Wednesday, 17 February 1999
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Manning: The Order of Business is agreed. I understand and support the reasons for the postponement of a debate on Northern Ireland. However, will the Leader indicate when he hopes to have that debate? It is important that we debate it soon. It is also important that the bipartisan support for the peace process continues.
The extraordinary driving tests situation was raised by people with me over the weekend. Young people have problems in not being able to get an insurance quote because they are young and do not have a full licence. This is a service regulated by the State, and we cannot accept that people have to wait up to a year or longer for a driving test. The Leader should ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to make some short-term arrangements to clear this backlog. It is creating grave hardship for many young people, leaving them out of pocket at a time of soaring rents. I ask that this be made a priority.
Mr. Costello: I agree with Senator O'Toole's comments on driving tests. Young people are experiencing great difficulty getting insurance because of the driving test backlog. Forty five people died on our roads since Christmas, and nine of those deaths were over the St. Valentine's Day weekend. We have also had 45 people die on the roads since Christmas, and nine of those deaths took place over the St. Valentine's Day weekend. I am sure the difficulties for young people in getting a chance to do their driving test  and to get insurance is a contributory factor to this.
In relation to Allied Irish Bank, Senator O'Toole has under-estimated their profits. That profit will not be £801 million but £826 million, a 42 per cent increase on last year. I have asked on other occasions for a debate on the sale of the State banks and I do so again today given reports that the Cabinet agreed yesterday to the sale of the ICC, ACC and TSB. We all know how important the ICC is for small businesses and how important the ACC is for the farming community. Given that the big banks have not covered themselves in glory in the last few years, particularly in relation to their ability to write off bad debts for prominent people, it is time for a full debate on the banking system.
Will the Leader find out if any legislation is promised for the genetically modified food sector? There is a huge controversy in the European Union about the propriety of the availability, consumption and production of these foods. Monsanto produces genetically modified foods in this country, and it transpires that we are consumers as these foods have entered our food chain. There appear to be no proper standards for labelling these foods. Will the Leader find out what legislation in this area is promised? Will he ensure that we have a full debate on this issue?
Mr. Dardis: I share Senator Costello's view that it would be useful to have a debate on genetically modified foods. I do not think it is covered by tomorrow's debate on agriculture; it is a separate issue. We need to be prudent about this. There seems to be evidence that this experiment in the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland casts a shadow over genetically modified crops. However, all of us in agriculture know that lectins, the substances involved, can be toxic. I would need to read the detail of the experiment to know whether these lectins were included with potatoes or if they were genetically modified within the potato. That needs to be clarified.
I understand these concerns, if people who are very concerned about genetically modified crops were consistent they would not visit the United States. Pretty well everything eaten in America contains genetically modified food.
Ms Cox: I support the call for a debate on this matter. Labelling is very important. There may be worries about people in the US but I am worried about what happens to Irish people buying food without knowing whether the ingredients have been genetically modified. For 25 years there has been genetic modification in medicine and agriculture so it is time we had a debate on this subject and I look forward to the Leader arranging it for us.
Mrs. Ridge: I ask the Leader to arrange the long promised debate on the obscene publications Act. The Fianna Fáil general election manifesto promised to review and reform the censorship laws and, although I reached agreement with the Leader for such a debate, he reneged.
Mrs. Ridge: I ask that we take on board the concerns of the public, not just parents, about the availability of high porn on low shelves, accessible to children. We are doing nothing about this. I ask that the Leader honour his agreement to debate this and that we do our duty. I do not care how many adults have access to this material but I do not want to see Hustler in the grocers.
Miss Quill: I run the risk of being known as a single issue Senator, nonetheless, I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come here for a debate on the relentless deterioration of water quality. With a stroke of his pen he could ban the use of phosphate based detergents and that would make a huge difference, similar to the difference made when the Minister, Deputy Harney, had the courage to ban the use of bituminous coal in Dublin. I feel strongly about this issue because the Minister could take this measure without too much trouble. Other initiatives need to be taken to deal with industrial and agricultural pollution, but they are much more difficult.
Mr. Coogan: I support Senator Quill's request for a debate on water pollution and water standards. At a recent debate in which the Senator played a large part, I mentioned that the Irish Government had been reported to the EU about the number and standards of tests which it carried out, but the Minister has not replied.
On the proposed sale of the Great Southern Hotel Group, in which I strongly believe, could the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, come to the House to indicate whether the sale is going ahead and, if so, what protections will be put in place for current employees and what assurances were sought to ensure those hotels are not asset-stripped and sold off as apartments? We should guarantee into the future the employment of people who have made a strong contribution to those State owned hotels.
Mr. Ryan: I ask the Leader to pass on my congratulations to the Minister for Health and Children for the wonderful job he is doing improving the Canadian health service by exporting the best chief executive a hospital ever had.
Mr. Ryan: I ask the Leader for a debate on the imminent deregulation of electricity services. Recent newspaper reports show that our domestic electricity charges are the second lowest in the EU. The immediate consequence of deregulation, as the Regulator stated, will be an increase in those charges. Will someone explain why that is a good development? Perhaps the public should be informed that there will be an increase in domestic electricity charges. I am a simple man and I believe that cheap electricity is good, but it is obvious others do not share my opinion.
I congratulate the Leader for apparently accepting the logic of an argument put forward by Members on this side of the House that Committee and Report Stage debates should be taken separately. I gather that we will only take Committee Stage of the Bill before the House this afternoon and that Report Stage, as is proper, will be taken at a later date. I am glad the Leader has seen sense.
Mr. Moylan: I support Senator O'Toole's call for a resolution of the huge problems and costs arising from delays in driving tests. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to take action to speed up the testing process? Families are incurring major costs as a result of having named drivers on provisional licences, who are obliged to wait long periods before being tested, included on their motor insurance. Given the huge backlog, we should request that a points system be applied in respect of driving tests where the Minister might be in a position to grant licences to people who have gained enough points to be considered competent drivers. Under the current system, this problem will only be resolved by employing temporary officials to carry out driving tests. The system has been in place for many years and it is time it was changed.
Mr. Coghlan: I support calls for urgent action to alleviate the problems caused by the huge backlog in the numbers of people awaiting driving tests. Perhaps the Leader will enlighten the House with regard to what, if anything, the Government is doing about this unfair situation which has led to major costs for those involved.
I also support Senator Coogan's call for the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy  O'Rourke, to come before the House to inform us of her intentions in respect of the Great Southern Hotels Group.
Mr. T. Hayes: I support calls for a debate on genetically modified food. There has been a great deal of hype about this which has led to public concern. Proper information should be provided by the relevant Department. Regardless of whether a debate takes place in the House, members of the public must be provided with clear and simple information about this matter in order to allay their concerns.
Mr. Callanan: I support calls for a debate on genetically modified food and the use of genetics in general. There is a great deal of loose comment abroad which has not been beneficial to producers, consumers or anyone else. Yesterday the chairmen of the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Ireland and the Consumers' Association of Ireland – both of whom are eminently qualified – spoke about this matter on radio. If Members intend to make comments on this matter, they should make informed comments. I fully support calls for a debate which, hopefully, will help to clear the air.
Mr. Gallagher: Will the Leader ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Fahey, who has responsibility for children's affairs, to come before the House to provide an update on the introduction on better reporting mechanisms in respect of child abuse and the establishment of proper registers of abusers? I raise this matter in the context of a recent court case in which it was highlighted that a former teacher had abused students in a number of schools over a period of decades. The Minister for Education and Science has admitted that the Department was aware of these allegations 17 years ago but the case has only recently come before the courts. This is frightening because something of this nature could happen in the future. It is imperative that the Minister of State should respond to people's concerns at the earliest opportunity.
Dr. Fitzpatrick: I support a call for a debate on genetically modified foods. Will the Leader advise why medical card holders in the 35 to 54 years age group cannot avail of routine dental treatment, notwithstanding the fact that there is an agreement between The Irish Dental Association and the Department of Health and Children to provide it? It appears the health boards are reneging on their obligations.
Mr. Cassidy: Senator Manning requested a debate on Northern Ireland. I will arrange for one to be held as soon as possible. I thank the House for its understanding of the position I found myself in late last week.
 Senators O'Toole, Costello, Moylan and Coghlan expressed concern about the driving test problem. The Minister has appointed extra testers. However, I will leave time aside at the earliest opportunity to have the matter discussed in the House.
Senators Fitzpatrick, Costello, Dardis, Tom Hayes, Callanan and Cox requested a debate on genetically modified foods. The leaders in the House will meet tomorrow after the Order of Business. I will raise this matter with them to see how it can be discussed at length in the House to the advantage of all.
There will be a debate on Senator Ridge's request within the next two weeks. I note her points. They coincide with the commitments in our party manifesto and in the programme for Government, which is now at an advanced stage of implementation, despite the fact that the Government has been in office for less than two years. I am sure the Senator is pleased about that. I will arrange for another debate on water quality, as requested by Senators Quill and Coogan..
Senators Coghlan, Coogan and Tom Hayes called for a debate on the Great Southern Hotel Group. I share their views and concerns. The hotels in the group are a great asset to the State and have given it a great service. They have been a great source of employment and have given much enjoyment to those who have frequented them. They are magnificent places of entertainment where people can enjoy life and their leisure time.
I hope the hotels in the group will not be sold, despite the rumours. When the economy is buoyant rumours circulate which are sometimes without foundation. Perhaps this is one such rumour. If the Senators feel strongly about the matter next week when the rumour has subsided, perhaps we will seriously consider their request and see what can be done about allocating time for a debate.
Senator Ryan referred to the deregulation of electricity generation. This is to comply with EU regulations. The Senator is first substitute for his party for the EU Parliament in the same way that I am for my party for the Leinster constituency. Being a substitute for the past five years I can advise him that, unfortunately, he will not get to visit Canada too often.
Senator Gallagher called for better reporting on child abuse and asked me to inquire of the Minister the position regarding registration of offenders. I will do so. I will pass Senator Fitzpatrick's comments on dental treatment for medical card holders to the Minister.
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