Tuesday, 3 December 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2019, back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Finance (Tax Appeals and Prospectus Regulation) Bill 2019 - Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken at 4.45 p.m.; and No. 3, Finance Bill 2019 - Committee Stage to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2.
Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and, instead of celebrating diversity and inclusion, it is with regret that I speak of our failure to prioritise disability funding, particularly for those who need wheelchairs to get around and access shops and other places in their communities on a day-to-day basis.
The waiting lists alone for the assessment of need by an occupational therapist for someone looking for a wheelchair is 28 weeks. Once one is assessed and given the green light, one is then placed on a second waiting list for funding for a chair. Waiting lists for the assessment of need are too long and it is disgraceful that the waiting lists for funding are so long. These are the most vulnerable people in our society and it galls me when we see such blatant waste of spending on other areas in these Houses and Dublin City Council when people who actually need a piece of equipment to get around are denied it. It is unfair.
My colleague has raised the closure of the Cuisle respite centre and holiday hotel for people with disabilities in Roscommon, run by the Irish Wheelchair Association. We need to look at exactly where we are spending our money and what are our priorities for people. It seems most unfair.
I also raise an issue around education. I would like a debate in this House on the introduction of free schoolbooks for primary and secondary education. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí; cáin an óige agus craolfaidh sí. It costs parents approximately €500 a year for books and other costs related to sending their children back to junior school. It costs approximately €1,000 a year for secondary school. That is a considerable amount of money and it would be welcome if we could give free schoolbooks and have a special system whereby parents would not have to go out and spend these amounts of money. I acknowledge that it is halfway through the school year now but, if we are having a debate such as the one I am proposing, it should be had in a timely manner to give the Department a chance to prepare for such a scheme. The cost of bringing in free schoolbooks would be 0.2% of the overall Department's budget. It is a small thing that would be really valuable. I would love to have a debate in this House on that matter.
I congratulate all those who took part in the recent by-elections, those who were successful and unsuccessful. It takes courage to put oneself out in any election but particularly in a by-election. To candidates of all groups, parties and none, I send congratulations for engaging in the process.Leading on from that, I thank and congratulate those who were successful. It is a great honour and privilege for those Members to come to Leinster House today and I wish them well and every happiness in their work.
The real thing I want to ask about is the electoral commission. The Leader is aware that the programme for a partnership Government mentions it. This is very important legislation that needs to be enacted. There are things that could happen in the meantime, in particular with regard to the Standards In Public Office Commission, SIPO, which called for an electoral commission and legislation to deal with digital political campaigns and finance from outside this State and its impact on elections. According to SIPO, the unregulated nature of social media campaigns "allows for foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums, with potentially significant consequences". These actors do not even have to be foreign. We know what is happening in here in terms of social media. The Leader has spoken about it. There are a significant amount of things happening in or around this area that influence the outcome of elections. It is important that we have an electoral commission. I spoke to a number of people who were involved in the by-elections who told me that the register is out of date by about 20 years. A man in Wexford told me that he was told on one doorstop that the only two people entered on the register for that house had been dead for 15 years so we clearly have a lot of work to do with regard to cleaning up the register.
We also have a lot of work to do in terms of engaging with, educating, encouraging and supporting people to engage in the political process. This is a challenge for everyone in politics. How can we get young and old people - all people - to engage in this process and make them feel that the question of who they put into Parliament is relevant to their lives? It is important for us to have an independent electoral commission regardless of what type of election is involved. I know the Government has committed to it and I also know that time is running out. I would like something like a memorandum or update on where we with regard to this legislation because it is important. I do not think anyone in either House disputes the need for an independent electoral commission because it is critically important.
It is time for us to have a debate again about how we can engage with young people. I have always been an advocate of allowing 16 year olds to vote in elections. They are much more sophisticated than we were at that age. They have much more access to information. It is not always accurate information but it is information. I read some commentary in the press today regarding allowing 16 year olds to register in order that they are registered on the system. I think that is good but it is important that we revisit the question of giving them the vote. Traditionally, Fine Gael led in this area. Many years ago, the Young Fine Gael organisation was a great advocate for it. Some of these people are now Members of the Seanad and Dáil. They led the way in terms of advocating for young people to engage in the political process. It is important so I would like a debate at some point on how we can get 16 year olds in. My focus today is on whether we can start and get this independent electoral commission up and running because it will serve democracy, the parliamentary process and the body politic well and is something with which we need to push ahead.
I extend my condolences to the families of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were both killed in the London Bridge attack. I commend both of these young people, who were champions of the victims of the criminal justice system, for the fantastic work they did during their short lives in the Learning Together programme for victims and the rehabilitation of prisoners. I also commend the bravery of Jack's father, Dave Merritt, when he spoke about hate crime and the work his son and Saskia Jones did. We have a lot to learn from that. I also commend the members of the public who came forward to protect others who could have been the victims of this attack. There is learning for us all in the fact that they were immigrants. I again emphasise the importance of speeding up the hate crime legislation that is in process here.It is taking far too long. There needs to be an urgency around that. The Leader might just give us an update and times on that.
On a better note, I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Mark Ward, who got elected over the weekend and who arrived in Leinster House today, and, indeed, the three other newly-elected Deputies. I thank my party's other candidates, Councillor Thomas Gould, Councillor Ann Graves and Mr. Johnny Mythen for the successes that they have achieved. I commend all the candidates who put their names forward, including my cross-party colleagues in the Seanad who put their names forward for the democratic process.
What we have learned from the results over the weekend is the growing anger out there that despite the growth in the economy, the vast majority of families and workers have less money in their pockets than when Fine Gael, supported by Fianna Fáil, came into government. People told us about the cost of rents, childcare, healthcare and insurance. As for my party's result, it is due to us setting out how we would deal with all these issues and, indeed, how we would plan for Irish unity which is important.
As Senator Boyhan said, we cannot ignore the low turnout in these elections and the need for the electoral commission and for us to look at how we can engage genuinely with young people and facilitate people to vote from 16 years of age. This is crucially important. We need to engage with young people and to facilitate people aged 16 and over to vote and take part in the democratic process. We cannot merely pay lip-service to these issues. We have to work on them. We cannot say we agree with something and then do nothing about it. There is a job of work to be done here. We need to have a discussion in this Chamber on voting rights for young people of 16 years of age and above.
Ireland's record on combatting racial discrimination under the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, is under scrutiny by the UN in Geneva this week. In his opening address to the UN committee, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, stated that "Ireland has also looked outwards with regard to its international obligations towards those fleeing conflict and persecution", and that Ireland has "developed family reunification initiatives to enable families and communities to bring to Ireland relatives living in areas of conflict." This is not quite correct, or at least not correct according to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, which stated in an independent report on Ireland's compliance with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which was published last week that it has "serious concerns regarding retrogressive measures on family reunification introduced in the International Protection Act 2015 that limit the statutory right to family reunification to members of the nuclear family, and requires family reunification applications to be made within 12 months of the grant of refugee or subsidiary protection status – a timeframe that is impossible for many refugees."
My International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 offers a pathway forward in line with the IHREC report. I ask the Taoiseach and the Government to grant this modest Bill a money message. This would be a quick and easy step for the Government to take as the Bill has passed all Stages in this House and Second Stage in the Dáil in December last with sizable majorities. If there are improvements to the Bill from a Government perspective, these can be worked out on Committee Stage. A money message for the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 will allow us to expeditiously move forward and take prompt action on our responsibilities to refugees under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. If passed, this Bill would bring the State into line with UN CERD obligations and would mean a great deal to people who are desperately seeking to reunite with family members. I refer to people such as Mr. Izzeddeen Alkarajeh, who submitted a statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality for the detailed scrutiny of the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 which took place in February last and who is desperately seeking to reunite with his mother who is in a very dangerous situation in Palestine.At a time of rising anti-immigration sentiment, it is important that we as legislators reaffirm our commitment to welcoming people in need of international protection with openness and warmth. A money message for the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 would be a step in the right direction, as there are only incidental expenses involved under that Bill.
The UN committee in Geneva has also heard from a number of Traveller NGOs and others who also highlight how the State is falling short in the areas of Traveller accommodation, hate speech, education, health, employment, and more. Many of these issues have also been raised in the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community, which I chair. The UN rapporteur for CERD, Dr. Shepherd, commented favourably on the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2017, which has passed all Stages in the Seanad. We need to progress this Bill and pass it through the Dáil, as the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, promised on 16 October. The passing of this Bill would be yet another brownie point for the Minister and the State and a step forward for Ireland in fulfilling its UN obligations. I have done bits of work for the Government, both on family reunification and Traveller culture and history. All it needs to do is to take these up and run with them. Can the Leader invite the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who delivered Ireland's statement to the UN committee to the House to outline what actions and commitments the Government will take on foot of the hearings today and yesterday in Geneva? I will listen with great interest and intent as to Government actions on family reunification, as well as Traveller rights, to include, in particular, the teaching of Traveller history and culture in education.
I acknowledge Senator Kelleher's work on dementia and her concerns about it. We thought we were making progress, where there was a line referring to it in the latest budget.
I refer to the issue of Saint Joseph's Shankill, which was debated in the House with the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, as recently as 12 November. A notification was sent out earlier this week that no further beds would be made available for long-term dementia care in Saint Joseph's due to lack of funding. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, made clear statements on the facility when this issue was debated in the Lower House. He gave a commitment that the doors would not close and said:
Saint Joseph's is a brilliant facility. It needs to be supported and it will be supported, and remain open. This facility will not close.
However, the 60 residential beds in the centre are closing. I am disappointed that the Minister would give such clear statements in the Lower House. I have to be very careful not to use toward "liar" and I will not-----
The Minister asked for Saint Joseph's administrators to enter into intense negotiations with the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, which they did. In those discussions, the NTPF identified that the cost for a patient to stay in this facility was approximately €1,783 a week. Why did it offer to maintain the same patient for €1,350 a week? When that came to light, Saint Joseph's appealed the decision but the appeal will not be heard or adjudicated on until next March. One cannot ask a charitable institution to spend funds that it does not have on the basis of an appeal. This has been going on for a decade.
With reluctance, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business calling on the Minister for the Health to attend this House, immediately after the Order of Business to explain his remarks and, in particular, if he is still as certain as he was in the Lower House that Saint Joseph's will remain open.On the financial figures we have been given, it will not remain open. I am only raising one issue and will be brief and finish on this point. When the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, came to the House, I challenged him on the same statements and he avoided and dodged. He said that the National Treatment Purchase Fund was independent. If that independence was there when the Minister, Deputy Harris, said in the Dáil that the doors would not close and that the facility would remain open-----
On Thursday I raised the issue of governance in sport as a result of the KOSI report that was published last week and presented to the Garda by Sport Ireland. I called for the Minister, Deputy Ross, to come to the House to discuss the matter. Since then events have overtaken that request, in that the CEO, who had been appointed and was due to meet the FAI staff yesterday morning, pulled out at the last minute. I have no idea as to the reasons for that. Meanwhile regional officers, FAI staff, coaches and children's and women's teams are awaiting funding. The Minister has issued public statements but has not explained in the Houses how the funding that had been withdrawn is to be restored while all of this chaos exists in the background.
Governing bodies have previously shown that they can be turned around by appointing the right people. The Olympic Federation of Ireland is one shining example in the past three or four years. It is time for the Minister to come to the House to explain and to join up the dots as to what is happening.
I thank Senator Nash.
Part of a mine collapsed in the area, resulting in major subsidence. The result was that many families had to leave their homes. The local community centre and GAA pitches were left completely out of bounds. As one can imagine, it was a major blow to the community in County Monaghan, and particularly for the people of Magheracloone. The local GAA club, Magheracloone Mitchells had no pitch to play on. Many clubs in such a situation would have folded up. However, I am glad to report that Magheracloone Mitchells did not do that. The GAA members pulled themselves together and availed of the services of local GAA clubs in Cavan, Meath and Louth to keep the show on the road.
The club went on to compete in the intermediate football championship in Monaghan and won the county title. Last Sunday in the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, it went on to win the Ulster intermediate football championship by defeating Galbally of Tyrone by 1-15 to 0-13. It is a fantastic story of a club and a community that refused to lie down. They galvanised themselves together and last Sunday afternoon, the club completed a fantastic task and now goes to play in the all-Ireland semi-final in a few weeks' time. It is an inspirational story of rising from ashes to glory to achieve such greatness.I hope that the club wins the semi-final and goes on to win the All-Ireland title. I wish its members every success. They and their community are a shining example to the rest of the country.
There are demonstrations from time to time outside of this House. Today, a number of people were here protesting about changes made by the Department of Justice and Equality to the circumstances and way in which bingo is operated in various centres in the country. All of that is dealt under the Gaming and Lotteries Act, as amended.
The simple fact is that there is a far more serious issue that is not being addressed at all. I refer to the flagrant breaches of the law being perpetrated daily on our main streets in our main cities - Cork and Dublin I believe - whereby casinos, gaming arcades and amusement arcades are being operated without any appropriate legal foundation whatever. In the city of Dublin the local authority, many years ago, resolved to cancel authority for amusement machines, one-armed bandits and gaming machines being operated in arcades in the city. A case went to the Supreme Court about it. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the local authority and held that the operation of these machines in Dublin, thereafter, was illegal. Since that time a number of these arcades, amusement places or casinos, as they call themselves on the outside, have cropped up now and are open. One of them, I am reliably informed, has in its entrance an ATM machine. This is absolutely illegal. There is no possible basis for opening and maintaining these places. They are exploiting the weak-minded, in my view, in an unconscionable way but, most important, they are breaking the law of the land. Members of An Garda Síochána have the right to visit premises and seize gaming machines, which are being operated illegally. That should happen right across Dublin. The Garda authorities in Dublin are not doing that. If this is being done on the advice of the Attorney General then I would like see why it is that a clear breach of the law of the land is being countenanced by the Attorney General. If it is not being done on the advice of the Attorney General then it amounts to a gross dereliction of duty.
Finally, I want to say that an awful lot of terrible misery arises from a gambling addiction. Gaming machines, such as they have in Britain all over the place and in Ireland in certain restricted places, subject to the entitlement of local authorities to decide locations, are an easy entry into addictive gambling. It is about time that the law was upheld. It is about time these places were closed. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to this House and explain why it is that in the city of Dublin casinos and amusement arcades, with these machines, are operating flagrantly in breach of the law of the land? Why is that situation being tolerated? What do the Minister and the Garda Commissioner propose to do to stop it?
I share the concerns of Senator McDowell in this regard. Gambling brings with it tremendous hardship and pain for families. I have known people to take their lives as well as suffer the consequences of the debt that they find themselves in.
I rise here today to thank the Minister for Education and Skills for coming to visit Skerries and Rush in the past few weeks. He brought positive news about the go-ahead being given for a permanent extension to the community college. The bottom line is that we have a pressing and immediate problem as there are no school places for many children in Skerries and Rush.The people of Skerries, in particular, are very concerned. The Minister very kindly pointed the way forward in terms of ensuring that the principals would come together under the auspices of the Department of Education and Skills to find a solution for some 60 children in the Skerries community area who have no place next year. Parents and children are frantic, and we need an immediate solution for next year. September of next year will be along before we know it. Parents are going to go through Christmas uncertain as to what lies ahead for their children. They want their kids to be able to go to the same school as their friends who they have been in school with for the last number of years. The clubs in Skerries want to ensure that they do not lose these children to other communities because they have to travel somewhere else to a secondary school.
What I am really asking for is for the Minister to ensure that this work starts as soon as possible before Christmas because this is not something that can wait. People need certainty. They have to make arrangements and decisions. I would also ask that the Minister consider a new school for the Skerries area because it is very clear that rather than resolving this issue, it will get worse as more houses are built in north Dublin.
I would be very grateful if the Minister would consider meeting the parents to reassure them. The most important thing now is to ensure the Department of Education and Skills gets the principals of the various schools in the area together and starts to address where children are going to go to school next September.
The last time I asked for a debate on equality or inequality in the Chamber, Miriam Lord wrote in The Irish Times the next day that there was some hope of ever having that. However, I have faith and I would ask the Leader that we have a debate on the issue of inequality in our society. I want to give two examples that popped up over the weekend. The first was the data on private fee-paying schools. We see that they still have a very strong grip on the most sought-after third level courses. Half of the 25 schools which sent the highest proportion of their students to third level this year were fee-paying schools. I would ask the Leader to reflect on the fact that while we invest €60 million on DEIS schools, taxpayers lavish €90 million on private fee-paying schools to pay for salaries. To put that in perspective, even the British Tory Party - perhaps the most right-wing bunch of nutters we have come across in recent years - does not ask for private fee-paying schools to be subsidised by the taxpayer. Apparently, this Government continues to do so.
I also want to highlight the special assignee relief programme, because we saw the figures released there, including a €28 million subsidy to some of the richest people in the State, millionaires who get 30% tax relief on income over €75,000. The cap is at €1 million. We had 1,100 people benefit to the tune of €28 million in 2017. Interestingly, some of them can get double bubble because they can also claim €5,000 a year tax relief allowance for private schools fees for their children.
We see these subsidies lavished on the very wealthiest sections of our society while at the same time we see that this Government has frozen the minimum wage.
Senator Buttimer can say "Ah Jesus" but if he is up there, I do not think he would be impressed with Fine Gael lavishing moneys on the very wealthiest sections of our society. There is a €90 million subsidy to fee-paying schools. That is what Fine Gael stands for-----
I remind the last speaker that this year, €21.2 billion will be paid out in social welfare and that the amount has increased each year since 2011, when we came into government. That €21.2 billion is currently being paid out.
The issue I raise is one that has been brought up in this House on a number of occasions over the last 12 months.It is now time to examine it from the point of view of the new round of wage negotiations that is due to commence across the public service. One group of people who will not be at those negotiations are members of the Defence Forces and the Naval Service. It is important to establish a new structure to deal with this issue, given that they are not at the negotiating table. There is a separate commission to deal with the members of defence forces who are not entitled to be at such negotiations in other EU countries. A separate commission should be established to deal with the pay structure needed for the Defence Forces. We must continue to increase the numbers in the Defence Forces and to ensure there is security for them. There must also be a clear picture as regards their salaries into the future. A separate pay commission should be established at an early date to deal with this issue and to ensure there is a proper structure whereby the Defence Forces can be adequately remunerated for the work they do, be that in respect of pay or allowances for difficult circumstances. We should give serious consideration to this.
I second the proposal from my colleague, Senator Humphreys, to have a debate on the future of Saint Joseph's in Shankill. It is an important facility for families in the south County Dublin and north Wicklow areas.
We must have a debate on the provision of second level education places in the Fingal area, as Senator Reilly mentioned, as well as the south Louth and east Meath areas. Every day I deal with families in Drogheda, Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington who are still waiting to be allocated places in local schools. Coláiste na hInse in Bettystown is oversubscribed as is a successful local Educate Together school, Ballymakenny College. That is the case with many other schools in the area. The Drogheda Educate Together school is a new second level school and we had to persuade the Department of Education and Skills in recent weeks to allocate an additional 24 places to allow it to meet some of the demand in the area. This is a consequence of the enormous development that is taking place in the Drogheda and east Meath area. Indeed, there will be future development. There are approximately four strategic housing development proposals and if they proceed, the equivalent of the population of Ardee will be added to south and east Drogheda over the next three to four years. We simply do not have the school places to accommodate the demand. This is urgent and we must have a debate in the House on it.
Tomorrow, there will be a demonstration outside the Houses by Tara Mines workers. They have been enjoying flat rate expense allowances from the Revenue Commissioners to allow them to obtain gear and the other material they need to do their jobs. The Revenue Commissioners are currently undertaking a review of the flat rate expense allowances enjoyed by shop workers, firefighters, nurses and healthcare assistants to the tune of a couple of hundred euro each year to allow them to address the needs they have in the context of the work they do. The Tara Mines allowance is worth €1,132 to those who work underground and €655 to surface workers. These are legitimate expenses accrued by them in the course of their work. There are legitimate expenses that small business owners and sole traders are allowed to recoup from the Revenue Commissioners to allow them to do their business, but now the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance are going after the small expense allowances enjoyed by PAYE workers. This must stop now.
Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The Government and the Irish Wheelchair Association celebrated it by closing Cuisle in Donamon, County Roscommon, last Friday, 29 November.This is a monument to this Government's inaction, inability and uncaring attitude. The Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities came into this House and washed his hands of the issue like Pontius Pilate. He said he did not know anything about it and that he would not, and could not, do anything about it. He did not care. He does not represent the disabled people of this country. It is a farce. He is running for re-election in his own constituency and the rest of the country can go to hell. The answer will be given next year and that answer will be very strong. If there is a Fianna Fáil, Labour Party and Green Party Government, then so be it.
Let the people judge next year. The opportunity will arise next year on judgment day. Judgment day is coming quicker than Senators think. The judgment will be very severe. What we saw on 29 November, on the day that Cuisle closed, was nothing. Two candidates from Fianna Fáil, one from Sinn Féin and one from the Green Party were elected. That was a good response to this Government. I am sure Senator Feighan, who has just arrived, is very proud of the fact that Cuisle has been closed.
-----won an award in Co-operation Ireland's Pride of Place competition last Saturday. I am very proud of that. Runners up in the competition included Boyle, Creggs and Lisacul in north west Roscommon. I am from the parish of Athleague and live in the Fuerty-Castlecoote area. Our local councillors are Mr. Ivor Connaughton, who lives in Athleague, and Ms Orla Leyden, who lives in the other half of the parish. We are very proud of our little parish, which won the overall prize in the up to 300 residents category.
I am only stating facts. I have been at many meetings on this issue. I was at the cross-party meeting along with Senator Leyden and the Minister of State. We genuinely want to do something to ensure that Cuisle is saved. It is a wonderful facility and one which I totally support. By coming in here today and using politics, Senator Leyden denigrates the cause. We will continue to work on this but there are certain issues that we cannot deal with. I was at that meeting with the Minister of State and everyone present agreed on the importance of the facility. We want to find a resolution. Senator Leyden was not as loud at that meeting as he is today-----
-----because there were no cameras there. I will work with Senator Leyden and all interested parties to try to get this resolved. If the Government can do it, it will. However, there are issues that are outside the remit of the Government as the Senator will be aware.
-----that while he and many others stated that Roscommon Hospital would close, people would die and staff would lose their jobs, I stood in government with the Labour Party and delivered €20 million for the hospital, as well as an air ambulance service that has saved hundreds of lives. There are 500 people working in Roscommon Hospital. Senator Leyden is now giving out because the hospital is too busy and there is no car parking.
I congratulate the four winners of last weekend's by-elections and wish them well for their time in the Oireachtas. In the same way one would sympathise with a person who did not do the lotto on the weekend his or her favourite six numbers were picked out, we ought to sympathise with the person who would have won the fifth by-election that would have taken place in Cork North Central had the incumbent resigned and the Taoiseach moved the writ. I suspect the unknown winner would probably have been Senator Colm Burke, who is present. I am sure his day will come. I congratulate him on his performance.
I wish to support the amendment to the Order of Business in respect of St. Joseph's in Shankill, the largest dementia-only care home in Ireland. As Senators are aware, it employs more than 100 people and offers 60 residential places. In supporting the amendment, I appeal to the Leader to convey to his Government colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, the deep sense of alarm being created by the absence of a resolution or agreed way forward with the National Treatment Purchase Fund. New admissions are being discontinued and there is to be day care only.
As I understand it, the St. John of God hospital group has been covering the financial shortfall from its resources and has spent €7 million covering debt since 2012, mainly due to upgrading facilities and increasing staff numbers to meet HIQA regulatory requirements. It is clear that St. Joseph's and the St. John of God Order have been making every effort to keep this vital lifeline open. The value of the service provided by St. Joseph's and the respite it offers cannot be overestimated. It is fair to state we have known for some time that it has been facing a financial crisis which has been mainly attributed to the fact that the day care rate set by the HSE has not increased since 2006. It is very important that we focus on that issue in the Seanad and I ask the Leader to convey our concern to the Minister.
On the somewhat related issue of Cuisle, I have not been playing politics. I have no interest in giving an advantage to one political party over another. However, I must state I was deeply disappointed by the response of the Minister of State in the House last week because, as Senator Leyden pointed out, he washed his hands of the issue like Pontius Pilate. I used that phrase myself. The Minister of State stated Cuisle does great work but it was up to others to make the decision. That is not what being in power is about. Rather, it is about deciding the matter should be sorted out, recognising that one cannot intervene directly and others must make the decision but ensuring one's preference is conveyed to them. That ministerial clout can make all the difference. That has not been done in the case of Cuisle, which is very regrettable.
Today we found out from the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, which is published every three years, that Ireland ranked fourth out of the 36 OECD countries for the education of children.We should be proud of our education system in enabling our children to reach such high standards. Obviously, most of our education system is working well. When it comes to reading, science and mathematics, a group of 15 years olds were interviewed in 79 countries. When it comes to reading, science and mathematics we are out-performing other OECD countries. As I said, we ranked fourth out of 36.
Gender balance and gender attainment produced interesting results. Significantly, girls out-perform boys in reading but boys are holding their own in science and mathematics, where there are no significant differences. It gives us an insight into our youth, their interests and what we are doing. The low Internet use reported in Ireland is important. Students here use school books. It seems that they are less likely to report the negative feelings that heavy Internet users report. One thing that is somewhat concerning is the data on their well-being. Some three-fifths of teens said that they were not satisfied with their lives. That is above the overall average. They are significantly less satisfied than the average in OECD countries.
In July last year, the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, launched the well-being policy statement and framework for practice in schools, clearly outlining the strong policies and actions that need to be in place to ensure students' sense of belonging. Perhaps the current Minister for Education and Skills could come to the House and update us on progress. Kudos goes to the students and parents. What we want mostly is for happy contented children to grow up into happy contented adults.
I want to give a shout out to the four new candidates, in particular my colleague, Deputy Mark Ward.
Finally, slán to Jim Gavin, the daring, decent and humble manager of Dublin with the unprecedented five-in-a-row that everyone here wholeheartedly supported when we congratulated them on their win. Farewell to Jim. I thank him for the unprecedented run of the Dubs. Up the Dubs.
An gcuirfidh an Ceannaire ceist ar an Aire Iompair, Turasóireachta agus Spóirt, an Teachta Ross, teacht isteach anseo le labhairt linn faoi chúrsaí an FAI? Tá cara mór liom, an Seanadóir O'Mahony agus mé féin ar an gcoiste atá ag plé leis seo agus faraor, nílimid ag fáil tada ar ais ón FAI. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeadh a fhios ag pobal na hÉireann céard atá ag tarlú. Tá mé ag iarraidh ar an gCeannaire ceist a chur ar an Aire teacht isteach agus é a mhíniú dúinn agus a mhíniú dúinn cén baint atá ag Sport Ireland leis an rud seo ar fad. Tá suas le 400,000 duine óg as láthair Bhaile Átha Cliath agus láthair ceantair tuaithe na tíre seo atá ag iarraidh a bheith ag imirt spórt agus sacar agus níl an féideartheacht sin acu mar níl siad ag fáil an t-airgead. Tá mise ag moladh go ndéanfaidh an tAire fógra anseo le rá cén chaoi a mbreathnaíonn sé le airgead a thabhairt a thabhairt do na grassroots atá ag imirt sacar ar fud na tíre, gan bacadh leis an rud seo atá amuigh in Abbotstown ag an FAI mar tá na páistí ag cailleadh amach go mór air seo. Is iad peil Ghaelach, iománaíocht agus rugbaí mo chuid chluichí.
The second thing is a small issue but it is a big issue for some people in Ireland. We have migrants in Ireland who have got a work visa but their spouses are not allowed to work in Ireland. They have to stay at home. I believe it is a big error in our system that spouses cannot work. In many cases migrants will be on small wages. We have 4.7% unemployment. These people are mad to work and want to work. I am calling on the Leader on my behalf and, I hope, on behalf of everyone here to ask the Minister to look into this. I call on the Leader to ask what can be done in respect of spouses of migrants getting a job and working for the period that the migrant has a visa.
I welcome the performance of my party's candidates in the by-election. It was a great pleasure for me to canvass with Councillor Duncan Smith in Dublin Fingal and Councillor Joanna Tuffy in Dublin Mid-West. They did extremely well in the by-elections. I commend them. I support the amendment proposed by Senators Humphreys and Nash to amend the Order of Business to bring in the Minister for Health. While we await the Leader's response, it is an important matter. I support Senator Ó Céidigh's point about spousal work permits. Several people have raised it with me over a couple of years. Last week the Taoiseach referred at the American Chamber of Commerce lunch to changing rules to enable spouses of US citizens who have a work permit to also work here. This is a more general issue and it is important that we address it. We are wasting a huge amount of talent among people who are not allowed to work.
I renew my request to the Leader for Government time to debate Committee Stage of our Labour Party Bill to enable residency and citizenship status to be given to children born in Ireland whose parents are not Irish citizens. We in Labour have been pushing this with the Migrant Rights Centre, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and others. It is very important that over Christmas, families have certainty about immigration and residency status, in particular when they have children who have been born and brought up here and who know no other home. At the very least they should be given clarity on their residency status. Our Bill would give them a pathway to citizenship. It is a really important Bill and I would like us to have Government time for that in the new year.
I want to acknowledge the agreement to two significant motions at Belfast City Council last night. The first called on that council to prepare research on a change in constitutional status and future planning, and the impact that might have on the economy and prosperity of the city. It is a very prudent and responsible decision that is planning for a future change adopted by a majority vote. It is an example to other institutions the length and breadth of the island not to retreat from this necessary debate on planning but to engage positively and collaboratively. That has been the view across the Chamber here. Regardless of where we come down on the constitutional question and its nuances, we all agree that it is responsible, shows leadership and is necessary to engage in the preparations in an inclusive way. I reiterate my call for that discussion. The Seanad can act as a positive representative forum and place for that moving forward.
The second motion agreed at Belfast City Hall last night was in favour of writing to An Taoiseach and the British Secretary of State asking them to outline the conditions and scenario under which a referendum on our constitutional future can be called. Given the political climate we are in, if we are going to discuss this and plan appropriately we need to have all the necessary and relevant information to hand. At this crucial juncture in our political and societal life it would be positive if, immediately the Taoiseach could outline what his and the Government's understanding is of how those criteria can be met. The Leader said he hopes to have An Taoiseach in here before the end of the year. If that is the case, I hope he will have a response for Belfast City Council and will be able to inform us of it.
I thank the 19 Members for their contributions to the Order of Business. I offer my congratulations to the four new Deputies elected to serve the people of Cork North-Central, Dublin Mid-West, Dublin Fingal and Wexford and wish them every success.Today is a very special day for them, their families and their political parties. Equally, I congratulate the Fine Gael candidates who finished second for first preference votes in each of the constituencies. In particular, I acknowledge the great campaign run by my colleague and friend, Senator Colm Burke, who increased the Fine Gael vote in Cork North-Central. As Senator Boyhan rightly said, it takes great courage to go before the people of the country in a vote. We congratulate all who stood for election although there can only be one victor. Unlike Senator Leyden, I very much look forward to judgment day as somebody who has gone before the people, been defeated and been successful. My mother always said the ballot box is a great leveller. It ill behoves Senator Leyden to throw personal slurs at Senator Feighan in here. He never ran away from anything and he is not that kind of person. I ask the Senator to withdraw that remark.
Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has published the second action plan of the comprehensive employment strategy. In addition, it is important to recognise the work we have been doing in terms of the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Disability allowance and carers' allowance were increased in the budget of last year. I refer also to the disability inclusion strategy and additional money being put into budgets of respite care, along with the home carer credit being increased to €1,200, benefiting 80,000 families, along with other suites of measures being taken by the Government. It is important that the issue Senator Ardagh raised regarding wheelchair use be addressed. I would be happy to have the Minister of State come to the House regarding the matter.
Senator Ardagh also raised the issue of the free books scheme. As somebody who taught in a school that had a free books scheme and in one that was introducing it, I believe it is important that we expand that scheme. There has been significant Government investment in the free books scheme in recent years and it is an important initiative to which we can add.
Senator Boyhan made reference to two very important items of legislation. I am told the Bill aimed at regularising and updating the electoral register, the register of elections Bill, is coming to Cabinet in the next two weeks. The electoral commission Bill is also being progressed and I am told it is the intent of the Minister to have that in the next two weeks. Those timelines are not signed into gospel so we cannot say they are the effective dates.
That is what I am saying. We must make it simple by categorising it street by street, estate by estate or house by house. That is a fair point.
The other point I would make is that people talk about the turnout in elections and by-elections. I canvassed extensively in Dublin Fingal and Cork North-Central and I was not surprised at the turnout. Many people took a view that we are going to be going again in a couple of months' time and why bother. It is a wrong attitude to take in my opinion, because many people fought so that we could have the right to vote and we should cherish that. I will support any way we can increase voter participation. I do not know, in response to Senator Boyhan, if it is all about just young people voting. Many elderly people did not vote this time. It would be interesting to look at the marked register. It is important to have that debate. There are differing views about 16 year olds and 18 year olds voting. The Bill which I hope we will have before the general election recess and dissolution of the Dáil and Seanad will provide for teenagers to be able to pre-register to vote, which will help.I will support any initiative that will result in an increase in voter participation.
Senator Rose Conway-Walsh made reference to the two people who were killed in the attack last Friday in London, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones. We pay tribute to them, and in particular the work they were doing on prisoner rehabilitation. It is important to recognise that any form of terrorism should be condemned out of hand. Their bravery and the bravery of other citizens on the day should be saluted.
I will not get into a debate with Senators Conway-Walsh and Gavan on the Order of Business, other than to say that the level of poverty is being reduced. I ask those Members to read the CSO figures produced in recent weeks. Senator Conway-Walsh went into a standard speech about Sinn Féin policies. I ask her to look at the employment levels in the country at the moment and various issues concerning the economy. Undoubtedly, we have challenges we will address. Senator Kelleher raised a very important issue concerning the family reunification Bill. I do not have a response for her but I would be happy to discuss the matter with her.
Senators Humphreys, Bacik, Nash and Mullen raised the issue of Saint Joseph's, which is a very important one. I must advise Senator Mullen that it is not the HSE that sets the rate, it is the National Treatment Purchase Fund. The rate has been increased by the NTPF. The Government has increased the funding to Saint Joseph's and I believe there has been positive engagement between the HSE and the chief executive of Saint Joseph's with a view to closing it. I listened to Senator Humphreys's comments about the unit's imminent closure in January. I do not want to divide the House on the proposal, in the same way as I did not last week on Cuisle. It is a very important matter. It is one the Minister spoke about in the Dáil this afternoon. I do not have an accurate transcript of what he said. I am committed to bringing the Minister to the House. The line Minister with responsibility for the issue is the Minister is the Minister of State, Deputy Daly. Neither he nor the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is available at the time suggested by Senators, but if they are agreeable I will endeavour to have them in some time today or tomorrow. It is the prerogative of Members to call a vote but I am trying to work with them.
Members of the House raised the issue of Cuisle last week. To be fair to Senator Hopkins, I should put on the record that she was the first Member of this House to raise the matter. Others followed suit. I have never divided the House on the matter. I avoided a vote last week on bringing the Minister to the House. It is a matter for the Irish Wheelchair Association, which has taken a decision to close the centre. Senator Mullen has made the pertinent point that some direction should be given to encourage and support the opening of the centre by the Irish Wheelchair Association. His contribution was far more helpful than the blatant politicisation of the issue by Senator Leyden. The points Senator Mullen made are ones on which we should perhaps reflect and bring back to the Minister, the HSE and the Irish Wheelchair Association because it is about ensuring that those service users who want to be able to avail of the service and their families can have such a service. I will be happy to go back to the Minister to inform him of what was said.
The issue raised is the FAI and the importance of good governance in the FAI and having the right person appointed. Senator O'Mahony was very accurate in what he said regarding other organisations that appointed the right chief executive, who turned those organisations around.All of us sports people are supportive of the FAI and do not want any repercussions for the ordinary members and players who go about their business every week, trying to keep the game afloat at grassroots level. Issues must be addressed there and I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House regarding the matter.
Senator Gallagher raised the positive story of the great success of the Magheracloone Mitchells club in County Monaghan, which won the intermediate Ulster football championship last weekend. We congratulate them in light of the adversity they have faced in their own community.
Senator McDowell raised the important matter of casinos and gaming licences from 1956 to 1988. We all agree there is a need to amend those licences in order that this blight on our society can be removed. I would be happy to work with the Senator on that matter because it needs to be addressed, not only in our capital but in Cork city and other cities as well. There is huge folly involved, and in seasonal coastal areas people can apply for three-month licences and every machine can have a gaming licence which costs about €450. The matter needs to be addressed because these licences are a blight on our society and are leading to gambling addictions and other societal problems. I support the Senator on that issue.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of school places in his area around Skerries. I would be happy to have a debate with the Minister on the matter.
Senator Gavan raised asked about an equality debate, which I would be happy to have. We are always debating equality because it comes into everything we do as a Government through legislation and policies. We have increased the minimum wage. We never cut the minimum wage, unlike other parties in government. The current Fine Gael Government and the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government increased the minimum wage.
Education and fee-paying schools were raised as well. As a schoolteacher for 16-odd years, I am happy to have a debate on education. Senator Devine referenced the report published today which showed that our school literacy and mathematics scores are improving. I would be happy to have a debate on the matter. As Senator Colm Burke noted, we are spending a record €21.2 billion on social protection to assist people, lift them out of poverty and give them a pathway into work within our communities and society.
Senator Colm Burke also referred to the Defence Forces. I support his proposal regarding a specific commission to deal with pay for members of the Defence Forces and the Naval Service. Senator McFadden has made that specific request before. Many people in this House would support Senator Colm Burke's comments regarding setting up a new structure.
Senator Nash raised the issue of school placements in Drogheda and east Meath. This issue was addressed by the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, in his emerging school needs programme. We need to look at this, as Senator Nash said, because of the huge increase in population in those areas. The Senator also made a pertinent point about the flat rate review by Revenue, the Tara mines workers and legitimate expenses. I would be happy to have a debate on that.
I have already addressed the issue raised by Senator Devine. We as a society need to have a real debate on the well-being issue she raised as well. I would be happy to have that debate.
I congratulate and thank Jim Gavin for his tenure as manager of the Dublin football team. He is someone we should all look up to as a role model. He never lost his cool or his way, and never came across as being excessive in any way. I congratulate and thank him for his dedication and I thank his family for the sacrifices they made. I wish the new Dublin football manager well, though we cannot wish them complete success.
Senators Ó Céidigh and Bacik referred to migrants, work visas and the spouse or partner visa. We need to have a real look at that because those issues need to be addressed.
I did not see the motions to which Senator Ó Donnghaile referred in Belfast City Council but I would be happy to have a debate on the matters he raised in the future.
I will check my email to see whether I received a response. We were endeavouring to have the Minister come to the House.As I said, the Minister is not available. He has a commitment now. I am not trying to obfuscate in terms of issues Senator Humphreys has discussed. I try to work with Members. I will endeavour to have the Minister come to the House tomorrow or Thursday, if not tonight. If the Senator could work with me, rather than divide the House now, I will endeavour to have the Minister come to the House today or tomorrow. I will work with him on that.
Senator Humphreys has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on services at Saint Joseph's Shankill, County Dublin, be taken before No. 1." Is the amendment being pressed?