Thursday, 4 July 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 9 July 2019, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, statements on the Government's action plan to tackle climate breakdown, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude at 2.15 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed four minutes, with time being shared where desired, and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 3, Citizens' Assemblies Bill 2019 - all Stages, to be taken at 2.15 p.m. with the contributions of all Senators on Second Stage not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given not less than six minutes to reply, and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately on the conclusion of Second Stage.
I raise two issues today. The first relates to the Ulster Bank sale of a €900 million portfolio of mortgages. I understand that 3,600 customers will be affected by the sale who have been engaging with the bank and made various short-term arrangements with it. In January 2019, Fianna Fáil's vulture fund regulation legislation was enacted by the Oireachtas. The Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2018 gives the Central Bank the authority to regulate vulture funds and to inspect and investigate the goings on within them. It is now incumbent on the Central Bank to use the powers provided by the legislation. While we cannot, unfortunately, stop this sale, it represents a dereliction of duty on the part of Ulster Bank, which should be dealing with poorly performing loans itself. It should not farm poor loan books out to vulture funds. Ultimately, it is Irish consumers and citizens who will suffer. Fianna Fáil calls on the Cental Bank to put the consumer first and to start to use the powers conferred on it by the Fianna Fáil legislation to ensure the minimum of cruelty, upset and harm is caused to Irish mortgage consumers.
The second issue I raise relates to the living wage and the fact that we do not have one in Ireland. Unemployment is low at the moment but so are salaries, notwithstanding the epidemic of unaffordable rents. For many young people, the prospect of owning a home is completely beyond the realm of possibility. While new legislation has been implemented to extend rent pressure zones, many major urban centres, including, as Senator Murnane O'Connor has pointed out, Carlow have been excluded.We need to do something to ensure that modest increases in salary are not completely taken up by the corresponding increases in rent. It is unfair on young people who are trying to have a life for themselves. The idea of having the security of somewhere to live is gone for many people. The awful housing crisis is a shame on the Government.
Successive Governments have praised the loyalty and commitment of the Defence Forces but have largely ignored anything to do with their pay. Today's edition of The Irish Timesreports the Public Service Pay Commission as being constrained in what it was able to do when it reviewed Defence Forces pay. Following years of neglect and poor pay, the Defence Forces deserve better than what is coming to them today. While the Government’s fear that opening the floodgates by increasing Defence Forces pay might encourage industrial unrest in other areas of the public sector, it should have the courage to address this matter, as the alternative scenario is far more serious.
A retention crisis in any other sector of the public service can be addressed by the use of agency or civilian staff but this is not the case with the Defence Forces. Nor can the job of protecting the security of the State, our territorial waters and airspace be undertaken by any personnel other than members of the Defence Forces. It is not possible to contract in somebody on a bomb-disposal mission tonight if an explosive device is found in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway or anywhere else. The only way to properly address the retention crisis is through a proper pay review - another Gleeson commission.
The widely and now loudly articulated concerns of Defence Forces members are not just for their own welfare but for the integrity of the Defence Forces and the very serious duties and missions they undertake. This is the absolute minimum the Government can do. While the report of the pay commission should be cautiously welcomed, an increase of 96 cent a day in the military service allowance is hardly something to be screaming from the rooftops. Increases in allowances are welcome and long overdue but the bottom line is that core pay has not been addressed.
I believe the commission will suggest that core pay needs to be looked at. There needs to be an immediate examination of everything to do with the Defence Forces. The €20,000 for pilots will be welcome, but what about the air traffic controllers and fitters to keep the aircraft in the air? What about senior NCOs in infantry battalions who are core to the running of the battalion? That will need to be addressed.
The Public Service Pay Commission did all it could, given its terms of reference and the constraints placed on it. I hope that PDFORRA and RACO will accept whatever is on the table, but will do so as an interim offer. I hope we will not have a long drawn-out debate while soldiers, sailors and airmen wait for whatever paltry few shillings come their way.
However, the Government can do many things that do not come in under pay. On radio this morning, retired Commandant Cathal Berry spoke about paying out of his own pocket for an MRI scan for a soldier. That is totally unacceptable. Healthcare and family care need to be looked after as does accommodation in barracks. Soldiers, sailors and airman should not have to sleep in their cars or on ships after being at sea for several weeks. We cannot continue to have millions of euro worth of hardware tied up in Haulbowline or aircraft stuck on the ground because we do not have technicians to fix them.
The sad fact is that people in the know are saying that between now and Christmas, the pay commission's report will ultimately lead to an exodus of several hundred people and possibly up to 1,000. We are struggling to meet the requirements of duties at home and abroad, while at the same time we are looking for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The two things just do not match.
At the end of the day we cannot continue to hope this will go away. We urgently need a Gleeson-type commission to complete a root-and-branch examination of what is required to keep the Defence Forces going. People argue that there is no need for the Defence Forces. I wonder how it would be if a village in Donegal were to burn to the ground because there are no Defence Forces members to go out and fight fires, as nearly happened earlier this year. What will we do when we get the next storm? What will we do when the next natural disaster hits the country? What will we do the next time there is a search for bodies? Who does that? The Defence Forces are always there 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
This has to stop. Telling us that we are proud of the men in uniform is a thing of the past. We will not even give medals to some of them who are deserving of them. At the end of the day pride is expressed in the way we treat people. I dread to think of the messages I will get today from the wives and partners of members of the Defence Forces. I know how the PDFORRA representatives will struggle today when they get the outcome from the pay review body. I know how the representatives of RACO, the commissioned officers' board, will struggle today. I plead with them to accept whatever is on the table and let us follow on with it.
Today sees the end of the biennial meeting of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions in Dublin. I commend the comments of the secretary general of ICTU, Patricia King, yesterday when she responded to the address given by the Taoiseach. Patricia King said it straight and she spoke on behalf of hundreds of thousands of workers. She said that progress means nothing to many people. Economic indicators and financial figures mean absolutely nothing to those who are struggling. This recovery is false for them.
Yesterday the Taoiseach said he still wants to reduce the higher rate of tax but he was wishy-washy and non-committal when he mumbled about whether the minimum wage would increase. I take that as a "No". When people have to check their bank balance every couple of hours to make sure that bills are being paid, that is not wishy-washy That is final; it is certain. I doubt any member of the Government or any Member of this House has to do that.
If it is a real recovery, surely those who helped significantly in getting the country out of the mess can ask for a bit more. However, that is not the case. To ask for better conditions or an increase in pay is treated almost as treason. Let us consider the nurses and healthcare workers in their recent disputes.
Patricia King said yesterday that "workers' rights to bargain must be addressed as these powers had not advanced in more than 100 years". I know the Leader will come back with the old Fine Gael cry, saying that that is the private sector. Ms King also addressed the position of workers working on big State projects. She said: "Contractors awarded significant state contracts were facilitating precarious work, including bogus employment contracts which avoid tax".
During yesterday's debate on the Social Welfare Bill, most Members commended the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, on extending jobseeker's benefit to the self-employed. However, we also discussed at length the bogus employment contracts. The national children's hospital is the biggest health construction project in the history of the State. We know that many bogus self-employed construction workers are employed there - whether forced or by choice. I would like the Minister to come to the House to provide an update on that. Las Thursday, Unite organised a protest outside the gates from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., highlighting that the construction site of the shiny and much-needed new children's hospital is full of bogus self-employed workers. Surely we cannot stand over that and we need to tackle it. It is a cost on the public purse because they are not contributing what they should to the State.
We need to stop talking about recovery for workers. Today at 12.30 p.m., the paramedic branch of the PNA will hold a demonstration outside Leinster House ahead of the ambulance workers' 24-hour strike next week. I urge every Member to support them. It is about trade union recognition and the right to belong to a trade union of the workers' choice.
I wish to raise the issue of the drug decriminalisation. I refer to the front page of today's edition of the Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper. It states:
Scotland is gripped by the worst drug crisis in Europe. It is killing people and wrecking communities. Our investigation has shown tough justice is not the cure. We must target dealers but it's time to stop treating vulnerable citizens as criminals. Our country needs powers to treat addiction as a health problem not a crime. It is time to decriminalise drug use.
The same sentiments are expressed in an open letter from Stuart Clarke of Hot Pressto the Taoiseach which notes that the Taoiseach has admitted to taking illegal drugs in the past but nobody would suggest he should have a criminal record as a result. A document is due to be brought to Cabinet either this week or next week. It is the result of the deliberations of a working group on drug decriminalisation established two years ago this month. It was to report after 12 months but did not do so. Two years later, we are still waiting for the publication of its report. The decriminalisation of drugs for personal use is potentially the biggest game-changer in terms of equality in the State at this time. It touches everything from poverty, disadvantage and homelessness to crime, violence and murder. The Government, which is led by the Leader's party, has the opportunity to publish this report, take this issue seriously and to move, as have other countries in Europe, to a system in which those with an addiction are dealt with primarily and almost exclusively through the health system and treated as human beings rather than as criminals in the criminal justice system. We have spoken about this issue for a number of years. We are now at the point where the Cabinet is about to consider the working group's report. The report needs to be published and we need to move on and take seriously the issue of decriminalising the use of drugs by people who have addictions. I urge the leader to facilitate a debate in this House with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, or the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, because we have waited too long for such a debate to take place in these Houses. We also need to have that report published and acted upon.
I understand that the faltering structured dialogue between the Government and representatives of faith and non-confessional bodies is resuming temporarily today. One item likely to be discussed is the new covenant between church and State, for which the Taoiseach called when he met Pope Francis last August. Perhaps another issue that could be discussed is that of basic respect in public dialogue and utterances touching on church and State. A teacher friend of mine, not a priest as it happens, was in touch to ask me to raise remarks the Taoiseach made about parish priests in the course of his exchanges with Deputy Micheál Martin yesterday, remarks which my correspondent regarded as deeply stigmatising of Catholic clergy and insulting to most Catholics. When I looked up the remarks, I was very surprised at the Taoiseach. He compared Deputy Micheál Martin to "one of those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us how to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself."
We all know that the Catholic Church, in particular because of its past prominence in Irish society, must live with the shame and disruption caused by its terrible failures over many years to deal with abusing clergy. What some of us know is that a huge amount of change, reform, energy and resources are going in across the board to try to ensure that this will never happen again and this investment of human effort will benefit other institutions and society as a whole. What most of us know, and some of us will admit, is that the vast majority of clergy and religious have been decent and selfless people who have been utterly ashamed of what happened. What some of us know, and even fewer will speak about, is that some of these clergy and religious are now targeted for abuse on social media and in the street, and that the worst elements of Irish society are seizing on past scandals involving the guilty to inflict pain on the innocent.
If the Taoiseach is mindful of this context, why would he invoke a trope, a stereotype of a hypocritical, sinning priest? At best, it is playing to a very unpleasant gallery of anti-clerical people. At worst, it is the expression of some deep-seated hidden dislike on his part. It is not acceptable, at this moment in our history when clergy are fewer and older but continue to do good work, to make a mocking, stigmatising remark like that, whether for its own sake or in order to attack a political opponent. I need hardly say that if somebody made a similarly stigmatising throwaway remark about gay community leaders or spokespersons for the travelling community, he or she would be rightly criticised. I hope the Taoiseach will reflect on his remarks and come back with something more generous.
I will briefly raise two issues. The first concerns the announcement of new terms and conditions for Defence Forces personnel which is due today. I welcome that and hope it will make a start in providing better conditions for our Defence Forces personnel who serve this country so proudly throughout the world.
I would also like to refer to the issue raised by Senator Mullen. I, too, would welcome clarification from the Taoiseach on what he said yesterday. I hope he will state clearly that his comments were not meant to sound as they did. Otherwise, I will completely dissociate myself from them. Criminal acts by priests, politicians, gardaí or any other group need to be weeded out and subjected to the full rigours of the law. It is not acceptable to tar everyone with the same brush. I hope that is not what was meant and I would welcome and expect clarification sooner rather than later.
I raise the eye care report card for 2019, which features the results of an eye care survey carried out by the Association of Optometrists Ireland. In Carlow-Kilkenny, children who are referred to HSE eye clinics must wait for 14 months for an eye examination which could be carried out immediately by optometrists in the community.
Good vision is essential for children to participate and benefit from education. The early years of visual development are key to ensuring that children do not have developmental problems that will restrict their ability to achieve their potential. Children’s eyesight develops from birth and as children grow so quickly, their eyesight can change rapidly. While a small number of children develop serious conditions that require medical intervention and supervision, the majority who develop issues with their eyesight can be managed with regular eye examinations and prescriptions of spectacles. However, early identification and management of children at risk of having a lazy eye or squint are compromised by the large number of children who need spectacles on the current waiting list for service. In addition, the HSE has made a decision to abolish the sixth class vision screening and has not yet put in place a national policy to replace this. This has been done for funding reasons. Children over the age of eight should be seen in the community by optometrists and this policy should be implemented on a national basis. This policy would reduce such unnecessary delay.
Cataract surgery is a life-changing procedure that can restore the sight of elderly people, giving them back their independence and reducing the cost of preventable sight loss to the Exchequer, family members and carers. Despite the merits of this operation, according to the report, people with cataracts in my constituency who are referred to a hospital's eye service due to reduced vision are waiting on average 29 months to have surgery to restore their sight. Those who can afford to pay for the operation must only wait three months, whereas those without money to pay for it must wait 29 months. While use of the National Treatment Purchase Fund can reduce waiting lists in the short term, it does not address the systematic inefficiencies in the system we have in place. We need to address these issues and bring back the scheme that was in place.
I support Senator Mullen's request that the Taoiseach clarify the unacceptable comments he made yesterday. He must clarify exactly what he meant by them.
I feel as if I am repeating myself every week as I am raising the issue of the Defence Forces again today. I welcome the fact that the Public Service Pay Commission's report into pay and recruitment in the Defence Forces is before Cabinet and that it will be finally released. We have waited far too long for the report. This is the 20th time in the past two years that I have raised the issue of pay and conditions in the Defence Forces.Like Senator Craughwell, I, too, have raised a variety of issues pertaining to the Defence Forces which affect morale. The major issue is pay. Today's report will not solve all of our problems, but it is welcome that progress is being made. The reversal of the cuts to allowances made back in the day is very important. I also welcome the restoration of the duty allowance. It is welcome that PDFORRA is supporting it. It put the case to the Public Service Pay Commission and both it and the Government listened. However, we need to ensure we will do more. No soldier wearing the Irish uniform should work for less than the living wage which is greater than the national minimum wage. No one should ever have to rely on family income supplement, as I have said on numerous occasions. I hope today is not the end of a process. I believe it is not but the first step in the next one. I will continue to lobby on behalf of the members of the Defence Forces to ensure they are paid a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.
I raise a specific case, that of a 19 year old LGBT asylum seeker whose application for asylum based on his LGBT identity was rejected by the international protection officer at the Department of Justice and Equality. The decision was posted on social media on Tuesday by MASI, Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, and I encourage other Members to read it. It is the assertion made by the international protection officer. When asked if he was familiar with the Zimbabwean LGBT group GALZ, the applicant responded that he did not attend its services. When asked why he had not sought its support, he responded by saying he felt more comfortable talking to his mum about it. He also stated why he had not sought the help of support services in Ireland - he was trying to focus on his leaving certificate examinations. The Department also asked whether he had ever been in a same sex relationship and, if not, why not. He stated he was being bullied in schools because he was gay. The Department concluded in its report that his contention that he was gay "is not credible". Notwithstanding the fact that the State would never engage in that line of questioning or anything close to it with a heterosexual, the line of questioning used was insensitive, invasive, unnecessary and problematic. We should consider that most Irish LGBT teenagers would not meet the burden of proof required by the Department. I certainly would not have met it as a young teenager. If the Department and the Minister want to march in the Dublin Pride parade, they should be honest and address this concern head on. I hope that in the new term we can have a frank debate in this House on how we treat those seeking asylum, especially those who are LGBT.
I, too, agree with my colleague Senator McFadden on the need to deal with the pay issue in the Defence Forces. In fairness to Defence Forces personnel, they have served the country well, both at home and overseas. It is appropriate that we respond accordingly to recognise the work they do. Many allowances were cut during the years and need to be restored.
It is interesting to compare the situation in the Health Service Executive. I know that my Sinn Féin colleague raised the issue of public sector pay. The figures for the HSE show that from December 2014 to March 2019, a period of four years and three months, the number working in it has increased by 15,954, or by just 44 people short of 16,000. That represents a significant increase of 15.46%. The number of whole-time equivalents is now 118,984, but the interesting point is that the number of managerial and administrative staff increased by 24% in the same period of four years and three months, or 3,639. That is a phenomenal increase in the public sector environment. We need to put more money into public services, but there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of managerial and administrative staff. My Sinn Féin colleague has constantly spoken about the need for more nurses, but I do not understand why that occurs. Yesterday when the chairman of the new board of the HSE appeared before the Joint Committee on Health, I raised the issue of the disproportionate increase in the number of administrative and managerial staff. One would not see it happen in the private sector. Also in the HSE the number of nurse managers increased by 1,100, from 6,500 to 7,600, in the same period. In the HSE one in every four staff is in an administrative-managerial role. One could not afford to have that structure in the private sector. I have serious concerns about the priority given in the employment of staff in the HSE. Yes, the HSE has employed more nurses, consultants, junior doctors and care assistants, but the number of nurses recruited could be doubled, if the number of managerial and administrative staff was not increased to the same degree. I do not accept that they are providing more back-up support for front-line staff. I would like to have the issue debated in the House. This is taxpayer's money. I have worked out that it is costing an extra €650 million a year and it is not a one off payment. It represents nearly 50% of the cost of the natinal children's hospital in 12 months.
I thank Members for their contributions. Senator Ardagh referred to the sale of mortgages by Ulster Bank. The Central Bank of Ireland cannot stop the sale of this loan book to various vulture funds. We need to put the consumer first. For years we have had difficulties in the financial sector. We are looking at the issues of the living wage, increasing salaries and rent increases, a significant issue which the Government has tried to address through the introduction of rent pressure zones. Young couples find themselves priced out of the market. We need to address the issue of their inability to buy a home. Perhaps we might have a debate on various aspects of the housing issue as we may need to take a different approach in trying to sort it out. When I was growing up, everybody aspired to owning his or her own home. We were infatuated by it. It is wonderful to own one's own home, but there are other mechanisms used elsewhere in Europe. For example, in Germany people live their entire lives in a rented property. Things have changed, but there is a cohort who still wish to own their own house. We should be able to do more in that regard.
Senators Craughwell, Colm Burke, O'Mahony and McFadden raised the issue of pay in the Defence Forces in the context of the report of the Public Service Pay Commission.The Senators felt that the commission stated that it was constrained by the terms of reference. A valid point was made, especially about agencies and staff, as it is not possible for such staff to do a duty such as bomb disposal. Defence Forces personnel have a difficult job to do. It is a job I would not be able to do. I will state how great the Defences Forces are, even if there has been a request to not do so. We are very proud of those personnel, along with those who serve in the Garda. They have served our State extremely well. We are trying to reach a situation where we can address the prevailing issues. This is a major step forward. That was acknowledged in Senator Craughwell's statement but we need to do much more. Senator McFadden has highlighted this issue as well. The proposal is going before the Cabinet and the Government will give due consideration to the findings and recommendations arising from the work of the commission. This is the start of a process and I hope that we can bring things that little bit further. Senator Craughwell called for a Gleeson-type commission. This is a process and hopefully today is a step in the right direction.
Senator Mullen spoke about a new covenant between the State and the church. When the State was formed, we invited the church in and too close a link was developed. I think that was corrosive both to the State and to the church. I acknowledge the great work the church has done since the foundation of the State. It provided education and health services. It was rightly mentioned that decent and selfless people have stood up, admitted that wrongs were done and said that they wanted to right them. The Senator hit on something when he said that in the past ten years, and this may have derived from abuses within the church, there was an emphasis on a "shame on you" sentiment. In the past ten years, respect has diminished for politicians, members of the church, teachers and members of the Garda. Those people provide a great service to the State, notwithstanding the issues of which we are rightly ashamed. It might now be time to remember the selfless people as well. I have only found out about the Taoiseach's remarks, which Senator O'Mahony raised as well. Senator Mullen suggested it was time to reflect on those remarks. While I did not hear them, I hope that in the coming hours, something will be clarified or there will be reflection on the statements made.
Senator Devine raised issues involving the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, Ms Patricia King, economic indicators and the higher rate of tax. The minimum rate has increased. The bogus employment contracts at the national children's hospital need to be addressed. I would have thought that mechanisms were in place with the unions in order that any abuses could be highlighted through various channels. It would not, however, be any harm to bring in the Minister to talk about those contracts, as well as other aspects of this matter. Senator Colm Burke made the point that politicians come and go but the public service continues. It is worrying that there has been nearly a 25% increase in managerial staff in the past five years. Perhaps those extra people are not helping the front-line staff. It would be no harm to bring in-----
Perhaps we can bring in the Minister, and, as a group, discuss all of these issues with the Minister and clarify many of them.
Senator Ó Ríordáin spoke about Scotland and tough justice. I remember discussing the drugs issue many years ago, involving cannabis, crack cocaine and other drugs. The Senator called on the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to come before this House to debate the matter and broader issues of crime and poverty, as well as for the publication of a report on-----
Senator Warfield spoke about an asylum seeker from an LGBT background and indicated that the questions he was asked were inappropriate. I am not fully aware of the situation but were the Senator to provide the details to the Minister, the matter could be investigated. Senator Warfield stated that he felt that what happened was not credible. We will see what is the position.
Senator Murnane O'Connor referred to the issue of waiting lists and sixth class vision screening. She said that some people have to wait for more than three months. She also mentioned that the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, has been very encouraging. We again might bring in the Minister so that we could discuss this matter. It could also be an issue for an Commencement matter debate and the Cathaoirleach might be kind enough to accept it for next week. As I mentioned, Senator Colm Burke outlined the various issues regarding the public sector. I come from a business and self-employment background. An eye has to be kept peeled in business. If the overheads are more than what is being taken in, then that business is in trouble. The country and the economy are going extremely well but we need to keep an eye on it and check that all is well. That could be another debate we might have. I thank the Cathaoirleach.