Business of Seanad.
Order of Business.
Business of Seanad.
Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2008: Second Stage.
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2008: Order for Second Stage.
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2008: Second Stage.
Child Care Services.
Water and Sewerage Schemes.
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 2.30 p.m.
An Cathaoirleach: I have notice from Senator Nicky McFadden that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, she proposes to raise the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Frances Fitzgerald of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Camillus Glynn of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Cecilia Keaveney of the following matter:
I regard the matters raised by Senators Nicky McFadden, Frances Fitzgerald and Camillus Glynn as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment and they will be taken at the conclusion of business. I regret I have had to rule out of order the matter raised by Senator Cecilia Keaveney as the Minister has no official responsibility in the matter.
Senator Dan Boyle: Today’s business is No. 1, the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2008 (Reform Treaty) and No. 2, the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2008. It is proposed that the 28th Amendment of the Constitution Bill will be taken at 4.15 p.m. and will adjourn at 6.15 p.m. if not previously concluded. The spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes. Senators may share time with the agreement of the House. On No. 2, the Private Members’ Bill, moved by the Labour Party, entitled the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2008 to be taken at 6.15 p.m. and to conclude not later than 8.15 p.m. It is also proposed that the business of the House will be interrupted from the conclusion of the Order of Business until 4.15 p.m.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: This side of the House does not agree to the Order of Business. We will oppose it on the grounds that the Health Service Executive is once again implementing a regime of dangerous and cruel cutbacks across the health service. We have the very serious situation where the trade union IMPACT and its 28,000 health workers have sanctioned industrial action. They say that they are doing this because the current cutbacks which they are experiencing in the services are harming patients, putting extra pressure on staff and have led to promised health service improvements being shelved.
We also have the serious situation of the pharmacy dispute, known to Senators across the House. What is the Government doing? Apparently the independent chair has made some recommendations. Is the Government accepting his recommendations so that this dispute does not escalate and cause patients to suffer? We are all getting telephone calls from patients who are concerned about their medication and about what is going to happen if this dispute goes to the edge as it appears it might.
Many Senators will have seen the television programme last night about homeless people in Dublin. Senator Paschal Donohue raised this matter in the House some weeks ago. The television programme “Prime Time” reported last night that seven homeless people died in a two-week period over Easter. These seven people died while at least five major facilities for the homeless in Dublin were either lying idle or were under-utilised owing to cutbacks by the HSE. I must ask Senator Boyle what the Green Party is doing in Government. What can he tell us about these cutbacks and the scale of them? What action is being taken to reform the HSE and deal with the bureaucracy that is spoken about by everybody? This is the critical issue. Frontline services are being affected and so are patients, as IMPACT has highlighted. I will oppose the Order of Business to allow for a debate on these important matters today.
Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Joe O’Toole: A worrying rumour is in the House at the moment that the candles in Senator Cassidy’s birthday shrine might have lead to difficulties in the Mayflower Hotel last night.
An Cathaoirleach: I do not think the Senator’s comment is relevant to the Order of Business.
Senator Joe O’Toole: As long as the Deputy Leader can assure me of the Leader’s wellbeing, that he has recovered and has emerged safely——
An Cathaoirleach: On the Order of Business, please.
Senator Joe O’Toole: On a more serious note, although that is serious——
Senator Joe O’Toole: Fáilte go mór roimhis an cine ata déanta ag an Rialtais mar gheall ar ainm mo shean bhaile fhéin, Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis. Mar a dúras go minic roimhe seo bhítrí ainmneacha i gcónaí ar an áit sin agus beidh trí animneacha i gcónaí ann. Mar chríoch don scéal, níl aon ró-athrú déanta, ach fáiltím go bhfuil sé déanta. Níos mó agus níos tábhachtaí ná sin ná go ndúirt an tAire go bhfuil sé chun reachtaíocht a chur chun cinn a dhéanfadh cinnte de go mbeadh aon sórt pobalbhreith nó plebiscite i measc muintir na háite níos tábhachtaí ná aon sórt ordú a dhéanfar faoi Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla. This idea of giving rights back to people at a local level is important, especially in the sense that any plebiscite taken under local government legislation will always overrule any decision taken under the Acht teanga. I look forward to the legislation which will do that.
That is behind us, however. Níos tábhachtaí ná sin ná gur mhaith liom cuireadh a thabhairt don Aire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta teacht isteach go dtí an Seanad chun dul chun cinn sna Gaeltachtaí a phlé. Bheadh orainn féachaint cén dul chun cinn tionsclaíochta agus fostáiochta atá déanta, an tionchar atá ag na cutbacks atá ag tarlú i gcúrsaí feirmeoireachta, na deacrachtaíó thaobh tionscail na hiascaireachta, agus an tionchar atá acu siúd ar fad ar mhuintir na Gaeltachtaí. Ba bhreá agus ba mhaith an rud é go mbeadh díospóireacht againn ar an méid sin agus ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta ó thaobh an teanga agus polasaithe teanga.
Cuireas ceist ar an tSeanadóir Ó Casaide cúpla seachtain ó shin an mbeadh díospóireacht againn ar an tuarascáil ón gCoimisinéir Teanga. These are serious issues in which the Government has a significant interest and investment. We should have a great debate on it. More than anything else, ba mhaith liom ó thaobh Chorca Dhuibhne féin de go ndéanfadh an tAire gach iarracht le déanamh cinnte de nach mbeadh aon deighilt i measc muintir na leithinse sin mar gheall ar an tranglam ar fad faoi ainm na háite agus má bhíonn, go gcuirfeadh sé droichead thar an deighilt sin.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I am sure everyone in the House will join me in wishing the Taoiseach well later on today in his historic address to the joint session of the US Congress. I hope he will use the occasion to raise awareness of Ireland and I hope he raises the plight of the undocumented Irish during his address. I also hope he extends an invite to the average American to visit these shores. We had a wonderful debate in the House last week on tourism and it is clear this is one area than can help create more jobs for the Irish economy. Next week the Taoiseach will meet the First Minister in the North at the opening of the new Battle of the Boyne commemoration site in Oldbridge, County Meath. That facility is expected to lead to about 100,000 people visiting County Meath every year. Initiatives such as this can help to counter the bad news emanating from the Irish economy.
This morning we saw the ESRI report which says consumer confidence is at its lowest level ever. Nine out of ten people expect unemployment to increase in the next year, so it is issues such as tourism investment that can help counter the bad news. However, it is time we put in place a strategy for preparing for further rises in unemployment. In particular, we need to ensure there is investment in adult education so that people can retrain, upskill themselves and take advantage of other opportunities in the jobs market.
An Cathaoirleach: A large number of speakers are seeking to raise questions with the Deputy Leader. As the leaders of the various groups have completed, I ask other Senators to be brief and we will try to accommodate them all.
Senator Ann Ormonde: Last week I spoke about the impending legislation curbing the sale of alcohol, especially in off-licences and supermarkets, and the use of alcohol. While I welcome the new legislation, I believe it must be coupled with a debate that will involve the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, local authorities and education initiatives. Account must be taken also of the rural transport initiative. This is a societal issue, as I have argued many times in this House.  We must ask how we curb the sale of alcohol. It cannot be done by legislation alone, as I keep repeating. The responsibility rests with us all and requires interdepartmental thinking.
Before the legislation ever reaches this House, Senators should have the opportunity to discuss the rural transport initiative with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, to hear how it will affect rural life in this country. I am all for anything that will curb binge drinking and tackle that problem. We cannot do it by legislation alone. Nevertheless we must also consider what is happening in rural Ireland. Have we done anything about the rural transport initiative? How will that work? We have all seen ghost towns throughout the country. Unless we do something to curb that as well we are failing the people of all of Ireland. We need to reactivate life in our communities at large. This is a big issue for society. The responsibility rests with all of us to work together along with introducing legislation to tackle this very serious problem. I ask the Acting Leader to investigate having these discussions with the various Departments before legislation comes to the House.
Senator Paul Coghlan:
I also warmly welcome the announcement of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, on Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis. As Senator O’Toole has said, this is proper
recognition of local democracy. The Minister proposes by way of legislation to ensure that such plebiscites will be honoured in future, which I greatly welcome.
I am not so sure I welcome his announcement about the additional 10,000 hectares to be included in an SAC in the Kenmare River area. I hope people will not be ambushed or taken by surprise and that all the maps associated with it will be made available to people and particularly to landowners. There seems to be confusion in the area. I am sure it will be the Minister’s intention to ensure everybody will be properly informed and have due notice to make their arguments on proper scientific grounds in regard to the validity of such a proposal or otherwise.
I endorse the remarks of Senator Fitzgerald regarding the HSE and the crisis in the health service, not least the continuing threat to the community drugs scheme as a result of the failure so far to agree with the pharmacists — although I understand there are some last ditch talks in place because of the pending legal action to be heard tomorrow in the High Court. I hope they will reach fruition in advance of that action and it will not be necessary for any people to suffer. We know the people who would suffer — those most in need. The elderly, sick and infirm would suffer. Concurrently there is a crisis facing final-year pharmacy students, some of whom have been writing to us. They had a right to pre-registration placement, which could now apparently be denied to them unless this issue is solved. That is another serious reason for resolving the matter.
The Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill, which was passed by this House and completed Second Stage in the other House, seems to be lying somewhere in abeyance. Is it intended to proceed with its Committee Stage in the other House and if so when? The property services regulatory authority Bill has been long promised. If we had it we would not have had the recent headlines over whatever is going on between some members of the auctioneering profession. We should stress it is only some members of the auctioneering profession because most of them are very dutiful as members of their institute.
Senator Shane Ross: Bullshit.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I would like to hear the Deputy Leader in regard to that. I know Senator Ross will probably have something else to say about it.
Senator Larry Butler: I wish to raise the matter of St. Colmcille’s Hospital as Senator Fitzgerald has already mentioned. There is a very serious issue there, with 16 deaths in the hospital related to this new bug, C. difficile. The microbiologist post that should have been filled some months ago has not yet been filled. The position is shared between St. Vincent’s Hospital and St. Colmcille’s Hospital and I do not think this is good enough. The Health Service Executive must take responsibility for this as must the management of the hospital, who allowed this to happen.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: What about the Minister? How about some political accountability?
Senator Jerry Buttimer: And the Government.
Senator Larry Butler: The Government is providing the funding.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Who is the political master and where is the leadership on this issue?
Senator Larry Butler: I do not interrupt Senator Buttimer when he speaks so I ask him to allow me make my contribution.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: We want the facts.
Senator Larry Butler: Contract cleaning in hospitals should cease and it is time specific people were employed for that purpose. Contract cleaners leave hospitals and work elsewhere. They may then bring serious bugs back into hospitals by moving from one area to another. There is no control in this respect of cleaning services within hospitals.
It is also important that management ensures proper health and safety regulations apply because this is not being done correctly in St. Colmcille’s Hospital. I was chairman of the steering committee in that hospital for a number of years and I know that the nurses, doctors and consultants there are fine, decent and good people who deliver a very good service. However, management there has been remiss in raising hospital standards to the required level. The beds are far too close together but this issue does not apply only to St. Colmcille’s Hospital, it has been detected in Ennis, County Clare, and various other hospitals. It is a major issue that attacks the elderly. If one’s uncle or aunt is of a certain age and goes to hospital he or she may not come out. The reality is that a most dangerous bug has been discovered and a microbiologist is needed on site to assess the situation in a laboratory. This is the only way the bug can be controlled.
I know others are anxious that I complete my contribution and I thank them for their forbearance because it applies to my area and is important. I support Senator Fitzgerald’s call for accountability and for the Minister to ensure this does not happen again. We probably would not know about this if it were not for the coroner.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is a very serious issue.
Senator Larry Butler: It is a very serious issue and I think it behoves Members to ensure it is publicised and dealt with.
Senator John Paul Phelan: Can anyone else speak on the Order of Business?
Senator Phil Prendergast: I wish to ask the Deputy Leader to consider the very serious issue of assaults on psychiatric nurses. In 1993 three nurses were stabbed in Artane and one of them has not worked since. They were not paid compensation and, after a long and arduous process, the HSE eventually decided to create a scheme for nurses that would provide a degree of compensation for injuries and assaults causing injury. However, the proposals breached the commitment given to the union by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, which set out that any nurses’ scheme should be consistent with the guidelines of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. The PIAB asserts that a broken nose is worth €15,000 to €20,000 in compensation but under the nurses’ scheme it is worth €3,000. Similarly, a limb fracture was valued at €15,000 to €83,000 by the PIAB but is valued at only €3,000 under the nurses’ scheme. This is a sad reflection of how psychiatric nurses are treated by the Minister and the Department of Health and Children. An urgent review is necessary.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association started industrial action today in the form of a ban on overtime. Psychiatric services are in desperate need of a serious evaluation of service standards and the types of challenges that face psychiatric nurses every day. We are all too aware of the issues that affect people with mental health disorders in our society and I will not belittle them. There is an urgent need for this scheme to be put in place for nurses, particularly psychiatric nurses. The Labour Court recommendation, which was agreed, must have a meaningful value for nurses and compensate them accordingly when injured on duty.
Senator John Hanafin: I wish to raise a question about the Irish Council for Bioethics. It appears the council’s board is “independable”. “Independable” to me means they have the gloss of independence but are entirely dependable to give the result required. Recently, by a margin of 13 to nil, its board came to a decision that affects life. Approximately 60% of the country holds pro-life views, yet 13 people on a committee, unanimously, made a decision that affects life. State funding is going to this organisation and the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. Out of the 38 members of each body’s board, only one spoke out for pro-life values.
I inquired of the mathematics department at University College Dublin as to the chances of this voting record happening arbitrarily. It is statistically improbable at the least. People are being chosen for committees because of their “independability”; in other words they can be depended on to do what is required of them. This is unacceptable with State funding. It is important the Irish Medical Council will have truly independent people appointed to its board.
Senator Liam Twomey: With regard to Senator Hanafin’s comments, both bodies were established and their boards appointed by Ministers. As for the Irish Medical Council, half its members are appointed by the Government and the other half elected by doctors. It has nothing to do with statistics. It is the Government’s job.
There is more hypocrisy in the House today. The only consistency shown by the other side of the House is in its criticism of the HSE. Yet, every time the House has a division on a health issue, Members on the other side fully praise the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney. They cannot have it both ways.
The problems with the HSE go back to how the Government established the HSE and, in turn, failed utterly to reform the health services. I call on the Deputy Leader to have an honest debate on what is happening in the health services with homeless people dying on the streets, the lack of mental health services across the country and, particularly, the severe budget cuts coming down the track in the second half of the year.
The Government side claims it has nothing to do with it because it is the responsibility of the HSE. It is the responsibility of the Government. I am looking for honesty from Government representatives instead of speaking out of both sides of their mouths. There are problems with the HSE but the Government side refuses to acknowledge this. They claim the Minister for Health and Children is doing a great job. If she were, why are people dying in our hospitals because of hospital acquired infections? Will the Government side answer that question honestly?
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: For a start it is because some medical personnel do not wash their hands.
Senator Liam Twomey: The Government should do something about it instead of washing its own hands.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I always wash my hands.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Like Pontius Pilate.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: I agree with my fellow Kerrymen, Senators Joe O’Toole and Paul Coghlan, in their welcoming of the decision by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, on the Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis issue. He has shown the wisdom of Solomon on the matter and I hope both sides will be satisfied with his verdict. I know I will be.
I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Trevor Sargent, who yesterday launched the organic farming action plan. Will the Deputy Leader invite the Minister of State to outline to the House the imaginative programme he has in mind? It is a challenging document, which seeks to achieve 5% of all farming to be organic by 2012. He has made remarkable progress in the area. Any farmer with 55 hectares or more in the REP scheme can switch to organic farming and receive grant aid in excess of €20,000 for the first two years and €16,000 per annum thereafter without having to apply for REPS 4.
The Union of Students in Ireland are lobbying Members today on problems faced by students. It has presented a very good case. The most critical problem for students at present and one of several problems raised by the union is the matter of student accommodation. I understand the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has promised that there will be a report on this matter. I ask that the Minister expedite the publication of this report and that the Deputy Leader would secure this.
I support the comments of my colleague, Senator Larry Butler, on the issue of various bugs in hospitals. We have seen problems in hospitals throughout the country. There seems to be a new super-bug appearing every so often. There have been deaths in hospitals as a result, whether it is Ennis or Loughlinstown hospitals. Recently the mother of a friend of mine, a woman of advanced years but in reasonably good health, was admitted to a hospital in County Kerry. One week later she succumbed to one of these bugs and is now unfortunately dead. It is not for Senator Buttimer to challenge the Government on this issue as it is not a matter of finance, but a matter of procedure.
Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Paddy Burke: That is outrageous.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: Bring back the days when we had the beefy matrons and the Reverend Mothers in hospitals with carbolic soap, Jeyes fluid and proper hygiene.
Senator Paul Coghlan: The Senator is trying to grab the headlines.
An Cathaoirleach: I call Senator Ross, without interruption.
Senator Shane Ross: Senator Coghlan spoke on the issue which I wish to raise. It was also raised by one of the Senators on the Government side of the House last week. What has happened to the auctioneering Bill? It has been promised for years. Senator O’Toole and I brought up this matter approximately five years ago and it has been promised every year since then. It is relevant today because, as I am sure the House is aware, there has been a very serious series of incidents where The Irish Times has been fed with false information by auctioneers.
Senator Paul Coghlan: That is right.
Senator Shane Ross: This has resulted in the creation of a false market in housing. This is far more serious than the issue I raised last week regarding the lack of financial regulation in the stock exchange and in other areas. Whereas the problems in these sectors are serious in that there may or may not be factors causing a distortion in the market, in the housing sector there is a false market being created which is leading first time buyers — the most vulnerable people in society — into believing the prices of houses are higher than the actual market price. This behaviour is illegal.
It is vital we discuss this issue as it appears there is no one who can do anything about it. There is no body with authority. The regulatory bodies, despite what Senator Coghlan said, have done nothing. It has been happening under their noses for a long period of time, yet they did nothing until the story was rumbled at the weekend by a newspaper. Now we have a situation where the National Consumer Agency has announced that it would give the auctioneers 48 hours to stop it.
Nothing is to be done about the cases that have already happened. The National Consumer Agency will not prosecute those responsible. For some reason auctioneers have been given an amnesty for the sins already committed and I see no reason why that should happen. I can only draw one conclusion which is that auctioneers are a protected species of rogue in Irish society. They are protected because they have such muscle——
An Cathaoirleach: I prefer that the Senator does not use the word “rogue” to describe any group of people.
Senator Paul Coghlan: The Senator is not referring to me.
Senator Shane Ross: I am referring to rogue auctioneers, I am not being specific about anyone. I am saying there are rogue auctioneers around and about.
An Cathaoirleach: I would prefer if the term was not used.
Senator Shane Ross: The reason they are tolerated is the reason I was interrupted in this House. It is because there are so many of them in the Oireachtas, the Seanad and the county councils. These people must be brought to book.
An Cathaoirleach: I am certainly not one of them, but there are many decent people as well in these organisations and I would not like the term “rogue” put on the auctioneering profession.
Senator Kieran Phelan: Is Senator Coughlan one too?
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Go raibh maith agat. It is with some regret I received An Cathaoirleach’s letter stating that I cannot raise the issue of the consolidation of the department of the marine under the Adjournment because of a lack of ministerial responsibility. The answer spoke for the issue I was trying to address, however I will try to address it another way.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s party is in Government and she may wish to raise it with some people in her party. They may be able to do something about it. The Senator may also be able to raise it at a later stage.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I appreciate the Cathaoirleach’s advice.
Senator Paul Coghlan: It will be handled in due time.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I appreciate the Cathaoirleach’s advice.
When will the Student Support Bill 2008 be before the House? It is reaching a conclusion in the Dáil and it is important that it be passed before the summer recess.
Will the Acting Leader invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House to discuss a serious issue I have encountered in respect of the Control of Dogs Regulations 1998? Some ten breeds described as dangerous are required by the regulations to be on short leads and muzzled when in public places. There is a proliferation of rottweilers and so on around the country. A number of people have approached me concerning dogs of the breeds in question gaining access to private properties. While they have knocked children down, they have not yet mauled anyone. According to the Garda and dog wardens, the dogs are not considered dangerous until they have bitten someone. Will the Minister determine whether there is a gap in legislation, as a dangerous dog outside its owner’s private property should be muzzled? If a person with young children is enduring multiple property incursions by a dangerous dog from nearby, his or her children’s right to move outside their house is being denied. There is a gap in the regulations. Someone need not be mauled before something can be done.
Senator Eugene Regan: While a debate on the referendum Bill on the Lisbon treaty, in respect of which there has been ongoing discussion in the House, has been arranged, I wish to comment on recent polls detailing how narrow the vote on the referendum will be. Judging from the experience of the first Nice treaty referendum, people either do not tend to turn out or vote “No” when there is a lack of information. When there was full information before the second Nice treaty referendum, people turned out and voted “Yes”.
We are in the phase of “Lisbon II” because there has been a period of disinformation and misinformation by the “No” campaign. It is important to record a significant lie made by the “No” campaign, namely, that the Lisbon treaty would jeopardise the 12.5% corporation tax rate. While the economy may be fragile, such statements are not only misleading, but entirely untrue.
Senator Eoghan Harris: Hear, hear.
Senator Eugene Regan: The President of the European Parliament, Mr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, MEP, confirmed in the House that the treaty would have no effect.
Senator Pearse Doherty: We will have a debate.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Regan without interruption.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is important to state that they are lies.
Senator Pearse Doherty: There have been four weeks of statements from the “Yes” campaign.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Doherty will have an opportunity to speak, but I do not want Members interrupting one another.
Senator Eugene Regan: I appreciate the Cathaoirleach’s help. Herr Pöttering confirmed that there would be no impact on Ireland’s corporation tax rate. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, confirmed this position emphatically when speaking at the National Forum on Europe, as did the chairman of the Referendum Commission. It is important to stop this lie. The other lies propagated will be exposed in this second phase of the treaty. Politics should not be based on lies and we all have a responsibility to expose them.
When will the requested debate on the economy occur? There was a time when we could not discuss it. The outgoing Taoiseach stated that there should be no negativity, pessimism or politically motivated attempts to talk down the economy. Last September, the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, stated that the economy’s fundamentals were fine. I ask that those who discuss the deteriorating economy during the debate will not be accused of being unpatriotic.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Tááthas orm go bhfuil socrú ann maidir le “Dingle — Daingean Uí Chúis”. Ní dóigh liom go gcabhraíonn conspóid den tsaghas seo le chur chun cinn na Gaeilge. Is cinnte nach bhfuil sé i ndáil leis an dea-thoil atá ann don teanga ar fud na tíre. Bheadh sé i bhfad níos fearr coimhlint den sórt seo a sheachaint, más féidir.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Hear, hear.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Tugaim faoi ndeara le blianta fada anuas an dea-thoil atá ann don Ghaeilge. Tá an t-aontas atá ann i leith na Gaeilge thar a bheith soiléir sa Teach seo. Is é sin an bunchloch is fearr. Má fhéachaimid siar ar stair na Gaeilge, tógfaimid faoi ndeara go raibh go leor easaontas ann le blianta fada. Is minic gur bhain easaontas den tsaghas sin leis an pholaitíocht. Ní chóir go mbainfeadh an teanga náisiúnta le polaitíocht pháirtí ar chor ar bith. Tááthas orm go bhfuil deireadh leis an ré sin. Aontaím go mbeadh sé an-chabhrach cuireadh a thabhairt don Aire teacht anseo chun an ábhar seo, agus rudaí eile dearfacha atá déanta le tamall bhig anuas, a phlé. B’fhiú tuarascáil an gcoimisinéir teanga agus an gradam nua atá ag an Ghaeilge a phlé freisin. Dúirt mé cheana go raibh mé an-sásta leis an óráid a thug an Tánaiste, ina dhúirt sé go mbeidh an Ghaeilge mar thús áite aige in aon obair a bheidh idir lámha aige.
It would be helpful to invite the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, or the Tánaiste, who has also expressed interest in the language, to attend the House. I am glad the Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis controversy has faded into the background because it did not help the goodwill that exists for the language or further the efforts which have been made to promote it. Virtually everybody agrees that a new environment has developed for the language and it would be nice to be kept up to date on developments.
Senator David Norris: I received a strong letter from Professor Patricia Casey demanding that I retract unscripted statements I made on the Order of Business some time ago. I am happy to take this opportunity to do so. I had suggested that in evidence in the High Court in the Zappone case she gave an inaccurate and misleading account of research. Professor Casey pointed out that the research was published after she gave that evidence and, in fact, she was becomingly modest in the case. According to the summary by Ms Justice Dunne, Professor Casey, “confirmed that she herself had not carried out or published any studies on same sex relationships”, which makes one wonder why she subsequently engaged in controversy in The Irish Times through articles and letters in which she quoted this research.
I would like to be accurate for the record by noting that the author of one of the reports cited by Professor Casey in her articles and letters, Anna Sarkadi, wrote in a letter to The Irish Times that, “we feel it is important that conclusions based on our research results are correct and truthful to what the original design of the study allows...Prof Casey’s conclusion...is not valid based on our findings.” Professor Casey also referred to UNICEF, in which regard a letter was written to The Irish Times by Melanie Verwoerd, executive director of Unicef Ireland stating, “Prof Casey’s reference to Unicef, with regard to the current debate on same-sex marriage and parenting, is incorrect and unacceptable.” It also flew in the face of the report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the Australian Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychological Association, the Royal College of Psychiatry, the National Association of Social Workers in the USA and the American Psychiatric Association. Therefore, Professor Casey’s modesty in the High Court was well-earned and very honest.
I am happy to correct the information once again, although it has been already corrected by my colleague, Senator Mullen.
Senator Rónán Mullen: And I support Professor Casey’s conclusions.
Senator David Norris: I am happy to confirm this matter. Since the original offence was not published, I am at a loss to find how she suffered any substantial damage to her reputation. I hope, however, this will restore her reputation in the eyes of the public and the courts.
I regularly listen to the radio and I have heard about politicians being chastised for writing letters in rape cases. Yesterday, a horrible performance took place on the airwaves in which a Roman Catholic priest was savagely and venomously impugned by a hysterical mob who set upon him because he practised on air the virtues of Christ in the Gospels. I find that outrageous.
Senator Eoghan Harris: Hear, hear.
Senator David Norris: A vengeful and nasty spirit is abroad and the question of sexual abuse by priests within the church was, most unfairly, added to the equation. That man is a Christ-like figure who deserves to be commended. He also felt strongly for the Polish girl who was the victim of the assault. This is a nasty trend in the media that should be stopped. I recall writing for a newspaper some years ago that carried a front page headline stating, “Connell Visits Pervert Priests in Prison”. I took an article in the newspaper the next day to ask where else should he be in the footsteps of Christ except visiting the sinners? There is a nastiness abroad and we should call a halt to it.
Senator Paddy Burke: I support Senator Fitzgerald’s amendment to the Order of Business. I am disappointed with the Minister for Health and Children in regard to the pharmacy dispute. She put in place an independent committee but nothing appears to have happened. A report has been published but no progress appears to have been made regarding this dispute. Even at this late stage something should happen immediately because we are in a dangerous position. Patients and medical card holders are anxious to know what will happen. The pharmacists are anxious also. The Minister should come into the House as a matter of urgency and inform Members on the up to date position in regard to this issue.
Regarding Transport 21, many projects have been postponed. Will the Deputy Leader indicate the number that have been postponed and when they will come on stream? I call for a debate on that issue.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I ask the Deputy Leader for a debate on maternity services. Speakers have called for debates on other aspects of the health services but it is important for us to focus on the state of maternity services in our hospitals. I met last week with an organisation called the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services — Ireland, a group formed last year by mothers dissatisfied with the services they had encountered in hospitals. They are a consumer-led campaign group, the members of which I understand have already met the Minister and who are prioritising, in particular, the publication of annual clinical reports and statistics on maternity hospitals. It is appalling that in 2008 we still do not have full statistics, for example, on rates of induction and Caesarian sections across our hospitals. Such a proper reporting system would also help us to pick up on serious deviations from the norm and bring about prevention of future appalling tragedies like the Dr. Neary tragedy. The creation of national guidelines for clinical practice in maternity care is another priority for the association. We should have a debate on that and on a national independent auditing body for maternity services.
We would do better in this House if we debated positive steps to improve maternity and reproductive health services rather than spending our time criticising and sniping at independent experts who have been appointed by the Government to deal with issues such as the bioethics issue addressed earlier. We should not impugn the integrity and independence of such experts simply because some Members do not like the results or outcome of their research. I do not believe there is such a word as “independability”. That amounts to impugning the integrity of experts and we should be cautious before we do that.
Senator Ivor Callely: Will the Deputy Leader arrange to provide us with a briefing document that would clarify the situation that prevails regarding the discussions with the pharmacists on the reimbursement issue and the new contract? Those two issues are a source of concern to community pharmacists and the general public.
Could we also get clarity on the issue of contingency plans, which we were advised by the Minister for Health and Children were in place but I understand they are only being worked on? I am somewhat confused because we heard from the Minister some weeks ago that the Health Service Executive had all this in order but now at the 12th hour we are led to believe that may not be the position.
I seek a detailed report on the issue of homelessness. What funding is available to tackle homelessness, what agencies receive the funding and what service do we obtain for the funding provided to each agency? When we receive such a detailed brief, I ask that we have a special debate on homelessness in the House.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I join with Senator Fitzgerald in calling for a debate on the Health Service Executive, particularly relating to the issue of homelessness. The “Prime Time” programme last night revealed that seven people died on the streets over Easter in the capital city of Ireland. We are told this was down to a lack of resourcing involving facilities and staffing.
I put it to the Deputy Leader that this is not good enough in a modern, 21st-century Ireland. Last night, immediately after the programme was aired, I walked from the top of Grafton Street to the bottom and seven people were sleeping homeless or begging on the main thoroughfare of our capital city. It is a sad indictment of the legacy of this Government. In the words of the eminent Fr. Harry Bohan, “The Celtic tiger, wonderful though it is, may have made us lose touch with people, roots and soul”. That is the legacy and we need a debate on the matter.
With regard to the issue of MRSA, it is not about having beefy matrons or contract cleaners; it is about enhancing the role of part-time and contract workers and having political accountability in the running of the Department of Health and Children and HSE. We should have a debate that is honest and genuine. Those on the other side of the House should stop playing one game, going into parliamentary party meetings and chastising Ministers in private before going out in public to march with them.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Are we being told what to do?
Senator Jerry Buttimer: We should have accountability. Those on the other side of the House should vote with the people of Ireland rather than to save their seats.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I add my support to Senator Fitzgerald’s amendment to the Order of Business. My first area of concern is the pharmacy dispute. I have discovered over the past few days, through phone calls and meeting people, that there is a real fear among older and sick people across this country about access to medication. It is now clear that contingency plans were not in place and the proper independent mediator established at the outset should have been left in place and adhered to by the Minister. It is very wrong. I ask the Deputy Leader that a statement on the dispute be made before the conclusion of business.
I concur with remarks on homelessness. What struck me most remarkably about the “Prime Time” programme last night was the fact we have state of the art buildings available to homeless people. As a result of embargoes on staffing and ludicrous reductions of expenditure in penny-pinching of an irrelevant type, the buildings are not being staffed and used. That is criminal beyond measure. I ask the Deputy Leader to address that question and have the Minister face the issue in the House.
Senator Ormonde raised the issue of alcohol. I am a great believer that it can be best addressed through a legislative framework and regulation. I put it to the Cathaoirleach and the Deputy Leader in particular that the proposition should be debated here and brought before Government that we put in place an infrastructure for the young people in this country to give them an alternative. In every town in the country there should be a drop-in café for young people. This could be achieved cheaply and could result in a very effective social centre and alternative to the drink culture.
An Cathaoirleach: I ask the Senator to finish as a number of speakers are not going to get in.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I assume that when the father of the House, Senator Ross, was addressing the question of what he describes as rogue auctioneers, and then generously and correctly stated a number were not so, he had the Cathaoirleach and my colleague, Senator Coghlan, on top of the latter list.
An Cathaoirleach: I am not one of those auctioneering people. The time is practically up.
Senator Paul Bradford: The Deputy Leader and his party leader often make a political point, agreed by many, that climate change is the biggest political issue facing the country and the globe
The real crisis the world faces relates to a shortage of food and the possibility of major famines and general hunger. This is happening at the same time agriculture is experiencing major difficulties as a result of the desire to reduce rather than increase production. I request an early debate on matters such as the increasing number of food shortages. The latter is evidenced by the fact that in the past five to six years the world consumed significantly more food than it produced. We must aspire to ensure that the farmlands of Ireland, Europe and the world are used to produce animals and food in order to cater for the needs of humanity.
The crisis relating to the dire and alarming number of food shortages is even greater than that of climate change. It requires urgent political attention, particularly in the context of the forthcoming WTO negotiations. We are attempting to resolve this problem in the wrong way.  We must ensure that agriculture in Ireland and throughout Europe is strengthened, not weakened. Irish farmers and their European counterparts should be paid premiums to produce food, not to allow their lands to lie fallow.
An Cathaoirleach: Some Members are still offering. I will try to take them all if they keep their contributions brief.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Ba mhaith liom cur leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Ó Tuathail ag cuartú díospóireachta ar chúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta. D’iarr mise go dtarlódh seo tamall fada ó shin agus d’iarr Seanadóirí eile, ina measc an Seanadóir Brian Ó Domhnaill, an rud céanna. Tá an díospóireacht sin práinneach. Tá an tuarascáil againn agus tá sé ráite ann go bhfuil 15 bliana fágtha ag an nGaeltacht. Ba cheart go mbeadh plé sa Seanad fá dtaobh den cheist sin.
Ba mhaith liom fosta iarraidh ar an Leas-Cheannaire ceist a chur ar an tAire Sláinte agus Leanaí, an Teachta Mary Harney, a theacht isteach go dtí an Seanad. There is no doubt the Minister must return to the House. On the previous occasion she appeared, the Minister referred to so-called cutbacks. Regardless of the spin relating to figures and increases at budget time, patients do not care about the additional funding being made available to the HSE. All these people are concerned about is why hospitals are reinstating service levels that applied two years ago. The hospitals are going backward rather than forward. Patients on medical cards are concerned when they cannot have their prescriptions filled immediately. The Minister cannot answer questions in respect of these matters.
As stated in last week’s debate on patient safety, the Government is hiding behind the Minister and she is hiding behind the HSE. It is time we engaged in an honest debate regarding all the issues that affect the health service. A Senator on the Government side referred to the need for people to wash their hands in order to stop the spread of MRSA. Everyone knows that is an important factor. However, isolation units and additional beds are also important. I am familiar with a nursing home in Donegal where, on foot of cutbacks, there are no cooking staff available at weekends and where a carer who is charged with looking after two patients with MRSA is obliged to enter the kitchen and prepare food. That is why MRSA is prevalent across the health system.
I interrupted Senator Regan when he was referring to the Lisbon treaty because some weeks ago when I informed the House that Fine Gael and Labour MEPs support the Pisani-Ferry report on tax harmonisation across the EU, the Cathaoirleach stated that I should leave the matter until the debate on the Bill. We have already had a month’s worth of statements on this matter. I am the only person in this Chamber who will publicly vote against the Lisbon treaty.
Senator David Norris: No, the Senator is not the only person who will be doing so. I will be joining him.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I am glad to hear that.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Doherty should be brief. The time for the Order of Business is exhausted.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I have not been allowed to comment on this matter but I hope I will be given the opportunity to do so tomorrow.
An Cathaoirleach: There will be a debate on the Bill and the Senator will have an opportunity to contribute to it.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Senator Norris and Sinn Féin.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I support calls for a debate on the HSE and the health service. Today, we have already heard about deaths from hospital acquired infections, homeless people dying in the streets and difficulties with psychiatric services, pharmacists, etc. Yesterday, I rang a community welfare officer in Waterford on behalf of a person who was seeking assistance by means of the housing aid for the elderly scheme. I was informed that applications relating to the scheme have not been dealt with for many months as a result of staff shortages. Community welfare officers have been instructed not to deal with these applications.
This is an attack on the elderly people in our community. Their applications have not even been acknowledged and will not be addressed until staff shortages have been attended to. This is diabolical. The HSE is in an absolute mess and the sooner people on the Government side of the House agree that is so, the better. They should do something about it. That is what the public want. When will the all-party motion on Zimbabwe be dealt with?
An Cathaoirleach: I call on Senator Mullen to contribute briefly. I have one more speaker to take, although I should not. I am breaking the rules.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I enjoyed Senator Norris’s delightfully mischievous clarification of matters as requested by Professor Patricia Casey. On the basis of what he quoted from Professor Casey, it is important to note that she——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should put a question to the Deputy Leader on the Order of Business.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I will do so but I wish to make a point of clarification in defence of a person who is not present. Professor Casey is one of the few people who has not sought to steal a march by misquoting. Like the Swedish researchers, she is conducting a review of the research available, which shows the importance of involved fathering. With due regard to some people who may not like that, it is difficult to see how a lesbian couple, however loving they might be, can provide for involved fathering, which is what all the research shows to be important.
Senator David Norris: That is the Senator’s ideological bias.
An Cathaoirleach: We are not going back on that discussion again.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I support what Senator Ormonde said about the issue of drink driving. I note the Government has decided it will note the recommendation from the Road Safety Authority on the proposed reduction of the legal blood-alcohol limit. It is important for us to have a debate about this. Last week, Senator O’Toole called for the evidence to show the link between road fatalities and the relevant blood-alcohol limit. Research from 2003 shows that where alcohol was involved in road deaths, one quarter of those involved were below the legal limit. It is important for us to discuss the matter but, as Senator Ormonde said, we should do so in context. If we are to change the limit, we need to examine the penalties so that we will have public support at all times for whatever is proposed and the fabric of our community life will not be endangered by a law which might be well intentioned but not properly thought out or contextualised.
Senator John Paul Phelan: I echo the sentiments of my colleague, Senator Bradford, concerning the emerging food shortages that have come to light across the globe in recent weeks. When does the Deputy Leader envisage we will have a discussion on the World Trade Organisation talks? It was supposed to happen during the week of the former President Hillery’s funeral. I was hoping the debate would take place this week but I earnestly request that it should occur next week at the latest.
I also join Senator Fitzgerald and others who have sought a debate on the health service. One aspect of the service which clearly did work was the community drugs scheme, yet it seems appalling that the scheme is on the verge of collapse. The Government and the Health Service Executive in particular have not done sufficient work to try to resolve the matter before that collapse comes about. The discussion on the health service should include the emerging problem with general practitioner numbers. Yesterday, I heard an astonishing statistic that 50% of GPs in this country are due to retire within the next ten years and we do not have sufficient places for medical students to fill these positions.
I join Senators O’Sullivan and Keaveney in wishing to know when the Student Support Bill will come to the House. I understand it is being taken on Second Stage in the Lower House at the moment. Senator O’Sullivan referred to the issue of accommodation. Eight months ago a commitment was given by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to establish a task force on accommodation for third level students, but it has not yet been acted upon. Perhaps the Deputy Leader will divulge when it will be.
Senator Dan Boyle: Many Members raised the question of the health service, including Senators Fitzgerald, Coghlan, Butler, Prendergast, Hanafin, Twomey, O’Sullivan, Burke, Bacik, Callely, Buttimer, O’Reilly, Doherty, Cummins and John Paul Phelan. A request has been made not to accept the Order of Business on the basis of discussing many of the items outlined by Senator Fitzgerald in her opening contribution. There are a number of difficulties in acceding to that request. First, the time required to arrange for a Minister to be available to attend the House is not consistent with allowing such a debate to take place today. Second, the agenda for such a debate is far too wide-ranging. Requests from Members have included a revision of HSE services, threatened industrial action, the pharmacists dispute, homelessness and the situation regarding general practitioners.
The area of health has not lacked discussion in this House and the Minister for Health and Children has been a regular contributor to such debates here. I am confident that at the earliest opportunity we will be able to return to some or all of these matters for debate. However, it ill behoves the House to become directly involved in some of them because the hope lies in ongoing activity elsewhere, especially concerning the pharmacists’ dispute. It is best left to the independent people who have been appointed in that area to seek a resolution.
The wider question of issues such as homelessness does deserve a debate in the House. Many of us were taken by the contents of the Prime Time programme last night. I can inform the House that publication of the homelessness strategy, as promised in the programme for Government, is imminent. It will allow for a debate in the House on how that ongoing problem is being tackled. It is not just a problem concerning the lack of economic opportunity for those concerned because the issues of substance abuse and mental health are also involved. It requires a co-ordinated approach and the provision of health services for homeless people is a particularly important part of that. I hope Members of the House can contribute to that debate when it takes place.
Senators O’Toole, Ó Murchú, Coghlan and Doherty referred to the decision by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to recognise the plebiscite that has been held in Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis about the naming of that town. Senator O’Toole also welcomed that the Green Paper on local government reform, which is up for consultation at the moment, encourages the idea of a greater use of plebiscites for local decision making. I hope many Members of the House will agree to that when the White Paper and subsequent legislation are published.
There were further requests for the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to address the House on wider issues, especially concerning the promotion and standard of the Irish language as well as the recent report of an Coimisinéir Teanga. There have been several requests for the Minister to attend the House and it is hoped that he will do so at the earliest opportunity. Given the events scheduled in the Dáil next week, none of us can presume who will be serving in what portfolio. That will determine who can come to the House and when.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Or if they will be in that portfolio.
Senator Dan Boyle: I will not even go that far.
Senator Paul Bradford: Is the Senator ready to vote?
Senator Dan Boyle: I am not going that far especially. Senator Hannigan welcomed the Taoiseach’s address today to the joint Houses of Congress. Everyone here will be happy to be associated with those remarks. He also referred to the need to address tourism issues and the role of Irish emigrants. I am sure these themes will be addressed. The Senator also asked about the recent ESRI report which fits in with a contribution from Senator Regan on the current state of the economy. This side of the House is open for a debate on the economy at any time. The statistics concerning consumer confidence are affected by media and political comment because we are not experiencing a recession. The worst we are experiencing is a slowdown in the rate of economic growth.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Come off it.
Senator Dan Boyle: This is still a prosperous economy.
Senator Eugene Regan: They are still in denial.
Senator Dan Boyle: It is far more prosperous than many of our neighbouring and competing economies.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Who talked down the economy?
Senator Dan Boyle: Anyone who is involved in political debate should honestly admit that.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Senator has changed his tune. He has bought into the Government position.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Boyle without interruption, please.
Senator Dan Boyle: Senator Ormonde mentioned the impending legislation on alcohol, which has been raised on the Order of Business before now, particularly the report of the alcohol advisory group. Senator Mullen referred to the recommendation of the Road Safety Authority concerning the blood-alcohol level.
It has been widely accepted that a debate on this issue would be useful. I will discuss with the Leader how it can be facilitated at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Coghlan asked about the Kenmare river special area of conservation. I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am confident the proper procedures will be followed in terms of public advertising and consultation about it. There was also a question about the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is still before the Dáil and is awaiting Committee Stage, which is dependent on the committee having time to deal with it. The committee is currently dealing with the Immigration and Residency Bill and other important legislation.
Senator Butler asked about the situation at St. Colmcille’s Hospital and the deaths that have occurred as a result of MRSA. It probably would be of interest to have a debate on MRSA. I understand standards are improving slightly although Ireland still compares badly. It is on the same level as countries such as the UK and the United States but is far below best practice that exists in Denmark. There are numerous reports on the matter. It is a question of having proper management in place in the health service and in individual hospitals to enforce standards. A debate would help bring that about.
Senator Prendergast spoke about the dangers experienced by psychiatric nurses, while Senator Bacik brought up the issue of maternity services. Legislation on nurses and midwives is due before the House within the next 18 months and this would be the proper vehicle for discussing the services and conditions of nurses in the health service and the provision of maternity services. We will find out when that Bill can be introduced in the House.
Senator Hanafin asked about the bioethics board and the opinions of people appointed to the board. I would hope that every member of our society is pro-life, although it depends on how one defines that.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Dan Boyle: The issue of how boards are appointed and who appoints them is open to political debate. Members should be aware that the forthcoming broadcasting Bill will include a provision for the involvement of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in appointments to new State bodies in the broadcasting sector. The committee will be the vehicle for making those appointments. That is a new departure whereby Members can take responsibility for how people are appointed and how they should act in the public realm.
Senator O’Sullivan asked about organic farming and the rural environment protection scheme and welcomed the strategy produced by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Trevor Sargent. I will convey that welcome to the Minister of State. I believe he would be willing to come to the House to debate it.
That debate might include the issue of food shortages which was raised by Senator Bradford and Senator John Paul Phelan. Agriculture has an important role in meeting the challenges of global food shortages. The debate should be as wide ranging as possible. Not only are there risks of food shortages internationally due to imported bio-fuels, and we could grow bio-fuels easily in this country and not bring about food shortages, there is also the question of getting the balance right between tillage crops and reliance on meat. The amount of food grown to feed animals, cattle and pigs is also a contributing factor in causing food shortages. The debate could also focus on the effects of that. The issue is that there be an appropriate balance in agriculture. I believe every Member of the House could contribute to that debate.
Senator O’Sullivan mentioned the Union of Students in Ireland while Senator John Paul Phelan asked about the commitment to the task force on accommodation. I understand the Minister is to introduce a report on how that procedure can be followed. The task force reported a number of years ago and brought about some changes in student accommodation. Some of those recommendations resulted in tax reliefs under section 50 of the Finance Act.  However, those reliefs are about to expire and there is a need to re-examine the issue of student accommodation. I am confident the Minister will make a statement on it.
Senator Keaveney and Senator John Paul Phelan asked about the Student Support Bill. It is being discussed in the Dáil and will be sent to the appropriate select committee. I am confident the Seanad will have an opportunity to discuss the Bill before the summer recess.
Senator Norris and Senator Mullen raised points on which I cannot comment because they did not have anything to do with the Order of Business. Perhaps the Senators might deal with the matter outside this Chamber.
Senator Burke referred to Transport 21. I accept we should have a debate on this. Transport 21 is progressing well in some areas. Many of the roads projects, for example, are either on or are ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the public transport infrastructure. If we investigate, debate why that is happening and it encourages the appropriate agencies, such as the Railway Procurement Agency, to advance the public transport initiatives in Transport 21, the House will have done a good job.
Senator Callely asked for a briefing document on the pharmacists’ dispute. I presume that is possible. I will inquire and ask that Members be provided with it. Members are conscious of the 1 May deadline and it would be useful to be as well informed as possible.
The Senator also asked about the funding available to the various agencies that deal with the homeless. I will try to acquire that information although it is likely that the homelessness strategy will contain much of it.
Senator Bradford and Senator John Paul Phelan asked about the World Trade Organisation talks. I understand the Minister is available and we are endeavouring to allocate time next week for that debate.
Senator Keaveney asked about the Control of Dogs Act and whether the regulations can be modified. I will inquire about it from the Minister but an animal welfare Bill, which will consolidate much of the legislation in this area, will be brought forward within the next 18 months.
Question put: “That the Order of Business be agreed to.”
The Seanad divided: Tá, 25; Níl, 21.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Corrigan, Maria.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||White, Mary M.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Twomey, Liam.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Maurice Cummins.
Question declared carried.
Sitting suspended at 4 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for Europe, Deputy Dick Roche, back to the House. No. 1 on the Order of Business is An Bille um Ochtú Leasú is Fiche ar an mBunreacht 2008: An Dara Céim — the Twenty-eight Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2008: Second Stage. No. 18 is a motion pursuant to section 23 of the Referendum Act 1994 prescribing a formal statement for the information of voters to be included on the polling card and will be debated in conjunction with Second Stage of the Bill. It will be formally moved when the debate on the Bill is concluded.
Tairgeadh an cheist: “Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois.”
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I thank Senators for delaying the start of business today. I am not quite certain what the confusion was. However, as I was in the Czech Senate three short hours ago, I am very pleased to be here now. I am very grateful to Members and I hope it did not inconvenience any Member of this House.
I am pleased to introduce into the Seanad, on behalf of the Government, the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, which has completed its passage through Dáil Éireann. Through this Bill, the Government proposes to hold a referendum seeking the approval of the people to ratify the EU reform treaty. The importance of this referendum can hardly be overstated. It is the culmination of a prolonged period of consultation, reflection and negotiation. This process began in December 2001 with the convening of the European Convention, a unique experiment involving national governments and parliaments together with the EU institutions. It considerably broadened the debate about changes to EU structures and procedures, and ended with the treaty signed in Lisbon on 13 December 2007.
Throughout this period the Government carefully examined and assessed each proposal, and ensured that whatever was agreed was in our interest and that of the wider Union. The Government also facilitated a broad-based consideration of developments under the auspices of the National Forum on Europe, where representatives of a wide spectrum of public and civil-society opinion have engaged in lengthy debate over the future direction of the European Union. It is often said that the European project is cobbled together in backrooms. It is often said that treaties are put together away from the eyes of the citizens of the Union. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. The Convention on the Future of Europe was a convention of 200 men and women drawn from the parliaments and governments of the 27 states and from the institutions of the European Union. It did its work in public. It listened to and consulted with the public. It is important to put that on the record because one of the distortions often made in the debate here is that somehow or other it was put together in secret. It certainly was not.
The Government is pleased to recognise the overwhelming support in the Oireachtas for the reform treaty. The referendum Bill was passed by the Dáil with a mere five Deputies expressing their opposition to it. The reform treaty represents the views of the vast majority of the democratically elected Members in Dáil Éireann and, I am sure, in this House also. We are men and women who serve our country and although we differ on politics we do not differ on this matter. This reflects the deep understanding across the political spectrum of the essential role played by the European Union over more than three decades in the development of our country, society and economy and that the Oireachtas was directly represented in the Convention.
We were unique at the Convention on the Future of Europe in that Government and Opposition came together. We had people from across the political spectrum in the Convention on the Future of Europe. Former Deputy John Bruton served on the presidium. Proinsias De Rossa, MEP served with extraordinary distinction on the social Europe group. It was my privilege to replace Mr. Ray MacSharry representing the Government. Deputies Pat Carey and the Minister, Deputy Gormley, also came out to represent the Dáil. The political spectrum in Ireland was represented in the Convention.
Support for this treaty transcends normal political divides. Ratification of the treaty is a true national priority. It is notable that even those opposing the reform treaty now feel obliged to claim — I would say falsely — that they are strong supporters of the European Union. These treaty opponents know that outright opposition to the Union would gain them few votes. However, their support for the Union is paper thin and unconvincing. Opponents of the reform treaty rarely say a good word about Europe aside from ritual claims that they are somehow mysteriously pro-European. Their deeds indicate otherwise.
The only Oireachtas party campaigning against the reform treaty, Sinn Féin, has an extraordinary record in this regard. At least one could say it is a record of consistency. Sinn Féin has opposed every European treaty since we voted on accession to the EEC. However, it still claims to be pro-Europe. It has a funny way of showing it. The reality is that either Sinn Féin members do not understand the EU and how it operates, or they are opportunistically dressing themselves in a cloak of concern for a mythical better deal for Ireland. To give one example: Sinn Féin argued in Dáil Éireann that the treaty should not be ratified unless Ireland secured a specific protocol guaranteeing that we could continue making our own decisions on taxation. This proposal typifies Sinn Féin’s duplicitous approach. First, it ignores the fact that the Government has absolutely ensured that we will continue to make our own decisions on taxation, including of course corporation taxation, by the maintenance of unanimity in this area.
It was not just the Irish Government or the Irish political representatives who went to the Convention who were interested in retaining unanimity. Other governments in Europe want to maintain unanimity in this area, not for any selfish or self-interested reasons, but because we believe that taxation is directly related to democracy. In the words of the President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, addressing the National Forum on Europe earlier this month, “one thing is already crystal clear — no member state, either under the current rules or under the Lisbon treaty, can be obliged to accept a tax proposal to which it objects”. The chairman of the independent and impartial Referendum Commission, Mr. Justice O’Neill, has also confirmed this in the clearest and most unequivocal language.
Sinn Féin’s proposal for a protocol on taxation is redundant. The opportunism of Sinn Féin is astonishing. Barely 12 months ago, the same party was calling for a near 50% increase in our corporation tax rate, and for perhaps a trebling of the rate in respect of financial institutions. Mr. Adams, MLA, MP, will finally appear before the National Forum on Europe tomorrow, having dodged the forum to date. I look forward to him answering questions on that matter. I somehow doubt that Irish business people or those employed in multinational companies in Ireland believe that Sinn Féin is the party to look after their interests.
The Libertas group has also cynically claimed to be pro-Europe while denouncing anything and everything to do with the European Union. The people will be wary of such false friends. Farmers will want to note that the leader of this self-appointed think tank, who warns against “Mandelson’s Europe”, wants to abolish completely the Common Agricultural Policy, which has been the bedrock of Irish agricultural production for 30 years, and which has brought immense benefits to rural families. I want to put this on the record of the House because I was challenged on this point recently by one of the multifarious spokespersons of Libertas. He said I was misquoting Mr. Ganly. In order to make certain that I did not, I looked up an article written by that gentleman entitled “Europe’s Direction? a Voice from Ireland”, published in 11 March 2003. In discussing the invasion of Iraq, which that gentleman supported, he chastised the democratic leaders of a number of European states for daring to argue about weapons of mass destruction. He stated:
I put this on the record because I was accused twice recently of misquoting this gentleman or making much of words that had slipped out somehow or other. Later in the article he stated:
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear. Well said.
Deputy Dick Roche: He may be well said. I do not believe it is right to support the impoverishment of rural families nor the downgrading of agricultural and rural life. I do not believe, in terms of infrastructural development, we should rob Peter to pay Paul. I believe there are more appropriate ways of approaching this matter. I made the quotations because this gentleman, who proposes that he is somehow a friend of Irish farmers, wants to end the CAP. Some Senators may agree with that goal but I do not.
It would not be appropriate to devote any more time to these organisations and their hollow arguments or to their dubious rationale. Their myths have been exposed and their yarns are beginning to unravel. I would instead like to turn to the substance of the Bill and outline its specific provisions. The substance of the proposed amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann is set out in the schedule, containing what, if approved by the people, will be subsections 10° to 15° of Article 29.4 of the Constitution.
The proposed subsection 10° provides that the State may ratify the reform treaty and be a member of the European Union provided for in the treaty. This is straightforward and reflects the language and approach of previous amendments. It should be noted that the reform treaty creates greater clarity by dispensing with the current and somewhat confusing distinction between the European Union and the European Community. Henceforth there will be a single entity, the European Union. I do not understand why some people find the establishment of a single title to represent different bodies sinister. This is simply an act of common sense.
The proposed new subsection 11° of Article 29.4 mirrors the provision that has been in place since our accession to the EU 35 years ago. It will ensure legal compatibility between the reform treaty and the Constitution. It carries forward the concept of constitutional cover for laws, Acts and measures necessitated by the obligations of our EU membership. It is not, as some might suggest, a sinister legal move; it is in accordance with what has existed for 35 years.
This provision has attracted attention from some opponents of the treaty, who have cynically tried to suggest that it is a new departure and will make our Constitution completely subservient to European law. The truth is that this constitutional provision is as old as our membership of the Union. In essence, this provision means that we agree to implement EU law in areas where we have conferred a specific competence on the EU. European law does not have primacy in any area where the EU does not have a specific competence. Indeed, a very important provision of the reform treaty clarifies the respective competences of the Union and the member states and recognises that ultimate sovereignty lies with the member states. Also, in establishing the principle of conferral, it makes it clear the Union has no powers other than those it is given by member states. It also clarifies that powers given to the EU by member states can be taken back.
The wording I have outlined reflects the general principle of international law, recognised since 1937 by Article 29.3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, that states must comply with international legal obligations freely undertaken by them in the exercise of their sovereignty. Bunreacht na hÉireann will continue to be the basic legal document of the State and Irish sovereignty is fully protected. It is important to make this point because the sovereignty argument has been recycled in every referendum since 1972.
The new subsection 12° provides for the State to avail of certain options and discretions and to agree to certain legal acts under the treaty on foot of the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. This has been portrayed as somehow sinister by those who wish to distort the facts. The subsection updates the provisions inserted relating to the treaties of Amsterdam and Nice covering those situations where, because the discretion exists to opt into a given action, Irish participation is not deemed to be legally necessitated by the Union. Some of the provisions, relating to the areas of freedom, security and justice, are specific to Ireland while others, relating to enhanced co-operation, are relevant to all 27 member states.
The new subsection 13° makes specific provision for the possibility of withdrawing, in whole or in part, from the opt-out provided for in the Ireland-UK protocol in the area of freedom, security and justice. We discussed the opt-out at length in this House and many Members felt it was not necessary. This gives us the right to withdraw from the opt-out. The subsection provides that prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas would be a condition for such a withdrawal. This is an important point because we have written into various subsections that positive confirmation from the Houses of the Oireachtas will be necessary. In other words, things cannot simply happen with the passage of time; the Oireachtas will have to approve them.
This subsection relates to an area that was subject to significant change between the constitutional treaty, signed in 2004, and the reform treaty. This is one of the areas of fundamental difference between the two documents. The amendment of the Ireland-UK protocol, which has existed since 1997, extends our existing opt-out arrangement with regard to visas, asylum, immigration and judicial co-operation in civil matters to judicial co-operation in criminal matters and to police co-operation. Due to the sensitive nature of co-operation in this area, and particularly the fact that Ireland, like the UK, has a distinctive common law system of criminal justice that differs from the legal systems in place in the majority of our EU partners, Ireland decided to avail of an extension of these flexible arrangements.
There were mixed views relating to this and I shared such sentiments but what we have done is prudent because it gives Ireland the right to opt in on a case by case basis with the involvement of the Oireachtas. The protocol means that we will be able to choose, on a case by case basis, in which criminal justice or police co-operation measures we will participate. We have clearly indicated, in a declaration attached to the Intergovernmental Conference’s final act, that we will examine how EU policy evolves in this area and review our arrangements within a period of three years.
Ireland has consistently and strongly supported practical EU anti-terrorism measures and concerted action against organised crime and we will continue to do so. For this reason, the declaration annexed to the final act states our clear intention to participate to the maximum extent possible in relevant proposals and particularly in the area of police co-operation. Withdrawal from the opt-out arrangements contained in the protocol would require prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Subsection 14° states that prior approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas would be a condition for action on a number of Articles. This includes the use of the general passerelle provision in the treaty, which allows the European Council, where the member states are unanimously agreed, to change the voting method for a particular Article from unanimity to qualified majority voting, or to extend the co-decision procedure between the Council and the European Parliament, in specified areas — excluding defence and military matters — subject to the right of any national parliament to veto such a change.
It should be emphasised that for this to happen every member state in the European Council would have to agree as would the Government of every member state. Such a measure would have to have the support of the majority of members of the European Parliament and, as we will see, it would need the effective support of every parliament in the European Union. Each parliament in the European Union will have the right of veto. Both Houses of the Oireachtas will have the power to exercise a veto. Ireland has added an additional clause that ensures both Houses of the Oireachtas must agree to such measures proceeding.
The use of specific passerelles relating to the common foreign and security policy, judicial co-operation in regard to family law, the environment, the adoption of the multi-annual financial framework, social security and the use of passerelle mechanisms within enhanced co-operation is covered. It also covers certain decisions in the areas of freedom, security and justice, namely, to extend the scope of judicial co-operation in aspects of criminal procedure in specific areas with a cross-border dimension; to extend the scope of measures concerning the definition of criminal offences and sanctions in the areas of particularly serious crime with a cross-border dimension; and to establish a European public prosecutor office for dealing with crimes affecting the Union’s financial interests. The cross-Border crimes in question are human trafficking, money-laundering, fraud, drugs and arms dealing, crimes every civilised nation wants to stamp out.
This requirement to seek the positive endorsement of the Houses of the Oireachtas in respect of any of these areas enhances the treaty provisions, which allow for a negative veto by any national parliament in the case of the general passerelle.
The new subsection 15 carries forward the prohibition on Irish participation in any future EU common defence. This was originally inserted in the Constitution by the people in October 2002, as part of the approval of the ratification of the Nice treaty. To avoid any possible doubt about the constitutional prohibition on Irish participation in an EU common defence, this subsection refers to the relevant provision from the Nice and the reform treaties. There is no serious proposal for a common EU defence. In any case, a change in Ireland’s position can come about only if the Irish people were to decide so in a referendum.
The Bill allows for a referendum permitting the State to ratify the Lisbon reform treaty. It reaffirms the prohibition on Ireland participating in any common EU defence. It provides for a significant role for the Oireachtas in respect of options and discretion contained in the treaty. It provides uniquely for an extension of powers in the Seanad as it will, as in the case of the Dáil, make a positive affirmation in QMV.
The Bill provides for a vote on Ireland’s continued participation at the heart of Europe. Over decades, Irish people have demonstrated repeatedly their commitment to the European project. They have recognised the immense benefits the country has enjoyed as a result and the benefits that have accrued to the wider continent.
Would a country of our size have more control over the major factors influencing the global economy if it were to stand apart from the Union? The best way to shape our external environment, to deal with international crime and to manage the threat of climate change is to work intensively with our EU partners. The Union has provided the space and the framework for Ireland to fulfil its destiny as a proud, independent and successful nation.
One key purpose of the reform treaty is to improve accountability and enhance the democratic legitimacy of the Union. In particular, the increased role for the European Parliament and national parliaments will strengthen the democratic character of EU legislation. The role of the European Parliament will be strengthened in drawing up the Union’s budget.
The treaty also provides for a strengthened role for national parliaments with regard to draft legislation. The introduction of the yellow card and orange card procedures can be used to oblige the Commission to reconsider legislation if it is felt to conflict with the principle of subsidiarity. The treaty makes national parliaments the guardians of subsidiarity. National parliaments may bring legal challenges to the European Court of Justice if they believe any legislative act breaches that principle.
The Oireachtas and other national parliaments will have a red card in certain areas, allowing them individually to block the movement of a given article from unanimity to QMV. This process is designed to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the Union without distorting the Union’s institutional balance. Some hours ago I discussed this with the Czech Senate’s committee on EU affairs and it was discussed last night in an Oireachtas committee. The level of involvement and the powers given to national parliaments by the treaty are a revolutionary move and a significant innovation.
The new citizens’ initiative is also a significant innovation. One million citizens from several member states may put forward a petition inviting the Commission to bring forward a proposal.
There is no question of future referenda in Ireland being ruled out by the treaty as suggested by some of its opponents. This was reiterated yesterday by the Referendum Commission. Article 1.56 of the treaty, inserting a new Article 48 into the Treaty on European Union, makes clear any future move to confer additional powers on the EU, to alter the provisions of the treaty or even to amend EU internal policies in a way that does not increase the Union’s competence, must be approved in accordance with the constitutional requirements of each member state. In Ireland this means advice will be sought from the Attorney General on each occasion as to whether a referendum is required. The Government will be guided by the advice of the Attorney General in each instance.
Two core issues in Ireland’s approach to the reform Treaty and the EU — neutrality and taxation policy — demonstrate the essential safeguards and checks and balances which are an integral aspect of the Union and consistently ignored by the treaty’s opponents.
Ireland proposed the provision originally inserted in the Maastricht treaty in 1992 that the policy of the Union in the security and defence sphere shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states. This was an explicit recognition of our tradition of military neutrality. It was also welcomed by Sweden, Finland and Austria when they later joined the EU. This formulation has been maintained since and is repeated in the reform treaty. The recognition of our military neutrality demonstrates the Union respects diversity and accommodates those with differing traditions.
Taxation policy is of long-standing importance to Ireland. We have consistently maintained our principled position of opposition to harmonisation of taxes or any movement away from unanimity in decision-making. We have always pointed out that a competitive corporation tax rate has been a key element of successive Governments’ policies. Tax competition is beneficial, not harmful. Others who respect our success are free to emulate us. They are not free to oblige us to increase or harmonise our taxes. No provision in the current treaties or the Lisbon reform treaty gives the power to other member states or the Union’s institutions to affect our tax rates. Taxation remains a key national competence. No amount of spinning by the treaty’s opponents can change this. I hope the comments by the chairman of the Referendum Commission, Mr. Justice O’Neill, will put this particular canard back in its box until the next referendum, when no doubt it will be resuscitated.
The EU originated with six member states 50 years ago. Its working methods and institutions have proved remarkably durable. Nevertheless, enlargement and the passage of time have highlighted areas for change and reform. This is what the Lisbon reform treaty is about. It is not about deciding exactly what Europe will do in the coming decades. That will be for decision by the member states. Instead, it is about providing a structure for those decisions to be taken. The Union has worked well and has enlarged substantially because it has provided a unique model. It has managed to combine a shared community of values with respect for the rights and prerogatives of member states.
None of Ireland’s national interests will be jeopardised by the reform treaty. None of our national interests was jeopardised by joining the Union. We should be confident and forward looking to continue to engage to good effect with our European neighbours by supporting the reform treaty at the referendum.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The European Union is the most advanced form of voluntary integration between sovereign states in history. The Lisbon reform treaty embodies a unanimous agreement that emerged from more than five years of intense public and private discussion between democratically elected representatives of 27 member states representing 500 million people. Most of the content of the treaty was the subject of consensus in a convention consisting of the democratically elected governments of all EU states. The Lisbon treaty is an agreement which can only come into effect if every one of these 27 countries formally ratify it. The Irish people now have the power to accept or reject this treaty. I believe they will accept it, on balance, for a wide range of reasons. The Irish people have had a direct hand in creating this voluntary and multinational democracy which is one of the great achievements of 20th century political leadership.
The Fine Gael party has organised in excess of 30 public meetings nationwide to inform people of the contents of the Lisbon treaty. Our youth branch, Young Fine Gael, has also held several public meetings at locations throughout the country. We believe it is important that people know exactly what is in this treaty and that we nail the lies which some people continue to spread on issues which have nothing whatsoever to do with the treaty.
Take for instance, the issue of abortion which was raised at a public meeting which I attended recently. It was suggested that abortion would become more freely available if we ratify the Lisbon treaty. Nothing could be further from the truth. The protocol of the Maastricht treaty states that nothing in the treaty will affect member states with regard to abortion and euthanasia. This will remain within the competence of the Government and the Constitution. I was furious that Alive magazine carried an advertisement recently stating that a “Yes” vote for the Lisbon treaty would be a “Yes” vote for abortion. This is a downright lie and I am saddened to say that the church allowed such a leaflet to be distributed which tries to confuse and muddy the waters for decent, honourable churchgoers. I suggest that allowing such lies to be spread breaks one of the Lord’s own commandments. I listened to the radio this morning and I heard these lies trotted out again, in a deliberate attempt to confuse people as to the provisions of this treaty.
The Minister of State, Deputy Roche, mentioned the farming community and it, rightly, has concerns about the world trade talks and especially about how Commissioner Mandelson is conducting these talks. The Taoiseach is on record as stating that Ireland will use its veto if the WTO talks are not favourable to Irish agriculture. Surely, such a commitment could not be reneged on by any Government. Farmers can therefore vote on the Lisbon treaty on its merits, based on the guarantee which the Taoiseach has given on behalf of the Government on the world trade talks. The talks have nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty.
Ireland is more dependant on jobs, prosperity and on the foods and services it sells abroad than almost any other country in the world. It is therefore in Ireland’s interest to be a full voting member of a democratic body like the EU, which guarantees that our closest export markets will stay open, on a basis of free and undistorted competition and as of right, not as a favour granted by a powerful neighbour.
We currently have 980 foreign companies in Ireland providing almost 140,000 jobs. Some 434 of these firms are from the EU member states and this number is, thankfully, growing. One of the important consequences of EU membership is that it guarantees that all EU Citizens will have the right to live and work in any other EU State. Irish people know, from history, how valuable that right is.
However, if people can cross borders, then so too can criminals, terrorists and illegal drugs and arms. This is the reason the Lisbon treaty has been drafted. The treaty will help the EU to develop more rapidly rules to enable member states to work together against crime by sharing intelligence and evidence, apprehending accused persons and by recognising penalties imposed by the courts of other EU States.
The Lisbon treaty will enable the EU to be more effective in dealing with cross-border crime. This will be achieved by introducing majority voting in this area, in place of the current rule which requires all 27 countries to agree before the EU can take action. The problem of cross-border crime, including the drugs menace that is now visible in every Irish county, is too urgent to wait for unanimity. This change is one of the most important reasons we should approve of the treaty.
Climate change is a major challenge for Ireland. We cannot tackle it on our own, nor can Europe. We are too small and the problem is too big. However together in the EU the 27 member states can, with sufficient diplomatic and trade muscle, ensure that all countries of the world act together in addressing this significant issue.
It is difficult to believe that the first official visit of a British Prime Minister to meet a Taoiseach in Ireland, rather than in Britain, did not take place until 1974. Membership of the EU enabled the two countries to develop a more mature relationship which has served both countries well in the intervening years.
Under the Lisbon treaty the EU’s foreign relations will be put under the unified management of one person. However, foreign and defence policies will still have to be settled by the unanimous agreement of all member states.
The European integration process has proven to be beneficial for all participants. It has been reasonably well managed and pursued. It has shown a capacity to adapt to the emergence of new demands and challenges from the world. The whole process has been overseen by the changing constellations of political forces which have produced a wide variety of governments in members states over the past 50 years. Whatever its faults or the criticisms of it which we make, which are deserved at times, it has given us something of value. We should continue to develop the EU and a “Yes” vote for the Lisbon treaty is the best way to continue its development.
Some people have suggested that Fine Gael should oppose this referendum as a means of embarrassing an already discredited Government, but my party has always put the country and its people first. We believe passionately in the European movement which has ensured peace, above all else, and contributed significantly to the prosperity we have enjoyed in this country.
The Lisbon treaty is another step on the European ladder which puts proper structures in place to meet the exciting challenges which lie ahead resulting from increased membership of the European Union. Ireland has built up a good deal of goodwill over the years with other member states, which has served this country well on many occasions. I believe the Irish people will not jeopardise this goodwill and will support the treaty when they are fully informed of its content. I urge the Irish people to vote “Yes” to this treaty on its merits and not use their vote to censure this Government. That opportunity will come later. That the “No” campaign has, according to a recent opinion poll, gained support is a cause for concern. Hopefully, complacency will be put aside and the Government will concentrate on discussing the Lisbon treaty’s many positive aspects.
While I am not criticising the Minister of State, I was approached by a number of people today who told me that he got angry on yesterday’s edition of “Five Seven Live” due to some suggestions that were made. This can occur when lies are told about various matters, but we should explain the treaty’s contents in a rational and thoughtful way. If the information is provided to the people, they will make the right decision on the day.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State, who has made a significant effort to attend this debate. Three hours ago, he addressed the Parliament of the Czech Republic. His attempt to attend the Seanad in a timely manner reflects his energy and drive in getting the debate off the ground. I appreciate his work in this regard.
The purpose of the Bill on the 28th amendment of the Constitution is to pave the way for the ratification of the European Union reform treaty, which is concerned with simplifying structures. There were six member states 50 years ago, but there are 27 members today. The treaty responds to current needs, aims to simplify the workings of the institutions and will bring them into the 21st century. It is a question of making changes to their workings to enhance efficiency, transparency and democracy. The treaty will give everyone a stronger voice in the decision making process.
The yellow and red cards system is welcome and appropriate, as it will give national parliaments a greater role. Under it, any decision proposed in Brussels must apply the subsidiarity concept. If it does not, we can use the yellow card system to return the decision to the Commission for further discussion. If necessary, we can refer it to the European Court of Justice. This is a significant improvement in terms of linking us with the Union’s decision making process instead of it being a question of Europe being over there and Ireland over here. This is how I want Europe to work for us. The treaty will bring citizens closer to the decision making process and provide us with a real say in European policies.
I welcome the role of the National Forum on Europe and the discussions of the Joint Committee on European Affairs in driving the reform treaty forward. The amendment will give legal status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, including the freedom to choose occupations, equality between member states, the right to life and respect for private and family life. The charter puts the interests of the citizen firmly in the heart of the Union.
The treaty allows the EU more scope to address major problems such as climate change, energy security, cross-border crime, trafficking, immigration, poverty and injustice. These issues cannot be addressed by any country acting alone. We must work together and pool our resources. By doing so, we will make a difference. The treaty will provide the means to meet these challenges, allowing Europe to do more for our people. We may discuss cross-border crime and how to curtail the drugs and trafficking businesses, but we cannot handle those matters alone on the periphery. By pooling resources, a global team can combat trafficking and so on.
I do not understand the comments by those in the “No” campaign on the issues of neutrality, taxation and abortion. It is clear that the principle of unanimity will apply. We will decide what is to be done on taxation and neutrality, not Europe. The “No” campaigners believe that, in terms of abortion, taxation and neutrality, our identity will be subsumed into Europe. That one voice can object to a proposal at a Council of Ministers and prevent it from progressing is welcome. That we and not Europe will decide on these issues, the key areas on which the “No” campaign is harping, must be repeated to keep the message tight and simple.
In terms of economics, Ireland has access to an EU market of more than 500 million people. As Ireland is a peripheral country, the EU is good for our businesses and consumers. In 2006, for example, Ireland exported goods and services to the other 26 member states to the value of more than €56 billion. In 1998, we exported goods and services to the comparative value of €39 billion. Our national income per head has increased from less than 60% of the European average to above average. When we joined the EEC in 1972, our foreign direct investment was worth €16.1 million. Today, it is measured in billions, such as a level of capital investment to the value of €2.6 billion. The number of people employed in small to medium-sized industries has doubled since 1973. No longer is it inevitable that parents see their children departing for foreign shores in search of employment. By virtue of being citizens of the EU, they have access to new horizons. The EU has enhanced our national well-being and our capacity to further the interests of the people. Ireland’s place is at the heart of Europe.
The citizen’s initiative, a new concept included in the treaty, means that 1 million citizens will be able to table a proposal to have a particular issue debated in the European Parliament or at the Council of Ministers. This is a significant improvement. Under qualified majority voting, the requirement of 55% of member states comprising 65% of the EU’s population will ensure that small countries will be taken care of. A full-time president of the European Council will be elected every two and a half years to chair and co-ordinate the work of the European Council. That is a way to show they are reflecting the views of member states. We will have a full-time high representative for foreign affairs who will co-ordinate the EU’s policies on external relations.
This treaty is not a radical document. It will protect our vital interests and give us a voice in Europe. It would be a dreadful mistake to vote “No” because doing so would create uncertainty within the European Union. Failure to ratify the treaty would be damaging to smaller countries such as Ireland and would erode our standing on the European stage. Ireland has benefited hugely from EU integration. It is clearly in our economic interest to vote “Yes”. Rejecting the treaty would suggest to the other 26 member states that we should return to the drawing board.
Senator David Norris: Why?
Senator Ann Ormonde: Membership of the EU has transformed us. We have a voice in Brussels and a place in the world from which we can influence the formation of key policies which affect our future. We must be at the table when issues such as climate change, trafficking and cross-border crime are discussed. We cannot address these issues alone. My philosophy for being in Europe is that we should be part of the global scene while retaining our own identity.
It would be mean to vote “No”. We have gained a lot from Europe but now we would be saying “No, thank you”. I would be embarrassed if we voted “No”.
Senator David Norris: We would not wish to embarrass the Senator, so we will all have to vote “Yes”.
Senator Ann Ormonde: We should focus on economic management, climate change and peace and stability around the world. We must vote “Yes” because doing so will bring us political goodwill and solidarity from fellow member states, as well as greater international co-operation and equality. This treaty transcends political divides and I am delighted that so many people are putting Ireland first.
I do not understand the flaky thinking of Libertas which claims to be pro-Europe while denouncing everything and anything connected with Europe. It advocates the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy which has been the bedrock of Irish agriculture for the past 30 years. The treaty is a separate issue to the World Trade Organisation negotiations. Our national interests will not be jeopardised by it and it has nothing to do with taxation or neutrality. We have unanimity on these issues. Subsidiarity means that issues of importance to Ireland will be debated in Ireland. Scrutiny has been introduced and proposals can be discussed by national parliaments and sent back to Europe if they are not liked. What is wrong with that? Why would we want to stay out of Europe when we have all these protections?
I compliment the Minister of State and his colleagues on the 50 meetings held the length and breadth of Ireland. Ministers have attended all these meetings which were organised by the Minister of State, Deputy Roche. We have left the starting blocks and I have addressed several meetings in my constituency. The “No” side seems very flaky to me, so let us keep driving this the way we have driven it thus far. This treaty must be passed because it would be an embarrassment to say “No”.
Senator David Norris: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He is a vigorous and intellectually challenging representative of the Government. I am distressed to say, however, that I have to speak as a bit of a flake, in the words of my good friend and colleague, Senator Ormonde. I face the ghastly prospect of embarrassing the Senator and encouraging Ireland to be perceived as mean. These are terrible alternatives. I enjoyed the Senator’s contribution, although I have not always felt the same about interventions by the Government and, indeed, the Minister of State.
One of the reasons I have decided finally to vote “No” to this treaty — this is my first time to do so, although I declared my reservations about the earlier treaties — is because of the supercilious and contemptuous way in which those of us who have a conscientious series of objections to the treaty are treated by the Government and other spokespersons. We are accused of lying and of being flaky and it is claimed that we have never been good Europeans. I do not accept that and it certainly cannot be said of myself.
I know nothing whatsoever about Libertas, having only heard about the organisation recently on foot of an intervention from the Minister of State. It has not persuaded me in the slightest on this issue. However, I am concerned about certain specific issues, principal among them being the undoubted and growing militarisation of the European Union. On that issue there can be no question, despite what the Minister of State might argue.
The language used is supercilious. The Taoiseach made a considerable error of judgment when he described people who opposed the treaty as “loo-las” and stated those who oppose the reform treaty:
I have always supported the EU and my support is not paper thin or unconvincing. There are, however, unconvincing elements to the treaty. It would be perfectly legitimate for the people of Ireland to use their democratic vote to reject this treaty. If they did so, they would be going over the heads of the megalocrats that run the EU to speak directly to the heart of Europe, a democratic right which none of its other citizens have been given the opportunity to exercise. That tells us something about the management of this matter. What are the megalocrats afraid of in terms of democracy and why will they not give the people the right to vote? Why are we the only ones to do so?
While I am speaking about evasion and confusion, I wish to address the question of why the referendum is being held. We are told by the Government that it is a constitutional requirement but, according to the court judgments, it is only a constitutional requirement if there is a prospect of a substantial constitutional or legislative changes. On the one hand, we have a referendum caused by this major shift and, on the other, the Government says there is no shift and nothing is happening. Some people have suggested that Europe will come to a shuddering halt if we vote against the treaty but Europe will continue unchanged. What will change it is the passage of this treaty.
In an article published in The Irish Times on 13 March, which the Minister of State may challenge, Patricia McKenna wrote:
That requires an explanation. According to the Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, there is no fall-back position. They are arrogantly assuming we are going to bullied into passing this referendum.
Why was the date moved from October to June? Had it something to do with the leaked memo in which we were told that June was chosen over October because of “the risk of unhelpful developments during the French presidency, particularly related to EU defence”? Perhaps Mr. Sarkozy might be inclined to tell the truth but that would be terribly embarrassing and we might be justified in being mean to the megalocrats.
Something else concerns me. We hear a great deal of rubbish about liberal issues, people concerned about abortion and so on but we know one thing. I have a motion on the Order Paper about the exemption from equality legislation of the churches, even in the light of and despite the revelations of the Ferns Report. Decent, upstanding citizens like myself could be fired from a teaching job by the authorities with impunity because of the exemption granted under that legislation.
This came to the notice of the equal opportunities Commissioner, Vladimir Spidla, and he proposed action in the European Court. There was then a little squawk from the Iona Institute and others, unelected and unrepresentative people, and in order to smooth the way so that there would not be any turbulence from the right wing religious element, this has been dropped. Again, we have sacrificed equality and principles to ease through this treaty. Mr. Barosso stated: “There is no intention to bring Ireland to court on that ground. That is not going to happen”. It was stated that the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, strongly welcomed the news. He stated, “Mr. Barosso’s comment are very positive. I look forward to seeing the final adjudication”. They are not positive and the Minister of State knows it but I will not call that a lie. I will call it an evasion because we must be polite in this House, but it is a damnable day for equality when this happens.
Deputy Dick Roche: It is actually an interpretation of law.
Senator David Norris: People have said the treaty is difficult to read and have been patronised for saying that. One learned commentator said it was like trying to read Finnegans Wake backwards in Latin. Even for a Joycean like myself I imagine that might pose some difficulties.
If we examine the statements of other senior politicians, Monsieur Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is on record as saying that the Lisbon treaty is a direct clone of the failed constitution “except for certain cosmetic changes making it easier to swallow”.
When the constitution was voted down in France and the Netherlands the Commission Vice-President, Günter Verheugen, stated: “We must not give in to blackmail”. When the citizens of Europe exercise their democratic right it is blackmail but when the megalocrats stuff something down the throats of 26 of the 27 countries that is democracy in action. I have a different way of using language.
On the question of language, I recall pointing out to the Minister of State’s colleague, Deputy Mary Harney, that in a statement on health approximately three pages long she used the word “competition” seven times and she was embarrassed by that. Let us examine the language of the treaty. The word “market” gets 63 mentions and “competition” gets 25 mentions. There is no mention whatever of full employment. In other words, we are going to exchange social Europe for the neoliberal economic model of Europe.
Deputy Dick Roche: On a point of fact, employment is mentioned. The persons who wrote that particular tract the Senator is now quoting were factually inaccurate.
Senator David Norris: That was not a tract. It was an article by Susan George in The Irish Times. I accept the Minister may be right but will he accept also that there are 63 mentions of the word “market” and 25 of the——
Deputy Dick Roche: I would just make the point that in a response which The Irish Times very decently carried I pointed out the number of times she had been inaccurate in the article. I will deal with it in my response.
Senator David Norris: Okay. Could the Minister also comment on the fact that in Strasbourg on 10 July last year Jose Barosso stated: “Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of Empire. We have the dimensions of Empire”. There is an imperial level to it, therefore.
With regard to the economic aspect, there is the business about spreading the European economic message by what is described as “the integration of all countries into the world economy through the suppression of barriers to international trade”. We could have a whole debate on that and the impact on southern hemisphere countries.
I did not fully follow what the Minister of State was saying but he mentioned in his contribution the war in Iraq. I never felt that the war in Iraq was a good thing. I believe he was quoting Mr. Shanley or somebody from Libertas but I do not want to be dragged into that kind of debate. That is why I am concerned about the erosion of our individuality.
The Minister of State is probably aware that on Bastille Day last year there was a triumphal military procession in Paris. Monsieur Sarkozy was in a military jeep. The armed forces of 27 countries, including Ireland, were present and I quote from a description from Reuters:
That is the theatrics behind it. However, there is a philosophical agenda. For example, on 13 November 2007, during the French Presidency, Monsieur Herve Morin spoke of the need for a more muscular presence by Europe on the world stage and outlined France’s plans to press ahead with a Europe of defence. That is worrying.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported on 23 March 2007 in Bilt. She stated: “Within the EU itself, we will have to move closer to establishing a common European army”. We are going to replace the United Nations, for example, with this extra military organisation. David Miliband, in a characteristically English intervention, stated: “It’s frankly embarrassing that European nations — with about two million men and women under arms — are only able, at a stretch, to deploy around 100,000 at any one time”. The Portuguese Defence Minister, when Portugal had the EU Presidency, stated: “Defence is a vital driver of integration today and the EU has to strengthen its military rapid response capacity, bolster its defence industry, etc. And all this should complement NATO”.
I wish to turn to the defence industry and the European Defence Agency because that also raises a question of language. This used to be called the European Armaments Agency. Why the coy change of title? Why is it now the European Defence Agency instead of what it really is, namely, the European Armaments Agency?
One should take note of the statement from this renamed agency. In September 2005, Mr. Nick Witney, who was the chief executive of the European Defence Agency, addressed the Institute of European Affairs in North Great George’s Street, just up the road from where I live, and outlined the benefits to Irish industry of EDA membership. He described some Irish or Irish based companies as being key players in some defence related sectors such as armoured fighting vehicles and defence electronics and that co-ordinated procurement could put them in a better position to be awarded defence equipment contracts.
I would like to put on the record also the long-term statement of the European Defence Agency. It states:
In other words, we are now committed to, and have built into a structure that makes us part of a weapons exporting mechanism.
The Minister of State will be aware that a conference on cluster munitions will be held soon in Croke Park. Some of the states with which we are entering into collusion with this treaty will go there and try to lobby for exemptions for cluster munitions they are manufacturing.
I will end by speaking on the reservations of some non-governmental organisations. There is no statement about partnership and independence in the treaty, which the European Community Humanitarian Office previously included. Many organisations are concerned, as I am, about the increasing militarisation of Europe and our incorporation into a manufacturing industry that is a disgrace to the human community.
For those reasons I will be opposing this treaty. I would like the Minister of State to accept I do so from a principled stand and I am not a “loo-la”, a flake or a liar.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I welcome the Minister to the House and the opportunity to debate this Bill which is necessary to enable the State and Irish people to ratify the Lisbon treaty. As we are aware, we are the only country in the European Union that is to have a referendum on the treaty, which places a particular responsibility on us. As we know, the treaty is a legal document which represents a compromise between the interests of 27 member states. It is complex document which takes some reading and understanding and there is a particular responsibility on those of us who belong to the political classes to promote, explain and interpret aspects of the treaty for members of the public. The public must also educate and inform itself over the coming weeks.
It is a shame other member states in the European Union are not having a referendum. At the time of the drafting of the EU constitution, the Green Party supported the idea of an EU-wide referendum where a double majority would be sought, made up of a majority of states supporting the treaty and a majority of population. Unfortunately that was not supported. I have every confidence that in future we will see these kinds of EU-wide referenda but we must accept that for the moment, the constitutional requirements of other member states are that they do not need to do as Ireland is doing by having a popular referendum. Parliamentary ratification is the mode of ratification for European treaties in other cases. We have an opportunity and responsibility to educate and inform ourselves and I hope the Irish people will participate in this so they can feel they can go to vote on the treaty on 12 June with a very clear idea of what the it is about.
I am obliged to respond to some of the points raised by Senator Norris. I am disappointed to see the Senator join the ranks of people whom I can only describe as demonising the European Union. I do not mind anyone finding fault with the treaty; it is not perfect and is a compromise between the interests of 27 member states. There are areas in the treaty which are of concern to the Green Party and we have not pretended otherwise. However, the list of negative descriptors of the European Union is unfair.
Senator Norris admitted he has supported previous treaties. There are many ways in which the European Union has been very positive for this country and its people. We have emphasised how it has been very important economically in terms of market access, the attraction of foreign direct investment and protecting those countries in the eurozone from instability in the international financial markets. That is happening today and we have been protected because of our membership of the eurozone.
We also have influence within organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. As a small country our influence would be absolutely minimal but as a part of the European Union, we can exert more influence for the good of other parts of the world.
Senator David Norris: I am waiting for the Senator to tell me how I demonised the Union.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: Socially, this country has benefited enormously from our EU membership and I am sure Senator Norris would be very aware that most of the progressive employment and equality legislation we enjoy in this country is a direct result of our EU membership. It is easy to forget all that, and it seems the EU is now bad, has evil intentions and just wants to create an army and dominate the rest of the world. I cannot recognise the European Union that both of us know in the description by Senator Norris.
Senator David Norris: I quoted from some of the leaders. The “demonising” came from the European head bottle washer.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: On the environmental side, as far as the Green Party is concerned, the European Union is the best thing to happen to Ireland where protection of the environment is concerned. Most of the positive environmental legislation which we have taken our time in implementing has come directly from the European Union.
Senator Norris is also very aware that the European Union has united what was previously a divided continent. There has been peace on the continent for the past 50 years and the Union is playing a positive role in other parts of the world, such as Aceh, Bosnia and Kosovo. It is keeping the peace and helping those areas maintain stability in difficult circumstances.
It is also the largest donor of financial aid to the developing world, a fact of which Senator Norris is also aware. These are important points to make on a day he is being so critical of the European Union.
Senator David Norris: The Senator has not answered any of my criticisms.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: We must also consider the new emerging world order where there are leading countries such as India, China and Russia with human rights records that do not bear comparison with the European Union. It is important to think of a strong European Union operating on the global stage, promoting values such as democracy, the rule of law, equality, sustainable development, the rights of minorities and their protection, etc. It is important we have a strong European Union operating at a global level.
I will touch briefly on some elements of the Lisbon treaty. One of the very positive factors of the treaty is the way it sets out the values of the European Union very clearly. It discusses the promotion of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and equality between men and women, which is very important and a value from which Irish women have benefited.
It speaks of the rights of the child and a commitment to tackling and reducing poverty internationally. There is also the promotion of sustainable development, which will be absolutely essential in an age when we are realising there are limits to economic growth and we must respect the natural limits of our planet. Climate change is one of the factors forcing us to do so.
The values expressed within the Lisbon treaty are very positive. It is clearly up to us as politicians, as a member state of the European Union and as citizens to push the Union to uphold and promote those values. We should not be complacent and we must ensure they are being implemented and respected in all the actions and policies of the European Union.
The Lisbon treaty sets about reforming the institutions of the European Union. Some people are crying loudly that Ireland’s influence is being seen to be reduced. There has been a reduction in some of Ireland’s influence in some European institutions but we must consider that the Union has expanded enormously from the community Ireland entered into originally.
As Ireland becomes accustomed to working with other member states and has increasing confidence in its ability to form alliances and so on, we do not necessarily need to hold on to vetoes. It will become impossible to operate with 27 member states if the veto is to be used in many policy areas. With many of the reforms in the Lisbon treaty, although Ireland may find its influence reduced somewhat, we have the confidence in our own ability to be able to operate. We recognise that for a supranational body such as the European Union, it would not be possible for it to continue to make effective decisions if we held on to some of the decision-making processes in place in the past.
The Lisbon treaty also makes the European Union more democratic. There is a role for national parliaments in keeping an eye on the subsidiarity principle, ensuring decisions are being made at the right level. There is the citizens’ initiative, where citizens can come together to petition the European Commission to introduce new legislation. There is also the substantially increased powers of the European Parliament, a directly elected institution, so citizens of Europe can ensure the institution that most directly represents them can exercise significant clout in decision making.
The Lisbon treaty is also strengthening the European Union’s ability to act globally, and there are a number of different measures in this respect, including the creation of a more permanent Office of President of the European Council. The External Action Service is created by the Lisbon treaty and a legal personality will be given to the European Union that will allow it to sign up to international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol. There is also the role of the high representative for foreign affairs and security matters. That brings more coherence and concentration to the common foreign and security policy of the European Union.
There is also a clear and welcome commitment to tackling climate change. Some opponents of the treaty have said it contains only six words in respect of this matter. As far are the Green Party is concerned, however, these are probably the six most important words in the treaty. Without any doubt, climate change is the most serious and gravest threat facing the global community. The European Union has shown great leadership on this issue to date. More needs to be done and the Union must to be able to bring member states with it in the context of making some of the changes that will be necessary. If it is successful in this regard, our economy will be much more adaptable to the new circumstances in which we will find ourselves. There will have to be a “greening” of the European economy and the latter will have to become much more sustainable in the coming decades. The European Union’s track record on climate change indicates that it will be committed and successful in the way it approaches this matter.
Energy is a new policy area in respect of which the European Union will gain competence under the Lisbon treaty. If the treaty is ratified, the European Union will become a world leader in the area of renewable energy. There is a real need for the latter, particularly because it is one of the serious responses to the threat of climate change and will help us decarbonise our economy. Many new employment opportunities will be created as a result of developments in this regard.
The Lisbon treaty strengthens the concept of EU citizenship. The Charter of Fundamental Rights clearly sets out the rights and entitlements of EU citizens in respect of health care, education, fair and just working conditions, protection in the event of dismissal, etc. If they examine the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, people will be aware of the particular benefits, rights and entitlements that are theirs as a result of their being citizens of the European Union.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, and wish him well with his brief. One of my first contributions in the previous Seanad related to the Nice treaty and if memory serves, I believe the Minister of State also held responsibility for European affairs at that stage.
Deputy Dick Roche: I have been recycled.
Senator Michael McCarthy: He later became a member of the Cabinet following the positive result in the second referendum on the Nice treaty. I am sure such good political fortune once again lies around the corner if the Minister of State can pull this one off at the first attempt.
In light of the various points made recently, it is worth recalling the history of the European Union. The original aim behind it was to bring about peace, stability and prosperity in Europe after the Second World War. The two world wars in the previous century ravaged Europe, divided its peoples and gave rise to much hatred and violence. The original aspiration behind what became the European Union was to bring together European nations in order to ensure that they would become prosperous, peaceful and stable.
It was important that the divisions which existed in the aftermath of the Second World War were overcome by a successful gathering of European nations. The EU has been extremely important in the context of ensuring economic and social development among member states. One need only consider local villages and towns to see the major benefits that have accrued to communities and sporting organisations and clubs as a result of our membership of the European Union. How many road infrastructure projects would have been completed if Ireland had remained outside the European Union?
The late President Hillery, was instrumental in ensuring that Ireland joined the then EEC. He was one of a number of far-sighted visionaries who could see the benefits of involvement in Europe for a small country such as Ireland on its western periphery. Dr. Hillery and others saw the benefits that lay ahead as a result of our membership of what has become the European Union. They also saw the contribution Ireland could make. The late poet and playwright Victor Hugo said in the 19th century that he imagined a peaceful united states of Europe. Not too many years later an American President inquired as to who he should ring if he wanted to contact Europe.
We now have a union of European countries working together for economic stability, peace and the prosperity of all nations. Since the establishment of the EU, many poorer countries have become members under the process of enlargement. In recent years the European Union encouraged the reunification of Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe decided that their future lay within the family of democratic nations. Those countries had been under the thumb of communism and were broke in more ways than one. The enlargement process continues to this day.
Much of the opposition to the Nice treaty focused on enlargement. A certain element of selfishness and greed coloured the arguments put forward by opponents of the enlargement of the European Union. This was a form of nimbyism — an attitude of “I’m all right Jack, to hell with everybody else”. Those who espoused it felt Ireland had enjoyed its bite at the cherry as a result of its membership of the European Union and had got as much as it could out of the latter while the going was good. They were of the view that we should be selfish and that others should not enjoy the same benefits. We must recall the advantages that have accrued to Ireland and other countries as a result of their EU membership. I wish such countries well and I hope they enjoy the same level of success and prosperity Ireland has experienced.
The origins of the EU were in peace. However, one cannot ignore its successful economic origins. We must bear in mind the contribution of the larger countries — for so long they were net contributors — that helped smaller nations such as Ireland. This country would not be able to compete, in economic terms, in the global market. It is only as a result of our membership of the European Union that we were able to compete on the world stage with other major economies. Until Ireland joined the then EEC, the economic outlook for the country was quite bleak. At that time we were dependent on our partners in the UK but once we joined the EEC, the floodgates opened in the context of investment.
People must be made aware of the benefits of European Union membership. The agricultural community and the farming organisations have benefited tremendously from our involvement in the Union. We have received €60 billion in funds from the EU, €40 billion of which went to the farming community. That is outstanding. If the treaty is to be passed, we must ensure that everyone is aware of the advantages and economic benefits involved and of what Ireland has received as a result of its membership of the EU. In the spirit of the treaty, we must consider ways of making procedures easier in the context of dealing with the enlarged Union. I do not believe that anyone present when the European Coal and Steel Community was established by six founder members in 1951 could have envisaged the Union that now exists.
Administrative burdens have arisen over the years and we must consider ways to modernise procedures and simplify the workings of the European Union and the Commission to ensure that the former becomes more efficient. In the late 1950s, the Treaty of Rome established the Common Market. The then European Economic Community was expanded to nine members in 1973. Some of the visionaries of that time, the late President Hillery, and the late Jack Lynch, a former Taoiseach, ensured that Ireland would become a member state.
The first direct elections to the European Parliament took place only in 1979. We must recall the Irish political legends who went to Europe. It is easy to forget that MEPs were appointed before elections were introduced in 1979. If one peruses some of the older editions of Nealon’s Guide, one is left puzzling how so-and-so was a Member of the European Parliament if direct elections were not introduced until 1979. Talk about being a favoured son or daughter. In those days, one could serve in Europe for a full term and never have to canvass for one vote.
The Maastricht treaty established the European Union in 1993. In 1995 the membership of the Union expanded to 15 countries and the common currency was introduced in 2002. Most recently, a further enlargement took place in 2004.
We must be extremely clear in the context of the message that must be sent out to people. I am concerned that if the perception is created that there is a lack of information regarding the treaty, suspicion will arise. In many ways, that could be a good development. I have listened to the debates in recent weeks and some of those who are opposing the treaty conversely will be responsible for promoting it. One could not possibly agree with the points these people make. They are clearly misinterpreting the truth, lying or uttering falsehoods, call it what one will. In many ways negativity can be a good thing because it can create positivity, making it clearer to reasonable thinking people who are undecided. The important middle ground concerns those who have not yet decided on the matter. There is no point in preaching to the converted. There are those who will oppose the treaty no matter what is in it. It is important, however, that reasonable thinking people in the middle ground are informed through good debates and factual information. They must be told what this is about.
The leaked memo in The Irish Times is very unhelpful. It is incumbent on the powers that be to explain what happened and what was being referred to. People should be informed and educated by letting them know the thinking behind it. We should not allow a perception to be created by people who have a vested interest in putting viewpoints that are not based on facts.
I also wish to refer the report in The Irish Times today concerning the Referendum Commission’s comments on corporation tax. The statement by the commission used the term, “It is our informed opinion”, but something more concrete is needed from the commission to ensure our corporation tax rate will not be affected by ratification of the Lisbon treaty. The opportunity exists for others to take advantage of the issue and exploit it by claiming critically that this is what is being planned with regard to corporation tax, that our sovereignty will be lost and that there is a military dimension. As we know, speaking in economic terms nowadays has a negative impact. We do not have the luxury of a buoyant economy, as we had in 2004 for the second attempt at ratification of the Nice treaty. Things are on a downward spiral and the “No” campaigners could take full advantage of that.
Pat Cox’s term as president of the European Parliament was an outstanding political achievement, especially as he was an independent member of that assembly. He brought credence, stature and status to the debate on the last occasion. He was informed, competent, articulate and had an easy way of communicating what was good about the European Union. Reasoned and rational debate by such people who are respected, not just in Ireland but internationally, would not do the Lisbon treaty any harm in terms of its ratification.
Previous speakers have referred to the legislative benefits of EU membership. We bravely took cases to the European Court of Human Rights and can attest more than anyone else as to the benefits of that type of legislative support in terms of justice, equality and other important issues. A workforce of 300 or 400 people is entitled to force majeure leave, parental leave and other benefits that came from Europe. The former Tánaiste, Michael O’Leary, who was a Minister in the coalition Government of 1973 to 1977, introduced much of that revolutionary legislation which was bound by Europe. Otherwise we may not have had it. We need to ensure people who take full advantage of those legislative rules and regulations are aware they originated in Europe.
Despite their best intentions, it is not helpful for someone from a neighbouring European country to say we have to ratify this treaty. That is a gun-to-the-head situation which Irish people will not accept. As Britain’s nearest neighbour, we resisted British rule for as long as we did. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and India were colonised by the British down through the years, yet London faced the greatest resistance from the smallest country and its nearest neighbour. That mentality still exists and it amounts to us saying to people not to tell us what to do because we will decide ourselves. That type of intervention, despite good intentions, could have an adverse effect.
We fought tooth and nail for democracy in Ireland. I am sure that all of us who subscribe to the democratic process and believe in equality and justice for all will always be aware of the roots of democracy in this country. We can never forget it and we celebrate it as often as we can. Why would we turn around at the beginning of the third millennium and start handing over our sovereignty and independence to Europe? It is not as simple as that.
I have no doubt about the Minister of State’s ability. The last occasion I addressed this House on the issue of Europe was concerning the second Nice treaty referendum. At the time the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, had been appointed Minister with responsibility for European affairs. It was not an easy brief and he had a more difficult ministerial portfolio than many of his Cabinet colleagues. I believe he ended up in Cabinet as a result of that ratification. Who knows but that political good fortune may be around the corner for him again. That kind of political competence and ministerial ability is needed to push this through. There is a lot at stake but we must ensure the Lisbon reform treaty is not rejected for the wrong reasons. We must banish the myths and put these lies to bed. We must also ensure there is proper, reasoned debate based on facts. I have no doubt that is the case but it is important to reiterate the arguments all the time. For example, an MEP on “Morning Ireland” this morning was continually interrupted by an opponent of the treaty. If that continues it will paint a picture to the reasonable thinking person of those who are against the treaty. For a variety of good reasons we need to ratify the treaty.
Senator John Hanafin: If we ever needed proof of the true nature of the Lisbon treaty we got it this week when one country, Lithuania, was able to prevent a treaty with Russia from going ahead. That situation would remain the case after the Lisbon treaty is ratified. There is no doubt in my mind that it would be in the best interests of Europe for both the EU and Russia — both members of the European family — to have an economic treaty. Russia has a population of 140 million with vast reserves of oil and timber. It is said that in Siberia the rivers are so full of salmon they use bulldozers to catch them. We are talking about a population that has enjoyed growing wealth and wonderful opportunities on its own doorstep. It is a country of 17 million sq. km. with vast resources and capabilities, yet one small country can hold up all of the EU concerning an obviously necessary treaty. That situation will not change following ratification of the Lisbon treaty. If we were doing anything insidious in the treaty, would that not be the one item we would change?
Shadows have consistently been thrown at the treaty which have no bearing in reality. When a light is shone on the truth of the questions, however, all one gets is another question. It is our duty to ensure this practical treaty goes through. I have a specific interest in it as I am involved in an anti-drugs group. Fortunately, the Criminal Assets Bureau has sequestered on behalf of the State moneys from criminals involved in the illegal drugs trade. That has been to the benefit of Ireland because it hurts them most when their money is taken away. If the CAB went to the so-called costa del crime to assess Irish criminals’ assets there, however, the CAB officials would be arrested, not the criminals. In today’s society, we need enhanced co-operation to combat the type of criminals involved in such illegal activities. I would welcome such enhanced co-operation.
We were told the treaty would create an EU superstate with centralised powers, but there are no new structures in the Lisbon treaty. We were told the treaty would transfer many powers from member states to Brussels, but the only major change is in the areas of freedom, justice and security. That will enable the EU to deal effectively with international crimes such as drug running and human trafficking. These are all problems we face here in Ireland.
The question of a loss of sovereignty has been raised. In 1973 when we entered Europe, Ireland conducted 60% of its trade with a single state and there was emigration. Only ten years before that, the Barrington report had spoken of the demographic anomaly in Ireland whereby the population contained a huge number of old and young people while a vast number of the people in between had left the country. There was also a tendency not to get married. What type of true independence does a country have when such a situation prevails? Since we joined the EU we have experienced a flowering of our national culture and economy. This has given young people hope and confidence for the future.
The treaty deals only with what it is intended to deal with. It does not, for example, deal with fluoridation of water, if that is a big issue for the voter. That is not what it is intended to do. The treaty is intended to make the working and operation of the European institutions more manageable in a situation where there are 27 member states. In reality, we are ensuring there is more accountability within Europe. The treaty will introduce the concept of a yellow card and an orange card, with the cards held by the national parliaments. If a national parliament considers that an issue from Europe breaches the subsidiarity principle, it can refer the matter back to Europe. If a sufficient number of parliaments agree this is correct, the issue can be removed altogether.
The operation of the European Council will be given greater coherence and continuity by the appointment of a president of the Council of Ministers. A high representative will be appointed for five years, will be a member of the Commission and will report to the ambassadors of the member states. There is also the issue of whether the Lisbon treaty is a power grab by the larger member states. The treaty introduces a double majority requirement — a minimum of 55% of the member states, representing at least 65% of the population.
One of the most serious shadows that is put forward is the suggestion that the treaty will be self-amending. This relates primarily to Articles 33 and 308 of the treaty. Article 33 provides for an ordinary treaty revision procedure and a simplified procedure. Under the ordinary procedure any member state, the European Parliament or the Commission may make a proposal for one or more treaty amendments which could increase or reduce a competence conferred on the Union by the member states. National parliaments must be notified. The simplified procedure applies only to the TFEU, that this, the internal policies and actions of the Union. In the first case, the governments can decide on treaty amendments by common accord. Their decisions must be subsequently ratified by each member state in accordance with its constitutional requirements.
There is also the issue of the militarisation of the EU. With all previous treaties, this issue was put forward each time. Each treaty was alleged to be the one that would bring Ireland into the European superstate and the European army. That and similar arguments relate to the common foreign and security policy and the security and defence policy, both of which were provided for in previous treaties which Ireland ratified by referendum. The sky did not fall. There are situations where European states are required to act as one. Consider what happened in this millennium, the genocide in former Yugoslavia. Genocide is something we thought could never happen again. The European Union was not in a position at that time to deal effectively with it. I believe it should have been. The proposal that this treaty is a movement towards the creation of a European army does not stand up to scrutiny. The Irish triple lock system still remains in place.
The main fear, however, is that the treaty will lead to the harmonisation of corporate tax rules and rates. The European Commission for some time, without success, has been floating the idea of a common consolidated corporate tax base, similar to the system in place for VAT. It has never achieved majority support among the member states and it is not included in the Commission’s 2009 work programme. There is no proposal to harmonise actual tax rates. Even if this proposal were made at a future date, it could not be approved except by unanimous vote in the Council. It is on this issue that people who oppose the treaty have suggested there is a fundamental change. They suggest that, at some stage, there is a possibility that an Irish Taoiseach will act against the best interests of the nation and vote for harmonisation of tax rates in conjunction with all the other Council members. That is not just improbable but simply will not happen. Irish tax rates are seen by other states as an example of a positive social economy with low tax.
The other positive aspect of the treaty is the Charter of Fundamental Rights. European nations fought against each other for many years. Nationalism was rampant throughout the Continent. Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to show the rest of the world what is possible. When Pat Cox visited the Seanad he spoke about Europe being something of the light. There is no doubt this treaty is a continuation of something of the light. That is what the “No” campaign and the naysayers fear most because it shows their shadows are no more than that.
Senator Liam Twomey: We should be grown up about this treaty. There is no need to call anybody on the “No” side of the campaign a “loo-la” or anything else. I do not really give a damn whether the rest of the member states ratify the treaty through their parliaments or through referendums. We always hold a referendum; that is how we do things in Ireland. We will accept the will of the people in the referendum. It is their decision whether to accept or reject it. One of the arguments one regularly hears is about European armies. I have never yet had anybody in County Wexford or in any other part of the country ask me about the European army. They could not care less about it. Some of the other arguments put forward about Europe verge on the nonsensical for the majority of people in this country.
However, the one problem we must face, and Fianna Fáil is probably the greatest contributor to it, is the negative attitude towards Europe.
Senator Ann Ormonde: What?
Senator Liam Twomey: Senator Ormonde should hear me through. She might learn a little.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I do learn.
Senator Liam Twomey: Every time there is a problem with a local issue, one is told it is caused by Dublin. When there have been national problems, Ministers, including those from the Fianna Fáil Party, have been heard to say, “Well, that is Europe for you.” They have been saying it for 30 years. To some degree they have contributed to a feeling among a certain number of people that Europe is a negative thing. When people voted for the previous treaties, in many cases it was because there was a strong economic element in those treaties. Naturally, people will vote in their own interests. However, if one has been consistently knocking Europe by blaming it for environmental issues and ridiculous things such as straight bananas, a sizeable minority of people will have the perception that Europe is bad for them but that they must put up with it and, for as long as Europe is paying them, they do not mind. That is the reason the general public, for no apparent reason, does not take much heed of or is negative towards Europe.
There is also a lack of knowledge about Europe, and that applies to Members of the Oireachtas and members of local authorities. Many of us do not know the names of more than three or four MEPs from other countries, even if we know our MEPs. We do not understand what the European project is about. When one does not understand what the European project is about, it is incredibly easy to knock it and to allege that it is a negative force for the majority of people in this country. When we talk to the people perhaps we should begin by saying that we have used Europe. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, has even said he voted against the Nice treaty the first time round because he had problems with Europe. Perhaps there is a need for Ministers to be honest and to say to the people that they may have misled them in regard to aspects of Europe. That is how we will get the people to vote for this treaty.
The strong economic arguments that have been made about previous treaties do not apply to this one, but one important role of this treaty is the Charter of Fundamental Rights for the citizens of Europe. This is one aspect of it that could be sold to the people. Europe has been very good in protecting the human rights of a great number of people in Ireland. The opportunity is always there for citizens of this country to take a case to the European Court of Justice. Many of them have been served extremely well in that court and that is what we must sell. Many of the most positive social policies implemented in this country have found their origins in Europe. That is how we will buy the people into this European project.
In reality, very little economic debate applies to this treaty. Lisbon is very much about tidying up a number of other treaties and making it little more manageable for the bureaucrats of Europe. That in itself is not a bad thing. It is no harm that we have a European treaty that tidies up a lot of the other work we are already doing in Europe. Many of the principles of the European project are based on previous treaties which have been passed in this country.
Essentially we have been good Europeans. We see the benefits to us and our self-interest has been served in many of the previous treaties. That is not a bad thing. We are also far more open-minded about what previous treaties have brought us. When we see all the other issues about our neutrality and the European armies that have been thrown into the argument in the past few years, we are big enough to see beyond them. It is interesting to observe the type of silly stuff that can become part of this debate.
Senator Doherty mentioned that Fine Gael was voting for tax harmonisation. I found the Bersani Report of 2005. It is fantastic that Senator Doherty has the time and the inclination to look up what Fine Gael MEPs are doing in Europe but his argument was that Fine Gael was looking for tax harmonisation. He quoted from a report that was published in December 2005. Fine Gael Members of the European Parliament voted last week in Strasbourg against the concept of tax harmonisation and we have voted against it consistently 15 times in the past couple of years. That is the type of information that Senator Doherty should be giving to the people. That would help to inform the debate in this country.
The European Parliament is working like a huge super parliament and many of the resolutions passed there carry no weight. Many of the things said there are as full of hot air as some of the debates in both the Seanad and the Dáil and they also carry no weight. The general concept of the European Parliament and its power do not intervene in the slightest with the sovereignty of the Dáil or with the people of this country. We should get that message across to them. The Irish have nothing to fear from Europe which will continue to work in the same way it has worked for the past 30 years. There will be, as there must be, changes in how it works. Europe has altered radically since we joined it in 1973 and its workings have altered to the same degree and yet I do not see the sky falling 30 years later, even as we discuss this treaty.
I say to the Minister that we should go out and give this to the people in the way they want it and talk about it in the way I have heard many contributors from the “Yes” side speak of it.  It is a question and answer session for the people. The reason the treaty is so boring for the majority is that it is a housekeeping exercise. It wraps up many things.
Cuireadh an díospóireacht ar athló.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I move: “That Second Stage be taken now.”
Question put and agreed to.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I move: “That the Bill be now read a second time”.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Noel Ahern. The Labour Party believes that the best form of government is open and honest. The reputation of politicians on this island suffered in the 1970s, the 1980s and in the early 1990s to the point where permanent changes were needed to the way we operated and did our business. It took the introduction of three Acts to provide the foundation for a code of moral practice for parties in Government.
The first Act to which I refer is the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 which was designed to draw a line between the business interests of politicians, their private interests and their role as public representatives. It introduced stipulations regarding disclosure of donations, gifts and any other interests. The Electoral Act 1997 was designed to expose political expenditure, party donations and electoral spending. The third Act was the Freedom of Information Act 1997 which was established to lift the veil on Government and to allow people to get access to information on how their Government worked for them.
The Minister’s brother, our outgoing Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, in an enthusiastic speech at the time of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Bill in 1998, said it was essential in order to deepen our democracy. I do not think his enthusiasm was very long lived because only four years later five Secretaries-General from various Departments got together, headed by the Secretary-General from the Department of the Taoiseach, to review the operation of the Freedom of Information Act. After six months of review they presented a 21-page document to the then Minister for Finance, former Deputy Charlie McCreevy, outlining some changes that they wanted to see in the legislation.
It was not clear whether other Ministers, civil servants or Freedom of Information committees in any of the Departments were consulted at the time. Was the Information Commissioner consulted? My fear is that none of those people was consulted. The result of the review was that several changes were introduced to the operation of the legislation. There was a ten-year exemption on all Cabinet papers — along with a broadened definition of a Cabinet paper and a Government meeting. This meant more and more documents were included in the exemption process.
There was then a review of the information pertaining to policy development. This effectively disallowed members of the public from seeing how policy was put together and formulated, who weighed into the decisions and what was said by whom. There was a dramatic broadening of what constituted a concealable document by the Department of Foreign Affairs. This was broadened to include various EU negotiations. This flies in the face of what we are trying to achieve at the moment as regards the Lisbon treaty, when one of the benefits we are advocating for people is more accountability and more openness. The Council of Ministers has to be open to the public when legislation is being discussed, yet one of the changes to our legislation a few years ago made it more difficult to find out what was going on when it came to European Union negotiations.
The other area where change was introduced was in regard to fees. A fee of €15 to €150 was attached to applications under the Freedom of Information Act. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of applications. In the first quarter of 2003, there were 3,000 applications. This dropped off in the second quarter to 1,700, after the introduction of the fee and by the third quarter there were just 1,000 applications. The fee effectively reduced the number of applications by two-thirds. Also, a fee of €150 was introduced for the appeals process. When we tried to find out how this was justified, we were told we could not have this information under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the problems is that it has become more and more difficult to get information as a result of these fees.
These amendments have led to further increases in the number of exemptions allowed. As a result people such as the Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, have called for the abolition of these fees. She claims the public is being put off by the costs involved in seeking information. Commissioner O’Reilly even pointed out that Ireland is out of line with the European Commission which does not charge any fee for freedom of information requests.
There is a necessity for bodies such as the Central Bank and the Garda Síochána to be included in a properly working Freedom of Information Act. The Labour Party has included a proposal in this regard in the legislation it is proposing today. We are seeking to re-establish the Freedom of Information Act in its entirety. We want to eliminate the cynical changes that were made a few years ago. We also want to introduce certain recommendations that the Information Commission has been pushing for over a number of years.
We seek to redefine the public bodies that will be open to Freedom of Information Act requests, including the Garda Síochána, the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority, the Adoptions Board, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, the Law Society and many others. Since the introduction of the Government’s amendments in 2003, many Departments have sought refuge from the Irish public by hiding behind clauses of secrecy provided by other Acts, and this Bill will introduce more than 70 specific provisions to end that and guarantee that the Irish people have full access to information. It will abolish the regressive 2003 amendment that introduced fees for FOI applications and appeals. At the time the then Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, estimated that each application was costing about €400. The total cost of producing them was about €5 million at the time. It is clear the Government is well aware of the costs of open government, but still has no concept of the value freedom of information produces.
The Labour Party is not the only group calling for the changes proposed today. As I said, the Information Commissioner has strongly criticised the Government for what has happened to the original Freedom of Information Act. This week the most recent OECD report was published. It states:
We believe it is time the Government took the hint from sources such as the OECD and the Information Commission. It is time it began to trust the public again and we believe this Bill will reintroduce open and public government.
Senator Phil Prendergast: In 1997 we saw the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act which obliges public bodies such as Departments, the HSE and local authorities, among others, to publish information on their activities and to make personal information that is held available to citizens. The Act also provides for assisting members of the public in “obtaining access to the greatest extent possible” to information in the possession of public bodies, with a provision that people should also have the right to have inaccurate information corrected.
With regard to the latter, this was and continues to be a very basic and important right for the citizens of Ireland in an ever-growing world of computerisation and compilation of databases, where the risk of inaccuracies grows with the continued development of such means for acquiring and storing information. The Freedom of Information Act was a step toward openness and transparency founded on the belief that public bodies, in their positions of power, must be accountable to the public they serve. While the ideal is excellent, over the years the original idea of total transparency differs enormously from what has evolved. The initial Freedom of Information Act that was to provide for improved accountability and ease of access to information has been diminished by the large degree of delegation exercised in Departments. The Minister at the head of a Department is now far removed from the coal face and in many cases there is very little accountability in evidence.
The Department of Health and Children is a case in point. With the creation of the HSE, it appears the Department of Health and Children is no longer responsible for the management of health related issues. When a query arises it is referred to the HSE and from my experience, working on behalf of clients, it is an absolute nightmare trying to navigate through the system and ultimately find someone prepared to take any responsibility or to provide a reasonable answer. That also means there is no reasonable period of time within which they are obliged to provide an answer.
In recent times, we have had the unfortunate misdiagnoses of many women. After internal investigation attributed these fiascoes to system failures, we must question the transparency in this regard. No one knows what happened despite the reports, no one is accountable and, as a result, little changes to improve the system. The service, and ultimately the type of mismanagement that created the climate where such tragedies could happen, is simply not being addressed.
In the past, the Information Commissioner has made reference to the delay in publishing reports. In particular, I refer to the commissioner’s encouragement of the HSE in her 2004 and 2005 annual reports to publish reports of its inspections of nursing homes, based on section 38 of the Freedom of Information Act. This states the commissioner should, “foster and encourage the publication by public bodies of information of relevance to the general public in relation to their activities and functions generally”.
In June 2005 the HSE committed itself to publishing nursing home inspection reports in response to the commissioner’s 2004 annual report. The HSE was to publish nursing home inspection reports on its website as a matter of course and in October 2005, while work was reported to be advancing well on national standardised nursing home inspection and reporting arrangements, it took almost a further year before inspection reports were published. I believe that recommendations made by the Information Commissioner should be prioritised by Departments and while acknowledging the logistics involved, it should not take more than two years to implement a recommendation. In the case of nursing home reports, undoubtedly families refer to these when choosing a facility for their family members. In my eyes that is the essence of the freedom of information ethos — assessment and publication of comprehensive and current reports, which will directly influence the quality of service provided by such enterprises. However, these reports must be published in a timely manner.
In 2003 an amendment was made to the Freedom of Information Act which saw the introduction of fees of between €15 and €150, as stated by my colleague, Senator Hannigan. These charges undoubtedly led to the subsequent decline in the number of queries submitted. Prior to the amendment, in 2003 some 18,443 requests were made to public bodies under the Freedom of Information Act. This was an increase of 1,247, 7%, over the 2002 figure and an increase of 3,015, 20%, over the figure for 2001. The latest available annual report for 2006 shows that 11,804 requests were made to public bodies under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006, a decrease of 19% on the 2005 figure of 14,616, and 6% below the 2004 figure of 12,597. When the 2003 figure of 18,443 is considered alongside the 2006 figure of 11,804, it is evident that there is a clear correlation between the introduction of fees and the drop in requests.
Prior to 2003, a fairer system was in place with charges only applied once access had been granted. It is essential now that we revise the fees downwards to address the decline. Following the 2003 amendment a charge was applied on initial application for the relevant records with additional charges being put in place for applications for internal review of a refusal and for appealing a refusal to the Information Commissioner.
Excessive delegation, delayed reporting and unfair fees have had a negative impact on the effective operation of the Freedom of Information Act and we now need to address this issue in a meaningful way, returning to the original spirit of the Act of transparency, accountability and good governance.
Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, on this historic occasion for Ireland in the United States.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Noel Ahern): The Government will not be accepting the Private Members’ Freedom of Information Amendment Bill 2008. The Freedom of Information Act 1997, as amended in 2003, provides the right balance between facilitating public access to information held by public bodies and allowing Government to function effectively. This is the aim of the Act, as set out in the Long Title which states that it is:
It is almost exactly ten years now since the 1997 Act came into force. Over that time, more than 130,000 requests have been made to public bodies, of which the large majority have been granted. The range of requests covers the whole span of Government activities and includes requests for both personal and non-personal information, requests from members of the public, business, journalists, staff members of public bodies and elected representatives.
When the Act came into force, it applied to just 67 bodies. At regular intervals since then, the Government has extended the remit of the Act, first by extending it to local authorities and health boards, then to voluntary hospitals and subsequently to numerous other State agencies, bodies and institutions, including those in the enterprise, broadcasting and third level education sectors. In 2006 we saw the greatest ever extension of the Freedom of Information Act involving some 137 bodies. This means that more than 520 bodies are now part of the freedom of information regime. The new bodies covered by the 2006 extension include county and city enterprise boards, education support centres, regulatory bodies in the health sector and a wide range of other bodies. Full details are available on the Department of Finance freedom of information website. By extending freedom of information throughout the public service, the Government has ensured it has become a permanent and valuable feature of public administration. Work is ongoing in the Department of Finance for extension of freedom of information to a further group of public bodies later this year.
Over the past ten years, freedom of information has brought greater openness and accountability to the conduct of public business. In this regard, it has complemented a range of other measures designed to increase public confidence in the institutions of the State, including standards in public office and ethics legislation.
The success of freedom of information cannot be judged solely by statistics, a point that should be carefully considered when quoting the figures. It was anticipated before the Freedom of Information Act was introduced that it would serve to encourage the release, on an informal administrative basis, of information that would previously not have been readily available. There are many examples of this, including universities and other third level education institutions releasing students’ examination scripts without requiring students to invoke the Act formally. I understand three quarters of requests for personal records from the Health Service Executive are dealt with informally, with requesters not being required to go through the formal freedom of information process. The same is true of many Departments and also the Houses of the Oireachtas. As officials know that people have the right to the information, rather than dragging them through the process they co-operate and give the information earlier. We are getting that culture of co-operation and openness established. Figures for freedom of information requests can be misleading. It is not related to charges, but to the fact that the culture of most agencies and Departments now giving the information informally without putting people through the formal system has become established
The years of freedom of information have coincided with huge advances in information technology which have facilitated the publication of information by public bodies to a degree that could not have been envisaged when the Freedom of Information Act was first introduced. People can also access much of the information themselves. The websites of Departments and public bodies now contain vast amounts of up-to-date, easily accessible information on a vast range of Government activities. I would encourage Senators to look at the excellent citizen’s information website hosted by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment which is regarded as an example of best practice in the EU. It provides one portal through which the citizen can access a very wide range of public information covering services and entitlements from across a range of different State agencies.
In 2002, after the Freedom of Information Act had been in operation for four years, the Government asked a high level group of Secretaries General to review the operation of the Act. Following the report of this group, the Government introduced an amending Bill which made a number of important changes to the 1997 Act. The amending Bill was debated at great length in both Houses and the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act came into operation in April 2003. One of the key changes in the 2003 Act was the extension of the period of protection for Government related records from five to ten years. In its report, the high level group had stated:
The Government agreed with this view. For Government to function effectively and in line with the doctrine of Cabinet responsibility, Ministers must be able to express their views fully and frankly without feeling inhibited by the risk of disclosure of their views after such a short time. As the Minister for Finance pointed out at the time, by international standards a ten-year limit was still liberal and at the lower end of limitations for Cabinet related records.
Another important amendment in the 2003 Act was the introduction of upfront fees for freedom of information requests for non-personal information. While the original Act had provided that fees be charged for freedom of information requests for non-personal information, the fee regime was not working properly. Four years of experience had shown that the cost of processing an average freedom of Information request was considerable. It was estimated at the time by the Department of Finance as being €425. There were also cases of individual requesters making requests where the costs involved were clearly an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money. There were different examples of this. I could mention the example of a request for access to the diaries of a number of civil servants and Ministers that involved reading through thousands of pages of documentation. They had to be read, assessed and considered for release with personal or sensitive material deleted. One individual made 466 requests, 101 applications for internal review and 35 appeals to the Information Commissioner.
The 2003 Act provided that the Minister could set the level of the fee through regulation; it was subsequently set at €15, with a reduction to €10 for medical card holders. While this in no way reflects the administrative cost of processing an FOI request, I am satisfied it strikes a fair balance between recognising the administrative burden of administering the legislation and at the same time facilitating access to information. The fee has not been increased since 2003.
The 2003 Act also contained a number of other carefully considered measures designed to provide an enhanced protection in key areas of Government and parliamentary activity, including records relating to international relations, security and defence. It also included a series of technical measures to improve the operation of the Act.
I think it is fair to say that ten years on, FOI is now well embedded in our public administration and overall it is operated effectively by public bodies. Its implementation is well supported by ongoing investment by Departments and public bodies in training and other supports, including the central policy unit of the Department of Finance, which has a key role in overseeing the implementation of the Act across the public service. I believe the Act, as amended, strikes the right balance between the public’s right to know and the effective functioning of the administration.
The Private Member’s Bill before the House today seeks to row back the changes that were made in 2003. These changes were fully discussed in both Houses in 2003, they were based on careful consideration and experience and I have already recalled the background to them regarding the protection of Government records and the provision for up-front fees.
As regards the proposal that the definition of public bodies should be changed so the Act is automatically applied to a number of bodies, I do not agree this would be a useful approach. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Minister by regulation prescribes bodies that are covered by FOI and the Act provides a definition of the bodies that are eligible for inclusion. This approach was introduced in the original Act to allow for case by case consultation with public bodies to ascertain the degree to which their functions should be covered by FOI, for example the Information Commissioner is not subject to FOI for her investigative functions, and to allow a lead-in time for preparation and training in the public bodies involved to ensure the Act is properly applied.
As regards the proposal to include additional non-disclosure provisions in the Third Schedule, the Act already provides, at section 32, a mechanism for the review of non-disclosure provisions by a joint committee of the Houses. The committee carried out such an examination in September 2006 and sought the views of the Information Commissioner and of relevant Ministers. It prepared a report that recommended the inclusion of certain non-disclosure provisions in the Third Schedule and Departments have been instructed to implement this recommendation. Therefore, this is an area that has been already thoroughly examined by the joint committee.
The Bill also contains a number of amendments, drawn from the Information Commissioner’s report of March 2007. Many of these are technical in nature and relate to the practical operation of the Freedom of Information Act. However, having considered the Information Commissioner’s report, I do not agree that any further technical amendments to the Act are required at this time. The operation of the Act is kept under continuous review by the central policy unit in the Department of Finance, which co-ordinates the FOI networks across the public sector, and I am satisfied the Act operates satisfactorily. If difficulties emerge in the future that require legislative solutions, they can be addressed.
To conclude, we are ten years down the road and I believe we have in place a strong FOI regime that is supported by robust administrative arrangements for ensuring proper implementation of the legislation. The legislation achieves the correct balance between making information available and providing effective Government, including through the fee regime. It is working well and change is not necessary.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: On a point of information, the Minister of State may not be aware that his speech has not been made available to us. We could request it through the Freedom of Information Act but it might be easier to use a photocopier.
Senator Liam Twomey: I was around when the Freedom of Information Bill went through Dáil Éireann in 2003 and I do not recall many concessions being made to the Opposition. There was plenty of discussion but very few Opposition amendments or views were taken on board. The Government had just been through a series of embarrassing situations due to information released through the Freedom of Information Act and was anxious to close it down before things got worse. The Minister of State may suggest that the Government was balancing the access rights of citizens with good governance but ending Government openness was the real thinking behind the 2003 legislation. Since then, to some degree, the transparency and accountability of the Government has suffered.
Some of the measures taken in 2003 were draconian. During the course of the debate in the Dáil and on Committee Stage I agreed with some of the Government’s views and decisions. Regarding Cabinet papers, the extension of time from five to ten years made sense, as did the restriction of sensitive information from Departments. However, I feel that fees were used to block access to information.
In any area of Government one can find reasons to explain an action or a decision. The Minister of State related cases of vexatious requests that were made but a few individuals may have been responsible for the majority of such requests. Many people made freedom of information requests simply seeking information and I believe that in the short period the older legislation applied, it contributed to openness and transparency in Government. There were costs involved for civil servants but many civil servants were gathering and collating information they never would have expected to be subject to public scrutiny. The Act changed how business was conducted in the Civil Service with regard to record keeping and having information in an accessible format. If we had progressed down that road for the past five years we would have contributed to more open Government. This avenue has been closed and I think this was done, to a degree, out of Government self-interest, rather than a desire to look after citizens.
In discussions in this House on the public service, including the Health Service Executive, the Health and Safety Authority and numerous other State bodies, people often wonder whether negligence is involved in how business is conducted. They wonder whether incompetence exists to such a degree that something should be done. The HSE gets a great deal of bad press and some of the worst press it receives originates from Fianna Fáil Senators and Deputies who do not associate it with their actions. We really do not know if the HSE is as useless and incompetent as is claimed because we cannot get the information needed to assess it. We cannot examine the HSE’s management and governance because the relevant information is not made available to us. We, therefore, do not know it is incompetent. For all we know, the HSE could be a good and well-run organisation but under resourced with too much political interference. Many Ministers do not want information pertaining to their Departments and quangos under their remit — which are becoming increasingly familiar — to become publicly available because what is said behind closed doors is at variance with their public statements. They do not want such contradictions exposed in public.
The most important reason for freedom of information is that it stems the tide of corruption in politics. When one party has been in power for a long time, a certain arrogance emerges. Having transparency in the Government and Civil Service ensures corruption and arrogance do not become endemic or embedded.
According to the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, Departments have structured themselves to ensure information becomes routinely available. This was used by Ministers to stop freedom of information requests being made. For example, information from a request from a news reporter is often put on departmental websites, available to everyone, and negating its exclusiveness. It allows Ministers to claim they are doing the most for transparency.
It would be better if such a sentiment were more genuine. Information requested and allowed into the public domain should from then be made available routinely without the need for requests. For example, every year Members’ expenses are requested by the media under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, there should a standard procedure where Members’ expenses are routinely made available without the need for an annual request.
The majority considers the Office of the Information Commissioner to be independent and free from political interference. The Government should take on board its recommendations on how to improve the freedom of information process. An independent review should be undertaken of the first four years of the legislation and the past four years since it was amended. It may find an opportunity to amend the legislation to ensure better governance in the Civil Service and other public bodies.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I thank the Labour Party for introducing this Private Members’ Bill. It is a better use of Private Member’s business to debate a Bill rather than a motion on a particular issue. It is important the effort taken in the preparation of such a Bill is acknowledged.
The Government side, however, will not support this Bill. As the Minister of State outlined, since 1997 the Freedom of Information Act has served the country well. It was amended in 2003 and the schedule of bodies that falls under its remit has been extended on a constant basis.
When I was chief executive officer of Sligo Chamber of Commerce, I used the legislation in preparation for the chamber’s bid to become a gateway centre under the national spatial strategy. Our strategy was to wait until the last possible moment and request the submissions from the other 114 towns. We then based our bid on the information we gleaned.
The freedom of information process is easy to use and not as prohibitive as some Members claimed. The costs structure involved in the process is more than reasonable. While there has been a reduction in requests since the introduction of fees in 2003, it may be found that over the entire period of the legislation, requests were already in decline.
One reason for a reduction in requests may be that more information is readily available through websites and other publications. Increasingly, our system of government is becoming more transparent. This should not be confused with individuals or groups having frustrations with the workings of some State agencies, most notably the HSE, with which nearly every Member has an issue.
The Freedom of Information Act has enshrined the rights of individuals as citizens and shareholders of public knowledge. It gives them the right to examine and review the deliberations and processes of public bodies. Every citizen has the right to know what information is held in Government records about him or her personally, subject to certain exemptions to protect key interests, to inspect files held about or relating to him or her and to have inaccurate material on file corrected. Groups and individuals who are affected by decisions of public bodies should have the right to know the criteria used in making those decisions. Decisions by public bodies should be more open to public scrutiny, thus providing greater appreciation of the issues involved in policy decisions and stronger public ownership and acceptance of decisions made.
The Act established three new statutory rights, namely, the legal right for each person to access information held by public bodies; the legal right for each person to have official information relating to himself or herself amended where it is incomplete, incorrect or misleading; and the legal right to obtain reasons for decisions affecting oneself. The main features of the Act have not required amendment since 1997. Further bodies will be included later this year under the Act. As with all legislation, as circumstances change we must keep an open mind. I admit some provisions of the Labour Party’s Bill merit further reflection and I am sure the Minister will take them on board.
Requesting information from the HSE has become a lengthy process. All Members have different views on the health board system before the HSE’s establishment. In my experience, one could inquire about a particular aspect of health services from the former North Western Health Board and have an answer in days. With the HSE, such inquiries can take up to several weeks. An answer will go from various bodies to the Minister and then the final draft probably goes to a public relations agency. This is not good value for money. The review of the public services as a whole, which has been alluded to by the Tánaiste, Deputy Cowen, and the release of the OECD report yesterday is to be welcomed. These could help with the frustrations many of us feel towards several Government agents, with the HSE at the top of that list.
I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this Private Members’ Bill. Perhaps we could see more of such Bills from the Fine Gael and Independent groups in the Opposition Private Members’ time. By doing this we can come up with genuine improvements. While we oppose the Bill on this occasion, I am sure it could form the basis of improvements to legislation in the future.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I propose to share my time with Senator Norris. He appears to have, in the words of JK Rowling, disapparated.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Here we go again.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I am not sure whether he did so by——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Senator should not make the wrong quotation.
Senator Rónán Mullen: ——Portkey or through the floo network.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The Senator is so young.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I expect he will be back. Senator Norris said that he would like to speak for one minute but I doubt he will be so stingy with his insights.
Acting Chairman: It is possible Senator, with respect.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Perhaps after five minutes the Acting Chairman can notify me.
Acting Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, one of my local Deputies to this House. I thank the Labour Party for proposing this Bill. This is an important issue and it is essential in a democratic society that there is transparency and that people are entitled, as a matter of principle, to access information — not just about themselves — about the workings of public bodies. It is a good thing, to state the obvious, that we have a freedom of information regime in Ireland.
The Government will refer to the extension of the freedom of information regime to public bodies and the proposed extension of the legislation to further public bodies. Naturally, the Labour Party has issues with the restrictions of the freedom of information regime. This reflects the necessary balance to be struck between preventing, as far as possible, vexatious and trivial applications under the freedom of information legislation on the one hand, but also keeping in mind the presumption of a real openness that enables people to carry out their duty and exercise their rights as citizens and to access information about the workings of state and public bodies.
There are several issues deserving of special consideration with the current operation of the freedom of information regime. The imposition of fees for FOI requests is totally out of line with comparable legislation in other countries which seek to make the administration more accountable in this manner. The fall-off in the number of FOI requests since the amending legislation in 2003 illustrates the extent to which fees have curbed the number of people seeking information from the Government.
There is also an issue with the practice of creating, through stealth enactments, a series of exemptions to FOI provisions and hiving off areas of departmental competence, declaring them off limits for the purposes of freedom of information applications under section 32 of the Freedom of Information Act 1997. In drafting certain legislation, the Government has created non-disclosure enactments which authorise, or require, the non-disclosure of a record which might be the subject of an FOI request. Moreover, it has been reportedly standard practice for the Government not to properly notify the Information Commissioner as to which exemptions are being inserted in such enactments. For example, in a report to a joint Oireachtas committee concerned with the operation of the FOI Act, the commissioner stated: “in mid September 2005 my Office became aware that the FOI Act had been amended by the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 which had commenced on 1 September 2005”. The commissioner goes on to state:
The Commissioner goes on to state: “I think it is undesirable that the FOI Act should be amended in a piecemeal fashion; such an approach tends to favour the sectional interests of particular public bodies over and above the purpose and principles of the FOI Act generally”. As has been said earlier about this trend, it is disquieting that Ministers can bring in legislation which essentially guts the intent and spirit of earlier legislation without reference to that statute. Given that the FOI Act is specifically intended to increase the openness and transparency of government, ongoing governmental interference seems even more troubling. A state of affairs where there is what the Information Commissioner describes as “a growing list of non-disclosure provisions” which appears to be dismantling the Freedom of Information Act, is a cause for serious concern.
It is necessary to keep under review the extent to which there is respect for the right of the public to gain access to information to allow them fully discharge their duties as citizens. The presumption must always be in favour of making information available. I grant there is a need to limit it by reference to preventing vexatious requests and important matters which need to be undisclosed and remain confidential in the interests of fairness, security, justice and so on. It is important that we do not have a stingy and mealy-mouthed attitude to the right of the public to access information. I commend the Labour Party for raising this matter.
Senator David Norris: I thank my colleague, Senator Mullen for sharing time. I have but a few brief observations to make. I congratulate the Labour Party for putting down this Bill. It is the same Bill that has been presented to the Dáil by Deputy Joan Burton and it is a very good day’s work.
Most of the time I come across freedom of information business when I get a slip saying that some newspaper has inquired into the expenses of all Members of the Oireachtas. Sometimes the requests are rather prying and looking to rake up a little muck and fire it at politicians. However, it is all in the interests of public accountability and I have no problem with this. We should be transparent in these matters.
I have also the same concerns as the Labour Party about the limitations being imposed. The idea that the Minister has to denominate specifically those bodies that are to be covered by it, the various exemptions that apply and the development of quangos — referred to in the very good information leaflet or explanatory memorandum — is unsatisfactory. I share these concerns, especially with regard to the Garda. I think it very important that we have access, through freedom of information, to the operations of the Garda. I say this because I have received in the recent past several very serious complaints against the Garda. It has been quite difficult to arrive at the truth. It may well be that these complaints are unfounded but I need to be in a position where I can ascertain what the truth is.
With regard to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner there is some very nasty material in the undergrowth. People are denied information routinely. This is a body that has a very complex history. The Government is acting in a very strange way by re-appointing as the appeals commissioner the very man who has been discredited as chairman of the previous body.
Freedom of information is important, so that justice can be given to citizens. I have a case that I am putting down as an Adjournment matter of a man whose reputation is destroyed. He was traduced by a Department and, in the process, denied information to which he should have been entitled.
The freedom of information charges are very mean-minded and are clearly intended to limit applications. It has been successful in so doing. If we are interested in accountability, transparency and so on, this is a dangerous course to take. Similarly, fire brigade charges should be dropped because they inhibit people in their reporting of what they believe are minor fires they can put out. I support the Bill and commend the Labour Party on moving it.
Senator Dan Boyle: As a former Opposition spokesperson who spoke strongly against the amendments in the 2003 legislation——
Senator Joe O’Toole: We remember. The Senator spoke well.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: He has not changed his mind.
Senator Dan Boyle: The debates on Second and Committee Stages have been read avidly since. Not much has changed in my attitude.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Good.
Senator Dan Boyle: Beyond the ten-year moratorium, which contains some logic given multi-term and five-year Governments, the 2003 changes were not particularly politically inspired. The formation of the high-level Secretary Generals group provided as much of the impetus as anything else. The Secretary Generals involved were motivated by administrative convenience and a culture within the Civil Service, namely, that doing a job effectively on behalf of the country requires working in the shadows as much as possible. Given modern technology, this attitude need not pertain. On Committee Stage, I complained to the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, who is still in situ, that what was being proposed was the administrative equivalent of dribbling towards the corner flag in a soccer match to use up time without playing the game.
The nature of any vibrant democracy is access to information. Since participative democracy depends on the active involvement of all citizens, the legislation should be based on them having access to relevant information. Strides have been made. The original Act, the extension of the number of bodies covered and the role of the Information Commissioner comprise progress in access to information and participative democracy.
The legislation must be embellished. The Government’s position is not set in stone. While this matter was mentioned but not agreed on during the negotiations on the programme for Government, it is the nature of coalition Governments that issues be revisited. I hope that discussions between parties in the Government allow new legislation, but certain changes must be made anyway given the review mechanisms in the Act. A provision in the programme for Government will change this issue radically, namely, the commitment to enshrine in legislation the Aarhus Convention on freedom of information in respect of environmental matters. This commitment, which will be fulfilled in the coming months, means the practice of access to information will exist on a level not previously seen but extant in other European countries. This Government decision must be welcomed because it pushes the boundaries of freedom of information and citizens’ participation in the practice of government.
A fair comment was made, namely, that fees prevent people from participating and making full use of information. There are two arguments. I am of the opinion that fees should be minimal and not act as a barrier, but the alternative argument is that, because accessing information carries a cost, our political society must decide the extent to which the State can and should subsidise the citizen in accessing information. The level between minimal and exorbitant fees is open to legitimate debate.
We must be honest concerning the abuses of freedom of information requests, including lazy journalism. Our political system contributes to this by withholding information that should be public.
Senator Phil Prendergast: Absolutely.
Senator Dan Boyle: A journalist’s request for information on the amount of money received by every public representative or on who works for them should not need to be made. As a House of the Oireachtas, we should make that information available regardless——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.
Senator Dan Boyle: ——and let people judge as they see fit. The more honest and open we are as a democracy and the more information we make available, the fewer the FOI requests or the calls for legislation of this type. I would like the political debate to move on this level.
Since my party joined the Government, the issue of getting the balance right has been revised. There is a process of thinking out loud in the Government. To what extent should one be given information on the decisions made or access to the preceding considerations? As a public representative, what I state goes on the record. However, what I think stays in my head often. If it became public, it would frighten most people.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: We are scared as it is.
Senator Dan Boyle: The process of formulating policy involves large groups comprising a diversity of opinion, much of which is off the wall, before a consensus is reached on the making of a particular decision. Legislation must determine how to provide the public with access to information on the point at which a decision process has been finalised, where people have taken responsibility and how a decision has been reached. Current legislation does not make this determination. In fact, it works both ways. I understand the political and Civil Service uncertainty regarding access to raw and unfinished information that has nothing to do with finalised decisions. On these grounds, there is a compelling case for a review of freedom of information legislation. It can never be seen to be set in stone. While current legislation might be seen as illiberal in many ways, the boat it pushed out into many areas may need to be retracted. The public interest is not served because it is too wide-ranging in some areas and not sufficiently open in others.
We should be honest enough to debate this matter on a collegial all-party basis. It is not a question of protecting the political interests of Government parties or the interests of those serving the country in the Civil Service. Rather, it is a question of the integrity of the political system. In a democracy, we must believe that the system is enhanced by regular changes in the business of government, be it in terms of individuals or political parties, and by the Opposition’s role in the electoral process. If we desire better freedom of information legislation that can be shaped, involves the political process, reflects citizens’ needs and gains their confidence, we need a debate.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: It is a pity Senator Boyle is leaving. Given his speech, he should be on this side of the House. I hope that, instead of addressing freedom of information legislation, he revisits the Government’s decision on Cork Airport.
I commend the Labour Party on this timely and opportune Bill. At the heart of this issue is the provision of information to the people. I cannot comprehend how, according to the Minister of State, this Bill will row back the 2003 changes.
I have a simple viewpoint regarding a matter touched on by Senator Boyle in his address. I have nothing to hide in terms of staff or salary, just as I had nothing to hide in terms of conference fees and so on when I was a member of a local authority.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The Senator has nothing to hide.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information should be open and transparent. Protectionism and the syndrome of keeping information are not understandable. While I may be in a political minority, we should be frank with people, give them information and move away from the Sir Humphrey and “Yes, Minister” syndrome or telling people a small amount, taking it back and confusing them.
Democracy, which is about people, participation and sharing information, would be enhanced by the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill. The Minister of State noted that 520 bodies now come under the umbrella of the Freedom of Information Act, which I welcome, but usage decreased by 19% in 2006. The freedom of information report referred to the education redress board in that regard.
I am pleased that 77% of requests were made by members of the public, along with 10% by journalists, 1% by politicians and 7% by business people. I am curious, however, as to why politicians have to put down freedom of information requests at all given that information should be available to them as a matter of course, regardless of how trivial it may be. I hope journalists will desist from using freedom of information requests as an easier option to investigative reporting.
On one of his first days as Taoiseach, John Bruton made a simple remark about the need for openness and transparency which still stands.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The phrase he used was “wall of glass”
Senator Jerry Buttimer: That was important.
Senator Joe O’Toole: It soon became less than transparent.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: He was a very good Taoiseach.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Buttimer without interruption.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Freedom of Information Act is positive in its genesis and development thus far but it needs to be developed further. The word Informare is the Latin for “to inform”, as Latin scholars such as Senator O’Toole from Corca Duibhne will know. I cannot understand why we are hesitant to give people information. The Minister of State noted the changes that have taken place since 1997, which are welcome, but Departments and public bodies, including the much-maligned HSE, must be made accountable. We have to be able to access information.
The fees imposed in Ireland are out of line with other European countries. I do not subscribe to the view that we should provide everything for nothing and I am aware of the labour and other costs involved in procuring information. I do not think the Labour Party advocates the provision of information without charge. A minimal charge should be imposed because the evidence suggests that the current fee is prohibitive. I am aware that the Freedom of Information Act is used by some people for spurious reasons but we must educate them in order to stop that practice. Charges may impose unwelcome barriers to the provision of information. If the charges cannot be reduced, a moratorium on increases might be imposed for ten or 15 years.
The Labour Party referred to the Garda. I have an open mind on whether the Garda should come under the Freedom of Information Act because, while I agree with Senator Norris that accountability is necessary, I am concerned that the work of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission would be duplicated.
This Government has established more quangos than any other Government in the history of the State. Their boards have been filled by supporters and friends.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The Senator should check the records for June 1977.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I believe the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, who represents my constituency, has appointed the largest number of people to boards over the past 12 months. The Fine Gael Party’s spokesman on enterprise, trade and employment, Deputy Varadkar, has exposed issues pertaining to quangos which need to be addressed. At yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, an individual spoke about being denied rights when one board was abolished and another created. This week, an OECD report criticised the Government’s approach to the issue. The HSE leads the charge on requests for information.
I hope there will be perestroika and that information will be opened up to everybody. Why are we hiding behind a blank canvas when we can have an open pane of glass? By introducing change, the Minister of State will be forever remembered as the one who tore down the Berlin Wall.
Senator John Hanafin: I would not be happy to change the Freedom of Information Act as to do so would create the potential for divulging confidential information, much of which is held by the Garda and the HSE. Other areas have also opened up, including business related activity. If for example, a company submits a tender and subsequently finds through a freedom of information request that it is first on the list, it could reach the conclusion that it will get the contract because it is the only company to have applied. Clear inferences can be drawn from information inadvertently released. The system as it currently stands is essential in a democracy. A Minister for a rural constituency, who has taken collective Cabinet responsibility, might decide the local hospital has to close in the interest of the State. In such a case, 100 years would not be sufficient for freedom of information because the decision would never be forgotten. Confidentiality is intended to protect the people who must make difficult decisions.
I agree with the Minister of State that vexatious claims have been made. It is recognised in legal circles that people can cost the courts vast sums of money with such claims. Certain people are rightly barred from making claims.
The €15 fee for freedom of information requests is reasonable.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: What about €150?
Senator John Hanafin: I have found that Departments give reasoned responses and it is rare that something would be found under the Freedom of Information Act to justify a decision, so we must consider vexatious claims.
The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 is to confer rights on members of the public to obtain access to official information to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy. The principles underlying freedom of information included the following: citizens, as shareholders in public bodies, should have the right to examine and review the deliberations and processes of public bodies; every individual should have the right to know what information is held in Government records about him or her, to inspect files held about or relating to him or her and to have inaccurate material on file corrected; groups and individuals who are affected by decisions of public bodies should have the right to know the criteria used in making those decisions; and decisions by public bodies should be more open to public scrutiny, thus providing greater appreciation of the issues involved in policy decisions and stronger public ownership and acceptance of decisions made.
The Freedom of Information Act 1997 was supplemented in 2003 by the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. A number of regulations have been also made under the Act since 1998. Freedom of information currently applies to more than 500 public bodies through an ongoing programme of freedom of information extension.
The Freedom of Information Act establishes three statutory rights, namely, a legal right for each person to access information held by public bodies, a legal right for each person to have official information relating to himself or herself amended where it is incomplete, incorrect or misleading, and a legal right to obtain reasons for decisions particularly affecting oneself. Regulations made in 2003 provide parents, guardians and next of kin with rights under sections 17 and 18 on behalf of an individual.
On the main features of the Act, a person can seek information from any public body covered by the Act by sending a written request to that body. The Act specifies that requests must specify they are under the Freedom of Information Act, be clear enough to enable the public body to identify the records sought, and, unless the request is for personal information, be accompanied by a fee of €15, or €10 in the case of a medical card holder. In cases where the public body is not clear as to the records being requested, staff are obliged to endeavour to assist the requester in identifying the relevant records.
Public bodies will normally have up to four weeks in which to respond to a request. There is provision to extend this timeline by a further four weeks under certain circumstances. Any official information held by public bodies listed in the First Schedule of the Act can be sought under the Act. However, to allow Government business to be properly conducted, it is necessary to exempt from release certain types of information in some circumstances. These exemptions are set out in Part III of the Act.
Among the key exemptions are records relating to meetings of the Government, deliberations of public bodies, investigative functions and negotiations, law enforcement and security, confidential and commercially sensitive information, personal information, that is, information other than the information relating to the person making the request, and the economic interests of the State. Most of these exemptions are not absolute. In most cases, information may be withheld only if it can be demonstrated that a specific harm or injury would arise from disclosure. Many are subject to an overall test of whether disclosure would be in the public interest.
There is a right to appeal. In the event of a request being refused, requesters can appeal to have the decision reviewed by someone more senior than the person who made the original decision. This process is known as internal review. The reviewer can uphold, vary or annul the original decision. Internal review must be completed within three weeks. If the requester is still unhappy with the decision, he or she has the right to appeal the decision to the independent Office of the Information Commissioner.
Application for appeals for non-personal information must be accompanied by the appropriate fee, namely, €75 for internal review or €25 for medical card holders and €150 for an appeal to the Information Commissioner or €50 for medical card holders. Further rights of appeal to the High Court and the Supreme Court are available to parties affected by a decision of the Information Commissioner.
In July 2003, a new system of fees was introduced. This requires a requester to pay a €15 fee up-front if the request is for non-personal information. An internal and external appeal of a decision on such a request attracts fees of €75 and €150, respectively. There are reductions for medical card holders. The introduction of some form of up-front fee arrangement was recommended by a high level group of Secretaries General which reviewed the operation of the original Freedom of Information Act in 2002. Provision for such fees was included in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003, which came into force in April of that year.
In general, the fees were designed to encourage a greater appreciation of the cost of administering the Freedom of Information Act by public bodies while ensuring that people can continue to have access to information. The average cost of processing a single freedom of information request has been estimated in the past at approximately €425. No doubt that figure has increased to more than €500.
The fees also provide enhanced protection for public bodies, and the taxpayer, against those few individuals who might choose to use the Freedom of Information Act in a questionable way. There were examples of such usage prior to the introduction of up-front fees, which had resulted in considerable costs and disruption. In one case, as the Minister mentioned, in a relatively short period one individual made 466 freedom of information requests, 101 internal review applications and 35 appeals to the Information Commissioner. A total of 194 of the requests were to a single public body. The total cost of these applications was estimated at the time to be in excess of €127,000.
There has not been a major fall-off in people making freedom of information requests. When the Act came into force it was expected there would be a large number of requests. That was reflected in the fact that in 2003, 18,443 people made requests, in 2004, the figure was 12,500, in 2005 it was 14,616, in 2006 it was 11,800, and in 2007 it was 10,708. A significant volume of people, therefore, still have genuine reasons for requesting information but the changes suggested in the Labour Party motion are unnecessary. For obvious reasons of security, health, business and Cabinet confidentiality there had to be certain restrictions, and those are at a minimum.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I congratulate the Labour group on bringing forward this Bill. I must live in a different world from Senator Hanafin because the figures he gave clearly indicate a drop in the numbers using the service. The Labour Party Bill deals with the reasons the Senator outlined, namely, security, health, which is covered by personal data, defence and other issues. They are covered in the Bill and the record should reflect that. Whether people agree or disagree with them is another issue but the Bill is not found wanting in that area.
On the question of openness, transparency and accountability, I am a late covert in that respect. It could be because of the part of the country in which I was born and reared — we are “givish” about everything except information. I had to work my way around it. The commitment of the then Taoiseach, John Bruton, that his Government would operate behind a wall of glass gave me nightmares. The idea that the Government would not have an unspoken thought is not something that appealed to me and I never found the word “transparent” to be of great value. In the town where I was reared it was a word used to describe somebody who was not the “full shilling” in one way or another. Transparency is not a virtue that properly describes what I am trying to achieve and it does not describe the objective of the Bill.
Previous speakers clearly made the point about access to information for parliamentarians. Much of the information we need is not available to us. Parliamentarians should not have to make freedom of information requests but that is the only way we can operate. Unlike Senator Hanafin, I have never got a straight answer to a request. I have not used it on many occasions but I have found it very unsatisfactory. I have asked for simple information on a decision making process but did not get it.
I got two queries to my office today from two schools in different parts of the country. I cannot find out for them simple information on when they are likely to get the go-ahead to build their schools. In addition, I cannot explain to them the decision making process that will give them that decision. It is not often the exact data the people are requesting that is the problem, it is the process through which that information is made available. In the schools area, for example, there is something seriously wrong if I cannot explain to people why they are not getting information. People do not have to tell me the answer to my query but they should be able to tell me how we got to the point we are at and the process that was put in place. I cannot find out information about the process, never mind the outcome.
The Labour Party Bill deals clearly, succinctly and effectively with the whole question of the deliberative process, which is crucially important. That is the reason I would disagree with government operating behind a pane of glass. Government is entitled to have translucency at the very least to protect it when it is going through its decision-making process. That is covered in the Bill, and in fairness to the Labour Party that should be stated clearly.
It is important to highlight a number of issues, including the proposal that the High Court should ensure a decision of the Information Commissioner is put into operation and that people have to comply with it. It is daft that decisions can be taken and outcomes reached without the Information Commissioner insisting on them being implemented. There is a difficulty.
I sat on the committee with Senator Boyle when we dealt with this in 2003 and, in fairness to him, he led the charge about how bad the amendment was. He also led the charge in questioning the four Secretaries General of the various Departments dealing with the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance and the Public Service and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He was very vocal and clear on the matter.
The reality is this is not about getting information on Cabinet decisions. I do not disagree with the idea of a charge in certain cases but it is how the charge is implemented. If we agree access to information is a central plank of democracy, we also agree there must be some cost and charge attaching to it. if we accept that as a principle we can consider implementation. If the implementation leads to one person putting in 400-odd various information requests in the course of a year, that is not what we were looking to do. We should try to catch that person. In the same way we could give a certain amount of slack before putting in place a charge. If people come back with a certain number of requests or a request that takes more than a certain number of hours, a charge could then kick in. That makes sense somewhere along the way but the idea of a charge for everybody at all times is unacceptable and goes against the spirit of the original legislation.
It also goes against the practice in other similar jurisdictions operating similar legislation. In terms of what we are trying to do and what the Labour Party is proposing, every one of the difficulties raised by the Government side have been anticipated. The Minister of State told us he does not believe they are necessary. It is a logical position, although I do not agree with it.
The Minister of State at least recognises that difficulties exist and has indicated that the operation of the Act is to be kept under continuous review. I do not know what that means exactly and the only review I am aware of is the review done on an annual basis by the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, which looks at the extension of the Act to various new bodies, which is fair enough. I am not sure of the continuous review by the central policy unit of the Department and its outcome.
The Minister of State has indicated the Act is operating satisfactorily and if difficulties emerge in future which require legislative solutions, they can be addressed. Nobody disagrees with that but which one of the Labour Party proposals is unacceptable? I have not heard an answer to that, although the Minister of State considered each of them. Surely it is reasonable to allow a decision to be made on frivolous and vexatious applications. Surely also the proposals deal with the deliberative process and it is good that the High Court can be called upon to implement the proposals of the Information Commissioner.
If we can exempt issues relating to personal data, security, defence of the State, international relations and other issues, it would cover important issues. Surely it is good that if somebody deliberately falsifies records, they could be held responsible for a criminal offence.
Nobody has told me why these are bad ideas. These proposals have emanated from the Information Commissioner previously and I have discussed these with her on a number of occasions. I do not see why we cannot implement them.
It is appropriate that the Garda Síochána is included. It will be protected by issues of defence and security in the deliberative process. There is no reason normal pieces of information, dealing with the process of its work, administration of the Garda and various aspects of the issue, should not be included. The Garda would not oppose it as long as the provision would not be abused. We should put in place legislation to ensure it would not be abused, while at the same time allowing citizens general access to relevant information. That is a central plank of our democracy.
I will support the Bill and I compliment the Labour group for bringing it forward. It is a fine piece of legislation.
Senator Ivor Callely: I commend the Labour Party on bringing the Bill forward and there are many points in it worthy of discussion and debate. As I read it, the primary purpose of the Bill is to extend the remit of freedom of information to include the key authorities and public bodies, to amend section 32 of the 1997 Act and to revoke the statutory instrument under which fees are charged due to applying for records under the Act.
A number of speakers have put forward their argument for and against on these issues, and the Bill is a little wider than the points to which I have referred. I have listened with interest to the various comments. We all agree with the consensus that the Freedom of Information Act 1997 was a milestone on the road to good governance and best practice in terms of openness and accountability. The Freedom of Information Act has secured transparency, not only in Government but with public bodies as well. A commonly-held belief is that business conducted in an open manner tends to be more proficient and well-managed. Many will agree the 1997 Act has brought about these results.
I avail of this opportunity to reassert my commitment to freedom of information in the best public interest and, equally, measures to prevent certain abuses. The current Freedom of Information Act confers the right to access records held by public bodies, the right to amend records of personal information held by public bodies where such information is incorrect, incomplete or misleading and the right to obtain reasons for decisions made that affect the individual.
The Act also sets out a number of exemptions that are not available to FOI requests. Disclosure depends on whether the potential harm is outweighed by the benefit of potential disclosure. Some records may be withheld as they may belong to a particular class or disclosure would be harmful to third-party interests.
In considering this remit it is very difficult to strike the right balance. Going back to where we were in 1997 and the preparation and later enactment of the Bill, we have come a long way in the broader sense. Information officers are available, customer care provisions have been put in place in the various institutions and bodies and there has been development of Internet resources and website pages, etc.
There have been similar developments across the globe. Freedom of information is available in many different countries, giving right of access to public documents under individual legislative bases in jurisdictions. Regardless of where such legislation is enacted, it is the same broad principles which apply. Equally, the problems encountered are broadly similar, regardless of jurisdiction.
I listened to the Minister of State’s opening remarks. I support his view, to a certain extent, that it is important to get the right balance in the operation of the Act. That is what we are trying to achieve in this debate. What is the balance between facilitating public access to information and allowing the Government, public bodies and key authorities to function effectively? Where in the Act are alterations to the regulations required? That should be spelt out.
It is just over ten years since the Freedom of Information Act 1997 came into force. During that period its provisions have, by and large, operated well and not too many of those who have utilised them have run up against a brick wall. Some 130,000 people have availed of the provisions of the Act and a high number of their requests have been granted.
Freedom of information has brought about greater openness and accountability in the context of the way public business is conducted. It has complemented a range of other measures to which I referred earlier, such as those relating to customer care, etc. Institutions such as the Standards in Public Office Commission, which was established under the ethics legislation, have also assisted a great deal in this regard.
As already stated, there have been major advances in information technology. These have made available to the public a level of information that could not have been envisaged when the freedom of information legislation was originally drafted in 1997. We have come a long way. Congratulations are due to the individual sections of most Departments and public bodies that have made vast amounts of information available.
When I served as Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, I worked closely with the Citizens Information Board — formerly Comhairle — which has a tremendous website that is always up to date and is one to watch for those anxious to avail of services or facilities. Departments and agencies across the board provide people with major volumes of information and give them access to a high level of facilities.
The previous speaker referred to the Garda Síochána. I am not sold on the need for FOI across the board in respect of the force. The Garda Síochána has a website and this can be used by those who wish to obtain information on the processes to which the previous speaker referred. Whenever I have been in contact with the Garda and its press office, I have found them to be fantastic in the context of providing information. I have no doubt that under Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy we will see a continuing improvement in the force’s customer support and information services.
I wholeheartedly support the Labour Party’s introduction of this Private Members’ Bill for the sake of debate. Senator Hannigan highlighted that the Information Commissioner and her predecessors put forward a series of proposals relating to the improvement of the freedom of information legislation. I am not sure whether the Minister of State provided clarity in respect of this matter. Perhaps at some stage he might inform the House as to the amendments in the Information Commissioner’s report that are “technical in nature and relate to the practical operation of the Freedom of Information Act”. If they relate to the practical operation of the Act, it should be spelled out. Either this House or the appropriate committee should be provided with the relevant information in that regard.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Cuirim fáilte roimh na deise labhairt sa dhíospóireacht seo agus molaim Páirtí an Lucht Oibre as an reachtaíocht seo a thabhairt chun tosaí sa Seanad. Tabharfaidh mise lán tacaíochta don reachtaíocht seo.
In 2003 Sinn Féin strongly opposed the retrograde amendment to the Freedom of Information Act 1997. There was justifiable alarm at the time regarding the dilution and undermining of an important item of legislation. Freedom of information legislation must be recognised as an important tool in combating the corruption that constitutes a serious threat to a democratic system. An open system of government and an informed electorate act as preventative measures to public officials who may be inclined to disregard the law. Claims made in 2003 that the changes introduced then were necessary because the Civil Service has becoming over-burdened with nuisance freedom of information requests were bogus. Protections were already contained in the 1997 Act whereby the authorities could refuse such requests on the basis that they were frivolous or vexatious.
Public access to information should be a basic right and not a privilege granted by the State.
Senator Alex White: Hear, hear.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Government information belongs to the public. It is the Government that is the trustee of that information on the public’s behalf. State secrecy hides bad decision making, inefficiencies and corruption. The Freedom of Information Act 1997 was a long overdue attempt to address the tradition of secrecy.
The 2003 amending legislation represents a considerable setback for participatory democracy and the practising of active citizenship. I welcome the fact that the Labour Party’s Bill seeks to repeal many of the worst aspects of the 2003 amending legislation. In particular, I am glad it seeks to repeal the change introduced in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003 under which fees were made chargeable where one applies for records under the Act. Previously, fees were charged only where access was granted. This undoubtedly represents a deterrent for those contemplating making freedom of information requests.
I also welcome the fact that the Bill seeks to implement proposals put forward by the Information Commissioner and her predecessors in their statutory commentaries on the Acts. It is important that the views of the Information Commissioner, including proposals to delete some of the changes introduced in 2003, are taken on board and acted on. Section 3 contains some important amendments, such as those to provide for an annual statistical review of the operation of the freedom of information apparatus and to delete the exemptions from disclosure of material prepared for the purpose of replying to parliamentary questions and records relating to the enforcement functions of the Health and Safety Authority.
In light of the failure to introduce orders — as required under existing legislation — to apply the legislation to certain public bodies, it makes sense that the definition of “public body” be amended as proposed in the Bill in order to apply freedom of information automatically to many public bodies rather than their having to await their individual designation by the Minister for Finance. If freedom of information legislation is to perform the function for which it is intended, it is crucial that it applies to the public bodies listed in the Bill.
I again commend the Labour Party on bringing forward the Bill. I hope it will not merely serve for the purposes of debate but that people across the political divide will support it and allow it to proceed to the next Stage.
Senator Alex White: I thank colleagues on all sides for their contributions. I strongly agree with the emphasis Senator Doherty put on the importance of freedom of information. I also agree with him on the context in which he placed it.
I represent something of an unreconstructed approach to freedom of information, namely, that the presumption should be precisely that freedom of information. The case should be made for the exception and not the other way around. The rationale behind the 2003 amendments was, and much of the opposition to what we are proposing is, motivated by a completely different approach to freedom of information. The latter is, in part, grudging. At the very least, it can be characterised by a sense that the individual must make a case for obtaining particular information rather than it being presumed that the information should be freely available, but with reasonable and rational exceptions. The starting point should be to have the widest possible latitude and freedom while a case can be made in legislation and administrative rules for where the exceptions should apply. It has as much to do with our culture and approach to the issue as it has with the individual legislative provisions.
I am sorry to say that the Minister of State’s contribution is from the old school. We know the Act was introduced in 1997 and that extra bodies have been added. We know all these things, which have been set out in the Minister of State’s speech. To take the fees issue, however, it is difficult to see how the change in fees in 2003 was motivated by anything other than a desire to deter people from making freedom of information applications. Why else was it done? The Minister of State ought to be more direct with us as to why that was done. It comes through in his speech which quotes the extreme but interesting example of a request for access to the diaries of a number of civil servants and Ministers — the very idea of it. It involved reading through thousands of pages of documentation. At least that particular application had the advantage of only ever having to be done once as regards the diaries of civil servants and Ministers.
We understand that there is a burden on the State and the public service in respect of freedom of information. By introducing legislation in 1997 and believing in freedom of information, as Senator Callely said, we must be prepared to accept that a burden goes with the freedom we want to provide. It is no use taking the approach that it is so onerous and requires so many hours of work that we must restrict it. The presumption in any democratic society, especially a modern democracy such as ours, should be to make the information available, accept the burden and live with the cost to the State. I accept there is a cost to the public purse in providing freedom of information, but most entitlements we introduce come with a price tag. We must be prepared to accept that price tag within reason. It is not good enough for a Minister to point to the extraordinary cost or how onerous it is on us.
I was taken with Senator Boyle’s contribution when he said he felt the motivation for the 2003 changes was to some extent associated with a desire by senior civil servants for administrative convenience. I have no doubt the Civil Service has an important stake in this issue and that its voice must be listened to. I have enormous respect for civil servants who are the ones who have to administer this legislation but, as has been said many times in this House concerning this and other issues, it is for politicians and Governments to make decisions. Of course, we must listen to the Civil Service, including senior civil servants such as Secretaries General whose voices are vital. This is a crucial element of the public service so their views on how it works must be taken on board. Ultimately, however, politicians and Governments make decisions. Sometimes they have to tell senior civil servants that administrative convenience is trumped by an important citizen’s right to freedom of access to information. That right should override any considerations of how onerous or expensive the process may be.
In fairness to him, Senator Boyle said that issues can be revisited in Government. He pointed to the Aarhus Convention regarding information on the environment. If it is good enough in that area, why is it not good enough to extend to other areas of public concern? If he wants to have that wider debate, I would like to join him in it. For us to have a serious debate with this Bill as part of it, however, we would need to have heard something more positive in the Minister of State’s speech in terms of a commitment to act. Senator Boyle also said that there is a compelling case for a review of freedom of information legislation. However, the kind of review we need is not the notion of having things constantly under review in the Civil Service or having a look at them every now and again. There should be a review in these Houses in which the public can participate. That is the kind of review I am interested in having but, unfortunately, although we have brought this Bill before the House, it would appear the Minister of State is not prepared to countenance it.
The Minister said nothing in his speech about extending the Act to the Garda Síochána. I am surprised by that because it is a substantive issue in the Bill. Some of my colleagues have expressed concern about that, including Senator Buttimer who said he was not convinced and remained to be persuaded, which is a reasonable approach to take. Others were less certain and were supportive of it. I am surprised, however, that the Minister of State said nothing about extending the freedom of information remit to the Garda. It is not something that the Labour Party alone is advocating. As far back as 2003, the then Information Commissioner, Mr. Kevin Murphy, called for such an extension of the remit. The current Information Commissioner has called for that extension on a number of occasions, in 2006 and again last year. At least one member of the Garda Ombudsman Commission, Mr. Conor Brady, has also called for an extension of the remit to the Garda. It is important to note that of 26 member countries in the Council of Europe, Ireland is the only one that excludes its police force from freedom of information legislation. It is an extraordinary state of affairs. Mr. Brady, to whom I referred, said he saw no reason administrative matters in any institution should not be covered by freedom of information legislation. That is the point I made at the outset.
The overarching point I urge on the House is that the presumption should be for the widest possible latitude to be given to freedom of information requests while a case can be made for the exception, rather than the other way around. I regret to say our culture is still dominated by the latter view, including in the Civil Service throughout many Departments and in Government itself. I dare say that Senator Boyle has found that culture exists there, although I do not doubt his good faith in saying that he favours revisiting the matter. From what I have observed of the Government, the public service and the Civil Service in particular, there is no doubt in my mind that the culture is the other way around. It concerns the freedom of information threshold they can live with rather than a presumption of the widest possible information being made available to the public.
It is unfortunate the Government side has indicated it will not accept the Bill. I would be happier and more convinced of the Government parties’ bona fides if they said that while they would not accept the Bill, they would be prepared to bring forward some measures to address the many issues raised in our Bill. However, it has not done that. I do not know when the review Senator Boyle mentioned will happen or if it will, but if there is such a review, it is vital that the public and the Houses of the Oireachtas are involved in it. I believe this Bill would have been an interesting and helpful first step in such a review. I thank the Members for their commitment, attention and interest in this Bill.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 18; Níl, 25.
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Phelan, John Paul.|
|Prendergast, Phil.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Twomey, Liam.||White, Alex.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Butler, Larry.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Cannon, Ciaran.|
|Carty, John.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Harris, Eoghan.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||White, Mary M.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Phil Prendergast and Brendan Ryan; Níl, Senators Dan Boyle and Diarmuid Wilson.
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed that the House sit again?
Senator Dan Boyle: Ag 10.30, maidin amárach.
An Cathaoirleach: It is agreed to first take the Adjournment matter in the name of Senator Fitzgerald.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating me to raise in the Senate the need for the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, to outline what action she intends to take following the deaths of 16 people in St. Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown, County Dublin, as a result of hospital-acquired infections and whether the Government intends to order an investigation into this matter.
The Minister for State at the Department for Health and Children, Deputy Brendan Smith, may have seen or heard about the “Panorama” programme about this problem in England where many people have died from this hospital-acquired infection. So successfully has C. difficile taken hold in English hospitals that it now contributes to the deaths of four times as many people as MRSA. We must be careful and vigilant with regard to this infection. It is extremely disturbing that 16 people have died in St Columcille’s Hospital and we must ask how many people around the country have died from this infection. It is critical that we put in place the best possible mechanisms at national and regional level in every hospital to prevent the spread of this infection.
The “Panorama” programme was terrifying. There are timely lessons from the investigation that was done in the UK regarding the outbreaks in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust. The programme makers interviewed nurses and other people who had been working in those places under very difficult conditions. Wards were overcrowded and staff were under pressure, very similar conditions to what we have in hospitals here. I would be most concerned that we are not taking this infection seriously enough and that we are not putting in place enough mechanisms and cleanliness routines to deal with the spread of this infection. It is different to MRSA and it needs a different approach, although there are some similarities in the preventive steps we have taken concerning MRSA.
Since I became a Senator I commissioned a study in MRSA. What is clear is that we have a very high rate of infection in this country and that we must have a stronger search and destroy policy in order to beat this infection. The facts that have emerged regarding St Columcille’s suggest that there was no microbiologist in place. Why has it taken so long to fill the position of microbiologist at that hospital? Will there be an investigation into what happened there so that we can learn from it? We can then ensure that we do not have a similar situation in other hospitals in the country resulting in the deaths of people from this infection. It is imperative that we put in place the sort of safety standards needed if this is not to be repeated in other hospitals.
We are paying for the failure of the Department to put in place comprehensive enough plans to tackle hospital acquired infection. It is clear that we need more isolation rooms and a search and destroy policy and we must learn from other countries, particularly from the Netherlands which has managed to deal with this infection. I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say on this matter.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Brendan Smith): I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney. I thank Senator Fitzgerald for raising this very important issue.
I wish to express my sympathy to any patients and families who have been affected by this matter. I share the Senator’s concerns regarding health care associated infections. I reiterate the Minister’s commitment to ensuring high quality care is made available to all patients and to the further development of our health services, in particular the issue of patient safety.
Health care associated infections, HCAIs, are not new. For centuries they have been a side-effect of medical treatment, especially in hospitals. There are a number of types of HCAI, including MRSA and Clostridium difficile. The more medical care a person requires, the more likely he or she is to develop a health care associated infection. These infections, therefore, are more common among people with serious illnesses or who are at high risk such as patients with a weakened immune system.
The extent to which hospitals are affected by HCAIs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile varies with the type of institution. In the 2006 prevalence survey of health care associated infections, the prevalence of MRSA was 0.5% in tertiary-regional and general hospitals and was zero in specialist hospitals. The survey found that 36 patients had Clostridium difficile representing 0.5% of patients studied. However, C. difficile was not up to now a notifiable disease and, as a result, it was difficult to quantify the extent of infection in the health care system. In March 2008, the Minister instructed the Health Service Executive to make Clostridium difficile a notifiable disease and I am pleased to inform the House that from 4 May all cases will have to be notified to the relevant public health department.
I am aware that the Dublin County Coroner has written to Professor Drumm, the chief executive of the HSE, recently regarding the 16 cases referred to by the Senator. I understand some of the patients are reported to have had MRSA and other Clostridium difficile infections at the time of death. Most such instances involve significant co-morbidity factors and I have no doubt the HSE will deal with all the relevant issues raised by the coroner. Officials of the Department of Health and Children have been in touch with the HSE and have requested the relevant information to be made available to the Minister at the same time, who will then give due consideration to the issues involved. In this context I reassure the House that the Minister is fully aware of the problems posed by HCAIs and the stress they cause. This is an issue facing health services worldwide. Tackling these infections remains a priority for the Government and the HSE.
The HSE has established a national infection control action plan. It has put in place an infection control steering group, chaired by Dr. Pat Doorley, national director of population health, to oversee the implementation of the plan. Over the next three to five years the HSE aims to reduce HCAIs by 20%, MRSA infections by 30% and antibiotic consumption by 20%. These targets will be achieved through the development of national and local level action plans to reduce the potential for the spread of infections in health care settings. The steering group is supported by eight local implementation teams which will ensure all local facilities are focused on achieving the national targets.
The availability of microbiology services in the hospital setting is a necessity. However, it is not feasible or practical to have a full consultant microbiologist position in every location. Currently, consultant microbiologist advice is accessed by St. Columcille’s Hospital from St Vincent’s Hospital. The Minister has been informed that funding has been earmarked for the provision of dedicated consultant microbiologist sessions at St. Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown. When the HSE sought to fill this post before, it proved difficult to get the necessary expertise. However, I am assured a further advertisement will be placed in the very near future.
The availability of isolation facilities is another important factor in the overall solution to this issue. In that context, the Minister has agreed with the HSE that designated private beds should be used where isolation facilities are required for patients who contract HCAIs, and this policy has been adopted by the HSE. New environmental building guidelines have been developed by the HSE to inform infection control policy in all new builds and refurbishments.
Improvements on hygiene are critical to effective infection control. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, undertook a comprehensive review of hygiene in our hospitals in 2007. Its report represents a thorough assessment of how hygiene services are provided and managed in 51 HSE-funded acute care hospitals. Hospitals generally performed well on hygiene in the service delivery area. Most hospitals achieved either extensive or exceptional compliance with the standard in the service delivery section of the report. The HIQA is working with managers and clinicians to develop national standards for infection prevention and control. When completed, these, along with the national hygiene standards, will provide a comprehensive framework to help reduce the spread of infection throughout the entire system and improve the quality of our health care.
A national surveillance system has been established recently by the HSE to collect data and provide information on four key areas, to monitor HCAIs in our health system. One of these areas is antibiotic consumption which is an important factor in the prevention and control of infection.
While accepting that not all HCAIs are preventable, the Minister is satisfied that significant steps are being taken to reduce the rates generally and to treat them promptly when they occur. I assure Senator Fitzgerald that I will bring the contents of her contribution to the Minister’s attention tomorrow morning.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I would be grateful if the Minister of State were to do that, as it is important. I am concerned, however, that there are not yet national standards for infection prevention and control. Until we have those and hospitals have the resources they need in this regard, it will be very difficult for them to attain the standards they must reach to prevent the spread of infections. Perhaps the Minister of State might convey that view to the Minister as well.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Senator Fitzgerald’s point is important. The putting in place of the infection control steering group chaired by Dr. Pat Doorley is a very important development. It is one I hope will bring rapid progress in this crucial area.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I am glad the Minister of State with responsibility for children is present to listen to this motion. I want to acknowledge his presence recently in Longford-Westmeath, where we did a tour of the very fine capital projects. In that context, the sum of money being spent on child care is to be commended.
I have tabled this motion on the Adjournment because of the confusion and insecurity surrounding the new scheme announced last July. The Minister of State undertook a review of the scheme and parents were required to detail very personal information concerning their incomes. These data were gathered by child care providers and forward to the Minister of State’s office in November and December last year. The Minister of State identified in the review that a tiered fee scheme was not being applied universally.
However, I cannot see that the introduction of the band tiered system will ensure fairness. For instance, many parents in employment in receipt of a modest income and not in receipt of social welfare will be excluded from subvention as a result. They will be required to pay substantially higher weekly fees for the use of not-for-profit child care facilities. I know the new scheme will provide for additional funding for crèches and after-school projects in severely disadvantaged areas. However, I believe it is not healthy for children to be socially excluded and segregated from those who are financially better off.
The other issue affecting crèches and after-school care is the difficulty for small community groups attached to a national school or housing estate in a community centre in being obliged to form a limited company. This is next to near impossible. Are the members of school boards of management expected to become company directors, for example?
There is also the question of cost and the lack of wherewithal to produce audited accounts. As a former member of a community group, I can attest that quarterly accounts had to be presented to Pobal showing, for instance, how the money was spent, how many staff there were and the number of children benefiting from the various schemes. Pobal had to be satisfied that there was value for money. It is now 30 April and the transitional period between the equal opportunities child care programme and the community child care subvention scheme is over because it will be July in two months’ time. I understand the impact of the new scheme is being monitored from January to July 2008.
Will the Minister of State state the result of the close monitoring? Community child care facilities throughout the country are waiting anxiously to know precisely what their budget will be for the coming year. Will the Minister of State say when the providers be notified of their allocation? It is very difficult and most unfair to expect efficient organised providers to plan ahead for staff, etc. for the coming year without knowing their budget.
I am also very concerned that under the new scheme the grant level will be reduced to 75% by 2010. This could mean a reduction of two staff members and a reduction in services. As it is, the people who work in this area providing a very valuable service are paid dismally — as little as €11 per hour. They must now endure the insecurity of not knowing whether their jobs still exist. Urgent clarification is needed before the community childcare subvention scheme is operated.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The main supports the Government makes available to parents to assist them with their child care costs are child benefit and the early childcare supplement. The latter payment, which is in recognition of the higher child care costs of pre-school children, is the responsibility of my office, and it alone amounts to expenditure of some €500 million in a full year. These payments are universal and benefit all parents, regardless of their income, labour market status or the type of child care they choose. In addition to these universal supports, Government child care policy has also recognised the need to target additional supports towards disadvantaged families.
Under the equal opportunities childcare programme 2000 — 2006, which was co-funded under the European Union Social Fund, with 40% coming from Europe and 60% from the Exchequer, targeted support was provided through the staffing support grant scheme. The equal opportunities childcare programme was extremely successful in its stated aim of creating new child care places. With more than 40,000 new places it considerably exceeded its original target of 33,500. Community-based not-for-profit child care providers with a strong focus on disadvantage were awarded grant aid towards their staffing costs to allow them to operate reduced fees to disadvantaged parents. Funding under this scheme was originally awarded for a limited period during which services were expected to move towards sustainability. This funding was subsequently continued to the end of 2007, where it was considered necessary to enable services to remain accessible to disadvantaged parents and people on lower incomes. This continuation funding was subject to the condition that tiered-fee structures were implemented by the services in question.
The national childcare investment programme 2006-2010 has a funding allocation of €575 million and aims to create an additional 50,000 new child care places. It is expected that approximately 22,000 of these places will be in the private sector and 28,000 in the community not-for-profit sector. Some 20% of the places will be for children in the three to four age group and will provide an early childhood care and education focus.
The child care programmes — the current national childcare investment programme and the equal opportunities childcare programme which ran from 2000 to 2006 — have a combined budget of more than €1 billion, and are projected to create or support more than 90,000 child care places. Part of this investment includes the new community childcare subvention scheme 2008 — 2010. Funding amounting to €154.2 million is being allocated to the new scheme over the next three years, a significant increase over the €37 million 2007 funding allocation for the support scheme under the equal opportunities childcare programme. That is clear evidence that I have more money available to me in each of the years than I had in the 2007 scheme. We have been rolling out the capital aspect of that scheme and we are ahead of target in the creation of child care places under that programme. Approximately two months ago I had the opportunity to approve a number of major projects throughout the country and in the next week or so I will also approve other projects.
Both my staff and I were keenly aware of concerns that were prevalent among the community childcare sector and parents using those services when the new childcare subvention scheme was announced. At the outset, I stated that the scheme would be monitored closely to ensure the best outcomes for child care services and I would use the data provided by the applications process to ensure this would be done. I kept my word. My officials analysed the information we received and on 18 December 2007 I was delighted to announce the Government’s decision to finalise the scheme to assist more children and families. In this House I said that our target was to have the scheme finalised by Easter — before the end of March. We reached our target in finalising the new scheme three months ahead of schedule.
The final scheme includes a number of key changes. The subvention for band A parents — those in receipt of social welfare related payments — has been increased from €80 to €100 per week. The subvention in respect of band B parents — those in receipt of family income supplement or certain child care subsidies, for example under FÁS or VEC schemes — has been increased from €30 to €70 per week. Services will also be grant aided to provide reduced child care fees for parents who are marginally above the family income supplement threshold. Low-income parents in band C are expected to benefit by €45 per week. There will be a tapered withdrawal of the subvention when parents move from welfare to work. A minimum grant level of €20,000 per annum has been also introduced to support services which would only receive low levels of funding through the subvention scheme, provided they meet the general requirements of the scheme. For example, small rural services could become unviable without such adjustments. In the meantime, the transitional arrangements have been put in place to facilitate existing equal opportunities childcare programme grant recipients to adapt during 2008. In many rural areas that I have visited in recent months, there was a particular welcome for the minimum amount of €20,000 to facilitate the smaller projects — perhaps a facility in an isolated area with a small population — which will ensure their viability.
My office is processing the individual levels of funding for groups in respect of the second half of this year and writing to them to inform them of these amounts. It is expected that this will be completed in the first half of next month — within the next 15 days. Services have been guaranteed that they will receive at least 90% of their current funding levels in the second half of this year and not less than 85% in 2009. In effect the combination of transitional funding and the July to December payments, which are currently being notified to providers who meet the criteria, will mean that no service in receipt of funding will see payments fall below 95% of the current levels for 2008.
The community crèches, which account for approximately 20% of the service providers nationally, are central and valuable players in providing quality child care at prices which are affordable for all, including the most disadvantaged in our society. The new scheme will continue to recognise and support the valuable investment in the community not-for-profit sector and ensure the tiered fees necessary to make this a reality.
My office will closely monitor the scheme between 2008 and 2010, assisted by both Pobal and the city and county child care committees. The national child care investment programme, of which the child care subvention scheme is a part, has been allocated €575 million over the next three years and is on target to create 50,000 additional child care places, with a greater focus on pre-school places for three to four year olds and school-age child care. As I stated previously in this House, the Government was never going to walk away from an investment in child care of more than €1.1 billion up to 2010. Our resolve is firm and our commitment to quality child care for families and children is as strong as ever.
I am very familiar with the community child care providers throughout the country. Senators McFadden and Glynn will be well aware of the great effort and commitment by so many committees throughout the country to put in place facilities and access the funding from my office. They have worked very hard to provide services and places where it would not be possible for a private provider to play such a part. The Government is determined to work with the community child care providers and ensure that families in those areas derive the best possible benefit from the major financial investment that has been made by the taxpayer and by Europe in the earlier scheme, and from the investment of time, effort and commitment by individuals.
I had the opportunity to visit Longford and Westmeath on a number of occasions during the short time I have been in this office. I was in Athlone on a number of occasions. I had the opportunity to perform the official opening of the new community facility in Ballinacargy. I was very glad Senator McFadden was able to accompany me throughout County Longford. We started in Longford town and went to Kenagh, Legan, Ballymahon, Edgeworthstown and Granard. That day I saw at first hand the great work that is going on. One of the councillors in Longford that day, along with Deputy Peter Kelly, invited me to go back and tour the private providers’ facilities. I hope to do that before the end of the summer. I know that Senator Glynn has arranged with my office to perform the official opening of another facility in County Westmeath. I hope to be back in the good county of Westmeath in the next three to four weeks and I thank Senator McFadden for raising this issue.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I look forward to the Minister of State’s visit. I welcome his clarification that funding will be made available in the next 15 days.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Quite a number have already been notified and the process will finish in less than 20 days.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I also raised points on how difficult it is for small providers to form limited companies and the cost of audited accounts, which are necessary. Can the Minister of State comment on these matters?
Deputy Brendan Smith: As Senator McFadden knows, when dealing with public money we must ensure different processes are followed. I know there can be a considerable financial burden when finalising accounts and having audits done. When using public money, the onus is on the Houses of the Oireachtas and statutory agencies to ensure the best possible information is derived.
I am not familiar with the matter of establishing companies. Pobal administers the scheme on our behalf at local level but I will see if there is a template for establishing companies that helps minimise the costs involved so that the local group can fill out the form themselves.
Senator Nicky McFadden: That would help.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I will ask Pobal to investigate the provision of a template to facilitate people and minimise the assistance they need to pay for.
Senator Camillus Glynn: Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. Tá dóchas agam go mbeidh dea-scéal aige le hinsint dúinn anocht.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating me by placing this motion on the Adjournment. I thank the Minister of State for attending and welcome him to the House.
I raise the need for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to give special consideration to the urgent provision of a sewerage scheme in Rathowen, County Westmeath under the water services investment programme to complement the further development of the village. I have a more than passing interest in Rathowen and I spent the first 14 months of married life there. I know the area and people well; they are very caring and formed a development association, through their own initiative, that was responsible, with the local authority, for social housing for the elderly and the not so elderly.
I was pleased to act as facilitator when they wanted to launch their report some years ago. The then EU Commissioner saw fit to visit Rathowen community centre to launch the report. This is a clear indication of the regard the powers that be have for the people of Rathowen and their community spirit. The community centre there is second to none and they have another community hall that is used extensively. Some time ago a well-established premises was converted into a hotel.
The text of this matter refers to complementing the further development of the village. I can say with conviction and certainty that the further development of Rathowen village is being hampered by the lack of a sewerage scheme. Some months ago, when the Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen, was passing through County Westmeath he met a number of people, including myself, regarding this scheme. It was considered under the serviced land initiative but the cost per household is prohibitive. I ask that the Minister of State and the Department put one hand on heart and the other deep into a pocket to produce the funding required.
There has been much development in Rathowen. Some years ago a businessman bought an old established licensed premises and developed it into a fine hotel and restaurant. This is but one development that is waiting to progress further. There are other developments that would be complemented by a sewerage scheme. Rathowen is a village with a good sense of community, which has been proved in many ways. I invite the Minister of State, when passing Rathowen, to drop in and see the community centre, the local authority schemes and the private schemes provided by the people of the area.
I will not go into more detail but ask the Minister of State to consider favourably the text of the matter before him this evening. I initiated this process in February 2000 when, as a member of Westmeath County Council, I placed a motion on the council’s agenda seeking a sewerage scheme. That is over eight years ago and I like to think that in the life of the current county council the imprimatur will be given to the local authority, through appropriate funding from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to facilitate the provision of this sewerage scheme.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe): I thank the Senator for the opportunity to set out the position on this scheme.
The Rathowen sewerage scheme has been approved for funding under my Department’s Water Services Investment Programme 2007-2009 as a scheme to advance through planning at an estimated cost of €1.9 million. The scheme is one of a total of 19 water services projects being progressed in County Westmeath at present. The current water services investment programme, which I announced last September, provides for an investment of €219 million in water and sewerage schemes in County Westmeath over the next few years. The range of new water and sewerage schemes planned and in progress for Westmeath provides strong evidence of the Government’s determination to safeguard our water quality, while at the same time making provision for new housing, new jobs and all the other requirements of a successful economy.
The village of Rathowen is serviced by individual septic tanks and proprietary wastewater treatment systems. The proposed sewerage scheme for Rathowen will involve the laying of a collection network around the village and the provision of a treatment plant to cater for a population equivalent of 1,000 persons. The scheme is a major infrastructural improvement for the village, catering for the existing population and allowing for reasonable growth and expansion, both in the domestic and non-domestic sectors. The scheme is important in environmental terms, with the proposed treated outfall to the River Black rendering redundant the existing reliance on individual treatment systems.
In November 2005 the Department approved the preliminary report for the scheme which sets out the design and scope of the proposal. However, approval was subject to resolution of the level of funding to be provided towards the cost of the scheme from the non-domestic sector. In June 2006 the Department outlined several concerns regarding the county council’s approach to the non-domestic contribution to the scheme costs. It also asked the county council to reconsider the scope for reducing the cost per household.
The county council submitted a design review report to the Department in August 2007. Having examined the matter further, the Department suggested to the county council in December 2007 that the scheme might be more appropriate to the serviced land initiative scheme, under which the Department would meet 40% of costs and the county council would meet the balance, primarily through development levies. In February 2008 the county council responded, asking the Department to reconsider this proposal. The Department will respond to the county council presently.
I am as anxious as Senator Camillus Glynn for the construction and completion of the scheme in Rathowen as quickly as possible. The Department will do everything it can to ensure this happens.
Senator Camillus Glynn: I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, for his response. As an eternal optimist, I am hopeful favourable consideration will be given to the project in question. The lack of such a service is stultifying development in Rathowen. Given that the village is in the catchment area of a very fine fishing river, it is imperative the imprimatur for the project is extended to Westmeath County Council and the reconsideration of its proposal is effected in a positive and favourable way.
The Seanad adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 1 May 2008.