Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 21 June, 2006

Order of Business.

  Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, and No. 24, motion 21. No. 1, statements on adult and further education, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., spokespersons will have 12 minutes and other Senators eight minutes, and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before conclusion of the statements; No. 2, the European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2006 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 3.30 p.m.; No. 3, the National Economic and Social Development Office Bill 2002 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m.; and No. 24, motion 21, to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.

  Mr. Finucane: In 1997, when the present Administration took office, there was concern regarding the escalating cost of houses. At that time, Professor Bacon was commissioned to produce a special report. His objective was to examine ways to reduce the cost of housing. It is shocking to read that in ten years, house prices have risen by an average of 270%, to more than three times their level in 1996. What action do [318]the Government and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government intend taking? Will they reconsider the situation to see whether something might be done regarding escalating house prices, which are putting homes beyond the reach of young people, in particular, who wish to get onto the housing ladder?

It is shocking to think that in 1996 house prices in Dublin were running at an average of only €10,000 above those in the countryside. Now they are €130,000 higher, and one sees the daunting task faced by anyone intending to purchase a house in the Dublin area. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been extremely vocal on many issues. I would welcome his presence in the House to see how he will address the situation. Does the Government have any remedial action planned to stem the rise in house prices?

Since 1997, there have also been 109 murders involving guns; I have left out those not involving firearms. Already this year, there have been 13 such murders and last year there were 21. Inside and outside the House, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated quite openly that the phenomenon was the sting of a dying wasp. I would like to know what has happened to that sting, since we have a black market in drugs estimated to be worth €1 billion and an escalating series of crimes, particularly murders involving firearms.

Most frightening in the context of 109 gun murders over those ten years is that the conviction rate is one in six, since only approximately 18 cases have been solved. I recognise that in gangland circles, a vow of omerta probably applies. In such a context, it is probably difficult to track down people involved in such crimes. However, it appears that any time we have a murder, the Minister calls in the Garda Commissioner and there is a knee-jerk reaction. It is almost as if a sticking plaster were being applied for a period. The people want effective strategies to counteract this situation. It is not good enough for the Taoiseach to say, as he did in the other House yesterday, that Ireland is not unlike other European countries because the regimes for dealing with this problem in these countries are far more successful. We must bring this problem under control because it conveys a very negative image of this country. It appears that the drugs lords are smiling at the degree of inaction that exists in respect of taking them out of circulation.

  Mr. O’Toole: I believe everyone on all sides of this House would sympathise with the points made by Senator Finucane about house prices. We have all witnessed the difficulties in buying houses encountered by family members and their children and friends. However, the harsh reality that Irish people spend more time exulting in the fact that their houses are now worth so much money means that there is not, and never will be, the political will to keep house prices down, [319]despite arguments to the contrary. This state of affairs is appalling but no Government will take the risk of offending people by controlling house prices. I am unsure as to whether Senator Finucane called for price controls. Those in the middle class would be less than impressed by any attempt to hold down the price of their property. This is all they talk about. I do not know the answer to this problem. I strongly agree with the point Senator Finucane rightly and clearly made and it would be worthwhile having a debate on this matter. Such a debate would include contributions from people on all sides of the House on how to address this issue. The Taoiseach argued three years ago that development land is held by a few dozen very wealthy individuals with options in land all over Dublin and that this keeps house prices high because it interferes with the market. I do not know the answer to this problem but I would certainly welcome a debate on it. The point raised by Senator Finucane is very important.

I recently met with the Communications Workers Union to discuss the register of electors. This issue has been discussed on a number of occasions in this House. People from all sides are very concerned about the fact that the register is out of date and unreliable. People change addresses, which harks back to the issue of housing, or change jobs. I am aware that the Government is considering using census enumerators to update the register. I see nothing wrong with this proposal but the people who could carry out this task better than any other group are postal workers, who call to houses every day. Postmen know who lives in a particular house and could update the register annually. They would be prepared to negotiate some method of annually updating the register with the Government. I urge the Government to consider this option and I urge the Leader to raise this question with the appropriate Minister to see whether he would be interested in entering into talks with the Communications Workers Union with a view to using postal staff, particularly those who deliver post on a daily basis, to update the register.

  Mr. Ryan: In respect of the aggrandisement of people by inflated house prices, I do not see the same enthusiasm for escalating house prices among the middle class perceived by Senator O’Toole.

  Mr. O’Toole: Senator Ryan merely has to look outside his front door.

  An Cathaoirleach: Order, please. Senator Ryan, without interruption.

  Mr. Ryan: I will not push the geographical issue too far. I could refer to north county Dublin and point out that very strange things happen there as well but I will not.

[320]  An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ryan must confine himself to the Order of Business.

  Mr. Norris: Do not get snotty about Montenotte.

  Mr. Ryan: Senators should leave my address out of it. Does the Leader know whether the people involved in the building industry who made a €25 million settlement to the Revenue Commissioners will still be honoured guests in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races?

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

  Mr. Ryan: The level of profitability in the building industry is a matter for this House.

  An Cathaoirleach: I am aware it is a matter of interest but the Leader cannot deal with internal Fianna Fáil business.

  Mr. Ryan: A statement must be made on this matter.

  Ms O’Rourke: I will not be in the tent.

  An Cathaoirleach: Neither will I.

  Mr. Ryan: This House desperately needs a swift debate on two issues. The first is the de facto tolerance of the current multilayered assault on the Palestinian people. Three children were killed this morning by rockets fired by the Israeli army. The Israelis claimed they were trying to kill two people who are part of the same political organisation as the President of the Palestinian Authority, as opposed to the Palestinian Government. The Israelis are now assaulting both the President and Hamas. The EU and Ireland are effectively sitting back and saying that Palestinian children do not count, while Israeli children do. This amounts to institutionalised racism in which Ireland is complicit.

  Mr. Norris: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Ryan: The lives of Palestinian children are as precious as those of Israeli children. Until we develop an even-handed policy which tells all those who choose to kill children, either deliberately or through irresponsible military activity, that the killing of children is a profound crime against humanity and that we will not tolerate the commission of such crime by any side in this conflict, we are essentially complicit in a de facto racist distinction between the value of Palestinian lives and that of Israeli lives. We are part of it because we have tolerated the EU’s assault on the elected Government in Palestine. A debate on this issue is so badly needed that I am not prepared to make the usual concession of waiting until the autumn. We need to hear the Minister [321]for Foreign Affairs explain how we can justify the present situation.

A report in the health supplement of yesterday’s edition of The Irish Times referred to the putting on hold of several hospital developments, including the upgrade of the hospital in Mullingar which has been on the cards for many years. The reason given for postponing many of these developments was that the Department of Finance wanted to see a full business case to establish whether the developments represented better value for money than securing the required capacity through the private sector. I heard the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children categorically deny in this House that there was a Government policy to privatise health services. However, the Health Service Executive is now being directed to ensure that such projects are only undertaken by the public sector if the private sector cannot do it. This effectively says that the preferred option for health provision is the private sector. I am seeking a debate on this issue because four major hospital developments, including a dialysis unit in Beaumont Hospital which would provide proper dialysis services, are now postponed indefinitely because the Department of Finance wants to discover if they could be delivered via the private sector. These are all measures which have been announced by the Government and for which the Tánaiste has publicly claimed considerable credit but they are not being carried out because of an ideological determination to hand over the health service to the private sector without any evidence that it would be more effective. We urgently need a debate on this issue before the summer because by the autumn, this ideological drive to privatise the health service will be well nigh irreversible.

  Mr. Morrissey: Later today, the Railway Procurement Agency will publish its annual accounts which will show glowing figures for passenger numbers and revenue generation for the Luas. This proves that people will flock to public transport when it is reliable, efficient, clean and regular. We must acknowledge and applaud success where it occurs.

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Morrissey: Failure occurs too often in our public transport system. At a time when Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann receive considerable subsidies — €260 million this year — from the Exchequer, we must ask why people do not flock to use buses and why Dublin Bus probably operates at a 22% load factor when people flock to the Luas. We need a debate to tease out the reasons behind the success of the LUAS.

Senators have spoken in this House about the housing crisis. The greatest leveller of the housing crisis is the supply of land. Some Senators served on Dublin County Council ten or 12 years ago when hard decisions had to be made about rezon[322]ing land. Some of us are now being asked to account for our decisions in another location in this city. The real issue relates to those who sat on their hands and refused to take hard decisions and rezone land, including officials. Had those lands in Dublin been rezoned ten years ago, what would the current situation be, how far away from Dublin would people be living, what type of transport system would there be and how long would commute times be? Let us have a debate on this issue and on where the real criminals were ten years ago.

  Mr. Callanan: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Coghlan: I must refer again to the Great Southern Hotels paintings. We now know——

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator cannot raise this matter on the Order of Business every morning.

  Mr. Coghlan: I do not.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator raised it yesterday.

  Mr. Coghlan: Perhaps I did not ask the right questions.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator must have a bad memory if he believes he did not raise this matter yesterday. I ask the Senator to speak on another matter.

  Mr. Coghlan: While the Acting Leader was well-intentioned and had his heart in the right place yesterday, we now believe that the hotel group intends to sell the paintings to the Dublin Airport Authority. How can such happen when we know that the State, through the Arts Council, assisted in the original purchase of the paintings? Such cannot be allowed to happen.

I support everything said by Senator Finucane on house prices, which are spiralling out of control. It is impossible for people to get on the property ladder.

  Dr. Mansergh: Like many Members, I recently attended Professor Brendan Drumm’s briefing on improving the public health service but I did not detect a single note about privatising it as alleged by Senator Ryan.

  Mr. Ryan: The Senator would not have been told.

  Ms O’Meara: What about co-location?

  Dr. Mansergh: I share Senator Finucane’s concern about the housing crisis and many remedies need to be discussed. The €100,000 difference in prices between houses in the Dublin area and those elsewhere underlines the importance of proceeding with the decentralisation programme. [323]We need to gain proper political support for it across the spectrum and have one or two of the public sector unions co-operate a little more.

It is good to find a zero figure sum for a Vote in the Book of Estimates in the appropriate context, which is the case of the Luas. It is right to hold the Luas up as an example of effective and competent Government with a strategic grasp. Great credit is owed to the Leader, as the system is excellent. I frequently use it when I am in Dublin. Credit is also due to the Railway Procurement Agency.

  Ms O’Rourke: I thank the Senator.

  Mr. Feighan: What about the current Minister?