Friday, 20 December 1996
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Manning: I thank all those who made the  work of the House possible this year. It has been a traumatic and difficult year for us with the loss of our beloved Cathaoirleach, the late Senator Liam Naughten. All of us would like the Naughten family to know they are in our thoughts as we finish our year's work today. I also thank the Clerk, Clerk Assistant and their staff for their total professionalism and courtesy during the year. I thank the press and television people who have given us regular coverage in an honest way. It is not their fault if we do not get the coverage to which we think we are entitled because they give an honest and fair service. I also thank the ushers, stenographers and all others who make the work of the House possible. I wish all of them and all colleagues a happy Christmas.
Today's Order of Business is Items 1, 2, 3 and 4. Item 1, as is traditional, will have one speaker from each group who will have no more than 15 minutes. All Stages will be taken on the understanding that the Bill will be left on the Order Paper for it to be fully debated in the New Year. Item 3 will follow straight after Item 2 to be then followed by Item 4.
Mr. Wright: On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I express good wishes to all for the year's work, to you, a Chathaoirligh, to the staff which you and the Leader have mentioned and to all who have helped make the House run as smoothly as it has this year.
I take it the matters announced on the Order of Business will run one after the other. There were so many announcements on yesterday's Order of Business it was hard to keep up with what was going on. I welcome the initiation yesterday of the Credit Union Bill, 1996. I take it the Programme for Change will be discussed in the new year. It is a major document which will have a significant influence on all local authority activities and I hope the Leader makes time in the new year to discuss it.
Dr. Henry: On behalf of the Independent Senators, I thank the staff of the House, the ushers and all who have been so helpful to us during the year. As the Leader said, it has been a traumatic session for us. We look forward to the new year which we hope will be luckier for us.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health about BUPA? It is a splendid medical scheme but the general public is entitled to know if its cash back schemes will be allowed under the community rating scheme. The public is also entitled to know if BUPA intends to register with the insurance ombudsman. The VHI is registered but BUPA is not registered with the British ombudsman. Will the Minister find out if it intends to register in Ireland?
Mr. Dardis: On behalf of the Progressive Democrats I would like to wish you, a Chathaoirligh, and all the Members of the House a happy and peaceful Christmas. I also join in the thanks to the staff in the Clerk's office, the staff of the  House and the press for their coverage. We have had a good session but we note the sad passing of Senator Naughten and we extend our good wishes to his family, and those of the late Senators Fallon and Wilson, over Christmas.
I join Senator Henry in seeking clarification from the Minister for Health on the status of people who have joined BUPA. Will the Minister reassure them that their status will be protected and that they will be eligible for cover in the new year?
I would also like to raise the claim made by local authority veterinary officers that pressure was put on them not to proceed with prosecutions against butchers in the Dublin area who were in breach of hygiene regulations. There was an outbreak of E-coli and some young mentally handicapped people were affected. There has been a tendency to understate the difficulties in the meat industry in the mistaken belief that this is in the national interest. Will the Minister for Health ensure that action is taken where breaches occur? Our food industry is very important and if we do not pursue these matters it will damage us in the long term.
Ms O'Sullivan: On behalf of the Labour Party I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, the staff of the House and the press and wish them a happy Christmas. The Naughten family will be in our thoughts this Christmas.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister for the Environment concerning changes in local government. Most of the coverage has been on the removal of charges but it is a much broader package than that. Reform of local government has been of particular concern to Members of the House and I am glad that there is now a broad package on the table. Much preparatory work has been done and I look forward to debating the issue in the next session.
Mr. Daly: I wish you, a Chathaoirligh, and the staff of the House a happy Christmas. May we have some indication from the Minister for the Environment of what the new local government arrangements will mean? If one is talking about the abolition of local charges and their substitution by road tax, this raises a series of questions as to how this will be achieved. Will new legislation be required and when will it be introduced?
These reforms limit the ability of local authorities to raise finances. Without seeing what the Minister has in mind, it seems we are playing musical chairs with the finances of local authorities, substituting one form of revenue for another. At the end of the day there will be no change.
Mr. Daly: This is substituting stamp duty at a much higher rate on properties worth £150,000. It does not deal with the fundamental issue of local authority finances. Rather than helping the matter, these changes will make things worse.
Mr. McDonagh: I join Senator O'Sullivan in commending the Minister for the Environment and the Government on the new proposals for the funding of local authorities. Many Senators are also councillors and most of us have been elected by councillors. Will the Leader convey our congratulations to the Minister and the Government?
We should also recognise the work done over the years by bodies such as the General Council of County Councils and the Local Authority Members Association. Many of their suggestions have been taken on board and the cash starved councils, who have struggled for the last 20 years since the vote buying exercise of 1977, can now look forward to a better future.
Mr. McDonagh: Will the Leader commend the Minister, the Taoiseach, the Cabinet and the Government for doing something meaningful at last for local authorities? They are bringing good news at a great time of the year.
Mr. Roche: I would also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the changes in local authority financing. If I were a member of the Labour Party I would not be smug about the fact that two stupid taxes, both introduced at that party's insistence, are being removed and that we are now playing musical chairs.
It is important that we have a full debate on what is happening in local authorities. We have had 17 separate reports on local government in this county since 1961. No politician in any party can be smug about the disastrous state of local government.
Could the Ministers for Social Welfare and Agriculture, Forestry and Food address the concerns of public representatives in the Wicklow area about the treatment of Coillte workers? This weekend a number of these workers will be suspended because they are refusing to drive their cars five miles into the forest. They are also refusing to unilaterally accept the breaking of work  practices which have existed for over 30 years. This will affect Coillte workers all over the country.
Mr. Roche: Coillte is trying to force workers off the payroll in order to massage the books. There is a need for an urgent debate on the way the company is operating. Will the Leader pass on the concerns of many public representatives in Wicklow to the two Ministers and ask that something be done? It is appalling that, in Christmas week, people do not know if they will be paid or what their circumstances will be immediately after Christmas.
Will the Leader of the House convey to RTÉ our dissatisfaction with the amount of time it allocates to the Oireachtas broadcasting unit to carry Seanad debates? The Leader has rightly acknowledged the level of coverage of the House by the print media and from the RTÉ broadcast unit. However, it can only use the number of seconds coverage made available to it. There are two Houses in the Oireachtas and there is something fundamentally wrong with the current allocation of time.
Mr. Doyle: I join the Cathaoirleach in his good wishes and thanks to the staff of the House for their service over the last year. I congratulate the Government on the abolition of the residential property tax. When Fianna Fáil was in Government with the Progressive Democrats it extended the tax and brought many of my constituents into the net. I am glad it has been abolished.
Mr. Doyle: The Oireachtas passed legislation on health insurance protecting the principle of community rating and providing for competition. It is wrong that any group should circumvent the wishes of the Oireachtas.
Mr. Norris: Unusually, I find myself in agreement with Senators on both sides of the House. I agree with Senator Roche's comments on the RTÉ coverage of the Seanad. I watched it last night and the impression was that the Oireachtas was closed because the Dáil session is finished. I got the impression from the broadcast that the Seanad would not be covered, although perhaps I misinterpreted what was said. They discussed  the publication of a general election report which is a report of the election to the Dáil. It is not a report of the election to the Oireachtas. There is an unfortunate tendency to minimise the importance of this House.
We will deal today with the remaining stages of the Oireachtas (Miscellaneous Provisions) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Bill, 1996, from which the Seanad is excluded. I am told there may be legislation subsequently dealing with funding for political parties. I heard the Minister for Finance say on the radio this morning that it was intended to provide a level playing pitch for individuals and parties. If there is no provision for the Seanad and, in particular, for Independent Senators there must be a question as to the constitutionality of the legislation. I notice the Leader is shaking his head and I will look forward to his response. I hope provision will be made not just for successful candidates but for all those who take a risk in the election, having regard to the number of votes they receive.
I agree with the points made by Senator Doyle and Senator Henry about BUPA coming into the Irish market and I share the concerns about fairness and the exclusion of vulnerable groups by some degree of financial chicanery.
Mr. Howard: I extend seasons greetings to you, a Chathaoirligh, the other Members, the staff of the House, the press and to all those who contributed to the successful operation of the House during the year.
Will the Leader arrange for a discussion on the currency? During the year the punt has strengthened considerably against a number of continental currencies—by more than 12 per cent against the deutschmark and 16 per cent against the French franc, for example. In the normal course of events this should be reflected in a reduction in retail prices. However, this has not happened. It is a matter to which we should devote some time.
Mr. Finneran: The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry recently sent a letter instructing local authorities to implement the Abattoirs Act, 1988—that is, those local authorities who were not implementing it out of their own funds. He has indicated that he will give some funding towards its implementation but it will be up to the local authorities to provide for it from their own resources. There is a knock on effect for food safety considerations if there is no proper system for the inspection of abattoirs which slaughter fewer than 1,000 head. That is in effect what is happening in 12 counties. If the Minister wishes to protect the health of consumers he should fully fund the implementation of the abattoirs legislation.
 I recently asked the Leader to seek an assurance from the Minister for Health that community rating would be observed by BUPA. This has been a bad week for health insurance. It was indicated there is a gap of about 7 per cent in the VHI cover for some private hospitals which the subscribers will have to pay.
Mr. Finneran: Will the Leader of the House seek an immediate statement on the matter from the Minister for Health? The Attorney General is questioning whether BUPA has adhered to the guidelines. The Minister should make a statement on the matter. Elderly people will find themselves worse off on account of this new competition.
The Leader should seek clarification from the Minister for Health and an assurance that amending legislation will be brought forward to ensure fairness and community rating. We accept competition is needed but community rating must apply to ensure the vulnerable sections of the community are not penalised.
Mr. Townsend: I join in wishing the Members and all others connected with the House a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment for introducing a new system for financing local authorities. This has been talked about for more than ten years, yet the Minister is the first to have the courage to do something about it.
Mr. Ross: I thank the Leader for the representations he made on our behalf about the Universities Bill, 1996. I acknowledge there are dozens of proposed amendments to it to transform what was a dog's dinner of a Bill into something else. Whether it is satisfactory is another matter which we will have to consider in this House at a later date. Having thanked the Leader for what he did on our behalf, when will the Bill come before the House and how much time does he intend to give it?
Mr. Maloney: Every political party in the House should bring whatever pressure they can to bear on church leaders to see that something is done about the demonstrations at Harryville Church in Ballymena. Yesterday the president of the Independent Orange Order issued a statement supporting the demonstrations at that church. It is the worst form of religious bigotry we have seen for a long time. For the last 14 weeks there have been demonstrations there every Saturday night. We are now moving into the Christmas season and they are organising themselves to picket people who are trying to go to their place of worship. They will even hone in on midnight Mass. We should ask church leaders North and South to see what can be done to bring pressure to bear on these groups. The Independent  Orange Order is a religious grouping, not a ladies carol singing group. It is an absolute disgrace that it is playing politics with this matter. It might help the Christmas season if we can bring pressure to bear on that group and others to cease their activities.
Mr. Farrelly: I support the call for a debate in the new year on local government. It is interesting to note that my former colleague in County Meath, the present spokesperson for the Environment, does not know whether he wants the charges abolished, although he did when he was seeking votes in 1987.
Mr. Farrelly: As has been mentioned, we would like to see the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry fund the implementation of the Abattoirs Act around the country. A number of counties have implemented it. It is irresponsible, however, for councillors and Senators not to implement the Act but call instead on the Department to do so. There is a duty to implement it for the sake of people's health. Will the Leader ensure that whatever power he has is brought to bear on his colleagues and councillors around the country to implement the Act in the interests of health and food safety? Councillors should implement it as the rest of rest of us did five years ago. The then Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry did not provide us with funds but we did it in the interests of people's health and safety.
Mr. Calnan: I wish Christmas greetings and a happy new year to the Cathaoirleach, Members of the House, the staff of the Seanad Office and all those involved in running this House. Will the Leader convey to those in charge of Oireachtas Report the fact that the Seanad is sitting today and will be sitting in 1997 also? We want everything that happens in both Houses of the Oireachtas, not just what occurs in one House, to be reported.
Will the Leader convey our concerns to the Minister for Health regarding BUPA? It has been brought to my notice that while the general plan is for everybody, there are selective plans called protection A, B, C, D and a gold one. All age bands are included in this but I do not think that  was the intention in having free competition. The matter is with the Attorney General at present but the Minister for Health will have to act quickly on this to provide a proper service for everyone.
I would like the Leader to convey to the Minister for the Environment our appreciation for his work on local government. Much has been said about reform in council chambers throughout the country over the years but we have now seen something tangible.
To those involved in coalitions, I would say that if there is agreement regarding taxes it is the responsibility of all parties to the agreement to support it. If people are not prepared to take that on they should not be involved in coalitions.
Mr. Manning: I thank the Leader of the Opposition for drawing attention to the publication of the Credit Union Bill which has come out on schedule. It is a worthwhile Bill and I hope it will quickly find its way onto the Statute Book. There will be a major debate on all aspects of local government in the next session. I had hoped to have it during this session but certain decisions had to be reached in Cabinet first. These decisions have now been taken. As Senator Roche said, there are quite a number of publications, some of them recent, which could form the basis for a debate. The debate in the next session will be open ended as many Members of the House will want to contribute.
Senator Henry and others raised the question of BUPA. It is my understanding that the whole question of community rating is central to this sector. This was clearly spelt out by the Minister. I do not think there is any way around that. The matter is being treated as one of urgency. As is appropriate, the Minister has taken legal advice from the Attorney General on the matter. We will shortly have clarification which protects the whole principle of community rating.
In an omnibus contribution, Senator Roche raised a number of issues many of which were covered by other speakers. I will refer on the question of Coillte as I am not familiar with the details involved.
Senator Roche and others also raised the question of Oireachtas Report. I am astonished that Oireachtas Report will not be broadcast today, if that is the case. It is my clear understanding that RTÉ has an obligation to broadcast Oireachtas Report if either or both Houses of the Oireachtas are sitting. I will be in immediate contact with RTÉ after the Order of Business to establish the position. In my view, it would certainly be unprecedented for RTÉ unilaterally to break what I  understand to be a clear agreement with the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I think Senator Norris is under a misconception about the matter he raised. The Seanad is not excluded from the Oireachtas (Miscellaneous Provisions) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Bill, 1996, which will be taken later today. The point at issue is that there will be further legislation dealing with the spending of money at election time rather than the funding of political parties on a day to day basis. There will be a need for separate legislation for the Seanad on that matter and that will follow in due course.
Senator Howard raised an important point which should be accommodated in an ongoing series of debates on economic and monetary union during the next session. Senator Finneran raised points with which I have already dealt.
All my Christmases are coming together because Senator Ross thanked me for my input in changing the Universities Bill. I have found the Minister for Education to be extremely responsive to constructive suggestions made from all sides of the House on the Universities Bill. She has consulted with and listened to Members. The Bill which emerges will be good legislation. As to the timetable, I expect the Dáil to complete it not later than the end of February.
Mr. Manning: It will then come to this House. Senator Ross can be assured that it will be given as much time as is needed. There will be no question of restricting time on that Bill. The House has a positive contribution to make to the Bill and, in fact, Senators made good contributions in its early stages.
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