Business of Seanad.
Order of Business.
Judgments in Absentia: Referral to Joint Committee.
European Evidence Warrant: Referral to Joint Committee.
Regional Fisheries Boards: Motion.
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Second Stage.
Report of Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the EU: Statements.
Human Rights Issues.
Schools Building Projects.
Public Transport Infrastructure.
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 2.30 p.m.
An Cathaoirleach: I have received notice from Senator Shane Ross that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Paschal Donohoe of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Paul Bradford of the following matter:
I regard the matters raised by the Senators as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment. I have selected the matters raised by Senators Ross, Ó Domhnaill and Donohoe and they will be taken at the conclusion of business. The matter raised by Senator Bradford is an important one but is too wide for an Adjournment debate. I understand from the Leader of the House that we will have statements on the matter tomorrow.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re judgments in absentia; No. 2, motion re European evidence warrant; No. 3, motion re regional fisheries boards; No. 4, Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 — Second Stage; and No. 5, statements on the report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union.
It is proposed that No. 1 shall be referred to committee without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2 shall be referred to committee without debate at the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3 shall be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and will conclude within 30 minutes and spokespersons may speak for five minutes; No. 4 will be taken today at the conclusion of No. 3., spokespersons may speak for ten minutes, other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time by agreement of the House; No. 5 shall commence not earlier than 7 p.m. and shall conclude not later than 10 p.m., if not previously concluded. Spokespersons may speak for ten minutes and other Senators for seven minutes and Senators may share time, after which No. 4 will resume, if not previously concluded.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: This weekend’s news headlines were dominated by two very serious news stories. The first was the recall announced on Saturday evening of all pork products following the contamination of pork by harmful dioxins. The initial coverage was not reassuring for consumers in terms of the effects of dioxins — that came later. It would have been preferable, however, had consumers been reassured immediately, as opposed to simply hearing about the harmful amounts of dioxins that were present in the products. Although that has been corrected to an extent, it was somewhat tardy.
Fast decisive action will be absolutely essential because Ireland faces the most serious threat to its food industry, nationally and internationally, with serious implications for the producers, processors, employers and employees. Moreover, Irish consumers potentially face not having Irish products on the shelves. Consequently, Government action is critical and I welcome the statements that will be taken in the House tomorrow. While I had intended to propose an amendment to the Order of Business, I accept the Leader has organised a debate for tomorrow. Clearly decisive action is necessary by the Government today and in the next few weeks to protect the industry, jobs and our economy.
Consumers and those who are not close to the industry will have obvious questions on the reason the inspections failed and on traceability issues. While I understand the issue is more complex in respect of pork products and the pigmeat industry, consumers will wish to know the reason the inspections failed and whether there are other such plants. Given that this plant was not inspected this year, are other recycling plants that have not been inspected doing the same job? What are the Government’s plans in that regard? Reassurances must be given to consumers. Members have just heard that beef products also have been found to contain dioxin, albeit, thankfully, to a lesser degree. I hope the implications will not be as serious for that industry because that really would be devastating for the economy.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: The second issue that arose over the weekend was the appalling murder of a man in Dublin and the facts that have emerged in that respect, namely, that young teenagers had access to guns and that this man was subject to anti-social behaviour in his neighbourhood over a long period. Members are aware this is a crisis in many communities and I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to have a discussion in the House today on this topic. Many communities are being devastated and people feel very intimidated, as this man clearly was. Where such behaviour is taking place, it is not being interrupted quickly enough. There must be a refocus on community policing. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business so that Members can discuss this matter today.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I acknowledge the work done by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, in clearing the way for the Chernobyl children to come to Ireland. It is worthwhile recognising it was a fine job of work, for which there was little thanks. The House should recognise it and thank him for doing that.
I fully support the points made by Senator Fitzgerald. We should be discussing the matter today. The House will be aware that I have been saying for more than ten years that we would some day regret not reforming and repealing the Abattoirs Act 1988, which effectively has made it impossible to trace meat in many cases, and departing from the practice of the time when a local butcher killed his own in his own slaughterhouse, and we would never get back to that.
I had a couple of slices of butchers’ rashers for breakfast on Sunday morning, but I funked it. I left them until Monday and threw them on the pan yesterday. If I fall down in front of you, a Chathaoirligh, you will know what the problem is.
Senator David Norris: He will just think Senator O’Toole is adoring the Magi.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Is there a doctor in the House?
Senator Joe O’Toole: It would be important to recognise that this would be a useful opportunity for Europe to buy back the agricultural vote by putting a few shillings into the pot to deal with this issue, but that is one of the issues at which we can look in terms of a debate.
The House will be aware that 50,000 to 70,000 people, depending on whom one listens to, were on the march in Dublin against the outrageous cuts in education which affect schools, school communities, children with disadvantage and a variety of others, and which have devastated small communities which will lose a teacher or which were looking for an extra teacher. The Leader has refused to put the matter down for discussion again this week. Therefore, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that we discuss today education and the impact of and need to reverse the Government cuts.
The Cathaoirleach will recall that we had a major difference of opinion in the House on Thursday last about the lack of an Order of Business on Friday. I checked with the Leader and he informed me that he is intent on not having an Order of Business again on Friday.
Senator David Norris: Shame.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I cannot and will not accept that. I am surprised the Taoiseach supports that. I certainly intend raising it with him. It goes against Fianna Fáil’s basic principles at all levels. The Order of Business is the heart of the day. It is the only time when Members on both sides of the House can put on the record what they feel about the events and topical issues of the day. Can the Leader imagine if today were Friday and we were dealing with all that had happened, in terms of the beef situation and otherwise, and did not get a chance to say it? It is unacceptable. I promise that I will certainly not be co-operating in any way and I will be as disruptive as I possibly and creatively can be to make it impossible to run business during the course of this, and any other, week where this is proposed.
Senator David Norris: Great.
Senator Joe O’Toole: It is outrageous. It is muffling, it is censuring, it is stopping people from articulating their viewpoints. The Order of Business is the most characteristic mark of the Seanad and we owe it to future generations of Senators to protect this invaluable part of the day during which people can go on the record with their views on the events of the day and given there is no other topical hour in the course of the day. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business and I certainly will be bringing that to a vote.
Senator Alan Kelly: We should be having a debate about the scary situation in which our food industry finds itself this week, and we should be doing it today rather than tomorrow. I acknowledge that the Leader has provided time for it tomorrow but it is something that we should be speaking about today. It has a dramatic impact on a great many people. As the Cathaoirleach will be well aware, in our own areas in the midlands it has a considerable impact given the job losses announced in recent days.
I have a couple of questions. When the announcement was made I was concerned by the level of pronouncements and that not much of a reassurance campaign was introduced initially. I suppose there was a small degree of hysteria brought about which needed to be negated by a level of realism about the actual impact and the risk to human health, and it was regrettable that this did not happen, especially in the pronouncements by the Government.
We must question whether to a degree the reaction was over the top. We have to consider the traceability issue. I recognise that pork is more difficult to trace than beef because the latter is seasonal while the former is used in a wide range of secondary products. The traceability systems that have been introduced since 2001 should work but this is the first occasion they have been tested and they appear to be ineffective. Producers and factory workers believe the procedures can work if they are permitted to do so and that the contaminated pork products are traceable. There is no reason in the world primary cuts cannot be released and the slaughtering of animals should be resumed in the near future. From this public forum we need to reassure people that pork and bacon products will be available during the most important time of the year for their consumption.
Even though organic pork is not affected, it is labelled in the same manner as affected Irish products. At the very least, the Government should state that organic pork is 100% safe.
In regard to beef contamination, I am glad the Government has decided to isolate the affected herds and to implement a campaign to reassure the public. However, this stance should have been adopted since the weekend.
We also need to acknowledge that the EU has a role to play. It is unrealistic to believe that the Government can step in to give €7,500 to food producers over three years. That sum will not save people who are on the bread line. Europe has an opportunity to show its hand by supporting Ireland and those involved in the industry.
I note that Aviance is closing its operations at Dublin Airport, with the loss of 150 jobs. The reasons given for the decision include the high costs of its union recognised workforce, which has a good pension scheme and was very well treated. I am afraid that, once again, hard working employees are being penalised and we are witnessing a race to the bottom. We should be concerned about this prospect.
Senator John Ellis: Every Senator is concerned about the events which have taken place over recent days. I appreciate the fact that the Leader has arranged time tomorrow to hold a full debate on the matter. Statements could be made in the Chamber that cannot be made publicly outside these Houses with regard to the actions of certain individuals, although not all farmers are implicated. I do not refer to the produce that entered a certain plant but to the recycled materials which were misused and which need to be investigated. I might add that not all of these are involved in the food industry.
We switched on our radios this morning to hear alerts about vehicles driving off roads throughout the country. There should be a duty on the National Roads Authority to ensure all roads are gritted in frosty conditions. The agency has failed to take the appropriate action in time. There are consequences for private individuals and others from cars rolling into ditches and trucks jack knifing. I do not refer to people acting the fool but to those who are going about their business. We can avoid these situations through the use of proper gritting systems. The midlands region appears to be prominent in its lack of gritting. I pay tribute to my own local authority, which even grits regional roads in bad weather conditions. There is an onus on the NRA to ensure sufficient funds are provided to local authorities to ensure proper gritting systems are put in place. It should be applied as necessary so that we will not have to listen again to what we heard on the national airwaves this morning.
Senator Eugene Regan: I refer to the Order of Business where two pieces of EU legislation are to be introduced without debate. They are motions on judgment in absentia and the European evidence warrant, which are very important but are to be referred to committee without debate. Over the past two weeks a number of items of EU legislation were referred to committee and when they come back from committee they are marked down as without debate again. The Leader is failing in ensuring proper debate on EU legislation and the responsibility falls on him. I will remind him of this on each and every occasion he attempts to bypass the House in this manner.
I agree completely with Senator O’Toole in his comments on having the Order of Business on Friday if we are to meet on that day. There should be an Order of Business on any day we meet so that this House is relevant to the issues of the day——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Hear, hear.
Senator Eugene Regan: ——and we can properly debate them. The only reason I surmise that the Leader does not want an Order of Business is that he finds the issues raised are uncomfortable to deal with. The Leader should not be afraid of debate and we should have an Order of Business on Friday if we meet on that day.
Senator Donie Cassidy: That is not the reason. There is repetitiveness.
Senator Eugene Regan: Senator Frances Fitzgerald raised two very important issues. The first is the terrible killing of Aidan O’Kane, an innocent man who was contributing to his community. It is evident from reports that the gun victim endured an anti-social campaign so the incident started with anti-social behaviour. The Garda was aware of this type of activity, which led to this terrible killing. It is important that the Garda Síochána and the Minister, in his directions and priorities, recognise the importance of anti-social behaviour as the first step in the existence of crime in many communities. That is particularly relevant in the case of young people being induced into the path of crime.
The Minister is not taking that issue seriously. With another killing of an innocent man, he is clearly not taking on the criminals. Ultimately, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is responsible for upholding law and order in this country and he is failing dismally in that task.
The Taoiseach commented that this incident reinforced the correctness of the decision last month by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to take licensed handguns out of circulation. What has that to do with anything?
Senator Joe O’Toole: Hear, hear.
Senator Eugene Regan: One can only assume the person being questioned for this crime was not holding a legally held handgun. It is all about illegally held weapons, such as knives and guns, and that was an extraordinary statement from the Taoiseach on this issue, which was very ill-informed.
With regard to the difficulties in the pigmeat sector——
An Cathaoirleach: These are questions to the Leader. If we get to the debate, we can discuss that issue.
Senator Eugene Regan: I second Senator Frances Fitzgerald’s amendment to the Order of Business. The Taoiseach stated that we will be looking to Brussels on the compensation issue, but the Taoiseach and the Government know the rules on State aid in the agricultural sector in Europe and their own responsibilities in dealing with this type of emergency in helping farmers, processors, retailers and, eventually, consumers. The Government will have to face this issue because there is a question of regulatory failure. There is the question of whether the division of responsibilities between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food’s veterinary division is appropriate. I welcome the debate on the issue but I ask——-
An Cathaoirleach: We can have that debate when the Leader schedules it. A number of speakers will not be able to get in if the Senator continues.
Senator Eugene Regan: ——that the Leader ensures that the Minister addresses the issue of regulatory failure and compensation.
Senator John Carty: Much of what I wanted to say has been already raised, especially concerning the pigmeat industry. I thank the Leader for arranging a debate on that subject tomorrow but perhaps he could allocate extra time during the week as well because events are overtaking us. Not only is the pigmeat industry affected, but other agricultural sectors could be as well. I compliment the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the swift action he took over the weekend. It may have seemed over the top, but we must remember that 85% of our agricultural produce is exported, so we must be seen to be squeaky clean and have everything in order.
Senator David Norris: I am afraid it seems to be one economic calamity after another and there will be a considerable bill for this. It is not just a case of disappointment because there will be no ham on the Christmas table; our exports will be badly affected. Although I am on the Opposition side, I compliment the Government on the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, responded quickly, clearly and effectively. There were attempts to question the fact that he acted too rapidly, but had he not done so he would have been criticised for that as well.
There are other questions to be raised about farming practices, although I know that farmers are completely guiltless in this case. In St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday we prayed for farmers who are going through anxious times, but what about these anxious times for pigs? I mean that quite seriously. We have a habit in the West of treating our cousin animals with contempt, having them basically in animal concentration farms. I would like to raise this issue on another occasion as this is not the moment to do so. My sympathy is with the farmers now. I support the point so ably made by my Labour Party colleague that the one exempted item is organically grown pork, which is all right. The same applies to genetically modified food. We need to re-establish brand Ireland.
I am seeking a debate on foreign affairs and the Middle East in particular. It is time that we congratulated the Israeli Government, and in particular the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, on the rapid and effective action he took in coping with a difficult and delicate situation in the city of Hebron by quickly and effectively removing the settler invasion of Arab houses. However, there is an equal responsibility on the Israeli Government to protect the rights of the Palestinians, which it signally failed to do. I was talking at the weekend to Israeli Jewish sources there and the phone was interrupted when they were attacked by a mob of stone-throwing settlers. While I spoke, the humble tent of an elderly Palestinian woman was burned to the ground by ignorant louts and thugs. The Israelis have responsibility there.
I did not speak on the cribs issue last week because I raised it last year. I do not want to make a big meal out of my church-going activities or my religious affiliations because I do not think it is anyone’s business. One’s religious beliefs are a personal matter, but there is also a cultural element in this. I am astonished that our broadcasting authorities would ban an advertisement from Veritas, the Catholic communications group. It has a very good bookshop and I often go into it. With the Cathaoirleach’s indulgence, I will place on the record the text that was found to be offensive:
The advertisement goes on to list them, including books for children and so on. What in the name of God is offensive about that, unless one is forced to remove the essential religious principle of Christmas, which is being done? That silly, but at night-time elegant, Christmas tree in O’Connell Street with the wrapping around it saying “Come in and spend your money” is crassly commercial. Thank God the crib is open a little bit further down the street. There is a lovely crib inside the GPO also, but I think the advertising ban is nonsense. People in Saudi Arabia are not as delicate about appreciating the sensitivities of Christians.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Hear, hear.
Senator David Norris: However, I have not heard any demands from Muslims or members of immigrant groups. Our own boyos have gone off with a kick of their own. They are Christmas crackers.
I agree with Senator O’Toole on how ridiculous it is that we will not be allowed to have an Order of Business. It cannot be a question of time because we never start before ten minutes have passed on the clock. We are not busily saving time.
An Cathaoirleach: Point made.
Senator David Norris: Since we should discuss matters of interest, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to take first non-Government motion No. 23 on the Government’s appalling Christmas effort to savage and destroy the Combat Poverty Agency.
Senator John Hanafin: I support the call for a debate on the meat industry at the earliest opportunity. I am conscious of the fact that, before biotechnology, nanotechnology and our strong manufacturing base and tourism industry, this is and will continue to be an agricultural country. The potential loss of exports is serious and goes to the heart of the economy and our way of life. We should ensure greater traceability, given that exports to the value of €400 million are tied up in the pork industry, the importance of the matter to consumers and our dependence on agriculture. I do not understand why we must go to laboratories in the United Kingdom to have results certified. Why is it not being done in Ireland on a monthly basis? It would reassure European consumers that Ireland had the greenest land and was the best place from which to purchase agricultural products. Given the fact that the European Union has long claimed competence in food safety issues, it should have an input in compensating Irish farmers, consumers and retailers. It has a strong role to play in dealing with this emergency which goes to the marrow of the economy and our way of life.
Will the Leader write a letter to the Russian ambassador on the loss of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II? Seven years ago I visited Moscow and, when given the opportunity to visit the mausoleum of Lenin and Stalin, I said, “No, thank you.” I wandered into an orthodox church to hear what was the nearest thing to a heavenly choir that I had ever heard. The spirit of man had prevailed, even through the communist era. Alexi II went through it all from the darkest days when churches were destroyed to the inevitable re-emergence of the church.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Norris, on how sad it is to see mention of the crib being refused by RTE because of its inclusion in an advertisement by Veritas. This reminds me of what obtains in certain American states in which one could go to prison for insisting on a crib being in a public place. This contrasts with the position where someone could get away with murder because a glove did not fit. Sometimes one must wonder whether everyone has gone bonkers and whether we should remind ourselves of the spirit of man and, more importantly, Christmas.
Senator Paul Coghlan: The recall of pigmeat is a serious matter and of the utmost concern to farmers in the first instance, producers, up to 6,000 workers and consumers. With turkey, it is a traditional Christmas foodstuff. Questions about the number and effectiveness of the agencies involved in monitoring food safety, including the Department, must be answered. Recent events highlight the need for the establishment of a single agency to monitor food safety. A multiplicity of agencies appear to have responsibility in this regard at present and that makes no sense. I appreciate that a debate will take place on this matter but there is a need to ensure that bacon returns to supermarket shelves as soon as possible. I agree with previous speakers that Europe has a role to play in that regard.
I second the amendments to the Order of Business proposed by Senators O’Toole and Norris. These amendments relate to extremely important matters. I seconded an amendment put forward by Senator O’Toole last week in respect of a debate on education. The Leader is aware that the request for such a debate has been outstanding for some time.
I am completely shocked by the Leader’s actions. He got away with not having an Order of Business on Friday last and we hoped that a precedent had not been created. How the blazes is it possible to have the House sit for a day without an Order of Business being taken on that day? An Order Paper is printed for each day’s sitting. Without an Order of Business, we cannot discuss any of the items contained on the Order Paper or any of the topical items the House has dealt with so well for many years. As a previous speaker stated, it is a hallmark of the Seanad that it deals with such matters on the Order of Business. I am surprised that the Leader is going to attempt to——
An Cathaoirleach: This matter can be dealt with on Thursday’s Order of Business.
Senator Paul Coghlan: This type of behaviour demeans the House. I hope the Leader will reconsider his position as quickly as possible.
An Cathaoirleach: That is a matter for the Leader.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Yes, and that is the matter with which I wish him to deal.
Senator Terry Leyden: I commend the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, and the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy Sargent, on taking decisive action when faced with an extremely difficult decision. Some 90% of Irish pork was not infected with the dioxin PCB and only 10% of producers were affected. The British media, particularly the tabloids and Sky News, have gone to town in respect of this matter.
Senator Mary M. White: That is correct.
Senator Terry Leyden: Headlines containing the words “toxic” and “poison” have been used and this is making the situation a great deal worse.
Retailers here are taking back most of the pork that has been sold to consumers. It is difficult to believe that producers would purchase meal from a recycling plant. I am appalled by what has happened. The cattle on our farm are organic and we do not use such meal.
An Cathaoirleach: There will be statements on this matter tomorrow night.
Senator Terry Leyden: I accept that, but urgency is required. I would like a statement to be made on the recycling plant involved. I understand that bread wrappings were included in the meal mixture. What one puts in, one gets back, and that is what happened in this instance. Did we learn nothing from the difficulties that arose in respect of bonemeal?
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator can raise that matter during tomorrow night’s debate.
Senator Terry Leyden: Why was this recycling plant not inspected? It cost a great deal of money to rectify the damage caused by the difficulties that arose with regard to bonemeal.
An Cathaoirleach: Will the Senator put a question to the Leader?
Senator Terry Leyden: I am about to put a question to him, in a sense. It will be necessary to mount a major diplomatic offensive in respect of this matter. I served as Minister of State with responsibility for trade in the 1990s when the BSE crisis struck. We brought in vets from Iran and elsewhere to prove that the quality of food in this country is good.
This is a national emergency. It is the most serious challenge the country has ever faced.
Senator Mary M. White: Hear, hear.
Senator Terry Leyden: We must try to work on it together. We withdrew pork products to ensure safety for the public and exporters. Exports to 30 countries have been affected. This is an extremely difficult matter and decisive action is required in respect of it.
An Cathaoirleach: That matter can be raised during the debate.
Senator Terry Leyden: The diplomatic service and our embassies throughout the world must be on stand-by to work with the media. A proper media offensive should be launched in respect of this matter to combat what is being said on Sky News and other channels. Reports relating to this issue are being broadcast on the hour and these are scaring our customers across the globe. Action must be taken in this regard.
I welcome the fact that a debate will take place on this matter tomorrow. The Government, the people, producers and distributors are deeply concerned——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has made his point. Other Members wish to contribute on the Order of Business.
Senator Terry Leyden: ——about this matter. The House should do whatever it can to be of assistance.
Senator Alex White: I second Senator Norris’s proposal that the Order of Business be amended to allow for a debate on No. 23 on the Order Paper.
On the comments made in regard to the Veritas advertisement, I point out that it is only a few short months since this House debated this question in the context of the Broadcasting Bill. While I do not necessarily expect anybody on the opposite side to point that out to the House, Government legislation dealing with this matter was brought into this House by the Minister. A debate was raised on an amendment proposed, I think, by Senator Mullen, which I did not support. Nevertheless, the issue of advertising directed towards a religious or political end was raised during that debate. It is not as though this is an issue that has suddenly arisen. It has been open for debate. There is no doubt that the refusal in respect of the Veritas advertisement appears odd.
As I understand it, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has offered to discuss with Veritas an amendment to the wording used. An issue arises in respect of religious advertising in general. It is all very well to point to one example of it, but Members ought to recall we had an opportunity to debate this issue openly in this House and to determine whether existing rules in respect of advertising directed towards a religious or political end should be renewed and repeated in the new legislation. As I understand it, that is the position of the Government in this regard. I hope a Member on the opposite side of the House will take the opportunity to point that out to the House rather than leaving it to a member of the Opposition to do so.
I support strongly Senator O’Toole’s remarks in respect of the taking of the Order of Business on Friday. This is a serious issue. Members will be aware that issues relating to the business of this House are normally dealt with in a co-operative manner by the leaders. This proposal — I want all Members to be aware of this — is a unilateral decision on the part of the Leader, which does not have the support of any of the leaders on this side of the House. That is a departure from the kind of co-operative approach we expect in ordering the business of this House. This is a decision taken by the Leader on his own and it is one which we do not support. That is a departure from the manner in which these issues are normally dealt with.
We were told last week there would be no Order of Business last Friday because the Minister would not be available, but the Minister was available only until 11.30 a.m. anyway, and we were not told that would be the case. The reality is that if we had an Order of Business last Friday the Minister would not have come into the House at all and we were not told that. We need a little more candour from the Leader on issues like that. I support Senator O’Toole’s objection to the removal of the Order of Business on a sitting day in circumstances where the Leader appears to want to facilitate only half a sitting day rather than a full day’s sitting.
Senator Jim Walsh: On the agricultural situation, which everybody acknowledges is serious, I concur with those who have called for support from the EU. The EU has a role to play in terms of supporting what is an extremely difficult situation for Ireland.
Suggestions have been made that all the pork products should not have been withdrawn from the shelves, but it is important health is paramount and is seen to be so. Ultimately, when this issue is behind us, confidence will be restored, in particular in the beef and pork sectors, as a consequence of taking that action. In time, there will be a need to ascertain the circumstances that gave rise to this situation. Any derogation from responsible management in the private or the public sector must be brought to light and appropriate action must be taken against those responsible for what happened in this instance.
I concur with Senator Norris’s comments in regard to the Veritas advertisement. As has been stated, advertising was the subject of a debate in this House. I noted with interest what the Minister of State, Deputy Trevor Sargent, had to say the other night on “Questions and Answers”. I spoke privately with the Minister involved and I hope that appropriate amendments will be made on Committee Stage of the relevant legislation.
This raises a more serious issue, namely, the appointment of people to bodies. I have yet to meet anybody who had an objection to the Veritas advertisement, other than the members of the Broadcasting Commission who made the decision. We need to examine appointments to all these boards and the manner in which the law is interpreted. If the law is the issue, it should be reviewed, but in many instances people interpret the law to suit their personal opinions. That should be examined not only in this case but in a range of areas.
I wish to refer to the extraordinary statement by Senator Regan, in his imperial contribution, who seemed to dismiss a proposal that there should be any attempt to control guns, particularly handguns, in our society.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Nobody said that.
An Cathaoirleach: Allow Senator Walsh to continue.
Senator Jim Walsh: Both legal and illegal guns should be strictly controlled.
Senator David Norris: If the Deputy is supporting Christianity, he should try to be honest for a change.
Senator Jim Walsh: I remind Senator O’Toole as well as Senator Regan that the Garda Commissioner came before——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should put questions to the Leader.
Senator Jim Walsh: ——the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights recently and asked specifically for a limitation in this respect because of his concerns at the growth in legally held handguns. I compliment the Taoiseach on his comment and the Minister on the action he has taken. All of us in this House should support it, given the situation in regard to law and order.
With a banking crisis, an economic crisis and now a serious food and agricultural issue, the major concern expressed by the Opposition today is whether we will have an Order of Business on Friday. That speaks volumes for the Opposition and for this House if we allow it to continue.
Senator Alex White: There is one upside to this; at least we will not have to listen to the Senator.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I support Senator O’Toole’s amendment to the Order of Business calling for an education debate, which has been seconded. We want to know what is happening. At this stage the only conclusion I can come to is that the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, must be afraid to address the Seanad on the education cuts and where we stand in that regard.
I join the other speakers who expressed concern about the state of emergency in which food producers find themselves. The issue of dioxins in pork and now beef has the potential to wreck the industry. I am aware we will discuss this issue tomorrow, but there are no dioxin test laboratories in this country. If that is the case, how was the dioxin detected in pork and traced back to the Carlow plant? No test was carried out in that plant in 2008. Was it detected as a result of a tip-off from the Belgian-Swiss authorities?
Senator David Norris: No, it was not. The sequence is quite clear.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Are we relying on the Belgian-Swiss authorities for our regulatory control in that industry? That seems to be the case.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator can raise that issue in the debate on agriculture tomorrow.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I join other women today in complimenting Senator Bacik on her historic gathering of women who have been elected to political life in this country since Constance Markievicz was elected in 1918. The Senator highlighted very well the low participation of women in political life, marked their unique contribution and stressed the need for more women in politics. Comhghairdeas should be extended to Senator Bacik and we should all join in that on marking this historic day.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Terry Leyden: Hear, hear.
Senator Ivor Callely: I welcome the debate we will have tomorrow on the food industry, in particular the pigmeat industry. In recognition of the long-term difficulties that the actions taken over the weekend may have on the industry, will the Leader ensure that in tomorrow’s debate we will receive clarity on the checks and balances in the food chain and on the methodology for the recall of products and what triggers such a recall. I am concerned about the implications of the recall on getting the product back on the shelves in our export markets. That will be a momentous and difficult task. I hope that tomorrow we will be advised of the special measures that will be put in place to ensure we are successful in our endeavours in that regard.
I offer my condolences to the O’Kane family in East Wall on the appalling tragedy that occurred the other day. I support the call for a debate on gun crime.
Senator Maurice Cummins: We have witnessed substantial increases in unemployment in recent months. Last month alone, 18,000 people lost their jobs. It now appears we are facing the prospect of approximately 300,000 people unemployed by the end of the year. People who find themselves unemployed have to wait eight to ten weeks for unemployment benefit. In many instances those people have worked all their lives and paid their taxes and PRSI on time. It is disgraceful that they are treated in such a manner, especially coming up to Christmas. They paid their PRSI from the first week they were employed but they are expected to wait eight to ten weeks to have their benefits paid. It is all very well to say they should go to the community welfare officer while they are waiting, but that is not acceptable. These people have dignity and should be treated with respect. I will raise the matter with the Minister when she comes to the House to discuss the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It is not acceptable in this day and age to treat people in that manner.
Senator Fitzgerald tabled an amendment to the Order of Business and if it has not been seconded, I will do so. I would treat Senator Walsh’s remarks about the Opposition with the contempt it deserves.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I support Senator O’Toole’s proposed amendment to the Order of Business. I, too, believe we need a debate on education cuts, perhaps as part of a wider debate about where cuts are being targeted. If the horrific murder of Aidan O’Kane shows us anything, it is that there is a decline in social and moral capital in society. We need seriously to debate how we as a community are to address that decline. It is linked with how we order our fiscal priorities. The last thing we should attack, for example, is education where the next generation is formed.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Hear, hear.
Senator Rónán Mullen: The last thing we should attack are initiatives to work with young offenders. The BOND project in Blanchardstown has come under severe pressure because of Government cutbacks. It tries to put young offenders on the right track. We need to be generous with resources even in these difficult times to try to ensure people who might go the road of criminality are deterred and that those who have already gone down that road are deterred from something worse.
I wish to mention Veritas briefly. As Senator White rightly pointed out, I tabled an amendment when the Broadcasting Bill was before the Seanad that would ease the ban on religious-based advertising. At the time I made the point that it was anomalous, to say the least, that all sorts of trick of the loop merchants, so to speak, and individualistic marketers can market their wares on television and radio. I referred to broadcasters of psychic services that literally deceive people, but at the same time, despite that we have a Constitution that pledges to honour religion and which pledges that there will be no bar to freedom of religious expression, we find ourselves in a situation where there is no proper balance. Obviously, we do not want any kind of cult to be able to advertise on television and radio services but I disagree respectfully with Senator White’s apparent assessment that we have got the balance right. We certainly have not.
An Cathaoirleach: The time is up.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Very briefly——
An Cathaoirleach: Please, four people have not had a chance to speak.
Senator Rónán Mullen: ——I urge the Leader to take the matter up with the Minister because the Bill is still before the Dáil. The Scrooges in the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland need to be tackled on the issue.
I wish to mention a misunderstanding that arose in the House last week. I find myself understanding a little more the difficulties of certain people before the tribunals who have difficulty recalling past events. I found myself in a position where I did not recall a conversation with Senator Hanafin where I had undertaken to give him a pair.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant to the Order of Business. I call on the Leader to reply.
Senator Rónán Mullen: If the Cathaoirleach will indulge me for ten more seconds——
An Cathaoirleach: No. We are talking about putting questions to the Leader on the Order of Business. Unfortunately, four Members who wished to contribute have not been able to do so because the time is up.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Might I just add briefly that I speak in no deceitful Shakespearean sense when I say that Senator Hanafin, the Fianna Fáil Whip, Senator Wilson, and the Leader are people of honour?
An Cathaoirleach: Yes. That is not relevant to the Order of Business.
Senator Rónán Mullen: It would be a cause of great discomfort to me if I caused them any difficulty.
An Cathaoirleach: I call the Leader to reply and apologise to the Members who have not been allowed to contribute.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Kelly, Ellis, Regan, Carty, Norris, Hanafin, Coghlan, Leyden, Walsh, Healy Eames and Callely all expressed serious concern over the difficulties being experienced in the agriculture sector, especially in respect of the full recall of all pork products. As Senator Carty, the Government spokesperson on agriculture, pointed out, 85% of all our produce is exported. The matter is very serious and I thank the leaders for their co-operation in allowing it to be debated tomorrow afternoon. I certainly look forward to Senators’ contributions thereon. If time is needed next week, I will propose that it be allocated. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Sargent, will be in the House tomorrow to update us on the difficulties being experienced.
I congratulate everyone concerned with this unfortunate problem, from the Taoiseach to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, and his Ministers of State, Deputy Mary Wallace and Deputy Sargent. They, along with their officials, have worked night and day since the matter was brought to their attention. Everyone in the farming organisations has been acting in a really responsible way in the national interest. I thank all the leaders in the House for their understanding and support regarding this difficulty, especially because Christmas is approaching.
We hope the people will rally to the call to support quality Irish produce once it is cleared, which I hope will be in the next 48 hours. We want to play our part to ensure the green Ireland of which we are so proud and all the 30 countries affected will be fully supported. Reassurance to the consumer worldwide is of the utmost importance. I fully support the great and arduous work the organic pork industry has been doing. It has been making its products readily available to all those outlets that have had no product to sell over the past 48 hours. I look forward to the debate tomorrow and to assisting, in any way I can, with the restoration of consumer confidence in the industry. I wish all those who have lost their jobs a speedy return to work. I will certainly do anything I can to facilitate Members in airing their views on this matter in the House over the coming week.
Senators Fitzgerald, Regan, Boyle, Callely and Mullen all expressed their horror at the untimely death of Mr. Aidan O’Kane. I express my condolences to his family. Mr. O’Kane was trying to protect his property and everything that is good in his community. In the main, young people who engage in anti-social behaviour probably want a bit of excitement but the unfortunate consequence is that properties are being damaged and people are being subject to considerable mental strain and stress. This was especially the case in respect of the late Mr. O’Kane, who had only recently been bereaved by the loss of his wife. His death is an occurrence one believes would happen somewhere else, but not in Ireland.
We all have a duty to support the Minister regarding what he and the Garda Síochána, including the Commissioner, are trying to do to address the problem of young people being in the possession of guns. It is completely unacceptable that they would be and whatever needs to be done to strengthen the law in this regard certainly should be supported.
Senators O’Toole, Healy Eames and Mullen called for a debate on education. I have no difficulty with this and will endeavour to allow it. However, there is a considerable amount of legislation to deal with, as we can seen from the Order Paper for this week. As a consequence of the debacle in the agriculture sector, particularly the pork industry, the Gas (Amendment) Bill had to be deferred to allow time to debate it. Next week will be the same in that there will be a considerable amount of legislation to be debated. If time is available between considering the various Bills, I will endeavour to allow for the debate the Senators called for.
The great number of people who turned out in Dublin on Saturday to make their case are to be commended. The positive aspect of this is that it was the best trading day this year in the city of Dublin. The teachers have certainly made their contribution——
Senator Joe O’Toole: As ever.
Senator Donie Cassidy: ——by coming to the capital city to make their views known.
I will be having a meeting on Friday sittings with the leaders after the Order of Business today — we did not do so before this week’s sitting. I am endeavouring to hold debates on Fridays. The debate in the House last Friday was magnificent. We were able to have the Minister present and discuss the matter in hand straight away at 10.30 a.m. We are trying to determine whether Friday sittings are as successful in the Seanad as they are in the Dáil. Why should they not be? At least we are trying to make the House more productive. If it can be made so, let this be the case. I certainly make no apology for endeavouring to try out what is successful in the other House to determine whether it can be successful in this House.
Senator Kelly expressed concern over the possible loss of 150 jobs. I share his concern. Senator John Ellis expressed concern regarding the serious difficulty people face, especially in the midlands, regarding the National Roads Authority’s responsibility for making national roads available during very heavy frost, sleet and snow. I support him in his call and certainly will pass on his views to the Minister after the Order of Business.
Senator Norris called for a debate on matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine. I certainly can allow it but not before the Christmas recess. Senators Norris, Hanafin, Alex White, Walsh and Mullen expressed their views on radio advertising and the decision of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in respect of Veritas. Perhaps the Minister will consider whether this can be addressed in the Bill in the Dáil. It is a question of the manner in which the legislation is enshrined and in which certain individuals, perhaps members of the commission or the commission in general, will be making their views known to us all. We certainly do not see anything wrong with advertisements of the kind in question on radio or television. It would be very uplifting to see some of these advertisements on television as opposed to some of the difficult ones that are hard to take at times.
Senators Alex White and Norris called for an amendment to the Order of Business to take No. 35, motion 23 today. This could be covered on Second Stage of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is to follow the Order of Business this afternoon, or the Finance Bill, which is to be considered in the House on Friday week. I strongly suggest to Senator Norris that he avail of that avenue to address the issue.
Senator Hanafin asked us to send our condolences to the people of Russia on the death of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II. I will inform the Minister for Foreign Affairs of this request after the Order of Business.
Congratulations were offered to Senator Bacik on her celebration of the contribution of women to political life since 1918. I said last week in the House that I fully agreed with this. I concur with the sentiments expressed.
Senator Cummins made reference to those who had been unfortunate to lose their jobs and pointed out that they would have to wait for eight to ten weeks before receiving their unemployment benefits. This is completely unacceptable and I ask the Senator to bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on Second Stage of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill later this afternoon to ascertain what is the up-to-date position. I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by him.
An Cathaoirleach: Three amendments have been proposed to the Order of Business. Senator Fitzgerald has proposed amendment No. 1: “That statements on anti-social behaviour and policing in the community be taken today.”
The Seanad divided by electronic means.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I wish to seek a manual vote.
An Cathaoirleach: As the Senator is not a teller, will the Senators supporting his request please stand?
More than four Members rose.
An Cathaoirleach: The vote will now proceed.
Amendment again put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 28.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Kelly, Alan.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Phelan, John Paul.|
|Prendergast, Phil.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||White, Alex.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|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.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O’Reilly; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator O’Toole has proposed amendment No. 2 to the Order of Business: “That statements on education and the impact of the proposed Government cutbacks be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Joe O’Toole: Yes.
The Seanad divided by electronic means.
Senator Maurice Cummins: As a teller, under Standing Order 61 I propose that the vote be taken by other than electronic means.
An Cathaoirleach: At the request of a teller, the vote will be taken by other than electronic means.
Amendment again put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 21; Níl, 28.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Kelly, Alan.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|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.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O’Reilly; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator David Norris has proposed amendment No. 3: “That No. 35, motion No. 23, be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator David Norris: This is important as it concerns the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency. I hope we will have the opportunity to debate the reasons so I should be able to persuade my colleagues——
An Cathaoirleach: I just want to know if the Senator is pressing the amendment.
Senator Camillus Glynn: We only want to know if there is to be a vote.
Senator David Norris: Very much, and in both ways, as they say.
The Seanad divided by electronic means.
Senator David Norris: Under Standing Order 61, I would like to have the luxury of an ambulatory vote.
An Cathaoirleach: Agreed.
Amendment again put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 19; Níl, 28.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|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.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Norris and Joe O’Toole; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business agreed to.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I move:
a copy of which proposed measure was laid before Seanad Éireann on 14th November, 2008, be referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, in accordance with paragraph (1) (Seanad) of the Orders of Reference of that Committee, which, not later than 16th December, 2008, shall send a message to the Seanad in the manner prescribed in Standing Order 72, and Standing Order 74(2) shall accordingly apply.
Question put and agreed to.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I move:
a copy of which measure was laid before Seanad Éireann on 25th November, 2008, be referred to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, in accordance with paragraph (1) (Seanad) of the Orders of Reference of that Committee, which, not later than 16th December, 2008, shall send a message to the Seanad in the manner prescribed in Standing Order 72, and Standing Order 74(2) shall accordingly apply.
Question put and agreed to.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I move:
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House the rationale behind the motion. Responsibility for the management and development of the inland fisheries sector resides with the Central Fisheries Board and the seven regional boards. Members will be aware that elections to the regional fisheries boards are due to take place on 16 December following an extension agreed by the Oireachtas last year. However, I propose, subject to the approval of the Dáil and Seanad, to make an order postponing the elections for a further year. I am making this proposition with the very real prospect of having a restructured streamlined alternative in place for the inland fisheries service during 2009. The latter will be delivered in the context of the Government’s rationalisation of State agencies in general. In 2005, on foot of an independent review of the inland fisheries sector, my predecessor announced plans for significant restructuring of the sector. However, due to the complexity of the legislation required to implement the proposals and competing priorities, it did not prove possible to introduce the required legislation within the original timeframe envisaged.
In seeking sanction to postpone the elections in 2007 I advised of a new initiative being undertaken by the boards of the inland fisheries sector in respect of the proposed restructuring of the sector. This was to be developed in detail during 2008. Representatives of the Central Fisheries Board and the regional boards worked with officials of the Department in developing these proposals in the early part of this year. My consideration of the finalised proposals was, however, overtaken by the review of the Department of Finance of State bodies announced in July. As the House will be aware, on foot of that review, the Minister for Finance announced in budget 2009 that the Government had decided to reduce the number of State bodies and agencies by 41. As part of this rationalisation process, a new national inland fisheries body is to be established to replace the existing Central Fisheries Board and the seven regional boards. The eight existing trout and coarse fisheries co-operative societies will also be affected under these restructuring proposals. This decision has superseded all other proposals under consideration for the future of the sector and will be implemented without delay. A deadline of August 2009 has been set for vesting day of the new organisation. A small group, chaired by my Department and with representatives of the existing boards, has been established to guide implementation of the decision. This group is developing the key features of the new model and has advised on the legislative provisions required to deliver the new regime. It will also devise appropriate transitional arrangements in order to ensure the smooth changeover to the new structures next year.
While the proposal involves the creation of a single national authority, I must stress that the Government is committed to maintaining a strong regional input into the management of inland fisheries. Amending legislation will be required to give effect to the new structures and the Department is well advanced in the process of drawing up the draft scheme of a Bill. It is hoped this will be submitted to the Government for approval in the coming weeks.
Outside of providing the legislation necessary to facilitate the new structures, a separate examination is also being undertaken of how the existing 17 items of legislation governing the inland fisheries sector which date back to 1959 can be modernised and consolidated into a single statute. I hope to be in a position to bring forward proposals for legislation in this regard late next year. In the interim, the focused effort of the Department will be on the legislation enabling the establishment of the new inland fisheries authority.
I recognise the valuable contribution made by the members of the existing boards to the inland fisheries in their regions. I am anxious that they be given an opportunity to maintain that important role, not only in ensuring a continuing input to the work of the regional boards but also in ensuring a smooth transition to the new structures. Accordingly, I propose to postpone the elections to the regional fisheries boards for a further year. This is the only option open to me in accordance with section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1980. When made, the order will extend the term of office of the existing board members for a further year or until the vesting day of the new authority which I expect will be in August 2009, at which time the boards will cease to exist. The order will also result in the postponement of elections to co-operative societies.
While I am fully committed to the restructuring of the sector, I recognise that there will be challenges in bringing this about. I take the opportunity to emphasise that the changes to the sector will be progressed on an open and transparent basis. I trust the House will pass the motion approving the order to defer the elections.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire chuig na díospóireachta.
The restructuring and reorganisation of the fisheries boards have become such a long running saga that it will soon be on a par with that relating to the draining of the River Shannon. The recent suggestion that they were part of an overall rationalisation of State agencies is something of a distortion, particularly in view of the fact that the proposition to rationalise the fisheries boards dates back to the period 2005-06. The proposition to which I refer has been in the pipeline for three years and it is four years since the elections were originally due to be held. The latter is a serious development. Fine Gael is frustrated by the fact that the Government has allowed so much time to elapse in respect of what should be an achievable objective. In the light of the collective intelligence of the Minister and his civil servants, we are of the view that the task relating to this matter is not insurmountable. If it is proving to be so, that will hardly instil confidence with regard to the processes of government. It is time the Administration got its act together.
We do not oppose the concept of rationalisation, in principle. The theory behind it is acceptable and we have no difficulty with it. One of my party’s spokespersons in the Dáil, Deputy Varadkar, has been championing the notion of reducing the number of quangos and engaging in a process of rationalisation, where possible, for a number of months. While we do not necessarily have a philosophical problem with rationalisation, we are concerned that the regional dimension and the democratic aspect of the current system should be maintained. We would not like to see the emergence of a HSE-style scenario, with a new structure being imposed on an existing one and an unwieldy monolith being created as a result.
The delay in the holding of elections is not acceptable. I am of the view that, deep down, the Minister also holds this opinion. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Deputy Coveney inquired as to why, if the Minister was so confident that the new structures would be in place next year, the elections needed to be postponed, particularly if the new structures would supersede those already in place. In the move to postpone the elections there appears to be an almost implicit acceptance that, yet again, all may not be ready. That is a bizarre concept but it could prove to be the case. Based on past history, we cannot be confident that what is envisaged for 2009 will be achieved. In 2006, before he was appointed, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, expressed personal frustration about the delay in holding elections. He correctly identified it then as a discredited proposal. I put it to him that postponing these elections remains a discredited proposition, one which must be viewed as an admission of failure on the part of Government.
A point worthy of mention in the context of this debate is the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General has not yet signed off on the 2007 accounts of the fisheries boards. This point was raised at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and should be put on the record of the Seanad. A figure of €1.5 million is quoted in respect of rental property from 2005 to 2009, an astronomical amount. I am interested in hearing at the end of this debate the Minister’s response in terms of whether we could be dealing with a FÁS-type situation and if internal checks in this regard have been carried out.
We are concerned, in the context of the all-Ireland agreement, that the cross-Border dimension be included in the new structures. I put the Minister on notice that Fine Gael will oppose this legislation on the grounds that it is frustratingly delaying, bizarre and is an indication of an incompetence on the part of Government. The electorate and observers of this debate today would be horrified at an Opposition acquiescing to such a procedure. This matter should have been dealt with a couple of years ago.
Senator Jim Walsh: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an tSeanaid agus gabhaim leithscéal leis mar go raibh sé ag feitheamh ar feadh tamaill, uair go leith nó mar sin ag tús na díospóireachta. The reason for this is the Opposition’s concern, despite all the challenges and difficulties facing us economically and agriculturally in the food industry, in regard to whether there will be an Order of Business in the Seanad on Friday, which shows where people’s priorities lie. The public have a right to expect a little better from Members of this House than, perhaps, they have received today. This applies also in respect of the Minister, whom I know is busy and has other priorities to attend to.
This issue has been before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on a number of occasions for deferral. The Minister in his speech acknowledged the independent review of the inlands fisheries sector in 2005 which recommended significant restructuring in the sector. It is important we have an effective and dynamic organisation. Inland fisheries is an important part of our regional and national tourist industry. Anything that adds to the improvement and efficiencies within that area is highly desirable. The proposal is to have a national authority and the Minister stated he is committed to maintaining a strong regional input into that.
It is important to acknowledge, in the overall context of what has happened to many organisations established by the State in recent decades, that rationalisation in this area is long overdue. It has come about at this time as a result of our fiscal position. The Minister stated that the number of State bodies in this area has been reduced by 41. Obviously, there is a need for significant savings in public sector expenditure not alone in areas of activity but in areas where waste has built up. This will involve a reduction in staff numbers and, in my opinion, a reduction in salaries. Whatever is done in this regard needs to be done urgently and it will have the support of everybody in the House who has concerns in regard to our economic well-being. While many bodies are being rationalised this does not necessarily mean there will be a reduction in staff numbers or costs. Staff are to be transferred to other areas, an issue which needs to be examined. However, that matter is removed from this issue which relates to the deferral for 12 months of an election due on 16 December.
As the Minister stated today, and Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, pointed out to the committee last week, there is not available any other mechanism to the tabling of this motion in respect of a deferral. This will allow, in the interim, the implementation body to bring forth its findings which, it is hoped, will enable the Minister to put in place a new structure by August 2009. This will entail the introduction of amending legislation which will be debated in the Houses.
It is important, given this matter has been ongoing for some years, that every effort is made to ensure this matter is brought to a conclusion and that we do not, as stated by Senator O’Reilly, find ourselves in 12 months’ time seeking another deferral because we have not met the targeted date. I support the motion as I accept the necessity for it. I wish the Minister well in respect of the establishment of the new body which will, it is hoped, apart from promoting inland fisheries and ensuring its effectiveness and success, ensure we obtain value for money, which is very much part of the ethos we need to inject into all activities. This will become more apparent to all of us as we move through 2009 and 2010.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I welcome the Minister to the House. While I will not be opposing this motion, I wish to raise a number of points about the manner in which these elections have been postponed and how often they have been postponed, which I do not believe is a good exercise in democracy. It is not good that any board should be permitted to remain in place for almost seven years without a fresh mandate. It is not good that one can use the excuse of the complexity of legislation and the legislative calendar to defend not having elections to the fisheries boards.
Not so long ago county councils remained in place for eight years. The then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, quite rightly stated that this was unacceptable and put in place legislation to ensure councils did not run beyond five years. It is a pity he did not apply the same in respect of Seanad and Dáil elections. This illustrated a clear determination on the part of Government to ensure this type of situation was not permitted.
We have debated many facets of the marine during the past year and a half. The harbours Bill is being dealt with by the Department of Transport, the raising of Asgard II, the national sail training vessel which is at the bottom of the sea off the Bay of Biscay, is being dealt with by the Department of Defence and the postponement of elections to the fisheries boards is being dealt with by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It is not good enough that an area as important to an island nation as marine is being dealt with at policy level by several different Departments and Ministers. There is, I believe, an absence of a body of thought in terms of marine, shipping, marine leisure, fishing and all that follows marine. I know Government Members share and have expressed that view in this House. This, however, is not, as far as I am concerned, good enough. We need to move to a situation whereby one Department is responsible for all matters marine.
The Minister was reminded of the following point in the Dáil and by Senator O’Reilly before he took the Chair. His deep commitment to the preservation of wild fish stocks is fairly well known and it is recognised that this area is an interest of his. He was equally appalled by the postponement of the elections to the boards when he was in opposition.
I will not oppose the motion, but I am concerned that the Minister said the structures should be in place late next year. Priority should be given to ensuring they are in place by the start of 2009, thereby ensuring that we will not be debating another motion here next year proposing the postponement of elections to the Central Fisheries Board. It is not good for democracy and it is certainly not good for this aspect of the marine.
Senator Dan Boyle: I agree with most speakers who contributed to the debate on the motion that it is regrettable there will be a further postponement of the elections to these boards. This might be the third year for which the reorganisation process has lingered. There is an understanding that reorganisation of the sector is necessary, that it is happening and that it is progressing towards finality.
Reorganisation of the sector is needed on several grounds. There is a plethora of regional based bodies in all areas of activity, which are part of the public sector reform programme. Very few of the boundaries correspond with each other. In County Cork there are two regional fisheries boards, the southern fisheries board covering the northern part of the county and the south-western fisheries board covering the rest of the county. Having regard to how health care is administered and how the Garda Síochána functions, there is a series of overlapping regional boundaries for several areas of State activities. That is one of the main reasons we should examine how the fisheries boards, as only one of those areas of activity, should be organised.
In finalising the reorganisation process, it is necessary to ensure there is a degree of consistency. In dealing with the fisheries boards in County Cork, which cover three major rivers, the Blackwater, the Bandon and the Lee, different positions are often taken regarding fish conservation and capital works associated with those rivers. It is important that whoever is responsible for administering inland fisheries does so consistently to allow them to operate effectively. Everyone would agree that this has been an ongoing problem in the manner in which we administer inland fisheries.
However, the concept of democracy is important at regional fisheries level. The postponement of elections to the boards has resulted in many vacancies remaining unfilled for a long period. I am particularly mindful of angling representatives on some of the fisheries boards, who are among the most important members in terms of how these boards function because they allow for the consumer’s view on how our inland fisheries should be organised. While there is impatience and even intolerance about the process, there is a growing understanding that we are reaching the end of it.
However, I share the sentiments expressed by other speakers that a similar motion cannot come before the House next year. I am confident that such a motion will not come before us. I would not go as far as other speakers in saying that a deadline of three or six months should be set. It should be enough that we recognise that we are coming towards the end of the process on the reorganisation of inland fisheries and we should push that process along. To be arbitrary and set a date would not help the process.
It is important that all of us, in contributing to this motion, recognise that there is need for reorganisation, accept that it is happening and welcome it when it is finalised. I am confident this is — it must be — the last of such debates before either House of Oireachtas.
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister to the House. This is an important debate and the subject is one on which perhaps we should have a broader debate.
The inland fisheries sector is an important industry for this country. Our pigmeat industry is in a crisis. Our inland fisheries is significant in terms of tourism. The River Moy in my county is probably the finest salmon fishing river in the world. I compliment the regional fisheries boards and the Central Fisheries Board on the tremendous work they have done over many years. They have done great work on tributaries, main rivers and lakes, whether it be in terms of salmon, trout or pike stocks. It is one sector in which there has not been any great waste of funds. Every single euro the boards, whether it be the regional fisheries boards or the Central Fisheries Board, have been allocated seems to have been well spent.
From what the Minister said, it strikes me that the Government does not have a great commitment to the development of our inland fisheries. A review was carried out in 2005, which is nearly five years ago——
Senator Jim Walsh: Three years ago.
Senator Paddy Burke: We are approaching 2009 and the review was set in train in 2005. It was carried out a long time ago at any rate. This is the second or third year that elections to the boards have been postponed.
The Minister told us that a review was carried out in 2008 and that the Department of Finance indicated in July that it was changing route. This Department must not have had much work done on whatever new structures were to be put in place for inland fisheries. It appears that the regional fisheries boards and the Central Fisheries Board will be placed under the remit of some other semi-State body or some other board. It would be disastrous if they were to be placed under the remit of some other board, given that there does not appear to be any Government commitment in regard to their development. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, when replying, will state that there is commitment to the development of inland fisheries and to the work of the Central Fisheries Board and the regional fisheries boards, which are doing tremendous work.
It is obvious from what the Minister said that, with the striking out of 41 boards, he will bring the Central Fisheries Boards and regional fisheries boards under the remit of some other semi-State board or some other board. That would be a retrograde step. The inland fisheries bodies should stand on their own. The boards have done great work over the years and that substantial industry is undervalued. It should work more closely with the tourist board. There is no doubt there is great scope for improvement there. The sooner the Minister brings this matter to a head and finalises it, the better. As Senator Boyle said, I hope that another year will not pass before elections to the boards are held or a new system is put in place.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): I thank Senators who contributed for the opinions they expressed. I assure the Seanad that the Government attaches the greatest importance to the development of inland fisheries and it is intended the motion before us will be the last time any such extension would apply. The difference between this extension and the previous ones is that in this case we have a clear path and timeline for a resolution as to the new structures that will be put in place in the inland fisheries sector. That will be the establishment of a single national authority with a regional structure but not boards at regional level, which will still be representative in nature as the future fisheries representation body, which will provide feedback for various interests.
When we came into government, I considered it appropriate to take some of the work that had been done by the chairman of the Central Fisheries Board and examine what should be the nature and structure of the boards. That process was in train. It was right to engage with the chairpersons of the existing authorities. An extensive process was undertaken in the past year, not only with the fisheries boards but with each of the angling and other organisations where the various outcomes were discussed at a series of meetings. That was superseded by the Government’s thinking on the rationalisation of State boards, the need for a reduction in that area and the work that was done during the summer. The Government made a clear commitment to rationalise a number of State boards and agencies across various sectors, including this one.
The outcome was the proposed structure we have clearly outlined. It takes time to prepare legislation because it is complex, lengthy and detailed and we must get it right. I am determined we will do that in the first half of next year when we will create an alternative structure that will be in place by the middle of next summer. In a sense, that pre-empts the possibility of a continuation of the existing boards. That is something to which I am committed. The outcome will result in a better structure for the inland fisheries area and all those involved in it, anglers, those interested in rivers and wildlife and those working within the sector. We have a skill to resource in the existing regional boards.
I assure Senator O’Reilly that the resources available in the area are a fraction of what was available in some of the other agencies to which he referred. I do not believe any of the spending that was evident there has, or could have, occurred in the fisheries sector simply because the budgets are so tight. If we get the structures in the fisheries sector right we will have an opportunity to increase the budgets and spend the money we all want to see spent on protecting our valuable inland rivers. I am committed to that, as is the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. I will give it my single-minded attention. Agreement of the motion would facilitate a continuation of the existing boards for six months while we await the creation of a different structure, one that is more streamlined and that will work better.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 29; Níl, 23.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Kelly, Alan.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Phelan, John Paul.|
|Prendergast, Phil.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O’Reilly.
Question declared carried.
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin): I am pleased to introduce this Bill, which will implement the €515 million package of social welfare improvements announced in the 2009 budget. In very difficult economic circumstances, this package will bring total expenditure on social welfare in 2009 to €19.6 billion, which represents an increase of €2.6 billion, or 15.5%, over the Estimates allocation for 2008. At a time when public expenditure must be tightly controlled, this increased provision for social welfare is a clear signal of the Government’s commitment to protect the vulnerable and less well-off in society.
The schemes and other supports the Department of Social and Family Affairs administers will benefit more than 1.7 million people, including 440,000 pensioners, 345,000 ill and disabled people, more than 80,000 carers, 30,000 low income families availing of family income supplement and more than 580,000 families who receive child benefit payments.
The budget includes provision for an average live register figure of 290,000 in 2009. That compares with an average of 220,700 in the 11 months to November this year. Providing for the expected increase in the live register alone accounts for €1.25 billion of the planned increase in spending for 2009.
In these extraordinary economic times, the Government has had to make some difficult decisions to secure our economic future. However, we have still provided for an increase of €2.6 billion in social welfare expenditure next year and have kept expenditure control measures in this Department to an absolute minimum.
I will outline to the House the improvements in payment rates to which the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will give legislative effect. We are all aware that the price of fuel is an issue of major concern for many people, especially the elderly and ill. I am pleased that the budget provides for an 11% increase in the value of the fuel allowance, bringing it to €20 per week from next month. The duration of the fuel season is also being extended by another two weeks from April 2009, bringing it to 32 weeks in total. These improvements to the fuel scheme, including the extra allocation in respect of smokeless fuel, will cost almost €30 million extra in 2009 and will benefit nearly 300,000 households.
The budget also provides increases of €7 per week in the maximum personal rates of payment for the contributory State pension and the transitional State pension from the start of January 2009. This will bring the new weekly rate to €230.30. The non-contributory State pension is also being increased by €7 per week bringing the new rate to €219 per week from January 2009.
While providing for increases in the State support for today’s pensioners, the Government is also conscious of the need to develop a new long-term pensions framework that will serve future generations of pensioners well. I am pleased to be able to inform Senators that we are close to the end of a very protracted policy review of issues in this whole area, which started with the publication by the Pensions Board of its national pensions review and its report on mandatory pensions, Special Savings for Retirement, just over two years ago. A Green Paper on pensions was published this time last year to broaden the debate to encompass all aspects of pensions policy in this country.
The challenge is to strike the right balance between the responsibilities of all those who can contribute, including the State, employers and employees, and to ensure that whatever system is decided on reaches the group most in need of pensions coverage: low income to middle income earners. This is the challenge we are working on at present and the aim is to announce a framework for future policy shortly.
In recognition of the current market difficulties and the difficult decisions pension schemes will face, the Government has put in place a number of short-term measures to ease the pressure on schemes. It has been agreed with the Pensions Board that an additional six months will be allowed for trustees to prepare funding proposals. This will mean that schemes will have 18 months to review the situation with sponsoring employers and to formulate proposals for recovery. These actions are being taken to alleviate the current situation.
Members of defined contribution schemes have been also exposed to investment losses. In such schemes the risk is borne in full by the member. Many of these schemes are relatively immature and for many people there will be adequate time to recoup some or all of the losses which have occurred. There are particular concerns for those who may be at, or close to, retirement. Good practice would suggest a conservative approach to investments in the last number of years before retirement but anecdotal evidence suggests this may not have been applied in some cases. Members of defined contribution schemes are required to purchase an annuity at the point of retirement. In the current environment these scheme members could realise a significant loss in the value of their pension funds. In the circumstances, the Department of Finance is currently working out the details on how such scheme members could avail of a period of up to two years to purchase an annuity. The scheme was announced on Friday by the Minister for Finance and the final details will be notified through the Pensions Board. There is, of course, the risk that those availing of the deferment option could sustain further losses and this will be clearly outlined in guidance notes.
The Government is working with the Pensions Board, representative organisations and the social partners to find ways to ease the pressure on schemes by striking a balance between the long-term nature of pension savings and the need to ensure short-term security of accrued benefits. As outlined, it has already taken some short-term measures in this area. The long-term response to the situation is being considered in the context of the overall framework for pensions, that I mentioned earlier.
Turning now to social welfare payments to people of working age, the budget provides an extra €260 million for such schemes. The maximum personal rate of payment for all working age schemes is being increased by €6.50 per week with effect from the first week of January 2009, with proportionate increases applying to people on reduced rates. This brings the lowest social welfare weekly payments above €200 for the first time to €204.30. The rates of qualified adult payments are also being increased on all schemes by €4.30 except for the invalidity pension where a €4.60 increase will apply. About 733,000 people will benefit from these increases.
Budget 2009 also provides increases for families with children who are in receipt of social welfare payments. Social welfare dependent parents at present receive an extra €24 per week for each child on top of their basic social welfare payments, through what is termed the qualified child increase. This is being increased by €2 to €26 per child with effect from January 2009. Improvements are also being made to the family income supplement, FIS, which is paid to low income working families. The income limits for the FIS are being increased by €10 per week in respect of each child giving an average extra payment of €6 per child per week. It is estimated that a total of 29,000 families will benefit from FIS in 2009, and that approximately 2,000 additional families will become eligible for a FIS payment.
The income thresholds for entitlement to back to school clothing and footwear allowance are also being increased to enable 18,000 more families to benefit from the scheme. As Members will be aware, the Government decided in the budget that, with effect from January 2010, child benefit will no longer be paid in respect of children who are 18 years of age. This change is being phased in gradually and the Bill provides that a half rate payment of the appropriate rate of child benefit will be made in respect of existing and future qualifying 18 year olds from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2009.
Special alleviating measures are being introduced in respect of children aged 18 years who are in social welfare dependent families or low income families. A compensatory payment of €15 per week will be paid to families in receipt of social welfare payments which include a payment for a qualified child in this age group and low income families in receipt of FIS, which include qualified children in this age group. This additional payment will be applicable where an 18 year old is in receipt of disability allowance in his or her own right. Families with twins, triplets and other multiple births receive higher payments than recipients of child benefit generally. In the circumstances, they will face larger reductions in their payments following the implementation of this measure. The Government has therefore, decided that the weekly compensation payment of €15 will be increased by 50% for each child in a set of qualifying twins and by 100% for each child in a set of qualifying triplets and other multiple births. These increases will mirror the rates of child benefit generally provided in the case of twins and other multiple births. Compensatory payments will be paid to the person who was receiving the child benefit for the 18 year old in question.
In addition, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will be increased by €215 to €520 per annum for eligible 18 year olds. These compensatory payments will cease on 31 December 2010. While policy in relation to the early childcare supplement comes under the aegis of the Minister of State with responsibility for children, the Social Welfare Bill will provide the legislative basis for the change to the scheme that was announced in the budget. The cost of the early childcare supplement in 2009 is expected to be €397 million. As Senators will be aware, the primary aim of the scheme was to help parents with the cost of pre-school childcare. The payment was introduced for children to the age of six, even though most children start school well in advance of their sixth birthday and the burden of having to pay for full-time childcare ceases at that point. The approach taken in 2005 was the most generous possible, to ensure that no child would lose the payment before starting school. However, it is now considered that a more targeted approach is consistent with the current economic context.
With effect from January 2009, the eligibility period for children qualifying for the early childcare supplement will be reduced from six years to five years and six months. The supplement will be paid on a monthly basis, rather than a quarterly basis, as at present. The combined effect of these measures is expected to result in savings in the Department of Health and Children Vote of some €93 million in 2009.
I should now like to outline the changes that are being made to certain social insurance schemes. Senators will be aware that Ireland’s social welfare system is based on two quite different types of entitlement — a social insurance system for people who have paid sufficient PRSI contributions and a social assistance system for people without adequate contributions who have little or no household means of their own. Social insurance is intended both to enable people to insure themselves against adverse life events such as unemployment or illness and to provide for their State pensions and other benefits, through contributions to the national social insurance fund. Social insurance benefits are not means-tested and entitlement depends on having paid the required number of PRSI contributions relevant to the particular benefit a person wishes to claim.
For the past 11 years, the social insurance fund has been in surplus, with more than sufficient income in the fund to cover the payments being made from it each year, without the State having to provide a contribution. However, that is changing. As a result of further increases in the live register, expenditure is expected to exceed income to the fund by more than €200 million this year, and about £900 million next year. Although these current deficits can be met from the accumulated surplus, it seems likely that annual Exchequer subvention to the social insurance fund will be required again within a few years. In that context, it is appropriate to look at some of the instances where people with a very limited or distant contribution record have been able to qualify for very significant benefits, regardless of their household income.
At present, people who have paid just 52 weekly contributions in total can qualify for jobseeker’s benefit, illness benefit and health and safety benefit. This means, for example, that recent migrants or young workers who have worked here for a total of only one year are entitled to claim jobseeker’s payments for 12 months. This will change from next January, when the number of required paid contributions will be doubled to 104 for new claimants. A further anomaly that exists at present is that some people, who were previously working part-time, can receive a higher rate of payment from these schemes than what they were actually earning while at work. Again, this is considered to be inappropriate — a disincentive to employment — and so, from next January, this will be addressed by increasing from €150 to €300 per week the earnings thresholds which currently apply to the reduced or graduated rates of payment.
At present, it is necessary to have made 13 paid contributions in the relevant tax year to qualify for illness benefit. However, this condition does not exist for jobseeker’s benefit, with the result that people who may not have paid PRSI contributions in the past number of years can qualify. Again, it is considered that this position does not adequately reflect the contribution-based rationale for social insurance and so from next January, the Bill provides that new claimants for jobseeker’s benefit will be required to satisfy the same conditions as those on illness benefit, and must have paid 13 contributions in the relevant tax year to qualify for benefit.
The other two changes being made to jobseeker’s benefit relate to the duration of the payment. Under the previous arrangements, people who have 260 or more paid social insurance contributions could receive jobseeker’s benefit for up to 15 months. The Bill provides that with effect from 15 October 2008, this is being limited to 12 months for current claimants with less than six months duration on the scheme as well as all new claimants. Where the claimant has less than 260 paid contributions, the maximum duration of jobseeker’s benefit will be nine months, instead of 12 months, if the claimant currently has been in receipt of benefit for less than three months, and in respect of all new claimants.
In summary, the Bill provides that new claimants for jobseeker’s benefit will in future have to have paid a total of at least 104 contributions to the social insurance fund, with at least 13 of these paid in the relevant tax year, and the duration of the payment will be either 12 or nine months, depending on the number of social insurance contributions they have made in the past. I should stress that the people with limited means who will be affected by these restrictions in entitlement to social insurance benefits will be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance or another social assistance payment, such as the supplementary welfare allowance. The maximum rate of jobseeker’s allowance is paid at the same rate as jobseeker’s benefit.
The Bill also amends the Citizens Information Acts 2000 to 2007 to enhance the functions of the Citizens Information Board through the assignment to it of responsibility for the provision of the money advice and budgeting service, MABS. MABS staff provide a highly valued service for people who are over-indebted and need help and advice in coping with debt problems. However, it has been recognised for some time that the service needs a proper legislative basis and structure.
After detailed consideration, the Government decided that assignment of these responsibilities to the Citizens Information Board would best achieve that outcome. The MABS and citizens information centres complement each other as both are involved in providing information, advice and advocacy services to the public. In addition, the Citizens Information Board has a long association with MABS at both national and local level and was involved in establishing some of the original MABS pilot projects. The proposals envisage that MABS will be a separate and distinct service within the Citizens Information Board. There will be no change in the status of the 53 independent MABS companies with voluntary boards of management, or in the employment status of their 240 employees who provide the local services.
Part 5 of the Bill gives effect to the Government decision announced in the budget to integrate the Combat Poverty Agency and the office for social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs, in line with the recommendations of a review of the Combat Poverty Agency that was undertaken on foot of a Government decision on 6 June 2007. It is not my intention that the Combat Poverty Agency will simply be absorbed into the office for social inclusion in its existing form. The office for social inclusion will be dismantled and a new strengthened division will be created that will make the best use of the combined strengths of the two bodies and will seek to address the weaknesses identified by the review with regard to both. The new division will provide a stronger voice for those affected by poverty and social inclusion issues.
I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 3 and 4, together with Schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill, provide for increases in the rates of social welfare payments. These include an increase of €7 per week for recipients of pensions and carer payments who are aged 66 years and over. The Bill also provides for an increase of €6.50 on all working age payments, including jobseeker’s benefit, disability allowance, one-parent family payment and carer’s benefit and allowance payable to carers aged under 66 years. It further provides for increases in the allowances payable in respect of qualified adults and qualified children. These increases will come into effect in January 2009.
Section 5 provides for increases in the weekly income limits used to determine entitlement to family income supplement. The new thresholds range from €500 in the case of a family with one child to €1,250 in the case of a family with eight or more children. These increases will take effect from January 2009.
Sections 6 and 7 provide for an increase, from €50,700 to €52,000, in the annual PRSI earnings ceiling applicable to employees and optional contributors. This amendment will come into effect on 1 January 2009.
Section 8 provides that income from dividends arising from stallion fees, stud greyhound fees and profits from the occupation of certain woodlands will be taken into account in estimating reckonable income for PRSI purposes. This amendment is necessary to disregard the provisions of section 140 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 when estimating reckonable income for PRSI purposes.
Sections 9 to 11 provide for amendments to various definitions. Sections 9 and 10 provide for the amendment of the references to a reformatory or industrial school and medical practitioner, which are contained in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, by replacing those terms with the definitions “children detention school” and “registered medical practitioner”, as provided for in the Children Act 2001 and the Medical Practitioners Act 2007, respectively. Section 11 amends the definition of “widowed parent” to provide that the grant will be payable to a widow whose child is born within ten months of the date of death of the deceased spouse.
Section 12 provides for the deletion of a provision which applied to persons who were in receipt of pre-retirement allowance prior to April 1993. This provision is obsolete as all recipients of pre- retirement allowance would have transferred to State pension payments before or during 2004.
Section 13 clarifies that, for the purposes of the one-parent family payment scheme, a “qualified parent” must be the parent, step-parent, adoptive parent or legal guardian of the qualified child. It also provides for continued payment to existing recipients who established entitlement under the current definition of “qualified parent”.
Section 14 provides for amendments to the provisions governing payment of rent and mortgage interest supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. It provides that the maximum amount of rent supplement will be specified in regulations. It also provides that the amount and duration of mortgage interest supplement will be determined by the Health Service Executive, having regard to the circumstances of the person concerned and subject to any conditions etc. that may be prescribed.
Section 15 provides for a number of amendments to the provisions governing the illness benefit scheme, with effect from 5 January 2009, as follows: the minimum number of qualifying contributions required will be increased from 52 to 104; illness benefit will be payable for two years, 624 days, in the case of a person who has more than 260 paid PRSI contributions; payment will continue where a person has been in receipt of illness benefit on a long-term basis, provided that the claim is not broken for a period exceeding three days; and existing special provision for claimants who participate in reactivation programmes will be maintained.
Section 16 provides for amendment to the provisions governing the health and safety benefit scheme, by increasing, from 52 to 104, the minimum number of PRSI contributions required to qualify for benefit and providing that the claimant must have at least 13 paid PRSI contributions in the relevant tax year.
Sections 17 and 18 provide for amendments to jobseeker’s benefit. At present social welfare legislation provides for the disregard of certain periods where a jobseeker’s benefit claimant participates in specified training and employment schemes. Section 17 provides for the extension of the linking period in respect of jobseeker’s benefit to two years and six months in the case of a person who is participating in certain vocational training opportunities schemes.
Section 18 provides for a number of amendments to the jobseeker’s benefit scheme as follows: an increase, from 52 to 104, in the number of PRSI contributions required to qualify for benefit; a requirement that the claimant must have 13 qualifying contributions in the relevant tax year; amendments to the duration of benefit — 12 months in the case of a person who has paid at least 260 PRSI contributions and nine months in the case of a person who has paid less than 260 PRSI contributions; and special provision for claimants who were in receipt of jobseeker’s benefit on budget day, 14 October 2008.
Provision was made in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2008 for the transfer of administrative responsibility for domiciliary care allowance from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs in 2009. While those provisions have not yet been given effect, section 19 of the Bill provides for amendments to the domiciliary care allowance scheme. These include reflecting the amendment to the definition of children detention school, as provided for in section 9 of this Bill and providing an increase, from €299.60 to €309.50, in the monthly rate of the allowance.
Section 20 contains amendments to entitlement to child benefit, by providing that the benefit will be payable in respect of a child up to his or her 18th birthday. It also provides that a special payment, of half the standard child benefit payment rate, will be payable in 2009 only in respect of qualified children who are currently aged 18. Special provision is made to provide for a compensatory payment of €15 per week to families in receipt of social welfare payments which include a payment for qualified children in this age group and low-income families in receipt of family income supplement which include qualified children in this age group. This additional payment will also be applicable to persons within this age group who are in receipt of disability allowance in their own right. This compensatory payment measure will cease to have effect on 31 December 2010.
Section 21 provides for a small increase in the rate of early child care supplement, to €92 per month, to facilitate transition from quarterly to monthly payments. It also provides that payment will be made monthly in arrears rather than on a quarterly basis, and that the supplement will be payable in respect of a child up to the age of five years and six months. These amendments will take effect from 1 January 2009.
Section 22 provides for the deduction of any contributions payable under the tax known as “income levy” in calculating weekly family income for the purposes of family income supplement. In anticipation of the transfer of administrative responsibility for blind welfare allowance, from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, section 23 provides for an increase in the rate of the allowance.
Part 3 of the Bill provides for miscellaneous amendments to other Acts.
Section 24 clarifies requirements for the submission of an actuarial funding certificate for new schemes commencing on or after the date of transposition of Directive 2003/41/EC of 23 September 2005. The amendments also confirm that eight named schemes shall have an effective date for the submission of an actuarial funding certificate of I January 2009.
Section 25 removes the requirement for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to consult the Minister for Health and Children when giving information to certain specified others. This change is necessitated in the context of the transfer of functions to the General Register Office from the Minister for Health and Children to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.
Part 4 of the Bill, covering sections 26 to 29, provides for the extension of the functions of the Citizens Information Board to include responsibility for the provision of the money advice and budgeting service. The purpose of the measure is to ensure that the board will support the provision of the MABS. It will promote, develop and disseminate information and education about debt, money management and related matters. It will compile and publish data. It will undertake research and it will provide the Minister with information and advice on matters related to its functions. Part 4 also amends the relevant sections of the Citizens Information Act in respect of the provision of financial assistance to voluntary bodies to include the MABS companies.
Part 5, sections 30 to 38, is necessary to give effect to the Government decision to integrate the Combat Poverty Agency and the office for social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs, in line with the recommendations of the review. This part provides for the dissolution of the agency, the transfer of its permanent employees who are to become civil servants, the transfer of its property and assets, any pending legal proceedings and any rights and liabilities to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Pension and superannuation liabilities are to be transferred to the Minister for Finance. Provision is made for the final accounts of the agency to be drawn up, for any expenses incurred as a result of the integration to be met and for the repeal of the Combat Poverty Agency Act 1986.
The dissolution of the Combat Poverty Agency, as provided for in Part 5, is a prerequisite to the integration arrangements and the creation of the new division. Sections 32, 33 and 35 are standard provisions providing for the transfer of property and all rights and liabilities of the agency to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs upon the commencement of the Part. Section 34 provides for the agency’s final accounts to be drawn up, audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, presented to the Minister and laid before each House of the Oireachtas. Section 36 contains the legal basis for the appointment of the staff of the Combat Poverty Agency to the Civil Service as unestablished civil servants. The section provides that the remuneration and superannuation terms of the Combat Poverty Agency staff will be no less beneficial on transfer into the Civil Service. They will retain their employment law rights, continuity of service and their tenure entitlements. Provision is also made in section 36 for the contracts of persons who are fixed-term employees in the Combat Poverty Agency to be transferred to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for the remainder of the contract term. Section 37 provides for any expenses arising in implementing the legislation to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas and section 38 provides for the repeal of the Combat Poverty Agency Act 1986.
I will conclude by outlining how the payment increases provided for in the Bill will be made. Pensioners who are paid by electronic methods will receive their increase in full from January 2009. Increases for recipients of jobseeker’s benefit or allowance, illness or maternity benefit, one-parent family payment, family income supplement, farm assist and supplementary welfare allowance will be paid in full from January 2009. As has been the case previously, because of the lead-in time involved in the production of personal payable orders, recipients of certain long-term payments, such as widow’s or widower’s pension, carer’s allowance and invalidity pension, will receive their increase in mid-February, backdated to January, together with their new payable order books. Increases for certain other long-term payments, such as State pensions and disability allowance, will be paid by a special once-off payment in mid-February to cover 12 weeks’ payment to the end of March, when new payable order books will be issued.
The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will provide the legislative basis for a range of improvements next year. These include €7 extra per week for State pensioners; €6.50 extra per week for welfare recipients of working age, such as jobseekers and those on illness benefit; an extra €2 per week in fuel allowance with payment also being made for an additional two weeks; increases in child related payments to those dependent on social welfare and improvements in the family income supplement for low income working families; and 18,000 more families becoming eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. As I detailed earlier, to fund these improvements, together with making payments to increasing numbers of people on the live register, it has been necessary to make savings in some areas. However, we have kept these expenditure control measures to an absolute minimum. At a time when public expenditure must be tightly controlled, the additional €2.6 billion being provided for social welfare in 2009 is a clear signal of the Government’s commitment to protect the vulnerable and less well-off in society. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I welcome the Minister to the House. Sadly, the Government’s target of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016 has been undermined by many aspects of budget 2009. While I recognise the Minister has managed to retain her funding, I am sorry to note the requisite imagination is missing to upskill and retrain those who wish and need to return to work. Regrettably, as 7% of the workforce now is on the live register, I believe that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have encouraged and created a welfare state in which there is no incentive to work. The Minister and I are aware that people stand to be better off financially by remaining on welfare. This point has been confirmed in a press release issued by the Combat Poverty Agency, in which it noted that for the first time in many years, there have been great savings of €841 million on welfare and tax packages. Later in the press release, the agency stated that unemployed households recorded modest gains from the budget when compared with those at work. My point is that those who automatically are in receipt of social welfare are entitled to medical cards, rent allowance, back to school clothing and footwear allowances, as well as preschool subvention, etc. However, those unfortunate people who have low paid jobs and are PAYE workers pay all the taxes and PRSI but receive no grants, subventions or anything else.
It is morally wrong that one now can be financially better off by not working. This also is wrong from the point of view of providing an example and in respect of core values as some children never have seen their parents go out to work. Consequently, the next generation will neither know nor appreciate how important it is to be able to pay one’s way or be familiar with the social advantages of being able to work, having work colleagues, etc. If their parents never worked or had access to training and are demotivated, stressed and worried about their future, what sort of example does this give to the children? I congratulate the Combat Poverty Agency. On the Minister’s previous appearance in the House, I appealed to her not to merge the agency with the office for social inclusion. It has a valuable role in respect of research and I believe its independent voice will be greatly missed. It is wrong that it no longer will be able to shout loudly about the Government’s actions.
I wish to highlight to the Minister the plight of a 32 year old lady who has lost her job recently having worked for the past 12 years. Although she is desperate to find a job, she is unable to find one. She visited her local social welfare office and signed on only to be told she would not receive a Christmas bonus. In an e-mail she sent to me, which I am sure the Minister also received, she noted that every other benefit, including jobseeker’s allowance, farm assist, back to work allowance, back to enterprise allowance, pre-retirement allowance and so on, entitles one to a Christmas bonus. Her point is that she has paid her taxes and PRSI, as have all her family before her, and has never been out of work. However, she is one of the sad and unfortunate people who will face Christmas this year without receiving such a bonus. Perhaps the Minister would try to redress this issue.
I also wish to highlight some other issues. The Government has missed the opportunity to make changes to the back to education allowance in order that people should not obliged to be in receipt of social welfare payments for 12 months before being allowed to retrain or upskill. This is a false economy and in the long term, were people allowed to retrain and return to work immediately, it would save the State much money. The Minister’s speech glossed over some hidden realities in the budget. For example, since the budget, unemployed people will be obliged to make 104 paid contributions before being considered eligible for jobseeker’s benefit. Moreover, from January, jobseeker’s benefit for claimants who have 260 contributions or more will be limited to 12 months. It will take some time before Ireland’s economy recovers, although it is to be hoped not too long. In the meantime, however, the Minister intends to cut the length of time in which people will be able to claim the benefit of their long years of PRSI contributions, which is most unfair. In addition, jobseeker’s benefit for claimants who have fewer than 260 contributions will be reduced to nine months. How will such people cope? They are without jobs through no fault of their own, are demented with worry about their mortgages, car loans and credit card bills and are going to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for assistance. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has never had as many people knocking on its doors. It is an insidious underlying trend. People do not realise that their benefits are being cut from 15 months to 12 months.
The Minister addressed the area of fuel poverty in her speech. She was correct in stating that every increase is welcome, and I welcome it, but €2 is a paltry sum. As I have stated previously, there are elderly people choosing between food or fuel this winter. The price of milk, flour and food stuffs have increased. Thankfully, energy costs have fallen but there are elderly people living a miserable existence. Some elderly people go to bed early at night so they will not be cold. It is wrong that the people who spent their lives working to make the State what it is cannot live the remainder of their lives in comfort. An older person must have a temperature of at least 16°C to avoid hyperthermia and in the past few nights it was -4°C. An increase of €4 will not buy even one bale of briquettes. Age Action Ireland has stated that an additional 1,500 to 2,000 people will die in Ireland this year from the cold.
Fr. Sean Healy has identified a strong correlation between fuel poverty, poor housing standards and the 2,000 winter deaths to which I referred already. He also calculated that Ireland has one of the highest winter elderly death rates due to the cold in the EU. I welcome the Minister’s winter initiative scheme, but I ask that it be rolled out to more people. The pilot schemes of Sustainable Energy Ireland and others are welcome, but they are not being rolled out all over the country.
In my dealings with the Carers Association I am aware that the emotional and physical health of carers is suffering due to lack of supports and financial assistance, yet Budget 2009 has done nothing to address their plight. Every week 3.7 million hours are worked by 161,000 carers, saving the State an estimated 2.5 billion a year, but less than one in six qualify for the carers allowance. The increase for carers in Budget 2009 barely keeps pace with inflation. The meagre increase in the allowance will do nothing to help family carers cope with rising costs of running a home and caring for their infirm loved one. Carers are disappointed in the Government’s failure to reform the rules governing the threshold for paid work for carers. In my opinion, this misses an opportunity where the carer could have lightened the family’s financial burden and allowed the carer to engage in work outside the home while still remaining eligible for the carer’s allowance.
Since the budget people unfortunate enough to have to rely on rent supplement to meet their housing needs must pay an extra €5 per week, clawing back much of the increase in basic social welfare payment. Rent supplement is a payment made to people living in private rented accommodation who cannot afford accommodation costs. There are approximately 60,000 in receipt of this payment. At this juncture, I welcome the RAS scheme. It is probably the most positive outcome for people on rent supplement.
The Minister referred to MABS. Last week I accompanied a lady to MABS. The Minister is correct, it is a good service. However, there seems to be a log-jam from the point of view of people getting to negotiate with the banks. We on this side of the House sat here all night in the Seanad and supported the Government in bailing out the banks, and now the banks and the Government need to bail out the people. There are people in danger of losing their homes because they have lost their jobs and do not have enough money to pay their mortgages. We will end up having to provide social housing and rent supplement if we do not allow them keep their homes. Sadly, I have much more to say but that is all I can say in the time available.
Senator Martin Brady: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, and her officials to the House. I welcome many aspects of this Bill. There are a couple of sections with which I have concerns, but I particularly welcome the increase for social welfare recipients and the fuel scheme for the elderly.
As Senator McFadden stated, the fuel scheme is a big issue with the elderly, quite a number of whom in my constituency are concerned. They cannot understand why the price of gas and electricity is increasing all the time when the price of oil is coming down. It is difficult for them to understand that. Sometimes I do not understand it myself. Perhaps that is a matter we should examine.
Under section 14, the supplementary welfare allowance scheme provides for rent supplement where the HSE is involved. The HSE is involved with some 1,600 persons in this position. It has come to my attention in recent times that there is widespread abuse of this system, for example, where persons pretending to be landlords let their houses to their partners, and both are living in the same house. They are getting money from the Government or the HSE, which ever way one likes to put it, under false pretences. That cannot be allowed continue.
There are others who will tell us that they have two or three children unemployed who are living at home, and the parents get no allowance for them. I suppose we cannot give an allowance for everything, but they make the point that if their children rent a house, the HSE will pay for it. It is a fair point. They also make the point of course, as Senator McFadden has stated, and which we hear all the time, that there are families and households which have a larger income on social welfare than a family who are working. That is a fact. I am aware of many such cases. I do not know what the Minister can do about that.
In reference to Part 4, sections 26 to 29, inclusive, the Citizens Information Board and Money Advice and Budgeting Service provide a tremendous service. It is efficient and professional. Perhaps I am wrong and I am missing some points, but I believed that when these agencies were amalgamated there would be a cost saving and that was the idea of amalgamating or rearranging them. I note that nothing really has changed. They have the same number of buildings and staff, although I do not know their grades. In Coolock, to give a typical example, we have those services all under the one roof. In other places there are three or four services such as the citizens information service, the MABS and family mediation services within a mile of each other. In making the point about this when I spoke here previously, by amalgamation, I meant that there would be a saving, there would be reorganisation and that the services would be more effective. The Minister stated that this provides for the extension of the functions of the Citizens Information Board to include responsibility for the provision of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. As far as I am concerned, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service did not need advice. It was providing a perfectly good service, in my estimation.
The purpose of the measure is to provide that the board will support the provision of the MABS, will compile and publish data, undertake research, report back to the Minister, etc. I would have thought that such would have been taking place all time, that it would be part of the management’s responsibility. I now realise it is something new, which surprises me.
The Minister further stated that the Bill amends the Citizens Information Acts on the provision of financial assistance to voluntary bodies to include the MABS companies. I am a little lost as to who is doing what or why the Minister needs to have anybody at this stage doing research and publishing data, for which the board would be responsible. I would have thought that both of those agencies would have had to conform with that type or responsibility and regulation in the first place.
The Minister moved on then to the Combat Poverty Agency, which no doubt was doing a good job as well, as Senator McFadden stated. I have never had any problems with it, although others may have had.
The Government announced in the budget the integration of the Combat Poverty Agency and the office for social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs in line with the recommendations of a review of the Combat Poverty Agency that was undertaken on foot of a Government decision on 6 June 2007. The Bill provides for the dissolution of the agency and the transfer of its permanent employees, who are to become civil servants. Will the people currently employed in the Combat Poverty Agency become civil servants when they are transferred? Pension and superannuation liabilities will be transferred to the Minister for Finance. I do not wish to criticise the decision but perhaps I do not grasp the point.
Senator David Norris: On the other hand, perhaps the Senator does grasp the point.
Senator Martin Brady: No change appears to have been made. If I operate a business, I would integrate sections to achieve efficiencies, value for money or a better work environment for my staff. However, I would not promote people to make them happy or if they refused to move. I would like to know what grades are involved and which staff are to become civil servants. I ask for this clarification because I have concerns about the matter.
We are not getting value for money from a number of agencies. I have observed notices in the windows of some agency offices stating that opening hours have been restricted due to cutbacks. As nobody is asking questions about their behaviour, the agencies are doing what they like.
Senator David Norris: How does the Minister feel about her statement? It appears that she is ashamed of it. I have known her for a long time and she is a decent person but she is being used as an instrument in a nasty and cynical way. The reason I think she is ashamed is the extraordinary way in which copies of her statement were circulated to Members. Can she tell me what typeface was used and whether she has seen the copies with which we were supplied? Perhaps I can have the indulgence of the House to show her my copy.
Acting Chairman (Senator John Paul Phelan): That is not appropriate.
Senator David Norris: Is it not? I think she should look at it, however, and compare it with the copy she was given.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: I accept that.
Senator David Norris: I have macular degeneration of the retina, so I find it virtually impossible to read the script. It was not printed in this form to save money because the rear of the pages are blank. The intention was that we would not be able to follow her as she made her statement. It is a deliberate disincentive. I have no doubt it was Government policy.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: If it is helpful, I am happy to give the Senator my own copy, which uses a much larger font. I accept that his copy is written in very small type.
Senator David Norris: I appreciate that. The Minister is very courteous, as always. However, while I pay tribute to her courtesy and decency, I continue to assert that she should be ashamed of her statement not only because of the way in which it was printed but also because of the underhand practice throughout this Government of swingeing the most defenceless.
I will not begin my criticisms of the Bill with the Combat Poverty Agency because questions also arise in regard to the definition of “spouse”. Several years ago, a similar Bill was introduced in this House by the Minister’s predecessor, the Tánaiste, on foot of a decision by the Equality Authority which held that serious discrimination against partners in a same sex relationship with regard to travel rights was a violation of their human rights and unsustainable in Irish law. The Government responded not by addressing the injustice and discrimination involved but by ramming legislation through this House to redefine “spouse” in order to deprive vulnerable people of their entitlements. For that reason, I have proposed a new definition and I will not be assuaged by being told the matter is before the courts because that is rubbish. The matter has been considered by the Colley commission, the Law Reform Commission and every other commission. I am tired of it. It is clear we have to address this issue.
The Equality Authority is being gotten rid of in a parallel measure because it was inconvenient. It is suffering a 43% cut and its staff are being decentralised to Roscrea. The people who know anything about legislation in this area are for the most part unwilling to transfer, which means they will be replaced by pen pushers from other Departments. In other words, the voice of anybody who speaks out is being muzzled.
This is an extraordinary time to introduce a Bill to destroy the Combat Poverty Agency. New financial calamities, some of which are of the Government’s making, are occurring on a daily basis. Banks and stock markets have collapsed, the sub-prime scandal has erupted and now our agriculture industry is threatened with job losses and a potentially massive bill of up to €1 billion. The beef industry also appears to be affected, with further job losses threatened. What are we going to do and how will we address these issues? In a period of increasing poverty, we are destroying the agencies that protect the poor, the disadvantaged and the powerless. These are not the actions of a party of the people; they are the actions of an arrogant shambles of a Government that instead of listening to people, humbles them and muffles their voice. It is dreadful. I feel sorry for this Minister because I do not think she should have been used as an instrument in this regard.
I note the discomfort that exists on the Government side, about which Senator McFadden so eloquently spoke earlier. I intend to table amendments to redefine “spouse” and to delete the section of the Bill which abolishes the Combat Poverty Agency. Decent people on the opposite benches will be forced through the lobbies to vote in favour of the abolition of the agency despite recognising the damage they will be doing.
In an example of squalid dishonesty, the Government’s decision to abolish the Combat Poverty Agency was made before the commission’s report was received. How else did I receive knowledge of the decision in advance of the report? People knew about it because it was in the woodwork. I do not believe any savings will be made by the abolition of the agency. If the Minister wants to make savings, why does she not abolish the jobs for the boys and girls which were so flagrantly created alongside the establishment of unnecessary committees all over the place simply to give positions, remuneration and, perhaps, cars? What an example to show to the people. We treat ourselves with luxury and create new positions even as we humiliate the poor.
This is not the kind of behaviour I associate with the Minister. I do not intend to embarrass her personally because I am aware of her sterling qualities. I have long regarded her as a friend and she proved this by her generous gesture to me this evening. However, I would like her to take the message to the Government that those who support the Combat Poverty Agency, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority and the other agencies will not be silenced. I heard a person associated with the Government, a press spokeswoman, deriding those who tried to support the Combat Poverty Agency.
What will be the result of this? What was the point of the Combat Poverty Agency? It reported from areas of our life that are often not illuminated. Once again, it published a very fine report on the special impact of poverty on the gay community. That body is gone too. The new body is supposed to be independent, but can the Minister honestly tell the House that a combat poverty element that is subsumed into a Department will be in a position to provide independent material that could potentially be embarrassing to Government? Of course it could not, and that is why it is being introduced in such a way. The new body will be neutered.
This is all of a piece. I raised this matter on the Adjournment and was able to demonstrate that many of these organs established by Government became critical — I do not mean this in a negative fashion but rather that they exposed areas that needed to be exposed — and the Government then struck them down. One cannot escape the conclusion that this has happened because they may cause embarrassment. It is the political equivalent of the Denning judgment. Apparently the Government feels there are some vistas that are too appalling to be honestly confronted and for which it has no moral stomach.
In the very difficult times in which we find ourselves, this is not the approach that a decent Government would take. In a sense I am using the Minister — I hope not abusing her — to ask her to take this very strong message from this House and note the embarrassment of decent members of her party, which they will continue to show during this debate. I ask her to reconsider the matter.
Senator Dan Boyle: In the midst of a very despondent economic position, the Social Welfare Bill should be recognised as a significant treat in trying to meet the needs of the most impoverished in our society. This Bill proposes increases in social welfare payments that are significantly higher than the likely inflation rate next year. It gives further increases over and above the standard rate increase to identified categories, such as pensioners and carers.
There are special increases in the fuel allowance, which, in light of current crude oil prices, are more generous than was thought in the first instance. Given that we are to borrow just to meet our budget requirement in current expenditure —€4.7 billion — the ability of the Minister to secure increases for broad categories of our society is to be welcomed and this Bill is the means that helps to bring that about.
In the coming year there will be other issues that I am sure will take up the Minister’s time but that will need to be resolved. These include the position of lone parents and pensions. I look forward to further debates and other legislation that will consider these issues. As a statement of intent as to where the Government is while faced with the current global economic position, the increases achieved through the Social Welfare Bill are the best possible. There should be some acknowledgement of this. Although the increases are not ideal and do not lift people completely out of the poverty in which many people find themselves, nevertheless, they represent steps in the right direction and indicate a Government approach to this issue that recognises we are in a new reality and that those who need to be protected first and most are those affected by this legislation.
I will comment on Senator Norris’s contribution. I have gone on record in expressing my disappointment on the decision made on the Combat Poverty Agency, but I accept it is a Government decision that is given effect by this legislation. I would not put my concerns in the same way as Senator Norris, but the Minister, in taking this Bill through the other House and the other Stages to be faced here, might consider some of the issues being mentioned so that the new body that will operate within her Department takes on the best aspects of what the Combat Poverty Agency has represented.
We must consider rationalisation and fewer organisations. We must ensure the work done is carried out more effectively in future. I would like to see this unit within the Minister’s Department having a life somewhat different from a section of the Department and a semi-State agency. It could be a new type of life form in administrative terms. It would be within her Department’s budget but would have some identity that people would know the work is being done on behalf of the Minister and the Department, but that there is also other input, particularly from the social partnership process. I would like to see this unit interact with the social partners and investigate certain areas. The reports, after being made available to the Minister and the Department, could be made public.
Some indication of the name of the unit could also be helpful. There is an assumption that the office of social inclusion is taking over the Combat Poverty Agency. A new name which takes account of the Combat Poverty Agency’s past would help make the transition a bit easier; a possibility would be the poverty and social inclusion unit. The ability to initiate reports through the social partnership process and make them publicly available within a set time should be given by way of ministerial indication as a possible policy direction if it is not included in the Bill.
I am not sure if the following issues form part of the Bill or the process we should be discussing here. The Minister and her officials have been discussing the idea of the transition involving people who work with the Combat Poverty Agency. I have become aware of concerns about issues such as transfer of undertakings and people being maintained in the work they were engaged in. Indications on this will help the transition go well also. It will not be possible to achieve a complete fit and some savings will be made with certain grades where work is already being done within the Department. The expertise that has developed in the Combat Poverty Agency, particularly with regard to research, should be used to its full extent by the new unit.
I look forward to the other aspects of social welfare legislation that will come forward in the new year. Sadly, there are growing numbers of unemployed, although the Government has made some allowances for those additional numbers. The Minister is also providing for staffing needs within her Department to cope with these numbers. We need a medium-term plan that will recognise the sad reality that unemployment will increase to a level that we have not seen for several years and we need the means for dealing with that.
In another recent debate I floated the idea that we should perhaps look beyond the standard and straightforward social welfare payment of the jobseeker’s benefit or allowance. Perhaps there should be optional and top-up payments. Many of us who grew up in the 1980s realise the soullessness that accompanied unemployment and these extra payments could deal with meeting education and training needs or recognise work being done in the community. An optional top-up could be provided for people engaged in other work while unemployed.
We must think outside the box and more creatively about the sad reality that is ongoing unemployment. We must, first, offer people hope that there are paths to employment and, second, recognise their potential from their experience and ability in contributing to society and the economy in general. In supporting the Bill, I ask the Minister to consider how the policy direction of the Department might need to be moulded in the year ahead to face the current economic position, which many of us had not expected, at least not in the severity of its depth. I am confident that, given the Department’s ingenuity and the goodwill that exists for its ability to shape humane policies, we will see new and radical approaches.
Senator Phil Prendergast: I welcome the Minister to the House, although I concur with Senator Norris about her speech, which is quite difficult to read. I do not have a problem with my eyesight but it is difficult to follow the text.
The Bill is framed in the context of rapidly rising numbers seeking assistance to make ends meet. This factor is a sad reality for many people every day. Public representatives are getting constant calls from people who are in a desperate state. The Bill represents the Government’s plan for addressing lengthening dole queues, spiralling domestic debt and ever increasing rates of eviction and home repossession. People are facing an awful situation and they feel hopeless.
The legislation is the Government’s financial blueprint for living on low pay or a State pension, and for coping with disability and illness. Like so much of this Government’s approach to the financial crisis, however, it is inadequate, incoherent and short-sighted. For some, it will be the Government’s road map to poverty because the payment increases next year are meagre. Certain people will see their payments reduced and in some cases removed altogether.
While inflation is falling now and is likely to be lower next year, last year’s social welfare increases were swallowed up by inflation in the main spending areas for those on low incomes. Food inflation will be well ahead of what is likely to be an annual rate of close to 4% — if there is any food left that we can eat — and energy inflation will be almost treble that. Increases this year will not allow low-income households to make up the ground they lost last year.
This Bill cannot be viewed in isolation. It must be considered in the context of other provisions in the Finance Bill, which will cut real incomes for pensioners, working lone parents and lone parents with dependants over 18. It is likely to force people to seek welfare assistance that they might otherwise not have needed.
Thousands are in danger of slipping into poverty as a consequence of the measures contained in the Bill before us. Those in such danger face an array of problems. Some have serious debts, including those who paid enormous sums for relatively modest homes. They incurred these costs because of the Government’s failure to control the property boom. Such people will now have to wait for up to eight weeks for assistance, if they get any. While the Government was quick to respond to the needs of banks that lent so irresponsibly, it has not been so quick about putting in place a scheme to protect people from repossession. It is awful when one cannot offer any solace to people who attend constituency clinics with such problems. While Christmas is just a day, it is an emotive time. Nonetheless, we must look beyond Christmas to the realities of the new year. Normally at the start of a new year there is an element of hope and people often make resolutions to give up something. These people have nothing left to give up, however.
The money advice and budgeting service, MABS, has recorded a 30% increase in clients. Meanwhile, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is stretched to the limit in some parts of the country. Not only are we likely to see a spike in home repossessions and evictions, but those managing to keep a roof over their heads are having gas and electricity cut off. I do not think I am alone in encountering such problems at my clinics.
The failure to put in place a proper scheme to avert evictions and repossessions will be paid for by the social welfare system. Had the Government treated vulnerable people with the same urgency as the banks, the Minister could afford to be less austere. She cannot fail to be aware of the impending problems, however. By shifting 115 staff into social welfare offices and setting up a unit in her Department to process the backlog of claims, there is an acknowledgement that the issue is pertinent.
Last week, the Minister spoke of the Government’s work in combating poverty. She heralded the CSO figures showing a reduction in the numbers living in consistent poverty as a policy triumph, but that is incorrect. The percentage of people at risk of poverty is virtually unchanged at 16%. Older people are at an increased risk, up 4.3%, while older people living alone are now 5% more likely to fall into poverty, according to the CSO. Children make up almost 40% of those in consistent poverty.
While the Government has a strategic goal of reducing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012, this Bill means it is now a goal without a strategy. It would seem that the Government is hoping to cover up this fact. I cannot understand why the agency established to advise the Department on poverty is now to come under its direct control. It can sometimes be difficult to ascertain all aspects of issues that affect us, and it is a good idea, therefore, to have an independent body to clarify matters that we may overlook because there is so much happening. The Combat Poverty Agency provided a real acknowledgement of shortfalls, and the system could be tweaked to make people’s lives better. It was a terrific agency and I am sorry to see it being subsumed like this into the Office of Social Inclusion. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why these agencies were separate in the first place, if merging them will make no difference to their work. I would like the Minister to answer that point. In addition, she might spell out in detail how the agency’s work will be continued under her direct supervision. It appears the independence of the agency’s work in publicly identifying the extent and nature of poverty, and in increasing public awareness of the problem, will come to an end. It appears to be rather convenient when taken in the context of this Bill. The Minister has not allayed the suspicion of my colleague Deputy Róisín Shortall that the agency is, in effect, being abolished.
Senator Donie Cassidy: With the agreement of the House, I wish to propose that we extend our deliberations on Second Stage of the Bill until 7.45 p.m. and then review progress.
An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Fáiltím roimh an Aire agus, go mórmhór, an díospóireacht ilghabhálach a bhí againn go dtí seo. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuilimid ar aon aigne faoi staid eacnamaíochta na tíre i láthair na huaire agus na deacrachtaí a bheidh ann amach anseo. I welcome the Minister and compliment her on successfully negotiating her Department’s budget. I also compliment her departmental officials. It is evident from our debates on financial matters so far, that the Government’s policy of putting the most vulnerable people in society first, is still being maintained.
I thought that Senator Norris’s histrionics earlier were a little over the top. I have great regard for Senator Norris because he generally takes a stand on behalf of those who are less well off. It makes no sense, however, to suggest that a Minister who delivers a speech on her portfolio is, in some way, an instrument of somebody else. As Members of the Oireachtas, we understand the system as it operates in every single presentation to this House. I must therefore question why it was necessary for Senator Norris to do that. I know this point is not central to our debate but it is important to put that on the record.
Over the years, my experience of people in receipt of social welfare allowances is that many of them would prefer not to have to depend on such payments. We all know that the unemployed would prefer to work. It is a matter of human dignity but people often find themselves out of work through no fault of their own. We should start our debate on the basis of humanity. No matter how challenged an economy is, it is vital for us to ensure the dignity of the individual. That is the bottom line but in order to do that, other people may have to suffer. As I have said a number of times since the debate on financial legislation began, those who are able to pay should do so. I do not know whether that view is palatable, but I must make the point, which is in order to ensure that others can live in dignity. In light of financial developments and aspects of other legislation, the Government’s approach to ensuring that people can live in dignity has been to make cutbacks or savings in order that the most vulnerable can be looked after.
I am not able to make a case for or against the Combat Poverty Agency, CPA. While I am not familiar with what it has done, I am sure that its work has been great. I clearly recall that, when we were challenged economically, a number of people looked for a termination of many quangos. It is understandable that each termination will affect someone with an interest in the quango in question. Often, Departments can feel under pressure, but many aspects of the work would be better served and serviced by a Department. I will take up Senator Boyle’s point. While I am guessing, the Department will surely provide outreach assistance if necessary. As such, the good work done by the CPA in combating poverty, which is a matter of monitoring and looking after immediate needs more than it is just a question of money, will be carried out anyway.
I welcome the reference to pensions, a matter that I have discussed several times in the House. Where something is not mandatory, it can be difficult to get a young person of a certain age to focus on the idea of contributing to a pension fund that he or she will use 40 or 45 years later. However, I have personal experience of other situations. I am old enough to look back on a period of, for example, 25 or 30 years and I know people who, at the end of that period, regret having refused their employers’ offers. I look forward to the report. Despite other pressures, we should regard this as an immediate problem. In the final analysis, we must consider issues of this kind over the short and medium terms.
I will refer to a point I raised with the Minister in a different context, namely, the dignity of the individual. The Government should consider how to retain people who are upwards of 55 years of age and working on FÁS schemes until they reach retirement age.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has less than one minute remaining.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Many will attest to the fact that those people felt useful. Therapeutically, it was good for them to leave their homes each day and to have pride in their work. It has been calculated that the saving to the State is €30 per week. While the sum is €30 of €40, looking after people who will not enter mainstream employment but who have an essential role to play at community level would be radical, taking the bull by the horns and doing something exceptional. It would also maintain society’s morale. I hope the Minister will consider this matter.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence. The provisions on child benefit, fuel allowance and other social welfare benefits constitute relatively good news overall, given the days in which we are living, but this is not to say that certain areas do not need attention. Nor is it to say that each Senator could not make a passionate case for people whom they would like to see getting more or for taking from someone else’s pocket to help the vulnerable.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time has concluded.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: The Bill is necessary. Instead of using State assistance, we must all work in partnership to try to help those in need.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I welcome the Minister to the House. As someone who was made redundant ten years ago after working for the same company for more than 20 years, I am probably the only Senator who signed on for unemployment benefit. I received a statutory redundancy payment of approximately £6,000, a princely sum at the time. It is not a pleasant position in which to be, as one wonders where and whether one will be employed again and whether one will be able to pay the mortgage, educate one’s children and maintain one’s dignity. There is a feeling of hopelessness, which almost 300,000 people will feel this Christmas.
Asking thousands of people to wait eight or ten weeks or longer for their benefits to come through is disgraceful. People pay PRSI from the first day and week of work. When they become unemployed, the least that they can expect is to have their entitlements paid without delay. The Minister may inform the House that people can get interim payments from community welfare officers, CWOs, until their social welfare benefits come through, but it looks to the unemployed person like another layer of bureaucracy and another erosion of dignity.
Recently, I read with interest that people from other Departments are being drafted in to help streamline and accelerate the process. While this is welcome, will the Minister outline the current waiting time? It differs from location to location, but two to three weeks should be the norm, not the exception, for payments to be processed. The Minister must find herself in the position in question before she can understand the mixture of emotions through which the unemployed go. Senator Ó Murchú was right, in that it is a question of humanity, dignity and respect for people when they are vulnerable.
Several years ago, it was announced that CWOs would be brought under the ambit of the Department. Has the Government abandoned its position in this regard?
I would be the first to acknowledge the generous increases of recent years in social welfare benefits, particularly those paid to old age pensioners, but an increase of €6.50 in some social welfare benefits is miserly. The basic social welfare payment will increase from €197.80 to €204.30. If someone in receipt of this is also in receipt of rent allowance, the minimum payment will increase by €5, from €13 to €18. The actual increase in such a person’s social welfare payments is €1.50 per week. I have been approached by three to four people who are in that position. I do not believe the Minister is of the view that this is just and fair.
With more than 300,000 people expected to be on the live register in 2009, it is time to change the rules governing the back to education allowance. In the current climate, it would make far more sense to facilitate those who wish to return to third level education in the hope of improving their skills and employment prospects instead of their being obliged to give up or remain out of employment and claim jobseeker’s allowance in order to be eligible for the back to education allowance. By doubling the budget relating to the back to education allowance and extending its availability in the short term to the unemployed and to those who earn less than €12 per hour, the numbers who might take up the opportunity to return to education could be increased by in excess of 6,000. These people would be removed from the live register as a result.
Senator McFadden referred to energy poverty. There is a relationship between incomes, poor housing, energy poverty and adverse health problems. Poorer people spend more on energy because they live in energy-inefficient homes. Due to the fact that they spend so much on their energy needs, they cannot devote as much of their scarce resources to other necessities such as food, clothing and transport. In 2004-05, those on the lowest level of income spent, on average, 13% of their disposable incomes on energy, while higher earners spent only 1.7% of this part of their incomes on energy. When the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is obliged to devote €3.4 million of its scarce resources to people struggling to provide power to their houses, it brings home the message to everyone.
Senator Paul Bradford: I welcome the Minister. Most Members have a view on the Social Welfare Bill and a significant number want to contribute to the debate on it because they are familiar with constituents who avail of the services and payments provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs on a weekly basis. At a time of increasing unemployment, the position in this regard will be reinforced. Senator Cummins referred to the practical difficulties faced by people who have just lost their jobs. The Minister will be aware of recent evidence of delays in the processing of claims. I understand this issue is being addressed but there is a necessity for the Minister and her officials to monitor the position closely.
During the past 20 years, the Department of Social and Family Affairs — from an administrative perspective and through computerisation and other advances — has made progress in ensuring that people receive their social welfare entitlements at the earliest possible date. It must be our aim to ensure that those who are in need of unemployment assistance or benefit will have their claims expedited. Issues of this nature give rise to a great deal of annoyance. The State does not benefit financially from these delays, which are causing great difficulties for a number of people, because the individuals who are awaiting payment are usually in receipt of moneys from their community welfare officers.
The first issue to which I wish to refer in the context of the Bill is the carer’s allowance. I welcome the modest increases in the rates of payment. I welcome the ongoing improvements in respect of the income disregard and acknowledge the work done by the Minister’s predecessors — particularly the late Séamus Brennan — in this regard. The Bill deals with payments under the current scheme but there is a need for a substantial debate on carers and the financial parameters we have put in place in respect of these people who provide such a valuable community and social service.
The Minister for Health and Children is currently guiding the fair deal legislation through the Lower House. While I generally support the approach taken in that Bill, I still hold firmly to the view that we must try to ensure — whether it be through the fair deal, the social welfare system or the carer’s allowance and carer’s benefit schemes — that the maximum number of elderly people are allowed to remain in their homes and communities and in the care of their families.
It is not simply the financial aspect of this matter about which I am concerned, I am also concerned about the broader social aspect. I am interested in how we want our society to develop and how we intend to focus on the elderly. We could achieve a kind of nirvana where everyone would be entitled to a lovely comfortable bed — without being obliged to undergo any financial stress — in a local, community, district or nursing home facility. However, I do not believe we should aim for this. We should try to ensure that, in so far as is possible, the maximum number of people should be allowed to remain with their families and within their communities.
In light of the moderate budget relating to it, the carer’s allowance is a tremendous success in the context of allowing people to be cared for in the setting in which they would want this to happen. I hope the Minister will devote a great deal of attention in the next 12 months to the possibility of a significant and further relaxation in the income disregard. I do not have the figure to hand but a number of years ago I discussed this matter with the Minister’s predecessor, the late Séamus Brennan, and I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered at the time what would be the relatively low financial cost to the State of removing the means test in its entirety and paying the full rate of carer’s allowance to all those who provide full-time care and attention to people who require it. We are not discussing opening the floodgates because to receive carer’s allowance one must provide full-time care and attention to a person who requires it.
As already stated, I welcome the increases in the allowance and the income disregard. The Minister has already made her mark in many Departments. However, if she wishes to leave that mark on social policy and in the area of social engineering, she should give serious consideration to introducing a universal system or scheme for carer’s allowance that would encourage people to remain in their communities. There will be a need to return to and deal with this matter in more detail at some point in the future.
On PRSI payments and entitlements for self-employed payments, in recent weeks I received a number of queries from self-employed persons or their spouses who lodged claims for disability or unemployment benefit and who were extremely surprised that as a result of the class of social welfare contributions they pay, they are not eligible for full entitlements. I accept from where the Minister is coming in the context of her financial perspective. However, further examination must be given to the question of the entitlements of self-employed persons.
I congratulate the Department on the apparent progress it has made with regard to the retrospective payment of PRSI in respect of self-employed spouses. In general, and while it may sound sexist, such people are usually farmers’ wives. PRSI was introduced in respect of all farmers in the 1980s and 1990s. In general, their wives, who were vital components of farming enterprises and businesses, were advised that they need not pay PRSI and did not, therefore, enter the stream of PRSI coverage. Where it is clear a spouse has contributed in a meaningful manner to an enterprise or business, the Department is willing to consider retrospective PRSI payments. While the concept and principle is good, this requires a little more work in terms of details as claims are not being processed as quickly as one would wish.
Senator John Paul Phelan: I welcome the Minister to the House. I echo Senator Bradford’s sentiments in regard to the work being done by the Department in respect of pension provision for the spouses of the self-employed and, specifically, farmers’ wives, an issue which I raised in this House a number of years ago with the late Deputy Seamus Brennan when Minister for Social and Family Affairs, and one which he took on board. I am glad there is a constructive process underway in that regard.
I concur also with Senator Bradford’s remarks in regard to the carer’s allowance. This will be an even greater issue during the next couple of years in that children or carers previously in full-time employment and not in a position to provide their elderly relatives with necessary care and attention in the family home may in the future as a result of rising unemployment be in a position to do so. A particular issue which I believe the Government should have resolved during the period of the Celtic tiger is that of support and maintenance of carers, an issue which I have raised on a number of occasions. I believe society does not have enough regard for those people who opt to remove themselves from the workforce to care for a loved one.  There is, and has been for the past ten or 11 years, a considerable case to be made for the removal of the means test in respect of people providing such care and attention. I realise, given the current financial situation, this is not likely to happen in the immediate future. However, given that, as a result of that financial situation, people will be in a position to provide that full-time care at home, a further relaxation of the rules surrounding the allowance should be considered by the Minister and her Department.
I echo the comments of Senator Cummins in respect of the back to education allowance and the changes that could be usefully made in this area at a time of economic downturn. People are seriously considering further education opportunities in terms of “upskilling”, a word which, while I do not like to use, I understand its meaning. There is a strong case to be made for changes to the back to education allowance.
I wish to raise a couple of specific issues with the Minister. By and large, I welcome the Bill in terms of its extra provision for people on pensions and in respect of other specific categories. While there are some elements of good news in the Bill, as the Minister stated, it also provides for a number of cuts in various areas. In my time in the Oireachtas I have never seen, in either House, a speech produced in such a format as to make it almost illegible, a point also made earlier by Senator Norris.
While on the face of it, the €2 per week increase in the fuel allowance is to be welcomed, as Senator McFadden pointed out, this would not even cover the cost of a bail of briquettes. Also, the extension by two weeks of the period during which the allowance will be paid is, in my opinion, insufficient. While it is a tiny nudge in the right direction it is hardly fit to be termed a step in the right direction. Previous speakers, and Senator Cummins in particular, referred to the delays in assessing people for social welfare payments. I was recently presented with a case in respect of a 21 year old girl who, having worked for three years after she left full-time education, had to wait six months for the Department and, in particular the people with whom she was dealing, to process a social welfare payment. This is unacceptable, in particular at a time when, sadly, many more people will be seeking social welfare payments and unemployment assistance.
Perhaps the Minister will explain the reasoning behind the Government’s decision in respect of child benefit for 18 year olds. The Government has been pretty generous in the past ten years in terms of increases in respect of child benefit. It took the decision, understandably, that the best way to remove children and their families from poverty was to increase this payment. However, the Government this year proposes to remove 18 year olds from eligibility for child benefit. Perhaps the Minister will explain the reasoning behind this. At the same time the child care supplement, which is payable in respect of children at the other end of the scale, five year olds, has been cut in half. The Government made a political decision in the past couple of years to directly pay the parents of these children additional money in an effort to remove them from poverty, an understandable decision given that the mechanism for child benefit was already in place and this would allow the money go directly to families. However, it has rowed back on that decision, which does not make any sense from my point of view. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the position in this regard.
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin): Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí. At the outset, I apologise for the complete illegibility of the circulated speech which contains some good news which I would have liked Members to read. However, I appreciate that was impossible to do given the manner in which it was distributed. Judging by the contributions made, Members appear to have got the sense of everything contained in the legislation.
I found Senator Cummins’s contribution interesting. One rarely comes across a Member of either House of the Oireachtas who has had to sign on. It is a valuable insight to be able to give to the House. Equally, there are very few people who sign on and who end up in either House of the Oireachtas, having been elected by the people. I commend Senator Cummins on his success in turning his life around.
I noted, despite the variety of contributions, that there were some key issues on which Members focussed. The main issue of concern is that referred to by Senator Ó Murchú, namely, the dignity of the person. The concern of everyone in the Department of Social and Family Affairs in terms of our budgetary considerations is to support the dignity of people who find themselves in vulnerable situations, namely, the unemployed, the elderly, lone parents, carers and other people who find themselves dependent on the State. Protecting them in a financial way while protecting their dignity is a huge part of what we do.
The budget for the Department of Social and Family Affairs is €19.6 billion, which is an extraordinary amount out of a total budget of €55 billion to be expended next year. We are particularly conscious of the increasing number of people losing their jobs and having to sign on each week, many of whom would never have expected to become dependent on social welfare. We are conscious of the concern being expressed in respect of processing times. We do not want people to be left waiting for payments and for this reason 115 extra staff have been assigned to this area. Also, we have set up a specialised unit of 18 deciding officers who will do nothing else but make decisions in respect of claims. This is being done in an effort to speed up the processing of claims. We will keep this matter under review. Some offices around the country have received approval for five extra staff and others have received approval for one extra staff member. The processing times at some offices in respect of jobseeker’s benefit and the jobseeker’s allowance is good. In all cases the processing time for the jobseeker’s allowance is longer because eligibility for it is subject to means testing. Issues can arise about habitual residency in the case of many non-national applicants or about trying to check their bank records at home etc. Those issues can cause delays but, equally, delays in some offices have been unacceptable and, for that reason, we have tried to organise the allocation of extra staff.
The proposal regarding the Combat Poverty Agency is an issue of concern to many people. The agency will not be suppressed or subsumed into the Department. I firmly believe there is a real need for a far better unit than the existing one — the Office for Social Inclusion — but it has good staff and expertise. In bringing the two together we can ensure we have an enhanced unit that examines and highlights the issues, carries out and publishes research, and advises on Government policies.
The establishment of the Combat Poverty Agency in 1986, by the late Frank Cluskey, was an innovative measure. It has played a strong role, but in the meanwhile other mechanisms and structures have been put in place, the most valuable of which is social partnership in which the community and voluntary groups have an active, official role. We have a Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion. There are social inclusion units in each Department. My previous Department, the Department of Education and Science, came up with a scheme for disadvantaged schools, the DEIS — which has been discussed in this House many times — focusing on people in poverty and trying to lift them out of it. There are high level groups of Government officials and a range of different structures. It was opportune that more than a year ago it was decided to review the agency to determine where it could best fit and what would be its future.
Research will continue to be carried out and such research will be published because it is important it be made public, but both groups have a good history of commissioning and publishing research. I expect them to initiate research into issues that may not have been examined previously because it is important, from a policy point of view, that we would have evidence based policy to support what we are trying to do.
One of the areas in which they have been excellent is ensuring that the voice of poverty is heard and they have worked directly with people. That has meant that if there are 300 people at a social inclusion forum in Croke Park or one is attending a high level international meeting in Brussels, we have the direct participation of people experiencing poverty because the Combat Poverty Agency works with them and it does that very well. I will ensure that work continues as I consider that to be part of the brief of the new unit.
Senator Boyle asked about the name of the new unit. One might say the name of it is unimportant, but it is important because it must capture the work the unit will do. When I recently met the board of Combat Poverty Agency, subsequent to the decision, its members suggested that it might be a good idea in the preparatory six months prior to the establishment of the new integrated unit to examine and work together to determine what best will sum up its work. There has been great co-operation with the board and while, naturally, the staff are anxious about some issues, we are working through those with them. I am satisfied that by giving a six months period, which is what is built into the legislation, we will be able to support them and to ensure that we get a smooth transition and the type of the unit we all want. The aim of combating poverty will still remain as the overall aim of the new unit. There may not be a specific agency to do it, but combating poverty is the important objective.
The back to education allowance was the second issue raised by a number of Senators. One of the most encouraging features of the CSO figures published recently regarding the live register etc. — unfortunately, there are not that many encouraging figures — is a 24% increase in the participation rate in the back to education allowance. That is encouraging. The facilitators working in the Department’s local offices throughout the country do great work in making people aware of the opportunities available to them. I envisage that, not only through formal education at second level, further education and third level but also through increased participation on FÁS courses next year, we can target more people and support them through education, which is after all the best way out of poverty and the best way into employment.
Some Senators raised issues about the importance of the carer’s allowance and supporting pensioners, particularly through the fuel allowance. The €2 increase in the allowance, while welcome, paled in comparison to the welcome given by older people for the additional two weeks’ payment of the allowance. They appreciated that more than the increase in the amount of the allowance. It means that the fuel allowance will be given from the end of September to the end of March. It is designed to support its recipients as much as possible.
In regard to child benefit, in all other matters an 18 year old is considered an adult. Child benefit rates have been quite generous in recent years, but in the current economic climate when we have been trying to find savings it made sense to examine those areas where changes would not cause undue hardship to people whose families were in education or leaving education. In doing that, we found that more than 70% of students were under the age of 18 when they completed their leaving certificate. Another group of students would have reached the age of 18 in the few months leading up to their leaving certificate. Therefore, there is no danger of people dropping out of school because of a cut in child benefit payments. The figures I gave are based on those who did the leaving certificate this year. Others who are carrying on into further education and higher education will qualify for maintenance grants and can be supported in that way.
At the time the early childhood allowance was introduced it was a very generous scheme. One was paid for each quarter, in other words, if one’s child was not born until March, one received a payment for January and February and ended up receiving a payment before one’s child was born. If one’s child was six years of age in January, one ended up getting the payment for the three months in the quarter. A substantial saving is to be made by paying the allowance monthly. Although the compulsory school age is six years of age, only a small minority of children are not in school by the age of five and a half. Some children around the county are in school from the age of four. We will still look after the target group of families requiring child care.
Those are the key issues speakers mentioned. I accept other issues came up but I am conscious that the Seanad has a long list of issues to discuss tonight. I appreciate the time provided to facilitate the debate and its structure.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 20.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Daly, Mark.|
|de Búrca, Déirdre.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Kelly, Alan.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||White, Alex.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden.
Question declared carried.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 December 2008.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I apologise for not having copies of my script to distribute. I wanted to wait until the Dáil debate was well under way so I could make the script as up to date as possible. I wanted to give the House the opportunity to consider the circumstances as they obtained at lunchtime following discussions and the bilateral meetings that took place. I was at my last bilateral meeting this morning.
Our work this week is very important because we are approaching the meeting of the European Council on Thursday. Against this background, I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Seanad on the recently completed report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union. I want to give the House a completely up-to-date understanding of where we stand as we approach the European Council meeting. I do not often agree with the Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Kenny, but I believe what he said in the Dáil an hour ago was profoundly true. He was absolutely correct in stating we have reached a pivotal point in the relationship between Ireland and the European Union. We need to give considerable thought to where this leaves us. Deputy Kenny was also correct in reflecting the Taoiseach’s view that the period ahead is critical to the nation’s welfare. We have a choice to be at the heart of the European Union or at the periphery. I firmly believe the heart is where we will thrive. If we consign ourselves to being on the sidelines, either in reality or in the perception of others, we will suffer in a profound way. It is time we teased out this issue and discussed and understood what it means.
It is against this background that we must consider the work of the sub-committee, which has done absolutely sterling work. Its Chairman, Senator Pascal Donohoe, its Vice Chairman, Deputy Timmy Dooley, the members from both Houses and the many witnesses, amounting to more than 100, have worked extremely hard and carefully to produce a very important report to a very demanding deadline. As I stated in private to Senator Donohoe, my personal admiration for his work and the way the committee conducted itself is very high. The nature of the sub-committee’s work, the dedication of its members and the iron fist adopted by the Chairman certainly confounded many cynics who did not have the highest expectation for the sub-committee. It is appropriate that this be put on the record, irrespective of whether one is on the “Yes” or “No” side.
The report arises from the referendum result of 12 June. Following the vote, the Taoiseach explained to his European Council colleagues that Ireland would need time to seek to understand the concerns underlying the vote. We took a twin-track approach in our analysis of the referendum result. First, we set in train the Millward Brown study, with which we are all familiar, to examine the reasons for the vote. We went to great lengths to ensure the results were made available widely.
I attended the meeting to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Eurobarometer ten days ago in Paris and noted people’s extraordinary admiration for the report. It is regarded as one of the best reports on public attitudes to the European Union. It is not just a report on how Ireland feels about Europe but a report on how the Union relates to its citizens in the wider sense.
In the main, the survey findings tended to confirm what many of us probably felt underlay the vote, particularly the lack of understanding. There were some surprising elements, specifically the wider misapprehension about conscription. This began to emerge in the feedback from canvassers in the very final days of the campaign. I still believe very few of us calculated it would have such an impact.
Survey data and statistical analysis are important tools. As the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil, however, the Oireachtas itself is the natural forum in which to conduct a national conversation on Ireland’s future in the European Union. This challenge demanded the creation of a new forum within the Oireachtas, which was to meet in parallel with other committees. The agreement to set up an all-party committee reaching beyond party allegiance by including Independents to examine the issues that played a role in determining the referendum result was inspired. Both Houses agreed that the sub-committee was to carry out its work under four broad headings, namely, to analyse the challenges facing Ireland in the European Union; to consider Ireland’s future in the European Union; to make recommendations to enhance the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in EU affairs; and to consider measures to improve public understanding.
The work of the sub-committee, from its establishment right through to its vote on the final report, was carried out in as inclusive a manner as possible. It is important to recognise that. I was appalled by some of the mean-spirited, mean-minded and untruthful comments I just heard in the other House about people being excluded because of this process. I did not witness any such exclusion having watched the committee work on the report on most of the days it sat. It was a model of its kind. All the parties in the Oireachtas were represented, including those who campaigned against the treaty. Witnesses represented a very broad swathe of public opinion and represented both sides of the debate, as it should be. The sub-committee focused on hearing from witnesses who had particular knowledge of and expertise in European affairs, and this elevated its work. I was sorry, given the sub-committee’s inclusiveness, that it was not possible for all its members to agree on the final report. However, we suspected this might be the case from the outset.
As Members of this House know, the sub-committee was not mandated to recommend a solution in the wake of the referendum, nor did it do so. However, its work has really helped to condense the views that obtained and to focus on the areas to which we need to attend. That the sub-committee managed to report within an extraordinary timeframe was remarkable. It is a remarkable tribute to its Chairman, members and secretariat.
The report contains a finding similar to one in the survey reports, namely, that Ireland’s place is at the heart of Europe and that we should be contributing positively and deploying our influence carefully to promote our national interests. The report recognises that Ireland’s ability to contribute positively and defend its interests has been, at the least, impaired. Moreover, it recognises that very real, long-term damage to our interests will be done if we fail to address the present crisis in the near future. An important finding of the report is that damage done has been much more systemic than specific. While certain individual cases can be identified, the wholesale shift in the perception of Ireland is far more important in the longer term and far more damaging.
Since the sub-committee commenced its work, I had at least one bilateral meeting with every member state. During the course of those meetings, I took time to meet members of civil society, academics and media representatives, as I did this morning in Riga. It was extraordinary to note how the perception of Ireland is beginning to change. This is a very damaging trend. I am noting this because it is something we need to address. Rightly or wrongly, our partners abroad, whether they are on the investment boards of multinationals deciding where to invest in Europe, or foreign governments assessing how influential their friends are within the Union, perceive a change in our attitude. This is dangerous and comes with a cost. The sliding perception is not cost free. The sub-committee’s recommendations about our domestic approach make interesting reading. An Oireachtas sub-committee is uniquely positioned to analyse and comment on domestic practices and procedures.
Many of the sub-committee’s suggestions on the way we do our business in Ireland have important consequences for both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is a matter for both Houses of the Oireachtas to respond, and I hope the response will be positive. There is a clear sense running through the report that we need to reconsider the manner in which the Houses engage in Ireland’s EU business. Those words were a joy to my heart because that is a view I have held for a long time. We must drag our considerations of Europe into the light of public scrutiny so that the people can understand what is happening and see that their interests are being looked after.
Ultimately, it will be a matter for the Houses to decide on how to proceed, but I can assure Members of the Seanad that the Government’s approach in this matter will be one of an open mind. My personal approach will be one of enthusiastic support. The Minister for Foreign Affairs rightly described the report as the most sustained exploration of the issues surrounding our membership since we first joined the EEC 35 years ago.
I want to turn now to solutions and talk about where we find ourselves. Taken together, the independent research and the sub-committee’s report provide a very comprehensive overview and analysis of where we stand. A lack of understanding and comprehension of the most important of the issues that come forward needs to be addressed. I was startled at the suggestion in the other House earlier today that we are engaged in some form of token exercise in either this debate or this report, or indeed in the Government’s assessment of the current situation or the response we shall carry before the European Council next Thursday and Friday. That assessment, analysis or assertion is, of course, simply that, an assertion not based on any proof or objective truthful analysis. I suppose that approach is to be expected, particularly from Sinn Féin, but it is sad that people have closed minds on an issue that is so central to Ireland’s importance. Those making the charges ignore the reality that the Lisbon treaty represents a very finely balanced outcome on retracted negotiations. It represents an outcome in which individual member states gave and took and in which there was a balance where people surrendered positions in order to move ahead.
I need to emphasise to the Seanad, however, that we have a serious challenge ahead of us in the coming days. The outcome of this week’s summit remains uncertain. Some partners have made it clear to us that they have serious concerns. They point out to us that all member states made concessions and we had indicated we could reach agreement on the treaty, and that is true. Some gave a little and some gave much, making deeper concessions in the interests of reaching agreement, and that is also true. Therefore, where we do we stand today?
As I hope this House will understand, even at this late stage, mere days before the European Council, it is not possible for me to describe in detail the shape of the agreement that might be reached at the end of the week. However, the House is entitled to an honest assessment of where we are. The Taoiseach made our position clear after his meeting on Friday last with President Sarkozy. On the steps of the Élysée, he said, “Our first duty is the people of Ireland, and we intend discharging that duty conscientiously by allaying the concerns that we have identified.”
The sub-committee has helped us to identify those concerns. We accept also that Ireland has an obligation. Solidarity has been shown to Ireland in the past, and solidarity in the EU is a 27-way, not a one-way street. The Government is seeking legally reinforced guarantees in the area of sovereignty, taxation, social and ethical issues and defence as well as on the issue of a Commissioner per member state. We have made it clear to our social partners that the concerns in these areas have been expressed and that we shall have to address them in a manner that meets the concerns of Irish voters and is legally robust and sufficiently strong to meet any legal challenge. Having a series of legally binding agreements that are Ireland-specific should not cause other member states which have been through the ratification process any real concern if there is a willingness and goodwill to meet us more than half way. We recognise that some member states are reluctant to concede to the Government’s demand that every state should retain the right to appoint a Commissioner permanently. However, this is a key issue. The Taoiseach has made it clear that while we respect the views of others, this is an issue which this country sees as central, and one that we will be pressing.
Following a very intensive round of discussions, we believe this is an area where agreement can be achieved. Increasingly, the logic of our position has been put forcefully, and I believe it has been recognised. However, the Seanad is entitled to know that there are still member states that do not share our views, and so the work of converting them will continue right through the week up to Friday. The Lisbon treaty provides a mechanism to achieve this. What is necessary is a means of triggering the Lisbon mechanism when the treaty is ratified by all 27 member states, to continue the position whereby every member state will have the right to nominate a Commission member. The Lisbon mechanism, of course, can be operational only if the 27 member states ratify the treaty. One of the great ironies of the “No” vote on 12 June is that by rejecting the Lisbon treaty we locked the European Union into the Nice treaty process, which provides for a Commission of fewer than 27 Commissioners next year, a position that can be reversed only if Lisbon is ratified.
In the Dáil today there was talk of another referendum. We all recognise the constitutional realities that bind us in this matter. However, it is too early to talk about a date for a new referendum. The primary aim of the Government must be to ensure the concerns of the Irish people, as reflected in this report and in the result of 12 June, can be addressed. The Government can revisit the ratification process only if that happens. This is the appropriate and logical order in which to deal with the current impasse.
The Taoiseach has pointed out that we are in a work-in-progress phase at the moment — no decisions have been finally taken, as yet. We can commit to ratification of Lisbon only if the concerns of the Irish people are met by means of a legally robust set of mechanisms, and when the issue of the Commission is resolved. It is likely to take months of very detailed discussions to reach that point, after we reach the conclusions on Friday. The time for deciding on our ratification process is when the EU 26 and Ireland have agreed on a legally robust mechanism that meets the concerns of those who voted “No” in the last referendum.
The French Presidency view about the period ahead is worth noting. At the end of Friday’s meeting in the Élysée, the French Presidency spokesperson summed up the position, and said:
It is appropriate to put on record that the French Presidency has worked extraordinarily well with us to seek a solution to the current impasse. The French are sympathetic and have put all the might of the Presidency behind our efforts. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and I have engaged in intensive consultations with fellow members. In our discussions, we have sought to tread a delicate path between ensuring the concerns of the Irish people can be responded to, while not creating difficulties for others. This week will be a real test of the Union’s capacity to accommodate the needs of all member states. I remain hopeful — I am always an optimist — that the Union will pass the test and that we will find the path, although it is a very difficult path to define. It has to be defined, respecting the different views that exist within the Union. It will not be easy to secure agreement among our 26 partners on the final shape of any deal, but the Government is firmly committed to finding a way forward that meets everybody’s needs. All that said, I have been encouraged by the determination and commitment of others, in particular President Sarkozy and the French Presidency in helping us to find a way forward. There is a real desire on all sides to reach agreement this week and we shall do everything possible to achieve and deliver that ambition.
The report we are considering has helped to shape the response of Government and I believe it will help Ireland and her 26 partners to craft a solution to the current impasse that commends itself, not just to the European Council, but more importantly to the council that counts, the Irish people.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The report of the Oireachtas Joint Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union is to be welcomed as it comes at two critical junctures for the European Union. First, it occurs as all 27 member states decide on the Lisbon treaty, a document that is intended to update and reform the workings of the Union and bring Europe closer to its citizens. Second, from an Irish perspective, it comes at a time when Ireland faces fundamental questions about its position in Europe.
This year’s referendum on Lisbon showed an Ireland that is struggling to define itself and its relationship with the European Union. That struggle is predictable. All relationships face moments of redefinition, questions about whether to commit to a relationship or walk away from it, questions about what happens when the basis of the relationship changes and when old certainties disappear and are faced by new challenges.
Until now, Ireland’s role in the European Union has been one where our contributions — financial, economic and cultural — were less than the benefits. However, the growth of a new Ireland, with new links and identities, has changed how we view ourselves and our relationships. Now that we are moving from being a net beneficiary to a net contributor, we have begun to ask fundamental questions about the relationship, what we want from it, what we expect it to deliver and what costs we are willing to endure. Perhaps the Lisbon campaign, and what it revealed, is our coming of age.
Our party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, summed this up last month in a speech about Fine Gael’s view on Ireland’s relationship with Europe, when he spoke of the “disconnect” that now marks Ireland’s relationship with Europe. He said: “This disconnect, which runs deeper than the Lisbon treaty itself, is a major challenge for both the European Union and the national political system.” This disconnect is perhaps the most important feature revealed by the Lisbon referendum. It reflects an Ireland where Europe is no longer the paymaster, where it can no longer be told “Vote yes and get £8 billion.” We are moving from a relationship where we simply gained to one where we have responsibilities as well.
Politicians and people in Europe often presumed ordinary people in Ireland and elsewhere understood Europe, its goals, institutions and structures. What the referendum has shown is that the basic knowledge we all presumed was widespread does not exist, showing, as Brendan Halligan told the sub-committee, “We had not an information deficit, but a comprehension deficit.” This comprehension deficit in turn has demonstrated a disconnect that, if not faced up to, could become something more tragic, an alienation that would fuel Euroscepticism. Eurosceptics have been shown to be some of the most cynical and dishonest campaigners of all, willing to tell any lie, spin any mistruth, misquote any fact, doctor any document or push any falsehood to further their agenda. They do not care what hurt they cause our country or its interests. Their agenda takes precedence over everything, particularly the truth.
Fine Gael believes the people have a right to the truth. In Deputy Enda Kenny’s words, “We must persuade people that a reformed, democratic and efficient Europe is essential if we are to successfully meet the massive economic and political challenges we face, like the growth of the emerging economies, climate change, energy security and third world development.”
As proposed in the committee report, we want to see an increased role in the scrutiny of EU legislation for the Oireachtas. The European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002, as amended, could be further amended so as to permit a much wider range of measures to be subject to legislative scrutiny. Fine Gael suggests the scrutiny committee should have the power to require a Minister to attend before it prior to attending European Council meetings at which legislative proposals will be discussed, issue a recommendation to the Minister on foot of those proposals and seek a report from the Minister on the outcome of such discussions within a stated time. We believe this would be a crucial reform that would provide greater information for Oireachtas Members, the media and the public as a whole.
We also want to see the creation of an EU citizens’ officer for Ireland, who should in part fulfil the sort of role exercised in financial affairs in the State by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The functions of this office would be to provide a legal analysis of EU regulations and directives produced after the taking up of office, and for these analyses to be made publicly available; to publish an annual report on such legislation as well as the status of its transposition by the Government into Irish law; to provide services for the Irish public with regard to information on existing EU laws and institutions and to provide a feedback system for channelling difficulties emanating from EU laws for individual citizens; to make recommendations to the Government on all aspects of EU legislative development; and to compare the implementation in Ireland of EU laws with the implementation of such laws in other member states and make recommendations to the Government on the implementation processes and models, to include a look-back remit.
The desire of the Irish people for a guaranteed Commissioner must be facilitated and the Government must use its good offices to secure this. We oppose the Government’s opt-out from parts of the justice and home affairs areas as it limits our ability to use European links to fight crime.
Detailed clarifications, known as “decisions”, must be provided to reassure Irish people of the meaning of the treaty in areas such as taxation, neutrality, conscription and abortion. Voters expressed real fears about those areas. Those views were misplaced, but given that they were expressed they must be explored and answered.
In the long term, rather than continue with the same type of haphazard debates as we have currently over whether a constitutional amendment is needed in regard to the treaty, all treaties should be reviewed by the Supreme Court under a new procedure to see if they are constitutional. If anything in the treaty is not compatible with the Constitution and requires a referendum, the entire treaty should be put to the people. This would mean that instead of the current chaotic debates over whether some or other part of a treaty is constitutional, we would have a definitive ruling. However, this procedure should be initiated for later treaties, not the Lisbon treaty. It would be wrong to change the current procedure for this treaty.
I have mentioned the problems that have come to light with regard to the treaty, namely, our coming of age in the relationship with Europe, the disconnect felt by people and the comprehension deficit and I have put forward the proposals suggested by Fine Gael to correct those problems. I congratulate the committee on its work. It did a valuable service in providing people with a detailed source of information.
I must express some criticism of the lack of media coverage. Judging by the media coverage, one would think the only people to appear before the committee were Declan Ganley and Cóir. However, a large number of people appeared, academics, former diplomats, authors, journalists, former politicians, “No” campaigners, “Yes” campaigners and others. There was no lack of information, but unfortunately the major part of the committee’s work was not covered.
I commend the Chairman of the sub-committee, my colleague Senator Paschal Donohoe, who faced a difficult task, yet proved exceptional. A decade ago, the late Jim Mitchell earned widespread praise for his work in chairing the Committee of Public Accounts. It is fitting that Jim’s successor as Fine Gael candidate in Dublin Central, Senator Paschal Donohoe, has shown himself to have inherited Jim’s abilities in the Chair. We owe him and the committee a debt of gratitude for their sterling work.
I have deliberately decided not to deal in detail with the conclusions of the committee as I believe the Chairman of the committee should be afforded that opportunity. I look forward to his contribution later in the debate. The main conclusion of the sub-committee has been the lack of and loss of influence with our EU colleagues. Moreover, in speaking of his visit to Riga, the Minister of State has verified this point. The question of influence and our lack thereof as a result of the referendum must be addressed. While I do not know when another referendum will be held on the Lisbon treaty, it cannot be done until the issues Members have raised have been addressed by the Government.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union. As a member of that sub-committee, I am delighted that both Houses of the Oireachtas are debating this excellent report. It is excellent because in the short time available to the sub-committee, it managed to interview, interrogate and enter into discussion and dialogue with a wide range of actors who have an interest in the question of Ireland’s future in the European Union. This involved academics and experts in the areas of European law and general affairs, as well as activists, campaigners, representatives of non-governmental organisations and those who campaigned against the treaty or had strong views about Ireland’s future role within the European Union from a perspective that differed from some of the rest of us. Consequently, it was a highly fruitful and productive sub-committee. I congratulate and commend its Chairman, Senator Paschal Donohoe, on the excellent job he did in what were at times highly trying circumstances, as members were obliged to do a great deal of work within a short time.
The sub-committee was established by the Government as part of the process that followed the rejection of the Lisbon treaty by the Irish people in June 2008. When this happened, it was important the Government should in the first instance respect the views of the people, which I believe it did. However, at a political level there was concern about the possible consequences of that decision. It is clear to those who were involved in the discussions at a European level that a possible consequence for Ireland is that over time, it may become either semi-detached or possibly even completely detached from the European Union unless it keeps pace with the political developments and reforms that are supported by the governments of the other member states and which are contained within the Lisbon treaty.
Following on from the Millward Brown survey, which began by investigating and highlighting what were the issues of concern among samples of the public, the role of the sub-committee was broadened. It was to consider Ireland’s membership of, and future engagement with, the European Union. It was not to take anything for granted, as nothing can be taken for granted in respect of our future relationship with the European Union at present. The sub-committee also examined the current challenges facing Ireland and specifically considered the potential role both Houses of the Oireachtas could play in raising awareness of European issues as well as increasing the levels of information and knowledge among parliamentarians and the public on EU matters. The sub-committee’s brief also was to investigate what might constitute measures that would improve public understanding of the European Union, its institutions and how it functions.
As a member of the sub-committee, one issue that struck me most forcefully was that of Ireland’s influence. Many of those who appeared before the sub-committee spoke of how Ireland’s influence within the European Union’s institutions had been quite considerable, given its size, over the years. Although Ireland had managed to operate highly effectively within the institutions, such influence has dimmed considerably since our vote because other member states obviously have interpreted the Irish vote rejecting the Lisbon treaty as a vote that somehow rejected the issue of deeper European integration as well as the necessary reforms the other member states perceive to be within the Lisbon treaty.
Another important issue was that of perception. A number of representatives of multinationals and the general business community appeared before the sub-committee and spoke of the perception among international investors that Ireland was not at the heart of Europe and that our decision somehow has raised questions whether we are a core member of the Union in the minds of those who might invest or consider investing in Ireland in the future, as well as the importance of such a perception in the context of any decision to bring foreign direct investment to Ireland.
The issue of the European Union’s ongoing development also was raised and many important tasks lie ahead of it. From an internal point of view, one pertains to the issue of the social market economy that is described in the Lisbon treaty and which the European Union clearly has set out as the kind of model of economic development it intends to pursue and promote. All Members are aware there are many concerns at present, especially internationally, about the state of the global and European economies. While the concept of a social market economy certainly was important before the vote on the Lisbon treaty, it has become all the more important because it is clear to Irish people that the Irish economy is quite vulnerable. The European economy certainly faces many challenges and we must develop a model of economic progress that incorporates both the possibilities for new forms of economic growth and social protections in order that the workers and people of Europe will believe their membership of the European Union offers them something that will help them to prosper in an increasingly uncertain global economic environment.
Another issue pertained to the many benefits that have flowed to Ireland from the environmental and social legislation that has emerged from the European Union. In the workplace, Irish workers have benefited from the directives emanating from Europe on increased parental leave and protections for fixed-term and part-time workers, as well as the working time directive, which will set a maximum limit on the number of hours workers can work. All these measures are incredibly beneficial to Irish workers and the development of a social market economy obviously will consolidate and continue to develop such progressive social and employment policies.
There also was much mention of the possibilities for Ireland, within its membership of the European Union, to exercise global influence. The sub-committee discussed issues such as climate change, the challenges presented by the developing world, the provision of a fairer deal for developing world countries and the issue of human rights. Obviously, the European Union can play a part in trying to address many human rights issues worldwide. The sub-committee also discussed Ireland’s particular and unique contribution to the peacekeeping efforts of the European Union and its necessity.
It was made clear to members that there is a strong reason Ireland must take its present and future membership of the European Union very seriously. The sub-committee made a number of recommendations which, to a large extent, pertained to how Ireland can Europeanise its own institutions, including both Houses of the Oireachtas, in order that the Seanad and the Dáil would become much more involved in promoting greater public awareness of European issues and legislation emanating from the European institutions. One of the more interesting suggestions made by the sub-committee was that a permanent EU information service should be established in Ireland. It was envisaged this would be an institution or organisation that would operate as an impartial and authoritative source of information on European issues and affairs and which would be seen to be independent. This would be an important step to take and the Government should consider it. Regardless of the future of the Lisbon treaty, if we wish to re-engage citizens fully in the European project, such a step would be essential.
The sub-committee’s second recommendation pertained to how to provide Ireland’s Parliament with greater oversight of the legislation that emanates from the European institutions. It recommended a formal scrutiny reserve system such as that which applies in the United Kingdom’s Parliament. This would give the committees that specialise in European affairs in both Houses of the Oireachtas much greater control over new European legislation to which Ireland is signing up, particularly at ministerial level within the Council of Ministers.
We also looked at the role of the Seanad. I particularly liked the proposal from the sub-committee that we consider establishing a new panel involving five Senators who are appointed based on their expertise and experience in the area of European affairs. The Upper House certainly has the potential to make a considerable contribution to the levels of informed debate, both from the point of view of media and of raising public awareness of European issues.
We looked at the issue of Ireland’s defence policy and the importance of protecting our neutrality. We also referred in one of our recommendations to the issue of the triple lock. While many people see the triple lock as an important safeguard to ensure that there is strict control by the Government and the Dáil, and a UN mandate, on any participation by the Defence Forces in an EU mission abroad, we sought to strengthen that safeguard further by introducing what is called a super majority in the Dáil. Rather than a simple majority, which the Government of the day could automatically expect to have, we felt it was important that two thirds of the Members of the Dáil and Seanad would support any decision for Irish troops to participate in European military or defence missions abroad, whether in peacekeeping or in any of the other forms of missions which can be included under the Petersberg Tasks. This would be an important safeguard to build in and one that the sub-committee recommended.
We also felt that the issues of taxation would be important and that the Government, in its negotiations with our European partners, would need to look for significant reassurances in this area so that those who were reluctant to support the Lisbon treaty on the basis of their concerns about future Irish control over the setting of our taxation rates, particularly corporation taxation rates, could be reassured.
Obviously, the issue of the Commissioner is important, as are the issues of defence and neutrality, but the last issue I want to touch on here is socio-ethical in nature. We all will be aware that there were some sensitive social issues which caused concern to people and they need reassurance about them. The issue within this area about which I am concerned is that of workers’ rights. It is essential that the Government, in its negotiations with our European partners, makes clear that the kinds of reassurances and concessions being sought in the area of workers’ rights will be achieved. We need to look at the fact that one of the main areas of concern of those who voted against the Lisbon treaty was the issue of workers’ rights, that there was a widespread feeling that it would appear the fundamental market freedoms have begun to be privileged in European Court of Justice decisions over the rights of workers and that the interplay between legislation that exists at European level and national level often serves to undermine hard-won social protections, social legislation, wage agreements and agreements around working conditions at national level.
It is important that the posting of workers directive is looked at again by the European Commission because it is an incomplete directive. Some amendments must be made to it and the report produced by the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union has made clear recommendations about what needs to be done.
If the Government returns from its negotiations during the European Council Summit this week without having expressed that concern about the area of workers’ right, there will be a serious glaring omission in terms of the kind of package we are looking for from our European partners to reassure those who voted against the Lisbon treaty in June of this year that they need have no such concerns and that they can support any re-run of the Lisbon treaty referendum in the future without those concerns affecting their willingness to do so. That is my hope. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that issue.
Senator David Norris: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, back to the Chamber where he was once so comfortable and happy as a member of our little group here. There is no point in re-running the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign and I do not think the Minister of State did that. Once or twice he wobbled a bit because his tenses got a little confused or because of the way in which he expressed himself. He seemed to state on one occasion “if” the Lisbon treaty is ratified, then once or twice he stated “when” the Lisbon treaty is ratified. He hovered between optimism and anxiety, as we all have done.
Anybody who is concerned with the future of this country must be concerned about our place at the centre of Europe. We have played a distinguished role over the years. It is remarkable that we have a woman at the head of the European bureaucracy in Brussels. We have had very significant Commissioners. We really punched above our weight in Europe and I have always welcomed that.
I have been increasingly anxious. Although I have supported ultimately all the treaties we signed, I have been concerned about the incremental militarisation of the Union and that is the point at which I stuck. That is why I came out and opposed the Lisbon treaty. I was one of the first, if not the first, in this House to do so. My voice did not carry very far, although I am glad to say that some of my colleagues, who hovered nervously on the brink to see if I would be demolished by friendly or other fire and who, when they found that I had survived, took a jump themselves, may have had more persuasive voices from different angles.
I will review a couple of the issues and then get down to neutrality. First, there is the question of abortion. I am sure this will raise its head again. There was in the past a rather sly manoeuvre whereby the Irish people were out-manoeuvred by those who, when it suited them, talked about democracy, and a secret protocol was inserted into a previous treaty. At this point I am not arguing the merits of abortion, one way or the other. I am just as pro-life as anyone. I resent the colonisation of language that is represented by the take-over of these kinds of phrases. I am very much pro-life and my record will show that. As a tutor in Trinity College approximately one girl per year came to me, probably because she thought I would not be judgmental — that meant about ten during the ten years I was tutor — and I gave them information about non-directive counselling agencies. Nine of them did not have an abortion; one of them did. I think if that information had not been available, they all would have had an abortion. Mine was very much a pro-life stance but it has been misinterpreted.
This is a very complex area and I do not intend to get into it, except to say this. I very much hope if some such protocol is written in that it does not narrow or seek to narrow the already quite narrow judgments of the Supreme Court. It is important that we do not seek further to constrict. I will leave it at that.
Then there is the question of the Commissioner. There have been statements recently that we would get our own Commissioner. Why, out of all the 27 countries, should Ireland be the one to get a Commissioner?
Senator Terry Leyden: Everyone gets one.
Senator David Norris: That will mean 27 of them.
Senator Terry Leyden: Yes.
Senator David Norris: The Commission will be quite big. That reverses all the arguments. They are now on their head, and that is fine, but if we were the only one, ours would be put in charge of the tea-making committee.
Then there is the matter of the tax regime. The international financial system is now very volatile. Certainly, I could not predict what would happen with regard to that particular protection but I would point to the views expressed by Dr. Antoin Murphy of Trinity College Dublin — I referred to them in this House some time ago — that inevitably we would have to face what he described as a kind of black hole in the Irish economy. I hope that the present regime can be sustained. I will leave it at that.
With regard to neutrality, I have been concerned for a long time about the European armaments group, which has now coyly been renamed the European defence association. I wrote, but at a fairly late stage, to the committee asking that this should be considered and giving some outline arguments about it. I am not sure that this matter was addressed in any great detail.
In that regard, people have questioned the participation of Mr. Declan Ganley. He is a person of whose illustrious reputation I was completely unaware until the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign, in which he certainly took a spectacular part. People wondered why he did so. My suspicions about the European armaments group were confirmed when Mr. Ganley got involved in the campaign. Why would someone with apparent connections to the American munitions industry seek to undermine the European Union’s attempt to pass the Lisbon treaty? I believe there was a conflict of interest between the American munitions industry and the growth of a centralised munitions industry within the European Union which had the intention of manufacturing arms not only to equip our own forces but also to compete with the powerful military-industrial complex in the United States. For the first time, this group is being incorporated into the architecture of the EU. That is a step too far for me.
In the way it constantly changes its name and elements of its structure, the European armaments group reminds me of the AIDS virus. Our triple lock strategy plays the same role as the triple therapy. The disease remains but it is becoming chronic instead of fatal. It is a cancer at the heart of Europe.
I wish to refer to an excellent series of articles by Dr. Karen Devine, who is a post-doctoral fellow in Dublin City University. She outlined a history of neutrality dating back to Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian war, which was not a very happy example from our point of view. The island of Melos declared neutrality between Athens and Sparta but the Athenians invaded and massacred the populace of the island. That is a primitive example but for the sake of honesty I have to record facts that are uncomfortable for my case. In 1408, a French king declared neutrality in the disputes between the various popes who sat in Avignon and elsewhere. This was followed in America in the neutrality Act of 1794.
While we have been interested in neutrality for a long time, ours has never been a principled neutrality. Mr. de Valera’s neutrality was not at all principled. We all know that he would have sold out had he been given the Six Counties. It happened to be a wise choice but who knows whether it was deliberate given that his mind was opaque? However, the Irish people have a real commitment to neutrality and many of us were offended by the use of Shannon Airport not only for the transport of massive numbers of American troops, which the Government claimed was purely for monetary reasons, but also for the purpose of extraordinary rendition. Neutrality has been the most consistent reason given for voting against the Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties. I could stomach the earlier treaties but this one has gone too far, especially when I note the attempt to rebuff this argument by the distinguished Institute of European Affairs and Patrick Keatinge. I am amazed these people have the gall to claim that we bought the concept of common defence when it was first included in the Maastricht treaty in 1992. We raised the issue at the time but were told that our neutrality would not be compromised. Now we are told we have already signed up to common defence. That is what I mean by incremental militarism.
The best survey, the social and political attitudes survey, found that Irish people understand the term “neutrality” to mean non-involvement in wars, independence, impartiality, non-aggression, the primacy of the UN and UN peacekeeping and not supporting big powers. This is an active concept of neutrality.
Acting Chairman (Senator Kieran Phelan): Senator Norris has one minute remaining.
Senator David Norris: I hope it will be an expansive minute.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: So do we.
Senator David Norris: Fianna Fáil decided to be neutral in the Falklands war in order to get up Margaret Thatcher’s nose. That is a policy with which I am in complete sympathy.
The final article by this splendid woman, Dr. Devine, states:
Acting Chairman: I ask Senator Norris to conclude.
Senator David Norris: I will leave the final word to Henry Kissinger, who said: “No foreign policy — no matter how ingenious — has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.” Our position is not quite so extreme. However, my distinguished colleagues, Patrick Keatinge, Peadar Ó Bhroin and Ben Tonra, are anxious about the prospect of achieving Danish status. They claim that as an opt-out country, we will be left on the sidelines and that while we will be able to participate in discussions, we will not be able to vote. Their comments echo a French general who came here to tell us what to do. The Irish Times of Saturday, 29 November reported General Bentégeat as saying exactly the same thing. That tells us where they are coming from. I will campaign as vigorously as I can against this treaty unless we get an opt-out from participation in the military objectives of the European armaments group, rechristened the European Defence Agency.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I thank the Minister of State for giving of his time to discuss this report. It is timely that we are holding this discussion given the Taoiseach’s forthcoming meeting with the European Council. We have an opportunity to reflect on Ireland’s position on the non-ratification of the Lisbon treaty. I commend the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union and its Chairman, Senator Donohoe. I spent many evenings listening to their deliberations. I have not yet had time to examine the report in detail, although I have scanned through it.
A lot of thinking will be required on how we should express ourselves and reflect the concerns of the public. These concerns were thrashed out by members of the sub-committee in their discussions with the wide range of witnesses who appeared before them. The task ahead is huge but the people have spoken and we must accept their decision. I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate these issues in this Chamber because there is no better place to hold a debate on our connection with Europe. Every other month, we have a golden opportunity to discuss these issues. It has been suggested the Houses of the Oireachtas should spend more time on European matters, which I hope would lead the media to reflect on how Europe can be presented.
I have reflected on why the people said “No”. There is no doubt we came in too late to the campaign and were reacting to it. We were engaged in a defence mechanism and no matter how many times I tried to explain the issue of the Commissioner, it was no use.
People came up with the idea we had over-regulation, with which I would agree. I felt we were being dominated by Europe, particularly when directives came through. One would ask if we were able to thrash them out properly, have the final say in the matters or have the ultimate say in blocking some proposals coming from Brussels. I was never sure we were in that position. I hope that whatever proposals come from Brussels now, we in Ireland will decide whether we agree with them. We, rather than Europe, will speak for our people. Brussels will not speak for Ireland. That is a very important message to get out.
We are in control of our destiny in Ireland. We must link with the public and understand the issue. There is no doubt the public did not understand the treaty, and to be honest it took a while for me to grasp it. By the time I had, the public had already made up its mind. The concerns that we were over-regulated and that decisions were being made in Europe rather than in the Parliament in Ireland must be addressed. The public must be reassured that we are in control of our destiny.
If it is possible we and every other member state should retain a Commissioner. The public felt there would be no link between Ireland and Brussels if the Commissioner was taken away. There would have been no two-way process. We have an opportunity to indicate we will retain our Commissioner. We explained to the public that the Commissioner’s job was to speak to his brief rather than Ireland but that did not cut ice. The people took it that the Commissioner was speaking for them and he or she was their representative. We must clarify the matter and get the message out that our Commissioner will be the link. Perhaps we must give more power to the Commissioner in order that there will be a real link between Ireland and Brussels. That is important.
We spoke at length about neutrality. I tried to explain the triple lock mechanism to the public but it is gobbledegook to them, although it works in here. I know what the triple lock mechanism is and the reassurance it provides. One point we should get across is that there will be no dilution of our neutrality and a referendum will have to come about if there is to be a change in that policy. The point that there will be no European army must be reinforced.
I wish the Minister of State and the Taoiseach well in the challenges ahead. We must get the issue right, reflect the concerns and respect the Irish people. At this time the public is considering the issue again. We cannot impose anything on the people they do not like but they are ready to revisit the matter, particularly if there is less control from Brussels and more power for the Irish Parliament.
The Seanad provides a golden opportunity to debate these matters at length. We tried this in the last Seanad and there were visits from the various MEPs at different times. We should encourage a greater link between the European Parliament and the Seanad, although we may not be able to encourage such a connection with the other House. We have enough speakers to link the public to the issue and reach out to it.
We must ask the media to help us this time; it has not helped us yet. Whenever there is a debate in this Chamber on European affairs or reform of the Seanad with the aim of linking to Europe, we never get a line in the newspaper. That is a shame.
I wish the Minister of State well and wish every success to the Taoiseach. There is support for the Minister of State and the report of the sub-committee. I hope its recommendations will be dealt with in due time.
Senator Alex White: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. The sub-committee’s report provides and interesting and timely opportunity for us to revisit the issues we have previously discussed in the House. Like others, I do not want to repeat all the arguments in which we have engaged on the various occasions we have discussed the Lisbon treaty.
I welcome the report and congratulate Senator Pascal Donohoe on this extremely detailed and readable document. I took the opportunity to read the report and one of my colleagues said I did not need to read all of it. I thought I would do justice to the sub-committee and read the report, which is excellent and helpful to us in our deliberations.
It begins by placing this debate and the moment we are at in true terms. We cannot shirk from those terms, as they point to a choice that must be made by the Irish that is of enormous importance. It cannot be shirked by people on either side of the argument. Those of us who supported the “Yes” vote did not do so on the basis that we would not have liked to change some elements of the treaty. Anybody engaged in a political activity knows that an international treaty involving 27 governments will require compromise and elements that are not liked.
Those of us who argued for a “Yes” vote now have a choice as to how and in what circumstances we might revisit the question. It is a difficult choice because we know and respect the decision of the Irish people, which is the right action. Is it being suggested that we let the issue go? Those on the “No” side also have a choice to make, as I have repeatedly heard people almost pleading that they are as European as the next person. They believe in a strong Europe with Ireland at its heart but they do not like the treaty.
It is incumbent on all of us, including those who argued and voted against the treaty, to come forward not just with repetition and a rehashing of those aspects of the treaty they do not like but to help us point the way. The people should advocate how we can ensure that we are at the heart of Europe in future, particularly through a method other than what I term Lisbon plus. There should be some genuine accommodation of the obvious concerns that many Irish people have and had with the Lisbon treaty.
There are 26 other countries that propose to proceed on the substantial basis of what is in the Lisbon treaty. When this point was made before the referendum, it was referred to practically all the time as bullying. It is now a simple fact. There is a choice to be made. If the other 26 countries take the view that they are not prepared to slow progress to the pace Ireland might advocate following our decision in June, what can we say? We should be absolutely blunt. This is a choice between some form of real accommodation post-Lisbon treaty or, at a minimum, a semi-detached status for Ireland in the European Union. If I am wrong and there is a third realistic option, I would like to hear what it is. I do not just mean a theoretical option that someone might advocate. Out of courtesy to other colleagues who will contribute after me, I should say I have another commitment and must leave soon. However, I will read with interest any suggestions on a realistic third way, to coin a phrase, that may be open. The debate has been put in true terms by the sub-committee. It is no exaggeration for it to say, as it does in its report in paragraph 4 on page 3:
That latter point refers to the current extraordinarily serious global financial crisis. Our ability to participate not just in discussions but also in finding a way forward will unquestionably and self-evidently be affected if we go down the road advocated by some, which seems to be an almost unavoidable march towards isolation and exclusion from the possibility of being involved in decisions that will affect us. They will affect the planet on which we live and the environment we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. It is no exaggeration to put these matters in such grand terms because that is what the debate is about. It is a pity it was not conducted at that level during the referendum campaign and that it did not envisage these grand issues, including the future of the planet, because that is precisely what we are dealing with.
I listened carefully to Senator Norris and know that the report has set out the findings of the sub-committee reasonably faithfully. I also know that Senators Doherty and Mullen have had their dissent recorded at the back of it. I genuinely respect this and look forward to ascertaining the basis on which they both did so. Without referring to their dissent directly, much of what Senator Norris said and a lot of what I have read about some of the objections to what is contained in the Lisbon treaty has more to do with a fear about what might or could happen in the future than with what is actually contained in the treaty. Senator Norris gave the game away slightly when he said we were told something back in 1992 and it turned out to be something different. That is a legacy of a lack of self-confidence in our political culture. We have this notion that we want to halt them at the gates and hold them back because the best way to stop things from ever occurring is to ensure we have blocking constitutional mechanisms, whether they concern abortion or neutrality. None of these is affected in any way by the Lisbon treaty. People are talking about the possibility or worry that abortion might be introduced or that our neutrality might be affected, but these matters are not addressed in any way in the treaty. Without wishing to demean or insult the views of those who promote them, it seems to be almost like a Hallowe'en syndrome. It is as if there are ghosts and bogeymen all around who are going to come and get us.
Senator Rónán Mullen: The Senator should look behind him.
Senator Alex White: I can see the Senator is there. I genuinely believe that because in a sense people are predicating their political response on a fear which in most cases is not well founded. While I do not believe the question can be put to the people again in the same format, the question of our relationship with the European Union must be revisited. If it is bullying, I am sorry, but whether people like it our relationship with the Union will be mediated through the Lisbon treaty in some form and an accommodation will have to be reached.
While I agree with what Senator de Búrca said, I am concerned about one issue on which I hope the Minister of State will respond. He listed the items with which the Taoiseach and the Government were preoccupied and said it was seeking legally robust guarantees on sovereignty, taxation, social and ethical issues, defence and a Commissioner per member state. He did not mention workers’ rights. Senator de Búrca is right in stating the issue was high on the list of concerns expressed. Many Labour Party supporters and others have genuine concerns on this issue which will have to be addressed in an equally robust fashion as the other issues on the list. I respectfully ask the Minister of State to add it to the list that the Taoiseach will bring to Brussels on Thursday. If he does not have it on the list, it will not be possible to revisit the Lisbon treaty in the manner suggested.
Senator Terry Leyden: I welcome the Minister of State and his staff. I commend him on a well thought-out and comprehensive speech which brought us through today’s proceedings in the Dáil, including the speeches made by the Taoiseach and the Leader of the Opposition. This debate is a very worthwhile exercise. I commend Senator Alex White on his thoughtful contribution. I am sorry he did not have more airtime to put the views he expressed to the public because they deserve to be heard. I also commend Senator Donohoe, the Chairman of the sub-committee which produced the report. It was an honour for him and this House that a Senator chaired the sub-committee. The Vice Chairman was Deputy Dooley. It is unusual for a new Senator to have his report debated by both Houses of the Oireachtas on the one day. I know that the Taoiseach attended the Lower House specially to contribute to the debate. Senators Doherty and Mullen also made a major contribution to the debate at the sub-committee, thus making it more inclusive. No views were excluded from the discussions.
We appear to be making progress in finding a way forward for Ireland in the aftermath of the rejection of the Lisbon treaty by the electorate. The President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said today he was convinced that the European Council meeting on Thursday and Friday could respond to Ireland’s national concerns, while finding a European solution. I heard his speech tonight on the European television service and was impressed by his openness. It is a tribute to the work of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach who have travelled widely in recent weeks to put their views to their European counterparts. It appears almost certain that legally binding assurances will be negotiated to address these national concerns before the treaty is put to the electorate again in another referendum. In the light of these facts, the report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union is of vital importance in two ways. First, it identifies the issues on which the people would like assurances from the European Union and other member states. The sub-committee heard submissions from many stakeholders and experts and the recommendations in the report will be of significant use to the Taoiseach at the European Council meeting this week, as well as to our European diplomats and everyone involved in the discussions in the coming weeks.
The primary concerns appear to be maintaining control over direct taxation policy and that the State’s role in the provision of public services should continue to be a matter for each individual member state, as should policies in areas of social and ethical sensitivity. The sub-committee also concluded that, while it seems that the purpose of the Commission is sometimes misunderstood, it appears that having a Commissioner nominated by the Government is a matter of national sensitivity. It is also clear that the people have great pride in Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality and, therefore, it needs to be protected.
I was not particularly happy with one aspect of the treaty, namely, our loss of a Commissioner for five of every 15 years. This would have been too long, whereas expanding the Commission to comprise 27 Commissioners is reasonable and workable. When I was canvassing, I found this to be a considerable issue. The recommendations of the sub-committee on these matters are the result of in-depth discussions with a broad range of interested parties and must be given great weight in the coming weeks and months.
The sub-committee’s establishment was worthwhile and owes much to its effective chairmanship. Given how many people were invited to contribute, the television broadcasts were also worthwhile. The hearings of the sub-committee addressed some of the exaggerations, misrepresentations, half truths and untruths that were all too prominent during the Lisbon treaty campaign. I hope that putting on record and distributing the expert opinions heard by the sub-committee will serve to ensure that the next campaign, which I am sure will occur, is based on issues and not unjustified scaremongering.
The report concludes: “It is the view of the Sub-Committee that European matters do not play as prominent a role as they should in Irish politics, media or public discourse.” This is undoubtedly a reason for the confusion that reigned about some issues in the last campaign. As public representatives, we can all do our bit to ensure that the EU is given more coverage, which can only occur by allocating more time to discussing EU proposals in the Houses. The report recommends that both Houses, as well as the relevant committees, should play a much greater role in the scrutiny of EU policy.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, which is chaired by Deputy Perry and scrutinises all European legislation to a certain degree. Indeed, all Oireachtas committees study and scrutinise that legislation. Under the Lisbon reform treaty, however, the Oireachtas would have had greater involvement in and control over European legislation. For this reason, the treaty’s rejection in June was a blow to democracy.
I am also convinced that a referendum must and will be held. Due to the current crisis in the pigmeat sector, we are looking to Europe for financial support. However, our currency has been tarnished, our strength weakened and our position lessened in the EU. As a member of the Council of Europe, I regularly meet many members from other European states.
Acting Chairman: The Senator has one minute remaining.
Senator Terry Leyden: They are surprised and disappointed that a country that gained more from EU membership than any other rejected the referendum. At this critical stage, we can all make a great contribution to the country by voting “Yes” at the next referendum, thereby ensuring the acceptance of the Lisbon reform treaty, which will be amended by protocols to some extent.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I thank the Minister of State for attending the debate and my colleagues for their kind words about my role in the sub-committee. I was deeply honoured to have the opportunity to do the work and was privileged, not only to be chosen for the role by my party leader, but to have the report debated in both Houses. I place on record my deep gratitude for the work done by all members of the sub-committee. Their level of commitment to and intensity in discharging their work was marvellous. We were wonderfully supported and enabled by a secretariat and staff whose commitment to our work was second to none. I take this opportunity to add my appreciation to that of my colleagues regarding the secretariat’s work.
I will focus on the report’s two main points. I also will focus on an assessment of our current position and of where our country needs to move. Regarding the current attitude harboured by many on the “Yes” side, there is a lack of confidence in those who would seek to progress the issue and to articulate their reasons for doing so publicly. People such as myself and others who argued for the Lisbon treaty were beaten fairly and squarely, but losing elections, arguments and referendums is part of what politics is all about. Our desire to return to the fray and to ask the people to vote again is not a subversion of politics or an attempt to circumvent the will of the people, rather it is what parliamentary politics is all about.
The people spelled out their rejection of the Lisbon treaty. Their reasons were legitimate and acceptable because the people are sovereign. However, my role in the process is not diminished or challenged by my willingness as a politician to spell out the decision’s consequences and to ask the people to speak again. We need more confidence in asserting our role, a necessity spelled out in the report.
Four of the sub-committee’s terms of reference were important and we focused on a number of areas. Of most relevance to this debate is the question of where our country stands now in the short term and the long term. I wish to read into the record of the House the conclusion reached by the majority of the sub-committee’s members in adopting the report. We stated:
By making this statement, I am not seeking to bully or scare anyone, I am simply stating a fact, namely, that member states know that the challenges facing each nation state are greater than any one nation state, no matter how large, can handle on its own. They recognise that working together more efficiently is the way to address the situation.
Ireland must accept that the European model of development — democracy supported by a free market economy that recognises individuals’ human rights — is being challenged by other models and by events in Asia and the east of the Continent. Europe’s share of the global population and the world economy is declining. We must find ways to punch above our weight. The Lisbon treaty represents the best way for the EU to tackle this issue. The sub-committee’s report also points out that if we continue not to ratify the treaty, which is our democratic right, there is a strong possibility that other member states can find legal ways to move ahead without us. The consequences of this for Ireland would be very damaging.
In the context of where matters stand — I say this in sorrow rather than anger — I am extremely concerned that the mistakes made by those on the “Yes” side during the referendum campaign are being repeated. I point to two factors in this regard and I will address my comments to the Minister of State in particular in respect of them. The first factor is the Government’s relationship with other political parties, particularly those on the “Yes” side. It is a fact that every European Union ambassador, Foreign Minister or Prime Minister knows what Ireland wants. However, it is also a fact that the leader of my party, Deputy Kenny, and, I believe, the leader of the Labour Party, do not know what is the Government’s negotiating position or what it is seeking to deliver in detail.
While the Minister of State will need the agreement of other member states to support a new arrangement, he will also need the support of the other political parties in Ireland to deliver on that arrangement. Fine Gael has raised the issue of the opt-outs in justice and home affairs and the Labour Party has raised that of workers’ rights.
Acting Chairman: I must ask the Senator to conclude.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I appreciate that. However, I beg the Acting Chairman’s indulgence because I invested a great deal of time and effort into producing this report.
Acting Chairman: I accept that. I have no desire to cut the Senator off.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: It is strange that we should find ourselves in a position where legitimate issues that have been raised by the people whose support the Government will need in order to pass a referendum, should a second one take place, are not being recognised. This makes the campaign for a “Yes” vote extremely vulnerable.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the Minister of State represents a Government which has an 18% approval rating. That may change or it may not.
Acting Chairman: The Senator has now gone well over time.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I will conclude. My final point is that while the Government may be negotiating with other member states, it is not negotiating with the Irish people. The latter require straight answers with regard to the nature of the Government’s roadmap. It is fair to ask whether the Government proposes to hold another referendum. It is incumbent on this Administration to spell out the position in this regard now in order to provide leadership to the people. In the absence of that clarity, confusion will spread and those on the other side of the argument will be presented with a vacuum in which they will be able to put across their points.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House. I also thank Members for the comments they made in respect of the report, which, I hope, will move the debate forward. It is incumbent on the Government to recognise the serious concerns of those who want to support it with regard to its relationship with other members of the “Yes” campaign. It is vital that the Government act now to answer the simple and clear questions people wish to ask in order to ensure that the foundations are laid for a successful campaign in the future.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I welcome the Minister of State. I am grateful to the Government because it was on the initiative of the Minister for Foreign Affairs that I was appointed to the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union. I was appointed by my colleagues on the Independent Benches but this was at the request of the Minister. I was glad to take up my membership of the sub-committee, particularly in light of the importance of the issues involved. I was extremely sorry that I could not assent to the findings contained in the sub-committee’s report. It was not that I had intended to dissent from the outset nor was I dissatisfied with the way in which the committee was run. I take this opportunity to express my great thanks to Senator Donohoe for his excellent chairmanship of the sub-committee. I do not believe any other member of the sub-committee worked as hard as the Senator. I also wish to place on record my gratitude to the staff of the secretariat and the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs for their hard work.
I dissented because I do not believe that the final report provides a basis on which Ireland can move forward and negotiate a solution to its Lisbon problem. The report has many good aspects but the time constraints prevent me from discussing these in detail.
I approached the referendum on the Lisbon treaty and the work of the sub-committee from the perspective of one with a particular expertise and knowledge of people’s concerns in respect of social and ethical issues. Those concerns can be summed up by reference to a fear regarding competence creep on the part of the European Commission and its institutions and a certain judicial activism on the part of the European Court of Justice. No less a person than Roman Herzog, the former chairman of the German constitutional court, has been extremely critical of the European Court of Justice. It is important to make that point, particularly in the context of Senator Alex White’s concerns. It is not a question of people having groundless fears. As a lawyer, Senator Alex White will be aware that when one reads the text of a treaty, one does not merely examine what the words say — one also gives consideration to how those words might be interpreted in the future. This is important because what caused many people to vote “No” was not just what the Lisbon treaty or the Charter of Fundamental Rights might mean for the future but also that other existing treaties might be interpreted in the future, particularly in light of current experiences regarding how European institutions extend their competence into areas in respect of which they were not thought to enjoy such competence. I provided several examples of the latter — which went unrebutted — during the course of my work on the sub-committee.
It was not illogical, therefore, for people to vote against the treaty on the basis of more than just its mere contents. Even while people may be satisfied with the vast majority of decisions coming from Europe, the referendum was an opportunity for them to express their concerns with regard to certain aspects of the European project and the drift of decision making in particular areas at European level. We are all appreciative of the positive influence the EU has had on our lives.
I identified three areas of concern when considering issues regarding how European law is interpreted in instances where it appears to go beyond its area of competence. On decisions taken by Ireland regarding how matters operate at European level, I referred to the example of our failure to take a stand against the use of money from the EU’s common fund to finance embryo destructive research where it is legal in other member states. I also referred to stances taken at international fora by our Ministers and officials on matters that would impact on Ireland’s constitutional values in respect of sensitive issues. While our officials and politicians often fight the good fight, there have been numerous occasions on which they have failed to export our values at times when other countries were keen to export theirs.
It was extremely difficult to encourage the Government to accept that a difficulty exists with regard to how matters stand in respect of the EU and how some of its institutions operate. That is understandable because to accept that a problem exists is to imply that there had been failures up to now in instances where the Government was involved in negotiations at European level. It is always difficult to admit prior failures. Members of the sub-committee informed me privately that they agreed with the concerns being raised during our public meetings but that they could not allow the report to go there when it came to the final analysis. So be it.
As already stated, while the report provides a useful basis for considering a range of issues, it will fall to the Government, in its discussions at EU level, to delve into those areas the report was reluctant to investigate and to negotiate the necessary wriggle room for Ireland in the context of the social and ethical issues that are of concern to certain people. I am encouraged in this regard because it appears that the Government has got the message. It is not merely discussing abortion because this matter involves more than just that. People’s concerns relate to a range of issues that are socially sensitive, namely, marriage, the family and the question of who runs the education system. I provided examples at meetings of the sub-committee of how EU decision making is already impacting on those areas and I explained why it was likely to further impact on them in the future. I refer, in particular, to the scope of equality legislation and how it is interpreted in ways that tend to access all areas of national life.
On the reality of people’s concerns, I and others have been proposing that Ireland should determine its position in respect of the issues to which I refer. In extolling his pro-life credentials, Senator Norris proceeded to criticise the Maastricht protocol. I cannot understand why anyone would have a difficulty with Ireland reserving the right for its people to make decisions in respect of certain matters. The provision of a constitutional filter whereby Ireland would have the final say in respect of issues that are socially sensitive would involve enhanced subsidiarity and any democrat should agree with this.
The outcome of the Government’s negotiations will become apparent in the coming days. The test as to whether people like me can be “Yes” voters in the inevitable next Lisbon referendum is dependent upon the granting of substantial constitutional independence to Ireland, the establishment of a constitutional filter in our constitutional amendment and also upon whatever agreements are made with our European partners. It will have to be something substantial if it is to pass muster and it will have to be legally justicible. This is to allay not only the concerns of religious voters, but of people who are authentically democrats in that they want issues which are capable of being extremely divisive and undermining our harmonious life together ultimately to be decided by the Irish people, however they might decide them.
Quite apart from the legal solution, it is important that the Government moves to create trust among that section of the electorate which believes the Government has not in the past looked out for Ireland’s independence on sensitive social issues. Confidence is sapped by the Government’s inaction, for example, in the face of UCC’s controversial decision to carry out embryo destructive research or indeed by the banning of a perfectly innocuous organisation like Veritas from carrying out advertising. In addition to whatever legal solution is proposed, there needs to be a confidence building measure on the part of Government that will show the people, who are concerned about subsidiarity on these issues, that it does care and that what it is bringing home from the negotiations is something they can trust. Míle bhuíochas arís.
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has done a great deal of work on this issue during the past number of years. While it was not his fault the referendum was not passed, we must question why this was so. The former Taoiseach should take a considerable amount of the blame for not putting his full weight behind the issue.
I am long enough around to remember Ireland in the early 1970s and 1980s and what we have gained from Europe. There is no doubt but that Ireland has gained unbelievably from its membership of the EU during the past 30 years. Those of us who were members of local authorities know what Europe has meant to us in terms of improvements to our roads and water and sewerage systems throughout the country. Also, through our membership of the EU, we have become much more forward-thinking.
I listened with interest to many commentators on this issue, including Mr. Ganley and Mr. Ben Dunne who received great air time on Joe Duffy’s “Liveline” and on several other shows.  A point made by them is that Europe is being run by unelected and unaccountable people. I do not believe they have been challenged in this regard or on what type of Europe they want. When they say those running Europe are unelected and unaccountable, what exactly do they mean? Do they mean the Parliament should be running the show? When they speak of elected people, are they speaking of people elected solely to Europe? I believe we have a great system in Europe through the Commission, Council and Parliament, all of which provide for co-decision making.
The Joint Committee on EU Scrutiny visited Brussels a number of months ago and met with eight Commissioners who were open and frank in every regard, in particular in respect of the issues with which they were dealing in Europe. They were much more open than the Irish Government. I believe Mr. Ganley and Mr. Dunne should be questioned about the type of Europe they wish to see in the future.
The current crisis in our beef and pork industry was brought about by wrongdoing which would not have been discovered but for the controls put in place by Europe. We have Europe to thank for this, bad and all as the crisis will be for our economy, pig producers and people working in the industry. There are cowboys out there. However, the controls put in place by Europe has increased standards in Ireland and we must be thankful for that.
It will be difficult for the Government to re-run the referendum. While the people have spoken in this regard, I believe there has been a change of attitude since then. As Senator Donohoe stated, politicians must lead people in this regard. I do not believe that is what happened on the last occasion. We cannot drive people into Europe or drive them forward; we must lead by example and bring them with us. There is no other place for Ireland but in Europe, which is a 500 million people market and open economy. We have more to gain from being in rather than out of Europe.
I compliment Senator Donohoe and the sub-committee on its tremendous work in compiling this great report which lays a good foundation for the weeks ahead in terms of the direction in which we will go.
Senator Paul Bradford: I wish to say a brief few words in regard to the report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union and the broader theme of where we go from here. All members of the sub-committee and, in particular, Senator Donohoe, are to be praised for the enormous efforts they put into the work of the sub-committee. While there were a few highlights of the sub-committee’s work as far as the media was concerned, much of its work was done not behind closed doors, but away from the glare of the media and public attention. In that sense, the work of the sub-committee almost mirrors the project of the European Union in terms of its institutions. While Europe is open and transparent, much of what happens there, from a policy perspective, does not receive the political or media attention it deserves. This is one of the difficulties of trying to sell the concept of further European progress and co-operation. The vast majority of the hugely outstanding work done in what is called “project Europe” does not get the political attention it deserves.
My colleague, Senator Burke, mentioned the current crisis in the Irish food industry and its knock-on effect at European level. There is a certain irony in the fact that the agricultural community, the Minister and all of us must now turn to Brussels and to Europe to seek aid and support in our hour of desperate need. We are all aware of the widespread debate that took place a few short months ago with the farming organisations and the difficulty the Government, and all of us, had trying to sell to Irish farmers the concept of further European political progress. We must now, once again, call on Europe from an agricultural perspective to come to our aid at a time of grave national and economic need. I know that the Minister of State and his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, will not be found wanting in this regard.
The work of the sub-committee was difficult because a referendum was held and the people had spoken in this regard. One cannot change a result just because one does not like it or believes it is or may be fundamentally damaging for the country. There is little point in our saying the same question must be posed again. It is like saying that the 2007 general election must be re-run in the same constituencies with the same candidates. While some of us would wish that could be case, it will not happen. Certain amendments, clarifications and changes must take place.
The people who spoke out most strongly against the Lisbon treaty are in the majority. The “No” vote constituted a broad church. Many of them prefaced their comments by saying, “We fully support the European Union, we want Ireland to be a part of it, but...” and that led to questions. Europe will always be a package of measures and proposals and it will never be the perfect political project, but I know of no political project across the globe that has been as successful as the European Union and has the capacity to be even more successful in the years ahead.
The analysis as to why people voted “No” is interesting. I am sure future students of politics will study it in even greater detail. It was a broad spectrum coalition, all parts of which I respect, ranging from the far left to what some people call, even though I am not comfortable with the term, “the far right”. The issues which caused people such concern, namely, the abortion issue, workers’ rights, our Commissioner, etc., must be addressed. I was quite comfortable with the language, content and intent of the Lisbon treaty, as it was worded, but I must recognise that the majority of people were not. Therefore, it is important that we address those issues.
The whipping boy we allowed Europe to become has resulted in a perception that it is to blame for all ills. All Governments, domestically, take the credit for all good measures while Brussels gets the blame for bad proposals and bad measures. If we reflect on what we have been debating here on the margins of the political programmes in recent days, we have had two, if not three, discussions on the removal of cribs from stores and streets. That was not a European but a domestic decision. People are concerned about the question of changes in social law, such as civil unions, etc. The argument can be made that there is a certain degree of European perspective on that, but the Irish Government has brought forward such proposals, they have not been forced on anybody by the so-called planet Europe. Many of the causes as to why people voted “No” last June were domestic rather than European.
If we think back to last June and ask what went wrong, as happens in the political cycle of events, the Government was beginning the inevitable downturn all Governments face, the economy was beginning to slip downwards and the people were quite angry. On the other hand, we have accepted the mantra of blaming over-regulation, the wrong legislation and measures such as that which has resulted in Veritas experiencing difficulty in regard to religious advertising on television. Europe seems to get and take the blame for all those unrelated disconnected matters. That is why the task ahead for the Minister, his Government colleagues and all those who believe that the Lisbon treaty is not only good but important and essential for Ireland is a difficult one. It will be a long winding road and will not be an easy journey.
I respect how the Irish people voted in the referendum in June 2008. We cannot repeat the same question. The genuine concerns raised need to be addressed. We cannot demonise the people who voted “No” as they are in the majority of people and they had an entitlement to vote they way they did. Neither should we personalise the campaign because we made significant political figures of people who, in most cases, would not have been elected to a parish council. We should focus on the issues and remind people that what the Lisbon treaty offers is a continuation and a development of the project that has transformed this country and given everybody a new economic, social and political lease of life since 1973. We must accept the decision made last June but, collectively, try to work our way out of it and progress towards passing not an amended but a clarified version of a treaty, which is essential for our economic and social development.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the Report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union, particularly as it is now less than two days until the European Council meets in Brussels. It has been clear to us all along that the Government had no intention of addressing the concerns of the electorate about the Lisbon treaty and instead set itself on a course to re-run the referendum. At no point in the past six months did the Taoiseach even ask any EU leader to renegotiate the treaty, nor did the Government even consider the option of using the strong mandate it was given for the good of this country.
It is clear that later this week the Taoiseach will announce his intention to ignore the democratically expressed views of the electorate and hold a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty. It is also clear that he will be supported in this by the Green Party, the Labour Party and Fine Gael. I listened with interest to the Dáil debate on the report during which members of Fine Gael said that if they had their way, I would not have been involved in the subcommittee. I am glad that the same type of language has not been used in this House. I commend the chairperson of the committee, Senator Donohoe, on the way he conducted the meetings, although we disagreed on many occasions.
There is deep anger among the people at the arrogance of the Government and its mishandling of the current economic crisis, but this will be worsened if it pursues such a high handed, undemocratic course. The Irish people voted for a better deal and that deal should have been delivered by the Government. The almost 1 million people who rejected the Lisbon treaty and those who voted for it but respected the democratic outcome will make their views known in next year’s European elections.
The sub-committee provided the opportunity for a deep and meaningful engagement with the public on the direction of the European Union but instead it was a missed opportunity. Its report was always going to mirror the views of the Government, given the limited terms of reference and refusal to engage with wider public opinion to understand its views.
Speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Oireachtas sub-committee, I warned against the Government’s attempt to reshape the public debate on the Lisbon treaty away from the treaty to one on Ireland’s membership of the EU. I also emphasised that the debate must be led by members of the public and not politicians who are, as was clear from the referendum result, out of touch with ordinary people. Critically, we must use the outcome of this debate to inform and change Government policy on the EU that reflects the Irish people’s views on its future.
Sinn Féin took a constructive and positive role in the work the sub-committee. However, we made it clear from the outset that we would not be part of any sham to set aside the democratic wishes of the Irish electorate. Sinn Féin was concerned that it was the Government’s intention, with the support of the Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Green Party, to use this sub-committee as a space to prepare the groundwork for a re-run of Lisbon. We argued that the terms of reference were too restrictive and that the focus of the debate should be the future of the EU and Ireland’s role in shaping that future. The Government and the other parties rejected our proposals for more inclusive terms of reference.
The founding principles of EU were and must continue to be peace and prosperity. We want to see Ireland continue to play a central role in shaping the future of the EU in the interests of all its citizens. We are ambitious for what we, as a small member state, can achieve in the interest of all the people of the EU.
It is important to emphasise Sinn Féin’s view that Ireland’s place is at the heart of the European Union. We want the Irish Government and people to play a central role in shaping the future of the European Union. Our policy of critical engagement means supporting those aspects of EU policy and development that are good for Ireland and the EU while opposing and working to change those policies and developments that are not in our collective interests. For Sinn Féin that means changing the present course of the European Union. We want to move it away from the centralising, privatising and militarising direction it is currently taking, in favour of a more democratic, social and peaceful road, promoting prosperity and equality for all.
In addition to seeking broader terms of reference, Sinn Féin also wanted to see a proactive public engagement, and a debate that reflected the diversity of opinions on the European Union that were clearly evident during the referendum campaign. Unfortunately, neither of those things occurred. The sub-committee adopted a rigid and exclusive format, inviting witnesses to appear before the committee to be interrogated. The meetings were all held in Leinster House with limited public attendance and no avenue for meaningful public engagement.
Sinn Féin argued that the sub-committee should travel across the country and meet in different venues including public libraries, schools, universities, community centres and places of work. We argued that rather than the adversarial witness approach, the sessions should take the form of an ongoing dialogue. Unfortunately, all of those proposals were rejected. As a consequence, the sessions were on most occasions simply a rerun of the debates of the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign itself, involving many of the same well known public faces, with little new content.
Worse still was the incredible imbalance in the witnesses who attended the sub-committee. Of the more than 100 individuals who addressed it, only a handful of voices were critical of the Lisbon treaty. While some speakers or organisations did not adopt a formal position either way, the overwhelming majority of those who spoke at the committee were clearly in support of the treaty. Having excluded the general public and selected a panel of speakers that held the Government’s view, it is hardly surprising that the sub-committee’s official report merely confirmed the Government’s position. The report could have been written by any of the pro-Lisbon treaty parties on the committee without having to go through the charade of dozens of sessions over eight weeks.
Sinn Féin did not support the report produced by the sub-committee. Instead, we produced our own report, Majority View — Minority Report — The Future of the EU and Ireland’s role in shaping that future. The report sets out in detail the challenges facing Ireland and the EU and the mechanism we believe could have been used to address the concerns of the electorate on key issues such as maintaining our political strength, protecting neutrality, workers’ rights, public services and tax sovereignty. It is clear that those issues can only be addressed in a new treaty, which includes legally-binding protocols and not declarations or clarifications that are not worth the paper on which they are written.
In Sinn Féin’s view the Government and Opposition parties have abused the Oireachtas, cynically manipulating the sub-committee in order to set the ground for a rerun of the Lisbon treaty. In so doing they have done a great disservice to the Irish people and the European Union as a whole. The sub-committee could have provided an invaluable opportunity to open up a meaningful and wide-ranging debate on the future of the EU and Ireland’s place in that future. We could have extended the debate beyond the narrow confines of the Lisbon treaty, a treaty democratically rejected by the electorate, and created a vibrant and forward-looking dialogue on a broad range of policy issues. Instead, the Government closed down the debate. As a result, the sub-committee’s official report will add nothing either to our understanding of the EU, the Lisbon treaty or the various options that currently exist for the future of the EU. It is a missed opportunity.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I wish to raise a point of order about this session and future sessions on the matter. I completely disagree with Senator Doherty.
Senator Pearse Doherty: That is not a point of order.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: It will lead to a point of order.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I did not interrupt Senator Donohoe.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: Members should bear with me. None of the three members of the sub-committee, who had different views, had time to finish our contributions. We are the people who have been buried in the bowels——
Acting Chairman: That is not a point of order. It was agreed that spokespersons would have ten minutes and all other speakers seven minutes.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I just want to make the point——
Acting Chairman: I have been generous to speakers.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: ——that in future when we have such discussions, members of the sub-committee who put in the time should have the opportunity to make their points in the fullest possible way.
Acting Chairman: In fairness, it is up to the leaders to agree those issues.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): Because of the time constraints I will confine myself to commenting on each——
Acting Chairman: The debate must conclude by 10 p.m.
Deputy Dick Roche: I know. That is why I am trying to deal with the matter in a way that deals courteously with every contribution.
Senator Cummins referred to the discreditable tactics on the “No” side. I do not wish to single anyone out for a particular mention because every citizen in a democracy has an inalienable right to argue either side of any case. However, neither groups nor political parties have the right to distort the truth, mislead the public in a deliberate way nor to invent facts. Sadly, especially in the context of the previous speaker, that is precisely what we have seen in this country.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Which facts have we invented?
Acting Chairman: In fairness, the Minister of State should be allowed to conclude.
Deputy Dick Roche: Senator de Búrca——
Senator Pearse Doherty: Which facts have we invented in this speech?
Deputy Dick Roche: I will deal with Senator Doherty in a moment.
Acting Chairman: The Minister of State did not interrupt Senator Doherty.
Senator Pearse Doherty: The Minister of State is making accusations that are wild and unfounded. He cannot stand over them.
Acting Chairman: Senator Doherty.
Deputy Dick Roche: I wonder if I could have additional time due to the filibuster by Sinn Féin to stop democratic debate. It is so patently obvious.
Acting Chairman: The Minister of State should proceed.
Deputy Dick Roche: Senator de Búrca touched on a number of key issues, namely, defence, neutrality, taxation, social and ethical issues and the Commission. All of those issues are part of the negotiating brief. She and Senator Alex White also touched on the rights of workers. The first point that should be made is that the European Union has been one of the most positive sources of social legislation in Ireland, especially on the protection of workers. I am surprised that neither Senator de Búrca nor Senator Alex White mentioned that the Charter of Fundamental Rights is central to the course of progressing social Europe. The charter was one of the great things the European Trade Union Confederation wanted to achieve. Ireland has already extensive protection in those areas.
Senator Norris has an acute ear. It is interesting that he picked me up on using two different tenses. I used the word “if”, but had he been reading the script he would have seen that it was “if” as written by mathematicians. That is appropriate to the previous contribution.
Senator Rónán Mullen: “If” is not a tense, it is a mood.
Deputy Dick Roche: The point I was making is that if, and only if, we achieve legally binding arrangements on the issues outlined can we go back to the people. That is the point that is being made.
Senator Ormonde was absolutely correct when she said the will of the Irish people is supreme in this matter. Senator Alex White made a lucid contribution. He pointed to the situation that now faces Iceland where it appears that 80% of the population now look favourably towards Europe. He also made the fair point that every treaty involves give and take. It is only a peculiar minority that takes the view that “no surrender” is a good basis for going into any important treaty discussions. Senator White also made the point that the 26 other members states have rights too. Senator Leyden picked up on the same point.
Senator Donohoe talked about the lack of confidence on the “Yes” side. That is a good point. The “Yes” side was cowed, especially in the debate prior to the referendum. It was shouted down. When one tried to point out the truth that other countries were going to go ahead and ratify the Lisbon treaty, one was told that one was bullying. The reality is that the people who told that particular untruth are now oblivious to that issue. On whether the Government is committed to another referendum, the Senator must have missed the point, which is the one Senator Norris picked up. I said that if, and only if, one gets to a point where one has satisfied all of the concerns of the Irish people can one start talking about a date for another referendum. The constitutional reality is that if we are to ratify the Lisbon treaty, there must be another referendum. I made that point as far back as the McGill summer school earlier this year.
Senator Mullen made an important contribution. When he reads the words I have spoken into the record, and those of the Taoiseach, he will find great satisfaction in them. Specifically, what we are talking about is protecting sovereignty in areas such as social and ethical policy, taxation, defence and neutrality. That is not out of kilter in any way with European law. I advise anyone who is interested to examine how the German basic law enacted the provision to go into Europe. I referred to that elsewhere.
Senator Mullen also illustrated the problems of the referendum process. He made the point that if one asks a question one gets many different answers. I agree generally with the comments of Senators Burke and Bradford and I regret that I do not have time to go into them in detail. I would have believed that, from the point of view of Sinn Féin, “no surrender” was not a policy that had any attraction. I am amazed that those who advocated “no surrender” historically are not consigning that bankrupt policy, put on a pedestal by Sinn Féin, to the dusty annals of history. However, that is neither here nor there.
The Senator also stated he wants to see Ireland at the very centre of the European Union and I accept his bona fides in that regard. While Sinn Féin may have some ingenious Baldric-like plan to do this, the reality is that the Union is a construct of 27 sovereign member states and we cannot dictate to them how they should operate any more than they can dictate to us how we should operate. The intellectual dishonesty of the Sinn Féin viewpoint is demonstrated by the fact that, while Martin McGuinness extolled the virtues of the European project as a peace process in an excellent speech recently in Belfast, his colleagues in the South were, at the same time, talking about the European Union in completely different language.
Senator Pearse Doherty: In the report, we acknowledge the role of the European Union in terms of peace——
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Minister of State without interruption.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I ask the Senator to respect the Chair.
Deputy Dick Roche: Senator Doherty is stung by the truth.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I respect the Chair but I also respect the truth.
Deputy Dick Roche: Senator Doherty is stung by the truth. The reality is that, in a superb contribution——
Senator Pearse Doherty: The Minister should read the report.
Deputy Dick Roche: ——Martin McGuinness spoke about the European project as a peace process. The Senator’s colleagues who were knocking on the doors in Bray were talking about militarisation. The ultimate hypocrisy and dishonesty was in the final point of the Sinn Féin contribution tonight. Senator Doherty spoke about wanting to see Ireland at the heart of Europe. I may have lived in a parallel universe but I do not remember Sinn Féin ever advocating a “Yes” vote. I recall it opposing vigorously Ireland’s bid to join the European Union and opposing vigorously the Single European Act, the Maastricht treaty, the Amsterdam treaty and every other treaty, including the Lisbon and Nice treaties. None of the these treaties is perfect but the reality is that no international treaty ever is. However, honest politicians at least accept this reality. Senator Doherty may come into this House and posit that he or his party supports Ireland’s position in Europe but every Tom, Dick and Harry in the country knows Sinn Féin has opposed every single treaty tooth and nail. That is the reality.
I thank the contributors. Unfortunately time ran out and I did not have time to address some of the contributions in detail. Ireland is at a very pivotal point, as stated in the report and by many contributors. We must decide to stay with the European Union or decide to assign ourselves, somehow or other, to the sidelines. The latter decision would be a disaster for Ireland.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?
Senator Terry Leyden: At 10.30 tomorrow morning.
Senator Shane Ross: The matter I wish to raise is the need for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to provide substantial assistance to the people of Zimbabwe during the cholera epidemic. The Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, will be aware of this. This is the third time in 18 months I have raised this matter on the Adjournment. That is about the limit beyond which I am not allowed to go. Each time I raised the matter, the circumstances in Zimbabwe had become worse. Each time, I implored the Government to take some sort of direct and particularly powerful unilateral action to help to resolve the critical problem in Zimbabwe.
Many international surveys have found the Government has played an honourable role in this area. Be it openly or behind the scenes, we have done as much as we can as a small neutral country but, in the present circumstances, we could possibly do more. The Minister of State will be aware that circumstances in Zimbabwe have become even worse because of a cholera epidemic. The problem is exacerbated by the political and physical circumstances in the country. When a nation with a collapsed infrastructure is struck by disease, famine or any such disaster, it is almost impossible to resolve the problem or prevent the disease from spreading. Zimbabwe is quite noticeably not equipped to fight an epidemic of this sort. Cholera is a horrible disease.
Fortunately, in some cases cholera can be pretty easily remedied and cured. The tragedy of what is occurring in Zimbabwe is that the people are suffering from a disease that is attacking them very rapidly and which could be cured if the nation had the appropriate equipment and minerals. Medically one can sort out cholera pretty easily with water, salt and sugar, but the population literally does not have these products. I ask the Minister of State to use his good offices to ensure that the international community, particularly the European Union, of which he is so strong an advocate, will prove its worth by delivering the necessary materials to Zimbabwe. There is a case for delivering them against the wishes of the regime in the country, if necessary. The United States and United Kingdom both stated at the weekend that it has probably come to the point where we should force the Zimbabwean authorities to accept external aid and not hinder its delivery. Ireland could play a significant role in this regard.
Some 12,000 cases of cholera have been already reported and 500 are dead. The rate of death is increasing much more rapidly than is normal in a cholera epidemic because there is no equipment to prevent the spread of the disease. In addition, people are in such awful circumstances that they are eating cows that have been infected by anthrax. What the country needs is clean water, achievable through chlorination, and waste disposal mechanisms. The disease must be prevented from spreading to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique.
I do not know if the Minister of State knows that the political circumstances are worsening by the day in Zimbabwe. That the negotiations with the Opposition are over or are in deadlock means Mr. Mugabe still holds unfettered power. A very nasty incident took place on 3 December in which a group of 12 men, supposedly members of the Zimbabwean police force took away Ms Jestina Mukoko from her home. Nobody knows whether it was an abduction or an arrest. The men were armed and claimed to be policemen. There is much doubt about this because they left the scene in a car without number plates and Ms Mukoko has not been seen since. She is the president of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a project that monitors human rights in Zimbabwe. Her disappearance has caused great anxiety among members of Amnesty International, who are on the ground in the country monitoring a series of similar events that occurred recently. Ms Mukoko is certainly entitled to lawyers and access to the outside world. She is entitled to be told where she is being held. She is not the only such person in that trades unionists and others, in a country that is falling apart, have been arrested and taken away without anybody knowing what has happened to them.
I would like the Minister of State, if he can, to spell out whether the situation for him and this Government has changed sufficiently to ensure — not just because of the political tyranny that exists there, nor the total collapse of the economy where inflation is so severe that prices double every three days or because of the awful natural disasters which are attacking the country — that action is taken by the international community to see that the people of Zimbabwe are no longer subjected to this tyranny and that humanitarian aid is brought to them immediately.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I thank Senator Ross and I shall take up the last point first. The reality is that what Zimbabwe and its people need more than anything else is proper governance. That is a reality. The Senator also asked about the international community. I shall talk later about the specific financial provisions we are making. We and our European partners are using our influence to the fullest to press for urgently needed policy change in Zimbabwe, as the Senator will know. For example, EU foreign ministers at the General Affairs and External Relations Council yesterday extended the restrictive measures against the Administration of President Mugabe and his followers. There is a reality that we want to make certain that any measures taken strike a balance and do not worsen the lot of people who have suffered more than enough.
This is an ideal opportunity to emphasise again that the privations the people of Zimbabwe are suffering are not just a concern of Government but are a matter of general concern throughout this country. The Government certainly shares the widespread concern about the devastating impact of the recent cholera outbreak. As the House will be aware, cholera is a highly infectious intestinal disease spread by contaminated food and water. The tragedy, as Senator Ross has said, is that it is so easily contained. Zimbabwe is now facing an outbreak of unprecedented levels which has taken the lives of almost 600 people in recent months. Almost 14,000 have been treated for the disease and it is becoming a major problem in the adjoining territories. Basic service delivery systems in Zimbabwe have begun to collapse over the past eight weeks. Schools and hospitals are closing, patients cannot access health care and teachers, nurses and doctors have been unable to work. Urban water supplies are erratic or non-existent owing to weakened infrastructure.
The Government has been seriously concerned for a considerable time about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe and we have been responding consistently to the needs of the people. Ireland has been one of the largest international per capita donors to Zimbabwe this year. Since 2006 Ireland has provided €11 million in humanitarian aid directly to the people there. This has been mainly for food relief, school feeding programmes, health care provision and support to people displaced by government urban clearance programmes. It is delivered through non-governmental organisations.
In response to the worsening humanitarian situation, the Government is allocating €500,000 for the people of Zimbabwe, through the UN Emergency Response Fund, bringing total humanitarian funding to more than €3.3 million in 2008. The fund is operated by the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Zimbabwe and I am confident this is the best way to get aid to the people. We have also authorised GOAL to use €108,000 in money allocated to it by Irish Aid for emergencies to target the cholera outbreak. In addition to this emergency funding, since 2006 the Government has provided €7.2 million in funding for longer-term development through NGOs and missionaries. This assistance has been focused on improving the lives of people in Zimbabwe living with HIV and AIDS.
At the beginning of the cholera outbreak, a member of the Irish Aid rapid response corps was already in Zimbabwe working with UNICEF as a child protection officer. The rapid response corps was created to provide exactly this type of essential support to our key humanitarian partners in emergency situations.
I want to make a small point that is very much my own view. It is not just the international community but more specifically the community in Africa must react to what is happening in Zimbabwe. The regime in that country would not survive were it not receiving at least tacit support from neighbours and it is time that Africa spoke out in defence of its own people. It would produce a negative response were Europe to take the lead in that regard. Europe cannot do that without the people in Africa. There have been indications in recent days that there will be a reaction from some of the neighbouring countries, and I suspect the final point the Senator is making is that this stage has been reached.
I also share the Senator’s concern about Jestina Mukoko. That a person involved as a human rights defender can effectively disappear into thin air is yet another tragedy heaped on top of people who have suffered more than sufficient tragedies to date. The Senator can be assured, however, that both within the European Council and in terms of our own bilateral arrangements, we are concerned and share his concern for the people of a very troubled country.
Senator Shane Ross: I thank the Minister of State for his response which I know is genuine and sympathetic. I have a very specific question. Could he give me some assurance and comfort that the Government will make representations on behalf of Jestina Mukoko?
Deputy Dick Roche: I have said that I will make certain that the Minister and Department of Foreign Affairs are aware of the Senator’s concerns. I shall specifically draw their attention to that. I shall ask the Department to do what it normally does in these matters, which is anything that can possibly be done. We have earned some respect because of our capacity to deal with affairs in Africa and given that we have a colonial past and never have been a colonist. There is some respect there and we can bring the matter to the attention of our colleagues in Europe, who may be in a better position to resolve that specific item of concern. The Senator can be assured I shall pass on his concerns.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I call on the Minister for Education and Science to examine the Finn Valley college issue. The Stranorlar technical school, which was built in 1939 and opened in 1940, is the oldest County Donegal Vocational Educational Committee school today. The school was renamed in 2007 as the Finn Valley college, having previously been known as Stranorlar technical school. The Department of Education and Science granted approval in 2005 for the provision of a 3,452 sq. m. new school. Planning permission for the new site was granted in November 2006 at the County Donegal VEC site at Drumbo, Stranorlar.
The current school site is very compact, comprising 0.996 acres. Some of the prefabs on the current site have been in place for more than 20 years and are inadequate for meeting the school’s accommodation needs. As I did in March, I acknowledge the magnificent contribution of the school board of management, County Donegal VEC and especially the staff for their upkeep of the school’s facilities.
The proposed new school will be constructed on the VEC-owned site at Drumbo, Stranorlar, which is 6.79 acres. The proposed project will consist of the construction of a new school building with a floor area of 3,452 sq. m. to cater for the long-term projected enrolment of 325 students. The number of students enrolled this year is 261. The new school will comprise four general classrooms, two lecture rooms which are inter-connected, a specialist room, ancillary accommodation and a physical education hall. This issue has been ongoing for some time.
The school site is valued at approximately €1.5 million, but that may change in the current economic climate. It has been offered to the Department by the VEC. While the project was previously out for tender and tenders were received, their approval was sought by the VEC, but it was not forthcoming. On 4 June last, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, met a delegation from the school. I attended that meeting, as did a number of my Oireachtas colleagues. The meeting was productive and following it there was a subsequent meeting on 8 October between the chief executive of the VEC and his staff and staff of the Department.
In a letter from the Department of Education and Science on 18 November last, the chief executive of Donegal VEC was informed that the project would have to be reissued for tender. That may be good because we may be able to obtain a lower cost for the project given the different economic environment in which we find ourselves. Perhaps more contractors will be available to do the project or carry out the construction at a lower cost.
We accept the Department’s viewpoint on the matter and the VEC, staff, parents and pupils associated with the Finn Valley college now seek the re-advertising of the project for tender as quickly as possible, certainly within the first few months of 2009. It is a good time to go to tender as many contractors in Donegal would be able to carry out this project and there are advantages to that.
I welcome the fact that there is almost €600 million in the Department’s budget next year for building new projects. What we seek now is approval to proceed to tender again on this project. I hope the Minister of State has some good news on this.
Deputy Dick Roche: I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. I thank the Senator for raising the matter as I know this is something high on his list of priorities.
The Minister wants me to clarify that modernising facilities in our existing building stock, as well as responding to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth, is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.
The Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme to almost €600 million this year. The completion in 2008 of 67 large-scale projects at primary level and 19 projects at post-primary level will benefit more than 18,000 students. Construction work on 150 devolved projects will provide an additional 8,000 permanent places in existing primary schools. The Senator will be aware that in September the Minister announced a further tranche of 24 large-scale projects to progress to tender and construction.
This year has also seen a particular emphasis on the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas, with the construction of 26 new schools under the fast-track off-site construction programme. This is an enormous programme of work by any standards and while there will continue to be a focus on providing extra places in developing areas, the Department will also deliver improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation. The emphasis, however, will continue to be on new schools and extensions to provide additionality in rapidly developing areas. The programme will also enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme, but again with the focus on site requirements in rapidly developing areas.
With regard to Finn Valley college, this is a mixed vocational school with an enrolment of 245 pupils as of 30 September 2007. The school authority submitted an application to the Department for large-scale capital funding for a new school. In this regard, it has been agreed that accommodation should be provided to cater for a long-term projected enrolment of 325 pupils. The proposed new school for Finn Valley college has been assigned a band rating of 2.2 in accordance with the Department’s published criteria for prioritising large-scale capital projects.
The progress to construction of all large-scale building projects, including this project, depends on the funding available under the Department of Education and Science’s capital budget. This project will be considered in the context of the Department’s building programme for 2009. The Department was not in a position to allow the project to proceed in 2008 due to financial constraints. In addition, from February 2008, all publicly-funded capital works projects must use new forms of construction contracts. As a result, the project at Finn Valley College will have to be re-tendered when the Department is in a position to approve that.
The Minister is committed to the project for a new building at this school, funding permitting. Again, I thank the Senator for affording the Minister, through me, the opportunity to outline the current position to the House. I will bring the Senator’s specific points to the attention of the Minister.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on this matter and the Minister of State for being here to respond on behalf of the Department of Transport.
The matter I wish to raise concerns the general provision of public transport infrastructure in the Dublin region. I wish to ascertain the status of the many projects promised for the area. The most recent budget delivered by the Government successfully created the impression that the capital projects under the national development plan would not be affected by the economic climate and that the focus would be on examining current spending to find what efficiencies could be made there. In recent weeks a number of media reports and various comments have given rise to the impression that this is about to change. Therefore, I want the Minister for Transport to clarify the status of the transport projects currently promised for the Dublin region, particularly on the north side. Two projects in which I am interested are metro north and the provision of the BX and D lines for the Luas, which will extend the Luas lines to the north side and into Grangegorman to support the new planned DIT campus for that area.
The most recent public debate and discussion on this matter indicated that the timetable to which the Government had committed was unchanged. Will the Minister of State, on behalf of the Department of Transport, comment on whether there will be slippage in these projects in light of the current circumstances and, if that is the case, will he highlight the new timetables for these plans?
Leaving aside the obvious need for these two major projects in the Dublin area, I would make two points. First, in the debates we have had on the economy in recent weeks in the Seanad, the stance of the Government on European fiscal stimulus projects — a clumsy phrase — has shifted slightly. Originally, the Government said there was no need for a stimulus package in Ireland. Then it went on to state that the interest rate cuts the European Central Bank is giving is the stimulus package. However, the provision of the national development plan within the original timeframe would probably be the greatest stimulus package the economy could get. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would provide clarity and an update on the position in the House this evening.
The second reason I believe the update is needed is that many of the projects about which we are talking are due to be provided by public private partnerships. If the financial model of PPPs is to work, there must be liquidity and lending, because what we are doing is asking the private sector to take on board the risk the public sector is not in a position to take on. In light of the changed economic circumstances we are now in, it would be helpful if the Government would comment on whether the public private partnership projects it seeks to deliver for national public infrastructure are on track. In looking at the private markets and the big companies seeking to provide these projects, does the Department of Finance believe there is capacity within the private sector for these projects?
I note with great interest a statement made by Dublin City Council last night. While it had been relying on the public private partnership model to provide some much-needed public housing projects, it is beginning to shift from that position and now has expressed its belief that the requisite lending and liquidity is not in place to make that happen and, consequently, there is a need for it to shoulder more responsibility than it may have wished.
There is a great need from a transport perspective to deliver these projects and from an economic perspective, their value to our economy is clear. I welcome the Minister of State taking this opportunity to update the House on where matters stand at present and his provision to Members of a new timetable, if such exists, in light of the circumstances in which we all find ourselves.
Deputy Dick Roche: I am grateful to the Senator because this has provided me with an opportunity to fill myself in on the extraordinary progress that has been made in public transport. It is also remarkable that the public capital programme represents 5% of gross domestic product at present, which is among the highest, if not the highest in the European Union at present. This is not to say one would not wish to see more money invested in this regard.
I wish to advise the Chair that I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey. The Government continues to make a substantial investment in developing Ireland’s transport infrastructure. We undoubtedly face significant global economic challenges and action is being taken to reflect this reality. Incidentally, I agree with the Senator that this is a good time to make such an investment both from the perspective of Keynesian demand management and fiscal stimulus, and from a value for money perspective, which was a point made by an earlier speaker. However, in addressing these challenges, the Government has sought to ensure that the immediacy of current problems does not obscure or cause to be forgotten the prospects of a brighter future. It is conscious that such a loss of focus could be damaging to that brighter future if associated planning and structural changes needed to underpin our medium to longer-term economic prospects were neglected. It is for these reasons that the Government continues to provide significant funds to invest in upgrading our transport infrastructure. The recent budget provided almost €2.4 billion in Exchequer funding for Transport 21 in 2009, of which €917 million will be invested specifically in public transport.
The Minister for Transport’s priority for public transport is to deliver additional capacity across all modes as quickly as possible. Major projects, such as metro north, will be hugely important in providing the capacity to meet existing and increasing future demand for public transport in the greater Dublin area. Strong progress continues to be made on the roll-out of public transport projects under Transport 21. The two Luas extensions currently under construction in Dublin, to the docklands and Cherrywood, are on target for completion in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The railway order for the Luas extension to Citywest is in force and construction will begin shortly. I believe I noticed some hoarding being erected last week as I passed this site. Construction continues on the Midleton rail line and on phase 1 of the western rail corridor from Ennis to Athenry. Both of these projects will be completed during 2009. The Kildare route project is also advancing well. A number of new stations on the route already have been opened and the double-tracking of the line, which is highly important to increase capacity, is on schedule for completion in 2010. Phase 1 of the Navan rail line from Clonsilla to Dunboyne recently commenced construction and services are scheduled to commence in 2010. Detailed planning work continues on the DART underground project, with a target to lodge a railway order application in respect of the project towards the end of 2009.
Excellent progress continues to be made on the metro north project. The public private partnership, PPP, public procurement process is at an advanced stage, with the submission of tenders required by 6 February 2009. The planning process is continuing in parallel with the tender process. The Railway Procurement Agency submitted an application for a railway order to An Bord Pleanála in September last and an oral hearing will be held early in the new year. In January, the Government approved the funding structure for the metro north PPP, including an Exchequer provision for advance works ahead of the main PPP contract and a capital contribution during construction. This deals with an issue raised by the Senator, who discussed the issue of liquidity and capital availability. In accordance with the requirements of the Government decision on Transport 21, metro north will be submitted to the Government for a final decision on the project once the public procurement and statutory approval process have been completed. This is a requirement for all major projects costing over €500 million. The 2009 allocation for metro north will include provision for the start of enabling works in the second half of 2009.
The emerging preferred route for metro west was announced by the RPA in July 2007. The selected route alignment will connect Tallaght, Clondalkin, Liffey Valley and Blanchardstown and will connect with metro north at Metro Park, close to Dublin Airport. It will provide for integration with the Luas red line, the Kildare and Maynooth suburban rail lines and the Lucan Luas line. A further round of consultation is now under way to provide greater definition to the route, after which the RPA will proceed with the preparation of a railway order application. The RPA plans to apply for a railway order in 2009.
Earlier this year, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, mandated the RPA to proceed with the planning for the delivery of a Luas line from St. Stephen’s Green to Liffey Junction, using the old Broadstone railway alignment. It will not be possible to fully construct this line at the same time as construction of metro north because of the traffic management implications that would arise in the city centre. The RPA is developing a construction strategy for this line, in close co-operation with Dublin City Council, which includes use of metro north construction sites and recognises the traffic management requirements in the city centre. The Minister understands from the RPA that public consultation on the route options for the city centre to Liffey Junction part of the line has concluded and that the identification of a preferred route alignment is likely in the coming weeks. The RPA plans to apply for a railway order for the line in 2009.
The start and completion dates of Transport 21 projects, which have not yet commenced, will be determined by the outcome of the statutory approval and procurement processes and the funding allocation available during the current difficult economic climate. As I stated earlier, providing additional capacity on all modes is the investment priority of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, and major projects, such as metro north, will be hugely important in this regard.
I thank the Senator for staying in the Chamber until this late hour.
The Seanad adjourned at 10.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 December 2008.