Wednesday, 27 October 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business today is No. 1, statements on the second report of the strategic task force on alcohol, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes; and No. 18, motion No. 16, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
Mr. B. Hayes: It has long been accepted that the weakest link in the European institutions has been the European Parliament. Whatever one’s position in respect of the postponement decision taken today by the EU Parliament concerning the new Commission, we would all accept that this is a good day for the Parliament. At the very least, parliamentarians have shown their strength and resolve in standing up to the Commission and the Council of Ministers and doing so in a way which demands that we pay respect to the European Parliament. At some point in the future, we should debate the particular crisis in which the EU finds itself at present. Given the fact that the new constitution will be formally signed and ratified this weekend, a debate at some stage over the coming weeks would be opportune. I thought the common sense shown by the President of the EU Commission, Mr. Barroso, in his decision today to postpone the vote is the type of common sense that he will have to show going forward. I welcome the fact that he, rather than the European Parliament, blinked today.
As the Leader knows, this House was the first to debate the issue of co-habiting couples and how we can provide protection for people in such relationships. Bishop Walsh of Killaloe made a number of interesting comments yesterday on this area. These comments were generous, forthright and reflected the kind of reality that exists in modern Ireland. Given the fact that Senator Terry has produced a position paper on behalf of our party and that there is impending legislation from Senator Norris, does the Leader agree a useful way to proceed would be to establish a standing committee of the House under Standing Order 98, which would allow us to progress the matter, develop a Green Paper and see exactly what consensus can be reached in this area? This is a particular area of work in which this House has expertise. It has shown initiative and can lead on this matter. I ask the Leader to consider my proposal that we establish a standing all-party committee of the House which would allow us to develop a Green Paper on this issue.
Mr. Norris: I strongly support Senator Brian Hayes in what he said about the need for a debate on the situation in the European Parliament. I do not agree with him about the cleverness of Mr. Barroso. He has shown himself to be totally incompetent. There are issues about several other Commissioners. For example, Mr. Barroso nominated a Commissioner in the competition directorate who has serious conflict of interest problems. There is a real difficulty with this man.
Despite what has been said by various people, this is not an attack on Mr. Buttiglione because of his religion or his beliefs. This is a man who said that AIDS was a divine punishment on homosexuals. He voted against, lobbied against and attempted to prevent the introduction of equality legislation, particularly governing women and gay people. It is extraordinary that he has been put in charge of this area. They say turkeys do not vote for Christmas. This was like putting a fox in charge of the hen house and asking the chickens to join its re-election campaign. It is a complete farce and it has reduced the European Commission to a situation of contempt.
Perhaps the Leader will reply to a further question I would like to ask while I am at it. Why were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael actively lobbying for Mr. Buttiglione if they knew of his record? Why was a former Member of the Seanad, Mr. Brian Crowley, MEP, for whom I have great respect and who has benefited from equality legislation which has been supported by people like me, lobbying for somebody who would make a person like me a second-class citizen of Europe to be given responsibility for the equality portfolio? It is not good enough. I recall that Mr. Buttiglione’s friends in the Vatican issued an instruction to Roman Catholics to vote against such legislation. That is not tolerable. I would strongly welcome a debate on the matter.
I support Senator Brian Hayes’s helpful suggestion that a standing committee be established. I have received considerable help in the area of domestic partnerships from leading persons on all sides of the House. It is something of an embarrassment to me that there were delays in the production of my legislation, which has just been completed. I had hoped to introduce it today, but I did not do so because of difficulties in rushing it to the printers. I was not keen to suggest changes in a sensitive area without having an opportunity to talk to my colleagues. This matter will affect the future welfare and happiness of many people. I do not think I would have shown respect to the House if I had tried to save face by rushing something in hurriedly. I would be happy to make my Bill available to such a committee.
I wish to conclude by raising a parallel issue of social justice. Members of the House will have been horrified to discover that some people who earned over €1 million in a single year paid no income tax. In that context, I support strongly the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, who said he will examine the possibility of removing moneys from special savings incentive accounts from means tests conducted on social welfare recipients. It seems to me to be obscene to allow people earning €1 million to pay no income tax, while those who have taken the Government’s advice by investing in SSIAs are penalised.
Mr. McDowell: On the final point made by Senator Norris, in recent days the Labour Party has been making the case, to which it will add further nuance, for a minimum rate of tax for people whose earnings are above a certain threshold. I do not believe such a suggestion would be divisive on a party political basis. I think we would all agree that there is merit in maintaining the integrity of the system to ensure that those who earn very high incomes pay a minimum level of tax.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes’s basic point that it is a good day for the European Parliament, which has faced down a Commission with which it does not agree. I agree with Senator Norris’s point about the judgment of the President designate of the Commission, who clearly went to the European Parliament without intending to pay the blindest bit of attention to the Parliament’s views. It is clear from everything Mr. Barroso said, his demeanour and the way he went about his business since the relevant committee rejected Mr. Buttiglione a couple of weeks ago that he had no intention of paying any attention to the views of the Parliament. It is good that it has been established today that Mr. Barroso cannot get away with such an approach. On a more general level, his judgment has to be called into question. Given that his judgment has been shown to be fundamentally flawed, I wonder if it is possible for the President designate to come back to the Parliament with a Commission in the next three or four weeks.
Like Senator Norris, I feel it is worth asking why virtually all the Irish MEPs were willing to vote for the proposed Commission. I suspect that the views which have been expressed by Mr. Buttiglione would find little enough expression in this or the other House. I find it deeply disturbing that the overwhelming majority of Irish MEPs, including all Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael MEPs, were willing, for whatever reason, to vote for a Commission that included Mr. Buttiglione. They may have faced political pressure, they may secretly agree with Mr. Buttiglione or they may think that nobody here will notice what is happening in Strasbourg. Perhaps people in Fianna Fáil felt that he was one of their allies, as the Italians are within that particular group. It is a good day because events in Strasbourg are being given a measure of attention here.
Mr. Dardis: I agree it would be useful to debate the European Commission, the role of the European institutions and the future of the European Union. However, even the Vatican would have difficulty rising to the degree of sanctimoniousness which has been expressed about Mr. Buttiglione’s appointment. It is obvious there was a great deal of politics in all this. In this House, we are all confident that we can distinguish between our personal beliefs and our responsibilities to the country as legislators. Irrespective of what pressure might be put on us by the Vatican or anyone else, we act independently, prudently and in the interests of the people.
It is important that this matter be resolved quickly, and I am critical of the Commission President that it has been left in abeyance. Critical issues face the Union, not least the question of whether Turkey should be admitted. An interregnum with the outgoing Commission, which has already decided to pack its bags, operating the Union and the delay in introducing the new one should be avoided. In that context, the most critical matter of all is that the Commission President works quickly to resolve this issue. It is important for the Parliament to have a say in such matters, but there has been an element of its flexing its muscles and showing it has more power than the Commission. The one deficiency that we may have identified is that it is probably wrong to have a system whereby, if one votes down one Commissioner, one votes down the entire Commission.
Mr. Finucane: Over the past six weeks there has been a problem with fireworks which are now being set off continually. We have all recently heard the concerns of the visually impaired, especially regarding guide dogs. In many cases, they have failed to function effectively as a result of having been terrified by such fireworks. The problem is now in every urban community, and I would be surprised if all Senators had not been receiving complaints about it. The night is punctuated by loud noises. Young children cannot go to sleep and older people are terrified — in many cases scared out of their wits — because fireworks have been dropped through their letterboxes. What is happening on this issue? Fireworks are illegal in this country. They are illegal in the North of Ireland, where one has to get a licence. The Minister must say that if they are illegal, they are illegal, and must take action accordingly. If we are to adopt a responsible attitude, there are certain fireworks that are permissible. Then one could issue licences but one should at least do something about it. It is now happening each year and it will continue in future. We must grapple with this issue.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: It is unacceptable that any Irish citizen should suffer the harassment Christy Moore recently suffered in Britain. He was held there under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for several hours. I am worried at the type of questioning engaged in. It seemed that he was being intimidated for his pronouncements and his stance on human rights. He was asked about the lyrics of his songs and personal details of his family.
As we know, over the years, thousands of innocent Irish people have suffered under the same legislation. I had thought that those dark days were gone. I was once on the receiving end because I would not translate my name from Irish to English, with the result that I was also detained for several hours. Arising from my case, three other countries in the European Parliament put pressure on Britain to stop that type of intimidation. Perhaps the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, might be invited in. I do not want to see that sort of activity return, particularly when the peace process is proving so successful.
Mr. McCarthy: I have two points, one of which has already been raised. I ask the Leader to organise an immediate debate with the new Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, so he might assure both Houses that those who accepted the minimum share scheme offered by the special savings incentive accounts will not have their social welfare payments negatively affected. It is critical that we secure an immediate assurance on that. After all, many of those savers were encouraged by the former Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, to take up the scheme. It is important we clarify that matter.
I agree with the decision taken on the European Commission by Mr. Barroso. It is a sad day when the majority of our representatives would have voted for someone who was to take up the justice portfolio in light of the comments he made about homosexuals and single parents——
Mr. Kitt: I support Senator Ó Murchú regarding the singer Christy Moore. At a time when there are more and more queries about passports and identity cards when travelling between Ireland and Great Britain, and identity is now such a big issue, it is unbelievable that such questions are asked.
Regarding the western rail corridor, I understand that part of the line between Claremorris and Athenry was inspected last Friday week, which I welcome. This is the first time in three years that an inspection car has been on that line. Given that the working group of the commission appointed by the Government is to report on 5 November, I hope we might have a debate about that rail corridor, which affects all of the west and mid-west region. I am hopeful that the working group will favour the re-opening of the line, which will be the basis for further development of the west. I am sure that all in this House support the re-opening of the line and would agree to a debate before the end of the year.
Mr. Coghlan: Some years ago the Tánaiste appointed an interdepartmental committee to look at issues of public safety. The group recommended that a new public safety agency should be urgently established to ensure that the highest standards of public safety apply. Does the Leader know if the Government will give effect to the recommendations of the review group?
I support Senator Ó Murchú’s comments and I believe the situation in which Christy Moore found himself is indicative of what seems to be happening in the civil and human rights area. Cat Stevens, an equally well known international singer, was deported from America for alleged and unproven funding of terrorist-related activities, when his record showed his opposition to such activities. Irish citizens travelling to the US must now be finger-printed at airports before being allowed to embark. In a world of democracy and democratic ideals, I share the concerns of Senator Ó Murchú and others that a more repressive approach is being taken, especially against those who might be deemed to be anti-establishment and not conforming with the mainstream views of some of our political leaders.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, returned in recent weeks to his consideration of a press council. It is now almost certain that he will introduce legislation in this area over the next few months. That matter should come before this House because, as the Cathaoirleach and others who have been Members for some time will be aware, the Seanad has a long and proud tradition of debating media issues. It has prepared reports on amendments to defamation Acts.
I raise this issue as a member of the Council of Europe, where I have presented reports on broadcasting over a number of years and where, in the context of freedom of expression in the media, I have in recent weeks been subjected to media attention regarding matters which have nothing to do with my parliamentary duties or activities. Many Members of this House will be aware of this issue. To appear on radio programmes to defend the legitimate expenses which one must expend in the course of one’s parliamentary duties——
Mr. Mooney: While I fully support the right of the media to bring all of us to account, I believe — I am sure the Leader agrees — it has an equal obligation to report on the parliamentary activities of all elected Members rather than merely focusing on the sexy issues such as whether we stay in three or four star hotels.
Ms Terry: I support Senator Brian Hayes’s call for the establishment of a standing committee to deal with civil partnerships and cohabiting couples. It is time the House dealt with this issue. I welcome the fact that Senator Norris is about to publish his Bill and I look forward to seeing it. The time is right to take action on this matter and many Members would support such action. Anything that can be done to bring forward a debate on the issue but also to progress the concept of establishing a standing committee would be welcome.
I attended the launch of the Women’s Aid statistics for 2003 this morning. The statistics to which I refer relate to calls received by the Women’s Aid helpline. It was alarming to discover that the figures for 2003 show an increase of 23% on those for 2002. Most of the calls received relate to domestic violence in one form or another. This issue is of serious concern to many people and it should be debated in the House. I ask the Leader to provide us with an opportunity to hold such a debate. The Women’s Aid helpline needs far more resources because the figures show that it missed well over 5,000 calls. That is frightening and it should be a matter of concern to everyone, particularly if women are trying to access the helpline and the organisation in question does not have adequate funding to provide the necessary resources for its helpline and for legal services. The matter of legal aid and the Legal Aid Board also needs to be discussed. I would appreciate it if the Leader could arrange for a debate on this matter.
Mr. Hanafin: I have often heard it said that there is nothing as intolerant as an Irish liberal. A person may be entitled to his or her own religious beliefs. If we are to have a debate on events relating to the European Commission, we should reflect on the fact that tolerance must be across the board. I hope that tolerance will prevail in Europe.
Mr. Hanafin: I have no doubt that some of the people who are taking entrenched views in Europe would gladly support partial birth abortions, which are nothing short of infanticide, and transsexual adoptions, which I find dubious. However, when it comes to someone else’s personal beliefs they are completely intolerant. Perhaps people should look in the mirror and reflect upon themselves.
Mr. Hanafin: I commend those who have suggested that a minimum level of taxation be paid by people who earn €1 million. I would like to bring balance to the debate by stating that some of those people have actually lost money. A number of them invested in business expansion schemes and have lost 100% of their money, namely, the 42% of tax they got back and their own capital. Many schemes would not have proceeded had there not been risks involved. I predicate my remarks by stating that these people should pay tax. However, if there is a risk involved and a benefit to the community, that should also be acknowledged in some way. One of the schemes to which I refer relates to seaside resorts. Everyone has seen how beautifully the quays in Dublin have been restored as a result of people making investments. Other areas in which people have invested are the film industry and business expansion schemes. There must be balance in the debate.
Mr. Bannon: Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, to come before the House to debate the parameters under which national car tests are conducted?
Mr. Bannon: There is a great deal of concern about the way the system operates. It is important that the House debates the matter. The system has become extremely bureaucratic and decisions in respect of cars differ from one centre to another. Inspection lists for national car tests contain minor items, such as scrapes in paintwork, missing hubs, etc., which could not be considered road safety issues. It is important the House has a debate on the issue because it causes considerable inconvenience to the general public. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate at the earliest opportunity.
Mr. Kenneally: It would be useful to invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the House — I realise he is new to his brief and has not yet come before us — to discuss the charges levied by mobile telephone operators which are much higher here than in any of our European neighbours or, as far as I can gather, any other country in the world. We have debated the matter at great length in the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, which has been informed by the operators that the reason is that people here talk for longer on mobile telephones than people anywhere else. We have been unable to determine a basis for their charges. Perhaps a debate in the House would highlight the abuses taking place.
I fully support Senator Finucane’s comment that fireworks should only be used by responsible adults in certain controlled environments, which include Hallowe’en bonfires. I am aware of at least one residents’ association in Waterford which has banned a Hallowe’en bonfire because it is being used to dump domestic waste, sofas and so forth. Bonfires are becoming an environmental hazard not to mention the problems they cause for residents in the areas in question. Local authorities must adopt a hands-on approach which could include licensing some such events. To do so, however, they will need additional funding because waste removal incurs costs. While it may be too late to take action this year, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government could introduce a pilot scheme. I ask that this proposal be conveyed to the Minister.
Mr. J. Phelan: I agree with my colleague, Senator Bannon, on the national car test. I raised this issue last year and requested that the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, come before the House to discuss it. It is time we did so. When the Minister comes into the House, it may be apt to ask him what he proposes to do about continued significant delays between submitting an application for a driving test and receiving a test date. It appears nothing is being done to reduce this delay, which must be addressed as soon as possible.
Mr. J. Phelan: Perhaps she was but it was not on my watch. It would be opportune to invite her to come before us again to discuss comments she made last week, particularly on the crisis in hospital accident and emergency departments in this city and throughout the country.
It would also be opportune for the Tánaiste or her colleague and good friend, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, to come in to discuss the issue of nursing homes. According to at least one of the daily newspapers today, hundreds of families were ripped off by the State by being forced to pay the costs of care in nursing homes which they should not have had to pay. The relevant Minister should come before the House to discuss this important issue.
Mr. Ross: I welcome the fact that the European Parliament is centre stage. While it is a wonderful day that events in Europe have caused controversy in the House and aroused strong feelings, we are discussing them in something of a vacuum. I ask the Leader, who I know has made some efforts in this regard, to ensure the House has available to it an information channel which allows Senators to find out what is really happening in Europe when circumstances such as the current events arise.
This morning, it appeared that if the Commission were to be defeated, we would be on difficult ground. Nobody appeared to know what would happen for at least a month. It would have been appropriate for someone, even the Minister with responsibility for European affairs, to come before this and the other House to explain the matter and its implications. We are left stranded when these sorts of circumstances arise in Europe.
Mr. Ross: Yes, that is the reason we could have him back here. I do not know if the Taoiseach would welcome that, but the Leader could relate to him the expressions of some Members of this House that, given that Deputy McCreevy will be unemployed for the next month, he could play a role here which could be of benefit to the Government, the Taoiseach and all those who promoted him so enthusiastically for his new role.
I agree with Senator Finucane that we should debate the fact that although fireworks are illegal, they are widely available. Public awareness campaigns highlighting the dangers of fireworks have failed and the House should acknowledge that fact. Last year I spent Hallowe’en in Dublin and, like every small town in the country, it was like downtown Baghdad. There were hundreds of thousands of breaches of the law. Many children and parents have been injured by fireworks. The House should call for the law to be enforced to ensure that illegal traders who sell fireworks are made responsible for the harm they cause.
Mr. Dooley: I join Senator Kitt in seeking a debate on the western rail corridor and related issues with the Minister for Transport. There has been discussion in this House for some time about the extension of a rail corridor along the west of Ireland. Another aspect of the rail debate is the suggestion of a rail link between Shannon Airport and the Ennis-Limerick line. The previous Minister asked Iarnród Éireann to conduct a feasibility study on such a link. Will the Leader ask the new Minister for Transport to come to the House as soon as possible to discuss both matters?
With regard to fireworks, the situation is outrageous and every village and town in Ireland is suffering. Elderly people and children are prevented from getting a night’s sleep. I compliment the gardaí on their response. Yesterday, they enjoyed great success in County Clare and seized a quantity of fireworks from illegal traders.
Mr. Browne: I agree with the points made by my colleagues about nursing homes. It is amazing that this issue is before the House again. In 2001, the then Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, produced a report on nursing homes but it appears that the Government has failed again in this area. Almost 15,000 pensioners in long-term care, aged 70 years and over, might have been paying money they need not have paid for their nursing home care. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to clarify the situation? I am aware that the 1970 and 1990 health Acts are relevant to this important issue. I hope the Minister will come to the House to make a statement on it.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes declared this a good day for the European Parliament and I agree. The Members of the European Parliament have rights and they exercised them. Others would wish they did not but the general feeling in this Chamber is that we were glad they did. The Senator sought a debate on the European issue. He also said he was glad that the Commission President blinked rather than the parliamentarians. I believe the parliamentarians never intended to blink and that they were determined to follow through on their rights, as they did.
The Senator also referred to Bishop Willie Walsh’s sensible and forthright statements yesterday. I, too, read those statements with delight. I am glad he was so forthright on the matter. The Senator asked if we could set up a standing committee of the House with the aim of framing a Green Paper on those issues. That is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We could put a query to the Cathaoirleach on that matter. The Senator also stated that Senator Terry produced a paper on the matter which was briefly discussed on the Order of Business last year.
Senator Norris blamed the President of the Commission, Mr. Barroso, for the line taken in the recent dispute. I would blame him for arriving 15 minutes late and not giving an apology. If one was five minutes late for a class, one would apologise, but he arrived and said nothing. It was not a good basis on which to start.
The Senator asked why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were prepared to support Commissioner Buttiglione. While I imagine this was seen as pragmatic and the thing to do, I commend those who decided they would not support him. The law is wrong and should be amended so one can disagree with the nomination of one Commissioner without disagreeing with the entire 24. Underlying this is the point that Deputy McCreevy has no job in Europe while there is no job here for him.
Senator Norris also raised the matter of domestic partnerships. I know the Senator’s Bill will soon be available and that he has received help on the matter from other parties in the Houses. The Senator also referred to those earning over €1 million per annum while paying no tax and contrasted this with the proposal on the special savings incentive accounts. We will look for a debate on the matter.
Senator McDowell referred to the minimum rate of tax and asked why Europe was ready to vote Mr. Buttiglione into office. The issue has gone beyond the Commissioner and now centres on the readiness of European parliamentarians to exercise their rights rather than being done down. However, the issue highlights the feelings towards parliamentarians in the higher echelons of European politics. The Commission was ready to suggest the parliamentarians had no clout until they exercised it.
Senator Dardis stated a debate would be useful on the European issue and the impact of private beliefs on public policy. It has gone beyond that point and of all the remarks attributed to Mr. Buttiglione, those on single parents were the most nefarious. Senator Dardis was also critical of the President of the Commission.
Senator Finucane raised the issue of fireworks, which frighten many people, especially at this time of year when darkness falls so early. Senator Ó Murchú referred to the questioning undergone by Christy Moore following a boat crossing to Britain. This was due to the type of songs he sings and the beliefs he has held, rightly and truly. The Senator was subjected to similar treatment because he would not translate his name from Labhrás Ó Murchú to what others wanted. On such occasions, it would be easy to do what others wanted.
Senator McCarthy wanted the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come to the House to debate the issue of special savings incentive accounts and he also called for a debate on the issue of Europe.
Senator Mooney supported Senator Ó Murchú and mentioned the experience of Cat Stevens who was also subjected to quite obnoxious questioning. He also raised the issue of the proposal of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, regarding the establishment of a press council. I will inquire as to whether the Minister will come here to debate the issue. I strongly agree that if the media are willing to question on one issue, they should be willing to report on what is being done at the Council of Europe which, I am sure, is of great relevance.
Senator Terry attended the launch of the Women’s Aid national helpline statistics. I had intended to go. The statistics show that more than 5,000 calls could not be attended to and that there were many more calls in 2003 than in 2002. Senator Terry requested a debate on the issue.
Senator Hanafin stated that there should be tolerance across the board. We would all agree with him. On taxation, he agreed that people who earn millions of euro should pay a minimum level of taxation but that there should be a balance in the debate about taxation and the risks people take, for example, by investing in business expansion schemes, should be taken into account.
Senator Kenneally asked that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, be invited to the House to debate the charges levied by mobile telephone operators. He agreed with Senator Finucane’s comments regarding fireworks and bonfires. I agree that local authorities should take a more proactive role in the issue.
Senator Phelan raised the issues of the national car test, accident and emergency facilities and nursing homes. Senator Shane Ross suggested in the context of the debate that developed in Europe that there should be a direct information channel to this and to the other House so that people could find out what is going on in Europe. He also suggest that the relevant Minister should come here to give us his opinions on the issue.
Senator Dooley sought a debate on the western rail corridor and echoed what Senator Finucane said regarding the terror caused to elderly people. It is not too exaggerated a description because elderly people are living in terror after nightfall.
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