Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

10:30 am

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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The Order of Business is No. 1, fifth report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, statements on the commencement of the Irish Sign Language Act 2017, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. in the Seanad Chamber and to conclude at 3.45 p.m., with the time allocated to all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; and motion 25(8), Private Members' business, to be taken at 4 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours, and any divisions demanded thereon to be postponed until immediately after the Order of Business on Wednesday, 16 December 2020.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Waterford hurling team and management. Although we were not successful in our 61-year wait and endurance, they brought great joy to every person in Waterford.

Yesterday the interim report from the Central Bank on motor and home insurance was released. It found that dual pricing was widespread in the market, which will come as no surprise to anybody. When it comes to motor insurance renewal time, one will ring around alternative insurance providers and, more than likely, get a lower quote that sometimes one's own insurance provider will match.

I want to focus on one group of people, especially in light of the findings that loyalty premiums and price walking were evident, whereby insurance premiums increase incrementally each year for existing customers at renewal time. The consumers in question are those with outstanding claims who are essentially tied to their existing insurer until such time as a claim is settled or goes through the court system. I am one such person. Only two weeks ago, I had an outstanding claim against my insurance company determined in the High Court after nearly six years, which the judge dismissed, just as a Circuit Court judge had done two years ago. I could not fault my insurance company. It defended the claim at significant cost and rightly so. However, as I had an outstanding claim, I was not able to shop around the market as any regular person could. Accordingly, over the past six years, I have been paying higher insurance premiums.

I am not alone in that regard. It is an issue that needs to be addressed as part of the wider reform agenda to which the Government is committed. In light of the fact that the new Office for Insurance Competition will meet for the first time today, which is a welcome step, statements on the insurance sector would be useful in the new year. Will the Deputy Leader arrange a debate whereby Members can feed into the insurance reform agenda our experiences from talking to our constituents, as well as our personal experiences? It is important that any reform in this space has the desired effect of reducing premiums for customers and does not have the reverse effect of increasing premiums for all.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the fact that overnight that the four statues at the Shelbourne Hotel reappeared a few months after they were first mentioned in this House. There are two substantial matters I want to raise. The first is the statement in the newspapers today that the question of revised legislation on judicial appointments is to go before the Cabinet and that a new scheme for a judicial appointments commission Bill is to be considered by it. I welcome the fact that there is willingness to change from the previous model, insisted upon by former Minister, Shane Ross. I ask the Leader to ensure that, on a matter of such importance, the pre-legislative scrutiny procedure is deployed. The proposed legislation should go to the justice committee so it can examine all its implications. It is funny that we in this House can get legislation tendered by Ministers without any pre-legislative scrutiny at all whereas if legislation is going through the Dáil Chamber, pre-legislative scrutiny must be sought under Standing Orders. Who are we to complain about it?

The second point I want to mention concerns vaccination. If and when the vaccine becomes available in this country, which, according to ministerial statements, looks like it will be in the early part of next year, possibly as early as January, it will be very important that the elected representatives of the people give a lead in the matter. I am not suggesting that everybody must receive the vaccine as a matter of absolute obligation, because it cannot be compulsory, but it occurs to me that elected representatives should be willing to give an example and a lead to the rest of the community. It would be unfortunate if anti-vaccination propaganda took root and if a view that the scheme was being imposed on the people by the State or politicians gathered any degree of support. Some cynics will say that if we give an example and opt to be vaccinated earlier, we will be jumping the queue in some respect, but we either give an example or we do not; there is no point in giving an example at the end of the queue. It would greatly assist with the proper running of Leinster House if not merely the elected representatives but also all the staff were given an opportunity to be vaccinated.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I support Senator McDowell in calling for all in the Seanad to show leadership. All Senators received a letter from my colleague, Deputy Kelly, last week urging them to sign a pledge stating they will take the vaccine.

I support the call for a debate in the Seanad with the Minister for Finance on insurance. The findings in the report of the Central Bank are extremely serious. They point to a majority of firms within the insurance industry engaging in dual pricing, an abuse of market power and cross-subsidisation between those who are able to shop around and those who are less able. Senator Cummins made the valid point that there are wider issues at stake. Dual pricing, on which my colleague Deputy Nash will launch a Bill later today, needs to be legislated for, but there is a wider issue to be considered regarding insurance in this country. I am currently dealing with an adventure centre in my constituency, Dublin Central, that deals with very disadvantaged groups in a very disadvantaged area. The groups include prisoners and children. The centre has been put out of business. It claims it is no longer able to seek insurance in this country. There are issues, therefore, not only with the offering of insurance products and competition but also with the activities of companies participating in the Irish market.

Today was due to be the first of a two-day work stoppage by workers across the country who work in section 39 organisations. These organisations provide vital mental health services, disability services, homelessness services and other health services. The workers traditionally had their pay linked directly to HSE pay but that link effectively broke over the past four to five years with the restoration of public sector pay. I am relieved and delighted that the Government belatedly agreed a deal last Thursday with trade unions, particularly SIPTU and Fórsa, for workers employed in section 39 organisations. There has been much talk about valuing workers, particularly health workers and front-line workers, over recent months, yet section 39 workers have had to countenance two workday stoppages - one this week and another the week before Christmas - to get across the message that they are no longer willing to stand for pay inequality. I thank the Government for moving on this. There is currently a dialogue forum for voluntary bodies. It is representative of service providers, clients and patients but there is no voice for workers at the table. The purpose of the forum is to tease out all the issues regarding service provision in section 39 organisations across the country. I ask the Leader to relay to the Government that workers' representatives should have a voice at the table in the forum.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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Táim ag iarraidh labhairt inniu mar gheall ar áiseanna a d'fhógair an tAire Iompar, Teachta Eamon Ryan, inné. It is a positive news story as we edge towards Christmas. There are to be 120 new jobs created in Bus Éireann. For the first time in 15 years, we see absolutely proper, clear, well-thought-out planning and investment in rural transport. We are to have Bus Éireann services where there have been none for several years, or perhaps one bus per week, all around rural Ireland. In my constituency, if a passenger clicks her heels three times and prays to the Gods, she might catch a bus in west Clare going to Ennis. Now we are going to have multiple services daily. The official press release from Bus Éireann states: "Service enhancements on the West Clare Network which connect to rail at Ennis, will enable passengers to travel between West Clare and Dublin in a single day". More important, the services will enable people from Dublin to come down to west Clare on public transport for the first time ever. That is great news. I have worked around west Clare for a long time and I have often met people with disabilities and older people who rely on taxis, relations or neighbours to have the time to bring them places. The enhancements are important for connectivity and enabling people. I often use public transport so I have seen the disconnect between bus services and train services. The last train would get to Limerick five minutes after the last bus would go to Clare. For the first time ever, there is a really good plan with connectivity, such that when a passenger gets a bus to Ennis from west Clare, there will actually be a train there waiting to go to Dublin. The passenger will not have just missed one. I welcome the initiative.

There are 120 new jobs. A total of 15% of the posts have been taken up by women so far. I encourage more women to consider becoming a bus driver. For the first time ever, we will have a bus that will connect areas all along the coast of west Clare, including Kilkee, Doonbeg, Quilty, Miltown Malbay and Lahinch, meaning a passenger will not have to go inland to Ennis to come back out to west Clare. This is welcome news. Many rural counties will find on Bus Éireann's website an announcement to the effect that, for the first time in many years, they will have proper rural transport options.

The insurance rip-off is ongoing. Many small businesses around me are affected. As Senators have implied, it is not just car insurance that is at issue. Anyone who wants to run a cycling event or any other kind of outdoor activity is seriously limited because of insurance costs. I welcome the positive news today on the best investment in rural transport we have seen for a very long time in Ireland.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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The Government came within a whisker of ratifying the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. If it were not for the 100 civil society organisations, trade unions and Opposition parties rallying on Friday evening, CETA could have been passed today with just 55 minutes of debate and a simple vote in the Dáil without this House having any say in the matter at all. People power clearly worked to postpone the vote but the battle is far from over. There are some very serious questions to be answered by Green Party Ministers.Why did they let this go on to the Dáil schedule with a mere 55-minute debate? Why, if the Government is so confident of the benefits of this deal, is it not happy to debate it? Why, if it is so cocksure of the protections included in CETA, is it running scared of having it discussed in the Dáil and Seanad? Why will it not conduct an assessment of the impact of the trade agreement? It is clear from this morning that there has been a Damascene conversion on the part of the Green Party leadership. The same cannot be said for the environmental NGOs, the human rights organisations and the environmental lawyers. The CETA trade deal has not changed since the leader of the Green Party was so vehemently against it. It still sets up a one-way corporate court system that involves a special tribunal that gives corporations special rights to sue states for laws, regulations and government measures that potentially affect their business. Corporate courts are a legacy of colonialism.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Anyone who has social justice and human rights values at their core cannot support corporate courts.

The former UN expert on human rights, Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, referred to corporate courts as an attack on the very essence of sovereignty and self-determination. Ireland has a thriving open economy. It has trading relationships all over the world. We have never had, nor have we ever needed, a corporate court system. Introducing such a court system now leaves us hugely exposed. We are told we are scaremongering about the corporate courts but even without these courts, we only have to look at the regulatory chill or impact of the threat of legal action. We have yet to roll out a smoky coal ban throughout the country because the coal companies threatened to sue the State. Imagine what it will be like when they will have a one-way court system they can go through to oppose public policy. Even if they do not win, the process of going to court to defend our right to make policy to protect our citizens will accrue huge costs to the State.

What is the impact of CETA on the programme for Government plans to ban fracked gas importations? What is its impact on the climate emergency Bill, passed by both Houses but yet to be implemented? Surely these concerns warrant a debate. Surely they deserve scrutiny at our Oireachtas committees. I call for the Deputy Leader of the House to confirm that, if there is to be a motion on the ratification of CETA, the House also be given an opportunity to debate it.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I concur with Senator McDowell on the vaccine. I am certainly willing to take it because I believe in Professor Luke O'Neill and Professor Sam McConkey. I have great faith in these people. Most of the time medical people are right, not all the time but they are the experts. I am more than willing to lead by example with the vaccines and I hope everybody else will do the same.

I also want to raise the issue of Bus Éireann, as did Senator Garvey. I welcome the creation of new jobs and new routes. A short time ago, we had the removal of services, particularly for many rural areas. It is a very positive move by the Government and the Minister. However, there is still an issue, particularly in parts of south Roscommon and east Galway, where an awful lot of routes were closed down. I call on the Deputy Leader to contact the Minister with regard to all of the parts of east Galway, such as Ballinasloe, Creagh and Moore, into Ballydangan and Athlone and other parts of south Roscommon where, unfortunately, in recent years we have lost a service that was very important to people in isolated areas. The local bus stop has gone and it is not coming back. We have a duty and responsibility to stand up for the people affected. There were great promises about the extension of Local Link, which is a very good service operating in many parts of the country, but the right thing to do when we are expanding services is to take into account those places that have lost their bus services in recent years. Many parts of Roscommon and Galway have good services. I live along the M5 and we have a fantastic service from Westport to Dublin, which picks up people along the route and takes in almost all of the towns along the way. Bus services have disappeared from many parts of south Roscommon and parts of east Galway. People are annoyed about that. I welcome the news that more than 15% of the new posts are held by women. This is a great improvement and we need more women to apply. I really want to see services re-established. Perhaps the House will consider writing to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on establishing something to get services moving again.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I join Senators McDowell, Murphy and Sherlock in asking the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate on the issue of vaccination. Many of us have been very supportive of the vaccine regime for a long time. We do not need to be told to sign a pledge to support vaccination. It is imperative that we show leadership collectively and that we dispel urgently the myth around vaccination. Vaccination works. All of us, in our roles as leaders in the House and as citizens, must promote and support vaccination. The vaccination plan being announced today, and being agreed by the Cabinet as we speak, is one we should debate in the House. It is so important that we should meet next week to debate it.

We need to support further the HSE immunisation office in terms of funding, in particular on the issue of education and the promotional work it does. I make the point separately to Senator McDowell that we should demand leadership of public representatives and we should challenge those Members of the Oireachtas who are leading anti-vaccination marches and leading the charge against vaccination to come up and debate it in these Houses in an open and transparent manner. The anti-vaccination propaganda must be challenged and debunked on behalf of all of us.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I raise the issue of local authority rental sector arrears, which are becoming chronic. The 31 local authorities are the main providers of housing for people who cannot afford housing from their own means. As of December 2019, local authority rental sector arrears stood at almost €86 million, more than €20 million higher than the figure at the end of 2014. This is a further €20 million in unpaid rent in the space of five years. I cannot help but wonder whether the rent arrears figure has mushroomed dramatically during the past year of rolling lockdowns. I suspect it has. Has the Minister figures indicating the expected level of rent arrears by year end? For how long will we allow rent arrears to snowball? It seems nothing has been done to reduce the growing mountain of rent arrears.

The local government efficiency review group has recommended that social housing rents be deducted directly from social welfare payments. It states this would reduce overheads associated with revenue collection in this area and substantially reduce arrears, as well as streamline processes for local authority tenants and avoid accumulation of arrears. The group also recommended this should be a condition of new tenancies. The group recommended these measures more than a decade ago.

There is an existing statutory mechanism to implement the recommendations of the group. Section 53 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 2014 provides for the deduction of local authority rents and rent arrears from social welfare payments. It is a moderate provision. The amount deducted from payments is capped at a maximum of 15%. However, six years on this section of the Act has not been commenced. I ask that the Minister explain to the taxpayers of Ireland struggling to pay their taxes in addition to huge mortgages or crippling rents why everyone is not being asked to make some contribution in accordance with his or her means, even if those means are a social protection payment.

I am aware that anybody can fall on hard times, especially over the past year. I work with families and homeless people to try to put a roof over their heads. At the same time, it is only fair to the taxpayer that those failing to pay anything at all for their house should make some contribution. We also need to look at easier ways to pay rent to local authorities. This is a pressing matter to be addressed by the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I hope the Deputy Leader can get this commenced very soon.

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to discuss the housing assistance payment, HAP. Nearly 59,000 households are supported by means of this payment and many of us on the ground know that those in receipt of it are struggling to pay their rent. Many of them are topping up their HAP to their landlords so that they can stay in their homes. Topping up HAP was never meant to be the case. The system is significantly flawed. Unfortunately, landlords are reluctant to take on HAP tenants. The system does not give tenants any security of tenure. We need to review it. There are so many people in receipt of HAP that it would be difficult to phase it out overnight, but we need to consider a system of longer-term tenancies. This could incentivise landlords to take on HAP tenants and would give tenants a longer security of tenure. Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come to the House for a debate on HAP and what we can do to review, improve or possibly get rid of it? We need a better system for tenants. We will be relying on the private rental market, but we need to do better for tenants. I would appreciate a debate on this matter.

Many colleagues, including Senator Buttimer, have spoken on my next point. Many of us are on WhatsApp groups and not a day goes by that I do not receive what someone thinks is a funny anti-vax video or gif about the vaccine. The anti-vax campaign has taken off. We are naive. We must do much more to act as strong ambassadors for the vaccine. I saw "Claire Byrne Live" last night where Mr. Johnny Giles did a fantastic job as ambassador for the vaccine, but it is incumbent on us as local representatives in our communities to show people that we are not afraid to take the vaccine and that, ultimately, vaccines create adults.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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In a shocking incident at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, a recording showing lecturers making personal references to students when grading them in virtual assessments has outraged students and parents. As Fine Gael's spokesperson for education and further and higher education, and being from Galway, I am shocked and sorry to hear that this took place. It was disrespectful and hurtful to students who were dealing with a disruption to college life due to Covid-19 and were doing virtual presentations. I understand why students are questioning the assessment systems. What happened is unacceptable and highlights a serious level of unprofessionalism. I appreciate that GMIT's president has apologised to the students. However, we need more measures. This behaviour gives us an insight and means that we can now take action. As a Government, we can ensure that systems are in place that are accountable to students and families. We can also ensure that we support third level institutions in having the best practices in place.

Conscious and unconscious biases have a serious impact on decision making. This has been well proven by Nobel laureate Dr. Daniel Kahneman based on decades of research. Each of us judges, each of us has a bias. We are influenced by our environment and it causes us to jump to conclusions and impacts on the judgments we make. In this case, the magnitude of the decisions influencing a student's future is incredible. As part of HR requirements for staff at NUI Galway, we had to conduct unconscious bias training prior to conducting any interview in recent years. This exists at third level and should be rolled out to all staff involved in making continuous assessments.

We have an excellent education system, but there is always room for improvement. We have the highest number of students per lecturer, which leads to exhaustion and breakdown. We need more investment in third level. In the west, GMIT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT are planning to bring transformational change through a technological university. We must maintain the integrity of our systems, including assessment and governance systems. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is introducing governance reforms for third level. A note will go to the Cabinet and the matter will be before the Houses in quarter 1 of 2021. I call on all stakeholders to take part in this discussion and have our views heard.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I wish to discuss two issues, the first of which is one my colleague, Councillor Níall McNelis, has asked me to raise. It relates to something that he and other public representatives in Galway have been facing recently, namely, giant trawlers fishing in Galway Bay and offloading their catch of tiny juvenile fish. We have all seen clips of these trawlers sweeping thousands of tonnes of sprat up in large nets from Galway to Clare. These young fish are crucial to the food chain's ecosystem, but it seems that they have been transferred to other fishing ports to be turned into pellets to feed farmed fish. As Councillor McNelis has stated locally, there is a deep concern that there will be no fish in Galway Bay next year. Will the Deputy Leader raise this important matter with the Minister and ask what he will do to allay these fears and whether this practice can be stopped or just reduced?

The second issue is one I have raised numerous times, namely, that of the Defence Forces. Given recent media reports of the serious concerns of representatives of our Defence Forces about pay talks, I ask the Deputy Leader to seek an urgent debate with the Minister for Defence. When one hears representative associations coming out of recent public pay talks stating that they feel ostracised, it asks questions about how our Defence Forces are being treated. On the Order of Business three weeks ago, I mentioned how figures that we had obtained showed that up to 500 personnel would leave the Defence Forces by the end of the year. The recent commentary in the media will not encourage the new recruits we need to restore the strength of our Defence Forces to the Government's figure of 9,500 personnel. I have joined Senator Craughwell and other Senators in asking for a debate with the Minister on the terms of reference of the forthcoming commission on defence, which will be before the Cabinet today. Will the Deputy Leader contact the Minister at the earliest opportunity? The Department of Defence needs to play a crucial role in the commission. There needs to be a review. We need a debate on the fears of our Defence Forces' representative groups.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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Like other Senators, I wish to raise the issue of Bus Éireann. For many people in rural Ireland, their only form of transport is Bus Éireann. If someone from Monaghan, Cavan or many other parts of rural Ireland wishes to travel to Dublin, the only hope of getting there is a Bus Éireann bus. People in Cavan and Monaghan do not have a train service that links directly to the capital city. People in Monaghan who wish to travel to Dublin take route No. 32, which is the main route from Letterkenny to Dublin. By the time the bus stops in Monaghan, though, there are no seats left. Being left standing with no service available is frustrating for people. Many of them are attending hospital appointments or going to work or college. The service is not up to scratch and people are being discommoded as a result. For people with travel passes, for example, elderly people attending hospital appointments, there is the added frustration of there being no facility to book a seat on the bus. This is not the case with Iarnród Éireann. In light of the lack of a service available to people in Monaghan and the shambles that is the school transport system, we need an urgent debate in the new year on bus services, particularly in counties like Monaghan and Cavan where the bus is the only show in town. The service that Bus Éireann provides has many good aspects, but I am saddened to say that the experience in Monaghan is very disappointing and not good enough. People should not be expected to live with a second class service. The people of Monaghan deserve no less than anyone else.

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I wish to discuss the disabled drivers and passengers scheme, which has effectively been put on hold for new applications because primary medical certificates are no longer being issued following a decision of the Supreme Court in July. The scheme is for people who have to get their cars adapted and entitles them to have their vehicle registration tax returned, not to have to pay road tax, etc. I understand that an amendment to the Finance Bill is needed to give legislative effect to the medical criteria for primary medical certificates. This amendment needs to be made immediately in order to allow people with disabilities to avail of the scheme. I also ask that there be a review of the scheme's restrictive nature and that groups representing the disability sector be involved. I ask that this matter be dealt with immediately.I will give the example of a family friend of mine whose 21-year-old son recently lost his leg, which was amputated due to cancer. The young lad wants to get back to college and be able to drive and live independently. He is unable to do so because this has been held up due to that Supreme Court case. I know many other families in the same position who have elderly people in nursing homes, etc., and must adapt their cars so they can bring them out when we return to normality post-Covid. I ask that this be dealt with immediately.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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Yesterday we learned of the sad passing of Mr. David Cornwell, the famous writer who was better known, of course, as John le Carré, who gave great joy to many people over long periods writing about spies in the Cold War setting, such as, for instance, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyand Smiley's People. Many of those novels have been turned into films and series on television. He followed a long line of English literary types, such as Graham Greene, who had some experience of the secret service and it showed in what they wrote.

As someone who has been following the Moscow rules all my life and has been known to use a dead letter box every now and again, I feel sadly his passing, which brings me neatly onto something. When the Berlin Wall fell, I believe many of us, in our naivety, thought the Cold War was going to be over as well and that kind of murky espionage would be consigned to the history books. How wrong we were.

I read an interesting article in The Sunday Timesabout the attempted poisoning of Mr. Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Russia, or out of Russia, I should say, because he cannot be there for most of his time; he is constantly under threat. That followed, of course, the blatant poisoning of the husband and wife team in Salisbury a couple of years ago when well-known KGB hoods came over and poisoned these people and escaped scot-free. They gave some story that they came over to look at the spire of the cathedral and it was a big laugh at the time. What amazes me is my left-wing colleagues in these Houses are quick to raise human rights issues when it comes to normal western democracies. There is, however, a desperate resounding silence out of them when it comes to any of the doings of Mr. Putin and the thugs who work for and support him. It would be no harm if we invited the Minister for Foreign Affairs in here at his convenience to give us a talk on how he sees the threat Russia poses to western democracies, not alone Belarus, Ukraine and Croatia. Anywhere people try to stand up for their rights, they are squashed. It is not a joke; it is a serious matter.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I support Senator Wall on the commission for defence. If the terms of reference does not include the Department then I do not know what the function of the review or the commission will be. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right so we need everything, including the Department, involved.

I know the Cathaoirleach is deeply concerned, as am I, with community employment schemes. I wish to raise two issues. I need to be vague by necessity in what I say now. I wish to address the responsibilities the system has placed on the shoulders of supervisors who run these schemes.

Last week, I engaged with the supervisor of a scheme who, during the course of our conversation, explained how his job involves providing psychological support, as well as everything else, to his clients. As the conversation developed, the supervisor told me how a member of the scheme's work force had to cope with a family suicide. I was deeply saddened and shocked to hear how things progressed from there because in the middle of the first lockdown of Covid-19, that same employee, regrettably, also committed suicide. On learning of the suicide, the scheme supervisor contacted the Department of Social Protection to advise it of what had happened. I understand there were a few calls on the day between the supervisor and the Department to establish the full facts. On learning the suicide took place in the early hours of a midweek day, the Department's only response was to instruct the supervisor to ensure he deducted a sum of money from the outstanding salary which would have been due to this person. I understand people have jobs to do and the management of Government finances and moneys is an important fact. If this had occurred, however, in a school, training centre or anywhere else, psychological services would have been brought in straight away to assist.

The second issue, which I will briefly mention, is the issue of pensions for community employment, CE, supervisors. It has been going on for years. People with 30, 35 and 40 years' service to the State as supervisors of CE schemes already have a Labour Court judgment on their pension entitlements. What is keeping it? I ask for a debate on CE schemes in this House with the relevant Minister. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to go over time.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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It is alright as long as the Senator does not make a habit of it.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I wish to address a pressing issue for the leaving certificate students of 2020, particularly that cohort who went through their course with a pattern of high achievement but were marked down and have missed places in medicine. Many sat the exams in November and now face the deadline to register for the health professions admission test, HPAT, which is a necessity for medicine.

The registrations for that opened today and the deadline is 15 January with an extension until the 1 February. The problem is the leaving certificate results will not be out until late February. Consequently, if these students do sufficiently well to exceed the points then they get to carry their 2020 HPAT over into 2021. If they do not, they will need to sit the HPAT in 2021 but they will not know that until they get the leaving certificate results. We therefore have this anomaly where they do not know whether to register.

I have written to the Minister for Education and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I am not getting any traction. To be fair, the latter Department is taking action on it. I ask that we write a letter to the Ministers on behalf of these students who need to know with certainty. They have been through enough. They have had enough mental torture with their leaving certificate and the manner in which they were handled, which is currently before the courts. They now have the anxiety of their results coming out and need some sort of certainty regarding their HPAT and whether to register for it. We need certainty so I ask for action on that issue.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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On Wednesday morning, the people of Carrick-On-Suir woke up to the devastating news that St. Brigid's District Hospital would be closed. St. Brigid's has been in the town of Carrick-On-Suir for 200 years. It is a hospital with 18 beds which provides respite and palliative care.

Earlier in the year, the hospital was repurposed to potentially be used for Covid-19 if it was needed. During the summer months, calls were made for its reopening because, luckily enough, it had not been used for Covid-19 at the time. The residents and the community of Carrick-on-Suir, however, wanted it to be brought back into its original use, which was respite and palliative care. A commitment was made in August by the Government and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, that this would be the case. The perception in Carrick-on-Suir was that palliative care and respite care beds were going to be brought back. A number of parliamentary questions were asked with that perception in place.

The announcement last Wednesday was a huge shock for the area when it had been given reassurances the hospital was being opened. We had a meeting with the HSE last night and found out that a review had started in July on the closure of St. Brigid's. It is therefore understandable that people in Carrick-on-Suir feel they have been misled. I call on the Deputy Leader to invite the Minister to come in and explain why the decision was made and, most importantly, where the palliative care and respite care beds will be for the people and the region of Carrick-on-Suir going forward.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Mar dhuine as Contae an Dúin, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le hiománaithe Chontae Aontroma as an bhua s'acu ar an Domhnach. I wish to begin by congratulating and commending the County Antrim senior hurlers for their Joe McDonagh Cup win at Croke Park on Sunday. There is a real burgeoning resurgence in hurling in the county and while it is not confined to Belfast alone, we all know the very rich hurling history and heritage of the Glens.I particularly want to reference Gaelfast and what it is doing at a grassroots, community level in the city of Belfast to build the GAA at an underage, grassroots level across the city. We are starting to see the fruits of that labour in the illustrious and important win for the county at the weekend. I commend everyone involved in that initiative but, more importantly given the weekend that has been in it, the team itself, the entire panel, the backroom staff and coaches, and everyone involved in bringing us a great deal of happiness and joy at a difficult time.

Many fans from Antrim were unable to make the journey to Croke Park. I dare say a big crowd of them would have made the journey to Dublin but could not because of Covid-19 restrictions. With that in mind, it was deeply disappointing and quite offensive that as Conor McCann, the Antrim captain, uttered the first words of his speech, RTÉ cut to an ad break. That was offensive to him, his family, club mates, fellow players on the county team and everyone watching at home. There is a wee bit of a pattern there. It is not my job or that of anyone here to tell RTÉ what editorial decisions to take, but certainly when it comes to six of our counties, there is a wee bit of a pattern of insult emerging more and more. That was unfortunately reflected negatively on an otherwise happy and positive occasion on Sunday.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I raise the issue of tourism and the effect that the pandemic has had on the sector, particularly on the coach operators who are one of the main actors in the industry in Ireland. The €55 million strategic fund that is being administered by Fáilte Ireland and was announced in the budget is extremely welcome but, unfortunately, the coach operators do not have access to that fund. Thousands of people are employed to drive coaches and to maintain them. It is worth in the region of €400 million a year to the economy and those operators are mainly small, family-run businesses that spend money going abroad marketing themselves each year.

I know that the Minister recently wrote to the umbrella group of coach and tourism operators to state that she would pass their correspondence on to Fáilte Ireland and ask it to consider it. I would like a little more than that. The coach operators are the backbone of tourism in this country because they bring people from A to B to C very eloquently. They sell our country on a daily basis when they bring people around to see our beautiful island. I believe that they should have access to that €55 million fund because they have to keep their fleets of buses insured and maintained. They also need to pay mortgages and loans on those fleets of buses, which are not cheap.

I ask the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate early in the new year with the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, on the important role that the coach industry has in rebuilding our tourism industry, post pandemic. As the Cathaoirleach knows because of the county from which he comes, the first thing that got us out of the most recent recession and helped to rebuild the country was tourism. That will happen again but it will not be as successful as we would like unless the coach operators in this country are kept in business.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I want to talk about the issue of housing maintenance, particularly in my own county of Louth. This follows on from issues on which I have been working and from the meeting that all Louth Oireachtas Members had yesterday with the council executive. There is, essentially, no housing maintenance budget in County Louth. The three engineers are each down to approximately their last €1,000. I spoke this morning to the director of services who was able to tell me that we are spending circa€344 per unit and we have 4,500 units in Louth County Council. By comparison, the average spend in England and Wales is approximately £650 to £700.

The problem is that the three engineers are now spending more time watching their budgets than being able to go and carry out works. Some people have been on to me who cannot get windows replaced. The council is prioritising severe issues such as heating and that type of thing. The reason I bring it up today is that it feeds into my point. Louth County Council is one of the few councils not to increase the property tax. It has stayed the same for the past six years, since I was first elected to the council. Other local authorities of similar sizes have increased them by 10% or 15%. The only income that Louth County Council has this year is from parking charges in Dundalk and Drogheda. There needs to be a time when the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage looks at some local authorities which, on certain issues, could be considered to be underperforming, for want of a better term. Louth County Council genuinely does not have the money. It has practically run out of funding and is counting its pennies when it comes to housing maintenance. I think in situations such as that, the Department should be able to step in and bail out a local authority, for want of a better word, and give it a bit of extra funding as we approach year end. I do not think it is acceptable that engineers have to count pennies towards the end of the year because they have run out of funding.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Insurance companies and other financial institutions, including our retail banks, occupy a privileged position within our economy. It is a privileged position because they operate within a regulated, profitable and fair environment in this jurisdiction. I am not saying they should not be allowed to make profits but the recent report from the Central Bank shows the contempt in which they hold the operation of their businesses here. They clearly do not have respect for the consumers of this country whom they are supposed to serve. We know that the Houses of the Oireachtas, since the 2004 creation of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, have bent over backwards to facilitate insurance companies in what they have stated is the problem with the market, that is, the compensation culture and the levels of claims and awards that are being given here. There is undoubtedly some truth to that. However, in recent years, we have seen an increase in premiums and insurance company profits at the same time that the numbers of claims and levels of awards are going down or staying static.

We, in this House, need to put down a marker to say that if insurance companies are not serving the people they purport to insure, we have to step in to do something about it. There are businesses throughout this country that have closed down because ridiculous occupier's liability premiums mean they cannot operate with profitability. Individuals who seek motor insurance, for example, face a situation that has been exposed in this report whereby they are disadvantaged if they seek to shop around the market, as they are constantly advised to do by the Government and public representatives. I have no penalty points, driving convictions or previous claims and yet my insurance premium goes up every year and when I complain, it is easy for the company to knock down the price. It seems to me that there is a practice among insurance companies to continually exploit the people they are supposed to be serving. I am calling for a debate on this subject so that we can put down a marker that shows we will not continue to facilitate insurance companies in this regard.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I raise the issue of the rural regeneration moneys that has been proposed by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys. It is an important scheme. It is about making sure that rural Ireland gets back on its feet and many projects have been pushed through following the previous two calls for money. The most recent call for money closed last week. It is important that we have accountability for how the system works. Cork County Council has proposed five projects, as was the case previously. A project in Schull has not been proposed even though it made the cut on the previous two occasions. We have to look at where the public representative fits into this space. Members of the local authority were very supportive of the Schull marina project but it did not get through the process at Cork County Council level and that is very disappointing. The project will, effectively, run out of planning permission and how to progress it is going to be an enormous issue for us.

I believe we need to debate the powers that councillors have at local authority level. Is it now acceptable that the executive decides what projects go forward for national funding, whether from Bord Fáilte or the rural regeneration fund, without engaging with the local authority to a meaningful degree? I do not think that is appropriate. The new model of funding from national Government is coming through in batches from the rural regeneration fund or Bord Fáilte. Councillors need to have a stake and holding in how that happens. Unfortunately, that does not happen at the moment. We now need to find another mechanism to make sure that projects that the executive does not think appropriate can still happen.When one looks at the Schull project, planning permission will run out in the next 18 months. We need Cork County Council to actively work with the local community to ensure this project goes ahead because if it does not, the entire Mizen Peninsula will suffer.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I would like to commend the BBC on its public broadcasting investigative work. It has exclusively revealed, as recently as yesterday, further abuses of the Uighur population in the western region of Xinjiang in China. This is further prima facieevidence of concern regarding enforced labour. The BBC was able to identify a so-called detention or overnight long-term accommodation camp that is part of a newly constructed textile factory. This region of China produces one-fifth of the world's cotton. This House unanimously supported a Private Members' motion a few short months ago, sponsored and supported by Senators Mullen and McDowell. However, the campaign of vigilance must be ongoing. It does not stop with the motion this House supported. We have to identify where this cotton is being distributed and put up for sale.

I said during that debate that a delegation from Seanad Éireann should visit China if the country has nothing to hide. In response to the BBC, China said that the story is entirely fabricated. If it is entirely fabricated, China has nothing to hide from a delegation from Seanad Éireann. They can show us this widespread abuse, as I understand it, of human rights with more than 1 million Uighurs being subjected to forced sterilisations and abortions and indoctrination to the communist message.

I ask the Seanad to stay vigilant in respect of this and to keep our eyes firmly on this. Passing that motion was an exercise in democracy and that voice had to be heard but the effort does not stop there. We must do so much more. People are normally ahead of governments so we should not wait for governments, consumers and retailers to act. We should not allow the sale of cotton from these forced labour camps.

Photo of Aidan DavittAidan Davitt (Fianna Fail)
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I am sure the Cathaoirleach is a happy man today following the formal ratification of the election of Joe Biden yesterday. As he said, it is a good day for democracy. I congratulate him and welcome that, as the Cathaoirleach has. The Cathaoirleach has been a great advocate for democracy in this House and long may that continue.

I would like the Minister with responsibility for planning to address the House. There are a lot of development plans going through and the regulator has dealt with some of them. There are serious concerns on behalf of city and county councillors throughout the country on the handling of some of the proposed plans by the regulator. That is something I might try to have a Commencement debate on and we might see if we can get the Minister to come to the House to address this.

It might be a bit soon to offer congratulations but I would like to wish the best to the Westmeath ladies football team. They are in the intermediate all-Ireland ladies football final on Sunday. They are playing our close neighbours so Senator Keogan and I are looking forward to that one and, hopefully, the best team wins on the day.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I wish both teams the best of luck. I call the Deputy Leader to respond to the Order of Business.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Cummins opened the Order of Business with the issue of the Central Bank report on insurance, in particular motor insurance, and other Members have raised the issue as well. It is an extremely serious issue and a request will go in from the Leader's office this morning to have a debate on that. There is no doubt that insurance companies are creaming it off people, exploiting them and punishing loyal customers. It is unjustifiable, inexcusable and it will not be tolerated. I listened to a representative of the insurance industry on RTÉ's "Drivetime" with Cormac Ó hEadhra yesterday, trying her best to justify or explain it and she did a poor job. She was well questioned by Mr. Ó hEadhra and he used the phrase "creaming it" because that is exactly what is happening. It is disgraceful.

Senator Cummins raised a specific issue and I had a similar matter come up in my office. It concerned a young male driver who was locked into his insurance company because of an outstanding claim. It is more than a year since this minor claim occurred, which took very small money to settle. The claim is still open so he was not able to shop around. He was given a quote of approximately €2,000 and he tried to shop around but he realised that he could not do so. He then went back to the insurance company and was quoted €4,000, even though his situation had not changed at all. I was in a position to get on to the insurance company and with the help of others, we managed to get a new offer issued for just under €2,000, without an explanation as to why the initial quote was effectively doubled. There was no reason for it, other than the fact that the company thought it would get away with it. How many other young drivers are out there who do not have somebody to advocate for them or somebody to go to? It is utterly disgraceful and I made it clear that I expected the claim to be closed the next time his insurance is due for renewal. Listening to Senator Cummins, it is clear that many people are impacted by that. They are not able to shop around and they are locked into an insurance company. It probably suits the insurance companies to keep these claims open for as long as possible.

Senator McDowell raised the issue of the judicial appointments commission Bill, contending that it must undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. I will pass that onto the Department as I agree with that. It is important legislation that exercised this House for many hours during the previous Seanad. Let us avoid a repeat of that and let us build consensus around this important reforming legislation so that we can get agreement across both Houses. We all agree that reforms are needed but it is important that this is done in a way that involves all stakeholders. That includes the judicial profession and the Judiciary, because they have to operate under the new regime.

I agree with call for elected representatives leading on the vaccine. Senator McDowell was speaking about us as elected representatives needing to lead the way and take the vaccine. I will take the vaccine as soon as I can get it but when he raised the point that it could be seen as jumping the queue, that echoed my first thought. We will have to get in line and get it when are supposed to. Lining all of us up ahead of other people would probably not be the right image to portray. Perhaps party leaders could even stand together and take the vaccine or do something along those lines just to show that leadership.

Senator Sherlock also raised this issue and she mentioned Deputy Kelly's pledge. I agree with Senator Buttimer that we do not need to sign the Labour Party pledge to show that we support vaccines. We are big boys and girls and we can show our support in our own way. Senator Sherlock raised an important issue regarding section 39 organisations and she welcomed the Government's settling of that matter. I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, who was instrumental in securing the funding for that deal. Three quarters of the budget for the pay restoration for section 39 workers is coming from her Department. I commend her and the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who both ensured that money was set aside in the budget negotiations to make this deal happen. Had that not been done, we would not have a deal today.

Senator Garvey again raised the issue of rural transport. To give credit to her, she is consistent in her raising of that issue. She is an important rural voice on an important rural issue. I am sure it will be transformative for the people of west Clare to have that direct link to the capital city and, as she pointed out, to have that link from the capital city to west Clare in one day is welcome. We need more of that.

Senator Boylan raised the issue of the CETA trade deal between the EU and Canada. That deal has been ten years in the making. While I listened intently to the Senator's comments on CETA, she did not articulate what the issues were, only that there were issues. Perhaps she will want to go a little bit further on the next occasion in outlining her disagreement with the trade deal. She raised an issue regarding the 55-minute debate. If more debating time is needed, that should not be a huge difficulty but that is a matter for the Business Committee to schedule. All parties have input to the scheduling of business in the Dáil so I am sure that committee can come together and schedule its business, as it does every week. With regard to the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement, as a small, open island economy in the middle of the Atlantic, we rely on exports and we export a great amount of goods. Some €4 billion worth of exports went to Canada in 2019. That is the most up-to-date figure we have. This trade deal benefits Ireland and Irish business and jobs. A particular issue has been raised around the corporate courts. The Court of Justice of the European Union has adjudicated on this and it found that the dispute resolution mechanisms in CETA fully comply with and do not in any way undermine European Union law. I am satisfied that this meets the requirements. Given that this agreement has been discussed and negotiated for nearly a decade, I am confident that, with all member states included, it will be a good trade deal for Ireland.

Senator Murphy raised the issue of bus services and the need to extend them throughout rural areas. I concur with that view. There is a lack of transport in many rural parts of the country. Many parts of County Mayo do not have a daily bus service. They may have a weekly one with a rigid timetable, which means that people rely on family and friends to get around. This makes it particularly difficult for elderly people to stay connected and get around to do their bits and pieces.

Senator Buttimer raised the issue of vaccines and asked for a debate. A debate has been scheduled for the first week after we return in January. That will be timely as we do not have time in the schedule for this week. When we return in January the vaccine will have only started to be rolled out and that will be an opportune time for the House to discuss the roll-out and plan and to see how they are progressing.

Senator Keogan raised the issue of rent arrears in local authorities. I take on board her point that everybody should make a contribution based on ability to pay. We have a very good social safety net to cater for people who fall on hard times. We need to protect and look after people. If people who are able to pay choose not to do so because they could not be bothered, that is not fair on everybody else. We need to be fair across the board for those who are making genuine efforts to pay what is owed. We have to help people who cannot pay. Everybody should play their part and make a contribution because that is how we all live alongside one another in society.

Senator Dolan raised Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and outlined very eloquently the issues for students. I note that the two lecturers involved in the case she raised have apologised, as has the college. It was an unfortunate situation. The lecturers thought they were speaking in private. That does not in any way excuse the commentary. Things happen and people make mistakes. I hope that measures are put in place to ensure that something of this nature does not happen again. It must have been very hurtful to the students who were the subject of the comments. That is not right.

Senator Ardagh raised the housing assistance payment. I agree that the HAP system is flawed. We need to have a debate on it and I have made a request to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in that regard as well as on the planning issue raised by Senator Davitt. We are hoping to have the Minister in the Chamber in the next for the multiple debates that Members have been requesting on housing, planning and local government.

Senator Wall raised the issue of fishing in Galway Bay. From what he said, it sounds like what is happening is illegal but I do not know if that is the case. The authorities certainly need to be alerted to the matter, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Sustainable fishing is of great importance as without it, we will have no fish stock for future generations. If trawling for smaller fish using smaller nets is happening, that is illegal. If that is an issue in Galway Bay, the authorities should be alerted and Galway County Council should take the lead on the matter, working with An Garda Síochána.

I concur with the comments made by Senators Wall and Craughwell on a commission for the Defence Forces. The commission should take all issues into consideration. There are issues with the Department of Defence, as we all know, particularly those of us who have worked on defence issues in recent years. The commentary from serving and former serving members indicates that they have an issue with the way the Department is run. Any Department worth its salt should be open to reform, change and working with those it is tasked with protecting. Nobody should have a closed door. There should be an open-door policy and I believe the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, is committed to that. He is a genuine person when it comes to defence matters. I look forward to debating this with him in the House in the coming year. We will certainly make a request of a debate.

Senator Gallagher raised an issue with the Bus Éireann service and the link between Cavan and Monaghan. He said that by the time the bus Letterkenny arrives in Monaghan, there is no space left on it. That is a genuine issue that needs to be raised with the Minister because that is not an acceptable service. People should not have to wait on the side of the road in 2020, only to find they are not given a seat on a bus in 2020. That issue needs to go straight to the Minister. I suggest that the Senator raise it as a Commencement matter because it is a localised, specific issue that would be suitable for a Commencement debate.

The issue raised by Senator Carrigy in respect of disabled drivers would also be suitable as a Commencement matter. He referred to the passenger scheme and changes around the primary medical certificate. For the small number of citizens who greatly rely on this scheme, it makes a big difference to be able to afford a vehicle that can accommodate a driver transporting a family member with a disability and assist in having a better quality of life. These are often the people who are caring and do not have time to have these battles and rows. They need others to advocate for them. This is a very important issue and I have had great difficulty in my constituency with the primary medical certificate because it is really cumbersome. It requires people with significant disabilities to travel to Dublin for an assessment that cannot, for some reason, be done in the community. I have never been able to understand that.

Senator O’Sullivan raised the threat of Russia and the abuse of human rights. He is correct that we very often focus on certain countries which we are very quick to criticise. There is often a quietness or vacuum there when it comes to the activities of the Russian Government. That is an important issue to be debated in our foreign policy.

Senator Craughwell also raised the issue of the commission for the Defence Forces which I dealt with. He also raised the issue of supervisors of community employment schemes. It has been a long-standing policy of the Fianna Fáil Party to try to get pensions for these people. They have served their communities and I agree that they do far more than just supervise the work. They are people who are confided in and to whom people go to get help. They do much more than what is on paper. We need to recognise that community employment schemes are very important for rural communities. They pick up the slack where the Government may have taken its eye off the ball and we greatly rely on them.

Senator Seery Kearney raised the issue of leaving certificate 2020 students and those who were marked down and had to resit their exams. I will certainly pass that on to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. She has been speaking about this directly to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. A small number of students have been severely discommoded, for example, if someone working towards getting into medicine who has probably been studying very hard for many years has his or her grades moved down. It has been a difficult situation to manage and the former Minister, Deputy McHugh, made the best decision he could at the time with the information available to him, namely, to cancel the leaving certificate. This was the right call to make at the time. One will never get it right across the board and the Minister, Deputy Foley, then had to carry on that torch. To be fair to both Ministers, they did their best with the information they had. The vast majority of students were very happy with how it was handled. Some students have been disadvantaged and we have to make every effort to look after them.

Senator Ahearn raised the issue St. Brigid's District Hospital, Carrick-on-Suir. This is quite a localised matter and I do not have any specific information on the hospital. I suggest that the Senator submit a Commencement matter on this to call the Minister before the House to respond on that specific matter.

Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the Joe McDonagh Cup and I join with him in congratulating the Antrim hurlers. I commend the ongoing work of the GAA in Belfast, which I was not aware of, and the building up of the grassroots movement there, which is very important. We know of the important role that the GAA has played in many communities across the country and I have no doubt that it is doing the same in Belfast.

Senator Conway raised the issue of tourism, the pandemic and coach drivers not having access to a fund. They have been hit hard and the Senator has been consistent in raising the impact of the pandemic on the tourism sector. I know he is acutely aware of it in his own part of the country. I agree that we need to do our best to help this sector because we need it to get back on track when we open up again to bring tourists to all parts of the country. Coach drivers are an integral part of the tourism sector and they keep things moving.

Senator McGahon raised the issue of housing maintenance in Louth County Council and stated the council had run out of money. I do not doubt the Senator’s bona fides in raising this issue which he is doing with the best of intentions for the people in County Louth. I am not quite sure, however, why a local authority has not raised the local property tax for six years if it is so bereft of funds and has no money to run its services. In County Mayo, two thirds of the local authority members, the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors, voted to increase the local property tax, not because it was popular or easy to do, but because they had to do it. The local authority needed the money to keep the show on the road, the potholes filled, the hedges cut and the lights on. It was the right and difficult decision to make and they took flak for doing that. Would it be fair on local authorities, such as Mayo County Council, which have raised the local property tax and have done the good and the responsible thing as elected representatives, to have to bail out other local authorities that did not take the tough decisions? To be honest, that is not fair. A conversation needs to be had. Every year that the local authority passes its budget, it decides where the money goes and how it is spent. A long, hard, reflective look at how that budget is being run for the people of the county may be necessary. Politicians have to make the right call and take responsible decisions rather than the popular and nice ones all the time.

Senator Ward raised the issue of insurance and banks. I have dealt with those issues. I agree that there is a lack of respect being shown to customers and it is exploitation. We will have to have that debate as soon as we can. Senator Lombard raised the issue of rural regeneration and the power of councillors in terms of determining what projects get funded and applied for. This is constant toing and froing in every local authority for all councillors where the executive has considerable influence over which projects get put forward for funding. It is a difficulty. Elected members are there to represent the people of the county. They should be listened to and need to have input into the selection of projects that go forward for very significant funding in the county. It should not be a case of what councillor is "in" with the chief executive. The best projects should get funded because that is what is in the interests of the people of the county. Elected members have their ear to the ground and know where those projects are and the difference they can make in communities so if they are not having input, that is not in the interests of citizens in those local authorities.

Senator Martin raised the issue of the BBC's coverage of the Uighur population in China. That issue has been raised previously in the House. We concurred across the House that it was a violation of human rights. The BBC's investigative work on this shows the importance of good journalism, including investigative journalism, and the importance of resourcing it properly. There has been an ongoing debate in this country as to how we protect investigative journalism so it does not all go on Twitter and is not all about getting it out quickly. The BBC has a bigger budget than most but it does fine work. I concur with the Senator's comments in that regard.

I join with Senator Davitt in formally congratulating President Joe Biden - it is great to be able to say that. I know the Cathaoirleach has already made contact along with the Ceann Comhairle with the office of the President to invite him here. We look forward to that engagement. It would be great to welcome him back with his strong Mayo roots as soon he can settle back on Irish soil. I must acknowledge his strong Louth roots as well.

I agree with Senator Davitt regarding county development plans. It is a significant issue across local authorities. Councillors are doing their damnedest to stop some of the changes for very good reasons. Massive changes are taking place under the radar. There has been a lack of public consultation on this because of Covid and citizens are not getting the full picture. We need to be very careful about this because once these changes come into effect, it is very hard to go back. A county development plan dictates planning for a county for the next five years until it is renewed. I commend councillors from all parties and none from across the country who are leading this fight. The Department has a fight on its hands. I do not think councillors are going to roll over and take this. Certainly they will find support in this House when it comes to making sure that proper scrutiny and consultation take place with regard to these plans because the impact on the citizen is immense.

On a very positive note, I wish the Westmeath ladies well. It is great to see ladies football getting the recognition it deserves. There have been some very unfortunate events in the past number of weeks where ladies football and women's sport in general has not been shown the respect it deserves. I know Deputy Smyth has been leading a campaign to look at how those organisations are funded. To this day, we still do not have a proper explanation why the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, LGFA, is a separate organisation from the GAA. The GAA is the Gaelic games athletics association. It should cover all Gaelic games in the country - men and women. The only reason I can see why they are separate is that all the funding is in the GAA while the LGFA is the poor relation. If it comes in under the one umbrella, the ladies will get more support and it will be spread around more evenly. If we are serious about supporting women's sport in this country, let us show it the degree of respect it deserves and let us learn from the mistakes on that front this year in terms of even televising the semi finals. It was utterly disgraceful. It is 2020 heading into 2021 so it is time we showed the respect to 50% of the population that has been lacking to date.

Order of Business agreed to.