Wednesday, 7 October 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business today is No. 1 on the Supplementary Order Paper, motion re the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Thursday, 8 October 2020 and Wednesday, 14 October 2020, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2 on the Order Paper, the appointment of members to the Joint Committee on the Irish Language, Gaeltacht and Irish-speaking Community, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3 on the Order Paper, the appointment of members to the Joint Committee on Public Petitions, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 3a on the Supplementary Order Paper, report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4 on the Order Paper, Investment Limited Partnerships (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Committee Stage (Resumed), to be taken at 1.30 p.m. today and to adjourn at 3 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 5 on the Order Paper, statements on the HSE winter plan 2020, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to conclude no later than 4.45 p.m., with the contribution of all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given eight minutes to reply; and No. 25 on the Order Paper, motion No. 4, Private Members' Business, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time provided for the debate not to exceed two hours.
I want to raise three issues. The first is the issue of Brexit. This morning, we engaged extensively with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. While there was a good engagement and a good update on negotiations, the situation is quite precarious and we are in a very vulnerable position. It seems the two key issues preventing a deal being done are the areas of fishing rights and level playing field provisions. The very clear message this morning was that if agreement could not be reached on those two areas, there would not be a full free trade arrangement come January. It is difficult to see how those two issues could be overcome in a very short period. It is incumbent on this House to do as much as we can to prepare for what might be coming down the tracks in January, and to do our best to work with citizens across the board to make sure they are as informed as they can be.
Second, I wish to raise the results of the national maternity experience survey, which I am sure Members will find very interesting. It is the first survey of its kind and it spoke directly to women about their experiences in maternity hospitals across the country. The national average is that 85% of women reported either a good or very good experience and 15% reported a poor experience. I think we would all agree that 15% is far too high but more worrying for me was that while the national average for a poor experience was 15%, in Mayo it was 26%. This means that one in four women surveyed who went through the maternity services in Mayo University Hospital had a very poor experience. We need to address this, and the only way we can address it is to have more midwives and a midwifery-led service. One of the lowest scoring questions was around the area of consulting women about their care during labour and after birth, and it was clear they felt they were not properly listened to and that time was not made to care for them. In this day and age, in 2020, this is something we need to get to grips with in order to improve our maternity services.
Third, I want to raise the level 3 restrictions that have come into place across the country, with every other county now joining Dublin and Donegal. We would all accept it is a very severe restriction on businesses but it is to try to protect public health, lives and livelihoods. I fully agree with the Government's decision not to go to level 5, which would have been far too much far too quickly, and I very much approve of the fact we are giving every county a chance to bring those numbers down. My own county of Mayo has the lowest incidence rate in the past 14 days and the county had the least number of infections. Understandably, therefore, businesses in Mayo are really feeling this and are rightly asking why we do not have a more focused and more regional approach. After this point, we should perhaps look at a more targeted, regionalised approach so that counties with a very low incidence rate can keep businesses open. As I said, I very much support the Government decision to just go to level 3 and not beyond.
On the point made by Senator Chambers, I do not support the attack by the Tánaiste on NPHET recently. It was a very individualistic approach that he took, and the thought struck me that if they do business like that, perhaps they will not be doing business very long, either as a Government or in terms of the Government's relationship with NPHET.
I see nothing wrong with NPHET communicating its ideas directly to the Irish people. I do not think the Government has a right to expect that it must find out everything first, so it can measure out what exactly the people are being told. People are intelligent and they are entitled to witness the tensions and the different strands of opinion that go to the formation of decisions around the restrictions we all have to face together. There are economic and social as well as health issues, but people are entitled to know that. The Government has no right to expect NPHET can only speak through it, or to suggest there is some sort of failure on NPHET’s part to communicate properly, simply because it communicates something directly to the people.
For the foreseeable future and until such time that we can be sure our hospitals will not be overwhelmed, I support the restrictions we have to face and I think there has to be a presumption in favour of the recommendations made by NPHET and our health advisers. That said, I do question the lack of discernment and refinement around the restrictions being placed in the area of public worship. It is fair to say that the people who attend churches primarily are a demographic who are highly compliant and mainly, but not exclusively, older people. Most of us have probably been in churches and will have seen the remarkable attention to detail in terms of sanitising before and after services, and the stewarding of people to ensure that traffic is one-way.If everybody was as good at observing the restrictions as churches across the board and those attending them have been, we would not be facing the challenges we currently face. That ought to be acknowledged. Many of the people who value their ability to go to church are among those facing the most restrictions otherwise. There must be a rethink in that regard.
I am troubled by the line coming from the Garda Síochána about the 132 permanent static checkpoints being erected on roads across the State. I support having checkpoints at which people are asked where they are going and why. However, it is another thing entirely for checkpoints to be used as a means of delaying and obstructing people. That hits people who have a legitimate reason for travelling as much as it hits those who do not. It is wrong to use gardaí to discourage or obstruct people going about their business. Such action hits everybody and it is being done in an extremely unfair and sneaky way. It reminds me of the Chinese Government staging traffic disruptions to prevent journalists accessing detention centres in Xinjiang. This is not the way we wish for the Garda Síochána to operate. I caution against that in particular.
Ireland works best when it works together. We can see that is the case in many aspects of our lives such as sport, research and development, movements and campaigns for societal change, academia and many other fields. When it comes to the health crisis and Covid-19, it is imperative that we continue to work in unison on our planning, approaches, responses and communications. We should do so because it makes utmost sense. It is the best and most scientifically compliant way to tackle this terrible situation. Ireland is one epidemiological unit and we must treat it as such and work to respond to needs on that basis.
The Leader and her colleagues in the House know my view on the constitutional question. This is not about that issue. Rather, it is about what works best for us all. Of course, what happens in Newry impacts on Dundalk and vice versa, but what happens in Killarney also impacts on what happens in Kilkeel. That is not political; it is just the way it is. This must be about keeping people safe and saving lives. What drives this issue into a political realm is when we deny these scientific and epidemiological realities. If we can respond to crises involving animal health and food safety on an all-island "fortress Ireland" basis, then we must work to do the same for our people, families and communities.
I welcome the engagement this week between the Taoiseach and the joint heads of Government in the North. This has to be a consistent engagement going forward. Members of this Chamber, the Dáil, the Assembly and the European Parliament must all be advocates for a one-island approach on this issue. We should not shy away from it or fear it. We must champion it because it is clear that it will help to make the difference. I commend and thank again all of the front-line workers throughout the entirety of Ireland.
This issue makes all the more relevant and crucial my request to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that the Seanad invite the First Ministers from the North to address us on issues of mutual concern, collaboration and interest. I call for a statement from the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on all-island healthcare and co-ordinating emergency responses. Ireland works best when we work together. I commit myself to working with all colleagues across the Chamber on this key matter to ensure we can deliver collaborative work that makes a difference across all of our Thirty-two Counties.
Like other Members, I had the opportunity yesterday to listen to the pre-budget webinar of Family Carers Ireland. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to the House to debate the issues raised in that webinar as well as the fact that almost half of all carer's allowance applications are refused. It is fair to say that during the pandemic carers have ensured that many people have been able to remain in their homes. They are our unsung heroes and need a helping hand. Too many of them receive little or no support from the State. I have been taken aback by the number of people applying for carer's allowance who are continually being refused a payment. It is a critical support for those caring for relatives, who are saving the State an estimated €10 billion fortune. Every week, I deal with families impacted by the failure of the Government to increase the means test for this essential support.
Figures I have compiled show that nearly half of all applications in the past three years have not been successful. This is a very worrying trend. From 2018 to this year, there were 51,730 applications, but 23,982 of them were refused. According to a departmental report, slightly more than 84,000 people received a carer's allowance payment in 2019. I also looked at the social welfare appeals office. It processed 3,539 carer's allowance cases in 2019, with just over a third or 35% of them allowed.
Even those who manage to get some level of payment do not receive anywhere near enough support. For many years, Family Carers Ireland and other support groups have been calling for a change to the conditions attached to the payment. The income disregard has not budged since 2008. For 12 years, the rate for a single person has remained at €332.50 and that for a couple has remained at €665. There are 355,000 carers in Ireland. One in every ten people is currently involved in caring. According to Family Carers Ireland, that figure is set to rise to one in five by 2030. Carers have also had to deal with the withdrawal of respite, home care, transport, personal assistant hours and residential care during the pandemic, leaving many of them to cope on their own.
The fact that it is so difficult to get support in the form of the carer's allowance needs to be tackled in the forthcoming budget. The programme for Government commits to a guarantee that would include a core basket of services, but unless the means test and income disregard are addressed, too many people will be locked out of these State supports. Family Carers Ireland is calling for the forthcoming budget to include an increase in the means test from €332.50 to €450 for a single person and from €665 to €900 for a couple. The Labour Party supports that proposal. I call on the Government to address the means test for carer's allowance once and for all and to widen access to the payment. The very simple ask from Family Carers Ireland is to increase the income disregard such that a person on the average income can qualify for it. As Jane, a mother and carer for her two sons who rises each morning for another 19-hour shift, stated yesterday, one does what needs to be done.
The Civil Engagement Group is more than happy to support the motion on disability rights and service during Covid-19.
This is a very emotional weekend for the Traveller community. Has Ireland forgotten the Carrickmines tragedy? Tara Gilbert, aged 27, Jimmy Lynch, aged 25, their daughters Jodie, aged nine, and Kelsey, aged four, died in the fire, as did Willy Lynch, aged 39, as well as Thomas and Sylvia Connors, both aged 27, and their children Jimmy, aged five, Christy, aged two, and Mary, who was five months old. Five years on from the Carrickmines tragedy, living conditions for the Traveller community have, unfortunately, dramatically worsened. Evictions have worsened. The Traveller community must live in dire accommodation on halting sites or the side of the road, without running water or a safe place to call home. I call on the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to come to the House tomorrow to address some of the questions I have around Traveller accommodation. Those questions are not on my behalf - I have a safe roof over my head and everything I need as an individual - but, rather, for the Traveller community as a whole. We have been failed year after year through local authorities. After the Carrickmines tragedy, the family went to a safer place in a car park. Unfortunately, the neighbours did not want Travellers living around them. As a result, the family members who survived the Carrickmines fire are still living in the place where their relations tragically died. Although the rest of Ireland seems to have forgotten about the Carrickmines tragedy, the Traveller community has not forgotten it.We will never forget the hurt and pain of losing ten members of our community, including a pregnant woman, to a tragic fire the likes of which we have not seen since the Stardust. We want justice. Ten people died and we still have not got justice around accommodation and housing in Ireland. We are 13 times more likely to be homeless than the general population. Today, I am calling on the Minister to come to the House tomorrow and answer some of the questions.
I join with the Cathaoirleach in commending Senator Flynn on her important contribution.
Overnight, the US House Judiciary Committee produced a 449-page report on the monopolistic practices of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. While there is disagreement on what action is needed to be taken, clearly the case has been found that these companies are abusing a dominant position. They have engaged in practices that are anti-competitive and that, indeed, hobble some of their rivals. No doubt these companies have transformed our lives in many ways for the better and are significant employers, both here and internationally. I certainly do not want us to see anywhere in the world measures that will stifle innovation, research or enterprise. However, an innovative economy relies on start-ups and scale-ups that are able to operate and compete in a fair trading environment. Therefore, I would like us to have a debate with the Tánaiste and Minister for enterprise, trade and employment, Deputy Varadkar, where he would present an update on what actions the Government and the European Union are taking to ensure that no technology giant can abuse its dominant position.
Technology has transformed our lives. During these disruptive times, it is allowing us to learn to work together in very different ways. I am particularly pleased that the programme for Government makes a specific commitment around the area of a remote-working policy with an emphasis on co-working spaces, especially in regional towns and rural areas. In Gorey, we are fortunate we have the Hatch Lab, which is a state-of-the-art incubator centre that has such spaces. I would like the Minister to come into the House to outline where that remote-working strategy is and how it is developing, and as part of that to ensure that IDA Ireland is asked to address its policies whereby it only tries to encourage foreign direct investment, FDI, companies to locate in cities. If we are to have serious regional development in Ireland, it is essential that IDA Ireland takes note of new remote-working practices, and in encouraging FDI companies, that it does not only bring them to our major urban centres.
At the outset, before making the contribution I plan to make, I endorse the remarks of Senator Mullen regarding the restrictions on church-going and church numbers. That should be looked at. The points the Senator makes around compliance stand.
As yesterday was European Carers' Day, this provides us with an opportunity. This budget and these times present an opportunity for a new deal for carers, that is, an increased amount of carer's allowance, more sensible access to it, easier access - I agree with Senator Wall that we should make it easier - and more supports for carers. In other words, we should exalt or give prominence or respect to the profession of carer in the home. There are estimated to be up to 400,000 of these family carers. They are a crucial resource. It is not about cold economics. It is about far more. In cold economic terms, I would say to the Leader that we could save a great deal of money here by de-institutionalisation and the saving of other services and hospitalisation. We cannot keep people at home and get that going without such a service and without support for family carers. We also should accelerate this process. I ask the Leader to give us a timeframe on when there will be a statutory package of care for people at home, in terms of care attendants and carers at home, that is like the fair deal. That would make an amazing contribution to keeping people out of institutions. In the Covid context, in the context of where people are happiest and in the context of cold economics which is not the real issue, there is a great case for keeping people out of institutions. This is an exciting opportunity now. There is a recognition by the IMF and others that we can go into budget deficit for this kind of thing now. This is a big opportunity to give a very high status to our carers. I would ask the Leader for a debate on it in light of yesterday being carers' day and of its great significance.
Last week I spoke about the Public Service Management Act 1997 and, specifically, about the positions of advisers to Ministers. Advisers are the only people who are not accountable in any way to the public. I am asking the Leader to organise a debate in this House where we can explore how this might change and make the appointees more accountable, perhaps to Oireachtas committees. I am not saying Ministers should not have policy advisers - I have no difficulty whatsoever with that - or expertise that they may need, but the public has a right to know who they are. We spent €4.9 million last year on advisers, at an average salary of €86,500. That is a great deal of money and a great many advisers. We should have a debate on it. It is time to kick it out in the open and look at it from a public information perspective. Every Minister, Deputy, Senator and county councillor is accountable and it is important that we know who is advising Ministers and what angle they are coming from. We only have to look across the water and see what an adviser can achieve that is dangerous. From that perspective, I would like to have that debate.
My colleague, Senator Mullen, spoke about the Garda Síochána. Policing in this country is by consent and to try and use the police to enforce something without giving them the powers is a nonsense. We need a debate in this House with the Minister for justice to explore how the Garda might be given some degree of enforcement powers with respect to the difficulties we have. I have no difficulty with public protests, etc., but what we saw on Grafton Street last week is an affront to the entire population of this country who are trying to escape the worst ravages of Covid-19. We get these people sitting shoulder to shoulder on Grafton Street, not only putting their own lives at risk but putting the lives of every citizen who walks or works on that street. They should be held accountable. I am delighted to see the Garda is investigating the organisers. The Bundestag announced today that there is a fine of €5,000 for Members of the Bundestag who parade through the House without a mask. I wonder if that would work in Leinster House. At the end of the day, speaking to people of my own age and older, they are petrified by these demonstrations. We should all uphold the right to demonstrate but it is unacceptable in this country at any time to put people's lives at risk by walking shoulder to shoulder and screaming at citizens to take off their masks. I want a debate with the Minister for justice on that.
In respect of level 3 restrictions and Senator Mullen's remarks about going to church, I go to church on Sunday with my children, who serve at mass. After that, I like to pop down to the local hotel and have my dinner.When I have eaten, I like to go to Páirc Tailteann to watch a club championship match. When the match is over, I enjoy going to the Paddy Fitzsimons pub for a pint with my friends. I would be doing all of those things this coming Sunday, which is the day of the county hurling final, but I cannot do so because we are being asked not to pit one area of our society, whether it be religious, sporting or otherwise, against another. We are being asked to do so in order to prevent us having to move to level 4 or to a full lockdown under level 5. I pray to God that we can avoid that. God knows it is our responsibility to do so. I am glad the churches are open for private prayer.
The investment in capital infrastructure by the Government will play a key role in our economic recovery. I am glad the Government is putting that front and centre in the budget next week by underpinning existing plans and introducing new ones. The refreshing of the national development plan, NDP, that is due to be announced in the spring next year will provide a platform for economic stimulus and societal gain in many parts of the country. Navan is a major town that really needs such benefits. It is the largest town in the greater Dublin area without rail connectivity to the city centre. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has been talking about initiating a review of rail services since autumn last year, the implementation of which would commence this autumn. The authority has spent a full 12 months talking about a review and now we are told that it will be the summer of 2022 before it is completed. Three years down the track - a phantom track that does not exist - we might have a completed review.
The crux of the matter is that the NTA's review will not be finished by the time the revised NDP is announced next spring, which means that the development of a rail service for Navan could be left off the table altogether. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, needs to address this issue now on the basis of the clear facts that are before him. There is a fear that the reduction in traffic movements because of the pandemic will be used, in the context of the review, as a reason not to endorse a rail plan for Navan to the city centre. Such a plan clearly stacks up and is supported by the facts, as the Leader knows from her time on Meath County Council and in Cabinet. We need the Minister to commit to delivering for Navan in accordance with the position he has always taken on public transport. Unlike his predecessor, former Deputy Shane Ross, this Minister knows where Navan is and where Trimgate Street is and he knows the benefit of good public transport. I have written to him today asking him to act in this matter. I ask the Leader to press the case because this is a crucial issue.
I support the Government's decision to move the whole country to level 3 rather than level 5. I want to emphasise that the Tánaiste expressed his complete and absolute confidence in NPHET. We are all very grateful for the work it has done but its role is to advise Government. It is for the Government to take into account the broader considerations that are required in the best interests of the country.
I very much welcome the announcement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, that she is introducing amendments to the personal insolvency legislation to make changes to thresholds of access and means of access. Those changes will provide very significant relief to the people currently faced with dire circumstances. I propose that we avail of this timely opportunity to have a debate in the House on the provisions regarding reasonable expenses that are utilised by the Insolvency Service of Ireland and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, in assisting people availing of their services to restructure their debt. Some of the categories into which expenses are organised need review. I appreciate that the provisions were reviewed as recently as 2017 but, since then, some of the categories, such as insurance, have become considerably out of kilter and out of step with actual costs. For instance, there is an allocation of €25.82 per month for car insurance, which would amount to an annual insurance cost of €309. I would really like to meet the driver who is able to obtain a premium at that price and to avail of his or her competence to get a similar price for my own insurance. It is timely to review the reasonable living expenses on a line-by-line basis. It may not be necessary to amend all of them but some of them certainly do need to be updated.
I want to talk about the fascists who were outside the gates yesterday. We need to talk about them and what they are doing. A party colleague of mine saw a Government Deputy leave the building yesterday and be followed by some of these people and subjected to the most horrendous personal abuse. There is a pattern to what is happening. There has been a tendency among all of us to ignore these people in the hope that such is the best way to deal with them. It absolutely is not. The yellow vest movement, in particular, is far right, anti-mask, anti-science, anti-vaccination, anti-immigrant and dangerous. It is incumbent on us all to unite on this issue. We can differ on lots of things but we must be in agreement that these people are a danger to democratic politics in this country.
Last weekend, I put a semi-humorous post on Facebook making clear how ludicrous the anti-mask movement is. It was a very successful post which has been shared some 300 times. What intrigued me was that within half an hour, I had received 132 very derogatory and nasty comments about it. I am used to that type of feedback from my time on the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. I always thought that the Chairman of that committee, former Senator Catherine Noone, had the hardest time, with absolutely appalling abuse meted out to her. The response to my post tells me that these people are organised. Anybody who saw the baying mob yesterday will know that those involved have no place in democratic politics. The one lesson from history that we should all recognise is that one does not ignore fascists; one confronts them. We need to take these people on and make a stand for democratic politics. I want a debate on this issue. We can disagree on policy as much as we want to, but let us all unite against these bigots.
I fully support Senator Gavan and others in their comments regarding the protestors who are carrying on in such an appalling way. It drives me mad when I see the Tricolour being flown by people who are doing everything to destroy all that it stands for. The question of how we take them on is one thing but what is certain is that we must be outspoken against them. Anybody who has spoken to older people and others affected by Covid or watched the young man on the news last week who is on two crutches and trying to get back to health must wonder where these protestors are coming from morally. Their actions are shocking and outrageous. I appeal to those among them who may feel a little uncomfortable but have been pressurised to go on the marches to step away from what is happening. The people involved must be confronted and they must be stopped. I do not want violence on the street. That is not what I am talking about. We in this Parliament, both Seanad and Dáil, and our leaders, must speak out against what these people are doing.
I want to speak briefly about the hotel and restaurant sector. It is in absolute chaos as a result of the economic wreckage that has taken place in recent months. I know that the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht are all working on a budget proposal to assist the sector. Some 100,000 jobs have been lost and another 100,000 are under threat. We must step up to the mark and do something for this sector. I accept that it will not be easy but we must do something. Perhaps hotels will have to close for a while but the fear is that if this happens, they will not reopen. In practical terms, outdoor catering in Ireland does not work. All we can do for now is pray for an Indian summer. I am sure I have everybody in the House on my side in asking the Leader to convey to the Government an appeal to do everything it can for the sector.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to come to the House or, if he is not available, to make a statement on the issue of renewal of driving licences.This is a minefield at the moment and it is very difficult for people to renew their licences. One can be out of the country and get a passport online but one cannot renew one's driver licence online. I ask the Minister to have a serious look at this because someone from my county of Mayo got an appointment to renew their licence in Citywest, while another got one in Sligo. When we have county lockdowns, people should not have to travel from one county to another, but having to travel from Mayo to Dublin to renew one's driver licence in this day and age is absolutely ridiculous and shambolic. I proposed to the former Minister, Shane Ross, that post offices be brought in as an agent to renew licences and that local people could go into their local post office and renew their driver licences. He did not see fit to do anything in that area. I am asking the Minister to make a statement on this issue or to come into the House because it is very difficult for people to renew their licences. There are people working all over the world who are caught away from home in various countries who cannot come home. They have to renew their licences and they cannot do so unless they physically go to one of those licensing shops. I ask that the Minister treat this as a matter of urgency.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the disability motion that is listed as the sixth motion on the Order Paper for today, which has been proposed by us in the Labour Party with support from Sinn Féin and the Civic Engagement Group. I thank all colleagues for signing up to it. This is a cross-party initiative, which was also introduced in the Dáil last night, seeking to ensure a cross-party approach to the hugely important issue of disability rights and services. Colleagues on all sides will be aware of the enormous pressure that has been put on families, carers and service providers, as well as on persons with a disability themselves, as a result of Covid. The enormous pressure on services has stretched them to incredible lengths. I spoke this morning with St. Michael's House in Dublin 9. It is just one example of the many services that are suffering from the sort of chronic underfunding mentioned in the motion and the lack of specific provision to enable them to reopen day services in particular. We are calling on colleagues to support this cross-party motion and I call on the Leader to give us Government time to debate it over the coming days, in order that we can approach this in a collegiate and cross-party fashion. It is too important an issue for us not to do so. In particular, the motion calls on the Government to provide the funding required to fully reopen day and other essential disability services. We must also implement all Covid-19 related protocols, which are also placing a huge financial burden on services that are already stretched, and provide the additional funding, resources and capital investment required to guarantee sustainable capacity within disability and dementia services. We have heard disturbing reports of services closing in recent weeks and we need to ensure services are made sustainable in order that they can work through the crisis and beyond to provide the supports that are so essential for people with disabilities, their families and carers.
Others have commented on today being day one of level 3. Businesses are going to be impacted hugely by these restrictions but we all need to work together to ensure we get through this. The tailbacks, particularly around Dublin, are very difficult. Many of the people caught in tailbacks are front-line workers and many of them are doing deliveries. That has to be looked at again.
Like Senator Bacik, I wish to discuss the disability sector. A number of weeks ago, we heard that more staff would be assigned to ensure the backlog of assessment needs would be looked after. This was welcome news for all of us who are concerned about people with disabilities and their families. I was contacted this morning by a mum, Samantha Kenny in Athy, who told me that because of the backlog being addressed her five-year-old daughter Ava, who has complex needs, has now had her occupational therapist, OT, speech therapist and physiotherapist taken from her. As a family they have been dealing with many challenges. Basically, 3.5 clinicians, namely, a part-time psychologist, an OT, a speech therapist and a physiotherapist, have been taken from the pool of the network disability team in south Kildare to deal with the new assessments. This is completely wrong. Many children have been impacted and a particular special school has been impacted as well. That is happening in mid and north Kildare and I have no doubt that it is happening all around the country as well. It makes no sense to take clinicians to deal with one backlog and create another, when these children absolutely need intervention. Will the Minister of State with responsibility for disability come in and address this? Perhaps we could send her a letter from the Seanad saying this is absolutely not the way to go.
Senator Cassells referred to those of us who go to church weekly. There is certainly less risk involved in going to mass than there is in going to a public house, a football match or down to the hotel to get dinner on a Sunday. Most churches are very well policed as regards Covid-19 regulations. There is much less risk involved in attending church and it is a shame that those of faith cannot now participate in mass.
Today is 7 October, the second anniversary of the sad passing of Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who died of cervical cancer at the age of 37. The tragedy of her death was magnified by the fact that she was the mother of five children. To date this year, 39,000 women have been screened for cervical cancer, in stark contrast with the 206,000 who were screened last year. I know that we are in Covid-19 times but many more women will pass away because they have not been screened in time.
In the few seconds I have left, I would like to address the exchange in the Dáil yesterday between our Taoiseach and the Independent Deputy for Kerry, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. I was very disturbed by it, to tell the truth. I did not like the manner in which the Taoiseach sneered - that is all it can be described as - and looked down on the Independent Deputy. We all go to mass on a Sunday and have people coming to us no matter where we are, even queuing in a shop. People will always come to us and ask us to do stuff for them. I thought the manner in which the Taoiseach spoke to the elected Deputy for Kerry yesterday was extremely disrespectful towards him. I just wanted to put that on the record of the House.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to the Seanad for a debate on air pollution and air quality on the island of Ireland. At this point in time, four people are dying in Ireland a day as a direct result of complications from poor air quality and one in five children suffers from asthma because of it. The roll-out of a nationwide ban on smoky solid fuel would significantly help reduce air pollution on this island. Detailed research has shown that air pollution levels are significantly higher in towns on this island that do not have a smoky coal ban. The programme for Government has promised legislation which would add a further ten towns to the list by the end of this year. It states that the Government will work towards "a full nationwide ban" on smoky coal. I have just come from the Joint Committee on Climate Action, where we were talking about debating the climate Bill next week. We need to be much more ambitious than working towards the ban and introducing it town by town. We need to impose it nationwide.Consider the statistics on why we need to do that. A report from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, on air quality in 2018, which was published last September, estimated that poor air quality caused up to 1,180 premature deaths per annum and found a strong correlation between poor air quality, as recorded by the EPA, and increased daily hospital admissions for cases of asthma-related illnesses and heart failure.
We know that the current ban is unenforceable. Indeed, it is virtually unenforceable where local authorities' litter wardens have to patrol in this regard. We must be ambitious. I would appreciate it if we could invite the Minister to attend to discuss two matters - air pollution on the island of Ireland and his plans to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky solid fuels within the lifetime of the Government.
The Cathaoirleach caught me on the hop. I thought that there was another half an hour to go.
In the first instance, I will address the proposed amendment to the Order of Business. Whenever Senator Flynn stands in the Chamber, I am struck by how honest, thoughtful and thought-provoking her contributions are, not least of which was her contribution today. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I cannot accept the amendment. I have no way of getting the Minister or a Minister of State from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government for tomorrow. Even if the amendment is pressed, I will make it a priority to arrange that debate next week, the week after or whenever is the earliest I can do so. I thank the Senator for her contribution. It is a disgrace that she has had to stand in the Chamber and say that living conditions for members of her community have worsened since the horrific and tragic accident in Carrickmines five years ago. It is incumbent on all of us, not just her, to stand in the Chamber week in and week out to address the issues. We all must take responsibility for them and ensure that we do something about them. I thank Senator Flynn for her contribution. I will ensure that we have that debate as early as possible.
Other Members have requested debates. After listening to them every week, I return to my office and start writing letters and Ms Orla Murray in our office starts contacting Ministers to see how quickly we can arrange those debates, given that they are all relevant. I will do the same today, but it is against the backdrop of being told this week that the only business the Houses should conduct over the coming weeks should be absolutely essential. It is easy for us to say that having a debate on a particular topic is not essential, but it is just as easy to say that it is essential. If Senators bear with me and be mindful of the fact that we will be here on certain days to discuss legislation, I will try to arrange for as many as possible of the debates they have requested to be held on those days. However, I hope they will respect that I will not bring us to the Chamber for a day just to have statements. I will do my level best to arrange all of the debates they have called for today, but we will try to hold them on those dates when we will have other business, if that is okay with them.
A number of letters have been requested. I will send them off on behalf of Senators. To make a general comment on communications or miscommunications over recent days and the entire country now being in lockdown, I agree with Senator Ó Donnghaile that we should be dealing with these matters as an island. We are an island. Fine, we have two different sets of protocols and ruling bodies, but we are an island and we are one nation and we should be dealing with this situation on a joint basis.
Many more people are now being diagnosed with Covid on a daily basis than in recent months. It is cliché to say that we are all in this together, but we are whether we like it or not. Trying to pit one social activity against another in terms of which should be allowed defeats the purpose. As of last week, Fr. Gerry Stuart in my church has started putting masses online for people like my Dad who cannot go out and people like my Mam who had been going to mass but can no longer attend. We can access things like that online. Unfortunately, we cannot enjoy our county finals like we did last weekend when Ratoath won. I had hoped that Ratoath would win again next weekend.
We are all in this together. We must recognise that we are making sacrifices, not just for ourselves, but for the good of those we care about - our families and our communities. It is a pain in the rear end for us all. It is even affecting people who are in the whole of their health. I find myself being teary for no reason whatsoever. There is nothing wrong with me - I have healthy kids and a healthy family. However, we must recognise that there are people who are not healthy. They are the ones for whom we are doing this. It is to respect their good health.
It is a tough situation and it is easy to be critical of this or that set of people, but the people who are making decisions on our behalf, be they doctors or politicians, are doing it to ensure that the best interests of people's lives and livelihoods are served. In the next number of weeks or months, we cannot find ourselves in the position of being unable to sustain financially the supports that people have enjoyed for the past couple of months. It is vital that we sustain those supports until whenever the end of the tunnel arrives and we get a vaccine or find some magical way of living with this virus in a sustainable way, although I doubt the latter will happen. I ask that Senators be respectful of one another and kind towards the people who are doing their level best to serve us.
I will do as much as I can to provide space in Government time or any other group's time for necessary debates.
An amendment to the Order of Business has been proposed by Senator Flynn: "That a debate with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on accommodation for the Traveller community be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
I will withdraw the amendment and take the Leader at her word. To a certain extent, that is what politics is about - trust and working together. That is what I am looking to do. I thank the Leader. Next week would be perfect.