Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Mar 2000

Vol. 162 No. 18

Order of Business.

Today's Order of Business is No. 1, the Social Welfare Bill, 2000 – Committee and Remaining Stages; and No. 1a on the supplementary Order Paper, motion for earlier signature, which shall be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1.

The Order of Business is agreeable. I am sure other Senators share my profound sense of depression at the turn of events in Northern Ireland in past weeks. It would be useful if we could have a debate on it soon. Senator Dardis asked for such last week and I supported him. It would be helpful if we could ventilate the issues and have a debate in the tradition of all the debates we have had here.

I draw the attention of the Leader to the grave shortage of personnel in the Competition Authority office. The authority has an important function and no more so than at present. It is seriously short on manpower.

I compliment Senator Ross on being designated by a major Sunday newspaper as the true voice of the left in Irish politics.

I also congratulate Senator Ross on moving to the side of the poor and oppressed.

There has been much debate in the past week on refugees and our immigration policy, and it is becoming more complicated. I do not wish to make a political football of it but we should examine it closely to understand what is going on and to be able to make proper judgments on whether the Government is going the right or the wrong way about it. We need further information on this issue.

Another recent news item is the Herculean efforts of the Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise, Deputy Jacob, to put manners on British Nuclear Fuels Limited. It is important to show solidarity on this issue. I made the same point when Deputy Stagg dealt with the matter as Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications. It would be useful if there was all-party support. BNFL is cleverly trying to make this issue into a political football. However, it is a wider and more important and comprehensive issue than anything dealt with in these Houses. We need to show BNFL and people in Ireland that there is political consensus and support on this issue. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of State to the House to tell us what he has done, what he intends doing and the possible options for the future.

The Shannon River Council Bill, 1998, is on the Order Paper for this week. It would help if the Leader continued the precedent he set on Second Stage by giving additional Government time to discuss it tomorrow evening. It was appreciated by all sides of the House on Second Stage. I ask the Leader to ensure we have plenty of time to discuss Committee Stage tomorrow.

I would love to be in a position to congratulate Senator Ross. I am shocked that he and his newspaper have become the true voice of the left. Unfortunately, I do not read that newspaper.

It is the wrong newspaper.

It is interesting that he supports another newspaper.

I support Senator O'Toole's call for a collective approach to Sellafield. Voices have been raised on all sides of the political divide in the past. We should congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, and the Government on bringing the Nordic countries on side and presenting a united front. It would be worthwhile to invite the Minister of State into the House to outline his policies in this regard.

I ask the Leader for clarification on the Government's policy on asylum seekers. A Cabinet meeting was held today on this issue but I do not know its outcome. The Taoiseach seems to have one set of proposals, while his coalition partners seem to have another. The proposed flotels are reminiscent of what happened after the Napoleonic wars in 1814 when the ships from the various battles were used to detain people and were berthed around the coasts of Ireland and Britain until people were transported elsewhere.

We cannot have a detailed debate on these matters on the Order of Business.

What is the connection between flotels, reception centres and detention centres? The Tánaiste said that 200,000 people must be recruited to provide a workforce in this country. We do not seem to be able to come to grips with the issue of whether asylum seekers should be given the right to work.

In terms of reform of the Seanad, the House should have the opportunity to discuss briefly problems such as that in Dublin Bus. We should also be able to discuss other critical issues which arise at short notice. The bus strike is such an issue as there will be a three day strike this week, there were stoppages last week and other parts of the public transport system may also be affected, with repercussions for industry, commuters and so on. These matters should be dealt with by the House at short notice.

I join other Senators in calling for a debate on Northern Ireland. Last week I said we should return to this issue after the weekend's events. I do not wish to comment on the internal workings of the Ulster Unionist Party, other than to congratulate Mr. Trimble on being re-elected as leader. However, issues have arisen which it would be useful for the House to examine. The House has a good record in respect of these matters and, in general, Senators have adopted a unanimous and responsible approach.

The House also has a good record in terms of debating BNFL and Sellafield and it would be useful to return to this issue. We welcome the support of the Danish Government with regard to sorting out the difficulties at Sellafield and we must reject the manifest manipulation of safety test results at Sellafield which raise serious questions. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, for his work in this area and it might be useful if he came into the House to outline the Government's proposals in greater detail so that Senators could respond.

I do not wish to go into the ins and outs of the bus strike. However, in an interview on radio yesterday, when it was put to him that the Army might be brought in to provide transport, a spokesperson for the NBRU said, "I would deem that to be scab labour." It is outrageous for any representative of any organisation to suggest that of the Army and we must reject such statements. When challenged about this matter, the spokesperson went on to say that it did not take away from how workers would portray those who would carry out the work of strikers. I commend John Lucey of PDFORRA for his response when he pointed out that Army personnel are governed by military law and do not have a choice in these matters. However, statements of this nature have to be challenged and this House is the place to do so.

I support Senators Manning and Dardis who called for a debate on Northern Ireland. This is an appropriate time for such a debate as things are moving on but, alas, not in the way one would wish.

The Irish Medicines Board appears to be influencing Government in an undesirable direction. We are the only country in Europe being asked to produce data on tried and tested herbal remedies which have been on the market in Ireland and throughout Europe for years. The Minister for Health and Children should be asked to come into the House to debate this issue.

The recent NESC report highlights the problem of the long-term unemployed. Although a great deal of our unemployment problems have been solved, the report shows that long-term unemployment has not been solved. We should debate this issue, particularly as the situation regarding unemployment has changed from some years ago.

I spoke in the House recently about cyber-terrorism, where hackers use the Internet to do huge damage. Yesterday cyber-squatting, which is not quite as serious as cyber-terrorism, used Leinster House and the names of some political leaders, including that of the Taoiseach, on a pornographic website. That problem has since been addressed but it is a reminder that we do not have the tools to combat cyber-terrorism. The attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be drawn to this because it presents opportunities for unscrupulous people to do damage.

I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise, Deputy Jacob, on the action he is taking on Sellafield. As a State, however, we will not be seen to be strong enough on this issue unless the Taoiseach strengthens the team. The British are not getting a strong enough message from the employment of a Minister of State, dedicated as he is. Our approach should be strengthened by a team com prising the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State. That would send a message to the British that we regard this as important and we want something done about it.

It is clear that the commercial aspect of Sellafield is much more important when it comes to making decisions. The fact that Germany and Japan have taken action by refusing to deal with Sellafield is having an impact. We should ensure that Ireland has the same impact.

The closure of many bank sub-offices in the Border, midlands and west region has a very serious effect. I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Finance comes to the House to discuss the problems caused by these closures. It is a total contradiction to the ideal of dealing with disadvantage. These are private business enterprises but there is a social obligation on financial institutions and the State to ensure that those areas can prosper in a planned way. It a topic worthy of debate.

I asked some time ago for a debate on the insurance industry and how it is monitored. Will the Leader arrange for such a debate? Senator Costello mentioned asylum seekers and refugees. At present there appear to be several Government policies on the issue. The Tánaiste indicated one policy yesterday with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, commenting further. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, told us he was keen on the idea of flotels as long as they stay out of Waterford harbour. He said there was a problem with the tide, although the harbour master, who would be more attuned with the tides, seemed happy enough. The Taoiseach said one thing in Australia and another in Drumcondra. The issue must be clarified and the policies must be laid out.

I join Senator Chambers in calling for a debate on the decision of the main banks to remove branch offices from smaller towns in the west. Maybe there is an opportunity for our post offices and credit unions in this area. Many people with whom we have dealt and to whom I have spoken in recent years and months have been appalled by the level of charges imposed by the commercial banks. This is an opportunity for An Post to fill the vacuum. In that debate, I would like to see proposals from Government and the Ministers involved.

Will the Leader convey to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development our disgust at the treatment of women farmers by his Department? I am appalled by recent decisions by his Department which, effectively, amalgamate women farmers with their spouses or other family members and exclude them from farming in their own right. This is totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated in any other section of society. I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to investigate thoroughly whether his Department is biased against women being full-time farmers in their own right and equals with their spouses and other relatives.

Will the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, give us an update given that Luas, according to yesterday's newspapers, has to some extent gone off the rails with the introduction of private enterprise? I was amazed to see another proposed underground line going to the mythical national stadium. The cost of these additions to the proposal are considerable and full information on the costings is needed, if and when this happens. How will the tendering process be put in place to bring private partnership into what will be a huge outgoing of public funds?

Will the Leader arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, to come to the House for a debate on school transport and the many problems associated with it? A serious problem arose last week in Tullamore. Some 78 children between the ages of 12 and 17 years from the Killeigh and Geashill areas were told on a Thursday evening that the bus would be withdrawn from that evening. The decision was conveyed to the students and not the parents, which is very serious. The departmental official should be answerable for making such a decision. While I understand there may have been slight problems, they could have been dealt with.

My concerns are somewhat like Senator Quinn's in regard to the Internet and pornography. Will the Leader arrange a debate on the role, if any, of the Film Censor's Office in the regulation of videos, video games and the Internet? The title of the Film Censor's Office is unfortunate because it implies it is only there to ban films. It should be able to give us some information on the sociological effect of all these changes in media presentations.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform needs to let us know the extent to which it believes the role of this office should be expanded. There has been little change in the office since it was set up in 1924 and it might be an idea to look at the huge changes which have taken place in video and the visual media, in particular. The Seanad would be an ideal place to discuss it and the possible changes in the role of that office.

I support the calls for the Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise, Deputy Jacob, to come to the House to update us on the prodigious work he is doing in his determination that the BNFL operation at Sellafield be wound down. We know it cannot be closed overnight. It has no credibility here and it has lost whatever credibility it had on the world stage. The reaction of the Germans, the Japanese and the Nordic countries is a recent example of that. I warmly endorse the calls by previous speakers for the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, to come into the House to update us on what progress has been made.

On promised legislation, will the Leader indicate the current status of the wildlife Bill? If it has not been initiated in the other House, it would be an excellent Bill to initiate in this House.

The intoxicating liquor Bill is an important reform of the legislation on the sale of intoxicating liquor, which was the subject of a major report of a sub-committee of both Houses of the Oireachtas. When the Minister introduced a special measure to extend pub opening hours last New Year's Eve he promised this Bill would be enacted before the Easter recess. We have not had sight of it in this House and I doubt if Members of the other House have had sight of it. Will the Leader indicate its current status and, if possible, request that it be initiated in this House?

Another issue is the recent increase in the prices of petrol and other fuels, which must be borne by the motoring public. Approximately £50 million in additional taxation will accrue to the Exchequer in the current year from those recent price increases. That is an unexpected infusion of revenue to the Exchequer by way of taxation. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government should ensure this additional revenue is channeled directly back to the motoring public. Under the national plan and the current policy on roads, very little funding is allocated to the regional roads and national secondary roads. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come into this House and discuss how this additional revenue, about which he might be delighted, can be channeled directly back to the motoring public? Perhaps it could be allocated in the way I suggest.

Senators Manning, Dardis, Haughey and Costello called for a debate on Northern Ireland. As I said in the House last week, I will arrange to allow time for that debate. I have been in contact with the Minister's office and we will have such a debate at the earliest opportunity.

Senator Manning raised the issue of the shortage of staff in the Competition Authority office. I will pass on his views to the Minister.

Various Senators referred to the current position on refugees and asylum seekers. That matter was before Cabinet today and no doubt we will have the results of its deliberations on that matter later this afternoon.

Senator Costello, Manning, Dardis and other Senators raised the issue of Sellafield. I endorse the sentiments of support for the efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, and of the Government. I welcome the support of the Danish Government on this matter. All parliamentarians agree in wanting peace in our country and the closure of Sellafield, for which we have been calling for the longest time. I will allow a lengthy debate on Sellafield in the House and ask the Minister of State to be present. I congratulate him on the excellent job he is doing in his portfolio. He has everyone's support for the work he is doing.

Senators Costello and Cosgrave expressed their concerns regarding Dublin Bus. I will pass those on to the Minister.

Senator Haughey called for a debate on the Irish Medicines Board and various matters relating to it. I will arrange time for such a debate.

Senator Quinn called for a debate on long-term unemployment. All I can tell the Senator is that 640 people were signing on the unemployment register in Castlepollard three years ago and only 227 are signing on there now. The Senator will appreciate that is a major achievement for the Government in an area which is beside the province of Ulster, the last parish in Leinster. It is also in the BMW area.

Everyone has a BMW.

Senators will appreciate that is an enormous and significant achievement. I thank Senator Quinn for the opportunity to put that on the record.

I will pass on Senator Quinn's views regarding pornography and matters relating to the Internet. It is appalling and shocking that it is being abused in that manner. I have no objection to making time available for a lengthy discussion on this matter.

We were supposed to have the Minister here.

Senator Chambers and Senator Finneran raised the serious position in which parts of rural Ireland find themselves because major financial institutions intend to withdraw from some smaller towns and villages. I will make time available for a debate on this matter at the earliest opportunity in the coming weeks.

Senator Cosgrave called for a debate on the insurance industry. I will allow time for such a discussion. Senator Finneran called on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to assure the House that women will not be barred from agriculture. As the Senator correctly pointed out, there is a problem in relation to females being full-time farmers. I will pass on his views to the Minister and consider how his suggestion can be progressed.

Senator Ridge called for another debate on Luas. Last week the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in the House.

She should be on the stage, not in the Chamber.

She should be in the Abbey.

Some of us were privileged to be present and it is a little much to call for another debate five days later. However, I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister.

There is now a private partnership.

Order, please. The Leader must be allowed to reply without interruption.

I thank the Cathaoirleach.

It is difficult to restrain oneself when the Leader talks like that.

Senator Moylan called for a debate on school transport and particularly the problem that has arisen in Tullamore. I will allow time for a debate on this matter and I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister after the Order of Business.

Senator Henry called for debate on the role of the film censor, particularly in relation to video, video games and other technological advances. I will allow time for such a discussion. Senator Connor raised the wildlife Bill. I understand this Bill will come before the House this year. I also understand the intoxicating liquor Bill will be dealt with by the Houses of the Oireachtas by the end of May.

I listened to the Senator's remarks regarding the oil crisis, which Senator Burke also highlighted last week. As the Senator is aware, this matter is outside the remit of the Government. Oil has become scarce and the price has rocketed as a result.

That is not the point. I am talking about the additional taxation generated because of the increase in the price of petrol.

That is to the benefit of the Government. What does the Senator suggest the Minister should do?

I am suggesting the Minister should redistribute this windfall to the motoring public.

Tell people to stop buying extra motor cars. That would solve the problem.

Order, please.

Order of Business agreed to.