Seanad Éireann - Volume 163 - 23 June, 2000

Order of Business.

Mr. Cassidy: Today's Order of Business is Nos. 2 and 3: No. 2, statements on inflation, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and those of other Senators are not to exceed ten minutes, and the statements to conclude not later than 1 p.m.; No. 3, statements on Sierra Leone, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes.

Mr. Manning: I am happy with the Order of Business, but perhaps the Leader might allow second speakers 15 minutes on the inflation debate. It is unfair to confine them to ten. I am sure there will be time to include everyone. I thank the Leader for making possible the debate on Sierra Leone. He was asked for it at short notice and I am grateful to him for allowing it.

I note that No. 5 on the Order Paper concerning the Ombudsman is to be taken without debate next week. I accept that, but perhaps the Leader would allow time in the next session for a full debate on the Ombudsman. Not alone has the Ombudsman been one of the great success stories of public administration over the past decade or so, his office has also assumed a huge range of new responsibilities. It is important that we debate this and perhaps we could have that debate in the next session.

I wish to raise an issue concerning Eircom, not its disastrous showing on the stock market, which is a different story and which was predicted by few, including many of our leading financial commentators, but the continuing scandal of the unavailability of and long waiting list for telephones in many parts of the country. We were assured that, when Eircom was privatised, we would see a new, lean, hungry and customer-friendly organisation. I have reports that busi[1530] nesses are waiting up to six months to get telephones. The idea of getting a telephone on demand is still a dream. I wish to focus on this issue and to put pressure on Eircom to live up to the promises we were told would be delivered when it was privatised.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: My distinguished colleagues at the back have all signalled and I will call them in alphabetical order.

Dr. Henry: A very wise decision. The Order of Business is agreeable to me. Will the Leader arrange a debate as soon as the next session commences on the virtually total absence of a psychiatric service in our prisons? I have raised this matter on several occasions, including on Adjournment debates. Another suicide has taken place in the prison system of someone who obviously should have been in a psychiatric hospital.

I am not asking the Leader to do anything about the mental health Bill because I have information that nothing is to be done about it until the end of the year – about the same time it was introduced in this House last year – following a debate on the report of the inspector of mental hospitals, Fine Gael having kindly given me time to raise the issue once again. I know votes are not secured by raising the issues of mental treatment or psychiatric services in prisons but to show that we are a humane and compassionate society we should urge the Minister to take notice of this issue. Since it has been going on for 20 years I cannot expect a rush of blood to anybody's head about it now. We were promised a mental health Bill as a matter of urgency three years ago. I should have asked what was meant by urgency.

I would be grateful if this topic could be the first to be debated in the next session. Will the Leader do everything he can in the interim to encourage the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to address these serious issues, which should really come under the aegis of the Minister for Health and Children? The only thing that will happen in the meantime is more suicides in the prison system.

Mr. Costello: I agree entirely with Senator Henry. I also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the prison system. Senator Henry is focusing on the psychiatric service and the need for the new mental health Bill. The death of a person in prison who was serving only a six month sentence is another tragedy. Psychiatric services are deficient. On the one hand the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is trumpeting that crime statistics have come down during his period in office, yet the prison population is rocketing. [1531] The Minister is putting far more people into prisons yet there are no services there.

It is time to examine what is happening in our prisons, particularly with regard to the services being provided for people with difficulties, whether that person is exceedingly depressed or has a more fundamental mental problem. The absence of a proper drug treatment scheme should also be examined.

I wish to raise the fact that an elderly person spent 14 hours waiting for treatment after a serious accident and the recommendations made by the coroner on what should happen in casualty departments. This follows the matter raised by Senator Henry two weeks ago on the quality of the medical services. The situation is getting worse despite the promises that funding and resources would be put into the medical services. Waiting time at casualty seems to have got worse.

Dr. Henry: It will get worse from 1 July.

Mr. Costello: Yes, it will. It is atrocious. I am not saying that the person died as a result of lack of care.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Do you have a question for the Leader, Senator Costello?

Mr. Costello: Will the Leader allow time for a full discussion on the medical services and waiting lists?

Mr. Bohan: Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to instruct Dublin Corporation to withdraw its threat to increase parking fees by 50%? It is seeking to charge £1.50 per hour instead of £1 per hour, which is bad enough. To add insult to injury, it is suggesting that people who can afford to pay £1,200 can park anywhere they like for as long as they like. That is fine for big companies and corporations who can write off such an expense, but there are very few people who can afford to pay that amount of money for parking facilities. Parking one's car in Dublin is no longer a luxury. The only place one can park is on public streets.

Mr. J. Doyle: That day is over.

Mr. Bohan: A charge of £1 per hour is sufficient. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to instruct Dublin Corporation to withdraw this threat?

Mr. Norris: Will the Leader convey to the Minister for Foreign Affairs our concern at the execution of a man in Huntsville, Texas? Had Senators not been called alphabetically, I have no [1532] doubt Senator Ross would have raised this matter because he pioneered the whole question of the death penalty in this House. This is a particularly unpleasant situation because it happens in the run-up to an American election, as usual. Governor Bush is a candidate for the American presidential election and this amounts to no more than a convenient little spot of murder to advance the presidential ambitions of a particular candidate. It is appalling and it happens across all political parties. Mr. Clinton was involved in such activities also. It is appalling to think that people are being put to death to advance a political campaign.

Will the Leader inform the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that there is growing concern about our deportation policy? The matter was discussed in the House yesterday. I read figures into the record yesterday which indicate that 2,000 people in Europe had died in the past couple of years either by police action or suicide. Immediately after that I received a telephone call from a distressed person who had briefed me on the subject to say that a young Nigerian woman living in Dublin who had been served with deportation papers had hung herself. That happened as we were debating this issue. We should take such matters seriously.

Mr. Gibbons: Will the Leader allow time early in the next session for a debate on the fluoridation of water? I realise we had a debate on water quality earlier this week, but that centred more on local government responsibility in this area. We should ask the Minister for Health and Children, whom I compliment on appointing a group to investigate this issue, to come to the House to discuss the matter. There is a great deal of argument about the fluoridation of water. We need to elucidate the facts so we can make a decision as to what we should do. Will the Leader request the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House so that we can have a meaningful debate on this issue?

Another issue worthy of consideration at the earliest possible convenience is insurance for young people. This has been a hot potato for many years and is something we need to grasp. The cost of insurance for young people is so exorbitant that many of them are driving without insurance. We need to devise a way for them to get insurance and to take a more responsible attitude to driving. I ask for a debate on this matter.

Mr. Quinn: I congratulate the Chair on calling Independent Senators alphabetically. Whether one goes by Christian name or surname, that puts Senator Ross at the end.

[1533] Mr. Norris: The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Mr. Quinn: I add my voice to those of Senators Costello and Henry regarding health issues, specifically the case of a dying woman who needed four ambulances in ten hours to get to a hospital in the mid-west. The Minister told us last week that we had asked him to delegate responsibility to the regions and that this was not, therefore, his responsibility. Will the Leader ensure the Minister does something about the health services in the next few months? Once the Houses go into recess the atmosphere is relaxed until we return and there is a danger we may not come back on time if the building is not ready. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to make this period a time of action rather than a time of talk.

I remind the House that today in Benin an agreement is to be signed to replace the old Lomé agreement between 77 countries from the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific and the European Union, but there is a threat to this development aid coming from Britain. Ms Clare Short, the British International Development Secretary, has written an article calling for Britain to withdraw from this agreement and to find another way of helping the Third World. She may have the best reasons in the world, but she is very critical of what the EU is doing. That is an area on which the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development should keep an eye.

I congratulate the Leader who was responsible for the e-commerce Bill as I gather it will get through the Houses. I had sought it in the past few weeks and was doubtful if it would be introduced. I know it is not good manners to wish that a Member never comes back to the House, but one Member may never come back depending on a vote today. I wish Senator Tom Hayes every success and I know all other Senators will offer him the same good wishes – that we never see him in the Seanad again.

Mr. Finneran: The Senator is not up to date.

Ms Leonard: I ask the Leader to bring the provision of public playgrounds for children to the attention of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. It may not be seen as a matter of national importance, but it is very important for children to be able to play. Some counties with large populations do not provide public playground facilities and a number of local authorities did not even reply to a recent survey on this matter, which is not a good sign. It is not a matter that will be on the agenda of every local authority – it has not been to date – but there should be a directive from the Minister to local [1534] authorities instructing them to provide facilities for children as part of their development plans. Everyone needs a good start in life and playing is the first language children use. We should address this matter.

Mr. Ross: I have nothing to say on the Chair's decision to call people in alphabetical order. I support Senator Norris's comments on the execution of a man last night in Texas. This House took the initiative in this issue by unanimously supporting the abolition of capital punishment in Ireland many years ago. This is a disgusting state crime perpetrated against a member of the community. We do not, as a nation, approve of or carry out executions, but for some extraordinary reason when it happens in America we are mute. When barbaric actions of this sort happened in Iran, Iraq and South Africa, Ireland was very happy to condemn them as there was no economic interest involved, but when it happens in America we are silent.

A message should go out from this House today that we do not believe it is appropriate that there should be judicial executions and that the final decision should be taken by someone who is running for president and will obviously take that decision in a political context. It is quite unacceptable that human lives should be treated in this fashion and should be subject to political decisions. That, indeed, is what has happened. I suggest that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Minister for Foreign Affairs should send a clear message from this House that we find this sort of activity disgusting.

Mr. Norris: Hear, hear.

Mr. Ross: It made me feel somewhat sick this morning to get this invitation from the American Embassy to celebrate 224 years of American independence when they are popping people in their country. I presume everybody else in this House got a similar invitation to bring a guest along. If I could make a mischievous suggestion, maybe they could bring along a member of Amnesty International.

Mr. Norris: What a good idea.

Mr. Ross: If 60 of us did that, it might send a message to America that we find the decision to convict on the basis of only one witness and a decision taken in a political context quite revolting and that we, as a nation, disapprove of it.

Mr. Finneran: The Senator thinks all the Independent Senators are equal but, unfortunately, that is not the mutual position among them.

I join in the call for a debate on the Ombudsman. It is of vital importance that we debate this [1535] fine report, which has proved successful in that different Governments have made and implemented decisions based on it. That the finger has been pointed at many local authorities is something which should be debated because, after all, we are the representatives of the elected members of local authorities. If any group has emerged badly from the report, it is local authorities.

I have no problem with a debate on health. Psychiatric services should be available in prisons and maybe they should be enhanced. To some extent, we created this problem in that we dismantled the psychiatric services by depending on a document – Planning for the Future. Part of that dealt with community services, but we did not implement that. It is unfortunate that, to some extent, people are ending up in prison who should possibly be dealt with by the psychiatric services.

I would welcome a debate on health because this Government has spent more money on health than any other Government in the history of the State. A huge investment is provided for in the national development plan. It is not as a result of lack of money that there is a shortage of services this summer – in fact, the wards will be open this summer – it is a question of personnel. That is an indication of the success of the Minister in regard to the health services.

I call for a debate on bank charges. We have raised this issue in the past but it appears our calls are falling on deaf ears. Up to 24% interest is being charged on credit cards and up to 14% on overdrafts. A good face is being put on mortgages and other special situations. By and large, people are being fleeced.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The debate on inflation will start shortly.

Mr. Finneran: We should have a debate on that issue. I call on the financial institutions to address this matter.

Mr. Burke: I support Senator Quinn's call for a debate on the hospital and health services. It is unbelievable to read in today's newspapers that two people died trying to access accident and emergency services. It is a very sad state of affairs that a person was driven around the mid-west for ten hours trying to gain entry to a hospital. I support Senator Quinn's call for a debate with the Minister for Health and Children on the health services because action will have to be taken immediately.

Mr. Glynn: I support the call for the provision of psychiatric services in prisons. I made such a [1536] request in 1982 to the then Governor and the visiting committee of Mountjoy Prison when I was a member of that committee. I also asked for alcohol therapists as many people end up in prison due to a problem with alcohol or drugs.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Does the Senator have a question for the Leader?

Mr. Glynn: Yes, and I am coming to it. Psychiatric services have been used or abused by people accused of serious crimes who have sought to find an easy way out of their difficulties. I would welcome a debate on this issue. I agree with Senator Finneran's comments on the input of the Government and the Minister into the health services. This reflects the great success we are enjoying.

This is the middle of the tourism season and by the time the House resumes—

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The House is not taking statements on tourism this morning.

Mr. Glynn: I am calling for a debate on the subject. I defer to your rulings, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, but I trust you will allow me make a request like other Senators. This is the middle of the tourism season and by the time the House resumes after the summer recess the holiday season will be over for most people. However, many people, including myself, have had bad experiences in paying for holidays. What EU rules or regulations are available to protect people who pay good money but enjoy holidays from hell?

I support Senator Leonard's call for a debate on the provision of play areas. I would also ask for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come into the House to discuss the issue of difficult tenants. There is a difficulty—

Mr. Manning: This is like “Marian Finucane” or “Liveline”.

Mr. Norris: Or “The Simpsons”.

Mr. J. Doyle: On a point of order, the House has requested a debate on inflation for a long time. That debate will take place this morning and conclude at 1 p.m. Many Members wish to contribute to that debate and I urge the Chair to ask Members to curtail their questions to allow time for that urgent debate.

Mr. Glynn: Who is wasting time now? I am calling for the Minister to come into the House for a debate on difficult tenants. Local authorities are finding it difficult—

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator has asked for a debate.

[1537] Mr. Glynn: Yes, but I must give the reason why. People on housing estates complain they are intimidated from going to court and their lives are made a misery. I am sorry these important requests offend Opposition Members but I will make them.

Mr. Glennon: I support Senator Bohan's request for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to intervene with Dublin Corporation on the increase in car parking charges. It is ironic that on the day the House holds the long awaited debate on inflation we are talking about a potential 50% increase in the cost of what is a basic necessity for a significant number of people.

I also support Senator Bohan's comments on the proposed £1,200 annual bulk fee or corporate rate, whatever the corporation wishes to call it. That works out at less than £5 per day whereas the cost for ordinary members of the public is £18 per day. That is a ridiculous gulf and begs the question as the whether the corporation also intends to introduce bulk rates for declamping and what kind of margins will exist.

Before any changes to car parking fees are suggested or discussed, the machines used to collect those fees should be adjusted to accept legal tender, particularly the £1 coin. Will the Leader ask the Minister to seek the Attorney General's opinion on the legality of these machines?

Mr. Farrell: I congratulate the Tánaiste on her wonderful achievement in getting Intel to expand its operations here. We are now top of the league of nations in communications and electronics. This was a massive achievement against the rest of the world and we should pay tribute to the Tánaiste.

I would like a debate on the compensation culture which is the root of many of our problems. Many doctors are spending more time in the courts than at their clinics because of the compensation culture. There should be an inquiry into how the legal profession operates the compensation system. In the courts, one can see barristers running between three or four clients. Cases cannot be settled the day before they go to court, but at the court they are eager to settle them. Sometimes the clients do not know what they will get.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator, have you a question for the Leader?

Mr. Farrell: Their solicitor gives them a cheque and the clients do not know how much money the solicitors got. It is time there was a top level inquiry into this.

On health and the medical profession, the first [1538] Labour Government gave a large sum of money—

Mr. Manning: Lawyers, doctors, who is next?

Mr. Farrell: —towards the reduction of waiting lists but private patients do not go on a waiting list.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Farrell, have you a question for the Leader?

Mr. Farrell: Why are public patients always on a waiting list, when millions of pounds are spent on them? It is time these questions were answered because the same nurses and doctors are tending to public and private patients.

Dr. Henry: There are also waiting lists in the private health service. If they were added on, the public waiting lists would be longer than they are now.

Mr. Moylan: I support the point raised by Senator Manning.

Mr. J. Doyle: Is this a filibuster?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Doyle is being disorderly.

Mr. Moylan: I rarely rise on the Order of Business. I would sooner sit down.

Mr. Manning: Senator Moylan is one of the most respected Members of this House and I regret that he was interrupted from this side.

Mr. J. Doyle: I apologise.

Mr. Moylan: I support Senator Manning on the long waiting lists for telephones. I also support Senator Gibbons on the cost of insurance for young people.

Will the Leader contact the NRA or the relevant Garda authorities on the sale of farm produce on our national routes? A serious accident is waiting to happen. I do not want to stop people selling their produce but they should be compelled to sell it within the required speed limit areas on the approach to towns and villages, not on our national routes. This is a serious issue.

Mr. L. Fitzgerald: A related but far more serious matter is the speed limit for juggernauts and trucks, particularly on minor roads. Will the Leader ask the Minister, as a matter of urgency and in the interests of public safety, to introduce legislation to curtail speed limits for trucks above a certain weight on minor roads to 30 miles per hour? The legislation should ensure that anyone who is caught infringing the limit receives the maximum penalty, which should be a custodial sentence.

[1539] Mr. Cassidy: I will be brief so the debate can start immediately. Senator Manning sought an extension of time to 15 minutes for other Senators. I agree to that and Senators may also share time. Senators Manning and Finneran called for an investigation of the long waiting lists for telephones. We all remember the great work done by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. I agree with the sentiments expressed. It is a disgrace that telephones are not available on demand. I will arrange for an urgent debate on this topic when we have reviewed the progress of Eircom over the summer. We will wait until September, when we reconvene, to see what progress has been made, given the trust both Houses of the Oireachtas have placed in the company.

I agree with Senators Manning and Finneran on the need for a full debate on the Ombudsman in the next session. Senators Henry, Costello, Quinn, Burke and Glynn expressed concern about the psychiatric and prison services. We will have a debate on this matter after the full debate on general health services after this session.

Senators Bohan and Glennon appealed to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to intervene as a matter of urgency in view of the threat by Dublin Corporation to increase parking fines by 50%. Any fair-minded person would agree that this is an effort to do something about illegal parking in the Dublin city. However, in the north inner city, which has experienced nothing of the Celtic tiger economy, Dublin Corporation should adopt a hands-off policy, particularly in relation to Parnell Square, Croke Park and the surrounds.

If Dublin Corporation is going to be selective, it should start in the areas that the economic growth has benefited most, rather than what it is doing around the Parnell Square area and in the north inner city generally, clamping cars and making parking impossible. People who are trying to conduct business and give employment in that area should be supported. If there is a black spot in the area, such as Parnell Street, the corporation should take off the gloves and do something about it, rather than showing a lack of support for decent people who are creating jobs and giving employment in the area.

I will pass on Senator Norris's views to the Minister regarding the deportation of the people to whom he referred. I will also pass on Senator Ross's views. This House has been unanimous in its condemnation of countries that still have the death penalty.

Senator Gibbons called for a debate on the fluoridation of water. I will certainly allow time for this during the next session. Many Senators have called for a debate on car insurance for young people. I have agreed to have this debated during the next session.

I confirm to Senator Quinn that the e-commerce Bill is scheduled for Monday week. Senators Leonard and Glynn called for the inclusion of playgrounds in county development [1540] plans currently with local authorities. This is part of the County Westmeath plan which is going through this afternoon. I thank Senator Leonard for bringing it to the attention of the House.

Senator Finneran called for a debate on bank charges. It is a disgrace that a 24% rate should be charged on credit cards. The sooner we have fair charges the better. If it is necessary for the Minister to bring in a regulation to ban this excessive charge, she should do so. I fully support the call for this.

Senator Glynn called for a debate on tourism. That will take place during the next session. Senator Farrell wholeheartedly welcomed the 1,000 jobs at Intel—

Mr. Burke: Announced by the Tánaiste.

Mr. Cassidy: —and the millions of pounds worth of further investment. I noted that no other Senator has welcomed the 1,000 jobs during the four days this House has sat this week. It demonstrates the buoyancy in our economy that the 60 Senators present during four days did not welcome the creation of 1,000 jobs.

Mr. Norris: They are vacancies. They do not have the people to fill the jobs. That is the problem.

Mr. Cassidy: I thank Senator Farrell, who is a self-employed businessman, for bringing this to the attention of the House. I also welcome the 500 jobs in Mullingar, a town that has been very badly hit, announced two weeks ago by me.

Senator Moylan referred to the National Roads Authority and the problem of people selling produce on the roadside outside the speed limit areas. We intend to have a debate on the National Roads Authority early in the next session, when this matter can be highlighted. Senator Fitzgerald called for a debate on speed limits in general, and we can also have a debate on that in the next session.

Order of Business agreed to.