Thursday, 8 December 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is Nos. 1, 2 and 3. No. 1, statements on oncology services, is to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 2 p.m., with contributions from spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, the Minister being called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements; No. 2, Statute Law Revision (Pre-1922) Bill 2004 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude not later than 2.30 p.m.; and No. 3, the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2005 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.30 p.m.
Mr. B. Hayes: As my four year old said his prayers last night, Senator White’s name was mentioned in dispatches. Such is her status among four year old children. I had to remind my son about certain friends the Senator has down Mexico way.
Mr. B. Hayes: Does the Leader agree that the decision by the Government parties, in their ninth year in office, to introduce a five-year child care programme is belatedly welcome? Does she also agree that it is important to establish a system whereby the benefits we give young parents, who must pay considerable sums of money on child care on a weekly and monthly basis, are ring-fenced for the type of costs they face? My concern is that much of the increases announced in yesterday’s budget may well go towards meeting escalating child care costs.
Families with children aged over six years continue to face considerable costs. The notion that child care costs no longer arise for a family once a child goes to national school is nonsensical. I hope the budget will be a continuation of a debate on child care launched in this House because the advances made in this area yesterday are small in the context of the past nine years. The Government has finally woken up to the main issue on the agenda of many families.
Mr. B. Hayes: On another issue, as I understand it, the chief sponsor of an association in Ireland called the Centre for Public Inquiry, has decided not to fund the centre’s work in future. I welcome that decision. As I have said before in the House, it is a matter for the organs of this State, including both Houses of the Oireachtas, to determine what should be matters for public inquiry. I do not believe that any privately sponsored body established by a group of people has the right to determine what is right or wrong. Matters of public inquiry should be determined through the normal channels of investigation.
I make no comment about Mr. Connolly and his dispute with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is up to others to decide whether they have shown good judgment in being associated with this centre. It is a matter for this State to determine what should be matters for public investigation and how they should be investigated.
Mr. O’Toole: I must register my hurt with the House that in offering thanks and recognition all over the place, Senator Brian Hayes chose to ignore the fact that Senator Ross and myself tabled a Private Members’ motion on child care.
Mr. O’Toole: Will it be in order, a Chathaoirligh, for me to remove from the Order Paper No. 21, motion 19, in my name, the first part of which calls for the extension of maternity leave to 26 weeks? I will now rewrite the item, although I welcome the fact that it has been delivered. That matter was proposed by Senator O’Meara and myself on a number of occasions over the last year.
On a serious and related point, the Budget Statement on child care was important, but there are issues which are unclear. In fairness to all concerned, there has been a serious debate on child care in this House and we should continue that.
Mr. O’Toole: We should examine how child care will be developed and what will happen next. Yesterday, the Minister commented on the importance of registration with local child care committees, in as much as they could be in a position to give grants, information and support. That is important for parents who want to know what quality of child care they can expect if they choose that option. They will also want to know what regulatory inspections of child care facilities will occur. We could indicate our views and listen to the responses in such a debate immediately after Christmas.
Mr. Ryan: I have an unusual request to make and my credentials on the issue of homelessness are not so weak that I will be misunderstood. I do not think we should have a debate on homelessness before Christmas. The issue and its symptoms are far too extensive to be fitted into a debate lasting one hour or 90 minutes in a crowded sitting next week. I would prefer the House to have a serious debate in the new year about inequality in our society in all its manifestations, including homelessness, with time to do so properly. Notwithstanding people’s good intentions, the idea of a Christmas debate on homelessness smacks somewhat of tokenism. I would prefer if we did not have such an inappropriate debate before Christmas, although if we have one I will participate in it.
On an entirely unrelated yet serious matter, this morning’s newspapers report an increasing frequency of electricity supplies almost failing. I do not know if this is a consequence of economic growth, but I am concerned that it is a consequence of an ideology which in many cases has prevented the ESB from investing in new power plants because we were waiting to get the private sector involved.
I have no problem with private sector involvement in electricity generation. I do have a problem, however, with the fact that they keep on complaining they cannot make enough money out of it for it to be worth their while. The result is that electricity prices are being elevated partly to make it attractive to the private sector to come in and then claim that it is reducing electricity prices. That does not make much sense to me. We are in grave danger of power cuts, although we have not had a long and bitterly cold winter for quite a while. Such a situation could see us running out of electricity supplies. The failure to develop our electricity and other infrastructures is a fundamental issue for the country’s economic future. We should have a serious debate on electricity supplies soon.
Mr. Minihan: I endorse the comments of Senator Brian Hayes on the Centre for Public Inquiry. The news yesterday of the withdrawal of support from a body outside this State which was funding a body to investigate issues in this State, where no clear guidelines were ever laid down as to who would decide what matters of public concern would be investigated, was a serious matter. Over the last 12 months, I have spoken about this on a number of occasions in the House. The withdrawal of funding was long overdue. I hope that many people involved in this will now seriously consider their positions, having been associated with something that, to my mind, was sinister from day one. I endorse the comments of Senator Brian Hayes in that regard. It has been a good day for democracy.
Mr. Finucane: I support the call by Senator Ryan for a debate on the energy sector with particular regard to electricity. The increase in electricity charges over the years concerns all of us. Liberalisation of the energy market has not benefited domestic consumers. The public service obligation element still appears in electricity legislation. The Minister would say that is to sustain a peat-fired station in the midlands, as well as wind energy projects. With the Government taking a €70 million dividend last year, it is about time we gave something back to the consumer. It would be a step in the right direction to remove the obligation on electricity consumers to pay increased prices. Today, a report by Deloitte & Touche will be produced for the Minister and I hope that document will be circulated. I have deep suspicions, however, that it may not be circulated because the report’s contents may not make for favourable reading in the lead-up to an election in late 2006 or early 2007. If taxpayers have paid for that consultants’ report, it should be published.
I am concerned by the fact that a Minister of State tried to influence an opinion poll on decentralisation run by a midlands radio station. The question asked was, “Are you in favour of decentralisation for the midlands?” God help us if a Minister of State has to influence listeners of a midlands radio station to vote “Yes”. I do not know what we are coming to because the answer was obvious in all circumstances from radio listeners in the midlands. It is pathetic that a Minister of State had to resort to that. The same Minister of State is currently blaming the media for allegations about another Minister of State. He should cop himself on.
Mr. Hanafin: I request that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, be invited to the House so that we can commend him on the budget. All budgets belong to the people, but this budget in particular is truly a people’s budget.
Mr. Norris: I disagree with my distinguished colleague, Senator Brian Hayes, on the notion that no one should set up an inquiry except the Government. It is quite possible for people to establish an inquiry, and for the public to decide.
I am somewhat concerned at moves on the part of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, in the other House, since someone has been named. I understood that the tradition of Parliament was that one did not name those who do not have an opportunity to defend themselves in this forum. I found replies on the radio by the person in question evasive and unsatisfactory. However, it was also suggested on several radio stations that the Minister had contacted what were effectively his employers, Atlantic Philanthropies, and made material from Garda sources available to them. That worries me, since, despite my deep suspicions regarding the Colombia three and all the ramifications, I am also concerned that proper procedures be followed on the basis that people are innocent until proven guilty.
Perhaps I might return to the question of Iraq. I hope that next week we will continue with the work in which the Leader has engaged, which is very important and serious. Unfortunately, it has been made clear by Lord Steyn, a former law lord who has just retired from that very senior position in Britain, that because members of the Government may well have been aware of what was going on in Britain, they could themselves be liable for prosecution in the International Criminal Court for war crimes. That worries me, since in this country there seems to be a deliberate policy of obfuscation. The report that we received yesterday from the British foreign affairs committee investigating the matter directly accuses the British Government of obfuscation and of ignoring what it categorically describes as a serious international crime committed by the US authorities.
Yesterday, however, the Taoiseach said that he must accept Condoleezza Rice’s statement. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, said in Washington that he totally accepted it. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, incorrectly stated that Ireland had no power to board those aeroplanes. It is time that we ended this three monkeys attitude whereby one hears, sees and speaks no evil. It was said openly in this House on several occasions that the people in question, including President Bush, had lied. I find it astonishing that for a minor, consensual sexual indiscretion Mr. Clinton was impeached. Now we have a man embarking on the Third World War, and yet they are not impeaching Mr. Bush in the United States.
Dr. Mansergh: On the morrow of a successful budget, I would very much welcome a debate on equality issues. It would have been nice had there been recognition of what the budget did to promote equality through tax concessions benefiting those on the minimum wage and the average industrial wage, together with the record social welfare package and the closure of tax breaks for the——
Ms O’Meara: Last week, the Leader may recall, I requested a post-budget debate on child care provision. I once again ask that we have that. Regarding yesterday’s package — it is certainly not a strategy — a small amount has been done, leaving a great deal more to do.
Ms O’Meara: For instance, where is pre-school education? There is no sign of it in this package, and no sign of flexible working. I am sure that Senator White would agree with me that flexible working is an issue of great importance to many parents attempting to balance work against their obligations. One cannot have a strategy without those elements.
Ms O’Meara: I add my support to those seeking the establishment of a committee to examine the use of Shannon Airport in the US war effort. This is an important issue for our democracy. Those campaigning should continue.
Dr. M. Hayes: I do not want to pre-empt the debate on the Finance Bill, but as a grandparent I am grateful to Senator Brian Hayes for his suggestions regarding changes to the order of service in the nighttime prayers of my grandchildren. I will ensure that Senator White’s name enters the pantheon.
Dr. M. Hayes: More broadly, following Senator Brian Hayes’s other remarks, I will not enter the controversy surrounding the Centre for Public Inquiry, but like Senator Norris, I would be concerned if the House drew the conclusion that no one except the Government should set up bodies to inquire into public affairs. For a democracy, that is absolutely Stalinist.
The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 is now effective in Northern Ireland, and perhaps the Leader might inform us of the status of Senator Norris’s Bill on a similar subject in this jurisdiction. Finally, regarding Northern Ireland at this time of year, could we ask the appropriate Minister whether steps might be taken to ensure that penalty points for driving be recognised on both sides of the Border? People in both jurisdictions are escaping punishment, and I know that both the Garda and the PSNI are concerned. We should move in that direction.
Mr. Bannon: I ask that the Leader invite the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, to the House to outline his plans to amend the Freedom of Information Act 1997. Although it was promised some time ago, nothing has happened. That would allow Members and the general public to access information at a reasonable cost. For example, I cannot get records on prefabricated buildings in my own county, Longford, or in Westmeath, unless I pay a fee of approximately €300. I know that others in my constituency have had to pay approximately €1,000 to access information. I have been given a departmental quote of €20.95 per hour, giving a total cost of €293.30. To get it photocopied, I have been given a quote of €2.32, raising the total cost to €300 to get simple information that should be in the public domain. It is scandalous and disgraceful. It muzzles society, and allowing it to continue constitutes Government dictatorship. We must be more open and transparent in matters concerning the State.
On another matter, it is important that we invite the Minister for Transport to the House for a debate on toll charges. When the House returns after the Christmas recess, Members and the public will be burdened with extra toll charges on the new M4. A toll bridge has been constructed at Kinnegad and several other proposals are in the pipeline. It is important the House debates that issue because these charges will create an extra burden on hauliers and other people who were ignored in yesterday’s budget. I was nominated to represent the Irish Road Haulage Association whose members have a major grievance in that they believe yesterday’s budget was an insult to that industry.
Mr. Glynn: On a previous occasion I raised a matter in the House regarding activities on our rivers and waterways. In the case of rivers and canals in particular, it involves two people putting a net across the river and removing everything from it. I raised this issue previously and am aware it has exercised the minds of a number of people, not least Senator Dardis who is a keen fisherman. I would like something done about it because nothing is put back into the river. Everything caught in the net is taken out of it. It is an outrageous practice.
I asked the Leader in 2004 and 2005, and I am sure I will be asking her in 2006, for a debate on men’s health and, in particular, type 2 diabetes. We will debate oncology services after the Order of Business but that issue affects men, women and children. There will be a presentation on diabetes next week in the audiovisual room by the diabetic federation and in the new year——
Mr. Glynn: There is very little talk about it. I raised the issue with the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children because it is important. The national director of Population Health, Dr. Doorley, has agreed——
Mr. Quinn: We are inclined to take things for granted and it was only when Senator Ryan and Senator Finucane called for a debate on the energy and electricity problems — I support that call — that I remembered it is not that long ago since the entire New York area experienced a blackout for a few days. Around the same time the lights in northern Italy went out for almost a week. We have come to assume we will always have electricity but last year there were 25 amber alerts. This year, there have been 50, twice the number last year. There was one red alert this year which means that the amount of electricity available was reaching a precarious level. At 5.30 p.m. on 30 November, just a few weeks ago, there was a surge in power demand. There are concerns that there may not be enough electricity in January to cover not just domestic use but that of industry also. It is important that we have a debate on that issue and invite either the Minister or perhaps the energy regulator to the House.
Senator Finucane referred to the public service obligation. There was an item on the news about a disabled woman in Limerick who had telephoned 999 but had difficulty getting a reply. She then telephoned 112 on her mobile phone and got a reply immediately. I had no idea one can telephone two emergency numbers. I mention that because if the public service obligation of the telephone companies is to respond to urgent calls such as an emergency like that, perhaps there should only be one number to telephone and we should be assured that it will be answered.
Ms White: I support Senator Glynn’s call for a debate in the new year on men’s health. We have had debates on breast and cervical cancer but it would be a positive move to have a debate on men’s health since 87% of the Members of the Dáil and 83% of the Members of the Seanad are men. We should discuss their health problems.
Ms White: I would like to know the status of the Civil Partnership Bill that Senator Norris will introduce. A very humane Bill was introduced in the United Kingdom in early December, although it has to be developed further. A debate on that issue in the House would be appropriate.
Mr. McCarthy: I support the call by Senator Glynn for a debate on men’s health, which is an important issue but one that does not get recognition in terms of debates in this House. I appeal to the Leader to organise such a debate in the new year and I commend Senator Glynn for pushing that agenda.
Given the Taoiseach’s comments on public relations this week, will the Leader indicate if it will continue to be Government policy to spend money — I believe it is €7 million per annum — on public relations matters? The Taoiseach has said it is a waste of money. Is it Government policy to stop spending money on public relations?
Mr. Browne: On the points raised by Members about the ESB, last year the amount of electricity produced in Ardnacrusha is the amount needed now to sustain the demand caused by the Christmas lights throughout the country. There is pressure on the national grid.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the sugar beet industry in light of the changes in biofuels made in the budget yesterday. The farming organisations are bitterly split on the future of the industry. Some want compensation while others want to continue growing sugar beet. The changes on biofuels announced in yesterday’s budget will give optimism to some people to continue growing beet, which I hope might happen. I call for a debate, if not next week perhaps the first week after the Christmas recess, on the future of sugar beet and biofuels.
Mr. Moylan: I support Senator Glynn’s call for a debate on men’s health. Senator Maurice Hayes made an important point about penalty points, North and South. The gardaí say that if they stop someone and they are given the name of a friend from Northern Ireland, that is the end of the matter and no fine is imposed. The Government is losing out in that regard even though people are breaking the law by speeding.
Mr. Moylan: It was important because it concerned decentralisation, particularly to the midlands. The radio station did not get the result it wished for but it did not check to determine who supported the result.
Mr. U. Burke: I support Senators Finucane, Ryan and Quinn in their calls for a debate on the ESB. The European Commission has issued a demand for the ESB to return up to €10 million paid in support by the Government to install additional capacity at Moneypoint. If this happens, the ESB will inevitably pass on the charge to customers. An additional charge combined with those imposed this year and in future will be of serious concern for customers.
If this is the beginning of requiring the repayment of grants Government has given to developing industries and industrialists in this country, it is time the Commission was asked to readdress its demands. If not for the support of Government resources given through the IDA, many current jobs would not have been created.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: Over the years I have found that this House plays a significant role in debating public issues and bringing balance to bear on many of them. I have had an uneasy feeling for some time that there is a perception abroad about the negation of due process. The House should debate this issue. Whether it is a Minister, a private citizen or whoever, everyone is entitled to due process.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: A bandwagon will eventually begin moving and we will not be able to stop it. Our justice system is one of the finest in the world. We must defend and protect it. Ordinary citizens and objective observers must know we do not conduct trials by media, public perception or whatever else the case may be. I will not refer to a specific case as there are currently a number. I strongly appeal to the Leader to find time in the new year to arrange a general debate on this matter.
Ms O’Rourke: I listened to Senator Ó Murchú and tried to read between the lines. Dancing on graves is never a pretty sight but we have seen much of it in the past 24 to 48 hours. It is heinous no matter whose grave one is dancing on.
Is it not nice that Senator Brian Hayes’s little child prayed for Senator White? He spoke about how we have been at this point in child care for nine years. We have a five-year plan that will unfold as the years go on and it has been given a robust financial start. I applaud this wonderful plan. More announcements will be made and the plan will progress. I congratulate the Government and whoever played a part in this matter. Under the Cathaoirleach’s tutelage, this House has played a significant role in debates on child care irrespective of who spoke or who put them on the agenda.
Senator Brian Hayes also mentioned the Centre for Public Inquiry. I know of what Senator Maurice Hayes and others referred to. I share their unease about people establishing themselves in a civic manner to pass comments and judgments on people or events when there are public mechanisms in place for dealing with such issues.
Senator O’Toole raised the issue of good changes to maternity leave, which will be added to next year. Between this and paid and unpaid parental leave of almost 12 months, a mother or father who wishes to stay at home can do so. Flexible working is profoundly important and we look forward to the forthcoming Private Members’ Bill. Last week, Senators O’Meara and O’Toole said we should move on this issue, tease out the small print and decide on proposals to continue the initiative. Once we have started on it we cannot leave it.
I agree with Senator Ryan that holding a debate on homelessness would be schmaltzy leading up to Christmas, the tradition of which is based on a mother being unable to find a home in which to have her child. The Senator would like a debate on inequalities in society and I hope to arrange it. Concerning worries about ESB supply outages were the winter to become colder, the stated examples occurred during a brief cold snap of nine or ten days. If we experienced a very bad winter before or after Christmas, the situation would be serious. Therefore, I will seek to arrange a debate on power supplies early in the new year.
I agree with Senator Minihan regarding the Centre for Public Inquiry. Senator Maurice Hayes’s contribution was truthful but one establishes institutions in a democratic sense and hopes to abide by how they conduct their business. Senator Finucane asked for a debate on the supposed liberalisation of energy production and the PSO. If not for the PSO and peat stations, we would have been in a very bad way during those outages. I do not agree that we should do away with the PSO.
Ms O’Rourke: I agree with Senator Hanafin, who the House remains in admiration of, that it is a people’s budget. Senator Norris also mentioned the Centre for Public Inquiry, his ideas on which are similar to those of Senator Maurice Hayes. He mentioned his wishes in respect of Iraq and we hope to have that matter resolved to everyone’s satisfaction by next Tuesday. I thank the Senator for his letter, which was given to me by the Clerk Assistant of the Seanad.
Senator Mansergh highlighted the recognition of social equity and said child benefit has quadrupled since 1997. Senator O’Meara asked for a debate on child care and pre-school education, which I hope will be forthcoming. She also spoke about flexible work patterns. If the Private Members’ Bill is passed, this will be included. The Senator referred to Shannon Airport. CIA manoeuvring was also mentioned.
Senator Maurice Hayes spoke of an idea concerning the Centre for Public Inquiry similar to that of Senator Norris. He also asked about what is happening in respect of the Civil Partnership Bill 2004, a similar version of which is operating in Northern Ireland. I am informed by Senator Norris that he has tweaked, changed and inserted more measures in his Bill. I note in newspaper reports that the constitutional review committee will shortly produce its report on what it will put forward in that respect and I hope there will be a congruence of the ideas of the Senator and the committee.
Senator Maurice Hayes raised the need to align the penalty points systems of the North and South. Senator Bannon outlined how much it costs him to avail of freedom of information provisions concerning prefabricated buildings in counties Longford and Westmeath. He also spoke about toll charges, which we will all experience. Senator Glynn referred to people taking stock from rivers and canals and leaving nothing in them. He also asked for a debate on men’s health. When we went to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children and her officials, they suggested that under the statements on oncology services one can talk about either men or women. All are subject to the supply of chemotherapy and radium services.
Senator Quinn called for a debate on electricity services. We were all surprised when New York and parts of Canada were completely blacked out. We have become accustomed to turning on a switch and the light or cooker coming on. Senator Quinn is correct to raise the matter.
Senator Quinn spoke of the use of the emergency number 999 versus 112. I received a call from a woman who told me she dialled 999 and could not get a reply. The authorities told me that 999 was still operative, that it is the signal for distress and is being used as such. I was surprised to hear what Senator Quinn had to say. The position must be clarified because I am sure there are many who say to themselves that at least they can dial 999 if something happens.
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