Thursday, 9 July 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the use of this historic Chamber. I am sure many of the Deputies from Members' counties will be anxious that Members do not get too comfortable and that we return to our own Chamber as soon as circumstances allow.
I remind Members we have 55 minutes for the Order of Business and for contributions from Members, and to which we must keep, otherwise we will not be able to bring in everybody who wishes to speak. As such, our advice today is from Cicero, who said that brevity is the best recommendation of a speech, whether in a senator or an orator, although I am sure many Senators are also orators.
As this is the first sitting of Seanad Éireann in this historic Chamber since 1987 and as nearly 40 Members are new to the House, there are a number of procedural issues I want to clarify in regard to the Order of Business.
The Order of Business is what the Leader outlines for the House on a given day. The issue before us today is the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020. Members can contribute on the issue during the Order of Business. There has also been a practise by Members of bringing up other issues they want debated in the House and they call for the Leader to arrange time to have those issues debated. They can, of course, talk about that issue and support that issue with their argument but brevity is key. We do not want long speeches and scripted speeches are not encouraged, although Members can, of course, have one because it is the Order of Business and it is their Chamber, but time is of the essence.
In previous Seanaid, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges has outlined what Members should speak on and how long they should speak for but we have not adopted those rules yet. Leaders have three minutes and all other Senators are asked to speak for two minutes. On the Order of Business, it is the practise that Senators, other than leaders, would confine their remarks and suggestions to one issue.
The clocks are here today for guidance and to assist Members with timekeeping while being mindful of the advice of Cicero. I wish all the orators well in this historic Chamber and again thank the Ceann Comhairle for accommodating Seanad Éireann in the Chamber of the people today.
I ask the Leader to outline the Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding appointment of Members to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which is on the Supplementary Order, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the appointment of Members to the Seanad Committee of Selection, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020 - All Stages, to be taken at 12.15 p.m., with the time allocated to the group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate on Second Stage and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; and No. 4, motion regarding earlier signature of the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020, to be taken on conclusion of No. 3, without debate.
I welcome the Leader outlining the very important business today in respect of the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020. One of the most common parliamentary questions tabled here in the Dáil Chamber asks the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation to outline how many investor visits IDA Ireland has conducted in a particular year and in which counties they took place. The answer is then followed by the gnashing of Deputies' teeth when they attack the lack of visits to their county vis-à-visthose in Dublin or Cork. There will be a very even playing field this year, going by the comments made by the head of IDA Ireland, Martin Shanahan, yesterday. He outlined how physical investor visits have fallen to zero and virtual tours conducted by IDA Ireland have yielded one deal for this particular year. In outlining his mid-year results, Mr. Shanahan reported a 6% decline in projects won this year by foreign direct investment, FDI, visits. This is going to prove a big challenge for IDA Ireland, which is needed for FDI, over the next six months.
The stimulus package for SMEs from the microenterprise fund is critically important but the coming weeks are critical for the higher end of the spectrum as well. Our work needs to be pressed further, especially by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. I look forward to the July stimulus package because we need to protect businesses in the here and now and show there is proper investment in order to protect jobs. I raised this matter the other day regarding one industry across the whole range of industries, but what was outlined by Martin Shanahan yesterday is quite worrying. We need a very positive response regarding IDA Ireland from all members of the Government who are working purely on this issue, in particular from the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy.
Over the past few days I have been inundated with accounts of the hardship being suffered by people in the entertainment business, including performers and many of their staff and crew. They have all asked me to highlight the crisis in their industry. Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, all venues have been forced to close with the resulting loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs. While other industries have also been severely impacted, they are now able to see light at the end of the tunnel but, unfortunately, music, theatre and comedy are totally dependent on a paying audience. Due to social distancing requirements, which we all agree are necessary, venues may only be able to cater for 15% of their capacity and this is just not viable. It has been estimated that the industry will not return to full capacity until 2023, which is absolutely devastating for it. The hardship being endured by people in the arts sector has to be addressed. In 2020, the rate of recession in the arts sector will be between 34.6% and 42% compared with 11% in the Irish economy as a whole.
One young family man in the music industry contacted me yesterday and outlined his situation, which I want to highlight today. This year was to be his busiest ever, with tours in the USA and Europe and dates scheduled in Ireland as well. He has been building his audiences over the past four years and he is only now reaping the rewards of his investment of time and money. All these dates have now been cancelled and he is out of pocket and facing the prospect of his Covid payment of €350 a week being reduced. He has dedicated his whole life to his art and he is now on the verge of being able to pay his mortgage and provide for his family. This man's stress and anxiety are being felt by thousands of other arts workers and the State has an obligation to support people like them.Another man told me of his frustration in dealing with the social welfare payment. His tax affairs are in order and he has worked as a PAYE worker and a self-employed musician. His Covid payment was reduced as it was claimed his income was below the required amount. He has been unable to contact the relevant section to point out that when his PAYE and self-employed income are added that he is above the threshold for the €350 payment. This is leading to severe anxiety, hardship and stress.
The pandemic unemployment payment and the temporary wage subsidy scheme must be continued for individual artists, arts workers and other organisations until the industry is again able to work to full capacity. Bank mortgages and loans should be deferred or renegotiated for an emergency period until the music, art and events industry can properly reopen without social distancing. The tax due in October for the self-employed in the arts industry who are without other income should be examined as their income in the current year has being decimated. I call for the Minister to come to the House to address these concerns as soon as possible as the Covid payments are due to cease in August.
Ba mhaith liom ár gcomhionannas agus ionadaíocht a ardú ar an Ord Gnó inniu. Technically this Chamber is the Seanad but I appreciate and recognise the important symbolic significance of us being here. In particular, I am very conscious of the significance, personally and politically, for myself as a Belfast man and Senator Elisha McCallion as a proud Derry woman to be taking our seats in this Chamber. On every occasion we have convened as the Twenty-sixth Seanad I have raised the shared Ireland aspect of the programme for Government and I imagine I will raise it many times more in future. On the way to this Chamber, I thought about calling for a debate on and intervention from Ministers on this issue. One of the ways we could embolden and enable the shared island aspect of the programme for Government would be to have a shared Oireachtas, through fulfilling the long-standing promise to give MPs from the North speaking rights in the Dáil. In the context of the crises we all know are facing all of Ireland, whether Covid-19 or Brexit, it would give citizens and non-citizens from the Six Counties a platform for their views, concerns and issues in the Oireachtas. The good practice and very positive experiences of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which has MPs as part of its membership, has shown the way. If we are serious about a shared Ireland and ensuring no one is left behind, a very positive first step would be to have an inclusive Oireachtas to give voice to the political reality. In calling for speaking rights for MPs I do not just call for one particular political demographic. I would like to see all views expressed in this Chamber. This is important, given the controversy that has faced the Government on the failure to appoint a Unionist Member. What better symbol and way to address this snub than to give speaking rights in the Dáil to MPs from the North to ensure in this climate their many constituents are given a voice at such a crucial time for all of us.
I commend the Cathaoirleach, Leader and staff for enabling us to meet here in the Leinster House complex, following the meeting of the leaders and Whips on Tuesday. It is very good to see the constructive resolution of the difficulty of ensuring the Seanad can sit and fulfil its democratic and constitutional function while observing social distancing. We all appreciate this and look forward to working constructively to ensure we can continue to fulfil our constitutional function in an efficient and safe manner.
I renew my call for the Leader to ask the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration to the House in early course to have a debate with us on the challenges and issues that arise under his portfolio, on which I am glad to be spokesperson for the Labour Party.A number of issues of concern have arisen in recent days. I note today's call by Inclusion Ireland to ensure that the reopening of day services for persons with intellectual disabilities is expedited. There has been a very serious impact on many children and adults with disabilities due to the closure of services and the absence of services over the past few months, since lockdown commenced. All of us are well aware of individuals on whom this has impacted very severely. I see calls also from groups such as Féach, which represents children with visual impairment or visual disabilities, to ensure that July provision is made available and that adequate facilities are in place such that children in particular but also adults do not fall back and lose out terribly as a result of lockdown.
Finally, I welcome the call by Government to implement a public consultation on the implications of remote working. This is a huge issue for many people, particularly those juggling childcare and other caring responsibilities, and there has been a really serious gender dimension to it. We have seen a particular impact on women as a result of having to work from home as well as bearing a large portion of caring responsibilities. I hope this will be raised in the context of the discussion on remote working. Clearly, there are also advantages to remote working for many involved in not having to commute or engage in long hours on public transport or in cars. I know loads of workplaces that are looking seriously at how to implement that into the future but we also need to consider the disadvantages, particularly the gendered impacts that remote working will have into the future.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his staff and all the staff involved for facilitating us in this Chamber. Many of us never thought we would be in here. Many of us have left here for the Seanad Chamber. Did any of us think we would all be here together so soon after the past few months and the general election? It is always a privilege to be here. It is a nice little space, and I am sure many of us will be motivated, having spent a few hours in here today, to give it a second look. I would encourage everyone to do that-----
Thank you for the encouragement, a Chathaoirligh.
For those who do not know, I am on the Agricultural Panel. I am a practitioner of horticulture, I studied horticulture and I wish to raise two issues in that regard. First, I wish to deal with an issue the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, has raised. I have had representations from counties Kerry, Galway, Monaghan, Clare and right down to Cork concerning the sheep industry. The wool aspect of the industry is on its knees. I have received a letter from a member of the Connemara Mountain Lamb organisation. He sheared 245 sheep, and the fleeces for this number weighed approximately 355 kg. He got €17.75 for the wool from the fleeces of 245 sheep. The industry is on its knees. I asked the previous Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine that we would establish, as all the farm organisations have asked, a proper organisation dedicated to the Irish wool industry. We have an amazing product that is exported all over the world, yet somehow we do not have a proper processing plant for it in this country. We are talking about rural agriculture, the west of Ireland and a Government of three major parties that have advocated soft supports and improved incomes for Irish families and farms. We need to address this. I had the previous Minister before the Seanad for a Commencement matter on this and he did not give us much hope, so I want the Minister with responsibility to come before the House and consider the call for a dedicated Irish wool forum.
Finally, I wish to address the issue of horticulture. There are only two sentences in the programme for Government on horticulture. There is not a mention of a Charlotte, an onion or a cabbage. What is going on here? We have a green tinge to this Government. I wish to put on the record of the House that the lack of any ambition or commitment for the Irish horticultural sector is extremely disappointing and needs to be addressed. We are importing cabbages, onions and potatoes weekly into this country.The mushroom industry is in crisis and anyone who represents Monaghan, Cork or Carlow, where the industry is thriving to a certain extent, will tell you first hand of their experiences. We need to address the horticultural industry and we need to provide practical support to the sheep-wool industry. We need to walk our talk rather than talk, talk and more talk.
The reality of the survival of the tourism industry has become more apparent and more clear to me since we reopened our doors a week ago. When we think of the tourism industry, sometimes we just think of hotels, pubs and restaurants but the industry has a much wider impact than that on society. I refer to the transport sector. We have airports, ferry ports and taxis while limousine hire will probably not do any business for the next year and a half because there will be no corporate business, be it domestic or, indeed, foreign. Coach tour operators have invested heavily in their fleets but there is no market for now.
Then there is the impact this is having on the retail sector as well. Sometimes we forget that it has an impact on large retail stores here in Dublin city but, equally, in every small village throughout our country, there is a small retail craft shop selling stuff that probably will have no opportunity to open this year.
I refer to arts and culture. On the radio yesterday, Garry Hynes was discussing the establishment of the Druid Theatre more than 40 years ago in Galway. It was based on an added tourism product it was offering. Tourism was helping it survive and it was helping the tourism industry promote itself. We have festivals throughout the country, both community festivals and professionals festivals. The Rose of Tralee has been cancelled for the first time ever. That festival industry is gone. Then we have the agricultural sector. The tourism industry, including hotels and restaurants, have been moving to support local businesses and we name the farmers from whom we get our products. The industry is in turmoil.
I ask the Leader today to bring both the Minister with responsibility for tourism and the Minister for Finance to the House to stress the importance of the survival of tourism. At the core of the survival of my industry is that debate on a VAT reduction that we believe is needed if that industry is to survive and be viable into the future.
I do. A Chathaoirligh, can I congratulate you as well at the outset? This is my first time speaking in the House. It is a great honour to be elevated to the role of Cathaoirleach and I wish you the best with it.
Tomorrow marks a significant milestone for Waterford city and the south-east region. A planning decision will issue for a transformative 125,000 sq. m mixed-use development on the city's north quays. The project aims to deliver significant retail, hotel and conferencing facilities, prime city centre offices and 300 apartments. The development will be linked to the existing city centre via a public transportation bridge over the River Suir and it is also to have a transportation hub, which will give a modern interchange of both rail and bus transport.
The vast majority of hurdles appear to have been overcome. In 2016, the Government designated it a strategic development zone. An extensive planning scheme for the eight ha site was developed by Waterford City and County Council and approved by An Bord Pleanála. It was listed as a key project in the national planning framework, NPF, and the national development plan, NDP. All elements of the public infrastructure have gone through an extensive Part 8 planning approval process and a planning decision will issue tomorrow for this ambitious scheme.
To date, the State has allocated €20 million via the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, and the National Transport Authority, NTA. However, a further €90 million is required over the next four years to facilitate the infrastructure required for the development and positive commitments have been made in recent times in this regard. The return on the State investment has been independently verified by Indecon. It will unlock €400 million of private sector investment and create more than 2,300 jobs in an area with a stubbornly high unemployment rate.
I believe this project is a litmus test for the NPF and the commitments contained in the programme for Government to ensure balanced regional development.Waterford and the south east need this development and I ask that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who is responsible for the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, be invited into the House to make a statement on this matter. I also ask that priority be given to this project in the July stimulus package.
I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Ceann Comhairle and all those who have worked since the leaders' meeting to ensure that we are able to perform our work in this Chamber of course but, most important, in ensuring that all Members of the Seanad are able to fulfil their constitutional function by scrutinising legislation and decisions made in the context of that legislation. While much recognition has been given to this historic Chamber, it is important to remember that the First Dáil did not necessarily sit here and that this Chamber and the Seanad Chamber are not the Dáil and the Seanad. Those are important historic spaces, but it is the Members of the Dáil and Seanad and the work we are charged to do by the Constitution for and on behalf of the people of Ireland that is fundamentally important. That work is going to be more important as we face into the next 12 to 18 months, possibly, when important decisions will be made not just about the crisis but also concerning our recovery.
Regarding that work, the programme for Government sets out part of it. I know that work begins today, and the programme for Government contains measures, such as those regarding direct provision and the statutory home care provision, of which we will be encouraging speedy implementation. There are other issues, however, on which we will disagree and that is when the role of scrutiny, amendment and, where necessary, challenge will be important.
The programme for Government, however, does not set the limit of the work of this Seanad. Ideas, proposals and views on issues, such as the occupied territories and Seanad reform, and many others, will also come from the other Members of this House. I have also spoken previously about the importance of ensuring that we allow proposals to emerge from all sides. In that context, I note we are dealing with all Stages of a Bill today. I hope that will not become standard practice. I recognise the importance of this legislation on this occasion, but it is important that due process is given to all Stages of Bills. I would also like to know when Private Members' time will be reintroduced to allow new proposals to emerge. Finally, the Cathaoirleach mentioned in our last session that he might have information for us on Commencement matters and written replies.
The measures announced by the UK Government yesterday, including cutting VAT on its hospitality and services sector from 20% to 5%, has set alarm bells ringing across the Border counties in the last 24 hours, from Donegal right across to Louth. The measures introduced by the UK Government yesterday will be in place, I understand, until 12 January 2021. Businesses in Cavan, Monaghan and other Border counties currently have a VAT rate of 13.5%. We are now asking those businesses to compete against other businesses four or five miles down the road in Northern Ireland which are operating a VAT rate of 5%. This is clearly not a level playing field and it is one that will have to be addressed in the July stimulus package.
Many businesses in the Border counties, and indeed businesses all over the country, are struggling to survive at the moment and we all realise that. The Government needs to be particularly cognisant of the difficulties of businesses located along the Border in counties such as Monaghan and Cavan. I hope the July stimulus package will offer the Government an opportunity to note the difficulties businesses in those counties face when competing against businesses in Northern Ireland. Many people in the business community are looking forward eagerly to the announcement of the July stimulus package and I hope that perhaps some of the issues already announced could be addressed in that.
The restart business programme which was announced offers grants from €2,000 up to €10,000 for businesses. I accept it was introduced as an emergency measure, but it has been very problematic.Many businesses, such as travel agencies, whose turnover may be in excess of €5 million are also losing out. In addition, many small car dealers whose turnover may be in excess of €5 million are losing out. It is vital we address those problems in the July stimulus package.
Will the Minister alert or advise me as to when the SME task force will be up and running? Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, and thank you for the latitude.
As I am speaking for the first time, I congratulate you, a Chathaoirligh, on your position and wish you well. I will be brief but I want raise the issue of a new building for the boys' national school in Cahir in Tipperary. The previous Government and previous Ministers, Deputies McHugh and Bruton, were proactive in supporting schools and new structures, buildings and extensions. Tipperary, like every other county, has been successful in that we had a major extension to the main high school in Clonmel and the same to the secondary school in Cahir. One hears these announcements and positive news stories for schools but other schools are left out and feel they need support, which they do. The boys' national school in Cahir has been fighting for a new building since 2004. That is 16 years so by any stretch of the imagination it has been a long time waiting.
I have written to the Minister, Deputy Foley, for clarification and I wish her well in her new role. I know the Cathaoirleach will be impressed with her announcements for Kerry at the moment but if she can keep them to Munster, I would be grateful. I would appreciate if we could get some clarity on that.
It is welcome news that An Taoiseach, Deputy Martin, is meeting with the joint First Ministers of the North, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, next week. However, at this early stage, can I invite the new Taoiseach to visit Derry and the north west to discuss how the Irish Government can assist the regeneration of a region that, as I have previously outlined, has been devastated by partition and the Border?
I also invite the Taoiseach to meet with the North West Strategic Growth Partnership, a group that has been making invaluable contributions to bringing investment into the north-west region. Over the past number of years there have been welcome commitments to the tune of £300 million into the north west. This has come from the North's Executive, local councils, Ulster University Magee Campus and, indeed, the British Government.
I welcome the Irish Government's commitment of £75 million for the A5 road project as stated in the New Decade New Approach document, which, as everyone will be aware, re-established the North's Executive. The A5, I am sure Members will all agree, is a crucial and essential part of the regeneration of the north west. However, I would like to remind the Government of its previous commitments to fund 50% of the overall total of the A5. I look forward to working with the Government in seeing those commitments brought to bear.
I also welcome the specific commitments the Irish Government has made in the document towards third level education at Ulster University Magee Campus. An Taoiseach has spoken regularly about his belief in the important role played by education in people's lives. Ulster University Magee Campus is an excellent example of how an educational institution can indeed change people's lives. I look forward to working with him and all our Ministers to see how the Irish Government can contribute to the expansion of Magee University.
We are now at a stage where firm commitments are needed from the Irish Government, not just kind words of welcome. I ask that the Irish Government consider a financial package towards the already secured £300 million that has been agreed with the other partners. I look forward to working with the Government and all of the Ministers in the time ahead to see this contribution come to fruition.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I compliment you on your position as Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.You have been a fine pioneer of the Seanad since my involvement with you over the past number of years. I wish you every success in the Chair.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has launched a consultation process on remote working, something which, we are all aware, is getting a lot of attention in the media. There are many practicalities involved and we welcome this initiative. I am sure many different bodies will feed into the process. I ask the Leader to press the Minister to make the roll-out feasible. It will require financial incentives. The ideas and aspiration are lovely but there will have to be some hard financial incentives. If we do not outline what is needed now and look towards the coming budget, such change will not happen. I suggest a tax credit in the region of €5,000, or a figure to that effect, to assist and encourage organisations to continue with the reform, which has been most welcome.
I ask the Leader to request that the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, come to the House to discuss the Moorhead report. It is important to many Senators and to county councillors in particular. I welcome it. There is no doubt that it contains some anomalies, which we will need to tease out and work on.
I wish to raise the issue of coach tourism. The Coach Tourism & Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, is the largest representative body for private coach operators, which are involved in everything from tourism to transporting children to school in rural Ireland. The chairperson of the CTTC, John Halpenny, comes from my neck of the woods in Dundalk, County Louth. He is involved in Halpenny's Travel and I had a long conversation with him on Wednesday during which he outlined a couple of points. He told me there are 1,721 coach operators in Ireland, carrying a total of 75 million passengers a year ranging from American tourists to a child going to school. The sector provides a total of 11,457 jobs and contributes €400 million to the Irish economy.
A recent report on the sector from the economist Jim Power outlined the serious difficulties it faces in light of the Covid era in which we find ourselves. Turnover has declined by 95%, which is the equivalent of losing €586 million. I am sure the Leader will agree that is quite a substantial loss. The report stated that the difficulties in the sector disproportionately affect regional and rural economies. The transport needs of rural towns include transporting children to school and tourists around the county. Coach operators provide a wide range of services.
The CTTC made a very interesting, logical and detailed proposal to the Covid committees and outlined five big asks. I will not go through all of them because my time is limited but the most important are that the financial support package of €32 million it has asked for is delivered, that a restoration of the fuel rebate to pre-2019 levels is considered and that the possibility of a moratorium on loans until income reaches 80% of previous levels is examined. It is very important that we ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House to outline his plans for the survival of this very important industry.
I wish to raise the issue of the establishment of an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, school in Dublin 12. Parents have campaigned for it for a number of years and the recent report from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, acknowledged that Scoil Choilm is a possible location. A building patron has come forward but it is getting no engagement from the Department. It needs the Department to sanction the school and get a roll number in order for it to be able to negotiate with the current trustees of the building.
Can the Leader invite the new Minister of State for special education and social inclusion to the Chamber to discuss the complete lack of ASD and special classes in the south Dublin area? While the previous Minister, Deputy McHugh, directed 39 schools to provide ASD classes, that will require engagement over the summer with schools and parents. It is simply unacceptable that in 2020 we cannot ensure that all of the children in our nation get the education to which they are entitled. We are not cherishing each of the nation's children equally.I ask that the new Minister of State addresses the Chamber over the course of the summer in order that those of us from the area can engage with him on the provision of special classes within south Dublin.
On Tuesday, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland released a report called Life After Lockdown. Yesterday, I had an opportunity to read its findings and it was a very dark and disturbing read. Pre-Covid life was very difficult for those who suffered from dementia and their carers, so we can only begin to imagine what their lives are like now. We are now informed by extensive research that shows as many as 77% of carers have said that their workload has increased dramatically and 61% of them have said that they fear for their own physical and mental health. They have seen the rapid decline of those they love and care for who suffer from dementia. While I welcome this morning's news that a roadmap has been issued by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for the opening of centres for those with disability, it is important to have a roadmap providing community supports for those who suffer with dementia. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister of State to come here to address us on this matter. Other supports are needed. Dementia data should be included in the Covid information that is given so that people have a clear picture. The bigger picture is considering how we support family carers and enhance in-home supports. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise these matters.
The global pandemic has brought about changes in workplaces and how we envisage the workplace in ways that we thought would never change. In recent months the concept of working from home has brought about extraordinary and great benefits. However, there are other elements to the situation. I appreciate that today it was announced that there will be a remote working consultation.
We must have an opportunity to address and bring together two pressing issues. We know that the hospitality industry is under pressure due to a lack of tourism and all of the attendant issues, as colleagues in this Chamber have said. One of the elements of working from home has been the isolation of workers. In recent months, particularly in recent weeks as we have seen things open up, team-building exercises could have been introduced. I call for a debate on the possibility of a grant for employers to provide team building and a time for the coming together of employees in this unique moment as they work from home the rest of the time. Given that the hospitality industry tends to facilitate these events, and larger spaces and venues have the opportunity to facilitate social distancing, we could marry the need to be inclusive, accommodate social distancing and give an incentive to the hospitality industry.
I ask the Leader to organise a debate, at the earliest possible opportunity, on the theme of restarting the economy. We are all very conscious that as we progress through the passing of the Covid-19 crisis, we need to start rebooting the economy. There are some Government supports for individuals and companies but we need to examine the criteria because some of them are not fit for purpose and do not meet the needs of some sectors of the economy, particularly the tourism sector. Much of the tourism sector depends on getting a lot of money in between now and the end of August or early September. For many operators within the tourism sector, this season will not be of any benefit. They depend on the moneys that are normally generated at this time of year to sustain them through the winter period and allow them to begin again next year.I am concerned that if we do not find a way to support them on a continuous basis, those attractions, operations and operators will not be in existence next year. Hopefully by the next season, we will have either found a cure or some method of working beyond that but there is a crisis and we need to address it. I am particularly concerned about tourism attractions and tourism operators.
Within that issue, we need to look at how the State might invest in key infrastructure at this time and I am conscious of the smaller rural villages that do not have sewerage schemes or systems. They are too small for Irish Water to address in the current climate. We are talking about stimulating economic activity and it ties in with what others have said about remote working and being able to operate outside of large centres of population. That will not happen unless we put the infrastructure in place. There is value for money right now and that kind of investment will bring great benefit. It is important that we would have an input from this House because there is a lot of expertise here from the various different vocational panels and through individuals' experiences that can contribute to this effort at rebuilding our economy and country.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020 today and the emphasis on the July jobs stimulus. The sectors that have been most affected are retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism. I also mention the youth and the regions in rural Ireland in terms of the effect the lack of tourism will have on them.
We have talked about home working and one third of us have been working from home throughout the crisis. We have been juggling home schooling, home working and home rearing and the pressure there has been on women in that regard has been acknowledged. Despite the challenges, over half of the population wants to see us change the way we work and make this a more permanent arrangement because of the benefits to our quality of life. It reflects the pressures people have been under in recent years with commuting, working long hours and managing home life. The benefits are there for the environment and for employee retention and productivity but I want to specifically mention communities and the economic potential for rural Ireland and suburban communities of people working remotely. There is potential to breathe life into suburban communities and into rural Ireland.
I welcome the public consultation that has been announced and I want to focus on the opportunities as well as the challenges. One of my suggestions is that a task force would be set up between companies that are already doing remote working or that want to do it. Some 262,000 people were working remotely before the Covid-19 crisis. I acknowledge the work of Grow Remote, which offers one-to-one assistance to employers and to communities to help them to build a community around remote working. I suggest to employers that if they want to get behind this, they need to advertise remotely. That is the single biggest thing they can do straight away to encourage remote working. We need to review the e-working tax benefit. We have done a campaign on home holidays with Bord Fáilte but what I would also like to see for rural Ireland is a campaign that will focus on people potentially moving to rural Ireland and being able to work remotely. It is a massive opportunity for regional balance and I want to stress the importance of doing this straight away through the July jobs stimulus and then through the economic plan in October.
I did not get a chance last week to say how honoured I am to have been elected to the Seanad and to thank all of those who have helped me on my journey to be here today. I have no fear in knocking down any walls for the greater good of society and I will do my best to serve all the people of this island.
I have served as a county councillor within local government for many years and I understand the value of that role within the democratic system. That value is not always recognised. The recently published Moorhead report does not reflect the work these elected men and women do within local government.That report states that councillors do 18 hours work a week, which is ludicrous. I have often done 18-hour days in that role. If we want good people in politics at local level, we must pay them a living wage. They do not demand more than that. It is not right that councillors' pay is not linked to a pension, especially when they are the only State body that is not. There is no paternity leave, maternity leave or sick leave for any councillor. We must do better for our local representatives. We must put proper supports in place to help them build better communities around them. If we get that right, let us imagine how great life would be for our citizens in our villages, towns and cities. Now more than ever, these elected leaders will be needed to re-energise and revitalise communities and promote sustainability of businesses in their areas.
I would like to briefly remark on an issue regarding the new Minister with responsibility for children, Deputy O'Gorman. I will not focus too much on the distressing amount of time it has taken for him to respond to the questions raised in the recent days about his association with Peter Tatchell. I will focus on something much more important, namely, child psychiatric services, or rather the lack of them. There are only six child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, in three counties - Dublin, Cork and Galway - and only two of them provide out-of-hours services. Last year, 10% of the children admitted to local beds were admitted to adult units. Overall, there has been a 20% rise in referrals to that service. I would like the Leader to call the Minister with responsibility for children in to this House.
I agree with Senator Black regarding artists, particularly musicians. As Senators Black and Warfield and the Chair will be aware, I have a great association with those people through my time in local radio. At the moment, they are in distress financially and they need assistance. They feel they are being left out of the loop and we must address that.
I want to return to the issue of private coach companies, which a number of Members have spoken about. There are 11,500 people employed in the sector and there are 1,600 private bus companies. There has been significant investment in fleets in recent years. The bus has literally stopped but not at the bus stop. It has stopped, full stop. We need to listen to those people and make a strong case for them because, at this time of year, any road one goes on, one sees these buses travelling left, right and centre. School transport is an issue, as well.
I disagree with my good friend, Senator Boyhan, regarding horticulture. The issue is well addressed in the programme for Government. From the Fianna Fáil perspective, I wrote a document and I compliment our partners in Government who are very much focused on this area. I am a horticulturist. I outlined in that document all of the fruit and vegetable importations and the document clearly states there will be a total review of the horticultural industry, which I welcome. It is long overdue. There are jobs out there we can create in the horticultural business. We are good at selling our dairy products across the world; we have failed miserably in regard to the horticultural industry. I assure Senator Boyhan and others that the issue of horticulture will be addressed by this Government like no other has addressed it and that is progress.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Leader. It is an honour to stand up and speak in Leinster House. I thank everyone who supported me to get elected to represent them here. It is not the Seanad Chamber, but it is great to be in Leinster House.
I support Senators McGahon and Murphy regarding private coach operators . I have family involved in the industry and I echo their comments.
I wish to raise a number of school issues. School in September is a worry for a lot of schools. I have three issues in my area regarding school buildings that need to be replaced. One is Meán Scoil Mhuire in Longford town. It is more than 100 years old and has more than 600 pupils. Students are in 40 to 50 year old Portakabins. Prior to social distancing, that was not adequate. An application is with the school building unit for a new school and I ask the Minister to consider and prioritise that.There is also an application from my alma mater, St. Mel's College, which has over 500 pupils. They are not looking for a new building but to renovate the existing structure, which was the diocesan college within the town, to cater for more pupils. We also have an issue in Edgeworthstown which is the second largest town in the county. We have over 300 children leaving the town every day to travel to schools outside the area. In a time when we are looking for people to reduce being on the road and transport emissions, these are three issues that need to be prioritised. I ask that the Minister would look positively on them immediately.
I wish to take this opportunity to raise the issue of school transportation. We hope we are seven weeks away from having the schools reopening. The lack of clarity regarding the school transportation scheme is something we need to get clarity on as a matter of urgency. Last year, the criteria were changed to allow a second school to be considered for school transportation. We need clarity on whether that is going to be continued. If the 2 m rule we have at the moment in the Houses of the Oireachtas was to be implemented for school transportation, a 52-seater bus could take just 16 students. If the rule goes down to 1 m, just 22 students can be taken. The real crisis at the moment is that parents do not know whether there is going to be an adequate school transportation scheme capable of taking over 100,000 children to school in seven weeks' time.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, should be brought into this Chamber in the next two weeks. She must come here before the end of the month. There is no point in her doing so in September. It will be all over then because the kids will have gone back to school. We have 100,000 kids who do not know whether they are going to get a bus. In a 1 m distancing scenario, 50,000 kids will lose school transportation. That cannot work. Neither rural Ireland, urban Ireland nor families can survive such a scenario. We need to have the Minister in this Chamber in the next ten days to explain how she is going to manage this scenario. If we do not have a school transportation scheme lined up in an adequate timeframe, parents will not be able to cope with the stress they are going to be under.
We put an extra €1 million into the scheme last year when we changed the criteria to have a second school brought in. That important change in the criteria changed the lives of many people. We need clarity and waiting until September will not do. We need to have the Minister in here in the next ten days.
I want to commend the NGOs in homeless services and addiction services for their incredible work in recent months, as well as Dublin City Council and the HSE. Only 63 homeless people in Dublin were diagnosed with Covid-19 and there was one Covid death. I want to salute the front-line staff whose bravery and dedication ensured Dublin outperformed even the best-case scenarios for Covid-19 mortality among homeless and drug-using populations.
Covid is reshaping drug policies around the world. It is amplifying places where punitive policies are in place and it is fast-forwarding positive, more progressive policies in places like Ireland. These include greater provision of housing thanks to a rapid response by Dublin City Council, and the HSE taking decisive action to reduce harm. Waiting times for methadone dropped overnight from 12 to 14 weeks to two to three days. People's medication was delivered directly to them by the Ana Liffey Drug Project and the Chrysalis Community Drug Project and the HSE allowed for retrospective prescriptions of naloxone in overdose situations. All of this has been outlined in a study for the London School of Economics by Dr. Austin O'Carroll, Mr. John Collins and Mr. Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project and I commend them for it.
The new Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, Deputy Feighan, must now secure and protect the changes that have been made. He should remember as he settles into his brief that this experience reiterates the value and the logic of drug policies that are based on harm reduction.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle for dealing with the teething problems we are inevitably going to face over the coming period. The arrangements are working out very well.
I call on the Leader to facilitate a debate with the Minister with responsibility for tourism at some stage very soon, because tourism will be one of the mechanisms we use to successfully reboot our economy. Back in 2012, when we were on our knees as a country and an economy, the first industry that blossomed and helped get us out of that particular recession was tourism. We started off with the initiative of The Gathering and that developed into the Wild Atlantic Way, which has been enormously successful in both the Cathaoirleach's native county of Kerry and my native country of Clare. In a post-Covid era, the attractions and benefits of the Wild Atlantic Way will be even more pronounced because of the space issues and the fact that it is primarily outdoors and is healthy. We need to recalibrate the marketing of tourism to point out the advantages and benefits of the outdoors, particularly along the west coast of Ireland. We also need to consider the collection of small cottage industries that depend on tourism, such as people selling crafts, those in the music and entertainment business and people involved in the arts, who collaboratively present the Irish package and the céad míle fáilte for which we are renowned internationally. All those cottage industries and various facets need to be supported in order that they can collectively put their best foot forward to help this country get back to where we were.
I thank the authorities in Leinster House for enabling us to meet in this place. On the question of education, I strongly support the requests made not only today but on a previous occasion for a serious set of debates on education. Both Ministers with responsibility for education, Deputies Foley and Harris, should be asked in here, not to announce final decisions, because there are obviously difficulties and uncertainties around the extent of Covid infections and how quickly we will be able to overcome them, but to set out principles for the reopening of schools. The effect of the closure of schools in September will be substantial, not only for rural Ireland but urban Ireland as well, particularly given the capacity of many married couples or single parents to get back to work themselves. It is a serious issue. I do not want to point fingers but some of the conversation in the media has concentrated on the problems rather than on the known risks and dangers of doing nothing or staying paralysed. In respect of the Minister, Deputy Harris, in particular, it is time we had some clarity on how higher education, which is now his brief, is to be financed. There is a crisis coming in higher education if the universities do not open up. They will not be able to attract foreign students or charge substantial fees for online education and I would like to hear the Minister set out what he is considering doing, not just what decisions he has made, on the financing of higher education because it is about to get to a critical point.
Before I call on the Leader, I must point out that we have again run over time. I acknowledge that we are standing in a new Seanad and getting used to the procedures, but it is about brevity. The Leader is supposed to have ten minutes to respond but as we have to be out of here in exactly six minutes in order that the cleaners have the opportunity and the time to clean the Chamber, we may not get the responses Senators want. We have to be conscious of time. I thank the Leader for her indulgence.
Instead of individually going through everybody, I will cover the shared requests for a number of urgent debates with a commitment to look for them if not next week then at very earliest the week after.
One of these debates is on the obvious stimulus needed for all of the industries detailed, not least of which are hospitality, tourism, arts and entertainment. In all of the grants that have been established in recent weeks there are hits and misses. There are people who were excluded. Obviously, I am very hopeful that the July stimulus package will address all of the concerns we have but our concerns need to be heard. I will request the various Ministers with responsibility for tourism, transport, enterprise and the economy to come to us at their earliest convenience to have our views heard and all of our ideas put on the record. I will do this as soon as I can.
Another vital debate needed is that on the reopening of our schools and universities, not least with regard to how we are going to get our pupils to the schools, teach them and make up for the ground we have lost. This is notwithstanding the tremendous job that parents have done trying to cope with home schooling in recent months. I have been there myself and it was not the easiest thing in the world to do. It is a very important debate that needs to be had. We will make these requests today and I will come back to Senators at the earliest convenience to make sure it happens before we go into recess, whenever that happens to be.
Senator Cassells asked about IDA Ireland investors. It is a moot point for us in Meath because we have had very few visits in recent years. The problem is there will not be any visit from anybody in any county over the next 12 to 18 months. This needs to be addressed in the July stimulus package and we need to support IDA Ireland to keep the foreign direct investment we already have in the country and make sure we maintain it and look forward to seeing how we can encourage positive input and new developments in the country.
Senator Black spoke specifically about a debate on Covid payments. Again, I expect this to be spoken about in the July stimulus package. I invite the Senator to bring the concerns she has, particularly with regard to seasonal workers, our artists and the entertainment industry, to the debate we will have on the July stimulus package.
Senator Ó Donnghaile called for a debate on a shared island. With the Senator's indulgence, I think it would be better if we allowed the group that is to be established in the Department of the Taoiseach a while to get bedded in and meet their counterparts in the North. The North-South Ministerial Council meetings will happen in the week beginning 20 July. If the Senator does not mind, I will try to schedule a debate for September. I believe it is something that needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Senator Bacik asked for an debate with the Minister with responsibility for children. I will request this. Given our profile of work for the coming weeks it may not happen until September but as soon as it can happen I certainly will arrange it.
I am not sure, with regard to Senator Boyhan, that the Connemara sheep association has ever before been mentioned in the Seanad but it is very apt. I for one did not realise how much difficulty the business is in. Given that sheep rearing is an enormous part of our heritage, the Senator is right and I will write to the Minister to request a body or task force be established to show pride in the industry.
Senator Casey also spoke about tourism and it will form part of our debate during the summer. In response to Senator Cummins, I have good wishes for the planning decision that will be issued tomorrow for Waterford city. I very much hope it is positive. I will also write to the Ministers looking for shovel-ready projects to bring forward in the national development plan for immediate assistance and the resources required for investing. Balanced regional development is very important for the Government. This development would be perfect in the region and it would be a huge statement. I will write to the Taoiseach today to express the views of the Senator.
Senator Higgins called for debates on statutory homecare and direct provision. While I know these issues are incredibly important, the debates will probably come at the very beginning of September, if that is okay with the Senator. To answer her other questions, once the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is established after the motion is passed today we will sit down and raise what it is we would like to do and reintroduce and how quickly. Ministers are reading into their briefs and I know how difficult that can be. I had the luxury of having the summer in 2017 to do so and perhaps Ministers this year will not have that luxury. On this basis, we will establish a timetable of what we would like to do. I have made a request to have written responses for Commencement matters until they resume but I do not see why they should not be able to resume next week or the week after. Let us talk about that and we will have a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at the earliest date we possibly can so we can address the issues the Senator has outlined.
Senator Gallagher has raised a real issue for us in the House that the tourism VAT rate has been reduced to 5% in Northern Ireland, and more power to the Northern Ireland tourism industry for which it is welcome.It definitely does, however, put our Border counties at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps we can bring the matter up during our debate on the July stimulus package. I will come back to the Senator when I find out when the SME task force will be established.
Senators Ahearn and Carrigy both brought up specific issues with schools in their localities. Again, I suggest that, once we reinstate Commencement matters, they invite the Minister to come to the House and get direct answers. In the meantime, I was making inroads yesterday into finding out how I might establish a process for Members of this House to have access to parliamentary questions, which we have never had before. I will pursue this. I do not see any reason we cannot have such access. Perhaps it would be time-consuming and would involve an administrative burden, and perhaps in the first instance, if we are successful, we might put a limit on the number of questions we can ask until the process is bedded in, but I will definitely pursue the matter in the coming weeks.
The question Senator McCallion raised she raised with me the other day. I am very pleased to say the North-South Ministerial Council will meet for the first time in nearly four years, which is really welcome. As I said the other day, I myself never got the opportunity to participate in it, but it is really good that it will now meet. It will meet, I think, on the week beginning 20 July. I also take on board the fact that previous commitments were made in respect of investments in the A5 and Ulster University's development. They need to be followed up on, notwithstanding, obviously, that the world has changed and our economy is in very much a different place from where it was six months ago. Commitments are commitments, however, and they need to be restated in whatever shape or form possible.
Senator Davitt talked about the remote working consultation, as did many other Senators. It is really welcome. In my time as Minister with responsibility for employment affairs, it was something we tried to get off the ground. As Senator Currie knows well, Grow Remote is an absolutely wonderful organisation. Businesses were tinkering with this but not as wholeheartedly as they are now. Other Senators brought up the fact that there is a real problem with remote working. All the benefits are very obvious to us and we all know them: there is less traffic and there is more time at home with our children. All the positives are great, but a real issue is well-being and positive mental health for people who are isolated and who do not meet anybody at the water cooler or down in the canteen. We need to address these issues and encourage and perhaps incentivise businesses to put in place good practices. Tax incentives and breaks are very welcome but we also have to be cognisant of the fact that all employers have a responsibility to their employees. That means good posture where they sit at home, not just at the kitchen table. All these things need to be talked through, which is why the consultation is very welcome.
A number of Senators mentioned the coach industry. Again, I think it should form part of the July stimulus package debate we will have.
Senator Dooley talked about restarting the economy. Perhaps we will try to schedule four or five hours of debate on this and break it down between our tourism and our hospitality sectors and assisting all our businesses with the incentives they need.
One thing we definitely need is a debate on the Moorhead report. While I know the report was a very valuable exercise, some of the language used in it was very disrespectful. I say that having been a councillor and having had an incredibly enjoyable experience with Senator Keogan over a number of years. What the report tells me is that its authors do not really understand what it is councillors do and certainly do not appreciate the value of the public service our council colleagues offer all the citizens of this country. We therefore really need a debate here so we can express the value of the public service our 900-plus councillors give every single citizen in the country and so we can see, as Senator Keogan said, the proper pay and working conditions that should be the right of every single worker in this country extended to our council colleagues. I will establish that debate as quickly as I can.
I join Senator Warfield in expressing our gratitude to the front-line services for their exemplary behaviour and service practice towards our homeless community, not just in Dublin but indeed throughout the length and breadth of the country. The number of cases and deaths were nearly a miracle but show the dedication, support and the excellent services they already offer, which perhaps is not as commended as often as it should be. There were premises available that might not have been available in days gone by, when we had other kinds of industries taking up those premises. We have them now and we need to make sure we do not lose them. We need to make sure that these people are given proper routes to establish a proper, new lifestyle for them. I join with Senator Warfield in saying "bravo". They did a wonderful job, as they did in Kerry, Limerick, Galway and all the other counties.I am learning this job. I did not realise I had to answer everybody's questions every day and I ask Senators for a little latitude until I get my act together. However, I am very grateful to be here.