Thursday, 16 June 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, a referral motion whereby the subject matter of Nos. 10, 11 and 12 on the Order Paper will be referred, without debate, to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for consideration. The proposed amendments in respect of the risk equalisation scheme involve the inclusion of a provision that specifically recognises the Health Insurance Authority’s powers of interpretation and clarification to three existing definitions. In respect of the open enrolment regulations, the Health Insurance (Amendment) Act 2001 provides for the extension of the right to take out health insurance to persons of all ages. Previously there was no obligation on insurers to cover persons aged 55 and over who were not renewing cover. The minimum benefit regulations update references to the proposed open enrolment regulations and, similarly, provide for the term “relevant health services” replacing “ancillary health services”; No. 2, motion re the operation of the Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 12.15 p.m. with each spokesperson having ten minutes; and No. 3, Air Navigation and Transport (Indemnities) Bill 2005 — All Stages, to be taken between 12.15 p.m. and 2 p.m. Spokespersons will have 12 minutes and other Senators eight minutes on Second Stage with the Minister to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.
Mr. Finucane: My party is concerned about No. 2 on the basis it was not originally scheduled to be taken before the Air Navigation and Transport (Indemnities) Bill and our justice spokesperson has not had an opportunity to research the motion. Will the Leader consider taking the Bill first to give our spokesperson an opportunity to conduct some research into the motion?
Yesterday reference was made to the National Roads Authority’s policy on service stations on new motorways. The sentiment of the House was that it was an unwise policy. The NRA’s annual report states service stations should not be built beside motorways. The distance between Portlaoise and Dundalk is 150 km and no service station has been built on the route. The national roads policy is contradictory in that towns are bypassed while filling stations are not built on motorways, which means juggernauts are forced to stream through small towns. The NRA should rethink the policy and examine the German experience of filling stations at least every 16 km along roads that are more modern than ours. These would be the sentiments of the House in advance of the NRA’s meeting today.
An important European summit is taking place over the next few days, which will mainly examine the seven year budgetary strategy. We would all concede that the constitution has taken a battering on the basis of its rejection by the French and Dutch populations. It seems that Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark and even Ireland may reject the constitution. Luxembourg also has reservations. It is, therefore, time for a reflective phase in Europe. I do not share the optimism of Ministers that we could proceed with the referendum and ratify the constitution after the rejections in France and Holland. We must park the matter for a period and determine whether sentiments on the issues that made people vote against the constitution could shift in Europe.
An important decision is being taken in the budgetary strategy meeting. Britain and France are rowing about the annual rebate Britan receives, arising from an agreement entered into in the time of Margaret Thatcher back in 1984. Britain receives two thirds of the funds it gives Europe on an ongoing basis because it did not feel it was the beneficiary of agricultural subsidies at the time. We have progressed since then. Britain is maintaining this type of policy and says it will not budge unless those subsidies are reduced. I remind Members that we met yesterday with representatives of a farming body in Buswells Hotel, who indicated the crisis in the dairy industry. These types of prices will become binding if Britain gets its way in Europe. It is time for reflection on the European constitution and the Government must consider whether it will go ahead with a referendum. If it does, Ireland may get a bloody nose.
Mr. O’Toole: It would be worthwhile for the House to give some consideration to discussing the early section of the Constitution, which determines the name of this country. I was reared in a house where it was thought to be demeaning for people of other countries, particularly our next door neighbours, to refer to us in English as Éire. Éamon de Valera when Taoiseach introduced a Constitution that outlines the name of this country as Éire as Gaeilge and Ireland in the English language. He ensured this was so in all activities of the State and that we were not referred to as Éire at all. Is this constitutional precedent being ignored? Is it constitutional that we are now changing the names of towns against the will of people who do not want them changed? This is a matter we must examine.
During the discussion with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, last night, he invited Senator Coghlan and I to table an amendment to the Official Languages Act 2003 to allow people to have a say in changing their areas’ placenames. The Senator and I intend to do so shortly and look forward to the support of Members from all sides. Considering that the suggestion came from the Minister, although he said he would not table an amendment himself, I presume my colleagues on the Government side will be only too happy to offer support. It is quite ironic that the grandson of the Taoiseach who insisted we be bilingually named should now be ramming one language down people’s throats.
As if this were not sufficiently unprecedented, in terms of how the House operates, I saw three distinct rules of procedure ignored last night when a Member demanded the Minister’s speech before it was given to the Cathaoirleach.
Mr. O’Toole: It is a long established precedent that the Cathaoirleach gets a copy of the Minister’s speech and any other speech at all times. The rules of procedure are clear. If a person even raises an issue or item, it must be presented to the Cathaoirleach. That the same Senator would refer last night to the comings and goings of Members who were attending committee meetings or were in their offices engaging with the debate through their television sets as swanning in and out was astonishing. This is unacceptable.
Mr. O’Toole: It is also unacceptable that the long-established rota of speakers agreed to within and between groups should be perverted. People who have been Senators for the past three years should know the rules of the House by now. Perhaps people need to be reminded again but most of us know how the rules operate. If we do not, we ask some of our colleagues who have been here longer. I found last night’s events embarrassing and unacceptable and I would like the Cathaoirleach to give a ruling on the matter.
An Cathaoirleach: For the information of the House, I agree with everything Senator O’Toole has said. A Minister’s speech cannot be given to the Chair or to Members until he or she has commenced the speech.
Mr. McCarthy: I am quite concerned about comments the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, made yesterday when drawing from a position document launched by the National Council on Aging and Older People. The Minister is examining the area of pensions with a view to reforming it, which is a good idea. He goes on to say that, in some countries, the State operates a deal whereby parts of the properties owned by older people are mortgaged and the returns supplement their pensions in old age.
We live in a country that has one of the highest concentrations of home ownership in the European Union. Everybody’s home is their castle. People in retirement are entitled to own their houses, to belong and to have the natural benefit of owning all their properties. I am unsure that allowing mortgage companies to enter into agreements and deals with older retired people to supplement their income by virtue of mortgaging parts of their properties is a good idea. I am very concerned about this. Knowing this country’s financial institutions and the manner in which they have operated in recent years, it would be worrying as this particular section of society would be open to significant exploitation by the mortgage companies.
I agree with the leader of the Fine Gael group today when he points out that the NRA needs a significant shift in focus in terms of its policy concerning filling stations on motorways. We have learned from the UK’s experience that filling stations serving the driving public are very beneficial and have proven to be an important part of general road safety. In this day and age, it is ludicrous that there is a 150 km stretch around this city from Portlaoise northwards without filling stations readily accessible to people.
We had an important debate on the matter of Sellafield recently. I made a point during that debate and will continue to make it. When the Taoiseach is discussing the Northern Ireland peace process with Northern parties and when this issue is on the political radar, it is an opportunity to raise the continuing concerns of those in this country surrounding the ongoing situation at Sellafield. The recent leaks there are very worrying for people, particularly those on the eastern seaboard of this country. There is potential in the context of the Northern Ireland discussions for this important issue to be raised and pursued by the Taoiseach.
As we approach another European summit, a vital matter is affecting Irish farmers, namely, the €95 million special beef premium through which the European Union now wants to financially penalise them. When we were pushing the second Nice treaty, which was discussed in this House, one of its main selling points was that the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, was attending important CAP reform negotiations in Brussels and that if we rejected the treaty, we would be jeopardising the future of Irish farming. The former Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, gave a commitment in this building to the Irish nation that when we signed up to the CAP, we would not lose financially as a result. A U-turn is clearly on the horizon. When the present Minister, Deputy Coughlan, goes to Brussels and when the Taoiseach attends the European summit, I urge them to raise this issue and to fight for a good deal for Irish farmers. They must fight to retain the status quo, which is all we are looking for.
Mr. Dardis: I want to pick up on the point that has just been made. I was encouraged yesterday to hear the Taoiseach say that the Common Agricultural Policy would be defended. It would be utterly wrong if the policy were to be sacrificed on the altar of trying to find a financial settlement to overcome some of the difficulties that are besetting the Union at the moment. A painful and difficult deal was done and the Minister for Agriculture and Food at the time should be congratulated on the way he made it and on the outcome for Irish farmers and farming in the Union in general.
Mr. Dardis: It would be wrong for the CAP, having been so difficult to negotiate, to be up for grabs again. We must be quite emphatic about this and support the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture and Food in everything they do. I also note that the French Government has taken a similar position on the matter and I hope that position will prevail.
Senator Finucane raised the issue of roads and I note that the last service station, if one is travelling south from Dublin towards Naas, is at Kill, beside Goffs. The next station on the Cork road is at Abbeyleix and the next one on the Limerick road is at Mountrath. There seems to be some disconnection between the National Roads Authority and common sense.
Mr. Dardis: It will only take a few vehicles stopping on a high quality, fast motorway because they have run out of fuel for a serious accident to occur. Then we will clamour in this House for a solution to be found to the problem. The solution should be found now before something like that happens. I recommend to the Leader that we have a debate on the role of the National Roads Authority and on roads policy generally.
Mr. U. Burke: Yesterday I raised the issue of the National Roads Authority and its policy of opposition to every application to develop service stations along national motorways. This policy was published in the authority’s annual report and confirmed on radio yesterday by the head of corporate affairs, Mr. Michael Egan. Today we have learned that the NRA has had discussions on the provision of six service stations on one route and is in negotiations with private interests for the provision of rest and service facilities.
There is something seriously wrong with a national agency that states one day that it will object to the development of service stations and later on the same day states that it is in negotiation with private enterprise on the provision of such stations. It is a clear example of the fact that the NRA makes up its policies as it goes along. That is one of the reasons there are such enormous overruns in many of the estimates for the provision of infrastructure. I support Senator Dardis in his request that the Minister of Transport comes into the House to outline his direction to the NRA in the provision of infrastructure and allied services.
Dr. Mansergh: As with previous speakers, and Senator Finucane in particular, I hope the European Council will reach a consensus on an approach to the ratification of the constitution for Europe and restore confidence in the way forward on that and other matters. There is no question of other member states, not just Ireland, France, Germany and others, agreeing to a renegotiation or dismantling of the Common Agricultural Policy.
It ought to be observed that when this question has arisen in the past, the strongest opponent of reform of the CAP was the British Government because it always represented the interests of the largest farmers, those who collect €2 million or €3 million in subsidies. When reform was discussed in the past, the emphasis was on maintaining the social fabric of the countryside and the viability of medium and small farms. To be frank, the British have no credibility on this subject.
Dr. Henry: Over a year ago a group of clinical microbiologists sent a short paper on MRSA, methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, infection to the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin. It contained a number of suggestions on how the infection could be tackled. Regrettably, Ireland has once again appeared at the top of the list in Europe for rates of MRSA infection, according to a report published earlier this week. The Irish rate is 2.5 times greater than that of the next country on the list, Portugal.
No action has been taken on the paper submitted by the microbiologists, although they did meet the former Minister approximately three weeks before he left office. I realise the current Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has a lot on her plate, but this is a serious issue. People are dying because of this infection. I urge the Leader of the House to invite the Minister to the House to explain why this issue is not being addressed.
Mr. Glynn: I support Members on both sides of the House in their call for a debate on matters pertaining to the NRA. Senator Ulick Burke’s use of the word “direction” is appropriate. Ministers should direct the NRA. There is a glaring need for rest and service facilities and, as Senator Dardis and others have pointed out, an accident is waiting to happen. It is only a matter of time. This is a problem that emanates from giving an entity too much power. Some degree of political power must be retained and while some will criticise when that is done, this is a clear example of how useful political power can be in certain circumstances.
Mr. Coonan: I support Senator Henry’s call for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to debate health issues and, in particular, MRSA. Several Members met with a group of cystic fibrosis sufferers in Buswells Hotel yesterday and we were appalled to hear that people with this condition are likely to die in Irish hospitals, particularly in Dublin, because of the presence of MRSA and their low levels of immunity. Last week I was contacted by a person from north Tipperary who was due to go to Dublin to undergo tests. However, that person was advised not to go because of the danger posed by MRSA. That is a serious situation, which is why I support the call for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House and outline her plans to deal with this problem. I urge the Leader to also ask if the Minister would consider providing automated external defibrillators to community groups and sporting organisations. Perhaps she could make grant funding available to organisations which wish to install such equipment. While I welcome the appointment of Professor Drumm to the HSE, who obviously got all that he wanted, he needs to tackle basic cleanliness and hygiene in our hospitals.
Mr. Quinn: Several days ago, I raised the question of contaminated water in a number of towns around the country. I have since learned that the situation is far worse than I originally believed. I made specific reference to Tyrellstown, in the Fingal County Council area, where a water problem arose last weekend which was not resolved until Monday. Last night, I was notified by the council that the water in Tyrrelstown is once again contaminated and cannot even be used for washing at present.
I ask if the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will come to the House to tell Members whether this problem is endemic throughout the country or one that has only recently arisen. Perhaps we always had this problem but now that we have become more vigilant we are more aware of it. This problem is causing great concern because people suspect we are not aware of a problem in other areas only because it has not been detected yet.
I wish to add to the very strong point made by Senator Henry about MRSA. I read in an article that hospitals in Great Britain have installed something like a bed washing machine, which is akin to a car wash, thereby allowing every bed to be washed before it is used by a new patient. By doing this, hospitals have reduced the incidence of MRSA by an enormous degree, I understand the figure was 75%. The incidence of MRSA is a solvable problem. It is simply a question of having the determination to reduce its incidence.
Mr. Bradford: I support the arguments made by various speakers regarding the farming industry and the various price support mechanisms from Brussels. Those of us who attended the various meetings yesterday with the agriculture organisations which called upon politicians noted the sense of despair that is now prevalent in Irish agriculture. It is over 12 months since I called for us to initiate a series of debates about the future of Irish farming. The problem was serious at that stage but it is now even more serious.
Statistics clearly show that unfortunately, young people are leaving farming. If we want to ensure there is a productive and viable Irish agriculture sector, we must ensure that young people see a future in it. There must be political leadership on this issue. It is not simply a question of trying to agree a set of financial packages at EU level. The Government and the political leadership must show a strong renewed interest in the future of Irish agriculture. We must demonstrate to young farmers that they can have a future and a future livelihood in farming. This House could play a valuable role and I ask the Leader to set up a series of discussions so we can initiate real debate on the future direction of Irish farming and the role of young people in agriculture.
Mr. J. Walsh: We had the debate on the Morris tribunal last night and in recent weeks we have had debates regarding the Supreme Court decision on nursing home charges and serious management failures within nursing homes. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General has also highlighted serious management deficiencies within the public service. I ask the Leader to consider having a debate in the House on enhancing management and competence within the public service and achieving value for money. It is time that a Ministry was put in charge of this issue. It is one of the serious failings within the public service, which appears to be accelerating, and I would like a debate on the matter in this House. Perhaps we might initiate a campaign in this regard.
Mr. Coghlan: I support the call made by Senator Finucane and others regarding our farming community. As has been stated by many speakers, including Senator Dardis, those of us who attended the meetings yesterday took up what was said at them. It is very important that we support the Taoiseach and that he manages to hold the line because we do not need to see our farmers suffer anymore. There is a great threat there. I also take on board Senator Mansergh’s argument about the lack of credibility in the UK on this issue.
I strongly support the remarks of Senator O’Toole because all we were doing and want to do is to follow the prime example given by the former Taoiseach and President, Éamon de Valera, when he introduced the provision that the country would be called Éire as Gaeilge and Ireland in English. All we are seeking is bilingualism. In view of this we will, as suggested by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, introduce the necessary amendment to the Official Languages Act. I hope there will be all-party agreement to it.
Mr. Lydon: I ask the Leader to consider having a debate on the EU budget. There is no rush because, as I understand it, the auditors have refused to sign off on the accounts for the last seven or eight years.
Mr. Lydon: While it is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the Leader might invite one of our own auditors to the House to explain this. It is a very serious matter. If any other organisation or company——
Mr. Feighan: I support paying farmers compensation with regard to the beef overshoot. The Minister for Agriculture and Food is doing her best in this regard and farmers have cross-party support in the House.
The Taoiseach met with the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dr. Ian Paisley, yesterday. A very inappropriate statement was made to the effect that the Taoiseach should keep his dirty hands away from the North. This House would not agree with these sentiments and wishes the Taoiseach well in his negotiations on the most serious issue that Ireland has faced over the years. The statement was inappropriate and should be counterbalanced by support for the Taoiseach.
Ms O’Rourke: The acting leader of the Opposition, Senator Finucane, referred to the short notice that the Fine Gael spokesperson received in respect of the motion on the Offences against the State Act 1998. The schedule for the week was issued Thursday two weeks ago and again on last Friday. It was indicated on both schedules that this motion would be debated today. The fact that the motion is now the first rather than the second item for debate should make no difference. It is ludicrous to suggest that the Fine Gael spokesperson would not have enough time to study the motion and I expect the spokesperson to make wise and interesting statements on the matter.
Senator Finucane also raised the issue of the NRA’s approach to service stations. The NRA has handled the issue in a brazen manner. Following the Order of Business yesterday I contacted the authority and left a message that we were very annoyed about what had happened, particularly with regard to the interview given by the NRA spokesman on RTE radio when he made it clear that there would be no service stations on motorways and that motorists would have to go into towns and villages for rest breaks. Now, the authority is saying there will be service stations on motorways and that it is negotiating to acquire sites. This is an amazing volte-face.
Senator Finucane also raised the issue of the European constitution and said there should be a reflective phase for other nations and that the constitution should be parked for a period. I agree with the Senator’s argument. Senator Finucane also called for a debate on agriculture. I agree that we should endeavour to get the Minister for Agriculture and Food to come to the House for a short period. There is strong pressure on time in terms of legislation but we should endeavour to get the Minister here for a short debate.
Senator O’Toole referred to the Constitution and how the country is called Éire as Gaeilge and Ireland in English, which is a fair argument. He spoke about how President de Valera introduced this provision in the 1937 Constitution. I was told about the debate here last night and I heard a good portion of it. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs suggested that the two estimable Members bring forward an amendment to the Official Languages Act.
Regarding the point made by Senator McCarthy, I was surprised to read that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs said we should all begin mortgaging our homes or part of them. I would advise everyone to hold on to their houses and not to remortgage them.
Ms O’Rourke: Keep a firm grip on one’s homestead and do not mortgage it to anybody as it will then be taken over. The Senator mentioned Sellafield. I believe many wrong and noxious things are happening at Sellafield but they are being overlooked because there is so much other business and turbulence at present. The Senator urged that the Taoiseach, when discussing the Northern Ireland peace process with Prime Minister Blair, raise the issue of Sellafield.
There is probably nobody in the land who does not know about the beef overshoot. I will endeavour to get the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, to come to the House to discuss it. Senator Dardis said Irish agriculture policy should be safe and he noted that the French Government has taken the same position as the Irish Government. He suggested a wide-ranging debate on the NRA and roads policy. He also congratulated Professor Drumm on taking up the position in the HSE. The Tánaiste was due a break and she got one in securing Professor Drumm for the job. We expect great things as a result.
Senator Ulick Burke raised the NRA matter yesterday, which led to us contacting the NRA. The Senator is correct that it is bizarre that the NRA should say one thing in its report and on the radio yesterday and completely change its mind the following day. Senator Mansergh expressed the hope that the European Council will restore confidence. We share that hope. He also said the Common Agricultural Policy will not be dismantled and that Britain had led the opposition to reform but has now changed. Of course, that is not the issue. This is a useful tool for Prime Minister Blair to get over the difficulty that he could not bring his country into the heart of Europe because the people would not vote with him on it. It has lengthened his tenure in No. 10 Downing Street. It was always understood that when it was put to the people he would disengage but now he can stay forever because he is seeking to retain the subsidy. He is imitating Margaret Thatcher, which is interesting.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Henry raised MRSA and the paper which was given to the previous Minister for Health and Children. I hope to get the Tánaiste to come to the Seanad before the recess if legislative matters permit.
Senator Glynn said that the NRA should be directed in its road policy rather than make policy, which it appears to be doing in a random manner. Senator Coonan referred to MRSA and said that people awaiting tests in Dublin were advised not to go because of the danger of contracting the condition. He asked that automatic defibrillators be distributed to communities. He also welcomed the appointment of Professor Drumm.
Senator Quinn pointed out that the water in Tyrellstown is again contaminated and wondered if contamination occurs more often now or if it is due to better detection of the problem. I do not know the answer but I will endeavour to get the Minister to come to the Seanad to discuss it. Senator Bradford said there is a sense of despair in Irish agriculture and that young people are flocking away from it. However, in times of high economic activity young people tend to leave farming to take up the jobs available. Nevertheless, I agree there should be a debate on agriculture and I will invite the Minister to the House for it.
Senator Jim Walsh referred to the Morris tribunal and the nursing home scandals and suggested a debate on enhancing management capabilities and on value for money. It is difficult to get a Minister to take up that matter because it is not the remit of any single Minister. The Senator suggests it should be. We look forward to seeing the amendment to the Official Languages Act from Senator Coghlan and Senator O’Toole. Senator Coghlan issued a great rallying cry, which will be useful when we have that debate. Senator Lydon sought a debate on the European Union. We are not allowed to mention other matters.
Senator Feighan raised the beef overshoot and spoke about the need for compensation. I welcome his nice remarks about the Taoiseach. I did not like to see the headline referring to the “dirty hands” remark by Dr. Paisley. I will convey the Senator’s good wishes and, in the interests of maintaining good relations, we will forget that Dr. Paisley made that nasty remark.
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