Thursday, 9 November 2000
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on Agenda 2000 and the new World Trade Organisation Round, to conclude not later than 4 p.m. Senators' contributions will be of 30 minutes duration and business will be interrupted from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Mr. Manning: The Order of Business is agreed, although I cannot say I am very happy with it. This is a fairly specialist subject and requests have been made for statements on many issues. Perhaps in future the Leader could agree to have two sets of statements on a Thursday. That would be a better use of our time.
Will the Leader indicate, as he said he would yesterday, when the debate on Northern Ireland will take place? Also, in so far as he can, will he let the other group leaders have some indication of the legislation he intends to take between now and Christmas? I have asked for this before but it would be helpful to have it.
Dr. Henry: Agenda 2000 is top of the agenda for the Independents also today. I second Senator Manning's call for an indication when future  legislation will be brought forward so that we can plan ahead.
Mr. Costello: The agenda for today's business for today is a bit short, with only one item, albeit an important item. Perhaps the Leader would accept Senator Manning's suggestion that we would consider a second item for statements. The Government could choose one item and the other could be chosen from the issues raised by the Opposition.
We have asked for a debate on Northern Ireland virtually every day over the past few weeks. We are now facing another crisis in the North with the breakdown in meetings of the North-South bodies as a result of the position being taken by the First Minister, so it is appropriate that we would debate that issue and I ask the Leader to arrange it.
I would like the House to have the opportunity to debate the teachers' dispute. We are in a rather unique position in that the Taoiseach is intervening in an industrial dispute with his article in The Irish Times this morning. It may not be megaphone diplomacy but it is certainly newspaper diplomacy that is taking place at a distance. I am concerned that this dispute is being hyped up unnecessarily. It would normally be dealt with solely by the Minister for Education and Science and for the Taoiseach to come out and speak in such strong terms reminds me of what happened in the 1980s, when a former Taoiseach referred to an industrial dispute by teachers being a constitutional crisis.
If this dispute comes down to a showdown, it will be difficult to resolve. I would prefer to have proper negotiations with the teachers rather than statements at a distance, whether it is in relation to the Government not paying the teachers for withdrawing their supervisory duties or the Taoiseach intervening at a stage where a showdown now seems almost inevitable. We should have a debate on that issue in this House.
Ms Cox: I ask the Leader to speak immediately to the Minister for Finance on an issue relating to the banks, and perhaps we could have a debate on it as soon as possible. It has come to my attention that from next Monday, the Bank of Ireland will introduce a policy which will mean that people can no longer cash cheques at their branches. They must lodge cheques to their particular account. That means that people in many areas of the country, particularly older people and those living in rural communities who may not have a bank account, are now to be forced by this bank and I believe by the other banks into opening bank accounts to allow them lodge their cheques. That is appalling and the bank should be asked to re-examine that policy. It is not fair that people should have to open a bank account to be able to cash cheques. I ask for a debate as early as possible.
Mrs. Jackman: I asked for a debate on the forthcoming dispute on Tuesday next by teachers and I asked the Minister to come into the House. I am extremely disturbed by the aggressive and confrontational tone of the Taoiseach in today's The Irish Times in relation to teachers. We talk about the Celtic tiger coming about as a result of the emphasis we put on education, and teachers do not take strike action lightly.
Mrs. Jackman: I asked for such a debate on Tuesday but the request fell on deaf ears. We are getting close to the wire and I expect there will be negotiations rather than confrontation at this late stage. I appeal for some conciliation and discussion so that the dispute might be resolved before next Tuesday.
Mr. Farrell: I support Senator Cox's call for a debate on the banks. It would be a sad day if people could not cash cheques. The argument is that one has to pay to open an account and to cash a cheque and that means more money for the bank's coffers. It is a sorry state of affairs when everything is based on profit.
There was much debate on the recent weather and people who obtained a £9 air fare to Paris. Ryanair received very unfair coverage. It provided a service, while Aer Lingus charges £400 for half the distance.
Mr. Farrell: Will the Leader ask insurance companies to include an extra £5 or so premium along with their health insurance to cover situations such as hijackings, storms and other natural disasters which are not within the control of airlines? Such incidents do not happen very often and should be covered by insurance. This provision would save much hardship when disasters, such as storms, occur.
Mr. Walsh: I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. Such a debate would be timely given that one hurdle has been crossed but that others are arising. Tremendous progress has been made and I hope we will have an early debate on this issue.
I oppose the call for a debate on the teachers' pay claim which breaches the PPF. It would be incongruous for this House to involve itself in lab our disputes as they are matters for employers and unions.
Mr. Walsh: It is unacceptable that people who depend on unions for their funding are in a position to raise issues in which they have a vested interest. This issue should be looked at as part of the proper probity—
Mr. Walsh: Will the Leader arrange a debate on local government in the next few weeks? The enhancement of democracy and the empowerment of local councillors is an issue which is not fully addressed in the local government Bill. The fact that this Bill will come before the Dáil in the first instance means that it will not be debated in this House until probably February or March. Many Senators are councillors and I would like them to have the opportunity to factor certain issues and concerns into the debate in the Dáil rather than face the difficult task of trying to amend the Bill after it has been passed by the Dáil.
Mr. Coogan: I would like the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, to explain to the House his attack on local authorities which was an attempt to blame them for the flooding and disasters suffered by unfortunate people. Does the Minister of State not believe in democracy? People have a right to object to and examine any proposals which come before them and that is the cause of the delay. However, it is a sleight of hand to try to blame local government.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I support Senator Cox's call for a debate on the restrictions banks are placing on the cashing of cheques. There is no doubt this will place an intolerable burden on many sections of society, particularly the most vulnerable. Many people have no bank accounts and do not know how to operate them. The new restrictions will be very inconvenient for people and we should have an urgent debate on this issue and get the banks to reverse this decision.
Mr. Coghlan: We spoke about banks and banking yesterday and Senator Cox made a telling point if her information is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt what she said. We must appeal to and prevail upon the banks not to take this action. Rural Ireland has suffered too much already as have the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people. I refer to the comments made in the House yesterday.
Mr. Chambers: I support the calls for a debate on the withdrawal of banking services. This issue  was raised on the Order of Business yesterday and it is time the Minister for Finance examined the provision of financial services to the public. There is an opportunity for Government to deal with this issue in the long term and to provide sustainable services.
This is an opportune time to have a debate on EU enlargement in light of the Taoiseach's recent statement on the Government's attitude towards this issue and the representation Ireland is seeking and intends to hold on to at the Commission and in the European Parliament. The Minister for Foreign Affairs should be asked to come to the House to outline the Government's proposals on this issue and how it intends to achieve them.
Mr. Ryan: The real problem is the reluctance to do so. The solution is to create other institutions which can compete with the banks. The obvious approach is to give An Post a full banking licence but the Government is very reluctant to do so. If we do not take such measures the banks will continue to abuse us as they have always done.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the results of a research project published in The Irish Times some weeks ago which show that in terms of accepting asylum seeker status, Ireland's refusal rate is two or three times higher than countries such as the UK or Denmark? These countries are similar to Ireland yet, through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, our system refuses three times as many asylum applications as the procedures instituted by the last Conservative Party Government in Britain. These measures were supposed to be draconian but we are three times worse. It is time we addressed this issue and I would like to do so.
I support Senator Costello's call for a debate on teachers' dispute. I find incomprehensible the selective suggestion that we should not debate this issue but the Taoiseach should have the freedom of the media to say what he likes about it. Whatever the merits and demerits of the teachers' case, if they go on strike they will not be paid. When gardaí went on a deliberately deceptive sick leave day off they were all paid as if they were sick. This showed a dereliction of duty on the part of the then Government that it conspired to pay people who told the State they were sick but who were out walking on the streets. The State paid those people for the day when they were not sick at all. It is a bit rich for people to strike moral poses about teachers who, at least, will go on strike honestly.
Mr. Burke: Will the Leader ask the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, to come into the House to explain the difficulties Iarnród Éireann has negotiating with local authorities? From the point of view of local authorities, negotiating with Iarnród Éireann is the biggest problem with the development of national and county roads which are crossed by railway lines. The company is causing great difficulties and does not seem to care.
Will the Leader also arrange a debate on the BMW region during this session? Such a debate would facilitate an evaluation of how the funding is being spent in the region and ensure that each part of the region is getting its fair share.
Mr. Bonner: I also support the call by Senator Cox and others for a debate on banking. In many situations quite a number of citizens would not be in a position to cash cheques based on that rule because they have not been allowed to open bank accounts. On numerous occasions housewives in particular have contacted me where a bank has refused to let them open bank accounts. The banks have sought ridiculous detail such as ESB bills and invoices. As we will all be aware, in many cases those bills, particularly ESB bills, would be in the name of the husband. I have made this argument with bank managers and found little divergence from that policy. In many cases they have accused Members of the Oireachtas of being responsible due to the legislation regarding the opening of bank accounts enacted to deal with moneylaundering, etc., but it is ridiculous that one must provide such evidence to prove that one lives in a house.
This is just another issue related to the long list of changes over the years in the administration of the banks. The friendly local bank has gone. Most of the staff who were there for years have been replaced by junior staff and management, who have no loyalty and in fact do not know many of their customers. It would be a good idea to open up such a debate.
Mr. Cassidy: I have no difficulty with Senator Manning's suggestion to take statements on two issues on Thursdays, but it has been my experience during the 27th Seanad that agriculture is one of the most important topics of debate and such debates generally run for five, six or seven hours. Agenda 2000 is profoundly important, as is the World Trade Organisation and everything associated with it. The indications I have had from Senators on this side of the House at least are that they want as much time as possible. I hope both sides of the House take the issue as seriously as I do and I will review the position after today's contributions.
Senators Manning, Walsh and Henry called for a debate on Northern Ireland. As I said in the House yesterday, I am endeavouring to have this debate at the earliest opportunity. I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by the Senators who again this morning called for a debate.
Senators Ryan, Costello, Jackman and Walsh called for a debate on the teachers' dispute. I will allow time for this. As I said yesterday, I hope everybody will get around the table and come to a successful conclusion as soon as possible. There is a lesson to be learned from the 1987 social partnership or national understanding, as it was then known. Everybody concerned and those of us who were Members of the House prior to the 1987 getting together of employers and employees recognise the decline in the incidence of strikes. That has been our greatest success, that everybody got together, knew where they were going and could plan their future. It is unfortunate that we are faced with this strike. I hope it will not take place and that people will return to the negotiating table and finally thrash out what must be agreed at the end of the day.
Senators Cox, Bonner, Farrell, Ó Murchú, Coghlan, Chambers and Ryan called for an early debate on the changing structures in banks, where they will not cash third party cheques. I will provide time for this. It is a significant change, as I said here yesterday, and it must be looked at. Government must meet the challenge and see how it can be addressed.
I can certainly pass on to the Minister Senator Farrell's views regarding passengers of low fares airlines. As I said here previously, Ryanair has done as much as, if not more than, any organisation to bring tourists to Ireland with its magnificent packages. This was an unfortunate incident. It would probably be classified as an act of God for insurance purposes, but I will certainly pass on his views to the Minister.
Senators Walsh and Coogan expressed opinions on local government and called for a debate. I understand the Bill is being taken in the Dáil next week and it will be taken in the Seanad next February. If Senators feel so strongly that they wish to express their views, I would have no difficulty in allowing time for such a debate in the coming weeks.
Senator Chambers called for a debate on enlargement of the European Union and I will allow time for this. I can pass on to the Minister Senator Ryan's views regarding the rate of refusal of asylum seekers.
Senator Burke called for a debate on the BMW area and regional funding, the £6 million a day for six years coming to this region. As I said here previously, Senator Burke possibly feels that his area is not being looked after as well as it should be. We in the midlands, as Senators Moylan and Glynn will be aware, feel the same way. It is an issue for which I will certainly provide time. It is a matter of getting proposals from the various areas and motivating the people to submit proposals from local authorities and various other agencies such as county development boards to  ensure they get a fair allocation for their areas. I will also pass on Senator Burke's views to the Minister for Public Enterprise regarding Iarnród Éireann.
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