Thursday, 13 April 2017
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding amendment of Standing Orders 70, 81, 104 and 104A, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the establishment of a special committee on the eighth amendment of the Constitution, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 without debate; No. 3, motion regarding the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2 without debate; No. 4, Heritage Bill 2016 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5.30 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall in respect of amendments include only those tabled or accepted by the Government; No. 5, motion regarding the report of the Joint Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, to be taken at 6 p.m. with the time allocated to all Senators not to exceed five minutes each.
I note from the Irish Independenttoday that farmers are facing huge damage from post-Brexit tariffs, so it is important that we invite the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House to explain what preparation is being made. Irish beef and dairy exports face tariffs of 16% and 15%, respectively, if a deal is not concluded. It is highly unlikely that the deal will be concluded within two years and, on that basis, Irish farming and the agrifood sector are very vulnerable given the figures quoted. Ireland imports produce worth €2.8 billion from the UK and approximately 40% of our food exports go to the UK. We should invite the Minister to the House to discuss the tariffs, what we intend to do in respect of agriculture, what other markets we could seek to try to minimise our exposure and how we can try to get a good deal between Ireland, the EU 27 and Britain in terms of food.
I also wish to raise the serious issue of vacancies in the health service, particularly in the child and adolescent community mental health service. Figures recently released to our spokesperson in the Dáil, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, reveal that 82 posts, including consultant and clinical nurse specialist posts, are vacant. The scale of vacancies is really frightening. The positions include eight consultant posts, 20 clinical nurse specialist posts and eight psychologist posts required for the 2017 recruitment targets. A Vision for Change must be implemented, so it is important that we invite the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, or the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, or both to the House to discuss this.
Finally, I have raised the situation in Bus Éireann in the House in the last few days. We must invite the Minister to the House to discuss it. As the Leader said yesterday, the strike is affecting not only the travelling public but also many businesses, shops, restaurants and so forth, due to the fact that their customers cannot get to them. The situation in Bus Éireann must be considered by the House so I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to the House to discuss it.
Incidentally, I wish to formally move the Bill in the name of Senator Ardagh relating to litter.
I welcome the former councillor, Bart Donegan, and his good wife to the Visitors Gallery. There is an interesting history to this. His grandfather was a Member of this House and the great freedom fighter, Seán Moylan, helped him to become a Senator but lost his own seat. Seán Moylan was nominated to be a Member of the House and was subsequently appointed Minister for Agriculture. Perhaps the Leader will ask the Taoiseach and the Cabinet to reflect on the fact that Members of this House can be good Cabinet Ministers. Mr. Moylan was a very successful Minister, one of many who came from this House. It is important information. Cuirim fáilte roimh Bart Donegan and his wife, Patricia.
On 18 January last, I wrote to the Department of Defence to seek information with regard to the appointment of an additional assistant secretary general in the Department. In my freedom of information request I sought a copy of the correspondence between the Department of Defence and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I also sought details about the reasons for the appointment.
The Department of Defence has 440 employees. It has a Secretary General, two assistant secretaries general and a finance administrator, who holds the rank of an assistant secretary general. My freedom of information request was partially agreed. Some 75 pages of documents were exchanged between the Department of Defence and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to get agreement for this appointment. The Department refused to tell me, a public servant, what criteria were used to make the appointment. This job has a salary of €146,000 a year, yet the Department of Defence handed back €27 million of unused salary for those in uniform. At a time when the Department of Defence is in a crisis with regard to operational capability, what is the justification for an additional head of human resources for 440 employees? The uniformed personnel have their own HR department.
In line with the above efforts, the Minister was asked to secure additional naval appointments for the National Maritime College of Ireland, which is in or close to the Leader's constituency.This request by the Chief of Staff was refused by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We are speaking about an operational post refused by the Department, yet we are prepared to appoint an additional assistant secretary general head of HR for 440 people. We will finish up with the Department of Defence having a Secretary General, three assistant secretaries general and a finance director for 440 people. This is totally and utterly wrong. We have discussed the Defence Forces in the House and I note the Leader is making efforts to bring to the House the Minister of State with responsibility for defence. Today, I call for the Order of Business to be amended, and I do not do so lightly, to bring the Minister of State with responsibility for defence to the House to explain this. The public have a right to know why we are appointing an additional assistant secretary general to a Department which is tiny in the grand scheme of things. What is going on? What is contained in the 72 or 73 pages of correspondence between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Defence? One particular series of documents amounts to 21 pages. There is something seriously wrong when we have bomb disposal people on duty for 15 days a month because we do not have enough commissioned officers to do the work. There is something terribly wrong when we have young officers away from home for as many as 25 days a month. I propose the amendment to the Order of Business so that, before the end of the day, the Minister of State will come to the House to speak on this specific issue.
This morning, I raise the case of Irish citizen Elizabeth Crumlish Doran, who is making a desperate plea to the Irish Government to step in and help return her three children, who were taken into care by British social workers in distressing scenes in Solihull, Birmingham in April 2016. This is a most disturbing case. The children were aged nine, six and 21 months old at the time social services took them away. Since then, she has done everything she can to try to get her children back. What is really disturbing is the fact that the family court system in Britain operates a system of forced adoption. It is the only country in the EU to operate such a system, although of course it is leaving the EU now. The court decided that because it would take Elizabeth a year or more to learn how to read or write, it would be too long for the baby to be fostered, so her now two year old baby son has been put into forced adoption. In other words, she was told she would never see her child again.
This case is not a one off. I have been researching this policy of contested or forced adoption, and I find it particularly disturbing because the system operates in secret. A number of Irish citizens have been affected by the system. My colleague in Tipperary, Councillor Catherine Carey, has been approached by a number of people in recent times to tell her stories of mothers who, because they suffer from a mild disability, again, because they cannot read or write, have had their children taken away from them and told they will not see them again.
We began the week speaking about Tuam and a very disturbing situation there and the horrors inflicted on women. I find it absolutely shocking that today, just across the water, there is a system of contested or forced adoption, which seems to be picking on vulnerable people in particular. Elizabeth's heart is absolutely broken, but it gets worse. Given that the system in Britain operates in secret, once a child is forcibly adopted, if one speaks out, one can be jailed. Elizabeth is being threatened with jail by the British court system at present. It is not just a threat because at present 200 parents of children are in jail in Britain because they have spoken out about the fact that their children have been taken from them.
Let us be clear: I fully understand the State has to be responsible and must intervene at times to protect children. We all agree on this point. However, it is particularly disturbing to find that parents are effectively gagged, threatened and jailed if they have the temerity to say their sons or daughters have been taken from them and they have been told they will never see them again. I ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to address urgently the specific issue relating to Elizabeth Crumlish Doran, and to come to the House to discuss this issue because it affects thousands of citizens. It has been addressed by the Council of Europe, which has expressed concern. The European Parliament has also expressed particular concern and the Italian courts have expressed concern that it may be in breach of the UN Convention on Human Rights with regard to children. I ask for the full support of the Leader on this issue.
I wish to raise the issue of the child care subsidy. It has been announced that 9,000 families will miss out on the subsidy due to commence in September. It probably does not seem like much to some, but €48 per month for child care for some families, who would have already begun to consider it part of their budget from September, is a massive deal. The articles I have read today point out it was down to the new computer system. We should get answers. For the past number of years, we have been updating and installing new computer systems for the public service card. I thought there would be some crossover in terms of being able to administer the child care subsidy through the administration put in place for the public service card. Perhaps this is an answer we need to find out with regard to trying to move this along so there is not a hefty wait for people with regard to child care.
On a more personal note, I wish to honour my father, who passed away this day four years ago. When I drove through the gates today, I was thinking about what he taught me about politics. My father grew up in a one-bedroom tenement in poverty on Usher's Quay, and places such as here and Trinity College were so out of bounds for someone growing up in that situation that he never got to walk through the gates of Leinster House. He taught me two things about politics. One of these was the importance of voting. He never explained why it was important, and I am not sure he had the language for it, but he made sure we all marched up to the booth every time there was an election and he always took time off work to vote. This was as far as he got at explaining why it was important.. Obviously, I learned over time why it is so important for people to exercise their democratic right. The other thing he taught me, at which I have failed miserably, is not to talk about politics in the pub. I wish to remember him today, and the fact he never experienced this building, but I am here today, I hope after taking his lead with regard to exercising my democratic right.
Too often we do not acknowledge the progress we have made over the past six years. The unemployment rate six years ago was 15% and there have been enormous improvements and gains in this regard. This is despite issues with regard to bogus self-employed people, precarious employment and low-cost hours. Overall, huge strides have been made in getting people back to work. I was always very conscious of one particular group, who were in their 40s when the recession hit. They have probably experienced two, three or four years of unemployment. If they were late 40s when the recession hit, they are now in their early 50s and mid 50s. Statistics show they are now finding it more and more difficult to get back into employment.
I call on the Leader to bring to the House the Minister for Social Protection to see if we can engage in a constructive dialogue with regard to particularly targeting this group. The budget in JobsPlus is underspent for this year. There is a possibility we could develop a specific targeted mechanism through JobsPlus for this particular age group, which has many challenges. There is automatic discrimination by many employers against people because of their age. Young men or women in their 30s or 40s do not necessarily want to employ somebody older than them, often with much more experience than them, as they can feel threatened. We have an obligation to look at this group of people and to see what we can do and how we can assist them to get back into employment and bring forward particularly targeted measures. There is also a subgroup who received no benefit and so are excluded from any of the back to work programmes because the qualifying criteria mean they must be in receipt of a benefit from the State to access them. In some cases, a woman or man whose partner is in employment failed the means test and did not get access.It would be very worthwhile having that conversation in this House. It would assist the Minister in bringing forward new ideas in that area, not in a divisive way, but to see if we can work together to make sure the older, more experienced person can share in the recovery that is there.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in the House after Easter about the state of sport in Ireland and its administration, governance and funding. During the past weeks and months, sport has made headlines, in may cases for positive reasons but also for very negative reasons. In the last couple of days, all Members will have received the Sport Ireland report on the Rio games. It is a review of what worked and what did not work and what needs to be done. It is a very comprehensive document and on an initial perusal it points to many of the successes, obviously, but also the shortcomings and the glaring weaknesses of some of the governing bodies. Anyone reading through it would wonder why it has taken until now to sort out some of the issues but that is the situation. I ask the Leader to arrange that the Minister responsible for sport come to the House. There is a little confusion over whether that is the Minister, Deputy Ross, or the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, but that is for the Leader to sort out. There are many inquiries into the ticket issue and the Olympics and so on but that should not prevent debate and action and corrective measures being put in place. It would be good to have the discussion. There is nothing that can lift a nation like sport can, whether at national or international level. Increased funding is needed, even from the Government side I would say that, but there is also need for accountability and transparency on the funding provided which has not always been present.
Is é sin ceart go leor. The Leader might confirm whether any performance bonuses have been paid to any personnel in the Department of Defence.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to the House to discuss his plans for the post office network in this country. This comes at a time of great risk to the future of the 1,100-strong post office network around the country but especially in rural areas. I heard the Minister's comments during the week that the new fibre optic cable, which he thinks will be outside the door of every post office within 90 days. With respect, it will take more than a fibre optic cable to secure the future for the post office network, particularly in rural areas. It is important the Minister comes to the House to outline his plans and what additional services he plans to install in the post office network to ensure that network has a sustainable future. It is another symptom of the decline of rural Ireland, of which, unfortunately, there are many. We, as a country, need to have a debate on what we believe rural Ireland will look like in 20 or 30 years' time because if we continue on the road we are on, it will be a closed shop. We cannot let that happen.
I raise the issue of insurance premiums generally and as they affect motorists and employers, in particular. The reason I am concerned about this is that it was the case that the former Minister and Tánaiste, Mary Harney, and I, together in our respective Departments in the period 2002-2007, instituted major reforms in personal injuries law and insurance law, including the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. There was a general downward movement in insurance premiums at that time. Even though the economy of the country was probably overheating, the level of insurance premiums noticeably went down. Since the downturn in the economy it is strange to see that insurance premiums have been climbing back up again. There must be a number of reasons for this but it cannot just be a matter that there are more cars on the road or there are more people at work. The number of premiums being exacted by insurers from employers and people who depend on insurance for their livelihood has gone up very substantially.
The plight of taxi drivers deserves particular mention. They are being driven off the ranks and out of business in the city of Dublin, with some finding that their premiums have gone up from, say, €1,200 or €1,400 monthly to €2,000, €3,000 or €4,000, depending on whether they have had to make a claim of any kind. Some have been forced to retire because of the burden of insurance.
I am aware the Government has asked the former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns, to consider the whole question of personal injuries awards. It is strange that although newspapers often report on fraudulent claims where, for instance, someone might have got into a car which might have been rammed by another car, and there are patterns of this in different locations around the country, I am not aware that there has been any effective Garda prosecution of those involved. Given that during early 2000, making a false claim became a criminal offence, the law needs to be enforced. Most of all, we need a genuine Government response to the rise in the cost of insurance and frequency of claims and the rise in fraudulent claims so that the progress that was made between 2002 and 2007 can be reinstated.
I rise to speak about the flood relief scheme in Bandon. It has been an ongoing issue for the last decade if not more and there has been a stop and start situation in the scheme for the last three or four years. Work began four years ago but people were pulled off-site. There has been major concern in Bandon over the last week at the lack of progress and as rumour spread that there were negotiations between the OPW and the main contractor there was fear about where this might lead. I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, is working behind the scenes to ensure the contractor stays on-site and the works continue in Bandon but it is important this House would look at this issue and that of contractors going on-site and the possibility of them moving off-site in situations like that. It is a key issue in major infrastructural projects that are planned and a situation where we might not be confident that the same contractor would finish a job is a big issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, should come to the House not only to discuss this issue in Bandon but also other issues relating to the OPW and its contractual arrangements with other major contractors. It is a major fear in some communities that these contractors might pull off-site because prices have gone up and there is a competitive issue in the market since they quoted their prices.It is important that the Minister comes to the House. I hope the Leader can arrange that the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, shed light not only on what is happening in Bandon, but on the OPW projects and how we can ensure they will be delivered. There is a fear in some communities that contractors who go on site might not stay on site.
As far back as late November, I raised the plight of the cereal and grain farmers in the west who suffered tremendous losses last year due to the severe inclement weather. There was a lot of crop lost on a strip of the west coast. This issue was raised not only by me, but by several others on numerous occasions both in this House and in the Dáil. There is agreement in theory and I believe there is money available to compensate these farmers. As late as yesterday, the farmers representative bodies met with departmental officials as to how the money will be paid out in compensation. Following that meeting, the farmers were extremely frustrated because no progress was made and they are no closer to a decision on how, when, how much and to whom the money will be paid. What seems to have developed is a scenario of "live horse, and you'll get grass".
We are in the planting season. The farmers who were most severely hit last year do not have the cash flow to purchase fertiliser, seed or in some cases the diesel for their tractors to plant this year's crops because they have had absolutely no income from last year's crops. In order for those farmers to survive and have a harvest in the 2017, they need this money now. It will be no good to them in two, three, four or six months time. They will have gone out of business. I plead with the Leader to use his influence with the Minister to progress this process. To repeat, in theory the money has been agreed and is there, but there seems to be major confusion as to how it will be paid out. It is "live horse, get grass" for many of those farmers at present.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, to come to the House to explain his new ideas for the self-employed, and the findings of the survey conducted last year of 20,000 self-employed people? We all heard the new advertisement on the radio for the extra services that self-employed people are entitled to on the S class stamp, such as dental and eye benefit and disability pension. We want to move this forward. It is in the programme for Government and I am sure that everybody who is canvassing and knocking on doors meets self-employed people who ask what they done for them. This is a major issue that has been left for many years.
We have come a long way for the self-employed so we should finish the job. The elephant in the room is whether we make this contribution class, the S stamp, voluntary or mandatory. I would like to see a mandatory contribution but I am happy to go with the flow once we get something up and running because we cannot leave it the way it was during the crash when the self-employed were left to the wolves. They paid their VAT, tax and PRSI and when they needed help, there was no help from the State. They had to go and beg for food so that they and their families would survive. I do not want to see that happening ever again in this State. Let us get protection for the 340,000 self-employed people in this country for the first time through the Department of Social Protection. I hope the Leader will be able to bring the Minister to the House after Easter and start the ball rolling with a good debate. We need to make a start to put measures in place for the next budget.
Will the Leader ask the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to return to this House? This is an ideal forum. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, was in the House and spent a great deal of time discussing the housing Bill. It would be ideal if the Minister, Deputy Coveney, would return to this House and give Members an update on the progress that has been made and possible changes to increase supply.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, of the town and village renewal scheme 2017. This will allow new life to be breathed into many towns and villages around the country. The recent census figures show population decline in two counties, Mayo and Donegal, and low population growth in other counties which are predominantly in the west and north west. These counties have a significant older population. I believe that Government action is required to address this issue or these regions were be left further behind. In County Mayo, where I am from, I can safely say that the young people are leaving the country and are migrating to the cities. The young people who are leaving are putting more pressure on housing and on school places in the big urban centres. People cannot live on fresh air. There needs to be investment in strategic infrastructure, roads, trains and ports. This area is characterised by a lack of investment, and it missed out during the years of the Celtic tiger.
As we examine the mid-term review, I ask for special provision to assist these counties in decline, which is evidenced, in terms of accelerated capital investment in infrastructure projects. I believe the draft national planning framework shows no vision as a spatial strategy to push back the decline in these counties. If we do not get a formula to provide a solution to problems of housing in the country, these regions will continue to decline and we will continue to compound the problems in the major urban centres. Now is the opportunity to do something and I am asking for Government action. In light of the remit of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, perhaps we could have a proper debate with her on the critical need for a significant response to the problems in rural Ireland.
I refer to the debate yesterday on the Intoxicating Liquor (Amendment) Bill 2017 which proposes to open pubs on Good Friday. It was stated that this was a generally popular change and that the tourist industry would be gravely damaged if this did not happen. After the debate, I went through Trinity College and spoke to two large groups of tourists, one from the Netherlands and the other from the United States of America. They laughed like drains, saying the pub opening times would not affect them. There was no research produced or evidence to back up the bland statements in mid air by populists. They are not popular.
The response to that was overwhelmingly in favour of keeping pubs closed on Good Friday. There is no research to show that this was a popular thing, it was just a fantasy.
One of the issues that came in, which was very significant, is off licence sales. I got a very detailed note about below cost selling of alcohol by the supermarkets. This is an absolute plague.They are dropping the price of vodka, whiskey and all the rest of it, let alone the slabs of beer, to a very considerable extent.
Forget about Good Friday. God knows, we have plenty of problems with drink in this country and the last thing we need is another day of booze. As far as people stocking up goes, it is not just on Good Friday but on every day of the week because of the price of alcohol.
We talk about no pubs being open on Good Friday. One of the big issues in Ireland at the moment is social media and I wonder if we could have a "No mobile phones" day. It would be interesting to see how we could function for an entire day without a mobile phone.
It might be interesting to see how that would work.
I raise the issue of the home care proposals, which was touched on briefly during the week. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Helen McEntee, is dealing with it. It would be appropriate to have a debate in the House on the matter and how we can develop a comprehensive policy for the country on home care. As I have said on previous occasions, the changing demographics of the country mean the nursing home sector will not be able to accommodate the growth in the numbers who require care. We will have to set up proper support mechanisms. It would be appropriate to have a debate here before the document is finalised because many Members have experience in the area and could make useful contributions.
I raise also the issue of dementia. Private nursing homes are finding it difficult to get the necessary support from the HSE in regard to taking in dementia patients. Community hospitals cost approximately €1,700 per week per patient whereas it is approximately €1,000 in the private sector. Private nursing homes are not getting the necessary supports for patients with dementia as they need a higher level of care. It is a matter we need to debate because there are many people who would like to get a parent or relative into a nursing home near where they live but cannot because there is a lack of availability of beds in their local community hospitals. It would be appropriate to debate the matter given the publication of discussion documents on elderly care, home care and future planning. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House to debate the issue.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. A course was launched recently in Waterford Institute of Technology. It is an online maths programme to help parents of secondary school students. Parents can learn online to fill in the gaps where they feel they can no longer help their sons and daughters with their maths. The online programme is facilitated with books, worksheets and open access to lectures. It is something that should be considered for national roll-out because when the leaving certificate results are published, there is always an emphasis on the fact that maths is an area in trouble. The course in Waterford is being funded under the national forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning's All Aboard programme for 2017. I ask the Leader to bring the course to the attention of the Minister as something he could look at rolling out nationally.
I thank the 16 Senators who contributed on the Order of Business. Senator Horkan raised the very important issue of Brexit and, in particular, the farming community. It is important to recognise that in 2016 agrifood exports to the UK amounted to €4.8 billion, or 39% of total agrifood exports. That is something that is not necessarily communicated and it may be lost. On the other hand is the issue that agrifood imports from the UK to Ireland came to €3.7 billion, or 46% of total agrifood imports, which is also important. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, has been very proactive on this matter and I commend Senators Paul Daly and Tim Lombard who have raised the issue of the farming community in the context of Brexit on a regular basis. Just this week, the Minister engaged in the Brexit consultative stakeholder committee which is providing a platform within the Department and the wider agriculture community to raise matters. A dedicated Brexit unit has been established in the Department and additional resources have been provided to Bord Bia and Bord Iascaigh Mhara, which are interacting with Enterprise Ireland. A €150 million low-cost loan scheme was launched in January. Along with agritaxation measures and increased rural development funding, all of these measures are aimed to Brexit-proof the farming community.
It is important to build on the civic dialogue which took place on 15 December last. The Minister held two further events in February and has been proactive and engaged at EU level and across the Continent. These are matters on which the Brexit committee of the Seanad must keep a very vigilant eye as we must not allow any dent to appear in our agricultural community. As Senator Paul Daly said in his contribution, the inclement weather last year caused havoc for cereal farmers. We must be very careful and vigilant in regard to the farming community.
The child and adolescent figures from CAMHS were mentioned. It is disappointing that the figures are as they are. Notwithstanding that, the Government has included in the last allocation for the HSE service plan increased funding from €826 million in 2016 to €851 million this year. It is acknowledged that further development is required under the HSE service plan. There is a detailed need to make child and adolescent mental health services a strategic priority and to create a focused, targeted incentivisation scheme of recruitment to address the inevitable rise in young adolescents who require services. All Members recognise from their own constituencies and communities that this is an issue which is not going away and which requires targeted funding.
Bus Éireann was raised as an issue. I join the Senator in hoping that the Labour Court will resolve the dispute today. As I said yesterday, I hope the dispute will be resolved. It is having a profound impact on bus drivers, their families and on the company. It is also having an impact on businesses. In the city of Cork, where I live, there are businesses which are laying people off and retail trade is down. In everyone's interest, the strike needs to be fixed. From talking to bus workers, I know there is a willingness on their behalf to go that extra mile to reach a resolution. I hope we will have it today and that the Labour Court can bring both sides to a place where the dispute can be ended.
Senator Craughwell raised the matter of the Department of Defence. The appointment of the assistant secretary general in the Department of Defence is, in keeping with all other positions, to be dealt with under the TLAC public jobs criteria.
The job specification states the position is to deal with personnel issues in the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. There are only two assistant secretaries in the Department of Defence. Senator Craughwell has raised issues in the Defence Forces on more than one occasion and this appointment will deal with personnel issues. I am not aware of any posts not being filled and the Government has allowed for funding for 9,500 staff, which would make the Defence Forces fully funded. If there are issues around posts being filled, it is in specialist areas in the military and the forces are working to solve them.
We moved a debate from defence to accommodate the Senator and I am more than happy for the Minister to come to the House, although I know he is not available tonight. He is willing to come in but I will not accept the Senator's amendment to the Order of Business. The matter he has raised is one we can discuss with the Minister. This House has no role in the appointment of assistant secretaries or departmental officials. That is a role for the public service.
I am willing to work with the Minister for Defence but he has other engagements this evening as part of his portfolio.
Senator Gavan raised the very sensitive and emotive story of Elizabeth Crumlish Doran and her family and the issue of forced adoption. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House. If the Senator wants to give the details to me afterwards, I could pass them on to the Minister. We need to keep an eye on this important matter.
Senator Ruane asked about the child care subsidy and the 9,000 families who will not get it. There is a reorganisation of the scheme in the Department and the Minister is trying to expedite it. It is an important issue concerning IT and it is not acceptable that there should be such a delay. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House. As the Cathaoirleach said, the Senator's father would be justifiably proud of her and the point she made about this House is one we should communicate more. It is great to see the visitors in the Gallery and we, the custodians of these seats, are the representatives of the people. Leinster House is the people's House and I hope we see more people, such as school groups, community groups etc., coming to visit because it is about the people and their representatives engaging. The events of 1916 demonstrate the need for us to be more in touch and this may be something for CPP to consider. On culture night, the gates of Leinster House are opened but perhaps we could have an open day on one other day of the year when Members of the Oireachtas could talk to people in different groups. The Senator is right that there should not be a "them and us" situation in this House. This is the people's House and we are their representatives. Her father's advice about pubs and politics is very apt too and we should bear it in mind every day.
Senator Humphreys mentioned people of a certain age group not being able to gain employment. I share his views that the activation schemes must be targeted and that there must be a focused initiative for those people. The Department needs to look again at how we can mobilise and incentivise people of all ages to get employment. There should be no ageism and no age barrier to employment. We are living longer and are living fuller lives, which the Department needs to reflect on.
We all welcome the fact that just 6.4% are now unemployed. However, I agree with the Senator about the cohort of people who made a vital contribution prior to the recession and in many cases still want to.
Senator O'Mahony raised a recent report published by the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, who is specifically responsible for sport. The Rio games report highlights key deficiencies and shortcomings and is worth reading for those who want to prepare our Olympians in a better and more targeted way. It is important to have such a debate in this House and I would be happy to hold one after Easter. Senator Gallagher raised a number of issues. It is unusual for public service bonuses to be paid to Department officials but if Senator Gallagher has information on that, I would be happy to take it back to the relevant Department. I am happy to accept Senator Horkan's amendment to the Order of Business to take Senator Ardagh's Bill on litter earlier.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, has agreed to come to the House to debate the post office network. It is just a question of whether we have it now or after Easter. Senator McDowell raised the issue of insurance costs. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was in the House on 22 March and he and the Oireachtas committee on finance commissioned a report on the matter. The report should be highlighted. There are 33 recommendations and 71 action points. The intention is to bring about a reduction in premiums but it is also important to recognise that there is a compensation culture in our society and we all pay a premium for that, whether individuals in their motor insurance or local authorities and people in public buildings and shops. We have to try to change that. The Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland figures reveal that the level of uninsured driving in Ireland rose from less than 5% in 2013 to 7.1% in 2015 and the payout of between €50 million and €60 million is being passed onto motorists. There is a need for motorists to recognise that we cannot be a compensation-culture society. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House again on the matter.
Senator Lombard mentioned the flood relief scheme in Bandon. He has been very forceful and vocal on the issue. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Seán Canney, and previous Ministers Brian Hayes and Deputy Simon Harris, were committed to the flood relief scheme for Bandon. Those of us who know Bandon recognise that there are home owners and businesses which are affected annually, sometimes on multiple occasions during the course of a year, and I commend Senator Lombard on his involvement in the scheme. I will ask the Minister, who is committed to the scheme, to come to the House between Easter and the summer.
Senator Daly raised the plight of cereal and grain farmers. The Minister is committed to ensuring that affected farmers receive compensation and it is disappointing to hear there are delays in the redress scheme. I hope the matter can be rectified and if the Senator gives me the details, I will talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, on his behalf and bring him back to the House for an update on the working group and the report. Senator Davitt raised the issue of housing. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, was here on 21 March and I would be happy to invite him back, with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, on a regular basis to provide updates on Rebuilding Ireland. Senator Mulherin joined in the commendation of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who launched the town and village renewal scheme. Senator Mulherin is right to raise the matter she raised this morning on the Order of Business. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House to have a debate on that matter after Easter.
Senator Norris raised the matter of Good Friday. The tourists are lucky they bumped into the Senator yesterday. He is a font of knowledge, wisdom, wit and-----
-----brevity. They had a very rumbustious and robust debate with the Senator on the issue of Good Friday. There are diverging views. This morning on "Morning Ireland" we heard Senator Horkan and Senator Reilly have a very passionate debate on the matter. I am sure the matter will be debated again. There is no uniformity of view on it. The one issue Senator Norris is right to raise is the issue of binge buying of alcohol on Holy Thursday. It needs to be addressed because we have an issue with the misuse of alcohol in our country. The Government is committed to doing that in the sale of alcohol Bill. The Bill will be with us before the summer recess. The issue of alcohol is one we need to see addressed as a society. It is a societal issue. It is important we work to reduce the sale of alcohol and also the harm of alcohol. It causes huge distress in many families.
Senator Butler raised the issue of the self-employed and the change the Government has made. The Senator is a champion of the self-employed in this House, to be fair to him. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has done a lot of good things in the Department on the issue of the class of stamp and extending benefits to the self-employed. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House again on the matter.
Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of having a no mobile phone day. I would very much love to see us all try to have that. It might be worth doing as an exercise to see how long we last without a mobile phone. I wonder if we could survive without it. It is an interesting point that as a society we have become reliant on our phones and social media. It is a worry when one sits on buses or is in a pub or restaurant and sees people on the phone rather than engaging in conversation. Perhaps we will try it as an exercise some day. I am guilty of doing it here in the House but when Senator Craughwell, for example, wants to bring in the Minister it is handy to be able to text the Minister and see where he or she is.
Senator Burke raised the issue of home care packages, the national dementia strategy and Nursing Homes Ireland. In both the House and the health committee, the Senator has been a very strong advocate of the need for a plan to use nursing homes as step-down facilities and also to have a national project on the issue of home care. He is right. We have a change in our demographics and we need to plan for it. We need to have a national plan. Maybe at a later date the House can do something on that issue under the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. It is important.
I join with Senator Byrne in congratulating those in Waterford IT on their online maths programme. It will allow parents to work with their children and teenagers and fill in the gaps in maths. It is important that we recognise there are a whole host of incentives and schemes to help people in the area of education. We should be doing more. This initiative is one we should be commending.
I wish all Members of the House, members of staff in the Seanad office, ushers and the men and women who record us and who take the notes of what we say here a very happy and peaceful Easter. It is one of the solemn feasts of the Christian calendar and I hope Members get a well-earned break over the Easter period and reflect upon the real meaning of Easter which is the resurrection and the joy. No matter what our beliefs are, we are an Easter people. We live in hope. The Paschal candle gives us the light and the way forward. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Easter.
I wish all Senators a pleasant, happy and peaceful Easter and perhaps a no-phone Easter.
Senator Gerry Horkan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 16 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated he is prepared to accept this amendment. Is that agreed? Agreed. Senator Gerard Craughwell has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That the Minister for Defence comes to the House to discuss the appointment of an assistant secretary at the Department of Defence." Is the amendment being pressed?
There is little point in pressing it if the Minister is not available. However, by the time we get to talk to the Minister the post will be filled. It is a jobs for the boys post of €146,000 a year when we cannot get serving officers. We cannot do a whole lot about it.