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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 25 Oct 2001

Vol. 543 No. 1

Order of Business.

The Order of Business today shall be as follows: No. 24, motion re Dispatch of a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force for service with the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), returned from committee; No. 25, motion re Fourth Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam (proposal for a Council regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the member state responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the member states by a third country national) returned from committee; No. 7, Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage; No. 1, Sustainable Energy Bill, 2001 [Seanad] – Second Stage.

It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that: Nos. 24 and 25 shall be decided without debate and the Dáil on its rising today shall adjourn until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 6 November 2001.

There are two proposals to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with Nos. 24 and 25 without debate agreed? These are motions about the approval to dispatch a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force to Ethiopia and Eritrea and the Fourth Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam. Is that proposal agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with the Adjournment of the Dáil today agreed? Agreed. I shall now take Leaders' questions.

Before putting a question to the Tánaiste I would like the House to note the passing of Eamon Kelly, actor and storyteller, and I would like to extend our sympathy to his wife, Maura, and his family. The high point of his career was when he was nominated for a Tony award after appearing in the staring role in Philadelphia Here I Come on Broadway. John B. Keane said of him: “He can take a word or a phrase and swing it in front of you like a hypnotist's pendulum so that he captivates you. It's a magician's art.”

In her capacity as Minister of one of the key economic Departments with a specific role in employment policy, will the Tánaiste indicate what the early warning system in her Department is telling her about the likely impact of the economic slow down on the level of employment?

I join the leader of the Fine Gael and send the condolences of the Labour Party to the wife and family of the late Eamonn Kelly, a person who was quintessentially Irish and who embodied everything that was good about traditional Irish life.

Will the Tánaiste indicate the specific monitoring systems that exist within her Department to identify companies currently at risk in light of today's report that up to 14,000 IDA Ireland sponsored jobs are vulnerable? Does she accept that a co-ordinated mechanism of assisting companies at risk is more valuable at present than encouraging outside companies to invest in Ireland?

I join Deputies Noonan and Howlin in extending my sympathy and that of the Government to the wife, Maura, and family of the late Eamonn Kelly. Mr. Kelly was an outstanding Irishman who entertained us all. I was not aware of the comments by John B. Keane quoted by Deputy Noonan but they are apt.

The global economic slowdown had been under way prior to the events of 11 September, although clearly these compounded its effects, and Ireland had already lost approximately 4,000 jobs in the high-tech sector this year. To put that in context, globally 500,000 jobs were lost in the sector and 200,000 of these losses came in the United States. During the summer period in particular a number of announcements were made with regard to job losses.

The industrial development division of my Department has an early warning system in place. It is constantly in contact with the relevant State agencies – Shannon Development, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland – which are in direct contact with their clients. Relatively speaking, we have in place as good an early warning system as possible. I am conscious that, on foot of commercial, stock exchange and other considerations, companies make decisions rapidly. These are not always communicated to us and, for understandable reasons, they cannot be. I do not have responsibility for the food or tourism sectors. In the aftermath of 11 September, tourism in particular will take a heavy hit in the short term.

I wish to reassure the House by stating that unemployment remains low at 3.6%. The number of applications for job permits is still running at approximately 200 per week. We have had a very liberal regime in place in relation to work permit applications where 95% to 99% of these were granted. Obviously we must be vigilant in light of the possibility that unemployment might rise and we must adopt a somewhat more conservative approach to granting work permit applications. We must be sure companies cannot find workers from the indigenous population before employing foreign nationals, because our first priority is to employ our own people. There are 60,000 foreign nationals working in Ireland. More than half of these are from outside the EEA and require work permits or working visas, while the remainder are from within the EEA. It is clear that a safety valve exists in this regard.

It is clear that the high-tech sector is undergoing its most difficult period in 40 years. A number of different factors have arisen in recent months which have caused this, but it will remain a strong sector in Ireland where it employs more than 100,000 people. It is clear this is an industry for the future and not one that will collapse. Ireland will be a key player in this sector and that is why it is important that we remain competitive and deal with the issues which affect the competitiveness of our economy. The Government is vigilant in that matter.

I return to whether the early warning system in the Tánaiste's Department is adequate. At present, sentiment among ordinary people is turning and there is a danger that we might talk ourselves into a deeper recession than economic circumstances will justify. Against a background of farming being in crisis, the tourism industry being in meltdown, Aer Lingus being on the brink of disaster, the value of property being in decline, the IT sector being in great difficulty and building contractors laying off workers and signalling that they will no longer build on speculation and will only work to meet demand, the Tánaiste has a duty to put figures on the decline in sentiment in order that her early warning system can assure the public that we are not on the slippery slope towards recession. She must do so. I am optimistic about the economy, but sentiment has turned. A great deal of the growth experienced in Ireland in recent years depended on consumer spending and consumer confidence. The latter is leaking out of the economy at present.

The Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance must make statements at the earliest opportunity about the current state of the economy and the prospects towards the end of the year. IDA Ireland is quoted this morning as suggesting that 14,000 jobs in the high-tech sector will disappear in the coming 12 months. Has that data been factored into the Department's early warning system, from where did it come and is it correct?

It is not helpful to refer to disasters and meltdown. The glass is still half full and it is important to remember that. The Australians are celebrating the fact that this year their growth figure will reach 4%. Notwithstanding the global difficulties, the Irish growth rate will be in excess of 5%. We must, therefore, put matters in context. Ireland still has one of the fastest growing and most successful economies in the world.

The Taoiseach said earlier in the week that the growth rate would be 3%.

That was a forecast possibly for next year. I am referring to the figure for 2001. In that context, things have clearly changed during the past 12 months. We must be responsible and cautious and we cannot engage in any spendthrift policies and return to some of the policies that caused problems in the past. We have factored in to our early warning system the forecast from IDA Ireland which indicated that, this year, there would probably be a net increase of only 400 jobs in the FDI sector as opposed to increases of between 10,000 to 12,000 in recent years.

We must not forget the indigenous sector. Many Irish companies are focused on the United States and are experiencing considerable difficulties. There is considerable industrial development support for companies in Ireland by way of grant aid and a favourable taxation system. The education system and our training regime remain crucial in assisting companies to develop the kind of skills base they need to compete. I am confident we will see our way through this global economic slowdown and the Irish economy will emerge from it in good shape.

Is the Tánaiste in a position to confirm that the board of Irish Rail has developed proposals to divest the company of the bulk of its freight business? Does she accept that such a proposal would be socially and environmentally disastrous for this country, that it runs counter to national and European Union policy and that it is in direct contravention of an EU White Paper published in recent weeks? Will the Government intervene to ensure that this crazy plan is not implemented?

I understand that yesterday the board of CIE rejected proposals to the effect that of the 600 operatives in the freight sector, there should be 300 redundancies.

Can the Tánaiste confirm this or indicate an alternative plan? Is it wise that CIE should adopt a strategy to move freight from rail to road when there is traffic chaos in our towns and cities?

I do not want to give an unconsidered response. I am not aware of whether the board has made the decision suggested by Deputy Howlin.

Did they tell the Minister?

Order, please.

The Minister is not aware that such a decision has been made. I agree that both from an environmental perspective and from the traffic point of view we need to use our railways productively, effectively and efficiently. In relation to the board of CIE making decisions about redundancies, I am not aware of what decisions they may have made except that Irish State companies obviously have to be efficient and effective and must operate in the real world of the private sector. If the board of CIE made such a decision I am sure it was in the interests of the overall company that such a decision was made, regrettable as it might be that people have to lose their jobs.

That is a cop out.

Order, please.

Regarding Deputy Noonan's question, the plan is to make sure Aer Lingus survives, succeeds and develops. That is the priority for the Government. Unfortunately from time to time companies in both the State and private sectors have to take tough decisions to survive in the medium to long term. The survival plan put forward by the board of management of CIE is with a view to ensuring the company becomes viable. Everyone wants to see the company becoming viable and the Government wants to see the plan implemented as quickly as possible.

Does the Tánaiste accept that it seems this Government has no handle at all on what is happening in any of the semi-State companies? She clearly has no knowledge or understanding of what is happening. Does she accept that the semi-States are being run into the ground by the absence of any vision or policy on them? Specifically in relation to the matter I raised, will the Government accept the abandonment by Irish Rail of the bulk of its freight services or will the Tánaiste give an undertaking this morning that the Government will intervene to ensure this critical social and environmental network is maintained? The consequences for our totally inadequate road network of transferring tens of thousands of journeys from rail to road would be horrendous and unacceptable. Can we have clarity on that matter in terms of the view of the Tánaiste and the policy of the Government?

The Government is not running the State sector into the ground. No Government has invested more in public transport than this one.

That would not be hard.

Order, please.

A huge proportion of the spend of the national development plan is in the area of developing infrastructure, both the public transport sector and other forms of infrastructure such as water and sewage to make sure this country has first rate infrastructure.

That is nonsense.

Order, please. These are leaders' questions.

Public transport has a huge part to play in this regard. In relation to the specific query about decisions that may be made by the board, that is a matter that should be directed to the Minister in question.

There is no policy.

We now come to other questions.

The Garda Commissioner raised in today's press the possibility of widespread closures of Garda stations around the country. Has the Government made a decision in this regard? Is the policy of zero tolerance now one of zero Garda stations?

The Deputy is not in order.

Has the Government made such a decision?

Zero tolerance is a misnomer.

On promised legislation, three weeks ago the Government passed a resolution at the behest of the Minister for Public Enterprise stating clearly that the ownership of Aer Lingus was not now an issue and that the Bill before the House for the privatisation of Aer Lingus was being withdrawn. Is the Minister making this up as she goes along or can we expect at some time in the future a Bill as promised by the Minister, to effect the full double U-turn on this issue, for the privatisation of Aer Lingus, which she has now threatened?

In response to Deputy Creed, there are no such proposals in relation to Garda stations.

I ruled that question out of order and it is disorderly to answer.

I am aware of that and I apologise, a Ceann Comhairle.

Would the Tánaiste be told if there were?

I think so, yes.

Regarding Deputy Stagg's question, the Bill which was withdrawn was for a full IPO.

What is it now?

The Minister made an announcement here the other day following the Cabinet meeting. The priority for the Government is to ensure Aer Lingus survives, develops and grows and that it continues to play an important part—

Will there be a new Bill?

Order, please.

Clearly there are equity issues for Aer Lingus as it seeks to go forward. If legislation is required to put some aspects of the viability plan into effect, that legislation will be forthcoming.

What I am asking, and I am entitled to ask it, is this: when will we see the Bill? We have the Taoiseach and the Minister—

Does the Tánaiste not think it is necessary now?

Has Deputy Stagg any plan? Not one. They want to close Aer Lingus.


Order, please. Allow the Tánaiste to respond without interruption.

When the legislation is necessary it will be brought forward.

On a point of order, why did the Minister mislead the House—

That is not a point of order. The Deputy will resume his seat.

The point of order is this. This House was misled—

That is not a point of order. The Deputy is being disorderly and should resume his seat.

The Minister made a statement and misled the House. She should withdraw—

What is Deputy Ryan's plan?

If the Deputy does not resume his seat he will be asked to leave the House.

I say to Deputy Ryan that we should not play politics with Aer Lingus.

The Tánaiste should not respond to disorderly interruptions.

The Minister wants to close it.

That is what the Deputy wants to do.

The legislation will be brought forward by the Minister for Public Enterprise when it is necessary.

The Minister has changed her mind again. Now she wants to close it.

What is Deputy Stagg's plan? To close it.

Stand up to Europe.

They would not stand up for anything.

Please allow the business to proceed.

Before asking the Tánaiste a question on promised legislation, I join in the tributes paid to Eamonn Kelly and the expressions of sympathy to his wife Maura and family. The Listowel writer Bryan McMahon once described Eamonn Kelly as a national treasure and to many of us he was an icon. From my friendship with him I know he loved everything Irish and it is fitting we should pay tribute to him this morning.

As he loved the arts, can the Tánaiste indicate when the Arts Bill, which proposes revamping the Arts Council, will be brought forward?

The heads of the Bill have been approved by the Government and I understand the Bill will be brought forward early next year.

Yesterday the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, announced to the press that he expected the Road Traffic Bill to go through the Dáil before Christmas. The Bill has not yet reached Second Stage here and I understand from my Whip that there is only one slot reserved for it between now and Christmas. What revised arrangements is the Government making to have the Second Stage of the Road Traffic Bill in the Dáil and at what point does the Tánaiste expect the Second Stage to be completed so that it can go to committee? Certainly the Labour Party would like to facilitate the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, in having this Bill passed through all Stages in the Dáil by Christmas but we want to hear now what is the Government's timetable to enable that to happen.

I thank Deputy Gilmore for his commitment to support the early passage of this legislation which, as he said, is urgent. The proposal is to have the Second Stage debate the last week in November and I hope to have it out of the House very quickly so that it can go into committee and be passed before Christmas.

On No. 7 on the Order Paper, the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, could I have a commitment from the Tánaiste that this debate will be open-ended, that there will not be a guillotine at the end of Second Stage and as long as Members of the House wish to contribute, they will have the time to do so?

Yes, I think commitments have already been given by the Government that there will be a full debate.

No, they have not. On the contrary, there is a proposal from the Government Whip to close it down.

We are starting it.

A three-day debate?

That is not agreed.

Of course it is not agreed.

That is what they want.

It is proposed.

There is no such proposal from the Government.

There was.

The Whip is confirming this behind the Tánaiste.

There is ample time for this debate.

As I said in this House recently, the Government is anxious that there would be as much consensus on this legislation as possible. We look forward to a very full debate beginning in this House today and look forward to discussing the amendment put down by the Fine Gael Party in the context of that debate.

The Tánaiste will recall her party claiming ownership of a Bill promised over a couple of years in the lifetime of this Government. Deputy O'Malley, in particular, claimed credit for it. The Bill was to remove the FEOGA funding from the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. Having regard to a great many things about which Deputy O'Malley knows a great deal, why did that fall off the legislative schedule?

Unfortunately, I acknowledge that that Bill has not been processed. It still remains a commitment that legislation of that kind will be introduced.

Not by this Government.

There are a number of issues, industrial relations issues – issues raised by the staff involved. For those reasons and other reasons, the Bill—

That never stopped her before.

If Deputy Stagg would like to hear the answer, I am prepared to give him the answer. For those and other reasons the Bill has not been advanced.

The Tánaiste will be aware that every week in Dublin and the counties around Dublin thousands of planning applications are granted with major transport implications. When can we expect the greater Dublin area land use and transport Bill to be before the House? If it is left much longer it will be irrelevant, if it is not already.

The Heads of that Bill will go to Government later this year. The legislation will be published next year.

(Dublin West): Ba mhaith liom, chomh maith, mo chomhbhrón a chur in iúl maidir le bás an tseanchaí, Éamon Kelly. I nGaeilge nó i mBearla, chur sé draíocht agus sult i saol an-chuid daoine sa tír seo.

Will the Tánaiste clarify the question of the Aer Lingus legislation, which the Minister clearly promised the day before yesterday.

(Dublin West): No, I am in order, a Cheann Comhairle, believe me.

It is in order to look for clarification on when the Bill will be introduced—

(Dublin West): Precisely.

—but not to ask for clarification on what is in the Bill.

(Dublin West): The Tánaiste must say if that Bill is necessary to give effect to the shameful decision to privatise 35% of the company.

Questions on the effect of the Bill are not in order.

(Dublin West): I understand, but the timing of the Bill will depend on whether the Bill is necessary to give effect to the proposal for 35% privatisation and 2,000 job losses. That is how it is relevant. Will the Tánaiste state clearly if this Bill will be brought in to give effect to these disastrous proposals by the Government for Aer Lingus?

On the time the Bill will be introduced.

Clearly if the Government is to dispose of any shareholding in Aer Lingus, it will require legislation and that legislation will be forthcoming. The Minister for Public Enterprise will bring the legislation to this House when that is happening.

Has the Government not decided on that?

(Dublin West): Does that mean within a month?

There will be another opportunity later today for the Deputy to put his question.

(Dublin West): Does that mean that within a month, for example, we will have this new Aer Lingus Bill introduced? Will we have it within a month?

They are making it up as they go along.

I do not want to put a specific time frame on it but whenever it is necessary, it will be done. It could be then, yes.

We are now almost four and a half years into this Administration and legislation to provide for an Ombudsman for children has been promised. Is the Tánaiste aware that the orthodontic service is in chaos, that people who can ill afford to have orthodontic treatment are forced to go to private practitioners to get it done at an average cost of £2,000? Are there any plans within the Department of Health and Children to address this serious situation? Is the Tánaiste aware that the people involved in orthodontic services throughout the health boards are stretched to the limit and cannot cope with the number of people waiting for assessment?

The Deputy cannot develop the point. He can only ask the question.

They cannot cope with the treatment waiting list. Does she intend to do anything at all about it?

No more spin, we want action.

Is there promised legislation on that?

The heads of that legislation were cleared by the Cabinet last April and the Bill will be published this session.

I have two brief questions for the Tánaiste. Does she have the experience I have when shopping for food, in that in recent months there has been a major escalation in the number of price rises? In the run-in to the introduction of the euro, in the context of the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill, does the Minister agree that there should be a major compensatory mechanism for people on social welfare given that prices under her remit have been out of control for the last few months of the punt?

On the Order of Business the Deputy cannot advocate what should be in a Bill.

A few weeks ago I asked the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste if she could consider setting up a jobs task force for her own west Dublin and for the north Dublin area, in relation to job losses.

Maybe the Deputy could pursue that by way of a parliamentary question.

This morning she admitted to the leader of Fine Gael that she is not aware of the statistics on job losses.

The Deputy's question is not in order. The Deputy should resume his seat.

I am not sure if you were listening, a Cheann Comhairle.

The Deputy is out of order.

On Aer Lingus—

The Deputy now is out of order.

—there are perhaps 2,500 or 3,000 job losses coming up.

The Deputy has other ways to raise that matter.

They do not even know the statistics.

It is not in order at this point. This is the Order of Business.

The Tánaiste has admitted she does not have accurate statistics on job losses—

The Deputy now should resume his seat. He is completely out of order.

—or an early warning system. She told the leader of Fine Gael—

The Deputy knows there are other ways to raise the issues to which he is referring.

—she does not know what is happening on the job losses front.

The Deputy is out of order. He should resume this seat.

It is an outrageous dereliction of duty by the Tánaiste on the west-side and the north-side of Dublin—

I will have to ask the Deputy to leave the House if he does not resume his seat.

—and we are getting sick and tired of it.

I ask the Deputy to resume his seat.

Added to this, there is the disaster of Aer Lingus, where 2,000 workers were outside these gates yesterday pleading for their jobs.

The Deputy is totally disorderly.

They were outside the Oireachtas pleading for their jobs.

Does the Deputy have a plan?

I have a plan.

Will the Deputy resume his seat?

The Minister has no plan. She had no plan when she went to Brussels.

Order, please. Order.

This Minister admitted this morning she did not know what was happening in relation to job losses statistics. Her early warning system—

I have asked the Deputy to resume his seat. The Deputy is being totally disorderly and he should resume his seat.

—is a load of nonsense.

The Deputy should resume his seat or leave the House.

Can I ask the Tánaiste—

No. The Deputy is being disorderly.

—will she set up a jobs task force for Dublin's north-side?

I will ask the Deputy now to leave the House. The Deputy must leave the House.

I am asking the Tánaiste—

No, the Deputy must leave the House.

—if she will set up a jobs task force for the north-side of Dublin.