Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O'Rourke: The Order of Business today is No. 1, referral of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996, to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, to be taken without debate – the relevant sections concern powers of detention and rearrest and the joint committee will send a message to the Seanad; No. 2, Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2002 – Committee and Remaining Stages, and No. 9, motion No. 20, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Will the Leader of the House comment on the latest figures relating to the problems in the health service, particularly the problems with waiting lists? In the dead of night the Minister for Health and Children issued the latest figures for public waiting lists. A commitment was given by the Leader's party in the context of the recent election manifesto that within two years of Fianna Fáil's re-election to Government there would be an end to waiting lists. Is this commitment still in place given that last night's figures show an increase of almost 5,000 in the number waiting for hospital space and operations in the public health system? Approximately 29,000 require important operations in the public health system. Perhaps the Leader will comment on this.
While we welcome the opportunity to have a debate tomorrow on the national spatial strategy, I ask the Leader to make more time available, preferably after the Order of Business, to ensure we have a day long debate in order that colleagues on all sides of the House can contribute to an important report which was published last week. I ask her to consider this in the context of reordering tomorrow's business.
Mr. O'Toole: It would be remiss of us not to offer – I hope the House joins me – our congratulations to Senator Hanafin on his elevation to the position of chief fund-raiser for the Fianna Fáil Party. It would be useful if we could have a debate in the next couple of weeks on the most appropriate methods used, the general level of average contribution, what impact this has on the state of the economy at this time and any new tricks about which we should know.
Mr. O'Toole: I want to continue on a positive note. You, a Chathaoirligh, will be aware that you and I strongly supported legislation introduced by Senator Daly and former Senator, Michael O'Kennedy, some years ago. That legislation, the Shannon River Council Bill, was passed with acclamation and applause from all sides of the House. While we marvelled at the generous approach to it, we are of the view that because nothing has happened in the meantime we should resuscitate it. I would be pleased to hear from the Leader the opinion of the Government on this. Is it intended to resubmit the Bill on Committee Stage? It was passed on Second Stage by this House.
We hope the Government side will bring forward this Fianna Fáil sponsored legislation again. The damage done to the floodlands around the Shannon underlines the urgency of dealing with the matter. I do not know if the Cathaoirleach has a stance on it or if the initiative has to be taken on the Government side, but it is an issue about which we are all concerned. I ask that the Leader attend to it.
Mr. Ryan: I can only surmise that the discussions in Government Buildings are going very well given that Senator O'Toole is in such good humour. He must have sorted out IBEC about which, speaking as another trade unionist, I would be delighted.
The newspapers and the media generally are making us increasingly aware of the significance of the Convention on the Future of Europe. It is quite clear that the French, German and British Governments have engaged very seriously with the process. It is regrettable, therefore, that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, one of the more able members of the Government, dismissed the convention recently. In view of this and the major decisions that will be taken, it would be useful to have a debate on the convention and Ireland's attitude to it.
Many of us tried to explain during the debate on the Nice treaty that it was simply not the case that we could keep saying “No” to anything we did not like. While the veto is useful to have in reserve, it becomes more useless the more it is used. If we imagine we can protect our national interests by standing on the sideline at the convention because its proposals will be referred to the Intergovernmental Conference, we are being extremely naive. Naiveté is the one thing of which I would not accuse the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I would welcome an opportunity to hear if he was misrepresented and discover what the Government's real stance is on the convention's evolution.
I was distressed this morning to discover that, yet again, our two national broadcasting services had declined to take advertising from The Irish Catholic. This must be the most intolerant country in western Europe given that religious newspapers cannot advertise on our national television channels. Speaking as a card-carrying and committed pluralist, it is part of my job to defend the right to be heard of those with whom I disagree fundamentally. It is astonishing that in the so-called secular United Kingdom UTV carries advertisements that neither of our national broadcasters will carry. It is offensive and an affront to pluralism. The sensitivities of one of the bodies involved are separate, but the principle of pluralism is that one not only supports but encourages diversity. If an amendment to broadcasting legislation is required, let us make it because it is an absolute outrage that this should continue.
The record of the Leader in the next matter I wish to raise is impeccable. Will she raise with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his apparent proposals on data retention which are at variance with the liberal values she enshrined in the e-commerce legislation that passed through this and the other House during the last session? On commercial and civil libertarian principles, what the Minister appears to be proposing is the antithesis of what the Leader brought before this House when Minister for Public Enterprise.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I support Senator Ryan's comments regarding the failure to accept advertisements from the Christian churches, which I find very difficult to understand for a number of reasons. Many of the programmes on radio and television tend to expound much anti-religious sentiment and since all churches, irrespective of denomination, state there should be an opportunity for them to put across a point of view, I would like to hear from RTÉ or the appropriate Minister what the logic behind the organisation's actions is. This matter has been raised in the House before and I cannot see that there is any danger or partisanship involved.
A point I have raised here on a number of occasions concerns the human rights aspect of the charges against the three Irishmen in Colombia. It is quite evident that some of the fears I expressed were well founded. I listened to Charlie Bird reporting on RTÉ this morning that the prosecution could not find its witnesses. The first prosecution witness was not credible. Postponing the trial until February suggests that a cover up is taking place. Even the English newspapers have stated in recent days that there is no longer any charge that can be upheld in court because there is no strong supporting evidence. Through the Leader, I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to monitor the case very closely.
Mr. Coghlan: I am sure the Leader would welcome the opportunity to clarify circumstances with regard to remarks she made in the other House in her previous position on 18 May 1999. She said any decisions with regard to the future of the Great Southern Hotel Group—
Mr. Coghlan: We will drop the other House from the discussion. The Leader made comments regarding the maximising of the efforts of the staff and full consultation with them regarding the hotel group. Is it true that Air Rianta is going to exit and that such an action will be permitted by the Government? Is it a drip by drip sell off—
Mr. Coghlan: I support the comments made regarding the Convention on the Future of Europe. It would be very useful if the House were to have a debate on the issue because there is concern that matters are proceeding too quickly, though some may believe they are not being dealt with fast enough. It is appropriate that we address all the issues involved. There are concerns regarding democracy in some applicant states with Turkey, for example, disbarring parties which receive less than 10% of the popular vote of parliamentary participation. As we know, the former Government party is excluded. We should address the matter generally.
Mr. Hanafin: I thank Members for their best wishes. Senator O'Toole asked if there were any tricks. We are now using something called EST, electronic funds transfer. I would be glad to show the Senator where to sign.
I take the opportunity to commend the House for its standard of debate. Before the Minister for Finance sits down in the other House today Opposition Members will not say the budget is a miracle, turning water into wine. They will say the Minister is falsifying the figures and playing with mirrors.
Mr. Ross: I add my voice in 100% support of the point raised by Deputy Ryan. The idea that The Irish Catholic should not be allowed to advertise is absolutely appalling. I say this as a member of the Church of Ireland. Were it the case that the Church of Ireland was forbidden under the same rule there would be screams of sectarianism towards the minority here, rightly so. We should urge RTÉ to get its act together. It has a very strange advertising code which also prohibits gambling, which it openly breaks and admits to breaking. The message should go out that we do not think there is any need for this kind of self-conscious anti-religious stance on the part of RTÉ and that it can happily go ahead and promote pluralism and all religions if advertising comes its way.
This worries me slightly because I have to agree with Senator Ryan for a second time, but it is important to have a debate on the Convention on the Future of Europe because of the threat presented by the French and the Germans to our corporation tax rate. The issue of tax harmonisation has been raised. There is a German and French plan to introduce tax harmonisation which would present a serious threat to the revival of the economy. It would be useful – I ask the Leader to devise a mechanism – to send out an all-party message from this House that we are not prepared to make any concession on the 12.5% corporation tax rate regardless of what the French, the Germans and others want us to do, that this is something to which we will adhere.
Ms O'Meara: According to media reports, RTÉ has stated that it was on legal advice it refused the request of The Irish Catholic to advertise. Will the Leader ask the Minister concerned if he considers it necessary or desirable, in the light of the sentiments expressed here, to bring forward a minor amendment to the Broadcasting Act to allow RTÉ the flexibility it needs to prevent this type of farcical situation arising in the future?
Last week I raised the issue of a review of the licensing laws. Has the Leader received a response from the Government on this important matter which is of widespread public concern? This is the time to address the issue of alcohol abuse, particularly among young people. The views of the House are important in that regard.
Dr. M. Hayes: I do not want to turn this into a madrigal with everybody singing the same song. I, too, support the representations in relation to The Irish Catholic. It is a ridiculously tight interpretation of RTÉ's requirements and makes a nonsense of freedom of thought, speech and religion.
It is important the House engages in a debate on the Convention on the Future of Europe where hugely important things are happening. It is for the Minister to explain whether he thought he was misrepresented in the newspapers. What has been stated does not represent what I understand to be the position as conveyed by the Minister to me. It is important that Irish representatives at the convention have the benefit of the broadest range of public opinion in this country, nowhere better expressed than in this House. I hope we can have a debate on the work of the convention.
Mr. Browne: There has been much debate recently about the further schools awaiting approval for building extensions. This raises the wider question of the role of religious orders in schools. I ask the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister for Education and Science present on the role religious orders should play in schools. Should they contribute more or pay less towards the upkeep of schools? As we move towards a multi-ethnic society, how relevant is it to have one religious order in charge? Will it lead to cases such as that which arose in Dunboyne last year in regard to the teaching of religion? This is a huge issue.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to come into the House to make a statement on the national spatial strategy? In the event of the closure of factories, will it mean that a special task force will not be set up in areas which are not gateways and hubs? I have in mind Carlow where a number of jobs were lost recently, and even north Kilkenny and Castlecomer where jobs are being lost. Given that they are not gateways or hubs, will nothing be done, as reported in the newspapers? The Minister needs to clarify the position.
Mr. Daly: Perhaps I can assist the Leader on the matter. Arising from the Bill the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise set up a sub-committee chaired by former Deputy, Seán Doherty. The sub-committee received submissions from Bord na Móna, the ESB and many angling associations which were not concluded before the Dáil was dissolved. Will the Leader ascertain the position in regard to the work done by the sub-commitee and if we can take up where we left off?
Mr. Bannon: I did not catch Senator O'Toole's complimentary remark to Senator Hanafin. I presume he has been appointed to some board to find the missing millions which were available in May but not available today.
Mr. Bannon: Will the Leader invite the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come to the House to explain the reason she has such a mistrust of community welfare officers given that she said they were not adhering to Government policy with regard to rent supplement? Serious concerns have been expressed to me during the past week by a number of community welfare officers. This public disquiet has to be allayed. The most vulnerable sections of the community are hit when rent supplement is capped. We do not want this to lead to homelessness again. I would appreciate it if the Leader would invite the Minister to come to the House to explain the position and clarify outstanding issues in this regard.
Ms Terry: Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to facilitate a debate on the health boards, in particular on the issues of value for money, whether the break-up of a number of the health boards into smaller area boards has represented good value for money and whether they are providing the best possible service for those they serve?
Ms O'Rourke: The Fine Gael leader in the House, Senator Brian Hayes, brought forward the figures for hospital waiting lists, published in the newspapers this morning. He asked me to ascertain if the commitment was still in place to reduce them.
Ms O'Rourke: I will ask the Minister for Health and Children if that is the position. The Senator also asked if the debate on the national spatial strategy could be extended tomorrow to make it an all-day debate. I will speak to the leaders about this later this morning.
There is no doubt that Senator O'Toole was full of mischief and playful. He congratulated Senator Hanafin with whose appointment we are all delighted. I am sure he will carry on the fine work done by his father.
Senator O'Toole also asked about the River Shannon Management Bill. We are delighted Senator Daly came forward to give us the up-to-date position as he was named as the person who brought forward the legislation. Senator O'Toole also asked about those who will people the parliamentary plinth later today. I can go no further than say they will be in a satisfied mood.
Ms O'Rourke: Senator Ryan asked about the Convention on the Future of Europe about which I read various accounts in the press over the weekend. It struck me that, as Pat Cox is President of the European Parliament this term, there might be some use in assembling our own representatives at the convention and having them here for an all day debate. I do not know if Valery Giscard d'Estaing is adept in English, but there are others. We have Deputies John Bruton and Carey as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs—
Senator Ryan also raised the issue of the non-acceptance of advertisements from Christian religions by RTÉ. Initially, it concerned Catholic advertisements. I do not know if others are concerned. We discussed this matter at Cabinet about two years ago when a legal distinction was made between giving information and a promotion which could be considered as proselytising. It is interesting that the issue was raised today from different points of view. Some wanted to see equality of treatment as between any and no religion while others wanted the Catholic religion to have emphasis. Whether RTÉ was adhering to an out-of-date legal opinion, the refusal of the advertisement was wrong. The refusal of an advertisement from a particular church was an old fashioned way of showing itself to be pluralist and tolerant. That is quite silly and an inverted form of pluralism. Everyone who pays should be able to advertise.
Senator Ryan also asked what the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was doing in regard to data. Senator Ó Murchú agreed with him and also commented on the failure of the prosecution to find witnesses in the case of the Colombia Three. I cannot help making a wry comment – I do not know if I would come forward if I was a witness in Colombia. The Senator's point was well made and no doubt the outcome will be interesting. We should be glad that a Senator, travelling in a personal capacity, is present.
Senator Ross agreed with what was said about the refusal of advertisements by RTÉ and with Senator Ryan about the Convention on the Future of Europe. He brought up the issue of the corporation tax take and hoped it would not be touched. That is only one of a huge range of issues the convention will discuss. I agree that we should get together to see what we will do in regard to the convention. We bemoan the fact that people say they do not know what is happening in Europe when we could get involved now.
Senator O'Meara asked about RTÉ's legal advice. It states it is following legal advice, but matters have changed. As society has become more pluralistic, RTÉ seems to have become more backward. The issue of licensing laws was also raised. We hope to have the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform here to discuss the issue.
Senator Maurice Hayes said he did not want to be involved in a madrigal from all sides of the House. A madrigal would be in season at Christmas time. The Senator also spoke about the Convention on the Future of Europe. We agree and thank him for his involvement in the matter.
Ms O'Rourke: They want to give up their role as managers and trustees because of the decline in numbers of religious personnel. The issue of the national spatial strategy and whether jobs would follow was raised. We will ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to come and discuss the issue.
I thank Senator Daly for his elucidation on the matter of the sub-committee on public enterprise chaired by Deputy Eoin Ryan. Its members travelled around the country collecting evidence. We will ask for the information sought by Senator O'Toole.
Senator Bannon asked about the rent supplement cap, community welfare officers and discrimination. The rent supplement cap is a note of realism because only landlords benefit when there is no cap. Nobody wants to see hardship caused by high rents. My experience is that landlords raise rents because they know the health boards will increase rent subsidies. The rent supplement cap appears to be an attempt at practicality.
Senator Terry wants the Minister for Health and Children to come and talk about value for money in the health boards. She also wants a debate on crime, a matter we discussed yesterday. The Senator would like a further debate on the issue.
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