Tuesday, 14 May 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Sectoral Employment Order (Construction Sector) 2019, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and adjourned at 6.20 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 3, Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018 – Second Stage, to be taken at 6.20 p.m., with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and to all other Senators not to exceed five minutes each.
I refer to the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units attached to schools and the lack thereof. There is a serious lack of these units in schools in Dublin 6, Dublin 6W, Dublin 8 and Dublin 12. I asked my colleague Deputy James Browne to table a question to the Minister to ask how many persons were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the south central area of Dublin. We received a reply from the HSE stating there was no comprehensive national or local children's disability database that gathered data for children with autism spectrum disorder or other diagnostic groups. That is remarkable, especially when huge funds are allocated to autism services. It is most important to find out where the children who need these services are in order that funds can be directed accordingly. There is a huge demand for ASD units in the Dublin 6, 6W, 8 and 12 areas. The lack of statistics alone shows how low this issue is on the Government's agenda. Will the Leader bring this matter to the attention of the Minister to ensure accurate statistics will be gathered and that we will allocate funding on the basis of those statistics to ensure the children who need these services will receive them?
The second issue I would like to raise concerns the early childhood care and education scheme. This fantastic scheme was introduced by Fianna Fáil. One of the problems with it is that it is so fantastic that many crèches are closing their new baby wards such that families are finding it very difficult to find childcare places for babies aged from six to 12 months. This is creating problems. Crèches are closing their baby rooms because their toddler rooms are so successful under the scheme. I ask the Minister to take a look at this and look at ways by which we can ensure people will have access to childcare places for very young babies. The final issue I wish to raise concerns WhatsApp. I was extremely surprised to learn there had been a hacking of WhatsApp and that spyware or malware has infiltrated the application. It is an application many of us use on a daily basis and we all have many groups on it. I encourage people to ensure they download the update. We all must be careful of the applications we use on our phones and ensure they are secure. Perhaps we need to consider the introduction of further legislation to ensure that what has occurred in this instance does not happen again and to heighten awareness among people to ensure their phones are constantly upgraded and the apps downloaded on phones are renewed to ensure they are not vulnerable to malware or spyware.
On the final issue adverted to by my colleague concerning WhatsApp, we should always be aware of the fact that all software is constantly under threat from criminal elements. They are working ahead of us all the time and the problem for us is that we have to catch them. Our cybersecurity network structure is excellent at the job its does, and we should acknowledge that at this time.
I wish to raise two points with the Leader. We heard yesterday that the cost of renting an apartment in Sandyford is €2,100 per month. The cost of a mortgage for the same apartment is €1,350 per month. That indicates there is quite a bonanza for those who can afford to buy a number of apartments. I acknowledge there is no Member of this House who is not concerned about the issue of homelessness and the various other problems with respect to housing. I have raised previously the possibility of easing the banking rules. A relation of mine has spent €87,000 on rent in the past seven year. That person could have bought an apartment and be well into the repayments of the mortgage at this stage had there been access to a mortgage but the problem is this person cannot save the deposit. Where will this person get the deposit when paying out that sort of money on rent? From that point of view, could the Leader arrange for the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform to come to the House to debate this issue and outline what influence can be brought to bear on the Central Bank with respect to the rules that apply.
The second issue I wish to raise concerns the Defence Forces. First and foremost, I want to acknowledge the report in today's edition of The Irish Times that there is some ease for the Defence Forces with respect to their pay claims. I compliment the Public Service Pay Commission, the Defence Forces, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Chief of Staff, in particular, for the work they have done in trying to secure this. I hope other public servants would not see this as a bonanza for everybody to jump on the bandwagon. The Defence Forces have been at the bottom of the heap for quite some time.
Yesterday the Minister told the Dáil that 200 members of the Defence Forces had availed of sick leave. It has been seen as an extraordinary high number. I ask people to bear in mind that members of the Defence Forces are constantly working in very physical roles. It is not uncommon for people to break their legs, have back injuries or various other injuries. The problem is that we do not have the infrastructure within the Defence Forces to treat those members and, in many cases, they have to go on to the public waiting list. That is where the differential kicks in. Commissioned officers have access to private health insurance whereas 85% of the members of the Defence Forces who are service men and women, enlisted men and women, non-commissioned officers, etc., do not have the funding to afford private healthcare and, as such, they are dependent on the public health system. God be with the days when I was in the Army where if one got sick there were the hospitals one could attend and one was treated totally by the Defence Forces. Sadly, that is not the case any more. I do not want the message to go out that we now have malingerers in the Defence Forces. People need to realise that members of the Defence Forces abseil out of helicopters, engage in extremely physical activities and quite a number of them are involved in sporting activities. By their very nature, these activities bring injuries with them and, as such, there is a backlog of cases to be treated. I will leave it at that.
At the weekend we heard the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform comment on the national broadband plan. When asked about possible knock-on effects of the spend on the national broadband plan, he rejected any notion that Government plans for tax breaks would be affected. He effectively said, no matter what the cost of the national broadband plan, money would still be found to cut taxes. In other words, we should not worry, the money would be found. That is an extraordinary statement. I call on the Minister for Finance to come to the House to discuss this obsession with tax cutting above all else. Terse answers have been given to the likes of patients waiting for life-saving drugs. Schoolchildren are waiting on the delivery of proper school buildings. Older citizens have had their home care hours slashed in recent years while people are desperately waiting on housing lists, yet the priority, as stated again at the weekend by the Minister for Finance, is tax cuts. The ideological obsession with tax cuts at the expense of everything else is completely at odds with the reality for so many people today in terms of the health and housing crisis.
There is a striking contrast in terms of the experience of the 17,000 SIPTU members in the health service, who will complete a ballot for strike action this week. These people are porters, chefs and support staff who have honoured the Lansdowne Road agreements, who have gone through a job evaluation process and who have been awarded money through that process but are now being snubbed by the Minister for Finance. The Minister sits in breach of his own Lansdowne Road agreement. He cannot find money for those workers, but he will find money for tax cuts. Last night I met childcare workers in Clare, as part of SIPTU’s Big Start campaign. They are people on abysmally low wages who have campaigned for years but the Minister can find no money for them either. What does that tell us about the priorities of Fine Gael in government? They are tax cuts, tax cuts and tax cuts. The health service is in crisis and housing is in the worst crisis of the history of the State, but the Minister can only make one guarantee, namely, regardless of what else happens in the State, he will deliver tax cuts for his wealthy friends. It is high time for a debate on this issue.
I was very struck by the comments of a Fine Gael spokesperson on TV last night on the rent crisis. He said that if it is given time, the rent crisis will work itself out. People who are renting simply do not have time. Every month expensive rental accommodation sees them further away from ever having a home of their own. This evening in the Dáil there will be a debate to enshrine the right to a home into the Constitution. Sinn Féin is proud to take that stance today. I do not wonder what position Fine Gael will take; it will oppose it. Perhaps we need a real debate on the ideological chasm that exists in this Chamber. Fine Gael and its obsession with tax cuts are costing the people of this country far too much.
Before I make my main point I wish to pay my respects to Fidelma Doonan, an usher in the Houses, whose brother died suddenly yesterday. He happens to also be my nephew's grandad. That is how I became aware of it and I thought it would be nice to pay my respects to Fidelma.
I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 19 would be taken before No. 1. Today, I intend to introduce the Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill 2019 to the Seanad. The Bill aims to fix an urgent problem with the Electoral Acts, which currently sees valid political advocacy by civil society organisations and community groups treated as electoral activity by the Standards in Public Office Commission. As a result, it attaches disproportionately high, stringent and unfair financial declaration requirements to the work. The interference by the State in the political lobbying activities of civil society groups was an unintended consequence of an amendment made to the Electoral Acts 18 years ago. The amendment was made to the Bill responsible in the Seanad during a Committee Stage debate on 14 June 2001. It is an urgent issue that has seen some civil society groups forced to close their doors in the face of the high compliance standards required, such as Education Equality, a group of concerned parents who came together to work for secular education. We must support groups of ordinary people who want to organise together to agitate for positive change and yet the laws just get in the way. Ireland is a world leader in civil society advocacy, including to the UN Human Rights Council and the European Union, yet European Union fundamental rights agencies and the Standards in Public Office Commission criticise the law domestically. It undermines us internationally and opens us up to charges of hypocrisy and needs reform.In a Commencement debate in the Seanad on 29 November last year the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, admitted that he was aware of the problem and the concerns expressed and saw its potential resolution within the process to set up a new electoral commission. However, this process could feasibly take years to come to fruition, whereas the current issue needs to be resolved in a timely fashion. That is why I am tabling the Bill today. I thank colleagues in the Civil Engagement group, the Independent group, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party for co-sponsoring the Bill which I hope to see receive cross-party support in the House in the near future. The problem has been caused by bad legislation and has damaged Ireland's vibrant civil society space. It is our responsibility as legislators to fix it.
I second Senator Ruane's proposed amendment to the Order of Business.
The issue I want to raise is the spiralling cost of insurance. I know that it has been discussed in the House, but it is urgent. Last week we heard, for example, that the Ballina Salmon Festival was not being run this year because of the high cost of insurance. Just today I was contacted by the principal of St. Teresa's special school in Ballinasloe and told that the cost of insurance had risen last year from €3,221 to €19,199, a colossal increase. The school contacted the school governance board and the database section of the Department of Education and Skills, but it got nowhere. It used money it had fundraised to meet the bill, but on Friday last it received an email from the patron to say Allianz Insurance's quote for this year had risen again, this time to a staggering €26,317. The Department suggested the school try to negotiate with the insurance company and offer to pay in monthly or other instalments, but the insurance company flatly refused to negotiate with the school and stated it had two days to make up its mind. The school made up its mind, but it has no way of paying the cost of the insurance. It is going to have to close. The issue is really urgent and I ask the Leader to raise with the Minister for Education and Skills.
I am reading with concern about the appointments that may be made in the Football Association of Ireland, FAI, and about how some influence might be brought to bear by what are perceived to be Government agencies, if not by the Government itself. It is important that every organisation in the country maintain its independence. I am not saying there is interference, but I understand some people within the organisation are concerned that if it is perceived to be the case, the governing body at international level may decide to cease giving the FAI the financial support it requires. I am sorry about being a little vague, but I am concerned that I have received a number of calls about the matter. The last thing we need is for funding for any organisation to be withdrawn because of a perception, rather than what is actually happening on the ground. It is important that that be made clear. I understand fully that there is a need for full and thorough oversight of every organisation that is receiving state aid, including the FAI, which is accountable for that funding and making sure it is assigned to the areas for which it was given on the first day, but that does not give any Government agency or the Minister the right to interfere in how an appointment is subsequently made. It is important that a clear message be sent that the FAI does retain its independence and that the only concern we have is in respect of Government funding and making sure it is used in the appropriate way.
I raise an issue in Bagenalstown, County Carlow, where there is an ongoing protest. Last week Irish Rail confirmed that it was going to downgrade the service provided in Bagenalstown train station to use of an automated machine.It states it will no longer have a stationmaster on site and will subcontract maintenance of the station. The stationmaster will be relocated to another station which already has adequate staff. In 2017, the station was thought so beautiful that An Post captured it on a commemorative stamp. We now hear Irish Rail plans to lease it out. To say it is not busy enough to keep it manned is unacceptable in a rural town. People in towns such as Bagenalstown matter. This issue is so important. We speak about rural areas but Bagenalstown, which has one of the most beautiful railway stations in Ireland, is now being told the man who runs the station will be going somewhere else. That is unacceptable.
Irish Rail has told us 80% of users avail of online ticketing and that only 20% of passengers go into the station to buy tickets. That does not matter. What about the 20%, who need to have the service in the railway station? I have been informed by Irish Rail that a staff member will disembark at all stations to help with machine tickets and acceptability issues. I worry that we are slowly destroying rural Ireland and its way of life.
Transport poverty and accessibility are social and environmental issues. More than one in four people living with a disability do not use public transport due to accessibility reasons. What we are now seeing will further prevent the use of public transport at a time when we need to be considering ways to reduce our carbon footprint. I am very concerned that, without a staff presence in Bagenalstown, there will be an increase in anti-social behaviour. The issue of maintenance needs to be examined but we also must consider the requirements of people who need help - the 20%; they matter. They include older people who do not use online services and those with disabilities. My office telephone has been ringing for the past week. I have been contacted by older people, in particular. They are so concerned about this. Individuals with disabilities are also ringing me. A disability rack may be pulled out for wheelchairs users. College and schoolgoing children also use the services in the station. What is occurring is unacceptable. Irish Rail cannot afford to be turning away customers. I fear this is what is going to happen.
I will talk to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport about this. I believe what I describe is happening across the board. It is happening in Athy and it has happened in Thomastown. It is unacceptable that rural Ireland is being forgotten. We have to ensure that we provide the services to the people. God be with the days when one said, "Hello", to everyone. One went into the train station and people said, "Hello", and asked how things were. Are we changing all this? Are we going to live in a society in which we will be going online for everything? That is unacceptable.
The declaration of a national emergency in Ireland owing to climate change is welcome. We can declare all these emergencies but we have got to stay focused and on target. We are aware that we have a global problem and we need global solutions.
I wish to allude to the meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly that took place over the past three days. The Leas-Chathaoirleach was present. We had an excellent presentation from the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Richard Bruton. The meeting was interesting because of the considerable engagement and the questions. The Minister responded to all the questions, and queues of additional people wanted to engage with him on them. We would benefit by having the presentation here, if possible. The Minister was exceptional. Everyone from all the jurisdictions talked about a Minister who was totally on top of his brief. He was asked many questions and had no idea what questions would be asked. He responded very well. It would be good to see him here.
I attended the beef summit in Galway last week. There were many parliamentarians there, as there were city and county councillors, particularly from Galway but also from other parts of the country. One of the points arising in the environmental debate is that of a just transition. We need to concentrate on that. I would like to hear more from the Minister on it. There has to be a just transition. Certain groups will suffer more than others. We have to guard against that. Just transition is a really important aspect.
Let me refer to agriculture, producers and farmers in regard to just transition. This issue is important. If we want to achieve targets, we have to incentivise. We have not used the word "incentivise". I believe in incentivising people. I would like to hear more about just transition and how we can incentivise people. We have a plan and targets but we have to incentivise people to succeed. If it all possible, and if it fits in with the schedule of the Minister, whom I realise is busy because he has a lot going on, he should be invited to make his presentation to the Seanad. Senators would benefit from it and perhaps from the opportunity to ask a few questions. The Leas-Chathaoirleach will agree the presentation was very positive. There was a lot of engagement.It is an important issue that should also be aired in Seanad Éireann.
I echo the remarks made by my colleague, Senator Murnane O'Connor, about unmanned train stations. It is not only a feature of rural Ireland as many of the railway stations in Dublin have been unmanned for quite a long time. That has led to a degree of anti-social behaviour at those stations because the person who manned the station acted as an early-warning signal. He or she could see what was happening at the station, who was getting on the train and if there was a problem. A passenger could step off the train and tell the person manning the station of a problem happening on a train. We need to be cautious. The Government is working out the cost of everything and the value of nothing. There is real value in manning railway stations.
I wish to raise a matter close to the Leader's heart. I welcome the Cork area transport strategy that was announced today. It has the potential to change Cork for the better over the coming decade but I have slight concerns. I hope the National Transport Authority, NTA, has learned lessons from community engagement in Dublin. Many people from the Labour Party in Cork have been on to me today voicing their support but they also want an extension of the consultation period which currently runs until 28 June. Cork is in the middle of local and European election campaigns and a plebiscite about whether there will be a directly-elected mayor for Cork. Those Labour Party representatives feel it would benefit the city if the consultation period was extended. I echo their calls and ask the Leader to engage with the Minister to see if he will extend the consultation period. The citizens of Cork need to have ownership of the transportation plan for the city. They need an opportunity to input their ideas. I hope we do not end up in conflict with communities as has been the case in Dublin.
Consultation can be done well and properly. An extension to the consultation period at this stage would benefit any transport strategy for the city.
Recent figures released by the Department of Health show that the number of persons awaiting a child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, appointment stood at 2,738 at the end of March 2019. That figure represents an increase of 6% on the previous month.
More worrying is the fact that the number who have been waiting more than a year for an appointment has jumped to 336. That figure represents a leap of 13.5%. I know one young family in County Monaghan which has been waiting somewhere between three and four years and are still awaiting an appointment. It is vitally important that we remember that there are real people behind those figures - children, their parents and families, who are left suffering while waiting for an appointment.
Something needs to be done about this. I ask that the Minister comes to this House to advise us of the strategy he intends to adopt in order to alleviate this serious problem so that families and children will not be kept waiting for an appointment that is needed.
I join with Senator Ruane in offering our sympathies to Ms Fidelma Doonan on the very sad death of her brother.
I welcome Ms Rose Barford from County Wicklow who is a transition year student on work experience in the Seanad Office. I wish her well and hope she has a pleasant experience. She will learn a lot in the course of her week working here.
I thank the ten Members of the House for their contributions on the Order of Business. In response to Senator Ardagh, and linked to Senator Gallagher's contribution, the Government is committed to ensuring that every child with special educational needs receives a thorough and proper education. That is why the budget for meeting special educational needs has increased to €1.75 billion, a 43% increase since 2011 and 18.79% of the overall education budget.Since 2011, the number of special needs schools has increased in Dublin and throughout the country. There are 37 special schools and 235 special classes. There has been an increase in ASD special classes in County Dublin from 66 to 195. There are issues that Senators Ardagh and Gallagher raised that need to be tackled, particularly CAMHS. It is a source of worry that there is a waiting lists and that there are issues around CAMHS. Perhaps some of it relates to the way we categorise and diagnose people now. There is a need for more resourcing, but it is not as simple an issue as resources. It is not just that one-dimensional point about which the Senator spoke.
Regarding the early childcare matter raised by Senator Ardagh, I would be happy to have information on that given to the Senator. Through the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Government is very much targeting the early childcare sector because, as we all know, early intervention-----
I will come back to the Senator about that. I do not have the reply to hand but I will give it to her. Early years formation is important in terms of early intervention and early investment is critical but I will get the information on that for the Senator.
Regarding the issue relating to WhatsApp raised by Senators Ardagh and Craughwell, it is important that the Data Protection Commissioner, who is working with the organisation, counteracts any type of infiltration of our data. It is a source of worry and highlights the dangers posed by the new forms of technology we have.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will be here later on to answer Senators Craughwell and Gavan. In respect of his one-dimensional Sinn Féin speech, Senator Gavan always comes in and talks about the philosophy of Fine Gael. The philosophy of Fine Gael is to give people a society in which they can live, grow, develop and flourish. That is what we are about, which is why we have more people back at work and the highest housing budget, about which the Senator spoke. Construction is taking place. It is slower than we had hoped.
Senator Gavan has a one-dimensional approach to housing, which is to have everything in the public domain. That does not work and has not worked. It has never worked. We need a combination of everything. We will have that debate with the Minister later on and I look forward to hearing more from Senator Gavan about his proposals and policies relating to housing that can help address the matter. Putting down simple motions does not address the issue of building and moving people we meet every day of every week through our work from bedsits, family hubs or hotel rooms into proper accommodation. We all accept that it is slow. None of us is hiding the fact that we have a housing need that needs to be addressed, but it cannot happen just like that. We have seen an increase in investment in the housing budget. If the Senator travels to my city of Cork, I will bring him to many sites where social housing is being constructed, where people are being taken out of homelessness and where the budget for housing and homelessness has increased. I will gladly bring the Senator to Cork to show him those sites.
Senator Craughwell also raised the issue of the Defence Forces. We will have that debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, in due course. We all look forward to the publication of the report of the Public Sector Pay Commission on the matter. I would be happy to accept Senator Ruane's amendment to the Order of Business. I thank her for bringing forward her Bill.
Senator Norris raised the issue of insurance. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, has been in the House a couple of times recently to address the matter. The Government is committed to tackling the issue of insurance. There is the political will to solve the issue raised by Senator Norris. We need to address a compendium of matters in terms of the costs being awarded by the courts. The Government is bringing forward four pieces of legislation, particularly the Judicial Council Bill, that will have a positive effect on insurance. The Minister of State and the Government are determined to solve the problem. I think we must all agree that the level of awards is one such worry.We need to address the compensation payment culture from both a legislative and cultural point of view. The Personal Injuries Commission made 44 recommendations. The level of payments for soft tissue injuries at 4.4 times those in the UK is a source of concern. I understand a case over monopoly in the insurance industry will come before the European courts this week. The insurance companies also have a critical role to play and cannot be let off the hook.
Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of the Football Association of Ireland, FAI. I do not want to stray into the internal issues of that organisation. Those of us in this House who are sports people and are interested in the welfare of all sports, but in this case soccer, recognise that the FAI has a job of work to do to clean up its house and to restore confidence in the way in which it manages its affairs. Outside influence from political or other quarters is not helpful. There is concern that UEFA payments could be suspended. I understand that represents about €16 million to the FAI. I hope all of us involved in politics, in government and in the wider Oireachtas, will allow the FAI to appoint its own CEO and get its house in order by appointing a new board and by bringing in new governance structures. The work being done on the ground is of enormous benefit to many communities across the country. We all want to see a vibrant strong FAI with proper governance and that means working with UEFA. I hope that will happen because the suspension of further funding will not help the sport of football at grassroots level.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of Bagenalstown rail station and Senator Humphreys raised the issue of unmanned stations. I am not familiar with the situation. I know that an additional 7.10 a.m. service from Bagenalstown was added which showed that Irish Rail is committed to the route. The Senator did not mention that in her contribution.
I agree with Senator Murnane O'Connor that there is a movement away from the interpersonal communication which applies when calling any organisation. Eircom has become appalling in its customer care, as have the banks. There now seems to be no interface with a person; it is all through a machine. Over the phone customers are put on hold for an inordinate amount of time with no resolution. I hope we will not lose that personal communication. I share the Senator's concern over self-serve kiosks. There are people in a hurry who do not have the capacity to use the machine. It is an issue we should address as a society. On a number of occasions I have made the point that banks do not want to see people inside their buildings. I am a Bank of Ireland customer and I refuse to go onto Banking 365 because I want to be able to go in. I know I am probably old-fashioned-----
The Senator could very well be right.
Senator Boyhan raised the very important issue of climate change and I would be happy to facilitate having the Minister, Deputy Bruton, coming back to the House. Senator Humphreys had a very good suggestion about a rolling debate on climate change, something we did prior to the Christmas recess. We will come back to that again. I will arrange to have the Minister, Deputy Bruton, come back to the House because the issue of climate change is very important.
Senator Humphreys welcomed today's publication of the new ambitious metropolitan transport strategy for Cork, which I welcome.The €1 billion light rail network proposed for Cork is both innovative and necessary. I hope we can see the period of consultation extended, as Senator Humphreys said, and I exhort all involved to extend it. This is about the future of Cork. It is going to 2040 and the more engagement we can have the better the outcome will be for our metropolitan transport strategy. It is an investment of €1 billion in light rail and €545 million in BusConnects. We are extending the routes from 14 km to 100 km and increasing walking and cycling propositions to the people of Cork. I welcome it and commend those involved in the draft publication.
We need to get this right. If that means extending the consultation period, let us do that, given we saw the benefit of this in Dublin. I know Anne Graham was on the "News at One" today making comments about listening to people and it is important that people are listened to.
I answered Senator Gallagher on CAMHS. I am happy to accept Senator Ruane's amendment to the Order of Business.