Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 24 Feb 2004

Vol. 580 No. 5

Adjournment Debate.

EU Constitution.

I am grateful for being allowed to raise the issue of the proposed constitution for Europe and the concerns of many citizens. This is an important debate as it is important we discuss ideas which involve a large percentage of our people. It is important that the Minister of State and the Government listen to an alternative view of Europe and world politics in general. I am an internationalist and I believe in treating all states with respect and dignity. Sadly, many in this House do not share that view and often dismiss it in these debates.

I have five main concerns about the proposed constitution for Europe. I ask the fundamental questions about the direction the EU is taking and these concerns deserve to be heard in any democratic state. People want to know if the proposed constitution will have primacy over the Irish Constitution and if EU Presidents and Prime Ministers can change the voting system for policy areas without the consent of national Parliament or peoples. They also want to know if the constitution enshrines the concept of a common defence policy and if our human rights can be limited to meet the objectives of general interests recognised by the European Union. People also want straight answers to questions, particularly if the constitution facilitates the commercialisation of health and education. These are the issues I want to deal with in more detail.

Article 1(10) of the constitution states: "The constitution and the law adopted by the union's institutions in exercising competencies conferred on it shall have primacy over the laws of member states." This clearly means that if the proposed constitution is accepted by the Irish electorate at referendum, it will have primacy over the Irish Constitution. We can then no longer consider ourselves independent, but will enjoy a status in international and even domestic affairs akin to that of a state of the US or Australia. We will become a small state in a federal Europe of at least 25 states, with little influence over our future.

Article 1-40(2) unambiguously states: "The common security and defence policy shall include the progressive framing of a common defence policy for the union. This will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides". Article 1-40(3) makes it clear that: "Member States shall make military and civilian capabilities available" to the union, while Article 1-40(1) proposes that "The Union may deploy them on tasks outside the Union". Mutual defence will be a component of common defence, as is made clear in Article 1-40(7). This Article also commits us to increase military spending through our agreement to "undertake progressively to improve military capabilities." If we accept this Constitution, we become constitutionally committed to the achievement of a common defence.

There can be no evasion or turning back. The gradual erosion of military neutrality over a succession of referenda will culminate in our becoming a full and active member of an aggressive military alliance mandated to operate outside its borders and have a mutual defence pact obliging us to give aid and assistance by all means in our military power to any other member state which is a victim of armed aggression on its territory. The only aspect of this scenario which cannot be predicted is how soon it will happen. That will be totally in the hands of the European Council if this constitution is accepted.

Regarding the constitution facilitating the commercialisation of health and education, there is a power of veto on commercialisation — a buzz word for privatisation — of health and education, and cultural services. The proposed constitution moves decisions on trade and these services to qualified majority voting. Article 3-2(171) outlines the common commercial policy as a fundamental element of the EU. It is based on uniform principles regarding the conclusion of tariff and trade agreements related to trade in goods and services and to uniformity in measures of liberalisation. This policy will determine those aspects of service that are commercial and then proceed in secret to liberalise them. There will be no minutes of the Commission or Council debates on these issues as they decide which are the commercial aspects of these services. They would then be empowered to make agreements with the World Trade Organisation, allowing international trade in these services. This measure in the proposed constitution signals the end of social Europe and the increased privileging of those who can afford to pay for basis services. It also opens up a lucrative market in necessary services while at the same time secretly determines the economic and social policies to be followed by member states.

These are the issues that concern me. I urge caution and more informed debate. We are treading a dangerous path if the Government and the three major political parties try pulling the wool over people's eyes.

As the House will be aware, work on a new draft constitutional treaty for the European Union began at the European Convention almost two years ago. The Convention was asked to bring forward recommendations for a new, more simple treaty which would help bring the Union closer to its citizens, make it clearer to them who does what and at what level, and help the Union play a more active and effective role on the world stage.

The European Convention finished its work last summer. In welcoming its recommendations, the European Council described the Convention's draft text as a good basis for the work of the intergovernmental conference. The IGC, in which final decisions on the new treaty will be taken by Governments, got under way last October. The Government set out its approach to the various issues involved on many occasions.

As it was not possible to conclude the IGC under the Italian Presidency, the European Council in December asked the Irish Presidency to consult partners, to assess the prospects for progress and to report to its meeting at the end of March. The Government, in particular the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, are now intensively engaged in that process. As the Taoiseach has made clear, we intend to make the fullest possible report in March. If there are serious prospects of bringing the IGC to an early conclusion, the Government will move immediately to seize that opportunity.

It is clear that the overwhelming bulk of what was proposed by the Convention will stand. This is very much in the interests of our citizens. The new constitutional treaty is a project of great importance to them. It is important that it address their real needs and concerns. I look forward to the continuing debate on its contents which will take place in this House and elsewhere, including in the National Forum on Europe. I take heart from the results of the recently published Eurobarometer opinion survey which show that support for the European Union among the Irish public remains high and that a significant majority believes that the Union should have a constitution.

The draft constitutional treaty recommended by the Convention is a simple document. It draws together the existing complex treaties into a single logical text. It uses plainer language. It incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights, with a clearer description of its scope and application. It describes clearly the distribution of competences, or powers, between the Union and the member states. Significantly, for the first time the text contains a clear statement of the fundamental principles under which the Union must operate. Under the principle of conferral, it only has those powers that the member states expressly confer upon it. For example, member states retain primary responsibility in such areas as health, education and culture. Under proportionality, the Union may only act to the extent necessary. Under subsidiarity, it may act only where the intended aim cannot be achieved by the member states alone or where it can better be achieved at Union level.

These principles are given new teeth. National Parliaments, the elected institutions with which our citizens identify most closely, will play a new role in ensuring that subsidiarity is respected. If they believe that a legislative proposal breaches the principle, they can oblige the Commission to think again. The Government has warmly welcomed these proposals.

Some were concerned that the Convention's proposals on defence did not adequately reflect the diversity of positions held by member states in this highly sensitive area. Considerable work was carried out under the Italian Presidency. It brought forward amended texts before the summit meeting in December. These received a broad welcome both from member states sharing Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality and from member states that participate actively in NATO. While the Intergovernmental Conference is proceeding on a "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" basis, I expect the excellent work carried out by the Italian Presidency to be fully reflected in any text eventually agreed.

The Convention also proposed new arrangements for the Union's institutions. These are being considered carefully in the Intergovernmental Conference. One of its most innovative suggestions was the creation of a Union Foreign Minister drawing together responsibility for the Union's external activities in the Commission and the Council. While some details remain to be ironed out, there has been widespread support for this idea. The Government believes it should help to bring greater efficiency and coherence to the Union's approach.

The IGC is also looking at future arrangements for the Commission. Some member states hold a strong view that, as the size of the Union increases, a smaller Commission is necessary to ensure its effectiveness. Others take the view that an arrangement for one Commissioner per member state, at least for a period, gives greater legitimacy to the Commission's actions. If there is to be a successful conclusion to the IGC, a balanced outcome will have to be found.

A way forward will also have to be found on the difficult question of voting in the Council. The convention proposed a move away from the weighted votes that apply under Nice towards a dual majority system. For a proposal to be successful, this would require the support of a given percentage of member states representing a given percentage of the Union's population. Some support this proposal.

Vaccination Programme.

This time last week I was heavily critical of the Minister's attitude to the Hanly report, but this week my attitude has changed in the sense that I congratulate him on the way he has handled the measles, mumps and rubella, MMR, vaccine scandal which has been going on for a number of years.

It now seems Dr. Wakefield, who carried out research on the link between autism and the MMR vaccine, was, to say the least, unethical, possibly fraudulent, definitely stupid and possibly even criminal and that his research was biased. It is sad to think that, since he first published his research, the vaccination rates for the MMR vaccine have dropped to between 50% and 75% in certain vulnerable communities. There has been a number of outbreaks of measles in those years where we have seen at least three children die in Dublin and a number of others left very sick. The Minister knows well what I am talking about when I refer to the drop in vaccine rates and the hardship it has caused in vulnerable communities.

It is difficult to know how this information can be spread but I ask the Minister to use the full resources of his Department to highlight the fact that this research, which has caused such a scare across the world and not only in Ireland and in the UK, should be refuted. A public campaign should begin immediately to try to get vaccination rates for the MMR vaccine back to up to 95%.

The Minister, his officials and I always believed this research was, to say the least, flawed. I vaccinated two of my children with the MMR vaccine during the course of this controversy. However, there are many parents who have withheld their children from being vaccinated. There have been many calls for single vaccines to be given to children which does not necessarily solve the problem. How will we restore public confidence in our immunisation scheme? It is a serious issue.

On many occasions in this House we discuss issues such as radiotherapy and cancer treatment but we seldom approach the more difficult topic of preventative medicine. Vaccination is one of the most outstanding examples of how preventative medicine can be successful. I assume the Minister is aware of the report in a Sunday newspaper because it is such a topical issue for his Department. Does he have any plans to get the media back on side? The media ran with this research when it was first reported. There was a large press conference in the Royal Free Hospital in London. Since that time the link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been almost unquestioned, even though numerous investigations and studies from America and Europe have disproved the theory or have said there is no link. Given the flawed and questionable reputation of Dr. Wakefield, I hope the media tell parents the vaccine is safe and that they should get their children vaccinated.

The vaccination rate has now dropped below the rate where the whole community can be protected. It is only a matter of time before there is a fairly serious measles outbreak and, just like the last time it happened, not only in Ireland but in Holland, Italy and the UK, children will die. For some reason, it was acceptable to see children die from a preventable illness because of inadequate research that made a hopeless link between autism and the MMR vaccine and which received much press coverage. I would like that counteracted immediately. I say "well done" to the Minister on this issue. He held his nerve and constantly highlighted the fact the vaccine was important. I would like the Minister, his Department and the media to counteract all this nonsense that has gone on in this controversy over the past five years.

I thank Dr. Twomey for raising this matter and for his contribution. Measles is a highly infectious and serious disease. Approximately one in 15 children who contract measles will suffer serious complications. The MMR vaccine protects against this disease and can be administered to children at 12 months of age. A vaccine uptake rate of 95% is required to protect children from measles and to stop the spread of the disease in the community.

I am concerned about the unsatisfactory MMR immunisation uptake rates in childhood immunisations because of the risk of unimmunised children contracting the potentially serious diseases concerned. The outbreak of measles in 2000, which resulted in three deaths and approximately 2,000 cases, is evidence of the consequences of insufficient immunisation uptake.

Based on information available from the National Disease Surveillance Centre, there was a significant increase in 2003 in the number of reported measles cases. In 2002, 243 cases were reported but provisional returns for 2003 indicate that there were 586 measles cases that year. This underlines the importance of raising the immunisation uptake level to the optimal level of 95% against measles and the other potentially serious infections. In 2003, chief executive officers in all health boards and in the Eastern Regional Health Authority were asked to ensure that specific immunisation measures were prioritised in all regions to prevent a serious measles outbreak.

The health board chief executive officers established a national immunisation steering committee to address a wide range of issues relating to the childhood and other immunisation programmes, including the identification of issues hampering the achievement of uptake targets. The Minister for Health and Children launched the report of the steering committee in April 2002 and a national implementation group was subsequently established to draw up a phased national implementation plan based on the report's recommendations.

Following consideration of proposals submitted by the national implementation group through the Health Boards Executive on behalf of the health boards in regard to childhood immunisation, €2.116 million was allocated by the Department in 2003 to fund initiatives to improve childhood immunisation uptake. A further €2.778 million has been allocated this year. I am encouraged by the most recent statistics from the NDSC for the third quarter of 2003 which show that MMR uptake at 24 months was 81% increasing from 77% in the previous quarter.

There is concern among some parents in regard to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Negative coverage on this issue has added to the confusion of parents in deciding whether to vaccinate their children. In April 2002, the Minister, Deputy Martin, launched the MMR vaccine discussion pack, an information guide for health professionals and parents. The pack was produced by the NDSC and the department of public health in the Southern Health Board and was published by HeBE on behalf of the health boards. The pack sets out the facts in regard to the most common concerns about MMR in a way that will help health professionals and parents to explore these concerns together, review the evidence in regard to MMR and provide the basis for making an informed decision.

The information is presented in such a way as to allow full discussion between health professionals and parents on each issue. The pack also contains an information leaflet for parents. The layout of the pack is in a question and answer format and it addresses such issues as the alleged link between MMR, autism and Crohn's disease, the safety and side effects of the vaccine, the purpose of a second dose of vaccine, combined vaccine versus single doses and contraindications to the vaccine. The pack will enable health professionals to respond to the very real concerns of parents.

There is a sound evidence basis for the use of the MMR vaccine. Since the original publication of UK research from Dr. Wakefield about a possible causal link between MMR vaccine and autism, many researchers have investigated the proposed causal relationship and concluded that there is no link between MMR vaccine and autism or inflammatory bowel disease. The Department's submission to the Oireachtas committee contains further details on the scientific evidence in this regard. In Ireland, this issue has been examined by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's immunisation committee and the Irish Medicines Board. The conclusions are that there is no evidence to support the association between MMR vaccines and the development of autism or inflammatory bowel disease, and that the vaccine is safer than giving the three component vaccines separately. The Oireachtas committee has also endorsed the safety of the MMR vaccine.

The international consensus from professional bodies and international organisations is that MMR is a safe and effective vaccine. The institutions include the Medical Research Council's expert committee and the British Committee on Safety of Medicines in the UK, the centres for disease control and prevention, and the American Academy of Paediatrics, as well as the World Health Organisation.

Studies by the United States Institute of Medicine concluded that there is no link between the vaccine and autism or inflammatory bowel disease. A large Finnish study involving 1.8 million individuals demonstrated that no case of inflammatory bowel disease or autism was linked to the MMR vaccine. A recent UK study where researchers analysed 2,000 studies from 180 countries found no evidence of a causal link between MMR vaccine and autism or inflammatory bowel disease.

I take this opportunity to again urge all parents to have their children immunised against the diseases covered by the childhood immunisation programme, to ensure that both their children and the population generally have maximum protection against the diseases concerned. This is particularly important at present in light of the increase in reported measles cases.

EU Directives.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the draft nitrates directive action programme, which has been drawn up by the Irish Farmers Association. Having consulted widely, including with well respected environmental, agronomic and soil science technical experts, the IFA has concluded that the directive is unnecessary, unworkable and unaffordable.

Water quality in Ireland is improving and the farming community is committed to protecting the quality of clean water across the country. Farmers are guardians of the countryside and its heritage and have long recognised the importance of protecting the natural environment in its own right and as a vital resource base for agriculture and the food industry. The clean environment we enjoy is largely a legacy from the many generations of farmers whose activities over the years contributed to our high quality of countryside. Our water resources are an integral feature of this environment. Irish agriculture is predominantly grass-based extensive livestock farming, which contrasts markedly with the highly concentrated arable and livestock production systems of other EU member states.

Successive reforms of the CAP have favoured extensive production with lower stocking densities resulting in a reduction of fertiliser and feed inputs. Approximately 38,500 farmers, or one third of all farmers in the country, are participating in the REP scheme, which requires participants to enter into contractual programmes with the Government and the European Union to meet high environmental and heritage protection standards. Since 1994, intensive agricultural enterprises in Ireland are subject to integrated control licensing, meeting standards on a par with the highest environmental standards for industry in Europe. All these environmental protection measures have been undertaken at a significant investment cost to individual farmers. Gross investment in farm buildings in the last decade totalled over €2,000 million. Environmental protection through improved manure storage and handling facilities features heavily in all farm building expenditure.

The measures proposed are unnecessary in the context of the overall excellent and improving quality of Irish waters, changes that have occurred and are forecast to take place in livestock numbers and fertiliser usage, the likely effects of CAP reform phase 3, the introduction of the single farm payment and the significant participation by farmers in the rural environment protection scheme.

The particular measures proposed in the draft action programme are unworkable and are removed from the practical realities of farming in Ireland. In particular, the IFA has highlighted the excessive nature of the demands that will be imposed on farmers arising from the proposed closed periods for the land application of fertilisers, the minimum manure storage requirements on farms, even where water quality is regarded as excellent, and the unreasonable compliance and bureaucratic burden that will be imposed on farmers arising from these measures.

The measures proposed in the draft action programme are unaffordable because of static and declining farm incomes and the cost to farmers of complying with the proposed measures. In this context, the IFA has analysed trends in farm incomes and the outlook for incomes following the decoupling of farm supports from production with the introduction of a single farm payment from 2005.

The Minister should ensure that a workable agreement with the Government on an action programme is made, which does not undermine farmers' livelihoods and which, together with action from industry and local authorities, will meet the requirements of the nitrates directive on water quality.

Farm organisations are not saying that the nitrates directive should not be implemented, but that it should be agreed to assure proper water quality. The IFA's president, Mr. John Dillon, has said it is the association's considered opinion that the measures proposed in the Government's draft action programme to control and regulate farmers in regard to water quality are unnecessary, unworkable and unaffordable. They are totally at odds with the realities of farm incomes, which are under pressure. Mr. Dillon is seeking an agreement which will not undermine farmers' livelihoods and which, together with action by other sectors, including local government, will meet the requirements of the nitrates directive on water quality.

The restrictions being imposed on farmers are excessive and impractical. Independent consultants have put the cost of the additional storage requirements alone for farmers at over €1 billion, which is an impossible financial burden in view of the serious income pressures faced by farmers due to CAP reform and the World Trade Organisation regulations.

According to the IFA, the measures proposed are unnecessary in the context of the overall excellent and improving quality of Irish waters, changes in livestock numbers and fertiliser usage, the likely effects of the Fischler CAP reforms and the participation of a projected 50,000 farmers in the rural environment protection scheme.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which is of considerable importance to the farming community and many other interested parties. Directive 91/676/EEC, known as the nitrates directive, came into effect in January 1992 and deals with the protection of waters against pollution from agricultural sources. The primary emphasis of the directive is on the better management of livestock manure and other fertilisers.

The directive has been implemented in Ireland since 1992 by way of a wide range of measures taken by farmers and the relevant public authorities for the monitoring of water quality, the promotion of good agricultural practice on a general basis, together with specific measures for the protection of water quality against pollution in a farming context. There has been extensive investment by many farmers in the provision of waste storage facilities and other infrastructure. Nutrient management planning is widely applied and there has been a considerable reduction in the use of certain chemical fertilisers. In 1996 a code of good agricultural practice to protect waters from pollution by nitrates was issued jointly by my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food and provides clear guidance for farmers. This code of practice is supported by the main farming organisations.

Recent data on water pollution indicate that additional measures are needed in an agricultural context to protect and improve water quality. A draft action programme for further implementation of the directive was prepared and issued for consultation on 19 December 2003 with an invitation to all interested parties to provide written comments within two months. The draft programme was issued jointly by my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food. It provides for a range of measures to strengthen the application of good housekeeping rules in regard to farming in all areas. These measures relate to the timing and procedures for the land application of fertilisers, limits on the land application of fertilisers, livestock manure storage and the monitoring of the effectiveness of such measures.

All comments received regarding the draft action programme will be considered initially by officials from the two Departments. The extent to which the draft programme might need to be revised on the basis of these comments will be considered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in consultation with his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food. There will be appropriate liaison with interested parties.

A high priority attaches to the development and implementation of an effective action programme under the directive, especially because the funding of the Common Agricultural Policy from 1 January 2005 onwards is conditional on satisfactory implementation of specified European Community legislation, including the nitrates directive. There is a need to finalise the terms of the action programme at an early date and submit definitive proposals to the European Commission. Representatives of the farming organisations will meet officials of the relevant Departments later this week to consider the matter further.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 February 2004.