Thursday, 5 November 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Most people will be encouraged by and will want to support the action taken by the transport workers who are picketing the headquarters of some of the most highly paid and most cosseted public officials in the world who on the one hand are determined to preserve their extensive duty free facilities while at the same time are threatening the small perk which most ordinary people get from duty free sales and, more importantly, the jobs which are dependent on duty free sales. I am sure the view of probably everybody in this House would be that if duty free is abolished it should apply all round and if it is to stay, at least the hypocrisy which is now surrounding this issue should be shown up.
Mr. O'Toole: I support that point. Furthermore, there was a time when tax arrangements  for public representatives were better than and different from those for the rest of the community. At some stage we came to the conclusion that the idea of one law for one and a different law for another, or an upstairs downstairs system of entitlement was wrong and unacceptable. Today's news of a special arrangement for senior European public officials is completely and utterly wrong and it cannot be sustained. These people should make their positions clear. It has nothing to do with the personalities who hold those jobs at present. I understand this arrangement has existed for a long time. It is unacceptable and we should say so clearly.
Over recent weeks people have raised various pre-budget submissions. The House could do a good service, both to groups which make pre-budget submissions and also to the debate on the budget, by adding to the debate and informing people in a fuller way. I ask that the Leader consider having a full day of discussion on pre-budget submissions. Everyone in the House has interests in and commitments to various areas and many people have received pre-budget submissions. I do not need to list them because we all know what they are. It would be a useful addition to the budget debate that we would have a debate next week to discuss the pre-budget submissions of various interest groups. I ask the Leader to consider that. It should be followed up by a proper debate on the budget like that of last year.
I ask the Leader to consider having a meeting to discuss setting out the House's business. The House is too much at the mercy of the other House in terms of when legislation is passed there. We should decide our sitting days at the start of the session so that people can organise their business, diaries, work, committee meetings, council business and so on. The other House and Departments should relate to that. I am not blaming the Leader for having to call us in on certain Tuesdays and Fridays but people should have more notice. The only way we can achieve that is to strengthen the Leader's hand by stating our decided days of sitting, whether it be two, three or four days per week, over the next two months. In that way we will fit in our business.
Mr. Costello: I certainly support the call by Senator O'Toole for a day long discussion on pre-budget submissions but it would be extremely important that we would have the Minister for Finance in the House. I ask the Leader to arrange the debate in that context. There is not much sense in us talking to ourselves unless the Minister for Finance is here to listen to us.
With regard to duty free, I refer to the motion in the names of Labour Party Senators, item 12, motion 17, where we support the EU campaign for the retention of duty free status at airports and ferries. There was a debate on this some time ago but we are now approaching the deadline, July 1999, for the abolition of duty free. However, it appears it will be retained as a perk for an EU  hierarchy while it will be abolished in airports and ferry ports for the ordinary citizen.
The Leader of the House should arrange a debate on this issue so Members can make their stance clear. If duty free shopping is to be abolished, it should be abolished for everybody. I do not believe it should be abolished because it is a valuable means or window for a nation to present its goods. It is also a tremendous facility for the citizen who derives great enjoyment from such shopping.
Mr. Costello: I have something different in mind. I understand the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is due to make a decision on the Costina case tomorrow, so an early debate will probably not be possible. However, will the Leader of the House bring to the Minister's attention the concern about this matter expressed in the Seanad? Will he also ask the Minister if letters of support on humanitarian grounds, sent by a large number of prominent people in the community, have been received in the Department? There is concern that they were not considered when the original decision was made.
Mr. O'Donovan: I support yesterday's plea by Senator Bonner with regard to safety at sea which is an important issue. In addition to the tragedy off the Donegal coast, there was another drowning near Whiddy Island in west Cork in which a young man lost his life and his body has not yet been found.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to take a fresh look at the Gaming and Lotteries Act, 1956? There is a real need for updated legislation to cover gaming and amusement arcades, casinos and so forth. Will the Leader find out if new legislation is proposed and when it might come before the House?
I hope the Leader will also be of assistance with regard to the final matter I wish to raise. There is widespread use of mobile telephones but I have been made aware that all seagoing vessels  which have simple radio equipment, whether fishing boats or commercial ships, can clearly pick up conversations conducted on these telephones. This is most unusual. People conduct commercial and legal business over these telephones while many discuss private, confidential matters and it is unsettling that boats can easily pick up such conversations. This should be investigated. In this day and age of technological sophistication, there must be some system to prevent this happening. I am most concerned about the matter.
Mrs. A. Doyle: Recently, there have been disturbing reports about the development of another reprocessing facility by BNFL at the Sellafield plant. There are also reports about a waste storage depot in Pembrokeshire. Although they are separate issues, they cause equal concern. Would it be possible to have a structured discussion on this in the Seanad? Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, could come to the House, make a ten or 15 minute statement on the current position of the proposals by BNFL and the Government's response to them and follow that with a question and answer session in which all Members can participate. This would produce an informed discussion on the issue.
Statements will not suffice because, while Members will be allowed to put their views forward, the Minister of State's reply might not take all their points into account. It would depend on which civil servant prepared his script in advance. Some Ministers are able to respond specifically to points raised in a debate while others depend on a script. That is their prerogative and I respect that. However, I am seeking a structured discussion such as I have outlined, on BNFL's proposals and the proposal for the waste dump in Pembrokeshire, to take place in the next few weeks.
There is much heat and not much light on BNFL's activities in Britain, particularly on its west coast. Self-determination means nothing if it does not mean that we have control over our health and environment. The lack of consultation and communication by the British authorities with the Irish authorities is an abuse of power. I seek a debate on the matter so Members will have the opportunity to represent the views of their constituents.
Mr. Ryan: One of the great achievements by the green movement in Europe was the closure of nuclear power plants. In forthcoming elections, the electorate might remember the political parties which have been most consistent in resisting nuclear power. The parties of the left in Europe have also done a particularly good job in seeking the elimination of nuclear power. This will inevitably lead to the closure of Sellafield.
I agree with Senator Manning about the gross hypocrisy of the European Commission. There is a parallel for this behaviour. Similar luxurious shops existed for the privileged throughout eastern Europe before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The European Commission is yet another unelected, privileged bureaucracy claiming privileges for itself and it is time this practice finished. The Commission is an extraordinary institution. It is unelected, unaccountable, has powers it will give to nobody else and privileges it prefers nobody to know about. I am glad Senator Manning, a confirmed Europhile, was the first to raise the issue rather than somebody such as I whose motives on these matters are always and understandably suspect.
Mr. Ryan: Will the Leader of the House find out the state of progress on the deregulation of the licensing laws? The Government said it is committed to such deregulation. This emerged when the report of the Competition Authority was published but the issue appears to have gone to ground since then.
I agree with Senator O'Toole on the need to order how the House does its business. On a previous occasion I asked that the House consider making its sitting times family friendly, a request that produced considerable hilarity. I do not know whether it was because I made the suggestion or because I am a man and a man is not supposed to mention families. However, it is nice for families to know when its members will be at home or absent.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: It makes a major contribution to community life in rural areas. Everyone knows that in many ways FÁS is the life blood of the social, cultural and supporting services. We often hear concerns expressed by the providers of those services and what might happen if the role or community focus of FÁS changed. I believe Seanad Éireann could play an important role in the debate by taking on board those concerns and making a positive contribution to what the projected role of FÁS might be in the future.
Mr. Farrell: I ask for a debate on the abuse of alcohol. A number of murder cases came before the courts recently where it was alleged that the accused had over-indulged in liquor consumption. There are reports of third level students missing college on Mondays and Fridays because of the abuse of alcohol. Ten year old children are attending national schools with hangovers. The accident and emergency services in our hospitals are overloaded every weekend as a result of alcohol abuse.
Mr. Norris: I support my colleagues who called for a debate on the issue of duty free. It is a scandal that EU Commissioners have an allowance of 20,000 cigarettes, 400 litres of wine and 90 litres of spirits duty free each year. This is outrageous. We are now a two-tier Europe. It would be reasonable to abolish duty free if there was a harmonisation of tax regimes. However, there are discrepancies between the tax regimes and I do not believe that the abolition of duty free should be introduced until there is complete harmonisation of tax regimes.
I support Senator Costello's comments regarding the plight of the Costina family. There is a motion on the Order Paper on this matter. I would ask the Leader to undertake to transmit the strong feelings I am sure exist on all sides in this House in this regard. This family has been shamefully treated and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be required to give an explanation and ensure that this treatment does not continue.
I ask the Leader to draw to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda the situation which continues to obtain in the north city centre area regarding the behaviour of people after pub closing time. There was a newspaper headline not so long ago which read “Scandal of Club Drugs”. The article stated that the gardaí are targeting 12 discos and pubs on the south side. In the last couple of weeks one of these joints I know of was being refurbished and one could skate on the Ecstasy pills rolling  out from beneath the chairs. What are the gardaí doing about these problems on the north side of Dublin city?
Mr. D. Cregan: Would the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation come into this House to discuss the funding of sport both nationally and internationally? This funding is not being spent properly given that sport plays a part in the promotion of the country.
Mr. Burke: I support Senator O'Donovan's request for a debate on safety at sea. In the last session the Minister for the Marine stated he would bring forward new regulations and lay them before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I ask the Leader for the up-to-date position and for a debate on the matter.
Would the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government what is the position on the extension to urban boundaries because local elections will take place in the not too distant future? An extension to urban boundaries was granted during the last local elections and it is farcical that these extensions are still not in place.
Mr. L. Fitzgerald: I support Senator Doyle's call to have the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, come into the House to discuss the BNFL situation. This arises following the dishonourable and despicable behaviour of the British Government by reneging on an agreement entered into by both Governments to terminate processing of nuclear waste within the next few years at the plant and the announcement that processing facilities are to be expanded. I assume I will be given an opportunity to make my contribution to this debate given that Senator Doyle has already made her contribution.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I agree with what Senator Manning and others said about duty free. This matter has been discussed repeatedly in the past number of years. It is time for this House and the Government to call on the Commission to ensure that duty free is not abolished. Some 4,000 jobs are at stake in Ireland and 148,000 jobs are at risk throughout Europe. It is imperative that we focus on the Commission at this point and that the hypocrisy which exists in relation to EU Commissioners is brought to light. They must be requested to maintain the status quo in relation to duty free and the serious problem in relation to job losses must be highlighted.
Despite repeated representations in this House and outside to the Minister for Agriculture and Food in relation to the fodder crisis, there are still severely handicapped and disadvantaged areas excluded from the winter fodder scheme. I ask the Leader to again bring this matter to the attention of the Minister.
Mr. Chambers: I support the request for a debate on the abolition of duty free. While one cannot condone the double standards of EU Commissioners regarding their allowances for duty free goods, if they smoke all the cigarettes and drink all the wine to which they are entitled they will not have a long healthy life. It is important that the Minister comes to this House to discuss cushioning the effects of the abolition of duty free on our airports and ferry ports.
Mr. T. Hayes: I want to raise the question of which towns will qualify for the urban renewal scheme and the failure of the Minister to reach an agreement in Brussels on the matter. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister. Various local authorities have made submissions in this regard and they want to know if the Government has failed to get agreement in Brussels. I would like clarification of this matter.
Mr. Cassidy: In reply to Senators Manning, Costello, Ryan, Norris, Taylor-Quinn, Chambers, O'Toole and Moylan's expressed concerns about the abolition of duty free, the President of the Commission will attend this House on Thursday, 19 November. If Members wish I will provide time for a debate on the matter prior to his visit. I agree that the harmonisation of taxes has not taken place and there is not a level playing field. There are vast differences in the cost of motor transportation and various discrepancies in the tax bands in that regard. It is unfair that this proposal is being implemented and I will meet with the leaders this morning to see how best we can approach this. I have no problem with arranging another debate. However, as the President of the Commission is coming to the House, perhaps we can organise to show our protests and let him know how we feel about the duty free issue.
There is a requirement on the House to pass legislation and the number of sitting days necessary for that must be left aside. This morning there were calls for a large number of debates on important matters of concern to Senators. It is a difficult issue. Any Senator who has a worthwhile suggestion will find I am available to listen and I will see how I can facilitate Members on sitting days.
Senators O'Donovan and Burke called for a debate on safety at sea. I will leave time aside for this in the next four weeks. Senator O'Donovan announced to the House that boats at sea can pick up conversations on mobile phones. This is alarming and I will inform the Minister of this immediately after the Order of Business.
Senators Doyle, Ryan and Fitzgerald called for the Minister, Deputy Jacob, to come into the House to discuss the updated position regarding the BNFL proposals. I will contact the Minister's  office today to see if I can make some progress on this. Senator Ryan also called for a debate on the deregulation of the licensing laws. I will contact the Minister to see what the position is in regard to this matter.
Senator Ó Murchú requested a debate on FÁS and the major contribution it has made to the cultural, voluntary and other organisations which have benefited from its establishment. I will allow for a lengthy discussion of this in the House over the coming weeks.
Senator Farrell called for a debate on alcohol abuse. I will certainly leave time aside for this. It is one of the most important issues mentioned today. There were 7,000 new admissions to alcohol units last year. This is disgraceful and we as legislators should act on it immediately and highlight it to the best of our ability. I will leave time aside for this before the end of this session. Senator Norris expressed concern about the disruption caused by teenage drinking in the north inner city after the pubs and clubs shut. I will pass his views onto the Minister.
Senator Cregan called for the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation to come into the House. I can inform the Senator that the Minister will be in the House in two weeks' time. Senator Taylor-Quinn's concerns will be passed on to the Minister.
Mr. Cassidy: I have no objection to this. If there is to be a pre-budget debate we would like the Minister to be present. We will see if he is available. As the Senator knows, there are only a few weeks left before the budget but I will make a request today for the Minister to attend and will inform the House of the answer tomorrow morning.
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