Thursday, 26 April 2007
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, a motion concerning a Ministerial Order required to allow the Dublin Docklands Development Authority to prepare a draft planning scheme for the Poolbeg area of the docklands, referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government for consideration which has completed its deliberation — section 25 of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority Act 1997 provides for the preparation by the authority and the approval by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government of planning schemes for parts of the Dublin docklands area — to be taken without debate; No. 2, motion re the establishment of a commission of investigation into issues of concern arising from the death of residents of the Leas Cross nursing home, to be taken immediately on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than one hour after it commences, with the contribution of each group not to exceed ten minutes; No. 3, motion re risk equalisation, to be taken at 12.20 p.m. and to conclude no later than 1.00 p.m., with the contribution of each group not to exceed six minutes; No. 4, motion re sections 2 to 12, 14 and 17 of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, to be taken with debate from 1.00 p.m. to 1.45 p.m., with the contribution of each group not to exceed seven minutes; No. 5, Criminal Justice Bill 2007 — Second Stage, to be taken at 1.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Senators may share time, with the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.
A person with an intellectual disability receives the princely sum of €184 per week in disability allowance. It is now proposed under regulations that were never debated in either House that the Government will take €90 per week from such people and that it will look for the full retrospective amount since these regulations came into being. How is it that such a miserable, penny pinching, disgraceful decision was never debated in these Houses? We are talking about people who must deal with very difficult decisions in their lives and who are now receiving threatening letters from the institutions they are in to get this money back. It is the most shameful decision the Government has ever taken.
I would be grateful to the Leader if she would speak directly to the Minister about this issue. It is striking fear into many vulnerable people in the community and the issue was never debated in these Houses. It is a disgrace and it should be changed, even at the last minute before these Houses are dissolved.
Over the Easter recess, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, established the Irish Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. This initiative, which has been in the offing for some years, has been greatly welcomed. However, the Rape Crisis Network, Women's Aid and many other women's organisations are legitimately pointing out that the remit of this agency relates specifically to domestic violence against women and does not deal with the issues of trafficking, pornography and other forms of exploitation against women.
Will the Leader communicate with the Minister of State concerned to see if he could meet the various non-governmental organisations and find an agreement? They have considerable experience in this area. They have worked in the field for the past 30 or 40 years and have made great advances for women, especially in the area of domestic violence. It is wrong that a major announcement such as this does not have the full imprimatur of the groups concerned.
In the past ten to 15 years, I raised the importance of having a vetting process for people who would be in charge of children. That was eventually conceded and agreed to by the Government. However, I discovered something disturbing in recent weeks. The vetting process for teachers is being done by the Teaching Council, which is the council that approves the qualifications of teachers and so on. That system has been done in the North of Ireland for quite some time and it is welcome. Unfortunately, while the members of the Teaching Council are happy to do this, they have no statutory basis or power to do it. We will walk ourselves into a major problem with this. Somebody may take action against somebody else and difficulties will arise.
At the moment, the Teaching Council will obtain information from the Garda about a person who has faced charges and who has been found guilty of particular breaches of the law. This can then be made available to boards of management or others who seek to employ a teacher. That is all very well in theory and it is what we want. Unfortunately, the council has no statutory authority to do this, which raises issues about data protection. The council will now have information which will be protected mainly by data protection laws. Gardaí are also prepared to give all manner of information, including what is euphemistically described as soft evidence and information about people against whom charges were made but who were not convicted.
The issue of child protection was raised this week in Wexford and it comes up in this House every few weeks. The issue surrounding the Teaching Council needs a minor legislative change to get it right. When the day arrives that it gets it wrong, we will all be asking whether anyone noticed this. The Teaching Council is prepared to take on this role. The structures are in place, but it needs the statutory power to do it. I would like the Minister to explain it to us, but I realise it may be too late to ask her to come to the House. However, the information should be brought to her attention.
Last night, the other House finally passed the Water Services Bill 2003, which was initiated in this House four years ago. Better than anything else, it illustrates the priority for the Government of the issue of water and water services. It is easy to forget that a domestic water crisis is still in full spate in a large area around Galway city. It is easy to ignore some of the extraordinary remarks made.
I do not wish to talk so much about the issue of polluted water in Galway as about the response of statutory authorities. Nobody from the management of the local authorities has ever condescended to be subject to any sort of serious media interview under circumstances where they did not have total control over it. Instead, they issue remarks which would be funny if they were not so appalling. For example, when asked why they cannot give free water to the people of Galway, they answer that some people might grab too much of it and sell it elsewhere. If that is the level of imagination of those who are given the job to deal with the provision of good water supplies in Galway, then the people of Galway deserve better. Those who are hiding behind their bureaucratic privileges ought to be made accountable.
If there is a way to make county and city managers accountable, then we should have it. They are powerful people in our society who do not seem to believe that they are accountable to anybody. I would like the Leader to persuade the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, when he is before this House next week with the Water Services Bill 2003, to put some time aside to talk about water services and who is responsible for them.
I have often asked for a debate on competitiveness and I still want to have one. I have always said that I want the terms of that debate to be properly broad and not to focus in on one aspect. When I read a report produced by our own researchers which stated that those countries with entrenched unionisation tend to have higher rates of unemployment, I began to wonder where science and ideology overlap. Some of the most competitive countries in Europe have very high levels of unionisation, in particular Sweden, which is way ahead of this country in every competitiveness index. When people who are meant to be objective researchers identify trade union membership as an obstacle to low unemployment, that is why I want us to have a broadly based debate on competitiveness. We are in danger of turning myths into facts, which would be very bad for the future of decision making in this country.
I discovered in recent days that teenagers sharing video and music files on the Internet may face prison sentences under what a European consumer group has referred to as ill thought out and potentially disastrous copyright laws that are currently being debated by the European Parliament. The provision in question, which was introduced by a socialist MEP from Italy, is being backed by the European Commission. This is a matter of grave concern. The British Government has already advised its MEPs, of all parties and none, to vote against the measure, and the Dutch Parliament has also condemned the proposal.
The senior legal adviser of the consumer group in question, BEUC, has said the provision will impact on persons uploading files to such popular sites as MySpace, Bebo and YouTube. Members with teenage children will be familiar with these sites. Under the draft law, users who download content from such sites for no personal gain may face criminal as distinct from civil prosecution. Companies in the music industry, for example, regularly take action to protect their copyright laws through civil actions. This proposed law goes even further.
I understand the first draft of the provision was debated by the European Parliament yesterday. It is being actively supported by the Commission. What is the position of the Irish MEPs on this outrageous intrusion into the lives of teenagers? It is another example of the EU's competence coming into question. It would be better off addressing some of the more important issues facing the world rather than trying to lock up 14 and 15 year olds who download files not for personal gain but to share with their friends. I refer to MEPs as well as the Commission, which seems to have become involved in an unholy alliance on this issue. I emphasise the importance of establishing the Government's position on this issue and, more specifically, that of the MEPs of all parties. Did they support this vote in the European Parliament yesterday? I was unable to obtain any up-to-date information on how the vote went but it is almost certain that the draft law was supported by the majority of MEPs.
This issue should be reconsidered. It is especially pertinent given the problems we encounter in encouraging teenagers to connect and relate to the political space in which all of us operate. This is mainly because of their view that the laws we enact have no impact on their lives. If this law goes through, however, it will be binding on member states and will create a minimum legal sanction which can then be increased by member states up to the maximum. None of us wants a situation where gardaí are obliged to call to the doors of teenage children to arrest them for such activity.
I support the comments made by the leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, on the establishment of an office for the prevention of domestic violence, under the auspices of the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey. I agree with the Senator's view that the proposal seems to be too narrow in focus. While the establishment of such an office is welcome, it is important that we consider the wider issues. We are all aware that domestic violence occurs in the home. There are other types of violence against women, however, including human trafficking and the use of pornography. We have debated these issues many times in this House.
Will the Leader facilitate a debate at some future date to ensure this office adopts a broad focus? Last week, the National Women's Council of Ireland launched its election manifesto, as it called it, on domestic violence. This manifesto made reference to violence against ethnic minority groups, including Travellers, the trafficking of women and the use of pornography. It is a shame the National Women's Council of Ireland and other organisations have had to beg for funding in recent years. We all want to see action in this regard.
Above all else, the organisations in this area seek adequate funding. They are the groups that work at the coalface, assisting those women who telephone their offices seeking help. For the women whose calls are answered, what is usually sought is protection, which may necessitate moving out of the family home to a safe place. Adequate funding is required to provide those services. The new office must not take the narrow focus that has been evident to date. I hope it will be a step in the right direction of adequate provision to meet the problems that exist in this area.
Like Senator Brian Hayes, I am aware of people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric problems who are adversely affected by the charges to which he referred. Persons living in sheltered accommodation who, because of the nursing home situation, were not charged for that period now find themselves with arrears of €4,000. These are not people of means and they tend to spend payments as soon as they are received. Most of them are not in a position to meet the repayments and they should not be pursued.
I agree with Senators Scanlon and Brian Hayes. I raised this issue some six weeks ago after it was brought to my attention by people in St. Raphael's. I am glad Senator Brian Hayes raised it so trenchantly today. It is one of the meanest and most discussing impositions on a vulnerable section of the community.
At the time I raised it, the Leader gave an undertaking to bring it to the attention of the Minister. Now that Members on all sides have reinforced its pertinence, I hope she will do so. When I initially spoke on this issue, it was simply a question of imposing this extra charge. The additional step to which Senator Brian Hayes refers — the sending of threatening letters demanding arrears — had not yet been taken. This is entirely unacceptable. I am sure the Leader, who is a caring person, will bring this to the attention of the Minister.
I am afraid the Leader will be busy if she does everything I ask today. Will she raise with the Minister for Foreign Affairs the release on bail by the United States Government of a most notorious criminal, Luis Posada Carriles? This is a man who orchestrated and was the prime mover in the bombing of a civilian aircraft in the 1970s in which 73 people were killed. He has acknowledged it openly. He was also involved in the bombing of a Havana hotel in which an Italian citizen — an EU citizen — was killed, as well as numerous other crimes. It seems he is being released to ensure he keeps his mouth shut about his connections with the CIA. A strong protest should be made about this in view of our status as a state friendly to Cuba, with whom we exchange ambassadors. Moreover, we are always listening to guff from the United States about the war on terrorism. In this case, however, the authorities of that country are releasing terrorists in their own jurisdiction because it suits them to do so.
This House has a good record of seeking to protect the vulnerable, including those with disabilities. It is a horrible fact that the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis in this city, and possibly elsewhere in the State, is dropping steadily. In Dublin, there has been a reduction of 75% in the number of these vehicles. Drivers are handing back their plates because of the considerable additional expense in acquiring accessible taxis. The taxi regulator has written to various Ministers but the letters have not been answered. This puts in perspective our vaunted concern for people with disabilities.
The Broadcasting Complaints Commission has upheld a ruling against the European Commission Representation in Ireland in respect of a series of advertisements that included a strong political message plugging the EU. I am all in favour of the Union but it is useful that this complaint was upheld. Otherwise, if that breach were allowed to continue in the context of a referendum on European matters, for example, it is possible that the office could use substantial funding to influence the context of the debate. That would not be appropriate. I congratulate the National Platform, Mr. Anthony Coughlan, and other individuals such as Patricia McKenna who went to battle on these issues. They won this issue.
I apologise, a Chathaoirleach, this is the end. It is an important point that it was left to individuals. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission took an action against Trócaire at the beginning of Lent. I congratulate the individuals and organisations that acted so successfully in this instance.
I too was very glad to see the unit to combat domestic violence established but I also share the concerns expressed by Senator Brian Hayes and Senator Terry about the lack of involvement of so many NGOs. I was at the launch of the organisation and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy Fahey, stated that the remit was not set in stone. I am sure that if representations are made to him they will be taken into account.
Yesterday was the Malaria in Africa Day, I attended a meeting of some members of the Malaria consortium in London last week. It was incredible to listen to the praise for Ireland's contribution, not just the financial but the moral support for the initiatives and for research both in Europe and Africa. I would be glad if the Leader would pass on this good news to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
During the passage of the legislation on the Medical Council and the Pharmacy Council, I expressed anxiety about having the details of registers put on the Internet, as confidentiality is very hard to maintain. Members may have seen, to the consternation of many people, that the details of medical students and young doctors appeared on the website of the British Department of Health. These young people who had been assured of confidentiality when they applied for jobs had their names, addresses, qualifications, sexual orientation — what has that to do with employment? — religion, e-mails and everything else published on the website yesterday. This was not corrected until yesterday evening. The number of people who could have downloaded the information and used it to blackmail or to threaten the person to provide drugs in the future is unknown.
The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, took on board my concerns on this issue and assured me that only the names of those on the register would be on the Internet. It is a very serious issue when the details of people who have access to drugs are published as it leaves it open to criminals or others to target them or their families. I would be grateful if the Leader should stress to the Department of Health and Children that the councils must ensure that nothing like this could happen in Ireland.
Back in the 1950s Dr. Noel Browne was given credit for eliminating tuberculosis as a major problem. There were 7,000 cases a year of people getting tuberculosis and those of us who were around at the time remember "Hospitals Requests" where requests were played for those in the sanatoria. I understood the disease had been practically eliminated until last week when I read an article by Dr. Charles Breeden of University Hospital Cork who states that we have not eliminated tuberculosis but that new strains exist that are resistant to modern drugs and that it is possible to do a great deal more to combat the disease than we are doing. I am aware that babies are routinely immunised when they take up the BCG vaccination but according to Dr. Breeden, we have a long way to go before we conquer this. The recent outbreak of 14 cases of tuberculosis in Cork is indicative of the dangers of a pandemic. We can take the necessary steps to address this problem. We should not get into a panic but we must regard it as an urgent problem. We must take action during the summer and not put it on the long finger.
I join with Senator Ryan in drawing attention to the issue of competitiveness in the business regulation forum report . We must reduce the red tape to enable small businesses to become more competitive. The danger is that we are hidebound by red tape and business regulations. I was actively involved in the business regulation form which points out five steps that can be taken. Let us ensure that this report is not ignored and that it gets the attention it deserves.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the matter of the deduction of €90 for domiciliary care of one type or another from the disability payment of €184 and Senator Scanlon echoed his remarks. I was at a carer's meeting on Monday night, where this was the dominant theme, as people had received letters demanding repayment. This issue crept up on us unknown and we must take it up with the Government immediately. I cannot understand it. I fail to understand how one can send out a demand for the repayment of €9,000 or €11,000 and I fail to understand why a Government would send out such demands at any time, and especially now. I will take up this.
Senator Brian Hayes also raised the issue of the office for domestic violence and questioned why the NGOs such as the Rape Crisis Centre, and Women Aid should not be brought into the debate on what will happen in that office. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy Fahey, has always proved to be very open. I welcome the setting up of such an office and the Minister of State has assured us it will be broadly based and that he will listen to those who make an input to its remit.
Senator O'Toole raised a very important matter of the vetting of ancillary staff dealing with children. While the Teaching Council is willing to take on this role, it does not have the statutory authority to do so. The first time an incident occurs will be the day the legislative basis for acting will be questioned. The Act must be amended urgently.
Senator Ryan raised the matter of the water services Bill that was finally passed in the Dáil. I was alarmed to hear a female member of the Labour Party, the Finance spokesperson, say on television that a Bill would lie in the Seanad and not be debated. Bills do not lie in the Seanad, but in the Dáil. I felt like saying that people in glasshouses should not throw stones.
I have had my say. I was dying to say it and I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for giving me the opportunity to do so.
It was mentioned that entrenched trade unionism is seen as a deterrent to competitiveness, but it could not be. We are always boasting about our own economic success, much of which is based on union membership.
Senator Mooney raised the interesting matter of a proposed EU law whereby people who download Internet material will be subject to punitive fines. If such a law was passed, however, we would not have Google, rate-your-teacher or rate-your-politician. It is a point worth pursuing, nonetheless.
Senator Terry hoped that the wider issue of domestic violence, and fora dealing with such issues, will come under the aegis of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey's, new office.
Senator Scanlon raised the subject of disabilities. I hope he will also talk to the relevant Minister about it.
Senator Norris referred to the release of a Cuban-born man, Luis Posada Carriles, who worked for the CIA. He is being released because clearly he has been running with tales to them. The Senator thought that was a disgrace and that the Department of Foreign Affairs here should deal with the matter.
Yes. Senator Norris also referred to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland which upheld a complaint against the European Commission's office on the basis that its advertisements were political. He praised the BCI for upholding the complaint.
Senator Henry attended a meeting on malaria in Africa. She mentioned the help given to AIDS sufferers in Africa by the overseas development section of the Department of Foreign Affairs. I did not quite understand her reference to a website. Is it from our Department of Health and Children or the British one?
The records of young people who applied for positions — not just their names, which would be fair enough, but also their personal details — were included on the website. That is wrong and I will alert the office of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to that.
Senator Quinn is concerned about the resurgence of TB which, as we have read, is recurring fast and furiously. We must be aware of that. He also raised the issue of the small business forum from which we have just received an excellent report. It is well worth reading.