Wednesday, 10 July 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) (Amendment) Bill 2019, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Courts (Establishment and Constitution) (Amendment) Bill 2019 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m.; No. 3, Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 – Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 and to conclude after two hours by the putting of one question which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 4, Local Government Rates and Other Matters Bill 2018 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3; No. 5, motion regarding the earlier signature of the Local Government Rates and Other Matters Bill 2018, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 4; and No. 6, Private Members' business, motion regarding genetic testing, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 5, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
I would like to raise three issues today. The first relates to the amendments passed by Members of Parliament in Westminster yesterday. They voted to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland unless power-sharing is restored by 21 October. They also overwhelmingly voted in favour of an amendment to liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland. While I very much welcome these amendments, their passage is bittersweet. Although they represent social policies with which I agree, I still hope that the Stormont Assembly will get its act together and that the parties will come together because I would love to see these changes being implemented by the assembly in Northern Ireland. The amendments yesterday are a significant first step in ensuring that these social changes are a priority for legislators in the Stormont Assembly. If the assembly is not reconvened by October, these changes will be implemented in October. It is bittersweet. I very much welcome the changes but I would like to have seen them passed in Stormont. I really hope that the parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, will come together in Stormont to debate these issues and implement these changes. The second issue relates to the HSE. More than six months ago the HSE offered various jobs to people on its panels without issuing contracts of employment or start dates. Some people have been left waiting for more than six months. The people who have been recruited are calling it a recruitment freeze but the HSE is denying that. The fact remains, however, that people were offered jobs but without contracts or start dates. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, must come to the House to explain the reason people on panels have been told they would have a job but have not been given a contract or start date. That is very unfair.
The third issue relates to processing delays for social welfare payments by Bank of Ireland. We learned that a technical issue has arisen with social welfare payments for people in receipt of a disability allowance and other allowances who have a Bank of Ireland account. I ask that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection examine the cause of the glitch between the Department and the bank and that it be resolved as soon as possible.
I will not dwell on the issue, but perhaps the Leader will indicate the approximate time at which the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill will be debated today. Committee Stage is due to conclude today. It has been a long journey of many hours. I thank my colleagues who signed many of the amendments, and Senator Norris, for their contributions and time. Despite all the allegations, complaints and suggestions of cronyism regarding the appointment of judges, to which I do not subscribe, this Administration has facilitated and supported the appointment of 48 eminent judges and capable persons. The current system works. We will discuss that later today.
I am prompted to make a point following commentary in The Irish Times today on the reappointment of Mr. Phil Hogan as European Commissioner. The suggestion is that the decision was "facilitated" by the support of the Independent Alliance. I do not know whether that is true. However, I wish to make it very clear that under this Administration, of which the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is a member of Cabinet, more than 48 eminent, qualified and suitable people have been appointed to the Judiciary. This emphasises the point that despite all the threats by members of the Government that they might not support the appointments, all of the appointments were endorsed. Those were the right decisions. The persons appointed to the Judiciary are upstanding people of commitment.
Many people who receive various types of social protection payments still find themselves living in poverty. In many cases, pensioners who only receive the State pension are still living in poverty. I come across more and more pensioners who do not even get the State pension because of the many deductions and anomalies that apply. I asked previously that the Minister come to the House to specifically speak about pensions because there is so much to discuss in that regard and a significant number of people who are living in poverty. Different circumstances such as health, geographical location and carer's duties mean that the standard amount simply does not suffice for pensioners. I previously gave the example of a pensioner who has to travel from Belmullet to Galway for a hospital appointment. That is a six-hour round trip and it costs more than €200 in a taxi. There is no public transport. That is the equivalent of a pension, and more than that amount, wiped out for one week.
I am very pleased to hear that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, will consider the Sinn Féin Bill to establish a social welfare commission. The Bill was introduced by the Sinn Féin spokesperson for employment affairs and social protection, Deputy John Brady. The commission would examine the minimum essential income standard for the various household types and recommend the necessary rate increases in pensions to the Minister ahead of the budget each year. I hope we hear back from the Minister soon given that the budgetary process is well under way and that pensioner poverty is tackled once and for all.
The Sinn Féin motion for Dáil Private Members' business, which calls for a binding Oireachtas vote on the Mercosur deal, will be debated in the Dáil tonight and the vote is likely to take place on Thursday afternoon. I remind parties that this may be the only chance we have to register opposition to the deal and its detrimental impact on farming and farm families. I remind Members who have referred to Commissioner Hogan and his new job, that he said two years ago that beef would not be on the menu for the Mercosur deal. Beef is very firmly on the menu - 99,000 tonnes of it. That will have a devastating impact on farming and rural communities. The Commissioner has broken his promise to us on the issue, as has the Government.
As my Fianna Fáil colleague has done, I welcome the decision of the UK Government to introduce an abortion regime in the North of Ireland and also its gay rights initiative on marriage equality. It is significant because Jeff Dudgeon, for example, won a historic case - before I won mine - in the European Court of Human Rights. The North was in advance of us at that stage and it is regrettable that this has been let lie. Regarding abortion, 80% of the people in Northern Ireland approve of the regime that is being introduced, so there is no question of it being undemocratic. They have had years to deal with this and they have not done so. With regard to equal marriage, the gay pride march is enormously bigger than the Orange march in Belfast, so that tells us where people's hearts lie on this matter.
I wish to return to something I said yesterday. We were discussing the use of the Seanad Chamber. I fully approve of Travellers and I have a track record in the area. However, I do not approve of subsidiary sections dislodging the proper business of the Seanad. The heckling from the Leader dislodged me from a point I was trying to make, namely, that one of the important points that was being debated at the time was the non-representation in the Oireachtas of the Traveller community. I speak from experience; it took me ten years and six elections, including by-elections to get elected, because people were suspicious of me. Travellers are a minority and, sadly, they are not universally popular. It will take quite a while to get somebody from the Traveller community elected to Seanad Éireann. I strongly suggest that after the next election the Taoiseach of the day, whoever he or she is, make a deliberate decision to appoint somebody from that community as a first stage. I have a candidate in mind, namely, Rosaleen McDonagh, who is not only a Traveller and a very effective spokeswoman for Travellers, but she is also handicapped. She is in a wheelchair. It would be good for this House to have somebody in a wheelchair. We would have to listen very carefully to what that person said. Ms McDonagh ran a number of times for a seat on the Trinity panel and she did quite well but she never got to the point where it was realistic for her to become a Senator. She is somebody who deserves consideration to be nominated by the Taoiseach as a voice for the Traveller community in Ireland.
I wish to raise two issues. I was not in the House yesterday, but I welcome the independent report from Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill on abuse victims. I know the former pupils of Creagh Lane as I have dealt with them for some time. There was frustration at the length of time Mr. Justice O'Neill’s review took but the outcome is the correct one. It was always felt that the prior complaint condition was questionable, in that if someone was convicted of abuse in a criminal court, the prior complaint rule should not have applied under the redress board. I welcome that such a decision has now been put in place. I note from both what the Taoiseach said yesterday and what the Minister for Education and Skills said in the Dáil today that the Minister is looking to expedite the reopening of the redress board. I hope that will be done as quickly as possible and that the former pupils of Creagh Lane can get on with their lives.These were young pupils going to a school and what happened there should never have happened. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has apologised on behalf of the State.
The IFA had a briefing on Mercosur yesterday. It is critical now that the standards applied to beef coming in from the Mercosur countries are the same as apply to beef being sold by Irish and other European producers. We have 270,000 tonnes coming into the European markets from the Mercosur countries as we speak. There is a need for a sit-down on how these standards are applied. I understand it is based on random sampling. It should be put back on the Mercosur producers to provide evidence that they have met the standards. That should apply as quickly as possible. The beef produced in Ireland in particular is of the highest standard and there cannot be any ambiguity around the fact that the quality of beef coming in from the Mercosur countries has to meet the same standards. That is the way forward.
Before I call Senator Murnane O'Connor, I welcome the Newtown-Nurney senior citizens group which is also, coincidentally, from Carlow, a county often mentioned by the Senator. Laughing in the Gallery is not allowed, unfortunately.
I welcome our senior citizens from Carlow. We are delighted to have them here today and I hope they have a lovely day. Today I want to talk about the general data protection regulation, GDPR, which is a year old this month. A most complex piece of legislation, the regulation was an attempt to unify existing legislation enacted after the 1995 directive across the European countries. This regulation was designed to guide organisations across the EU on how to protect the personal data of each citizen.
The Irish Data Protection Commissioner reported over 6,000 GDPR related complaints in this first year of legislation, of which approximately 90% were deemed valid. There is massive confusion about the regulation. There is a widespread lack of awareness, a shortage in skills across all sectors and quite a lot of enforcement of regulation without actually complying with it. My colleagues have raised the matter previously but more and more people are coming into my clinics with issues about the regulation. Clarity is needed going forward in order for the legislation to work for people. The GDPR significantly strengthens the rights of individuals but it is important to know that it increases organisations' responsibility as to how they collect and use personal data. For many organisations, there is unfamiliarity with the regulation, in some cases to a staggering degree. People coming into my clinics are complaining that they have been denied access to their own information. According to the regulation, everyone has the right to access to data which has been collected concerning him or her. Others in my clinics and on social media have complained because they have received mobile phone text based direct marketing when they had not opted in to receive such texts. There really is massive confusion. Now that we are one year into it, I would like to see more effort being put in to making people more aware. I appreciate that the several investigations by the data commissioner may raise such awareness but I would like to see more done in this regard. This is huge. It is one of the biggest issues to face Senators and Deputies. We need to make sure people have proper information.
I would like to follow on from the statement by my colleague from Limerick, Senator Kieran O'Donnell, regarding the Mercosur deal. There is exceptional unrest in the beef industry. In the last 18 months it has seen a dramatic deterioration in prices. The proposed Mercosur deal will see an increased volume of beef coming into the European Union, which will also deflate prices. The outlook for the beef industry for the next few months is very poor. If we see the price decline that is predicted for the next few months, we are going to have a real, extended crisis in our industry. The point about Mercosur is that it has come already. The confidence is gone from the market and the suppliers. Beef farmers who came to my clinics last week will not buy weanlings when it comes to the autumn and will not be investing in sheds or in their industry because they do not have the confidence to keep going. That is going to become a serious issue for our suckler and beef industry.
The Minister has been proactive in this space and has said it is a bad deal for the beef industry. We need to start up the momentum of getting our European friends involved in the debate. Our association with France in particular has to be built upon. The Oireachtas, through friendship groups, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Seanad itself, has to build those connections to ensure we can win support in Europe to get this deal changed. For this to happen, everyone here has to be involved. The Seanad should send a delegation to France and should become a real catalyst of change to ensure we can get those doors opened. We will not change it all by ourselves and it needs to be changed. The confidence of our beef farmers is drained out of their veins in the last few months. This has been the final kick. We need to move into a different space, build alliances and get change. With that, hopefully, we can get what the beef sector requires. Nor is it just about beef. The poultry sector will be decimated and will have no hope if the proposed margin of poultry product comes into the EU. It is about fighting for this section of society and it is about an agricultural split. Dairy will survive but the beef, pig and poultry industries need a change in this deal, otherwise they will be on a slippery slope, and confidence is at rock bottom at the moment.
There are serious concerns in the south Inishowen area at activities on what was known as Grianán Estate. It is the largest farm in the country. This estate was purchased by Glenmore Estate in 2017 and earlier this year The Irish Timesreported that it was estimated that hundreds of trees including ash, sycamore, birch, whitebeam and willow, had been destroyed and miles of hedgerows torn out on this farm. The matter has been raised with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This massive estate borders an internationally renowned bird and wildlife sanctuary. Right now it is subject to an ongoing Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine investigation. The wider community is outraged by the dramatic change to the landscape in a much loved area.
Recent developments have turned concern into absolute outrage. The owners of this farm operate an anaerobic digester and one of the by-products of this is digestate, which is spread on the land. Rural people who live in these areas are used to slurry spreading and farming practices going back as far as anybody can remember. They are not people who would have any difficulty with that. However, the smell of ammonia is just an assault on a large area of south Inishowen. Apparently our current legislation is allowing this to happen. We would expect the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and Donegal County Council to defend the interests of the community. A confirmation day was totally ruined in the local hotel because the smell was utterly overwhelming and suffocating. We had a situation recently where somebody was holding a wake for their loved one and the house was overcome. Everybody's home is devastated by the smell. There is need for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to be made aware of the serious and profound problems that have arisen. There is a need for legislative change. The Ministers have to pull together with the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Donegal County Council to solve this problem on behalf of the local community and hold this business to account for what is an assault.It might be technically legal to do what they are doing but it is utterly unethical to do what they are doing right now and it has to stop.
I congratulate Commissioner Phil Hogan on his nomination for reappointment to the European Commission. No doubt we will see him get a big portfolio in the coming reshuffle of Commissioners. We wish him well in that. The better the portfolio, the better for Ireland. Commissioner Hogan will have the interests of Ireland at heart.
I wish to be associated with the comments that have been made in respect of the Mercosur deal. I call for a debate on the issue either today or tomorrow. If we cannot have it on either day , I hope it can proceed when the House returns in September. Many issues arise from the deal. One is the original 275,000 tonnes of beef already coming into Europe. How much of that is coming to Ireland? Reference was made to the poultry industry. As previous speakers indicated, the deal will have devastating effects on our beef and poultry sectors and on the pig industry as well. It is important that we have a debate on the issue in early September at the latest. There are many issues involved and many aspects to the Mercosur deal. There are pros and cons. I hope that we will have an early debate on the matter.
I welcome the developments at Dublin Port and the proposed expansion and extension thereof. I have raised this issue on several occasions. Dublin Port is highly important to Ireland. The port does not operate on a 24-hour basis and there are difficulties with that. Maybe the expansion envisaged will help that. A €1 billion plan is envisaged for the port and a planning application has been lodged with An Bord Pleanála. I hope these plans will come to fruition in the not-too-distant future and that Dublin Port goes ahead with them. It is vital that Dublin Port works efficiently and effectively. Dublin Port has indicated that it will not take any cruise ships this year. Cruise ships are important not only to the city of Dublin but also to the country as a whole. The sector is not putting any pressure on bed nights in Dublin or anything like that because most of the people stay on board. This would be a major loss to the State and the Exchequer. I welcome the plans put forward by Dublin Port. Perhaps the issue could be debated in the Chamber in the not-too-distant future as well.
Like other colleagues, yesterday I attended a briefing on the Mercosur deal organised by the Irish Farmers Association. Representatives from the association informed us how Irish farmers are terrified at the potential consequences for the future of farming here and, by extension, the future of rural Ireland. Today, the Beef Plan movement is holding a protest outside the gates of Leinster House to highlight concerns relating to this deal, the consequences for the future of Irish farming and the future of rural Ireland as we know it. They are saying to us that the deal is a complete disaster. They say it is bad for Irish farming and for the environment.
Those of us who live in the Border region already have enough on our plates. I imagine the Leader would agree with me. The dark cloud of Brexit hangs over and it is already affecting economic life around the Border counties as we know it. There has been much talk about the extra 99,000 tonnes of beef that will come into the EU but less talk about the extra 180,000 tonnes of chicken or poultry that will come into the country as a result of this deal. As the Leader will appreciate, this could have grave consequences for the Border community. As Senators are aware, Monaghan and Cavan are home to the poultry industry. If this deal is to go ahead as presented, it will have grave consequences indeed for the communities of Monaghan and Cavan. Echoing the call of the Leader's colleague, Senator Paddy Burke, I request a debate on this matter as soon as possible. I appeal to the Leader to pass on our grave concerns to Government. This deal cannot and should not go ahead as presented. Otherwise, it will wipe out farming and, by extension, rural Ireland as we know it.
I rise to congratulate and thank my good friend, Conor McGinn, a Labour Party MP in Westminster. Mr. McGinn secured an amendment to ensure that same-sex marriage would be introduced in Northern Ireland unless power sharing is restored in October. He is a great friend of Ireland. He is chair of the all–party parliamentary group on the Irish in Britain and he is involved in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. This is really positive and can help to restore power sharing in Stormont in Northern Ireland. This is a major move. I wish to thank all the MPs who voted for this. Although sometimes we deride Westminster, what has happened to ensure same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is highly significant.
I rise today to speak in a week when many people are talking and raising serious concerns about the EU-Mercosur deal and the potential impact on the beef industry. This morning, as we speak, outside Leinster House a large demonstration is gathering to express fears and concerns from the farming industry about the uncertainty that the deal presents and the negative consequences that may result.
Yesterday, I listened to the Joint Committee on Agriculture Food and the Marine discuss the merits of afforestation and the replanting of trees in order to address climate change and meet some of our obligations. It is with this in mind that I prefer to speak on a positive note rather than focus on negatives. It is timely that we are having this discussion because only a few days ago a report was published in Science by Professor John Crowther, a professor in environmental systems science at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in Switzerland. At Queens University Belfast, we work with this university on a regular basis as partners in a European food project called EIT Food. Professor Crowther states that planting billions of trees is our best chance of saving the planet. He claims there is room on earth to plant 1.2 trillion extra trees and cut our carbon footprint by 66%. I am of the view that the claims are valid. Professor Crowther states, "This new quantitative evaluation shows [forest] restoration isn't just one of our climate change solutions, it is overwhelmingly the top one". The researchers believe that a worldwide programme could remove two thirds of all emissions pumped into the atmosphere by humans. They have calculated that 1.7 billion ha of land on which trees are not currently growing could support trees naturally. This equates to an area roughly the size of the US and China combined. They took into account that different areas would support different densities of trees and they excluded urban areas and all fields currently used to grow crops. Furthermore, grazing land was calculated as supporting a few trees, something that would actually be beneficial to cattle and sheep.
This works clearly demonstrates that people do not need to start believing in climate change or change their lifestyles. It does not require major advances in science or technology. It simply involves citizens engaging to support, donate, assist or facilitate the planting of trees. Many world-renowned scientists support this theory, as well as the idea that national governments should have this as a primary component of any plans to deal with climate change. René Castro, assistant director general at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as stated, "We now have definitive evidence of the potential land area for re-growing forests, where they could exist and how much carbon they could store." Initial estimates suggest that a global cost of $300 million would restore over 1 trillion trees. This is by far the cheapest option yet proposed.
We need to consider how the men and women on the street today outside Leinster House can contribute and be rewarded for doing so.Telling a farmer to plant a forest is akin to telling people in Dublin to build a house in their garden that they cannot sell for 40 years. It would not happen. All of us need to acknowledge the difficulties and the sensitivities this would present. However, agriforestry on grazing land, utilising corners of fields and strips of low production value land, could be an option. I refer to forestry in harmony with grazing livestock. All of us could identify such areas.
Sometimes the "keep it simple, stupid", KISS, theory works best. That is the theory we probably need to examine. I urge the Government, in conjunction with farmers in the agricultural industry, to consider some of these solutions to our problems, pursue mechanisms to meet targets, deliver on climate change and, ultimately, give farmers a viable, sustainable future, especially in light of an EU-Mercosur deal.
That is a novel and interesting piece of research which I am sure we will bring to the climate action committee.
I propose an amendment to amend the Order of Business to take No. 13 before No. 1. The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Act 2015 established several new legal provisions to address issues of consent and capacity in the provision of healthcare treatments. One such provision was the statutory right to develop and have respected, as practicable, advance healthcare directives where a person specified the action to be taken and the decisions to be made in the future while he or she had capacity. All of us would agree that is an important human rights issue. The difficulty, and what this Bill addresses, is the involuntary detention of patients where that is not recognised. If one is involuntarily detained that does not mean one does not have capacity.
I welcome representatives of Mental Health Reform, who are in the Gallery. They worked closely on this Bill with the assistance of Deputy Pat Buckley.
In terms of human rights, we have come a long way along the road to enlightenment from the time of the lunacy Act when everything was taken from people, not just their liberty but their ability to speak, make decisions and have capacity to do what they wanted to do. This Bill will move us further along the road to enlightenment in that regard. I would be delighted if the Leader would accept my amendment - nobody will create any hassle over it - and allow this Bill to progress through this House and become legislation.
I welcome the fact that the Ilen boat, the only surviving wooden sailing vessel of its type, which was rebuilt in Limerick, is on its way to Greenland as part of the Salmon's Wake project. It will highlight the plight of the salmon leaving the River Shannon and heading towards Greenland. I raise this issue because it is a wonderful project which was done under an educational scheme. People across the community - artists, educationalists and craftspeople - came together and showed each other the craft of making the boat by hand.
We had the Asgardproject in the past, which was involved in sail training. I sailed on the Asgard; I was a watch leader. It is time we considered bringing back something like the Asgard, a sail training ship, because many youths across the country, both North and South, received very worthwhile training when they were on the Asgard. I ask the Leader to bring this issue to the attention of the Minister.
I raise the issue of the Environmental Protection Agency report on clean air. The clean air strategy will come out later this year but clean air is not only an issue for Dublin. Smoky coal is still used in towns and cities where it has not been banned. We have been waiting a considerable period of time for that to be addressed. We are aware of the health constraints, especially in respect of older people, and premature deaths due to polluted air. Children in inner city communities are affected in terms of high rates of asthma from polluted air. All these issues relate to dirty diesel, which is a real problem in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Diesel double decker buses will not come off our streets until 2030. We need short-term as well as long-term action. The clean air strategy is very much a long-term strategy. I am looking for action to be taken now. I am not talking about action being taken only in Dublin. I want to see real-time air quality indicator visual maps in our most polluted cities and towns where the general public can see online the quality of the air within their cities and towns. That, in itself, will put pressure on the Government to move quickly in respect of this issue.
Senator Marshall spoke about tree planting. That has a real effect but there is also an effect in respect of hedges. In Birmingham, it has been proved that where hedges are planted close to roads it breaks up the pollutant at an early stage and stops the effects up to 30 m away.
I ask the Leader to arrange for a constructive debate on this issue early in the autumn to discuss new ideas and how we can clear the air in our towns and cities by banning smoky coal and start removing diesel cars, buses and lorries in areas with a high concentration of older people and young children in particular. I know the Leader will try to facilitate that request as soon as he can in the autumn.
The Leader has not been helpful in pointing that out to me.
I sympathise with the staff of this House in respect of the rodent problem in the public bar and the Members' bar. It is upsetting for many members of staff but I refer to-----
-----the rat infestation we have seen in our cities in recent years. I am aware of inner city flat complexes where morning, noon and night residents are plagued by rats and when they complain they are passed off between Dublin City Council and the Health Service Executive. Yesterday, a lady explained that she left for work in her car and when she got there her engine had seized because rats had climbed up into the engine. Her car was destroyed. She will have to carry that cost, which will be very difficult.
For people living in inner city homes, and I know Senator Devine has this issue also, this problem must be addressed. We cannot ask families to live in rat-infested areas. I know this issue is disturbing, and I am using the excuse of what happened in the House to raise it, but families are living in those circumstances in cities and towns. We need a strategy because there has been a growth in the number of reports of rat infestation in cities and towns.
"I think she would like to have the baby in the same way she would like to have a nice doll." Those were the chilling words used by Ms Justice Nathalie Lieven in a British court recently justifying her decision to force a mentally disabled woman to abort her late-term child of 22 weeks in the womb in violation of her wishes and indeed the wishes of her mother, her legal advisers and a social worker. Her mother was willing to care for the child. Thankfully, that decision was overturned on appeal but Ms Justice Lieven, who had been an advocate for bodies supporting abortion prior to her life on the Bench, described the Northern Irish law, which protects mothers' lives and unborn children, as torture. I would encourage Senator Ardagh, respectfully, in light of that very recent chilling example of what the British law can amount to, to think about whether it is a matter of sweetness that the British Parliament should threaten to impose an extreme abortion law on Northern Ireland.It is neither patriotic nor wise to be happy about the British Parliament imposing or threatening to impose any laws, especially on socially sensitive areas in a jurisdiction such as Northern Ireland. I thought we had moved beyond that kind of oppressive majoritarian thinking.
The issue that I wanted to raise today is good news.
I am sorry about that. I raised the case of the Hyde family recently. They moved to Australia and their application for permanent residency was denied because their child had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. That incredible decision was thankfully reversed as a result of a last minute intervention by the immigration Minister in Australia and the family will be allowed to remain after all. While that is a great outcome, certain concerns about the case remain. One is the media blackout about this case in Ireland. If Donald Trump's America had refused a visa to a child with cystic fibrosis, we would rightly be talking about it continually. I am concerned about what I see as the hands-off position taken by the Government on this issue. When I raised it as a Commencement matter, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, said that it would not be possible for the Tánaiste to comment on the visa procedures applied by other sovereign states. That is a curious statement when we rightly, constantly, pass comment on American procedures and our Government rightly expends time, money and manpower on actively lobbying the Americans to change their visa procedures and laws. If one was a cynic, one would conclude that the Irish lobby in the US is large, well-funded and regularly wines and dines the leadership of the largest political parties. No such lobby exists in other countries.
I ask the Leader to agree that it is not acceptable for the State to take a hands-off approach to issues which affect its citizens, neither in ordinary situations nor a fortioriwhen there is a child with cystic fibrosis who, for a time, appeared to be at the receiving end of a harsh decision. As a State, our policy should be to assist the best possible outcomes for Irish families so that they can live, prosper and contribute to whatever society they want to live in, all things being equal. There should never be any discrimination on the grounds of a family member's disability of any kind.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business from my colleague, Senator Devine.
I call for a debate on the hospitality sector. Sinn Féin's National Minimum Wage (Protection of Employee Tips) Bill 2017 continues to progress in the Dáil. I record my disappointment that Fine Gael opposes a legal right to tips for hospitality workers. The issues in the hospitality sector go beyond that. I refer to the Workplace Relations Commission's reports for the last three years. Some 48% of the food and drink sector was rated non-compliant with basic employment law in 2016, with 58% non-compliance in 2017, and 67% non-compliance in 2018. In other words, the majority of our restaurants and hotels are not compliant with basic law such as issuing a work contract, complying with the National Minimum Wage Act, the Organisation of Working Time Act and the Payment of Wages Act. The standards in this sector are shocking.
I refer specifically to Limerick. Limerick City and County Council provides hundreds of thousands of euro each year to two hotels, the Strand Hotel and Savoy Hotel, neither of which recognise trade unions. Is it not time that we as a country decide, when we are going to award taxpayers' money, that we at least insist on a level of decency? We should call on those hotels to recognise the rights of their staff to join a trade union and be recognised as trade union members. This has gone on for far too long and the Workplace Relations Commission's evidence shows that it gets worse each year. A 67% rate of non-compliance with basic employment law is not good enough. We need a debate on the matter and we need politicians across all parties to act on this issue.
We are coming up on budget time. I had a communication this morning from a member of the public who is concerned about the contributory old age pension. Every year, the Minister announces increases in social welfare benefits. Generally speaking, we hear that pensions were increased by €5. Since 2012, six streams have been introduced in the pension scheme based on the number of contributions that one has paid. This member of the public has set out for me the pension rates in 2018, starting at €243.30 and working down to €97.20. The Minister has announced a €5 increase in the pension but it is pro ratafor the contributory pension while it is not pro ratafor the non-contributory pension. The person on the bottom of the scale, with an average of ten to 14 contributions, would have got a pension of €97.20 in 2018 and, following the 2019 budget, an increase to €99.20, which is not an increase of €5. If nothing else, when the Minister addresses it in October, we should clarify the language that is used, since €5 is not being given across the board, but a pro rataincrease for people on a contributory pension. A man has put together a very genuine case, which I will forward to the Leader's office today, and he might forward it to the Minister. It causes him and many of his neighbours who are on contributory pensions a great deal of distress. Some €5 is a lot of money if one is trying to live on €200 a week, and it is an awful lot if one is trying to live on €97 and only gets a €2 increase. I will forward that information to the Leader and, if needs be, we can have a Commencement debate in the early part of the new session.
I ask the Leader to facilitate statements and a debate on the future of Moneypoint in the first week that we are back in September. Staff in Moneypoint are currently engaging with management and their unions about job losses. It is quite serious. What will happen in the future to Moneypoint? The ESB has committed to coal burning there until 2025 but much more importantly, what will happen post 2025? The Minister will have eight or nine weeks over the summer to prepare for this debate and I encourage the Leader to facilitate it.
I was at a briefing in Buswells, hosted by a former colleague, Averil Power, who is now CEO of the Irish Cancer Society. If Members have not been there already, I encourage them to go there. While we have achieved much related to cancer care, especially with the centres of excellence and the fact that so many people survive cancer, there are still many challenges. Some of the requests the Irish Cancer Society has in its pre-budget submission are very reasonable. One is a reduction to a €100 limit for people under the drugs payment scheme. It is looking for an upgrade to and moving forward of trials, the people covered and the funding available. As we will all have experienced in our offices, it is critical that when people are diagnosed with cancer, a more lenient approach should be taken by the primary care reimbursement service, PCRS, when allocating medical cards for treatment. It is extremely traumatic and distressing for a person to have cancer and the last thing that he or she should be worried about is whether he or she will get a medical card. In the upcoming budget in October, the Minister needs to do something to make it easier and more flexible for medical cards to be provided to people who are diagnosed with cancer.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. The Leader was very actively involved in helping to promote it, as was Bridget Doody and the team in the Seanad Office. I do not want it to lie at that. Will the Leader give an undertaking to facilitate a full debate on the SME sector, as he indicated he would do? That debate must include a discussion on procurement. The Exchequer will spend some €100 billion in the next five years on public procurement, of which SMEs will receive approximately 3% to 4% in value terms. If we could double that allocation, it would make a huge difference to SMEs and to the whole economy. The procurement process must be totally overhauled. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate on that issue? Ireland is 12th in Europe when it comes to SME share of Government contracts. The contracts these companies do get are small, with none securing a project worth more than €300,000. The percentage of SMEs tendering in this country is much smaller than is the case in any other country in Europe, where they secure three times as many contracts as Irish SMEs do here. It is an issue that requires serious examination. We have great SMEs that are run by passionate people. We need to give them a fair crack of the whip. The last thing they want is an advantage or privilege, but they must have a fair chance. I thank the Leader and the Cathaoirleach for all the support they have given me in my role as rapporteur for the report on the SME sector.
I thank the 20 Senators who contributed to the Order of Business. Senators Ardagh, Norris, Feighan and Mullen referenced the decisions in Westminster yesterday that affect Northern Ireland. I congratulate Mr. Conor McGinn, MP, on his stewardship of the marriage equality debate yesterday and the decisions arising from it. It is an important decision for the UK Parliament and one which I very much welcome. Senator Ardagh had every entitlement to come into the House today and give her view on this matter, as did Senator Mullen. To be fair to Senator Ardagh, she has long been a champion of equality and women's reproductive rights. Senator Mullen has a different viewpoint. The UK Parliament has now taken a decision on these issues as they operate in the North, as did the Irish people in respect of this State. There are people in the North today celebrating the granting of marriage equality, which was previously denied to them. Ironically, this comes at a time when there is a lacuna of representation in Stormont. We all recognise the need to have the Assembly back up and running as soon as possible.
Senator Ardagh referred to jobs in the HSE. I do not have the answers to her questions. I do find commonality with her point that if a person is given a job and the relevant process is followed from A to Z, it should not take an inordinate amount of time to implement that appointment. Every contract takes a period to be issued, but we need to look at the delays the Senator highlighted. The HSE has been recruiting staff in the first quarter of this year and it is my understanding that there is no public sector freeze on recruitment. If Senator Ardagh has an issue concerning a particular individual, she should take it up with the Minister, or I can convey her concerns to him.
I agree with the Senator that the delays on the part of Bank of Ireland in processing social welfare payments are not acceptable. They place a significant burden and strain on people waiting for those payments.
Later today, after a further two hours of discussion, we will have completed 102 hours of debate on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017. I will say no more on that other than to point Senators to what is proposed in the Order of Business.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to poverty among pensioners. To be fair, the Government has done more than its predecessors in respect of the restoration of social protection payments to elderly people. Everybody qualifies for a pension, with means and circumstances deciding whether one is eligible for a non-contributory pension or a contributory pension. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, introduced the homemaker's scheme, which has afforded recompense to some women who look after children in the home. The social welfare budget has increased every year under this Government. I do not wish to be discordant but all of us in this House who are active in our constituencies understand the difficulties people are facing. There is an issue in regard to how efforts to reduce energy consumption may impact on elderly people. I will be happy to have that debate when we return in the autumn.
Senator Norris raised an issue yesterday regarding the schedule, which he clarified today. His proposal for the appointment of a member of the Traveller community to Seanad Éireann is deserving of support. The hearings of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee are an important part of our work in this House, giving us an opportunity to deal with issues that might not necessarily be debated in the normal course of business. Our ability to have those hearings enables people to serve as rapporteurs and to present issues that might not otherwise be to the fore in our deliberations.
Senator Kieran O'Donnell referred to the report by Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill on victims of abuse. I understand the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is in the Dáil later today and will address the report, which the Government has accepted. We all look forward to that work being concluded.
Senators Kieran O'Donnell, Lombard, Paddy Burke, Gallagher and Marshall raised issues concerning the EU-Mercosur deal. I facilitated a discussion on this matter last week in the House, which was attended by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys. It is important that we continue to have these discussions as there is a long way to go on the deal. The briefing yesterday by the Irish Farmers Association gave a strong flavour of the view from the farming sector. Others, such as Mr. Dan O'Brien, have a different view. We need a running debate on the issues, which I am happy to accommodate in the new term.
Senator Murnane O'Connor noted the one-year anniversary of the GDPR and pointed to several issues with the regulation. Third-party compliance is challenging and we have seen some €56 million in fines this year already. However, compliance must be a prerequisite for everybody. I am happy to have a debate on the matter.
Senator Lombard's proposal that a delegation from the Seanad might travel to France to discuss the Mercosur deal with colleagues there is worth considering. I hope we can have a discussion in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on how that might be facilitated.
Senator Mac Lochlainn spoke eloquently about an important local issue in south Inishowen. I do not have information on this particular matter, but I am happy to convey the Senator's concerns to the relevant Ministers.
I join colleagues in congratulating Mr. Phil Hogan on his nomination for a second term as a European Commissioner. He has done an extraordinarily good job, notwithstanding the comments around Mercosur. I hope he will remain in his current position or receive an elevation. We congratulate him on the very good job he has done.
Senator Paddy Burke highlighted issues relating to Dublin Port. The port's readiness for expansion and the other issues to which he referred are worthy of debate in the House.
Senators Marshall and Humphreys referred to climate change. We should all reflect on Senator Marshall's contribution, particularly his comments on afforestation, and Senator Humphreys's points about the EPA's report on air quality in Dublin. The findings in the report underline the importance of implementing the recommendations in the climate change action plan regarding electric vehicles, cycling, park-and-ride facilities, public transport and the elimination of vehicles that run on fossil fuels by 2030.That is why it is important that the Ministers, Deputies Bruton and Ross, will return to the House in the new term to discuss the matter raised.
If I am interpreting Senator Devine correctly, she is proposing an amendment to allow for a debate on her Private Members' Bill.
I thank the Senator for her contribution.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of the Ilen, which is a wonderful example of how a project can be put together and brought to fruition through a community education programme. We wish a fair journey to those sailing it to Greenland and congratulate them.
Senator Humphreys discussed rodents, and not just in Leinster House, but across our capital city. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. I hope that all those in the Houses, and particularly staff, are not discommoded after yesterday. A workplace should be in pristine condition. I hope that the issue will be resolved quickly.
Senator Mullen referred to the Hyde family. I have spoken in the House previously in support of the family's application. I do not want to use the word "victory", but I congratulate the family on obtaining the right to stay in Australia. The Irish Government plays a role in helping our citizens with visas, although I am not familiar with the level of involvement in this particular case. The Senator had tabled a Commencement matter on the subject, but we now welcome the decision. Thankfully, the issue has been resolved. The Senator referred to there being various lobby groups, but the media had covered the story beforehand and afterwards. To be fair, there is a strong Irish diaspora in Australia that is engaged with Irish civic life and the promotion of many issues. We might consider setting up an Oireachtas subgroup to progress that further. A child's disability should not be a barrier to remaining or entering any country.
I have not read the report of the WRC, but I concur with Senator Gavan that any breach of employment law is unacceptable. We have employment law to ensure that there are rights and standards in the workplace. I am not familiar with the issues that the Senator raised regarding the two hotels in Limerick, but I have a simple - perhaps too simple - view on this, that being, someone should be able to join a union. I was a member of one, and I would encourage workers to enhance their rights collectively by becoming union members. That is why we have employment law. I would be happy to arrange for such a debate in the new term.
Senator Craughwell raised an important issue concerning the budget. I will take that information from him later. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, held a series of meetings on the budget in the past two weeks with various groups. As with the summer economic statement, we will have that debate prior to the budget.
Senator Conway raised the important matter of Moneypoint. I will reflect on that. As he correctly stated, the jobs need to be preserved post 2025. The transition must be planned for. I take the Senator's point in that regard. He also referred to the briefing given by the Irish Cancer Society. I congratulate him and join him in his comments about the Primary Care Reimbursement Service, PCRS, and the provision of medical cards to patients who have been diagnosed with cancer. That they have this benefit is a necessity, not a luxury. Dealing with cancer in itself is stressful and people should not have to worry about medical politics.
I concur with Senator Ó Céidigh regarding public procurement and small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs. For SMEs that want to tender and be considered for contracts, the cost of tendering is a significant issue. A former Minister of State, Mr. Brian Hayes, did some work on this question. It is important that we debate the matter. As the profile of the economy changes, we must update our tendering and procurement processes continually. I would be happy to arrange for that debate in the new term.