Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 2005

Vol. 180 No. 25

Order of Business.

The Order of Business today is No. 1, a referral motion whereby the subject matter of Nos. 18, 19 and 20 on today's Order Paper are being referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights for consideration, to be taken without debate; No. 2, a referral motion whereby the subject matter of No. 17 on today's Order Paper is being referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources for consideration, to be taken without debate; No. 3, Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2004 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 1.30 p.m.; and No. 4, Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2004 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m.

I wish to explain the motions being referred to joint committees. No. 18 relates to support for the efforts made by member states to improve the management of the return of illegal migrants, including the enhancement of co-operation between EU states in this area; No. 19 relates to the establishment of the third phase of the European refugee fund in order to continue to support the development of a common EU asylum policy through the provision of support for projects in the areas of reception of asylum seekers, integration of refugees and voluntary return of refugees; and No. 20 relates to the establishment of the European fund for the integration of third country nationals for the period 2007 to 2013 and is to support the efforts of member states to enable legally resident third country nationals to integrate and take an active part in European society. I understand the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights will sit next Wednesday to discuss these motions, which will return to the House the following Friday. We will endeavour to allow at least one hour to debate the issues. I would expect Members of this House who are members of the committee to attend the meeting and be here if and when we get to debate those issues on Friday, 1 July.

Following the Prestige disaster off the coast of Spain in November 2002, a number of initiatives on maritime safety and the protection of the marine environment were proposed and-or undertaken at EU and international level. Among these was a proposal on ship source pollution and on the introduction of sanctions, including criminal sanctions for pollution offences.

In last December's budget the Government finally relented and gave some small measure of relief to first-time house buyers in respect of the stamp duty they must pay. As you know, Sir, under Standing Order 30, I have raised a matter upon which you will rule soon. However, it is a very urgent issue, which I would like to raise on the Order of Business. It now seems that under guidelines issued by the Revenue Commissioners to the financial institutions last month, if the name of a parent or family member is on the mortgage application document on behalf of the first-time buyer, or if any moneys have been given to the first-time buyer from a family member or other party, the buyer will automatically lose the stamp duty relief.

This is a very serious matter. The Finance Act rightly gave an advantage to first time buyers on stamp duty. Now, however, Revenue is reinterpreting guidelines on an Act of the Oireachtas in a most arbitrary and unfair way to first time buyers. The story is in today's edition of The Irish Times and I have had cases where people have been stung for between €9,000 and €10,000. These are people who are not on the housing ladder, but want their first opportunity to buy a house. Now they are being taxed despite the wishes of these Houses.

I am raising this issue under Standing Order 30 and I will return to it. I ask the Leader to seek immediate clarification from the Department of Finance and from the Revenue Commissioners on the issue. We all recognise the right of people in this country to buy a house. First time buyers have been squeezed out of the market. Why penalise them further when the Houses of the Oireachtas have passed legislation to help them? I ask for the support of the Leader on this matter.

Over ten days ago the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced that he wanted to liberalise licences for restaurants in Ireland. I refer to the bold, radical measure which the Vintners Federation of Ireland has been seeking for the past ten years. Will this be done by regulation or legislation? When are we likely to see these radical changes, which have been sought by the vested interests?

Approximately 160 new amendments are to be made to the Garda Síochána Bill in the other House, following an extensive examination of the Bill in this House a few months ago. The Bill is due to return here next week and in view of this will the Leader organise a briefing in advance with justice spokespeople to ensure the Department will at least allocate more time to this House for deliberation than was allocated to the other House?

Last week, we had a discussion on whether consideration of the Garda Síochána Bill should be deferred for a period. I was of the view that it would be better to deal with it, but that was before the State added more than 100 amendments to the Bill in the Lower House. I am certain that as the legislation is being rushed through the Houses we will get it wrong. I heard the Minister last night and I see the logic of his position in trying to deal with the issues to be announced in the final part of the Morris tribunal report. That is understandable but it is not understandable that we should rush the Bill through at this stage. It will be a mistake. There is too much to take in and in that context the row in the Dáil last night was understandable.

During the course of the debate last night on prisons we became aware that the Prison Service had published a new set of prison rules. It was unfortunate, or less than coincidental, that we were not made aware of that before the debate began. It was difficult for everyone to prepare speeches for it and it was unfair that we should deal with it in that way. Be that as it may, the recommendations of such a report would normally go through by regulation without debate. The report is a huge document — it contains approximately 200 sections — and it deals with significant issues. We should agree to hold a debate on it. The previous arrangements have been in place for 100 years, therefore, there is no immediate rush to deal with them. However, it is important to note that there are major changes in areas other than corporal punishment and other penal elements so there is a need to consider the issue.

I am sure the Cathaoirleach, as a nominee of the agriculture panel, is aware of developments in agriculture. It gives me a sense of déjà vu when I see the way Irish farmers are to be kicked around again by all sides. We saw this 15 years ago. Every person with any bit of logic knew that at some stage, Irish farmers would be hit with world beef prices as the norm in this country. Despite knowing this farmers were made to suffer for ten long years. Their representative body and successive Ministers for Agriculture and Food were fighting an unwinnable battle, leading them up the hill, giving them hope, only to be followed by disappointment, and reaching a conclusion which we could all foresee.

The then EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. MacSharry, brought in reforms to the CAP which had to be done. In fairness to him, he got the very best deal possible for Irish farmers. At the time I was the only person in the House to defend the Commissioner's proposals.

A similar process will now happen with regard to sugar beet. Irish farmers are now being given hope that this battle can be won. It cannot be won and I would prefer if they were honestly told that. We could then get together and see what levels of support, money and investment can be given to those farmers who are currently relying on beet production. The whole sugar industry is changing world-wide and it will be of no use to us in a very short time. We have known that for a long time and I do not believe that everyone was taken by surprise by the announcement of the current Commissioner two days ago. The Minister has to fight the fight and the House has to say the predictable things. However, we also need to lace this debate with honesty and directness and we must seek solutions which are realistic, possible and in the best interests of Irish agriculture.

The one thing of which I am sure is that the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners will not be meeting any first time house buyers to discuss their tax positions with them, thereby defining the nature of Irish society fairly well. I agree with the issue just raised by Senator O'Toole. Too many people have been conning Irish agriculture for far too long. The CAP, as Irish farmers came to understand it, was never going to last indefinitely. A great part of the effort made in doing a wonderful imitation of King Canute would have been better spent on trying to build up a way of life for rural Ireland to enable a viable lifestyle to continue. It is a great pity.

However, simply changing the conditions in which sugar can be sold in the European Union will not do much for poor workers on sugar producing estates in the developing world. Unless we tie that development to proper working conditions we will simply make richer the already filthy rich sugar barons of Brazil and similar countries. It is a wonderful opportunity for the EU to use its leverage to ensure that there is a just regime in those developing countries to match the justice of the trading conditions.

I do not have any great faith that the present EU Commissioner for Trade, the doctrinaire free marketeer from the British Labour Party, Mr. Peter Mandelson, will be prepared to make those conditions. I would like the Government to demand justice at international level, for farmers at home and for sugar estate workers in developing countries. On those conditions, the Government should be prepared to take its share of the sacrifice but, without such a deal, we will simply transfer more riches to already disgustingly rich people in countries that are profoundly unequal.

Will the Leader ascertain — she is good at this when nobody else is — the position on the debt of Aer Rianta? Will it be a debt on Dublin, Shannon or Cork airports? These debts have huge implications for these airports. We were given categorical assurances which now appear to be far from categorical.

I am horrified at the way officials from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have yet again used public concern to slip clauses into the Garda Síochána Bill that fulfil their wildest dreams. They can now demand every single document in the possession of the Garda without any justification to any external body. This is just one of the 116 amendments introduced by the Minister to the Lower House yesterday. Someone suggested that fax machines were overheating due to the amount of printing of late amendments from a Department which, as was said on yesterday's Order of Business, is a model of obscurity, secrecy and of all that is wrong with the worst kind of public service. We will have a very difficult session next week if we have to deal with such a mass of amendments within four days. I put the House on notice that the Labour Party will not be prepared to accept the kind of rush job imposed on the Dáil against the wishes of the majority of its Members.

While I frequently disagree with him, Senator Ryan hit the nail on the head in discussing the sugar regime within the European Union. He is absolutely right that it is obvious the EU has responsibilities to the ACP countries and poorer regions of the world but it would be completely erroneous to believe those obligations would be fulfilled and the lot of growers in poorer parts of the world improved by the implementation of the Commission's proposals. It will not help other people to wipe out many farmers from a quite profitable enterprise. We must make our views on the matter well known.

There is a wider question involving the Common Agricultural Policy and the suggestion by Mr. Blair that it is up for renegotiation. As we explained last week, a very long and painful process was undergone by which prices were decoupled. The price of a product will no longer be the source of the revenue for farmers, which is appropriate as we must be competitive. If, however, we move towards world prices, a mechanism must be put in place whereby people in rural Ireland and rural Europe in general are protected. There is much more to the issue than the price of the product and the income of farmers. It is a question of the nature of rural society as a whole.

I am glad the Taoiseach stated that the Common Agricultural Policy is not up for renegotiation. It would be a matter of entirely bad faith by the European Union to try to unravel a deal which has been concluded for several years into the future. We must be explicit as to our views. It would be appropriate, if possible, to provide even one hour to debate these matters in the coming week. I suspect it would be too late if we were to hold a debate when we reconvene for the new session. While the programme is crowded and legislation must be dealt with first, I ask the Leader to provide time to discuss this matter of great significance. The European Union must be made aware of the consequences for the ratification of the constitutional treaty in Ireland if agriculture is not protected.

I ask the Leader to make an immediate request to the Minister for Finance to call on the Revenue Commissioners to indicate clearly the reasons they issued guidelines to lending institutions recently which constitute what can only be described as an assault on first-time buyers. It is difficult for young people to provide for their own homes without assistance from parents or other family members. It is most important for the Revenue Commissioners to indicate why they believed they had to issue their guidelines. Was there a breakdown in the provisions of the last budget on stamp duty as implemented in the Finance Act 2005?

It is an unfortunate coincidence that on the day the Taoiseach is in Northern Ireland where he will make an announcement on affordable housing, another arm of Government is denying the opportunity to young people to provide a home for themselves with some assistance from family members. I ask the Leader to do what is necessary, whether it is to ask the Minister for Finance to ask the Revenue Commissioners to explain or have the matter dealt with by a committee of the Houses as a matter of urgency, to protect young people who will lose from €10,000 to €15,000 on average from the stamp duty relief benefit.

As we finish the primary cycle academic year, many national schools are to lose teachers simply because of a statistic while educational need is overlooked. The Minister for Education and Science suggests she will have solved the matter in September, which is of very little use to national school management and principals who are trying to organise their staffing arrangements for the new academic year between now and then. It is unbelievable that being one pupil short of the quota means the loss by a school of one teacher. I ask the Leader to make a formal request to the Minister for Education and Science to deal with the matter urgently and to notify all school boards of management within a month of her findings.

There are 12 schools.

I would welcome a debate on the recently issued guidelines of the Revenue Commissioners to lending institutions. It is often necessary for young people to have a parent supply some of the money required to purchase a property, notwithstanding the two possible arrangements which may obtain. If a parent in such circumstances becomes part-equity owner of the property, the decision is a commercial one and it is proper to aggregate the relief. If, however, a parent does not take an interest in the property, it is entirely correct for the young people buying it to claim in full the available relief.

Hear, hear.

The Common Agricultural Policy is changing significantly as it is bound to in the context of world trade agreements and the stretching of the EU to the Russian border. While some very positive developments have resulted, there are a number of issues to address. If we support Third World countries, we must ensure the people in those countries benefit rather than the companies which own the land, sugar and means of production. Similarly, any compensation must be provided to farmer producers on a pro rata basis because it is European taxpayers’ money. It should not be the case that hundreds of thousands if not millions of euro is paid in compensation to some individuals while others who depend on production for their livelihood receive paltry sums. I would like to see equity in compensation.

Yesterday, there was a power cut in part of the complex, which raised a couple of issues. While one could hear division bells, unless one could distinguish the sound of each bell, one did not know for which House they were ringing. None of us took the risk and we all turned up here to vote. It would be very simple to send a group text message to Members' phones to notify them of a division.

We will take responsibility for sending it.

The power cut also meant the lifts were out of order, which could have caused the Government to lose a vote. Emergency power should be available to the lifts in the event of a failure of the electricity supply.

On a point of order, the audit committee of the commission, believe it or not, addressed the possibility of a power cut last week. I will bring the idea of a text message and other matters to the attention of the committee next week.

A person in the lift could become hysterical.

I reiterate the request I made yesterday for a full debate at the earliest possible opportunity on the future of the sugar industry. When I spoke yesterday, the House was not aware of the full extent of the Commission's proposals. We know now that what is proposed would have the effect not only of wiping out the Irish sugar industry, but would have a profoundly negative impact on the entire Irish tillage industry and put thousands of jobs at risk. I disagree with Senator O'Toole on the future of the industry. We should not throw in the towel. The industry will have a future if a strong and effective political fight is put up in Brussels.

I remind the House of the action which had to be taken 20 years ago in the face of a similar crisis in the Irish dairy industry. On that occasion, the Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, and his Minister for Agriculture toured every single EU capital to strongly press Ireland's case. We must take the same hands-on political approach on this occasion.


Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture and Food must refuse to sign away the future of the Irish sugar industry. It has played a part in the development of rural Ireland for almost 80 years and we must ensure it has a future on this island.

I, too, appeal to the Leader to do the best she can to ensure there is full debate on the Garda Bill, even if it means late sittings or pushing business into the following week. It is very difficult to deal with that volume of amendments but I share the Minister's view that we should press on as there is a need to modernise the management of the Garda as soon as possible. We all know the value of scrutiny in committee, particularly in detecting what might well be the unintended consequences that lurk behind an amendment or the Bill as drafted. Senator Ryan pointed out such a case. If that could be managed it would be to the benefit of all.

I join with other Senators who have expressed concern about the announcement yesterday on the sugar reforms. I support Senator Dardis's appeal to the Leader for a short debate next week on this issue, and perhaps on agriculture in general.

I also join with Senators who have expressed dismay at the interpretation the Revenue Commissioners appear to have put on legislation passed by the House which exempted first-time buyers from stamp duty if the property they were buying was under a certain value. We should invite the Minister for Finance to the House for a debate on this matter which would allow us to express our views on this important subject which could then be conveyed to the Revenue Commissioners.

I wish to ask the Leader about the status of the primary school medical examination. When I was in primary school, which is not that long ago, there was a medical examination.

I am sure the Senator was lovely.

I think the Leader was Minister for Education.

I still say that the Senator was lovely.

The Leader has a great deal for which to take responsibility.

When the Leader was Minister for Education there was a medical examination, at least in my part of the South Eastern Health Board area. I do not know the status of the medical examination at present but it does not appear to take place any longer. A number of people involved in the medical profession have raised it with me recently. It is an area of preventative medicine where we could do something for the health of younger people.

Last week was cystic fibrosis awareness week and most of us met members of the Cystic Fibrosis Association in Buswells Hotel. I accept I am a little late with my request for a debate on cystic fibrosis and the lack of services for sufferers, which I regret will have to wait until the autumn.

We are all aware that cystic fibrosis is a terrible disease that affects many young people who carry it into their early adulthood. A report was carried out in recent months by a physician in the UK. The number of people affected with cystic fibrosis in Ireland would suggest we need 25 consultant respiratory physicians when currently we have 3.3. I request the Leader to fit a debate on this matter into the autumn schedule.

I join with colleagues in calling for an urgent debate on the sugar beet industry. Fine Gael tabled a Private Members' motion on this matter in January and, unfortunately, our worst fears have been realised. It is time we had an urgent debate on the matter.

It is worth pointing out that the sugar beet industry is a very lucrative one which made profits of over €10 million last year. I wish to put that on record as the impression has been created that sugar beet was making a loss. This is an example of the worst form of corporate greed. It is time to take a tough stance on this issue and work with our European Union colleagues to ensure we have a long-term, sustainable sugar beet industry. The treatment of people involved in the industry, especially in Carlow, has been disgraceful. Carlow no longer has a beet factory and it appears there will be no beet growers in Carlow either. Greencore has made an application for a rail depot but from what the company has said in the past I do not think the rail depot will ever become a reality. I do not believe the company wants a rail depot but maybe I will be proven wrong.

A report recently came out in the UK about the MRSA superbug which revealed that one in 11 patients there has contracted it. I presume we would have a similar figure here or perhaps it is even worse. I am amazed that the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has finally decided to do an audit of hospitals, but she has chosen the months of July and August to do it. Traditionally those months are the quietest in hospitals. I am not too sure how much we can read into the findings of such an audit.

One has to start somewhere.

When the report is published we should remember the time of year it was carried out.

I seek a debate on the announcement yesterday on child care by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. As a former teacher I do not believe it is possible to use schools in the way the Minister outlined. It is a good idea in theory but a bad one in practice. It could be done if schools had spare rooms but on a practical level a school room would have school books on tables and property belonging to teachers and pupils. It would be a recipe for disaster. It would result in teachers spending the first half hour of every day finding out what property was missing and relocating it.

We must have a proper and sincere debate on child care as highlighted by Senator White on numerous occasions. We must provide proper, dedicated child care places independent of schools. Society appears to blame school for everything. It is time we moved on. Schools are places of learning and it is not possible to use them for child care purposes.