Tuesday, 4 October 2016
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the address to the House by Mr. Manus Cooney on 5 October 2016, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the establishment of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 without debate; and No. 3, statements on the European Commission's decision that Ireland provided unlawful State aid to Apple, to be taken at 6 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7.15 p.m. with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, all other Senators not to exceed four minutes and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 7.10 p.m.
I ask the Leader to call on the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, to attend this House and address us on the absolute mess in industrial relations in this country. The industrial relations situation in Ireland is an absolute shambles and it does not seem to be improving. We have a failed Workplace Relations Act, continuous transport strikes, threatened Garda stoppages and still no sign of the promised public service pay commission that was agreed in the confidence and supply agreement.
A recent survey of industrial relations practitioners conducted by the Employment Law Association of Ireland showed that the majority are extremely unhappy with the new Act. One in every two legal and industrial relations practitioners is dissatisfied with the new system. Three in five believe that the format of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, adjudication system is inconsistent. Two in five are dissatisfied with the quality of the adjudicating officers' rulings. One in two had problems with how the WRC processes applications for adjournments and a few other details.Now that the days of the employment appeals tribunal are over, when hearings were held in public and chaired by a legally trained professional, they are now held in private and treated by employers as a dry run, away from the scrutinising eye of the media. Non-legally trained professionals adjudicate in disputes, from which inconsistent decisions stem. Most employers and employees will appeal the decisions of adjudication officers to the Labour Court and there will be a backlog of cases in the Labour Court in the next couple of months. It was envisaged that the current system would be more cost-effective, but it is not. It does not provide value for money for the public and does not give aggrieved employees redress in any form. They are the ones who will ultimately have to bear the cost of high legal fees when matters are appealed to the Labour Court, either by themselves or their employers. I ask the Leader to call on the Minister to address the House today on the ongoing strikes hitting the country, not just the WRC.
We will leave that issue to one side.
I draw the attention of the House to Sinn Féin's alternative budget which was published earlier today. It is a fully costed alternative to the failed policies on tax breaks for those who least need them which have resulted in a lack of investment in key services for those who need them the most. For far too long, any proposal Sinn Féin has brought forward has been dismissed out of hand in an arrogant, nonsensical, illogical and obstructive manner. I am more than happy to engage in any economic debate based on sound, solid actualities, but the schoolyard gobbledygook I have had to endure from Members of this House from whom I would have expected more only serves to expose and underpin the leprechaun economics with which we have been credited globally. The infantile dismissals of Sinn Féin's economic policies and other policies on key areas, including health, education and rural Ireland, do an injustice to the citizens we are here to serve.
Sinn Féin's priorities are to provide for fair taxation to reduce the cost of living and invest in public services. We have clearly shown that by using the €1 billion in the fiscal space available, combined with measures to introduce tax fairness and bring about savings, we could reduce the cost of living and invest in public services, increase capital investment to build homes, schools, health facilities, undertake flood relief works, repair and maintain roads and develop an all-Ireland economy to achieve long-term growth. We want to invest in the all-island economy to strengthen our response to Brexit, for which we have a strategy. In the document published today we are putting forward concrete and costed proposals to deal with the uncertainty in the period ahead. I commend the document to the Seanad and call on the Minister for Finance to consider our proposals and reconsider his plans to prioritise tax cuts over much needed investment in services that have been neglected for too long. It is a fully costed document that makes full use of EU fiscal rules to allow for massive investment in public services, averaged out over a four-year period so as not to be limited by the fiscal space available. This is the clearest example of an option being open to the Government and it will be interesting to see if it grasps it for the good of the people or if, as in the case of Apple, it will refuse to take it in favour of pursuing its own sectional interests.
I was heartened yesterday to see a large protest in Dublin city centre in support of the provision of funding to promote cycle safety, organised by the Dublin Cycling Campaign and cycling.ie. Over 500 cyclists took time to tell the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, that the current allocation of funding to promote activities such as walking and cycling was a meagre 1% of total transport expenditure and totally inadequate. Recent cutbacks in the transport budget of the Dublin City Council have potentially led to existing plans for infrastructural development to be scrapped.This is regressive, to say the least.
I was a keen rural and urban cyclist while living in the Netherlands for ten years. It is clichéd at this stage to want to emulate the Dutch on cycling issues but there is a good reason for this. The Netherlands has turned cycling not only into a transport solution but also into a positive attribute of the cities and regions. A country with more cyclists is more livable and attractive, with less air pollution and traffic congestion. It is more attractive for both inhabitants and tourists. A fine example of this is the recently opened Waterford greenway cycling and walking system, which was largely started up on a voluntary basis. It is open and very attractive. It has safe infrastructure and it is already attracting tourists and allowing people of the south east to see more of their beautiful countryside along Ireland's Ancient East.
A vibrant cycling sector can serve as a source of jobs in sales, rental and repairs much as the implementation of infrastructure can provide direct employment. Tourism is one of our largest industries. We must always strive to ensure Ireland is welcoming and a safe destination, particularly for heritage enthusiasts who come here to see our outstanding natural beauty.
The issue of cycling safety has been brought into stark relief recently with the death of Donna Fox on the streets of Dublin and the tragic deaths of 11-year-old Tim Ross, as he was cycling to school in Offaly, and 13-year-old Daniel Roche, as he was cycling home near Drogheda. I wish to hear from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, whom I do not believe to be much of a sport at the moment, on what he is going to do to tackle the urgent issue of funding and restore faith in cycle safety on our roads. I would like to hear his vision for cycling and walking in the lifetime of this Government.
I wish to echo Senator Grace O'Sullivan's words and her condolences to the families of those cyclists who were killed so tragically on our roads. I endorse what she said in calling on the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, to outline plans for cycle safety and increase the level of cycling on our roads. During the term of the previous Seanad, I organised an Oireachtas all-party cycling group for those of us involved in cycling and keen to promote both cycling and greater cycle safety on roads across the country. I hope Senator Grace O'Sullivan, other Members and I can work together to set up a similar group in the lifetime of the current Seanad.
I welcomed the opportunity to speak to the Taoiseach and raise a number of issues with him last week when he came to the House. Since then, we have heard from the UK Prime Minister, Ms Teresa May, on providing greater clarity on the timeline for Brexit. I welcome the fact that we will have a further debate tomorrow at which we will be able to discuss Brexit.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House on a future date specifically to address a different matter I raised with the Taoiseach on Thursday, namely, the issue of Syria, the appalling bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, in particular, and the abandonment of the peace process by Russia and the Syrian Government. We need to hear from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the action Ireland proposes to take in ensuring a stronger stance is taken, unilaterally and at EU level, against Russia to try to bring it back to the negotiating table to ensure some respite for the besieged civilians in Aleppo. In particular, our Minister should be calling in the Russian ambassador to explain to him the actions of the Russian Government in breaking the ceasefire and returning to this appalling bombardment.
I renew my call to the Leader for a debate on higher education funding. At a conference in Trinity College tomorrow morning, I, Senator Ruane and others will be speaking about higher education funding models in the wake of the publication of the Cassells report. I ask that we be able to bring that debate to the floor of the Seanad also.
When will we have a date for Report Stage of our Labour Party Private Members' Bill on collective bargaining rights for freelance workers? Government time has been promised for it. I hope the amendments from the Government will be ready next week. The Leader might confirm a timeframe for that.
Sticking with the theme of higher education funding, I welcome the announcement earlier this week of €10.5 million in funding for Irish universities through four strands of the Erasmus+ funding scheme.Erasmus+ is one of many EU programmes that Irish universities, institutions and community groups are able to benefit from in terms of funding, such as Horizon 2020, the other streams of Erasmus+, Blue Star and Euroscola. However, this funding is secured in the face of one of the most difficult application processes I have ever come across in my years of completing forms. It is not only putting off groups from applying in the first place but is also stopping many groups from being successful in pulling down much-needed funding for higher education and community activities.
I call on the Leader to invite either the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, or the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, under whose briefs this falls, to come to the House to debate the matter. Why are Irish groups not achieving as much as they could from these funding schemes? What efforts can be made to simplify the process? What impact will Brexit have on agreements under Horizon 2020 already in place, which are cross-border or between universities in Ireland and the UK? What will be the impact in 2019 when the UK formally exits?
I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Creed, to extend the October deadline for slurry spreading given the severe weather conditions we have experienced in recent months which have curtailed the spreading activity. The 15 October deadline is fast approaching and due to the severe downpours we experienced during our so-called summer, land conditions are particularly difficult. It is important that farmers see that every effort is made to get this extension beyond 15 October. I understand our friends in Northern Ireland have been successful in getting an extension. It is possible to show reasons as to why the slurry spreading did not take place. I urge the Minister, Deputy Creed, to seek a similar extension of the 15 October deadline in order to facilitate the spreading of slurry.
The review of the farm assist scheme, which provides assistance to farmers on low incomes, was recently completed. It would be opportune to do something in the forthcoming budget. About 8,000 people are affected, most of them along the western seaboard. The changes in the 2012 and 2013 budgets by the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, have had a very severe negative effect on farm families, many of whom do not have off-farm income. After the collapse of the construction industry the effects for those in the west were more severe. As against a national average of one in five working in construction, it was one in four in the west. We know only too well the problem with agricultural commodity prices at the moment. These farmers cannot make ends meet and cannot support their families. They will be driven from the land unless the farm assist payment is increased. I support the IFA's call to restore the income and child disregards. The plight of these farmers and their families needs to be recognised.
I am sure the House will join me in congratulating the Dublin team on their back-to-back win on Saturday.
I raise the issue of the Government placing the health of members of the Defence Forces in jeopardy through the continued use of the anti-malaria drug, Lariam, which is issued to our troops who serve abroad. PDFORRA asked me to raise the issue. It is holding its annual conference in Cork where the matter will be further discussed. It acknowledges that this drug provides protection against malaria, but an alternative needs to be sourced and offered in line with UN guidelines. The Government, through its actions, is ignoring United Nations advice. Those in the United Nations know what they are talking about at this stage.
The side effects of Lariam include anxiety, depression, paranoia and suicidal behaviour. Many of those due to take these drugs will not do so and these side effects are the primary reason for not taking them. There are many cases backlogged in other countries and inquiries are taking place into the effects of Lariam on individual soldiers and their families.
There have been far too many medical scandals in this country regarding drugs.When concerns were highlighted in the past, they were ignored. There are 51 claims in regard to the use of Lariam at the moment. The Department continues to say there are no plans to withdraw the drug yet it has been withdrawn and taken off the market for safety purposes. I reiterate this decision is against the advice of the United Nations and is placing our Defence Forces at risk. I would ask the Department of Defence to be fully cognisant of this and to act now and provide a safe alternative.
I wish to raise the issue of commercial rates, which will come before local authorities in the next two months. An analysis was undertaken over the summer months to identify the amount of commercial rates being paid in local authorities and the lack of discretion allowed to councillors. For example, Cork County Council collected over €118 million in commercial rates, which is local tax, and some €27 million of that was collected from the top ten companies. In one of the local authorities in Dublin, over €314 million was collected, €67 million of which was collected from the top ten companies. The average amount paid per ratepayer in Cork is €11,647 from a total of 10,200 ratepayers. In Cork city alone, 5,500 ratepayers paid an average of €10,899.
One of the points is that discretion must be given to councillors, in particular in areas where there is a need for redevelopment of urban areas where an incentive is required. Councillors should have discretion so rates can be adjusted for specific areas and, at the same time, that adjustment can be absorbed in the overall rate for the rest of the local authority area so it is cost neutral. A number of councillors have raised the issue with me that they do not currently have any discretion in this area yet they are supposed to be in charge of their area. If necessary, we need to bring in amending legislation if this cannot be done under the existing structures. It is a very important issue, in particular in order to encourage new businesses to start out in an area businesses have moved out of or to encourage development in particular areas. It is a discretion that should be given to individual local authorities.
I support Senator Grace O'Sullivan in regard to her comments and to offer my sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives while cycling. It is one of the only sectors where investment has gone backwards in recent months in that we have seen funding cut for the design of two major greenways. Ministers were appointed on 6 May and, since then, nearly every Minister has outlined a list of priorities. It is 151 days since Deputy Shane Ross was appointed Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport but we have not seen a list of priorities in that 151 days. We expect the budget next week yet we still do not know his priorities.
Why is it important? We have well over 200,000 people working in the tourism sector and over €7 billion in revenue comes from that sector to the State coffers yet we do not know what are the Minister's priorities. When he was on the Opposition benches, he clearly outlined his disgust and dismay in regard to the boards of the Dublin Airport Authority and the quangos. He mentioned this with great humour at times, when he would take off his glasses and lean back and give out about the boards of Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and several others. Yet, since he was appointed Minister, we have never heard him remark about the appointments for which he has responsibility or how he wishes to see investment made.
The Minister's budget is quite significant at well over €1 billion and heading for €2 billion since the last budget. I would like to see the Minister come to the House to outline his priorities. We have heard about every other Department and about him vetoing the appointment of judges, yet we have not heard of him vetoing appointments to boards over which he has control.He has talked about investment in Waterford hospital. He has commissioned an independent costing and review of the western rail corridor. Will that be the next Waterford hospital resulting in another row with another Minister of State going offside? We urgently need the Minister to come to the House to outline his priorities. Every other Minister has put theirs on their websites. We have no benchmark against which to judge him on the budget and whether he has been successful in securing investment in his area of responsibility. He has been the only Minister who has been quiet about his remit, investment in which is key to the country's recovery.
Will the Leader address the Punch and Judy show in which the Ministers for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and Social Protection are engaging to promote themselves to replace the Taoiseach? A few months ago the Minister for Social Protection was out of the traps first with promises of improved conditions for councillors, while last week the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government floated a kite on councillors' conditions and remuneration. This is not a ball for potential Taoisigh to thrash around while trying to curry favour among councillors who have had enough and are not being fooled by this showmanship. Almost half of them are full-time councillors and their representational payment is 20% lower than that of someone on the minimum wage. It has been agreed by all that this inconsistency must be addressed. Will the Leader call on his colleagues to stop point scoring and address the substantive issue?
I support the call for a slurry spreading derogation. This issue has been on the agenda and needs to be addressed. The deadline is the night of 14 October. It is a major issue for the agricultural community following an exceptionally wet summer. Covers in some areas are too heavy to access slurry. Farmers are still cutting grain in my part of the world; therefore, slurry cannot be spread on the stubbed ground. This usually happens on pig farms. Something needs to be done for the agricultural community. I hope the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine or the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will examine the issue. The derogation was taken away in Denmark and we have to be conscious of this, but 15 October is not an appropriate deadline for farmers to cease spreading slurry. Enforcing it will create a hazard and I hope something can be done. Addressing it should not be happen on the final day. Farmers are spreading as much as slurry as they can because they have to. If the decision is left to the last minute, the damage will be done and it will be no good for farmers or the environment. The issue needs to be addressed this week, if possible, in order that farmers can have a road map.
Caithfidh mé mo leithscéal a ghabháil leis an gCeannaire ónar luaigh mé an t-ábhar seo an tseachtain seo caite. Nuair a thug sé a fhreagra, bhí orm imeacht ón Seomra. Léigh mé siar ar an méid a bhí ráite aige agus gabhaim buíochas leis as sin.
Last week I referred to the promising agreement reached between the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association and the loyal orders in north Belfast on the outstanding contentious parades in the north of the city. Thankfully, following a great deal of hard work, diligence and commitment by a range of people on the ground in the Ardoyne and on Twaddell Avenue, the events last weekend passed off peacefully. The agreement reached meant that immediately after the morning parades we saw the dismantling of what had become known as loyalist Camp Twaddell. There is now a moratorium on evening parades returning along that stretch of road, which has presented, particularly in the past two and half years, major problems for community relations, community safety and the welfare and well-being of young people in local neighbourhoods.This matter has put a huge stress on the policing budget for the city and for the North more generally.
Last week, when I took the opportunity to raise this matter I commended the mediators and those who were involved in the negotiations that sought this agreement. Many members and many members of the public will be familiar with Fr. Gary Donegan. For 15 years he has been a priest in the Holy Cross area of Ardoyne. Fr. Gary, along with his colleague, Fr. Aidan Troy, walked that dangerous and gruesome path with the girls of the Holy Cross School in 2001. Those images stay with us but Fr. Gary, unlike those of us who watched the events unfold on television and from afar, stomped those pathways with the young girls and their families. He endured horrific and horrendous verbal, psychological and physical abuse as a result. He has been a steadfast leader and a great shepherd for his people in that community that has been tested with the killings, the legacy of the conflict, and with suicide rates that are, unfortunately, exceptionally high in the area. He has administered to people in very difficult times. Therefore, I was astounded that people would choose to attack Fr. Gary on Saturday morning.
Fr. Gary has been resolute and steadfast in his leadership, not just the contentious parades issue. He has been a great friend to many of us. He has been a great friend to the process of reconciliation and peace building in the North.
What we saw manifest on the streets on Saturday morning in no way represents the people of Ardoyne. They are a very proud, good and far-sighted community who have lent their support to this positive agreement and will continue to do so. The people who attacked Fr. Gary used the same tactics that were used not just against the girls of Holy Cross School but against him in the past. A clear message must be sent from both Houses of the Oireachtas that Fr. Gary has our full support.
According to the HSE, on average at least six people die accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning each year. Everyone in this House will be aware that last week was Carbon Monoxide Awareness week. The reason I raise this matter today is that this is a preventable issue. The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is something that we should be aware of 365 days a year and not just for one week. The campaign was a timely reminder to us all of the importance of increased awareness of carbon monoxide. Due to the fact that it is a colourless and odourless gas it is highly dangerous. Every year people die unnecessarily from carbon monoxide poisoning in this country while many more people attend accident and emergency departments and GP services with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, breathlessness and vomiting.
I ask the Leader to schedule a debate on this important issue as I know other Senators are concerned about this matter. Senator Norris was a co-sponsor of a Private Members' Bill that was tabled by former Senator, Mr. Feargal Quinn, two years ago. The legislation was called the Building Control (Carbon Monoxide Detection) Bill 2014. My party colleague, Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, spoke on the legislation at the time. Carbon monoxide awareness is a major issue for families, homeowners and landlords. Responsibility for the issue falls between two Ministers - the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney.
The State, through the 31 local authorities, is the largest landlord in this country. The local authorities have made provision in their 2016 budgets to receive rental payments of €391 million from local authority tenants. The role played by each local authority is crucial. I want to know whether they are meeting their legal and statutory obligations in terms of ensuring that all domestic boilers are serviced annually. On foot of information supplied to me by elected local authority members, I have submitted detailed queries on this matter to the chief executive of each local authority. I have asked them to outline the number of local authority homes in their areas and the corresponding number of boilers that have been serviced in the each of the past five years in the same areas. Everyone in this House has heard of the hippocratic oath, which I have taken. There is a phrase in it that everyone knows instinctively but which is often overlooked when it comes to public policy. It reads, "prevention is preferable to cure". Illnesses and deaths from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning are preventable; therefore, I urge the Leader to arrange a debate on this and related matters in the coming weeks during which we can examine proposals that would place a much greater onus on landlords and the State to ensure safety standards are maintained.
I refer to the plight of the self-employed. For many years I have referred to the situation of self-employed persons who pay tax and PRSI but receive no social welfare benefits if they need them, despite the fact that the people they employ in their businesses receive them. I understand the Government is considering this issue and that there may be some changes. Today on the wireless I heard a man talk about the fact that he had taken out a pension policy 15 or 20 years ago. He paid €500 a month into the scheme. When he retired or his business collapsed or whatever happened, he discovered that the pension scheme into which he had paid was absolutely useless because the value of the pension was being subtracted from the value of the State pension. That meant he received absolutely no benefit. He had literally been throwing his money away. It was of no use to him whatsoever, apart from perhaps the satisfaction of realising he was saving the State a small amount of money. I successfully raised this issue in the House many years ago in the case of a blind person who had gained a place as a PhD student in Trinity College Dublin. The local authorities were subtracting the value of the scholarship from his blind pension payment. I thought this was unconscionable and did get movement on the issue. This injustice perpetrated against the self-employed, in a period when we are looking for as many entrepreneurs as possible, is a substantial discouragement. Why should the man in question not get the benefit of the pension scheme into which he paid for many years? I ask the Leader to suggest to the Government that it address this issue in the forthcoming budget.
I refer to the protest outside the Bank of Ireland yesterday, in which I was pleased to take part. It arose from its disgraceful and vindictive decision to summarily close the bank account belonging to the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. It would be bad enough for any bank to make this decision, but Bank of Ireland is not any bank; it is a bank that was bailed out by taxpayers and in which we have a shareholding, yet it is now acting as the agent for the apartheid state of Israel. It is beyond a disgrace. As a Bank of Ireland customer my entire life, I will be changing my bank account and urge others to do the same. However, beyond this, I ask the Minister for Finance who represents taxpayers who do business with the bank to come into the Chamber to explain what he will do about its disgraceful, vindictive and malicious behaviour.
There is no question but that the greatest challenge facing Ireland is presented by Brexit which has been discussed in the two parliaments and at conferences. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has outlined broadly her position, while the Taoiseach outlined to the Cabinet today what action we were taking. However, we need a dedicated Minister for Brexit, someone who would have complete control over all of the negotiations on the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government must insist on Ireland having a representative at ministerial or ambassadorial level at the negotiations, at the negotiating table, as this is the only country, unfortunately, which has a land border with the United Kingdom. None of the other 26 countries in the European Union has a land border with it.It is a very special case and the Government must lay down to the European Union that we must have representatives at the negotiating table at the most senior level. Anything else would be unacceptable. The Government has leverage in this regard. We voted in the first instance to reject the Lisbon treaty and we probably made the right decision because it contained the Article 50 option to opt out which has allowed this disaster for the European Union to take place. From my experience as representative of the Government from 1989 to 1992 dealing with the Single European Act and the negotiator on behalf of the former Department of Industry and Commerce, Britain worked very hard to get the best possible deal over a very long period since it joined and it succeeded. It is a shame it will throw away all it achieved over that period. The more discussion there is the better. The Joint Oireachtas Committee European Union Affairs will discuss it with the Minister of State, Deputy Murphy, at 5 p.m. The House should have a further opportunity to discuss Brexit in the near future to monitor the developments that are taking place at a very rapid pace.
I echo the comments made by colleagues on the extension of the deadline for slurry spreading. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine dealt with this in recent weeks. It is a major issue for the farming community and this is a practical way farmers can be assisted through the difficult times they face.
The substantive issue I want to raise today is na cúntóirí teanga. Will the Leader raise this with the Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, Deputy Seán Kyne? This is announced around this time every year and in Donegal Muintearas Teo. delivers the programme for 26 weeks across a wide range of schools, mostly in the Gaeltacht. It has approximately €42,000 less this year but initially it was asked to deal with 13 more schools. It has advised all of the public representatives in the county it cannot do this. When we consider the struggle the language faces, particularly in the Gaeltacht, this needs to be addressed. There is a real problem and we are asking for a resolution. Will the Leader raise this with the Minister of State and ask him to get back to me directly on the matter?
It is quite normal in the run up to budgets that people posture and take up various positions. Generally around this time there tends to be a fairly concerted attack on the public service, and we see it with every budget, but I wonder whether it is more orchestrated this time. I am not quite sure where it is coming from but we seem to have some outrageous statements being made just as the Minister is establishing a commission to inquire into public service pay. The question of public service pensions has been given a new dynamic in this debate. I read in today's newspaper that it is now considered that anybody who retires at the age of 60 on a Civil Service pension is a millionaire because in theory it would cost €1 million to purchase the pension he or she gets. This totally skews reality because everybody knows public servants, be they nurses, teachers, gardaí or whoever, contribute to their pensions throughout their working lives. They are soft targets for the Exchequer in everything. They must pay for everything. They pay their taxes and a public servant can never say he or she cannot or will not pay because someone in the public service will pay and that is a fact. I sympathise greatly with what Senator Norris said about self-employed people and their pensions. I know because I was that soldier. I paid into a private pension when I was self-employed. I can tell the House it is a bottomless pit. Whatever entitlements one may have on the social welfare side are being eroded, so one is shovelling into two bottomless pits, to make a long story short.It is widely felt by people in the public service that the FEMPI measures which have impacted tremendously on their living standards over the last seven or eight years and on their pensions should be unwound. Public sector pensions are considered to be a type of hidden crock of gold available to all public sector workers. These people have paid all their working lives for everything and contributed massively to their pensions while trying to raise young families and so on. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is no fool. I am sure he will see through all of this rubbish and ensure the commission is properly chaired and produces a good report.
I apologise to the Leader for the tongue lashing I gave him the other day on the issue of county councillors' pay and the notion that there might have been some sort of deal done in that regard on some Thursday night in a dark smokey room with his fellow Fine Gael Senators. The Minister set out his views in that regard on Friday last at the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, conference, so I think everybody now knows where we are going in that regard.
A few days after the UK Brexit vote I spoke about the possibility of a hard border being put in place. I also issued a press statement on the matter. Quite a number of people scoffed at that suggestion and said there was no possibility of that happening and that a deal would be done between Ireland and the UK in that regard. This matter will be decided not by Ireland and the UK but the 26 remaining member countries of the EU. There are a couple of issues of concern to me. With the agreement of the Leader I would like the Minister for Defence to come to this House at his convenience to discuss the preparedness of the Defence Forces to man a border should that be required. I am not saying this is what Ireland wants. I also do not believe it is what the UK wants but there are other countries involved. This matter may be taken out of our hands over the next number of months. The uncertainty is so great that we must ensure we are prepared for every eventuality.
I also ask that the Leader invite the Minister for Finance to this House to discuss the revenue implications of a hard border or soft border being imposed. The movement of up to 30,000 people across the Border or the transportation of 1 million gallons of milk back and forth across the Border are issues that will have a massive impact on the Irish and UK economies. We need to address this issue. I compliment the Taoiseach on his looking at this issue in an all-Ireland capacity.
I ask the Leader to endeavour to have the Ministers for Defence and Finance come to the House to discuss those issues.
We have yet to welcome the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, to this House. We are now days out from budget 2017. I ask that following the budget announcement next week, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, brief this Chamber on the work of her Department and answer questions in that regard.
I raise this issue in the context of previous budgets having ebbed away at supports for our cultural and arts communities. Modest increases will not serve to repair our cultural landscape and years of consistent policy damage must be recognised in the forthcoming budget. Only then can we facilitate the creation of a world class industry from the ground up.
What is required is an immediate return of support for the Arts Council, investment in which directly impacts on employment. Sinn Féin's alternative budget, announced this morning, commits to a €10 million increase in Arts Council funding for 2017 and a €500,000 increase in funding for Culture Ireland which supports Irish artists abroad, the benefits of which can be seen at festivals abroad, including Milwaukee. Culture Ireland also supports our cultural tourism offering.
Our film industry has endured disproportionate cuts of 50%. Sinn Féin is committed to increasing funding for the Irish Film Board by way more than one third. With sustained investment and resources Ireland can continue to attract big budget productions and also support the talent in our education system around the small and medium-sized production sector.
Aside from all of this, a space must be created for our young people not only as an audience but as artists or future artists.We need a national youth arts strategy. I reiterate my call for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to come to the House to answer questions on the arts and cultures.
I thank the 23 Senators who raised issues. To respond to Senator Ardagh, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who came to the House last week will appear before us again next week. We have a voluntary mechanism for resolving industrial relations disputes. The Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court have shown themselves to be highly effective in dispute resolution. The issue with the Garda Síochána is different and more precarious than other cases. I hope all Senators will encourage members of An Garda Síochána to engage further as it is important that further talks take place. We all acknowledge the work being done by gardaí. They should have their pay restored and conditions of service improved. It is important, however, that they engage in talks. I urge the Garda Representative Association to enter talks with the Minister who is available for engagement.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the alternative budget proposed by Sinn Féin. I share her view that the tax system should be fair. The middle income group, which has been squeezed most, should perhaps benefit most from the budget. From my reading of the Sinn Féin proposals, this group would certainly not benefit much from them.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan raised the important issue of cycle safety. I join her in offering my sympathies to the families of the three cyclists who were killed, Donna Fox, Tim Ross and Daniel Roche. Any life lost on our roads is a tragedy but it is particularly tragic when a young lad is killed while cycling to school. We have a national cycling policy. In light of the report from the Committee on Budgetary Oversight calling for climate change proofing, we must clearly address the issue of cycle safety. I will be happy to have the Minister appear before the House.
Senator Bacik, who also raised the issue of cycle safety, referred to a Private Members' Bill introduced by the Labour Party. According to the information available to me, the relevant amendments are being finalised in the Office of the Attorney General. They will then go before the Cabinet for approval, after which they will be tabled in the House for further debate on Report Stage. I understand Report Stage is due to be taken by the end of October but I will revert to the Labour Party Senators on the matter.
Senator Bacik also referred to developments in Aleppo and Syria. I, too, encourage the Russians to engage. They have an obligation and a duty to do so. I note the decision by the Government of the United States to suspend talks with Russia. All of us who are concerned about peace and the protection of life want a resolution to the war in Syria. Having listened to the stories of some of the men and women of the Naval Service who returned from the Mediterranean last week, one cannot but view this matter as one of extreme urgency. I will ask the Minister to come to the House. Senator Bacik also called for a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on the issue of higher education. The Minister will be in the House next week for a debate on education.
Senator Richmond raised the issue of Erasmus students at third level. He can raise this issue with the Minister during the debate on education.
Senators Gallagher, Lombard and Mac Lochlainn called for a derogation to be introduced in respect of the deadline for slurry spreading, which falls in ten days' time. As the Senators noted, it is too late to provide a derogation on the day before the deadline. If I am not mistaken, a derogation was applied several years ago. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed. This is an important issue because we had a large amount of rainfall over the summer and, as Senator Lombard correctly noted, crops are still being harvested on unsuitable ground.
Senator Mulherin raised the farm assist scheme. This is also a matter for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who is willing to come to the House.It is just a matter of getting him to the House between the European Union, diaries and other events but he will come to the House in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Devine raised the important issue of the malaria drug. As the Senator knows, any issue regarding medications, tetanus or injections received by members of our Defence Forces is taken by the medical officers of the Defence Forces. Everything is done with the health and safety of those men and women who serve in mind. The drug in question has been prescribed and my information is that all members of the Defence Forces are individually screened for their suitability and fitness. There is no plan as yet to remove that drug from the list. I will take the matter up with the Minister for Defence. It is important that rather than us creating hysteria, we acknowledge that it is taken medically. It is not a decision made by a member of the Government or by an administrative officer or by someone in the Civil Service. It is by the medical officers of the Defence Forces.
With regard to Senator Colm Burke's contribution on commercial rates, he has raised a very important point on giving more power to local councils and local councillors. I will bring the Minister, Deputy Coveney, into the House on this issue. Senator Humphreys discussed the priorities of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, at that Department. I would be happy for the Minister, Deputy Ross, to come to the House regarding that matter. Senator Humphreys also raised the issue of cycle ways, which I have discussed already.
Senators Davitt and Craughwell both spoke on the conditions and service of members of local authorities. I first want to compliment the Local Authorities Members Association for the very fine conference in Bantry at the weekend. I am sure many of us attended the very positive LAMA event. There was a great sense that reform and change are needed at local government level. The local authority members who attended the event were concerned, not about pay and conditions, but about how they can better serve their communities. That was the sense I got from the event.
I do not know where Senator Davitt is coming from with regard to his comments about the two Ministers, but they are the Ministers who are involved in the pension K class issue which was also raised by Senator Colm Burke. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, is the line Minister with responsibility for the role and functions of councillors. Like Senator Craughwell, I very much hope the Minister will meet with the cross-party group which we set up in this House. I thank the Senator for his remarks which were necessary. For the majority of Senators who serve in this House, our constituents are the councillors, and I genuinely believe it is important that we work with one voice, in unison, not just about terms and conditions for councillors, but also how we can make local government better, and all that encompasses.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the issue of the attack on Fr. Gary Donegan. It is an appalling travesty that a reverend gentleman, who works so much to bring peace and reconciliation in the North, would be subject to this type of violence, for whatever reason. I do not want to give it a title but I believe the attack is condemned by all in the House. We wish him well and thank him for the work he and Fr. Aidan Troy have done. Those of us who are interested in bringing peace to our island and in seeing our island united know that it cannot be done by this type of provocation. It is only by working together and by bringing people together that we can achieve peace on our island. I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising the matter.
Senator Swanick raised the very important issue of carbon monoxide poisoning. It is a silent killer and is an issue we need to constantly raise, not just this week, which is carbon monoxide awareness week. The Senator is correct when he spoke of people not realising the importance of having their boiler, the gas fire in their house or the boiler lights checked or whatever servicing is required. I would be happy to have the Minister or the Ministers, because it does fall between two Departments, come to the House regarding that matter.
Senator Norris raised the matter of the self-employed. However, he neglected to commend Senator Ray Butler who had a Private Members' Bill before the House before the summer. I am pleased the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, is looking at the PRSI contribution of the self-employed. I will come back to Senator Norris regarding that issue.
Senator Gavan spoke about the Bank of Ireland and the Palestinian solidarity campaign account. I cannot give answers as to why Bank of Ireland has done this. I know that bank accounts across parts of Europe have been closed also. It is a matter for the bank to give its reasons.I understand there was some correspondence with the group in early summer, based on what I read in newspapers and online. It is an issue the bank needs to resolve. There are two sides to the story and I do not have both.
The bank has its own decision-making process. I do not know who make the decision, but he or she needs to communicate the reasoning rather than leaving a vacuum.
Senator Leyden raised the very important issue of Brexit. As he is aware, the Government has discussed the issue and planned for the eventuality of a Brexit vote which has, unfortunately, happened. In the Dáil today and during the weekend the Taoiseach outlined that this is a priority for the Government and every Department. The Government has developed specific structures around Brexit. For the information of the House, Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and Bord Bia are working closely with small Irish businesses to help to manage the many practical implications of Brexit.
A new Cabinet committee dedicated to Brexit and chaired by the Taoiseach has been established. It will oversee the overarching Government response to Brexit and the Department of the Taoiseach will co-ordinate the cross-Government sectoral approach, with a new division led by a second Secretary General in the Department of the Taoiseach. There will be a bigger and enhanced role for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on EU matters, including the transfer of staff from the Department of the Taoiseach to that Department. More strength will be given to the relevant Government Departments, agencies and overseas missions to ensure they are on top of Brexit, along with ensuring that the North-South axis is not forgotten.
Senator Craughwell made a very important point about the hard border versus the soft border. There was a very interesting article in theIrish Examinertoday - I am not sure if the Senator read it. It is a matter about which we need to be very clear. We cannot allow a hard border to return.
I am happy for the Minister of State, Deputy Keogh, to come to the House to discuss the matter. I think I speak for all of us in the House when I say we do not want to have a hard border return. It would be economically unsound, unwise and wrong for us as a country. That is the overwhelming view of Members.
Senator Mac Lochlainn referred to the Gaeltacht. If he wants to give me the details later, I would be happy to have them sent to the Minister directly. The Government is committed to coming to the House regarding the Department. Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the matter last week. The Minister is willing to come to the House; it is a matter of selecting dates.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan raised the issue of public service pensions and budget kite flying. It is important that we have a debate about the role of public servants and the manner in which, in some cases, they are being pilloried and viewed by some commentariats. It is important that we have a debate on the role of public services, the way in which we can fund them and the work that is being done.
It is clear that some Ministers will engage in kite flying. I wish they did not because sometimes they scare people or create panic. On other occasions, it gives people like Senator O'Sullivan an opportunity to fly kites. In this case, it is an issue that should be debated.
Senator Warfield raised the very important issue of the arts. I was aware that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, had not come before the House. I will again take the points he raised. We have a world-class industry and if one travels the world one finds the Irish diaspora is empowered by our music, song, dance and creative arts. It is important that we have that debate. I recently attended a screening of "The Young Offenders" which was filmed in Cork. It was a fantastic film and a great advertisement for our film industry. In particular, it wove in the strands of tourism, culture and our people. The Senator's points are very well made and I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House. Again, it is a matter of finding the time and a suitable date. I will endeavour to have her come before the House.