Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 26 October, 2006

Order of Business.

  Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, Patents (Amendment) Bill 1999 — Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, the contributions of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, and the Minister to be called to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; and No. [1902]2, Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 — Order for Second Stage and Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude no later than 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, the contributions of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, and the Minister to be called to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 2 p.m.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I wish to raise a case highlighted over the weekend of a high-risk convicted paedophile who broke the terms of his probation order in Northern Ireland and came to reside in the Republic of Ireland. There is quite a bit of concern about this matter, given the need to put in place an all-Ireland approach to the question of child protection policy in general.

My understanding is that if a person such as a high-risk convicted paedophile from one jurisdiction comes to live in another jurisdiction, the person is under the obligation of reporting to a local Garda station just once. There is no ongoing monitoring or assessment. There is no examination of the way in which these people may interact with children.

If ever there was a need to put in place an all-Ireland policy with all-Ireland structures relating to monitoring, assessment and police communications north and south of the Border, it must surely be in this area. We should either go the route of extraditing people if they break the terms of a probation order, a very severe circumstance, or else we should apply the penalties in force in one jurisdiction in the other jurisdiction. People of these islands enjoy free movement north, south, east and west but there needs to be much greater security in respect of convicted paedophiles and the systems need to work in order that we can ensure public safety. That should be brought about in addition to the all-Ireland vetting process which the Minister rightly said was required. I ask the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to brief this House on his plans in this area and to set out what additional co-operation between the Garda Síochána and the PSNI is required to ensure child protection is taken seriously and structures are put in place to deal with it effectively.

  Mr. O’Toole: I support the points made by Senator Brian Hayes, which are totally in line with two reasons we need legislation in this area. Under the Good Friday Agreement there was a commitment to shadow legislation in both jurisdictions to ensure a similar approach to these issues. As Senators will recall, in the past couple of weeks we dealt with the Europol (Amendment) Bill 2006, which is being debated in the Dáil this week, to allow co-operation among police forces in various states, the principle of which we were all in favour, even if there were difficulties with certain aspects. People want [1903]this issue to be dealt with in a legal fashion. The weekend newspapers concentrated on paedophilia, which is appalling, but whatever the crime, if someone breaks probation in the North he or she should not be given sanctuary in this State. It defies everything we have supported over the years.

Probation arrangements should be on an all-Ireland basis at the very least. In fact they should be wider in scope, as proposed in the Europol (Amendment) Bill 2006. I ask the Government to deal with that issue, in which it will have my support. It is appalling that sanctuary be given to people charged with any crime, not just paedophilia.

There has been much discussion in the past 24 hours on the report of the three wise men on salmon drift net and draft net fishing, which Senator Norris welcomed yesterday. My views are very clear — it will make no difference. I repeat what I said in the House a year ago about the groceries order. The Government will clearly eliminate drift net fishing and implement the other recommendations in the report because politically, it must do so. However, the only people who believe that buying out 39 salmon licences in a county will stop salmon fishing are those naive enough to believe the only people fishing for salmon are those with the 39 licences, which is not and has never been the case. There is an east coast naivety about salmon fishing, dependent on statistics supplied by officialdom which have never accurately reflected the industry. The only way to deal with the issue of salmon stocks is to get all the people to co-operate, as has happened in Canada and other places. The Government’s abolition of salmon fishing will make no difference other than to put people out of work in various places around the country.

  Mr. Morrissey: In the past few weeks there has been, after many years of procrastination, a successful flotation of Aer Lingus.

  Mr. Norris: What?

  Mr. Morrissey: I say “successful” because the flotation was intended to bring about a number of outcomes. One was equity for the company. The second was the plugging of its pensions deficit and the third was the strengthening of its balance sheet, which has certainly happened. However, the Government has retained a major shareholding in the company and we need a debate on the present management of Aer Lingus. Only last week one of the new shareholders alerted the public and the airline’s passengers to the fact that the company’s catering department now buys in its sandwiches. This morning we heard of swingeing job cuts at the company, starting with the catering department. Why has this not been done already? The management stated two weeks ago that the flotation [1904]of Aer Lingus would not result in lower fares. This morning it stated lower fares would result from the proposed job cuts.

  Mr. O’Toole: Do they involve the Senator’s constituents?

  Mr. B. Hayes: Passengers will have to bring their own sandwiches.

  Mr. Morrissey: Aer Lingus was not established as a job creation agency, though it might have been used as such in the past. The company should concentrate on the service it provides to its customers. As the Government still retains a shareholding in Aer Lingus, I call on the Minister to come to the House to discuss the future of the company.

  Mr. Finucane: If the Senator came down to Shannon he would not be able to get a bite in the restaurant after 3 p.m., which is one of the changes that has taken place. It is a long time since we discussed dismantling the airports and I attended a meeting in Shannon——

  An Cathaoirleach: We will not have a debate on catering facilities at airports.

  Mr. Finucane: I will talk about a more serious topic. I would like the Minister to come to the House to account for legislation going through at present, namely, the 2006 Bill relating to health reforms, with particular reference to changes to the nursing home subventions involving a target of 5% of the overall value of a house. I am amazed that changes in the subvention rates were not part of the Bill because the nursing home subvention rates have been in place since 2001. A few years ago members of a family did not have to include details of their incomes on the form as they were assessed against the overall value. However, we have reached, by way of stealth, a situation where there is a huge differential between the amount of a person’s pension, plus his or her nursing home subvention, and the overall cost. Effectively, family members now pay towards the cost. It is time the subvention values were changed because there has been a dramatic rise in the prices of nursing homes between 2001 and 2006.

I hope the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, will review the position of Irish charities in the forthcoming budget. Last year, €36 million was paid into the Revenue’s coffers in VAT. We had the farcical situation where, of the money collected by people at church gates on behalf of the Irish Cancer Society, €300,000 was remitted in VAT and Concern alone paid €1.5 million. That is a contradiction because the money in question could be more usefully spent in providing oncology nurses and other staff. The Minister should introduce changes in the forthcoming [1905]budget because it is wrong to charge charities VAT at 21%.

  Mr. Mooney: Earlier this week the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body met in Belfast. The Secretary of State, Peter Hain, was asked a question about the development of the Ulster Canal, which has been debated in this House on a number of occasions. Last week the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, who is responsible for Waterways Ireland, indicated he was awaiting the British response. He was, in principle, in favour and said the Irish Government would financially support the project, which is the last link in the waterways of this country and would allow free passage for the Cathaoirleach from his own constituency in Limerick all the way to Lough Neagh and Belfast.

  Mr. O’Toole: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Mooney: I was astonished at the response of the Secretary of State to the effect that the British could not make any immediate move because they did not have the money, whereas the Irish do. That is farcical and a complete reversal of the historical position. I ask the Leader for a debate on the North-South Implementation Bodies, particularly Waterways Ireland, which, along with the all-Ireland tourism marketing campaign, is one of the success stories, in order that this House and the public can be informed of their work.

  Mr. Norris: I normally agree with Senator Morrissey on transport issues but I was astonished to hear him describe the flotation of Aer Lingus as a success. If the Government wanted to privatise it why did it frustrate Willie Walsh’s attempts to take it over? In the process it lost the business leadership whose lack Senator Morrissey bewails this morning. The Government has got itself into this situation.

I am interested in Senator O’Toole’s comments on salmon driftnet fishing but it would be better if he read the Order Paper where he would see that No. 17 has a comprehensive motion in my name——

  Mr. O’Toole: With my name on the bottom of it.

  Mr. Norris: That was the point I was coming to. The motion addresses all the problems. The Government has commissioned reports and so on but has never once taken the scientific advice or implemented the conclusions. Ministers have come into this House and been evasive and economical with the truth and suggested they took on board some of the reports but they have never implemented their recommendations.

This is a potential disaster and it would be outrageous if the Government once again buckled in the face of local considerations and pressure. It [1906]would be just like the situation that Senator O’Toole and I highlighted last night in which the Government helped to unload 250,000 defective homes on the Irish people because it did not want to disadvantage a section of the cement manufacturing industry that supports it. It would be wrong to allow narrow local considerations to prevent the Government doing what is clearly the right thing.

Last night there was a serious fire in Portland Row, involving a hostel. A total of 11 fire brigades were called, 50 people were evacuated and five people are still in hospital suffering smoke inhalation. We are lucky that there was not considerable loss of life. Would the Leader consider allowing a brief discussion on No. 16 in my name, which draws attention to this fact and asks that the Government ensure that all such accommodation is professionally vetted in terms of fire regulations, hygiene, and so on?

Could the Leader find out from the Minister, or ask him to come into the House to explain, whether this hostel was ever vetted, whether it was fire regulation compliant, how many people were there and what are the conditions in this type of accommodation? This is funded by taxpayers but some people make a great deal of money out of these hostels around the country most of which do not meet elementary safety regulations.

I put down this matter on the Order of Business on 28 September and raised it previously.

  Ms O’Rourke: That is right. The Senator did that.

  Mr. Norris: There is a tragedy waiting to happen and it will be too late when people are burnt to death. Then we will all lament and bewail the tragedy. We know about it now. I am using this opportunity to serve notice that a tragedy will happen which we can avoid if we implement the proper fire, hygiene and safety regulations.

  Mr. J. Walsh: Will the Leader schedule a debate on planning soon? I refer in particular to the abuses current in the planning process. Reports over the weekend indicate that for some time there has been a practice whereby people object to a planning application then withdraw their objection when offered considerable sums of money. That should not be countenanced or allowed within the planning structure. Urgent measures should be taken to outlaw the practice.

There are also reports of commercial interests, objecting, sometimes nationally, to planning applications for competitive reasons. A preliminary consideration of appeals should be introduced to the planning process to ensure that vexatious or wrongly motivated appeals are quickly discarded.

I have spent some time over the past couple of years on inquiries into atrocities that occurred here during the period of the troubles in [1907]Northern Ireland. The fact of collusion with British forces, most notably the UDR, has emerged strongly from these inquiries, most notably with the UDR. The Pat Finucane Centre yesterday issued a report yesterday highlighting the fact that at least 15% of those who were engaged in the UDR were involved in serious Loyalist paramilitary offences, including murder and bombings.

I was astonished, although perhaps I should not have been, to see that the English monarch recently attended the stepping down of the regiment as a mark of honour to it. That was inappropriate and added insult to the injuries of the victims of those atrocities. I condemn it and hope others in this House would do the same. It fuels the sectarianism that blights Northern Ireland.

  Ms Terry: I may already have asked the Leader since the start of this session for a debate on domestic violence. A campaign will start on 25 November for six days to highlight this issue. It might be opportune for us to hold a debate during that week. We should also note that 124 women have been murdered in Ireland since 1996, 78 of those in their homes. These are startling figures. Despite debates in both Houses and legislation we are not getting to grips with this serious problem. Organisations such as Women’s Aid do not receive the funding they need to tackle the problem. It would be helpful to have that debate before the budget to try to secure sufficient funding for the groups trying to deal with the problem. I would appreciate if that could be organised.

  Mr. Glynn: I support Senator Walsh’s remarks on the planning process, especially his reference to commercial interests objecting for competitive reasons. There have been several recent examples of this in the midlands. I would welcome a debate soon on the subject during which Members could articulate their views and make suggestions that might find their way into legislation which would prevent this unsavoury practice. It beggars description and in many cases the ordinary Joe and Mary on the street suffer waiting for badly needed services. There was a clear example of this recently in the midlands.

  Ms Tuffy: I join Senators Jim Walsh and Glynn in calling for a debate on the planning process. I would like this to include the development of apartments. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government issued guidelines a couple of years ago seeking higher densities. The developers pursued that with a vengeance and have been building apartments all over the place, even in villages, where they are not in keeping with the local character. There was a plan to issue guidelines on the quality of design but I am not sure that ever came to fruition.

[1908]One would not want to spend one’s life in many of these apartments. I live in a house which my parents bought approximately 30 years ago and which has stood the test of time. That may not be so of many of the apartments being build now. We need to review this issue.

11 o’clock

Taking into account Senator Jim Walsh’s comments on inappropriate submissions, the public should not have to pay a fee to make submissions on planning applications. That has affected public representatives, councillors, Deputies and Senators who must pay if they want to act on behalf of local residents. Public representatives can neither pick and choose planning applications to challenge nor pay hundreds of euro to challenge all applications. The EU has criticised this fee and it should be abolished.

  Mr. U. Burke: Ireland prides itself at being at the forefront of the knowledge economy. This was a result of large investment in the area. The Minister for Education and Science, however, has failed to live up to this commitment. Last year only €2.3 million was spent on the upgrading and provision of IT facilities in schools. Some 10,000 computers in primary schools are in need of upgrading. At second level, 5,500 computers are beyond repair while 20% have been in use for six years or more and are obsolete.

If we want to continue to be at the forefront of the knowledge economy, why is the Minister for Education and Science failing in her duty to provide the wherewithal to do so? When IBEC, the INTO and the secondary teachers’ unions highlight this together, then it is a serious issue requiring urgent attention. Will the Leader bring it to the attention of the Minister? It must be addressed in the forthcoming budget. To allow this situation to continue means the Minister has failed and is not interested in continuing the valuable work done in schools to bring Ireland to the forefront of the knowledge economy. Ireland is lower than the OECD average for availability of computers at school.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has made his point adequately.

  Mr. U. Burke: It is an urgent case. While Minister after Minister promotes Ireland as being at the forefront of the knowledge economy, the Minister for Education and Science is failing in her duties to ensure it is.

  Mr. Hanafin: I call for a debate on credit institutions, particularly after the recent statements by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on those who do not qualify for credit being forced to go to moneylenders who charge exorbitant amounts. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, arranged a microcredit scheme for the poorest of the poor communities, through his Grameen Bank. The scheme has a [1909]96% to 98% repayment rate on its loans. This is largely due to peer pressure in that the loans are organised by the community for the community.

It must be possible for the Government to set aside a certain amount of money for community groups to be able to lend out small amounts of money. The Grameen Bank charges an interest rate of 16%. Unfortunately, in Ireland interest rates with moneylenders can be as high as 30%. Now is the time to outlaw such exorbitant rates being charged against vulnerable people, particularly when the ECB’s rate is no more than 3.5%. We must look for justice for those who may have a fine record of repayment but are unfortunately caught by the credit institutions.

  Mr. Quinn: Next year the French presidential elections will be held. One candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, has emerged as a favourite because as Minister for the Interior he took a zero tolerance approach to breaches of road safety. This is a lesson for those who wish to win elections. To be able to reduce deaths on the road is in the hands of the Government. The Minister has commented on the large number of suggestions from the Road Safety Authority. It is up to us to support the Minister in this regard.

A large number of deaths of young people on our roads occur after hours. The insurance companies could issue a policy to a young driver on condition it expires at 10 o’clock in the evening. This will only work if cars caught without insurance are impounded. Families would certainly not allow young family members to use the family car if they knew it was not insured after a certain hour. This is not necessarily in the hands of the Government but the insurance companies.

A large number of young people have a different attitude to drinking and driving than our generation. I am impressed Mr. Sarkozy’s reward is due to tackling road safety and reducing road deaths when he had the power to do so.

  Mr. Coonan: Recently a neighbouring farmer was attending a long-standing appointment with a consultant when his telephone rang. It was an inspector from the Department of Agriculture and Food, announcing he was to visit my neighbour’s farm in ten minutes. At such short notice, there was no way the farmer could facilitate the inspection. As a result, he suffered drastic penalties in his farm payments for this and next year. This is unacceptable.

Farmers whose lands are acquired through compulsory purchase orders for road developments are penalised by 30% in capital gains tax and 9% in stamp duty. The policy should be more focussed on consolidating farm holdings. Will the Leader arrange a debate with the Minister for Agriculture and Food on these issues, as it is long overdue?

  Mr. Coghlan: Ever since the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform sug[1910]gested the abolition of stamp duty, and despite the Minister for Finance indicating he is set against such a change, there is continuing uncertainty in the property market regarding property-related taxes. This is not good for stability in this important sector. The Government urgently needs to speak definitively with one voice on this matter. Will the Taoiseach take an early opportunity to say something definitive on the matter?

  Mr. Norris: That will be the day.

  Mr. Finucane: Which? The Taoiseach taking an early opportunity or saying something definitive?

  Dr. Mansergh: Albeit after some delay, I am glad all farming organisations will sign on for social partnership, thanks in part to a package of spending measures over the next several years. I agree with Senator Coonan’s point on the consolidation of farm holdings. The capital gains tax situation for farmers whose lands are compulsorily purchased for road developments should be examined.

A recent study showed that Ireland, along with three Scandinavian countries, had the greatest media freedom in the western world. Most Members are conscious of this. It puts the minor complaints about the freedom of information legislation into perspective. It provides a background in which we can debate forthcoming legislation relating to libel and privacy.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes raised the need for an all-island approach to dealing with the release of convicted paedophiles. He understands that an individual who broke the terms of his probation order in Northern Ireland and is now resident in the South need only report to the Garda once, after which he is free to go about his business without any ongoing monitoring. The Senator believes there should be a common security area in this regard and that the wider implications of the travel plans of persons such as this should be examined. Senator O’Toole also raised this issue in the context of the Europol (Amendment) Bill 2006, which allows for co-operation among police forces in various states. That Bill was only recently passed and we must examine whether such arrangements can be put in place in the context of ensuring safety for children.

Senator O’Toole also referred to the report of the three wise men on salmon fishing. It seems an honest debate is finally taking place on this issue. I commend Senator Kenneally who spoke about it this morning on “Morning Ireland”. The only way it will be settled is if there is an attempt to gain common ground. Senator O’Toole expressed the wish to have everybody on side but there will never be total agreement. Perhaps the only topic that would get everybody on side is the wish that we may all go to Heaven. There will be no agree[1911]ment about salmon fishing. There are, however, attempts to have a useful ongoing debate.

Senator Morrissey said he is aghast at developments in Aer Lingus and asked for the Minister to come to the House for a debate on this matter. Senator Finucane spoke about the Health (Nursing Homes) (Amendment) Bill 2006. We will debate this Bill shortly and the Senator will have an opportunity to put forward his good ideas, either on Second Stage or through Committee Stage amendments. The Report and Final Stages of the Bill will finally be taken next week in the Dáil and it will come to us after that. Much correspondence has come in about it. Senator Finucane also pointed out that the 21% VAT imposed on responsible charities is penal and unnecessary.

Senator Mooney said that the response given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Hain, to a query about the development of the Ulster Canal was that the British do not have the money and we do. This seems a cavalier attitude. The Senator seeks a debate on the general progress of the North-South Implementation Bodies.

Senator Norris asked why the Government rejected the expertise of Aer Lingus’s former chief executive officer, Mr. Willie Walsh. He also pointed to No. 17 on the Order Paper, a motion proposed by him and his Independent colleagues on salmon driftnet fishing. Senator Norris went on to raise the matter, as he has done passionately on several occasions, of the dangers posed by hostels. In some of these facilities many people are crowded together and, in some cases, the electrical wiring has not been updated and is faulty. He forecast there will be deaths as a result of a fire at one of these hostels and asks whether action can be taken to prevent this.

Senator Jim Walsh called for a debate on planning and spoke about the abuses within the system. I agree that some objections are made purely on competition grounds. He also raised the matter of collusion between the British security forces and loyalists in Northern Ireland and he condemned the recent attendance of the English monarch at the stepping down of the UDR.

Senator Terry raised the matter of domestic violence and the campaign that will begin on 25 November for six days to highlight this issue. We will endeavour to ensure a useful debate in the House. It is woeful to consider that 124 women have been murdered in the last decade, 78 of them in their own homes.

Senator Glynn spoke about planning and wished to add his name to the calls for a debate on that. He referred in particular to the incidence of commercial interests objecting on competitive grounds. Senator Tuffy spoke about the lack of design and overall aesthetic of many of the apartment blocks being constructed and called for this aspect to be included in the debate.

[1912]Senator Ulick Burke spoke about the importance of the knowledge economy and referred to the lack of modernity at both primary and post-primary level in terms of computer facilities in schools. Senator Hanafin called for a debate on credit institutions and argued the benefits of microcredit schemes for communities. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, has announced a significant strengthening of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS. I am sure many Members advise people who are experiencing financial difficulties to use this service. I have found it very helpful and easy to deal with.

Senator Quinn spoke about Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister and possible candidate in that country’s upcoming presidential election, who introduced a policy of zero tolerance in regard to road deaths and all associated crimes. I hope Madame Ségolène Royal will be the successful candidate in that election but that is another kettle of fish. Senator Quinn proposes the consideration of new regulations to the effect that young drivers’ insurance policies would expire after 10 p.m. There was another tragic road death at 5 a.m. on the road outside Kilbeggan in County Westmeath.

Senator Coonan called for a debate with the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the issue of the penal capital gains tax for which farmers subject to compulsory purchase orders are liable. I hope this issue can be examined.

Senator Coghlan argued that the policy put forward by the Progressive Democrats Party on stamp duty is leading to instability. However, his own party is increasing that instability with its new proposals.

  Mr. Coghlan: The Government has a responsibility in this matter.

  Mr. B. Hayes: Our policy paper was published last year.

  Ms O’Rourke: All will be revealed in the budget.

  Mr. Coghlan: The Minister for Finance has said “No”.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader should be allowed to continue without interruption.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator Mansergh was appreciative of the farm organisations which seem prepared to endorse the new social partnership deal. As he said, they will now be inside the tent looking out rather than outside looking in. Senator Mansergh also referred to the recent report which showed that Ireland, along with three other countries, has the greatest media freedom in the western world. This is a positive achievement.

Order of Business agreed to.