Wednesday, 3 May 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is Nos. 1 and 23. No. 1, Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 — Committee Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 2 p.m., to resume at 2.30 p.m. until 5 p.m. and to resume again, if necessary, at 7.15 p.m. until 8.30 p.m.; and No. 23, motion 22, to be taken from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. There will be a sos between 2 p.m. until 2.30 p.m.
Mr. Finucane: A great deal of attention has been focussed on the register of electors over the last few days. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, has spoken about the issue. I do not think there is any more certainty on foot of his comment that the onus to carry out the work that is needed is strictly on local authorities. We are aware that changes to the register of electors have taken place in recent years. Political parties used to analyse the register in the past. That might still be possible in rural areas, but it is not possible in urban areas. Something new has to happen, therefore.
Attention was firmly focussed on this issue over the weekend when the Trinity College branch of Fianna Fáil published the results of its study of the register of electors in the Dublin South-West constituency. It found that 17,000 people should have been on the register but were not registered, while a further 15,000 people who should not have been on the register were on it. The findings of that study have crystallised our thinking on the urgent need to do something about this problem. Various options have been proposed, such as asking the census enumerators to carry out a study. Others have put forward the theory that it should be linked to PPS numbers.
As we face the summer and the time when many students will be available, a scheme should perhaps be considered on which they could work. What is required is not necessarily to have them call to houses on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. basis, but possibly between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. because many families are out during the day. Innovative thinking is required to reflect the times in which we live. Perhaps the old system cannot readily conform to modern norms, so I should like if consideration was given to my suggestion.
It is clear there was increased vigilance by the Garda Síochána over the bank holiday weekend when there was a remarkable number of 320 arrests for drink driving infringements. Although it does not seem to be getting through to motorists, we nonetheless welcome the extra Garda vigilance. I hope it continues over subsequent weekends. Following the events of the weekend, the chairman of the road safety authority, Mr. Gay Byrne, said the increase in drink driving arrests and continuing fatalities on our roads was terribly depressing. Up to the end of April there were 140 fatalities on the roads as opposed to 118 for the contrasting period last year. Therefore, there is still an enormous problem. However, the chief executive of the road safety authority said he was delighted with the public response to the road safety message, which would appear to contradict what the chairman had to say.
We in this House have rightly highlighted the importance of personal responsibility on this issue. However, a series of measures needs to be introduced by the Government if we are to be serious about this issue. There is now a sense of urgency on many fronts and I hope all the necessary target areas will be prioritised such as the situation regarding provisional drivers’ licences, the driving test, random breath testing, speed cameras, the translation of the rules of the road into foreign languages and so on. These matters must be tackled as a matter of urgency, otherwise the statistics at the end of the year will be very unhealthy.
Mr. O’Toole: The House will be aware that on a number of occasions I have asked for a discussion on developments under the national partnership talks. Other colleagues, such as Senator Ross, have also asked for a debate, perhaps for different reasons. I ask the House to note, in particular, that at a time when house price inflation is running at over 10%, CEOs and directors are getting increases of more than 20% per annum in their remuneration and the economy is still growing at an unprecedented pace, IBEC can tell the people of Ireland with a straight face that it will hold workers at the economic coalface to low single figure increases in their remuneration over the next few years. It is important that public representatives, such as the Members of this House, should express their views on this grasping and greedy selfishness as articulated by IBEC.
IBEC does not want to pay the workers on the ground, nor does it want more Government spending on services. Effectively, when it talks about competitiveness what it really means is trousering the gains from the wealth created by society. It is time we told it we will not put up with this. People do not have to show their hands on this but if we want to maintain the partnership spirit and good relations in the workplace, as public representatives we should be calling for a reasonably generous deal for workers at all levels of the economy. Nobody can object to that.
In view of the line likely to be taken by Senator Ross and others, it is time we said this in the Seanad so that our position is quite clearly known. I have said it on many occasions but now is a particularly important time. As the discussions have been ongoing for a number of weeks, I remind the House that we agreed to return to this issue after Easter. The Leader has previously made opportunities available to the House to do this.
Mr. O’Toole: However, these discussions have gone on for an unprecedented period. There has been some movement. Certain things have happened in the area of union recognition in terms of workplace legislation about which we do not know. The issue of money is now on the agenda. We should simply say we will not stand back and watch competitiveness reduced to greedy selfishness on behalf of IBEC, and that we need a greater and more appropriate distribution of the gain and wealth of this country.
Ms O’Meara: I wonder would the input be heard. I would be curious to hear the Leader’s response on that because it has been a feature of the development of the partnership talks over a number of years that, as has been pointed out by other Members, the Oireachtas has played a very small, if any, role in the process. While it has yielded great results for the country in terms of our prosperity and so on, an issue has arisen in regard to a democratic deficit in particular.
On the subject of democratic deficits, the issue surrounding the electoral register is of major importance. We all know how important it is to have the register up to date, particularly those of us who intend to face the electorate in the coming months. The issue is important enough to warrant having the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government come to the House to tell us what exactly are his plans. It is not enough to simply dump it on the local authorities and say it is their responsibility — it is all our responsibility. In the first instance it is our responsibility to ensure that local authorities have sufficient resources to keep the electoral register up to date.
Ms O’Meara: This is especially the case in the communities in which this impacts most — new communities where people are largely out at work during the day and it is virtually impossible to get them at home at any time except in the evening.
Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the issue of accident and emergency units in hospitals around the country? Hardly a day passes that we do not read in the newspapers about a crisis in some accident and emergency unit, in many cases in our larger hospitals. The units in Drogheda and Letterkenny made the headlines most recently in terms of the HSE’s own reports.
I would like the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to report to us what measures she intends to take to ensure that those hospitals get the resources they need. In particular, I would like to hear from her that these hospitals are not to blame for the crisis that has been created but that is has to do with underresourcing and underfunding, especially in the past nine years of this Administration.
Mr. Kitt: On the question of the register of electors, I have strongly advocated in this House and in other debates the register be dealt with on the same basis as the census. We have probably lost an opportunity in this regard.
An Cathaoirleach: I have noticed that many mobile phones are being put on silent mode but if they are not turned off completely they can still interfere with the sound system. I advise Senators to turn off their mobile phones completely when they come into the Chamber.
Mr. Kitt: In fairness to the people who carried out the census, they did not work just from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. That was certainly the case in County Galway. They did a very good job for very little money in some cases. We should examine the possibility of using these people or some other system to update the register of electors.
Mr. Kitt: To be added to the supplementary register one still needs a garda signature. It should be possible for a greater number of categories of person to sign so as to make it easier for people to be added to the supplementary register. If an individual is not on the first list, a garda must verify that he or she is living in the area. Other officials should be empowered to help people to register to vote.
I wonder whether we could put the issue of the e-voting machines to bed once and for all. They were clearly never designed to cater for the intricacies of proportional representation. It is time for the State to recoup what it can of the €52 million outlay, not to mention the annual storage costs, and to sell the machines. That is the unanimous view of the Committee of Public Accounts and it is possibly the unanimous view of the House. Has the Government made a decision in this regard?
Mr. MacSharry: The discrepancies that have been found in the electoral register are a disgrace. It is clearly a serious issue. However, with respect to students and part-time workers, getting them to carry out the work would not treat it with the importance it deserves. Voter registration should be linked to PPS numbers and a national identification card should be introduced to address a series of issues such as this.
Mr. MacSharry: E-voting could also be linked to a national identification card using chip and PIN technology, which should also be used in the areas of taxation, passports and so on. The sooner we wake up and begin to move forward, the better. The electoral register should be updated on a professional basis, not by part-time workers. It should be essential for every individual to exercise his or her franchise. When one considers what was honoured at Arbour Hill earlier, the right to vote is an honour.
Mr. Ross: I endorse the comments of Senators O’Meara and O’Toole about the need for a debate on so-called partnership. The House has surrendered a great deal of its power and influence in recent years by allowing talks to take place in Government Buildings without any input whatsoever or without having the opportunity to rubber-stamp them because they never come before the House. The primacy of democracy is an issue and we have happily surrendered it to unelected people outside the House.
Mr. Ross: Senator O’Toole is correct in identifying IBEC as the culprit. Two elements of what is going on in Government Buildings are disturbing. First, the two main parties — the employers and the unions — supposedly represent business and employees. However, IBEC represents big, fat cats in business and the trade unions represent only one third of the workforce. Their representatives are making decisions for the nation while we look on as political eunuchs. That is not acceptable and the House should debate the matter.
The second element should be prominent in the debate. This is not only a pay deal. It has emerged in the past few days that all sides are seeking what they call a “ten-year plan”, which has nothing to do with a pay deal. It means this House and the Dáil will be bound to a policy for the next ten years that will make both Houses less relevant. We will then have no need to talk about the electoral register because we will not have much to do.
Mr. Leyden: While the issue was raised last week, will the Leader consider asking the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House to discuss the electoral register? Some very good suggestions have been made here today on compiling this register. The experience within this House would be of great benefit to the Minister in creating a national plan for a proper register of electors. The recent census represented a lost opportunity as the facts are there and are easily compiled. Maybe we should use the staff that collected the census forms as they know the houses and the people living in them. They would make an ideal workforce for this task.
I support the call by Senator O’Meara for a discussion on accident and emergency units. The Tánaiste is coming before the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party this evening, but I call on the Leader to allow for a debate on this issue. In the local hospital in Roscommon, we have an excellent new accident and emergency department having spent €8 million to €10 million on the hospital, yet there are nine observation beds regularly left closed. A review of surgery at Roscommon County Hospital is taking place at Portiuncula and I would like to ask the Tánaiste publicly about the outcome of this review. A hospital without surgery is not a hospital or an acute hospital. Any threat to surgery in Roscommon will be resisted by me now as in the past.
Mr. P. Burke: I support the call for a debate on compiling the electoral register. I also support Senator Finucane’s proposal. It is a great idea to get the students of the country to look after the electoral register. It would re-engage them with politics and would give them a chance to see what politics is all about. I have no doubt they would do a tremendous job as well.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the BMW region and the amount of money that has been spent in that region in comparison to others. I understand that we are €6 billion short of what we were supposed to get. What will the Government do to ensure that the BMW region gets its fair share of funding? Ireland got €8 billion on the backs of the poorer regions in the early 1990s. The BMW has fallen very far behind the east coast, so I call for the Leader to arrange a debate on the issue in this House.
Mr. Glynn: I support the calls by Members on all sides of the House for a debate on the compilation of the register of electors. The situation could be described as that of ongoing narcosis. In the wake of an election in 1979 in which I was elected, there was debate in Westmeath County Council on the inaccuracies of the electoral register. That debate takes place after every election, so the good thing about this debate is that it is taking place before an election.
I also support the call for a debate in this House on accident and emergency services. We had a useful debate on the issue some time ago. I would like the debate to focus on the abuse of the services as well as on their use.
I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment into the House, with a view to making a regulation that obliges the catering industry to provide detailed bills to customers. At the moment, a legislative void exists with regard to this matter. Many outlets do not provide itemised bills and on three separate occasions when I asked for an itemised bill, I discovered I had been overcharged. The case has been well made for introducing legislation to rectify that situation.
Mr. Bannon: I support the calls made for a debate on updating the register of electors because, as we are all aware, it is a shambles. In bygone days, the register was the responsibility of the revenue collector, who was more commonly known in rural areas as the rates collector. However, the embargo imposed by this Government on the recruitment of local authority personnel has resulted in significant staffing shortages. It is a tedious job to visit the various parishes in a county to ensure everyone over the age of 18 is listed on the register.
Most local authorities, including Longford County Council, have introduced a student scheme. I was ahead of my time on this matter when I suggested to the officials responsible for the register of electors in my local authority that they should employ a few students over the summer to work on the register. This is a good idea which should be promoted because large numbers of third level students regularly seek employment with local authorities.
Mr. Bannon: Longford County Council, which is one of the smallest local authorities in the country, has received more than 30 curricula vitae from students and I hope those people can be taken on. I would be delighted if they are employed in any jobs that become available in my neighbouring counties of Westmeath, Cavan or Roscommon.
Mr. Bannon: It was a bit rich of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to claim on radio yesterday that local authorities are awash with money because that is not the case. A significant number of infrastructural and sewerage schemes have remained on this Government’s waiting list for the past decade and more. Shame on the Minister for making that statement on the airwaves.
Mr. Hanafin: In light of the fact that the price of a barrel of oil has increased beyond $74 and that supply difficulties have arisen due to uncertainties in Iran and Iraq and the nationalisation by Bolivia of its energy sector, can the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources attend this House to discuss our dependence on imported oil and the policies which can be put in place to prevent disproportionate suffering in this nation should a crisis arise?
Mr. Cummins: It is welcome that Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus plan to spend more than €16 million on new buses. However, it is a disgrace that none of these buses will be wheelchair accessible, even though the supplier can provide accessible vehicles. Given that 70% of New York’s public transport system is wheelchair accessible, it is ridiculous that we are not buying wheelchair accessible buses. I ask the Minister for Transport to ensure that all buses purchased are wheelchair accessible.
Comhairle is spending between €1 million and €1.5 million on updating its image and designing a new logo. At a time when so many cutbacks are being made to social welfare spending, it is immoral that a body working with social welfare recipients should spend up to €1.5 million on a logo. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs should stop this project immediately and give the money to social welfare recipients who need it.
Mr. Kett: Further to the points made by Senator Cummins, I call on the Minister for Transport to explain how CIE can purchase vehicles worth €16 million without considering the needs of people with disabilities. Last year we went through the Disability Bill here and the cornerstone of the debate was that Departments should think of disability when they make plans for the future. If this is the way CIE conducts its business we have a long way to go.
Mr. Browne: Last week I spoke on the need to cap VAT on fuel. Unfortunately no action has been taken. Every day fuel prices continue to increase. When one considers that the weakness of the American dollar is saving us from further increases, one realises how vulnerable we are. Senator Hanafin’s point is correct. I repeat my call that the Minister for Finance come here and explain why a cap on fuel VAT cannot be implemented. Why do we doubly punish the motorist? While we cannot control the price of fuel imports, we can control the VAT charges. It is outrageous that the motorist is hit with a double take every day while fuel prices fluctuate. It should be easy to organise a cap on fuel VAT. We owe it to the hard-pressed motorists who are every day crippled by tolls, motor tax and long commutes. There is a significant variation in fuel prices around the country, as was evident on today’s “Morning Ireland”.
Mr. Browne: The phrase “name and shame” sprung to mind as I heard it on the radio. We need a debate on that. We also need to ask why petrol companies put up prices immediately even though they had stock in hand. Perhaps we could widen Senator Hanafin’s call for a debate on that topic.
Mr. Kenneally: There is a need for a debate in this House on energy policy. Ireland is dependent on oil and many experts believe that at current consumption levels the world stocks of oil will run out in approximately 50 years time. The likelihood is that consumption will increase as far-eastern countries such as China become more developed and that the date will be brought forward. We should explore the use of rape seed and other crops and give more incentives that would decrease the price of vehicles modified to use this type of fuel. We seem to be frightened of wind energy and running away from it. Little wind energy goes into the national grid and we need to increase that.
Mr. Kenneally: The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources recently came across a man in the west who wanted to put a small wind turbine in his back garden to power some of his home’s electricity needs and reduce energy costs. The circumference of the turbine would have been smaller than a satellite dish, yet while one does not need planning permission for a satellite dish, he must go through the planning process for a wind turbine. We need to encourage wind energy and need a debate on it.
Mr. Feighan: I join with my colleagues in calling for a debate on the electoral register. I am disappointed that the penny has just dropped because this issue has been raised many times. My colleague, Senator McHugh, raised this issue over a year ago when he outlined that PPS numbers should be used in the electoral register. Maybe it is not too late, but something should have been done before this. I join with Senator Finucane in his point that the increase in drink driving is serious. There is a new train of thought on the many drugs and illegal substances in use. A UK report found that up to 20% of drivers are known to be driving under the influence of illegal substances, such as cocaine. These are not being taken into account with regard to the serious accidents taking place throughout the country. I am not taking away from the fact that drink driving is a major issue but the increase in the use of illegal substances is causing many accidents.
I compliment the Blanchardstown local drugs task force on setting up a local drugs hotline so those who want to pass on information on drug dealing in their communities can inform the operators of the hotline, who relay the information to gardaí. As politicians, we take great pride in the fact that we know what is happening on our own patch and in our communities. If we know what is going on, we can also pass information to gardaí. I have done this in my constituency on two occasions and on both occasions gardaí were successful in ensuring that drugs were retrieved or that people on drugs were apprehended. Politicians have a role to play in ensuring that drugs do not take hold in our communities.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Finucane, acting leader of the Opposition, raised again the issue of the electoral register. The Cathaoirleach will remember that there was an extensive debate on this matter last Thursday on the Order of Business. Senator Finucane came forward with an excellent idea, namely, that each county council could appoint students to work in this area, as happened with the student employment scheme. This would awaken interest in politics among the young. It is an idea that should be brought to the Minister, Deputy Roche, and I hope we will have him to the House to debate the issue.
There is too much emphasis on the possibility that Sinn Féin will defraud the people of votes and that people will vote in dead men’s shoes and all of that. The real fraud is that people who are entitled to vote are not on the register, which is a mammoth problem. I spoke last week of my experiences in this regard and will not bore the House again. However, I was out in my area again in the past two nights and it is a major problem in every area I go into. Out of 500 houses, 200 people were not on the register.
I welcome and applaud the salutary actions of the Garda last weekend. I saw some quite sheepish men getting out of a car when they were apprehended. I said “Well done” to the gardaí involved. The fact that the issue has been highlighted is terrific. We should applaud gardaí for their vigilance over the weekend, even though there were deaths, which are always appalling.
Senator O’Toole referred to the national partnership and IBEC. I read recently in a newspaper that Turlough O’Sullivan, the head of IBEC, stated that talks had to break on Good Friday because of the stations of the cross but that IBEC was the only group doing the stations of the cross because it was so lumbered. I go along with many of the Senator’s points. We had a debate on the issue but we can look for a further debate and ascertain whether the Minister will come to the House. The talks are going on for ever.
Senator O’Meara asked whether, due to the democratic deficit, our input would be heard if we had a debate. That is the point. The Senator stated that resources are needed for local authorities to undertake a proper electoral audit. The accident and emergency debate will be taken in the House next week, which should be very instructive.
Senator Kitt referred to the electoral register. One can pick out the Members who are going forward for election because they are all talking about this issue. In the period before the draft register is published in November, if the councils authenticate the names that have been put forward, there is no need for gardaí, peace commissioners or anyone else to sign the forms. When the draft register comes out in November, one must get the forms signed by an appropriate person. The Senator makes the point that people other than gardaí should be empowered to sign the forms at that stage. We hope we will have the two counties in the constituency well covered by then.
Senator Coghlan spoke about e-voting. The Taoiseach said clearly that when the independent commission, which is headed up by the eminent judge and of which the Clerk of the Seanad is a member, produces its report, the Government will be guided by it.
Ms O’Rourke: No. Senator MacSharry spoke about the electoral register and about having a national identification card. He said it should be mandatory for people to vote about which I often thought. I do not know if it would mean reluctant voters or joyful ones, although I do not think they would ever by joyful. Voting is mandatory in many other countries.
Senator Ross called for a debate on social partnership into which we have no input. He is correct that a framework ten-year plan is being sought. I do not know how effective that would be. He also said the salaries of some people in banks had increased, that trade unions only represent one third of workers and that IBEC does not represent all management.
Senator Leyden called for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House to outline a national plan for a register of electors. The matter of the electoral register will have to be addressed by way of a national plan. He also called for a debate on accident and emergency which we will have next week.
Senator Paddy Burke spoke about the electoral register and called for a debate on the BMW region. We could usefully have such a debate as soon as possible. Senator Glynn spoke about the compilation of the electoral register and called for a debate on accident and emergency services, which we will endeavour to have. He also asked for a directive on catering whereby one could get a breakdown of one’s bill for lunch or dinner.
Senator Bannon echoed what Senator Finucane said about the electoral register. Nobody suggested what Senator Finucane has in regard to using students to compile the register. Students, who thankfully are being educated, would be available to compile the register and it would be good for them to be involved. There is no doubt that local authorities have received increased funding. Given that this job is so enormous and will require such intensity of effort, a national plan will have to be devised.
Senator Hanafin spoke about the price of oil and called for a debate on energy. I shared Senator Cummins’s outrage when I read about the buses. I did not know an order had to be renewed. An order was made when I was Minister whereby all new buses and trains had to be wheelchair accessible. I did not realise another order had to be made, which is what the Minister said. It is a disgrace if €60 million is to be spent on buses around the country that are not wheelchair accessible. We will take up that issue with the Minister. The Senator also raised the issue of Comhairle’s new logo and the fact it wants to rebrand itself. Some of us could do with rebranding.
Senator Kett also spoke about CIE purchasing buses without considering the needs of its users. It breaches the Disability Bill which we debated at length. If it is the case, I think it is illegal. However, I listened to a young woman on the radio and there seems to be a suggestion that it will not get these buses so we will have to find out the exact situation.
Senator Browne spoke about the cap on VAT on fuel and the Irish Nurses Organisation conference. Senator Kenneally spoke about the need for an energy policy and the fact we are not debating wind energy. I agree with him in that regard. I received the same e-mail from that gentleman in Castlebar about putting a small wind turbine in his garden. There is loads of wind in Castlebar.
Senator Leyden implied we are too quick to criticise our own. I praise Senator White on her becoming a fellow of the Sales Institute of Ireland and I would praise a member of any party if he or she became one. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to say this.
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