Thursday, 18 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Tánaiste: It is proposed to take No. 16a, motion on membership of committees; No. 16b, motion on referral to joint committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann for a Council framework decision on simplifying the exchange of information and intelligence between law enforcement authorities of the member states of the European Union; No. 16c, motion on address by the Honourable John Howard, MP, Prime Minister of Australia; No. 16d, motion on arrangements to facilitate address by the Honourable John Howard, MP, Prime Minister of Australia; No. 18, Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 — Second Stage, resumed; and No. 19, statements on Transport 21, resumed, in accordance with the Order of the Dáil of 2 March 2006.
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that Nos. 16a and 16b shall be decided without debate; that Nos. 16c and 16d shall be moved and debated together and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 24 minutes by one question which shall be put from the Chair. The speeches shall be confined to a Minister or Minister of State and to the main spokespersons for Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Technical Group, who shall be called upon in that order and who may share their time, and shall not exceed six minutes in each case.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: It is not agreed. I wish to speak to the motion on referral to the joint committee of the proposed approval by Dáil Éireann for a Council framework decision on simplifying the exchange of information and intelligence between law enforcement authorities of the members states of the European Union. I object to this matter being taken without debate. I acknowledge that it has been the practice heretofore to refer matters to committee without debate. What is involved is a further working out of the Hague programme that has been in place since 2004 but has yet to be addressed in this House.
We have had no substantive debate on the Hague programme in any shape or form in this Chamber. That is a serious omission on the part of the House. Irrespective of where people may stand with regard to the specific proposition here, and that can only present itself in full debate, there is the principle of the import of this House properly addressing the Hague programme.
With respect to the circularisation of the detail, it came with no COM reference number. Taken with all the other material circularised it creates confusion and makes it very difficult for people to properly prepare either for committee or for an opportunity to speak in the House. That is a technical deficiency.
The bigger issue and the principle is that we have yet to have a full and proper debate here on the Hague programme. That must take precedence before any further referrals of motions arising therefrom. I object to this motion being taken in the way suggested by the Tánaiste, and I urge her and the Chief Whip to properly note the need for that debate in this House as a matter of urgency.
Mr. Sargent: No. While we appreciate the opportunity to speak on the motion, we must record our opposition to the way in which the arrangements have been made which sees a number of party leaders, myself included, not being given the opportunity of meeting Prime Minister Howard of Australia. That is at variance with precedent.
I recall meeting on the same basis as other party leaders, Prime Minister Blair and former President Clinton. I am reminded by my colleagues of the Green Party in Australia that it would expect this country to afford equality to Prime Minister Howard in terms of facilitating a meeting with the Green Party here. Senator Bob Brown and my Green Party colleagues in Australia will have more to say on this issue. It will reflect badly on Ireland that it sees itself in such a partisan fashion, and it reminds us of some of the partisan politics we are trying to get away from, and which have bedevilled Australia as well as Ireland and other countries in the past. We should ensure censorship does not take place for the visit and cause rancour.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I do not have a problem with the motion per se but record my agreement with Deputy Sargent on the absence of parity of esteem shown to the various political groupings represented in this House. We must defend at all times the right to equality of opportunity and that has been denied to a number of political parties, including Sinn Féin, in the proposals before us.
Mr. M. Higgins: The announcement and the arrangements for this visit were made without the necessary diplomatic preparation or consultation with other Members of this House. They were also made without any serious consideration as to the purpose of the visit, which is unsatisfactory. When people have addressed this Chamber in the past there has been quite a long preparation so that people understood the purpose of the visit. We will have a six-minute opportunity when we come to discuss the motion to express our views on what the content of the exchange with the Prime Minister should be, but the preparations for the visit and the manner in which it was announced are quite unsatisfactory. There has been an elaborate ritual involving directives, orders and other such things as to how people will parade in and out of the Chamber, and the formation in which visitors will sit, which is always very impressive and dates back to Leonardo Da Vinci. It is important, however, that an inkling be given in advance as to the purpose and intent of the visit. I do not mean to be discourteous but any visit should be better and more thoughtfully arranged, with greater respect for this Parliament.
Mr. M. Higgins: I read about it in the press before there was any communication from the Minister or the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. It may well be that the Government wishes to do it in this way but I am perfectly entitled to remind the House that both previous visits were organised differently. I make my suggestion for the purposes of propriety.
The Tánaiste: I understand the CPP met to discuss the arrangements for this visit and that they were unanimously agreed. Furthermore, the Chief Whip agreed there would be a debate in the House this morning, at the request of Deputy Stagg and the Opposition.
Mr. Kenny: Deputy Rabbitte yesterday asked the Taoiseach a question, to which he answered that the former chief executive officer of Aer Lingus wished to steal the assets of the State company. The Tánaiste has often complimented Mr. Willie Walsh for the condition in which he left the company. Does the Tánaiste share the view of the Taoiseach as expressed in his statement yesterday? Is that the Government view?
I refer the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to rulings and precedents of the House. One example reads: “Members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such way as to make him identifiable, as he is defenceless against accusations made under privilege in the House”.
Mr. Rabbitte: That is a ruling which has been enforced on many occasions by predecessors of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Standing Order 58 reads: “A member shall not make an utterance in the nature of being defamatory and where a member makes such an utterance it may be prima facie an abuse of privilege, subject to the provisions of this Standing Order”. It goes on to state the Ceann Comhairle should intervene, but he did not. I have witnessed the Ceann Comhairle intervene in some of the most trivial causes in this House when the supposed offender was a Member of the Opposition benches. Why did the Ceann Comhairle not intervene on this occasion, nor leave any instructions with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to cause the Taoiseach to come to the House to put the record straight? For the Tánaiste to say the Taoiseach meant the former chief executive was trying to strip the assets of a State company only compounds the insult. The decision to sell Aer Lingus for a pittance is wrong but whatever it is worth, to accuse somebody of seeking to steal it was a serious abuse of privilege for populist purposes and electoral gain. That one of the Taoiseach’s colleagues, speaking on radio this morning, should explain it as an example of the Taoiseach praising the integrity of the former executives beggars belief.
I call on the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to address an outrageous breach of privilege on the part of the Taoiseach. No Member on this side of the House would have got away with what the Ceann Comhairle pretended not to hear.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair cannot review the decisions made by another Chair, including the Ceann Comhairle. Standing Order 58 gives the right of reply to anyone aggrieved. The ruling quoted by the Deputy has not been rigidly applied in view of the fact there is a right of reply.
Mr. Rabbitte: I accept the Leas-Cheann Comhairle cannot be expected to answer for the non-intervention of the Ceann Comhairle. I give notice that I intend to raise the matter with him. It is an entirely inadequate response to indicate that the aggrieved person may make a written complaint to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Taoiseach, in the time-honoured tradition of the House, should come into the Chamber and correct an outrageous, defamatory statement he made yesterday. I ask the Tánaiste, on behalf of the Government and her own office, if she agrees with the Taoiseach describing the individuals in question as thieves in the House yesterday.
Mr. Sargent: On the same matter, but on the Order of Business, if the use of the word “steal” does not reflect the Tánaiste’s perspective on the matter, does the statement made by Deputy Glennon on the radio this morning, when he implied that the word “steal” was used as a noun and Aer Lingus was, therefore, being sold for a pittance or was going for a song, reflect her perspective? Perhaps she will reflect on this because people in my constituency of Dublin North are under the impression that the company is being sold off without giving value to workers or members of the public. Perhaps the use of the word “steal” as a noun rather than verb, as suggested by Deputy Glennon, is closer to the Tánaiste’s perspective. This is how Fianna Fáil is trying to explain the matter. Does the Tánaiste share this view?
Mr. J. Higgins: Surely the issue here is the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Taoiseach who, while pretending to point out the greed of previous corporate executives who wanted to get their hands on the airline, is holding the door ajar for the corporate thieves, the biggest thieves in the international stock exchanges, who cannot wait to get their hands on our national airline courtesy of the Taoiseach and Government.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Is all this not indicative of the fact that the Government is starting to feel some discomfort at its decision to sell Aer Lingus? Is it not the case that the Taoiseach is at sea and cannot even properly prepare himself in terms of the language he is to employ? Is it not the case that the arguments, as presented by other voices in the House against the proposed privatisation of Aer Lingus, are starting to ring true in Government? While I do not expect the Tánaiste to be the first to realise the folly of the pursuit the Government is undertaking with regard to the future of Aer Lingus, I hope that on mature reflection — if that is possible — the Taoiseach and others in his party will recognise the folly of their decision not only to sell off but to discard our national carrier. This disgraceful intention is the most important issue, not word games about who stole or stripped what. The people are having their national carrier stolen from them by the very people they have entrusted to guard it.
The Tánaiste: The Government, as the shareholder, decided that a management buy-out was not the appropriate way to dispose of the shareholding in Aer Lingus and would not achieve the value we believe a market flotation would achieve for the company. The most appropriate——
Mr. Deenihan: In view of the fact that the Dalton report on procedures in Bord na gCon is the most leaked report in the history of the State, having featured in two articles in Sunday newspapers last weekend, will the Tánaiste ensure the House holds a debate on it next week?
The Tánaiste: The Attorney General advised the Government that before the report could be published, the individuals named in it would have to be shown the passages that refer to them and be given 15 days to respond. While it is regrettable that this report has come into the public domain in the manner in which it has, it is the intention to publish it after the responses are received and a debate will be held in the House, if required.
Mr. Stagg: Three weeks ago, when my party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, raised the matter of having a debate on the proposed sale of Aer Lingus, the Taoiseach gave an undertaking that the Whips would arrange such a debate at an early date. I have raised the matter at Whips’ meetings every week since but it has been kicked to touch. The rationale behind the decision not to grant a debate is that it would embarrass the Government. The only reason for not having a debate when one is promised is that a Minister is abroad or otherwise not available. However, as the relevant Minister is available, there is no reason to postpone the debate the Taoiseach promised in the House three weeks ago. I ask that it be held next Thursday given that there is time available.
Mr. Naughten: On promised legislation, in light of the fact that patients in the west, including dialysis, transplant and cancer patients, are not being provided with transport owing to a lack of funding — I know of a case of an 80 year old who must spend two thirds of her old age pension covering the cost of travel to a hospital appointment — will additional funding be provided to the Health Service Executive in the western region? When will the House debate the eligibility for health and personal social services Bill?
Ms Lynch: The housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill will allow local authorities to sell flats if the courts so decide, thus allowing tenants, some of 40 years’ standing, to buy their rented dwelling. The difficulty caused by the delay in introducing the legislation is that the cost of housing is increasing by an estimated 10% per annum and the prices of the dwellings in question are becoming prohibitive for such tenants. The Bill also proposes to give local authorities the right to deal with anti-social behaviour as part of what the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform describes as his efforts to create a safer society. When will the Bill come before the House? Must we wait a further three years?
Mr. Kenny: Has the Tánaiste, as Minister for Health and Children, examined the consequences of a European Court of Justice ruling on the liability of states regarding patients who must travel abroad for treatments? Will this ruling require her to introduce legislation?
SI 171 of 2000 dealt with the dissolution and revocation order of the National Rehabilitation Board and SI 170 of 2000 dealt with the transfer of property rights and liabilities order of the National Rehabilitation Board. On 12 June 2000 the board employed 184 members of staff, the majority of whom have not received their pensions for the past six years. Elements of those pensions are outstanding, including abolition of office, added entitlements and the retention of unco-ordinated status. After six years of legal contest in the courts, one of those employees has been awarded his full entitlements under the appropriate pension requirements. Having been approved for that person yesterday, those legal entitlements were also due to the 184 members who were employed by the National Rehabilitation Board on 12 June 2000. I know she may not have an answer now, but will the Tánaiste follow up on this matter to see that the legal entitlements of those former employees will be reflected in their pensions, so that the people concerned will not have to seek decisions in the courts?
Ms McManus: I support Deputy Kenny on the same issue. It is grossly unfair that people are being treated in this way. I ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to take an interest in this. Even though her Department has a responsibility in this area, the matter is being shifted to the Health Service Executive which has absolutely no responsibility for it. I ask the Tánaiste to address this issue which has gone on far too long. People have been seeking their rights for six years but have been treated shabbily and, ultimately, in a way that will cost the State money if it ends up in the courts again.
The Tánaiste: On the former staff of the National Rehabilitation Board, I will pursue the matter and come back to the Deputies about it. On the European Court ruling, I have asked my Department to prepare a brief for me on the implications and to discuss it with the Attorney General.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: On promised legislation, I raised the hepatitis C and HIV compensation tribunal (amendment) Bill here last week and received what I can only describe as an unsatisfactory response. The situation concerning this legislation is unclear, so perhaps the Tánaiste can clarify it. We have been waiting nine years for this legislation to be published. Many vulnerable people have been hurt over that period and are anxiously awaiting the advent of this legislation. Will it be published before the summer recess? What are the prospects of Second and further Stages being taken before the summer recess? I hope the prospects are good and that the Tánaiste can confirm it will happen. The reply last week which has been oft times trundled out here suggested that the Bill will be introduced before the end of this term which the Taoiseach has advised us runs until the beginning of the following term, which means the entirety of the summer passing by. To be specific, will we have this legislation before the summer recess so that it can be debated and moved forward?
The Tánaiste: I hope so. I understand I will have clearance from the Parliamentary Counsel to take the Bill to Cabinet in approximately two weeks. The intention thereafter is to publish it quickly and, with the co-operation of the Deputies opposite, to take it through before the summer. The Taoiseach made that clear to Deputy McManus earlier this week. I am quite determined to do that if I can.
Mr. Durkan: I wish to raise two issues, one of which relates to the Department of Health and Children. It concerns the Tánaiste’s continued reluctance to answer questions of a financial nature on the record of the House and to refer them instead to the HSE. When is it likely that she will accept full responsibility for the running of her Department and answer parliamentary questions in the traditional fashion to safeguard both herself, her Department and the State?
The second issue concerns the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The Tánaiste might be able to answer in this area. I refer to the unsatisfactory progress in providing broadband throughout the country, which has left some areas without a service or an indication of future service. As a matter of urgency, will the Minister call together all the service providers with a view to ensuring that a concerted effort is made, such as the dramatically successful one in Northern Ireland?
The Tánaiste: I take full responsibility for health matters but, clearly, operational issues have to be referred to the HSE. As Professor Drumm has made clear recently, the HSE is strengthening its parliamentary affairs division.
The Tánaiste: The intention is to improve the timeline as quickly as possible. As regards the second matter, broadband coverage has doubled and the Minister is making every effort to ensure that we catch up on broadband infrastructure.
Mr. Gogarty: On a previous occasion, I asked the Tánaiste whether the Government would consider introducing a refundable deposit on bottle and cans, which would have the almost immediate effect of halving the litter problem. Children and other offenders would not throw bottles and cans around if a 20 cent or 50 cent deposit could be recouped on each item. In her response, the Tánaiste said that such legislation was not possible because it would be illegal under the packaging directive. Subsequently, I tabled a question on this matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who clearly stated that it was not illegal under the packages directive. Therefore, I have two questions to ask. First, will the Tánaiste clarify the record of the House that a refundable deposit on bottles and cans is not illegal? Second, given that the litter problem continues to grow, will the Government consider introducing such legislation?
The Tánaiste: I may have said that it would be illegal to ban them under the packaging legislation. No legislation is promised concerning bottles and cans but the Deputy can take the matter up with the line Minister.
Mr. Crawford: In light of the fact that another review body has been established for the hospital region I represent, will the Tánaiste assure me that those concerned—consultants, doctors, nurses and others—will be contacted by that review group? In that respect, when will the nurses and midwives Bill be brought before the House so that we can debate it?
The Tánaiste: First of all, the legislation regulating the nursing and midwifery professions has nothing to do with the arrangements in the north east. I am quite certain, however, that the review group will talk to any interested party.
Mr. Broughan: Yesterday, the chief executive of An Bord Gáis said that a 40% rise in domestic and commercial gas prices is a certainty later on this year. We are facing double digit price rises in electricity, while petrol and diesel prices on the forecourts are moving relentlessly over €1.20 per litre. In that context, will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey to withdraw the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform withdrew the Criminal Justice Bill and come back to the House with an energy Bill which includes the views of consumers—both householders and businesses—on energy prices? At the moment, there is no input by householders or the business sector into energy pricing. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has not done anything over the past two and a half years to bring about any change in this regard. We are facing a disastrous situation concerning energy prices. Would it not be better for the Minister to withdraw the Bill and take it back to the drawing board?
Mr. Stanton: Why is there such a delay in publishing the Bill concerning persons who are considered unsafe to work with children? We were told two years ago by the Taoiseach that it was urgent but there is still no sign of it. Many people, including many Deputies, are concerned.
Mr. Boyle: I am glad my name is on the list. With regard to section D of the Government’s legislative programme, more than half a dozen Bills have been published and an order made for Second Stage in each case but no debate in the House has yet happened. The first of those Bills was published in 2002, which is a four year delay. It is an important Bill in terms of the growing levels of personal debt in this country. Why has this House not yet debated the Money Advice and Budgeting Service Bill?
Ms O’Sullivan: The second last report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, concerning property rights, made a number of recommendations which did not involve changing the Constitution yet there has been deafening silence from Government. I wish to ask specifically about proposals that land for schools could be bought at affordable prices, if necessary under compulsory purchase orders. Given the problems in the counties adjacent to Dublin with regard to the provision of schools, is there an intention to introduce legislation in this regard?
Mr. Stagg: On a related issue, there are instances in my county where because this legislation has not been passed, builders and landowners are blackmailing the community and claiming they will provide a school if 40 acres are zoned for housing. It is time to put a stop to it.
Mr. Ring: Important legislation is going through not this House but another House in America with regard to Irish illegals. Will the Tánaiste ensure the Government makes whatever diplomatic interventions can be made? I hope the Government will try to lobby in the next few weeks because this is the last chance for Irish illegals.
The Tánaiste: And so say all of us. The Government has, like members of all parties, to be fair, intensely lobbied United States representatives on this matter and I hope that lobbying will be successful.
Will the Tánaiste be precise on the timetable for the publication of the Dalton report because she was not precise in this regard? I accept that those referred to in the report need time to read it and perhaps reply. I am mindful that last year the exact same thing happened to the report into the infamous Gama Construction consortium, which finished up suppressed by order of the High Court when its publication would have assisted the struggle for justice by workers.
Mr. J. Higgins: The Committee of Public Accounts is awaiting the publication of that report before it has Bord na gCon in to ask it some hard questions. I want that to happen before the recess of the Dáil. Will the Tánaiste ensure the report is short-circuited? Those involved have had it long enough. Everybody except the taxpayer who has contributed so much to fattening the prizes of the greyhound races has had sight of this report. Will the Tánaiste give the House a precise timescale?
The Tánaiste: The timescale will depend on legal advice. If we are advised that we cannot publish without following due process and natural justice, that advice must be accepted by the Government. The Attorney General advised the Government that 15 days from a date last week would have to be given to the parties mentioned in the report. The intention of the Government is to publish the report thereafter and to have it debated in the House.
The Tánaiste stated that she is responsible for policy, not for the operational matters of the health services. Is it her policy to allow hospitals to charge individuals and their insurance companies for their stay on trolleys?
Mr. Allen: It is driving the premia of VHI and other insurance companies through the roof. The taxpayer is being screwed again, as well as suffering indignities. The Tánaiste should not stand over that type of policy.
Mr. Rabbitte: Can I raise one matter with the Tánaiste? Before I do that, I join with colleagues in wishing the men of Munster well. I ask the Tánaiste to drop a note to the leaders of the Opposition if the Taoiseach has any appearances arranged to comment on the match on any channels.
Mr. Rabbitte: With regard to the democratic deficit now operating in the health services, has the Tánaiste any intention of introducing legislative amendments to the Health Act establishing the HSE, given that there is not just no element of democratic control but no element of democratic accountability? We cannot get answers within any kind of reasonable period on any issue of any significance. Will the Tánaiste evaluate the performance of the legislation to date and return some element of democratic accountability to the House?
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