Tuesday, 8 December 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the seventh report of the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1 in the Dáil Chamber and to conclude at 12.30 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall in regard to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 3, statements on combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, resumed, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and to conclude after one hour, with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; No. 4, Finance Bill 2020 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.15 p.m. in the Seanad Chamber, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and with any division demanded thereon to be postponed until immediately after the Order of Business on Wednesday, 9 December 2020; and No. 4a - to be circulated on a Supplementary Order Paper subject to the request being approved by the Cabinet this morning - motion regarding the earlier signature of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020, to be taken on conclusion of No. 4 in the Seanad Chamber without debate and any division demanded thereon to be postponed until immediately after the Order of Business on Wednesday, 9 December 2020.
It is well recognised that today is a momentous day in the fight against Covid with the first person on the island of Ireland having received the latest vaccine at around 8 o'clock this morning. Hopefully, that heralds the beginning of the end of this enormous crisis that has bedevilled societies right across the globe and impacted on the lives of so many. We have seen many lives lost and many lives affected through the loss of loved ones and the economic upheaval that the crisis has created right across the globe. Hopefully, the end is now in sight. That brings me to my next point. As we move from, it is hoped, the beginning of the end of this crisis, we in this part of Europe are just facing into the beginning of a very significant negative situation for the island of Ireland, namely, Brexit. To some extent the debate on and the concerns about Brexit have been pushed to the back of the minds of many because of the virus. However, judging from any of the studies that have been published recently and are updated regularly, it is clear, regardless of the arrangement or agreement that is reached in the coming days, if one is reached, that there will be a very significant negative impact on the economy of this State and on the lives of many. It is well recognised that our food sector exports so much from the island of Ireland to the United Kingdom and that this will have a very negative impact on the lives of rural dwellers and people who are involved in processing and the primary area of food production.
However, it is not just that. Reports out today would indicate that those who live in cities and towns and who consume food containing perhaps some ingredients originating in Ireland but processed ultimately in the UK will be affected. The tariffs associated with a no-deal Brexit will have a significant negative impact on the livelihoods of people who are food consumers. We need to address this quickly not only from a legislative point of view but also as part of a wider debate in the coming days. I think many people had grown tired of Brexit and the desire to understand what is going on. They just got sick of it and have not really got to a point at which they understand the implications of what is facing them, regardless, as I said, of whether there is no deal or a good deal. There is no such thing as a good deal, sadly, in this instance.
That brings me to my third and final point, which concerns a report published today by the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland on the growth in our housing stock and the achievements in that regard. Notwithstanding the stoppages in the construction sector during the early months of the year due to the lockdown in the economy, approximately 18,000 or 19,000 homes will be completed this year. The required number, however, is probably close to twice that, or approximately 35,000 homes. Projections for next year would suggest that we will complete about the same number of residential units. That will not be enough, because the projections for the next three to five years are such that house completions will need to be at approximately 35,000. As we head towards the end of the year, as we move out of one crisis and face the next, we have to be careful we do not allow these really important issues to blind us to the really important domestic issues. Housing and health and the lack of continued effort over successive Governments to deal with them have led us to a point at which the housing crisis is still there. It may not make the headlines every week and may not be talked about in this House every week but it is still there. While I accept and recognise that Departments are working very constructively to address these issues, from our point of view, as part of the overall Legislature, we cannot take our foot off the pedal in reminding the various organs of State how important it is to continue the efforts in this regard and to try to reach that critical target of 35,000 units per year.
I note we have three minutes each. I thank the Leader for laying out the Order of Business. I have no difficulty with it.
I wish to raise the issue of local government, which is very dear to my heart. I served for many years on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and travelled around the country a lot in my role on the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and other bodies representing local government. I acknowledge the work of Cork County Council under its current mayor, Councillor Mary Linehan Foley, and her work. They launched an enormous campaign last week to focus on diversity and inclusion in local government. There is a real need to address these issues. We know that in 2019 the local elections resulted in the election of the highest proportion of women ever in the history of the State.The 226 women elected nationally still only represent 25% of the councillors elected across 31 local authorities, which is disappointing. Why do women and other people on the margins of particular groups feel they are unable to participate meaningfully and actively in local government? There are many reasons. It is not family friendly for starters. There is no maternity leave. There has been a debate about maternity leave for national politicians. I have spoken to women who have maternity issues or who seek maternity leave in local authorities who have been told if they want to be paid or certainly credited for their attendance, they need to produce sick notes, which is unacceptable.
We need diversity and inclusion in local government. I acknowledge the work of the previous Minister of State, Deputy Phelan. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is doing something in terms of supports and practical measures to bring women into politics - and to bring all sorts of people into politics. It is important to encourage, support and facilitate people in our communities. Most of us came into politics through community endeavour and involvement. We were politicised by some experience in our community or by some experience we encountered in our personal life. That is what stirs up something in us and encourages us to bring our personal experience to the political field and do something about it.
As the Leader knows, we are influencers. Everyone has the capacity to influence people. How can we put our heads together in the Houses of the Oireachtas to support local government? We need to address the issue of access. We need to encourage all sorts of diversity into local government. Meetings need to be held at times that are suitable for people. We need to address pay and conditions and the Moorhead recommendation, which I will not touch on today because there is an expectation of some news coming later in the day. We should set aside time for a major discussion on how we can get our neighbours and friends in our communities into government at local, national and European levels.
I note the great news coming from Northern Ireland and Coventry in Britain about the first Covid vaccines. It is almost surreal to think that we have reached the point where the vaccine is being rolled out.
I note the Government's amendment to the Brexit Bill, which will effectively undo the Labour Party amendment which was not opposed by Government Senators last week. We are deeply uneasy over the manner in which the Government is conducting its business today with the guillotining of the Bill.
I wish to raise an issue relating to the banks. Thousands of mortgage holders are facing into a very uncertain future. Thousands of people have lost their jobs for good and are now unable to pay their mortgages. They feature among the 6.1% of mortgage holders who are in arrears. Thousands more do not know if they will have their jobs in the new year leaving them struggling to pay their mortgages and having to go to their banks. People in the sectors that closed first and will be the last to reopen face particular mortgage difficulties.
In the early days of the pandemic the Central Bank moved swiftly to introduce guidelines for a payment break for mortgages, which was very welcome. However, in September the European Banking Authority issued guidelines that the payment break was no longer needed. The Irish banks have shielded under this recommendation. The European Banking Authority is now considering payment breaks again, but the Irish banks are refusing to engage with this.
We need a debate in this House with the Minister for Finance about how we deal with mortgage difficulties. The code of conduct on mortgage arrears is seven years old and arguably out of date.We need to have a debate in this House with regard to mortgages and banking. There is a wider issue in respect of banking in this country. We have two banks in which the State is the majority shareholder and it is now proposed that €20 billion of Ulster Bank loans will be sold at some stage in the coming months or year, possibly to Cerberus. There is real concern about the sale of these Irish loans to an American vulture fund. These loans account for approximately 20% of all SME lending in this country and more than 14% of mortgages. The impact of the sale of this loan book on businesses and mortgage holders could potentially be enormous. We need to have a debate in this House about the wider banking landscaping and the competitiveness of the market for banks. It is not just about borrowers; it is also about the workers. AIB is about to cut more than 1,300 jobs. There are very serious issues in the banking sector.
Last Tuesday, I raised the issue of the contract cleaning joint labour committee. The employment regulation order was due to be signed on 1 December but, a week later, we have heard nothing from the Department. While 40 cent per hour might not mean much to the officials in the Department, to the Minister or to those of us in this House, it means a lot to contract cleaners. It is not acceptable to leave them waiting for a week when employers and trade unions have already agreed to this pay deal. I urge the Minister to sign the order and press on.
Today is a positive, welcome and good day for us. The vaccine has arrived and roll-out has begun in Ireland. When one thinks of where we were three or six months ago and considers what people have endured and suffered over the course of the pandemic, even the fact that we are able to say that is really uplifting. We did say that we should never lose hope and this morning, in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, Sister Joanna Sloan received the Pfizer vaccine. She is a nurse who has worked on the front line and who will, I have no doubt, continue to do so after having received the vaccine.
I take the opportunity to again commend our front-line healthcare workers and all of those who stepped into the bearna bhaoil and put their bodies, health and families at risk in order to help, assist, support and save many others. That must be acknowledged and commended and we must thank them for this again this morning.
While I appreciate that it will be another few weeks before we start to see the roll-out of the vaccine in this part of the country, it would be timely for the Minister for Health to come before the House for statements on the effective, efficient and equitable roll-out of the vaccine in this State, if not next week then as soon as possible upon our return in the new year. I was very uplifted on my car journey down this morning when listening to the reports from the Royal Victoria Hospital. It is timely to hear from the Minister about the roll-out in this State.
I will finish by agreeing with the sentiments expressed around the precarious time we are now in with regard to Brexit. As I committed to doing, I again call on Members to remain as steadfast and collegiate as possible with regard to the broader political and societal ramifications of Brexit, although I do not mean to take away from the points raised about legislation passing through this House. It is really at a crucial and critical stage and we must stand together to ensure that the fundamental commitments made by not only the Irish Government, but Irish political life, to protect the Good Friday Agreement, to defend citizens' rights and to ensure that there is not return to a hard border on the island are all maintained.
I thank the Cathaoirleach.I was not in the House last week, so I did not get the opportunity to comment on the Pat Finucane affair. From my background as a southern unionist, I take it extremely badly that the British Government has shown itself to be totally untrustworthy. It is very shocking to me that the British Government first tried to get Her Majesty the Queen to lie, then it broke an international treaty within a year of signing it, and now it is involved in a disgraceful attempt to cover up the complicity of agents of the Government in murder. As far as I am concerned, the difficulties of the British authorities seem to be that the higher up the establishment it goes, the more sensitive they are to it. So they should be. The higher up this involvement goes, the more important it is that people know. I am adding my voice to those calling for a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane.
The European Union has now adopted the Magnitsky Act, which is something that is very welcome. We need to ensure that those sanctions are used against the last dictatorship in Europe, Belarus. We have spoken in this House before about the need to address the abuses of Lukashenko. Even last weekend we saw that more than 300 people were detained during peaceful protests by those looking for democracy and human rights. I know the Irish Government has been taking a very strong stance on this, but I ask the Leader if we could redouble our efforts to ensure that democracy and human rights prevail in Belarus. Members will be aware that the leader of the democratic fight, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has very strong Irish connections. I hope that, at an appropriate juncture, she would be invited to these Houses. I believe we need to take strong action against Belarus.
I also wish to request a debate on access to higher education. Yesterday, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, published the latest in a series of reports that tell us what we know. The HEA noted that numbers going on to higher education are at their highest ever, which is very welcome. The additional places provided by the Government are important, but at the same time, large sectors of society are not getting the opportunities in higher and further education. While the student cohort in the institutes of technology and the technological universities is much more reflective of the population more generally, we still have a problem with some universities, in particular on courses such as medicine and law, which are not more broadly reflective of society. I ask for a debate on access to higher education based on the report by the HEA.
I wish to raise a very sensitive subject. I expect many parents and teenagers are concerned about it and they probably do not know where to go after the ruling in the UK against the Tavistock Clinic on gender identity. A landmark judgment was made in a court in the UK against a children's identity clinic, the Tavistock Clinic, for prescribing puberty blockers to a child under the age of 16. She is now 23 years of age and is detransitioning back to a female. The court ruled that it was doubtful that those under the age of 16 could understand the long-term, consequential effects of the treatment, and it was unlikely that they could give informed consent.
In February, Irish doctors raised concerns about gender identity services at Crumlin hospital in Dublin. The service is provided by flying in two clinicians from the clinic. I also note that nearly 80 children under the age of 16 have travelled to the UK in the past three years to undergo gender identity transitioning. I would like to have a debate in this House and for the Minister to come in and tell us what he is going to do about this.It is a very serious case. There are many children out there this morning who could be taking puberty blockers at this time, and parents could be facilitating that, so we need direction from the Minister on this issue.
I would like to raise two issues with the Leader with a view to having a debate on them and getting answers from the relevant Ministers. The first concerns homeowners who are facing increasing and mounting bills from their management companies for retrospective work being done on their homes and apartments. For example, in one building in Newbridge, over 30 homeowners have to pay for fire upgrade and compartment wall safety. The initial bill is running at around €3,500 per homeowner, and now they have been told that they will face another bill of almost of €4,000 in January or February. The management company wants the money to be paid up front before the work begins and no instalment options are being offered. So far, the cost of the work being done to this building is in the region of €120,000. These apartments were built in 2005, and homeowners are struggling to come up with the money for the necessary upgrades. My colleague, Senator Moynihan, raised this issue at a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage last week, but I would appreciate the chance to discuss the issue with the Minister if he will come to the House.
The second issue I wish to highlight was highlighted by RTÉ over the weekend. I have received a large number of representations and contacts on it since then. It concerns allowing live music bands to perform at weddings now that we are back under level 3 restrictions. I have been contacted by the Wedding Band Association, which was formed in 2014 and represents many of Ireland's wedding bands. The guidelines which state that live music and dancing are not permitted have caused major concern for its members, and of course has completely devastated couples who are due to get married in the coming weeks. Members of the Wedding Band Association have completed Covid officer training courses, and many have been performing at weddings since last July. We are all aware of the amount of planning that goes into that special big day for so many couples. Many of them are unsure if they can have live music at their weddings for the months ahead. Wedding guest lists have been limited to 25, and that has been accepted by couples the length and breadth of the country, but not having live music is a major concern and disappointment for those planning their big day, because it is, after all, such an integral part of any wedding. I ask the Leader to consider my points.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business moved by the Leader of the House.
It is a momentous week and a momentous number of hours as we set the clock for the final countdown to Brexit. It has been an arduous process for all involved. I would like to acknowledge the work of Michel Barnier, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and those who have been involved in the day-to-day Brexit talks over the past number of years. We are down to the final hours, and we will soon know if there is a deal or no deal in respect of Brexit. I acknowledge the Trojan work done and the monumental importance of this issue for Ireland - for our consumers, businesses and every sector of society. As has been commented previously, there is no such thing as a good deal in terms of Brexit. The best deal is maintaining the status quo, but we have to respect the decision that has been made, and I want to put that on the record.
The second issue I wish to raise in this momentous week is the laying out of the plan for Covid-19 vaccinations, which the Cabinet will be dealing with this week. It will have to decide how to prioritise certain sectors of society, including healthcare workers, our loved ones and the elderly in nursing homes, those over 70 years of age, and those occupying other front-line positions in meat plants or various other critical sectors where there is a high risk of infection. I wish the Cabinet well in setting out the protocol on the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine.
I want to welcome the news in the past hour that €2.5 million in funding will be set aside for swimming pools across this country. I want to thank Sport Ireland and the Government for releasing this money, because swimming is one of the great participation sports in Ireland.In October, Mr. Peter Conway, the chairperson of Swim Ireland came before us at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. He spelled out the very precarious position the organisation was in at that time. Registration was down to just 15% and 35 pools remained closed around the country with many on a knife edge. The biggest challenge was the cessation of lessons under the then level 3 restrictions. Swimming is a very important life skill and it is one of the great participation sports. There are 250,000 people who swim at least once or twice every week for one hour. There is no gender gap issue and actually there are more female participants than male participants. It is a great sport and one to be supported. I welcome the money announced today, especially in my own area for the pools in Navan, Trim and Kells. I thank Sport Ireland for keeping this sport afloat during this time. Rather than all of the negative news we debate, and rightly so, in this Chamber, I welcome this positive announcement of €2.5 million for swimming pools across the State.
The Cathaoirleach and the Leader will be aware that for too long the mental health services have been the Cinderella of the health service with regard to proactiveness and investment. While there was an increase in financing for that sector in the budget, which I welcome, it is nowhere near what is required. I ask the Leader that we would have a specific and complete debate on our mental health services given that at the beginning of this year more than 10,000 young people were waiting for an appointment with the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS.
In the context of that debate I want the Leader to look at a novel idea that has been advanced recently by Councillor Kenneth Egan and supported by Deputy Neale Richmond from the other House. This is the concept that money taken from Garda seizures as proceeds of crime and drugs be ring-fenced for mental health services. This is done right across Europe and in many other countries. To date this year €16 million has been seized from organised crime by the Garda national drugs unit and by the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB. I want that money ring-fenced for addiction services, for counselling and for the various mental health services. If that money was ring-fenced it would have a number of good effects. One would be dealing with the roots of the crime with the money accrued through that crime at the source of the crime. It is a very good suggestion. We should run with it and at a minimum it should be debated in this House in the context of a general debate. I would welcome that.
I want to return to retail workers again this morning. Clearly, with all of the worries of Brexit and what we may be facing in the new year it becomes even more concerning. One particular issue has raised its head, and I hope the Leader might be able to help. I have written to the Minister but I understand that she is very busy right now. As the House will be aware, our retail workers returned to work in large numbers this day last week. A number of workers volunteered to get the stores ready from the previous Friday. These workers who volunteered to get us back up to speed in retail now find that they will not qualify for the Christmas bonus under the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. This is even though they have the 17 weeks requisite PUP. They have found that because they volunteered to come back to work on that Friday, technically one has to have received that payment between Friday 27 November to Thursday 3 December and these workers will now miss out on that payment. Everyone will agree this is grossly unfair. Mandate trade union has been in touch with me to highlight this. It would not take much to fix it. Surely if we are serious about supporting retail workers, and not just saying that we support them, then we should be able to fix this. I call on the Government to urgently address the matter because, clearly, the payment will be made very shortly. I am hoping for Government action in that regard.
Unfortunately, in the new year we will be facing a number of other liquidations and closures.One of the problems with those liquidations and closures will be the amount of time workers will have to wait to get any funds back. Perhaps we need to consider setting up a statutory agency to carry out liquidations and administration processes. It would have the advantage of removing one creditor from the process and ensuring quick access to funds for workers. The current system clearly is not working, as anyone who speaks to a Debenhams worker will know.
In the four seconds remaining to me I call on the House to remember John Lennon on this, the 40th anniversary of his death.
The loss of a loved one is a very traumatic and harrowing experience for any person, but the loss of a loved one who is living abroad is an even more stressful and harrowing predicament. That is the situation in which Colin and Eithne Bell found themselves when their son, Kevin, died tragically while living abroad in 2013. The family was heartbroken and shocked, as Members will imagine, and they turned to their local community. That community raised funds that helped to bring Kevin back to his grieving parents. From the surplus of funds, Colin and Eithne Bell set up the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust. Despite being heartbroken by the loss of their own son, seven years later the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust has helped to bring home 1,000 Irish people who lost their lives while living abroad. As many Members will know, the trust can take over the arrangements and costs of bringing a loved one home. As a nation, I feel we owe Colin and Eithne Bell and everyone involved in the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust a huge debt of gratitude and thanks for their fantastic work. Now, when somebody gets that dreaded phone call about a loved one passing away while abroad and contacts the Department of Foreign Affairs, that Department will put him or her in direct contact with the trust. I am sure the Cathaoirleach will join me in thanking Colin and Eithne Bell for the fantastic work they have done in the last seven years despite being heartbroken by the loss of their son, Kevin.
I thank Senator Gallagher for raising that issue. I have had the pleasure of meeting the Bell family. They have done extraordinary work on this island to bring some comfort to the bereaved families of those who die abroad.
I support Senator Ward's call to allow live music at weddings, which are already restricted to 25 guests. Common sense is needed, just as it was needed last week in regard to the performing arts sector, including dance schools. I am glad that in the Dáil last week the Minister clarified that the Sport Ireland guidance on individual and one-to-one training now applies to this sector, while the Arts Council devised its own guidance.
However, some confusion still exists. Many within that sector refer to their practice sessions as "classes". They probably do not realise that they are already taking many of the required actions; operating in designated pods, maintaining 2 m of social distancing, abiding by staggered entry and exit times and reducing the length of practice sessions. In many cases they are already doing what the Minister called for in last week's clarification. As I alluded to last week, there must be a level playing field - if Members will pardon the pun - for these organisations, whether their members kick a football or participate in dance, gymnastics, acting or boxing. While these pursuits are hobbies for many people, many involved in the sector see them as their future careers, including a girl I met outside Leinster House last week.I reiterate my call for the Minister to come to the House for a wider debate on the arts sector and that the guidance due to be issued by the Arts Council this week reflect the guidance issued by Sport Ireland already for individual and pod system practice.
I refer also to the wonderful funding for swimming which was announced this morning. I have been an avid sea swimmer for the past four or five years and I do it all year round. I absolutely love it and the benefits, for mental health and everything else, are fantastic. I cannot stress enough how brilliant a hobby it is. We saw an explosion in the popularity of sea swimming this year. The problem, however, is that a certain number of people who have taken up the hobby are not as proficient at swimming as they think they are. Those people can get into some seriously dangerous situations and they may not respect the sea as much as they should.
The popularity of sea swimming will only increase in 2021, it will not ebb or flow or go away. I would love, therefore, for the Government to launch a strong campaign to encourage people to go back and get swimming lessons, even if it is only a refresher course, and to learn about things such as rip tide currents, and how to get out of them, for example. Many people think they are experienced swimmers; then they go into the sea, suddenly get themselves into serious trouble and will struggle to get out of it. I would love to see a debate, therefore, on the benefits of sea swimming, including the health benefits, but also what the Government is going to do to promote safety regarding swimming in 2021.
We heard the positive and welcome news this weekend that the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is expecting a child. It is the first time in the history of the State that has happened with someone who is a sitting Cabinet Minister. I congratulate her. It reminds me that this week last year I had the fortune of having the life-changing experience of seeing a newborn being delivered.
We are still in a situation, however, where partners, husbands, wives and parents, whomever the one guardian might be that someone would need while going through labour, cannot be present all the time. There seem to be different rules in different hospitals regarding how long a partner can stay with a woman going through labour. As anyone who has gone through the experience knows, it is not just one hour of delivering the baby that is involved, it is everything that goes with it. I refer to going into the hospital, being there and being present as a comfort for the partner who is in hospital. In my experience, the labour went on for two days. There is also, then, the experience of leaving hospital, hopefully in a positive way and with a newborn.
People have not been able to experience that in recent months. As we talk about reopening Ireland, what can be done in this area has not been examined. It seems every hospital has different rules, depending on where a woman is having a child. In the unfortunate situation where things do not go well, it is extremely difficult if there is no support available from a partner, or a parent, or someone who can provide help through that experience. We are still in a situation where women are going into hospital and receiving news alone. I ask if the Leader could talk to representatives from the Department of Health and seek some recommendations in respect of a bit more leniency on that front.
I raise the issue of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, which will be coming before us soon. I spoke about this issue some weeks ago, and I also acknowledge the role of the Labour Party, and Deputy Howlin in particular, in tabling this legislation, which is also known as Coco's law.This Bill is hugely important for banning cyberbullying, stalking and the sharing of intimate images without consent. This measure is overdue in our legislation, particularly given the huge dump of images of Irish women that took place last month. A message should go to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, about this. Nicole Fox Fenton was affectionately known as "Coco". We all know about her through "Coco's law" and the petition into which her mum Jackie put her life and soul after Nicole sadly passed away by suicide. That petition and the work Jackie put in was hugely important in addressing this area. We have heard recently that this law will now not be known as "Coco's law". That is wrong and the Minister should revisit that decision. I have some experience in this area because I have been working closely with Robbie and Kathy Maguire in Newbridge regarding a similar situation in which their daughter Maxine, whom I had taught in junior infants, died tragically. We had been working on "Maxine's law", which would relate to a completely different set of circumstances and legislation. I know how passionate parents can be to make sure a change is brought about in their daughter's or son's name to ensure other families do not suffer the same as them. I ask that a message go to the Minister asking her to change the name back to "Coco's law".
We asked for a debate on the reopening of the country. There is a bit of confusion about the issue of church choirs and the need for churches to have music, particularly on Christmas Day. I am thinking of Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork, which has a wonderful choir, organ and music to enhance our liturgical celebration of the feast of Christmas. It it baffling that because the HPSC and the HSE say wind-blown musical instruments should not be used, the pipe organ, which is wind-blown by a machine and not the human mouth, is not allowed to be used. There seem to be contradictions around issues pertaining to church music. It makes no sense whatsoever that we are not allowing choirs to perform and sing on Christmas Day. St. Augustine said that when people sing they pray twice. I hope the Government and NPHET can determine that this reversal would be in everybody's interests.
I join in welcoming the announcement by Sport Ireland, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, of the allocation to the swimming pool operators. It is wonderful that €2.5 million is being allocated to sports in our cities. In Cork I am thinking of the LeisureWorlds in Bishopstown and Churchfield, as well as the pools in Mallow and Mayfield, which provide wonderful facilities. At a time when the physical health and well-being of our nation is being tested, our swimming pool and leisure industry is one to which people go to maintain the stability of their mental health. I welcome the announcement today.
Last Thursday, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, appointed members to the tourism recovery oversight task force. More than 100,000 people are employed in restaurants and bars across this country. Although they may not be the first thing one thinks of when it comes to tourism, bars and restaurants are a key component of the tourism sector, with four out of five visitors citing Irish pubs as their number one tourist attraction. We are all aware of the huge success of the Guinness Storehouse and the number of tourists that visit it in Dublin each year.Food and drink expenditure is a substantial part of tourism direct spending. Some 35% of overseas visitors' total spending is on food and beverages, amounting to €2 billion annually. Tourism is the primary market for many restaurants and pubs. Given the contribution made by restaurants and bars to the tourism sector, I wish to highlight their lack of representation on the recovery oversight group announced last week. It was disappointing. Will the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, take immediate steps to rectify this by making two appointments of representatives of restaurants and bars to the group? If she does so, I will accept that it is an oversight. The group appointed last Thursday is not representative of the tourism groups across the country.
I am delighted to hear great news for Castlerea today. Harmac Medical has announced 60 new jobs in response to global demand for personal protective equipment, PPE, and surgical masks. It shows the excellence in medtech in the west and in Castlerea in particular. These jobs will be in engineering and quality. It is phenomenal. Each job will bring such benefit to the local economy and will have an impact on all Roscommon, east Mayo, and north and east Galway. It is a fantastic investment and particularly in challenging times such as these. I am heartened to see it and it is a great day for Castlerea.
It is great to see the funding for swimming pools. I have raised the need to find funding for local authorities for swimming pools. It is fantastic to see funding coming in to the Roscommon leisure centre and the Coral leisure centre in Ballinasloe. It will mean so much to keep those amenities open and support them and their providers, especially when income has been very hard hit during lockdown.
This morning, the first vaccine was administered in the UK. It is a very positive step and I welcome it. The recipient was a 90-year-old lady from Coventry. The real debate over the next six months is how we will deal with life after Covid and how society will deal with going back to work and all the issues around that. We will have to start talking about people's ability to work from home two or three days a week permanently into the future. We have seen its success. If someone told me 12 months ago that the majority of people could proactively and capably from home, I would have thought it nearly impossible but now we know it can happen. It is a real game changer for society and the world economy. We need a real debate on how we can support it in law so that people have the opportunity to work two or three days from home because that is how society wants to work. I spoke to many people at the weekend who do not want to return to a five-day week of driving two or three hours back and forth to work. That change in mentality has to be supported in legislation. We have to give the people who go out to work that opportunity following the break in how the economy has worked. It could be a positive to come from the pandemic. It could be how society and work practices will evolve and change. We need a real debate on what legislation we can bring forward to ensure that can happen.
I extend my congratulations to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, on her lovely and exciting news this weekend. It is a very exciting time for her family and for us. We will travel along the journey of someone at Cabinet being pregnant. This raises the whole issue of the lack of maternity entitlement for particular parts of society. It is a great challenge. It is the first time that we have had to deal with this for a Minister but not the first time a Member of the Oireachtas has been pregnant, has been denied maternity leave and has had to rush back to the Oireachtas prematurely, having been denied that time with her child. I would welcome a debate on maternity leave, particularly for those who are not entitled to that precious time with their child and are excluded from the law.I seek a debate on maternity leave and those not entitled under the law to that precious time with their child because they are not employees. This includes a cohort of people who are self-employed within the legal profession. I know of a colleague who returned three days after giving birth. There is a necessity to rush back to work, thereby denying that precious six months with a child. In addition to self-employed people, Members of the Oireachtas, councillors and the parents of children in this country born via surrogacy have no maternity leave entitlement. They are not entitled to any benefits, support or precious time with their child. We need a full and wholesome debate on how change the laws to ensure they are child-centred, in accordance with the amendment of the Constitution. It is the right of the child to have time with a parent and the right of the parents to have that benefit at home.
I congratulate the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and her husband Paul on their lovely news. It is a really exciting time for them as a young couple but it highlights the disenfranchisement of a lot of women in this country in terms of the access to the equality so many women and men take for granted. It is definitely an issue we need to address not just because a female Minister happens to be expecting her first baby and making history but because it should have been done a long time ago. We need to stop talking about women looking for equality in this country and start to do something about it. With the agreement of Members, I will send the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her husband Paul a letter on our behalf.
Various colleagues have raised two distinct emotional issues today, one of which is the vaccine and is a really positive emotion in terms of its first ever provision this morning to an Irish lady. I hope there will be a lengthy queue of members of this society, north and south, east and west and in all other countries to get the vaccine as soon as possible. It is beholden on all of us to show leadership. I acknowledge that there are people who have concerns and that some people have fears. It is our job as leaders to allay those fears and to make sure that everybody is aware of the positivities of the science and the medicine in terms of getting our lives back on track. We need to put this year behind us from a health perspective and move on to a quality of life.
At the same time, we are charged potentially with the adverse impact of a no-deal Brexit. I agree with colleagues that this week is crucial. It is crucial that we continue to see leadership from the EU perspective and also the British perspective so that we can get to the end of this week with a positive outcome. One colleague said this morning that people may be sick and tired of talking about it. I agree that we are all massively fatigued by the discussion on it for the last couple of years but we will be talking about it for generations to come if the right thing is not done between now and Friday. The impact, not only on us but also on our children, grandchildren and particular industries, will be catastrophic not only on this island but also across the British Isles. We need to be cognisant of that.
The funding for swimming pools announced this morning is welcome. It is interesting that the Senators who have welcomed it here this morning are Senators in whose areas there are swimming pools. The rest of us do not have swimming pools in our areas. We should have a debate on the positivities of swimming as a sport not alone in the sea but also in swimming pools. Swimming pools should be accessible to every town, village and city in this country but they are not. We have moved in the last 15 years from providing public swimming pools to not doing so. That is real pity. While there are many towns and cities that have private pools attached to gyms it does not provide the same dividend and public access to lessons as we would have enjoyed in our youth. It is an issue we should seek to debate in the new year.
Different colleagues raised the issue of music and entertainment in our churches and streets, at weddings or in other venues.It is a very large cohort and it is one of the industries that has been last to be able to be turned back on when reopening society. I am very aware that we cannot turn back on everything because it would soon mean that we would have to turn back off everything. I recognise that Members are entitled to bring representations here and I will bring them on to the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin. She has received a request not only to come and talk to us about the arts sector but also to talk to us about the universal income pilot scheme that she has proposed. That invitation is outstanding.
Two different colleagues mentioned two different sets of parents this morning. It never ceases to amaze me that parents who have suffered huge adversity in their lives, particularly the loss of their children, go on to provide enormous help and succour to people who find themselves in the same situation. It is an absolute credit to them. It is definitely something that needs to be respected and celebrated, on behalf of the State, by the service that they provide in place of the State. "Coco's law" is what we will call the legislation as it is its proper name. The reason it is so prevalent is not just because Deputy Howlin has championed it for so long, for which he deserves credit, but Jackie Fox never stopped talking about her daughter Coco from the day she suffered the unspeakable tragedy of losing her daughter. The very least that we can do is respect the will and wishes not just of her as a mammy but, indeed, of the tens of thousands of other people who support her in having this Bill called Coco's law when we enact the legislation, please God next week. I know it is unorthodox, is not the done thing and officials do not like us changing from the standard practice that we have always employed but we should start. I contacted the relevant Minister from a personal perspective over the weekend, having spoken to Deputy Howlin last week. I will contact her but it would be more powerful if we all contacted her individually. I do not say just on this one occasion because there will probably be other occasions. It is time that we started to respect the enormous contributions of people who have lost so massively in their lives yet provide succour, help and, in this case, legislation to protect all of our children. I ask all Senators to contact the Minister's office, if they do not mind.
Senator Gallagher is not here but I wish to refer to the wonderful organisation that was established by that couple. A tribute to their legacy would be for us to fix the gap in the legislation to allow people get their death certificates when they die abroad with the ease that they can get any other certification. I thank the Cathaoirleach for acknowledging the huge contribution made by the couple, which we should do more often.
I say to Senator Gavan that I cannot believe that someone who volunteered on a Friday, and not get any money for volunteering, and gave a dig-out to his or her employer so a company could open last week would suffer and not get a bonus next week. I will write to the Minister today. To my mind, and I was around when the provision was established, one would have had to have been paid for the work in order to be able to sign off. If one went in and volunteered, no more than if one volunteered anywhere, it is not paid work. They were still in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and they should not have closed their claim until the day they actually went back to work, which would have been one of the days last week. I do not know if the Senator has the name of a specific person that he could give me that I could use as an example but I will certainly make contact with the Minister's office today because that is bang out of order and is not right.
Senator Joe O'Reilly asked for a debate on mental health services. There is one scheduled for early January. Before we have that debate I will seek views on the proposal made by Deputy Neale Richmond and Counsellor Kenneth Egan to ring-fence the assets derived from drug crime in this country, as to whether that can be specifically used to provide rehabilitation services and funding to be ring-fenced for people who have been unfortunate enough to suffer with addictions.
Senator Wall asked for a debate on home ownership. We will try to do that as early as we can after Christmas. I am baffled that the banks in this country would ignore what is as obvious as the nose on everybody's face. There are people who are going to be in severe distress already today but definitely next year when their jobs really do not re-open. We can see that as clearly as we saw it in 2011 and 2012.There was a real delay back in those days for us to get our act together as legislators. I absolutely do not think we should allow history to repeat itself. These people will not have an income and, therefore, will not be able to pay their normal outlays. That is something which bank lenders need to be cognisant of because we certainly cannot revisit the situation we had ten years ago. I will ask not only for that debate to be facilitated, but also for a response on the matter if I can get one beforehand.
Senator Boyhan raised the issue of local government. As Senators, we all come from activist backgrounds, whether we went through the local government system, came straight into the Seanad or the Dáil or took various routes back and forth. I genuinely believe all Senators know what it is like to care about something in society and our communities. That is why we became activists in the first place. Councillors do Trojan work. The fact that only some 200 of them are ladies and the fact that so many other parts of Ireland lack representation on councils show that we have an awfully long way to go. Senator Keogan and I come from a background on Meath County Council, which probably had one of the highest representations of women of all councils. I do not think it did things differently from any other council. It is worth considering this issue to see whether there is something we are missing. We definitely need to take positive and affirmative action not just to increase the representation of women on local authorities, but also that of every other section of society that is not represented because if we do not all sit around the table together, then we do not make inclusive laws. That is very much where we should start.
I will finish by addressing a matter that has not been raised today. We have had several conversations in this Chamber in recent months regarding the inequality that exists not just in Irish society but in the wider world with regard to women versus men. I know that some people may get tired of us as we seem to be bleating on about it. I think the really disappointing treatment of lady footballers this weekend by a massively funded, State-sponsored organisation goes to show that we need to keep bleating on about it week in, week out. What were more disappointing and compounded the issue were the explanations that were somehow trotted out yesterday as to why and whose fault it was that the women were disrespected so badly at the weekend. I think we need to take positive action and say that it is not acceptable for a State-sponsored body or any other organisation, particularly one that has been given millions of euro, to act in that way. At the same time, the organisation gives us such great grá, as we recognised only a couple of weeks ago when we spoke about the tonic our footballers were giving us. These women need to be able to give us the same lift and tonic. I believe they were shown significant disrespect at the weekend and we need to ensure that never happens again.
I am actually talking about both the GAA and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. These decisions are not made in isolation. I am an avid follower of ladies Gaelic games, maybe even more so than the lads. I get significant enjoyment from sport, particularly GAA. It was really disappointing that the women were moved from Billy to Jack at the weekend, first to accommodate a training session for a men's team. I totally get that the men's team need to train and it is their own ground, but I do not think the way the women were treated is good enough. I absolutely think it is horrendous that the girls got on the pitch six minutes before the game was due to start and the referee thought it was okay to just tell them to get on with it. It absolutely was not okay. It is not okay for an organisation that is supposed to be representing these women and encouraging participation in what is the fastest-growing sport in the country to explain away that treatment as if it was nothing, as it did yesterday. It was not nothing. It is a symptom of how women in this country are dismissed at every level.
We started the Order of Business off by discussing how unfair it is that some women cannot access maternity leave. They have a baby and they get no support. They have to send in sick certificates. It is crazy. We are ending the Order of Business by discussing the manifestation of that mindset that thinks it is okay to treat young women who play sport for the love of their county and country in the way they were treated at the weekend. It is not on.