Wednesday, 22 November 2017
Order of Business
No. 2, statements on tracker mortgages to taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 2.45 p.m., with the contributions of groups spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply; No. 3, Judicial Council Bill 2017 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to be adjourned no later that 4.45 p.m., with the contributions of groups spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes, all other Senators not to exceed six minutes; No. 4, Defence (Veterans Lapel Badge) Bill 2017 – Second Stage to be taken at 5 p.m. with the time allocated not to exceed two hours; No. 5, statements on councillors conditions (resumed) to be taken on conclusion of No. 4; and No. 5a, statements by An Tánaiste regarding justice matters, to be taken at 7 p.m., and to adjourn not later than 8 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes and other Senators not to exceed four minutes, and the Tánaiste to be given no less than five minutes to reply.
We welcome the fact that the Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald, is coming before the House to address the issues that are so much in the public eye at the moment. Of course, she is well regarded and well respected in this House for her work as a Senator, a Deputy and a Minister, but there are questions to be answered. This matter goes to the fundamentals of justice in the State. That is, whether a person who acts in the public interest is protected or is persecuted by the State. The strategy of an Garda Síochána and those who were involved in Sergeant McCabe's case was to go after him. Their purpose was not to find the truth; they did not want the truth, they wanted to go after him. That was meant as a lesson to others who might speak up when there is wrongdoing in the force.
This gives rise to a problem for the State because if people who know the truth and who know that something is being done wrong and needs to be corrected do not speak out, then the wrong will continue. We have whistleblower legislation. Instead of protecting whistleblowers, it should be encouraging them. However, it does not do that. The message this affair sends from the State, the establishment and the permanent government is that people should not speak out. Those who do speak out will end up like Sergeant McCabe.
Hopefully, questions regarding the relevant email and who knew what and when will be answered, light will be shone upon this matter and we will find the truth. The fact that the Garda took an adversarial approach to the hearings, rather than trying to discover what actually happened to Sergeant McCabe, recalls the Spanish Inquisition. The Tánaiste stated in the Lower House that they were not adversarial hearings but were, rather, inquisitorial in nature. They were not. They were the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. A warped legal strategy was pursued by the Garda against Sergeant McCabe in order to silence him. That was wrong.
This is not just about Sergeant McCabe, however, it is also about people who know the truth. Unfortunately, when people do not speak out, issues such as those relating to the Irish Blood Transfusion Service arise. In that instance, 1,600 women were infected with Hepatitis C. People knew what had happened but there were not consequences those who knew and did not act. For those who suppressed the truth and did not act, there were no consequences. If the Irish Blood Transfusion Service scandal happened today, nobody would go to prison. The Corporate Manslaughter Bill 2016, which would lead to people being put in prison and against which the Minister for Justice and Equality argued in this House, has still not been progressed. It is beyond belief that people who knew that women were being infected have not been prosecuted.
I am glad that the Tánaiste will be coming before the House later today. I have great respect for her. However, even the Taoiseach stated last night that Sergeant McCabe was wronged by the State on a number of occasions. The Taoiseach used the past tense. The email was only sent to the commission yesterday. This is ongoing persecution of a man who should be supported, protected - at the very least - and encouraged by the State. I thank the Leader of the House for organising the debate that will take place later. This matter goes to the fundamentals of how the State protects those who know the truth and speak out.
I agree with much of what my colleague, Senator Mark Daly, said. We in this country have a tendency to try to bury the truth. If that fails, we go on a witch-hunt and pursue the wrongdoers. When it gets too close for comfort, the wrongdoers resign, take their pensions or go off and get an important job somewhere else. Everybody then sits back and it just rolls over and over. My office is dealing with a case whereby one particular agency that has done everything possible to stifle an investigation. I will not mention either the case or the State agency involved, other than to say that even the investigations of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Garda are being frustrated by it.
The approach that is always taken is to deny everything until it is necessary to make an admission and then go on a witch-hunt to try to find somebody to blame. If that person is somebody at the top, the attitude is to give him or her a pension, get him or her out of there quick and then matters return to where they stood before everything began.
Senator Norris spoke about freedom of speech yesterday. During the relevant debate, there was some discussion of social media. I spoke against former Senator Lorraine Higgins's Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015, the purpose of which was to allow for the curtailment of social media, when she brought it before the previous Seanad. I have some regrets in that regard. It is no secret that I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter. I have been personally attacked by professional people and the most outrageous lies have been told about me. I asked for a debate on a particularly sensitive subject and I have been attacked by obstetricians, nurses and doctors, some of whom have very high public profiles. They say the most outrageous things simply because they can do so. They steer very close to libel, but never go over the line.
I agree with what was said yesterday. The organisations responsible for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms must start taking responsibility for what is published on their pages. I could not care less about what is said to me. If someone was of a weak disposition or had mental health issues, these people would drive him or her to jump into the ocean. They would drive a person to commit suicide because they can say whatever the hell they want. We need to discuss social media in this House. I am not sure exactly how we will bring Twitter, Facebook, etc., to heel. These are large employers and fear is that if we try to curtail their operations, they might run out of the country. However, the public has a right to be protected from what goes on. To these faceless cowards and bullies on Twitter, I say, "Bring it on guys. I'm ready for you any time you want." I am quite willing to take these individuals on but not everybody is able to do that. Perhaps the Leader might consider inviting the Minister for Justice and Equality to come before the House in order that we might discuss this matter with him.
I want to refer to the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, which, I am sure, all Senators watched last night. It just so happens that it was a neighbour of mine, Mary Comber from Scanlon Park in Castleconnell, who was featured. She is the poor lady who had to sell her jewellery in order to pay for a cataract operation that the State would not provide for her. I want to ask the question as to how we got here. Let us be very clear: we did not land in the situation whereby public patients are obliged to wait for years while private patients can skip queues and get the treatment they want by accident. This is the result of long-standing Government policy. It has been the policy of not just Fine Gael but also Fianna Fáil when in government. Both parties have always favoured private consultants and that is why we have a health system that is led by private consultants. The system should be delivered by these people but, instead, it is led by them.
I want to nail one particular argument that I have heard already this morning, namely, that it is just a small number of consultants who are taking advantage. It is much more than that. The HSE, for example, is completely remiss in not overseeing compliance. It stopped collating statistics on the percentage of work that is done by private consultants in 2014. Then we have the fundamental problem that the way hospitals are funded encourages them to get private consultants to do more work in order to make up the funding gaps that exist. Of course, for the consultants, it is money in their back pockets.
What this issue clearly demonstrates is the need to get the private sector out of our public hospital system. We should all ensure that the latter is our policy. We should also ensure that the shameful and long-standing situation whereby people have to wait and take second place because their wallets are not big enough no longer obtains. I would like to hear some contrition from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on this issue. This did not happen by accident. They have allowed a situation to arise whereby a woman had to sell her jewellery in order to fund an operation. It is time that Fine Gael in particular moved away from supporting the rich consultants and rediscovered a belief in public health care. The second issue that I want to raise today, and I wanted to raise it yesterday, is the disgraceful treatment of an Irish soccer player called Cyrus Christie at the weekend. It is shocking that racism is still part of soccer in Ireland. I was fortunate enough to see a young Chris Hughton play soccer in Tottenham. In 1979, he became the first mixed-race player to represent the Republic of Ireland. He is still a great ambassador for our country and for sport in general.
Yet here we are, in 2017, and there is still a cohort of racists and bigots in our soccer. The problem is also widespread in our society. I would go so far as to say that every political party in this country has members who hold racist views. I would like a debate on racism. It would afford us an opportunity to send a united message that people who abuse great men like Cyrus Christie have no place in sport or anywhere else in our society.
I wish to raise two issues on the Order of Business. The first issue concerns the Tánaiste and an email. There is no doubt in my mind that when the email arrived in the Department of Justice and Equality it should have raised a red flag. When I performed a quick search on my computer this morning I discovered that there were nearly 50 articles in the previous month about Garda Maurice McCabe. If the email did not raise a red flag then I do not know what would. We are quickly moving from a red flag situation to a red card for the Tánaiste.
Yesterday, we suggested that the Tánaiste should come to this House and I am glad to see that she will be here this evening. For a long time I have been dissatisfied with only having statements on these issues. I would much prefer if we adopted a question and answer format. I would like the group leaders to consider my suggestion but with the same time constraints.
Like my previous colleague, I want to refer to the "Prime Time" programme aired last night. Recently we have read in the newspapers that as many as 8,500 people await cataract surgery but in one case a consultant has worked just 13 hours per week in the public system, and this is at a time when most consultants are paid a salary of between €113,000 and €229,000. On a regular basis private consultants defraud the HSE by amounts ranging from €14,000 to €20,000. They are only a tiny minority but the number adds up.
In 2015, the head of the HSE said that the 80:20 split practice had become "a farce". We have serious management issues within the HSE. I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Health to this House for a proper debate, using a question and answer format, on the management of the HSE. I know of a case in Waterford where a GP regularly sends patients to the local accident and emergency unit for tests because there is no access to consultants. That situation is duplicated across the country. We have a shortage in the number of consultants, doctors and nurses who work in our hospitals but we also have an enormous problem with HSE management. The number of management staff has increased in huge numbers and far beyond the number of additional doctors that have been recruited for the health service. We have a crisis in management but we have had it for a long time. Ever since the HSE monster was created the health service has deteriorated. I ask the Leader to arrange an urgent debate on HSE management and on how hospitals are managed in this country.
I rise today to raise the issue of pyrite. A number of people from an estate in Limerick have informed me that they have been told by an independent assessor that there is pyrite in their houses. When I contacted the Pyrite Resolution Board I was told that it does not cover the areas of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, Kildare, Meath, Offaly or South Dublin, or Dublin City Council and, therefore, cannot fix the problem. The board's terms and conditions were set in 2013. Pyrite is a serious problem and occurs in houses located around the country. A number of houses in the estate in Limerick have been identified as having pyrite. Therefore, I believe the Act needs to be amended. I call on the Minister concerned to contact the board in order to expand its terms and conditions.
I request the Leader of the House to arrange for the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform to come to the House to discuss the reduction in the interest paid for prize bonds. The National Treasury Management Agency has decided to again reduce the prize pool available for prize bond owners. It reduced the number of chances to become a millionaire from six opportunities per year down to only four last year and to two commencing from August 2017. The interest to be paid on prize bonds was reduced from 0.85% to 0.5%. In 2016, it was 1.25%. At present there is €3 billion in prize bonds that is used by the State for essential services. A draw for a prize of €50,000 tax free takes place every week and only twice a year, in June and December, the prize is €1 million tax free. The draw should be brought into the public domain using television. As RTÉ has the national lottery, I believe TV3 should broadcast a public draw on a weekly basis.
Yes. We must all try to do something about the homeless situation. I suggest that prize bonds are renamed the housing prize bonds as it would encourage people to invest their money. People feel very helpless because as many as 3,000 children and their families are without a home in this capital. The National Treasury Management Agency has shown little innovation. Where has it looked outside of the box or been forward thinking?
I recommend that we have a savings bond as opposed to a prize bond that allows people to invest and earn a reasonable rate of interest. At present the banks nearly charge people for saving with them. I suggest that the NTMA creates a ten-year bond that pays 1.5% or more in interest or whatever is available.
There is goodwill and a lot of money in this country. Someone has claimed that people may have saved as much as €100 billion in different locations. We should get that money back in the economy and use it to solve homelessness by building social housing. The initiative would activate the construction industry. A great many people feel helpless but luckily people love to support charities such as the Peter McVerry fund. It would be great if people could invest their money in housing savings bonds and were paid a reasonable amount of interest. In fact, it has almost reached the stage where banks charge people for keeping their savings. Without doubt, we are a very wealthy country. Let those who have the money invest in either prize bonds or savings bonds that are dedicated to alleviating homelessness and building social housing.
I ask the Leader to extend, with the approval of the House, an invitation to An Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar. He would be very welcome here and it would be a great opportunity for the House to hear what he has to say and for him to engage with this important part of the Houses of the Oireachtas and, possibly, have an exchange of questions and answers. It would be great to see him-----
-----before the end of the year or, if he could not fit it into his schedule, very early in the new year. One must admire his communication skills and how he engages with social media, his weekly press releases to the nation and his statements from his office and from Europe, but it is also important that we do not forget the people within the Houses of the Oireachtas. Will the Leader extend, if it is acceptable to the House, an invitation to the Taoiseach? Depending on his busy diary, it would be great to see him by the end of this year and, if not, very early in the next session.
Cyberstalking and cybersafety, especially for children, have become extreme. They are hunted down and targeted, and many young children are distressed and upset by this. Several of them, including some as young as ten, have died by suicide. We are dealing with it to some extent at the committee on children and youth affairs.
I want to raise statements on statements, following the topic raised by Senator Humphreys. Last week, we had statements on health, but the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, did not answer any questions posed on the recruitment and retention of staff in the health care sector. In her reply she said she would address all points raised via email or letter but this did not happen.
Last night, we debated Second Stage of legislation on health insurance and risk equalisation. Given the topical nature of this issue, with regard to the programme on RTÉ last night which I raised yesterday, it was surprising we had the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne. I know there are issues with getting Ministers to the House but we do not get any answers to the questions raised.
I wished to table an amendment to the health insurance legislation but I needed to do so immediately because all Stages of the Bill are being taken this week. I asked the Minister of State to address the question regarding the levies to be introduced in the legislation and whether insurance companies are monitored with regard to hiking up premiums. I was told this would be dealt with by email, but I did not have the time to wait for an email because I needed to table the amendment. Will the Leader consider a discussion on the effectiveness and usefulness of statements on statements?
Will the Leader arrange for a debate in the House on tourism, in particular a discussion on how tourism is being affected by Brexit? Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Ross, might come in and outline what strategy, if any, he has to deal with the continual and worrying slide in visitor numbers from the UK to this country. The latest CSO figures confirm the bad news and the trend which has been ongoing for more than 12 months.
In the peak summer season, which is key for people in the tourism industry, British visitor numbers were down by more than 7.5%. I am glad to say this was somewhat offset by an increase in visitor numbers from the rest of Europe of approximately 2%, and a significant increase in North American visitors of more than 12%. None the less, British visitors represent a major percentage of our total visitor numbers, and studies have shown the spend of British visitors is larger in real terms than that of visitors from other countries.
British visitors tend to go to all parts of Ireland. They are quite intrepid and do not just focus on Kerry, Dublin or Kilkenny. They go along the Wild Atlantic Way and the interesting walks we have in Ireland. Almost 250,000 people work in our tourism sector. The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation has said the Minister would want to provide an emergency fund of €20 million to offset what has already taken place. It makes a very strong case. Will the Leader try to get a specific debate on tourism and the British angle specifically?
In recent days, two significant figures have indicated their intention to withdraw from public life, namely, Robert Mugabe and Deputy Gerry Adams. One has to respect Deputy Gerry Adams for the way in which he drew Provisional Sinn Féin away from the gun and violence, and in so doing he had the very difficult task of facing down the hard men in his own group.
Therefore, it was with some surprise and sadness I heard him refer to the late Martin McGuinness as a proud IRA man. There is nothing much to be proud of in the IRA's record. My friends in Sinn Féin in this House are among the best contributors to debate in the Seanad. They are quite remarkable. They are very hard-working, very balanced and very left wing, which I like. For them, the future must be to distance themselves from the gun. They are clearly capable of change.
I was sentenced to death by Sinn Féin or the provisional movement many years ago. I ignored it. I went round and interviewed Mr. Joe Cahill in its headquarters. Nothing happened or, at least if it did, as Brendan Behan said, they carried out the death sentence in absentia. They can change. They were violently homophobic 30 or 40 years ago. They were terrible. They have changed and become among the most prominent promoters of gay rights and I salute them for this. In this new generation of leaders, whoever takes over-----
No, I would not join Sinn Féin but I would support its very positive contribution to public life in Ireland. I welcome it and it is terrific, but I would just say it needs to disinfect itself from the violence of the past. The Protestant side was just as bad if not worse, but that situation needs to be addressed.
Gabhaim buíochas le Seanadóir Norris as a chomhairle. I am sure we will bring it to the next Ard Comhairle meeting for discussion.
Often, when we raise housing issues, the Leader lambastes us with figures of allocations from Rebuilding Ireland and all the moneys being made available for housing. No doubt he will probably come back today once I have finished my piece. For me, the facts and figures on housing are how many houses have actually been built and how many people are in them.
Reports yesterday show that since the start of 2016, local authorities have built just 430 properties, and new analysis shows that local authorities are using just a fraction of the land they own to build social housing. It is estimated that local authorities throughout the country own more than 1,200 ha of land with the potential for almost 38,000 homes. I am particularly perturbed that at the bottom of the league once again are Galway City Council and Galway County Council, which built zero houses in the city and county in that time, even though we have massive waiting lists and it is a big issue. Our neighbours in Mayo are a little bit better as they built one house in that time.
It defies logic that we have local authorities sitting on banks of serviced land with the potential to build houses. The Leader tells us buckets of money are available but the local authorities are just not building houses. We have people ringing our offices every day of the week distraught because they have no homes to live in and they are being put into homelessness.All the talk needs to stop and we need to see much more action. There is no point in Ministers shaking their heads. The Government is in charge here and needs to ensure these things happen.
I congratulate Galway Traveller Movement on organising an excellent presentation on Monday. It has started a new campaign on Traveller community accommodation, which is an absolute disgrace across the country. We had huge fanfare on 1 March when the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, recognised Traveller ethnicity and all the wonderful words around that. However, Monday's conference, which was attended by Peter McVerry, heard harrowing stories of the appalling conditions of Travellers in substandard illegal halting sites because of a lack of accommodation from local authorities, etc. I call for a debate on Traveller accommodation. I note only one politician bothered to attend that campaign launch and there are no prizes for guessing who that was.
This morning, along with Senator Lombard and other members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we launched a report on the future of the tillage sector. As was rightly said at the launch, this document is a starting point for debate and discussion on a sector that is in severe crisis. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House so that we can initiate that debate by bringing the report before the House as soon as possible. As a number of speakers have said this morning, I would like on that occasion to have a debate as opposed to statements. I agree with what has been said; I do not believe we get the best value out of statements especially on issues of importance. It should be a question-and-answer session or a debate as opposed to statements.
The irony for the tillage industry is that, as we are all aware, the drinks industry has probably been the success story of the economy in the past ten years, yet the farmers who supply the malting barley for distilling and brewing are in major crisis. It is not that the sector is without money. It has the money, but it is not filtering down to the base supplier. Brexit is on the horizon, which gets plenty of air time in here, and inclement weather is very detrimental to the agriculture sector. Irrespective of Brexit and the inclement weather, however, this is a sector in crisis. Brexit will only compound that as has the weather over the past two years.
We need a debate on the matter and we need to look at the possibility of diversification. We need to look at fairness in the sector where the exorbitant amount of money made by the drinks industry is not filtering down to the suppliers. Climate change can also be incorporated into this sector. We have an ongoing debate on climate change. Farmers are prepared to produce grain on the island of Ireland if they can get a price for it. Rather than pay them the price, we are importing grain for feed and malt from as far away as Russia. One can only imagine the carbon footprint on a tonne of grain coming from Russia to Ireland even though our farmers are prepared to produce it if they can get a reasonable price for it.
I support my friend and colleague, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, in his call for a debate on tourism and particularly his concern regarding the British visitors about whom we are all concerned. Sadly, their numbers are down by about 6% at the moment. I believe the tourism authorities are very conscious of the issue. A few weeks ago, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, participated in a large-scale tourism promotion event in London with Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland and others. I believe it was very successful. It is good to hear that British visitors travel throughout the land because of connections through relatives and so on. Killarney has many connections. The Senator and I are familiar with Killarney House and its previous occupants, the Earls of Kenmare and Lord Castlerosse, who wrote the "Londoner's Log" inThe Sunday Express.
We have many strengths to play to as regards British visitors. I accept the Senator's point that we need to use it more and we need to be seen to do more. I support the call for a debate in due course.
I thank my colleague, Senator Norris, for his lovely remarks. However, I must correct the record; it was actually Elisha McCallion, the MP for Foyle, who referred to Martin McGuinness as a proud IRA man. We are proud of Martin McGuinness in his entirety - all of him and everything he did in his lifetime. This building, Leinster House, has pictures depicting many proud IRA men and IRA women hanging on the walls. When we have a Fine Gael Taoiseach-----
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh.
Yesterday, a Sinn Féin delegation met the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, and told her that her government must bear the greater responsibility for the failure to reach agreement on the restoration of the institutions in the North. The provision of an Irish language Act, marriage equality, a bill of rights and funding for a legacy inquest are all British Government obligations. Progress is only possible if her government honours those commitments. The Sinn Féin delegation told her that direct rule is not an option and that she must look to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, voted for overwhelmingly by the people, for the establishment of an intergovernmental conference involving the Irish and British Governments.
The Leader accused me yesterday of condemning the Government. Let me today commend the remarks of an Taoiseach yesterday in taking a strong stance on this issue and the convening of such an intergovernmental conference.
I am sure the Leader will share my concern that the British Government intends to include a statute of limitations covering all Troubles-related incidents involving British crown forces in a new section in its consultation on the Stormont House Agreement. Such a proposition is no part of the Stormont House Agreement. Despite being involved for the past ten months in negotiations with British officials, Sinn Féin was never informed of this intention. We understand that the Irish Government was also not informed until we brought it to its attention yesterday. We told Mrs. May that this is an act of bad faith and I am sure the Leader will agree it is unacceptable.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade recently came to the House to discuss the North. It would be beneficial, and it would meet a call coming from victims' organisations, to have statements specifically related to the outstanding legacy issues in the North.
I wish to raise the issue of CCTV systems. In April, the Minister for Justice and Equality launched a community-based CCTV system to help secure communities and assist the Garda in its work. Under the scheme, community groups can avail of a grant of up to 60% of the total cost up to a maximum of €40,000. I am very disappointed to learn that only six applications were made in the entire country. To my mind, that tells us very clearly that the scheme as designed is not attractive to community groups. I have been told that the paperwork is so onerous that people are turning their backs on it.
We are all aware of the lack of gardaí in rural areas and unfortunately we are all aware of the blight of rural crime. I understand the Minister has voiced his disappointment at the uptake. He should look at the scheme again and relaunch it such that it is more attractive to and less onerous on community groups. As Members know very well, CCTV can be a very useful tool to help assist the Garda in its role and to secure communities.I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to address this issue as a matter of urgency in order that the plight of rural Ireland in terms of attacks and crime can be addressed.
I commend Senator Daly's comments regarding the important report on the future of the tillage industry in Ireland, produced by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and published this morning. This is the start of a conversation to ensure that the tillage industry, which has suffered greatly over the last four or five years, can re-establish itself. Unfortunately, there has been a large decline in the acreage under tillage here, from almost 2,500 ha to an estimated 1,500 ha, which is a dramatic fall. If we do not move now to implement the proposals set out in this report the decrease will continue. The report comprises 35 recommendations. It is important we do our best to implement them so that the tillage industry can be maintained. It is more than appropriate that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine would come to the House to discuss the recommendations proposed in the report.
There is much debate in Ireland about our brand as a food nation. One of the frightening statistics of the report published today is that only 1% of a pint goes to the farmer and the remaining 99% is spread across a number of other areas. In other words, raw materials cover 1% and the remaining 99% goes to retailers and manufacturers. We are selling Ireland as a brand in the food and beverage industry and so we need to ensure our raw material is maintained. This will be a key issue for us going forward.
The report published today is the starting point. We need action on the core issues, be that low cost finance, Brexit, CAP requirements around farm maintenance, and so on. All of these issues are on the table for discussion. I believe this report is one of the most important produced by the Oireachtas in the last few years. I compliment my colleague, Senator Paul Daly, on his input in that regard. The report is an all-party report produced by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Now is the appropriate time to have the Minister come to this Chamber to discuss the 35 recommendations therein so that we can progress this issue and, hopefully, stop the tide of people moving away from tillage.
As bitcoin pushes beyond the €8,000 mark this week I call on the Leader to liaise with the Department and Minister for Finance regarding their policy on bitcoin, of which I understand we currently have none. Today, bitcoin was the cause of two large American technology companies biting the dust. According to the Korean police, a bitcoin ponzi-type scheme recently in operation in Korea involved an estimated fraud of $38 million. This is only one of a few such schemes. There are possibly 100 similar schemes in operation. Ireland is at the cutting edge of technology, social media and finance. It has all of the ingredients to become a hot bed of bitcoin farming and, unfortunately, fraud. We need to play our part and immediately introduce a policy on bitcoin and its use in Ireland by the technology companies and as a method of payment throughout the country.
This week is alcohol awareness week on an EU-wide basis. We spent many hours last week discussing the issue of binge drinking and alcohol abuse, and the terrible consequences of this for society. Last Sunday, an advertisement was placed in the Sunday Independentby one of Ireland's multiple retailers advertising the sale of 24, 500 ml cans, of Bulmers cider for €25. The cost to a publican in respect of the purchase of 24 cans of cider from C&C Gleeson, which owns Bulmers, is €39.89, plus VAT at 23%, bringing the total cost to approximately €49. What is indicated in the advertisement mentioned is below-cost selling. The advertisement also referenced Heineken and Guinness. This offer is also available online.
I do not propose to name the retailer because it does not need any help getting people through its doors to purchase below-cost alcohol. This is practically selling alcohol wholesale. We have been told by the experts that there is a direct correlation between the cost of a unit of alcohol and abuse of alcohol and that people who are abusing alcohol are more likely to buy cheap alcohol.
The Department of Health officials have been charged with finding a workable solution to accommodate small shops under the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. We need to bear in mind where the real problem lies. How can the small shop or publican ever hope to compete with what the large multiples are doing? They cannot compete with it. For the multiples, below-cost selling is a means of getting customers through their doors because they collect their profits elsewhere. They will not incur any loss and ultimately they reclaim the VAT on the sales of such alcohol from the State. There is something seriously wrong with that. We have a very welcome provision in regard to minimum unit pricing in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. We need to stop below-cost selling for the sake of the health of our nation and for the sake of the small businesses and publicans who are selling responsibly and have a good track record. This is a reality check as we debate this important Bill.
I agree with Senator Mulherin's comments in which she articulated the nub of the issue very well. It is the multiples that are happy with the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and for good reason. The fact that the Minister is willing to compromise in regard to the lower percentage of sales is to be welcomed. These loss-leaders, which is effectively what they are, are drawing people in. They are treating alcohol like any other grocery in order to bring people into their stores. This is absolutely ludicrous.
I also welcome Senator Craughwell's comments on social media. As politicians, we need to stand up to that type of activity. In regard to the consultants, it is important that we bring some balance to bear in that debate. There are compliance and other issues that need to be addressed. This is a minority group. We need a balanced debate and should not get carried away in that regard. The majority of consultants are hard-working and committed to public service. This should be borne in mind during debate of the issue. As I said, this is about a minority group. I am not excusing that minority rather I am asking that we remain mindful that many consultants are hard-working.
I commend RTÉ on its "Prime Time" investigates programme last night. One wonders if it is RTÉ or the HSE that is running our health service. We owe a debt of gratitude to Una Smith. I agree that there are fantastic consultants in our hospital system. Many of them are doing a really good job but at the end of the day, 44,864 public patients were not seen because of what is happening in the system and that is a serious problem.There is a serious question for an Taoiseach to answer too. Between 2014 and 2016, he was the Minister for Health. That was where the buck stopped. Why did he stop collection of data about the non-compliance of contracts and what was the reasoning behind it? Did he have that information or did he delegate the responsibility? It is fine if he delegated the responsibility but why did he suddenly stop it at that point? If this is to be fought legally with regard to breach of contracts with individual consultants or such, then having that data is absolutely necessary. He needs to explain that. What is happening within the system, and the way the funding system is set up with hospitals being reliant on private practice cannot continue. The National Treatment Purchase Fund that was advocated and championed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not working. It incentivises more of this carry-on where public patients lose out all the time when private patients can be seen. We need an absolute separation of public and private services rather than having public resources be used for private patients.
I was here many years ago, when former Deputy Mary Harney was Minister for Health. We talked about the 2008 hospital consultant issues. At the time I asked who had the power to take on the consultants. Somebody always asked me what the difference between a consultant and God was and the answer was that God does not think he is a consultant. Consultants are powerful and make the difference between life and death. They have a powerful vested interest.
I was disappointed to see last night that we had not moved on. There was an agreement that consultants would take pay increases and would limit their private practice. I was shocked and horrified to see what was happening. I want the Minister for Health to come here and answer this. It is not just the Minister for Health but vested interests across the health sector. I saw it first-hand when dealing with it seven or eight years ago, with people who put their own careers ahead of patient safety and health. It is not right that people have to wait for an appointment and consultants are abusing their position.
I agree that not all consultants do so but some of them give a very bad name to something that should be their vested interest and a vocation. I will never be a consultant but there are vested interests in the public health service, not just among consultants. Unless any Government or Minister for Health can take them on, we will have the same problems in ten or 15 years. I was extremely disappointed and angry to see that, in 12 years, while we have moved on with many aspects, we have not moved on with this aspect. I congratulate RTÉ "Prime Time" for the sterling work it has done.
I agree with the previous speakers after seeing, last night, what has happened in our hospitals. This is the start of what is going to happen. I have read in the newspaper that, as part of the measures to reduce emergency room numbers, my own hospital in Carlow-Kilkenny, St. Luke's, and the hospitals in Wexford, south Tipperary and Portlaoise may be among a number of regional hospitals that will stop taking trauma patients. It is proposed that three Dublin hospitals will do the same. It has apparently been recommended that a new trauma unit be set up in two hospitals, one in Dublin and one in Cork. This is unacceptable.
We saw the issue in Waterford hospital with the cardiac unit, where one could have a heart attack from Monday to Friday but there was no cover for it at the weekends. There was a massive meeting in Portlaoise during the week relating to its hospital, to try to save its emergency department. This is unacceptable. There are many such instances. People are fighting to get appointments. People come into my clinics to mention waiting times and they are in pain. Now we have this proposal. It is unacceptable for this to happen. The HSE is looking at having two massive trauma units in Cork and Dublin, regardless of St. Luke's hospital in Kilkenny or the hospitals in Wexford, south Tipperary and Portlaoise. The people in rural areas are disregarded. As usual, we are totally forgotten. It is unacceptable and I call on the Minister to come to the House today or tomorrow to clarify if this is true.
I thank the 22 Members of the House who have participated in the Order of Business this morning.
Senators Mark Daly, Craughwell and Humphreys raised the issue of the Department of Justice and Equality and Sergeant Maurice McCabe. As I made clear, this side of the House has one interest only, which is to get to the truth, establish all the facts and to provide justice to the McCabe family.
Senators should not interrupt. The Leader was kind enough to facilitate the debate for an hour this evening at short notice. Those who wish to contribute should be present and listen to what the Tánaiste has to say. Whether questions are allowed or not is a matter for the Leader.
I agree with Senator Daly that we all have a duty to protect and support whistleblowers in every sphere and, as Senator Craughwell mentioned about the ongoing case, we should protect, support and encourage whistleblowers. That is why we have new legislation.
The Cathaoirleach mentioned that we will have statements later. None of us wants or supports an adversarial approach by whoever is behind the strategy of An Garda Síochána. The tribunal will establish the facts and the truth. From my perspective, there should be and can be no witch hunt. The only objective can be for the whole truth to be found and put on public record. That is why we have a commission.
As I have said before in this House, there is a need for cultural change in An Garda Síochána. That can only come from within primarily, or be led from within. There is no conspiracy at all, Senator Clifford-Lee. Everybody wants justice for Mr. McCabe and his family. All of us who think and speak about this should reflect on how we feel and the ongoing nightmare and trauma that they have to endure. They deserve support from all of us.
The Tánaiste has said that she had no hand or part in any legal strategy pursued by the former Garda Commissioner. The Taoiseach spoke to Mr. McCabe last night and put on record again that Mr. McCabe is one of the bravest people he has met in public life, who has been wronged by the State on a number of occasions because of his bravery and willingness to shine a light into a dark place. The Taoiseach, the Head of the Government, made those remarks.
Senators Gavan, Humphreys, Noone, Feighan, Murnane O'Connor and Conway-Walsh raised the issue of HSE contracts and compliance. The Minister for Health has commissioned an independent group chaired by Donal de Buitléir to examine the impact on the public hospital system. We all want to see accountability and compliance. I challenge some on the far left who criticise the amount of money being spent on our health system without recognising or acknowledging that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has secured the biggest budget for the health system ever. I challenge Members from the Sinn Féin Party in particular to come in with their proposals. I have not heard any suggestion or proposal from them on anything.
I ask the Leader to hold on a second. If there is an issue which the Senator is not satisfied about she can raise it again tomorrow but I cannot allow Senators who have spoken, some for two and three minutes, to cut across.
The line of thought followed by Sinn Féin would drive consultants out of the country. We want to have them here, to pay them properly and to have them work in a proper health system in which they can deliver for their patients. Senator Conway-Walsh has no proposal-----
The National Treatment Purchase Fund has offered treatment plans to 3,103 patients and half of those people have accepted them. The Minister and the Government are committed to reducing waiting times and to improving access. We all want to see compliance put in place. That is what the Government will do, and is doing, through the HSE.
Senators Craughwell and Devine referenced the issue of freedom of speech on social media. I hope that we can find unanimity and unity in trying to combat that growing issue. As Senator Devine said, it is affecting young people more and more and they may not necessarily have the coping skills or the mechanisms to deal with it. Our former colleague, Lorraine Higgins, had a Bill in this regard. It is important that we see how we can work to combat that issue. I would be very happy to work with the Senators on that.
I join with Senator Gavan in condemning the racism shown to Cyrus Christie. It has no place in Irish sport or in sport generally. In respect of the request for questions and answers, I remind Members that under Article 28.4.1° of the Constitution, the Government is responsible to the Dáil only. In this House we have statements. The precedent has always been to have statements in this House. To go back to the comments of Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell about mirroring, apeing or following the Dáil-----
I am using that word myself. We do not have an obligation to do so and should not have to. We have statements. If the Senators want to have statements on statements, we can have a discussion about it, but our role is having the Minister into the House for statements. In terms of the legislation, I am not aware of the issue Senator Devine raised with respect to her amendments but the format or the agreement with regard to the schedule was agreed at a group meeting. If the Senator has an issue I would be happy to talk to her about it. I certainly have not tried to have the Senator or any other Member discommoded in terms of tabling amendments to Bills during my time as Leader. It is important that the Senator has an opportunity to do so.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the issue of pyrite, on which I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House. It is an important issue. I agree with Senator Leyden with regard to the issues around prize bonds and the NTMA. The process around who wins on the prize bonds and when the draws are made is a bit secretive. Perhaps a new regime should be introduced in respect of how it is publicised and communicated. We should all give consideration to the point the Senator made on the way in which prize bond money should be used. It is about benefitting people and wider society and the Senator's suggestion regarding homelessness and the building or improving of housing merits consideration. I would be happy to support the Senator in that.
Senator Boyhan asked for the Taoiseach to come to the House. I have put that request to the Department of the Taoiseach. He is looking forward to coming to the House and having a debate with us on a variety of issues. I hope it will be possible to have him in the House before Christmas. We are endeavouring to confirm that and I will work through the offices of the Cathaoirleach and the Seanad in that regard.
Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Paul Coghlan raised the issue of tourism and particularly the issue of the decline in visitor numbers from the UK. We need to see more marketing, visibility and encouragement in respect of our friends from the UK who, as Senator O'Sullivan said, visit the whole of the island. It is important that we work on that.
Senator Norris made reference to the departures of Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Adams. I think we all welcome the departure of Mr. Mugabe. I wish Deputy Adams well in his retirement. We will have another debate about his legacy, political leadership and so on, but I wish him well in his retirement. His family has made huge sacrifices, as do the families of all party leaders, and he had to make huge sacrifices himself. I commend him for his decision to step down and I wish him well on a personal level.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of housing. I agree with him. There is no excuse for local authorities to sit on land banks in any county or city. The housing need in our country has to be addressed. I will not give the Senator a whole list of figures because he will have another debate with me, but the land banks being sat on must be utilised.
With regard to the figures the Senator quoted on social housing, I want to give him one figure which I think is important. Senator Ó Clochartaigh and his colleagues in Sinn Féin sometimes put forward the narrative that no houses are being built and no money is being invested. Rebuilding Ireland has multi-annual funding for social housing and €116 million was allocated to homelessness in budget 2018. We are building 7,900 social houses, which will be built by the end of this year. That is the reality. That comprises 3,800 local authority builds, 600 private sector builds, 600 voids returned to use, 900 acquisitions and 2,000 long-term leases. That is action on housing. We all agree that it is not happening fast enough. There are people who are looking for housing today and we all want to see them housed. That is the reality.
I commend the Senator on praising the Galway Traveller Movement for its work. As a former chair of Cork City Council's committee on Travellers, I believe it is important that we understand that Travellers have housing needs which must be met. There is an obligation and duty on all of us as political representatives to work to ensure that we house all our people, including Travellers. I commend the group on its work.
Senators Paul Daly and Tim Lombard raised the issue of tillage. I commend them on their work on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and on the final report which it published. I have not read it, as the Senators will understand, but I will be very happy to have the Minister, Deputy Creed, come to the House to debate the report. I am a strong advocate for committee reports being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas and I would be very happy to have that debate as soon as possible.
I will not have a debate with Senator Ó Donnghaile about the IRA in his absence. It has a legacy which needs to be examined and our language and what we say is important. I join with him in calling on all sides to see the Assembly re-established in the North of our country as a matter of urgency. There is a duty on everybody to avoid direct rule from Westminster. That is everybody, not just a group or a government but everybody.
Senator Gallagher raised the issue of CCTV. The number he mentioned is disappointing but Government is running this project for three years. It has been allocated €1 million in funding. Under the scheme, eligible community groups can apply for grants of up to 60% of the total capital costs of CCTV projects. There is a maximum grant of €40,000. I have been involved with a community group and have been told by the Department that officials are available to meet with, support and advise any group, whether urban or rural, in respect of applications for funding. I have been involved with a community group in my own area in Cork city which is looking for CCTV and which has established it in one area. I would be happy to work with the Senator on that. It is important that we support local community organisations.As I said to Senator Murnane O'Connor yesterday, it is about less bureaucracy and ensuring that communities are safe.
I would be happy to work with the Senator Gallagher on the matter.
Senator Davitt raised the issue of the Bitcoin payment system. The Central Bank is examining its potential impact. I would be happy to arrange for the Minister to come to the House to discuss that issue.
Senator Mulherin referred to alcohol and, in particular, below-cost selling. We will debate that matter when we deal with the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which, I hope, will be back before the House prior to Christmas. Given that this is Alcohol Awareness Week, it is important that we highlight the issues associated with the misuse of alcohol. The Senator was right to point out that a major issue in this regard is the below-cost sale of alcohol.
Senator Noone also referred to alcohol and raised the issue of health. Senators Feighan and Murnane O'Connor also raised that issue and called for a debate on it. I would be happy to make arrangements for a debate on health.
I thank Senators for their contributions. I welcome the guests of Senator Byrne to the House. I look forward to our having positive and constructive debates during the course of the day.