Seanad debates

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

10:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re exempted development regulations (ports), referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, statements to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude not later than 2.15 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.15 p.m., and to conclude not later than 4.15 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than seven minutes to reply to the debate; No. 4, Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Bill 2019 - all Stages, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons on the debate on Second Stage not to exceed eight minutes, and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate, with Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; and No. 5, Private Members' business, Civil Law (Costs in Probate Matters) Bill 2017 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 6 p.m. and to adjourn after two hours, if not previously concluded.

I warmly welcome you back, a Chathaoirligh. It is great to have you back with us in good health.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Buttimer.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I echo the sentiments of our esteemed Leader and welcome you back, a Chathaoirligh. It is wonderful to see you back in your rightful place in the Chair. I think all of us, right across the Chamber, have missed you and we wish you very well in the future, in particular a very happy Christmas. This is not scripted as I was not expecting you to be here, but it is great to have you back.

There are a few points I want to make and this morning when I was thinking about what I might say, I believe it is reasonable for me to say that I have never played the person in this Chamber nor will I. I always talk about the issue. There are many issues on which I could have played the person but I wish to raise the resignation of a Member of the Lower House today and the behaviour in terms of signing in and fobbing in. While there has been much discussion about the person's entitlement to expenses or otherwise, the reality is that regardless of the expenses, which are far more generous than a lot of other people's because the Member in question is further away, he was being paid a salary of approximately €90,000 a year to do a job and it appears that he has been doing another job, quite effectively it seems, somewhere else yet he was still being paid. That reflects badly on everybody. It reflects badly on Fine Gael but it also reflects badly on every single Member of both Houses. I think there is probably an issue in terms of how people are entitled to their salary and, equally, to their expenses. I know of a school not too far from where I live where everybody fobs in every morning with his or her fingerprint. Ten minutes after a student should have arrived in the school, parents get a text to say so and so is not in today if he or she has not fobbed in. That is fine if such students are at home in bed because they are sick, but if they went off to school in the morning and did not arrive, at least their parents are aware of that and they can do something about it or investigate it further.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I would not like the Order of Business to focus on an issue that is happening in the other House. It is a matter of propriety. The issue is a matter for the commission. I know the Taoiseach has commented but I do not want this debate to be a matter of focus here.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge and appreciate-----

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I do not mind if Senator Horkan touches on it but-----

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I do not want to cause any stress to you, a Chathaoirligh, on your first day back.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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It is not so much a cause of stress, but we have to keep an even keel.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate that.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I am not sure if it is an issue for the Leader or for the Taoiseach.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I accept that.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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It is a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. It is perhaps a debate for another House on another day.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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That may be, a Chathaoirligh. I appreciate that you get advice, no more than I did when I was in the Chair last night for approximately four and a quarter hours on the Finance Bill. I appreciate the advice I get. I will leave it at that but I acknowledge to those looking in on proceedings that it reflects badly on all of us.

On a separate matter, it is fantastic that we have even more corporation tax than expected. It is plugging more holes and more gaps in the system. I wish the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, well in everything he does. He does it pretty well. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, I see him a little bit more than most people, as well as his two Ministers of State who ably help him. To be fair, it is a long time since the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, was in this Chamber himself. He is a very distinguished former Member of this House. I ask the Leader to bring in the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, himself. We see a lot of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who is very able, and the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, but it would be helpful to have the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, here, ideally before Christmas but if not then, soon after that.

As somebody who did cycle in this morning, as I regularly do, I think we should have a debate on the benefits to all people of cyclists-----

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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-----because every cyclist pretty much takes a car off the road. I am sure the odd person does not have a car but most cyclists also have cars and when they cycle they are not driving a car and clogging up the roads for everybody else. Equally, they are hopefully improving their health somewhat, as long as they do not get hit by somebody. Senator Craughwell is not present but he did an exercise recently where he went out on a bike, having not been on one for a long time. I did not cycle for a long time but I have been cycling for the past eight to ten years. Once one gets up the courage to do it, cycling is a fantastic way of getting around Dublin. I encourage everyone in this House, including the Leader, to try cycling, as there are benefits to both the cyclists themselves and everybody else. A debate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, or his very able Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, would be very helpful.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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It is great to see you, a Chathaoirligh. Welcome back.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I was actually going to call Senator McDowell but he is has decided not to speak, which is his right.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I am happy to give way.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I saw a photograph on Facebook a couple of days ago of an event of 20 years ago and I was going to say to him that he has not aged a day, but he did not want to speak. I still will get my tuppenceworth in. Senator Gavan should proceed.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Thank you, a Chathaoirligh.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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It must be the hairstyle.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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It must be.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Gavan and Senator McDowell could nearly be mistaken for each other.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senators should please not interrupt.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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That is harsh on him.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Is that ideologically or otherwise?

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Perhaps otherwise.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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We will leave the hair events to the barber and we will move on.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I wish to raise a serious issue today. It is one on which I would hope to gain all-party support, namely, the continuing plight of the secretarial assistants who work for each and every one of us in the Seanad. I was shocked to find out when I came here three and a half years ago that their starting salary was as low as €23,000.That equates to €428 a week which is a pretty abysmal salary. They are represented by my union, SIPTU, which put in a pay claim over a year ago that has sat in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and no progress is being made.

I speak on behalf the staff whom I know, but I suspect it must apply to all of the staff, are an exceptional body of people who work extremely hard. They do, effectively, the same job as personal assistants in the Dáil, by writing speeches, researching and fact-finding. They have not had a pay increase since 2002. Is that not shocking? It is behoves all of us to respect these people and demand action from this Government. I am saying this in a non-party political way because it is in the interests of the Seanad that we pay people properly. To be quite clear, these secretarial assistants are not being paid properly at all; they are being paid poorly. I call on the Minister for Finance to come into the Chamber to debate this issue and I ask the Leader to support this request. This should not be a secondary issue that we put on the back burner. We are all guilty of putting this on the back burner for too long, and I include myself in that.

As a union activist, if I was in their shoes, I would make sure I was a member of the union because SIPTU has negotiating rights. Moreover, if I did not see progress in the coming weeks, I would ballot for industrial action. One action that would grab the Minister for Finance's attention would be a picket line outside the Oireachtas and I would stand with our staff. It should not have to come to that. These are young professionals who work hard. At the moment, they have to do eight hours overtime just to try to make ends meet. A living wage in Dublin is €500 a week and these people are earning €50 less than that each week.

I propose that the Houses of the Oireachtas should be a living wage employer and I hope that is something for which we can have all-party support so that anyone working in these buildings, whether they are cleaning, doing professional work or working in the canteen, can at least earn a living wage. That should be a value to which all of us subscribe. I ask colleagues to join together and support our secretarial staff and make sure they get the pay rise for which they have been waiting, in some cases, for 15 years.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the Cathaoirleach back. I would be intrigued to see the changes that have taken place since the photograph to which he referred was taken; we all need to be depressed from time to time.

I echo what Senator Gavan said about the remuneration of staff in the Oireachtas. We should be mindful of the issues he has raised.

I welcome to the Gallery fifth class pupils from St. Pius X girls' national school in Terenure - Ms Barron's class - who are guests of Senator Ardagh. I know two of the pupils, Lucy Breen and Joni Long, and I hope they enjoy their tour here today. Also in the Gallery is a young gentleman named Noah Makris who does not attend the girls' national school, for obvious reasons, but who is shortly to go to Carnegie Hall to perform on the double bass. He is a very talented young man. I pay tribute to all of those people.

I will revert to a theme that I mentioned last week. I was listening to the radio last night and learned that the House of Representatives in Washington has adopted legislation to place sanctions on the red Chinese Government in respect of what is happening in Xinjiang province where the Uighurs are being herded into concentration camps and treated in an abominable way. Their human rights are being systematically destroyed, they are being politically brainwashed, told to speak Chinese rather than their native language, and they are, effectively, being kept in until they mend their ways, which means they cease to be Uighur and become more acclimatised as Chinese citizens. I mentioned to the Leader last week that we need to have the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade here to deal with this issue and to outline the Government's attitude to what is happening in the Xinjiang province and what the Government proposes to do at national, international and EU levels. We need to clearly express the condemnation of all right-thinking people about what is happening in red China.

There is considerable unrest in Hong Kong due to the absence of real democracy in the election of the local assembly. There are no elections at all worth talking about in red China. There is one portion of China - Taiwan - where there are free and fair elections and yet we, as a nation, have turned our backs on the area of China where there are free and fair elections, changes of government and freedom of speech for economic reasons, which is shameful. I would like the Minister to come in and explain clearly what Ireland's position is on this absolute undermining of human rights in Xinjiang province.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I welcome the Cathaoirleach back.

I join Senator Gavan and others who raised the pay scale for secretarial assistants. We cannot go into an election without addressing this matter. I do not know if the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, realises the work these people carry out, especially secretarial assistants to Independent Senators who do not have party structure. In such cases, it is just the Senator and a secretarial assistant who provides more than just secretarial assistance. It is an abuse of staff in a way, and I come in here with a considerable amount of guilt every day watching the workload of Sebastian who works in my office. I think of Bill that has come through this House from me, successful policy changes within Departments and amendments that have been successfully won in this Chamber. I might come in and speak on those issues but it is not me who has sat there and worked with the different offices to draft the amendments and worked with the different agencies. The work that I do as a politician is definitely not of more value than the work that is done by the background staff in my office and I join others in calling for a debate on the issue.

I also want to raise a very special football match that is happening tonight. We were talking about a photograph of Senator McDowell from 20 years ago but I am sure he could still manage to put on a pair of runners and come out and join us on the field tonight. Oireachtas staff, politicians and journalists are playing against players from a special programme in Clondalkin called the Breakthrough Programme. The programme recognises that sometimes one needs a masculine route into addressing the issue of mental health. It was supported by Straight Blast Gym, SBG, in the first year and then the FAI and Shamrock Rovers in the second and subsequent years. It has combined sport and psychotherapy through group-led activities and has been a huge success for young, disadvantaged males in the Clondalkin area.

We are playing tonight's game on the Shamrock Rovers academy ground. The FAI cup will be there, courtesy of Shamrock Rovers. We appear to have a full team but things get in the way sometimes. One of our players, Senator Warfield, has just entered the Chamber. I hope that people will attend if they have time later. I have organised food. This is a great initiative and programme and people can come out to help raise its profile. Senator Feighan is looking a bit worried. He is still claiming an injury from three years ago when Kevin Kilbane took him off his feet but we are not going to accept that. We have six politicians saying that they will play in goal. I do not think we will be allowed to have six goalkeeping politicians. If people have a few hours tonight, it would be great to welcome them to Tallaght to be a part of a positive event before Christmas.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Cathaoirleach back; it is good to see him back with us. I commend all our colleagues who are taking part in Senator Ruane's football match tonight. It is good to hear about it and may the best team win.

I support Senators McDowell, Gavan and Ruane on the issue they have raised about the pay of secretarial assistants in the Seanad. It is something we have all been aware of and Senator Gavan is correct that we have not been giving it enough attention.The issue needs to be urgently examined given that the secretarial assistants in the Seanad are on a different pay rate from parliamentary assistants in the Dáil. There is not an equivalent rate for the Seanad. We must consider this matter given the workload and the great work being done by all of the secretarial assistants in the Seanad. Of course, I include in that Ms Ursula Ní Choill who works with me and does an enormous volume of work.

As Senator Gavan said, SIPTU has raised this issue for some time on behalf of the secretarial assistants. I raised this issue with my parliamentary party yesterday and I encourage all Senators to do the same with their own groupings and parties. My party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, told me that he has raised the issue on a number of occasions and it is being raised at various levels, particularly at the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform and so on. All Members need to push this matter within their groupings and as individuals, which I am happy to do. I also join others in calling for a debate, in the first instance, but seeking movement on this issue by the Government.

I join others in calling for a debate on cycling. I have raised the issue on a number of occasions of facilities for cyclists in the Oireachtas. Next week there will be a meeting of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and I have asked for facilities for cyclists to be on its agenda. I ask colleagues to support this issue, particularly to raise it with any of their colleagues who are on the commission. We should have covered cycle facilities in the Oireachtas and we should be seen to encourage cycling instead of an always having an emphasis on car park spaces. Cycle facilities and promoting cycling are important. We must be seen to lead on it for all of the health and environmental reasons that have been raised, which is something that I will continue to do as a regular and committed cyclist.

I refer to the points that Senator McDowell made about China. I was intrigued to hear him speak about red China. We have referred to his age on a number of occasions-----

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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It is the People's Republic of China.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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The term red China seems slightly dated but I jest.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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It is not red anymore.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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On a more serious note, the Senator will be glad to hear that the issue of human rights abuses in China has been raised on a number of occasions at meetings of the Joint Committee of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, of which I am a member. We hope to have a meeting on such abuses in the new year. Clearly, the dreadful crackdown on the democracy protests in Hong Kong has been a issue of concern for all of us. There are Irish students in Hong Kong on exchange programmes who have been affected by this. I support the Senator raising this concern.

Finally, I ask the Leader for a debate on hate speech. Yesterday, at a meeting of the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination in Geneva, the deputy Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality is reported to have said that given the recent raising of concerns about speech by different candidates in the by-elections, this State needs to do more on hate speech. We must bring forward legislation to ensure that we have adequate legislation in place to ensure hate speech is adequately tackled in our laws, which is long overdue. The University of Limerick has done a great deal of work on the matter, as well as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and others. We need to frame the legislation sensitively and clearly to ensure that it is not an undue restriction on freedom of expression.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Senator Ruane on arranging the football match tonight. It is no harm for us to get out of our bubble and socialise with people, and I congratulate her on connecting us with the Breakthrough Programme. I look forward to lifting the FAI cup tonight because, as a Sligo Rovers fan, we have lifted it three times in the past 15 years, and there is only one rovers - Sligo Rovers.

I welcome the confirmation by the US House of Representatives of its support for the Good Friday Agreement and I thank Tom Suozzi and Peter King. The House of Representatives has, more or less, acknowledged the shared relationship between the US, the UK and the Republic of Ireland. They believe that Brexit does not appropriately protect the Good Friday Agreement and threatens to undermine the process. They have reaffirmed their support for the Good Friday Agreement. With the British general election coming up, it is nice that our friends in the US have stood up to be counted. On behalf of the Seanad, I thank them for their support at this time.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I join my colleagues in welcoming the Cathaoirleach back. I am delighted to see him in the Chair in this new Chamber. I wish him and his family well. I was delighted to meet his grandchildren at the turning on of the Christmas lights in Leinster House yesterday. The Cathaoirleach and the Leas-Chathaoirleach made excellent speeches.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I take this opportunity to wish my colleague, Senator Feighan, every success in the next general election. He will be a very good representative of the people of north Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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And south Donegal.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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And west Cavan.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thought Senator Leyden was wishing Senator Feighan well with the match tonight.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Leyden for his good wishes.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Let him enjoy Christmas first.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Feighan and I reconciled last night at the turning on of the lights when we sang together, and those who sing together, stay together.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I generally support Senator McDowell's comments about Taiwan. There is a representative office of Taipei in Dublin, which was opened many years ago. It was a compromise to appease the People's Republic of China. We should have representatives in Taipei.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We should have good strong relationships. I have had the honour of travelling to Taiwan. I learned that there is an Irish school in Taiwan where hundreds of people study Irish dancing. Taiwan is a wonderful country with a population of 25 million and it offers great opportunities. People do not realise that Taiwan has enormous investments in China and, therefore, both countries enjoy a strong business relationship. We tend to be reluctant to establish an office or base in Taiwan to project into the rest of that region. When I was a Minister of State with responsibility for trade, I visited the Islamic Republic of Iran, which had an Irish embassy. We should open the embassy again as there is a significant relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Ireland. One street is called after an Irish person.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Bobby Sands.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Yes, and it is located right beside the British embassy. We should immediately open an office in Tehran. When I was a Minister of State, I sold beef from Ireland to Iran. We brought our veterinary people over and we had a tremendous relationship. Human rights are vital and the situation in China is very serious. There is no doubt that we should raise this matter at every opportunity at that level.

We have an opportunity now of going into Taiwan, establishing an office and expanding our trade right into China. Taiwan would give us a great foothold in the region. The expansion of embassies is a marvellous investment because trade is created. When I was in charge of An Bord Tráchtála, the embassy was our base to which representatives were invited. When the President of Ireland goes on a trade mission, there is always a marvellous response to trade. I agree with Senator McDowell that we should be realistic. Deputy John McGuiness is chairman of the Friends of Taiwan in Leinster House and our Whip is a close friend of the Taiwanese people.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for all the advertisements. I am sure the next major roundabout built in Taiwan will be called the Senator Terry Leyden roundabout.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I would be pleased.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome back the Cathaoirleach; it is great to see him.

I support the call for the secretarial assistants issue to be resolved. Their long years of waiting for a resolution received a muted response from in the House. I suggest that members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission should meet staff representatives to speedily resolve this issue.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business. I believe that the Cathaoirleach is aware of the situation concerning a sarcoma consultant specialist in St. Vincent's Hospital. In June 2016, the Minister for Health agreed to the post. We had an excellent consultant at the hospital who specialised in sarcoma but, for some reason, St. Vincent's decided not to extend her locum position. As a result, the 200 people per year diagnosed with sarcoma are in limbo and, unfortunately, many of them have passed on. It is a specialist cancer that needs a specialist, which has been agreed. Two and a half years after an interview, the candidate who was abroad decided not to take up the post. My patience has been tested.Moreover, the patients' patience has been more than tested, in that they have lost some of the campaign group through not having specialist experience and knowledge in this regard. I seek an amendment to the Order of Business to ask the Minister for Health to come to this House. I have tried six times over the past few months to get him to come here for a Commencement matter. I know he will probably use the defence that the HSE has no involvement with St. Vincent's, yet it pledges to follow the HSE terms and conditions. One of those conditions is that a post must be taken up within three months. I smell something odorous in what is going on here. Two and a half years is a long time to allow somebody to not make a decision and then make one at the very last minute, leaving vulnerable and very frail patients and those desperate to avail of treatment to which they are entitled. I ask the Leader to support that amendment.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I endorse the call for a debate on cycling. If the Minister comes in, he might also ensure that he is briefed on cycling to school and the equality issues in cycling because very few girls are cycling. There has been a 90% drop in girls cycling to school in Ireland, which is very unfortunate.

I also join Senator Feighan in welcoming the vote by the US House of Representatives. It is extraordinary that it is unanimous because very few unanimous decisions emerge from that House now.

I endorse the call about the secretarial assistants in the Oireachtas and specifically the Seanad. An election could have been called yesterday, not that it would have been required. If we had gone into an election this issue would not have been resolved and it has been pushed for approximately two years. The secretarial assistants have been actively seeking some form of recognition for their work. Many of them start on the scale at a salary of €23,000. It is far less than a living wage. The scale is extraordinarily low when they start. There is no way to recognise the experience and skills they bring in. If, for example, somebody studies for a bachelors degree or a masters in areas such as public policy, which are valuable to us as Members, there is no way to recognise that on the scale because it is set at leaving certificate level although many people come in with extraordinary experience and choose to work with us. Many have stayed out of loyalty. It is something to ask people to take five years out of their career for loyalty when they could be progressing. We need to consider the work of this House. This House has passed more than 35 amendments on behalf of my group since September, and I am sure other groups have done the same. Numerous items of Private Members' legislation have passed through this House and gone to the other House. Two Private Members' Bills have become law.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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We have had two Presidents.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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We have had an extraordinary number of achievements and legislative work. It is detailed and important work. The work of tracking legislation and bringing it through takes a year or two. People may have to see their secretarial assistant move on twice or three times in a term, not out of lack of loyalty or because they do not love the work but because they need to progress, they want to be able to have families or to perhaps get a home. They should not have to choose between these things. We really need to make sure action is taken. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has supported the call for action on the pay claim. Now it sits with the Government and with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We have all had the experience of brilliant people who are passionate about the work coming in here but having to make the hard choice to leave. Can we make sure that we try to recognise their work? Could the Leader try to progress this in any way that is appropriate, including, if appropriate, a discussion in the House?

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Cathaoirleach back. He was missed by all of us. They were even trying to get me into the Chair.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senators should not take from Senator Warfield's concentration. He has an important matter to raise.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I echo the call for a debate on cycling. I am looking forward to the Oireachtas football match tonight organised by Senator Ruane with the Breakthrough programme, which uses sport to help the mental health and suicide issues in young working-class people. I hope I do not have to wear a Shamrock Rovers jersey. We will wear the bibs.

I too want to raise secretarial assistants' pay. Senators are only as good as the support we receive. Our ability to research and scrutinise legislation, to propose and oppose that legislation, good or bad, can only be measured by the resources available to us. As good legislators and public representatives, we are entirely dependent on our ability to recruit and retain good-quality staff. Many Senators will attest to the excellent staff quality but the pay and conditions on offer to them make retention difficult.

This is not a case of personal assistants, PAs, or political advisers looking to top up already high wages. A starting salary of €23,000 a year, that is, a weekly wage of €444 before tax, is not sufficient for anyone living in Dublin. It is the wage I earned as a councillor. Councillors get a lot of airtime in this Chamber and rightly so because this is the link between local and national government. This too should get airtime and today I am glad to hear it being raised by all Senators. For an institution that saw fit to pay €1.6 million for a printer and all the issues around expenses I would like the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to respond to the pay claim submitted by SIPTU and the secretarial assistants in October 2018. I would like the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to come to this House to hear the views of Members who can speak of the staff’s value and contribution and how their pay and conditions are wholly inadequate.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Well said.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The amendment proposed was not seconded.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I will allow the Senator to do that; not that I am condoning a vote. I call on the Leader to respond.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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While the Leader is composing his thoughts, I welcome the Cathaoirleach back to his rightful position. He was very much missed by us all.

I endorse the comments of Senator Gavan on the staff of this House. I ask the representatives of this House on the Oireachtas Commission to meet and discuss with representatives of the various political groups what we can do to advance those concerns.

I also endorse the comments of Senator McDowell about China, which Senator Leyden also supported. I would like a debate on that country and our relationship with mainland China. I know where the Leader's heart lies and from where his comments have to come but I ask for that debate as a matter of urgency.

Finally, could the Minister for Education and Skills be brought to the House to update us on the education and training boards, the amalgamation of which in the form of vocational educational colleges, VECs, was intended to save money? I would like a detailed report on that.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call on the Leader, I would like to thank a few people. On 25 October last, as many Members will know, I had what is called a near-death experience and was fortunate to survive and lucky to be in Dublin when it happened and that my wife spotted me going into a seizure, which I believe was caused by low sodium levels. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his wonderful work and the Acting Chairmen, who have kept the ship afloat while I was out.I received a significant amount of good wishes across all parties and none. I am not sure if I deserved them all but I would like to put on record my grateful thanks to the emergency services. Sometimes we criticise hospitals here. Once my daughter dialled 999, they had a specific voicemail helping my son-in-law to do CPR on me at that stage. The first emergency responders on the scene were the firemen, who I believe were excellent. I have no memory of it but they were a bit harsh on my ribs and after the event, I felt as it I was in the front row of a scrum in the World Cup but that is part of recovery. I thank the fire brigade. I have no names. I also thank the 999 operator, the ambulance service and in particular, St. James's Hospital, where I went in as a public patient. I was there for six days and six nights and the treatment I received was second to none. Some time, when I am in better form, I will go back to thank them for what they did. We hear a lot about bad situations and cases where there are delays and so on but on 25 October at about midday, all the emergency services saved my life and I want to acknowledge and show respect to them for the wonderful work they do. Sometimes we never appreciate what the emergency services do but I have many thanks to offer them. I am not sure if I will ever be able to thank my wife for raising the alarm, because if she had not done or had left the room and left me on my own for 15 minutes, I would have gone to another abode, whichever place I am not sure. I am back to haunt the House again and I thank Members for their welcome. It was important to put that on the record because we often hear complaints about and criticism of our emergency responders and the ambulance service. I have nothing but the utmost and sincerest praise for them and some day, I hope I will be able to thank some of them in person. With that, I ask the Leader to respond.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the 11 Members of the House who contributed to the Order of Business. I reiterate on my behalf and that of the Members a great welcome back to the House for the Cathaoirleach. His very genuine words are certainly ones we are glad he could utter in this Chamber. He was missed, not just because of his impartiality in the Chamber but because of his huge presence. I join with him in thanking all of the people involved in bringing him back to us today. Eileen deserves our utmost praise. It was great to see her here last night to be able to enjoy the turning on of the Christmas lights and to celebrate. It is important that we recognise the important work done by our first responders and those in emergency departments and the importance of being able to live life. We wish the Cathaoirleach many more years of being here and being with us.

Senators Gavan, Ruane, McDowell, Bacik, Devine, Higgins, Warfield and Wilson made reference to the issue concerning secretarial assistants in the Seanad. It is important to recognise the important work they do every day and the professionalism they bring to their job on our behalf. All of us agree on a number of things. One of them is that the starting point of pay is far too low. Second, there is a need for either the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform or the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to look at the role and work of secretarial assistants of Members of Seanad Éireann in particular because many of these people now bring a skill set, experience and educational qualification to bear in our offices that must be looked at in terms of just and fair pay. The role of the Seanad secretarial assistant has changed since it was first introduced in respect of the issue of social media. Senator Higgins referred to issues on amendments to Bills and being able to write Bills and amendments. The role has also changed in terms of communication, research and writing press releases, legislation and in many cases, engagement with members of the public and other bodies. The pay scale is one that has grown beyond what it was. This then needs to be addressed and I, and all of my colleagues in this side of the House, will support any endeavour that will ensure there is change and movement regarding the pay scale. Perhaps the Cathaoirleach could guide us in terms of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of Seanad Éireann being able to look at that as way of beginning the process from our position. It is one on which we will all find unanimity.

Senators McDowell, Leyden, Bacik and Wilson spoke about China and the issue addressed by Senator McDowell around Red China. I might have missed somebody else. It is important to recognise that the West embraced China on the pretext that there would be democracy and a greater adherence to human rights and that it would lead to a better democracy. Many of us recognise that this has not happened to the degree that we would like. This has manifested itself in the problems in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This leads on to the importance of China to this country and to the West. I know President Trump and the House of Representatives in the US have made a number of issues around that in recent times. There is a need for an honest debate on our relationship with Taiwan. If we look back at what has happened since the 1980s in terms of democracy in Taiwan and the movement to a more open and democratic society, we can see that it is a flourishing and positive state. I personally would support the call to have a representative office in Taipei. The EU has an office there. I understand that it is a matter that needs to be addressed by Government. We have a "One China" policy and I am not going to rehash the debate we had last week.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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On a point of order, most other European countries also have their own offices in Taipei.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I am not sure that it is not a point of order but I think he is trying to clarify something.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I would be happy to support that and to have a debate on the matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. What goes in tandem with that is the importance of human rights issues and the camps. I read during the weekend that the Chinese authorities were describing these camps as vocational training camps. That is the preposterous position they take. I am happy to support a debate on the matter.

Senators Horkan, Higgins and Bacik asked for a debate on cycling, which I would happy to facilitate. Senator Horkan also made reference to corporation tax. I will endeavour to have the Minister for Finance come to the House to discuss the matter. I know it has gone but I welcome the class from St. Pius X boys national school in Terenure and I wish Noah well in Carnegie Hall. It is a huge honour to be able to say that one played in Carnegie Hall. Those of us from a certain generation remember the Clancy Brothers and other great Irish acts playing there. To have a young Irish student playing there is a wonderful honour and we wish him every success.

I congratulate Senators Ruane, Warfield and Feighan on the game tonight. It is important that sport is a unifier and that we can advocate through sport, particularly with regard to the issue of mental health, and I commend the Senators on participating in the event and wish them well. It is important that we continue to highlight the issue of mental health. It is through events like tonight's game that we can shine a visible light on the matter.

Senator Bacik also raised the issue of hate speech. I would be happy to have that debate in due course. Senators Feighan and Higgins raised the vote in the House of Representatives last week, which was a wonderful decision to endorse the Good Friday Agreement and as Senator Feighan said, to ensure it is protected in light of Brexit because it is a very important document and it is important that we continue to protect it. I congratulate all involved in the matter.

To be fair to Senator Devine, she has raised the issue of the sarcoma consultant specialist in St. Vincent's hospital on a number of occasions in the House. I have met with patient representatives regarding the matter. It is wholly unacceptable that there is a delay in the appointment of a consultant because, as the Senator rightly said, this is a very specialised cancer that requires a specialist consultant and I support her in this regard. I am advised that the recruitment process is under way and that as of 8 November, St. Vincent's University Hospital has short-listed candidates for interview. As the Senator is aware, it is a voluntary hospital with its own board and recruitment policy and has full discretion around the appointment of a consultant.Rather than divide the House on the matter, I ask the Senator to allow me to try to have the Minister come to the House next week. The Senator may then call a vote if I am unsuccessful or the Minister is unavailable. He is not available this afternoon. It is an important matter and I ask the Senator to work with me, as Senators Humphreys, Leyden and Hopkins did yesterday, and allow me the space to ensure the Minister comes to the House.

I believed I have addressed all of Senator Higgins's comments.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Devine has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Health on the need to appoint a sarcoma consultant specialist at St. Vincent's hospital, Dublin, be taken today." Is the Senator pressing her amendment?

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I will not press the amendment, though I am not happy about it. It has been a long time and this in the interest of patients. I feel responsible for the people we have lost from sarcoma, as well as the ones still trying to fight with enormous difficulties and ill health. I do not want to divide the House as I am a reasonable individual. However, I am disappointed with the way this has gone. I am aware that it goes beyond the Minister for Health but he needs to put down the strong hand. I will withdraw the amendment pending the Minister's appearance in the House.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Leader has made a fair offer and stated that he will endeavour to bring the Minister in next week. If that does not occur and I am in the Chair, I will allow the Senator to raise the matter again. She can push it to a vote at that point if she feels she is not making progress.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I think I will call a strike of the Seanad next week.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator will not get paid if she does so.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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As Senator Devine knows, I am very supportive of the matter she has raised. I have met with family members and patient advocates in this area and while the situation is unacceptable, it is a matter for St. Vincent's hospital. However, we will talk about it and endeavour to have the Minister come to the House.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Devine has agreed to withdraw her amendment, under protest.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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Under protest.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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That has been acknowledged.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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She is protesting.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order of Business agreed to.