Thursday, 21 November 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Regulated Professions (Health and Social Care) (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes.
Good morning to the Leas-Chathaoirleach and Leader. I certainly have no objection to the Order of Business and it is quite in order. I request that the Leader arrange an early debate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, on transport matters. Would it be possible to have a questions and answers session rather than statements, which are not all that helpful if everybody makes a contribution but there is no real response? Will the Leader consider doing this at his earliest convenience and before Christmas, if possible?
I take the opportunity to raise the issue of overcrowding on the Heuston Station to Westport train route. Senator John O'Mahony might agree with me on this. It is a good quality service and very punctual, although it was a few minutes late today. I was not on it but I heard it was a few minutes late. Generally it is an excellent and timely service, with clean carriages and free Wi-Fi. The accommodation is inadequate, however, as there are not enough carriages on the train. I have seen people standing from Heuston to Westport, which is not acceptable.
There is a good arrangement with prebooking but this can also cause friction on trains. When people prebook seats, there should be a certain number of seats retained for people who travel without reservations as well because some people may not have access to a computer or have the ability to book a seat. These are small points I will make in the engagement with the Minister. Senator O'Mahony might also agree with me in requesting a later service from Dublin, perhaps at 8.15 p.m. during the week. Many people commute from the likes of Athlone and Portarlington, for example.
I also request the upgrading of stations along the route. I initiated a pilot scheme with the Roscommon town team chaired by Mr. Larry Brennan and my colleague and daughter, Councillor Orla Leyden, to provide designed displays of what is in Roscommon. It is a pilot and the same could happen in Ballyhaunis, Westport or elsewhere. The displays would be well-designed and in Irish and English, of course, saying what is in the town. Roscommon town has a Norman castle and is the burial place of the last high king of Connacht, etc. Next year is the 160th anniversary of Roscommon station opening and it would be a special time to upgrade the facilities. A railway station is a gateway to a town and a way to sell it. One can sell a town through roads but there is a very captive audience going through all these towns. It is a positive suggestion and there has been tremendous co-operation from Iarnród Éireann staff at the highest level with this initiative. It has been funded by a scheme under the town team.
There is also much overcrowding on the Luas. I was the victim of a pickpocket on 21 October, losing my wallet and all my credit cards. I got great help from An Garda Síochána but, unfortunately, the closed-circuit television cameras were not working on the Luas on that day. If they had been working, I would have available to scrutinise the footage to see if I could identify the culprit. It was so crowded on that day, we were like sardines. I compliment the extension of the Luas but we must look at this again. It is a victim of its own success. It is a tremendous service and it has made Dublin a city that people can get around very quickly. I wish it well. I thank the Garda Síochána, who acted in a professional and speedy way to deal with the matter. The gardaí were from Store Street and elsewhere. When they went to the company that runs the Luas, the CCTV was not working. It should have been working.
It is simple technology and it would have helped. People on the Luas should watch their wallets and be aware of scamming that is going on. They should also try to avoid overcrowded trains as it makes it easy to be a victim of a pickpocket. I lost a few euro but I learned much.
On Tuesday, an amendment to the Order of Business was made to bring the Minister of State with responsibility for Defence to the Chamber to address the emergency air ambulance service issue. He came and when I asked five questions, he answered none. This is contrast to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, who was here yesterday. He was unable to answer questions because of time constraints but he undertook to provide answers individually to people. It is simply not good enough that a Minister of State brought to this House to deal with an emergency refuses to deal with it or answer questions.
Today's edition ofThe Irish Timescarries a letter from a retired captain, Seán McCarthy, who wholeheartedly refutes the position taken by the Minister of State on the recent decision to scale back the air ambulance service. He makes a number of important points. When the service was set up in 2012, military leadership was indicating that pilot retirements were having an adverse effect on the Air Corps. As we well know, this has worsened over the years with the loss of experience aviators, technicians, and air traffic controllers. The squadron that has kept the emergency air ambulance running since 2012 is down to two crews when it is supposed to have ten. Nevertheless, in 2015, the White Paper on Defence stated the emergency air ambulance service should be made permanent and sustainable, and a project group was to be set up by the Department but this has never happened.
Absolutely. This captain says that asking the Irish Coast Guard to double up is merely a sticking plaster solution and that the sticking plaster solutions of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, are being applied to a life-and-death scenario. What is most concerning about the letter is that it is written by this captain, a former emergency air ambulance helicopter pilot, who retired after 16 years' service. It is literally from the horse's mouth. He believes, as do I, that to shrug off as an unforeseen consequence the civilian market demand for Air Corps pilots is insulting. I stand in support of the air ambulance crews. I stand in support of the people of Roscommon and the midlands. I stand in support of retired Captain Seán McCarthy. What has gone on is unacceptable and if the Minister of State comes into this House again, he might at least do us the courtesy of answering the questions. If he is stuck for time, he can write to us individually and provide answers.
The recruitment embargo is having a profound effect across the health service from acute hospitals to community hospitals and down to home care packages. Anybody who is a public representative will know the impact this has had, having being obliged to engage with the HSE and to listen to the challenges faced by families is having on them. This is crazy stuff. We must remember that providing funding to persons to be cared for in their own homes saves the State a huge amount of money. To have this delivered by HSE personnel, rather than hand it out to the private sector again saves a huge amount of money yet, unbelievably, this Government continues on the path it has been on.
It announced in the budget 1 million additional home help hours for next year. It was a great piece of spin and sounded as if it would solve the problem but Sinn Féin now has a response from the Minister to a parliamentary question from our health spokesperson, Deputy O'Reilly, confirming that 2.5 million home help hours would be needed next year to deal with the backlog. The Government has provided only half the number of hours necessary to deal with the backlog. What does that mean in real terms? It means that in a place like Donegal, hundreds of elderly people who need this care in their homes, and for their families to have some respite and support, will not get it. It is outrageous. Clarification should be given by the Minister for Health to this House as to the reason this has not been addressed. I have spoken in confidence to people who work in this service in the HSE at all levels. They have told me the reason they are falling behind so badly now, and the reason they are at the front line having to answer questions from the families and deal with the tough conversations, is because of the Government's recruitment embargo. This is madness. It will cost the State more money in the long run. I ask the Leader to again make representations to the Minister for Health outlining the stupidity of this policy, the impact it is having in places like Donegal and across this State and to have it reversed urgently to end the recruitment embargo as it affects home help workers and assistants. It needs to be done as soon as possible.
First, we read today that more than 200 legal cases have been taken against parents due to school absenteeism issues and that more than 700 notices have been sent to parents across the country in the past year on the same issue. These are parents of children aged between six and 16, which is the legal requirement that children are to be in school who have missed 20 days or more. As the Leader will know, we passed all Stages of a Bill in this House that would bring four and five year old children under the auspices of the Education (Welfare) Act. This would mean that absenteeism could be addressed at an earlier stage in a child's school life. I ask the Leader if the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs could be asked to address the Seanad on the progress of that Bill through the other House of the Oireachtas because school absenteeism is an issue that can be best addressed at the earliest stage of a child's school life. If it can be addressed when the child is four or, more likely, five years of age in the school system, their patterns of school attendance will be greatly increased. If poor attendance has been embedded in the child's school experience until the age of six, before their legal requirement to be in school, that pattern of poor attendance will continue. I ask that the Minister would make herself available to come into the House to discuss the passage of this Bill, which she and the Government support. It is important that we see that legislation passed.
Second, I want to put on the record of the House how disappointed I am with rhetoric coming from various by-election campaign candidates. Anybody who understands inequality understands that this affects children profoundly. If one is the child of a Traveller, a Nigerian, an Albanian or an asylum seeker-----
I am sorry. I am putting on the record of this House how important it is for all of us to understand the seriousness of inequality and the way rhetoric hurts children in particular who are from vulnerable communities. For the child of an asylum seeker, an immigrant, somebody in drug addiction or a Traveller, this sort of rhetoric will seep into their bones and possibly never leave them. I would remind all parties in this House, and all their candidates in this by-election, that they may want to win a by-election but the damage they are causing will far outweigh the importance of the election in which they are running.
I did not realise that it was children aged six to 16 on which records were kept in terms of school attendance. That Bill makes absolute sense and the sooner it is introduced, the better.
I attended a briefing about Dublin in the audiovisual room this morning. I attended it because it was organised by Marian O'Donnell, who used to work for Senator Colm Burke and myself until about a year ago. It was very interesting to see the methodology behind the study and the challenges this city faces in the future. A copy of the presentation will be circulated to Members, which makes very interesting reading. We can celebrate what has been achieved in Dublin but there is much that needs to be done to bring us up to what I would describe as an acceptable international standard, particularly for the 1,000 non-Irish people surveyed who are living in Dublin. I refer to people from abroad who have decided to make Dublin their home. It is very interesting to see what those 1,000 people had to say about their experiences in Dublin. The study will make for interesting reading when it comes out.
I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate on direct provision.
That is great. The Minister might be in a position then to update us on what is happening in Achill. Accommodation is being paid for in Achill but there are no residents there as yet. That case needs urgent attention. I have no doubt that the Minister is dealing with it. I welcome that he will have the opportunity next week to update the House on it.
I want to echo what was stated earlier about the need to take a coherent approach to transport issues, especially in the city of Dublin. The National Transport Authority is currently sponsoring the excavation of a geological survey in Ely Place, Hume Street, in the middle of the road. Some Members may have seen the stockade that has been built there to explore the subsoil structure to finish out the plans for the MetroLink.The Taoiseach has stated on the record that he is open to the MetroLink's southern leg being diverted either easterly towards Stillorgan serving St. Vincent's Hospital, UCD and so on, or westerly to serve Churchtown, Rathgar and Terenure which is an area that has very little public transport and the roads going to it are congested. It struck me that he says in public that he is open to considering these proposals while, at the same time, the work goes on on the project to create the circumstances where the Luas green line will be cannibalised for part of its length and turned into the southern link of the metro. The work continues unabated and unauthorised. Apparently, it is not Government policy that this should be done because the Taoiseach says he is open to other solutions but huge sums are being spent on building, excavating and exploring a particular route to which the Government is not yet committed.
That is the point that I was coming to. The National Transport Authority spent an awful lot of money on planning various projects without the authority of either the Houses of the Oireachtas or a clear mandate from the public. The Department in which Deputy Ross is Minister has overall charge of transport policy. However, it seems that the National Transport Authority has developed into an agency which follows its own agenda, expends money on planning, consultancy and the like and when it has done its work, presents its conclusions, not on the basis that it is what the public wants but what its engineers want. That does not merely apply to rail and light rail transport and the metro service in Dublin but also to BusConnects. Engineers are creating solutions for Dublin on paper that will not work in practice.
I know that the House has just had the Minister, Deputy Ross, here. He cannot spend all his life in this Chamber and I accept that.
I would suggest that we have a debate in the House on the National Transport Authority, who runs it, who is on it, who decides the policy issues with which it deals, who decides on its budget and who is responsible for its budget. We should have a serious debate as to whether it is in fact a semi-autonomous body or whether it is implementing Government policy approved by the Oireachtas in accordance with democratic principles.
I raise the cost of and access to medicines in Ireland. We pay six times the global average for generic drugs, that is drugs which are out of patent and can be produced for less than the original. I know many people who go on medical holiday to Spain with prescriptions in their pockets who return with six months of medicines for the same cost as two months here. Debate on this is ongoing around the cost, procurement and agreement we have. Today the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, IPHA, is having a conference. It informed me that Irish patients must wait three times as long for the same medicines as patients in other European countries. Here it is an average of 843 days for 15 new medicines to be funded by the HSE compared with 289 days for patients in 14 referenced countries in Europe. We need a clear medical policy to help fix this access problem. The four-year agreement between the Government and the IPHA on drug prices ends next July. We look for an improved, transparent replacement that addresses the long wait as well as the cost of generic medication.
I thank the seven Members for their contributions to the Order of Business. I welcome Ms Róise Nolan from Carlow in the Public Gallery who is here on work experience.
Senators Leyden and McDowell referred to the debate on transport. It is a pity they did not contribute to the debate yesterday when the Minister, Deputy Ross, was here to discuss transport. The debate was adjourned not concluded.
I am only sorry I did not see Senator Craughwell on his bike around Dublin, it would have been some sight.
Senator Leyden referred to the importance of security on the Luas and the distressing incident that had happened to him. We need to look at dedicated transport security and continued investment in CCTV. The Minister for Justice and Equality, to his credit, has been very proactive with his Department in the rolling out of CCTV in many parts of the country. It beggars belief that the CCTV was not in operation. One would imagine that CCTV equipment would be inspected every morning and afternoon, the same as one might see checks on the cleanliness of a restaurant or public house. I would have thought there would be periodic checks over the course of a day to ensure they work. That is something we should ensure happens and I am disappointed and upset for the Senator. To his credit, as Senator Leyden says, it is something that we can all learn lessons from but it should not happen. I would be happy for the Minister to come back to the House on the matter.
I think the Leas-Chathaoirleach ruled on Senator Craughwell's request. We had a very good debate on this. I know we are heading into election season and there is posturing and politicising. People are up on bikes and up on mountains.
Senator Craughwell mystifies me sometimes. He came in on Tuesday seeking a debate, having had the Minister here that day on a Commencement matter on the emergency aeromedical support service, EAS. He then won his vote and had the debate and he is still not happy.
Senator Mac Lochlainn raised an important point regarding funding for home care packages and other types of health provision. There has been a significant increase in investment in a variety of different measures, including in the areas of disability, home care packages, the elderly and disability services. However, I agree that there needs to be a better channelling of funding so that services are delivered to the patient in a timely manner. There is a bureaucratic stranglehold that must be loosened. To my knowledge, the recruitment embargo to which the Senator referred has been lifted. Members have spoken in the House this week about interviews that are taking place for posts in different sections of the health service. Having said that, we do need to address the bureaucratic issues and ensure moneys are freed up. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister.
Senator Ó Ríordáin referred to the report on school absenteeism that was published last week. I agree with his points completely and acknowledge the school students who have joined us in the Gallery this morning. We have an obligation and duty to tackle the issue of absenteeism, which can be achieved through early intervention. I am happy to invite the Minister to the House to discuss this issue. The Senator also spoke about the rhetoric used by by-election candidates. That issue has been raised every day this week in the House. To reiterate my earlier comments, we must all be careful of the language we use and what we say, because the import of our words can be profound and significant. I do not agree with the comments made by certain by-election candidates in the past week on a variety of issues. As public representatives, it is important that we are seen to be leaders within our communities and in the Oireachtas. That is why the tone and tenor of what we say in this Chamber and outside of it, including on social media, is very important.
Senator Conway referred to the presentation on living in Dublin that was given by Marian O'Donnell earlier today. I join him in commending her on that briefing. There are challenges to be faced and met in Dublin and we must hold the National Transport Authority, NTA, to account in that regard.
I will be happy to convene a debate on the matter with the Minister, Deputy Ross, at the earliest date. I remind Senator Conway that we will have statements on direct provision next week.
Senator Devine referred to the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, IPHA, report on the cost of and access to medicines. The price of drugs in Ireland is monitored as part of a basket of 14 countries of which we are one. The HSE spends €2 billion a year purchasing medicines and reimbursing costs. This year alone, 26 new medicines were sanctioned, in addition to the 30 that were approved last year. I heard Professor Michael Barry speaking about this matter on Sean O'Rourke's radio programme this morning. The cost of medicines is a source of continual complaint and concern for people. There has been a significant reduction in prices, with a range of drugs coming off patent and the introduction of generic medicines. I am happy to have a debate on the matter at the earliest opportunity.