The Order of Business is No. 1, Defamation Bill 2006 — Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 5 p.m.; No. 2, National Oil Reserves Agency Bill 2006 — Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5.45 p.m.; and No. 3, Building Control Bill 2005 — Second Stage, to be taken at 5.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 8 p.m., with spokespersons having 15 minutes, other Senators having ten minutes, and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.
Order of Business.
We agree with the Order of Business as proposed by the Leader. The rescheduling of the debates makes sense in terms of the time allocation.
I raise the tragedy that came upon 24 year old Derek O'Toole in Lucan last Sunday morning. I do not wish to comment on or prejudice the ongoing investigation and the possibility that charges may well arise from the case. I raise the issue in terms of how the media dealt with the case. Senators will recall that Mrs. O'Toole, the young man's mother, appeared on radio and television rightly lambasting some element within either the Garda or the media who put it about that her son was well known to the Garda and that he had criminal convictions. When such cases come to the public attention we need to realise the trauma that is visited on the family, and whoever is engaged in such insidious spinning behind the scenes must take responsibility for his or her actions. It is outrageous that kind of spinning machine was put in place against that young man who, tragically, died in Lucan last Sunday morning. While everyone wants to get to the truth of this matter and everyone encourages that independent investigation to continue until its conclusion, we all have a responsibility to condemn in absolute terms that insidious spinning machine that took place against that young man over 12 or 24 hours on Monday.
I have repeatedly asked the Government to come forward with a view on the potential of the forthcoming referendum on children. I note from today's newspapers that the Government is considering asking all parties to commit to a referendum in the autumn period rather than before the election. It is important the Government make a statement in the House this week and that a period of, say, an hour would be provided for the Minister with responsibility for children to make a statement on whether there will be a referendum. The cat and mouse game has to end. I ask the Leader to provide time for such a debate in the course of this week.
I agree with the first point raised by Senator Brian Hayes except that I do not believe it was a spinning machine but rather bad media coverage. It was not just a young man who was supposed to be known to the Garda but there was also supposed to be a drunk Garda off duty. The reporting of the incident was wrong in all sorts of ways. In the first report I got the clear impression that a young man who had a criminal background was chased by a Garda who was drunk. It was quite appalling in terms of what we know now.
Tá Seachtain na Gaeilge le bheith ann an tseachtain seo chugainn, agus ba mhaith an rud go mbeadh díospóireacht againn ar aon pholasaithe i leith na Gaoluinne ar mhaith leis an Aire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta a chur os ár gcomhair. Tá rudaí curtha i gcló aige le cúpla mí anuas nach bhfuil aon díospóireacht déanta orthu. For instance, there are ten progressive steps, rudaí ar chóir a dhéanamh don nGaoluinn, agus ba mhaith an rud go mbeadh díospóireacht ar na moltaí sin anseo. It would be appropriate to do so now in recognition of Seachtain na Gaeilge.
In recent weeks I have called for a debate on a number of issues in relation to education, including the lack of funds in that area. We had a useful debate last week on a report which concerned many people. The Leader will recall difficult times in education in the late 1980s when it was necessary to have certain cutbacks, particularly in the area of general purpose rooms and PE halls. People understood there was a difficulty at the time and they put up with it. In the intervening period this matter became a priority and it was being dealt with, as we thought, until we saw this report yesterday. We now find there is an appalling lack of PE facilities in primary schools throughout the country. Some 80% of schools in Donegal do not have a PE hall or access to indoor PE facilities of any description, while 63% of schools in Clare and 70% of schools in Kerry lack such facilities. It is appalling that we cannot develop the curriculum at a time when we are worried about obesity in children and children being too sedentary. At a time when there is not enough activity or enough safe areas for activity, the need for PE facilities, PE halls and general purpose rooms in schools was never so important. I ask that the Minister for Education and Children outline to us her plans on this matter. There appears to be a reversal in the programme for Government on this issue.
Yesterday the Government published the bio-energy action plan for Ireland. I ask the Leader if it would be possible to have a debate on it, in advance of the publication of the White Paper, because some useful suggestions could be made by Members. We have a responsibility, as we look to the future to protect our environment, to take steps such as those outlined by the Minister in the bio-energy action plan yesterday. I would appreciate if we could have a debate on this as a matter of urgency.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the report by the National Economic and Social Forum on improving the delivery of quality public services, which was published a little over a week ago. We need to raise standards in a significant number of areas, as outlined in that report. A crazy situation exists with regard to the quality of services delivered to the public. Answering machines have taken over and a huge lack of courtesy is shown to the public in this area. This is particularly evident in respect of Eircom, which I tried to contact last week about an elderly person who experienced a fault with their telephone line. I spent three quarters of an hour trying to get through. The same situation arises with the HSE and the ESB and when one is trying to obtain bus timetables from Bus Éireann. Answering services are provided everywhere and there is no accountability to the public.
What will we get when we call the Senator?
This issue must be addressed, as it has been in the NESC report. What came across very clearly is the existence of a huge deficit of courtesy shown to the public. There needs to be a better relationship between the providers and users of public services. The Government has seemingly washed its hands of this issue and nobody seems to take control and deliver a better service to the general public. What is happening is a blight on our country. When one speaks to people from other European countries who come here, one discovers that the situation in these countries is not the same. There is some degree of courtesy and there is a limit with regard to the length of time it takes to answer a person. Eircom is one of the worst performers in this area and the way in which it treats the public is annoying.
The Senator's point is adequately made.
I also saw the television interview with Mrs. O'Toole and heard her heartfelt appeal for fair play for her son and his memory. I think everyone would agree that she spoke as a loving mother and it was clear that she was devastated. She told her story without any embellishment. She did not hand out blame to anyone but she wanted the truth.
The idea that somebody would spin that story before the truth came out and suggest that in some way that young man was, as they put it, "known to the gardaí" questions the entire justice system in this country. It also questions the responsibility of some sections of the media. I know some of the relatives of Mrs. O'Toole in my part of the country and I can attest that they are decent, respectable people. It should not be forgotten that professional people who came forward to mention this young man also mentioned his charity and the manner in which he went about helping others who had the same disease. This matter should not be put on the long finger but should be dealt with urgently, not just for the sake of Mrs. O'Toole and the memory of her son but for all concerned citizens in this country. If this is allowed to continue, we will no longer trust what we hear from certain sources. Nor will we trust sections of the media after what has happened in this case.
I also wish to raise the tragic death of Derek O'Toole and how it is being dealt with by the Garda. What happened took place in Lucan in my constituency and Derek O'Toole was, and his family are, constituents of mine. There is a need for an independent element of any investigation carried out into Derek O'Toole's death, all the circumstances surrounding it and the media coverage of it. Such an investigation is needed because of the questions that have been raised. Senator Brian Hayes referred to this matter. For example, the fact that the parents were given so little information and the blackening of Derek O'Toole's good character by the phrase that he was known to the Garda.
The mere fact that a garda was involved in a fatal road collision means there should be an independent element to any investigation. Yesterday, I looked at reports on the website of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. That office routinely carries out investigations into fatal road collisions in which members of the PSNI have been involved. Perhaps this case would merit that type of investigation by the new Garda Ombudsman Commission. This would ensure public confidence in any investigation carried out. The Garda Ombudsman Commission was set up over a year ago. I read in the Evening Herald yesterday that it will be up and running in two months’ time. Is there a possibility it could have a role in regard to this investigation? With all the questions that have been raised about this case, there is a need for an independent element to any investigation that takes place.
An article appeared in The Irish Times today on a report by the expert group on future skills which refers to the need for 500,000 workers to progress by at least one level of their educational attainment by 2020. The Government needs to give more priority to this issue. Our economy is too dependent on factors which are not sustainable, for example, the construction industry, which appears to be artificially maintained at its current level. We must examine providing the workforce with proper skills, especially older workers.
My inquiries on behalf of a constituent will be of interest to Senator White and other Senators. He is over 65 years of age and is in receipt of the State pension. In view of this he is not entitled to the back to education allowance that is available to people on many other social welfare payments. This is discrimination and it should be addressed.
The national skills strategy report has raised some fundamental challenges which I am sure will be embraced with enthusiasm by the Government and turned into opportunities. If one takes the main elements of the report and the key challenges that have been identified, initiatives are already significantly under way to address them in the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Examples include the determination to increase the participation level of students in higher education from 55% to 72% and to ensure that all students, to the maximum extent possible, do the leaving certificate or its equivalent. Many initiatives have also been pioneered by the City of Dublin VEC, such as the ESOL programme and other literacy programmes that are funded by the Government to help foreign nationals. In some cases, these programmes cater to 28 different nationalities.
I accept the lacunas identified by Senator O'Toole in different counties need to be addressed. Tomorrow night will afford an ample opportunity for us to address them. A related issue is the manner in which parents drive their children to school in the city and the countryside. They insist on taking precedence at the school door. This is a bad habit for parents to form as they are the primary educators of children. I say this in particular in the context of obesity and other related issues.
I would welcome an opportunity to have a discussion on the national skills strategy report. It would be most illuminating.
I join with colleagues in expressing my revulsion at the way in which the story of the young man who tragically met his death in Lucan was treated in the media. It was stated authoritatively that he was known to the police, which he was not, and that he was a convicted criminal, which he was not either. His family, so traumatised by this, has no recourse in action. This afternoon we will deal with the Defamation Bill. No clause in the Bill covers libelling of the dead, despite the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission that this be included, thus allowing close relatives of the deceased to take action with a limit of a period of years. I propose to table an amendment at the appropriate time to ensure this happens.
This is not the first time this has happened. The Leader raised a similar case in tones of horror when a young man, a relative of a sensational murderer, was photographed cycling through the front square of Trinity College. His name and degree course were printed. He had done nothing wrong and it was not his fault that his father had a psychopathic past.
Another case is that of Mr. Liam Lawlor. Newspapers claimed he was killed in the company of a prostitute. The young woman was fortunate to survive and I hope she mulcts all the newspapers in damages.
We are approaching International Women's Day and are also in the middle of Lent. I listened to "Liveline" at lunch and, while it is meretricious to raise matters from that show all the time, he sometimes considers important matters. This Trócaire advertisement was one of the best I have heard. It concerned the manner in which women are discriminated against and listed various categories of discrimination which all had one thing in common, namely, they were perpetrated on women. Someone objected to this and, for reasons of political correctness, the advertisement has been withdrawn.
The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI.
It stated it was too political. This is absurd. We can publish any quantity of lies about dead Irish citizens but we cannot have a reasonable advertisement during Lent from a responsible organisation like Trócaire because it is politically incorrect.
I remind Senator Norris that the BCI is independent in its functions.
It should be subject to standards of decency and reason. I do not suggest that the Seanad can crack the whip and send the commission to jail but we can question its decisions. I am merely raising a question.
I am only making a point.
I appreciate that and would not like to overstep the mark. This is the fifth anniversary of a remarkable and immensely moving letter, which we read with great interest, from a woman who had been told that she was carrying a 16 week old foetus with a severe chromosomal abnormality incompatible with life. The trauma of that news was exacerbated by the fact that she was forced to carry it to term by the State. She had two other small children and was expected to carry this trauma and all the difficulties this entailed for the other siblings. She did not advocate what she called "social abortion" but stated:
I am angry that men I do not know and who don't know me ... have decided that my body is their demesne; that they have the right to decide how my family will cope with this very real tragedy; that, regardless of the emotional and physical distress for us, I must do what they want; that their bigoted will rules my body.
She challenged this Oireachtas that it has a responsibility to bite the bullet and legislate in this limited area in light of a series of court judgments. The Seanad, as part of the Oireachtas, is constantly castigated for not living up to its responsibilities. The same occurred with the domestic partnership Bill recently. There was a charade whereby it was to be amended in six months, even though we are well aware the Government will be gone by then. As far as I am concerned, it cannot be gone soon enough. Let the general election roll on and I hope, for the sake of the country, that we at last get a Government that will not suffer from the indecision and dithering on these important issues displayed by the present Government.
What is the Senator talking about?
I have been most generous to the Senator and I would appreciate it if he could be brief.
For the first time we will agree to give the Senator another five minutes.
Finally, there is a group of Kurdish people demonstrating outside the gates of the Oireachtas. They maintain, apparently on good evidence, that the Kurdish resistance leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in prison for some years, is being systematically poisoned. There appears to be medical evidence of it. This matter should be examined by the human rights sub-committee of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.
I, too, am concerned by the reports that distressed Mrs. O'Toole. I will not go into whether they are spun out of the air or are the result of winks and nods or whispers from sources within the Garda. I have seen both happen, and both reflect badly on the ethical and professional standards of the people concerned, regardless of their profession. What I had intended to say has already been said by Senator Tuffy. I support her comments. If ever there was a case where public opinion required independent reassurance about an investigation, this is it. It appears to be a ready-made case for investigation by a Garda ombudsman, if one were in operation. That is what would happen in Northern Ireland.
The Garda Ombudsman Commission is an independent body and will make its own decisions but could the Leader find out from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he expects that commission to commence operations? It was established in February 2006. Nuala O'Loan had six months to set up her office, although she regarded that as too short a time. Nevertheless, after 13 months one would have expected that the commission would be ready for business and that the staff would have been trained. If one were an ombudsman, this would be the case with which to start one's career. If the commission could be encouraged to look in that direction, it would be helpful to all concerned.
I support Senator Bannon's call for a debate on improving services. I was amazed to learn last week that the Minister for Finance took in more than €500 million in VAT on telecommunications. The consumer is not getting value for money. Although the telecommunications companies are privatised, the Oireachtas still has a role in ensuring there is a certain level of service. Being required to wait 45 minutes to report a fault on a line is not the service anybody envisaged when the telephone company was privatised. It is important that we debate this issue.
I heard a radio report that seven venues had been closed down by the Food Safety Authority for breaches in hygiene. Is it not a pity that the same standards do not apply to our hospitals? Two weeks ago we heard of a case where a surgeon performed an operation on a patient, unaware that the patient had MRSA. The hospital had not been informed of it when the patient was transferred there from another hospital. Last weekend, newspapers reported that an autopsy could not be carried out on a man because Beaumont Hospital failed to inform the Dublin city coroner in time. In England, an 87 year old woman successfully sued the state and won compensation for its failure to adhere to its infection control policies. We have the same policies in place but they are not being adhered to.
Professor Drumm has almost thrown his hands up in the air in defeat. While he has announced a new taskforce will be established, in November 2005 practices to combat MRSA were announced. Will the recommendations of the new taskforce replace the existing guidelines? People will unfortunately be forced to take the litigation route before they are taken seriously. Have we learned any lessons from the Army deafness claims in which solicitors got an unfair share? Will the Leader find out from the Department of Health and Children the status of the new taskforce? Why are those infected and badly damaged by MRSA being forced to hire solicitors in litigation with the final expense coming to the taxpayer when a redress scheme should be established?
The Cathaoirleach is as surprised as I am at the speed of the Order of Business.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the matter of Derek O'Toole and the recent Lucan tragedy, what he read in the media and the subsequent appeal by the young man's mother. Everyone knows the phrase "known to the gardaí" is a loaded one and the meaning behind it. I believe it was an attempt to smear before the investigation got under way. Hearing the interview with the young man's mother, I felt all she wanted was fair play. It is not the media but what information is given to the media. It was wrong if this was an attempt to smear before the investigation got under way. The mother was clear that her son was not involved with any underworld grouping or crime.
Senator Brian Hayes also raised the matter of the referendum on children's rights. The Opposition asked that it should not be rushed. From reading the newspapers, I understand the referendum will be in the autumn. If that is the situation, we should be glad of it. There must be a debate on the referendum and we will endeavour to have one in the House.
Senator O'Toole agreed with Senator Brian Hayes on the matter of the Lucan tragedy. He asked for a debate on the ten steps of progress during tSeachtain na Gaeilge. I agree the late 1980s were a difficult time for the education system but we managed to get through them without any scars to our reputations. He pointed to the lack of physical education facilities in schools and that in some counties 70% of schools have none. With rising obesity levels among children, there is a need for proper exercise. I hope this matter can be taken up tomorrow night on Private Members' business.
Senator MacSharry asked for a debate on the bio-energy action plan published in advance of the White Paper. Such a debate would be useful.
Senator Bannon highlighted the recent NESF report on improving the delivery of public services which I read and thought was excellent. It stated people telephoning a public service should be answered properly. It wants public servants to become advocates for people. They should be on the side of the consumer rather than the consumer having to constantly push and not get anything. It reported on the need for courtesy in public servants' dealings with the public. Courtesy, particularly on the telephone, should be an everyday standard. Rather than the Government giving lessons on courtesy and answering telephones, it should be down to each public service such as Eircom, the HSE or a local authority.
Senator Ó Murchú heard the interview with the mother of the young man recently killed in Lucan. She made a heart-felt appeal for fair play for her son. The Senator said that, if there were any spin, it was all wrong.
Senator Tuffy also raised the young man's case, stating her desire that confidence in the Garda be restored. She suggested that the ombudsman might start his career with the case in question. The Senator said that 500,000 people required further training, according to a recent report, also raising the anomaly whereby pensioners are not entitled to money under the back to work scheme. Debating the report on further training in the House might be useful since we are undergoing great economic expansion based on construction. However, that will eventually tail off because it cannot be sustained at this rate for ever, and we should look ahead to determine future needs.
Senator Fitzgerald sought a debate on the national skills strategy report, mentioning the volume of work being done. He made the sensible observation that parents are driving their children right up to the doors of their schools, where their darlings disembark, and wondered whether they might not simply walk. I presume that is what he meant, but in many cases it might not be safe for the children and that may be why parents act as they do.
Senator Norris raised libelling the dead, on which matter I believe he is to table an amendment. He should read Fintan O'Toole's column in today's edition of The Irish Times.
I thank the Leader for alerting me. Is it the article on the subject in question?
No, it is on the Senator himself.
As well as Senator Mansergh and certain others.
That is not relevant to the Order of Business.
The Senators must excuse me. I must find out what Mr. O'Toole wrote.
The Senator also brought up the advertisement for Trócaire, which I did not realise had been pulled. I know that I listened to it, and once or twice the thought occurred to me that, while it was great for Trócaire, the Catholic Church was not about to ordain female priests. It mentioned how women's lives were blighted by terrible events, but it does not open many doors to them itself. I do not know why the advertisement was withdrawn, although the Senator supposed that it was too political. However, it was certainly a good example.
It is safe to say this now that Senator Norris has left us. He then embarked upon something of a rant, although I could not get to the bottom of the exact subject. I do not know what he wanted.
I think that he may have wanted a change of Government. That was the basic idea.
Yes, it was a change of Government.
However, a change of Government would not bring him what he seeks regarding the matter that he raised.
It might, regarding civil partnerships.
He spoke of a woman carrying a foetus of 16 weeks' gestation with a severe abnormality. Five years ago, she wrote a letter, the anniversary of which is now upon us. I gathered that much before the Senator took off, resulting in my missing a fair portion thereafter. He also mentioned a Kurdish opposition leader who he said was being poisoned. Life is constant excitement for Senator Norris. He is always coming across exciting matters, and the rest of us are pedestrian and humdrum in comparison.
Senator Maurice Hayes spoke of ethical standards, wondering when the Garda Ombudsman Commission would be in operation. He agreed with Senator Tuffy that the case of the young man in question might provide a good start to the ombudsman's career.
Senator Browne claimed that consumers were not getting value for money. He mentioned that seven restaurants had closed and wondered about hospitals. One cannot simply go about closing hospitals, if that is what he advocates; I would not advocate it.
I spoke of having the same standards in hospitals as apply in the food industry.
I would not advocate closing hospitals.
I spoke merely of applying the same standards.
We cannot have a debate on the Order of Business.
I agree with the Senator regarding surgeons not being informed of patients having MRSA where they are transferred into their care from another hospital.