Tuesday, 12 June 2018
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 - Report Stage to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 6 p.m.; No. 2, statements on marine spatial planning, to be taken at 6 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 7 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and; No. 3, statements on tourism, to be taken at 7 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Today, I wish to raise two issues. The first relates to the cervical smear interim report. I am very disappointed to learn that we are not being presented with a final report at this stage or in the very near future. I wish to ask the Minister whether Dr. Scally was given adequate resources to complete the report on time and if there is a particular reason we will not have a final report in the very near future.
Another issue that has given rise to the need for me to ask a few questions is the €2,000 ex gratiapayment that is being made to allow those women who have experienced delays in their diagnosis to uncover the truth and, as the Minister said, to give them a voice. Many colleagues in here are legal professionals and we know that it takes a High Court action to uncover the truth and to allow for the discovery of documents by way of litigation. We know that in medical negligence cases alone one cannot actually issue proceedings unless one has a medical negligence report commissioned by a doctor. Unfortunately, doctors in Ireland are slow to draft medical negligence reports on their colleagues so quite often we have to go to the UK to seek medical negligence reports. Those reports alone are very expensive and cost in the region of €1,500 to €2,000. One cannot issue proceedings without a report. In addition, one cannot bring a motion for discovery without having issued proceedings. For any of those women to get to the truth and to get a copy of their file from Quest Diagnostics they will need to issue proceedings in the High Court. The outlay alone, not taking into consideration solicitor's fees, will be in or around €1,000. Once proceedings are issued there are costs attached to getting motions, appearances and defences and then one has the court stamp for the discovery motion. The sum of €2,000 simply would not cover the outlay required. Many solicitors are dealing with matters on a pro bonobasis or on a no foal, no fee basis so I am very disappointed that this amount was mentioned.The Government should itself seek the documents from Quest Diagnostics and commission professional negligence reports for each of the women who have had a delayed diagnosis. It is not enough to give them €2,000 each and tell them to go off and do it themselves. This is what the interim report should do. It should be finding out the truth and it is scandalous that it is not doing so.
The second issue I raise relates to housing and homelessness. In March, we saw an increase of 53 people on the Department's figures. While April showed a slight drop, we know that today there are 5,963 adults and 3,689 children in emergency accommodation. We are lucky the recent nights have been warm, because if the weather were cold, we would see the absolute devastation caused by this crisis. As a solicitor practising in conveyancing, I am disturbed and disgusted by the frenzied and ridiculous escalation in house prices and in the rate of houses changing hands in Dublin in the past few weeks. Homes are no longer affordable in this city and are only within the reach of those with huge incomes and inherited wealth.
I started practising in 2011 after the last property crash. Since 2011, I have seen nothing like the frenzy going on now and the huge increases in house prices in the city. It is only getting worse and we are without doubt heading towards another property bubble. Gazumping has started again and house prices are back at boom-time levels. I have raised this issue 100 times in the House, but, ultimately, we know that without supply in the market, we will continue to see ridiculous house prices.
Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, has rightly criticised the income bands for housing assistance payments, HAP. Ms Gleeson says that the bands which are currently in force are keeping people in homelessness and must be changed. For example, families who might be willing to leave hotels, hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation to move outside Dublin city are staying put because they fall outside the income bands applying in areas outside Dublin. There is also an issue regarding the rate at which HAP is paid. Anecdotally, we are aware that many households have had to top up their HAP to stay in their chosen residential accommodation. An RTB report published today shows that there will be no abatement in the increase in rent prices. There is serious apathy here and nothing is being done to address the housing market and supply. We are in a deep crisis.
Like the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I have just come from the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly which has been in session for the past two or three days. One of the matters discussed over the weekend was the whole issue of spatial planning. I raised in particular at the assembly the matter of marine spatial planning and indicated to the members from the various jurisdictions that this very day in the Seanad we would have a presentation on that topic. I thank the Leader for organising the debate at relatively short notice, it having been requested only the week before last. Marine spatial planning is very important and presents a real opportunity for us to work in close co-operation and in synergy with the authorities and local councils in Northern Ireland. Fishing boundaries are not fixed at particular points and there are a whole range of issues to discuss regarding oceans and the marine. While we will have a greater debate on this later, I thank the Leader again for organising that debate this evening.
I turn to the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, on which we had a great discussion recently. We have to maintain our focus. As a result of the revelations a few weeks ago in this context, which I will not rehearse here, it is clear that people want an absolute right to know their forename, surname, where they were born and what their history has been. The Bill is an important one and we should not lose focus regarding it. I ask the Leader to come back to the House in the coming days to provide Members with an update on the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 and how it will be progressed. We should not be deviated from addressing it. The Minister is committed to enacting the legislation notwithstanding the fact that there are issues. I would like to hear more about it.
Senator Ardagh referred to the data and it is clear that we have a serious housing and homelessness crisis. While things are being done, they cannot happen fast enough. That is the problem for everyone. The time has come for an independent body to validates the housing figures. There are 31 local authorities providing different figures on which the Minister relies.We have the homeless executive and other agencies dealing with housing and homelessness. We have to work off one standard matrix database. There is now a case to be made to have independently validated housing figures from which we can all work for all 31 local authorities. Nobody has a monopoly on the issues of housing and homelessness in terms of policy. We are all committed across the Houses to do something about it. If we have a greater understanding of the exact figures, which would be independently validated, it may help us in these debates.
I welcome the decision by the Government to appeal the case of the hooded men. I acknowledge and thank all Senators for their unanimous support for the Seanad motion which called on the Government to appeal this judgment at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. It is vitally important.
I thank the men and their legal team for coming to share their story in Leinster House. They have been fighting this case for 50 years. I thank the Government for that move. It is vitally important we had this window of opportunity and that their campaign for truth and justice, which has gone on for decades, will now continue. Will the Government remain fully engaged with the men themselves, as well as their legal representatives, in bringing this appeal forward? The appeal will now be heard by a panel of five judges and will continue from there. I want to acknowledge everybody's support in this matter, including the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I also acknowledge the hard work of my colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, in facilitating the men and their families in coming to Leinster House. It shows the value of having Senators from the North in this Chamber - we also have Senator Marshall. There is a real value in having a 32-county approach to what we do in this Chamber.
The misdiagnosis of at least 49 children by audiology services in the west is scandalous. For many of them, it has resulted in profound hearing problems and other associated problems. There needs to be answers. I welcome the fact that the families have now got the report. However, it is disgusting it was leaked to the media first and that the HSE did not make sure it was discussed with the families affected before that. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss these reports and what will be done to right the wrong done to these children? It is not only 49 children affected. I have been contacted by parents since who had been told all along there was no problem with their children's hearing but have discovered in the past 18 months that there is a problem. I do not believe the 49 constitutes the full enormity of what has gone on. I expect more cases to be revealed as time goes on.
I welcome the health committee report on sodium valproate, a medication given to pregnant mothers. There is a direct correlation between it and children born with disabilities. I have raised the matter in the House before. The Leader has said it is time the Minister came in to discuss this matter. Now that this report has been completed, it is important we have a full debate in the Chamber so we can work through its recommendations and put a plan in place.
I commend all those involved in the wonderful ceremony last week, Dublin Honours Magdalenes. It was uplifting to see it after such shabby treatment of so many women for so long by the State, other institutions and, in many cases, by individual families. It was good and positive to see such a great welcome for the Magdalenes by Dublin's Lord Mayor, as well as other aspects of civic and official society. I also commend the President, Michael D. Higgins, for hosting a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin. I join Senator Ardagh in expressing concern about the delay in the report of the scoping inquiry into CervicalCheck. The report today appears to address only one point in the terms of reference. A full report is now not likely until the autumn, and certainly not by the end of June as it was supposed to be. My colleague, Deputy Kelly, has raised in the Dáil the issue of the continued lack of information being provided to many of the women affected who have still not received their personal medical records. Clearly, greater urgency needs to be given to this matter and I hope we can see that. I ask the Leader to pass that on to the Minister for Health.
In respect of another aspect of women's health, however, I commend the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach on moving swiftly to address issues that have arisen over the weekend regarding the legislation to give effect to the wishes of the people who voted in the referendum 66% in favour of repealing the eighth amendment. The Minister and the Taoiseach are quite right to point out that while there will be a conscientious objection clause in the legislation - that was in the heads of Bill published in March - clearly there will still be a duty to refer onwards and doctors cannot deny women access to medical care that they so clearly require.
We should also be looking for the Joint Committee on Health to conduct hearings, as I think it will, on how we can adopt a best practice model of health service provision in this area. Now we have an opportunity to get our legislation right. The heads of the Bill are strong and positive, and people were aware of those when they voted "Yes" on 25 May. It would be useful for the committee to hold hearings with, for example, experts from the World Health Organization, WHO, as well as with Irish GPs and members of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I have written to the Minister on behalf of Women's Health in Ireland, a cross-party, cross-political and cross-professional grouping, to ask that the Chair of the Joint Committee on Health, Deputy Harty, would conduct such hearings, and I hope we will do that.
This week is national bike week, and I wish all colleagues a happy national bike week. I very much hope we will see in Leinster House greater provision for cyclists. There has been a somewhat grudging provision of facilities for cyclists in these Houses and it is something I, as a daily all-weather cyclist, have been meaning to raise more often. I am delighted to be meeting the Superintendent of the Houses and others tomorrow to look at how we can improve provision of, in particular, parking facilities for bikes. We need Leinster House to lead the way in encouraging people to cycle to work. In Dublin, there are low numbers of people cycling and a terrible provision of cycle paths and cycling infrastructure. There is much in literature now about building velotopia - a utopia for bikes - or cities in which cycling is given priority and in which citizens are encouraged to cycle. We could lead on that in Leinster House.
Unfortunately, we are in more of a motopia at present. It is the car that is given priority in far too many instances in the cities and towns around Ireland. Let us lead the way in creating a velotopia. I, again, wish everyone a happy national bike week. I look forward to a stronger and more positive endorsement of cycling within Leinster House as well as elsewhere.
I raise a serious matter regarding the housing crisis, which others have mentioned and which the Government is using all its resources to address. The building of many houses has now started. We would like to see that accelerated. One of the places where a lot of development will take place, because this is where most of the land available to us is, is in Fingal in north Dublin. It has thousands of acres zoned and is well positioned to accommodate this housing need. Planning permissions have been granted for badly needed houses, some of which are being built in the popular town of Skerries. We now have a situation, however, where people have paid up to €500,000 for a new house and find they have no reliable water supply, and I met some of the residents yesterday.There is regularly no water supply at all. It is a sick joke. I use the word "sick" because it is a real health risk. One gentleman is married to another public servant and they have a nice new home. He is delighted to have a future for himself, his wife and young family. They have four children, the youngest of whom is four weeks old. They have had no water supply for seven days in a new house. Another lady whom I have met is undergoing chemotherapy on a regular basis. She has to undergo it again tomorrow. There is also no running water in her house. If she gets an infection, we all understand the catastrophic consequences for her. Another lady without a water supply has a five year old and a three year old. Pensioners are expected to climb into their attics to check that their water tanks are filling. It is ludicrous.
Where is the planning by Irish Water? Does it not know where new houses are being planned or where permission has been granted? Can it not see new houses going up? These newer and many older estates in Skerries are badly affected by a very poor water supply or have no water supply at all. There have been 20 outages in the past 18 months, more than one day per month. In modern Ireland it is a regular occurrence not to have a water supply. New houses have burnt out pumps because people who are out working do not realise there is no water supply. Their homes are being damaged as a result. I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach to picture a situation where his son or daughter who has worked really hard to save to buy his or her new home in which he or she is living with a young family is sitting in it without a water supply. They cannot even provide the basics of modern life - clean water and a clean environment for their children in which to grow. Irish Water needs to pull up its socks. It is at a crossroads, but it can build a reputation like that of the ESB, of which we are so proud because it rarely lets us down and is admired internationally, or it can be like other organisations which I will not mention, the credibility of which is stretched daily in the public's mind. How will excellent builders who have stayed in business and are building new houses stay in business if they cannot even guarantee prospective customers a water supply in their new homes? This has ramifications across society.
I brought with me a picture of a resident shown in yesterday's edition of the Irish Independent. Is this modern Ireland - in 2018 having to carry water to one's home on one's head? That is totally unacceptable to the people. Will the Leader bring the Minister to the House to explain how he will ensure Irish Water is fit for purpose and outline the capital investment plan for the next three years? I call on Irish Water to address immediately the utterly unacceptable situation in Skerries where families have literally been left high and dry without a water supply for days on end. If it has to do so, let there be temporary local water reservoirs, as in the case of foul sewers, or let it upgrade the pumping system to provide water in all parts of Skerries.
-----including Rush, Loughshinny, Lusk and even Balbriggan. I ask for the Minister to be brought t the House to explain how he will ensure Irish Water is made fit for purpose. I say to Irish Water that it should not take a public outcry over many days and the media to get it to come to turn the water back on. If that is from where it is starting, the end is nigh for it.
I second Senator Rose Conway-Walsh's proposal that the Minister for Health be brought to the House, with particular reference to the report on valproate, a drug women were taking during pregnancy. It is important that the Minister explain the position because many women have been affected.
I need to raise an important issue that is being raised by many. We have all become involved in what I can only describe as the passport debacle. I have received hundreds of calls, letters and messages about problems encountered in obtaining passports. There are people who have to travel for emergencies who are run ragged in having to travel to Dublin from all corners of the country because there is no printer in Cork.To get a passport, someone must come to Dublin. Some people applied ten or 12 weeks ago, so it is not as if they are not applying in time. One woman applied on behalf of her entire family ten weeks ago ahead of their first ever trip abroad. Although their first-time applications were all sent together, she has only received two passports to date - one for her husband and the other for one of her twin sons. What procedure was followed to lead to such an outcome?
Why is the Passport Office telling people to apply in good time and use the passport express service only to smash its promise on return times? People are not getting their passports in time. There has been a spike in applications for various reasons, including a growing population, more disposable income and Brexit, but surely we planned for this when we asked the Passport Office to hire more staff for the peak season.
Like many Senators, I travel to Dublin with constituents every year to try to get them the passports to which they are entitled. This happens all year round, not just during the summer. Lately, Senators have been inundated because of the large backlog. I want the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to tell the House exactly why it can take up to 12 weeks, if not more, to get a passport. Is it that the office needs more staff or another printer?
I second Senator Bacik's comments on Dublin Honours Magdalenes. It was a fitting tribute to the ladies. I commend everyone involved, particularly the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, whose office facilitated the invitations.
For Senator Murnane O'Connor's information, if someone applies for a passport online, he or she can get it within seven days. My husband did that last week.
I welcome the Government's announcement last week of €4 billion for Project Ireland 2040. I was interested in how Members in this House and the Lower House called Project Ireland 2040 a glossy brochure with nothing behind it. The Government has put its money where its mouth is with this announcement. Of particular interest is the €2 billion for urban regeneration. For some time, I have been working on a proposal to revive the west side of Athlone for business and accommodation. My project fits perfectly with this scheme. There has been considerable development in Athlone, but parts of its west side have been left behind. Last week, I held a public meeting in Athlone at which I got fantastic support from businesses and residents.
Will the Leader ask the Minister to attend the House to discuss such projects, the details of which will be announced this month, and their timelines? It is important that people get behind them and that community-based regeneration projects work with county councils to acquire funding. The Minister could discuss with us the application criteria for grants and the timelines for applications.
I welcome Laura, June and Rob Cleeve from Canada. Laura is interning in Senator Richmond's office. I hope that they have a pleasant stay. They are welcome visitors to our country.
I welcome Senators back from their sojourns over the break and hope that they will have a productive term.I thank Members for their contributions to the Order of Business. I thank Members who raised the cervical cancer screening inquiry, the Scally inquiry. Can we put the matter in perspective? Let us try to not politicise this issue and make it a political football.
The Scally inquiry was established and it was always accepted that an interim report would be published. The report was published on time yesterday. Extra time has been given at the request of Dr. Scally. The fact that Dr. Scally asked for more time shows that this inquiry is a complex and detailed one that requires thorough investigation. It also underlines the value of the independent investigation. Yesterday, the Minister for Health accepted all six recommendations contained in the report.
Let me clarify a point for Senator Ardagh. The initial payment of €2,000 is not a bar on further payments. I agree with the Senator that any request for further information or for records must be dealt with as a matter of urgency and must be a priority. Those of us who have worked in hospitals and who know something about medical records know it is not about going into file or clicking a switch. It is much more detailed than that. I hope people understand that the interim report has been published. As the Taoiseach said in the House today and as the Minister for Health said, it is important we get all the information. To clarify further, the €2,000 payment will be on top of any redress payment. It is an immediate assistance payment and separate from the Government commitment to a redress payment.
It is important we look at Dr. Scally's first report and recognise that the provision of information to women is comparable with that available elsewhere and in some respects it is better. It is critical that we get all the information for the women and the families involved.
Senator Ardagh also raised the issue of housing. It was a bit unfair of her to say nothing is happening in that regard. She should be looking at what we are achieving. The Government has five basic housing goals, which are to supply more homes; to supply more social housing; to supply more affordable homes; to protect tenants and landlords; and to prevent and reduce homelessness. We all accept that we have a housing issue but the way forward is to increase the supply of housing.I ask Members to look at the EUROSTAT figures which show that one in three people in this country is living in an under-occupied dwelling. I think that is an interesting statistic. We will have a further debate on housing. Under Rebuilding Ireland, the Government is committed to a plan to construct a minimum of 25,000 houses. There has been an increase of 27% in planning permissions since 2016. There has been an increase of 27% in commencement notices since March 2017. ESB connections have increased by 30% in the last 12 months. The Central Bank has forecast that 23,000 new homes will be built this year and a further 27,000 will be built in 2019. Registrations increased by 41% in the 12 months from March 2017 to March 2018. Building regulation figures show that 2,367 houses were built in the first three months of this year, which represents an increase of 45% on the figure for the first quarter of 2017. The number of people employed in the construction industry has increased by 14%.
Notwithstanding some of the figures, I accept the point that Senator Boyhan has rightly made, which is that it could be time for an independent housing validation body. I would certainly support that. Such a body, like the CSO, would end the acrimony and political gamesmanship that surrounds these issues. I fully concur with Senator Ardagh that Eileen Gleeson's comments should be treated with absolute sincerity and seriousness.
I thank Senator Boyhan for his comments on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I welcome him and the Leas-Chathaoirleach back. He made an honourable request for statements on the marine spatial strategy. I am happy that such a debate is taking place this week. As the Senator said, we need to have more discussions on our marine life. We need to take full cognisance of it as an important element of our discussions.
I join Senator Conway-Walsh in welcoming the decision to bring an appeal in the case of the hooded men. I hope it will bring about a positive conclusion.
Senator Conway-Walsh also spoke about sodium valproate, which is an anti-convulsant drug. General practitioners and other doctors have been given advice on this drug. It is important for us to get answers in this regard.
I thank Senator Conway-Walsh for raising the issue of audiology services in the west. It is important for the 49 children and families who have been left in a vulnerable position to get answers in respect of this matter.
Senators Bacik and McFadden mentioned last week's Dublin Honours Magdalenes ceremony, which was a fitting tribute to the ladies in question. It was emotional to watch the ovation the women received outside the Mansion House. I thank everyone involved in the matter, including the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who expanded the redress scheme.
I join Senator Bacik in welcoming the clarification from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health in respect of the legislation that is being introduced on foot of last month's referendum on the eighth amendment.
I join Senators Bacik and Reilly in wishing every success to everyone who is participating in national bike week. As an important part of our new and modern Ireland, we need to look at how we can make our cities more user-friendly for pedestrians and cyclists. We need to do more work on this. I am aware that Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the National Transport Authority have been involved in creating cycle lanes across many cities. There is a need for such support to continue to be given. When the legislation comes before this House, I am sure we will not obfuscate or prolong the debate.
Senator Reilly raised the difficulties with the water supply to houses in Skerries. I join him in calling for greater planning between Irish Water and local authorities. He mentioned that there have been 20 water outages in a particular area, which is totally unacceptable. There is a need for ongoing negotiation and dialogue between Irish Water and the local authority in the Fingal area as a matter of urgency. I know the Senator attempted to raise this issue as a Commencement matter today. He might be successful on another day.
Senator Murnane O'Connor spoke about the Passport Office. I would be happy to give her the reply from the Minister today. I can tell her that in the first four months of this year, the number of applications received increased by 10% compared to the same period last year. This represented an increase of 25% on the equivalent figure for 2016. This is a sure sign that people are travelling, the recession is over and people are feeling more confident again. Notwithstanding that, I want to-----
Passports are very important and issues with them can affect people as they travel for work or leisure. The passport offices work flat out to ensure that applicants' needs are met. A total of 220 extra staff have been employed in the passport offices. There is an unprecedented demand for passports and the Passport Office has taken a number of initiatives to address it. The office has shown an ongoing commitment to innovation and reform. I commend the members of staff in the passport offices in Cork and Dublin who do Trojan work.
It is also important to recognise, as Senator McFadden outlined, that there is an online passport service. I used the service and received a passport card in a timely fashion. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Cork passport office where I filled in my information on a machine, sat down and took a number to wait. I was interviewed within half an hour, after which I filled out the necessary paperwork and received my passport in jig time. This was done for me without fuss after I walked in off the street.
While I accept that there are people who have difficulties with passports, we must commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the staff in his office on the work they do in ensuring people are facilitated when emergencies arise and they need to travel for medical or humanitarian reasons. It is unacceptable for a Senator to engage in grandstanding on this issue.
The backlog in processing passports is being addressed. I reiterate for the Senator, who perhaps does not want to hear good news, that 220 extra staff are employed in the passport offices. It is important to recognise that demand for passports is increasing. The number of passport applications received in the first four months of 2018 was 10% higher than in the same period last year and 25% higher than in the same period two years ago. I accept that we need to do more but let us not play politics with the issue. A great deal of work is being done.
Senator Gabrielle McFadden raised the important issue of Project Ireland 2040 and the €4 billion funding commitment. This is a sign of the Government's ongoing commitment to the revitalisation of the State.
I thank Members for their contributions. As the summer recess approaches, I look forward to five productive weeks in the Houses. Much work remains to be done and there will be some late nights. I thank Members and staff and look forward to everyone's co-operation during the next five weeks.