Thursday, 15 November 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Taoiseach: The Order of Business today shall be No. 23a, Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [Seanad] – Financial Resolution; No. 24, motion re Electricity Regulation Act, 1999 (Eligible Customer) Order, 2001, returned from committee; No. 50, Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [Seanad] – Order for Report and Report and Final Stages; No. 51, Residential Institutions Redress Bill, 2001 – Second Stage (resumed) and No. 51a, Statements on Afghanistan, to be taken not later than 2 p.m. and the Order shall not resume thereafter. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that Nos. 23a and 24, shall be decided without debate and the Report and Final Stages of No. 50 shall be taken today and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 12 noon 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 the Marine and Natural Resources; the proceedings on No. 51a, shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.30 p.m. and the following arrangements shall apply: the statements of a Minister or Minister of State and of the main spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party, shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case; the statement of each other Member called upon shall not exceed ten minutes; and Members may share time.
Mr. Sargent: That is not agreed to. I oppose this because the Electricity Regulation Act, 1999 (Eligible Customer) Order, 2001, is to be taken. Before that is done we should hear from the Ministers for Public Enterprise and the Environment and Local Government about their cloak  and dagger move to exempt mobile telephone masts from planning regulations.
An Ceann Comhairle: Is the proposal for dealing with Nos. 23a and 24 without debate, agreed to? Agreed. The second proposal is the proposal for dealing with No. 50, Report and Final Stages of the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [Seanad]. Is it agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 51a, statements on Afghanistan, agreed to? Agreed.
Mr. Noonan: I would like to wish every success to the Irish soccer team in Tehran this afternoon. They have been unlucky on a number of previous occasions and I hope they are successful this time. While speaking about sporting matters, will the Taoiseach comment on the assertion by the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation that the Sports Campus Ireland project will go ahead as planned despite the fact that his colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, cannot provide money for 365 primary schools any more, that there are no sports halls in 65% of primary schools and 50% of secondary schools and that the Minister for Finance announced last Sunday that projects in the national development plan would not go ahead? Is Sports Campus Ireland going ahead as planned?
Mr. Quinn: Will the Taoiseach illuminate the position of the Government following the replies given yesterday by the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, and in particular his reply of 4 October, which said the report of the so-called independent consultants on the viability and acceptability of the project would be published before any decision is made? A decision has been made in advance of the publication of the report. Can he ensure the report will be published in conjunction with the Estimates later?
The Taoiseach: Unfortunately, the capacity will have been reduced to 22,000, 100,000 less than the number of people supporting our opposition later, before anything is built. I still wish the team well. I have nothing to add to what the Minister  for Tourism, Sport and Recreation said yesterday during Question Time. As the House will be aware, Stadium Campus Ireland must go through the planning process and so on and it will probably be 2004 before any significant expenditure is required.
The Taoiseach: In the meantime the Minister for Education and Science has spent four times that which the previous Government spent on schools while the Minister for Health and Children has doubled expenditure and, I hope that will continue.
Mr. Farrelly: How much money will the Government have to spend next year? The Taoiseach should ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, because he wants everyone to leave the country.
The Taoiseach: Thankfully, while we are not bound to significant investment for a number of years, in general in regard to sport we have moved from a position where we spent less than £13 million annually to acceptable levels of funding for sport and community organisations. We still have a good deal to do in this area and I hope that continues throughout this decade.
The Taoiseach: When the project is finally approved by the Government, the expert report will have to be taken into account. They are seeking an analysis of a number of things that we should wisely do. The Government will have to do those things. The phasing of the project is based on whether there is a campus and other facilities. There is plenty of room for manoeuvre in phasing it. It is sad that it will take some years to provide these facilities. It is an awful pity that we do not have them. Even in an enlarged EU Ireland will still be the country at the end of the decade with probably the worst sporting facilities, which is an indictment of all of us.
Mr. Quinn: Is the Taoiseach aware of the contents of the report published by the Refugee Council yesterday? Its main points are: “Expectant mothers living in hostels under the direct provision of the Government policy are malnourished, babies suffer ill-health—
Adults go hungry to feed their children out of a welfare allowance of £15 a week. Different dietary needs of people of different nationalities are largely ignored in hostels. Hostels are chronically overcrowded with entire families living in one room. Teenage boys and girls have no privacy and usually have to share rooms with their parents. Children lose respect for parents who are allowed little influence over their own or their children's day to day lives and needless repression and intimidation by staff is a feature of some life in our hostels.
This is the direct result of a Government policy which the Taoiseach admired when he was in Australia. Will the Government continue with this shameful system of treating human beings? If not, what course of action will be taken in its stead?
Mr. Noonan: Does the Taoiseach agree the rights provided to all citizens under the Constitution also apply to everybody who is resident in Ireland, including asylum seekers? What steps will he take to vindicate these rights on behalf of this much set upon minority in our community?
The Taoiseach: I agree we should be very mindful of people's constitutional rights and human rights, if they are not citizens. This country arguably has the most liberal immigration and asylum regime. I heard about the report overnight and I asked the relevant sections for their views this morning. They refute claims made by the Irish Refugee Council in the latest document, “Beyond the Pale”, regarding asylum seeking children and social exclusion in the State. I am informed that the sample that forms the basis for the report is 43 families in Limerick, Cork and Ennis, of which 30% were living under direct provision. Therefore, it was a very small sample.
However, accommodation providers and other companies engaged by the State are required to ensure that all accommodation centres comply with and operate in accordance with all statutory requirements of local authorities and other agencies in regard to planning, building by-laws, bedroom capacity, food, food hygiene, water supply, sewage disposal, fire precautions and general safety. All the planning requirements and statutory regulations are observed and in circumstances where asylum seeking parents and children are accommodated in centres operated by the agency, RIA, particular emphasis is placed on meeting their needs.
When I contacted the relevant section earlier I was told the costs are provided in each reception and accommodation centre where infants are accommodated and toilet and bathroom facilities are provided in accordance with whatever are the relevant statutory requirements. The memorandum agreement stipulates that as a minimum cots, which were mentioned in the report, infant formula, infant food, access to fresh water for the preparation of infant formula, sterilisers sufficient for a number of infant children, water boiling facilities, refrigerators, microwaves and bottle warmers must be provided.
The inspectorate unit within the RIA conducts regular detailed inspections of each location where asylum seekers are accommodated. Any diminution in standards which comes to light as a result of such inspections is treated very seriously and can lead to termination of contracts where that is deemed to be warranted. There are also safety nets in place where for medical or social reasons asylum seekers have been taken out of direct provision by community welfare officers. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs pays benefits when that happens.
The Taoiseach: The Office of Public Works is trying to improve and acquire better accommodation all the time. There are difficulties sometimes. Many Members know what happens. People in their constituencies take legal action to prevent accommodation centres being established and many cases are before the courts currently. However, that view is not taken in other constituencies. That is a difficulty but accommodation is available and significant moneys are being invested in this area and in controls. The view of the people who are doing their best in this area is that the report is entirely unfair and unjustifiable.
Mr. Quinn: Do I take it the Taoiseach's view is that the independent report compiled by three academics, Dr. Brian Fanning, Dr. Angela Veale and Ms Dawn O'Connor, has been rejected by Government sources and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform as being biased and unscientific? Does he feel ashamed that a respected, independent journalist could begin a report in the following way: “If a parent did to any other child what the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform does to the children of asylum seekers, the social workers would be called in“?
All if not most of the problems identified in this report could be solved if asylum seekers were allowed to work in this country. This is the view of the Catholic bishops, it is the view of my own party, it is the view of the Taoiseach's partners in Government and I suspect it is the view of many of the Taoiseach's backbenchers. It is vigorously opposed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and by the particular Minister who heads up that Department. Surely the Taoiseach with his wide itinerary which enables him to visit anywhere in the country could visit some of these asylum seekers and verify for himself whether his version or this version of the truth is the correct one? Will the Taoiseach at last recognise that the fundamental human right of any person is the right to work? Many of the problems identified would be resolved if asylum seekers were given the right to work and the consequent dignity that comes with that. They would then have the independent resources to feed their own children – children who are identified as being malnourished under the provision of the State in the year 2001.
The Taoiseach: I will. I could give details of the numbers of staff who have been assigned under the Refugee Act to process the applications for asylum in order to bring the work down to manageable proportions. I believe that by the end of this year they will be down to a six month period and they have been struggling to achieve that over the last few years. There are now over 610 staff if I recall correctly compared to the 20 who were there four years ago. When asylum seekers have gone through the internationally recognised process they can then be treated. We have the most liberal immigration policy in the entire world and that is something to be proud of. No other country allows that a child born in the country to somebody who arrived that day is regarded as a citizen. Nowhere else has even thought of that.
I have visited the hotels in my constituency that have been purchased by the State to accommodate asylum seekers. I believe there is more accommodation provided in my constituency than elsewhere because my constituency does not take the attitude of people in other constituencies who run to seek a judicial review and legal action in order to stop them because they think there is something wrong with them. Sin ceist eile.
If there are problems and difficulties then, as Deputy Noonan said, we should ensure their constitutional and legal rights. We are spending £150 million and we will spend more next year. We will continue to provide resources for asylum seekers. We should be proud of the liberal attitude taken by this country rather—
An Ceann Comhairle: That is a statement. The Deputy should ask a question on legislation. The Deputy is being disorderly and must resume her seat. I will call the Deputy again but the Deputy is disorderly on this occasion and must resume her seat.
Mr. Gilmore: The list of legislation includes a communications regulations Bill which is to update the regulatory framework in light of full liberalisation of the telecommunications sector. It is expected to be published next year. May I ask the Taoiseach if he would persuade the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to withdraw the regulations he has prepared which will allow telecommunications companies erect telephone masts without planning permission? This matter was discussed at the—
Mr. Gilmore: My question is about legislation which is due to be published, we are told in 2002, yet the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is introducing by ministerial order through the back door a regulation which will allow telecommunications companies to erect masts without planning permission. I ask him to withdraw that and include it in the legislation—
The Taoiseach: The Bill for communications regulations is to provide for the extension of certain powers of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation. It will provide an update in light of the forthcoming full liberalisation of the sector. The regulations referred to are a restatement of the current regulations in relation to telecommunications and other regulations necessitated by the provisions of the Planning and Development Act.
Mr. Browne: (Carlow-Kilkenny): Ceann Comhairle, I know you share my concern for our constituents in Carlow-Kilkenny. Will the Taoiseach give a progress report on the dispute in the Sugar  Company? His Minister of State made great efforts yesterday—
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): In the last 24 hours the country has been absolutely scandalised as it has come to light that rampant land speculation in south Dublin has resulted in a demand of up to £90 million to the local authority—
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): It is just a brief preamble. Other speakers had much longer preambles. I was just drawing breath and you are down my throat. The question relates to promised legislation. The Fianna Fáil Party rezoned this land that is now the subject of this profiteering. Will the Taoiseach introduce as a matter of urgency the Greater Dublin Area Land Use and Transport Authority Bill in order to curb this type of profiteering and to take this outrageous speculation out of the picture and off the back of the taxpayers?
Mr. Farrelly: Does the Taoiseach or the Government intend to introduce new legislation or amend existing legislation in relation to the construction industry where 30,000 people face losing their jobs by Christmas?
Mr. Rabbitte: Today is the last day for holders of bogus non-resident accounts to settle their affairs with the Revenue Commissioners under the Statement of Practice. Will the Taoiseach agree to have the Minister for Finance make a statement in the House and allow for questions  on the matter and where an assessment can be made?
Mr. Sargent: I am minded to ask about the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty Bill in light of the High Court decision in London this morning. This decision is disappointing from Ireland's point of view in relation to the MOX plant case.
Mr. Sargent: Does the Taoiseach have any response to that court judgment? Will he bring forward the legislation on the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty more quickly than originally proposed? I understand it is a short Bill and it would help Ireland's cases against the Sellafield plant if it was enacted. The treaty on non-proliferation could be used as another basis for a legal challenge. Will the Taoiseach speed up the introduction of that Bill?
Mr. G. Mitchell: The VHI was given approval in February for an increase of 6.25% and a further 9% in July. During the passage of the Bill relating to health insurance, the Minister prom ised to introduce health insurance regulations to give effect to equalisation, which affects both BUPA and the VHI. Given that there will be a 15% increase today in costs—
Mr. G. Mitchell: Will the Taoiseach ensure the regulations are introduced next week so that the House will have an opportunity to highlight this issue because a 20% increase in health insurance premia is unacceptable?
Ms Shortall: In view of public concern about the increasingly thuggish behaviour of many bouncers working in nightclubs and pubs around the city and the complete lack of regulation in this area, will the Taoiseach explain the reason for the delay in introducing the Bill relating to private security services? When can we expect Second Stage to be taken?
The Taoiseach: I answered a question on that matter a few weeks ago when I understood the Bill was to be taken in November. The Bill has been circulated and is ready. I will raise the matter with the Whip but the Bill was due to be dealt with in November.
Mr. Quinn: Regarding the abortion referendum Bill, which is still on Second Stage in the House, will the Taoiseach confirm reports in today's newspapers about the conduct of the business relating to it? It has been reported that Second Stage will be guillotined next Tuesday and that, contrary to a commitment given, Committee Stage will not now take place in the Chamber and the Bill will be assigned to a committee of the House.
Mr. G. Mitchell: We were given to understand that Committee Stage of the Bill would be taken in the Chamber and that there would be plenty of time to discuss Second Stage. Will the Taoiseach confirm that extra time will be provided for Second Stage, if necessary, and that Committee Stage will be taken in the House as promised?
The Taoiseach: Yes, and that is why we gave it much more time. Over twice the average time, even for a complex Second Stage debate, has been given to the Bill. It is correct that this time was given to it and we promised that would be done, but it will conclude next Tuesday night. In relation to how Committee Stage is dealt with, as Members are aware, this issue has been around for the past four and a half years in one form or another. I stated that I wanted the Bill concluded by Christmas and I will speak to the Whip about how it will be taken. However, I want the Bill completed in the Oireachtas by Christmas. I gave that commitment and I want to stick to it.
Mr. Quinn: This matter has been the subject of a special Dáil committee and plenary hearings with interested parties. The Bill contains a unique provision whereby the primary legislation will be locked into the Constitution. Once it is enacted, and if it is ratified by the citizens of the Republic, it can never come back to the House. For those reasons, this is not ordinary legislation. It is appropriate in legal and legislative terms that this matter, which is unique in terms of the way it proposes to provide for legislation as distinct from amending the Constitution, is taken in the Chamber. This would enable every Deputy to participate in the debate and also ensure that the media give it the correct level of attention which, due to a lack of resources, it cannot give to the committees.
The Taoiseach is reneging on a fundamental commitment given to all Deputies and parties in the House that there would be an opportunity to tease out and debate the detail of the legislation, as distinct from the proposed amendment of the Constitution, on Committee Stage. I ask the Taoiseach to rethink his reply. My party will sit late if necessary to facilitate the rest of the Government's legislative programme. If time is a factor, we should order extra time to facilitate the type of debate in the Chamber that is required because the matter will never come back to the House.
Mr. G. Mitchell: I ask the Taoiseach to consider that point. The purpose of the Bill is to amend the Constitution. The House rarely deals with such Bills and if the legislation is sent to a select committee, all Members will not have an opportunity to attend the proceedings, table amendments and debate the Bill in the same way as they would if Committee Stage was taken in the Chamber. In addition, the media do not have  the ability to cover all the committees of the House. I ask the Taoiseach to comply with the undertaking that was given and to ensure that the Committee Stage is taken in the Chamber.
The Taoiseach: I have listened to the Deputies' points, but they heard what I said. I want the Bill through before Christmas. Some 35 amendments have been tabled already by the Fine Gael Party and they will take a considerable amount of time to process. The possibility of referring the Bill to a committee is being considered to ensure sufficient time is available for it. Our view is that approximately eight full days could be provided for the Bill if it was dealt with by a committee. I do not see how the same amount of time could be worked into the House's schedule. The media have no problem covering committees and I thank them for that.
The Taoiseach: The media cover committees extensively. They cover all major Bills to the best possible extent and they will certainly cover this Bill. I will talk to the Whip but it is a question of time.
The Taoiseach: The Bill must be completed by Christmas and we can work out the time for the Committee Stage debate. Occasionally Members argue that Bills should be considered by committees so that more time can be given to discussing issues in the House. We are also having difficulty scheduling Friday sittings.
The Taoiseach: I will speak to the Whip and work out what can be done. However, my position is that I want the Bill passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas by Christmas. I do not care where the Committee Stage debate is taken if adequate time can be provided for it.
Mr. Higgins: (Mayo): At a time when jobs in the IT sector are being shed at an alarming rate and young highly qualified and motivated graduates are being let go on a daily basis, many of whom must emigrate again, what is the reason for the delay in introducing the Bill to provide for the establishment of a digital hub agency? This agency is urgently needed and long promised.
The Taoiseach: I understand the Bill is almost complete and is due to be circulated this session. The heads of the Bill were completed approximately four months ago. It is awaiting a drafting session but it should be introduced this session.
Mr. M. Higgins: What legislation is anticipated during the lifetime of the Government in the area of broadcasting, particularly in relation to digitalisation, which we were initially promised would be addressed in the Broadcasting Bill? Will there be separate legislation to deal with broadcasting in the Irish language?
Mr. Broughan: Is the Taoiseach aware that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government abolished whole tranches of the 1955 city and county managers Act and failed to introduce regulations under the Local Government Act, 2001 which completely hold up Deputies like Deputy Pat Carey and myself on the city council?
Mr. Bell: At Tuesday's meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, Members questioned the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment and Local Government on the results of the Supreme Court judgment on refuse collection and asked when legislation would be introduced in this regard. He replied that this was a matter for the Minister. Is it intended to introduce legislation to deal with this matter?
Mr. McCormack: Following on an earlier question, if the Taoiseach insists on sending the constitutional amendment Bill into committee, will all Members be entitled to attend that committee and, if so, will that not be the same as debating the Bill in the House?
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