The Order of Business is No. 1, address by Mr. John Hume, MEP, to follow the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 12.30 p.m.; No. 2, Motor Vehicles (Duties and Licences) Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 3.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of all other speakers not to exceed ten minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; No. 3, Aer Lingus Bill 2003 — Second Stage, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. until 5 p.m., to resume at the conclusion of Private Members' business and to conclude not later than 8.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of all other speakers not to exceed ten minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; and No. 18, motion No. 22, to be taken from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 12.30 p.m. to 1.30 p.m.
Order of Business.
Fine Gael agrees to the Order of Business. Is the Leader in a position to tell the House when the Government intends to bring legislation on electronic voting before it? The latest phase of the e-voting saga took place yesterday when the Government decided to appoint an independent commission to investigate the matter and report to the Houses by 1 May. While every member of the commission is a person of the highest possible standing, the failure to involve and consult the Opposition on the appointments is another example of the Government's poor treatment of it and both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Government is putting the Clerks of both Houses in an invidious position by placing them on the commission. They are being asked to adjudicate on what has become a political matter and one which should have been determined in this and the other House. It is unwarranted and unfair of the Government to place in that position individuals of the highest possible public repute. I wish to hear a statement from the Government on this matter and to know when legislation will come forward. As we approach the June elections, a cloud continues to obscure our knowledge of which system of voting will be in place. We require clarity on the matter.
As the Leader knows, I wrote to her last week asking for time to bring the Commissions of Investigation Bill 2003 to the House. I note that the Bill will come before the Dáil this week, which is welcome. Is it still the Government's position that the first matter to be examined by the commission after the enactment of the Bill will be the issue of clerical sex abuse in the Dublin archdiocese? A commitment to that effect was given to the victims of clerical sex abuse in the archdiocese 18 months ago. The One in Four organisation and many victims of clerical abuse in this archdiocese want to be informed of a definitive Government position in this regard.
I support the point Senator Brian Hayes made on the commission on electronic voting. This is a very divisive political issue on which parties have taken positions. It is wrong to place people of unimpeachable integrity, such as the Clerks of both Houses, in the position of having to mediate, adjudicate and pronounce on a highly charged political issue. It was not contemplated when their roles were defined and it is not analogous to the positions they have on the boundaries commission where the issue is clear-cut. As the Government, Opposition parties and various individuals have adopted positions on electronic voting, it is unfair to place the Clerks in this very difficult position. I do not know what level of consultation took place, but that is my independent view of the matter. The appointments will make life very difficult for them.
I remind the House that the Leader gave a commitment to Senator Ross and me several weeks ago that there would be an announcement within the week from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the establishment of the commission on the auctioneering industry and its regulation. That has not happened. I hear regularly from people about their negative experiences of this industry. There are many on the other side of the House who feel as strongly about this as people on this side. The House is being disregarded and treated with contempt and I would like to know why. Is it because the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not have any regard for this House? I am aware the Minister has a clear view on it and I ask him to make an announcement immediately.
I do not wish to repeat what my two colleagues said, except to make one further point. One of the reasons there is such controversy is precisely the point some people use for arguing in favour of electronic voting. We have an incredible level of computer software expertise in this country. It is from some of that computer software expertise that most of the questions arise and most of the questions are unanswered. There is an individual in Ireland — I will not mention his name or where he is — who is regarded as the world authority on software verification. He is the best in the world.
Mention me. I do not mind.
Senator Norris can verify many things, but software is not one with which I was familiar.
Senator Ryan without interruption.
We could resolve this issue. I have spent a good deal time saying I did not think there was a sinister motivation behind this move. However, the more this obdurate determination to ignore everybody else goes on, the more I am forced to change my mind because I cannot see any reason for the way things are being done other than the desire to cover something up.
The Government announced a substantial surplus of revenue of approximately €300 million over expenditure yesterday for the month of February. The Taoiseach would regard that as a small sum because that is what he said about the dormant accounts. However, his brother, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, would regard it as a very large sum, which is the reason he justified turning it into a slush fund. What does the Leader think? Is €400 million a big or a small sum? I would like to know.
It is a middle sum.
We had a little controversy here some weeks ago and I want to make something clear. If the Leader, as she does with considerable courtesy, advises me in advance that she intends to move an amendment to the Order of Business — I appreciate the courtesy — I still expect a motion to be put to the House to that effect when an amended Order of Business is introduced. If a motion is to be taken without debate, I expect us to get notice to that effect. On one of those issues all I wanted to know was why and we were told it was without debate. Please do not assume that, because we are reasonable on this side and appreciate the courtesy of the Leader, we agree with matters in advance before we see precisely what we are asked to agree to.
The comments of Senators Brian Hayes, O'Toole and Ryan about electronic voting show why the issue should never have been politicised. The introduction of electronic voting confers no advantage on any party in this House——
The Malaysian crusader.
The director of elections for Fianna Fáil.
——a Government party or the Opposition. It is absolutely politically neutral. I am certain that when the Bill is published, it will contain severe penalties for anyone who would tamper with or manipulate it in any manner whatsoever.
I am glad the Exchequer returns show a healthy picture because that means in the medium and long term there will more money to support all the community projects.
We are all aware this is a leap year and Sunday was 29 February. One can imagine the surprise of many people with mortgages when they received a notification from at least one bank, which had the courtesy to notify them, that as mortgage interest is charged on a daily basis they were being charged for 29 February. All the other banks and mortgage societies did exactly the same. Every year we read of the massive profits banks make. From the point of view of public relations and given that it happens only once every four years, it is surprising they could not make one small gesture to their mortgage account holders. It is disgraceful. I appreciate it is a small amount for the people involved but from the point of view of the banks, it mirrors the lack of respect which many people have for financial institutions.
I return to the question of Iraq which has been raised on a number of occasions and perhaps the Leader will give due consideration to providing time for a debate. The reason I raise this matter is that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, who is President of the Council, was in New York last week. In the past few days we have seen more horrific images from Baghdad and other cities where over 100 pilgrims were massacred as a result of internal strife. It is obvious the country is descending into civil war, yet political initiatives are under way in which the Minister is directly involved as a result of him holding the EU Presidency of the Council of Ministers. It would be relevant if the Minister would come to the House to outline the recent initiatives in the context of a political settlement in Iraq and to explain what attempts are being made to end the loss of what is almost certainly civilian life as distinct from military life in Iraq.
I support Senator Mooney without giving any further reason and I hope we will have a debate on this tragic situation. Will the Leader ask the Government to approach the British representative here to ask for an explanation of the fact that apparently Britain has provided money for war veterans of the Second World War to visit war graves in recognition of what they did but it appears to have specifically excluded the Irish? I know this is a bureaucratic technicality because it was generated by British lottery funds and it is supposed to spend those funds only on British citizens. It seems outrageous given some 50,000 people from southern Ireland volunteered — they did not have to fight. They deserve some degree of recognition. It would not kill the British Government to put in a few extra pounds to make it possible for Irish veterans, who so generously volunteered, to visit war graves.
Perhaps the Government could also be asked to raise the cases of those who were shot at dawn during the First World War, including a very famous Irish Private, Patrick Joseph Downey, who refused to replace on his head a cap that was wet and gangrenous. These people deserve to be pardoned. Let us ask the British Government to treat the Irish, who behaved so well in its army over the years, properly.
Can we return to the issue of traffic and its management? I heard today again on the radio that the speed limit on a section of the dual carriageway at Loughlinstown has been reduced from 70 mph to 40 mph. There may be some roadwork reason for this, but I do not know whether that is the case. It brings into contempt the whole question of observance of speed limits and it makes the imposition of fines and penalty points grossly unfair. I raised this matter in a debate with the Minister who said this was under the remit of local authorities. That should not be the case any longer. There should be a national authority and if the people are to regard these speed limits with any sense, they should be consistent and not chaotic.
The Government, of which Senator Mansergh is a member, has of its own making created a great mistrust of the e-voting system.
Has the Senator got a question for the Leader?
This mistrust extends to the Government. Will the Leader provide time for a debate on the deteriorating postal services throughout the land?
It is outrageous that it takes almost a week for a letter from Dublin to reach County Longford. A similar position exists in the Cathaoirleach's own County Limerick and in other areas throughout the country. The postal service today is worse than at the beginning of the last century. It is an indictment of the Government that it allows this to continue.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the House to discuss the serious situation regarding car insurance? Many cars are bought from auctions and garages but while the onus is on owners to ensure such cars are insured, it is not happening. I have checked this. A frightening percentage of cars bought from auctions and garages are neither insured nor taxed. There is a serious legislative void in this regard. We should debate the issue with a view to bringing forward legislation as soon as possible to address it.
I concur with Senator Finucane on the issue of mortgage interest. If mortgage companies were to forego the charge to mortgage holders of interest for 29 February, it would cost them some €400,000, not a lot when one considers the profits they make.
On electronic voting, the report of the commission is due to be published on 1 May, which is very late. Will the Leader assure the House that if the commission recommends electronic voting should be abandoned, the Minister will act upon that recommendation?
The House should debate the issue of sentencing. Many people are serving only part of their sentences. While I will not mention any particular case, it is appalling that a person sentenced to a prison term of 208 years walks free after nine. This is a shocking indictment of the State. I call for a debate as soon as possible.
While the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance may be happy with yesterday's Exchequer figures, it is extremely bad housekeeping to have money in the bank while appalling conditions exist in the community. It would take €5 million to open the new section of James Connolly Memorial Hospital and a considerable sum to build the metro. It took me one hour and 50 minutes to travel ten miles this morning. A member of the Leinster House staff travelling to work from Darndale told me the journey took her two hours this morning. A housewife would not leave money in her pocket if her children were in need of certain facilities or services. The Taoiseach is in a similar position to a housekeeper and is doing a very poor job. While so many facilities are in dire need of money, he keeps the money in his pocket.
What about the surplus?
Due to the inclination of Members to raise issues on the Order of Business not strictly relevant to it, we often miss the Order of Business. I am concerned with the habit in the House of continuously passing, without debate and without noticing it, limits and restrictions on the debating of legislation. The important Aer Lingus Bill will go through the House in less than three hours today with spokespersons restricted to a maximum of 15 minutes, ten minutes for others and Members sharing time. We may be pushing legislation through the House too quickly. I see no reason there should always be restrictions on speaking time on Second Stage. We might, from time to time, have an open-ended debate without restriction.
Many Members referred to electronic voting. While I am opposed to its introduction, we must be careful in what we say about the commission. I have no problem with it. It is the Opposition which, by saying that commission members are of the highest integrity, puts itself in a difficult position. If Fianna Fáil had appointed, as is sometimes its wont and that of all parties, political hacks, there would be blue bloody murder. However, when it appoints people of absolute integrity, we criticise the Government and say the appointees are compromised. We cannot have it both ways.
My position is a fair one, namely that this commission is made up of those of the highest integrity. We should accept what they have to say, and a commitment in that regard should come from the Government because commission members are patently non-political.
On that issue, I generally agree with the comments of Senators Brian Hayes, Ryan and O'Toole. I accept, as we all do, that the members of the commission are eminent and uncompromised. However, in a democracy the voting system belongs to all. Surely, in this instance, it is only proper to proceed on an all-party basis.
That is correct.
It is not to take from those appointed to the commission, who are accepted by all as being of the highest integrity, to acknowledge that this is a highly charged situation. The only way to steer ourselves out of it is through the application of political will on a cross-party basis.
Senator Ross reminded me that we were discussing many issues which were not applicable to the Order of Business. We cannot have a debate on this issue.
Senator Ross for Cathaoirleach.
I accept that. However, this matter is pertinent and I look forward to hearing the views of the Leader.
With regard to the changes in social welfare provision and entitlement announced yesterday by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, will it be possible to debate what are severe restrictions in regard to the applicability and availability of such entitlements? I understand that the changes will be introduced by regulation. One ought to be reminded of the recent Supreme Court decision on regulations concerning immigration because the changes announced yesterday are very sweeping and broad ranging. It appears we will not have an opportunity to debate the issues in the context of legislation and I ask for an opportunity for such a debate by way of statements or otherwise.
Are these measures only to apply to people from applicant states? Some weeks ago, a debate in the House raised concerns about the position of Irish emigrants, in particular older emigrants living in England. Many emigrants expressed a wish to come home to live out their final days. Will they be hit by the changes?
Would they have to establish residency in order to be entitled to social welfare or will this only apply to those from accession states?
Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, raised the matter of electronic voting. While he agreed the commission members were people of probity, he said they were being put in an invidious position. However, it is because they are well divorced from political affiliations that we should have trust and confidence in their capabilities. The Taoiseach said yesterday the relevant legislation will be brought in as soon as possible. I am sure the commission will do its duty in a fine manner.
I thank the Senator for his correspondence regarding the Commissions of Investigation Bill. I was about to reply to him when I heard the Bill was to be brought to the Dáil immediately. I will respond to the Senator on whether the issue of clerical sex abuse in the Dublin diocese is to be the first item dealt with under the new legislation.
Senator O'Toole regretted the make-up of the commission on electronic voting. In regard to the auctioneering review, I hope it will begin this week. While I accept that we have had one bad experience in this regard, in general, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has great time for this House. The Minister spent over three hours in the House yesterday with a full complement of officials, and we had a very good debate.
Senator Ryan mentioned the queries raised by those involved at the top level of the computer industry and said the Government is obdurate. The situation is the opposite. The Government moved on this issue when the Opposition expressed concerns, so the Opposition can take the credit for that.
I was asked if I thought €100 million was a big or small sum. It is a fine amount — a thump of money.
I would far prefer us to have money in our pockets and purses than not to have it. Senator Mansergh said electronic voting confers no advantage on anyone and that he is glad of the good financial returns. So am I, as I lived through many years when those returns were bad and one was scrounging for every penny one could get for one's Department. It is a good return. From a tax perspective I am sure some payments were made up front and others were not.
Senator Mooney mentioned Iraq and we badly need a debate on what is now happening in that country, which is far more terrifying than anything that ever happened there before.
Senator Norris spoke about the UK providing money for veterans and their relatives to visit war graves. The National Lottery Bill in Westminster only applies to those in the UK but the British Embassy here is trying to change the law to secure the same subvention for Irish people travelling to war graves. I will take this up as I received correspondence on the issue yesterday. Senator Norris also mentioned the changes to the Loughlinstown dual carriageway. There is a specific traffic reason for that change.
Senator Bannon raised the deteriorating postal service in Longford. I regret that and we have been trying to get the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the postal service, but in answering other questions the Minister has pointed out that he is not responsible for the day to day operation of the postal service.
Senator Glynn mentioned car insurance and we will ask the Tánaiste to attend a debate on that matter. Senator McCarthy mentioned the financial institutions' actions on 29 February. It was very mealy-mouthed of those institutions to seize upon that day in order to say they compute interest on a daily basis. I thought women would have a great time on 29 February but obviously not. I refer to the tradition of women approaching men on that date, which is an old-fashioned notion. Cupid only strikes for women every four years but we are not waiting around at all.
As we know.
Senator McCarthy mentioned the committee which is dealing with electronic voting. If the committee recommends festina lente and tells us to hasten slowly then the Taoiseach has said quite clearly that is the route he will take. There is confidence in the committee, which is made up of independent-minded, clever and competent people. The Government will accept whatever they come up with.
Senator McCarthy mentioned sentencingand I accept what he said. It is not that wewould impose a straitjacket on sentencing but sentencing should in some way be commensurate with the severity of the crime.
Senator Terry said the Taoiseach is a bad housekeeper because he has money in his pocket. I think he is a good housekeeper if he or the Minister for Finance have money in their pockets.
Not when other people are waiting for money.
Senator Terry spoke aboutthe €5 million needed to open a ward in Blanchardstown Hospital and she also mentioned the metro. It would be easy to say we will give €100 million to this and €100 million to that, but that is not how the overall financial situation is worked out. The taxation result is a good one and spending is up.
Senator Ross is worried that we are spending too much time on the Order of Business, except of course when he speaks.
He is always worth hearing.
He is also worried about the division of time for speakers on Bills and Bills being short-circuited. I have had many jobs in Government and this is one of the most complex jobs my office has to deal with. Saying "office" makes it sound grand but it is just me and one other person. We have to chase Ministers, private secretaries and Departments, to divide out time and to figure out how long a Bill will take. One day a Bill which should be debated for three hours will last half an hour, and the next day there will be eight extra people seeking to speak. One has to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw. I will bring Senator Ross over to the office for a week.
There is a proposal.
It is a leap year, the Leader can do it.
She could not afford him.
It would have to be free.
It is a very complex job, and every day we scratch our heads and wonder who will be loquacious and who will be silent. It comes down to that. We do not want Ministers here when a debate ends ahead of time. We are already being asked why we cannot debate the Public Health Tobacco) (Amendment) Bill before Thursday, but the Minister is not available until that time. We are not punishing anyone. I welcome the Senator's views, as they are piquant as always.
Senator Coghlan wanted electronic voting dealt with on a cross-party basis, but those on the committee dealing with it have no party affiliations and it is a very good committee.
I accept that.
I am glad the Senator agrees.
Senator O'Meara wants the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to tell the Seanad about the changes she proposes, which would be a good idea. We will ask her to come to the Seanad. The UK is exempt completely from all such interchanges.