Monday, 31 May 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
My colleague, Councillor Deirdre Conroy, is contesting the election as well so I wish her and all the other candidates in Dublin Bay South the very best in the upcoming election. We would be very sad to lose Senator Bacik if she is to leave the House but we wish her the very best nonetheless.
Senator Martin raised the question of the UK's defence and foreign policy around nuclear non-proliferation. It is not an issue that is on the radar too much in this House but it is an important topic. The UK is a very close neighbour so it is important to be aware of a significant change in defence and foreign policy around nuclear weapons. We clearly have no control over UK domestic policy and those matters but it is nonetheless an important point to raise on the floor of the House. The Senator also raised again a matter that was brought up by many Members in the House last week, namely, the hijacking of the Ryanair flight by the regime in Belarus. He is right to make the point that we cannot simply move to the next matter and we must ensure this stays on the agenda. The EU has issued significant sanctions and all Members of the House welcome those. The Taoiseach has been very strong on this matter too, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the matter of the passing of the motion on Palestine last week in the Dáil and he welcomed the extension of the Housing debate so Members would have the opportunity to have a say. He spoke about Mr. Rab McCullough, a musician I had not been aware of, to be honest. The Senator gave a really lovely and heartfelt tribute to somebody who clearly meant a lot to him, his family and his community. He was somebody who was clearly very talented as a musician. With Senator Ó Donnghaile I extend the sympathies of this House to Mr. McCullough's wife, Marian, and three children, along with the family and friends grieving his loss.
Senator Ó Donnghaile followed those comments by seeking additional supports for the music and arts industry and a debate on the matter. It is an issue on which many Members have spoken. This is one of the sectors that has been lacking a little direction in how it might exit this pandemic. Some pilot schemes have been set up to try to get back to having music events, mainly outdoors, but many people in the industry really do not see an end in sight. We need to provide some guidance for people in the sector.
Senator Higgins raised a number of questions, including Palestine, disarmament and sustainable urban communities. The Senator gave her perspective on how confining it was to be living in Dublin city centre with just a 2 km radius within which to move around. There is a lack of public spaces. The Senator raised a really important point on the lack of public toilets, referring to the queue at the toilets at the top of Grafton Street. I pass by those facilities every time I leave work and there is some anti-social behaviour in the space, which we might not normally see. This is an equality and human rights issue and it relates to basic sanitation and access to public toilets. It is not a luxury and particularly when businesses around the area are closed, one does not have the same opportunity to pop into a coffee shop or pub to go to the toilet. It is important for women, children and people with a disability to have access to public toilets. It is a good point to raise on the floor of the House and the city council must do some work on that.
The Senator also raised the question of young people getting back to work and not having a vaccine. I heard a debate last week about why hotels, restaurants and hairdressers cannot get people back to employment and many people working in the sectors are younger people who are not vaccinated. They may not feel comfortable going back to work just yet and it is quite possible some of them are holding out until they are vaccinated in the next month or two. There could be a little leeway around that.
Many Members have raised the question of young people, including Senator Malcolm Byrne. They are having a really difficult time and they are first to get the rap on the knuckles when something is not happening, such as getting back to work or socialising.There is a very good reason such these things are happening. It is often a lack of support for people of that age to help them get back to work, or to provide a space to socialise as well, which is clearly important.
Senator McGreehan raised the issue around public spaces, respect and the litter issue. If we are asking people to vacation or holiday at home and move around the country it is a very real issue. I was at the beach in north Mayo at the weekend. Usually not many people attend these beaches and it is quiet, with the other side of the county being more popular. There was a lack of bins there. There was only one bin and it was full by midday. The place was heaving. There was very little space to park and people were pulling up on the side of the road. There was no lifeguard on duty. Again, as Senator Garvey has said, months ago we knew this was coming. We did this last year also. A lot of money has been given to local authorities. Where is the additional seating? I have not seen it. Where are the bins? I have not seen them. Why are lifeguards not on duty a little bit earlier given that we know people will be at the beaches since there is nowhere else to go? It defies logic that there has been absolutely no change in the approach by local authorities to preparing for summer, given that we are in extraordinary times and that we know people will be there. It is not a lack of support or funding from national Government. The money is flowing to the local authorities. It is right across the State and in every county. The local authorities need to up their game. The citizens are losing out and it is even becoming unsafe in many places.
Senator Keogan raised the issue of businesses being scolded. I believe the Senator is right. A lot of businesses are doing their best. People are entitled to buy a takeaway drink or food, and to sit wherever they want. It is not up to the businesses to police the people around their premises. They are not being given the opportunity to spread it out, as other Members have said. Due to the staggered reopening there was always going to be such difficulties.
I take on board the point that Senators Keogan and Casey raised about bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels being allowed to offer indoor dining from 7 June, and restaurants not being allowed until 5 July. Adrian Cummins of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, RAI, has been a fantastic advocate for this industry over the past year and a bit. Restaurants have been really struggling. The logic behind the staggering of the reopening was to try to keep as low as possible the numbers of people circulating, and to keep it steady as she goes. There is definitely a disparity however. It strikes me as quite unfair that if one can afford to book into a hotel for the night, one can have dinner and drinks and to socialise, but if a person cannot afford to pay for a hotel then he or she does not get to do that. This is one of the inequalities of that position. I hope that we get back to full opening.
There are probably different views on the success of the vaccine roll-out. My view is that it has been quite successful. The issue is one of supply, not of getting it out. I do not believe we are short of vaccinators; that is fine. The issue appears to be about getting enough doses to administer. To be fair, the HSE is working around the clock on that to try to get as much as we can as quickly as we can.
Senator Murphy raised the issue of national infrastructure. I also read the piece in The Business Postaround pressures on the national grid and the potential for blackouts. It is an important debate that we need to have on the future of our electricity supply and our infrastructure. It is currently a bit of a patchwork, and we are trying to move to renewables. With those changes, there has not been enough support to move towards micro-renewables to allow people to generate electricity at a local level and feed it into the grid. We can be doing a lot more things to be smarter about it.A debate with the Minister will be the first port of call for this House to see what the plan is.
Senator Ward struck a more positive tone with regard to the weekend, and said that he observed a lot of positive behaviour in his area in Dublin, where lots of people were doing their best. I loved the name Flossie and the Beach Cleaners. I do not think we will forget it. It is quite memorable and certainly sticks in one's head. I congratulate Flossie Donnelly on her environmental work in the community. It is fantastic to see it. I am sure she will be an inspiration and a leader to other people. Often it is individuals like Flossie who lead the way and inspire others to do the same.
There is a very important point around reimagining our school curriculum for young people who are going into what is a very different and ever-changing world. A child entering national school today will be in a very different world in 20 years' time to the one we are in now. The curriculum is probably based on a world from 30 or 40 years before. There is space there and important points were raised on this by Senator Ward.
Senator Hoey raised the issue of the Education for All campaign. I saw the students union, the USI, outside this morning with their placards. I agree with the Senator. The Cassells report has been gathering dust for the past five years. There has been a reluctance by a number of Ministers to just make the call and to discuss this. It does not just provide a pathway to publicly-funded education, which I strongly believe in and support because otherwise it becomes elitist and for those with money, and it would disadvantage a large swathe of the population.It also presents other options like student loans but I do not believe we should go down that road. Ultimately, it presents the Government with three funding options. It is up to the Oireachtas to make a decision but nobody wants to make it because it is a difficult one. The decision has been kicked down the road numerous times. A discussion in this House as to where we go next is long overdue.
This issue is related to accommodation. Universities and colleges are using student accommodation as a source of funding because they are struggling to afford to run their campuses. It also explains why the registration fees are so high. Universities and colleges argue that they cannot run their institutions on what they get from central government which is why they have to take so much money from students. It is all linked into the question of how we intend to fund third level education for the long term but we have not made a decision yet. I will invite the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to the House to start that debate and hopefully we will see a decision on the Cassells report this term.
Senator Currie raised the issue of Tidy Towns committees and the fact that committees that were not registered before 2019 cannot avail of grants today. That is quite an arbitrary decision. Surely we should be encouraging people to set up Tidy Towns committees and get involved in the scheme. In the greater scheme of things, €1,000 is such a small amount of money for the Government but for a Tidy Towns committee, it is a huge sum. It will buy the necessary bits and bobs, the tools, lawnmower, flowers and so on. I do not know why there is an arbitrary cut-off date. We should be welcoming with open arms as many people as possible into the scheme. Hopefully that decision can be reversed.
Senator Fitzpatrick raised the issue of the vaccine programme and its success. She noted that 50% of our population has already received one dose which is amazing, particularly as there are so many countries in the world where front-line health workers are still not vaccinated. We are very lucky to be where we are and many countries are not in the same position. We should remember our privilege as a first world, wealthy country with ready access to vaccines now and into the future. There has been much talk recently about vaccinating younger people. Professor Luke O'Neill was on the Brendan O'Connor radio show on Sunday. He suggested that once we have vaccinated everyone aged 18 and over, we should seriously consider giving any surplus vaccines we have to vulnerable Third World countries that still have not vaccinated their older citizens or healthcare workers, and I agree with him. We do not need those vaccines and we can get them again in the future. It is important not to leave anybody behind. We will not get over this pandemic if we leave pockets of the world unvaccinated.
Senator Fitzpatrick also raised the issue of protection for renters and called on the Minister to introduce legislation to fix the loophole relating to rent pressure zones. Basically, if landlords did not increase rents by 4% last year, they can add that on this year, leading to a cumulative increase of 8% which was not the intention of the legislation. Clearly this is a loophole that needs to be closed. Unfortunately, landlords are availing of the loophole. I know of one particular case where the rent was increased by 12% in one go. The tenants had no option other than to pay it because Threshold told them that the landlord was entitled to charge it. It is scandalous that somebody would do that to young working people, one of whom had lost a job. They were struggling through the pandemic but there was zero sympathy for the young people in the accommodation in question. They had nowhere else to go and had to pay the increased rent. I welcome Senator Fitzpatrick's suggestion in that regard.
Senator Dolan referred to the fantastic news that Chanelle Pharma is expanding its operations and will create 60 jobs in Ballinasloe, which is a very significant number of jobs for a town of that size. An announcement like that would be significant in my county town of Castlebar, for example. That is a huge number of jobs in a smaller rural area and it will have a big impact on many families. It is great to see confidence in that business and the fact that it is growing. Chanelle Pharma is one of the great success stories of indigenous Irish business. I wish Mr. Michael Burke and his team the very best in their expansion. I also wish the community well.
Senator Casey raised the issue of indoor dining. As a hotelier, he has expert knowledge in the area of hospitality. He knows what is involved in running a hotel business and understands the difficulties and challenges faced by people in the sector over the course of the pandemic. He spoke very eloquently of the challenges caused by indoor versus outdoor dining for a month, when some businesses can serve customers inside while others cannot. It is an unfairness in the reopening that should possibly have been reassessed and many Members have raised it in this House.
Senator Garvey raised the fact that there were no lifeguards at Lahinch and the same was true in many coastal communities around the country. The local authorities must get their act together in that regard. It is not acceptable that five local volunteers, who should have been enjoying their day surfing, were rescuing people from the water.I commend the individuals whose names the Senator read into the record for the work they do on behalf of their community. It is really commendable.
Senator Horkan raised the issue of the intimidation of councillors covered in a report that was published. Some 223 councillors participated in that survey. A significant number of councillors reacted to it. It goes to show the challenging environment public representatives work in at all levels, be it as a councillor, Senator or Teachta Dála. It has become a more aggressive job to be in but that still does not make such intimidation acceptable. There must be a level of decency in the workplace. People should not be subjected to that. We need to continue to talk about it, call it out, say it is not okay or acceptable, and encourage people to report any incidents, particularly where there is a threat of violence or sexual violence. It is important that is reported to the Garda, otherwise we will not have the data to support making those changes.
Senator Malcolm Byrne said we need to give young people a break. We in the House would agree with him. He has been a fantastic advocate for them in raising youth issues throughout the pandemic. Young people have been extremely impacted. They have lost out on major milestones. As the Senator said, they have missed out on their first year in college, celebrating their 18th or 21st birthday and learning to drive - they cannot sit a driving test. It is very hard for young people who have missed out on those milestones to get that back.
The Senator also called for a debate on grief and sacrifice. When we get through this there will be a major job of work to check on people's well-being and how they are doing. We are still in this fight and have yet to come out the other side, off the front line as it were, and start to reflect on how much we have lost. Everybody has lost something. Many have lost loved ones, which is the most horrific thing one could have gone through in this pandemic, and we are still going through that. However, we have all lost something. Everyone has been through a difficult period. We will have to look after people's mental health afterwards. It will require a great deal of support and help, particularly for counselling services. That will bring to the fore the affordability of those services and making sure they are affordable and accessible for every citizen who needs that assistance. We will definitely have to have that debate.