Friday, 16 December 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive. No. 1 is the Development Banks Bill 2005 — all Stages to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons to last ten minutes and the contributions of other Senators to last six minutes, and with the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage. No. 2, the Appropriation Bill 2005 — all Stages to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 or at 1.30 p.m., if No. 1 has not concluded earlier, and to conclude not later than 1.45 p.m. The precedent was set some years ago that the Appropriation Bill is passed but the debate on it is postponed until our return. No. 3 is an earlier signature motion re the Appropriation Bill 2005, to be taken immediately without debate on the conclusion of No. 2. No. 4, the Social Welfare Bill 2005 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3 or at 1.45 p.m. if No. 3 has not concluded earlier and to conclude not later than 3.45 p.m. No. 5 is an earlier signature motion re the Social Welfare Bill 2005, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 4.
Mr. B. Hayes: We agree with today’s Order of Business. Some weeks ago, I asked for a debate to be held as soon as possible on the issue of legislation for on-the-runs and the proposals that the Government wants to put forward. The Leader, through her good office, might organise a debate early in the new session on this issue. The British Government today announced it would substantially amend the legislation to ensure that those who were previously able to abscond will now have to come before a court. That is some progress. It is similar to the Fine Gael leader Deputy Kenny’s suggestion to our Government that instead of granting presidential pardons here we ensure that people come before the courts, admit their guilt and then be released after a period of time as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. We need a debate on this early in the new session.
The ESRI report, covered in a number of newspapers today, contained Armageddon-like predictions. While the ESRI is correct in pointing out our over-reliance on the construction industry and multinational investment and the problems in the US economy, gimmick-like suggestions such as the reintroduction of property tax or changing tax relief on mortgage interest are not good ideas. The economy has threats, particularly its reliance for employment on multinational investment, but the report’s suggestions are of no benefit.
Yesterday in the House much comment was made on the need for additional investment in third-level institutions, particularly in research and development. We will have a particular problem. Tony Blair’s proposals on top-up fees will affect not just England and Wales but Northern Ireland. This means Northern Ireland universities will have additional revenue for research and development that we will not have. The Government has produced additional funding for the third-level sector this year and I welcome that but it will have to be a rolling programme to ensure more money exists for research and development. Otherwise Northern universities will have an advantage over those in the Republic. The Government needs to address that issue.
Mr. O’Toole: The issue of housing stock must be addressed. Some weeks ago I asked the Leader about this after the OECD issued another frightening report that our housing stock is overvalued by between 15% and 20%. My concern is that since 1998 at least 500,000 houses have been built with cavity blocks to a lower level of insulation than will be required by the European directive of 6 January 2006. When these houses come on the market in the future, young couples who have struggled to put the pennies together, with the help of their parents and extended families, to buy houses will lose out by paying that 15% or 20%. I do not know why that is happening. I have raised the issue before. Too many people are saying our housing stock is overvalued and somebody will be right at some stage.
Last week we saw another example of the Department of Education and Science hounding a family that sought the best for its autistic child, sought help from the Department, said the child was not being looked after properly, lost its case in the High Court and, with few resources, took on the State again and finally won in the Supreme Court. Why? Does somebody think parents already trying to deal with autism would go to the Supreme Court, risking everything they own, if they did not feel they had a real case? This is no way to handle it. I am sick and tired of the State pursuing individuals on these issues. I would like a discussion on that.
It is the same attitude, but on a different level, that sees the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin demanding money back from the teachers who last week stood with the rest of the country on a point of principle about Ireland moving in the wrong direction on the day of action for Irish Ferries. She will never get that money but that she says she will reflects a particular attitude.
The House is aware that I opposed the Burren Action Group. I was in favour of the interpretative centre being built in the Burren and I spoke many times on it and lost many votes as a result because the people who vote for me tend to be soft on those kinds of issues. The Burren Action Group brought the Government to the Supreme Court, won an important case and established important points. I did not like or support those points but it is wrong that the group be pursued for the money for taking that case. It did us a service even if we did not like it.
Would the Leader consider having a debate in the new year on Gaelige? I suggest we consult the Commissioner of Languages, Mr. Seán Ó Cuirreáin, a progressive-minded person. He is reported today as having approached the Údarás. He will argue his case but he is open and practical and we could do worse than have a debate on the future of the Irish language, how it is used in the House, how it could be used more in the community and the impact of the Official Languages Bill.
Mr. Leyden: Although this matter was raised on last week’s Order of Business, I feel I should again raise the case of Marie Therese O’Loughlin who has been outside Leinster House for the past few months. I spoke to her this morning and spoke to representatives of the redress board and her solicitor. Her case will be considered by the redress board under Goldenbridge orphanage but she wishes to be considered under the Morning Star Home for mothers and children. Under the circumstances and in this season they should relent and allow that. She told me she will be here next Christmas if something does not happen. It is hard to see her there before Christmas. She is a bright, intelligent person and has very strong views. The redress board should bring her case forward and possibly consider the issue of the Morning Star Home too. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to say that.
I ask the Leader to consider early in the new year a further debate on health issues. I compliment the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on establishing the consultative fora. All councillors throughout the country will be delighted. It is in accordance with my newsletter and, contrary to the comments by the Fine Gael group everything in it is accurate——
Mr. Leyden: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue and for all his courtesy and help throughout the year and I wish everybody a happy Christmas. We should have an opportunity to discuss health issues on a regular basis. The councillors will have the forum, we have the Joint Committee on Health and Children but the Seanad should have an opportunity to discuss health issues. I ask the Leader if we could have sometimes have a question and answer session with the Minister in the House.
Mr. Bradford: On a weekly, if not daily, basis we speak on Iraq so we should recognise the success of yesterday’s election in Iraq. Looking from afar this House and other European parliamentarians feel they know what is best for the people of Iraq but they want to chart their own way forward. That against almost insurmountable odds, almost 70% of Iraqis voted in an election is an amazing achievement. Hopefully it is the beginning of good days for Iraqis and will herald a new and positive beginning. Along with that development we must welcome the changed policy position of President George W. Bush on torture and the detaining of prisoners. The work of Senator John McCain is bearing fruit and if this is to be the new American position on prisoners and torture it is welcome.
I support Senator Leyden’s comments on the redress board. I raised this a number of weeks ago when Senator Dardis took the Order of Business. I pointed out that in correspondence I received from the Minister for Education and Science, it was stated that the difficulty stems from the fact the redress legislation does not provide for assistance for those people who were taken to Magdalene laundries and such places when they were over 16. If we must accept that yesterday’s redress board deliberations have now shut down access for all new applicants, we must ask the Minister to put legislation in place to establish a board to assist the hundreds of people who are not included in the current scheme. The majority of these people were in Magdalene laundries and they are not provided for under the redress board legislation. In this Christmas season we should reach out to these people; if the redress board is now closed to new applicants we should consider a new scheme.
Dr. Mansergh: Taking a 20 year perspective, I would like in general terms to praise the ESRI for its medium-term reviews and reports and we should debate them when we come back. For a number of years, it has predicted a housing price crash. The price of prosperity is eternal vigilance and there are always various threats on the horizon. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that a property tax might precipitate the very thing it is warning against. It would be totally unfair to those entering the market for the first time to pull the rug from under them by removing mortgage interest relief.
Picking up on what the Leader said in her opening contribution, and seconding the tributes that have been paid to all who service the House, including “Oireachtas Report”, I noticed that it signed off last night until the Dáil comes back into plenary session. The name of the programme is “Oireachtas Report”, not “Dáil Report”. A shortened version should cover not just the Seanad but also committees that are in session to underline the point that the Oireachtas is working even when the Dáil is not in plenary session.
Ms Terry: Will the Leader arrange a debate during the next session on women’s rights and sexual reproductive health? We have not had such a debate since I came into the Seanad and it would be timely to have it now. I was in Peru and Brazil recently with the Inter-European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development to look at the subject and the trip opened my eyes in many ways. There are many issues in Ireland that should be addressed, particularly in light of the opinion of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on giving consideration to a reduction of the age of consent for females from 17 to 15 and the risk of the spread of AIDS and STIs among the young.
Mr. Mooney: I echo Senator Bradford’s comments on the extraordinary electoral performance in Iraq yesterday. Over 80% of the valid poll turned out, particularly in Tikrit, which was the home of Saddam Hussein, the heart of the insurgency and from where the suicide bombers who have been killing innocent Iraqis emerge. One could not help but be moved by the filmed reports, especially on CBS television last night, where the reaction of other Middle Eastern countries was covered. Egyptian television interviewed an Iraqi woman who was crying when she came out of the polling booth. The interviewer asked why she was crying and she said they were tears of joy. That sends a powerful message not just to Iraq but those who have purported to speak for it. Another voter, as he placed his vote in the ballot box, said it was a vote against terrorism.
This also sends a powerful message to the coalition of the willing who remain in occupation in Iraq. It hastens the day when the people of Iraq will be able to take on board the right to rule themselves. Over 70% of the security forces who were there yesterday for what was thankfully a peaceful day were Iraqi, not American or other occupying troops. That should be welcomed. I hope the Leader will convey the sentiments of this House to the Minister for Foreign Affairs so that he in turn would congratulate the Iraqi representatives on an outstanding democratic performance in an area that has not traditionally been known for it.
In the new year, would the Leader consider asking the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to introduce the proposed broadcasting Bill in this House as a Seanad Bill, primarily because it would afford an opportunity for this House, as it always does so well, to debate this far reaching legislation? I am specifically concerned that RTE’s public service mandate would be more clearly defined, not only in light of what Senator Mansergh said and what the Leader referred to last night. It was a shocking fall in standards from the “Oireachtas Report” team that they did not even feel it necessary to refer to the fact that this House is sitting today or that we have business.
If the Bill goes through, it will allow RTE to be given an enhanced public service mandate to broadcast to emigrants and to the Irish abroad. Under existing legislation it does not have a legal obligation to do that, its only legal obligation is to transmit within the 26 counties, and this would have a far-reaching and positive impact. The lack of RTE television programmes for our own people abroad is the main issue among emigrant welfare groups in Britain.
I take this opportunity to wish those who have families abroad who will not be coming home this year a happy Christmas. In the context of immigration into this country, we now have a reversal of what I and many others experienced of not being able to go home for Christmas. There are many hundreds of thousands of people in this country who will not be able to go back to their native countries and we wish them a very happy time in Ireland, their adopted country.
Mr. Daly: I ask the Leader for a discussion on the ESRI report at the earliest possible opportunity. I have not read the report so it is not fair to comment on it but I heard a representative of the group on “Morning Ireland”. He let his imagination run away with him. He was looking at an imaginary situation that might develop in six or seven years. The construction industry needs our good wishes and support, it does not need not to be undermined. The attitude displayed today undermines the foundations of the building industry. I am sure he does not fully reflect the views of the ESRI but we should discuss it here. Maybe he was partying last night.
Mr. J. Phelan: Substantial numbers of farmers in my area and throughout the country have not received their payment. This is particularly difficult at this time of year. A commitment was given that a certain percentage of the farming population would have received their payment. I know from personal experience that trying to contact the Department in Portlaoise is difficult. While there may be issues in regard to the applications of those for whom payment is outstanding, many of these are insignificant.
I am aware of a farmer in my area who travelled to Portlaoise last week and sorted out the outstanding difficulties. He was in a position to do so because he lives in Kilkenny but this is not an option for many others. Will the Leader try to put as much pressure as she can on the Department of Agriculture and Food to ensure these payments are expedited? We are facing into Christmas and for many farming families, the single farm payment is of crucial significance in terms of the survival of their farming enterprises.
Mr. Scanlon: I agree with the previous speaker in regard to the single payment. The Minister gave a commitment that the cheques would go out on 1 December. Some 80% of farmers have received their cheques since that date and I understand a run of payments will be processed today. In Sligo, some 92% of farmers have received their cheques to date. I spent 35 minutes yesterday trying to get through to the Department in Portlaoise. When I eventually succeeded, I do not know what happened. Perhaps somebody lifted the telephone and then put it down again. People are frustrated at the difficulty in getting through and the fact that when they succeed, they cannot get to talk to anybody.
A helpline should be set up to deal with these queries. A failure to receive payment at this stage means there is a problem with one’s application. Some of those problems are minor and can be sorted out with a telephone call. The departmental officials might consider a helpline to facilitate those with queries. This would help those 10% to 14% of farmers who have not yet been paid.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes asked for a debate on “on the runs”. We made preliminary inquiries to his office about the possibility of the Taoiseach coming to the House this week. As we know, however, EU issues have intervened and all European leaders are engaged with those. I will seek to have such a debate after Christmas. Senator Hayes also referred to the ESRI report on the construction industry. Bodies such as the ESRI do excellent work but tend, from time to time, to shoot from the top of their mouths. Senators will recall the National Competitive Council had some zany notion that property tax should be reinstated. Such bodies want to add something startling to their reports and give them some edge.
Senator Hayes also referred to the situation in the North where top-up fees mean there is more money available to third level institutions for research and development, which may leave us at a disadvantage. This is a valid point and we discussed the two-year add-on to the three-year degree yesterday. I understand the Senator was not arguing for the return of third level fees. None of us wants that. However, the existence of such fees in the North gives the colleges there an advantage relative to those in the South.
Senator O’Toole added to the debate on the OECD report and referred to overvalued housing stock. I assure the Deputy we will have a debate on housing. He expressed concern about the lower insulation levels of new houses and how young couples are being short-changed. He also referred to the case of an autistic child and the lengths to which the parents had to go to get what they considered adequate educational services for their child. I am aware from my days in education that there is a reliance in Departments on pursuing matters through the courts until the bitter end at which point there is regret that this course was taken. Senator O’Toole also spoke about the Burren Action Group and called for a debate on the Irish language.
Senator Leyden referred to Ms Marie Therese O’Loughlin at the gates of Leinster House. It is awful that she will be there for Christmas Day. The rest of us will be warm and cosy but she has told me she will spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and night there. I hope she will get an assurance in writing that her case will come under the aegis of some other of the institutions. Senator Leyden also observed that the consultative fora have been set up as he presaged in his newsletter and calls for further health debates in the House. I am indebted to Senator Brennan for showing me an extract from the Tánaiste’s press statement. It states that the Health Service Executive is obliged by regulations to “deal expeditiously with Members correspondence” and lists the documentation and information the executive must provide to them at their request. It will be great if that happens.
I agree with Senator Bradford that the success of the elections in Iraq is amazing. We have seen images of women running to polling stations with their burkhas flowing. It is a great result and they showed us all how it should be done. We are all heartened when we see people turning out to vote — assuming they are going to vote for oneself. Senator Bradford also referred to the McCain amendment and raised the plight of Ms O’Loughlin.
Senator Mansergh praised the ESRI for its medium-term reports. Senator Terry called for a debate on the reproductive rights of women. So many other health issues hinge on this and it would make a good umbrella title for a debate. Senator Mooney spoke about the women shedding tears of joy in Iraq and said this sends a strong message to the coalition of the willing. I will convey the views of Members in this regard to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. Senator Mooney also asked that the proposed broadcasting Bill, which will provide RTE with an enhanced public service broadcasting remit, be introduced in this House. That would be useful. Senator Brady said he would not wish us to have imaginary debates about the imaginary future which the ESRI predicts.
Ms O’Rourke: I apologise, I meant to say the “single farm payment”. Whether the farmers are single or married is immaterial. I suggest that if Senators cannot get through to the Department in Portlaoise, they should telephone the Minister’s office. The staff there are very helpful.
Ms O’Rourke: It seems the officials are getting slightly hung up on the minutiae of requirements in regard to the terminology of the application forms and so on. I have received information to the effect that there are queries on such matters as inheritance rights or that forms were not completed correctly in respect of those farmers who have not received their cheques. The extent of the information required is significant. One wonders whether it is necessary to go to the nth degree in this way.
At the same time, however, the Minister has done an excellent job on her commitment to deliver on 1 December. More than 80% of farmers have received their payment and we only hear about the hard cases. We wish the Minister well at the WTO talks.
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