Seanad Éireann - Volume 171 - 18 February, 2003

Order of Business.

  Ms O'Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on rural development policy and actions with particular reference to the problem of population decline, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time; No. 2, a procedural motion enabling Report and Final Stages of the Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Bill 2002 to be taken today; No. 3, Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Bill 2000 – Report and Final Stages to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and to conclude at 6.30 p.m.; No. 4, motion re earlier signature of Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Bill 2002, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 3; No. 5, statements on finance and related matters, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 4, or at 6.30 p.m. if the debate on No. 3 has not concluded earlier and to conclude by 8.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I am not opposed to the Order of Business. Will the Leader indicate the reason the Government proposes the House should not sit on Thursday of this week? If one reads Standing Orders for the Seanad, it is clear that meetings of the House should take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays and other days at the discretion of the House. It is breaking precedent that the House should meet on Tuesday and Wednesday and not on Thursday. I propose that the Leader initiate discussions between the Whips of all groups to arrive at a situation where we would debate important issues on Thursdays. If the Government has no business to present to the House on Thursday, I propose that the Opposition do so. There are 14 separate items on the Order Paper from colleagues on all sides of the House. If the Government cannot utilise the time available on Thursday, I propose that the Opposition be given the opportunity to debate these matters.

  Does the Leader believe the €241,000 spent by Ministers on having their photographs taken was good value for money given the potential for the doctoring of photographs which can take place? [639]In light of the constraints on the public purse, does she agree that this is lavish expenditure and that it is not justifiable in any circumstances, whether for good or bad pictures?

  Will the Leader make time available – if not this week, then next week – for a debate on housing? A number of issues have arisen in regard to the latest pay deal and affordable housing. There seems to be a lack of clarity from the Department of the Environment and Local Government concerning promises made in the pay deal in regard to affordable housing. In addition, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has put a cap on the rental subsidy for those on low incomes trying to find rented accommodation. I call for a debate on housing in the near future and I request that the Minister with responsibility for housing come before the House to debate the issue in detail.

  Mr. O'Toole: The last point raised by Senator Brian Hayes could be dealt with in an early debate on the new programme, Sustaining Progress, which deals with housing. It also contains a proposal agreed by Government to introduce new legislation on rented accommodation and the rights of tenants. It would be helpful to have such a debate. We also need to look specifically at the needs of first-time buyers and at the possibility of giving tax relief to people saving for a deposit on a house since such relief is given to people saving for pensions, etc. We should consider having ad hoc savings accounts, for people saving for deposits on houses, which would be tax efficient and in respect of which people could obtain tax relief. I would like the Government to consider that.

  Hundreds of thousands of people here and millions around the world marched at the weekend in respect of the Iraq situation. I am not calling for a debate on Iraq, because I have no doubt we will have more such debates. However, various reports, radio shows and talk-ins since then have all referred to how politicians can be made to listen. I would appreciate it if the Leader took the trouble to inform the radio stations and media outlets that politicians are listening, but that the Government is not. Many politicians marched last weekend and many are listening. It would be helpful if we could distinguish between politicians and the Government. I am sure the Leader would be happy to do that for us.

  Another issue at which we must look is how prices impact on inflation and how they affect consumers. We need to look at that and at price control, or dare I mention the latter for fear of over-exciting too many people? I would like to hear the Government's view on this issue.

  Mr. McDowell: I wish to take up the issue raised by Senator O'Toole when referring to the demonstrations in Dublin and elsewhere last Saturday. I was astonished to hear the Taoiseach on radio this morning suggest, as only he could do, [640]that people were demonstrating in favour of current Government policy. I would not presume to speak on behalf of everybody who was at the march in Dublin on Saturday, but I can certainly speak on behalf of some of them. I ask the Leader to make it crystal clear to the Taoiseach that the majority of people at the march on Saturday were not demonstrating in favour of current Government policy. The majority of people there are anxious that the Government take a distinctly different stance to the approach of sitting on the fence it has adopted in recent weeks. They are also anxious that we should support France, Germany, Belgium and the other neutral non-aligned countries in the European Union in saying to the United States that we do not believe the case for war is proven, that we do not believe it has been sufficiently proven that Saddam Hussein is in possession of weapons which present an immediate threat to his neighbours or those further afield and that this and a second UN resolution are prerequisites for war. I ask the Leader to convey this to the Taoiseach.

  On a somewhat lighter note, I was interested and a little disturbed, as I am sure others were, to read the findings of an opinion poll published in today's edition of The Irish Times which suggest that up to 50% of young people continue to smoke. It appears most do so somewhat intolerantly of the wishes of others in that the bulk of smokers still feel quite entitled to go into pubs and restaurants and continue smoking, thereby inflicting passive smoking on others. As the debate on the issue has a long way to go, we could perform a service by inviting to the House the Minister for Health and Children and other interested parties to debate the report of the expert group on passive smoking to see whether we can move on the issue. It will be very difficult for the Minister to implement the ban without a greater measure of public support than appears to be available.

  Mr. Brady: I want to raise the important issue of the OECD report on the incidence of suicide in this country published over the weekend. The shocking statistics indicate that we have the second highest rate of suicide of 30 countries throughout the world and the highest rate among those under 25 years of age, of whom a huge proportion are young men. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the relevant Minister or Ministers – this issue is covered by a number of Departments – to come to this Chamber to discuss the issue?

  Mr. B. Hayes: Hear, hear.

  Ms Terry: I read in the newspapers this morning that a young boy of 11 or 12 years was let go by a judge yesterday because there was no place in which to detain him. Will the Leader invite to the House the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to debate this issue? The young boy was described as being “out of control”. I do not [641]know whose words those are but for a young boy of 11 or 12 years to be described as being “out of control” is a shame on the State which has brought him to this stage and not provided the facilities to enable him to lead a good life which any young child should be expected to lead. It is very serious that young children of 11 or 12 years are coming before judges because they are out of control. What has led to this situation is the fact that the Government is out of control.

  Mr. Leyden: I ask the Leader to invite to the House the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to debate the imposition of a €35 fee by the Shannon Fisheries Board for a yearly licence and an €18 charge for tourists for coarse fishing on the River Suck, the River Derryhippo, Stonehams Lake and adjoining tributaries in the area where I live. The Leader, who was practically born in the River Shannon, will be aware of the situation.

  Mr. B. Hayes: Like Moses.

  Mr. Leyden: The Leader who has been fishing from a very young age will realise this will cause huge damage to the tourism industry and coarse fishing in the area. It is a very selective charge because it does not apply on those parts of the River Shannon under the ownership of the ESB. The bailiffs were out recently reminding tourists that they could not fish the rivers in question. I cannot use my boat to fish on the little river flowing behind my land unless I pay a fee to the Shannon Fisheries Board for doing nothing on the river.

  An Cathaoirleach: Those are points for the debate.

  Mr. Leyden: Given that the Cathaoirleach is an avid fisherman, perhaps he will allow a debate on the issue.

  Mr. O'Toole: We need the River Shannon Council Bill.

  Mr. Bannon: A recent report was published on the quality of drinking water. It is important to debate the issue in the House because the quality of water in 1,536 group water schemes monitored is less than satisfactory. It is important that we invite the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to the House to inform Senators of his plans in relation to the protection of public health. The State should provide pure and wholesome water for its citizens but it appears that 10% of the water consumed by them is contaminated. It is vital that we have a debate on this serious issue.

  Mr. Quinn: Since 1996 meat and bonemeal have been quite rightly banned from animal feed which has to be rendered instead. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, has informed the beef industry that the subsidy paid [642]to enable such material to be sent to Germany – there is no market for it here – will no longer apply from 1 March. This announcement has caused a great deal of concern in the industry and possible export markets. I ask the Leader of the House to ensure the Minister recognises the urgency of the issue, given that the deadline will be reached in about ten days. I gather that it may not be possible to render meat and bonemeal after that date. Even if it is, there may be no outlet for it. The material being sent to Germany for incineration at present will not be dealt with as there is no suitable incinerator in Ireland. I ask the Leader to draw the Minister's attention to this urgent matter.

  Mr. Coghlan: When is it envisaged that the heritage functions of Dúchas, within the Department of the Environment and Local Government, will be dealt with? The Government decided that the functions of Dúchas would be transferred to that Department but it is envisaged in a major review conducted by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, that built and natural heritage functions will be split. I assume that the built heritage will be the responsibility of the Office of Public Works, as was formerly the case, and that the natural heritage will be the responsibility of Dúchas. Will Dúchas remain part of the Department of the Environment and Local Government? Will the word “heritage” be included in the name of the Department? Will the Leader arrange for the Minister to come to the House to address these matters and enlighten Senators?

  Mr. Cummins: I ask the Leader to invite to the House the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, who seems to be a popular man, as many Senators have asked that he attend. I would like a debate with him on the Government's policy, or lack thereof, on homelessness. Members of the Oireachtas do not have to go far from this House to see some of the many unfortunate people who are homeless, for whatever reason. I would like the Minister to explain the Government's policies for solving this problem which is of paramount importance.

  Other Senators have mentioned the problems faced by first-time buyers. I am sure many Members have received telephone calls from distraught young people who have to pay an additional €1,500, or more, as a result of VAT increases. They have to pay a significant amount of money to put a roof over their heads, especially in the light of the loss of about €3,900 when the first-time buyer's grant was abolished.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator's remarks would be more suited to the debate he is seeking.

  Mr. Cummins: I ask for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come to the House to explain the Government's policies in relation to the matter.

[643]  Mr. Feighan: I would like the Leader of the House to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House to explain his crazy suggestion that local authorities should be allowed to determine the opening hours of pubs. This reckless and crazy idea does not address the serious problem of excess consumption of alcohol.

  On a lighter note, I am sure the Leader, who is an avid football supporter, will join me in congratulating Brian Kerr, manager of this country's football team.

  Ms O'Rourke: Hear, hear.

  An Cathaoirleach: I do not know if this matter is appropriate to the Order of Business.

  Mr. Feighan: It is quite appropriate—

  An Cathaoirleach: It is not.

  Mr. Feighan: —especially in the light of the events of recent weeks.

  An Cathaoirleach: I have ruled that it is not appropriate.

  Mr. Scanlon: A constituent who is a farmer contacted me by telephone yesterday. A car pulled up beside him last Friday as he was doing drainage work on some land he bought recently. A man got out and read him his rights. The man told my constituent that if he wished to remain silent, that was fine. The individual in question was from the Dúchas office and the lands had apparently been designated as a special area of conservation. The purchaser of the lands was not aware of this, nor was his solicitor.

  An Cathaoirleach: That would be an appropriate matter for the Adjournment.

  Mr. Scanlon: I can raise it on the Adjournment, but to be fair to the gentleman concerned, it is a little underhanded to deal in that fashion with somebody who is trying to improve his land.

  An Cathaoirleach: Is the Senator seeking a debate on the matter?

  Mr. Scanlon: I would like to get some answers.

  Mr. J. Phelan: Senator Feighan took the words out of my mouth. I agree with him regarding the proposal being considered by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to allow local authorities to decide closing times for licensed premises within their jurisdiction. The matter should be discussed in the House.

  I agree with Senator Terry and others that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should come to the House as soon as possible to discuss the issue of crime.

[644]

  Mr. Finucane: I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that the spending of €250,000 on photographs, including spending in excess of €45,000 by one Minister, is unjustifiable. People outside the House are telling us to get our act together. I do not know if the photographs are designed to make Ministers look better, to make double chins disappear or otherwise.

  Ms O'Rourke: It would be hard to make them better, they look so good.

  An Cathaoirleach: That is not appropriate to the Order of Business.

  Mr. Finucane: If one listens to Joe Duffy's programme, it seems appropriate. However, I support Senator Brian Hayes with regard to this matter.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should just support him.

  Mr. Finucane: In the context of economic considerations and the many people availing of the special savings and investment scheme who have lost their jobs, is it right to impose a penalty if they want to withdraw from that scheme at this point? Consideration should be given to situations where people can no longer sustain the investment over the period envisaged for the scheme. People should not be penalised if they want to opt out now and they should get back all the funds they have invested. There should be recognition of that within the scheme, rather than the imposition of a penalty if people decide to pull out at an early stage.

  Mr. Morrissey: Like Eircom shareholders.

  Mr. Finucane: Senator Morrissey's contribution has been feeble to date and is feeble today.

  Mr. Hanafin: Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food to speak, as he has kindly done in the past, about small and medium size farms with regard to something that affects many people and the economic development of the country? I refer specifically to how, in the context of the Fischler proposals and CAP subsidies, families in this sector can maximise their net income. The House should debate the matter.

  Mr. Bannon: The Senator acknowledges that we were sold out.

  Mr. Dooley: I join Senator Scanlon in calling for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come to the House to discuss the issue of Dúchas. Difficulties arose at the weekend, when members of Dúchas were seen arguing with representatives of other archaeological bodies with regard to the Carrickmines interchange on the M50 motorway. Everyone realises that the latter is of vital importance.

[645]  An Cathaoirleach: That is a matter for the debate.

  Mr. Dooley: I am asking for a debate on Dúchas and its role.

  Ms O'Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes, Leader of the Opposition, asked why the House is not sitting on Thursday next. A Government Department requested that the House take a particular Bill on Thursday and we agreed to do so. However, late last Thursday, the office of the Minister contacted us with a request that the Bill be deferred to a later date. While I am aware that Members are anxious to be in attendance on Thursdays, I am sorry the arrangement had to be cancelled. I take the Senator's point on sittings on Wednesdays and Thursdays and hope a cancellation like this will not arise in the future.

  Senator Brian Hayes also asked about the expenditure of €250,000 on ministerial photographs. I suspect equal amounts were spent on ministerial photographs in the Administration headed by former Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton. However, as the Freedom of Information Act was not in force at the time, we do not know how much was involved.

  Mr. O'Toole: Even Patrick Pearse managed to have a photograph taken of his profile.

  Mr. Coghlan: Only €8,000 was spent on the Leader's photograph.

  Ms O'Rourke: My photograph did not take long but then I am beautiful.

  Mr. Coghlan: It is a pity that level of expenditure did not satisfy her ministerial colleagues.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader, without interruption.

  Ms O'Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes also requested a debate on housing matters, including the cap imposed by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on private rented accommodation. In my experience, owners of houses whose rental income was paid by the health boards continually increased their rents.

  Senator O'Toole requested a debate on the new programme, Sustaining Progress. We have been asked to delay debating it in anticipation that there may be further agreement. The Senator also asked if it would be possible to provide tax relief for those who hold savings accounts with a view to purchasing a house. The Senator went on to say that, although many politicians participated in last Saturday's march against war in Iraq and are listening to the voice of the people, Governments are not. However, the Government is listening. This morning the Taoiseach said he was pleased with the size and extent of the march. The Senator also requested a debate on prices [646]and competition which I have been seeking with the appropriate Minister.

  Senator McDowell outlined what he understood the Taoiseach to have said about the situation in Iraq but that is not how I heard it. I understood him to say all European Union member states had agreed with the statement issued after the summit in Brussels yesterday. EU leaders made clear that they did not agree with war and published a coherent declaration of their position.

  Senator McDowell also referred to the proposal to ban smoking in pubs. I am also surprised at the numbers who agree with the view that smoking should be allowed in pubs and other public places. A debate on the issue would be useful and help to underpin the Minister's legislative proposals.

  Senator Brady raised the issue of the suicide rate among males aged under 25 years. The rate in Ireland is the highest or second highest among different groups of countries. It is a huge problem. Young men appear to find it very difficult to communicate their worries or concerns to others. A debate on the issue would be useful and I thank the Senator for raising it.

  Senator Terry referred to the case involving an 11 year old boy in which the presiding judge said there was no place to put him. He was described, perhaps by the social worker in charge of the case, as being out of control. The case is a shocking indictment of the system. The boy concerned is still a child. The Senator requested the attendance of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to debate the issue. If a Minister attends the House to debate a Bill, it is very difficult to secure his or her further attendance to debate other issues as he or she may have to progress the Bill in this or the other House.

  Senator Leyden requested the attendance of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to debate the €30 fee for coarse fishing in the small rivers throughout the midlands and surrounding counties. I was not born in the water, but I have been quite involved with it over the years. Water births are quite popular at present.

  Senator Bannon requested that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, come before the House. The Senator may know that the Minister yesterday visited Strokestown, which is quite near the Deputy's home county, and announced funding of €100 million to make group water schemes much more palatable.

  Mr. B. Hayes: The Minister was not invited.

  Ms O'Rourke: I am surprised the Senator did not attend. I saw Senators Feighan and Leyden in attendance and looking very holy.

  Senator Quinn raised the issue of the subsidy for the removal of meat and bonemeal. This has to be sent abroad because there is no way of processing it here. The Senators know the Minister for Agriculture and Food will not be available to [647]address the issue in the near future, but we will invite him to do so when he returns.

  Senator Coghlan requested a debate on Dúchas and suggestions about the separating of responsibilities pertaining to the built and natural environments. The Senator asked which responsibilities will remain with the Department of the Environment and Local Government.

  Senator Cummins raised the issue of homelessness and asked that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, be invited to the House to discuss it. The issue of the VAT increase affecting first-time buyers was also raised. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, made an allowance in the budget for first-time buyers who had lost out on the first-time buyer's grant—

  Mr. Cummins: It was derisory.

  Ms O'Rourke: —to get a rebate.

  Senator Feighan does not agree with local councils' powers in terms of setting licences. It is just an idea that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform put out for debate and he is not saying the proposals in this regard will happen. It is an issue worthy of debate if people wish to pursue it. Local councils are looking for extra powers and the setting of licences is a fine example of this.

  Senator Scanlon spoke about the apparently heavy-handed person from Dúchas who berated a farmer over what he was doing on his own land. As the Cathaoirleach suggested, it would be appropriate to raise that issue on the Adjournment.

  Senator John Phelan has left the Chamber, but I will speak to him again.

  Mr. B. Hayes: It is a silent protest.

  Ms O'Rourke: Senator Feighan also referred to Brian Kerr, and I fully agree with him on the matter. I know the Cathaoirleach said it is out of order—

  An Cathaoirleach: It is out of order to offer congratulations to any sporting body.

  Ms O'Rourke: I think Mr. Kerr was brilliant and his achievement is psychologically very important for the Irish team.

  An Cathaoirleach: Order, please.

  Ms O'Rourke: I also think the Irish rugby team did very well. The Opposition benches are full of rugby supporters. Did the Senators not say so?

  An Cathaoirleach: Whether it is soccer, rugby or Gaelic games, it is not relevant to the Order of Business.

  Ms O'Rourke: That is fair enough.

  Senator Finucane referred to the spending of €250,000 on photographs. I am sure the photogra[648]phers did a good, professional job on the various Ministers. Those who held ministerial office between 1994 and 1997 had their photographs taken on many occasions, but we do not know the cost because—

  Mr. B. Hayes: There were no cutbacks then.

  Mr. Finucane: The case of Deputy McDaid is well known. A sum of €45,000—

  An Cathaoirleach: I do not think photographs—

  Mr. Finucane: One would think the Ministers were getting their photographs taken for OK! and HELLO! magazines.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader should be allowed continue. The quality and cost of photographs is not relevant to the Order of Business.

  Mr. Finucane: They sanitise them.

  Ms O'Rourke: I do not know if they can do that.

  I have had queries about people who, because of a lack of income, cannot keep up their payments to their SSIAs and want to withdraw from the scheme. That issue could be raised this evening in respect of the Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Bill 2002.

  Senator Hanafin called on the Minister for Agriculture and Food to come before the House to discuss some of the Fischler proposals. We had the various Ministers last week—

  Mr. O'Toole: We did not discuss the proposals and I support the Senator's call.

  An Cathaoirleach: Allow the Leader to reply without interruption.

  Ms O'Rourke: I will raise that matter with the Minister.

  Senator Dooley wishes to join with Senator Scanlon in requesting a debate on Dúchas and the allegedly heavy-handed way the organisation is going about its business.

  Order of Business agreed to.