Thursday, 21 October 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re discharge of a member from the Committee of Selection and appointment of a member in substitution; No. 2, motion re change of membership of Fine Gael members on committees, which will be moved by the Leas-Cathaoirleach; No. 3, motion re the abduction of Mrs. Margaret Hassan, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 for 30 minutes and each group will have five minutes speaking time; and No. 5, statements on the Report on Seanad Reform (resumed), to be taken at the conclusion of No. 3 until 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of Senators not to exceed 15 minutes.
Mr. B. Hayes: We agree to the Order of Business. I thank the Leader for placing No. 3 on the Order Paper as it will allow us to debate the matter in the House. I appreciate the swiftness with which she responded to the debate on the matter in the House yesterday.
Last week, the Office of the Ombudsman celebrated its 20th anniversary. Since it was established, a number of very distinguished people have held the office. Two suggestions were made by the current Ombudsman, Ms O’Reilly, to which the Government should respond. She suggested that the office should be written into the Constitution to ensure its independence and, more importantly, that the remit of the Ombudsman legislation should be extended to include semi-State non-commercial bodies and the voluntary hospital sector. This immediately drew fire from lawyers and hospital consultants who objected to her suggestion.
We need to extend the remit of the Ombudsman. Moreover, a commitment was given by the Government in 1997 that the remit should be extended. It is important that professionals should come within the remit of the Ombudsman in the same way as Departments and Ministers. It would help the process of accountability and transparency in the State if the duties and performance of bodies which currently have the power to self-regulate, were also regulated by the Ombudsman. The suggestion should be debated in the House and a proposal made to the Government because we have a responsibility to ensure the legislation in respect of the Office of the Ombudsman is fully used to the advantage of all citizens.
Mr. O’Toole: As well as the anniversary of the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman, it is worth noting a very important anniversary in Irish literature. Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Patrick Kavanagh, a man who was never really appreciated in his own lifetime. He was treated very badly when he arrived in this town. People witnessed the pathetic sight of him being dragged through the courts on the grounds of his autobiography by an arrogant bully who has thankfully almost been forgotten, while Kavanagh lives on in Irish literature. It is worthwhile expressing our appreciation of his contribution to Irish literature and marking his anniversary today.
I recently raised with the Leader the issue of public private partnerships. I also raised with the Minister for Finance the possibility of discussing the matter and he indicated that he would respond favourably to requests from the Leader to do so in a number of weeks, once he had read himself into the brief. Such a debate is crucially important given the current discussions about roads, schools and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on public private partnerships, as well as the issues previously raised in the House by Senator Ulick Burke and me. We need the full story so we can make a political as well as an economic judgment, which has already been made by the Comptroller and Auditor General, about whether PPPs constitute good value or practice.
The Leader of the House referred yesterday to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board of which I am vice-chairman. By coincidence, yesterday morning, before the Order of Business, the PIAB had a board meeting at which the extraordinary profits made by insurance companies were discussed. The attempts by lawyers to undermine and emaciate the work of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board are continuing apace. I ask Members of the House to support and argue the case in favour of the operation of the board. I believe it will work. If it does not work we will all be losers and will still be talking about high insurance premia at some future point. This board can work but it needs support and people need to be reassured that it will help in every way possible. It offers a win-win scenario for everybody involved.
Mr. McCarthy: The reality of suicide in this country is a difficult issue to face not least for the families who are suffering because of it, but for society as a whole and that contributes in no small way to the under-reporting of suicide. Yesterday in Belfast, Youth Suicide Prevention, a joint initiative between the Health Development Agency and Institute of Public Health in Ireland, held a seminar and released details of a report they carried out in this area. They assert that suicide accounts for one third of all deaths in the 15 to 24 age group. More young people here are dying as a result of suicide than were killed in road traffic accidents. That is a harrowing reality.
In the report, the organisations identified a number of recommendations they want taken on board by Governments North and South of the Border. The report identifies key risk factors that need to be addressed when developing future youth suicide prevention programmes. Those recommendations touch on a number of areas including, a history of suicide, a history of depression, substance misuse, poor family communications and certain characteristic traits such as poor problem-solving ability. This is a sensitive issue that needs to be debated and highlighted. I would appreciate if the Leader could arrange for this issue to be debated in the House.
Yesterday, Joe Duffy’s radio programme concentrated on the crisis in our accident and emergency services. I am not suggesting that radio chat shows should be used as a measure to gauge the crisis in accident and emergency services or any other sector. However, by the end of the show enough health professionals had phoned in to advise that there was capacity for in excess of 230 beds, which matches the number of people currently lying on trolleys in hospital corridors. The mismanagement of accident and emergency services was again highlighted by that programme.
Senator O’Toole mentioned the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. I am glad the board is up and running as a result of the recommendations of Dorothea Dowling and the Motor Insurance Advisory Board. However, exorbitant premia are still being quoted to young motorists for motor insurance. There has been a decrease in the cost of motor insurance premia in general, but the increase in public liability insurance premia and the exorbitant profits insurance companies are making are frustrating for many ordinary decent motorists. I know of a 19 year old serving an apprenticeship who lives in a rural town who is paying over €5,000 for his motor insurance. That is scandalous and the issue needs to be debated.
Mr. Morrissey: I apologise. I called for such a debate following a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport. Yesterday, a further presentation was made to that joint Oireachtas committee, which I can only describe as a whinge. People who came before the joint committee yesterday asked a basic question. Given the basic nature of the question the Minister must come to the House to outline the function and role of Aer Lingus. That is the question the unions asked yesterday.
If they have a problem with that, so do I. From what I heard yesterday and at the previous presentation, there is a divergence of views. Management seems to think its role is to provide customers with a competitive price to fly on aircraft. From their presentation yesterday, the unions seem to believe Aer Lingus is no more than a job retention rather than a job creation agency, and certainly not an agency that should look for customers from which employment would follow.
Mr. Finucane: In the programme for Government a commitment was given that the Government would improve accident and emergency waiting times and that senior doctors would be available at all times. Yesterday, the Tánaiste apologised to the people who were on trolleys and said there was no quick-fix solution to the problem. As Senator McCarthy mentioned, on the Joe Duffy programme it was highlighted that beds were available that could be used as step-down facilities.
Mr. Finucane: There is collective responsibility in Cabinet. The crisis in our accident and emergency services that was highlighted yesterday was known last winter. We are now facing such a crisis again. Is the Government serious in its intent to implement what it said in the programme for Government. Urgent action is required. I ask the Tánaiste to do something about this problem and get on with it.
Mr. Scanlon: Following on from the issue of high insurance premia that was raised, I have recently heard of another related issue. Young motorists who take out insurance pay probably two thirds of the premium up front and the balance in instalments over five to six months. Two people recently told me that they had missed their final payment on the fifth month and their insurance was cancelled. That means they have lost six months’ insurance cover for the sake of €70 or €80 because they failed to make their final payment. This matter should be seriously examined and addressed because many people are being caught in this trap.
Mr. Norris: I support what my colleague, Senator O’Toole, said earlier. I am glad he brought to the attention of the House the centenary of the birth of the poet Paddy Kavanagh. He is somebody of whom we can all be proud. I have no doubt whatever that he will have a growing international reputation. I slightly dissent from what Senator O’Toole said about who I take to be Oliver Gogarty who was a former Member of this House. He was a fine poet, a talented doctor, a courageous supporter of democracy, but he did have an arrogant and bullying side.
Mr. Norris: I am glad Senator O’Toole raised that point but like all of us, Gogarty was a mixed event. I ask the Leader to suggest to the appropriate Ministers that they take a sophisticated view of the row currently going on inside the European Commission because attempts are being made to suggest that difficulties of Mr. Barroso concerning Signor Buttiglione are because he is a Roman Catholic. However, it has nothing whatever to do with that or with his private views on homosexuality, women or anything else.
He has a track record within the Italian Parliament of attempting to reverse precisely the kind of non-discriminatory measures that we are expecting him to supervise as a European Commissioner. It is a complete farce and a nonsense. I would defend his right to be a Roman Catholic and to hold whatever views he wants but in terms of policy he has a very bad and dangerous track record not only in terms of gay people but on women and immigrants. We should look at his record. His faith is a private matter. Let us not fudge that issue.
I am sure the Cathaoirleach will find this point relevant. I would like to know when we can take No. 19, motion No. 13 which deals with the Order of Business. I must compliment the Cathaoirleach on playing a valiant role in trying to control us but we are avoiding the reality. The reality being that this is the most interesting, vital, covered and relevant part of the day. We all know that. Why try to cover up that reality by giving us a little squib here, two minutes at 11.30 a.m. and another minute at some other part of the day? Let us extend the Order of Business and see where it goes.
An Cathaoirleach: I do not agree that it is the business of the day. One cannot introduce any matter of public concern; there are other ways of doing so. The purpose of the Order of Business is to decide on the business of the day and it should remain so.
Mr. Dooley: I join with Senator Morrissey in calling for a debate on the future role of Aer Lingus, which should be held at the earliest possible opportunity. There is certainly a divergence of views on this issue among the public, as there is between Senator Morrissey and me.
Mr. Dooley: We will have a healthy debate on it. I believe certain members of senior management of Aer Lingus hold the view that this is just about profiteering within a commercial sector and they do not recognise that Aer Lingus is still a State-owned company and has a duty to the country, particularly in terms of the delivery of balanced regional development, which is a cornerstone and plank of Government policy.
Mr. Browne: On the earlier point on the transfer of long-term patients from accident and emergency units to nursing homes, can the Minister for Health and Children be invited to the House to clarify how this will work in practice? Is she trying to increase the level of subvention for nursing homes considering that the current level presents a real problem? There is a great need for more step-down and convalescence facilities around the country.
Mr. Bannon: Senator Morrissey spoke about the whinging at the transport meeting yesterday. The public will not take kindly to that remark and would prefer if the Senator got on with the business of organising and promoting our transport system and delivering on the transport programme.
Mr. Bannon: The level of co-operation between the Department and local authorities should also be considered, as should the elimination of the many very serious and dangerous blackspots on our national secondary routes. The latter have been neglected for a number of years. The issue of pedestrian lights in most of our towns and villages located on main national secondary and primary routes needs to be addressed——
Mr. Coghlan: I agree with Senator Brian Hayes’s call to the Leader regarding the Ombudsman’s report, to which I referred recently. She has made reasonable recommendations regarding extensions of powers to her office.
I also agree with Senator O’Toole’s comments on the PIAB. I raised this issue yesterday in regard to seeking a fair and proportionate reduction vis-à-vis the profits the insurance companies are making.
Members will have been disturbed to have read in the Irish Independent this morning that stealth is stealing our people’s wealth. Of 23 countries, Ireland last year had the third largest increase in the tax burden. What are the Leader’s views on this? Will the Government make a commitment that there will be no further increases and that this will bring about a serious reduction in the forthcoming budget?
Mr. J. Phelan: I agree with Senator Coghlan’s comments on stealth charges. This issue was prominent in some of the newspapers this morning. Most people would be very disturbed to see that we had the third highest increase in stealth charges of the OECD countries. The new Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, would do well to investigate this.
Let me raise an issue I raised with the Leader last week. Will she invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, to the House to explain the seemingly new Government position on the future of the community employment schemes and other related schemes? We have heard mixed messages in this regard over the past two or three weeks.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Transport to the House, if at all possible, to discuss the roll-out of the national roads programme, particularly the difficulties that have arisen in different parts of the country, such as the Tara incident and the incident in Waterford that is delaying the bypass of Waterford city? Have we not learned anything in recent years from the major delays caused by choosing routes that directly involve sites of historic or archaeological interest? We should surely be ensuring that future routes will not pass through areas of such significance.
Dr. Mansergh: This side of the House would welcome a debate on economic and budgetary matters at any time. We have the lowest tax rates in the EU and the OECD and the lowest tax rates on people of low income. We have been commended by the EU Commission many times in that regard. If there is a need for debate, it is perhaps between putative coalition partners on the other side of the House——
Mr. U. Burke: Will the Leader make contact with the new Minister for Agriculture and Food on the item in today’s press indicating that imported free-range chickens have been contaminated with traces of a potentially cancer-causing veterinary drug? The chicken is imported into all our major stores, including Dunnes Stores, Tesco and Superquinn. It is time that we, as a food producing country, had greater monitoring of imported food products. We do not know their origin or the method of production in many cases, nor do we know what has been used in their production. It is very important that we protect Irish food products against dangerous imports that are probably cheaper. Thanks to the Food Safety Authority, the contamination of the chicken has been discovered and the products have been withdrawn.
Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, said that the Ombudsman, Ms O’Reilly, had stated her office should be included in the Constitution for the sake of its independence. He was equally concerned about expanding the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman. That is a matter for the Minister for Finance and I will convey the Senator’s concerns to him.
The Senator also raised the matter of public private partnerships. I understand that the Minister for Finance is keen to discuss this once he has read into it. The Senator said we should give our vocal support to the PIAB because it will result in cheaper insurance. It may be too early to review the work of PIAB, but it will be useful when the time is right.
Senator McCarthy raised the reality of suicide and the North-South seminar. The statistic which indicates that one third of all deaths among people between the ages of 15 and 24 are due to suicide rather than traffic accidents is a salutary one. The Senator asked for a debate on this issue. He also referred to “Liveline”. I have admiration for the way Joe Duffy runs his programme. Finding spare beds was a useful exercise and fair dues to the researchers and all those who unearthed this fact. I am sure there is much more involved than just finding beds and putting people into them. There are a myriad of factors involved, but certainly yesterday’s exercise was useful. The Senator also raised the issue of motor insurance for young people. I am sure the PIAB is giving the issue detailed consideration.
Regarding Senator Scanlon’s request, I did not realise that one could pay one’s insurance premium by instalment. I thought one had to pay when one got the bill. Perhaps this is something the PIAB could examine.
Senator Norris referred to Patrick Kavanagh. He did not just bring fame to his native county of Monaghan, but also to Dublin. He is regarded as a Dublin poet, given that he spoke so well of the city. The Senator did not support Oliver St. John Gogarty but, as the Cathaoirleach said, we cannot speak badly of people who cannot defend themselves.
Ms O’Rourke: The Senator referred to the proposed Italian EU Commissioner, Signor Buttiglione. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but not where it would cut across one’s duty. The Senator also referred to motion No. 13 on which the Cathaoirleach ruled.
Senator Bannon asked for a debate on roads, particularly the blackspots on secondary roads. Senator Coghlan asked for debates on the Ombudsman’s report, the PIAB and stealth tax. He was very poetic when he said that stealth is stealing the nation’s wealth, or other people’s wealth.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Phelan referred to stealth charges. He requested that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment come to the House to debate the change, if any, in community employment schemes. He also asked for a debate with the Minister for Transport on the roads programme.
Senator Mansergh, in his pursuit of the finance spokespersonship, said that we have the lowest tax rates in Europe and asked if there should be a debate on the opposite side as to whether there is a need for more revenue raising measures if promises are to be kept.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to the Northern Ireland chicken firm. We all think that if we buy organic products we are getting the best products. What are for sale are organic cuts of chicken, yet they are suspect. The Senator asked for a debate with the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the matter.
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