Dáil Éireann - Volume 569 - 25 June, 2003

Leaders' Questions.

  Mr. Kenny: I wish to ask the Taoiseach two questions on the planning tribunal. It is fair to say that Mr. Justice Flood has done a great deal of good work in his interim report but the public is appalled at the prospect of the tribunal continuing for a further 15 years and the massive costs involved with this inquiry. In his letter, Mr. Justice Flood has indicated he wishes to step down as chairman of the tribunal. My understanding is that it is the Government's preference, as it is mine, that he should deal with the issue of costs, and he can only deal with the issue of costs as chairman, under the legislation as currently constructed.

  Has the Taoiseach responded to the letter from Mr. Justice Flood and, if so, will he provide the Opposition leaders with copies of that correspondence? In the event that Mr. Justice Flood is prepared to deal with the issue of costs as an ordinary member of the tribunal, which is allowable under the legislation, will the Taoiseach introduce a simple amendment to that legislation to allow for Mr. Justice Flood to deal with the issue of costs as an ordinary member of the tribunal, because the legislation would have to be amended to enable him to do that?

  A matter which is causing some concern is the proposal by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to have certain sections or modules of the planning tribunal carried out by a new body in private. The Minister has indicated that legislation in this area will be introduced next week. The concern of many would be that potentially embarrassing modules of the tribunal would be heard under these proposals in private. This could be a reason for some people to diminish the credibility of the public element of the hearings of this very important tribunal. Before any decision is taken in that regard, I ask the Taoiseach to consult fully with the Opposition Leaders to ensure nothing is done to undermine public confidence. Were the Government to follow on the proposals of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it would be regrettable if it used its [642] majority to bring about that situation. Will the Taoiseach respond to those two elements of the planning tribunal?

  The Taoiseach: I have answered these questions very simply and straightly. I assured the leaders yesterday that I would consult fully on aspects of this matter because it was the Oireachtas that set up these tribunals. No decision will be taken without full discussion. It is the Government's wish that Mr. Justice Flood, in whatever capacity, deals with the issue of costs, although it would be better if he did so as chairman, because that would avoid legal complications. Some people feel one can do this and that there would not be difficulties while some other person would have a challenge on it because they may take a counter view. Quite frankly, I have no doubt this will be argued by legal people. The way to avoid that is if Mr. Justice Flood deals with the issue of costs, in whatever capacity, and we will make the arrangements for that.

  I do not want to release the letter sent to Mr. Justice Flood yet because he received it only yesterday, but it states that it is the Government's wish that he consider that issue. It asks some questions and there is nothing strange in the letter. It asks about the duration of the modules, the likely duration to completion, the legal costs and the likely costs to be incurred in investigating all matters within the terms of reference. The points raised are general and I am sure we will get an answer. If it is in order with the judge at that stage I will release both letters.

  On the other issue, I take the point made by Deputy Kenny. We have lived with all the tribunals for six years and it is good for politics that all these issues are dealt with. We have a good deal of legislation and I do not want to change the position now. I have discussed this issue with the Attorney General. The legislation which the Minister, Deputy McDowell, is bringing forward was originally intended to deal with other tribunals outside this set of tribunals. Perhaps there are modules that could be moved to it but that would only be done if there was agreement here and with the legal team. Given that they have done a certain amount of work, we cannot deal with the matter in isolation. My advice is that this matter could continue for 15 years and I do not want that either.

  The tribunals legislation of 2002 specifically envisages the chairperson continuing to sit as an ordinary member. The proposed change will not preclude the Flood tribunal from hearing the module before it, which includes dealing with allegations made by the lobbyist Mr. Frank Dunlop. It is important to emphasise that where allegations have been made in public before a tribunal, those who are the subject of the allegations should be entitled to a public hearing – Deputy Rabbitte made this point yesterday at Question Time – and, if the evidence so justifies it, a report vindicating them. The House must consider the full implications of this development. [643] The issues raised by the lobbyist, Frank Dunlop, which are before the tribunal will have to be dealt with by it. If we talk of any modules moving over, they will be later modules and we must discuss whether this is possible.

  Mr. Kenny: I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Mr. Justice Flood indicated in his letter that he would like to see this matter resolved before the House rises for the summer recess, which is tomorrow week. That leaves time for a simple amendment to be introduced to the legislation to allow him continue as an ordinary member of the tribunal and deal with the costs issue, if he is willing. It is unprecedented for a High Court judge not to deal with costs involved in a High Court action.

  If Mr. Justice Flood decides that he does not want to deal with the issue of costs, it leaves us in uncharted, complex legal waters where the Government could be faced with legal challenge after legal challenge, perhaps eventually leading to it having to concede costs across the board on every issue. This leaves us with a serious legal problem. It could be sorted out if Mr. Justice Flood consents to deal with the issue of costs, either in his capacity as chairman or as an ordinary member of the tribunal, in which case amendment to the legislation would be necessary.

  Will the Taoiseach reconfirm that the Government has no intention other than to see that those who obstructed the tribunal will not evade their responsibilities in terms of costs? Will he also confirm that no obstacle will be placed in the way of the truth being found out in regard to the reasons for the setting up of the tribunal? No price can be put on truth.

  The Taoiseach: I agree and confirm that is the position. The module before the tribunal must be dealt with by it. I am legally advised that there is no other way to proceed. Having talked to the Attorney General and the Ministers directly involved, we do not think this can be resolved before the end of next week. The issue of costs is important and has been so for several months – it will have to remain important for some more months. I am not being difficult but that is the advice I have been given. We will have to resolve the issue. The Government, the Oireachtas and the tribunal have to deal with this matter. We will have to keep each other informed, and I will do that.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the entire country is overawed at the nature of the splendid success of the Special Olympics to date, the courage and dignity of the participants and the energy and commitment of the volunteers. I am sure it is the private wish of every Member that the same effort we have seen in the planning and preparation for the games, and in the unprecedented co-operation between the public institutions and the voluntary sector, [644] should be mobilised to address the ongoing needs of people with special needs.

  If we had any doubt about the scale of the demand, the publication last week of the national disability database demonstrates the scale of need in that area. There are 667 people with intellectual disabilities incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals. Of the total number of people with disabilities, 10%, or 2,500, get no special support and there are 515 people on waiting lists for day and residential services. The database shows that the list of needs continues.

  The Taoiseach is aware that concerned people in the disability sector have pinned a lot of hope on the much promised Disability Bill which we have not yet seen. He will have received correspondence from the disability legislation consultation group asking him to meet it. Will he agree to meet this group before the games are over? This would send out the powerful message that he does not intend to let the issue of disabilities slip back down the political agenda as soon as the games are over. Will he agree to meet the group this week?

  The Taoiseach: I spent six years directly involved with the games committee – I was honoured to do so – and worked with people close to Deputy Rabbitte, for whom I have great admiration in this area and who brought the idea to me in the first place, and I will continue to do that. I am glad that through this period I took the political flak and invested money in Croke Park, Abbotstown and other centres so that we would have the Special Olympics.

  Mr. Allen: There was no flak about the swimming pool.

  The Taoiseach: Like all good things in this country, when the occasion arrives everybody agrees it was a good idea. I met representatives of NAMHI last week in regard to a separate issue and I met representatives of the National Disability Authority the previous week. They asked me if I would meet representatives of the full group and I agreed I would – I give that assurance to the Deputy also. I will continue to keep an interest in this issue. While an enormous amount has been done in recent years, there is a huge amount still to be done in the residential care, respite and education areas, and that work must continue.

  The Education Disability Bill is fairly well agreed with the various bodies although there is one outstanding issue between the representative groups. There are outstanding issues in the Disability Bill. Progress can be made and I assure the Deputy that I will continue to work closely with the groups for whom I have great admiration. I try to understand the difficulties but it is not easy when one has not got a direct family member involved. I understand what is being said but one cannot experience it unless one is in that position. The individual stories are not easy to listen to, [645] never mind to have to live with. I understand that and the passion people feel about the issues, but we have been trying to resolve them.

  Yesterday I mentioned what we have done in the area of education disabilities. The State has increased the allocation from under €100 million to €350 million in this one area. There is a huge agenda to be deal with in regard to residential care, autism, sensory disabilities and sheltered workshops. We will continue to work on these matters. I will try, as soon as possible, to come to a conclusion with the disabilities bodies to find a resolution in regard to the Bill.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I compliment the Taoiseach and his Government colleagues for taking up the initiative of former Deputy Spring, Deputy Quinn and Deputy Kenny and the rainbow Government in terms of bringing the Special Olympics to Ireland. I also wish to acknowledge and have always supported what the Taoiseach describes as the energy he put into Croke Park. However, if he had, on occasion, minimised that energy, the facility would now have a more ecumenical use than it has. That is a result of the Taoiseach's meddling.

  Mr. O'Donoghue: Magnanimity is not the Deputy's strong point.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I am not sure I have seen much magnanimity from the Minister since he came into the House.

  Croke Park was about to be thrown open when interference from the Government caused it to reaffirm the existing situation. The Taoiseach knows that as well as everyone else in the House.

  Mr. M. Smith: The Deputy has little understanding of the GAA.

  Mr. Rabbitte: Despite the Taoiseach's being one of the most accessible we have had in the office, the disability legislation consultation group advised me as recently as this morning that the Taoiseach has never met any national organisation on a policy matter representing the disability sector. That is the net point. Having complimented the Taoiseach for the manner in which his Government has facilitated bringing the Special Olympics World Summer Games to Ireland and for the splendid success of the event, I ask him to be magnanimous and agree to meet that group concerning the elements, content and provisions of the disability Bill.

  The Taoiseach: I met the chairperson of the National Disability Authority in the last ten days about the Bill. I also met representatives of NAMHI last Monday week regarding a separate issue, during which meeting they raised various issues. If the Deputy is suggesting that I never met them, someone's memory has totally gone.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I am not talking about shaking hands with them.

[646]   The Taoiseach: No, I met them and sat down with them. I met the chairperson of the National Disability Authority in my office in Government Buildings ten or 11 days ago and I met people who stated that they were representatives of NAMHI last week. They asked me if I would meet the full group and I agreed to do so. I cannot understand why representatives of an organisation, who asked me to my face if I would meet them, would tell the Deputy that I never met them. That sounds quite extraordinary. I was not shaking hands with them, I was sitting down with them.

  Last night, representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association spoke to me about having a meeting with them, following a meeting they had yesterday with the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, which I was involved in setting up. I am not sure what agenda is being pursued here but I will meet these people.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I thank the Taoiseach.

  The Taoiseach: My point about Croke Park was not in regard to its overall development, but that at the time I was asked to give specific money to Croke Park so that the Special Olympics could take place. We did this. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, gave €15 million to the project. I was making that point, rather than addressing the issue of every GAA ground.

  Mr. J. Higgins: Through the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Government is driving a Bill through the Dáil to give city and county managers exclusive rights to levy refuse charges on householders and the absolute right to decide their levels. The Government is also attempting to intimidate the substantial cohort of compliant PAYE taxpayers and contributory pensioners who oppose the current bin tax and boycotting it by allowing the local authority to leave their bins uncollected on the side of the street. If the Taoiseach's backbenchers, especially those from Dublin, had been doing their job right, they would have told him and the Minister how opposed a majority of PAYE workers are to their plans. This is particularly the case in the capital which comprises a third of the population and a huge cohort of the compliant tax-paying community. These people see that the Government is deluded if it thinks it can smash the anti-bin tax campaign in Dublin, to privatise the bin collection service, to allow charges to rise to €700 or €800 per annum, as set by the county and city managers, to bring back water charges and to have a parallel tier of local taxation in place, which will quickly reach €1,000 per household and carry on upwards. Furthermore, this is not subject to a single vote of the Dáil or of local councillors since all these rights are being removed.

[647]   If the Taoiseach persists, getting these measures through the Dáil will be the easiest task he will face. Does he realise he will face sustained and active opposition in the communities and the exercise of democratic people power? Does he not understand that many PAYE taxpayers, and particularly pensioners, believe that if they had exercised their people power in the 1970s and 1980s, they would not have been taken for a ride. They were fleeced by the tax system while the Ansbacher men and off-shore account merchants were salting away their hidden gains. If they had fought more openly at that time, these crooks would have been outed long ago and many of the services which were savagely cut could have been saved. There is no going back to the 1970s or 1980s for the bulk of the tax-paying public. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect again and withdraw these measures.

  The Taoiseach: These issues were discussed and debated on Committee Stage last night, therefore, I do not want to go into them. Some 70% of people pay charges and there are good and fair waiver systems available. The burden of tax, including the old tax wedge for people on the margins, is now the lowest in Europe and the burden of tax on individuals is way down the league of other EU countries.

  In regard to service charges, I have a different view. I like to see the open spaces of the city and county looked after. I would not like to go back to the early 1980s when they were strewn with rubble and there were no landscaped parks. We now have the finest national and local authority parks, where facilities are provided. This has been developed over many years.

  Mr. M. Higgins: The Taoiseach is getting carried away.

  Mr. M. Smith: I thought that Deputy Michael D. Higgins, at least, would be interested.

  The Taoiseach: Obviously, Deputy Joe Higgins does not want to see such facilities. It appears he wants to be against everything. I am for things, which is where the Deputy and I differ. I like to see progress and clean communities, whereas the Deputy just wants to rant that it should all be paid for out of central taxation. That is an old argument which has long gone.

  Mr. J. Higgins: The Taoiseach will find out to his cost that the bulk of PAYE taxpayers, for whom I stand and speak in the House, do not agree with him.

  Mr. M. Smith: More Deputies than the Deputy himself were elected. He is a self-appointed spokesman.

  Mr. J. Higgins: He has privatised the majority of local authority bin collection services, which means there is no waiver for old [648] age pensioners and the poor. If pushed, this proposal will have a detrimental effect. Some 37% of households in the home area of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government admitted in a local authority survey that they burned their refuse. They also said that the level of charges was a factor in their doing so.

  Mr. Cullen: The Deputy should not misquote me.

  Mr. J. Higgins: Why is the Government targeting the ordinary householder? They are the most substantial cohort of the tax-paying public.

  Mr. O'Donoghue: I hear the drums, Fernando.

  Mr. J. Higgins: In the year since the general election, the Taoiseach has introduced stealth taxes thar na bearta, increased charges galore and cut the first-time house buyer's grant, all of which are mortal blows to ordinary people. Why does the Taoiseach not go out and catch the millionaire stallions which are prancing tax free on the plains of Kildare under the protective gaze of the Minister for Finance?

  Mr. O'Donoghue: I hope one of them wins on Sunday.

  Mr. J. Higgins: Why does he not provide for giving back some of the €1 billion which the Minister for Finance is giving back to the corporate sector in tax breaks in this year alone?

  Does the Taoiseach understand that, even if he puts this measure through, he will face a political war of attrition right up to and during the European and local elections? Does he further realise that he will not break the campaigns which represent the views of the many compliant and decent taxpayers, who are the bedrock of the tax-paying system?

  The Taoiseach: Some €4 billion has been given back to the taxpayers in recent years and the level of taxation across society is substantially lower than when these issues took place some 20 years ago. It is far better that local charges with good waiver systems, which some 70% of people pay, are used to enhance our areas. Deputy Higgins used to be worried about the Control of Horses Act in his constituency but now he is worried about stallions. The reason the horses issue has been resolved is that local authorities were able to put money into controlling them. If the Deputy is really interested in environmental policy, I suggest his party should stop at every hand's turn on every issue, plastering grotty posters all over the city and then not taking them down.

  Mr. R. Bruton: Hear, hear.