Thursday, 21 November 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O'Rourke: The Order of Business today is No. 1, motion referring the subject matter of No. 6 on today's Order Paper to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, and providing for the joint committee to report back by 28 November 2002; No. 2, Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2002 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time; No. 3, statements on the Book of Estimates, 2003, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time. It is hoped to conclude statements at 3.30 p.m.
Mr. Finucane: I ask the Leader of the House to raise the following issues, as appropriate. In view of the proposed escalation of the postmasters union strike and the reduction of further services, the impact of which has already been felt in rural areas, will she ask the appropriate Minister to come into the House to give an overview of what is happening in An Post? It is creating an unnecessary divide between postmen and postmasters.
Most Members have been elected by local authority representatives. While much of the debate is focused on the first-time buyer's grant, which the House debated yesterday, there are many elements of the Estimate which will impact on councils. I would like the Minister for the Environment and Local Government – no one else – to come and give us his analysis of the drastic reductions in many aspects of the Estimate. These reductions will create many problems for councils in the process of preparing estimates in the near future.
Mr. O'Toole: In regard to No. 1 and the Leader's reference that the joint committee must report back no later than 28 November 2002, is that how it is to be dealt with? Perhaps the Chair can give me some guidance on the matter. The device of assigning and referring motions to a joint committee was meant to be an efficient way of doing business. Traditionally, it has been done without debate. The understanding was that when a matter had been dealt with in committee it would report back and its report would then be open for discussion. I am not clear if this is a Standing Order device simply to say we have referred the matter, or does it mean it will come back for debate?
Mr. O'Toole: There is another issue the House should consider and on which I ask the Leader to arrange a debate. I am well aware the Government is at the stage of beginning to approve a Bill on the establishment of a police authority of some description in the South. Nonetheless, in the report of the Garda Complaints Board phrases such as members of the force were more loyal to each other than to the force were used. That is bad enough and can perhaps be dealt with down the line. However, it said that people who may be guilty or who were responsible for the law being broken would not be investigated.
These are issues which cannot be allowed to lie because no new legislation will deal with them. I would like to know how the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform intends approaching that issue. I know he intends to bring in legislation to make people co-operate. However, it seems extraordinary that in the opinion of the Garda Complaints Board a wrong has been done somewhere along the way and nobody will be brought to justice on the issue. That is wrong and, if necessary, we should be brave enough to ask a group from outside of the Garda Síochána to carry out the investigation in such situations.
Mr. Ryan: On the Order of Business, can the Leader tell me when the Report Stage of the Digital Hub Development Agency Bill will be taken or is it still uncertain? It is ordered for next Tuesday, but I understand—
Mr. Ryan: It is ordered for next Tuesday. That does not matter. The Leader can let me know some other time. An bhfuil aon scéal faoi Bhille na dteangacha oifigiúla atá ar an gclár le sé seachtain anois agus nár luadh fós? Tá an Bille um inimirce ar an gclár le tamall fada chomh maith agus gan aon dul chun cinn déanta air. An bhféadfadh an Ceannaire eolas a thabhairt don Teach mar gheall ar an dá rud sin?
I asked in the past for a debate on standards in the building industry, particularly in house construction. There was considerable eloquence on both sides of the House, but particularly on the Government side, as to the nature of the building industry last night during the debate on the first-time buyer's grant, which I had not picked up before from that side of the House. In a climate where we have recognised that builders are inclined to rip people off, could we have a debate on standards in the building and house construction industry and some information on the Government's proposals to ensure minimum standards are observed, particularly in house construction?
Mr. Leyden: I support Senator Finucane's call in relation to the current dispute in An Post. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to come before the House next week to explain this ongoing dispute which is causing untold damage to the postal service? The most damaging aspect is the division between the postmen and women and the Irish Postmasters Union. Postmen are being allowed to sort letters at home and there has been a delay in the delivery of post. This is putting An Post in jeopardy.
Mr. Leyden: I am aware that Mr. Philip Flynn will be arbitrating in this dispute. However, I call on the Minister to outline to the House next week what the situation is and to try to resolve it before it escalates into a strike affecting the Christmas mail, which would be a disaster.
I wish to raise two important matters. Last Tuesday, the McBrearty family walked out of the Morris tribunal because of a refusal to change its terms of reference. Yesterday in the Dáil, in reply to a question from the Leader of the Fine Gael Party, the Taoiseach said that the House would be open to changing the terms of reference provided a request came from the tribunal. The tribunal, on the other hand, says it is open to changing its terms of reference provided a request comes from the Oireachtas. There is a game of ping-pong going on that needs to be resolved. We need to debate in this House as a matter of urgency who exactly is responsible for changing the terms of reference and to do so, because a tribunal without the McBrearty family would be the equivalent of Hamlet without the prince. We do not have a tribunal if we do not have the McBrearty family there.
The second issue we need to debate relates to a request from Amnesty International to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to carry out a study on the degree of racism, if any, within Irish prisons, which has been turned down by the Minister. That puts us firmly in the company of China, Russia, Egypt and Israel. The United Kingdom and the United States have agreed. About 11 other civilised democracies have agreed to allow such a study. As a country which preaches human rights so eloquently, we need to know, as a matter of urgency, the logic of the Minister's response to Amnesty International, and we need a debate in this House.
I have some sympathy with the point made by Senator O'Toole in relation to the Garda Complaints Board. It is shameful that any group of people who set out to encourage other people to report breaches of the law would remain silent when they see some of their colleagues breaking the law. If it happened in Northern Ireland there would be a queue from here to Strasbourg in an effort to have the matter brought before the European Court.
On a more serious point, could the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform whether he would, at his convenience, come to House to discuss the proposals for the Garda complaints mechanism? I view this as a means of improving the methodology of the House as well. It would be helpful if some means could be found for us to have a discussion with the Minister at the formative stage of the preparation of legislation rather than having to deal with it as a Bill when it is rather hard to change. It would be preferable if we were able to do that on the basis of some sort of statement here rather than having to read about it in newspapers, although I am not against people reading newspapers.
Ms O'Meara: I support the request of Senator Maurice Hayes in relation to the legislation on Garda reform. He echoes the point I raised yesterday on the Order of Business. I would remind the Leader of the House that when the freedom of information legislation was being published it came to the Seanad for discussion purely on the heads of the Bill and on the principles contained in the legislation because the Minister of the day wanted to hear the views of the Seanad before the final legislation was drafted. There is, therefore, a model and a precedent for involving the Upper House in the preparation of legislation. It is a suggestion well worth pursuing and to which I imagine the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would be open.
In light of last week's Supreme Court decision when a woman took a case against Dr. Neary of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, and considering the number of cases being pursued – and a number of cases which it may not be possible to pursue – and also the seriousness of the matter, I asks the Leader to ask the Government whether there are plans to establish a compensation tribunal and to report back to the House. The Stardust compensation tribunal would be a perfect model. This is a very serious issue on which I hope the Leader will be able to respond.
Mr. Coghlan: The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, would be better off if he would guard against this type of grotesque advertising and spend the money on accident black spots and poor roads, which would have a more immediate impact on saving lives.
Mr. Coghlan: Exactly. It is something which the Leader knew a lot about in her former position. She seems to indicate that the leaks were broadly correct – perhaps I have misunderstood her response. It would be nice if we could have a definitive Government overview. The Leader should arrange to have the Minister come to the House to spell this out because it is very uneven.
Mr. Bannon: The availability of good quality water supplies is essential in any society and is fundamental to the maintenance of public health. There has been a scare in County Wicklow with regard to the level of uranium in the public water supply and some 13 other counties are also at risk. It is important that we have a debate on this issue to allay public fears. The Environmental Protection Agency discovered that 13 other counties were at high risk, which is half the counties in the State. The World Health Organisation discovered uranium levels 65 times above its limits in samples from County Wicklow.
Mr. Norris: Considering the current unrest among taxi personnel, the fact that 1,500 taxi drivers have criminal convictions and one has 30 criminal convictions, repeated complaints – especially from women – the fact that this is very unfair to decent taxi people, the fact that Garda consistently object to taxi licences and then see District Courts arbitrarily overturn decisions, the fact that District Courts consistently give licences to pubs that should not have them, and to gaming dens and lap-dancing clubs, will the Leader of the House suggest to Government that there be an independent inquiry into the operation of the District Courts, especially since we have Ms Nell McCafferty writing—
Mr. Norris: I understand your wise ruling, a Chathaoirligh. That is why I am asking the Leader to take this matter directly to Government to ask for an independent investigation into the disgraceful operation of the District Courts.
On a more positive note, in the light of what I said yesterday about the room downstairs, the Superintendent of the Houses very graciously met with me. He explained the situation in a most courteous manner and I am grateful to him. I discussed it with my representative, Senator O'Toole.
Mr. Norris: There are still some outstanding matters and I suggest this should be reviewed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges where Senator O'Toole will make our position clear in the appropriate quarter.
Mr. Browne: I welcome the decision by the Minister for Transport regarding the appointment of a national regulator of the taxi industry. Deregulation was a good idea in concept but did not work in practice. As Senator Norris pointed out, it has led to a situation where 1,500 current taxi drivers have a criminal record. The decision by the Minister is welcome but the matter should be debated properly in the House before he rushes into it. He plans to appoint the regulator in February and it would be beneficial if that were debated. Deregulation was rushed into by the last Government and we have paid a price for that.
It is a disgrace that taxi drivers are planning a dispute today despite meeting the Minister at 10.30 a.m. Considering the discomfort and chaos the citizens of Dublin suffered last week during the floods, the House should condemn taxi drivers for their action.
Ms Tuffy: I support the call by Senator Finucane for the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to the House to discuss how cutbacks will affect local authority budgets next year, and how the consequences of that may include increases in the unfair double tax of waste charges and less accountability of local public services.
Mr. Dooley: I join Senator Burke in calling for a debate on the cut in funding to the western development region. Some interesting facts would come out of such a debate which might surprise many Members of the House.
Ms O'Rourke: Senator Finucane referred to the postal dispute and today's vote. I agree that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources should come to the House to discuss the matter. Senator Leyden also referred to this matter and, leaving aside the issue of Christmas cards, there is huge disruption to postal deliveries, particularly in rural Ireland. It is often the case that something that happens in Dublin is top news but if it happens in the country it is relegated to page nine. I do not hold anything against Dublin people but it is a serious matter.
Senator Finucane also wanted the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come to the House to discuss the Estimates and their implication for local authorities. I will be glad to ask the Minister and will see if he can come next week.
Senator O'Toole asked when the framework directive on child pornography will go to committee. The Cathaoirleach kindly told the House that it comes back via a message from the committee to both Dáil and Seanad. The Senator also asked about the Garda Complaints Board. I expect that was with regard to the debate on “Morning Ireland” some days ago in which board chairman, Mr. Gordon Holmes, spoke on the recent report and there was a counter-argument by a Garda representative – I think it was Mr. P. J. Stone. As I understand the argument that developed, Mr. Stone said that the report had not yet been published and he alleged that it was wrong of the chairman to make policy statements. I also want to know where the report is and believe it will follow shortly.
Senator Ryan asked about the Digital Hub Development Agency Bill, 2002. It is down for Tuesday but I think it will be taken on Wednesday. That can be changed today. The Senator also asked about the Official Languages (Equality) Bill, 2002. There is constant telephone communication with the Department about that Bill. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is having great difficulty with various amendments to it but is trying valiantly to bring it to the House.
Senator Ryan called for a debate on standards in the building industry. That would tie in with the earlier call to have the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, come to the House on other matters.
Senator Jim Higgins spoke about An Post and also the McBrearty family. I listened to the Taoiseach yesterday when he gave the clear impression that a message was awaited from Mr. Justice Morris, and that there would be an appropriate response when he sent that message. Senator Higgins claims Mr. Justice Morris has said that he is awaiting a message from the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach was definite yesterday and made an open call to the judge to express his opinion on the matter. We must watch that to see what develops.
I will write to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, about the fact highlighted by Senator Higgins that we have refused Amnesty International access to our prisons to report on racism there.
I thank Senator Maurice Hayes for his comments. He asked whether the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would discuss with the House the formulation of his legislation for a Garda complaints mechanism, a query also raised by Senator O'Meara. She cited the case of the former Minister of State, Eithne Fitzgerald, although she did not name her, who came to the House with the heads of the Freedom of Information Bill to obtain the views of Senators. I am in favour of the Freedom of Information Act, but it does not appear to have benefited ordinary people. I thought the ordinary man or woman in the street would use it to find out about matters important to him or her. It does not appear to have worked out the way Eithne Fitzgerald anticipated.
Senator O'Meara also asked about the surgeon, Dr. Neary, who some women believe removed their wombs without their consent and at too early a stage in their lives. I understand the Medical Council is conducting an inquiry into Dr. Neary's practice and methods. I hope that will be concluded soon. The Senator asked if a compensation tribunal would be established for these women. I do not know what the Minister for Health and Children intends but I will take up the matter. What happened to many of those women was very sad.
Senator Bannon raised the issue of water supply. While there was confirmation of excess uranium in the water supply in Wicklow, the other counties to which he referred are being investigated and have not yet been confirmed as having an excess of uranium or other harmful contents in their water supplies. It is a matter which should be debated but it will probably be part of an overall debate on the environment which will cover all the issues raised.
Senator Norris raised the matter of taxi drivers and the action being taken by them, an issue also raised by Senator Browne. I am not in a position to comment on the actions of the District Court in this regard. Senator Browne also welcomed the statement on the taxi regulator. I do not know if legislation will be necessary to introduce it, but it was necessary for other industries. I will inquire, but I imagine there would be a need for either regulations or legislation.
Ms O'Rourke: No, it was because I forgot about it. I apologise for it. Like Senator Higgins, Senator Burke raised the issue of the refusal of Amnesty International's request to investigate racism in our prisons. We must have that clarified.
Senator Burke asked for a debate on the Border, midlands and western region, a point also made by Senator Dooley who appeared to indicate that he had important news in this regard. We should have a debate on the matter but perhaps it should be included in an overall debate with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government.
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