Wednesday, 29 July 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding exempted development regulations concerning Dublin Airport, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion regarding restoration of Bills to the Order Paper, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, motion regarding the appointment of ordinary members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 2; and No. 3aon the supplementary Order Paper, Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020, all Stages, to be taken at 3 p.m., with the time allocated to the group spokespersons on Second Stage not to exceed eight minutes, for all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than eight minutes to reply; and Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter.
This morning I draw the Seanad's attention to the tragic loss of life of five homeless people in Dublin city this week. They were five people under 40 years, most of them women. That tragic loss of life in one week in this city is unprecedented. I would like the House to join me in offering sympathy to the families and friends of those five people. I want us to offer our support to everyone who works in homeless services both in a voluntary and professional capacity. Their job is incredibly challenging and they do it with great generosity and strength. They deserve the full support of the House, which I am sure the House will give.
However, we need to go further than that. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive is charged with providing a response to homelessness for the four local authorities in the Dublin area. In its most recent report, the executive provides up-to-date figures. These were only up to the end of May, so there is a delay in the reporting of numbers. Although the numbers have decreased over months and years, they are still unacceptably high. The last reported numbers indicate that more than 1,300 families are in some form of homeless accommodation. There are more than 2,000 children in some form of homeless accommodation, be it hotels, temporary hostels or family hubs. Essentially, all of those people's lives are on hold. While the Dublin Region Homeless Executive is working day and night to support them, the fact that five people died in the past week alone must be examined, as well as the type of supports that are being provided.
I spoke about families but there is enormous pressure on single people in terms of inadequacy of supply of accommodation. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive had to decommission 500 single beds because of Covid-19 in order to ensure adequate social distancing. I ask that the Minister come to the House for a debate on the provision of homeless services in Dublin and to examine what led to those five tragic deaths, what more can be done to support homeless people in Dublin and to those who are providing services to them, and, critically, what more the State can do to ensure that all of those people exit homelessness into permanent homes.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I have two matters to raise. The first is a question that has been drawn to my attention by a couple. The man is infertile as a result of Klinefelter syndrome and they got a friend of theirs to donate sperm. The woman got pregnant and a child was born. They approached the Adoption Authority of Ireland and it advised that the father apply for a step-parent adoption, which they did. They applied for and obtained guardianship of the daughter as well. They looked into the Children and Family Relationships Act, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act and the Adoption Act. They understand that parentage is being granted to social parents of donor-conceived children who are conceived in a hospital or clinic setting but this took place outside the hospital setting in the home. Is there any chance that the relevant legislation could be amended to include, and not to exclude, families such as this?
The second matter is the question of dog theft. There has been an enormous spate of dog thefts recently, particularly since Covid-19. Under the current law, the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001, pets are considered property and they are treated in the same way, for example, as the theft of a mobile phone. Pets are not property, however, they are loved companions. They are children for people who cannot have children of their own. They are therapy dogs and service dogs. They are dogs for people who are blind. They are companions for those who have nobody else to turn to. Hundreds of dogs are being stolen every day. There are these facts: resale - some buyers will not check a pet's background before buying a dog, which makes things very difficult; ransom - a thief can take advantage of a vulnerable owner who will offer a reward for the safe return of the beloved dog; breeding - stolen dogs are used on puppy farms; and fighting, which is appalling - some dogs are used as bait in dog fights.
I had a case where a Springer Spaniel was attacked and her puppies stolen. They dumped her after using a knife to cut her microchip out of her neck, leaving her to bleed to death. They put Super Glue her mouth, and a young man was attacked and hospitalised for trying to intervene. A woman walking her dogs in the woods in Tipperary was approached by two men who instructed their trained fighting dogs to attack her in order to allow them to steal her dogs. Dog thieves are flying drones over housing estates to locate dogs and to mark houses where there are dogs available for theft. I ask that this problem be examined. I understand that legislation has been proposed in the Lower House and I ask that this House support that in order to protect family pets.
Over the weekend I spoke on the Labour Youth panel at our Tom Johnson Summer School about the issue of tackling systemic racism. The speakers on the panel were Amanda Nyoni from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, Bernard Joyce from the Irish Traveller Movement, and Dr. Ebun Joseph, who is an incredible lecturer. If Members have a free moment I suggest they take the time to watch that panel discussion, which is available online, on systemic racism in Ireland and the actions we need to take both within ourselves and very much as legislators.
Merely days after we were on that panel talking about what we can do, more issues have arisen here in Ireland. I am extremely concerned about the conditions at the Skellig Star direct provision centre in Cahersiveen and the treatment at the centre, which has led to 32 residents beginning a hunger strike over ongoing problems, including food rationing. The residents are being given 1 l of water a day. There is a boil water notice in place in Cahersiveen. Locals are trying to bring bottled water to the residents, and if they run out of that they have to boil their own water. It is unacceptable and disgraceful that people who come to this country in desperate need of support, help and care cannot even get water. It is unacceptable that this inhumane regime of segregation and isolation is continuing. I am aware the Government has great plans to end the current system of direct provision, but in the meantime, we should at least be able to give people water to drink.
This morning, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published groundbreaking research conducted with the ESRI. The survey, Hidden versus revealed attitudes: A list experiment on support for minorities in Ireland, demonstrates the extent of racist beliefs in Ireland and shows how far we need to go in tackling racism. It is particularly striking how people with higher education hide the extent of their racism through more socially acceptable responses.
I greatly welcome the report, Invisible People: The Integration Support Needs of Refugee Families Reunified in Ireland, published yesterday by NASC, on family reunification for refugee families. It highlights the many challenges faced by reunification families, including significant barriers to accessing housing, resulting in a high risk of homelessness. If the Leader has an opportunity, I would encourage her to read the Invisible People report.
I fully support calls today from the Immigrant Council of Ireland to overhaul the immigration system. Covid-19 has revealed the huge cracks in our current system. There was a report today about a Pakistani man returning from Poland who was questioned for more than an hour in Dublin Airport. He had to show messages between him and his wife to prove that he had a right to be here in Ireland. That is not the way we treat people coming here. That is not the land of a thousand welcomes that we put on postcards. It is not the way we should treat people.
The establishment of a new Department with responsibility for equality and integration under the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, presents a great opportunity to reform the system of immigration and asylum and the inclusion of minorities. I hope we can have a discussion on that in September around what we can do because we, as a society, will be judged by the way we treat our most vulnerable, both during the Covid-19 pandemic and afterwards.
I also want to raise the dire and serious situation in the Skellig Star direct provision centre. Direct provision is a stain on society. It is a great shame that this system prevails. The Government has made a commitment in its programme for Government to end that system. I fully endorse that. I want to see action on that and we need to see it now, not least for the people who are existing in some of these awful conditions. I have seen some of them, as I know other Members have also during our research in the previous Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. This is not far-gone suffering that is representative of an old Ireland, and that is not to diminish anyone who went through the mother and baby homes or institutions in this State. This is happening right now, as we sit here. There are people who have had to go on hunger strike because of the conditions in which they find themselves in direct provision. That is the political reality as we prepare to finish our business at the end of this week and go off for our summer break. That is what people in the Skellig Star direct provision centre are facing. Members of this House might sigh at that but that is the reality being faced by those people. It is an absolute disgrace and a shame that we would even consider going into a summer break before a Minister has come into this House to address what the Government intends to do. I do not care whether it is the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.Before the end of business today, I would like to hear that a Minister will come before this House to outline the actions the Government will take to close that centre. I would also like an update on the measures the Government is taking to end the direct provision system.
I do not seek to divide the House, but I want to put down a marker. If there is no change to the schedule to bring a Minister to the House to address this issue, I will propose an amendment to the Order of Business for tomorrow and for Friday if needs be, given that they are the only days available. I am sure Senator Hoey will consider seconding that amendment. We need to hear the Government's response to this very serious and dire situation which has arisen within weeks of the centre's opening. Things were bad enough before people had to go to the extreme of beginning a hunger strike. More than a quarter of residents in that centre tested positive for Covid-19 because of the lack of space available. The latter is endemic within the direct provision system. There is a duty on all of us not to sigh or roll our eyes when this serious matter is mentioned but to act and put pressure on the Government to do something to save the people in the Skellig Star.
I support the Senator Fitzpatrick's comments on homelessness and those of Senators Hoey and Ó Donnghailein respect of direct provision. The test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable. Social solidarity is a principle of a healthy democracy. It is what we rely on. The original common sense is the recognition that we depend on each other. A very strong example of social solidarity, which rightly gathered worldwide recognition and praise, was the set of measures taken by the outgoing Government in March to protect those who became unemployed, were placed on furlough or found the sector in which they worked unable to operate during the pandemic. Decisions that affected businesses and workers were made for the sake of the common good in response to Covid-19. Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment was a measure put in place in the interests the common good. This was done out of social solidarity.
A massive disservice has been done to the principle of social solidarity, any notion of common sense and, indeed, the law as a result of the litany of inaccuracies and contradictions we have heard from the Government this week. These have real impact. They create fear and distress among real people. Ministers who are no longer even in the relevant Departments have made declarations about the requirements on recipients of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, telling them they are obliged to seek work. That is not accurate. It is not the law. Perhaps it will be after this week, but that is not the case at present. Ministers declared that if someone left the country, his or her payments would be docked. The gov.ie website carried the same message and claimed that holidays had been suspended. It did not say whether that meant holidays at home or abroad, or whether it applied to essential travel abroad. These were massive inaccuracies. Now we are told the Government has made a U-turn. In fact, it realised that it had no legal basis for these actions. SI 242/2020 of 10 July simply states that people may holiday "in accordance with the Covid-19 General Travel Advisory".
In light of all of these inaccuracies, I propose an amendment to the Order of Business: "That the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020 be taken on Thursday after other business." It is really important that there is an opportunity for the Government and for us, as Senators, to engage on this legislation and deal with the inaccuracies to which the Government admitted this morning.
I ask the Leader to convey a couple of points to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Members will be aware that in advance of the lockdown, a significant number of families and individuals bought airline tickets to take their annual holidays.Some have been unable to claim insurance because the flights went ahead. Many families and individuals have accepted the travel restrictions and stayed at home. They are not entitled to any refund. A fund should be established to give these people some reimbursement so they have some chance of having a holiday at home, which we want them to do. It could be relatively small, but it would at least indicate that we want to support people in having a holiday, considering the fact that they spent so much money in the first place.
I am very conscious that air connectivity is a vital part of our economic activity. It is under enormous pressure because of Covid-19 but we will get beyond the pandemic. It would be really dreadful if our entire connectivity infrastructure was lost during this period. I am really concerned that Aer Lingus could go through such a difficult period that it may not survive the crisis. That would be shocking and dreadful, not only for the employees but for the economy which the airline supports. At this point it is appropriate for the Government to engage with Aer Lingus and very seriously consider taking on shares in the company to protect its long-term viability. We did that with our pillar banks, taking on shares in AIB and Bank of Ireland. We did this for the benefit of the State. It was not about the shareholders or the institutions themselves. This was done to ensure that when we got past that crisis we would have banks that would enable the economy to continue.
I believe that air connectivity is equally important to the recovery of this State. We are a small and open economy. We depend so much on air travel for tourism, business travel and the transport of cargo. We produce a lot of goods here that are ultimately shipped out by air. We need an airline, and that will be especially true after Covid-19. I appeal to the Acting Leader to ask for a debate in the short term. Big decisions will have to be taken in a relatively short period of time. The Irish Air Line Pilots Association has expressed its considerable worry about the future viability of Aer Lingus. Other former flag carriers around Europe are now receiving support from their respective governments. It would not be in any way anti-competitive or against European law to provide state aid in this instance. It is essential that we address that matter before the summer break.
I welcome this morning's announcement of €200,000 in funding for the Suir blueway. This is part of €4.5 million worth of funding from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment for 26 blueway and greenway projects throughout the country. The blueway in Tipperary, as Members will be aware, goes from Carrick-on-Suir to Clonmel. This extra funding will add 1 km to bring it farther into the town of Clonmel, which is very important. It connects the blueway to a car park in the centre of the town and brings the people who use it closer to the town centre. It is very important and very welcome.
The blueway opened last year and has been a real success, like many greenways throughout the country. It has been especially successful in recent months, when families have not been able to travel more than 5 km or 20 km from their homes due to Covid-19. We in south Tipperary have had the opportunity to use the greenways, both as individuals and as families. Does the Acting Leader agree that funding promised by the Government for projects like this in the coming years is vital for rural communities like Tipperary and the Acting Leader's own locality in Galway? As we encourage people to stay in Ireland during the summer months and take the opportunity to visit areas like Tipperary and Galway, greenways and blueways are vital for communities like ours.
Last week I spoke about the cervical cancer scandal. I requested that we look at it and asked that a Minister attend here. Since I spoke there was an article in the Sunday Independentby Vicky Phelan. For those who may not have read it, she wrote a compelling and moving appeal to what she described as those in power - the people in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Sadly we do not have Vicky Phelan as a voice on the benches of either of these Houses, which is a discussion and a conversation for another day. Vicky felt compelled to put pen to paper to share her thoughts after the death of Ruth Morrissey. I will quote some powerful lines which should go on the record of this House:
I'm also writing as a woman living with a terminal illness, who is under no illusion that, in a few short years, I will also be dead. And I know many of the very same people who spoke about Ruth, after her death, will be paying tribute to me - and promising the earth, moon and stars in my honour. I am here to tell you now, while I still can, that I don't want your apologies. I don't want your tributes. I don't want your aide de camp at my funeral. I don't want your accolades or your broken promises. I want action. I want change. I want accountability. And I want to see it happen while I am still alive, not after I am dead.
Vicky Phelan’s appeal to those in power is clear. She wants us to "Enact the legislation to provide for mandatory open disclosure"; to "Implement all the outstanding recommendations from the Scally Report; to establish a new CervicalCheck tribunal "that is non-adversarial and does not involve confrontation"; to "amend the Civil Liabilities Act, so the dependants of women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal [do] not have to go to court for a second time; and to establish "a National Laboratory for Cervical Testing".
My plea to the Leader is to ask her to arrange for any Minister of the Government to come to this House before we adjourn on Friday to have a debate about these important issues and to give us a progress report. I am respectfully putting the Leader on notice that tomorrow I intend to propose an amendment to the Order of Business and will also do so on the following day so that the Government and the Leader can accede to this very reasonable request.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. My issue is directed towards the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and relates to the Protecting Uplands and Rural Environments, PURE, project in County Wicklow. It is nice to see the Acting Leader here today because he would be aware of this project in Wicklow. The PURE project, which seeks to protect the uplands and the rural environment, is an environmental project that was set up to deal with illegal dumping in the Wicklow and Dublin mountains. It was established in 2006 and was an unique project at that time. It was based on a partnership incorporating statutory and non-statutory bodies including Wicklow Uplands Council, Wicklow County Council, South Dublin County Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Coillte and the ESB. The main principle of the scheme was to fund a lorry and a driver with some administration to go out and pick up the rubbish in the uplands. It has been hugely successful. It has answered over 10,000 calls and has picked up over 3,600 tonnes of rubbish in the one truck. The truck is 14 years old and is probably an environmental problem in its own right and needs replacing.
The other initiative that came out of the PURE project was the "pure mile" project. We asked communities to adopt a mile of road and to try to keep it litter-free and get a better understanding of the biodiversity and the social, cultural and built heritage on that mile of road. The Acting Leader, in his then capacity as Minister of State, came to Aughrim one night to present awards to the communities involved. This project has gone from annual to biannual funding. Last year it made an application to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment for ten-year funding. It was a change of principle so it had to go to through all of the processes. It was meant to be signed off in October, but this did not happen. The general election was followed by the formation of a new Government. I am asking the Acting Leader to address this issue because the organisations involved are concerned about the funding of this unique project, which even the Minister at the time said needed to be rolled out on a national basis, given its success.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Acting Leader. I would like to raise an issue that has been debated in both Houses in previous times. I refer to the 1,700 independent, not-for-profit, section 39 organisations. In particular, I am speaking of St. Christopher's Services in Longford. These organisations provide vital services for thousands of people throughout Ireland with various disabilities. These services are not focused on making profits like the private sector but rather on improving and sustaining our communities and society in general by building relationships with the service users, their families and their friends. These workers took cuts when we bailed out the banks earlier this decade and have been waiting ever since to have their incomes restored to parity with their work colleagues in section 38 organisations and indeed in the HSE. At present, St. Christopher's Services are losing staff to the HSE and finding it very difficult to recruit staff for these positions due to the pay difference.
I wish to quote from one of a number of emails I have received in the last number of weeks from staff members:
The vulnerable adults which we support are greatly affected by the changes in staff teams. Workload and responsibilities on the staff are increasing especially during Covid. Staff are at breaking point. We are deemed as frontline staff yet we are treated as second-class citizens. I am on half the pay of my counterparts in the HSE. It is simply not good enough.
I agree that it is simply not good enough. I ask the Acting Leader to ensure the Minister for Health addresses these issues after the recess and prior to the budget. The Minister should take the necessary steps to provide for full pay restoration to the St. Christopher’s staff and the other section 39 workers who care for those who are so dear to each and every one of us.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I wish to raise the issue of the pandemic unemployment payments and call for a debate on the Covid-19 payments. This has been such an unmitigated disaster for the Government. It must be very embarrassing. I support entirely what Senator Higgins has said. How we can possibly deal with this law today, now that we know there are so many holes in it? We know the Free Legal Advice Centres have already declared that the approach that has been taken is illegal. The whole issue of pandemic unemployment payment claimants having to be genuinely seeking work raises the question of how it works for the barman or tour operator, whose sectors of employment are shut down.
I have to ask another question. I welcome the Minister's U-turn this morning, which is the latest one from this Government. How did this situation develop in the first place? We have seen junior members of the Government complaining that they were not consulted about this change. We had a Fianna Fáil Deputy declaring yesterday evening that it was a road to a police state. He then voted for the Bill. It looks to me like the decision was taken unilaterally by the Tánaiste. Is this what we can expect from this Government? Can we expect Ministers to make decisions which will affect the lives of some of our most vulnerable people in such an off-the-cuff manner? That is not to mention the obvious framing of this policy. I want to hear from Government representatives here why welfare recipients only are to be punished for foreign travel. If Ministers are genuinely concerned about public health, why not take action against the wealthy who have been coming and going from our airports as they please? Perhaps they could start with our tax exile friends. The Tánaiste's actions smack of class prejudice. That is what this is about.
The other question that arises in this context relates to how the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is getting information about the travel plans of recipients. Stories have appeared in the press about families who have had their child benefit stopped after travelling. Another woman claimed that her payment was stopped after booking a ferry trip to France, a trip she did not go on. How did the Department know this? The Data Protection Commissioner has expressed dire concerns. How on earth can we pass a law this afternoon when all of these questions remain unanswered?
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I agree with Senators Hoey and Ó Donnghaile that we should get clarity as soon as possible concerning the direct provision centre in Cahersiveen. I suggest to the Acting Leader that a statement might be provided on the matter to this House, preferably on the Order of Business tomorrow.
Last week, when we discussed the very successful European stimulus package agreed by the European Council of Ministers, I pointed out that although this was a great example of European solidarity, the principles of the European Union are based on solidarity but also on the rule of law and human rights.I expressed concern that funding should only be granted to those countries that follow through on the expression of those values. I raised in particular my concern about Poland and Hungary. Since I raised that issue last week we have seen a further deterioration in respect for these values in those countries. Poland has decided to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty aimed at preventing violence against women. Its justice minister said that the document was harmful as it required schools to teach children about gender. In Hungary, we saw the closure of the last independent news site, the Index news site, where the editor was effectively fired and 70 journalists had to quit. A country without a free press is not a democracy. I do not believe the European Governments went far enough in insisting that the funding to be made available under the €1.8 trillion deal should be linked to these values. I hope the European Parliament is a lot stronger on it. I ask the Acting Leader to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to raise concerns about these issues and the continuing deterioration of respect for human rights in Poland and Hungary. We in this House cannot start to talk about the importance of human rights and how they are dealt with in oppressive regimes like China, Venezuela or the Philippines while failing to ensure those rights are respected within the European Union.
We had a very detailed debate yesterday about tourism but it would be good to split that debate into various sections. When we come back in the autumn, it would be a good idea to have a debate about greenways. I refer particularly to the strategic implementation of greenways. Given that so much funding will come into them in the next couple of years, thanks to the programme for Government, what exactly is the Department doing to liaise with local authorities and make sure greenway projects are on time, feasible and can get through any unforeseen hazards or mishaps? This morning we saw €200,000 allocated to the greenway in north Louth, to start the process to take it from Carlingford south towards Dundalk. At the same time, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is building a greenway from Newry through Victoria Lock to meet the north Louth greenway on the Northern Irish Border. The long-term goal is to have a greenway going right along the coast of County Louth, across the Border, up through Newry and hopefully even past Newry further up into the peninsula. It would be wonderful to have a debate on that in September and to liaise with our counterparts in local authorities and Departments in Northern Ireland to see if they are on the same page. We might even have more connecting greenways across the Border into the future.
I want to raise something the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, suggested in the Dáil last week in response to a question from Deputy Ó Broin. He said that a report carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute did not find significant rent arrears during the first three months of Covid-19. At that stage the report had not been published but it was published yesterday. The Minister's spin on it was slightly different from what the authors said. They found that before Covid, about 70,000 households did not have sufficient income remaining after housing costs to cover a minimum standard of living expenditure. They also suggested that about one in ten non-supported rental households, meaning people who were not receiving rent allowance or the housing assistance payment, missed payments due to financial difficulties prior to the pandemic. They said that despite the "very short-term effects [which are] unique to the time in which households have been advised to stay at home and restrict movements", many non-supported private renters face longer-term structural affordability pressures that are likely to worsen quickly. The authors conclude that while their "analysis focuses solely on the immediate, short-run time frame, it is likely that the scale of the COVID-19 shock is such that, the longer the duration of the downturn, the higher the missed payments, and consequently, arrears rate will climb." That is very different from what the Minister said when he did not find any significant rent arrears.
We then cut to the launch of the stimulus plan, when we see absolutely no support for renters. The buy to let scheme is going to be extended by €10,000 yet we know from other research that 40% of those availing of it already have deposits.The anecdotal evidence is that the cost of new housing has gone up as a result of this. This week we will have the Minister in the House for the flawed, narrow Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020. It does not protect renters but criminalises them. It applies the eviction ban only until January for a very narrow cohort of renters who self-declare. It does not provide for retrospective self-declaration and it is not clear what it is. We could have used the stimulus plan to support renters and alleviate arrears rather than spinning it that there was not significant arrears and portions being brought up. Renters are the people in this economy who are most vulnerable. Most renters going into homelessness are coming from the private rented sector. I look forward to discussing the Bill at the end of the week, but without the spin by the Minister that there are no significant rent arrears gathered.
I want to raise the closing of the fire station in County Roscommon's second largest town, Castlerea. It has a population of about 2,000 people and is a very vibrant town with a strong local community. To say they are aghast at this announcement made by the CEO of Roscommon County Council last Monday is an understatement. The CEO said there was an adequate fire service to cover the area. In my view, taking fire services from a town the size of Castlerea is alarming. I have made my position known on this. I ask the Acting Leader to take this matter to the relevant Minister - I think it is the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan - to express my worry and disappointment. The station has been closed for the last three and a half years. There were obviously issues. However, the area served by the fire station has a population of 5,400 people. It is quite alarming to close down the station. I would like to see the issue addressed by the Minister.
I second Senator Higgins's proposed amendment to the Order of Business in respect of the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020. I would also like to join with Senator Fitzpatrick in her condolences to several people living in homelessness who lost their lives in the last week. Unfortunately in the last few months a lot more people have lost their lives. It is not making it into the news that many of those who took their own lives were moved out of treatment so that the beds in the treatment centres could be used as isolation spaces for Covid. There were no measures to put any other supports in place. Two men took their own lives the second they left that treatment centre. It takes a lot for someone to decide he or she is ready and wants to go into treatment. They make that decision, go into treatment and then the Government says "No, out" and nothing else is put in place. It is State negligence, in my view, that people who went to those efforts to get help were moved from their beds so the beds could be used for Covid-19 isolation spaces. I wanted to add that to the contribution Senator Fitzpatrick made.
I would also like to acknowledge that yesterday was World Hepatitis Day. We did not have an Order of Business debate yesterday or I would have mentioned it then. Hepatitis C is curable and can be eliminated. Many years ago when I worked in the addiction sector, people were made believe that they had to be alcohol-free to be able to go on interferon, the drug treating hepatitis C at the time. That was untrue. It was a cost-saving measure. They wanted to use only the smallest amount of the drug on the smallest number of people so they made sure only those who were alcohol-free could access the drug. Thankfully that has changed. The drug is free. It is accessible. The only problem is that there are a lot of people we have not been able to reach to test. We also need to change the culture for them to understand that they can now access treatment even if they are not alcohol-free or drug-free.Getting into the prison system, which we have not been able to do so far, is a big part of that puzzle. If the Departments of Health and Justice and Equality made efforts to get into the prison system, they would be able to test for and stop the spread of blood-borne viruses within it.
I wish to acknowledge World Hepatitis Day. I encourage Members to look into the advances we have made in that area and spread the word that people can be tested for and cured of hepatitis C.
I join Senator Dooley in seeking a debate on the aviation sector. We have all received emails from Aer Lingus pilots. The airline is in a precarious position and this must be addressed by us, as Members of the Upper House, and by the Government. Yesterday, Mr. Ray Gray, the chief financial officer of the Dublin Airport Authority, was before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. He spoke about the impact of Covid-19 on regional airports, especially Cork Airport, which is the second-busiest airport in the country. Some €72 million has been allocated to Kerry Airport, Galway Airport and Ireland West Airport Knock under the national development plan. However, there was no funding for Cork. The airport now has no income apart from its passenger revenue and revenue accrued by its shops, which are all closed. It does not receive financial aid from the State but I believe that it and our other airports should. Passenger numbers at Cork Airport will fall below 1 million this year from 2.6 million in 2019. Members will realise the importance of the airport sector, especially in the south. Cork Airport is pivotal to the economic development of the southern region in the context of tourism and jobs. It is important that we have a very strong aviation sector. Our aviation sector is dependent upon airlines. Cognisance must be taken of what Senator Dooley said about Aer Lingus. In the short time before the House goes into recess, I ask the Acting Leader to ensure that the Minister with responsibility for aviation comes before us for a debate on the future of Aer Lingus, our airline sector and our airports. Let us forget about the green list and the red list. We will need airports when we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. I was in Cork Airport two weeks ago. One could hear the wind whistling outside the terminal building. I ask for the Minister to come to the House as a matter of urgency.
I want to speak for a moment or two about the disability protests outside the Convention Centre this morning. I joined the carers, parents and families assembled there. It was not just frustration and anger that were palpable, but also huge despair. People really feel they are at the end of their tether. A group called Enough is Enough organised this particular protest. This story is not new to people with disabilities. In late January, I met representatives from the Muiriosa Foundation and the KARE organisation, which looks after people with disabilities in Kildare and west Wicklow. I met the CEOs of those organisations, as well as staff members and the families for whom they cater. This is really about young people with disabilities and their families. There was also a huge sense of despair at that point because a 1% cut in disability funding had just been announced. This would really cut down on the services' residential spaces and respite services. Given that the majority of adults with disabilities are now living with parents who are over 70 and many are living with those over 80, the situation for these people is very difficult.
I am really glad that the Taoiseach announced this morning that the cut will be reversed and that €20 million will not be taken out of the disability budget. There is some sense of relief. However, there is major frustration regarding what has happened during the Covid-19 crisis. Young and old users of day services have not had access to them since March.The roadmap for reopening disability services was published two weeks ago but we need more clarity, particularly around transport. We have a situation at the moment where services can open part-time but the people who need them have absolutely no means of transportation to them. That is completely wrong. We need a full opening of day services. I look forward to engagement with the Minister on this.
Yesterday, we had a debate on education. I received an email this morning from a very frustrated principal. I have been contacted by several principals. The principal asked if schools will be responsible for taking children's temperatures at the point of entry to the school. Children from more affluent areas will be returning from continental holidays even though their families were advised not to go on them. Who will police this? Will we ask principals or teachers to police who can and who cannot enter the classroom? I have been asked about parental access to the school. Parents are currently only allowed into schools by appointment. Will they be banned from entering the school altogether? After-school services provided in some schools, particularly national schools, involve children moving from the classroom they have been in all day to another one. Who will sanitise the classroom they move to and how will this be done? Parents will deem some children weak or prone to illness and decide not to send them to school. Who will be responsible for delivering education to those children and how will it be done? I refer also to after-school sports and other services. How will school areas be sanitised when one class finishes and another wishes to start? Many questions are arising on the reopening of schools, and it behoves all of us in this House to ensure clarity for the principals who will be running them.
I note the issue of Aer Lingus, raised by Senator Buttimer. A senior moment almost stopped me from remembering Senator Dooley. In 2015, Senator Sean Barrett and I warned that we were selling off the family jewels and we would rue the day we flogged Aer Lingus.
Senator Buttimer has had his chance. Finally, I support the amendment to the Order of Business regarding the Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020 proposed by Senator Higgins. I do not know how we can get that Bill through the House today.
I wish to discuss our plans for the reform of local government. During the pandemic we have seen the really practical response of local government in some areas. I refer in particular to the town activation committees set up to get towns moving. When we eroded local government by abolishing town councils under the Local Government Reform Act 2014, the resulting lack of local governance had a major impact on society. We are only seeing that now. In recent weeks, I have visited many towns in west Cork that used to have town councils, for example, Bantry, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bandon and Kinsale. We took local power and democracy away. We now have a major void when it comes to raising issues and getting things done. This is not about councillors' pay or prestige. It is about how society works at a basic level. We must have an appropriate local government structure.
To reform local government we must go back to the core idea of bringing power to local populations. We need to re-examine what we did and reconsider the decision to dismantle town councils. We must restore a structure that brings real democracy to people on the ground. There is no logic to the fact that in my own county, the head of Cork County Council sits in County Hall, six or seven miles inside the separate jurisdiction of Cork city. That makes no sense. If we are really serious about reforming local government and making a real impact on the lives of citizens, we need to bring power back to the people through a network of town councils. I ask the Acting Leader that we have a comprehensive debate with the Minister in the next session about putting a vision in place to ensure people have the local representation they need. We are all politicians and we hear every day of the week that big government does not work. We need to bring government back to the people. There is universal agreement that town councils must be reinstated.
I thank the Leader and the Seanad Office for putting down the motion for the restoration to the Order Paper of three Bills I introduced in the previous Seanad. They all passed Second Stage in the House and I was extremely grateful to colleagues for the unanimous support I received in each case. The first Bill is the Criminal Justice (Public Order) (Amendment) Bill 2019, the purpose of which is to provide for the introduction of a mandatory prison sentence of 12 months in respect of an assault on a member of the emergency services in the course of his or her duty. We need to send out a strong message that we will not tolerate assaults on emergency workers. We must protect those who are protecting us.
The second Bill is the First Aid and Mental Health in Schools (Initial Teacher Training) Bill 2018 and the third, related, Bill is the First Aid and Mental Health in Schools (Existing Teachers) Bill 2018. The purpose of these Bills is to provide for a requirement that all teachers in training and all existing teachers, respectively, receive proper training in occupational first aid response and mental health first aid. We cannot have a situation where teachers are presented with an emergency, where a child becomes ill, for example, and they are not properly equipped to deal with that emergency. In regard to mental health first aid, we need to ensure our teachers receive proper training so that they can identify the tell-tale signs of a child who is distant or feeling low and act accordingly. I look forward to all three of my Bills passing through the House as soon as possible.
As a person new to the House, I would like to know whether it is normal practice that amendment deadlines fall prior to our receiving the substantiated text of a Bill, as is the case with the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 that is coming before the House on Friday. If it is, it seems a very bizarre way to do business.
I want to raise the issue of the mid-Shannon wilderness park in County Longford. In 2013, the senior planner in Longford County Council brought forward a detailed proposal for a wilderness park to provide for a just transition for Bord na Móna workers and create much-needed jobs in the tourism industry providing trails and amenities linking up the counties of Longford, Roscommon, Westmeath and right through to Dublin via the Royal Canal. The proposal was an important step in addressing the biodiversity crisis we have in this country. Whooper swans, lapwings, curlews and golden plovers are already present at the site. In addition, a wilderness park would stabilise the emissions on the degraded peatlands and contribute to flood relief.
However, Bord na Móna has instead decided to push ahead with a wind farm on the site. Given that the proposed wilderness park is referenced in the national peatlands strategy and only last week we had the Minister with responsibility for climate action, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announcing funding to rehabilitate 33,000 ha of Bord na Móna peatlands, it beggars belief that this wind farm is going ahead. I have written to both the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin - it is a shame the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is not here today - to ask how the decision to build a wind farm on the site is in keeping with the national peatlands strategy, particularly actions Nos. A9 and A12 of that strategy which refer specifically to harnessing the potential of peatlands to contribute to both our environmental and ecological wealth, with a particular emphasis on mitigating carbon losses, and the potential to develop peatlands to bring tourism and recreation attractions to the midlands and west. I hope that when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, comes before the House again, he will address the contradictions in policy of using public money to rehabilitate Bord na Móna peatlands while the organisation itself appears to be dead set on undoing the existing rehabilitation projects.
For the benefit of Members, in regard to the scheduling of Government business and other business in the House, that business is ordered on the Order of Business of the day. If all Stages of a Bill are taken together, it is not practical or possible for additional amendments to be introduced on Committee Stage. For the further benefit of Members, it is in the Standing Orders of the House that Senators are not allowed to refer to Members who are not present.
I echo the comments by Senators Dooley, Buttimer and Craughwell in regard to Aer Lingus. It is hugely important that we do not end up reading in the newspapers that it is all over suddenly for the company as a result of a decision made somewhere else. In case people feel that state aid rules are an issue, I would point out that Ryanair has already got £600 million from the UK Government. In that context, I do not know that we would expect the usual noises from that quarter if there was any help given to Aer Lingus.
I want to say how outraged I feel at the decision of the management of the Shelbourne Hotel to remove four statues that form an integral part of the front treatment of the hotel, which is a protected structure. Apparently, the statues have been removed on the basis that two or more of them represent Nubian slave women holding candelabra-type lights. This is nonsense. There are two possibilities in terms of what happened here. The first is that somebody actually made a complaint about the statues, in which case management's action is a response to idiocy or, alternatively, it was the result of a corporate search for anything that could offend, which is another form of idiocy. One of the great classical sculptures of the 19th century, by a classical sculptor called Antonio Rossetti, is of a Nubian slave. It is a priceless piece of Italian classical sculpture and it gives no offence to anybody reasonable. The Shelbourne Hotel building is a protected structure and it is unlawful and criminal to change it without planning permission. For a large multinational corporation to breach the law in this idiotic way is wholly unacceptable. I ask that the Minister with responsibility for culture, Deputy Catherine Martin, come to this House and use it as a forum to explain that our heritage is not to be torn down or removed simply because of foolish notions of causing offence where no offence could possibly be reasonably taken.
I thank Senators for the issues they have raised. Senators Higgins, Fitzpatrick and Ruane referred to the deaths of five people in homeless services in Dublin over the past week. Our sympathies go to those individuals and their families and the people who loved them. I understand two individuals died in a facility in the north of the city last week, one individual who had been accessing homeless services died in hospice care, one individual died in a facility on the south of the city on Friday, and one man died in the city who had not been in emergency accommodation. I understand a number of investigations are ongoing and, as such, it would not be appropriate to comment further. I am sure the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, will be happy to come to the House in the autumn to discuss this very important matter.
Senator Norris raised two issues. In regard to the theft of dogs, I agree that it seems to be absolutely rife throughout the countryside and in cities. It is a horrific practice. Many families, including my own, have dogs, often rescue dogs, as pets and companions and they are hugely important to them. Every necessary power needs to be enacted to ensure such activity is stopped. In regard to the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, I understand that Parts 2 and 3 of the Act, which empower the courts to made declarations of parentage for children born through donor-assisted human reproduction, have been enacted. This is a major step forward in recognising diversity of families in our country. The law in regard to assisted reproduction urgently needs reform and the programme for Government contains a commitment to enact an assisted human reproduction Bill. It is a very complex issue and one that requires time and a lot of input to get the legislation right.Senator Hoey, as well as Senators Ó Donnghaile, Higgins and Byrne, raised the issue of Cahersiveen direct provision centre, systemic racism and related issues and asked that the Minister be called in for a debate. As somebody who lost much support in the last election, as some people know, in respect of asserting our international responsibilities to asylum seekers and refugees in my constituency and for supporting 49 social houses in my village, I understand the difficulties associated with issues such as this.
Reading the reports concerning the Skellig Star direct provision centre in Cahersiveen, it sounds very bad. It sounds horrific, to be honest. Representatives from the Department visited it yesterday and there is a commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that direct provision is ended. That is hugely important but very difficult, because the majority of political parties, including mine, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party and many Independents, have been in government since 1999 and direct provision has been part of the solution since then. That has not been intentional and not something any of us are happy about, but there were limited choices. The Minister will be invited into the House to address the issue of the Skellig Star direct provision centre and direct provision.
Senators Higgins and Gavan discussed the pandemic unemployment payment legislation and the Bill we will be dealing with today, and they have proposed amendments to the Order of Business. According to the Taoiseach, who was speaking in the Dáil today, more than 90% of claimants who had their pandemic unemployment payments stopped on foot of an intervention at airports by inspectors from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection were leaving the State permanently. There has been much media reporting on this issue, but more than 90% of the people involved were leaving the State permanently.
The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, has stated that she has directed her Department to review all cases to date where people who went on holiday had their payments stopped and that she would sign a regulation allowing people receiving pandemic unemployment payment and jobseeker's allowance to travel to green list countries without having their payments stopped. We must remember that this is an emergency payment brought in at the start of the pandemic and from which many people have benefited. We are now putting it on a statutory footing, we are in our last week of this session and we need to get this legislation passed. It will be in the House today.
Senators Dooley, McDowell, Buttimer and Craughwell discussed the issue of aviation and I will ask the Minister of State with responsibility for that area, Deputy Naughton, to come into this House at the earliest opportunity to discuss these important issues concerning Aer Lingus and the aviation sector. As was stated, I think we have all received correspondence from Aer Lingus pilots.
Senators Ahearn, McGahon and Buttimer also raised the issue of blueways and greenways and the funding announced today, some €4.5 million. Those are excellent initiatives and good for people's physical and mental health. Senator McGahon mentioned Louth and cross-Border tourism and we hope to see that continue. I agree that there needs to be a debate on this important topic in the autumn because some routes have issues regarding gaining consent and the code of practice. Those need to be teased out and I recommend a debate on this topic as well.
Senator Boyhan spoke about the article in theSunday Independentby Vicky Phelan. I read the article and I have texted the office to request that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, come into the House again this week, if possible, to debate this issue. I think it is fair that the Minister himself would come in rather than any other Minister, as the Senator requested. Ms Phelan mentioned many important and outstanding issues that need to be dealt with.
Senator Casey mentioned the protecting uplands and rural environments, PURE, project in Wicklow, which I had the pleasure of visiting in my former role as Minister of State. Good work is being done in Wicklow regarding funding and I know we have put it on a multi-annual basis. We must ensure that continues and that important groups and volunteers have certainty regarding such projects in the years ahead. In Galway, we have the Golden Mile and Galway County Council produces a wonderful calendar every year regarding the work being done on that project. I will ask the Minister to look at this matter.
Senator Carrigy spoke about section 39 organisations. It is important that at the earliest opportunity we get back to having Commencement matter debates and Private Member's business so we can have an opportunity to tease out these issues and get the Ministers with responsibility into the House to debate these matters. The area of section 39 organisations is certainly one we need to look at.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of solidarity and the rule of law, and that funding should be linked to those who uphold the law. We have seen the situations in two members of the European Union, Poland and Hungary, and what is happening in those countries. It is worrying, and we must continue to encourage the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and his Department to continue to raise these important issues. When there is an opportunity, we will invite the Minister into the House to discuss these issues as well. Freedom of the press is hugely important. We might not always like the press at times and what it does and says, but it is important that there is freedom of the press. For example, we can look at Poland where there have been issues regarding LGBT-free zones, which have been overruled or declared illegal by the EU. It is important that such issues are addressed in any democracy and particularly in a member of the European Union.
Senator Moynihan raised issues that I think will be addressed when the Minister is in the House on Friday in respect of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020. I am sure he will be happy to engage then with the Senator regarding her concerns.
Senator Murphy spoke about the fire station in Castlerea. I can imagine that would be worrying for any community and would cause much upset. I understand that responsibility for the fire service is still with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the relevant Minister, therefore, is Deputy Darragh O'Brien.We can raise this issue with him.
Senator Ruane mentioned that it was World Hepatitis Day yesterday, and I commend the Prison Service on keeping the prisons Covid-19-free in recent months. We acknowledge the Senator's comments in that regard.
Senator O'Loughlin spoke about the disability services and the despair of parents. Indeed I spoke here last week, I think it was, on the same subject. I hope there can be a full resumption of disability services at the earliest opportunity, and I acknowledge the work of the Enough is Enough group. I hope to see a full reopening of services, and perhaps the relevant Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will be able to come into the House at the earliest opportunity to discuss these matters.
Senator Craughwell raised several points from teachers. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, was in the House yesterday and gave a comprehensive presentation regarding the existing plan. There are some remaining issues and I am sure they will be teased out in the days to come as there is continued engagement between the Department and the unions etc.
Senator Lombard spoke about local government reforms. I do not have personal experience regarding town councils in my area, but I know many people who felt they were working well and that there has been a democratic deficit since they were removed. I am sure this issue will be examined in the autumn and we can request that it is done.
Senator Gallagher spoke about resubmission of Bills. He can advise us about the procedures in that regard, but I presume there are some official channels to be gone through. I have no problem, however, supporting the outline of the Bills he mentioned.
Senator Boylan mentioned the Mid Shannon Wilderness Park in Leitrim and regarding the Grand Canal, and her description makes it sound like a wonderful initiative. We will ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to investigate that issue. We cannot get involved in planning decisions, but if there is an aspect that he can look at, we will certainly ask him to do that.
Senator McDowell spoke about the decision taken by the Shelbourne Hotel. The statues concerned seemed rather innocuous any time one passed the hotel, but beautiful. However, they have a history and someone has complained. According to social media last night, the complaint may have come from the United States. I do not know, but I saw that on Twitter. I also know that the Irish Georgian Society has expressed concern on social media. We will ask the relevant Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to come into the House, and that is another ideal issue would be suitable for Commencement debates, once we get them back up and running. It is the ideal forum for an issue like this, which happens late at night and should be raised as quickly as possible.
Victor Boyhan, Lynn Boylan, Gerard Craughwell, Eileen Flynn, Paul Gavan, Alice-Mary Higgins, Annie Hoey, Sharon Keogan, Elisha McCallion, Michael McDowell, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Lynn Ruane, Marie Sherlock, Mark Wall.
Garret Ahearn, Catherine Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Emer Currie, Michael D'Arcy, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Mary Fitzpatrick, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, John McGahon, Eugene Murphy, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Ned O'Sullivan, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward.