Monday, 22 February 2021
Ábhair Ghnó an tSeanaid – Matters on the Business of the Seanad
I thank my colleagues. Senator McGahon spoke about something that should be on the minds of every single regulatory authority in every single country in the world. We have long talked about both the ills and the benefits in life of social media and the interaction and exchanges we have. There are many positives to social media but there are also absolute negatives. In fairness, we do not have anybody to blame as regulators except ourselves, but one such negative is that self-regulation does not work. We are seeing the evidence of that both internationally and domestically in the impact it is having not only on disinformation dissemination but also on democracies.I have great hope that the European Union will pass the digital services Act and the digital markets Acts. This will ensure that every member state in the European Union will have to do the same. If we had any gumption we would have long done this. I am aware that Senator McGahon raised this in the media and in these Houses for the past months. I urge the Senator to continue to do so. We certainly need to do it sooner rather than later.
Senator Mullen described the details, from information he had, of the dehumanisation of people and certain sub-cultures in China, which is absolutely abhorrent. I do not have the answer to the questions he asked but I will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the Seanad to have a conversation with us about the Irish activity and our aims to address the human right violations that are very obvious in China. I will try to do this at the Minister's earliest convenience.
Senator Lombard brought up the absolute need for the digital strategy and remote working strategy that has been launched by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Tánaiste to be part and parcel of every local authority's plans in the next couple of weeks and months as they prepare their county development plans for the next seven years. We cannot have access to remote working strategies unless we have access to two things, the first of which is equality of access to broadband in every town and county in the State. Not everybody wants to work from their sitting room or their landing. Access to digital hubs in every town and county in the country is also very important. An inventory would be very worthwhile of all the available buildings in the ownership of the State that could be turned into digital hubs. Unless we have it as part of the strategy of all our local authorities, however, we might be sitting here in five or seven years' time wondering what the delay is in being able to work from home. It is a very worthwhile initiative that has been asked for.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke about consultation. She urging and stressing that there is nothing to be fearful of in our new clean air strategy. All that anybody wants is for us to have a better quality of life. I absolutely agree with the Minister of State that it is important for everybody to consult and to read up on what it is we are trying to do and not just believe some of the fake disinformation, which is very easy for people to accept because those who shout the loudest are often the ones that are believed. I commend the Minister of State on the work she is doing and I wish her continued success in her future.
Senator Fitzpatrick talked about a number of issues today. The most important issue she raised was the impact of Covid on our younger people. We are a year into Covid and it is wearing us all down. I genuinely hope, as we have always seen beforehand, that our children are resilient and will bounce back. There are some who will not and we need to be mindful of that and make sure we are aware of this.
Senator Seery Kearney raised an issue she also brought up in the media in the past weeks on employment rights that should be felt and owned by Deliveroo workers and other such workers. I must be honest that when I saw the video footage over the weekend of what they have to deal with, I thought there is nothing so stark as a picture to explain something that a thousand words cannot. I had not fully realised how much of a threat they were under on a daily basis. Many people, particularly in our urban cities and towns, have come to take for granted getting their food delivered, and we would not be able to survive without them. However, it is absolutely not acceptable that these gentlemen and women are under such direct threat every single night. It is not acceptable for us to say that they are not reporting to us, from a Garda perspective. We know that some of these people are vulnerable in the context of being in vulnerable employment situations and coming from marginalised communities. The Garda need to reach out to them and make sure they are proactive in the matter. I urge the Senators to keep highlighting this in the national media, as much as we can, to make sure these workers get the support they deserve. The issue was raised also by Senator Fitzpatrick.
Senator Moynihan and other Senators raised the new and welcome announcement today by the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, on the overhauling of our licensing laws. It was highlighted this time last year, when we had shut down all of our hospitality and our pubs, that we were still expecting licence holders to spend enormous amounts of money to retain their licences and renew them, which was absolutely ludicrous. The extension and the overhaul is very welcome. I showed my age this morning when I was told that people should be allowed to dance from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. if they wanted to. It made me tired even thinking about it. There definitely is, however, a market for such nightlife and Senator Warfield has raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions. The review of the licensing laws and the task force to look at nightlife will be very welcome, especially for the future generations.Senator Crowe raised the issue of the welcome reviews of opening hours and licences for his sector. I can understand the mentality of his urging not to extend licences because those businesses have had an enormously difficult year. When they are allowed to reopen, they want to be able to bounce back. Notwithstanding that, there is a welcome need, particularly for cultural events, to be able to have those once-off licences and not to be restricted by the annual licence review regulations.
Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the issue of Facebook, as he so often does in a similar vein to Senator McGahon. Self-regulation has not and will not work, and it would be very timely if we had a debate on what the new world will look like. I smiled when he asked me to facilitate the debate because I was trying to figure out which Minister I would get to talk about how we can prepare for technological advancement in all our lives, and I will have to figure that out. It would be an interesting and timely debate on regulation and on planning for the future.
Senator Craughwell spoke about his passion for the Defence Forces, as he regularly does. I have scheduled a debate on their future, and while I do not yet have a date for it, I will stick it in the diary as soon as I do.
Senator Carrigy made a logical request to extend planning permission for the duration of the time in which people are not able to build their houses, whether they are one-off constructions or larger projects, and that should be considered by the Cabinet. He also talked about a new school requirement for 600 pupils in Longford town and I will write to the Minister for Education seeking a response to that.
Another issue the Senator raised, which was mentioned by many other Senators too, related to Ulster Bank and the shocking announcement on Friday last of the potential loss of 2,800 jobs and the massive loss to the sector. The Minister for Finance's requirement for a third banking force in Ireland will be very much on the mind of the Government in the coming weeks and months. He has agreed to come to the House to hold a debate with us. He is in Brussels today and will be self-isolating for five days when he returns, so the debate will be held next week or the week after. The future of banking in Ireland is something we should all be debating. As Senator Carrigy rightly said earlier, perhaps that third banking force can come under the auspices of An Post. We all care for and love our post offices. They have had a difficult number of years and have really played a blinder in the past year with regard to communication and rallying people's spirits with their campaigns. Perhaps they could constitute the third banking force we so desperately need.
Senator Davitt talked about the delays in processing passports and driver licences, among other items. I appreciate that we are in level 5 lockdown and that that has curtailed services, but it is not acceptable that Government and State services cease completely. We have to find a way to continue to provide those services, even in an emergency, to people who need them. I will send the Senator's concerns to the relevant Ministers and ask them to revert.
Senator Flynn spoke eloquently about our digital divide. It is past time that we all recognised that there is considerable disadvantage in certain communities. We cannot keep ignoring it; we need to address it. Welcome money was announced last week and €100 million was announced before Christmas to address the digital divide and to pay for computer equipment for children in schools. The issue was brought home to me by a lady, a mother of five, who appeared on a news station this week. She is home-schooling five children and they are sharing second-hand telephones so that one child can have an hour in the morning and another can have an hour in the afternoon. I have no idea how a child can learn and receive his or her schooling from a smart phone in an area that has slow broadband, with the mother's phone spinning like this. The digital divide is very evident. Notwithstanding the roll-out of broadband to every town, house, business and school in the country, it is dependent on people being able to afford the technology to access that broadband. That is an important debate we should have and I encourage the Senator to continue raising the issue week in, week out until we get the debate.
Senator Warfield talked about the night-time economy, as he often does. We have agreed to have a debate once the task force reports in June.
Senator Martin brought up an issue that was raised in the Chamber on Friday last by Senator Craughwell. I am very pleased that the commemoration was cancelled at the request of the family because it has caused no end of hurt to the community, the family and locals in the area. I cannot understand the response, or lack thereof, from the GAA to the misuse of its logo to commemorate something nothing short of terrorism.The GAA should come out and make a statement on it. It should be very firm and strong in saying that no organisation should be able to misuse the name of our Defence Forces, Oglaigh na hÉireann, or any other titles or logos that are highly respected in this country.
Senator Keogan brought up the issue of an extension to the hedge cutting season for an extra two weeks because of the recent bad weather. I am not sure that will be facilitated but I hope, given that we will have good weather this week, that everyone can catch up on what needs to be done under blue skies. She also brought up Ulster Bank and again, we have sent a request to the Minister to discuss that.
Senator Bacik spoke about the need for a clear strategy for Covid, which is something we are all desperately looking forward to hearing tomorrow. People are disappointed with the communications over the last couple of weeks but, at the end of the day, I can say from experience that the Government is only dealing with the information available to it and the best laid plans can suddenly get scuppered by the virus. We are attempting to deal with different variants at the moment. As others have said, positivity is something that we must hang on to. We recognise that life is difficult and people are weary. We are all tired of living with Covid and look forward to the day when we no longer have to but the vaccine roll-out is picking up speed. I can only assume that, based on the positivity of Mr. Paul Reid - I do not know how the man gets up every single day and is as committed, dedicated and chirpy as he is - that the vaccine roll-out will build momentum over the weeks and months ahead. We look forward to the day, hopefully not too far away, when everybody will be vaccinated and living a different life. One only has to look to Israel to see the positive impact that mass vaccination is having on the Israeli people, their lifestyle, economy and communities. It is something to look forward to.
Senator Kyne also spoke about living with Covid and the fact that the numbers are remaining stubbornly high. Sometimes it is easy to find someone to blame. There has been an awful lot of focus in the last number of weeks on international and foreign travel into and out of Ireland, with some people struggling to understand why anybody would be travelling. However, there are very obvious cases of people returning home for family funerals or going to their own home. There are enormous numbers of people who live here that we take for granted-----