Thursday, 3 June 2010
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Energy (Biofuel Obligation and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] - Report Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009 - Report Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1.
On each occasion this week when I have spoken in the House about recent events I have delivered a very clear and consistent message to the Leader and the Cathaoirleach on the need to address the issues raised in a public and transparent way. Senator Callely's party leader, the Taoiseach, has also said a full statement should be made to this House. Certain Green Party Senators - Senator Dearey and Senator Boyle - have been speaking this morning and they have also sought such information. We are all aware that damage is being done to politics, which has to stop. The reputation of the work we do here is at stake, as is the work of the Oireachtas. That is why I sought the making of a comprehensive statement in the House. A statement was made yesterday, but it is agreed by all sides that it was not comprehensive. The question is: what does the Taoiseach intend to do regarding the lack of information supplied to the House yesterday? I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that there be a full statement from Senator Callely today - before the matter is referred to a committee - outlining his circumstances. We should give him that opportunity.
It is up to the Cathaoirleach to decide. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that Senator Callely be given the opportunity to make a full statement in the House today on matters which have arisen recently. This is an important issue, about which there is significant public concern. It is important that it be dealt with by way of a full statement. The Taoiseach has indicated that he wants a full statement to be made to this House. Senator Ó Brolcháin said the same this morning. Therefore, he will have an opportunity to vote on the issue to ensure this statement is made today. It is important for the reputation of politics and this House that such an opportunity is afforded by the House, given that the statement made yesterday was not deemed to be comprehensive and did not answer the questions raised.
It is appropriate for the House to express our sympathy to the relatives and loved ones of all those killed in Cumbria yesterday. It was a horrifying turn of events.
I take a slightly different tack from Senator Fitzgerald on the expenses issue, but I am concerned about the confusion that seems to be descending all over the place. Perhaps next week the Cathaoirleach might make a statement and set out for the House the legislative and administrative mechanisms that apply to consideration of this matter. It comes down to two things: first, who will make findings and what findings are possible and, second, what are the possible consequences? There is a complete lack of clarity. If the matter is to be put before the Committee on Members' Interests, as may be provided for under the ethics in public office legislation, we should maintain our concern for due process. Does an issue arise if some members of the committee have already commented on aspects of the issue, even if they have not commented on the substance of what has appeared in the media? Everybody is entitled to due process. There is a danger that people will be caught in their desire to vent or communicate on this issue and in doing so we may undermine our ability to examine it properly. There is a need for transparency. It would be useful, therefore, if next week the Cathaoirleach outlined for us and the public the procedure to be followed under current legislation and the timeline.
On the Taoiseach's desire that a statement be made to the Cathaoirleach, we do not even know what the Cathaoirleach's position is, whether he would like such a statement to be made. It seems it is just a political aspiration and I do not know where it fits in in the proper handling of the issue.
On another matter, I regret that the Israeli ambassador will not now appear before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. An issue of tremendous importance has arisen in recent days, on which Israel needs to communicate its position often. There is a need for dialogue in preference to confrontation. I hope we all agree that the Hamas regime is an ugly one. We can all agree that Israel has a right to ensure missiles and other weapons will not enter Gaza. We should all agree that a blockade should never be used to humiliate a people or in seeking to get them to turn on their leaders. That hits the vulnerable, the old and the young. The UNRWA and the excellent Mr. John Ging are the ones who should be trusted with supervising what reaches Gaza by way of humanitarian relief and what should be excluded. These are all issues which could have been discussed at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It would be better if the Israeli ambassador were present.
I have asked on numerous occasions for a debate on the issue of human trafficking. I have also called for the criminalisation of the user in prostitution. If anyone doubts the wisdom of this proposal, he or sh e should watch the film, "Trafficked", at the recent premiere of which Deputy Coveney and I represented the Oireachtas. It is a compelling film, directed by Mr. Ciaran O'Connor, on the plight of a young woman trafficked into Ireland to work in the sex industry. It gives the lie to notions that people enter prostitution freely and that it can be a legitimate choice to avail of persons involved in prostitution when many of them are forcibly brought into the country. It should not be a defence for people to say they did not know a person was a victim of trafficking. The way to deal with the matter is to criminalise the user, as has been done in Sweden. I, therefore, ask for a debate on the issue. I ask the female Members of the House, in particular, to take an interest in it because women make up the great majority of victims of the cruel and evil sex industry.
-----but women in politics can be especially vocal and credible on the issue. There is no reason we cannot make progress on it, if people are willing to face up to the harsh and unpleasant facts of what is happening in the sex industry.
I wish to clarify the position on the proposal made by Senator Fitzgerald. It does not require an amendment to the Order of Business. A statement may be made by Senator Callely with the permission of the Chair, as was the case yesterday. Therefore, I am not accepting the proposal.
There is an emerging crisis in the funding of higher education. Given its seriuosness, I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on the matter urgently. I ask him to explain, if he can - I do not see how he can - how it is possible to reconcile very deep cuts in the funding of the third level sector which have now been signalled to take place this autumn and the constant refrain about creating a knowledge economy or the smart economy of which Ministers and the Taoiseach make great play from time to time when pressed about their strategy for the future of the economy. It is absolutely extraordinary. The two principles are entirely irreconcilable, unless the Deputy Leader can help us out on how the Government seriously thinks we can pursue the creation of a knowledge economy, that the economy can be expanded and that we can have third level institutions at the heart or in crucible of growth in the economy, on which we are often lectured from the Government side. How is that possibly going to occur when the Government's only policy option on third level education is to cut, cut, cut? The heads of the universities, and others, have pointed out the serious implications that will arise from those cuts, including the possibility that departments and entire subject areas will have to be closed. It will certainly lead to a serious undermining of any prospects that universities and other third level institutions have of participating in future economic growth and in society generally.
I wish to raise the head-shops issue with the Deputy Leader. We have had many debates here on this subject and regulations were subsequently introduced to ban psychotropic substances. According to a programme I heard yesterday, other substances are now being sold as bath salts, but they are considerably more dangerous to people's health than those sold previously. I am seeking advice on who pays for these evaluations. Many useful medicines must go through the Irish Medicines Board before they can be sold to the public. They would be advantageous to public health, yet they must undergo rigorous scrutiny and research before getting anywhere near a pharmacy. According to yesterday's programme, however, taxpayers are paying many thousands of euro per item sold in head-shops to ascertain whether they are psychotropic or otherwise dangerous. It seems unusual that we are paying through the nose for something that will kill us, whereas we cannot get healing products certified quickly for public sale. We must address this important issue.
We are told the most recent substance has been kept off the market deliberately so it can replace the initial wave of banned substances. It will be the next offensive in the war to get people involved in taking these awful substances. We must deal with them head on. I want clarity not only on who is paying for the research involved, but also on the recent legislation against head shops. We were told that anything potentially dangerous would immediately be banned, as opposed to waiting for two or three months.
As regards Senator Mullen's comments, it is great for women to get involved in women's issues. The issue of trafficking women for sexual exploitation will gain more traction when all members of each House take it as a serious issue.
I wish to ask the Deputy Leader, Senator Dan Boyle, who is probably the person closest to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, about dealing with planning regulations and guidelines on one-off rural housing. It affects some areas more than others, particularly with regard to the T90 and septic tanks. This is hitting Leitrim in particular but it will affect other rural areas also. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange for the Minister to attend the House to see if we can find a way forward. There are two aspects to this. One concerns malfunctioning septic tanks, and the other concerns the proposed planning rules for septic tank treatment units for one-off rural houses. This matter requires a detailed debate, so I hope the Minister will agree to attend the House. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange for such a debate as soon as possible to discuss this issue, which will have a serious effect on one-off rural houses. We must find a way to deal with ineffective septic tanks in order to preserve water quality throughout the country.
I am seeking a debate on the integrity of our high streets and small businesses in the community. This is a serious problem in many towns and cities around the country. According to a recent report, there are 90 vacant retail premises in Galway city. That may not sound like much to people in Dublin, but it has a huge impact in Galway. There is a danger that Galway and other cities are becoming less attractive places in which to locate as a result of the number of vacant premises. Many businesses are close to being viable but must close due to small cash flow problems. In the current financial crisis they cannot obtain finance from banks. Rather than throwing hundreds of millions of euro at IDA investments, we should examine the integrity of small businesses, which are the economic backbone of our society. We do not have enough debates on small businesses in this Chamber. Since becoming a Member of the House I do not think we have had specific debates on that particular subject. I hope, therefore, the Deputy Leader will allow us to have such a debate.
I wish to address the issue of quangos, which I know is dear to his heart. I would be grateful for his response. Indeed, Senator Boyle introduced a Bill on quangos in the other House, but voted against it in this House. That is a fair achievement in terms of acrobatics, but it is certainly something with which we can sympathise.
I am seeking a debate on Anglo Irish Bank. That bank is now like any other State body and is not subject to any kind of parliamentary scrutiny. In the past week, rather sensational and important matters have arisen in this House. They include the issue concerning Senator Callely and events in the Middle East. At least one important matter has been missed, however, that is, that two highly significant appointments were made to Anglo Irish Bank, which were not commented upon in this House because the House adjourned following the death of a sitting Member.
It seems these appointments were absolutely disgraceful. One, Mr. Aidan Eames, was a Fianna Fáil fund-raiser who was the election agent for a parliamentary candidate here on two occasions. He was also the national youth officer for Fianna Fáil in his day. The other was an insider from the banks themselves, Mr. Gary Kennedy.
It is absurd if I cannot identify the people who were named by the Government. If the appointment of Mr. Kennedy, who is an insider - he was with AIB at the time that the frenzy of property development was getting out of hand - cannot be examined by this House, who can examine it? If the appointment of Mr. Eames, who was appointed to this House by Mr. Haughey in years gone by, cannot be examined, I do not know where we are going.
I agree with Senator Keaveney's remarks on the products that are now being sold in head-shops. I do not know what the legislative position is, but anybody who sells any substance - legally or otherwise - which provokes an adverse reaction, should be held accountable. It is time we had another debate on this issue. There have been some improvements as about 60% of head shops have closed, but I want to see all of them closed.
On another matter, today is a beautiful day and there is an old saying in Ireland, "do not bid the devil good morning until you meet him". We met the devil last November when the floods came. Many people in this House could tell one that the towns they represent are flooded every year. I refer to towns like Athlone, Ballinasloe, Bandon, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Cork, Fermoy and Carlow, to mention a few. Now is the time to take action to ensure that last year's floods, in which people suffered terribly, will not be repeated. It is time for something to be done about this problem. Appropriate action was taken to resolve the problems in Mallow. I ask the Government to address this issue now in so far as it is possible, for humanitarian reasons if nothing else. I accept that we are in tight financial times, but we have to be prepared, to use the old scouts motto.
May I ask the Deputy Leader if it is intended that the House will meet next week? There has been a suggestion that it will not meet next week. That would be an absolute disgrace, particularly when the other House is meeting. Such a body blow would undermine this House. I hope the Deputy Leader will clarify this important matter.
Phase 1 of the western rail corridor has exceeded all expectations. The railway line is on course to carry over 400,000 passengers this year. We are all in favour of the next phase of the project, when the line will be extended from Athenry to Tuam and on to Claremorris. I would like to know if the Deputy Leader can give us a timescale for that. People want a timescale. When is it starting? When will the following phase, as far as Sligo, be proceeded with?
This week saw one of the biggest movements by rail of Irish exports in quite some time. The goods in question were brought from Ballina to Waterford Port. At the moment, such freight needs to go from Ballina to Dublin and on to Waterford but when the western rail corridor has been completed, it will be possible for it to go from Ballina to Limerick and on to Waterford and Rosslare, if necessary. The railway line from Rosslare to Waterford is under threat from CIE, which is talking about closing it in July. One of the main aims of the Green Party should be to take freight from the road and put it onto the railways. It is an absolute disgrace that CIE is talking about closing the Waterford to Rosslare railway line at a time when we are trying to expand rail freight, which is a necessity in this country.
From the first day I came into the Seanad, other Senators and I have endeavoured to provide advocacy on behalf of people who suffer abuses of human rights. Where possible, I have endeavoured to give a voice to those who have no voice, particularly prisoners of conscience. I have always believed we should tread warily on the individual conscience. After all, conscience is what distinguishes us as human beings. We must all answer at the bar of our own conscience, rather than somebody else's conscience. Therefore, it is an uncomfortable prospect for me that at some future date, as a result of legislation in which I have acquiesced, I may have to speak in this House on behalf of Irish prisoners of conscience. The Civil Partnership Bill 2009 provides that a person can lose his or her job or be imprisoned, and that churches and other bodies can have their property commandeered. I do not think that is right in a country that has upheld traditional values down through the centuries, often in the face of oppression and misrepresentation. I do not think it is right that people who in good conscience believe they are upholding the same values should be subject to such a penal code. Many people in Ireland will see this as an echo of the dreaded penal laws. It cannot be correct.