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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 May 1999

Vol. 159 No. 9

Order of Business.

Today's Order of Business is Nos. 1 and 2. All Stages of No. 1 shall be taken today, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of other speakers not to exceed ten minutes. The Second Stage of No. 2 shall be taken today, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of other speakers not to exceed ten minutes. Senators may share time on Nos. 1 and 2.

The Order of Business is agreeable. Will the Leader indicate, as he said he would earlier in the week, the business he intends to take between now and the local elections? Will he also circulate to the Central Bank, the commercial banks and, perhaps, the European Central Bank the assurances given last night by Senator Dan Kiely that interest rates will remain fixed for the next 30 years. The financial market would be greatly reassured if that could be done

The world is a safer place as a result of the indication of certainty about economic indicators given in the House last night. The idea that we could forecast interest rates for the next 20 years was very well received by the people.

I am sure the House will welcome the latest opinion poll results because a levelling of views and getting people together gives a great sense of stability and focus to any Government. The idea that the Government will call an election will not now rush into people's heads. The idea of the Government getting above its station and beyond itself does not now arise. We should welcome the findings of the latest opinion poll that there is a coming together towards the centre of all the main parties. That is to be welcomed.

The Labour Party also welcomes the results of the opinion poll which has shown a rise in its popularity.

The Bank of Ireland announced £659 million profits this year. There has been a 24 per cent increase in its profit margin. It could very well go along with Senator Dan Kiely's suggestion that interest rates be fixed. Perhaps it might add a couple of points to the savings rates for people who are putting money into the bank, particularly elderly people. It might also respond to the debate we had last week about the very high interest rates on credit cards. It has had very assured profits over a considerable period of time with the growing economy. It might also stop cutting corners with depositors' funds, a practice taking place in a number of other banks.

The Grand Orange Lodge in Portadown made a statement today that the Orange parades will not be routed on a large scale to Portadown this year. Instead, it will concentrate on local marches. This is a very welcome development. I do not know if there is a mechanism by which this House can transmit a message to the Orange Lodge in Portadown. If there is, it would be worthwhile to indicate our response to it defusing a very difficult situation. We should also send a message of congratulations to Mr. Trimble for the talks he has had with the Garvaghy Road residents and the extent to which they have moved over the last couple of months toward defusing these events. Progress is at last being made in this area, which was a cockpit, so to speak, for the potential outbreak of violence. We must welcome this progress and I ask that the Leader find a mechanism through which we can communicate our views on the matter.

I welcome the arrival of more refugees from Kosovo to Ireland today, some of whom will stay in the Army barracks in Kildare. They are very welcome.

A related issue deserves comment. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has stated it has a $70 million shortfall in funding. Obviously it is very important that it is able to deal effectively with the large-scale human tragedy taking place and the refugee problem. Ireland has contributed £2.4 million in recent months, not only to UNHCR but to Irish NGOs and other agencies. The Government has allocated £400,000 to UNHCR and that is to be wel comed. However, the Government has an obligation to ensure all our partners in the European Union contribute fully to addressing this human tragedy. Japan has been the biggest single contributor and the Italian people – as opposed to the Italian government – have contributed $9 million. We need to emphasise through the Department of Foreign Affairs to the European Union that obligations of member states should be fully honoured and funding should be provided to deal with the tragedy.

Like everyone else, I welcome the commission set up by the Government on past child abuse. However, I suggest we are all party to another form of child abuse currently taking place. I refer to judges in the courts not having the benefit of independent psychological assessments of children coming before the courts in divorce and family law cases. When the relevant Bills went through this House, Senators on all sides of the House argued for the necessity of such reports. For a year I have been writing to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, regarding the lack of these reports. Last autumn it was suggested that 75 more probation officers should be urgently appointed so some attempt could be made to have such reports for judges who are in an invidious position in trying to assess cases without any independent assessment of what is happening to the children.

I ask the Leader to suggest to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the increase in the number of probation officers is long overdue. Since Monday the probation officers have taken industrial action because they are trying to deal with a number of cases with which it is impossible to deal properly. They are a responsible group and must have been driven to the end of their tether to do this. I would be grateful if the Leader would do this because on numerous occasions I have contacted the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform about this, but with no effect.

I support the comments of Senator Costello regarding the banks. I have raised this matter on numerous occasions. While I appreciate we recently had a debate on credit cards, the matter was addressed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and we did not have the opportunity to debate the issue of interest rates and financial institutions generally. We should be allowed that opportunity and I ask the Leader for a further debate which would focus on banks and financial institutions. Banks can borrow money at less than 3 per cent, yet they distribute it to the public at rates of 5 to 7 per cent for mortgages and 8 to 12 per cent for term loans and overdrafts. That is a great variation, especially in the context of the £700 million profits announced by the Bank of Ireland today. We certainly should have a debate. Those sorts of profits are immoral and this House should have an opportunity to consider whether the general public could benefit from a change in the system.

I ask the Leader for a debate on the recent and other reports on genetically modified foods. The Irish Food Safety Authority has indicated there are no problems in this area, but that is the opinion of only one authority. Several other authorities feel there are major difficulties and there could be long-term damage to human health. The House could debate all the reports, not take just one report directed to the Department of Health and Children. Perhaps the Leader would allow a debate on this matter during this session.

It has come to my attention that the blood transfusion service is being centralised. If this is not true I may be contradicted. There are 110 people employed in that service in St. Finbarr's Hospital in Cork. The service has been there since 1985. As Senator Quill knows, it originated in Leitrim Street and I would not like this service to be centralised to the Dublin region. I would not like to think what could happen if there were an urgent need for blood in other areas.

The Cork region alone services most of Munster from east Waterford to Kerry and the west. Since everybody is saying this is happening, why is the relevant Minister not telling us this in the House? Why do we constantly need to ask questions on many issues and why does a Minister not come into the House to explain the merits or otherwise of an idea? We represent the people and know best. Imagine if people in my region or the Leader's region are looking for blood urgently at 7 p.m. while the service is centralised in Dublin. We would need a fleet of helicopters to deliver it. I would like to be informed.

I take it the Senator is seeking a debate on the matter.

I ask the Leader to immediately bring to the Tánaiste's attention the closure of the Giro factory in Newcastlewest and the loss of 50 jobs. I call on the Tánaiste to put a task force in place to ensure a replacement industry for Newcastlewest. Thousands of jobs have been created in recent years and Limerick has had its fair share. However they were mostly concentrated in the city environs. Towns such as Newcastlewest have been forgotten. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the Tánaiste's attention.

I join Senator Finneran in his call to address the issue of interest rates and credit cards. We should address it in terms of the usury inflicted upon those who are a little late in paying taxes. The interest rate charged by the Department of Finance through the Revenue Commissioners is compound interest at 1.5 per cent per month. I do not mind that for people who do not want to pay taxes. They will not pay the interest or the tax. However, some people are a little late in paying tax. Despite all the interest rate changes in this country in recent years, the one interest rate which has not changed is the rate charged by the Revenue Commissioners to people who are a little late. Interest of 1.5 per cent per month on a compounded basis is supposedly 18 per cent per annum but it can become approximately 45 per cent per annum.

If the Revenue Commissioners gave the same rate of interest to people who are ahead in their tax, as some people are—

The Senator cannot go into such detail on the Order of Business. All these points can be made during the debate when it takes place.

I appreciate that. Statements were made regarding NATO and the UNHCR. The UNHCR is short of funds. If NATO dropped two less bombs, in a single night it would eliminate the UNHCR deficit. We will have the biggest greenfield site ever created in central Europe as a result of the bombing. The UNHCR does not have sufficient funds. If NATO were to put up the funds to help the refugees, they would only need to drop two bombs fewer each night. This would clear the UNHCR's debts and eliminate poverty in many countries in Africa.

On the establishment of the commission to investigate child abuse, I ask that the report on the Madonna House atrocities, which was suppressed by the Government in 1996, be published in full. It is a disgrace that sections of the report, which would have major implications for those involved, were omitted.

Mr. Ryan

I agree with Senator Lanigan on the issue of wars and warfare. It is one of the great ironies of life that nations seem to have limitless resources to prosecute war and absolutely no resources to prosecute peace.

Has the Leader any information on Report Stage of the Criminal Justice (United Nations Convention Against Torture) Bill? We have been waiting a long time to debate it and for a series of responses from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to amendments tabled here. It is extremely important legislation, particularly in light of the precedent set by the House of Lords in Britain which ruled that it would not be possible to prosecute Mr. Pinochet for crimes committed before the torture convention was ratified. This means that if he had arrived in this country he could not have been prosecuted for any crimes. That would have been a feather in our cap.

I ask the Leader for a debate on housing. Last night we had a debate on the Labour Party which we enjoyed immensely. However, the content of the Drudy report, which we were trying to debate, was ignored because some Members indulged themselves, much to our delight, on the history of the Labour Party, in some instances going back 25 years.

What does the Senator know about its history?

The Senator cannot reopen last night's debate.

Mr. Ryan

I was attempting to reopen the topic which was not debated last night.

I agree with Senator Dino Cregan on the issue of the BTSB. I raised the imminent closure of that laboratory when we were debating the problem of cervical smear testing in the North Western Health Board region. It is ironic that the laboratory in Cork which is threatened with closure is the only laboratory in the State which has clinical pathology accreditation. This means it would be internationally acceptable as being of the appropriate standard. No other laboratory in the State has this accreditation and, given its recent history, the BTSB would need to be careful about closing down the only laboratory under its aegis which has such international accreditation.

I concur with Senator Lanigan in his call to make available the report on Madonna House. There are allegations that certain sections were removed from the report. This is appalling, if true. I have heard Members call for inquiries into less serious issues. I ask the Leader to obtain a full statement of clarification on the matter because these people must be held accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas for their actions.

I ask the Leader when the Valuation Bill will be introduced in this House. Members of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland attended an Oireachtas committee recently. They raised various anomalies that exist in relation to the current valuation system which penalises retailers who are progressive and who invest in improving their properties. The current system seems to favour those who have not made such an investment and whose valuations may be 20, 30 or 40 years old. I ask the Leader to use his influence to expedite the introduction of this Bill in order to enhance many town centres which are in need of improvement and to favour people who invest in upgrading their premises.

I ask the Leader to call for a review of the workings of An Bord Pleanála, particularly with regard to its decision to delay the £140 million development at Croke Park, even though its senior planning inspector and the local authority fire officer had no objection to retaining the terraced area on Hill 16. The decision may have grave implications for other terraced areas in stadiums throughout the country.

I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the urgent need to review the tenant purchase scheme for local authority tenants. The astronomical increase in house prices is making it impossible for tenants of local authority houses to buy their own homes. These tenants cannot afford the massive difference in price between what the house cost initially and what it would now cost as a result of the massive increase in house prices. This is an urgent matter which is of great importance to thousands of tenants throughout the country.

In response to Senator Manning, the legislation proposed for the weeks prior to the local elections is the Údarás na Gaeltachta (Amendment) Bill, the Educational Welfare Bill, the Criminal Justice (No. 2) Bill and the Eastern Regional Health Authority Bill.

On the issue of the opinion polls raised by Senator Costello, the Taoiseach is reported this morning to be down 12 per cent in the polls. This figure is very significant because it is also the lead he holds over the leader of the main opposition party. Therefore, it is not as negative as is portrayed in the newspapers. I believe it is a high rating for the Taoiseach given the bombardment of media attention in recent weeks. It indicates how far ahead of other leaders he is.

Senators Finneran and Lanigan asked for a further debate on bank interest charges. The recent debate was on credit card charges and, as Senator Finneran rightly said, related to one Department. The next debate should relate to the Department of Finance. I will allow time for a debate.

Senator Costello suggested that we should welcome the news that the Grand Orange Lodge of Portadown has taken a very responsible decision. I wish to be associated with his remarks. We have criticised some of its decisions in the past and it is fair that we should welcome the announcement this morning. We send our best wishes to Mr. David Trimble and the Garvaghy Road residents for their efforts and we hope that the coming marching season will be handled with great care and attention. The opportunity that exists for long-term peace overshadows anything that anyone can say or do for the people of the North of Ireland or the island of Ireland.

Senator Dardis welcomed the Kosovar refugees who will arrive in County Kildare today. I wish to be associated with his sentiments. I agree with the views expressed by Senators Henry, Walsh and Lanigan on child abuse at Madonna House. I will convey their views to the Minister as forcefully as they expressed them this morning. Senator Finneran called for a debate on genetically modified food. I will make time available for a debate.

Senators Dino Cregan and Ryan called for a debate on the possible centralisation of the blood transfusion service. I will pass on their views to the Minister today. Senator John Cregan called on the Tánaiste to set up a task force in light of the closure of the factory in Newcastlewest where 50 jobs were lost. I will convey his comments to the Tánaiste today. Senator Ryan mentioned the Criminal Justice (United Nations Convention against Torture) Bill. I will let the Senator know when we intend to bring the Bill before the House.

Senator O'Dowd called for another debate on housing. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, spent two hours in the House yesterday debating the housing issue.

The Minister was bad tempered.

The Leader, without interruption.

I have no difficulty allowing another debate on housing but I must bear in mind that I have been asked to make time available for other issues. We can have another debate in a few months' time.

When things get worse.

I congratulate the Senators who made contributions last night and I note those who did not but who are still requesting a debate.

The bad temper of the Minister discouraged many Members from taking part.

Senator Walsh inquired about the Valuation Bill. There is pressure on me to take this Bill the week before the local elections. I will see how I can facilitate Members and the legislation.

Senator Moylan called for a review of An Bord Pleanála in light of its decision to refuse planning permission for Hill 16 at Croke Park. This has serious implications for the £140 million project for Dublin's north inner city. Many eminent professional people have given the green light to this project. I will make time available over the next few weeks to have this matter debated in the House.

Order of Business agreed to.