Wednesday, 12 March 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
My Department has two items of legislation for the 29th Dáil, the National Economic and Social Development Office Bill 2002 and the Interpretation Bill 2002. I have instructed my officials to commence work on the heads of a Bill to effect the transfer of responsibility for local State solicitors from the Office of the Attorney General to the Director of Public Prosecutions. This is one of the last outstanding recommendations of the Nally report, produced by the public prosecution service study group.
The Taoiseach: I would like it to come before the House soon. The office is working on a non-statutory basis at present, but I would like it to be established on a legislative basis, especially in the interests of the staff involved. The Bill will be brought forward when the House is ready to deal with it.
Mr. J. Higgins: Will the Taoiseach clarify a reply he gave to a question I asked during the last discussion on legislative priorities? It referred to the Government's plans on controlling the price of building land and outlawing the speculation which has taken place to such an outrageous degree and which puts in total jeopardy the right of people to purchase a home. This is because the owners of land banks decide to speculate and make a fortune.
Mr. J. Higgins: It relates to the question on the legislative priorities for the current Dáil session. Does the Taoiseach intend to bring forward legislation to control the price of building land? I have been asking him this for the past six years. Will he stop the speculators who are making it impossible for young people to purchase a home and who are continuing to reap the outrageous profits they have been reaping?
Mr. Sargent: The Ceann Comhairle is certainly limiting the range of supplementary questions. I wonder if it is in line with the precedent in the House because, in response to previous questions on the legislative programme, the Taoiseach certainly took the liberty of talking about the whole national question. He dealt with the North, partnership talks and some legislative programmes of other Departments. Is he allowed to extend his remit beyond his own Department although the Opposition is not?
Mr. Sargent: I feel the Taoiseach would have legislative priorities that go beyond his Department. Given the phenomenon of climate change and that we are 80% reliant on imported fuels, the Taoiseach should be interested because this will have an impact on every Department, including his own. Is greater urgency being accorded to the type of remedial action needed? A completely different economic outlook is required given that the Kyoto Protocol will lead to enormous fines being imposed on this country.
Mr. Kenny: Does the Taoiseach think it is appropriate that legislation should be passed through the Oireachtas when neither of its sponsoring Ministers is present? I refer to the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003, which is now being taken in the Seanad.
Mr. Kenny: My question refers to the priorities for the remainder of the current Dáil. The Bill is a legislative priority and is being dealt with in the Seanad although neither sponsoring Minister is present.
Mr. Kenny: I am asking the Taoiseach, as somebody who has been around here for almost as long as myself, about the practicality and mechanics of dealing with legislation when neither of the sponsoring Ministers is present.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has made comments about the establishment of committees of inquiry and about the introduction of mandatory identification cards. Neither of these two suggestions appears on the legislative programme. Have they been considered and approved by the Cabinet? If so, when will the relevant legislation be brought before the House?
Mr. Kenny: I will abide by the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle but, with respect, one of the Taoiseach's legislative priorities is to amend the Freedom of Information Act. Both Ministers sponsoring the Bill are out of the jurisdiction. Does the Taoiseach think that is appropriate?
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: My question does not refer to the Taoiseach's Department and it was worded very carefully. It asks the Taoiseach to outline his legislative priorities for 2003 and for the remainder of the 29th Dáil. I would have raised some of the questions that have already been posed, but I wish to raise again one which was asked throughout the term of the 28th Dáil and which was, at times, greeted with mockery and derision.
I find it absolutely intolerable that the ground rent Bill is on the programme of the 29th Dáil again although the Taoiseach has absolutely no intention of bringing it forward and making it the priority that it should be for so many who are suffering the consequences of this Government's and previous Governments' failure to tackle this very important issue – I challenge the Taoiseach to clarify the position. This issue affects communities and urban areas not only in my own constituency but throughout the country. Will the Taoiseach make the ground rent Bill a priority of the Government in the course of the 29th Dáil? When exactly will he do so, rather than offering the glib, dismissive responses that we received to questions on this important legislation in the past?
Mr. Quinn: Does the Taoiseach see any distinction between the role of individual Departments, such as the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Environment and Local Government, and his own Department in respect of legislative responsibilities, or are they all equal? Is he equal to every other Minister in terms of the constitutional operations of the Republic? That is at the core of what we are asking.
The Taoiseach: The Taoiseach is the head of Government. According to my understanding of the rulings of the Chair, I discuss proposed legislation during parliamentary questions and I answer for the Government during the Order of Business.
Mr. Quinn: Unlike the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of the Taoiseach has a co-ordination and managerial role in respect of all legislation. Notwithstanding what has been stated in the past, inquiries about legislative priorities, such as that of Deputy Joe Higgins, constitute perfectly legitimate parliamentary questions to the Taoiseach. Members of the House will be aware that the Taoiseach can establish the legislative priorities of the Cabinet and order time through his Minister of State to give legislative proposals oxygen in this Chamber. On that basis, does the Taoiseach accept he has a unique role in articulating the Government's legislative priorities, not just those which emanate from his Department?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Quinn is correct. On the last day I answered questions regarding the  Government's programme, I responded with regard to a range of areas. As I understand it, the Chair's ruling was made in the context of the formulation of questions. It was not my ruling.
Mr. Quinn: This is important. I ask the Chair to note the Taoiseach's clear indication that a question on the legislative programme of the Government phrased in a particular way must be responded to citing its rank in terms of priority. For example, the Taoiseach would be expected to articulate whether a ground rents Bill is as urgent as the abolition of freedom of information.
The Taoiseach: Deputy Quinn has attended questions to the Taoiseach long enough to know exactly how the matter is dealt with. Deputy Joe Higgins referred at the beginning to a debate we had here, but he formulated his question differently.
The Taoiseach: That is not a matter for the Deputy to comment on. I am not required to have all the detail a Minister would, but it is usual for me to answer questions. When discussing social partnership, I answer across a range of areas from the perspective of my co-ordinating role. A ruling of the Chair was made today and that—
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The ruling to which the Taoiseach referred related to questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, which relate specifically to his Department's legislative priorities. Questions Nos. 4 and 5 put by Deputy Kenny and me, respectively, make no such reference, nor did the Ceann Comhairle rule on my question. The baton was passed to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle who is in a position to make a judgment, but has not ruled. I asked the Taoiseach his legislative priorities for 2003 and the remainder of the 29th Dáil. Is a ground rent Bill a priority for the Taoiseach in this Dáil term or during the course of the 29th Dáil? The responses we received between 1997  and 2002 indicate that the Taoiseach does not intend to address this important issue seriously. If his position is different, I ask him to correct the impression I have been given.
Mr. Rabbitte: In the context of his legislative priorities for the remainder of this Dáil, does the Taoiseach intend to promote any amendments to the Constitution? Are there any legislative proposals to assert the primacy of the public good over private property to alleviate the housing crisis and reduce the price of land?
The Taoiseach: That is a priority area for the constitutional review group and the Department of the Environment and Local Government. I have engaged in a number of discussions with the Attorney General to discover how best to tackle this issue. I have done a certain amount of work and it is clear that much more is required. The legislation involved will not come from my Department, but it is a priority of mine.
Mr. Rabbitte: Is it the Taoiseach's intention to bring forward measures in the lifetime of this Dáil? He seemed to say there will not be legislative measures, but I am not sure this matter can be addressed without them, whether it is by constitutional amendment or otherwise. Does the Taoiseach think the discussions to which he referred will be concluded halfway through the life of this Government at which point the issue I raised will be dealt with?
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