Thursday, 8 February 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Taoiseach: The Order of Business is as follows: No. 5, Carers Leave Bill, 2000 – Second Stage (Resumed); No. 6, Criminal Justice (Illicit Traffic by Sea) Bill, 2000 – Order for Second Stage; No. 1, Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [Seanad]: Second Stage; and No. 51, Statements on the Report of the Joint Committee on Education and Science on Science and Technology, to be taken not later than immediately following the announcement of Matters on the  Adjournment under Standing Order 21 and the order shall not resume thereafter. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that proceedings on No. 51, if not previously concluded, shall be brought to a conclusion at 4.45 p.m and the following arrangements shall apply: the statement of the chairperson of the Joint Committee on Education and Science and the main spokespersons of the Fine Gael and Labour Parties shall not exceed ten minutes in each case and the statement of each other Member called upon shall not exceed five minutes and Members may share time.
Mrs. Owen: Yesterday we regretfully accepted the Chair's ruling which did away with the policy allowing Opposition party leaders to raise topical matters of interest on the Order of Business which were not necessarily related to legislation. I asked at that time that an immediate effort be made to amend the Standing Orders so that this morning we could continue with that practice. The Government has shown a marked reluctance to deal with this matter, which primarily affects Opposition parties. It is a right we gained that we have now lost. The Government is showing great reluctance to call a meeting of the necessary committee and to agree a motion. The Fine Gael Chief Whip, Deputy Flanagan, has tabled a very fair amendment to Standing Orders which has been circulated. I ask the Government to agree to that amendment to Standing Orders so that the procedure allowing Opposition leaders to raise matters of topical interest can resume. Obviously it cannot resume today but it should be in place for next Tuesday. If this continues it will be an effort to silence the Opposition and a clear indictment of the Government for wanting to do so.
Mrs. Owen: Deputy O'Flynn should be quiet. He knows where he is sitting. Will the House agree to the amendment tabled by my party so we can proceed to restore the rights the Chair bestowed on Opposition parties which he felt he had to withdraw yesterday? It is not fair to those who elected us if the Opposition is silenced, as the Government is trying to silence us. Government Members can amend the Standing Orders again once they are returned to Opposition if they wish but we demand that this right is restored to the Opposition immediately.
Mr. Quinn: On the same topic, it is clear from the Chair's response to my letter yesterday that he has completely misunderstood the position of the Labour Party. I want to clarify the matter in relation to what Deputy Owen said and what the Chair wrote to me. My party does not feel it has a difficulty in participating in the work of the  Committee on Procedure and Privileges sub-committee on Dáil reform. We are resolutely refusing to co-operate with the charade of Dáil reform on one hand while at the same time the Fianna Fáil component of this Government wants to tear up the rules regarding general elections, rules that were agreed in this House. They want to have the capacity to raise not £2 million but £3 million from corporate donations and elsewhere going into the next election. Because of the revelations from the tribunals and the ongoing disrepute into which politics has been dragged by some members or former members of Fianna Fáil, this party refuses to co-operate in the charade of Dáil reform on the one hand through this so-called sub-committee while at the same time the Minister for the Environment and Local Government wants to tear up the rules that have governed very effectively and fairly the last five by-elections in this State. As the language used in the Ceann Comhairle's letter states that we felt we have some difficulty in participating in that Dáil sub-committee, I wanted to apprise him of our real position on this lest there was any lack of understanding.
Mrs Owen: Two Members on this side of the House suggested to the Chair yesterday that until such time as the Standing Order is changed perhaps he would reconsider his ruling yesterday and allow that procedure to continue, which I hope would be only for a matter of a few days until the Government wakes up to its responsibility. In the meantime he is unwittingly silencing the Opposition in its role here, which I know is not what he is trying to do. Given the reluctance of the Government to agree the amendment of this Standing Order, perhaps the suggestion made by Deputies Bruton and O'Keeffe yesterday would be one he might reconsider today and communicate with us on it.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): I strongly support the idea that the Opposition is allowed to raise questions of major importance of the day with the Taoiseach and that the Government is obliged to answer them. People around the country support the idea that urgent issues should be raised immediately with the Government and that we should have an immediate response to them. The proposal by Fine Gael is completely unacceptable to—
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): I lay down the marker that it continues the privilege extended to  only Labour and Fine Gael. That there are other voices in this House, those of Deputy Healy, mine and others.
Mr. Sargent: I wish to add the Green Party's voice to the feeling emerging that when Deputy Owen speaks, she does so as if she is speaking on behalf of all the parties in Opposition, but that is not the case. There is a need to be inclusive. The Chair might take that into account, as it is not in order for one person in Fine Gael to speak on behalf of all members of the Opposition.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I appeal to the Chair to restore the status quo that applied up to this week, as in that environment people will be much more prepared to discuss a change. If the existing facility to the Opposition is withdrawn, that will put the Government in a position to dictate whether there will be a new Standing Order and, if so, its terms. I beg the Chair to allow the parties to discuss the new Standing Order starting from the status quo, which is the one that applied up to yesterday. If he does that, he will provide the atmosphere and the environment whereby each of the parties will be encouraged to carry out his suggestion, which I emphasise is very good one, that we should make sure that the rules conform to the practice. I urge him to do that. If he does that, I am convinced there will be no difficulty in getting the Standing Order agreed.
Mr. Rabbitte: I support the request from Deputy O'Keeffe that the status quo should obtain until such time as what Deputy Quinn suggested would be given an opportunity. For a variety of reasons, this House is seen by those outside it as not being relevant. With all due respect to you, Sir, if this measure proceeds, it will shut down the relevance of this House, diminish its status and its ability to raise issues of current interest that are being discussed everywhere outside this House but under this ruling may not be raised within it. With respect, it would be absurd if we cannot raise issues of topical interest as they arise spontaneously in this House. Anything other than that is a diminution of the stature of this House. We have always done that with the Ceann Comhairle's distinguished predecessors and with him until quite recently. I do not know  the provenance of this measure. It is most unfortunate. I ask the Ceann Comhairle to rethink it.
An Ceann Comhairle: The business of this House is conducted in accordance with Standing Orders and that is the way it must continue. The Members determine Standing Orders; the Chair only implements them. The Chair does not introduce or change them.
Mr. Flanagan: I do not wish to disagree with what the Chair said about Standing Orders. It is precisely because of that we in Fine Gael drafted an appropriate Standing Order, which would meet his suggestion that topical matters should be allowed. When he introduced the latitude that was enjoyed by Members, he did so in consultation with Members. There was a feeling on the part of Government and its representatives that this was an attempt on the part of the machinery of this House to allow for topical matters to be raised to make this House a little more relevant to the people outside it. In the course of the debate yesterday, the Taoiseach indicated and volunteered to the House that he is spending too much time here and answering too many questions. He does not want to be accountable to Members of this House.
The Taoiseach: A number of Deputies have spoken on this matter and I have listened attentively. There are a number of inaccuracies in what has been said. The first major one is that none of the Chair's distinguished predecessors allowed this system that the Chair introduced. What Deputy Rabbitte said about that is entirely inaccurate.
The Taoiseach: The Chair brought in a system which he believed was appropriate to the modern operation of the House and I totally supported it. I was the first Taoiseach to operate under those rules. I did so and I would always follow not only Standing Orders but also the precedents of the House, which the Chair and his distinguished predecessors have built up in practice. This measure was one the Chair introduced and I complied fully with it day in and day out for the past number of years. The Chair formalised that measure  in a number of statements. I would be glad to do that again in the future, as per the Chair's ruling. The Chair's ruling was abused many times and everyone has watched that happen, but I have continued to comply with it irrespective of what happened.
The Taoiseach: The Ceann Comhairle made a new ruling and new suggestion yesterday, that this matter should be debated and resolved, as I hope many other issues on Dáil reform put forward by the Fine Gael Party, the Labour Party, other parties and the Independents will be. As the Chair suggested yesterday, the Government parties have called a meeting for next Tuesday at which the Government is prepared to discuss and agree that and other issues.
Mrs. Owen: The Taoiseach has said this can be discussed next Tuesday but that is only a method of burying these proposals behind a fog of all such other changes and doing down the Labour Party in its right to—
Mr. Quinn: The Taoiseach referred to accuracies and inaccuracies. I want to confirm, to avoid any misapprehension, that the sub-committee meeting convened for Tuesday next, 13 February, will not be attended by the Labour Party—
Mrs. Owen: This morning we heard what could be referred to as the Nairobi fudge from the theoretical Minister for the Environment and Local Government when he said he was in charge in theory of the waste management problem in Ireland. Regarding No. 54, the waste management (amendment) Bill—
Mrs. Owen: Why has the Government only promised publication of that legislation in mid-2001? This means the earliest it can be discussed is late 2001, if at all, and that the totally unsatisfactory nature of the waste management system in Ireland will worsen. What is the Minister for the Environment and Local Government doing in his Department? He has not kept any of his promises. Two years ago, he said a tax on plastic bags would be introduced. He is now suggesting that matter will be dealt with in the Bill. What is he doing and why is he in Nairobi instead of here dealing with this crisis?
Mr. Sargent: Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to communicate with the Minister on the  proposed waste management (amendment) Bill since he left for Nairobi? The Taoiseach told the House that the Finance Bill would be the vehicle for the introduction of the tax on plastic bags, a proposal which goes back to early 1997. Is the Taoiseach clear that the Minister does not have different ideas from him regarding waste management? Will the Taoiseach outline the matters on which the Government agrees given the chaos in the waste management area?
Mr. Gilmore: Will the Taoiseach clarify whether the proposed tax on plastic bags will be included in the Finance Bill, as he announced, or in the waste management bill, as announced by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government on the radio this morning? In the programme circulated to Members, the publication date for the Waste Management Bill was indicated as mid-2001. On the radio this morning, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government stated that the Bill would be published this session. Will the Taoiseach clarify if the Bill will be published this session? In which Bill will the tax on plastic bags be included?
The Taoiseach: I said last autumn that the tax on plastic bags would go ahead and that it would be included in either the Finance Bill or the Waste Management Bill – whichever could be progressed the quickest.
The Taoiseach: It is the view of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government that the waste management bill, which was scheduled to be introduced around May or June, should be brought in sooner. He wants to introduce the Bill ahead of schedule and he is endeavouring to ensure that happens. If that is the case, it would be more appropriate to include the tax in that Bill.
The Taoiseach: While the Bill is scheduled for the summer, the Minister hopes to introduce it sooner. As I said on two occasions earlier in the week, he intends to make a comprehensive statement about all these matters shortly.
Mr. R. Bruton: Regarding the publication date for the Finance Bill, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has urged us tog out in the national colours in relation to the criticisms by the EU. However, many people are conscious of the difficulties in the IT and housing sectors that are causing niggling doubts about the economic strategy being pursued by the Government.
Mr. R. Bruton: I want to hear what the Taoiseach has to say about the sin-binning of the Government on this issue. Major issues are at stake and perhaps the Taoiseach could indicate the approach that will be taken in the Finance Bill to try to satisfy the concerns of Europe and our national needs.
The Taoiseach: The Finance Bill will be published this day week and it will contain the measures put forward by the Government. A number of the issues raised by the Deputy hopefully will be dealt with in that Bill.
Mr. Quinn: Does the Taoiseach still have confidence in the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in light of what he did not say yesterday and what is in the newspapers today?
Mr. Quinn: Yes, because the Minister of State will bring forward legislation to deal with the crisis in the beef industry and is responsible for dealing with the proposed ban on T-bone steaks. He is responsible for legislative measures on the Order Paper, including the FEOGA payments. He is one of the Ministers in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
Mr. Naughten: Regarding the terrible accident in County Louth yesterday, I wish to express the sympathy of the House to the families of the three young people involved. Will the Taoiseach be specific about when the road traffic Bill will  be introduced? The legislation is now 18 months behind schedule. Has the Taoiseach any plans to introduce legislation to outlaw company cars such as the one involved in the accident in County Louth?
Mr. Penrose: Will the Taoiseach request the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to immediately establish a task force in the Moate area in view of the impending loss of 64 jobs at the Dawn Dairies plant?
Mr. Finucane: Following the tragic death of Ross Davies in a canoeing accident in Dunmore East, I moved the Second Stage of a Private Members' Bill on 30 and 31 March 1999 – the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Water Safety) Bill, 1998. The Minister at the time accepted the spirit and intention of the Bill and said he would introduce legislation. Will the Bill be in place for Easter this year?
Mr. O'Shea: Bearing in mind that the final draft of the consultants' report on the RTE application for a £50 licence fee increase is to be with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands by tomorrow at the latest, will the Taoiseach give the House an undertaking that there will be an early decision on this application?
Mr. Power: It is only appropriate this morning that we should acknowledge the contribution of Deputy John Bruton to political life, both as Taoiseach and Leader of the Opposition, and to wish him well in the future. While we wish our colleagues well in their endeavours over the next 24 hours, let us hope they are not too successful in case it might give some of the disgruntled comrades similar options.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): I presume the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is in Africa to get used to the heat which will come on him in a real way on the waste management issue before long. On legislation, every year a scandalous 10% of children leave schools in the State functionally illiterate, which in the 21st century is an outrage.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): That is not due to the teaching profession but to under investment in education. A commission on the education system was flagged this morning. Is legislation to come before the Dáil in this regard and will the Government guarantee definitive action on illiteracy in particular?
Ms McManus: Last year by way of resolution this House passed the terms of reference to establish the Lindsay tribunal to investigate the infection with hepatitis C and HIV of haemophiliacs, many of whom have died. We now find that the Minister for Health and Children is hiding behind his legal advisers, despite the fact that the terms of reference clearly require him to provide full disclosure of all documentation to the Irish Haemophilia Society. Will the Taoiseach state now—
Mr. Martin: No, but it is very important because we put this on the record the other night in the House. It is very disingenuous and unfair to bring out a distorting perspective on this issue. The judge, who is the chairperson of that tribunal, has put on the record that the Department and everybody else have been fully co-operative and we have done nothing, and will do nothing, to hinder the full discovery of the truth.
Mr. Quinn: I would not like him to stand in a position where he did inadvertently mislead the House. My colleague, Deputy McManus, has pointed out that by waiving privilege the Minister for Health and Children can give additional information to the tribunal. Is that not correct?
Mr. Sargent: I tried to respond about a dozen times. I was going to ask about one Bill but I feel I have no choice but to ask about at least three to find out where the EPA report published today, which is quite scathing on discharge of waste waters and bad management in that area, will be dealt with. Can the Taoiseach tell me if it will be in the water services Bill? When will the EPA (Amendment) Bill be published? If there is a new publication date for the waste management Bill,  what is it? The matter will be in one or other of those Bills but I would like to know which one.
May I also ask about the rail safety Bill? Given that the Minister has published a consultancy document today, will that include a customer charter also? It would be appropriate that customers as well as the Minister have confidence in the public transport system.
The Taoiseach: On the environmental protection Bill, the heads of that Bill have been approved and the Bill is in draft form. The heads of the railway safety Bill are expected shortly and the Bill should be ready some time in the middle of the year.
Ms Shortall: —the Government promised to establish that office during 2000. We are now well into 2001 and there is no sign of legislation for an ombudsman of children. Will the Taoiseach tell us the reason for the delay in bringing forward that legislation and at what precise stage is it? Has the Cabinet agreed the heads of the Bill?
The Taoiseach: The Childrens Bill is long-published and is before a select committee. The heads of the ombudsman Bill were approved last spring and the Bill has been in the line for drafting. It is due, as the Deputy will see from the schedule, in the middle of this year.
Mrs. Owen: I will try to be in order given that this is probably the last morning I will face the Ceann Comhairle from this seat on the Order of Business. I may do it another time but probably not from this seat. I am sure the Ceann Comhairle will be relieved to hear that. That is why I hoped he might have been nice to me this morning.
Mrs. Owen: We northsiders must ensure that some of these cultural facilities remain on Dublin's northside. What will the Taoiseach say about that because the public is concerned and it is a topical issue?
The Taoiseach: I am not sure what will happen and I know it is not my business, but I thank Deputy Owen for her courtesy in the position she has held many times over the past three and a half years and wish her well in whatever position she holds next week.
The arts Bill is due late this year. The heads of the Bill are expected to be cleared before Easter and I am sure the other issue raised by the Deputy will be well aired before that, here and elsewhere.
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