Wednesday, 12 October 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, a procedural motion to discharge the order which was originally made for tomorrow to allow Committee Stage of the Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Bill 2005 be taken today on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5 p.m.; No. 2, Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Bill 2005 — Committee Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5 p.m.; and No.17, motion No. 27, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m.
Mr. B. Hayes: Yesterday, a number of Members raised the issue of age discrimination in the House. I can give the Leader an example of how our legislation contains concrete and inexplicable age discrimination. Recently, I discovered that people over the age of 70 are ineligible to serve on a jury. This matter relates to the Juries Act 1976. It seems crazy that people over 70 are completely ineligible to serve on a jury. This legislation must be amended quickly. Such people are wise, probably have time on their hands and have acquired great judgment from their years of experience. Why are they disbarred from serving on a jury? It is acceptable for a person to go into a jury box and be challenged by either the prosecution or the defence. However, making someone ineligible on the basis of age appears to be quite a ridiculous notion. I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce a short amendment to the Juries Act 1976 enabling people over 70 years of age to serve on juries. It should be introduced in this House, as the matter has been raised here. If he will not introduce an amendment, I will. We must root out this kind of age discrimination which exists in our legislative code.
Mr. O’Toole: Before the summer recess, the House discussed the developments in Marino College at some length. I have become aware of some disquieting developments in the college over the past month. They entered the public domain today so I thought I should raise the issue. Put simply, the authorities in the Department of Education and Science entered discussions with the authorities in Marino College. They came to a certain level of agreement as to how business should be conducted in the college and how it should be run in the future. This was an accepted and agreed position and on that basis, a member of staff agreed to accept the position as interim college president. However, when it came to establishing that individual’s contract, all the demands and conditions which had been set down by the Department of Education and Science were reversed to such an extent that the person rejected the offer. Two senior members of staff have also resigned on the same basis.
I do not want to open the discussion here but rather wish to give Members a flavour of my concerns. It would be appropriate for the Minister for Education and Science to address the House and bring it, as much as possible, up to date. She now has information she did not previously possess. An investigation was held and many attempts have been made to get this working correctly but there are still difficulties. Public money and students’ careers are involved and we must know where we are going on the issue.
I asked whether we could debate another matter, namely, where Ireland stands on environmental issues, the Kyoto Agreement, etc. Much of the discussion focuses on the area of oil, the costs to our economy and what we are doing wrong. We must take a positive view in respect of this matter. I would welcome a debate with the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on his views concerning wind energy, solar energy, wave energy and geothermal heating. I particularly wish to know how these can be made attractive to ordinary householders. Grants were available to householders not too long ago, perhaps sometime during the past 25 years, for making certain improvements to their houses. We could meet many of our Kyoto targets were every house in Ireland to have a 1 kilowatt wind generator, be properly insulated and have some element of solar power. How can we make this attractive and give support? Taking a proactive approach to this issue rather than keeping the debate centred on the cost of oil would save us money in the long term.
Mr. Ryan: Perhaps the Minister for Health and Children or the Minister for Finance should clarify to the House elements of the high level group that will oversee the appointment of IT consultants. Is it intended to appoint consultants to vet other consultants or are we now claiming that the expertise to deal with these matters already exists in the public service? If that is the case, why did we employ consultants in the first instance, however badly employed they were? I am concerned that a mess may be compounded by a further mess of centralisation.
The myth the Department of Finance likes to promote is that it has expertise on every matter in order for it to micro-manage the way schools are built in Castletownbere and bridges are built elsewhere. It cannot have this expertise. All the Department will do is introduce another layer of decision-making, which will slow everything down. What Ireland needs, and what we must discuss, is obliging those who are paid well to manage our public services to do so. This means people taking decisions, assuming responsibility and being publicly accountable for those decisions. If we do not do so, the habit of saying that the Minister will decide will lead to disaster.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on Ireland’s rating in the World Economic Forum’s competitive countries list? If we allow IBEC to decide how to discuss competitiveness, we will be here for a week listening to its woes. We should discuss an international forum’s adjudication on the matter because it places eight small European countries ahead of us, which is cause for concern. With a sole exception, none of those eight has lower taxation levels than Ireland and they all have better environmental standards. The usual excuses about regulations or costs are not the issue. Rather, competitiveness is fundamental in this regard and I would welcome a debate.
Dr. Mansergh: I will move on. There are mornings when there is not much to be said for editorial writers. I am sick and tired of media organs that present themselves as champions of democracy against threats from republican subversion and so on——
Dr. Mansergh: ——taking every opportunity to denigrate the work of whole classes of elected representatives. The editorial writer in the Irish Independent has no clue about the workload undertaken by councillors.
Mr. Finucane: I welcome Senator Mansergh’s raising of the quality of life issue as it is nearly a year since the Tánaiste promised 20,000 extra medical cards. Despite her promise, there has been a reduction of 10,000 in the number of such cards.
Mr. Finucane: Yes. She promised 200,000 special doctor-only medical cards. Negotiations were delayed as a result of talks between the Department of Health and Children, the Health Service Executive and the Irish Medical Organisation. We thought recently that the matter had been resolved but the IMPACT trade union is now holding it up on behalf of its members. I cannot understand why, if the Department had difficulties with the IMO, it did not then anticipate that it would need extra staffing or foresee the necessity to hold parallel talks with the union.
Mr. Finucane: We now have the farcical situation of the matter being held up again despite the commitment to introduce the cards. Parents are currently neglecting their health. While they take care of their children and bring them to doctors, in many instances they cannot afford the same expenditure on themselves. Will somebody get off his or her backside and resolve this issue, once and for all?
Mr. Norris: I was relieved yesterday to hear on the radio that the Leader has no intention whatsoever of retiring from politics. I am sure the Chair and the rest of the House will welcome her announcement. Will she——
Mr. Norris: The Leader promised a debate on Iraq. It is a subject that is close to her heart and I ask her to name the day. We do not have much of significance to do this week. We could, therefore, have the debate, particularly in light of the fact that, while I noticed yesterday she indicated she would put a motion on the Adjournment about the manifests of certain aircraft passing through our airspace, she did not have the opportunity or time to set a date.
Mr. Norris: Certainly. I wish to refer to motion No. 19 of No. 17, in my name and those of the other Independent Members, on the Order Paper. It is appropriate that the Seanad, which had as one of its past Members the founder of the Abbey Theatre, the late W. B. Yeats, should request the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to give an account to the House of what is happening regarding the theatre’s restructuring and relocation. The Abbey Theatre is a national asset and it is not appropriate that businessmen, however distinguished, should regard it as they did in their previous attempt to filch it from its historic site on Abbey Street as a “cultural key in a commercial development”. It is a national asset and should not pass into the commercial arena without a debate in this House.
I support my colleague, Senator O’Toole, in his call for a debate on the Kyoto Agreement. We will not meet the targets set by the Kyoto protocol and even if we did, all the protocol does is slow down the rate of increase. It is rather sad that we are not doing this. Many people this morning may have heard the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, give a not particularly distinguished interview because he evaded every question by engaging in flummery. This is not the way to address the very serious problem of climate change, which we have noted with the Arctic ice cap melting. We are now supposed to be at what is termed a tip-over point where the world’s climate may never recover. I therefore strongly support Senator O’Toole’s call for a debate on the issue and on No. 17, motion No. 23, on the Order Paper.
Mr. U. Burke: Last week, I asked for a debate on the BMW region. We see this morning that as a result of the visit of a delegation to Brussels yesterday, the Government has repeatedly failed to draw down fundings that are available for various projects. A total of €50 million was returned because no suitable tourism and sports projects were put forward by the Government or the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, and €24 million was returned because universities failed to utilise available funding in the area of research and development, although they claim they are underfunded.
The Government and respective Ministers have neglected the area of infrastructure. The area of agriculture is already in total disarray and suffering from a continuing flight from the land, yet the Minister for Agriculture and Food has returned the funding with the result that expected funding of €4.5 billion for the next seven years has been reduced to €1 billion. This means that many projects, particularly in the BMW region, will not be forwarded and processed, which is a shame. The sooner the relevant Minister comes to the House to account for the miserable failure on his or her part to provide adequate funding in those areas, the better.
Mr. U. Burke: The results of the appeals against grades awarded in this year’s leaving certificate have been released today. The fact that 2,600 candidates received an upgrade six to eight weeks after the start of the academic year is leading to chaos. It means that people who would have been in particular faculties and following particular courses if the proper accreditation had been given to them originally cannot avail of them now. Eight of the 26 weeks in the academic year have already passed and it will cause confusion if people apply now for a change. A total of 30% of candidates in higher level geography, 27% of people in higher level biology and 21% of people in higher level English have received upgrades.
Mr. U. Burke: Procedures in this area are loose and it is the responsibility of the Minister for Education and Science to devise a plan whereby this delay will not recur. It is good that there is an appeals mechanism but it is unsatisfactory and I am asking that the Minister review it.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I support the call for a debate on Iraq. This House was very much to the fore in debating different situations throughout the world and Iraq was always top of the agenda. Like most major items, it only remains on the agenda for a certain period of time yet there is so much taking place there at the moment. There should be a monitoring debate every so often on Iraq.
I support Senator Mansergh’s view regarding the media reaction to public representatives. I was taken aback by the vitriolic attack on county councillors, who are easy prey at present. The manner in which they were referred to in this morning’s edition of the Irish Independent is not right. I would like to repeat a point made by councillors themselves. They are very much at the coalface are appointed in consequence of a democratic system. No group of people in the country should be criticised because they are looking for improved conditions. The same principle applies to people in the media. It is time that Members spoke on behalf of those who do not have a national forum to respond to such attacks.
Dr. Henry: Today is World Population Day and I take this opportunity to thank the Government for its continued support for the international agencies which are trying to reduce maternal and infant mortality. At the same time, this week is International Mental Health Week and we have little to congratulate ourselves for on this issue. I am sure Senators have seen reports in newspapers where it was stated that 14 beds in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, which were set aside for people with mental illness, particularly homeless people with mental illness, have now been cancelled due to lack of funds and space in the hospital. In addition, the job of a psychiatrist who was appointed to give psychiatric care to homeless people in north Dublin has been subsumed because he stated that he needed some backup staff, such as psychiatric social workers and psychiatric nurses. This is an extremely serious and I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House for a discussion on mental health and the homeless, particularly in Dublin.
Mr. Feighan: In an article in a leading Sunday newspaper, a very respected and influential journalist raised the notion that the IRA is able to smuggle large quantities of fuel into this country through ports in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Apparently, the IRA is involved in such an extensive smuggling operation that the original godfather himself, Don Corleone, would be very proud. The journalist also speculated that this mega-industry is able to operate with impunity because the Customs and Excise Service is either incredibly inefficient or has been infiltrated by the IRA. This is possibly one of the most serious allegations I have heard in the last number of years.
Given these remarkable allegations, there needs to be an immediate investigation into IRA smuggling at ports in the Republic of Ireland and the customs service in Northern Ireland. These damning allegations are destructive to the credibility and impartiality of the Customs and Excise in this country and I ask the Minister to carry out an immediate investigation to ensure that they are untrue.
Mr. Glynn: I ask the Leader to urgently provide for a debate on men’s health. Recent statistics indicate that young men are particularly vulnerable to suicide. Anyone will attest that statistics show that the incidence of prostate and colon cancer among men is rising at an alarming rate.
I support the points made by Senators Mansergh and Ó Murchú regarding the editorial in today’s edition of the Irish Independent. It is very interesting to note that two councillors retired at the last local elections with over 100 years service between them without a pension. This is wrong and must be changed, a position I know Members support.
Ms O’Meara: I am also disappointed by the editorial in today’s edition of the Irish Independent because it showed an extraordinary lack of appreciation for the work done by councillors and the value we should place, but clearly do not, on local democracy. The word has clearly not got through to the offices of the Irish Independentabout the work done by local councillors. We, as Senators elected by councillors, have a role in promoting awareness of their role and should examine it.
Could the Leader advise on the current status of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004? The Bill was passed in this House with a minimal increase in the amount of parental leave made available and no change in the status of parental leave — it is still unpaid. My inquiry is based on several remarks made by Ministers and Ministers of State in the media as late as yesterday evening that parental leave is on the Government’s agenda for tackling the child care crisis. It leads me to believe that there may be a change of heart on parental leave and that this Bill will come back to the Seanad in hopefully a much amended form.
I support the calls for a debate on mental health, particularly because of concerns regarding the effect of the reorganisation of the health service, through the Health Service Executive, on the need for improved delivery of services for people — particularly those in rural communities — suffering from mental illnesses. We have not yet had an indication as to what it will mean.
Mr. Hanafin: I request that the Minister for Finance come before the House prior to the budget to discuss changing the situation with regard to agricultural and industrial diesel. We have white and green diesel and an opportunity exists for criminal elements to change the colour and, therefore, the value of the fuel. Would it be more appropriate to introduce a rebate system whereby a farmer or a truck driver on vouched expenses would receive a rebate, rather than giving criminals a opportunity to earn a lucrative income from this source?
Mr. McHugh: Many nurses who complete their training in the United States find it extremely difficult to obtain nursing positions in Ireland. Many of these nurses are Irish, they are aware that a demand for nurses exists in Ireland and they find it quite frustrating and distressing that An Bord Altranais states that the degree course at Villanova University does not contain adequate clinical hours. I wish to cite one example of a nurse who qualified from Villanova University. She has 16 years experience of accident and emergency departments in the United States and has dealt with gunshot wounds, stab wounds and amputations. That nurse wishes to return to Ireland to work and she has been informed that she does not have enough clinical experience from Villanova University. I ask the Leader of the House through the Cathaoirleach to directly intervene in this matter. I will give her the details of this particular case. From the point of view of the individual in question, it is frustrating and distressing, when such a demand for nurses exists, that 16 years of valuable experience is not taken into consideration. We need nurses and Irish nurses want to return home.
Mr. Quinn: The World Health Organisation can rarely be accused of scaremongering. Yesterday it criticised the lack of international co-operation in preparing for the avian flu and the serious risk that it may become pandemic. This does not merely affect birds, it affects humans. The World Health Organisation has compared it to what happened in 1918 when a flu swept the world and killed millions of people. It believes that we are not co-operating well enough. I ask the Leader to draw the attention of the Minister for Health and Children to this matter to ensure that we are not open to such an accusation.
Mr. Bannon: As a former secretary of the Local Authority Members’ Association, I was extremely disappointed this morning to read the mean attack on local public representatives throughout the country.
Mr. Bannon: Our councillors are the foot soldiers of democracy and they are paid buttons. That is a fact. I join my colleagues in condemning the editorial and the other comments in the newspaper today that criticised local public representatives.
Mr. Bannon: I want the Leader to invite the Minister for Health and Children to come before this House to update us on the position regarding the processing of claims for refunds of nursing home charges. That is a long-playing record.
Mr. Bradford: I support Senator O’Toole on the question of a debate on energy. We must concede that much discussion has taken place on the cost of energy since the significant increase in oil prices during the summer. However, we have not had the quantity or quality of debate we urgently require on energy conservation and alternative energy sources. I would like the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come before the House to discuss the many steps that can be taken at Government level by way of providing grants for energy conservation and research and the development of alternative energy sources, such as biofuels, biodiesels, geothermal supplies and solar energy.
We must also address the question of energy conservation which was raised by Senator O’Toole. Grants were issued 20 or 30 years ago for house improvement programmes. We should have grants for insulation and conservation in houses, particularly in our older housing stock. This debate should not be about energy costs only. It should also encompass reducing consumption and providing alternative sources of supply. That debate is urgently required because we must face the fact that worldwide energy prices will remain high and we must put a domestic solution in place.
Mr. Coghlan: Senator Mansergh is quite perceptive with regard to how small a clue editorial writers possess in respect of certain subjects, and what was written this morning in the editorial of the Irish Independent with regard to councillors is one such glaring example.
We read this morning of appointments to the Garda Complaints Board. I understand that these will be on a full-time basis. Will the Leader comment on this or give the Government’s view, particularly with regard to the appointment of the Director of Consumer Affairs to the Garda Complaints Board?
Mr. Coghlan: I apologise and will rephrase the question. The Cathaoirleach’s guidance is always appreciated. What does this say with regard to the Government’s commitment to consumers? A vacancy exists at the top of the Competition Authority. Will the Director of Consumer Affairs position also be vacant?
With regard to the Housing (Stage Payments) Bill which was voted down in the House in May 2004, the relevant Minister accepted at that time that it was an anti-consumer measure which had a negative impact and consequence for consumers, particularly first-time buyers. He promised that the Government would introduce legislation within six months but there is no mention of it in the legislative programme. Will the Leader comment on this matter?
Ms O’Rourke: The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, raised the matter of age discrimination with regard to people who serve jury duty. Those over the age of 70 cannot serve on Irish juries. It seems to be a major anomaly in an era when ageism is being wiped out. I will contact the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and put the matter to him. It may be the case that jury duty might have been excluded from Bills on equality. I do not know and I cannot remember. I will inquire about it because the position should be rectified. As Senator Brian Hayes suggested, a simple amendment would be sufficient and if it came before this House I would support it.
Senator O’Toole raised the issue of Marino College and referred to it as a house of mystery, which is certainly the case. The Senator mentioned that the stipulations and conditions laid down by the Department of Education and Science have been reversed and, as a result, the person due to take over the position of interim president is extremely wary of doing so.
Senator O’Toole also requested debate on environmental issues and on how different types of energy can be made attractive. He mentioned that schemes used to exist to do that and requested that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources come before the House to discuss this matter.
Senator Ryan sought an explanation from the Minister for Finance of the new rules on IT consultants. They are very simple; the Minister for Finance will not give money in the budget for inordinate demands for consultants. He also sought a debate on the international forum on competitiveness.
Senator Mansergh explained that in a survey in The Economist Ireland was at the top of the quality of life category. He also raised one of the issues in today’s Irish Independent editorial, which referred in scathing terms to local councillors. As one would expect, that was correctly echoed all over the Chamber. I was a councillor in the days when one got nothing for going anywhere or doing anything but even now what is given to councillors is very modest. An appreciation of the role of local councillors is overdue. That was a disgraceful intervention.
Senator Finucane wants the provision of doctor-only medical cards to be expedited. The IMPACT matter appears to have come up late in the day. The difficulties with the medical practitioners have been overcome. The Senator just wants the cards to be issued and I agree with him.
I was most disappointed that Senator Norris said nothing of importance would be done in the House this week. We are dealing with an important Bill today about employees and their rights, to which there are 78 amendments. I consider that of major importance. The Bill was taken here first. Domestic violence, also an important issue, will be discussed tomorrow. The Taoiseach will come to the House tomorrow afternoon to discuss European affairs, another subject of immense importance. The debate on the undocumented Irish in the United States was also an important one. I consider this week’s work most compelling in its range and scope. I am most disappointed with Senator Norris because he has not got what he wants. One cannot get what one wants every day.
Senator Ulick Burke asked that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism come to the House. I expect he will be in the House this evening as Private Members’ business is on that matter. He also spoke at length about the appeals system for the leaving certificate and how losing marks can cost students places in universities and third level colleges. Time constraints come into play and alternative people have to be found to correct the papers. Most of those who marked the papers originally will have gone back to school. I do not know how the procedure can be compressed, concertina-like, into a shorter period. However, I agree the issue is worth reviewing.
Senator Ó Murchú called for a debate on Iraq. That is on the agenda. He agreed with Senator Mansergh on public representation. Senator Henry reminded us that this is mental health week. She sought a debate, especially on psychiatric care in the community. Senator Feighan referred to the IRA smuggling empire which, thankfully, appears to have been stymied. Senator Glynn spoke about men’s health and also raised the issue of today’s Irish Independent editorial.
Senator O’Meara also focused on that matter. I expect councillors’ telephones will be busy this morning with all of the Senators calling them to say they do not agree with what was said in the Irish Independent. Senator O’Meara asked what is the status of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill. It is on the agenda in the Dáil but has not yet been reached. She inquired if changes would be made to it. We put forward many changes to that Bill here which were not taken on board and perhaps they could be now, given the change in the approach to child care. Senator O’Meara also referred to mental health.
Senator Hanafin inquired if agricultural diesel could be operated on a rebate system rather than the way it is at present. I look forward to getting the details from Senator McHugh. Villanova is deemed not to give enough clinical hours to nurses who wish to come back here in spite of having years of experience. Senator Quinn asked if we are prepared for the avian flu. I hope so because the 1918 one was disastrous for the whole world. I will endeavour to establish from the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children if we are adequately prepared.
Ms O’Rourke: Many years ago now, I was the original secretary to LAMA. Senator Bannon wants the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come to the House. We are not one bit jaded on our side of the House, as he alleged we were. We are quite the opposite.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Bradford referred to the oil crisis. He is right. We must have a proper debate on what we can do, as oil prices will not go down. There is no doubt about that. They may go up or down a few cent but they will not go down to previous levels. I support Senator O’Toole’s call for a general debate on that matter and on conservation.
Senator Coghlan supported Senator Mansergh. He need not fret that the position of Director of Consumer Affairs will be left idle for long. I am sure it will soon be filled. It is an estimable position and the woman who currently holds it is an estimable woman from Athlone.
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