Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 30 Mar 2006

Vol. 617 No. 3

Order of Business.

It is proposed to take No. 15, statements on the Irish language; and No. 1, the Health (Repayment Scheme) Bill 2006 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. today. The order shall not resume thereafter. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the proceedings on No. 15 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 1.30 p.m. today and that statements by a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Technical Group, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case and the statements of every other Member called upon shall not exceed ten minutes in each case. Members may share time and a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed ten minutes.

Is the proposal for dealing with No. 15 agreed? Agreed.

I want to express sympathy on behalf of the Fine Gael Party to the families of those who died in the boating tragedy off Wexford.

I want to raise two matters on the Order of Business, the first being the matter raised earlier in the House by Deputy O'Dowd, which is that is that we find ourselves facing a major change in respect of Sellafield. The present legislation under the Freedom of Information Act——

The question must be about promised legislation.

My question is concerned with freedom of information. The position is that Deputies have been refused information on Sellafield by the Department on grounds of national security. We have issues of intimate concern to the security of our people about which Deputies are very concerned being denied under alleged freedom of information exemptions. There is also the situation whereby the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Will the Minister make changes so that we may have a realistic and well-informed debate about the Sellafield issue? There have been major incidents there on which the reporting has been suspect. Deputies are entitled to know the information that is available to Government so that we may have an informed debate.

I also have a question on patient safety. The Minister for Health and Children declared an emergency in patient safety in accident and emergency departments the day before yesterday. I want to ask about other patient safety matters, specifically in nursing homes in the light of the Leas Cross experience. In private nursing homes——

The question must be about promised legislation.

We were promised legislation three times in 2005 on the inspection of private nursing homes and that has failed to be delivered each time. Will the Minister say when we will see this legislation? We are increasingly reliant on these nursing homes. We have also learned today that a hospital has had its operations suspended. When will we see the medical practitioners Bill because there is increasing concern that there are now two hospitals where it was found that operations were being carried out in an unsatisfactory manner? We need reassurance based on a sound legislative framework to deal with this concern.

The issue of investigation procedures for private nursing homes will be dealt with under the provisions of the health Bill, which is due this year. I understand the medical practitioners Bill is due later this year.

On the first issue raised by Deputy Bruton, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, has been in contact with his British counterpart on this matter. He has obviously reiterated the concerns raised in this House about any change in the status of Sellafield and is seeking to have it closed sooner rather than later. We hope that the difficulties being experienced with THORP will not be used as an excuse or given as a reason activities should continue at Sellafield longer than absolutely necessary. This is a long-standing matter, which has been pursued by successive Governments, using every possible political and legal channel available to us, to determine how that plant might be taken out of use as quickly as possible. Recent pronouncements on its future ownership simply heighten that concern and add to it.

My question was about the House not being able to get information which is being denied under the Freedom of Information Act.

That is not about promised legislation.

It is because the Minister must by order change the freedom of information coverage, for example, as it pertains to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland.

I am informed that if the Deputy or any of his spokespersons require a full briefing from the RPII on the up-to-date situation, it will be arranged.

I also offer the sympathy of the Labour Party on the loss of life in the boating tragedy in Wexford.

I want to raise two matters that I believe are in order. One is about the proposed privatisation of the British nuclear industry, especially where Sellafield which is a junkyard for nuclear waste collected from all around the world. There is a residual waste content which must be dealt with there on an ongoing and practically eternal basis and which is a continuing threat to Irish people. The privatisation of that would remove from the Irish Government some of the levers it has in dealing with the British Government on this issue. We have been told a great many lies in the past, even by the British Government. If the industry is privatised, we shall have no say in the matter. Will the Minister impress on the Taoiseach the importance of this matter? In particular will he ask the Taoiseach to raise this specific matter and the concerns of the Oireachtas with the British Prime Minister when they meet in Armagh next Thursday?

I also want to ask about the report of the Barr tribunal on the Abbeylara shooting. I understand the report is ready and will be submitted shortly. There is no problem if it is submitted before Thursday of next week. After that date, there is some difficulty concerning the procedure for publishing it or for laying it before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I ask the Minister to ensure that someone might address that contingency so that as soon as the report is submitted, it is made available both to the Government and the Opposition.

On the first matter, I can only reiterate the previous comments I addressed to Deputy Bruton about the concerns of the Government and the House. Unanimity has been articulated regularly in the House, through motions and in debates, on the question of Sellafield and the strong policy position of successive Governments on its being taken out of use as quickly as possible. I am not sure of the nature of the agenda for next Thursday's meeting between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair. I am sure it is related to Northern Ireland and how that process might again be kick-started with a view to resuming talks to see the full institutional implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Given the good relations between the two leaders, it may be taken that this is a matter which can be raised at that time.

On the second matter, I will ask our Chief Whip to inquire of the chairman of the tribunal when he might be able to arrange for the report's publication, as suggested.

I, too, would like to raise two items and to be associated on behalf of the Green Party with the expressions of sympathy to the families of the victims of the Wexford boat tragedy.

On the imminent privatisation of Sellafield, as raised by previous speakers, will the Minister and the Government consider bringing a motion before the House that goes beyond the usual fulminations which appear to have no effect on the British Government's position on the future of Sellafield? Such a motion should ask that this House ceases to sanction on behalf of this country the Irish contribution to the EURATOM Treaty. This is a financial contribution that goes directly to the European nuclear industry and indirectly to the British nuclear industry. It is surely time to make a bold gesture to highlight our position on nuclear safety and show the Irish people that we are not willing merely to engage in idle rhetoric in terms of the risk Sellafield poses and will pose into the future.

The second area has implications for the medical practitioners Bill and the Government's policy on stem cell research. It relates to the media reports about multiple sclerosis sufferers in the Cork region who have been given stem cell therapy on an untested basis. I want to ask the Minister about the implications of this activity--——

The question must be about promised legislation.

My question is based on specific areas, the implications for the medical practitioners Bill and the current status of Government consultations on stem cell research which appear to have hit an impasse after being open to the public a number of years ago. The situation which has transpired in the Cork area shows how vulnerable people who are suffering and are in pain are becoming victims on numerous levels because of Government inactivity in getting a solid policy position on stem cell research and because of the Government's failure to take action through legislation against those who falsely present themselves as valid medical practitioners. I invite the Minister for Finance to respond on behalf of the Government.

I do not think it would be correct for the Government to resile from its treaty obligations under the EURATOM Treaty or any other treaty which has been incorporated into our basic law by successive referendums. The contribution we make to the EURATOM Treaty is not only as has been suggested by the Deputy, because the European Union has also been involved in making nuclear plants safer in recent accession states and in eastern Europe generally. Our contribution has been as much towards ensuring international safety standards are applied——

We do not get that choice.

——to plants which have required further re-investment and where this had not been done. That is one of the issues that has been dealt with under the EURATOM Treaty.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has spoken to three different Commissioners on the focus that will apply to the EURATOM Treaty in terms of trying to ensure that member states use its provisions for the purpose of upgrading plants, providing for the inspection of plants and ensuring that public safety issues get equal priority with the arguments made by those who advocate the development of the nuclear fuel industry.

It is not having a big effect on the British Government.

As the Deputy is aware, some countries within the European Union have historically been wedded to that technology as the source of their energy supply for many years. The matter is one on which there is a unanimous view in the House. It is open to the House at any time to decide what way it wishes to demonstrate that unanimity. Such debates have taken place and positions have been established in the House on previous occasions when the matter was up for discussion.

The question of stem cell therapy for treatment has arisen because of a story covered by the media this morning. Treatments based on stem cell research are at a very early and experimental stage and have not yet been licensed for use. The introduction of these treatments in future will depend on the evidence base for their effectiveness and safety. EU Directive 2004/23/EC, which sets standards of quality and safety for tissues and cells, will address this issue. The Tánaiste has appointed the Irish Medicines Board as the competent authority under the directive and it will have responsibility for ensuring that the specified standards under the directive are met.

I join the Minister and colleagues in an expression of sympathy to the families of those who tragically lost their lives off Hook Head yesterday.

Will the Minister join with me in welcoming the decision of the High Court yesterday which has significantly strengthened the enforceability of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998? The Minister may not be privy to the detail of it but the legislation has been significantly strengthened as a result of the High Court decision yesterday in terms of its enforceability. Is the Minister in a position to advise whether the Government is accepting the decision, which I hope will be the case, or, God forbid, contemplating appealing the decision of the High Court to the Supreme Court? I hope and commend to the Minister that this would not be done and that we would recognise that the decision yesterday is a very important step in terms of securing and strengthening the legislation in place.

Last evening a sub-committee of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality Defence and Women's Rights produced the report on the murder of Seamus Ludlow. While the Ludlow family has understandably expressed its disappointment that it has not recommended a public inquiry, the report is nevertheless comprehensive. It is also damning of the failures of the inquiries into the murder at the time going back to the 1970s. Will the Government schedule a debate or an opportunity for statements in the House as a result of that report? It is very important, if the sub-committee's recommendation is to be taken up by Government, that we have the opportunity to air publicly and address the very important points the sub-committee has highlighted in its report, which I welcome, as there will not be a public dimension in terms of a full public inquiry.

Regarding the first issue, on reading media reports this morning it would appear that a significant judgment was handed down by the High Court yesterday. As in the normal course of events, the significance of that judgment will be assessed based on advice from the Attorney General who will advise the Government and the responsible Minister what the policy implications will be for the future. We should await the consideration of that judgment, given its suggested significance before we can indicate with any accuracy what the policy implications might be for the future.

On the question of having a debate on the report into the murder of Seamus Ludlow, that is a matter which can be discussed between the Whips. If the House wishes to give that priority in terms of debate I am sure it can be accommodated.

The Minister for Finance will be aware that the Irish Army camp in Liberia is aptly named Camp Clara. Will he join me in complimenting the role played by Irish troops in providing security for the arrest of Charles Taylor and wish them well in the days ahead in the job they have to do in Sierra Leone?

Hear, hear.

I confirm to the Deputy that there the similarities end.

I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin that we should have an early debate on the report that has been produced by the sub-committee of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights on the murder of Seamus Ludlow so that we can get support for all the recommendations.

Four years ago a commitment was made in An Agreed Programme for Government to produce a defamation Bill for the media. This was promised each year since then and has been promised again in this session. I understand the Bill is gathering dust in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Many Bills and amendments are gathering dust in the Department. The reason it has not been published is that the Cabinet wants parallel privacy legislation to be published as well. When will the defamation Bill be published and will it be accompanied by a privacy Bill?

Obviously I cannot anticipate the final outcome of continuing Government discussions on this matter but as soon as the Government makes a decision, we will bring it to the Deputy's attention in great detail. The only things that have been gathering dust in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are all the asylum files that were not handled during the Deputy's party's term in office.

A good few have also not been handled since then.

When will the carbon fund Bill be brought before the House? Many Members would like to discuss the future development of our biofuel industry, especially those in the southern half of the country owing to the closure of the beet industry.

When will the commencement order be brought before the House to commence section 47 of the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which amends section 54 of the 1947 Health Act, to allow for country of origin labelling within the food catering trade, especially in light of this morning's report on imported poultry?

I will have to come back to the Deputy on when the section of the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will be commenced. I do not have the timing available to me this morning.

The carbon fuel Bill was a budget announcement and I understand the legislation underpinning that initiative will come forward later this year.

As a Wexford Deputy I take the opportunity to associate myself with the vote of sympathy to the families bereaved by the fatality off the Wexford coast. It has been a horrendous two years in terms of maritime tragedies off Wexford and our thoughts go out to the families who are bereaved and to the rescue workers still involved in the recovery.

Yesterday in the Seanad the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, indicated that an application had been received in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for refundable redundancy payments in respect of workers dislodged by Irish Ferries. The Taoiseach indicated that Government policy on this matter would be for the State to resist funding for the displacement of Irish workers in this way. Will the Minister inform the House of Government policy on this matter?

I am not aware of the developments referred to in the Seanad debate yesterday. Subject to that, the Deputy may take it that if the Taoiseach gave a commitment to the House on this matter, that will be the position.

The Minister for Transport is today promoting the introduction of extra penalty points and this is an important development from the point of view of safety.

I hope he gets a few.

One of the problems faced by the Garda Síochána is the enforcement of fines. Gardaí must waste time going out around the country in an effort to collect the money that could be attached. Will the Minister agree that the enforcement of fines Bill should be regarded as urgent?

The Taoiseach seemed to be in some difficulties yesterday concerning the number of hospital beds available. The Tánaiste believes in private health care. The Minister has visited Monaghan General Hospital. Does he agree that more than half the beds have been shut in Monaghan General Hospital since he was there? A new theatre is lying idle. When will the health Bill come before the House to enable a full discussion on the direction of the health service?

The Tánaiste will bring to the House a number of legislative proposals on the continuing implementation of necessary health reforms to try and improve our health service and build on the successes in certain service areas, despite the critical pressures that still exist, particularly in accident and emergency services and to which she is currently paying particular attention.

On the question of the provision of private beds in the hospital system, I am in favour of such an initiative. We should be open and recognise that the more we can use both the private and public sectors to work together to improve service delivery models in the health service, the better.

Why are facilities being left idle?

The increased investment from the private sector is part of the Tánaiste's plan to redesignate private beds in public hospitals to public beds in due course, thus increasing the bed capacity for public patients in public hospitals.

The initiative introduced by the former Minister, Mr. McCreevy, in one of his earlier budgets, allowed for 8,000 beds to be made available through the private nursing homes sector through the use of tax relief schemes——

Leas Cross.

I would hate to think where we would be now with regard to the care of the elderly if those beds had not been in place so quickly. This is a continuing Government priority.

I cannot give the Deputy a date for the introduction of the enforcement of fines Bill. The question of whether attachment of earnings orders might be considered as a better means of collecting fines as suggested by the Deputy could be better articulated in a question at Question Time.

We know that the chief executive of Ryanair would like to take full control of all the airports in the State but was it not going a bit far to invade a British military airfield in Derry?

There is a first time for everything.

I suggest the Air Corps should be put on alert.

Will the Minister introduce a supplementary Estimate for emergency provision for the 200 children in Dublin West who were denied places in school in September? In the same week as further revelations of tens of thousands of euro in bribes to local politicians in Fingal, is it not clear that the children of west Dublin are the victims of this corruption as developers were allowed free rein to throw up thousands of houses——

The Deputy should raise the matter in another way as it is not in order on the Order of Business.

——making massive profits but without any provision for the children or the necessary public funding for the community? Is this not incredible? What emergency action will the Government take?

I remind the Deputy and other Members of the House that the Government has set up tribunals of inquiry on planning matters in County Dublin and elsewhere. The Oireachtas should await the outcome of those proceedings and respect due process for everybody concerned regarding a whole range of allegations are being made——

The Minister should tell that to Deputy McDowell and practise what he preaches.

——by a number of people who have taken particular positions on this matter. It does not serve this House well when Members come in here to substitute as self-appointed chairmen of such tribunals, making assertions that will be decided upon by the tribunal in due course.

What about the victims?

On the question raised under a Standing Order 31 request by the Deputy's constituency colleague, Deputy Burton, these are matters the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, and the Department will deal with to ensure that children are found places for their primary schooling in the constituency and elsewhere. She has been remarkably successful in providing extra facilities. This Government has provided record funding and this will be reflected in finding a solution to the issue raised by the Deputy.

I refer to the carbon credits Bill and the failure by the Government, particularly the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to do anything in the past nine years about renewable energy or biofuels. When will the Green Paper on energy be published?

Before Christmas and following a great deal of strife and difficulty, it appeared that the industrial relations problem in An Post was settled and that in return for work practice change, our postmen and postwomen were to receive their three-year old pay rises under Sustaining Progress. The Minister has probably been informed by his constituents that An Post workers have still not received those increases. Is the Government and the Minister minded to issue a directive to An Post on this matter as it is now a very profitable company?

I would not suggest it is a very profitable company.

It is profitable now.

It is a company that is thankfully now beginning to work its way out of its difficulties.

There was an agreement made.

The current state of play regarding that long-standing matter between workers and management to do with the payment of wage increases under Sustaining Progress is a matter on which the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will inform the Deputy. I am not familiar with the current position as of this morning.

What about the pensions?

On the question about the Government's energy policy, the Minister is preparing a policy proposal for consideration by Government on energy requirements to 2020 and beyond. A considerable effort will be made to improve security of supply by the increased use of indigenous sources of energy where that can be arranged and where it is feasible and viable.

The recent budget contained initiatives on biofuels and alternative energy sources. Excise duty relief and grant aid have been provided in a way which merits support and consideration.

The Deloitte & Touche report has been bought and paid for by the taxpayer and has not been published yet but is in the hands of a select few. As the single electricity market Bill is due for publication, is it intended to circulate the Deloitte & Touche report before the Bill is introduced to the House? When is the Bill likely to be before the House?

When will the broadcasting authority Bill, which has been around for some considerable time, be circulated? What stage of preparation has it reached? Is it likely to emerge between now and the end of the current session?

On the second matter, I am unsure whether the broadcasting authority Bill will arise during the current session but it is anticipated it will be published during the course of this year. The Deloitte & Touche report has been commissioned by the Minister in his effort to prepare a policy proposal. The report in itself does not constitute the energy policy and it may well contain some commercially sensitive information, given the subject matter under investigation. Therefore, I cannot give a commitment regarding its subsequent publication. It will certainly happen pending publication of the policy itself. It remains part of the deliberative process and it may not be feasible to publish thereafter, given the sensitive commercial information that may be supplied therein.

With regard to the health Bill, the national strategy on diabetes has been on the Minister for Health and Children's desk for a considerable time. There is a crisis at Cork University Hospital in respect of children with diabetes. The strategy would put in place the group of staff needed to deal with this situation. It will come under the health Bill. When will the Bill be published and will the strategy on diabetes be published shortly?

The health Bill will be published this year. There will be many opportunities on Second Stage of a number of Bills for Members to bring to the Minister's attention their views on a range of matters in the health area, including the one to which the Deputy referred. I do not have specific information as to when the strategy on diabetes might be published. I will ask the Tánaiste to communicate with the Deputy. Some of the questions might be more appropriate to a parliamentary question.

During the debate on the Arbitration (International Commercial) Bill 1998, a commitment was given that section 5 of the Arbitration Act 1980 would be reviewed as under the present legislation there is no recourse to the courts in the event of a party to an arbitration being dissatisfied with the arbitrator's decision. Is the Government preparing legislation, as promised, to correct this section?

I will have to revert to the Deputy on this issue. I do not have that information.

The Minister, Deputy Cowen, kindly told me that there was no plan for the disbursement of catch-up national development plan funds for the BMW region. I thank him for his honesty in stating that no plan is in place to allow the under-spend to be addressed. I raised this matter one year ago and was given to understand that the Government would take action. In 1997, a group of Ministers from the west — the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, would know all about this — wanted to take an overview with regard to issues related to the under-spend in the BMW area, which includes the Minister for Finance's area. From 2000 to 2005 spending was only 74% of what it should have been.

Does the Minister agree that the lack of a plan shows a total lack of commitment on the part of the Government to address the serious issues of the under-development of the BMW region, the lack of balanced regional development and the fact that half the graduates of the area must go to Dublin to get their first job? There should be a plan. This group of Ministers should be reactivated. Why is there no plan?

The Minister should reply on promised legislation.

No legislation is required. There is a plan. One cannot spend money or draw down EU funding unless one has a framework.

There is no plan for the west. It is in black and white in the Minister's reply.

I know that. I have noted local newspaper coverage of the misrepresentation of some of the replies I have given on this matter in the Deputy's part of the country, not only from the Deputy but from other Deputies.

We have a national plan for 2000 to 2006. The funding is being rolled out. While the plan runs to the end of 2006, the impact of some of the funding will be evident beyond 2006. We are preparing a national development plan for 2007 to 2013. The level of investment in all parts of the BMW region is unprecedented. Whether the major infrastructural projects commenced in the first instance in the southern and eastern regions, for example, the tunnel project, they benefited all parts of the country, although they happen to be located in a particular region. To suggest that we should get involved in some type of geographical apartheid in regard to the disbursement of funds is a flawed approach.

There is geographical apartheid. That is the problem.

Allow the Minister to reply.

In the roll-out beyond 2006 and in the next national development plan, we will see continued and unprecedented investment in all of the regions. Regional development will be a central objective of future national development plans which will be prepared by my Department.

Yesterday on the Order of Business, in the context of the register of persons considered unsafe to work with children Bill, the Taoiseach told me that the State Claims Agency would treat sympathetically the issue of the €500,000 legal costs of Ms Louise O'Keeffe. This is welcome as far as it goes but Ms O'Keeffe is still extremely worried that she could lose her house. Will the Minister be more specific and clarify the instructions that the State, in the form of the Department of Education and Science, is giving the State Claims Agency in this regard?

Strictly speaking, it is not a matter for the Order of Business.

One cannot be more specific than the spokesperson from the State Claims Agency was in media interviews yesterday and the previous day. We have given authority to the State Claims Agency to defend the State's interest in regard to claims brought against the State. Obviously, one has sympathy for the personal circumstances of the individual concerned in this matter. The issue was dealt with in court and a decision was made. The question of whether costs will be pursued against the defendant is one which the spokesperson from the State Claims Agency explained clearly and in detail. He stated that the agency would discuss the matter with the people with whom it discusses these matters in the normal course of events, and that it will take into account the personal circumstances of the individual concerned, as it would in every other case, and make a decision arising from that which is just and fair in all circumstances.

I call Deputy Shortall to be followed by Deputy O'Dowd.

The agency said it would speak to the principal, which is the Department of Education and Science. Ms O'Keeffe is concerned to ensure that the direction the State Claims Agency will be given will be in her favour.

All I can say is that the matter will be dealt with between the State Claims Agency and the Department of Education and Science, as set out by the official concerned on the basis that he articulated. He put the position in a fair and open way. Let us wait to find what the consideration of the facts is on the basis of——

I call Deputy Shortall.

Two developments are under way with regard to the future of Aer Lingus. First, the Joint Committee on Transport is about to begin public hearings to allow parties to express their views on the potential implications of the sale of Aer Lingus and to allow for analysis of that process, which has yet to take place. Second, the Minister for Transport recently instructed management to engage intensively with the unions to discuss the implications for jobs and job security. Does the Minister accept it would be entirely wrong to pre-empt these two processes by taking a Cabinet decision on the future ownership of Aer Lingus prior to the two processes reaching a conclusion? Will the Government undertake to allow the two processes to continue to a conclusion before the Cabinet decides on the matter?

The Minister should reply on promised legislation.

The Cabinet will make its decisions in due course based on its consideration of the best time to proceed with a decision that would have important implications for the company. I am glad to note discussions are taking place with the Government, which obviously must reserve to itself the timing and content of any decisions it wishes to take, given that it is a matter of considerable importance to the company.

We have approached and seek to approach the matter in a spirit of partnership. However, we also approach it on the basis of ensuring that the window of opportunity that exists is not allowed to close, that the full value of any shareholding that is put on the market is attained and that we take the advice of our professional advisers. While I welcome the fact that people are engaging constructively on this matter the Government must reserve to itself the right to take a decision in its own time.