Wednesday, 16 December 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding arrangements for the sitting of the House on Thursday, 17 December 2020, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the joint report on the response of the Houses of the Oireachtas to the judgments of the Supreme Court in the Kerins case, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, the Social Welfare Bill 2020 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is the later, and to conclude no later than 4.15 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, only include those set down or accepted by Government; No. 4, the Finance Bill 2020 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 7 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; and No. 5, motion regarding the earlier signature of the Finance Bill 2020, to be taken on conclusion of No. 4, without debate.
There is one woman on my mind this morning. Indeed, she has been on my mind all night since I saw her last night on "Prime Time". Anybody who saw and heard Geraldine Mullan from Moville in Donegal either last night or this morning could not have been but so incredibly moved by her loss, grief and sense of dignity and the very strong message she wanted to give to everybody. Geraldine lost her husband and two children on 20 August in a car accident and is now all alone with no family. The message she sent out last night was to cherish those close to us and ensure that we take the time and opportunity to tell them we love them because we never know if we will have that chance again. It is a very strong and significant message from a wonderful woman who is going through the most horrific grief.
I wish to raise the announcement by the Minister for Defence regarding the Defence Forces' commission, which is very welcome. It was in the programme for Government and was part of my party's manifesto. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dig deep and get things right. This commission will examine where the Defence Forces will go from here. I have a concern that the scope is limited. It is wrong that the Department of Defence is not mentioned because it is the entity with the money and power, puts in policy in place and has the Government's issues. We have an opportunity to try to get this right so the fact that the Department will not be included is wrong. We should ask the Minister for Defence to come to the House for a debate on that.
An issue that came to my attention during the week is youth mental health in my county. It is a problem around the country but the scale of need in Kildare is not reflected in resource allocation. County Kildare has the highest number of young people in the State at 36.6%. When we compare that with the total population of our neighbouring counties - Offaly and Carlow - we can see that Kildare has a larger population. The problem is that in six of our towns, young people must wait between eight and 12 months for some type of counselling. This is shocking when we look at the statistics relating to levels of mental stress and suicides among young people. I reiterate my previous call for a Jigsaw service to be established in Kildare.
Writing in The Irish Timestoday about the Canada-Europe trade agreement, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, Senator McDowell is rightly critical of what he regards as the cavalier approach of the Government to Oireachtas scrutiny. As we know, CETA would involve giving foreign corporations the power to sue sovereign states outside our legal system through the investor court system. Whatever about whether giving away such a power away should be subject to a referendum, the idea that the Dáil would have been given a ludicrous 55 minutes to debate such a far-reaching issue says something about the Government's attitude to the role of the Oireachtas.
When I look at this week's Order of Business, I see that the Appropriation Bill will go through all Stages, as will the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017. I understand that in order for money to flow, the Appropriation Bill has to be passed in December. The question is why it is only coming now. When one looks at something like the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, however, one can see that it is legislation which will require thorough analysis.It deals with all sorts of issues, whether it is revenge porn or other situations involving a breach of copyright of intimate photographs or images and so on. This should be put to the Seanad for a debate at all Stages just before Christmas. This shows contempt for the job we must do as legislators. I do not know what the Government wants. Does it want to move to a dictatorship or something? We have been at a point for a long time now where public respect for politicians is quite low. I do not think that is a newsflash to anybody here. The Government takes the legs from under us when we try to do the very job we are put here to do, which is to look at legislation thoroughly, speak about it on Second Stage and come forward with amendments on Committee Stage, which the Government just might think are worthwhile, and then it will come back with some version of its own on Report Stage. None of that can happen if the Government runs legislation through at all Stages. There is a profound disrespect for both the Dáil and the Oireachtas at the moment. The Government knows it can push through what it wants when it wants with its heavy majority. There are, however, consequences to that approach. There will be a further deepening of public contempt for politicians and the job of legislative scrutiny, which is vital to a parliamentary democracy.
In conclusion, we are at the time for new year's resolutions. Could we have a new year's resolution that this pathetic and insulting rushing through of legislation at all Stages will stop? Can we start by saying the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 will be broken and brought into the new year so we might, at least, have a separation of Committee Stage from Report Stage? I ask the Leader to think seriously about what is going on here and come back with a positive response. I believe I speak for more than just myself on this issue.
I want to address the issue of two tents occupied by homeless people being set on fire yesterday in Dublin city centre. I imagine everybody across the House will condemn this type of criminal behaviour. I hope the Garda will do all in its power to bring those perpetrators to justice. To have something like that happen just before Christmas in the most vulnerable of situations must be absolutely devastating.
I raised the issue of co-living in the House previously. I came into this House to welcome the co-living ban by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I believe, however, clarification is needed around it before Christmas. There have been two more applications since that ban was announced, one to convert the Phibsborough Shopping Centre into a co-living development and another in my own area where 240 co-living spaces are planned in Player Wills.
Developers are currently in the midst of lodging applications to get them passed straight through. We need immediate clarification from the Minister about when his updated guidelines will apply and if things in pre-application consultation will get through the ban. I understand that legislation and guidelines cannot be applied retrospectively but we can hurry up deleting those particular sections from the ministerial guidelines and make sure we do not see a slew of pre-Christmas applications for co-living.
I will raise another issue on the Order of Business. Yesterday, I attended a vigil outside the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital for the many thousands of women and pregnant people who are going through pregnancy under Covid-19 restrictions and cannot bring their partner with them. The Government has been fair regarding the 20-week anomaly scan, ensuring partners are a central support and allowing them to be present. There are, however, a whole host of other reasons women and pregnant people need the support of a partner when attending maternity services.
The Covid-19 situation is different from what it was in March. We know there are different approaches to it. We know, for example, that it is airborne. We know that masks and social distancing work. We have been in this situation for almost a year now. There must be a way over the long term of ensuring pregnant people have the support of their partners. We have 19 different maternity hospitals across the country and there needs to be a uniform approach. I do not think there is urgency and recognition on behalf of the Government or the masters of the hospitals in ensuring partners or birthing partners can safely attend the birth of their babies. This is causing undue hardship and mental health difficulties to an awful lot of people over the long term.
I want to echo the comments made by Senator Mullen. I have said before that the Legislature and the Executive both have jobs to do and at the moment, as Senator Mullen has pointed out, the Legislature is not being allowed to do that job properly. We have seen that with the comprehensive economic and trade agreement, CETA, and many other instances that have been mentioned.
Last night in the Dáil, the Government did not oppose the Sinn Féin prevention of homelessness Bill. Considering the annual report from Threshold that was launched last week, I ask that this House seek a similar consensus to speed up the passing of necessary housing legislation. Two main points stood out in that report. A shocking 45% of all notices of termination are issued because the landlord indicates his or her intention to sell the property. We need better legislation that protects long-term and even lifetime renters. It should be possible to sell properties with renters in situ.
The lack of inspections of private rental properties by local authorities has reached such a level that many landlords feel confident enough to advertise rental properties that do not meet basic standards. I mentioned this in the House last week. They know there is little chance they will face inspection. It is time we had an NCT style inspection of properties before they are advertised. That could be implemented if the political will and consensus exists.
I also want the House to know the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Sports, Culture, Arts and the Gaeltacht recently agreed its work programme for 2021. I welcome the committee members' support for my proposal to examine the work undertaken to achieve a gender balance in traditional and contemporary arts, and the need to address issues of discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying in the sector.
It is almost five years since Waking the Feminists began a year-long grassroots campaign to advance equality for women in theatre. This year, allegations of sexual assault, harassment and coercion in the Irish traditional music scene came to light through the #MiseFosta hashtag movement on social media. I once again commend the women who came forward to share their stories. It is imperative that the Oireachtas hears from those campaigning for change as well as the people in the organisations and the festivals that are in a position to implement that change.
I commend the work of FairPlé, the organisation advocating for fairness in traditional music, and the Mise Fosta social media movement that emanated from it. At last weekend's TradTalk2020 festival, FairPlé launched an anti-harassment policy to prevent bullying and sexual harassment in the performing arts sector. As we move back towards live events, it is important that organisers of any events in the near future adopt and promote those guidelines.
Táimid ar ais arís inniu ag caint mar gheall ar uisce. I was just thinking that a person would not put dirty petrol or diesel into his or her car yet we have a huge issue of water quality in this country. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, carried out a big survey and tested much of the waters in Ireland. Some of its finding are horrific. I will throw out a couple of figures because I like a few statistics to back up any issues I bring to the House. It tested all the rivers in Ireland between 2013 and 2019. Some 47% of the sites have unsatisfactory nitrate concentration levels and 44% of these have increased in the last six years. We are going the opposite way and getting worse. We have been highlighting water issues for a few years now and no U-turn is happening. We put the water into our bodies and our children drink it. If a woman is finished breastfeeding, she uses the water with powdered milk. This is a huge issue.
I have been contacted by constituents with E. coli poisoning. I know of three families who all happen to have daughters of six or seven years of age who have had kidney failure. They have been left with a lifelong illness. That is the E. coli raw sewage side of it; there is also the nitrates and phosphates aspect. Some 34% of sites have unsatisfactory phosphate concentration levels.
We just have to stop and say we have not even got the basic issue of water right in this country. I will keep bringing this issue up until I see something happening. In County Clare alone, raw sewage discharge is going straight into five places. I believe there are 47 all over Ireland; it is not unique to County Clare. We need to call the Minister into the House and ask what is going to happen.Irish Water says it will only work where there is existing infrastructure in terms of improving it. There are many places that need infrastructure where there is none in place. Some of our water infrastructure has not changed since the days when 20 people lived in a village where now 400 people could be living. I will keep raising the issue of water services until we get some answers and action on it. We have issues around phosphates, nitrates and E.coli, which are damaging for all of us but most damaging for the most vulnerable, our younger and older people. I ask the House to support me in calling for the Minister to come into the House to discuss this issue and let us hear about actions being taken.
I echo the remarks of my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, concerning the courage and dignity of Geraldine Mullan in the interview on "Prime Time" last night. I commend "Prime Time" and Miriam O'Callaghan for the sensitivity with which they handled it. It shows we all have challenges in life but that interview really put things in perspective.
I wish to briefly raise two issues. Yesterday the Data Protection Commissioner announced that Twitter would be fined €450,000 for a data breach. It is the first time a tech giant has been fined by the Data Protection Commissioner. Twitter was not only fined for its breach but for its failure to notify the Data Protection Commissioner of the breach and the failure to properly document what happened. Many European data regulators believe this fine was very much on the low side and I would share that concern. Until data privacy is taken seriously and some of the social media giants are tackled in a stronger way, they will continue to behave in this way. I have called for a debate on this issue previously but in terms of our relationships with tech giants we need a fuller debate.
The other issue I wish to raise is the impact Brexit will have for Rosslare Europort. There has been good news in that we are seeing a number of additional direct sailings from Rosslare. We will need more direct sailings. Rosslare Europort will need to become a tier 1 port in the event of whatever Brexit happens, whatever deal we get. The completion of the M11 from Oilgate to Rosslare is essential to cope with all the traffic that will be coming through. If the Oilgate to Rosslare route - the dual carriageway - is not completed, we will see further traffic jams. Councillor Willie Kavanagh who lives in Oilgate regularly talks about the problems he sees in village because of where the M11 currently ends. In discussing the Brexit issue, I ask that the M11 to Rosslare Europort be fully completed.
I want to state how concerned I am about the Covid numbers, hospital capacity in the North and the ability of its health system to cope. This is not new. Covid numbers, in the main, are higher in the North and have been more worrying during the past six months. During the second wave the virus was running at four times that in the South. Two weeks ago, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, there were 100 deaths in a week. The North's population is two fifths that of the South. I will let the Members do the maths in working out just how tragic that is.
Five people died on Monday, may they rest in peace, and 419 tested positive; six died yesterday and 486 tested positive; and 13 died over the weekend. If this was a community Members represented, imagine how they would feel, but this is our community. These are really scary numbers for families and for burnt-out healthcare workers and their families facing into Christmas. It should be a concern for every politician North and South. The heads of the Northern Ireland hospital trust on Monday warned that hospitals would be overwhelmed in January with a spike and unbearable pressure - those are not my words - but that is already happening. Hospitals that have been at over-capacity or near capacity for weeks are treating patients in car parks. Seventeen ambulances were outside emergency rooms yesterday and that was the same for all the emergency departments in the North. The situation is better this morning but that does not mean it will not get worse. That includes Altnagelvin Hospital that serves Donegal. This situation has the potential to be catastrophic. The health minister, Robin Swann, who, by all reports, was reluctant to lift the restrictions after the two-week circuit breaker, is to consider the restrictions on Thursday. I ask the Minister for Health to update the House on how this impacts the Border and how we can help the hospitals in the North.
I thank the Leader for setting out the proposed Order of Business today. The item I wish to briefly raise is a proposal that we would have a motion regarding the Joint Report on the Response of the Houses of the Oireachtas to the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Kerins v. McGuinness case. This is a profound piece of work. It has been a long time coming.
The Cathaoirleach, as chair of the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, knows about this. This has come before us, we have no knowledge of it and there is no explanatory memorandum on it. I have said previously it would be helpful when bringing forward motions such as this one to have a small concise explanatory memorandum. We received this yesterday. I checked with the Oireachtas Library today and this report has been laid before the Houses. The timeframe is too tight.
I heard another Senator speak about coming with facts. I like to bring facts to the House too. Last night I read the Library service's Spotlight: The Decision of the Supreme Court in Kerins v McGuinness. I commend and recommend every Member of the House before they leave here today would contact the Library and get that document dated 30 October 2019. I do not intend to go into it now other than to say the Oireachtas Library and Research Service did an amazing report on these issues. These are profound issues regarding people coming before the Oireachtas. We need to have a discussion on this issue.
I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate on it early in the new year, if possible. These matters will be in the media today, tomorrow and the next day, yet we in this House will not have discussed them. There is a problem when we will be reading in our national press about something as significant as this. This is a very significant case. It has major implications for outside bodies coming into these Houses. It has major implications for us and our responsibilities on Oireachtas joint committees. I ask Leader to facilitate a debate on this report early in the new year.
Like my colleague, Senator Currie, I want to raise my worries and fears over the Covid numbers. Senator Currie articulated very well the problems in the North. We need to hold tight and strong on Covid. We had 41 new cases in Louth last night. We can think of all those people's close contacts who are now in quarantine for Christmas. I beg people to mind themselves, watch what they do and listen to the Chief Medical Officer's advice for people to reduce their contacts because none of us wants to give Covid to a loved one. We want to make sure our grannies, grandads and vulnerable members of our families are with us next Christmas. We should think of next summer. We can have a Christmas party in July. We are on the verge possibly of a having a serious lockdown come January. As Senator Currie said, the North is in now in crisis. We heard a radio interview on "Morning Ireland" this morning about the numbers and the backlog going into emergency services. Definitely we need to help out the North, if it is at all possible. We need to relieve some of the pressures for those patients and the front-line workers up there but we need to make sure that, come January, we are not in a similar situation down here.
I want to raise the issue of equality and what it means. A report in The Irish Timestoday quotes the Balance for Better Business survey, a Government supported survey. It notes that of all the executive director appointments in the last 18 months in the Republic of Ireland, not one woman was appointed during that time.There was a target of having at least one woman in senior management in all publicly quoted companies in Ireland by the end of 2020 and we will fall far short of that. In fact, almost two in every five publicly quoted companies here are all male in their senior management. That is not even their boards; that is just their senior management. That is a disgrace. When I was a child I remember Noelle Campbell-Sharpe attempting every year to get on the board of the bank and the great discussion that caused at the time. I did not appreciate then what that meant but it is appalling that, a couple of decades later, we are in a situation where women are still trying to breach that ceiling. That is a disgrace.
An experience I had in recent weeks was of a couple of women coming to me who have made claims for the likes of optical benefit or whatever using their new, exciting PPS number that was issued to them under the great leadership of the then Minister, now the Leader, Senator Regina Doherty, in that Department, only to find that as a qualified adult, the benefits they had under their husband's PPS number have not transferred to their new PPS number. They were refused under their own PPS number and had to put up their husband's number, which seems a peculiar anomaly. I am sure there was not an intention to do that but it smacks of inequality. We need an urgent debate in the House on equality and what that means for 2021.
A few years ago, on 23 January 2015, something very strange happened. This country flew its flags at half mast for the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was without doubt one of the world's greatest butchers and tyrants. We now know, thanks to the pioneering work of Irish journalist, Sally Hayden, that things are getting worse rather than better in Saudi Arabia. Members can see in this morning's edition ofThe Irish Times that she reports that African and Asian migrant workers are being locked up in unsanitary conditions, tortured, beaten and, in some cases, killed in Saudi Arabia. This relates to new research by Human Rights Watch and she went on to report:
Inside the centre [where these poor migrant detainees are kept they are] beaten with rubber-coated metal rods, which allegedly led to three deaths between October and November. Other interviewees said they had seen people, who were badly injured, being taken out of the centre and never returned.
Saudi Arabia, one of the world's richest countries, has no excuse for detaining migrant workers in appalling conditions, in the middle of a health pandemic, for months on end.
[One can see] video footage of people crammed together, allegations of torture and unlawful killings are shocking ...
Detainees told the organisation that they are being held in cramped rooms with as many as 350 other people.
It is impossible to all sleep at once, so they take it in turns to lie down. There are between two and five working toilets, and there is no access to showers or soap.
I could talk at length, but for the time available, about Saudi Arabia's appalling role in the war in Yemen and our complicity in that war because we continue to facilitate the US military in Shannon. It is disappointing that Sinn Féin is the only party to ever raise that issue but so be it. We are used to it at this point in time. I call for an urgent debate on the crimes and the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. There has been a consistent silence on the part of Government parties with regard to this issue. I hope and trust that will change today in the Leader's response.
I wish to remind the House that today, 16 December, is the deadline for submissions for the BusConnects bus corridor project. The Cathaoirleach will be familiar with it. It is a highly ambitious programme to improve our public transportation and address climate action but I also see it as a social equality issue in terms of providing better public transport services in the city to everybody.
The public bus is relied on by both young and old and provides great independence of travel. The project projects an investment of approximately €2 billion over ten years. Today's consultation deadline relates to the proposed 16 bus corridors which, if they are implemented, would deliver 230 km of priority bus corridors and 200 km of priority cycle routes. It is an ambitious and important project for the city but this is the third round of public consultation. It was conducted during the Covid-19 restrictions. I commend everybody who has engaged, including the individuals, homeowners, residents and residents' groups, associations and businesses but it has been difficult. I urge every Member of the House to make a submission because this is not just for us, the Dubliners. It is for people outside the city in the county and those who will visit the capital in the future to benefit from it. I urge all Members to include in their submission a real push on the National Transport Authority, NTA, to deliver park and ride facilities with corridors and to ensure there is an increase in the capacity of environmentally friendly buses. I have asked the NTA to do this but we should be charging the authority to at least evaluate the cost of making public transportation free to everybody under the age of 23, essentially taking the over-65 free travel and providing it to young people, to get them into the habit of using it to go to school, college or training. If we are making this big an investment in the infrastructure let us make the service available.
This week, Bus Éireann announced a new bus route from Portroe, in north Tipperary, to Limerick, which is very much welcomed. It is the first time Bus Éireann has operated a bus route from Portroe to Limerick. In September, Bus Éireann also announced the discontinuation of the Cork-Dublin express route, which has major implications in County Tipperary, in particular in Cahir and Cashel. My colleague, Councillor Declan Burgess, has done a good deal of work to try to ascertain the facts behind the decision that was made because from our perspective, and certainly from the perspective of Councillor Burgess, this route is used extensively by students and people from the area but particularly by tourists coming into the country. When they travel from Cork to Dublin, they often stop off in Cahir and Cashel to visit the sites. The announcement was made in December that the route would be discontinued. That is commencing in January. I would appreciate an update from the Minister for Transport on the future plans with the express route. It is being discontinued temporarily. What are the future plans for it? When will it be brought back? Has analysis been done on the number of people who use the route? Has the benefit it gives to towns like Cahir and Cashel and other rural areas been acknowledged, as well as the impact its removal will have on them? I would appreciate the Minister for Transport coming into the House to make a statement on that.
To follow on on the theme of transport, the BusConnects programme from the National Transport Authority is the subject of a major public consultation process and today is the last day for residents in Dublin to put in their observations on it. I want to make one comment of general, not local, application about that. There is a danger in putting traffic engineers in charge of a process who get it into their heads that bus transport in an urban area is the only solution and that other traffic such as lorries, vans and ordinary cars are somehow the problem. There is a simplistic notion that everybody's traffic needs are the same but they are not. If one has to bring one's children to a crèche or visit one's aged mother-in-law every day, buses may be completely useless for that. We can have buses flying in every direction and they are of absolutely no assistance to somebody whose daily existence requires car mobility. I want to put on the record of this House that we should never get involved in a process where the engineers come up with the idea that bus transport is the answer to everything. I am not saying it should not be radically improved but we should not get into a position where we have tunnel vision and the result is massive traffic congestion for all other forms of transport.
The temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, was introduced by the previous Government as a badly-needed and welcome measure to support businesses and workers during the pandemic. It proved to be a lifeline for many businesses across the country and kept workforces together in order to be prepared to ramp up work and production once the crisis passed. Many businesses adapted their work practices and changed marketing strategies to survive. Some businesses in the craft and retail sector increased their presence online in order to survive and, for many, this has, thankfully, proven successful.
As we come to the end of the year, Revenue is now assessing these businesses in the context of the wage subsidy scheme and for some it is proving a sobering experience as their hard work and change of direction has meant that the 25% reduction in turnover necessary has been slightly missed and, as a result, Revenue is demanding the return of the scheme funding. My office has been contacted by one business whose trade has been devastated by the earlier lockdown. Their shop, selling high-end goods mostly to the tourist trade, was shut down and their craftspeople would all have been let go were it not for the TWSS. However, the couple in this case fought back, borrowed money to establish an impressive online presence and worked day and night to reposition their business. They paid VAT to Revenue even though they could have warehoused the debt because they felt that we were all in this together and wanted to pay their bills on time to the taxpayer.
After an extremely stressful and expensive year, when their business went through hard work and innovation but survived, imagine their shock at getting a demand from Revenue that the TWSS funding be repaid. That is €30,000 they do not have because their turnover dropped by close to 20%, not the 25% threshold. That is all in spite of the fact that Revenue stated initially that if the original self-assessment was reasonable, it would not seek to claw back the subsidy for the original period.
The couple fought tooth and nail to hold on to their business, pumping borrowed money into it, and are now being penalised for their hard work. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance to contact Revenue and in the spirit of the battle against Covid-19, urge it to be flexible in the manner in which TWSS recoupment is done. It should take into account the extraordinary efforts to which businesspeople went to keep their businesses open and trading and accept the fact that new trading practices and business innovation, which cost businesses a lot, were a part of the bigger picture in saving enterprises and jobs. It would be a cruel irony if repaying the support received was the final nail in the coffin for this business.
I raise an issue that has been raised by a number of other Senators, namely, the issue of fathers being at natal appointments and the birth of their children. In early December, it was announced that women attending their 20-week scan will now be able to be accompanied by their birth partners within Covid-19 restrictions. That is a good start but more is needed.
Birth partners being allowed for other scans or antenatal appointments is important and its lack is disappointing. All over the country, different maternity hospitals have different restrictions. Over the past number of months, we have heard of cases of women who had miscarriages and had to sit there on their own and deal with the tragedy. The partners of other women have only been able to see their child over FaceTime because they were too late to attend the birth. I understand that a one-size-fits-all approach may not work but we cannot stop birth partners from being with their partners during this time. Continued maternity ward visiting restrictions across the country are making expecting mothers fearful about giving birth, as well as leaving women who have given birth without the support of their partner with questions. I understand that hospitals must prioritise the safety of all patients and staff and do everything they can to ensure that hospitals are protected from the ever-present threat of Covid-19, but more needs to be done.
One expectant mother contacted me on behalf of mothers in my area of Longford-Westmeath. With the advantages of rapid Covid-19 testing, could this matter of expecting parents be looked into? A birth partner with a negative result should be allowed to attend appointments.
I thank my colleagues. I will work backwards, if that is okay. Senator Carrigy and another Senator brought up the non-uniform nature of the rules around maternity services for couples in Ireland over the past couple of months. The Senators are right. The decision to allow partners go to the 20-week anomaly scan is welcome but, speaking from experience as someone who has done it a number of times, every visit is important. Mothers are anxious. Somebody who is very close to me has a relative who had a baby in the past couple of days. She came home within 24 hours because of the restriction of not being able to see or have her husband or partner with her. The same applies to extended family, waiting to see this new gorgeous bundle of joy that has arrived just before Christmas. It is not right or fair. I have asked the Minister to liaise with the service providers but I will write a letter and ask for a statement on the uniformity of services, but also on the advancement of the care and provision of services that should be available to all couples who are going through what should be a wonderful time of a pregnancy and birth. I will certainly do that today and send a copy of the letter to the Senator.
Senator Kyne raised the wage subsidy scheme and it is something that I have mentioned on a number of occasions in this House, during both Commencement matters and on the Order of Business. We have debated the unfair application of it by one particular blue-chip company, which is ongoing. We have some 2,300 applications from Aer Lingus employees looking to avail of the short-time working scheme because they were put on 50% and 30% work rosters during lockdown. Every one of them is being denied the application because of mismanagement of the wage subsidy scheme.
The Senator highlighted another anomaly. When we established the wage subsidy scheme, it was to maintain the employee relationship with the employers and to support those employers to keep the businesses ticking over during the periods of downtime so that they would be ready and able to come back up again. It would be a shocking shame if the recoupment of this money made sure that a business was not viable. Many of our businesses are vulnerable but we need to make sure that our continued support for them will ensure that they maintain their viability through the next number of months until we see the end of our engagement with the pandemic. I cannot assure the Senator that I will get access to the Minister between now and Christmas to get a response to the request for him to make a statement in this House, but I will certainly write him a letter today and ask him to address the anomalies with regard to the recoupment of moneys from the Revenue Commissioners for our struggling businesses up and down the country.
Senators McDowell and Fitzpatrick brought up BusConnects. They are right that today is the last day for submissions. There has been considerable engagement and I think it has been positive, particularly considering that it has happened during a pandemic. Members of this and the other House have made sure that their communities are represented. The Senators are right that the bus is not the answer to everybody's needs. One would sometimes be forgiven for thinking that it is the only answer to everybody's transport needs. It is important that we do not get trapped in that mindset. Engineers, while they are wonderful and we need them, would have one believe that a particular route will solve everybody's needs but it will not. It might actually solve some people's needs at the expense of others, in which case we will find ourselves back here in another cycle of conversations about lorries, trucks and their negative and positive impacts on cities and towns. The commuter is more important. Some commuters do not have the option to take a bus because of their obligations in the morning or evening time. We need to be careful that we do not fall into that mindset and I encourage anyone in this House or watching these proceedings at home who has not made an application or submission to BusConnects to do so before close of business today.
I do not have an answer for Senator Ahearn on the express route. I will today ask the Minister if he can get me a statement and I will come back to the Senator before close of business. It is unfair that, in a number of weeks, an express route on which even a relatively small amount of people rely on - which is not the case for this route, on which a large number of people rely - will close. It is unfair to those affected not to have any visibility of what is going to come in the future, if it will be a short-term suspension of services or services will come back sooner. I will get as much information as I can for the Senator today and will drop it to his office before close of business.
I do not have an answer Senator Gavan and I am sorry to say that I was not even aware of the issue he raised. It was horrendous to hear of such abuses of human rights by an incredibly wealthy country. I was not even aware that we flew the flag at half mast. It makes one question why we would have done that for someone who might have a dubious reputation. Why we would do it for one person and not others is probably something that we need to question. I will today request from the Department of Foreign Affairs a debate on human rights and this particular issue, but it will be the new year before it happens. I will come back to the Deputy straightaway on the matter.
Senator Carey brought up a matter. Senators are probably sick of me because we regularly bring up equality of opportunity for women in Ireland during these debates but it is really quite startling that not one female has been appointed to a board in the past number of months.We are all busy and concentrating on other important matters, but equality of opportunity across every State service is important. The highlights of the inequality have been raised a number of times. The first of our Seanad panel debates will take place the first week we return. It will relate to the gender pay gap. While that is not quite what the Senator raised, it is the start of a series of debates in which we will thoroughly investigate inequality of opportunity, not just for women, but for minorities and other disadvantaged groups as well.
We need to be clear on what "equality" means for everyone who does not experience it. While driving yesterday evening, I listened to the father of a child with special needs on the news. I was struck by something he said about the inequality that some children with special needs experienced in accessing services in school and the health services. This is not to denigrate anyone delivering those services. They are wonderful people, which I know first hand, but there are not enough of them. The father stated that, if the inequality was based on a child's race or sex, there would be blue murder in the country and that it is on the basis of children having needs over and above some other children that their inequality is not getting mainstream attention. It should. The question of equality in how we deliver our services is important.
Senators McGreehan and Currie discussed not just the worrying Covid-19 numbers in Northern Ireland over recent weeks, but also how our two communities interacted. It is a signal to us that, but for the grace of God, we could have been in the same position in a number of weeks. The UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany are making pre-emptive strikes for fear of what is to come. We are all aware that our actions determine how the virus reacts and we are all probably sick to our back teeth of being told what we have to do, but we need reminding because people can grow relaxed over the festive season and believe that the situation is fine. We cannot relax. We need to be very cautious. I will ask the Minister to make a clear statement on how the Republic intends to offer its services to our neighbours to ensure that we are in this together and the citizens of the island of Ireland get looked after by all of its service providers.
Given how confined our business is this week, I am not in a position to offer Senator Boylan a debate on the joint report arising from the Kerins case in the Supreme Court. I will clarify something lest there be any ambiguity. The Senator stated that there was no memorandum in the offices this morning as if this was Government business. It is not Government business and, therefore, we did not prepare the memorandum. Rather, this is the Oireachtas reacting to how the Houses conduct their business. I am a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, which has had lengthy and numerous meetings in recent weeks going through each recommendation that has been put to us by the Oireachtas arising from the Kerins judgment and the requisite changes to the Standing Orders and practices of our Oireachtas committees. Oireachtas officials have been good and gracious to us in explaining a number of difficult points. I am aware that equivalent debates have been held by the Dáil's Committee on Procedure. The two procedural committee members have been asked to agree the suggested changes, having debated them at meetings. However, I take the Senator's point that Members have not had an opportunity to debate them in this House or the Dáil. We need to agree this motion on laying the report before the House, but I will arrange for a debate after Christmas so that the matter can be teased out fully, albeit after the fact. I wanted to put on the record of the House that this was not Government business. Rather, the CPP asked me on behalf of the Cathaoirleach to draft this motion and table it for the House's agreement so that we could lay the report before the Oireachtas.
Senator Byrne discussed the Data Protection Commission's, DPC's, fine. Significantly, this is the first time that the DPC has levied a considerable fine against one of our platform companies that is headquartered in Ireland. I agree that there was some surprise yesterday that the fine seemed so small compared to the organisation's scale and reach. It will be interesting to see the reaction from other EU member states and how they view the lead taken by the DPC. European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, for whom I have great admiration, is a gutsy lady and international politician. Yesterday, she launched the digital markets act and the digital services act, which I hope will have a profound effect on these large giants in how they treat mere mortals like ourselves who use them for social and recreational purposes. In some cases, major digital services companies have manipulated their majority status in recent years to ensure that they got preferential treatment in international trade over competing actors. I look forward to the two acts going through the EU and coming to us to be scrutinised. There needs to be a debate on this matter and it must be held in public. This leads into the debate we will have on Friday regarding Coco's Law, which I will address in a few minutes.
Turning to Senator Garvey, I have asked for a debate on water. There is a standing invitation. Shockingly, the quarterly reports do not show any improvement at 37 sites around our lovely country. In fact, there has been disimprovement. We must scratch our heads and wonder what in God's name we are doing with all of our talk and the awareness that is out there if we are not seeing improvements in water quality.
Following the matter being raised last week or the week before, we have decided to have a rolling schedule as part of our weekly business after Christmas, please God. There will be a rolling section on climate issues every week. I intend to ask every Minister to attend on a schedule to give the House a departmental update on Ireland's climate action controls, measures and plans. This will not necessarily start the first week after Christmas, but I hope to see it happening thereafter.
Senator Warfield mentioned yesterday's reports on homelessness. While the numbers are disappointing, I have scheduled a debate on housing and homelessness for the beginning of the new year. Although that is not finalised, I hope to provide the details to colleagues over Christmas and let them know our plans for the couple of weeks after we return in January. There is a long-standing invitation to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, but I appreciate that he has been busy in recent months with the Planning and Development Bill and the provision of his new service plan for housing delivery. I will revert to the Senator once I have an exact date.
Senator Moynihan has raised her issue on a nearly weekly basis. It is testament to her passion and commitment on the subject. I assumed that, when the announcement was made, it was relatively clear. Maybe I am naive, but I understood that anything that was in the throes of the planning application process could not be stopped because it had started and would be allowed to complete and that anything new was to be a no-no, but that is clearly not what is happening in practice. On behalf of the House, I will have to see what was meant exactly. I will ask for clarification and a statement. When I get it, I will ensure that Senators get copies. We are all aware - actually, not everyone will agree with me - that there was a brief time for this particular type of provision. We have moved well past that now and the Senator is right, in that people are probably chancing their arms because there is misinformation. There should not be misinformation, though, and I will try to get clarification.
I do not want to take issue with the way Senator Mullen raised his objections, not least because he was entitled to do so, but also because he may not know that he was incorrect. We have a majority in the House, but that is not the way I would like to do my business and it is not the way I have been doing it. Senator Warfield raised the issue on behalf of Sinn Féin. The objection is to the schedule for this week. Senator Mullen stated that it showed "profound disrespect" for the Parliament and that it was "insulting" and "pathetic", but we have a meeting every Wednesday and the order is agreed by consensus. If there is not consensus, we change the order until we get consensus. The order before the House today is what was agreed last Wednesday with the exception of a change that I requested yesterday to take Committee and Report Stages of the Social Welfare Bill together today.It was done by consent and not to be disrespectful. I have no intention of throwing around my weight. I do not really think I have any weight. The collegiate nature of this House should be, wherever possible, to do our business by consent. That will not always be possible because there will be times when we disagree with one another. However, it is not the way I do my business and it is certainly not the way I want to do my business. I am sorry the Senator feels disrespected but at the meeting last week, his group representative agreed to the schedule. We always have, apparently, dealt with the Appropriation Bill in all Stages. It is not unique to this Seanad or this year. Apparently, it is a Bill that mostly has appreciation and acceptance and does not create any discord. It probably goes through without a vote.
Regarding the other Bill, the reason for the arrangement and the acceptance of it by all Members is that we want to get it passed. As it is not finishing in the Dáil until Thursday, the earliest I could get it was Friday. We all want to get it passed and that is because of the determination of Jackie Fox over the last number of years, as well as Labour Party colleagues and all colleagues, including the Minister for Justice. It will have a profound impact on making the world and Ireland a safer place for our daughters and sons. That is why it was acceptable to put it all together on Friday: because we all want the same thing. That will not stifle debate and there will probably be people who put forward amendments that will be accepted or rejected but, at the end of the day, we want the same thing and that is why the unusual step of taking all Stages of this Bill on Friday is being taken. We want to get it passed before Christmas, we want to give Jackie the legacy her daughter Coco richly deserves. It is within our gift to do that before Christmas and that is why we agreed, unusually, to take all Stages of the Bill. We did agree that we would not do that before, which is why the Stages of all other Bills have been separated in the first instance.
I thank her for her comprehensive answer. I want to make it clear I am not having a go at her. I do not wish to do that. She is constrained, as the Leader of the Seanad always is, by the logic of power around here. I also support that legislation. I am talking about the Government, rather than the Leader. She has to do what she has to do.
I do not care if everybody at the leaders' meetings agreed to it. This is always bad practice. The only time legislation should be taken at all Stages is in an emergency situation and this is not an emergency situation. It is important legislation which will try, hopefully with everybody's support, to secure the common good. However, it is not right outside of emergency situations to dispense with the possibility of people hearing each other's opinions on Second Stage and coming up with ideas for amendments, which might be so good that they should go back to the Dáil for consideration. When legislation is put through all Stages in one day, particularly coming up to Christmas, we all know what is happening.
I know there is an emotional charge behind this legislation and it is named for a person who suffered profound injustice but none of that takes away from the fact that we have a serious duty as legislators. That is being lost here and it is being constantly lost. I ask the Leader to reflect on that. Even if there is unanimity, it does not make it right. That was my point and it was not targeted at the Leader personally. We all know she has to do what she has to do and let us not pretend otherwise.
To be fair, I do not take it personally at all. I want the Senator to know it is not a Government thing. There is not a sledgehammer from anybody across the way saying we have to do this. I felt we wanted to do this this week and I think the Senator is being slightly disingenuous to the people who will make contributions on Friday. It will not lessen our view, our scrutiny, our wish and ambition to change and make it better. If there is an amendment here on Friday, it will have to go back to the Dáil. It is as simple as that. That is the way it works. We try, though it will not always be possible, to do the business of the House by consent and I continue to do that.
The Senator is right that it is not best practice to have all Stages on the same day. Of course we would not do it if we did not think it was an emergency. I do not agree with the Senator because I think this is really important. Too many of our children are being bullied viciously online and there is no legislation to protect them when perpetrators are caught and we have the evidence. What exists in Ireland at present is a wet, soggy sponge which does nothing for our children. The legacy of this young lady who passed away far too early and the determination of her mother, Jackie Fox, will be honoured by the House and by Parliament on Friday when we send the legislation, please God, to the President to get it passed.
I refer to the very first contribution around the Defence Forces. We have a wonderful new Secretary General in the Department of Defence. I know her well because I had the privilege of working with her for four years. She should have an obligation and an entitlement to make submissions to the new strategy going forward so I will write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Defence today to make sure that Department is included. It would be wonderful to see a Jigsaw in Kildare and in every one of our communities. It provides invaluable service and could probably do with a doubling of its budget to provide such service in the future.
Watching Geraldine Mullan last night was heartbreaking. We bring up in this House desperately and vitally important points on legislation, Bills and motions. However, when one looks at that woman, the raw pain she goes through and the loss she has had to endure, it causes other issues we raise in here to pale and provokes a realisation that one's family and time with one's loved ones are absolutely key and king. I wish that woman incredible peace because she will need enormous support from her extended family, her community and all of us. No woman - no person - should have to live through the loss she is living through. It is a pertinent reminder that we all need, not just at this time of the year when we are more emotional than at other times, to cherish and love our family and friends because one only gets one opportunity.