Thursday, 31 May 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Dardis: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding Mini-CTC signalling project, to be taken without debate; No. 2, Mental Health Bill, 1999 – Second Stage, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and other Senators not to exceed ten minutes; and No. 3, Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000 – Committee Stage, to be taken from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. or if section 48 is reached earlier, to be adjourned at that point. Business will be interrupted from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Senator Cosgrave asked a question yesterday about the Horse and Greyhound Racing Bill. I understand Report Stage in the Dáil is likely to be taken on 22 June and it should be introduced to this House before the end of the session.
Mr. Coogan: This House is the ideal forum to debate the issues of refugees and racism and the accusations made against the Taoiseach and a number of Ministers in recent advertisements. This area is suffused with a lot of emotion which could be dissolved if the House debated it and clarified aspects of the Refugee Act.
Mr. O'Toole: I am concerned about the arrangements the Government proposes to make regarding certain protections for people who did not declare offshore accounts. I seek an assurance from the Deputy Leader that this will not have implications for the matters being dealt with at  the tribunals. I wish to be certain that the Government is not leading us into a trap—
Mr. O'Toole: Or the Revenue Commissioners. I do not see what the other side of the House is concerned about. We are all concerned about openness, transparency and accountability. If there is a difficulty with what I am saying, Members on the other side should elaborate.
Mr. O'Toole: I am concerned that the work of the tribunals may be undermined or perverted by proposals by the Revenue Commissioners which could be interpreted as giving retrospective protection to people who did not previously declare at tribunals that they had offshore accounts. Will the Deputy Leader clarify this? It has nothing to do with Fianna Fáil but perhaps that party's members know something we do not.
It may have gone unnoticed that in the past week in France a new railway line has been opened from Calais to the Mediterranean. This is how France provides support for rail transport. On many occasions in this House I have raised the question of opening the Sligo-Galway-Limerick railway line. When I last raised it some years ago I was supported by the Progressive Democrats. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, has also supported the idea on a number of occasions. Will the Deputy Leader ascertain the Government's view on this in terms of improving the infrastructure of the west? The issue has been raised by many people, including members of all political parties. It should be delivered as part of the commitment to the BMW region.
Ms O'Meara: It was agreed between some of the Whips. I am concerned that we will be dealing with some amendments to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill today while others which we have not seen will be considered on another date, but they may be relevant to earlier amendments. I have reservations about proceeding in this way although I accept the House is under pressure to deal with significant legislation before the end of the session and we are not in the business of delaying proceedings. It appears the Government is anxious to pass a lot of legislation before the  summer recess which would lead one to conclusions about events in the autumn.
Ms O'Meara: Will the Deputy Leader ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to attend the House and explain what she intends to do to ensure that foreign workers coming to this country because of the labour shortage are properly treated by employers and are given the full rights and protections they are entitled to under the law and which Irish workers enjoy? Are legislative amendments required to ensure foreign workers, especially those from non-EU states, are properly treated in view of the severe labour force shortage in some sectors?
Will the Deputy Leader arrange a debate before the end of the session to consider how the many millions of pounds in funding allocated by the Government for child care and the provision of child care places are being used in practice? It is my strong suspicion that it is not working out in practice and the crisis that existed last year and the year before is worsening.
Mrs. Jackman: I support Senator Coogan's call for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, to be invited to the House to debate asylum seekers. There was a debate on Senator Norris's Private Members' motion on racism, but the Minister must give asylum seekers who have been in Ireland since before 31 December 2000 the right to work. It is hypocritical to seek workers from abroad when there are well qualified asylum seekers in the country who have management experience and third level degrees. They are anxious to work and they do not want to be social welfare recipients. However, in the Limerick area in particular they are forced to hang around and they are suffering intense depression as a result. It is most hypocritical and I ask the Minister to respond to the positive aspects of my points and to come to the House to debate what he is or is not doing about asylum seekers.
We were promised a debate on the educational needs of those with learning difficulties, with particular reference to educational supports for children with autism. I have been promised such a debate since last year and we are in the final days of this session, but nothing has happened. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange this debate.
Mr. Norris: I ask the Deputy Leader to explain why No. 1 is being taken without debate. The CTC signalling project was a controversial issue that was widely ventilated in the House. The motion appears to contain element of compellability and the House should discuss that aspect. There may be an explanation but if one is not forthcoming, I intend to propose an amendment  to the Order of Business that the motion be debated.
Mr. Norris: —and he represents us on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. However, he is not our leader or Whip. Otherwise, why am I paid a small amount of money per month for acting as the Whip?
Mr. Caffrey: I ask the Deputy Leader to outline whether the Government believes it is doing enough to promote the referenda that will be held shortly, given the public's apathy in relation to them. We are facing the possibility of the lowest turn-out in the history of the State. At worst, the referendum on the Nice treaty could be defeated while, at best, it may be a huge embarrassment from an international standpoint if the turn-out is below 20%.
Mrs. Ridge: I support Senator Jackman's call for a debate on autism because the latest figures are chilling. There has been a large increase in the number of children with autism, particularly in the Dublin area, and the matter warrants a debate.
Will the Deputy Leader ask the relevant Minister – I presume it is the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke – to request the Garda for assistance on a particular matter? Some roads have been closed while others have been changed to a one way system to enable the Luas line to be built. There are early warning signs but the level of congestion requires the presence of gardaí to control traffic. The traffic is unbelievably dreadful at present and will remain so for a year. There is a need for more than early warning signs – help is required – and I presume the Deputy Leader will use his undoubted good offices in that regard on my behalf.
Mr. Quinn: I draw the attention of the Deputy Leader to the publication earlier this week of the EU scoreboard on compliance with EU directives. It appears Ireland is four years behind others and that the country will not reach the deadline of next March. There should be a debate on Europe immediately after the referenda next  week because this matter is urgent in view of Prime Minister Jospin's bare knuckle attack this week on countries such as Ireland.
I support Senator Quill's call yesterday and Senator Jackman's request today for a debate on education. Figures published yesterday suggest that 57% of adults in Ireland are illiterate. This figure relates to people who have difficulty with basic reading. I was not aware that the level was so high, but if that is the case, a debate on education should be held immediately.
Mr. McDonagh: I support Senator O'Toole regarding the reopening of the Sligo to Limerick line. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on carriageways. There is a suggestion that super highways and dual carriageways will be developed in association with the railway strategy. However, we should consider whether a mistake is being made because some of the highways might not be necessary if the railway was developed. A DART-like system is now necessary in Galway, which is the fastest growing city in Europe, to link it to the hinterland towns of Tuam, Athenry and Dunmore. A debate on carriageways in association with railways would be most appropriate.
Mr. Ross: I intend to second Senator Norris's amendment to the Order of Business if the Deputy Leader does not provide a satisfactory explanation. It is an important motion which relates to compellability. It is a highly controversial area and Members should have an opportunity to discuss it. I am ignorant of the exact procedures which must be followed and the Deputy Leader may have an explanation as to why there should be no discussion. However, as a matter of principle, the House should discuss the motion and I intend to oppose the Order of Business unless the reply is satisfactory.
Mr. Coghlan: I also support Senator Coogan's call for a debate on refugees and racism. Some of those people are much sought after but, sadly, when they are employed they are treated as if they are subhuman. No person should be robbed of his or her dignity and, as Senator Coogan pointed out, a debate on the issue would be useful.
I also support Senator O'Toole's call for the reopening of the western seaboard railway line from Sligo to Limerick. However, in any discussion on that issue, we should seek the extension of the line from Limerick to Cahirciveen.
Mr. Farrell: I also support the call for a debate on the Limerick railway. I pay tribute to former Senator Martin J. O'Toole because the line would have been lifted and scrapped years ago but for his intervention. He carried out a campaign with the help of a small group to retain the line. I hope it will be reopened.
Mr. Farrell: I have working with people since I was 16 years of age and I have never met anybody who could not sign an order form, know how to pay his rates or how to do his business. I would be considered illiterate relative to Senator Norris where my command of English is concerned.
Mr. Farrell: I must defend the teachers who have taught the children down the years and have done a good job. It is a slur on them to say that 57% of children are illiterate. It is incorrect and scandalous and the people who formulated those statistics should be brought before us—
Mr. Burke: Will the Deputy Leader tell us when the local government Bill will come before the House? It is important legislation and we await it with great anxiety. The Leader told us it would arrive during this session and there is much speculation as to when.
Mr. L. Fitzgerald: I support Senator Farrell's call for a debate on education and I support him regarding the interpretation of the survey that was carried out on illiteracy. Technologically, I am illiterate, and a lot of the elements of the survey referred to this. Frankly, it is very misleading  and Senator Farrell is right to assert this. We will have an opportunity to discuss the matter during the debate on education.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on the recent proposal from the Revenue Commissioners, supported by the Government, regarding considerations for those who declare offshore accounts. As the politician who first expressed concern in public about amnesties – I regarded them as charters for drug barons – I feel a debate would allay the fears of Senator O'Toole regarding the lack of distinction he sees between amnesties and what is now proposed. There is a very clear distinction. What is proposed is a very pragmatic approach to work on behalf of the taxpayer. A debate would elucidate the Government's proposals.
Mr. Mooney: I am grateful for yesterday's comments by Senator Norris on the problems facing elderly men in rural Ireland. I would like to link them to a statement in the papers this morning indicating that Senator Quinn has stated he would welcome the employment of those over a certain age in his new supermarket venture in Limerick. I wish him well in that.
Mr. Mooney: For many years, I and my colleagues on both sides of the House who are members of the National Economic and Social Forum have raised this issue at times of high unemployment. Perhaps it was not popular then. Now that there are very severe skills shortages. Despite the figures issued during the week by the Central Statistics Office which indicate that only 65,000 people are actively seeking work, the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed has stated that statistically there are twice that number who would wish to work. For a variety of reasons, they are unable to do so, due to lack of skills, age discrimination in the workplace, or because of the location – as was mentioned by Senator Norris yesterday. In my own area, the unemployment rate is twice the national average – almost 6% in the Border regions. Therefore, a debate would be timely. I ask that Government time be allowed for this so all sides of the House will be able to contribute.
Mr. Dardis: I will attempt to be literate in my reply. Senator Coogan raised the issue of racism, and there were several other issues raised by other Senators. I see no difficulty in having a discussion on the matter. Racism cannot be tolerated. The associated issue of asylum seekers, as Senators Jackman and Ridge pointed out, is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Both issues could be discussed in a wide-ranging debate on racism. I find the poster that was put up by Amnesty International dis tasteful. It should not have been put up, given their perspective on rights throughout the world, for which they should be applauded. That is just one aspect of the Senators' call for a debate.
Senators O'Toole and Liam Fitzgerald and others spoke of the statement of practice from the Revenue Commissioners. That is a matter for the Commissioners and, as I understand from this morning's newspapers, the Attorney General has been asked to offer an opinion on the people who were involved in the so-called tax amnesty in 1993. It is not a matter that we need to avoid but one that can be debated within the House.
Senators O'Toole, McDonagh, Coghlan and Ó Fearghail spoke about railways and infrastructure in the west. We passed the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Bill in the House. It would have been appropriate to discuss these issues then, but that does not mean we cannot do so in the future.
Senator O'Meara referred to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill. The reason we are handling it in the way we are and not taking the fourth part today is that there are ongoing inter-party discussions to reach a resolution as to what the agreed position should be.
Senator O'Meara also raised the issue of foreign workers. It would be bad if they were not treated in the same way as every other worker. They have that protection under law. If they are not treated equally, it should be brought to the attention of the authorities and investigated. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, is determined that foreign workers should be given all their rights.
Child care was also raised by Senator O'Meara and that is a matter that can be discussed. The issue of asylum seekers was raised by Senator Jackman. They are entitled to due process. It is important that we distinguish between migrant workers, who are coming in legally, and asylum seekers. A different standard is being applied to asylum seekers. That is acceptable because we must be careful that people entering the country do not come from a criminal background or require the State to adopt defensive measures.
The matter of education was raised by Senators Jackman, Ridge, Quinn, Farrell and Liam Fitzgerald, both yesterday and today. Senator Jackman spoke of it in the context of autism, which is a narrower debate. Given the volume of opinion within the House, I hope that the matter can be debated very soon.
Senator Norris spoke about item No. 1 and the sub-committee. The sub-committee is being given the power to send for persons, papers and records. If the sub-committee has decided that is required, then the House should assent to it. There is no need to debate the issue – it is beyond that. Obviously, if there is a report from the sub-committee, the House can address it at a later stage. Senator Ross raised that point.
Senator Caffrey referred to the referenda. I and the majority of Members in the House, with one or two exceptions, are in favour of the adop tion of the three questions that are being put to the people by way of referendum.
Mr. Dardis: Yesterday I said we were descending into the surreal and the same is happening today. We all hope the referendum questions will be carried. On the issue of the turnout, we live in a democracy and it is at the discretion of voters if they wish to do so. It will be disappointing if they choose not to exercise that discretion but there should not be a legal requirement on anybody to vote as is the case in some countries.
The issues which concern Senator Ridge regarding the disruption of traffic due to the Luas line are ones that might be dealt with more appropriately in the forum of the relevant local authorities in the Dublin area, of which she is a member.
Mr. Dardis: I am pleased to inform the Senator that there was a garda on duty at the bottom of the Long Mile Road this morning. Something is  being done about what is an operational matter for the Garda.
Mr. Dardis: In answer to Senator Quinn's question regarding the EU scoreboard on compliance with EU directives, obviously they should be implemented and I am sure the Government will do so in due course. The Senator also called for a debate on Europe after the referendum has taken place. This would be appropriate. I share the Senator's view on the intervention of Mr. Jospin and President Prodi, that it was not particularly helpful in the context of the referendum debate.
Senator Coghlan raised the issue of rail with which I have already dealt. I want to inform Senator Burke that yesterday I addressed the local government Bill which the Taoiseach said yesterday would come back to the Dáil immediately after next week's recess and that it is hoped it will be through this House by the end of the session.
Senator Liam Fitzgerald spoke about the statement of practice from the Revenue Commissioners, a matter with which I have dealt. I agree with what Senator Mooney said regarding ageism in the workplace. It is illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of age. The matter of the high level of unemployment in the Border region was dealt with yesterday when we discussed the unemployment figures.
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