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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 6 Jul 1999

Vol. 160 No. 4

Order of Business.

The Order of Business is Nos. 1, 5, 2, 3 and 4. No. 1 will be taken without debate; No. 5, Report and Final Stages, will be taken today – Seanad Bill returning from the Dáil, with amendments; No. 2, Second Stage – the contributions of spokespersons will not exceed 15 minutes and all other Senators will not exceed ten minutes; No. 3 – Immigration Bill, 1999, Committee and Remaining Stages; and No. 4, Earlier Signature Motion, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 3.

We have a difficulty with the Order of Business in the sense that a lot of work has been ordered for each day which I cannot see us being able to reach. I do not know what the Leader's position is concerning Committee Stage of the Immigration Bill, 1999, which we are to take after the National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill, 1999. I cannot predict the length of time we will need to discuss the latter Bill. Dozens of amendments have been tabled to the Immi gration Bill, which I would like dealt with. The Leader has assured us he will allow whatever length of time it takes to deal with all of them, and I sincerely hope that continues to be his position. The Bill was guillotined in the Dáil and only a few of the amendments put down were dealt with.

We agreed to take Second Stage of the National Beef Scheme Assurance Bill on the basis that only that stage would be taken in this session. However, Committee Stage is ordered for tomorrow. This is a major Bill, containing approximately 50 sections. It affects the livelihoods of about 150,000 farmers and their families. We on this side of the House have not had the opportunity to consult in a meaningful way with those who have an interest in this legislation. We, therefore, oppose the taking of Committee Stage tomorrow.

Two weeks ago there was a Private Members' debate on Sierra Leone. All sides agreed that with regard to overseas development assistance, priority status would be given to Sierra Leone. There was a similar agreement in the Dáil on a Private Members' motion. Has the Leader discussed the outcome of the debate in this House with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and did he find favour with him?

In the fine tradition of the House we might congratulate my colleague Senator O'Toole who is about to be elected Vice President of ICTU. I gather that in true trade union tradition he will be elected by 700,000 votes to nil. This does not make it a less a victory for him; it means that none of the other 699,000 wish to oppose him. It is a great honour for him.

In Senator O'Toole's absence I do not wish to oppose the Order of Business but I shall do so if I do not get satisfactory replies from the Leader. The last time I rose to speak the Leader ignored my questions. If he does so today I shall call a quorum, oppose the Order of Business and behave in a manner which is appropriate to the disdain he showed for my questions last week.

I am worried about taking No. 1 without debate. I am sure I am not the only Member who does not understand what it means or the reasons for changing the terms of reference. I would like an answer to that.

I am also concerned about the tendency in the House to continually restrict Second Stage speeches to ten to fifteen minutes. It is a subtle way of restricting business. While I acknowledge the Leader has made a necessary concession by indicating that as much possible will be taken on Committee Stages, I do not believe Second Stages should be restricted. It is a hidden form of guillotine.

I understand that time limits are agreed by the Whips and the House.

They may be, but I disagree with them. The Whip can say what he likes but I disagree with my Whip if he has agreed to that. I seek an assurance from the Leader that we will favourably reconsider inviting the Governor of the Central Bank to address the House in the autumn.

We are not pleased with the Order of Business. Our Whip checked the position yesterday. The Report Stage of the Qualifications (Education and Training Bill), 1999, was not intended to be the second but the fifth item for good reason. The Bill was passed by the Dáil only last Friday. The amendments, of which there are many, were only available to us yesterday. We have not had a proper opportunity to examine them carefully. It is important legislation which was introduced in the Seanad and substantially amended in the Dáil. We are not pleased with the arrangements relating to the Immigration Bill. It was guillotined in the Lower House with 75 amendments still to be debated and we also do not know the arrangements for dealing with the National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill, 1999.

There is an unnecessary bottleneck of legislation, all of which is thrown into the last two sitting days. It is not good enough because there has not been proper consultation and there was no agreement with the Whips in terms of the timetable or the order in which the legislation would be taken. We feel obliged to oppose the Order of Business as announced.

I wish to raise a number of other matters. Last week it was agreed, in the context of the discussions in Northern Ireland, that the Leader would be asked to pencil in a time today or tomorrow to debate the outcome of last Friday's deliberations, which brought about amendments to the Good Friday Agreement and substantial progress towards resolving the impasse, particularly on decommissioning, and the setting up of the Executive. It was clearly intended that if there was an outcome to the negotiations, we would then invite the Taoiseach into the House, thereby providing an opportunity for all of us to discuss it. It has been discussed ad nauseam in the media but the Houses of the Oireachtas have not had a similar opportunity. We held back deliberately, so as not to impinge in any negative fashion on the discussions, in order that it could be debated today. Will the Leader consider arranging a debate on this extremely important matter before the House goes into recess?

A High Court decision yesterday declared the Housing Act, 1997, unconstitutional. This followed an application by a Cork family in regard to a house which the Garda is on record as describing as being a "drugs supermarket". The local authority is not able to repossess it, yet it is obliged to provide houses for the needy. Clearly, the family in possession of this house is not needy and the entire Act must be put on the backburner. It is estimated that it will take at least three years to close this loophole and during that time the local authority will not be able to take any steps to ensure that tenants of its houses behave well. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government whether he is prepared to introduce early legislation or what measures he proposes to take to ensure that this loophole is closed?

I want to pick up on the point made by Senator Costello in respect of the discussions which took place in Stormont last week. It would be useful if the Taoiseach, or in his absence the Minister for Foreign Affairs, could come into the House and report on them given that the Seanad is the only House of the Oireachtas sitting this week. I commend both the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister Blair on the work that they have done and hope that the agreement reached can be accepted by all parties in order to ensure that the peace which prevails currently continues and is built on. It is important that this matter should be discussed tomorrow.

The National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill, 1999, was first mooted by Deputy Yates two years ago when he was Minister. It has been widely discussed within the farming organisations and beyond and has received their support. In that context it is reasonable that the Bill should progress through the House. I accept that there is detail in it which should be looked at on Committee Stage, but there will be enough time to do that tomorrow. It is appropriate that the Bill should advance, as I stated last week, given the difficulties that have been experienced by Belgian producers and others and the need to establish the quality assurance of Irish food in international markets. Even if it does not go through both Houses, the fact that it is intended to go through one House should send out a positive signal in terms of marketing of Irish food.

Is there any word from the Taoiseach regarding the candidate for EU Commissioner and whether he proposes to allow him or her to appear before the Joint Committee on European Affairs? It would be anomalous, to say the least, if our candidate for Commissioner were to be questioned at European Parliament level and he or she was not allowed to appear before the appropriate committee at home.

I support Senator Connor's remarks regarding the situation in Sierra Leone. I support also Senator Ross's call to invite the Governor of the Central Bank to meet with us in the near future.

I support Senator Costello's call for a statement from the Minister for the Environment and Local Government on the Housing Act, 1997. That Act was introduced to allow local authorities get rid of anti-social tenants, partic ularly drug dealers. Local authorities were slow to take action on foot of the legislation and many cases now pending will be struck down. My fear is that if the legal system is not seen to be effective in dealing with anti-social tenants, particularly drug dealers, other methods of arbitrary justice will be sought by people living in these communities. It is vital that the Minister indicates what action the Government intends to take on the issue.

Further to the recent debate on the Ombudsman's report on pensions and pension arrears, will the Leader make time available early in the next session for a debate on the other aspect referred to by the Ombudsman, that is, the lack of proper scrutiny of secondary legislation and regulations? The Ombudsman stated that there is an attitude across all Departments whereby matters which might be controversial if included in primary legislation are being included in secondary legislation because they receive less attention. The Ombudsman suggested the re-establishment of a committee of these Houses to examine secondary legislation. The All-party Committee on the Constitution recommended that this House might have a particular role to play in the examination of secondary legislation. This is a very important matter because it impinges on the lives of thousands of people. I would appreciate a debate on this important issue early in the next session.

I support the calls for a debate on the housing situation and for statements on Northern Ireland.

I welcome the introduction of the National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill, which I consider to be a fine piece of legislation. Regarding the remarks of Senator Dardis that the Bill is being called for by the farming community, this is true and it does facilitate them. However, I am sure the Senator is aware that this is not merely about facilitating the agricultural industry, it is also important that the consumer is taken into consideration. From that point of view, the level of debate and amendments tabled are very important and I am concerned at the speed with which this is taking place, particularly in the last week of business.

I draw the Leader's attention to the issue of child care which was discussed at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Conference. This represents a major bottleneck in the system and prohibits many families from participating fully in the workforce. It is a major cause of stress and the problem is not being addressed by the Government or the system. As the House rises for the summer recess, this major issue has rarely been debated. I ask the Leader to give priority to a debate on the issue in the autumn and to ensure that the Government will come back with solid proposals to ease the difficulties being faced by an increasing number of families.

I concur with the concerns expressed about anti-social behaviour in many housing schemes. I agree the Minister should attend at an early date and clarify what can be done in this regard. Local authorities need to be more proactive in this area. Many are deterred for reasons I have highlighted in the House on previous occasions and on which we appear unable to take action, namely, the inconsistencies in many judicial decisions and the legal costs local authorities incur in pursuing such cases. These should be examined and form part of any debate on this topic.

I concur with the calls for statements on Northern Ireland, hopefully with the attendance of the Taoiseach. I join Senator Dardis in complimenting the Taoiseach, his team and the British Prime Minister on their Herculean efforts and the way they engaged themselves to try to resolve this problem. My only regret is that previous British Prime Ministers did not show the same commitment and avoid the sorry mess Northern Ireland has become.

On the National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill, it is important we give the proper signals to the international market and consumers. It has been mentioned that it is of vital importance to farmers, but it is also important to consumers. It is important we give the proper signal in passing this Bill that Irish beef is top standard and safe to the consumer.

I know it is late in the season. However, on the rail service from the second city, it is deplorable that on Sunday last it took three and half hours to travel 70 miles by road while only two trains left the city for Thurles. Is anybody responsible or prepared to—

It was well worth the trip.

A double rail line goes into the second city, yet there is no service.

Senators Connor and Costello raised questions concerning the Immigration Bill.

By the way, we won.

I assure them there will be no guillotine on the Immigration Bill which will be taken in the House today. There has been no guillotine, and I do not know why Senators continually seek my assurance in this regard. We will stay until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. rather than guillotine legislation in this House.

Senators Connor, Dardis, O'Meara and Rory Kiely expressed concerns regarding the National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill. I will do all I can to have this legislation processed if possible, but not without the agreement of the leaders and the Whips.

In relation to No. 3, Senator Connor and others raised concerns regarding funding for Sierra Leone. The Minister for Foreign Affairs gave a strong assurance to Senator Manning and other Senators when he was in the House two weeks ago regarding the Government's commitment to Sierra Leone. I listened attentively to Senator Manning on the radio this morning and I agree with his sentiments. I compliment all missionaries who went there and gave their lives to improve the lot of the people in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, they must start all over again. I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs supports all the calls made on him when he was here for the special debate on Sierra Leone.

In reply to Senator Ross, as the Cathaoirleach has stated, the time allocation on Second Stage is usually agreed by the Whips. I accept his point. If he feels strongly about any Bill, I will do everything I can to facilitate a respected Senator of long standing.

Senators Ross and Coghlan called on me to invite the Governor of the Central Bank to the House during the autumn session. As Senators are aware, this matter is before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges for further discussion. I am sure it will meet before the autumn session and we should await the outcome of its deliberations on that request.

Senators Costello, Dardis and Walsh called for a debate on Northern Ireland. I am pleased to inform the House that the Taoiseach will be present tomorrow evening for statements on Northern Ireland at 6.45 p.m. I will allow as much time as necessary for all Senators who wish to contribute to do so. I also congratulate the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, the British Prime Minister and all the leaders in Northern Ireland for their steadfast work and determination in trying to bring the delicate issue of decommissioning to a conclusion. I hope and pray this is successful for future generations.

If this means the President of the United States must return, then so be it. I understand from newspaper and other media reports today that Mr. David Trimble has found it necessary to call on President Clinton to assist him in resolving his dilemma. No other President of the United States has taken such a keen and serious interest in the affairs of Ireland and Northern Ireland as President Clinton. I hope he will respond to that call. The Taoiseach will be in the House at 6.45 p.m. tomorrow evening to make a statement and to listen to the contributions of Senators who wish to speak.

Senators Dardis, Gallagher, O'Meara and Walsh expressed their views on the court case in Cork and the position in which the Minister for the Environment and Local Government could find himself. I will pass on their views to the Minister. If necessary, a debate on housing as requested can be held at the start of the next session.

Senator Coghlan expressed the view that the new Commissioner should appear before the Joint Committee on European Affairs. I understand an announcement on this matter is imminent. I do not know what part of the country it will involve but, according to reports, an announcement is imminent.

Senator Gallagher called for a debate on the Ombudsman's report on secondary legislation. I will allow time for such a discussion. Senator O'Meara called for a debate on child care. As the House is aware, Senator Cox has called for such a debate on a weekly basis. I have assured the Senator that, in the early weeks of the next session, there will be perhaps a half day debate on child care.

Order of Business agreed to.