Tuesday, 13 February 2018
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the national broadband procurement process, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and adjourned not later than 6 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and that to all other Senators not to exceed five minutes; and No. 2, Technological Universities Bill 2015 – Committee Stage (Resumed), to be taken at 6.15 p.m. and adjourned not later than 9 p.m., if not previously concluded.
Before I call Senator Ardagh, I welcome to the Gallery a former Member of the Lower House, Councillor Gerard Murphy, Councillor Mary Hegarty, Councillor Joe Carroll and Councillor Patrick Gerard Murphy who have come a long way today. I acknowledge the presence of Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony from Bandon, who is also welcome in this Chamber. Having conveyed my welcome to our guests, I ask Senator Ardagh to proceed.
I also welcome our esteemed guests to the House.
I wish to draw attention to the daft.iereport, which was published this morning and which shows an increase in rents throughout the city. Rents in Dublin alone have gone up by an average of €380 a month. Let us be clear, wages are not going up as fast as rents and people in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP, are struggling to keep up with rising rents. The idea of matching HAP payments with these increases provides no solution. I have discussed this issue at length in this House. We know that the real issue is the lack of supply. I call once again for a State-wide social housing construction programme like the one in the years after the foundation of this State. I am familiar with an estate in my own local area, called the Tenters. This estate was one of the first social housing programmes built by the first Irish Government. These houses are almost 100 years old and are considered some of the finest homes in the city. We need to look back at what we were able to do in the past with little or no capital budgets.
We now have 9,000 people living in emergency accommodation and there are 85,000 people on social housing lists yet we do not seem to have any solution. There seems to be no urgency on this huge issue. House prices are increasing weekly and there is a lack of supply. Young couples cannot afford to save at the same rate that the house prices are increasing. I do not trust Rebuilding Ireland. We need to see local authorities or some State arm taking control and building the houses we urgently need.
I also wish to raise the matter of Versatis pain relieving patches. Like many Senators, I have received many calls to my office by people who have been denied affordable access to these patches on either the drugs payment scheme or the medical card. These people are vulnerable and often bedridden with excruciating pain. They do not have the strength or energy to attend and protest outside Leinster House like other groups. Fortunately, through "Liveline", RTÉ has given these vulnerable people a platform to air their grievance. They have been unfairly targeted in an effort by the HSE to shave money off the drugs budget. It is one of the cruellest acts of this Government and shows its contempt and disregard for those on the margins who do not have a strong voice. I call on the Minister to attend the House to explain the rationale for culling the budget for Versatis patches and call on him to direct his staff to reinstate the patches on the drug refund and medical card schemes without delay.
I want to raise three issues. I call on the appropriate Minister to come to the House to explain the Government's intentions in establishing an electoral commission. Page 152 of the programme for partnership Government states the Government's commitment to establishing an independent electoral commission and sets out its role and functions. It is important that we have a strong, robust and independent electoral commission. It makes sense. We need to increase voter participation and promote engagement in the process. We need to put in place a formal structure for the registration of political parties, regulate political funding and electoral expenditure and oversee the forthcoming referendum commission. There is always controversy when there is a referendum. There are also controversies over the up to date registers of electors. There are local authorities which are not actively and meaningfully going out and doing fieldwork, and door-to-door calls to get people on the register. Some people find they have been taken off the register without any request having been made on the matter. There are various issues around this. The key values in this matter are impartiality, accountability, transparency, and integrity and, above all we should encourage people to engage in the participative democratic process. Will the Leader arrange for the appropriate Minister, I think it is the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, to come to the House and give us an overview of his plans in this area?
My colleague, Senator Catherine Ardagh spoke about Rebuilding Ireland. I know people are frustrated by it but it is important that we give it a chance. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. Things are being achieved but progress is slow. The Senator referred to the rental sector earlier and was right to do so, and it was also mentioned today, but it is important to give Rebuilding Ireland a chance. If it does not perform in another few months, then let us start asking the hard questions, but a lot is happening. The Minister and his colleagues were out in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown where there was a very detailed presentation at the council meeting, with a question and answer session. I think we are seeing progress and it is important to give it a chance.
Tomorrow we will have before us the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill. I urge as many Members as possible to be here tomorrow. I have tabled one amendment which I will not get into now, but it relates to participative democracy and our county councillors. At present, certain organisations, prescribed bodies such as An Taisce and many others, can write objections without paying a fee.That is the reality of it. Many other prescribed bodies can do likewise and I do not oppose that, but I have a great difficulty with democratically elected local councillors having to put their hand in their pockets to submit an observation, not to mention an objection or even a letter of support. Tomorrow, we have an opportunity in primary legislation to change that position. I will make a strong case for that then and I would appreciate the Leader's support.
Ba mhaith liom cás Emma De Souza a thógáil arís. The Leader will be familiar with the case of Emma De Souza whose battle to assert her Irish citizenship rights has gained wide coverage on various media platforms, North and South, not least in The Irish Times, because I have raised it previously. Emma De Souza is an Irish citizen from Magherafelt. She currently lives in Belfast with her husband, Jake. The reason this has become such an issue for them and they have faced such an arduous battle to uphold and protect the most basic of democratic rights is when Emma applied for a permanent residency visa for her husband, the British Home Office told her that in order for her to assert her Irish citizenship, she had to renounce British citizenship because it was presumed that since she was born in the North, she is automatically a British citizen. Emma contests this and says that, under the Good Friday Agreement, her rights as an Irish citizen solely are clear. At three various tribunal hearings in Belfast's High Court, that position was supported and endorsed by judges.
The British Home Office is appealing the decision for a third time. I do not know whether Home Office officials who deal with such visa applications are ignorant of the contents, principles and legislation flowing from the Good Friday Agreement or whether something more sinister is at play. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade should meet Emma to hear her story and they should act as champions not just on her behalf in this case, but on behalf of all those who find themselves in a similar position. The agreement is clear. We are not partial or conditional citizens and we certainly should not be second-class citizens. It would send a positive message in concert and in tune with recent statements from An Taoiseach and his Government colleagues that they will not abandon Irish citizens in the North. That is the right and proper stand to take. Will the Leader relay that message to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and ask that they respond to my request to meet Emma as soon as possible?
I refer to the launch of the new Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade dedicated website on Brexit. That is a welcome resource, which I am sure will be utilised extensively given the uncertainty relating to Brexit in the context of the agreement, citizenship rights, the Border, economic and other implications. Given the extensive nature of Brexit's negative implications, I call on the Government to consider a dedicated facility in the North of Ireland that would be rights-based in its service delivery and act as a support for citizens who will be trapped or held hostage in a post-Brexit scenario against their will. To be fair to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, he stated at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that he would examine this issue.
The trial of Ahed Tamimi began in an Israeli military court earlier. I have raised her case on a number of occasions. The media has been expelled from the trial and it is being held behind closed doors. A 17 year old child is being tried in a military court for slapping the face of an Israeli soldier who is illegally occupying the town in which she lives. I reiterate my party's support, and, hopefully, the Seanad's support, for Ahed and her family.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to take No. 18 on the Supplementary Order Paper before No. 1. Bogus self-employment is a major issue. It is prevalent in the construction and agriculture sectors and it is becoming more prevalent in the ICT, financial services, legal, media and transport sectors.Anybody who is familiar with this phenomenon will know it denies workers of their entitlements and the protections that every other worker in this country should expect to have. It is an insidious practice. It also deprives the State of up to €60 million in lost tax and PRSI revenue, a figure that I draw from a recent report published by the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, when the previous Government asked the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to undertake an investigation and examination of the losses to the State in terms of the practice of what the Department now calls disguised self-employment. I think people will be more familiar with another phrase, which is "bogus self-employment".
This is false self-employment, that is, the misclassification by employers of the employment status of people who are, to all intents and purposes, their direct employees in order to enable the employers, in many respects, to avoid their tax and PRSI obligations to the State. It is an insidious practice that encourages a race to the bottom in terms of employment practices in this country, and it needs to be stamped out. We need a legislative response, not simply the maintenance of a code of practice that was introduced in 2007 and is no longer fit for purpose. We need that code of practice encapsulated in our statute law. This Bill intends to do that and it also intends to ensure that those who are depriving the State of the tax and PRSI revenue owed to the State through the misclassification of somebody's categorisation should be treated for what they are - tax cheats.
I thank the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for their help over the last three weeks. A young man, Ross Hanlon from Athboy in my constituency, lost his life in a tragic accident in Vienna. On behalf of his father and family, I thank the ambassador in Vienna, Tom Hanney, as well as Seán Ó Riain and all staff of the embassy, and the Irish community in Vienna, who came out to help the family. It is great to hear the wonderful work that embassies do for Irish people in difficult times. I also thank the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust for its wonderful work. Ross came home to Athboy last Wednesday and was laid to rest on Friday. My sincere condolences to his family, friends and loved ones. May he rest in peace.
Like the Cathaoirleach, I welcome to the Visitors Gallery Councillors Joe Carroll, Patrick Gerard Murphy, Mary Hegarty and Gerard Murphy, a former Dáil Deputy, and my good friend, Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony.
We are all aware that over the last year in particular, but at all times since I became a Member of this House, there have been attempts to improve the pay and conditions of local authority members of county and city councils, who are to the forefront of our democracy. Some of these changes have come about in the past 12 months in regard to PRSI payable by councillors and it is now equal to that paid by the self-employed. However, this is of little or no benefit to the majority of councillors. The additional €1,000 provided to recognise the additional workload which has arisen as a result of the creation of municipal districts has not been added to the expenses of councillors, even though these are expenses, but has been added to the representational allowance, which is subject to income tax and PRSI. The option for councillors of €5,000 of vouched expenses is so restrictive that fewer than 3% have opted for this. Another measure introduced last year changed the payment rates for mileage and introduced a banding system on a par with the rest of the public sector. These bands and rates were agreed by the public sector unions and representatives of the Government without any input from those who represent local authority members. As a trade unionist, the Leader knows it is a fundamental of any negotiations on public sector pay and conditions that the people affected are represented at such negotiations. This courtesy was not afforded to local authority members through either the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, or the Local Authority Members' Association, LAMA. These bands have led to the introduction of a requirement for aggregation of travel claims by members of local authorities across the various bodies on which they represent the public - not themselves but the public. The Oireachtas has placed an obligation on local authorities to nominate members to serve on the education and training boards, the regional assemblies, the governing authorities of various third level institutions and many other bodies. We are now requiring councillors and their parent local authorities to administer an extraordinarily convoluted system for the payment of a pittance to local authority members to cover their travel expenses. Officials in Departments and local authorities will have no difficulty with the systems because their pay and expenses are administered by their employers. However, the nature of membership of a local authority is that significant travel is involved and is payable from multiple authorities for the various activities in which we require our county councillors and city councillors to engage. Furthermore, the rates specified in the Department circular are Revenue-approved rates. This calls into question whether county councillors now have an obligation to aggregate the travel and subsistence payable to them in their work as a members of a local authority and the various public bodies on which they serve with any travel and subsistence they may receive in their private employment in order to remain tax compliant.
As a result of these changes, some members have become disadvantaged financially. This new system of travelling expenses has caused huge difficulties for rural councillors in particular. There are councillors in rural Ireland who represent very rural constituencies and, in some instances, island communities who are losing up to €4,500 or €5,000 for doing their job. This is not acceptable. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister of State with responsibility for local government, in particular local government reform and the pay and conditions of our local authority members, come before the House.
Finally, special recognition needs to be given to the unique status of the role of the local elected member within the local government system. The possibility of a dedicated travel rates system applicable to local authority members only, in recognition of their unique role within local government, needs to be looked at. No elected member can be allowed to be worse off due to these new regulations anymore. I am putting the House on notice, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, that we will not tolerate this. This is why I propose an amendment to the Order of the Business.
In 2012, the House passed a law, which I, as the then Minister for Health, brought through the House and which was heavily sponsored by Senator Bacik. I refer to the law on female genital mutilation. This is the first time the Seanad has met since the broadcast last Thursday night of an interview on "Prime Time" in which Dr. Ali Selim made the outrageous statement that female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, bore comparisons to male circumcision, which it does not in any way. To be absolutely clear, male circumcision is a medical procedure; female circumcision is genital mutilation. "Female circumcision" is not a medical term; it is a cultural term and a cultural procedure. I am appalled, as an Irishman, a father, a brother and a husband, that such statements would be made.I am particularly appalled and affronted by the fact that someone who uses the title of "Dr." made such a statement on national television. In a week where we celebrated the 100 year anniversary of women in this country getting the vote and there is a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about female genital mutilation with over 2 million tweets sent out, it is appalling that such misinformation would be put about. I would like to see the said gentleman withdraw his comments and acknowledge that he is wrong. I know that he is not a medical doctor. Nonetheless, he did a disservice to and insulted the women of this country and around the world by saying what he said and I believe that he should withdraw his comment.
The World Health Organization, WHO, has made it very clear that female genital mutilation brings no health benefit, only harm. Dr. Chris Fitzpatrick, who is a past Master of the Coombe maternity hospital, has said that female genital mutilation only brings pain, future infection and difficulty with childbirth. FGM is a heinous act that has been outlawed in this country by my Bill, which I am very proud to have brought into this House and have passed. Furthermore, it is illegal, lest there be any doubt, for anyone in this country to take a woman or a child out of this country for the purpose of performing such procedures elsewhere. These are criminal acts and these are criminal people. Let no one claim ignorance of the law as a defence because such an excuse does not stand up.
I strongly concur with the comments made by Senator Reilly.
Today, I would like to refer to Irish charities. I believe that more of them are not publishing financial information on their sources of revenue and how they spend them. The majority of charities do vital work on behalf of the Government and the general public. Increasingly, some charities avail of an exemption that permits them to file an abridged version of accounts with the Companies Registration Office. Abridged accounts show no information on income or expenditure.
The charitable organisations cover a wide spectrum and receive a substantial amount of funding from the Government and the general public. This matter is of great concern and it is a question of public interest. We have had problems with the charity sector in the past. Moneys have been stolen, wrongly spent and inadequately managed, to put it mildly. The Government gives almost €6 billion to about 3,000 Irish non-profit organisations in this country. That amount of money does not include public donations. I do not know how much money is donated by the public because we cannot get much information from the regulatory office. In terms of auditing, the law states that charities do not have to supply information. The charities that avail of the exemption should consider their wider responsibilities to stakeholders.
I ask the Government to revisit this matter and strengthen the legislation on regulation. As one person has put it, how can charities ask us to trust them more when they tell us less?
I ask the Leader to request the relevant Minister to come to this House and update us on the current situation on pay and conditions for councillors. I agree with a lot of what Senator Wilson said in his contribution.
Some councillors have had a pay increase while others have not. There are also vouched and unvouched expenses. The pay and conditions for councillors seem to be all over the place. Therefore, we need a proper debate on the current situation with the Minister in attendance. We are probably 15 or 16 months away from the local elections and people in constituencies all over the country are trying to persuade people to participate. If pay and conditions are not addressed now then I suggest that a high proportion of councillors will decide not to run again and many new young people will be discouraged from becoming a councillor.
Councillors work long hours every week, including weekends. They attend meetings, meet constituents and travel all over large constituencies. Such work does not make financial sense and it is not right that a person who works long hours ends up owing money. I am in contact with councillors on a daily basis so know that they are unhappy with the situation.It should not be the case that only somebody who is retired and looking for something to do or somebody who is financially well off can run for election to local government. One should get a proper day's pay for a day's work. I ask the Leader to invite the relevant Minister, be it the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, or the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, to the House to give us an update on the current position with councillors' pay and conditions. It must be dealt with now.
I second Senator Nash's proposed amendment to the Order of Business regarding the very important legislation he hopes will be taken today.
I wish to raise two issues with the Leader. One is the outrageous move by the Department of Education and Skills to place a cap for some reason on the enrolment of five Educate Together primary schools across the country. I have been contacted by a number of parents and local representatives in New Ross, Tramore, Trim, Castlebar and Tuam, all of whom are perplexed as to why the Department has decided to place a 13 student cap on the enrolment numbers for next September for each of these Educate Together schools. It is quite surprising considering that in the last number of years there was a large roll-out of Educate Together schools across the country under the former Ministers, Ruairí Quinn and Jan O'Sullivan. Plebiscites were held in most parts of the country to find out, for the first time, the type of patronage model that interested most parents and much to the surprise of some, although not to people in the Labour Party, many parents were interested in the multi-denominational model. A number of schools were subsequently established. However, now the schools in New Ross, Tramore, Trim, Castlebar and Tuam are being told they can only take in 13 pupils from September. I wonder if there is some type of institutional bias in the Department against these schools because no other patronage schools are being asked to put a cap on their numbers. I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate in the Seanad with the Minister for Education and Skills on this important issue. A number of parents are quite disturbed by this development.
Second, I wish to raise the Children's Rights Alliance Report Card 2018. To be fair, and I try to be fair in my deliberations here, many of the grades the Children's Rights Alliance has given the Government have improved from last year. That should be acknowledged. However, two issues arise from the report and it would be interesting to invite the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to the House to discuss them. One is child and family homelessness, for which a grade E has been given by the Children's Rights Alliance. There are many grades to show that the Government is clearly delivering, which is commendable, but on the issue of child homelessness it is an E grade for the second year in a row from the Children's Rights Alliance, which is a reputable organisation. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should be invited to the House to discuss that.
The second issue in the report is general practitioner, GP, care for children. The last Government introduced free GP care for every child in the Republic under six years of age and we expected that it would be extended to every child under 12 years of age within a short period of time. Now the Minister is talking about a flat fee of perhaps €5 or €10 for every visit, which we would flatly oppose.
Perhaps the Leader would respond on those three issues; the roll-out of free GP care for children between six and 12 years of age; the issue of child and family homelessness; and the pertinent issue of the day, the crazy cap that has been placed on enrolment in Educate Together schools in five areas of the country.
I second Senator Wilson's proposed amendment to the Order of Business. I support his comments and those of Senator McFadden on councillors' pay and conditions. The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, was in the Seanad before Christmas to announce these proposals and Senators were writing to councillors to congratulate them on what they were getting and accepting praise for all that they were delivering. However, then people realised that their allowances were being cut. I agree with Senator McFadden that we need to know what is happening.We need an analysis of every single one of the 949 people involved in local government, right across the 31 local authorities. We need to see what is happening. We have significant anecdotal evidence of people suffering a significant drop in their subsistence and mileage rates. The system is very cumbersome.
If a councillor is on an education and training board, a regional assembly, a health forum or a member of the AILG, the mileage rate changes over mileage terms. It means one has to seek different rates from the different authorities and account for all of this. Let us remember that a councillor is effectively a one person operation. Councillors answer their own phone calls and respond to emails. They do not have secretarial support, funded or otherwise, and if they do it is out of their own pocket. It is very important that we acknowledge the work they do.
The vast major of local authority members serve their community and are not in the role for the money. Very few people will get involved with the level of work required for €16,000 a year and a modest level of expenses. Why are members of the local authorities the only people in the entire public service who do not get a pension at the end of their service? If one does ten hours work a week in a part-time position for a number of years in a local authority, that service in pensionable. One will have a very small pension based on a very small salary. Councillors' pensions would not be expensive because they are not earning a lot of money to start with.
It is important that we acknowledge that people are contributing. Some councillors are serving since 1967, some since 1974, and others were elected more recently. They are not there for the money but should be entitled to a pension based on their years of service over many years. Councillors give up hours, weekends and evenings week in, week out to go to various functions and residents' meetings. They are not compensated in any way for those things and they go because they want to go. We should not leave people out of pocket. I came from a meeting with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, about public sector reform. He knows of a local authority that only has one ratepayer. We want to have a local authority membership representative of the area in which they live and we need to facilitate councillors with appropriate meeting times, an appropriate level of secretarial support, appropriate remuneration and compensation for expenses, and ultimately an appropriate pension based on the service they gave.
I ask the Leader to raise the issue of pensions for councillors with the Minister.
I agree with the points made by my colleagues on the question of councillor's pay. We have all raised this issue in our own parties in the past 12 months to two years.
While councillors get travelling expenses for travelling to council meetings, what is not taken into account are all the other meetings that they attend. I know there are councillors in the Gallery and I welcome those present. Some councillors from west Cork, the Cathaoirleach's constituency, are present. By the time they leave County Cork they are half way to Dublin and that is the extent of the travel they have to do. From Bantry in west Cork to Cork County Hall is not a short trip. One of the councillors identified to me that yesterday morning it took them two and a half hours to travel to Cork County Hall. No one compensates them for the two and a half hours that they spend driving to get there and another two and a half hours to get home. That is not taken into account, together with all the other meetings they attend throughout the week.
That is the reason the issue of councillors' expenses has been very much simplified about being paid just to attend council meetings without taking all the other issues into account. That needs to be dealt with. My colleagues are correct that we will have difficulties because of the upturn in the economy and the demands that are now on everybody who holds down a job. I can remember quite clearly when I was on Cork City Council, which is one of the councils that hold their meetings in the evening, whereas most other councils meet during the day. There was only one other councillor in addition to me who was a ratepayer to the city council at that time.That imbalance in respect of the composition of councils is one of the problems we now have and it is all because we cannot get people. We will have further difficulty in that regard in the next few years. It is something we need to seriously consider.
I would like to briefly touch on the issue of Versatis. The wrong decision was taken in this regard. Mixed messages are being sent. There is a very simple way of dealing with this. We should allow those people to whom it has already been prescribed continue on with it, although perhaps efforts should be made to phase it out of their treatment. New patients should go through the new system which has been introduced, rather than introducing the new system for everyone. This decision was wrong, poorly planned and it was not thought out. Many people are going through very difficult times as a result. We have heard them on the radio and in the media over the last week. Their views on how this issue is managed should be taken into account. We should invite the Minister to the House to talk to him about dealing with it.
I support the motion on councillors' pay tabled by Senator Diarmuid Wilson. This issue has been highlighted in this House over a long period of time. Despite promises by several Ministers that the issue would be addressed, it has not been. The issue of councillors' pay has been ongoing for years. Councillors receive a representational payment of €16,565. That breaks down to €318.56 per week and it is subject to PAYE, PRSI and USC. If one takes the gross figure of €318.56, and assumes that the average councillor works 40 hours a week, it comes to €7.90 per hour. Most of the time these hours will be unsociable - weekends and evenings. Speaking to and knowing many councillors, I know that they work far in excess of 40 hours per week. It might be 50 or 60 hours a week. If a councillor were to work 60 hours a week his or her gross earnings would be €5.31 an hour.
The issue is far from being sufficiently addressed. That is because the Minister, or indeed any sitting Government, does not feel that dealing with this issue will be popular. What they are doing, however, is undervaluing and selling out our democracy. Councillors are at the front line of Ireland's democratic process. If someone has a query on the street which they want addressed and if the council system is not working, that person goes to his or her local councillor to get it addressed. If we want a functioning democracy, and if we truly value democracy in the local government sector, we need to resource the councillors effectively. We have chief executive officers running around the country claiming expenses and it is never reported. Why? Because they are the permanent government. It is about time that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government comes to this House and explains what he is going to do once and for all because there has been report after report and analysis after analysis and the issue has still not been addressed. I hope that the Senators on the Government side will support this motion and compel the Minister to address this long overdue issue once and for all.
I was. We can all agree that artists, writers and performers should be supported to produce their work. While the artists' social welfare pilot scheme is a very welcome initiative and long overdue, the current pilot unfortunately fails to recognise artists as self-employed and aligns itself closer to a jobseekers model of social welfare. In reality there are few jobs for artists. There is none listed in the employment sections of our newspapers or online. Under the scheme, writers and visual artists can only receive jobseekers allowance for up to a year without being, as it were, activated. The individual artist or writer therefore only has 12 months to complete his or her work before being required to find alternative work, of which there is none.Therefore, the individual artist or writer has just 12 months in which to complete his or her work before he or she is required to find alternative work, of which there is none. Such a timeframe does not reflect the reality of working life for visual artists and writers. I suggest the scheme needs to be restructured to be inclusive of artists, rather than treating them as jobseekers as they work. Sinn Féin is concerned that it is proposed to review the scheme after a year in light of the low rate of response to it. Just 24 artists have availed of this pilot scheme to date. Separately, the scheme should be extended to performing artists, including performers and musicians. The Government needs to explain why they have been excluded from the scheme. It is by consulting the cultural sector and exploring successful artist welfare schemes in other EU member states that Ireland can establish best practice and create a scheme that enjoys the confidence of artists and supports those who are struggling to make ends meet. I would like the new Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, to address the House on this issue.
I support the comments of colleagues about councillors' pay and conditions. I do not know whether other Senators agree with my view on the body politic, which is that as politicians - I do not necessarily mean here in the Seanad - we have kind of degraded ourselves over the years.
We have made populist moves to try to endear ourselves to a public that has no interest in many of the moves in question. For example, I do not think we should have done away with ministerial cars. We get no gratitude for that kind of thing. It reduces a nexus. If we are going to degrade ourselves, how is the public supposed to feel about us? I do not think this is party political. It has gone on for years. We hear it in the way people speak about the Seanad and the Dáil. The Seanad is seen as a crèche or a retirement home. I think we need to have a good look at this as a profession.
Councillors are professionals and they need to be treated as such. I do not know of any other profession in which someone would proudly issue a press release announcing that he or she is not going to accept expenses to go to meetings. It is a joke. This is happening across the board. Soon it will go back to the way it was at the beginning, when privileged people were involved in politics.
They were the only people who could afford to be in politics because they were independently wealthy. Do we want that? No, we do not. There is a consultative process and a review going on at the moment. I would be very hopeful. As Senators, we have a unique nexus to councillors. Obviously, we rely on them for votes. We appreciate them. We have a connection to them.
I am in contact with certain councillors all the time. It is very important. I do not want to go over the points that others have made about pensions and other things that we all take for granted. It has been said in here 100 or perhaps 1,000 times that councillors are overworked and underpaid. Something has to be done about it.
I will hear what the Leader says when he responds, but I assume we have no choice other than to wait for the Minister to come back to us. I hope that as a former councillor and two-term Senator, the Minister will come back with a positive result for us. He needs to set out what is going to be done to improve things.
When I was on the last Seanad campaign, I came across a number of councillors who were wondering why they were bothering. It was not an idle threat. They were genuinely questioning why they were doing this. In light of the amount of abuse we get, never mind the pay and conditions aspect of things, can any of us honestly say we would be involved in politics and the lifestyle associated with it if we were not afflicted with a form of madness that means we are addicted to the process of trying to do good for people? I could go on all day about it. I support what others have said. I understand that an amendment to the Order of Business, as opposed to a motion, has been tabled to address this issue. I have no doubt that we are all on the same page with regard to it.
According to a report on "Morning Ireland" today, rents have increased by up to 15% across the country. I have raised on numerous occasions the effects that short-term lettings such as those facilitated by Airbnb are having on the rental sector. Up to 3,500 units in the Dublin region that should be available for rental by ordinary working people have been moved into the hospitality sector.I continually raise the point that the solution lies in legislation and regulation. This issue was dealt with in Berlin two years ago and last Friday the report reviewing the legislation introduced there was published. That initiative brought 4,000 units in central Berlin back into the rental market, reduced rents in the city and, above all, allowed 4,000 families to obtain accommodation.
I have being raising this issue for the past 18 months. The previous Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, set up a working group, as did the current Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Each working group was supposed to report by the end of 2017 but there has been no sign of those reports. They only met five times during the year, so must be working very diligently. In the meantime, there are constant excuses from the Government about a supply problem. We repeatedly hear reports about increasing rents and that we need more supply.
This is a very simple and easy method to get more supply in our urban areas. The issue does not just affect Dublin and is having the same effect in Cork, Limerick, Galway, Killarney, etc. We have to make a decision. This is not a zero-sum equation. The effect of removing apartments and houses designed for working families from the tourist market and back to their original usage is that we will lose hotel or bed spaces for tourists. I want working families in permanent accommodation rather than hotels and I want the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to come to the House and report on why he has failed to take action in respect of this scandal.
There are representatives of the tourism industry on the working group. They have skin in the game and want to keep those 5,000 apartments and houses as Airbnb or short-term lets rather than their being reallocated to ordinary working families. I want there to be less talk and more action and for the Minister to come to the House to explain why there has been no action on this issue.
I support Senator Wilson and others regarding councillors' terms and conditions. I get no pleasure from saying that the Government's treatment of hardworking local authority members throughout the country has been degrading and insulting and needs to be tackled once and for all. That is the least they deserve.
I wish to propose an amendment to today's Order of Business such that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, would come to the House to discuss the 31 proposed job losses at Kerry Foods in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. With any news of job losses, our first thought is of those affected and their families, all of whom have mortgages and financial obligations to sustain. The company management indicated that the potential job losses are due to Brexit and the resultant weakness of sterling. The loss of 31 jobs would be a huge blow to a town such as Carrickmacross, as all Senators will appreciate. It is even more worrying that the potential losses are in the food sector, which is vitally important to a county such as Monaghan because so many jobs in sectors such as mushrooms, poultry and general agriculture are dependent on it.
This should not be happening under the nose of the Government. We have been calling for job creation in counties such as Monaghan but those calls have fallen on deaf ears. The Government has not been listening. Recent figures from IDA Ireland indicate that it only conducted one site visit in County Monaghan last year, while there were two in County Cavan. Job creation is not happening in Monaghan. The even more important issue of job retention does not seem to be key either.It is important that the Minister would come into the House and outline the current situation in respect of Kerry Foods, the future of that plant and its 600 plus jobs in a town like Carrickmacross, and what the Government is doing to Brexit proof counties like Monaghan that are so dependent on the agricultural sector and food production.
I listened with great interest to Senator Humphreys discussing the challenges in the housing sector, particularly for those who are renting. The natural progression for a lot of people is to go on to purchase their home, yet this is becoming increasingly difficult. The situation that existed during the run-in to and peak of the Celtic tiger is beginning to manifest itself again, namely, gazumping. I have heard from a number of people recently who had gone "sale agreed" with a booking deposit paid to an auctioneer and were told somebody else had come in with a higher bid. I do not think it is good enough. In other countries, once one has paid a booking deposit, if somebody decides to withdraw from the sale and then put the property back on the market, there has to be a six or 12-month period before that can happen. We need to do something on gazumping. It was a serious issue between 2006 and 2008 and is becoming an issue again.
Deputy Noel Rock had a transparency Bill in this regard at one stage. I know the Government is planning to do something. It would, however, be in order to bring the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government or the Minister for Finance to the House for statements on the issues of gazumping and people trying to purchase their homes. We should hear what the overall plan is to deal with this scourge. It is terrible for a young couple or anybody who has a booking deposit down on a house to get a phone call a week later to say the sale is not agreed because somebody is after coming in with a higher bid, and to be asked if they can either match or improve on that offer. That type of skullduggery went on too often and too long for too many people in this country. It really has to stop.
I second Senator Gallagher's proposal to amend the Order of Business. Now is the time to start dealing with these issues. We have lost a lot of jobs already in the mushroom industry and, with the announcement of imminent job losses in Monaghan, this is Brexit coming at us. We are all talking about it and posturing but it is time to stop the rot. It is vitally important when we hear of 31 jobs being lost in Monaghan. At this early stage in the negotiations, as people will say, there has to be immediate proactive action taken.
I complement my colleague, Senator Wilson, on raising the issue of councillors' pay and conditions. It is great to see him getting all-round support. The issue needs to be addressed. The record will show that I flagged this on the day the Minister was here previously and warned that councillors were going to lose more money than they would gain.
I wish to raise a very pressing issue within the agriculture sector which has to do with the clean livestock policy. People will be aware that there is a clean livestock policy whereby animals being presented for slaughter in abattoirs and processing plants need to be presented in a relatively clean fashion or they will be categorised and may not be allowed into the food chain because of the possibility of contamination of the meat. The clean sheep policy was only introduced in recent weeks. In the week gone by there has been unbelievable confusion about the interpretation of this policy. There is no consideration being taken of the fact that the majority of sheep, unlike cattle, are finished and fattened outside in the pastures. With the wet year we have had, it is almost impossible to have them to the standards that are being expected.
The Minister needs to intervene immediately. Kepak stopped slaughter of lambs during the week and is sending home the vast majority of the sheep that are presented. Some farmers have shorn their sheep to bring them to slaughter, which has to be an animal welfare issue in the month of February with the weather we are having at the moment.It cannot be allowed to continue. As I said, now is the time to intervene in the situation. The Minister needs to take immediate action. The situation is being misinterpreted. There needs to be a practical and realistic approach taken.
Senator Wilson has called for the Minister to come to the House and I am delighted to support him. It is something that has to be urgently discussed. When the Minister came to the House, we discussed the €2,500 in unvouched expenses. I took it that he agreed to look at the extra €2,500 in additional expenses from then on. However, when the legislation came through there was a hard choice. One either took the existing €2,500 or the €5,000 had to be fully vouched. That was not our understanding of the position. It was not in good faith and was not what was said off the record. We were very disappointed.
Councillors' pay has always been linked to that of Senators. If that holds true which, I understand, is their legal right, their basic pay would be a minimum of €23,000. The Minister discussed the issue and gave an undertaking under the review to possibly tie the pay of councillors to a Civil Service rate. It is something we did not hear about under the review. The Minister could certainly brush up on three areas. To say that anyone would be in a worse position following the negotiations beggars belief.
Before I call on the Leader to respond, I cannot help but speak. I must be impartial and independent in the Chair, but I read a book on the history of Cork County Council from 1899 to 1999. It is the first time in almost 120 years that the peninsula area of Cork, including Mizen Head, Sheep's Head, the Beara Peninsula and so on has no representation. It begs the question as to why that is the case. It is an unusual situation. It is not good for rural Ireland.
I met someone recently who lives on Bere Island, and has to travel by boat to Castletownbere and then travel 32 miles to meet a public representative. The quota of almost 3,500 votes in that area is quite extraordinary given the geographic size of the constituency. Had the figure been 1,700 the last time, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin would each have a representative and Independents and other parties would have greater representation. For six inhabited islands and three very big peninsulas to have no representation means something is radically wrong. I cannot comment any further.
Perhaps the constitutionality of representation in Ireland could be looked at. Even sparsely populated states like Arizona and Alaska are guaranteed two senators in the United States. Sometimes parts of rural Ireland are guaranteed no representation. There must be something radically wrong. With those balanced comments, I call on the Leader to respond.
The Cathaoirleach was very balanced. I welcome former Deputy, and current councillor, Gerard Murphy, and Councillors Mary Hegarty, Joe Carroll and Patrick Murphy to the Chamber. I will address the issues of councillors' pay and conditions as part of my reply.
Senators Ardagh, Conway and Humphreys raised the issue of housing and the daft.ie report. For any politician to come in here and say that he or she has no confidence in Rebuilding Ireland beggars belief. It is a cross-departmental multiannual approach providing Government funding of €6 billion. It is extraordinary that people would come in here and criticise Government investment in housing. Fianna Fáil was the party which collapsed the construction sector.I know Senator Gallagher does not want to hear a history lesson again, but that is the reality. Let me reassure Senator Humphreys that the party I belong to and represent wants to see all working families housed and in their own homes, or in houses provided by local authorities under the social housing building scheme. The daft.ie report from today is, as Government has said, a reminder that we have challenges to face in the housing sector. We must have an honest debate around housing as well. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, and the Taoiseach are committed to the Rebuilding Ireland programme. In the city and county of Cork, where I live, we can see the hoardings of Rebuilding Ireland and the bricks and mortar being used at key sites. We have to increase supply, and we have to get the balance between landlords and social housing correct.
I accept there are challenges to be met, but the Government has prioritised Rebuilding Ireland and the funding and construction of social housing and has provided incentives to keep landlords as part of the construction and housing model. There are some people in this House who do not want any landlords involved in social housing and some who do not want any private developer building, but would prefer all housing to be under State control. We need an amalgam of all of these options, and that is why the Government has committed to Rebuilding Ireland. It has prioritised a range of measures under that programme, including the rent pressure zones. The daft.iereport does not cover the whole year. Rents in some places have not exponentially increased. In some parts of the country, where we have colleges and universities, we have seen an increase in the building of student accommodation. When Fianna Fáil was in Government, it did not make it obligatory for colleges to provide student accommodation; it was left to the individual or the private landlord sector to do that. Let us have a real, honest debate about housing. Senators should not come in here every day and politicise the issue. I accept that meeting the housing need is challenging, but let us work on it in a collective manner, rather than criticising the Government for doing nothing at all. The Government is doing something about this problem. That is a fact. The guidelines the Residential Tenancies Board has put forward and the changes that have been made show that there are pressures, but the pressures will be met by increasing supply.
I agree with Senator Ardagh and Senator Colm Burke regarding the versatis drug. I heard the remarks of the chief executive of the HSE at the Joint Committee on Health where he said at one level that there was no change, but then we saw the change happening. It affects a very small number of people. The important point is that there are other equivalent medications available that can be taken, but Senator Ardagh and Senator Colm Burke rightly say that it is important to ensure that the cohort of people who require this important drug are able to get it. It is important, and it is incumbent on the HSE and the Minister to come together to ensure this drug is available. I also believe that if the company which manufactures the drug was to consider reducing the cost, it might become more readily available. That is an argument we must have in terms of how the prices in our drugs basket are continually monitored. The Minister should come to the House for that debate.
Senator Boyhan raised the issue of the electoral commission. It is part of the programme for Government. He also raised the issue of Rebuilding Ireland. It is important to recognise that as part of the programme for Government there is a commitment to include a new commission to examine the whole operation of our electoral system. Many of us who have spoken on this issue in the past would welcome the appointment of an independent electoral commission to oversee the operations of our elections. It is not just about political parties being registered, or about funding, but the role of politics and how it operates in our country. We should all welcome that. I would be happy to invite the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, to the House to discuss the matter raised by Senator Boyhan.I will let him speak tomorrow on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016.
Senator Ó Donnghaile has raised the matter of Ms Emma de Souza. As the Senator rightly said, she is an Irish citizen, and under the Good Friday Agreement she has certain rights. As a matter of urgency, perhaps a Commencement matter might be a more expeditious way of getting an answer, but I think the matter raised by the Senator is one that will raise its head further-----
-----given the vote for Brexit. To be fair to both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach, there is a very strong commitment to upholding the Good Friday Agreement, but I would be happy to talk to them and facilitate that meeting.
I am happy to accept Senator Nash's amendment to the Order of Business. If I am reading it right, the motion is to move the Bill again, so we have to accept that.
In response to Senator Butler, it is great to hear praise for members of our diplomatic corps. We offer our sympathies to the Hanlon family on the tragic death of Ross, and we join Senator Butler in extending our sympathies. It is important to remember, as was noted in Senator Butler's remarks, that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, and Ambassador Hanney in Vienna played a huge role in the repatriation of Ross Hanlon's body. To his family and friends, we extend our deepest sympathies on his tragic loss.
We heard from Senators Wilson, McFadden, Horkan, Burke, Ó Domhnaill, Noone, Gallagher, Davitt and Conway. We also heard from Senator Daly. How could I forget Senator Daly?
How could we forget Senator Daly?
I will not oppose the Order of Business, but I will outline to Senator Wilson and the House that the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, is travelling on Government business this week. This is a fundamental question for the body politic. While Senator Boyhan spoke about the importance of the Electoral Commission, I am firmly of the view, having been a member, that the role of the local authority is the central role in our system of politics. Senators Wilson and O'Donnell are right. As Senator McFadden said, it is important to place a value on the role of local representatives at local authority level. I do not just mean a monetary value, though that is important, but a real political value. What they do on a daily basis, and on a statutory basis, underpins the importance of what we will see on Friday with the national development plan and the publication, examination and scrutiny of county development plans. The work that they do is important. In this House, we fundamentally agree that what we are all trying to achieve is to have the pay and conditions for councillors that are called for in Senator Wilson's motion accepted by the Government and implemented.
I will not go over the debate around this part of the Order of Business other than to agree that the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, will come to the House next week. He is not available this week. He will find consensus and agreement within the Fine Gael Party. We have been working with him, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I know that the Fine Gael councillors' representative group has met with Deputy Phelan, and last week met with the Minister for Finance and the Tánaiste.
As the Cathaoirleach said in his introduction to my reply, it is fundamentally wrong that someone from the Mizen Peninsula, Castletownbere or Bantry who is a dedicated member of a local authority serving on several boards, such as the education and training board, the strategic policy committee, SPC, or whatever, should be out of pocket for the expenses of travelling to do the duty he or she has been elected to do. Equally, it is wrong for people to have to serve on an interview panel without being facilitated by pay and conditions that constitute fair remuneration. As Senator Ó Domhnaill said, no other person would be put in that position. I believe that as a body politic we must stand up for ourselves.In the past we did not do so, such as when Fianna Fáil, with Brian Lenihan as Minister, cut expenses and allowances. We must, collectively and irrespective of our political differences and ideology, stand up for each other as professionals. I do not care if we are ridiculed tomorrow by the Fourth Estate because I know, from my time as a member of a local authority, that the role of politicians is both important and fundamental in the context of our democracy. I have been in contact with the office of the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, who is away this week. If Senator Wilson agrees, I would be happy to have the Minister of State come to the House at a later date.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of female genital mutilation and female circumcision. I chaired the health committee which carried out pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill in 2012. It is unacceptable. It is not a medical procedure but is mutilation and it should not be accepted in any way.
I welcome some of the remarks form the Islamic community on the matter.
Senator Devine raised the issue of Irish charities and I saw the article by Patricia Quinn on thejournal.ie. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House to discuss charities. We would all agree that there is a need for transparency in the publication of the accounts of charities.
I welcome back Senator Warfield. I fully agree with him about our artists and on the need for welfare that represents a broad-brush approach to them because only a small cadre get payments. I would welcome it being extended and I know that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, are deeply committed to this. I look forward to having that debate in due course.
Senator Gallagher proposed an amendment to the Order of Business. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, is not available today but I would be happy for her to come to the House after Private Members' business tomorrow night. The Senator failed to recognise that unemployment in Monaghan is down by 15.3% since this Government came to office, while in Cavan it is down by 16%.
Senator Paul Daly spoke about agriculture and a clean lifestyle, both of which deserve further debate. I would be happy for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, to come to the House to discuss slaughterhouses.
If Senator Wilson accepts that the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, will come to the House at a later date and if Senator Gallagher accepts that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation will be here tomorrow night, there should be no votes. However, I will oppose the Senators' amendments if it comes to it.
Senator Gerald Nash has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 18 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated that he is prepared to accept this amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed. It will have to be formally moved later.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for local government and electoral reform on the pay and conditions of members of local authorities be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
On the basis that the Minister of State is not available and that the Leader has given a commitment to the effect that he will be here next week, I will not push the matter. I am well aware that people on all sides want progress regarding the pay and conditions of councillors. It is an extremely serious matter that councillors going about their democratically-elected business are worse off now as a result of so-called improvements. I would like the Minister of State to have some answers to our questions when he comes in, as well as a timeline for the completion of his review to which we can look forward.
Is it agreed that the amendment is withdrawn? Agreed.
Senator Robbie Gallagher has proposed the third amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation on the loss of 31 jobs at Kerry Foods in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
On the basis of the commitment given by the Leader that the Minister will make herself available to come to the House tomorrow to discuss this very important issue, I am willing to withdraw my amendment.However, it is a key issue-----