Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Taoiseach: It is proposed to take No. 21, statements following the informal meeting of the European Council of 11 February, 2010; No. 22, Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009 — Order for Report, Report and Final Stages; and No. 24, Road Traffic Bill 2009 — Second Stage (resumed). It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the proceedings in regard to No. 21 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 50 minutes and the following arrangements shall apply: the statements shall be confined to a Minister or Minister of State and to the main spokespersons for Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order, who may share their time, shall not exceed ten minutes in each case; and a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed ten minutes. Private Members’ business is No. 76 — motion re: unemployment (resumed), to conclude at 8.30 p.m. tonight, if not previously concluded.
No. 23 is the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill. Obviously, there are diminished funds in this account and according to the information we have the Bill is not due until late 2010. I understand it may not be possible to produce it before then but perhaps the Taoiseach might give me an update on the amount available in the dormant accounts fund given that it was seriously diminished by spending in recent years.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I wish to pursue with the Taoiseach his intentions with regard to the filling of the vacant position in the Government. I shall run through what happened on previous occasions when Ministers resigned. In 2004, the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, resigned on 29 September, along with the Ministers Joe Walsh and Michael Smith. The three nominations for replacing those Ministers were made on the same day. In 1997, when Ray Burke resigned as Minister on 8 October, his replacement was nominated the following day. If we go back as far as 1996, when Deputy Michael Lowry resigned as a Minister on 30 November, his replacement was nominated on 3 December, the next day on which the Dáil sat. This is the first occasion I can recall when there has not been a nomination to fill a vacancy arising in the Government, either on the day the vacancy occurred or in the first Dáil sitting afterwards.
What is the Taoiseach’s intention in this regard? Does he intend to nominate a replacement in the membership of the Government for the former Minister, Deputy O’Dea, or does he intend to leave the membership of the Government at 14, as it now stands? The position comes up somewhat like the recruitment embargo in the public sector. How long is it intended to leave it that way?
I received a letter today, dated yesterday, from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, concerning the Dublin mayor and regional authority Bill. From it, I see we are to have a Dublin mayor and a new type of regional authority for Dublin. The Minister states he is publishing the draft scheme today to give opportunity for further consultation before the Bill is finalised. He has set up a consultative meeting in Leinster House for spokespersons on 4 March. I welcome all of that but I seek clarification from the Taoiseach. Is it intended, following that consultation with Opposition party spokespersons, that the Government will reconsider that Bill or consider amendments to it in its draft form in light of comments and observations made by Oppositions spokespersons? We were told before that the heads of the Bill had been approved by the Government. Is it intended that there will be another consideration of the Bill by Government before the Bill is published?
The Taoiseach: There is no requirement to set a time limit on when the replacement for the outgoing Minister for Defence will be appointed. His position is being taken by me for the present and that is fine, constitutionally. It will be dealt with in due course.
Regarding the heads of the Bill mentioned by the Deputy, I am sure that having published the general scheme of the Bill in the normal way and having indicated he wishes to discuss the matter with other party leaders, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government can determine the merit of discussions that may arise and can consider this in his continuing preparation of the Bill. Obviously, it will be more detailed at the next stage.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: With regard to the issue of the membership of the Government, my question to the Taoiseach did not specifically concern the portfolio of the Minister for Defence. I understand the Taoiseach has assigned that portfolio to himself as a Taoiseach is entitled to do. However, the issue that arises is the membership of the Government. Normally, there are 15 members of Government. I realise there do not have to be 15 but normally there are. There is now a vacancy. It is a matter for Dáil Éireann to nominate a member for appointment by the President as a member of the Government. As I have pointed out, where a resignation arises in the membership of the Government the business of replacement is normally taken quickly. Again, I ask the Taoiseach if he intends to bring a motion to the House to appoint a member to the vacant position which now arises in Government. When does he intend to do that? Can we anticipate it? Today is Wednesday. Is it the Taoiseach’s intention to do this today, tomorrow or next week? Will he postpone it? If that is the case, will he share with the House his rationale for postponing it? It is somewhat unusual that this does not happen immediately. I believe we are entitled to hear from the Taoiseach what his thinking is on the matter.
The Taoiseach: I have outlined to the Deputy my thinking on it about four times in the past four or five days. My thinking is very clear. The matter will be a matter for the House when a motion for nomination of a person is brought by the Taoiseach. Obviously, prior notice will be given to all the parties in order for them to consider that nominee when put forward. The decision will be taken in the House. That is the situation.
The Taoiseach: There is no requirement on me to give a time limit with regard to when that motion will come before the House. I said I would take over the position of Minister for Defence for the present. In due course we will——
The Taoiseach: To get back to the business on hand, there is no requirement for me to put a time limit on the nomination. I indicated to Deputy Gilmore that in due course we will make those appointments.
Yesterday an official of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform attended a briefing in Leinster House and advised of the likelihood of the mental capacity Bill being published in April. Given that the heads of that Bill are already agreed by Cabinet and that the Bill has been drafted will the Taoiseach instruct that the heads of that Bill be published immediately in order to give the other parties and health spokespersons a heads-up as to what is coming down the tracks in regard to this very important Bill? It is critical with regard to the health rights of people, in particular mental health.
In 2008 it was published as the “scheme” of a mental capacity Bill. I presume the “scheme” relates in some way to what I am seeking, namely, the heads of a Bill. Is what was published in 2008 still relevant? Has the so-called scheme changed with regard to the heads of the Bill to be published in April? I ask the Taoiseach to provide clarity and to confirm his willingness to ensure that the heads of the Bill, now agreed by Cabinet, will be published forthwith.
The Taoiseach: Whether the heads of the Bill can be circulated forthwith is a matter I must take up with the relevant Minister. However, I understand the Bill is due to be brought forward this session so, with the Bill near completion, it would probably be best to deal with the completed Bill this session.
Deputy Lucinda Creighton: I wish to ask about the legislation concerning the directly elected mayor of Dublin and, we are now led to believe, a regional assembly. I find it unacceptable that the heads of the Bill were provided to the media yesterday and we had to read about them in the newspapers today. It is indicative of the kind of Government we are seeing, which is via the media and with no regard for this House——
Deputy Lucinda Creighton: ——which were not made available to any Member of this House but which had been circulated widely to the media yesterday. It is not acceptable and shows sheer contempt for the Members.
Deputy Lucinda Creighton: Is it envisaged that the proposed regional assembly would be directly elected along with the lord mayor or whether it is simply window dressing? Is it envisaged to reform local government in a meaningful way or to just leave the four separate local authorities trundling on with a new layer of bureaucracy over them? That is what it seems to be — just an additional layer of bureaucracy. It is hugely disappointing from a Minister who proclaims a serious interest in reforming local government.
The Taoiseach: Sorry, I wish to make the point. The Bill certainly has to be circulated to Members but the heads of a Bill are often put on the website by Departments in an effort to be helpful and to provide stakeholders, interested parties and others with the opportunity to comment on the Bill.
Deputy Tom Sheahan: For a number of weeks I, like other Members, have been putting down parliamentary questions and receiving the one-line answer that the question cannot be answered within the timeframe given. It suits the Government not to answer parliamentary questions to Members. I am frustrated that the answer I got to questions I asked weeks ago was that the Department had not sufficient time to answer them. Those questions have not been answered to date. Should they not be dealt with in a rota? What will the Taoiseach or the Ceann Comhairle do to safeguard the right to have replies to questions in the House?
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I raised the same issue with the Ceann Comhairle two weeks ago and he kindly informed me that the matter was about to be resolved. I am sorry to have to agree with my colleague, not that I ever disagree with him, that what is happening is that the people of the country are being deprived of services and the whole system is coming to a halt. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is littered with appeals that are going around in circles, with no decisions being made.
We on this side of the House are receiving no answers to parliamentary questions and the Government is sitting smugly. Sadly, the end result is that many vulnerable people are being punished indirectly by the Government because it sees fit to do nothing about this subject.
Deputy P. J. Sheehan: On the same matter, I want direction from the Taoiseach. Will he take responsibility for this serious situation arising for democratically elected public representatives of this House who cannot obtain answers to questions? Three weeks ago, I tabled three parliamentary questions to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on behalf of three constituents, one regarding an application for jobseeker’s allowance, one on behalf of a person seeking carer’s allowance and the other on behalf of a person seeking the State pension. I received the same reply from the Minister to all three, namely, “Due to staff action currently being taken, I regret that I am unable to provide the information sought by the Deputy”. It is the prerogative of the Taoiseach to step in and to introduce legislation to this House immediately so that this conduct will cease and the Members of this House who are democratically elected are allowed to raise matters concerning their constituents and obtain answers thereby. I want immediate action.
Deputy Jack Wall: I have raised the same issue within my parliamentary party. One of the amazing points coming across is that some Deputies are offering a service to the Opposition that they will get replies through the Minister’s office.
Deputy Jack Wall: It is a very serious accusation. The point is that it is the people who are suffering, not us. We are being paid, as are the Ministers. The people suffering are those being deprived of this service, including the poorest. I ask that the Taoiseach would do something about this serious issue. Children and adults, including senior citizens, are being deprived of the right to know the position of their appeals or their payments. If the system is allowing the Minister to provide services for his own, we ask that the same be supplied across the board in this House.
Deputy Joe Costello: All Members are experiencing the same problem, with the Department of Social and Family Affairs the worst offender at present, probably because the staff there are the most overworked due to the current demand. I had the most unacceptable experience this morning. I had put down a question to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in regard to when the Minister intended to transpose the services directive, which should already be transposed. The answer I got was that there was not enough time to give me an answer on a matter that should already have been dealt with.
Deputy Fergus O’Dowd: On the same issue, what has happened in my constituency office is that while members of staff in the Department of Social and Family Affairs staff will answer the telephone, they will not talk to me, although they will talk to my constituents. A political decision has been made by the unions not to co-operate with Members of the Oireachtas. It is a critical issue which needs to be urgently addressed. Members of the public are entitled to get the facts but they are not getting them and are becoming stressed because staff will not answer telephones and, even when they do, they will not talk to us.
Deputy Emmet Stagg: On the same issue, it is basic bread money we are talking about. We are not talking about luxuries, or about Deputies being inconvenienced. We are talking about poor people who cannot get the most basic low payment to put bread and sausages on the table, because they will not buy any more than that with it. They are going to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is running out of money.
Whatever action the Government needs to take in talks with the unions, that part of it should be solved quickly. This is not costing the Government money, it is saving it money. It is not inconveniencing the Government in any way, rather it is in its interest that it would continue from the point of view of saving money. The only people being inconvenienced are the poorest in our society who cannot get the safety net money that would otherwise be available.
The Taoiseach: I do not believe the legitimate concerns of public servants will be advanced in any way through industrial conflict. Any industrial action, whatever form it takes, is regrettable, in particular if it has any impact on service delivery to the public. The public service management will do everything possible to minimise any such impact. Indeed, there are well established channels of communication with representatives of the trade unions in the public service in regard to the handling of disputes or work to rule actions to try to minimise unforeseen or unintended consequences. We will continue to use those well-established channels to avoid those unintended consequences, particularly on the most vulnerable. I know this is everybody’s hope. While an industrial relations dispute is ongoing, I do not think either party to the dispute would like to see unnecessary difficulty being caused for people who depend on the services to a greater extent than others. We should use those channels of communication to deal with any issues that might arise.
The work-to-rule situation means practices are in place which are affecting the role of public representatives and this has been a targeted initiative by those in the current industrial relations situation. We have to try to find a way forward generally to find a basis for engagement and we will work towards that. I am pleased to note the comments from figures on the trade union side, including the president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, that an agreed solution to the current difficulties is desirable and possible. The Government is always available to engage with its own employees and their representatives. However, I know that simply inviting unions in for talks without the right context or agreed agenda will not work. The well-established channels of communication with representatives of the unions in the public service could be used to establish whether a basis for engagement could be identified and we will continue to use those channels for that purpose.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: A Cheann Comhairle, on a point of order, two weeks ago, you promised me in the House that you had in mind a formula to resolve this particular problem but what has happened? You asked me to desist——
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I raised this issue two weeks ago for the reasons I have already stated and the Ceann Comhairle asked me to withdraw for the moment as the matter was in hand. What happened to the proposal he had in mind at that time? Has he contacted the relevant Ministers with a view to ensuring that those of us on the Opposition side of the House get answers to questions which is a requirement——
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Under the order of the way we do our business in this House, Members who put down a question are entitled to an answer to the question, be it written or oral. At this moment, the Government is bound to answer the oral questions and that is what happens, to be fair, albeit maybe in a peculiar fashion. However, no questions for written reply are being answered now, or very few of them. When I last raised this issue two weeks ago, the Ceann Comhairle indicated to me that talks were taking place which would have the effect of addressing the issue. This is exactly what he told me.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Never mind about the Chair. Those guys over there might find themselves in a different position very shortly. The Ceann Comhairle is quite correct in saying he has no control over the quality of the reply to a parliamentary question but it is the order of this House of long standing that replies are given to parliamentary questions. This is not a reflection on the Ceann Comhairle but rather it is the order of the House, the way we order our business. The Government is smugly laughing——
The Taoiseach: The logistics in each particular Department are a matter for the Ministers’ offices. I presume, in the event that we can get beyond the current dispute, the backlog will be dealt with in the normal way over a period of time when people come back.
Deputy Emmet Stagg: I wish to revisit the matter of management companies and I refer to the Bill which is on Committee Stage in the Dáil. I remind the House that I and others have been raising this matter for about six years. A Bill was produced and was debated on Second Stage in the Seanad and it is at that Stage now. The Minister wrote us a letter arising from the matter being raised in the House on a regular basis. He informed us that further consultation was required arising from representations received from a variety of stakeholders. This consultation has been going on for quite some time. Is there any possibility that the Bill will be required to be withdrawn and will a new Bill now be required? I am sure the Taoiseach is aware that this is a very pressing matter for large numbers of——
Deputy Emmet Stagg: I am almost finished my contribution, if the Ceann Comhairle will allow me. There are literally thousands of families who are paying up to €2,500 to have their grass cut by these companies.
Deputy Emmet Stagg: I am trying to stress the importance of this matter because it has been going on for six years, from the first time I raised it and maybe before then, but that is when I became aware of it in my own constituency. It is still going on and it is a serious issue. Maybe the new Bill arising from the consultation——
The Taoiseach: This is a matter which even Members from outside Kildare have been raising on a regular basis. I am glad to report that I understand Government amendments on Committee Stage will be submitted to the Seanad in the week beginning 11 March.
Deputy James Reilly: I will mention the Bill if I am pushed to it. It is important that we have clarity on this issue. Perhaps the Taoiseach would like to correct the record of the House because I have spoken to both Ryanair and Aer Lingus and neither knows anything about a competition. I refer to a raft of correspondence from Ryanair on this issue dating back to February 2009 so to say it expressed no interest is clearly not in line with the facts. On the day Aer Lingus is talking about letting go 1,100 workers and more than 100 SR Technics workers are marching from the Garden of Remembrance today in protest——
Deputy James Reilly: ——that the 300 jobs on offer from Ryanair are not being accommodated in any way. I said last week that the Taoiseach had been branded a liar by an international businessman. He is the leader of our country and I think he should stand up to that. If there is an issue to be clarified on the record of the House — I believe there is — then he should clarify it and correct it. I am asking him to do so. Before I sit down, the idea that the DAA, Dublin Airport Authority, has a licence which allows it to move Aer Lingus — Aer Lingus has admitted this——
Deputy James Reilly: ——and the Government owns 100% of the DAA and will not instruct it to accommodate these jobs at a time of terrible recession in this country and offer the 300 people some hope. I fail to understand it. There is a perception of a political bias against airline maintenance workers in north Dublin and this came across to me very strongly this morning. I am offering the Taoiseach the opportunity to correct that perception and to correct the record of the House.
The Taoiseach: If it is out of order, then so be it. I will reply to the Deputy that I have responded to those claims outside the House and they were made outside the House. I have indicated the position in relation to that matter. I repeat that we would greatly welcome an initiative by Ryanair or any other company that would create viable jobs at Dublin Airport. I reiterate what the Tánaiste, and subsequently the chief executive of IDA Ireland on her behalf, made clear last year. When the Tánaiste met Mr. O’Leary last week, she repeated that the Government will do whatever is practicable to support and facilitate job creation. I could go further in relation to that matter, but I have made it clear by way of public statement and otherwise that there is no basis to those contentions.
Deputy Michael Creed: I would like to refer to the impasse between the Office of the Ombudsman and the State. On 3 February last, the Ombudsman issued a press release in which she said her “only option” when such an impasse arises “is to seek the intervention of the Oireachtas”.
Deputy Michael Creed: If the Ceann Comhairle allows me to finish, I will ask a question that relates to legislation. The Ombudsman made it clear that the Oireachtas “now has the task of deciding who is right and who is wrong in the context of good administration and fairness to the complainant”. If this issue is to be resolved, a substantial motion needs to be brought before the House.
Deputy Michael Creed: The only remaining option is for the Houses of the Oireachtas to intervene. I do not suggest we should swallow the Ombudsman’s report hook, line and sinker, if Deputies will pardon the maritime pun.
Deputy Fergus O’Dowd: In response to Deputy James Reilly, the Taoiseach said that the Government is committed to sorting out its issues with Ryanair. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has refused to meet Ryanair or to get involved in this serious crisis in the aviation industry. Some 1,000 redundancies may take place in Aer Lingus——
Deputy Fergus O’Dowd: I will finish by mentioning that Ryanair has arranged a press conference for 3.30 p.m. today to put the facts of this case on the public record. There is a serious difference between the Government’s version of the truth and Ryanair’s interpretation of the facts.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I am not sure if the Ceann Comhairle is aware that the chief executives of the airlines, Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Mueller, will attend an Oireachtas committee meeting at 4.30 p.m. today.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I am disappointed that Mr. O’Leary does not intend to wait until he comes to the Oireachtas before he makes whatever points he has to make. He has chosen instead to hold a press conference just before he comes to the Oireachtas. I would like to ask the Taoiseach about a related matter.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: It is on the Finance Bill 2010, which is before the House at present. The Taoiseach is aware that all the airlines are in agreement on the issue of the travel tax. When it was introduced on 1 April 2009——
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I would like to ask the Taoiseach if he will lay the cost-benefit document on the travel tax before the House. When he was Minister for Finance, he used to issue documents in relation to poverty, etc.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Can we have a cost-benefit document in this instance? The Minister for Transport seems to think such a document exists, but I think there is no such document. If it exists, can the Taoiseach bring it in? That is all I am asking.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: I would like to return to a matter that was discussed across the floor earlier. The Taoiseach has assumed to his own Department the responsibilities of the Department of Defence. I would like to ask him about the two ministerial vacancies. There may be many links between the resignations of the former Minister, Deputy Willie O’Dea, and the former Minister of State, Deputy Trevor Sargent, but the only one that has been established to date is the involvement of the Garda Síochána in both instances. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to institute a ministerial inquiry under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 into Garda leaks?
The Taoiseach: I understand the Garda Commissioner has asked a chief superintendent from outside the area to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the issues arising from the resignation of Deputy Sargent. The chief superintendent has been asked to ascertain whether it is possible also to deal with how documents come into the public domain.
Deputy James Bannon: Can the Taoiseach give me an update on the progress being made with the monuments Bill? He might not consider the Bill, which will protect our national monuments, to be of pressing urgency, but I would beg to differ in that regard. It has been on the Order Paper for a long time. I would like to know when it will come before the House.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: The Taoiseach has observed that the ongoing industrial action is targeted at public representatives, particularly Members of the Dáil. I suggest that it does not appear to be affecting Ministers. I am not complaining about the fact that Ministers are able to do their business. It is a very odd industrial action — the target is supposed to be the Government, but the only one not affected is the Government. As Deputy Wall said, the poorest in the land are suffering. Is the Taoiseach prepared to initiate some action to bring this dispute to an end? It is not the case that the unions cannot be called in without a comprehensive agenda. We cannot have a situation in which the Members of the national Parliament cannot get straightforward answers to queries that are made on behalf of their constituents.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: I accept that. The Taoiseach agreed that the action is targeted at Members of the House. As Deputy Wall said, some of our colleagues on the Government side of the House have offered use of the facility of going through the Minister’s office——
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: I do not want to abuse their offer. When serious and urgent individual cases arise, I am glad to use any means of facilitating the resolution of such problems. It is not a partisan point. People have been waiting for months for their entitlements.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: We cannot even get a reply to it. Meanwhile, Ministers continue to be able to get replies. The trade unions have said that their action is targeted at the Government, but the only people suffering are the poorest in the land.
The Taoiseach: I do not accept — far from it — that we are not affected. We are all affected by this. Obviously, Ministers have ministerial duties to perform and, thankfully, we have been able to do that to the best of our ability. We have an ongoing industrial relations dispute here which is affecting all Members in one way or another. I do not accept the contention that certain people are being exempted from the impact of the action. We are all affected in the same way, as one would expect.
There are well-established channels of communication, as the Deputy knows, in an industrial relations dispute where staff representation and management maintain contact to ensure there are no unintended consequences in respect of an action going beyond what was envisaged. There is a preparedness in good industrial relations practice to ensure wider effects beyond what was intended do not occur. Contact is ongoing in this respect.
The optimum solution is to find a resolution to the problem and finding a basis for engagement is ongoing. However, that is a separate matter. In the handling of the dispute, we must ensure that we avoid unintended effects. Unfortunately, the nature of some the actions taken have affected how public representatives are able to discharge their parliamentary duties for their constituents, as in the answering of parliamentary questions.
We must see if we can ameliorate, mitigate or minimise these impacts. It is causing inconvenience and having an effect. Obviously, it was not intended to have no effect. When we, on behalf of management, bring it to the attention of staff interests that vulnerable people are affected or have had their entitlements deferred as a result of the action, we must ensure, through the normal arrangements, that such unintended consequences are avoided.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: What action has been taken to reintroduce traditional banking principles? For example, the Central Bank (Consolidation) Bill and the financial services (miscellaneous provisions) Bill are listed for publication in 2010, although I asked about them on 2 February and 9 February. The Government programme also states it is not possible to indicate when the financial services regulation Bill will be published. Since a return to traditional banking has been a fundamental pillar of the Government’s policy for the past two years, would it not be reasonable to give some indication as to when this pivotal legislation will be brought before the House?
The Taoiseach: We are working on two Bills. The Central Bank (consolidation) Bill is a large project and will be published towards the end of the year. Another Bill will come in this or in the next session to deal with some important and immediate reforms in integrating the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority model with the Central Bank one to form a Central Bank commission, reforms which the Minister for Finance wishes to undertake.
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