Tuesday, 5 December 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for Education and Science (Dr. Woods): The Order of Business today shall be as follows: No. 19 – motion re. Referral to Joint Committee of Draft Civil Service Code of Standards and Behaviour; No. 20 – motion re. Referral to Joint Committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of three proposals under the Fourth Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam (COM (2000) 592 final), (JUSTCIV 103) and (COM (2000) 516 final)); No. 45 – National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Bill, 2000, Order for Report and Report and Final Stages; and No. 8 – National Training Fund Bill, 2000, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage.
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that: (1) the Dáil shall sit later than 8.30 p.m tonight and business shall be interrupted not later than 11.30 p.m (2) Nos. 19 and 20 shall be decided without debate; (3) the Report and Final Stages of No. 45 shall be taken today and the proceedings thereon, if not previously concluded, shall be brought to a con clusion at 6.30 p.m today by one question which shall be put from the Chair and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Minister for Finance; (4) the Second Stage of No. 8 shall be taken today and the proceedings thereon, if not previously concluded, shall be brought to a conclusion at 11.30 p.m tonight; and (5) Private Members' Business, which shall be No. 109, motion re. Government Policy on Taxi Licences, shall also take place tomorrow directly after the Order of Business and shall be brought to a conclusion after 90 minutes.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): I do not agree to the proposed late sitting. Thousands of teachers marched to the Dáil today because of the intransigence of the Government, while tens of thousands of students are without classes. The taxi service is in utter chaos because of the disastrous handling of the issue by the Government. There should be urgent debates in the Dáil today on these issues and the disastrous situation over which the Government is presiding. I welcome the late sitting but not the content of the debates.
Mr. J. Bruton: I have a problem with not having a debate on item No. 19 which concerns a code of practice for civil servants. Before we lay down standards for others we should be sure we can impose adequate standards on ourselves. It is with the greatest regret that I say the position of the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, has caused serious problems in the promotion of food safety. I am referring to the gap between his public statements as a Minister of State and the difficulties which have apparently been encountered in a facility in which he has an interest in living up to the standards. Is the Minister for Education and Science satisfied that the position of the Minister of State does not cause difficulty for us in promoting food abroad, given that the difficulties have been advertised widely throughout Europe in a very competitive market in a manner which is damaging to the interests of Ireland as a place which sells safe food?
Mr. Howlin: If we can pass the draft Civil Service code of standards and behaviour without debate then it is worthy for us to reflect on the legal code of standards and behaviour we have applied to ourselves under the Ethics in Public  Offices Act, which applies to us all. Before we deal with this issue, will the Minister for Education and Science, on behalf of the Government, deal with the validity of the scheme of licensing meat and bone meal when the person charged under an order of the Government with administering it, the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, had an undisclosed financial interest in it?
Mr. Sargent: Will the Minister account for members of the Government who are not able to live up to the standards they wish others to live by, taking into account that this is not the first time a member of the Government has been found not to live up to the standards? The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform had to face similar questions in regard to a vehicle within his charge. I ask the Minister to bring this matter to a head so that there is consistency in Government.
Dr. Woods: Deputy Bruton referred to item No. 19. The draft code of standards will subsequently come before the House where it can be discussed further. Deputy Howlin seems to be under the misunderstanding that it was being passed without debate.
Dr. Woods: The Deputies referred to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe. If one considered the Members who are farmers and who were Ministers or Taoisigh at one time and said they had a vested interest in their farms—
Dr. Woods: It is quite clear that the Minister of State declared his interest in the current register of Dáil Members' interests. It is openly declared and it is, therefore, ludicrous to suggest he has not made his position clear.
The application for the licence, which was mentioned, began in 1996 and was approved in principle by the previous Government. It was subsequently sent out in September 1997. The Minister of State has made it quite clear that he stayed completely separate from the application, that he did not have any direct responsibility for it and did not in any way influence it.
Up to now it has been legal to use meat and bonemeal for feeding of non-ruminants. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development took a further temporary precautionary measure yesterday. Deputy O'Keeffe's position is clear-cut.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Minister agree that in his own interest and that of the country the Minister of State is miscast in his present role and cannot do the job that needs to be done in the national interest?
Mr. Howlin: Either we enact laws that we apply to ourselves or we do not. Obfuscation will not hack it. Legal obligations are imposed on all of us and we make a nonsense of an ethics regime if we do not apply it to ourselves according to the letter of the law. If the Minister is satisfied that the licensing regime, which is specifically administered under—
Mr. Howlin: —order of the Government, and given the political responsibility of the Minister of State, is it proper for him to have an undisclosed vested interest? I am advised as a matter of administrative law, without any ethics Act, that every decision made by him while he holds that responsibility is now subject to challenge. Can we at least have an assurance from the Minister that that matter is being investigated?
Dr. Woods: Yes, the Minister of State explained clearly the declaration of his interests and it is on the record. He has complied with the law, to answer Deputy Howlin's question. That is clear and I cannot say any more.
Browne, John (Wexford).
de Valera, Síle.
Kitt, Michael P.
McGuinness, John J.
Woods, Michael. Wright, G. V.
Belton, Louis J.
Broughan, Thomas P.
Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
| Hayes, Brian.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is the proposal for dealing with item No. 45 agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with item No. 8 agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Private Members' Business tomorrow agreed to? Agreed.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Minister for Education and Science agree that there is escalating anxiety among parents and students over the secondary school strike? As the oral exams are to be held in February, there is a risk that if this dispute is not settled before Christmas the entire leaving certificate will be undermined next year. Is the Minister willing to accept the Fine Gael proposal, put forward by Deputy Kenny, for the establishment of a commission on teaching, similar to the Commission on Nursing which was successful in settling a dispute in that profession? The issues concerning teachers are not confined simply to pay, but also concern the operation of the profession as a whole, working conditions and other matters which would be of benefit to parents, such as greater information for parents and the upgrading of the profession. The best way to deal with these matters would be through a commission on teaching, as Deputy Kenny has proposed on behalf of Fine Gael. Has the Minister considered the proposal and is he prepared to endorse it so that we can move towards settling this potentially very damaging dispute. A whole generation of young people's careers may be blighted by this dispute.
Ms Shortall: This is eighth day during which the country's school children have been denied their right to education. The presence of 12,000 teachers in Molesworth Street this afternoon is an indication of the anger they feel at the Government's dismissive treatment. The teachers are offering an olive branch and have held out the prospect of resolving the dispute at an early stage. They are simply looking for a forum in which issues of concern can be discussed and resolved. The Minister for Education and Science has political responsibility for resolving this matter. Is he prepared to take an initiative this week to ensure that such a forum or mechanism can be put in place at an early stage so that the issues concerned can be dealt with satisfactorily? Will he do that as a matter of urgency?
Dr. Woods: As Deputies will know, I met yesterday with the ASTI's president, vice-president, general secretary and deputy general secretary to listen to their views. As Deputies will be aware also, discussions concerning the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness were still in progress at that stage. The ASTI strongly reiterated its view that the independent body provided for under the PPF, and presided over by a judge, is not adequate to address the issues in the current dispute or the reasons for its continuing action. Subsequent to that, the PPF was adjusted last night in the agreement between the social partners. It will now deliver a cumulative increase in take-home pay of 32.6% for teachers. In addition, the  agreement provides that one quarter of any increase arising from the report of the benchmarking body will be implemented with effect from 1 December 2001.
These were among the issues the ASTI raised with me in the four points it wishes to have considered. The four points on which its claim is based are payment for productivity, an adjustment to close the gap which has developed between the salaries of teachers and those of other comparable graduate grades, compensation for cost of living increases and a share in economic prosperity. It is quite clear that under the PPF, the social partners are dealing with each one of these issues. There is an independent forum to deal with those issues and in that general context I am anxious to find any solutions that can be found to the present difficulties.
Mr. Noonan: On a point of order, I am reluctant to interrupt the Minister because what he is saying is very important. However, he gave a cumulative figure of benefits to the teaching profession of 32.6%. I understand that it is 22.6%, so will the Minister correct that because he is ten points above it?
Mr. Noonan: It is outrageous. The Minister is misleading the House. There are 12,000 teachers protesting outside and he is trying to mislead them into thinking that they will receive an increase of 32%. They will not.
Dr. Woods: The PPF is for all the people with all the partners. It provides for direct increases in pay and reductions in tax. Reductions in tax affect take-home pay. The reductions in tax – this is not disputed by the ASTI – amount to 10%.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I told Deputy  Rabbitte that the Chair is speaking. If he resumes his seat, we will hear his point of order, if it is relevant. The leaders of parties are allowed to ask a brief question, but it is not to lead to debate. That was the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle when he introduced this latitude for the leaders of parties to ask a brief question on a topical issue. We will not allow it to develop into a full scale debate.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Minister agree that his tendentious presentation of the pay position of teachers is as likely to inflame the situation as to assuage their fears? Does he also agree that the proposal made by Deputy Kenny for a commission on teaching would be a valid way to resolve the dispute quickly given that it is something to which all the teaching unions could subscribe? Will the Minister respond specifically to that Fine Gael proposal, the first proposal which has the capacity to resolve this dispute which is, potentially, exceptionally damaging for young people?
Ms Shortall: The Minister keeps repeating the PPF as a mantra in spite of the fact that the ASTI has rejected the latest proposals. Given this reality, is the Minister prepared to take political responsibility for the dispute, which is denying children the right to an education? Will he, as a matter of urgency, come up with an alternative  proposal with a forum in which to address the issues of concern to teachers?
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): On a point of order, I tabled a private notice question to the Minister for Education and Science on the teachers' dispute, but it was refused. Given its importance, I also asked for an emergency debate on the issue, but that was also refused.
Dr. Woods: —the PPF provides for a reduction in tax of 10%. This has not been disputed by any of the parties to the agreement, which provides for an increase of 19.2% in salaries, giving a total improvement in take-home pay of 29.2%. As a result of last night's development, this figure has been increased to 32.6%.
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