Wednesday, 5 February 2003
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O'Rourke: Today's Order of Business is No. 2, referral motion regarding the Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Bill 2002 to the Standing Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills, to be taken without debate; No. 3, Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 – 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 Senators may share time; No. 4, Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Bill 2002 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to conclude not later than 6 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 Senators may share time; and No. 12, motion No. 24, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Debate on No. 3 will commence after the Order of Business and will conclude at 2.30 p.m. but should there be remaining speakers at this time, Second Stage will be resumed on another day. As a number of speakers from all parties wish to speak on the Bill, we will work through the sos period.
Mr. B. Hayes: I welcome the fact that there is to be no guillotine on the Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 because there will be many contributions from all sides of the House on this proposal from the Government which we and other parties will be opposing. Will the Leader consider allowing general contributions of perhaps 15 minutes. There are significant issues in the Bill which colleagues might wish to raise with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government? I ask her to consider a 15 minute time slot and colleagues can share time if they wish. I do not think it is right that Senators should be limited to ten minutes for general contributions.
I want to raise the issue of the latest attempted gangland killing which took place in Dublin last night. The Leader and others will be aware that another shooting occurred in Drimnagh, which brings to a very sorry state the number of attempted murders that have taken place in this country since 1 January this year. It is the worst January on record in regard to the number of murders and attempted murders. Will the Leader find out from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if the Government will bring additional legislative measures to both Houses of the Oireachtas concerning this latest spate of gangland killings? Will the Government put additional resources at the disposal of the Garda Síochána? It is quite clear the situation is getting out of control. The attempted murders, the situation in Limerick last week and the general level of attacks taking place in this and other cities must be quickly nipped in the bud.
In the 1990s, the Government responded swiftly by way of the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Proceeds of Crime Bill to get rid of the drug gangs that were creating fear throughout this city. These people left the country but it seems they are now back in business. I ask the Government, through the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to take strong action in this matter and bring to the House additional legislative measures to ensure these people are taken out of business. January 2003 has been the worst period on record in terms of the number of murders that have occurred.
Given that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is meeting later tonight – I am not attempting to comment on or pre-empt any decision taken by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges – will the Leader provide time over the next week or so for a short debate on Seanad reform? She and others have led on this issue in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We need to bring the matter to a conclusion so that a sub-committee can be established to deal with the issue. All parties should make a public statement in this House about the composition of the sub-committee, including its work and timeframe, so that the public will see we are serious about the matter and will do something about it.
Mr. O'Toole: The latter point made by Senator Brian Hayes could be dealt with if the report on the first couple of meetings of the sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges brings to the attention of the House proposals in relation to moving this matter forward. While I have no objection to a debate in the House, it would be a repeat of the previous debate on the subject. I would prefer if the recommendations were placed before the House for consideration. I hope such a move would satisfy Senator Hayes.
The tax revenue figures for January, published yesterday, should be a matter of concern to Senators. I believe the inflation figures for January will be released next week. The Department of Finance, for the first time ever, has compiled and published its monthly revenue and expenditure projections. It would be helpful if the Minister for Finance was to participate in a debate in this House to indicate his Department's thinking on the issues involved.
I am sick and tired of being told how to live our lives by certain people who describe themselves as economists, although they may be third level teachers. They are paid by various financial interests in this country. Although their figures are sometimes incorrect by as much as €1 billion, they bounce back as if such an error never happened. It seems as if they are running the country as they are always in the headlines. A discussion in this House, where public representatives can give their opinions, would be preferable. It would be worthwhile if it gave public representatives as much confidence as economists when speaking about economic matters, which is a simple thing to do. Most economists seem to work on the basis of placing their fingers in the air, which is not impressive, and have a vested interest in selling a product for a financial firm. The economy is not as complex as such people would have one believe. I would like, as part of a discussion in the House, to see ordinary public representatives taking part in a debate on it.
Similarly, I would like the Leader to consider a debate on the operation of cartels and the phenomenon of price fixing. There seems to be lack of competition in various areas, mainly as a result of the Competition Authority's lack of resources. While the legislation passed last year is quite adequate, I propose that some of the funds raised through the operations of the Criminal Assets Bureau should be channelled into the Competition Authority which now deals with criminal matters and is badly in need of resources. I would welcome a debate on the matter.
Mr. Ryan: I ask the Leader of the House to endeavour to find out from the Government its plans, if any, to amend the Freedom of Information Act 1997. Those of us on this side of the House, particularly in my party, are aware that when negotiations were taking place between Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party following the 1992 general election, the biggest sticking point with Fianna Fáil related to freedom of information. Fianna Fáil, perhaps because of an inherent resistance to the principle of freedom of information, would only concede that it would be considered. When we begin to hear selective floated comments—
Mr. Ryan: The Taoiseach has said he will not say anything to the Dáil until the Government is ready to issue its proposals. It is evident that senior civil servants have found a compliant Government which is willing to meet their objective of closing down the freedom of information service. The spending of taxpayers' money will be hidden by the Government, driven by a party which proposed to keep Fianna Fáil clean but is now allowing it to return to its old ways.
Mr. Ryan: I would be grateful if the Leader of the House would reply to my questions, rather than repeating my requests. One of her favourite tricks is to answer only the questions she wants to answer and then to repeat to other Senators what they have said.
Mr. Ryan: Where do the Government's priorities lie, given that a conference of the Army, the Garda and high level politicians was arranged to consider what should be done after six people did something wrong at Shannon Airport? I ask the question in the light of the fact that criminal gangs are rampant and terrifying communities. We are told that the latter problem is under control. Senator Maurice Hayes raised this issue on the Order of Business yesterday. The idea that the Army should be called in to deal with what is wrong and obviously embarrassing, at a time when we do not have the resources to protect people in our cities on Saturday nights or protect the public from criminal drug gangs, suggests that the Government's policy on fighting crime is essentially a public relations exercise and not linked to reality. It is high time that we had a debate on this country's real crime problems which are not found at Shannon Airport.
Dr. Mansergh: I support Senator O'Toole's request for a debate on financial projections and competition legislation. We need to bear in mind that social partnership negotiations have not yet concluded and have not been endorsed or ratified.
Mr. Finucane: We have now seen the reaction: World Airways has decided to move forces through Frankfurt. It is ironic, given that Mr. Schröder has refused to accept the US stance in relation to Iraq, that the airline has decided to use a German airport rather than one in a peace-loving nation like Ireland. The decision will mean a loss of revenue to Shannon Airport. While I appreciate what many have said about peace lovers, their actions have done untold damage to the country.
Mr. Dooley: I call on the Leader urgently to arrange a debate on security at Shannon Airport. Contrary to what Senator Ryan said, it does have a bearing on the economy of the region. The image of Shannon as a secure airport at which airlines can land is of importance. We should be concerned, not just about the 17 flights that have been lost to Frankfurt but also about the ultimate result of this. Decisions due to be made by other airlines about whether to use Shannon Airport in the future may have a detrimental effect on the livelihoods of those living in the mid-west region, from Senator Finucane's area to my own in County Clare, where people are very concerned. We should have a debate specifically on this matter.
Mr. Norris: I support Senator Brian Hayes in his comments about the Criminal Assets Bureau and the need to discuss this issue. Like the IRA, the drugs criminals never went away. They were in the north inner city all the time. We should note that the establishment of the CAB was largely the result of pressure from people such as Independent Deputy Tony Gregory in the other House, who insistently pushed for a relationship between the different areas of the State and was resisted by various Governments. Certain areas of our cities have been devastated by drugs. We should make sure that the money taken by the CAB is directed back into those areas, from which it was leached by these vampires, especially into programmes such as Breaking the Cycle, which helps children up to a certain point – it should be continued right through to third level to give the people concerned a chance.
I ask the Leader whether she can give us any information about the proposals of the Minister for Finance, mentioned in the newspapers recently, to introduce legislation to tighten up tax loopholes. It is unconscionable that last year 29 of the 400 highest earners in the State paid no income tax whatever by using loopholes in property investment. While ordinary people have to pay tax the people concerned should not be allowed to get away with this. It is completely wrong.
With regard to economists, I do not share the blanket view of my colleague, Senator O'Toole. Some of them, like our colleague, Senator Ross, who has frequently been right in his newspaper column, and Mr. Brendan Keenan, frequently have interesting and useful things to say. To dismiss the entire profession out of hand is foolish.
Mr. Norris: With regard to what is happening at Shannon Airport, it is not appropriate for this House to condemn people while the matter is sub judice. It is wrong and prejudicial. We should remind ourselves that the women from the Ploughshare group in Liverpool a few years ago who, in a similar action, damaged Hawk fighters being sent by Britain to Indonesia to bomb the hell out of the East Timorese, were acquitted by a jury because they had intervened to prevent a greater evil.
Mr. Minihan: I join in the calls for a debate on the full fiscal projections for the year ahead. It is timely. Given the closures last year and some of the outrageous predictions made, it would be no harm to bring a sense of balance to this debate and spread it out evenly over a 12 month period. As public representatives, we have a contribution to make in that area.
A debate on crime would be welcome. If public representatives are advocating the placing of armed soldiers on our streets, a debate is required to ensure a degree of transparency and clarity. We should remember that the deployment of troops at Shannon Airport as an aid to the civil power releases police to guard the streets. Providing a cordon within a seven mile radius around Shannon Airport is a role for the Defence Forces – a welcome one – but if people think we should be putting armed soldiers on the street, this country is in a sorrier state than I realised.
Ms O'Meara: Will the Leader ask the Government to clarify the position of asylum seekers in relation to the social partnership talks, which appear to be in some difficulty? Are asylum seekers to be excluded from the ambit of social partnership? If so, we should be very concerned. We in this House should have a chance to give our views on the matter.
Last week I asked the Leader about the strategic rail review and its publication and she was very helpful in her response. In the last few days many reports have appeared relating to the Booz Allen Hamilton report, which was presented to a sub-committee of the Cabinet last week. The only information that appears to be available to us is from media reports, an approach of which I do not approve. It is time for the Minister for Transport to come to the House and set out clearly not only the elements of the report but also his response to it. Many communities, including those in my area, are anxiously awaiting clarification of what the Government intends to do about the issue.
Concerns have been raised about the Freedom of Information Act 1997, specifically the provision ensuring Cabinet documents are available to the public after five years. This is a matter for discussion at Government level. Given that this provision should come into operation on 21 April, it is important that the Taoiseach states clearly whether he intends to roll back this important and central provision of the Act.
Mr. Mooney: Usually this House, and countries generally, welcome the creation of new countries: the most recent new member of the family of the United Nations was East Timor, with which we have very strong relations. However, today marks the ending of a country. Seventy-five years ago, in the aftermath of the First World War, the state of Yugoslavia was created out of the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. >From today, the two remaining members of the former Yugoslavia will be known as the Serbian-Montenegrin Federation. There is an Irish dimension to this: Carlow County Council, through the initiative of Councillor Enda Nolan, a member of the Committee of the Regions, is providing administrative and other expertise in the restructuring of local government in the now Serbian city of Nis. As I understand Westmeath and Meath County Councils intend to pursue this, will the Leader convey to the Minister for the Foreign Affairs the good wishes of this House and the country towards the newly created state? Might we have an opportunity at some time of debating the role of this country in the restructuring in south-east Europe and the question of the stability pact?
Mr. Coghlan: I, too, strongly support my colleague, Senator Brian Hayes, in his concerns about crime. Unfortunately, criminal communities seem to be growing and are a threat to our democracy. I would not go as far as saying there are no-go areas but certain areas are very dangerous. We might need more legislation or more gardaí or a combination of the two but the Government needs to address this problem. That is my question to the Leader.
With regard to Shannon Airport, we need to be more balanced. We said yesterday and everybody agreed that nobody had any difficulty whatsoever with peaceful protest. The Army is only going in as an aid to the civil power.
Mr. Coghlan: Again, it is a question for the Leader. There is obviously a serious Garda manpower shortage and we have to resort to the Army. However, the point is that troops are not being deployed in combat mode.
Mr. Hanafin: Does the Leader agree that, by its nature, a peace protest should be peaceful? In the event of a European constitution being framed, it is entirely reasonable that it should refer to a higher authority, namely, God. Fears are raised about objections from people who hold no religious beliefs, even though many of them have no objections to such a reference. Pure secularism can be arid and sterile. It would be in the best interests of the new Europe to have a mention of God in a new constitution.
Mr. U. Burke: Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to indicate his plans for funding for people with intellectual and physical disabilities because it is becoming more apparent that the agencies charged with the responsibility of delivering services, either on a voluntary or statutory basis, are cutting back by making staff redundant or withdrawing services because of budget cuts and that a crisis is pending in the sector? The fear is greatest among elderly parents because they now have to take their sons and daughters home from residential institutions despite having had their expectations built up in the last couple of years. I want the Minister for Health and Children to indicate that, whatever funds the Government has to find for a Government jet or otherwise, we will find money for these people in particular.
Mr. Quinn: When is it intended to bring the Finance Bill before the House? As I suspect it will not be for some months, we need to have an urgent debate on various aspects of the economy. For instance, the Government is responsible for some of the price rises which have led to inflation. ESB bills are up 12%, the television licence fee is up €150 and VHI premia are to rise by a further 18%. Inflation will be a challenge to the economy this year. We learned yesterday of a slump in tax income in the last month, benchmarking has become an issue – which I am sure Senator O'Toole would be happy to debate – and the social partnership deal is pending. Are we to wait until this is a fait accompli before we debate it or will we have a regular debate on the economy in the House? Will the Leader ensure this can happen in some form or other? It may be that other debates pending will enable us to do so but let us not wait until the Finance Bill is before us and it is all over.
The opening of Cabinet papers after five or ten years must have a serious impact on the ability of any Cabinet to do its work correctly. I believe totally in freedom of information but a Cabinet which knows its papers will be open to the public in five or ten years time will be affected. We must take steps to ensure the Cabinet works more efficiently without this provision hanging over its head.
Mr. Cummins: Less than two years ago the Leader, in her previous position as Minister for Public Enterprise, opened a modern state-of-the-art sorting office in Waterford for An Post. The plaque commemorating the event is still in place.
Mr. Cummins: It now appears An Post has decided to downgrade this facility after less than two years and have the mail sorted in Cork. Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to ask An Post to explain this apparent waste of funding at a time when it is closing post offices and making cuts that hurt people? It seems an extraordinary decision. I hope it is not being downgraded because the Leader officially opened it but we could do with an explanation.
Ms O'Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes, in agreeing to the Order of Business, referred to gangland murders and the need for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House to state if there were any extra legislative, monetary or other measures in place to deal with the problem. He recalled the period from 1995-96 when the Criminal Assets Bureau was established and other measures led to a diminution of crime at the time. Clearly, these matters move in cycles. I have asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will attend a question and answer session in the House. He was in the House with a Bill that was concluded yesterday. It is necessary that we express our opinions on this matter and the Minister has professed himself willing but it is a matter of finding a time that suits him.
I agree with Senator O'Toole's remarks on Seanad reform. The proposals passed through the sub-committee and the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, a report was prepared and an appointment made to meet with the Taoiseach regarding the matter. As we had a debate on Seanad reform earlier, we should go along the lines laid out—
I agree with Senator O'Toole about economists. Did anyone ever see George Lee laughing or smiling? I never did. I am sure he is a very nice man, personally speaking, but he looks like Mr. Gloom every time he appears on television.
Ms O'Rourke: I will talk about economists in general instead. They are all Mr. and Mrs. Glooms but mainly Mr. Glooms. They get away with the most outrageous statements like, “We will be so many billion euro out this year” in a particular sphere and then have the temerity to revisit their projections some months later with completely different ones. They still maintain a bright face about it.
Ms O'Rourke: That is my opinion about economists. I agree with Senator O'Toole that we should have a debate on the State's finances. Moving to a monthly accountancy approval rating in the Department of Finance is a good idea because it means everyone knows each month – without the prophets of doom – where we are within our financial parameters. I will ask for a financial debate in the House.
Senator Finucane raised the matter to which he referred in the House yesterday and on which there are divergent views. Senator Ryan answered across the benches, making a point about one not being supposed to shoot at people. There is no policy of shooting at people. In answer to both points of view and to Senator Dooley, it will clearly put people off coming to Shannon, leaving aside the matter of Iraq, the planes, and the troops in flight. The public here and abroad, particularly in the US, might ask if they will be landing where these things are happening when they come on their holidays. It is a huge deterrent to their coming to the mid-west region and Ireland eventually. Clearly, the right to protest in a peaceful way does not give the right to protest in a subversive way.
Senator Dooley asked for a debate on Shannon. I suggest that he raises the issue in the course of the debate on Iraq. That is what happened in the Dáil when that debate took place. I know the Senator feels strongly about that region.
Senator Norris stated that the money raised by the CAB should be directed back into the communities in which all the distress was felt and drug-taking took place, a point that should be put to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Senator was speaking of ring-fencing the money in a particular way, not in the general sense of directing the money into the finances of the country.
Ms O'Rourke: Senator Minihan felt there should be a debate on crime and full fiscal projections made public for the year ahead on a monthly basis. It is timely that we should have a financial debate, because it will be useful when taking the Bill in the House, which might not be for some time.
The strategic rail review has been leaked progressively. Whether that is good or bad is questionable, but it happens in all Governments. I will ask the Minister for Transport to publish it so we can debate it fully in the House.
Senator O'Meara also asked about freedom of information. There are constitutional dimensions to the matter. We already get Government decisions, but reports on decisions to be made at Cabinet are examined in this document, which is to be made public when freedom of information changes are brought about. In this regard, I reiterate what I said to Senator Ryan.
Senator Mooney furnished us with the interesting news regarding what Carlow County Council is doing in a restructuring, helpful way in respect of the change of nations. He thought other counties should do the same.
Senator Coghlan called for a debate on crime and alluded to how the issue of Shannon is being handled. He is in support of the Garda and feels that, if necessary, the Army should help the Garda to free up gardaí for their everyday duties.
Senator Hanafin stated peace protests should be peaceful. He also raised the matter of God in the European constitution. Deputy John Bruton is his ally in that regard. We will be making arrangements at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges tonight to decide on the dates when the three speakers will speak about the new constitution of Europe in the House.
Senator Ulick Burke raised the matter of allocating money to parents of people with disabilities. Senator Quinn stated the need for a financial debate. He added a much-needed dimension to the debate on the freedom of information issue, wondering if Cabinet would ever decide on anything if every ‘i' had to be dotted and every ‘t' crossed. It is a matter that certainly needs to be debated. I reiterate what I said the Senator Ryan, which was borne out by other speakers, namely that when freedom of information was adopted we were way ahead of any other European country. Westminster is only at the very bottom rung and bringing about freedom of information with great reluctance. I refer to the Labour Party in the UK and we have—
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