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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Oct 2004

Vol. 178 No. 10

Order of Business.

The Order of Business is No. 1, Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill 2000 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 11.30 a.m.; and No. 2, statements on planning and related issues (resumed) to be taken at 11.30 a.m. until 1 p.m.; with the contributions of Senators not to exceed ten minutes.

Following the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the Taoiseach told his Ministers that they must work twice as hard in the run-up to the general election. Last night the Minister for Foreign Affairs could not be found for the best part of half an hour and the Leader quite rightly spoke about the responsibility of Ministers to be here throughout the debate. I thank her for stating that so forcefully. Private Members' business is a very useful two-hour period every week which in effect is given over to various groupings in the House. We need to honour that time and Ministers should be here throughout the debate. I thank the Leader and the Cathaoirleach for their interventions because it was a great disservice to the House that such a situation arose last night.

Will the Leader bring to the attention of the Minister for Transport the rising number of accidents occurring since the introduction of the second Luas line from Tallaght to the city centre? Thankfully, there have been no fatalities. It is important that the problem be resolved as soon as possible. Better signage is needed, particularly as the tram goes through the city centre and drivers should not enter the yellow boxes. Better policing is also necessary for the critical time between now and Christmas and beyond when people are getting used to the new service. It is only luck that there have been no fatalities. There were two accidents in the past 48 hours. This situation must be rectified soon to inspire confidence not only in those who use the tram, but also in motorists and pedestrians who traverse the streets and look for safety. This issue must be resolved soon.

I too thank the Leader for her apology last night and for saying that the delay to Private Members' business would not happen again, particularly as it was my motion. This time is very precious because we do not get it very often.

I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that the accidents involving the Luas are unfortunate and serious. Many Members go to the Council of Europe and will have noticed that the inhabitants of Strasbourg do not appear to have a problem with the on-street trams there. Perhaps we could get instruction from those who control the traffic in Strasbourg.

Would the Leader arrange for a short debate on unaccompanied minors who come here as refugees or asylum seekers? We have talked about it before but there seems to be an ongoing problem as there is a grave lack of supervision of these children, some of whom go missing. There is also the problem of trafficking in children. I am sure other Members would also appreciate a short debate on this issue soon.

Yesterday morning on the Order of Business I raised the possibility that interest accruing from special savings investment accounts could affect the entitlement of social welfare recipients. I am glad the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, assured us that he would look at this issue and see if he could arrange a derogation on means assessed for social welfare recipients. It has now come to light that the same situation may pertain to medical card holders. We are all acutely aware of the limits that apply in the means test and that €10 may be enough to push someone over the limit. This scheme was encouraged at all levels but it would be regrettable if some people were to lose their medical cards as a result of it. I would appreciate if we could arrange for the Minister for Health and Children to address that issue in the same manner as the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency leaked a decision to grant a licence for the notorious incinerator at Ringaskiddy. I raise this in the context of the impartiality of the agency. Yesterday, groups travelled from Meath and Cork and the latter in particular sought an injunction in the High Court. It is no coincidence that the EPA leaked the decision to grant that licence. We need to have a debate on impartiality and the EPA. It is not good enough for such an agency to leak a decision, particularly when a High Court injunction is sought against it.

Will the Leader arrange with the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, to debate in this House the merits and demerits of providing flood relief moneys for areas damaged by floods? There was over 5 ft. of water in Cork last night and this morning and given the high tides and the rains throughout the night this has not dissipated much. Many small businesses are destroyed. One can put out as many sandbags as one wants but 4 ft. or 5 ft. of water will do serious damage. Although many of these businesses have insurance some people may have difficulty getting compensation from insurance companies. I would appreciate if the Leader could pursue this matter.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has released figures which show drivers have a 43% chance of dodging speeding fines. There is also an issue regarding spoiled cameras picking up speeding offenders. We need to have an appraisal of the penalty points system and the issues related to the figures released by the Department also need to be debated.

I concur with previous speakers regarding the problems of the lack of signage for the Luas. We have spent €800 million on providing this system in our city. Before we embark on further extensions, it is important that people have confidence in the safety and the reliability of this system. I visited one of the locations yesterday and there is no signage there. We all know how many crashes have occurred on the DART line at Merrion gates. There are no barriers nor signage leading on to the Luas line to Tallaght, yet there are many road junctions. It is not good enough for RPA spokespeople to say today that in the first year there will be fatalities. It seems as if they are resigned to stating that fatalities will occur without being proactive. There must be a major advertising campaign on the dangers at these junctions.

I have raised the issue of Mountjoy Prison a number of times. I ask the Leader to organise a debate in the House with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform so he can outline his plans for the replacement of the prison. I want answers on what is happening to the new training unit that was built there at a cost of €14 million. It has been lying vacant for almost two years. It is an absolute waste of taxpayers money that such a unit has been built but is not being used. I want the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to outline his plans for the site.

I ask the Leader to convey my concerns to the Minister for Health and Children about the ongoing problems in Monaghan hospital, including the fact that it is not back on call.

The Senator's colleague from Cavan raised that in the Adjournment debate last night.

I support my colleague, Senator Wilson, and commend him on his interest in both Cavan and Monaghan. We had a tragedy yesterday involving a man who lived within 500 m of Monaghan hospital. An ambulance arrived in four minutes and took him to Cavan hospital, but he died on the way. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House to debate the whole issue of accident and emergency services. Another life might have been saved if this man had been brought to Monaghan hospital. The ambulance arrived within four minutes and he could have been in the hospital in another four minutes. He would have been in the hospital in less than ten minutes. He might be alive today and I sympathise with his family on this tragedy.

Fianna Fáil negligence.

The former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, gave money to Monaghan hospital——

The problems in those hospitals were discussed last night during the Adjournment debate and the Minister replied.

He gave money to Monaghan hospital. However, I call on the new Minister and the North Eastern Health Board to put Monaghan hospital back on call.

I draw the attention of the House to a very important anniversary that has been strangely overlooked. On this day 6,000 years ago God completed the creation of the universe, according to Archbishop Usher's chronology which was accepted in the 19th century and printed not only in the King James version of the Bible, but also in the Douay version of the Roman Catholic Bible. It would be a pity if we let this day pass without acknowledging that it was just 6,000 years ago to the day that God completed his work making the universe.

Is the Senator living proof of that?

I support colleagues on what is perhaps a more immediately pressing matter, the Luas. We have had a series of discussions going back over many years on transport and particularly the metro system. It gives me no pleasure to say that before construction started on Luas, I predicted that there would be crashes and fatalities. I do not wish to wait for fatalities but I believe there will be some. There are areas of the Luas where cars share the same road space, such as behind the Custom House. There are traffic lights, but the road is then shared for a couple of hundred yards. It is dangerous.

Senator Morrissey called for a debate on the Luas and all those points can be raised then.

I support his request, but I would also like to extend this because it is not enough just——

That would be more appropriate to the debate.

I want to suggest an extension of the debate so that it takes into account the provision of a metro or underground system. That is the only system of transport that will resolve the problems of Dublin. I look forward to having the opportunity in the debate to putting all the arguments yet again. I hope the Government will have the courage to do something imaginative that would be in the interests of the citizens of Dublin.

The Taoiseach rejected a metro system yesterday.

I wish to raise an issue which I am sure is of concern to all people who think about human rights. The refusal of Israel to facilitate medical treatment for Mr. Arafat is outrageous. It is important for us to let our voices be heard. He has stood bravely with his people. They have been brutalised and humiliated. He has lived in a virtual bunker, without daylight and with very poor air. We must surely have some sanction in our arsenal of international diplomacy to impress on Israel that it is working outside the family of civilised nations. For the Israeli Government to state that it could not guarantee Mr. Arafat's return to his own people if he leaves for medical treatment is another example of man's inhumanity to man. As a forum, we should express our views on this and perhaps our Government, through the Minister for Foreign Affairs, might ensure that Mr. Arafat is facilitated. He is a very ill man and should be facilitated in getting specialist medical services which he requires at this time.

I am sure the Leader and the Members will have noted with interest the Law Reform Commission's report on the modernisation of conveyancing law, in which it proposes that all unauthorised planning developments of ten years or older receive an amnesty. Planning authorities are apparently precluded from enforcing proceedings against unauthorised developments once seven years have passed. I wonder what the Leader thinks of that point. It seems an interesting proposal and it might tidy up the law.

I draw the attention of the House to the surge in calls to the Women's Aid national helpline. There were 19,000 calls to this helpline last year, which is an increase of 26%. The details of the figures are frightening. Some 44% reported emotional abuse and 33% reported physical abuse. An example of emotional abuse is a woman being threatened by her partner, husband or co-habitee that if she left the house, she and her children would be killed. She is therefore obliged to stay in the home of the person who is committing violence against her.

A tragic issue raised yesterday was that of women who are disabled and in wheelchairs and whose abusers are their carers, who are withholding their subsistence allowances from them and their food. Women's Aid has been unable to respond to a third of the 19,000 calls it received last year. The group has been receiving calls from accident and emergency departments, from doctors and social workers who are using the service. However, it does not have enough money from the North Eastern Health Board to help a third of the 19,000 callers. I call on the Minister for Health and Children to advise the House whether she intends to allocate money to help staff and volunteers to respond to calls from Women's Aid. This serious issue relates to women, generally speaking.

I welcome the decision of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, to seek approval for 2,000 extra gardaí to increase the strength of the force to 14,000. He needs to be aware of some reality checks, however. I recently raised the issue of morale within the Garda. The Morris tribunal in Donegal is doing a job that has to be done, but it is inadvertently having a negative effect on morale within the force, which has a knock-on effect on public confidence in the force. An increasing number of gardaí are seeking early retirement as a result of the lack of morale. Questions have to be asked about the lack of Garda resources. Just three or four gardaí may have to patrol 30,000 or 40,000 people on the streets of the Temple Bar area of Dublin on a weekend night. Gardaí are under pressure. They fear imminent assault because they are conscious of the ever-increasing level of violent assaults in this country. A new garda, or a young cub as we would call him in County Donegal, was shot this morning.

That might not be a fair term to use.

I am making a very serious point.

Is the Senator looking for a debate?

A young garda was shot in the hand in the early hours of this morning. Senators would have been up in arms and calling for debates if he had been more seriously maimed. I call on the Minister, Deputy McDowell, to introduce clear and unambiguous protection for Garda personnel.

Hear, hear.

Such protection would be timely because the need for it is imminent. This is the start of something very serious within the force. As legislators, we have a duty to stand behind the Garda Síochána, rather than going up against it, and it is time we did so.


Hear, hear.

When I travelled to Dundalk recently, I was once again impressed by the marvellous road between Dublin and Dundalk. Signs have been erected beside the road to remind motorists that its construction was aided by a European fund. A report in a newspaper today states that the plans for a metro in Dublin have been set aside forever. I know the Leader took an active part some years ago in the decision to proceed with the metro.

If we are to have a referendum on the proposed European constitution in the next 18 months, we have to find every reason to proclaim from the rooftops the benefits we receive from Europe. The people of Dundalk know that the road to their town was built with the help of European funds. It seems to me that if we use the benefits of our membership of the EU to succeed in building a metro in Dublin — I am sure it will not be finished in the next two years — we will have a much better chance of securing a "Yes" vote in the referendum on the proposed European constitution.

I read last night that the 100th anniversary of the opening of the New York metro was celebrated yesterday. Mayor Bloomberg said that the people of New York could not enjoy their way of life if the metro was not in place. I urge the Government to seek ways of proclaiming the benefits we receive from Europe and to re-examine how Dublin's traffic can be managed. As our traffic problems will not be solved by Luas alone, we should consider the possibility of a metro in our future plans.

Hear, hear.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Science to investigate as a matter if urgency what is happening to the special needs unit of the Department of Education and Science in Athlone? The attempts of parents and principal teachers to get a response to requests they have made, in writing or on the telephone, have come to naught. It seems that the officials in the unit have gone to ground. I draw a parallel between current events and those last year, when it was impossible to contact the building unit before budget changes were made by the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey.

I have been reliably informed that when a review which is under way has been completed, there will be cutbacks in the funds allocated to the educationally disadvantaged, particularly Travellers. No resource teacher for Travellers has been appointed where a vacancy has arisen in the past four months. Where are we going if that is an indication of the Minister's commitment to disadvantage in education? Our experience has taught us that when we hear of a review, we know that cutbacks are coming. The commitments of the previous Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in respect of disadvantage in education rang hollow because he did nothing. I know now that he did nothing because the policy-makers working in the relevant unit have failed.

Hear, hear.

They have now gone to ground. Those working in the unit who have no responsibility for policy in that area have to take the flak.

Is the Senator looking for a debate?

I call on the Leader to ask the Minister to investigate this unit of the Department of Education and Science as a matter of urgency so that the disadvantaged will not be scapegoats once more.

I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to the House to debate the abolition of roll-over relief in respect of capital gains tax paid on compensation received by property owners following the compulsory acquisition of their lands. In many cases, the lands in question were taken against the will of property owners, who then had to reinvest to provide for their families. It is unfair to expect them to pay roll-over relief. The issue warrants a debate. I would also like the Minister to debate in the House stamp duty relief on land swaps. It is grossly unfair that farmers who wish to consolidate their holdings have to pay stamp duty on the double. In its pre-budget submission, the IFA has asked the Minister to examine this issue.

In the run-up to the last general election, we heard a great deal of thunder from the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, about the draining of the River Shannon and the establishment of a Shannon authority. Counties Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath and Offaly were severely hit by downpours of rain yesterday and last night. There have been many cases of serious flooding in the region over the past 50 years or more. When he was Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera promised to drain the Shannon. The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, gave a commitment to establish a Shannon authority, but we have heard little about it since he became Minister of State with responsibility for that area. The Minister of State needs to come to the House as a matter of urgency to update Senators on his plans to bring all the parties which are interested in the Shannon together to try to develop a better system of management of the river system. Thousands of acres of land in the midlands are flooded when the Shannon breaches its banks, causing great inconvenience to farmers and the public in villages in close proximity to the river.

Hear, hear.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to discuss certain issues relating to third level education, particularly the university sector, as soon as she gets her feet under the table? I was rather shocked to hear of comments made by the Minister's predecessor, who said that we will have to lower our sights if money is not available for the university sector. It seems to me that if we decided to settle for second-best in our university system, there would be appalling consequences for this country's economic and other development.

I would also like to refer to changes in the contracts of pharmacists under the National Health Service in Britain. Pharmacists are being placed in the front line of treatment there. Perhaps we could ask the Minister for Health and Children to discuss that matter with us when she comes to the House. It is important to keep people out of hospitals. Pharmacists, who have had very expensive training, comprise an enormous resource which is being wasted if we only ask them to stick labels on bottles and hand out pills.

I agree with speakers who have called on the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to discuss health issues. Senator O'Brien spoke about a sad development in his part of the world yesterday. It would be appropriate to ask the Minister to come to the House to debate health issues as soon as possible.

I also wish to raise with the Leader the possibility of having a debate on housing. We have not had one for a long time and we should have one now. We are resuming a debate today on planning, which is a closely related issue, but it is now appropriate to have one on housing, with particular emphasis on elderly single people, who are still at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to the provision of local authority housing. I am sure the Leader knows of many examples of people living in prefabs scattered throughout the country in conditions that are unacceptable in this day and age. I have asked for a debate on this matter before and I urge the Leader to use her good offices to arrange one as soon as possible.

I also seek a debate on crime. Recently I warned against the downsizing of the number of armed gardaí from 1,600, which I feel is a fairly modest complement. When the paramilitaries were active in this State — one hopes they are now almost gone — it was unusual for anyone to fire at gardaí. Now we seem to have armed gangs, obviously connected with drugs, which seem to think they can fire at gardaí with impunity. We certainly need more armed gardaí to tackle this ever-increasing crime. My colleague, Senator McHugh, referred to young gardaí as cubs. We need more cubs to curb the number of violent pups on the street.

Last week the Government accepted the recommendations of the constituency review committee. That obviously paves the way for the introduction of legislation. In the Government's legislative programme, which all Members will have received, it was stated that such legislation would not be taken until spring 2005. I would be grateful if the Leader would inquire as to its timing and whether it might be possible to introduce the legislation in this House first. There are very controversial issues surrounding it, and I would like to bring to the attention of the House to the fact that a legal challenge is being considered against the proposed division of my own county, Leitrim, to which, as the House will know, I am totally opposed. If the legislation were debated in this House before going to the Dáil, it would be an ideal opportunity to air such views and clarify whether any such legal challenge would be successful.

That is a matter for the courts.

Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, spoke about Private Members' business last night, regarding which I apologised to the Cathaoirleach on all our behalves. He asked for the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, to come to discuss the proliferation of accidents on the Luas lines, saying that there should be better signage and policing between now and Christmas. His point is well made, since every time one sees a Luas tram, it is packed with people. One can imagine, coming up to Christmas, how much busier it will get. There are many cities in Europe and other places where there are trams on the street that share space with cars. They seem to be able to manage their business, but they have had them for far longer than we have. It is up to those in cars to drive carefully when approaching the points where they cross over track. We are trying to get the Minister for Transport to come to the House and that will be one of the issues we will ask him to address. Senator Henry also mentioned the Luas difficulty and raised the matter of unaccompanied minors, a problem that is increasing.

Senator McCarthy raised the SSIA scheme yesterday. Now he has raised medical cards, which will also be affected. I presume he means the income eligibility limits for medical card holders or those seeking them. He wants a debate on the perceived distancing of the EPA from decision-making and its impartiality. The Senator also sought a debate with the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, on flood relief and one on traffic penalties, since 43% of people expect never to receive a penalty through being stopped on the road.

Senator Morrissey raised the lack of signage on Luas, saying that a major campaign of awareness for those on the road was needed. Senator Terry asked what was happening in Mountjoy Prison, its training unit and the women's prison. We will ask the Minister, who is always keen to come to this House and does so quite regularly, to come to the House to discuss the matter. Senator O'Brien mentioned Monaghan hospital, making the point very clearly that the previous Minister had allocated money to enable Monaghan to come on stream again — I believe the terminology is "on call"— and highlighting the particularly sad case of the sick man who had to go to Cavan because he could not be brought to Monaghan.

We are all very happy that, as Senator Norris said, 6,000 years later, we are all still here.


The Senator wants the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, to attend to talk about the Luas facilities. Senator Ó Murchú referred to Yasser Arafat, making a case for him and saying that, were he brought out to receive proper care, he might not be allowed back. That is a terrible thing to say to someone who is clearly severely ill. We will raise that at the highest level in the Government. I thank the Senator for bringing it to my attention.

Senator Coghlan mentioned the Law Reform Commission report on conveyancing and planning permission. I do not know what has happened on that, but we can inquire. Yesterday, Senator Terry raised the number of calls to which, owing to lack of finance, Women's Aid cannot attend. I thank Senator White for raising the question once again as women's issues are so rarely raised. Senator Terry was very fluent on the matter in the House yesterday. We should highlight the issue here — I believe that it is the responsibility of the North Eastern Health Board.

Senator McHugh welcomed the 2,000 extra gardaí and said there was a lack of morale because of the Morris tribunal in Donegal. If the lack of morale has been brought about by what is coming out of the Morris tribunal, it is because of one group of people — the guilty.

People are being wrongly accused.

We are reading about it all the time. The Senator asked that there be unambiguous protection for gardaí who are being attacked in circumstances where they would not have been attacked heretofore.

Senator Quinn raised the metro and the road to Dundalk which, he is correct in saying, is a most magnificent stretch. When we go looking for votes for the EU constitution, we should be pointing up such matters. The New York metro has been in existence for 100 years; I have always made the point that such transport systems have been in major cities such as Paris and Rome for well over 100 years. They have had both underground and overground systems, and we are only beginning to approach that position here.

Senator Ulick Burke mentioned the special needs unit in the Department of Education and Science in Athlone. It is quite some time since I heard a Minister as open and clear as Deputy Hanafin was on special needs assistants last week. I understood from her that the unit in question was overwhelmed with work but that she was seeking a method of cutting through and clearing it. I am sure that that will happen. The Senator is quite correct that it is difficult to get through and that, having got through to the unit, it is difficult to get answers. His point related to the personnel involved but the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, is taking very enlightened steps in that regard.

Senator Bannon wished to bring to the attention of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, issues regarding the roll-over of tax relief, as well as stamp duty relief on land swaps. The Senator knows that it does not apply when one gives land to one's family; he means from one landowner to another. He spoke about the Shannon authority and said that de Valera had said that he was going to drain the river. The Shannon has its own flow, and no number of commissions or authorities will change that, as the studies have shown over the years. However, we will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to see what he has thought up on the matter.

Senator Maurice Hayes requested that the Minister for Education and Science attend the House to debate the university sector. That would be important. If a country is to develop, the third level sector must have its proper place. The Senator also spoke of the change in contract for pharmacists. As he noted, pharmacists in the UK are being given extra powers so that they can to some extent stand in for doctors. Chemists are often a great fount of knowledge and one can get wise advice across the counter rather than sit in a doctor's waiting room.

Senator John Paul Phelan asked that the Minister for Health and Children attend the House to debate health issues. He also called for a debate on housing with reference to elderly single people living in unsuitable housing. It is time for such a debate and we will ask the relevant Minister to attend.

Senator Feighan referred to the downsizing in the numbers of armed gardaí. He has raised this issue previously and warned of the dangers involved. Senator Mooney mentioned the legislation regarding changes in constituencies. That is currently being prepared and we will try to have it initiated in the Seanad. I have a great interest in that legislation. The results may greatly lighten my workload and I would be interested in contributing to the debate. I greatly welcome the report.

A declaration of intent.

Order of Business agreed to.