Wednesday, 4 April 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cassidy: Before I start the Order of Business I refer to a matter that arose yesterday when Senators Manning, O'Toole and Costello requested a review regarding a Friday sitting. I am pleased to inform the House that due to the rescheduling of Dáil business late last Thursday evening, the Bill from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that was to be taken in that House is not ready and therefore Committee and Remaining Stages of the Waste Management (Amendment) Bill, 2001, has been scheduled for Tuesday of next week. Senator Manning will recall I indicated to him last week that it was  our intention to deal with the Sex Offenders Bill, 2000, next Tuesday but, as this Bill is not finished in the Dáil, that day is now available for the Waste Management (Amendment) Bill, 2001. The House will not now be sitting on Friday as was originally intended.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re sub-committee on the mini-CTC signalling project, to be taken without debate; No. 2, motion re sub-committee on the Abbeylara incident, to be taken without debate; No. 3, motion re Trustee Savings Bank Act, 1989 (Section 57) (TSB Bank) Order, 2001, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes; No. 4, Waste Management (Amendment) Bill, 2001 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and all other Senators not to exceed 15 minutes. Business is to be interrupted from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. No. 19, motion No. 28, is to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Business, if not previously concluded, will resume thereafter.
Mr. Manning: I thank the Leader for agreeing to the request from this side of the House not to take all Stages of the Waste Management (Amendment) Bill, 2001, on Friday. Now there will be a decent interval between Second and Committee Stages. However, I ask the Leader to reconsider his intention to take Remaining Stages on Tuesday because there is a deep-seated objection, from all parts of the House, to taking Report Stage immediately after Committee Stage. It would be acceptable to have a break so that if there are changes that the Minister is agreeable to making, there is an interval for the amendments to be framed. Perhaps we could review that later in the day. We certainly will not impede the passage of this Bill, we want to accommodate it, but as I said yesterday, apart from rushing the Bill over three days, there should be a break between Committee and Report Stages. I thank the Leader for accepting the points made yesterday in the spirit they were put and for agreeing to alter the schedule.
I wish to refer again to the growing tension between the US and China. It is time for other governments to take positions on this issue. The situation is totally unnecessary and simply needs an honest broker to move in and indicate a way out of the mess. Ireland now has representation on the UN Security Council, where this matter may well arise. Our Government should play a role in trying to ease the tension, which seems to be growing by the day. The situation can have an  impact across a wide field, including the World Trade Organisation discussions and other global agreements, as well as creating instability in terms of international peace. I ask that our Minister for Foreign Affairs, through the Security Council, should indicate how the situation might be moved forward.
Mr. Costello: I join in complimenting the Leader on agreeing to take the other Stages of the Waste Management Bill next week, rather than on Friday next, and for agreeing to take No. 3 with debate. However, I am not at all happy with the reasons given by the Leader for withdrawing the business which had been proposed for Friday next. The change was entirely related to the ordering of Dáil business. Senators have always agreed that this House should regulate its own business in its own fashion, its own time and with its own sense of urgency. I do not see why this House should change its schedule solely because there is a hiccup in the Dáil schedule. We should change only if this is the right thing to do and we should not take all Stages of a Bill on the one day.
I agree entirely with Senator Manning's request for a debate on the Flynn report on rural post offices. What has been revealed in newspaper reports makes very grim reading, including reference to the closure of 100 sub-post offices, a further 1,500 under threat and predictions of a huge debt by the year 2004. A real opportunity is provided for the post offices to take over where the banking system is closing 20% to 25% of its branches and withdrawing service from local communities. An Post should modernise its services, take over that banking business and ensure that communities have the necessary facilities.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to address this House. I am concerned by reports in The Irish Times yesterday and today, by Seán MacConnell, about smuggling activities. Factual information, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that in November of 1998, 20,000 lambs per week were coming into the country and there was prima facie evidence of corruption, right down along the entire line. The Minister should outline to the House what progress is being made in the investigations by the Gárda Síochána into the source of the one outbreak of foot and mouth disease which occurred in this jurisdiction and the resulting threat to our economy and our animal health status from the activities of a small irresponsible element in our community.
Ms Cox: Although I know we had statements yesterday on the impact of the foot and mouth disease crisis on tourism, I wish to refer to some disturbing reports this morning, from a number of large companies based in Galway, that suppliers to canteens and similar outlets are increas ing the price of meat products by some 45% to 50%. I do not understand how the present crisis could have such a huge impact on the price of food and food products. I ask the Leader to arrange a discussion on Tuesday of next week with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, or other appropriate Minister with responsibility in this regard.
I understand that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has just published a Bill dealing with the early release of prisoners. When is that Bill expected to come before this House? We need to have a wide-ranging discussion on justice issues, including some of the prison sentences which are being handed down, such as an eight year sentence in one case where a woman's life was taken. The debate on that Bill would provide an appropriate forum to discuss such issues.
Mr. Norris: I support Senator O'Toole's comments on the stand-off between the US and Chinese authorities. Ireland could usefully intervene by suggesting an independent international inquiry into the incident. That might let both countries off the hook, in terms of saving face.
I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, or other appropriate Minister, a matter which has been brought to my attention by a constituent. He discovered that the Ancient Order of Hibernians has an Internet web-site which has a link, whether officially or otherwise, to the Irish Government web-site, with side links to Catholic and republican sites. As an Irish citizen, my constituent is concerned that an organisation with a record of highly discriminatory attitudes towards Irish citizens should have an apparently official link to the Government web-site. I ask that the Minister for Foreign Affairs should look into this matter.
Dr. M. Hayes: I wish to inform the House of a letter which I received from Lord Alderdice, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, offering Members of the Seanad who are resident in Northern Ireland the full courtesy and facilities of the Stormont building. I have accepted that invitation and, as a courtesy to this House, I thought I should inform my colleagues.
Mr. Quinn: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I again ask the Leader to have a debate as soon as possible on the changeover to the euro currency, which will take place 271 days from now. The EU Commission issued a report yesterday, which is quite frightening in overall terms. It showed that one in every three small businesses is unaware of the changeover on 1 January 2002. If the same situation applies in Ireland as in the rest of Europe, we need urgent action to draw attention to it. The changeover board is doing a good job, but much more can be done.
In the light of yesterday's events on world markets, is it possible to have a debate on the econ omy? I know we had the Minister for Finance in this House last week on the Finance Bill. However, there seems to be almost a belief in our immunity from world events in this regard. We need a debate now, to dispel any impression that if we just ignore events in the world economy, we will be immune from any effects. There is almost an air of over-confidence.
Ms Ormonde: I support Senator Manning's call for a debate on the future of post offices. The post office has always been a core feature of society in rural areas and small towns. Local planning and infrastructural development should take account of community requirements in that regard. A co-ordinated effort is required and this House could usefully debate the issue, with a view to putting forward suggestions to change the thinking which is presented in the Flynn report.
Mr. Coghlan: Post offices are such an essential part of rural life, the rural village scene and, perhaps, even in the suburbs of our towns and cities, that more must be done to ensure their continued viability. Accordingly, I too support Senator Manning's call for a debate on the Flynn report.
Yesterday I asked the Leader a question about section 135 of the new Planning and Development Act and he omitted to reply, perhaps inadvertently. I ask the question again. That section of the Act requires councils to implement a code of practice or conduct for its members in the performance of their duties. However, as the Kerry county manager pointed out in his report yesterday, that section of the Act has not yet been brought into operation. Will the Government provide for uniformity, which one would have thought might be best given the size of the country? Will it provide for a free for all, or what will be the situation?
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I support the call for a debate on the situation between China and America. It is very serious and is escalating at an alarming rate. While we have very strong ties with America, we have also developed ties with China. The Taoiseach and many Ministers have visited China and there is a very large Chinese community here who are making an important contribution to commercial life. It is important to have such a debate.
We should also have a debate on North Korea. I am very sorry to note that under the Bush administration, there seems to be a change of policy. Under the Clinton administration, there had been huge strides to open up the border and bring the two parts of Korea together again. We could play an important role in debating these issues.
Mr. Ross: I support what Senator Quinn said. There is an air of complacency about the economy, which is obvious in the comments and attitudes of many of the politicians in this House and  elsewhere. The Exchequer figures issued yesterday were bad. They were below the targets set by the Department of Finance. Markets around the world are falling and the US recession is obviously affecting this economy. We should inject some urgency into this rather than having this sense of complacency. A debate in this House on the economy, not on the Finance Bill, which is completely different, would set the ball rolling. We have had a wonderful ride here. The economy has been booming for seven years, but it would be a great pity if, in the belief that this will continue forever, we did not recognise the danger signals.
Mr. Finneran: I support the call for a debate on post offices. I suggest that it should cover financial services, which would include banking and the euro, on which Senator Quinn requested a debate, as they are all intertwined. There is much complacency about the euro changeover, particularly among small firms, and a debate here would be helpful.
I support Senator Cox regarding the massive increase in the price of meat products. I have been approached by a number of hotels and restaurants about this matter. They are flabbergasted that, in some cases, the price of meat has doubled in recent weeks. This does not measure up to the supply. I believe that there is a rip-off in this area. The Minister of State with responsibility for consumer affairs should come in here so that we can debate the matter. There is goodwill towards the farming community and the fact that excessive profits are gained by some people – not farmers but others – could reduce that goodwill, and that is not desirable.
Ms O'Meara: I support the call from all sides of the House for a debate on the Flynn report about post offices, particularly sub-post offices. As other Members have pointed out, the post office is the heart of many rural communities and their decline is symptomatic of a number of difficulties faced by rural communities. The Minister should, at an early stage, give her response to the report.
I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come before us to respond to issues relating to child care. Over £40 million was allocated to child care provision. My information is that that money is not being spent and there are problems in the system. It appears that allocation is now being reduced in light of the economic downturn.
Mr. Mooney: I hope the Cathaoirleach will indulge me for one moment. While coming into the House this morning I learnt with great regret of the death of Butch Moore. The link to this  House is that his late father served with great distinction as a head usher for many years until his retirement. Those of you who remember Butch Moore will know that he had the distinction of representing Ireland in its first participation in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965. He brought great distinction, not only to himself but also to Ireland because it was an outstanding achievement at that time. It is important that the House record the passing of somebody whom I found extremely difficult to understand. As one who comes from that generation, it reminds us of our mortality. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Mrs. Jackman: I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House after Easter to give us an update on the issue of refugees. I am particularly concerned about a number of Nigerian refugees who have been in Limerick for ten months. These are skilled professionals who would love to work and are most upset at not knowing what will happen to them. Given that there is a skills shortage, with a number of people being brought into the Limerick area from abroad, it is shameful that they are sitting there with the appropriate skills uncertain of their future. It is time for us to come to grips with the problem. For a number of months we have heard nothing regarding the refugee issue.
Mr. Ryan: I ask the Leader if he has information yet on the timescale under which he proposes to take the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Bill, which will introduce a major change in our legislative practice. Committee Stage of the Labour Party's Registration of Lobbyists Bill has been on the Order Paper for some time. When will this be taken? The Taoiseach is very keen on regulating lobbyists. He has made this clear on a number of occasions.
Following on what Senator Jackman said, today's newspapers report an EU proposal to allow asylum seekers to work after six months. I ask the Leader for a debate on that issue and a statement of the Government's view on the EU position. As a member of the European Affairs Committee, I am aware that many of its members are tired of finding out about the Government's position on EU legislation only after it has been agreed. It would be a good start if this issue was debated before a decision was taken.
In the light of what my colleagues have said about the apparent dramatic increases in meat prices, I ask the Leader to request the Minister to inform us whether the market support mechanisms that were introduced because of the BSE crisis, particularly the destruction scheme, are still continuing when apparently beef prices are rising dramatically. It seems ridiculous to be running a market support mechanism to sustain a price, which is apparently running away with itself.
Senators Manning, O'Toole, Costello, Ormonde, Coghlan, Finneran and O'Meara called for a debate on the Flynn report on post offices. I agree with the view that the post offices have an important role to play, particularly in rural Ireland, if the long-term plans of the banks to reduce the number of branches by up to 25% materialise. This will be a great opportunity to invest in the post offices. As a former employee of An Post, I see a major opportunity for post offices. I will allow the longest time possible for this matter to be debated in the House.
I will pass on to the Minister the views expressed by Senators O'Toole and Ó Murchu regarding the US and China and Senator Ó Murchu's views on North Korea. Senator Costello called for the Minister of Justice to come into the House for a debate on the high rate of smuggling that has been divulged in recent days. I will allocate time for this. I will pass on to the Minister the views of Senator O'Meara on the allocation of spending for child care.
Senators Cox, Finneran and Ryan called for a debate on the increases in prices for meat products in recent days. I will pass on the Senators' views to the Minister. We cannot discuss the matter in the House unless one of the parties puts it down for Private Members' Business next week. I will pass on Senator Norris's views on the Ancient Order of Hibernians to the Minister. I too welcome the news announced by Senator Hayes this morning that Members of the Seanad can make use of the facilities at Stormont for the purposes of carrying out their duties.
Senator Quinn called for a debate on the euro changeover and the fact that one in three companies is still not fully aware of what it will entail. I intend to have an all-day debate on the economy, banking, financial matters and the euro changeover. This can be agreed among the party leaders and the Whips, perhaps at our Thursday meeting. I will get back to Senator Coghlan later on in the week concerning the matter he raised. Senator O'Meara raised the matter of the electoral bill. I will make inquiries about it.
I would like to be associated with the sentiments expressed by Senator Mooney. I am very sorry to hear of the death of Butch Moore, whom I spoke to only three months ago. He was a great friend and a legend in the business. “Walking the Streets in the Rain” and “Born to be with you” were the two big songs at the time. He and the Royal Showband started a business that created 800 groups who were able to make a living from it for many years. I also note that his dad worked here for many years and has passed on to his eternal reward.
Senators Jackman and Ryan called for a debate on refugees. Senator Ryan also made a point about asylum seekers. I will pass on the Senator's  views to the Minister and the House can debate the matter after Easter. I will make inquiries regarding the timeframe for bringing before the House the two Bills about which Senator Ryan inquired and I will get back to the Senator at a later date.
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