Seanad Éireann - Volume 174 - 06 November, 2003

Order of Business.

  Ms O'Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, Senators may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.

  Mr. B. Hayes: The Leader will be aware that some years ago the Government introduced a [762]new savings scheme to allow people to save money in order to have some kind of pension entitlements in the years ahead. PRSAs were first introduced by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs in an Act that went through both Houses of the Oireachtas. Following a year in operation, it is quite clear that the scheme is a dead duck. People are not buying into what were supposed to be low cost, flexible pension schemes. The original report from the pensions commission suggested that if there was a low take-up of these new pension schemes, the Government would look again at ensuring employers would commit more to pension schemes for their employees. I put it to the Government that this scheme is not working. There is already a pensions time bomb coming down the line and private pensions must be provided for. I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate with the Ministers for Social and Family Affairs and Finance on this matter.

  Has the Government taken a final decision on whether it will progress plans for a new stadium at Abbotstown? During the last election campaign the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform called it a Ceaucescu-like development. What is the Government's current position on this proposal? It is clear the public supports the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road over the new proposal for Abbotstown and, therefore, we need to have clarity on the matter.

  Mr. Quinn: We have a rather small amount of work for today with just one Bill before the House. We had a very good debate yesterday on the ESRI mid-term review of the national development plan. A few days after that report was published, the annual competitiveness league report was published. It indicated that Ireland moved from 11th in the world in its ability to compete to 24th last year and 30th this year. As our economic future depends on our competitiveness, the matter did not get the attention yesterday that it might have had the report been published before the ESRI report. I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on this issue in the near future so we do not lose sight of the matter.

  During the summer there were serious blackouts in North America, particularly in the north-east of the United States, and also in Italy. We have come to assume such incidents would never happen in Ireland. We should have a debate on the matter at some stage and get a report from the Minister responsible to ensure enough steps are being taken, given that much privatisation has taken place in energy, regarding both gas and electricity, to protect us from the possibility of a blackout.

  Somebody made a comment in one of the debates yesterday that I have an anti-southside bias. I believe traffic accidents happen because people are incensed at delays. For some reason or other the traffic is blocked for only 50 seconds south of the Liffey to allow the DART through whereas it is blocked for three minutes 50 seconds [763]north of the Liffey. I hope the DART people are not adopting an anti-northside bias.

  Mr. Ryan: I enthusiastically support Senator Quinn's request for a debate on competitiveness. However, I hope people will read that study in some detail. There is a tendency to assume competitiveness means inflation when it is a much more complex measure, about which I am quite sceptical. If people want to talk about it, I hope they will discuss the full report which mentions public institutions as one of the issues. Corruption is mentioned also, although I am not supposed to use such words. Let us have a debate, but let us read the breadth of the issue. When I hear people speak about competitiveness, I think it is another word for benchmarking in the minds of most people. That should not be the case.

  Yesterday we were assured that two major items of legislation – the Bill to set up the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and the civil liability and courts Bill – would be enacted before the end of the year. I have checked my diary and find that there are six sitting weeks from next Tuesday. These are two major items of legislation. Has the Leader been consulted about a schedule for such major items of legislation? This House is very good at processing legislation. The other House appears to have walked into a morass where the last thing it seems to do is process legislation. We will do our business but if we end up with two major items of legislation around 10 or 12 December and are asked to pass them by 20 December, it is not the way for the Oireachtas to do its business. The Leader ought to go to the Government and say that if it wants this legislation processed, there will have to be a proper time schedule in both Houses of the Oireachtas.

  The second matter I wish to raise is an issue which Senators Lydon and Ó Murchú, among others, raised yesterday, the EU proposal on embryonic stem cell research. There is a range of views on this topic. Contrary to stereotype, I probably would be on what would be classified as the conservative side of this argument. However, this is an issue of fundamental values and no Government should be able to go to a European Council meeting and make a decision for this country without the matter having been properly debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I am not trying to pre-empt a conclusion, but this is not an issue on which the Government should take advice particularly from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is not qualified to make ethical evaluations. Whatever else it is good at, and it is good at many things, making ethical evaluations about something as profound as this is way outside the brief of that Department.

  I urge the Leader to ensure this matter is debated thoroughly in this House and to use her influence to ask that it is debated thoroughly in the other House before Ireland's position is made [764]known at a European Council meeting. If we do not get this debate, I will be forced to oppose the Order of Business. This is precisely the way Europe gets a bad name – big issues being decided in secret at private meetings without reference to the elected representatives of the people of individual countries.

  Mr. Kett: Will the Leader ask the appropriate Minister to come to the House to discuss the financing of voluntary organisations working in the area of disability? Many of us have received their pre-budget submissions in which they express concern about core deficits and staffing shortages. Great progress has been made in this area since 1996 or thereabouts. It would be a shame if we were to take a step backwards at this stage. I appreciate moneys are tight but those areas of disability were the poor relations in the past and it would be a shame if they were the poor relations in the future. Given we have not had a debate on disability in the lifetime of this Seanad, it would be a good time to debate it prior to the budget.

  Mr. Finucane: The Minister of State responded to a recent Adjournment debate on the radiotherapy service and the expert review report and stated that distance to travel for treatment ranked 13th in order of priorities for patients. The expert review group commissioned a study on this matter, but it is a flawed document and I want to correct it. Most of the survey was carried out in Cork and Dublin where there are radiotherapy facilities. No survey was conducted in many counties. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister to come to the House to debate the Hollywood report, on which I want to ask specific questions? It is interesting that consultants attached to St. Luke's Hospital refused to co-operate with the study because they regarded the way in which the issue of distance to travel was addressed as incorrect and improper. I want to expose that as an incorrect finding which distorts the position.

  I am glad the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is raising in the European context the fact that some 13 ships, classified as ghost ships, are on their way to a dismantling company in England. The ships have travelled 4,000 miles from America and they contain PCBs, asbestos and heavy fuel oil. It is a disgrace. I hope the European Parliament and the Minister will follow up this matter. If the Americans want to dismantle 143 ships, they should do so in their own country and not pose a potential risk to our coastline in the event of anything going wrong with these ghost vessels as they travel to another country.

  Dr. M. Hayes: Before raising my own substantive point, I support Senator Ryan's plea for a debate on stem cell research. That is the type of decent reflective debate for which the Seanad is ideally suited. I probably would have a different view from many others on the issue, but that is [765]not the point. I too was amazed when I read that the issue was being handled by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment which does not appear to be the locus of any particular experience or competence in matters of ethics or biomedical research.

  I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on public sector management. I am indebted to Senator Ryan who raised the question of project management yesterday. I was struck by a remark by the Taoiseach in the other House yesterday when he said civil servants were not taking risks. One of the reasons civil servants do not take risks is that people like us crawl all over them and jump up and down when they do take risks. I had experience of this in the past where we sent people into deprived communities and told them not to be fuddy-duddy, to take the odd risk and to cut through red tape. Years later the Committee of Public Accounts and the media enter the scene. One part of the culture cannot be changed without changing the other part. The matter is worthy of a debate.

  Mr. Ross: I support with enthusiasm Senator Ryan's call for a debate on stem cell research. It is an important issue and one on which the Seanad could take a lead. There is division on it among all political parties which makes it more interesting.

  I would also like to respond to Senator Maurice Hayes's suggestion that we have a debate on public sector management. The term is a bit of an oxymoron to be honest but I would like us to debate the subject matter to which he refers. The problem, put succinctly, is that the culture in the public service is to say why things cannot be done. My experience is that when one asks for something to be done the immediate reaction, because of the manner in which civil servants are trained, is to give the reason it cannot be done. It would be useful if the House debated the issue.

  I would like to draw a specific instance to the attention of the House. One of the greatest problems I find in this House, and it is a direct and delicate public service matter also, concerns the computer system. It does not work properly. Anybody who tries to get their e-mail system working at weekends is obstructed by the Office of Public Works, the IT unit or any other area of the House approached. It is almost impossible for the system to work. When one asks questions about it, the matter will be passed from Billy to Jack but nobody will take responsibility and nobody is interested. A debate which would change the mindset of the public service and make the private sector more sympathetic to its difficulties would be useful. The issue has not been tackled to date.

  Mr. Coghlan: The Leader is aware there have been many calls for a debate in this House on planning and she is well disposed towards facilitating this. That it has not happened yet is not the fault of anybody here. There is major concern [766]about the role of An Bord Pleanála and the glaring inconsistencies in the system. We get split decisions of the board, 3:2 votes, on major matters. It seems to rule one way in Offaly and another in Donegal and overrules inspectors' reports by the new time. That is allowed for in law. While I am sure it is open and transparent, we should ensure that we can read the reasoning behind a 3:2 vote because there is public confusion. There are many other difficulties with planning throughout local authorities. I repeat the call for a debate and am sure the Leader will oblige us as soon as she can.

  I agree with Senators Ryan and Brian Hayes and support the call, which was also made yesterday, for a debate on stem cell and embryo research. Three committees of the Houses, the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Joint Committee on Health and Children, are dealing with different aspects of this subject. It would be useful if the Houses could debate the matter.

  Ms Terry: I support the call of Senator Brian Hayes for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, to come to the House to outline how she will manage the future pension payments of workers. I agree PRSAs have been an absolute flop. The Government must take heed of what the people have said. They do not trust the PRSAs. They also know that their pensions, to which they have contributed, will not be worth much when they retire. The people want the Government to provide them with a secure, guaranteed pension. They do not want something similar to what they received when they bought the Eircom shares, which were another reason for the flop of the PRSAs. People have long memories.

  I would also like the Minister, and perhaps the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to come here and outline what will be done about people in the workplace, particularly women and those in part-time work, who are underpaid and not provided with facilities to enable them to carry out their work effectively. Employers who do not fulfil their obligations and the lack of facilities such as child care services prevent other women from entering the workplace. I call for an early debate on this interesting issue.

  Mr. Minihan: Will the Leader arrange a debate on the situation in Liberia and particularly on the intention to commit members of the Defence Forces to Liberia? I understand this matter will come before the Dáil next week. Under a triple lock mechanism we must have a UN mandate, Government approval and approval of the Dáil, not the Oireachtas, for this. It would be remiss of the Seanad not to debate this issue.

  Mr. B. Hayes: Hear, hear.

[767]

  Mr. Minihan: We are about to commit some 400 Irish troops to Liberia and will want to debate this over the next 12 to 18 months as the mission unfolds. We should debate the issue from the start and should be made aware of the situation on the ground and of the commitment we are making. As the issue is coming before the Dáil next week, I ask the Leader to consider arranging a debate.

  I thank Senator Ryan for his support for the call I made yesterday for a debate on stem cell research. Senator Henry has been calling for this for some time. I am glad Senator Ryan is coming on board and that he agrees we should debate the issue. There is a need for that debate in order to clear up some of the myths coming forth in the argument. One only has to read the propaganda in some extremely right wing literature on the issue to see the non-factual and inaccurate statements being made. A debate would clear up those issues.

  Mr. U. Burke: I join other Senators in calling for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, to come to the House. However, it is not of pensions or savings that I want an account, but social welfare claims. At present, many fraudulent social welfare claims are being discovered and the false claimants lose their claim. We welcome this. However, within the review mechanism many legitimate claimants are demoralised. People making disability claims are being hounded and losing part or all of their legitimate claims. It appears the review is nothing more than a cutback. If the Minister is not already aware of this, what is happening in the system at local level throughout the country should be explained to her. If there are limits in funding at present and if people are to receive restricted or reduced claims, it should be done openly and transparently rather than declaring people's legitimate claims fraudulent. The cutbacks are hurting those in greatest need.

  Mr. Mooney: I support Senator Minihan's request for a debate on the Irish-UN involvement in Liberia. There has to be debate in the Dáil on the issue, but it is equally important that whenever Irish troops are being sent overseas, this House should also have a voice. The constitutional imperative is that the Dáil and the Government must approve it but this House should express its opinion. I hope the Leader will agree to a debate.

  In light of the ongoing developments in Israel and the Middle East, and the visit by our colleagues, Senators Norris and Mansergh, to Israel in recent weeks as part of an international parliamentary group, would the Leader consider it useful to have a debate on the Middle East with specific reference to Israel and Palestine? The peace process seems to be in a torpor at present with very little movement on either side. That Ireland is taking over the EU Presidency and is currently [768]preparing for that important event means we will be centre stage concerning any political developments in the Middle East. A debate would be useful for that reason. This House has a very proud tradition of important and useful debates on the sad, unfolding tragedy that is the Middle East. Perhaps Government time might be made available sometime between now and the end of the year for that purpose.

  Mr. Bradford: I support the request for a debate on the situation in Liberia. We had a debate on Iraq two days ago. During his contribution, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Kitt, referred to what he felt was the improving situation in Liberia. If there is to be an Irish contribution to the work of developing peace in Liberia, it is important that we in this House offer an opinion.

  Mr. J. Walsh: I join with Senator Coghlan in asking for a debate on planning. It would be quite timely because the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is at the embryonic stage of drafting new guidelines for local authorities. The issue of rural housing, the role of An Taisce and that of An Bord Pleanála are matters to which we could turn our minds. Perhaps we could influence the shape of the guidelines so people will be able to live in the countryside rather than running with the agenda of those who visit the country every few years and prefer not to have houses in their way preventing their enjoyment of the scenery. The country should be for the enjoyment of those who live in it.

  I subscribe to the call for a debate on PRSAs and the whole area of pensions. It is far too early to dismiss the benefits of PRSAs. This is the first time a Minister has introduced a mechanism whereby people in employment have a statutory entitlement. Those of us who are in the public sector have index-linked pensions that could not be bought in the private sector. We should remember that many people have no pension entitlements through their employments. There is also a move from the defined benefits schemes to defined contributions schemes, which are not as attractive to individuals when they retire.

  Mr. Hanafin: I would welcome the opportunity to debate stem cell research although it is not a subject that makes people jump out of bed early in the morning to run down to the breakfast table and chat with the family about. Notwithstanding this, it is a very important issue and one about which there is much misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Today's issue of the Irish Independent at best misunderstood and at worst misrepresented yesterday's Oireachtas committee meeting where stem cell research was welcomed. What is not welcomed is research on embryos, a point on which there is cross-party agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Embryos are the smallest members of the human family. I [769]would never support research on human embryos. Other opportunities are available through placental, neo-natal, bone marrow stem cell and adult stem cell research. These are the stem cell areas in which progress is currently occurring in medicine. Stem cell research should be welcomed in the same way as the discovery of penicillin.

  Ms O'Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes referred to the issue of the PRSAs as a dead duck. His call for a debate on the matter has been taken up by other speakers. He also raised the topic of Abbotstown and asked where it was although we know where it is—

  Mr. B. Hayes: I asked the Leader where it is going.

  Ms O'Rourke: The question “whither Abbotstown?” seems to ebb and flow like the tide. We read about it from time to time but we do not know what is the intention. It would be useful to have somebody in to discuss it. The Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, will be back next week. We will approach him about the arts plan and we can also raise this matter.

  Senator Quinn mentioned that we have a light agenda today. I disagree with him. This Bill, technical though it is, is a wonderful expression of the European project and of the dream which set up Europe, the very dream of the people in the middle of the last century who wanted to create a united Europe. It is a wonderful opportunity for all of the countries involved, in which people will read debates on the matter involving civil servants and politicians. This is a chance for us to strongly affirm our welcome. I know the Senator feels the same way. Small as it is, it is a Bill full of dreams, which I hope will be recognised and applauded.

  Senator Quinn also raised the issue of the competitiveness league. Ireland is in 30th position. The Senator also asked whether there was a danger of an electricity blackout here such as occurred in other countries, notably Italy and the US. We could have a useful debate on that. Senator Quinn suggested a link between traffic accidents and road rage. I suppose we all have to contain our rage sometimes. The Senator also raised the north-south Dublin city divide with respect to the response times for traffic lights.

  Senator Ryan urged caution on the question of the competitiveness agenda. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, told the House quite forcefully that both the PIAB Bill, which is under the aegis of her Department and the other justice Bill would be enacted prior to Christmas. Senator Ryan asked whether the House would have to deal with these two major Bills on 19 December. I have just discussed this matter in my office. Both Bills are very important and it is not acceptable that we would have to debate them on the [770]same day. As it is Seanad business, we were to get the PIAB Bill. There is a legislation meeting this morning at which Mr. Eamonn McCormack of my office is in attendance. The topics for discussion include the Bill on Aer Rianta, the PIAB Bill and the other Bill all of which are supposed to be fully debated in both Houses by Christmas. We await the outcome of the meeting although I do not think this will be possible. I envisage a scene on 18 or 19 December where we may be hustled.

  Senator Ryan took up the point made by Senator Minihan, Senator Ó Murchú and earlier, Senator Henry, on the need for a debate on embryonic stem cell research. We should have a debate on this. I do not know enough about the issue and would like to know more. I do not know what Department will take responsibility for the matter. It seems oddly positioned in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with the exception of the aspect of microbiology—

  Mr. Minihan: Biotechnology.

  Mr. B. Hayes: The funding for science and technology.

  Ms O'Rourke: We will try to get the relevant Minister here. Senator Kett raised the financing of voluntary bodies and asked for a debate on disability which we have not had to date. We had a debate some time ago about child disability with the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley. The Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill is currently going through the Dáil. I will try to arrange a debate on the matter.

  Senator Finucane raised the matter of radiotherapy services, an issue he has consistently aired. I received a letter on the matter this morning, stressing that the issue of travel and distance was not addressed adequately in that report, thereby rendering it flawed. The Minister has been very strong on the question of ghost ships carrying asbestos. I heard him speaking about it on the radio and television and they pose a great hazard.

  Senator Maurice Hayes asked for a debate on public sector project management and pointed out that we jump up and down regarding the Civil Service when something goes wrong.

  Senator Ross shares the view of the House that there should be a debate on embryonic stem cell research. He also raised the computer system in the House and Senator O'Toole was also very angry about that matter recently.

  Senator Coghlan wants a debate on planning and Senator Ormonde confirmed that the matter is being prepared, as Senator Walsh said, in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government at present. It is at the early stages. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, is indisposed at present and as soon as he comes back, I will ask him about that matter. Senator Coghlan also raised embryonic stem cell research.

[771]  Senator Terry wants a debate on PRSAs and asked that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, come to the House to discuss this matter and also the issue of women in part-time work and others who do not have the facility to go out to work. More of them want to work but cannot because of various gaps in the social support system.

  Senator Minihan wants a debate on the issue of troops being sent to Liberia. I will seek to hold that debate next week. As Senator Mooney said, the Constitution mentions specifically that the Dáil and the Seanad should debate it. We will hopefully debate this issue. The Senator also raised stem cell research, echoing his call yesterday.

  Senator Ulick Burke wants the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to come to the House to discuss social welfare claims. He welcomed the efforts to deal with social welfare fraud, but not in all areas. However, if one is to root out fraud in any area, it is rather difficult to exclude certain parts, such as local cases which the Senator specified. I welcome the idea of rooting out fraud in any area of life. I understand his concern that people who most need social welfare might lose it, but if their claims are not fully in order they should not receive benefits.

  Senator Mooney wants a debate on the Middle East which would be very useful. Senator Mansergh gave me an informal report on this and I saw him speaking to Senator Mooney about it too. We should have a debate on this issue. Senator Bradford asked for a debate on Liberia. Senator Walsh wants us to debate the planning guidelines and warned us not to condemn PRSAs too soon. Senator Hanafin said he welcomed stem cell research, but not embryonic stem cell research. This House is made for such debates. It is a matter of locating who precisely is willing to grasp the issue and in what Department and I hope we can do so.

  An Cathaoirleach: I remind Members that there will be a short meeting now of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

  Order of Business agreed to.