Thursday, 31 January 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I thank the Leader for outlining the Order of Business today. Regarding the nurses strike yesterday, another three days of overtime bans are planned for 5, 6 and 7 February and further strikes from 12 February if there is no resolution. Will the Leader update us on what progress has been made and what is happening? I understand the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, will have to look at all requests for money. Perhaps a way to look at this would be to examine the pay and conditions of nurses here vis-à-visother countries where some of our graduates may be going. I understand that time served abroad is not recognised when people come back here and that certain qualifications that nurses are paid for abroad are not paid for here.
Without reopening the entire public pay process, perhaps there might be clever ways of looking at the system in place and the allowances that nurses get. There might be a way of improving their terms and conditions without reopening the whole public sector pay process. I am conscious that the four funerals will take place in Donegal today. I again pass on my condolences and sympathies to all of the people in Donegal, the families of the victims, their friends, their colleagues and their neighbours. It is a really sad and awful occasion. The loss of any life is terrible but particularly the loss of young lives. I remember the people of Donegal this morning and especially those in Gweedore, Gortahork and Falcarragh.
I know that over the next weeks, months or however long it takes, time for the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill will be allotted until it is completed but every day or every week we need a specific headed item on Brexit. Yesterday, a German Minister outlined that the German economy will grow at its slowest rate for many years. It is predicted it will be 1%. The Minister stated the impact of Brexit will affect not only the UK and Ireland, which it obviously will, but also many other countries in the EU. I appreciate all the work the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, are doing and the whole-of-Government approach but the House needs regular updates from the Minister, the Minister of State and others on the preparedness for whatever will happen. I appreciate this is difficult in terms of not knowing what to plan for but the House requires regular updates.
I remember in particular the people in Donegal today.
I have been silent on that issue but as Cathaoirleach, I would like to convey my sympathies and condolences to the families in Donegal on the appalling tragedy that happened. It must be a very sad and difficult day for many families and the community in north-west Donegal as a whole. I add my voice to the expressions of sympathy made by many Senators in recent days.
I thank the Leader for the copy of the Order of Business we received this morning. Last Tuesday night, for those who do not know, the 64th annual general meeting of the Irish Farmers Association took place. The Taoiseach turned up and was received well, despite some commentary afterwards in the media. I echo what Senator Horkan has said. Over the coming weeks, if possible, we should have a number of debates that deal with sections of Brexit because the subject is so big and vast. Brexit is the greatest political challenge of our time. I particularly want to talk about agriculture. It is a time for cool heads and steely determination and I wish the Taoiseach well. I also compliment Senator Richmond, who chairs the Seanad committee on Brexit, on his very professional performances, particularly on British television. I have also seen him in other media. It is something the House can be proud of that a Senator is articulating a view and there is consistency in the Irish Government's approach. This is important.
Irish farmers want unfettered and continued access to what effectively is 90% of their market in the UK. We need to develop new markets in Asia, China and throughout the world for beef, fish, horticulture and food. We need to address this and that is one of the modules I will suggest for our debates. The Leader plans to bring the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House to make statements and that will be important.
The IFA president, Joe Healy, stated it was important to keep pressure on London and that unless the UK adjusted its red lines and came forward with something better the backstop would remain. I am firmly of the view the backstop should remain regardless and I believe that is the Government's approach. Mr. Healy stated Irish farmers had suffered savage cuts and will continue to do so if there is a break away from Britain and that is clearly inevitable at this stage. We need to look at CAP reform because it will be very important. I call for a Brexit debate specifically on agriculture, horticulture and fisheries.
Yesterday, we had very good engagement with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on housing. He indicated to the House he did not have sufficient time to answer the questions he was asked. He also indicated to the House he would be keen to return. I hope that can be facilitated in the short term. It was a good engaging debate, and the Minister acknowledged this, but we did not have enough time. I ask for a slot at some stage in the very near future to facilitate the Minister so he can continue his response to Senators. It would not be to reopen the debate but to facilitate the Minister, as he did not have an opportunity to respond to a number of questions. It was a good and meaningful debate and I thank the Leader for organising it.
I send our thoughts and prayers to the families of Mícheal Roarty, John Harley, Shaun Harkin and Daniel Scott today for the unimaginable grief they are going through, as are their friends, wider families and all of the people of Donegal.
I want to raise the issue of pension entitlements for community employment supervisors. This issue has been raised previously and a motion calling on the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to take a personal interest in the issue was passed by the Dáil last April. It is more than ten years since the Labour Court ruled in favour of community employment supervisors regarding their pension entitlements. That recommendation was very clear. It ordered that an agreed pension scheme should be put in place for community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors. It is ironic that yesterday the Minister for Health was calling on nurses to go back to the Labour Court but the Government ignores recommendations that it does not like. The fact that the Government thus far has ignored the recommendation of the Labour Court and a motion of the Oireachtas tells us a lot about its attitude to the community employment scheme.
The Department has lost sight of the community employment scheme's original purpose and wants to hive it off to JobPath and Tús and not have it on the books any longer. This pensions issue is directly related to that agenda. I know of many schemes where the workers have given long years of service and have reached the end of the road on this issue. Many of these workers are loyal to their communities and have spurned other employment opportunities themselves to continue to contribute positively to their communities. They are an absolutely essential and integral part of communities the length and breadth of the State, not only because of the work they do but because of the leverage they provide to activate other initiatives and the social and economic benefits to communities.
Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to tell us how he can continue to ignore the Labour Court ruling and the successful Dáil motion to provide community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors with their pension entitlements? This cannot go on any longer. I commend the work of SIPTU and Fórsa on this issue but we have run out of road. This is an economic injustice for community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors who can no longer continue. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to come into the House next week to deal with this issue once and for all.
I echo the sympathies to the families in Donegal on the very sad occasion of the deaths of the four young men. It is very difficult for the families and community. I certainly wish them the very best.
I echo the request that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, return to the House to discuss housing. He indicated yesterday that he would like an opportunity to return and answer the questions in full. Time was quite limited by the time it came to the Minister's response. I recognise he was quite willing to engage. In particular, he did not get an opportunity to respond to the issue I highlighted on the build-to-rent trend and the impact it is having on the Dublin market. Research has identified that it will soon have a huge impact in Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway. Approximately €5 billion is available for investment in build to rent. It is important that we have a group of professional landlords who make available housing stock to rent but we must also be cautious of the impact it will have on the market as far as the ability of young people to purchase a home is concerned. Yesterday, I pointed out to the Minister that in Dublin in the third quarter of 2018 approximately 80% of all apartments purchased were in a build-to-rent model, although when the planning applications for them were originally made they were to be made available for people to purchase as homes.
Young people were rightly angered. They were looking at apartment blocks being built in Dublin and hoped to have an opportunity to purchase, but these investment funds purchased at above-market prices as an investment and received preferential tax treatment. There is a need for a level playing field where young people have an opportunity to get on to the housing ladder.
Before Christmas, the Leader indicated that he would organise a debate on the TV licence fee, broadcasting in general and its future in Ireland. I know a working group is looking at the fee but the discussion has to be wider than just the licence fee. It must concern the future of broadcasting. I hope the Leader will be able to organise such a debate at his earliest convenience.
I also join my colleagues in remembering the four young men who died tragically in Donegal last Sunday in that tragic accident - Shaun Harkin, Mícheal Roarty, John Harley and Daniel Scott. Our thoughts go out to their families and friends and indeed the communities of Gortakhork and Gweedore that are saddened and numb today.
We are moving into a very interesting and dangerous time with regard to Brexit over the next few weeks and months. We called it right. We need nerves of steel and to watch what we say because everything will be taken as a sign of weakness or strength. The utterances of the former UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, leaking inaccurate material, were very unfortunate and must be called out. It is not the right thing to do at this very difficult time.
We are in Dublin where the weather is cold and wet, but I remind people that most of the areas along the west coast are now covered in snow. It is a difficult time for farmers and communities. Many schools are closed. Sometimes one would not think it from the national media because it sometimes does not realise that the weather in areas beyond Maynooth is so bad. One thing that people do not realise is that it rains twice as much in the west as it does on the east coast. Whenever I ring home from my office here, it is sunny in Dublin and raining down home. Perhaps the Government could look at some form of grant because we take everything coming in off the Atlantic Ocean and save Dublin people on the east coast from getting wet. It is sometimes an issue when it comes to mental health. When it rains, it does affect people on the west coast. It is just something I had not realised. If we look at the figures, we can see that it rains twice as much on most of the west coast as it does on the east coast.
That is one of the benefits of being a Senator. One gets to experience every one of the 26 counties. We look forward to the day when we can experience the 32 counties. Thanks to the good offices of the Cathaoirleach and those of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I had a Commencement Debate matter this morning regarding Dún Uí Néill Army Barracks in Cavan, which was closed in 2011. I am calling for it to be reopened in light of the uncertainty caused by Brexit. I firmly believe that Brexit is probably the most significant challenge facing this country since the Civil War. In that vein and bearing in mind that we are all wearing the green jersey here, which is the pure green jersey of Ireland, and have cool heads, I would like the Leader to invite the Taoiseach to come to this House so that we can hear what he has to say about Brexit. In saying this, I am bearing in mind the sensitive situation we are in, but he is the Taoiseach of this country and it is time he came to this House - the Upper House of our Oireachtas - and addressed us regarding Brexit and his plans with regard to same.
Last week, we had a debate on climate change and the need for Ireland to take action on this. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment was quite comprehensive in his statement outlining the areas he would address and stating that it would be an across-Government approach. During my contribution, I raised the fact that there is no charging point for electric cars in this Oireachtas. I was told last week that it would be there the following day, but as I stand here today, there is still no charging point for electric cars. I am aware of at least three other Members of the two Houses who have electric cars and I hope to take delivery of one shortly. If we are to show leadership in this country and ask people to be mindful of the environment, make life changes and consider going electric or hybrid, we must lead by example. The fact that the Oireachtas does not even have charging points for people who work or might be visiting here sends such a poor message. I hope this issue will be taken seriously and acted upon a bit more expediently than it has been to date.
I start by sending love to Donegal where the funerals of the four young men will take place today. It was an appalling tragedy and my sympathies are with the families, friends, neighbours and the community at large.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 15 be taken before No. 1. It concerns the Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019, which is a Bill designed to curb the advertising of unfit lettings and rental properties that do not meet legal rental standards, including overcrowding and fire safety regulations. The Bill would allow people to report advertisements of unfit rental properties to the Property Services Regulatory Authority and would give the authority the power to instruct letting agents and online platforms to remove advertisements of rental properties that are in breach of regulations. Rental properties posted on the likes of daft.ie, rent.ieor spotahome.comthat in no way meet regulations that are in place have become a constant story in traditional and social media outlets. These are regulations that ensure rental properties are fit for purpose and fit for the rental market. We know that some of these rental properties range from overcrowded dorm rooms to apartments that are no more than converted hallways or sheds.
It is astonishing that even after media attention is drawn to these lettings, these advertisements remain online despite being in clear breach of regulations. They only remain online because of the ongoing rental crisis in our cities and towns. Advertisers are aware that such lettings may still be rented due to people's desperation and the extent of the housing crisis. Letting agents and online platforms also have a role to play in ensuring the rental market is not undermined, standards are upheld and renters, and I am thinking of many young people, can interact with the rental market with dignity and respect. Websites should not be providing space for the advertising of rental properties that are in clear breach of regulations.
To follow on from what Senator Horkan said, it is important that every effort is made to resolve the nurses' dispute. I think everyone here acknowledges the dedication and commitment of nurses in the Irish health system. When one thinks of the volume of people who go through our health service, we can see that 63,000 people go through outpatients per week while another 23,000 go through accident and emergency departments per week. In addition, the system deals with a large number of inpatients every day.
It is important that we find a solution at an early date but we must be mindful of the fact that between 2000 and 2008, the cost of public pay increased from €8.2 billion per annum to €16.2 billion per annum. We must also recognise that the Public Service Pay Commission recommended pay increases for nurses late last year, which is being implemented at a cost of €20 million. For instance, the annual salary for a newly qualified staff nurse will increase from €29,056 to €36,196, an increase of €7,140 or 25%. The annual salary for a staff nurse on point 6 of the payscale has increased from €36,383 to €43,356, an increase of €6,973 or 19%. Clinical midwife managers were not given recognition previously for their expertise and it is important to give them recognition. The annual salary for a clinical midwife manager has increased from €48,361 to €52,611, an increase of €4,251. The Government has introduced salary increases following the recommendations made by the Public Service Pay Commission, but we need to consider other areas to deal with the industrial dispute. We must take on board the issues that I raised yesterday such as the recognition of qualifications and adequately compensating anyone who takes time off as study leave to improve his or her skills.
There is a set figure for public pay. The one challenge, which I have stated repeatedly, is that a person pays the higher rate of tax at a very early stage here in Ireland compared with the UK where a person can earn £50,000 before going onto the higher rate of tax. Many people in other political parties have resisted that change, but if we want to make progress in this country, and while I agree that people must pay their fair share of tax, they should not be penalised for getting a qualification and providing a service that is needed in this country.
I support the call made by my colleague, Senator Wilson, for the Leader to invite the Taoiseach to the House and address us concerning the Taoiseach's recent statement. Not only is Leo Varadkar the Taoiseach, he is also the Minister for Defence and it could be one of the lead Ministries if Brexit goes in the wrong direction.
I wish to raise the issue of tolls for small, light commercial vehicles such as the Volkswagen Caddy vehicle, which is a necessity for self-employed people such as painters who work as a one-man operation. One must pay €4.40 on the N4 toll road for a Volkswagen Caddy or similar vehicle that has the capacity to carry two passengers and a very small load capacity. Let us say a painter took on a job on the north side of Dublin and he or she also had to pass through the M50 toll. The total cost for tolls would be €84 per week. That is a lot of money for one person to pay who is trying to run a very small business, particularly as the majority of work seems to be available in Dublin. If he or she used his or her family or domestic car, the toll would be less than two thirds. It does not make sense to charge such people so much for using toll roads. These entrepreneurs are trying to survive by keeping their charges to a minimum. It is unfair for the Government to impose an extra cost on them every week in addition to them paying for diesel, insurance and motor tax. The passenger capacity of such vehicles is only two persons and the load capacity is very small. I have no problem with HGVs or larger commercial vans paying a bit extra because they transport more goods or whatever. For the small Caddy-type van that is mostly used by painters, plumbers and one-person operations, the weekly outlay in toll charges is serious. We must consider the differential between the charge on small vans and cars, especially as cars are a lot larger, can carry up to five passengers, and have a higher engine capacity. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to consider the matter when setting future charges for toll roads.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Warfield. Today, my thoughts and prayers are with the Gaeltacht community of west Donegal as they bury four of their young people. It is a desperate tragedy.
I wish to raise again a funding issue which I had not planned to raise. I refer to funding for the Inishowen Children's Autism Related Education, ICARE, organisation located in the Inishowen Peninsula and for the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation in south Donegal. Both organisations have not received State funding yet provide vital services to young people and children with disabilities in south Donegal and the Inishowen Peninsula.
Senators might recall a major controversy last year concerning the Ability programme which provided €16 million for disability organisations throughout this State. The programme was EU co-funded, yet when one looked at a map of the Twenty-six Counties, there was a line, which we call the Galway to Dublin line, above which it can clearly see that only one organisation, in Roscommon, received funding. In Donegal, ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation came together, applied for funding with an organisation called Extern, but funding was refused. Both ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation received some funding last year in response to the controversy. We had hoped that by now they would have a service level agreement with the HSE to have guaranteed funding so that families could have stability and knowledge that they would have supports. The families who are members of the committees of these organisations, many of whom have children and young people with disabilities, are trying to cope and fundraise constantly. We had hoped that by now they would no longer have to fundraise. Last week, we were assured that funding would be provided. In the past week I have tried to get a clarification from the HSE about whether it will be provided. As I stand here now, both of those organisations yet again do not have clarification.
Will the Leader contact the office of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, who has responsibility for disability issues? He is very aware of these issues. I will, with the permission of the Cathaoirleach, table a Commencement matter next week if I do not get a clarification before then. We need clarification for these two organisations. ICARE has been in existence for 18 years and has funded itself by holding all sorts of fundraising events throughout the year, but it cannot keep doing so. ICARE provides a service. The HSE does not provide the service and refers children and young people to ICARE but then does not provide funding. That is outrageous and must stop. This has to be the last year that this goes on. I ask the Leader for his help and assistance with this issue.
I thank the 11 Members for their contributions to the Order of Business. I dtús báire, ar mo shon féin agus ar son an Rialtas, bronnaim mo chomhbhrón le muintir Dhún na nGall agus go mórmhór leis na clanna Roarty, Harley, Harkin and Scott on a very tragic day for their families in Donegal. We send them our sympathies and our deepest thoughts and regards. The tragedy is unspeakable. I thank the community in Donegal for their support and for rallying around the families.
I welcome to the Public Gallery a very good friend of all of us here in the Oireachtas, Mr. Mike Carroll, who is from New York. He is very welcome and I thank him for being here.
The issue of the nurses' strike was raised by Senators Horkan and Colm Burke. I reiterate the points that I made yesterday. All of us hold all of our nurses in high regard. We value their role, professionalism and commitment that they bring every day in pressurised areas of work, for which we thank them.
A solution and a resolution are needed and the Government is determined to work with the INMO to ensure there is a resolution. Yesterday Senator Devine spoke about 1999 and the nine days of that strike and none of us wants to see a repeat of that. We have a public sector pay deal, however, of which there can be only one. Notwithstanding the legitimacy of the concerns and issues that need to be resolved, the Government cannot break a public sector pay deal because it would have a knock-on effect on other sectors and workers. Equally, if the Government broke the deal, some of the Senators sitting opposite me would express a very different view. The cost of the nurses' demands is projected as €300 million. Senator Colm Burke made a good point that the Government established the Public Service Pay Commission and it made €20 million worth of recommendations for the nursing sector, which will be implemented because the Government has accepted them in full. Rather than giving an adversarial reply, we all agree that there needs to be a resolution. Senators Horkan and Colm Burke made strong points about perhaps finding a roadmap to consider various postgraduate qualifications and the recognition of different specialisations.
The Government has recruited more nurses. There was an increase of 800 last year and 3,000 in the past number of years, which is a significant amount of recruitment. Nobody wants to be in a position where there is a protracted strike. I hope the machinery of the State, such as the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission, will become part of that process to save the country from more cancellations of appointments and inpatient procedures.
Senators Horkan, Boyhan and Feighan raised the issue of Brexit. I join them in commending and paying tribute to our colleague, Senator Richmond, Chairman of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, which met last week. I do not mean to be patronising but the performance of Senator Richmond, in his role on the Seanad Brexit committee and in media appearances outside Ireland, conveys a positive message and it augurs well for the Chamber. I thank him for that and for his wider work.
As we know, Brexit is not our fault but it is in an issue with which we must contend, by virtue of the vote. As Senators will know, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, spoke to each other yesterday. It is important that the lines of communication are kept open and the dialogue among Ministers and British Cabinet Secretaries continues. I welcome that all the European leaders and the people in key positions have stood with Ireland and continue to do so. Another pivotal day will be 13 February, but our position has not changed and I do not intend to return to the same points that I have already made and that all of us stand by. I offer the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, our support and wish them well.
On Senator Boyhan's question, there will be statements on agriculture the week after next. The Taoiseach was well received at the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, dinner and annual general meeting on Tuesday night. I note that he ate beef, in case some people heckle me in that regard. Joe Healy, the president of the IFA, is a member of the Brexit stakeholders' forum and attends the meetings. He is an important player and if one reads his speech or those of the Taoiseach or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, at the conference, one will see that on this matter, the Government is determined to work in partnership with the farming organisations. Agrifood exports are critical to our country and account for 8% and 11% of our national income and exports, respectively. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, are working on the issue of CAP, on which there will be a debate, I believe, the week after next.
Senators Boyhan and Humphreys spoke on housing. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will return to the Chamber next Tuesday to finish the debate on the subject. I will accept Senator Warfield's amendment to the Order of Business to accommodate his Bill, and we will have the debate on housing at another time.
On the points made by Senator Horkan, it is my intention as Leader to schedule debates on Brexit contingencies and sectoral or departmental issues over the coming weeks, which will form part of our response.
On the community employment scheme, raised by Senator Conway-Walsh, I am not sure why she said people on this side of the House do not value community employment schemes. I was chairman of my GAA club for six years and I was involved in my community association. I fully understand, as do all my colleagues on this side of the House, the intrinsic value that these schemes bring to our communities. I praise those who work on community employment schemes and their supervisors around the country. I recognise that without community employment schemes, voluntary and sporting organisations in the community could not function, and that they also help people in going back to work. As Senators will be aware, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is chairing a forum established to consider the issue. The plan to concede pensions to the scheme has the potential to cost the sector €188 million. Nevertheless, I will be happy if the Minister appears before the House in the coming weeks.
Senator Humphreys asked for a debate on the television licence fee and broadcasting, and we hope to arrange that.
Senator Feighan raised the issue of weather, which is important. In the north-east of the USA, where Mr. Carroll comes from, temperatures are plummeting due to a polar vortex. Senator Lawless's city is in the middle of an icy cold spell . In this country, it is important that the local authorities work with the national directorate for fire and emergency management to ensure our roads are gritted and our paths are clear. We must also check in on our elderly neighbours, relatives and friends. When we see weather warnings, we often think, "Here we go again", but Met Éireann issues them for a reason and it has put a yellow warning in place until Saturday. I ask Senators to promulgate those weather warnings on their social media or websites.
Senators Wilson and Paul Daly referred to the invitation to the Taoiseach, and Senator Boyhan also raised the matter before Christmas. I had previously issued an invitation to the Taoiseach to come to the House, and we are working on finding a date on which we can accommodate him. I will inform Senators of the date when it is decided. Brexit is an important issue and it is also important that the Taoiseach appears before the House, not because he is the Minister of Defence - as Deputy Kehoe is the Minister of State with responsibility for defence - but because it is good that the Taoiseach himself speaks to us. I hope that will happen in the coming weeks.
Senator Reilly raised the matter of electric car charge points. I am not sure with whom I should take that matter up but it might be a matter for the Superintendent of the Houses. The Senator made a good point that if we, as Members of the Oireachtas, ask the Government to make changes, we should also make changes.
I accept Senator Warfield's amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator Paul Daly raised a good point about toll charges. As Senators will know, last year the Government introduced an incentive for owners of electric cars.
We need to consider toll charges and some of the prohibitive costs that accrue to people, be they businesspeople or others going to work or doing their business. I would be happy to have a debate on it. The point the Senator made is a valid one. We have signed public–private partnership contracts regarding some roads but I believe there comes a point when the charging of tolls needs to be considered. The point made in this regard was a fair one.
I do not have the answer to Senator Mac Lochlainn's request. If he emails me the details, I will send them on to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, after the Order of Business. It is disappointing that some of the organisations the Senator mentioned, which may have a service level agreement with the HSE, are not getting funding.
I thank the Members for their contributions. I will accept the amendment to the Order of Business.