Thursday, 22 May 2003
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O'Rourke: The Order of Business today is No. 1, Criminal Justice (Joint Investigation Teams) Bill 2003 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 12 p.m.; No. 2, Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2002 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 or at 12 p.m., if the debate has not concluded earlier, and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m.
Mr. B. Hayes: We have now seen the published report of Forfás which shows that, comparatively, prices in the economy are the highest of any EU country. I asked yesterday for a debate on tourism to see how we could reduce costs for domestic and foreign tourists using tourism services. I now ask for that debate to be widened to include the issue of prices as we are pricing ourselves out of the tourism market. Clearly, people are creaming off profits, while the consumer is losing out, as has been shown since the introduction of the euro. Will the Leader arrange a debate on the matter in the coming weeks?
I congratulate all the Members who contributed to last night's fascinating and excellent debate on third level tuition fees. We are now three weeks away from the start of the leaving certificate examinations and it is time that students had some clarity from the Government about plans to reintroduce third level fees. Will the Leader give an assurance to the House that a decision on the matter will be taken within the next week to ten days? It is important that there is some conclusion in order that parents and students, in particular, can get the information they need for the next academic year. It is important that we establish the position. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, started out last September and nine months later we still do not have a decision—
On a number of occasions we have had discussions in the House and heard a number of presentations by the various farmer groups on agricultural prices. They have talked about the discrepancy between farmgate prices and what the consumer pays. I have said at least three times in the House that there are cartels at both the farmgate and consumer ends. Those buying on the one end are overcharged while suppliers are also losing out. We have now seen the fallout in the report today on prices.
There is a shared view in the House that there is a growing problem which should be debated. Attempts were made to discuss it in the negotiations on Sustaining Progress, which will be debated in the House next week. However, as Senator Brian Hayes rightly said, we may need a more direct approach in order that Ministers can go on the record in informing us of their views. Exorbitant profits are being made with the result that everybody is losing except for a small group. We should address this issue for the sake of the future development of the economy.
Ms Tuffy: In a statement yesterday the director of the Institute of Public Health said almost 6,000 people died each year from poverty. She also pointed out that there was no point in having an anti-poverty strategy and a national health strategy if the Government was not prepared to put money into them. The Combat Poverty Agency has also called for the introduction of medical cards to all those who need them in an attempt to address the problems vulnerable people face in terms of poor health.
According to a report in one of today's newspapers, the Irish Hospice Foundation, referring to the blueprint on palliative care services published in 2001, which identified funds needed to improve services for the terminally ill, has pointed out that only one fifth of the recommended level of funding has been provided. The Minister should attend the House to debate what has been done by the Government to address the link between poverty and ill health and death and ensure the most vulnerable in our society are properly looked after by the health service.
Mr. Leyden: Senator Coghlan referred yesterday to the groceries order and the suggestion by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment that it may need to be removed and that the regulations governing the size of large supermarkets or hypermarkets should be reviewed. To my recollection, An Agreed Programme for Government makes no reference to these suggestions.
Mr. Leyden: On behalf of small grocery shops, I put down a marker that we wish to ensure they will be protected. The system is working well and I see no desire to bring more German hypermarkets like Aldi and Lidl into the country. It has enough of them. They do not buy any Irish products for sale on their shelves and do not assist the economy one iota. The present system is satisfactory. I hope the House will debate the issue and that the Minster will express her ideas, which do not constitute Government policy.
Mr. Finucane: I support Senator Leyden on this issue. It is wrong for the Minister to suggest that it is a contributory factor to increases in inflation. The decision to restrict the overall size of supermarkets was made only two years ago. My friend, Senator Coghlan, was heavily involved in the issue then. There is competition in the marketplace. The two German supermarkets which have a presence in the country intend to build another 140 to 160 stores. However, consumers will ultimately decide. If the restriction was lifted, it may lead to the construction of hypermarkets, which would have a detrimental impact on stores around the country.
The Special Olympics are rapidly approaching. It is good to note that the Philippines has been removed from the list of banned countries, compiled to deal with the implications of the SARS outbreak. Only four countries remain on the list. However, there appears to be difficulties in reconciling the views of the World Health Organisation with decisions made by the Government's expert group. An eminent and senior official in the WHO said yesterday that he considered the Government's ban to be disappointing and unnecessary. Public health doctors, who are in dispute, have also expressed serious reservations. I understand the special review group is meeting on an ongoing basis in the Department of Health and Children. I ask it to consider the matter in the light of the position taken by the WHO and review the position as it applies to the four banned countries. Time is of the essence in making a decision if the teams from these countries are to travel here.
Mr. J. Walsh: I support the call by Senator Brian Hayes for a debate on competitiveness. There have been indications in recent years that if the issue is not addressed, it will impact on employment. I ask the Leader to consider broadening the debate to also include the public sector. Recent private sector reports on profits made by some of the telecommunications companies indicate that we are not benefiting because of the lack of competition. The cost of telecommunications is high by comparison with elsewhere.
Likewise in the public sector, we are not getting value for money in many capital projects and, probably, current expenditure. The Minister is meeting today with the Road Haulage Association. It would be a travesty if hundreds of millions of euro were being injected into major capital projects that would not accommodate future traffic flows over the coming 40 to 60 years. There is a lack of vision in much of the policy-making in this area.
I ask the Leader to consider with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges how we might address these issues. While debates in the House are desirable and often stimulating, I am not sure they lead to any great impact or change in policy. It could be beneficial for the House to tap into the range of expertise among Members by establishing a number of small committees to cover key areas to address these matters. They could produce reports which may be adopted by the Seanad and monitored to see how they contribute to the formulation of Government policy.
If there is an outbreak of SARS in this country – God forbid it should happen – I have no doubt that the thrust of the media and Opposition comment will be similar to the tone set a number of weeks ago, with complaints that we should take similar steps to those taken to prevent the outbreak of foot and mouth disease from spreading. However, the sensible decision by the Minister for Health and Children to support his expert group was criticised. It is a no-win situation. The ultimate responsibility of the Minister is not to the Special Olympics, groups or other countries but to the people of this country. There is a significant incidence of fatalities from SARS for those who are middle aged and older.
Mr. Norris: I agree with my colleagues that last night's debate was excellent. The Minister for Education and Science honoured the House by choosing it as a location for a very important speech, which he delivered with courage, clarity and conviction. However, if the reports of the debate are analysed, it becomes apparent that power does not lie in this House. It was commented that Senator Dardis did not deviate from his script and speculation centred on possible exit strategies. Given that power does not lie in this House, we should be especially grateful to the Minister that he chose this location to make his speech. He did the House a favour.
Mr. Norris: That does not matter. He did in the sense that he was honourable and decent in what he said. He was right. Let us have clarity in language when talking about education. There is no such a thing as free fees. A thing is either a fee or it is free. The abolition of fees is a contradiction in terms or an oxymoron.
Mr. Norris: This House played a significant role in assisting the people of East Timor to get their independence but it has not ended there. Indonesia is now repeating the dose, with very little world attention, in the province of Ache where similar atrocities are being committed. I will leave the details for a future debate. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on foreign policy which would include this important extension of military activity.
I was very sorry to see today that Lissadell House, one of the great historic houses of this country, is being forced on to the market. Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth feels compelled to sell. I heard rumours of this at Christmas.
Mr. Norris: It represents a diminishing of everybody in this country. It is laughable that we should turn to this kind of mockery when we so often refer to the fact that one of the former residents of that house is the only woman whose picture hangs in Leinster House, yet we treat her family's quandary with contempt. It is a pity. We should examine this issue and the results of our lack of support for these great houses.
Perhaps we can have a debate on the North of Ireland. I was astonished and repulsed to see that last night in Omagh a democratic meeting to discuss policing was disrupted and prevented by 80 republicans engaged in fascist chanting.
I agree absolutely with Senator Leyden about supermarkets. We must keep the restriction in place otherwise it will be the death of competition. Americans will tell you that when they allowed Walmart to take over the prices first of all came down, but rocketed subsequently. Let us protect the consumer. Senator Leyden is quite right to call for a debate.
Mr. Hanafin: Will the Minister ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources when the YFI application will be available in Leinster House? As the House knows, YFI is a wireless Internet application and a new and exciting prospect. Leinster House will be one of the first places in the country to use this application.
Mr. Browne: I rise to support colleagues who seek a debate on competitiveness. There are huge variations in petrol and diesel prices and the matter should be looked at. While I realise there is an open market, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should ask why prices vary so much.
Last week, Senator McHugh raised the issue of mobile phone roaming charges, but another problem is mobile phone insurance. If you change your model of phone, the insurers will not replace the handset even though you are still paying insurance. There seems to be something of a scam in this grey area. The issue should be debated.
Mr. U. Burke: Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House as a matter of urgency? I support Senator Tuffy's earlier comments. It is difficult to understand our complacency when a conference held by the Combat Poverty Agency and the Department of Health and Children in Dublin yesterday was told that 6,000 people died prematurely last year primarily because they could not access basic health services. It is an indication to all that the strategy of the Minister for Health and Children has failed at the most basic level of access to primary care. If those people had access to medical cards, many of them would not have died. It is of the utmost importance that the Minister should come to the House to declare once and for all that the health strategy has failed and to say that he will put in place an emergency response group to provide medical cards to people who are caught in a poverty trap.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food to intervene in the current clerical dispute involving officers of the Department of Agriculture and Food in Limerick, Galway and Mayo? Yesterday, the Minister was directed by a court to release identity cards for animals to allow them to be sold. It is a measure of the hardship being experience that a person has to resort to the courts before he can sell his livestock. If this continues while the Minister for Agriculture and Food stands idly by, it means there is a crisis in agriculture regarding which no one is prepared to take action. It is important to request once more that the Minister do something.
Mr. Bannon: Ireland is honoured to host the Special Olympics during 2003, the European year of people with disabilities. Great work is being done to promote the disabilities agenda throughout Europe. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children to the House to explain why medical cards are withdrawn from persons with disabilities when they commence work? Medical cards are very important to such people and withdrawing them is a disincentive to the taking up of employment. They need their medical cards more than the rest of society. It is very unfair that these people lose their medical cards when they take up FÁS training and support and awareness schemes. The issue must be examined and addressed with urgency. It is important to debate it.
Mr. Coghlan: My mind is boggled by all the things I have just heard with so many speakers behind me. There is a distinguished fellow Kerryman behind me. I detected a smile on Deputy Healy-Rae's face last night and a new spring in his step.
Mr. Coghlan: I support the calls of Senator Brian Hayes for a debate on tourism and prices. As Senator O'Toole said, suppliers are losing out and there has to be an examination of what happens beyond the farm gate.
A spokesperson said this morning regarding the groceries order that the experts are not agreed. I agree strongly with Senators Leyden, Finucane and Norris that our climate and culture of shopping should be maintained. The Tánaiste put it firmly on the record on 24 October 2000 when she maintained the order that to do so was in the interests of consumers. The order was retained following extensive consultation.
I do not want to see the big guys given a free hand to introduce predatory pricing to eliminate competitors, lessen choice and remove corner and village shops. It would be disastrous for provincial towns and rural Ireland. I do not wish to see less choice and competition. I call for a debate, which we certainly need. I am sure I express the views of the vast majority of the House, if not of every Member. We do not want to see the big guys given free rein to squeeze the small players out of the market.
Mr. McHugh: I wish to raise the issue of the 600 public health doctors who have been on strike throughout the country for the past six weeks. Will the Leader impress upon the Department of Health and Children the need for the Department to intervene as a matter of urgency to address the doctors' gripes regarding a report which has not been implemented as well as pay structures? The doctors are willing to compromise, but they feel there is no intervention by the Department.
The National Disease Prevention Centre, which is run by public health doctors, has been closed for the past six weeks. The centre provides data on measles outbreaks and other figures. We have received no data in the last six weeks and we do not know if there has been an increase or a decrease in the incidence of measles. It is a matter of urgency that we get these public health doctors off the picket line as they are our front-line of defence in relation to infectious diseases such as TB, salmonella, meningitis and SARS. Given the imminence of the Special Olympics, it is important that the Leader impresses upon the Department of Health and Children that this strike should be resolved as a matter of urgency.
Having been flattered by that kiss of death, will the Leader arrange for a debate on autism which is being discussed this morning by the Joint Committee on Health and Children? This is a devastating problem for which Government funding is required and it is, therefore, difficult for the Administration to tackle. This problem is on the increase, it is causing untold grief for many families and it has not been adequately explored. As I listened to the committee's deliberations, it struck me that this issue should be dealt with by the House. It appears that every child with autism has a different condition.
Mr. Ross: It cannot, therefore, be tackled by, for example, putting children into one classroom and asking them to perform the same task. There is no uniform cure or palliative for this condition. We should debate this matter in the full knowledge that it is an extremely complex problem which – because everyone who suffers from it needs individual treatment – requires vast amounts of money.
Ms O'Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes requested a debate on the Forfás report and tourism in general. Yesterday, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, launched the new tourism body, which is chaired by Gillian Bowler and which includes several other interesting individuals among its members.
Ms O'Rourke: This is an important matter and I will try to make time available for a debate on it in the week following our return from the June bank holiday recess. The Senator also requested clarity for students, a matter about which I agree. I was heartened to hear what the Taoiseach said, because now that he has said it, it will happen.
The Senator also asked if I have any information about the Independent Group in the Lower House. I do not, but I have a strong suspicion that there is a Kerry mafia at work in this House, to the court of which, perhaps, certain Members may be supplicants.
Senator O'Toole referred to cartels, particularly that which obtains in the area of agriculture and which is doubling prices charged to consumers. We will debate the Sustaining Progress agreement for two and a half hours next week and I hope we can address such issues at that time.
Senators Tuffy and Ulick Burke spoke about yesterday's Combat Poverty Agency Department of Health and Children seminar and the figures revealed by the Institute of Public Health. I have not read the report, but the figures seem sufficiently high to encourage people to feel regret about the problem to which they relate. However, I would like to see the breakdown of the statistics before I could say that 6,000 people die from poverty each year. I am sure there are many other facts behind the figure.
Senators Leyden and Finucane requested that the Tánaiste come before the House to discuss the groceries order and the size of large supermarkets or hypermarkets. People want cheaper prices for food and, therefore, a debate on the topic would be useful.
Senators Finucane and McHugh raised the issue of SARS. Senator McHugh also referred to the strike by public health doctors. The Minister for Health and Children said the Department would review the ban on athletes from affected countries as the commencement of the Special Olympics approaches. The Department has a website and a telephone hot-line which are providing good information on both matters. We should all keep abreast of the position in respect of them.
Senators Brian Hayes and Jim Walsh requested a debate on competitiveness in the public and private sectors. The loss of competition is a cause for major concern. Senator Walsh made the interesting suggestion that perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges might agree to establish a small committee which could prepare specialist reports on particular matters. We can put that matter on the agenda for the next meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and communicate further with the Senator on it.
I agree with Senator Norris that the notion of free fees is an anomaly because if it is a fee, it cannot be free. The Senator also spoke about East Timor. I have asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Tom Kitt, to come before the House to discuss that as well as other matters.
Senator Norris also referred to Lissadell House, which I visited last year and which is falling into a bad state of disrepair. That is a pity. I do not believe that the owner is able to cope with its upkeep. The Senator raised the disruption of the meeting in Omagh last night, which, I am sure, we were all shocked to hear about.
Senator Hanafin wants me to ask the Minister for Communication, Marine and Natural Resources, when the wireless Internet application Bill will be brought before the House. Another Senator raised the issue of insurance on mobile phones.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to medical cards and requested that the Minister of Health and Children come before the House. Although the Minister is extremely busy, he has been extraordinarily generous in terms of coming before the House and laying out his stall. Nevertheless, I will try to get the Minister to come before the House again. The Senator also raised the clerical dispute in the Department of Agriculture and Food which is affecting many offices.
Senator Bannon spoke about people with disability. One's income determines one's eligibility for a medical card. In general, however, people with a disability that impedes them, will qualify for a medical card.
Senator Ross raised the issue of autism which we should discuss. I am very aware of that sad condition through my brother's family. It is complex. The Senator said that each individual with the condition must have a range of programmes, be it educational, social or medical, tailored to meet his or her needs. I will try to arrange for a precise debate on autism and I thank the Senator for raising the issue.
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