Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 March 2024

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business


1:00 pm

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank all the Senators who contributed to the Order of Business. Senator O'Loughlin wished President Michael D. Higgins a speedy recovery as he remains in hospital and spoke of our colleague Senator Higgins, who is a family member. We wish the President well in his recovery. Senator O'Loughlin also paid tribute to Councillor John O'Neill, who was buried yesterday having spent 30 years involved in local politics in Kildare. He was instrumental in Senator O'Loughlin's political journey. We extend our sympathies to John's family and friends and the community in Kildare.

Senator O'Loughlin also raised the issue of the SET allocation and the loss of hours in schools, as did Senator Malcolm Byrne. It is an ongoing challenge and the loss of even a handful of hours can have a huge impact on a school. We hope that will be reviewed by the Minister of State, with, as Senator O'Loughlin suggested, a pause perhaps put in place in respect of any further loss of hours until we can assess how we might best handle that situation.

Senator McGahon proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, namely, that No. 14 be taken before No. 1, which I am happy to accept. He also raised the issue of Mandy Kelly, whose plight was also raised in the Chamber last week by the Senator’s colleague in Louth. My heart goes out to Mandy, who has not seen her children since 2022.It is a shocking situation for her and for her children, who are without their mother. I will certainly appeal to the Tánaiste to do everything he can to facilitate some sort of communication between Mandy and her children. Ultimately, we would like them to be returned to their mom and some co-parenting arrangement put in place between both parents for the benefit of their children.

Senators McDowell and Mark Daly raised the very important issue of the European Commission's fine of €2.5 million, and an ongoing fine of €10,000 per day, for the State's failure to adequately implement the audiovisual media services directive. As Senator McDowell pointed out, the legislation has passed through the Oireachtas but elements that were required to give effect to its operation have not been put in place, which is quite concerning. I commend the Seanad EU scrutiny committee on doing its job and proving its worth. It was a significant challenge to get that committee up and running. There was huge pushback from certain elements but notwithstanding that, the committee is up and running. I will certainly support the proposals to change Standing Orders at the CPPO. It is not within my remit to set the agenda of the CPPO but if correspondence is sent to that committee, it will be dealt with by the members. I am happy to make this Chamber available, through scheduling, to facilitate the committee's work. There is no difficulty with that from the perspective of my office. There would be space first thing tomorrow morning before Commencement Matters are taken or on Thursday afternoon. I will work with committee members and make sure that their work is facilitated at the earliest opportunity given the fact that the State is continuing to incur fines on a daily basis.

Senators Garvey, Dooley and Ahearn all raised the issue of University Hospital Limerick. UHL is probably the most consistently raised issue in this Chamber by members from right across the House. It is an ongoing challenge. I am not sure what is happening on the ground in hospital. There has been significant investment in increasing capacity and investment in terms of finances. The Minister has attended on site himself. While there is clearly something amiss there, it is not for the want of trying on the part of the Minister or of Members raising the issue consistently and keeping a light on it. I will certainly support all efforts to get that situation under control. If we compare the situation in UHL with the situation in Waterford, where things have really turned around, we can see what can be done when resources are made available and those resources are used properly. The situation can be turned around but questions need to be asked as to what is amiss in Limerick or what is different between the two sites. We must look at best practice elsewhere to try to address that particular issue.

Senator Sherlock raised the issue of childcare places and I completely share her concern with the direction of childcare policy. We are pushing and funding capacity through larger providers to the detriment of small providers. I have consistently raised this matter with the Minister. The Government set about trying to do three things in this area at the start of its term. The first was to reduce the costs for parents, the second was to increase capacity, and the third was to increase the level of service across the board, all of which it has done. However, an unintended consequence is that smaller providers are not surviving under the current policy. That is regrettable and needs to change. We need a mix. Parents need to have a choice. Not every parent wants to put their child into a large childcare service. Some do, and that is great but to remove choice from parents to accelerate the delivery of capacity is the wrong call, on balance. A lot has been done on childcare in the term of this Government and a huge amount has gone into the area. Parents say that they can really see the difference in their monthly bills - I certainly can - and that is great and to be commended. However, we will regret the day that we close the smaller providers. Lots of parents do not need full-time childcare. They just want somewhere for their children to go for early years education. Many parents will choose three hours per day and that is perfectly sufficient for their needs because one of them might be a stay-at-home parent or there may be a grandparent who is helping out. That should be facilitated and not penalised. We also have a job to do in respect of unregistered childcare providers who are providing an essential service. I refer to people minding children in their own homes, for example, and doing so on a word-of-mouth basis, without whom many parents would not have access to childcare. We have a lot done in this space and that is to be commended but we have to look at the long-term consequences of the policy that is being implemented to see if we can make improvements to it. It is essential that we do so in good time to make sure that the small providers continue to exist. I certainly share the Senator's concerns in that regard.

Senator Warfield raised the issue of the RTÉ board and I take on board his comments.There was a particular impetus to get a chair in place at RTÉ. That issue needs to get sorted. It has gone on for far too long and leadership is required. We have a new board, with a new director general and a new chair. I hope that will put to bed the issues at RTÉ and start to restore public confidence in the national broadcaster. There are vacant board member positions in other organisations that need to be filled. There is probably not the same urgency with those because they have not dominated the political and public discussion for so long. The issue may be worthy of a Commencement matter, specifically on why the vacancy at the Arts Council persists.

I take on board what Senator Dooley said about the Shannon Foynes Port Company, which does not have a chair either. Leadership is essential in these organisations if they are to do the work they are supposed to do. Long gaps without having somebody in the chair's position is not good and the matter should not be left on the long finger. Even if Departments are busy with essential projects, appointing a chair should be prioritised. Senator Dooley, in raising Shannon Foynes Port, asked for a broader body of work to be done. He asked that we contact Departments to identify where the deadline for filling vacancies on different boards has been missed.

Senator Ahearn raised the issue of UHL and made some valid points. We would all concur with his remarks.

Senator Keogan raised the issue of children in care, as she has done on many occasions. She raised very important issues. We are dropping the ball in many circumstances. We have improved an awful lot. There is a lot more transparency than what there used to be. There is no doubt that the level of demand is not being met because there is so much demand and not enough resources to meet it. That is not to criticise Tusla because I think it is doing everything it can. Tusla has been plagued by legacy issues, even though it is doing some fantastically positive work now. Its social care team and social care workers work around the clock to provide a service to the children and families they look after. More staff are needed. There were difficulties with recruiting social care workers because we were not getting enough of them through the system. Tusla is trying to address that issue as well.

I am aware of the situation in Mayo mentioned by the Senator. When the children in question were brought into the county it put considerable pressure on the local Tusla organisation to respond and react because it was not informed in advance. It was made very clear to the organisation that that was not good. While the intentions may have been good, the way the issue was handled put serious pressure on local services. Tusla had to work hard to deal with that but it did so and it was very mindful of the vulnerability of the children coming in. That occurred in the early stages of the Ukraine war when we were all scrambling to do what we could but it is not the way to do it. State services need to be kept informed.

Senator Malcolm Byrne congratulated all the Irish athletes who took part in the World Athletics Indoor Championships. The Irish women's relay team did fantastically well. To come fifth on the world stage is an incredible achievement. It is onwards and upwards for all of the Irish athletes who competed and put Ireland on the map at the games. It was fantastic to watch our people in action.

I take the Senator's point on SET hours, which I addressed. He welcomed that the Electoral Commission has been calling out red herrings. The Electoral Commission does an important job. Its representatives appeared before the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs a fortnight ago. The Electoral Commission has a role to play in the area of misinformation and disinformation. Concerns have been raised around its ability to deal with issues and whether it teeth and powers. There is an important balance to be struck, however. People in public life, whether they are in government or not, should not mislead the public in any way by putting out misinformation or information that is not correct, even if there was no intention to deliberately mislead. There is an extra layer of responsibility on public representatives to be informed before they speak, and that goes for the Government as well as the Opposition. That is important because the two referendums are complicated in nature. Given the legal implications of passing them, there appears at times to be a lack of properly informed debate on both sides as to what the implications are. That is an important aspect to bear in mind because we have an audience that we speak to and who rely on us for accurate information, which is not always provided.

Senator Boyhan welcomed the work the Minister, Deputy Harris, has done to encourage Irish construction workers to come back to Ireland. We need anybody with a trade who is from Ireland but working abroad to come back because we have a big job of work to do to continue delivering homes for people in this country. We are really turning that around. The number of commencements and homes delivered is increasing every year but we need people in the construction industry to come back and work in Ireland. I, too, commend the Minister on his work and thank the Senator for raising this issue.

Finally, Senator Murphy mentioned a school in County Roscommon. It is fantastic for the students to get an accolade in a world final. Well done to the students, teachers and principal. The Senator said it was a small school in the west of Ireland. We have the best of schools, the same as anywhere else. It is a credit to the students to have been recognised for their work.It is lovely to have them put on the record here today by Senator Murphy. I also concur with the remarks on the announcement today by the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, again tackling a very key issue for parents in reducing the cost of books. The cost of books is colossal, particularly at second level. If a family has more than one child in school, it is a big expense and a big pressure for parents. The Minister is tackling that now at junior cycle level and the aim ultimately is that books will be free across primary and second level. She has delivered free books at primary level and she is now making her way through second level as well. The Minister, and the Government overall, are to be commended on that work and on financing and supporting that. It is a positive news story on which to conclude the Order of Business.


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