Wednesday, 28 February 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Takeover Panel Act, 1997 (Relevant Company) Regulations, 2001, to be taken without debate; No. 2, statements on the Irish language to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding in Mullingar of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1951 and its vision for the 21st century, the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and all other Senators 15 minutes and on which Senators may share time, to conclude no later than 2 p.m.; No. 3, statements on EU beef proposals and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and all other Senators ten minutes, to conclude at 6 p.m.; No. 4, Central Bank (Amendment) Bill, 2000 – Second Stage, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m and No. 3 to resume thereafter, if not previously concluded. Business is to be interrupted from 2 p.m. to 2.45 p.m.
Mr. Connor: I wish to raise the situation which arose in the House yesterday when secretarial staff were on strike. This was a cause of great inconvenience to all Members and I think most would agree that the staff have a serious grievance.
An Cathaoirleach: This matter was raised in the House and referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The committee considered it and took the action it considered appropriate. At this stage I feel it is not in the interests of Members or staff that we go into the difficulty which has arisen. I hope the Senator will accept my advice in the matter.
Recently in the media, particularly in RTÉ, there was a series of articles relating to people held in slavery and bondage. There is a form of slavery here too which is the domestic slavery of people who work in servitude. They work for wages well below what is provided for in our labour and employment laws. This is an issue I have raised at the Council of Europe but as it is a domestic issue it is something we ought to debate. It is something hidden that should be brought out into the open and this is the appropriate place to ventilate the issue. I ask the Leader of the House to provide time in the coming weeks for debate on the issue.
Mr. O'Toole: An issue raised in this morning's papers which should not go unremarked is that at a time when politicians are getting seriously bad press a Minister of State returned a gift to the value of more than £1 million. It reflects well on the Minister of State, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, and on politics as a whole. It is good that such positive things should be remarked on. I do not wish to go into his personal affairs.
It raises the question of how we might give a better image to public representation. I have made the point many times. It is when we are not in trouble and not in the mire that we should put in place structures to deal with individuals or names before us. We should reopen that debate in this House.
Mr. Costello: I too commend the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, for his response to the gift offered to him. I point out to Senator O'Toole that the best way to deal with any suspicion of politicians not behaving properly is under legislation and we have the Electoral Bill before us. To my mind it will be very detrimental to the good name of politicians.
Will the Leader of the House bring to the attention of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the hardship being experienced by the elderly in the context of the present Arctic spell we are experiencing? The Minister has refused Dublin Corporation the £14 million necessary to provide central heating for all of its housing stock. The elderly are the people who will particularly suffer in this regard. There should be a nationwide scheme of central heating for all—
Mr. Costello: I am merely explaining that £14 million would provide central heating in the entire local authority area. I do not know what the situation is in other authorities but this has been denied by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government on the grounds that it is excessive.
Mr. Dardis: I know the Chair would not want us to anticipate the debate on foot and mouth disease but it is appropriate to congratulate the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union on the responsible approach they have taken to the crisis. I was very impressed by Mr. Philip Brown of the IRFU yesterday evening when he said that rugby matches were of secondary importance to the national welfare. The IRFU and the Welsh Rugby Union must be congratulated on the action they have taken. The Irish Horseracing Authority has displayed an equally responsible attitude in statements it has issued. I hope the Cheltenham festival will be able to proceed, but the authority again underlined in its statements that the national economic interest must come first.
There was a further worrying development yesterday – I am sure the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, has taken action in respect of it – namely, that the French, in particular, have indicated a desire to see the renationalisation of the Common Agricultural Policy. That would be hugely detrimental, not only for the European Union but also for this country in particular. It would be a matter of great concern if it was decided that countries should unilaterally support their own agriculture industries because the Common Agricultural Policy has been one of the great successes of the European Union. Perhaps we can discuss these issues in more detail in this afternoon's debate.
Mr. Cosgrave: I support Senator Dardis's comments about the IRFU, the Welsh Rugby Union and the Irish Horseracing Authority. I do not want to pre-empt today's debate but, while rugby and horseracing are perceived as sports, it should not be forgotten that the horseracing industry provides a substantial amount of employment. The authority is taking a responsible attitude and it is to be hoped that the delays to or postponement of racing fixtures will not continue for long. We must not forget that people's livelihoods may be affected to a greater or lesser extent by this crisis.
In view of the fact that the match at Cardiff has been postponed and that the Cheltenham festival and the match against England next month are in doubt, a common-sense approach must be taken. The Leader should convey to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and any other relevant Ministers or Ministers of State that carriers, hoteliers, travel  agents, etc. should take such an approach to dealing with customers. I am not suggesting that they should refund all moneys in full but that, perhaps, they should put in place a voucher system or some form of minimum penalty clause so that everyone can be satisfied. If fixtures are rearranged for a later date, perhaps those who were supposed to attend the original fixture could be given some form of voucher.
Mr. Finneran: I support Senator Dardis's call for a debate on the Common Agricultural Policy, particularly in terms of the debate taking place in France at present. The Common Agricultural Policy is the central reason that Ireland entered Europe. To revert to a national approach on this matter would have serious implications for this country. I would welcome a debate on this issue. I ask the Leader to convey our views to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and make time available for such a debate as soon as possible.
The other matter to which I wish to refer is the practices of the National Roads Authority. I seem to have raised this matter on a number of occasions in the recent past. The authority was established on a statutory footing by both Houses of the Oireachtas. It has put in place a practice which has implications for contractors throughout the country and the House should call on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to investigate the matter. I refer to cases where contractors who have not been involved in completing projects valued at more than £5 million are excluded from the tender process. This is a serious development because the authority is creating a cartel of large contractors who are being awarded with the contracts for every major road or bridge building project throughout the country. Such behaviour is particularly unhelpful and it will be detrimental to the livelihoods of many smaller contractors.
Will the Leader communicate with the Minister in respect of this matter and ask him to call on the National Roads Authority to explain why it has put these practices in place? In my opinion county engineers, who are members of the design and project teams in most counties, should also be called on to explain the position because I understand they have played a role in this matter. This is an issue of national importance and the practices to which I refer will have implications for many contractors throughout the country in terms of the project contracts that will be awarded during the remaining five years of the national development plan.
Dr. Henry: When we debated BSE and the threat it poses to public health I pointed out that  the Blood Transfusion Service has great difficulty in obtaining supplies and that elective operations have been cancelled in hospitals throughout the country. I understand that representatives of the Blood Transfusion Service are due to come to Leinster House on 12 April. Will the Leader encourage Members and staff to give donations if at all possible? I refer to this matter at such an early date to give people ample time to eat a substantial amount of wholesome Irish beef so that their haemoglobin count will be high when they donate blood.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I join other Members in complimenting the actions of the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Ó Cuív, because in refusing the bequest, which I understand was in the region of £1 million, he has put down a marker for everyone involved in public life. This is a good news story and one of generosity. When we seek debates in the House, they are usually in respect of bad news stories. It would be interesting if, for a change, the Leader agreed to have a debate on this good news story. The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, has given us the opportunity to engage in such a debate.
Mr. Coogan: Prior to the local elections, local authority members were applauded by the Government and the Opposition, including the Labour Party, for the great contribution they have made over the years. It was felt that they should be reimbursed for that contribution and that local authority members should be paid a salary. That expectation was established in 1999. The local government Bill was introduced in May 2000 but, to date, in spite of promises to the contrary – even the Leader gave a commitment that the Bill would have gone through the Lower House or this House by the second week of this month – it has not been dealt with. The month of February is at an end but the Bill has not appeared. It was on the Order Paper two weeks ago but it has suddenly disappeared. Everyone knows the reason for this. We must resolve this issue and if the Bill cannot be dealt with in the Lower House it should be introduced here.
Mr. Ó Fearghail: In light of reports in the national media today that in the order of 34,000 working days were lost yesterday as a result of the Arctic conditions to which Senator Costello referred, will the Leader bring to the attention of the relevant roads authorities, be it the National Roads Authority or local authorities, that it is unacceptable that a fraction of an inch of snow lying on the N7 can bring the entire city to a halt?
I suggest that, in the context of the recent publication of the first survey on the attitudes of members of the Traveller community, it might be appropriate to engage in a debate on the issue of Traveller accommodation, having particular regard to the work of the national and local Travellers' consultative accommodation committees.  Will the Leader indicate if the Ministers for the Environment and Local Government and Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be contacted in relation to the problem that exists nationally with very large convoys of traders traversing the country, parking illegally, breaking into private properties and causing mayhem in local communities?
Ms Keogh: Last week I raised the issue of the crisis in child care. Since then the report on Newtown House, the health board home where seriously disturbed children were placed under the protection of untrained staff who had no back-up in terms of access to psychological services etc., has been published. I accept that Newtown House has been closed down, but we do not know the extent of the services available to similar institutions in the State. I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for Health and Children the need for adequate support services for these homes. These are the most vulnerable children in society and this is very important when one considers the number of suicides in society and in particular the tragic case highlighted in the Newtown House report.
Mr. J. Cregan: I agree with Senator Costello's comments that in weather like this the elderly should have proper heating in their homes. However, this has been recognised by the Government. Last year the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government with responsibility for housing, Deputy Molloy, broadened the scope of the housing aid for the elderly scheme. Millions of pounds are paid to health boards under this scheme and grant aid for central heating is specifically mentioned in the scheme, so it is not fair to say that money is not available. I reiterate my comments last week when I said that hundreds of thousands of pounds paid to health boards under this scheme are not being spent. That money should be diverted to carry out the works suggested by Senator Costello.
Mr. Burke: I support Senator Coogan's comments on the local government Bill. The Minister made a commitment to everyone who stood for election to local authorities and he has let those people and the whole local authority system down. As Senator Coogan said, if the Minister wants to bring that Bill before the Seanad we would be only too willing to take it here and he should examine that option.
We should bring the National Roads Authority before the Seanad and find out what its policies are regarding our national routes. Some local authorities can cope with the effect of the adverse weather conditions on the national primary and secondary routes but some cannot. Some authorities have better equipment than others but who is responsible for clearing the national primary and secondary routes? We must examine this question closely as our weather could get  worse. The Minister or the NRA should come to the Seanad and outline their policies regarding adverse weather.
Mr. O'Dowd: I ask the Leader to urge the Minister for Health and Children to amend the Nursing Home Act, 1990, and in particular to establish an independent inspectorate to investigate all matters relating to nursing homes, taking into account the fact that the present inspectorate is under-funded and, in many cases, unavailable because of the other work doctors must do. We should have an integrated plan enabling health boards to work in partnership with nursing homes to provide proper services to the elderly, including physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
Senator Connor called for a debate on slave labour and on other matters raised in the media. I can discuss this with the Senator after the Order of Business but there is a shortage of labour and the majority of people are now being paid over the national minimum wage. Low skilled workers were paid very poor wages until two or three years ago and the problem raised by the Senator has been practically eliminated but I will discuss this with him.
Mr. Cassidy: Senators O'Toole, Costello, Ó Murchú and John Cregan all congratulated the Minister of State, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, on returning the gift he was offered and a debate was sought on the image of public representatives. I have no difficulty allowing time for such a debate and I too wish to be associated with complimenting Deputy Ó Cuív. He started his Oireachtas career as a Senator and he is a hard working, dedicated public representative. I am not surprised by his actions as I have known him for over 30 years and he is a man of high principles. He has done a power of good for the image of Oireachtas Members and public representatives in general.
Senators Costello and John Cregan raised the matter of funds for heating for senior citizens, particularly in the Dublin area, but Senator Cregan pointed out that funds are available for this. I can discuss this further with Senator Costello after the Order of Business and if he still feels a debate is required I will allow time for a debate on the matter.
Senators Dardis and Cosgrave complimented the IRFU and the Welsh Rugby Union as well as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, who has banned all horse and greyhound racing. I also congratulate the Government on appointing a special task force  which is to meet daily to ensure we can keep out the plague of foot and mouth. We all remember that in the last century there were seven occasions in 40 years when we had this dreadful plague and the country was completely closed down. The Irish farming community has suffered enough in recent years and it behoves us all to cancel trips to the UK for the next few weeks so that we can play our part. There are now many gardaí at the Border to ensure there is no movement from the North into the Republic and I congratulate the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the Government on their stance yesterday.
Senators Finneran and Dardis also sought a debate on the Common Agricultural Policy and I will allow time for that. Senator Finneran and others also sought a debate on the National Roads Authority with particular reference to the directives being issued regarding large contracts. These directives bar contractors who have not completed a project worth over £5 million from tendering and I will allow time for a debate on this at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Henry mentioned the blood transfusion unit being here on 12 April and I endorse her sentiments. I hope the unit has enough staff when it visits us, unlike what happens when it visits rural areas. A radio programme highlighted the problem when people in the west were queuing for over two and a half hours because there were not enough staff to deal with them. Irish people have been very generous in donating blood over the years, so it is over to the transfusion service to ensure there are enough staff to accommodate people's generosity.
Senators Coogan and Burke inquired about the local government Bill. It was published last May and it will be debated in the Dáil next week. We hope it will have passed through the Seanad by Easter, so Senators can spread the good news on the Opposition side.
Senators Ó Fearghail and Burke sought to have adequate funding put in place for local authorities and mentioned the National Roads Authority. There has been climate change here and in most of Europe and the NRA and the Department of the Environment and Local Government will have to ensure local authorities have enough funding to keep roads usable following slight snowfalls.
In rural areas we have been experiencing much heavier snowfalls than in Dublin city yesterday and we have to keep going morning, noon and night. When slight falls happen in the capital city, they are not aware of how to deal with them or there is not enough funding in place. I call on the relevant authorities to rectify this.
Senator O'Dowd called on the Minister for Health and Children to have a debate on nursing homes and the care of the elderly. This is a very  big challenge facing us and I will leave time for a debate.
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