Thursday, 27 September 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No.1, motion re the Committee of Selection, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business, and No. 2, Voluntary Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2007, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to conclude not later than 2 p.m., with spokespersons having 12 minutes, all other Senators eight minutes, and on which Senators may share time.
I extend my sincere sympathy and that of the entire House to the family and friends of the two firefighters who died yesterday while heroically tackling a blaze in Bray, County Wicklow. I join in the tributes being paid to Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy. They are, fortunately, the first firefighters to be killed in the line of duty in 35 years, but I found it very chilling to read in the newspapers this morning that the late Mr. Murray had predicted to his family that somebody would die before the end of the year unless there was a major overhaul of our fire services. As legislators and Members of the Oireachtas, we need to take this into account to ensure the necessary overhaul of the fire service occurs in the most expedient manner possible.
Five years ago, the Government held a review of the fire services and the key recommendation was the establishment of a national fire authority, but that has not happened and no action has been taken. It appears the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, for some reason, decided not to implement this recommendation. It is also chilling that the Stardust tribunal made the same recommendation and it is disgraceful that no action has been taken to implement it, given the service firefighters provide. I call on the Minister to come to the House to discuss the matter.
The Chief Fire Officers Association warned the Government in 2001 that the service needed considerable development. My constituency of Dublin Mid-West is a good example of the situation, where Lucan, a town with a population of more than 50,000, has no dedicated fire station. This is a real emerging issue as there are new communities and centres of large population without their own dedicated fire stations. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to address the issue in the House. He should let us know what plans exist for a national policy. At present the local authorities decide on local services, which means that we do not get the coverage needed in our rapidly expanding communities.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Before the election, I raised in this House the importance of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The Bill was passed through both Houses with acclaim on the basis that it would finally provide the resources necessary to allow people with special needs to reach their full potential. The guarantee given was that this would allow schools to do their work, would allow parents to be relieved of much of the pressure of fundraising and so on, and that the appropriate resources would be put in place between psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists.
In order to put that in place, the Government established the National Council for Special Education, which is based in County Meath and is a very effective and impressive organisation. At the request of the Minister, it produced an implementation programme with three pages on implementations, the costing and timeframe for each one. The first implementation was to be made in December 2006. I would now like the Minister for Education and Science to explain what has happened to that timetable, why it is not being supported and why schools are now back in the position of not being able to deal with children with special needs. This causes trouble for parents, school authorities and everyone else.
There was a great brouhaha among politicians during the summer, myself included, about a lecturer in Athlone who was involved in an abuse case. I do not want to refer to that particular case, but during the debate the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for children made it clear that he would be enacting vetting legislation which would be welcomed by people working in child care, teachers and the Teaching Council. However, there are many political difficulties to this and the Minister of State should deal with that.
I congratulate the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government on his recent statement that every new house built from next year onwards should have a solar panel or a similar renewable energy resource. I failed four times in the last three years in this House to change the insulation standards to allow them to be based on the proper international standards, namely, the kilowatt hours required to heat a cubic metre of house space per year. This was opposed time and again by the Government side of the House. My latest proposal in the last Seanad and seconded by former Senator Brian Hayes was rejected by the House. I am glad to see that the new Minister has brought this forward. It is justification enough for me for the Green Party to be in the Government. I would like the Minister to come to the House and discuss it with us.
Senator Alex White: We are agreeable to the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader. I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy towards the two brave firefighters who lost their lives earlier this week.
It is a matter of serious regret to note reports that the Government has decided not to opt in to a new European directive on illegal employment. Despite many reports to the contrary, there are many restrictions facing immigrants into the European Union who want to come here and work. This also affects citizens of many of the accession countries who are restricted in other countries of the EU. This directive, which the Government does not appear to support, would not penalise individual workers but companies that employ illegal labour and abuse the regulations that are already in place. This is an excellent directive and the Government ought to support it.
There is much debate about immigration, with concerns expressed and fears sometimes stoked up. The best way to ensure integration and harmonious relationships is to seek to prevent exploitation of immigrant labour in this country and across the EU. It is a matter of serious regret that the Government has decided not to support this directive for the time being. It is reminiscent of the attitude taken by the Government to the Charter of Fundamental Rights some months ago. At one stage we were going to opt out and at another stage were pulling back from that. It was confusing. We spent some time in the Chamber yesterday discussing legislation that had to be put in place because the Government was offside on a European directive dating from 1992. Why are we dragging our feet on these progressive directives coming from Europe? They would ensure that exploitation of immigrant labour would cease or at least be greatly curtailed.
I understand that the Government’s decision is partly a result of lobbying from IBEC, an organisation that is perfectly entitled to lobby. However, employers’ bodies display a knee-jerk reaction to any proposed regulation and put it down to red tape. This is a progressive proposal directed to ensure that exploitation of immigrants is actually curtailed and prevented, but the Government is dragging its feet. It comes alongside the Government’s failure to introduce legislation on agency workers. All of these are practical measures which the Government could take to ensure integration occurs.
Senator Dan Boyle: I would like to be associated with the condolences expressed on the deaths of the two firefighters in Bray. Senator de Búrca, who lives in and has represented the Bray area, brought up this issue yesterday. The points made by Senator Fitzgerald deserve further discussion and they fall within the bailiwick of my colleague, the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is undoubtedly true that some of the reports on upgrading the fire service are in dire need of being implemented. An urban centre like Bray, which must be in the top dozen population centres in the country, should have something more than a part-time fire service. The Minister would be interested to implement that particular agenda.
Senator O’Toole raised another fair point on the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. This is the second education issue that has been raised on the Order of Business in the last two days. It makes the case for having a special debate on general education matters. I also thank him for his comments on the introduction of new energy efficiency standards for buildings. I am happy to pass them on to the Minister. The programme for Government includes a commitment to the introduction of a €100 million attic and wall insulation grant scheme and I hope that goes some way towards the type of improvement he would like to see.
Whatever about the EU directive on illegal labour, Senator White again made a fair point for a general debate in this House with the new Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, with responsibility for integration policy. This is a position we argued strongly for in the programme for Government and I am sure the Minister for State will be happy to come into the House and discuss those issues.
I would like to make one suggestion for future debate. Senators have received in their post today copies of the appropriation accounts and annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General for 2006. While this House does not have direct responsibility for expenditure matters, we should have a role to play in analysing how public services are provided through the proper use of resources. This report should be a matter for annual debate in the House. Such a debate can be facilitated if Members are interested.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I join in the expressions of sympathy to the families of the firefighters who lost their lives in Bray yesterday. It is an absolute tragedy. Senator de Búrca was the first to raise this on the Order of Business. There must be measured debate in this House on the issue of fire services rather than simply a knee-jerk reaction. I say this with respect to all those who have raised this issue.
When we debated the Local Government (No. 2) Bill 2003 in this House, we received commitments from the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, in regard to the services to be made available to Oireachtas Members on their departure from their local authorities. I call for a debate on local government with the new Minister, Deputy Gormley. I am pleased with his appointment to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government because I hope to see the Green Party’s policy on local government reform put forward for discussion in the Dáil and Seanad.
Reform is badly needed. I will offer one example of the inefficiency of local government. I contacted my local authority in March 2003 in regard to a planning violation. Some four and a half years later, I have received no response from management and there has been no resolution. We received assurances from the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, that such difficulties would not arise and that the service available to Oireachtas Members following resignation of their local authority seats would be the same as that provided to authority members. That is certainly not the case in this instance. We must have a debate on local government reform. The cast iron guarantees we were given have not transpired, as Members throughout the State have discovered.
I call for an increase in funding for the green home scheme to which Senator Boyle referred. If we are to encourage people to give consideration to energy conservation when building their homes, we must ensure they are offered incentives rather than penalised. There should be increased grant assistance for this purpose.
Senator Terry Leyden: I join other Members in extending my deepest sympathy to the family of Brian Murray, including his wife Mary, and to the family of Mark O’Shaughnessy. The deaths of these part-time firefighters, who were carrying out their duty on behalf of the State, are a terrible tragedy. We all know such dedicated and hard-working servants of the State. These men sacrificed their lives in their efforts to prevent the spread of the fire in Bray yesterday.
I agree with Senator Fitzgerald that the Leader should consider a debate on fire safety services. Yesterday’s deaths impart an urgency to the issue which may not have been apparent before yesterday. The Farrell Grant Sparks report of January 2002 was the last examination of the fire service, but an implementation report issued last June. The latter confirmed that many of the recommendations in the review of fire services and fire safety in Ireland contained in the earlier report were implemented. However, this is not enough. We must examine the support structures in place for the fire services and address the need for a national fire authority that would co-ordinate the work of the local authorities.
There are 99 fire service staff in County Wicklow. There were some 40 fatalities as a result of house fires in the State in 2005 and some 1,200 fires, a significant proportion, are caused by electrical faults. I call on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to initiate a review of the wiring of pre-1950 houses. This should be examined as part of an overall review of fire safety. I have no doubt the Minister will take on this responsibility.
Before the blame game begins, everybody must acknowledge that there has been a major investment in fire services. Notwithstanding yesterday’s tragic events, it is not appropriate to claim no improvements have been made. I cannot agree with the comments on “Morning Ireland” of a spokesperson for the fire services in Wicklow to the effect that firemen like large fires. It is the job of firefighters to ensure fires do not occur. I hope this person will reflect on her comments, which were entirely inappropriate.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I support Senator Leyden’s comments on the part-time fire service. I too call on the Leader to invite the Minister for a debate on this issue. This is of particular urgency when one considers that in many of our growing satellite towns, the firefighting service has not grown in tandem.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to this House for a debate on the operation of funfair and playground equipment in view of the serious accidents that have occurred in recent months? I am particularly concerned about certification and the period for which licences are operational.
I join Senator Alex White in calling on the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, with responsibility for integration policy, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to attend a debate in this House on integration and immigration. I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. In view of the report published today by the Intercultural Workplace Project, such a debate would be timely.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Will the Leader consider holding a debate on how legislation can best provide for greater gender equality in the home? I refer in particular to legislation providing for paid paternity leave. The urgency of this is highlighted in a comprehensive opinion poll published in The Irish Times today, which presents the views of a large number of women surveyed. Among the more alarming findings is that only 33% of respondents had partners who participated regularly in domestic activities in the home. Men obviously require some gentle encouragement to participate in domestic work.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Female Members in particular may like me to repeat what I said. Today’s edition of The Irish Times contains a comprehensive opinion poll of women’s attitudes to various issues, including work and life in the home. One of the more alarming findings is that of the women surveyed, only 33% reported that their male partners contributed regularly to housework. Men clearly need some gentle encouragement to contribute to work in the home.
Senator Ivana Bacik: This was part of my policy platform when I stood for election. One of the main reasons that men do not contribute more in the home to child care and other responsibilities is that there is no recognition of their role in this regard. Despite our extensive equality legislation, we do not yet have paid paternity leave. I note that the Labour Party Government in Britain has introduced legislation providing for two weeks’ paternity leave. Though minimal, this provision at least offers something. Men in this State whose partners give birth do not have any entitlement to paid paternity leave. Legislation on this issue should be brought forward without delay.
Senator Paul Coghlan: It was remiss of me yesterday when inquiring about the designated land (housing development) Bill not to congratulate the Cathaoirleach warmly on this elevation to the Chair. My colleagues are aware that I have always recognised him as a bright, intelligent fellow from Offaly. My omission was entirely inadvertent.
Now that the Privacy Bill 2006 and the Defamation Bill 2006 have been restored to the Order Paper as Nos. 4 and 5, will the Leader tell us if and when it is intended to take either or both of these Bills and whether they will be republished in a much altered form?
Senator Nicky McFadden: I call for a debate in this House on the severe water shortage affecting this city. I am deeply concerned about the abstraction of 350 million litres of water from Lough Ree as proposed by Dublin City Council. It would be a grave disservice to the people of the midlands were this to occur and it would severely upset not only the flora and fauna but also boat users and tourists. Given that it is a matter of economies of scale and cost, desalination would be the preferred option.
Senator Feargal Quinn: We easily take things for granted, such as assuming that we will get a response every time we dial 999 for the fire brigade. Yesterday’s tragic deaths in the Murray and O’Shaughnessy families make us recognise the dedication of the fire services. I have had occasion to dial 999 because of fire and assumed that somebody would come but we have to realise that does not simply happen. I have had a business within a few hundred metres of yesterday’s fire and can understand the thoughts of the people of the locality who do not realise the amount of work carried out by the fire services daily.
Senator Boyle referred to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report. I am aware that we do not have direct responsibility for funds and money but the report makes for fascinating reading and deserves a debate. We used to say: “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, although maybe we should now be speaking about cent and euro. The stories in the report are so interesting that I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on it.
One case of pennies and pounds involved public private partnerships in five schools where, according the Comptroller and Auditor General, decisions to rent rather than purchase prefabs resulted in significant costs. Matters such as these should be recognised in advance.
The other cost which stunned me was the integration of ticketing for public transport, which will now cost €50 million instead of the original allocation of €30 million. We should concentrate our attention on these enormous figures. The cost of laying pipes for a sewer project in Limerick was €32,000 per metre. I spoke about pennies and pounds because we have a duty to ensure good management in this country. I congratulate the Comptroller and Auditor General on what he has done but his report deserves our attention.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, Boyle, McCarthy, Leyden, Buttimer, Quinn and O’Toole expressed shock and horror at the terrible tragedy involving the two firemen in Bray. Senator de Búrca raised this issue yesterday. This House should send our sympathies to the families concerned.
I know at first hand the significant investment that has been made in the fire service over the past 30 years because my entire family has been involved with the service since it was established in 1946. My father and uncle were directly involved and my brother was a station officer for 37 years until he retired three years ago. The establishment of a national fire authority is urgently needed and should have happened five years ago. There is no point in saying anything else.
I listened to the professional comments made on the radio this morning. As Senator Fitzgerald noted, the population in Lucan has exploded by 50,000 people and towns such as it and Bray need a permanent fire-fighting service. However, part-time officers are well trained as well as courageous and dedicated people. Accidents are never planned; they just unfortunately happen. It is to be hoped the loss of the two men’s lives will prevent a repeat of this tragedy in that the Minister and Department concerned will bring an initiative within the next two weeks. I intend to allow time in this House so that everyone concerned can address the serious challenges they face. I put the Minister and Department on notice that we will have a serious debate within the next three weeks. Five years has been too long. I do not say these unfortunate firemen died because of a lack of action but the new Government has a five-year term ahead of it and money was never as freely available nor the economy as buoyant.
Senator Donie Cassidy: There is no excuse in the wide world for not giving funds to local authorities. This is the responsibility of local authorities and their members. We must give them the financial resources they need to appoint full-time personnel in areas with populations in excess of 50,000. The time has come and I support the calls made on the issue.
Senators O’Toole and Boyle spoke about the pressing need for the Minister for Education and Science to attend the House to discuss the issue of students with special needs. I certainly can arrange to have time allocated for the issue and will put it on the agenda for the next leaders’ meeting. Senator O’Toole also called for a debate on vetting in education. I have no difficulty in allocating time for that issue.
A number of Senators called on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to attend the House regarding the new building regulations. We all welcome this morning’s reminder by the Deputy Leader, Senator Boyle, that €100 million was included in the programme for Government for attic and wall insulation. Senator O’Toole will be pleased to hear that.
A number of debates have been requested this morning. Independent Senators will be proposing a motion for Private Members’ business next week, so the issues raised by Senators Quinn and O’Toole could be debated then. Senator White and his team might consider addressing their priorities when the Labour Party proposes a motion the following week. That would assist the House because, as Senators will be aware, legislation must take precedent. We try to facilitate other important issues raised on the Order of Business during Private Members’ time from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Senator McFadden raised an important local issue concerning the midlands area, and counties Roscommon and Westmeath in particular. I fully concur with the Senator on the proposal to take 350 million litres of water per year from Lough Ree. We were in agreement on the issue during the general election, as were my colleagues, Deputies O’Rourke and Penrose. It may stop the serious flooding we have experienced in the Shannon area if water were taken in the winter months and stored in Dublin over the summer. Perhaps it could be done on a six months on, six months off basis. However, I do not know how practical or possible that would be. We will have a serious debate on this matter and I am happy to allow time for that, in response to Senator McFadden’s call.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on life in the home and paternity leave. I will determine if the Minister has time to facilitate such a debate, which would be very worthwhile. Senator McCarthy is a long-standing Member of the House and the longest serving member of the Labour Party. I acknowledge his great experience and expertise and have no difficulty in agreeing to have a debate on the greener homes scheme, as requested by the Senator.
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