Thursday, 11 April 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Protocol No. 19, annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion re Protocol No. 21, annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, Thirty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Dissolution of Marriage) Bill 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2; and No. 4, motion re Thirty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Dissolution of Marriage) Bill 2016 - statement for the information of voters, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3, without debate.
I wish to raise the issue of home help hours. There is a serious crisis regarding home care packages, with elderly and other persons in need of hours or increased hours. In November, we learned that 550 extra home care packages would be made available, but this has not made a dent in terms of what is required. By way of a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, Deputy Browne, we have learned that, in the constituency of Dublin South-Central alone, 184 people are waiting for home care packages. That is not just 184 people, it is 184 families that are struggling without such packages. Some of the people in question might be looked after by relatives and others might be blocking beds in hospitals. We do not have an accurate number, but in its response the HSE stated, "While resources for the provision of Home Support ... are substantial, they are finite." and "We are currently operating a waiting list as we do not have funding available to meet increased demands for home care package or home support services." Clearly, the HSE is stating that it is not being funded properly and that it needs more funds to ensure that those in need of home support services get them. It is incumbent on the Minister to ensure that these services are properly resourced. I would like the Leader to relay to him my call for him to do so.
I also wish to discuss the Educate Together campaign for a secondary school to serve Dublin 8 and Dublin 12. The campaign group met the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, nearly two months ago but has not received any reply or follow-up from him. We have learned that a site has been acquired in Rathmines for a new school, but this will only serve the students of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4. Three new schools will be built - two in Dublin 6 and one in Dublin 4 - yet the children of Dublin 8 are told to go to Sandymount for school and the children of Dublin 12 have been told that they cannot attend any of these new schools. That is significantly unfair when there is a school in Harold's Cross on the doorstep of children who live in Dublin 12 and they are not being allowed access to it. This is a serious issue. Despite the Minister's meeting with the group, there has been no real feedback. What follow-up will there be? I will contact the Minister separately.
Will the Leader call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to attend the House in order to debate the provision of driver licences to asylum seekers? On a number of occasions I have raised the Supreme Court decision in NVH. v. Minister for Justice and Equality and ors. A judgment of profound significance and compassion, it was delivered by Mr. Justice Donal O'Donnell, who stated:
In my view, the point has been reached when it cannot be said that the legitimate differences between an asylum seeker and a citizen can continue to justify the exclusion of an asylum seeker from the possibility of employment. The damage to the individual's self worth, and sense of themselves, is exactly the damage which the constitutional right seeks to guard against. The affidavit evidence of depression, frustration and lack of self-belief bears that out.
Since this decision, the Government has announced that asylum seekers who have been waiting more than nine months for a determination on their first applications for refugee status will be able to apply for permission to work.
In the state of Illinois, which is my other home, we lobbied for and achieved the introduction of temporary visitor driving licences for undocumented persons working across the state. There is no reason for the same not to be done in Ireland. If asylum seekers are to be given the dignity of work in this country, something that I wholeheartedly support, it should follow that they have an entitlement to obtain a temporary driver licence for as long as they are lawfully allowed to work in this country. In light of the fact that many direct provision centres are outside main towns and cities, the Minister, Deputy Ross, informed the Lower House in September 2018 that he had asked his officials to re-examine the question of whether we should issue driver licences to asylum seekers.The Minister told the Dáil that he had asked his officials to re-examine whether we should issue driver licences to asylum seekers. He noted that some EU members states do so. I am calling on the Minister to come to the House to provide an update on the position and whether he will now introduce a system which facilitates those asylum seekers who have a legal right to work to obtain a driver licence.
I commend Senator Lawless on raising this very important issue. I work on many issues which relate to the rights of asylum seekers and those living in direct provision centres. The Mosney direct provision centre is in my area and I am proud to say I have many friends who, unfortunately, have occupied places in that centre for far too long. Given that the Supreme Court has adjudicated that asylum seekers in this country have a right to work, albeit restricted, to ensure that right to work is fully vindicated it should surely follow that those in direct provision centres should have the opportunity in Irish law to have access to a vehicle to enable them to get to their workplace. I fully support Senator Lawless's call for the Minister to come to the House.
I raise the issue of the Flemish Decree case with which many Members, particularly those from rural areas, will be familiar. The decree was issued by the European courts a short few years ago. Essentially, it calls into question the legitimacy of Ireland's very strict and restrictive local needs rules on once-off rural housing. I deal with many cases in my own area, in areas such as Clogherhead, Termonfeckin, Monasterboice and Tullyallen, involving individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of the local needs restrictions and are awaiting a determination from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on new guidelines that would reflect the Flemish decree case. We have very restrictive guidelines and many people are waiting to make decisions about purchasing sites. They may be living on the fringes of villages in areas where they are unable to buy a suitable home because none is available. The delay in the working group and Minister making a decision and issuing new guidance to local authorities means they are not purchasing sites which would enable them and their families to build the homes they need.
In response to a parliamentary question last year, the Minister stated very clearly that he and his Department would issue new guidelines to local authorities before the end of the year. However, in a more recent reply to my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, it was clear that the Minister has kicked the can down the road once again. I sense and fear that he is afraid to make a decision this side of the local elections. Young families who are hoping to build homes need clarity and certainty on this matter. As the European Courts have suggested, our rules are overly restrictive. I understand and accept that our rural planning guidelines need to be sustainable. I think everyone agrees on that point but we are in a difficult position owing to the current lack of clarity or certainty. People in County Louth, east Meath and throughout the country seek such certainty.
Thar ceann an grúpa Sinn Féin, ba mhaith liom cás Emma DeSouza agus cúrsaí saoránachta ó Thuaidh a ardú arís.
I draw Senators' attention to a motion in my name and the names of my Sinn Féin colleagues on the ongoing concerns about citizenship and citizenship rights in the North under the Good Friday Agreement, not least in the context of Brexit. Anyone who has been following these issues on social media will have seen the hashtag #weareIrishtoo and #IstandwithEmma. I have consistently raised Emma DeSouza's case in this House over the past two years. The case has brought the unimplemented aspects of the Good Friday Agreement relating to our citizenship rights into sharp focus. We know that the Good Friday Agreement confers on all of us the right to be accepted as Irish, British or both. I seek the support of the House for the motion, which I will not move until next week to give Senators an opportunity to digest its content and engage with the issue. I will seek an opportunity for the House to discuss the motion and the issues it raises. The latest extension in the Brexit fiasco has given us a degree of breathing space and of room to home in on this issue. A rally will be held at Belfast City Hall at 12 noon next Saturday under the banner "We are Irish Too". It has been organised by Ms DeSouza and the Think32 lobby group to draw attention to the issue, bring people together and, it is hoped, focus the minds of the two Governments on finding a resolution to this issue in the context of the Brexit negotiations and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Last week, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, responded to a Commencement matter I tabled on this matter. The thrust of her response was that the Government would await the review of these issues announced by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. It has subsequently transpired that the British Government will not hold a formal review and there are no terms of reference or timescale for the review. A vast glaring anomaly is staring at us as a result of Brexit and it illustrates how this crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement remains unfulfilled. If we do not sort it out, people will be further disenfranchised and a third tier of Irish citizenship will be created. We will no longer be second class citizens in the context of Brexit; we will be third class citizens. I ask that Members read the motion to get a feel for it. All parties have indicated support for Ms DeSouza and for securing a resolution to this issue. I hope that next week we will get the opportunity to discuss the motion with the Government prior to the Easter recess and as we face into the Brexit extension.
I welcome the outcome of talks held in Brussels late last night between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The extension to Brexit until 31 October gives some breathing space. There are now three options, namely, a referendum in the UK, a cross-party deal or an orderly Brexit. I congratulate all involved. We are not sure what will happen in the European elections. The UK has until 22 May to decide whether it will contest the elections. It is a complete mess. I thank all the negotiators involved for arriving at this solution which is in the interests of Ireland, the UK and the EU.
I ask the Leader to request that the Minister of State with responsibility for the elderly, Deputy Jim Daly, appear before the Seanad as soon as possible and that he overrule a decision taken by the Health Service Executive. Before Senator Feighan leaves, I should say that this is another blow to Roscommon, even if he campaigned for it. It seems that under the watch of his party's Government, community healthcare west has decided to evict ten male and two elderly patients from the Rosalie community psychiatric unit in Castlerea, County Roscommon. The decision was announced yesterday, 11 April, at a letter read at 8 a.m. to staff by Mr. Tony Canavan, HSE chief for the west. The families of the 12 patients were informed by letter yesterday. The campaign to overturn the HSE's decision and retain the Rosalie unit, which is led by Mr. Liam Walsh, a son of one of its residents, Breda, will continue.
Commitments were given by the former Minister of State, Kathleen Lynch, that the Rosalie unit would be retained. The facility was established when the former Don Arms Hotel was converted to a long-stay psychiatric unit following the closure of St. Patrick's psychiatric hospital in Castlerea, now Castlerea Prison. With accommodation for 32 patients, it is ideal for a nursing home for patients with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. It has trained and qualified professional staff and first-class facilities.I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, the Minister, the Fine Gael general election candidates, Senators Hopkins and Feighan, and Fine Gael council candidates to retain the Rosalie Unit. It is disgraceful that a Department and Minister would evict vulnerable elderly people. Michael Davitt would turn in his grave to think that an Irish Government would inflict this hardship on patients who need their home. They live there. It is their home. If they leave, it will kill them quickly. That is what it is all about.
I wish to raise the issue of overall care in the private hospital sector. It is interesting that in the UK, a person was convicted in the past few weeks with regard to carrying out unnecessary operations. It has been established that unnecessary mastectomies were carried out and that over 750 patients must now be compensated. This issue concerns accountability in the health service. While we have accountability in the HSE and I fully accept that every medical and nursing professional in the Irish health system, regardless of whether he or she works in the voluntary or private sector, works extremely hard and is extremely dedicated and committed, there is a need to make sure we have adequate supervisory capacity regarding procedures carried out to ensure that what occurred in the UK does not occur in any of our medical facilities here. Could we have a debate on this matter to see whether we have adequate supervisory mechanisms? While they exist in the public health system, I am not sure about accountability in the private system. I am not saying that there is an issue in any of our private hospitals. I have no doubt whatsoever that there is no such issue but it is important that we learn from the lesson in the UK to make sure it never arises here and that we have the procedures in place. Could this issue be brought to the Minister's attention and included in a debate in the near future?
I note a recent report on Dublin cycling figures. For the first time in over ten years, those figures have fallen. One would not have thought they were falling in my area because it is great to see so many people cycling, particularly with the weather yesterday. It is good for traffic. Reducing the number of people using cars is good for people's health, CO2 emissions and in many other ways. We need a debate here with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport that focuses purely on cycling. What tends to happen is that we have statements on transport matters, the Minister comes in and gives us a very long speech about his wonderful Department and his wonderful brief and we end up with people trying to chip in as quickly as they can covering a multitude of topics with a very short period of time in which to respond.
Cycling can be found in urban areas and also relates to sport and recreation but I am talking in particular about commuting in our major urban centres. We need to look at and tackle it. I would say that there are many reasons for the drop in the number of people cycling. It might be that the Luas has improved or the weather was bad or because of the effects of the cross-city Luas service, but we need to look at the issue. I cycle on occasions and have often cycled in here. It is a very reliable way of getting around, particularly when the weather is better, and is good for people who are still in cars. They should not be antagonistic towards cyclists, although only some of them are, because having fewer cars on the road benefits those who still drive.
I ask the Acting Leader to schedule a debate on open spaces and playing facilities, particularly in urban areas, because the same demand versus supply issue tends not to exist in more rural areas. It is an issue in many urban areas. I know Senator Ardagh has raised the issue of green spaces. There are many very successful clubs that are always crying out for more facilities and pitches to cope with the demand they are creating for the great service they provide. Clubs like Kilmacud Crokes, Ballinteer St. John's GAA Club and Naomh Olaf GAA Club in my area along with soccer and rugby clubs are all under pressure to deliver facilities for adults and particularly children. We talk about obesity. The Acting Leader has been very vocal and outspoken in a positive way about the dangers of screen time and not getting enough physical activity. I urge her to arrange a debate on that issue. We need sufficient facilities for all ages to use.
I wish to raise the plight of MS Ireland and the fact that about 12 months ago, sanction was provided for the post of specialist MS nurse at University Hospital Limerick to cover the mid-west. This position has not been filled. While there were all sorts of promises relating to the position being advertised, etc., and it has been advertised, it has still not been filled, which is very worrying. The number of people being diagnosed with MS is increasing. In the report that was done at the time, it was recognised that there should be at least three to four nurses in the mid-west region but even one would be of some support and consolation to MS Ireland. Could the Minister for Health come to the House to tell us when this post will be filled because we are now at a crucial point for MS Ireland?
I wish to raise the cross-border health directive and the urgent need for additional staff in that unit. As Members are aware, people who have been on a waiting list for a long time can avail of healthcare in another EU state and recoup the costs from the HSE. It can be availed of anywhere in Europe but the reality is that most people, including people from Monaghan, Cavan and elsewhere, will avail of that service in Northern Ireland. The scheme has proved very popular among those who, unfortunately, languish for long periods of time, many of them in pain, on waiting lists.
The scheme's popularity has exploded. In 2014, 57 processed applications for reimbursement went through that unit. In 2018, the figure exploded to 5,379. The one difficulty people have with this is the long delay in reimbursement. Some people are waiting up to five or six months to get money back, which puts great stress, strain and financial pressure on people awaiting reimbursement. I understand that the cross-border health directive unit has made representations to the Department on a number of occasions seeking additional funding for more staff but so far, that has not happened. I call on the Minister for Health to give additional resources and staff to that unit so that the backlog of people awaiting reimbursement for procedures undergone in Northern Ireland or elsewhere is fast tracked and expedited. Hopefully, the Acting Leader will put my request to the Minister.
The appearance of FAI officials before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport yesterday raises some issues, mainly those to do with procedure, that we should also consider in this House. I have not been a fan in the past of Oireachtas committees going too far and I certainly opposed the referendum that would have given Oireachtas committees the power to make findings and judgments that were adverse to people's reputations. At the same time, I do not like to see Oireachtas committees and elected representatives effectively treated with contempt by people with no respect for what they stand for, who they are supposed to represent and the process under which they are supposed to work
I must intervene at this juncture. First, we have no role in how Oireachtas committees work. Second, if there is an issue, the Chairman is the Chairman of that particular committee. I am not the Chairman of the committee. I have no function. I am not going to comment. Other avenues are open to anyone who feels harshly treated. It is very difficult. The committee system is independent of both Houses, and so it should be. If that were not the case, perhaps the Seanad or the Dáil would be able to put fetters on how the committees do their work. All I am saying to the Senator is to be very cúramach.
Beidh mé cúramach. I am getting to the point I want to make. I want to demonstrate how we can have an input into procedures. If a committee has a mandate to look into the governance of an organisation, it has to be able to ask questions that are pertinent to making judgments or bringing to light issues that may exist in relation to such governance.
That is the first point. If a person wishes to claim that he or she, on legal advice, cannot answer certain questions, it would be far better if that issue were teased out beforehand. For example, the specific questions to be asked could be disclosed, as far as possible, to the person being invited to come before the committee. There should be an onus on the witness to disclose in advance whether he or she believes certain questions go beyond the remit of a committee. We need to get to a situation where some kind of judgment can be made on that. We have seen it here in terms of how the Executive deals with the Legislature. It is too easy for people to rely on the idea that legal advice means they do not have to deal with a pertinent issue that is being put before them. I have no problem with compelling people to come before a committee to answer certain questions. The committee or the public can then judge how those questions are answered. There needs to be a way to deal with this situation in order that some kind of judgment can be made in advance to empower the committee to ask certain questions. The second issue was brought out in the comments made by the president of the FAI.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. He moved to reassure people that the funding which was received from Sport Ireland - from the State, in effect - had nothing to do with the employment and appointment decisions which the FAI made in respect of Mr. Delaney recently. That was both very unhelpful and very helpful. It was helpful in the sense that it revealed a certain mindset which considers that there is no need for the Oireachtas to worry about how an organisation is being governed as long as the money it provides to that organisation is being spent properly. That mindset ignores the obvious reality that money is fungible. If the Cathaoirleach gives me €50,000 to do a particular job, I can spend that €50,000 doing the job for him, but it also frees up other resources that I have from other sources to do whatever job I want. If the State is giving money directly or indirectly to an organisation, there has to be much more accountability than we saw at the committee yesterday. Having said that, people are within their rights to complain if politicians are grandstanding in the media one minute and asking questions at committees as representatives of the public the next minute. While the committee has to do its job of asking questions on behalf of the public, as Deputy Coppinger and others said, it is obvious that this situation calls for a very specific inquiry to be established by legislation. Somebody trustworthy should be able to ask any questions that need to be asked, get whatever answers he or she considers appropriate and put a report before these Houses.
I am calling for an inquiry to be established. It is the only way to get at the truth of these matters. People are worried. They have a fear of corruption. They do not know what is true and what is not true. Yesterday's committee meeting did very little to help people to get a better understanding of the situation. Obviously, this points to an inquiry.
I gave the Senator a lot of latitude. He should be aware that I was involved in the Abbeylara inquiry and I was the Chair of the Judge Curtin committee. Since then, the courts have put certain fetters on the workings and rights of committees and so on. That is still a live issue. This matter should be brought before the Dáil Committee on Procedure and the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I am not sure what avenues are open to those committees. I will certainly not pass judgment on what happened yesterday, other than to say that certain court decisions in some instances have poured scorn on and put serious roadblocks and fetters on the workings of committees in the direction suggested by the Senator.
I had not intended to contribute today, but I have just heard the newsflash about the arrest of Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. As the founder of WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange is an important and critical figure in international politics. I understand he may have been a fairly difficult guest. He was skateboarding along the corridors and everything. I do not wish to trivialise matters. There are very serious human rights implications here. It is possible that Mr. Assange will be extradited to the United States, where he is very unlikely to receive a fair trial. The American military is very aggravated by the release of information. As citizens of the world, we are deeply in the debt of Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks for the release of information about the surveillance of the public, military operations and so on. Mr. Assange did a remarkable job and so did WikiLeaks. Every decent fair-minded person should stand up and support him in the situation he finds himself in at the moment. It is a very awkward and very dangerous thing. He spent seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy. The Ecuadorian authorities have terminated this arrangement now. They invited the police in and the police arrested him. He will be appearing in court shortly. It is important for this House to send a message of support to Julian Assange.
I thank those who have raised issues on the Order of Business. I note the presence of Councillor Mike Cubbard from Galway in the Gallery and welcome him to the Seanad.
Senator Ardagh raised the long waiting list for home care packages. It is very unsatisfactory that almost 200 people are on the waiting list in Dublin. It strikes me that it might be worthwhile to raise this as a Commencement matter. I do not know the specific details. It seems to be a funding issue. If the Order of Business is anything to go by, there are plenty of issues that we could have the Minister for Health in to discuss. This is one of them.
Senator Ardagh also mentioned a campaign for an Educate Together secondary school. I do not want to keep saying that the matters raised on the Order of Business are suitable for Commencement debates, but I noted at least six such matters today. It seems from what the Senator said that an Educate Together secondary school is very much required in the areas of Dublin 2, Dublin 8 and Dublin 12. It seems to me that the Senator might get a satisfactory answer if she raises this as a Commencement debate matter. I can relay her concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills.
Senator Lawless highlighted the important issue of the provision of driver's licences to asylum seekers. He referred to Mr. Justice Donal O'Donnell's important judgment. I agree with the Senator that this needs to be looked at. We could debate this issue in the House with the Minister for Tourism, Transport and Sport in the near future. Senator Nash expressed his support for Senator Lawless on this issue.
Senator Nash spoke about the Flemish decree, which has been issued by the EU courts. It seems to me, having looked into this case recently, there is a certain unfairness at its core. I will come back to the Senator after I have spoken to the Minister about the matter. It needs to be looked at because it means that people cannot build in areas where they and people belonging to them have lived for many years.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the case of Emma DeSouza, as he has done on numerous occasions. It is very relevant in the context of the Brexit debate. He said that we are awaiting a review by Theresa May. I cannot imagine that her focus is on a review at the moment. It seems that the review might not happen in any event. I will bring this issue to the attention of the Minister. Clearly, it is unsatisfactory that citizens' rights are not being implemented in the manner that was intended in the Good Friday Agreement. I understand the Senator's frustration in this regard.
Senator Feighan spoke about Brexit developments and complimented those involved in bringing us to a point at which another interim solution has been proposed. It is a little like Groundhog Day. For our part, we have done our bit in supporting the UK in getting the best result it can.
Senator Leyden raised the issue of a home in County Roscommon. I am trying to find the name of the property. Having spoken to Senator Hopkins recently, I know for a fact that she has been working very hard on this issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly; the Minister, Deputy Harris; and the Taoiseach's office have been working on it for the past year and a half. There is a need for constructive and proactive action.We need answers on how we support these residents and deal with the future of this unit. It strikes me as an issue that would be worth raising as a Commencement matter. Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of the health service supervisory role and I think the debate he suggested on the supervisory mechanism, particularly in the private sector, is a very good suggestion. As usual, the Senator is very much in tune with the health service.
Senator Horkan raised the issue of cycling and I commend him for doing so. His suggestion that we have a debate on that is a no-brainer. It is disappointing if numbers are reducing. Like the Senator, I feel there are more people on bikes but maybe there are not. The debate could perhaps address activity levels and cycling generally. The point the Senator makes about drivers being frustrated with cyclists and not treating them as well as they might is valid. Not many of them actually think, "thank God he is on a bike because otherwise I would be a longer time waiting at traffic lights." That debate would be very worthwhile.
Senator Byrne referred to the MS society and the need for a specialist nurse in Limerick, and indicated that three or four are necessary although one has been promised. It seems to be a funding issue and, going back to contributions from other Senators, it is something we clearly could raise with the Minister in a debate. There is a need for the Minister for Health to come into the House sooner rather than later. It would also be a good issue to raise on a Commencement debate.
Senator Gallagher raised the cross-border health directive unit, which is a very important issue. It is an excellent initiative. I spoke to somebody recently who had a hip operation and it all went very smoothly. Perhaps that person was not as concerned as others might be about getting the refund quickly. That is a significant issue for people as the amount can be up to €10,000 or €15,000. It needs to be fast-tracked. It strikes me as an issue that would be suitable for a Commencement debate to get a more specific answer from the Minister.
In response to Senator Mullen, I think we were all frustrated by how things developed yesterday at the committee before which the FAI appeared. It is extremely frustrating that witnesses who were there to facilitate the committee in coming to conclusions and getting to the bottom of an issue could just use legal advice and show an unwillingness to answer questions. I agree with the Cathaoirleach's point that reviewing this issue at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is probably the most appropriate course of action. As the Senator said, there is a necessity to empower committees in that sense.
I am coming to the Senator's final point about an inquiry. The question as to whether there will be an inquiry is above my pay grade as such but when we see what happened yesterday, unless there are serious changes in the FAI, one would imagine there just has to be an inquiry. I cannot imagine how the FAI could leave a committee meeting like that after all that was put to it and not seriously change how it does business. There may be political intervention and, if there is, it is something I would welcome.
Senator Norris raised the issue of Julian Assange, which is just unfolding. I am not sure of the exact details. As the Senator said, there is potential for serious human rights issues and no doubt our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is keeping an eye on it.