The Order of Business today is No. 1, Personal Injuries Assessment Board Bill 2003 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 6 p.m.
Order of Business.
I am not opposing the Order of Business. We are trying to get this legislation through the House so that it is put on the Statute Book as soon as possible.
I wish to raise the matter of the finance meeting of the EU Council of Ministers very early this morning, at which the Council decided not to penalise France and Germany for being outside the Stability and Growth Pact. This is a very serious matter. It shows that there is one law for big countries and another for small countries. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, when he attends the House tomorrow to speak on the Book of Estimates, to address this issue. I want to know if the Government is going to seek to re-negotiate the Stability and Growth Pact to meet our needs as well as those of other European countries.
The most immediate effect of the Council's decision is that interest rates within the euro zone countries will increase. They are already at the lower end of the cycle and it is inevitable that we would see some small increase over the coming 12 months or so, but the decision this morning will further escalate interest rates in Ireland, which will have a devastating effect for people paying variable rate mortgages. Will the Leader raise this matter with her colleague the Minister for Finance as soon as possible, and ask him to make a statement in this House tomorrow, when I presume he will be here for the three hour debate on the Book of Estimates? That would be very useful. It is a disgrace that big countries can lecture small countries on responsibilities when France and Germany, the two biggest economies in the eurozone, have flagrantly abused the Stability and Growth Pact and are clearly in breach thereof. The matter should be debated.
I wish my colleagues on the other side of the House every success tonight at their parliamentary party meeting.
That is not a matter for discussion. Parliamentary meetings are parliamentary party business.
I appreciate the Cathaoirleach's ruling. I will continue if I may. Three months ago, a motion on community employment was debated on this side of the House whereby we asked the Government to retain the various schemes and not introduce drastic cutbacks. We have now persuaded my colleagues on the other side of the House, by means of 40 signatories to a Fianna Fáil motion. I welcome their conversion.
We did not have to be told, as the Senator well knows.
It is not that long ago since we discussed the reprimand from the big boys in Europe to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, about his running of the Irish economy. Even though I am on this side of the House, I supported the line he took and said that if France or Germany were ever to be in similar circumstances, we could be absolutely sure that a similar reprimand would not be issued to them. We now see that happening. It is bad enough to see the decision coming through, but if it leads to the European Central Bank governors taking the step of increasing interest rates, that will be a huge price to pay for what is now being called the re-interpretation of the Stability and Growth Pact which was never subject to any reinterpretation or any second opinion until now.
I am sorry that the Minister, Deputy McCreevy did not vote against the decision by France and Germany early this morning. I do not see why he should have put up with that. He has listened to enough nonsense from those countries' Ministers last year and he could have put the boot in this time. It would have been quite in order to do so.
It would be churlish for us to let the occasion pass without offering our congratulations to Senator Leyden on his successful campaign to sustain John Waters's position in The Irish Times.
That is not in order, there will be no congratulations of any kind in this House.
I would never do anything to interfere with such convention so I will say no more except that he has maintained the Fianna Fáil voice in The Irish Times.
I congratulate the Leader for ensuring that we do not have the same problem as the other House and arranging a full debate on stem cell research last week. We can take pride that we were ahead of the game on the issue once again because often this House is the first place that many of the important social issues of the day are raised. We should take it further, however, because we did not have a vote on the matter last week. I ask the Leader to grant more credibility to the Tánaiste's position by voting on it. We discussed it last week but we should vote to show our full support for the position the Tánaiste is taking in Europe tomorrow and say that it represents the view of at least one House of Oireachtas Éireann.
In my home city, the flagship project of the European Capital of Culture 2005 has been put on the long finger because the Department of Finance was worried about the European Stability and Growth Pact. As a result we will not have a school of music by 2005 because the Department of Finance, led by its political master, decided it would be too great a risk. The same Minister then goes to Europe and votes for the exact opposite. That confirms my view that the Minister for Finance will always capitulate to the rich at the expense of the poor. He will take €65 million from the poor of this State to maintain our discipline within the Stability and Growth Pact while allowing the Germans and the French to borrow sufficient to make sure their poor will not suffer in the same way as the poor here.
What did Proinsias De Rossa give to the elderly of Ireland?
Allow Senator Ryan to continue without interruption please.
I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach's alter ego behind me.
It was ventriloquism.
I have every faith in the ability of the Cathaoirleach to defend me.
The Senator is some socialist.
I am some socialist. I rarely disagree with my party leader in public but when he said he hoped to shame Fianna Fáil into reversing the social welfare cuts, he made a huge mistake because Fianna Fáil has no shame, as Senator Leyden has demonstrated.
On the same topic, could I call for a debate—
May I respond to that?
I will ask the Senator to leave the House if he does not stop interrupting. He should not push me too far.
Name and shame.
I will restrain myself because I would hate to be the cause of Senator Leyden having to leave the House on his day of triumph. I am calling for a debate on child poverty in this State because it appears the Taoiseach knows differently from everyone else. The Combat Poverty Agency tells us there are 300,000 children living in relative poverty but the Taoiseach said that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, that most admirable organisation, was wrong in quoting that figure. This is where the matter should be debated. The Taoiseach should come into this House and explain why he thinks the Combat Poverty Agency and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are wrong when they quote the figure of 300,000 children living in poverty. Most politicians know it is true but the Taoiseach yet again does not know what is going on in the State.
May I respond to Senator Ryan?
No, the Senator must speak on the Order of Business.
I would like to suggest to the Cathaoirleach and to the Leader of the House that Mr. Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, be invited to the House next year to mark the Presidency.
That matter should go to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges before it is raised here.
I will let the Senator make his point and it will then go to Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
I am not a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges so I am not in a position to do that. I am just a humble Member of this House. I hope the Leader will suggest to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that the Prime Ministers of the ten new applicant countries that will be joining the European Union will be invited to this House.
Why not throw in the Pope?
Senator Leyden, the procedures for inviting people here are a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. While the Senator is not on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, representatives of his group are on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and he should ask them to raise it there.
Maybe Senator Leyden could visit them all.
I have explained the procedure to the Senator and I ask him to adopt it.
I wish to further develop the point albeit on a separate issue. I suggest to the Leader that next year should be declared the year of Europe in Ireland. The last great Irish EU Presidency was in 1990, when the Leader of the House, Dr. Mansergh, Senator Daly and I were members of the Council of Ministers.
Ireland's last EU Presidency was forgettable. This is the last EU Presidency that Ireland will hold because of a change in procedures. Let us make it a great Presidency and let us play a role in the Upper House. We should invite Romano Prodi and the Prime Ministers—
I have dealt with that. It is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, where the Senator's representative can raise it.
I wish our Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs every success with the EU Presidency. It will be a glorious one, like the one under Charles J. Haughey. Ireland's last EU Presidency was forgettable.
The glorious revolution.
The Senator's act will be a very hard one to follow.
In respect of Senator Ryan's comments on poverty in this country, it is interesting that we had all the different organisations in Buswell's Hotel yesterday where they were talking on this specific subject, particularly on the recent cutbacks. It is significant to note that community welfare officers on a national basis, who administer the rent, dietary and crèche allowances, have been extremely critical of the restrictions in the recently announced Estimates. If anything could lead to the acceleration of homelessness and many more people on the streets and in difficulty, it is this. Rather than the Taoiseach going around making statements to the St. Vincent de Paul, I would prefer him to be honest and admit that his Government will further contribute to poverty and homelessness.
I noted the call for a vote on the actions of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment tomorrow.
Order, please. There will be no interruptions. Senator Hanafin is to be allowed to speak without interruption on the Order of Business.
I remind the House that we had a vote on this issue in 1983 which is incorporated in the Constitution as Article 40.3.3.
It was not on that issue.
It was to protect the right of the unborn and to defend and vindicate that right.
I wish to reply to Senator Brendan Ryan—
The Senator may not say anything to Senator Ryan. The Senator should address his questions to the Leader on today's Order of Business.
My suggestion to the Leader is that nobody has done more than Fianna Fáil to help the elderly and the young in this country and those who are less well off and the current Minister has made strident efforts for the elderly and young people. Nobody has given more. In Labour's time—
There will be a debate on this tomorrow during which the Senator will be able to make all those points.
I join my colleagues who expressed concern about the situation in Europe, with France and Germany behaving in a cavalier fashion. It is a pity our Minister supported them in this action – I wish he had the courage to vote against them.
In respect of stem cell research, I will be very glad when this debate is over. I have heard such nonsense on the airwaves. If we are not careful they will be giving some sort of conditional baptism to sperm. It is absolute nonsense. There is a callous disregard for the people who are really ill and the fact that these embryos will be disposed of anyway.
We had a debate on stem cell research last week and Senator Norris contributed to it. We cannot debate it now.
There is one matter I would like to raise and I am sure it is something about which both the Cathaoirleach and the Leader will be concerned. Outside this Chamber we have a portrait of Constance Markievicz who was one of the founders of this State. Her house and contents have recently been put up for sale and there is some controversy about that. That controversy is justified in view of the money-making enterprises of some of the parties involved. I wish this material had been allowed to stay there. It is important to correct the record in this House. A gentleman from Sligo was on the wireless this morning and he said that this house and its contents were but the vulgar trappings of imperialism and that the peasant people of Ireland had crawled on their bellies to pay their rents. That is absolutely untrue. The Gore-Booth family ruined themselves by not taking rents and helping their tenants during the Famine. It is about time that was recognised and history was set right. The two old sisters who were left there were besieged by the Land Commission and betrayed by the courts. That is the reward they got.
We are not discussing Lissadell House or the contents of radio or television programmes.
It is important to correct that. A generation of my mother's family died out nursing people with Famine fever. It is easy to try to paint a whole group of such people in society with that type of tar.
If we adopt the elaborate programme outlined by Senator Leyden, we will be sitting Saturdays and Sundays as well.
Why not? It is called benchmarking.
That is completely irrelevant to the Order of Business. The Senator must ask a question on the Order of Business.
I support the call by the Fine Gael leader, Senator Brian Hayes, and by Senators O'Toole and Norris for an immediate debate on the exemption offered to France and Germany yesterday by their fellow Ministers for Finance, which I cannot understand. France and Germany were supposed to be our role models in terms of our financial and economic performance and of qualifying. I remember representing Ireland at a Finance Ministers' meeting in Versailles during discussions on EMU and I remember Germany's hostility to Ireland's qualification on the basis that we did not meet the criteria.
Yet they have been afforded a special concession which will completely derail and disrupt the Stability and Growth Pact with obvious consequences. We need an immediate debate on that.
In his budget speech in December 1999 the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, promised that by the middle of 2001 an elaborate programme involving the decentralisation of 10,000 jobs to the regions would be underway and would be completed by the end of that year. We will soon be in 2004 and there is not a word about it. This is a political hot potato because 134 towns are vying for inclusion and no one wants to take a decision which will leave the majority out before the elections. However, we need to know where the Government stands on this issue.
Senator Hanafin mentioned older people. Perhaps the Leader could arrange for a debate on the findings of a report by the National Council for Ageing and Older People which found that we have the lowest life expectancy of 17 European countries. A number of recommendations were made which I would like discussed in the House, including that a fund of €5 million should be provided to support and help the aged initiatives and that measures should be adopted to combat ageism and poverty among older people.
I want to raise an issue which was raised last week by one of my colleagues, namely, potato disease or ring rot. It has been brought to my attention – I do not know if it is correct – that the farm in Wales where the disease broke out has been exporting seed potatoes to this country for the past five years. I urge the Leader to contact the Department of Agriculture and Food to see if we can trace the farms which received potatoes from that farm in Wales. We must ensure the disease does not spread here because it has the potential to do to the potato industry what the foot and mouth disease did to the livestock industry. I urge the Leader to contact the Department of Agriculture and Food as soon as possible.
The Environmental Protection Agency report published today mentions the pollution of the environment by manufacturing companies. More than one third of these companies have special licences, but some of them are not complying with their terms. It is high time we debated that issue. I hope the EPA will follow up on the warnings it has given to those companies who are breaking the terms of their licences.
I agree with my colleagues about the Stability and Growth Pact. What is happening is amazing when one considers the countries involved have breached the terms of the pact three years running. This is not the way business should be done, especially in the context of recent reports about the huge level of fraud taking place in Europe involving Structural Funds. We need to restore public confidence in the EU and its institutions.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to return to the House? Two weeks ago I raised the difficulties with the postal service. I have since received a letter from An Post confirming that only 88% of post is delivered the next day, which is not acceptable. When one considers that An Post increased the price of stamps, it is clear the public is not receiving the service it deserves. Why is post for the Carlow region being sorted in Portlaoise? That is what is causing the delays. I understand some post from the Dublin area is being sorted in Athlone – perhaps the Leader is better qualified to tell me whether that is the case. In any event, the new service is not working out. Post is not being delivered on time.
As the Leader will know, I have raised the issue of electronic voting a number of times, as have many of my colleagues. We must accept that, regardless of questions about security, it will go ahead. I request the Leader to inquire of the Government what programmes are being put in place to educate voters about how the system will work. Within six months elec tronic voting centres will be put in place in every town and parish and we will be calling on people to vote in local and European elections. I am worried about the many voters who will feel uncertain about the system. It is wrong to refer to elderly voters as being particularly prone to this but, as we are aware, many people who do not use ATMs or any form of electronic mail will have doubts and fears about using the machines for electronic voting.
At a time when we are trying to persuade people to vote and the percentage of people doing so is falling, my fear is that electronic voting will be a disincentive to many people. We urgently need to introduce a programme of voter education. There were plans to do this – I have seen one or two of the lorries, which are almost invisible, across the country, but they are certainly not travelling the highways and byways. The system put in place for the general election trial runs two years ago and the referendum last year worked reasonably well, but that involved a small number of constituencies. We now have 42 constituencies to look after and we need to hear the plans of the Minister and the Government. Between now and late spring we must ensure that every citizen is made aware of the new system and how to use it.
I endorse Senator Bradford's point. We need information on the electronic voting system. I suggest that public representatives should have in-service training so we can help the electorate to understand electronic voting. It is an important issue.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on House decorum? One point struck me forcefully today, but I had not intended mentioning it in case it created further uproar. My belief is that we should respect all religions in the House and be careful not to denigrate the beliefs or practices of any individual religion. Baptism was mentioned earlier. If we spoke in a similar manner about Jews or Muslims there would be an outcry across the country. Decorum should cover such statements and behaviour.
Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, raised the non-penalisation of France and Germany for non-adherence to the Stability and Growth Pact. He feels the outcome of this may affect interest rates in the euro zone. He asked me to request the Minister for Finance to address the issue when he attends the debate on the Estimates tomorrow. I will convey this to the Minister. Senator Hayes also offered good wishes to us for our parliamentary party meeting and I thank him.
Senator O'Toole echoed what Senator Brian Hayes said and warned that there may be a huge price to pay for the non-scolding of France and Germany on the pact. As big countries, Germany and France are seen as the head boys in Europe. There have been calls from all political leaders in the country for an easing of the spancelling of finance under the pact, particularly for infrastructure projects. When he was leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Quinn made a strong point about this and included it in the election manifesto. Most other leaders also called for a loosening of the rules for infrastructure projects. Perhaps the Minister for Finance is allowing this to happen so that he will have room to manoeuvre within the pact. While I do not know if this is true, it strikes me that may be the case.
Senator O'Toole also called for a vote in this House on embryonic stem cell research. Unlike the other House, the Seanad had a debate on the issue. I saw a strong letter from Deputy Gay Mitchell in the newspaper today pointing out that while there was a debate here, Deputies wanted a debate in the other House. I know we do not talk about the other House – I am simply relaying what is in the letter.
Senator Ryan said the Cork School of Music is a victim of the Stability and Growth Pact. The limits of the pact was the reason given by officials for not providing funding for the school. This is something that either the Senator or Senator Minihan could take up. While it may seem like a small victim, it is an important one to the city of Cork.
The rules should be changed, not broken.
The Senator also talked about the cuts, as he called them, which have been imposed by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We should remember that the budget will be held next week and hopefully there will be good increases for those in receipt of social welfare. Senator Ryan also mentioned child poverty and the Combat Poverty Agency's report and asked that the Taoiseach heed what those on the ground are saying.
Senator Leyden wants the head of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, to come to the House. It is a good idea and the Cathaoirleach was good enough to say that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges would discuss the matter. That will be done. Senator Leyden's energy and inventiveness cannot be faulted.
The Senator has his own website.
The Leader, without interruption.
It is interesting that Senator Leyden started a name and shame campaign and Fine Gael has set up a website on the matter.
Senator Finucane raised the issues of poverty, community welfare officers and homelessness with reference to rent supplements. Senator Hanafin also raised the elderly and the young. I hope that those in receipt of social welfare will get their due increases in the budget and I am sure that will be the case.
Senator Norris raised the issue of France and Germany's non-adherence to the Stability and Growth Pact. He also raised the issue of stem cell research and the daft things he has heard about this on the radio. The best and most reasoned debate I heard on radio this morning was between Senator Mary Henry and Senator John Hanafin. Both Senators were able to give their point of view without either getting ratty with the other. It is good that it was two Senators who were debating as there are elected representatives other than Deputies.
Senator Norris took up the issue of Lissadell and the fact the Gore-Booths did not penalise their tenants. Rather, it was the other way around, or so he says. I do not know enough of the local history to be able to comment.
Senator Higgins talked about the exemptions to France and Germany under the Stability and Growth Pact. He recalled that our interests were derided at the EMU debate, with the Council of Ministers not wanting us to participate. The debate on decentralisation is due a hearing in this House. We will request the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, who is in charge of it, to tell us about it.
Senator Tuffy raised the question of life expectancy in Europe. I, too, read in the newspapers that the Irish are bottom of the league. I cannot understand that at all. If there is a report on it I will get it. Senator Phelan has raised before the question of ring rot in potatoes in Wales from where we have been importing seed potatoes. I will ask one of the Ministers in the Department of Agriculture and Food to come to this House to talk about it. Senator Kitt referred to the Environmental Protection Agency and its treatment of licences, which is an issue for manufacturers.
Senator Browne talked about the Stability and Growth Pact. He also referred to the new localised postal service and said some 88% of post is delivered on a next day basis. I think post from Dublin goes to Athlone to be sorted and delivered on. Senator Bradford made comments on electronic voting, with which Senator Ormonde agreed. I have heard people ask whether something was wrong in the Meath vote and other places where electronic voting has taken place because they are not sure how it works. I thank Senator Brady for bringing to my attention the fact that electronic voting is being discussed today with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, at the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. If we have Senators on that committee, they should attend and bear back the news to the House about electronic voting.