Adjournment Matters.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Acting Chairman

I welcome to the House the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Senator Kitt will agree the Gort regional water scheme has been discussed for at least 30 years. However, it seems there has been little or no progress in that time as to how a proper water supply for Gort should be provided or augmented. The latest response from Galway County Council stated that work is ongoing on the environmental impact study and the abstraction order cannot proceed until it has been completed.

While I do not know who is responsible for compiling the environmental impact study in this instance, this has been going on for years. Someone is passing the buck along the line in respect of both the EIS and the abstraction order. There is no agreement as to the nature of the construction in the lake, regarding the water coming out or otherwise. Examples have been cited, mainly by the local farming community, who are concerned about the levels of the water and the manner in which it is proposed to dam the water at that location.

I wish to raise some important points regarding the town of Gort. Approximately five years ago, a serious fire took place in the town, which highlighted a problem, namely, that when the fire brigade attempted to use the hydrants, it found there was no water pressure. Subsequently, steps were taken to install new piping in the town's main street. While this was done, it did not improve either the supply of water or other matters. Even the Ennis road, which is probably one of the areas closest to the source of the supply, has no pressure whatever.

Apart from the question of pressure, the question of quality also arises. The water is distinctly discoloured and at present, no one can take and drink a glass of water from the supply in Gort. It would remain unacceptable even after boiling. Last year, I was told that tenders were issued for new pumps to augment the supply in various areas in which the pressure was low. This mainly concerned areas such as Ballyhugh, the Ennis road and other localities within the town. Although the pumps were purchased during the year, they will not be installed until 2007.

I do not know who is to blame in this case. However, this is not as much a matter of apportioning blame as it is a complete stifling of progress in this locality. The worst aspect of the issue is that in recent times, there have been clear indications that the local authority will not allow any further developments and will refuse planning permissions within the town. This constitutes a serious blow to a town such as Gort, which has just begun to expand, as have many other urban areas within striking distance of Galway city. However, it would be a serious consequence if, on top of everything else, restrictions were to be placed on the number of planning permissions and the development of the town.

As long ago as 2003, all local public representatives made representations on various aspects of the inadequacy of the supply of water to Gort. We were fobbed off with assurances to the effect that matters were in progress or that planning had reached a particular stage and awaited input from someone else. Frequently, the buck stopped in the Department with the Minister. It would then be thrown back and forth between the Department and the council.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure that clear decisive action will be taken regarding the improvement of the supply and quality of water in the town. This cannot be allowed to continue and whoever has been stifling progress or making inadequate efforts to secure a proper supply should be asked to move the issue along as a matter of urgency in order that the town of Gort can develop properly.

The most important point regarding supply to domestic households, hotels, bed and breakfasts and so on, is that at present, they cannot use the water safely for drinking and are obliged to buy water in cans. As the Acting Chairman is aware, within half a mile of this locality, the floods can be up to six feet high. Nevertheless, the town of Gort has no drinking water. I ask the Minister of State to take whatever initiatives are necessary to ensure the supply of water in Gort, in terms of both pressure and quality, is rectified as a matter of urgency.

I thank Senator Ulick Burke for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to reply on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The Department's Water Services Investment Programme 2005-2007, published in December 2005, includes some 60 major water and sewerage schemes, with a value of more than €451 million, for Galway. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is pleased to confirm that the Gort regional water supply scheme is one of these schemes. Funding of €15.8 million has been allocated for it in the investment programme and it is scheduled to start next year.

Galway County Council's preliminary report for the scheme was received in the Department in January 2006. The council was informed that same month that the Department's examination of the report would have to await the outcome of the environmental impact assessment the council was then carrying out. Obviously, the environmental impact assessment could have a significant impact on the design, scope and scale of the council's proposals and there would have been little point in subjecting them to detailed examination until the situation in that respect had been clarified.

From recent contacts between the council and the Department, the council may have recently determined that a full environmental impact assessment might not be required. It is to confirm the position in this regard to the Department in the near future. When this issue is resolved, the Department will be able to reconsider its position regarding the preliminary report. Approval of that report will allow the council to prepare contract documents, which will be used to invite bids for the construction of the scheme.

From what has been said, it will be clear that further progress with the scheme is entirely in the hands of Galway County Council. I can assure Senator Burke that the Department will do everything it can to facilitate an early start to the construction phase once the council comes back with firm proposals. The money for the scheme — there is no question about that — is available in the Department and the Minister is keen to see it get to construction as soon as possible.

The Department provided funding in 2004 for certain advance elements of the scheme to deal with the most pressing water supply problems affecting the town; these works are now complete.

I reiterate the importance of the council getting back to the Department as soon as possible. After that, I hope progress can be made and tenders invited.

The Minister of State stated the Department is not requiring a full EIS report. This has been bandied about for at least ten years. If somebody could make a decision as to whether we are looking for a full EIS report and get on with it, the sooner the Minister could approve it.

To clarify, what I stated was that Galway County Council has stated an environmental impact statement might not be required and it is to confirm this. As soon as the council confirms, if it is not required then progress can be made. I will relate all of what Senator Burke has stated to the Department.

I thank the Minister of State.

Motor Insurance Regulations.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me raise this matter and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to the House.

I am raising the issue of why policy numbers are displayed on insurance discs. I received a note from the Financial Regulator stating that regulations requiring the display of an insurance disc were introduced on 1 July 1986 and were signed by Liam Kavanagh, the then Minister for the Environment, at the end of 1984. The Financial Regulator gave me all the details contained on these discs, including the name of the vehicle insured, the registration number, the commencement date of the insurance policy and the expiry date. At the top of the disc is the policy number.

Although the Minister might not believe this, a number of people have contacted me stating that policy numbers are being copied off windscreens in broad daylight and people are abusing the system by quoting these numbers when they are involved in insurance claims, for example, following an accident. This should not be allowed. I suggest to the Minister that if there is a need to include the policy number on the disc, it should be put on the reverse of the disc. A number of people have approached me stating that assessors have rung them about accidents in which they were not involved and people have had increases in their premia on renewal. Nowadays insurance companies can pay up quickly in the case of small claims. There is a scam involved here and the simple answer is to put the number of the policy on the back of the insurance disc.

The Minister of State may not be able to give me all of the answers on this tonight because it has been going on for 20 years. It comes as a major shock to people when they are told by assessors that they must pay an insurance claim following an accident which did not involve them. This is wrong. It is appalling that this should continue 20 years after the insurance disc was introduced. While the idea of an insurance disc is good, I fail to understand why it must contain so much information.

I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. Perhaps he will be able to give me information on the matter.

I thank Senator Kitt for raising this issue. The question of vehicle insurance is vital and issues such as insurance fraud and uninsured driving are matters of concern which affect all legitimate policyholders and insurance companies. Under the Road Traffic Act 2006, enacted in July this year, the powers of the Garda were extended to allow them to seize all uninsured vehicles, whether registered within the State or otherwise.

Insurance discs now play a central part of the motor insurance regime in Ireland. The concept was introduced in 1984 by means of regulations. While such a disc system is not common throughout the whole of Europe, it is an effective system by which evidence of vehicle insurance is both obvious and readily available.

The insurance disc was introduced to reduce the number of uninsured vehicles on the road. The Garda can readily establish from an inspection of a vehicle if the vehicle is insured. In the case of an accident it enables other parties involved to establish full insurance details including the policy number and is, therefore, an aid to expediting insurance claims. The system has proved itself to be simple, robust and beneficial over the years.

The Department is not aware of any widespread practice of fraud as suggested by Senator Kitt. The officials contacted a representative body of the sector and it is likewise unaware of widespread fraud in this area. This is not to say, of course, that the many people who have contacted Senator Kitt do not have an issue with this and it is a matter we must examine.

At a recent hearing of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business reference was made to the practice of registering vehicles with incorrect addresses. The Minister undertook to have this issue examined. I have also noted the comments of the same committee in its Fourth Interim Report on Reforms to the Irish Insurance Market that there is a necessity to have a tight control to ensure there is an absence of fraud in the preparation of registration discs, insurance discs and NCT tests.

Senator Kitt has raised the option of not having the policy number on the front of the disc but printing it instead on the reverse. It is my view that printing the policy number on the back of the disc would reduce the apparent validity of the disc, make the number more difficult to see and make it difficult for the Garda or other genuine parties to secure this information without having access to the interior of the vehicle. In view of this matter being raised by Senator Kitt, we will consult the insurance sector further to seek its views on the Senator's suggestion and to establish if that could be considered and possibly implemented.

I appreciate Senator Kitt raising this issue. It obviously is a difficulty for some people. It can lead to fraud. Perhaps it is something that we should examine more closely. I will ensure we consult the insurance sector immediately and keep Senator Kitt informed of developments.

Pre-nuptial Agreements.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. On 18 October last, we had a good debate here on this serious topic. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, agreed with the main thrust of the debate, which was, the idea of clarifying the current status of pre-nuptial agreements in Irish law and looking at the effect of their possible introduction. There was unanimous support in the House for the whole concept. In the past 30 or 40 years, we have undergone major economic and social changes. People are marrying later in life and, consequently, entering marriage with considerable assets which they own in their own right, with no input by their new spouse. People are remarrying and, in that context, may also have built up considerable assets. They may have a family from the first marriage and would see much benefit from a pre-nuptial agreement. In addition, there is the issue of those who own businesses and farms, so these matters affect a wide range of people.

I was amazed at the reaction to the debate in the House on 18 October. Initially, it may have been thought that pre-nuptial agreements concern only American multi-millionaires, but it was soon realised such matters apply to a wider number of people. During the earlier debate, we disagreed on one point. I urged the Minister to ask the Law Reform Commission to examine the issue of pre-nuptial agreements, but he suggested the establishment of a working group which would produce a report more quickly. That was six weeks ago, however, and the working group has still not been established. I am concerned that despite the unanimous decision of this House, we have not seen progress on the appointment of a working group and neither have we seen its terms of reference being clearly laid out. I am aware of many people who would be keen to make submissions to such a working group. Earlier this week, the programme "Ear to the Ground" referred to this issue in the context of marriage breakdown and family farms being divided as a result. If people have been married for a long time I can see why a farm, or half a farm, may be sold. However, if a couple have been married for only a year or two when their marriage breaks down, it is outrageous that, in effect, they end up having to sell the farm and cannot continue in farming. Not alone do they lose their marriage, therefore, but they also lose their livelihood. The Minister of State will be aware that farming has become a difficult endeavour. It is difficult to earn an income from a farm and, therefore, impossible to do so from half a farm. It is vitally important to clarify the law in this area. If people opt for a pre-nuptial agreement, the State should recognise it.

I look forward to the Minister of State's reply. I hope it will not be a general and ambiguous answer, as is normal with Adjournment matters, but will deal in specifics. The Minister of State should tell us exactly how many people will be on the working group, when they will be appointed and what the group's terms of reference will be.

I thank Senator Browne for raising this matter. I apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste who is unable to attend the House.

I refute the Senator's suggestion that there has been a delay in appointing members of the group to study the operation of the law with respect to pre-nuptial agreements. The fact is there has been no undue delay. The Tánaiste indicated previously to the House that the study group would be chaired by a senior counsel. I am pleased to inform the House that Ms Inge Clissmann SC has agreed to undertake this task. Ms Clissmann is an expert in family law and has represented clients in some of the leading cases in this field. Her particular specialist areas include matrimonial litigation, child advocacy and related private international law issues.

The terms of reference of the study group are "to study and report on the operation of the law since the introduction of divorce in 1996 with respect to pre-nuptial agreements, taking into account constitutional requirements". The Tánaiste has asked the group to report by 31 March 2007 and to make recommendations for change, as it considers necessary. The Tánaiste intends to publish the report and any recommendations made.

The other members of the study group will include experienced legal practitioners in family law, legal academics and representatives from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the Office of the Attorney General. The necessary consultations and formalities involved in appointing the remaining members of the study group will be completed shortly.

On 18 October, as Senator Browne said, there was a full exchange of views in this House on the issue of pre-nuptial agreements. As the Tánaiste made clear on that occasion, the issue, as circumscribed by the Constitution, is not straightforward and will require close examination by the group. The Tánaiste looks forward to having the group's report which, he expects, will help fully to inform the public and the Government on what action can and should be taken. As I have said, the group will be asked to report by 31 March next. While the chairperson has been appointed, I expect the other members of the group will be appointed in the near future.

I thank the Minister of State for a very informative reply. That is all news to me and vindicates the purpose of the Adjournment debate.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.05 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 7 December 2006.