Thursday, 16 February 2017
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Private Members' business, Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 1a, motion regarding establishment of a tribunal of inquiry, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the contributions of Senators not to exceed six minutes.
I apologise to Members for the late notice of the Supplementary Order Paper. I did try to speak to Members before the Order of Business about the information regarding the tribunal of inquiry.
I welcome the motion to be taken this evening and the opportunity to debate the terms of reference of the tribunal of inquiry into the Garda. This is one of the biggest matters that has been before the House. It is important that the inquiry commences and that its terms of reference cover all the allegations. The information needs to come out into the public domain. It is important that the truth comes out for the families involved and that they get the justice they ultimately deserve. How they have been treated is appalling. The gardaí involved also deserve to have the truth come out because their reputations have been stained. There are many hardworking gardaí who need to be protected. The truth will come out from this tribunal of inquiry and everyone will be protected.
October last year was the first occasion on which I voiced my concerns about the first-time buyer's grant. At the time, I stated it would not help people get on to the property market and would only increase the prices of new builds. In 2016, house prices rose by over 8% nationwide and by over 5% in Dublin. Today, a report from the ratings agency Standard & Poor's indicates that house prices are set to rise by a further 7% this year, with the Government's help-to-buy scheme playing a massive part in boosting demand.
Boosting demand will not solve the problem. The problem is supply. The severe lack of housing supply is one of many issues the Government has ignored for way too long. There are many actions the Government can take to increase supply, such as looking at construction standards, architect approvals and building regulations for new builds, as well as the vacant sit levies and getting rid of the development levy. The Government needs to be more proactive in getting new homes built in Dublin city and at other locations throughout the country.
According to the Standard & Poor's report, the severe lack of supply could see houses prices grow more than expected as the number of new homes for sale has dropped to the lowest figure in ten years. Last month, daft.ieand myhome.iereported that just over 42,000 properties nationwide were for sale on their websites in December 2016, the lowest since January 2007. These figures indicate that only around 1% of housing stock is currently listed for sale. A normal functioning market would typically boast a turnover of 4% of housing stock. I was shocked to discover there are only 3,619 properties listed for sale in Dublin. Trinity College Dublin economist Ronan Lyons believes that we need to build 50,000 new homes every year to deal with ever-increasing demand. In 2016, only 14,000 new homes were built. Although we are talking about this matter all the time, I have not seen evidence of any massive impetus or incentives for to builders to increase supply. This matter is the elephant in the room and we have failed to take it seriously. I will keep raising it until it is properly addressed.
Due to professional duties of confidentiality and professional rules on publicity, I have been unable, like many Members, to deal in public with the controversies surrounding the demonisation of Sergeant Maurice McCabe and his family. I remain in that position. Those duties, however, do not prevent me from fulfilling my constitutional and statutory functions as a Member of the Oireachtas regarding the proposal to establish a tribunal of inquiry under the 1921 Act, to examine and report on those matters and on the terms of reference which this House will debate this evening. In that context, I am looking forward to the debate.
It would be wrong for me to refrain from stating in this House that the fairness and appropriateness of establishing such an inquiry, while the Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, continues to exercise her authority and discharge her functions as Commissioner, is very much an issue.
As a former Tánaiste, Minister for Justice and Equality and Attorney General, I am in a good position to form an opinion as to whether it is appropriate for the Commissioner, against whom the gravest of allegations of misconduct have been made and which will now be investigated, to exercise her authority in An Garda Síochána and to exercise her functions while the tribunal is being organised and until it has considered its report. The relationship between the Government and the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána must be based on confidence. In anyone's language, confidence includes a solid belief and a working assumption that the person in question is truthful, reliable and appropriate to be in the position in every respect.Confidence cannot be said to exist if sufficient doubt exists in the mind of the Government in respect of the gravest allegations to warrant the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry. Moreover, confidence involves an assumption of the truthfulness of a person. When we come to a situation where there is a direct conflict between that person's position as publicly stated and that of Superintendent David Taylor, and if we are operating on the assumption that the Commissioner is being truthful, that necessarily suggests that we are operating on the assumption that the allegations against her are false. That is not the position of members of the public or Members of this House.
It is inconceivable that officers, including senior officers, of a disciplined force should be asked in their evidence to accuse, on oath and in public, of grave misbehaviour the person who is in charge of them day to day or that they be permitted to instruct counsel to cross-examine that person as to her honesty, reliability and suitability for office. It is also wrong in principle that the Garda force in its entirety, which will have a duty to co-operate in finding, presenting and making discovery of all records and evidence in its possession relating to the issues under consideration, should be under the day-to-day control of a person whose suitability for office is necessarily a central issue in that tribunal of inquiry.
Accordingly, I want to state in the strongest possible terms that there is no reason at all for the Government to permit the Commissioner to remain in office and she must step aside either temporarily for the three month duration of the tribunal and until it has reported or else permanently. People in this House have said, and rightly so, that we should not be judge and jury in this matter. The rights of all persons to fairness comes first, including the rights of the public and everybody whose interests are at stake in this tribunal. The determination of the Commissioner to remain in office during the tribunal is neither fair, appropriate nor defensible.
It is not every day that I stand here and agree completely, fully and wholly with Senator McDowell. It is disturbing that the Garda Commissioner is refusing to step aside for the duration of the public tribunal of inquiry. It is even more disturbing that the Government, the Cabinet and their partners in government, Fianna Fáil, feel that this is okay. It is wrong and I would ask all involved to reflect on that and to understand the predicament they put some witnesses in. The mere fact the Commissioner will not step aside and will be left in her position will do a disservice to Sergeant Maurice McCabe and his family. I hope that by the time Senators return to the House next Tuesday the situation will have been resolved and the Commissioner will have stepped aside to allow the tribunal to do the work required to get to the truth.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, did not answer one question last night in this House. I understand the Minister ran out of time but I and other mothers and citizens of the State need to know that there are not files held by Tusla on our children or on ourselves. We need to be given confidence that this does not happen. The Minister needs to put in place some kind of facility whereby we can check if that is the case, especially those of us who have spoken out against the justice system and against the behaviour of some senior members of An Garda Síochána or who have spoken out against the behaviour of the gardaí in disputes such as at the Corrib gas project and the protests at Shannon Airport and so on.
I also want to discuss the fact we are in the third week of the ongoing dispute at the Tim Hastings Volkswagen garage in Westport. This is the third week where workers and their families have had to stand out in inclement weather to try to engage with management to bring about a resolution. Last week the Leader of the House said it was a matter for the mechanisms of the State, specifically the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and that it was important the mechanisms of the State were used to reach a solution. I absolutely agree with the Leader, but SIPTU members in the Tim Hastings garage have utilised all the industrial relations machinery of the State available to them. This was the third time that SIPTU members had to ballot for strike action in an attempt to get management to engage. In the first instance Tim Hastings Limited refused to attend the WRC to discuss the dispute. The company relented and attended the WRC eventually but no agreement was reached. The management side would not even sit in the same room as the union. The entire conciliation process was held in a side session. As no agreement was reached at the WRC, the next logical step was to refer the issue to the Labour Court, a highly reputable organisation for resolving disputes. Again, management only agreed to attend the Labour Court under the threat of strike action and a hearing was held on 4 November 2016. The Labour Court issued a recommendation on 20 December which said that for the positions genuinely made redundant, the staff affected should be paid an ex gratiaredundancy payment of two weeks' salary per year of service in addition to the statutory redundancy and that the parts manger would be given the option of retaining the job or accepting the redundancy.
I ask that the Taoiseach would get involved in this matter to ensure the company, which is in the Taoiseach's constituency, takes heed of the very institutions and mechanisms of the State that he asked people to recognise. I ask that Volkswagen Ireland also gets involved to resolve this dispute in order that the workers who want to can return to work and that the Labour Court recommendations are fully implemented.
I wish to express concern about correspondence I received earlier this week from the ambassador with the mission of the state of Palestine in Dublin, outlining his serious concerns around the ongoing and continuous approval of construction of settlements by the Israeli Government in the occupied Palestinian state. The construction of 566 new settlement units in occupied east Jerusalem must be condemned. These settlements are illegal and a violation of international law. It is imperative that the Government expresses its condemnation of these settlements and makes it known to the Israeli Government that it will lobby its fellow members of the European Union to bring whatever pressure is necessary to force Israel to abide by Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemns the expansion of settlements and the confiscation of Palestinian land. We know, unfortunately, from previous attempts to halt the expansion of settlements that mere condemnation and resolutions will not deter Israel from its policy of taking over Palestinian land. The treatment of Palestinian people by the Israeli Government is comparable to the actions of the apartheid regime in South Africa and, as such, must be condemned. There must also be the imposition of some penalties if the Israelis insist on ignoring their obligations under international law. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, before the House to outline the measures the Government will take to ensure Israel will abide by Security Council Resolution 2334.
Last Monday morning at first light, machinery moved in to the Harold's Cross greyhound track. They removed the traps, took furniture out from the restaurant and put security on the gates. The 12 staff who work there were locked out. These are the actions of the Irish Greyhound Board, which says it wants to save the greyhound industry. The board held a meeting at the Harold's Cross stadium on the same day they closed it down. The problem within the greyhound industry stems back to a €20 million debt incurred when the new track was built in Limerick. The patrons, dog owners, breeders and trainers who use the Harold's Cross stadium are being made to suffer. There has been an attempt to isolate the patrons and the supporters of the Harold's Cross stadium by saying they are a contrarian group.This week the Irish Greyhound Owners and Breeders Federation had a meeting in the Horse & Jockey Hotel outside Thurles at which Harold's Cross track got the support of federations across the country from Tipperary to Waterford, Kerry, Cork, the north west, the midlands and Northern Ireland. A protest will be held next Saturday night at Shelbourne Park. No dogs that have run in the Harold's Cross Greyhound Stadium will run in Shelbourne Park. Blocking out staff from work, pulling up traps, dismantling furniture and putting padlocks on gates is no way to deal with a problem. The problem was exacerbated by a statement made by the interim chief executive officer. He stated:
We are committed to making Shelbourne Park perform excellently for all Trainers, Owners, Patrons and Staff, especially for those for whom Harold's Cross was their greyhound home. This will be challenging for all of us but there is a need for all stakeholders to leave aside disagreement and work together through a process of change and opportunity from which improved performance can be extracted.
This is the same person who gave the go-ahead to put the lock on the gate of Harold's Cross stadium. It is like pulling a person down a lane, beating the living daylights out of him and then saying, "Come on, we will be friends, we will have a drink together."
Much reference has been made in this process to the Indecon report, a copy of which I have with me, which is now four years old. It was published in 2014. Reference is made to the need to find ways of saving money through the sale of assets, but the only asset that has been mentioned and acted on is the Harold's Cross track. However, the report states, "Potential asset disposals that should be considered include the site at Meelick, the old Henry Street Head office in Limerick, land in Cork, and the sale of [...] Harold's Cross". Just one has been acted on. The board, including the chair and the interim CEO, have lost the support of the patrons and of the owners and breeders and those involved in the industry want all of them to go.
I share Senator Landy's concerns about the Irish greyhound industry, which has been a traditionally strong industry not only in Dublin where the current controversy surrounds the Harold's Cross track but right around the country where patrons, owners and breeders are concerned about the future of the industry. I agree that we need to have a debate about the greyhound industry in this country, what the board is doing to sustain it and what changes need to be made to assist that industry.
Despite the recent controversies, it is important that we in this House understand and recognise that every citizen in this country has a fundamental right, under our Constitution, to a presumption of innocence unless otherwise proven. I want to put on the record that I, too, welcome the holding of a public inquiry into the recent controversies around the McCabe case. The reputation and integrity of our agencies such as Tusla and, indeed, An Garda Síochána, which has stood by this country since its foundation, are under question until this matter is finally dealt with. I welcome the move by Government to have a public, transparent inquiry under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Charleton and we will be debating its terms of reference later on.
I wish to raise an issue that has been of interest to me for quite some time, namely, the pyrite issue and the damage that it has done to many homes throughout the country but more especially in the Meath and north Dublin areas. The previous Government increased funding for the pyrite remediation scheme for the carrying out of remediation works to many of the houses that were affected, and strong and solid progress is being made. However, there is another similar problem concerning mica in Donegal and north Mayo. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, brought it to my attention a number of years ago and an expert committee was established to closely examine the problems being experienced by the householders affected by mica. I understand this expert committee is due to report soon. It has visited the houses affected which are literally crumbling around the families living in them due to concrete work that was insufficient and not of proper integrity. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the pyrite and mica issues and to invite the Minister with responsibility for housing to come into the House in order that we can debate these issues in detail to establish what assistance is being made available and what is planned to assist those families who have been let down by poor regulation in the construction industry.
I would like to raise an issue that was covered in an article in the Evening Heraldregarding the seizure by An Garda Síochána of a large number of Taser guns from an organised crime gang. I welcome that seizure and I am delighted we can send a positive message back to the gardaí in light of what has been happening in the last few days. I am delighted that they have a positive approach to it being business as usual out on the streets while we are having our shenanigans in here.
A major issue that seizure highlights is that while this involved an organised criminal gang there is an element of unorganised, two-bit, petty criminals with a monkey see, monkey do attitude at work. This will raise in their minds that they can harass elderly couples, in particular, in rural areas a little bit more who will not even be familiar with what a Taser gun is. I would like an issue addressed, and it is not only related to this area, that of the purchasing of materials on the Internet. While Taser guns are illegal under the Firearms Act in Ireland they can quite easily be purchased on legitimate websites for a mere €50. We need to address the issue of products which are illegal in this State, especially an item such as a Taser gun which would be used for all the wrong reasons, which can be purchased online for as little as €50 and brought into the country by a courier. That issue needs to be seriously addressed.
When I turned on my radio this morning I heard that politics was being played with the Maurice McCabe issue, and I hope we will not have that in this House this evening. It is a very serious issue which has gone on for far too long. We have in front of us the terms of reference of the tribunal of inquiry, which I hope can be agreed in this House without politicising the issue.
The issue of the presumption of innocence has been brought forward as a reason that the Garda Commissioner should be left in her position. There is absolutely no question from anybody here about the presumption of innocence. Everybody is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty, but the Commissioner must take a neutral position as we enter into this tribunal and the only neutral position she can take its to step down and step aside while the tribunal takes place. One of her most senior officers will appear before the tribunal in uniform and will tell a story directly opposing the story she will tell. We cannot have two of the most senior officers in An Garda Síochána, and I have said this several times-----
The Garda Commissioner must take a neutral position and in doing so that requires that she steps down and steps aside while the tribunal is going on. Whether she returns or not will be a matter for the outcome of the tribunal, but she must step down, and she must do that immediately.
The Minister, Deputy Zappone, appeared before the House last night and primarily dealt with the Maurice McCabe travesty, particularly that involving Tusla. This is a critical aspect. We will have a debate in the House when the Health Information and Quality Authority report into Tusla is completed. I would like to see the terms of reference of that report as they will be key. A number of questions need to be included in that. First, who has access to Tusla's database, apart from Tusla? Second, I put the question to Minister last night that if the freedom of information request had not been put in by the McCabes, would this information have come to light. The Minister said it would not.
She said it would not. That raises serious questions. There are many very good people working in Tusla and in An Garda Síochána. If Tusla is not fit for purpose, it should be abolished just as FÁS was abolished. I would like to see a timeline for when the HIQA report will be completed. I would like us to see the terms of reference and I would like them to be debated. If Tusla is not fit for purpose, the Minister needs to abolish it forthwith.
I commend Senator McDowell's comments. It is simply not credible for the Garda Commissioner to remain in situ. I do not think it does the Fine Gael Party any good whatsoever to cling to the position that she can remain in situ, especially given that all the rest of us have acknowledged that this is just not tenable in the current circumstances. I was astonished to hear the leader of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party saying on "Morning Ireland" that he does not accept there has been a conspiracy against Maurice McCabe. I find that absolutely astonishing.
My colleague, Deputy Cullinane, is launching a Bill today in an attempt to give trade union officials the right of access to trade union members. In light of the significant issues that have arisen in recent weeks in companies like Tesco, Kerry Foods and Bus Éireann, it is about time for all of us to decide whether we believe in the right of trade unions to represent their members. If we do, can we stand against a Bill that simply provides that trade union officials have the right to access their members in the workplace? Deputy Cullinane's fine Bill has been copied from similar enactments in New Zealand and Australia. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do not support a basic Bill that seeks to give trade union rights to trade union members, we will see where they actually stand on workers' rights. Will our shop steward Leader across the way stand up for workers on this occasion?
In recent days, I have been looking at some startling statistics which show that the number of offences in the category of attempts or threats to murder, assault or harass and related offences increased by 25% between 2005 and 2015. In addition, there was a notable increase in the number of reported sexual offences in the same period, from 1,801 in 2005 to 2,348 in 2015. Of course there are multiple reasons for these increases, including the increase in the population. A review of the news from recent months supports these statistics and reveals that numerous assaults occur during the early hours of the morning or evening when people are commuting to and from work. I suggest that a safety awareness campaign should be rolled out immediately to provide advice on removing earphones at more vulnerable times, staying alert and walking in lit areas. Notices to that effect could be displayed at DART and Luas stations and on local bus services nationwide. The prevention of sexual offences is a serious matter that must be investigated. It must underlie the prosecution of sexual assaults. If people who tend to be in their own world as they go to and from work each day were to be given small reminders of the dangers that exist, it could have a very good effect.
I would like to return to the issue of the abuse of synthetic and prescription drugs, which I raised on Tuesday. I do not think we realise the full seriousness of this situation. I heard some stories in this regard being reported on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" this morning. I have been in contact with the Minister for Education and Skills since Tuesday to discuss what we are doing to raise awareness of the use of these drugs by children. Some people start to take these drugs when they are as young as ten years of age. I suggest that as part of the new well-being educational programme that is being rolled out by the Minister for Education and Skills, children should be specifically educated about this problem. This may involve bringing children to drug rehabilitation centres or getting somebody who has experience of these drugs to come to schools to speak to young children about the detrimental effects that these drugs, which are so freely available, can have on their lives in the long term.
A number of commitments were contained in the Action Plan for Education when it was announced with a degree of fanfare towards the end of last year. One of them was a commitment to hire 65 educational psychologists in the first quarter of 2017. The Leader will agree that the version of this commitment in the updated version of the action plan, as published last week, represents a significant and severe drop because it refers merely to the hiring of ten educational psychologists in the second quarter of 2017. No explanation has been given for this downgrade. Members will acknowledge that additional educational psychologists are very much needed in the education system to assist all students who have special needs. I found it quite startling to learn recently that 199 schools, with approximately 34,575 pupils, do not have access to educational psychologists. It is a shameful statistic. Needless to say, the schools that do not have access to educational psychologists are put at a severe disadvantage. Children with special needs in those schools are being forgotten about. As we know, teachers are not qualified to diagnose children. They need experts to assess children in order that recommendations can be made on work programmes for those children in their schools. I ask the Leader to impress on the Minister for Education and Skills the need to address this issue so that the most needy children can be catered for within our school system.
Yesterday, members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement were invited to meet members of the Likud Party in the Knesset in Israel and many religious leaders. They were very interested in the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to this country, in effect. I reminded them that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was the forerunner of the Good Friday Agreement. It did not lead to peace between the two parties, but it set up the institutions that gave the Republic of Ireland a role in Northern Ireland and helped to pave the way for the Good Friday Agreement. I mention this because the Israeli delegation was very interested in the peace process. I reminded them that the term "peace process" was coined by the United States in the context of the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations of the 1970s. We have come an awful long way on the island of Ireland. I think we have done extremely well. It is ironic that the term "peace process" is still being used in the Israeli context even though they are still so far away from peace. The security of the Israeli State was mentioned, as were the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora. I said that this country is very well placed to act as an independent arbiter in the attempt to help to resolve those issues. These issues are never black and white. There are many grey areas. Our job is not to stand and wave one flag or the other. We need to see that there are two sides to every story and try to come to some conclusion. I think this country is well placed to step up to the plate again by helping to negotiating peace settlements in Israel and many other countries.
Ba mhaith liom go mbeadh plé againn leis an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna maidir leis an dul chun cinn atá á dhéanamh ar an bpolasaí oideachas Gaeltachta. Táimid ar fad i bhfábhar an pholasaí, ach tá céimeanna tábhachtacha le tógáil sa chomhthéacs seo maidir le earcadh agus oilúint múinteoirí ionas go mbeidh siad ar fáil le dul isteach sna scoileanna Gaeltachta i mí Mheán Fómhair seo chugainn. Ba mhaith liom a fháil amach céard atá ag tarlú faoi sin.The well-known playwright, actor and activist, Mr. Donal O'Kelly, brought attention back in November and December 2016 to a situation which should be of concern to us all. Many asylum seekers suddenly found their scheduled asylum interviews cancelled without explanation until further notice. On 31 December, the International Protection Act 2015 came into effect. On 5 January 2017, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, website was updated with new content.
On 3 February 2017, many asylum seekers in Ireland received newly published 60 page questionnaires, to be completed and returned to INIS within three weeks. It was 60 pages long, and there was a 30 page guidance booklet, ostensibly to help fill out the 60 page form. There is a shameful pall of stress and tension hanging over every direct provision reception centre at the moment, Mr. O'Kelly tells us. People try to find a place to study the monumental tome they have been sent. People try to make themselves tackle three or four pages a day. People try to fill in what they can, and leave the hard bits until they are in better form. People try to find quiet time in the tiny bedroom that they share with two others to read it through from beginning to end. People who have already been through an interview process must re-enter their data and much new material that is demanded into this new 60 page form. People ring their appointed solicitors for help with the form like every other applicant and their calls are not returned.
There is a huge issue and it is concerning and alarming that asylum seekers should be put into this position. We were promised that the International Protection Act 2015 would make things easier with a single procedure. This three week deadline is unfair to those people and they probably do not have the supports that they need. I call on the Minister for Justice and Equality, who I know is busy with issues this week, to come into this House in order that we can have another debate around people in and seeking asylum, particularly in the direct provision system. I call for this deadline to be extended and for the proper supports to be given to those people who are going to find it very difficult to fill in a 60 page form without the requisite support. Perhaps the Leader can bring that to the Minister's attention as quickly as possible.
Will the Leader update the House on when it is proposed to have the legislation on greyhounds approved by the Cabinet and brought before both Houses of the Oireachtas in light of what Senator Landy and others have said about the turmoil in the greyhound industry? The Irish Greyhound Board, which is in receipt of a subsidy of €285,000 every week, is grossly unaccountable to the stakeholders operating within the industry, including greyhound owners and breeders. That was brought to everyone's attention at the weekend when the Harold's Cross stadium was put up for sale in dubious circumstances surrounding the manner in which the gates were closed.
There is a lack of accountability and transparency within the organisation. There is no stakeholder engagement with the owners and the breeders and that is not right. In light of all that is transpiring, including the resignation of the CEO of the organisation just before Christmas, there is an urgent need to fast-track the legislation and bring transparency to the greyhound industry, as has been done with Horse Racing Ireland with huge success. While the Leader may not have the information today, perhaps he would update the House on that.
I noted with interest some of the remarks from Senator Feighan. I do not disagree with what he proposed or suggested on the role the Government can play in supporting and helping to develop other peace processes around the world. However, I would contest that it should probably focus more of its attention on our indigenous peace process and the outstanding commitments before it starts to focus on processes elsewhere. These include a public inquiry into the murder of Mr. Pat Finucane, the introduction of legislation on human rights and legislation on the Irish language.
RTE's report this morning that the Department of Foreign Affairs has employed an additional 230 staff in the Passport Office is quite good news. This is probably the only example where Brexit is creating jobs on this island as opposed to doing damage to our jobs. The figures for me were quite stark and impressive. I commend the staff in the Passport Office who, it is clear, have been dealing with a huge amount of additional work as a result of this. Looking at some of the figures, there was a 74% increase in passport applications from Britain compared with January last year. In the North, 7,000 people in January alone applied for passports. That is a huge percentage increase on January of last year. In Britain, there was a jump of 71% in January of this year compared with last year. Overall, in 2016, there were 67,972 passport applications from the North, while there were 64,996 passport applications from Britain as well. We have spoken numerous times about Brexit and its huge economic, political and social implications. I hope the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and indeed the Taoiseach, will come back before us soon, and indeed regularly, to discuss that with Senators. This would allow for a very practical debate with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the issue of citizenship post-Brexit. What will citizenship look like and mean? What will it do for people in the North who want to avail of their Irish and therefore EU citizenship?
This is an example of where the Government could take a positive unilateral initiative by opening a passport office in the North, which would not just be symbolic for Irish citizens there. The figures indicate it would be a practical strategic advantage for the Government to do that. Perhaps the Leader will consider us discussing that and raising it with the Minister.
The publication of the latest daft.iereport shows that average rent levels across the country are at an historic peak. We in the Dáil and Seanad recently brought in new legislation for rent caps for certain areas, including Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kildare. This seems unfair to me when one looks at this market because the lack of supply in housing is driving rents higher. When there are certain areas with this new rent cap and neighbours without it, it causes confusion. It is unfair. I ask the Minister to re-examine this new rent cap system. Everywhere in the country should be allowed to be part of it. At least it then gives fairness and justice to those counties that are suffering because the Government is not building houses. There is a lack of supply and the biggest issue going forward is that rents are still going up. In 2017, this new daft.iereport says housing is at its highest peaks for rents.
I thank the 17 Senators who contributed to the Order of Business.
Senators Ardagh, McDowell, Craughwell, Coffey, Conway-Walsh and Gavan raised the matter of a public inquiry. It is important we allow for the tribunal to do its work first of all.
It is important to recognise a couple of things. A tribunal is being set up which is public, chaired by an eminent judge, and I have absolute confidence that he will do the job required of him. We are Members of the Upper House and our language is important. By extension of that, as I say every day of the week in this House, we cannot be judge and jury or attempt to influence or be seen to influence.
We cannot attempt to influence or be seen to influence. I am not saying the Senators are, in case they think I am. I think it is important that the judge is allowed to carry out his duties. If he makes a finding against people, that will be the result. All of us, I hope, have one common aim, namely, that the McCabe family get justice and are treated fairly and that we find out the truth in this inquiry. The tribunal is open to everybody. We cannot act as the tribunal.
We have the terms of reference before us today. There are no findings against anybody yet. There are allegations in all shapes and forms. It is the job of the tribunal to establish the truth. I have every confidence it will.
We are presumed innocent until otherwise proven guilty. We have a duty as Members of the House to ensure that the tribunal gets the support it needs. I think Senator Paul Gavan misquoted Deputy Martin Heydon on "Morning Ireland" and I would ask the Senator to go back and listen to the programme again.
In the context, I am happy to announce to Senator Ardagh that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, will be in the House next Tuesday for education statements. In terms of the first-time buyers grant that she raises, it is new scheme and it will take time. May I just remind Senators Murnane O'Connor and Ardagh that we had a recession that killed off the construction industry when their party was in government. There is a reason that we had - - - - -
It is important to recognise that the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, in Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness has set out targets and actions that must be followed up. We will have control of rent, which he has addressed by the introduction of rent pressure zones, which I am sure Deputy Murnane O'Connor will welcome.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of the Hastings garage in Mayo. As I said to her last week, that matter is outside our remit. There is a mechanism of the State to be employed and I would encourage all sides to engage with it.
Senators Black, Feighan and Paul Daly raised the issue of Palestine. I think it is important that we reach out to all sides in this dispute, if I can use that term, to engage. We recognise as Senator Feighan rightly said that it is not black and white. There are two sides and the Palestinian people deserve to have their rights respected and upheld and also that we have constant dialogue and interaction. To be fair to Senator Feighan, the model he spoke about in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, is one that could be used. It is important that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade would articulate the views expressed here this morning in regard to Palestine when they are in Washington DC for St. Patrick's Day.
Senators Landy, Coffey and Ó Domhnaill spoke again today about the greyhound industry and the greyhound stadium in Harold's Cross. The Indecon report set out the reasons the sale of Harold's Cross had to take place. There are legitimate concerns which have been expressed in this House and also at the Committee of Public Accounts where the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, is discussing the greyhound industry. Dialogue and communication are critical to solving any issue. The sale of assets has to be approved by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department. The Government is committed to the greyhound industry and has committed €16 million this year under the horse and greyhound fund. It is disappointing to see this type of action being taken out of frustration. I agree with Senators Landy and Coffey that the greyhound industry is important and we need to see this issue resolved as soon as possible.
Senator Coffey mentioned pyrite and I will be happy to have the Minister come to the House in regard to the issue. Equally I join Senator Paul Daly in congratulating the Garda Síochána for the seizure of the Taser guns. There is an issue of access through the Internet. Equally, it is a debate we need to have as a country and I will be happy to have the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, come to the House to discuss data protection along with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald. There was mention of people going around and terrorising old people. These people belong to a community and people know who they are and they should share the information with the Garda Síochána.
Senator Ó Domhnaill raised the issue of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and the terms of reference of the HIQA report. It is important to have that report concluded and I would be very happy to debate it in the House. The Senator raises a very interesting point about access to databases, which all organisations should have a policy on. During the course of the debate last evening Senator Ó Ríordáin mentioned that in his school the principal had access to the filling cabinets. It is important that any organisation which has sensitive documents and files restricts access and there is a vouched for access and exit from that particular storage area. If the information is online, it should be encoded and there should be a strict access point. Senator Gavan raised Deputy Cullinane's Bill, but we all would want to see the rights of workers protected. I am consistent on that point. If he wants to bring the matter forward as a Private Members' Bill that is up to him, but it is important that we protect workers, that they are given access to unions and have representation.
Senator Noone raised the increasing levels of violence which is up 25% in some categories. Thankfully the Minister for Justice and Equality is bringing forward a domestic violence Bill. All of us agree that any type of violence is unacceptable and that we should stand strong against it, whether it is a threat of violence or attempted murder. The matter the Senator raised in regard to education can be discussed next Tuesday. Senator Gallagher also raised education and as I have said, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, will be in the House next Thursday.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of the polasaí don oideachas Gaeltachta. I will request the Minister to come to the House regarding that and perhaps he could discuss it next Tuesday as part of the debate. Should the Senator want the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to attend we can talk about that.
Reference was made to the interview process for asylum seekers. I was not aware that was the case as I had not heard it but I will discuss it afterwards and we can take it up with the Minister. It is Deputy McHugh's intention to come to the House next Thursday. It is in my calendar for the schedule for next week but I will come back to Senator Ó Clochartaigh on an agreed date.
In regard to the point made by Senator Ó Donnghaile, I hate saying that it was Sinn Féin which collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government is very invested and very committed to working with all sides in the North but it was his party who collapsed the Assembly.
I share his view on the Passport Office. It is good to see an increase in the staffing levels to deal with the increased level of applications.It would be interesting to have a debate on how we might make access to passports easier for people. I do not see any reason why we could not have such a debate in Derry, Belfast or wherever else. I would very much welcome that.
Senator Murnane O'Connor referenced the recent daft.iereport. I would be happy to have the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government appear before the House.