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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 Apr 1997

Vol. 151 No. 6

Order of Business.

Today's business is items 1, 2, 3 and 34, motion No. 26, in the names of the Independent Senators. Item 1 will be taken from now until 1 p.m. We will make as much progress as possible and decide by agreement whether to take all Stages. I propose a time limit of 15 minutes per speaker on Second Stage. Item 2 will be taken from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. and the same arrangements will apply. The Whips can discuss these matters during the day. Motion No. 26 will be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and item 3, Adoption (No. 2) Bill, 1996, will be taken at 8 p.m. This is an addition to the business agreed last week and it is included by agreement. It is proposed that only Committee Stage of the Bill will be taken this evening.

We agree to the Order of Business. This side of the House always acts responsibly. Perhaps the Leader of the House would enlighten us about our forthcoming responsibilities by telling us when the election will be called. That would make it easier to conduct the business of the House.

Members of the House are usually loth to praise themselves, but the frequency with which the Cathaoirleach announces Messages from the Dáil to the effect that Seanad amendments to Bills have been accepted is gratifying. Today he announced that Seanad amendments to two Bills were accepted by the Dáil. When I first became a Member of this House such an occurrence was rare. It is a testament to the quality of Senators that Seanad amendments are being accepted and that legislation is being debated properly.

Four or five weeks ago I asked the Leader about the bound volumes of the Official Report, which are now six years behind. I understand the volumes are with the printers and all that is required to publish them is money from the Department of Finance. As all Members know, these volumes are of vital importance to enable us to look back over records, etc. We can find information in the daily reports, but it is easier to find it in the volumes where there is an index. I ask the Minister to bring this matter to a conclusion by getting the volumes printed.

Many of us who pay our VHI contribution by cheque got an awful shock yesterday when three times the normal amount was deducted. We made an agreement with the Department of Finance for deductions once a month. One Senator contacted the Department and was informed the VHI was taking three months in advance.

I understand the matter has been resolved. It was put down to the famous "computer error". The necessary refund is being made.

I accept that, but I totally object to the way this was conducted. I do not want to see it happen again because we have more than VHI bills to pay at the end of the month. Although Members of this House receive a paltry sum, we have never discussed the recommendations of the remuneration review group. We should be to the forefront in protecting ourselves and putting exactly what we get before the people. We should not allow people on salaries of £250,000 dictate to us that we are not worth our salary. The matter should be discussed in the open — by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and then the House.

The Leader could do us a favour and take us out of our misery by giving us at least a hint when the election will be held. He may be able to do this indirectly by indicating the legislative programme over the next few weeks and the Government's proposals in that respect.

I ask the Government to give urgent consideration to the needs of people with disabilities. I know Senator Maloney has been active in asking for a debate on disability — both physical and mental. The Irish Wheelchair Association was among the bodies who put forward proposals prior to the budget. Given the present buoyancy in the economy their demand was modest. Perhaps the Government will look at it.

I agree with Senator Fitzgerald about the degree to which amendments to legislation have been accepted in the House. This is a positive development. Much of the legislation in the past few months has been improved because of the amendments put down on this side of the House and accepted by Ministers. The fact that the Government is in a minority in this House has also been beneficial in this respect. This side has hopefully been responsible in the manner in which it has used its voting strength and the Government side has been receptive to reasonable suggestions. In amending so much legislation, the House has done some good work in recent months.

I ask the Leader to provide time to debate the ESRI report on the economy published this morning. I would like this report, which shows our economic growth will continue for another ten years, to be discussed before the general election. The report also shows that by 2005, our living standards will surpass those of the British and that unemployment will fall to the levels in France and Germany. I am sure the Leader and the Members of the House will concur that these are signs of good Government.

It is a sign of successive good Governments.

It is a sign of 40 years of good Governments.

I want to bring this morning's launch of this excellent document — the Second Progress Report of the All Party Committee on the Constitution — to the attention of the House. If any Members of the Seanad wish to attend the launch in the Department of an Taoiseach, they would be very welcome to do so. We recognise the excellent work which has been done by Senators so far and we want to give them an opportunity to do an even better job.

The Taoiseach's statements in relation to the apparent conflict of evidence which he gave to the beef tribunal and the Dunne tribunal on payments to politicians are a matter of comment in the public press this morning.

The Taoiseach clarified the situation.

Newspaper commentators are pointing out the contradictions in the Taoiseach's statements.

We are not discussing today's newspapers on the Order of Business.

This issue is being discussed and analysed and the Taoiseach is being contradicted by newspaper commentators in the public press.

He is not.

He is indeed, as the Senator will see if he reads this morning's newspapers.

Will the Senator put a question to the Leader, please?

Can the Taoiseach come into this House and explain these contradictions? It was this House, as part of the Oireachtas, which gave authority to launch those two tribunals. If there is a conflict between the Taoiseach's statements at the tribunals, he should come into this House and explain it rather than issuing statements to the newspapers which are being contradicted by commentators and bringing Members of the House into disrepute.

I raised the matter of the postal service in the House yesterday and I understand that we could have all party agreement, with the Cathaoirleach's consent, to raise matters of concern to Members of the House in relation to this issue. Members from both sides of the House want to make statements on the serious situation which prevails at the moment where the postal service has almost collapsed. It has certainly collapsed in my part of the country.

If the Senator gives notification of the matter to the Seanad Office before 1.30 p.m. today, it will be dealt with later in the day.

I have tried very hard to have a debate in this House on National Roads Authority funding. Unfortunately, such a debate has not taken place. I am embarrassed at the number of times I have raised this issue in the House. I have also requested a debate on local authority funding and, again, I am embarrassed at the number of times I have raised this issue. Has the Leader a particular problem with me or is he unable to bring the Minister for the Environment into the House? The Minister had time to go to RTÉ and make a statement which could not be challenged by anyone other than Pat Kenny and his ilk. I want to know whether the Minister for the Environment can come into this House to discuss matters of fundamental importance to the nation and to rural communities. Perhaps this is a last ditch cry but I appeal to the Leader to bring the Minister into this House to answer questions of paramount importance.

That matter might be more appropriate for an Adjournment debate.

I received a letter, dated 21 April, from my local authority in relation to asbestos piping which states that "further to your recent inquiry regarding the length of asbestos piping..."——

Letters from the Senator's local authority are not relevant to the Order of Business.

I am attempting to impress upon the Leader that this issue is one of paramount importance. My county has approximately——

It is not in order to read correspondence during the Order of Business.

——410 kilometres of asbestos piping. This is a national issue. How many kilometres of asbestos piping are there in other counties? We are talking about upgrading water schemes in rural Ireland, but this issue has not been mentioned. The Minister is totally out of touch with the reality of the situation. I am appealing to the Leader to provide the House with an opportunity to inform the Minister of our concerns and then I will not have to be out of order on the Order of Business. I hope this will be my final appeal.

Will the Leader arrange a debate on the payments for beef farmers from EU and Exchequer funds? I understand the money will be paid through meat factories. This important matter needs to be discussed. The Minister intends to visit Egypt soon and perhaps that could also be included in the debate. The allocation of money is welcome.

We would be grateful for a debate on it.

Senator Enright, without interruption.

The House should acknowledge the changes the Minister for Social Welfare proposes to make to the telephone and electricity allowances for people over 75 years of age. These changes are most important.

Does the Senator have a question to the Leader?

Does the Leader agree the proposals are important? The welcome changes mean elderly people will still receive the allowances even if a number of other people reside in the house with them.

Regarding the ESRI report, I join Senator Doyle in hoping that there will be continued prosperity. Will the Leader make time available for a debate on the Eurostat report? This leaked document showed that Ireland is second in the European league of children living in poverty. There is an urgent need to discuss the ESRI report in tandem with the real position of families.

I have asked on a number of occasions for a debate on agriculture. Members do not realise the seriousness of the difficulties that are building up at present.

On which side is the Opposition?

There must be an election.

Senator Townsend, without interruption.

There are problems in the cereals, beef, beet, sheep and milk sectors.

Get rid of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates.

These problems relate directly to the GATT.

Agricultural trouble.

Senator Townsend is correct.

A mechanism exists for a mid term review and we should do everything possible to ensure that the agreement is changed because it militates against Irish producers. Senator Dardis appeared to misunderstand my point. If there is a reduction in export refunds in the beef sector, it would be more beneficial to Ireland to spread it over the whole year and not just implement it from January to March. In the sheep sector, New Zealand is allowed to export large quantities of lamb to the EU.

I would appreciate it if the Senator summarised the sectors.

Reductions spread over the entire year would be more beneficial to Ireland. This matter is so important that there should be all party support for a renegotiation of the GATT. There is a provision in that regard and the matter should be taken seriously.

The Leader was asked for a debate on agriculture last week and he said he would arrange it for next week. I ask him to indicate what time will be allocated for a debate on agriculture and when it will take place.

I support the calls by Senators Doyle and McGennis for a debate on the ESRI report. I congratulate and compliment the Government on its announcement yesterday regarding the designation of Knock Airport.

Deputy Jim Mitchell said it was foggy and boggy.

This is an important step forward for the western region and is the answer to the bishops' initiative.

I thank Senator Fitzgerald for his continuing co-operation. He and other Senators are right when they talk about the significant number of important amendments to various Bills, not least the Universities Bill, which was passed by the House last week. We all agree with Senator Lee's article in this week's edition of The Sunday Tribune that a balanced and good Bill emerged from the process, not least on the issue of representation on governing bodies, where Senator Fitzgerald's contribution was particularly significant.

Senator Fitzgerald raised the question of the scarcity and slow arrival of bound volumes of Parliamentary debates. It is a pity, and in an age of modern technology the cost of such volumes should be reducing rather than increasing. We should not be waiting up to seven years for bound volumes to become available. I will make further inquiries into the matter.

Senator Fitzgerald also asked whether I could shed light on the date of the election to the other House. I cannot, but Senator Dardis asked if I could say when we would be sitting. We will be sitting at least two days next week. Senator Kiely asked about the possibility of a debate on agriculture. The only day that could take place would be Friday of next week because two days are being devoted to the Finance Bill and there are other pieces of legislation to be dealt with. I will discuss the possibility of a special Friday sitting with Senator Kiely. We will be sitting three days the following week and I expect we will be sitting the week after that because, as Senators know, the Upper House is ever vigilant. This means there will be at least three further weeks of legislative work of this House.

Senators Doyle, McGennis, Burke and others raised the question of the ESRI report. If there is time, we should debate it. I take the point made by Senator McGennis that it is at a time when there is unalloyed good news on all sectors of the economy and for the future of the economy and the provision of jobs that we should turn our attention to some of the most pressing social problems. If the rising tide is going to lift all boats we should be focusing attention on the people least able to speak for themselves. I have no difficulty in debating both reports at the same time. The worst thing that can happen to any country is that it lulls itself into a sense of false complacency, something nobody wants to allow happen.

Senator O'Kennedy raised the report on the Constitution, which is about to be launched. I have only had a glance at it. It contains some good things and some odd things. I would like to read it more carefully. I am not surprised that Senator O'Kennedy left the Chamber before the full import of some aspects of the report became known to colleagues on all sides of the House. We will look at it between now and the end of the session.

Senator O'Kennedy also raised the question of the Taoiseach's statements. The Taoiseach would have no difficulty coming before this House. Indeed, it might be useful to invite his predecessor and his predecessor in turn if a precedent is to be set. He would have no difficulty in explaining the consistency of what he said.

I am glad Senator McGowan is raising the issue of postal services and other matters at the end of today's business. I guarantee that his statements with a covering letter will be on the desk of the chief executive of An Post tomorrow. I will not send it by post.

The Senator would not pass the advertising standards if he said the appeal he made was his last. I think we will hear further appeals from him. I have a genuine problem. The local authority debate has taken place. There will be a major chance for the Senator to raise issues during discussion of the Bill to abolish local charges, which will cover all aspects of local government. The Senator will be able to make his point in that major legislative set-piece within the next two weeks.

Senator Enright mentioned EU funding and social welfare matters and, like him, I welcome those changes. Senator Townsend called for a debate on agriculture and tried to hold it this morning. It is a question of finding time. I realise it is an important issue but it may be necessary to sit on a Friday or a Monday to hold such a debate, because 12 Bills are due to be introduced to the House before the end of this Parliament. Like Senator Burke, I warmly welcome the granting of special tax status to regional airports. This is one of the most imaginative measures for a long time and we look forward to the major investment and job creation.

Order of Business agreed to.