Thursday, 14 May 2015
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Children (Amendment) Bill 2015, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m., with contributions from group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Yesterday I raised the issue of the continuing deterioration of our health service and the HSE. Taking my local hospital, Beaumont Hospital, as an example, this morning, 39 admitted patients are waiting on trolleys in the accident and emergency department, 33 beds are closed and there are 90 delayed discharges. There was an increase of 26% in waiting lists in the first four months of the year. The situation is going from bad to worse and is at crisis point. Today the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has called for the hospital to go off-call immediately and not take any additional patients through the accident and emergency department or for any surgeries. We do not need to discuss any further the track record of Deputy James Reilly as Minister for Health. People know he was the worst Minister for Health who ever took charge of the Department in the history of the State.
I am sure my colleague from Kilkenny is more than able to put a spin on Deputy James Reilly's record in the Department of Health, but anyone who speaks the truth on this matter will know he was a complete and utter disaster. People expected better from straight-talking Deputy Leo Varadkar, the master of spin and the guy who will tell it as it is. The guy can continue to tell it as it is, but he must do his job as Minister for Health.
Since the Government took over four years ago, the health service has got worse and worse. Since the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, took over, the situation has gone from very bad to extremely bad to crisis point, but nothing is happening. The Minister is interviewed from time to time and he says he wants people to do better, but there is no plan and no implementation of a plan. What does the Government, and Senator Bacik on behalf of the Government in the Seanad, say to the 39 people who are lying on trolleys in the accident and emergency department in Beaumont Hospital today? Does she believe the INMO is incorrect in calling for the hospital to go off-call? It is not just me saying this; it is medical professionals, doctors, nurses, surgeons and consultants who are saying the Government is failing people. It fails the sick, the elderly and those with special needs time and again. What is happening right now in Beaumont Hospital, as one example, is that 39 people who have been admitted are lying on trolleys. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has actually called for the hospital to be closed to new admissions. Absolutely nothing is being done about this. The health waiting lists have doubled since the Government took over. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, should come to the Chamber to tell me the Government's plan to deal with the crisis. Does he agree that Beaumont Hospital should be closed to admissions of new patients? What is he going to do about it? I want him to answer those questions, as this is a serious situation. I formally propose that the Minister for Health come to the House to address the worsening crisis in our health service, specifically the issue in Beaumont Hospital and other hospitals across the city, the county and the country.
We are providing more services than ever before, and I have no doubt that the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is more than happy to debate the challenges facing him in his Department. He will not be in a position to do that today, but I call for him to come to the House in the coming weeks as a matter of urgency to have a debate on the major challenges facing the health service.
I speak for everyone in the House and people throughout Ireland when I express sympathy to the family of the much-loved broadcaster Derek Davis, who passed away at the young age of 67 years. He was a highly professional broadcaster, a lovely gentleman and hugely popular with his audience. We all know how popular "Live at Three", the programme he co-hosted with Thelma Mansfield, was with older people in our communities. He presented many other programmes on radio and television. He will be greatly missed. Derek Davis loved the outdoors. I was privileged to hear a recent interview with him on RTE television a few weeks ago. We remember him with great affection and extend our sympathy to the family.
I congratulate the IRFU on winning the bid to host the women's Rugby World Cup in 2017. It is a huge opportunity to promote women's sport and raise the profile of women's rugby. It is a fitting recognition of the success of our ladies' rugby team in recent years and is a big opportunity to showcase the wonderful hosts we can be of major international events. It will strengthen our bid to secure the holding of the men's Rugby World Cup in 2023. I wish the IRFU success in hosting this event in Dublin and Belfast.
I welcome the new measures announced by the Government on mortgage arrears. The Government is acutely conscious of the impact of debt on families and is determined to see it resolved. Yesterday's package, which should help to bring some relief to those struggling with mortgage debt, builds on the steps already taken. It will increase the supports available to people and help increase the numbers availing of them. The major reform of the insolvency framework is the fact that the courts are being given the power to approve insolvency deals rejected by banks, where appropriate. The message we want to get to everyone is that the help they need is there. People who do not engage are putting their homes at serious risk of repossession. Everyone should avail of the new opportunities to address the issue of mortgage arrears.
I would like to make sure attention is paid to the decision of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to introduce mandatory pay-by-weight on bins. The announcement took place in the past number of days, but seems a regressive step for a Government that had to cope with the outcry about property tax, water charges and bin charges to insist that householders who are doing their best to recycle must pay by weight. It is something that should be debated. It should not just come into operation by chance.
Two years ago I suggested that we should have safety kits in all cars, and it took a long time for something to happen. I am delighted to hear the Road Safety Authority's announcement that it would do something about it and that it was looking for suggestions on what should be included in the road safety kit that all cars will need to have. Almost every country in Europe has legislation saying that every car should have safety equipment in it. Many new cars coming in from abroad have it, but we have not had it up to now. It has taken at least two years since we brought it up in the House, but at least it is going to happen. I urge the rest of the country to get behind the Road Safety Authority and give advice on what should be included.
I call on the Leader to arrange an urgent debate with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. We need to find out why the Government is pursuing a wind-only policy to reach the 2020 renewable energy targets. We know there are alternatives, one of which is to convert Moneypoint coal-fired power station and other power stations to sustainable biomass. The cost factor the experts refer to is €400 million, whereas we are pursuing the wind energy project at a cost of €5 billion, with the erection of thousands of wind turbines, and €4 billion for a grid network that is not necessary. The €9 billion cost will be borne by the bill payer. With the conversion of Moneypoint, we could reach our target immediately. It raises the question of why we will spend €9 billion when we can get away with €400 million to reach our target immediately, unless the whole wind energy project is developer-driven. It requires an urgent debate in the House and I call on the Leader to bring it about.
I second the proposed amendment to the Order of Business by Senator Darragh O'Brien. Without going over the ground covered, there is no doubt there is a major problem in the health services. What is happening in Beaumont Hospital is typical of what is happening throughout the country. I will not make a comment on the previous Minister or the current Minister, but the state of our health services is worse than it was five years ago. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and many of the medical profession are saying it. It is a serious charge, but something that must be dealt with.
Can the Deputy Leader ascertain why the Rotunda Hospital has set up a maternity strategy steering committee group from 2014 to 2016 to examine matters at the coalface in our maternity hospitals? There is no staff midwife on the group. I am alarmed and perplexed at this, as midwives are at the coalface of births and are central to any maternity hospital. I welcome the setting up of the steering group, and perhaps other maternity hospitals should follow suit. To ignore the functions and input of staff midwives is a serious fault by the strategy group. I do not expect an answer but perhaps the Deputy Leader can ascertain why it happened and ensure it does not happen again. Midwives play a central and key role in maternity hospitals and are at the coalface of births. To ignore their input and to set them aside and stand them down from such a steering group is a major mistake.
I sympathise with Derek Davis's family. Every time I saw him on the screen he had a smile and there was a lot going on behind his smile. He was a great communicator. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I welcome today's announcement by the company behind the workplace messaging application Slack that it is coming to Ireland. It is a big technology company belonging to the owners of Flickr, the photo-sharing software. That is a great announcement. I also welcome the Government's announcement that it is to encourage people to start up their own companies, which came out yesterday evening. People will be able to reclaim tax from investment for six years. There was a seed capital fund in place which was similar, but as Mark Fielding from ISME said, it was so convoluted and difficult to access that take-up was very slow. The new scheme announced by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, is called SURE. It will make it easier for ordinary people, particularly those who are retired and have a few bob with which they want to start a company, to claim back the tax. There will be less red tape than with the old seed capital scheme, and the new scheme will also be open to those who are unemployed or have been made redundant. Mr. Fielding said one would need a degree in linguistics to read the instructions for the old scheme, never mind apply for it.
I wish to ask for a debate in the House. The Minister of State, Deputy Nash, has set up a high-level group looking at regulations and red tape for small businesses, specifically how to make the regulatory input analysis, RIA, easier for small businesses starting up. It is ten years since the regulatory input analysis was set up. The Minister of State is asking for submissions and has written to the various committees. We should discuss this in the Seanad as well, as we are getting a lot of queries. What better place to discuss how to make it easier and how the Government could make it more accessible?
I wish to raise the funding cuts to the scheme to support national organisations, SSNO. This topic may sound familiar to colleagues, as last year, in the months preceding the cuts, I proposed Adjournment matters to try and get answers. In July, the Minister stepped in and restored funding for one year as bridging funding for these organisation and said we would have a whole new scheme in place by the end of June 2015. Over the last few months, I have been working with Senator Marie Moloney behind the scenes, trying to ensure that this scheme will be put in place. We had what I felt was a constructive meeting with the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, yet today we still have no answer regarding the scheme. These organisations are receiving between €30,000 and €60,000 each from the State. They include the Asthma Society, the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, the Stammering Association, the Migraine Association and the Arthritis Association. There is a long list of excellent organisations, each of which is deserving of this funding in its own right. The bridging funding will run out at the end of June. The organisations have employed staff based on this funding line and have to tell people where they stand. More importantly, they have to tell those who are using their services how the organisations are going to be fixed and whether they will be able to continue providing their services and doing their great work. I ask for an urgent debate next week on the scheme to support national organisations. I will try to submit a Commencement matter again, but it has been ruled out of order twice already because we discussed it a few weeks ago. These organisations deserve answers and we have to find a way to give them the security of funding they need.
I also wish to raise the report launched today by hotline.iewhich shows a 148% increase in the amount of child sexual abuse material online. I ask the Leader to advise us as to when it is expected that the sexual offences Bill will come before the Seanad. Given that several aspects of the Bill concern provisions that Senators have called for, it would be excellent for the Bill to come before this House. I urge the Government to consider a model similar to the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK, which filters and blocks child abuse material. As colleagues are aware, I have done a report on the issue and strongly believe that Ireland should have a system of blocking. Interpol and Europol support a system of blocking and filtering in order to stop first-time users getting access to this type of material. I know it is not a panacea, but it does ensure that material is not out there for the majority of people. As regards the sexual offences Bill, I wish to ask the Minister to consider changing the terminology in the Bill from "child pornography" to the term agreed on by Europol and Interpol, "child sexual abuse material". We should name it for what it is.
Like many people, I have been listening to the coverage of the scenario at Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise. It has been truly harrowing to listen to the accounts of some of the women who were interviewed following the meeting last night. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, sat for five or six hours last night and listened to the stories of all of those people with deep respect.
As someone who worked in both Dundalk and Drogheda when there were various issues around maternity care in that region, I find it severely troubling that we have a serious legacy of mishandling maternity cases going back well over a decade. I understand that we are to have a new national maternity strategy. One of the issues I would like to see addressed is the impact of whistleblower legislation on maternity care. For all the years that people were suffering in our hospitals, there were staff, doctors and all sorts of people going in and out. I believe there will never be an effective strategy for health care, or any other care sector, if we do not have adequate whistleblower legislation. I would like to see that included in a maternity review.
I was pleased to see some of the announcements in respect of the mortgage arrears situation yesterday. I am not entirely convinced that they will deal fully with the situation, and they need to be kept under review. As we all know, the mortgage-to-rent scheme has proved very disappointing, although it could have been much more significant. There are a number of reasons for this and we should debate it at some point. There is an issue concerning valuations, particularly of properties in the Dublin region. Even with the renewed valuations, a number of middle-income people with properties over those limits will have no real effective solution when it comes to the mortgage-to-rent scheme. I would like us to consider a mortgage-to-shared-equity scheme. Banks took the benefit when times were good and they should take part of the pain when times are bad. Instead of shelving split mortgages, why not ask banks to take part of the equity in properties that go over the limit for the mortgage-to-rent scheme?
I wish to request an early meeting with the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Social Protection on the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS.
I understand the Minister for Finance wants MABS to be a friend in those in distress. MABS has always a been a friend to those in distress. I would like to hear soon how the Minister plans to enhance that friendship role and what resources he plans to put into it.
That will make it into the Guinness Book of Records.
I wish to express my deepest sympathy to Una Davis and the Davis family on the loss of a former colleague of mine, Derek Davis. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. I first worked with Derek when we were both assigned by RTE to the 1980 Olympic Games, when I spent over a month with him in Moscow and got to know him quite well. He was a very witty, charming, personable and humble man in his own way, who went on to great success on national television. A side issue which has not come up in the various tributes to him in the media is that he started out in life as a showband singer. In a beautiful tribute to his former school colleague in the Irish Independent, Brendan Keenan referred to Derek as being a roadie for a showband. He was known professionally for a while as "Mean Tom", which was a send-up of "Big Tom", which is now long forgotten. I got a call from a listener to one of my programmes in the north west yesterday to tell me he has a copy of a CD that Derek Davis recorded at that time. It has not come up, so for the record, that was where he started off. Mean Tom was, of course, far from being Mean Tom. He was Derek Davis and he was larger than life and went on to great fame.
I would also like to express my deepest sympathies to the family of the late Bill O'Donovan. It has been a tough week for RTE. Bill O'Donovan died at the weekend. He was my producer for five years on "Keep It Country" on 2FM when it first started in 1979. He also produced nearly all the showband records of note in Eamonn Andrews Studios in Harcourt Street, which was owned by his brother, Fred O'Donovan, who was well known to many Senators as a theatrical agent and who also passed away some years ago. He was a former chairman of RTE. I was sad to hear that Bill O'Donovan passed away at the weekend. He has left a very rich legacy of broadcasting behind him. One of his high points was an interview he did in the Eamonn Andrews Studios with the late Jim Reeves, which is still repeated in archive programmes to this day. It was one of the few interviews Jim Reeves did during his brief visit to Ireland, and, of course, some months later he died in an air crash.
I express my sympathies to the O'Donovan and Davis families, but I also wish a very happy retirement to the great Donncha Ó Dúlaing. I am sure the House will join me in this. He retired from RTE broadcasting in the past week. He will be missed on the airwaves. He is another man who has left a very rich legacy in broadcasting in the archives, which I am sure we will listen to with great enjoyment, going back to his days on "Three-O-One" and the time when he worked as Munster correspondent for RTE. I wish Donncha and his family every happiness and thank Donncha for the wonderful hours of entertainment he brought more recently to listeners abroad with his "Fáilte Isteach" programme.
I also welcome the good news that Ireland will be hosting the women's Rugby World Cup in two years time. It is just reward for their successes in faraway countries all over the world and particularly their success in last year's world cup in Paris, where they finished fourth, having beaten on their way the famous New Zealand team, the Black Ferns. It was a major achievement for the women's team. One of the greatest upsets in rugby history was when Munster beat the famous All Blacks in Thomond Park so long ago. It brought back those memories. No doubt it will showcase our country in the four corners of the world and will help our tourism and economic situation. We look forward to it. It augurs well and will show that we have the infrastructure here and the people interested in rugby and we will welcome the 2023 men's world cup to Dublin, Belfast and Thomond Park. Hopefully we will be successful in obtaining that.
Violence, evil, cruelty, terrorism, murder and destruction of human life are the words I think of when I recall the events of the bank holiday weekend in 1979 when a grandfather who was holidaying in Ireland and treating his children to a boat trip to fish in the afternoon were brutally murdered. The rest is tragic history. Lord Louis Mountbatten, his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, Doreen Brabourne and a local boy, Paul Maxwell, were all murdered when their boat was blown up. Forgiveness, peace, kindness, grace, compassion and bravery are the words I think of when I think of Prince Charles, who is coming to visit the west of Ireland next Tuesday with his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. He is travelling to visit the scene at which his very close godfather and uncle was brutally slaughtered, as I have just described. I hope Senators will join me in a moment of reflection also to think of the other people, the soldiers, who were brutally murdered on that fateful day. I hope our Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, will come forward next week and be there to apologise for the heinous crime on behalf of our nation.
I, too, would like to join my colleagues in lamenting the passing of Derek Davis. I also agree with what Senator Mooney has just said. It is not the function of the Taoiseach of this country to apologise for the actions of terrorists who acted on the soil of this country.
I wish to raise two issues. The first is the issue of Balbriggan community school, which my colleague, Senator Darragh O'Brien, has represented well in this House and I know he will continue to do so. However, the time has come for a debate in this House on the school building programme and how it is being run. We simply cannot have a school being promised something one day and, as it were, having the rug pulled out from under it the next.
Yesterday I was listening to the news. It is no secret around here that I am a recent grandfather. I started to hear stories of the appalling maternity services in this country. Part of me was slightly horrified that we would talk about these things on the day parents lost a child in this country. There is clearly a huge problem in the health services in this country. I cannot begin to understand how any young expectant mother facing a maternity hospital over the next couple of months is thinking with all the talk of the disastrous services. The time has come for us to review what the HSE does. We have one layer too many in the health service. We need to get rid of the HSE and bring health back to the Minister's Department, where the Minister takes first-hand responsibility. I am not for one moment condemning the Minister. He is doing an excellent job, in fairness to him. However, he will say himself that he is running to keep up. It is time that this House, which has the time to discuss and debate what exactly has gone wrong since we introduced the HSE into the country, had that debate.
I join in the tributes to the late Derek Davis and extend our sympathies to his wife, Una, and his family. My first recollection of him was as a newsreader in RTE. He always signed off on the night with a funny joke or comment. I was struck by a recent interview in which he outlined his trouble with obesity. He had to go to the extent of having an operation to try to lose weight. I hope that made no contribution to his sudden death. Perhaps we need to have a broader discussion on obesity. Some people are naturally overweight and should not be referred to as obese.
Will the Deputy Leader invite the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, to the House in order that he can outline the reason for the cut of almost €400,000 in the budget of the marriage advisory and counselling agency, Accord? The agency provides excellent counselling to people before they get married in pre-marriage courses and to people when their marriage is in difficulty. Accord also offers bereavement counselling. The counselling service is very worthwhile and necessary.
It is ironic that at a time when the Government is promoting marriage equality that it is cutting funding to organisations that are trying to maintain marriages in difficulty. When the Government was caught out in that regard yesterday, it then issued a statement in the evening stating that all marriage advisory services were being cut. I do not think that is acceptable. I hope the Government's heavy-handed measure is not due to Accord being a Catholic organisation. That is not a religious comment. It is a very serious comment on the maintenance of marriage in this country. The cutback in funding to Accord and other organisations that provide much needed advice to people at a time of difficulty in their relationships is appalling and it is undermining marriage. Perhaps the Deputy Leader could get in contact with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and invite him to the House in order to assure us that this is not an attempt to get back at an organisation because of a particular stance it is taking on the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.
I thank Senator Wilson for bringing a very important issue to the floor of the Seanad. He is absolutely correct in everything he said. I would like to live in a country where state funding would be available to organisations that provide counselling to gay couples and those organisations whose mission it is to provide counselling to married couples according to their understanding of marriage, one that is shared by millions of people, that it is between a man and a woman, because it unites children with their biological father and mother. There is a lot to be feared given what has just happened. It is no argument to say that the likes of Barnardos has also had its funding cut because what Deputy Mattie McGrath, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, Senator Fidelma Healy Eames and I brought to attention yesterday was the fact that Atlantic Philanthropies has put tens of millions of dollars into advocacy on the side of changing marriage in favour of same-sex marriage in recent years. We discovered that it is also giving €8 million to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which is welcome in itself-----
I do not interrupt other people. When the head of Tusla is also involved in and supporting the "Yes Equality" campaign it does make one wonder. If that is what is happening before a "Yes" vote happens at all, which hopefully will not happen, what will it be like when it is claimed there is a radical, constitutional equality between same-sex married couples and heterosexual married couples? What will be the implications for people's right to teach in State-funded schools that fathers and mothers are necessary for children? Will that fall foul of the radical new constitutional version of equality that is being proposed, and what will it be like for agencies such as Accord, which have helped tens of thousands of couples this year alone?
What Senator Wilson has raised is very apposite and we should be very concerned about the capturing of Government agencies by international donors. We should ask about their influence on the referendum campaign and the very workings of government.
In recent weeks many Senators have highlighted issues relating to the health service and unfortunately it is never good news. Senator Craughwell mentioned the HSE being one layer too many. The tragic deaths of babies, in particular in Cavan General Hospital, have been discussed. It is important to state that what emerged this week is that doctors and nurses had repeatedly highlighted the risk to patients posed by theatre staff shortages at the hospital. Issues that have been raised include systems failures, under-resourcing and, most importantly, the provision of adequately trained staff. Senator Craughwell's point on one layer too many is important because when staff, doctors and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, write to hospital managers they warn of shortages and the risks of what could happen but what they say is not taken on board and then tragic incidents occur, such as we have seen this week. That is most unfortunate and when the loss of life is involved, we must take the issue seriously. Bureaucracy should not trump human life.
It is all well and good that we have recommendations that will be implemented arising from review processes that may address concerns but it is important that we listen to front-line staff in the first instance. When the Minister for Health comes to the House we often have statements that last two hours and we do not get to properly question him in the way we would like. The conduct of the debate is very frustrating. We make a statement and the Minister makes a statement but there is no toing and froing. It is important that perhaps when we have the next debate on health that we would have an opportunity to ask questions in order to provide answers to the public. The Executive is accountable to Parliament, including this Chamber. It is important that we have some time reserved to question the Minister and that he can directly answer some of the questions we put to him.
I ask the advice of the Deputy Leader on this matter. Yesterday, the Government announced the so-called end of the bank veto. It remains to be seen what will be in the Government's legislation in that regard. We hope that it does mean the bank veto will be ended and that the Government means what it says. When the Personal Insolvency Bill was going through this House there was a good debate with many Members on both sides speaking. The issue identified by me and many other colleagues at the time related to the bank veto. However, the then Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, in his response to us, stated: "The banks do not have a veto." Clearly, this House was very much misled by the then Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter. Is there anything this House can do about the misleading statement given by the then Minister, Deputy Shatter, during the passage of the legislation? Is it something the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, might take up?
Members who supported the legislation at the time or who accepted the then Minister's word that there was no bank veto must feel very badly let down. This House should now do something about that. We should pass a motion at some point on the misleading information that was given to us. We should warn Ministers that when they come to this House to sell legislation to us that they must be honest and truthful, because clearly at the time this legislation was being passed the then Minister, Deputy Shatter, was not truthful in this House nor were the Taoiseach, who stated in the Dail that there was no bank veto, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, who stated the same on a different occasion. The people have been misled in recent years.
I am pleased though that the Fianna Fáil analysis of the problem and our fairer and better way of dealing with mortgage arrears has finally reached the ears of the Government. We need a proper debate on what the Government is proposing and before that we need to know exactly what is proposed. I do not know whether you have a role in the matter, a Chathaoirligh. I wish to know what the House can do about that misleading statement by the then Minister, Deputy Shatter.
As Members will be aware, there was an further earthquake in Nepal, focusing around the area of Namche Bazaar. Namche Bazaar is a beautiful small Himalayan town. It is the first place in the Himalayas where one gets to see Mount Everest. I merely wish to inquire from the Deputy Leader what efforts are being made on behalf of the Irish Government to provide aid to the people of Nepal and the affected areas. When Deputy Costello was Minister of State in the Department concerned, an idea was floated that Shannon Airport would be used as a disaster hub, where aid and supplies could be stored and from which a concerted aid campaign on behalf of various European agencies could be operated. I would like to know if that has been progressed to any extent or if it was merely hot air, because hot air seems to be what we in the mid-west get when it comes to any form of development.
The motorway project for the N20, which is the main route between Ireland's second and third cities, Cork and Limerick, has again been shelved indefinitely. Anybody who has travelled this route will be aware that there are a number of dangerous accident blackspots - O'Rourkes Cross, Rockhill and Banogue come to mind. I travel it quite often. There is always bumper-to-bumper traffic in Charleville, Buttevant, Mallow, you name it. It is a disaster. That it has been shelved again is a poor reflection on efforts made by members of the Government from both Limerick and Cork. The idea that senior members of Cabinet do not see this as an important project for the area is not acceptable. I call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come in to this Chamber to explain why that decision was taken. In all fairness, and meaning no offence to the people of Clare and Galway, it is a joke that we can connect Crusheen and Gort via motorway yet we cannot connect Limerick and Cork via motorway. The Minister should come to the House at the earliest convenience to discuss this matter and the reasons behind the postponement.
I call on the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate on social housing and the programme being advanced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly. There are currently approximately 90,000 persons waiting for social housing within the State. In my county, the submissions which have been sent back by local authorities to the Department show that there are 1,675 individuals awaiting a local authority house. The figures are larger in urban areas. We need to have a debate about where the funding is allocated, having regard to the numbers in need. There is an efficiency and value-for-money way out of this as well, whereby the State could go back to providing houses in rural townlands, such as the old labourers' cottages, which can be built, according to contractors, for approximately 60% less than a traditional house in an urban area. There is an issue here about the role State policy plays in urbanisation as well as regional balanced development. I ask for a debate on that issue, including the housing need issue.
I concur with the view of my colleague, Senator Wilson, as reiterated by Senator Mullen, on the discriminatory withdrawal of State resources from the marriage counselling agency Accord. The sceptic in me would suggest that it is coincident with Accord's position on the "No" side of next week's referendum. It is odd that, ten days out from the referendum, there would be a move of a suppressive nature rolled out by the State. If that is the case, or if there is any hint of it, it is disgraceful that a government would instruct that taxpayers' money be withdrawn or used to try to influence a vote. It is wrong. The Irish people will decide. The State, and particularly the Government, should stay well clear of using taxpayers' money to influence voters one way or another. Senator Wilson put it well when he stated that Accord has served this country and the institution of marriage well down through the years. The funding should be reinstated.
Senator Darragh O'Brien raised the issue of the health service and spoke about the number of patients on waiting lists, which is a matter of considerable concern to all of us. I would remind the Senator that during the boom years, under Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, there were appalling waiting lists and there was appalling mismanagement of the health system.
With regard to Beaumont Hospital, I understand there is a particular issue with regard to the closure of a ward for refurbishment, which may have a bearing on the situation.
The Senator also proposed an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that we ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to come to the House. As the Senator will be aware, yesterday, the Leader, on foot of a request from quite a number of us, asked the Minister for Health to come to the House to discuss nursing services, including maternity services, the HSE and the health service generally. That request has already been made. I asked again for the Minister to come in today. As other colleagues have stated, the Minister is at the Joint Committee on Health and Children today, but I hope we will have a date for him to come to the House to hear the broad-ranging debate that a number of us have sought and that Senator Darragh O'Brien also seeks. I cannot accede to the amendment today.
Senator Michael Mullins referred to the major challenges the Government has faced in the health service and expressed sympathy with the family of the late Derek Davis. I think all of us would wish to join in expressing sympathy with the family of the late Mr. Davis. Indeed, there were many moving tributes, particularly by Senator Mooney, as a former colleague of the late Mr. Davis. I would like to be associated with those tributes too.
Senator Michael Mullins also congratulated the IRFU on bringing the women's Rugby World Cup to Ireland, to Dublin and Belfast, in 2017. It is a hugely positive development, an opportunity to promote women in sport and to promote sport in Ireland generally. I think we would all join with Senator Michael Mullins in wishing the IRFU success in the preparation for that event.
Senator Mullins also welcomed the mortgage arrears package that is being developed, about which the Government met yesterday, which will have a number of different aspects. The courts, in particular, will be given the power to approve, where appropriate, insolvency deals rejected by banks, and I understand the necessary legislation will be in place before the summer recess. Colleagues looked for a debate on that. We will have a debate when the legislation comes to us. The mortgage-to-rent scheme is also being expanded and the numbers of properties qualifying will be increased, and, indeed, the valuation level is to be increased. I would share with Senator Hayden the view that we should look at the valuation level, particularly in Dublin. Certainly, I welcome the extension of that package. Finally, it will strengthen the role of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS. All of us would wish to acknowledge the hugely supportive role MABS has been playing with borrowers in arrears, but I welcome the news that it will be strengthened in providing that support.
Senator Quinn raised the concept of mandatory pay-by-weight for bins. I will certainly make inquiries about that. Senator Quinn also raised safety kits in cars. I am grateful to the Senator for raising this, because I was not aware that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, was looking for suggestions on what should be included in road safety kits in cars. It would be good if we could develop that further and bring suggestions to the RSA in that regard. It is a practical and positive move.
Senator Kelly sought a debate with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on wind energy and meeting the 2020 renewable targets, and I am happy to seek such a debate.
Senator O'Donovan seconded the amendment proposed by Senator Darragh O'Brien, and I have already dealt with that. He also raised an issue concerning a steering group at the Rotunda Hospital and the lack of midwife representation. I am certainly happy, if the Senator supplies me with more information, to write to the Minister on that. I spoke at the annual midwifery conference for the North and South of Ireland for the INMO as an invited speaker. I am very happy to work to ensure midwives are adequately represented at all relevant committees.
Senator Keane expressed condolences on the death of Derek Davis. She also raised the issue of SURE, the start-up refunds for entrepreneurs scheme. Like her, I would like to welcome the new scheme announced today by the Ministers, Deputies Bruton and Noonan. The scheme allows entrepreneurs to claim back from the Government up to 41% of their investment in new start-ups. It is a positive scheme and we all hope it is very successful. A new website, www.sure.gov.ie, has been set up and a marketing campaign, aimed at increasing awareness of the scheme among people who are considering starting their own businesses, was launched today. It is a positive move to encourage start-ups and entrepreneurship.
Senator van Turnhout raised the issue of cuts in funding for small community groups. We are all aware that the Minister, Deputy Kelly, moved on this last year. The Senator is working on the issue with Senator Moloney. I recently spoke to the Minister about it and I understand he is working to progress it. I share the Senator's concern that time is running out and I am happy to ask the Minister to come before the House. It might also be worth tabling a Commencement matter on it to try to keep the pressure on.
The Senator also raised the issue of child sex abuse material online and asked about the timing of the sex offences Bill. I asked the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, about this. I agree with the Senator. I would love to see it start in the Seanad and it would be appropriate. I agree with her about the terminology and changing the use of the term "child pornography" to "child sex abuse material". I will try to find out when the Bill will be published. It is envisaged that it would become law before the end of this year but I do not know when it is proposed to bring it to the Houses. The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality had a review of it at the pre-legislative stage.
Senator Hayden raised the harrowing accounts given by parents of the tragic deaths of their babies in the midlands hospital and noted that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, spent hours listening to them. We all welcome the time and attention he is giving to this matter. She also referred to the legacy of the mishandling of maternity cases and the need for a new national maternity strategy, as well as protection for whistleblowers. We are all aware of the Protected Disclosures Act produced by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, which will at last supply the necessary protection to whistleblowers whose work has been so important in exposing malpractice in a wide range of areas. The Senator also referred to the mortgage arrears package, which we will debate once the Bill comes before the House in short course.
Senator Mooney referred to the sad loss of Derek Davis. As I have said, I listened with great pleasure to the Senator's lovely anecdotes and memories of working with him and with Bill O'Donovan, the RTE producer who sadly also died. I share the sending of condolences to their families. On a happier note, I wish Donncha Ó Dúlaing a happy retirement. He has left a rich legacy of broadcasting and I am a fan of his.
Senator Brennan referred to the IRFU hosting the women's Rugby World Cup, an announcement we all welcome.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien referred to the appalling murders in Sligo of Lord Mountbatten, his grandson and two others.
Senator O'Brien has taken the words out of my mouth. As it happens, I had spoken to colleagues on foot of what she said. It is a matter for the Taoiseach, if he meets Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, next week, to extend sympathies on behalf of the Irish State to the family. The Senator is quite correct in saying that would be entirely appropriate. I do not know if anyone here knows the itinerary or if the Taoiseach is due to meet Prince Charles and his wife, but it would be appropriate to extend sympathies if he does. It is a sign of immense progress in the peace process that we are having this visit next week. It is very positive for Ireland, Sligo and the peace process more generally. I very much welcome that.
Senator Craughwell asked for a debate on the schools building programme, which has been successful. The Government has made a significant investment in upgrading school buildings nationwide, as the Senator will be aware. He also reiterated the need for a debate on the health service. I had the pleasure of meeting his beautiful granddaughter this week and extend my congratulations to him on recently becoming a grandfather.
Senator Wilson offered his sympathies on the death of Derek Davis. He also referred to reports in newspapers of the cuts to the budget of the Accord marriage counselling agency. Very full statements were made in the Dáil on this matter yesterday. I understand the cut was made not by the Government but by Tusla which, as colleagues will be aware, is an independent agency. The decision was made by the board of Tusla. I understand Accord will still get €1.6 million a year and funding for other agencies has been cut.
If colleagues read the newspapers today, they will have noted a statement by the chief executive of Barnardos, an organisations which, as it happens, supported the marriage equality referendum and has had its budget cut significantly. Deputy Rabbitte spoke in the Dáil yesterday about a significant loss of funding for a shelter in his constituency for women and children suffering from domestic violence. Other Deputies and Senators have spoken of cutbacks to other services in their areas which have nothing to do with any issue around the referendum. There is an issue in terms of funding from Tusla and whether it has sufficient funding for agencies.
I also point out to Senators Wilson and Ó Domhnaill, who both raised the issue, that it is not the Government that is promoting marriage equality, rather that all major political parties, including Fianna Fáil, are supportive of it and are actively campaigning, including in my area, in support of the referendum on marriage equality. It is important to say that this is not something that is owned by the Government. It is a referendum for the people and is being supported by parties across the Government and Opposition divide.
Senator Mullen referred to the issue of funding, with which I have dealt. He also referred to Atlantic Philanthropies. I want to put on the record the large amount of funding it has provided to the university sector across Ireland, of which most people will be conscious. I profoundly disagree with the Senator's comments on the referendum, just as I disagreed with his comments when he opposed civil partnership legislation in this House under the previous Government. He also raised the issue of teaching in schools if the marriage equality referendum is passed. I refer him to the comments of the chair of the Referendum Commission, Mr. Justice Kevin Cross, on Newstalk radio on Wednesday. He said if the referendum is passed, a school teaching religious doctrine will still be able to teach in accordance with religious doctrine in terms of marriage, just as they can teach that marriage is for life and even if people have a civil divorce, that is not recognised by the church. The divorce referendum did not change the status of marriage teaching in religious schools.
Senator Reilly referred to health and raised an important point on the nature and type of debate we have with the Minister for Health. We used to have debates where there were questions to the Minister, and I will speak to the Leader about trying to ensure better interaction between Senators and Ministers. There was concern when we had a question-and-answer format that we did not have enough time to speak, but I will consider how we can improve.
Senator Byrne referred to the mortgage arrears package, which I have dealt with, and we will debate any comments made by any Minister on previous legislation when we debate the new legislation which will come to the House as part of the package agreed by the Government.
Senator Heffernan referred to the earthquake in Nepal. The Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, announced on 27 April that, on foot of the first tragic earthquake, €1 million would be made available in humanitarian funding through the Irish Aid programme. The money has been made available and I have an up-to-date statement on it. Some 63 tonnes of life-saving humanitarian supplies have been made available to Nepal through Ireland's rapid response initiative and a highly skilled member of our rapid response corps has been deployed to Kathmandu to work with UNICEF. Following the second earthquake, these efforts will continue through Irish Aid and NGO partners.
The Senator also referred to the N20 and the road between Limerick and Cork. I would like to inform him that another Senator had a Commencement matter on this issue today and there is a reply from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on the table in the anteroom. He may wish to read it for his answer on the issue.
Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to social housing and noted the major investment in social housing announced by the Minister, Deputy Kelly, for the first time in many years. It is very welcome and I am happy to look for a debate. Senator Hayden also called for such a debate.
I believe I have answered all the questions asked by Senators, including those asked by Senators who did not have the courtesy to stay in the Chamber or to inform me that they had to leave. I thank those Senators who told me they were leaving and who apologised. I also thank the Senators who took the time to remain in the Chamber. As the Leader has said many times, some people remain to hear the replies and others come in when it is time to speak and then leave without saying anything to the Leader. In my view, at a certain point the Leader will have to decide to stop responding to those who have left the Chamber.
I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the family of the late Derek Davis. He was also an avid fisherman and was regularly seen fishing on the Moy in County Mayo.
Senator Darragh O'Brien has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on the worsening crisis in the health service and in particular the situation in Beaumont Hospital and the other hospitals throughout the State, be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Thomas Byrne
- Gerard Craughwell
- John Crown
- James Heffernan
- Terry Leyden
- Paschal Mooney
- Rónán Mullen
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- Darragh O'Brien
- Denis O'Donovan
- Averil Power
- Feargal Quinn
- Mary White
- Katherine Zappone