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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 23 Mar 1999

Vol. 502 No. 3

Order of Business.

It is proposed to take No. 8, Postal and Telecommunications Services (Amendment) Bill, 1998 – Instruction to Committee; No. 29, Postal and Telecommunications Services (Amendment) Bill, 1998 – Order for Report and Report and Final Stages; and No. 30, Bretton Woods Agreements (Amendment) Bill, 1998 – Report Stage (resumed) and Fifth Stage. It is also proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that No. 8 shall be decided without debate and Private Members' Business shall be No. 78, motion re. European Commission.

Is the proposal for dealing with No. 8 agreed to?

No. This deals with the proposed flotation of Telecom Éireann. Private Notice Questions and Standing Order 31 motions were disallowed by you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on the grounds that the matter did not warrant an explanation in this House. Because we are moving into Report Stage, given the structures and rules of the House, it is not possible for this matter to be raised. We are opposed to this matter being taken until such time as a comprehensive statement is made by the Minister for Public Enterprise to the House in relation to the extraordinary debacle under her responsibility in relation to Mr. Brian Thompson.

The question has been opposed.

Would the Taoiseach respond? I know he is under time pressure, but if this House is given no more than the courtesy of an explanation from the Minister responsible for this extraordinary level of incompetence, then we will agree to the order of the House. In the absence of any such indication, we will divide the House on this matter.

Are they indifferent?

I do not know if the issue is down on the Adjournment, where the Minister could make a statement.

This is a democratic assembly. This is a matter of major importance. We are talking about a State company valued at somewhere between £5 billion and £6 billion, the value of which may have been damaged.

The Deputy sold 20 per cent of it off cheaply.

The Deputy knows exactly what is happening. He should stop trying to cover up. An enormous mistake has been made. This House is entitled to an explanation. An Adjournment debate is not an explanation. I ask the Taoiseach to reconsider what he has just offered this House.

The Minister responsible will be answering questions tomorrow week.

As the Minister will be coming into the House to deal with Report Stage, I ask that 20 minutes be left for specific questions because this can have profound implications for the value of shares in Telecom Éireann. This is a sensitive matter on which there remain serious unanswered questions. I ask that 20 or 30 minutes be made available between now and 7 p.m. to answer questions.

It is a modest request.

I will put the question on No. 8.

If a Deputy tries to raise this matter on Report Stage, obviously the Chair must stop him or her. I am sure the Taoiseach wants the Minister to have an opportunity to give her an explanation for what has happened. Would he agree to accede to the request of Deputy Yates and Deputy Quinn and allow some time during this debate for this specific issue to be discussed so that Members will not be in dispute with the Chair? There will not be an opportunity this week.

There will be an opportunity later this evening on Fifth Stage to raise the matter.

Today's business is comparatively quiet and workmanlike. The House is entitled to at least a response from the Taoiseach. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you may have inadvertently prevented him from making such a response.

It was not raised with me before I came into the House and I did not have an opportunity to talk to the Minister, who will be in the House for most of the day. If the Whip spoke to the Minister, she could say something about it to the House on either No. 8 or No. 29. We all know the facts but the Minister could say something in the House, but that would need to be looked at.

I thank the Taoiseach for that. That is a satisfactory outcome on the understanding that people will be able to ask the Minister for explanations and will not be stopped from seeking clarification on Report and Final Stages.

(Dublin West): May I seek clarification on that? Is the Taoiseach giving a guarantee that this question, concerning one of the most vital national assets—

You heard the Taoiseach. There will be an opportunity.

(Dublin West): Yes, but is it a guarantee that the issue of the defection of the chairman of Telecom Éireann to a major US multinational can and will be discussed, and that there will be an opportunity for Opposition Deputies to ask questions and get answers from the Minister?

I thank the Taoiseach for offering to enable the Minister for Public Enterprise to give an explanation. Knowing her track record, she will take plenty of time to give a full explanation to this House.

Deputy Owen asked for the provision of 20 minutes. The Bill is about the IPO and the shareholding. That is what people are talking about.

But it is at Report Stage.

Fifth Stage is also being taken this evening and there is an opportunity on Fifth Stage to discuss this issue.

We are availing of the Taoiseach's offer to ask the Minister to make a statement on this matter because otherwise there will be a dispute between now and 7 p.m. If somebody tries to speak about this issue, I hope the Chair will take this into account.

There will be an opportunity to speak about it.

No, it is a little more than that. Fifth Stage is not enough.

Fifth Stage would just allow a comment from each party and that would not do.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you seem to be at variance with the Taoiseach. He indicated that, subject to his conversation with the Minister for Public Enterprise, between No. 8 and No. 29 a window of perhaps 20 minutes for questions and answers could be found specifically to deal with the issue of Mr. Brian Thompson. Fifth Stage of the Bill does not provide for such a concise discussion. We will not divide the House on this issue if the Taoiseach's proposal is acceptable.

Twenty minutes.

I thank the Taoiseach.

Is that agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 8 agreed to? Agreed.

Will the Taoiseach explain the exact procedures which will be followed to appoint a new President of the EU Commission and specifically how the appointment of a new Irish Commissioner will be made as the Taoiseach will be travelling tomorrow to a summit?

That is not appropriate to the Order of Business.

There will not be an opportunity to be briefed on this.

There will be an opportunity tonight in Private Members' Time to discuss the issue.

I think the Order of Business is the time for this. The Taoiseach is never here. He cannot be here for Private Members' time. The Taoiseach may wish to indicate to the House the procedure for setting up the new Commission. He will go tomorrow, on our behalf, to attend the summit.

The process for appointing the new European Commissioner will be discussed tomorrow or Thursday. That process will be agreed and at a one day meeting of Heads of State in Brussels on Friday, 9 April the new President of the Commission will be appointed. The President will, over the coming weeks, discuss the membership of the new Commission with the member states. There has been no discussion on that matter. The process for the appointment of President of the Commission will be agreed this week and the date of appointment is Friday, 9 April.

Will the Taoiseach assure the House that a person of substance and distinction will be appointed as Irish Commissioner so that the country will have confidence in the new Commissioner?

Perhaps Mr. MacSharry could do the job in his spare time?

I am sure another person of substance such as Mr. MacSharry will be appointed.

The Taoiseach will agree, no doubt, that it has been the practice in the past that, following summits of Heads of Governments, reports have been made to this House. In view of the fact that we are in uncharted waters regarding the present situation, will the Taoiseach clarify whether the procedure to appoint the President of the Commission and the members of the Commission, other than in a caretaker capacity, will be agreed this week in Berlin and subsequently decided on 9 April? Will the Taoiseach undertake to give a report to the House prior to 9 April, following the meeting in Berlin later this week, outlining the procedures for appointing not only the President of the Commission but also the replacement for Commissioner Flynn?

Is the Deputy recommending Deputy Rabbitte for the job?

That is not a bad idea.

The matter to be discussed this week is the process for appointing a new President. On Friday, 9 April the President will be appointed. There will be no discussion this week or on 9 April on the appointment of the members of the Commission. That will happen following the appointment of the President of the Commission.

How long will we be without a Commissioner?

We will have a debate on the report of the summit meeting next week and I will know at that stage.

Bord Iascaigh Mhara has produced a comprehensive report on funding for the years 2000 to 2006. Will the Taoiseach ensure that a debate will take place on this important document before Easter? We rarely get an opportunity to discuss the marine sector in the House.

That matter does not arise on the Order of Business.

I am sure the Taoiseach will discuss the matter with the Whips.

Will the Taoiseach inform the House when the intoxicating liquor Bill will be introduced? I understand there is an expectation, not quenched by Government backbenchers, that it will be introduced before the summer although it is not on the current legislative list.

The matter is still under discussion. If it is ready it may be introduced in the next session but I am not sure yet.

May I clarify a point in relation to the Taoiseach's reply to my question on the appointment of the President of the Commission? I understand the appointment is likely to happen, subject to agreement, on 9 April. Does this mean that on 9 April those Commissioners who have resigned will also be re-appointed or will we have a newly appointed President and 19 outgoing caretaker Commissioners? Is that what is envisaged?

No decision has been made on this matter yet. We must wait and see what decision is made.

In view of the volatile situation in the Balkans and other regions, will the Taoiseach tell the House when it is proposed to bring forward legislation to provide for the convention on the safety of UN personnel serving abroad and if he is disposed to accept the Fine Gael Private Members' Safety of United Nations Personnel and Punishment of Offenders Bill, 1999, which is on the Order Paper?

Regarding item 21 on the Order Paper relating to Dáil Éireann's approval of a report by the Minister for Defence, will the Taoiseach indicate the position of Irish observers who were seconded to Kosovo? Have these observers been withdrawn?

This matter is not appropriate to the Order of Business. The Deputy should submit a question.

It is appropriate to discuss the people we send to perform duties of a peacekeeping nature.

It is not appropriate to discuss this matter on the Order of Business.

Will the Taoiseach indicate the current status of these observers? Have they returned home or are they safe? At the Berlin summit, will the Taoiseach raise concerns about the possible bombing of Yugoslavia and the extraordinary fact that NATO, without a United Nations mandate, intends to bomb Serbia?

In reply to Deputy Mitchell's question, legislation will be introduced in the middle of 1999, I hope in June, to enable Ireland to accede to the UN convention on the safety of UN personnel.

The Taoiseach will go to Germany tomorrow to participate in a European summit.

It is not appropriate to discuss that matter on the Order of Business.

It is reasonable to ask the Taoiseach to indicate the stand he intends to take with our EU partners on questions of common foreign and security policy.

The matter is not appropriate.

Will the Taoiseach take no stand?

Deputy, you know your question is not in order.

It is in order.

Has the Government offered any advice or has any advice been sought by the FAI regarding the safety of Irish under-21 and senior international soccer players who are scheduled to play European championship matches in Macedonia on Friday?

That matter is not appropriate to the Order of Business.

This matter is important.

It is important but it is not appropriate to discuss it on the Order of Business.

A survey was published yesterday which indicated a clear lack of confidence in charities. Is the Taoiseach giving urgent attention to the Fundraising for Charitable and Other Purposes Bill and when will it come before the House?

The fundraising and charities Bill has been given priority. I do not have a date for its introduction but it is being prepared in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Will the Bill be introduced before the summer recess?

I cannot say for certain. It is being given priority in the Department but I do not have a date.

I presume the Taoiseach will come back with that information.

Am I correct in assuming that legislation will be necessary to give effect to the accord between unions and employers on trade union recognition? If so, when will that legislation be brought before the House? Will the Government Whip arrange time to debate the most recent ESRI report on investment?

Trade union recognition will require an amendment to the current Act. I will inform Deputy Rabbitte as soon as a date has been decided for its introduction to the House. On the other matter, I will ask the Whips to arrange a debate on that issue.

Given that we are now likely to finish this session without reaching so many promised items of legislation, including the wildlife Bill, the broadcasting Bill and the Gaeltacht housing Bill in one Department alone, is the Taoiseach satisfied with the drafting of legislation? Will he indicate the promised legislation that will not now be proceeded with or give his view of whether the legislative process is being held up by the monopoly in drafting? Has the Taoiseach any proposals to change the drafting procedures so that the Government's proposed programme of legislation might mean something other than a symbolic gesture that entertains people occasionally every week?

About eight or nine of the 15 or 16 Bills have already been published. In the past few weeks, most of the staff in the draftsman's office have worked on the British-Irish Agreement Bill until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. each day. That has delayed work on other Bills, including the broadcasting Bill. I had promised the Deputy that the broadcasting Bill would be brought forward before Easter but that and other Bills, including the Udarás na Gaeltachta (Amendment) Bill, the education and welfare Bill, the Health (Amendment) Bill and the Equal Status Bill are in their final stages and would have been brought forward but for the fact that all the staff were taken off that work. The education and training Bill, the Companies (Amendment) Bill, the local elections Bill, the Finance Bill, the Immigration Bill, the minerals development Bill, the Social Welfare Bill and the British-Irish Agreement Bill are either before the House or have been passed by the House.

If forthcoming legislation is to be promised in this House and prepared on foot of decisions announced by Government and if the Taoiseach is unhappy with the resources available for drafting legislation, will he bring proposals before the House—

It is not appropriate to discuss how legislation is brought before the House. I call Deputy Jim O'Keeffe.

—so as to ensure that the legislative programme is real?

When can we expect to see a pensions Bill? Will the Taoiseach clarify whether the lead role in relation to the pensions Bill will be taken by the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, bearing in mind that the Minister for Finance introduced considerable changes in relation to pensions in the Finance Bill?

That legislation, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, is to include additional provisions governing the regulation of occupational pensions. The heads of the Bill are being prepared in the Department. I do not expect publication until later this year.

We will move on from the Order of Business shortly. I will call Deputies Gilmore, Currie and Owen.

Some weeks ago on the Order of Business the Taoiseach informed us that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government would lay before the House regulations under section 43 of the Local Government Act, 1991, to provide for a new regional structure. Now that the EU has clarified the Government's regional policy, will the Taoiseach indicate when those orders will be laid before the House and will Government time be made available to debate them?

As I stated before, that will be done under the Local Government Act, 1991. If the Deputy puts down a question on when that will be done, the Minister will give him that information.

When I raised this matter several weeks ago I got the impression that the orders were about to be made. This matter has been in the public domain for some time and we were told the Government had given it serious consideration since last July. It is a simple question to ask the Taoiseach when these orders will be laid before the House.

I understand the Deputy was given a reply to this question during Question Time recently.

A very unsatisfactory reply.

I will ask the Minister to communicate that reply to him again.

I will send the Deputy the fax and the explanatory memorandum.

When can we expect to see some progress in relation to an ombudsman for children? Now that we have passed the second anniversary of the Second Reading in this House of the Children Bill, when can we expect the promised amendments and Committee Stage of the Bill?

The amendments are still being considered in the Department. As I stated on a number of occasions recently, there are hundreds of amendments to the Children Bill and it is a question of whether the Bill should be redrafted in its entirety, which seems the quickest way forward—

It is now over two years.

Please allow the Taoiseach to reply without interruption.

The last time I checked there were 238 amendments or thereabouts.

There were 240 sections when I left office.

It is a question of bringing forward legislation that is up to date because there have been dramatic changes internationally since it was first drafted, but it will be brought forward as soon as possible.

I will look forward to it with great anticipation.

Where stands the Copyright (Amendment) Bill? The Minister took the unusual step of publishing draft legislation some months ago. Will the Taoiseach tell the House whether the disagreement in Government concerning the work permits Bill has been resolved? Is a mediator working between the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform? Has a conclusion been reached on the matter and where stands the work permits Bill now?

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform says his will will prevail.

Stand by your Tánaiste.

The Copyright (Amendment) Bill will be published before the end of the month. The other matter is still under consideration.

No agreement has been reached on the other matter.

On promised legislation, the juvenile justice Bill, the Taoiseach has given the same answer to this question for the past three months.

We will not have a statement, Deputy. We have long passed the time for the Order of Business.

Has the Cabinet decided how it will proceed on this? Are we talking about a new Bill or amendments? Will the Taoiseach clarify that because he has confused all of us for the past few months?

Is the Deputy referring to the Children Bill?

No, the juvenile justice Bill. What will the Taoiseach do about it?

The Bill is the Children Bill.

Yes, the Children (Juvenile Justice) Bill.

The Children Bill has now been effectively redrafted. There are several hundred amendments.

Is the Taoiseach saying it will be redrafted?

We are bringing forward a new Bill.

I call Deputy Stagg.

The Taoiseach is giving us new information. Until now he has said that the Government was working on amendments. He is now saying the Government will bring forward a new Bill. Will the Taoiseach clarify that because it is important—

Allow the Taoiseach to reply, Deputy Shortall.

I have just answered that question in reply to Deputy Currie, but I will answer it again. There are several hundred amendments to the Children Bill. The Bill, at this stage, is not recognisable from what it was a year ago—

Two years ago.

—because of what is happening domestically and internationally. We will either have to amend the Bill entirely or bring forward a new Bill, which seems more sensible. Either way, the Government is working on it and will bring it forward as soon as possible.

I call Deputy Stagg.

Which way does the Taoiseach intend to do it?

Deputy Shortall, I ask you to please resume your seat. I have called Deputy Stagg.

We have been hearing different information on this important legislation for the past two years. The Government does not seem to know where it is going.

I ask Deputy Shortall to resume her seat while the Chair is on its feet.

The Taoiseach has given two different replies today.

Respect the Chair, Deputy Shortall. The Chair is on its feet. I ask you to resume your seat. I call Deputy Stagg.

Which is it? Does the Taoiseach know what is happening in relation to this Bill?

Deputy Shortall, resume your seat.

If Deputy Shortall is interested in seeing the Bill, the Bill will be brought forward. We have several hundred amendments and a decision will be made, when all of those have been examined, on whether to bring forward a new Bill or proceed with the existing Bill.

When will that happen?

I gave that answer here about six weeks ago.

I call Deputy Stagg.

Two years have gone by, Taoiseach.

Deputy Shortall, I ask you to respect the Chair and resume your seat.

I am asking a question.

On a point of order, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Deputy is asking a legitimate question.

Deputy De Rossa, you also know that you must resume your seat when the Chair is on its feet. The Taoiseach has answered the question. The Deputy has been told about promised legislation. I call Deputy Stagg.

She has not been told.

I ask Deputy Shortall to resume her seat or leave the House.

When can we expect that Bill?

As soon as possible.

I think Deputy Conor Lenihan wants to throw his diaper into the debate.

I will suspend the sitting of the House for five minutes to call the Ceann Comhairle if the Deputy is not prepared to leave the House.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.