Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, 1999: Report Stage.

Thursday, 7 December 2000

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 164 No. 19

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An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly  Zoom on Brian Mullooly  Before we commence I remind Senators that they may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. On Report Stage each amendment must be seconded.

Amendments Nos. 1, 3 and 10 to 14, inclusive, are related and may be taken together by agreement.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I move amendment No. 1:

In page 18, line 42, after “and” to insert “such information shall also be published by electronic means and”.

I welcome the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to the House. I thank her for adjusting her schedule to take Report Stage this week rather than, as was planned originally, to take Committee and remaining Stages on the one day. This legislation is a reminder of the need to take our time.

A number of amendments were tabled but none was accepted. I was afraid that the message might have gone out that the Minister did not plan to listen and improve the Bill. The fact that she waited until today to take Report Stage is evidence that she is willing to listen to us and to improve the Bill.

I resubmitted most of the amendments I tabled on Committee Stage. I did that not because I hope they will be accepted by the Minister but to give us an opportunity to discuss the quite important principles involved. It is for reasons of principle and expediency that I believe these amendments should be accepted. I hope the Minister will consider and accept them.

[1389] Let me begin by addressing the reasons suggested by my colleague, Senator Norris, last week. He suggested that the rejection of the amendments could be put down to a reluctance on the part of the Minister to go to the bother of returning to the Dáil to have my amendments passed there, especially in the run up to Christmas. Last week he bet his last polo mint that no amendments would be accepted. That is why I hope he will not come here today. I want to win his polo mint even if it is his last one. He got to enjoy his polo mint last week.

I am reluctant to accept Senator Norris's reasoning. I do not mind that I do not or cannot believe it. The truth is I do not want to believe that the Minister is not going to listen and take amendments, even if she agrees with them, just because we are coming up to Christmas and she does not want to go back to the Dáil. This is important legislation which has been in the works for many years. It has been in these Houses for well over 12 months. I cannot believe that Minister would rush it at the last fence. I prefer to believe, in my innocence, that she has come here with an open mind about the possibilities of accepting amendments and improving this Bill through Senators' scrutiny of it. We have had some very good debates on this legislation over the past couple of weeks.

Therefore, in good faith or, at least, with a suspension of disbelief – which is slightly different – let us take the Minister's arguments for rejecting these amendments at face value and address them on their merits. We run into a difficulty straight away because the most superficial glance at the case put forward by the Minister shows she has made an elementary error in constructing her Bill. That mistake is to read the sections I wish to amend as enabling clauses, which were the Minister's words last week, which empower the Minister to do something.

They are not enabling clauses. Instead, they are restrictive clauses. There is a huge difference. Without exception, they seek to put a boundary on the powers of the Minister and future Ministers to do what he or she likes, by specifying the occasions and manner in which certain information must be put into the public domain before the Minister can perform certain actions under this Bill. There is a big difference.

I drew attention on Committee Stage to the long-standing tradition in these Houses of bounding the powers of the Minister and future Ministers. I know the Minister intends this legislation to last a long time, so when I refer to “the Minister”, I am also referring to future Ministers. It seems unfair to infer the present Minister will always be in office, although I am sure she will be there for a long time.

I drew attention to the long-standing tradition of bounding the powers of future Ministers in this way. The ability of the Legislature to put a fence around the way future Ministers can behave is one of the fundamentals of our democracy. That [1390] recognises the great truth that knowledge is power, and that by enforcing the dissemination of knowledge to the public, we put a constraint on the power of the Executive.

A set of publication tools has been developed over the years, each for use in appropriate cases. This has occurred over hundreds of years, if one takes other parliaments into account. The annual report and accounts that I talked about last week is used as the main public control mechanism over semi-State bodies, which have to publish an account, even if they do not want to. In recent years, they have had to publish that account within a certain number of months because some of us have insisted on that. There are also public registers of information, which are required to be kept up to date and open permanently to any member of the public. We also talked about that last week. They are usually only open during office hours, but that is the way things happened from the 1920s until now. There is also publication through advertisements or public notice, which is particularly appropriate when it is necessary to draw the attention of the public to an action the Minister is proposing to take.

Those three mechanisms restrict the power of the Executive and the Minister. They say the Minister cannot do something unless he or she fulfils that requirement. In all these cases, the intent and effect of the legislation is to restrict the future Minister's actions.

It is a fundamental misreading of those clauses to interpret them as empowering the Minister or whoever is involved. A requirement to publish an annual report does not empower a semi-State body to publish a report, rather, it disempowers that body from not publishing a report. I hope that huge difference is understood. I want the Minister to understand my concern at what I regard as her misunderstanding last week.

A requirement to keep a public register of certain information does not empower a Minister or other body to keep such a register, it disempowers those people from not doing so. A requirement to advertise certain information does not empower a Minister or other body to indulge in such advertising, it disempowers them from not doing so.

Such measures and restrictions serve to strengthen the rights of citizens. They are not there to widen the powers of the Minister or a semi-State body. That is why reviewing these restrictions and keeping them up to date is an important part of the task of the Houses of Parliament and of the role of the Legislature in preserving the very nature of democratic government. I know I am spending a long time on this, but we are taking a group of amendments together and I can only speak once on them.

We have an obligation to consider the possibilities opened up by new technology. As many Senators noted last week, these possibilities are very extensive. The worldwide web did not exist until about 1990. Although it was not invented to further the workings of democracy, it is poten[1391] tially a most worthwhile tool in achieving that task. The tools of publication that have been developed by our legislative tradition have not been perfect in achieving their effect. However, they were rightly employed as the best that were available at that time. When a new tool appears on the horizon that has the potential to bring the world of democratic publication a giant step closer to the ideal we are all seeking, we have an obligation to look at it, try it out and, if it works, embrace it.

We will never be inclined to do that if we misunderstand the whole process and see publication clauses as giving enabling powers to the Minister, which is a fundamental difference. That, I regret to say, seems to be the thrust of the advice given to the Minister in her response to the amendments I tabled on Committee Stage. This was summed up by the Minister's statement:

There is no need for a specific provision of the type proposed by Senators Quinn and Henry in the Bill. The requirements already included in the relevant sections of the Bill normally to publish such information in Iris Oifigiúil and-or at least one local newspaper represent only the minimum such requirement on the Minister under the Bill.

In other words, there is nothing to stop the Minister taking additional measures to publish the information if she thinks fit. Of course there is not, but the point of my amendments is to require him or her to take the particular additional measures, whether or not he or she thinks fit. There is a fundamental difference in thinking between the advice the Minister has been given, the words she used last week and what I propose.

The point of my amendments is exactly the same as the point of the underlying section. They seek to restrict what the Minister might see fit to do or not do. That is fundamental. They seek to restrict future Ministers in the interests of achieving a very worthwhile end – the best possible kind of publication, from the democratic point of view.

I will cite the Minister further to illustrate how deeply entrenched is her mistaken view of the point of this part of the legislation. She said:

There is nothing in the Bill to preclude the Minister from disseminating such information in other ways also, including by electronic means, where it is considered necessary to do so. If I believe the information is not circulating satisfactorily to the people concerned, the use of electronic means to improve the situation will be considered. I do not wish, however, to have too many stipulations in the legislation as to how such information should be published.

That last sentence lets the cat out of the bag. While we should applaud the Minister's honesty in admitting it, she is saying she does not want her power to be further circumscribed. This is the fundamental issue. We are concerned with [1392] restricting the powers of the Minister to do what he or she likes in the future. The legislation requires her to do only a certain minimum by way of publication. It leaves it to the whim of the Minister and her successors to decide on the most appropriate means of achieving desirable democratic ends. I want to restrict that.

This is a practical issue. Belief in the future of the information society and of Ireland's role within it is patchy in the Government. To give him credit, the Taoiseach is among those who are converted. This was reflected in the award given to him on 9 October as the cyber champion of the year. In accepting the reward he renewed the Government's commitment to doing its business on-line. He said:

The Government itself is also working to use the power of the new technologies to do its job better by getting public services on line. Key steps we have taken include the Revenue on-line service, which provides an increasing array of on-line services and which went live on 29th September, and the FÁS on-line jobs service. Only a few weeks ago we launched the new REACH agency to work with the Government to find the best way to deliver their services electronically. We have also initiated the Cabinet Project which will bring the benefits of modern technologies right to the highest level at decision making in the Government – the Cabinet table.

This is realistic and forward looking. It is fully in line with the economic goal of making Ireland the e-commerce hub of Europe. Some Ministers share that openness towards the future and are working towards achieving it. For example, the Minister for Public Enterprise took a major step forward with the early passing into law of the Electronic Commerce Bill, which I am pleased to say she initiated in this House. Other Ministers who have recently introduced legislation to the House were very open to amendments of this kind.

However, belief in the information age is patchy across the Government. All reports of recent years make discreet reference to the problem, but certain Ministers and higher civil servants do not want to know. There is an excellent way of separating the sheep from the goats by looking at the websites of the different Departments. I do not want to add to the discomfort of the Minister, who every time she answers questions in the Dáil must squirm with embarrassment at the criticism of her Department's website.

There are some excellent Government websites, some are average and some are dreadful. Senator Norris would be safe in betting his last polo mint, as he did last week, on which of these categories the Minster's website falls into. The state of a Department or company website is a good indicator of where it stands in relation to the future. For some the information society is the present. They are exploiting it with a view to staying ahead. For others it is a nebulous concept [1393] to be adjusted to when it becomes more prevalent. Their websites are usually under construction, or, to use the jargon, “in re-design”.

On a positive note let me tell a story against myself. At the beginning of 1987 a proposal was made to my company to buy a fax machine at a time when they were just entering the market. My board of management considered the question and decided not to buy one. I remember thinking at the time that the decision not to buy fitted in well with my personal ambition to cut down on the amount of paper we were using in running our business. My approach was to engage in talk rather than in sending memos. Within a few months we realised we had made a mistake because we were in a world – 12 or 13 years ago – that did its business by fax.

I offer that story to the Minister by way of gently encouraging her. No matter how ingrained in the past her officials and perhaps she may be, there is always hope of change in the future. I hope the next time she introduces legislation to this House it will be fit for the 21st century and does not seek to live in the past. However, I do not want to wait until then. We have an opportunity to proceed with this Bill and, therefore, I urge the Minister to accept these amendments.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  I have pleasure in seconding the amendment. When Senator Quinn and I tabled these amendments I was sure they would be accepted. I could not see any reason why they would not be because similar amendments to other Bills have been accepted. I cannot believe that the Minister cannot accept them simply because she does not want to return the Bill to the Dáil before Christmas. That could be done in ten minutes.

From the outset of its term of office the Government has talked about openness and transparency. These amendments are an encouragement of that philosophy. The Minister rightly said that future Ministers are not precluded from publishing on the Internet via electronic means. These amendments require them to do so.

Like Senator Quinn and other Senators I believe that giving information to people at every opportunity improves rather than disimproves our democracy. I cannot understand why the legislation does not provide that the most modern methods of imparting information be availed of. With due respect, who reads Iris Oifigiúil? It is not something with which the public is familiar. The people we need to make sure have information are those who can have access to it on the Internet anywhere.

It will not take ten minutes of the Minister's time to return the Bill to the Dáil with these amendments, where I am sure they would be accepted. I ask her to accept them. They are realistic and forward looking.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Like Senator Quinn I acknowledge the Minister's ready availability and accessibility in ensuring the effective and [1394] expeditious processing of this Bill. The Minister's availability has been a hallmark of her term of office, as many in this House have acknowledged.

Senator Quinn's amendments are narrowly focused, which is a tribute to the Minister because it shows she has got the main thrust of the Bill correct. That was acknowledged by all sides of the House during the initial debate on the Bill. The same amendments are now being tabled again.

I acknowledge Senator Quinn's expertise in these matters and the foresight he has demonstrated on many occasions. However, we must focus on the people of rural Ireland who are at the front line in terms of wildlife. I am a product of rural Ireland as I come from the town of Cashel which can boast of a population of only 3,000 people. Will the method of advertising get to the people to whom it matters? I have no doubt it will. If I was asked what was the main medium for the people of rural Ireland, I would say the local newspaper. A person may miss a copy of a daily newspaper or the nine o'clock news on television, but if he or she does not get the local newspaper, he or she will miss out on something.

This Bill is a masterful exercise in motivation. The people at whom the Bill is directed will be quick to accept what is proposed. We discussed the last day why motivation is necessary in this Bill. I spoke on this matter because I felt that if the Minister had approached the legislation in a more doctrinaire and punitive manner, we would have failed in the Bill's aim to achieve partnership in terms of our wildlife while, at the same time, looking after and harmonising our national aspirations with our international obligations. It is important to motivate people at local level. One must put down a marker and that is where the legislation comes in. It has been drafted in a balanced and fair way.

I am a little surprised Senator Quinn is so determined, given his contributions in the House in the past. When he started his address today he was cautious and reserved. However, that changed gradually as his contribution continued. I am sure it could be attributed to passion, which I admire in people. When he focused on the Minister in the early part of his address he was not prepared to make a statement about her reason for not accepting his amendments. He raised questions, but as he continued he spoke about the Minister squirming with embarrassment. He knows that is not correct. Anyone who knows the Minister as I do knows her mettle. She does not easily squirm with embarrassment.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  Not so easily.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  I was surprised the tone of his address tended to change, but I am sure it could be attributed to passion.

Does Senator Quinn believe the method proposed in the legislation will achieve what it is intended to achieve or is he making a case for [1395] information technology? That might be what he is doing. He made the same learned and informed contribution on many other Bills and he spoke about electronic advantages. However, it is more important to focus on this Bill. I have no doubt we could have a broader debate on this issue. Does the Senator believe the Bill as it stands will achieve its purpose? I have no doubt it will.

It is democracy in action to table these amendments again. However, I am sure the Senator will acknowledge they have a narrow focus for such an important Bill. We have waited a long time for this Bill. I am sure Senator Quinn agrees that the Minister was one of the foremost speakers when she was in opposition on the necessity for this Bill. It is not a case of inheriting it in her portfolio. She feels passionately about this Bill and I am sure the Senator will acknowledge that.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I have done so already.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  That is important. Perhaps we could have a broader debate on this issue in the near future.

I am anxious that this Bill be enacted as quickly as possible so we can deal with the dangers confronting wildlife. We might get tied up in semantics, although I am not saying Senator Quinn is doing that. One of the most learned and appropriate contributions in the House the last day was made by Senator Farrell, although he got little publicity for it. Like Senator Quinn, he spoke with passion about the dangers for wildlife. He wanted to know why there is a lack of food for wildlife and why certain species are endangered. There was so much common sense in what he said I almost wish it could be recorded and used.

We must tap into the common sense of the people of rural Ireland. If we do not succeed, all the aspirations, plans and legislation will not achieve what we specifically want to achieve. I am talking not only about the protection of our wildlife but about an appreciation and enhancement of our wildlife and of the environment which is essential for our wildlife. I would prefer if the amendments were focused on that because it would broaden the debate and help us to inform the public that what we are asking for here is the partnership I mentioned.

Members know there are grave dangers and that this matter is urgent. It is not just about harmonising our laws with our international obligations but about our love for wildlife. When one species disappears, we will wonder how it happened and why we did not put down a marker. That is what the Minister and the Department are doing in this Bill. We do not want to have to ask in five or ten years' time why we did not see what was happening to an endangered species.

While the amendments will be debated, it is essential to put on the record that the Minister has done an excellent job and she has got it right. The fact that the amendments have a narrow focus is a tribute to the fact that the Minister has [1396] got the legislation right. I know Senator Quinn will want to revisit a comment or two he made about the Minister and correct the record in that regard.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I presume I will also get the opportunity to make a Second Stage speech. No one in the House disagrees with the substance of this Bill. The Minister has done a good day's work in protecting our wildlife and we all applaud that. It is our function as legislators to seek to improve areas where we believe there are gaps in the manner in which the legislation will be implemented.

Senator Quinn has tabled a reasonable set of amendments in relation to communicating to the public the actions being taken by the Minister. The Minister has stuck to the traditional means of communication in the Bill, that is, publication in Irish Oifigiúil and local newspapers and on local radio stations. All this is extremely desirable but there are other means of communication, electronic communication, which is readily accessible to all and sundry. This type of communication is becoming more and more accessible. Many farmers throughout the country have a computer. If one is looking for a job, one is quite likely to enter an Internet café in the city. If one wishes to travel, to find a cheap holiday or some business angle, it is all on the website. The Internet provides all these facilities and more and more sites are being established. There is an onus on every Department to establish a website, keep it up to date and in line with legislation.

This is not just a technical point. There is a responsibility on the Minister to ensure that the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands has an adequate website database to communicate the provisions of the legislation in relation to designated natural heritage areas. In designating natural heritage areas, the Minister must make the information available to the public. Subsequent issuing of orders must also be publicised to those who will be directly affected if a natural heritage area is designated in a particular area. The public at large must also be informed because natural heritage areas are of interest to everyone on the island. This information cannot be limited to local newspapers or radio stations, it must be more widely disseminated.

This is a serious flaw in the legislation because the Minister is limiting the information to at least one local radio station or one local newspaper. There is no reference to the national newspapers. There is more than one local newspaper in many instances. This information relates not only to the local population directly adjacent to the designated natural heritage area. There will be other impacts of the designations in the future such as the protection of flora and fauna, commercial shooting and so on which must also be publicised.

I support totally Senators Henry and Quinn's amendments and I cannot understand why they cannot be incorporated in the legislation. If [1397] Senator Quinn decides to put the amendments to a vote, they are rejected and the Minister is not prepared to go back to the Dáil, I see no point in moving my amendments and wasting time. If the Minister has not got an open mind to consider what I regard as an imminently reasonable set of amendments, we are going through a charade.

I am pleased the Minister is here in person. On the Order of Business, Senator Ross complained that very often Ministers with other portfolios come to this House to deal with issues with which they are not totally au fait. That is not fair to the Minister or the House. I compliment the Minister on being in this House throughout the entire debate on the legislation. However, if she is not willing to consider reasonable amendments, that is extremely disappointing. I would have expected the Minister to give the amendments a proper hearing on Committee Stage, come back on Report Stage and either accept them or table her own amendments. If the amendments are rejected out of hand and there is no positive response, the only conclusion we can come to is what Senator Norris suggested on Committee Stage. I hope this is not the case and I appeal to the Minister, even at this eleventh hour, to accept this set of amendments.

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Miss de Valera): Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  There is nothing in the Bill to preclude the publication of information by electronic means where it is considered appropriate, therefore, there is no need to incorporate the amendments in the Bill. In certain cases, this would weaken the Bill. I acknowledge and welcome the fact that information technology is rapidly becoming more generally accessible and that it will play an enhanced role in our lives as time goes on. A time will come when the information super highway, to which I have occasionally heard Senator Norris refer on radio, will pass through all our livingrooms. However, this has not yet happened, nor will it happen for a number of years. I look forward to the day when it does happen.

As Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, I fully support the Government's commitment to the development of information technology. Indeed, since my appointment as Minister, I have more than doubled the staffing of my Department's information technology unit to improve communications within my Department and externally. I am keenly aware of the need to improve and enhance communications among my officials who are spread across the length and breadth of the country. Our improved communication network has greatly helped in our day-to-day operations. I am also focused on the importance of improving communication between my Department and the public to ensure that relevant information is easily accessible. The Department's website is of particular value in this regard. For example, the website is used for listing special areas of conservation. However, our site needs improvement and I have sought pro[1398] posals from consultants to undertake a complete redesign of the site.

What the Senators are proposing can already be done, where appropriate, under the Bill as it stands, without a need for amendments. My view is that these amendments are not essential in all cases and inappropriate in some. What we are talking about here is legislation intended to protect our natural heritage. In legislation generally, an obligation is often placed on a Minister to publish in Iris Oifigiúil certain information where legal decisions are taken. This Bill provides for such publication, where appropriate. Publication in Iris Oifigiúil is essentially a legal device, as publication in Iris Oifigiúil effectively indicates to the Judiciary that the Minister has fulfilled his or her responsibility under the relevant section of the legislation. It is not generally contended that it is an effective means of informing the public.

There are many ways of informing the public of legislative developments. I do not believe it is necessary to list comprehensively in a Bill every way in which the information shall be disseminated. If I believed that the proposed amendments identified any fundamental deficiency in the Bill that would impact on the protection of our natural heritage, I would be amenable to reconsidering my position on them. However, I do not believe this is the case. The Bill sets out the minimum publicity that is required in each circumstance, and each circumstance is different. The Bill does not preclude any manner of disseminating information.

With regard to the amendment to section 16(5), this will oblige me to publish electronically the relevant information where it has not been possible to contact an owner, occupier or other person who would be affected by a decision to propose a site for designation as an NHA. Section 16(5) is not intended as a means of notifying the public in general of proposals to designate sites as NHAs but to contact individuals on whom the proposed designation directly impacts. Section 16(5) sets down a comprehensive proactive notification procedure which will target those most likely to be affected by the proposed designation, such as farmers, local residents, business interests and local authorities.

I do not believe it would be essential for the purpose of the notification procedure to put such information on a website. This would place the onus on people to access the website, which I do not believe to be the correct approach. However, I have no difficulty in general information relating to NHAs being available on the Department's site.

The same principle applies to amendment No. 3. This amendment relates to section 18(4)(a), which deals with a situation where a decision is made to amend or revoke an NHA designation order. A comprehensive notification procedure is provided for and this is again aimed at those most likely to be affected by the designation. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent the publication of the information on my website, if [1399] deemed appropriate at a future date, but I believe the provisions of section 18 are more than adequate.

With regard to amendment No. 10, which relates to section 36(8), the position is clear. There is an enabling provision that will allow the Minister to publish the list of commercial shoot operator permit holders from time to time. To give effect to this section, it will be necessary to make regulations after the enactment of the Bill. I have already given firm commitments that I will consult fully with interested parties in the completion of these regulations and the operation of this section. The manner and frequency under which a list of permanent holders will be published will be one of the issues addressed during such consultations.

If I were to accept this amendment, I would be pre-determining an issue that will be subject to discussion. I am anxious to ensure that the good working relationship that has been established with the relevant bodies during the drafting of the Bill will be maintained and I want to leave subsection (8) as open as possible, pending the outcome of the discussions to which I refer. However, the option is there to publish such lists on the website if considered appropriate.

With regard to amendment No. 11, which relates to section 51(a), Senators are proposing to amend the provisions governing the illegal advertisement of fauna. The provision, as drafted, is clear in that it states that a person “shall not publish or cause to be published any advertisement”. I am completely satisfied that publication by electronic means is fully comprehended by that wording. This provision is clear and all-embracing.

In this section there is specific danger in detailing electronic means in that the illegality of employing a measure not mentioned could then be called into question. In effect, if we were to insert the Senators' proposal, it may, by highlighting one particular form of publication, create a weakness in relation to any other type of publication not specified. In short, the amendment could weaken the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 pertain to sections 56 and 57 which deal, respectively, with the import and export of flora and fauna to and from the EU. The Senators are seeking that where the Minister decides to designate or amend or revoke a designation of a port or airport through which the import or export of flora and fauna is permitted, it should be published by electronic means as well as in Iris Oifigiúil. The primary function of the existing provision is to act as a legal device. I have the option to publish material electronically or by any other means for the purpose of informing the wider public. However, I do not consider that this should be a legal requirement.

The purpose of section 58 is to allow Ireland to ratify the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES. Amendment No. 14 proposes to amend subsection (2)(a) [1400] which empowers the Minister to designate additional management authorities with responsibility in relation to the management of CITES. Subsection (2)(d) specifies that the Minister will publish in Iris Oifigiúil notice of any designations or amendments or revocation of such designations. Again, if I consider it necessary and appropriate to publish any further notice, I may use any method deemed appropriate including electronic means.

I wish to summarise my position on these amendments. I am actively supportive of information technology developments and will use IT where appropriate to improve my Department's work and to facilitate its customers. It is rather ironic for Senators to make charges which try to infer that I have no interest or am rather backward in my approach to developments in technology or do not realise the importance of technology in the modern world. As already stated, I support fully the work the Government is doing in this area. The fact that I have specific responsibility for broadcasting and the introduction of digitalisation in that sector shows not only my obligations but also my deep interest in technological developments. It is somewhat disingenuous of Senators to try to imply an image of my Department, my officials or myself as being a little slow in accepting technological change.

The Bill as drafted outlines only the minimum level of notification and publication. This relates to the issue raised this morning by at least one Senator, namely, the importance of making known the contents of the legislation to those it primarily affects. I live in Ennis, which is the information age town, and Members must be practical and realise that, as we speak, the kind of access to technology that may be available in Ennis is not available in other areas. Whereas we would wish to promote and further the acceptance of information technology and ensure that there is no question that a two-tier IT society comprising the information rich and the information poor will be created.

We must take a practical approach to this matter. As matters stand, it is most important to ensure that appropriate information is published in local newspapers. However, I re-emphasise the fact that electronic means can still be used in the context of disseminating information under this legislation. Ministers have the option, at all times, to notify people or disseminate information by electronic means.

The proposed amendments do not suggest taking any action which cannot already be taken under the Bill as drafted. They are not necessary and, in certain cases, they are inappropriate. As stated earlier, there is also a danger that they could weaken the Bill.

Senator Costello seemed to suggest that I have come before the House without an open mind. I assure Members that I take the work of the Dáil and the Seanad extremely seriously. The amendments that have been tabled on this Bill, either in the Dáil or Seanad, or in connection with any [1401] other Bill with which I have been associated, have been given every consideration. Senators will appreciate that I am not always in a position to either accept or agree to amendments that have been tabled. However, such amendments are given every consideration before I reach a decision. It is not a question of my wishing to rush this Bill or any other through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I have more respect than that for our institutions.

I hope Senators will recognise that, as a matter of principle, I have considered carefully the amendments before us. I cannot accept them because I genuinely believe that the provisions in the Bill offer the best way forward and do not preclude any method of disseminating information by technological means. In my opinion, the general thrust displayed in this part of the Bill is the best route to take.

We have been awaiting the introduction and passage of this Bill for over 16 years. It was long promised but did not see the light of day until now. In all my discussions with individuals and groups who have shown an intense interest in this Bill, the issues, content and substance of the Bill were raised. The question of the dissemination of information, which has been raised by some Senators, was not seen as a priority by those immediately involved in wildlife issues. The Bill provides an opportunity to use new technologies as access to them becomes more readily available. I cannot accept the proposed amendments.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I rise in sadness because I am disappointed the Minister has failed to address a number of the points I raised. In her response she again used the word I had criticised. Six times in her reply the Minister used the word “preclude”, saying nothing in the Bill precluded the use of electronic technology. The point of the amendments is to insist that future Ministers use modern technology.

The Minister has shown her confidence, her faith and her commitment to the elements of what is sought. I am concerned that Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú seemed to suggest that I had not acknowledged the Minister's commitment. On Second Stage we praised the Minister for what she is trying to achieve.

I am disappointed because these amendments are an attempt to improve the Bill. Senator Ó Murchú reminded us that we have waited a long time for this Bill, which he wants to see expeditiously enacted. After 16 years, would an extra ten minutes in the Dáil be an unreasonable delay? All amendments passed in the Seanad must be returned to the Dáil.

The Minister has not answered my criticisms. It is not enough to say nothing in the Bill precludes a Minister from using electronic means. The amendments are intended to force Ministers in the future to use the various means of disseminating information which are already the methods of the present rather than the future. Those of us who have children know they no longer write [1402] letters. Few of them read newspapers, apart from the sports pages. However, my children e-mail me from all around the world. They use the Internet to get information and read The Irish Times without buying the newspaper. I am not talking about the future. This is happening now.

I was disappointed to hear the Minister refer to Ennis and say that what is happening there is not yet happening in the rest of the country. It is happening in the rest of the country. What is happening in Ennis is not the future. It is the present for a large number of people. In Singapore, every citizen has been given an e-mail address because that country wishes to become the electronic centre of Asia. We have already announced that we wish to become the electronic hub of Europe. It is not out of the question that what we urge the Minister to do could be done within a year. We are talking about the present, not the future. We wish to ensure that Ministers of the future will not be able to restrict information by saying it may only appear in newspapers and be heard on local radio stations.

When I was chairman of An Post in 1986 we had never heard of the fax machine. We made a five year plan in 1986 without knowing of the existence of a threat to the letter writing of the future. We were out of touch. In 1890, when the Bell telephone company was setting up in the United States, the Postmaster General of the United Kingdom was asked if the post office would get into the telephone business. He replied that he saw no future in telephones and besides, he said, “We have messenger boys.”

I do not insinuate that the Minister is behind the times. I was concerned that Senator Ó Murchú thought I was being personal when I said the Minister would squirm. I was referring to the Minister as the head of a Department. I believe the Minister will squirm with embarrassment when she compares the website of her Department with those of some others. We have a long way to go.

The Minister has not touched on the basis of my argument. On a number of occasions she said the option is there if a future Minister considers it appropriate and that it can be done if a Minister wishes to do it. I want to restrict the Minister's freedom to withold this information from the public. If I live in rural Ireland and, in the future, I do not have access to newspapers, I will want to be able to access a website and see the information I need. A large number of people in rural Ireland are already communicating electronically, particularly people younger than I. This is the way, not of the future but of the present.

In referring to amendments Nos. 12 and 13, the Minister stated that if a future Minister decides to restrict the importation of certain flora and fauna this must appear in Iris Oifigiúil. How can I find that out? If I miss the announcement in a local newspaper, must I get Iris Oifigiúil? If I am in Donegal, Clare or Kerry that may not be convenient but I can sit at my desk and, within seconds, see what restrictions the Minister has [1403] introduced. The amendments are not intended to empower. They are intended to restrict future Ministers.

Senator Costello's concern may be correct. The Minister says she has an open mind but she did not accept a single amendment on Committee Stage in the Seanad and seems unlikely to accept one on Report Stage. These amendments, which are intended to restrict the freedom of future Ministers to withold information from the public, will enhance the legislation and make it suitable for the 21st century, not for the 19th and 20th centuries.

There is not a single Deputy who would delay these measures or vote against them. If the Minister were to bring the Bill back to the Dáil to make amendments to restrict the right of a future Minister to withhold information by not insisting it be put on the Internet, no Luddite in the Dáil would vote against such a measure or delay it.

Mr. Connor: Information on John Connor  Zoom on John Connor  I would not be too sure of that.

[1404]Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  It would be accepted that citizens have a right to access information and the Dáil would enable the public to have information in the most realistic and forward looking way.

I urge the Minister to reject the assumption that because people got information from local papers in the 20th century they will continue to do so in the 21st. Let us include local newspapers and local radio stations but let us also include the means of getting information which is favoured by so many people now. Let us improve democracy by improving every Bill that comes through the House, particularly this very worthwhile Bill.

Senator Ó Murchú was concerned that I had not complimented the Minister on the Bill. This is great legislation and I welcome it. Senator Gibbons and Senator Farrell spoke from the heart about it last week and it was a joy to hear them and the Minister's enthusiasm for the Bill. We are trying to improve the legislation, but that will not happen if the amendments are rejected. I urge the Minister to reconsider them.

Amendment put.

Burke, Paddy.
Caffrey, Ernie.
Connor, John.
Coogan, Fintan.
Cosgrave, Liam T.
Costello, Joe.
Doyle, Joe.
Hayes, Tom.
Henry, Mary.
Jackman, Mary.
Keogh, Helen.
McDonagh, Jarlath.
Manning, Maurice.
O'Dowd, Fergus.
Quinn, Feargal.
Ross, Shane.
Taylor-Quinn, Madeleine.

Bohan, Eddie.
Callanan, Peter.
Cassidy, Donie.
Chambers, Frank.
Cox, Margaret.
Cregan, John.
Dardis, John.
Farrell, Willie.
Finneran, Michael.
Fitzgerald, Liam.
Fitzgerald, Tom.
Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
Gibbons, Jim.
Kiely, Rory.
Leonard, Ann.
Moylan, Pat.
O'Brien, Francis.
O'Donovan, Denis.
Ó Fearghail, Seán.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
Ormonde, Ann.
Walsh, Jim.

Amendment declared lost.

Debate adjourned.


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