Thursday, 12 December 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 17 December next, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Industrial Development (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Report Stage, amendments from Dáil Éireann, and Final Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Report Stage, amendments from Dáil Éireann, and Final Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 2; No. 4, Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 3 or at 12.45 p.m., whichever is the later; and No. 5, statements re the appointment of a sarcoma specialist at St. Vincent's University Hospital, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 4, whichever is the later, and to conclude after 30 minutes, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes each.
We agree with the Order of Business and will not propose an amendment to it. However, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to the House next week to explain the housing situation. Some 2,020 years ago, a homeless family arrived in Bethlehem and there was no room at the inn.
After 100 years of independence, there were 10,514 people homeless in Ireland in the week of 21 to 27 October 2019 according to Focus Ireland. This figure includes adults and children. The number of homeless families has increased by 380% since October 2014. Shame on the Government and the Minister. In October 2019, there were 3,826 children in emergency homeless accommodation with their families. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation are children. The Taoiseach said Santa would find them wherever they are. Santa will have a job getting into some of their accommodation. At the end of October, there were 909 young people, that is, adults aged under 25 years, living in emergency homeless accommodation. This number does not include hidden homelessness, which refers to people who are living in squats or are sofa surfing with friends. Furthermore, women and children staying in domestic violence refuges are not included in the homeless emergency accommodation figures. The national figure also does not include people who are sleeping rough.
Last Tuesday, the Central Bank of Ireland stated that this year approximately 21,000 houses will be built, a number that is viewed as far too low and which will contribute to the ongoing imbalance in Ireland's residential property market. The Central Bank says that 34,000 houses will have to be built each year for the next decade just to meet demand. Some years ago I proposed a national solidarity bond in memory of the late Brian Lenihan. It was implemented and worked through An Post. It raised a considerable amount of money. The national solidarity bond is a 1% per year plus bonuses plan. There should be a national building bond. There are enormous resources in this country and an enormous amount of savings. The rate of interest today is 0.25%. If we wish to bring something imaginative forward to raise €100 million, €200 million, €1 billion or €2 billion from the public, I am confident the bond would be subscribed to and could be distributed to the local authorities. It would create a building boom throughout the country.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Fianna Fáil Governments built constantly. They built up the towns and villages. I was a beneficiary of that in the 1940s when my parents moved into a local authority house. Now we are running away from this and I cannot understand it. When I was a councillor in the 1970s we built hundreds of houses in well designed estates in Roscommon town. I appeal to the Government to tackle this issue. It must be a national emergency. Regardless of what Government takes over next year, and there will be a change of Government, the Taoiseach will have to take full responsibility and control and organise Ministers to give this the priority it deserves.
I will start by complimenting my colleague, Senator Marshall, on the presentation of the film "Lost Lives" last night. The Leader, as an educator, would agree that this film should be shown in every school in the country from the furthest southern point through to the North of Ireland and, indeed, across the UK. It is the most deeply emotional film I have seen and the most balanced report on the deaths of 3,700 people during the Troubles in this country. I thank the Members who were able to attend last night, particularly as Wednesdays can be fairly busy.
I did not wish to talk about what I will raise next because I am tired of doing it. I first mentioned the income of county councillors in 2014.In the five years since, nothing has been done. They are still on the same income. They have been promised this time and again. The news was coming at Halloween, then it was coming in January, then it was coming in February, then it was coming at the next AILG meeting and then it was coming at the next LAMA meeting. Nothing has happened, however. I am an Independent Senator. I will not be looking for anybody to put canvassing teams together for me at the next general election. I firmly believe that there is not one parliamentary party in this House willing to put its neck on the line and actually do the right thing by those who represent us at local level. Something needs to be done as a matter of urgency.
I would appreciate the Leader's thoughts on one final matter. I have had a number of calls from parents regarding climate action strikes in involving national school children. Some parents are deeply concerned that some of their fellow parents are putting pressure on the schools to take children attending national schools out onto the streets for climate action strikes. The national schools do a very good job in the context of various climate action programmes. The parents I have been speaking to are concerned about two things. The first is the anxiety levels their children are experiencing regarding the world coming to an end and the second is the feeling among them that they are not doing enough. I am all for secondary school students venting their anger at politicians and the like, but when national children are brought onto the streets, and 200 of them and 30 staff are mixed in with secondary school students and God knows who else, a serious liability issue arises. There needs to be clear direction from the Department of Education and Skills in order to ensure that everybody is protected. The most vulnerable of all our citizens are the little kids going to national schools. They can do plenty on climate action in the safe, controlled area of their schools. I do not think being out on the streets is the place for them, neither should they be mixing with 18 and 19 year old secondary school students.
I concur with what Senator Craughwell said about the film "Lost Lives" which was screened last night. I thank Senator Marshall for bringing it to Leinster House and I thanks all those who attended the screening. I particularly want to acknowledge the fact the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, was there for the duration of the film, which sends a message in terms of his interest in shaping things going forward. It is a profoundly powerful film, probably one of the most powerful things I have ever watched, covering the 3,700 lives that were lost. What really came across is the human tragedy, not the political thing or anything else, but the human tragedy - the mothers, the sons, the brothers, the sisters and the fathers. I thought Michael Hewitt and Dermot Lavery, the producers, did a brilliant job of transposing David McKittrick's book. I recommend that everyone watch the film. Too many people commentate on the conflict in the North, the tragedy involved and all of that, without really understanding. I appeal to the media in this regard. Why this film is particularly important is that, time and again, we have the media looking for the sensational headline. It is almost like watching a game of tennis, backwards and forwards, and it serves to polarise people. I am mindful that, today, elections are taking place in Britain and the North. Again, the polarising of politics and the polarising of people is so dangerous for our society. The media plays a role in that regard. I urge all journalists in the broadcast and print media to take time out - just an hour and a half - to look at "Lost Lives". It was filmed in a very sensitive and balanced way that gives the picture of the human tragedy that we all must work to make sure never, ever happens again.
I wish to refer briefly to vulture funds. I will talk about the matter in greater detail next week. There are headlines today about the interest rates being raised by the vulture funds and the flipping over of loans. I put a question to the Central Bank on this matter last week. I see what is happening here in the context of what occurred in the US property market before the crash. Bundles of loans are continually being flipped over in expectation of big profits and high returns. The tragedy at the end of it all is that we have thousands of people who are under threat of being homeless in the months ahead.
I echo other colleagues in commending Senator Ian Marshall on the screening of "Lost Lives" last night. I was very sorry I could not get to it myself but I have heard how powerful it was. I am impressed that the Tánaiste was there throughout, which is worthy of note. I commend all those involved.
Yesterday, Senators Norris and Gavan spoke very eloquently about the British general election. I want to add my own voice to say that I very much hope that, as a result of the vote today in Britain and Northern Ireland, we will see a change of Government in Britain, see the Labour Party in Britain entering office and see a change of policies and the introduction of Labour's socialist policies that emphasise equality for all and that would reverse the Tory cutbacks that have caused such hardship and poverty across Britain. I hope that in Northern Ireland we will see really good, pro-remain people elected, particularly Claire Hanna in south Belfast, who I know well and who is a really admirable candidate. I wish her and remain candidates generally the very best of luck. I hope that we will have an opportunity in the new year to debate the impact in this jurisdiction of whatever outcome transpires in the British general election. I, for one, very much hope it will be a Labour victory and that we will see a second referendum which will reverse the decision relating to Brexit. No doubt we will have a chance to debate that in the New Year.
I want to ask the Leader to arrange a debate on climate change in the new year. We are due to have debates with different Ministers on the various impacts of the Government's climate action plan. I draw colleagues' attention to an email many of us received this week from Mia Treacy on behalf of the school council of Coláiste Éinde girls secondary school in Galway, putting forward a novel but brilliant idea from that school community for a Foraoise na bPáistí, a Government plan to plant a tree for every schoolchild in Ireland as a Christmas present. I thought it was a lovely plan and a very practical way to implement a measure to tackle the climate crisis. The school points out that there are over 800,000 primary and secondary school pupils in Ireland. While there may not be time to plant a tree for each at them this Christmas, it would be nice to incorporate this plan into our discussions on climate action in the new year and to urge the Government to take on board this novel but very positive suggestion. Clearly, the Government, through Coillte, owns a great deal of forested land but we need to see more reforesting. This proposal for over 800,000 trees to be planted, which is symbolically one for every child in Ireland, given how schoolchildren have led so proactively and brilliantly in terms of the climate change movement across the world, would be a really fitting gesture. I am delightedTimemagazine has named Greta Thunberg as its international person of the year. That is very fitting and, again, it is great to see the huge initiative of schoolchildren being marked in this important way.
I want to pick up on the first point Senator Bacik made regarding to the election happening in Great Britain and Northern Ireland today. The Seanad committee on Brexit will be launching a report on Tuesday next. The committee, on which Senators Craughwell, Marshall and I sit, will be placing a motion before the House and we very much look forward to debating what will be the committee's final report in due course.Rather than seeking a debate on an update on Brexit and relations with the UK next year, as Senator Bacik suggested, I think it is far more urgent than that. I am instead calling on the Leader to see if we can find time next week to debate that. UK politics moves far more swiftly than our politics in terms of the formation of a government. We will have a much clearer idea by Tuesday or Wednesday what the next government in the UK will be. It is crucially important to Ireland, probably more so than with any previous UK election, that we debate that and look at what lies ahead for the next month or beyond for this island. I call on the Leader to see if the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade could facilitate that as early as next week. I will not go into individual candidates or parties, far from it, but the issues at stake that affect this island and this country are so important that we urgently need to have that debate.
Today is a monumental day in UK and Northern Irish politics. We are all aware of the significance of the vote today. There will be change. We all know that sometimes change is a good thing so we will have some change of personnel. It is important to note that this gives Northern Ireland a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate leadership. When there is a bit of a shuffle and shake up, it provides the people with a chance to shine and show that leadership. Whatever happens in Great Britain today and whatever happens with regard to Brexit, it is important to note that the sky will not fall in. The relationship between Dublin and London is very important and needs to be maintained. As Senator Richmond said, there has been a lot of work behind the scenes and credit must be given to those people who have tried to prepare Ireland and Northern Ireland for a potential Brexit.
To echo what was said by Senators Craughwell and Conway-Walsh, I extend my sincere thanks to all Senators and Deputies who attended the screening of "Lost Lives" last night. It was my second time to watch the film and I thought naively that it would be an easier watch the second time around but it was equally powerful. I am told by people that no matter how many times one watches it, it is a very powerful piece of cinematography. In particular, I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for taking time out of a very busy schedule. Not only did he come in advance of the screening, he stayed for the duration and participated in the question-and-answer session afterwards. I am very grateful for that. He did add to that conversation. One word that really summed up what we witnessed last night is "futility" - the futility of the conflict and what happened and the pain, loss and suffering that very often we did not see on the television news reports. I mean this completely respectfully but it was a side that many people in this House did not see. It was something that happened up there - something in the distance - and it was horrible but we did not really understand it. The film must serve as a reminder that we can never allow ourselves to go back to that situation because it was a horrible time. My family and I lived through it and like the book, the film triggered memories and horrible images of what happened. It was the pain, the hurt and broken people. The point was well made last night by the Tánaiste that this was not about 3,700 people; it was about tens of thousands of people's lives that were impacted by this. These people would never get over the pain and suffering.
Due to the significance of today with the UK general election, it is worth noting that the role of the Tánaiste in the talks on getting the institutions in the North up and running is critical. I would like everybody in this House to give as much support as possible to getting those institutions up and running because we must give credit to the people living and working in Northern Ireland every day - the politicians who are still there albeit without an Executive. That work is still being done. People are working tirelessly behind the scenes. There are loyalists and republicans who are working very hard to make sure that the institutions are up and running to give a degree of normality back to Northern Ireland. Unlike some of the negativity reported through the media, a lot of positive things are happening in Northern Ireland and there is a good opportunity to move the conversation forward.
Today is a very big day for the UK but also for the island of Ireland. No matter what happens today, I hope the island of Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, will not be forgotten because it was forgotten about when the Brexit referendum took place. We are now working twice as hard to undo the difficulties that have occurred since the referendum. I attended that screening of "Lost Lives" last night. I thank Senator Marshall and the Tánaiste for attending. I became aware of the book "Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles" about two or three years ago through a newspaper article. I remember going into Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street to buy it. First of all, it was not on sale, although I see that it costs nearly €300 on Amazon. This book is a masterpiece by David McKittrick and four other authors. The film last night did huge justice to this masterpiece - a horrific masterpiece.
Of all the stories of horrific killings, of which there were over 3,700, one really touched me. It was the story of a man called Billy Giles, a UVF volunteer who abducted and shot a Catholic friend in 1982. He served time in prison and on his release weeks after the Good Friday Agreement, he hung himself. In his note, he said that he was a victim of the Troubles, that the environment in which he lived turned him into a killer and that he wanted new generations to know the regret and remorse he felt. I say this because when I went into the Oireachtas Library to get that book three years ago, it had been out on loan with a Member for four years so none of the 250 Deputies and Senators and research staff had looked for that book. This film will be broadcast on the BBC but it should be shown in every school, church and facility around this country. Senator Marshall is right. We turned our backs on the people of the North. It should be compulsory for any of these keyboard warriors who talk about this, that and the other to read this book because the lives of 3,700 people were taken and we need to look at that. During the discussion after the screening of the film, one of the contributors said that we need to love the people of the North much more. We need to show that we are interested. If we are to have an agreed Ireland, we must make huge sacrifices ourselves. It is not a one-way street. It is a two-way street and we need to dig deep and show that we care because sometimes talk or emotion will not solve it. We must be able to dig deep and show that we really care and really want to show the love to the people of the North, who are good people.
Another consultant, actually the only consultant dealing with children's pain in the entire State, has stepped down from his position due to the lack of funding to enable him to provide the service that is needed. Dr. Kevin McCarthy said that he made the "difficult decision" as the service is "completely unsustainable" and did not meet the needs of sick children. He said he needs a full team and sufficient funding, which has not been forthcoming. The same thing happened about two years ago in the Wexford-Waterford area with regard to children's mental health. Three consultants resigned from their posts leaving no consultant cover, which has continued to this day. A Saturday morning consultant travels from Galway to see children on a never-ending waiting list in Waterford and Wexford. A state-of-the-art building - the national children's hospital - is in progress and a satellite centre will be opened in Tallaght Hospital next year. The Connolly satellite centre opened in July 2019 but only operates Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. because of the difficulties in recruiting medical staff. How are we going to recruit and retain medical staff for the national children's hospital in its entirety?I would like an update from the Minister as to the projected opening hours for Tallaght, the staffing that is in Connolly, the staffing in Tallaght, how they are recruiting those staff, and what is in process for the bigger mothership at St. James' Hospital. Has the consultants offer that the Minister made yesterday been accepted or is it going to cause more difficulties? I would like him to come in and explain and update this House on how we manage our children's health and how we are going to replace immediately the pain consultant.
I agree with other colleagues about the election in the North today. I know many people in this House, like my colleagues, Senators Richmond, Feighan, Marshall, the Leader, and so on, have done extraordinary work and will continue to do that, so it is to be hoped it will be a good result. I was at a launch in the audiovisual room this morning of a very important report on direct provision. There are 43 very strong recommendations in the report. I know we are only after having statements on direct provision, but maybe in the new year it would be no harm to bring the Minister in to discuss that particular report, because a lot of work went into it. It is a very strong report. There were a lot of people from the NGO sector at the event this morning, and I certainly believe that some of the recommendations are worthy of serious consideration. I have no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, will consider them.
The situation that has emerged in the past couple of days regarding the national lottery is very worrying. It is a private company. We pass legislation here to sell the licence. While people at the time back in 2013 to 2014, including me and Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell in particular, raised concerns about the principle of selling the national lottery and selling this important State asset to a private company under licence, what has emerged today and in the past couple of days about €180,000 of prizes that were advertised but were not included on the tickets for sale is very worrying. There is a regulator of the national lottery. Its job is to regulate one company, the national lottery. There are ten people working in the lottery regulator's office. The regulator has full, real-time access to all of the sales reports and games of the national lottery, yet it was an internal audit of the national lottery itself that discovered it. I want to know what the regulator is doing. It seems like a shocking waste of money for an office of ten people. I really believe that the national lottery regulator needs to consider her position, and the Minister needs to come in to the House and give an update on exactly what reporting structures this regulator has with Government. It is a very serious situation. The members of the public who spend their few euro on national lottery games should have the confidence that the integrity of the process is protected.
I will cut to the chase on the issue of the price beef farmers are receiving at the meat processing factories. We all know it is below the cost of production. I would like to make a Christmas appeal. I would like to make that appeal to Larry Goodman today, that Larry Goodman would pay to farmers a fair price for their animals when they present at his factories. The meat industry is profitable and is growing, and we know that by virtue of exports, the new markets that have been won by Government in the likes of China, and by virtue of live exports. This is an area where a lot of people, such as multiple retailers and meat processors, are making money, and yet a basic condition, which is that farmers be paid the cost of production, is not happening. It is true he does not own all the factories around the country - we all know that - but he is the man with the influence. While he does not own these factories, he very much influences the factors that control prices and it is the very reason every farmer who presents to a factory on a Monday morning is pretty much getting paid the same price. We have had the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission at times tell us it does not have enough evidence in relation to the issue, but I can tell Senators that with the suite of legislation that is going to come and is in the pipeline, based on the European unfair trading practices directive and price transparency directive, which are required to be implemented for the food supply chain, and the introduction of a regulator with teeth, which is envisaged by both Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, the net is closing.
At the moment, farmers are getting between €3.50 and €3.55, and they need €4 to break even. Our year has been marked by discontent on the part of farmers, with disruption and blockades at factory gates throughout the summer. More recently, the capital was brought to a standstill with tractor blockades, and now the IFA is blockading wholesale distribution centres for the multiple retailers. Where does it all lead back to? It all leads back to Larry Goodman. He should do the right thing here. If he does not, he is going to kill the golden goose that is laying the eggs that are making the profits for him, and there will not be farmers who will want to undertake producing suckler animals or beef animals.
A number of people are talking about their hopes for the British general election this morning, and when one considers how little control we have over events in Britain, I am tempted to think it is a futile exercise to be offering opinions on what we hope might happen. I will say this. It is a good time for us to reflect on the unsatisfactory nature of the often binary choices before electorates on either side of the water as we look out. Political leadership of a quality kind is in short supply. There is no heroic, obvious British Prime Minister to emerge. There are dangers whichever way one looks if one is wise and mature in one's politics.
It seems to me that very often what we are faced with now is a coalition or a coincidence of interests between the intentionally and recklessly selfish on the one hand and the unintentionally selfish on the other. On the left, one sees an inconsistency, a lack of respect for life itself, a well-meaning, perhaps idealistic, but negative individualism, and on the right, one sees a selfishness that one can associate with a culture that is increasingly unconcerned about drug-taking and all sorts of life choices that end up harming others. There is a real need for better political leadership on all sides, and I would be very slow to express a preference as to the outcome of the election.
One thing I think I can say with certainty on another subject is when confidential files that contradicted Beijing's claims about the voluntary re-education, so-called, of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities were handed over recently to the international consortium of investigative journalists, we saw a catalogue of horrors and depravity. In fact, what those files reveal is that it is actually possible to put a price on the value of human life. We are doing it ourselves in Ireland and Europe, because there is a real and quantifiable risk that our foreign policy stance with respect to China is nothing more than a Potemkin village of righteous indignation empty of meaning and devoid of moral courage. The same could be said for the European foreign policy stance with respect to China, in particular its treatment of the Uyghur population.
At official level, people are not standing up to the bullies, especially if they are the kind of bullies we can trade with, generous bullies who buy our beef or whatever it is. What we effectively do is write them strongly worded letters appealing for them to heed the norms outlined in various human rights agreements or covenants, but bullies do not respect reason. They listen with indifference as their victims or even their friends plead, even with the greatest of eloquence, for mercy. The unavoidable interpretation we must now give to how we are continuing to conduct our bilateral and international relationship with China, specifically in the context of the barbaric treatment of the Uyghur population, is that we just do not care. The €17 billion in goods and services that is the worth of our bilateral trade can be set against the one million Uyghurs affected by brutal Chinese state repression.That is a value of approximately €17,000 that we place, or do not place, on every Uighur whose life has been destroyed or who has been tortured or brutalised by the current regime in Beijing. Even as we criticise Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump or the Democratic Party candidate, whoever that may be, we need to take a close look at the moral quality of our politics here at home.
I did not see the film. I apologise for that. I hope to see it. I understand that it is very compelling and I thank the Senator for raising it in the House this morning. I watched a different film on RTÉ last night about McGowan's Funeral Directors in Ballina. It was a compelling documentary by RTÉ on how they embalm people and on the work of funeral directors. I congratulate all funeral directors. The Leas-Chathaoirleach was a funeral director.
Funeral directors are to be congratulated on the work they do at an important time for people who lose loved ones.
I raise an issue to which Senator Mulherin referred earlier in the week regarding the passive and A-rated houses that are being built throughout the country. I am calling on the Central Bank to relax the multiplier for mortgages, particularly in the context of A-rated and passive houses. As Senator Mulherin pointed out, the electricity and heating costs of some of those houses can be as low as €100 per year, therefore, a person with an A-rated or a passive house has extra capacity to make additional payments. The Central Bank has got to look at this issue and relax the multiplier rule in respect of the amount of money a person can borrow in order to buy a house. It makes absolute sense that a person who buys an A-rated house as opposed to someone who buys a house that has extensive and expensive heating and electricity charges has extra money to pay back a loan to buy a passive house. That is the way forward. Those are the types of houses that the Government and those involved in taking climate action are proposing. That is the way the building industry has gone. The Central Bank is behind the times in this regard. It is putting undue pressure on people who cannot get the money to buy homes. Builders have a problem building houses for a price people can pay. I am calling on the Central Bank to relax the multiplier in respect of people who are buying A-rated or passive houses.
I thank the 12 Members of the House for their contributions to the Order of Business. Senator Leyden, in his usual dramatic presentation - Senator Mullen will enjoy this - fails to recognise that the Holy Family were not homeless in Bethlehem. They could not find accommodation. They were from Nazareth and they returned to their home in Nazareth. If the Senator wants to use the Holy Family in the context of the housing debate, he should get his facts right.
If Senator Leyden wants to invoke the name of the Holy Family, he should get his facts right. They were not homeless. They were going to Bethlehem to fulfil the census obligation. The difficulty they had in finding temporary accommodation is very different from what the Senator outlined.
Before Rebuilding Ireland, child homelessness was increasing at a rate of 5%. It is now at 1%. Some 15,000 first-time buyers are out of the rental trap through the help-to-buy scheme. Senator Leyden did not refer to that, nor did he comment on the fact that supply is up 25% and that 64,000 new social houses are being built. He did not refer to Rebuilding Ireland. An additional 30,000 planning permissions were granted last year, one in three of which was for social housing, to which, again, the Senator did not refer. Nor did he make reference to the fact that never before in the history of the State has more social housing be built than is being built under this Government.
The Senator forgot to tell the people that the Government he voted for regularly decimated the building sector, changed the provision of social housing and destroyed our construction sector. That would never interest him in giving his-----
At total of 12,000 people exited homelessness last year. We accept that there is a challenge ahead. That is why we are working on this matter. It is a priority for the Government. I will make the point one more time for Senator Leyden. Some €2.4 billion, the highest amount ever in the history of the State, will be spent on housing and homelessness.
I welcome a former Ceann Comhairle and friend, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, to the Gallery. He is very welcome.
Senators Craughwell, Bacik, Richmond, Marshall, Feighan, Conway-Walsh, Mullen and Paddy Burke made reference to the issue of the documentary "Lost Lives" and the elections today in the UK and the North. I commend Senator Marshall on his proactivity last night. Senator Marshall and Senator Conway-Walsh made their points in the context of the futility of what happened and the human tragedy It is important to put on record that the human tragedy can never be underestimated. It is about building and binding communities in the North. That is why it is so important that we have a return to the institutions and get Stormont up and running as a matter of urgency. I appeal to those on all sides of the debate in the North to ensure that Stormont gets up and running and that a Government is put in place.
I remind Senator Mullen that 800,000 Irish people can vote today in the UK and that 1 million can vote in the North. It is a very important election in the context of Brexit. As I have said in the past, there is no good Brexit outcome for us no matter what happens. Democracy is precious. The Senator may well speak about the minimum amount of choice. I would encourage him to run as a candidate in the next general election-----
As Leader, I will not indicate a preference in terms of who will or will not win but it is important that we work with whoever emerges victorious, be at Stormont or Westminster.I really hope that the outcome today will be decisive either way and that there is not a hung parliament. In response to Senator Craughwell, I am not sure whether the Leas-Chathaoirleach was here last week for a very good debate on local government.
We stand united, irrespective of our denomination or hue, on the importance of the role of the councillor in local government. That is why the Minister of State with responsibility for local government, Deputy Phelan, has commissioned the Moorhead report and I am sure there will be a recommendation attached to it. It is important that we pay local government representatives properly and fairly. I have always made that view quite clear. I am sure that will happen.
He also raised climate action, as did Senator Bacik. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, will be here on 21 January for statements on transition. In the following weeks six Ministers will speak on the matter.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to a disturbing report today on vulture funds. The Central Bank and the Department of Finance need to read that and act on it. I would be happy for the Minister for Finance to come to the House to discuss the matter.
Any opportunity to raise awareness of climate change in all sections and ages of society is important. I will be happy to have a discussion with the Senator about the students many of whom, to be fair, have been very responsible, have raised awareness and educated many of a different generation about the importance of this issue.
Senator Devine mentioned Kevin McCarthy, the consultant paediatric pain specialist who has tendered his resignation. It is an important post. I am not familiar with the exact reasons he resigned other than what I read in the newspapers this morning. The Department of Health, the HSE and the hospital group are, I am sure, working actively on that.
It is important to recognise that there is a significant investment of €17 billion in our health system. The report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health showed that there are almost 138,000 employed in the HSE. A real question needs to be asked about where the €17 billion is going and how it is that we cannot deliver better outcomes for people because of the way we spend our money. The Senator will agree with me that €17 billion of taxpayers' money is a significant budget for the health system and we still have issues in that sector. It is not a question of throwing money at it but of reforming the structure and activating and expediting Sláintecare. I will invite the Minister for Health to come to the House in due course to discuss the matter.
Senator Conway spoke about today's report on direct provision, which I have not read, and the 43 recommendations. We had a very good debate here last week on direct provision and I will be happy to have the Minister come back to update the House.
The issue of the national lottery is very worrying on two fronts. First, an internal audit discovered there was an anomaly in several of its games. Second, we need to question the role of the regulator, as Senator Conway said. It is unacceptable that the national lottery can come back now and say it has spotted this anomaly and is going to apologise. Confidence in it needs to be restored. We did sell it off but that decision has worked in other jurisdictions.
Senator Mulherin raised the issue of the price of beef. The point she makes this morning is a very reasonable one, on the issue of the meat factories giving a just price to the farmers. I appeal to all Members of the House and those watching and listening today to shop in their local butchers this Christmas, to support our small indigenous industries because through our support we can galvanise local economies. There is a need for the beef task force to sit down. I appeal to those involved in the talks to recognise the role of agriculture. As Senator Mullen said, we have opened new markets, particularly in China, but it is important that our farmers, whom we all support, are recognised.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of human rights in China and how we and any government around the world engages with the Chinese authorities, given their lack of respect for human rights, minorities and other groupings. It is a good point. We need to be balanced. As the Senator says, we cannot just send a strongly worded letter and expect that to be okay. More needs to be done and I support the Senator in that view. I would be happy to invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade back to the House on that matter.
Senator Paddy Burke referred to the documentary last night on RTÉ regarding the role of undertakers in our society. It showed the care and compassion of the undertaker at a very stressful and emotive time for many families. I join the Senator in congratulating and thanking all our undertakers. He also referred to passive homes and the multiplier for mortgages. This House does not have a way to invite the Central Bank but I would be happy to have the Minister for Finance or one of the Ministers of State in that Department come to the House to discuss it.