Thursday, 26 March 2015
Order of Business
Yesterday, my colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne, raised the issue of Leader funding. I return to that theme to point out that the Government has been forced to admit that Leader funding has been slashed by some 43% under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020. In real terms the funding has dropped from €376 million to €220 million. Some 36 Leader companies will have to reduce dramatically their community projects such as child care, rural transport and business start-ups. In a Private Members' motion in the Dáil last year, Fianna Fáil stated our commitment to maintaining the independence and partnership core of the Leader companies, which have been emasculated to a large degree and are being integrated into local government structures, generating a great deal of hostility.
We tabled a Private Members' motion calling on the Government to fully review its approach to the delivery of community services and programmes by these companies. We argued that far from being emasculated, these companies should be used as a one-stop shop to deliver rural services, including rural transport and community schemes, and continue to play a central part in sustaining the fabric of communities across Ireland. We have repeatedly raised the issue of the erosion of democratically-run services in rural Ireland. I will not repeat the litany but this is yet another massive blow for rural Ireland. I ask that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, come to the House and outline his plans for the development of the programmes that have been run so effectively and efficiently by the partnership programmes during the previous term of the Leader programme which has proved to be hugely successful. Ireland has been a benchmark and a model for other European nations in this regard. I ask that the Minister come to the House to explain what he intends to do to address this issue and whether there is any hope of restoration of funding.
May I raise another issue which has appeared in the national media? Special needs assistants represented by the IMPACT trade union have voted for industrial action. The union represents some 6,000 special needs assistants. It appears that the problem of reduced hours was becoming worse each year to the point where many jobs were no longer viable, according to the union. In some cases individual SNAs have been reduced to as little as ten hours of work over a week and as many as seven children with special needs were being dealt with by one SNA, thereby impacting on the quality of care. When contacted, the Department kicked the can down the road stating out that the finger of blame should be pointed at the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which oversees the annual allocation of the SNA service.
As everybody in public life who has had to deal with the issues of SNAs around the country is aware, many of us from rural Ireland have had to do this, the Department always kicks it over to the NCSE. That is not good enough. The Department should take responsibility in this regard. It was a Fianna Fáil Government under the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Micheál Martin, who introduced the concept of special needs assistant. It is a credit to that system that it has worked so well and so effectively and now it appears it will be dismantled yet again. Can one imagine one SNA having to deal with seven special needs children in one classroom or one school? It is not fair. It is not equitable. It is totally unacceptable. I fully support the union on this matter and seek a response from the Acting Leader as to what measures she believes should be taken to address this very serious issue.
Today we have more tangible strong evidence of an uplift in activity, boosting further our economic recovery. I refer specifically to the Bord Bia sponsored Irish food event at the convention centre today, following three days of visits to more than 100 Irish farms, factories and food producers nationwide. Almost 400 international food buyers from around the world are gathering today for this event at the convention centre. The international buyers and 450 Irish food and drink buyers and food service operators will meet 185 Irish food and drink companies. More than 5,000 pre-scheduled speed-dating style meetings are taking place throughout the day and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, are speaking with the participants and further boosting the business.
Bord Bia is targeting at least €30 million worth of new business which is tremendous. However, there is further huge potential in building more than 500 new trade relationships for the Irish food and drink industry which will greatly enhance our exports valued at €10.5 billion in 2014 with exports destined for 175 markets around the world. In addition to the strong representation of UK and European buyers, 106 Asian buyers have travelled to attend the event compared with just 14 in 2012 when the last marketplace event was held. Meanwhile 38 buyers will attend from the Middle East, 24 from North America, 15 from Africa and 12 from Russia. All international markets show a renewed growth reflected in a 16% increase in trade which stands at €3 billion or 29% of Ireland's total food and drink exports.The key point is this is a major event for the country. As we all can imagine and will welcome greatly, it will significantly boost further our export trade. All of the graphs are going in the right direction. Today's event will further enhance the efforts of this country and our economy.
I want to return to something I said yesterday about the way business is ordered in this House. It is instructive that there is a sprinkling of people - maybe half a dozen - from the two Government parties, two Opposition Senators and two Independents here. There are considerably more people in the Gallery. I have always said that it does not really matter when legislation is being discussed whether there are Members present because Members are in their offices preparing amendments, reading material, etc., and they are watching the television monitor to see when their time to come in is approaching. However, for the Order of Business to be so very thinly attended is regrettable. For most of my time here - I am here nearly 30 years - it was always the most heavily attended part of the day's business and it was lively. We now commence business in this House in a ragged way. I would not like to see the business disintegrate and I would urge that we would rethink this system.
The only other point I would make is-----
I shall do that. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the suggestion.
The other point I would make is that on the Order of Business yesterday a colleague on the other side - I am not sure if it was Senator Bacik or not - expressed sympathy to the victims of the German air crash. It was seen as an accident. It now transpires it was not an accident, that the co-pilot locked the door of the cabin using the anti-terrorist devices and deliberately crashed the plane. On the black box recorder, one can plainly hear the pilot desperately trying to smash the door in and the terrified screams of the passengers. This is very shocking news and it makes it all the worse for the relatives, who know that it was not an accident but an act of appalling air piracy. I join in the expression of sympathy to those relatives.
I want to raise the issue of community enterprise centres, particularly the largest once in the country which is in Galway. The Galway Technology Centre is currently home to 41 start-ups and growing companies and SMEs. The centre has supported more than 140 companies and 1,200 jobs since it commenced in 1994. This week, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, visited the Galway Technology Centre where they announced €360,000 worth of investment in the facility. This investment comes on the back of hugely impressive growth for the centre, which has had a 33% increase in revenue and the occupancy rate of which has increased by 30% to 90% since 2014. This is most impressive. It is a clear sign of the resurgence in the economy. These centres are supported by the State and they are in need of further funding right throughout the country. I would ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, in due course to discuss this matter.
First and foremost, I support the call this morning with respect to the IMPACT special needs workers in schools. Slowly but surely, we have watched the education system being run down to a point where zero-hour contracts and contracts by the minute are almost the order of the day, and I would support IMPACT.
I rise this morning in support of the call by the Dyslexia Association of Ireland which has been excluded from the support scheme of national organisations by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government administered through Pobal. Dyslexia destroyed the educational opportunities of thousands and thousands of those of my vintage who passed through the education system and who have not been recognised until much later in life. We are now in a situation where temporary funding was provided until June of this year but, despite numerous appeals and submissions by the dyslexia association, and promises of a review of the decision, to date there has been no reply. I understand that the Disability Federation of Ireland and the Neurological Alliance of Ireland have called for an extension of the current temporary funding arrangements up until December 2006. These organisations are also seeking a commitment to be included in funding up to 2017.
As an educator, my concern here today is the potential damage being done to children of this country by limiting funding for the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. Despite improvements over the past decade, the Irish education system is still not meeting the needs of children and young people with dyslexia, as evidenced by the following information. Some 28% of children receive public assessment by NEPS and the HSE and 72% must seek private assessment. Even after dyslexia is identified, 56% of parents report difficulty in gaining access to help for their children. The average annual family cost associated with dyslexia is running at some €1,100. This is way above what many families can afford. Some 68% of families report that these costs have created significant financial stress. Some 60% of parents report being unable to access appropriate supports for their children due to the lack of funds.
The situation with dyslexia for anybody who has been involved for any period of time in the education world is really serious. Highly intelligent persons are being denied access to proper education. The dyslexia association does a significant job around this country and by cutting off funding, we are cutting off its ability to fund branches which provide services and information locally. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to whom I refer, Deputy Kelly, if he will review this funding and report back to this House as quickly as possible. If it is all right, at some stage in the not too distant future I will also table a Commencement debate matter on this with the Minister for Education and Skills. In this particular instance, it is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government I wish to review the scheme to support national organisations, SSNO, funding.
I join my colleague, Senator Paul Coghlan, in welcoming the significant food conference that is taking place over these couple of days in the convention centre. I congratulate Bord Bia, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, on this initiative. This means we will have 100 food companies from Ireland displaying their goods and 150 buyers from all over the world. Over the past number of months, we have seen food exports to the United States, China, right across Asia and all over the world increase year on year. Over the number of difficult years that we have had, farming has brought us through the recession. This is positive news. It indicates further that any investment we make in farming and in the farming community is well worthwhile. I look forward to an exciting year, in 2015 and in the years to come, for the agrifood sector.
The Seanad should take hold of a few issues. Previously, we addressed the issue of the elderly. This week, we have addressed the issue of farm safety. Unfortunately, I could not be in attendance for that debate but it was a worthwhile exercise. We should grab hold of the issue of housing. We should invite in those in the sector who plan such strategies. I refer to the non-governmental agencies involved in housing, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the groups, such as Threshold, that Senator Hayden is in charge of. This is a crisis like no other. It is a crisis that is having a significant effect at present. While there is a plan for housing, not a penny has been spent or allocated to any local authority to do anything about it. The Seanad needs to look at that. I would include social housing and voluntary sector housing. I would also include the private sector because they all have a role to play.
This is a crisis, by the way, that was predicted by the former Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, here in this House just after he was appointed. Even then it could be seen that there would be a shortage of housing in the Dublin area. He was right. It is one of the few matters that the Government got right. It predicted that almost four years ago. We could play a role here. We could show the people that we are relevant and that we are addressing something that is of considerable concern. I would include the issue of repossessions and the housing of those whose houses are repossessed because these factors are contributing to the crisis.There is also a major issue about the order of repossessions at the moment. It seems to be the case that there are many unoccupied, abandoned houses that are still sitting there, not having been repossessed, while banks are happy to go after families. All of these issues could be debated in a worthwhile fashion by this House.
I formally request the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate soon on the potato and horticulture industry in Ireland. It is a major industry but parts of it are under severe pressure, despite all the good news that comes out from that sector. The potato industry, in particular, is under pressure not just from changing eating habits, but also from imports. Believe it or not, we import many potato products into this country, particularly processed products. We could have a good debate here on that sector. It is of major importance in Meath, North Dublin, Louth and nationally. It is our national vegetable.
I support Senator Naughton's call for a debate on how we can further finance and leverage our successful enterprise centres. She cited the very successful one in Ballybane in Galway. In my own town of Ballinasloe, we have an enterprise centre that has 170 people working in it currently. It has great potential to develop further, provided that additional funding could be made available.
I welcome the publication in the past hour of a very significant document by the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, of which I am happy to be a member. The chair of that committee is Deputy Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy and I want to acknowledge the good work done by the rapporteur to the committee, Deputy John Lyons. It sets out a number of policy options to support business growth, job creation and job retention in towns and village centres. The committee invited and received submissions from many interested bodies and business organisations in the course of the preparation of this significant document.
Among the recommendations are that Government would look to support local authorities to introduce grant relief schemes similar to that being piloted in Limerick to incentivise new businesses to take up vacant properties on high streets and town and village centres. Another recommendation was that local authorities would consider rate reductions for small independent businesses in city and town centres to ensure a retail and hospitality blend is offered to consumers. The committee further recommends that action be taken to relieve businesses of the burden of upward-only rent revision, which is suffocating many struggling businesses at present. There is a recommendation, which was very strongly supported by all members of the committee, that local enterprise offices would work closely with local chambers of commerce and other industry bodies to further develop online training for online sales and the benefits of social media in promoting businesses. There is also the issue of banking charges and the need for dialogue between Government and the pillar banks on the level of charges being levied on small businesses for banking services. There was much discussion at the committee of the need to give consideration to free parking periods for several hours during the day in town and village centres, as a measure that should be considered by local authorities. Finally, the committee recommends that Tourism Ireland and other bodies strongly market towns and cities as shopping destinations in the course of their work. This is a very significant piece of work, so I would like the Seanad to have an opportunity at some future date, perhaps in the coming month, to discuss this publication by the joint committee on jobs and enterprise.
I would like clarification from the Deputy Leader on a few issues. They are really the same issue, but they have different ramifications. As Members may remember, I introduced legislation earlier in this term which would have prevented Government agencies suing anybody, presumably including each other, in defence of their good name. My own belief is that in a democracy, where they are answerable to the public, the reputation of Government agencies, public bodies, quangos, Departments and so on depends entirely on their effectiveness and the quality of the service they provide. It should not be something that hides behind either legal challenges or public relations companies. There should be no public relations professionals employed anywhere in the public service other than in technical areas where advertising is required. Public officials should be required, perhaps in rotation in their own Departments, to take the rostrum, as it were, and to answer questions from the public, through their representatives in the press, about their activities.
I was very disappointed to see the discussions which have come into the public domain between the HSE and HIQA on the issue of Portlaoise and other obstretrics services in the country. This was commented on earlier in the week, but unfortunately I could not be here at the time. I feel strongly on this issue. This is an area where a clear directive needs to be given by the Government to all public employees. I would like the Government to support my Bill and get it through its next couple of Stages. That would be the simplest thing to do, but we all know how difficult that can be with independent backbench legislation originating in the Seanad. However, an executive order could be given, certainly in the Department of Health, by the Minister, to all Department employees and agencies, the HSE, and all bodies funded by the Department that they simply are not to fall back on any kind of legal threat in an attempt to silence any kind of dissent, either from outside the State or from within it. I understand that people who work in State bodies have personal reputations that can be and need to be defended and they have a right to defend them. However, the entities themselves do not.
Two of the charges raised by the HSE in its correspondence with HIQA were that HIQA was suggesting that the HSE was guilty of reckless endangerment when it came to the provision of obstetrical services. I would like to ask the questions that would help me decide whether the HSE is guilty of reckless endangerment in maternity services right now. Could the Deputy Leader find out for us from the Minister, or the Minister himself could come in if he wishes, and answer the following questions? How many consultant obstetricians are there in this country? How many posts are there? How many of these posts are filled and how many are filled by locums, as opposed to people who are on permanent contracts? What is the typical tenure of a locum contract? How rapidly are locum staff actually rotating through? Similarly, what percentage of the deliveries that require some degree of medical assistance are being attended by consultants and how many by NCHDs? I mean no disrespect to any normal deliveries which are supervised very competently by a fine cohort of midwives, but sometimes a doctor needs to intervene and a doctor needs to assess everybody who is pregnant at some stage. What percentage of the NCHD jobs in obstetrics are currently occupied by locums? I believe we are right at the bottom of the international league tables for the number of obstetricians per head of population. If that is the case and if throughout the country people are experiencing sometimes adverse events in a service that generally provides very safe care to pregnant women and their children, is there any link between that and understaffing and not only understaffing, but also poor staffing, through a lack of appropriate forward planning and sufficient people in permanent posts?
Is that bell to warn me I have 30 seconds left?
I would also note in passing the final quote from the HSE to HIQA, which was that the apparent allegations which may or may not have been made by HIQA would have the appearance of shattering confidence in the ability of the HSE to deliver services. I certainly require a little reassurance on the competence of the HSE to deliver services.
I want to bring the House's attention to a PRTB rent index study published today, which shows that rents nationally are rising by about 5.8%, but in Dublin they are rising by about 10%.Just in case anybody believes this is a Dublin problem, a more recent survey, by Daft.ie, shows that while rents rose in Dublin by almost 15%, they rose in Cork by 7.9%, in Galway by 7.2% and in Limerick by 6.4%. Many of the counties surrounding Dublin are also experiencing very significant rent increases. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has indicated his willingness and intention to introduce a model of rent certainty, in other words, a model that will limit the extent of rent increases in the rental sector. We already know that people are losing their homes because they cannot afford to pay rent increases. We are now seeing a new category of people, namely, the one third of those in the market who believed they would be buying their own homes but who, because of Central Bank rules, now face renting for a very long time to come and may never have the option of moving into their own homes. May we have the Minister in the House to talk about the future of rented housing? This is a very important debate that we need to have. Some 20% of the nation are living in the rental sector and have little or no security. They are subjected to very significant rent increases. I would like to expand the debate to talk about the future of home ownership. Historically, Ireland has had a very high level of home ownership, but it has dropped dramatically. We have Generation Rent but possibly Generation Lost, a generation for whom the option of home ownership may be lost for the entirely of their lives. We need a broad debate on housing and home ownership and to focus specifically on a strategy for rented housing.
I very much agree with the previous speaker, Senator Aideen Hayden. I support Senator Thomas Byrne's request that we use this Chamber, in so far as possible, to activate, rather than reactivate, a very genuine holistic debate on the housing crisis. It is a matter on which I have spoken frequently in recent months. We were promised that the Minister would attend, but we need much more than a once-off session. We in the Seanad are perhaps best placed politically to have this urgent debate. Society and the Administration seem fixated on the importance of the construction industry, developers and bringing them in to meet Ministers and Taoisigh. We seem fixated on the traditional model of home ownership, but we must consider what is happening all around us and in Europe. There was a very interesting radio documentary recently on rental arrangements in Germany and France, where tenants have very secure and absolute rights of tenancy. Many people make a very happy choice to remain in rented accommodation for five to 20 years. Therefore, we need to start thinking holistically about this area. The Seanad Chamber, the Seanad Public Consultation Committee or a variation thereof could provide the ideal mechanism for having that debate. The issue certainly needs to be brought to the top of the political agenda.
I referred during the week to the confusion about the number of available housing units and the availability of land. I had a specific question, but there was absolutely no clarity from the Minister. We are hearing statistics about millions of euro ready to be invested and a new social housing programme, but there are many tens of thousands of people looking for houses simultaneously. There are tens of thousands of vacant units across the country and it is an absolute shame socially and a political disgrace that we cannot marry these problems into a solution. Therefore, since nothing is happening in the other House on this issue, I suggest to the Deputy Leader that we try to run with the ball and begin a very comprehensive debate on it. There is no better expert than the Deputy Leader's colleague, Senator Aideen Hayden. Many of us would like to join her and add our views. We should wait no longer.
I support Senator Paschal Mooney's call for a debate on special needs assistants. We sometimes get lost in making global statements on special needs assistants and refer to cases where one is minding or helping to mind seven children. One might be all that is needed as there is a teacher in the class also. I can talk from experience because I was in this position with my daughter. There was one teacher with two special needs assistants and seven children of varying ability and with varying difficulties in the class. There is a raft of issues to be considered. I heard RTE interview a school principal one night. On being asked whether she had a special needs assistant, she said she did not but would love one. There actually has to be a child in the school with special needs before it can get a special needs assistant. I know of schools where the special needs assistants are minding classes and running the shop part-time and have functions that are not theirs. A school might require 40 to 60 hours of special needs assistance, but next year the children might have moved. There is an absolute need for a debate and an understanding of what is occurring in this area.
There is a much more serious problem in preschools, where there is no support, other than for six hours per week. There is a double-barrelled problem in that in many cases it is the person running the preschool who identifies that a child has a special need. She sends the child to early service providers and then he or she is sent back to the general practitioner, etc. By the time he or she goes through this process, it may be time to leave preschool. It should be an issue for the Department of Education and Skills right from the time the child is born, rather than having part of the responsibility lie with HSE and the other with the Department.
Recently there was a case in which a child needed an educational aid. A report was written by a clinically qualified educational psychologist, but that, in turn, was overruled by the special educational needs officer from the NCSE because she decided he did not need the aid. I rang the Department and asked whether there was a cut in funding and the exact words used in response were that there was a bucket of money in the Department for educational aids and supports. Despite this, the officer made the decision that the child should not receive the aid. I rang her boss and the decision was overturned. Four paragraphs were written by the educational psychologist on why the child should have what effectively turned out to be an iPad and how it would benefit them in the future. The parent should not have had to contact me to get what the child was absolutely entitled to and what would have been available had the special educational needs officer not overruled the decision. I do not know why we need the NCSE and certainly do not know why we need the special educational needs officers because they are overruling decisions. I do not see any reason the principal cannot deal directly with the Department of Education and Skills on foot of a report from an educational psychologist. That would solve many of our problems. We would take out all of the people in the middle who were put in place to give jobs to the boys. When we talk about special needs assistants, we must be careful to quantify exactly what we are talking about and what is needed. Many children in school need a special needs assistant for four or five hours per week; they do not need one for 40 hours per week. However, as there are those who do need somebody for the full school term, we cannot make global statements. I certainly would welcome an open and frank debate in the Chamber on this issue.
That is a matter to be considered for inclusion in the Order of Business tomorrow. The only business that has been ordered for today is No. 1, Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 - Committee Stage. The debate is to commence at 1.15 p.m. and adjourn no later than 7.30 p.m.
Could we arrange to change it? When I was a member of the Committee of Procedure and Privileges and meeting the other groups, many of us took the view that taking Committee and Remaining Stages on the same day should very much be the exception rather than the rule. It would be particularly inappropriate to do so in the case of the referendum Bill tomorrow, not least because I have tabled four substantial amendments thereto on Committee Stage. I would like to believe tomorrow's deliberations might have an impact on the Government's decisions and that it will have time to reflect on the content of the amendments. Unless the Government agrees to them on Committee Stage, which would be rare, I would like Report Stage to be postponed until next Monday or Tuesday. That is the least a Bill of such social significance requires.
I would like a debate on the rural practice allowance, a payment of approximately €17,000 to general practitioners who establish their practices in rural areas, provided for under the Health Act 1970. The public benefit associated with this is obvious. Many older people living in rural areas face substantial difficulties in accessing health care resources, as other Members know better than I. The rural practice allowance is designed to offset costs which a doctor faces associated with a rural practice. The HSE has reduced this payment by approximately €5,000 since 2005, with the result that it is increasingly difficult to attract doctors to establish a practice in a rural area. I have been contacted by a doctor in a rural part of east Galway who told me that, in his view, the HSE has adopted a deliberate policy of delaying the payment to doctors. He has spoken to his colleagues and they report similar difficulties in being paid the allowance.
We often speak about decline in rural areas and small towns. Let me be very clear here. The chief evil complained about by rural dwellers is the withdrawal of services and the chief agent responsible for the withdrawal of services is Government. Post offices, rural schools, Garda stations, health services have been closed. Again and again, Government policy has been responsible for eroding the quality of life in rural Ireland. It is increasingly difficult, if not virtually impossible, to convince young doctors to situate in rural areas and rural dwellers suffer the obvious consequence of that by not having access to a GP service.
I call on the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to direct the HSE to promptly pay the rural practice allowance to GPs in rural communities. I would also like the Minister to investigate whether there is a deliberate policy of delaying payments as some kind of money saving scheme.
I welcome this morning's news that self-employed people and business owners could be treated in the same way as PAYE workers from the next budget, as set out in the standing up for small business campaign, which the Taoiseach will launch next week.
This is policy and this is what will be happening. The two main changes involve reducing the higher rate of USC paid by business owners and allowing self-employed people to claim unemployment benefit should they find themselves unemployed, which is long overdue. There will also be a return of tax rebates towards redundancy costs for businesses forced to lay off staff, which was the case before the recession when businesses were assisted with up to 60% of redundancy costs. These measures are most welcome as self-employed workers have been forced to bear a greater burden of the austerity taxes introduced after the collapse of the economy. I hope this standing up for small businesses campaign will deliver on its stated mission to level the playing field between self-employed and PAYE workers as it is clear that self-employed people are paying more tax yet if they get into trouble, they receive fewer supports and that needs to change.
Currently, self-employed workers whose businesses go to the wall are forced to endure an arduous means test process to receive social welfare payments. For many tradesmen, small business owners or taxi drivers, this often means they are deprived of supports they would receive if they were regular PAYE workers. This situation is wrong and I hope this policy will remedy that inequity.
Senator Mooney raised the issue of Leader funding. I agree entirely with him about the success of the Leader programme. He asked for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, to come to the House for a debate on the future of the Leader programme and I will certainly ask for that debate. To be fair, both the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, have been very regular visitors to this House to debate a range of issues many of them related to-----
-----the Leader programme so it could be the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan.
Senator Mooney also called for a debate on special needs assistants, SNAs, with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and I am happy to seek such a debate. As many colleagues have said, it was very welcome to hear the Minister for Education and Skills announce this week the allocation of additional resources to support children with Down's syndrome in schools in terms of access to special needs assistants. Senator Mulcahy also spoke very strongly on this issue and on the varying abilities and different needs of children in terms of SNA allocation. We would all be very conscious of that and the National Council for Special Education take that into account in allocating. Not all children require special needs assistants for the same number of hours per week, which is a very obvious point to make. We will certainly invite the Minister to House to discuss that issue.
Senator Paul Coghlan referred to the Bord Bia Irish food showcasing event in the Dublin Convention Centre today. I think it is being referred to as speed marketing but it is modelled on speed dating. Irish companies are being matched with international buyers and clients to boost the food industry here. As the Senator said, many millions of euro worth of new business is being targeted and it is a really welcome initiative. I listened to some of the reports on it this morning and it sounds like a very exciting initiative. There is no doubt the food industry has been a major success in recent years in Ireland. A number of other colleagues supported the idea of a debate on the food industry, which would be worth having in this House.
Senator Norris referred to attendance at the Order of Business and I entirely agree with him. He raised two related issues, one of which Senator Cummins, the Leader of the Seanad, referred to earlier this week, namely, Members appearing at the start of the Order of Business and leaving or appearing right at the end and intervening then. There is a matter of common courtesy of people staying in the Chamber for the response, having sought one.
The second issue the Senator raised was the timing of the Order of Business. Only today I put in a request that we have a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to address this issue and to bring back the starting time of the Order of Business on Wednesday and Thursday mornings to 11.30 a.m. rather than 12 p.m. That would be a sensible move but it is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
Senator Norris also raised the very tragic German aeroplane crash. As others have done, I have expressed sympathy to the families of 150 tragic victims. The Senator referred to recent reports that this may not have been an accident but at the moment, it is not yet clear what caused that terrible crash. There are new reports this morning about the cause but it may be too soon to express a settled view on that. However, it is an utter tragedy for all concerned.
Senator Naughton referred to the community enterprise centres, in particular the enterprise centre in Galway which has 41 new start-ups and the increased funding for that, which she welcomed. She sought a debate with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, on jobs creation generally, for which we will certainly look. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, comes to the House on a fairly regular basis on this important issue.
Senator Craughwell referred to the Dyslexia Association of Ireland and support for it from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government's Pobal scheme. Last year when he was appointed, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, intervened to restore funding to a number of different groups facing loss of funding. That was dealt with at that point. In terms of the specific association to which he referred, it might be best dealt with by way of a Commencement debate. The Senator said he will look for the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House but perhaps he should ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to do so specifically on that issue relating to one organisation. There is a broader issue of funding generally through the same scheme which the Minister might come to the House to deal with because many organisations are affected.
I agree entirely with the Senator's comments on dyslexia. I have taught many law students with dyslexia. They have graduated with flying colours from law studies in Trinity College, Dublin, but in the past, they would probably not have made it to third level. The supports at all levels are hugely important and at third level, we have put in very significant supports across colleges for students with dyslexia as it is now well recognised.
Senator Comiskey also welcomed the food conference in the convention centre today and referred to 2015 as a very exciting year for the food industry. Again, we might ask the Minister, Deputy Coveney, or the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to come to the House to discuss that issue.
Senator Byrne referred to the very successful public consultation held in this Chamber on Monday on farm safety. We will have a debate on the report to be produced as a result of that. He also made an excellent suggestion that the Seanad Public Consultation Committee might take on a review of housing policy rather than just have a debate in this House. There is quite a number of different strands. As we know, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has allocated significant increased funding for the social housing construction programme. Social housing building effectively ceased in the boom years and we are now playing catch up. That is a large part of the problem but as Senator Hayden said, there are other issues around the future of home ownership and the rental sector. The issue of repossessions was also mentioned. It is an issue which perhaps the Seanad Public Consultation Committee would be better suited to address rather than simply having statements in the House. The Senator might wish to ask the Seanad Public Consultation Committee to take that on as the next issue, following farm safety.
The Senator also called for a debate on the potato and horticulture industry. Perhaps it would be appropriate to include that in a general debate on the food industry. Senator Mullins remarked on the publication by the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation of a report today on policy options to support business growth and job creation and retention in town and village centres. I have had a quick look at the report, which Senator Mullins gave me. Certainly, it seems to make some important recommendations. Perhaps we could have a debate on the report in the House in the context of a more general debate on job creation. Undoubtedly, focusing on growth in town and village centres is singularly important. Issues like free parking, rates reduction and so on are vital to ensure more vibrant community development in towns and villages throughout Ireland.
Senator Crown raised the issue of potential legal challenges between different State bodies. Other colleagues raised this issue earlier in the week. The Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, has indicated he wants to see the matter between the HSE and HIQA on Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise resolved in particular without recourse to the courts. I imagine we would all agree on that.
The Senator also raised a bigger issue concerning the state of obstetric services throughout Ireland and associated data. There are two issues. First, some of the specific information the Senator seeks might best be sought through a Commencement matter or a parliamentary question in the Dáil. As the Senator is well aware, there is an issue relating to data in maternity hospitals and data concerning maternity and obstetric services. I spoke on the matter recently at an Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation midwifery conference. Midwives and those engaged on the front line of the profession are concerned. A debate in the House with the Minister for Health on the state of obstetric and maternity services more generally might be appropriate. It is a matter of trying to get what data are available but there is a more general debate.
Senator Hayden commented on the housing issue and in particular on the Private Residential Tenancies Board rent index study released today. It shows dramatically rising rents throughout different areas in Ireland, not only in Dublin. Senator Hayden was very impressive on the radio this morning on the same topic. The Senator asked for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, to come to the House to speak about the future of rented housing and home ownership. Perhaps we might look at dealing with those issues as part of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee process because these are far bigger issues than can be dealt with in a once-off session. Senator Bradford also raised this issue and called for a comprehensive debate. He noted the expertise we have in the House with Senator Hayden. We might take that to the SPCC.
Senator Mulcahy spoke on the special needs assistants issue and called for a debate. Many colleagues will empathise with the stories Senator Mulcahy has told of parents contacting him concerning SNA allocations. It is a pressing issue for many people throughout the country.
Senator Mullen asked about tomorrow's business. Clearly, that is a matter for tomorrow's Order of Business and a matter for the House to deal with tomorrow. I cannot deal with it today. I have suggested the Order of Business for today, as the Leas-Chathaoirleach has said.
The Leader will be aware of it. It has been raised. The Senator also raised the issue of the rural practice allowance and payments to general practitioners. Again, since it is a specific matter, it might best be raised through a matter on the Commencement debate and a question to the Minister.
Senator Noone raised the welcome new policy proposals on provision for self-employed persons and access to social protection payments and so forth. Again, I believe that will be important as part of a job creation debate. I realise this is a major issue for self-employed persons in the context of taking risks and initiatives and being entrepreneurs. It has real implications for job creation as well. I think I have dealt with all queries raised.