The Order of Business is No. 1, election of Leas-Chathaoirleach, No. 2, Twenty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2002, Second Stage (resumed) and No. 3, motion concerning the Schedule to the Twenty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2002.
Order of Business.
Before we agree the Order of Business, I would ask the Leader to give a commitment, following yesterday's Order of Business and the debate which ensued, that the House will sit again very shortly. There are a number of matters of great national importance which need to be debated in this House. Yesterday, there was a call for a debate on the impending situation in Iraq, a debate on the national finances and many other matters. It would be entirely wrong, as we start this first session of the new Seanad, that we should meet only for the purpose of dealing with legislation. The House should meet shortly to debate the important issues which have been mentioned. Just this morning we heard of further planned cutbacks in public services and education. All of those matters should be debated. I ask for a commitment from the Leader, before we agree the Order of Business, that the House will meet shortly to provide an opportunity for those on all sides who wish to contribute on all of those matters.
I agree very strongly that the House should meet as soon as possible and I hope the Leader will give a response in that regard. In addition to the matters I raised yesterday, the report today of cutbacks in education provides a further reason for a debate. It is appropriate to point out to the Leader, with whom I have discussed at various times over the last 16 years the importance of investment in educational disadvantage, that at a time when we are building up our infrastructure, it is inconceivable that we should take steps to cut out the disadvantaged and to cut back on second chance education. Those aspects of the educational system are crucial if we are to narrow the gap. In the lead up to consideration of a new national agreement, this cannot go ahead. Those decisions must be reversed. While I cannot go into the issues now, these matters have to be discussed. The relevant Minister should come to the House to explain the situation. This is a development which could pull the rug from under any national agreement. It goes against the proposal to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots in our society, where the Celtic tiger has not reached into all corners. I appeal to the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to deal with these matters and to hear the views of Members.
The Order of Business is agreed. However, I agree with other speakers that it is absolutely essential for the House to meet again at the earliest available opportunity. As my colleague, Senator Ryan, said yesterday, there is nothing to prevent the House meeting next week now that this session is up and running. Clearly, there are matters of urgent import for us to discuss. I refer in particular to the news this morning of what can only be described as savage cuts in the education budget. Those cuts will have a disproportionate and very serious effect on those who are disadvantaged and in need of support within the education system and on those who hoped for a second chance in education. These cuts are simply unacceptable.
There are also reports of massive cuts in the budget for the Department of the Environment and Local Government, which will have a huge impact on local authorities. Members of the House who are also members of local authorities will have a considerable interest in this matter. I appeal to the Leader to ensure that the relevance of this House is maintained and to set an example in that regard.
I also ask the Leader to return at the earliest available opportunity with her proposals, if any – she made some reference to this yesterday – regarding Seanad reform. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution, of which I was a member, reported on this matter. That could be a starting point for an all-party group within the House to examine this. We await the Leader's proposals and an opportunity to discuss them.
I also ask the Leader to ensure that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is convened at the earliest opportunity to deal with a matter of serious inequality with regard to the treatment of the Labour Party group in the House which we want that resolved as soon as possible. As a group of five, we should be given the facilities which we deserve under the rules of the House.
I wish to reply to the three Members who have spoken – the leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, the leader of the Independent group, Senator Joe O'Toole, Senator Kathleen O'Meara—
The Leader of the House, without interruption.
Senator O'Toole is our spokesperson.
I will refer to the spokesperson for the Independents, bearing in mind that an Independent never has a leader, whether singly or in groups. I will also reply to Senator Kathleen O'Meara, the leader—
—or spokesperson of the Labour group. If all the groups are going to have different titles, it will be rather confusing.
For the information of the House, we are a coherent group with a leader who is Senator Brendan Ryan.
If the Member of the university group who transferred—
That is not a relevant matter.
We have not yet decided if one of us should stand for election to the leadership of the Labour Party.
Senators should leave the humour aside and proceed with the business of the House.
Senator O'Meara referred to a coherent group. I hope we are all coherent in what we say, no matter how we behave. The three people who spoke – perhaps that is a better way of putting it – said they wished to have an early recall of the Seanad to discuss various matters of great importance. I agree with that point of view. If we are to make our mark in terms of relevance we have to assert ourselves in going about that. One of the main ways of doing so is to be assiduous in our work and our attendance in the House. I agree that the House should be recalled as early as possible to discuss matters of education, the situation of Iraq and various other issues which arose yesterday and today. It is my intention that the Cathaoirleach and I, together with the leaders, spokespersons and whips of the various groups will discuss the matter during the coming week and I hope we will decide together on an early recall of the Seanad.
Senator O'Meara raised a matter in relation to the Committee of Selection which also relates to procedure and privileges. Arrangements in that regard are being made in consultation with the whips and others and I hope it will be dealt with within the next week.