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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 20 Feb 2002

Vol. 169 No. 6

Order of Business.

The Order of Business for today is No. 1, motion re referral of EU Council's framework decision on joint investigation teams to the Joint Committee on European Affairs, to be taken without debate; No. 2, referral of a motion regarding the Diseases of Animals (Amendment) Act, 2001, to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to be taken without debate; No. 3, referral of a motion regarding the Council Decision concerning the Schengen Information System to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, to be taken without debate; No. 4, Competition Bill, 2001 – Committee Stage; No. 5, Sustainable Energy Bill, 2001 – Report and Final Stages – this is a Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil; No. 23, motion No. 19, to be taken between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and business to continue thereafter if not concluded before 6 p.m.

Arising out of No. 2, will the Leader arrange a debate in the very near future on the lessons to be learnt from the foot and mouth episode? It appears to a number of commentators that an element of complacency is creeping in again and that there is a feeling that controls can be fully relaxed. There is evidence of a recurrence of the disease elsewhere. It would be useful to have a debate now when there is not a crisis and to ensure that steps are being taken to ensure we will not have a recurrence in this country.

Arising from the total debacle that is now the Disability Bill, in view of the fact that the Bill has to be virtually rewritten and given that the Minister for Health and Children has promised a further period of consultation, I wish to be helpful in this matter. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister to come into the House so that Members who have read the Bill, talked to the various groups involved and taken expert advice may be involved in the consultation process? If the Bill has to be rewritten before it comes in, at least this House will be part of that process.

I support very strongly the points which Senator Manning has made. I would like to hear from the Leader what is the present status of the Bill. To all intents and purposes, I believe it is dead. I cannot see it coming back to the House before the general election. We should be honest with the many people who are dependent on it and they should not be kept hanging on a string. We asked for a Bill in which people's rights would be enshrined. It failed to do that and ran into predictable problems. While I do not wish to anticipate the debate, I believe there is a technical issue involved here. Many reasonable questions are being raised with Members of the House.

I thank the Leader for his interest in education and I am glad to see, a Chathaoirligh, that you were able to facilitate him in a discussion on Coralstown national school which badly needs some support. However, I suggest it would be more appropriate to have a full debate on education, as we have requested on a number of occasions. That would allow the Leader to deal with all the other substandard school buildings, as well as Coralstown national school, that are deprived of funds in the run-up to the election.


Order, please.

I ask the Leader to commit himself to a time and date for the comprehensive debate which he has already promised on all aspects of education.

I also wish to raise again the question of a press council and how it might relate to issues which are raised here every week. The National Union of Journalists has issued a policy statement supporting the idea of a press council. This is a good opportunity to debate this matter and to move forward in a progressive way, in terms of a balance between the needs of journalists, the common good and respect for privacy and confidentiality. This matter has been raised in the House previously and Senator Manning has referred to the need to look at our libel laws in a similar context. The moment is now opportune to tie all those aspects together and to have a view from Government as to how we might move forward.

I wish to add my voice to the call for a full debate on the Disability Bill, with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, in attendance. I welcome the fact that the Minister has withdrawn the Bill. He did so at the eleventh hour, purely because of the pressure from the various disability groups who organised a major conference in the Mansion House last night. At the last minute, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, announced her intention to have a fresh round of consultations in relation to the Bill. The Bill will not pass through both Houses during this session but it is important that we ascertain the Minister of State's thinking and that the Bill is put back on the right track.

Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach to come to the House to discuss the current process under the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001? The referendum will be held in two weeks but the referendum campaign is a shambles. The public is totally confused.

I will not allow a debate on this matter now. The Senator may make a request of the Leader but I will not allow a debate on the Order of Business.

Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach to come to the House to inform us about the position regarding the statutory entitlement of all citizens to information from the Referendum Commission on the constitutional amendment and what will happen if some people do not receive such information? The Referendum Commission has stated on the one hand that it will not be able to provide the information and, on the other, that it will be able to do so. I would like to Taoiseach to inform us about the guarantees in this regard.

I support the call for a debate on education with the Minister for Education and Science, which I also sought last week. On 4 March, members of the public will provide substitution and supervision services in secondary schools. This is a major step. The Minister needs to come to the House to explain why the dispute has been allowed to deteriorate to this extent. There will be a great deal of conflict and fall-out as a result of the dangerous step that is about to be taken.

Senator Manning is correct that it would be appropriate for the House to examine the foot and mouth disease issue, particularly as it is one year since the outbreak and we would probably take a more detached and balanced view now than we might have when we were in the midst of the crisis. We expressed our gratitude to the Minister, the staff in the Department and all sectors of society for the way they co-operated to keep the disease at bay, except for the one unfortunate incident in County Louth. However, we should revisit the issue and perhaps also consider the reports that have issued in the recent past on the matter both here and in the United Kingdom to emphasise the point that such outbreaks must be dealt with on an all-island basis, otherwise they cannot be contained.

The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, should be commended for the way she has approached the Disability Bill, 2001. The legislation is a significant step forward and is not the final step on the road. She is to be commended because she is prepared to amend section 47, which is contentious. It is disingenuous to suggest that a meeting in the Mansion House, however well merited, coincided with the announcement of the withdrawal of section 47. I do not think that was not the effect of the meeting, although it was its intended effect. Perhaps these issues can be discussed because the Minister of State is amenable to consulting everybody who is interested in this matter.

I refer to the testimonial match being organised by Niall Quinn. This is the first time during this Seanad that I have risen to compliment somebody, but he is not involved in politics. He will donate £1 million each from the proceeds of the match to the children's hospital in Crumlin and to a hospital in Sunderland. I was proud of the way he honoured the country last Friday and it is a sad reflection on us that we do not lead in the way Niall has led. He is a credit to us but there is no way for us to honour him. Ireland does not have an honours list. However, last week Prince Charles was in Dublin to honour one of our own.

Does the Senator have a question for the Leader of the House? I do not see the relevance of this matter to the Order of Business.

Does the Senator have a question for the Leader of the House?

We should be proud of the fact that one of our own is a sportsman who is prepared to give over £1 million of his own money to two hospitals and I ask why there is no way this House can recognise it. It has been mentioned in other parliaments and he is to be complimented. We should lead those compliments and ensure he gets some recognition.

Everyone in the House must agree that the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, has done an extraordinary job in bringing the Disability Bill, 2001, to the stage it has reached. She has shown not just courage but political prescience in deciding that – because of the needs as stated by the people with disabilities rather than their spokespersons – she is willing to look at the Bill again. She should be complimented.

Does the Senator have a question for the Leader of the House?

I ask that compliments be passed to the Minister of State on this matter. I ask, as a matter of urgency – and there are Members of the House who will suggest I raise this too often – that we consider the situation in the Middle East which has got completely out of hand. We are not doing enough in Europe to try to alleviate the problems being created on the one hand by the harsh hand of Ariel Sharon who seems to have carte blanche to do whatever he wants in the occupied territories. He is acting illegally every time he goes into the occupied territories—

We cannot debate the matter now.

I ask that, as a matter of urgency, we acknowledge that when the media refer to "settlements" they are referring to illegal settlements. When they refer to the Gaza strip and the West Bank they are referring to land that is owned by someone else which Sharon has decided to go into.

Senator Lanigan is making a speech about this matter. If he has a question for the Leader of the House, would he please ask it? This is the Order of Business.

I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Foreign Affairs to compliment the 100 officers in the Israeli army who have decided that they will never again knock houses in the occupied territories. I ask that the European Union play a stronger role in what is happening there. Both Israeli and Palestinian lives are being lost there on a daily basis – although more of the latter. Can we decide once and for all that Palestinians have a right to exist, the Israelis have a right to exist—

Speeches are not in order on the Order of Business.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence because this is a matter of extreme urgency.

It may be but it should be raised in some other manner.

I raise a matter which I mentioned to the Cathaoirleach before the Order of Business who graciously granted permission to do so briefly. I am sure other Members will be as shocked and saddened as I am to have learnt of the death of one of the young ushers, Wayne O'Donnell, in a tragic accident a couple of days ago. I am sure – because we are very much a community in Leinster House – that we would wish to pass on our sympathy to his wife of just a year.

Although I am an agreeable person and I like paying compliments, I cannot agree with the compliment that my colleague suggested we send to the Minister of State concerning the Disability Bill, 2001 – it was not prescience but panic. The problem is that we were not listened to in this House. We tried, particularly on this side of the House, to have it made a rights based Bill but that was refused. Rights were purported to have been put into the Bill but they were completely unenforceable. They gave nothing and this was penny pinching. It is a shame because the people who were being discriminated against are the most vulnerable. I ask that the Leader give us information as to the precise stage of this Bill and the parallel Bill dealing with victims of sexual abuse because we have exactly the same thing there. People from the Magdalen laundries were excluded despite the urgent pleading on all sides in this House. People with disabilities were discriminated against – deaf people, people in other institutions and victims of non-sexual physical abuse were all excluded from the Bill. This is penny-pinching and I ask the Leader to find out if this Bill will also be radically amended or even withdrawn, as we need to know.

I support Senator Manning's call for a press council or at least a debate on this issue. It is very important that we have such a debate. We have a very honourable tradition of journalism but the British gutter press is buying into this country. Lies are being told about people, which is intolerable, and now is the time to nip it in the bud. The NUJ, of which I am a member, is powerless in a number of these instances, because journalists are being told to get out of the NUJ so that they will not be subject to its controls.

Senator Norris, speeches are not in order on the Order of Business.

Can we please have the Minister for Health and Children in this House to explain what is happening to the health service? Last night three major Dublin hospitals turned people away for three hours. There is a crisis here and perhaps the Leader will produce some formula tion where we will have an explanation of the precipitate deregulation of pharmacies, which has lead to a situation where pharmacies are not taking on further methadone patients. This will have serious repercussions in the community in terms of crime.

They are a disgrace for not taking on methadone addicts.

The House would like to be associated with the expression of sympathy to the widow and family of the late Wayne O'Donnell.

Will the Leader of the House invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to this House to discuss the critical issue of public order, particularly in our cities? We need to work towards some new initiatives to tackle this situation because fire brigade action when there is a fatality, or a near-fatality, is a very threadbare response. We need an evaluation from the Minister as to the impact the extended licensing laws have on the lives and leisure of young people in cities.

I support the call for a debate on education. I do not want a scattergun debate on the subject as we cannot debate every school at every level. I have been seeking a debate for months on the position of the teaching of science and maths at second level.

The Senator has made her point.

I agree with my colleague on the matter of the Disability Bill. It is a great shame that the views of those involved in the consultation were not listened to. I hope the Government will bring back a Bill that is appropriate to their needs.

Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children to discuss the enormous confusion surrounding the forthcoming constitutional amendment referendum? I am sure every Member of the House is aware of the general confusion on this issue. The latest aspect of confusion to emerge concerns the morning-after pill.

I will not allow a debate on the matter. The Senator has requested that the Minister for Heath and Children come into the House for a debate and that is sufficient.

Will the Minister come in here where there are Members who are well informed in regard to this area – some are better informed than Ministers – and he could learn what is the real position in regard to the morning-after pill?

I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary Wallace, for the way she has brought the Disability Bill forward. She has left her door open and accommodated many diverse groups, and will continue to do so. It is unfair of the Opposition to suggest that she was less than sympathetic towards those people. I know the Minister of State and I know how she has handled this situation.

Speeches are not in order on the Order of Business.

I take the point. I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, on the way he has handled the issues of substitution and supervision and allayed the fears of parents.

Were they resolved?

These matters can be dealt with during the debate on education which has been sought.

I call for a debate on the wider issues of educational infrastructure and disadvantage, as I have many times previously.

Committee Stage of the Competition Bill, 2001, is to be taken today, but when will Report and Final Stages be taken? The Road Traffic Bill, 2001, did not reach this House before Christmas and we are dependent on it for the introduction of the penalty points system. When will that Bill come before us? Is there a danger that we will run out of time to enact it and that the carnage on the roads will continue? We have not heard a word about this recently. We are told this is a way to alleviate the danger on the roads, yet nothing has been done about it.

We have asked on a number of occasions for a debate on the insurance industry. There is now a €2 billion outstanding personal insurance cost to the State. It went up by 40% last year and it is suggested that it will increase by 50% this year. This debate is urgently needed and a number of us have been asking for it since October. Will the Leader tell us if it is likely that the debate will take place in the coming month?

I support the call for a debate on a press council, the media and the libel laws. I also support Senator Manning's call for a debate on foot and mouth disease, particularly in the context of comments made by Senator Dardis. We should take account of what happened and of what might have happened in Northern Ireland. There is a recently published report on the matter and it is vital to take it into account.

I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, to come to the House for an urgent debate on the crisis in our accident and emergency rooms. There is utter chaos in hospitals. There is no flu epidemic at present, yet last night over 100 people could not be admitted to wards. They had to sleep in the emergency rooms. During this debate we should examine the issue of the care of the elderly and consider the fact that much pressure is being put on elderly patients to get out of acute beds and to go into the community. In many cases they go home to elderly spouses who cannot look after them. It is a serious and important issue.

I support Senator Manning's call for a debate on foot and mouth disease. Such a debate would be timely. There was widespread public support for and acknowledgement of the good work undertaken by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, and his Department's officials in protecting us from the scourge of the disease. Great Britain's former agriculture Minister was reported recently as stating that not enough has been done to ensure there is no repeat of the epidemic. We are very exposed if that is the case.

I join Senator O'Toole in calling for a debate on a press council. It is an appropriate time for such a debate. I ask the Leader to include in such a discussion the issue of the prohibitive cost of legal services. This week an award by a court of €25,000 came at a cost in legal bills of a reported €750,000. It is not acceptable in a democracy that people do not have access to the law at a reasonable cost. It is time the Government faced up to that matter.

There are many calls on the Leader for all sorts of debates, but this is a good time, before the recess, to raise the issue of tolls. There are proposals under the PPF to place tolls on main arteries and it is important that those proposals are fully aired here to avoid the state of affairs obtaining on the M50 where there are long queues, environmental problems and huge costs. I ask the Leader to consider bringing that debate forward at an early stage.

Senator Norris and Senator O'Dowd are right to point out the chaotic situation in the hospitals. I am sure all Senators saw the position in Beaumont Hospital's accident and emergency unit on the news last night. Recently I visited the accident and emergency units in Tallaght Hospital and St. James's Hospital, and they are just as bad. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Health and Children to come in to address the position regarding the imminent strike by nurses in accident and emergency departments because they feel that the promises made to them three years ago have not been fulfilled? They are due to go on strike in two weeks. We see how bad the position is with the accident and emergency departments fully staffed, but what on earth will it be like if they work on a phased basis or withdraw their labour because the conditions are absolutely intolerable?

I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the new waste regulations which have been put in place by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, in particular, how they affect the high nitrate and phosphate levels in lakes and rivers and impinge on farming – to some extent farmers have become the bad boys even though there is no scientific evidence to that effect – and how they will affect local authorities as regards introducing by-laws? This has serious implications for the people who elect Members of this House, namely, members of local authorities. It would be appropriate that the debate take place next week as this is an urgent matter.

I too support Senator Manning's call for a debate on the Disability Bill. I also support Senator Quill's request that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come into the House to debate the breakdown of law and order throughout the country. It is obvious that zero tolerance has failed badly. I support the call for the Minister to come into the House because he needs help and no doubt this House would be able to give him a great deal of help. He has failed badly in bringing law and order to the country. We have seen in the Sunday newspapers that this has a knock-on effect on hospitals throughout the country. It is an urgent matter and the Minister should come into the House because the provision of law and order is in chaos.

As Leader of the House, I want to be associated with the expressions of sympathy on the death of Wayne O'Donnell, the service officer in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I extend my condolences to his wife, Elizabeth, his mother and father and all his family. He was a very impressive young man who was most obliging. He was everything one would hope for, a decent, honourable and most courteous servant of the House.

Senators Manning, O'Toole, Dardis, Maurice Hayes, Walsh, Lanigan, Norris, Costello and Ormonde called for debates. In particular, Senator Manning called for a debate on the lessons we have learned from the foot and mouth disease crisis. I have no difficulty in allowing time for that. If proof were needed that the Good Friday Agreement is relevant to the people of the Twenty-six Counties, this was it. If the Agreement had not been in place and if Ms Bríd Rodgers was not Minister, there would have been chaos, possibly all over Ireland, as was experienced in the UK. In fairness to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, the Government and Ms Rodgers and her staff, the matter was dealt with efficiently. To their great credit and that of the public and everyone who co-operated, the people of Ireland were spared the ravages of foot and mouth disease. I will work hard with the leaders and the Whips to organise a debate in which Members can make known their views because it is an important issue.

Senators called for the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, to come to the House to allow Members make their contributions in the consultation stages of the Disability Bill, and I will endeavour to have this take place. She mentioned in one of the interviews I heard this morning that there would be a two week consultation period. I was most impressed that she gave great attention to everything that was requested of her. I will consult her after the Order of Business.

Senator O'Toole, Senator Costello, Senator Norris and others called for a debate on the education programme and the Government's programme for the future. I do not have a difficulty allocating time for that.

Senator Manning, Senator O'Toole and others called for a debate on a press council. I called for such a body about 14 years ago. It is long overdue and would only concern a person working in the media who abused his or her privilege or power. There are many excellent journalists and magnificent publications. The council would only affect those who abuse the system either to their advantage or to put forward their views or those who do not relate the truth in the news. I will pass on the views of the Members to the Minister and will provide time for a debate on this, possibly in the last week before the recess.

Many Members expressed views on the Competition Bill. I will pass on the views of Senator Norris, in particular, to the Minister.

Senator Costello and Senator Keogh expressed views on the proposed twenty-fifth amendment of the Constitution. We should welcome the Referendum Commission's announcement that every home will have a publication outlining the views on this matter. I join everyone who has welcomed this move. I will pass on the views expressed by the Senators to the Minister.

I wish to be associated with Senator Dino Cregan's vote of congratulations to Niall Quinn. I also include Daniel O'Donnell in that because he has brought credit to us all with his great work with regard to fund-raising and such matters. Excellence should be recognised and acknowledged in some way, possibly through an honours system. I hope the Taoiseach or the President takes this on board. I know the former Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, considered it when he was in office. It is something we should consider.

Senator Lanigan called for an urgent debate on the Middle East and expressed strong views on the issue. He has much experience in this regard and I will pass on his views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

There were many calls on the Minister for Health and Children, especially regarding the deregulation of pharmacies. I will pass on those views to the Minister and perhaps Members might take them up with him when he is in the House soon to deal with legislation.

Senator Quill and Senator Burke called for a debate with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on public order and the operation of the extended liquor licensing hours. I will request this of the Minister and I do not have a difficulty providing time for it.

Senator Quinn called for an update on the Road Traffic Bill. I will inquire about this matter. He also asked for a debate on insurance, something which has been requested many times. Many urgent debates have been sought. We will have to review them in light of the amount of legislation coming before the House which must be passed before the Easter recess.

Senator Henry and Senator O'Dowd called on the Minister for Health and Children to update the House on their various queries and to outline the position regarding the disturbing statements they made. I will endeavour to ensure that happens.

Senator Walsh called for a debate on road tolls and the National Roads Authority. I will allocate time for this debate. Senator Finneran called on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to update the House on new waste regulations. I will provide time for this also.

The Leader did not answer my question about when Report Stage of the Competition Bill will be taken.

I will ensure Senator Dardis informs the House about that matter tomorrow morning.

Order of Business agreed to.