Order of Business

It is proposed to take No. 15, statements on the report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture entitled Report on Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the Dáil shall sit later than 9 p.m. tonight and shall adjourn on the adjournment of Private Members’ business, which shall be No. 99, motion re Good Friday Agreement, and shall be taken on the conclusion of the opening statements of No. 15 or at 7.30 p.m., whichever is the later, and adjourn after 90 minutes; and the following arrangements shall apply in relation to No. 15: the statement of a Minister or Minister of State and of the main spokespersons for Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Technical Group, who shall be called upon in that order and who may share their time, shall not exceed 25 minutes in each case; the statement of each other Member called upon shall not exceed ten minutes in each case; and a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed five minutes.

There are two proposals to be put to the House today. Is the proposal that the Dáil shall sit later than 9 p.m. tonight agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 15, statements on the report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture entitled Report on Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration, agreed to? Agreed.

The Government had promised in the programme for Government reform of the registered employment agreements, REAs. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Supreme Court has made a significant judgment on registered employment agreements. Has the programme for Government been amended in terms of the commitments on REAs, in particular on the amendments to the Industrial Relations Acts or other Acts? Are they now in train and what is the status of workers who have existing REAs? Will they retain them or will it require legislation to be amended? Significant discussion took place on the issue prior to the formation of Government. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could provide me with an update on the position.

We had questions on access to free primary care last week and the Taoiseach undertook to check the situation in terms of the universal primary care Bill, on which a commitment was made in the programme for Government. What timeline can we expect for the publication of the Bill?

Could the Taoiseach also outline the situation in terms of the public health (sunbeds) Bill? The use of sunbeds receives much adverse publicity due to the health implications of the practice. Deputy Kelleher published a Bill more than a year ago which the Government did not accept at the time. Is there a delay with the Bill? Given that the Minister undertook to implement it I would like to get a date for the publication of the Bill.

The freedom of information (amendment) Bill was promised more than two years ago by the Government. When can we expect it to be published and will it be published in this session?

The freedom of information Bill will be published in this session. The sunbeds Bill will be published later in the year. The issue has received much publicity.

Will it be this summer?

Not at the height of summer anyway.

The Minister could do with a bit of sun.

With regard to the primary care Bill and GP cards, Deputy Martin will have heard the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy White, confirm that the moneys allocated for last year and this year are in situ.

He wants to look at the entire scheme rather than just do one section of it now and then have to put in administrative, legal and medical personnel to deal with that. His timescale is five to six weeks and I hope then that the first section can start rolling out and that we will be able to continue on from that seamlessly, as it were.

We need legislative change.

My point is that in the programme for Government two and a half years ago, this big Bill was put up front, that is, the universal primary care Bill. Had the person responsible for putting that into the programme for Government had a bull's notion about what it involved in terms of detail, substance and complexity, he or she would not have put it in. We have been told in the past two weeks, as the Taoiseach knows, that it is enormously complex and that there are all sorts of legal difficulties and obstacles.

Thank you, Deputy.

Clearly whoever put this into the programme for Government was not aware of any difficulties at the time. Are we looking at a reform of the programme for Government commitment to such an Act? Clearly, that Act cannot happen this year. The Minister of State, Deputy White, has inherited this mess from the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly. The former Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Shortall, was shafted over it and let hang out to dry by the Government. The question remains as to whether the Bill is real. Is that term in the programme for Government-----

We cannot go into the detail of legislation on the Order of Business.

On the universal primary care Bill, does anyone know what the substance of it would be? Is that Bill gone by the wayside? Will a new Bill be introduced? What is the situation in this regard?

This is the responsibility of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy White. He has pointed out that, having looked at the structure he had to deal with on his appointment, he decided that he would prefer to look at this scheme in its entirety and then start the process rather than do it in sections. The latter approach would require the setting up of particular administrative operations, a legal base and medical personnel, which would have to be duplicated repeatedly before we would get an effective system.

Did the Government not know that two years ago?

He wants to look at the entire scheme. He has his money in place and I hope that when he reports back in five to six weeks, he can actually commence that.

First, for the record, the Taoiseach said earlier that he was looking forward to the publication by the First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland of a discussion paper on tackling sectarianism. That has already been published. It was published last week.

I wish to raise two issues with the Taoiseach. The first concerns Bethany Home. There is a huge amount of evidence in the public domain, some of which, I understand, was broadcast on RTE last night, proving State involvement in the Bethany Home. The previous Government excluded the very small number of remaining survivors from the residential institutions redress scheme and, for reasons beyond me, this Government has also ruled out extending the Magdalen laundries redress mechanism to Bethany Home survivors. We have raised this matter consistently with the Taoiseach and he has always said the Minister for Justice and Equality is considering the matter. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate what progress has been made following lengthy consideration of the Bethany Home issue, and to set out the form of redress it is proposed to afford to its victims.

Leaders of the Opposition have expressed very genuine frustration at how we conduct our business here. The Taoiseach has shown some sympathy towards that in responding to us and has said he will bring forward proposals to deal with our business in a better way. Can the Taoiseach tell us when he will bring forward those proposals and whether those proposals will form the basis for a discussion? This is a parliament, so rather than the Government deciding what to do and then consulting or notifying us, can we actually have a discussion paper so that we can have a constructive and positive input into this?

On the same issue, could I ask the Taoiseach, with regard to any further legislation concerning redress or an apology for victims of institutional abuse, whether it is proposed to introduce measures relating to a State apology or redress for survivors of the Bethany Home?

Bethany Home was not a laundry in the same sense as the Magdalen laundries. It was considered for inclusion in the redress scheme which was established in 2002. It was considered again in 2004 and 2007. As the information clearly was that Bethany Home operated as a mother and baby home, it was not regarded as being eligible for inclusion in that scheme.

There was State involvement.

That position was outlined to the House in October 2007. The religious ethos was not an issue and did not form part of the criteria for inclusion in the redress scheme. While Catholic religious orders ran the majority of the specified institutions, others were run by organisations with a Protestant or non-denominational ethos. Seven of the 139 approved institutions had a Protestant ethos. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, met the Bethany Home survivors group on 16 March last. The issues that were raised at that meeting are under consideration by the Minister for Justice and Equality.

Regarding the question of how we do business here, we have had numerous discussions on this issue over the years. I would like to think that we could come to an agreement that would be in the best interests of all Deputies and would make the House more effective. Deputy Martin will recall from his long years here that Ministers answered questions on this side of the House for three or four months at a time. I have been doing some analysis on this and while the House sat for shorter periods in the past, more time was allocated for legislative work. In the context of the Bill to deal with the abolition of the Seanad, which will be published next week, I intend to provide all of the Whips with a discussion paper. The Whips can sit down with Deputy Martin and Deputy Adams and discuss how they want to run the business here. There is no intention to dictate and say this is what we want to do. I would like to think that we can use our time effectively in the interests of this being a Legislature and in the interests of what this House is supposed to do. There are a variety of options that need to be considered, many of which have been tried in the past in different forms. None of them is entirely satisfactory for Members of the House but I give the Deputy my word that we will try to be as open and constructive as we can be. I do not feel that the way we do some of our business is in the interests of everybody because so much information is piled up together that Members can feel very frustrated and feel that they do not get an opportunity to ask all the questions they would like. Let us sit down and rationally have a discussion about that.

I thank the Taoiseach for his answer and look forward to seeing his suggestions. I have a very brief supplementary comment on Bethany Home. New information has emerged since 2007. I urge the Taoiseach to be very mindful of the fact that the very same thing was said about the Magdalen laundries. The same thing was said, almost word for word, until new information emerged in that regard.

Those issues are being considered by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter.

The very first Bill on the A list for the summer session is the forestry Bill, which promises to support the development of a modern forestry sector which enshrines the principle of sustainable forestry management and protection of the environment. Of course, the privatisation of our forests would conflict with all that. When will that Bill be published? We were told very recently by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, that the Cabinet would make a decision very shortly on the future of Coillte, which manages our forests, and particularly whether the Government would press ahead with the privatisation of Coillte or think better and not do so. Can the Taoiseach tell us if that decision has been made and how it relates to this Bill?

I am also interested in the electoral (amendment) Bill and the local government Bill, which are also high on the list, at numbers five and seven. Can the Taoiseach confirm that the local and European elections for next year will be brought forward from June to May and that these Bills will enshrine the changes in constituencies or local electoral areas? When might we have sight of this legislation?

In regard to the Seanad, the Taoiseach said - if I heard him correctly - that the Bill for abolition of the Seanad would be published next week. Does that mean it will be taken in this session and concluded before the Dáil rises for the summer? What is the agenda?

The answer to the last question is yes, it does. The forestry Bill was published on 24 April. The heads for the electoral (amendment) Bill were cleared on 30 April and the Bill will be taken this session, as will the local government Bill.

Deputy Higgins raised a matter about Coillte. He will be aware, following the Government's decision that the harvesting rights of Coillte's forests be considered for sale, that at the Government's request the National Treasury Management Agency via the NewERA unit was actively engaged with Coillte, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in recent months to examine the financial and other implications of a potential transaction. Evidence gathered from similar transactions completed in other jurisdictions indicated that a transaction can be structured such in a manner as to ensure the maintenance of the open forest policy, reflecting public access to recreational lands, which has been raised here, the preservation of existing replanting obligations and the incorporation of biodiversity requirements. All these things can be accommodated. This process has included engagement with potential acquirers of harvesting rights when requested by them in accordance with the published Government protocol and the two Departments have also met the interested stakeholders to discuss their position on the potential sale of harvesting rights. As part of the process they met the Coillte group of unions on 25 January and outlined the process involved. This matter will come back to Government and the finalisation of all those details by the National Treasury Management Agency and NewERA will be considered. Then the Government will make a decision.

As Deputy Higgins is aware, Government set out its view, in accordance with discussions with the troika, on the sale of potential State assets to be decided upon by Government, on the criteria set down, on the opportunities, as appropriate, to be decided by Government and in the best interests of the people. What was involved in the reference to the potential sale of Coillte was the harvesting rights for the timber. As I stated in reply to the question, the recreational facilities, biodiversity considerations and replanting obligations can all be catered for if the Government decides to move ahead with that decision.

On a point of order, this flies in the face of what the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, said last week when he suggested the sale of the harvesting rights would not go ahead. Deputy Emmet Stagg intervened on the Order of Business last week to inform the Taoiseach that the thing was not now going ahead.

The Government parties are not talking.

As the House is aware, there was a leak in a newspaper last Sunday week from Deputy Brendan Howlin's Department to the effect that the sale of Coillte trees was unlikely to go ahead.

I have a list of Deputies who want to ask questions.

The Taoiseach has come in today and stated that it is now going ahead and that the sale of the harvesting rights is back on track.

I call Deputy Olivia Mitchell.

Someone is misleading the Dáil or someone is misleading the House and the general public in respect of this issue.

That matter can be taken up.

The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, was clear on the public airwaves. He is a Minister of the Government. He said this was not going ahead. Deputy Stagg showed us all last week, including the Taoiseach, that it was not going ahead.

I call Deputy Olivia Mitchell.

Let me be very clear for the Deputies. The Government decided that there was a list of potential assets that could be sold. Each of these assets would have to be reflected on in terms of valuation and any criteria to be set down by Government if and when it decided to sell any of the listed assets for sale. One of these was the harvesting rights for Coillte lands. The National Treasury Management Agency and the NewERA unit have been engaged in intensive discussions on the criteria.

Have they been discussing it with the Labour Party?

The Government has not made a decision in finality in regard to this matter because the evidence from NewERA on the valuation and all those other matters has not come back before Government, but it will shortly.

That is not what we were told last week.

Last week we were told by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, that it would not be sold.

Someone got a look at the Government's report.

Let me confirm it for Deputy Martin: the Government has not made a final decision about any of the assets or whether to sell them at an appropriate price or an appropriate time, because the information that we have requested and that we require before any such decision is made has not yet come back to us. It will be brought before Cabinet shortly and then the Government will make its decision.

The Taoiseach should contact the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, and tell him that.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about promised legislation. In respect of the protection of life during pregnancy Bill, has a decision been made yet or is it envisaged that Committee Stage will be held in plenary session in this Chamber or in the committee rooms? I am mindful that there is widespread interest in it. It is a sensitive issue and I imagine there will be a demand from many Deputies to participate on Committee Stage. Has the decision been made at this point?

I expect the Bill will be debated here on Second Stage when it comes back from the committee after the appraisal of the heads. It will be dealt with on Committee Stage by the committee, which anyone can attend. It will come back again on Report Stage and Fifth Stages in the normal way.

There is serious concern at present regarding the fact that it appears the Central Bank is negotiating with a United Kingdom-based company for it to act as an intermediate on behalf of the consumer in new settlements. There are 750 people in mortgage distress on a pilot scheme. They have been selected for negotiation to settle their debts.

On promised legislation, please, Deputy.

This relates to the insolvency legislation. There are several reasons this is problematic. First, MABS, our money management agency, has been overlooked in this regard. The British charity debt company has been dealing with unsecured lenders up to now but it appears to be totally unsuitable to carry out this particular role.

Thank you, Deputy. You can raise that by way of-----

I will be brief. MABS is an outstanding organisation with considerable experience. It has performed excellently on behalf of the public. It is shameful that we are considering anyone else. I call on the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and the Taoiseach to intervene urgently to put our MABS organisation to the forefront in this. It has already been overlooked as the intermediate in the Personal Insolvency Bill.

I will ask the Taoiseach about the Personal Insolvency Bill.

That has gone through. Mr. O'Connor, the director, has been on the airwaves on numerous occasions setting out what the conditions are, what the Insolvency Service of Ireland is about and the services it will provide. There is also a telephone line and a website available for members of the public who are using this service extensively. I expect the insolvency agency will be open for dealing with cases in June.

I agree with Deputy Fleming that MABS has provided an excellent service for people over many years. However, in many cases the personnel at the MABS offices might not be appropriate candidates for dealing with the insolvency agency. It might be, and it has been, possible for MABS to bring about solutions for particular types of debt problem that persons might have at the MABS level. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, monitors the work of MABS on a regular basis and interacts with it frequently.

Far be it from me to burst Deputy Adams's balloon in respect of what the Government has promised on reform in this House. Is it the case that prior to Christmas legislation was introduced regarding the management of the Houses of the Oireachtas? At the time the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, promised to make a considerable amendment to the way in which senior staff of the House are appointed. As the Taoiseach is aware, the current legislation, the 1959 Act, provides a less-than-transparent methodology for appointing senior people to the House and it is still in place. The expectation from this side was that the legislation brought forward at the time would be amended, as the Minister promised at the time, in the early part of this year.

The Taoiseach will be aware that a senior member of the staff of this House is due to retire soon.

I am asking the Taoiseach, in line with his great pronouncements today about his willingness to reform the outdated procedures of this House, if he will ensure amending legislation is brought forward so the appointment, as expected, will be dealt with in a more transparent way in line with the procedures followed by the Public Appointments Service rather than the antiquated process dating back to 1959.

What is the Deputy saying?

Do I have to make it simpler? Does the Taoiseach need me to give it to him in writing? I will try to help when the chorus behind the Taoiseach finishes. Does the Taoiseach intend to bring forward amending legislation for the way in which senior staff of this House are appointed to bring it in line with a more transparent process or does he intend to maintain the status quo until a senior member of the staff of this House is appointed by the Taoiseach and the Ceann Comhairle, as outlined in the 1959 Act?

I intend to see that any appointments that are made are absolutely transparent and accountable to the House.

I compliment my colleague opposite on keeping a totally straight face during that discourse.

I want to deal with this issue. The Taoiseach has addressed it in a glib way. Either we are serious about reforming this House or we are not. With respect, the Minister promised that amending legislation would be brought forward and at the time we agreed with the passage of the Bill in the expectation that amending legislation would be brought forward in the first quarter of the year. We are now into the second quarter and there is a serious appointment to be made in the House. My question is simple. Are we going to do deal with this transparently or are we going to go back and do it as we did in the 1950s?

The Taoiseach gave Deputy Adams a load of babble about his frustration with the time taken up by questions and legislation and how we have sat longer and longer. It sounded fantastic but here is a concrete issue on which the Taoiseach can live up to commitments made by the Government in December, even after the election and the programme for Government.

I have called Deputy Durkan. There are only three minutes left.

I will not encourage him. Notwithstanding 1959 and the Government of the day, when is the legislation being introduced to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all bookmakers and betting exchanges in taxation and licensing, regardless of the platform used, by bringing into the licensing and taxation regimes all remote bookmakers and betting intermediaries? This will amend the 1931 Act, which is even earlier than the 1959 Act. Have the heads of that Bill been discussed? This is important legislation I have received inquiries about, as I am sure have all other Deputies.

I am also interested in the children (amendment) Bill on the Order Paper, to amalgamate the children's detention schools in the interests of cost and administrative efficiencies. Has either Bill been discussed in Cabinet and when are they likely to come before the House?

The heads of the children's Bill were cleared on 23 April and the Bill will be introduced later this year. The betting Bill the Deputy referred to was published last year but so many amendments were required that it had to be redrafted and will probably be republished during this session.

When are the heads likely to come before Cabinet?

The Bill will be redrafted and published in this session.

I want to declare a possible conflict of interest in that I am a postmaster of a small post office. I am asking this on behalf of all postmasters throughout the country. What assurances will the Government offer in the communications Bill to our small post offices which are part of the fabric of our communities and must be maintained? We do not want to lose our post offices.

Is legislation promised on that?

Yes; the Taoiseach can answer the question on the communications Bill.

I have made an official complaint to HIQA and the Health and Safety Authority because no independent safety audit has been carried out on a facility at Townsend Street that is not fit for purpose, where the HSE proposes to put an ambulance base to replace those that are closing in Kerry and Cork. They are being put into a facility that has been deemed in the past as not fit for purpose. There are five computer systems that do not interact with each other, and this simply will not work. It is not viable or safe, and that is I why I have made formal complaints on the matter.

That is a Topical Issue matter.

No, it falls under the health (amendment) Bill. Also, when will the fluoride repeal Bill come before the House?

I suggest the Deputy put down a Topical Issue matter on the second issue he raised. I know the Deputy attended the committee hearing on postmasters and the report is with the Minister for his consideration. He will bring his response to the Government and the House.