Adjournment Debate.

EU Treaties.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this item. I am also pleased that the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Roche, who is responsible for this area, is here.

It seems there is no sense of urgency on the part of the Government in communicating the contents of the reform treaty to the people of Ireland. I raised this matter with the Taoiseach, asking him what were his proposals for the lead-up to the ratification of the reform treaty. Amazingly, he answered briefly, stating that there were none at this stage. It was an incredible answer. Ireland is the only one of 27 countries that must undergo a referendum, all other countries will ratify the treaty by a vote in parliament. There is an onus on Ireland to get it right.

There is an onus to transmit information as quickly as possible. The reform treaty is not the most simple document. It is difficult to read and unintelligible to the layman. The constitutional treaty was in a different format and was a well-written consolidation document. The reform treaty is an amendment of the other seven treaties and is written in legalese. It is easy to understand if one is a lawyer but the people who will vote on it will find it difficult to understand.

The Taoiseach stated he could not produce any plans until Ireland formally signed the document on 13 December. However, the Government approved the document on 16 October, nearly two months before it will be signed. The text was approved on that occasion in Brussels. All that remains is for the 27 member states to formally sign what they have approved. There is no reason the Government should delay in preparing for the ratification.

The Joint Committee on European Affairs met this week and was full of enthusiasm for inviting Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament, holding meetings in the provinces and holding public meetings. Its response is to play a major role. The National Forum on Europe, which I attended this morning, produced a document on what it proposed, including meetings and publications. The Government, which has already approved the text, and which will sign the text on our behalf pending ratification, shows no leadership. I am worried that we will see a repetition of the Nice treaty. In 2001 the Irish people rejected that treaty initially because they were ignorant of the contents. The Fianna Fáil-led Government showed similar negligence and inertia in communicating the contents in a legible fashion.

The Minister of State is enthusiastic about ratification but the Taoiseach's reply shows no sense of urgency at the highest point of leadership. I urge the Minister of State to ensure the Cabinet discusses this as a matter of urgency and that we communicate the sense of urgency to the Houses and the country at large.

I am grateful to Deputy Costello for raising this matter because it is important to have a full, frank, open and honest debate on the issue. The reform treaty was agreed by European Heads of State and Government at the informal European Council in Lisbon on 18 and 19 October. It is planned that the treaty will be signed at the European Council in December. Thereafter, the treaty will need to be ratified by each member state.

After 50 years of European integration, the EU treaties were in need of updating. That process has been under way since the European Convention in which I participated with former Deputies John Bruton and De Rossa. Deputies Gormley and Pat Carey operated as alternates.

The reform treaty is an important achievement for the EU. We now have a treaty that will allow the European Union to turn away from institutional reform and focus instead on delivering tangible benefits to our citizens. The treaty preserves the essential substance and balance of the draft European constitution, which was the product of lengthy and inclusive negotiations culminating during Ireland's 2004 EU Presidency. It is a pity the treaty is not contained in a single document. That is the format we would have wished for but events conspired to change the circumstances.

The treaty will serve to equip the European Union to deal with the challenges of the future. Ratification of the EU reform treaty will be a priority for the Government. It is, of course, a matter for each country to determine how it will ratify the treaty and most of our EU partners intend to do so through parliamentary means. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has requested legal advice from the Attorney General on whether ratification of the EU reform treaty will require an amendment to the Constitution. This is a legal formality that is observed on each occasion that an EU treaty comes for ratification.

As on previous occasions, a referendum commission will be created to inform the public about the treaty and to encourage citizens to exercise their right to vote. As was the case with the previous EU referendum in 2002, the referendum commission will be properly resourced so as to enable it to carry out its role in an effective manner. I have already had a meeting with the Minister for Finance on financing for the commission.

The Government will also undertake an information campaign to explain the contents of the treaty and its benefits to Ireland. This is a challenging task given the inevitably complex character of the reform treaty. Nonetheless, it will also be an important opportunity for us to have an informed and comprehensive debate about Ireland's place within the European Union.

To this end, work is already under way on producing accessible material that explains the main elements of the treaty in plain language. More detailed information on the treaty is already available on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Public representatives have a special responsibility to promote constructive, well-informed public debate on issues of such national importance. In that regard, I urge all Members of the Oireachtas to engage with the public on the treaty.

The National Forum on Europe will also have an important role to play in promoting greater awareness of, and debate on, the reform treaty. The forum has done an outstanding job since it was established. We are the envy of many of our EU partners in having such a forum and I look forward to its work. I also look forward to working with the Joint Committee on European Affairs and I have had some informal contact with the Chairman already.

We have considerable experience of ratifying European treaties by referendum and our track record is good. The first Nice referendum taught us the salutary lesson that there can be no room for complacency. The House need have no concerns about complacency while I am in this role. There is wide public appreciation of Europe's importance to Ireland and of the role that we play within the European Union. The Irish public has been shown to be consistently among the most positive in Europe about the advantages of EU membership.

Along with my colleagues in Government, I look forward to playing an active role in informing the public about this important treaty. Colleagues from Fine Gael and the Labour Party have indicated they will be active. I welcome the positive statements on the record of this House by Deputies Kenny and Gilmore. I will write to all Members of the Oireachtas in the next few days providing details of the treaty. I will be available to Deputies and Senators from all sides of the House and from all viewpoints, those in favour and those opposed, if further briefing or explanations are required.

I intend to make information available to every Member. This will be a vigorous, frank debate that we must carry to the people. This treaty will free us from the introspection Europe has had for the past six years. It will allow the 27 member states of the European Union to progress and serve all the people of Europe. I hope the debate will be informed and honest and that the Irish people will, as they have done previously, vote "Yes" to Europe.

Community Development.

I welcome the interest of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in local economic and social development and the future of Partnership, Leader and other local companies. As a board member of the Northside Partnership in Bunratty Drive, Coolock, Dublin 17, I was disappointed and taken aback with the changes in the guidelines on the governance of integrated local development companies and urban based partnerships lodged in the non-statutory list of regulations in the Oireachtas library last week. This disappointment and unease is shared by other members and supporters of the Northside Partnership in the Dublin North-East and Dublin North-Central constituencies.

Our key concerns relate to the changes to the board structures given the importance of boards to the administration of successful and fully accountable companies. The cutback in the number of directors to be nominated by the national social partners to only two directors out of 20 in an urban company is a retrograde step, given the long-standing excellent support from local businesses and the trade union movement for the Northside Partnership and similar companies.

Throughout its history of approximately two decades the Northside Partnership has been well served by a succession of volunteer directors from the north side business community who brought unique expertise and experience to the outstanding development of the company and its innovative programmes. I am proud to recall that it was Peter Cassells, formerly general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who proposed the idea of partnership companies to the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in 1990. Mr. Cassells and his trade union colleagues have always played an important role in promoting local development through partnership and other local community companies.

For most of its history, Northside Partnership was expertly chaired by Mr. Padraig White, the distinguished former public servant and entrepreneur. At present Mr. Willie Hamilton of Mandate Trade Union is efficiently carrying on Mr. White's great work for Coolock and the north side community. The two three-year term limits proposed for directors seems ludicrous given the exemplary service and expertise of experienced volunteers to the progress of Northside Partnership and similar companies. This restriction will impact most heavily on companies such as Northside Partnership where a dynamic chairperson is prepared to give freely of his or her time to develop projects which may take a decade or more to come to fruition.

The banning of Oireachtas Members from service on the boards is also shortsighted and unnecessary. Several Oireachtas Members like myself have been active prior to and throughout their political careers in support of local social and economic development. On the Northside Partnership board I admired the service given over recent years by former Senator Derek McDowell and Deputy Seán Haughey, now a Minister of State. It is reasonable to require Ministers to resign from boards but why disbar an ordinary Oireachtas Member who wishes to serve as a volunteer?

These and other board changes were not necessary for the Northside Partnership and the vast bulk of other local development companies. I understand some of the motives which informed the Minister's decisions. Northside Partnership has always followed the highest company and accountancy standards under our highly impressive CEO, Ms Marion Vickers, and her outstanding staff. Northside Partnership pioneered a wide range of seminal small business start-up, training and employment programmes including the local employment service, the challenger, life and other learning programmes, the local business network, the enterprise and employment development programme and the child care bureau.

I understand the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the Department setting out model corporate governance guidelines for local development companies. However, in this and in his earlier guidelines on social economy companies, the Minister also caused grief. He threatens to eviscerate the dynamic and progressive character of local development bodies. Experience in the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany and elsewhere has shown that these companies need to have an efficient commercial as well as social development structure. The result of the Minister's bureaucratic approach will be to reduce these bodies to mere aspirational talking shops.

The Minister appears to be a determined opponent of true co-operative entrepreneurial structures in urban areas and I urge him to strongly reflect on the history of Northside Partnership and similar local bodies, such as those in Connemara, before these non-statutory guidelines are finalised. Is he prepared to refer the guidelines to the Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sports, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He made a good case. I will outline what we set out to do. I will not stick to the script because it has been circulated and Deputies can read it for themselves. Sometimes this House becomes a script-reading game where we do not engage with the issues raised.

The partnerships were originally established in selected areas under an EU programme. When I arrived in the Department they were of all shapes and sizes and had duplication. I remember once being asked to go to Howth which is not a thousand miles from Deputy Broughan's constituency. I was sceptical because I knew Sutton and Howth well. However, Howth village had quite an amount of deprivation but the partnership did not cover it. It was brought to my attention that extraordinarily, the Beara Peninsula and Sheep's Head Peninsula were not covered by partnership.

If one considers this rationally one sees we have community development projects which focus on small areas and special groups. However, people are at a disadvantage virtually everywhere in the country. I believed a community development company should cover every citizen who needs a service. This means it would not be intensively active in well-developed areas. However, irrespective of where an individual is he or she would be entitled to a service.

It is a reasonable proposition that if the State wants to deliver items such as the community services programme and the rural social scheme it should be structurally recognised that they be delivered through existing partnerships rather than by new and an increased number of corporate structures. This would strengthen the role of partnerships within communities. As I wanted contiguous borders and one company with a high standing in each area, I wanted amalgamation between Leader companies in rural areas while in urban areas it was more important to extend coverage. The point was often made that a board was chosen unfairly. I stated I did not care who was on the boards but I wanted selecting them to be fair and transparent and then let them get on with the job. These were my guiding principles.

As the Government rolls out new community programmes of universal application in a city or a rural area we should use existing machinery. This was the basis for what we did. We then got into the nitty-gritty where problems always arise. Some people wanted me to be extremely prescriptive while others did not. We had long debates and Departments such as the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were involved. Some wanted small boards and others wanted large boards. I wanted to be as flexible as possible. However, we had to lay down a few basic principles.

It was laid down that every board had to have public representatives and we chose councillors. I will return to the issue involving Deputies. It was also laid down that statutory agencies and the county manager had to be represented because the local authority is key. Social partners, namely, employers, trade unions and farming organisations in rural areas, also had to be represented and the community and voluntary sector had to be well-represented. It had to be split between geographic representation and representation of special interests such as disabilities, Travellers and lone parents. If we included everything and let everyone have what they wanted the board would have had 40 or 50 members but this was the next issue.

A great deal of discussion and debate took place. Eventually, I stated a certain number of statutory agencies would have to be represented but I would not predetermine them and the boards could choose them. Local elected people had to be included but companies were not keen on this as they had not had them in the past. After extensive negotiations, I went to Government but further issues were raised. I held a meeting with Comhairle LEADER na hÉireann, PLANET, which is the network, and my office’s community partnership network. I told the attendees they had several months to discuss these boards, on which the Northside Partnership was well-represented, and asked them what they wanted me to change. They asked for additional representatives from local, community and voluntary interests and sought to be allowed to nominate the chairperson. In anticipation of those requests, I received governmental agreement that morning. That is all they wanted, so I signed off on the matter. I am more than willing to debate this at committee but we have to move on with the job.

As someone who has defended the right of Deputies to be local representatives as well as legislators, I have sympathy with Deputy Broughan's point regarding the Dáil. I am open to bringing forward protocols to address the issue so that Deputies are not cut out from information or participation in the boards. I may be wrong, but I understand Deputies are open to election as community representatives. I will reflect on the point raised by the Deputy. It was always my intention to devise a means by which Deputies could be involved in the process or, as has happened in the case of some partnerships in the past, avoid being cut out despite having voted money to the groups.

We are channelling more than €200 million annually through these structures. I have to ensure strong financial control because my Secretary General and I answer to this House for the money. Rather than oppressive financial controls, I want to establish a system that can stand up to the rigours of good accountancy, which has been a concern in the past.

Beef Imports.

Over the past several years, Deputies from all parties have expressed concerns about the importation of Brazilian beef into the EU. I have heard the issue being raised by Members from all sides of the House. The rules and regulations applicable to Brazilian beef are inadequate in comparison to EU-originated products. There is a complete absence of individual traceability and growth hormones are freely used. Early last year, the IFA travelled to Brazil, where they produced a video on what they encountered. Although it was rubbished in some quarters, the latest reports vindicate many of its claims. In addition, Brazil uses vaccination to counteract the problem of foot and mouth disease.

The long awaited Food and Veterinary Office report was published yesterday. The report is disturbing because the number of animals on two out of nine holdings visited did not match the number on the database, highlighting a lack of routine checks to verify cattle numbers and individual identification. More animals were listed on the database than were present on the farm. The quality of the ear tags used was inadequate, individual tags were illegible in many instances and a high percentage were missing or lost. As a consequence, the reliability of the 90-day residency policy used by the EU to implement regionalisation is totally undermined. In one meat plant an animal was declared ineligible for the EU, yet its meat formed part of a consignment destined to the Community. That is a serious breach of procedures.

The report also found shortcomings in the vaccination procedure and stated that no routine controls had been carried out by competent authorities on holdings in some states to ensure proper vaccination. The consequence of this exposure is herd immunity might not be sufficient to protect against foot and mouth disease. It was observed that the foot and mouth virus continues to circulate in parts of the Matto Grasso. The Food and Veterinary Office noted the absence of a programme to monitor the efficiency of the vaccination in 2007, which jeopardises the future certification of beef. The report confirms all the concerns which have been expressed by the IFA, ICMSA and health and safety experts. The matter is ongoing because agents of the office are still in Brazil and will produce further reports.

News broke this morning of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Commissioner Kyprianou's home country of Cyprus. We are told that the strain of the virus in Cyprus is the same as that found in Britain earlier this year, as well as the prevalent strain in Brazil.

Questions arise in respect of the support of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for the importation of Brazilian beef, which is opposed by most people in the industry other than the barons who want to make a killing from it. Everybody who genuinely has this country's interests at heart opposes importing the beef. How long can the Minister continue to support the importation of beef which is finding its way into our food chain without being displayed as Brazilian? One can buy beef in any hotel or restaurant without knowing its origin. From a health and safety perspective and because of the irregularities in implementing the regulations, which are already uneven, I urge the Minister to oppose the importation of Brazilian beef into the EU.

On the origin of beef sold in hotels and restaurants, customers are entitled to ask why country of origin information is not on the menu. If more consumers asked that question, the situation would improve. We all need to play our part in that regard. The conditions for trade in animal products with third countries follow the principles established under agreements of the World Trade Organisation and the International Organisation for Animal Health. The European Commission is mandated to negotiate these on behalf of the European Community and, through its food and veterinary office, to monitor the compliance of third countries it has approved for trade with the EU. This approval is on the basis that the Commission considers the third country's controls offer an equivalent level of guarantee for the protection of human and animal health to those operated within the community. Where there are risks to public or to animal health in the community, arising from disease outbreaks in approved third countries, safeguard measures are invoked restricting or banning imports from the affected country or region until the risk has been eliminated.

The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Mary Coughlan, welcomed the publication by the European Commission of the report of the food and veterinary office mission to Brazil. The Minister said that this report will be very helpful in the overall process of ensuring equivalence. She added that she was calling for a discussion on the report within the standing committee on the food chain and animal health. The Minister also noted that a further food and veterinary office mission is taking place this month. She said that Commissioner Kyprianou, who is responsible for health and consumer protection, has personally assured her that he will not hesitate to take appropriate protection measures if a product imported from a third country represents a risk to the health of EU consumers, livestock or plants.

Following from its mission to Brazil this month it is vital that the food and veterinary reports on its findings at the earliest possible date and that the European Commission will take whatever action is necessary to protect the interests of EU consumers and producers. The Minister has consistently pointed out to the Commission and to her colleagues in the Council of Ministers that produce imported from third countries must meet standards that are equivalent to those required of community producers. In this context she has been in regular contact with Commissioner Kyprianou. The Commissioner has assured her that the Commission will not hesitate to take action if a product imported from a third country represents a risk for EU consumers, livestock or plants.

I note the Deputy's concern regarding the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Cyprus. The controls, based on EU regulations, which were applied in the case of the UK outbreak, confined the disease to a limited area. Similar measures have been adopted for Cyprus and it is hoped that the outbreak will be restricted and controlled. The Commission and the Cypriot Government are awaiting typing test results from the World Reference Laboratory to identify the specific strain of Type O virus involved in the outbreak in Cyprus.

Schools Building Projects.

I raised this issue previously on the Adjournment a number of years ago and raised it in various Dáil questions, yet the school concerned, Gaelscoil Bharra in Cabra, Dublin 7, is still in prefabs today. Since my words made no difference or impact on the Minister, her Department or the Government, I will read a letter from the teaching staff of the school, which I hope will help to force some action on the issue. The letter, which was sent to their local elected representatives, reads:

A chara,

We are writing to you as a united team to ask you to highlight the case of our school which is now, unbelievably, in its 12th year in prefabs. Gaelscoil Bharra was founded in Cabra in 1996, has over 220 pupils and has been a resounding success.

I can certainly verify that. The letter continues:

However, 12 years after opening, we are no nearer to securing a permanent building for our children. We have absolutely no faith in the Department of Education and Science, whose actions since 1996 have been pathetic. The prefabs are dangerously over crowded and the Department is in breach of its own guidelines regarding classroom space, play areas, safety and so on.

We have continually campaigned for a school building, canvassed our local representatives since 1996 and the school has been highlighted in the national media. It is an absolute scandal that despite all the talk, nothing has happened. We continue to educate the children to the highest standards, as evidenced by recent inspections, yet the Department is failing miserably to provide decent facilities. We are exasperated, very angry and frustrated. We are now in consultation with our union and are even considering industrial action, as nothing else has made any difference.

We ask you to highlight our plight and to raise the issue with the Minister for Education and Science.

Is muidne, múinteoirí Gaelscoil Bharra.

Dar ndóigh, sheoladar an litir sin chugam i nGaeilge chomh maith. Ba mhaith liom a rá arís go bhfuil sé dochreidthe — ní thuigim é — go bhfuil a leithéid ag teacht ó Rialtas a deireann go dtugann sé tacaíocht don Ghaeilge. Cuirfidh mé mar seo é — tá réabhlóid cultúrtha ar siúl i gceantair lucht oibre i gCabra i mBaile Átha Cliath. Tá obair iontach á dhéanamh ag an bpobal sa cheantar sin. Tá imeachtaí gaelscoile, naíonra, club Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, Glór na nGael, feachtas frithdrugaí, ranganna Gaeilge, ciorcail comhrá, ranganna ceoil agus go leor eile ar siúl ann. Nuair a chuireann muintir na háite iarratais isteach go dtí an Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta ag lorg cabhrach, níl an Roinn sásta an cabhair sin a thabhairt dóibh.

Today there was a special Dáil debate on the Government's support for the Irish language. Here we have a test case for that support and the Government has failed miserably. As far as I am aware, the problem is simple enough. There is an available site beside the existing school prefabs and all that is required is that an acceptable leasing arrangement be made with St. Finbar's GAA club, which has the site on a long-term lease from Dublin City Council. I trust that whatever difficulties exist will be clearly identified in the Minister's reply, with a timescale within which the issues will be resolved and progress made.

A week before the last two general elections, the Taoiseach, in whose constituency the school is located, circulated a letter to every resident in Cabra from the Minister for Education and Science stating categorically that, between himself and the Minister, they would sort out the issue, but nothing has happened in the six months since the last general election, nor indeed in the five years since the previous election. If the Taoiseach had approached me for support, as he approached Deputy Finian McGrath after the recent election, this school would have been top of my agenda and the problems there would have been sorted out by now.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the position regarding Gaelscoil Bharra. Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of under-investment in this area as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, the Government has shown focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

In 2006, more than €500 million was invested in schools infrastructure and this funded the delivery of in excess of 1,300 building projects. This compares with just more than €90 million provided for school buildings in 1997. Under the national development plan, €4.5 billion is being invested to improve existing school buildings and provide additional accommodation for an expected growth of 100,000 in the schoolgoing population in the coming years. Together with the improvements in planning that have been put in place, and those that are provided for in the new programme for Government, this will enable the Department of Education and Science to meet the needs of developing areas into the future. I am sure the Deputy will agree this record level of investment is a positive testament to the high priority the Government attaches to this sector.

Turning to the specific matter in hand, Gaelscoil Bharra NS is a coeducational all-Irish national school. The school had a September 2006 enrolment of 218 pupils and the enrolments in the school have been on an upward trend of 12% in the past five years. The school has a current staffing of principal plus eight mainstream teachers and one permanent learning support teacher. I can confirm that the Department has an application from Gaelscoil Bharra for a new school building. Officials in the school planning section are considering a number of options for the long-term solution to the school's accommodation difficulties. One of these options is the building of a permanent structure on the school's current site. A number of issues have arisen with this proposal. However, it will be pursued in tandem with a number of other options being considered by the Department. The Department acknowledges the need for a solution to the school's accommodation difficulties and is committed to working to achieve a satisfactory solution as soon as possible.

Once again I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the position on this school project and to highlight the enormous work being undertaken by the Department in implementing the school building and modernisation programme to ensure infrastructure of the highest standard is available for all our schoolgoing population.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 November 2007.