Tuesday, 26 January 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business today is No. 1, motion regarding the appointment of members of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 without debate; No. 3, statements on the Covid-19 vaccine programme, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude at 4 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, statements on the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, resumed from last week, to be taken at 4.15 p.m. and to adjourn at 6.15 p.m., with the contribution of all Senators not to exceed six minutes and, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the statements made on this day and the statements to be thereupon adjourned.
Today is Australia Day. We hope the 30,000 Australians living in Ireland, the 25 million Australians living in Australia and around the world, 5 million of whom have Irish heritage, and the 70,000 Irish men and women living down under have a happy and safe Australia Day. Although we are divided by time zones and Australia is half a world away, we are united by a shared history. This year is the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Australia and the 80th anniversary of the first meeting between an Irish Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, and an Australian Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Diplomatic relationships continue to flourish under the new Australian ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Gary Gray, who arrived last year. Three Australian Prime Ministers have addressed Dáil Éireann and perhaps the current incumbent, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, will be the fourth to do so. We wish all of our friends in Australia and the Australians in Ireland a happy and safe Australia Day.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I join the Cathaoirleach in celebrating Australia Day and extending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the late Professor Brian Hillery, a distinguished and accomplished public servant who did a great deal in his life. We wish his family well and hope they are doing okay at this difficult time.
I support the Order of Business, as outlined by the Leader of the House. I will raise three issues. The first, on which we may wish to have a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, is one that has come to light in County Mayo in recent weeks. It is the manner in which Vodafone Ireland seems to be accelerating the development and building of telecoms infrastructure throughout the county. It came to light principally because of a particular case in Ballintubber, my home village, where a 25.5 m high mast is to be erected, essentially in the backyard of a family with two small children living in the middle of this rural village. What has galled members of the community is the manner in which the planning application was submitted. The site notice was put up on 12 December 2020 in the run-up to Christmas and in the middle of Covid-19 restrictions. It was by sheer luck that someone in the village spotted the site notice and alerted other members in the community to give them an opportunity, as is their right, to make representations and lodge objections on behalf of the community. If one were to be cynical, one might suggest that the applicant hoped the site notice would go unnoticed during that period. I have since become aware of three other applications made in the past two weeks in County Mayo for large installations in rural areas. Communities are very worried about this. Nobody is against development or infrastructure. We want to have telecommunications infrastructure but there is a better way to deal with communities and erecting a site notice in this manner is not the way to do it.
The second issue is the Covid-19 testing facilities in different communities. I have anecdotal evidence concerning the testing facility at MacHale Park in Castlebar, which is used to service the entire county. Unfortunately, some people with suspected Covid-19 who are travelling to the facility are stopping off on their way to and from the testing facility to do their shopping in Tesco and Dunnes Stores in Castlebar. That is remarkable. I have received anecdotal evidence that some people arriving for the test have shopping bags in the back seat of their vehicle. If people have been referred to a testing facility, it is because they are suspected of having the Covid-19 infection and may infect other people. I implore people not to stop off in public places and risk the lives and welfare of other citizens. I am sure these incidents are not confined to Castlebar and are also taking place in other locations.
The final issue relates to 14-day quarantine. We need to have a debate on the suggestion that zero-Covid is an attainable objective in this country because in my view, it is not.However, we need an open, honest and transparent debate in which we engage with all stakeholders and citizens on an issue that has become topical in recent weeks.
I wish to raise the nonsensical notion of enforced fobbing in during the Covid pandemic. The Government has launched an intensive PR offensive instructing everyone to stay at home and work from there. I am in five vulnerable categories - I am 76 years of age, diabetic, a transplant survivor, immunosuppressed and just out of hospital after the removal of another tumour. I have a doctor's certificate that covers me completely, but some half-witted civil servants have decided that they will only partially accept it. Who are they do challenge medical opinion? I have received a demand for the return of €550. It is not the amount that matters, but the principle of the thing. How dare they do this to me? I demand that the Government take action. If there is a statutory instrument, it should be immediately reversed, by legislation if necessary. I demand action. The whole nonsensical notion of people fobbing in should be scrapped immediately. I hope there will be support throughout the House for this demand.
Regarding Covid, I will pass on a little bit of what I hope is wisdom. I have found that, if one looks for the beauty in small things, one will find joy and peace. I actively enjoy the act of breathing oxygen. I savour it. It is such a small thing and we would not be alive if we did not do it. Look at birds. Birds are so beautiful, even the bloody seagulls that are such a nuisance ripping up rubbish bags and scattering rubbish and filth all over the place, yet they are so wonderfully elegant when they fly, they can give one pleasure. Take pleasure. Look for the small things. Look for the joy and beauty in life. Despite the pandemic, that beauty is still there and we should all celebrate it.
I wish to raise two issues today, the first of which is a call for an urgent decision on the 2021 leaving certificate. Like many Senators, I have been contacted by a large number of students and parents alike who continue to seek certainty for themselves and their loved ones. Across the House, we have all carried out our own surveys to gauge the feeling among students in particular about what they would like to see happening in respect of their leaving certificate. The survey I conducted showed an overwhelming wish for predicted grades with the option of a written exam. Given what these students have been through and the months of class time they have missed, there can be no doubt that the traditional leaving certificate cannot proceed as normal this year. The experiences of the past two years have shown the urgent need to reform the antiquated leaving certificate regardless, but that is a conversation for another day. Today, I am asking the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for Education the desire of all among the leaving certificate class of 2021 to have an urgent decision on what will take place this year. I also ask that she highlight to the Minister the growing desire for predicted grades with a choice to sit a written exam at a later date.
I will take this opportunity to thank our teachers for their continuing work. Many I know and others of whom I have been informed have taken the time to check on the mental health as well as educational welfare of those in their classes, which will be noted by all.
This is an urgent request on behalf of many. From my experience as a parent of a leaving certificate student and as a public representative, the overwhelming desire is for certainty. This would stop the stress that many are feeling. News time for leaving certificate families revolves around just one question daily, namely, whether the Minister said anything. The same question consumes junior certificate families, who would also welcome a decision on the future of that exam. The class of 2021 has been through much in these unprecedented times. Let us give these students the relief that an announcement on these exams would immediately bring.
The second issue I wish to raise is the urgent need for the Minister for Transport to consider allowing the Air Corps to provide and operate part of the forthcoming maritime search and rescue aviation contract. I wish to add my voice in support of this consideration. I am aware it has been raised by Senator Craughwell previously.I am also aware that the Minister for Defence indicated in replies to parliamentary questions that he has asked his Department to engage with the Department of Transport on this important matter, exploring the option of the Air Corps providing some element of the next contract within obvious domestic and international obligations. Indeed, during Leaders' Questions in the Dáil the Taoiseach also referenced this engagement between the two Departments and the possibility of the Air Corps being involved, mainly from its Baldonnel base, to serve the eastern side of the country.
I ask the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister. There is always a huge risk in only having a private company carry out this contract. Other countries that allow private companies operate part of their search and rescue capabilities ensure they retain some sovereign capabilities through their armed forces. The Labour Party and I believe Ireland should do the same.
Today, I would like to raise the issue of the redeployment of lactation consultants, which many of us will be aware of. What is really important to understand is that this is in the context of having only four community lactation consultants in the whole country. It is also in the context of some hospitals having part-time lactation consultants within the hospitals themselves. There is the figure of 18 hours in University Hospital Galway, UHG, in terms of lactation consultant. This is not elective treatment. This is not something that can be put off until the end of a pandemic. This is often essential medical help.
We also have an over-medicalised birth system in this country where 45% of first-time mothers are having a caesarean. That is well above the average internationally. That is a massive figure. I had a caesarean and we rely on the medical experts to tell us whether it is necessary or not but I think the statistics stand on their own two feet and show us that something has gone wrong. After a caesarean birth and after induction with syntocinon, it is very clear from the research that it is incredibly difficult to breastfeed. People need support and we now have a system where a woman does not even have her partner in the hospital. Then she is locked away in her home without the supports most of us here who are mothers would have had and she has no access to a community lactation consultant. I believe that as of last night another lactation consultant has been redeployed.
This comes down to a failure to implement the national maternity strategy and a failure in relation to infant health. Some 75% of women say they want to breastfeed and yet only 37.3% come out of hospital breastfeeding. Something is going wrong and now in the pandemic we are making even more mistakes.
I urge the Minister for Health to engage with all of the organisations concerned. Over the last few days, I have spoken to the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services Ireland, AIMS, the Association of Lactation Consultants Ireland, ALCI, La Leche League, Cuidiú and Friends of Breastfeeding Ireland. I ask the Minister to do the same and understand that all of these people who are engaged with voluntary services are without exception mothers who are home-schooling children as well. They are managing during the pandemic to give up their free time because the State is not putting in place the proper supports for women and babies. This will have a long-term impact on their health.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus an gCeannaire fosta. I remember when I came here first in 2016 I would very often advocate for the Government to prepare for constitutional change. Many of the responses were that it was not the time, asking why I was raising this and saying that people were not talking about it and that there was no need for this. The onset of Brexit and the Covid crisis has crystallised the immediate need for a conversation about how we function in the here and now and, more importantly, how we function going forward in the years ahead.
At the weekend we saw a LucidTalk poll published that showed a clear majority in the North in favour of a referendum on Irish unity being held within the next five years.That is another poll in a series of polls that indicates that common trend. There is an unstoppable, vibrant and flourishing conversation under way on the constitutional future of our island. It is an inclusive conversation that involves nationalists, unionists and those who consider themselves to be from neither background. There is of course an irony in now having a US President who in the past has championed and advocated for Irish unity. We also have very senior figures from within political unionism now acknowledging the need to be engaged in this conversation to prepare for future changes, yet we have a Taoiseach who buries his head in the sand. I do not say that to poke anyone in the eye. I acknowledge that there are colleagues across the political groups in this House and in the other House who are now engaged in that conversation too and are advocating for that conversation to take place. I welcome and encourage that, but it must be replicated urgently at a Government level.
It also needs to be replicated in these Houses. We have a stake in this debate as well and we should not back away from that conversation. We should be confident in whatever our view or position is on the constitutional question. We should be assured and also allowed and given the space to advocate our own position and not be shut down or told that it is not the time. One way or the other, a referendum is coming. Of that, I am convinced. I am very enthused and excited by it because I believe in the transformative potential of Irish reunification for everyone, from Kerry to Derry, from Galway to Dublin. I hope colleagues can join me in that call. I also hope we can all be champions and ambassadors for an inclusive, positive, diverse and welcoming dialogue that seeks to improve the lives of everyone as we move forward.
I echo what Senator Norris touched on earlier. A few of us in here have underlying issues. I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, and I have to travel from Donegal to Dublin. It is only evident that I am working when I am here and I fob in, but last week I attended loads of committee meetings and met the Minister for Education. However, none of that is on record. That is a discussion we need to have because we are also human beings. I am not above the law. I cannot come up and break the rules. I am staying at home and taking the advice of the doctors and I am encouraging the public to do the same, yet at the end of the year the record shows that I am not carrying out work. That is very unfair not only for me but for many Deputies and Senators. That is a conversation that needs to be had.
It was worth coming up from Donegal to speak to Members of the House. I was going to bring this point forward as a Commencement matter, but I did not have the time to raise it. We all know there is an outbreak of Covid-19 and, unfortunately, there is a rapid outbreak of Covid-19 within the Traveller community from Cork to Dublin to Sligo, and from Mayo to Galway. Last week, I dealt with numerous calls from people who do not have water to wash their hands, a safe place to self-isolate or clean water to drink. I also received a call from someone on a halting site who I am very close to, to say not only was there an outbreak of Covid-10 but there was also an outbreak of hepatitis A. People in this House are aware that hepatitis A is something we do not see in countries like Ireland but in developing countries. If we look at the sustainable development goals and how we treat citizens and young people, the Traveller community is treated like dirt. We say everybody is in this together. White, settled people are in it together, but the Traveller community is put aside. Unfortunately, I am seeing that reality. I am living with these people. This is my family. To a certain extent, they are just seen as dead Travellers, but so many people in our community are dying right now due to Covid-19. I understand people in all walks of life are dying.I call on the Minister for Health to support the Traveller community when it comes to clean sanitation. All we want are our basic human rights to be met, especially during the pandemic. I thank Safetynet for all its hard work on halting sites, in direct provision and with the homeless. I would appreciate if the Minister for Health would take action. It relates to accommodation and safety. This is a public health issue especially regarding hepatitis A.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 6, the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill 2021, be taken before No. 1. This Bill seeks to ensure that everybody who needs to use period products obtains them free of charge. This follows on from a commitment in the programme for Government. The Bill imposes an obligation on the Minister for Health to produce a scheme to set out and regulate access to free period products. I hope my colleagues will support my proposal to amend today's Order of Business.
I join the Cathaoirleach in paying tribute to our former colleague, Professor Brian Hillery, on his tragic death. Ar dheis láimh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate next week on the Government's Covid-19 plan. The people have found this third lockdown much more challenging than other ones. Therefore, there is an onus on the Government to level with the people in a very clear coherent way and not in the drip-feed way that we have grown accustomed to in recent days. The debate and the roadmap should centre on the road to 5 March and from 5 March. I will give some examples where we need clarity. On education, we need clarity on special needs, exams as mentioned already this morning, and the reopening of schools. Do we let construction happen or not? We have received conflicting messaging on vaccine roll-out. All these matters require clarity from the Government.
In addition, what does the Government intend to do on mandatory quarantining? Where will these centres be? Who will be responsible for them? What is the import of that not just now but in the immediate future for everybody on this island of Ireland? How will the Border be policed? Added to all that is the issue of transport with Brexit as reported in the media in recent weeks and discussed at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks last week. We have the issue of our tourism and hospitality sector. Ministers need to stop drip feeding and tell people in a clear coherent manner what will happen after 5 March.
I also ask for a debate on a zero-Covid strategy and not have a pathology of division and opposition but have a real informed debate about what a zero-Covid strategy means.
I wish the Leader of the House a happy birthday.
I agree with everything Senator Norris said this morning. We are the one workforce in the country that has no representation anywhere. They can change our terms and conditions of employment and we have nowhere to go, which brings me on to another issue. About two weeks ago there was a newspaper article about a very senior civil servant - I know I am not allowed use names so I will not - who was intending to move from one Department to another with a bump in his salary of €81,000. We were told it was €112 a pace as he walked from one Department to the other. How do we equate that with the issue of pension abatement, which is theft of a pension? Regarding pensions and pension rights, today's newspapers report former Members of this House who were found guilty of wrongdoing and were given their pensions.We were told a pension could not be touched because it was a property right. There are prisoners in Mountjoy Prison in respect of whom the Department of Social Protection tried to stop pension payments and the Supreme Court ruled a pension is a property right and cannot be touched.
We are in the crazy situation that the position of Captain of the Guard in the Houses of the Oireachtas has been advertised yet no retired member of the military or the Garda Síochána who might wish to apply for that position, as their predecessors did, will apply because of abatement while a retired member of the PSNI or a retired British soldier can apply for that position and, if successful at interview, will not only be paid a salary for the job but will retain his or her pension.
The Government needs to decide if abatement is legal. I believe it is not. If there is no proposal brought forward soon on this matter, I will take it to the High Court. I cannot do it on my own behalf, but I will do it for those who are currently suffering. I would like to know if the Leader agrees with me that abatement is theft of a property right.
I want to speak today about the impact lockdown is having on our education structure. Understandably, most attention in the last number of weeks has been on those preparing for the leaving and junior certificate examinations. We now need to give more consideration to the impact on those currently in primary level education. Irish and international research has shown the impact at this level can be very significant and particularly severe for those in marginalised communities.
For primary school children, the lockdown has created new inequalities in learning time. Research has shown that before the pandemic there was essentially no difference between the time that children spent on educational activities, but during the lockdown last year learning time among primary school children from marginalised communities fell at a far greater rate than for other children, meaning their learning time was over an hour less every day and 31% less than for other children. There is no reason to believe that this is not the case in the current lockdown. Over four months of the last calendar year, children from these marginalised communities have been, unfortunately, losing ground on their classmates. When speaking to primary school teachers at the weekend I was made aware that it was only when they were delivering the homework to these students that they realised the conditions and challenges that lie within. Learning time is closely linked to achieving positive educational outcomes and those who have suffered from reduced learning time over the last year are at risk of this being an issue this year and beyond.
I recognise this is an exceptionally busy time for the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. I ask the Leader to request that she come to this House at the earliest opportunity for a discussion on how we can improve the lives of primary school children going forward.
The programme for Government and the 2021 legislative programme reference the introduction of a gambling control Bill. When it is it proposed to bring forth that Bill and will the Leader indicate if the Government is willing to ensure its speedy passage to enactment?
While 64% of our population engage in some gambling, some 29,000 people do so problematically to a level that damages the family and the individual, leads to a trail of destruction and causes psychiatric disorders, alcohol and drug misuse, physical and mental health issues, separation, divorce and insolvency. We need a regulator and initiatives such as a cap on bets. I believe there should be a €100 cap on bets, but that is to be debated. We need warnings similar to those in respect of cigarettes. We need addiction supports. There should be advertisements in bookmakers and on betting slips, etc., drawing attention to the issue of gambling. I am pleased that the national lottery has proposed that only debit cards should be used for online betting.This is rather than other cards, because at least then the cash is there. Each week there should be a notice on the phones to say to a person that he or she has spent so much this week on gambling. It is a very serious issue and I will keep reminding the Leader of the House about it because I sincerely believe that we have a moral duty to get in here. Every one of us know of people who are hit in a huge way by this. We should do something about it.
I am heartened to see the Fianna Fáil Bill on period products. The House should note that Senator Rebecca Moynihan and the Labour Party put down a Bill on period products just last week, which is No. 11 on the Order Paper.
I wish to raise two issues today. We have spent many months calling for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to come to the House to discuss co-living and the sheer volume of co-living planning applications in the system, especially in Dublin. I repeat that call now. On 23 December a ban was announced but when we see the detail of that ban there are very serious concerns, the first of which is the failure to apply the ban retrospectively. We spent a lot of time in this Chamber before Christmas discussing why we could retrospectively apply income tax to the recipients of the pandemic unemployment payment last year, yet when it comes to co-living applications going through the planning system there is a failure to retrospectively apply that. It seems to be one law for developers and another law for others. The ban is not comprehensive and there are exemptions whereby if there is a proven need in a particular area then co-living is permitted. Right now in Dublin city 55% of people on the social housing waiting list are single individuals. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that co-living could be permitted into the future. This has a very real impact on a small part of Dublin city, most notably the area I represent which is the north-west inner city, where more than 1,000 co-living units are going through the planning system currently. Within 12 months we could see 1,000 co-living units within 1.6 km in the north-west inner city.
The second issue I want to raise this morning very briefly, which is important in the context of the pandemic, is around childcare. I am aware that many childcare operators are going through a lot of difficulty and a huge amount of uncertainty but, for those who can, I ask that they please provide refunds to families who are not using their services. One of the largest childcare providers in the State, if not the largest, is effectively making up its own rules as to which families are or are not essential workers. There is one instance of a family being told "no, you are not getting a refund because you are an essential worker" but the employer is saying to the family that they are not essential workers. We ask that the Minister would come out to provide clarification as to who should and should not be entitled to refunds. It is not acceptable that the largest operator in the State would act in this manner.
I join in expressing sympathy to the family of our former colleague, Deputy and Senator, Professor Brian J. Hillery. I offer my condolences to his family who are grieving at this time.
It is great to see Senator Norris back in the House and I am glad that he is recovering well. I must point out that the same loophole on fobbing in applies to Members who have had a baby recently, or what the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission deems as those Members who are on sick leave, as the Commission determines it. The certificate only covers those who are in attendance on an equivalent rate to Members who have clocked in on the same band. It does not cover the whole period during which a Member is out looking after the newborn child. Obviously, the issue of maternity leave for politicians is on the agenda at the moment and it really needs to be looked at along with the fobbing in system. The number of days that Members fob in does not reflect the work Senators and Deputies do on a daily basis. The system as we know it is not fit for purpose. I did not come to speak about that but I hope the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission will look at the matter urgently.
In the past year, 43,000 calls were made to An Garda Síochána relating to victims of domestic violence.Charges of domestic abuse rose by 24% last year and calls to An Garda Síochána relating to domestic abuse rose by 16%.
I am proud that in the previous term this House introduced coercive control legislation, demonstrating that we really listen to the needs of women. There were three convictions last year, demonstrating the huge need for this legislation. I ask people in the House to continue supporting their local domestic violence charities, including Safe Ireland, Women's Aid and the rape crisis centres, along with so many other local charities. It is so important that they get the support they need because there are so many women in need. The big message from An Garda Síochána is that the travel restrictions do not apply to those women who are suffering domestic abuse. They should know that.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by my colleague, Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee.
For somebody like me, the question is not whether I want a united Ireland but what kind of united Ireland I want. It is a question of what kind of united Ireland I have wanted since I was old enough to understand my Irishness was different from that of somebody who lived in a neighbouring county and that this could never be taken for granted. It is very difficult to explain how one can feel pride and longing at the same time.
We will never get there if we cannot be honest and do not understand and empathise with every perspective and truth on this island. We know from the Good Friday Agreement, finding peace when it seemed so elusive, that this is where we can find progress. Talking about a singular all-island Covid strategy as if it is as deliverable as it is logical is deeply disingenuous. It deepens the disconnect of perspectives and the realities of North and South. It takes something that instinctively feels right, easy and simple but diminishes the truth that it is, unfortunately, just not that simple.
It is not enough for me that a certain party continually calls for an all-island Covid strategy because it is the logical solution. It is and to many of us it feels like putting aside identity and putting lives first. It is not like that for all communities that share the island and Sinn Féin knows that well. Let us ask its party members what they are doing about it and what have they done. What are they doing to bridge perspectives beyond their own? If the answer is "nothing", they are offering nothing but false hopes when people are losing their lives, and that is unforgivable.
We will get nowhere in building a shared island or a shared Covid strategy if we refuse to recognise and acknowledge different perspectives and truth. The work of reconciliation, respect, compromise and consensus-building is required not just today but every day and we should all work to that. In the absence of an all-island Covid strategy, which I wish we had, we must align as much as possible and put our energy and efforts into that. We should all work to that too.
Lá breithe shona don Cheannaire. I join the Cathaoirleach in marking Australia Day, and it is important in our new world to look at ways of furthering cultural education and trade links with our friends in Australia.
I will raise two matters. The first is the aftermath of Brexit, and it is welcome we are finally beginning to see Rosslare Europort blossoming to a far greater extent. It has been an underutilised jewel in Ireland's transport crown and the expansion there is very welcome. Much credit must go in particular to the management and staff there. One of the challenges, now a matter of urgency, is the completion of the Oilgate to Rosslare M11 motorway. There have been some delays but if we are to look at the long-term development of Rosslare Europort, now our closest point to continental Europe, that section of the motorway must be completed.
I know we have called before for a debate on planning and local government. The Leader is aware that local authorities around the country are reviewing their development plans. I am increasingly concerned by the power grab going on by the Office of the Planning Regulator.This is an undermining of local democracy. I do not believe the planning regulator fully understands what is happening in local communities with regard to local settlement patterns. Even more serious is the fact that there is a concentration of power in the hands of one individual or office ahead of the views and interests of local councils and councillors. All Members are aware of the importance of development plans in their cities and counties and it is essential that we have a full debate around the powers of local government but also, in particular, this effort at a power grab by the Office of the Planning Regulator.
When Senator Byrne speaks on planning issues, he deserves to be listened to. Well over a decade ago, at a time when it was not popular to do so, he was one of the few lone voices in this country to speak out against the sporadic and haphazard rezoning which was the order of the day. I know he featured in an award-winning episode of "Prime Time Investigates" which looked into the issue.
On the evening of 2 August 2011, a young postgraduate university student from Carrickmacross lost his life in most horrific circumstances in a hit-and-run accident which occurred while he was cycling home outside Carrickmacross. The driver of the vehicle involved was a repeat offender who was on bail from several courts at the time. That family have just one question: how come someone like that was at liberty on that fateful night? They are calling for a public sworn inquiry. The scoping inquiry recommendations are due to be published on 29 January. Their publication has been delayed on several occasions. That would be cause for inquiry in itself if the learned judge did not receive prompt and full co-operation from the various authorities. The scoping inquiry has taken almost two years. The latest date it has been put out to is 29 January. The family cannot suffer the pain of a further extension. The scoping inquiry relating to Maurice McCabe took just six weeks. The comparison and contrast is galling. No family should ever have to go through that. We cannot turn back the clock. All Mrs. Lucia O'Farrell and her family want is the hope that no other family will have to endure the ongoing pain and suffering they have had to endure and that it can be avoided for others in the future.
Like Senator Byrne, there are two topics I wish to discuss. The Covid restrictions support scheme was introduced in budget 2021 to help support businesses during lockdown, essentially during lockdowns at level 3 or higher. Under the scheme, qualifying businesses can apply to Revenue for a cash payment of up to €5,000, or 10% of the business's revenue. A business must self-declare to Revenue that it has been disrupted by 75% compared with levels in 2019 as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions. There are approximately 17,600 businesses receiving support totalling up to €173.3 million. The scheme runs until 31 March 2021. Last night, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, stated that there will be a slow reopening of this lockdown and that many businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, will not be reopened by April. It is my sense that we must act now to extend this vital scheme for businesses right up to and through the summer months. In my constituency of Tipperary, there are 680 businesses receiving support of more than €4 million. The scheme has been extremely helpful to those businesses through December and into the new year. It will give clarity to the businesses that are going through an extremely difficult time if the scheme can be extended as quickly as possible.
The stay-and-spend initiative was also introduced in the budget in October. It was initially expected to cost the Government approximately €270 million. It is an initiative whereby if one spends €625 per person, one can claim back €125.Only €6.8 million of the total amount, however, has been spent up to the middle of January. Essentially, that has been because hospitality businesses have been closed since September, except for a few weeks in December. The stay-and-spend innovative is due to run out at the end of April. Given that it is impossible to benefit from the scheme now because of the nationwide lockdown, it would be wise and important to extend the initiative beyond April, into the summer months and perhaps longer.
The Minister has stated that he is flexible in this regard, but it is also important to stress that the stay-and-spend scheme was originally introduced to encourage people to travel within Ireland and not to go abroad. The incentive can be spent locally, so when businesses open in the months to come it will be possible to spend just over €25 in home town locations to support businesses there. If we extend the scheme beyond April and into the summer months, therefore, it will certainly give support to local businesses.
Lá breithe sona duit freisin, and I hope an Ceannaire has a nice enjoyable day and it will be possible for her to get some time to relax with her family this evening.
Many important issues have been raised. I lend my support to all of them. I want to stay in my county now and raise an issue I have highlighted here before. This story may not be big news in Dublin or Meath, but it is a major issue for the people of County Roscommon. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, addressed this issue on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, Deputy O'Donovan, in late November, I think. I refer to the issue of the severe impact that flooding is having on people in an area near Lough Funshinagh in mid-south Roscommon.
I visited the area, as an essential worker under the Covid-19 restrictions, at the weekend. To say that people are in a desperate situation is an understatement. As I explained before, what is involved is a turlough that used to disappear. In 2016, however, an unusual situation occurred, and the turlough has started to flood. Since then it has continued to expand, to the point now where in the coming weeks at least seven families will have to leave their houses. That is the gravity of this situation. This is a farming area. When I was there, I saw that the cattle and sheep sheds had flooded and the animals had had to be removed. Those people are desperate.
I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who has responsibility for the OPW, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, have met. I am requesting the Leader, however, to ask the Minister and Minister of State to meet a small deputation - virtually of course, because it will have to be - regarding the difficulties being experienced now.
This problem can be solved. There is a solution, but we must bring the OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and everybody else involved together as quickly as possible to see if we can move forward. This is a desperate plea and I know the Leader is a good person to bring this message back to those concerned. I ask her to get the Minister and Minister of State engaged again, so we can have a brief meeting to enable us to move forward and to save these people from absolute desperation. This is a desperate cry from those people.
I was also very sorry to learn of the death of former Senator Brian Hillery. I met him many times in these Houses and outside. In addition to being an accomplished person, he was also a very pleasant man to meet. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.
Before Christmas, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, published a report on her Department's review of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. In one sense, that report was welcome. It indicated a more moderate and sensible approach to the issue than we have seen to date, especially in the wake of the Private Members' Bill on hate crimes which we debated here in November. I had occasion to criticise that Bill, as did others.
However, I have significant concerns about the Department of Justice's report, and I ask the Leader to schedule a debate on it here as soon as is possible in these strange circumstances. On 18 December, The Irish Timesreported that officials in the Department of Justice believed that any new hate speech legislation must outlaw Holocaust denial. I am conscious that Holocaust Memorial Day is tomorrow and it was marked in Dublin last Sunday. It is a very important event and I support it fully, as we all do. Holocaust denial is something odious and ridiculous.
The question, however, is whether such views should be a crime, and whether historical facts, as such, should be given the protection of criminal law. Indeed, it is also a question of whether stupidity should be a crime.I wonder where that would end. What has prompted this reflection was the fact that the report published by the Minister does not contain a single word about Holocaust denial nor does the Department's research into hate speech legislation in five other jurisdictions. I wonder why Department of Justice officials are briefing the media on items that are not proposed and mentioned in the report. Are proposals being concealed from the Oireachtas? If that is the case, what is the point in producing such reports?
We are all familiar with the RTÉ sketch that took place on New Year's Eve, which caused gross offence to Christians, and Catholics in particular. I do not believe that type of speech should be prohibited, under law, as hate speech. I was quite satisfied that RTÉ gave a full apology. If that is enough for a State broadcaster like RTÉ then why do ordinary citizens need to be policed by hate speech legislation. I would be very grateful, a Threoraí, agus lá breithe sona duit, if we could have a debate on that in due course.
I would like to use my time this afternoon to talk about the construction sector and the impact the current closure of sites across the country is having not on the industry as a whole but more specifically about the impact it is going to have on housing supply this year. As the Fine Gael Seanad spokesperson, I believe that a debate is needed on what essential construction actually is. While there is no doubting the fact that hard measures were and are required to ease pressure on our health system, the hidden reality of lockdown for many individuals, and families, is that they are in cramp or overcrowded situations, and the only way that is going to be addressed is to have a supply of housing units. I acknowledge that certain construction sites involved in the provision of health and educational facilities, and social housing, are permitted. However, the reality is that every housing unit that is delivered in this State contributes to resolving the housing shortage crisis, and that is not solely constrained to social housing. It is also the case in terms of the provision of private housing for purchase and rental because each unit, in turn, frees up stock for others. I am strongly of the opinion that all residential construction sites should be deemed essential and enabled to get back to work as early as possible.
To be clear, if restrictions are to be continued across the wider construction sector throughout February then that prioritisation should be given to residential construction sites over commercial builds as that would reduce the flow of people and workers in the sector, much like what we are trying to do in education with the provision of education to children with additional needs. I hope that the Leader will agree with me that an urgent and graduated approach where prioritisation is given to residential construction sites is the appropriate way to go and it does need to be actioned as early as possible.
Before I call on the Leader to respond to the matters raised on the Order of Business, I wish her a very happy birthday. In normal circumstances we would nearly buy her a cake with just one candle and we would have a proper celebration but due to Covid restrictions we will have to wait until another day.
Yes, but they come a bit faster as one gets older.
I say to Senator Cummins that the construction sector is an interesting one. I agree with him that, first, there is a need for a debate and, second, there is a need for clarity as to what is essential and what is not. While we can all say absolutely that the building of every single house, whether it is an apartment in a very salubrious area or all the way up and down the list, I do believe that they are essential. Again, it is against a backdrop of where we were trying to reduce the mobility of people and our citizens around the country. I also would say that the reason the list is quite needed is that very close to where I live there is a huge commercial site where a data centre is being built that is far from essential and it is very illustrious on a daily basis. So I think that that is definitely needed.
There is a standing invitation for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come to the House, and I think this will relate to other people's requests. He was due to come to have a debate on housing, in all of its forms, with us in the next two weeks.That has now been changed to March because our schedule changed and it did not align with his, which is unfortunate. However, these are the times in which we are living and we are all trying to work and co-operate with each other.
In response to Senator Mullen, the report of the review of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act was released and made very interesting reading. As the Senator said, there are some glaring omissions but the Minister is bringing forward new recommendations in February with regard to new legislation she has planned relating to the Act. If that is the case, we would very much welcome her to the House to have a discussion on the report and her new proposals at that stage.
To respond to Senator Murphy, I will call the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, today. It is an awful situation where people find themselves with nobody to listen to them. I will call the Senator later today and if it requires a letter to request a meeting, I will certainly do that this afternoon. That is no problem.
I agree with Senator Ahearn on both the issues he raised. I would go further and say that the CRSS and the stay-and-spend scheme should be extended to whatever length of time there are restrictions on our lives. We all hope they will be fewer rather than lengthier but given some of the announcements in the last couple of weeks and what we expect to hear from the Cabinet today and, indeed, the difficulties of the pharmaceutical companies with supplying the planned vaccinations that we all so avidly await, there is definitely a requirement for an extension to the supports both to encourage people to spend if and when we ever get the hospitality sector open again and, more importantly, to support those businesses that are restrained or closed at present. I believe a review of the CRSS is required, and I raised this with the Minister by letter yesterday. Many businesses do not qualify for the CRSS funding simply because they are not customer facing, as in people walking in off the street, yet the vast majority of those businesses have had their business closed down because their customers are closed down and therefore they have nobody to whom they can deliver their product. It definitely must be revised to bring those businesses into play because they are and will be much needed when the economy opens. The Tánaiste said yesterday that he believes the economy will soar when it reopens. I hope to God he is right, as does every Member, and we will need the businesses that are in sleep mode at present to be able to turn back on again. They will only be able to do that with continued support from the State, so I will follow up on that.
To respond to Senator Martin, it is horrendous that the family in question has had to wait for so long. I can only hope, although I do not know if this is a fact, that the Covid restrictions for the last year have played some part in the delay. I will make inquiries today about the date of 29 January. Fingers crossed, it still stands but I will refer back to the Senator's office later.
Senator Byrne spoke about the extension to the motorway. I do not know if a delay is planned but now that there is a great deal of talk about investment in Rosslare Europort, its ownership and how we are going to proceed, there is no doubt, given the constraints of Brexit, and we have not even started to really feel them yet, that serious investment by the State in Rosslare Europort is going to happen. It will be very welcome for that region and the county. However, it has to be alongside the final part of the motorway from Oilgate to Rosslare. The Senator and I know, because I holiday in Wexford every year, the impressive impact it has had in reducing the time of one's journey from anywhere in the country, and particularly from Dublin, down along the east coast. It certainly is the last piece of the jigsaw that needs to be completed. I will write to the Minister for Transport today and ask him what the plans are and, given the importance of Rosslare Europort, if there is any way to speed up those plans. I will send the Senator a copy of the letter.
I thank Senator Currie for giving her views as an Irish person, in a respectful and thoughtful manner, on how she feels we should be moving forward with regard to unifying our country.
I concur with Senator Ardagh's reflections today. We used to talk about domestic violence as being a hidden crime. It was not something that women, particularly victims of such crime, spoke about or dwelled upon. They found ways to try to conceal and survive. However, in the last year we have seen that it has become far more easy to discuss this difficult topic. There is a greater acceptance now that it is something that should not be hidden, and it is not hidden. The very welcome passing by the Houses of the coercive control legislation in the last number of years has shone a light on the most insidious behaviour by partners in certain couples.The most recent and welcome judgment in that very high-profile case a number of weeks ago should send out a very serious signal not just to the perpetrators of that kind of violence but indeed to the victims that there is now a challengeable way to have one's case heard and legal recourse supplied to it. I also concur that some of our charities were very fortunate last year. An awful lot of them were not because they have not been able to fundraise in the same ways as previously. The charities the Senator mentioned, particularly Women's Aid, are probably some of the most deserving, as are many of our other domestic violence charities such as the rape crisis centres and Safe Ireland. I wish to put on the record that I totally support what the Senator said.
In response to Senator Sherlock, the standing invitation to the Minister is there. It is really unfortunate. He was due to come before the House not next week but the week after. That has been put back to the beginning of March. The Senator is right that we need to know whether a ban is a ban or whether it is a ban with conditions. Right now there seem to be far more leaks in the ban than there are controls, so I will certainly ask again for a statement on that.
Senator O'Reilly talked about the Gambling Control Bill. He is right that it was a very welcome development to hear this morning that the lotto will no longer allow citizens to use their credit cards to speculate and to play the lotto because it is pure gambling. I know we think of it as a fun and supportive thing to do, but at the end of the day it is gambling and is as insidious as all the other gambling that exists for people who do not know how to do it in moderation. The supports are definitely required and the addiction services are absolutely required, but all those will only come in real merit when the legislation is passed. I do not know when it is due to be published but I will certainly ask the Minister today and come back to Senator O'Reilly. We will champion it and bring it forward from this House as soon as it is published and the Minister is ready to bring it before us.
Senator Crowe talked about the impact of lockdown on education. While he is right - and he was talking predominantly about primary school children - that perhaps the delivery of their education is being impacted more than is the case for some of our older children and older students, I have to say that the experience in my house is probably slightly the opposite. I have two secondary school children and two third level children. The secondary school children start their education at 8.40 a.m. and do not come out of their rooms until 4 p.m. I see them for barely ten minutes for lunch. It seems relentless, and I am really conscious of the fact that they are missing their walk to school in the morning and their break with their mates at 10.30 a.m. It is an awfully long time for young people to be sitting behind their screens in Zoom meetings. We all do it, and I think we take it for granted, but the Senator himself will know how knackered one can be at the end of the day, even from just sitting in the same spot. We need to be reflective of all the impacts the new world is having on our younger children, our teenagers and our third level institutions. I will certainly extend an invitation to the Minister to come and talk about education during lockdown.
Senator Craughwell talked about pension abatement. I will plead the fifth in response to the question he asked me, particularly given I was in the Department at the time that case was taken. There is a serious flaw there in that we can have one rule for people who are resident and receiving their pension in the Republic of Ireland and an entirely different rule for people who are outside of this jurisdiction when it comes to getting jobs in the Republic of Ireland. That probably needs to be looked at, but I have no doubt but that if the Senator does not get a successful answer, he will take the State to court, as he has done successfully in the past.
A number of Senators talked about fobbing in. The only thing I will say about it is that it is under consideration. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the Houses of the Oireachtas and the people who run this establishment we all call our workplace are very conscious of the changes we have made to protect the staff, to protect ourselves and to reduce the mobility of people around the country. I think all the other conditions that are associated with those questions and requests of us probably need to be reflected upon, but I bow to the commission and await a response from it.
Senator Buttimer asked for a debate on where we are going on our roadmap from here to March and where we will go from March onwards. Obviously, I expect that the Minister for Health will make some announcements later today. Just to inform the House, I was only informed when I came into the House this afternoon that the Minister for Health will now not be in a position to attend the House this afternoon to take our statements on Covid because of the announcements he will make later. We will have one of the Ministers of State this afternoon to hear our concerns and suggestions regarding the vaccine roll-out. I expect, however, once the announcements are made this afternoon, that we will schedule a debate, if not next week then thereafter, on the roadmap for the coming months. Senator Buttimer made a very valid point. What we do not need is to hear something on a Friday, something slightly different on a Saturday and something totally different on a Sunday and then collective announcements on a Monday or Tuesday. I think people would rather we had one form of communication, even if it were only weekly, the same as we have all become so used to the biweekly announcements by the CMO and his team. I think we will ask for a debate on that roadmap next week. I am very happy to accept the amendment from Senator Clifford-Lee. I have no problem at all with doing that. I welcome the debate over the next couple of weeks on the two Bills on the Order Paper. I have no doubt that we will all be singing off the same hymn sheet and want the legislation enacted so that we can move on and stop having to beg for equality in this country.
If it is okay with most Senators, I will write to the Department today to instruct all local authorities to ensure that every halting site has running water and electricity provision and that the Department of Health, as the Senator asked, makes sure that sanitation and the rise of new diseases that we thought were long past in this country are addressed in that community.
Senator Ó Donnghaile asked for a constitutional change. I have no doubt that it is coming but I genuinely believe that if the outcome is as I know he would want and as an awful lot of Irish people would want, it is crucial that it is planned and not railroaded just because the polls are telling us that something is good. I can tell him from experience that the polls have a way of slapping one in the face in a very quick manner if one does not manage things properly and thoughtfully. I hope that we would all work together.
Senator O'Reilly referred to the redeployment of lactation consultants. It is interesting to consider who in the medical profession has been redeployed over the past year. We all know why it has happened and was needed, but they all relate, in the main, to services and provisions for women and children. That is something we should all reflect on. While we know we are in the middle of a pandemic and that medical staff needed to be brought to the front line, why were the services for women and children, in particular children with special needs, drawn from? We need to rethink the way we think in more ways than one in this country. I am very glad to hear that the issue in Galway has been resolved, but it needs to be resolved in every single county in the country. Something as crucial as breastfeeding a brand new baby is not something that can be put off. It is something that we are less good at than our European counterparts, and we have known that for years. Is it any wonder why that is the case when the likes of this can happen? I will write a letter to the Minister today to make sure that is brought to his attention.
Leaving certificate 2021 is something on which a decision should be made incredibly quickly. The issue was raised by a number of Members last week and again today. The Minister received a letter from us last week suggesting that while we all know it is a difficult decision and the parameters are entirely different this year with regard to predicted grading than they were this time last year, where there is a will there is a way. There is an enormous amount of stress and anxiety, not just among our leaving certificate students. We can sometimes tend to overlook them because there are only 17 or 18 years of age. We need to communicate clearly with students. I welcome the meeting with the ISSU leads and the Minister last week. We need to communicate clearly with students because it does not just affect them. Their entire families, including their mums, dads and siblings, are living with that anxiety. It is causing a level of stress that is not needed. We would welcome a very speedy and quick resolution on the leaving certificate. Finally, the Fianna Fáil leader, Senator Chambers, brought up several issues. It is difficult to believe that she is being given anecdotal evidence that there are people going for Covid-19 tests who are popping in for milk or bread either on the way there or on the way back. I sometimes wonder if we have stopped communicating. Sometimes, when we see the same sign on the way home every evening, there is a day when we do not see it because it has faded into the background.
We need to have a serious conversation about bubbles. I read a story over the weekend of a lady who spoke about her bubble. She seemed to have 18 people in it. We need to remind people that the people in a bubble should be few and far between and only when there are elderly parents or younger parents who are parenting alone who absolutely need help. It must be confined to the smallest number of visits on a weekly basis. We need to talk about travel restrictions. We need to remind people who are going to the hills in Kildare or Wicklow that although it is outside in the fresh air and it is great, it is not okay if it is more than 5 km from home. We need to remind people to ask whether it is really worthwhile going to Lanzarote on holidays when they have to come home and see the impact of the devastation and deaths that we are seeing all too many of each day involving friends, families and loved ones. There is not a county or town in the country that has not been impacted by losing someone. In my town we have lost approximately five people so far. We need to refresh our message and remind people how crucial it is to do all the things that we have been asked to do for the past 11 months and possibly for the next couple of months as well. It is for our own good, the good of our public health and the good of the welfare of our communities and society.
I join other Senators in highlighting that tomorrow is the United Nations international day of commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It is important that the House and all nations remember the victims of the most horrendous crime against humanity in the last century.
Senator Clifford-Lee has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 6 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.