Tuesday, 9 November 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, Health and Social Care Professionals Bill 2004 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 4.30 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and other Senators ten minutes and of which the Second Stage debate shall continue tomorrow; and No. 2, statements on present public transport facilities in Dublin and future plans, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. until 6.30 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and other Senators ten minutes, and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements. As regards No. 2, there will be a debate on transport matters as they affect the remainder of the country at a later date.
Mr. Finucane: There was a commitment in the programme for Government to reduce the primary school pupil-teacher ratio to under 20:1 in accordance with international best practice. Everyone is aware that at present 100,000 pupils are in classes of over 30 or more and that 584 are in classes of 40 or more. It appears the Minister has reneged on the commitment to which I referred because at the weekend she referred to it as a “noble aspiration”. Perhaps the Leader might ask her to clarify the difference between the two. The Minister stated there might not be sufficient teachers to achieve the intended ratio by 2007. The INTO refuted her remarks and stated there are sufficient teachers available.
Perhaps the Leader might also seek clarification from the Minister in respect of the position vis-à-vis special needs assistants. The Minister recently announced that 350 additional special needs assistants will be appointed, which is a welcome development. All Members must be frustrated by the fact that the Department of Education and Science is not in a position to respond to requests made on behalf of concerned parents about special needs assistants for their children. It is incumbent on the Department to clarify the current position in order to remove the uncertainty being experienced by pupils and their families. The appointment of 350 additional special needs assistants is worthwhile but I understand from the Department that thousands of them will be required to cope with the demand. It will be interesting to discover the reaction of the Minister for Education and Science in respect of both of these matters.
Mr. O’Toole: I raised the matter of class sizes with the Leader last week before the story broke in the media because I was suspicious that a timeframe or schedule had not been provided. I requested that the Minister come before the House to explain the situation because this matter is of interest to Members on both sides. There are many variables with which we must deal at this stage. The reality is that parents who looked forward to their children being in smaller classes, teachers who welcomed the commitment and children who could benefit from it, are all losing out.
As I stated in the House last week, according to the Central Statistics Office there are now nearly 400,000 pupils in classes of over 20. The Minister maintains there are not enough teachers to implement her plans. There are enough teachers, as clearly evident from the INTO figures. The Minister has stated that one of the reasons there are not enough teachers arises from her plan to put more teachers into the disadvantaged and special needs sectors, which I acknowledge would be welcome. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House to outline the supply of and demand for teachers over the next three or four years; her schedule for the implementation of the plan to bring classes to below 20 over the next three or four years; and the capacity to train teachers through the colleges of education, through Hibernia College and also through postgraduate courses. Will the Minister inform the House about conversion courses? Many post-primary teachers without work are interested in converting to primary teaching and specific courses should be made available to them.
These issues about which we have all received inquiries have been raised with me by Members from all sides of the House over the past year. I have a constituent who has graduated and wants to do a postgraduate course but there is not enough space in Irish colleges because the Government will not support sufficient graduate places. Young Irish men and women are training in the UK and in Northern Ireland. It is crucial we address this issue.
Mr. Ryan: When I was training to be an engineer many years ago, we were taught that the functions of management were to plan, organise, staff and control. Week after week the Government explains about the breach of yet another commitment regarding pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools. In the richest country in Europe, there are currently 100,000 children being taught in classrooms with in excess of 30 pupils.
The Government seems to be unable to plan for anything. It apparently discovered late that a large number of EU purchasing rules have slowed down the mythological decentralisation. It seems that when it announced the plan it was not aware of the EU purchasing procedure which has to be observed. Will the Government supply the House with some evidence that it knows how to plan, organise and control, because the Comptroller and Auditor General does not think so? In that context, I ask for a debate on schools.
A question has emerged over the weekend about the priorities of the National Roads Authority. It was believed there was a Government decision that the priority in this context was three major inter-urban routes. It appears now that the new Minister, true to his capacity to create chaos wherever he goes, has decided this is not a good idea and wants inter-regional routes to be prioritised. I wish to lay a small bet that the consequence of inter-regional route prioritising is that the motorway to Waterford will now come to the top of the priority list; of that, I have absolutely no doubt. People trying to do business outside Dublin and people trying to commute from Galway, Cork and Limerick, to Dublin, ought to know whether they can plan for a proper national road network or whether we are now about to go back to the drawing board and start all over again.
I ask for a debate on the role of regulators in society. The evidence in Britain is that many of the regulators are now costing more than the Departments which were originally supposed to be the regulators. The evidence also is that they have failed gloriously. A recent report in The Irish Times suggests that our telecommunications service providers are among the worst in the world and that Eircom is the best of them, which is an interesting commentary on the rest. Our regulators grow bigger and yet seem to do little to help consumers. Will the Leader inform the House when the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill will be taken again?
Mr. Mooney: While I appreciate that parents are concerned about class sizes, and rightly so, in recent weeks they have also been concerned about the film censor and the somewhat bizarre decisions he has taken. In that context, would the Leader consider it worthwhile to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House? He is the political boss of Mr. Kelleher, who in recent weeks has passed uncut a movie which will now be shown in theatres showing actual sex on screen. Also, in the past few days he has justified giving a 15 PG rating to a Santa Claus movie which RTE rightly highlighted on its main news last night, expressing the concerns of many parents who will be confused coming up to Christmas about the title of a film the content of which is very adult. In both instances, the film censor has justified these decisions rather bizarrely by suggesting that adults should be able to make up their own minds. I have no problem with that, but anybody who goes to cinemas will know that in many cases the people issuing and collecting the tickets are only in their late teens. There are very few instances of enforcement across the country of the existing film censorship laws. I applaud UCI in Dublin which has issued public statements to make parents aware of the mature and adult content of the Santa Claus movie.
This is not about what appears in the movies but what happens when these films go to video. These films will go directly to video and I know from my experience as a parent of young children that these videos are readily available throughout the country. The law is not being enforced and I ask the Leader to seriously consider inviting the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House to discuss the whole question of censorship, not only as it applies to the cinema and theatrical releases but also to video releases for which no classifications are given.
Mr. J. Phelan: I echo the sentiments of my colleagues who expressed regret about the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science on the reneging of the commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in national schools. I want to emphasise the area of special needs in education. This is an area on which we had an announcement yesterday, yet we are all familiar with schools throughout the country on which that announcement will not have an effect in terms of the granting of special needs assistants.
My question relates to a motion which Senator Kenneally tabled for the Adjournment this evening regarding the provision of cancer treatment services throughout the country. Now that we have a new Minister for Health and Children, it would be apt to ask her views on the whole area of cancer treatment. Her predecessor adopted a head in the sand approach to the matter. I am talking particularly about the provision of facilities in the regions. There is not a family in the country that has not been affected in one way or another by cancer. I attended a meeting last night about that issue where it was highlighted that in a previous era, a former Minister for Health, the late Dr. Noel Browne, took stringent action to eliminate TB yet in the post-Celtic tiger era——
Mr. Glynn: I strongly support the comments of Senator Mooney on censorship. It has been brought to my attention, since I raised the matter of the use of fireworks last week, that this Hallowe’en was the worst in living memory in terms of damage to property, injuries, desecration of graveyards, statues and so on. In addition, the use of repeaters, which are capable of firing up to 50 shots, was highlighted in one of our local newspapers. Young people are holding these repeaters in their hands and firing them at each other. There is no need for me to tell the House how dangerous that is. We make these statements every year. For God’s sake can we do something about it so that we might at least notice an improvement next year? I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come into the House and outline what he intends to do in future about this serious problem.
Mr. Norris: Will the Leader arrange a series of debates on Iraq? In the run-up to and early stages of the war in Iraq, the Seanad played a useful role in political life by holding a series of rolling debates during which we constantly monitored the situation. Further debates are necessary because of the assault under way in the city of Falluja. We know 100,000 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war. An estimated 50,000 civilians are trapped in the city of Falluja where three hospitals have been bombed. In the past, some bombed out hospitals have been used as operational command centres for the United States army. This is not appropriate, particularly in light of concerns expressed in the House, including by me last week when I stated the position was very dangerous, and by the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who, having examined the matter, warned against an attack on the city. In addition, e-mails from the commander of the Black Watch regiment suggest 800 Scottish troops were moved for political rather than operational reasons and are exposed to considerable danger.
Several Senators have placed on record their concerns about sinister operations involving a United States Gulfstream jet specially adapted for the transportation to centres of torture of persons kidnapped by the United States.
Mr. Norris: Having already sought a debate, I now call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, the number of times the jet in question has landed at Shannon Airport, its purpose, the reason the Garda has not boarded it to ascertain what it is going on and to report back to the House. Details on this matter are on the record.
I propose that the House note the interesting and useful judgment handed down today in the High Court in the case of two courageous young Irish women, Dr. Katherine Zappone and Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan. The court indicated that the case in question involves a serious matter which remains to be determined by the Supreme Court, namely, the recognition of a marital relationship between two persons of the same sex. I raise the case because the Leader made an excellent suggestion that an all-party committee examine this area in a calm, rational manner. I would be prepared to make available to such a committee drafts of two Bills we have prepared in this area.
Mr. Leyden: I commend the Leader for arranging a debate tomorrow on the question of competitiveness and consumer protection. I support a call made by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, in light of his concerns about the issue of rip-off Ireland. I am not sure if he was referring to propaganda by the Fine Gael Party and its website.
Mr. Coghlan: The wish of IKEA, a Swedish furniture group, to locate here has been widely discussed. Ballymun, which has been mentioned as a location, would be a worthwhile site given the important urban regeneration under way in the area. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, is apparently considering breaching retail planning guidelines to accommodate the company. I urge him to be extremely careful as such a decision could create a terrible precedent and have an adverse impact on the road network. It is not true that IKEA must have giant stores. I am reliably informed the company’s store on the island of Majorca is of moderate size, as would also be appropriate and applicable to our circumstances given our population and size. The House should urge the Minister to be careful in his negotiations and not to cede too much.
Mr. MacSharry: Is it possible to have an urgent debate on the fisheries industry which is in crisis? Only this morning we learned of the laying off of 60 workers at and the effective closure of a processing plant in Burtonport, County Donegal, largely due to the existence of prohibitive fish quotas and the fact that many Irish registered boats choose to land catches in other countries such as Scotland and Norway.
It is important to debate this matter to explore the action which might be taken to rejuvenate an industry which was thriving many years ago but which, unfortunately, has died away to the detriment of many coastal communities. There is a responsibility on all of us to take appropriate action to achieve this rejuvenation. The debate would also give the House an opportunity to explore with the Minister the aquaculture industry which heretofore has not realised its potential in terms of the employment that could be created and the revenue gained by coastal communities.
Dr. Henry: Nuclear material and waste is shipped around our coasts on occasion. A conference is currently taking place in Australia where countries from the Far East are discussing the possibility of such waste and material being stolen. When the Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill returned to this House from the Dáil, Senator Quinn pointed out it was a 2000 Bill and that it had taken a long time to go through the Houses. While I realise the Leader cannot order the business of the other House, the Law of the Sea (Repression of Piracy) Bill 2001 went through this House three years ago. Why is there such a lack of concern that this legislation is passed?
Mr. Fitzgerald: However, it is a case of prioritising how she reaches this target. In the context of rolling out the commitment, she must have due regard for special educational needs, which has been stressed in the House today. The Minister and the Government are firmly committed to reaching the target set out in An Agreed Programme for Government.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Will the Leader arrange for the Minister to come to the House to clarify the confusion that has obviously arisen among the Opposition? Some 4,000 extra primary teachers have been put into the system. There is a question in regard to the reality of supply over the coming years. The Minister is being forthcoming and up-front about this.
Mr. Bannon: The Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, now criticise the whole idea of incineration. I want to know what it is they know which the general public is not being informed of in regard to incineration. It is important we have an urgent debate on incineration. Both Ministers have stated incineration is dangerous to the environment, which we on this side of the House have known for a long time.
Mr. Bannon: On another issue, the public are shocked by the many incidents of overcharging by Vodafone and O2. Almost €3 million was robbed from customers over the past 12 months or so yet all that has been received from the management and directors of the companies is an apology. The Government needs to take action in this area and customers robbed by the two mobile telephone companies should be fully compensated. This is important because there is concern among members of the public, particularly businesses and young people, with regard to overcharging in this area. We have often heard an apology but more action needs to be taken. It is the responsibility of the Government, particularly the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, to demand this.
Mr. Kett: I support the comments of my colleague, Senator Glynn, on the issue of fireworks. Legislation is in place for the enforcement of the Act. However, if it is not enforced, we must ask why. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must explain to the House why it is not enforced. The same goes for bonfires which are not covered by any legislation. On bonfire night in Dublin city, parks and other areas become no-go areas except for drug-taking and boozing. Long gone are the days that a bonfire was something to be enjoyed. Legislation is needed in this area.
Mr. Feighan: Will the Leader invite the Minister for Transport to explain the U-turn by the National Roads Authority on the provision of central crash barriers, particularly after the recent horrific pile-up on the M1? I do not understand what criteria the National Roads Authority has used up to now. There is a great hurrah for the new motorway to Cork, completed a year earlier than expected. However, there are no crash barriers in the middle of the road, which is dangerous.
Mr. Feighan: I remind the House that next Sunday is Remembrance Day for the victims of the Great War. More than 35,000 Irish soldiers gave their lives in it and many others left a country which had changed totally when they returned. We have become more mature about Remembrance Day and all Members should attend some of the Remembrance Day observations next Sunday.
Dr. Mansergh: All the debates sought in this House should be realistically based. Senator Ryan stated that Ireland is the richest country in Europe. That is not true and yesterday’s International Monetary Fund report stated that in 2003 Ireland was still below the per capita EU average for GNP of 99%.
Mr. Ross: I know I will be accused of time-wasting if I have not. Will the Leader provide time for a debate on An Post? There is a threat of a serious industrial dispute in An Post which will bring the postal service to a go-slow, if not a halt, coming up to Christmas. It would be useful to study this company which is the worst-run State body. I not only blame the trade unions as An Post is a case of bad management from political appointees to bad, overpaid management and intransigent trade unions. A debate would be useful because An Post is the epitome of how a monopoly should not be run. It is a case of a monopoly being run at a loss of €43 million per annum. Before there is a postal strike, will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the House to explain what plans he has to bring An Post back to profit and working order?
Mr. Kenneally: It would be useful to have a debate with the relevant Minister, whether the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Minister for Finance, arising from a decision in the Italian High Court yesterday. The Italian director of consumer affairs took a case against the banks claiming they were treating their customers inequitably by applying only a yearly interest on deposits but quarterly interest on overdrafts and loans. The court decided this was inequitable and it is estimated that 10 million Italians will benefit to the tune of between €20 billion and €30 billion as a result. The Director of Consumer Affairs here could take a similar case. I am not aware of any such case being taken here in view of which it might be appropriate to debate the matter.
Mr. Browne: I concur with Members who asked for the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House. If she does she might also deal with the issue of school transport which has increased fivefold in the past few years yet fewer passengers use the service. It is completely inflexible, and dealing with CIE and the Department is a nightmare for everyone concerned because they will not listen to common sense about altering routes slightly to pick up additional children. We should examine this approach and ask hard questions.
I agree with Senator Ross’s comments about An Post. One can contrast it with the postal service in England, which has been turned into a very profitable organisation whose employees recently received large dividends. We can learn lessons from that experience. I am also very concerned about the idea of sub-contracting postal services in rural areas.
Ms Terry: In recent days couples who would like to adopt a child, at home or abroad, have expressed grave concern about the length of time it takes them to be assessed for their suitability as adoptive parents. They attribute the delay to the lack of social workers. This process is traumatic for adoptive parents but it takes anything up to four years, longer in some cases, to go through the process. If the provision of social workers would help speed that up something should be done about it. We need social workers in other areas too. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister to come to the House to outline how she can ease the difficulties facing would-be adoptive parents and see what can be done to improve their situation?
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Finucane, the deputy leader of the Opposition, raised the matter of the pupil-teacher ratio and the statement on this issue by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. The words “noble aspiration”were good ones to use. The Senator wants the Minister to come to the House to talk about the pupil-teacher ratio and the shortage of teachers. I will endeavour to ensure that happens. He mentioned special needs assistants, in particular, and the scheme which this House welcomed. However, the Senator pointed out the lack of lucidity as to which schools will be involved. Senator O’Toole raised the pupil-teacher ratio and the disadvantage it entails. He said there is a supply of teachers in the colleges and they can supply more. This underlines the case for bringing the Minister to the House.
Senator Ryan said 120,000 children are in classes of more than 30. That is another matter which we will endeavour to have the Minister address in the House. He also talked about the re-ordering of priorities and the role of regulators. The Minister is considering more amendments to the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2004 which he has promised to discuss on Committee Stage here. It is hoped the Bill will be back in the Seanad within the next two weeks.
Senator Mooney began by speaking about the film “Bad Santa” but he had a wider concern about how the film censorship board issues certificates. He also spoke of how videos can proliferate without regulation of any kind.
Senator John Paul Phelan spoke about the promise on the pupil-teacher ratio being reneged on. He also asked about cancer treatment in the south east. Senator Glynn claimed that bonfires, rockets and repeaters had made this the worst Halloween in memory. We have asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform whether he has plans to enforce the Act which deals with this. Senator Norris wondered how often American Gulfstream jets land at Shannon bearing prisoners.
The all-party committee on the Constitution in currently investigating the whole issue of the family. This will be a serious judgment and the two women in question face a long road ahead. They have been given the right to take their case to a review. This marks a step forward on the matter.
Ms O’Rourke: It is the website to which he objects, which is fair enough. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, is blaming the website for giving us that reputation in other countries. Senator Coghlan spoke about IKEA and claimed there was no need for big stores. I do not know the population of Majorca and I am not proposing that he and I go there.
Ms O’Rourke: I will inquire about it. Senator MacSharry wants a debate on the fishing industry. Such a debate is overdue and we will arrange it. Senator Henry spoke about the Law of the Sea (Repression of Piracy) Bill 2001, which must now be well out of date. Senator Fitzgerald was right when he said the Minister for Education and Science will reach her target, but has started with easing disadvantage.
Senator Bannon wants a debate on incinerators, as well as a debate on overcharging by Vodafone. Senator Kett supports Senator Glynn’s remarks on fireworks. Senator Feighan spoke about the NRA and its change of heart on the crash barriers. The Cathaoirleach was good to allow the Senator’s point about Remembrance Day, which is next Sunday. Many Irish people lost their lives fighting in the First and Second World Wars.
Senator Mansergh made the point that we are not the richest country in Europe. The recent IMF report puts us at 99%. Senator Ross wants a debate on An Post, and I think we should have one. It appears that we will be strapped again this Christmas when the mail will be at its heaviest. We will invite the Minister to the House. Senator Kenneally raised the issue of a case in Italy, where a consumer brought a case against the banks, which now have to pay €20 billion to €30 billion to consumers.
Senator Browne raised the issue of school transport as well as lessons for An Post from the UK. The postal service almost came to a halt in the UK, and now they are going to close all the small post offices there.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Terry spoke about the delays in the adoption process. I received a call from a woman who is waiting for four years to have an assessment to allow her to adopt. This is very traumatic for people. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who is preparing adoption legislation to come to the House to talk about the matter.
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