Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the tenth report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Appropriation Bill 2018 [Certified Money Bill] - all Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, with the contributions of group spokesperson on Second Stage not to exceed six minutes, all other Senators not to exceed four minutes and the Minister to be given no less than four minutes to reply, and Committee and remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; No. 3, motion regarding the earlier signature of the Appropriation Bill 2018, without debate, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2; No. 4, Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2018 - all Stages, to be taken on conclusion of No. 3, with the contribution of group spokespersons on the Second Stage debate not to exceed six minutes, all other Senators not to exceed four minutes and the Minister to be given no less than four minutes to reply and Committee and remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; No. 5, motion regarding the earlier signature of the European Investment Fund Agreement Bill 2018 to be taken on the conclusion of No. 4, without debate; No. 6, Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 - Committee Stage, resumed, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 5, whichever is later, and to be adjourned at 5.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 7, Private Members' business, Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours; No. 82, motion 13, all-party motion regarding the conflict in Yemen, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 7 and to conclude after 40 minutes, with the contribution of group spokespersons, who may share their time, not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than four minutes to close the debate; and No. 8, Local Government Bill 2018 - Committee and remaining Stages to be taken on the conclusion of No. 82, motion 13.
I want to raise an issue that is very sensitive but it is one that should be raised. I would like the Minister for Health to come to the Seanad for a debate on the very difficult topic of concealed pregnancies and births. I raise this in light of the very tragic case in Balbriggan over the weekend. As legislators, we should discuss this in a sensitive but determined fashion. Concealed births and pregnancies echo back to a distant, dark time in our history, but it is not in the past, it is happening today and to a certain cohort of women who feel they cannot disclose that they are pregnant and do not get the correct medical treatment they need. They are in every community across the country. This is something we need to discuss.
Concealed pregnancies can lead to tragic outcomes for the mother herself and her baby. Data are not properly collected and that is the first starting point. We need to have a very clear picture of what is happening and then we can work out why it is happening and what proper supports can be put in place. That is the reason I would like the Minister to come to the Seanad for a coherent and substantial debate on this topic because the issue must be tackled. There is a tendency to not discuss such matters because of their sensitivity, but it is incumbent on us as legislators and as policy makers to have the discussion once and for all.
In the past year there have been four infant deaths linked to concealed pregnancies, and that is just what has been reported in the media. As the data are not collected properly we do not know what is happening and we do not have a clear picture. The issue must be examined from an interdisciplinary perspective to develop clear care pathways for women. We must end the stigmatisation of women who conceal pregnancy and birth. The media play a very strong role in the changing of the narrative regarding concealed pregnancies and births. Very clear options need to be presented to women. From studies that have been done in this regard the issue of adoption came up. We are not providing information or even suggesting adoption as an option for women. Many of the women who were interviewed said they would like to get some information in that regard. We must also decriminalise the concealment of pregnancies. A couple of years ago an Irish girl in Australia was charged with concealing her pregnancy, which ended in a stillbirth. Criminalisation leads to a chilling effect on women who are already in a very difficult position. Concealment must be decriminalised immediately.
The only recent study that has been done in this country on concealed births is the case study that has been conducted by Dr. Sylvia Murphy Tighe from the University of Limerick and Professor Joan Lalor from Trinity College, Dublin. The study concluded that nearly all of the women had a deep emotional trauma from childhood, or through adulthood, and that led to them concealing their pregnancy. I would like the Minister to come to the House so we can have a debate on this topic. As Members can imagine, it is a very live issue in north County Dublin at the moment and we want it to be discussed. The Minister has made great strides in women's healthcare but this is a very important piece of the jigsaw and I would appreciate if he could come to the House for a debate on the topic.
Regrettably, the British Prime Minister has decided to play a sort of brinksmanship game. We read this morning that troops have been mobilised to prepare for a hard Brexit. Earlier this week, Brigadier General Ger Aherne retired and he gave a detailed interview to Seán O'Rourke on Radio One, with respect to the lack of preparedness in Ireland regarding to the management of a border. He referred in particular to the failures of the White Paper, insofar as it has redistributed the majority of troops in a line south of Dublin and Galway, with two battalions left north of that. Ireland is not ready to man a border and the Defence Forces have now identified a further 100 crossings along the Border.
The time has come for us to show our hand. The risk of a border is something nobody on this island wants, and we are constantly told by the British Government that it does not want a border. We are also told that the people in the North of Ireland do not want a border. However, I read this morning that one of the peers from the North of Ireland, Lord Kilclooney, says this is going to be bonanza time for the UK – the pound is going to fall, exports will rise and everything will be hunky-dory. It is time for truth on Brexit. I believe that while we are putting contingency plans in place for customs officials, we have failed to examine, at least in the open, how we are going to manage a border. There is no way that we can have an open border in a hard Brexit situation. It is going to be extremely difficult to have an open border in a soft Brexit. We must address that issue as a matter of urgency. I would like to hear some utterances from the Government with respect to whether it has war gamed the management of troops being moved to a Border area.
We are about to enter what we might call the winter of discontent from the public service. Nurses have voted for strike action and two of the teachers' unions are totally opposed to the current pay conditions. There are so many demands on the public purse, between health and education and all of the other services that are given by the State, and I do not know how they are going to be met.
The one thing we need to do is engage now before we finish up with patients in hospitals with no nurses to look after them. We heard of 35 nurses this week who could not get a working visa. That is outrageous in the current environment. The Minister must bring in the unions and find out how we can move forward. The pay deal has not worked. It has been rejected by the majority of the key front-line services. We will have to bring in the unions early in January before we finish up with services being ground to a halt as a result of industrial action. I urge the Leader to get the Minister to come to the House as early as possible in January to discuss the matter.
I can hardly believe that I am standing here to say this today. It relates to the junior bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank who were given the full value of their bonds from the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, to the value of €270 million. Those are the banks that we have already paid €35 billion, between Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide. People right across the State have paid that money. The payments are not alone made by the current population but those who will be born in the future, and they will have to pay it for many years to come. That is completely unacceptable.
We were told time and again, including by my own county man, Deputy Enda Kenny, and by Deputy Burton, that it would never happen, that junior bondholders would not be paid, yet now we see they are being paid. The problem I have is that the Government has clearly not explored all of the legal options available to it to stop the payments being made. The junior bondholders are gamblers, speculators and hedge funds. It is very clear to me that they are being put before the interests of citizens, the people who need the money most. There is a pattern here in terms of the priority that is given to banks, bondholders and the elite of this country, who are running the country. I am not sure what the Government is doing.Last week an executive of Irish Nationwide Building Society was given a measly penalty for reckless lending. It is unbelievable and unacceptable. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, said last week that it was a highlight in that the final dividend payment was being paid and it far exceeded his expectations. It beggars belief if that is an indication of his expectations for the ordinary citizens of this country. In the meantime, we have children who are waiting on a political decision by the Government. I will cite only one group of children. A small number of children are waiting for the drug, Spinraza, which would cost a fraction of that amount, yet the Government is dragging its heels and will not make the political decision to grant the funding for the drug so that those children have a chance to survive and have a normal quality of life. The Minister did not even answer the letter that was sent by one of the children, probably the last letter that child will be able to write, because Spinraza is being refused to her. He sent back the photographs. He would not even respond to the letter, and yet we jump as high as we have to jump in terms of the junior bondholders, the speculators and the gamblers who have collectively ruined this country and been have and continue to be facilitated by the Government.
I thank all colleagues who contributed to the special debate on Thursday to mark the centenary of women's suffrage and note the contribution of the Vótáil 100 programme in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Now that the exhibition has been taken down from the Seanad anteroom I again thank all those who worked so hard to make the Vótáil 100 programme such a success, including you, a Chathaoirligh, and the Ceann Comhairle who provided the resources necessary for the programme. I refer in particular to the great work done by the communications unit under Derek Dignam, Liam O'Brien and others who worked so hard all through the year on the programme. It was a model in terms of collaboration between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the other national cultural institutions, notably the National Museum, the National Gallery and the National Library. We are still getting so many requests from around the country for the Vótáil 100 badges and to tell them more about the programme of events that we ran. I thank everyone involved, in particular my colleagues in this House and in the other House who were on the committee with me, including Senators McFadden, Conway-Walsh and Higgins. I just wanted to note that again.
I echo Senator Clifford-Lee's words on the need for a debate on the very sad incident of concealed pregnancy and concealed birth highlighted in a recent case. Tragically, it is something that happens from time to time. As Senator Clifford-Lee said, it has echoes of the past. In particular for those of us of a certain age there are echoes of the tragic Ann Lovett case. I also echo Senator Clifford-Lee's words about the need for more research. I am familiar with the work done by my colleague, Professor Joan Lalor, in Trinity College and Sylvia Murphy Tighe, but there is very little research beyond what they have done on the incidence of concealed pregnancy and birth. It requires significant resources to do such research and it would be well worth having a debate and putting it to the Minister for Health that we need to hear more and to learn more about the incidence of concealed pregnancy and birth and the causal factors and especially how we can prevent it happening, and reach out to the women and girls involved.
I also ask the Leader for a debate in the new year on Brexit. As others said, we are seeing a period of brinksmanship. The hope of a managed withdrawal seems to be receding. For many of us, the need for a second referendum, which one would hope would produce a different result, becomes much more pressing with every new day and every new incidence of chaos in the British Government, and among the MPs in Westminster. I know we have had a number of debates on Brexit but we it would be worth getting an update early in the new year when we return to hear what are the plans are here. Senator Craughwell has asked what are the contingency plans in the appalling event of a no-deal Brexit.
I wish all well for Christmas and the new year.
Last year RTÉ reported a loss of €6.4 million, despite a subvention from the State in the form of licence fees of €186 million. Given that level of loss it was a source of great disappointment to me to hear last week of the large salaries paid to top earners in the State broadcaster. For example, one of them received a pay rise of €50,000 to give him a total income of €150,000 per annum, at a time when inflation is negligible. At that rate, the broadcaster in question will have earned the average industrial wage by the end of January. One should not get me wrong: I am not picking on just one in particular, I believe all of the salaries of the top earners in RTÉ are excessive. My point is not about one individual. I question the approach to salaries in general at the State broadcaster. The level of salaries seem too high and such significant increases seem unwarranted.
The treatment of some of the top earners in RTÉ seems very much at variance to the treatment of Martina Fitzgerald the previous week. From my experience, she is a consummate professional. I was shocked and disappointed to hear that her contract as a political correspondent was not renewed. The only reason I can think of for the non-renewal of her contract is the fact that she shone a light on the gender pay gap in RTÉ. It is hard for me to reconcile how management in RTÉ is that sensitive to criticism and at the same time can award pay increases to individuals that are more than the average industrial wage. That is not to mention the 160 odd workers at RTÉ who may have been misclassified as self employed, resulting in them losing out on certain employment benefits. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House in the new year, first, so that we can hear his opinion, and, second, perhaps we could have a debate on same.
I was contacted last week by constituents concerning a report that there may be a shortage of allocations of special education teachers next year. A new allocation system was introduced in 2017, which allocated special education staff based on factors such as number of students, the number of children with complex needs, standardised test results, gender spread and if there was disadvantaged status. The new allocation system was intended to replace the old allocation which provided for staff for children with common difficulties, but if a child had a disability or complex educational needs the school would only receive extra teaching hours following a professional assessment. The new system brought in an extra 900 special teachers last year and it was intended to provide a further 100 this year. The Minister must come to the House to clarify that the increase will remain in place for the next two-year cycle and that there will be no further cuts to the number of special education teachers. That is crucial.
Another issue brought to my attention is that schools should be given plenty of notice of allocations in order to sort clustering arrangements. The need for more notice was a big issue last year. School enrolments are at a peak of more than 500,000 in primary schools and the numbers are increasing at second level at a rapid rate. I would like the Minister to address this House and reassure parents that they will not have to fight again for teaching posts they already fought for.
Previous speakers referred to the need to support nurses. We must support them, and we must also be supportive of teachers, paramedics, gardaí and front-line staff. That will be a very big issue next year. We in the Seanad and Deputies must support those who provide front-line services.
I will not go into the Local Government Bill 2018 at this stage because we will have time tonight. The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, made a good and positive suggestion last night, that we would have an all-day session in the Seanad on the role of local government with an emphasis on elected mayors, I presume executive elected mayors. I am aware the Leader was present for most of the debate, including that part of it. Would the Leader consider timetabling such a debate at some stage in January? It was a good suggestion from the Minister of State and he is committed to it. It would be a very good opportunity for the House to discuss this complex issue of devolved powers.
I thank the Government and acknowledge that the Planning Regulator, as set out and envisaged under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018, was formally announced.An official from the Department is taking the job and I acknowledge the Government's commitment to driving this with a very fast timeline. This Bill was only enacted very recently and, after a competitive interview process, there has now been the announcement of the appointment of a new planning regulator. It is welcome and the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, rather than the Seanad, should invite the new director to appear. I acknowledge the speed and efficiency in setting out the interview process and independently determining a suitable and capable candidate.
I wish to raise concerns over something that occurred yesterday. I was at a committee where there was a vote and three Senators voted, meaning it was a tied vote and the proposal to accept a report was lost. A Dáil Deputy implied that the vote was not valid because three Senators had voted and Senators are not directly elected. There is a Constitution and the joint committees consist of both Deputies and Senators so I was really taken aback at a comment such as that being made when a decision was democratically taken. When Dáil Deputies make remarks like that it is not welcome and people who are on joint committees should accept that Senators have the same rights as Dáil Deputies.
As the decision did not go the way of the committee member in question, there was a remark about it. We had this in the case of the Sláintecare report, from which Senators were excluded. This is wrong and unfair.
My understanding is that the cost overrun for the new national children's hospital will be €1.433 billion, which is an increase of €450 million. This is something we should have a debate on in the new year. In the Joint Committee on Health this morning, we decided to ask the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department of Health and representatives on the board of the national children's hospital to appear before us for clarification on this new cost increase. It is important there is full accountability to the taxpayers of this country and it would also be helpful to discuss the matter in this House.
I welcome the fact we will be debating Yemen later this evening and I thank the Leader for providing time for the debate. I acknowledge the work of Senator Alice-Mary Higgins in getting it lined up. It will be very worthwhile.
I ask for a debate in the new year on the broader issue of foreign affairs. I wish to ask where our independent voice is as a country because, under this Government, it seems to have disappeared. I will cite a few examples of this. We expelled two Russian diplomats earlier this year, on the say-so of MI6 because there was no evidence at the time. I contrast that with our response to Saudi Arabia after the horrific killing of Jamal Khashoggi, when we did absolutely nothing. There are 52 people employed by the Saudi Arabian Embassy here, the same number as in the British Embassy. One can expect such a figure for staff in the UK Embassy but what are the 52 Saudi diplomats actually doing here? It is astounding that there are so many staff employed here.
The second example is Palestine, in respect of which the continual refusal of the Government to apply the decision of the Dáil to recognise the State of Palestine is hugely disappointing, as is the refusal to get on board with Senator Black's Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill. It seems we are not prepared to do anything that might upset the American Administration or the US chamber of commerce.
The third example is PESCO. We know from Médecins sans Frontières that 14,000 migrants have been driven back to Libya this year. That is against international law and against a promise made by the European Union not to allow them to be driven back to be sold as slaves, tortured, raped and mutilated. There has been no comment from the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this.
The final example is the air strikes on Syria, which we were happy to go along with because we "understood" them. We are supposed to be an independent country with an independent foreign policy. That has vanished under this Government and that is why I am calling for a debate in the new year.
In joint committees, Senators have the same status as Deputies. I do not want to know which Deputy raised the objection but he or she should be reminded that the people of this country had a referendum on whether to retain the Seanad, which was passed three or four years ago.
An issue I have been chasing for many months is how we deal with Irish Water. In my part of the world, a water main has broken 18 times in the past 14 months. There was a gate valve so that the village, Ballinhassig, could be fed from both sides. Irish Water has announced that it will look at the issue but it must do a cost-benefit analysis of putting in another gate valve. It involves half a day's work for two men in a place where there are two pubs, one restaurant and a childcare centre. I would love to know if Irish Water has done a cost-benefit analysis of the cost of trade to this village over the past 14 months or looked at the number of times staff and kids have been sent home. The bureaucratic face of Irish Water needs to be looked at. We got an email in our office at 8 a.m. today telling us it was going to put a gate valve in, but only after a cost-benefit analysis. Nobody has looked at how this village has suffered in the past year and we need to have a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for local government to ask him who is doing a cost-benefit analysis on Irish Water. People deserve better service and this is an issue the Minister has to look at with a view to getting better representation on the ground.
Over the past year, problems relating to poorly-built apartments during the boom have been raised on the Order of Business and in Commencement matters but we have no holistic approach to the issue. Only recently, residents from the Beacon South Quarter protested outside the Dáil because they are being asked to raise €50,000 to €60,000 per household to fix the problems resulting from the lack of regulation and the lack of inspections during the building boom. Many decisions were made by past Governments to lower standards and these people are suffering from the fallout from that. In an apartment block in Dublin 8, residents are being asked for up to €28,000 per unit to fix fire issues. We need a holistic approach to this and to get a solution, even if it is just in the form of low-interest loans for residents to deal with these issues. The Housing Finance Agency lends at 1% and the residents should have access to that to fix the problems of the past. They do not see the recovery because they have such enormous bills to get their homes back into a position where they can live safely. I ask for a debate, not on individual complexes but on how we can resolve this issue.
I campaigned long and hard on short-term lettings and I thought we had a solution when the Minister announced we would have legislation by Christmas, to be implemented in June, to control short-term lettings.We have not seen that legislation. I was on several websites yesterday and saw units which are now back up and taking bookings for all of next summer. It appears the platforms themselves no longer believe there will be legislation and regulation and are taking holiday bookings all the way through next summer. We need clarity on this but I hoped we would have had it before Christmas. We were promised clarity before Christmas but we are still waiting for it. We have had the spin in the media but we have not seen the draft legislation.
I was astounded to hear what Senator Colm Burke said about the joint committee. It should be remembered that a joint committee cannot meet unless it has a quorum which includes at least one Senator. It could only be ignorance for any Deputy to raise an issue in the fashion described.
I support Senator Lombard's request for a debate in the House in the new year on Irish Water. The time is right to have a debate on the company's progress and how it is functioning. Are there efficiencies to be made and can more be done? What is the company doing on the ground to extend group water schemes and sewerage and water facilities in small and medium-sized towns? There is then, of course, the issue of the proposal to bring water from the River Shannon to Dublin. We could have a worthwhile debate on all that in the new year. It is a number of years since water services were separated from local authorities and it would be useful to see how Irish Water is progressing. I ask the Leader to arrange an early debate on the issue in the new year.
I join in the expressions of goodwill to the Cathaoirleach, staff and Members and express my sincere condolences to our Clerk, Mr. Martin Groves. I was not present yesterday to do so. I thank the Clerk, Mr. Groves, the Clerk Assistant, Ms Bridget Doody, the staff and the ushers for their kindness during the year.
I listened to the contributions of Senators. I also attended the joint committee meeting referred to as a substitute for another member. I was shocked to hear a certain Deputy insinuate that Senators had no right to attend or vote. We were too shocked to comment on the spot. The matterh should be taken up at whatever forum the Cathaoirleach or the Leader considers appropriate. I regard it as a serious attitude for a Deputy to express that in some way we are an inferior species here and that the Constitution and Seanad stand for nothing.
Yes. I come late to the case in Roscommon as I was not in the Chamber yesterday. I join Members who have condemned utterly the lawless behaviour of a bunch of vigilantes who acted in a paramilitary way to inflict serious injuries on other persons. Thank God, there was no loss of life, but it is nevertheless one of the most serious incidents of lawlessness in this country. Even though there was no loss of life, one is very much reminded of the atrocities that were part of our everyday lives when the provisionals were carrying out their outrageous campaign in the North. There are strong undertones of paramilitary organisation going on here at a time of significant difficulty in the relationship between these two islands and between North and South in the context of Brexit. I appeal to all parties to tone down their rhetoric, albeit in the spirit of Christmas, I will not mention a particular party. Law and order is important to people and parties in Dáil and Seanad Éireann have an obligation to support the forces of law and order and condemn outright the actions of illegal paramilitary persons. There is no place for balaclavas on any side of this debate whether they are worn by people protecting property or by people attacking life and property. I will not repeat what the Taoiseach said yesterday, but he spoke for every right-thinking person in Ireland when he said it.
I thank the 13 Members for their contributions on the Order of Business. I begin by agreeing wholeheartedly with Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee on her fine contribution as well as with Senator Bacik. The story of baby Belle in Balbriggan is one we have all been upset and moved by. I listened yesterday morning to members of An Garda Síochána making an appeal to the mother of the little baby who was stillborn to come forward. She is not being regarded from a criminal perspective; rather gardaí are concerned for her welfare. We all share the view expressed this morning in the House that one infant death is too many but, as Senator Clifford-Lee said, there have been four this year alone.
That we know of, yes. I agree. The Senator referred to a study. There is also a PhD thesis by Dr. Murphy Tighe which speaks to issues around psychology. There is a major need to have that debate, not least because it may help women to realise they are not on their own and to offer them support. It is also about looking after the health and welfare of that young mother today. I will be happy to have that debate because the Senator is correct that there must be clear and direct pathways to care. I commend her for raising the matter and hope all of us can assist and be there through our work for some mother this morning, or for anybody.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of Brexit. The point he makes is one about which we need to be careful. The Government has been engaged in contingency planning and preparation and it is working with the other 26 member states involved to ensure there is a publication from the Commission this week. We will make an update available to the House before the Christmas recess if we can. The Government is preparing for all eventualities and contingency planning for Brexit is ongoing in all Departments, as it has been for more than a year. The Government has mandated all Departments to give the highest priority to plans for a no-deal or disorderly Brexit. It is somewhat premature to be talking of members of the Defence Forces on the Border. We all agree that there should be no return to a hard border and we all want to see a deal struck and agreed. The British Prime Minister has her own difficulties but the priority for our Government is that we will have the deal enacted as agreed and continue to ensure there is no hard border on our island. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House early in the new year for a debate on Brexit.
Senator Craughwell referred also to the decision of the INMO and looking after our public sector workers, as did Senator Murnane O'Connor. It is a bit rich to listen for her to talk about looking after front-line staff when it was her party in government that decimated the lives, incomes and supports of nurses.
The recovery is happening. More people are back at work, income levels are up and poverty is down. Will I keep going for Senator Murnane O'Connor? This is a better Government and a better country than it was the way Fianna Fáil left it in 2007.
If Senator Murnane O'Connor keeps interrupting, I will suspend the House for half an hour. She might not be here at 11 p.m., but others will. The Senator put a question to the Leader and I gave her ample time to do so. I ask her to allow the Leader to respond. If she is not happy with the response, she can raise the matter again tomorrow.
I know it is upsetting for some Senators that the Government is doing a good job and that income levels have risen. I urge Senators to look at the CSO survey on income and living conditions which contains the facts. It does not contain fake news but facts. It does not contain the spin from the fifth floor of Leinster House 2000 but real facts.
During our time in opposition, we were on the fifth floor.
I wish to return to the important point Senator Craughwell made. He suggested that we are facing a winter of discontent, which is disappointing. There is a public sector pay mechanism in place to allow for discussion and the hammering out of deals, etc. It is disappointing that we now have a plethora of unions coming forward with more demands. While that is their right, we must balance expectation against reality in terms of what we can afford. I hope that there will be no strikes. It is important to understand that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is committed, along with the rest of the Government, to reaching with the various unions an overall public service stability agreement that will serve us well. We all know what happened in the past when we did not have collective bargaining. It is important that we continue with this model into the future.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to bondholders. It is important to point out that the State has benefited to the tune of €1.2 billion. That money will be used to improve our Exchequer borrowing requirement, thus reducing our level of debt. This debt reduction will mean that more money will be available for services and for prescription drugs, which were also mentioned. While I understand where the Senator is coming from, I must also point out that the Attorney General advised the Government that not paying the subordinate bondholders would not stand up to constitutional challenge. The Government must listen to the advice of the Attorney General, as the Senator knows. It is important to recognise that the Government has done a good job in term of managing all of the elements involved and getting money back for the State, which it is now using to benefit the people.
On behalf of the House, I congratulate Senator Bacik for her work on the committee that was involved in the Vótáil 100 commemorations. The display in the anteroom, the debate we had here last week and the ongoing series of debates and engagements in respect of Vótáil 100 are testimony to the importance of the Oireachtas and a tribute to the leadership of all Members of the House, particularly Senator Bacik. I thank all Members who worked on this, as well as staff of the communications unit and the Houses of the Oireachtas. They made a tremendous contribution. Senator Bacik specifically mentioned Mr. Derek Dignam. I would also like to thank him for his work. Congratulations again to all involved.
I am happy to organise a debate on Brexit in the new year and a motion will go before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges today regarding the Brexit committee. Senator McFadden referred to the losses incurred by RTÉ, the national broadcaster, and the inordinately high salaries being paid to some who work for the organisation. It beggars belief when one sees some of the salaries involved. I know that people work hard in RTÉ but some of the salaries being paid are incredible. While I am on the subject of RTÉ, I wish to congratulate Ms Martina Fitzgerald on her work as a political editor. I do not want to get involved in the internal machinations in RTÉ but her departure is disappointing for those of us who have got to know Ms Fitzgerald on a professional and personal level. Every day she brings balance, insight and fairness to her job. We will all miss her. I want to thank her for her work and express the hope that RTÉ will reconsider its decision. I do not want to get involved in the internal appointments procedure in the organisation but do want to thank Ms Fitzgerald and wish her continued success in her career.
Senator Murnane O'Connor referred to special needs education. A new assessment model has been introduced and each school is given an allocation based on its size, the profile of students and so on. Furthermore, under the review of the special needs assistant scheme, there are now 15,000 special needs assistants working in our education system, which is an increase of 42% since 2011. I agree with the Senator that the entire special needs education model must be reviewed, including resource allocation, transport services, access to speech and language and occupational therapies and so on. It is frustrating for everyone that there are young boys and girls in school who do not have the resources they need. That beggars belief, particularly when one considers that we have increased the budget for education substantially. There have been significant changes in our education system in recent years but the Senator's point is both valid and well made.
Senator Boyhan referred to the Local Government Bill. It is my intention to have a debate on local government in the new year, specifically on the issue of directly elected mayors. Senator Boyhan will be glad to hear that we were in contact with the Minister's office this morning to arrange such a debate for the end of January. I acknowledge Senator Boyhan's remarks on the planning and development regulator.
Senators Colm Burke, Lombard, Paddy Burke and Ned O'Sullivan raised the important issue of the role of Members of the Upper House in the committee system of the Oireachtas. I wish to express my disappointment at the lack of understanding and the downright ignorance displayed by a Member of the Lower House yesterday. The Cathaoirleach will not allow me to name the individual Deputy but it is disappointing that a Member of the Oireachtas should behave in that way simply because a Bill proposed by that Member did not get through. As the Cathaoirleach has pointed out, we are required under the Constitution to be part of the Oireachtas. A joint committee cannot sit unless at least one Senator is present. We have the right to vote and to contribute at committee meetings. Many Members of this House have made excellent contributions at committee-----
Irrespective of political ideology, we should stand up for one another in this House. It was also disappointing that Members of the Seanad were not involved in the committee that drew up the Sláintecare report. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill will come before the House this afternoon and I hope that Members here will speak about the need for us, as members of the Upper House and as public representatives, to be given a fair and equitable hearing, adequate resources and appropriate responsibilities. I will come back to that issue when we are discussing the aforementioned Bill because some of the carry on is less than helpful and is unacceptable.
We had a discussion on the national children's hospital during yesterday's Order of Business. The cost is of concern. It is disappointing to hear that the projected cost of the hospital has increased by approximately €400 million, which may have an impact on other projects.
Senator Gavan's interpretation of the Government's foreign policy is a bit like the voodoo economics of Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin's one dimensional view of the world order is, at times, incomprehensible. I must say that with the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Cannon and McEntee, we have a very fine team in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who are playing a significant role across the world in promoting peace, reconciliation and human rights through a multiplicity of programmes and services. We are also well served by our diplomats around the world. The Government's view of foreign policy is totally at variance with that of Senator Gavan.Our reputation is not as diminished as the Senator suggested this morning. I would be happy to have that debate in the new year.
Senators Lombard and Paddy Burke raised the issue of Irish Water. I am familiar with the issue in Ballinhassig. For those who are not from Cork, Ballinhassig is an important community, which has been bedevilled over the supply of water. It requires an intervention by Irish Water. I am not as proficient in engineering as Senator Lombard, but the matter could be resolved quickly. I would be happy to have that debate in the new year. Irish Water is there to serve the customer and community as well as being an entity looking after other parts of Government's business.
Senator Humphreys spoke about planning for apartments. I agree with him that none of us wants to go back to having the kinds of issues in Priory Hall. Last year, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, published the guidelines for apartments. Apartment and multi-unit living is becoming increasingly popular. We all want stable urban housing with designs that are fit for the 21st century and not in any way like Priory Hall. I hope we will have that debate in the new year. I would also be happy to have a debate on short-term lets.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan raised the Roscommon case, which we discussed on the Order of Business yesterday. It is important to recognise there are two sides to the story. We can never condone thuggery or violence in any shape or form. As he said, we are lucky that nobody was killed in the incident. Yesterday, the Taoiseach made the point that it was on foot of a court order. As I said yesterday, it needs engagement by all sides to bring resolution to the matter. None of us wants people to be evicted or to lose their family home or property.
I thank Members for their contributions. I look forward to the debates over the rest of the day.