Wednesday, 3 July 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Redress for Women Resident in Certain Residential Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m.; No. 2, Civil Law (Presumption of Death) Bill 2016 - Report and Final Stages, No. 3, Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2018 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken on conclusion of No. 2 and to adjourn at 3 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 4, Statements on EU-Mercosur trade agreement, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to conclude at 4.30 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, time may be shared and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 5, Social Welfare Bill 2019 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and to adjourn no later than 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed six minutes; and No. 6, Private Members' business, Criminal Justice (Judicial Discretion) (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and to adjourn after 60 minutes.
I join the Cathaoirleach in extending on behalf of the House a céad míle fáilte to Senator Lawless's wife, Anne, and their family. I know they celebrated a significant wedding anniversary last weekend. She has a lot to put up with, in fairness. I am not sure if she signed up for him to be a Seanad spokesman for the transatlantic diaspora. His appointment was significant. I welcome his family and I thank them for being here. I thank their father and husband for his contribution, the building of bridges and the creation of a voice for the diaspora. They should enjoy their day. It is good to have them here. I hope the Boston Red Sox will beat the Chicago Cubs in baseball.
Continuing the good mood, at least initially, I also welcome Senator Lawless's wife, Anne, his two sons and two daughters along with their partners and children. I was lucky enough to be in America last year and I spent a couple of nights in Chicago. They were very welcoming to me. Senator Lawless has been a fantastic addition to this Seanad. He is doing fantastic work not just for the diaspora and the transatlantic relationship, but also on many other issues. We worked quite well last year on, for example, the Intoxicating Liquor (Amendment) Bill 2017 to allow licensed premises to sell alcohol on Good Friday. He has been a great addition to the House.
The Leader should not take any of this personally, but I need to raise a few points. A report by the living wage technical group proposes that the living wage should increase by 40 cent. The challenge relates to the supply of affordable housing to buy or rent. The Mercer annual cost-of-living survey highlighted that Dublin remains the most expensive city in the eurozone, primarily due to its high rents. According to daft.ie, single people in Dublin spend 58.8% of their net take-home pay on rent while those living in towns pay 33% of their income on rent.This is not a criticism of the Government as such, but we all acknowledge that the cost of housing has gone up so much that it is unaffordable for first-time buyers in Dublin, in the commuter belt generally and in other cities and towns. The Government is doing a certain amount in terms of supply, but we cannot underestimate how much supply is needed. It is crucial that we take action without delay in this regard.
I refer briefly to the nomination of Germany's defence minister, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, as President of the European Commission. When the news emerged last night, some of us thought she might be a relative of Senator Leyden. However, there is no "d" in her surname, so there is probably no connection after all. Ms von der Leyen has been a staunch supporter of Britain's remaining in the European Union. Her description of Brexit as a loss for everyone is something with which most of us in this House concur. Brexit is, above anything else, a lose-lose situation. I hope she will be successful in her term as President. We will have statements later today on the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which is very important in the context of Brexit. We are looking at the possibility of up to 99,000 tonnes of additional beef coming into the EU market at a time when Britain is leaving, or potentially leaving, the Union. It is a huge challenge for us and I welcome the debate.
We heard yesterday from the Minister for Health of further overspending in the health service. The additional expenditure of €13 million in April brings the overspend for the first four months of the year to €216 million. While I wish Mr. Paul Reid, former chief executive of Fingal County Council, all the best in his new job as director general of the Health Service Executive, we must have an examination of how these moneys are being spent and why expenditure is going over budget continually. A particularly pressing issue is the situation of the 6,000 people seeking home help hours. If that provision were granted, people would be able to move out of healthcare facilities and return home. It is a no-brainer in terms of the HSE's budget because the more home help hours are provided, the fewer people there are in hospitals clogging up the system. Those people neither need nor want to be hospital, but they cannot go home in the absence of home help provision. Will the Leader invite the Minister to the House to explain how he is managing the budget or, more accurately, not managing the budget as well as we would like him to?
The next speaker indicating is Senator Lawless, who represents the diaspora. I do not know if he might like to relate the story of when, being not long married, his wife came to his assistance one day when he was milking a cow. It might not be an appropriate story for the Order of Business.
I will leave it for another day. Once told might be enough in this instance. I welcome my family and close friends from Chicago who are in the Gallery today. Last week I welcomed the announcement by the Government of its intention to publish the scheme of a Bill to facilitate a referendum on whether members of the diaspora should be entitled to vote in presidential elections. We have already seen the emergence of a number of myths designed to instil fear in an electorate that has shown itself time and again to be brave enough to ignore such misinformation and say "Yes". I am confident that this generation we will see through the scaremongering that has begun. One letter writer to The Sunday Timeslast weekend was concerned that the sheer number of Irish voters living abroad could "distort any election result". What does this person mean by "distort"? Did those who came home to vote in recent referenda distort the vote on those occasions? Did their willingness to catch boats, trains and planes home to express their democratic view on issues affecting their nation amount to a distortion of our values? I say, "Absolutely not".
Before the referendum, I urge Irish people to ask themselves what type of person is likely to turn up at the Irish Embassy in Washington or London to have their say in who should be the next President of Ireland? Is it someone who does not care about our nation or about what it means to be Irish in the 21st century? Or is it someone who actively wants to remain part of the Irish community even when not living on this island? The evidence from overseas is that those who take the bother of going to their embassy or exercising a postal vote are people who are actively interested in what is happening in their home country. It was recently reported in Australia that of those living abroad who were eligible to vote in recent elections in that country, just 16% chose to do so. If passed, this referendum will allow all eligible citizens to vote in Irish presidential elections. That opportunity will be taken up by those who engage in the campaign and with the presidential candidates vying for their vote and setting out a global image of Ireland.
We are among just three EU countries having a directly elected president which do not allow emigrants a say in elections for that office. I am extremely proud, as an Irishman and a European, that since joining the Union, Ireland has always championed its relationship with its diaspora as more than just one of economic transactions but, rather, as one comprising a community of ideas and nations. We should bring ourselves in line with our fellow European citizens who freely move and work across the Continent and allow their emigrants a vote in elections. Twenty-four European Union countries already do this. What is there to fear in our doing the same? Imagine the message we will send to the world if we say "Yes" in October just as our neighbour is shutting down its borders and making an historic mistake of catastrophic proportions? In Britain's scheduled exit from the Union, we will have an opportunity once again to show how broad are our shoulders and how open are our minds to what it truly means to be an Irish man or woman in 2019.
I thank those who took part in the Dublin Pride demonstrations at the weekend. Unfortunately, I was speaking in Kells and could not attend. I definitely had a case of FOMO - fear of missing out - looking at the pictures on Instagram and seeing how special the parade was, as it always is. Considering the origins of Pride as an active protest movement, it was great to see the grassroots activist group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP, leading the parade and putting at the centre of the day's events its incredibly important message that, due to health advancements, persons on active HIV medication cannot pass on the virus to sexual partners. I welcome the news that the HIV preventative medication, pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP, will soon be available free of charge through the HSE, thanks in no small part to the incredible advocacy of organisations like ACT UP.
In the context of the huge and visible support for the broader LGBT Pride parade in Dublin last weekend, I draw Members' attention to what will be a smaller but no less important demonstration, namely, Dublin's Trans Pride parade, which takes place this coming Saturday from the Garden of Remembrance. Ireland has an incredible record in recent years of increasing the acceptance and visibility of the transgender community, most notably through the Gender Recognition Act, which is one of the few laws in the world that allows for legal self-identification of gender. Our colleague, Senator Humphreys, deserves credit for advancing that legislation during his time as Minister of State. However, transgender people in Ireland still experience disproportionately high levels of marginalisation and discrimination. The demonstration this Saturday is about highlighting and opposing all forms of transphobia. Gender identity must be recognised within our anti-discrimination laws. In particular, we need hate crime legislation that encompasses all types of racial and LGBT hatred and which specifically recognises gender identity. Access to gender-neutral bathrooms must become the norm in all public spaces, including in Leinster House. We must do much better on access to healthcare for trans people. This is a minority community with high levels of health needs. We must ensure that hormone replacement therapy, speech therapy and surgery are available and accessible in a timely manner. I welcome the decision by the Minister, Deputy Harris, to set up a working group alongside activists such as Noah Halpin. However, I hear reports today from the This is Me transgender healthcare campaign that the only surgeon in the country, who does top surgery, is due to retire and there are no plans to hire a replacement. This is an example of where improvements can be made for a community that needs support from the State. These are issues requiring urgent attention and I ask the Leader to bring them to the Government. I encourage all Members to attend the demonstration this weekend.
To give clarity to Members regarding the Order of Business, I propose that No. 4, statements on the EU-Mercosur trade agreement be taken at 3 p.m. and conclude at 4 p.m., not 4.30 p.m. The contributions of group spokespersons shall not exceed eight minutes, time may be shared and the Minister will be given no less than five minutes to reply at the conclusion of the statements.
I welcome Senator Lawless's wife, Anne, other family members and friends to the House. I hope they have a thoroughly enjoyable day. It goes without saying that Sinn Féin as a party and I, as a former member of the diaspora, will be active in the campaign to secure votes for Irish citizens abroad and for our citizens in the North.I congratulate H.E. Edward Crawford, the new US ambassador to Ireland. He has the accolade of being the only Corkman to get Mayo person of the year. I know because I was there in Cleveland a few years ago.
I wish the ambassador well in his role. We look forward to welcoming him to Mayo, in particular to Achill Island and Ballycroy. He has been very supportive of those communities and done a great deal of work for them in Cleveland.
I cannot let it pass, as Senator Horkan will understand, when Fianna Fáil Senators speak about home help hours. Please. Fianna Fáil cut hundreds of thousands of home help hours. I am glad it has had a conversion on the road to Damascus, but the question of home help hours must be seen in the round. It is a very serious situation and at crisis point now. It was at crisis point in 2011 too, in particular in Mayo where 32,000 hours were cut in one year.
Last week, one of the top companies that administers loans for vulture funds told potential investors that internally they called Ireland the gift that keeps on giving. They are not wrong, as we learned yesterday again with the launch by Ulster Bank of yet another sale of mortgages. Ulster Bank is selling €900 million worth of loans, including loans in respect of 3,200 family homes. Nevertheless, we give those funds charitable status in case they would have to pay any corporation tax. Fine Gael has ushered in the golden age of the vultures. Deputy Noonan told us many years ago that we needed them desperately. We absolutely do not. Why do we not give the discounts the banks are giving to the vulture funds to the 3,200 family homeowners and others? Why are we not reaching deals with them? We would rather reach deals with the vulture funds and give them major haircuts on the loans. For distressed borrowers, it is the age of despair. The people who are supposed to control the vultures and stand up for what is right are instead feeding them. AIB is a State-owned bank but it is writing to customers to threaten them with vultures. I want people to take a moment to think hard about how it feels. The greatest financial investment most people make is their home but then a letter arrives to say that at some point in future, this major investment will be thrown into chaos and uncertainty. It is an awful way to live. Sinn Féin believes our people are better than this. They deserve better than to be at the mercy of an industry that has a taste for misery and distress and feeds off it. I ask the Leader, therefore, to commit his Government to co-operating with Sinn Féin on Deputy Pearse Doherty's No Consent, No Sale Bill. Selling homes and mortgages to vulture funds is not the way forward.
I join colleagues in welcoming the family of Senator Lawless to the Gallery. While we have visitors from America here, I commend the US women's soccer team on their victory and progress to the final of the World Cup. It is brilliant to see women's football being televised and achieving such enormous audiences and success. We look forward to the final. I join colleagues also in welcoming the appointments of women to two of the four top EU posts last night. I hope that whatever appointments have been made, there will be continued solidarity with Ireland as we face the prospect of Brexit, including the awful prospect of a no-deal Brexit, in the autumn.
I ask the Leader for a debate on undocumented children in Ireland. We had a powerful briefing this morning from the Migrant Rights Centre and the Children's Rights Alliance to present the results of a survey which shows just how urgently we need to secure legal pathways to residency for the many children growing up and attending school in Ireland who are undocumented and have no legal status. Currently, they have no pathway to residency. Colleagues may recall that in the autumn, we tabled a Labour Party Private Members' Bill which would provide pathways to residency for such children. The Bill was supported by the Migrant Rights Centre and we will certainly move to make progress on it over the coming months. I hope we will see some movement in that regard over the summer and would like the House to debate the issue in due course. I commend the Migrant Rights Centre and the Children's Rights Alliance on their continued emphasis on and highlighting of this issue and on the presentations they hosted this morning.
Another briefing took place today, which I was glad to attend along with the Cathaoirleach. This was the pre-budget submission of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. It was a powerful, personal and very brave presentation from people living with dementia. They spoke about the lack of nationally rolled-out supports for those with dementia and sought to ensure funding for that in the budget. While we will have debates in the run-up to the budget, I hope we can all reflect in the meantime on the need for supports for those with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
I rise this morning to discuss the issue of rent pressure zones and the recent changes made and not made by the Residential Tenancies Board. There is a need to debate with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government where we are going with rent pressure zones and how effective they have been in some areas. The Leader will have a great interest in what I am going to say about the town of Carrigaline, half of which is in a rent pressure zone while the other half is not. The metrics formulated in respect of the new constituency boundaries meant the only way it would work was if the northern half of Carrigaline was removed from the zone, which is not appropriate. This is about looking at rent pressure zones and how we deal with them. We are dealing with them on a local-election constituency basis but that is to base them on too great a geographical area. It does not make logical sense to have a rent pressure zone in one local election district. We need to look at legislation on how we define a rent pressure zone. A rent pressure zone should include a town and its hinterland. For example, Kinsale is not in a rent pressure zone. It is literally 20 miles away from the rent pressure zone in Cork city yet it has the highest rents in Ireland. We need to do something so that places like Kinsale do not have the extraordinary rents they do and which are increasing on a multiple basis.
The whole precept of basing rent pressure zones on electoral districts does not make sense. We need to look at it again and change it. Carrigaline as an entity needs to be together as a single rent pressure zone. Kinsale must also be zoned because the pressure is within the town, not its rural hinterland. The Leader might back me on this. We need to get the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in here for a serious debate about where we are going to go on rent pressure zones. People are paying extraordinary rents in some areas and we must ensure we give them the benefit of the security of a rent pressure zone. For that to happen, we must change how we measure and define things. We are defining these zones too widely and need to bring them back down to the urban centres where the greatest pressures exist.
I welcome the family of Senator Lawless to the Chamber and hope they enjoy their day in Leinster House. I refer to a health matter, namely, asthma and air quality. This comes on the back of the great work of my Fianna Fáil colleague, Deputy James Brown, and subsequently by the party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, on Leaders' Questions a few weeks ago. They have highlighted the delay in the full implementation of a national ban on smoky coal which was promised in 2015 by the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and subsequently by former Minister, Deputy Naughten. It appears now, however, that the current Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, may give in to legal threats from some coal interests. I call for a debate on the issue from a health perspective, albeit it is also a climate change issue. We know that poorer air quality adversely impacts people with asthma and other pulmonary issues. When Senator Reilly was Minister for Health, he stood up to the tobacco companies which threatened to sue the State. I have spoken in the House on numerous occasions about divestment of Government moneys from tobacco companies. I praise Senator Reilly for standing up to those companies who threatened to sue the State over his measures to reduce the use of tobacco. However, we may now see Deputy Bruton running scared from the legal threats of vested interests in the coal sector.I will liaise with colleagues to submit a formal motion to the Seanad on this matter, calling on the Government to implement without delay the measure it promised.
Now that summer is here and children are on their school holidays, I encourage everybody involved in water sports to be very vigilant on the water and to heed the advice of Irish Water Safety. Will the Leader consider bringing back my Bill, the Life Saving Equipment Bill 2017, for Committee and Remaining Stages? It is very pertinent at this time of year. More than 300 lifebuoys were destroyed or stolen in Cork alone last year.
I would like to be associated with the welcome to the family of my colleague and good friend, Senator Lawless, and I acknowledge his enormous work on behalf of the undocumented Irish in America.
This morning The Irish Timescarried a story about a report on the undocumented children living in this country. While it is very laudable to campaign for undocumented people anywhere, there are thousands of undocumented children here who fear going to the authorities in case they will be exposed or forced out of this country. There needs to be a debate on this issue and some amnesty for, and security given to, these children and their families. Some who came in as young children have been here for 16 or 17 years. Many are born here to people who fled war to come to a country that welcomes people of all sectors and diversity, yet somehow we cannot get our heads around the issue of giving legitimate meaning and citizenship to people in our country.
Our country is enriched by diversity. It is very important that we share in that diversity, that we do not have a particular day or week in a year to celebrate some sector of diversity but that we embrace and incorporate that rich diversity through our policies in these Houses and through our life and society. I echo Senator Bacik's comments on this issue. It is very important and defines who we are as a nation, and our principles as a republic. I would like a debate on this when possible which might involve several Departments, including the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Foreign Affairs and Trade. If we talk about cherishing all the children of this State equally, we need to address this issue. I commend the people who worked on this very important report.
I, too, welcome Senator Lawless' family. It is almost ironic that Senator Lawless worked so hard for the undocumented Irish in the US when a briefing was held today by the Migrant Rights Centre. A young woman aged 24, Rashmi, said she left school six years ago and all her friends went to college and now have jobs. She was accepted recently into two colleges, but unfortunately she cannot take up those places because of her status.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality reviewed the migration system in 2016 and made five key recommendations, one of which was the regularisation of undocumented people in Ireland. That received cross-party endorsement. The Government has the power to solve this problem and to provide a pathway to residency for these undocumented children. All it needs to do is introduce a straightforward and sensible mechanism that ensures no child or young person grows up undocumented in Ireland. These young people are our future. Their future is here. This is their home. It is time to welcome them. I agree with Senators Boyhan and Bacik that it is vital we have a debate on this issue to help people.
Here is a quote from another young person:
My home is here in Ireland. I came when I was 7 years old, and now I'm 19. My dream is to attend college, get a degree and find a job. I don't know what to do as I've spent my whole life studying and look forward to attending college only to find out that I can't.
Rashmi's passion is social justice and she would love to study law. It is vital that this issue is addressed.
I attended a meeting last Friday evening with quite a few board members of credit unions in Roscommon and Galway. The cost of the proposed industry funding levy for credit unions will create an increase from approximately €1.5 million to almost €7.8 million per annum by the end of 2022. There is serious concern among those involved in credit unions. The president of the Irish League of Credit Unions was also present at that meeting which indicates the seriousness of this proposal. The league does not believe that the increase in this levy will be sustainable. It has questioned its extent, the reasoning behind it, and communication with the Department of Finance on it.
We all know how important credit unions are in our communities. They are owned by members, board members work voluntarily and credit unions invest significantly in the communities where they are based. They provide a very important community service to people for savings and micro loans and have a very positive societal impact. I am calling for a debate on this issue because it is in all our interests to ensure that credit unions continue as a sustainable model. We need to see better engagement, and while we know regulation is of utmost importance, it must not be such that it completely strangles the credit union sector. I ask the Leader to facilitate at the earliest possible time a debate on credit unions and specifically on these levies.
A report published this morning shows that the living wage rate has been increased by 40 cent, bringing it to €12.30. A living wage does not give people a disposable income but enables them to live comfortably without struggling, as opposed to the minimum wage, which we have legislated for here. The report goes into how different areas of the country struggle because of the cost of housing. It would take over 50% of a living wage in Dublin, 40% in other Irish cities and 30% in rural towns. It is usually calculated that housing should cost only one third of a wage, but the pressure is on in Dublin. A 40 cent increase per hour would also take in the projected increase in energy costs.The debate we need to have in this House with the Minister is about making progress on what would constitute a living wage and how we would implement it to allow people to afford this city and other cities throughout the country. Could the Leader ask the Minister to come and have that debate and allow people to live, not to struggle any more, and to have more ease in their minds about meeting their bills every month?
I welcome the fact that other Senators have raised the issue of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and the supports that are needed. I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate in the House early in the autumn while one can still have some influence over budgetary matters. A cross-party group has been working with the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland about additional supports for dementia and Alzheimer's disease. I hope that the Leader can facilitate that debate.
Many Senators have also raised the issue of migrant rights. I supported many people in this House when they raised the issue of the undocumented Irish in the US. We must be judged on how we treat the undocumented people in our own country, many of whom have lived for a decade or more with no pathway to further education or work, or any means of further contributing to society here in Ireland.
If we are not to be hypocrites, we must do something about this. We must make progress over the summer on legislation to ensure there is a pathway for young people who have been living in this country, sometimes for decades, and who cannot play a full role in society and currently have no such pathway. I ask the Leader to organise for the Minister to come to the House early in the autumn not only for a debate but also with legislation to ensure the pathway is there. Those discussions have been had at committee and in the House on several occasions. We need action now. The Labour Party group has a Bill which has been debated here. We need to reactivate that in the autumn if the Government does not make any progress on the issue over the summer.
Earlier this morning, like other Members, I attended a briefing organised by the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland. It was a pre-budget submission about dementia support across the country and the headline, as far as the society was concerned, was that it is still asking, still waiting and still struggling. We often attend submissions and briefings organised by different groups but this was a moving one. There were two speakers, the first of whom was Dr. Helen Rochford Brennan who is a sufferer and a carer for her husband in addition to being chairperson of the European working group of people with dementia and a member of the Irish dementia working group. She talked about the disease and how 50,000 people, of whom she is one, currently struggle with the disease in this country. She travels all across Europe promoting more supports for people who suffer from the disease. Across Europe, dementia is now called the cancer of the future. She said that people are struggling to cope with the disease and outlined that most people who suffer from the disease remain in their own homes. Additional supports are needed for those people.
The second speaker was Ms Teena Gates who described herself as a carer, an advocate, an author and a journalist. She described her determination to take her 94 year old father home and look after him. She had a home care package approved but, unfortunately, was told there was no money to implement the package. She then went on a campaign on social media and eventually, lo and behold, money was found for that care package.
She talked about the struggles that people have with the disease. Both speakers mentioned the fact that, last year, they were disappointed and heartbroken that dementia did not get a mention in the budget.
I am pleading with the Leader to bring the plight and concerns of these people to Government to ensure that some funding is put in place to alleviate the pain and suffering these people are experiencing, either themselves or through their loved ones, for whom they are caring. I support the call from Senator Humphreys for a debate on this subject in the autumn.
I hope the Leader will facilitate a debate on housing before we break up for the summer recess or as soon as possible after we come back in the autumn. I have an issue concerning the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015, which changed the rules in Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 on social and affordable housing. There is now what I call social dumping across many counties. Developers, in a variety of areas, have decided that the 10% of social housing they are required to provide in one area will be moved to another. Suddenly, there are five or six sets of 10% social housing being put into the same estate. The idea was to see a mix across various estates but developers are looking at this as a way of getting around that by having small estates and not allowing social integration to take place.
I ask that we have a debate on this in the new term and review the legislation to address the phenomenon I have described as social dumping.
I want, first and foremost, to thank the Leader for deferring statements on defence until after the review of the Public Service Pay Commission is published. There was no point in having it today so I thank him for that.
I also commend the flag officer of the Naval Service on having the courage to take two ships out of service because he did not have crew to man them safely. That would be a brave decision for any commander of a unit to take. I understand some aircraft have also been taken out of service but I am not sure of the numbers.
I mentioned the issue of PRSI for public representatives and I was accused of considering an election that may be coming down the line. I am not concerned about those who lost their seats for election purposes. People who have been paying 4% of whatever allowance they have had for the past five years are now finding that they cannot avail of social welfare benefits when they have lost their seats and that is not fair. We should have an open discussion, possibly in the autumn, on the issue of PRSI and how it applies to public representatives in particular. I ask the Leader to put that on the back-burner for early September.
Is it not right that any person who works all the hours that God sends should be entitled to experience an acceptable standard of living? If one thinks about it for more than three minutes, even having a minimum wage is an insult to any employee. The value I place on someone's work is reflected in my choice to pay that person the bare minimum that I can.
As other Senators have said, we need to introduce a living wage that would see the 130,000 workers who currently earn that minimum wage increase their pay to €12.30 per hour. That is the new living wage, announced today by the living wage technical group. That is a rise of 40 cent on last year, driven almost entirely by the housing crisis.
I do not think Fine Gael believes in financial security or a better standard of living for low-paid workers because it could have spent €35 million and introduced the living wage for public sector and Civil Service workers in the most recent budget but it did not. Instead it chose to squander €350 million on income tax cuts that would have been available to the State.
Fianna Fáil also mentioned the living wage today but it is not much better. It reduced the minimum wage by €1 to €7.65 in 2010 when in government alongside the Green Party.
I will finish by quoting some figures. Some 70% of employees on the minimum wage are women, half of those on the minimum wage are young people, and 25% of workers who earn the minimum wage were born overseas. If we are serious about creating an equal society, we should raise living standards for these 130,000 people. I remind Members that the sole member of staff each Senator has starts on an annual salary of €23,000, which is almost €8,000 below the living wage.
I echo one of the points that was made about dementia.This time last year we had extensive debate on the issue of care and the importance of measures to support care in all its forms. It would be good to have another such debate in advance of budget 2020 in light of the complex issues arising from cuts to respite care, step-down care, and home care packages. These issues affect those with dementia and many other families.
I acknowledge that statements on defence are not happening today. There are good reasons for them to be postponed but I would like assurance from the Leader that they will be taken before the recess because there are important issues to be discussed with regard to defence. These relate not only to pay and conditions, which have been raised and which are important, but also to some of our policies.
I spoke with members of the Sudanese community yesterday. We have spoken about Libya and Ireland's relationship, via the EU, with the Libyan coastguard and about the human rights concerns arising from it. There are also deep concerns about some of the funding that has been provided by Ireland, through the European Union, to rapid support forces in Sudan. According to many human rights bodies, these forces have strong links with the former military regime. It has also been suggested that, in some cases, they may have links with the Janjaweed. These rapid support forces have been engaged in very violent action against protestors and civil society in Sudan. Given that the African Union has suspended recognition of Sudan, Ireland should question whether we should fund military forces that are not recognised. I was very inspired by the Sudanese civil society groups that spoke to us. Young people spoke about picking up paintbrushes, cameras, pencils, and microphones instead of weapons to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian-led government. That is now the issue. As a country with experience of peace negotiations, Ireland can, and should, play a useful role in supporting Ethiopia, which is seeking to act as a mediator in ensuring a peaceful transition. Some of these issues may be covered by the Minister of State with responsibility for defence. Alternatively the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade may speak about the role Ireland may play in the coming months, over the summer, while the House will be in recess. I would love it if we could find even an hour on the schedule to discuss this issue before the recess so that Ireland can support this peaceful transition.
Another issue which will arise over the summer is that we will again see many die in the Mediterranean. This is another issue I hope to raise with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. I hope I will have the opportunity to do so as Ireland moves away from search and rescue in the Mediterranean.
Finally, I concur with those who spoke about undocumented young people. Young people who live their lives here are contributing to Ireland. We spoke so much about young people during our centenary commemorations. We are now speaking about the young people who are driving the debate on climate and peace. Every young person's contribution and voice must be heard. It is good for the State for every person to be fully acknowledged, supported, and secure in playing his or her role. I urge that action be taken in respect of the undocumented youth in Ireland.
I support the call made by a number of my colleagues to regularise the children of undocumented parents. A certain number of children fall into this category. It is an indictment of our system that these children's parents can be here for years without being given a proper status that would allow them to participate fully in society. We have to own up to that and, to face it, especially in respect of these undocumented children who did not choose to be here. We definitely have not handled things they way we ought to have. These children are here and they are a reality.
In facing up to this issue, we have to realise that we are talking about young talent and energy. These children have their futures ahead of them and we want them to be able to participate. As has been said, that would be to the benefit of our society and of benefit in building up our nation. If we do not allow them to participate, we will store up trouble for the future. Many of these youngsters have different ethnic backgrounds. They may be of a different colour or race. They have been in the system for a long time. They are Irish. We have to re-examine what it is to be Irish. We have to draw circles of inclusiveness around these children, recognise the dilemma they face, and allow them to live their lives. We are talking about a particular cohort of children and, as a state, modern Ireland has a responsibility to deal with the situation we have allowed to develop.
I thank the 18 Members for their contributions to the Order of Business. Senators Horkan, Devine and Warfield raised the issue of the living wage. The concerns raised are important. Sometimes members of the Sinn Féin Party believe they have a capacity for empathy and a capacity for speaking for people. Many of us have articulated viewpoints in favour of improving the living conditions of all people. When Senator Humphreys and I were in the Dáil, the parties of which we are members were in government and increased the minimum wage, restored living conditions, and took people out of the USC net. Senator Conway-Walsh is correct that Fianna Fáil cut the minimum wage; we increased it. We also increased social welfare payments and supports to allow people to become self-sufficient. We value all people. I remind Senator Warfield that reducing taxation is good. It gives people money in their pocket to spend at their discretion. The Senator should reflect on his political ideology in respect of taxation. In 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Low Pay Commission recommended increases in the minimum wage and Government has always increased it. I look forward to that debate. Let us have a real debate, not a phoney one.
I know those in the Sinn Féin Party are good at putting up videos of people in the Seanad. Let us have a real debate, not a phoney one. I accept that we face challenges. As Senator Horkan rightly said, the cost of housing is driving up the cost of living. To go back to the report, however, the cost of food, household items, communications, IT and income tax have reduced; they are all falling.
It is about time the Sinn Féin Senators played with a full deck of cards and not just the few they take out of their back pockets every day. I join with Senator Horkan and other Members in congratulating all those who were appointed in Brussels yesterday. I wish them well in their tenure. I am not sure-----
I will not make any comment on that. On a serious note, this is a critical time for the European Union. As Senator Bacik rightly said, it is good that there is a 50:50 gender split in the appointments. The two women appointed are there on merit, come with tremendous track records, and have great ability.I hope that the five-year term of the European Parliament will be one of productivity and that it will continue its alliance with Ireland at this very critical time.
Senator Horkan posed the $64 million question when he asked why the health spend continues to go over budget every year, including when his own dear leader was Minister for Health. There is a need to recognise that health is a demand-led service. It is about people and it is not a bookkeeping exercise, nor should it be. Earlier Members raised issues relating to home help hours and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, which has legitimate claims and advocacy rights. We need to put in place supports for all people. I would like to have that debate the Senator called for.
Senator Lawless mentioned the referendum on the diaspora. We will have that as part of the debate in this House on the Bill and as part of the campaign.
Senator Ruane referred to Dublin Pride and the protest. The Pride event is a form of protest but it is also a day of celebration in recognition of where we have come from. This year it was fitting that Pride coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, as I said yesterday, and I commend all involved. Unfortunately, next Saturday I will be away on business concerning the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, but an important march, rally, protest and celebration will take place - the Dublin Trans Pride. We have a significant journey to travel with our transgender community. It is important that that we acknowledge Senator Humphreys's tenure as Minister of State in the Department that brought through the landmark legislation. We have come a long way but we have a journey to go, which is one of the reasons we must continue to be vocal and active on transgender issues and to work with people that require support. They also require complete healthcare that they are not getting but must battle so hard for. The Senator made other points about PrEP and others, and HIV. We will have that debate again in due course.
I join Senator Conway-Walsh in congratulating the appointment of the new American ambassador to this country, Edward Crawford, and wish him well as he begins his tenure. I thank Reece Smyth for his stewardship in the interregnum when we had no ambassador. I am sure that Ambassador Crawford will find a huge welcome in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I know from the contribution, record and activity of Senator Conway-Walsh that she will work with others in the House to build relationships with the United States on a variety of issues. She made a point to welcome the ambassador, which is important.
On the decision by Ulster Bank to sell off the loans, it is important to recognise a couple of issues. First, the Government is conscious of the need to protect homeowners. Second, it has always been a Government priority that the homeowner or mortgage holder would engage and maintain contact and retain his or her full contractual rights regardless of who owns the loan. Third, it is equally important to recognise that the Government brought in legislation relating to the Consumer Protection Act - the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Bill 2018, which has been enacted.
The Senator referred to Deputy Pearse Doherty's Bill. Independent commentators said that his proposals would be disastrous for the mortgage market, financial stability and have a major negative economic impact. I cannot say that is correct but that is the commentary of independent observers. The European Central Bank has also expressed serious concerns about the Bill.
The Senator spoke about vulture funds and various other issues. The number of repossessions has decreased and I acknowledge that one is too many. It is important that customers engage and, equally, that banks engage with them.
The Minister for Finance is acutely aware of the issue and has had the banks in. I am happy to invite him to the House for a debate on the matter in the coming weeks.
I am not sure that Senator Bacik meant to criticise the US soccer team because they beat England or whether it is by virtue of their performance.
It was a great game but I still contend that the player was not offside.
Senators Bacik, Boyhan, Black, Humphreys and Mulherin raised the issue of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland report on undocumented children in Ireland. The Minister for Justice and Equality is engaging with the centre and met its representatives last week. He is willing to explore all legal avenues and solutions in order that there can be a pathway to residency. Since 2011, 120,000 people have been granted citizenship, including 10,000 last year. As Senator Boyhan rightly said, our country is enriched by diversity. I hope that there can be a pathway to residency for the young children who are, because of the illegal status of their parents, confined or caught. It is important that all avenues be explored.
Senator Bacik raised the issue of rent pressure zones, as did Senator Murnane O'Connor yesterday. Zones are a legislative matter and is done using a legal criteria. Senator Lombard made a point about Carrigaline being divided and that this should be changed given the town's proximity to Cork city, the pressure on housing and the cost of renting. He made the relevant point that there is no logical divide.
Senators Swanick, Bacik, Humphreys and Gallagher raised the issue of Alzheimer's disease and I join them in commending the work done by the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. There is a need to have additional supports provided. I hope, as part of budget 2020, that the issues raised by Members can be included in the budget. Last week, we had a debate on the summer economic statement. I will endeavour to have statements before the budget, if we can, as this is an important issue.
Senator Swanick raised the issue of smoky coal. Fuel suppliers have threatened legal action who have said they will challenge extending the ban. The Senator made an important point about the matter. Equally, the point he made about water safety should be listened to by a wider audience than just here. Every summer we hear of a tragic drowning or an accident on a farm so we need a more robust campaign on the twin issues of farm safety and water safety and to highlight the need to be safe. The Senator was correct to raise the issue. I am happy to talk to him about his Bill and to see how we can progress it as soon as possible.
Senator Hopkins raised the issue of credit unions and the industry funding levy. As she said, it is important that we, as a Government and as a country, support credit unions as they are an integral part of our community and play a hugely important role in the community banking service. I will ask the relevant Minister to come to the House to discuss the matter as soon as possible.
In response to Senator Lawlor, it was my hope to facilitate a debate on housing, as Senator Boyhan had asked for a debate yesterday. Next week, we will try to prioritise and progress and legislation. As the Defence Forces' pay commission report will not be debated by the Cabinet until tomorrow, we decided to take statements on the Mercosur agreement today. I will try to have statements on housing and defence before the summer recess but that may not be possible.
Senator Higgins mentioned the Defence Forces, which I have just touched on.