Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to be adjourned no later than 2 p.m. if not previously concluded, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; No. 2, Knowledge Development Box (Certification of Inventions) Bill 2016 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to be adjourned no later than 4.30 p.m. if not previously concluded; and No. 3, Convictions for Certain Sexual Offences (Apology and Exoneration) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.
I would like to convey the sympathies of the Fianna Fáil Party to Mr. Gowan-Smyth's family and, in particular, to his wife. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
I wish to mention a matter I have raised many times in this Chamber, that is, the housing crisis and this Government's lack of action on it. The issues relating to the crisis include spiralling rent costs, a rushed and poorly-executed rent cap strategy and a flawed first-time buyers' grant in respect of which only 21 contractors throughout the country have registered to date. Today, I wish to raise another failure of this Government. I refer to the repair-and-leasing scheme, which is designed to bring vacant and unused houses back into use by allowing councils to enter into long-term leases with property owners to allow the latter to refurbish properties and let them out to tenants. So far, however, the Government has only allocated €6 million for refurbishing 150 properties when there are more than 40,000 vacant properties in the greater Dublin area alone. With a severe lack of housing supply in the market, every effort must be made to ensure that idle properties are brought back into the market and that every avenue is explored to increase the supply. My constituency office is continually inundated with housing queries from constituents. There are more than 3,500 vacant and unused properties in Dublin South-Central alone. It makes sense that measures would be introduced to get vacant properties back on the market and to put long-term leases in place to provide for extra social housing nationwide. The repair-and-leasing scheme is a quick solution, but it should only be operated in parallel with the construction of new builds. We all know that supply is the elephant in the room with regard to the housing crisis. I urge the Minister to increase the funding to the repair and lease scheme and to ensure that more funding is given to local authorities, as a matter of urgency, in order that they might build new homes, especially in the Dublin area.
I realise that the Leader has many commitments in trying to organise the business of this House. It is not easy to get everything that everybody wants. However, on a number of occasions, I have asked for the Minister for Defence to come before us in order that we might discuss the current state of the Defence Forces. One of issues of immediate concern is that the Defence Forces annual report used to be published in May or June. Matters have been allowed to slide to the point where it is now late October before it is published. This constrains any discussion or debate on that report at the annual conference of the representative bodies. That is totally unfair. The Defence Forces are in a serious state. The climate survey shows that. We have seriously unhappy people in our Defence Forces and, in light of the job they do, that is grossly unfair.They need to be treated better than they are. There is recruitment to the Defence Forces, which is to be encouraged. I ask that the Minister be brought before the House. Not only do we need to talk to him about the climate survey; we also need to hear what plans are being put in place in the event that there is the re-establishment of Border controls. The Leader and I both know that the moment a camera is installed at a Border crossing anywhere in the country, some security measures will be required to protect it. While I understand the Minister is probably busy and that the Leader has a lot on his plate, I ask that we have such a debate and that we be notified in good time in order that we will be able to prepare for it.
Yesterday, at the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, the European Commissioner, Ms Vestager, engaged in possibly the most damning criticism of the attitude of the Government to the Apple tax ruling. This is an issue of national importance, yet, as reported in one European newspaper this morning, most of the questions asked yesterday were aimed at disproving the Commission's ruling in order to score political points against other parties. The ruling is watertight and was well researched. It finally disposed of the idea that it was all a misunderstanding of the application of Irish sovereign tax law. The Commission exposed the arrangement as having been calculated, contrived and unique. It is very plain and simple: absolutely no methodology whatsoever was applied to the manner in which the tax rulings were made. That is the major problem. The only major challenge yesterday was to whether the figure of €13 billion was due to Ireland alone or to an array of EU and other countries. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil's argument in this regard was destroyed. Commissioner Vestager responded by saying, "A large majority of the unpaid taxes would be due in Ireland," not in another European country. The robust defence offered by her exposes the folly of the Government's decision to appeal. The public has heard about the attempts of Ministers to challenge the report; they must now hear about the giant waste of taxpayers' money that will take place. It will take up to six years and cost millions in lawyers' fees, all just to save face. The Commissioner's ruling was reached with the help of hundreds of lawyers. From listening to her yesterday, I am extremely confident that the work done within the Commission has been thoroughly researched and that it was not just based on a whim. I want the Minister for Finance to explain to the House how the taxpayer will gain from refusing the €13 billion in unpaid taxes and instead spending millions on a doomed appeal that may be ongoing after the Government and many Members have left. I want him to explain it in as forthright and clear a manner as Commissioner Vestager explained the Commission's position yesterday. The public is asking the question and deserves an answer. I do not buy the argument that we need to appeal and that if we do not do so, it will somehow cut off multinationals from investing in this country because they need clarity on taxation issues. We have a responsibility to have methodologies in place to ensure fair tax is paid. While we certainly offer tax incentives, we need to ensure there is fair taxation across all multinationals and indigenous businesses to give everybody a fair chance.
I welcome the Leader's motion on the report of the justice committee on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I also very much welcome the report. I welcome the Taoiseach's indication that the Government will act on its recommendations, that Travellers are de factoa separate ethnic group, that this is not a gift to be bestowed on them but a fact the State ought to formally acknowledge, preferably by way of a statement by the Taoiseach to Dáil Éireann. The report strongly encourages that this step be taken at the earliest possible date in 2017. It also states the Government should then conduct a review in consultation with Traveller representative groups of legislative or policy changes required on the foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. As the Chairman of the committee said in launching the report, this cannot be a false dawn. There was a very similar report in 2014, following which no action was taken. We are already behind our neighbours in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland who have recognised Irish Travellers as an ethnic minority. Historically, international bodies have also recognised and continue to recognise the Traveller community as an ethnic minority and consistently recommended that the State do likewise. We know that the recognition of Traveller ethnicity would not be the panacea to all issues faced by members of that community. It would not fix the fact that Traveller women, on average, die 11 years earlier than settled women, that suicide rates are six times higher than the national average among the Traveller community and that there are shocking infant mortality rates. However, the recognition of Traveller ethnicity would be a huge step forward. I will be delighted if the Leader allows time in the Seanad for us to debate the issue with the Minister for Justice and Equality and welcome the pending recognition of Traveller ethnicity.
I wish to raise two issues with the Leader of the House. The first is an old one, namely, that of Airbnb and the change in the nature of the city as a result of Airbnb lettings, especially within the city centre area. I have received several e-mails about the matter, of which I will give the House just a flavour:
Three new houses built in the last two years in my lane are being rented out on short-term lets. All are Airbnb.
Airbnb properties are changing the nature of my street. Do I have any rights?
A hotel [another development] would nearly have been a better choice. At least then there would be staff to interact with.
A series of questions have been raised with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government about the number of enforcement actions being taken by local authorities across the country regarding the changing of housing units into properties to be let through Airbnb. I refer to properties that were previously long-term lets. The answer from the Minister has been that the local authorities do not keep such data. I raised the issue just before Christmas when the Minister was in the House and he referred me to Circular PL12/2/2016, a letter he had circulated to all local authorities on An Bord Pleanála's decision. An Bord Pleanála's decision is clear: there is a need for planning permission when units are being rented long term as, basically, they are being operated as hotels. Unfortunately, however, in the letter the Minister does not ask local authorities to be proactive in dealing with the matter; he just asks them to act where it is brought to their attention. According to the lowest estimates, approximately 1,600 long-term lets in the Dublin area that were being rented by families have been moved to Airbnb. I have heard Deputy Fergus O'Dowd raise the issue as it was affecting Drogheda and elsewhere in County Louth. I have heard other Deputies speak about the position in counties Wicklow, Meath and Kildare. Senator Denis Landy has raised the issue as it is affecting his area. If we are to have a Rebuilding Ireland strategy, we cannot have a quick fix. We must instruct the local authorities to be proactive. One can have far more units put back on the letting market by being proactive in planning enforcement. I, therefore, ask the Leader of the House take up the issue with the Minister who I believe has very good intentions. Setting up a committee to produce a set of proposals in the first quarter of 2017 is not sufficient. We need action.
I wish to raise an issue in Dublin that I have raised on several occasions previously in the House. When the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, was in the House, I referred to the DART underground project. He said it was a cornerstone of traffic management and public transport services within the city. I made him aware of several planning applications along the DART underground line which obviously he ignored. I raised the issue with the National Transport Authority. Unfortunately, I was again ignored.I raised it with Dublin City Council and now we see live planning applications on the line in question that will prevent the construction of the DART underground. I am firmly of the belief that Dublin is being neglected. There is no long-term planning being done by the Minister, Deputy Ross, in respect of it. He has cancelled new greenways and new cycle routes and now, through his neglect, we will possibly lose the major infrastructure proposal that is the DART underground project. The Minister must come before the House at the earliest opportunity in order to answer Senators questions and to discuss the specific needs of the greater Dublin area in the context of public transport, cycleways, greenways and the protection of pedestrians on our streets.
There is increased concern among people in my county regarding the lack of an obstetrics clinic at University Hospital Kerry. The lack of a dedicated obstetrics clinic at the hospital has become a significant risk factor. According to the HSE's assessment, it equates to an extreme risk. However, the HSE also states that the risk is managed well. In this day and age, an approach where the risk is managed well is one that is very unsatisfactory. This is not the way in which we should proceed. There is always the possibility that the risk will not be managed well on a particular day and the latter would undoubtedly end in tragedy for someone involved. In addition, those who are scheduled for minor surgeries regularly have their operations cancelled at short notice because of an unexpected obstetrics emergency. There is then a double impact on patients as a result of no clinic being available. We are now at a critical stage in respect of this matter. Business cases have been submitted to the agency from the hospital outlining the need for this clinic but, as yet, no action has been taken. It is not acceptable that we are trying to manage risk at one of our major regional hospitals. By providing an obstetrics clinic at University Hospital Kerry, we would, essentially, be removing the risk that at this point in time is being managed. As already stated, it only takes one minor mistake for a managed risk to turn into tragedy. This is a matter on which we need to hear from the Minister for Health. The Leader may state that it should be raised on the Commencement and I will take him up on that. I am sure, in early course, the Minister for Health will be before the House in any event.
This morning, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, was present for a Commencement debate, which I initiated, regarding bodies under the Department's remit and their investments in the tobacco industry. In response to a parliamentary question submitted by Deputy Jack Chambers, the Tánaiste confirmed that the common investment fund holds a small proportion of tobacco-related stocks as part of a dividend reinvestment scheme that affords charities the choice of receiving investment income in cash by reinvesting it in the fund. She also confirmed that the Courts Service invests in a small proportion of tobacco stocks on a passive basis. In light of the decision made by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, shortly before Christmas to exit from its legacy tobacco investments, it is imperative that we have a full divestment of all taxpayer moneys from tobacco companies. It frustrates me somewhat to have to bring such a Commencement debate before this House. It is worth remembering that tobacco use in Ireland is a leading cause of preventable deaths, with approximately 6,000 deaths each year from the direct effects of tobacco. As well as the human and personal tragedies of each death, tobacco is the cause of an enormous drain on our health system. The direct cost, an estimated €500 million per year, does not include lost productivity from ill-health and other huge drains on our public services. There are approximately 31,000 admissions each year that are directly related to tobacco illnesses. Each admission costs €5,400, which equates to a staggering €164 million per year. The ISIF decision came as a result of pressure from within this House and from my party colleagues in Dáil Éireann. It is a welcome decision and one which is entirely in line with the tobacco-free Ireland plan, which was launched by Senator Reilly when he was Minister for Health. While I acknowledge the small nature of these investments, I also acknowledge the monumental efforts made by Members of this Parliament in combating the negative effects of tobacco use in this country. It beggar's belief that we would have a Government Department with financial interests in any major tobacco corporation. I intend to continue to pursue this issue and to bring a motion of resolution before the Seanad seeking a full divestment and the implementation of guidelines to ensure no further investment in tobacco by a Government Department or any body under its remit.
I do not normally allow people to have two bites of the cherry. The Senator already raised this specific issue on the Commencement of the House and, as such, there has been a duplication. I will give him the benefit of the doubt this time. Any issue raised on the Commencement should not be regurgitated on the Order of Business because it defeats the whole purpose of raising points. I am sure Senator McDowell has something new and innovative to offer.
I have an entirely fresh topic. It is approximately five years since regulations were introduced by the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government banning the letting of what are commonly called bedsits. As a result, a huge number of tenants in bedsit accommodation found that it was no longer appropriate. It became a criminal offence for landlords to maintain those properties in the condition they were at the time. An awful lot of the properties were made the subject of evictions and were then sold redevelopment. One of the curious features of this is that some 10,000 or 12,000 people were affected by that massive clearance of tenants. A strange phenomenon is that, at the same time, the number of people sharing houses in Dublin and in every city in Ireland increased. These individuals share the same bathrooms as their housemates. Objectively, very little changed in one sense but the effect of the regulations to which I refer was to drive out the most vulnerable tenants and those with the least money and resources. It also removed the first step on the ladder for people migrating to the cities in the context of accessing accommodation.
It is a curious irony that this was done in the interest of housing standards at a time when a crisis was developing. That crisis has led to many people being unable to find accommodation and there is a shortage of separate units available in a city. I ask the Leader to consider asking the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, or a Minister of State at his Department, to come to the House to explain why that to which I refer was done and who takes responsibility for the fact that, in the long term, it probably caused homelessness and that it certainly drove up rents. Second, and more importantly because I am not only interested in a retrospective blame game, will the Leader call the Minister to tell us if the rule is still being enforced. If there are bedsits still in existence, are housing inspectors prosecuting people for maintaining them? At the very least, should a moratorium on the enforcement of those regulations be considered rather than driving people out of the lowest-rung-of-the-ladder-type homes during a housing crisis, which has been the unintended effect of this intervention in the housing market?
I thank the Cathaoirleach. In today's edition of The Irish Times, I read about the talks between the HSE and Vertex on pricing and the pricing agreement on Orkambi, the drug for cystic fibrosis sufferers. There are over 500 patients in Ireland who are dependent on this drug. Unfortunately, the HSE and the company involved failed to reach agreement in the past 24 hours. The HSE negotiating team has forwarded the issue to the senior management of the HSE to see if it can make a decision on the matter. The original estimated cost was to be somewhere around €400 million and the HSE went in with an opening offer of €75 million.It worked out at approximately €159,000 per patient. The drug is available in other countries, including Germany, the USA and Austria. Perhaps the HSE might talk to the authorities in these countries to see how they negotiated the price. The Minister has spoken to other health Ministers, but, at this stage, it is a very serious issue, given that so many people are dependent on the availability of the drug.
I again refer to Bus Éireann, an issue I have to raise. Who uses the public bus service? If we think about it, it is used by old people, young people, those who are sick, those living in rural towns and those on low incomes who do not have private transport. They are facing the prospect of losing key parts of the service. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, who must be vying for the title of the worst Minister with responsibility for transport in the history of the State, continues to insist that he will not intervene. However, hard-pressed Bus Éireann workers who have been the victims of the hard-right ideology of competition at all costs are facing the loss of their jobs, while we are facing the potential loss of the public bus service provided by the company. I am calling on the Minister to come to the House, although I know that he will not do so, and on our colleagues in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who have the power to do so to insist that he engage with the trade unions, with which he is refusing to engage. They have a simple request - that all of the key stakeholders, the National Transport Authority, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Bus Éireann management and the unions, sit down together to work out how we can fix the company. Unbelievably, the Minister is still insisting that it has nothing to do with him, that it is purely an industrial relations matter, even though everyone in this Chamber knows that is not the case. For the sake of all of the people I have mentioned who are facing the hardship of industrial strife and the potential loss of services, I call on those with power in this Chamber, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Members, to insist that the Minister get up off his behind and do something.
In the House yesterday I strongly criticised President Trump's executive order on immigration and the manner in which it had been introduced. However, I am very conscious that it is easy to criticise President Trump; in fact, it is something of a global pastime. What worries me is that we do not seem to challenge other elite people in authority in the same way. Perhaps it is time to have the debate on the media for which I have often called to see how they could help and better serve us in that regard. For example, when the former President Mrs. Mary Robinson was interviewed on "Morning Ireland" this morning about President Trump's executive order, she availed of the opportunity to talk about another executive order he had introduced - the Mexico city policy. This is the policy that stops American tax dollars from being used to fund abortions in developing countries. The former President was given a completely free run to give an extremely partisan interpretation of what the move would mean on the ground. She was introduced as one being of the so-called Elders, the same Elders who had been silent on the issue of forced abortions in China and the horrendous abuses in the abortion industry worldwide. There is no question but that the Mexico city policy will save, not cost, lives. The former President does not seem to understand the principle of the fungibility of money; how, by giving money for maternal health services with which nobody could disagree, those engaged in the killing of unborn children are able to free other resources for these horrible deeds. The real issue is the way in which those on the left are never challenged on the claims they make. We have reached the point where there is no international outcry, not even a debate, for example, when people are forcibly euthanised against their will and even physically restrained as the injection is administered, as we learned happened recently in the Netherlands. By all means, let us challenge President Trump and the bad things he does, but in so doing let us not delude ourselves for one minute that we are asking the same hard questions of others in authority who are doing bad things.
As this is lá Bríde - the Celtic spring - I want to talk about mental health. As there is an extra two minutes of daylight a day, it will improve us, but, obviously, without Government action, the position will not improve significantly. On the back of a report prepared in Denmark by the Happiness Research Institute, mental health campaigners are calling on all of us to switch off Facebook for the month of February. I doubt that we will be able to do it, as politicians, but it has certainly been found that there is a 55% increase in mental well-being once we stay away from the dreaded social media that eat up our time. This morning we delivered a petition from Uplift, Mental Health Reform and Lust for Life on the #inourhourofneed campaign to the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, at the gates of Leinster House.
I am referring to the #inourhourofneed campaign by Uplift, Mental Health Reform and Lust for Life. Many thousands of signatures were collected to demand the provision of mental health services 24/7, something about which we have been talking for so long, as well as implementation of A Vision for Change as soon as possible. Just a few minutes ago daughters in the Greaney family from County Cork, whose parents died tragically - the husband had been helped in the Central Mental Hospital - said we needed access to mental health services 24/7 to stem the epidemic affecting every county. Will the Leader ask the Minister of State to address the Chamber to update us on the promised provision of emergency services 24/7 for those in need?
Senator Gabrielle McFadden and the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, spent 15 minutes debating that issue this morning in the Commencement debate, but do not get me wrong - I am not saying it does not deserve to be raised by Senator Máire Devine.
I thank the 12 Senators who spoke. I join the Cathaoirleach on behalf of everyone in the House in paying tribute to a former Clerk of the Seanad, Mr. Jack McGowan-Smyth, who died at the very honourable age of 94 years. As the Cathaoirleach rightly said, he was Clerk of the Seanad for 15 years and served with distinction. The Cathaoirleach has made reference to the fact that he was the author of two books, of one of which we should all be aware, The Theory and Practice of the Irish Senate. To his wife, Christine, and extended family, I send our sympathy, our comhbhrón, on his sad passing.
I will be happy to have the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, come to the House to discuss the matter raised by Senator Catherine Ardagh. It is fair to say the Minister, in the budget and the action plan for housing, has increased the moneys available for house refurbishment. In that context, I am disappointed to hear that in the Senator's constituency moneys have not been available. In my constituency of Cork South-Central and that of Senator Colm Burke, Cork North-Central, we have seen Cork City Council putting national moneys aside for the refurbishment of houses. I will be happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss the matter. The Senator is right that there is a need for us to expedite the refurbishment of vacant houses. There is no reason for houses to remain vacant in many parts of the country for an inordinate length of time. I share the Senator's concern in that regard.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell referred to the Defence Forces. I assure him that the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, has given a commitment to come to the House to discuss the issue. To be fair to him, he has been a very good Minister of State with responsibility for defence who has been willing to work with all stakeholders in the Defence Forces. We have seen an increase in the budget. The issue of pay is one the Senator has addressed repeatedly in the House. He represents his nominating body quite well and it is important that he do so, but it is equally important that we recognise that, with the restoration of pay and conditions, the Government is also recruiting to the Defence Forces. I hope the Senator welcome this. He makes a fair point that there is a need for a wider debate on the role of the Defence Forces in a new European Union post-Brexit and dealing with conflict around the world. I will be happy for the Minister of State to come to the House to discuss the issue and thank the Senator for raising it.
I was going to say Senator Rose Conway-Walsh was back to her old "chestnut", but that would be the wrong word to use. She referred to Commissioner Vestager's appearance yesterday at the finance committee to discuss the Apple ruling.Many people's views on this issue differ from those of the Senator. It is a question of how state aid is applied. I think it is being used in a spurious way by the EU. It could be a way of getting at our very good corporate tax rate.
The decision to appeal the Apple ruling has been eminently supported by many people across this country, including people involved in business, farming and politics. Sinn Féin wants to continue its isolationist and abstentionist policy with regard to the EU when it suits it.
Senator Kelleher raised the important issue of Traveller ethnicity. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, on this matter last week. He is working on it and is willing to come to the House to discuss it. The necessary piece of work is in progress and is evolving. I will be happy to bring the Minister of State to the House when it reaches a certain point.
Senator Humphreys raised the question of Airbnb, with which we have to come to terms as a society at national and local authority levels. He is right when he suggests that Airbnb is taking much-needed beds and properties out of the system. I am aware that local authorities in many parts of the world, including London and Paris, have issues with Airbnb in respect of planning, the charging of hotel rates and costs. I suppose the issue of taxation is a general point as well. I will be happy to invite the Minister to the House to discuss the matter.
Senator Humphreys spoke about DART underground and Senator Gavan spoke about Bus Éireann, both of which relate to the Minister, Deputy Ross. At the risk of creating controversy again, I suggest that rather than focusing on policy, Members are getting fixated about what the Minister, Deputy Ross, does and does not do.
I am just making the point. To be fair to the Minister in the case of Bus Éireann, he referred in the Dáil last night to the creation by Seán Lemass of the mechanisms of State that trade unionists want to see remaining in place and being used. If those mechanisms do not work, the Minister should be allowed to intervene if necessary. I think the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil must have undertaken opinion polls regarding the Minister, Deputy Ross. Perhaps that explains the fixation with him in some quarters. He has become the new bogeyman of the Government. Senator McDowell has him in his sights as well.
There will be no ambiguity about that.
Senator Coghlan raised the important issue of obstetric services at Tralee General Hospital. He highlighted the issue of risk management. I commend him for that. I would like to pick up on one reference he made to the hospital. Clinics are being held in the hospital. I understand that the issue is one of shared theatre space. I might be wrong in that regard. There is not an exclusive theatre for the particular obstetric issue to which he referred. I will be happy to ask the office of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to deal with the Senator regarding the issue he raised.
As Leader of the House, I will not in any way prevent Senator Swanick from bringing forward the issue of divestment of shares in the tobacco industry. We all subscribe to the issue of a tobacco-free Ireland. I commend the Senator on the work he has been doing to promulgate an alternative to cigarette smoke at all times. We can talk about having time set aside at the appropriate time.
Senator McDowell raised the bedsit regulations that were introduced in 2013. I know the former Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, asked for them to be reviewed in 2014. Bob Jordan, who is now an adviser for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, made the point at the time that the elimination of bedsits was not necessarily the problem. Senator McDowell made an interesting point about how we can increase capacity. It is one we should look at. I will put in a request for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to come to the House.
We cannot compromise on standards when it comes to the space, the type and quality of accommodation and the actual physical environment where people live. Those of us who are engaged in constituency politics will know that the conditions in some cases are absolutely appalling. I appreciate that this is not Senator McDowell's view, to be fair. I hope that if we relax the conditions, we are not allowing for the squalor to come back. The Senator made a good point about who inspects these properties. The Health Information and Quality Authority looks at things like health and safety, hygiene and food hygiene. It sometimes strikes me that apartments and other forms of living accommodation are not inspected. I do not want to bring big brother into it. I have seen some absolutely unacceptable accommodation recently. The points made by Senator McDowell can be considered when we have a debate on housing in a couple of weeks or as soon as we can.
Senator Byrne spoke about Orkambi, which is used to treat cystic fibrosis. It is important for the Minister to engage with all of us, but especially with Vertex on how to keep the price down so that this drug is affordable and accessible for people. I will be happy to have the Minister come to the House in this regard.
Senator Gavan mentioned the issues at Bus Éireann. I appreciate that we need a public bus system. We need public transport. I think the language we use is important. We can scare people by talking about routes being gone. Senator Gavan knows well that this is not going to happen. He can give me all the Sinn Féin spin he wants.
I know, but the Minister told the Dáil last night during a Private Members' debate on this issue that the Government is committed to providing transport for people. I can circulate a copy of that speech to the Senator. There is also a commitment to providing alternatives, but I hope it will not come to that. My view is that we need to have a public service bus transport company. I will work with others to ensure we have such a company. We will have the Minister, Deputy Ross, come to the House.
It is important for me as Leader of the House to say that the management and the unions in Bus Éireann will sit down and engage in conversations, talks and discussions about the future of Bus Éireann. It is not just about the people who use the bus service; it is also about the workers who work and engage in Bus Éireann every day on behalf of all of us. To be fair to them, they have taken a pay cut over the years as well. I think there needs to be a discussion and a conversation. We cannot engage in megaphone diplomacy through television, radio and the newspapers. Those involved need to sit around the table. That is the principle we need to get to.
I was going to use the word "specific". I heard the conversation with former President Robinson this morning. I must say I thought it was a very measured conversation. I must go back and listen to it. I thought I was listening to a different station.
One thing that struck me during this morning's interview was the reluctance of former President Robinson to engage in a political discourse out of respect for the Government and the Taoiseach. I thought that was very interesting.
The Senator might agree with me in that regard. I take his point about human rights across the world. The Members of this House, like the members of the Government, should stand up for human rights, regardless of whether we are dealing with the leaders of Russia, China, Japan, England, the United Kingdom or any other country. It is unfortunate that the new leader of the United States has got off to a bad start in the way he has driven fear and division.I am all for democracy. The Senator and I live by the sword of democracy. One is either beaten or wins; that is the way it goes. The people speak. What President Trump has done in the past 11 days has sent a bad signal to people across America and the rest of the world. It is about the United States of America, not the divided states of America. The Senator will share part of that response.
In response to Senator Máire Devine, Lá Fhéile Bríde atá ann inniú, the first day of spring. We have seen the days lengthening. Mental health services are important. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Helen McEntee, was in the House this morning to discuss the issue with Senator Gabrielle McFadden in the Commencement debate. It is important that we recognise the document A Vision for Changehas evolved and needs to be implemented. It has not been in part.
I am not in any way condoning the fact that it has not been implemented in full. The Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, and in fairness, her predecessor, Kathleen Lynch, have prioritised mental health services. We have as a result seen an increase in the budget for them. There is now a proposal that there be weekend access in 17 mental health areas, with partial cover being provided in a further seven. It is important that we recognise mental health issues do not end at 5 p.m. on a Friday or at 4 p.m. on a bank holiday Monday. We accept that there is a need to provide a mental health service 24-7. We must work to provide a service that is inclusive of all people and deals with all issues. It is important that we recognise the Minister of State has secured additional funding to meet specific needs, be it for the homeless or those with mental health issues in our homes, families and communities. They are members of our families and friends. They are people who work with us and in all walks of life. They do not only include people who are anonymous but people whom we know and with whom we can identify. We need to understand they have real needs and it is important that we make progress. I will be happy to have the Minister of State come back to the House to discuss the issue.
I hope I have not missed anybody, but I do not think I have.