Seanad Éireann - Volume 171 - 25 February, 2003

Order of Business.

  Ms O'Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, a proposal to appoint a select committee to be joined with a select committee of the Dáil to consider The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Charters Amendment) Bill 2002, to be taken without debate, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders relative to private business; No. 2, referral motion to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business; No. 3, referral motion to the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food; No. 4, motion re Fourth Protocol of the Treaty of Amsterdam which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights; No. 5, motion re State Examinations Commission (Establishment) Order 2003 which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Education and Science; No. 6, motion re Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights; No. 7, motion re Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights; No. 8, motion re Article 1.11 of the Treaty of Amsterdam which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights; No. 9, Opticians (Amendment) Bill 2002 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and, it is hoped, to conclude by 4 p.m.; and No. 10, Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 – Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 9 or at 4 p.m. if the debate on No. 9 has not concluded and to conclude not later than 8 p.m. Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, will be taken without debate. There will be a sos from 6 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.

  Mr. B. Hayes: There is a substantial number of amendments for the Protection of the Environment Bill and I presume additional time will be granted if Committee Stage is not concluded by 8 p.m.

  Ms O'Rourke: Yes.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I thank the Leader. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and [835]Law Reform to come to the House once again to make a statement on his proposals regarding the rising number of crimes associated with alcohol consumption? At the weekend he suggested that two matters might be examined. One is the introduction of a national ID card throughout the country, which I would welcome. The second is the rather crazy suggestion that pubs be allowed to stay open later into the night. Perhaps he would make a statement to the House at some stage next week to outline the proposals he will put to the Government.

  Will the Leader make time available in the next week or so for a debate on pensions policy? Last year the Minister for Social and Family Affairs introduced PRSAs, a portable and flexible pension arrangement for workers. However, the scheme seems to have fallen flat. The level of coverage available to workers is abysmally low and is far below the EU average. We need to debate this issue soon, so I ask the Leader to make time available to do so.

  Will the Leader find out from the National Library what is its policy with regard to purchasing artefacts and important historical documents? Last week, in an auction room in Dublin, an important historical document from the late General Michael Collins was lost to public perusal as a result of its being purchased by a citizen. While everybody holds the view that citizens should be sufficiently civic-minded to hand over such artefacts and documents to ensure that everybody in the State has an opportunity to see them in the National Library or the National Museum, what is the policy of the National Library on bidding in such auctions? I understand it made a bid of approximately €21,000, but that the document was sold for €26,000. I would be grateful if the Leader would clarify this matter with the National Library.

  Mr. O'Toole: I wish to raise a technical matter. When the Leader was outlining the Order of Business she said Nos. 1 to 4 would be taken without discussion and distinctly did not say Nos. 5 to 8 would be taken without discussion.

  Ms O'Rourke: I said it later.

  Mr. O'Toole: The Leader corrected herself later. I do not accept that arrangement. I have no desire to speak on any of the issues, but we previously made it clear that, for the sake of efficiency, items being sent to committees should not be the subject of debate. That is how the House has operated but that was always on the basis that when a matter came back from a committee, Members who might believe it had not been adequately discussed by the committee should be entitled to raise it in the House. That is provided for in the legislation. I am not seeking a discussion on any of the matters but if a Member of the House, perhaps a member of a commit[836]tee that dealt with Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8, believes that they require further discussion, he or she is entitled to seek it. That should be made clear. I have no indication that any Member wishes to speak on these issues. However, I cannot agree that Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8 be taken without discussion as a formality.

  A large number of statutory instruments are referred to in Nos. 1 to 8. I do not know if I am the only Member who regularly seeks statutory instruments, ministerial orders, papers laid before the Houses, etc., but it causes great difficulty and puts huge pressure on the over-pressed, under-resourced and understaffed Oireachtas Library. All such papers should be put on the Oireachtas website for easy accessibility. Will the Leader raise this issue? The Oireachtas website is probably the best parliamentary website in Europe. It is extraordinarily well presented and up to date. It is a prize-winning website and it would be a useful way of making these documents available.

  Of the papers laid before the House, No. 5 is an Oireachtas order concerning allowances to Members. The question was raised by a number of people in the Lower House recently as to whether it was appropriate for us to accept the properly arbitrated and decided upon pay increase for Members of the Oireachtas.

  Ms O'Rourke: To which item is the Senator referring?

  Mr. O'Toole: The fifth of the papers laid before the Seanad, which are listed on page 164 of the Order Paper. The Government kindly incorporated, with the support of all sides in the Dáil, a provision into the Finance Bills of 2001 and 2002 which allows Members of the House who, for principled reasons, could not accept a pay increase to waive it. I ask the Leader to obtain details from the Minister for Finance of the number of Members from each House who waived their pay increases. Will she also inquire whether the Minister would be prepared to share the money returned to him among those of us who were unprincipled enough to take the pay increase?

  Ms O'Rourke: I am not a peeping Tom. I do not care what Members do with their money.

  Mr. O'Toole: This is a serious issue. I do not want people taking cheap shots in public at those of us who accept the money. Over the weekend, the Laffoy commission started running advertisements encouraging people to send in details of their happy stories and good experiences of institutions. This situation has gone completely off kilter and this latest campaign designed to accumulate happy recollections is a misuse of Government money. It is an utter waste of taxpayers' money to advertise for people to write and tell us they had a good time in whatever institution they were in. That is nonsensical.

[837]  Will the Leader indicate whether both Government parties will have a free vote tomorrow on the Local Government Bill 2003?

  Mr. Glynn: That is a good try by Senator O'Toole.

  Mr. O'Toole: It is a matter of principle for many people.

  Mr. Ryan: I look forward to the free vote tomorrow. I do not recall the House agreeing to all Stages of the Opticians (Amendment) Bill 2002 being taken today. Now—

  Ms O'Rourke: There are seven amendments.

  Mr. Ryan: On the grounds of good humour and goodwill, my party will not object strongly. However, this should not be taken as a precedent. Report Stage should be taken separately because it would not be the first occasion on which an omission arose and was only spotted later.

  I ask the Leader first to find out what is happening and, second, organise a debate in the House regarding the extraordinary decision by the European Commission to capitulate to the United States and supply as much personal data in advance about everybody travelling to the US as the authorities there request. There are two issues at stake here, both of which deserve to be discussed in detail. The first is the demand of the United States that we break our data protection legislation and that data which should have nothing to do the airlines will now be sought by them from passengers. That an airline would record data and then supply it to a third party is a fundamental breach of data protection legislation.

  The second issue, which is almost more important, is that of jurisdiction. This was not agreed by the governments of Europe, but by the Commission. Many of us spent 12 to 18 months between the two Nice referenda telling the people that the idea of an all-powerful Brussels was an exaggeration. Suddenly, however, we have been presented with something as fundamental as this agreement, which, to my knowledge, was apparently negotiated without input from any government. The people of Europe are being informed that if they wish to travel to the United States, they must let the authorities there know everything they wish to know about them, including their dietary preferences, which, in my opinion, is close to religious typecasting in advance. This is a serious matter. A Minister should explain to the House the Government's position on it and indicate whether it believes its stance is consistent with the philosophy and thrust of our data protection legislation.

  The House could usefully discuss the community part of the new national agreement, in respect of which there are obviously major divisions between voluntary organisations. If there is [838]one voluntary organisation to which I would listen first about the state of the country, it would be the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The fact that it is so unhappy ought to alert the only segment of society not involved in the agreement, namely, the elected Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

  Mr. O'Toole: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Ryan: Will the Leader facilitate a debate on this issue? Senator O'Toole has told us often enough about the other provisions. We hear at least once a week about his great achievements. I would like to hear about the parts the Society of St. Vincent de Paul does not like.

  Ms O'Rourke: I do not think Senator O'Toole puts them forward as his great achievements.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator O'Toole's achievements are not a matter for the Order of Business. Senators should confine themselves to matters relevant to the Order of Business.

  Mr. Ryan: I suspect Senator O'Toole would not agree with the Cathaoirleach.

  Mr. O'Toole: I would. I do not recall ever referring to my achievements.

  Mr. Norris: The Senators are like two prima donnas.

  Mr. Ryan: That is a bit rich coming from the Senator.

  Mr. Norris: I am wounded.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ryan on the Order of Business.

  Mr. Ryan: I agree with Senator Brian Hayes about the need for a discussion on pensions. The country was fed a view on private pensions, based on an ever-growing stock market, during the past ten years. On the last occasion the stock market fell as precipitously as it has during the past three years, it took the Dow Jones 30 years to recover. This means anyone over 35 faces the prospect of a much more poorly funded private pension. This is a serious issue which also confronts the State because of its pension provision requirements. The optimism that the stock market will all bounce back in a few years is not grounded in historical experience and, consequently, there is a major need for a debate on this issue.

  Mr. Finucane: Christina Noble will today receive an award from Queen Elizabeth for her great work in Vietnam. It is unfortunate that we do not have an honours system in this country. I raised this matter in the Lower House on a previous occasion—

  Ms O'Rourke: I remember that.

[839]  Mr. Finucane: —and the then Taoiseach was receptive. Deputy Quinn blew me out of the water on the matter saying that we were aping an English system. There are many examples of honours systems within Europe. For example, the Legion of Honour in France dates back to the time of Napoleon. It is time we had an honours system in this country. I saw it referred to recently when Richard Harris died. People said it was unfortunate he could not be recognised in his country. Will the Leader bring the matter to the attention of the Taoiseach? We should move in a positive direction and recognise the era in which we live.

  Mr. Norris: On the same issue, Tom Hyland, who would be known to many Members, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Limerick yesterday. That was highly appropriate. Awarding honorary degrees is a type of honours system and it is the way in which we recognise the significant achievements of people such as Tom Hyland. He has done the country such an honour that it would be an imaginative act on the part of the Taoiseach, after the next general election or if a vacancy were to arise in the House, to nominate a person such as Tom Hyland to the Seanad.

  Senator Ryan raised the issue of American airlines being given advance warning of our dietary requirements. I do this as a matter of form because I like to give them the opportunity to prepare the food I like in advance and have no difficulty with it.

  I have a serious matter to raise. I ask the Leader to draw to the attention of the appropriate Ministers the apparent existence of a crack cocaine source in Parnell Street which was exposed in the newspapers at the weekend. This is an extremely worrying development. Crack cocaine is a highly addictive and dangerous substance which leads to all kinds of ancillary crimes. I have warned about the worsening state of Parnell Street for several years. We have the extraordinary irony that there is a halfway house for female drug addicts in the old bakery in Parnell Street, apparently almost next door to a major source of crack cocaine.

  An Cathaoirleach: Is the Senator looking for a debate?

  Mr. Norris: Yes, I would be very happy to have one. However, the Leader should draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that a task force for the area is needed as the problems are very complex.

  On a related matter, we have previously debated the extraordinary dependence of young people on alcohol and the ensuing violence. There was a radio programme yesterday in which a very distinguished police officer spoke about the prevalence of knives and suggested the Oireachtas had a duty to amend the Offensive [840]Weapons and Firearms Act in order to curtail the carrying of knives, some of which are quite horrendous. He described how a match was put in a Stanley knife with two blades in order that when a person was assaulted and cut, an entire strip of flesh, which is very difficult to sew, was removed. There have been so many deaths through the use of knives that he said he was much more terrified of a knife than of a gun. We have been warned. We need to look at this and produce a legislative amendment to cover the subject. Such knives should be outlawed and their possession should be made a criminal offence.

  Mr. Minihan: On a number of occasions in this House I have raised the issue of Cork School of Music. Given that the preferred bidder was selected as long ago as January 2001 and we are still no nearer a final decision despite assurances in this House, I ask the Leader at this late stage to appeal to the Taoiseach to move the matter forward and free the logjam in the Department of Finance with regard to the project.

  The Leader should express to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the gratitude of all Members of this House, including the Opposition. We had a very successful debate on the issue of under age drinking. It is reassuring to everyone that the Minister has acted on some of the proposals made in the debate.

  Mr. U. Burke: Some.

  Mr. Minihan: We should be grateful.

  Mr. B. Hayes: The Senator must be a member of the prison visiting committee.

  Ms Tuffy: As Senator Norris said, Dr. Tom Hyland was recognised for his work on education in East Timor yesterday by being awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Limerick. He is continuing his work. I note that the Senator is helping his fundraising efforts by holding one of his one man Joycean shows. The Leader should ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House in order that we can discuss how we can assist East Timor. Last week Dr. Hyland suggested to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs that it should be chosen as the first Asian country for the Ireland Aid programme. We should discuss how we can continue our positive relationship and show solidarity with it.

  Mr. Feighan: Is the Leader aware that RTE, the State broadcaster, caused serious distress recently when it wrote to thousands of pensioners asking them to pay the €150 television licence fee? This was a mistake, for which it should apologise. More shockingly, by axing the licence concessions of which many people have availed, the State broadcaster will penalise the elderly, who spend most of their twilight years enjoying [841]television, and future pensioners. The House should categorically condemn RTE for this disgraceful decision.

  Mr. Quinn: Senator Ryan stated that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was concerned about the recent national agreement. The society has also expressed deep concern about disadvantage in education. I ask the Leader to find out from the Minister which body is responsible for school attendance. When the House passed a Bill addressing the issue of truancy just over a year ago, Members assumed that by removing the responsibility for ensuring students attend school from the Garda, this duty would be transferred to another agency. I understand this has not happened. As a nation, we are not fulfilling our duty to ensure that the failure of children to attend school is investigated and that the necessary action is taken. Will the Leader take urgent steps to ensure this matter is addressed, which, I gather, is not the case more than a year after the relevant legislation was passed. It is in our hands to ensure action is taken.

  Mr. McCarthy: Senator Finucane should know that we already have an honours system. The Leader is a recipient of the award in question, which is known as the “Taoiseach's 11”.

  An Cathaoirleach: Does the Senator have a point to raise on the Order of Business?

  Mr. McCarthy: I wish to raise a serious issue concerning providers of services to people with disabilities. CoAction is one such provider in west Cork. It is run voluntarily and provides essential services to people with intellectual difficulties and children with special needs. In 1997, the then Department of Health promised the organisation funding through the health boards. I understand some of the large organisations providing these services received funding. Unfortunately, many of the smaller organisations did not. In turn, this has led to a decision by CoAction to close one of its outlets and make some of its staff redundant. Ultimately, the people who will suffer are children with special needs and their parents.

  Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children what happened to the money promised in 1997? Will she request that a sum of €1.5 million be provided to address the core funding deficit of the organisation in question? Will she arrange for the Minister to come before the House to answer questions on this issue or at least to explain where the promised money is and whether he will make it available? If it is not available, does this mean that the national health strategy is dead in the water?

  Mr. Bannon: I agree with my colleagues, Senators O'Toole and Ryan, with regard to hav[842]ing a free vote on the Local Government Bill tomorrow.

  (Interruptions).

  An Cathaoirleach: The matter does not arise on the Order of Business.

  Mr. Bannon: It is important that every Member be allowed to vote according to his or her conscience.

  An Cathaoirleach: The matter does not arise.

  Mr. Bannon: On another issue, a serious dispute in the Valuation Office is costing local authorities millions of euro. Many industrial and retail businesses have not been paying rates since the dispute started 18 months ago. It is essential for the coffers of local government that the dispute be settled. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to intervene?

  Ms O'Rourke: It is clearly an emotional issue for the Senator.

  Mr. Ross: I support the call made by Senators Brian Hayes and Ryan for a debate on what is a rapidly approaching crisis in the pensions industry. A pensions Bill was debated and amended by the previous Seanad. It has now been overtaken by events and we are heading for circumstances in which people's expectations will simply not be met. It should be pointed out that the industry is not run for the benefit of pensioners, who are the last who benefit from it, but for those who are parasites. They have their hands in the pie—

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Ross: —and have been absolute disasters in running pensions. As Senator Ryan rightly said, they invested in the worst possible performing asset for the past 16 years in which equities have been out-performed by bonds and the experts in the industry have taken the wrong course. The result is that those expecting pensions will not get what they expected. That is a serious situation which is getting worse.

  Ms O'Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes asked if the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would come to the House to discuss drink related crimes and, in particular, announcements made over the weekend. I note that the item on under age drinking is still on the Order Paper, No. 19. We will endeavour to have a follow-up debate, which will be useful.

  The Senator also raised the issue of pensions and requested that the Minister for Finance come to the House to discuss them. As the issue is increasingly absorbing more time in the media, [843]etc., it would be useful if we were to get the exact position.

  The Senator also asked if the National Library had a policy on bidding for items of great national interest. He is correct that the bid on the Michael Collins letter went up to €21,000 and €25,000 or €26,000—

  Mr. B. Hayes: It went to €26,000.

  Ms O'Rourke: Like any bidder at an auction, the National Library would not have a set bidding price. It would probably decide to go so far and no further. Mr. Peter Barry was extremely generous in giving back the Michael Collins items he had purchased and I hope the citizen in question might do the same. On whether the National Library, or any national institution, has a set policy on bidding for a painting, letter, book or whatever, I can get the information for the Senator but imagine its policy is flexible in terms of the market for such an item, which I agree was a very important one.

  Senator O'Toole referred to items on the Order Paper which were to be taken without debate. He does not have a difficulty with the four items to be referred to a joint committee but does have a difficulty with those which have been returned. I have been considering this matter because I am aware the Senator has raised it on several occasions. I am not being facetious when I say any Member of the Dáil or Seanad can attend a committee meeting at which such an item is being discussed. In future, if an item appears on the Order Paper which a particular Senator would wish to have discussed, I will arrange for such a discussion if he or she notifies me. That might be the best way to proceed because it can appear a little arbitrary for me to read out 12 items on which there will be no discussion.

  Senator O'Toole also asked me to find out who was not taking money under the allowance scheme. He can get that information himself. I do not see myself asking everyone if he or she took the money they were granted.

  Mr. B. Hayes: Make an FOI request.

  Ms O'Rourke: I would say he or she did take it. If there is such a person, he or she should put up his or her hand – lámh in ard. I do not see anyone in the House with his or her hand up.

  On Senator O'Toole's question as to whether someone was happy in a particular institution, that is carrying the matter a little too far. It is ridiculous.

  The Senator also asked if the Government parties would have a free vote on the Local Government Bill. We will not.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I see all the nodding heads behind the Senator.

[844]  Ms O'Rourke: We have had very thoughtful discussions.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I suspect there will be a few more.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader to reply without interruption.

  Ms O'Rourke: Senator Ryan raised a concern about Report Stage of the Opticians (Amendment) Bill. There are seven amendments, two of which are textual. I would not normally do things this way and there should be a gap between Committee and Report Stages but the amendments did not appear to need a lot of reflection. That is the reason we have ordered matters this way.

  I also heard the piece on radio regarding the European Commission giving one's dietary needs and other personal data to the United States. While I presume the information is wanted to combat terrorism, I wondered about this also. A representative of the Commission discussed the matter, which does not seem to arise from any legislation or directive and about which I will make inquiries.

  Senator Ryan also agreed with Senator Brian Hayes about pensions. Regarding the committee tier of the national agreement, by their very nature they represent a broad sweep of individuals with various concerns. That is the reason they have divergent views.

  Senator Finucane asked about an honours system in Ireland. Various ways of honouring people such as honorary doctorates from universities have been mentioned. They are keenly appreciated by their recipients. Senator McCarthy said Senators appointed by the Taoiseach were part of an honours list.

  Mr. Ryan: Is that a hint?

  Mr. Finucane: I was not thinking of that.

  Ms O'Rourke: I know but this is an issue that comes up from time to time. I remember it being raised in the Dáil when the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, was interested in it.

  Senator Norris mentioned Tom Hyland, with whom we had a great debate at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs last week. He has received an honorary doctorate. The Senator also wants a special task force for Parnell Street to tackle the problem of crack cocaine there. Was the Senator present for the debate last week? I do not mean to ask in an accusatory way.

  Mr. Norris: If the Leader does not mean to do so, perhaps it would be a good idea not to.

  Ms O'Rourke: I think so too.

  An Cathaoirleach: I ask the Leader to continue.

[845]  Ms O'Rourke: While I know I am inviting comment, I am trying to be helpful. We had a good debate on the matter last week.

  Mr. Norris: On crack cocaine?

  Ms O'Rourke: Yes.

  Senator Minihan wanted to know what was happening with Cork School of Music. As he knows, there is a public private partnership involved. We will have to mount an assault to get it moving.

  Mr. O'Toole: The Department of Finance is blocking it.

  Mr. Dardis: We will orchestrate something.

  Ms O'Rourke: We will, as the Senator helpfully said. That is a heavy joke.

  Senator Minihan also raised the measures of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to combat under age drinking.

  Senator Tuffy sought a debate on East Timor on which we have already had a good debate at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. I had never met Tom Hyland before but he has done great work in this area.

  Senator Feighan seems to be the only one who has heard RTE is taking away the free TV licence from pensioners.

  Mr. Feighan: There is a dispute.

  Ms O'Rourke: While we will inquire, I do not think it is true.

  Senator Quinn wants to know who is responsible for children who are mitching. “Truancy” is the polite word but we all know it as mitching. It appears nobody is responsible because the relevant officers have not been appointed under the relevant section of the Education (Welfare) Act. We have raised the issue here. Raising it on the Adjournment would help to get a direct answer.

  Senator McCarthy raised the issue of a service provider in Cork which is in severe financial difficulties. As the matter of health will be dealt with during Private Members' Business tomorrow, the Minister will be present. The Senator can raise the issue then.

  Senator Bannon who asked about a free vote has shot to great prominence with his amendment – no doubt there will be a vote on it tomorrow. The Senator also referred to valuation offices. Some premises are not paying their rates and there is a resultant downturn for the county councils. There will not be a free vote on the matter.

  Senator Ross asked for a debate on pensions. We will hold such a debate next week.

  Order of Business agreed to.[846]