Wednesday, 1 November 2006
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the provisions of the Official Languages Act 2003 relating to placenames, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 5 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of the statements; and No. 26, motion 23, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
On foot of the events that occurred in Dublin last night, which occur annually, I congratulate the members of the Dublin fire brigade and the other emergency service workers in the city and the rest of the country. They have a considerable job to do every Hallowe'en night. Given the events of last night, it is now appropriate for the Government to review the effectiveness of the fireworks legislation put in place in the past 12 months. In spite of the legislation, the Dublin Fire Brigade had to respond to 700 calls last night and there were many assaults and instances of anti-social behaviour. Under the legislation as it stands, a company can apply to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform seeking a licence for a special fireworks event. We should possibly relax this provision to allow communities to host events jointly if they so choose, given that the local Garda Superintendent decides they are in the public interest. We must clamp down on the anti-social behaviour that occurs at Hallowe'en but in a way that brings the communities with us. I thank the members of the emergency services for doing a splendid job last night.
There has been much comment in the past 24 hours on the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and its effectiveness. When I saw the report on the board in the newspaper, I believed some of the claims being made about its effectiveness were quite fraudulent. It is doing a very good job in terms of reducing the cost of premia.
The other aspect of the insurance industry that we need to address concerns public liability insurance for local authorities. In my local authority area, the county manager factored into the budget a sum of approximately €1.7 million to meet small claims pertaining to footpaths. The bill for footpath improvements in the local authority area is just €800,000. We are therefore spending twice as much money on settling claims through the courts as on footpath improvements. We must tackle this.
Some local authorities have done considerable work to highlight fraudulent claims and ensure people know the sums local authorities have to hand out on a daily basis. I ask the Government to consider this. Perhaps the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will address in the House the issues of public liability insurance and the horrendous sums of money being handed out by local authorities to settle claims throughout the country.
We had a long debate last week on the question of our commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. I do not believe any Member on this side of the House is more committed to the environment than any Member on the other side but I firmly believe that Ministers and Members of Government parties are being set up with false information on the issue. Last Wednesday night, the Minister stated everything was rosy in the garden, that Ireland is the only country in Europe not being chased by the European Union in respect of the protocol and that we are very much on course towards meeting our commitments. Many people, including Senators Kitt and Brady, gave us back the information they had been given. I do not blame them for that, but we need to recognise that it is not good enough any more.
I am not asking anyone to concede anything to me here on the floor of the House. I am just asking people to raise this matter in their parliamentary parties. What is going on is disgraceful. Two days after last week's debate, the European Community expressed the view that Ireland languishes near the bottom of the league. It said that under current conditions, Ireland will miss its target by almost 16%. It pointed out that Ireland's emissions will increase by 30% if something is not done. Perhaps everybody is happy with that. I want to know whether our colleagues are being misinformed in this regard. If they are, it is disgraceful.
I thank Senator Brian Hayes for highlighting the role of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. When I raised the issue in the House with the Leader on a previous occasion, she kindly agreed to arrange a discussion on it. The reports in the news media yesterday were worse than fraudulent — they were misinformed, inaccurate and wrong in every way.
I should declare an interest in this regard because I am the vice-chair of the PIAB. I have double-checked every single fact. I would welcome a debate on this matter as early as possible next week. I wish to remove any doubt by making it clear that there is no backlog, despite what one might have heard in the news media yesterday about the size of the backlog and the length of time it will take to get through it. The board is completely ahead of schedule.
It was reported that the PIAB has dealt with 4,000 cases so far this year, which is true. It has been in operation for just a year and a half. It will be in a position to clear 10,000 cases next year. It has reduced the length of time it takes to settle a case from three years to seven months. It has saved the country €70 million in costs, to date. It will save a further €45 million every year from now on. The PIAB settled 4,000 cases last year, but the courts settled fewer than 2,000 cases. That was not mentioned in the news reports. Next year, the board will settle 10,000 cases, or 200 cases a week.
It was suggested by the news media that the board will have to increase its rate of case settlement from 50 per week to 200 per week. The reporter in question was informed last Friday that the board is already settling approximately 170 cases per week. We are there. Everything is completely on target. We are ahead of schedule. We are ahead of our objectives. The board will deliver exactly what the four main parties in this country have sought to support all the way through. I ask people to have full confidence in the PIAB.
Like Senator Brian Hayes, I pay tribute to the work done last night by Garda and fire brigade personnel throughout the country. They managed the events of Hallowe'en in a very effective manner. I would like to pick up on the point made by Senator Hayes about fireworks. It is time to review the legislation on fireworks. I am involved with a community arts festival in Nenagh, which organised a community event with fireworks last night. The event, which was very popular and well-managed, was run voluntarily with support from the arts fund of the local authority. It is a useful example of how problems can be avoided in a family-oriented and safe manner.
I also pay tribute to the work of the Garda Síochána last weekend, which ensured that we are not referring today to road deaths in the way we have had to do on more than one occasion. Thankfully, the number of road deaths this weekend was not as high as we feared it might be. I do not doubt that the low level of fatalities can be attributed to the work of the Garda. One would also hope that the message is finally getting through in that regard.
I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on an aspect of our health care system. I am aware that the House will consider the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 tomorrow and that the Minister intends to introduce amendments in respect of various issues. It is clear from recent reports that some existing mental health legislation will come into force today.
We need to consider the mental health of young people and the provision of psychiatric services for young people, including children. The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, has said that another two and a half years will pass before the level of service that is needed for young people will be fully in place. He considers that to be a satisfactory position, but I do not agree with him. Given the implications of that delay for young people, their families and their communities in particular, we need to ensure that psychiatric and mental health issues and the mental health needs of young people and children are placed at the top of the Government's agenda as a matter of urgency.
I request the Leader to arrange an early debate on pensions, particularly pertaining to the Bank of Ireland, where a second class scheme is proposed for new employees, while the chief executive of that bank receives €2.5 million per annum in addition to a significant pension scheme and perks. His pension is boosted regularly yet this second class scheme has been arranged. I join the Irish Bank Officials Association in condemning the move which has been brought before the labour court where we await the discussion. The second biggest bank in Ireland is proposing that new staff be afforded lesser conditions than those of existing staff and this move is against the best interests of employees. Customers of the Bank of Ireland should make known their positions on this matter to senior officials there. I feel this would be worthwhile because the issue of pensions could be an area for early debate in this House. I condemn the activities of the chief executive and board of governors of Bank of Ireland in this regard.
I echo other speakers in complimenting the Garda and Fire Services on the manner in which they handled situations throughout the country last night. However, many individuals, including taxi drivers and gardaí, have indicated to me the lack of resources available to emergency services personnel, especially gardaí. These people work with limited resources and this has been highlighted time and again, yet the Government does not take action to provide the necessary resources.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, to this House to debate the inadequate investment in community care facilities for the elderly, sick and disabled. The essential repair and disabled person's grants have not kept pace with inflation over the years. In local authority guidelines the disabled person's grant is still around €20,000 per annum and that relating to essential repairs for the elderly is around half that figure. It is impossible for those in receipt of the essential repair grant to acquire contractors to carry out work because the contractors are not interested. The elderly are being neglected in this sense because the Government has not supplied sufficient funds for grants to support them.
We must relax the eligibility criteria for the carers allowance to enable full-time carers qualify, an issue I have often highlighted. Everything looks rosy in the Government's guidelines but the facilities are not available when the elderly and sick try to access them.
Like Senators Brian Hayes and O'Toole, I was dismayed to see individuals in the media proving a soft touch for vested legal interests. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, has been a catalyst in the reduction of insurance costs and deserves our support.
The city was alight with fireworks last night as I approached via the Naas Road and there is a great deal of merit in Senator Brian Hayes's suggestion that community fireworks displays around the country could reduce the incentive for private and illegal enterprise.
Does the Leader plan to invite our MEPs, or leaders of the groups, to the House before the end of this Seanad's term. I was disappointed to see a group of MEPs denounce the Basque peace process in terms incompatible with the Irish peace process.
I am glad that Senator Brian Hayes raised the question of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and the ludicrous fact that it is paying out more in claims than is being spent by local authorities on fixing footpaths. The local authorities should be spending more on their footpaths. Three weeks ago I had a serious fall in Wicklow Street. I did not sue anyone because I do not believe in that but I welcome the opportunity to bring this to the attention of the House.
One of the problems is that the street surfaces in Dublin are either not properly maintained, being precipitous, dangerous and broken, or the wrong materials are used. I was on Wicklow Street where there is cobble lock which has designs in white ceramic tiling. It is very pretty but it is a death trap, the tiles are like ice. The Spire has an attractive metal surround but people fall on it every day of the week. The way the entire road surface in O'Connell Street is designed is thoroughly dangerous. There is no grip at all and elderly people are at serious risk.
Will the Seanad provide an opportunity to consider No. 26, motion 3, in my name, on Tibet, especially in light of the appalling events there in recent days? A group of 40 Tibetan refugees attempting to escape across the Himalayas were set upon, attacked and shot in the back as they moved away. A 17 year old nun was killed. As usual, the Chinese lied about it, saying that the border guards were protecting themselves. Border guards should not be there; Tibet is not part of China. We are collaborating in this because we have allowed, without any debate in the Oireachtas, a shift in our position that accepts the incorporation of Tibet into China.
I also support Senator O'Toole in his remarks on climate change. We have been misled in this House and we have met complete and utter complacency. The Minister indicated that he knows damn well that we are going way beyond our Kyoto targets and those targets will not even rectify the situation. What is the answer? We are happily told that we will buy our way out of it. Buying carbon credits is the worst possible solution. We know how serious this is now as a result of Sir Nicholas Stern's report. The British Government has at last woken up to the problem, appointing Al Gore to talk sense to the United States, because it is among the worst polluters. There should also be a debate on this, as outlined in No. 26, motion 21 on the Order Paper.
Will the Cathaoirleach intervene in another matter? Yet again today, and I am furious about this, as other Members should be, the House and the Cathaoirleach have been insulted by an Oireachtas committee. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, of which I am a member and every meeting of which I have attempted to attend, has again, despite my protests and attempts to ensure it would not be quorate and despite my walking out last week, coincided the time of the committee meeting with the Order of Business in this House, showing complete contempt for it, as it does every week. We are apparently prepared to put up with that. Will the Cathaoirleach use his powers to ensure Seanad Éireann is treated with some respect?
I endorse Senator O'Toole's comments on the workings of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. Anyone who, like me, listened carefully to media reports at lunchtime yesterday will have concluded that the PIAB is in chaos and has a major backlog of work and that most of its claims will ultimately come before the courts. Given the negative media attention the PIAB is receiving, it is good to have Senator O'Toole in the House because he has inside knowledge and is able to provide Senators with correct information on the workings of the board. Coverage of the issue extended to three or four pages of a daily newspaper yesterday and reading it, one would be convinced that the PIAB has been a flop. Having drawn this conclusion, I am pleased to learn from Senator O'Toole that the PIAB is a success. It would be appropriate for the House to debate the issue.
The National Forum on Europe meets every week to discuss the future of Europe. With Romania and Bulgaria due to join the European Union in the new year, this is an appropriate time for the House to debate the future of Europe. We should invite some of our MEPs to the House to take part in a full discussion on how Europe is shaping up. There is no better forum than the Seanad to bring this information into the public arena.
I thank the Leader for securing on my behalf a response from the Department of Health and Children about the primary school medical examination. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case with departmental replies, it was wholly inadequate because it did not say anything.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Health and Children or one of her Ministers of State to the House to debate the primary school medical examination. We must ensure the examination, an important preventative health measure, is used nationwide because its implementation appears haphazard.
I support Senator O'Toole's request for a debate on the recent report on global warming. We have received contradictory information on this issue from the Government, European Union and other sources.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes on the issue of fireworks. I, too, travelled to Dublin via the Naas Road yesterday evening and saw the night sky lit up. If community groups want to come together to organise controlled firework displays, they should be encouraged to do so.
I am pleased to read in today's newspapers that the Minister for Education and Science is considering changing the structure of Irish on the leaving certificate curriculum. I am glad the debate generated by Fine Gael's policy position on this issue appears to be having an impact on Government thinking on the Irish language. We cannot continue to treat the language as we have done in recent years. I am glad the Minister is responding to the Fine Gael position.
I support calls for a debate on fireworks. I was not on the Naas Road last night but in Carlow where hundreds, if not thousands, of fireworks lit up the skies. I followed gardaí on the beat into an estate and observed how ludicrous is the current position when the gardaí in question were unable to apprehend those letting off fireworks directly in front of them. Those involved included small children for whom no one appeared to take responsibility.
The laws on fireworks should be standardised North and South. The farcical nature of the current position is demonstrated by the fact that every firework set off last night was illegal. Is it workable in a small island to have fireworks freely for sale in the North and prohibited in the South? If fireworks were sold here legally, it would be possible to control their quality and thereby reduce the number of injuries. It would also be feasible to trace fireworks when injuries occur.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on an important issue in the health service. Recent figures for the number of outpatients awaiting appointments with consultants are far higher than expected. There is also a huge deficit of information. Last June, the Joint Committee on Health and Children requested information on the National Treatment Purchase Fund to see how it compared with procedures carried out in the public sector. We are still waiting for that information. The Department has refused to give it to us. We are working in a vacuum. Although compliments have been paid on how well the health service is working, we really do not know how it is working. There should be a debate on the National Treatment Purchase Fund and the outpatients issue.
Will the Leader also arrange a debate on MRSA? At the weekend I was told about a pregnant lady who went to hospital to have a scan. She happened to have a wound on her ear and contracted MRSA when getting the scan. She faced the horrible choice of going on antibiotics, which would affect her baby, or not doing so and running the risk of her baby being born with MRSA. It is outrageous that people cannot go into hospital for simple procedures without running the risk of contracting MRSA due to the negligence of the hospital authorities.
Today the drift net fishermen are protesting outside the House about the buy-out plan. A few years ago there was a similar case with the sugar beet growers. The Government appears to have turned its back again on the growers. As the budget is due to be introduced shortly, perhaps the Leader would arrange a debate on compensation for the sugar beet growers. This compensation has been delayed due to court action as a result of dithering by the Government. I also understand the growers will be liable to tax on their compensation payments, even though they did not want to leave the industry. The Government ensured the wipe-out of the industry but the beet growers, through no fault of theirs, will now be liable to tax on their compensation whenever they get it, and that could take years.
The situation is far from perfect but we are going in the right direction. A debate on this subject would be beneficial. This time last year I spoke about a young local man who suffered serious injury as a result of using fireworks. Will the Leader also arrange for a rolling debate on health? Members of the Opposition have sought debates on health under various headings and I would appreciate such a debate as soon as possible.
I agree with Senator Ormonde that this Chamber is a suitable venue to debate what is happening in Europe. Members of the European Parliament who are not Members of the Oireachtas are ex officio members of the Joint Committee on European affairs and can attend those meetings. The problem is the rostering of the meetings. It is generally agreed that there was a useful exchange before the European elections, when outgoing Members of the European Parliament were invited to address the Seanad and take questions from Members, from the point of view of elucidating on what is happening at European level. We would certainly welcome such opportunities.
With regard to the point made by Senator Mansergh regarding the motion on the Basque peace process, which was taken in the European Parliament last Thursday, I make no apology for supporting our Spanish colleagues on that motion.
Irish Members of the European Parliament pride ourselves on collectively wearing the green jersey as much as possible in Europe and seek to leave our political divisions at home. If somebody of that stature wants a right of audience, we should——
It has been raised. Finally, I agree with Senator Norris that this country has a habit of signing up, willy-nilly, to accords, protocols and agreements. Ireland, along with 34 other rich nations, signed up to the Kyoto Protocol but we walked away from our commitments regarding the 5% reduction on the 1990 emission levels. This must be addressed and I agree wholeheartedly with the excellent report produced by a former economist with the World Bank, Professor Nicholas Stern, which stated that there are great economic as well as environmental advantages in meeting our requirements on greenhouse gas emissions and on the non-usage of fossil fuels.
I add my voice to those calling for a debate on global warming. It seems to be such a huge task that we have felt that there is nothing we can do about it, but Sir Nicholas Stern and Al Gore have shown that this is in the hands of each citizen and that we can do something about it. However, there are opportunities and not just threats from global warming. I live on the coast and I have recently seen dolphins in the Irish Sea. I believe whales and other species have also been seen.
I mention this because we had an interesting discussion at the Joint Committee on European Affairs involving the Marine Institute. Its representative explained to us that the opportunities that we have in Irish waters have not been used sufficiently well. If he had a magic wand, he said he would like to see us avail of those opportunities. Global warming can present us with an opportunity if we do something about it ourselves. We have not met the requirements of the Kyoto Agreement and we must do so, but we should not look at everything as bad news because there are opportunities for us to do something and to gain advantage from that.
Senator Brian Hayes congratulated the fire brigade and the Garda Síochána for policing and taking care of the fireworks displays last night and I wish to say the same for what happened where I come from. There was a much quieter display but I take his point about community groups obtaining a licence for such displays. There is no greater thrill for a young person than to witness a bonfire and fireworks display and this could be done with parents' knowledge if a community display were allowed. I noticed that when children came to the door last night looking for trick or treat, their parents were outside ensuring they behaved themselves, which is a real improvement. However, they would not sing as they had lost their voices.
Senator Brian Hayes also spoke about the Personal Injuries Assessment Bureau, PIAB, and about the fact that the county manager in his area spent €1.7 million of the council's budget on compensation payments for claims pertaining to footpaths, yet only half of that amount was spent on repairing footpaths. That is certainly an anomaly.
Senator O'Toole spoke about the debate on the Kyoto Protocol. He stated that we are languishing at the bottom of the league and that he would welcome a factual debate on the matter. I read the reports on the PIAB in the newspaper and it was three pages long. I listened to the debate with Sean O'Rourke at 1 p.m. and I thought the chief executive was magnificent. She left the other lady standing and she gave us all the facts. Perhaps they have been too modest about themselves and are waiting until the publication of the first annual report before they start blowing their trumpet, but they should not do so. Insurance premiums have decreased and it is because of the PIAB. The legal lobby is hurting and that is why this person was engaged to write the pieces in question, but she did not put up a good show. I would welcome a debate on the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and I hope we can have it next week.
Everybody spoke about bringing the MEPs before the House and we would be pleased to do so, but the EU ambassador to Washington, John Bruton, will talk to us about his job. The Cathaoirleach agreed to the EU ambassador to Washington coming to the House to tell us about his job. He responded very promptly to the invitation which was made by the Clerk. He will be in the House this day next week and I hope there will be a good muster of Members. I will be very interested to hear him speak about his job and, for the record, I proposed he be invited.
Senator O'Meara paid tribute to the work of the Garda Síochána. She was thankful there were no road deaths but one can never say that. However, the statistics for last weekend were very good. She asked about psychiatric services for young people. We are endeavouring to have that debated in the House.
Senator Leyden referred to the Bank of Ireland which is offering a form of yellow pack pension for newcomers. He asked for this to be included in a general debate on pensions.
Senator Bannon referred to the lack of resources for the Garda Síochána. Deputy Commissioner Rock was asked on "Morning Ireland" whether sufficient money was available for what they need to do and he said that there was more than enough. We should not discount his word because he is dealing with the money.
Senator Bannon stated there was a lack of funding for the disabled person's grant and I agree with him. It is more the slowness with which the matter is approached rather than the money.
Senator Mansergh said the PIAB has been a catalyst for lower insurance costs and I agree with him. He is very puzzled by the Basque peace process and the vote in Europe. Senator Norris referred to the streets in Dublin and he asked for debates on Tibet and on climate change. He referred to the utter complacency which he alleges exists about climate change. He referred to the report by Sir Nicholas Stern and how Al Gore has been commissioned to awaken the United States to the dangers of global warming.
Senator Ormonde asked for a discussion on PIAB and she referred to the debate on RTE Radio 1 yesterday. She also asked for a debate on the future of Europe in light of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. It is a subject worthy of debate.
Senator Phelan asked for a debate on the primary school medical examination. He supported Senator O'Toole's request for a debate on the recent report on global warming. He referred to the change in the structure of the curriculum for Irish in the leaving certificate.
I think Senator Browne is the only fireworks in Carlow. I thought he was the real fireworks in Carlow. I do not know why all the fireworks went to Carlow because they have definitely gone somewhere.
The Senator also asked for a rolling debate on health and this was echoed by Senator Glynn who also wants a debate on fireworks. When parents knew it was illegal to have fireworks, they kept a watch on their young people.
Senator Higgins agreed with Senator Ormonde that this Chamber is a suitable venue to debate what is happening in Europe. We are clearing Mr. Bruton for this term and hope to have the MEPs next term. I agree that this is a very suitable Chamber for an in-depth debate on various matters. Senator Higgins also raised the issue of the Basque peace process. He also raised the issue of the Taoiseach speaking at the European Parliament and how Irish MEPs endeavour to wear the green jersey. However, I refer to a very disturbing report by a particular MEP. I will not name names and I will not talk about her.
I do not think the Taoiseach is looking for votes in the European Parliament. He is a very distinguished person who brought the constitution together in one piece. It is annoying that one would endeavour to undermine him in such a sneaky way and we on this side of the House will not allow it. He will acquit himself wonderfully. She can sulk in the corner if she wishes.
I think it is interesting. Senator Quinn raised the issue of global warming and said there are advantages. He said the sharks were in our seas and that one could see dolphins and other sea mammals much closer to land because of the warmer seas.
I seek the indulgence of the Chair to explain again that Mr. Bruton will be in the House next Wednesday.