Thursday, 28 February 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the Committee on Climate Action, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate, and No. 2, statements on the National Training Fund, to be taken at 12.45 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 the issue of housing and the most recent homelessness figures for this city. I have raised this topic almost every week since becoming a Member of Seanad Éireann. I am particularly keen to raise the European Commission's report on the assessment of member states' progress on economic and social priorities, which is highly critical of the Irish Government's policy on housing. The Commission's report points out that there has been a 23.4% increase in private rents since 2015, the highest in the EU. It also notes that there are 72,000 people on the social housing waiting list but that there are only planned developments of 10,000 houses in 2019. This report comes from the European Commission and it will be very hard for the Government to refute its findings. The report also notes that 17,000 people are supported by HAP and that this is exacerbating problems in the private rental market. The report emphasises the enormity of the gap between supply and demand and comes in the wake of a report published yesterday which showed that there are currently 9,987 homeless people in this State. The Government's policy has been to blame Fianna Fáil but Fine Gael has been in government since 2011 and has done nothing to resolve this problem. We have seen a very small increase in housing supply but nothing like what is needed to address the issue of homelessness and a lack of housing in this country.
The second issue I wish to raise relates to the roll-out of broadband. In 2012 the Government announced its broadband policy, which formed part of the Fine Gael election manifesto in 2011 and again in 2016. I was flabbergasted yesterday to hear the Taoiseach say that he was surprised that the roll-out of rural broadband was going to cost multiples of the original estimate. We all know that the roll-out of broadband, especially over the last mile, is very costly because it involves, among other things, digging up roads. The Taoiseach and the Department must have known that this was going to cost an enormous amount of money. Many people voted for Fine Gael because of its commitment to the roll-out of rural broadband in 2011 and in 2016 but they have been let down. Small businesses and families throughout the country have been let down badly. They were promised that broadband would be rolled out nationwide but that has not happened. There is only one firm left in the market for the national broadband contract, a finance firm based in the US. This is not a telecommunications engineering company but a speculative financial firm. It is a disgrace that it has come to this and the Government must admit that it got it wrong and does not know what it is doing. It must put a proper broadband policy in place because it is a disgrace that houses and businesses throughout the country still do not have the broadband service they were promised back in 2011.
The final issue I wish to raise relates to the cost of electricity and gas which is due to increase by 4%. Electric Ireland has said that this is due to increases in wholesale costs. We must consider those who are vulnerable in this State, especially the elderly who have not seen an equivalent increase in their pensions. We must ensure that they are not left behind. We will be out campaigning for the forthcoming local and European elections soon and will meet elderly people who go to bed early in order to save on heating. They are living in a way that others do not live. They are not benefitting from the economic upturn but we must not forget them. Special provision must be made to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not negatively affected by the recently announced increases in the price of gas and electricity.
I acknowledge the presence in the Public Gallery of a student called Nathan Hilton Regan. He is on work experience and has helped me to complete a survey on gaming among children. This is a follow-on from Senator Craughwell's very lively discussion yesterday evening on gambling. I want the House to realise that gambling starts in childhood and it starts with gaming. We all know about Playstation and Xbox consoles and Nathan carried out a survey among 48 students in the last few days on same. We were both surprised that the students responded so readily. In the survey, 73% agreed that they play inappropriate video games such as Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption. We all know that inappropriate games can have a very negative impact on children, especially when the games involve aggression and violence and get children's adrenaline pumping. When the game is over, where does that adrenaline and aggression go? Furthermore, 50% of those surveyed agreed that gaming affects their sleep. Some children are gaming first thing in the morning while others are gaming through the night. We can all imagine the impact that has on children's performance at school and on their moods. It was very worrying to find that 79% of the students surveyed agreed that their parents knew of the violent nature of the games they were playing. To be honest, I found that strange. Some 91% of the children surveyed have an Xbox or Playstation but I discovered for the first time that they can access social media through these gaming devices. These innocent-looking boxes are given to children for Christmas by their parents, who think they are being kind and are giving them something that will entertain them. Many do not realise that they are giving them direct access to social media and to all the difficult and evil things involved in that.
Around 25% of the children said that they had spent ten hours gaming in the last seven days, while 19% said that they were not aware of physical needs such as needing food, water or to use the bathroom because they were so consumed by what they were doing. The other worrying fact is that 63% of the students either agreed or strongly agreed that their work and grades were suffering due to gaming. When children are exposed to Playstation and Xbox games that are violent, they become addicted. In fact, Nathan discovered that the Rutland Centre acknowledges that a gaming addiction is as serious as problem gambling. According to that centre, a gaming addiction is very similar to a gambling addiction. Indeed, many video games are actually designed to be addictive. These games are targeted at our young people.To be honest, I do not know what we can do with this. Parents obviously need to be informed, as do schools. I thank Nathan for all the help he gave me this week. We are going to add another survey and complete a report, and we can maybe then come up with some ideas on how this problem can be tackled.
I want to reiterate what Senator Freeman has said. They target children of any age from three years and I have seen young children aged three playing Gummy Bears games. There is a sweet, cuddly image but there are also "Buy More" tokens at the end of each game, and it builds up and up. This happens to children from three years of age. When my son was one of those Xbox or Playstation guys, sitting in his bedroom playing it non-stop, he borrowed a game from a friend. When I went to watch it, I found it awful. It was one of those games where people were shooting each other and, in one instance, they pushed a woman over - a caricature, obviously - and started kicking her between the legs. I sat aghast and I immediately stopped it, but I could not get over the fact that had got through censorship and everything else. It was for 16 year olds and he was only 14, so he did not get it at that stage. However, that sort of imagery stayed in my mind.
I want to propose an amendment to the Order of Business that we take an amendment to the Health Act 1970 with regard to involuntary psychiatric patients and the charges paid to the HSE. I have become aware that up to 2,500 patients are admitted involuntarily throughout the country for treatment in approved centres and, following their stay, people are subjected to charges of anything from €80 to €800 per day for a 12-month period. While not all of these charges are collected, it is still not in the Health Act that they would be exempted, although there are exemptions for maternity care to women and where people have medical cards. I would like the House to support this amendment and to go further with regard to the legislation.
Just this morning the Government launched the new policy on overseas development aid, which is a major policy entitled A Better World. I commend that policy and, in particular, commend the emphasis within it on a number of issues that are of real importance. The Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, of which I am a member, has been working on these issues and I am very glad to see them highlighted, namely, climate justice, gender equality, women's rights and women's empowerment. That is really positive to see. Looking at the language used in the A Better World document, I commend those involved in its drafting because there is a strong emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and some inspiring language. It is particularly notable as, this year, we mark 25 years since the international conference on population and development, the ICPD. I know the Deputy Leader is interested in this issue at international level, as am I, and we will be seeing quite a number of events at UN level to mark that 25th anniversary. It is inspiring to see Ireland taking a leadership role on this in our overseas development aid policy and also good to see us moving so firmly towards our 0.7% commitment on overseas development aid. I commend those involved. I look forward to scrutinising the report further at the foreign affairs committee. I ask that we might have a debate on this in due course in the House, now the document has been published, as I believe it would be worthwhile. Again, it is great to see the policy so strongly highlighting women's empowerment and gender equality.
On a less positive note, I express my strong concern, which I am sure others will share, on the issues highlighted in respect of Scouting Ireland and the letter Tusla sent to Scouting Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, raised concerns in the Dáil yesterday. This leaves parents in particular in a very difficult position because, essentially, what the Minister appears to be saying is that parents send children on scouting trips almost at their own risk, which is a very worrying development for parents, all those involved in Scouting Ireland and, indeed, for children. I hope we can have a debate in the House, when things become a little clearer, on child protection and the important issues this raises.
I welcome the decision yesterday in the Supreme Court on the powers of the Committee of Public Accounts. I think many of us had felt concern about some of the lines of questioning adopted by the Committee of Public Accounts in recent years and it is positive to see the Supreme Court has said the Committee of Public Accounts acted significantly outside its remit. There has been an unfortunate tendency towards, and an unfortunate culture had developed of, quite aggressive tactics in questioning witnesses before the Committee of Public Accounts, and it was not as effective as a result in terms of actual fact-finding. The Committee of Public Accounts in the past had a very positive and effective role in investigating and uncovering facts around misuse of public funds. In recent years, in some instances, that role has been overstepped. We await the final judgment in April but I welcome that finding as reported today.
I rise to highlight the fact today is anti-bullying awareness day, which is a campaign run by the HSE. If people are feeling unsafe in the workplace, in school or in any walk of life, a helpline is available. It is important that people are aware help is out there and somebody is at the other end of the line to help them.
Related to that, it was reported in my local newspaper during the week that a child of three years of age was on the mother's tablet playing a game called Momo Challenge, which is a cyberbullying game. The next thing, a face appeared on the game and asked the child: "Are you on your own? Go and turn on the oven and leave it on, and do not tell anyone." It is frightening when these things are happening. This is the first report of an incident in Ireland. While there has not been any serious incident in regard to this game, it is frightening to think a child of three years of age was told that. The child threw the tablet across to the mother and said there was a scary person on it. There should be some sort of regulation around these games, given what can happen and how people can hack into them.
Based on the release today of the Irish importation figures for grain and maize, I was startled to see that wheat imports in 2018 were up 40% to 428,000 tonnes, maize imports were up 43% to 1.6 million tonnes and barley imports were up 105% to 372,000 tonnes. The Deputy Leader will be aware the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last year produced a report on the crisis within the Irish tillage sector. That report was placed before this House but, unfortunately, like many of its predecessors, it has found its way to the infamous shelf somewhere. Based on the figures I have given today, that report needs to be taken down from the shelf and brought back in here, and the Minister needs to come in along with it to address these figures.
As I said, we have a crisis in the tillage sector and farmers are walking away from tillage and grain production, yet we are importing grain in the quantities I have just mentioned. The big debate within all sectors of agriculture at the moment is on climate change. Can we imagine the carbon footprint of this grain, maize and wheat that is coming from as far away as Russia to our shores? We have the people, the equipment and the land, and we are quite capable of producing it here ourselves. The irony in regard to barley, in particular, is that it is being imported in such vast quantities, it is being brewed and distilled by our native brewers and distillers, then being labelled on bottles as Irish and exported again. We need to re-address the crisis in the tillage sector. We need to take down that report from its infamous shelf and we need to get it and the Minister back in the House to have a serious debate on why we are not producing this grain ourselves, and not making it feasible for Irish farmers to produce the grain and maize we are importing in such large quantities.
I second Senator Devine's amendment. Last week, under the leadership of the Cathaoirleach, I was fortunate to be one of a small number of people, with Senator Mulherin and Deputy Brassil, to attend the United Nations in New York on Thursday and Friday.It was a real eye-opener and a very important event. We met the Irish Permanent Representative to the UN, H.E. Geraldine Byrne Nason. Ireland has been a member of the UN since 1955 and a UN peacekeeping nation since 1958. Senator Craughwell's colleagues in the peacekeeping force have served every day since then. Irish lives have been lost as a result of the peacekeeping efforts. We are particularly proud of the help provided by our peacekeeping forces in other nations. It is one of the badges that makes us unique. We are the greatest contributor in Europe to peacekeeping and that is something of which we are very proud. We are privileged to be involved in it. We are indebted to our women and men who go on peacekeeping missions. I know people whose family members have given their lives to that cause.
I ask that we consider suspending Standing Orders for half a day and invite the ambassador, H.E. Ms Byrne Nason, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, to address the House and inform Members on the current state of the UN, its role and our relationship with and contribution to it.
As Members are aware, Ireland is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council. There is all-party support for that endeavour. I and my two Oireachtas colleagues who were in the UN last week strongly lobbied colleagues from other countries that Ireland should get a seat on the Security Council. This is an opportunity for us, a key democratic House of the Irish Parliament, to say we are supporting our people in the UN and our ambassador. When we visit foreign countries and colleagues in other parliaments, we can tell them we need their support for this. I ask for that to be considered by the Leader and the Cathaoirleach.
On the latter issue, the Senator should consider writing to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I rarely comment on trips made by Senators. However, I was very proud that Senators Ó Céidigh and Mulherin and Deputy Brassil spoke very effectively at the United Nations. I was very impressed by their contributions, which had a positive impact on our effort to be elected to the Security Council, among other issues. I am proud of what they achieved in that visit.
My colleague, Senator Marshall, summed it up yesterday when he stated that there are 29 days to Brexit and called for cool heads. I agree with him. These are interesting but difficult times. The acceptance of the amendment tabled by Ms Yvette Cooper, MP, in the House of Commons yesterday will ensure that a no-deal may not happen but there is still a long way to go. The British Labour Party has indicated it will support a second referendum. The German Chancellor, Ms Angela Merkel, commented that if Britain needs more time, it will be given more time. The coming 29 days will be very serious and interesting and I hope it works out.
Last Thursday, I was invited to the National Museum of Ireland to celebrate St. David's Day. We were very fortunate to have the attendance of Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the Welsh Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne. What is more significant is that many organisations and institutions are preparing for the situation post Brexit. The event was attended by Mr. David Anderson, the director general of National Museum Wales, and Ms Catherine Heaney, the chair of the board of the National Museum of Ireland. A deal or memorandum of understanding has been reached to increase cultural ties with National Museum Wales. The Welsh are our nearest neighbours. Sometimes, we have overlooked Wales in favour of England or Scotland. I very much welcome that initiative by the National Museum of Ireland and National Museum Wales. It will strengthen the ties between the near neighbours, Ireland and Wales, and should be complimented and acknowledged here in the Seanad.
I second the proposal of my colleague, Senator Devine, to amend the Order of Business.
Not for the first time, I wish to address the issue of the appallingly low rates of pay in the childcare sector. A graduate outcome survey published by the Higher Education Authority last week revealed the extent of low pay in the early years sector. Some 43% of honours degree graduates in the sector earn less than €20,000 per year, well below the living wage of €23,000. The survey also revealed that 35% of honours degree graduates are on precarious contracts. Of course, this has led to a staffing crisis. The staff turnover in childcare is 25%. One must think of the impact that has on children. One in four people are leaving the sector. It happens in every crèche across this country.
Members have been raising this issue for almost three years and certainly since I became a Member of this House. I have consistently been told that the Government is going to address it. However, the fact is that it has not been addressed. Early years educators typically earn little more than €11 per hour. They are voting with their feet and leaving the sector. In many cases, they are leaving the country because they can get better rates of pay that recognise their professional qualifications elsewhere. Indeed, we remain bottom of the league among European countries in terms of investment in early years education. I call for a debate on the issue and that, in particular, the Government begin to heed SIPTU and its Big Start campaign, which aims to organise workers in the sector. However, it has not met with the positive response it deserves from the Government. This is failing the workers and the children and at this stage, with the Government having been in power for almost three years, there is no excuse.
I wish to raise two issues. I have just come from a demonstration outside Leinster House by parents whose children suffer from spinal muscular atrophy. It does not affect many children but those who it does are severely affected. As the Leader will know, I am raising the issue of Spinraza. There was a devastating announcement this week that the HSE has decided not to proceed with allowing Spinraza to be readily available. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be affected by the stories of the parents who gathered outside this morning. They told of the effects Spinraza can have and the fact that 25 of 28 European Union countries have made Spinraza available for children who require it. Only Ireland, the UK and Estonia have not done so. If children such as Grace O'Malley from Mayo or Sam Bailey from Dublin - I know Sam's family quite well - lived in any country other than Ireland, the UK or Estonia, they might have a better quality of life. I do not believe anybody in the Government has a heart of stone. I hope the announcement this week is just a blip on the road rather than a full stop. Members across the House have raised the issue of Spinraza in recent months and years. I ask that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, come to the House to address the availability of this drug. In fairness, I do not think anybody in government wants to see children suffer. I know everybody in politics wants to do their best. However, there was a sense that things were slowly progressing to a point when Spinraza would be made available, but that seems to have come to a shuddering halt. On that basis, I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, or the Minister of State with responsibility for disability in regard to Spinraza.
I note with alarm the issue of the discharge from the sewage treatment plant in Ringsend last weekend. I note it with alarm because it only came to public awareness as a result of a drone taking a photograph of the leakage. It raises concerns for me regarding the sewage treatment plant which is planned for the Clonshaugh area.If that is the type of issue that takes place in a sewage treatment plant, what can the residents in Clonshaugh expect if and when this plant is built? It is only a proposal. It has not been finalised. I believe the plan should be scrapped and that the land should be used for housing because it is a greater need. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment should come to the House to explain how this fault happened, the reasons that it was not reported immediately and that it took a number of days for communications from different agencies to take place; to allay the fears of Dubliners about that plant; and to justify why residents in Clonshaugh should feel any less worried about the proposal to build a water treatment plant there, which I believe is the wrong place and should be used for different ends.
Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an event organised by the Irish Cancer Society in Monaghan town. It related to regional awareness of the disease itself but was mainly based around national daffodil day, which is on 22 March. I found it very informative, interesting and, in many ways, harrowing. It was very well attended by many volunteers from counties Monaghan and Cavan. Some of the statistics are quite frightening but it is important that we are aware of them. I learned last night that every three minutes, someone in this country is told that he or she has cancer. This equates to roughly 40,000 people every year. It is maintained that by 2020, one in two people will get a diagnosis of cancer in his or her lifetime. The good news is that 80% of those diagnosed with stage 1 cancer survive. We all aware of the ongoing campaigns regarding education around prevention and how people can do more to prevent getting cancer through diet and exercise. I do not think everyone is aware of the service provided by the Irish Cancer Society. We heard last night from a night nurse who attends people with the disease through an end-of-life programme. It is important that people know that up to ten free night nurse sessions can be provided by the Irish Cancer Society. We also heard a presentation from the volunteer drivers. Apparently, there are many volunteer drivers throughout the country and they deserve great credit for the work they do. They can transport someone diagnosed with cancer to a clinic in any part of the country. It is important that people know that this is also free of charge. The reason I mention this is because March is just around the corner. Again, the Irish Cancer Society will be looking for additional funds to keep this service going. A total of 99% of the funds it raises every year is through voluntary contributions. I acknowledge the generosity of the many Irish people who contribute and encourage more people to do so. From a Government perspective, I would like more energy to be put into information and education for people in order that they can take as many steps as possible to prevent them getting this disease in the first place. Perhaps the Government could invest more in this area.
I second the proposal by Senator Ó Céidigh so that we would, through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, organise the event on the UN issue with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the ambassador at some stage. I appreciate that the Cathaoirleach said that it is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges but I would like to put on record my support for it.
Last night, the Minister of State with responsibility for defence appeared before the House. He was quite comprehensive in everything he said. However, there is a misunderstanding around the issue of Jadotville, Jadotville medals and military service medals for those who served in the Congo that needs resolving. I fail to understand what it is about this country that we are so goddamn mean in our view and our ability to reward excellence. Senator Ó Céidigh spoke about the Irish record in peacekeeping, which has been happening since 1958. We were told, not be this Government, that there were no recommendations for medals for Jadotville, that is, no recommendations for distinguished service or military medals. We were told this for years but some months ago, the actual evidence was found. There are 155 outstanding medals, some for gallantry and some for distinguished service. I wrote to the Minister of State. This is not necessarily an issue for him. The awarding of medals is a military issue. However, the military tells me that it cannot award the medals because it is out of time. The period for a distinguished service medal is two years while it is three years for a military medal. The idea that the military is out of time is nonsense. I am mindful of Private Quinlan, whose family has written to every Member of this House. That young man was not just nominated for a distinguished service medal. Commandant Pat Quinlan also recommended that Private Quinlan, no relation, be promoted to the rank of corporal and given a distinguished service medal. Sadly, that young man took his own life. The family asks today whether that would have happened had he received the recognition he deserved. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Government to instruct the military authorities to revisit the issue of medals. If we were able to write a regulation to bring pilots back into the Air Corps, we can surely rewrite a regulation on the awarding of medals. I am sorry for going on but it is a vitally important issue. I am aware of about 155 outstanding medals.
I wish to raise the judgment in the case brought by Angela Kerins to see what implications it has for the Houses of the Oireachtas. I hope there will be a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges about it or that we would have a debate on that issue in this House. While I appreciate that there will be a final judgment in April, the Committee of Public Accounts, which is the committee in question, has no representatives from Seanad Éireann. It is a Dáil committee. This case involves the Dáil Committee on Procedure. The Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges acts with regard to how committees are formed. Regulations are discussed at meetings of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. While we have a number of joint committees, this House has a committee that invites guests and witnesses. This is a significant judgment for the Houses of the Oireachtas. I hope that if procedures or remedies must be put in place, we would meet as a Committee on Procedure and Privileges because it is a significant judgment. The only saving grace for Members of both Houses is that we have privilege, which is an unbelievable thing for Members of both Houses to have. It is in the Constitution. At times, we do not fully appreciate what privilege means and how it should operate. We will have to have some guidelines about how Chairs of committees will operate, the role of the Chair, the role of advisers to the Chair and the legal advice we get. It is a significant issue and I hope that at some stage, we would have a debate in this House or else the road to go down would be to have a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
Senator Paddy Burke is probably one of the longer serving Members here. I would say two things. The first is that he is correct in that privilege is a great coat of armour for us all but it should never be abused.I rarely make comments like this. Any committee - the Committee of Public Accounts or otherwise - is weaker in not having Senators on it. It is extraordinary. They represent the Oireachtas which has two legs on the chair, one of which is the Seanad which has been endorsed by the people, while the second is the Dáil. Reflecting forward, it would be a stronger committee if it had on it representatives of this House. That is a personal view which I will not impose on the House.
This is World Rare Diseases Day. I have spent the morning with the families of people who are suffering from SMA and I am angry beyond words. They have come here to beg for their lives. Earlier we heard from Eimear, a 21 year old who is studying genetics. Like others affected by SMA, she is shutting down and we are allowing it to happen. We are supposed to be living in a Republic in which we cherish all the children of the nation equally, but we are not doing so. In 2019 why are children and young people coming here in wheelchairs to beg for their lives? It is absolutely unacceptable. I urge two Ministers to become involved - the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. The information we are being given is false. I ask them to stop treating us like idiots as we know that we are not being given all of the facts. We know that we are not being given the correct cost of the drug. They need to instruct the HSE to do its job and negotiate in order that the people mentioned will not need to come here to beg for their lives. Representatives of the HSE need to sit down with representatives of Biogen and work it out. As this is a very time-sensitive subject, it needs to be done without delay. Only 70 people are impacted on. I ask the Deputy Leader to go back and work it out with them. We need to consider the opportunity costs in two ways. The cost of treatment and hospitalisation of the people mentioned is enormous. The other opportunity cost is associated with people like Eimear who are studying genetics and can do wonderful things for the State. We should not lose that opportunity. This matter is both urgent and important. I plead with the Government to do something about it on World Rare Diseases Day.
I echo what Senator Conway-Walsh said.
Tá plé ar na stáisiúin raidió neamhspleácha sa Dáil inniu. Tá plé ar a luach don phobal, ar an t-eolas áitiúil, ar na fadbhanna atá ag cuid den tír, agus ar thábhacht an raidió neamhspleách chun cabhrú leis na limistéir éagsúla sin agus leis na daoine atá iontu agus iad ag iarraidh na seirbhísí atá acu a choimeád agus mar sin de. Bheadh a leithéid de phlé sa Seanad thar a bheith úsáideach agus reachtaíocht scríofa agus réidh ag an Roinn Cumarsáide, Gníomhaithe ar son na hAeráide agus Comhshaoil chun laghdú de 50% ar an tóg a íocann baill den Independent Broadcasters of Ireland chun the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland a choimeád ar an bhfód a chur i bhfeidhm. Mindful of the fact that there will be a debate in the Dáil today on the value of independent broadcasters to the community, we could also do with having a debate on the issue in this House. Local radio stations, in particular, do great work and have a distinctive voice which often reflects local concerns in a way national radio stations do not. At its best, it is a vital conduit. At its worst, of course, there are examples where it can also suffer from the Montrose disease, with affected mid-Atlantic accents, preachy political correctness and so on. The Montrose disease often afflicts people who want to be in Montrose. However, more often than not, we receive a much better service from local radio stations. I would like us to have a debate on their importance, given that a debate is to take place in the Dáil today.
I echo some of what Senator Bacik said. I have spoken many times about the importance of Ireland reaching its commitment to provide 0.7% of GDP in overseas development aid. I would welcome and strongly urge that we make progress in that regard. Even though the right to life of the unborn has been extinguished from the Constitution and we have changed the law dramatically, it does not mean that we need to become zealous advocates of destructive policies in the context of overseas development aid. Pope Francis has spoken about ideological colonisation whereby western countries link aid with western values in the destruction of human life and make it a condition of receiving aid, which is completely the wrong way to go. Innocent unborn children should never be the victims of western governments' policies. There is a need for better maternal healthcare for mothers in the developing world, not the destructive targeting of unborn children. I hope Irish policy will not swing into a negative zone because of the change in the law. I do not believe it is something most Irish people would support. While I agree with some of what Senator Bacik said, I worry about destructive policies following on from constitutional change. It is not the way to go and most Irish people would not support it.
I wish to comment on the proposal made by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that people be suspended from the housing list for five years if they refuse two offers of local authority accommodation. It is a complete red herring. What a local authority official might deem to be an appropriate offer might not be deemed to be appropriate when account is taken of transport and family connections, access to school and support networks. It must fit for all the right reasons and the local authorities work really hard to ensure it fits. However, racism is an example of where a unit might not be a perfect fit for a family. From my experience as mayor of and a member of South Dublin County Council, having choice-based letting systems which are operated by 16 local authorities is the way to address the problem highlighted by the Minister. Such systems give people an element of choice and drastically reduce the lenght of time a property is vacant. People are not continually refusing offers of housing. Like me, the Minister was elected to the local authority in an area with a small stock of social housing, in my case Templeogue and Terenure and in his case Pembroke-Rathmines. He probably did not deal with many housing cases when he was a member of Dublin City Council.
Last month he claimed that the seasonal drop in the level of homelessness was evidence that the housing plan was working. Yesterday's figures show that this is simply not the case and that Rebuilding Ireland is continuing to fail. The Minister called the figures disappointing. That is an insult to families who are homeless. Yesterday's figures are an outrage. The figures have increased by 26% during his time in office, which shows that the plan is not working and that Sinn Féin's motion of no confidence should have been passed.
I thank the Senators who raised issues on the Order of Business. Senator Ardagh spoke about housing. Obviously, we are facing major challenges in the housing sector, but we are making progress, with 14,500 new homes built in 2017, which represented an increase of 50% on the figure for the previous year. We expect 20,000 new homes to have been built when the 2018 figures are released. Budget 2019 provides for the largest amount of money a Government has ever spent on housing in a single year. The allocation is €2.4 billion, €500 million more than was provided in 2018.
Many of the key indicators indicate that there has been an improvement. I accept that it is frustratingly slow and note Senator Warfield's comments in that regard.Senator Ardagh also raised the issue of the costs of electricity and gas. Vulnerable people need to be protected from price rises, and it is disappointing to hear that Electric Ireland is anticipating a 4% increase for gas and electricity this year.
Senator Freeman raised the issue of gaming. She and others have highlighted some very worrying aspects of gaming for children, and the pervasive nature of social media. It can be very difficult for parents to know what to do. In concluding her remarks the Senator said that it is hard to know what we can do about it. Like many of the Internet-related issues we speak about in this House on a regular basis, this is really a societal issue. It is hard to know what policy makers or legislators can do to improve matters. There is also the issue of the sedentary lifestyle associated with gaming. Parents believe they are doing their child a service by providing him or her with a Nintendo or other console, but it means that the children are sitting down and playing games. Their minds are active and they socialise through those games, but it also creates all sorts of lifestyle problems for the future.
Senator Devine also spoke on gaming, which she has raised regularly in the House. The gummy bears game she mentioned is frightening. It is hard to credit but again, it is hard to know what we can do about it. There are certain things we could ban, but it could be argued that a ban sometimes makes them more attractive. Children are finding ways around these things anyway. Education is key, as is teaching children about how to protect themselves online at primary school level. On the Momo game that Senator Byrne mentioned, I have heard of a case of a teacher telling children in a school not to discuss the issue. That is worse in a way, because-----
-----it needs to be discussed and children need to be educated on how to navigate these dangers. It is not my place to pontificate on the issues because I do not have the answers, but I believe education is key. I am happy to accept the proposed amendment to the Order of Business, to take No. 14 before No. 1.
Senator Bacik raised the issue of overseas aid policy and the report, A Better World, as did Senator Mullen. She emphasised the gender equality and climate justice aspects of that report. I have not read the report as yet, but I am encouraged by the comments Senator Bacik made about it. I suggest that we have a debate in this House on the issue. Senator Bacik also raised the issue of Scouting Ireland and the fact that parents are sending children to the scouts at their own risk. I imagine that many people in Scouting Ireland feel very unhappy about media commentary in recent days because, like every other organisation, there are many good people involved. The Government is concerned with safety. The safety of children is an absolute priority, and there is no flexibility on that. Mandatory reporting is the law and parents should be assured that the people involved have had the requisite training. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is considering any other actions that may be required beyond the Tusla recommendations, but it must be reiterated that child safety is of paramount importance at all times.
Senator Bacik, among others, also mentioned the powers of the Committee on Public Accounts in light of the recent judgment. I agree with many of the comments that were made, in particular those about grandstanding and the aggressive nature of some of the committees. It appears sometimes that it has become more about grabbing headlines than the work at hand, which is regrettable and does not reflect well on these Houses. As the Cathaoirleach said, it does not reflect well on the Committee of Public Accounts that there are no Senators on it. Many of us have been active members of committees, and it is something of an insult that Senators are not on the Committee of Public Accounts. There is no logical reason for it, and I agree with the Cathaoirleach.
Senator Byrne mentioned the anti-bullying awareness helpline. It is very important to highlight it. People of all ages experience bullying. It is obviously worse when one is a child as it can have a much worse psychological effect when it occurs at a young age. However, it is a very difficult thing to cope with at any age. It is good that the helpline is being highlighted. It should be highlighted more often. I have already referred to the issue of the Momo video game in Limerick, which is very frightening.
Senator Daly mentioned the tillage sector. I am not an expert in that area, but the Senator has raised a very serious issue. He raised a very interesting point about barley and the distance it travels. We should be capable of producing the crop here for people who need it to produce other products. This is very topical, in the context of climate change, and would be a very interesting debate to have with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the near future. The last time I took the Order of Business it was clear that the Minister might be before us to debate with us in the near future.
Senator Ó Céidigh mentioned peacekeeping and his recent visit to New York. The Cathaoirleach has replied on that matter already, which is one for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Tánaiste can come to the House without us having to get the permission of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, but I am more than happy to support the Senator's request.
Senator Feighan mentioned St. David's Day and increased cultural ties with Wales, which are to be welcomed.
Senator Gavan raised the childcare sector. The issue of how little childcare workers are paid is a huge issue. The last point the Senator made was probably the most interesting and pertinent. The high turnover of childcare staff has a negative impact on children. There has been much positive work done in the area of childcare since the first Minister with responsibility for children was appointed by the previous Government. It is regrettable, however, that the incentives and schemes being put in place are not impacting positively on the sector. We are trying to strike a balance between ensuring parents who need childcare for their children can afford it and ensuring that people working in childcare have a level of income to sustain a lifestyle. It is a difficult issue, and one we should have a debate on in this House. We should not focus solely on those issues, but rather have a wide-ranging debate on the entire issue of childcare. We need to discuss this from the point of view of the care given and also the wages earned by those who work hard and are very qualified for the work in the area.
Senators Ó Ríordáin and Conway-Walsh raised the issue of Spinraza. They have raised the matter consistently in the House. I have been working on this issue and feel very passionately that people should be provided with that drug. A young child from the area I am from is very negatively effected by this. By my estimation, having followed this issue in an attempt to understand how it all works, it is clear that the system is flawed. Drug companies can manipulate the situation by forcing vulnerable families to come up here and beg for their lives. There are only 70 people affected by this. It is my understanding that the drug is under review in the UK as well and there may be a commercial aspect to this. That is completely unacceptable and is small comfort to any family with a child who needs the drug. Those people do not want to hear about the financial realities; they just want the drug to be given to their child. I am keeping a very close eye on what is happening in this area but I am comforted by the fact that, in other cases where this flawed system has been used, this has been a regrettable blip on the road to the eventual provision of the drug. I cannot foresee circumstances in which this drug will not be provided eventually. The drug company, as much as the HSE, will have to play ball on this issue. I do not have an answer today, but Senators should know that I am as concerned as they are that the drug is provided to families. The numbers are not large enough to justify not providing it.There is a fine line to be walked. We cannot allow the system to be manipulated so drug companies can maximise their profit to the nth degree. I feel passionately about this and the salient point and the wider issue is that we need to reflect upon how we decide about these drugs. The system is arranged in such a way that trying to find out what is going on is like the last secret of Fatima. Families hear rumours and it is simply not good enough. We need to look at how we handle these drugs for rare diseases, how they are provided to families and the process that people have to go through. It is an insult and something we should look at. I will speak to Senator Ó Ríordáin if I get any news about it. I have been speaking to the Department on a weekly basis about that to try to make it happen.
Senator Gallagher raised the wonderful work done by the Irish Cancer Society. The main point from his contribution is that people need to realise that lifestyle can affect their health. It is something I have consistently worked on in the public health area. Legislation such as the Public Health (Alcohol) Act goes a long way. We need a public health Bill on obesity as well. Such legislation can go a long way in trying to educate the population - and it is hard to use the word "educate" without sounding condescending - as to how best to look after themselves so that they do not require care and do not get cancer. Cancer affects many families and Irish people are generous when it comes to voluntary contributions. It is good to have the opportunity to highlight the Daffodil Day initiative that is so successful every year.
Senator Craughwell raised 155 outstanding medals for members of the Defence Forces. There was a debate on defence last night and the matter could be raised as a Commencement debate. I do not have specific detail on that but I can follow up on it.
Senator Paddy Burke raised the issue relating to the Committee of Public Accounts and I have already made comments on that. Privilege is a privilege and should not be abused and nor should individuals who come into these Houses to help us get to the bottom of issues be put through the grandstanding and aggression I have witnessed in the past.
I have already addressed the issues raised by Senator Conway-Walsh regarding Biogen and Spinraza.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of local radio and we all concur with his view. I would be happy for there to be a debate on independent broadcasters. It is difficult to be an independent broadcaster but they provide an important service to their local communities.
Senator Warfield raised the issue of people refusing offers of local authority housing and the new policy that has been spoken about. There is a fine line when it comes to providing housing. There are probably rare or certain cases when people expect the ideal house to come up for them. I have sympathy for a teacher and a garda who cannot afford to live in Dublin and choose to live in Kildare or Wicklow, commute long distances and see little of their family. They have to live a long distance from where they would like to live. We have to provide decent social housing for people but there is a fine line. People who are working hard every day and travelling long distances to be able to live their lives are helping to provide for people who sometimes refuse houses in circumstances where they should not refuse them. That is a very wide debate that we could have.
It would be an idea to put that specific point down for a Commencement debate because the Senator could get a full answer from the Minister on that. Housing is an issue we should continually debate in the House. I would welcome an opportunity for Senator Warfield and others to be able to raise issues like that with the Minister.
Senator Devine has moved an amendment to the Order of Business which was seconded by Senators Ó Céidigh and Conway-Walsh: "That No. 14 be taken before No. 1." The Deputy Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept this amendment. Is that agreed? Agreed.