Week 7: 'The day of Big Brother grows ever closer'

On Monday 18 April I met with a number of people who have formed a working group to pursue areas of common interest in connection with thermal energy. Peter Scallan of Celtic Linen, Eimear Mannion of Wexford Creamery and Ken Cahill of Irish Pride Bakeries came to Dublin to explain their plight in relation to energy costs. These three companies employ over 1500 people between them in Wexford and they are being forced to compete on an unlevel playing field as the county has no access to natural gas. These companies are forced to use either oil or LPG which are more than double the cost of the natural gas which is available to their competitors. To make matters worse, it also raises their carbon tax as these alternative fuels have 38% more CO2 than natural gas. Why does Wexford have no natural gas? We were always told that the principle behind the European Union was one of fairness and that it was all about the strong helping the weaker. Sadly, it doesn’t always work out like that. When we signed up to the Nice and Lisbon treaties, we gave away large advantages to global corporations who insisted on greater opportunities to compete with the different states. In other words, the ability of the state to carry out work in the social interest of its people was being challenged in the name of financial profit. Big private companies don’t do social, they do profit – and they’d like governments to behave likewise. This all means that Bord Gáis are prohibited from bringing natural gas to Wexford (via a pipeline from Kilkenny where the main Dublin/Cork line passes through) because it would not be financially profitable in the short term. Clearly this is an EU Directive that is not in the interest of the people of Wexford.

The following day I spoke on the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Bill which I believe will be an improvement on the present situation. More and more in the last few years, we have been too eager to use the prison system as a means of dealing with minor crimes and, more often than not, causing more harm than good. I said:

This legislation is good because the use of community service orders as an alternative to prison can only be positive. The Bill is, therefore, a step in the right direction. Of the people I know who have gone to prison, few emerged as better people. Unfortunately, the use of imprisonment has not had the desired effect on many of those sent to prison. While some are sent to prison to keep them out of harm’s way or because they are a danger to society, many others are imprisoned in the hope they will come out of prison as better people. Sadly, this is seldom the case.

The prison system is seriously overcrowded. In January 4,500 people were in prison, double the number who were in prison 13 or 14 years ago. This is a frightening statistic and most of those with responsibility for the prisons agree that there is no chance of achieving positive outcomes in overcrowded prisons.

Other Deputies and I met representatives of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, which has some interesting ideas on the prison system. According to it, it “has long argued that prisoners cannot be treated in isolation from the communities from which they come and to which they return, and that penal policy must be connected up to relevant policies in the health and social sphere”. For this reason, it regards detention as a last resort rather than a first option.

It would do all of us good to spend some time doing community service as we would learn something and it could make us more healthy social animals. Obliging offenders to carry out community service gives them an opportunity to see and repair some of the harm and damage they have done to their community. This is a positive outcome.

All states spend large sums tackling problems caused by poverty, crime, alcoholism, drug addiction and social exclusion. The State should focus on addressing the root causes of such problems rather than throwing money at them. I look forward to the day the Government shows a greater interest in tackling the root causes of problems such as inequality. It was interesting to hear a leading US economist state last week that inequality had played a part in the financial meltdown we experienced in recent years.

Looking at the bigger picture, if the Government were to decide to address the root causes, it would abandon measures to cut the numbers of resource teachers for Travellers and learning and language support teachers. These teaching staff are vital to ensuring we have a healthy society. We must invest in our young people to ensure they are less likely to fall by the wayside, become involved in crime or succumb to addiction. By investing properly and ensuring each child is given an opportunity to maximise his or her potential, we will minimise the number of problems in society. The decision to save €24 million by cutting the number of resource teachers for Travellers is about to create major problems for primary schools. I implore the Government to reconsider this proposal which will come into effect in September. It will not be good for society, particularly given the small amount of money involved. If we are serious about preventing crime rather than bashing those who commit it, we should not impose cuts in such areas.

I later spoke on an EU Directive that is about to be introduced in relation to the amount of information that we must give airlines before boarding a plane. I disagree with this and find it an invasion of our personal freedom. Giving up our home address, mobile phone number, frequent flyer information, e-mail address, and credit card information, all in the name of fighting terrorism, is unacceptable. The so-called fight against terrorism is being used to impinge on our personal liberty. The day of ‘Big Brother’, as portrayed in George Orwell’s novel 1984, grows closer by the day. A piece from my speech on the subject:

The major concern is the protection of citizens’ rights and this appears to be heavy handed. The fact that the European Parliament has questioned the need for passenger name record data is interesting. There was obviously pressure from the United States to change that position and the European Parliament obviously has caved in. Statewatch, the European monitoring group, has observed that the European Commission has so far failed to produce any concrete evidence to demonstrate the usefulness of the collection of PNR data for the prevention of serious crime or terrorist offences. Likewise, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has stated it is essential to demonstrate effectively that the collection and use of PNR data is necessary beyond any doubt. Right now, it is hard to believe it could be argued this is absolutely necessary. Too often, the rights of ordinary people are being impinged on in the name of fighting terrorism. This looks like another case of that.

The European Data Protection Supervisor has stated the list of data that can be included remains too extensive and should be further reduced. These people know what they are talking about. One of the core principles of the European Union is that citizens should have freedom of movement. There is no doubt that this will restrict that right.