Tuesday, 12 December 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for Education and Science (Dr. Woods): The Order of Business today shall be as follows: No. 18, motion re powers of Joint Committee on Health and Children; No. 19, Supplementary Estimates for Public Services – Votes 19 and 21; No. 1, Fisheries (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 2000 [Seanad] – Second Stage; and No. 45, financial motions by the Minister for Finance, 2000 – motion 4, resumed.
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that: (1) the Dáil shall sit later than 8.30 p.m. and business shall be interrupted not later than 10 p.m.; (2) Nos. 18 and 19 shall be decided without debate and, in the case of No. 19, the Supplementary Estimates – Votes 19 and 21 – shall be moved together and decided by one question which shall be put from the Chair and any division demanded thereon shall be taken forthwith; (3) Second Stage of No. 1 shall be taken today and the proceedings thereon, if not previously concluded, shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. tonight. Private Members' Business shall be No. 112 – motion re BSE.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There are three proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for the late sitting agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with item No. 18 and Supplementary Estimates agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with item No. 1 agreed? Agreed.
Mrs. Owen: Will the Minister say what it will take to have the teachers' strike discussed in the House? Will he not intervene in a way which will ensure that students, after eight days of no classes, will not go into the new year getting ready to fill in their CAO forms and preparing for their  oral and aural examinations with the threat of many more strike days? Will he ask the ASTI if it will consider a suggestion made in a letter from a principal of a second level school to a newspaper today that it enter the PPF until next September and that the Minister fast-track the benchmarking so that teachers will see his bona fides in what comes out of the benchmarking and ensure that classes are not disrupted after the Christmas holidays? Clear discussion and intervention by the Minister is needed to ensure that students, who are much more vulnerable than adults, are given their right to education.
If ever there was a time when a motion under Standing Order 31 should have been allowed it is today. We are going into recess at a time when a major teachers' strike is hanging over students as they go into the last lap before their examinations. It is extraordinary that we cannot discuss this matter other than through the special arrangement where leaders can raise it.
Mr. Quinn: On the same topic and within the framework of Standing Orders, does the Minister for Education and Science, who coincidentally is taking the Order of Business on behalf of the Government, intend, before the Dáil goes into recess and we go into the new year when the House will not be accountable to the public and the Minister will not be accountable to the House for five of six weeks, to come into the House during Government time to engage in a proper question and answer session which will enable the House to establish what action, if any, he will take in relation to these matters? The public has a right to know and it is our responsibility to ensure that the Minister is accountable not only to us but, through us, to the public, particularly parents and pupils, who have a right to know what action will be taken to avoid the threatened chaos which would do irreparable damage to an entire generation of young students.
Dr. Woods: Unfortunately, the teachers were not prepared to work within the PPF and wanted 30% on the table outside the PPF and to talk about the PPF after that. We advanced through various discussions to last week when we met again. I assured the ASTI chief executives that the Government and partners were working in the context of the budget to deal with the issues raised by Deputy Quinn and the issue raised by Deputy Owen about fast-tracking benchmarking. The partners have agreed a means of bringing forward benchmarking and it has been brought forward. They have also agreed a means of dealing with the drift in inflation. These two issues were difficult ones for all the partners but they were resolved last week. That resolution has been welcomed by all the parties.
I wrote to the ASTI today – I have been in contact with it virtually daily. The impression has been given that I am not prepared to meet it. I previously said in the House that I was in contact with it and was prepared to meet it and it was a question of when it considered it appropriate to meet me. As the Deputies know, we subsequently met. We now have the outcome of the discussions with the partners and the budget, so I wrote to the ASTI today to tell it I was disappointed and dismayed at the decision to escalate industrial action and to include more strike days and a ban on co-operation with the junior and leaving certificate examinations.
Dr. Woods: I again explained the improved pay terms of the PPF following last week's budget and the benefits to ASTI members. Under the new measures the salary of a new recruit will increase from £18,990 to £24,743, an increase of £5,733 over two years. In the case of a principal of a medium-sized school, this amounts to an increase of £9,950 to £55,987. This is the effect of the PPF, which I do not think is widely understood. This is before the benefits of the benchmarking process.
 I said that we must make every effort to resolve the dispute in a mutually satisfactory and acceptable way in the interests of students. I invited the ASTI to contact me to arrange a meeting without preconditions to find a way to resolve the dispute in the interests of pupils and their parents.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Before the Deputy asks her question, I want to point out that it is recognised on the Order of Business that the leaders of parties – the Deputy Leader is filling in for her Leader – are allowed ask a relevant but brief question. I expect the Minister to give a brief reply.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As I said, leaders may ask a relevant but brief question and I expect the Minister to be brief when replying. As pointed out clearly by the Ceann Comhairle on many occasions, it cannot develop into a debate. I will take brief supplementary questions from Deputies Owen and Quinn and a final reply from the Minister.
Mr. Kenny: Last week the Chair made a ruling whereby Deputy Bruton as Leader of the Fine Gael Party was allowed to ask questions on this matter and Deputy Shortall, who is not yet the leader of the Labour Party, was entitled to ask questions as her party's spokesperson on education. Why is that, Sir?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The reason the Chair made that ruling last week was that Deputy Quinn was unavoidably absent through no fault of his own. His mother had passed away and I felt that in those circumstances, where he would normally have been here but could not be, it should be allowed.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Howlin yielded to Deputy Shortall but it was at the Chair's discretion and the Chair would not have accepted it in other circumstances except in the circumstances I have outlined.
Mrs. Owen: I was quite willing and asked if I could yield to Deputy Kenny today because our leader is unavoidably absent because of President Clinton's visit. I did not want to argue with you because I knew Deputy Howlin was in the House last week when Deputy Shortall was allowed to speak. I asked if I could yield to Deputy Kenny and you forbade me from doing that. If we have a rule, it should be evenly applied across the House. It is important.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: While a supplementary question by a leader is allowed, it should not give rise to debate. I would like Deputy Owen and Deputy Quinn to ask brief questions and the Minister to reply. We will then move on to other items on the Order of Business.
Mrs. Owen: At least we have 57 Members here. Does the Minister accept that his efforts to date,  feeble as they are, have not brought this dispute to an end? Will he consider the proposal made by our spokesperson, Deputy Kenny, to set up a commission which would examine all the aspects of teaching and the issues worrying and causing anxiety to teachers, parents and students alike? If the Minister set up such a commission, he might at least make some innovative suggestions which could be the ingredient to bring this strike to an end. It is reiterated in the same letter to which I referred in The Irish Times. Deputy Kenny's proposal has been suggested by that school principal as well. What has the Minister done that is innovative and proactive to bring this strike to an end rather that just—
Mrs. Owen: —cast out an invitation to the ASTI to meet him as if he was in another country. Deputy Woods is the Minister for Education and Science and he has it in his power to bring this dispute to an end.
Mr. Quinn: Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for facilitating the House in this procedure. The country is extremely concerned about this matter. Will the Minister for Education and Science give an undertaking that the Government will establish a commission on teaching and related practices, as outlined four weeks ago by Fintan O'Toole, similar to the commission established on the nursing profession, with a view to breaking the impasse between the Minister and the ASTI?
Dr. Woods: The first day the ASTI came in to me it said it did not want benchmarking because it was too slow and would not deal with the issues that were there in the first instance, such as inflation.
Dr. Woods: On behalf of all the teachers, I pressed the partners, as did the INTO and the TUI, to deal with those issues. I was as satisfied as they were when those issues were dealt with because they affect all workers, all 236,000 public servants. I am very concerned about the children at this stage.
Dr. Woods: The benchmarking process is one which can deal with any of these issues as widely as is required. That is the interpretation and understanding of the benchmarking. It is also an entirely independent body – I would like to make this very clear because there have been various comments on this. If I can find a way around the measures in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to bring everybody together, I would be very happy to do so.
Mr. Allen: I would like to ask the Minister about the future of the National Community Games. Because of a Government decision, their future is in jeopardy. At a time when we are building a national stadium that nobody really wants—
Mr. Gilmore: Will the Minister for Education and Science clarify the position for the House in relation to the local government Bill? The Taoiseach told us last week that Second Stage would be taken early in the next session. Apparently, the Fianna Fáil Party has rebelled at the contents of the Bill. The Minister has apparently threatened to withdraw it—
Mr. Quinn: Will the leader of the Government today indicate which of the remaining 15 Bills listed in section A have yet to be published and when they will be published? They were promised for publication by the end of this session.
Dr. Woods: The Housing (Gaeltacht) (Amendment) Bill, 2000, was published on 24 October and the Irish Film Board (Amendment) Bill, 2000, was published on 3 October. The  Vocational Education Committee (Amendment) Bill is expected before Cabinet tomorrow, and I assure Members it will be before Cabinet tomorrow. The Carers Leave Bill is expected before Cabinet on 13 December. The National Training Fund Bill was published on 17 November. The Part-Time Workers Directive Bill is expected before Cabinet on 13 December.
Dr. Woods: We are busy most days. We are highly productive and more productive than some others when they were in office. The record will show that. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill is expected before Cabinet on 13 December. On the Road Traffic Bill, the Department dealing with that Bill is experiencing some delays.
Dr. Woods: The Appropriation Bill was published on 11 December. The ICC Bank Bill was published on 18 October. The Courts and Court Officers Bill will be published during the Christmas recess. The Human Rights (Incorporation of European Convention) Bill will be published after the recess. The Private Security Services Bill is expected to come before Cabinet on 19 December. The Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill, 2000, was published on 3 October. The Postal (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will not be published before the recess. The National Stud (Amendment) Bill has been published – it was not promised. The Fisheries (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 2000, has also been published. The latter two were extras provided in the period.
Mr. Kenny: A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you are like a good barman, it is hard to catch your eye near closing time. Does the Minister for Education and Science intend to amend the Education Act to allow for flexibility of results in the leaving certificate examination, given that thousands of students have been denied an education?
Mr. Timmins: Several weeks ago on the Order of Business the Taoiseach and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, during a Private Notice Question, gave a commitment to set up a compensation fund for flood relief. I believe such a fund has been set up and that applications to obtain compensation had to be submitted to the Red Cross by 8 December. As I have been given to understand that payment will not be made before Christmas, will the Minister ensure that payment is made before Christmas? Will he agree to extend the date for some people who may not have submitted claim forms?
Mr. Rabbitte: In respect of the National Training Fund Bill which is going into Committee and is being fast-tracked through the House on Report Stage tomorrow and given the Government's commitment to social partnership, is the Minister aware that the joint industrial training committees are being abolished by the Tánaiste and that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions—
Mr. Rabbitte: This Bill is being fast-tracked through the House tonight and will go directly on to Report Stage tomorrow. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to speak to the Tánaiste about taking on board the reasoned amendments by the Opposition.
Mr. Howlin: May I ask the Minister for Education and Science about the Electoral (Amendment) (Donations to Parties and Candidates) Bill, 2000, which was deemed to have been passed by this House on 1 December. There is an order on today's Order Paper for its referral to a committee of the House. Will the Government facilitate the ordering of that motion without debate so that the committee can begin its consideration of that Bill?
Dr. Woods: This is a Private Members' Bill. As the House will be aware, the Taoiseach is bringing forward a major package in relation to this matter. This Bill will be taken fully into account in that context.
Mr. Sargent: I apologise for not being here earlier – the visit of President Clinton caused an amount of disruption to other Members also. Maybe there is a need for legislation in relation to the ASTI dispute but some peace process might be appropriate for the Minister for Education and Science. A letter in The Irish Times gives a certain blueprint.
Mr. Sargent: Legislation which is in order relates to the damning report from the Environmental Protection Agency on water quality in today's newspapers. It shows that 38% of the group water schemes are contaminated with e.coli and 8% of local authority water has excess levels of fluoride. We were promised a month ago that the Water Services Bill would be before the House early in 2001. Will the Minister indicate how early in 2001 that might be? Will it be at the start of the year rather than in the summer?
Mr. R. Bruton: May I ask about two items of  legislation? Will the Minister explain the reason for the delay in setting up the compensation fund for victims of child abuse? We understood the Minister would treat this as a matter of urgency in view of the pressure on people appearing before the commission. However, we have not heard proposals or suggestions of heads of a Bill. Will he clarify also whether it is his intention to introduce legislation to provide for a referendum to deal with the outcome of the Nice intergovernmental conference at the weekend? Will he clarify the time schedule of such a referendum, and if it is the Government's intention to hold one?
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): Yes. In view of the hardship for ordinary people caused by the impossibility of purchasing a home, particularly the pressure on those dependent on private rented accommodation, will the Minister give a definitive timescale for the legislation promised to deal with the problems experienced by those in private rented accommodation, such as exorbitant rents, no security of tenure and resulting massive pressure on their lives? When will we have legislation to control the rampant landlordism in Dublin and elsewhere and to give some defence to ordinary people who are waiting for this legislation?
Mr. Hayes: The abolition of ground rent Bill was first proposed by that revealing and championing Minister, Deputy Woods, in 1997. When are we likely to see this Bill, which was proposed by the Minister to the House with cross-party support? This is widely regarded as one of the most reforming pieces of legislation in the history of this House. When are we likely to see this Bill before the House?
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