Thursday, 19 June 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on older people; and No. 2, motion re Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. It is proposed that No. 1 will be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and adjourn not later than 1 p.m. Spokespersons may speak for eight minutes and all other Senators for six minutes. Senators may share time by leave of the House; No. 2 will be taken at the conclusion of No. 1, but not earlier than 1 p.m., and will conclude at 2 p.m. if not previously concluded. Spokespersons may speak for seven minutes and all other Senators for five minutes. Senators may share time by agreement of the House.
We have had some lively debates on the Lisbon treaty but these have taken place generally on the Order of Business. They have been quite limited, and Senator Norris and others have felt rather frustrated that they did not have time to discuss particular aspects of the treaty. Since we are effectively in renegotiation with our partners in Europe on the Lisbon treaty, all the issues raised in the public debate are still relevant and significant. For this House to remain relevant, it should continue to examine the issues that have arisen. Each week on our agenda we should select one aspect of the debate on the treaty, such as the primacy of EU law, neutrality or taxation, and tease out in a calmer atmosphere the implications of the treaty. It appears we will have to revisit these issues and to do so calmly in this House would be very beneficial. We should not have to do this in a rush at some future date if there is to be a Lisbon 2 referendum. In many ways, we are subcontracting this work to the Forum on Europe, but this House can play a part in continuing the discussions on these issues. In addition, on some occasion the MEPs should be invited to the House for such a debate.
A recent report by the National Consumer Agency found a 30% difference in supermarket prices between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These do not appear to be justified by overhead costs or other differences between North and South.
The lack of competition among supermarkets in this country is also highlighted by the fact that the prices of 22 grocery items at Tesco and Dunnes Stores were found to be identical. Section 4 of the Competition Act 2002 specifically declares agreements or concerted practices between undertakings to be illegal. The response of Government, which was to suggest that people should shop around to get better value in supermarkets, is inadequate. I ask the Leader to address this question to the Minister. The Competition Authority should be asked to investigate these price issues. It is of fundamental importance in controlling prices and inflation in this country that we do not have this type of cheating of consumers. The reality is that this is a criminal offence under the Competition Act. The Competition Authority should investigate whether there is profiteering by supermarkets in the Republic of Ireland and what measures should be adopted to deal with it.
The report of the European Environment Agency covering Ireland's progress in meeting its Kyoto carbon emission targets has been published. The reality is that the relevant Ministers, Deputy John Gormley and Deputy Eamon Ryan, have indicated that they have taken measures on motor tax and vehicle registration tax, etc. Our climate change strategy provides for a 3% reduction each year but, on the basis of current policies, those targets are not being and will not be achieved. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must outline what steps are being taken to realistically enable Ireland to meet these targets. The progress made has been unsatisfactory and to say that the Ministers are only in power for one year is not an acceptable response. I ask that the Leader to address that question to the two Ministers.
On a morning when men must feel inadequate at working 39 minutes less per day than their female colleagues, at least Senator Regan has shown flexibility and the ability to multitask, something to which we all aspire.
I wish to raise the issue of insurance premia, which tags on to the issue of prices; it is an issue on which the Leader has taken a particular interest and done substantial work. Members will know that I am the vice chairman of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, which has now been rebranded as the Injuries Board. It is saving the State a significant amount of money every year, perhaps close to €100 million. It has also meant a significant increase in the profits of the insurance industry and insurance companies. For that reason, the idea of listening to some insurance companies purporting to put forward the case for increasing premia is unacceptable. A a time when the economy is on a downturn and there is increasing pressure on business, the cost of insurance is a significant factor.
To respond to a point made by Senator Regan, this is something on which we in these Houses can keep a sharp eye and ensure that the cost of insurance premia go down rather up. I strongly believe there is still an opportunity to reduce premia and that the insurance companies will still be the most profitable insurance companies in Europe. I ask for a debate on the insurance industry that would cover examination of the impact of the cost of insurance premia across personal, motor and business insurance.
With the ongoing fallout from last week's vote, it is clear there is a crisis in the country. We all wish the Taoiseach well in his deliberations abroad in the next few days. Such deliberations are taking place at a time when we need them most because people are very concerned about consumer confidence and about the way the economy is going. This is not only due to potential job losses and job insecurity but there is also a perception that people are being exploited by retailers and suppliers. Articles in today's newspapers indicate that a survey revealed that the price of food in the North is 30% cheaper than that in the South, yet the major retailers are trying to hoodwink us by telling us this is not the case. In today's edition of one of our biggest selling daily newspapers, one supermarket advertises 600 special offers in its store, another advises 1,750 long-term price cuts have been introduced in the past year and another major retailer has two-page advertisements of half-price products. Who are they trying to kid? Everybody knows it is cheaper to go to the North and buy food there. One can even buy newspapers at a lower price there. Something needs to be done about that.
The issue of the diesel prices has been raised previously. We all know that fuel prices have increased and we all recognise the reasons for that. However, it is baffling as to why price of diesel has risen by so much. It is not clear that there is not some unscrupulous behaviour by some major suppliers to try to benefit from the environmental move towards low-emission cars.
One of the reports published in the past 24 hours was by the communications regulator. It once again shows that the Irish mobile phone user pays the highest average revenue per customer in Europe. Something needs to be done about that. I ask the Leader to arrange for the major suppliers to be tackled on this issue and asked to justify their price increases and the reason prices need to be so high. It is not clear that there is not some price matching taking place or, worse still, perhaps even cosy cartels in operation.
I propose a slight amendment to the Order of Business, "That leave be granted to introduce No. 13 prior to the taking of No. 1." I ask the Leader to respond to that proposal.
I wish to raise the issue of a conference held in Portlaoise last week by a financial consultancy aimed at those who participate in sports clubs, particularly in urban areas. The focus of the conference was to encourage people involved in the GAA, soccer and rugby clubs to relocate their facilities in the middle of urban areas to suburban and locations well removed from the centre of towns and cities. The holding of this conference is a disturbing development. The House should debate this strategy as it not only will have an environmental impact in terms of people involved in sport, but young people in particular will have to travel longer distances to play sports when recreation and amenity areas and sports grounds are the lungs of our towns and cities. If people are promoting this concept of which clubs are, unfortunately in growing numbers, starting to avail in order to look after their own long-term welfare, there is a responsibility on all of us to say this is a bad development. Appropriate supports need to be put in place for the sports clubs and disincentives introduced to discourage them from following this strategy.
Supports are what it is all about.
In response to Senator Regan's point and the question of attaining the climate change targets, he is right in what he said. The programme for Government refers to a 3% decrease on average in that regard. My opinion is that for the first half of the life of this Government we will be running to stand still and that perhaps we will not achieve any of the 3% target decrease.
It is the luxury of Opposition that it can criticise the Government for unattained targets while at the same time promoting policies that are diametrically opposed to those targets ever being achieved. If we are to achieve our climate change targets, which we must because if we do not, there will be an economic as well as an environmental price to pay, it requires responsible Opposition. I would like to see that on the other side of this House especially in the years to come.
I aspire to be there. We will have leadership when we get there.
I wish to raise a number of issues that are of great importance. I have raised this issue on two occasions since the Easter recess. We need an urgent debate on the economy and especially, as Senator Regan said, on how consumers in this country have been ripped off. Irrespective of whether the Leader agrees, rip-off Ireland is alive and well. This morning's survey shows that people in the South are paying 30% more than their counterparts in the North for the same goods. It is simply not good enough. Ordinary citizens are struggling to pay grocery bills and some are forced to make difficult choices about which products they can afford to purchase. They deserve leadership from the Government. They also deserve better treatment from the large retail outlets, among which there is no competition. Is a cosy cartel in operation? I support Senator Hannigan's call for a debate on this issue.
I am concerned that the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, intends to transfer responsibility for youth affairs from his Department to the Office of the Minister for Children, under the remit of the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews. Will the Leader ask the Minister not to sign the ministerial order until he meets with the various stakeholders and until we have had an opportunity to discuss the issue in this House? Youth work and youth affairs are two separate issues. The retention of the role of the Department of Education and Science, or even a cross-departmental model, is the way to go. I call for an urgent debate on this matter.
I support Senator Regan's call for a rolling debate on Ireland's role within the European Union. I refer in particular to the EU directive on turbary rights, which emerged as an issue during the election campaign. This was introduced ten years ago and a derogation was put in place, but circumstances have changed. Oil prices continue to increase but there is no suggestion that the Arabs should be told to cease extracting oil from their oil fields. Turf can be extracted economically. People are upset that their rights to extract turf, which go back for centuries, cannot be utilised because of the EU. Nothing is set in stone and all policies can be reviewed.
Commissioners should be invited to partake in debates in this House on issues relevant to their remits. There is no point in the Minister attending if he or she can only operate on the basis of assurances from Commissioners in policy areas such as defence. I am confident the EU has woken up to Ireland's concerns and would respond favourably to a request by the Leader for Commissioners to attend the House to go through the areas of policy which caused serious concern to members of the electorate as they made their decisions on 12 June last. I agree fully with Senator Regan in this regard and I ask him and the other leaders to work together to avail of the tremendous opportunity we have to become the first Houses of Parliament in Europe to host regular visits from Commissioners. The President of the European Parliament has already come here. Commissioners should be invited to attend debates on those specific policy areas which we identify as the main cause of concern for voters in the referendum campaign.
I thought Senator Regan might have taken the opportunity on the Order of Business to comment on yesterday's proceedings at the Mahon tribunal. It was wonderful to hear evidence which exonerated the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern.
I am prepared to allow Senator Regan time to reply. That would be far more entertaining.
Senator Leyden remarked that the European Union has woken up to Ireland. It is about time. Confirmation of the Senator's remarks comes with the encouraging and authoritative report in today's Financial Times under the headline "Tax harmonisation on ice after Irish poll". The crux of the piece is that the French Presidency, in a direct response to the referendum result, has already postponed the issue of tax harmonisation. This is in itself a great achievement by the people of Ireland as a consequence of their decision to reject the Lisbon treaty. It will be difficult for the Government to champion that achievement in Brussels today because it was not in favour of a "No" vote. However, there is undoubtedly cause and effect at play here. If the "No" vote has achieved that, we are already going places. We have achieved something of vital national interest in response to that "No" vote and we are getting respect in Europe.
It is too early for the Taoiseach to push hard on this but there is undoubtedly an opportunity to capitalise on that response. The French Finance Minister has said tax harmonisation is not completely off the agenda but that France will no longer push it. Last week she said it was top of the agenda. It is important that we do not simply accept its postponement. That is only a start. We must recognise that we are punching hard as a consequence of our rejection of the treaty, that we are being taken seriously and that we are achieving something. We may ultimately achieve the protection of Ireland's vital national interest. That interest cannot be protected by the veto, but I will not go into that.
I ask that we respond to this by way of a resolution, agreed by Members on all sides, urging that the issue of tax harmonisation be not merely postponed but buried via the next referendum which we undoubtedly will have. The news today is encouraging because it shows that our rejection of the Lisbon treaty has already achieved recognition in a solid way from the French Presidency.
Many Members referred to various aspects of the Lisbon treaty. I do not wish to get into that but I refer to the issue raised by Senator Leyden, which is the ban on turf-cutting. This is of particular concern in rural areas, including in my own area. Against a background of ever-rising oil prices, it is difficult to explain to ordinary people in rural areas that they cannot cut turf. It begs the question: "For peat's sake, why not?"
Turf-cutting is part of the rural Irish psyche and tradition. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate at the earliest opportunity on alternative energy sources. Such a debate would be timely. I cannot understand why diesel prices have increased to such an extent, with one pump in the midlands charging €1.45 per litre. This represents an astronomical annual price increase. Something is wrong. Many good suggestions could come forward from a debate on alternative energy sources. There is no doubt the situation that obtains in regard to the cost of food, oil and other consumer goods is driven by greed. This House would make a major contribution to the issue by having an early debate.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business as proposed by Senator Boyle.
Senator Regan's important and worthwhile proposal for a rolling debate on the implications of our rejection of the Lisbon treaty has received support from Members on all sides of the House. Senator Ross drew our attention to the article in today's Financial Times. The French have just realised that, as many of us knew, tax harmonisation was never a runner. It is good to see the French acknowledge that publicly, and I thank the Senator for bringing it to our attention.
I am delighted Senator Regan raised the issue of grocery prices. It is disgraceful that prices are 30% more expensive in the Republic than in the North, as has been proved by the survey carried out by the National Consumer Agency. All the agency could say about the issue was that the price differentials are inexplicable. Of course they are. As I said yesterday, however, the agency is something of a toothless wonder. What is it going to do about it? Senator Regan is probably correct in calling for the Competition Authority to get involved.
The Leader probably would agree that the abolition of the groceries order was a disastrous error. The committee of the last Parliament that was chaired by the Leader and of which I was a member unanimously recommended against its abolition. The only price it reduced was the price of booze. Senator Hannigan is probably accurate with regard to cosy cartels. Price matching is taking place. We have allowed the large players to corner the market and that is limiting choice. Look at what it has done to prices. I strongly agree that the House should call for the Competition Authority to examine this issue. The Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, was right when he spoke to the Tánaiste about calling in the National Consumer Agency, but I doubt it will achieve anything. The Competition Authority is needed to seriously examine the situation.
I support Senator O'Toole's comments about the insurance industry. We have a vested interest in keeping insurance premia down. Much valuable work was done on this issue by the committee I mentioned earlier and we do not wish to throw it away or lose it. That is another matter on which we must be watchful.