Dáil Éireann - Volume 586 - 26 May, 2004

Leaders’ Questions.

  Mr. Kenny:So far this year 149 people have been killed tragically on the roads compared to 133 in the same period last year. In April of this year 30 people were killed, that is 30% up on April of last year. All of these are tragic cases. Hundreds of people have been seriously injured. It is obvious that the positive effects of the penalty points system are wearing off. Many reckless drivers are of the opinion they can drive at speed without fear of getting caught.

In a recent District Court case in Cork a speeding conviction was overturned on the basis that the defendant was entitled to a paper print-out of the speeding offences taken by the radar gun. There is real evidence that up to 60,000 convicted by this method and others will appeal their cases on the same basis. This matter should be addressed as one of urgency by the Government. The Taoiseach and the Government have a duty to enact emergency legislation to close off this loophole. We are nine days from the June bank holiday weekend which, traditionally, unfortunately, and tragically, has often brought carnage to our roads.

Earlier this year the Government introduced emergency legislation to deal with the immigration issue and electronic voting and later today it will introduce emergency legislation to deal with issues of compellability in the Judge Curtin case. The Government should show the same sense of urgency by closing off this loophole as there should be certainty in this matter, otherwise, unwarranted and unwanted tragic deaths may occur. We are talking about life and death issues. Is it the Government’s intention to introduce emergency legislation to close off this loophole, which this side of the House would support, or to seek a declaration from the High Court that paper evidence is not needed in cases where drivers are caught by radar guns for speeding offences?

  The Taoiseach:On the first point raised by Deputy Kenny, we will continue to provide, improve and upgrade our road structures and to [566] enforce the existing legislation through the powers of the Garda. Obviously too many people are being killed and injured on our roads and, therefore, we have to continue to drive that forward.

On the second point, the Department of Transport has been examining the case at the District Court in Cork. It dismissed a speeding offence detected by a Garda using a hand-held speed detection unit on the basis that no record was produced of that unit and furnished to the accused person before the commencement of the trial for the offence. The issue arises from the District Court’s interpretation of section 21 of the Road Traffic Act 2003. Section 21 provides that the onus of establishing prime facie proof of a constituent of a range of road traffic offences, including speeding, which is the issue highlighted by Deputy Kenny, may be discharged by tendering evidence of measurements or other indications that were given by electronic or other apparatus, including a camera, containing a record produced by that apparatus. It further provides that in proceedings for an offence, a record or a copy of the record shall be prime facie evidence of the measurements. A radar speed detection gun produces a visual record of the speed of the vehicle that exceeds a speed limit. The Garda who detects a speeding offence using a radar gun intercepts the motorist on the spot and issues a fixed charge notice on which he records particulars of the speed measurement. There are other types of offences as well.

The Department of Transport has asked the Attorney General to examine the issues raised about the use of radar guns with a view to identifying whether a change to the Act is required. We expect to have that advice shortly. If an amendment to the Road Traffic Act is required the Government is likely to include it in the Road Traffic Bill which deals with many related Acts and closes off loopholes on many other issues. That scheme has been approved by the Government since the end of April. That amendment will be brought forward with that Bill as soon as we have the Attorney General’s advice. We appreciate the Deputy’s co-operation in passing that legislation.

  Mr. Kenny:That puts this matter into limbo. From the driver’s point of view — and the Taoiseach does not have to drive any more — the driver will ask whether he is likely to be caught if he breaks the speed limit and if caught whether he is likely to be convicted. I have paid a fine or two in the past having been caught by the radar gun. About 95% of all penalty points relate to speeding and in the case of the 60,000 drivers who have been caught for speeding, the majority of those offences where caught by use of the radar gun.

The Government should act immediately and provide certainty in legislation. Given that a District Court has determined, in the particular case where the driver involved was travelling at [567] 80 mph in a 60 mph zone, that paper evidence was required, the Government should act immediately by introducing emergency legislation to close off this loophole. To wait for advice from the Attorney General to include it in an amended transport Bill will unfortunately probably mean that some persons will die as a result of speeding incidents that could have been prevented if certainty was brought into the law now. If emergency legislation is introduced to close off this loophole, this side of the House will support it. I urge the Taoiseach to work on that forthwith.

  The Taoiseach:I have no argument with what the Deputy states. What is involved is a process. We have in preparation a very good Bill on road traffic, that not only takes account of this but several other recent judgments and will close off loopholes. Additional powers and new procedures are provided under the Bill which will target speeding and other traffic offences. It would be advantageous to have the Bill in its entirety through the Oireachtas. However, if the Attorney General believes it will take too long because there are too many heads in the Bill, and a major case is at stake, it would be advisable to do as the Deputy suggests and amend the legislation. If we were to put at risk many of the cases before the courts, we would go down the route suggested by the Deputy.

Let us wait and see the advice provided by the Attorney General. If he believes we should move now because we are putting too many cases at risk, we will bring in a one section amendment to deal with it. If not, it will be included in the road traffic Bill and I will report back to the Deputy as soon as the Attorney General advises me.

  Mr. Rabbitte:Last July the Minister for Transport stated he would bring legislation before the House to break up Aer Rianta. He promises it several times since and he did not do it. On 5 November 2003, I made public the contents of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which showed that Shannon Airport would not be viable and that Cork Airport would be a loss maker. Since then three consultancies were commissioned. Their reports were before Cabinet yesterday and the Minister led an aborted attempt to put the Bill through Cabinet yesterday. He engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers with a very limited mandate of implementing his decision but they found, for example, that the reduction in the group cash flow amounts to €50 million, including an equity requirement for Shannon Airport of €30 million. In other words, €30 million would have to go into Shannon to make it stand alone. They said that charges at Dublin Airport would have to go up from €2.50 to €4 per passenger. The consultancies that were asked to comment on the PricewaterhouseCoopers report have issued a savage indictment of the daft plans of the Minister, Deputy Brennan:

[568] The PWC Working Papers are not, as might have been expected, a report . . . . . . . . . . . . No conclusions has been furnished in the Working Papers and no due diligence or audit has been undertaken by PWC in presenting these papers.

They are not intended to present a business case . . . . . . .

The PWC Working Papers state that it is not intended to express any opinion as to the financial viability of an independent Cork or Shannon Airport.

. . . . . the PWC Working Papers acknowledge that they do not take into account the many potentially complex operational issues of a separation that need to be addressed.

Neither do the Working Papers constitute a ‘business plan’ for the Group

. . . . . assumptions have been made which would require changes in the legal and regulatory environment.

In short, a Cheann Comhairle, no business case has been made out, higher charges will result and no decision has been made on the provision of additional terminal capacity at Dublin Airport, jobs will be lost. Shannon Airport will be non-viable and Cork Airport will be a loss maker and now the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, proposes to transfer Shannon Free Zone status to the airport authority to bring in a revenue stream of €6 million per annum to cross-subsidise the disastrous configuration that the Minister for Transport is pushing ahead, for no other than blatant ideological reasons and to assist certain people in the aviation industry.

  The Taoiseach:Government policy is to try to make all the airports viable so that we increase capacity, create more jobs and grow the market. There are issues as to how we can do that at Cork and Shannon airports. We know that passenger numbers at Shannon Airport must increase to 2 million to make it viable. Shannon Airport has plenty of capacity and good facilities and if we succeed in dealing with the issues in Shannon we can turn it into an excellent airport.

There are proposals for Dublin Airport from Aer Rianta, Aer Lingus and private operators. Many of the consultancy reports suggest that we are under utilising Dublin Airport. Deputy Kenny raised a proposal which is supported by many of the tourism interests which suggested that we can increase passengers numbers by several million and create 5 million more jobs. We have been looking at proposals in that light during the past ten months. Last year the Government decided to establish three State airports at Dublin, Shannon and Cork as fully independent and autonomous authorities under State ownership so that we can drive competition [569] to bring more people in. It will create 5,000 more jobs.

I remember when I brought in the restructuring plan for Aer Lingus 11 years ago; the second plan was brought in recently. Then we were told we were daft as one would never see 10 million passengers go through Dublin Airport. Now the numbers are heading towards 20 million passengers. Do we sit round and do nothing or do we do something? The reality is that Aer Rianta is not in a healthy financial position.

  Ms O’Sullivan:It is.

  The Taoiseach:We have just finished very successfully the major restructuring of Aer Lingus to put it into a healthy position. We must conclude our work. We have asked the unions to give their view. I have waited since last October so that unions, management and the various groups can come up with alternatives. We have had plenty of business plans and suggestions——

  Ms O’Sullivan:There is no business plan.

  The Taoiseach:—— but at the end of the day, it is Government policy to have viable airports, that can handle the maximum numbers and with quick turn around rates, so that travel is convenient.

It is not ideological. The fact that somebody can travel cheaply and safely from our airports is not ideological.

  Ms Lynch:The Taoiseach does not live in Cork.

  Mr. Rabbitte:How can the Taoiseach stand up and say there are more jobs and more people and that he has seen plenty of business plans, when the consultants commissioned by the Government are advising it that there is no business plan? They have made patently clear that there is no business plan; there is an arithmetic check based on data extracted from the company figures and they all show that Shannon Airport as a stand alone airport is not viable and that Cork Airport will require subsidy.

The Tánaiste is now proposing that Shannon Free Zone be incorporated so as to provide a revenue stream. Ten chambers of commerce have described the Tánaiste’s proposal as “both short-sighted and a totally inappropriate solution that will damage both organisations to the detriment of the economy of this region”. They were supporting the idea of a stand alone airport at Shannon, but when they examined the economics, just as I said last July and last November when the Minister, Deputy Brennan, tried to hide the PWC report, all of the work that has been done shows that there is no business case made out for this, that they are breaking up an Irish-based multinational that has an international reputation, damaging its purchasing capacity, creating three fledgling organisations, one of which at Shannon must invest €30 million [570] for a start, not to make it viable but to enable it to stand alone. It then will not be viable on an operational basis.

The Government is pressing ahead and rhyming off figures. If 5 million jobs will be created from this, the Tánaiste must be giving out more work permits, but then the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, will deport them anyway.

  Ms Harney:The Deputy said the same when we were deregulating the aviation industry.

  An Ceann Comhairle:The Taoiseach, without interruption.

  Mr. McGinley:That is a reprimand.

  The Taoiseach:The purpose of the reform is to grow the markets. Regardless of what way one deals with the airports, they are still under State ownership. That is not an issue.

  Mr. Quinn:It will be a loss-making State ownership.

  The Taoiseach:They are not in a healthy position.

  Mr. Rabbitte:They will become worse and then they will be sold off for €5.

  An Ceann Comhairle:I ask Deputy Rabbitte to allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

  The Taoiseach:Deputy Rabbitte is well informed of the board papers.

  Mr. Rabbitte:I am well informed, which is more than one could say about the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan.

  An Ceann Comhairle:I ask Deputy Rabbitte to allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

  The Taoiseach:Since the Deputy is well informed, he should not use selective leaks. He will also know from the papers he was given by some board member that the company is not in a healthy position. He will know that and will know of its business plan. It has a problem.

  Mr. Rabbitte:The Taoiseach will make it much worse.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Deputy Rabbitte already went over time with his question. He is not entitled to use the Taoiseach’s time as well as his own. I ask him to allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

  Mr. Rabbitte:The Taoiseach is inviting interruption.

[571]   The Taoiseach:I am answering the points raised by the Deputy, a Cheann Comhairle.

The Government is endeavouring to ensure that Aer Rianta, in its new structure, is financially viable and that it has the ability and the capacity to grow the airports——

  Mr. Rabbitte:Says who?

  The Taoiseach:——to bring in more customers and to provide better services and better airports. We have plenty of analyses to show this. We are in discussions with the trade union movement, which we will honour and fulfil. We are waiting for the unions’ full assessment. The Government has also examined all the other assessments. We have all been involved in this discussion. We will bring this to fruition. We heard the same arguments a few years ago about how we would damage and wreck Aer Lingus, but now we see its success.

  Mr. Rabbitte:The Minister for Finance holds the same view as I do on this and I hope he blocks it because it is a scandalous waste of State assets.

  Mr. J. Higgins:Is it the reality that any credibility the case for the break-up of Aer Rianta might have had is lying in tatters? It is not members of the Opposition who are faulting this plan. Major consultants, Mazars, not bastions of revolutionary thought I would have imagined, in examining the PricewaterhouseCoopers working documents have said they are taken aback that the Government is pressing ahead at this stage and with the speed encompassed, that they can provide no comfort to the 3,400 employees of Aer Rianta, that no due diligence or audit has been carried out on the plan to break up Aer Rianta, that the PricewaterhouseCoopers report was not intended as a business plan — Deputy Rabbitte has gone through some of the points already — and that there is no opinion on the financial viability of a future Aer Rianta broken up in this way.

Last year Aer Rianta turned in a profit of €70 million and it has a projected profit of €40 million this year as a result of the commitment of the workers. The only conclusion I can draw is that the only thing driving this forward, since there is no shred of credibility from any commercial point of view, is the obsession of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan. I took the trouble of looking up the dictionary and found that the word “obsession” means a compulsive, often unreasonable, idea or emotion, driven in this case by the right-wing ideology and the undoubted wish of the Minister to facilitate the privatisation of this company further down the road.

Does the Taoiseach agree that the future of Aer Rianta is a crucial issue not only for the thousands of workers in the company, but for the tens of thousands of workers in the communities which depend on our airports? Does he agree, therefore, that it should be a major subject of [572] debate as we approach the European Parliament elections since the European Commission is partly responsible for the mania for privatisation? Will he call on his European Parliament candidates in Dublin, in particular, to debate with us the future of Aer Rianta since one of the Dublin European Parliament candidates, who he recently promoted to Lord Mayor, seems to have wrapped his chain of office around his vocal cords? On one media outlet recently, he managed what seemed like some strangled mutterings which would even make the Taoiseach’s answers seem like pristine clarity. Could we have clarity on the future of Aer Rianta and its workers?

  Ms Harney:We will miss the Deputy when he goes to Europe.

  The Taoiseach:To show that I am always generous, I hope Deputy Joe Higgins, with his highly financed campaign, does well in his quest for election to the European Parliament. I wish him well and I might even give him a transfer down the line to help him on his way.

(Interruptions).

  The Taoiseach:The Deputy made the point that the issue of trying to restructure or make any changes to Aer Rianta is about privatisation. The Deputy will remember that only a few years ago, that was the popular option for trying to resolve some of the difficulties in respect of growth. When it was looking to spend another €120 million in Cork Airport and to continue to expand Dublin Airport by building another runway and a new low-cost terminal there, it was considered that the best way to do this was through an employee share ownership plan and privatisation. That was strongly supported by elements of the workers. The Government decided not to do that, so the basis of the Deputy’s argument is, unfortunately, incorrect. The Government decided not to go down that road and to retain Aer Rianta in State ownership. The proposals we examined last year to break up the three State airports were to the effect that they would be fully independent, autonomous authorities but under State ownership.

  Ms Shortall:And loss-making.

  The Taoiseach:As I said at the outset, we are endeavouring to grow the airports and to look for open markets. These policies are working. This year, 19 new routes have been opened. Some €120 million will be spent in Cork Airport and there is work to be done in Shannon Airport. The issue of the open skies is looming in the coming years. We must look to the future and make the decisions now to develop Aer Rianta. We are doing that in conjunction with the various people who have put forward their views, including the workers. We have said we will negotiate these issues. We said we would look at the terms and that there would be no diminution in the tenure [573] or terms and conditions of employment of Aer Rianta workers arising from this decision. We have already given those commitments.

This is about the future and creating a State company using mechanisms we will bring forward in legislation — we have already published our views — which will grow the airports to enable it to deal with 20 million passengers, make it viable and deal with the issue of regional airports. That is the issue of transport for the future.

  Ms Shortall:That is complete rubbish.

  The Taoiseach:We cannot sit around and do nothing.

  Mr. J. Higgins:In passing, I ask the Taoiseach to notify the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that the Socialist Party European Parliament election posters are being reused and recycled for this election in contrast to his own obviously big business-funded campaign.

  An Ceann Comhairle:The Deputy can ask only one question on a topical issue.

  Mr. J. Higgins:The colour dripping from the Fianna Fáil posters, nevertheless, is in stark contrast to some of its right-wing policies in regard to Aer Rianta, in particular. What is the timetable for legislation? Has it been brought before the Cabinet? If not, when will it be? Will the Taoiseach bring forward legislation to attempt to break up Aer Rianta before the summer recess? What about the talks chaired by Mr. Pomphrett which have been adjourned since last January? Can the Taoiseach seriously proceed to bring forward legislation when the consultation with the workforce and its unions have not even been concluded by a long shot? Does he agree that to proceed in the present manner would be a stab in the back not only for the workers, but even for the relatively conservative trade union leadership which has been in partnership with Government for the past 14 years? This is the thanks it gets.

11 o’clock

Would the Taoiseach not concede that the future for Aer Rianta would be to bring the workers in the company, the surrounding communities and the dependent enterprises together to the heart of the management of the company to charter a secure way forward rather than preparing a break-up, as a result of which no one knows what will happen except that we can foresee disaster and that the Taoiseach will eventually hand it over to his big business friends?

  The Taoiseach:It will remain in State ownership. If State ownership is our big business friend, I am not sure what the issue is. The Minister has repeatedly stated publicly that there will be no diminution in the tenure or terms and [574] conditions of employment of Aer Rianta workers arising from the decisions on which he is working.

The Minister has also undertaken, subject to agreeing suitable arrangements, to deal with commercially sensitive material, to share the key financial information that he has on the State airports with the unions and the financial advisers in the context of the current engagement being facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission. That continues too. The Minister also stated that he was committed to the ongoing process of engagement with the unions, and workers’ representatives are already on the board, so Deputy Higgins’s point is once again wrong. He was obviously badly informed on this issue, unlike Deputy Rabbitte, who was well informed of what is happening on the board, which the workers are on.

  Mr. J. Higgins:What is the timescale?

  The Taoiseach:We await the unions’ response. We will continue with the negotiations that have been ongoing since last July and we hope to bring those to fruition as soon as possible, after which we can introduce the Bill.

  Mr. J. Higgins:Will that be before the summer?