate, that more time should be set aside for training reservists. However, all the good points the GRA has made are set at zero by the remarks made by one of its representatives last week to the effect that the new reservists would be despised and hated in Garda stations. That is unacceptable and we have a responsibility to say so. We also have a responsibility to remind all members of the force of their obligation to enforce the law fully. It is also important that if civic-minded people give up spare time at the weekends or during the week to act as reservists on a part-voluntary basis we should support them and do everything in our power to make the force a success. The comments made by the representative to whom I referred are out of touch with the majority of members of the Garda Síochána and we have a responsibility to say so in this House.
Will the Leader report on the progress, or lack of it, made on No. 28 on the Order Paper? It is a Private Members' motion in the name of Senator Norris relating to the Civil Partnership Bill 2004. I ask because of a case taken to the High Court by two constituents of mine, Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan and Dr. Katherine Zappone. This House has a proud record of pioneering reforming legislation. Senators Terry and Norris, and others on all sides of the House, have said civil partnership needs to be a priority issue. When will the Government introduce legislation in this area to give basic rights to people in same sex relationships? If it does not do so, politicians will continue to incur the criticism of the Supreme Court, where it will ultimately arise, for not having the courage to address such issues. This House is the place to do so. Senator Norris has come forward with an initiative which I welcomed at the time. We now need to move it on.
On a day when all political attention is focused on the set piece grandstanding we expect in the other House later this afternoon, it behoves us to look again at No. 14 on the Order Paper, the Privacy Bill 2006 — Order for Second Stage. We have learned many things in the past week or so, during which time whatever doubts we may have had about this legislation have been exacerbated and reinforced. Will the Leader tell us if the Government intends to withdraw the Bill or to push ahead with it? Events of the past week, which could not have happened had this legislation been in place, would have deprived politics and the people of important information. We need to look again at what the Bill will introduce. It is due to proceed to Second Stage but it would be better if it were withdrawn and the Government brought forward a new Bill at another time. Does the Leader have a view on that? We have all emphasised the need for a responsible press but we do not want to muzzle it and I fear we are moving in the wrong direction. Has the Government changed its view since the Bill was published?
I wish to raise the increase in gas prices, which came into effect at the weekend. They will rise by 34%, despite a drop in gas prices on the international market. The Labour Party will support the calls of the National Consumer Agency for Bord Gáis to submit to the energy regulator new proposals for gas prices. This follows other increases with which ordinary people have had to deal in recent years, for example, electricity prices, waste charges, household bills and so on. It puts pressure on people who do not have somebody to organise a whip-round when they are in financial trouble. Members on both sides of this House deal with people who are in dire poverty and must fight for every penny they get. This is an added burden on them and the increases in gas and electricity allowances announced recently by the Taoiseach do not go far enough to help those who qualify for those allowances, not to speak of those who do not. I would like that issue to be debated in the House.
I would like a debate on housing as well. Today a young woman called me. She was in tears because she has been on the housing list for eight years and is living in intolerable conditions such as one would expect to see in a Third World country, not in Ireland. It is necessary to address the housing issue which I have raised numerous times here. A few years ago we asked a cross-party committee to examine the issue and property prices as well. The committee made several recommendations which have not been implemented. House prices continue to rise unabated although houses are supposedly being delivered to meet the demand.
Would the Leader consider holding an emergency debate on the discontinuation of Smart Telecom's business with the loss of 400 jobs and the disconnection of 40,000 householders and consumers? They can receive calls but, as of last night, cannot make calls. I support the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who called on Eircom to extend the time within which the service would be available to consumers and to protect their rights and interests in this regard because it will take them some time to shop around and connect to another server. Eircom took a very rigid decision last night which has caused grave concern to 40,000 consumers, many of whom run small businesses and need the telephone for their livelihood. I reiterate the Minister's call to Eircom to continue the service until the liquidation of Smart Telecom can be resolved in the courts and to protect the jobs of its 400 employees.
I support everything Senator Leyden has said. This is a classic example of the consequences of privatisation with the recent arrival of Babcock & Brown from Australia. They know that Smart Telecom is in trouble and are attempting to destroy it with a highly irresponsible action. The regulator is trying to increase competition in the market. Eircom should not forget that the taxpayer initially paid for the infrastructure for the service it provides. The company has been reluctant to co-operate in unbundling the local loop to allow services in. This is an example of a company which attempted to enter the market and might potentially be destroyed by this move. I deplore Eircom's action. It is doing nothing to help liberalise the market. If anything, it will set it back.
I call for a debate on ageing and ageism. Age Action Ireland has designated this week, from 29 September to 7 October, positive ageing week. Yesterday, Senator Terry and I attended a conference organised by Age Action Ireland in Croke Park. Immediate action is necessary to change the way older people are treated in our society. On 1 October, the British Government unveiled new employment equality legislation which makes it illegal to force employees to retire before the age of 65 years. It also gives employees who wish to work longer the right to meet management to discuss this possibility. The British Department of Trade and Industry believes this legislation is necessary as a result of EU directives which also apply to Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I would like a debate on this matter to be arranged as a matter of urgency. The Minister of State with responsibility for the elderly, Deputy Seán Power, should come to the House to address the issues of ageing and ageism in society. We are behind the times. We need to move on and to end discrimination against older people.
It is ironic that the House's consideration of the Road Traffic and Transport Bill 2006 coincides, as I understand it, with a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport. It is a pity that Members are disadvantaged by not being able to be part of the deliberations of that committee. Meetings of that committee are often scheduled to coincide with the Order of Business in this House. There should be a rebellion — Senators should make it clear that they will not attend unless this matter is examined and rectified.
I am grateful to Senator Brian Hayes for speaking about the status of No. 28, the Civil Partnership Bill 2004. I had intended to raise the matter but it is much better that it has been raised by the leader of the principal Opposition group in the House. People on the other side of the House agree that this matter, which has been long-fingered, needs to be addressed. I hope the Leader of the House will be able to make time available for a full debate on the issue. As a result of the various technicalities which arose when we had a row about the Bill, just five minutes are remaining in the Second Stage debate on it. Perhaps some machinery will be made available to the House to allow for a full debate, particularly in light of the ongoing High Court case and the fact that I have amended the Bill to take account of the various points which have been made. More than five minutes would be needed to address the matter adequately.
I would like Senators to be able to debate the situation in the Middle East. After the business of the House ended for the summer, an appalling situation developed in Lebanon. There was a massive abuse of human rights. The international community held back from demanding an end to the assault on Lebanon. In that context, we should review the policy of allowing CIA flights to pass through Shannon Airport, given that Mr. Bush has admitted that torture has been widely used — the CIA has been widely involved — and acknowledged the existence of secret detention and torture camps. If the President of the United States can acknowledge that, I fail to understand why my colleagues on the Government backbenches who have a close identification with Shannon Airport are unable to face up to it. I would also like to highlight the report from the intelligence chiefs, which indicates that torture has increased since the Americans attacked Iraq, that there has been an increase in terrorism globally and that the Anglo-American attitude and policy has actually strengthened al-Qaeda. In a week when the US Congress, to its eternal shame, has passed a Bill that purports to legitimise torture, it is important for those of us in the West who are proud to belong to so-called old Europe to put on the record our values, as distinct from those values which are tragically becoming American under a Presidency which has sadly managed to make America the most hated nation on the globe.
I join Senators Finucane and Leyden in calling for an urgent debate in the House to discuss the problems with Smart Telecom. Given the House is considering an emergency transport Bill today, surely it would be possible to prepare emergency legislation in respect of Smart Telecom. It is important for consumers and customers to be protected. It is outrageous that more than 40,000 people have been affected by the current difficulties. I should mention, to meet conflict of interest requirements, that I am a customer of Smart Telecom. It was unfair of Eircom to take the approach it took last night. While I recognise Smart Telecom owes Eircom some money, there are easier ways to deal with the matter. There must be an arbitration process where the regulator can take control of moneys owed to Smart Telecom, thereby protecting Eircom. This should be thrashed out in legislation. It is unacceptable that Smart Telecom simply issued a statement on last night's news to inform customers that their telephones were being disconnected. As Senator Leyden pointed out, many small businesses and households can now only use the emergency numbers.
On the comments by Senator Norris on the misuse of Shannon Airport for prisoners——
During the past two weeks, I have been contacted by three people whose operations at University College Hospital, Galway were cancelled on more than one occasion. Last year 3,334 people had their operations cancelled. This year, it seems that number will be matched. It is one of the worst rates of cancellations, second only to that at St. James's Hospital in Dublin. We are informed it is due to a shortage of beds, yet more than 40 beds lie idle in the hospital. Up to 60 beds lay idle this time last year.
The Minister for Health and Children and the Health Service Executive do not want to make these beds available as they are being preserved for the elimination of problems in the hospital's accident and emergency department. It is unfair that people must suffer and be denied operations to give a good look to accident and emergency statistics. The Minister for Health and Children must debate the crisis in the health service. It is unfair that beds lie idle and people are denied operations for which they have waited up to six months in some cases. The Minister must be called to account and inform the House if she is in control of the service. Will she provide the funding for the nursing staff for these beds?
I hope not to infringe on Senator White's copyright if I too refer to the question of ageing. The Leader is no doubt aware that employment law has been changed in the North and in Britain since Monday last and it is now an offence to discriminate on grounds of age. Does the relevant Minister have any plans to introduce similar legislation or co-operate with a Private Members' Bill on this matter?
I am interested in the comments of Senator White and Senator Maurice Hayes. On the BBC website, a report stated:
The UK's anti-ageism legislation takes effect on Sunday, 1 October, and employers will be wondering precisely what it means for them. But they only have to look across the Irish Sea for some guidance. In 1999 the Republic of Ireland introduced laws which outlawed age discrimination in employment.
We should take advantage when the BBC quotes Ireland as the example to follow in legislation.
We had a good debate last week on the annual report of the Office of Tobacco Control. I read today, however, that the proposed ban on the sale of packets of ten cigarettes will not go ahead as planned. This is a measure that has been mooted for many months, if not years, and the necessary legislation was passed some time ago. It seems, however, that the tobacco industry has said it cannot implement this measure because too many packets of ten have been already manufactured — "logistics" was the word it used.
This is wrong. We are engaged in a battle against cancer and part of this is discouraging young people from smoking. It is they who smoke packets of ten. There is a hard core of smokers but it comprises only 24% of the population. The main concern is that young people and women are smoking more. Part of the battle to prevent young people from starting to smoke involves a ban on packets of ten. Although this measure was due to be introduced yesterday, the tobacco industry was not ready and it could not be implemented. Will the Leader seek to discover whether the implementation of legislation can be hindered by means of the producer in question claiming it is not ready for it?
I entirely agree with Senator Quinn that legislation passed by the Oireachtas should be implemented and not obstructed by servants of the State who are specially charged with implementation of the law. I look forward to lengthy, detailed and reasoned debate on the Privacy Bill. I am sure this Bill, like many others of its kind, will be capable of being much improved in its passage through the Oireachtas.
With regard to the events of last week, I take the robust view that no public interest was damaged by the non-revelation of the story for nine years, nor would it be damaged by observing the rules of the tribunal now.
I welcome next week's meeting of Archbishop Brady and Dr. Ian Paisley, not only for its contribution to assisting the important negotiations currently under way but also for the example we hope it will set in helping to quench some of the demons of sectarianism.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to this House to debate rural planning? In Sligo three years ago, the Taoiseach promised radical changes in this area. He has lost credibility on this issue because nothing has happened to date. We heard the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, huffing and puffing about this issue at the national ploughing championships last week. One would not believe this Government has been in power for nine years. As the general election approaches, it is trying to make an issue out of something it did not deal with while in Government.
Young people in several areas have been denied planning permission to build homes on their parents' farms. This is an issue that has arisen time and again and it must be dealt with. The planning regulations are far too restrictive and we were promised some changes in this regard. The Government made sure to put out the right message on this issue in the run-up to the last local elections but it has taken no action to date. It is important that we have a comprehensive debate. The matter will be dealt with by the incoming Fine Gael-Labour Government if the present Government will not do so.
I would like the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to address this House and debate the increasing incidence of drug trafficking. Recently a private jet was used to transport heroin into a private aerodrome in Dublin. As well as this, the talented and brave young people of the Garda Síochána went to Scotland Yard for undercover training and, in one of the most successful raids in the history of the State, took nearly 30 middle-ranking drug traffickers out of existence. However, the gardaí involved must now go to court to testify and their cover will be blown.
What kind of message will this send to drug lords in our country? Will it be that we are prepared to fight them with our hands tied behind our backs? The men and women of the Garda Síochána must be protected, put back on the streets and given the resources to remove drugs from those streets.
Three years ago regional drugs task forces were initiated. I was concerned that they would amount to mere talking shops and, unfortunately, this has proven to be the case. Too much middle management is involved whereas resources should be given to the Garda. In my county of Roscommon, where the Western Region Drugs Task Force is in operation, I have not seen a single piece of evidence that anything has been achieved in the three years since it was established. Will the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, come to this House and discuss the issue?
Yesterday the United States banned Internet gambling involving the use of credit cards. Will the relevant Minister come into this House to explain whether he or she intends changing such laws in this jurisdiction to amend the outdated Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956? Card clubs offering private membership are opening throughout the country and they are really glorified casinos. There are no regulations covering this industry so perhaps the Minister would come into the House to inform us if and when he intends to regulate this industry because it is long overdue. It has been regulated in the US and it will be required here. People have lost houses, farms and more by using credit cards for betting purposes. We must debate the matter in this House.
Senator Brian Hayes, Leader of the Opposition, raised the matter of the Garda reserve and the issue of time allocated for the training of reservists, which was also raised over the weekend by Ms Kathleen O'Toole, the head of the Garda inspectorate. The Garda Representative Association used terminology such as "despise" and "hate" which is like an incitement to hatred. I was distressed by this and felt the association was out of touch with the feelings of the people on the matter. I thought the Garda reservists looked a fine bunch as they entered Templemore. We should be willing to give them time to return to their areas and begin their duties. A young woman was interviewed who wanted to give something back to her community.
Senator Brian Hayes asked if there had been progress on No. 28 on the Order Paper, Second Stage of the Civil Partnership Bill 2004. Senator Norris also raised this issue following the debate last year. I intend to speak to the Tánaiste about this matter to find out at what stage of progress it is.
Senator O'Toole referred to the Privacy Bill 2006. I only know that it is scheduled to come before this House, although I have read that discussions are ongoing and there will not be progress on it this term. I must find out where this Bill stands.
Senator Tuffy referred to rising gas prices and the appeals of the National Consumer Agency to Bord Gáis to stop the rise proceeding. The drop in oil prices has come after the rise, so to speak. The Green Paper on energy, released at the weekend, deserves a good airing and the rise in prices should be debated in this context.
Senator Tuffy also referred to the housing issue and I fully agree with her in that regard. Housing has become a significant live topic. There are not enough affordable houses, nor are there enough of what we used to call ordinary council houses. Housing is becoming a significant issue among constituents and they raise it with Members. We could well have a debate on housing.
Senator Leyden called for a debate on the discontinuation of Smart Telecom's business. Even if Eircom still comprised a State monopoly, it could not bail out people who did not pay their bills. That is the way it has come about. Of course I am sorry for the 40,000 subscribers but I cannot understand how the company found itself in hock to such an amount.
Senator Finucane agrees with Senator Leyden on the question of Eircom, but he should note that even if Eircom were a State monopoly, it could not afford to have huge sums of money owed to it and then do a bailing-out job. I hope Eircom will be able to come to some agreement with Smart Telecom on staged payments of the money owed by the latter. This would seem to be the best approach.
Senator White called for a debate on ageing and asked that we copy the British legislation. I will allude to this when dealing with Senator Quinn's comments.
Senator Norris referred to the Civil Partnership Bill 2004 and called for a debate on the Middle East, the CIA and the flights from Shannon. He referred to the admission by President Bush that the level of torture has increased. It appears the US Administration is to reinterpret the Geneva Convention and it is amazing that it would put its own interpretation on it.
Senator Dooley raised the issue of Smart Telecom and countered Senator Norris's views on the misuse of Shannon Airport. He does not like the misuse of the term "Shannon Airport" and therefore raised the issue.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to the cancellation of operations in University Hospital Galway. We are endeavouring to have a debate on health and I hope we will be able to have it next week. The Senator more or less said these beds are used as the saviour when the accident and emergency crisis arises and he called for nursing and back-up staff to allow them to be put back into use.
Senator Maurice Hayes referred to ageing. Senator Quinn referred to legislation enacted in this country in 1999 which outlawed any discrimination on the basis of age. This is not interpreted very positively and Senator White is right in this regard. Many cases arise as a result. It is a nebulous legal area and if one goes for an interview, it is very difficult to say one was not taken on because of a certain remark, implication or thinking about one's age.
We will have it, I hope.
Senator Quinn also stated the proposed ban on the sale of packets of ten cigarettes will not go ahead. This is a shame because purchasing these packets is the preserve of young people, including young women. The reason given for not going ahead with the ban is that the tobacco industry has stated many such packets have been already manufactured and has asked what would happen to them.
Senator Mansergh referred to the Privacy Bill. He does not understand what public interest was served by the production of the material last week.
It is good that Archbishop Brady and Ian Paisley are to meet. Did we ever believe this would come about? It not only came about but it was trumpeted that it would happen. We all expect the heavens to open and celestial angels to appear but I believe it is a very good omen for the upcoming talks.
Senator Bannon referred to rural planning. There were changes in the guidelines but I must say I agree with the Senator that it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to obtain planning permission for one-off houses. It would be much more difficult if the Senator's party were linked to the Greens.
I am endeavouring to do so.
Senator Feighan raised last week's alarming news regarding drug trafficking. His colleague, Senator Cummins, brought up that at the time, speaking of the Western Region Drugs Task Force. The upshot was that the Senator wished the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, to attend the House and debate the issue.
Senator Cummins stated that the US had banned Internet gambling and that we should amend the outdated 1954 Act and introduce regulations in that regard.