The Order of Business is No. 1, Local Government Bill 2003 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 4 p.m.; No. 2, Finance Bill 2003(Certified Money Bill)– Second Stage, to be taken at 4 p.m. and conclude at 7 p.m., prior to which the Minister will be called upon to reply, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Senators may share time; No. 3, Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 – Second Stage, to be taken at 7 p.m. and conclude at 10 p.m., prior to which the Minister will be called upon to reply, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Senators may share time.
Order of Business.
This week the business of the House will be dominated by the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The importance of passing legislation swiftly to facilitate the enactment of provisions is understood on this side of the House but the proposal to take Committee and Report Stages of both Bills tomorrow is unprecedented. I ask the Leader to consider reordering the business for rest of the week to create a gap between Committee and Report Stages in both cases. The Finance Bill alone contains over 150 sections, to which my party has tabled 40 amendments which we wish to ensure are discussed on Committee Stage. These Bills must be treated seriously to ensure that they receive the parliamentary scrutiny to which they are entitled.
I ask the Leader to make time available next week or the following week for a debate on the quarterly report of the Central Bank, which will be published tomorrow. The Governor of the Central Bank made comments today which I understand will be contained in the report. He stated that the level of bad debt ratio in the housing market has grown considerably in the past year or so. This shows clearly that a policy of lending far too much money to customers – which is pursued by some Irish banks – has led to a difficult situation in respect of an increasing number of bad debts. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to respond to the report which will be published tomorrow. The housing market has entered a more difficult cycle and increasing pressure will be put on people, particularly those on the first step of the housing ladder, to make substantial repayments on mortgages.
I notice the Order Paper now has a fancy cover. This is a disposable document, something that we throw in the bin at the end of the day. The new cover is lovely and it looks well, but it seems to be a huge waste.
I am informed that it is a saving of printing costs, not a waste. It has to do with VAT considerations.
It may save money in printing costs perhaps, but the cover is made of at least 100 gram paper and that means many more trees have to be cut down. The management of waste is important to Members on both sides of the House. If it is the case that, because the tax laws regarding such matters as VAT are so convoluted, irrational and illogical, we can save on VAT by wasting more paper and killing more trees, then that matter should be examined and we should do so today. It can also be raised during consideration of the Finance Bill.
I approve of the fact that the Government is spending a lot of money to develop e-government so that Members can conduct business electronically. There is no reason that we each cannot have electronic screens in front of us in the Chamber and read the Order Paper electronically and so save on paper costs. I ask the Leader to investigate whether this can be done in the House.
I asked the Leader previously for a debate on the finances of the health services. Will she indicate when it is estimated that the report of the committee on the health services, chaired by Niamh Brennan, will be published and when the House will be given the opportunity to discuss it?
The trade union movement will be meeting tomorrow to make a final decision on Sustaining Progress, which I hope will be accepted. I ask for a discussion on this issue which covers many matters, such as housing, that the House should examine. I know that my colleague, Senator Ross, supports my call for a debate on this subject.
In regard to the Order of Business, it is remarkable that we are seeking to progress through the House within a matter of a few hours today and tomorrow the two most important Bills which come before the Oireachtas annually. The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and the Finance Bill are extremely detailed, complex and lengthy and it is staggering that the Leader thinks we have sufficient time to debate them today and tomorrow. I appreciate that there is a statutory requirement in regard to the Finance Bill. However, we have spent a good deal of time in the House dealing with issues of far less importance. There is no prospect at this point that we will deal with the number of amendments tabled, regardless of how expeditiously we deal with them. I ask the Leader to consider seriously Senator Hayes's suggestion to extend the time available to us, particularly on Committee Stage.
I read with some interest over the weekend remarks attributed to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in regard to third level fees. He appears to be rethinking the possibility of introducing such fees in some form next year. I am sure the Leader will agree that whatever about the merits of the issue, the uncertainty is causing some disturbance to those who may or may not be facing a considerable bill in a few months' time. Perhaps she will indicate when she expects the Minister to produce the expected report on third level fees. Will she ensure once it is produced the Minister will come to the House to debate the issue?
On the amount of paper we use in this House, I was looking through the Finance Bill which includes an interesting provision whereby the Revenue Commissioners can oblige persons to make electronic tax returns in some cases. It seems the Revenue is moving rapidly along the lines of obliging people to use electronic means of communication. Perhaps we should give a lead in this House by doing something similar.
I ask the House to support me in expressing concern that mobile phone charges in this country appear to be four times more expensive than in other European countries. We should ask the relevant Minister to come to the House to debate the issue. It is a scandal given that the mobile phone is now an integral part of the way business is done, not just inside and outside this House but also in the commercial world in general. In view of the fact that charges in this country are four times more expensive than in Britain, it is time we had a debate on the issue to see if anything can be done about it.
Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to explain the reason there is an appalling situation in the Eastern Regional Health Authority where children who may have been sexually abused must wait for up to three months to be assessed at the special unit in Our Lady's Hospital, Crumlin? That three month period relates to children on a priority list. Those not on the list may have to wait up to seven months. This is very serious for children who may have been abused and cannot be assessed. As hundreds of children are involved in just one health board area, what are the numbers involved throughout the country? It is a very serious issue which I want the Minister to urgently address.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that we should have an opportunity to comment on significant observations by the Central Bank. We are taking the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Bill on Thursday, which will provide an opportunity to do so. No doubt the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will also provide an opportunity to do so to some degree. I support Senator O'Toole's suggestion that we should have a debate on the social partnership agreement next week, if possible.
Listening to the Order of Business, I wonder if an order has gone out from somewhere not to mention the war. We are facing a catastrophe. I ask the Leader to consider a suggestion I made last week that the House conduct a series of rolling debates. We should set aside at least one hour each week so that we can follow the progress of the war. We are obliged to follow it.
Originally there was talk of liberating Basra, but now there is talk of it as a military target. The campaign has been described as "Operation Iraqi Freedom", but it is "operation rape oil".
The House debated the situation in Iraq last week.
I am aware of that, but it is vital that some things are said. The people in Iraq are not fighting for Saddam Hussein. They are fighting for their families, their poor little homes and their children, like the six year old girl who had her leg blown off and whose picture was in yesterday's Irish Independent. I opposed Saddam Hussein with my feeble efforts, such as they were, when others supported him. Today, in this House, I salute the bravery and courage of the Iraqi people in standing up to this criminal aggression. The sooner there is regime change in Washington the better for the planet.
The Health Research Board recently launched its report on the two main methods of waste disposal and outlined in detail the health and environmental effects of landfill and incineration. It is important that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is invited to come before the House as a matter of urgency to debate this emotive issue, which is a cause of great public concern.
The Companies (Auditing and Accounting) Bill – a Seanad Bill – has just been published. It is detailed legislation. Will the Leader indicate when it will be introduced and will she ensure it is given sufficient attention?
I also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the recent report by the Competition Authority. It is a worthy report, but it has not received the attention it deserves. The report on competition, compiled by Indecon Economic Consultants, commented on the Law Society's ability to self-regulate the law profession. A number of concerns have been raised and it would be useful to include this in the debate.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to attend the House to debate the withdrawal of the back to education allowance scheme. Last year more than 3,600 people benefited from the scheme, but they are now unsure if they will be able to complete their studies. The withdrawal of the scheme is at variance with the express wishes of the Minister for Education and Science, who wants to reintroduce third level fees to allow the disadvantaged to participate. One Minister is withdrawing an allowance and the chance of participation by many of the disadvantaged, while another seeks to encourage it. I call for an urgent debate to avoid uncertainty for the many who have participated in the scheme and who will be unable to continue with their education.
There is now a postgraduate element.
Much attention is focused on the Iraqi conflict and whether Ireland is a neutral country. Many consider that an à la carte approach to neutrality is evolving. In that context and recognising the dimension of neutrality and the way Ireland's status in European and world affairs has changed dramatically, I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on neutrality.
I ask the Leader to arrange with the Minister for Finance the serious implications arising from the way houses are being advertised in the Dublin area. Starter homes advertised to sell for €189,000 increase by 8% to €206,000 before they are sold. This is a matter of serious concern, especially for those who are trying to buy their first homes at the lower end of the market.
I support the call by Senators Quinn and Glynn for a debate on the Competition Authority report. Telecommunications was one of the two areas highlighted. As we are in the Single Market, we should ensure we get the benefit of competition but this is not happening in the industry. Also, there have been many calls for a debate in regard to legal fees. Senator Quinn is correct in saying the Law Library will not regulate competition in that area. It is ironic that a body which will articulate the various arguments in a case involving a breach of the provisions of the Competition Authority is effectively immune from the provisions of that authority. That is wrong and the Government needs to correct the situation.
Will the Leader provide time for a debate on the taxi industry which has moved from quantitative to qualitative control? It is fair to say, when one sees the criminal elements which have infiltrated the industry, that quality type criteria are patently not being applied. We not only have anecdotal evidence in that regard but also evidence from recent court cases where it is clear that unsavoury characters have become involved in the industry. There is an onus on the State to ensure quality controls applied in any other industry are strictly applied. We do not have a great record in that regard.
There still seems to be rampant amnesia on the Opposition benches about the phenomenal contribution of the Government over the last five or six years to promoting educational opportunity among the disadvantaged. I join others in calling for a debate on the issue in order that we can remind Members of the huge initiatives taken over the past five and a half years to promote educational opportunities among the disadvantaged in the community.
Reprogramming is required.
Before the Leader replies, to enable the Chair to implement the Order of Business which will be agreed by the House will she indicate the times at which the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will be called upon to reply to Nos. 2 and 3?
I read it out.
No, the Leader did not read the times.
I said 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The Leader must give an exact time.
I said one was to conclude not later than 7 p.m. and the other not later than 10 p.m.
When will the Ministers be called upon to reply?
Whenever they want.
We want the times if we are to implement what the Leader is ordering today or else the Ministers may have no time to reply.
I agree with the Cathaoirleach.
Order, please. This is no laughing matter. I want a time.
It will be 15 minutes before the conclusion of the debate.
Will the Leader specifiy the times, please?
It will be 6.45 p.m.
They will be 6.45 p.m. and 9.45 p.m.
It is important that we have the times. The Leader may not think so but I do.
I agree it is important, so does the Opposition.
We need the times if we are to implement the Order of Business.
Senator Brian Hayes talked about the Finance Bill and asked if we could alter the Order of Business in order that there would be more of a gap between Committee and Report Stages. I will see if we can do anything about this and come back to him on it. He also asked about the Central Bank quarterly report, a question which, I think, Senator Mansergh answered. We could deal with the report which is coming out on Thursday, particularly the section dealing with housing, during the course of the debate on the regulatory authority Bill.
Senator O'Toole commented on the Order Paper and does not want waste created. I wonder if we should make a recommendation that recyclable paper should be used. That could be done. It is a matter we could take up with the procurement office of the Department of Finance which arranges such matters. The Senator also spoke about e-government and suggested we should all sit here in front of screens. It would be useful if we had screens here and did not have to use paper.
We must be modern and progressive.
I do not think the Senator would stay seated behind his screen for too long when one considers that his strength lies in the exuberance he displays when he stands up.
It was stated the Brennan report should be placed in the public arena. We all wish that would happen in order that we could read it. I asked about it on several occasions and was told by the Minister for Health and Children that he had not yet received a copy. It was commissioned by the Minister for Finance. Senators O'Toole and Mansergh have also been vocal in seeking to have a debate on social partnership.
Senator McDowell mentioned the Finance Bill. While I am not trying to be smart, I checked the passage of last year's Bill through the House. Sometimes one sees a golden age when one speaks about what happened in past years. Therefore, I wanted to be on firm ground. While we can table and discuss recommendations to the Bill, it cannot be changed. Less time was devoted last year to it and the Social Welfare Bill. That is not an excuse but a fact. This week is crowded, which I regret because we could have had longer discussions on both Bills. However, they must be passed before a certain date to allow people to get their dues and the measures to come into force.
I read the report about the Minister for Education and Science and third level fees. The Senator concerned is correct about the level of uncertainty. More young people and their parents are asking about what will happen in relation to such fees. I expect the matter will be brought before the Cabinet this week or in the near future.
I agree that we should have electronic means of communication. Senator Glynn mentioned mobile phone charges and competition. Senators O'Toole, Brian Hayes and Quinn, among others, have consistently mentioned the Competition Authority and the different European reports, as well as that by Indecon. If there is a free slot next week, we will have a debate on the issue.
Senator Terry mentioned the three month delay in the priority lists for young people who have been abused and need counselling and special programmes. I read the report which is appalling today. It is not the fault of those in Crumlin because I am sure they are busy. The delay for non-priority cases is seven months. It is more difficult to cope with this. I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for Health and Children and it might be useful to discuss it on the Adjournment in order to get precise information.
Senator Mansergh mentioned the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Bill. He also called for a debate on social partnership.
Senator Norris mentioned the catastrophe of war. As he told me he had to leave the House as soon as he had spoken on the Order of Business because he had to attend a committee meeting, I understand the reason I am looking at an empty chair. He is right that the war is a catastrophe. The names of places such as Umm-Qasr and Basra now slip off our tongues. When I spoke last week, I agreed with Senator Ryan about the level and content of the reporting on television and radio. We could hear more about it over the weekend. Regardless of one's views, there is no doubt that RTE has adopted an even-handed approach to its coverage of the war. Its reporters are doing an excellent job and I hope they come home safely. Senator Ryan and I were castigatory, not of any one station but of the content and tenor of the debate on television. Others have their own views but I believe RTE is doing a good job.
There is a crisis in relation to the truth of the reportage on other stations. Yesterday morning a 100 acre site was found full of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction but today there is not a word about it. It is as if they were never found. We need to have our critical faculties in order when listening to reports. It is a human catastrophe.
Senator Bannon sought a debate on waste disposal.
The Health Research Board report on waste.
The Leader, without interruption.
Senator Quinn asked when the auditing and accountancy Bill would come before the House. We shall have it either the last week of the session or the first week of next session, depending on the availability of the Minister. It is an important Bill. The Senator's colleague, Senator O'Toole, chaired an expert committee which laid the foundations for the Bill. The Competition Authority report, the Indecon consultants report and an EU report will be published this week.
In regard to the matter raised by Senator Ulick Burke, the Minister for Social and Community Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, will be present later today and the Senator may wish to raise it with her. It concerns a postgraduate course in regard to which a lady from UCG, Professor Fitzpatrick, is very active. The finance for education is being taken away from postgraduate students, a matter we should raise with the Minister.
Senator Finucane sought a debate on neutrality. Such a debate would be worthwhile. I was interested in Professor Ronan Fanning's article in the Sunday Independent. When one read it, it made much sense with its historical analogies.
Senator Brennan raised the issue of house prices which increase from the day the first payment is put down on a starter home to the day the final bill is paid. Given that the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, will be present in the House shortly, the Senator may wish to raise the matter with him.
Senator Jim Walsh asked for a debate on the Competition Authority report. He was also critical of the Law Library and its inmates. I declare an interest in that a member of my family works there. Therefore, I will not comment. The Senator also asked for a debate on the taxi industry. An interim regulator, Mr. Jim Farrelly, has been appointed and I understand he has started business. While it was important to address the quantity issue, I agree it is important to address the quality issue also.
Senator Fitzgerald called for a debate on education. He pointed out, as he does on each occasion when the matter of education is raised, that massive strides had been made in education. On that note, I regret I did not have the precise time when the Minister would speak.
Order of Business agreed.