Thursday, 20 November 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy John Perry: I compliment Deputy Durkan on the outstanding work he is doing in European affairs. On behalf of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny I am pleased to present our second special report which deals with new EU legislative proposals. I thank the Whips for scheduling this debate today, and for their commitment to schedule further debates at least once a month. This point was well made earlier on the Order of Business by the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Enda Kenny. We have to connect our work directly with the issues that matter to people.
It is clear from the committee’s work that there is an enormous amount of material to be scrutinised in considering the legal framework of the EU. Already, more than 9,000 EU legislative measures are in place, and since 1973 Ireland has transposed 1,732 directives into Irish law out of a total of 1,751, equivalent to a transposition rate of 98.9%. More than 400 European legislative proposals per annum are laid before the Oireachtas and considered by the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. The volume of EU legislation and the significance of its impact on domestic policy in all areas mean that it is essential for the Oireachtas to have effective, robust and accessible procedures for scrutinising EU business.
When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, section 4 of the European Communities Act provided specifically for the Government to report twice yearly to the Oireachtas on European developments. Section 2(5) of the European Scrutiny Act 2002 strengthened this by providing that each Minister must individually report twice yearly in relation to EU legislation and other developments within their remit. This provision was meant to strengthen the ability of the Oireachtas to hold the Government to account for its role in agreeing new EU laws on Ireland’s behalf in the Council of Ministers.
Going back to 1973, the six month reports have never been actively considered or debated in the Dáil. That has drawn much critical comment from outside commentators. It implies a lack of interest by the Dáil in the detail of new EU laws. This is regrettable because EU laws have a major effect on the daily lives of our citizens. Surveys and polls since the Lisbon treaty have highlighted the public’s concerns about the level of public information and consultation on important EU proposals. It is against that backdrop that the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny sought this debate. The report, which is very detailed, contains separate reports from each of the 15 Departments. Those reports reflect the considerable work done by the Government in connection with Ireland’s membership of the EU. They also reveal the wide variety of policy areas involved.
Chapter 1describes the work of the committee. In Chapter 2 we draw particular attention to 11 major policy areas we identified where important EU legislation is being progressed — climate change, labour laws, energy, environmental protection, financial policy, Internal Market, aviation, telecommunications, justice and home affairs, CAP reform and the Common Fisheries Policy. That is a broad spectrum of directives that have a direct impact on Irish citizens. In this and future debates, I believe, we can hold the Government to account, and the people of Ireland will know well in advance of any new directive in future, which will be well debated. That will reduce the lack of concern among the public as regards lack of awareness on EU issues. I shall briefly deal with some of them.
Section 2.5 deals with financial policy. In the current economic climate, the public is looking for stability and reassurance that Ireland can manage its way through the current extreme downturn. Our membership of the EU has been vital in protecting us to some extent from the type of shocks that Iceland has faced.
Section 2.1deals with climate change proposals. The EU has set ambitious targets for reducing emissions. We sent those proposals to the Joint Committee on Climate Change which recently published a major report on the matter.
Section 2.7 deals with aviation proposals. This is an industry that enjoyed a boom period of growth but is being seriously hit now by the economic downturn. Other areas we highlight include changes in the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. This is very significant, when one considers the role played by the IFA, regrettably I believe, in the loss of the Lisbon vote. It led thousands of farmers up the mountain but was unable to bring them down, because of the lack of clarity on issues that affected so many people in terms of the enormous benefits the farming community has derived from Europe.
There was also a major policy report on the Common Fisheries Policy. This is a very detailed report and has been scrutinised and debated by the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. We have invited submissions from vested interests, all the NGOs and top civil servants and the report deals concisely with opinion within the Houses of the Oireachtas.
A table on page 12 of the report gives a good overview of the type of proposals the committee looked at. In the last six months we received 274 separate legislative proposals. This included 46 draft directives. Directives tend to be used for major legislation and offer each member state some room as to how precisely to transpose the law at national level. The report deals with subsidiarity and the role of national parliaments — the latter being completely lost sight of during the debate on the Lisbon treaty. If the treaty had been ratified our scrutiny committee would have far more power. As matters stand, without the ratification, we are still proceeding to scrutinise every debate. However, when one considers the increased powers the treaty was to confer on national parliaments and their entitlement to cross-examine and hold the EU to account, I have no doubt this is the model for the future.
Chapter3 gives details of the 16 reports the committee did on individual legislative proposals in the first half of 2008. They represent an interesting cross section of policy areas across a number of Departments.
In Chapter 4we have made three recommendations on how to improve the scrutiny process. The report has been circulated to each Minister and departmental Secretary General. It has also been sent to the Chairman of each sectoral committee. I hope it encourages a wider debate in other committees and in the public domain. We recently had a meeting with the Secretary General of the Department of Transport on her Department’s recent report. We intend to invite other Secretaries General to our meetings and this should raise the profile of the reports. We shall hold Departments to account as regards the transposition of EU directives.
There is general acceptance in this House that we need to up our game with regard to how we deal with important new EU directives. It is essential that the Oireachtas fully assesses these proposals and fine-tunes them before they are fully implemented. The Oireachtas cannot change EU directives once they have been transposed. There is no second chance so we must ensure we get it right the first time.
There have been numerous examples where major public concerns have arisen about EU directives, particularly with regard to how they were negotiated. I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, is in the House, because he is dealing decisively with this. The nitrates directive, charges for school water and criminal sanctions for fishery offences have shown up massive inadequacies in terms of how we deal with these matters.
We are also discussing this report at a very important time in Ireland’s membership of the EU. It is essential that we do not get it wrong again. The Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union is currently taking a detailed look at the role of the Oireachtas in EU affairs. When addressing the Minister of State I am speaking to the converted. We look forward to the report from the sub-committee next week and will carefully consider the recommendations it makes.
The committee appreciates the regular assistance it receives from all Departments in its consideration of EU legislative proposals. I thank my colleagues on the committee for their assistance in carrying out their important remit on behalf of the Irish people. There is little public awareness or media coverage of the work done in the Oireachtas and Departments to meet the obligations of Ireland’s membership of the EU. The committee is currently developing its own communications strategy and, as a part of that, sees the six-monthly reports as a major element of the accountability process. These reports have a wealth of information that can be used to show how important EU issues are in an Irish context and how much the Oireachtas and Government commit to representing Ireland’s interests in Europe.
The committee is strongly of the view that their reports on important EU matters need to be debated in plenary session and this is a very good start. I am pleased the Minister of State is present and I passionately believe in the involvement of Oireachtas Members in plenary session in the Dáil and Seanad to discuss critical issue in these reports. This report contains directives that will have an impact and the directives themselves should be discussed here. I have agreement from the Whips’ office that on occasion special reports dealing with a specific issue that impacts on Irish citizens can be considered here.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I thank Deputy Perry and I have already put on the record my appreciation for the patriotic work done by him and by Deputy Durkan and his committee. The manner in which the work of these committees is ignored, particularly by the national broadcaster, is scandalous. It is a matter of deep and grave public concern that an organisation supported by taxes to an extraordinary degree has completely ignored these committees.
I note the Press Gallery is empty. I hope someone in Ireland still cares about truth, accuracy and the right of the Irish people to know the facts. Deputy Perry and the committee have struggled long and hard, which I fully appreciate because before I became a politician I worked on scrutinising EU legislation in the Department of Finance. It is detailed and difficult work which is largely ignored by our national broadcaster. The national broadcaster claims the right to all of the broadcast tax on the basis that it fulfils a public service obligation.
I ask any fair-minded person in broadcasting, the print media or politics to compile the amount of air time given in recent weeks by RTE to the unelected leader of the Libertas organisation, who has no democratic mandate and little knowledge of EU law or processes, to either of the two committee chairmen present who are members of parties other than my own. I admire the efforts of the committees and in particular those of Deputy Perry. It is a national scandal that those efforts have been frustrated because the Irish people have a right to the truth, the facts and that an immense amount of good work is being done here. That right is being denied to them by a broadcaster that is refusing to fulfil its responsibility.
I thank the Members and the members of the Joint Committee on European Affairs for their work. The Oireachtas is playing an increasingly important role in the process of scrutinising EU legislation. It is important to have plenary sessions and to bring this issue into the open and discuss it. The people of Ireland should see the democratic oversight built into the process. I am pleased the report is being debated today and the failure to do so in the past is something for which we all bear collective responsibility.
There is a strong consensus in the Dáil and Seanad that greater scrutiny of EU measures and decisions is central to addressing the concerns of the Irish people about the EU. The people would be concerned if they were told by someone, courtesy of our national broadcaster, who demonstrated last week that he doe not have a clue about the legislative process, that the processes at work are undemocratic. They believe it because there is no counter point being put to them.
This report demonstrates that the Oireachtas has taken on new responsibilities and taken them to heart. Since these responsibilities have been taken on board there has been a step change in accountability and review in this House. The report demonstrates that the work of the committee is varied, wide and covers the spectrum of EU legislation. I welcome the manner in which the committee has sought to highlight and prioritise legislative developments, and the critical appraisal of myself and other Ministers because that is healthy. We live in a democracy which we should value and elevate. We should value those who work to ensure the democracy works.
The overview of the report outlines succinctly the developments of key national priorities such as energy policy, climate change, the Common Agricultural Policy and aviation industry. These are all areas where the European Union operates to the benefit of each and every citizen in the country. We are a small nation and can do little, despite our best efforts, on climate change but as part of, and at the heart of, the European team we can make a difference and change attitudes for which future generations will thank us. Energy security represents a major challenge for Ireland and is an area where the European Union can be helpful. Its work will only be improved by the work of Deputy Perry and the committee.
I commend the committee on the way in which the report highlights the manner in which the European Union negotiation and legislative process is carried out. It is incredible that people who have never sat at a European Council meting, a meeting of the Council of Ministers or been part of the negotiation process and would not know a permanent representative if it fell on them can get away with the mendacious statements and perversion of truth we have seen recently. There is nothing more open and transparent than the process of public servants, Ministers and ambassadors from each member state going through the process and having to come before an Oireachtas committee or its counterpart in another member state to review and scrutinise their work.
In Ireland the views of the Oireachtas have become central to the way we negotiate, deal with and interact with Europe and that can only be a good thing. Irish officials, public representatives and Ministers operating as a team can only improve matters for the country, yet all of this work is ignored or dismissed.
I listened recently to a person who proclaims himself to be Ireland’s next billionaire — God help us when one consider the business activities in which he has been involved — speaking against the elites. I am not part of an elite. I am an ordinary working class individual who worked and was elected by my constituents, and so are all 166 of us. None of us has a view of ourselves as part of an elite and if we did we would be cut down to measure by our constituents who have little time for the kind of aggression, bombast and nonsense we have seen in recent days, including today when one unelected individual decided to insult the Members of the Oireachtas and then walk out of a committee. In any country other than this that would be news and would be dealt with as it should be by the public being allowed to visit the opprobrium on the case that is well deserved.
The committee has produced 16 scrutiny reports. Perhaps I am unusual or have a sad life, but I have read them and they are models of clarity. With regard to the special report produced by Deputy Perry some time ago on how we should move forward with regard to scrutiny, I urge those who have not had the opportunity to read it to do so. It too is a model of clarity and shows how we can deal with the work of the Union.
The report is excellent in every regard. The initiatives underline the essential democracy and inclusive nature of our system of European scrutiny. It is vital now that we develop a better approach of communicating this. If we care about Ireland and its future within Europe —anybody careful of Ireland’s future must see that it is within the heart of Europe — we must learn to communicate better. The fault lies with all of us in that regard.
I am particularly anxious that there be increased public awareness of the role of the Oireachtas in EU legislation. If the channels of mass communication decide to ignore this House, they do a grave disservice not just to the House, but to democracy and the people. We should also make information more easily available and show how important are EU developments.
The main reason given for abstaining in the recent referendum was the lack of understanding or knowledge. This was also the main reason given for voting “No”. Can anybody blame the people for this? There is a letter published in today’s edition of The Irish Times and anybody who has not had the opportunity to read it should do so. The editor of a powerful newspaper based in the United Kingdom admits he was part of a campaign for a “No” vote. He is entitled to his views as is every citizen living in a democracy. However, there should be some sort of balance and fair play. Clearly, in that situation there was an instruction from head office this should not be the case.
We are working intensively to identify ways in which we can improve European issues and how they are communicated. We must get more co-operation, particularly from the national broadcaster. The idea that we can, as Deputy Rabbitte famously said some years ago, consign the discussion of democratic debate and consideration to beyond the witching hour, when only insomniacs and those who have rolled in from the pub are available, must be changed. It speaks volumes for where we stand and how dear we hold democracy that “Oireachtas Report” is on a par with or slightly behind “The Podge and Rodge Show”.
There is a place in democracy for informing the people and there is a need for the people of this country to be properly, honestly and truthfully informed. There is reason to drag us before the public and be critical of us when we fail. However, when we see, as we have seen today, two Oireachtas committees that worked long and hard to serve the country and ensure the Government is kept on line and that public interests are kept to the fore, get only a fraction of the time that unelected wealthy people who have the benefit of big PR budgets get, there is something fundamentally wrong. Our democracy is under threat if we do not have greater debate.
Deputy Joe Costello: I wish to echo the remarks made by the Minister on the importance of European affairs, both in the House and in the manner in which this is broadcast to the rest of the country. One of the complaints regularly thrown up is that there is a democratic deficit and we are failing to engage with citizens. In that regard, we must ensure that we debate the issues in this House in full plenary session so that the public is aware of what we are doing. We must also ensure that our national broadcaster treats the House and the European Parliament seriously.
Deputy Roche mentioned insomniacs with regard to the time “Oireachtas Report” is broadcast. Reports on the European Parliament are broadcast even later. The gamut of political broadcasting provided by our national broadcaster is relegated to after midnight, often after 1 a.m. We cannot stand over that. It is no good for the national broadcaster to come back, as it did in the sub-committee yesterday when its representatives came in to explain how it dealt with the Lisbon treaty, and say that it is not the most sexy material. The national broadcaster can package material and present it in a manner that makes it attractive.
We are aware of many programmes that have been made on politicians and politics and there is no reason we cannot have more attractive packaging of “Oireachtas Report” or of any reports coming through from the European Union. The national broadcaster should not simply say that it is fulfilling its national broadcasting remit when putting on something at a time when nobody will watch it. This is not good enough. It must examine its practice and statutory remit in this regard.
Today is almost European Union day in the House because besides having two committee reports being debated in the House, we have the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in Europe going on. I have been hopping in and out between the House and the committee. What is happening in the sub-committee currently is very enjoyable as George Hook, Bill Cullen, Professor Aldous and Eamon Dunphy are providing us with both information and entertainment. This compares well with what we had the other day when Mr. Ganley came in and arrogantly described us all as “elite bureaucrats”, despite the fact we were the only ones there who were elected by the people to represent them. We were presented in the propagandist, untruthful mechanism used by Mr. Ganley as being elite bureaucrats.
This morning, it was very unhelpful to see an organisation that had been invited to the sub-committee come in and grandstand. It came in not for the purpose of engaging with the committee but to say that what the committee was engaged in was an act of treason and that the committee was undermining the Constitution. Then the representative flounced out of the meeting and refused to engage. That is not democracy; it is elitism. How does that organisation represent the people who support its views if it is not prepared to put forward its arguments or the reasons for holding those views and campaigning on them? How does this represent the 2,000 volunteers it had working on the Lisbon treaty? What will they think about an organisation that is unwilling to engage in dialogue and debate the important issues relating to a referendum to amend and deal with the matters that concern the entire remit of how we live?
That said, I commend Deputy Perry on the good work he has done. He has been an excellent Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Scrutiny and has kept us focused on the work. We have produced a number of excellent reports, besides the one to which the Minister referred, on how we move forward with regard to an enhanced role for Parliament and parliamentary activity in the House and in the broader context of the European Union.
Our function as a committee is to scrutinise all matters that take place in the European Union on behalf of the people. As part of that process we scrutinise the activities of the institutions of the European Union and of our Government.
It is extremely important for the Council of Ministers, which is one of the most important formal institutions of the European Union, to be held accountable by Parliament as it conducts its business in the broader European context and that is the joint committee’s role. It is extremely important that it does so thoroughly, in a manner that is beneficial and which holds the Council to account. As a result, the joint committee put forward further proposals to enhance such parliamentary accountability. I have been pleased to learn its proposal to the effect that this House should give over at least one day per month to European Union matters has been improved upon by the Whips, who have agreed, as the Chairman of the joint committee pointed out earlier, that Dáil time should be made available on a two to three week basis, where possible, for EU motions or reports to be discussed in the House.
Deputy Joe Costello: This measure also should be replicated in the Seanad and could flower into a full engagement between the joint committee and the Houses on the matters that are so important to Ireland.
At present, although no one appears to be able to put a precise figure on it, the majority of legislation originates in the European Union with the Commission and one must come to terms with this fact. Domestically, this House is the legislative body and its function is both to scrutinise and to transpose. Consequently, Members must be engaged at every level as legislation comes through from the Commission and as it is presented to the various institutions and to this House for examination, scrutiny and finally, for transposition into law. Members’ task is to conduct their business in a thorough and democratic fashion on behalf of those who elected them.
I wish to take up a couple of the issues that came up in the six-month report on the Slovenian Presidency from 1 January to 30 June last. The Slovenian Presidency had two major objectives, the first of which was to get the Lisbon treaty enacted, passed and ratified in order that by the time the Presidency concluded, it would be part and parcel of the treaties of the European Union. Unfortunately, that has not been successful.
However, another priority of the Slovenian Presidency was to try to ensure it would deal comprehensively with the issue of workers’ rights before its conclusion. This was particularly true in respect of the temporary agency workers directive and the Slovenes succeeded in this regard. No countries still object to the directive, which has been discussed by Members many times. It pertains to a proposal presented by the Commission in 2000 that has been opposed by a certain number of countries. Such opposition came from a minority group of countries, of which Ireland was one. Although this issue eventually was ironed out during the Slovenian Presidency, unfortunately it proved to be a difficult backdrop to many of the debates that took place on the Lisbon treaty. It would have been preferable to have had ironed it out long before then. In the context of Towards 2016, it now will be transposed into law in whatever manner the social partners deem to be most appropriate.
However, the dragging of heels in this regard meant that Members had difficulty in arguing the case. The Millward Brown report demonstrates the largest single reason given for voting “No”, apart from those who did so because they did not know, was the issue of workers’ rights. I refer to concern in the public arena that there was a race to the bottom, that the Commission was neo-liberal and that there was no adequate protection for workers’ rights. Such concern was seen in an EU context, even though the European Union had compiled the directive and the Irish Government was delaying its implementation.
The same point can be made in respect of climate change. A journalist who reports on Brussels appeared before the joint committee and told members that in respect of environmental issues, which are held dear at present given the Green Party’s presence in government, Ireland has the second highest number of cases for infringement of environmental legislation in the European Union. My point is that the joint committee and this House must exercise an accountability role that will both scrutinise proposed draft legislation and amend it. However, the joint committee and the House also must ensure its proper transposition into legislation and subsequent implementation. Unless implemented, it is no use, just as one can produce legislation pertaining to crime which is not much use unless the Garda implements it.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Tá sé tráthúil go bhfuil an deis seo againn labhairt faoin dtuairisc seo. Tá sé ríthábhachtach go mbogfaimid i dtreo níos mó de reachtaíocht na hEorpa a phlé sa Teach seo, in ionad thíos sa phluais ina shuíonn na gcoistí. Ní fhaigheann obair na gcoistíaon phoiblíocht. Ní dhíríonn na meáin isteach ar an obair sin. Thugann na Teachtaí eile neamhaird orthu, don chuid is mó. Glacann siad leis go bhfuil gach rud i gceart thíos sna coistí. Tá siad sásta go bhfuil jab maith á dhéanamh thíos ann. Is breá liom an muinín atá acu ionainn. Measaim gur chóir go mbeadh níos mó plé sa Seomra seo sula gcuirtear reachtaíocht go díreach os comhair na gcoistí. Dúirt méé sin go minic sa Teach seo cheana. Muna féidir é sin a dhéanamh i dtús báire, ba cheart é a dheánamh nuair atá an coiste críochnaithe lena chuid cainte. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil athrúéigin, ar a laghad, ag tarlú sa chóras sin.
Tá sé deacair do Shinn Féin, mar phairtí beag, a ról iomlán a chomhlíonadh i gceart sna coistí. Déanann na coistí déileáil le raon mór reachtaíochta, as gach rannóg den Aontas Eorpach agus gach rannóg den Teach seo. Cé go bhfuil sé deacair dúinn oibriú mar saoithe ar gach ábhar, déanfaimid iarracht é sin a dhéanamh. Is é sin an fáth go mbíonn an oiread sin cruinnithe ann agus go dtagann an méid sin finnéithe os comhair na gcoistí. Sa deireadh thiar thall, ní féidir linn déileáil le gach uile cheist. Tá an iomarca ábhair ag teacht os comhair na gcoistí. Bíonn orainn brath ar na státseirbhísigh agus ar an eolas a chuireann siad faoin ár mbráid. Tá muinín againn go bhfuil siad ag tabhairt treorach agus an mhínithe ceart dúinn. Is orainn atá an locht má déantar botún. Measaim go bhfuil botúin déanta againn, mar thír. Mar shampla, ghlacamar le roinnt tograí dona a tháinig os comhair na gcoistí. Ní tharlaíonn sé sin mar gheall ar easpa eolais, uaireanta — tharlaíonn sé de bharr easpa toil pholaitiúil.
Measaim go bhfuil sé go maith go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ag tarlú. Lorg mé a leithéid de dhíospóireacht ar cheist na Gaeilge freisin. Tá súil agam go mbeidh na páirtithe éagsúla sásta lá na Gaeilge a eagrú amach anseo, uair sa bhliain ar a laghad. Is léir gur féidir leis an Teach seo moltaí, chun an tslí ina déanfaimid ár gcuid gnó a athrú, a ghlacadh nuair is gá. B’fhéidir go mbeimid in ann é sin a dhéanamh amach anseo.
The volume of EU legislation is so great that I do not believe the joint committee has adequate time to devote to each of the proposals. Anyone who attended the Joint Committee on European Affairs last term or the new Joint Committee on European Scrutiny understands this point. I urge other Deputies to examine the amount of documentation placed before us and the range of issues being addressed. While many of the matters are important, they get little or no consideration in the Dáil due to time constraints.
Given that committee members sometimes struggle with the various concepts being conveyed, we depend on advice. Without it, we would be swamped. Important decisions can be made without proper consideration or debate. Previously, by the time a matter was considered by the committee, the relevant date had passed. Thankfully, this has not been the situation recently and the committee is on top of its work. My contribution is probably not as great as possible, but I represent a small party and am trying to cover a number of areas. Sometimes, it is difficult to be in two places at once, but I have succeeded.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: From a democratic point of view, the amount of material before the committee is problematic. Like others, I urge that more resources be given to it and its members to address the range of issues and technical legislation with which it must deal. Most members can only give some of the topics a cursory glance, yet we are subsequently criticised if something slips through. While that is right in some ways, we cannot do everything.
In certain respects, the report is a box ticking exercise and does not genuinely analyse the full impact of EU legislation. Hopefully, that situation will change. While this is the first report under consideration by the House, we will analyse more bit by bit. The report does not outline a procedure for rejecting proposals. Once a proposal has been made, it seems inevitable that it will be adopted. It frustrates committee members that what we say and the points raised by many good delegations essentially constitute whistling in the wind, as decisions have already been made. The EU needs to strengthen itself in this regard so that, when the likes of our committee meets, we are confident that our deliberations and points will be taken on board. In one or two years time, perhaps the committee will examine whether our points concerning legislation have been taken on board in the final parliamentary process.
The EU was supposed to add to the well-being of citizens. Indeed, it has done so with legislation in the field of workers’ rights, equal opportunities, the environment and so on. However, even where the EU has been progressive, it is now rowing back on such legislation. The question of workers’ rights is one of the most worrying. Historically, the EU has had a positive impact in this field, but it now seems determined to drive down workers’ pay and conditions because of the new regime. The new buzz word “flexicurity” underpins the new approach of the Commission and informs the decisions being made in the Council of Ministers. Theoretically, the approach provides flexibility for employers while providing security for employees. In reality, it is being used to provide ideological justification for the attack on pay and conditions.
A number of other issues must be tackled. The report praises the temporary workers directive. While it is positive that agency workers are, in principle, entitled to enjoy the same pay and conditions as permanent employees from the first day of employment, what is not stated is that the directive is riddled with exceptions and loopholes. Nor is it stated that member states no longer have the right to regulate or limit the use of agency workers in different sectors. On balance, it is better that the directive enter into force, but it would be better if the report was more honest about the directive’s flaws. On this issue, it is up to the trade unions to insist on a correct and thorough implementation of the directive.
Also in the report is the throwaway remark about agreement being reached “to allow a working week of over 48 hours” in respect of the working time directive. This was the length of time called for by the International Labour Organisation in 1911. We have not come far, as the EU claims that 48 hours is not good enough.
Deputy Seán Connick: As Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this timely and interesting debate. The report, which our committee has laid before the House, is an outline of the work we undertook from 1 January to 30 June of this year, a period coinciding with the Slovenian Presidency of the European Council.
I commend the Chairman of the European scrutiny committee, Deputy Perry, and the other committee members on the diligence and dedication they showed in their work over that period. As a newly elected Deputy, I was shocked and awed when I first received briefing documents for a meeting of the committee last year. The depth of paper waded through was an ecologist’s nightmare and I was unsure about whether to invest in a roof rack or a trailer for my wheelchair to transport it all. However, once we got stuck into the issues, we found that they were all interesting and had significant impacts on the daily life of every Irish person. Our work was important.
I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, whom I welcome to this debate, and the various departmental officials who supplied the committee with comprehensive reports on the various developments at a European level that would have affected their Departments during the first six months of this year. The summary of each departmental report is contained in the report of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, which has been presented to the House.
This debate is important to the workings of the scrutiny committee and the Oireachtas’s working relationship with the European Union. New European legislation has a considerable impact on everyday life and the power given to the Oireachtas to scrutinise that legislation under the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 is a substantial safeguard to ensure that Ireland’s interests are not adversely effected by any directives or regulations adopted at European level. Therefore, it is vital that the Oireachtas uses its full power to scrutinise legislation fully and to protect Ireland’s interests.
The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny has been given the responsibility by the Oireachtas to scrutinise legislation on its behalf, but our work cannot exist in a vacuum. Unless the Oireachtas is fully involved in examining the reports we produce and in debating the issues raised therein, we will be failing in our responsibilities to people to safeguard their interests in Europe. That is why I attach so much importance to this debate.
As a committee, we were surprised by the public’s lack of knowledge about the role that the Oireachtas plays in protecting Ireland’s interests when adopting new European regulations and directives. This lack of knowledge and understanding became particularly clear during the many public discussions and debates that occurred before the referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The public would not have been as reluctant to adopt the treaty if they had known about the role of the Oireachtas in scrutinising European legislation, which would actually be strengthened by the treaty. As a committee we feel that strong efforts must be made to ensure the public are aware of this role. It is possible that the Oireachtas television channel, which is proposed as part of the Broadcasting Bill, will be one of the mechanisms that can be used to explain to the public the relationship between the Oireachtas and the European institutions.
Our colleagues on the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union are examining this lack of public awareness and many other related issues. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the sub-committee’s deliberations and to the opportunity to debate them in this House at some future date. I compliment the members of the sub-committee on the work they are doing. They have engaged in some of the most interesting debates I have ever seen. We are lucky in that we can watch proceedings on the internal Oireachtas television system. I do not know how anyone could state that those proceedings have been boring. The sub-committee’s work has been extremely interesting.
The work we do has an impact across all sectors of society. In my constituency of Wexford, the fishing, agricultural and small business sectors have been impacted upon by the various directives and regulations that are imposed and followed through upon by the agencies responsible for their implementation. Members of the public and business people are of the view that there is a great deal of over-regulation and that directives are over-policed. By publicising the work of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny and that of the Houses in general and also by highlighting the relationship that exists between the Oireachtas and the European Union, we can move some way towards addressing the issues to which I refer.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, for his endorsement of the work of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. I also thank him for his attack on the lack of coverage by the national media of the committee’s proceedings. “Oireachtas Report” and “European Parliament Report” are broadcast late at night and are probably only watched by insomniacs rather than those who might be interested in the matters with which they deal. It should be possible to repeat these important programmes, which are only 30 minutes in duration, on Saturday or Sunday mornings. As already stated, it is a pity members of the public are missing out on the important and interesting work being carried out by the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union.
As well as its scheduled work of scrutinising European legislation, the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny is also studying a number of ways of making its own proceedings more effective and of making the process of examining proposals from Europe a more central part of the workings of the Oireachtas. Among these initiatives are examining the operations of the European Union Scrutiny Act to see if measures can be taken within the terms of that Act to make its implementation more effective, seeking to have the Standing Orders of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann amended to allow debates on European matters — including those relating to the reports of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny — to take place at least once a month and studying the best practice of scrutinising legislation in other national parliaments to see if we can learn from the experience and methods used in other countries.
It is worth reminding ourselves that during the six-month period under review in the report before the House, the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny published a special report on the enhanced role national parliaments would have had in scrutinising European legislation if the Lisbon treaty had been passed. That special report was debated in the House in early June and showed that national parliaments would be given a strengthened and clearly defined role in the European decision-making process after the adoption of the Lisbon treaty. I do not wish to revisit the referendum campaign, but I am of the view that the failure to obtain a “Yes” vote in that referendum represents a lost opportunity to strengthen Ireland’s hand in Europe.
One general recommendation the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny made — this is highlighted in our report — is worth mentioning. The reports it receives from Departments on a six-monthly basis give the committee a good starting point to examine recent developments in Europe and to scrutinise the effects these legislative changes will have for Ireland. However, we are of the view that these reports could also give us the opportunity to forward plan and anticipate likely developments which could impact on Ireland. We feel that a section of each report should be devoted to outlining the priorities of the forthcoming six-month EU Presidency and the likely announcements of legislation that could be expected during that Presidency. The inclusion of information relating to future legislation would allow the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny to be more proactive in its work. It would also allow it to be quicker in its response to European legislation which could impact on Ireland.
The primary role of the joint committee is to scrutinise European legislation. During the six months of the Slovenian Presidency, which is the period covered by the report before the House, we examined no fewer than 274 separate items of legislation. The joint committee also compiled 16 individual reports in that time. These were presented to the relevant Ministers to guide them during the negotiations on these particular items of legislation.
I wish to refer briefly to one of the reports in question in the hope that it will give some indication of how the work of the joint committee examines the possible impact of proposed regulations on Ireland. Since my election to the House last year, I have been particularly involved with coastal communities in south Wexford. I am aware of the challenges that are facing these communities and their traditional industry — fishing. Earlier this year the European Commission published a draft regulation to amend the existing 2004 cod recovery plan. This draft regulation could have a significant impact on Irish fishermen because for the first time stocks in the Celtic Sea are to be included in that plan. This would have imposed strict days-at-sea limitations on Irish fishermen who catch cod in the Celtic Sea. The proposal in question is due to be finalised this month and is of great concern to those in the fishing industry in County Wexford and elsewhere. The joint committee published a report in respect of this matter last month.
The various reports compiled by the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny during the first six months of this year cover a wide range of areas, including terrorism, airport charges, VAT, food hygiene and telecommunications. Each of these areas has the potential to affect the lives of all the citizens of Ireland. The reports published by the joint committee were submitted to various Ministers and were used in their negotiations on these proposals.
I hope that in the coming years the general public will become more aware of the work of the joint committee and will begin to realise the role the Oireachtas plays in reviewing European legislation. If this happens, the fear of Europe that has developed in this country in recent years will evaporate and Ireland will return to playing a central role in the European project.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I commend the Chairman of the joint committee, Deputy Perry, and his Vice Chairman, Deputy Connick, on this report. I do not envy those who serve on the committee their membership of it. The language, terminology and abbreviations and sheer bulk of information in EU directives are extremely offputting.
The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, along with the Committee of Public Accounts, is probably the most important committee in the Houses of the Oireachtas. In my view we will soon be obliged to examine how the committee system is organised. I challenge any Member to list the 25 or so committees that are in existence. I looked at the list of committees in recent days and there are some which I never knew existed. The system must be reformed. Part of any such reform should include a reallocation of a major level of resources to the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. The European affairs committee in Denmark has a support staff of 25. If we are to take seriously the issue of our involvement in European and that of trying to connect with the public, the joint committee must be afforded the status it deserves. The members of the joint committee are slaving away on behalf of the Oireachtas and it will probably be some time before the public realises the work they do.
Irish people’s perception of Europe during the past two to three decades was that it was more or less similar to a bank. However, all we ever did was withdraw money from it. With the exception of what we surrendered in respect of the fishing industry, we never made lodgments. Until recently, we continued to have a subconscious post-colonial attachment to Britain. It did not dawn on us until recently that Ireland is a sovereign and independent State. In any village, town or city, one will come across fans of Manchester United or other teams and those who watch “Coronation Street” and “X Factor”.
It is time we looked into our hearts and decided the direction in which we wish to go. We must realise that there is a rich and diverse culture throughout Europe to which we can contribute and from which we can learn. Notwithstanding the fact that it will be bogged down by dealing with a great deal of administrative and technical material, I hope the joint committee will have the time to explore that aspect of our involvement in Europe. Irrespective of what happens with regard to the deliberations of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union or the Lisbon treaty, I plead with the Minister of State and the Government to afford to the joint committee the staff complement and status it deserves. I believe this can be done from within internal resources through the amalgamation of other committees which, relative to this committee, do little work. I say that hand on my heart.
The report deals with issues close to my heart, including issues relating to justice and home affairs. While I cannot read the Minister’s mind, I am sure he shares my view that we should not have opted out of this under the Lisbon treaty. It would have been a strong selling point, notwithstanding we have an opt-in facility.
Crime does not recognise boundaries. Criminals can drive at speed from the greater Dublin area to Athlone to carry out a smash and grab. Also, crime crosses from the Continent of Europe to Britain and Ireland. There are no barriers to crime and as such we must ensure there are no barriers to the mechanisms we put in place to deal with it. I welcome that we will provide assistance in regard to the development of Europol. Our system must facilitate co-operation in civil and criminal matters.
It was mentioned earlier that one of the directives relates to the visa waiver programme with the United States. Ireland has a special relationship with the United States which may confuse our identity with Europe for historical reasons, in particular along the western seaboard. I believe this was a factor in the Lisbon referendum in that it was the first time we noted a regional trend. It is within Europe we have the best opportunity of securing a visa arrangement with the United States.
I spoke earlier with Deputy Perry on the role of the committee. While it was established following the last general election, it had virtually no input into the Lisbon treaty, which is a weakness in our system. Also, this House had little input into that treaty. I accept that post-referendum the matter was discussed in the House. We are all aware of the weaknesses. While yesterday there was a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy we do not yet know the details in this regard. We must rely on the media or on websites to find out what is happening as there is no mechanism in this House which provides us with an opportunity for real input into policy.
I have previously referred to the power of the Executive in Ireland. It is a weakness in our democratic system that the Legislature has greater power than the Executive. Members on the Government side have little input into policy. If the Executive did not have the power it has, and if it were required to come into this House and debate issues, the Government would not have run into the trouble it ran into in regard to the medical card issue and so on. I am not suggesting Ministers are cocooned, far from it, but they can, in particular after ten or 11 years in office, operate in a rarefied atmosphere. The time is coming when they will be relieved of that burden.
Deputy Billy Timmins: The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny must be empowered to require that the Minister take on board a formal opinion from the committee. I would not go so far as to suggest the Minister should be bound by such requirement as I do not agree with a mandated system. However, I believe he-she should return to the committee, if he-she chooses not to take on board such opinion, and explain the reasons in that regard. The yellow-red card system of the Lisbon treaty could be used in this regard.
We blame Europe for everything. I am sure other speakers referred to the fact that we blame Europe for our difficulties and take the credit for all that is good. The “we” in this regard is the Government, irrespective of hue. The water charges for schools is a classic example. I would like if a mechanism could be provided — this could be done through the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny or the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union — that would allow us to revisit directives that slipped through the net or to examine whether we had signed up to inappropriate proposals and perhaps to amend those decisions. We may opt not to amend them but we should at least take responsibility for our own actions. I call this the crooked carrot syndrome.
I was contacted earlier in the week by a person who told me — I do not know if this is correct — that he had received a document outlining how wool is to be treated as offal. In other words, people, when dealing with wool, must put on white gloves and other relevant garments. I am trying to get a copy of the directive concerned. This is the type of matter, if true, that is beyond comprehension and causes a great deal of difficulty. I recall when examining the inspections of the food and veterinary office that they frequently referred to a lack of implementation of measures on the part of some countries. In the case of dear old Róisín Dubh, directives were being over-implemented. We must address this issue which is of concern to many people.
When in France for the weekend or on holidays during the summer, one can eat brown bread and use the communal toilets. However, in Ireland when in business one has so many sinks one has no room for anything else, which is crazy. I acknowledge the role of the committee and its members. There is no political thanks for one’s work on a committee. I do not know if one could refer to it as a labour of love. Perhaps Deputy Connick was being punished when he was appointed to the committee.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I am sure the Minister will agree that we need to consider re-allocating resources and amending the legislation to provide a greater role for the EU scrutiny committee. I am calling, not for the appointment of additional public servants, but for a rebalancing of the staff that support committees by way of a radical overhaul of the committee system.
It is worth remembering the genesis of this committee. Credit should go to all parties concerned. If I recall correctly, it was Deputy Ruairí Quinn who originally proposed the establishment of the scrutiny committee. The Labour Party introduced legislation in regard to the European Union (Scrutiny) Act which, in fairness, we had no problem accepting.
Also, I pay tribute to former Deputy Gay Mitchell, the first chairman of the sub-committee on EU scrutiny who laboured in the basement very early in the morning for many years and did an excellent job getting this started. I pay tribute to the current chairman of the committee, Deputy John Perry, who without question has given a new lease of life and new impetus to its work. While paying tribute to these people, I join with other speakers who have praised the effervescent Minister with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, who has made Europe his métier. As other speakers mentioned, he works much of the time on the sidelines doing valuable work in this area.
I am sure my colleagues will agree that what is contained in this report is of extreme importance to Ireland. We must remember that EU legislation has a direct effect in Ireland. People seem to forget this. Not only has it a direct effect here but, legally, European law is superior to Irish law where a conflict arises, providing always that the European law is consistent and is part of the acquis of the various treaties. What is contained in this report is of exceptional interest and concern to the Irish people. It is, therefore, a good day for this Oireachtas that we are taking time out to examine and debate this report and to bring it to the attention of the Irish people.
Obviously, in the time available to me, it is not possible to go through the report in its entirety. However, I commend the Chairman, Deputy Perry and the officials of the committee on putting together this report. I agree the committee should be augmented and have made that point publicly on many occasions.
This report would have been more relevant if we had voted for the Lisbon treaty because the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality would have given an impetus to our work. For the first time, national parliaments would have been able to engage directly in the legislative process of the European Union.
The people have made their decision and I genuinely respect it. However, it is my duty as a member of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny to report to this House on the attitudes and feelings of our colleagues from other parliaments across Europe. Some weeks ago, I accompanied Deputy Perry and the Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, Deputy Durkan, to a meeting in Paris of COSAC, which comprises six parliamentarians from every parliament in Europe. The other delegates were polite and understanding about Ireland’s position but, beneath that layer, I sensed a growing impatience that the Lisbon process has not been allowed to progress. It is analogous to a train station from which 25 out of 27 carriages have departed. The remaining two carriages are asking the 25 which have commenced their journey to return. The majority of the Irish people have decided not to join the European journey. It is true that treaties cannot be changed other than by unanimity. However, while Lisbon cannot proceed without the agreement of all 27 member states, some other form of enhanced co-operation could be decided by the 25 which have ratified the treaty. That will leave Ireland in the shadow of a eurosceptic Britain while the rest of Europe moves on. We would thereby undo all the good work done from the 1970s to the 1990s. Alarm bells should be ringing to alert us to that prospect.
Some have argued that a second referendum would be undemocratic. How can a referendum be undemocratic? A second referendum will never take place without the agreement of this House, the Members of which are democratically elected. It is, of course, a matter for the Government to decide after negotiations whether such a course of action is necessary.
It is claimed that the project is being led by political elites. I do not consider the parliamentarians of France, Germany, Spain, Denmark and England as political elites. Like ourselves, they are ordinary people who represent their electorates. The argument that Lisbon is an elitist project is either dishonest or ill-informed.
In regard to the argument that Ireland got a bad deal, we got exactly the same deal as everybody else. Nobody has said we were proportionately worse off than others. It is bad enough that a country with a population of 4 million people will not have a Commissioner for five out of 15 years but it is a bigger deal when the same rule applies to a country of 80 million. We have to compare our sacrifice with that of other countries.
The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny plays an important role. Under the chairmanship of former Deputy Gay Mitchell, we used to meet in the basement at 8 a.m. Our deliberations were not well reported but our profile has increased since we became a full committee under Deputy Perry. I concur with Deputy Costello that the coverage of EU legislation and the committee’s work by the national broadcaster is a scandal. I estimate that RTE spends more on Podge and Rodge than on informing the people of Ireland about important issues. It argues that our work is not interesting to the average punter but, as Deputy Costello correctly pointed out, it is the job of the broadcaster to package these matters to make them interesting. Every issue outlined in this report is of considerable importance to Irish people. It may not be wrapped in interesting packaging but it covers everything from transport and public health to security and the Third World. The director of RTE is failing in his job of properly and proportionately covering the European Union. I challenge him to come before the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to justify his station’s abysmal coverage of European matters.
Deputy Willie Penrose: I compliment Deputy Perry and the other members of the Joint Committee on European Affairs on this important and comprehensive report. It makes proposals on improving our work. I have always been an advocate of this process. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs I was concerned that we had insufficient resources to scrutinise and interpret the legislation with which we were charged. I feared that something might slip under the radar which would have an adverse impact further down the line. We would then be vulnerable to the charge that we were too lazy or incompetent to investigate matters properly. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Roche, has a deep knowledge of this area and a drive to ensure it gets the respect and deliberation it deserves.
I concur with other speakers who have argued that committees do not receive sufficient publicity. We operate from the basement and start our work early in the morning. Sometimes we even miss votes in the Dáil, which probably leads observers to think we are missing and must be doing something else. We do important work but we get little credit for it. We are not looking for credit because we are paid for what we do but people do not even realise we are down in the bunker.
Deputy Willie Penrose: This report is important in terms of ensuring legislation originating from the European Commission or the Council is examined from a critical perspective. It would also help to eliminate the democratic deficit of which we all speak. This will happen where there is a detailed connection with the public. We cannot go out roaring from the rooftops. People would probably regard that as self-promotion. We have means, including the national broadcast media and local radio. We have all those vehicles that should ensure people are fully and acutely aware of the work that is going on here. There should not be this great level of perceived disconnection with the public. After all we are not Einsteins, philosophers or anything else. We are in here trying to deal with the legislation, doing the best we can, getting into the intricate details of proposed legislation and how it might impact on parallel legislation that might be in the House.
Some of it is directly effective and we need to take it as it is. However, with some of it, we can propose amendments to coincide with some of our legislation and minimise or mitigate some of the impacts on our citizens, companies, farmers and others, including people involved in the fishing industry who need to put up with such legislation. We try to ensure that Ireland’s interests are ultimately protected as best we can and not adversely impacted by the thrust of the legislation. I have always been a strong advocate of additional resources for this committee. I compliment Deputies Perry and Connick and their colleagues on their work in this area.
I will cite the example of the Chemicals Act — mother of God, the language is arcane. The Act is complex, difficult to understand and highly technical. It sometimes lacks co-ordination and it makes significant references to originating legislation. I am lucky I am a barrister. Without the help of the Oireachtas Library and research service, which is an excellent advance in the House, we would be left behind altogether.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment examined a proposal for a Council regulation on the statute of a European private company. We examined the purpose and ambition of the proposal and the possibility that it might lead to a reduction in compliance with domestic legislation concerning companies and undermine national legislation by creating a two-tier approach. We also examined the possible benefits, the expected uptake level of its provisions and the estimated reductions in compliance cost that would result. We also examined the consequences of the possibility that the proposal would lead to increased foreign competition and facilitate European companies establishing themselves in Ireland. We also examined the consequences of the proposal for consumers and workers, and how the proposal fitted in with the work of the company law review group. We examined it in a holistic way.
We proposed a number of recommendations as best we could. I thank the officials from various Departments who always make themselves readily available and have a fair degree of expertise in the area, dealing with people like ourselves. I have always had a strong interest in the temporary workers directive and I was glad to see the progress made during the Slovenian Presidency. I had introduced a Bill on behalf of the Labour Party because it is an issue that is very fundamental and dear to us. We do not want any diminution of workers’ rights. It is important to tell the public that this advance has been made. It is up to the trade union movement to ensure that, in partnership with the Government, it is included in the Towards 2016 agreement and becomes workable.
Sometimes issues slip under the radar regardless of how well we examine them. This may have happened prior to the establishment of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. I have some expertise in agriculture and if I refer to it, I apologise. I should not need to apologise because I represent an agricultural constituency. Nevertheless, in the agricultural area, hundreds of small farmers across the country had a most difficult harvest owing to the prevailing poor weather conditions, as most of us know. However, they were further harassed by the ploughing regulations introduced under the nitrates directive. I have written a book on agriculture and the law, in which I included a chapter on the nitrates directive.
Deputy Willie Penrose: Here was something that slipped under everyone’s radar. It is a matter we need to re-address and revisit very quickly. There is a requirement that the ground ploughed must have a green cover within six weeks of ploughing. In bad weather, one does not need to be Einstein, the youngest trainee farmer or the greatest agricultural scientist in the world to know that such a proposition causes extreme difficulties for a tillage farmer. How can a grower who has ploughed ground in the very wet conditions we have experienced with compaction or obvious consequences of using heavy machinery — something about which I know a bit — be expected to go back in and sow crops to get a green cover? Failure to do so will result in possible penalties.
Such madness in proposals reminds me about not being allowed to sell the eggs off the farm or — something I used to love to buy when travelling to Wexford — strawberries or potatoes on the side of the road. Sometimes we have things that are very precious and sacred. Those are the types of things that may well contribute to people being turned off and advocating or even registering a “No” vote in a referendum. They may well have no logical reason other than seeing something like this which they regard as completely illogical. We should be able to get across to them. We should cut out the nonsense. We know the reason for the rule, to which we would all subscribe, that the early establishment of a crop reduces the mineralisation of nitrogen and the leaching from the soil that could well arise. However, in seriously inclement weather, how can farmers create a proper seed bed? If that cannot be done, how can they obtain a proper crop establishment as there will be a poor uptake of the nutrients and trace elements, which in my view would lead to greater levels of leachate, the very problem we are trying to eradicate, and, of course, poor yields.
The question that must arise in this debate is how we arrived at this point. The question needs to be posed in a European context as to why a more lenient regime operates in the UK than pertains here. This should be subject to detailed scrutiny by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Scrutiny and I ask Deputy Perry to take it up, even on a retrospective basis.
Deputy Willie Penrose: Under UK rules, a green cover is not required over the winter period, which is eminently sensible. Likewise, there is no closed period for ploughing. On the contrary, the UK environmental agency appears to promote winter ploughing and sub-soiling especially where compaction is a problem. Furthermore, the nitrogen recommendation for the main crops is significantly higher under the UK legislation. The system that operates in the UK appears to adopt a more flexible approach, which clearly takes cognisance of the practical situation that applies on the ground.
Surely in the very inclement weather of the past two summers and autumns we have experienced and which pertained during the harvest period, it is clear that there was significant compaction which necessitates sub-soiling and early ploughing. Late ploughing in such circumstances results in poor establishment, less efficient use of nitrates, deficiencies and reduced yields, and increased risk of disease from carry-over from volunteer cereals. There is a question of equality of treatment, which is an essential element that is supposed to underpin the application of EU legislation. Are the rules which are environmental in nature not being consistently applied across the EU? Why should Irish growers be more constrained, punished and disadvantaged as a result?
That is the type of thing that leads to people adopting a negative tone when they should not. I compliment all the members of the committee on the work they have put in. I advocate more resources for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, which has an enormous workload. I thank the committee members for the work they have done.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I wish to take up where my respected colleague, Deputy Penrose, left off. The interpretation of regulations is something we have at our own behest. For example, the French have a very healthy attitude to a proposal that affects them primarily. They laugh at it. They take an uproarious fit of laughter at something like the regulation mentioned by Deputy Penrose. If it affects them negatively, they do not do it and they are quite right. Provision is made within the European institutions to accommodate all that and because it is a matter of our own interpretation, nobody forces us to do it at all. We cannot force the European Union to go our way and it cannot force us to go its way against each other’s will. That is as it should be. That is democracy and it is important.
I compliment Deputy Perry on his work as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. It is a very important and responsible role. I have been a member of EU-associated committees for a long time, longer than most other Members of the House I am sad to say, for my sins. It becomes more important as time goes on that the parliamentary system is used to scrutinise, test and challenge European legislation and Ministers on the policy they pursue at EU level and when they return. I compliment my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, and his colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, for making themselves available to the committees, and the European affairs committee in particular, on a regular basis before the GAERC meetings. That has been very important.
It is vital we anticipate legislation before it is put in place and that we provide input, exerting Irish influence at centre stage before discussion takes place in the Commission or at the Council. It is important that when Council discussions take place, the Minister or Ministers negotiating are fully aware of the thinking in home parliaments.
I am amused at some of the excuses which have been put forward by people who were supposed to know about these matters in the recent debate on the Lisbon treaty. Some suggested they voted against the Lisbon treaty because it was invasive and undermined our sovereignty, and it did not allow us to become masters in our own house. It was meant to be colonisation, among other things. These views are all wrong and the people putting forward such views were reading the wrong treaty. They must have been reading earlier treaties.
If these people had read the Lisbon treaty carefully and understood it, they would know that more than other treaty negotiated since Ireland’s accession to the European Union, or the EEC as it was then, the Lisbon treaty returns to national parliaments more power, initiative, control and command than at any time since this State’s foundation. It is totally erroneous and misleading for anybody to suggest we have lost power or are likely to lose it through the Lisbon treaty.
The Lisbon treaty is a two-edged sword. It could be a vehicle whereby unprogressive parliaments could roll back and immobilise the European project. Problems existed prior to the Lisbon treaty, even the days before the Nice treaty, and the Lisbon treaty is responding to that issue. I am amazed that some of the so-called articulate observers have been unable to discern that. It is simple and logical. In the run up to the first and second Nice treaty referendums we were all arguing for a return of some recognition of national parliaments, their importance and input. For people to suggest it was all right to vote in favour of the Nice treaty in either the first or second referendum — it is immaterial at this stage — and vote against Lisbon is absolutely ridiculous and flies in the face of facts.
The role of the committee system is very important. There is a problem in that if one is involved with a committee, as those of us involved for a number of years will know, nobody wants to know about them. A person could be dead on a committee for weeks and nobody would want to know of it unless they read about it on the back of a newspaper the following day. It is appalling that in a democratic Parliament, nobody wants to know what goes on. I have often said the only way to deal with the problem is to have live broadcasting of the proceedings of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
There are good reasons for this. It would enable a Member of either House to display what he or she does here. The general media perception of what we do here is usually cynical and this perception is being presented on a regular basis to undermine the credibility of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is alleged this is done for very good reasons, as the public has a right to know. The public has a right to know the facts rather than a perception created by some people with a hidden agenda. The quicker we recognise this, the better it will be for ourselves. We must assert our authority in the area.
I compliment the Members who have spoken today on this subject and on the European scrutiny committee. They all have a clear knowledge of the subject matter. It is a pity that does not extend outside the House, and we should ask how we can best convey that important message outside. How do we ensure, for example, that the economic fortunes of this country are not hijacked by people outside this House who may well have an ambition to get in here or to some other parliament where they can exert influence?
How is it that some people put forward their version of democracy rather than the established version? Why should their version be better than ours? For example, why do some people see a version of democracy which is centralised with a particular figurehead, possibly elected by an electorate of all people of the European Union — in which we do not have a majority? That is an interesting supposition. What would it mean for Irish sovereignty? Where would it go under those guidelines?
If we in public life have something to say, we should say it whether it is critical or laudatory. We should not say something for the wrong reasons but we should state the reasons quite clearly. Many people use the political arena to conceal an agenda of their own or withhold vital information on where they are coming from, which would in turn give the general public some idea of what can be expected of them.
The notion of “people power” will always be put forward, which is important even in football and hurling nowadays. I wonder if there is merit in it. One should remember that history is well laced with examples where people power went wrong. Any historian will readily recognise that one does not need to go back too many centuries to find such examples; one does not have to go back a century at all to learn how people power has gone wrong. People power can often be confused with democracy.
It is important to remember that when people use their vote in a democracy, it is important they have the right information. It is also important that they are discerning in the sources of information, where the information comes from and how it is backed up. For example, it is not sufficient for somebody to make spurious and groundless allegations on what the European Union, the European scrutiny committee or the European affairs committee and the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs is about. They should spell out the source and nature of any allegation and indicate the people they consort with on a regular basis. Who are their friends and with whom do they liaise or speak? What is the agenda of such people?
Their agenda is to dismantle the European Union as it is now and reduce it to a short and simple open-ended economic adventure, where the greatest and fittest would survive. Those who are smaller and weaker, politically and economically, would go to the wall.
Deputy Damien English: It is good to have a chance to say a few words on this issue. I should comment on the notion of Deputy Durkan going missing from this House for a week or two. If he was not heard for a day, a search warrant would be put out for him because his voice runs through committees and walls; nothing can block him.
It is good to see the Minister of State in the House for this important topic. As a member of the European scrutiny committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak. The Vice Chairman is here and the Chairman was here earlier. I will not comment specifically on the various reports but rather on the importance of the work we do and the ongoing importance in bringing it to the plenary sessions for discussion. We should encourage such a process.
I have been on the committee for over a year and found the work very interesting and informative. On the first day or two, when one gets the folders of material, one could cry but we got through the backlog in the first couple of months. The depression stopped and we got back to effective scrutiny.
Deputy Damien English: I well believe that. I expect the Minister of State gets folders. I understand why Members might not wish to be on the committee or would run away from it because there is not a direct link to how it is important to constituents. I have learned that the committee does unbelievable work and it is important. One learns about what is coming down the line and one has a chance to work with Ministers and public bodies on the issues. One has a chance to influence things and point out potential problems. If the Lisbon treaty was introduced we would have more of an opportunity to do that, but as things stand it is possible to do something.
Committee members must highlight the work we do to other Members of the House so they realise it is worth getting involved in European Union legislation, to keep an eye on it and to have a say on it. During the campaign on the Lisbon treaty it was apparent that the majority of people do not realise that we scrutinise EU legislation. They believe it is forced on us by Europe. They do not know our Ministers are involved in drawing it up, and that it is agreed to at Commission level and in the Oireachtas also. There is a poor perception about how Dáil Éireann handles EU legislation. It is only through the work of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, the Joint Committee on European Affairs, the Sub-Committee on the Future of the European Union, and the debate we are having today and once a month from now on, that we might get through to the public that Europe does not lecture us or tell us what to do but that we have a major say in what happens in Europe. We have a role and we can debate matters and try to change them if we wish. We should let people know we are keeping an eye on what is going on and scrutinising proposed legislation from Europe.
The Minister of State might agree with the view that emerged from a committee discussion that part of the fault for the public’s ignorance lies with the Government and previous Governments that did not focus on the benefits of Europe but used it as a convenient scapegoat when unpopular measures were required. Likewise, at council level the blame is attributed to the national Government and An Bord Pleanála gets the blame for planning issues. It suits the body politic and officials to pass the buck when a tough decision is required. We have a duty to tell people we have a say when it comes to decisions from Europe and that we can make changes.
The committee has to deal with in excess of 500 legislative measures a year. As the report outlines, in the first six months of 2008 we dealt with 274 items. That is indicative of the amount of work that goes on in Europe and the number of directives that are enacted, which have a serious impact on people’s lives. It is unfortunate that the effects of some measures that are debated this year might not be felt until 2010 or even 2012. For that reason it is difficult to explain the cause and effect to people. It is a bit like a criminal committing a crime today but not getting punished for three years. That does not work and it is not proper justice. The same is true of EU legislation. That is one reason fewer people understand the process or get involved in it. I include fellow Members in that regard. I hope we can do more to address that.
Part of the job of the committee is to recommend change with a view to increasing interest in Europe. No doubt the Acting Chairman, Deputy Wall, will want to join us at next week’s meeting. We are trying to encourage people to get involved and part of the process is a discussion of the issues in plenary session. I urge members of other committees to go through legislation that we send them. I have attended other committee meetings and when the information arrives from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny it does not always get the scrutiny it deserves and very often gets left to one side. That day is gone. People elect us and they expect us to do a proper job and to fully scrutinise everything. No doubt the Chairman of my committee has communicated to other committee Chairs that if they do not wish to scrutinise particular measures they should send it back for us to do it. Even though we are busy, we would prefer that rather than allow an issue to be signed off without proper scrutiny. That is not much use to the system and people expect more.
I hope that when we next debate the Lisbon treaty more attention will be devoted to the work of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, and how its powers will be greatly improved if the Lisbon treaty is passed. Opposition Members would also have a greater say in how Europe works, yet the majority of those who were opposed to the Lisbon treaty claimed it was undemocratic and was taking powers away from us. The direct opposite was the case. Currently, my only hope for having a say in Europe is to influence Ministers through the reports of the committee, whereas if the Lisbon treaty is passed we would have a greater chance of doing that with the yellow, orange and red card system. We have to sell that point. It was only towards the end of the Lisbon debate that we managed to have a good discussion at our committee, for which we got some publicity. An opportunity was missed and that was a contributory factor to why the referendum was not passed. People were not convinced about the work we do and how well it is done. We must change that perception.
The report includes 16 or 18 scrutiny reports. Last year we drew up reports on food directives and organic food, which are most interesting. The delegations that came before the committee were happy they got to have a say. When we discussed airport charges we had delegations from Ryanair, Aer Arann, Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta. In the food area we had Taste Ireland and many other groups. Without the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny those groups would not feel empowered to influence legislation coming from Europe.
Many regulations and directives can have a serious impact on businesses in this country, which can affect jobs in the long run. The majority of directives appear to be practical and based on common sense. Previously, European legislation was somewhat harsh on small businesses, which put them under pressure. I foresee changes that recognise smaller companies need leeway when it comes to red tape. I welcome the commitment to reduce red tape in the European Union by up to 25% by 2012. We already see the impact of that coming through the committee in terms of proposed legislation and that is to be welcomed. We need to talk about that, praise it, and make it known to the public.
I am disappointed with the lack of interest in Europe among colleagues. We must encourage people in general to take a greater interest in Europe. We cannot expect them to dissect a referendum every couple of years and get their heads around how Europe works in two or three weeks. Europe has a complicated structure with various bodies such as the Commission and the Parliament. People are required to take on board a lot of information once every five years. We must have an ongoing process and discussion must take place so people learn about Europe. Perhaps we can do that through libraries, post offices or some other way to reach communities. We should have a European office that deals with how Europe works because people want to know.
In carrying on that debate we will probably have to educate people about our own political system, both local government and national government. People do not know about it. Most young people at school are lucky, whether they realise it or not, because they get an opportunity to learn about the political system and how it works. They are very well informed. I received no education about the political system at school. I had one teacher who was personally interested in politics and that probably had an influence on me but there was no structure in place. That is why I am here.
Deputy Damien English: The Minister can figure that one out for himself. Many others have not had a chance to learn about the political system and they are at a disadvantage. That makes our job more difficult in terms of explaining why decisions are made or why money is taken away from a certain sector. I accept efforts have been made by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to go to schools, and that is excellent work, but many people are not being reached with explanations of how politics works and we have a duty to inform them. That will be of great benefit.
People are interested in politics. When party conferences such as the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis or the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis take place, telephone calls to the office are reduced because people know from listening to the radio that we are away. When the banking crisis occurred my telephone messages decreased by up to 70% because people knew we were doing other things. People are interested and they are aware and we have a duty to formulate the information in an interesting way on radio, television or by other means.
Reference was made to the Oireachtas television channel. That will be of great benefit to the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny and other committees because people will be able to see what is happening. From what the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said, he hopes it will be exciting and that an editor can show different parts of committees and make things look action packed rather than just the same old boring stuff. I hope that will help. Oireachtas television is a couple of years away but we must try to work on it. In the meantime, we must discuss with RTE and other television stations how we can have more and better coverage of politics.
If we had proper media coverage of debates, especially on EU legislation, the Lisbon treaty would be passed. In this regard, we failed to have sufficiently knowledgeable people on radio programmes. I do not include the Minister of State in this because he is well up to speed. Those who spoke on radio programmes were not convincing enough for us to win the argument. People repeatedly make decisions on the basis of what they hear in the media. We need to exploit the media as much as possible in the shorter and longer term. People will be interested in what we have to say.
Many of the subjects we discussed in the House were very interesting to ordinary urban and rural Members and the debates were very informative. When I brought information back to my constituents, they found it very interesting. Many of the debates with Ryanair are interesting because that company throws the cat among the pigeons, but that is what is needed. The same applies in the area of food.
Many interesting discussions have taken place, including one on the safety of toys, which is relevant at this time. As 500 EU legislative measures are dealt with each year, one can conclude there is a lot more happening than occurs in this House. We are lucky if we see 15 or 20 legislative measures from the European Union pass through the House in a year. There is much action at EU level and we need to sell this to the people. The process should begin with our own colleagues, who should be in the House contributing to this debate. I hope that, in a month, there will be greater interest in these matters and that it will be worth people’s while getting involved.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I thank all the Members who contributed. This was one of the most refreshing discussions we have had on how we handle this country’s interests in the context of the European Union. For years I have made the point that wisdom does not reside on any one side of the House regarding this issue. The Government may be better informed but the reality is that there is considerable talent and information in this House. For example, the contribution of Deputy Penrose was very striking. He covered a matter we considered a number of years ago at an Oireachtas committee on the strategic management initiative. We were pointing out that there is almost a perverse, certainly a pedantic, tendency among public administrators in Ireland to tick all the boxes. As Deputy Penrose stated, and as those of us who travel throughout the European Union know, while EU law is observed across the Union, it is not observed in a way that is oppressive.
I represent a constituency with many more urban than rural families, yet I know there is an oppressiveness associated with the way in which farmers, particularly small farmers, and craft and artisan food producers must deal with EU regulations. This is the case in my constituency and nationally. It is good and proper that we should address this issue. It is only by having a proper public debate thereon that we will deal with it. That is not to say our public officials deliberately try to make people’s lives difficult, but there is a national propensity, particularly associated with the administrative tradition, to tick every box. That comes with a high price.
I compliment the Members who questioned our direction in the European Union and asked how our nation can fulfil its destiny. Everybody in the country knows of my personal commitment to the European Union. It does not emerge from any glowing view that it is a project of perfection. No human project has ever been perfect, yet there is something extraordinary about the European Union. I stated previously in the House that when I enter my office every day I look at a photograph on the wall depicting a young boy walking to his death simply because of his religion. We should all remember this. The event depicted took place 65 years ago in Europe. This type of horror is unimaginable now because of the European Union and the European project.
Last week I stood on the battleground at Verdun and looked across the extraordinary valley where hundreds of thousands of young men laid down their lives for nothing, all because of the imbecility of political leadership and betrayal by the military leadership. They died for nothing, their bones are still in the earth and are still being found. The remains that are found are interred in an ossuary that stands on a nearby hill. The deaths were all for nothing, all due to a perverse application of excessive national fervour.
The European Union has made such warfare not just morally repugnant, just as every Christian must regard mass warfare as morally repugnant, but also physically impossible to repeat. I do not know the view of anyone else but I become passionate about this subject. I have three boys and one girl and never want to see them or their peers, or their children, exposed to the perversity of war. The European Union is about peace and not about militarisation.
I was impressed by Deputy Ó Snodaigh’s contribution. I do not always agree with him but he did make a workmanlike contribution to point out that an effort is being made by Oireachtas Members to make the system work, although we may have different views on the Union.
A number of contributors spoke about the lost opportunity to bring EU parliamentary democracy to the heart of the Union. A few months ago, Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, the President of the European Parliament, stood in Seanad Éireann and stated he was first elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 1979. He contrasted the powers of the European Parliament then with its powers now. It had virtually no powers in 1979. He also contrasted the powers it will have under the Lisbon treaty with those it has now.
We have laid good foundations. The hard work done by Members must, in all justice, be covered in the media, particularly by the national broadcaster. I do not want to be involved in shooting the messenger as it is not a question doing so. It is only if the messenger gets lost or decides to change the message that there is a problem. The job of the messenger, particularly in public service broadcasting, is to broadcast a truthful, accurate and informed account of what occurs in this House.
Deputy Perry stated it is necessary to have further discussions on these issues during plenary session. I will support him strongly and accurately in that regard because I believe it is the way forward. Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas will have to take on the challenge of addressing how proceedings therein are reported. The editor of a newspaper I read every Sunday wrote a letter in one of the national newspapers today stating it is his duty to conduct a campaign to say “No” in respect of the Lisbon treaty. I always believed newspapers were to provide news and that politicians carried out political campaigns.
Deputy John Perry: I thank the Minister of State for his very positive contribution. He is a totally committed European and does an outstanding job in regard to all EU issues. His role in the coming months will be critical. I thank the Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, Deputy Connick, and all those who contributed today.
This is the first occasion on which we have had a debate on the six-monthly report. I acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas communications unit, which launched a very effective report last week on the PNR database of the aviation industry. It received very good coverage in the national press and all the broadsheets carried the story very effectively. This week, a very important and detailed report is being launched on food labelling and the traceability of food. The vested interests were involved in the relevant debate, thus addressing the democratic deficit so evident in respect of EU issues.
I acknowledge the work of all my colleagues who have debated the issues and the role of the secretariat, which does outstanding work. I also thank the legal advisors. While the staff of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny are stretched, the work they do is quite outstanding. I am quite certain the issue of the Lisbon treaty will be resolved and that we will, in the forthcoming debate, produce a very clear roadmap on what can be done. Once again, I acknowledge the Vice Chairman, who has been very supportive. Cross-party support is very effective. I thank the Minister of State for being here, for staying through the debate and for responding to it with a very positive contribution. He acknowledged the importance of having further scrutiny in the plenary session. I am delighted to note that he has given it his full endorsement. I very much look forward to having an intense debate in the coming period on directives that would have an impact. I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy O’Connor, for giving me the discretionary time to respond.
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