Thursday, 23 July 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the restoration of Bills to the Order Paper, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, proposed opt-in under Protocol No. 21 to EU Regulation 2017/1954 amending Regulation 1030/2002 laying down a uniform format for residence permits for third-country nationals, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, motion re Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Instruction to Committee – to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill 2020 – all Stages, to be taken at 12.15 p.m. and to conclude after three hours, by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government, the time allocated to the group spokespersons for the debate on Second Stage shall not exceed eight minutes and all other Senators shall not exceed five minutes, and the Minister should be given not less than eight minutes to reply, with Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; No. 5, motion re the earlier signature of the Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill 2020, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 4, without debate, a sos of 30 minutes will take place on the conclusion of No. 5; No. 6, the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2020 - all Stages, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. or immediately following the sos, whichever is the later, with the time allocated to the group spokespersons in the debate on Second Stage not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than eight minutes to reply, with Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter.
I am happy to support the Order of Business. I welcome the €750 billion recovery fund at EU level to help with the Covid pandemic. It was a mammoth session in terms of meetings between member states that went on for an unscheduled day to show the seriousness and extent of the recovery package being promised. There was a significant win for Ireland in that it is to be calculated on how our country is hit by the pandemic and not on past economic performance. This will result in additional funding and supports for our country. We have all read in recent days that there were divergences of views, but such is the power of the European Union, by the end of it all there was consensus and an ability to agree a deal and to move forward, which is extremely positive.
It is worth highlighting that in order for Ireland to do well post-Covid or even during the recovery period, we need the European Union to do well. It is not just about what Ireland gets back; we are an exporting nation and we export what we manufacture, so it is important for us how well the European Union as a whole recovers. The package represents a really strong prospect that we will recover well but, more importantly, that we will recover quickly. I also wish to touch on the July stimulus package to be announced later today. Many of the details have been released already and we heard news of it yesterday and this morning. It is extremely positive that the pandemic unemployment payment and the temporary wage subsidy scheme will be extended. This gives assurance and comfort not only to businesses but also to employees who are in a vulnerable position at the moment. It must be worrying to be in a place where are one does not know if one’s job will continue, if one will lose one’s job in the near future and in what position one's family will be in the next number of months. The extension of these two schemes is very important and welcome. While this will cost a great deal of money, it will be worth it. There will also be enhanced restart payments for companies that want to reopen and additional funds to help such companies restart. There was an acknowledgement that while the restart grant was welcome, it fell a little short of what was needed. That scheme will be enhanced in the next while.
I particularly welcome the tax refund scheme. I know business argued for a VAT reduction but it is better for the economy and country to encourage people to get back out spending and to protect consumer confidence. If people get scared and worried, they will stop spending and we will be in bother if that happens. If businesses have footfall and people are coming in the doors of hotels, restaurants and cafés, that will help us to recover more substantially and faster. All in all, the package that will be announced will be positive and broadly welcomed.
There has been some confusion about the green list that was announced. The message remains clear - please do not travel unless it is essential. There is no ban on travel as such. That would not be practical. What we are asking people to do is to staycation and travel within Ireland. We are asking that they do not travel outside Ireland unless it is essential either to care for a family member or for work purposes.
This part of the proceedings in the Seanad is the Order of Business. Senators are at a disadvantage if we come into the House and we do not have a copy of the Order of Business in front of us. I respect the Leader and her office. It is all very well for her to come in here and tell us what she has decided. We are challenged in both Houses in the current political landscape, but particularly in this House of which I am a Member, because we are up against a vast Government block of people. That is the Leader's right and that is democracy. A courageous and ambitious programme for Government has been negotiated and I wish the Government well. However, we on this side of the House are also challenged and we have to challenge. We have to call out and support good government and when it is bad we have to say so. We too have busy schedules and work to do. We also hope to participate, if we are given the chance, in the joint committees and in other areas. Let us not stymie democracy. Let us have new government. The slogan of the previous Government was that it would be a new Government. Let us get it right here. Let us respect one another and show that respect for each other outside this Chamber. Will the Leader agree to provide, before 9 a.m. on the day of all Seanad sittings, a schedule that she proposes to bring to the House in order that we can discuss it among ourselves? That would allow us to amend the schedule if we so wished, which is important. I am happy to discuss with the Leader outside the Chamber how we can continue to work well together.
Yesterday, the cervical cancer campaigner, Ruth Morrissey, was laid to rest, having died on Sunday. She was one of many courageous women. I also think of people like Emma Mhic Mhathúna and Irene Teap. How sad that none of them reached their 40th birthday. Why are women being dragged through the courts? The then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, gave an undertaking in the Dáil that the court cases would cease and these women would not be dragged through the courts. These courageous, brave and determined women were not going to be set aside. I read the transcripts of statements made in the Dáil at the time by Opposition spokespersons and the then Taoiseach who said that would not happen and that there would be a tribunal of inquiry, as recommended by Mr. Justice Charles Meenan. That inquiry has still not been established. If one read any of the newspapers in the last few days, one’s heart would go out to these brave, courageous women. Let us support them. I ask the Leader to have the relevant Minister come to the House next week to make a statement on how the Government will stand by its promises with regard to CervicalCheck.
Last year over 900,000 passport applications were made to the Irish Passport Office. Over 94,000 of them came from the North and Britain. In one day in 2018 the office received over 10,000 applications. I acknowledge that currently restrictions are being placed on people and we know about the advice regarding international travel, albeit it is confused and calamitous at times. However, as we navigate a way through the current restrictions people will, please God, begin to travel again and it will hopefully become an important part of life and our economy. Even aside from all of that we all know the importance and the significance of a passport as a form of documentation. The Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said that Passport Office staff have been facing unprecedented demand and many of us know the first-class work that the staff there do.
I am calling for positive and practical future planning for better infrastructure for our Passport Office and its service delivery. We currently have an office in Dublin and one in Cork. There is an identified increase coming from the Six Counties, from people of every tradition. Brexit is part of that but it is the natural course of things as well. At the minute 19,617 people have signed an online petition calling for a new passport office to be opened in the North that would service that geographical area, from Gweedore over to Warrenpoint. It makes sense, it is a practical call. It is prudent for the Government to plan ahead for what will no doubt be a continued pattern of increase in applications. As restrictions are lifted we will see a further surge. It makes good sense and would be good practice for the Government to plan ahead, to listen to those very rational, reasonable and logical calls for that new service. Initial research has shown that it would be cost-neutral so it would not put any additional financial burden onto the State. It would also create jobs and improve services for us as elected representatives and for the many people out there in the public who have to engage with the Passport Office should a problem arise.
I welcome the new protocol on the wearing of masks in the Chamber.
I thank the Leader and the Seanad Office for putting down the motion on conclusion of the Order of Business for the restoration of two Bills to the Order Paper. For the information of Members, those are Labour Party Bills which were both introduced and passed by the previous Seanad on Second Stage. The first is the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018 which would restore certain citizenship rights to children born in Ireland. It was passed by this House in November 2018 with support from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party and we very much hope that we will see it pass all Stages in the lifetime of this Seanad. As such we are restoring it to the Order Paper so it may go to Committee Stage.
Our second Bill is the Convictions for Certain Sexual Offences (Apology and Exoneration) Bill 2016 which likewise passed Second Stage in the House in February 2017 with unanimous support. The State has issued an apology since then, in 2018, but it has not exonerated or expunged the records of those men who were convicted of the relevant historical offences. I know the expungement is contained in the programme for Government but we wish to assist the Government by bringing forward our legislation again and restoring it to the Order Paper. I thank the Leader for that and hope all parties will support the two Bills.
I wish also to renew a call for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, to come into this House after the recess but early in the September session, to have a debate with us on disability services. This debate would in particular concern the necessary legislation to be passed in the lifetime of this Government to ensure we are fully compliant with our international obligations on the rights of persons with disabilities. The Justice for Wards of Court organisation has been in contact with me and pointed out a number of different gaps in our current law. These are well-recognised but we want to hear about a timeframe for the passing of such legislation.I would also like to ask the Minister about residential services and the reopening of day services. In the meantime, I will be submitting questions to the Minister on that matter because I have been inundated by messages from people who are deeply concerned, people with Down's syndrome and others who have real difficulty with accessing residential and day care services.
Finally, I ask the Leader for information on the report by Tom O'Malley SC, the renowned academic who was commissioned in 2018 to carry out a report into necessary reform of our law on sex offences, in response to the Belfast rape trial. The report was due to be published by tomorrow, when the most recent deadline given lapses. On 3 July, The Irish Times announced that the report, which has been delayed a number of times, would be published within two or three weeks, and that deadline lapses tomorrow. We know from Rape Crisis Network Ireland and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre how much of an increase there has been in reports of rape and it is therefore important that this report is published without delay.
It is an honour to address the House in the other House's Chamber. It is comforting to see my fellow Senators, Oireachtas Members and staff wearing their face masks at this crucial stage of the Covid crisis. Nobody needs reminding that this crisis has gripped our country since the middle of March. It has wreaked havoc on our day-to-day lives, shut down schools and businesses, impacted jobs and livelihoods, and sadly, cost many people their lives.
At the beginning of this crisis, the collective community-based approach was very evident and there was a strong sense that we were all in it together. People went out of their way to support one another, and my colleague, Senator Garvey, was filmed by RTÉ delivering groceries and water to people who were cocooning. There was a great sense of pulling together and there are many examples of that from up and down the country.
During the lockdown, many of us saw and noticed things we had not noticed before. People were tending old graves, rejuvenating their gardens or doing some DIY around the house. More people walked and cycled, and many of us got out into nature and observed it with fresh, appreciative eyes. That was something positive that came from the lockdown.
However, despite our best efforts, we have seen an increase in cases over the past number of weeks. Perhaps an element of complacency has set in. We have perhaps relaxed our vigilance, and so the virus still grips us. We need to reignite the community spirit that kept us going so well at the start, that connected us and made us attentive to what we needed to do. At the moment, that includes adhering to the public health advice, heeding the Government's guidance on foreign travel, contacting our GPs if we are feeling unwell, or downloading the Covid tracker app. Quite a few people have downloaded it and the more people have it, the better. We must do it and we must pull together.
We also need to reignite that sense of meitheal that was so prevalent in the early days. For example, we can support our local charities, many of which are without their usual mechanisms for fundraising. We can and should support Irish businesses, and can buy local food, arts and crafts. Most importantly, we should be holidaying at home this year, whether through an excursion along the Wild Atlantic Way, a day trip to the Slieve Bloom mountains, or a trip around one of our many wonderful towns and cities. We need to be that tourist and that local customer, and we need to ask everyone to stay at home this summer. We are all still in this together.
I highlight my disappointment and surprise at the Taoiseach's reply to a question from Deputy McDonald last Tuesday on the rights of the Palestinian people. With formal annexation of the West Bank now explicitly promised after 50 years of occupation, my goal has been for Ireland to take a more meaningful stance against this, to move beyond condemnation and to offer leadership.I do not want to look back in 20 years and say that we did not do everything in our power on one of the most defining human rights issues of our time and that we failed to show the moral courage and vision we showed against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. I tabled the occupied territories Bill for this purpose. It is a peaceful, human rights-focussed measure that reflects international law and UN resolutions. It was passed in full by the House and voted for by the Dáil and foreign affairs committee. I did it on a cross-party basis and worked closely with many in Fianna Fáil, who strongly supported the Bill in both Houses and shared platforms with me at packed public meetings throughout the country.
When the previous Attorney General raised questions about EU law, I shared detailed legal opinions from some of the most eminent lawyers in the world on why we could do this. The party of now Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, was rightly undeterred. It introduced the Bill to the Dáil and committed explicitly on page 146 of its pre-election manifesto to progress it if elected. Just a few months later, it is disappointing and highly inconsistent to see the Taoiseach suggest the Bill his party tabled may breach EU law. I would like to know what has changed. EU law has not changed in the past five months. With annexation of the West Bank looming, we need leadership and commitment, not inconsistency.
As one of the few countries without the shame of a colonial past, we should be at the forefront of opposing the occupation and settlement project that underpins it. This must move beyond mere condemnation. It has not worked and soon it will be too late. Recently, I listened to the head of one of Israel's largest human rights organisations urging the international community to recognise and oppose what his State is becoming. When two peoples inhabit the same land but are subject to different laws, that is apartheid. Last month, 47 UN special rapporteurs called for urgent action, sharing that annexation would be the crystallisation of a vision of 21st-century apartheid.
In a briefing I hosted on Monday, the UN rapporteur on Palestine told Deputies and Senators that the seat we won on the Security Council was in no small part due to our principled positions regarding Palestine. We must now show this support is warranted. He urged the Government to progress the Bill. The Taoiseach rightly speaks about his party's historic support for Palestinian rights. In 1980, we became the first European country to call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the rest of Europe soon followed. The Taoiseach's party brought the Bill to the Dáil and committed to it in its manifesto just a few months ago. He asked it if will be a game changer; I firmly believe it can. Every journey starts with a first step. Let us stick to our promises and be brave enough to take it. If the Taoiseach has an alternative plan beyond the failed status quo, I ask him to unveil it. I am sure he would get the support of the majority of the Irish people.
I ask the Seanad to show support for the Debenhams workers. In 1996, the great British retailer opened its first shop in the Jervis Shopping Centre in the constituency of Dublin Central. It had a great business, grew and was profitable, and then moved to the site of Roches Stores. On 9 April this year, it tactically moved its business from being a high street, shopfront business to being an online business. It still trades today and has a half-price sale, for anybody who is willing to spend money with the company when it resolves this issue. A total of 1,500 low-paid front-line workers, most of them women and many of them mothers, have been left high and dry by this great British retailer. I ask the Seanad and the State to support these workers.
The State has committed to pay statutory redundancy, and again today the State is supporting workers with the July stimulus plan. This is a tactical insolvency. I ask the House to ask the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation to write to the liquidator to ask, and if possible instruct, that in the hierarchy of creditors the employees be placed at the highest level so they can be properly compensated according to the agreement the employer entered into with them. I also ask the Minister to take immediate action to ensure we do not have a repetition of this situation in the lifetime of the Government.
I thank the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, for the significant announcement made yesterday of a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students. The package of supports includes €15 million in funding to purchase laptops and devices to enable the most disadvantaged students to continue their education, an additional investment of €3 million in mental health services for students which, we will all agree, is of critical importance, a doubling of the student assistance fund from €8.1 million to €16.2 million and an additional €1.9 million in supports for students with disabilities.
Another area on which I would like the Minister with responsibility for higher education and the Government to focus is a technological university for the south east. This has been debated for as long as I can remember. The south east is the only region in the country without a university. It is critical that a renewed focus is placed on assisting the institutes of technology, IT, in Waterford and Carlow in resolving any differences that remain.
I have suggested to the Minister that it may be helpful for the Government to appoint someone to drive the process forward with a view to the application being made before the end of the year. This must be a firm deadline and the south east Oireachtas Members from across the parties, who have met on several occasions in recent weeks, are certainly of this view and will articulate that message to both institutes next Monday when we meet them in Carlow IT. There is certainly momentum from the political side, but the process needs to be expedited by the Government. As I said, it would be helpful to appoint someone who will drive it. A technological university for the south east has been talked about for too long and action is now needed on this matter.
I would also welcome a wider debate on the higher education sector and its difficulties in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
I experienced a certain déjà vu today because when I was first elected to Seanad Éireann 33 years ago, this was where we met as the Seanad was being refurbished at the time.
I wish to raise two issues, the first of which is the Caritas convalescent centre. I had experience of the centre after a liver transplant and the facilities and care provided by the staff are absolutely outstanding. I am sorry to say it has gone into liquidation with the loss of more than 60 jobs. As section 39 employees, they have all been bound by the same rules and regulations that are applied to HSE staff. However, when it comes to redundancy they are not being afforded the same rights and entitlements as HSE section 38 staff, despite a precedent being set by another section 39 institution, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, when it was compelled by the Labour Court in 2018 to provide enhanced redundancy payments under the Public Service Agreement 2010 to 2014. I would like this matter to be addressed.
The second issue is that of education in schools about the gay issue. I had communication from a young woman who said that when she was in school, the word "Gay" was a derogatory term and people were made to feel ashamed. A national study carried out in 2016 showed levels of extremely severe stress, anxiety and depression were four times higher among 14 to 18 year old LGBT teens in comparison with a similar age group of 12 to 19 years. Some 60% of LGBT people have seriously thought about ending their lives, with 60% of their suicidal thoughts relating to their identity. We should have an equality programme in schools. It is not sufficient for schools that receive State money, although they are controlled by the church, to duck out of these programmes. The green flag, which was very good, was introduced in schools and it is about time we had an equality flag and programme in schools.
I ask for an urgent debate on aviation policy. Shannon Airport, as the Cathaoirleach will know, is in urgent need of assistance. Unfortunately, the issue if Covid-19 has placed enormous pressure on all airports.Long before the Covid-19 crisis hit, Shannon Airport and its affiliated businesses were under significant pressure. Since separation from the DAA, the airport's performance has been abysmal. It has failed to meet all its passenger targets since long before the pandemic crisis. It is lagging behind the performance of Cork and Dublin airports in terms of growth. All of this happened at a time when an unprecedented number of tourists came into the country. Now we need action.
There has also been a failure to develop the tourism attractions which are part of the Shannon Group. People will be familiar with the great Shannon Heritage brand which includes Bunratty Folk Park, King John's Castle, Knappogue Castle and Craggaunowen. I could go on at length. Wonderful facilities have not been developed in a way that would attract tourists to the region. We want a change of direction. There are opportunities.
The tenure of the current chairperson comes to an end in August and it is incumbent upon the Government to look for somebody new with a new vision who will put in place a new direction for the entire operation, supported with an appropriate level of financial assistance. If we are serious about balanced regional development, we need a thriving engine of growth through the airport. It provides that. Its ancillary facilities, including Shannon Heritage and fantastic tourist attractions, can be the catalyst for the rebirth of tourism in the region. I ask for a debate at the earliest possible opportunity with the Ministers with responsibility for transport and tourism to try to ensure we get a new direction and some activity back into the region.
I wish to discuss the code of best practice and guide for greenway projects. I invite the new Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to come to the Seanad to debate this very important issue. Following the publication of the strategy for the future development of national and regional greenways, a group was established in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to develop a code of best practice.
Progress on greenways has been frustratingly slow in many places. The Connemara greenway, in particular from Galway city to Moycullen and Oughterard, and the greenway from Galway city to Salthill and Barna offer significant potential but have been hampered by delays, including in the case of the Connemara greenway the lodging of planning and accessing routes to enable a planning application to be lodged.
Greenways and cycleways will benefit local people and communities, as well as visitors, by providing safer cycling routes, as well as recreation, for communities. We have seen that in Mayo and Waterford. However, it is very clear that the current approach to developing greenways is not working. Salthill in Galway is one such example. While I appreciate the concerns of some local businesses, I was disappointed by the decision not to proceed with a temporary cycleway in Salthill.
I also have concerns about the use of emergency measures due to Covid-19. This is not best practice. Emergency measures can be challenged, and often successfully so. We need to recognise that greenways, like the Connemara greenway, the Dublin to Galway greenway and the Galway to Barna greenway, constitute critical infrastructure that will benefit everyone.
We need proper consultation to find the best routes and compensate householders, landowners and property owners. Ultimately, we need a code of best practice and leadership to progress greenways. I hope the Minister will be able to come to the House to debate this very important matter.
On Tuesday, EU leaders hailed an agreement on the Covid recovery package and the multi-annual financial framework. However, what slipped under the radar was the slashing of the just transition fund and an undermining of its implementation. The flagship just transition fund was promoted by the EU and was set up to start help carbon intensive economies ditch fossil fuels. On Tuesday, its total budget fell from almost €40 billion to €17.5 billion.
A just transition has to be central to climate action. We have to be able to ensure that for those most directly affected by policy decisions, a carbon neutral future will offer them decent working conditions and a living wage. Instead, on Tuesday what we have said to those workers is that when the going gets tough, projections for their future are the low-hanging fruit that can be cut. We have also sent out a worrying message to the international community on collective climate action.
EU countries that have not committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 will still be able to access 50% of the funds available. Fundamental to international climate action is the need for every country to play its part. The EU is in a unique position to be a climate leader, yet with this deal we have facilitated a two-tier approach to ambition. I welcome the decision to increase the funding committed to climate policies from 25% to 30% of the budget but there is no guarantee that the other 70% will not undermine climate action and fossil fuel subsidies have not been ruled out.The European Court of Auditors has issued more than one warning about the need for climate spending to be backed up by robust tracking and performance indicators.
I hope that when the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment comes before this House again, he can reassure us that affected workers in Ireland will be guaranteed a just transition and that he will work at EU Council level to ensure all EU policies are climate-proofed. There is no point investing 30% of a budget in climate action while the other 70% is simultaneously undoing those efforts.
On Sunday, we lost an inspirational woman who showed great bravery and courage in her public fight to take on the health services and expose how she was let down. We were all hugely saddened by Ruth Morrissey's passing. We express our deepest sympathies to her husband, Paul, and her darling daughter, Libby, to whom she always referred as her little butterfly.
Ruth was brave and courageous. Along with other great people, such as Vicky Phelan, Emma Mhic Mhathúna, Lorraine Walsh and Stephen Teap, Ruth shone a light on horrific incompetence within our health service. Those people fought for truth and justice to try and ensure women in the future would not go through what they did.
Ruth fought a long, hard battle with her illness but also fought a long and public battle for the vindication of her rights. One can imagine that it would be extremely difficult for anybody in their full health to talk about personal and intimate details in a public setting, so I can only begin to imagine what it was like for somebody who was vulnerable and ill to have to expose their life to try to seek absolute justice.
Ruth and others worked to highlight the diagnostic failings in this country's CervicalCheck screening programme so that others would not have to go what they went through. There was a litany of failures regarding the operation of the service. Too many women who should be alive today, enjoying lives with their families, are not here because of those failings. We have a duty to learn the lessons, reform the system and make sure those failings do not happen again.
The Government committed to implementing the recommendations of the Scally and MacCraith reports. I ask the Leader where we are at with regard to the implementation of those recommendations. I would like the Leader to ask when the statutory tribunal will commence. That tribunal was, of course, based on recommendations made by Mr. Justice Charles Meenan. The cervical cancer screening programme has recommenced, but only in a limited manner. We in the Seanad need to call for the programme's complete restoration. Ruth gave voice to many women. We absolutely must honour that in our cause to ensure the right thing is done.
The previous Government piloted a scheme in Limerick and Wexford for the provision of baby boxes to all newborn children. The concept has been championed by Deputy Richmond as a means to ensure the State gives all newborn babies an equal start in the form of a box containing all of the essentials, including blankets, recyclable nappies, thermometers, clothes, and information on nutrition and health for mother, baby and all of the family. The box itself can convert into a cot for a newborn because it has a good quality mattress within it. That is not only a practical provision for first-time or second-time parents, but is a good example of the State cherishing all of its children equally and welcoming them into the world with a lovely gift that provides for an excellent start in life.It is a strong message of support and welcome from the State to every child as well as an excellent opportunity to ensure an equality of provision and a universal standard of information. The roll-out of the baby box is contained in the programme for Government. I welcome that and am delighted to see it. I ask the Leader, when practicable, to invite the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to the House to provide detailed information on when that roll-out will commence and when national distribution of the first baby boxes will begin.
I raise again the issue of the eviction ban, which was extended this week although only until next Friday, 31 July. Younger people and people working in the sectors most affected by Covid-related job losses will next week be thrown back into the insecurity of living in the private rented sector, where tenants' rights are poor. The last few months have provided security to renters. While the rest of the country is urged to be vigilant, not to travel, to maintain social distance and to wear masks, the Attorney General's advice to the Minister is that the rights of property owners are more important than keeping people in their own homes during a pandemic. Before the Covid pandemic, most people entering homelessness came from the private rented sector. This crisis continues. The common good, both legal and political, should prioritise keeping people in their own homes rather than the rights of landlords and private property owners. Renters are losing out in the legal wrangling, which has not been tested in the courts. This is a political decision hidden behind legal advice.
Next week, Members are expected to pass legislation in this House, which we are told will protect the rights of renters yet we have not seen any heads of the Bill, only an order. I want to invite the Minister to the House to discuss this matter. The ban will run out on 31 July, the day on which the House is due to rise.
On a second issue, the Minister needs to address the issue of rent relief and a mechanism for people who, through no fault of their own, have gone into arrears during the course of the pandemic. While the pandemic unemployment payment is welcome, it does not nearly cover the current high rents, particularly in Dublin where the average rent is more than €2,000 a month. The Minister should address the House immediately with regard to the issues affecting renters and should extend the eviction ban and rent freeze beyond 31 August, at least until the pandemic has passed.
Last week, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment stated that the proposed North-South electricity interconnector project should proceed as planned, in other words, utilising overhead pylons, and that he was not interested in any more reviews. Despite the previous reviews he cited ruling out underground options, such options will be considered as part of another major electricity upgrade project announced by EirGrid yesterday, which will run between Kildare and Meath. There are therefore clear contradictions in the manner in which the physical infrastructure for this country's electricity supply is being progressed. There are other examples of this in the west.
The Leader will be acutely aware, as am I, of the resolute opposition from people in the affected counties of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan to the overground option to be pursued for this particular project. If the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, really wants to electrify Meath, he should start by electrifying the rail line from Dublin to Dunboyne and then complete it into Navan. We would then see proper electrification of the county. He knows this but he should be reminded again. I ask the Leader to work with me in conveying that message to him and I trust that she will.
I will talk briefly about the Shannon region, Shannon Airport and Shannon Heritage. On Monday, instead of coming up to Dublin, I joined hundreds of workers protesting at the airport. In this time when all of us, not just the Green Party, are really conscious of the need for a just transition, it is really important that we look at balanced regional development. Instead of looking at increasing the number of flights, we need to look at redirecting flights coming into Dublin to places like Shannon.Shannon Airport is like a ghost town at the moment. In the west, we are very dependent on transatlantic flights from America. The fact is that if one lands a flight from America in Shannon as opposed to Dublin, carbon emissions are immediately reduced by 3%. That is something positive with regard to tourism, sustainable transport and the just transition.
I call on the House to promote the idea that we look at proper, balanced regional supports. We are looking at staycations and laethanta saoire and everybody is talking about their importance, yet the Shannon Group has decided to close the heritage sites at the end of August and some of them have not opened at all. I am very pleased to announce that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has committed to visiting the airport with me in the coming weeks and that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has agreed to visit the heritage sites with me. That is a good starting point considering it took us three years to get the previous Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport down to the airport.
I raise the availability of land for the provision of housing. Over a quarter of voters told the exit poll during the general election in February that their key concern when casting their ballot was housing. We are all acutely aware of the hardship being experienced by families throughout the country due to the chronic shortage of housing. We all agree what a scandal it is to have 10,000 men, women and children living in hotels, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. We talk about the need for people to have outdoor space to exercise, and the importance of being able to meet at a social distance, for mental health. Young people want to leave the rental trap and own their own home. They want to live and work in the areas where they are from and not to leave and move closer to larger cities.
While everybody agrees with these key points, we have a major issue when it comes to residential land being dezoned, with the proposed new development plans throughout this country. Galway City Council hopes to purchase lands for social and affordable housing worth €15 million. Meanwhile, in Meath and other parts of the country, councils are recommending that large amounts of serviced land be dezoned from residential back to agricultural land for no clear reason. There is no clear policy from the Government on its plans regarding the availability of housing. This means the decisions made in that regard at local level all around the country totally lack cohesion. Project Ireland 2040, which is supported by the Planning Regulator, puts a full stop on rural development. This is a massive error when we can see the clear benefits of rural living, as demonstrated by statistics on clusters throughout the pandemic.
The dezoning of land is not the only problem we face at the moment. Covid-19 has created many urgent challenges within this sector. The Minister recently extended the ban on evictions until 1 August but what will happen then? If people cannot pay the deferred rents that have been racked up in recent months, an eviction crisis looms. However, if landlords are asked to swallow some of the loss, many of them may choose or be forced to leave the rental market causing absolute chaos within the already strained market. The Government's actions at this moment fly in the face of all the promises we have been given on building houses, the provision of homes and the creation of a country where people do not live in fear of becoming homeless due to the lack of quality housing in their area.
I raise the State vacation policy we are promoting, which is very important. In the past three or four days we have seen vast crowds go to many amenities throughout the country. However, there is a serious lack of infrastructure. Large crowds flocked to beaches in west Cork last weekend where there was a lack of amenities such as toilets and lifeguards. The issue must be examined for the coming month. Investment by local authorities, in particular in toilets at beaches, must be promoted in the next four weeks as, I hope, we will see a major influx of Irish visitors come to our beaches. It is a basic but important issue for society that people can go to the beach to enjoy themselves without worrying about toilet facilities.It is bizarre. Lifeguards are another major issue. Beaches that did not have lifeguards previously are now being subject to large numbers of visitors. We need a major promotion to get lifeguards on beaches in the next four weeks as well.
On the cleaning of beaches, sea algae is a massive issue. In Harbour View in west Cork, in particular, 3 m or 4 m of sea algae have been washed on to the beach and is staying there. We need a programme for cleaning these beaches in the next few weeks. If we do not, the beautiful amenities we have cannot be enjoyed to the full. We need to promote it but also to add the services that are required for a modern society to enjoy a beach location.
I want the House to reflect for a moment or two on another sad situation that occurred recently. I refer to the words of Dr. Samar Fatima Ali about her father, who worked in Tallaght University Hospital, Beaumont Hospital and the Mater Hospital. She stated in an RTÉ interview:
There are no words for the pain that we are experiencing. We did not think that at such an age that we would experience this pain but our father has been incredibly selfless not only through this pandemic but his whole life ... It has been a very difficult time for our family. He has been incredibly brave. He has pushed through and the last three months have been incredibly difficult ... He has been the best dad that we could have ever asked for.
They are some of the words of Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali's daughter. If ever we needed a reminder in this House or anywhere else how devious and destructive this virus is, we have it there. We see selfless people on the front line like that doctor. He fought the virus but there are after-effects. Three months later, he has been taken. My sympathies today go to his family. He leaves a wife, five children and a mother behind, and, I am sure, other relatives as well. Looking at that interview clip, one can see the sadness in his daughter, who is just qualified as a doctor, and even more sadness on the face of his 8-year-old daughter.
I will not be judgmental but an incredible effort has been made by the majority of people on this and a small minority still wants to bring us down and open up everything, which we cannot do. We must follow the medical advice. I appreciate the pain, suffering and hurt in businesses and communities but we must stick with it. I ask the Leader in consultation with the Chair that we have a silent minute of prayer or reflection, whatever people are happy with, in this Chamber in remembrance of Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali and all who have died. We have had the rounds of applause but it would be nice to have that minute of reflection, if the House agrees, and we should consider it for today or tomorrow.
Last week, I attended a meeting with my former colleague on Louth County Council, Councillor Colm Markey, about the closure of Scallywags crèche in Togher, County Louth. I will give a brief outline of the background. The Togher community project group has operated a community employment scheme and continues to run a community crèche in a rural part of County Louth. They took over the local parochial hall on a long-term lease to open and operate the crèche and it has been running as a not-for-profit company for the past 20 years, providing an important service in the area. On Monday, 6 July the manager advised all staff by text message that it was closing the next day and that the company had ceased to trade. The parents were advised on Tuesday, 7 July, also by a three-line text message, that the crèche was closing. That was it - game over. This left approximately 40 parents in the local community with no crèche and no more after-school childcare or anything like that. The most galling aspect about this is that the crèche was so successful. Accounts for the year 2017-18 showed retained earnings of €53,000 and cash reserves of €450,000. The business, therefore, was hugely viable.On the governance, and this gets on to the point I want to make, there is currently a board of four people who run this company. Three of the four people are from one family. Indeed, a number of board members have been removed and replaced by family members, which is completely allowed under the Companies Act 2014. However, there was no effort whatsoever to try to seek advice to maintain this service. There are so many viability plans and so many options with Covid restart schemes that could help. To conclude, it is very odd and very disturbing. It is very important that we invite the Minister into this House for a debate about the transparency and the regulations surrounding the childcare sector.
Much has been said in the past, particularly during lockdown, about front-line workers and I second the proposal by Senator Murphy. We have all seen how hard they have worked. When we think of front-line workers, we think of those who are at the front line in the health services. Without wishing to take away anything from those workers, I would like to acknowledge today the work of our postmen, An Post's workers. During lockdown they were asked to take on extra activities, such as dropping in to the elderly in rural Ireland, in the communities they attend on a daily basis. They were also asked to take on the role of reading meters for the ESB. For many postmen it was a natural fit because it is what they do day in and day out. It needs to be acknowledged. I hope the Government and An Post acknowledge that, particularly when it comes to the future of An Post's services. Postmen are not just a delivery service; they are much more than that and it needs to be acknowledged.
I wish also to acknowledge the start the Government has made. It took many months and weeks to have a Government established but it has to be said that this Government has hit the ground running. I very much welcome the July stimulus that is coming and to which I will return in a moment. It is imperative that our schools open in September. It is really imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure our children get back to some normality at the end of August or in early September. The Minister, Deputy Foley, is doing a lot in this regard. The July stimulus is very welcome and much work is going on behind the scenes.
I wish to refer quickly to the tourism sector. The need for the new unit that has been set up in the Taoiseach's office has probably become more evident given the difference in the VAT rate for the tourism sector north and south of the Border. If that joined-up approach was there before, it would have made life much easier. It has made it very difficult regarding the July stimulus. I hope we start moving more collectively in future. We need to look at the abolition of rates for the rest of the year. I hope medium-sized businesses with more than 50 employees are included in the stimulus.
I support the comments of Senator Black about Palestine. Abandoning our Palestinian friends in their hour of need represents the very worst form of betrayal.
This morning I want to raise University Hospital Limerick. There are 43 patients on trolleys there this morning. If one looks at the records over the last number of weeks, one will see that University Hospital Limerick is consistently top of the list by some distance. The next nearest this morning was Sligo University Hospital with 18 people on trolleys. I have been in contact with a number of staff there who have told me there are people sitting and sleeping on chairs. There are no bedside tables, which means patients cannot even be given a cup of tea. The message from staff is "if this is what it is like in July, what on earth are we facing into this winter?". There are beds finally coming on stream, but this is where it gets really disturbing because the staff are naturally concerned to ensure the hospital is properly staffed for this winter season. However, they have found that management will not speak to them. They have referred matters to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, but the management of University Hospital Limerick has refused to meet the WRC. Let us think for a minute about what we have been quite rightly hearing this morning about the heroism of our front-line workers - how they save lives and put their own lives on the line.They are doing it in University Hospital Limerick and their own management will not speak to them or even engage with the industrial relations machinery of the State at the Workplace Relations Commission. I ask for an urgent debate on this issue, as well as urgent Government intervention. We have suffered enough in UHL. The staff and patients have suffered enough and we need change.
I echo the concerns of my colleague, Senator McGahon, on the Scallywags crèche in Togher. It is a viable business and it must be reopened. I hope to work with the Minister and Senator McGahon on that case.
I wish to highlight some good news. I congratulate the Taoiseach on the hard-won funding agreed in Europe this week, particularly that under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. We have been informed that current levels of funding have been maintained and a special allocation of €300 million has been promised for Ireland for structural challenges facing our agricultural sector.
Another good news story this week was the creation of a €5 billion contingency fund for Brexit. As someone from a Border county who knows the negative effects Brexit could have on our exposed Border economy and agrifood sector, I welcome this contingency fund.
There has been much chat about the convergence of single farm payments. Equitable distribution of funds is very important. However, I urge the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to be aware that convergence needs to be truly equitable and that it often affects the small family farmer negatively. Productivity and livestock rates should be considered because the base point of these single farm payments is now out of date as it is based on data from 20 years ago. I ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss how the Department will structure fair and minimally bureaucratic schemes to ensure our rural economy and our high-quality agrifood sector are protected and grown.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Cummins, about the need for a university of the south east. We have a cross-party Oireachtas group and we are united in our belief that a university for the region has to come about. We are meeting Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology on Monday and we expect them to give us a clear commitment that they will lodge an application this year. However, if they fail to take action, I ask that the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, Deputy Harris, arrange external intervention.
I also raise the annual report of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, which stated that nine of the 46 adoptees who applied for access to their birth certificates last year were refused. I ask that any new legislation in this area guarantee that adopted people have access to all their records, including their birth certificates.
Senator McGreehan mentioned the success of the €1.8 trillion fund agreed at European Council level for this year. I congratulate the Taoiseach and the officials on their work at the end of that marathon summit. What has been achieved was a real example of solidarity among those countries that are willing to work together in order that all of our citizens right across Europe can benefit. Solidarity is a core principle of the European Union, but so are the rule of law and respect for democracy and human rights, about which I am particularly concerned. I want assurances that regard will be given to those principles in the allocation of that funding. I refer to recent actions in Hungary and Poland, in particular. In Poland, there have been threats to judicial independence and minorities such as the LGBT community have been badly treated, while in Hungary, academic freedom and other democratic freedoms, including freedoms for journalists, have been restricted. A link has to be established between the rule of law and funding. I ask that the policy of appeasement adopted by the European People's Party towards Viktor Orbán and Fidesz be discontinued and that the sort of standards we expect of other countries be equally applied at European level within the Union.
I endorse what my colleague, Senator Boyhan, said earlier about the ordering of business. I respectfully suggest the business of the day should not be a revelation when the Leader gets up to speak. I know that there is goodwill on all sides and that it will take time to get these things sorted but I think what Senator Boyhan said is important.
The HIQA report into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted a number of issues with which most of us are now very familiar, such as the delays in testing, a lack of adequate personal protective equipment, failures in infection control and, of course, the arm's length relationship between the HSE and the private nursing home sector. Questions have also been asked of HIQA, given that only one nursing home was closed in recent months.
One issue has struck me very much. I wrote an article in the Irish Independentin mid April commenting on this particular crisis. It was probably one of the earlier contributions to the debate but it was a full month into the lockdown. For some weeks previously, I, among others, had been calling for arrangements to be made to prevent cross infection by providing alternative accommodation arrangements for people working in nursing homes and going into private homes to give care. It struck me the media was also struggling to know how to ask the hard questions of the Government at the time. For example, I knew several weeks before it was revealed in the media about the extraordinarily high number of deaths in particular nursing homes. Even though I was in contact with the media about it, the story was struggling to get traction, although there was this very real issue of public concern, namely, whether measures needed to be taken to provide alternative accommodation. As we examine this issue now there has to be a thorough look - not in the spirit of finding blame - at the forces, tensions, pressures and doubts that contributed to our failure to grasp properly the problem that was going on in nursing homes and, sadly, to deal with it in a timely fashion.
The leaving certificate class of 2020 and their families are eagerly awaiting the results of their examinations. Many of them hope to attend universities and colleges in this city and other cities throughout the country. This third level academic year will be like no other that has gone before it. I heard the heads of some universities recently state a university hall that would normally accommodate 250 people will now be able to accommodate only 50. Some students may be lucky to attend college two days a week with the lectures on the remaining three days a week being delivered online. With this in mind, I wonder whether there is a need for families and students living in rural Ireland to rent accommodation in cities such as Dublin and elsewhere. Every year, they make the annual pilgrimage to this city to walk the streets trying to find a property. They also have the burden of trying to afford to pay the rents being asked. I call on the Minister, Deputy Harris, to call on the university heads to publish their calendar for the academic year ahead. If it is the case that students may only be required to be in college two days a week is there any need for families to find properties in cities such as Dublin? Can we imagine the savings that would be accumulated by those families who, in some cases, have to find €1,000 per month for their sons and daughters to attend university or college in this city or elsewhere? It is a huge burden. This burden could be alleviated and that money could be spent in the towns and villages where they are from. I would very much like the Leader to take this on board and ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, whether this timetable can be published to enable children and their families to make a call on whether there is a need to rent accommodation.
In the first instance I accept Senator Murphy's recommendation that the House should have a minute's silence, as a sign of respect not only for the passing of Ruth Morrissey but also for Dr. Ali and his wonderful family, in particular his younger daughter whose very moving words we heard yesterday.I suggest we do it first thing on the Order of Business tomorrow when perhaps there is a full Chamber. If that is agreeable to Members we can put it on the Order of Business tomorrow.
On Senator Boyhan's point, there is no problem. It may have been done in the past and I did not know and have not started it, but I will make sure the Order of Business is emailed to everybody on the morning of the order so it gives Senator Boyhan ample opportunity to make changes, if that is what he wants. I apologise if it was something that was done before and has not been done since I was appointed to the House. I will make sure it starts from tomorrow morning. It is fundamental that Senators should have the ability to make changes and amendments if that is what they wish to do.
I will follow up on the various debates that have been asked for today by writing to the relevant Ministers, but the issues around aviation, Shannon and heritage sites have been brought up by a number of Senators from that region over the last number of weeks. I have written and have not received a response yet but everyone will concur that a vast amount of legislation is going through both Houses at the moment. I will get that done as quickly as I can. Of the two debates we are having next week one might suit those Members from that region because the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is coming in. It might give ample opportunity for Senators to be able to raise the concerns they have. I believe we need a task force on aviation, therefore, I will continue to look for a separate debate on that.
We will also have the Minister for Education and Skills in the House next week, not least, to discuss the transport issues going back to school. Given that the protocols were announced yesterday by the Department of higher education on the return expectations of our higher education sector, the return protocols for both our second level and primary schools will be announced by the Minister next week.
It makes absolute sense, and we will do it here from today, to call for universities that have not already done so - I know DCU in my neck of the woods has already done so - to set out their schedules so people can actually make those decisions as to where they will spend their hard-earned money and not waste it. That, in itself, will cause another issue in campuses around the country that rely heavily on income from student accommodation. The €163 million announced yesterday by the new Minister with responsibility for higher education is welcome but it will still see a massive deficit in the fund required for those educational facilities. We will have that education debate on the return to school protocols for both our primary and secondary schools next week.
I know many people, not least me, are keen to get their children back to school full time, not one or two days a week. We should also have a programme of events to alleviate the impact, and I say negative impact, notwithstanding some of the tremendous work our teachers have done over the last couple of months, because many of our children now suffer from anxiety where they never would have before. Given that before Covid-19 was a reality in February, our educational welfare officers will tell us that some 40% of the cases they dealt with on an average normal week were children who suffered from anxiety. We need a programme of well-being and care that is extra, over and above our standard civil, social and political education, CPSE, curriculum for our children going forward in September. I would like the Minister for Education and Skills to address that for us next week.
I do not have an answer for Senator Black as to why things have changed. I happen to have been a member of a Government that would always have opposed the Senator's Bill on the grounds it was against EU regulations and EU law. I certainly know there is a difference between Opposition and Government and now the current Government concurs with the same advice, even though it comes from a different Attorney General. The EU regulations and the law have not changed but that is no solace to Senator Black and other Members who have supported the Senator's Bill in the past. I will get the Senator a written reply if that is okay. I do not have the full facts in front of me at the moment.
Senator Cummins made the highly appropriate call to have an appropriate lead appointed to the university for the south east so that person can drive the application. I will write to the Taoiseach today and ask him for it.
Every time Senator Moynihan stands to her feet in the last number of weeks she has brought up the eviction and residential tenancy provisions that have been secured in the last number of months by the pausing of the rights of landlords. I know Senator Moynihan has not seen it yet but that Bill is going to be published today. The Senator will have that Bill and we will debate it in full in the House next week. I hope it provides the Senator with the solace she needs because the last thing we need is an onslaught of people losing their homes, particularly when they do not have the financial supports available to them to find replacements.
My county colleague brings up the North-South interconnector and the new application that was made by EirGrid yesterday.Long before I was ever elected to either House, I attended public meetings where there was a huge outcry and aversion to the North-South interconnector building overground pylons. I did not have much confidence in the ability of that project to be delivered back then, and I probably have even less confidence now.
The announcement yesterday is welcome and it very much brings into the debate the fact that there is an acceptance of having overground in certain areas and underground in others. EirGrid has finally come to the realisation that immovable objects, such as the will of the people of Cavan, Monaghan and Meath which has not changed one jot in the past number of years, cannot be moved.
I want to acknowledge that the review of the rail project to Navan, a project which was instilled in our hearts many years ago and was interrupted by a lack of funds, is currently under way. It was brought forward from 2021 to 2020. I have no doubt that the review will justify the need to build a train line to Navan. All of us, in particular our county colleagues here, will support that.
In response to Senator Keogan, I do know not know what is wrong with county councils who have not bought land to build social housing. It has certainly not been because of a lack of funding from the last Government and it will not be because of a lack of funding from this one. Councils are refusing to buy land and I do not understand that. That, coupled with the dezoning of serviced land in our county, makes absolutely no sense. We need to work with our council colleagues, not just in Meath but in Galway, Sligo and other areas where land is being dezoned, to find out what the rationale for that is. Such decisions make no sense when we are already behind on our targets to build social, affordable and private housing this year. I do not know why land that is fit and ready for building would be dezoned. We might follow up on that collectively.
I will change the Order Paper tomorrow to reflect the wishes of the House to hold a minute's silence. We might have it at the beginning of the session.