Business of Seanad.
Order of Business.
Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009: Second Stage.
Inland Fisheries Bill 2009: Report and Final Stages.
TETRA System: Statements.
Missing Children Hotline.
Human Rights Issues.
Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10.30 a.m.
An Cathaoirleach: I have received notice from Senator Maria Corrigan that, on the motion for the Adjournment of the House today, she proposes to raise the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Dominic Hannigan of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Mark Dearey of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Paschal Donohoe of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator Nicky McFadden of the following matter:
I have also received notice from Senator John Paul Phelan of the following matter:
I regard the matters raised by the Senators as suitable for discussion on the Adjournment. I have selected the matters raised by Senators Corrigan, Hannigan and Dearey and they will be taken at the conclusion of business. The other Senators may give notice on another day of the matters they wish to raise.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed seven minutes and on which Senators may share time, by agreement of the House; No. 2, Inland Fisheries Bill 2009 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 but not before 1.30 p.m.; No. 3, statements on TETRA, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 and conclude within 70 minutes, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, on which Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, and with the Minister to be called upon ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate for closing comments.
Senator Paudie Coffey: As Members look across Europe this morning, the fragile state of the economies of many countries within the European Union is evident. The economy of Greece is almost a basket case, while Spain and Portugal have had their ratings downgraded and Ireland is next.
Senator Mary M. White: It is not.
Senator Paudie Coffey: For many months Members have been discussing how countries are bailing out banks. Ireland is among them, as has been proved by the millions and billions being pumped into its banks. The time is almost approaching when the question will be raised as to who will bail out countries. Members must ask themselves fundamental questions regarding European stability and that of the euro. I ask the Leader to make provision for a debate on the subject because not only our economy but the entire European economy is in a serious state.
I note that the Minister for Finance is now open to considering the possibility of winding down Anglo Irish Bank. This has come like a bolt from the blue because he has continually dismissed this option in the past year while pumping millions of taxpayers’ money into the bank to keep it alive. He has been pumping taxpayers’ money into what essentially is a zombie bank. Consequently, it is now surprising to learn that he is willing to consider winding it down. However, Members on this side of the House would welcome doing so because this has been the Fine Gael position for some time.
Yesterday evening I watched with interest some American politicians on television as they hauled banking leaders before a committee and made them answer questions under oath on their roles and responsibilities in the banking crisis in that country. Is it not a great shame that something similar cannot be done here under oath in Parliament to have proper accountability and transparency regarding banking and Government decisions? This possibility must be examined because, when one considers the millions thrown at tribunals, it would save money. The full potential of Ireland’s parliamentary system is not being exploited. This issue must be examined.
The most sad and devastating news of all concerns the possibility of a further 800 redundancies at Quinn Insurance Limited. While this is devastating news for the families and workers concerned, it is news that has been shared in other regions on foot of the closure of SR Technics, Dell and Waterford Crystal, as well as the thousands of other small companies in which there have been redundancies. More than 435,000 people are unemployed, which constitutes a rate of 13.5%. This does not take into account the 52,000 people on the waiting list to receive social welfare assistance or those already attending FÁS training courses. Yesterday I called for a debate on youth unemployment, but it must now be broadened to consider the entire subject of redundancies and unemployment because no plan or structure to tackle it appears evident. I, therefore, table an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that Members discuss the issues of unemployment and redundancies as a matter of urgency.
Senator Joe O’Toole: In recent days the levels of anger, resentment and outrage at the Government have been evident at various conferences. Members are aware that public sector or construction workers who are out of work or the Quinn Group workers who face job losses are not those who can be held responsible for the mess the country is in. There is a responsibility on Members, including those on the Government side of the House, to tell the people that to get out of this mess, it may be necessary to do things that appear to be supportive of the Government without intending to so do. I refer to the Croke Park agreement as one of them. As I stated, those voting on it are not the ones who created this mess and they should not be blamed to pay the price, any more than the other groups I mentioned. Once again, the responsibility falls on those at the bottom of the line and it appears as though this is the hard strategic choice facing us. Members must send a message to the people that their own self-interest, as well as the national interest, probably points in the direction of supporting the Croke Park agreement, however much they may wish to have a go at the Government. Responsibility also falls on the Government side to tell the people there will be a chance for those who wish to give the Government a bloody nose to do so at the next election. While that will be the time to deal with that desire, as of now we must deal with and face other issues.
I raise this point because a debate is required on the subject to express a view that will find at least some recognition among the aforementioned groups, namely, the unemployed, public sector workers and those facing difficult times such as the Quinn Group employees, etc. It is that a job faces us at this stage and that strategic decisions must be taken that may not be attractive but which may not be the worst decisions before us. In that regard, I seek a debate specifically on the Croke Park agreement but in the context of the wider issues hitting workers within the economy. For instance, people may say what they wish, but the absence of a trade union to fight, argue and negotiate for the Quinn Group workers is a sad state of affairs. I ask some of my trade union colleagues whether any of them would be prepared to step into the breach and take up the cudgels on their behalf and work for them. Even though they were not in trade unions, they deserve support and help at this time.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I call for a debate on prison conditions in the light of the forced resignation this week of the former governor of the Dóchas Centre and in the context of the opening today of the Prison Officers Association conference. On the resignation of the governor of the Dóchas Centre, I do not agree with her apparent equation of lesbianism with bullying and depression. She was quoted in the newspaper as having said this, which was unfortunate. However, she raised some serious points about the chronic overcrowding in the Dóchas Centre and the significant worsening of conditions there as a result. She also raised serious issues about the culture within the Irish Prison Service and her concerns were dismissed out of hand on radio this week in far too dismissive and arrogant a way by the director general of the service. I do not believe he responded adequately and note the Prison Officers Association has described the service as having a “we know best” culture. However, it is clear that it does not know best, given the high rates of recidivism, that it is evident that prison is not working and that conditions are deteriorating. Consequently, I ask the Leader for a debate on prison conditions as a matter of urgency.
I support Senator Coffey’s call for a debate today on the issues of unemployment and redundancies in the light of the serious news today that it is likely there will be many redundancies at Quinn Insurance Limited. While one certainly hopes there will not be any job losses there, unfortunately, this looks increasingly likely. Members may have heard the radio report this morning on Waterford Crystal and the enormously difficult impact job losses there have had on the people of Waterford. While Members do not wish to see something similar happening in Cavan or elsewhere, this has already happened in Limerick with Dell, in Dublin with SR Technics and so on. Consequently, a debate is required as a matter of urgency. I, therefore, second the amendment proposed by Senator Coffey.
Senator Dan Boyle: This House would be well served by an early debate on what is happening in Greece and the risks posed by the current situation there. However, this issue must be put in context. There was a news report today that President Obama had telephoned Chancellor Angela Merkel to ask for quick and decisive action to be taken. Obviously, there is international concern that this situation could bring us back from the progress achieved nationally and internationally. It is important that Members understand this context. That said, this time last year, they were discussing Ireland’s relationship with international bond markets when our Government bonds were selling at a rate below that of Greek bonds. One must, therefore, acknowledge that some of the actions the Government has taken have been correct and put Ireland in a better position than other countries which are in similar difficulties.
As for the calls for a debate on unemployment, I would like Members to have a debate on enterprise. While walking into Leinster House today, I met a young businessman from Cork who was carrying two boxes of biscuits he had put into a van at 6 a.m. to deliver to Kilkenny Design. He told me that in the course of the last two months his business was improving. Two or three people are involved in the business which offers high-end quality products. One must identify such examples where things are happening, even though logic dictates otherwise. Such persons should be supported and encouraged, as doing so will provide many of the answers needed to solve the more serious problem of long-term unemployment. I ask Members to agree that, when such a debate takes place, this is how it should be focused. It should be structured on enterprise, rather than the continuing high levels of unemployment, about which the Opposition parties appear to wish to talk.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The Government does not wish to talk about the elephant in the room.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions, please.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: Next week, this Government will levy a punitive and ill-conceived carbon tax on everyone in this country.
Senator Dan Boyle: That is the policy of the Senator’s party.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions, please. We will proceed with questions to the Leader from Senator Cannon.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: In particular, it will levy this tax on the farming sector. In the way this tax has been conceived, those of us who put diesel in our cars will experience approximately a 4.4% increase or farmers who put diesel in their tractors will experience a 8.7% increase in their costs. On the day when the ESRI tells us our carbon emissions are reducing because of the recession, one wonders if the aim of this tax is to depress economic activity in this country further to ensure we have the consequent reduction in carbon emissions.
The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, said during a radio programme yesterday evening that his assessment and reasoning behind the carbon tax was to effect behavioural change. I would support a carbon tax that sets out to do that but farmers do not have the option of behavioural change when it comes to a carbon tax. They have no other option but to start their tractors in the morning and tend to their animals, stock and land. What do the people proposing this tax expect farmers to do? Should they go back to using a horse and cart? There is no option available to farmers. In particular, there is no option available to agricultural contractors. In the Taoiseach’s constituency this week, two agricultural contractors have had their machinery repossessed by the banks that we effectively own.
If the Government worked with the farming sector, which is a very environmentally aware sector, it could effect that kind of behavioural change over a period of time by perhaps encouraging them to grow crops that would result in them using biodiesel in their tractors but instead of working with the farming sector it will impose this tax which will have no effect other than further depressing farm incomes, which the CSO has told us dropped by 30% last year.
Senator Maurice Cummins: Hear, hear.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: It is a warped, blinkered, ideologically driven approach rather than one grounded in the real facts and reflecting the real challenges the farming sector is facing today.
Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I call on the Leader to use his good offices to contact the Minister for Finance to ask him, while respecting the independence of Mr. Elderfield and his office, to ask the regulator to speed up the process of assessing the figures that have been put before him by the joint administrators of Quinn Insurance Limited in order to re-open the UK market to Quinn Insurance. Some 55% of Quinn Insurance business is UK-based — in Britain and Northern Ireland. Some 95% of the workforce of Quinn Insurance linked to that business is based in this country. It is a matter of the gravest urgency that the regulator stops the drip feed of a bit now and a bit again. He needs to knuckle down to it and make his decision based on the figures the joint administrators have put before him, which show that 90% of the insurance the company was writing in the UK was profitable. That is a fact.
It was unfair of the regulator to handcuff the administrators whose job is to put, by way of legislation, Quinn Insurance back on a sound financial footing. How in the name of God can one put a business back on a sound financial footing when the regulator has taken away its ability to write 55% of its business? That does not make sense.
I call on the Leader to use his good offices to put at ease the minds of not only the 800 employees of Quinn Insurance who are reported in today’s newspapers to be in danger of losing their jobs over the next 12 months but to put at ease the minds of its 2,800 employees and their families by asking the Minister to request the regulator to stop the drip feed and let the company write the profitable end of its UK business with immediate effect.
Senator Shane Ross: I am sure the House is aware the Minister for Finance got high praise in the Lex column of the Financial Times this morning. It is very encouraging when it comes from a quarter which is as influential and as independent as that. It is not the first time that he has been applauded for his conduct of the economy of this country and we should acknowledge that. I notice that Senators Coffey and Boyle asked that the Minister come into the House to debate the issue of Greece because this issue is fundamentally difficult for Ireland. I have noticed, as everyone would have, that the question at the moment appears to be whether Germany will bail out Greece, but the question also ought to be if Ireland will bail out Greece. There is something odd and peculiar about the fact that we are being asked to pay €600 million to bail out Greece in the next few weeks and, apparently, we are willing to do so. We have a bigger deficit than Greece. Will we next be asked to bail out Portugal and after that to bail out Spain, although not necessarily in that order? I would like to know what role we are playing in these negotiations or is it just Germany that is being asked to do this? We cannot afford to keep bailing out other nations in Europe. That is the reality of it. From where will this money come? I do not know from where the €600 million will come.
Last week we were talking about Anglo Irish Bank bailing out Quinn Insurance. This is all pie in the sky stuff if it continues. We need to know what is the Government’s thinking on that and what the Minister and his officials are doing in these negotiations, which are going on now, or are we just bystanders? Will we just write the cheque? Every penny that we would pay to bail out Greece would be borrowed from somewhere else. Are we willing for future generations of this country to bail out Greece, Portugal, Spain and everybody else on what may well be, particularly in the Greek case, a hopeless cause? It would be useful if the Minister came into this House and told us what we are doing in this respect and if he did so immediately. This is urgent. We should debate urgent matters in this House. The Minister should do that immediately and tell us what is happening in these talks and what role, if any, Ireland will play beyond writing a cheque with borrowed money.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I participated in the official launch of a small pottery business in Cork last Saturday. There was a great buzz in the place, a great positive approach, and a determination on the part of that business that it together with other businesses in the craft sector would be consolidated and would achieve their full potential. A long way from Cork in Shanghai in China, the World Expo is getting under way. Almost 300 countries are participating in it. Ireland will have a major pavilion at it and several million people will pass though it during the six months of the expo, which President Mary McAleese will visit on 17 June.
I grouped those two issues together because the building up of employment will depend to a great extent on indigenous industries, including tourism, and we are also promoting products that are exclusive to this country on the world market.
I ask the Leader to consider setting aside not a few hours but two days in the next few weeks for a debate on this area in this Chamber and to invite to it four of the senior Ministers directly connected with training and employment. Such a debate would present an opportunity in a formal and structured way to examine the multifaceted and complex nature of rebuilding the employment structure of this country. Similar to a house of cards, the recession came in on top of us and the structure was crippled. We will have to rebuild the economy and create meaningful employment for the large numbers unemployed in a step by step way. For that reason, a coherent approach must be taken to such a debate. If the Leader were to make this possible, this Chamber could be central to a resuscitation of the employment in this country. I hope the Leader will give consideration to this request.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I have called each morning on the Order of Business this week for an urgent debate on what is happening regarding Greece and the eurozone. That was supported yesterday by Senator Twomey. Senators Coffey and Ross made the same points today. Less than a year ago, commentators talked about the PIGS group of economies, which was an awful phrase. Those economies were Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. As Senator Coffey pointed out, Greece has had its bonds reduced to junk value. Over the past two days, the credit ratings of Portugal and Spain have been downgraded. It is imperative we have a debate on what our Government is doing to ensure our economic security is preserved in this environment.
I support what Senator O’Toole said on the Croke Park deal. Our party believes more could be done on the reform agenda. Last Thursday, our party leader said the pay element of that deal should be supported. It is in the national interest that the Croke Park deal is agreed. People should keep in mind that their self-interest could well be served by that because of the staggering economic events that have taken place over recent days and the effect they could have on our economy.
I conclude on the point Senator Coffey made about Anglo Irish Bank. On 30 March, the Minister for Finance said the sums required to rescue the bank are enormous but the costs of winding it down are even greater. He said winding down the bank is not and was never a viable option and that as Minister for Finance, he could not countenance such a course of action. Yesterday, the Minister gave the clearest indication yet that he is countenancing that course of action when he said that an orderly wind down of Anglo Irish Bank must be examined. He went on to say there was a possibility that the exposure to the taxpayer could be further reduced by carving out of the loan book a good bank from which further profit could be made.
That is Fine Gael policy and what it has been saying for the past number of months. The Minister for Finance should come to this House and explain why he is a making the U-turn of all U-turns. What has been said to him by the Department of Finance or the European Commission for him to indicate that this is being reconsidered? That is what he said in the Dáil yesterday.
Senator Donie Cassidy: That has always been Government policy.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: It has not been. That is what Deputy Bruton said for the past year. He was rubbished by the Government but it is now considering it.
Senator Ivor Callely: I listened with interest to the comments on the eurozone. I empathise with the anxiety and fear outlined by Senator Ross, in particular. Certain debts are written off on occasion. There is a need for a special focus on the eurozone and to look at the viability of write-downs, write-offs or whatever may be necessary in that regard. It has happened in many other countries and perhaps it should be considered.
Will the Leader contact the Minister for Finance to see what special arrangements have been put in place to accommodate small and medium enterprises and sole traders who, in this very difficult and turbulent economic and financial environment, are getting demands in regard to their tax liabilities? What arrangements have been put in place to provide a viable period of time in which they may pay their tax liabilities? I am talking about people who are in a position to pay their tax liabilities but who need a little breathing space given the pressures on them. Will the Leader raise this matter with the Minister for Finance? The Leader is very much aware of the pressures and difficulties and I want to ensure sole traders and small and medium enterprises are accommodated to enable them to survive because they are in survival mode.
I raise two issues in regard to transport, the first of which concerns traffic management and IT traffic information. We should have more display panels around this city to inform motorists of road traffic conditions. The second issue is real-time passenger information. We have heard about it for a long time and I would like to see real-time passenger information for bus users. A bus commuter should be able to go to the bus stop and see when the next bus will arrive.
Senator David Norris: Yesterday, some of my colleagues joined me in the calls I have consistently made for the past six to eight months for some kind of questioning of the international ratings agencies. I congratulate “Morning Ireland” on catching up. It has started to raise this issue a mere six to eight months later. I am happy to provide ideas to the media. It is a very serious issue. These ratings agencies have deliberately, systematically, corruptly and dishonestly rated things like the toxic bundles. They were wrong about Iceland and Ireland and we are still allowing them to get away with it. Sometimes they are right, although almost by accident. Most of the time they are wrong, whether through stupidity or dishonesty, and they are never challenged. Even if they are right, they are just as dangerous because of the method they use to release this information and its timing. They have done this in Greece, with the help of Goldman Sachs, and they are now targeting Spain. Ireland will be next.
Let the international community stand together. I call for an international commission of inquiry into the origin, background and practices of all the ratings agencies and the establishment of a truly independent agency under the United Nations so that the matter can be settled. I issue a challenge to The Irish Times which does wonderful work. Sometimes it takes up little ideas and develops them. Let it unleash Fintan O’Toole or some other writer to do a report for the people to establish where these people come from and what they are up to. In regard to the Anglo Irish Bank situation, it is a vindication of the views of Peter Mathews and I repeat my call that he should appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service.
I call for a debate on Chad where the situation is very serious. We have a large number of troops there who are at the point of being precipitately withdrawn. If they are withdrawn, 500,000 men, women and children will be left defenceless in the face of marauding armed groups, the Janjaweed, bandits and so on.
I wish to end on a positive note. I am sure the Cathaoirleach and all my colleagues have noticed the fantastic and beautiful display of flowers at the entrance to Leinster House. The Office of Public Works should be publicly congratulated on them as well as on the work it does in other parks such as St. Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square.
Senator Mark Dearey: I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on nuclear power. “The Frontline” on RTE on Monday night did an assessment of the best options for Ireland in terms of its energy future. It was very interesting and rigorous. However, I detected an underlying subtext that it was time for Ireland to grow up and go nuclear. I challenge the notion that the maturity of a nation can be judged on whether it has nuclear power stations.
Only 31 countries have nuclear power and there are approximately 430 nuclear power stations around the world. Some 57% of all nuclear power is produced by only three countries, namely, France, Japan and the United States. The last one is the main producer of nuclear power. It is not the case that we need to join the rest of the world. Only a small minority of countries have nuclear power.
Is nuclear power strategically clever for Ireland? That is a question on which we all need to focus because this debate will gather momentum in the months and years ahead. We need to think of it in terms of our positions in our constituencies. Would any Member be willing to host a nuclear power station in his or her constituency or area? If one supports nuclear power, one must be able to say that one would not mind a nuclear power station in his or her area because it cannot be foisted on anybody else. Would anyone be willing to host the deep repository required to store nuclear fuel for thousands of years after its lifecycle is over? Would anyone be willing to establish a nuclear installations inspectorate and five or six other quangos, given that we are trying to get rid of many of them, because nuclear power requires much regulation and administration and a vast array of agencies to ensure some modicum of safety in terms its operation?
An Cathaoirleach: We cannot have a debate. The Senator’s point has been made.
Senator Mark Dearey: I am outlining the issues a debate should contain. I call for an urgent debate to allow all parties to engage honestly on this issue which is problematic in the extreme. Strategically, it is not in Ireland’s interests to go down the nuclear road.
Senator Nicky McFadden: On Tuesday people in Longford, Westmeath and south Roscommon who were sick or in pain were turned away from Mullingar Regional Hospital and Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe. A general practitioner rang for an ambulance for a lady patient at 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m. it had still not appeared. When the GP rang ambulance control, the reason given was that no beds or trolleys were available in either hospital. On the two occasions that I raised this issue on the Adjournment the Minister for Health and Children had the audacity to inform me she could not obtain answers to my questions owing to industrial action. I am raging with anger on behalf of the people I represent in Longford-Westmeath and south Roscommon. Who will look after them when beds and even trolleys are not available? I raised this issue with the Leader yesterday and do so again today because there is no point asking the Minister to come before the House if she cannot obtain answers. Who is in charge of the country?
Senator Maurice Cummins: Quangos.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Where does the buck stop? Who is responsible? We are responsible to those who elected us.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I concur with all the points made by my friend and colleague, Senator Wilson, on the Quinn Group. The Financial Regulator has a public duty to make a decision on the issue immediately because the administrators of Quinn Insurance intend to meet the company’s staff tomorrow. One can throw around figures for the numbers unemployed like snuff at a wake, but, as Senators on all sides will testify, when one looks in the eye a person who has lost or is about to lose his or her job, one sees more than a cipher or number. As Senator Wilson stated, the individuals affected are also breadwinners who put food on the family table. I hope the Financial Regulator will make a decision on the matter immediately.
Yesterday, when he appeared before the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, made some telling points which, unfortunately, were not widely reported. I ask the Leader to debate the view expressed by me and others in recent years, particularly following the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, that this Chamber, more than any other forum, should be used to scrutinise European Union directives. This would be an admirable role for the Seanad, as it would be ideally suited for the purpose and has vast expertise available to it on all sides. It would also raise public awareness of precisely what legislation was being discussed in the European Union.
I was astonished by Mr. McDowell’s statement that during his time in the Cabinet a directive arrived from the European Union on which Ireland had not been consulted. While the Union stated it had consulted widely on the document, it did not consult Ireland. This is an example of the dangers associated with the plethora of legislative proposals emerging from the Union on a rolling basis. Given its structure, the other House is not in a position to scrutinise these proposals, whereas the Seanad would be ideally suited for the purpose. I ask the Leader to give serious consideration to calling in the relevant Minister to have a debate on my proposal.
I fully concur with Senator Ross. An official of the OECD stated yesterday that the unfolding Greek tragedy was like the Ebola virus. This was the only term the official used to describe the problem in Greece. Senators who are not aware of the Ebola virus should look it up on Google — it is insidious, widespread and moves fast. It is vital, therefore, that the House debate developments in Greece and how that country’s economic position affects Ireland.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I second the amendment proposed to the Order of Business.
An Cathaoirleach: It has been seconded.
Senator Paul Coghlan: Senator Coffey made an interesting point on Anglo Irish Bank and the apparent willingness of the Minister for Finance to countenance a more rapid, orderly wind-down. What is the least expensive option for the taxpayer? How did the European Commission differ from the Government in respect of the proposals of the latter on Anglo Irish Bank? This is a key question. Will a good bank emerge from the rump of Anglo Irish Bank? We need to have answers, or at least clarification, on these matters quickly and in the interests of transparency.
The European Commission has also curtailed the powers of the National Asset Management Agency. We do not yet have the full details of what took place. Does it mean the Government will sponsor an amendment to the legislation on NAMA approved by both Houses and signed into law by the President? We need to know what its intentions are in this respect. Sadly, stories are continuing to emerge about conflicts of interest vis-à-vis NAMA progressing its work. We must guard against such conflicts of interest. The House needs to discuss these matters as a matter of urgency.
Is it possible to combine a debate on these issues with a discussion of the Financial Regulator’s proposals on the governance of banks and the fitness, competence and probity of their directors? In the light of recent developments, I have no doubt the Government will have to appoint further public interest directors to the banks.
Senator John Ellis: I concur with Senator Wilson in his comments on Quinn Insurance. The Financial Regulator is removing the lifeblood from the company. His actions have not been in the interests of Quinn Insurance and its employees. When we met the administrators recently, they made it clear that their hands were tied by the regulator’s failure to allow the company to write business it had been writing profitably in the United Kingdom. This decision was wrong.
This leads me to ask whether there is another agenda at work here. Are some of the large international insurance companies seeking an opportunity to take out a competitor?
Senator Donie Cassidy: Hear, hear.
Senator John Ellis: Quinn Insurance has taken business from some of the major global insurance companies and allowed people to continue in business. The knock-on effect of developments in the company will not only be the loss of 800 jobs. Companies which were unable to obtain competitive quotes from companies other than Quinn Insurance will be next in line. The number of jobs lost as a result will not be 800 but at least 10,000. While that is a frightening prospect, the figure could quickly rise to that level.
Rather than paying social welfare to such a large number of people, it would be preferable to provide a State guarantee for Quinn Insurance until such time as the company is in a position to provide a guarantee from its own resources. The Government should consider providing a guarantee for the administrators in the public interest. If this were done, it could help to save many jobs across Ireland and the United Kingdom where Quinn Insurance has provided bonds for builders who could not obtain them elsewhere, except at exorbitant rates, as well as public liability and other cover. If the company goes, the knock-on effect will be much worse than the loss of the 800 jobs directly threatened this morning. I put the figure at not less than 10,000.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Like Senator Coffey, I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance to come before the House to explain his gargantuan U-turn on Anglo Irish Bank. It is a pity he was not open to persuasion or other points of view on the bank, as he could have saved taxpayers billions of euro.
We must restore public trust in politicians and accountability among practitioners of politics, in particular, Ministers. I am confident the “Prime Time” programme tonight will, once again, expose the largesse of the Fianna Fáil Party in government. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the future of politics and how we, its practitioners, can make politics more relevant and interact and become more at one with those we represent.
I also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the Croke Park deal, the most important industrial relations agreement to have been negotiated for a generation. On the one hand, there is a sense of self-interest on the part of public sector workers while, on the other, there is a balance to be struck with the national interest. As someone who has been a proud advocate of public sector workers, I hope they will accept the deal and that they will understand their own self-interest will be served in acting in support of the national interest. We need to have a debate in the House not only on the Croke Park deal, but also on the issue of social partnership. We have not seen social partnership under the Government.
Senator John Hanafin: I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on ways by which we can improve the position on employment. In the 1980s we had many allowances and schemes that provided for tax reliefs for those who invested in job creation. I raise this issue in the light of the good news yesterday from Davy which stated there had been growth in the economy in the first quarter of the year. That is very positive, but it was also stated it would take six months for the unemployment rate to peak, something we could deal with straightaway.
I share Senator O’Toole’s view that the Quinn Group workers need representation. In this life one gets that for which one negotiates. Even though they are not trade union members, I hope a union will step in and assist them in their hour of need.
I support Senator Mooney’s proposal. As a member of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I can see no better forum than the Seanad to deal with European scrutiny issues. We are elected by a broad panel. We also have the university panels and the 11 Senators nominated by the Taoiseach. The panels represent all areas of interest in the community, which gives us the right to represent the Oireachtas in this crucially important area.
Senator Paul Bradford: I support the call made by Senator Buttimer and other colleagues that we have a debate on the Croke Park deal. I find it extraordinary that certain politicians present the view that there should be no discussion or political direction. As representatives of the people, we in this House must express our views and debate the deal. There is a view that clarification of certain matters is required. At the end of the day, the Government is the employer. We are presenting this package to public sector workers and if clarification is required, questions are to be asked and answered, it is most appropriate that a debate take place in the Houses.
I support Senator Ó Murchú in calling for a robust debate on economic matters. There are five days in the parliamentary week and enough hours in each day to have the senior economic Ministers come before us to debate the political and economic options available.
I concur with Senator Cannon on the issue of the carbon tax. When I raised the matter last week on the Adjournment, I received a bizarre response from the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that the Government’s estimate of the cost per farming family was only €236 per annum. That view is off the wall. The carbon tax will result in the loss of jobs in rural Ireland and the shutting down of contractors. It penalise farming families further. Countries such as France are reflecting on the concept of carbon taxes and parking it for a while. We should not rush into introducing this penalising imposition on rural Ireland. At a time when almost 500,000 people are unemployed, the only certainty about the carbon tax is that it will result in hundreds and thousands more being added to the dole queues. That is not where we should be heading.
Senator Paudie Coffey: Hear, hear.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I call for a debate on the issue of environmental health. As we sit here, there is untreated sewage flowing into watercourses. This is still the case, in spite of the increased levels of expenditure by the Government. Unfortunately, sewage still presents a major problem.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The Green Party controls the environment Ministry.
An Cathaoirleach: Interruptions are not allowed in the House. The quicker Members realise this, before they are ordered to leave, the better.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I thank Senator Healy Eames for providing that information. It is why I want to have a debate in the House because I want to bring everyone up to speed. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has not yet been in the job for three years——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Does the Senator know his name?
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: This problem dates back to Victorian times and is absolutely disgraceful. The reality is that the Government has put far more money into tackling it than any of its predecessors. We have seen increases in spending every single year on sewerage treatment facilities. The people are still suffering ill effects owing to the lack of treatment facilities and it is often the local authorities which are responsible but do not act.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: That is not fair.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions, please. Senator Ó Brolcháin is entitled to make the point to the Leader.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: The interruptions are not appropriate.
An Cathaoirleach: There is a lot of room outside for those Members who want to interrupt.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: The matter of environmental health is multifaceted. Radon affects many people all over the country. Around 200 people die every year because of it, which is not good enough. New building regulations have been brought forward, as a result of which many new houses have barriers against radon. In spite of this, a report today shows that in a house in Sligo the level of this radioactive gas was 20 times the acceptable level. We need to put much effort into tackling this issue. I do not think a Minister can solve problems dating back one century with the wave of a wand, but we need an urgent debate on the issue in the Seanad. We should not focus on the banks only. The health of the people is a very important issue.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: When speaking about environmental damage, I wonder if Senator Ó Brolcháin is aware of the Government’s policy on illegal timber products. I am grateful to Mr. Frank McDonald of The Irish Times for pointing out today that we have the worst record in Europe in importing illegally logged timber. When I brought up this issue six months ago, I was told the Government was working on it, but I was not given a timescale. We have since imported a further €10 million worth of illegally logged timber. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, a member of the Senator’s party, could change this with the stroke of a pen, yet he refuses to do so. If the Senator is so interested in tackling the issues of environmental damage and deforestation, perhaps he could tell his Minister that, rather than sharing his thoughts with Members of this House.
I agree with Senators Mooney and Wilson who have asked the Financial Regulator to expedite his decision on the Quinn Group. There is no point in telling us in six months that everything is okay and that the group can re-enter the market. It would be far too late at that stage. What worries me is the potential number of people who could be made unemployed in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath and Blanchardstown. People have already been waiting four months in County Meath to have their claims processed.
I do not share Senator Boyle’s view that we should be discussing the issue of unemployment. While it is important to talk about unemployment and pensions, I would prefer to talk about employment creation measures and enterprise, although we cannot forget that people are being made unemployed and need to know their rights. We could do with a debate on how we should deal with people who have just been made unemployed.
Senator Larry Butler: I welcome the quarterly report from Davy that shows we are out of recession and moving in the right direction. We also had international success during the week, following the provision of support for Bank of Ireland. The bank’s placement issue was oversubscribed three times. I congratulate the Minister for Finance for doing a very fine job in restructuring the banking system. I agree with Senator Coghlan’s comments on whether the Minister for Finance is looking at various ways of winding down Anglo Irish Bank, although I was not aware of that. My understanding is that if we do wind Anglo Irish Bank down quickly we will have to put in €70 billion up front. That is the problem, unless we burn our bondholders, which would not go down well internationally when we see the success that the Bank of Ireland has had on the markets. As regards yesterday’s AIB report, even though it was quite glum and sad, there is €3 billion in future lending for small and medium businesses.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: We are not sure of that.
Senator Larry Butler: That is an important statement which was made yesterday. We overlook the fact that many good things have happened over the past three months in terms of job creation . Some 150 retailers have said they will employ 1,000 people, which is a huge jobs boost. If we had a multinational company coming in, they would be clapping their hands and saying what a great proposal it is.
I support previous speakers on Quinn Insurance, which is a huge employer. We must do everything possible to assist the Quinn group and I support the previous speakers in that respect.
Senator Maurice Cummins: As peacekeepers, members of the Irish Army are lauded worldwide for their professionalism. In recent years the Defence Forces have undergone major change and reform, unlike many other areas in the public service. The McCarthy report suggested that Defence Forces’ personnel numbers should be reduced to 10,000. They now stand at 9,800 and, with natural wastage, the figure will fall below 9,500 this year. The Naval Service has been badly hit by the moratorium on recruitment. The Defence Forces have undergone major reform, yet they are being asked to endure the same cuts as many other public service sectors. Because they are on such low wages, many members of the Defence Forces are currently in receipt of the family income supplement. In other words, we are taking from one Department and are asked to give it back to another one. This House needs to debate the role of the Defence Forces as well as the reduction in personnel. The men and women of the Defence Forces have served this country well since the foundation of the State and they deserve our support. They also deserve a debate in this House on their role and how their numbers are being decimated.
On Tuesday during the statements on banking, I asked the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, to produce the figures on Anglo Irish Bank to allow us to make an informed decision on whether it should be wound down. I asked him about the European Commission’s rulings on NAMA, especially concerning vesting bodies and what the Revenue Commissioners can or cannot do. The Minister of State would not and could not answer those questions during the debate. We need clarification on these matters which are of urgent national importance. We must have the figures on the table and Ministers should be able to answer our questions.
Senator Mary M. White: Yesterday the Oireachtas audio-visual room was attended by members of the Older and Bolder organisation, which represents eight groups, including the Older Women’s Network and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. All these non-governmental organisations agree on what is needed to enhance the lives of older people. I have raised the issue many times in this Chamber. I call on the Leader to arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, to attend the House. She attended yesterday’s meeting in the audio-visual room. She is having public meetings throughout the country to discuss matters of serious concern to older people. I would like to hear what progress is being made in this regard as well as the issues that are being raised at those meetings.
One million people on the island of Ireland are aged over 60. It is discriminatory to oblige people to retire at 65. I have total empathy for unemployed people but as we get older, we get smarter, brighter and more experienced. When we are young we think it is frightful to be old, but that is not my experience. Part of my work involves acting as Fianna Fáil’s Seanad spokesperson on older people. Last year, I launched the All Ireland Inspirational Life Award, which is advertised on page six of The Irish Times today. This award aims to highlight older people who are role models for active participation in society. Another award category is for those who enhance the lives of older people. The third category is for organisations, public or private, which are enhancing older people’s lives. Ageism is bigotry. It is totally wrong that free breast screening for women stops at age 64 when women aged over 65 are seven times more likely to get breast cancer and there is no free breast-screening for them.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It is good news that the Bank of Ireland had a queue of investors this week, but we must remember that it is only because of all the taxpayers’ public money that has been poured in. Half of the €3 billion was raised by swapping preference shares for ordinary shares. That is an important clarification.
Senator Ó Brolcháin seems to speak in a vacuum and forgets that his party is in power. He is right to say it is a disgrace that raw sewage is being pumped into Galway Bay from Spiddal and Clifden. This threat to public health should be addressed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who is leader of the Green Party.
We have many problems in this country, but I am particularly worried about the education budget. I do not know if everyone is aware of it but, for the first time in our history, 1 million of our citizens will be attending education from next September. A report in The Irish Times yesterday stated that higher education will cost us €4 billion next year owing to a surge of 55,000 students. It is costing us €2 billion as things stand, but where is the money? The Tánaiste has not attended this House since assuming her new portfolio. As Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan should come to the House promptly and explain where next year’s education budget is coming from. Anglo Irish Bank has received €22 billion of our money, which is three times last year’s education budget. Is the Minister for Finance currently considering winding down Anglo Irish Bank? What will happen to all the public money from taxpayers that has been poured into that bank?
I support Senator Buttimer’s call for a debate on the Croke Park deal. I support efficiencies and reform, but how can we expect public servants to vote for a renegotiation of their permanent contracts without knowing the terms and conditions? I am amazed that such a requirement is being asked of them.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senators Coffey, O’Toole, Bacik, Boyle, Ross, Donohoe, Callely, Norris, Mooney, Coghlan, Wilson, Ellis, Buttimer, Hanafin, Bradford, Hannigan, Butler, Cummins and Healy Eames all expressed strong views on the banking difficulties being experienced across the EU, including Greece. Just to put the record straight, we had a debate on banking here, attended by the Minister of State, on Tuesday of this week, which demonstrates the House acknowledges the situation. Hopefully it will continue, on a fortnightly basis, to discuss the up to date situation with regard to the challenges facing the Government and the country in the area of banking and financial challenges. I have no difficulty with providing for this to take place fortnightly. Some Senators seem to think we do not act fast enough, but, thankfully, we have a democracy that gives us due process. Senator Norris spoke about ratings. All of these opinions can be expressed in our fortnightly debates when the Minister or Minister of State is in the House.
Colleagues, including Senators Wilson, Mooney, Ellis, Hannigan and myself, who come from the area most affected by the Quinn Insurance situation, have serious concerns about the opportunities available to resolve the situation. We fully support the independence of the regulator, but a month has now passed and a serious situation is arising with regard to the business and businesses being lost. Apart from job concerns, there is an issue with regard to insurance costs. I had the experience this week of receiving a renewal quotation for insurance on my family home, which involved an increase of 80% in the cost. I was chairman of the insurance inquiry, and much as I regret it, it is my considered opinion that increases of from 80% to 150% will happen if Quinn Insurance goes to the wall. It is of crucial importance from the competitiveness point of view that we fully back the Quinn Group.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Hear, hear.
Senator Donie Cassidy: We call on the regulator, as a matter of urgency, to accede to the requests of Senators to do everything that can be done to resolve the situation. If it is necessary to work all day and night on Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the bank holiday weekend to do that, it must be done and a decision must be taken with regard to allowing Quinn Insurance return to the UK market. If only 10% of the UK market is a problem, why has it taken a month to find this out? We are calling for a solution on behalf of the consumer. We are all aware of how little respect insurance companies had for consumers until the Quinn Group opened in Ireland. The increase of 80% in a premium I saw this week speaks for itself. I will deal with this issue again on the Order of Business next Wednesday and will seek an account of what has been done with regard to the 1.3 million insurance policies the Quinn Group has in the insurance market.
Senator O’Toole and other colleagues called for a debate on the Croke Park agreement, which is aptly named because when the country sought independence and we were on our knees — this is the week of the 94th anniversary of 1916 — the GAA mended and brought the community together in a way that made us proud to be Irish. We were no longer cap in hand to the British and everyone else, as we had been for the previous 800 years. I support colleagues, Senators O’Toole, Bradford and Ó Murchú, who have been here for a long time, in the call for our full support for the Croke Park agreement, in the national interest and leaving all political obligations aside. As Senator O’Toole said, if union members wish to take their anger out on the Government at a future date, the election in two years’ time will give them that opportunity. Let us now get together as Irish men and women, as we did 94 years ago, and put the country first with regard to this national agreement.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on prison conditions. I support that, particularly on the issue of human rights in prisons. I will arrange that debate for the earliest possible time. Senators Cannon and Bradford spoke about the carbon tax. This issue is a huge challenge for Ireland, our farming community, hauliers and those who depend on their use of diesel or petrol for a living. I sympathise with them at this difficult time and hope that in the not too distant future something can be done to help them in their plight and enable them to be competitive.
Senator Ross mentioned the support expressed for the Minister for Finance in the Financial Times this morning. I wish to be associated with the good wishes expressed by Senator Ross to the Minister, who is doing everything he can in the national interest. Senator Butler highlighted for the House the report this week which indicates there has been an increase in the retail trade, a 2% increase in exports, a 30% increase in the car industry, 1,000 new jobs announced by 150 retailers, 500 new jobs announced in March-April, growth of 1% predicted in the Bank of Ireland quarterly report and a reduction of 12,400 in the live register. This is all happening currently. We will also see investment of €122 million in 14 schools, creating 4,400 new jobs. We call on the two major banks to release the €3 billion committed under the Government guarantee scheme and the instructions of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to SMEs, in particular, so credit can flow, people can get back to work and to create new jobs.
Senators Ó Murchú and Bradford mentioned the World Expo which takes place in Shanghai over the next six months. It is a novel call to seek to bring to the House the four Ministers responsible for job creation, rebuilding the economy and giving an opportunity to the SME sector, in particular, to allow job creation take place. I will endeavour to arrange this and will get back to the House when I have an up to date position on this proposal.
Senator Callely called for the Revenue Commissioners to relax their processes under the current difficult circumstances, particularly for those in the SME sector who have contributed as many as 880,000 jobs over the past number of years and who continue to do this right now. Some 75% of those 880,000 jobs are in family run businesses. The Revenue must provide them with extra time and understand the shortage of credit from the financial institutions. They must try and ensure the cash available is allowed to be put to best use by those who are giving employment. Extended credit should be allowed to SMEs with a very good track record in paying their PRSI, PAYE, income tax and VAT down through the years. I speak only about those with a very good track record, because they are the backbone on which we will rebuild our economy. The Senator also called for bus travel times to be advertised and adhered to. It is easy to provide for this now because of the bus corridors.
Senators Norris and Cummins called for a debate on the Army. I join Senator Cummins in paying tribute to the Army. In Westmeath, we are fortunate to have the Defence Forces in Athlone and Mullingar. They are the backbone of our economy and of everything happening in these towns. It is with great pleasure that I accede to the request for a debate on the achievements of the Defence Forces and on what we can do to help and assist them in the future. Senator Dearey called for a debate on nuclear power and I have no difficulty with that.
Senator McFadden raised the issue of Mullingar and Portiuncula hospitals. I will pass her views on to the Minister. Some 777 people are employed in Mullingar hospital right now and in the past two years the Minister has spent €22 million on refurbishing and togging out the shelled-out building, €5 million on level O and provided 281 extra car parking spaces. It was the most efficient hospital in Ireland last year, with an extra €2 million——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: She needs help for patients.
Senator Paudie Coffey: There is not a trolley for patients, but there are parking spaces.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The facts are——
Senator Paudie Coffey: I get no answers.
An Cathaoirleach: No interruptions.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I saw the Senator’s appearance on television the other night and she was very meek. She should have the same respect for me as she had for Vincent Browne.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: That is irrelevant. The Leader should withdraw that unfair remark. It is a sexist remark.
Senator Mary M. White: That is ridiculous.
Senator Donie Cassidy: It is not a sexist remark.
An Cathaoirleach: I ask the Senator to resume his seat.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: On a point of order——
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The Leader should withdraw it.
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Longford-Westmeath regional hospital in Mullingar——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I ask the Leader to withdraw that disparaging remark which was intended as a put down.
An Cathaoirleach: It is a political charge. I cannot do anything about someone making a political charge.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: There is no need for that.
Senator Donie Cassidy: What do you know about——
An Cathaoirleach: I ask Senator Healy Eames to resume her seat and let the Leader reply on the Order of Business. I cannot stop political charges made across the floor.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I again put on the record my congratulations to the administrator and staff at the Longford-Westmeath regional hospital, Mullingar on being the most efficient hospital in the country last year. It has got a second acknowledgement for its standards of hygiene. It is a shining example of what we expect from a HSE hospital.
Based on the Fianna Fáil proposal for reform of the Seanad, Senators Mooney and Hanafin asked that the scrutiny of all the European Union measures should take place here. I will discuss this at the next Committee on Procedure and Privileges meeting under your stewardship, a Chathaoirligh, to see how we might accede to this. As I said when I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and have often said here on the Order of Business, items were coming in by the half stone in old weight terms. It is enormous. We had two consultants at the time. I need to ascertain what back-up facilities the Government will give to the Seanad if we are to take on this responsibility. I am grateful for the remarks of the former Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, in the committee yesterday. It is a role and challenge the Seanad should take on. However, it is enormous. It could possibly take one full day in each week’s sittings to process. When I was Chairman of the committee, I was told approximately 45% of the measures came to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. I will discuss the matter with the Cathaoirleach and the Leaders of the groups. We will take it to the Committee on Procedure Privileges to see how we might proceed with the proposal, which is a very good one.
Senator Paul Coghlan: It is very worthwhile.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Buttimer called for a debate on everything to do with politics and policy. I already gave a commitment to the House on that matter yesterday.
Senator Hanafin spoke about job creation with Government incentives. Along with Senator Ó Murchú’s proposal to have the four Ministers present, this proposal is very timely and can be taken as well.
Senator Ó Brolcháin called for a debate on environmental health issues. Senator Hannigan spoke about timber issues. This is very timely and we can have a debate on this. Senator Ó Brolcháin outlined the issue with radon gas in Sligo. I believe this matter could possibly be taken in Private Members’ time as a significant amount of legislation needs to be processed by the House before the summer recess. If we are to have a special debate with the four Ministers present over a period of a day or a day and a half, that will all eat into the diary of work we have planned to take between now and July.
Senator Mary White spoke about active aged people. The Senator is doing great work on behalf of those who are the most experienced in the country and whom we should be supporting. It is great to see the new awards led by Senator Mary White, which are mentioned in today’s edition of The Irish Times. We are very proud to have her as a Member of the House and are very proud of what she is doing in many areas. I agree with her on breast cancer screening. Why should it stop at 64 if there is a high risk? I will take the matter up with the Minister.
An Cathaoirleach: Time.
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Healy Eames spoke about 1 million students going to school for the first time in the history of the State. I join her in offering congratulations on this achievement.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: What about the money?
Senator Donie Cassidy: It is wonderful for us to agree on something.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It was about bringing in the Minister.
Senator Donie Cassidy: As it is still only April, I presume the Tánaiste will be able to see what the budget will be by September.
An Cathaoirleach: Time now, please.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I will pass the Senator’s views on to the Tánaiste.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Coffey has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: “That a debate on unemployment and redundancies be taken today.” Is the amendment being pressed?
Senator Paudie Coffey: Yes.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 21; Níl, 26.
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Coffey, Paudie.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Harris, Eoghan.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Norris, David.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carroll, James.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Dearey, Mark.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Mooney, Paschal.||Ó Brolcháin, Niall.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Order of Business agreed to.
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran): I am pleased to be in the Seanad to present the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009. The primary purpose of the Bill is to transpose Directive 2006/24/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council into Irish law. The directive requires service providers to retain data generated or processed in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications or of public communications networks and to make it available, on request, for the detection, investigation and prosecution of serious crime.
This is a short and relatively straightforward Bill but it places on a sound statutory footing, with strong safeguards, a procedure that is essential for the proper and effective investigation of serious crime and for the safeguarding of the security of the State. It has been in the news at regular intervals for various reasons over recent years and some misconceptions may have arisen as to its scope and purpose. At the outset, it is important to bear in mind that data retention is not new but has been an essential feature of crime investigation in Ireland and safeguarding State security for many years. Also to be borne in mind, and something I would like to emphasise, is that data information is not concerned with content. It is about the who, where and when of a communication. The intrusion into persons’ privacy is minimal.
I would like to place data retention in this country in a historical perspective by saying that its origins go back to the days of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, when communications were by and large restricted to fixed line phones and the postal system. There was one provider of those fixed line phones and the postal system: the State. Typically, telephony operators, even after the market was opened up, retained data for six years for their own purposes, such as billing and marketing. This made sense as the Statute of Limitations, during which a telephone bill could be challenged or payment pursued, was six years. The operators made the data information available to the Garda Síochána or Defence Forces, on request, when required for investigating crime and safeguarding the security of the State. In those circumstances, relations between the operators and the law enforcement authorities developed so that the voluntary scheme, which was based on goodwill and common sense on both sides, worked to the satisfaction of all concerned. Any member of the Garda Síochána could request data in respect of a crime he or she was investigating. The system was not regulated by statute and for that reason at a particular point, statutory intervention was regarded as desirable.
The first significant statutory intervention came in the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993. Section 13 of that Act inserted new subsections into section 98 of the Postal Packets and Telecommunications Services Act 1983. Under the inserted subsection (2A), a person employed by a company who disclosed, to any person,any information concerning the use made of telecommunications services provided for any other person by the company was guilty of an offence. There were exceptions which included disclosures made for the prevention or detection of crime or for the purpose of any criminal proceedings or in the interests of the security of the State. A request by a member of the Garda Síochána for a disclosure had to be in writing and be signed by a member not below the rank of chief superintendent. In practice, this meant that all disclosure requests were channelled through one specified chief superintendent, an effective and appropriate procedure that continues to this day. A parallel inserted provision ensured that any request from the Permanent Defence Force for data required in the interests of safeguarding the security of the State had to be made through an officer not below the rank of colonel.
That remained the situation until the adoption of Directive 2002/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council in July 2002, concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector. As interpreted for data protection purposes, that directive provided that traffic data could only be retained for six months. That left this country with a dilemma, as clearly the law enforcement authorities required data to be retained for longer than six months if they were not to be severely handicapped in their ability to fight crime and safeguard State security. In practice, most retained data that is required is requested by those authorities within six months of it being generated or processed. However, the quality of data retained for longer periods can be equally important in fighting crime, including terrorist crime. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the then Department of Public Enterprise came to an agreement that telephony data should be retained by the operators for three years, that is, half the period for which the operators previously voluntarily retained telephony data. That agreement was given statutory effect in directions issued by the Minister for Public Enterprise to the main telephony operators made under section 110(1) of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act 1983.
It was intended to follow up quickly the directions with primary legislation. However in 2003, Ireland received an invitation from some of our colleagues in the EU to co-sponsor a framework decision on data retention. Agreement was reached on Ireland’s participation in the preparation of the instrument. Obviously, further work on the legislation had to be deferred until the text of a framework decision was agreed and adopted.
The negotiations on the framework decision proved difficult and complex. They had effectively reached stalemate when the Madrid bombings during the Irish Presidency of the EU in 2004 highlighted the necessity and urgency of obtaining agreement on the retention of data. Negotiations recommenced in earnest but had not been concluded by January 2005 when the then Data Protection Commissioner issued notices to the main telephony operators directing that they retain data for no longer than six months. Rather than hamper the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces in their vital work in investigating crime and safeguarding our security, a decision was taken to include provisions in the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill, which was then being debated in this House, on the retention of telephony data. Some Members will doubtless recall the generally positive response expressed during the debate in this House to the inclusion of the data retention provisions in the terrorist offences Bill. It was also decided to leave the more complex internet provisions until an EU instrument had been agreed. The urgency of ensuring that the law enforcement authorities could gain access to retained data, in a controlled and supervised manner, was acknowledged.
I have given this short background to the law and procedures relating to data retention in this country to put the record straight and also to place the Bill in its proper context. Agreement could not be reached on the framework decision and it was replaced by a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council. It is that directive that is being transposed in the Bill. It is normal practice, as provided for in the European Communities legislation, to transpose such directives by means of secondary legislation. Our legal advice suggested that there would be no problem in using secondary legislation as our transposition vehicle. However, on the basis of later advice, it was decided, for a technical reason, to proceed by way of primary legislation. This partially explains the delay in publishing the Bill.
The preparation of the Bill was also delayed by the prolonged consultations with the service providers and, in particular, their representative associations and other interested parties. At this point it is right that I put on the record my appreciation of the constructive way the service providers entered into the consultative process. The negotiations were long and, at times, complex and are still continuing between the Garda Síochána and the representative associations on the implementation of the legislation.
The directive must be transposed into national law and the legislation in Ireland is now well overdue. The European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Ireland in the European Court of Justice and in a judgment on 26 November 2009 the court found that Ireland, by failing to adopt the directive within the prescribed period, had failed to fulfil its obligations under the directive. Progressing this Bill to the point where it can be enacted has now gained even greater urgency.
I will outline the provisions of the Bill. It is relatively short and largely remains within the parameters established by the directive. It has two main objectives. The first, at section 3,obliges service providers to retain data. The second, at sections 6 and 7, gives the relevant law enforcement agencies power to make a disclosure request for retained data and obliges the service providers to comply with such a request. I will explain those important elements of the Bill but first I emphasise the importance of section 2.
Section 2 gives effect to Article 1.2 of the directive by providing that the Act does not apply to the content of communications. It does not, for example, apply to the content of a telephone conversation or an e-mail. It does not apply to web browsing or web sites visited but simply allows law enforcement agencies in Ireland to seek information about the who, where and when of a communication. In the case of the Internet, it obliges service providers to retain the Internet equivalent of the type of telephony data that has been retained for many years.
Article 1.1 of the directive obliges member states to ensure that retained data are available for the purpose of the investigation, detection and prosecution of serious crime, as defined by each member state in its national law. We are defining “serious offence” as an offence punishable by imprisonment for a term of five years or more. The First Schedule lists five further indictable offences as serious offences for the purposes of the Bill that have maximum penalties of less than five years but which the Garda Síochána have asked to be included. They deal with important matters such as reporting child abuse, corruption in public bodies and administration of substances capable of inducing unconsciousness or sleep, such as the date rape drug.
No matter how “serious offence” is defined, it will not affect the amount of data retained. It cannot be known in advance for what the data may be required. Of course, the vast majority of data will not be required and will be destroyed after the appropriate time. However, by defining “serious offence” the amount of telephony data for which a disclosure request can be made will be less than under the present law where data can be disclosed for the investigation of any offence.
It would have been possible under the terms of the directive to give every law enforcement agency in the country authority to make a disclosure request. This has not been done but in addition to the traditional role of An Garda Síochána and the Permanent Defence Force, the Bill gives the Revenue Commissioners power to make disclosure requests in respect of six specific serious revenue offences. The primary reason for the inclusion of the Revenue Commissioners in this Bill is to provide their investigating officers with access to communication data in order to assist them in tackling various forms of serious tax evasion that are undermining the collection of tax revenues of the State. Tackling tax evasion has always been a top priority for the Revenue Commissioners.
Senator David Norris: Like hell.
Deputy Michael Finneran: The Bill recognises the Revenue Commissioners’ role as a criminal law enforcement agency whose role is to protect the Exchequer from fraud. Experience has shown that the lack of such access has been a hindrance in detecting certain cases of serious tax fraud and gathering the necessary evidence for the purposes of prosecution. This need is clearly justified and access to such information should improve the level of detection of serious tax evasion and gathering of the evidence necessary for criminal prosecution, and it will assist in depriving criminals of funds.
Modern telecommunications and the Internet are invariably utilised by those engaged in the type of illicit activities investigated by the Revenue Commissioners. For example, documents encountered by Revenue officers in the course of investigating cigarette smuggling in maritime freight where bogus bills of landing are used, oil laundering and the distribution of laundered oil——
Senator David Norris: That is misleading.
Deputy Michael Finneran: ——under cover of bogus invoices, alcohol fraud using bogus documentation, cross-Border VAT fraud and other forms of serious tax evasion often include contact phone numbers which need to be traced. The identity of the subscriber must be established along with the usage of the phone if the investigation is to be progressed.
I find the case for access compelling and Revenue Commissioners have given categorical assurance that requests for such information will be confined to investigations involving serious indictable revenue offences. I might add that the Revenue case for access has been supported in the past by the Attorney General, the DPP and An Garda Síochána. It was also one of the recommendations made in the report of the revenue powers group to the Minister for Finance as long ago as November 2003.
Article 3 of the directive establishes the obligation to retain data. It is given effect in section 3of the Bill, which obliges service providers to retain telephony data for two years and Internet data for 12 months. Why were these periods chosen when the directive states the period should be between six months and two years? At present, telephony data must be retained for three years under Part 7 of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 and it was traditionally retained for six years.
There are at present no statutory requirements to retain Internet data. Following a re-evaluation by the law enforcement authorities as to their requirements for the investigation of serious crime and safeguarding the security of the State, it was considered that a two-year retention period for telephony data would be sufficient. Similarly, the 12 months retention period for Internet data is deemed to be the minimum necessary in respect of that data. Most retained data that is the subject of a disclosure request was generated or processed in the previous six months but the quality of information held for longer makes the retention periods provided for in the Bill necessary for efficient law enforcement and State security.
I readily recognise that we are among a small minority of member states that have opted for the maximum period of two years for the retention of telephony data. That period is in accordance with our traditional methods of gaining evidence in criminal investigations. Other countries may have developed other methods of investigation that renders recourse to telephony data less important. Within the parameters of the directive, we are legislating for the requirements of the Irish law enforcement authorities and not those of other member states. Our retention period for Internet data is in line with the majority of other member states as the Internet is a relatively new development and most countries have no tradition of gathering evidence from this source.
Section 4 ensures that the same level of security will attach to data retained under this Act as is retained for other purposes. It gives effect to Article 7 of the directive and the providers must destroy the data as soon as the retention periods have expired. However, one month’s grace is given to enable the data to be actually destroyed. This section also provides that the data protection commissioner will be the supervisory authority in Ireland for the purpose of both the Act and the directive. The appointment of a supervisory authority is required by Article 9 of the directive.
I accept that, in the light of some significant breaches of data security in recent times, such as the theft of laptops with unencrypted material, there is some concern about the security of retained data. There is an increasing appreciation of the need to ensure the highest level possible of security on data that are in the possession of service providers for use for their own purposes and the legislation can do no more than apply that heightened level of security to the data retained for the purposes of compliance with this Bill. In doing so, the legislation complies with the security requirements of the directive.
Following breaches of security, a data protection review group was established which sent its report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform at the end of March. Issues around it, including its publication, are being considered in the context of the recent announcement of the transfer of functions, which includes data protection.
Section 5repeats section 64(1) of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005. It sets out the circumstances in which the service providers can access data retained under the Act.
Article 6 of the directive requires member states to adopt measures to ensure that data retained in accordance with the directive are provided only to the competent authorities in accordance with national law. This requirement is given effect in the Bill at section 6, which establishes who can make a disclosure request and for what purposes. Unlike some other countries, the ability to make a disclosure request is confined to just three law enforcement agencies, namely, the Garda Síochána, the Permanent Defence Force and the Revenue Commissioners.
A member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of chief superintendent will be entitled to make a disclosure request for the purpose of the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of serious crime, safeguarding the security of the State and saving human life. There are three differences between the powers of the Garda under section 6 and the analogous provisions in the 2005 Act. Under that Act, the Garda could make a disclosure request in respect of any offence, not just a serious offence, and could not make a request in respect of the saving of human life. In addition, the 2005 Act did not provide for disclosure requests in respect of Internet data. These are three very desirable differences.
A colonel in the Permanent Defence Force will be able to make a disclosure request for the purpose of safeguarding the security of the State. This repeats the analogous provision in the 2005 Act, but with the addition of the relevant Internet data. I have already mentioned that this provision could not have been included in a statutory instrument transposing the directive, as safeguarding the security of the State is outside the scope of the directive because of the legal base used for the directive.
The Bill gives the Revenue Commissioners power for the first time to make a disclosure request in respect of six named revenue offences. These all come within the definition of serious crime, in that they are all triable on indictment with a penalty of imprisonment of five years. As with requests from the Garda Síochána and the Permanent Defence Force, requests will be made by one person, in this case a Revenue officer of at least principal officer rank. This is a highly desirable initiative. Senators will recall a recent statement by the Revenue Commissioners of the likelihood of increased tax evasion in these economically difficult times.
In one way or another, sections 9 to 12, inclusive, provide safeguards to ensure that the data retention scheme is not misused. Section 9 gives effect to Article 10 of the directive under which member states are obliged to forward to the Commission statistics of the use of data retention during the previous year. Since so few Irish authorities have the right to make a disclosure request and because such requests are centralised, the compilation of statistics is relatively straightforward. In 2009, we were one of the first countries to return telephony statistics even though the legislation transposing the directive was not in force. The statistics will be compiled by the three law enforcement authorities with the right to make disclosure requests. The Garda Commissioner will forward Garda statistics to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Chief of Staff of the Permanent Defence Force will forward statistics to the Minister for Defence and the Revenue Commissioners will forward statistics to the Minister for Finance. The Ministers for Defence and Finance will review the statistics submitted to them respectively before forwarding them to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for transmission to the European Commission. In this way, the Commission will be in a position to monitor the operation of the data retention provisions throughout the EU.
Under Article 14 of the directive, the Commission will submit to the European Parliament and the Council an evaluation of the application of the directive and its impact on the service providers and consumers, taking into account further developments in electronic communications technology and the statistics provided under Article 10. The evaluation will inform a view as to whether it will be necessary to amend the directive, in particular with regard to the list of data and the periods of retention. The evaluation is well under way and the results will be made public.
The safeguards provided at sections 10 to 12, inclusive, are essential for the proper operation of the legislation. They are of the utmost importance in ensuring public confidence that the legislation is not being misused and will also reassure the service providers that it is only used for the stated purposes. Section 10 provides for the independent complaints procedure. Under this section, where a person believes that data relating to him or her are in the possession of a service provider and have been accessed following a disclosure request, that person may apply to the complaints referee for an investigation into the matter. Section 11 provides for an invitation by the President of the High Court to a serving judge of the High Court to undertake the duties of keeping the operation of the Act under review and section 12 sets out those duties. These safeguards already operate satisfactorily for the retention of telephony data under the 2005 Act, so there is no need at this stage for me to explain them in further detail except to emphasise that, in our case, only three law enforcement agencies have the right to request data.
There are two Schedules to the Bill. The first I have already mentioned. The Second Schedule gives effect to Article 5 of the directive. It lists the categories of data to be retained by the service providers. There can be argument and, indeed, disagreement as to the extent of the data mentioned in Article 5. This is especially so in the context of rapid advances in technology. For that reason, a committee of experts has been established by the European Commission to interpret and explain the directive in light of prevailing circumstances and to give a guide as to what data need to be retained and, equally important, what does not need to be retained. Ireland is represented on that committee. It would not be possible in the legislation to set out exactly what each provision means, for example, when some requirements may be open to more than one meaning in light of further advances in technology. The service providers and the Garda Síochána, the Permanent Defence Force and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners have been in discussions for some time on drawing up a memorandum of understanding in which each can agree on what is required to be retained. I understand that work on the memorandum is virtually complete and is awaiting the enactment of the Bill.
In this introductory speech on the background, content and implications of the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009, I have attempted to place the Bill in its proper context. Nothing new is created in the Bill. It does no more than extend, with some changes, existing obligations relating to telephony data to Internet data. I again emphasise the importance of data in the investigation of serious crime and safeguarding the security of the State. One regularly reads in newspaper reports of telephony data given in evidence in some of the most notorious trials in recent years. We cannot expect the Garda Síochána to solve complex crimes if we do not give it the means to do so. We must provide safeguards to ensure that those means are not misused and this Bill provides the same safeguards as are available under the interception of communications provisions, this despite the fact that the intrusion into persons’ privacy under the Bill is minimal.
I would reiterate that the content of communications cannot be retained or disclosed under the Bill. This means, for example, that the law enforcement agencies cannot obtain information on the social networking sites that persons access. This may be regarded in some quarters as lessening its impact but, in the context of preserving privacy and compliance with international human rights instruments, it is one of the Bill’s strengths.
In 2005, the House welcomed the legislation that placed the retention of telephony data on a full statutory basis. This Bill extends the provisions of the 2005 Act to Internet data and the saving of human life. It also restricts the type of data that can be requested to the investigation of mainly serious offences and reduces the period of retention for telephony from three years to two years. Despite misgivings about the legislation and the retention of data generally by a small number of persons, I am confident that Senators will again welcome legislation that is so important to our law enforcement authorities in their constant battle to bring serious criminals, including terrorists, to justice.
For various reasons, the preparation of this Bill has been delayed. The present situation is that the European Commission undertook infringement proceedings against Ireland before the European Court of Justice and the court found that Ireland had failed to comply with its compliance obligations. Therefore, it is in all our interests, if only to avoid a large fine, that the Bill pass speedily through the Oireachtas and become law as soon as possible. While I look forward to a full debate on the Bill, I also look forward to its early enactment. I commend it to the House.
Senator Eugene Regan: I thank the Minister of State for outlining the position in respect of the Bill. He indicated that nothing new is created in the Bill and that it does no more than extend, with some changes, existing obligations relating to telephony and Internet data. He then referred to the infringement proceedings and suggested we should get on with passing the legislation. Those proceedings came about as a result of the failure to adopt national legislation in respect of this matter. The digest relating to this Bill, which was prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, highlights the fact that the “The domestic solution which had been under preparation by the Department was dropped in favour of pursuing a Data Retention Directive at European level”. As the Minister of State indicated, the Government joined other member states in trying to adopt a framework decision. The domestic approach then failed.
Ireland was involved from the outset in the attempt to formulate a solution at European level. However, the Minister of State failed to refer to the fact that it challenged, in the European Court of Justice, the decision to draft a directive and stated that this matter should have been dealt with by way of framework decision.
I cannot understand how a European directive, which was passed in 2006 and which was required to be transposed into law by 15 September 2007, has still not been accommodated within our legislative framework. The Minister of State now suggests that this is a pressing matter and that we need to get on with tackling it. The same line was trotted out a couple of weeks ago in respect of anti-money laundering legislation. Ireland was challenged in the European Court of Justice on two occasions in respect of the latter. The Minister of State indicated that a judgment has now been handed down against us and that we run the risk of having fines imposed, which is the case with regard to non-compliance with EU law.
The explanation the Minister of State offered in respect of the delay is just not sufficient. To be in default in respect of the transposition of EU law is a serious matter. It is most unsatisfactory that the Government continually introduces Bills and states that it is in default and that judgments have been made against it in respect of delays in transposing directives. The Minister of State indicated that the retention of data is important for many reasons, including in respect of combating organised crime, terrorism, etc. However, there has been a delay of almost three years beyond the implementation date relating to the directive. The Government does not have its priorities right in this area.
The transposition of the directive into Irish law should have been easy because the work relating to the subject matter of the Bill was done at European level. Ireland participated in the adoption of the directive at that level but there has still been a delay. One of the reasons offered by the Minister of State in this regard is that the matter must be dealt with by means of primary legislation and that, therefore, the publication of the Bill was delayed. Why would that lead to a delay in the publication of the Bill? I could understand if it had given rise to protracted debate within the Houses. However, it is quite unsatisfactory for such a delay to have occurred. It is extremely embarrassing for the country that it is in default in respect of the implementation of EU legislation which, as everyone acknowledges, is important, especially in the context of combating the most serious forms of organised crime.
The EU directive on the retention of data states:
The directive also refers to combating terrorism and to issues relating to the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly in the context of Article 8. It further states:
The directive strikes a balance and, as is normally the case, bestows on member states a certain amount of latitude and flexibility with regard to how they choose to implement it. The directive also calls for remedies and refers to: “The right of any person who has suffered damage as a result of an unlawful processing operation or of any act incompatible with national provisions adopted pursuant to Directive 95/46/EC to receive compensation”. The directive is balanced and transposing it into national law could in no way be seen as difficult. In that context and in light of the importance of the exercise of that transposition, the Bill, notwithstanding the extraordinary and inexcusable delay in this introduction, must be welcomed.
A number of issues have been raised by certain groups. These issues relate to the balancing of people’s rights, particularly in the context of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The German Constitutional Court recently handed down a judgment on the manner in which the directive was to be implemented in Germany. An issue with regard to the principle involved arises. However, the essential difficulty arises in the context of the safeguards that are implemented in national legislation. That is the issue which arose for the German constitutional court. The issue that arises for us is whether the safeguards and supervision and oversight mechanisms contemplated in the Bill will prove adequate.
Another issue arises with regard to retention periods and the fact that Ireland has chosen to impose the maximum retention period. The case has been made that this will impose a financial cost on service providers etc. However, an exceptional situation obtains in this country in that there has been a breakdown in law and order as a result of the activities of those involved in organised crime. The most recent report of the Independent Monitoring Commission refers to the resumption of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland — invariably, such attacks will spill over into this State — and states that the threat of terrorist activity is at its highest level for some time. The retention periods provided for in the Bill are appropriate. However, provision should be made to review them every three years to assess whether such lengthy periods are required. This would add to the proportionality of the measures that are proposed. In view of the fact that Ireland has specific problems when it comes to organised crime and terrorism, the retention periods that are envisaged are appropriate for now.
Issues arise about the adequacy of the provisions regarding oral requests for disclosure of data. While there is provision for reports to the Minister and the European Commission, a regular report should be made to the Oireachtas on the implementation of the Bill, following its introduction. In addition, those affected by the illicit disclosure of personal data should be notified of any such leaks. There should be sanctions in place, as well as adequate remedies and compensation for those affected. An issue also arises regarding the cost of data retention and to impose it simpliciter on service providers without a contribution would be draconian.
An issue has been raised regarding the competitiveness of the economy, in that the Bill proposes the imposition of a highly onerous regime. This also must be taken into account. These are a number of the issues that can be dealt with on Committee Stage.
Fine Gael welcomes the introduction of the Bill, although the delay in its introduction was inexcusable. I reserve my position in respect of tabling amendments on Committee Stage that I consider to be appropriate.
Senator Denis O’Donovan: I support the Bill and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mary White. I believe this is my first time to speak before her in this Chamber. I wish her luck in her new brief, in which I am sure she will be a breath of fresh air. I refer to an ongoing debate in this Chamber in which I have yet to speak, namely, the role of women in politics and so on. In that regard, it is a major plus for feminists and women, in particular, to see a new face among the ranks of Ministers of State.
While the gestation period of the Bill has been prolonged, its framework and the concept for it within legislation has been in place for at least 30 years. I note that in the historical perspective offered to the House by the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, he went back to the first piece of legislation dating from 1983 and outlined how things had changed in the short time since. At the time there was no Skype, there were no mobile phones and the Internet had not been developed. There has been a technological revolution in respect of e-commerce and e-mailing, as well as Twitter and tweets, etc. Therefore, even if this legislation had been introduced ten years ago, because of the pace of technological advances within the last decade, in particular, it probably would have required updating and change. Consequently, I do not perceive the delay in the introduction of the Bill as a ground for major criticism of the Government.
I broadly welcome the Bill. In particular, one should note that in some of the high profile crimes solved in recent years such as those involving Wayne O’Donoghue and Joe O’Reilly, evidence intercepted by the Garda Síochána was critical in the conviction and incarceration of those guilty of serious crimes. There is no doubt but that in the war the Government and the State, irrespective of who is in power, wage against organised crime, this legislation will have a major role to play. However, in introducing such important legislation, one should caution, as my colleague, Senator Regan, has also noted, that one cannot underestimate the great significance of the test case brought in Germany. I refer to a fairly recent landmark decision in which the German constitutional court actually rejected the European Union directive.
The Minister of State should respond on the European Union-wide implications of this decision by a court in Germany. Germany is both a major player in the support of the euro and one of the strongest and most powerful countries within the European Union. However, while this decision probably does not completely overthrow the entire purpose of the European Union directive and this legislation, nevertheless it places a huge question mark against the future direction of the directive. It has caused consternation from a legal perspective in respect of the equivalent legislation in Germany. I seek to establish what the repercussions are and what ripple effect this will have on other European Union countries.
I consider the Constitution to be the most fluid and active written constitution within the European Union. Not many other countries have such a written constitution. If one considers the Australian and American systems, one finds the 1937 Constitution has been the second most amended constitution in constitutional history. The number of amendments introduced in our relatively short history is phenomenal. Therefore, from a constitutional perspective, the Minister of State should reflect on the implications, if any, of such a challenge here. There is a doubt at the back of my mind that should such a constitutional challenge take place, it might give rise to the prospect, however worrying it may be for the Government, that it might create a roadblock to the legislation under discussion. Perhaps I am acting as devil’s advocate in this regard, but one should not walk away from or dismiss lightly this matter.
On the subject of crime and criminal law, the appropriate use of this legislation in the fight against organised crime will be welcome. It is needed by the country, the Garda and the Defence Forces. It is welcome that, as far as I can discern in reading through the Bill, an attempt to intercept or gather information and keep it for the period set out therein must be sanctioned by a chief superintendent of the Garda or a colonel in the Army.
I also note the legislation will extend the powers of the Revenue Commissioners. I have some reservations about this because the Revenue Commissioners already have draconian powers. While I make this point in a balanced and non-derogatory fashion, as a young solicitor dealing with the powers of Customs and Excise back in the early 1980s, I can recall an instance in which a European lady’s car was confiscated while she was shopping in Bantry. When she emerged, she was unable to find her car and it took her a day or two to establish where it had been taken and who had taken it. In other words, through the use of such draconian powers, a sledgehammer is being used to crack a nut. The Revenue Commissioners, the Customs Service and so on have great draconian powers as matters stand and I have an uneasy feeling that such powers are being extended willy-nilly to Revenue in many areas.
Of course, I condemn organised efforts and scams to deprive Revenue of funding, whether it be VAT fraud or cross-Border dealings involving the illicit importation of diesel or cigarettes. While I understand it has a job to do, such powers should be controlled and investigated. Moreover, if mistakes are made, such powers might be curtailed, if that is the correct term to use, at ministerial level.
It is important we recognise what is happening in other European countries in this respect. My colleague referred to the Bills Digest through which I browsed to check legislative changes made and the background to what was happening in other EU member states. There are comparative data retention schemes in France. Following transposition of the data directive, France retains data on telephony and Internet usage for one year. Under our proposal, such data would be retained for three years. In Germany matters are in disarray because of a court decision. In Belgium the justice Ministry proposes to introduce a two year data retention period. Given that the directive is being transposed into law in member states, why does a standard two or three-year retention period not apply across Europe? Why will the period that will apply here be different from that which will apply in Belgium or another member state?
I wish to deal with a matter, to which the Minister of State did not refer. We have had the amazing experience of what has happened in the banking sector during the past three years, whether one would describe it as white collar fraud or gross negligence. The provisions of this legislation probably cannot be applied retrospectively, but could they be applied to oversee the way in which banks do business? They have brought the country to its knees in the past two or three years by making serious mistakes which bordered on being criminal. They over-lent funds to young people who were anxious to enter the property market. A game of Russian roulette was being played in the market, in which the sky was the limit with regard to the prices paid for plots of land which were totally over-valued. Taxpayers now have to foot the bill. I ask the Minister of State to consider whether this legislation could be used to monitor the way banks do business. Perhaps I am losing the run of myself in making this suggestion.
If information was available on the activities of criminals, it would be far more valuable than giving extra powers to the Revenue Commissioners. However, I broadly welcome the legislation. It would be good if it was of assistance in putting organised criminals behind bars. I have mentioned two recent cases, particularly that of Joe O’Reilly, where data used by the Garda enabled it to put behind bars two people who would otherwise probably have walked free. That was a very good achievement on its part. I hope the Minister of State or whoever will deal with the Bill on Committee Stage will reflect on the few points I have made.
Senator David Norris: I also welcome the Minister of State and, like my colleagues, broadly welcome the Bill, although I have some reservations about it. I have already organised the tabling of amendments to it.
The Minister of State outlined the background to the legislation, to which Senator Regan referred, namely, the European directive and the attempt by the Government to transpose it into Irish law. The problem is — this is a point to which I will return — that in the transposition of the directive there has not been homogenous application of its provisions in all European countries. I will point to certain discrepancies between this country and certain other European countries which place elements of Irish business at a disadvantage. That is my first point.
In his recital of the history of the origins of the legislation the Minister of State invoked the spectre of the Madrid bombings, terrorism and so on. Interestingly, he also indicated that the Data Protection Commissioner had intervened at a certain stage to reduce drastically, from three years to six months, the period within which data had to be retained. I find this very interesting, particularly in the light of the reservations expressed by the commissioner concerning the retention of data in criminal cases.
I join my colleagues in welcoming the fact that the Garda Síochána managed to use what the Minister of State described as a “who, what, where and when” of telephonic records to secure convictions in recent murder cases. This can only be applauded by citizens. However, concerns have been raised about the retention of data in circumstances where citizens have been acquitted. This appears to go completely against the presumption of innocence, a cardinal tenet of law. I would like the Minister of State to examine this matter because it is very serious.
Will the Minister of State explain or ask the Minister of State who introduced the legislation what he meant when he said: “. . . it was decided, for a technical reason, to proceed by way of primary legislation [having already contemplated doing so by secondary legislation]?” It is not sufficient for the information of the House to be simply told that a matter was decided for a technical reason; we need full disclosure. I would like to know exactly what was that technical reason. It may perhaps refer to the series of cases to which Senator Regan adverted.
The Minister of State also said: “Section 2 gives effect to Article 1.2 of the directive by providing that the Bill does not apply to the content of communications.” How, in the name of God, could it, unless there was routine recording of conversations? I seek an assurance that this does not happen. I can tell the House that 25 or 30 years ago my telephone was tapped. I attempted to do something about this, but I came up against a brick wall. Of course, as I was not a journalist at that stage, I did not receive any answer or compensation. However, one needs to be reassured that one’s telephone conversations will remain private. I will be calling in another context for the introduction of a law on privacy. I have a house in Cyprus and on top of the Troodos Mountains where I live there are the golf balls of the allies. I know what they are used for; they are used to listen in to every single telephone conversation. This is done electronically and recordings are triggered by the use of certain words. I frequently speak the word “al-Qaeda” into the telephone just to cause a bit of bother.
Reference was made to the Revenue Commissioners, in which respect Senator O’Donovan expressed concern. I would be delighted if some of the big boys were caught, but with regard to the idea that tackling tax evasion is always a top priority for the Revenue Commissioners, I wonder about this and the effectiveness of their operations. I have always been a compliant taxpayer, always tried to pay every single penny that I owe in tax and made my returns on time. Therefore, I was surprised to receive a bill for an extra €2,000 on the basis that I had made a late submission. Luckily, I had kept the receipt and was able to show that that was not the case, but I did not receive an apology. I received a cheque for €450, which is a little different from them trying to extract €2,000 from me. If I was a dotty old widow or widower, I probably would have paid the bill. Therefore, when the Revenue Commissioners obtain information, let us make sure they will use it appropriately and efficiently.
With regard to security and safety concerns about data kept on laptops, there is a good deal of nonsense spoken. Yesterday I was stuck in a stone corridor between two locked fire doors in the basement of Leinster House. How safe was I if there had been an explosion? In the old days one could have bought one’s old computer for €100 when one was issued with one, but now we are told we cannot do this because of security concerns. That is bizarre. If there were secrets on our computers, they would be ours. In any case I had never used my computer. I wanted to take one to Cyprus to learn how to use it and leave another one here but that was not acceptable. I said there was nothing on my computer. We can be a little daft about such matters. The point I am making is that most instances of security failure are due to human frailty, not a technical flaw.
I wish to deal with another serious point. I have been briefed by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland which is concerned that some of the proposals made in the Bill will seriously weaken the industry’s competitive edge, deter innovative Internet-based businesses from establishing here and hurt Ireland’s reputation as e-commerce hub. This is a development of what I said, that there is not homogenous application of the provisions of the directive throughout the European Union. My concerns come under four headings and include the timescale, which is too long and about which other Members have indicated they might have slight concerns, the cost burden to the Internet supplier, the flawed procedures, in particular, inappropriate applications, oral applications and so on, and unfair liability.
In regard to the timescale, the Minister of State said the majority of countries had this timescale or a longer one. The facts are as follows. Luxembourg, Germany, Lithuania, Slovakia and Holland apply a six-month retention period for Internet data. We can clearly see the one-year requirement stipulated in the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill puts Irish Internet service providers at a serious and distinct disadvantage. I suggest a six-month Internet data retention period. This is vital to ensure Ireland maintains its status as an e-commerce hub. It relates to competition. The cost of doing business here must not be greater than overseas. For example, Holland, with its six-month retention period, is an advanced e-commerce nation and a serious competitor to Ireland. We must retain our competitive position.
I will table an amendment to amend section 3(1), which deals with Internet data, to read “in the case of the data in the category specified in Part 2 of Schedule 2, a period of six months”. I propose this reduction and ask the Minister of State to consider it.
There is the cost burden. Most EU member states do not reimburse costs incurred by operators to retain and retrieve data, but some do. I will give some examples which are among our main competitors. France, Germany and Holland, which is one of our main competitors, provide funds to cover certain operational costs. Lithuania covers the cost of retention if public authorities request that particular data is retained for more than six months. France and Germany have lists for the different kinds of data requests and their corresponding payments. In the Czech Republic, Finland and Britain, money spent on equipment acquired to retain and retrieve data is reimbursed. Irish ISPs are placed at a disadvantage vis-à-vis those countries, including serious competitors like Holland where some form of reimbursement is provided. Other services provided to law enforcement, equipment, fuel, etc. are paid for. Why should the provision of this service be treated differently? I will suggest a subsection requiring ISPs to be reimbursed for capital expenditure and operating costs. That will probably be ruled out of order because it will be seen as imposing a cost on the Exchequer but I will at least seek to have the principle ventilated.
There is the question of flawed procedures. The provisions in regard to the complaints procedure in section 10(1) are flawed and will serve only to encourage sloppy work. For example, evidence secured by a search warrant is rendered invalid if the strict stipulations governing such a search warrant are not followed. Why should there be any difference for a disclosure request concerning electronic data? Why should the authority be bothered to follow the rules if the end results will be invalid anyway? The options for redress are unacceptably limited. The recommendation is that section 10(1) be amended so that a contravention of section 6 in regard to a disclosure request shall make the disclosure request invalid and any such contravention shall be subject to an investigation in accordance with the subsequent provisions of this section and nothing in this subsection shall affect case of action for the infringement of a constitutional right.
I refer to unfair liability and immunity. The Bill does not express immunity from liability of a service provider which, in good faith, discloses data on request which purports to be in accordance with the new regulations but which is not. Examples would be if data is not requested for the purpose of the detection, investigation or prosecution of serious offences or an error is made in the date and time or the wrong subscriber is identified. I will table an amendment in this regard.
I refer to unfair liability and the question of oral versus written requests. As Members all know, oral requests for anything can be a bit tendentious. There is a serious potential risk in section 6(5) regarding disclosure requests. There is the potential problem of documentation not arriving and no proof the request was ever made. It places Internet service providers in danger of falling into civil law traps.
Section 6(5) should be dropped. Requests should be written or a unique request numbering system should be used so that when an oral request is made, it is allocated a unique identifier in the same manner as if it were written which must then be placed on the subsequent written request. If the written request is not received, the ISP would have this reference to prove the oral request was made. We are basically talking about a paper trail and actual, clear and factual evidence. It would obviate a situation where somebody could say he or she telephoned and made a request. We would have no proof. In these serious matters, some degree of proof is needed so this unique identifier is an important element. I hope the Minister of State will consider it seriously.
Senator Dan Boyle: I welcome my colleague, the Minister of State, who has responsibility for data protection, which is an important element of this wider debate. In regard to the framing of a Bill of this type, which tries to balance the need for the State to have access to information for security purposes and the rights of the person, we badly need to get it right. Much protracted discussion took place between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on this issue. It is right it is given that consideration because we need to bear in mind what is being compromised in passing legislation of this nature.
The legislation must be put on the Statute Book to conform with an EU directive. However, that is under question following the decision of the German Constitutional Court. While we need legislation on the retention of data, the extent to which the provisions of this Bill cover our obligations under the EU directive is a subject worthy of discussion. The reason the German Constitutional Court decided to strike down the German legislation was because of what it termed the exceptional intensity of interference with human rights. The German Government was subsequently obliged to put clear and transparent measures in place to ensure data safety and adequate legal remedies for citizens in regard to the misuse of personal data. That is what a Bill of this type should try to do.
In looking at the German legislation and at this Bill as it progresses through Committee and Report Stages, I hope we will come up with the most effective legislation in this area. The difficulty in dealing with a Bill which refers to data retention is that we must also refer to data protection. I was subject to hacking in recent months. Given how loose the Internet can be and how easily information can be got from third party sources and subsequently used, we need greater legal protection, so I welcome the fact we are debating this Bill.
As several speakers said, we received representations from the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland which made useful points. I am not sure whether all of them can be acceded to or even agreed with, but what it said about the timescale for the retention of data bears consideration given that countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Slovakia apply a six-month retention period whereas this Bill refers to a 12-month retention period.
There are issues in regard to who bears the cost of data retention and how it should be shared between the various people involved in the process. Again, EU member states have applied different criteria. France, Germany and the Netherlands cover certain operational costs while Britain, Finland and the Czech Republic reimburse capital expenditure involved in the retention of data. As a vested interest, the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland is right to ask these questions and to ensure the legislation is strengthened accordingly.
The area of unfair liability is a bit more nebulous and how it is defined will probably exercise greater legal minds than mine. The presence of Senators Regan and Bacik might help to clear up some of those inconsistencies as the legislation progresses.
One of our responsibilities as legislators is to look at the issue for which legislation is required and identify those affected by the introduction of the legislation. It is proper for the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland to ask questions and to ask us, as legislator, to respond accordingly. On those grounds, I look forward to the further progress of this Bill. I hope lessons can be learned from what occurred in Germany and that we retain the minimum amount of information for the shortest period, that we limit the use of and access to this information and protect the principle of individual freedom.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State. The Labour Party broadly welcomes the purpose of the Bill. Ireland is obliged to pass legislation on foot of the 2006 directive. It is unfortunate, however, that the European Court of Justice has found Ireland to be in breach of our obligations due to the delay in transposing the directive. The Minister of State indicated one of the reasons for the delay was a desire to implement the directive through primary legislation. While I appreciate it is preferable to enact primary legislation to implement the directive, it was perfectly possible to draft and pass primary legislation in both Houses with much greater speed than has been the case with the Bill before us. This desire for primary legislation alone is not sufficient reason for the delay.
I note that on Tuesday last, the European Commission published a Green Paper outlining its initiatives in the area of freedom, security and justice for the years 2010 to 2014. One of the initiatives outlined on data retention is the need to evaluate and, if necessary, amend the data retention directive. The Commission states it will adopt an evaluation report in autumn 2010 and make it public. It is unfortunate that while a review and evaluation of how the directive has been operating in practice in domestic systems throughout the European Union is under way, Ireland is still transposing the directive into primary law.
While the Labour Party acknowledges that data retention is a useful and important principle and requires, as the Minister of State noted, a sound statutory framework, we and others have concerns about the extent of the safeguards in the Bill given the encroachments it makes on individual rights to privacy. I accept the Minister of State’s point that the Bill does not relate to the content of communications which is not covered by its terms. Nonetheless, it permits the retention of data for a much longer period than that permitted in other member states.
While the timeframe for data retention is one issue, as others have highlighted, it is unfortunate that Ireland is among the small minority of member states to opt for the maximum period of two years for retention of telephone data, as provided for in Part 1 of Schedule 2. This decision is unfortunate and unnecessary. It would have been more appropriate to limit the retention period to a maximum of one year, which is the standard term in use in other member states. Some states use the minimum period of six months. I believe such a period would have been sufficient for the Internet data provided for in Part 2 of Schedule 2. Rather than having this data retained, as envisaged, for one year, it should be retained for six months.
The Data Protection Commissioner recommended that a one year retention period for telephone traffic data and a six month period for Internet data would have been sufficient. The commissioner pointed out that the Garda Síochána rarely requests data that is more than one year old. The two year retention period is, therefore, unnecessary and unduly onerous.
A good deal of representation has been made to the Minister on behalf of service providers. The Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland, for example, has been in consultation with the Minister and Department and has written to Members arguing that whereas Ireland will require a one year retention period for Internet data, countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Luxembourg and Lithuania apply a six month retention period. The association argues that the extra costs and resources required to meet the one year requirement for Internet data will put many Irish Internet service providers at a distinct disadvantage.
In addition to the argument made from the business side, an argument is also made from the perspective of privacy rights and civil liberties. We should use the minimum period necessary to make the legislation effective. Given what the Data Protection Commissioner has advised, it is not necessary to use the two year maximum for telephone data and one year maximum for Internet data. Timeframes of one year for telephone data and six months for Internet data would have been more appropriate.
Deputy Sherlock raised concerns in the Dáil about whether the Bill has been superseded in some senses as a crime prevention measure by the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill. He also referred to the volume of requests for retained data submitted by the Garda. For example, in 2006 Deputy Howlin noted in the Dáil that 10,000 requests were made by the Garda for access to personal telephone records under the powers contained in the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act. With approximately 30 requests per day being made in 2006, it begs the question as to whether all these requests were necessary to investigate serious crime. Such requests must be subject to scrutiny and oversight.
One of the reasons a sound statutory framework is important is that it would provide a legislative basis for oversight and scrutiny. While I am pleased the Bill includes provisions on oversight and scrutiny, they are not sufficient to ensure adequate protections. The Data Protection Commissioner, in a forthright briefing provided in November 2009, stated that the safeguards provided for in the Bill and the 2005 Act were far from adequate.
A number of the oversight and safeguard mechanisms provided for in the legislation are flawed. A concern has arisen regarding section 12, which deals with the duties of the designated judge, that until now the annual reports of the designated judge have been rather cursory, consisting of one line stating that legislative provisions have been complied with. We need to ensure that under section 12 more detail is provided by the designated judge on the operation of the provisions of the legislation.
Further, provision is not made in section 12 or elsewhere for the officer of the Garda Síochána, Revenue Commissioners or Defence Forces who seeks disclosure to be held to account if there is an abuse of process, for example, if the officer abuses the facility to seek disclosure. The corollary of this flaw is the flaw in section 10. It provides in subsection (1) that a contravention of section 6, which provides for the process of requesting disclosure, does not of itself render the disclosure request invalid. This is unfortunate as it means a disclosure request made in breach of section 6 and in a manner that amounts to an abuse of power by an officer of the Garda, Revenue or Defence Forces may still be valid and will not constitute a cause of action according to section 10(1). This is unfortunate as it means the safeguards lack teeth.
When the Bill was first mooted I publicly highlighted a further point regarding safeguards. In February 2009 — this shows how long the Bill has been in gestation — in an article in The Irish Times, Karlin Lillington referred to a concern I had expressed regarding the comeback, if one likes, for an individual who believes a request for disclosure of data relating to him or her was made in breach of the Act or was an abuse of power. While an individual in such circumstances may apply to the referee under section 10(2) for an investigation into the matter, this is somewhat meaningless as a means of securing redress because the legislation does not include a mechanism whereby a person whose data has been disclosed would be informed or notified of such disclosure. I argued that section 10 should be amended to provide for a duty of notification of a person in respect of whom data had been requested. My criticism of the legislation in this regard was itself criticised. It is important to note, however, that in many other countries such a notification is in place. Clearly, notification would have to be made some time after the disclosure request is made because no one is suggesting a Garda, Revenue or Army investigation should be jeopardised in any way. It is not about notifying a person when a disclosure request is being made or shortly thereafter. There is a duty of notification in Germany, the US and Canada after a period of time has passed following the request for disclosure. There is no reason for not amending the Bill to provide for this.
The Internet service providers have certainly raised issues about budgetary implications and the effect the lengthy timeframe in the Bill will have on their competitiveness within the EU, which is a very valid concern. The Data Protection Commissioner has also suggested that oversight provisions need to be significantly strengthened and has expressed doubt about the inclusion of the Revenue Commissioners. I accept that the Minister of State has stated there are important reasons for that and that the Revenue Commissioners’ powers will only be exercised in respect of six named revenue offences. Those offences should be named in the Bill, because they are not currently. If the Revenue Commissioners are to be included, they should then be made subject to some external oversight mechanism beyond this Bill, as occurs with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission which has an oversight duty over any abuse of power by gardaí.
There are a number of flaws in this Bill. We will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage and I look forward to a more detailed debate.
Senator Jim Walsh: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit inniu chun an Bille tábhachtach seo a phlé. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While the Bill is relatively short, it is none the less important as we are transposing EU directives into our own domestic legislation. The primary purpose of the Bill is to put an obligation on providers of publicly available electronic communications services to retain certain data.
Many of our telephone service providers would historically have retained data for up to six years for their own use. We imposed an obligation on those providers of a three-year retention under the 1983 Act. That is available to the Garda but no such legislation underpins Internet data, and given the major use people make of the Internet and other electronic communications, it is important such an area would be regulated. It can assist the various State investigative bodies that are charged with ensuring compliance with the law in this country. We are reducing the three-year requirement under the 1983 Act to two years under this Bill. The Garda Síochána is satisfied with that change.
Most of our focus will probably be directed at Internet data. There is a provision under the EU directive to work within the parameters of retention for a period between six months and two years. We have selected 12 months as the optimum period. I presume that is being done after close consultation with the Garda, but I will come back to this point later.
A disclosure request by the Garda when conducting an investigation can only be made under the provisions of the Bill where a prison sentence of five years would apply to the offence in question. I think there are five specified offences in the Schedule, and this recognises that there is an impingement on the privacy of individuals when we give powers to State bodies to use data which are personal to the individual citizen.
Senator Bacik mentioned that there is no offence for the abuse of process in this instance. Can the Minister of State clarify this? If there is such an omission in the Bill, it should be examined because we are moving from the telephony era to the Internet era. I believe that abuse of process in this area should be a serious offence. If we look at the codes of practice that companies have for dealing with the abuse of electronic information by employees, we find that it is a sackable offence in most instances. It is viewed as being serious. I would not like to think we do not have penalties commensurate with the level of abuse and which should be imposed on anybody who failed to meet the standard we expect of them.
It is right that the Data Protection Commissioner and people involved in human rights organisations would take an interest in the detail of the Bill. I noted that interest and it surprised me to an extent, especially given the manner in which serious crime is so well organised and the difficulties encountered by the authorities charged with tackling gang related activities. There are constraints on the authorities and some of those are for good reason, but if data retention is only concerned with the who, where and when of communication and the Garda cannot request information about the content of a phone call or Internet message, then I would query the wisdom of such a policy. If we are going down this road, the purpose should be to bring people to account who are guilty of serious offences. Restricting it in this way would raise questions about the benefit we would get from this.
I also have questions about the offences under the authority of the Revenue Commissioners. The Data Protection Commissioner has also raised queries about this. Can the Minister of State tell the House if all the offences mentioned in the Bill are offences that would carry a prison sentence of five years or more? Some of them appear to be offences that should not be included in the provisions of this Bill for pursuit by the Revenue Commissioners.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I welcome the Minister of State and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is the first time I have addressed the Minister of State since she was appointed to her new post, so I wish her the best of luck.
I wish to focus on the cost and business implications of this Bill. Our country is rightly prioritising the smart economy as an engine that will deliver a sustainable economic recovery for Ireland. It is vital we look at legislation that has an impact on the use of technology and ensure there are no consequences to passing this Bill that would prove an unacceptable burden on our competitiveness. I use that phrase carefully. When one goes out to deliver a social objective, sometimes that objective is so important that the cost is worth bearing by the State. However, my concern is that unforeseen consequences of this legislation could impact on the viability of home-grown or international companies that depend on technology, including the Internet, for their viability. I refer to the contribution by the Internet Service Providers’ Association of Ireland in its analysis of the Bill. The association has raised a number of points that I want to put on the record. I hope that on Committee Stage the Minister will be able to respond in detail to some of those points, which appear worthy of further analysis. The thrust of the association’s argument is that the Bill has consequences that will adversely affect our ability to be an e-commerce hub. One aspect is the period of time for which Internet data would need to be retained in our own jurisdiction. The legislation proposes a period of one year, but Germany and Slovakia have retention periods of six months. The Netherlands, which is a competitor of ours in the e-commerce area, also has a six-month data retention period. Therefore, we would be asking companies here to have a data retention period which is longer than some of our competitor nations. That additional six months would place an extra cost on such companies. All these little costs add up to affect the competitiveness of a business. I would like the Minister of State to clarify this point in her response to this Second Stage debate or on Committee Stage. I want to know specifically why we will have a data retention period that is longer than that which applies in some of our competitor countries.
The second point concerns the cost burden, which we frequently discuss in this House. It is clear the State’s regulatory touch in various parts of the economy has been far too light. As we seek to increase that, it will generate costs. Those costs need to be borne in all cases because it is clear that light regulation has been to the great detriment of the entire country.
One of the consequences of this Bill will be an additional cost for data retention, as well as a cost for servicing that data over the relevant period. As other countries seek to implement equivalent legislation, I have been informed that in those jurisdictions the state bears some of the costs involved. Specifically, France, Germany and the Netherlands cover some of the costs of implementing this sort of legislation. In addition, Britain will reimburse companies for the capital expenditure involved. In the absence of such a commitment here, the cost will fall on Internet service providers. The latter companies will either absorb the cost themselves, which will affect their profitability, or the cost will be passed on those using Internet services, whether they are individual consumers or businesses. What can we do to ensure the cost is minimised and is borne in such a way that it will not affect Ireland’s viability as an e-commerce hub?
My third point concerns disclosure requests. On Committee Stage I will be seeking information on how such requests will be dealt with. What will the consequences be for businesses and individuals if these disclosure requests are not dealt with properly, and if issues arise over serving them?
A fourth point concerns the issue of liability. The Bill appears to infer that if a data or service provider provides data to the State, in good faith, on foot of a request which subsequently turns out to be flawed — in that it is not in keeping with the regulations we are discussing here — there would appear to be some uncertainty about the status of the data provider if that data turns out to be flawed.
I would welcome a response from the Minister of State to those four points, as well as an opportunity to discuss them. This Bill is both welcome and necessary, but what can we do to ensure it will not have a detrimental effect on the viability of businesses that provide such Internet services?
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Mary Alexandra White): I thank all Senators who contributed to this debate. I hope the importance of data information in the investigation of serious crime, including gangland and transnational crime, and in safeguarding our country against terrorist activity, has been conveyed. I also hope the importance of the balance between this use of data retention to fight serious crime and the right of every citizen to privacy has been clearly shown.
Data retention is a tried and tested valuable tool in the investigation of crime and in safeguarding the security of the State and it has not received as much attention as some of the more recent initiatives for fighting crime, in particular gangland crime. These include the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act and the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act, which were passed into law as recently as last July.
I wish to refer to the memorandum of understanding that is being negotiated between the Garda Síochána, the Permanent Defence Forces, the Revenue Commissioners and the representative associations of the vast majority of telephony operators and Internet service providers in the State. It is a work in progress and, while virtually complete, can not be finalised until the Bill is enacted. As the legislation will come into operation on the day it is signed into law, it is important the providers are in a position to comply with their duties under it. The only way that can be achieved is for advance discussions to take place with the law enforcement authorities that are entitled to make disclosure requests under the legislation.
The negotiations in Brussels on the directive took place at a time of very rapid developments in technology. This was recognised by the Commission and the member states. It was clear that the directive could soon become out of date, and less useful as an investigatory tool for law enforcement agencies, if it tried to over-interpret the data which it was intended should be retained and disclosed. For that reason, the Commission established two committees for the purpose of identifying problems in implementing the directive.
One of the committees consists of national experts from a selected group of member states, including Ireland. The types of problems that committee addresses are related to matters such as the obligation to retain data, who should retain it, and the type of data that need not be retained, such as spam. These issues feed into the other committee consisting of representatives of all member states. The latter committee reports on the implementation of the directive in member states, and hears from experts from the technology companies on relevant issues. In our case, they also feed into the discussions on the memorandum of understanding.
All sides involved in the discussions on the memorandum of understanding recognise that it is to the benefit of all of them, and ultimately to the benefit of law enforcement in this country, if the Garda Síochána, Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces know what providers can reasonably retain, within the parameters established in the directive, and that the providers know what is required of them under the directive by the law enforcement authorities.
The purpose of the memorandum is simply to ensure the directive operates as intended. I greatly welcome the initiative of all concerned in its negotiations. It does what would not be feasible in the Bill — that is, it sets out in more detail what is required to be retained under the directive. For example, there has been some comment on which provider should retain a particular piece of data. Recital 13 of the directive states that data should be retained in such a way as to avoid being retained more than once. Accordingly, if more than one service provider is in possession of particular data, only one need retain it for the purposes of the directive. The detail on which provider retains duplicated data can only be agreed in discussions between the service providers and the law enforcement authorities.
The question of human rights and privacy arises when legislation such as this Bill is proposed. It is recognised that all personal information is important to the individual and that is why the intrusion into a person’s privacy is kept to a minimum and is only used in serious instances. No content is retained or disclosed under the directive or the legislation, for example, the content of a telephone call or e-mail or web sites visited. What is retained could be compared to an envelope with a note inside where what is required to be retained is the address on the envelope with the note inside being destroyed. The directive addresses the human rights implications in recital 9. It refers to Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, under which everyone has the right to respect for his or her private life and correspondence. It states:
It can be deduced from this that the directive has been fully examined and cleared from a human rights perspective.
Like approximately half of the member states, we do not reimburse the costs associated with the retention of data. It is recognised that this is a burden on the providers and that, naturally, they would prefer if the State did reimburse the costs. They have argued strongly in discussions with officials from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the costs to be reimbursed but, ultimately, they have accepted that the money, which would have to come from the Garda Vote, is not available. The willingness of the providers to bear the cost of implementation is appreciated. It is an example of civic mindedness at its best, where companies with information at their disposal make it available in accordance with strict statutory guidelines to the law enforcement authorities. In order that there would be a full understanding of the costs of implementing the legislation, the service providers were asked to provide their best estimate of those costs. The composite figure we received, which represents the total costs of the nine biggest players in the industry, was a once-off amount of €2.9 million on capital expenditure and annual running costs of approximately €1.6 million.
Reference has been made to the recent decision of the German Constitutional Court which struck down the German legislation transposing the directive. Two important points should be borne in mind when discussing that decision. The court did not find that data retention was unconstitutional in Germany, but simply the way the directive was transposed. Second, this was a German court examining German legislation in the context of the German Constitution. The issue was with transposition, which apparently went beyond what was required, not the directive. This does not affect the way we transpose the directive or our timescale for transposition. As matters stand, any further delay in our transposition process could entail a substantial fine being levied on Ireland.
I would like to respond to some of points raised in the course of the debate. Senator Regan criticised the delay in publishing the Bill. There were two reasons for the delay. The consultation process with the service providers took longer than expected and the original plan to transpose the directive by means of secondary legislation had to be abandoned, resulting in a delay in publishing the Bill.
Senator O’Donovan asked why it was necessary to give the Revenue Commissioners power to make disclosure requests and if they could not make them through the Garda. The Revenue Commissioners received legal advice some time ago that a law enforcement authority could only make a disclosure request for its own purposes. That ruled out any question of the Revenue Commissioners making their requests through the Garda. The Customs Service, in particular, is involved in the investigation of serious crimes, such as the importation of illegal goods such as drugs, which have international crime implications. It would be illogical to deprive it of the investigating tool provided for in the Bill.
Senator O’Donovan also asked why it was necessary to retain data for two years when most other countries can make do with 12 or six months. He referred to standard retention practices in the European Union. The directive allows data to be retained for between six months and two years. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been advised by our law enforcement authorities that the minimum period required for the retention of telephony data is two years and for Internet data, 12 months. It was explained in the opening remarks that the two-year period for telephony data is a reduction of one year from the present law and a four-year reduction from past practice. The vast majority of data are requested within the first six months of being generated. However, the quality and potential of data that is older makes the retaining of data for a longer period essential. For example, when a gangland criminal is charged with an offence, it may be necessary to request data that is up to two years old in the case of telephony data that might help to identify other members of the gang. Similarly, if a person is arrested in the State on suspicion of being a member of an international terrorist organisation, telephony data going back for two years may help in identifying a gang preparing a major terrorist outrage.
The two-year retention period for telephony data is among the highest retention periods provided by other member states. Most have legislated for 12 months, with two or three opting for six months. It is understandable that some member states legislating for data retention for the first time might wish to steer a middle course. The 12-month retention period for Internet data seems to be in the mainstream of how other member states have implemented that aspect. The European Commission is reviewing the operation of the directive and issues such as the retention periods are likely to be addressed in that review.
Senator Norris asked what was the technical reason the directive could not be transposed by way of secondary legislation. In the normal course, directives are implemented by way of secondary legislation. The European Communities Act 1972, as amended, so provides and given the volume of directives, that is the only practical way of implementing the majority of directives. However, primary legislation is required under Article 29 of the Constitution where the State exercises an option or discretion in the transposition procedure. In the Data Retention Directive, there is a provision in Article 1 requiring each member state to ensure data are available for the purpose of the investigation, detection and prosecution of serious crime, as defined by each member state in its national law. Advice was received in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that defining serious crime for the purpose of transposing the directive could be interpreted as exercising a discretion and it would be safer to proceed by way of primary legislation. Accordingly, in order to ensure that the implementation would not be held up through a court challenge, it was decided to cease work on the statutory instrument that had been prepared and to proceed by way of a Bill. Another reason it was originally decided to transpose by way of secondary legislation was to meet the implementation deadline. It was always intended after that to prepare the type of legislation now proposed in order to fill in some gaps in the directive, such as requiring data for the purpose of saving human life and safeguarding the security of the State.
Senator Bacik asked about the six Revenue offences. These are named in section 1 of the Bill under the definition of “Revenue offence”. In response to Senator Walsh, all the Revenue offences have a maximum prison sentence of five years.
I reiterate that I hope the importance of the balance between this use of data retention to fight serious crime and the right of every citizen to privacy has been clearly shown.
Question put and agreed to.
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Senator Jim Walsh: Dé Céadaoin seo chugainn, ag 2.30 p.m.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 5 May 2010.
An Cathaoirleach: I remind Senators that on Report Stage a Senator may speak only once, with the exception of the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. In addition, each amendment must be seconded.
Government amendment No. 1:
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan): This amendment is required as a consequence of the amendment I accepted on Committee Stage which removed the provision excluding members of local authorities from sitting on the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland. Section 40(4), as drafted, also precluded members of a local authority from membership of the board of IFI. Accordingly, it is necessary to amend this provision in order that it is consistent with the amendment agreed on Committee Stage.
Senator Liam Twomey: I support the amendment and thank the Minister of State for accepting yesterday our amendment removing the ban on local authority members from being members of the board of IFI. That was a discriminatory practice that was unnecessary and added nothing to the legislation. I am delighted the Minister of State accepted our amendment and has introduced this amendment as a consequence.
Senator Jim Walsh: I endorse those sentiments. I welcome the amendment and thank the Minister of State for being so amenable. I also welcome his comments yesterday that he regarded the practice as discriminatory in this Bill. I hope other Ministers will follow his example and leadership.
Amendment agreed to.
Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.
Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan): I thank Members for their co-operation. This is an important Bill and an essential measure in delivering new management structures for the inland fisheries resource. We are entering a new era and a period in which this resource will become valuable to the country in the development and encouragment of fisheries and angling tourism. These are key themes that I have asked the new CEO-designate to take up. In this regard, I am pleased to advise the House that I am appointing a board on an interim basis before the Oireachtas fills the final few positions on the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland. I am appointing Mr. Brendan O’Mahony as chairman designate and Mr. Andrew Duncan and Ms Lily Collison as interim members of the board. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has already nominated Mr. Lal Flaherty, while the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has nominated Dr. Frances E. Lucey. I considered it only fair that I would make the public announcement of an interim board in the Seanad because of the level of co-operation and assistance I have received in the House.
Senator Jim Walsh: The Bill is a fine example of what we could be doing across all Departments. There has been much justified criticism of the increase in the number of State bodies, or quangos as they are often referred to. There are great efficiencies and cost savings to be achieved in tidying up the entire area.
I compliment the Minister of State who has done a good job. Inland Fisheries Ireland has a very important function and can play a very positive role in tourism. Part of the strategy to restore economic growth should be placing emphasis on indigenous industries such as tourism. I welcome the comments of the Minister of State in this regard and hope the leadership he has shown will be replicated by others. The House has again shown the contribution it makes to legislation. We need Ministers with an open mind such as the Minister of State to be prepared to take on board sensible suggestions, even where this might cause inconvenience, as the Minister of State himself acknowledged yesterday. He will now need to bring the Bill back to the Dáil for ratification. I thank him in that regard.
Senator Liam Twomey: I wish to be associated with the sentiments expressed. I thank the Minister of State for being so concise and forthright in his answers to the House. I wish the board of IFI the very best for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan): I welcome the opportunity to address Members on a new telecommunications technology, the TETRA system, an acronym for terrestrial trunked radio. It is a new digital mobile radio service primarily intended for use by the emergency services in responding to emergencies. It is envisaged that all emergency services in Ireland, including the Garda Síochána, the fire service, the ambulance service, the Coast Guard and the mountain rescue service, will use the technology.
The procurement of the TETRA network was undertaken by an interdepartmental committee chaired by a representative of the Centre for Management and Organisation Development, CMOD, which is part of the Department of Finance. Following the procurement process which was conducted by open tender, the highest ranked bidder, Tetra Ireland Limited, was selected to install and operate the TETRA network which was designed to be resilient and reduce reliance on public communications networks for the emergency communications of the emergency services. The network is based on digital technology and primarily designed for voice communications. The digital technology also allows for secure communications and is protected from eavesdropping.
A competitive tender process commenced in June 2006 and attracted bids from five consortia. Tetra Ireland Limited, comprising Motorola, Eircom and Sigma Wireless — the preferred bidder — deployed a pilot system in a service performance evaluation phase of the tender process. Following the successful pilot, a full roll-out began in September 2008 under an eight-year build-own-operate contract, with completion of full nationwide coverage by the middle of this year. It is envisaged that approximately 600 base stations will be deployed to provide coverage for more than 95% of the country. It is planned that the system will be fully integrated with the mobile or cellular and fixed line networks, with which there will be full interoperability.
As an inherent design feature of the TETRA network, each user will be able to operate its own talk groups and talk to other emergency service talk groups. The network is fully interoperable between existing communications systems and communication user groups. Using TETRA, Ireland’s emergency services will, for the first time, be operating on a shared platform where inter-agency calls may be made at any time in a confidential and secure manner. It is considered that this facility will result in better management of emergencies, in particular, where the assistance of multiple agencies is required.
As the TETRA technology is dependent on the use of radio spectrum, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, has been consulted by Tetra Ireland Limited to secure the necessary authorisations, licences and approvals which are granted within its remit and pursuant to the Communications Regulation Act 2002. To grant the TETRA licence, ComReg was required to make secondary legislation which prescribed the terms and conditions, fees and specific radio spectrum to be allocated. The frequencies used for the network are harmonised throughout Europe. The rationale behind this decision was to facilitate the manufacture of equipment that would serve the European market where economies of scale would reduce the cost of the equipment. Another reason for this common approach throughout Europe was to ensure emergency services in neighbouring countries would use the same technology where interoperability between emergency services in other jurisdictions was possible. I consider this point important in that the Irish emergency services adopt and align with technologies being deployed by other emergency services across the European Union.
I understand some Senators have expressed concern about interference with television reception quality arising from the deployment of the TETRA technology. The functions under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts 1926 to 1988 for the investigation of interference to radio-based services were transferred from the Minister to the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation pursuant to the Telecommunications (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1996 and subsequently to ComReg pursuant to the Communications Regulation Act 2002. Accordingly, I have no function in this regard.
Within ComReg, however, a spectrum compliance team investigates matters of interference to users of the radio spectrum. The team has received reports of interference to television reception in certain parts of the country from the building and deployment of TETRA base stations. Following its investigations, ComReg has published information on the problem of interference to television reception from the installation and operation of TETRA base stations. The ComReg publications indicated that the problem of interference is arising owing to the use of unfiltered wide-band masthead amplifiers installed with television aerials. Mast head amplifiers are generally used in the reception of weak signals over considerable distances. In Ireland most mast head amplifiers are used for the reception of signals that do not originate in Ireland but originate in Britain. The reception of Irish terrestrial stations should be possible without the use of such devices. In addition, mast head amplifiers which are old or of poor quality can cause problems not only for the user but also for their neighbours’ television reception as they may emit unwanted radio signals causing additional interference to neighbouring television reception.
Recent EU legislation, the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Directive 2004/108/EC, requires that all electrical equipment, including communications equipment, complies with the appropriate standards that allow users of communications equipment to coexist without causing interference to one another. The application of the standards associated with this directive is becoming increasingly important as the use of the radio spectrum intensifies and a greater number of users seek to use the radio spectrum for multiple purposes. The interference arising in this case is a good example of why this directive was introduced and reflects how old mast head amplifiers functioned without any difficulty in the past but now are suffering interference owing to increased use of the radio spectrum.
It should also be noted that the spectrum allocated to television broadcasting and the TETRA network is the same across the EU. Consequently this problem may not be unique to Ireland. The same compatibility issues may arise elsewhere and the use of directive compliant equipment is the only way forward.
To assist consumers in purchasing and using the appropriate equipment, the directive provides that the CE mark must be displayed on all electrical equipment that is placed on the European market. This marking is the tool which signifies that the equipment has been manufactured to the appropriate standard in order that problems such as television interference will not arise and users of the radio spectrum can coexist without causing any mutual interference.
ComReg advises that mast head filters can be purchased for as little as €15 and should be available from electrical suppliers who stock television aerials and related equipment. Where consumers use a mast head amplifier for the reception of weak television signals, they should ensure it is of high quality, is screened, filtered and carries the CE mark. Following the investigation of complaints to television reception from TETRA base stations, ComReg has published an information notice on this matter and have provided information on this matter on its website, www.askcomreg.ie.
Senator Nicky McFadden: TETRA is very important. It has been developed to address the need for confidentiality. It has benefits in that it allows communications between emergency services that will be more effective and allows them take place in areas where there were poor levels of reception, all positive and important features. The new service is more secure because it is encrypted, so Garda radio channels cannot be monitored, thus ensuring a higher level of confidentiality.
One drawback pointed out by the Garda in a press release is that there is no GPS attached to TETRA. The dogs in the street have satellite navigation capability so it is important the communications system would have GPS whereby if a Garda was in difficulty, he would be easily identifiable and could be assisted promptly.
The Minister of State washed his hands of any responsibility in his speech, as did ComReg. The negatives of TETRA also relate to poor television reception, especially for people living in areas close to Garda stations or other TETRA base stations, which is virtually every small town in the country. They will experience a degraded terrestrial television reception if they have an unfiltered wide-band mast head amplifier installed with their television aerial. Anyone who has a cable or satellite television system that is not directly connected to a terrestrial television reception system will not be affected but the areas close to Senator O’Reilly’s heart and that of Councillor John O’Hare have thousands of elderly people who are reliant on their televisions to prevent loneliness and they rely on terrestrial television services. Councillor O’Hare has told me about an elderly constituent who is experiencing severe disruption to his television reception. Before TETRA was introduced into the area, he never had a problem. It was disingenuous of the Minister of State to say the horse had already bolted and people should install filters because these people previously had perfect reception. It is unfair they must now buy this filter. Previously such people could receive RTE1, RTE2, TV3 and TG4. As a result of TETRA being introduced, the poor old man Councillor John O’Hare mentioned cannot watch any television because the quality is so bad. I have the letter the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources sent when this issue was raised. It states:
It is nice of the Minister to highlight the need to buy a filter. Why is it the responsibility of the old man to get a filter when there was no problem before the new system was installed?
The independent wide-band mast head amplifier the Minister referred to can be found on many homes to receive television stations from outside the State, normally near the Border, or where the user wishes to split television signals between serial television sets. According to ComReg, the connection between the wide-band mast head amplifier and poor television reception is due to the amplifier taking in unwanted nearby signals from outside the television band. The Minister of State has mentioned that it can be the neighbours’ fault that a person has bad reception. That is outrageous, there was no problem before TETRA was installed. This causes the amplifier to be overloaded and, as a result, it performs incorrectly, leading to poor television reception.
The Minister of State advises anyone experiencing this problem to install a filter to alleviate the problem. This filter must be located between the aerial and the mast head so that unwanted signals from sources such as TETRA, mobile telephones and private radios are prevented from overloading the mast head amplifier. However, ComReg notes that the special filter to which the Minister of State referred must be physically installed before the installation of a mast head amplifier and that placing the special filter after the mast head amplifier has been installed will not improve television reception. ComReg states that television reception systems traditionally have been installed in such a way that they account for conditions present at the time of installation. This means that a filter would not have been installed unless a signal that could overload an amplifier was present at the time of installation.
For a person experiencing television reception problems as a result of TETRA, the cost for installation of a filter, as recommended by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and ComReg, is approximately €120 to €150. Councillor O’Hare’s constituent is only one of the many thousands of elderly people living in the Cavan-Monaghan area who are experiencing this problem. According to ComReg, the only other option available to a person who does not have the means to install this filter is simply to remove the mast head amplifier. Why should people have to spend €150 to place a filter on their system when they had no problems beforehand?
There was no consultation with people in these areas. I blame the Government for this, especially the Green Party. There was no consultation with ordinary citizens who were simply told they would have to install a filter. The Government should compensate people to the tune of €150 so that they can install this filter and restore their television viewing.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan. The roll-out of the new TETRA mobile communications system for use by the emergency services, including the Garda, is very welcome as it will improve greatly the ability of gardaí to contact each other in a confidential manner. However, its introduction without warning just before Christmas is causing major disruption to television reception in a large number of towns and villages in counties Cavan and Monaghan, including Clones, Cootehill, Castleblayney, Ballybay, Monaghan town, Emyvale, Mullagh and Shercock. A public information leaflet, which is appallingly vague and dismissive of the public, was published by ComReg after the introduction of the TETRA system. It places the onus on householders to rectify the problem by fitting a so-called TETRA reject or band pass filter. I understand the cost of such of a device ranges from €25 — not the €15 to which the Minister of State alluded — to €100, depending on quality, plus up to another €100 for a technician to fit it. I understand from my colleague, Councillor Shane P. O’Reilly, that a lady who is an old-aged pensioner in Mullagh, County Cavan, had to pay €184 plus VAT to have such a device fitted merely because she lives beside the Garda station and when this system was rolled out, her television reception disappeared.
The Minister of State referred to the information leaflet ComReg produced after the system began to roll out. On the front it states: “Television reception and TETRA — public information leaflet. What is TETRA?” There is no “Dear resident” or “In the coming weeks a new digital communications system will be rolled out called TETRA. It may have the following effects. If so, this is what you do. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.” It might have included a telephone number where people might seek information.
I checked for myself the website to which the Minister of State alluded. It states that only people living beside Garda stations or those living in the Border area would be affected and adds: “Or if you live in the countryside”. That is appalling on behalf of ComReg. It is unacceptable. No consideration was given by ComReg to ordinary people, many thousands of whom have lost their television reception and cannot afford to have these devices fitted.
Television is the only social outlet many of these people have and they follows soaps, etc. that are not shown on domestic channels. Without any notice from ComReg their television reception was taken from them. Is it not possible to fit to the actual mast some type of device similar to a TETRA rejector or a band pass filter? That would prevent the interference and relieve ordinary hard-pressed householders from having to fork out money they cannot afford during these recessionary times. Surely that is not beyond the realms of possibility in terms of technology.
My colleague, Deputy O’Hanlon, on behalf of all Oireachtas Members in counties Cavan and Monaghan, spoke to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, on a number of occasions regarding these difficulties. The Minister hopes to meet a delegation in coming weeks.
I take this opportunity to thank my constituency colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, who attended a joint meeting of a number of town councils approximately two months ago. I and other colleagues were unable to attend as we were attending the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Cavan. I thank the Deputy for relaying the information and the concerns of the councils at that meeting to his constituency colleagues.
I wish to mention something the Minister of State referred to in his speech regarding responsibility. He stated this was not the responsibility of the Minister but of ComReg. On 25 February I tabled an Adjournment matter in this House which was ruled out of order by the Cathaoirleach on the basis that the Minister has no official responsibility in this matter. Who has responsibility in this matter? These are ordinary people whose television reception has been interfered with and further financial hardship is being visited upon them through no fault of their own. Who is responsible for that? What solutions does ComReg have to this other than to ask people to fork out money that, as licence payers, they should not have to?
The TETRA system is being rolled out gradually nationwide and it will cause problems nationwide. Before many more thousands of people are affected, can a solution not be found rather than waiting until a head of steam builds up when the problem must be dealt with eventually? There is no need to cause this concern to people. I ask the Minister of State to call on ComReg, as a matter of urgency, to carry out an audit on the number of people affected by the TETRA communications system. I would like the Minister of State to investigate further the proposal I made regarding whether some piece of technology might be acquired and put on masts to prevent this interference with television reception. I would like an answer to both questions.
Acting Chairman (Senator John Paul Phelan): Senator Hannigan has seven minutes.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I probably will not need all seven because most of the points I had intended to make have been well made by previous speakers.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to discuss this issue. The advent of the TETRA system is good news. Recently there was a general report on the Garda Síochána. One of the criticisms levelled at the Garda was that it did not use technology as much as other comparable police forces in the European Union. Anything like this new technology that will help communications must be welcomed and will help to align the emergency services in the way they contact each other.
The issue is the secondary impact on people which was not the intention. People have been able to watch and enjoy viewing television stations but owing to technical problems, the reception is being interfered with by the TETRA system. There has been a problem for over a year. I have been contacted by numerous residents in my own county, Meath, particularly around Kells which is not far from Senator Wilson’s area. Initially they had no idea why the problem had arisen; some had attributed it to the age of their television sets. It was only when a number of residents noted the problem that two and two was put together and they realised there was a more systemic problem in the way it affected television signals. It was at that stage people began to look for potential reasons and realised it must be due to the advent of the new TETRA system.
I am glad that there is a fix that could more or less solve the problem. As other Senators said, however, that fix comes at a cost, particularly for the less well-off in society. It is another expense they can ill afford in these hard economic times. It is not just the cost of the filter box to rectify the problem, there is also the cost of fitting the device which could run to three, four or five times the cost of the device. It is a cost no one expected to pay. I appreciate that the Minister of State has indicated that it is up to a television licence holder to ensure equipment is fit for purpose and that the Government cannot take responsibility for paying for the device. However, there must be a way to limit the cost. As we know the system will be rolled out across the country in the next while, will TETRA Ireland look at the possibility of purchasing filters in bulk in order that they could be made available at a cheaper cost than the retail price? This would make it easier for those who can least afford to meet the additional cost. The company could purchase several thousand devices and make them available at a reduced price to those members of the public who might least be able to afford to pay for this technical solution. That might go some way to making things a little easier.
I recognise that the company has done some work in communicating on the issue to make people aware that there is a technical fix. I suggest it keep going, particularly in those areas where the system has yet to be rolled out, as it is important that people are made aware of the issue. I encourage anyone in my area around Kells who is experiencing problems with television reception to contact either TETRA Ireland or me, as we can point them in the right direction to fix the problem. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan): I thank Senators McFadden, Wilson and Hannigan, among others, for their worthy contributions. We all know of and understand the technology. Senator Hannigan, more than most, got to grips with the issue. I do not intend to provide authorisation to allow the State to issue compensation to those whose television reception has been affected. Without washing my hands of responsibility for anything, it is the role of ComReg to supervise the system and advise customers and others affected by the new technology. The problem lies with older television sets which, as one speaker mentioned, are not fit for purpose. Having listened to Senators, I will contact TETRA Ireland executives and ask them to meet me to see if they can assist in genuine cases where people who are not particularly well off have to cope with big bills. I invite all those Senators who made a contribution to join me at that meeting in order that we can make these points directly to the company concerned.
It seems there have not been many complaints; there is not a lot of fear or loathing about this issue. So far ComReg has received 90 complaints. The network is virtually complete and almost fully rolled out across the country. There are some exceptions in the Border counties. I take on board Senator Wilson’s very wise suggestion that in the future, when newer generation equipment is being installed, ComReg should write to people to alert them to the actions being taken. I will ask it to place advertisements in the newspapers detailing the effects. The audit indicates that to date 90 people have been affected. A full audit is not possible because we cannot know what people have in their homes.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Thousands of people are affected.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: It is possible for ComReg to notify people by way of placing advertisements in the newspapers. We can also ask the company to give advice or assistance to those who are unable to fund the affordable and easily obtainable technology to rectify the problem. I hope it will be amenable to this suggestion and that Senators will join me at the meeting.
As Minister of State with responsibility for science, technology and innovation, I note that this is very worthwhile technology. Coincidentally, before I was elected, I had a real job as a senior executive with Esat Digifone. I was involved in providing some of the infrastructure on which these devices are carried. It is amazing that the TETRA system is in place because it was being spoken about in the mid-1990s as a possibility. It constitutes GSM mobile phone technology being used for the radio sector. It will allow a policeman or an ambulance operator in Croatia to communicate directly with his or her equivalent in Ballinasloe, for example. It is very efficient technology.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: What would be the use of that?
Deputy Conor Lenihan: The GPS issue will be addressed in the next version.
Senator Nicky McFadden: In ten years time.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: It is being installed separately in many emergency service vehicles.
Senator Nicky McFadden: That is most welcome.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: It will come on stream as device technology improves. Senator Hannigan wished to make a comment.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Would there be much need for people in Ballinasloe to liaise on a daily basis with their counterparts in Croatia? I do not have figures.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I do not know. Theoretically, it will have an impact and be useful in some emergencies.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: The Minister of State made the point well.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: Speaking from experience of matters pertaining to the Garda Síochána as a senior executive in Esat Digifone, sometimes the Garda representatives associations do not want to have GPS tracking technology available in squad cars. That is sometimes an issue in the case of newer technologies, but the less said about that, the better.
Acting Chairman (Senator John Paul Phelan): The Minister of State should not comment on persons outside the House.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I am not talking about individuals but the representative associations which do not always welcome the fact that there is a level of traceability.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. On behalf of my colleagues, I appreciate it. However, the figure of 90 complaints is nowhere near realistic, given the number of complaints we are receiving. The information leaflet distributed by ComReg lists an Internet address, but the majority of those being disadvantaged in this case are not computer literate. A simple freefone number would have been appropriate.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I would like to bring that matter directly to the attention of the company and ComReg. We may ask both to attend the meeting so all these issues can be resolved satisfactorily. If Members have complaints beyond and dissimilar to the 90, will they please furnish them to me, the Minister or ComReg? I could forward them to ComReg to be dealt with.
Senator Nicky McFadden: Given the towns in the Cavan-Monaghan region named by Senator Wilson, which were also raised with me, there are more than 90 people.
Acting Chairman (Senator John Paul Phelan): Senator McFadden is summing up. She is thanking the Minister of State. This is not a new debate.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I am grateful to him for agreeing to meet us. On behalf of Senator O’Reilly, I thank the Minister of State and my colleagues.
Acting Chairman (Senator John Paul Phelan): I ask the Acting Leader when it is proposed to sit again.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: At 2.30 p.m. next Wednesday.
Senator Maria Corrigan: I thank the Chair for giving me an opportunity to raise this important issue. I thank the Minister of State for attending the House to respond.
The issue I wish to raise is the need for a national hotline dealing with missing children. I cannot imagine the pain and loss experienced by the family of someone who goes missing. Families do not know what has happened to the children, where they are and whether they are alive. As difficult as it must be to live every day of the rest of one’s life wondering whether today will be the day a loved one returns through the door or gardaí visit with sad news, I cannot begin to imagine what it is like for the families of children who go missing. Children are vulnerable and, in many instances, unable to fend for themselves alone.
It has been internationally established that hotline numbers have a critical role to play in the search for missing children. In Ireland, more than 424 children have gone missing from the care of the HSE in recent years. We have not yet undertaken a national campaign to establish their safety and whereabouts. The provision of a hotline would play an important role, in that it would be a central number through which anyone with information regarding the children could make contact. It would also send an important message, namely, we take child protection seriously and Ireland is not a soft target for trafficking.
The establishment of a hotline number in respect of missing children would provide an immediate point of contact for any child who goes missing. It is also something we agreed to do when we signed up to the EU common number, 116000, which is operational in several EU countries. The idea is that, no matter where one is in Europe, ringing that number will link one to the hotline. However, it is not yet operational in Ireland despite the fact we awarded the use of the number to an organisation following invitations for submissions. I would appreciate an update from the Minister of State regarding the provision and operation of the number. It should be done on an all-island basis.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy John Moloney): I apologise that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, cannot be present to answer this debate. However, I welcome the opportunity to reply to this Adjournment debate, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs. The issue of missing children has been high on his agenda, particularly in respect of those children entering the State who have gone missing immediately or from the care of the HSE.
Regarding the proposal referred to by the Senator to put in place an EU hotline for missing children, the Minister of State has had discussions on this matter with non-governmental organisations. He will keep the Seanad informed of developments in this regard. It is also a matter of great concern to him that a number of unaccompanied minors have gone missing after entering the State. It is important to state this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland.
The issue is complex and, at times, its treatment has been oversimplified. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some positive developments. To tackle this serious problem, the HSE has developed a strong working relationship with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, in respect of missing children. The level of inter-agency co-operation between the HSE and the bureau has been consistently high and was intensified in the face of the increase in the number of missing children who presented in late 2008 and early 2009.
A joint national protocol on children who go missing from care has been agreed between the Garda and the HSE. Intensive meetings took place last year between HSE management, the GNIB and local gardaí in respect of adapting this protocol in terms of application to unaccompanied minors who go missing. The following measures were agreed: collaborative interviewing at the ports between social workers and gardaí; fingerprinting of persons presenting as under age at the ports for tracking purposes; planned Garda surveillance of those at risk of going missing from the point of presentation at ports; the passing of information relating to the notification system of missing persons to local gardaí, to be closely monitored by Garda inspectors; joint training of HSE staff and gardaí and GNIB staff in respect of children at high risk of going missing; and the sharing of photographic evidence between HSE and Garda.
These measures were implemented and existing processes improved throughout 2009. GNIB mounted several surveillance operations in collaboration with HSE staff and successfully tracked some children who went missing. There was a decline in the number of children presenting and remaining missing in the final quarter of 2009. This was the result of intensive inter-agency efforts throughout that year. No children were reported missing in October-November 2009. One was reported missing in December but was subsequently traced. The HSE has not been in a position to provide current information owing to ongoing industrial action.
The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and HSE management and staff have been closely involved in collaboration with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the development of the national action plan on anti-human trafficking and the Minister of State with responsibility for children is committed to ensuring we play an active part in combating trafficking as outlined in this plan.
The implementation plan for the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009 contains a commitment that unaccompanied minors will be accommodated in mainstream care instead of hostels by December of this year. This move from hostel accommodation to residential and foster care should assist in ensuring that fewer children go missing. The HSE has begun the process of phasing out the hostel arrangements. Three of the seven hostels closed in 2009 and those remaining will close this year. The Minister is satisfied that the efforts made by the HSE and GNIB to address concerns regarding unaccompanied minors have proved effective. Both agencies are committed to intensifying their joint work in this area with a view to preventing children from going missing and locating those who do. I advise anyone who has information about missing children to contact the Garda Síochána’s missing persons bureau or their local Garda station.
Senator Maria Corrigan: I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State with responsibility for children in respect of the developments that are taking place. While the issue of children in the care of the HSE who have gone missing is extremely important, the hotline number to which I refer does not relate solely to them and is part of the EU response to missing children.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I thank the Cathaoirleach for permitting me to raise this matter which relates to the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science allowing the authorities at Ashbourne community school to go to tender in respect of the construction of a new sports hall. As the Minister of State may be aware, Ashbourne is a growing town located just outside Dublin. Ashbourne community school was built in 1993 to accommodate 650 pupils. The first sod on the project was turned by my party’s former Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach. The school has flourished since 1993 and is now home to 1,000 students. In light of the expected population growth in the area, it is anticipated the number of children at the school may continue to rise.
There is no sports hall at Ashbourne community school and since it was opened, the students have been obliged to use a nearby sports hall which is leased from an organisation. Students and their parents would like this matter, which they asked me to raise, to be rectified. In recent years, those involved at the school have been trying to resolve this problem and have raised a great deal of money to move the process along. They have also developed a design, which has been approved by Meath County Council and which makes provision not just for a sports hall but also for the inclusion of a canteen.
At present, some children are obliged to eat their lunch in the corridors of the school because there is nowhere else for them to sit down. As already stated, the school population is expanding and the children to whom I refer need somewhere to sit and eat lunch and also to exercise. The county council has granted full planning permission and the necessary funding is, more or less, in place. The national lottery has agreed to provide €200,000, the Department, which owns the school, will provide up to €900,000, the county council is to give €150,000 and the parents have raised €200,000. This means approximately €1.5 million in funding is in place. All that is required is for the Minister to allow the authorities at the school to invite tenders in respect of the project.
There is unanimous agreement among local people that this sports hall is required. I pay tribute to the Minister of State’s party colleague, Deputy Wallace, who has been to the forefront in trying to progress the project in recent years. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet in respect of this matter.
There are three good reasons why this sports hall should be built. The first relates to the health of students. The last thing we want is a further increase in levels of obesity and a new sports hall will assist in countering this. The second is that tender prices are at a historic low and, as a result, the work can be done at a greatly reduced cost. The third is that local people who were previously employed in the construction industry and who are now out of work will have the opportunity to obtain jobs. Therefore, I encourage the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science to allow this project to move to the next stage, that is, inviting tenders for construction.
Deputy John Moloney: I apologise to Senator Hannigan that the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science cannot be present to take this matter. I am happy to do so on her behalf. I thank the Senator for raising the matter because it provides me with the opportunity to outline the current position in respect of an application for funding for a physical education, PE, hall at Ashbourne community school, County Meath.
Ashbourne community school is a co-educational post-primary school, with a current enrolment of 1,005 pupils. The school authority submitted an application to the Department for large-scale capital funding for a PE hall. As the Senator will be aware, all applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Science against published prioritisation criteria. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating. Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to projects.
There are four band ratings in all. Of these, band 1 is the highest and band 4 is the lowest. Band 1 projects include, for example, the provision of buildings where none currently exist but where there is a high demand for pupil places. A band 4 project makes provision in respect of desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities. Each band rating has a number of sub-categories which more specifically describe the type of works needed and the urgency attaching to them. The rating attaching to the PE hall project for Ashbourne is band 4.
Subsequent to its original application, the school authority submitted a proposal to the Department for a co-funded project to build a PE hall. The Department approved the scope of the project put forward in the proposal. It also approved funding towards the cost of providing the project on the basis the school had undertaken to meet the balance through various other funding sources, such as the national lottery, capital sports grants and local contributors.
Recently, the school revised the scope of the project and it is now seeking considerable additional funding to meet the costs of its revised plans and because funding from some of its other sources is no longer guaranteed. The revised application is currently being examined by the Department’s professional and technical staff and a report is expected from them shortly. Following an examination of this report by the Department’s planning and building unit, a decision will be conveyed to the school authority.
I again thank Senator Hannigan for raising this matter and for affording me the opportunity to outline the position in respect of it.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He indicated that a report is expected shortly. Is it expected in one, two or six months?
Deputy John Moloney: I understand it is expected within the next two months.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: Excellent.
Senator Mark Dearey: I thank the Cathaoirleach for affording me the opportunity to raise the issue of the recent elections in Sudan. Last January, on a bitterly cold day in Dundalk, I was proud to witness the departing troops on their final inspection by the then Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, before they took up their role in Chad, which primarily was to deal with the humanitarian crisis that has been caused in Darfur. It is with a heavy heart that I note the recent elections did nothing to improve the lot of the poor people of Darfur. The election in northern Sudan was overseen by up to 3,500 volunteers from the independent civil society network in Sudan, and a report on the conduct of the election was issued that I have to hand. The election was won by President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party. In 2009, Omar al-Bashir was indicted on five counts of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, ICC. While there always was going to be a question mark about the conduct of these elections, unfortunately people’s fears and those of the civil society network within Sudan have been realised.
The National Election Commission, NEC, was established under the comprehensive peace agreement that holds out hope for a stable and safe democratic society within Sudan in time but which is far from being delivered at present. However, the NEC, which oversaw the administration of the election, has been accused by the civil society network of a range of malpractices pertaining to how the census was conducted, how polling cards were distributed, how records were kept of voting on the day and how planned voter education programmes were not carried out. Moreover, recruitment to the NEC’s staff was neither neutral nor of an equal opportunity nature. The NEC failed to transport election materials or even to bring equipment to voting centres in many parts of the north. These and many other instances of malpractice and maladministration in the election process give rise to grave concerns about the legitimacy of the results, especially in the north. It may appear curious that Sudan, which is so vast and far away, should be of concern in Ireland. It is the largest country in Africa and is the same size as the whole of Western Europe. However, it is of concern to us in a real way because the lack of security and stability in Darfur affects Chad where Irish peacekeepers and peace enforcers have been working hard to ensure the safety of the people of Darfur as they flee from the war President al-Bashir initiated. Incidentally, he has described it as being an ordinary resource war, which is an absolutely appalling way to view it.
I hope for a strong response from the Minister of State on Ireland’s view of those elections and what can be done in their wake to ensure there can be a return to an agenda that will begin to establish a proper democracy in Sudan and, most critically, ensure the safety of the people of Darfur. I understand a referendum is due next year in which it is highly likely that southern Sudan will opt for self-determination. The civil society network in Sudan has stated that following this referendum on self-determination, a reorganisation of real elections should take place as soon as possible for the achievement of peace and security in Darfur. I hope the Minister of State can support this call for a reorganisation of real elections following the referendum in southern Sudan.
Deputy John Moloney: I advise Senator Dearey that I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs who, unfortunately, cannot be present.
Presidential, national and local elections were held in Sudan from 11 to 15 April this year. These were the fifth competitive multi-party elections since Sudanese independence in 1956 and the first to be held in 24 years. The elections, which had been delayed since July 2009, were mandated by the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement that brought to an end to years of civil war between north and south Sudan. They were rightly perceived as representing a vital step in the development of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Sudan. The elections were observed by a total of 17,000 national observers and 700 international observers. Of these, the European Union’s electoral observation mission was by far the largest. It included two long-term and two short-term observers from Ireland.
In the run-up to the polling days, it was clear that there were significant challenges to the proper conduct and observation of the elections and security remained a major concern throughout that time. The European Union mission suffered a number of security threats and in the end pulled out of Darfur after at least two death threats to observers. Furthermore, a number of candidates in northern constituencies decided to withdraw from the elections in protest against alleged irregularities and fraud on the part of the ruling party. These included Yasser Arman, representing the former rebel southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and Sadiq al-Mahdi of the former ruling Umma Party. The non-participation by such candidates raises questions over the democratic legitimacy of the final results. Notwithstanding these concerns, the fact that ultimately the elections were conducted in a relatively peaceful and orderly manner is to be welcomed. The people of Sudan are to be commended on their engagement in a complex and lengthy polling process and their increased civic participation in recent months. It also is to be hoped this will provide further impetus to securing full implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement and lasting peace in Sudan.
This week, the Foreign Affairs Council discussed the elections in Sudan. At the same time, the Sudanese National Election Commission declared the final results, which returned the incumbent President Omar al-Bashir with 68% of the votes counted and re-elected former rebel leader Salva Kiir as president of the semi-autonomous south, with 93% of the southern vote. The European Union, while welcoming the relatively peaceful conduct of the elections, also noted with concern the reports of international observers highlighting the many deficiencies in the electoral process and called on the Sudanese authorities to address the shortcomings in time to prepare for future voting processes. Together with its partners in the European Union, the Government believes that the elections, including the undoubted flaws which observers have noted, must be seen in the overall context of securing peace and stability in Sudan as a whole and in the region. Full implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement is a fundamental part of this process.
In particular, the referendum on southern self-determination scheduled for 2011 is of great significance for the country and the wider region. In that context, Ireland agrees that greater consideration must be given towards potential post-2011 scenarios, including a possible international presence. Ireland urges all stakeholders to advance preparations for the referendum, as well as for the necessary arrangements for the time thereafter. It continues to support a co-ordinated approach by the key international and regional partners, including the United Nations, the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development and the African Union’s high level implementation panel led by former South African President, Thabo Mbeki.
The continuing conflict in Darfur and the associated tensions with the international community over the International Criminal Court arrest warrant against President al-Bashir also impinge on the north-south peace process. In this regard, Ireland recognises the progress achieved by the Doha peace talks in advance of the elections under the leadership of the African Union-United Nations chief mediator. Ireland urges all parties involved to redouble their efforts to secure an inclusive and comprehensive peace agreement that addresses the root causes of the conflict in Darfur. At the same time, the Government recalls that impunity for the most serious crimes under international law can never be accepted. With its partners in the European Union, Ireland continues to support the International Criminal Court and calls upon the Government of Sudan to co-operate fully with the ICC in accordance with its obligations under international law. For its part, Ireland will continue its engagement in Sudan, including through development assistance targets for the benefit of the Sudanese population. Since 2007, Ireland has provided more than €45 million in funding to Sudan. These funds have been used to provide immediate humanitarian assistance in crisis areas and to establish longer-term programmes in primary health care, basic education, urban, community and rural development, human rights, the rights of the disabled and capacity building.
Ireland and the European Union are strongly committed to supporting the development of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Sudan. The Government believes that only through an agreed approach, which is inclusive of all Sudanese, can these objectives be met. I am confident the European Union will remain engaged during this pivotal year for Sudan.
Senator Mark Dearey: I thank the Minister of State for that detailed response, some of which alludes to what I and my party would like to see happen post the referendum in southern Sudan next year, which is the development of new scenarios to help stabilise the Darfur region in particular and develop democracy in the country. This may sound cynical but I urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs to use the leverage our €45 million funding provides us with to make known our grave concerns about the running of these elections. I recognise there is a delicate balance to be struck in terms of keeping some semblance of order within the country but, as the Minster of State said, the non-participation of opposition candidates raises serious questions over the democratic legitimacy of the final results. I welcome that frank acknowledgement, given that we cannot, as the Minister of State also said, deal with any impunity with the most serious crimes that could be envisaged. Given the Minister of State also acknowledged that, it is extremely important we continue to press for fresh elections. It is 24 years since the last multi-party elections. Let it not be another 24 years before there are fresh elections, rather let them be held within the next year. I urge the Minster of State to convey to the Minister for Foreign Affairs that whatever can be done should be done to bring such elections to bear to bed down democracy and secure a future for the people of Darfur and, at a self-interested level, to make the region safer for our own participation.
The Seanad adjourned at 3.05 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 May 2010.