Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 3 Dec 2002

Vol. 558 No. 4

Leaders' Questions.

Given the day and the circumstances in which the Fine Gael Party finds itself, I do not want to get involved in partisan, trench warfare. I am sure the Taoiseach will understand this. Last week's Supreme Court decision on the Electoral Act, which upheld an earlier High Court judgment, will have significant implications for every elected Member, every Member who intends seeking re-election and some of the unsuccessful candidates in the last general election. Does the Government intend to respond to the ruling? Is it the intention to introduce retrospective legislation? I hope the Government does not intend to use the decision as an excuse to raise spending limits for election campaigns.

While I am aware of and understand the reasons for not dealing with notices of sympathy today, I express my sympathy to members of the Fine Gael Party on the death of their colleague. We will return to this matter next week.

On the important issue raised by the Deputy, my understanding, as he will appreciate, is that the matter is being examined by the Attorney General and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. They will consider the implications of the judgments of the Supreme Court and the High Court in the case in question. In the short-term there is no question that one can change anything. We now have to comply with the decisions regardless of what happens in the future.

The Standards in Public Office Commission will also examine the Supreme Court judgment. Ultimately, it will be for it to clarify requirements in terms of the completed election statements which are to be furnished to the commission on or before 20 December 2002. I have asked the Attorney General and the Minister to have these matters examined forthwith and they have been examining them in recent days. There will also be a briefing session tomorrow for Deputies.

The 20 December date will come very soon. While I am not certain at this point what we can do about this date, I understand we cannot do a great deal. We cannot move the date back as a Minister cannot introduce an amendment, instrument or declaration, not to speak of legislation, to do so. Unless I hear something to the contrary during the day, my current understanding of the position is that the date is written in stone. I could read the judgment in a particularly way. However, as Deputies Rabbitte and Kenny will appreciate, it affects not only individuals and constituencies, but political parties. While it can be interpreted broadly or narrowly, it is not our call to make an interpretation.

The legal adviser to the Oireachtas is organising a briefing tomorrow for all Deputies. I will feed any information I get from the Minister or the Attorney General to the Government Chief Whip in order to help in this examination. In effect, we have only two weeks to deal with this issue. It is not in keeping with the belief of the political system, but that will not change it.

We need to wait for the interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment. I would not dare to interpret it myself. An interpretation will provide completion. The last thing we need is for Members to go to their parties or constituencies to make changes and then find next year that they are engaged in a running battle. I will try to ascertain some degree of certainty on this as quickly as possible. I have asked that this be done tonight or tomorrow at the latest.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. It appears that 20 December is an immovable date. It is a matter of great confusion because the Act clearly seems to be unworkable in real terms. The Taoiseach or a Minister would not be able to give a candidate a lift from one centre to another during an election because it might be deemed to add to his or her prestige. It might sway a voter to choose to vote for someone on the basis of a presumed endorsement from a high-ranking figure. The role of Ministers causes much confusion in the context of the Act. They are elected as Deputies but they still have all the trappings of power, as officers of Cabinet, be it back-up from Government service or the added value of free travel as it were.

I appreciate that the Taoiseach has asked the Attorney General for clarification. I expect that he will come back with as clear a statement as possible so as to allow every Deputy to send in his or her electoral expenses before 20 December. I assume expenses already submitted were on the basis of the original Act. This was based on the assumption that the value of a constituency office and the assistance rendered by Oireachtas secretarial staff would not be deemed an electoral charge. The Supreme Court interpretation has now ruled that it is. This is a matter of great concern to everybody. It is one of great confusion to the public, as well as intense anxiety to those who failed to be elected to this House by a shortfall of a few votes. Clarity all around is requested from the Taoiseach.

I accept what has been stated by Deputy Kenny. This judgment raises an enormous number of issues. Needless to say, I hold the view that all Members of this House acted in good faith on the basis of the law as it was explained to them. Many people went to great lengths to find out exactly what the rules and regulations prescribed. The High Court and the Supreme Court have judged otherwise and that is the position. I know what the usual view is in regard to retrospective legislation. It is now 3 December and we are in breach of the law if we do not submit revised expenses by 20 December. I am not advocating that the decision be changed but the timescale appears to be a bit tight. However, it is a reality with which we have to deal.

As Deputy Kenny said, somebody is left to interpret what this means down to the last detail. That is not clear in the Supreme Court decision. We have to get somebody to interpret it. Needless to say, I would be the last person to do that because whatever I would say would not be accepted. We have to try to get it interpreted as quickly as possible so that people have a chance of doing what is necessary.

I presume the Taoiseach read what was said by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, who lectured us on matters of European Union taxation. Does he intend to take any steps to cause the Minister to apply himself to his own portfolio? I assume the Minister for Finance will not be able to relax tomorrow until after the "Today with Pat Kenny" radio show. Between "Morning Ireland", "Marian Finucane" and "Today with Pat Kenny", there will be a very good chance that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be on the radio to tell us all about the budget.

A most foul murder was committed in Limerick at the weekend. A young husband and father of two was murdered because he apparently would not comply with gangsters and drug dealers. This is probably the most sinister—

A question, please, Deputy.

Does the Taoiseach agree that this is probably the most sinister killing since Veronica Guerin's murder? This came the day after the worst set of crime figures we have seen in recent times. For almost two years now the Garda surveillance helicopter has been lying idle at an airfield in Britain.

It appears that the road traffic Act cannot be implemented due to lack of funding. Breathalyser kits have not been furnished to the Garda. Will the Taoiseach indicate if he intends to speak to his Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who is an expert on everybody's Department but who could well focus some time on his own?

I would like to think all my Ministers understand the rules of collective responsibility and thereby talk about more than their own area in support of Government policy. That is what they should be doing and that is what the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is doing.

All our sympathy goes to the family of the bereaved in the recent atrocity in Limerick. It is a tragic result of the behaviour and actions of those who operate in the gangland world. We have had many such executions by these people of law-abiding citizens. We have both the legislation and the resources to deal with these issues. It is not a matter of law or of resources, it is a matter of being able to crack these gangs. The special units of the Garda constantly endeavour to do that. A terrible tragedy such as this should not be necessary before people move in on these hardened criminals. The Garda has had success in Limerick and other cities in the past but this is a challenging area.

It is intended to implement section 10 of the road traffic Act during the first half of next year. This is not due to a lack of resources but because of the number of challenges to this area of legislation. There are over 40 cases in the courts challenging the procedures in operation for breath testing. Until those cases are completed, kits will not be circulated to the fullest extent.

Regarding the penalty points system, a manual system is in operation for speeding offences and it will soon be brought in for the non-wearing of safety belts and later for drink-driving. Section 10 will be implemented and hopefully it will have a positive effect. It is worth recording that the figures for the first month of increased activity by the Garda, on the decision of the Minister, has had a beneficial effect on the numbers of road deaths and injuries. However, we can never count only one month's figures. An effort must be made to implement the various measures taken on road safety in a forceful way, including in regard to drink driving, so that people drive diligently.

Is the Taoiseach saying it is the routine task of Ministers to discuss all aspects of Government policy? This is news to most of us. Does this mean the Minister for Transport will discuss the dangers of binge drinking? Will the Taoiseach have a word, for example, with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he returns from his lecture tour about Operation Freeflow? Why do we have it for only one month of the year? Why, in a situation where people cannot get to work in the morning, can it not be extended to 12 months of the year? Why can there not be a dedicated traffic corps? Why can the Taoiseach not talk to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about that? What is the difficulty posed? We have been talking about a dedicated traffic corps for a long time, yet it can be mustered for the month of December. Given that there is total gridlock in many parts of Dublin, would the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform be best employed devoting his time to that?

With regard to the situation in Limerick, would the same Minister not be best employed focusing on serious crime? It is alleged the top five drug barons in the city were sent to the United States for training in arms and a man diligently doing his duty to prevent these gangsters furnishing drugs in a nightclub was murdered on his way home from work. This is so serious that it requires the focus of the Minister. Is it not time, now that we have moved from a Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to whom the workings of his Department were a mystery, to a Minister who is familiar with the mysteries of every Department except his own?

Defending and explaining Government policy is part of the duty of Ministers. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is well aware of the terrible act in Limerick and criminal activity involving drugs gangs, in particular. As Attorney General, he drafted tough legislation to deal with those issues. The legislation is in place to deal with breaking up drugs gangs but the lucrative business in which they are engaged drives them to undertake summary executions. That is a challenge for the Minister. The Minister, the Garda Commissioner and everybody else involved must do all they can to try to stop this activity in every way possible.

Operation Freeflow commenced on 1 December and will run to 6 January in the greater Dublin area. It will attempt to assist in managing traffic congestion in the Dublin region and improve public transport. It is undertaken annually only in December because of the amount of resources required. An enormous number of gardaí and a great deal of effort is put in by the director of traffic attached to Dublin City Council, local authorities, transport service providers and the Assistant Garda Commissioner, Mr. Hickey. This operation is actively pursued and, hopefully, their work will help the free flow of traffic, as it has done every year.

Last Thursday night, RTE's "Prime Time" programme revealed an appalling glimpse of the shocking damage that the dangerous pattern of alcohol over-consumption is inflicting on individuals and our social life and the shocking drain on our emergency health services. Is the Taoiseach ashamed, having held the office for five and a half years, that his Government has presided over such a dramatic increase in the abuse of alcohol consumption as opposed to a levelling off of consumption and the introduction of an educational process regarding sociable consumption?

Does he believe it is criminal that the drinks industry should be allowed to portray and freely advertise its products in the national media as trendy, sexy, seductive and a virtual gateway to paradise for those who consume them while, as we saw on "Prime Time", the grim reality is that the industry's products finish up on the streets of our cities and towns as vomit, real and social, and our emergency services have the appalling task of coping with the after effects? Far from being a gateway to paradise for those who become permanently seduced by the products of the drinks industry, it is a gateway to hell on earth.

When will the Government ban the advertising of alcohol as a trendy and healthy drug? Is the Taoiseach ashamed that he, his Ministers and his Tánaiste have been consistent enablers of the drinks industry by helping them to cast it in a favourable light, with the Tánaiste, for example, availing of a State aircraft in her eagerness to open an off-licence? Will they amend that policy and practice?

A number of initiatives have been taken in this area by an interdepartmental group over the past number of years. Some have proved to be successful while others have not. I understand from the Minister for Health and Children that the code of practice for the drinks industry is not being complied with in the spirit that was intended. The Minister has announced he is examining the extension of the ban on advertising in certain areas and is seeking to ensure the drinks industry follows the standards that were set out previously. He has made a number of speeches on this recently.

There is also a review group on intoxicating liquor licences and it is examining the issue of licensing discotheques, halls, clubs, bars, supermarkets and off-licences to see what can be done in that area. The Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science have taken initiatives and run campaigns to educate people who wish to drink, to engage in social drinking and to drink in moderation. These campaigns are aimed particularly at those who mix certain products with spirits, which creates enormous difficulties, as highlighted by the RTE programme and all the research in this area over the past number of years. Controls on such products should also be examined.

The banning of a number of these products and efforts to take them out of circulation proved not to be legal. It is not possible to do so because many of these drinks are not in themselves harmful. However, when they are mixed with spirits, significant difficulties are created. The interdepartmental group, which covers all these issues, the reviews of liquor licensing and health and education issues, is continuing its work. The Minister for Health and Children has made clear his displeasure and unhappiness with the present advertising legislation and has indicated he intends to amend it.

If a constituent of mine gets drunk and assaults somebody, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not express displeasure, as action is taken. Why is there such leniency towards the drinks industry when it is blatantly abusing its economic power to portray its products in this highly desirable fashion? Does the Taoiseach agree his Government facilitated the greed of these companies when it reduced corporation tax, even though the consumption of their products is a drain on our emergency services? Does he further agree that the drinks industry should be surtaxed so that more staff can be provided for our emergency services to cope with the dreadful after effects of what it has achieved through advertising? Will the Taoiseach join me in calling on the GAA and on soccer, rugby and all sporting organisations to cut their links with drinks companies and not facilitate them in pushing this product and creating even more damage? Would that not be a good beginning?

The Minister for Health and Children has already made his displeasure known regarding the matters raised by the Deputy, including sports advertising. I am not sure if these methods will prove successful, because they have not to date. The Minister for Health and Children has research which shows that changing the laws on advertising and going beyond a voluntary code of practice would show effect. He argues that this has been shown in other areas and he will return to that issue. It is already his stated intention to move on the issue of advertising.

As the Deputy correctly says, a large part of the work of accident and emergency departments, particularly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, centres on the effects of alcohol and drugs such as ecstasy and crack cocaine both in and outside licensed premises. A good beginning would be to remind people of their responsibilities and that it is illegal to serve under age drinkers in on-licence and off-licence premises. There are penalties for people who serve drink to people who are already under the influence of alcohol. It is for the publican to judge these things. At this time of the year publicans should take particular notice of these laws and not allow young people into licensed premises at any time of the day. This is already the law of the land.

Does the Taoiseach think he is setting a good example by opening so many public houses?

Deputy Ryan, this is Leader's Question time and the only person entitled to ask a supplementary question is Deputy Joe Higgins. Deputy, you have other ways of raising this issue.

This is a relevant question.