Business of Seanad.
Order of Business.
Legal Services Ombudsman Bill 2008: Second Stage.
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages.
Middle East: Statements.
National Insulation Programme: Motion.
Schools Building Projects.
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10.30 a.m.
An Cathaoirleach: I have received notice from Senator Dominic Hannigan that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, he wishes to raise the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator David Norris of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Frances Fitzgerald of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Frances Fitzgerald of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Pearse Doherty of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Cecilia Keaveney of the following matter:
I regard the matters raised by the Senators as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment. I have selected Senators Hannigan, Norris and Fitzgerald and they will be taken at the conclusion of business. The remaining Senators may give notice on another day of the matters they wish to raise.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Before we begin with the Order of Business, I offer our sympathy to the family of the late Michael Howard, a former Fine Gael Senator who represented his party, his constituency and the country so well and with such great distinction. He was a hard-working, dedicated Member of this House, with whom I had the pleasure of serving for many years. I assure the leader of the Fine Gael Party in the House that we will facilitate any Member who wishes to attend the funeral with pairs from this side of the House. At the appropriate time and with the agreement of the Cathaoirleach, we will have expressions of sympathy in the House on his sad passing.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Legal Services (Ombudsman) Bill 2008 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, with spokespersons having ten minutes and all other Senators seven minutes and on which Senators may share time by agreement of the House; No. 2, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and to conclude not later than 4 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 3, statements on the Middle East, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2, but not earlier than 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, with Senators having seven minutes each; and No. 26, motion 33, Private Members’ motion re national insulation programme, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I extend the sympathy of the Fine Gael Party to the family of the late Senator Michael Howard. We will have an opportunity to speak in detail about him and pay tribute to him at a later date.
I wish to repeat a question I asked yesterday about the current banking crisis. Who in the Government knew what about the series of events that unfolded in Anglo Irish Bank and when did they know it? I am concerned about the drip-feed of information from the Government about what Ministers knew and when they knew it. We discovered yesterday that the Taoiseach knew last March, when he was the Minister for Finance, that shares in Anglo Irish Bank were changing hands. The drip-feed of information into the House is damaging Ireland’s international reputation and the Irish economy.
A number of questions arise on foot of the information we have most recently received. The Taoiseach says he does not know the identity of the ten people who have been bailed out, in effect, to the tune of €300 million. Yesterday, I spoke about the anger of the public about the existence of a golden circle. I assume the Taoiseach was telling the truth yesterday when he informed the other House that he does not know the identity of the people in question. Given that so much taxpayers’ money is involved, why does he not know who they are?
Senator Phil Prendergast: Who are they?
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: If he does not know, he should know. Perhaps he does know but will not come clean. It is a worrying scenario, especially as the taxpayer has to pick up a tab of €300 million as a consequence of the nationalisation of the bank. Information about this deal was not given to the Stock Exchange. The markets did not know about the deal. It cannot be anything other than damaging.
I appeal to the Government to deal with this issue of political accountability and openness. If the information we need is not put on the table at some point, this will drag on for many months. Senators on this side of the House want the international credibility of the Irish economy to be restored. That is especially critical for job creation. Yesterday’s announcement that 300 jobs are to be lost at Intel is an indication of how rapidly the situation is changing. We were told a few weeks ago that there would not be any job losses at Intel.
Senator Mary M. White: That is not correct.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: This is a terrible blow for those——
Senator Mary M. White: That is wrong.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is shocking that 300 families are to be confronted with unemployment. There needs to be a renewed focus on training that links in with the opportunities that will arise in the market. This is really important. The other day, I met a constituent who used to be an electrician. He told me he has done two training courses with FÁS, but the courses did not include any link with potential jobs or with industry. If FÁS is to continue to get money from the Government, it should give a commitment to provide relevant training and to help people who are unemployed to have a chance of getting back into the real economy. That is critical if people are to have some hope. Something has to be done to stop the crumbling of this country’s economic reputation. At this stage, the Government has to come clean on what it knows. I refer in particular to what the Taoiseach knows from his time as Minister for Finance.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I agree with many of the points made by Senator Fitzgerald. As I said yesterday, I am totally frustrated because I do not understand the Government’s strategy. The Government seems reluctant to do a fair deal with the social partners that could be accepted by the general population, even though it has an opportunity to do so. That possibility has been clearly rejected by the Government in the legislation that has been published this morning. The Bill in question will affect the rich and the poor. I do not know where the Government is going strategically.
When one considers how governments govern, one can choose to examine the tactics they employ. I do not understand why the Government has decided to put itself behind the 8-ball in protecting ten people who owe such a huge sum of money. If any large company is owed money by ten people, its proprietor is entitled and required to know who they are. I do not believe a legal impediment is preventing the Taoiseach from finding out the names of the people in this instance. Regardless of whether he should issue the names publicly, he has said he does not have the names. I do not know of anything that would legally prevent him from getting those names. Perhaps difficulties would arise if he wished to tell the public who these characters are. I am dealing with the issue. He has said he does not know who they are. That is wrong and unacceptable. I believe he should know. I also believe he should make the names known to the public. We should all hear who these people are.
I ask the Cathaoirleach and the Leader to use their good offices to deal with a completely different matter. This House has had many long discussions on the Good Friday Agreement and other Northern Ireland issues. This country has a long history of people who have moved from the world of the gun to the political world. I refer to Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, for example. The US Government is seeking the extradition of Seán Garland, who had a significant involvement in the drawing up of the Good Friday Agreement. He has rejected violence. He organised the first ceasefire. Many of us defended the Government’s position that the Good Friday Agreement should not apply to certain people, including those who killed Jerry McCabe in Adare. We had to bite our tongues when some of those people walked free. It seems ridiculous that the outgoing US Administration — I refer in particular to George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice — sought the extradition of Mr. Garland not on a charge like murder but on a trumped up charge of possibly having some involvement in the North Korean counterfeiting of American dollars. Mr. Garland, who is 74 years of age, is suffering from cancer and diabetes. He has moved down the road to the political world. I ask the Irish ambassador in Washington to contact the incoming US Administration, especially the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to demand that the request to extradite Seán Garland be dropped at this time.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear. Well said.
An Cathaoirleach: That is a matter for the courts. We have to respect the separation of powers.
Senator Alan Kelly: If our former colleague, Conor Cruise O’Brien, were still alive, he would justly say we are entering a second GUBU era. The current banking crisis is rolling on and on. People in banking circles are constantly telling us lies, in effect. It has to end now, in the interests of this House, the Oireachtas as a whole and the Government. If that does not happen, we might as well close the doors and give up. It cannot continue. As politicians, we have lost credibility, just as the markets have. In the current climate, who will invest in this country’s banks? Internationally, it would be seen as a form of madness to do so. The Labour Party opposed the bank bail-out and the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. We were right to do so. A month after the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank, we found out that the bank had received a loan of €7 billion from the Irish Life & Permanent group. We have now discovered that €300 million was made available to ten individuals, who cannot be named, as part of a “can’t lose” bet. Why can they not be named? I do not believe the legal advice that they cannot be named. Of course they can be named. We need to know who they are. There has to be transparency if we are to be able to look the public in the eye. It is absolutely ridiculous to suggest they cannot be named.
The Financial Regulator has stated that it believed initially this was all above board. However, it changed its mind when new information on these matters emerged. The information in question related especially to the manner in which loans were provided to fund some of the unwinding of the Quinn transactions. In effect, the staff of the regulator are saying they were told lies. To say that new information emerged is a coded way of saying that the original information was false. The regulator now has to investigate the lies it was told. An investigation is required under the Companies Acts because the market was not treated fairly. Those who engaged in such downright thievery need to be subject to the full justice of the law. It is as simple as that. If we, as public representatives, are not seen to be providing the legislation to do that, we might as well close the doors and go home. It is as simple as that.
The Government needs to answer a numbers of questions, all of which I do not propose to repeat at this point.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should ask some questions on the Order of Business.
Senator Alan Kelly: I am coming to that. A number of questions arise and they have been stated already. This Government must come out and state what it knew, when it knew it and how it was dealing with this issue. Were any members of the Cabinet aware of the €300 million that was being put into the bank? When were they aware of it and under what circumstances? If we do not have that information the public will continue to be cynical.
There is an excellent report in today’s Irish Examiner about accident and emergency services throughout the country. Last year, 16,000 people were waiting over 12 hours for accident and emergency treatment. If anyone here can read those figures and say the Health Service Executive is moving in the right direction in terms of its strategies for the centralisation of services, particularly the closing of regional and smaller hospitals, they must be losing their mind. The figures are scandalous.
Also, the HSE cannot explain the reason it does not have a strategy for the future of the ambulance services. In Thurles recently, an 87 year old woman was waiting three and a half hours for an ambulance. That is ridiculous. We are not going forward in this area. We are going backwards and the sooner the Minister holds up her hand and says, first, that we cannot fund the changes she is proposing and, second, they are not right, the better.
An Cathaoirleach: Some Senators who were here yesterday from the start of business failed to get an opportunity to speak on the Order of Business. I will call them now. I call Senator Coghlan——
Senator David Norris: On a point of order, that surely demonstrates a systemic failure in the Order of Business and one which you should address, a Chathaoirligh.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Senator should discuss it with his leader.
Senator David Norris: We get a backlog every day. These are matters that are supposed to be immediately and directly relevant but they may have lost their relevance. It is a failure of the system and I appeal to the Cathaoirleach to address it.
An Cathaoirleach: The only way we can overcome that is to put a time limit on speakers.
Senator Mary M. White: Hear, hear.
An Cathaoirleach: We can raise that issue with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to put a time limit——
Senator David Norris: No. The time could be extended properly and you could do what I suggested yesterday which was to have a rolling debate on the economy.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Sadly, as we have been hearing, there is no end to the revelations regarding badly behaving bankers. Yesterday evening we had another resignation of a chairman of one of the six covered institutions. Another has stoutly refused to resign and Members on all sides of the House agree there are several whose positions seem to be untenable. Sadly, the Government, which should have moral authority, apart from the legal back-up, appears to be helpless to stop this drip feed. We all believe it would be better in the national interest if it all came out now to get it over with, which would give us some hope of moving on.
I ask the Leader to outline the proposals regarding restructuring. We know about the bank guarantee, which we believe will have to be extended beyond 2010. We know about the recapitalisation. We are awaiting the legislation but what about the restructuring we were promised, particularly regarding Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide Building Society and Irish Life & Permanent now that we know of so much wrongdoing which has drip fed into the public domain?
I call for an apology to the public from the bankers. AIB has gone some way towards that with its advertisement recognising the commitment of taxpayers towards the recapitalisation and promising to work harder. That is a good first step but I would like the bankers to apologise, as they did in Britain to the Treasury Committee when they were grilled by MPs. They apologised for their part in the financial crisis that is affecting us all.
The regulatory authorities have failed to act decisively. It is as though they are happy for them to be dealt with piecemeal and for people to disappear so that we can forget about them but if they need new powers, which they have not said, they should tell us now and let us get on with it.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I want to raise two issues. The first is the publication today of the pensions levy legislation, also known as the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill. I appeal to the Leader to call on the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan, to ensure fairness and balance his policy in terms of getting the public finances back under control. The most basic route he could follow is to abandon that legislation, revert to the social partnership talks and have meaningful dialogue with all the social partners so they can find a partnership process to take us out of the current economic difficulties. The pension levy is not the way to go. We are penalising young gardaí, young nurses, young teachers and other people in the public service on lower incomes. As it was put to me last week by somebody working in the HSE, along with his wife, they cannot afford to save €300 a month but will be expected to pay that by virtue of legislation published today. These are good living, hard working, honest people who will have to take decisions to cut back on expenditure that goes towards extra curricular activities for their children. Expecting young, hard working families to make those sacrifices is a huge price to pay for any financial turmoil.
Second, I ask the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, to make a statement on the oil slick off the south coast. We were told initially over the weekend that 300 tonnes of oil were involved but it now appears it is more than 1,000 tonnes. The predictions by the Coast Guard and international maritime experts that the slick could reach the south coast within two weeks are worrying. It is a major concern for coastal communities that depend on the fishing industry and maritime tourism. I ask the Minister to conduct a risk assessment of the oil slick, ensure adequate resources are made available and that there is ministerial co-operation among colleagues to ensure organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy, harbour boards, port companies and local authorities are sufficiently equipped and well-informed to deal with this crisis if the need arises.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Yesterday, we had the serious revelation about the continuing strike at our local hospital, Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe. The HSE is trying to downgrade this hospital because it has let the issue go on for so long. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Harney, to intervene. There is extraordinary scaremongering going on on behalf of the HSE. The hospital employs over 700 people and the HSE is talking about closing wards and cancelling surgical procedures. We have no other hospital in the Athlone-south Roscommon area.
Senator Terry Leyden: Roscommon town.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Portiuncula Hospital provides a very important service for our area. The HSE’s trite comments on the news last night amounted to scaremongering and I ask the Leader to ensure the HSE intervenes, gets the people back to work and stops this silly carry on because that is all it is. It needs to speak to the people and resolve the issue because it is not a major issue.
I was shocked and horrified by the revelations about FÁS on “Prime Time” last night. The fact that three different social community groups were using the meals on wheels service to claim thousands of euro in funding going back to 2003 causes me to wonder about the way FÁS is being managed and audited. If this is happening in one town in the west, what is FÁS doing in the rest of the country? The Minister must come into the House and be accountable because the buck stops with her. There are young plumbers and electricians who cannot complete their apprenticeships. Funding must be provided to support those young people, not the waste that is going on throughout the country through these community employment schemes that are being badly managed. I ask that the Minister come into this House and be accountable for once and for all.
Senator Terry Leyden: I ask the Leader, Senator Cassidy, to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to the House to discuss how an early warning system might be established in co-operation with employers and organisations such as IBEC and ICTU to identify employers who are considering redundancies but who have not yet made a formal or public decision on the matter. The resources of the State could be made available by offering the assistance of the IDA, for example. I believe former senior officials, some of whom are linked to Members of this House and who have tremendous experience, would be available to assist in advising the State on whether it would be worthwhile taking an equity stake in some of those firms to preserve jobs at this critical time. The portfolio of the State is quite clear in respect of investing in the banks. However, there is a great case for investing in SR Technics, formerly a State-owned operation known as Team Aer Lingus. It seems logical to invest in a company of its quality and size located at Dublin Airport, servicing aeroplanes from airlines around the world. It is a great disappointment that a semi-State owned company, Aer Lingus, should transfer its business. This company is vital for the future of the industry and for airlines. We should be involved in a company that has an impeccable record of safety in servicing aeroplanes from Aer Lingus and other international airlines.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Terry Leyden: We should take equity stakes now in companies such as this because some of them will not survive. During very difficult periods in the 1980s we had Fóir Teoranta which invested in companies. There will be pain but in the future there will be gain. Some of those companies, such as Waterford Crystal, Dell, Ericsson and now Intel——
An Cathaoirleach: That depends on the Leader. The Senator has sought to have the Minister.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Talk to Cowen. Does the Senator not have a direct line to him?
Senator Terry Leyden: Through the Leader, I invite the Tánaiste——
An Cathaoirleach: Please. I ask Senators who refer to members of the Government, or to Members, to give them their proper title. I ask that respect be shown in this House. It is not in keeping with the standards of this House that people should refer to anybody by a surname.
Senator Terry Leyden: I make a reasonable point, namely, to invite the Tánaiste to this House in order that we might have a discussion on this matter. When Ericsson announced job losses in Dublin it had not informed the Government in advance of a possible closure or loss of jobs. This is a gravely serious situation. I was formerly in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I know its workings. This can be done and there is potential for the State to become involved in equity, as it was in the past. People say to me that we have taken equity in the banks, namely, quarter-shares in AIB and Bank of Ireland——
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has already said this.
Senator Terry Leyden: Why not take equity in companies that will provide and protect jobs and maintain the maximum number of jobs in the country?
Senator David Norris: I sympathise with the Cathaoirleach’s situation with regard to the Order of Business. I made a suggestion yesterday that received widespread support from both sides of the House, namely, that we should have a special rolling debate on the economy. The Leader replied this was something to be taken up with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I asked my representative on that committee several times to take up this matter. Will the Leader inform the House when the Committee on Procedure and Privileges last met? Has it met since Christmas? Has it met since last autumn? How efficient is it? When will it meet to take up this matter? I wish to have a date put on the record of the House so we may know this matter will be dealt with. That is the channel I was told to approach because there was no point proceeding unless the matter is dealt with in that fashion.
We are discussing the banking crisis again and I do not wish to speak for very long about it. It interests me that the regulator was satisfied in this matter by a response from lawyers who were operating in the interests of Anglo Irish Bank. I would have thought that showed a conflict of interest.
Senator Alan Kelly: Hear, hear.
Senator David Norris: It looks now as if the advice given was either wrong or corrupt. I wish to know something about the lawyers in question and their status, about the advice they gave, why they gave it and whether it was good, bad, indifferent, or, indeed, corrupt. We need a real debate on the economy.
Today we hear that Bord Gáis is moving into the provision of electricity. Everybody is delighted because there will be a drop in the charge for electricity. The Leader fought valiantly for this but I do not believe this is necessarily a good idea. In the short or medium term it may be, but why is Bord Gáis doing this? We are told this is competition. What kind of competition is it when the ESB has its hands tied behind its back? When it applies for a reduction it is not allowed have one.
Senator Mary M. White: That is not the case.
Senator David Norris: The gas board goes in instead. We are attacking the fundamentals on which the wellbeing of this State originated, with people such as Lemass and Whitaker and the establishment of the semi-State bodies, Bord na Móna, Bord Gáis, the ESB and so on. We were always told about competition. Senator Leyden is quite right. We privatised Aer Lingus. What happened? Now we do not service our own airlines. I and others warned about this. Eircom was flogged off to Tony O’Reilly who asset-stripped it and took all the benefit out of it.
An Cathaoirleach: Questions to the Leader.
Senator David Norris: He did not invest one penny in it and flogged it off to an Australian pension fund. Let us look at competition. I voted against the groceries order. We were told prices would go down but they went up. All was a matter of competition. Let us not bow down before this shibboleth.
I say to the Leader, with the greatest respect, that he is not Tommy Dando. There is no sunny side of this particular street so he should not give us a recital of all the good things that are happening. Let us wait until they happen and let us help them to happen by debating this.
I propose a change to the Order of Business.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s point is made.
Senator David Norris: We are to have statements on the Middle East. That is not what I requested. I asked for the passage of a motion that was passed unanimously a week ago by all members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It proposed a war crimes investigation into the situation in Gaza.
I will not press this vote if the Leader will be kind enough to give me an assurance that this will not replace that debate. I was informed that the motion has been sent by that committee as a message to both the Dáil and Seanad. There is no reason we should not pass it. I am trying to strengthen the hand of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I shall call a vote unless I get an undertaking from the Leader that we will have a debate about this specific matter, within a week, if possible. It will waste time but the motion was passed by all parties. Fianna Fáil supported it. The Department has no difficulty with it. I accepted amendments to it. I ask for that assurance. Otherwise I regret I shall waste another ten minutes by calling a vote.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Norris opposes the Order of Business. Is that what he said?
Senator David Norris: No, I beg the Cathaoirleach’s pardon and thank him for his assistance. I suggested that we take instead the motion in my name about the war crimes tribunal in Gaza.
An Cathaoirleach: Is it motion No. 32?
Senator David Norris: Yes, it is No. 32 which is the exact one passed by the committee.
An Cathaoirleach: On a point of clarification, the procedure for submitting motions from committee is that a copy of the motion is sent by the committee to the Leader’s office. It is then printed on the Order Paper in the Leader’s name. This motion was not submitted in that manner but has been included in the Private Members’ motion at Senator Norris’s request.
Senator Ivor Callely: I support my colleague Senator Terry Leyden with regard to SR Technics. I have deep concern about the future of that firm and for its 1,100 employees. There is a future for the company which has a tremendous track record. I spoke to the Tánaiste about this matter. My understanding is that there are a number of issues, one being the cost base. Any effort that relates to exploring joint ventures is worthy and should be pursued.
I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the taxi regulator the need for a comprehensive support programme to enhance the taxi industry. Some serious difficulties and issues are undermining the industry and there is an urgent need to put in place necessary and feasible measures to resolve the concerns of the taxi industry.
Yesterday I asked the Leader about the home insulation grant scheme. What is in place other than registration with Sustainable Energy Ireland, SEI, for availing of the scheme? Is there a process in place to administer the scheme? Have staff been allocated? How long will the process take for approval and for work to commence?
I ask the Leader to obtain clarity on these matters because the industry is at a standstill. The installers and operators are waiting for clarity. I am fearful this may take weeks. We must have immediate action and I ask the Leader to take the matter up with SEI and with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
The Opposition called today for the Taoiseach to come clean with regard to certain allegations and transactions that took place in the financial sector. The Taoiseach has come clean. He is——
An Cathaoirleach: Questions on the Order of Business, please. The Leader will reply to questions raised. It is a matter for him.
Senator Ivor Callely: The Taoiseach has answered questions.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Whose questions has he answered?
An Cathaoirleach: It is a matter for the Leader to reply to questions raised.
Senator Ivor Callely: It is wrong for mud-slinging to take place. We all know if one throws a certain amount of muck, some of it will stick. It is totally unfair.
An Cathaoirleach: The Leader will reply to the Order of Business.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is not mud-slinging but asking questions.
Senator Ivor Callely: The Taoiseach has been very honest, fair and open on this issue and we should give credit where it is due.
An Cathaoirleach: Will Senator Callely resume his seat please?
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I am intrigued by Senator Callely’s talking about mud-slinging.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator must ask a question of the Leader.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I am building up to the question and I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to contribute. I wish to raise a fundamental question. Does the Leader agree that the people have lost trust in the Government and are angry at the lack of leadership? I ask the Leader to bring the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, not to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party room, but to this House because it is high time we had political accountability in this and the other House. Who knows what? Who is in charge? Who has been in charge of the Financial Regulator for the past 12 years? The people are sick and tired of low standards in high places. It is time we put people in jail. That is not populism, it is reality. The Leader should come out to the streets of Cork South-Central with me any day of the week, where people are sick and tired of him and his cronies getting away with everything. That is genuine. The people are tired of Fianna Fáil and its cronyism and cosy cartels, and it should stop.
An Cathaoirleach: Please, the point is made.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Leader should show leadership by coming in here and demanding it stops rather than going out on the plinth or on local radio stations and talking out of both sides of his mouth, which he is good at doing.
Senator John Hanafin: This is dreadful.
An Cathaoirleach: Please.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: There is a golden circle running this country and the Members on the other side may shout in here all they want, but the people have seen through them, and it is about time they did.
An Cathaoirleach: We are dealing with questions to the Leader and if Senator Buttimer has asked his question he should resume his seat.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I have a final question. I have not spoke on the Order of Business for five days and I thank the Cathaoirleach for letting me in. May we have a debate with the Minister for Health and Children on the appalling accident and emergency waiting times. This morning’s Irish Examiner revealed that on average 43 patients had to wait more than 12 hours every day in 2008. The Minister for Health and Children should come in here to debate the allocation of resources in the Health Service Executive, whose managers were paid bonuses last week. It is not good enough. Let us bring the Minister in and get real answers.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: President Barack Obama ushered in a new era of hope, not just for America but, by extension, for the whole world. He talked about a new regime of diplomacy and one presumes he meant that to replace a regime of aggression. He talked about holding out a hand of friendship to other countries, including Iran, North Korea and so on. One has to consider the legacy the old regime gave us. In terms of the discussion on the economy — this is sometimes missed — the aggression that was part of America’s foreign policy has an echo in the economic crisis we are experiencing. The high expenditure and disruption of normal life and markets is part of the legacy.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: If one examines the position in Gaza, as has been touched on here, and the butchery of the Palestinians, one questions when Israel will be held accountable for its war crimes. Look at Guantanamo Bay and the replacement of the word “torture” with “rendition”. I place the case of Mr. Seán Garland against that background. I acknowledge the separation of powers and I will speak only on the political aspect of that case, which I am entitled to do in this House. Mr. Garland is 74 years old and he suffers from cancer and diabetes. He has been a strong supporter of the peace process on this island. I invite Members to think about that for a moment. In that context, against the background I have given and taking the political aspect of this case, we should speak immediately to the US ambassador and ask him to read President Obama’s inauguration speech in which he talked about a new era of diplomacy. The Garland case is not acceptable, correct or productive. The extradition request was signed by Condoleezza Rice, who was part of the old regime. There is an opportunity to extend the regime of diplomacy, friendship and holding out the hand in this very small case of Mr. Seán Garland. We should respond generously.
Senator David Norris: Well said.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I pick up on a point raised by Senators Callely and Leyden on SR Technics. There is a chance we can save jobs in that company and I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste will meet the unions tomorrow. I am also very concerned about the impact it will have not just on people who will lose their jobs but on apprenticeships. Some 15 apprentices who have been training for a number of years are in danger of losing their jobs. The same is true for many apprentices around the country who have a year or two left of their apprenticeships and as companies close, they are left in limbo. We need a debate on what we will do about apprentices nationwide and I ask the Leader to arrange that.
I wish to refer to the visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to Cuba on the 50th anniversary of the revolution there. It is also the tenth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Miami Five in Miami.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: These are trade unionists who have been held there for the past ten years. For the first 17 months they were in solitary confinement and visits by their families are being restricted. The Minister is interested in this case. I spoke to his office this morning requesting that while he is in Cuba he visit the families to show solidarity. I ask the Leader to use his offices to impress on the Minister the need to support these families. As Senator Ó Murchú said, we should make the US Government aware of our feelings on this matter and ask it, as called for by Amnesty International, to make visitation rights available to their families.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: I commend the Cathaoirleach, but I sympathise with him some mornings, on running the Order of Business, which is very difficult for him. Maybe it would be better if every speaker had three minutes to make his or her point instead of making Second Stage speeches after the leaders.
Senator Mary M. White: Hear, hear.
An Cathaoirleach: That is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
Senator Geraldine Feeney: It may help and everybody would get in if we stuck to such a rule. The point I rise to make has already been made briefly by Senator Hannigan. It relates to having a debate with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment on young trainee apprentices who find themselves in an unfortunate situation. There is not a town or village in this country that does not have a young carpenter, plumber, mechanic or whoever in training, some of them almost finished. I am delighted to see the ESB has undertaken to finish the training of some of the young electricians. However, there is a large cohort of trainees with nowhere to go. Their contracts with their employers have ceased because the contractors have no work. It appears to be a no-brainer that FÁS should take them on. They do not want to be on the dole. Can they not go back into FÁS and in some of its big workshops knock down walls, build them up again, hang doors, put on skirting boards and do whatever practical side of the training they would have done in the workforce? They are in limbo at present. If there was work abroad they could not go because they have no papers to say they are trained. It is time the Minister came in to open that debate.
Senator Eugene Regan: There is a headline in The Irish Times today, “Irish recovery plan provokes harsh criticism from Brussels”, the plan to restore its public finances and come within the 3% limit for Government deficits, which the Government submitted to Brussels. We have the highest public deficit in Europe at present. The Commission says the plan is unclear, underdeveloped and that the “sizeable cumulative fiscal consolidation objective”, which is presumably the language used by the Government, “is neither allocated to the revenue or expenditure side nor supported by measures”. It is a damning criticism because what it is really saying, in rather polite terms, is that the plan is simply wishful thinking by the Government. This comes from an authoritative and independent source, the European Commission. It confirms what Fine Gael has been saying for some time, that the Government has failed to set out a credible, fair and balanced plan for economic recovery.
We can talk about the banks and the importance of the banking sector to the Irish economy as the necessary building block for economic recovery but we also need a credible Government which, when confronted with problems in the banking sector, public finances or otherwise, can produce credible plans to solve those problems. What we have at present is a Government that is bereft of ideas and which, in the case of the Anglo Irish Bank nationalisation, did not disclose to the Houses the basis on which it made its decisions. It withheld information. When the Minister was in this House and when we were agreeing to the nationalisation plan, he did not disclose full information. That means he misled the House. It is important that the Minister return to this House, correct the record and disclose the full information. It is this type of behaviour by the Government which has destroyed its credibility. We have no chance with this Government of getting out of our current economic problems.
Senator Mary M. White: I welcome the statement by the chief executive of Bord Gáis that the company hopes to poach 500,000 consumers from the ESB and provide electricity at 12.5% cheaper rates. I have raised previously the matter of the outrageous costs charged by the ESB. I believe the ESB gets away with murder. There was reference this morning to SR Technics. Not only are the apprentices in trouble, but the staff in SR Technics have world class skills. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must come to this House urgently to spell out what will be done about reducing costs in Ireland.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Well done.
Senator Mary M. White: This issue is not just about Government but also about trade unions.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Well said.
Senator Mary M. White: In 2000, costs in Ireland and Germany were at the same level. By 2008, Irish costs were 20% higher than those in Germany. There is no mystery as to why SR Technics cannot continue in business. Sentiment about the Government taking equity in the company is nonsense until all partners in this country, including the social partners and the Government, get our costs in line with other European countries. We will continue to lose jobs until we get our costs right.
We are dominated at present by the news about the banks. It has taken over from everything. We must deal with that but also with the issue of how to bring our costs down to keep people in jobs. In 1986, Connie Doody and I started a business to create employment. I have first-hand experience of unemployment in the late 1980s in this country. In many areas there was actually 40% unemployment. I saw the demeanour of people when they came to us looking for jobs. They had no confidence. They were slouched over and had no self esteem. After a few months with a job they began to walk straight. They were self-confident and able to buy new clothes.
We must be optimistic for the future. Fianna Fáil got us out of that mess in the 1980s and I am confident it will get us out of this again.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: That is called revisionism.
Senator Mary M. White: However, the Tánaiste must come to the House and outline a plan, like any self-respecting business——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: She will be hard pressed.
Senator Mary M. White: ——as to how she plans to get the costs of doing business in Ireland parallel with costs in other countries.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I was impressed by Senator Mary White’s comments. I remember the 1980s. I recall being on the board of a hospital which received letters from the Government asking how many new jobs we could create. That is what got us into trouble — creating jobs that did not earn their way. We are facing a crisis and Senator Regan has referred to it. The criticism from the European Union today, which I warned about yesterday, is that we have an 11% Government deficit when the limit is 3%. It is the highest in Europe. We are in serious danger of losing our economic and financial independence. The problem is that we are talking about other things when we should be seriously focused on what Senator Regan mentioned, a credible plan that will get us out of this situation. Senator O’Toole spoke about this too. Let us not assume that it can be done easily. We must be careful to talk about ensuring our competitiveness, especially at a time when costs are so high.
I will refer to one instance which Senator Norris mentioned. It appears the energy regulator said ten years ago that, as we want more competition, the ESB must increase its prices to encourage more competition.
Senator David Norris: Madness.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I do not understand that. Then the ESB was forced to put its network out to tender. Who tendered for it but another State agency, Bord Gáis Éireann? It is now competing with the ESB. I do not understand the logic of stating that we want more competition to bring prices down but to encourage more competition we must put prices up, and then instructing the ESB to increase its prices. The danger is that the regulator is placing more importance on competition than on price.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Senator Feargal Quinn: We must find a way to solve this. The other matter relating to prices and costs that really worries me is the report today that the cost of private health care will increase dramatically by 25%. I read in this morning’s newspaper that the chief executive officer of the Beacon Medical Group said that our health insurance is too cheap and does not cover the cost of what is being provided. He and others are saying that the cost of private health care will have to increase by 25% at a time when the objective should be to bring costs down. We are told the reason for this is the co-location of hospitals. If that is the reason the cost of health care is increasing, the objective should be the opposite.
I am concerned we are not focusing on the objective. I am impressed by the remarks of Senator Regan. He might have been critical of the Government but we need a credible plan and I do not believe we are focused on that at present.
Senator John Hanafin: I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on energy. The previous two speakers referred to the cost of energy. That cost is costing us jobs. With oil at $37 a barrel and ancillary products such as gas similarly lower in price, there should be a significant reduction in the price of energy. This must happen as quickly as possible because jobs are being lost daily.
There must also be a debate on the banking situation. Unfortunately, the debate in this House has descended to becoming partisan. It is unfortunate because the Government is committed to doing what is necessary to uphold the banking sector and for no other reason but that it affects the economy. It is almost laughable to hear about Fianna Fáil builders, as if there were never any Fine Gael builders, and Fianna Fáil horse owners, as if there was never any——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The Government should govern.
Senator John Hanafin: ——Fine Gael horse racing people. Now there is a new group, Fianna Fáil bankers. It is ludicrous and ridiculous.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Come clean.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: It is; you are right.
Senator John Hanafin: The Government is doing what is necessary and correct. The Taoiseach is restricted in what he can say and do——
An Cathaoirleach: If Senator Buttimer is not going to let people speak, he may leave the room.
Senator John Hanafin: ——because the Director of Corporate Enforcement is dealing with the issue and he must abide by the law.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: One can run but one cannot hide.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, to the House to discuss a matter of extraordinary seriousness? The fact that the insulation scheme was announced and that there is a delay until the end of March on the beginning of the scheme and on the submission of formal applications is putting a significant burden on the construction industry and has put the entire insulation business on hold. People are putting work on insulation on hold. The suppliers and the construction people are out of work as a result. Nothing will happen for eight or nine weeks in that sector. It is a significant own goal by the Government and by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and something must be done about it immediately. We need an urgent reaction, an acceptance that a mistake was made and a correction of that mistake. It should not be beyond the genius of the respective civil servants and the Minister to put this scheme in place within 48 hours.
In parallel, we should debate providing for comprehensive insulation and refurbishment of schools throughout the country. The elimination of prefabs on those sites, the money being put back into the economy in taxation and the saving on dole payments will have the effect of being cost neutral.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: It is absurd that as of today we do not start a school construction programme and that we do not put insulation in place.
I appreciate the Cathaoirleach’s indulgence. I will finish now. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister to the House immediately to debate this matter and to have him make a statement that will start the construction industry again. It is shocking. I was told yesterday ten people were laid off in one place because of the stoppage on insulation work.
An Cathaoirleach: I call Senator Ormonde and ask her to be brief.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I will not hold up the Order of Business. All the points have been raised. I welcome the call for a debate on energy and the points raised by Senator Quinn on the role of Bord Gáis and ESB. I do not know what their role is anymore and I would welcome a debate on that issue.
We should have an ongoing debate on the economy. Given the nature of what I am hearing and the statements and counter statements being made, I want a freshness introduced so that confidence is brought back. That is all I ask. Let us stop this shouting and roaring. I am not able to take it anymore. It is ugly.
A debate on FÁS must come back onto the agenda. Having viewed a programme last night on the monitoring and transparency of community employment schemes in a certain area, it is necessary that we conduct a root and branch exercise on community employment schemes and also on apprenticeships. I ask FÁS to enter into discussions with the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee and many VECs throughout the country which long ago employed the prime people in educating apprentices in both woodwork and metalwork, which people were fine teachers. What has gone wrong with FÁS given all that is happening currently? We must open up co-ordination and co-operation in that area. I support the calls on the Leader to have those debates in this House as soon as possible.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I second Senator Norris’s amendment to the Order of Business to allow the motion on Gaza to be taken and, if necessary, for the Leader to adopt the motion formally. I understand it should have come from the committee.
An Cathaoirleach: It has not been seconded. I will accept that. Some Members ran over time. On time for speakers, some Senators are annoyed that they are not getting in. What can I do to stop people unless I raise a bit of a row in the House regularly? I do not want to do that.
Senator David Norris: We can expand the time. Get the Leader’s agreement. Why is he blocking?
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Kelly, Coghlan, Buttimer, Regan and Hanafin expressed serious concerns again — as they do every day, quite correctly — about new revelations concerning banking issues. I understand the leaders of the main Opposition parties and their spokespersons on finance were briefed by the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach last week. The Government may not be in control of some of the revelations that emerge daily and we can only deal with them as they are made known to the people and the Government.
As I informed the House yesterday, it is my intention to start the pensions levy Bill in the House on Wednesday night next at 8 o’clock. If we must sit late into the night and early morning to pass the Bill, I certainly will have no difficulty in allocating whatever time is needed by colleagues. Perhaps in meeting the leaders of the groups next Tuesday we could discuss and agree what is necessary.
Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, Feeney, Hannigan and Ormonde called for an urgent debate on FÁS, job creation, the challenge facing the country of training apprentices and of preparing for when the downturn in the economy is followed by an uplift in the future. We are told every working person in Ireland must be reskilled or upskilled by 2020. This is an ideal opportunity for FÁS, the Government agency, to meet once again the challenge it met so magnificently in the 1980s when it was called upon to upskill and train people. It is a timely call for this debate to take place in the House. Senator Ormonde is always calling for the up-to-date position on training and FÁS and I have no difficulty in allocating time so that this can happen.
Senators O’Toole and Ó Murchú, two respected and long-standing Senators, made known to the House this morning their views on Seán Garland, a 74 year old man suffering from cancer who has been a peaceful person who played a central role in the Good Friday Agreement. I assure the House that I will pass on the Senators’ urgent request to the Minister immediately after the Order of Business. I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by both Senators about a new beginning under the new US President, Barack Obama, who has uplifted not alone his own country but the people of the world. I hope the stimulus package he signed into being yesterday is the start of the upturn and becomes a ray of hope for everyone experiencing difficulties across the world.
Senators Kelly, Buttimer and Quinn called for an urgent debate with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on Health Service Executive matters such as the accident and emergency report published yesterday. I certainly have no difficulty with this. The Minister has always been very supportive in coming to the House and engaging in frank exchanges with Senators. I will make that request today.
Senator McCarthy raised the pensions levy and I have explained when that will be taken in the House next week. He also asked that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, conduct a risk assessment of the oil slick off the south coast. I will endeavour to have the Minister brief the House on the up-to-date position, perhaps for one hour, on the threat of this major oil spillage. This is a serious position in which the people of the south find themselves. I certainly agree with Senator McCarthy that this debate should take place. I will contact the Minister today to see whether it is possible for this to take place tomorrow for one hour.
Senator McFadden raised serious concerns regarding Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, and I must agree with her. As one who was a patient there for six or seven weeks at one time, I can only relay to the House what a magnificent hospital it is. It has been a shining light in our area for the past 50 years. It was a magnificent training hospital under the Medical Missionaries of Mary when that order was running it. I certainly will pass the strong views of my colleague from County Westmeath, Senator McFadden, on to the Minister after the Order of Business.
Senators Leyden, Callely, Hannigan, Feeney, Mary White and Quinn called for the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come to the House to deal with the fact that, as Senator Leyden, a former Minister of State at that Department, said, the Government should see whether it can acquire equity in some of the companies that are laying off enormous numbers of employees. The loss of 1,100 jobs at Dublin Airport is a serious blow to that area. As I said last week, when former Deputy Charles J. Haughey was Taoiseach in the late 1980s, this was one of the power bases in that area of north County Dublin to rejuvenate the economy at the time.
As Senator Mary White said, the difficulties in most of these cases stems from the high cost of wages and the fact that we have lost our competitiveness. We must apprise the Tánaiste of our views when she comes to the House and give her the benefit of our experience and ideas in assisting her and the Government to meet the challenge. If it is not addressed now, there will be further lay-offs. These are the cold hard facts of life and we must deal with the matter.
Senator Norris raised the matter of the CPP meeting and I understand that one is imminent. I shall certainly take his views into consideration.
Senator David Norris: I wanted to know when the last one was.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I am sure the Senator’s leader can tell him the precise date because he has it in his diary. I know he is consulting him on a daily basis on these matters.
Senator Norris also raised the matter of energy costs, which I will deal with later. On his motion, I will look into it immediately after the Order of Business this morning, but in the meantime we have a one-hour debate today to enable colleagues to express their views on the House. I have no difficulty in dealing with an all-party motion if I am given instructions by the Government Chief Whip, to whom I am answerable.
Senators Callely and O’Reilly raised the matter of the new home energy plan in which many thousands of people will participate. I know that four weeks may be a long time for many people, but it is extremely important to get it right. I will pass on the Senators’ views to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, but he can rest assured that the €4,000 as well as the other packages contained in this wonderful energy plan will be a godsend for many people throughout the country.
Senator Callely had strong views on the taxi issue and I certainly will pass those on to the Minister after the Order of Business.
I wish the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, well on his historic visit to Cuba — Senator Hannigan raised this matter. We congratulate him on being there. We saw him on television last night relaying the up-to-date position to the people of the world on how the young, new dynamic Ireland that the people have admired for a number of years will deal with the challenges that face Ireland as well as all other countries at present.
I welcome the news this morning about Bord Gáis entering the energy electricity market as a supplier, with a guarantee to customers that its prices will be at least 10% lower than those of the ESB for the next three years. This double digit guarantee will remain in place, regardless of any cuts the ESB may introduce. I welcome the Taoiseach’s announcement in Mullingar last Friday that he directed the energy regulator to bring forward a cut in electricity costs of up to 15% within the next month or two. This was a very well attended function, organised by my colleague, Senator Camillus Glynn. The announcement by the Taoiseach is very welcome because if it happens——
Senator Paddy Burke: The regulator should reply.
Senator Donie Cassidy: ——it will mean a 25% reduction in electricity prices for the consumer within the next six to eight weeks.
An Cathaoirleach: Is Senator Norris’s amendment to the Order of Business, “That No. 26, motion 32, be substituted for No. 3”, being pressed?
Senator David Norris: I will wait until tomorrow when I will put down the motion again. I will discuss the matter with the Leader of the House and will not waste the time of the House on it now.
Order of Business agreed to.
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Conor Lenihan): This Bill provides, for the first time, for the establishment and functions of a legal services ombudsman. Extensive regulation of barristers and solicitors lies, respectively, with the Bar Council and the Law Society. A fundamental part of the regulation is concerned with the maintenance of high professional standards and the investigation of claims that those standards have not been met in particular cases. The procedures put in place by both branches of the legal profession to address complaints of poor professional performance or misconduct have evolved over many years. The legal services ombudsman is intended to oversee the operation of the complaints systems of the professional bodies in order to strengthen the mechanisms for dealing with complaints against both barristers and solicitors.
Both the public and the practitioner must have confidence that the professional bodies operate systems to process and determine complaints in a fair and effective manner without undue delay. The complaints systems of the two professional bodies are designed to give an aggrieved client access to redress when a practitioner fails to provide an acceptable legal service while also protecting the practitioner from unwarranted or malicious claims.
All practising barristers must comply with the Bar Council’s code of conduct which was updated and improved in 2006. Complaints against barristers by members of the public are dealt with under the Bar Council’s disciplinary code. A client may make a complaint about a barrister who has failed to maintain proper professional standards, has committed professional misconduct or has brought the profession into disrepute.
The complaints against barristers are made to the Bar Council’s professional conduct tribunal comprising barristers and lay persons. The complaints are handled in private and may be dealt with by way of an oral hearing. If a complaint goes to an oral hearing, both parties are invited to attend and both may be legally represented. The tribunal’s decision may be appealed by either party to a three member appeal board, chaired by a High Court judge with the two other members nominated by the Bar Council and the Attorney General. Where there is a finding of misconduct against a barrister, the disciplinary code prescribes penalties ranging from an admonishment to a fine to disbarment.
The Solicitors Acts 1954 to 2008 regulate the solicitors’ profession. In particular, Part III of the Act of 1994 makes detailed provision for the investigation of complaints against solicitors. Complaints to the Law Society generally fall into two broad categories, complaints of misconduct and complaints of inadequate service or excessive fees. There may of course be a degree of overlap between these categories. The society’s complaints and client relations committee, which includes lay members, determines complaints lodged directly to it by members of the public.
Complaints of misconduct against solicitors may be made by clients to the society or the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. Where a complaint of misconduct has been made to the society in the first instance, it may be referred by the society to the tribunal and such complaints would then be liable to attract the heavier end of the scale of sanctions. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is an independent statutory tribunal appointed by the President of the High Court to investigate complaints of misconduct against solicitors under the 1994 Act. Members of the tribunal are appointed by the President of the High Court and include lay persons. The tribunal performs a pivotal role in the solicitors’ disciplinary process and this is the tribunal which dealt with recent high profile cases.
The Law Society may refer complaints to the tribunal and every client of a solicitor has a right to make a direct application to the tribunal. The tribunal has limited judicial powers and its primary function is to establish by evidence and documents the facts of a complaint and to decide whether misconduct is proven. Where there is a finding of misconduct, the tribunal can impose a sanction on the solicitor ranging from admonishment to a direction to pay restitution of a sum not exceeding €15,000 to any aggrieved party. In more serious cases the tribunal may refer its finding and recommendation to the President of the High Court, who ultimately will decide on the nature of the sanction to be imposed on the solicitor. The powers of sanction available to the High Court range up to striking the solicitor off the roll. If either party is unhappy with a decision of the tribunal, this may be appealed to the High Court. Approximately 1,700 complaints against solicitors and 20 against barristers are made per annum. There are over 8,000 practising solicitors and more than 2,100 practising barristers.
The Government recognises that further measures are necessary to enhance confidence in the complaints systems of the two professions and that is the purpose of the Bill. The ombudsman will oversee the handling by the Law Society and the Bar Council of three classes of complaint against solicitors and barristers, namely inadequate services, excessive fees and misconduct. The key function will be to provide a form of appeal for clients of solicitors and barristers who are dissatisfied with the outcome of a complaint made to the Law Society or Bar Council.
I now refer to the specific provisions of the Bill. Sections 4 and 5 provide for the establishment of the ombudsman and his or her appointment by the Government on the nomination of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Specified persons not eligible for appointment include practising barristers or solicitors, members of the Law Society, members of the Bar Council or benchers of the Society of King’s Inns.
Under section 6, the period of office of an ombudsman will not exceed six years. The person appointed may be re-appointed for a second or subsequent term. Standard provision is made for the manner in which the ombudsman may resign from office, the circumstances in which the Government may remove the ombudsman from office and the circumstances in which a person ceases to hold the office of legal services ombudsman.
The general functions and powers of the ombudsman under section 9 are to receive and investigate complaints, review the procedures of the Bar Council and the Law Society for dealing with complaints made to them by clients of barristers and solicitors, assess the adequacy of the admission policies of the two professional bodies and improve public awareness of their complaints procedures.
Standard provisions are made in section 11 for the appointment of staff to the office of the ombudsman and for the engagement of professional and other advisers and the delegation to a member of the staff of certain functions assigned to the ombudsman.
The office of the legal services ombudsman will be funded entirely by means of a levy on the two professional bodies and Part 3 of the Bill makes detailed provision in this regard. It is necessary to provide for advance funding from the Exchequer which will be recouped from the two professional bodies. Section 12 provides for such advances. Section 13 makes standard provision for financial accounting and audit matters by the ombudsman, including audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the presentation of the audited accounts to the Minister and the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 14 requires the ombudsman to make various periodic reports to the Minister, including an annual report on the performance of the functions of the office and a report on its effectiveness and the adequacy of its functions within two years of its establishment. The ombudsman may also make a special report to the Minister on a matter of particular gravity or in other exceptional circumstances. The ombudsman is required to make a special report on any other matter if so requested by the Minister. All reports will be laid before the Oireachtas and published.
Under section 15, the ombudsman is also required to produce an annual report on the adequacy of the admission policies of the legal professions. The report must specify the numbers admitted annually to legal practice for the year in question and an assessment as to whether the numbers admitted are consistent with the public interest in ensuring the availability of legal services at a reasonable cost. Again, this report will be laid before the Oireachtas and published.
Sections 16 and 17 provide for the appearance of the ombudsman before the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Provision is made in section 18 for various publications to be privileged for the purposes of the law of defamation, namely, any matter in a report of the ombudsman laid before either House of the Oireachtas and publications by the ombudsman directed to particular persons or bodies.
Section 19 provides for the payment each year of a levy to the Minister by the Bar Council and the Law Society to meet the approved expenses of the ombudsman. These expenses equate to the full operating costs and administrative expenses of the ombudsman in the preceding year and comprise salaries, superannuation, office accommodation and related costs and legal costs incurred in issuing or defending legal proceedings. The Bar Council and the Law Society will each be liable to pay 10% of the approved expenses and the remaining 80% will be paid pro-rata by the two bodies according to the relative numbers of complaints made to the ombudsman in regard to barristers and solicitors. Provision is made for other matters pertaining to the levy, including late payment.
Section 20 empowers the Minister to make regulations to provide for various matters related to the levy. There are substantive provisions on the ombudsman’s functions in regard to complaints, investigations and reviews. A complaint may be made by a client of a barrister or solicitor to the ombudsman concerning the handling by the Bar Council or the Law Society of a related complaint against a barrister or solicitor under section 21. A complaint may also be made by a client of a solicitor to the ombudsman about a decision of the Law Society to make or refuse a grant from its compensation fund. Section 22 provides for the types of complaints which may be made to the ombudsman, including complaints of inadequate investigation and failure to commence or complete an investigation of a related complaint within a reasonable time.
The ombudsman may seek the resolution of complaints in such a manner as he or she considers appropriate and reasonable and the ombudsman may establish and publish procedures to be followed in regard to the receipt and investigation of complaints. The ombudsman must conduct investigations in private. To ensure full co-operation with the investigation of a complaint, the ombudsman has the power to require the provision of information or attendance of any person before him or her as appropriate. In the event that a person fails to comply with a request for information or attendance, the ombudsman may apply to the High Court for an order requiring compliance. Section 27 creates the offence of obstruction of the ombudsman in the performance of his or her functions, which is punishable by a fine not exceeding €2,000 on summary conviction.
The ombudsman has power to issue directions and make recommendations to the Law Society and Bar Council. In particular, following investigation the ombudsman may, if not satisfied that the related complaint was adequately investigated, direct the Bar Council to reinvestigate it under the Bar Council’s disciplinary code or direct the Law Society either to conduct a second investigation or refer the complaint to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for an inquiry on the grounds of alleged misconduct. The ombudsman may make other directions and recommendations to both bodies including that the Law Society make or increase a grant out of its compensation fund. The ombudsman may request the professional body to respond within a specified period to a direction given or recommendation made. In the event of an unsatisfactory response, the ombudsman may make a special report to the Minister which will be published. Provision is made for High Court enforcement of directions made by the ombudsman and for referral of any question of law by the ombudsman to the High Court for determination.
A key function of the ombudsman is to keep under review the procedures of the Bar Council and Law Society for receiving and investigating complaints about barristers and solicitors. Section 32 provides that the ombudsman may examine the complaints procedures of the two bodies, the co-operation of barristers and solicitors with these procedures, the effectiveness of the procedures and the time taken to complete investigations. In addition, the ombudsman may examine random samples of complaints made to the Bar Council and Law Society, complaints relating to specific matters and statistical information, including information on multiple complaints against individual barristers or solicitors. Arising from his or her review, the ombudsman may make written recommendations to the Bar Council and Law Society to improve their complaints investigation procedures and requesting the co-operation of barristers and solicitors with these procedures. If not satisfied with their response to the recommendation, the ombudsman may direct that the recommendation or an amended recommendation be implemented. Where the ombudsman considers it appropriate, in regard to a particular class or classes of complaint, the relevant professional body may be directed to put in place specific procedures to address such complaints.
Full and complete records must be kept by both professional bodies of all investigations and proceedings relating to complaints and must be made available to the ombudsman on request. Legal proceedings may only be commenced against the ombudsman with the leave of the High Court on notice to the ombudsman. Confidentiality of information in the possession of the office of the ombudsman is ensured by section 35 of the Bill which provides that the ombudsman or a member of staff may not, except in accordance with law, disclose any information obtained other than in specified circumstances.
The Bill represents an important part of a series of measures to support the better regulation of the legal professions. The other measures include enactment in July 2008 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which strengthened and clarified the law on regulatory matters in regard to solicitors and enactment and, also in July 2008, of the Legal Practitioners (Irish Language) Bill 2008 which modernised Irish language training requirements for solicitors and barristers.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Senator John Paul Phelan: I welcome the Minister of State and apologise for missing the beginning of his presentation.
While researching the passage of the Bill through the other House I noted it was introduced by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who stated on Second Stage that the rule of law is the cornerstone of a properly functioning democratic society, which is correct. However, the Minister also stated in the second part of the first sentence that in an increasingly complex and prosperous society the law is becoming ever more complex. I wonder, given we are a little less prosperous now than we were eight or ten months ago when the Minister made those comments, is the law becoming any more simple. The answer is probably that it is not.
I welcome the provisions of this Bill which Fine Gael will not be opposing. However, I would like to address a number of issues which arise as a result of the introduction of this Bill. I understand — the Minister of State confirmed this in his contribution — that the two bodies that govern the role of solicitors and barristers, the Law Society and Bar Council, welcome and broadly support this legislation. When the Government was considering introducing this legislation there was a considerable ground swell of support for the proposal that the office of the ombudsman be completely independent and that all complaints relating to legal issues should be referred directly to the office, as established, rather than to the self-regulating bodies that are the Bar Council and Law Society. The Government has chosen this particular direction, namely, the existing complaints procedure of the two representative bodies will remain in place while this overarching mechanism will allow people who have complaints against practitioners, be they barristers or solicitors, and who believe those complaints have not been correctly dealt with by the representative bodies, to proceed to the office of the legal services ombudsman to have their complaint investigated further. This extra level of investigation is a welcome development.
I welcome that the office of the legal services ombudsman will not be dependent on the Exchequer in terms of its operation and that the two representative bodies for the legal practitioners will fund its operations. Our experience in terms of the role of different ombudsmen has been, by and large, positive be it in respect of the position occupied by Emily O’Reilly or others. By and large those offices have been successful. I welcome that the Bill provides that the ombudsman will report, within two years, to the Minister and the Oireachtas in regard to the success or otherwise of the position introduced by this legislation.
The Minister referred in his contribution to the laying of reports of the ombudsman before the Minister. I presume they will be laid before the Oireachtas in general and not only the Minister. I understand this is the case. Another aspect of the introduction of this legislation is the control of access to the professions as dealt with under section 9. There has been much media cover in regard to the proliferation of solicitors in particular areas of the legal profession. However, I do not know how if that is the case. I welcome that the ombudsman will monitor the number of people entering both professions. Also, I welcome that the board may be made up of non-legal practitioners and that the ombudsman will not be a legal practitioner.
Senator Quinn and I are not legal practitioners though my two learned colleagues, Senators Bacik and McDonald, who will speak later on the Bill, are. It is important justice is seen to be done. That the position of ombudsman will be filled by a non-legal person is to be welcomed. I realise this legislation stems primarily from a number of recent high profile cases involving members of the legal profession who engaged in activities which brought both professions into disrepute. While the legal profession has not been dramatically undermined, any initiative to restore people’s confidence in it is to be welcomed. There is a necessity, following on from a number of those activities, to restore confidence in the profession. I welcome the Bill in this regard. I am sure I will be permitted to raise on Committee Stage any other issues that come to mind.
Fine Gael supports the Bill as laid before the House.
Senator Lisa McDonald: I welcome the Minister of State. I would like to put on the record of the House my interest in this legislation as a practising solicitor and member of the Law Society. Despite my overall support for the Bill, I have a few fundamental reservations about it.
I worry that this legislation seeks to create yet another watchdog in Irish society. The KitKat advertisement, which shows policemen sitting outside a bank eating KitKat while crimes are being committed all around them, comes to mind. I wonder about the value of toothless watchdogs and the need for more agencies of State in terms of their cost effectiveness and the need for another layer of bureaucracy. Whether or not the legal profession needs or deserves an extra oversight is another issue.
We live in the age of ombudsmen and in an age where people rightly require that decisions taken by others, albeit sometimes for their good, are firstly explained to them and are further explored when not in their favour. I am concerned the proposed new office could become yet another letter writing agency, generating more heat than light from the cases with which it deals. We must learn the lesson in this regard. We must either have an ombudsman with real teeth or no ombudsman at all. In this regard, I welcome the provision for High Court enforcement of directions made by the ombudsman and for referral of any question of law by the High Court for determination, which is an addition that will give further teeth to the office.
I acknowledge Ireland’s first Ombudsman, the late Mr. Michael Mills, who had outstanding qualities. We have since been blessed with persons in such roles who have those qualities. I expect that the person appointed as legal services ombudsman will have those qualities and more because he or she will be subjected to tremendous pressure.
The three categories of cases for appeal to the ombudsman will be inadequate services, excessive fees and misconduct. The Bill provides for a procedure that the ordinary citizen who believes he or she was badly served by the legal profession or legal advice may go directly to the ombudsman. This could be daunting for an individual even though the ombudsman exists to help that individual. Many people may require legal help with bringing their complaint to the ombudsman. While the Bill states this is not necessary, we will find in practice that people will require professional assistance when submitting issues to the ombudsman. Legal assistance is costly, as everyone knows, and I wonder if the Bill will make complainants financially worse off.
It appears the running costs of the ombudsman will be borne by the Law Society and the Bar Council. The reality, however, is that it will be the clients who will carry the can in this instance. As the Minister of State outlined, the two professional bodies are paying 10% while the remaining 80% will be paid pro rata by those two bodies, which should help to ensure compliance and ensure members of both professions will up their game, so to speak. However, like everything else in life, it will come back to the primary producer in the end and the consumer who uses a solicitor in years to come will be paying an invisible levy to take care of contributions being made up the line. I would like this to be taken note of as the Bill goes through the House.
If one uses the website, www.rateyoursolicitor.com, there are huge——
Senator John Paul Phelan: I did not know there was one.
Senator Lisa McDonald: There is. Many complaints are made on that website. Without knowing the ins and outs of the cases involved, and all cases turn on their own facts, as we know, many complaints are bogus and stem from a person either losing a case or just not being satisfied with his or her lot in life. Given that clients will be paying for this, it is something we need to avoid.
All legal professionals must recognise the need to demystify our language. Lawyers love each other when they are not facing each other in court, and they like to speak an impenetrable language. Outside of that magic circle, however, people often do not know what lawyers are talking about. I am not talking about judicial decisions but simply about lawyer speak, as it has come to be known. All lawyers need to strive to ensure they are understood by their client, the consumer. This is one area where, if people fully understand from the outset where they are going with a case or an action, it could prevent them feeling they were misled. While the language is not misleading in itself, it is just that it is not understood.
I welcome the fact the person who gets this job will not be a practising member of the legal profession as such a person could be seen as too close to the profession and it could be a distortion of justice if an Irish legal practitioner were appointed to that job. The office holder may have staff who are legal persons but the legal ombudsman should not be too close to the profession because, irrespective of how hard he or she tries, it would lead to a form of self-regulation, which is what we have at present. A legal academic or foreign legal expert would be more acceptable from the point of view of independence and accountability. The core of this argument is that self-regulation may not work because under such a system the profession judges its own members.
We need to ensure the ombudsman does not lead up blind alleyways with regard to reports which may waste the time of practitioners and complainants. There needs to be some sort of prima facie way of dealing with cases through legal people in the office of the ombudsman liaising with practitioners and complainants to ensure this does not happen.
The Bill also provides that various periodic reports are made by the legal services ombudsman to the Oireachtas. I am not sure how this procedure will work but I acknowledge that frivolous complaints will arise and it is important such cases are filtered out. I hope this will not distort any periodic report made to the Minister and the Oireachtas.
The system should be ruthless in blocking frivolous complaints at the point of entry. Otherwise, we will see a system where, believe it or not, people who deserve legal assistance will not be able to get that from the private industry because, unfortunately, people in the profession will take a look at a person and no matter how good that person’s case is, they will say they cannot represent the person. This could be the unfortunate result if we do not nip this issue in the bud.
The Garda Síochána Ombudsman also receives frivolous complaints. Where a claimant goes through the process and the only option left to that claimant is to go to the courts, has the Minister executive powers to decide on a case? If a case proceeds to court, will the office of the legal services ombudsman pay the legal fees for the claimant? While perhaps the Minister of State referred to this issue in his speech, it will be appreciated that such proceedings would be beyond the financial capabilities of some people.
I welcome some of the other contents of the Bill. I welcome that the letter of engagement between a client and his or her solicitor is to be in plain language. I understand the need for plain language not only in that it is what we all understand, but as a politician I have learned how to communicate complex information to individuals every day whereas I do not remember receiving that training in the Law Society. All professions have words which ordinary people do not understand and use terminology which is obtuse and does not work to the benefit of the consumer. This can lead to misunderstanding which, in turn, can lead to people believing they did not get a good service.
The term “letter of engagement” is a good one. The client engages with his or her legal representative. It is provided that the letter of engagement should be in the plain language we hear in the local pub, shop and post office or on the street as we go about our business. The other side of this issue is that we also have the bar stool lawyer who seems to know more than the lawyer. The ordinary person needs to guard against listening to such a person in making a complaint which may run into the sand.
We have a duty to the people we represent to ensure the legislation we introduce reflects their point of view and how they feel they have been treated or mistreated by the legal profession. I fully acknowledge there have been incidences of late in the legal profession which have led to this step being taken. Fair dues to anyone who brings a complaint to the ombudsman and I hope if that person requires it, he or she will get redress through this system.
The proposed ombudsman will only serve the public well if it is not another overhead for solicitors during a slump period, which would ensure job losses or extra charges to clients. We have had high profile cases of late which have raised questions regarding self-regulation of both the Law Society and Bar Council. Hard cases make bad law, however. The ombudsman will work if it is for the benefit of ordinary people who will be able to say they went to this office, the steps to be taken were laid out for them and they knew where they were going. While this case may work out in favour of the person concerned, it may not and potential claimants need to be informed of this.
I wish the Bill every success as to its intentions. I hope it will work for the benefit of the public and enhance the relationship that exists between the legal profession and the public.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to the House and I welcome the introduction of the Bill. Like Senator McDonald, before commenting on the legislation I declare an interest as a practising barrister and a member of the Bar Council. This is an important time to debate the regulation of the legal profession, although currently the focus is on the regulation of a different group, namely, members of the banking community. Certain commentary in the newspapers have referred to bankers as “banksters” in recent times, which reflects the public disapproval at present of banking practices and of the lack of regulation of banking. We have seen all too clearly the results of a lack of regulation. I have said in the House and elsewhere that it is not simply a matter of a lack of regulation. In recent years we have introduced extensive regulation of financial services. However, it is the lack of enforcement of the regulations in place as much as anything which has led to the culture of non-compliance that has caused such problems in the financial services sphere. The lesson to be learned while we debate this welcome Bill is the need to ensure regulation exists and that it is seen to exist. The need for public trust and confidence is as important as anything else in the legal profession as it is in the banking and financial sectors.
I listened to the contribution of Senator McDonald who raised some very worthwhile points, especially the need to ensure we do not simply impose another layer of meaningless bureaucracy. There have been enough scandals and public concerns raised related to the legal profession throughout the years. There have also been enough thoughtful and considered proposals to ensure the need to introduce another layer of oversight or scrutiny, which is what the legal services ombudsman represents. This is a layer of oversight or scrutiny which is more than simply a layer of bureaucracy, it has an important function in ensuring not simply that legal services are properly regulated and that the concerns of clients and consumers are supported, but also that the people perceive that the legal profession is well regulated and trustworthy.
I refer to some of the context of the reform. The Minister of State outlined some of the various disciplinary procedures within the professions and the Bar Council and Law Society, both of which have lay person representation on their disciplinary boards, which is important. The new legislation involves another layer of oversight covering the existing procedures. There have been a number of recommendations for change. As far back as 1990, the Fair Trade Commission referred to a lack of public confidence in the complaints procedures in place at that time. The commission indicated the concerns could be remedied by lay representation, which has been introduced, and by the establishment of a legal ombudsman office. In 2005 and December 2006, the Competition Authority reports recommended the need for an independent legal services commission to replace the system of self-regulation, which represents a somewhat different recommendation.
I conducted research with colleagues in Trinity College Dublin in 2003, which was published as Gender InJustice and funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We received funding for an important study into gender discrimination in the legal professions. One of the issues examined was the regulation of the professions. We examined the matter from a slightly different perspective, that is, discrimination experienced within the profession. However, I believe some of our findings are pertinent and provide a somewhat different perspective to the Bill. Rightly, most of the focus in the legislation is on the concerns of the public, who are clients of the legal profession. Some have complaints concerning the way their cases were handled by barristers or solicitors.
We examined complaints within the profession involving mainly women barristers and solicitors who experienced discrimination and stated how difficult it was for them to seek redress. Time and again the lawyers we surveyed responded that Ireland is too small a place in which to make complaints, that the law is not for lawyers, rather depressingly, and that the law is a lawless domain when discrimination is experienced within the profession. We found a disturbing level of harassment within the profession. We also found that the Chair of the Bar Council at that time stated no legal action had been taken to enforce codes relating to the conduct of its members within the previous ten years, and that the Society of Kings Inns stated that it had not disbarred any persons for disciplinary reasons in living memory.
That is the context in which we recommended, as others had previously done, the need for a legal ombudsperson to whom complaints could be made in confidence by those experiencing discrimination. This measure will go some way towards addressing the problems we identified as much as the problems identified by the other bodies mentioned.
I refer to the provisions of the Bill. The Bill provides in a most welcome fashion for the appointment of an independent ombudsman who would not be drawn from members of the practising professions, which is an important point that has been mentioned previously. The ombudsman would oversee the complaints procedures already in existence and provide for remedies where persons believe the complaints procedures have not adequately been carried out.
One complaint made concerning the Bill was put forward by the Consumers Association of Ireland. It complained that the proposed legislation reinforces existing self-regulated mechanisms and that the powers of the ombudsman are too restricted. I understand why the association made this complaint and the matter is worth reviewing. However, it is enough to say that the ombudsman is acting in an oversight capacity. I do not believe there is a need for the ombudsman to reinvestigate complaints. I accept the concerns of the association. It states the problem for consumers is that the ombudsman may simply direct the professional bodies to re-investigate original allegations. The ombudsman would have a supervisory role similar to that of the High Court in the case of a judicial review and would not examine the merits of the original case. Consumers may believe this is simply not enough.
I refer to the number of allegations of complaints made. The Minister of State referred to 1,700 complaints against solicitors in any given year and approximately 20 complaints against barristers, who clearly are not handling clients money and, therefore, in a practical way tend not to be the subject of complaints to the same extent. There is also a difference in the numbers as there is a greater number of solicitors and a good deal more contact by individuals with solicitors than with barristers.
It is enough to say the ombudsman would provide oversight rather than a reinvestigation procedure. One complaint of the Consumers Association of Ireland may deserve consideration. This is the complaint that it will be too long and drawn out a process because it requires individuals to have gone through the complaints procedures of representative bodies and only if they are dissatisfied will they have the option of pursuing the case with the ombudsman. Section 22 of the Bill meets some of these concerns in allowing a complaint to be made where complaints have not been investigated in an adequate time by the disciplinary bodies. A clearer direction in terms of time limits is important. The most specific ruling on time limits in the Bill is the six month time limit, although it may be extended in special circumstances, within which time someone may make a complaint to the ombudsman. There is a clear time restriction on the member of the public making the complaint and a good deal less clarity in terms of time limits related to the investigation of complaints by professional bodies and the ombudsman.
Section 23 requires a great deal of fleshing out. It provides that the ombudsman can establish procedures related to the investigation of complaints. There will be a great deal of importance attached to the detail in that section. The procedures for investigating complaints will be vital in terms of ensuring people are satisfied with the way in which complaints are handled.
I refer to other specific aspects of the Bill. Section 15 refers to the power of the ombudsman to prepare reports on the admissions policies of the legal bodies. That is very important and I am aware from my research that it is difficult to establish and to get figures from the professional bodies. This does not apply to admission levels which are easier to establish. However, the attrition rates from the legal professions are missing from the Bill and could be usefully inserted.
Senator Phelan referred to the change in the economic climate. The chill wind blowing through the economy generally has already affected the legal professions. There are an increasing number of redundancies from solicitors’ firms and great difficulty in junior solicitors getting traineeships and in law graduates getting employment. It would be very useful in this context for the legal bodies to supply the ombudsman not only with figures on admissions, but also figures on departures from the profession, that is, numbers leaving the profession in any given year. I wish to see the legal services ombudsman empowered — the Minister of State may be interested in this point — to require the professional bodies to conduct exit surveys of those leaving the professions and to establish the reasons for leaving. We found anecdotal evidence that this is a matter of particular concern among lawyers surveyed in 2003. However, it was impossible to get data on the numbers who left and the reasons they left. I believe we will see increasing numbers leaving. It would be useful to see why they are leaving and what can be done to ensure people worth keeping in the legal profession are kept there and do not leave for the wrong reasons. Our study indicates people are leaving because they are experiencing discrimination which is a cause of concern to us all.
The Consumers Association of Ireland raised the question of the legal proceedings that may be taken against the legal services ombudsman. It argued there should be an explicit provision in the Bill for an appeal by consumers against decisions of the ombudsman. Section 34, providing for legal proceedings to be taken against the ombudsman, places a restriction that is becoming increasingly common in Bills including the Immigration Bill, such that proceedings may be taken only with the leave of the High Court and on 14 days’ notice to the ombudsman. This restricts the usual power to apply for judicial review. While that is not a problem in itself it would be more worthwhile to place a specific right of appeal in the Bill because it is anticipated that those dissatisfied with the ombudsman’s findings will take proceedings against him or her. It might be of benefit to consumers of legal services to see something more specific about appeals.
Senator McDonald raised the issue of representation. Many of us have heard people complain that they cannot get representation from solicitors where they believe they have a case against another solicitor. Undoubtedly some of those complaints are vexatious or frivolous and the ombudsman will have the power to make that finding. There remains, however, a real problem for people who believe they have a valid grievance against a solicitor or other member of the legal profession and cannot get legal representation. It is very important that they feel the procedures of the ombudsman are accessible to them. I am glad to see the ombudsman may accept an oral complaint. It is important that the complaint does not need to be presented in a particular written format. That is why the appeal right against the decision of the ombudsman or the right to review that decision should be stated more clearly in the Bill.
I welcome the Bill. There is an increased need for public confidence in the professions. Legal professionals who have brought the profession into disrepute have been highlighted recently. That is a matter of real concern for all of us in the profession and is of greater concern to the wider society. To provide for an ombudsman of this kind allows the public to see that greater levels of scrutiny will be applied in the legal professions. This entails more than creating the regulations. The recent banking scandals have shown that it is not enough to put financial services regulators in place but we need to ensure that they work, that they enforce the law and are seen to do so and that sanctions are imposed on people guilty of wrongdoing.
Senator Dan Boyle: Sadly we now live in a society where the phrase “a person’s word is their bond” has less currency than it once did. Many who held exalted positions in our society by reason of their profession must, justifiably, earn such respect because of society’s breakdown and the controversies that have reduced the effectiveness and reliability of such professions. One reason for this is that the type of gentleman’s agreement, or self-regulation, that existed in many professions has been abused, albeit by a minority, to the extent that it can no longer be successful.
This Bill is welcome because it introduces a degree of oversight that is lacking in legal services. It is a first step towards bringing about a fully-fledged system of regulation rather than the half-way house of marrying the existing systems of the Law Society and the Bar Council and a degree of State involvement. It is best to bring about such change incrementally.
We have seen examples of rogue solicitors and it is disturbing to hear some individuals defend themselves and seek to be excused on the grounds that others in professions such as banking and the construction industry were guilty of the same type of excesses. The legal profession has recently accepted other practices, for example, many young people buying houses have found until recently that they had to take out large bridging finance before their houses were fully conveyanced while several solicitors’ firms held their deposits on account. This was then seen to be a valid part of the remuneration process. Not only have individuals been guilty of rogue practices but in the past the profession has accepted systemic practices. The need for a legal ombudsman is particularly acute in such cases, not only to challenge the individual abuses but to ensure widespread abuses do not occur.
Senators McDonald and Bacik mentioned that it is difficult for a client to get a solicitor to take on a case against a solicitor whom the client believes has behaved illegally. That is in part due to the cliquishness of the profession and in part to geographical factors because no solicitor wants to challenge another who is known in his or her court setting. That is why we need a separate independent effective ombudsman structure that is seen to enact the regulation that cannot be, or is not, enacted by the traditional methods.
The legal ombudsman should have significant early success in identifying early breaches of the code of conduct and how the public should get redress. We have learned from the financial regulatory system that is not enough to have an infrastructure in place to make us feel better about ourselves. We can only inspire public confidence when a system is up and running and is seen to be working. Until people can see a significant difference between the voluntary self-regulation system that has not operated very effectively, and the new system to be introduced on foot of this Bill, they will not have confidence in the legal profession’s capacity to operate to the highest standards at all times.
I do not fully agree with Senator Bacik about the right of appeal process. It is important there is a clear and usable process. We must avoid the possibility, particularly in the legal profession, of a tribunal process that is strategically prolonged to avoid anyone having to answer for a wrongdoing. Appeals should be dealt with as quickly as possible. There is a danger in an appeal process that ties itself up in legal knots that the benefit of a legal ombudsman will be compromised by the nefarious actions of those he is trying to regulate. If that can be avoided the ombudsman will be an effective position and people will feel better for the establishment of such an office.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I welcome the Minister. When I came into this House 16 years ago, I wondered how I would handle Bills about which I did not know anything, as I was not a lawyer. I decided to look for the customer in each Bill, so I will speak on this Bill from the point of view of the customer.
I welcome the provision of an independent legal services ombudsman, and I particularly welcome section 5, which states the ombudsman should not be a practising member of the legal profession. It also excludes practising barristers and solicitors from appointment as ombudsman. While the Bill provides for the establishment of a legal services ombudsman, it could be argued the role of the ombudsman is restricted and limited in its powers.
One of the biggest flaws in this Bill is that it seems both the Law Society and Bar Council will continue to have primary responsibility for the adjudication of complaints against their members. The Minister of State speaks of giving consumers greater rights when it comes to the legal profession. However, the Bill only provides the possibility that the complainant can bring his or her case to the ombudsman if he or she is unhappy with the decisions made by either the Bar Council or Law Society. This means the complainant will be forced to go through the complaints board of these bodies before he or she brings the matter to the attention of the Ombudsman. Is this inevitably long and drawn-out process specifically designed to dissuade or even prevent consumers from lodging complaints, for example, due to the cost and complexity of the complaint? Will consumers think the process is still weighted unduly towards the legal profession?
Consumers need to have a direct link to the ombudsman and bypass these bodies which represent the interests of the legal profession, and which are there to protect them and not necessarily protect the consumer. It is surely not progress for the consumer to have a profession which continues to be more or less self regulating. We should try self regulation in every case, but not when it does not work. I believe it has not worked in this case. In summary, the Bill as drafted is not adequate in providing a fair and independent entity for consumers who are unhappy with the performance of their solicitors or barristers. It is also flawed in a number of other ways which are capable of improvement.
Another drawback in the Bill is the limited powers given to the ombudsman when it has to deal with a complaint from a consumer. Specifically, the Bill does not seem to provide for appeal against the decisions of the Law Society and Bar Council regarding complaints they received against solicitors and barristers. The Ombudsman can only deal with complaints relating to the actual process. The legal services ombudsman can only direct the Bar Council and the Law Society to begin an investigation and complete it within a reasonable time, or require them to re-investigate a complaint. The Chairman of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland has written that this means that, even if the legal services ombudsman believed the Bar Council or the Law Society made an incorrect or inaccurate decision concerning a complaint, the ombudsman would not have the power to overturn it. In fact, all the legal services ombudsman can do is direct the Bar Council or the Law Society to reinvestigate the complaint. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong on this. Once the Bar Council or the Law Society have met the obligation to re-investigate, they can ignore the views of the ombudsman and uphold their original decision.
This seems like a very weak ombudsman. It is very strange that the legal services ombudsman cannot decide the merits of a complaint, especially from the consumer’s point of view. This part of the Bill needs to be amended to make sure the legal services ombudsman has the power to decide the merits of a complaint.
I am also concerned about the provision in the bill which will allow the Bar Council and the Law Society to be able to appeal to the courts against the rulings of the legal services ombudsman on their procedures and processes. Consumers cannot appeal in a similar manner, which is a major drawback in the Bill. I am concerned by the provision in the legislation which requires the legal services ombudsman to report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the numbers of solicitors and barristers and to make an evaluation on their competence. I do not think this is normal for a complaints-orientated agency. Could this be used to argue for more positions in the legal services profession, such as college places, or could it be used to limit entry into the legal profession on the whim of the legal services ombudsman? This part of the Bill needs to be properly examined.
I am afraid this body might just become another quango. How big is the bureaucracy of the ombudsman envisioned to be? To save costs, could the ombudsman be attached to the Office of the Ombudsman as a legal division of that office? We already have several ombudsman bodies, so do we need a totally new body? I welcome the fact that section 19 provides that the Law Society and the Bar Council will each be responsible for 10% of the costs of the legal services ombudsman. However, has the possibility of amalgamating the Legal Services Ombudsman into the Office of the Ombudsman been properly considered?
Section 23 provides that the ombudsman may establish and publish procedures on the receipt and investigation of complaints. This could go one step further by including a customer charter to make the whole process more explicitly directed at, and working for, the consumer.
The objective of this Bill is worthwhile. I have a concern about the creation of another quango, and I know that various efforts have been made to reduce the number of State agencies. We really should look carefully at this. I said earlier that I am not a legal professional, although I have learned much since I came in here. Many years ago, I had the experience of taking the only case to the Supreme Court based on article 44 of the Constitution. Having studied a bit of constitutional law in UCD, I remembered a little bit about article 44, which states that one cannot discriminate on the grounds of religion. Thirty seven cases were taken against me for selling meat after 6 p.m. in 1968. I defended myself and looked at the statutory instrument that dealt with this. It contained four parts, three of which outlined where in Dublin one could not sell meat, the definition of meat as beef, lamb and pork, and a prohibition on selling meat after 6 p.m. The fourth part stated that these provisions would not apply to meat sold following the kosher method of killing.
I realised there might be a flaw in the legislation, as the exclusion of kosher meat was allowed when two Jewish shops in Dublin requested the Minister not to pass the Bill in its original format, as they did not open until sundown on a Saturday. The Minister excluded the Jewish shops from the legislation through the use of the statutory instrument, but that instrument made the Bill illegal on the grounds of discrimination against everyone who was not Jewish. I won that case, and I have always had an interest in the law ever since. We appealed that case to the Supreme Court, and we won it on a four to one basis.
The objective of this Bill is certainly worthy, and is one I support. I have some concerns about the Bill, which I have voiced already.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Conor Lenihan): I thank all Senators who contributed to this debate, especially Senators Phelan and Boyle, for their positive contributions and support for the Bill. I have lived all my life with lawyers, and I am the only member of a family of five who is not a lawyer. I have a great affection for the profession, but I often joke that I am the only honest member of the family as a result. I stress that is a joke, rather than a statement of fact.
I have also worked with lawyers in my business career, and I have always found them to be excellent. It is important, notwithstanding the controversies surrounding bankers, lawyers, churchmen and politicians to which Senator Bacik referred, that the majority of people in all of these professions are honest, hard working people who do not transgress the ethical, moral or legal codes. It is only a minority of people who abuse the public trust in all of these professions. Regulation must take cognisance of that fact more than any other.
Senator McDonald’s questioning of the need for an extra layer is shared by the Minister and the Government. While the establishment of the office of the legal services ombudsman may be represented in some quarters as the imposition of an extra layer of regulation, or as a duplication or replication of the work of the existing and overarching Office of the Ombudsman, which is led by Emily O’Reilly, this office will not be paid for out of the public purse. It will be paid for by means of a levy on the profession itself and for that reason, this phenomenon should be encouraged. I am sceptical about the levels and layers of extra obligation we have imposed on professions, businesses and industries over the past ten years. In light of the downturn, the recession and the general Exchequer funding and public spending challenges we face, it is time to examine the relevance of all these regulators, particularly the Commission for Energy Regulation, the Commission for Aviation Regulation and the Commission for Taxi Regulation. It almost defies belief that we have a Taxi Regulator, as the regulation of the taxi industry should be a matter for the Minister rather than for a well paid regulator in a large office.
I would like to speak about an important aspect of this legislation. Senator McDonald spoke about the making of frivolous complaints. Section 22(4) of the Bill empowers the office of the legal services ombudsman to decide not to investigate a complaint it considers frivolous or to discontinue an investigation of such a complaint. This ensures that the ombudsman’s time and resources are not wasted. Senator McDonald suggested that a limited number of complaints have some validity. That is why the Bill empowers the ombudsman to siphon off such complaints quickly. That is a fair point. The number of complaints made is not huge, relatively speaking.
Senator Bacik referred to the Competition Authority’s report on the legal profession. The report makes 29 recommendations in respect of solicitors and barristers, 15 of which relate to actions for which the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is responsible. Some of the recommendations are directed at the Bar Council and the Law Society. The implementation of the recommendations directed at the Bar Council and the Law Society is a matter for those bodies. The main recommendation is that legislation should be introduced to establish a legal services commission to regulate solicitors, barristers and the market for legal services. A further seven recommendations relate to the functions of the legal services commission. Government policy on the need for changes in the legal profession is reflected in the Bill before the House, which provides for customers to avail of a formal review of legal services if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of a complaint made to the Law Society or the Bar Council. A number of other issues are material.
Senator Bacik also spoke about the timeframe for the making of complaints. Section 22 provides that a complaint can be made to the office of the legal services ombudsman if a professional body fails to complete an investigation into alleged misconduct within a “reasonable time”. If the Bar Council’s professional conduct tribunal, the Bar Council’s professional conduct of appeals board or the Law Society fails to complete its investigation of an allegation of misconduct made by a client of a barrister or a solicitor within a reasonable timeframe, the client may make a complaint about this failure to the ombudsman’s office. We have avoided the imposition of arbitrary time limits under this section in the belief that the ombudsman should have the discretion to determine what constitutes a reasonable timeframe in each case.
Senator Quinn highlighted the powers of the office of the legal services ombudsman. Typically, an ombudsman can investigate complaints made by members of the public in respect of the actions of Government agencies or regulatory bodies, make recommendations to improve the handling by such bodies of complaints and report on its assessment of existing mechanisms for handling complaints. Many countries around the world give powers of a similar scope to their various ombudsman offices. It is consistent with the approach taken by the ombudsman offices in this country. The primary role of an ombudsman office is to act as an independent review body. This is the common thread that runs through most of the functions of such offices. The role of the office of the legal services ombudsman is to investigate the manner in which professional bodies deal with complaints. Professional bodies are responsible for investigating complaints about lawyers.
Senator Quinn spoke about restrictions on the numbers going into the legal profession. Under this legislation, the office of the legal services ombudsman is empowered to assess, where necessary, the numbers being allowed or not allowed into the profession each year. I reassure the Senator who raised these concerns by informing him that the legal services ombudsman must work on the basis of the public interest. The “public interest” is defined in terms of the affordability of access to law and, by extension, to justice. The ombudsman does not assess whether we should have 1,000, 10,000 or 1 million lawyers. He or she simply makes a judgment call on whether the quantitative or qualitative restrictions on numbers act in a way that increases the cost of accessing the courts and therefore denies citizens the chance to achieve redress through the legal system. That is the key point. The ombudsman is not an avatar of competitiveness or policies of competition. Issues of justice and access to the law at an affordable cost for ordinary citizens are predominant here. It is clear that issues in this regard have arisen over the years. We should be honest about it.
The legal profession is not the only profession to have inflated its fees in recent years. The fees charged by doctors in the medical profession, and by many other professionals and providers of professional and personal services, increased during the boom. Many of these people have taken excessive fees because of the boom. That will be an even bigger issue in the next few years, obviously, as we face into a downturn. We have to get our costs down. I do not want to refer particularly to lawyers in this regard. The professions in general — lawyers, accountants, doctors and other people who provide private or personal fee-based services — will have to re-examine their structures. It is a huge priority for the Government. We need to get to grips with these fees in the context of the downturn and recession we are experiencing.
Senator John Paul Phelan: Hear, hear.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: Some of the fees are outlandish. Some of these structures have been unchallenged. They act in a restrictive way. It is monopolistic in one sense. We need to break those structures in the next few years. Ireland will not have a competitive economy and will not get out of this downturn unless we break the restrictive practices that have grown up in professional bodies, agencies, groups and associations that have set themselves up as membership organisations. If we do not end those practices, we will not achieve the kind of economic improvement we all desire. When the recession eventually clears away, we will need to be extremely lean and competitive. I do not need to lecture Senator Quinn on the concept of cost control, given that he has managed a very successful retail group. I thank Senators again for their contributions. The points made in this debate and in previous debates on this Bill have been welcome. I thank Senators for their co-operation.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 24 February 2009.
Question again proposed: “That section 4 stand part of the Bill.”
Senator John Ellis: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, back to the House. Like his senior colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Minister of State probably feels that very little can be done to address the points that were raised the last time we considered this section of the Bill. It is clear to everybody that the terms of reference given to the constituency commission have not been fulfilled. What has been produced here is a Bill that is based on a flawed report, to put it mildly. Everyone is aware that the terms of reference stated that, where possible, county boundaries should be kept sacrosanct. In terms of keeping county boundaries sacrosanct, we are all aware that local government, and many other groups, works on a county basis. The former health boards operated on the basis of counties.
The terms of reference given to this commission were broken by its first decision. I again highlight what the Minister said with regard to this issue when he came to the House. On the commission report he clearly stated:
In taking that as its first decision, the commission broke its terms of reference. There is an onus on the Minister to ask the President to refer this Bill to the Supreme Court because that is where it will finish up. The terms of reference have been broken on the first decision taken by the commission.
The follow on to that is simple. If the first decision taken was to limit the number, it then made sure that it would break all the other terms of reference. County boundaries are strictly mentioned in the Bill yet parts of County Meath were put into the Louth boundary. The other part of it is in the Westmeath boundary. The county of Meath would have a sufficient population for approximately seven to eight seats. The terms of reference were then broken.
The terms of reference are also broken in that part of west Limerick is being put into the Kerry boundary. The acting chairman is aware that Kerry had the exact population for a five seat constituency. Limerick had sufficient numbers for it to be divided into constituencies. These are cases of the terms of reference being broken by the commission.
The most annoying aspect is that when it came to dealing with my county of Leitrim the commission decided to divide it — half into Roscommon and half into Sligo. The Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon population justifies six seats. I accept its terms of reference did not allow the commission to go beyond five seaters but it could have left Leitrim as one constituency, put it in with Cavan as a four seater, put Sligo and Roscommon together and made another four seater, which would have been justified and the numbers would have worked out exactly.
The commission did not adhere to its terms of reference regarding county boundaries under any circumstances. That brings us back to what was said by the Minister here, namely, that that was the position. It took the decision to stay with 166 Members of Dáil Éireann rather than fulfil its full terms of reference by looking to preserving county boundaries.
I asked the Minister on Second Stage if he had sought an opinion from the Attorney General with regard to this issue. I do not know if the Minister of State can tell me whether it has been determined by the Attorney General but this Bill is based on a flawed commission report from a commission that did not adhere to its terms of reference. If that is the case, the Bill should be referred to the Supreme Court.
We have all heard the Murphy-McGrath case being used as a mechanism for justifying what was done. It is easy to draw lines and decide it should be proportional to numbers but somebody in Dublin who represents a four seat constituency could travel from one end of it to the other in 15 or 20 minutes. Someone representing a five seater like Mayo——
Senator John Paul Phelan: Like Carlow-Kilkenny.
Senator John Ellis: Senator Phelan is right.
Senator John Paul Phelan: Waterford to Tullow.
Senator John Ellis: Yes, Waterford to Tullow but if we take Mayo as an example, and having to travel from Blacksod to Cong, what is being done is unrealistic. In terms of rural areas, a case will have to be made with regard to the tolerance for membership of the Dáil. We must be fair about it.
When the Constitution came into operation in 1937, there were approximately 16,000 people per Member of the Dáil. It has now increased to 25,000 or 26,000. Where is the justice in terms of representation for people? People will say it costs too much money to run this House and attacks will be made on every Member on a continual basis. We have seen that in the past number of weeks with regard to Members’ entitlements in these Houses but the people who are making the attacks do not live in the real world. They do not have to do what public representatives of all parties and none have to do, which is service their electorate. Some of the “perks” given to some of us in these Houses that have been talked about are crucifixions in my opinion because they are no benefit to us. People say we get milage but there is no mention of us having to travel 40 or 50 miles three or four times a week to a funeral. That is taken for granted. They say we would be going anyway. We would not be going but for the fact that one is a public representative and we have dealings with people outside our circle of friends and relatives.
I notice the Minister did not refer this Bill to the Attorney General to determine its constitutionality. This Bill disenfranchises people. It prevents them from being represented by their own local representative and in doing that the commission has broken its terms of reference. The Minister can say what he likes but when I asked him as a point of order on Second Stage if that was the first decision taken he said “yes”.
That begs another question. How could the Minister be aware of that? I made freedom of information applications to get the documentation that was used. I explored every avenue, right up to the Ombudsman whose office should not be in a position to determine a freedom of information request because——
Senator John Paul Phelan: She is a member of the commission.
Senator John Ellis: ——she is a member of the commission. This issue can be fought on several legal points and it will have to be fought because it is not just something that affects us currently in County Leitrim but something that affects the entire system with regard to freedom of information. That comes into this because there is no way anybody in the Ombudsman’s office could have a right to become involved in this issue. They could not determine it. It is determined in the Act that once the commission ceases to function, it has no further obligations. That might be the case but I wonder if the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which was the lead Department in this issue, destroyed the documentation used for its preparation. The Minister of State might indicate whether the documentation has been destroyed. If it has been destroyed, the whole process is a farce and if it is retained, it is a bigger farce in that we cannot get it under FOI or it is not available. I guarantee the House that it is held because whoever wrote the Minister’s speech put in the line that stated the first decision taken by the commission was that there should be 166 Members of Dáil Éireann. They could not write the speech without having access to it. Therefore, these sections of the Bill dealing with the constituencies, not the sections dealing with the European or other elections, are flawed. They have been prepared in a flawed manner.
I am trying to determine from the Minister, rather than having the courts determine, first, that the decision was taken that the number would be 166. The Minister confirmed that to me. If that is the position, the terms of reference were broken because those terms stated that if it were at all possible to maintain county boundaries, the number of Deputies could be raised to 168. This is the position in which we find ourselves.
The second issue we must look at is that this information is not being made available. If the documentation is available — the Minister of State’s speech could not have been prepared without it — it should be laid before this House so that we might see how people came to these conclusions. For example, we might put Meath West and north Westmeath into the one constituency. The proposal now is that Kells will be put into Meath East and part of Meath East will be put into County Louth. That is totally farcical. If one were to take counties Monaghan and Louth, two three-seat constituencies might have been created that at least adjoined each other.
This is crazy stuff. Who did the calculations? Another issue is that we do not know who prepared this. We know the Secretary General of the Department sat on the commission. I wish to know the name of the statistician who prepared the figures. My information, from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, is that it is the same individual who replied to my freedom of information request. The way in which this has been prepared is a total and utter farce. Transparency must come into play. If we do not bring in transparency we delude the electorate and the public. Something must be done in this regard. Nobody should imagine that people will accept this and they cannot be expected to accept it. Will the people of west Limerick who are to be kicked into County Kerry, with all due respect to the acting Clerk and the acting Cathaoirleach, appreciate this? It is the same with the people of County Meath. No doubt many of them will not appreciate being sent to County Louth. The people of south Offaly definitely do not wish to play with Tipperary.
This is part of what we confront. Here is a commission that was given the flexibility to live within its terms of reference. However, it broke every one of them because of the first decision it took. That decision was confirmed to be the first one by the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, in this House in his Second Stage speech. I asked the Minister about this matter at the time but I believe he did not understand the consequences of what I asked. However, I pointed out that if this were to be the first decision taken, the commission would be in breach of its terms of reference.
Who were the back-up people of Ms Tallon, the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? My understanding is that the person who replied to my FOI request, or who prepared the letter, was the person who did the calculations. That is wrong, just as it would be if the Ombudsman’s office were required to take a final decision on my rights. It is wrong and it is unconstitutional as far as the people are concerned.  There are so many points to consider here that I believe it is the Minister’s duty — I know the Minister of State can only carry back the message — to ask the President to refer the relevant sections of the Bill for review. These sections are those relevant to the Boundary Commission in respect of Dáil elections. This must be done. Public interest is involved and there is a lack of transparency such as we have not seen in a long time.
There has been negligence in the preparation of this. I say that with a sense of horror because I do not believe there was negligence on the part of all members of the commission. The Clerks of both Houses sat on it and I do not believe they were the people who prepared the figures. As I said, I would love to know the opinion of the chairperson, the Right Honourable Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill. The commission received a huge number of submissions, 75% of which came from County Leitrim and concerned the prospect of having the county placed as a single unit into the one constituency. Is it possible that anybody who gets such material — 75% of submissions from a national basis — does not realise something is going on? People did not sit down and write e-mails or letters or make submissions to the commission for the good of their health. They could find far better things to do than that but they had an interest in protecting their own county and homeplace. They saw what had happened before.
I cannot understand how the Constituency Commission could have come up with such a report if it had fully explored its full terms of reference. It could not have done so. One can take it that its terms of reference were very clear. These state that the commission had the right to go to 168 Deputies to fulfil its terms of reference.
We have all seen the Bill. It was prepared from information supplied to the Department but in taking this position the Bill has left behind its general purpose which was to provide representation to people. This means representation not only on a local basis, which might not be the proper way to express it, but on the basis of where people come from and what they do. We can easily read the terms of reference, which state:
This report contains the commission’s recommendations in respect of constituencies for the election of Members to the Dáil and the European Parliament. The commission’s terms of reference are set out in section 6 of the 1997 Act, which is clear in what it states, namely:
This brings us to the issue of density of population. If these are the terms of reference issued, how does the report stand following the case brought by former Deputy Catherine Murphy and Deputy Finian McGrath? Mr. Justice Clark stated there was little doubt that the results of the census conducted in 2006 show very substantial changes. He said further that both figures must be seen against the fact that on a national level the ratio of population to seats is in the order of 1:25,000. In addition, five constituencies deviate more than 10% from the national average.
In preparing this report the commission was aware of this judgment and by taking it into consideration, which it obviously did, it again broke its terms of reference. That was not included in and was post the issue of its terms of reference. All the regulations put in place regarding the commission have been broken by the report. The terms of reference given by the Minister when it was established were to ensure it would continue and that counties would have representation. One item is missing from the terms of reference, that it should be mandatory that the minimum number of people transferred from one county to another for electoral purposes would be 30,000. That would ensure if part of a county was put somewhere else it would have sufficient people and votes to elect somebody. In the Leitrim case we are divided exactly 15,000-15,000, and no one can tolerate this disenfranchising of the people of Leitrim.
The Minister of State is duty bound to ask his senior colleague to seek an opinion from the Supreme Court on the validity of this report because it is out of synch with the terms of reference of the commission. I hope the Minister of State might be able to tell us, before we deal with further sections of this Bill, the position regarding whether his senior colleague has sought advice from the Attorney General on this. The Attorney General would have given advice on the preparation of the Bill but has the Minister sought advice from him on where he sees this in view of the points raised in the House. If the Minister has not sought it, the Bill should be adjourned and we should ask him to return with the Attorney General’s opinion before we take it any further. It is wrong that some citizen will have to challenge this in the courts, putting further expense on the State, rather than have it clarified in the House by the State’s legal advisers.
In what I have said here today so far there is definite confirmation that this Bill has not been prepared from a proper commission report. This commission report’s legitimacy regarding its terms of reference is in doubt. It is out of context with what is happening. The Minister of State might clarify that point and I will come back in later.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael P. Kitt): I was here for some of the debate on the Bill and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has been dealing with this Bill. As Deputy Ellis said, one of the aspects this debate shows very clearly is that there is a very strong attachment in Ireland to county boundaries. That is understandable and I have the same issue in my county. The Minister made the point that the terms of reference of commissions are subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions, which do not refer to counties. He quoted the High Court judgement of Mr. Justice Budd in the O’Donovan case and I have also quoted it previously in the Seanad and will do so again:
That is on page 146 of the High Court judgement. The 2007 commission report is no different in that regard.
The House will be aware that the Minister is taking the opportunity in this Bill to update and improve the consultation processes followed by a commission in the course of its work.  The Bill requires a commission to allow at least three months for the making of a submission to it. A commission has discretion as to the length of time allowed and this inevitably is influenced by the six-month time limit on a commission to produce its report. With future commissions commencing work on the basis of preliminary data, greater time can be made available for consultation with interested organisations and individuals and this will ensure a fuller opportunity for political and wider public input to the revision process. With the commission starting work on the preliminary figures there will also be under the Bill a longer time for the commission to develop and reflect on its proposals for constituency revision.
Senator Ellis raised the point about the Attorney General’s advice. As he rightly said, there was advice on the preparation of the Bill. However, the Minister said he was accepting the commission’s report in its entirety. There was no question of further advice. Senators raised other concerns and I understand the difficulties and concerns. The Minister has stated that constituency formation is not a perfect science and people do not always live in the areas which would enable constituencies to be drawn up which meet with general approval. The overriding constitutional requirement of equality of representation means breaches of obvious boundaries are unavoidable in certain cases. In examining the commission’s recommendations I am in the same position as every Member of this House. I have no information over and above that set out in its report. In the revision process, someone’s interests inevitably must be affected and that is the price we must pay for our democratic system.
We are all agreed that the job should be entrusted to a commission. It has done the job in the way it thought was best for it. Difficult choices had to be made. The commission marshalled the available options and made informed and reasoned recommendations. Members of this House and the Dáil would probably make a different choice, but we would all agree we will not return to the so-called gerrymanders of the past when a Minister revised constituencies. It will be a commission and I hope that will be acceptable to the Senators.
Senator Camillus Glynn: I have already spoken on this matter but I wish to add further that I am disappointed with the commission’s report. Being primarily a Celtic race, we in Ireland identify very much with parishes and counties. When that principle is breached, certain situations obtain which are not consistent with what I would consider the keeping together of communities. In Leitrim a very bad job was done. As I have already said, it is one of the smallest counties in Ireland and has seen mass emigration over the years. To sever the county in two, as has been done, does not make any sense and flies in the face of the concept within the terms of reference of the commission of trying to ensure that, where possible, county boundaries should not be breached.
No one has explained to me how cutting Leitrim in two made sense. If that is sense, I would like to know what nonsense is, because it makes no sense. It is no surprise there is not a Dáil Deputy for County Leitrim. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to work out why. It is consistent with what one would expect. As the ninth beatitude of the wise man said, blessed are those who do not expect, they shall never be disappointed. No one expected a Dáil Deputy to be elected in Leitrim and that is precisely what we got — no one.
There is a similar situation in north Westmeath, where a portion of the area went into making a three seat constituency in Meath. Part of Meath has been put into the Louth constituency, while people in Limerick have been put into a Kerry constituency. I do not know from where the rationale for that came. Perhaps I am out of step and wrong, but I do not think so. If I am wrong, so is the rest of the nation as the same opinion has been expressed by anybody I have spoken to about this matter.
Everybody knows what it means to keep a community together, and we know what it means when a community is severed. The cohesion of a community is extremely important. We know what happened with the redrawing of the electoral areas and the adverse reaction to it at local and constituency levels. Towns have been divided in two. Mullingar, for example, has been divided into Mullingar east and Mullingar west by a railway line. Was sense employed in that? No, it was not. As the old adage says, by their deeds shall you know them. It is not a question of what people say but what they do.
This redrawing is a bad job. The commission has not fulfilled the expectations of those who charged it with that responsibility. As I said previously, when politicians redrew constituencies or electoral areas, it was called gerrymandering. This is commission-mandering or commie-mandering. It makes absolutely no sense. I fail to see how it could justifiably find its way onto the Statute Book. I support the view expressed by Senator Ellis regarding its constitutionality. I have serious doubts about it. I am no lawyer but would one want or need to be? If one employs the concept of commonsense, this makes no sense. Commonsense in this report appears to have been a scarce commodity. I am not trying to denigrate the characters of the people who produced it but, at best, poor judgment was employed. At worst, it is a disaster for democracy. It does nothing to conserve communities or to keep intact communities in Leitrim or north Westmeath.
North Westmeath is one of the few areas in County Westmeath which experienced a population decrease in the good times. There are no marks for guessing that it is a disadvantaged area. Severing it to make up the constituency of Meath West was not the best thing to do to conserve that community. It is an area where a number of parishes must join forces to produce a football or hurling team, whereas in the old days each parish could field such teams in their own right. I am not saying there is a panacea to resolve those difficulties but it gives an indication of the situation.
To echo the words of Senator Ellis, I urge the Minister to consult with his colleagues in Government and to seek a view from the Council of State on this matter. It should be referred to the Supreme Court. I doubt it has a legal basis. I could be wrong but if so, I will stand corrected. I cannot add more to what was said by Senator Ellis and others. I am disappointed with this for the reasons I have stated. I hope that at some stage a chink of light will emanate from behind a cloud to confer some degree of commonsense on this report, which at this point it lacks.
Senator Paudie Coffey: As I said on Second Stage, I sympathise with Senator Ellis and the people of Leitrim. In the Irish psyche there is a huge affinity with county boundaries. People in a county who do not have a public representative from within the county to represent them at a forum consider themselves at a disadvantage and disenfranchised. If any other county did not have a public representative in the Dáil, its people would feel the same as Senator Ellis and the people of Leitrim.
However, Fine Gael respects the independence of the commission. It is an independent commission that was set up to analyse the census of population and the demographics of this country and to recommend, independently and outside the political institutions, how the constituencies should be constituted. How seriously did the commission take the submissions made to it? That is the key issue. Time, money and effort went into making submissions to the commission. How seriously did it analyse those submissions? Did it make any responses that are available to the public? Can one view them? This is an important point. There must be an understanding of the reasons for making such decisions.
My constituency is Waterford. The north of County Waterford on the Clonmel side of south Tipperary has been lopped off into the constituency of Tipperary South. I represented that area on the county council. The people there feel disenfranchised and that, in a way, they fall between two stools. They vote in the Tipperary South constituency in a general election but in a local election they vote in the Waterford local electoral areas. They feel they fall between the two and are not taken seriously. Regardless of how strongly their public representatives seek to reassure them, they do not consider it right. From that point of view, I sympathise with the points made by Senator Ellis.
I draw the Minister’s attention to page 40, the Schedule referred to in section 4. I seek clarification of the reference to Waterford in line 30. It states: “The county of Waterford, except the part thereof which is comprised in the constituency of Tipperary South; and the city of Waterford”. Perhaps the Minister would clarify why it states “except . . . and the city of Waterford”. My understanding is that the constituency consists of the county of Waterford and Waterford city, except the part in Tipperary South. I suspect there might be a mistake in the provision. If not, I am happy to be corrected.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I concur with the comments of Senator Glynn, Senator Coffey and particularly those of Senator Ellis about the people of County Leitrim who feel disenfranchised as a result of the outcome of the commission’s report. It should be noted that the constituency commission consisted of the following members: a judge of the Supreme Court nominated by the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman, the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk of the Seanad. The function of the Constituency Commission was:
On subparagraph (c), the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable, as Senator Ellis pointed out, both on Second Stage and on Committee Stage, the commission, by virtue of the answer that the Minister gave Senator Ellis on Second Stage, was clearly in breach of the terms of reference as laid down. I believe Senator Ellis has independent legal advice which indicates that as a result of the breach of terms of reference of the commission, this Bill is unconstitutional and if challenged, will fall.
I join with Senator Ellis and other colleagues in appealing to the Minister of State, Deputy Micheál Kitt, to ask the senior Minister in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to have the Attorney General check this legislation and, if necessary, bring it before the Supreme Court. The last outcome we want prior to a general election, which will be taking place in three and a half years’ time, is any challenge to this Bill or the ramifications that such would entail.
It is appalling that any member of the general public who requests information under the Freedom of Information Act on how the commission came to its decisions should be refused it. It is outrageous that an elected representative of this House should have to request this information in the first place under the Freedom of Information Act, but it is appalling that when he requests it he is refused. On what basis was Senator Ellis refused this information?
There was clearly a conflict of interest because the person refusing him the information was part of the commission that came to the decision to disenfranchise the people of County Leitrim and the various other counties that have been outlined here by my colleagues on both sides of the House. I ask the Minister of State to get clarification on the matters raised under this section.
I welcome one part of the Bill, that which enlarges the north-west constituency for the European elections, the old constituency of Connacht-Ulster, or the three counties of Ulster and the province of Connacht and the County of Clare. We are now joined by the counties of Westmeath and Longford, and I very much welcome that. It gives a realistic possibility of somebody from the part of the country from which I come, that is, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim, Longford, Westmeath, being elected to the European Parliament, and I very much welcome that. However, the Bill is flawed in respect of the areas I outlined, and my colleague, Senator Ellis, outlined here previously, and I would very much welcome the Minister of State’s comments in that regard.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: I thank the Senators for their contributions. First, I want to empathise with what Senator Glynn stated about parish boundaries and, indeed, county boundaries. He gave a good example in the case of the GAA and the pride of the parish. Indeed, that issue of the great empathy there is with parishes and with counties comes up quite a good deal in elections, whether in general elections or local elections.
On the issue Senator Coffey raised where he spoke of the way Waterford is described in the Bill, I understand these are two administrative areas, the county of Waterford and the city of Waterford. I would liken it to the description of Galway West, which the Bill refers to as “The county of Galway, except the part which is in Galway East; and the city of Galway”. There is a borough in Galway and in Waterford, and two administrative areas in each of those counties.
He asked how serious were the submissions treated by the commission. Obviously, we all have different views on that. I and the Minister hope that, as the Senator stated, as it is an independent commission all submissions made would be treated seriously. As I stated, there is more consultation provided for in the Bill and I hope that will be welcomed by all sides of the House.
On Senator Wilson’s point, I understand the Minister has no more information other than what is in the report. For that reason, the Minister is not disposed to accepting amendments to the Bill which would alter the scheme of the constituencies recommended by the commission.
The Minister’s reasons are well known. He spoke about establishing a commission to advise on constituency revision and the implication that these recommendations would be implemented in full. In addition, to reject some of the commission’s recommendations would be to revert to the partisan approach of the past, of which Senator Glynn spoke, when constituency revisions were perceived as framed to secure political advantage for the Government of the day. Also, if the Minister were to comment on particular commission recommendations, he feels it would undermine the independence of a statutory commission which has carried out its task in compliance with all the relevant constitutional and legal requirements.
The Government’s view is that the commission’s recommendations are a package which must be accepted or rejected in its entirety and the Government has decided to follow the established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of the independent commission.
Senator John Ellis: I note the Minister of State’s reply. He did not state whether or not he was going to ask his senior colleague to seek clarification from the Attorney General on the position concerning the preparation of the commission report. If we are to progress this further, this clarification must be got. The Members of this House are entitled to get information from the chief law officer, as far as the Government is concerned.
I want to make quite clear that it was with the senior Minister, Deputy Gormley, that the matter was raised. I cannot understand why he has not sought clarification from the Attorney General and I cannot understand why his officials did not ensure he did so because that was the point we raised on Second Stage. I understood that he would do so. I raised with him on Second Stage the point that if the decision taken was, first, that there were only going to be 166 Members, the commission had broken its terms of reference which stated it was to explore all avenues, up to 168 Members, to ensure the county and geographic boundaries were not broken. These boundaries have been broken right across the board.
Another matter which arises is that section 6(1) of the Electoral Act 1997 states:
Section 6(2) states:
That decision was taken when the population was 20% less than it is now. Therefore the terms of reference for the 1997 Act are questionable. If that were to be followed through, proportionally we should be heading towards a figure of 180 Deputies. I am not saying some members of the public might not appreciate this but there is definitely a question mark over the entire electoral basis on which this commission reported. It is out of date. As I said earlier, the commission used a judgment which was handed down after its establishment and after the terms of reference were in place, as part of its justification for doing what it did. I wonder whether one could have a situation whereby terms of reference might be amended by a court decision. That needs to be looked at.
The Act makes it quite clear that “the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable”. It says that “each constituency shall be composed of contiguous areas” and “there shall be regard to geographic considerations including significant physical features and the extent of and the density of population in each constituency”. That confirms what I have said that the terms of reference of the commission were not adhered to. It also says, with reference to the famous Murphy-McGrath judgment, that the commission would not have been entitled to consider that as part of its deliberations. It is obvious, however, that it did because that has been said here and it has been confirmed.
The provision, “there shall be regard to geographic considerations” goes without doubt. As for density of population, either it is sacrosanct or one must consider the geographic spread or the density. One cannot have the two. One can have one but not both because one cannot have the density of population in each constituency and the geographic spread. In rural Leitrim, for instance, there is no comparison in the density of population vis-à-vis Dublin. I said earlier that if one wants to move from one end of a constituency in Dublin to another, it takes about 15 or 20 minutes. From Tullaghan to Arva is about 70 miles, and that is the length of County Leitrim.
Representation as far as the need of the public is concerned is not considered at all. The Electoral Act 1997 states clearly in section 6(2)(e): “there shall be regard to geographic considerations including significant physical features”. Physical features mean mountains and rivers and everything else. Whenever our predecessors determined the counties, some people in Leitrim wondered how they ended up with one half cut off by County Cavan. One cannot go from one end of Leitrim to another and stay within the county unless one travels by water. One can only travel on the River Shannon if one wishes to remain within the county. On the southern side one must go via County Roscommon and on the northern side one must go through County Cavan if one wants to get from one end of County Leitrim to the other. People wondered at the time why we were not put somewhere else, but what was done was done.
It goes back to what I have been saying. We are trying to debate something on Committee Stage where the clarifications that were sought on Second Stage have not been given by the Minister. I do not blame the senior Minister for this because the officialdom in his Department should have advised him to obtain the official position from the Attorney General’s office. That was not done and it means we cannot finish the business today one way or another. We will have to get a report from the Attorney General and the Minister before we can progress to Report and Final Stages. I am definitely convinced this will have to be done.
I note the Clerk is present and while I do not expect the Clerk to say anything, the Clerk was privy to what went on. I know officials are sworn to secrecy and one must live with that, but if it was first decided by the commission that there should only be 166 Deputies, then its report is negligent and flawed. If the Department says that everything is shredded, and it is a pity it did not shred other things as quickly as its seems to have shredded these files, perhaps the only way this can be determined is by access to the full report. I am convinced the full report is still available because whoever wrote the Minister’s speech must have had access to it. It is as clear as night following day.
The main feature of the commission’s report on Dáil constituencies was to the effect that there should be no change in the existing level of Dáil membership, namely, 166 seats. I specifically asked the Minister after he made his speech in the House whether he could confirm for me that this was the position and he said “Yes”. If that is the position, the commission report is flawed because it did not consider all the options open to it. That is the point I definitely want to make as far as this whole business is concerned. The commission should have examined the possibility of going to 168, or going back to 164 if need be in order to live within its terms of reference regarding the representation per member. We should not take this business any further until such time as we get a definitive legal opinion from the Attorney General on the method that was used. Otherwise will it mean that I or someone on my behalf will have to decide to give lawyers another €200,000 and call on members of the commission to give evidence? It should be remembered that they will have to give evidence on this if it goes to court for the simple reason that it was they who took the decision. If the decision was that the figure should be 166 and that was the first decision taken, then the commission report is flawed because all other avenues were not explored.
As far as I am concerned I will oppose this Bill going through all Stages today on the basis that we should wait for Report Stage to get a report from the Minister.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I thank Senator Ellis for his contribution. He has done the Oireachtas a great service in the amount of work he obviously has put into this debate. I agree with many of the points he raised. I am especially concerned with some issues, not just areas such as Limerick, Leitrim and elsewhere but also the north east, specifically the constituencies of Louth, Meath East and Meath West.
The last constituency commission report expanded the five-seat Meath constituency because of the population growth experienced in the county over the past ten years. I concluded from a demographic study I conducted last year that the population of the county doubled between 1996 and 2007. Significant increases also occurred in County Kildare, the seats of which were increased from six to seven by the report. Meath was transformed into the two three-seat constituencies of Meath East and Meath West. To boost the population of the latter so that it met the criteria set out in legislation, the Coole electoral area of Westmeath was transferred to it.
Louth has been a four-seat constituency for many years but for some reason the Constituency Commission decided to move across county boundaries to include Louth with Meath East and Meath West in the mix of constituencies. The population of Louth has also increased over the past ten years, not only due to people moving there from Dublin but also through natural growth and immigration. When the population of Louth, Meath East and Meath West is added together, the need for an additional seat can be justified. Indeed, many of us called for an extra seat for the region. However, we expected the commission to take account of the legislation, which clearly states that respect must be paid to county boundaries.
The county boundary between counties Louth and Meath has always been defined by the River Boyne, which flows from Mornington and Baltray as far as Newgrange before the boundary moves across the river. That reflects the historic ecclesiastic boundary between the Diocese of Meath, which is bounded by the River Boyne in Drogheda, and the Diocese of Armagh. As a southsider, I tend not to cross the river often. Although the 10% of Drogheda which lies on the south bank of the river is part of the Diocese of Meath, it is included in the constituency of Louth. The reason for this is because the 800 year-old town of Drogheda cannot be split merely by the presence of the river even though it straddles it.
However, as one moves further from the town to the countryside of east Meath, a clear green belt exists between the town’s boundaries and settlements such as Laytown, Bettystown, Julianstown and Gormanston. These areas possess different characteristics and the people and families who have grown up in them consider themselves part of County Meath. During the time of Jimmy Tully, who represented Meath as a Deputy for almost 40 years from the early 1950s to the 1980s and who was a deputy leader of my party, the cry was “not an inch of Meath will go to Louth”. People were concerned about the potential loss of representation and did not align themselves with Louth in their daily lives. They took pride in being constituents of Meath, their football team and their land. They have always fought to retain their distinctiveness from Louth. I do not mean to detract from Louth, which is a fantastic place. It has a good football team which last won the all-Ireland a mere 52 years ago. That is not a long time in the overall scheme of things.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: The referee was a Galway man.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I appreciate that and thank the Minister of State for the help. Rather than criticise Louth, I merely want to identify the proper approach to take. More respect should have been paid to county boundaries. I have been told by people in Bettystown and Laytown they no longer intend to vote because they feel little allegiance to County Louth. Members of the Minister of State’s party, including the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and Deputy Kirk are respected for the tremendous work they do on behalf of their constituents in Louth. That is demonstrated by the poll results they achieve at elections. I believe Deputy Kirk was elected on the first count at the last election. However, many people in the east Meath region are concerned about being represented by people from outside the constituency and would prefer to remain within Meath East. This report caused considerable consternation among local residents.
The entire issue of county boundaries is being thrown aside and replaced by a different rationale for grouping electoral areas. Areas of County Westmeath have been included in the three seat Meath West constituency. The Leader has raised concerns in that regard and I am sure people of that county would prefer to vote in the Westmeath constituency. In the north west of County Meath, Kells has previously been combined with Navan, Trim and Athboy but is now being wrenched out of Meath West and moved to Meath East. The constituencies of long-serving Deputies such as Deputy Johnny Brady are being torn apart. While many of his constituents will remain in the constituency of Meath West, others will be in the Meath East constituency. Five years ago, Kells was in the Meath constituency. Last year, it was in the Meath West constituency and it is now expected to move to the Meath East constituency.
People become familiar with their local representatives and with voting for them. Five years ago, the people of Kells were forced to choose a new representative to support. This changed again two years ago and they are now being asked to vote for a completely new set of representatives. Many people who supported the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, for years were forced to vote for a new representative in their area. There will be much confusion as a result of this. People are concerned about the transfer of towns and villages to different constituencies, in particular when there are other ways of achieving our goal, namely, ensuring representation is proportional to the population in an area.
Approximately 17,000 people are who were in the constituency of Meath East will now be in the Louth constituency, thus increasing the population of the Louth constituency to the extent that it will become a five-seater rather than four-seater constituency. Later, I hope to speak to an amendment I have tabled on constituency size. We would like larger constituencies as they are more democratic in that smaller parties are less well represented when constituencies are smaller in size. I have some interesting statistics for the House which I will go into in detail at a later stage if we get to my amendment. I will not deal at this stage with the issue of three-seater or four-seater constituencies.
As I stated, as a result of these changes the Meath East constituency will no longer include Laytown, Bettystown and an estate called Grange Rath, which comprises almost 1,000 houses, accommodating approximately 3,000 people. Many of these people, who recently moved to the area from Dublin and are only getting to know their local representatives, will be in a different constituency requiring them to find out once again who is representing them. In these challenging times, people need to know where to go with their complaints and from whom they can obtain information in regard to benefits and so on. People who have been living in this area for three years will know their public representatives. However, following enactment of this legislation they will contact the wrong public representatives. This will create confusion and will diminish people’s trust in the electoral system.
Approximately 20,000 people from places such as Grange Rath, Laytown, Bettystown, Gormanstown and Julianstown in the Meath constituency will now be in the Louth constituency. The impact of this will be that the goals as set out in the advice given to the commission will be met in terms of overall numbers. While this addresses the variance of percentage of population to seats, it clearly does not, as other Senators stated, respect county boundaries. A person who resides eight miles from County Louth will be in the Louth constituency. One could argue, if one decided to ignore the issue of county delineation, that those people should be included in the Dublin North constituency. As Members will know, the Dublin North constituency has been revised. Many people who moved out from places such as Balbriggan to Laytown, which is only three or four miles away, knew five years ago who were their representatives. Many of their families remain living in Balbriggan and many of those people continue to work there. I do not understand why, when it came to determining what made sense in terms of to what constituencies particular towns and villages should be aligned, a place like Julianstown, which is nearer to Dublin North than Louth, was not included in the Dublin North constituency when reviewed and changed. People cannot make sense of what is being done.
For whatever reason, the commission has decided to put aside the issue of county boundaries. As long as we are not told how this came about and what is the rationale behind it, people will continue to ask questions. Last week Senator Ellis gave this thoughts on why the commission came back with these findings, not alone in regard to Meath but in regard to Limerick, Kerry North, Kerry South and other areas. Senator Ellis appears to have concerns about due process. I have no evidence to suggest anything untoward has taken place. However, many of the recommendations in this report are strange. I am at a loss to understand why the commission chose to go down this particular route. It is clear from the legislation that county boundaries were to be respected. However, this appears to have been left by the wayside. There is no justification for why the commission ignored that advice.
We need to see the relevant information. It is information the Minister could make available if he chose to do so. However, I could be wrong and would appreciate clarification on the matter from the Minister of State. I know Senator Ellis has tried to get this information under the Freedom of Information Act but has been unsuccessful in doing so. The Cathaoirleach will recall that only a few short months ago this House debated the issue of freedom of information — Senator Buttimer will recall that debate. Not enough is covered by the Freedom of Information Act. There appears to be too many exclusions, which is the reason we sought a debate on the issue.
I believe we need more information from the Minister if we are to go along with the passing of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008. We need to know why county boundaries have not been respected and what is the rationale for ignoring that advice.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, to the House. All of us are representatives of the people. I am concerned at the drift in politics. The commission may have played its part in this regard. While I acknowledge Senator Ellis’s great remarks in the House in regard to Leitrim, he is not the only representative promoting Leitrim. Former Deputy and Senator Gerry Reynolds and other councillors on the Fine Gael side have been active and vocal in that regard.
I have a major concern regarding the way in which the Bill and the commission report disenfranchise people. By this, I mean we in this country have become fixated on being politically correct about everything. The Cathaoirleach gets a hard time from me on the Order of Business and he tries to rein me in.
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator is right first time.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: There are members of the media who parade virtues everywhere. The commission is going by the boundary review as laid out in the census of population. The terms of reference were slightly askew, however.
I have concerns in a number of areas, including with regard to the number of people who have left Cork and the west, and Senator Coffey spoke about Waterford being part of Tipperary South. We are not giving people the representation they deserve. I am not blaming the commission, I am blaming the terms of reference. By its nature, there is a drift towards the capital and the periphery of Dublin. If we want to go back to the Pale mentality of long ago, that is fine, let us do it, but the rest of Ireland loses.
As I said on another Stage of the debate, I do not subscribe to the view that the N7 at the Red Cow is the beginning and end of Ireland. I am a Cork man and proud of it. I believe Cork is the capital of Ireland and we should not be losing TDs as we have been — a TD was taken from Cork North-Central following the second last commission, which was a wrong move. To take the Cork area strategic plan, CASP, area of metropolitan cork as an example, one could have a very good constituency boundary for the wider Cork area which would take cognisance of the division made by the River Lee and would take in emerging communities in Carrigaline and Douglas, and put them with Bishopstown and Ballincollig in Cork South-Central. In Cork North-Central, one could take Glanmire and Blarney and put them in different constituencies. This would make for very attractive constituencies. I have some concerns in this regard.
With regard to the role of parliamentarians, I subscribe to the view that people should know, interact with and regularly meet their TDs, Senators and councillors — in this case TDs, as the boundary commission report concerns TDs. If we want to become like England or America, that is fine. We will all stay in Dublin four days a week and then drive down in the car and nod the head at the weekend. Personally, I do not want to do that. I am concerned we are heading in that direction in some of the constituencies we are creating, particularly in the Dublin area.
To digress — I crave the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach——
An Cathaoirleach: We are dealing with section 4.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I will be brief. Given all the clamour regarding politicians’ expenses in the newspapers every day, I would like to tell the Minister for Finance and other members of the Government that no Member of this House or the other House are pariahs. We are being branded in the media almost as criminals. Some of us, who have no income other than what we receive as Deputies and Senators, are working very hard. I challenge any journalist to come out with me in Cork South-Central for the four days a week I am there, or to stay here with me in Dublin, to see the work the members of different parties do — I include all of us in that.
We are getting wrongly blamed for representing the people. If the commission wanted to change the terms of reference for all of us, it should have done so. However, the media should stop hounding politicians and blaming us for the ills of the world. I feel strongly about this, while it might not be politically correct to say it. I accept there must be a tightening of the belt and I put my hand up in that regard. However, politicians on local councils and town councils, and Members of this House and the other House, should not be cast as bad people. We are not. We work damn hard for the people. I challenge any journalist to come out with me.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the number of officials employed by Ministers and Ministers of State has gone beyond a joke, although that is a different issue which I will not go into now. I crave the indulgence——
An Cathaoirleach: We are on section 4. We are dealing with constituencies.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: It is relevant to the section. If a Minister has 12 officials working for him or her, and Deputies and Senators have nobody, it is very hard to compete.
An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant to the Bill. We are on section 4.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I am on section 4. I am curious with regard to Senator Ellis’s remarks on legality and constitutionality and I look forward to the Minister of State’s response. We have missed an opportunity to create new boundaries in the city and county of Cork, which would have been exciting and innovative and would have moved away from the old Cork South-Central and Cork North-Central division. It is important that people have representation and know their politicians.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: The whole process starts with the census results, which are the starting point for the consideration of the proportionality of votes in each part of the country. In discussing the commission which gave us the constituencies under discussion, we are talking about a Government decision to draft a Bill. That decision was made and, as I said, it included a decision to accept the commission’s report in its entirety.
On a general point, some Senators suggested alternatives to the scheme of constituencies that was recommended by the commission in its report and I know some are clearly unhappy with the recommendations — I said I might do it differently, as would other Senators. However, there is a long-established practice of implementing the recommendations of the Constituency Commission in full.
Senator Hannigan referred to the late Jim Tully, a former Minister, whom I knew. When he had the power to make changes, he told me he was doing me a favour. He did not do me any favour, but that is the way politics goes and one has to take the consistency one is faced with. If we reject some of the commission’s recommendations, we are reverting to the partisan approach of the past, where, irrespective of which Government was in power, Governments tried to take advantage of the situation in which they found themselves. Even minor changes to the commission’s recommendations would represent the first step back to that unsatisfactory situation.
Mr. Justice Clark, in his 2007 judgment, emphasised the urgent obligation on the Oireachtas to revise constituencies as soon as it becomes clear from a census that the existing constituencies no longer have the level of proportionality the Constitution requires.
We have had a very good discussion on the section. We have dealt with parishes and counties, and Senator Hannigan even talked about dioceses, which covers everything. As Senator Glynn said, the parish is something to which we are all very attached and happy to see promoted, whether it is with regard to the GAA or other developments. My key point is that we are here to implement the recommendations of the commission in their entirety.
Senator John Ellis: The Minister of State said in his reply that we cannot make any change to the commission’s recommendations. I accept totally that we do not have that right due to the independent nature of what has been recommended. However, that is not when the crisis arose. The crisis arose at the outset when the commission’s terms of reference were not adhered to. The Bill is before the House but it is based on a flawed commission report, flawed because it did not take into consideration all the options. It took the specific decision to have 166 Members and this was confirmed to the House by the Minister. If this is the case the commission report, on which sections of the Bill are based, is flawed. That has been my point since day one and since the Minister informed the House of that fact.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: I made this point previously, as has the Minister, Deputy Gormley, when he quoted the High Court judgment of Mr. Justice Budd. The judgment argued that although a system in the main based on counties has been adopted, there is nothing in the Constitution about constituencies based on counties. The Constitution does not provide for the formation of constituencies as far as practicable having regard to county boundaries and according to the required ratio. That argument is on page 146 of the High Court judgment and it is the point I made at the beginning. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, also argued that the Constitution does not state that constituencies should be based on counties. We all have different views on the matter.
Last week the Minister published a detailed report on the establishment of an electoral commission in Ireland. The report was produced by a team in UCD. It refers to issues such as the registration of political parties, the electoral register, constituency revision — the matter under discussion today — running elections and referenda, funding, and research and awareness activities. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, stated that the electoral system belongs to all of us. He is determined to take forward change in this area on a consensual basis. For that reason he will invite interested organisations and individuals to provide their views on the important issues raised in the report. In this way there will be a firm basis for the implementation of the changes signalled in the programme for Government. Formal invitations will issue to interested parties shortly and the deadline for sending views to the Minister will be 26 June. That is a very welcome announcement from the Minister on the establishment of an electoral commission and it allows some time to deal with such issues as constituency revision.
I have made some points dealing with the direction in which we intend to move with the report. The Government decision is to accept the report in its entirety.
Senator John Ellis: On a point of order the Minister of State quotes the decision of Mr. Justice Budd. However, at that stage the representation ratio was 20,000:1.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: A point of order must relate to procedure. The Senator may speak on the relevant section.
Senator John Ellis: The procedure is very simple. The Minister of State made a statement in the House. If the statement is incorrect we should have the right to question it. I am not saying the Minister of State did not provide what was before him, but he did state that the decision of Mr. Justice Budd was taken when the representation ratio was 20,000:1. The ratio is now is 25,000:1 and the judgment is, therefore, irrelevant.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Senator Ellis has made a very good point. The north east of the country has seen significant changes since the publication of the report. Much of the population increase was as a result of new arrivals to the country coming to benefit from and add greatly to the economy, which has now taken a turn for the worse. One consequence of the downturn has been the decision of many people to seek their fortune elsewhere. I can name countless towns and villages in the north east and the commuter belt which are affected by this change. One need only visit a housing estate in Ashbourne and call to people’s front doors to realise the number of empty houses now compared with only two years ago. This is because people have moved away. Any estate agent in the north-east region will confirm that properties are becoming cheaper to rent because the demand that existed two years ago no longer exists. As a result, the population in many of these areas has fallen.
I realise the next census is some time away but perhaps the Bill may be based on information already a good deal out of date. The Minister of State might consider re-examining the issue of demographic changes. There has been a fundamental change in the population in many areas. Some villages and towns have seen a 10% or 15% reduction in the number of people, purely because of the flight of foreign workers back home. In some cases such people may not go back home but may go to London to take advantage of jobs that may be available there to help with the building programme for the Olympic Games in 2012. Many people have moved on because the Celtic tiger economy is no more. I am not sure how well that fact has been represented in these figures. We may be adopting legislation based on information already some way out of date.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: The comments of Senator Hannigan are very interesting. I made the point before he arrived in the House——
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I may have missed it.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: The electoral commission announced by the Minister last week arises from a commitment in the programme for Government that refers to an independent electoral commission which would take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight and the implementation of modern and efficient electoral practices. In addition to a revision of constituency boundaries, it also proposes to take charge of compiling a new national rolling electoral register and to take over the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission relating to election spending. It also proposes to examine the issue of financing the political system. In the light of the changes in population and the demographic situation outlined by the Senator, this is something the electoral commission will do and the Minister hopes the views of people and interested parties will be received before 26 June.
I agree with the comments of Senator Hannigan. However, irrespective of the demographic changes, there is a commission in place. That has been the practice for a long time since the late Mr. Jack Lynch established the first commission. The commission is allowed to carry out its work independently and we accept its recommendations in their entirety. Every Government has done so since the first commission was appointed.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: We all respect the work of the commission. However, we wish to know more about the rationale involved. There should be more transparency, which is the topic of the month in the Houses at present. The publication of the rationale would help and go some way in this regard. I welcome the fact there will be a review of the management of the electoral register and I welcome also the potential of having a rolling electoral register. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which has spent quite some time in the past year and a half examining how best to improve the electoral register.
During the previous general election in 2007 I remember calling to a house in which 17 people were registered to vote but which had only two residents. I called to four houses which between them had 51 votes yet only eight people lived there. The local authorities were clearly unable to manage the electoral register because of the sheer scale of the resources required to keep an up-to-date register and because so many people were moving in and out of the area. I was heartened to see the report published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on which the Minister of State’s Department is acting, suggesting that we move towards a rolling system. That will increase transparency and mean that the register is more up to date and reflects the population in our towns and villages. I am sad that it will not be in place for the local elections on 5 June but this is a way forward. I am grateful for the work the Department is doing in this area of electoral reform and compliment the Minister and Ministers of State involved.
I look forward to seeing a rolling register in place as soon as possible, as long as it is adequately funded. The Minister of State will have to fight to ensure that the new authority responsible for the register is adequately funded and does not suffer from cutbacks. A hell of a lot of data will have to be carefully managed. There have been problems around confidential data, for example, the Bank of Ireland lost the details of hundreds of thousands of customers last year. We need to be sure that those in charge of maintaining and updating the electoral register are given sufficient resources to do the job well and accurately, and most important, to ensure that data is confidential.
Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: “That section 5 stand part of the Bill.”
Senator Paudie Coffey: Section 5 states:
There has been much debate about constituency boundaries but we are familiar with the buzz words ‘balanced regional development’ in the national spatial strategy and other reports planning Ireland’s progress. The emphasis in other EU countries, however, is on regional governance. In Ireland the model is central government feeding down to the local authorities and constituencies. I was a chairperson of a regional authority and know that while authorities do good work on policies they do not have the necessary teeth or funding and legislative backing to properly promote balanced regional development.
Four Deputies represent my area, Waterford, which includes one of the national gateway cities identified in the national spatial strategy. A total of 18 Deputies represent Waterford and the other constituencies covered by the regional authority area, Tipperary South, Wexford and Carlow-Kilkenny. My colleague, Senator Buttimer, rightly mentioned his disappointment that Cork lost a representative in the second last commission. A total of 19 Deputies, however, represent Cork city and county alone while 47 Deputies represent Dublin city and the greater Dublin area. By comparison the representatives from the country punch above their weight here. No Government programme involving capital spending, whether the national development plan or other, involves proper balanced regional development because the regions are inadequately represented. I understand that the commission operates within its terms of reference and bases its recommendations on population but this is a small country and geography and regional development should be considered seriously. Government policy and plans refer to balanced regional development but do not recognise that in the number of representatives from the regions. I am not saying that we should have as many Deputies in Waterford and the south east as there are in Dublin where the population is big. Taking proper regional development into consideration, however, we need to consider the numbers of representatives in the regions and address that issue properly and fairly.
Senator Ellis spoke about rural versus the urban areas. People feel disenfranchised and under-represented and need to know their representatives and to have a voice in the Parliament. Balanced regional development needs to be backed up by adequate, fully supported representation in the constituencies. The hard facts are that Waterford and the south east have 18 Deputies, Dublin has 47 while Cork city and county have 19, which compares with the number for the whole south-east region.
I support Senator Hannigan’s comments about the electoral commission. I too welcome the fact that the Minister is bringing this forward. The sooner he does so the better because all parties in the House have acknowledged that the registers are deplorably inaccurate.
I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Under our Chairman, Deputy Seán Fleming, we have examined other jurisdictions to determine how best the registers should be managed to ensure that we have an adequate and accurate electoral system. The rolling system is to be welcomed. I presume that the Minister has taken on board many of the committee’s recommendations on the electoral commission because we have done a lot of ground work and have made good cross-party recommendations. I hope he will take most, if not all, of our views on board. That will benefit democracy and the electoral system in general.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I agree with Senator Coffey about balanced regional development. He seems to be calling for a system of representation like the Senate system in the United States whereby there are two Senators from every state, regardless of the size of the state. That might be worth considering.
I am not from Dublin but I am from within the Pale. There are anomalies at county council level of which the Minister is probably well aware and on which he needs to act. There is an imbalance between county councillors in Dublin and the numbers they represent and those in places such as Senator Ellis’s home, Leitrim. I had the pleasure of spending time last night with Councillor Dermot Lacey, one of my party’s candidates in the south of the city in the forthcoming local election. He is in a six-seat ward, around Rathmines and Ranelagh where the population is approximately 65,000. That is the size of a Dáil constituency but with twice the number of representatives. Each councillor is almost like a super-councillor or a semi-Deputy. A total of 28 people represent Leitrim which probably has a similar population. Senator Wilson can tell us the population of Cavan but it is probably approximately 60,000.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: It is 60,000.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: There are probably 28 or 29 councillors.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: There are 25.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: In Cavan, 25 councillors represent 60,000 people, while six councillors represent 65,000 people in a part of Dublin, which is four times the ratio of councillor to population. That is probably not the way we should be operating as a democracy, so the Minister and the Minister of State should look at that again.
I have been calling for reform of the Senate on numerous occasions, but one of the implications of having more councillors from Leitrim and Cavan is that there is a greater likelihood that candidates from those areas are elected to the Senate, when compared to Senators from Dublin. Therefore, this anomaly does not just impact on council constituents in south Dublin, but it also means that when electing Members to this House, candidates from rural backwaters — not that Cavan is a backwater — such as Cavan or Leitrim have a higher chance of being elected to the Senate than the poor Senate candidate from the Dublin region.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Hannigan has lost the rural vote.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: We should look at this again when it comes to reforming the Senate. That is not part of this Bill, so I will not dwell on it, but we need to see movement on the issue of Senate reform. It is something that has been lacking, and I know the Green Party has been keen to see something done on this. I would like to see some legislation on the issue before the beginning of the summer recess.
Senator Paudie Coffey: It is important to debate all these issues, because we are certainly getting views from different representatives. I do not agree with everything Senator Hannigan has said, and I suspect he represents essentially a largely urban area. It is quite logical to understand that in places like Dublin and large urban centres, there are huge population densities, which is stated in the commission’s terms of reference. However, there are large swathes of rural areas in the regions. The population may not be as dense, but all of those individuals are entitled to representation. The fact they are living in a sparsely populated area does not mean they should have less representation.
Some speakers mentioned the conundrum between geography versus density. I appreciate it is hard to square that circle, but there should be some weighting system to allow for large geographical areas with lower population densities, as there are still infrastructural needs for those rural areas. There are also issues regarding rural areas that affect our national performance, such as our water quality. As water is predominantly sourced from rural areas, there are protection issues involved. There are also issues about how we get funding from the Government to install the necessary systems, be it waste water treatment plants and so on.
We are going away from the debate to some extent, but it is all related to how areas are represented. The more power representation provides, the more resources will be provided for a constituency or region. There is a big debate on regional development versus central Government, but there is another debate on representation and the density of population versus rural areas. It is not good enough to state there is one councillor representing 6,000 people. That same councillor down the country could be representing 600 people, but his workload could be every bit as onerous as the councillor representing 6,000 people, because those 6,000 people can be well catered for with infrastructure and facilities. A councillor in a rural area could be out there fighting day and night for that infrastructure, even if it is for a smaller population.
It is not necessarily all one way, and I am looking at this as a regional representative. Knowing that the regions have large deficits in infrastructure, we need proper representation. There are 18 TDs in the south-east region, versus 47 TDs for the greater Dublin region. There is an imbalance there in my view.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I thank Senator Coffey for his comments. I agree with him, but I would like to point out that I am not actually an urban representative.
Senator Paudie Coffey: He sounds like one.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: It is fair to recognise that Dublin is under-represented, even though I do not represent Dublin. My constituency of Meath East is quite rural. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting many people at their doorsteps. Last Thursday, I was standing in a milking parlour while the farmer milked his cows, and a fine herd of cattle he has. That might only be 25 miles from where we are sitting, and there are rural areas in many parts of Meath which I try to represent to the best of my abilities. I do not know the exact split between urban and rural dwellers in my constituency, but I estimate that about 55%-60% of people there live in urban areas. I am sure the Senator has been to Meath, and he is very welcome there.
As the party spokesperson on community and rural affairs in the Senate, I keenly keep an interest in issues that affect rural communities. I have spoken on issues such as rural post offices and the need to keep them open, on suckler grants——
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I think we are straying from the debate on the section of the Bill.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I just wanted to clarify the situation for Senator Coffey. I agree in essence with what he is saying. Rural councillors, TDs and Senators have a huge post-box——
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: By the time we finish this section, it will be milking time.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: One could learn much from visiting rural dwellers in one’s constituency, but one needs to spend proportionately more time there because the issues are so diverse. The issues could be about water, sewerage, education, health and so on. I do not want to take away from Senator Coffey’s well made point, which is that we need to make sure every citizen has adequate representation.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: Even though we are straying from the Bill, the question of balanced regional development is a very interesting debate. One of my areas of responsibility is related to local services, so the point made by Senator Hannigan is a good one. We must ensure local services are promoted and protected, especially in some of the most rural areas.
Dáil seats are based on population, and that is the bottom line. We must go with that and we give the commission its terms of reference based on the population per seat. The Government’s national spatial strategy is important to ensure that regional development is evenly promoted throughout the country. A project I have been anxious to promote is the western rail corridor, which would stretch from Sligo to Limerick, and onto Senator Coffey’s County Waterford. Now that we have spent much money on road development, it is important to have rail development as well.
Senator Coffey made the point about the register of electors and the work that his committee is carrying out under the Chairman, Deputy Seán Fleming. I compliment the committee on that important work. It is important for certain issues such as the fact that some people’s names are on the register twice or more to be examined in the context of the rolling register. I am glad the committee is working on it.
I would like to mention an interesting fact in response to Senator Hannigan’s point about the work of Members of the Dáil who represent Dublin constituencies. It is somewhat ironic that many of the Deputies in question are people from rural Ireland living in Dublin. For example, my brother, Deputy Tom Kitt, and the late Séamus Brennan both moved from County Galway to the same part of Dublin. Both of them were elected for the Fianna Fáil Party to represent the Dublin South constituency at many elections. There is a bit of rural Ireland in every one of us. Senator Coffey rightly pointed out that Dublin is represented by 47 Deputies. It is obvious that the population of Dublin warrants such a degree of representation under the terms of reference given to the constituency commission.
I take all the points that have been made. It is probably a good debate for another day. Section 5 sets out the number of Members of the Dáil who should be elected to represent each constituency. I note that the number of Deputies decreased from 147 in 1923 to 144 in 1969 before increasing to 166 at the present time. As Senator Ellis said, the first decision made by the constituency commission related to the number of seats each constituency should have in the next Dáil.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 6 to 8, inclusive, agreed to.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I move amendment No. 1:
This amendment proposes that three-member constituencies be allowed in exceptional circumstances only. I am not sure that the current constituency commission has been forced by exceptional circumstances to propose so many three seat constituencies. I am surprised the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has not taken action in this regard. He is on record as saying he favours the elimination of three seat constituencies and a movement towards four seat and five seat constituencies or in some cases six seat and seven seat constituencies. It has been proposed to have many more six seat and seven seat constituencies in this year’s local elections. Such constituencies offer a fairer form of proportional representation to the electorate.
I will give the House an example to prove that is the case. The quota in a five seat constituency is 16% of the vote, whereas the quota in a three seat constituency is 25% of the vote. In theory, a candidate could get 24.5%, or almost a quarter, of the vote, but he or she will not be elected if he or she fails to attract transfers. In such circumstances, almost a quarter of the electorate would be completely unrepresented because they live in a three seat constituency. That would not be the case in five seat or six seat constituency. The use of bigger constituencies ensures that 80% of the people and up to 90% in some instances have a direct say in who gets elected. We need to provide for more seats in each constituency if we are to maximise the representation of the people. That is necessary not only in the interests of transparency but also to ensure smaller parties are represented. As things stand, the two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, probably benefit from the current situation.
Senator Paudie Coffey: The Senator’s party is nearly on top now.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I place no credence in opinion polls.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: Good.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: As someone who studied statistics in college, I would prefer to take the recent poll, roll it up into a ball and throw it into the nearest bin. As we all know, only one poll matters. One will not get any votes if one does not work hard, get out there and do one’s job. While I appreciate Senator Coffey’s good wishes, I assure him opinion polls do not excite me for one minute.
I would like to comment on the manner in which Deputies are elected from the smaller parties. Following the 2007 general election, Sinn Féin is represented in Dáil Éireann by four Deputies. Deputy Ó Snodaigh was elected in the five seat Dublin South-Central constituency. Deputy Ó Caoláin was elected in the five seat Cavan-Monaghan constituency which was reduced to four seats at the previous general election because the then Ceann Comhairle, Deputy O’Hanlon, was automatically re-elected to the Dáil. Deputy Morgan was elected in the four seat Louth constituency. The only Sinn Féin candidate to be elected in a three seat constituency was Deputy Ferris who replaced Dick Spring in the Kerry North constituency in 2002. Most of Sinn Féin’s seats were won in five seat and four seat constituencies.
If the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, were here, I am sure he would agree that similar problems are encountered by the Green Party. He represents the four seat Dublin South-East constituency. His colleague, Deputy Cuffe, was elected in the five seat Dún Laoghaire constituency. Deputy White was elected in the five seat Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, comes from the five seat Dublin South constituency. The Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, was elected in the four seat Dublin North constituency. The only exception to the rule in the Green Party is Deputy Gogarty, who was first elected to the Dáil when his constituency, Dublin Mid-West, had just three seats. It has become a four seat constituency since then. Most Green Party Deputies are elected to represent five seat or four seat constituencies. Three of its six Deputies represent five seat constituencies and the other three represent smaller constituencies.
Most of the Deputies elected to represent my own party, the Labour Party, are elected in four seat or five seat constituencies. Our party leader, Deputy Gilmore, comes from the five seat Dún Laoghaire constituency. Deputy Ciarán Lynch represents the five seat Cork South-Central constituency. When Deputy Kathleen Lynch returned to the Dáil in 2002, she was one of five Deputies to be elected in Cork North-Central. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Howlin, represents the five seat Wexford constituency. Deputy O’Shea was elected in the four seat Waterford constituency. Deputy Penrose was elected in the four seat Longford-Westmeath constituency. Deputy Quinn represents the four seat Dublin South-East constituency. Deputy Upton was elected in the five seat Dublin South-Central constituency. Deputy Higgins was elected in the five seat Galway West constituency.
The manner in which proportional representation works means the Labour Party is more adequately represented than other parties. The party’s number of Deputies is much more in keeping with the share of the vote it gets. That is not the case in three seat constituencies, however. If a Labour Party candidate gets 20% of the vote in a three seat constituency, he or she might not be elected to the Dáil. The fairness of this aspect of our system needs to be considered. I do not think it is fair.
I am glad the Minister has made changes to local electoral areas. Some electoral areas in County Meath now have seven seats. We have no complaints about that. The outcome of the local elections in such areas will reflect the share of the public vote achieved by small parties. We have no real complaints. We welcome the changes to local electoral seat arrangements. We do not accept that each of the three seat Dáil constituencies recommended by the constituency commission and provided for in this Bill is necessary. We suggest that a greater number of seats be provided for in a smaller number of constituencies to represent more adequately and fairly the demographics involved.
I will refer to the proposed constituency arrangements in the north east, for example. It is proposed that Meath West and Meath East will both have three seats, with Louth having five seats. The Louth recommendation has been put together by removing 17,000 people from the County Meath constituency and placing them in the Louth constituency. The reason they have been removed from the Meath East constituency is not clear. It would have been much more transparent if they had been retained in Meath East and an extra seat given to Meath East. In that way there would be three in Meath West, four in Louth and four in Meath East. Not only would that have been more transparent, it would have gone along with the recommendations given to the constituency commission that county boundaries should be respected. The position now is that there are more three seaters than may be necessary. That is, first, less representative of the way people vote and, second, county boundaries are being split. The problem is that there appears to be no rationale for that being done.
Senator Ellis referred last week to the transparency of the entire process, and people ask questions. If people do not understand the rationale they ask questions. They ask whether somebody has been got to, so to speak. They want to know the reason this is being done. Is it to suit somebody or to nobble somebody else? We are unclear about it because no rationale has been published. Despite requests from Senators for information to be released, the freedom of information rule does not appear to apply in this case. I am led to believe the Minister could make these papers available quite easily and if he did so it might clear up some of these issues.
Our amendment is seeking better representation for people. We want the result of any election to be more reflective of the way people vote and we believe the best way of doing that is by minimising the number of three seat constituencies, except in exceptional circumstances. I will not try to define what is an exceptional circumstance. The term “exceptional circumstances” defines itself. From what we have seen in the proposals contained in this legislation, no exceptional circumstances have been outlined as to the reason this should be the case.
I will give an example of what could be defined as an exceptional circumstance. If there were 65,000 people living on one of the Aran Islands, it might be decided to keep that as a three seater because it might not make sense to move them to another constituency. It might make more sense to give them their own identity. Identity, therefore, could be an issue that would define exceptional circumstances. If people spoke a different language than those in the remainder of the constituency or if a Gaeltacht area had a sufficient number of people for a three seater constituency, that might be an exceptional circumstance.
There is nothing exceptional in the proposals before the House. If anything, the opposite is the case. We are taking people out of the Meath constituency whose families have lived there for generations. They are used to voting for Meath TDs and going to see Meath play at football matches. A total of 18,000 of them are being taken out of that constituency and put into a different county. There is no sense to that and we have seen no rationale for the Government to do that. This amendment seeks to enshrine in law that that cannot be done in the future unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as those I have outlined.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: It might be helpful if I outlined the law and practice in the area. I will start by quoting the Constitution. Article 16.2.6° states no law may be enacted by the Oireachtas providing for less than three members for a constituency. The relevant part of the Electoral Act 1997, which is being largely re-enacted in Part IV of the current Bill, provides that the constituency commission’s terms of reference are limited to recommending three, four or five seat constituencies. In the early years of the State there were seven, eight and even nine seat constituencies but constituency size has been restricted to three, four and five seaters since 1947.
The current Bill provides for 17 three seater constituencies. In the 13 previous constituency revisions, that number has been exceeded on five occasions, including by the 18 three seaters enacted in 2005. On the other hand, there were eight occasions on which there were fewer or the same number of three seaters.
It is the Minister’s view that it would be too rigid to restrict a commission to two constituency sizes, that is, four seat and five seat constituencies. That would be the substantive effect of this amendment. There must be a reasonable choice of constituency sizes to produce constituencies that make sense to people on the ground by, for example, enclosing entire communities or adhering to obvious physical features.
Restricting in this way the options available to future constituency commissions could result, in particular, in more breaches of county boundaries. For example, if the population in a county determines that an allocation of six seats is appropriate, in the absence of the two three seat options the county boundary must be breached to achieve the constituencies with four seats or five seats. Donegal is such a case at present. The knock-on consequences of that could be significant across neighbouring constituencies.
The amendment before the House gives no guidance, and Senator Hannigan accepted this, on what would amount to the exceptional circumstances that would permit three seaters. The nature of the task of constituency revision calls for a workable menu of different sized constituencies. The amendment does not provide that and I do not propose to accept the amendment.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Dominic Hannigan: It is being pressed.
The Committee divided: Tá, 5; Níl, 36.
|Hannigan, Dominic.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|Norris, David.||Ross, Shane.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brady, Martin.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Butler, Larry.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Callanan, Peter.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Daly, Mark.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||McDonald, Lisa.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Quinn, Feargal.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Dominic Hannigan and Michael McCarthy; Níl, Senators Fiona O’Malley and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Section 9 agreed to.
Question proposed: “That section 10 stand part of the Bill.”
Senator John Ellis: I would have preferred to raise this under section 7 but it had passed. It is very unfair that the Clerks of the two Houses of the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman are on the commission. It should be composed entirely of members of the Judiciary, with somebody who would do the statistics for them. The Judiciary should decide this because there are vested interests. I do not refer to anybody in particular, but it is open to vested interests to become involved. I say that because whatever documentation is produced is gone once the commission finishes, whereas if the Judiciary made the final decision it would be in a position to deal with the matter fairly with a non-vested interest. There could be vested interests and we would not know it, whereas the Judiciary has always been accepted as being above reproach and it should do this. It is very unfair.
Earlier I pointed out that the Ombudsman had to give a decision on my freedom of information application for documents. This meant the person who sat on the commission decided whether I should get documentation under the Freedom of Information Act. That is wrong. Those people are put in an invidious position by being on the commission. The Supreme Court is made up of a number of judges from the various courts. In this case one could take one judge from each of the Supreme Court, the High Court , the Circuit Court and the District Court. If one wanted an odd number one could add a fifth member. It is wrong that civil servants make the decision rather than somebody who is separate from it.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I add to what Senator Ellis said and speak to the Bill in general. I do not doubt the independence of the commission as it is recommended in the Bill. My party takes the view that each individual on the commission is totally independent and is entitled to be on the commission. A section of the Bill refers to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and the staff who will assist the commission in its work. It is very important that this facility is available to the commission. The director general of the CSO and the chief executive officer of Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI, will assist the commission in reaching its recommendations on Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. I wonder what level of engagement might have happened heretofore with those two agencies, the CSO and the OSI, and whether there was real engagement with them in the commission arriving at its recommendations. I hope there was.
This Bill refers to the fundamentals of our democracy. It deals specifically with constituencies, whether Dáil or European Parliament, and the numbers and demographics in those constituencies. It is important that the information the commission uses is fully up to date and endorsed by the agencies responsible for those statistics. I have not read the report but I wonder if it makes specific mention of engagement with those agencies, the CSO and OSI. If so, will the Minister comment on the extent of that engagement and the advice the agencies might have given to the commission? That is an important point regarding having accurate information for any recommendations or reports by the commission. The information and levels of engagement by those agencies should be clear and transparent.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: We are discussing the nomination of candidates for the European Parliament elections. The Electoral Act 1997 sets out membership of a constituency commission, as follows:
While we might not agree with the commission, we value its independence — I have been saying that all afternoon. I put the case that we accept in its entirety the work and results of the commission.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 11 to 14, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: “That section 15 stand part of the Bill.”
Senator Paudie Coffey: Section 15 is very topical with the local elections coming up in June. There are regulations set down here which we will not oppose. They are recommended and Fine Gael will support them. If an individual wants to offer his or her candidature for local elections, it should be encouraged by all political parties. The elected representative reflects society and the public which he or she represents. In these difficult and trying times it is most important that all institutions of the State, including the Upper and Lower Houses of the Oireachtas, have proper regulations in place regarding candidacy in elections. It should be seen by the public that there are no unnecessary barriers to a person’s candidacy for election to represent his or her local area. For that reason, I welcome these regulations.
Line 10 in the section refers to: “The requirement on candidates referred to in article 14(7) to secure 15 assents or make a deposit in accordance with article 15”. Heretofore, the number required was much higher. That is welcome for independent candidates who wish to offer themselves for election and do not have a party structure to support them. As a democrat, I welcome this. They will not have to bus in 30 or 40 people — I believe 50 were required at one stage — to support their candidacy. It can be an unnecessary burden for somebody who wishes to participate in elections. I would offer encouragement to any person, from whatever party or none, who would put their head above the parapet by putting their name on the ballot paper to go before the electorate. Anybody who enters the political process, be it at town council or county level, is to be admired. All parties and Independent Members in this House would encourage people who offer themselves as candidates in the forthcoming local elections.
The Bill is quite detailed with regard to the regulations. I have read them and they appear to be in order. Fine Gael welcomes them. In these trying times, we are seeking leadership. We are also looking for people who might have aspirations in the political sphere to step up to the mark, put themselves before the public and let the public scrutinise what they stand for in the local elections. I am sure the public will elect people who will show leadership in town, city and county councils throughout the country. I wish the candidates who go forward, and many of them are out canvassing already, well in the forthcoming elections.
Senator Paddy Burke: The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government recently announced spending limits for the local elections. He said he would underpin the announcement with legislation that could not be included in this Bill. What is the position with the promised legislation mentioned by the Minister? There are 14 weeks to the local elections and it is only two or three weeks to St. Patrick’s Day. The Houses take that week off. The legislation must be introduced but it has not yet been published. It is of the utmost importance that the promised legislation either be included in this Bill or be published and put before the House as soon as possible. We are nearly at the run-in period to the local elections.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Some points were raised regarding the assentors for non-party candidates. I understand that currently, the number of assentors required for a county council election is 15 but that it is higher, possibly 40 or 50, for a Dáil election. That is when one sees busloads of people being brought through the county to county hall. I have a question about the assentors. My understanding from the last occasion, in 2004, is that the assentors had to turn up in person. Is that a misunderstanding? Will the Minister clarify if that will still be the case?
It is difficult for a non-party candidate to get 15 people, especially if they have young families, to take time off and turn up at a place that is, perhaps, 30 miles away. During the last local elections I spoke to a non-party candidate in the Meath electoral area. She had driven almost 30 miles to register at the place of registration. Bringing 15 people makes it more complex and difficult for non-party candidates to put their name on the ballot paper. While I would encourage people to join my party, I respect the fact that non-party candidates can add to the overall electoral process.
It is not clear from the Bill whether the Minister intends to issue guidance on this matter. Section 15(c) refers to “the time and place at which nomination papers may be obtained”. Presumably, in this day and age these could be downloaded from computers. It would save people the trouble of having to get in the car and travel to county hall or wherever to get copies of the nomination papers. Surely they could be downloaded from a pdf file from the Internet. Perhaps the Minister would give advice in this regard for local returning officers. We should seek to minimise the distances travelled by candidates and assentors in the local election process and make it as easy as possible so as to encourage more people into the electoral process.
Senator Coffey mentioned people who raise their heads above the parapet. It is a scary place, and once one decides to run there is no going back. We should encourage people to get involved. It is good for democracy. We can do that by making the process simple. I accept that everybody cannot run; one cannot have 4 million people running in the local elections. However, if there are serious potential candidates, we must do what we can to make their path as simple and stress free as possible. We must encourage more people into the system. I hope that after the passage of this legislation the Minister will issue guidance to make matters easier for prospective candidates.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: Section 15 amends the local elections regulations of 1995 by inserting articles 11 to 20 in substitution for the existing ones. These articles cover the nomination of non-party candidates at local elections, bringing the procedures into line with those enacted for Dáil elections in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2007 and proposed in this Bill for European Parliament elections.
The new articles provide for two alternative mechanisms to regulate the nomination of candidates at local elections who are not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation confirming that he or she is a candidate of a political party registered on the register of political parties. The first mechanism is by way of assents, requiring the completion of a statutory declaration by 15 assentors, registered as electors in the relevant local electoral area, which may be witnessed by one of five categories — a commissioner for oaths, peace commissioner, notary public, a garda or a local authority official. The alternative is by way of the candidate or somebody on his or her behalf lodging a deposit of €100 in the case of the election of members of county or city councils and €50 in the case of any other election. A total of 30 assentors are required for a Dáil election and 60 for elections to the European Parliament.
With regard to the assent procedure, the proposal to use statutory declarations provides for a more flexible system. Previously, every assentor had to travel to the local authority office to sign the candidate’s nomination paper. Assentor signatures will now be on documents attached to the nomination paper, not on the actual paper. The process will not involve the busloads of people mentioned by the Senators.
In reply to Senator Burke’s question about spending limits in local elections, the Minister has stated he will shortly publish a Bill to introduce the spending limits that will be in force for the local elections scheduled to take place on 5 June 2009. There is a sliding scale for the 34 county and city councils, with four separate spending limits based on the population within each electoral area. An upper limit of €15,000 will apply in the most populated electoral areas with a population of 32,501 persons or over, a limit of €13,000 will apply in the county and city electoral areas where the population is between 22,501 and 32,500 persons, and a limit of €11,500 will apply to county and city council electoral areas with a population of between 12,001 and 22,500 persons. The lowest limit of €9,750 will apply to county and city council electoral areas with a population of 12,000 persons or less. A standard spending limit will apply to all 80 of the borough and town councils. Candidates standing for these elections to local authorities will be subject to a spending limit of €7,500. That is the position on the spending limits and the legislation will be published shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: “That section 16 stand part of the Bill.”
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I want to be clear that I understand this. It is important how we distribute the surpluses when it comes to the election. Section 16 states:
I would be concerned that such guidance will be difficult to implement or explain in the heat of an election count, especially, for instance, on the eighth or ninth count. In some cases it might be very late into the night or well into the morning when two or three votes here or there could be the difference between being elected or eliminated or not being elected. I would be concerned about how understandable such clauses are. This can make or break an election. It can swing on the presence or absence of a comma, and in that sentence of 100 or 110 words there is one comma. I would ask the Minister of State for an explanation of what that means merely so that we can be crystal clear on the record about what this will mean when it comes to transfers of surpluses.
As he will be well aware, one of the reasons we withdrew the electronic voting machines was because questions were raised about how they distributed surpluses. I could be wrong here and if so, I stand corrected. I am getting a nod from Senator Ellis. I remember at the time going through the technical issues and it is quite a tedious process to work out exactly how these things are done. We paid experts in mathematics, statistics and computer programming to design these systems, processes and codes in the first instances, and they got it wrong. In the heat of the day when people’s blood is up and they are concerned that they are about to win or lose a seat, we expect the poor returning officer to go to his briefcase, pull out this legislation and read this out.
I am sure the Minister of State has a great deal more experience than I have of elections. Having looked at his electoral history, I would say at this stage he has contested in the order of ten general elections.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: Yes.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I am sure he knows exactly to what I am refer. I would be concerned that this is not clear. We have some very bright returning officers and no doubt they will make it their job to understand this, but I am concerned more about how the councillor who feels very much under pressure at the eighth or ninth count of the day or the candidate who thinks he or she is about to get elected will react to this and how we will explain this to them. I would like the Minister of State to talk me through it.
Senator John Ellis: Senator Hannigan has a point. Where surpluses are used as part of the vote transfer in a general election, it is up to the returning officer who can select from any bundle and it is not pure proportional representation. I experienced this many moons ago when the bundles from the surplus selected to be gone through were not balanced across the constituency. It is a matter that should be looked at in the context of further electoral reform that the transfer of surpluses is dealt with in a proper manner, as is done in the case of Seanad elections where they are proportioned out fully. In the case of general elections the bundles chosen by the returning officer are those used for the transfer of surpluses and it does not always give a equal balance on how the electorate was thinking.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I am disappointed the commission did not get the job of overseeing elections. That matter should be transferred out of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government into a specific election department. I do not say that against any official. It is time that we had an independent electoral commission dealing exclusively and solely with elections.
I agree with Senators Hannigan and Ellis on the issue of the transfer of surpluses. It is imperative. If the Minister of State does nothing else today, we need to educate people about the proportional representation single transferable vote system. We have not done that despite the most elaborate concoctions ever in the Department.
We need to go back and review from where the ballots come to be distributed. The Seanad system is probably a fairer one——
Senator John Ellis: The fairest.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: ——where there is an equitable distribution of votes across the board. That might lead to all sorts of mathematical permutations and it might mean the Clerk of the Seanad would go on tour throughout the country to educate all the returning officers. There are anomalies in the system. We have seen them and they are undemocratic.
The other matter with which I am disappointed is one which the Acting Chairman will roar at me for raising.
Acting Chairman (Senator Geraldine Feeney): I never roar.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The commission should have been given the power to tell the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government get rid of the electronic voting machines and consign them to history. I do not say that as a political point.
I love the cut and thrust of the count. I have been beaten and I have been director of elections on count day. I remember ringing a great friend of mine, former Senator Cregan, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to say he was finished and at 2 o’clock in the morning he won by six votes. The ballot box, as my mother used to say, is a great leveller. One knows who one’s friends are.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: One does not.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: One does.
Senator Paudie Coffey: One knows how many one has.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Exactly. The electronic voting machine is like Murphy’s law. It is like going in to Dunnes Stores and getting a receipt. It is cold, uninviting, non-participatory and, dare I say it, takes away from the cut and thrust of the old blood battle. I say that unashamedly. One cannot beat being in Neptune Stadium or City Hall on the day of a count and we are all there in all our emotions, in good and bad, winning and losing. That is part of politics, especially local politics because that is about community.
I would be a little concerned regarding the issue of nomination for elections. I do not want to make it exclusive. I spoke earlier about the issue of expenses. I have a genuine concern that we will make politics the preserve of the rich and of a few when democracy is not about that. Democracy should be about all of us participating, be it running for office or being involved in or organising campaigns.
Acting Chairman: As it is now 4 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order voted on by the Seanad of this day.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I want to raise a point of order.
Acting Chairman: I am sorry.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: This is an important debate and I have not finished what I wanted to say.
Acting Chairman: I am putting the question. I am sorry.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: On a point of order, what is the rush?
Acting Chairman: I cannot let the Senator make a point of order,
Senator Jerry Buttimer: What is the rush? On a point of information——
Acting Chairman: I must ask the Senator to resume his seat. I cannot allow him a point of order. I must put the question. I ask Senators to resume their seats. The Chair is not allowing a point of order. I am putting the question.
Senator Maurice Cummins: So much for democracy.
Acting Chairman: The question is: “That in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in Committee, the Schedule and Title are hereby agreed to——
Acting Chairman: ——the Bill is, accordingly, reported to the House without amendment, the Fourth Stage is hereby completed, the Bill is hereby received for final consideration, and the Bill is hereby passed.”
The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 17.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Carty, John.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Corrigan, Maria.||Daly, Mark.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||McDonald, Lisa.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Ross, Shane.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Quinn, Feargal.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins.
Question declared carried.
An Cathaoirleach: For the information of the House, when the Chair has started putting a question no point of order or point of information can be raised.
Senator Paudie Coffey: On a point of order, we held a useful debate on this Bill, but the way in which it was guillotined through the House is an affront to democracy. This is a parliamentary democracy and Senators were on their feet when this Bill was guillotined from Committee Stage to its finish. It is a shame that the Government is practising democracy in this way. This is about the fundamentals of democracy and shame on the Government for guillotining this Bill.
Senators: Hear, hear.
An Cathaoirleach: The time for debate was agreed on the Order of Business this morning and I, or whoever else is in the Chair, must abide by that.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: It is a disgrace.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: We did not have an opportunity to debate certain sections of the Bill. We should have returned to it.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Wait until Fianna Fáil councillors hear about this.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Some of them have already become Independents.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I thank Seanad Members for tabling this matter for discussion. Considerable interest, concern and outrage have been expressed in the Seanad at the tragic events that have taken place in the Middle East and, in particular, recent developments in Gaza. There can be no doubt that what has happened in Gaza was a tragedy that should not be repeated. Today’s debate is opportune because the dreadful events that have taken place since Christmas have reminded us of the very high stakes involved and the continuing potential for shocking violence. The region is a tinderbox and is ready to explode at any moment, and the real victims are innocent people who merely want to get on with their lives.
The events also demonstrate the very high price of failure if this seemingly intractable conflict is not resolved. This may be a critical year in terms of determining whether we can build momentum towards peace and find a new way through the many interlocking problems which have frustrated all efforts thus far.
Senator David Norris: I do not wish rudely to interrupt the Minister of State but I wonder whether a script is available.
Deputy Dick Roche: I ask the Senator to excuse me for the bad habit of a lifetime. I was writing my speech until five minutes before I entered the House.
Senator David Norris: That gives it greater relevancy.
Deputy Dick Roche: A copy may be available of an earlier draft but I will be departing significantly from it. Senator Norris will be aware that when I sat in this House as a Senator I held strong views about Ministers reading scripts prepared by civil servants.
Senator David Norris: The Minister of State never had a difficulty with free-ranging contributions.
Deputy Dick Roche: The agenda for 2008 set at the Annapolis conference in December 2007 committed Israel and the Palestinian Authority to work together to reach an overall agreement within the year. Few were surprised this ambitious target was not achieved but if we are not ambitious we will never make progress. The Israeli Government and the President of the Palestinian Authority pursued direct negotiations throughout the year on the final settlement issues. Particular credit is due to the latter, given the grave difficulties he faced internally.  While there was undoubted frustration, particularly on the Palestinian side, that the talks did not proceed more quickly, it was generally acknowledged that some headway was being made. Perhaps the most heartening sign was that so little detail emerged. For once the parties seemed to be focused on making progress rather than preparing for the blame game.
Another very positive sign was the recommencement under the aegis of the Turkish Government of proximity talks between Israel and Syria. Incidentally, the Turkish Government is entitled to considerable credit in particular in terms of its attempts to bring Syria and Israel together. It has revived a track that has lain dormant since 2000. Clearly, Syria must be part of a long-term solution given its interest in securing the return of the Golan Heights and its relationship with more rejectionist Palestinian elements. There remains serious clouds on the horizon, notably, the continued isolation of Gaza, which is unacceptable and causes concern to every civilised Government. A second issue that arises is the rift on the Palestinian side between Fatah and Hamas and the continuation of Israeli settlement building on the West Bank and in east Jerusalem.
There are some grounds for believing that events might be moving in the right direction although these have received a setback in the violent conflict of Gaza. Three weeks of violent military action left more than 1,300 people, caused massive destruction and left an estimated 40,000 people homeless. Both sets of negotiations have been suspended; any emerging trust between the parties has been seriously damaged and our attention is now focused primarily on the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza. I do not seek today to replay the causes or course of the Gaza operations as the matter has been already discussed by both Houses and in particular in this House. Government Ministers and Oireachtas Members from all sides have received many representations from the public which, incidentally, is a testament to the strong views of the Irish people on this matter.
Israel and its representatives have strongly defended their action as the only course left open by the repeated attacks on their cities by missiles fired from Gaza and by Hamas and other militant groups. Ireland, in its response to the unfolding events, made clear that the firing of missiles at Israeli civilian targets was completely unacceptable. The ferocity, scale and extent of the Israeli military response was, in our view, entirely indefensible and completely disproportionate.
Senator David Norris: Hear, hear.
Deputy Dick Roche: The Government’s views on this have been made clear. The use of such a degree of force and, in particular, the use of heavy weapons such as phosphorous in built up areas is completely unacceptable. Regardless of what efforts were made to minimise civilian casualties, in these circumstances, large-scale damage and civilian deaths were simply unavoidable and inevitable.
We have also drawn attention to specific aspects of the operation, including the use of incendiary munitions and the attacks on UN facilities. I pay tribute again to the director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, Mr. John Ging, and, through him, to all his staff who worked so hard during the crisis and who were exemplar in terms of the humanitarian effort. The Government, through the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, has raised questions about the legality under international law of some of these actions. It needs to be said that the firing of missiles on Israeli towns is, beyond doubt, a breach of international law. The breach of law by a terrorist group or a group that has been or is in the process of moving away from terrorism cannot be an excuse for a Government to also breach international law.
Large-scale fighting in Gaza came to an end with unilaterally declared ceasefires on 18 January, which we all greeted with relief. However, the truce is fragile, which should give us cause for concern. The fragile truce is continually endangered by low level breaches. As this is a tinderbox region, even a small incident can escalate quickly into major violence. We are concerned that a simple de facto truce could not last long. Talks brokered by the Government of Egypt, which has played a very significant role in all these events, have sought to bring about a more lasting agreed ceasefire and to put in place the necessary elements identified in UN Security Council Resolution 1860 of 8 January, including full and sustained opening of border crossings and an end to all rocket attacks on southern Israel.
There are hopeful, though weak, signs that an agreement on these terms may now be close. This would be a very important advance for securing the future of the people of Gaza, and of Israel, and to start laying the conditions for a longer-term understanding so that disaster does not recur every year or two, as has been the case in this region. I appeal today to the leaders on both sides to put their people first and to give peace a chance to blossom in an arid region. Everything is worth doing if it leads to agreement. There is no doubt that in the long term the solution will not be found at the end of bullets or guns but through talks. People who wish to live in close proximity must talk to each other. It would be tragic if this ceasefire, like that of June 2008 which lasted for six months, were seen by some leaders principally as an opportunity to reload and prepare for a future conflict. That would be condemnatory of the motives of both sides.
There are continuing serious concerns in relation to Gaza. First and foremost, the humanitarian situation continues to be fragile, with insufficient access by the Israeli authorities for humanitarian agencies and supplies. The Government again strongly urges the Israeli Government to remove the unjustified restrictions on humanitarian and commercial traffic into Gaza. These conditions create the conditions in which terrorism will grow. This comes as no surprise to us. We know what happens when people are forced to live in ghettos — it becomes a powder cake and the recruitment ground for terrorism. The lifting of the restriction should include in particular the necessary materials to allow for reconstruction of Gaza, including homes, economic infrastructure and utilities. One cannot keep a population of that size imprisoned in an area which has none of the things we take for granted in terms of civilised living.
There remains longer-term legal and political issues about the conduct of the war which cannot be simply forgotten. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has added Ireland’s voice to those calling for independent investigation of some of the incidents during the war and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has taken the lead in establishing a panel to investigate incidents affecting UN facilities. It is clear and obvious that international law was breached in those cases.
Ireland believes that events have shown that we were right last year to argue for a linkage between an upgrade in EU-Israel relations, which we support in principle, as we do in respect of all our Mediterranean neighbours, and progress on key political issues of mutual concern. It will be recalled that the Government was criticised, not in the House, but in some quarters for suggesting there must be a linkage. I reiterate that there must be a linkage if we are to improve and upgrade relations between the European Union and Israel, which I support. However, there must be reciprocal recognition of the sensitivities of the European Union in these matters.
Ireland has consistently sought to keep the international political focus on the hard work of pursuing the path to peace rather than allowing itself to be always dominated by the latest crisis, which the Middle East never fails to supply. Indeed, we need to be aware that many ill-intentioned people actively seek to distract us. However ghastly Gaza has been and however much we need to give attention to its continuing aftermath, no-one can doubt that in the long run the only way to avert a repeat of these dreadful scenes is to work actively to assist the reaching comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbours that will serve the people of Israel, Gaza, Syria and the whole region. War serves no cause. The vision of two states living side by side in peace, which we need to keep before us at all times, is the only viable way forward.
There are many factors in flux now that will alter the dynamic of that process, for good or ill, in 2009. We await the formation of a new Israeli Government following the elections on 10 February, which could be a lengthy process and may cause further problems. It must be said that the continuing fragmentation of Israeli politics is a concern at this crucial time. While that is an internal matter, it is a reality. The key point is that the new Israeli Government, whatever its political make-up, should be encouraged to adhere to the commitments made in the past by Israel on behalf of its people, in particular the commitments made at Annapolis, and to continue to work genuinely for a settlement which is now achievable.
Perhaps just as important but even more difficult is the process on the Palestinian side. Open hostility between the Fatah and Hamas movements has played into the hands of those who do not wish to see the well-being of the Palestinian side progressed. Egypt is working from its unique position in the region to try to bring together the two sides to devise a way forward. I have seen at first hand some of the diplomatic efforts made by the Egyptians and they have not received anything like due recognition internationally or——
Senator David Norris: Or blame for their disgusting behaviour.
Deputy Dick Roche: On this issue, I make the point they are on the right side.
We must nurture and be suitably supportive of all efforts underway at achieving intra-Palestinian reconciliation, since early progress in reviving overall peace efforts is best achieved. At a meeting between the different sides, I said one of the reasons there was such a disproportionate response was the reality that the brothers were divided, and the fact there were two sides on the Palestinian side gave encouragement for the disproportionate activity we saw in Gaza. This is the point I see as praiseworthy in the efforts of Egypt. The important criterion to apply to such a development will be to judge any Palestinian Government by its programme and its actions, rather than solely on its composition or the rhetoric of the different elements.
The third key factor, which we cannot yet judge, is the influence and engagement of President Obama and his team. It is very positive he has made it clear the US wants to have a different arrangement with the Middle East. There can be no doubt that many in the Middle East are hopeful he will bring new thinking and new commitment to the US Government’s role in supporting the peace effort. It is good he has made clear his intention to pursue peace actively and aggressively. Of course, we need to recall that the new President has many other priorities, even in the region, and to remember that at the end of the day it is the two parties who must make peace on the ground. However, the EU is strongly emphasising to the new US Administration the opportunity for peace that now exists, and that US support will be vital in achieving this.
We in Ireland, and many others, have been greatly heartened by the inspired appointment of Senator George Mitchell as the President’s Middle East envoy. We know the value of Senator Mitchell’s work and we know the extraordinary skill, patience, ingenuity and integrity he brings to the task.
It is also vital, as the Government has consistently argued, that the EU remains fully and actively engaged in supporting the peace process, both directly and through our membership of the quartet. This can take many forms — humanitarian and economic support to the Palestinian people, to help combat the appeal of those who argue that the political process offers them nothing; capacity building in the Palestinian Administration, so that it becomes able to assume the burdens of a state; political support and encouragement to both sides; and direct assistance and engagement, such as assistance in the re-opening of the border crossings in Gaza, which is vital. This is where Europe can play a real role.
The Government is also engaged and active on Ireland’s behalf. Senators will be aware that the Minister for Foreign Affairs visited the Middle East from 1 to 5 February, travelling to Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The Minister, Deputy Martin’s, talks in Damascus and Beirut were in many ways a continuation of his visit to Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories in July 2008. In discussions with President Assad, Prime Minister Siniora and others, he heard their assessments of the prospects and obstacles to peace. The Minister will report on his visit to his EU colleagues at next week’s General Affairs and External Relations Council.
Finally, to return to my starting point, the Minister will also attend on behalf of the Government the forthcoming reconstruction conference on Gaza which the Egyptian Government will host on 2 March. The conference is intended to provide clear political support to the Palestinian people in the aftermath of this war as well as addressing the daunting reconstruction needs in Gaza. Ireland provided €500,000 in humanitarian assistance to help the people of Gaza last month and a further contribution of humanitarian assistance is planned. The conference is also likely to be of value in identifying specific reconstruction needs and Ireland may be able to assist with this in the coming months.
Many foreign ministers, including most EU partners, are due to attend the conference, along with the UN Secretary General. This will also, therefore, provide an opportunity for discussion of the wider issues in the peace process and the region.
The problems involved in the Middle East peace process are complex and interlocking, as we all understand. There are many issues, some difficult, some intractable. The reality is we must continue to press ahead because the alternative to talk is war, and war is the least acceptable of all of the alternatives. I thank the House for its attention.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I welcome the Minister of State. As he stated, the Middle East has long been one of the world’s most unstable regions. As with Ireland, the communities in the Middle East have long memories and wage war and challenge each other based on previous conflicts. What saddens me most, however, is how often yesterday’s victims become today’s oppressors, making so many of the mistakes that they in the past were victims of. So we come to the situation in Gaza, where old mistakes were reheated and played out as they have been for decades.
My party has been highly critical of the events in the recent Gaza war. We have called for the independent verification of all allegations of war crimes and illegal behaviour, and those who committed war crimes, whoever they are and from whichever community, should face the full rigours of international law.
I do not believe in the zero-sum game where one side can justify its actions based on the wrongs done to it. It was wrong for Israeli citizens to face constant rocket attacks. Attacks on civilians are wrong and always wrong. However, what Israel experienced does not justify and can never justify the apparent use of white phosphorus in Gaza. I say apparent not because I have any doubts as to whether it was used — the evidence is overwhelming — but the implications of its use are so serious we need cast-iron evidence. I feel this evidence is available and verified.
In that regard, I applaud the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs on its resolution passed in recent weeks. It is important that this resolution is read into the record of the House. It states:
It is a comprehensive motion which was agreed by all sides and it should be acted upon.
We should not mince our words in our criticism of all wrongs. This means criticising the conduct of Israel in Gaza and also criticising Hamas for its attacks on Israel. The tragedy in the Middle East is that there is not one conflict but many. The risks of a conflict between Lebanon and Israel are real.
Another problem is the attempt by Iran to develop nuclear technology and the insistence of Israel that it will do all it can to stop that from occurring, which adds another complication. We must also consider the situation in Iraq and the growing Islamic fundamentalism in other states. As with other countries in the West, we face difficult dilemmas in dealing with these cases.
The Middle East has been an unstable region for centuries. Much of the instability was caused by outside interference from the great empires of the day. These interventions and regional rivalries have left a legacy of bitterness and distrust that haunt the region to this day. I hope that the peoples of the Middle East and those tempted to intervene from outside learn the lessons of history, rather than repeat the mistakes.
Like the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, I praise Mr. John Ging for his efforts. He has carried out trojan work in the region. There will be a new Government soon following the elections in Israel. I hope that the disastrous foreign policy of President Bush will be replaced by that of President Obama and the new Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton. I hope the change will breathe new hope into the peace process, because if ever we needed hope, now is the time. The events in Gaza, which is such a small region, should never again be allowed to take place. That is the responsibility of all international actors in the scene. As we are short on time I will conclude.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution on this awful crisis in the Middle East. As with everyone in the House and people throughout the country, I have been deeply shocked by the recent events in the Middle East and the impact they have had on the efforts to bring about peace. Ireland’s invasion of Gaza and its disproportionate——
Senator David Norris: I believe it was Israel.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I beg the Senator’s pardon.
Senator David Norris: I wish we would.
Senator Ann Ormonde: Israel’s invasion of Gaza and its disproportionate ground and air assaults have caused untold human misery, devastated local infrastructure and set back peace efforts, possibly by years. The devastation, tragedy and human misery brought by Israel’s disproportionate response to rocket attacks on its own people have severely damaged the cause of peace. The bombing of United Nations facilities within Gaza, including the attack on the local headquarters of the UN humanitarian effort, was completely unacceptable.
Some time ago I spoke with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin. The Minister and the Government were right to fully condemn these acts. The Minister called for an international investigation into the alleged violations of international humanitarian law, the shelling of United Nations schools and facilities, the attacks on humanitarian personnel, the reports of using civilians as human shields, and the alleged use by Israel of banned munitions. Will the Minister of State indicate if Israel used illegal weapons in Gaza? We have heard many reports on the matter and I seek the view of the Minister of State as to the impact if that is the case.
Hamas must also instruct its supporters to stop the shameful and indiscriminate rocket attacks on the people of Israel. Any investigation must also establish if Hamas gunmen used United Nations facilitates as a shield against the Israeli offensive. Such actions are also despicable as they put the men and women dedicated to delivering humanitarian assistance in the line of fire. It is vital that both sides show restraint at this stage.
I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy Martin, since the conflict and he has agreed that Ireland will maintain its strong support for peace in the region. I welcome that during the Christmas and New Year holidays the Minister, his Department and our diplomatic staff in the region continued to closely monitor events. They played a key role in ensuring that the EU response to the crisis was balanced. The Minister, Deputy Martin, has returned to the region since the Gaza crisis and had held meetings at the highest level in Syria and Lebanon, both of which are key players in the region. He has also held discussions with the Israeli ambassador in Dublin. During these discussions we have again emphasised the need for a halt to fighting by Israel and the Palestinians to allow genuine peace efforts to get under way in earnest.
I join the Government in welcoming the appointment by President Obama of Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. More than any other country in the world, we know of Senator Mitchell’s commitment to peace. In the darkest days of the Troubles he showed patience and dogged determination to keep all sides at the negotiating table. I have no doubt these talents will have a positive impact in the Middle East. The fact that Senator Mitchell wasted no time in travelling to the region to assess the situation is a very welcome sign for the future. We owe the Senator a debt of gratitude in this country that can never be repaid. However, one small and practical way in which we could thank him is by actively supporting his efforts in the Middle East.
The European Union is the largest donor of aid to the Palestinian territories. The recent war has seen much of that in which we have invested bombed, smashed and destroyed. It is heartbreaking to see the work that Ireland supported bulldozed by tanks and bombed from the air. Ireland with its European partners must now re-examine how we can support the blockaded people of Gaza. It is important that the course of action decided upon is implemented to allow the men, women and children of Gaza receive support as soon as possible.
Ireland is participating fully in drawing up the EU response to the humanitarian needs of the region. I am assured the Government will be represented at key international meetings where the plans to rebuild Gaza will be discussed.
I pay tribute to the efforts of our diplomatic staff in Israel and Palestine. They worked to ensure the safety of approximately 20 Irish citizens and their families in Gaza. We must end the blockades, the siege of Gaza and the demolitions and evictions. We must open the borders to allow the delivery of building materials and humanitarian aid in the territory. There is no point in considering the past. We must look to the future and work out how to bring the two sides together. The only way forward is to get people around the table. We must encourage those involved to walk away from violence and show a real commitment to peace.
Will the Minister of State offer a view on how the Israeli elections will impact on the situation, given that there is a new President in the USA?
Senator Maurice Cummins: That is an easy question.
Senator David Norris: May I with unparalleled generosity award the last minute to my friend and colleague, Senator Bacik? The Minister of State is most welcome and I thank him for his courtesy in giving me the notes of his speech. I wish to say something about the context of this debate. It is very short and rushed. I am grateful to the Minister of State for being present. He is a person of substance and weight within Government and I hope he will carry back a message to his colleagues.
This debate is instead of the debate for which I asked. That was a debate which was originated by the motion I put to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, which was unanimously passed and which was sent to both the Dáil and the Seanad from the committee. I confirmed that from the ante room some five minutes before this debate occurred. I understand we will be taking that perhaps next week. That is the important motion and we must repass it. I accepted some of the amendments and some of the watering down. There were some elements I did not like in it, but that is the motion which refers to the war crimes and that is absolutely essential. We are strengthening the hands of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in looking for that in the continuing negotiations. I am most grateful to my colleague, Senator Cummins, for putting the text of that on the record of the House. This will not go away, it will be taken again next week.
The Minister of State’s speech, like the curate’s egg, was good in parts. We are trying a balancing act. It is a pity the Minister of State could not have attended the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs last week to hear the distinguished Israeli historian, Professor Ilan Pappé, say we should avoid this attempt to be even-handed because it does violence to the real situation. We are always trying to balance and say on the one hand, the Israelis, and on the other, Hamas. It is not an equal situation. This is colonisation and the expulsion and attempted extirpation of an indigenous people.
When the Minister of State says he supports the upgrading of the Israeli trade agreements, I wonder have we learnt nothing. How can the Minister of State support that? That is where I part company with him. I know about EuroMed, the external trade association agreement between the European Union and the state of Israel which gives preferential treatment to the export of their goods. Human rights protocols are attached to that which are not even monitored. What is the point of them? It is a blasphemy against the concept of human rights to have them there on paper while at the beginning of his speech the Minister of State makes clear that he believes there is a prima facie case that Israel is involved in war crimes, only then to say he is supportive of upgrading the trade relations, perhaps in return for some political progress. What about human rights? If those protocols mean anything they should be examined now. Had the European Union done so it could have switched that war off in 15 minutes because it imports 75% of Israel’s agricultural produce. If we had threatened that the Israelis would have changed their tone. That is why it is indefensible they should be rewarded in this way.
The Minister of State complimented Egypt. I do not compliment Egypt; I condemn it. I was there and saw what the Egyptians were doing and the shameful way in which they stopped doctors from around the world going in and held them at the Rafah border crossing. They gassed the unfortunate people in those tunnels who brought in some arms but were also bringing in medical supplies, foodstuffs, aid of various kinds and money, the lifeblood which the Israelis were strangling out of them.
I am not anti-Semitic. No one could dare accuse me of being anti-Semitic. I had an apartment there for nearly 30 years. I lived with an Israeli Jew. I know all about it. I love the civilisation. What the Israeli Government is doing there is as much a blasphemy against Judaism and its respect for life as the American regime was a blasphemy against Christianity with Bush daring — presuming — to call himself a Christian in this matter.
We have a long way to go. There were difficulties. I laugh when I hear the Israelis say: “Why did they not use the greenhouses?” What rubbish. Even in the days of Yasser Arafat, when I was in Gaza, I saw the mounds of rotting fruit and vegetables because the Israelis had strangled the area. They will not let one blade of grass be exported. It is cynical hypocrisy for them to ask: “Why did they not use the greenhouses that we gave them?” They left them nothing that was not useless and insupportable. They are using new weapons, DIME munitions. It is unspeakable. I said this was a blitz and that it was like the Warsaw Ghetto. They do not like that but that is what it is. The Minister of State’s German colleagues are protecting the Israelis. I do not think the Palestinians should suffer because of the guilty conscience of the Germans. It is about time we said the Holocaust was a situation of unique horror and as such is the inheritance of all humanity. It is not the private possession of a corrupt Israeli Government to use as a shield to deflect criticism of its own gross abuses of human rights. I salute those within Israel who have had the enormous courage to stand up and the Jewish people who wrote a letter to The Irish Times. They are the people of great courage because it takes guts to criticise one’s own people.
Last autumn the Israelis knew they had to get in before Obama replaced Bush. Of course they knew they could use the situation for electoral purposes but there was a ceasefire involving Hamas, which was the legally elected government. Let us not hear about democracy unless we are able to accept internationally monitored elections. Last October, during the truce, the number of rockets had dropped from 373 to none, then the Israelis went in and murdered three people. That is what happened. I will leave it at that until next week.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am grateful to Senator Norris for sharing his time. I regret the shortness of this debate. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I appreciate the Government’s strong condemnation of the Israeli bombardment in Gaza. It has been important and good to see the Government standing up for the rights of the Palestinian people. It has been deeply distressing for all of us to witness the murder of 1,300 Palestinians, one third of whom were children, about whom there could be no doubt that they were civilians. It is important we continue to press at EU level, and any level we can, to insist on the condemnation of the Israeli aggression in Gaza.
Will the Minister of State continue to press for Israel’s accountability for its clear breaches of international law and its committing war crimes against the Palestinian people? There is no doubt Israel targeted UN schools and homes where civilians were taking shelter. Israel should be held accountable for that. Pressure must also be put on Israel through the downgrading of the preferential status of Israel’s trade agreements within the EU. Those trade agreements should be used to put pressure on Israel to maintain a ceasefire to allow access for doctors, medics and other people in and out of Gaza and to allow the construction and reparation there to continue.
Senator Dan Boyle: Last week, I spoke at a debate in the Trinity Historical Society as a last minute substitute against the motion that Israel’s actions were acceptable. I shared a platform with Steven Weinberg, a Nobel prize winning physicist. He is a nice man but he argued that Israel is a liberal sector democracy.
Unfortunately, the effect of Israel’s living in a constant state of siege and belligerence has been to dilute its democracy. The recent election results in Israel marking a swing to extreme right wing thinking is an effect of a failure to understand the military and technological advantage that it has as the sole democracy in that region. The humane approach to foreign policy would be the opposite of what has been happening in Gaza in recent months, and before that in southern Lebanon.
I welcome the strong position of the Government in articulating a viewpoint ahead of others. A clear signal is coming from this House that we, as the Government has articulated, believe this to be a one-sided situation that demands an appropriate response. The Government should use any opportunity it has to ensure that one-sidedness is overturned for the sake of humanity and justice.
Acting Chairman (Senator Feargal Quinn): The Minister of State has two minutes to speak.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: On a point of order, I object strongly. We did not finish the last debate until after 4 p.m. I know the Minister of State was here on time and was delayed in starting to speak. I watched the debate from my office and noted that he could not finish his contribution until 4.30 p.m. This makes a mockery——
Acting Chairman: We are finishing at 5 p.m.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: It makes a mockery——
Acting Chairman: I agree but that was the Order of Business we agreed.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: If we are to go away to prepare our contributions and come along to find out that we have half an hour of debate——
Acting Chairman: I accept that point but it is not a point of order.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: We have had half an hour of debate. I object in the strongest terms. I am very disappointed.
Acting Chairman: The Senator has made his objection and it has been heard.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: This shows no respect to people in this House who work to prepare their contributions.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Hear, hear. We had insufficient time.
Senator Maurice Cummins: We had insufficient time.
Acting Chairman: We agreed on the Order of Business this morning to conclude at 5 p.m. I am afraid the Minister of State has only a minute and a half left to speak.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche): I too regret that the debate was not longer because it was a good debate. Senators raised specific issues which I will address. Senators Ormonde and Cummins touched on the issue of illegal weapons. There can be no doubt that weapons which are totally unacceptable were used. The evidence from John Ging, a former officer in the Irish Army, is indisputable. There was some equivocation and debate because there were no journalists or independent sources on site but we had an independent source, an Irish citizen with experience in the Army, representing the United Nations.
Senator David Norris: Al-Jazeera was there.
Deputy Dick Roche: He had no interest in telling anything but the truth. Senator Bacik followed up by asking whether the Irish Government will continue its position on that. It will do so, because the views of the UN Secretary General must be respected. It does not matter what the outcome is, but there must be an investigation as this weaponry is just not acceptable.
Senator Ormonde also asked about the Israeli elections. I fear that these elections will have an impact on the situation. Senator Norris rightly pointed out that the Israeli elections clearly had a significant impact on what we saw. There has been a general move to the right in Israel, and there has been some fragmentation. That is an internal Israeli matter, but it will have an impact.
Senator Norris’s suggestion that Ireland has been less than forceful on the issue of EU-Israeli relations rather misrepresents our position. Our position at the EU Council has always been that there must be a relationship between the improvement of EU-Israeli relations and Israeli activity in the area, and sometimes we have been on our own on this. I would like to see EU-Israeli relations improving because the precursor of that would be an improvement in the normalisation of relations between the Israelis and their neighbours.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I thank the Acting Chairman, the Minister of State and my colleagues in the House for participating in the debate. I will be proposing on the Order of Business next Thursday that we return to this serious matter, allowing colleagues to make a more lengthy contribution than the rushed effort we had today, which was not envisaged when I was ordering the business this morning. I apologise to everyone concerned in the House about this.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Let us debate the roof cladding issue now, because that is vital.
Senator David Norris: I am grateful to the Leader for his generous and practical suggestion. Since I have received an undertaking from the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs that the motion was sent to the Dáil and Seanad Offices and will be sent again, will we take this proposal to support the Government’s position? That would be helpful in strengthening the Minister’s hand. I particularly want to do what the Minister of State said, which is to get accountability for this prima facie evidence. If everything is in order, could the Leader indicate that we will be taking this motion?
Acting Chairman: I imagine that is a position for the Whips to take, and I will leave it to the Leader to do so.
Senator Larry Butler: I move:
The Government has announced a national insulation programme for economic recovery, which is part of our smart economy document. I welcome this announcement. I have done much work on the insulation programme which went through the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, and I am glad that the Minister has now put some money behind it. This is a most important step.
Insulation deals with how we conserve energy in our houses and how we expend energy in our country. It costs us around €6 billion every year to import gas, oil and alternative energy. Anything we can do to make our houses more energy efficient is very important. The Government has now recognised that. This proposal can create between 7,000 and 20,000 jobs, and people will then start to realise what a programme it is. We have a commitment with the EU and under the Kyoto Protocol that we would reduce our CO2 emissions by 2013. If we did not take this action now, we would possibly end up paying about €250 million per year in carbon taxes after 2013. Therefore, this the right action to take.
We are also offering householders a generous contribution if they ensure that their houses are properly insulated. Not only are we providing them with an incentive, they will also save a substantial amount of money every year. Depending on the investment of between €10,000 and €20,000, they could save up to €1,000 every year, which is very substantial. This is also very important to the construction industry at a time of a big downturn. As we know, the construction industry played a major role in the Celtic tiger years, when the turnover in that industry was about €30 billion. In 2008, the renovation section of the construction industry had a turnover of €8.2 billion, even though the downturn had begun at that stage. We believe the new proposals will lead to another increase, from €8.2 billion to almost €10 billion. That will be welcomed by people in the construction industry. Direction and radical thinking are needed in the current economic climate. The insulation programme will save energy and money and create jobs. It will be confirmed that the Government’s assistance is to extend to those in private homes, those on low incomes and those in social housing. It is important to bear in mind that this scheme will not just be of benefit to middle-class people. Some €160 million will be spent across the economy. Some €60 million will be given to local authorities for the upgrading of schools’ insulation systems.
When the insulation and renovation programme has been completed, we will find that it is a small part of what needs to be done in the renewable energy sector as a whole. This proposal has been sanctioned by the Government because it realises that a substantial development needs to be completed. This is just the start of a programme of upgrading almost 1 million houses throughout the country. The programme will involve investment of €9 billion over many years. We should get it up and running as soon as possible. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that takes place. Many people are waiting until March. It is important for the Minister of State to ensure the programme is in operation as soon as possible. No work is being done in the renovation sector because people are waiting until March.
I draw the Minister of State’s attention to the fact that no allowance for double or treble glazing has been made in the programme. That is terribly important because there are many jobs in this area. It should be a key part of everything we do. When an inspector comes to make a building energy rating report, the first thing he does is check whether the house is draught-excluded and airtight. To do that, one must have very efficient windows. No provision has been made for this area in the scheme. It would be worthwhile to make such a provision. It would give this country’s window manufacturers a boost, thereby facilitating job creation, which is what we need. God knows that many jobs have been lost over recent months. When a scheme of this nature is being put in place, it is important to ensure we can get the maximum out of it.
I would like to speak about eligibility for this scheme. The scheme is aimed at older houses, which do not tend to be energy efficient. Such houses featured in the recent new homes scheme. In 2005-06, we increased the insulation requirements for the new housing stock that was being built at that time. The houses in question are very efficient at holding in heat. The best way to describe what we are trying to do is to compare it to putting a thermoflask over one’s house. We are trying to ensure no energy escapes. People need to get the very most out of their energy. Everybody knows that householders are currently spending up to 10% of their money on energy. This is one of the things we are trying to do to help them.
I will run through the various elements of the scheme. An allowance of €250 is available for roof insulation and €400 is available for cavity wall insulation. Some €2,500 is available for internal wall insulation and €4,000 is available for external wall insulation. An allowance of €700 is available in respect of high-efficiency boilers. The heating control and upgrade allowance is worth €500. If one wants to get an inspector to conduct an energy rating on one’s home, one can apply for an allowance of €200. That is a very good scheme. All that is missing is for provision to be made for double glazing. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to bring that to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Gormley.
First-time applicants who wish to participate in this scheme and avail of building energy rating inspections will be required to make a minimum investment. Such householders will get a minimum grant payment of €500. This means householders cannot qualify for the roof insulation grant, or the cavity wall insulation grant, without also getting other things done. I wish to comment on the figures issued by the Government. In the first year, €100 million will be spent on the——
Acting Chairman: The Senator has one minute remaining.
Senator Larry Butler: Has my time gone that quickly?
Acting Chairman: It has.
Senator Larry Butler: I think the old clock might be fast.
Acting Chairman: The two screens are telling me the same thing.
Senator Larry Butler: I wanted to comment further on some aspects of the scheme. I will use my last minute to speak about the important issue of renewables. I will wrap up quickly. We must encourage the use of renewables. I want the Minister of State to explain how grant aid will be made available in respect of renewables. Micro wind generators and solar energy panels are being developed in this country. A company in County Tipperary is producing a solar energy panel that can deliver electricity to one’s home. That is a good form of renewable energy. Wind operators are also useful. It is terribly important for the smart meter system to be brought into operation. If I had more time, I would speak about such matters as pellet boilers, biomass, thermal energy and low-energy bulbs. If one uses low-energy bulbs exclusively in one’s home, one will save €350 a year. That is a phenomenal amount of money to save just by changing one’s light bulbs. I will respect the Chairman by concluding. It is important we support the scheme under discussion, which will create a substantial number of jobs. It is the start of a major programme that might ultimately be worth €18 billion if we go down the renewables route. We will invest in insulation, of course.
Senator Martin Brady: It gives me great pleasure to second the motion that has been proposed by Senator Butler. I thank the Senator for bringing this matter before the House. I remember he first raised this issue at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. Senator Butler, who has spent most of his life in the building industry, has a vast knowledge of and keen personal interest in this topic. I thank him for the generosity he has shown in taking the time to give his colleagues valuable advice on this subject. Whenever I went to him I was not found wanting. He has done thorough research on it and outlined what is involved in that.
The national insulation programme was launched on 8 February and as Senator Butler said, it involves a three-pronged approach. There will be many beneficial effects for people both inside and outside the industry, suppliers and so on. Senator Butler outlined the number of jobs the programme will create, which is important, and spoke about alternative energy projects such as solar panels. He explained to me on another occasion how that can be done. That will save consumers up to 50% in energy costs.
The public is very aware of the programme. I attended a meeting one night recently at which I distributed hand-outs on the programme. That was the document everybody wanted. There were 70 people at the meeting and I ran out of them. That indicates there is genuine interest in the programme and it has created an awareness among householders of savings on the cost of energy.
We raised the cost of gas with the Minister in the House last week — people’s bills doubled after Christmas — and the cost of electricity. That has an impact on small businesses in particular. They have found it very difficult to continue in business due to the constraints being put on them by the high cost of energy, and electricity in particular.
I welcomed the news yesterday that Bord Gáis is reducing its charges and has entered into a programme for electricity supply. Senator O’Reilly said last week that Bord Gáis should be in a competitive position in terms of electricity supply. I do not know if the Senator had inside information but it announced that this morning. That is welcome news and it was necessary for that to be done.
As the Senator outlined also, a great deal of energy is wasted in homes which people are only realising now. It can be lost through the roof due to inadequate insulation. There is insulation in houses for the past 50 or 60 years that was never upgraded. Lagging jackets is another issue. Even in my home I notice there is not a proper lagging jacket on the boiler. Energy efficient bulbs are available which last 50 times longer than standard bulbs. They are cheaper and they use less electricity. All those areas are embodied in this measure.
Another matter about which Senator O’Reilly and myself often speak is alternative energy, which is connected to this issue. In other countries households provide their own electricity by way of windmills. Senator O’Reilly told me it is costly to maintain them but these are the areas we should examine. We should examine the possibility of harnessing our rivers and streams——
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Hear, hear.
Senator Martin Brady: ——which years ago powered tanneries, corn mills and so on and provided employment for a large number of people. Those facilities still exist and we should examine the possibility of progressing that issue. We have to get back to that type of operation. It is beneficial on three fronts. It will create jobs and be good for the climate and for the people in that our natural resources will be harnessed and put to the best use possible.
I thank the Senator for bringing forward the motion.It is good to see somebody utilise their knowledge, skills and talent and on this occasion Senator Butler comes up well above the mark in that regard.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I move amendment No. 1:
This amendment identifies the central weaknesses of the proposition before the House and condemns the nature of the organisation of this scheme, the lack of funding and the lack of coherence in terms of existing schemes.
This scheme has been badly organised. This Government appears to have lost its touch because while the scheme is good in principle, and nobody objects to the principle because we have all called for it, including some of my colleagues, it has been presented and organised very badly. It was a major mistake to leave a time gap between the announcement of the scheme and the beginning of applications at the end of March because people are putting insulation work on hold. A Member of the Dáil told me yesterday that in one area in County Waterford, and my colleague Senator Coffey would be familiar with this, ten jobs have been lost because there is no activity in the supply of insulation materials. That is a serious development.
In the county that my good friend, Senator Brady, and myself hail from, County Cavan, Kingspan is one of the best employers in the area. It is a well organised company which is run by the Murtagh family. That firm is now experiencing a stand still in activity in the insulation area. That was a major error on the part of the Government. It is a disgrace and is something that should not have happened. To be fair, it is not Senator Butler’s fault but it is a systems failure in that there should not be a time gap between the announcement and the implementation of the scheme. Strategies should have been put in place to prevent that. This time gap is causing unemployment at a time when construction is in a terrible state — it is at a standstill. It is a very serious matter.
The Minister must try to do something to shorten the period to the very minimum. I acknowledge that Senator Butler’s point made earlier was that we must shorten that gap because it is wrong. The Minister should do two things. He should first accept that a blunder has been made and that it is a systems failure and, second, apologise Obama style. Having apologised, he should then affirm to us that he will go back to his Department and at dawn tomorrow he will begin a process of implementing the scheme as a priority within a few days. It is a disgrace that this has happened and a shocking indictment of Government. It is up to the Minister to apologise and set a process of correction in place.
This scheme is very important for the construction industry because up to 37,000 jobs were lost in January and there are 326,000 people unemployed throughout the country; we have some projections also in that regard. The construction industry needs a boost. Not only do we need to insulate houses but we must insulate schools, to which reference is made, and initiate a full programme of school refurbishment and building.
When we consider the cost of jobseeker’s allowance, the amount of money that goes back into the economy in terms of VAT receipts and taxation, the cost of prefabricated buildings for schools and the reduced cost of contract work, it would be almost cost neutral to have an insulation scheme for schools. In that sense this programme it is to be welcomed as a boost for the construction industry.
I want to raise an issue which the Minister of State might respond to when replying. It is shocking that we are not honouring the housing aid for the elderly scheme and the disabled persons’ grants. Those schemes have been stopped in my county and in a number of other counties owing to a lack of funding. A Minister — I am not sure whether it was the Minister of State — gave a disingenuous answer in the Dáil. He stated that it was up to the local authority to provide 20% of the funding and to determine the amount of money to be spent on housing aid for the elderly and for the disabled grant scheme. County Cavan, as elsewhere, has the funding locally and is prepared to dedicate local funding of 20% but it lacks the crucial 80%. That is why that leg is in our motion. It is very important we implement housing aid for the elderly and the essential repairs grant. Those two schemes are first cousins of an insulation scheme. The windows issue would be dealt with within the essential repairs grant and it is very important that this would happen.
I welcome the scheme in principle and the allocation made to it but I repeat that a mess has been made in its implementation. There is a problem at present with fuel poverty. The Economic and Social Research Institute determines that fuel poverty exists if a family spends more than 10% of its income on fuel. There are now 300,000 people experiencing fuel poverty. An insulation scheme and a back-up programme are obviously important. For this reason, housing aid for the elderly and the essential repairs grants are vital. We must have a response to these points.
I would like to be able to go back to the members of Cavan County Council tomorrow and tell them I was told in the Seanad today that there will be a proper response and that the essential repairs grant and housing aid for the elderly will be implemented as a matter of urgency. I would like to say the same to colleagues in other county councils. Senator McFadden spoke about County Westmeath in similar terms recently. Such a response would take care of the windows issue.
I am in favour of the building energy rating and I welcome the grant for it. This is very important in the context of Kyoto fines. It is very important we do not waste money unnecessarily, either buying carbon credits or paying Kyoto fines. That is money going out of the country. It is not productive expenditure and we should not be paying it.
I accept the points that were made very well and very articulately by Senator Brady concerning alternative and green energy. Those initiatives are, of course, parallel with this one. This scheme is good in principle but we need to add a number of points. It must be initiated immediately and the banks must come on side to lend to people. I ask the Minister of State to what degree he is in proper and firm negotiations with the banks so that there may be a positive response to householders who will try to use the scheme. I hope there will be quality control on the scheme. I ask the Minister of State to respond to this point too. We must monitor how attractive the scheme is and change or tweak it as necessary. I believe there will be a high uptake but am a little concerned that the grant aid may be on the low side. A little more might be needed to kick-start it. One hopes it will work because it is vital it does. I look forward to the Minister of State’s apology and to his assurances that he will get the scheme going within 48 hours——
Senator Larry Butler: The Senator should not hold his breath.
Acting Chairman: We will give the Minister of State a few moments. I call on Senator Dan Boyle.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Senator Boyle can apologise too.
Senator Dan Boyle: I believe I have finished doing that today.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: The Senator has been doing a great deal of that lately.
Senator Dan Boyle: I second and commend today’s motion. It must be acknowledged that we live in difficult fiscal times and difficult decisions have been made to pare back very important public expenditure programmes. The Government has made a conscious decision that one area where additional expenditure will be and must be made available is in home insulation. As other speakers have commented, there are cumulative benefits for adopting this approach. In announcing the scheme the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, pointed out this scheme has the potential to produce 4,000 jobs that are badly needed in the current climate.
In addressing the issue of poorly insulated housing stock the scheme will also be a significant contributor in reducing our Kyoto liabilities in carbon costs. On those grounds alone it would be a very welcome programme. However, it is structured in a multifaceted way. The home energy saving scheme is only one of a series of programmes that exist now, from the original greener homes programme to the warmer homes programme. This scheme exists at a number of levels. There is a level for private householders and another level where funding is to be provided by Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for local authority housing stock. Money is being spent in the Department of Education and Science to ensure much of our public school building stock, which is utilised by our young people every day, achieves the highest possible energy standards. There will be multiple benefits from following this programme.
We must place the scheme in the context of policy on energy conservation. This, again, exists on a wider level. The Government has offered incentives to businesses to acquire energy efficient equipment. Grants are available for the generation of electricity by renewable sources. There is particular support for new technology in energy generation. In the past we failed to press home a natural advantage in respect of technology to harness wind. We will be able to do so with wave and tidal power. In all these ways the scheme is a good news story in an era when all too sadly we lack good news. I hope the Opposition will recognise this. An amendment was tabled but I believe the House should support this motion as it is. I do not see anything particularly contentious in it. The motion points out that the scheme, as structured, will deal with insulation in its wider sense and will show how roofing, exterior walls, and flooring can be used by householders to save on their energy bills.
We are in the middle of a political debate about energy costs in this country. I am confident the Government, through the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, is making the appropriate decisions in this regard. On another level, we should also use today’s debate to talk about not only what is being achieved in the home energy savings scheme but to place it as a linchpin in a series of economic initiatives to be adopted in coming years with regard to reinventing and restoring economic strength in this country. I and my party believe that the economy will not be restored by what was seen to have worked in the past. Reincentivising the housing market will not work. We must look at the 1 million houses we already have in our housing stock and see to what extent we can make them energy efficient and how we can create a new market where houses will be bought not only for their location but because of their energy efficiency. When we achieve that we will see how programmes and policies such as this can be successful.
On those grounds, today’s debate should be less contentious than those we usually conduct during Private Members’ Business. This is one of the better news stories in terms of Government policies and I commend the motion to the House.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I disagree fundamentally with Senator Boyle.
Acting Chairman: I ask Senator Coffey to second the amendment formally and to reserve his right to speak at a later time.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I second the amendment and I reserve the right to speak later.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I find this to be an extraordinarily divisive motion. I can barely speak and hold my breath dealing with it because I am so angered. I have no problem with my colleague on the other side of the House who was not present, who joined this House only in 2007 and who can hold no responsibility for the things I will mention now. I am angered that Fianna Fáil would dare table a motion aimed at tackling the legacy of poorly insulated homes. The motion says the programme is “aimed at tackling the legacy of poorly insulated homes”. I have my speech from 2006. I could also get my speeches from 2004 and 2003. This problem has been created since 1998 with this Government refusing to implement the insulation requirements clearly coming down the road from the European Community. We acted disgracefully in the Dublin area for those ten years. Since 1998 more than 250,000 houses have been built in Dublin with hollow blocks that would not be used to build cow sheds in counties Kerry, Cork, Waterford or the rest of Munster and would not get HomeBond insurance in those counties. I stand to be corrected but I have checked this time and again. From his background Senator Butler will be well aware that it is extraordinarily difficult to retro-insulate a hollow block house. I built my house in 1971 with hollow walls and it was very easy to retro-insulate that by filling the space between the walls. The Acting Chairman, Senator Phelan, knows well that if one were to try to fill all the holes in hollow blocks one would have to put a million holes in the side of one’s wall.
At that time I brought forward a motion, supported by Fine Gael and seconded by former Senator Brian Hayes, to congratulate Fingal County Council on being the first local authority in the Dublin area to introduce the proper standards. The Minister should know that this row went on for ten years. Mr. Gerard McCaughey of Century Homes led the debate on this. He got no hearing from anybody except the Green Party. It was interesting to hear Senator O’Reilly refer to Kingspan, which somewhere along the way bought Century Homes. The company is still at the leading edge of the home building industry in terms of floor, wall and roof insulation and is doing an extraordinary job.
In this city tonight there are young couples who are worried not only about their income levy, pension levy or losing their jobs but for the next 30 years will be paying off houses that will never reach the level of insulation required. If they ever want to sell them on they will lose money. It is a disgrace. I said it two years ago and I will say it now: people should be sacked for it. It is all on the record, every bit of it. In no way do I hold Senator Butler responsible for it. I have raised these issues in the House time and again since 2000. I asked that the Government bring forward the European directive. When the Government saw it coming down the road it did nothing about it.
When it had to do it, the Government brought forward its own proposal so that Ireland developed a new way of measuring energy efficiently to do with heat loss through the roof as opposed to the international standard, namely the cost per annum to heat a cubic metre of space, which is what it should be. The Government rejected that and Ministers came to the House and argued with me that there was no need to do this. Looking back ten years later we know the difference. What we have done over that period is a disgrace. We have condemned young people to live in sub-standard houses on which they will never recoup their investment. This is completely unnecessary.
The Green Party held this view all along. It was only a month in Government when it implemented this. If it never does anything else, it got that implemented. We examined getting derogations from it and trying to avoid implementing it. The last time I said that in October 2006 a Minister of State in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government went on “Prime Time” and said the reason it was not done was that it would add to the cost of houses for young people. The cost at that stage to bring in the standard of insulation we require, an “A” building energy rating or whatever, would have been €800. Members should listen to this debate again and the amounts of money we are talking about. This €800 would have saved all this money at this stage. Talk about bad economics and decisions and burying people in sub-standard housing. It is a disgrace and it was all in front of us.
It is not as if we did not know. We saw it happening. We argued across the floor in this House. The Government side voted against this two short years ago and earlier. In a Private Members’ motion we demanded that the Government take immediate action and it went against it. Regrettably, hundreds of thousands of existing houses with poor energy efficiency, such as hollow block built homes, will have a lower energy rating and, consequently, a lower resale value. Home owners will continue to pay more every year for the heating of those homes and the repayments while the homes lose value. Fianna Fáil voted against that two years ago. We could see it happening in front of us.
I do not blame builders for this. Builders are long enough in the game to build to the regulations and do only what they need to do to build and sell a house. I blame the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with the collusion of Government. It is the most disgraceful thing that has happened in the environment area in the past ten years. It happened in front of our eyes. The Government was reminded time and again. I saw Mr. McCaughey on television many times. I discussed it with him two or three times. Deputy Gormley, as an Opposition Deputy for the Green Party, raised it time and again. I saw the sums being done and it being priced. I saw the international movement and the different moves we made here to get out of it. I had many arguments with then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, on it in the House and outside and no attempt was made to do it.
The Cathaoirleach will understand why I am less than enthusiastic about what Senator Boyle referred to as an uncontroversial motion. There is nothing whatever wrong with Senator Butler’s points and I have no problem with them. I have a problem with this idea that the world began tonight. This was sitting in front of us for ten years and we walked away from it. We refused to deal with it. We have condemned people to sub-standard conditions, high payments, etc. There are companies that have done everything to try to get it right. Companies such as Century Homes and Kingspan led the way on this and fought for it. It created a major and unnecessary row between timber framed and concrete homes. There is no reason concrete homes could not be properly insulated. We refused to deal with these issues and that is why I would feel hypocritical supporting the motion.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Seán Power): I very much welcome this motion and thank Senators Butler and Brady for their support and endeavours in tabling it. I acknowledge the contributions from the other side and Senator O’Reilly’s support. He is a little critical of the timing but in general he is very supportive of what is proposed.
The national insulation programme for economic recovery, launched by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, on 8 February is a progressive and economically prudent programme aimed at substantially addressing the legacy of older housing with poor standards of energy efficiency. It is fitting and right that we discuss the matter in this House. While the programme offers many advantages to various sectors, and I will go on to highlight these, it is important to note that this programme has been crafted following much considered input over time from different Departments, State agencies, local authorities, local energy agencies, community-based organisations and, not least, following well-founded, well-researched input from many Members across all parties in these Houses.
Energy policy, above any other, should be a model for cross-party consensus. Ireland’s relatively remote geographical position means it is incumbent upon us all to develop visionary yet simple, collaborative rather than compromised, energy policies that will allow us to safeguard our security of energy supply in the face of uncertain and volatile world markets. It is our collective duty to protect the vulnerable members of our society for whom the cost of heating their homes is a significant burden. This programme is a major step forward in tackling this issue. Even for those on average means, the cost of installing measures to improve the energy efficiency of their homes can be a significant barrier to wider take-up. This financial barrier to a wider uptake in measures has been a prohibitive factor for too long. Again, this programme tackles this issue head-on.
The national insulation programme for economic recovery is essentially a three-pronged approach to addressing the legacy of older housing with poor energy efficiency standards. The home energy saving scheme is the largest element of the programme. The pilot programme, which Sustainable Energy Ireland undertook last year and which tested the business case for State support to householders upgrading their homes’ energy efficiency, found that there was a sound business case and a considerable appetite for such a scheme. The Government has responded by allocating a budget of €50 million in 2009.
This scheme has the potential to support the up-grade of in excess of 27,500 homes in 2009. Sustainable Energy Ireland estimates that demand for this scheme could ultimately exceed 100,000 homes. Home owners can expect to save up to €700 per year on their energy bills if they install the full suite of measures available under the scheme. The scheme offers grants of up to 40% of the typical cost of energy efficiency upgrade measures. The full range of measures and the associated grant level is as follows: roof insulation —€250; cavity wall insulation —€400; internal wall insulation —€2,500; external wall insulation —€4,000; high efficiency boiler with heating controls upgrade —€700; heating controls upgrade only —€500; and building energy rating assessment —€200.
Obviously, home owners will have to part-finance the work carried out. I call upon the country’s lending institutions and energy service companies to associate themselves with the scheme and offer innovative, competitive solutions to what will be a very significant market. A question was asked about the banks coming on board and providing the necessary funds. That is one of the issues that was discussed with the banks in the recent negotiations and I understand that significant funds will be provided specifically for this purpose.
The scheme has been launched now to allow installers who wish to participate in the scheme to register with SEI. Registered contractors are required to sign up to a code of conduct and comply with a range of terms and conditions to ensure the quality of work carried out under the scheme. They will also have to carry a specified level of insurance and be fully tax compliant. Sustainable Energy Ireland will implement a quality assurance and inspection programme to ensure compliance with these requirements. This scheme is a wonderful opportunity for contractors, electricians, plumbers and labourers to maintain and create employment. Sustainable Energy Ireland is now inviting calls from anyone wishing to register as contractors on the scheme to contact it on 1850 927000 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The scheme itself will be open to anybody owning a house that was built prior to 2006, and home owners and landlords will be able to apply under the scheme from next month. In the meantime, home owners can now register their interest with SEI on 1850 927000 or at email@example.com. Home owners may also arrange to have a building energy rating carried out immediately if they wish, but this is not a requirement for participation in the scheme. However, it is important to note that home owners should not take action on the other measures until they have received grant approval from Sustainable Energy Ireland.
The second element of the national insulation programme for economic recovery — the warmer homes scheme — is designed to assist private households on low incomes, such as those in receipt of fuel allowance and invalidity or disability benefit. The Government is committed to protecting vulnerable consumers from the impact of high energy costs through a combination of institutional supports and investment in improving the energy efficiency of the housing stock. In recent years 20,000 homes have been substantially upgraded by the warmer homes scheme. In 2009, €20 million has been made available to the scheme. This greatly increased level of funding is expected to support energy efficiency interventions in up to 15,000 low income homes in this year alone.
Sustainable Energy Ireland, in consultation with the ESB, Bord Gáis and other interested parties, is reviewing the operation of the scheme with the aim of ensuring that maximum impact is delivered from the enhanced funding. The scheme provides for the installation of a range of energy efficiency measures, including cavity wall insulation, attic insulation, boiler lagging jackets, draught proofing measures and energy efficient lighting. Advice is also provided to householders on minimising energy use. The warmer homes scheme provides these measures free or at a nominal cost to the householder.
There are 20 community-based organisations currently delivering the warmer homes scheme, which represents just over two thirds of the country. Under an initiative to extend the scheme nationwide in 2009, Sustainable Energy Ireland plans to commence the introduction of new community-based organisations to the scheme from the end of March 2009. A number of improvements to the warmer homes scheme are gradually being introduced in this quarter, including a new freefone service designed to assist eligible home owners in identifying their nearest provider. If outside of current coverage, their details will be recorded and notified as soon as the service becomes available in their area. In addition, a new website will be launched to allow home owners, neighbours and relatives to find out more information about the warmer homes scheme and other grant schemes available in their area. Further information on the warmer homes scheme is available by calling 1800 250204 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting www.sei.ie.
In terms of institutional supports for vulnerable energy users, last year the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, established an interdepartmental group led by his Department and the Department for Social and Family Affairs, which also includes the Departments of Finance, the Taoiseach, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and Health and Children, the Commission for Energy Regulation, SEI, the ESB, Bord Gáis and the Institute of Public Health. This intensive co-operation and co-ordinated working by all the relevant Departments, agencies and the utilities ensures the effective delivery of a comprehensive approach to addressing energy affordability.
The interdepartmental group has been conducting a series of meetings with representative groups and agencies, including Age Action Ireland and Energy Action, in addition to relevant groups and agencies in Northern Ireland. The group has finalised an advisory booklet to inform and assist those seeking advice about supports relating to energy affordability. The booklet will be published this month alongside a new complementary website and will be widely disseminated.
The third element of the national insulation programme for economic recovery will involve providing similar energy efficiency upgrade measures in social housing. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will make further announcements on this element of the programme in due course.
The national insulation programme for economic recovery has the potential to contribute to the creation of 4,000 direct and indirect jobs, thus contributing to the Government’s priority objective of maintaining and creating employment. The programme affords us the opportunity to substantially address the energy efficiency shortcomings in our homes. By availing of the many measures on offer, we can save energy, significantly reduce our energy costs, maintain and increase comfort levels in our homes and play a part in reducing Ireland’s CO2 emissions. By being more energy efficient, we can use less energy and ensure a greater security of supply in the future. Under this national insulation programme we will use less energy but, importantly, in the current difficult economic circumstances, we will help foster the growth of a new green energy sector that can ultimately employ many thousands of people.
The benefits of the scheme are obvious. Most people will use less energy and, as a result, spend less money. Home owners will be warmer and will have reduced electricity bills. I have also mentioned the employment aspect. We expect up to 4,000 jobs to be created as a result of the scheme. Apart from those obvious benefits, I must mention the awareness this will create among people. For a long time people have been unaware of the energy they use in their homes and the habits they have developed over the years, many of them bad. The introduction of smart metering will be a great education. Its roll-out has not happened as quickly as we would wish but the indications are that as a result of providing people with smart meters they almost immediately change their habits. The times they consume electricity change and they become more conscious of their use of energy. The roll-out of smart meters to homes throughout the country will create a significant change and a major reduction in the use of electricity.
Mention was made of renewables. We all are much wiser now. It is not that long ago when we saw the price of oil increase to $147 a barrel and it has certainly changed the focus of people. Our future is very much in renewable energy and much of our attention in recent times has gone into developing the technologies and assisting people in the creation of new renewables. We have set ourselves ambitious targets for the use of renewable energy and much progress has been made.
As an island nation, we are dependent on foreign countries for the importation of our energy needs. We import over 90% of our energy. Apart from being dependent on other countries, we do not have much control over the cost of energy. As a result, energy, whether it be for use in homes or in business, is a big factor and we are certainly at a disadvantage in comparison to many other countries. For that reason we have placed enormous focus on the area of developing renewables and assisting people in developing alternatives to gas and oil.
The national energy efficiency action plan, which the Minister, Deputy Ryan, will publish shortly, will map out how Ireland will achieve energy savings of 20% across our economy by 2020. These savings will be achieved by a combination of policy interventions across all sectors. The national insulation programme is indicative of the robust economically sound policies included in the plan. It is by the implementation of the national energy efficiency plan that Ireland’s energy future will be shaped and safeguarded.
I am confident that all Members of this House will back this process now by actively promoting and supporting the national insulation programme.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House. I also welcome this sensible cost-effective creative scheme, which nobody in this House should oppose. Beyond that, this motion is a waste of time. As Senator O’Toole mentioned, we have been talking about this for a long time. Indeed, we have probably debated this matter to death, not just in this House but in the other House as well. While I am pleased to see the introduction of the home energy saving scheme, the country might be better served if we debated issues of greater importance today. Earlier I was interrupted in mid-flow by the guillotining of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008. Then we did not have enough time to speak about the crisis in the Middle East, in Gaza, where today the bombing by Israeli aeroplanes has recommenced. Instead we must debate something that, as I stated, we have debated on numerous occasions in the past.
The Labour Party has been calling for a scheme such as this for many years and we are happy to see it introduced. In November last, at my party’s annual conference in Kilkenny, I called for the introduction of a similar scheme. I referred to the scheme being introduced in the UK to take people off the unemployment list and to reduce greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions. Until now we in Ireland were more or less sitting on our hands. We could have done much more. I am glad to see the introduction of this measure at last. It is good to see initiatives like this being rolled out in an effort to address not only CO2 emissions but unemployment.
I note the Minister of State stated that “energy policy, above any other, should be a model for cross-party consensus”. I stated on many occasions in this House that the Labour Party will not challenge or obstruct sensible solutions to national problems and I reaffirm that commitment. Certainly we will not stand in the way of this policy because we believe it will work.
I note the Minister of State expects the scheme to produce 4,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, and that must be welcomed. We need to see the introduction of more schemes like this.
In July last year, Sustainable Energy Ireland released a report stating that the average Irish household consumes 27% more energy than the average UK household, and 31% more than the average European Union household. The report found that household fuel use decreased by less than 0.5% from 1995 to 2006 while at the same time the average electricity use per person increased by an enormous 62%. A national insulation drive is a first step in addressing the household energy crisis we are facing and other follow-on initiatives will be necessary to ensure we tackle the issue of energy.
It makes sense to seal in the energy escaping from our houses but it is disappointing that the scheme does not extend to renewal and replacement of windows, particularly single glazed windows. Even in an optimally insulated home heat will continue to escape through the windows and cracks that appear, and this scheme sets out no specific provision to address that.
Recently the urban institute in University College Dublin exhibited a sensory detection programme which it developed. It uses a specialised thermal-imaging camera to conduct an audit of the built environment. One can go around a room with the camera to identify exactly where heat is escaping. It is a useful tool to allow us to rectify the position and put remedial measures in place. Its findings show consistently that one of the main causes of heat escape is through windows, mostly single glazed windows. The Minister must make home insulation schemes the first port of call in a journey towards preventing the escape of energy from homes.
On the subject of investing in research, this is exactly the kind of initiative that should be developed by the innovation community. In five years’ time the Government will have spent approximately €1 billion in promoting research in Ireland and it is essential that projects that will facilitate sustainable policies for national recovery are supported. The urban institute at University College Dublin and the environmental research institute at University College Cork are national centres of excellence in this field and it is important that policy is influenced by the research going on there. I note the Minister of State mentioned the issue of smart meters. I agree this could help to reduce energy use by people and I welcome their introduction by the energy companies.
I ask the Minister to use his offices to highlight that measures such as the new smart meters and allowing people to pay their bills on-line lead to a reduction in the costs of operation for these electricity companies, yet they do not seem to be passing these savings on to customers. I ask him to use his offices to call on the electricity companies to pass on these savings. In the UK, for instance, some of the energy companies, as a result of electronic billing, managed to pass on savings of up to 10% to their customers and I would encourage electricity companies to do the same here.
Until now it could have been argued that there was a lack of synergy when it came to making policy in this country. Successive Governments have invested enormous sums in research and it is important to ensure that any research developed is put into practice so that we have practical solutions that can be used. Tackling these problems presents an opportunity to get all sectors of society moving together in search of solutions. Tax breaks and start-up grants should be increased and fast-tracked in the direction of entrepreneurs and inventors working in this field.
Recently it was announced that the market for solar collectors has increased by 300% in the ten years to 2008 and it has reached approximately €1 billion. The next company such as Google or Nokia is most likely to be in this renewable and sustainable energy sector. That company may not necessarily come from Helsinki or Silicon Valley, it could quite easily come from some part of Ireland. We have the education and we have the drive. For instance, last month a company in Mayo created 20 jobs by developing a hyper-efficient solar-panel collector system. We have the technology and we have the commitment to do that.
There is no reason Ireland cannot benefit from the coming green revolution, but to do so we need to invest at grassroots and to encourage and develop this kind of industry through tax breaks. Amidst all the doom and gloom, it is not a sin to be hopeful about the future. These are the opportunities that may see us through these bad times.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this motion. I understand to a degree Senator O’Toole’s frustration because he was a Member of the House a long time before me. However, he is not the first to advocate programmes such as this. Many years ago I heard people advocating the need for better insulation in our homes, attics and so on. Almost 20 years ago I can remember the ESB taking the initiative and including leaflets in its billing system on this type of activity to help energy ratings in the home. It was asking people to put lagging jackets on hot water cylinders, insulate attics and even doing special offers in ESB shops. I remind Members that this is not a new idea and that we are coming late to the table with this initiative. What is being proposed is a remediation programme which, the motion says, is aimed at “tackling the legacy of poorly insulated homes”.
The Government alone is responsible for that legacy over the past ten to 20 years when the housing boom saw unprecedented levels of building in this country. It now has the audacity to say it is introducing a programme to deal with that legacy. Let us be honest about the fact that we have neglected our duties as Government and regulators of the building sector. We have neglected the opportunities, now well gone, to have insulated properly the many thousands of homes that were built. We are playing catch-up. I understand from the motion that the Government expects to have its back clapped, but I will not be doing that because it neglected the situation when it should have been addressed many years ago. It is not for the want of people telling the Government about it.
None the less, I welcome the principle of the grant scheme whereby people in sub-standard homes with heat going out the doors and windows will have an opportunity to deal with that issue. The amount of fuel poverty in Ireland is now widely recognised. I am aware of local authorities that introduced schemes where oil boilers and central heating systems were installed. Now I hear horror stories about some of these boilers being taken out and sold. People are selling the oil in the tanks because they cannot afford to burn it.
Waterford Stanley in my constituency was under serious pressure before Christmas and putting the staff on a three-day week. Now it has gone back on full-time work, which I welcome, because it makes solid fuel burners. Owing to the demand for solid fuel now, people are switching off their oil-dependent appliances and moving to solid fuel to heat the rooms they spend their time in. That is reality and here we are introducing insulation schemes at a very late date.
The scheme is broken down into three strands, according to the Minister of State. One is to cut heating bills, the second is to reduce carbon emissions and the third is to create jobs, all of which are to be welcomed. I have spoken already about some of the heating impacts. To reduce carbon emissions, a major job of work must be done because of the building energy rating that has been introduced. Again, that is late to the table because many of the agencies, even the local authorities, are not sure who the assessors are who will monitor this work, whether there are enough of them and if the public is fully aware of how they may be accessed. There is work to be done in trying to improve matters there.
As regards the warmer homes scheme and local authority housing, the Minister of State might clarify some of the confusion. The scheme is meant to apply, he says, to low income private homes and also to rented local authority housing. There is no mention of local authority housing qualifying for this particular grant on the Sustainable Energy Ireland website. The website says it applies to low income households or those on a social welfare allowance. There is no mention of local authority housing. My local authority was questioned on this recently and it was unable to answer. Senators are quite right in saying this scheme was announced without proper information and without the resources to engage properly with those required to assist in the working of the scheme. More work must be done in that regard because the message is incoherent and seems to be very disorganised.
Of course, there are the delays in the scheme whereby we are being told it is to be introduced in March and the industry is waiting, as is the public, on those who know about the scheme. These are unnecessary delays and should be dealt with as soon as possible.
Under the existing schemes in local authorities, especially those such as housing aid for the elderly and housing adaption grants, many people took the opportunity to insulate while houses were being renovated. I need not tell the Minister of State as a public representative how over-subscribed those schemes and grants are. In the summer of 2008 local authorities were closing the schemes because they had no more funding either from central government or their own resources to conclude and finish those grant applications that were in place. We are not properly resourcing them and that creates a problem.
People mentioned smart metering. This is a great idea but the roll-out is much too slow. Why are we taking so long since its announcement to see smart metering installed in the pilot areas? That programme needs to be speeded up. It will help raise awareness and give householders a better idea about energy usage in their homes.
On a related theme, there are barriers in the way of people lessening their carbon emissions. If they want to go to the night rate dual tariff meter, they first have to pay exorbitant fees for the ESB technician and then must pay a much higher standing charge for the meter. That means it is not viable for people to change to night rate electricity. This is typical of the simple things the Government can ask the ESB and other electricity providers to do to assist householders to shift their energy usage patterns, perhaps into the night-time, to lessen demand on generating stations and reduce overall carbon emissions. This can be done simply but we must incentivise such initiatives properly so that the public latches onto and avails of such measures. There are ways and means other than just insulating attics. While that is very important, there are other routes in the whole area of energy usage such as incentivising the use of renewable energy. More work can be done in this regard.
We oppose the motion because we believe the Government is coming late to the table. It is introducing a remediation package which we welcome, but the legacy of this Government over the past ten to 15 years when there was an unprecedented housing boom meant that building standards were not properly regulated. Now, at a later stage, we are trying to remediate all that, to pump insulation into cavities and attics, when it should have been done long before. Many people had been advocating this for many years. I can go back 20 years when the ESB leaflets were going into every house along with the bills. However, the Government turned a blind eye and took no notice.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As I have said before, I find it funny that Senator Butler is commending the Government in any motion at this stage considering the mess it has made of everything. None the less, I believe the Senator’s heart is in the right place. He has worked for a long time on this scheme. I would have asked the same questions last week that I am going to ask now when, to tremendous applause, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, was on the six o’clock news on Sunday evening, with the guys running in behind him with the radiators. It looked as if the whole system was in place, but unfortunately that is not the case and it took three days before anything appeared on the website of Sustainable Energy Ireland, which I believe is the organisation that will look after the scheme.
The first question on people’s lips is about reducing their energy bills and they welcomed this grant. I acknowledge that the Green Party has come up with a positive initiative but Fine Gael has been highlighting the problem for a long time. I was at a loss to advise people how they could apply because information is not yet available on the scheme. People will have to find the money to pay for the improvements and claim the grant retrospectively but there is little surplus cash available for people to extend themselves in this manner. I hope the delays experienced thus far in regard to funding will not become an issue.
I have been shouting loudly at Westmeath County Council for disabled persons grants, essential repairs grants and heating for the elderly grants. I am aware of one elderly man who has been waiting two years for a grant. Even though it is now the middle of February, the county council has not yet prepared its budget for 2009, let alone decide how it will fund essential repairs and other grants.
This “la-di-da” scheme is worthwhile but, like everything else introduced by this Government, it is not backed up by common sense. It is not a radical idea because it is logical that we should strive to reduce our carbon footprint and help people to save money while keeping warm. As spokesperson for social and family affairs, I am acutely aware of the number of elderly people who are experiencing fuel poverty and who must decide between buying bread and butter or a bale of briquets. Does the Minister know the price of a bale of briquets? It costs a lot of money. We should provide people who fall into poverty traps with ways to insulate their houses.
Was the television advertisement involving the Minister, clean hard hats and spotless vests a set-up or did it reflect reality? How much funding will be made available and when will it be distributed? The SEI states it will proceed with the scheme when it recruits an adequate complement of contractors but there are any number of contractors available at present.
While I agree this initiative is important and long overdue, the Government has a nerve to be commending itself in this day and age. Given that Fine Gael and Senator O’Toole have long been raising this issue, it is cheeky to claim credit at this late stage. The initiative by no means represents radical thinking.
Senator Paudie Coffey: It is a publicity stunt.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. Unfortunately, I was unable to listen to much of the debate. However, I have read the Minister of State’s speech. I am disappointed by the arguments of Senator McFadden. Essentially she agrees with the initiative.
Senator Paudie Coffey: It is too little, too late.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: That is not a reason to oppose it.
Senator Nicky McFadden: We do not know the budget.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I would be grateful to the Acting Chairman if he could restore order.
Acting Chairman (Senator Joe O’Reilly): The speaker, without interruption.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: The scheme is worthy of our support. Senator McFadden mentioned the problem of fuel poverty. This scheme is designed to deal with that problem. She should be supporting it. It is not sufficient to say it does not go far enough because a good initiative should always be supported.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I do not want to be lectured by the Senator.
Acting Chairman: Senator O’Malley, without interruption.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: As the Minister of State has pointed out, we need to find ways of kick-starting our economy. This green opportunity is one such way. It has the additional benefits of insulating people’s homes, making heating more cost-effective and reducing our carbon emissions. It is a winning scenario and I am astonished at Fine Gael’s response.
Senator Paudie Coffey: The Senator has not listened to the full debate.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I do not like to criticise for the sake of it and I admit that I have not listened to every speaker but I am responding to the contributions that I heard.
Senator Nicky McFadden: On a point of order, I have been misquoted.
Acting Chairman: Senator O’Malley, without interruption.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I made a legitimate criticism.
Acting Chairman: That is not a point of order.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I have lost my train of thought, which does not help. We do not need to engage in argumentative politics for the sake of it. I spent my afternoon in a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security. All members of that committee acknowledged the benefit of working together in the interests of the country. Given these economic times, that is what all of us should do. What happens during this Government’s term in office matters less than the result of our decisions on future generations. This is a positive initiative. However, I would have loved to have seen it being introduced earlier because I am very interested in energy issues.
Senator Nicky McFadden: The Senator is agreeing with me.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: We are overly dependent on imported fossil fuels and are thereby put at risk. As a Member of the previous Dáil, I spent a lot of time trying to convince the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to introduce a strong insulation scheme. Such a scheme benefits houses and, more importantly, the people who live in them. It is an extremely welcome initiative and I applaud the Government on it. I hope to qualify for a grant at some point.
We need to think about the amount of energy we consume. It is commendable that we are now addressing the fact that our housing stock has been constructed to low energy efficiency standards. It would have been nice to think that the Opposition would have supported us on this. I do not ask Senators to pat the Government on the back all the time but they should support positive initiatives. Opposition for its own sake does nobody any good.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I do not want to be lectured.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I do not mean to pick on Senator McFadden but I listened with interest to her contribution.
Senator Paddy Burke: She told it the way it is.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: She spoke about logic but the lack of logic in her response to this initiative was regrettable.
Senator Nicky McFadden: The Senator is provoking me.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I will not provoke her further.
Senator Paudie Coffey: Senator O’Malley is covering up for 20 years of mistakes.
Acting Chairman: Senator O’Malley, without interruption.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I look forward to seeing the positive effects this initiative will have. We need to take advantage of the opportunities that exist in the area of green energy because that type of thinking will help us through the economic difficulties we face.
Other countries, notably America, are taking similar initiatives to this scheme. Thankfully the new US administration has made a stronger commitment to environmental concerns such as climate change and reducing carbon emissions. These initiatives are similar the world over and are exactly what we need to pursue. I hope they will be extended. I met earlier members of the Construction Industry Federation who told me many people who worked in the construction industry are unemployed. We need to think about these people. There was an array of protests today by people in secure employment who are concerned about their jobs and the contribution they are being asked to make. We need to look a little beyond this and ask ourselves what contribution we want to make to assist those who have lost their jobs. Many in the construction industry have lost their jobs at this point. This initiative offers them hope and opportunity to return to the workforce, which is a commendable effort on the part of Government. I welcome the initiative and wish the Government good luck with it. I hope it is a resounding success.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Ní glacfaidh mé ach seal beag ama chun an méid atá le rá agam ar an gceist seo — an clár fuinnimh agus teasdíonta atá fógraithe ag an Rialtas — a rá. Sa chéad dul síos, caithfidh mé a rá go gcuirim fáilte roimh an rúin atá curtha síos ag páirtithe an Rialtais. Ní féidir liom tacaíocht a thabhairt do mhórchuid an rúin, áfach. Rachfaidh mé isteach sna nithe sin níos moille. Ba mhaith liom níos mó a rá faoi chúrsaí fuinnimh, go mórmhór faoi chostais fhuinnimh. Tááthas orm an deis seo a ghlacadh chun na hábhair sin a phlé.
I support the sentiments expressed in the motion and clearly welcome any move to increase energy efficiency, reduce costs and get people back to work, which this will do. I welcome the introduction of this scheme for which my party has called for a long time. It is a pity it has taken so long to introduce it and that it is not up and running at this stage. However, the introduction of this scheme is a sign of hope. Whenever things are done right and programmes are being developed, however belatedly, one must offer congratulations to those responsible. As stated, there is never a wrong time to do what is right. The insulation programme is the way forward. It is what the country needs at this point. While it will have only limited effect, it must be acknowledged.
I would like to touch on many of the other issues related to energy that need to be addressed. Despite Bord Gáis’s indication today that its gas prices will fall by 25% over the year, fuel poverty will remain a major problem. The Institute of Public Health study in 2007 stated that fuel poverty in this country was at an unacceptably high level by international standards. This was prior to the more recent steep increases in gas and electricity charges. Families on marginal incomes and elderly people in particular are most affected, often to the extent of having to get into further debt to heat their homes.
It was estimated that in the region of 2,800 people per annum on the island of Ireland die as a result of deficiencies in households in terms of their being able to meet their energy needs, which is shameful. The most alarming aspect of the studies on fuel poverty is that the rates of fuel poverty increased even during the years of highest economic growth and that the level of household income below which families were finding it difficult to meet their energy needs was rising steeply, an indication that energy prices and the relative proportion of household income required to meet their needs was rising at a faster rate than most other essentials.
I have reservations about Bord Gáis committing itself to lowering electricity prices by 10% in competition with the ESB. Surely, given we are dealing with two State agencies, it would make more sense that the energy regulator allow the ESB to lower its prices to consumers to similarly reflect the global price trends expected to be reflected in falling gas charges. There is also concern that in seeking to expand its share of the electricity market, Bord Gáis is boasting its attractiveness to potential private investors in the event of it being privatised, something I do not believe would be in the interests of this country or Irish consumers. Donegal, which is the region I represent and most of the west of Ireland does not have access to the gas network. It is hoped that the Government will introduce initiatives, such as those outlined in my report, Awakening the West, to subsidise these regions so that gas can be provided to them.
While the national insulation programme will address some of the problems associated with energy conservation and costs and will provide jobs, it must be said this Government is failing to tackle fuel poverty and to make the necessary investment in renewable energy to ensure its targets are met. Senator O’Malley asked why the Opposition will not support the motion. I support the scheme and the sentiments expressed in the motion. However, to support it would be like congratulating an arsonist who, having set a building alight, threw a bucket of water over it as it burned to the ground.
Why in the first instance must we introduce an insulation scheme? We must do so because successive Governments have allowed the developers in this country to build houses on the cheap, without insulation and using breeze blocks. It is not that long ago since this happened. I am a civil engineer and have worked on sites in Dublin. Houses have been built with breeze blocks that cannot be insulated. This happened because regulations were not tight enough.
The Government’s cosy relationship with the developers allowed them to build houses on the cheap, sell them for massive prices and leave people with the difficulties now being experienced in terms of mortgages. The State must now provide money to fix the problem which the Government and developers created. I cannot support a motion which congratulates the Government on getting its act together. I welcome that it has got its act together but congratulating it on addressing a problem which it caused in the first instance is a step too far. For this reason, I will be opposing the motion.
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this motion. While I welcome that the Government has decided finally to do something about conserving energy, I cannot congratulate it on what it has done so far. The Government is almost two years in office, almost as long as the Government of 1995-1997 led by the former Deputy John Bruton. When one considers what that Government did compared with what this Government has done, one can understand why we on this side of the House cannot support this motion.
I would like to follow on from what Senator Doherty had to say about wall insulation options. The outline of the policy states that to insulate the walls of their home, owners may choose to have insulated a cavity wall, internal or external, depending on the construction of their home, and that home owners should seek professional advice about which option is best. Incidentally, we are speaking in this regard of less well-off people. A home owner must have a building energy rating, BER, assessment done of his or her home. This assessment costs in the region of €500 and applicants are entitled to a grant of €200 towards the assessment. Less well-off people are being asked to find €300 towards the cost of a BER assessment of their home. In many cases these people are not in a position to do this.
Some time ago a motion was tabled by this side of the House calling on the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government to ban the building with cavity blocks of houses in Dublin, of which there are thousands. The resources provided under this scheme are but a drop in the ocean in comparison with what will be required to insulate the thousands of houses in the city built with such blocks. What is the choice for those with houses built with cavity blocks? They must have either internal or external installation. The report demonstrates that external insulation is by far the most expensive whereas internal installation is a little cheaper. Cavity walls are common in most rural areas, although the planning authority in my county would not allow one to build a house with cavity blocks and would make sure 4 in. solid block with insulation was used.
It is incredible that the Government fought against the motion to stop the building of houses with cavity blocks. It will be almost impossible to insulate those houses in Dublin because the insulation will have to be undertaken internally or externally, the two most expensive options. This is what has happened with thousands of houses which have been built in the past ten years. The scheme will cost a fortune. The list of those who will carry out the assessments shows only one agency in Dublin although thousands of houses must be assessed and insulated. This scheme is very poorly thought out.
Where is the cut-off point for the low paid? Is it at the minimum wage, €30,000, €40,000 or €50,000? Is it with regard to the condition of the house and whether it is poorly insulated or with regard to the age of the house and whether it was built five, ten or 20 years ago? This is not spelled out very well. The rural organisations that are carrying out these assessments contain good people who voluntarily give up much time. It is they, at the end of the day, who will decide what funding is dished out to successful applicants. Where will the line be drawn? Is it in regard to the age of the house or the income of the families?
Will local authority houses qualify for the scheme? Given the new schemes announced by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in recent years, particularly in terms of the existing stock of houses, the council housing stock is worst off at this time. There are very few, if any, schemes being put in place by the Government to upgrade the existing local authority housing stock. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing recently put €20 million in place to rent new houses that have been built by developers in recent years but this will be to the detriment of the local authority housing stock.
The Minister of State might explain what other schemes could be put in place such as in regard to wind energy and domestic turbines. Many houses or groups of houses would install domestic turbines if grant assistance were available towards this. The Government could go down this road. The new oil in this country is wind and wave energy but the Government is moving too slowly in this regard. We must seek out the opportunities that exist at present. There is no point talking about them but until now it has been all talk and no action. The people are waiting for action and require that it be taken.
Many people are involved in energy conservation throughout the country and while they may not be qualified to carry out building energy rating, BER, assessments, in most cases they know exactly what must be done. Those contractors should be allowed to carry out the work. These assessments will eat up a considerable amount of money. In some cases, an assessment will cost up to €500 and the less well-off will find it difficult to get this money in place to avail of the grant, whether it is for attic insulation or the many other insulation ideas the Government has put forward.
Like my colleagues, I see this as a step forward but I do not believe any great congratulations are due to the Government. There is very little action and what action has been taken is too little, too late. I congratulate the Surface Power company from Tourmakeady, County Mayo. The chief executive of the company is John Quinn who is very innovative and has done tremendous work in this area in recent years. We should have more companies of this type and such people should get every assistance and grant available to help them put forward more ideas in regard to energy conservation.
Senator Larry Butler: I thank the Minister of State for attending. It is important that we become the cutting edge of green industry and we have a great opportunity in this regard. I would not agree with some of the comments from the Opposition, particularly those of Senator O’Toole. Many other countries, including the UK, Canada and the United States, have now taken on the new installation programmes. Canada in particular has been to the forefront in regard to retrofit and energy conservation. It is in this area that Ireland can become the new leading edge with regard to this technology.
I did not get a chance in my earlier contribution to finish what I intended to say about renewables. While installation is the first and an important part of the job we must carry out, it is not the only one. Senator Burke suggested it is necessary to have a BER certificate to carry out this work but it is not. It is necessary to have a BER certificate if one is selling a house.
Senator Paudie Coffey: A certificate is required before one gets the grant.
Senator Larry Butler: One is supposed to get the work carried out and then get the BER on the house to see how it rates. However, if one is selling the house, one has to have a BER certificate.
Quite a few private companies have set up in business to carry out the BER. There will not be a problem finding an inspector because quite a few companies in Dublin are now well set up in this regard and also with regard to retrofit. Retrofit is nothing new. Most of the small builders who have been carrying out work over the years are well qualified to do this.
There was also a misconception among some speakers with regard to cavity block, which can of course be insulated both outside and inside. I would not be big supporter of cavity block construction and would prefer to see a double-skin wall being built, which is the way most of the houses in the country have been built. However, for a fast and efficient way of carrying out work, cavity block was certainly a big help. It was one of the first improvements in system-built houses and it was possible to build them very quickly. However, they were not energy efficient. Fingal County Council and Dún Laoghaire County Council were the first local authorities in the country to demand a 40% increase in the energy rating of houses in Dublin. That move was supported by Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and all other parties in both councils.
I refer to the transfer to smart metering and alternative energy. This is a very significant move amounting to a total investment of €18 billion in our homes. The costing suggests a saving from insulation amounting to €9 billion. Let us consider the options in alternative energy, including micro wind power generators and solar power. Carey Glass Solar has perfected a panel that will supply electricity to houses, a significant advance in solar power. The development of micro wind power is very important because it may allow a small generator to be placed on one’s house. It may be possible to use these in group schemes and there are various other options. There is a great opportunity to go down this road.
The emergence of pellet boilers is a significant advance and a very efficient way to provide heat. When renovating my daughter’s house we installed a pellet boiler which is a fantastic, cheap, efficient and clean way to heat the house. It produces one cup of dust every week, a small pot of ash that can be put on one’s flowers.
I commend the motion to the House. It is linked with the smart economy. In future we must operate in a better and smarter way and ensure greater value for money. That is how we will get ourselves out of the trouble we are in at present. Such initiatives as the insulation scheme amount to the way forward. We must invest more money in this area. This proposal will create 4,000 jobs. We should bear in mind some of the figures. Every €25 million invested will create €100 million and a €52 million return to the Exchequer. Where else is such value to be found? Removing people from the dole queue saves approximately €25,000 per person. That is the value we can extract from this scheme.
Double glazed windows should be included in the scheme and it was a mistake to omit them from it. Some 25% of domestic heat is lost through windows. Without a double glazing unit one can lose 25% of heat and one may not reach the efficiency rating required by the building energy rating, BER, inspector. It is important that this is amended. While this investment is very welcome, we need more. The scheme will cover approximately 15,000 houses, which is not enough because there are 1 million houses in the country. This is a great opportunity to pump prime the economy and there is no better way to do this for the Exchequer and the householder. If we take money from the householder we must return some of it and this is a great way to do so.
Let us consider the options for alternative energy. Thermal energy efficiency is another option and we must examine the design of electrical fixtures in the household. There are significant amounts of money and energy to be saved in this area. It is possible to save €350 per year on light bulbs alone, a very significant amount of money. It is simply a matter of changing the bulb and it will last longer and provide more light. In the future, technology will bring substantial savings in that regard. I commend the motion and I hope the Minister will expedite the scheme. There is no reason not to do so. The sooner the Minister gets the scheme under way the better. There are many contractors available to do the work. The average contractor can do it and it does not involve any science. We should get along and create the equivalent of three Dells or 15,000 jobs in this industry. We should get on with the work.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 17; Níl, 26.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Norris, David.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callanan, Peter.|
|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’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Ross, Shane.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Fiona O’Malley and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Motion agreed to.
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?
Senator Donie Cassidy: At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister of State. I wish to raise the issue of the failure of the Garda Síochána to return the personal effects of a gentleman who was murdered in Gorey in 1994. I supplied the name of the gentleman to the Seanad Office. In the years since the murder, the Garda held on to the personal effects of the victim, specifically items of clothing and a wristwatch. The investigation into the murder was exhausted a number of years ago, and a situation was reached whereby the Garda and the DPP agreed to close the investigation.
Since that decision was made, the victim’s widow has been trying to get her husband’s personal effects returned. However, she has met with delays and inaction on the part of the Garda. I have been working on this case with the widow since early 2007. In December 2007, we were delighted to get the news that the Garda had managed to locate the victim’s clothing, and the victim’s widow went to Gorey in February 2008 to take possession of her husband’s clothes. However, his wristwatch was still missing. We continued to press the Garda to locate this watch, as it was taken from the victim as a key piece of evidence during the murder investigation. We were convinced that it must be somewhere and that due process had been followed by the Garda.
Following numerous letters and phone calls that went all the way to the Garda Commissioner, we were eventually told in September 2008 that the watch had been located. The widow returned to Gorey to collect the watch, but it was not the right one. The Minister of State might have been briefed to state the widow might be mistaken and that time dulls the memory, but that watch was a wedding present from the widow to the victim, and there is a distinctive mark on the watch of which the widow is aware but the gardaí are not. She is absolutely sure that watch was not the watch she gave to her husband on their wedding day.
I do not know who really owns the watch presented to her by the gardaí, or whether it was in their possession for a day, a week, a month or ten years, but the clear fact is that it was the wrong watch. When we pointed this out to the Garda Síochána, a liaison officer was appointed last December, and there has been one meeting since then with the widow, but no resolution.
At this stage, it looks like the watch has been mislaid, lost or removed for one reason or another. A mistake has been made, so in order to allow the widow some kind of resolution to this sad affair, all we are asking is for some sort of apology to be made, and for the Garda to own up to the fact that a mistake has been made. There is a number of precedents for this in the past. An apology should be offered in the interests of fairness and so that justice is finally served.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Seán Power): On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, on my own behalf and on that of everyone in this House, I offer condolences to the family of the victim in this sad case.
I understand how a protracted delay in returning personal property would cause personal distress. Following the inquest into the death of the person concerned in February 2008, contact was made with the person’s family and arrangements were made for the return of property which was still in the possession of the Garda, following the investigation into the death of the person in 1994.
At the time that contact was made, an issue arose regarding one item of property and further inquiries are ongoing. It is understood that a trained family liaison officer has been appointed to this case and every effort is being made to ensure that outstanding issues can be brought to a speedy conclusion.
As a general rule, property is returned to its rightful owner when it is no longer required for the purpose of the investigation of a crime, or where a court so directs. A claimant of property is currently entitled to apply to the District Court under the Police Property Act 1897 for the return of property in the possession of the Garda, and the court may make an order as to the proper disposal of the property concerned.
A fundamental principle underlies the requirement to retain evidence, which is that the defendant must have an opportunity to examine and test any evidence that forms part of the case against him or her. Article 38.1 of the Constitution provides that no person shall be tried on any criminal charge save in due course of law, while Article 40.3.1 provides that the State guarantees in its laws to respect and in so far as is practicable by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen. In addition, Article 6.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees a defendant a right to “equality of arms”. These guarantees impose a burden on the prosecution in criminal cases to preserve and disclose evidence to the defence. Evidence must therefore be retained if it can be expected to have a bearing on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The possibility of examining the evidence is necessary if the defendant feels it is going to assist him or her in rebutting the prosecution’s case. The retention and availability of articles forming part of the evidence in a case is therefore a very important element of the concept of due process.
Arising from those constitutional and ECHR guarantees, the Supreme Court has determined in a number of cases that there is an onus on the Garda Síochána to seek out, retain and preserve evidence and to disclose it to the defence where it is reasonable and practicable to do so. Braddish v. the DPP in 2001 was the first and most notable in a series of Supreme Court judgments on the issue. The position as set out by that court is that “evidence relevant to guilt or innocence must so far as is necessary and practicable be kept until the conclusion of the trial”.
The Supreme Court returned to the subject in July last year and while upholding the position in Braddish, it offered some possibilities of finding a means whereby the property could be returned at an earlier stage. In Savage v. DPP, the court listed several principles and a best practice approach that could be employed in determining whether the property is to be retained, or whether it might be possible to return it while still ensuring the defendant would have sufficient information to enable him or her to query the relevance of the evidence connected to, or gathered from the property. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is examining that judgment carefully, but is not yet in a position to say how the principles and best practice ideas mentioned in Savage v. DPP can be given effect.
It is recognised that the retention of property which is part of the evidence in a criminal case can result in serious inconvenience and distress for the owner, and the issue has been raised on many occasions and has been the subject of litigation between property owners and the State. The Minister announced in December that the Criminal Procedure Bill 2009 will make provision in this regard. Under Part 5 of the general scheme of the Bill, it is envisaged that a procedure whereby the prosecution and defence will agree statements on the evidential value of the object will assist the prompt return, where appropriate, of evidence to victims, where that evidence is their own property. It is recognised that this is a first, limited step and it applies only where a person has been charged. However, it is hoped the Savage judgment will also help in finding a solution in cases where property is held for many years pending a charge being laid.
While all this might be of small comfort to the family of the victim in this case, it is hoped that these measures will help prevent such issues arising in the future. Having listened to the Senator, I know that the reply I have given him does not supply him with the answer to some of the issues he raised, especially the issue about the wristwatch. It was most unfortunate that a mistake was made in presenting the wrong watch.
As a public representative, I acknowledge the tremendous assistance he has been to a person who has been dealing with a very difficult situation and who might not have had the will to pursue it without such assistance. I will make further inquiries within the Department to see if we can make progress on it, and I apologise for what has happened in the past.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I appreciate the Minister of State’s response, including his offering of condolences. I think he said at the end that an apology will be made for the mistakes that were made in this case. That would go a long way. I would like to clarify one aspect of the response. I agree totally that evidence needs to be retained when a murder investigation is under way. In this instance, however, the murder investigation has been completed. That is why the victim’s clothing has been returned. There is no investigation any more. The issue boils down to where the hell the watch has gone. That is what we want an apology for. I appreciate what the Minister of State has said and I was glad to hear it. Could he bring back to his office a request for the Garda Commissioner to be contacted and asked to make an apology on behalf of the force? An apology to the widow in this case would go a huge way towards resolving this issue for everybody. I thank the Minister of State for his time.
Deputy Seán Power: I will be happy to do that.
Senator David Norris: I compliment the Minister of State on the gracious manner in which he dealt with the previous Adjournment matter. I hope he will be equally gracious in dealing with the matter I am raising. He is the most appropriate Minister of State to deal with the subject of eel fisheries because he is involved in determining Ireland’s approach to the issue. I have been approached by representatives of the eel sector from the the North Western Regional Fisheries Board, the Northern Regional Fisheries Board, the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board, the Southern Regional Fisheries Board, the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board and the Shannon Eel Fishermen’s Association. They have complained to me about the over-zealous implementation of an EU directive.
Eels are a naturally occurring species in the Irish fish stocks. The River Dodder at Ballsbridge was full of eels when I was young, until one day the Dartry dye works allowed some effluent to flow into the river and caused a massive fish kill. Masses of trout and eels were killed. It was quite astonishing. It was interesting because eels are fairly resistant to pollution. When eels start to die, it is a significant indicator of the strength of a pollutant.
It is worth pointing out that in negotiations during Ireland’s early years of membership of the EU, we gave a massive bonus to the Union by handing our fish stocks to Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, in particular. We are always being told how much we have gained from being in the EU, but people rarely point out how much we have given to the Union. According to some computations, we have given the EU at least as much as we have gained in grants, subsidies and farm payments under the Common Agricultural Policy.
I want to look at this situation. The eel is an interesting fish, although it is hardly like a fish. It is somewhere between a fish and an animal such as a snake. The life cycle of the eel lasts 90 years. Irish eels breed in the Sargasso Sea before their elvers come to the rivers of Ireland.
It is obvious that the Union is trying to protect this resource. Eel fishermen want to protest against this drastic measure. Not only will it destroy their livelihoods, but it will also prove to be ineffective from the perspective of eel stocks. They accept that what is known as “elver recruitment” is experiencing difficulties in Europe. If elvers do not arrive in Europe in sufficient numbers, eel stocks will decline. Eel fishermen accept that action needs to be taken on a Europe-wide basis.
Why, given that the directive issued by the European Union required a reduction of just 40% in the catching of eels, has Ireland decided to eliminate 100% of its eel fisheries? There is an extraordinary contrast between the position being taken here and that being taken North of the Border. The authorities in the North have decided to allow the Lough Neagh eel fisheries to stay open. It is extraordinary that we are penalising people on this side of the Border while people on the other part of the island are not being penalised.
What can eel processing plants do to avoid going out of business? I understand some of them have explored the possibility of importing eels for processing from Europe or China. If they were prepared to do that — I understand it will not happen — it would be absurdly cost-ineffective. If the Government had not introduced a proposal to eliminate the eel industry entirely, the EU would have automatically required it to reduce by 50% the number of eels being caught. The eel fishermen could have lived with that, but instead the Government has decided on a 100% cut.
In the run-up to the taking of this decision, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, where the Minister of State is deployed, quite appropriately established a working group to examine this matter. At the outset, however, it did not provide for any representative of the eel industry to be represented on the group. It was only at a late stage that representatives of the industry were included on the group. The major decisions had already been made at that stage, without any input from those who are professionally involved in eel fishing. That is an extraordinary attitude. In addition, there has been no recent comprehensive survey of eel stocks in Ireland. We are dealing with this in the absence of solid and scientific evidence.
Severe restrictions, including the introduction of a closed season, were imposed on the Irish eel fisheries in 2008. The working group I have mentioned invited submissions from interested parties. Various submissions were made by eel fishermen and their representatives. They were prepared to reduce their fishing levels for 2009 to a point that would satisfy the requirements of the EU, but this proposal was ignored. I understand that attempts to secure meetings with the Minister have been similarly rebuffed. The Minister of State is shaking his head. I will accept what he says. Has he met representatives of the eel industry? If not, will he give the House an undertaking that he is prepared to meet them?
The Irish commercial eel fishing industry comprises just 2% of the total EU eel fishing industry. It is relatively insignificant. The member states that are responsible for the other 98% of the EU industry are reducing catch levels by just 40%. It seems that the entire industry on our section of this little island needs to be destroyed even though it comprises just 2% of the EU industry. In other words, Irish eel fisheries will be closed while other fisheries remain open. Virtually all the regional fisheries boards have passed resolutions opposing the introduction of a total ban.
The only eel fishermen in the EU to be affected in this way will be the Irish eel fishermen. We are discriminating against our own fishing community at a time of economic recession. While the number of jobs that are at stake is not huge, it is significant for the local communities affected. Why has the Government chosen to put people out of work at this time? By closing an indigenous industry, we will cause great hardship to many decent fishermen without achieving any real or scientifically validated increase in eel stocks.
I understand that no package of financial compensation is to be provided. Even if we were to accept this catastrophic decision, the least we would expect is for some degree of compensation to be offered. If people’s livelihoods are to be swept away from them by a directive from on high, the least they should be given is some compensation for their investment in boats, stock and equipment. That is not being done, however.
I ask the Minister of State to revisit this decision and address this situation. Perhaps limited eel fishing could be allowed, in line with the best scientific advice. Alternatively, or in addition, compensation could be provided to people who are being flung out of their jobs, at a difficult economic time, as a result of the over-zealous implementation of an EU directive. The EU requires each member state to close 40% of its eel industry, but we have decided to close 100% of our industry. There is something almost masochistic about this that I do not understand. I look forward with great interest to hearing the Minister of State’s reply.
Deputy Seán Power: I thank Senator Norris for raising this matter. I have discussed it with many people who are involved in the eel industry. I am fully aware of the legitimate concerns of commercial eel fishermen who are affected by the demise of European eel stocks. I met representatives of the eel fishing industry before Christmas, before Ireland submitted its plan to Brussels, and again in recent weeks. I took their concerns into consideration when examining the options presented to me for the future management of Irish eel fisheries. The delegations from the industry have taken a constructive approach, by and large. I have explained the difficult position in which I find myself. A public consultation process was undertaken during the preparation of the national eel management plan to elicit the views of stakeholders in this sector, including eel fishermen.
I wish to outline the background to the draft national eel management plan that Ireland has submitted to the European Commission. Recent scientific research, issued by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, has indicated that the European eel fish stock is so depleted that it is outside safe biological limits. The EU regulation mentioned by Senator Norris represents an attempt to achieve recovery of the stock to a sustainable level. The objective of each eel management plan is to reduce anthropogenic mortalities so as to achieve a target escapement of 40% of the biomass of adult eels in pristine conditions, that is, before the collapse in stocks began.
I am advised that Ireland’s draft eel management plan relies upon the most up to date scientific and management information available. Surveys of eel stocks were undertaken by the Marine Institute throughout the 1960s into the mid-1990s. Eels were also recorded in the mixed stock surveys undertaken by the central and regional fisheries boards. During 2008, the Marine Institute, along with the other agencies, has collated all available eel survey data into a national database which will support assessments of the stock into the future.
To inform decision making in the preparation of the national eel management plan, scientists developed a stock assessment model based on current best available data.
Given the implications of the scientific and management advice, the absolute necessity to conserve remaining stocks and the obligation to contribute to the recovery of stocks in the shortest time possible, the national eel management plan recommended a number of management measures needed to reach the targets set in the EU regulation. These are, first, an immediate cessation of the commercial eel fishery and closure of the market; second, mitigation of the impact of hydropower, including a comprehensive silver eel trap and transport plan; third, ensuring upstream migration of juvenile eel at barriers; and, fourth, the improvement of water quality in eel habitats.
The option of reducing rather than ceasing the commercial fishery in some districts was considered and decided against for a number of reasons. The required traceability scheme would be uneconomical, monitoring and enforcement effort would be disproportionate to the value of the activity and the recovery of the eel stock would take up to three times as long.
Adoption of all of these measures within the eel management plan provides for recovery of stocks to historical levels in the shortest time possible, some 90 years, which is the equivalent of four eel generations. I emphasise that the achievement of the regulation target by Ireland is dependent on equivalent EU-wide action being taken. Anything less would compromise the recovery of Irish stocks.
Under the regulation an evaluation of the eel stock and management measures will be undertaken every three years until 2018 and every six years thereafter. The prospect of reopening the fishery in each river basin district will be examined from 2012. When the last 25 years of poor recruitment is taken into account, however, it is clear that the adult eel stock in Irish waters will continue to decline for at least the next decade. For the foreseeable future, therefore, management of the fishery will focus on conservation.
I must stress that there is no property right attaching to public eel licences and consequently the issue of compensation is not relevant or appropriate, given that the proposed closure of the fishery is being applied for conservation reasons under the Fisheries Acts. While I have no funds at my disposal for a hardship fund for commercial eel fishermen, the Central Fisheries Board is actively investigating alternative opportunities to assist eel fishermen in diversification efforts. Some eel fishermen will also have the opportunity to tender for the trap and transport operations to be managed by the ESB under the plan.
My obligation as Minister, regardless of the EU regulation, is to conserve and protect our depleted stock of eel sufficient to ensure its recovery and to secure ecological biodiversity in our inland fisheries for future generations. I hope I can rely on the support of the Oireachtas in meeting that challenge.
Senator David Norris: I thank the Minister of State for his response, which addressed partially some of the issues but not all of them. I would like to pick up on a number of points. The Minister of State said he is advised the draft eel management plan relies on the most up to date scientific data but he did not say who advised him. I am suspicious of that advice because the figures on which he is relying are from 1960 to the mid-1990s, which means they are between ten and 20 years out of date. What happened in 2008 was that they collated the data. The collation is an intellectual exercise that does not directly relate to the health or otherwise of eel stocks at that historic period and therefore the fact that it happened in 2008 is not impressive. The data were assembled at a much earlier period than that and may well be out of date.
The Minister of State does not take into account the comparative situation in other European countries. Why are we the only country that is destroying the entire industry?
I welcome the mitigation of the impact of hydropower, the escapes and so on. That should be done in any event but the Minister of State’s first point was on the closure of the fisheries. We are unique in Europe in doing that. The Minister said it will be 90 years before the stocks are completely rehabilitated, if every other European country co-operates.
The Minister spoke also about the examination of the stocks from 2012 but the people working in the industry will have moved on. He cannot expect people to sit on their oars for three years before coming back into full employment.
I am disappointed with regard to compensation. I know times are difficult but the action taken by the Minister of State’s Department has destroyed an indigenous industry. The entire workforce has been thrown into unemployment and in those circumstances some degree of compensation for their livelihood, their stocks and their boats should be considered. He should at least suggest he is actively investigating alternative opportunities to assist them in diversification efforts.
My information might be slightly out of date. In my original communication I mentioned they said they had no meeting since 19 January. Perhaps the Minister of State has met with them since. If not, I hope he will meet with them again to provide an opportunity to resolve this difficult and human problem as well as one that is financial.
Deputy Seán Power: The Senator has raised a number of issues and I am happy to respond to them. I could give him the dates of meetings I had with individuals on the matter. In fact, a number of colleagues from both Houses sat in at meetings with me when eel fishermen were brought in to make their case. I have not refused to meet anyone.
Senator David Norris: I accept that.
Deputy Seán Power: I was happy to facilitate any request I got to have a meeting about the eel management plan.
I should mention that a blog has appeared recently, obviously written by people involved in the eel industry, which is despicable. It is a serious attack on civil servants who are doing their best working on behalf of the country. I find the behaviour of the people responsible for that despicable and I hope we can identify them at a later stage.
Senator David Norris: As a computer virgin I can assure the Minister of State I have not even seen it.
Deputy Seán Power: That is okay. On the scientific advice, I would be happy to provide the advice that was given to me to the Senator. I felt with the advice being made available to me I was in no position to make any other decision other than to do what I did.
Senator David Norris: Despite the fact that it looks out of date.
Deputy Seán Power: We are talking about depleted stocks. The action we are taking now might be too late. There is no certainty that we can recover the stock but we are making every effort to do it.
Regarding the instruction from Europe, we had to submit our plan by 31 December and as a minimum countries which failed to do that would have to see a reduction of 50% in their catch, in addition to the plan they were to submit. It has been said to me that we are the only country adopting this approach. I cannot agree with that because I am not aware of the plans of other countries. They have not published them and I have not seen them.
Lough Neagh is a different case. There has been an onus on fishermen there for a number of years where they were taking eel from the Severn and stocking Lough Neagh. That is a different case and there is a different operation there, on which I can give the Senator the detail later.
It is not my intention to upset people. I know people were fishing eel on a commercial basis while others were doing it as a hobby. It is something they enjoyed doing and all of a sudden we are putting an end to that. The only reason we are doing it is to protect the eel so that future generations can enjoy this pastime or commercial activity that others have enjoyed for a number of years. That is the only reason we submitted the plan. I await the response from Europe but I would be negligent had I taken any other decision than the one I have taken.
Senator David Norris: I thank the Minister of State.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I welcome the Minister of State. I welcome the opportunity to raise the need for the Minister for Education and Science to outline his response to requests for school extensions, development and refurbishments in a number of schools in the Lucan area. These include St. Thomas’s national school, Scoil Mhuire national school and Lucan Community College.
On 12 February the Minister for Education and Science announced 43 new school building projects throughout the country. Remarkably, not one of those schools is in Lucan or even in the Dáil constituency of Dublin Mid-West. There is no question that there is not enough transparency in the way decisions on school refurbishments are taken.
Lucan has experienced a major growth in population and it is clear the educational requirements in Lucan are fast expanding. There is considerable pressure on the local schools and it is very difficult for those schools that are waiting to hear from the Department without having any clear outline of when they are likely to get the extensions or developments that are in process. Many are taking on new lists for enrolments next year. It is very hard for them to plan new classes because of the lack of information coming back to them from the Department of Education and Science. The needs of these schools have been overlooked.
I mentioned only three schools tonight, but all are in need of urgent attention from the Department. They have been waiting too long and I believe they were left in limbo. I would like to see more transparency in the decisions that are made. It would be a help to return to the system whereby schools know when they are likely to hear from the Department and when development will take place. There is an economic downturn but we have been told by the Government that the schools refurbishment programme will go ahead.
I hope the Minister of State will provide some clarity for these excellent schools in Lucan and that he will cast some light on the criteria behind the current school building list which ignores the educational needs of those schools and the children who attend them.
Deputy Seán Power: I take this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to this House the enormous work which has been carried out by my Department at schools in the Lucan area in recent years and the extent of work planned over coming years in order to meet the continuing demand for pupil places.
There are 14 primary schools in Lucan. Recent State investment in primary schools in the area includes two new state-of-the-art multidenominational schools and a new gaelscoil which commenced operation in September 2005. In addition, and in the context of the Department’s recognition of Lucan’s rapidly developing status, a new eight-classroom primary school opened in the Clonburris area of Lucan in September 2008. The delivery of an eight-classroom building for this school, under a fast-track delivery approach, is the first phase of a two-phase building project. When the new school building is fully developed it will comprise 16 mainstream classrooms and appropriate ancillary space. These interventions alone amount to a multi-million euro investment to address the needs of the Lucan area and they have significantly impacted on the demand for pupil places at primary level.
With regard to the two primary schools specifically mentioned by the Senator, first, a project for the expansion of Scoil Mhuire into a 24-classroom school is in the early stages of architectural planning. In this regard, the Department recently approved the stage 1 submission, namely, site suitability, site report and the initial sketch scheme. It has given approval to the school to move the project to the next stage of architectural planning, namely, stage 2A, developed sketch scheme. Second, St. Thomas’s junior primary school shares a campus with St. Anne’s senior primary school. It is the Department’s intention to provide each of these schools with 20 classrooms overall. The project is awaiting the appointment of a design team.
The four post-primary providers in the immediate Lucan area have a combined capacity of 3,000 pupil places. The combined enrolment of the schools in September 2008 was 2,653 pupils. There is, therefore, current surplus capacity of approximately 350 pupil places. To accommodate future demand for pupil places in the general Lucan area, a new post-primary school catering for 1,000 students is under construction in Adamstown. The planned opening date for this school is September 2009.
Apart from this, and in order to further future proof post-primary provision, the Department plans to increase capacity at two of the post-primary schools in Lucan, namely, Lucan community college, one of the schools specifically mentioned by the Senator, and St. Joseph’s College. These plans will generate an extra 400 pupil places and will increase capacity at each of the schools to 1,000 pupil places.
In addition, the Department has asked South Dublin County Council to identify a site for further post-primary provision and it is the Department’s intention to develop this site, when acquired, in accordance with any continuing demand for pupil places in the context of competing priorities and the level of funding available.
With regard to the three projects specified by the Senator, it is also the Department’s intention to progress these, commensurate with the level of demand for school places in the area and, again, in the context of available resources.
I thank the Senator again for raising this matter and assure her that in considering the demand for primary and post-primary pupil places in Lucan against the places available and the interventions recently made or planned, the Department is satisfied that the immediate primary and post-primary needs of the Lucan area can be met.
The Minister for Education and Science wishes to assure the Senator that through increased Government capital allocations for the school building programme and the improved planning and delivery processes that have been put in place by the Department in recent years, the need for extra school places is being identified wherever they arise and addressed as expeditiously as possible. Areas such as Lucan are kept under continuous review for this purpose.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 February 2009.