Wednesday, 11 November 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 17 November 2020, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, statements on the recognition of Irish military service at Jadotville in 1961, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to conclude at 2.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply on the debate; No. 3, statements on disability day services, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to conclude at 4.15 p.m., with the contribution of all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply on the debate; and motion 27(7), Private Members' business, to be taken at 4.30 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
Absolutely. It was a shame I was not there.
I raise the issue of the Brexit negotiations. We are two months away from the impending date of Brexit and one of the biggest issues that still has to be resolved is that of the fishing industry and how it will deal with whatever the outcome of Brexit will be.One of the most important issues yet to be resolved is that of the fishing industry and how it will deal with whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations may be. Many rural and coastal communities from Kerry all the way up the west coast will be deeply affected by the outcome of the negotiations. This is an enormously important issue for us as an island nation. Our fishing industry is one which successive Governments have supported but many feel that we have not supported it enough. That is a big issue for us as a community and a society and probably as a political entity. We must determine the best way to work with the fishing industry in these troublesome months, as well as in the years ahead. It would be appropriate to have a debate in this Chamber on these issues with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. There is a great fear in the fishing community that it will be left behind and will be the sacrificial lamb in the Brexit negotiations. We need to bring clarity and confidence to the industry, which is going through a troubling time at the moment. The debate I seek will enable us to air the important issues and bring the key ones to the fore. It will also provide the Minister with an opportunity to update us on what will happen in the next seven and a half weeks. If things do not go well for the fishing industry over the next few weeks, the repercussions for rural Ireland will be immense. We must support our fishing industry and people in rural Ireland and the debate I seek would play a significant part in that. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House next week to provide clarity on the future for our fishing industry and to ease the genuine worries of our fishing communities.
I wish to raise an issue that I have raised a number of times previously, namely, the Moorhead report and the total disrespect shown to this House by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State at the same Department, Deputy Burke, in not coming here to discuss it with us.It should not be forgotten that 49 of the Senators in this House are here because of the 949 locally elected councillors in this country. There was a debate in this House yesterday on the relevance of the Seanad and I find it amazing that 49 of us have not done our best for the councillors on the ground who are working day in and day out for less than the current pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, rate. We must address the issue of the value of local councillors within the local government system and how we view them. It is important that the Minister and Minister of State would come into this House to discuss their views on the Moorhead report. The buck stops with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party and their party leaders. We have had enough talk about this issue. Senators should not hang their heads; they should do something to deliver for local councillors in this country. There is never a good time to talk about this and me raising it again today will make absolutely no difference. The buck stops with the Senators and Deputies from the Government parties and their leaders and I urge them to do their very best in this regard.
I have just come from a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. We could strengthen the position of councillors by creating a European affairs committee at local level. I raised this issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, a few years ago but that call has also fallen on deaf ears. If we want more citizen engagement vis-à-visEurope going forward then we need to strengthen the value we place on the EU at local level. We can do that very easily through local government. I ask the Leader of the House, Senator Doherty, to invite the Minister of State or the Minister to the House to outline their views on the Moorhead report and discuss the value of local councillors throughout the country.
I thank the Leader for facilitating the debate today on non-Government motion No.5 proposed by my colleague Senator Mark Wall on the siege of Jadotville. I am really glad that we have Government time today to debate that issue, which is of interest to quite a number of Members.
I also renew calls on the Leader for a debate on the gender pay gap. Monday was Equal Pay Day and I know that colleagues spoke yesterday in this House of the need to bring forward legislation urgently to tackle Ireland's continuing gender pay gap, which stands at 14.4%. Colleagues may be aware that in the previous Seanad my Labour Party colleagues and I introduced a Bill which passed all Stages in this House that required companies with more than 50 employees to publish anonymised data showing whether a gender pay gap existed in their organisation. Unfortunately, although the Bill passed Second Stage in the Dáil, it has been stagnated there and the Government has not made any progress on furthering the action needed to tackle the gender pay gap. We know that action is needed or the pay gap will simply increase. I know that the Deputy Leader is also anxious to see action taken on this and I ask her facilitate a debate in this House on how best to move forward with legislation on tackling the gender pay gap without delay.
Finally, on the issue of citizenship, the Labour Party also brought forward a Private Member's Bill in the last term which passed Second Stage in this House. We will be dealing with Committee Stage of that Bill on 2 December. I ask the Deputy Leader to seek Government support for the provisions in that Bill. It is hugely important and would go some way towards reversing the effect of the 2004 citizenship referendum by restoring citizenship or at least the right to apply for citizenship to children born in Ireland. It is a hugely important issue. Labour Youth launched its Born Here, Belong Here campaign last week about which I spoke in this House, which seeks to encourage greater support for this concept. I ask the Deputy Leader to make inquiries as to whether the Government will support the Bill on Committee Stage. It is hugely important. The number of children affected is small but this is a very significant issue for them and their families. We have heard reports of healthcare workers on the front line who are also facing an uncertain future because they are not sure if they will be granted the right to remain in Ireland. Clearly we need to be more generous in our approach to citizenship. It is in our own interests as a society but also in the interests of the children who were born in Ireland and whose status remains uncertain in some cases. I ask the Deputy Leader to pursue those issues and I again commend Labour Youth on its work on this.
I seek the support of the House regarding an important issue that has come to light recently and which is prevalent in every county in Ireland, namely, the lack of second-level autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units. The number of diagnosed cases of autism is increasing all over the country but we have failed to take this into account and to create the necessary spaces at second level. We are doing much better at primary level in the provision of ASD units but autism does not go away. If we have ASD units in our primary schools then we also need them in our secondary schools but to date we have not been doing that. I will bring this up with the Minister for Education but I would like the support of this House on it because this is an issue in every county in Ireland.
I will relate a couple of stories to illustrate my point. A woman in Sixmilebridge told me that eight children in the local primary school are looking for a place in the closest second-level ASD unit. Up to now these children and their families have supported one another but now they are in competition with one another because there is only one place available. That is an horrific situation. I have worked with people with autism and I have friends with children with autism. It should not be left to parents to fight individual campaigns to get the services their children need, especially as they progress to secondary school. As we all know, adolescence is a challenge at the best of times but it is even more of a challenge for those with autism who cannot always express themselves.
Autism is on the increase but statistically we find that ASD units are more often attached to DEIS schools than non-DEIS schools which disgusts me. Furthermore, they are not allowed in private schools, which are funded by the taxpayer, which is also despicable. There is no socioeconomic correlation with autism. It is not the case that those from a certain socioeconomic background have more of a chance of being diagnosed with autism. In that context, there is no reason for attaching ASD units to DEIS schools and not to other schools. We must have equity on every level. We are sending out the wrong message to our children when we attach ASD units to certain types of schools. We really need to rectify that.I think everyone in the House would agree that we want equality when it comes to where we place ASD units, and we want to increase the number of ASD units we have. Currently, for every three children with autism, we have one place in secondary school, and the situation is only going to get worse. The actual statistic is 2.69, but children are not statistics, they are whole numbers. For me, 2.69 is three human beings for every one place. That means two of them will not have a place. If they have come from an ASD unit in primary school, they will have thrived. These units are amazing. The people who work in them are incredible. Parents are so happy to see their children thriving and it is barbaric to think that after eight years of support, when they leave sixth class they would not have that continuity in secondary school. Let us push this agenda as a House.
We must also up our game when it comes to training. We need to do more training to ensure more people can deal with children in autism units in both primary and secondary school environments. We need to up our game in terms of training as well, whether it is a special needs assistant or just somebody in the environment. I ask the House to support me today on the need to further increase the number of ASD units in all types of school, not just in DEIS schools.
Yesterday in the House, I encouraged Members to remember and to remain steadfast in encouraging support from the new US Administration for the Good Friday Agreement, for the peace process and for progress more generally here in Ireland against the impending reckless threat posed to us by Brexit. I was very encouraged to see reported in the media last night that President-elect Biden had a phone call with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, where he referenced those commitments to the Good Friday Agreement and to Ireland. The worrying and very telling point to emerge from that exchange, as we understand it, is that the read-out from the US side referenced this exchange but the read-out from the British Government side did not even make reference to the fact that it was raised by President-elect Biden during the conversation.
The British Government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. It is bound under international law to uphold the agreement. We know the peril in which it has been knowingly placed by the British Government entering into the Brexit agenda and taking no consideration of the Good Friday Agreement and the implications for Ireland. This close to the end of the transition period, it is telling that the British Government would not even reference the fact that the matter was raised by the US Administration. That is particularly telling, but I also take a degree of heart from the fact that it still remains to the fore of the new Administration's agenda.
I was thinking about this on the way down to Dublin. If I have to, I will raise it every day on the Order of Business between now and the end of the year. I will take the opportunity where it is needed to encourage the steadfastness to remain. I know, by and large, that thankfully we have been and are at one in these Houses on this issue but in the middle of everything else, as the clock ticks down further, it is very important that we remain alert to these issues.
I appreciate that we will have the opportunity with the new omnibus Bill coming through the House to discuss some of these issues, but in the previous Seanad, to be fair to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, he did come before us regularly to update us on the negotiations. I know the Deputy Leader has a particular interest in this issue. At the earliest opportunity, we should hear from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, specifically on the Brexit negotiations.
I support the call for a debate on fishing. Fishing is a very important part of life in rural Donegal and a very important way of making a living.
A report this week showed the need for Government support to make sure all women have equal access to domestic violence services. A new report from Safe Ireland shows that approximately 3,450 women and 589 children contacted domestic violence services for the first time during the first six months of the Covid pandemic. That breaks down to 19 women and three children per day. The monthly number of women calling helplines has risen month-on-month since April. We must not forget that men also suffer domestic violence and need support services. Equal access to domestic violence services has always been a problem, and it has gotten worse in the pandemic.
Women face many barriers on a daily basis when they try to escape. The barriers include cultural barriers and practical barriers, for example, not having money or not having a car to help one escape if one is living in a rural area or one does not have supports to get to a safe refuge. Because of cuts to funding, the amount of time a woman can stay in a refuge has been reduced. In most cases, it is a matter of weeks. If we are being honest, it can take a year for some women to recover. We must bear in mind that it takes some women ten to 15 years to get away from a household where there is domestic violence. Women need a lot of support to get away and they need to be supported to be empowered and not just to be in a service for six or seven weeks and then to be made homeless on the streets, as that causes women to go back to their abuser.
The Government must invest in domestic violence services to support women and men in this country to be able to get away. Many women experiencing domestic violence have come to me seeking support, who want to get away from their abuser. I wish to drive this message home today; nobody knows the shoe is cutting them, only the person that is wearing them. We always blame women for the situation they are in but it is not the woman's fault. I call on the Government to support the services, to support Safe Ireland and other women's organisations.
As you well know, a Chathaoirligh, there is widespread support for the decarbonisation of electricity generation, but in doing so we must be very careful and understand the impact that is having on many communities throughout the country. The development of onshore wind turbines is affecting a number of communities in my constituency. Their big concern is that, as of yet, the revised wind energy development guidelines have not been published. They are due to be published later this year. However, there are currently developments before the local authorities based on the old guidelines. The old guidelines relate to the capture of wind when turbines were much smaller. Many of the turbines now being proposed for installation throughout the country are 170 m or perhaps greater than that in height. That kind of infrastructure is having a detrimental impact on the visual amenity of the area. There is a greater possibility for noise and shadow flicker spreading over a much wider area. The real concern in these communities is that existing applications are being assessed under guidelines that are out of date. Their request to us is to put a block on the applications that are currently in train and that planning applications would be stalled in order to allow for the new guidelines to be introduced. I call on the Deputy Leader to try to arrange a debate here, without delay, with the appropriate Minister from a planning perspective and a climate change perspective. While we all share in wanting decarbonisation to take place for the benefit of the environment, we should ensure that we do not put an undue burden on the many people who will be impacted.
We also need to look at how quickly we can move wind turbines offshore. It is well recognised now that the best quality wind can be captured offshore and as a small island we have no shortage of oceans around us. We need to lead the way in the capture of offshore wind energy. It is the right thing to do for the environment but also for communities who are currently under pressure in that regard.
In supporting Senator Garvey's comments on autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units, I know the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is highly cognisant of where the gaps are. Only last week there was an announcement of 25 new units in primary schools. I am working with the Dublin 12 campaign for an autism-specific school and Involve Autism. I am very much aware that issues presented to the Minister of State are being dealt with very effectively and efficiently. In my own area of Dublin 6 and Dublin 6 west, and if we include Dublin 4, there are 9,000 school places but only 14 autism-specific places.
I call for the House to have some sort of debate to address the reality of our services working from home. Currently, there are people working in public and private services working from home in what may not be ideal circumstances. They might not be conducive to normal flow and work patterns. Working from home in an unplanned way at the height of a pandemic has not necessarily lent itself to the efficient outworking of the public services, or, indeed, private services. I really appreciate the really hard work that has gone on. This is a very real issue. I have spent six weeks trying to get personal public service, PPS, numbers and there are delays across all Departments. We get told that a person is in an office on his or her own and that is if we get through to somebody. We need a debate that addresses the reality that because of the circumstances, everything has slowed and there will be a backlog. Supports will be needed and we require a discussion on how to address this after the pandemic. We should get ready now.
It is just after the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month and I pay tribute to the former taoisigh, Enda Kenny and Deputy Leo Varadkar, as well as the current Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, who all attended remembrance services at Enniskillen. It is great that Ireland has grown up and comes to remember the approximately 30,000 Irish men and women who lost their lives in the First World War and the Second World War. It is truly great that we are now able to remember them openly now.
An issue has arisen in the past few days that is quite disturbing. In my six years here I have never seen sharp practice but I am beginning to see it now. A number of local authority members have contacted me because they are getting information sent to their inboxes before it is put in the public domain. They are getting it from members of the Government parties, which is simply wrong.
All of us in the House are elected and we are all public representatives. We are all peers in the House. None of us has the right to information ahead of anybody else.
I will write today to the Secretaries General of every Department to ask them to take on their responsibility as the administrative heads of their Departments to ensure all Members of this House and the Dáil are treated equally. I understand the cut and thrust of politics and that we all try to make names for ourselves. Every now and then we take on a bit of showmanship. It is the nature of the game we are in. Ultimately, the people we represent in this House and those of us elected through the local authority system are entitled to feel they are getting equal representation across all parties and none. It is sharp practice when we start to see this. I have never seen it before.
Senator Buttimer indicated I send stuff, and I do, but I have never been privy to something before it is published. It is wrong and it debases every single one of us when we see that happen. Ultimately, we have a responsibility not just to those who elect us but to the national interest we are here to represent. We are Members of Seanad Éireann; we are not county councillors or Deputies. We are national politicians with a national focus on what we do. We are here to scrutinise Government legislation, not to try to capitalise on the inside track. That is part of what debases politics in this country.
There are some very sound people in this room. Some people I have great respect for and some people respect me while others do not. Some are friends and some are not friends. Ultimately, I recognise the right of everybody here to be treated equally and I ask for nothing more or nothing less.
I echo the remarks of Senator Garvey relating to ASD units.
I also echo the remarks of Senator Ó Donnghaile. It was telling that US President-elect Biden called just six leaders last night and one of those was the Taoiseach. I hope that is a sign of the continued strong relationship between Ireland and the United States.
I raise the question of the fair deal scheme and the long-standing commitment to address the discrimination against farms and small businesses. Members are aware that those who avail of the fair deal scheme see assets charged at a rate of 7.5%, and this is capped after three years for the family home. This does not apply to family farms and small businesses. This is clearly a disincentive when it comes to succession and inheritance, and it is also quite worrying for many families. A family member may have to go to a nursing home, for example, because of age or potentially degenerative illness, which would be worse.
There has been a commitment for six years from the Government to address this. I know the heads of a Bill were prepared prior to the general election for this to be done. As I understand it, the matter rests with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and I ask that it be regarded as a priority. There are only approximately 700 farm families currently availing of the fair deal scheme. The lack of certainty and a failure to deliver on something that was a very clear Government commitment is a matter of concern. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has said it is a priority but I ask that the matter be stressed to the Government.
I support Senator Byrne's comments on the fair deal scheme and it is extremely important that this be legislated for immediately.
I raise the question of the possible temporary lifting of QQI level 5 qualification requirements for people working in childcare. Following the recent HSE announcement on the lifting of this requirement in order to become a carer, I ask if a similar action could be taken with the childcare sector. In the first lockdown in March, it was clear to see how essential childcare services are, especially in these unprecedented times when people cannot expect grandparents or other family members to care for their children if they must work.
Since opening on 29 June, childcare services have been under great strain in trying to maintain proper adult-child ratios due to staff shortages. The sector is facing a major crisis, with increased demand for childcare professionals, but there has been a decrease in the number of courses provided to allow eager and suitable candidates to become qualified professionals before joining the sector. It would be a major benefit to the sector and to all children and parents relying on childcare facilities if the requirement for a minimum level 5 qualification were to be lifted temporarily. Providing more training at an affordable price would allow eligible candidates to be trained.
A number of providers have contacted me about staff who were unwell and unable to attend work at short notice, as well as staff who travelled outside the country or had to go into isolation. Others could not attend work due to personal circumstances. It is very difficult for providers to give the high-quality service that they strive to achieve. All the staff on the floor are under extra pressure and are thinly stretched. Often, rooms must be closed temporarily and sometimes children who require assistance under the access and inclusion model are unable to attend if the staff are not available to meet individual care needs.If we could recruit suitable candidates who are currently completing or are willing to enrol to complete the necessary training it would be a huge support to help get services through these unprecedented times. Any staff would be fully trained and would work alongside trained and experienced staff so they would not be on their own. I urge the lifting of the level 5 requirements as soon as possible before it leads to more closures. Unfortunately, many services have been forced to permanently close their doors as a result of the restrictions.
I want to raise the issue of purpose-built student accommodation being granted planning permission for short-term use as tourist or visitor accommodation. There are guidelines for purpose-built student accommodation. I do not think anyone could argue that we do not need some purpose-built student accommodation but what we have seen since the guidelines were introduced is luxury accommodation being built in the wrong places, specifically in the inner city. In my own area, we have just under 4,000 units of purpose-built student accommodation, hotel units or aparthotels or transient units within a very small area in the Liberties, Dublin 8. Most recently, the local authority has granted 1,600 beds of purpose-built student accommodation the right in the short term to change over to holiday or tourist accommodation or to be used as general worker accommodation. This is developers gaming the system and gaming the guidelines that were allowed. They pretended that they were building purpose-built student accommodation but were actually doing what they had always wanted, which is tourist accommodation thus undermining long-term housing, affordable student accommodation and the hotel industry.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage needs to come into this House to address this matter. He must also say whether he will issue guidelines to local authorities on change of use or else ban purpose-built student accommodation, which we have been told that we need, from being changed into co-living by the back door. I ask him to come in here and inform us what he will do.
I am quite concerned about recent newspaper reports in The Sunday Times. The Minister, when he was Opposition spokesperson, said that co-living was not a solution to the housing crisis. I see from leaks from the Department that it looks like co-living will be tinkered with as opposed to its removal altogether.
Finally, I commend Councillor Eva Dowling from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on securing support for her motion on maternity leave for councillors within Dún Laoghaire. This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed because women councillors are particularly affected by a lack of maternity and paternity leave.
I want to address the issue of bars and restaurants re-opening on Tuesday, 1 December. I noted the comments made by the Chief Medical Officer this week expressing doubt that such advice would be given. It is essential that we approach this from a realistic angle. Perhaps 2020 has been the toughest year in the history of the State so people will at least like to socialise for Christmas. In the absence of pubs and restaurants the inevitable reality is, as we have seen previously, that house parties will happen everywhere.
The data on outbreaks and clusters, as the Cathaoirleach will be aware, from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre make it clear such house parties are a far bigger problem than bars and restaurants that act responsibly, follow guidelines and have controlled environments. The data reflect that of 6,700 clusters, less than 1% are related to pubs or restaurant settings. We have proven, under Government guidelines, that in late June there was no increase in the infection rate attributed to pubs and restaurants. Naturally, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, is going to recommend that restaurants and pubs remain closed. Its focus, rightly, is on Covid-19 rather than on the broader range of issues the Government needs to consider. I imagine that NPHET would like everyone to stay at home until a vaccine is rolled out but the Government needs to be more realistic. That is not going to happen and the Government must consider human nature.
The hospitality sector, as we are all know, has been hammered by the pandemic. As I come from that background, I can state with certainly that December is a crucial month that provides income to cover the lean months ahead until St. Patrick's Day. Thousands of small businesses that employ tens of thousands of people across the country currently face an uncertain future and wonder if they will survive a crisis not of their making.
I will make a final vital point about a two-tier economy. The fact is that the thousands of people who work in this industry will not have money for Christmas. They are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, which will put these workers and their families are under severe financial pressure. As we all know, gatherings will happen in December. Therefore, controlled environments such as pubs and restaurants are a far safer option to protect public health than uncontrolled settings that house parties provide.
I apologise to the Cathaoirleach but it is disingenuous of Members to come in here and claim different things. We are a political people and we are entitled, as Members, to share information just as Departments are entitled to share information. Senator Craughwell is a good man to give it but he had better take it as well. I apologise to the Cathaoirleach as it would not be my intent to be disrespectful.
I can assure Senator Gallagher that when it comes to the collective sharing of information, we can do that. I am sure that he knows what I mean by that.
A Chathaoirligh, I ask that the Minister for Health comes to the House as a matter of urgency. There is absolute confusion around the flu vaccine this morning. At the time of a pandemic, there is a need for certainty and confidence in the Health Service Executive. GPs are sharing information with us regarding the availability, non-availability or suspension of the administration of the flu vaccine. If Members who are in government today were on the other side the House, they would be in here roaring and proposing an amendment to the Order of the Business to have the Minister come to the House. This is a matter for the HSE. Dr. Colm Henry appeared on "Morning Ireland" this morning but there is an absolute need for clarity and certainty for GPs and pharmacists around reimbursement but also among the people, na gnáth daoine, the most vulnerable of whom are in need of the flu vaccine.
I ask that the Minister for Health comes to this House to address the reimbursement of pharmacists and GPs, plus the availability of the flu vaccine. Do we have a plan for the future, in the coming weeks, to distribute the flu vaccine? This is not a partisan matter but one of public health.
I request that the Minister for Transport comes before the Seanad to outline how he intends to tackle the massive driving test backlog. The number of people waiting for a test has increased by 70% since he took over his Department in June.
This week, the Road Safety Authority has confirmed that there are now over 90,000 people awaiting a driving test. A quarter of those waiting are in Dublin with Tallaght making up 10% of that with a shocking 9,323 people who are waiting to complete their driving test. This means there will be people who will be forced to wait until late 2021 to complete their test. This situation is simply not acceptable. We know that public transport is down to 25% capacity and the public advice on Covid quite rightly prevents car pooling.
The failure to complete a driving test is leaving many people having to pass up on job offers as they are predicated on them having a full driving licence. To make matters even worse, the driver theory test has been suspended until early December thus creating another backlog in those needing to learn how to drive. It is obvious that there is a clear need for additional driving instructors and testers. Likewise, the Minister needs to urgently consult instructors, testers and their unions to find a way forward in order that we can accelerate the number of tests that can be carried out safely over the coming months.
We all want more public transport and active mobility solutions, including good quality cycle lanes.The Minister's failure to deal with the driving test backlog is leaving people isolated, in particular in rural Ireland, and it is locking others out of employment. I ask that the Minister come before this House and set out clearly the strategy he intends to take to deal with the backlog and crisis.
I wish to speak about the Safe Ireland report published yesterday. I am conscious it was mentioned earlier. The research is traumatic. It is deeply upsetting to see how many people are suffering from domestic violence. The number of women and children who contacted services for the very first time during the first six months of the Covid pandemic is eye watering. Some 3,450 women and 589 children contacted domestic violence services for the very first time. That is the equivalent of 19 women and three children every day, or about 25% of the total number of women and children who contact domestic violence services.
While there is no doubt that we are living in the middle of a Covid pandemic, there is also a pandemic in respect of domestic violence. It is incumbent on every one of us to fight for women and men who suffer from domestic violence, in particular given that there are more women than ever in the Seanad. We need to stand firm and strong with our peers who are undergoing domestic violence.
There are 158 shelter spaces available for women who are victims of domestic violence in this country. There was a commitment in the programme for Government that there would be an increase in the number of places, but it is of paramount importance that extra work is done to provide resources for victims who need to use domestic refuge centres. I want to pay particular tribute to Teach Tearmainn in Kildare which does incredible work. We also need to work with local authorities to ensure victims have the opportunity to have permanent housing.
Following on from my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, I would like to talk about the same subject. Safe Ireland, the national domestic violence agency, works with 39 front-line services throughout the length and breadth of the country. In my area, Monaghan and Cavan, I know Tearmann does fantastic work and I want to compliment it on the fantastic service it provides.
The report being discussed today makes for a very grim reading. The report, which was carried out from March of this year, covers a six-month period. I found the content of the report alarming and heartbreaking. During that six-month period, 3,450 women and 589 children contacted a domestic support hotline for the very first time. Some 32,941 telephone calls were answered, an average of 184 calls per day. It is important that we pause and remember that behind the 184 calls every day is a broken family in turmoil and living in fear of their circumstances. When I think of that, I think of the families who have yet to pick up the phone and make the call. I encourage them to do so and reach out for help because help is there.
Sadly and shockingly, 191 women and 280 children are living in domestic abuse accommodation every month. Even more shockingly, 1,351 requests for refuge could not be provided due to a lack of space. Service providers have been promised additional funding across a number of Departments, but they want the funding made available to them to be ring-fenced for their use. I ask that information be provided to them as soon as possible.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of Brexit, in particular fisheries. I concur with him. In my county of Mayo, fishing is an industry that still employs people. Senator Flynn also raised the issue. It is one of the few remaining issues to be resolved in the Brexit negotiations. The UK knows it is of considerable importance to Ireland and that is why it has not been resolved to date. I am not sure if we will get a resolution to the level of satisfaction that we want. The matter is still under discussion.
Senator Keogan raised the issue of the Moorhead report. We spoke earlier about the need for greater engagement at a council level on matters regarding the EU. In regard to the Conference on the Future of Europe, if we are going to engage with citizens across the board it would be much easier if we had proper structures in place at local level. It is helping us to highlight the deficiencies. I agree with her. In terms of the Moorhead report, I will make contact with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to seek a date to discuss the report at the earliest possible opportunity.
I disagree that we have let councillors down. From the perspective of Fianna Fáil, we have not been in government for the past five years. Since coming into government, the report has been published and there is a commitment on page 119 of the programme for Government to address it. That is a positive step in the right direction.
I note that Senator Bacik welcomed the Jadotville debate later today and Senator Wall's involvement in that motion.
I am sure Senator Bacik will have seen that the Cathaoirleach has selected the elimination of the gender pay gap as the first item to be discussed in terms of the labour panel engagement with stakeholders, which is a very positive move for Seanad Éireann. I look forward to engaging on that topic. It is an issue of particular interest to me.
I also want to acknowledge the work that the Labour Party has done in terms of a Bill on transparency around the gender pay gap in organisations with more than 50 employees. I would fully support that. We need movement on that. Until companies are transparent and can be seen warts and all, I do not think we will see considerable movement on the issue.
I agree with Senator Ó Donnghaile that it is very welcome to note that conversations happened yesterday with the UK Prime Minister and the Taoiseach on the Good Friday Agreement and many other issues in respect of the US presidency. The Taoiseach congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on his historic win and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on her significant and historic win. She is the first black woman to take up the position of Vice President-elect and I am sure she will look at the top job in four years' time. I congratulate the Cathaoirleach, along with the Ceann Comhairle, on being very quick off the mark in issuing an invitation to President-elect Biden to address both Houses of the Oireachtas at the earliest possible opportunity. We all look forward to that happening. I suggest that the Cathaoirleach extend the same invitation to Vice President-elect Harris. I am sure we would love to hear from her. I agree with Senator Ó Donnghaile that we need to keep the Good Friday Agreement on the agenda and continue to remind the British Government that it is a co-guarantor of the Agreement. It is quite telling that they neglected to mention that the topic was raised with them by President-elect Biden. I am very glad that the US President-elect has publicly acknowledged that he sees it as a priority for his presidency, as do we.
Senator Flynn raised the issue of the Safe Ireland report, as did Senators O'Loughlin and Gallagher. I concur with what all Members have said on this issue. It is the hidden trauma and cost of the pandemic. Men and women are affected, but it is predominantly women who are at home in very tense environments with their abusers. That women have made a step forward to try to escape that situation yet find themselves with no refuge to go to is quite shocking. I am not sure which Senator mentioned the figure, but I read that it takes in excess of 30 incidents of domestic violence for a women to leave a situation, and it can take many more. The actual act of getting up and leaving is huge and cannot be underestimated. For women to find they have nowhere to turn and have to return to where they came from is a massive failure of the system. Senator Dooley raised the issue of the decarbonisation of electricity generation, and the impact of turbines on communities. I absolutely agree on that. It is a debate we have in Mayo as well. The size of turbines has increased, but the fact they are being given planning permission under old guidelines is just wrong. We need to bring communities with us because they want to play their part in the greener production of electricity. Offshore wind farms are where it is at and there is huge potential on the west coast for it, but onshore wind farms will also be part of the solution. However, we cannot just bulldoze those through communities and fail to facilitate communities coming on board. It looks very underhanded that we are using old guidelines to bring through what is new technology. It is not fair play with communities which are not stupid, will see it for what it is and will object to them all the way. It is hard to disagree with them on that point.
Senator Seery Kearney raised the issue of ASD units. I welcome her comments on the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan's work on this issue, and I look forward to hearing more about it. The Minister of State would be welcome to come before the House at some point to outline her work in that particular area.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of sharp practice. I am not sure that I can provide the Senator with any reassurance that the leaking of information will cease any time soon. There was significant debate on a similar and related matter in the Dáil last night. It is part and parcel of political life. I can assure the Senator that I have never put out information that was not publicly available beforehand, but at the same time, I note that other Senators have commented on the fact that perhaps the Senator himself is quite prone to contacting councillors. In any event, I do not think it is the pressing issue of the day.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of the fair deal scheme and its impact on farming families. I know from dealing directly with families that the question of whether or not a loved one will go into a nursing home is at the forefront of their minds, even though the loved one might really need that care. However, the loss of the family farm is not only about the loss of income and the economic side of it, but there is also a huge attachment to the family farm that may have been passed down through generations. If that cap is not applied to the family farm as well as the home, the family farm could be so devalued that it is of no use to anybody. From a Fianna Fáil perspective, protecting the small family farm is at the core of what we are about - it is party policy - and we need to see action on that issue immediately.
Senator Carrigy raised the issue of the level 5 qualification requirement for childcare workers. I take a slightly different view on the issue. Having listened to childcare workers, they want to see value attached to the qualifications that they have. Many of those working in the childcare sector have levels 6, 7 and 8 qualifications. If we want to increase the number of people working in the childcare sector, we must pay them properly and not underestimate the work they do. There is a reason they are not staying in the sector: it is because they are paid a pittance. It is no coincidence that it is primarily a female profession and it is only beginning to get air time now. In no small part, this is because the workers have become unionised and the issue has been increasingly debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas in recent times. It is incumbent on all Members to do more to make sure that those in the childcare sector are paid properly. During this pandemic, we have seen the impact that having no childcare has on the country. The whole country comes to a halt because parents need childcare to go to work, and people need to go to work to keep the economy running, so it is all part of the same circle.
Senator Moynihan raised the issue of the change of use of purpose-built student accommodation into holiday apartments. If that is what companies, landlords and builders are doing, then we need to put a stop to it because that is not what the law was intended for. If they are circumventing the rules, and if those rules need to be tightened, then we will do that. In the short term, because of the pandemic and the fact that many of the students are at home, if there is a change of use to allow emergency workers to use the accommodation, then that is fine because it is a genuine change of use. However, if there is an underhandedness to it, and I will certainly bring it to the attention of the Minister, then we need to put a stop to it. It is a significant development for the community in Dublin 8 to have a development of that size, and if it is being used to undercut hospitality businesses in the area and to bring in with co-living through the back door. That is not something Fianna Fáil or the Government would support. I thank the Senator for raising the issue because this is the place do so.
Senator Crowe raised the issue of bars and restaurants. I note he is anticipating what the Chief Medical Officer might suggest in terms of his advices. I know Dr. Holohan will not be drawn on what his advices might be and he is, of course, waiting until he gets the latest data before making any announcement. I agree with the Senator on the impact of restrictions on the hospitality sector and the knock-on effect impact on families because it affects their income. Many of them are on much less income than they would be if they were back earning. I note also that the Christmas period is when many hospitality businesses make their money to survive the first six months of the year until they get back into the summer period. It is therefore of huge concern and I agree with the Senator that the Government needs to take into account not just the public health aspect, but also the social and economic aspect of restrictions. To date, I think it has done so and it did not go to level 5 restrictions straight away in that there was a period of a few weeks lead-in to try to prepare better for them. There is a real cognisance of the impact of restrictions. All we can do for bars and restaurants is to use any opportunity we have to get a takeaway and support our local business because every little bit helps in these months. Drinking pints out in the cold is not something we do in the west of Ireland because in the winter months, it is almost a necessity to drink indoors but it is different in the summertime. I am hopeful that we can protect those businesses over the winter months.
Senator Buttimer raised the issue of the flu vaccine. I only know what the Senator knows on what has been reported this morning. I have not received an update from the Minister for Health on that particular issue. I find it very hard to believe that 600,000 flu vaccines have gone missing. I am sure that in the coming days we will get a reasonable explanation as to why that is. I note that some GPs have said they have been so busy that they have not had time to process the paperwork and to put in the claims for the flu vaccines, so that might account for some of the discrepancy. We should wait to hear back from the Minister for Health on the issue, following his engagement with the HSE and with GPs on the issue. I am sure there is an explanation for it because 600,000 vaccines do not just go missing. They are somewhere and I have no doubt that they will be found. We will seek an update for the Senator from the Minister for Health on the issue.
Senator Boyhan raised the issue of the backlog in driver tests. I am aware that this has been raised previously by Senators Burke and Byrne and it is a massive issue. I note that Ógra Fianna Fáil is running a campaign on this issue because it is affecting many younger drivers who are getting on the road for the first time. There is a 30-week backlog, which really needs to be addressed. I was not aware of the concentration of the backlog in the Tallaght, in particular, and it is clearly not fair that one community is more affected that others. There should be a reallocation of resources to tackle that particular issue because clearly that is well above the backlog in other areas.
Senator O'Loughlin raised the issue of Safe Ireland. The UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is 25 November and I have been informed that the Minister for Justice intends to come before this House the day before on 24 November to discuss her plans around supporting women in situations of domestic violence. During the pandemic, an additional €2.1 million was allocated to services to try to address the deficiency in services and supports. I know that An Garda Síochána and the Court Service are prioritising those cases, so efforts are being made. However, when one looks at the numbers, which were highlighted by Senator Gallagher also, of 3,450 women and 589 children who contacted services in that six-month period, and 90 women and three children per day, it is quite stark. Women are bearing the brunt of this, it is having an impact on children at a young age, and it needs to be addressed. I look forward to hearing from the Minister for Justice on 24 November as to what her plans are in the Department of Justice to tackle this issue.
I thank the Deputy Leader for her suggestion to invite Vice President-elect Harris to address the Seanad. I will send that letter, perhaps to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sitting of First Seanad, which will be in 2022.