Monday, 8 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Dumping at Sea Act 1996 (Section 5(12)) (Commencement) Order 2021, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude after 90 minutes, if not previously concluded, by the Chair putting one question which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 3, statements on special education provision, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to conclude at 5 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than six minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, a Private Members' Bill, Free Provision of Period Products Bill 2021 – Second Stage, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. and to conclude or be adjourned after 90 minutes, if not previously concluded.
I raise the matter of how we reimagine how we will live post Covid. We have all learned many lessons over the last 12 months about how we live our lives, including within our own 5 km. Our priorities have changed. The closeness of family is acutely important. There is an ongoing process in many of our counties, not least my own county, Kildare, regarding county development plans. We are now looking at issues papers and asking people to define what is important to them in how their communities and towns should grow in the context of the county development plan. I would like to think that we have begun the process of reimagining how we can live post Covid. That means that we can look at making remote working permanent.No more would people have to get up as early as 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to drive to railway stations or to clog up the roads and no more would they have to get on overcrowded and overpriced trains or drop very young children to childminders at that unearthly hour of the morning. We can look at remote working in such a way as to allow people to live in their own settlements, villages and towns. People should be able to build houses close to family members. I would like the Minister to issue a request to all local authorities that are dealing with county development plans to look at those plans again and to reimagine them in a way which would support those rural areas. People have been crying out to live in these areas for years so as to be close to their family units but they have not been allowed to do so. We need to do that.
We also need to reimagine how we live our lives as we get older. A Newbridge resident, Mr. Pat O'Mahony, has written an excellent book on community living and coming together. An example of such community living is McCauley Place in Naas. Some may have seen it or heard about it. Some documentaries about it have been shown. We in Newbridge have a once in a lifetime opportunity in this regard. The monastery has just come up for sale. It would be a wonderful place in which to provide for independent living for older people and, possibly, to provide day-care services for people with Alzheimer's disease because we are looking for a place to provide such services at the moment.
My last point relates to Mr. Pat Tinsley and amyloidosis, about which I have spoken here before. We were all devastated to learn on Friday that the request for funding for patisiran has been turned down. I would like to see a debate on how the extra €50 million for those diseases is to be spent.
A matter of deep concern to me over the course of this pandemic has been the cessation of cancer screening, delayed cancer diagnoses and the disruption to the treatment of cancer patients. I raised the matter of the shutdown of normal healthcare services in response to Covid-19, in addition to many other questions, in correspondence to the Minister for Health dated 16 November. To date, almost three months later, I have received no answers. The silence is as deafening as it is revealing. I had to write to the Minister because he did not stay in the Seanad Chamber to take questions on the response to Covid-19 on 10 November. The smug Minister of Health who uses the thumbs up emoji has not deigned to answer a single one of the questions I put to him in writing. He represents a Government that is totally out of touch with the suffering of ordinary people and which is failing them.
I want to recount the story of just one lady's experience in my area during the pandemic.
At the beginning of this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer having discovered a lump on my breast in December last year. I decided to see a breast surgeon privately, having encountered significant delays when attempting to access breast triple assessment clinics via the public system. Following initial investigations, the diagnosis of cancer was confirmed and I was recommended to have a mastectomy. I was shocked to hear that following my mastectomy I would not be offered reconstructive surgery at this time due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Breast reconstruction surgery has been deemed ‘non-essential’. To me, this seems a cruel and unnecessary deviation from the usual standard of care in breast cancer treatment.
I received the news that I had cancer on my own, I went into hospital to undergo surgery on my own and I was not allowed to have visitors. This was not easy but I understand the times that we are living in and what has to be done to protect the healthcare system and vulnerable members of our society. I cannot understand, however, the rationale for denying women reconstructive surgery at the time of a mastectomy during the pandemic. The reasons quoted were that it is a more extensive surgery which would involve a greater operative time and length of hospital stay.
The effect of deeming this surgery ‘non-essential’ means that I will go home without a breast, I will have to wait several months, embark on another surgery, another hospital admission and another period of recovery. Frankly, I cannot see the logic in this.
I would like to know how and by whom the decision to deem reconstructive surgery following cancer treatment ‘non-essential’ was made. I think those who made the decision failed to consider the huge physical and psychological impact a decision like this has on women who are undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
Once again, I ask that the Minister provide a comprehensive assessment of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on the health of the nation, the healthcare system and the outcomes for diagnosis and treatment of all conditions in the short, medium and long term. That analysis is essential for forming good public health policy.
I wish to relay the frustration that is being communicated to me by email from many families across the country - they have also been in contact with the National Women's Council of Ireland and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - regarding the delay in extending parents' leave from two weeks to five. It is worth recalling what was promised. Last summer, many mothers and families were unable to access childcare because so many childcare facilities would not take on children under the age of one. They wanted to return to their jobs, but were unable to access childcare. At that time, they were promised that there would be an extension of three weeks to parent's leave, and I distinctly recall the dismay when it was announced that it would commence in November. That was last summer. In the autumn we realised that the promise of November would not happen. It has now been moved to April of this year. In December, I understand that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, brought a memorandum to the Cabinet with the intention of initiating legislation in the Houses, presumably in the Dáil, in January regarding the extension of parent's leave from to two to five weeks. It is now the second week of February and that legislation has not been initiated.
It is important to reflect on what is at stake. Women are trying to hold on to their jobs and also to find childcare for their children and, in particular, babies. I have talked to many childcare providers. They are trying to do the best job possible in terms of keeping Covid-19 out of the premises and looking after the children, but many feel unable to take on children under one. The stakes are even greater for lone parents because there is no second parent to be able to share the workload. I ask the Leader to investigate when we will get this legislation, as it is urgent. As matters stand, the extension of parent's leave is too late for many families, but we must see it sooner rather than later.
The second issue I wish to raise briefly is the first matter on the Order of Business, a motion that Seanad Éireann approve the regulations under the Dumping at Sea Act 1996, without debate. I and my party are deeply uneasy about this. I understand that it relates to dealing with offshore installations that are coming to the end of their use. I believe there must be a debate now about the appropriateness of the 1996 and 2009 Acts with regard to dumping at sea and, in particular, the use of offshore installations. A question must be raised here. Given that there is a ban on the future extraction of fossil fuels in our seas, there is no point keeping something in the ground if we are going to pollute the sea as a result of these offshore installations.
As we go through this tragic, third, Groundhog Day-type of lockdown, a growing number of people are of the opinion that it is time to try something different. That difference is espoused by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group in the form of the so-called zero Covid strategy. While an increasing number of individuals believe in the compelling merits espoused by advocates such as Professors Tomás Ryan, Julien Mercille, Aoife McLysaght, Sam McConkey, Anthony Staines and Gabriel Scally, at the very least people want to be assured that the option has been fully explored.I am asking the Leader of this House to ask the three leaders in government to meet the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group to explore this option. The very least people deserve is that this option has been fully exhausted.
Second, it is clear an all-island strategy would have been the best approach. I am seeking assurances that the Taoiseach has fully engaged with the leader of Ulster unionism, including when the meetings were held and the length of those meetings. Again, there is a growing number of people who feel this option has not been fully explored. We are where we are in the Six Counties, if they could not work it out. I would like to know if the leader of the Republic of Ireland, An Taoiseach, fully engaged and explored with Ulster unionism the benefits for all of an all-island strategy? If he did or did not, has he engaged with Boris Johnson in the UK and with the EU in regard to applying pressure? Maybe it was an east-west approach. It is never too late. I would like to know the extent of the engagement An Taoiseach has had with Ulster unionism.
Third, the Brexiteers who advised their supporters that Brexit would in some way enhance their Britishness sold the electorate a fairytale with a sad ending. In terms of the evidence, one has only to ask the people of Scotland or Northern Ireland if the union is stronger today. With the unrest in Larne, it has come back to haunt those who supported that strategy. A golden opportunity was missed. The Good Friday Agreement cemented the unionist position in the consent principle. They could have had that doubled down and cemented by doing it right here, but they did not. They chose to look the other way and the result is disquiet in the North. I hope this does not become an issue and a hot potato in next year's assembly elections. I caution everyone in Northern Ireland to sit down and have dialogue. Dialogue is the only way forward, not arguments that lack substance or foundation.
On 5 February 1992, members of a notorious UDA gang entered the Sean Graham bookmakers on the lower Ormeau Road and murdered five people. Several more were injured and untold devastation, pain and loss were brought to this proud, tight-knit and small inner city community. Last Friday, on the 29th anniversary of the massacre, families and survivors gathered, as they do every year, but on this occasion in small, socially distanced numbers, to lay flowers and say a rosary at the spot where the attack took place. Their dignified service was violated when PSNI officers intruded on the peaceful scene. Mark Sykes, a man shot seven times in the bookies attack, and whose 18-year-old brother-in-law, Peter Magee, was murdered, was handcuffed and arrested while holding on to the flowers he had intended to lay in memory of his family, friends and neighbours.
The nationalist and republican people of the North did not sign up to the type of policing witnessed last week. Sinn Féin did not, and does not, support this aggressive and offensive form of policing. These tactics have no place in policing anywhere. Niall Murphy, the solicitor acting for the families, said that the families had been denied access to justice and their right to truth recovery. He called for the immediate publication of the Police Ombudsman's investigation into the massacre, which deals with the collusion between the British intelligence agencies, the RUC and the loyalist killers and the weaponry used in the attack, which was brought in from South Africa by a British agent. As we know, these families and survivors have been not only victims of the massacre in 1992, they have endured continued denials of truth and justice, cover-up and the horrific situation whereby one of the weapons used in the massacre was found on display in Britain's Imperial War Museum when the police had told families and survivors that the weapon had been disposed of.
The appalling conduct of the police and the continued denial of justice for the families is a reminder to the nationalist people that all too often human rights are secondary to the operational needs of the PSNI. This culture of double standard is all the more obvious and telling when set against the recent tactics of the PSNI when dealing with unionist and loyalist paramilitaries. A few weeks ago, the PSNI escorted crowds of loyalist paramilitary thugs through the streets of east Belfast close to where I live, as they stamped their authority on a community already intimidated by drug dealers, seeking to inflict even more intimidation and threat.Families had to flee their homes and seek refuge in a nearby community centre. It is reported that the families are still in that community centre. On that occasion, there was no challenge from the PSNI and no attempt to stop them, there were no arrests, no handcuffs were produced, there was no taking of names, no one was put in the back of police cars and there was no mention of Covid rules. The contrast will not surprise those I represent. The PSNI Chief Constable's statement was inadequate and it did not go far enough and there is a deep crisis of confidence among the nationalist people of the North with regard to how the police are operating. I have no doubt that this will be raised directly with him when he meets with Sinn Féin leaders later today.
I am deeply disappointed the Irish Government, in public at least, has had absolutely nothing to say about last Friday's incident. The Taoiseach needs to urgently and directly involve himself and stay involved in issues of such fundamental importance. He needs to meet those who were attacked last Friday and the Chief Constable of the PSNI and above all else he needs to stand with the Ormeau Road families in calling for the publication of the ombudsman's report into the massacre that took place in the Sean Graham bookies 29 years ago.
I have just a few lines left and I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence.
As the Leader knows, we were promised a new, accountable, just and respectful police service. We are determined to have one. Many people are justifiable in their view that the PSNI is not that service yet but nationalists and republicans are determined that it will be.
Today, I wish to speak about a forgotten subject. Education is at the heart of discussions in Ireland right now and it is at the heart of the political argument and debate. Every single child has the right to an education but the pandemic has taught us that not every child has that equal right to be successful within the education system. Before the pandemic, we obviously knew of the inequalities of the digital divide but that has come to the fore. Everyone of us has a responsibility to make sure that children in Ireland have equal access to education.
I raised this issue in the House six months ago. I spoke about children who are living in very disadvantages areas who do not have equal access, who do not have money to buy laptops and who do not even have a space to study. It is a topic and a conversation that is low on the Government's agenda but it should be brought up to the very top of the agenda right now.
If we look at some studies from 2020, the ESRI report tells us that children from disadvantaged areas suffered the most during the pandemic because of the digital divide. Also, young men, women and children in counties such as Donegal still do not have equal access to broadband. Companies such as Three provide SIM cards. It is not the responsibility of companies and volunteers to provide these services. This is something the Government and especially the Department of Education needs to take on because we cannot say that all children have a right to education when all children do not have access to that right of education.
I know of many young children who have to go to their local school once a week to get their books, copies, homework and week's work from the teacher. That child and mother and the extended family are put at risk by having to go to the school to collect that information and material. Last week a young mother got in contact with me. She had six children who were all sharing an android phone. The inequality in the context of the digital divide is very evident. More than 42% of Irish people say they are not well skilled in digital technology. We need to run a campaign on this.
This issue is so important and if I have to raise it every single week until it is heard, then it is something I will keep doing. It is an issue that has fallen between the gaps and it is the children who are unfortunately the ones losing out.
Last week I called on the Leader to contact the Government on the non-essential cross-Border travel, which was taking place both ways, despite the current restrictions North and South. I welcome that the Government has moved on that request with the introduction of a €100 fine for anyone who travels into the State on a non-essential journey. Not alone is the person driving the vehicle subject to this fine but anybody else in that vehicle will also be subject a €100 fine, which I welcome.
However, I am disappointed to learn that a reciprocal arrangement is not in place in Northern Ireland. I again call on the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider implementing a similar arrangement so that anybody from the South who travels North on a non-essential journey be subject to a fine. It is deeply disappointing, frustrating and irritating that 12 months into a world pandemic where people are losing their lives on a daily basis we still seem to be falling short of an all-island approach to tackling this pandemic. I appeal to both the Government and the authorities in the North to make another effort to try to get that all-island approach to this killer disease. Let us call out those who resist it. It is time that resistance was called out and the finger was pointed in the right direction, namely, at those who are blocking that all-island approach.
I would like to comment on figures about which I learned over the weekend, that is, the 375 people who have stuck their two fingers up to the restrictions and the people by travelling on a foreign holiday. Even though they were subject to a €500 fine, and they knew that before they left the house, they decided to book that holiday. That tells me €500 is not enough and needs to be increased to a fine perhaps in the region €5,000, so they will not leave the house in the first instance and do as they are requested.
There is a distinct chill in the air. Thankfully, it is not a political chill but an actual chill. It is promised for the week, with snow forecast for later in the week. While I welcome the increase in the fuel allowance announced by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the €3.50 increase to €28 per week from 1 January, I acknowledge we have to look out for elderly people in particular during this cold snap.
The warmer homes scheme is important for those who qualified for the provision of attic, cavity wall and external wall insulation. The budget has been increased this year, up to €221 million for residential and community retrofit programmes. The increase has come from the carbon tax. I received correspondence from a constituent regarding the warmer homes scheme. I have been told their application for the scheme was generated on 28 June 2019. The status of the application is awaiting surveyor allocation. We have seen a large increase in applications to the warmer homes scheme over the past 12 months. This has lead to a significant increase in demand. Covid-19 had an impact between March and June of last year. However, more than one and a half years after submitting the application, no surveyor has been allocated. I ask the Leader to contact the Minister and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, about these delays.
We all want to see a transition to a low carbon economy. It is worthwhile having a debate on this area, because it is something we all agree on, and on how we engage with people. We see from data provided by the Western Development Commission over the last number of weeks the number of homes in the west that still have to burn coal, oil and peat as their main source of fuel for central heating because they have no choice. This whole area is worthy of a larger debate.
Members of the Oireachtas would be dismayed if they realised that a decision of Government on the recommendation of a Department almost ten years ago now has negatively affected mothers staying in State employment of their choice. That negative effect on State-employed mothers was not the intent of the Government decision but has become the unintended and regrettable outcome of it. It has not been brought to the attention of the Dáil or Seanad before now but I intend to rectify that today.
The mothers in question are the many former members of the Defence Forces for whom continuing their service as mothers post the disastrous 2012 reorganisation became untenable. It took some years for this particular law of unintended consequence to take effect on Defence Forces' mothers. Ireland assumed a rotating membership seat on the United Nations Security Council on 1 January of this year for a two-year duration. It is a singular honour and prestigious role for Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, has outlined the ambitions of Ireland's tenure on the Security Council. He has informed us all of the policy issues he intends Ireland to have at the core of that ambition. One of the most prominent of those is to energetically advance the women, peace and security agenda, a core principle of the United Nations peace support operations since the passage of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000.
The intent of Resolution 1325 is to enshrine in UN doctrine the necessity of more women to be deployed and exert positive influence on UN military operations in UN-mandated or authorised deployments. Ireland is rightly a steadfast and vocal supporter of the UN women, peace and security agenda. Ireland continuously repeated this commitment to Resolution 1325 when garnering support to be elected on the Security Council.
Due to time I cannot go as far as I would like to go but I ask that we have a debate in this House with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence to discuss this important issue. It has led to women who loved their careers in the Defence Forces being forced to retire. They were chucked around the country to fill gaps when they could not travel overseas and the reorganisation has caused a problem.
Is the Leader willing to ask the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, to come to the House for a debate on negative interest rates? The European Central Bank has pushed the idea of negative rates. This is going to affect a number of businesses. Banks are charging different rates and implementing them at different levels. Some banks are implementing negative interest rates on deposits of more than €3 million. AIB is implementing them on deposits of more than €2.5 million. The German bank, N26, is charging 0.5% on deposits in excess of €50,000. This also affects credit unions, pension funds and client accounts held by solicitors and auctioneers which are in excess of deposits held at the various banks.
Last week the UK central bank said that it is not going to implement negative interest rates for a long time yet. While the UK will not implement negative interest rates, the EU will, and has already, because the banks are charging these rates.
I ask the Minister to come to the House because this will have an effect on small deposit holders as well. It will affect people who want to buy houses as their money is being held in client accounts by the legal profession and auctioneers. It will affect people saving and buying houses and will have a knock-on effect.It is a far cry from the days when Charlie McCreevy brought in the deposit saving scheme. One would just wonder. The European Central Bank wants to do this so that the economy can push on. It wants people to use their money rather than leaving it in banks. A considerable amount of money is in banks in this country also. I would like the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the issue.
I rise to raise an issue of serious concern for students across the further and higher education sector regarding their placement requirements and their inability to fulfil their obligations in that regard due to Covid. A number of courses have a required placement as part of their professional qualification in order for students to proceed through their degree.
I have been contacted by social care students, who for the second academic year in a row are not able to complete their placements. If they do not complete them, they cannot progress to the next stage of their degree. At least a couple of students to whom I have spoken have been advised by their colleges that if they do not complete their placements, they must work their placement hours over the summer, which as we know is not feasible for many who need to earn a wage during the summer months. If they do not do that, then they must repeat the year, which will cost them money and time.
These students cannot be expected to bear the brunt of costs associated with those repeats. The Minister must liaise with the relevant bodies and advocate for students in colleges and with qualification bodies. He also needs to reassure students that they will not be financially responsible for the cost of repeats, if that is genuinely where we are at come the end of the academic year. Social care students are not alone in this dilemma. The issue also applies to students working in healthcare settings. As always, the first cohort I am concerned about are student nurses and midwives. Placements have been cancelled again and there is concern about what will happen if they have to make up the time. I accept it has not affected their degree thus far, but it may begin to do so.
I was in Beaumont Hospital on Friday and I spoke to a healthcare assistant who is a student nurse. She is working in the hospital as a healthcare assistant but she is not allowed to go there on her placement. She said it is madness, given that she is working there anyway. SIPTU has called for an emergency meeting with the Minister over clinical placements for student radiographers who are working through the pandemic. The union has stated it is scandalous that up to 400 student radiographers that are making an essential contribution on the front line are not being recognised for their work.
I am sure the Ministers are sick and tired of me calling for students working in healthcare settings to be paid, but I will continue to raise it until I get a satisfactory answer from the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. When are we going to recognise student nurses, radiographers, healthcare assistants and students completing vital work in the healthcare system? What are we going to do for the students who may face repeat fees in order to repeat their student placements?
I wish to address the landmark decision handed down by the High Court last Friday, which rightly found insurance companies must honour policies that provided cover for business disruption. While it should never have needed to be the subject of legal action, it is welcome that justice has prevailed, and the decision has been accepted by the insurance firm in question.
One of the publicans I spoke to who took the case paid a premium in excess of €240,000 per year. Similar large premiums were paid by the other three individuals who took the case. As the Leader is aware, three of the publicans are based in Dublin and one is based in Athlone. It is important now that the process for pubs to have their claims honoured is a speedy one without unnecessary complications or delay.
This decision must not be considered by insurance firms as a justification for raising their premiums. In 2019, the firm in question reported after-tax profits of more than €100 million and assets totalling more than €1 billion. For far too long the nature of insurance in this country has been, regardless of any outcome, that it never impacts their substantial profits. I accept the insurance market must be sustainable and insurance firms must be profitable enterprises over the long term, but there is no divine right for insurance firms to make significant profits year in and year out, as this company did in recent years. As the Leader is aware, SMEs are the backbone of this country's economy and are currently facing major challenges. That has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic. The very last thing they need right now is rising insurance rates.Finally, the Central Bank, as regulator for the insurance industry, must make clear to firms operating in the market that blanket rises on small and medium enterprises without justification will not be tolerated. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister with responsibility for financial services before the House at his earliest convenience.
I would like to raise the difficulties facing more than 20,000 people living with type 1 diabetes in Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest data from across the globe shows, and HSE advice states, that those with diabetes face far worse outcomes if they contract Covid-19. The HSE also advises diabetes patients to avoid visiting hospitals and GP care at all times where possible, yet the same agency is dragging its feet when it comes to best in class care for these patients. To date officials have spent two years reviewing the addition of flash glucose monitoring to the long-term illness scheme for people over the age of 21. Flash glucose monitoring is cutting edge technology that allows for doctors to monitor diabetes patients remotely instead of forcing them to visit their surgeries, use finger-prick tests or use outmoded 1980s technology to ascertain their condition.
The health arguments are clear at this time. There are other products on the market that patients advise me are at least €1,000 per year cheaper, so it makes no sense to continue to exclude them from the long-term illness scheme. This is especially the case at a time when the HSE budget is spiralling and patients tell me they have a strong preference for flash glucose monitoring sensors instead of being forced to apply for the more expensive continuous glucose monitoring sensors.
Six months ago, in its submission to the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, Diabetes Ireland specifically recommended that the HSE develop a virtual clinical consultation service for type 1 diabetes patients and to extend access to flash glucose monitoring devices to all people with type 1 diabetes who have very complex needs. With several outbreaks of Covid-19 in hospitals in recent weeks, there is an acute need to keep vulnerable patients with chronic illnesses, including diabetes, out of our hospitals unless absolutely necessary.
I would appreciate the Minister for Health coming to the House to inform us what steps he, his Department and the HSE are taking to help diabetes patients in Ireland monitor their illness to keep them from requiring hospital care at this time of great strain on the health service.
I want to raise the crucial issue for Limerick of the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road. I am sure that many Members will have heard about this over the past weeks. Let me begin by saying that anyone who knows Moyross will know that it is among the most socially disadvantaged and socially isolated communities anywhere in the State. There is a tremendously brave and united community there building and forging a better future for themselves and their children. The community is at a complete loss as to why this Government to date refuses to sanction the completion of this road.
Having met with the locals last week, they have emphasised their anger and distress. The school principal described to us how one of his most common experiences is saying goodbye to past pupils in cold graveyards. This community has been isolated from Limerick city. The road is about opening up this isolation. This road has been recommended since the 2007 Fitzgerald report. The road is in the programme for Government. However, only last week the Minister for Transport said they might build two thirds of the road. This completely misses the point about the opening up of the longest cul-de-sac anywhere in Ireland.
There is something truly offensive about a Minister coming down to the people of Moyross and effectively telling them that he knows better than they do about what is best for their community. I must be clear that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael need to stand up to their responsibilities today. They called for the road to be built. This is a collective Cabinet decision. Every day this decision is delayed is a day of further failure for the people of Moyross. I call for an urgent debate on the matter. I call for urgent action and I call on the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to do what everyone in Limerick wants him to do, which is to build the road.
I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach to allow me some indulgence in respect of my time. I raise the issue of cancer services during Covid and post Covid. I was shocked to hear that Professor Seamus O'Reilly, an oncologist from Cork, told the European Parliament that the impact of Covid will set cancer care services back ten years. I am asking the Minister and the Leader to ensure this does not happen. We cannot afford for cancer services to be held back or to go back in time by ten years. Very disappointingly, BreastCheck found that screenings fell by more than two thirds in 2020. That represents 600 cancers it has failed to diagnose. Breast cancer and other cancers are not going away. The numbers are not dramatically increasing out of thin air. All Members have family members affected by cancer and know that early diagnosis and early treatment are crucial. If a person with cancer is among the lucky ones whose cancer goes into remission, post-cancer screening is exceptionally important to ensure there are no relapses and that if there is a relapse, it can be treated and nipped in the bud immediately. I am asking the Leader to facilitate a debate in the House on cancer services. I know colleagues have raised this issue. It is really important that cancer services do not fall behind by five years.
I wish to raise quickly a second issue. As a result of the sitting arrangements in the context of Covid, I will not be able to attend Private Members' business later this evening to speak in support of the period poverty legislation brought forward by my colleague, Senator Clifford-Lee. I hope the Bill gets support from across the House. I know other Members have tabled similar legislation. It is great to see women-specific legislation on the Order Paper and being debated in the House. Senator Clifford-Lee has been working on this issue for a long time, including in the previous Seanad. She has helped councillors in Longford and Kilkenny to bring motions on the issue and has supported other councillors who will be bringing motions in their local authorities. I hope this legislation can be supported across the House.
Today is International Epilepsy Day. Some 40,000 people in Ireland have epilepsy. Many people do not realise so many people have it. We need to show awareness and a bit of education with regard to epilepsy.
I wish to use the brief time I have to discuss the issue raised by Senator Sherlock in respect of parental leave. I know she asked for clarity from the Minister. I hope to be able to afford her clarity. It is absolutely the case that the legislation will be retrospective. Everyone who has had a child since November 2019 will be entitled to the five weeks' leave. In spite of the length of time the legislation may take, there is no question of anyone not receiving that to which they are entitled. Changes have to be made to the Adoptive Leave Act to ensure that same-sex couples who may not be birth parents will also be entitled to that leave. I hope to give that clarity and assurance to people. I know there is anxiety around the issue but we need to make sure that anyone who has had a child in Covid times has that security and can know that, no matter how long they have to wait for the legislation, they will still be entitled to that leave. It is paid leave. This is a crucial part of the programme for Government. As all present will know, many parts of the programme for Government are around parents, children and women. We need to get those commitments onto the Statute Book to ensure that people have the support required so we have a society that is not only successful economically, but that also values its women, children and parents across the board, regardless of their gender.
I believe I must raise an issue of great importance to people of all communities in the North who were bereaved or injured during the conflict.The relatives of persons killed by all armed actors in the conflict - republican, loyalist and the British state - need a human rights-compliant remedy in the form of the legacy mechanisms that were agreed in Stormont House and signed by both Governments and all parties. I have been contacted by the cross-community organisation Relatives for Justice, which provides support to the bereaved and injured relatives of all the actors in the conflict on an inclusive and non-judgmental basis. They have asked me to highlight their disappointment at the response from An Taoiseach to the question that was asked in the Dáil last week. The work being done by Relatives for Justice is of great importance and must be embraced by both Governments in line with their duties as signatories to the Stormont House Agreement. It must be of significant and increasing concern to the Government that there has been no progress by the UK Government on the legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement framework to deal with the legacy of the past in the North. At this time of increased tensions in the North, all cross-community initiatives must be supported.
I wish to highlight the heavy-handed tactics of the PSNI in its assault on the relatives taking part in the commemoration of the murder of their family members in the Sean Graham bookies on the Ormeau Road 29 years ago. That attack on unarmed people in a bookies is an example of the collusion between the police and loyalist paramilitaries. The failure of the police ombudsman to publish the long-completed report on the collusion in the attack on the bookies has added to the grief of the survivors and the relatives. It is absolutely devastating for them. It is now time the report were published. I call on the Taoiseach today to give an undertaking that this Government will meet Relatives for Justice - it is not much to ask - and make representations to the British Government that it fulfil its obligations under the Stormont House Agreement.
Other Members have raised the issue of the landmark decision of the High Court last week in the FBD insurance case. It is welcome that the High Court has clarified the position, but those four individual businesses should never have had to take the case in the first instance. In January, the UK Supreme Court made a similar ruling. I know that the High Court here waited to see what the outcome of that would be and allowed the parties to make submissions to it on the matter. The case in the UK was taken by the Financial Conduct Authority, a state agency. It was not left up to individual businesses to put their resources on the line to bring such a case before the High Court. Other Members have raised this issue and have welcomed the fact that FBD has accepted the decision of the court in terms of its liability. I note that it has not yet accepted what the quantum of that liability will be. We will see on another occasion an opportunity for that company to challenge how much it will pay to businesses. We in this House should not be surprised at insurance companies that charge astronomical fees and premiums for business interruption insurance and then turn around and say to those same companies, when their business is interrupted and they go to claim on foot of that policy, that they are not going to pay out. Those are exactly the characteristics we have come to expect of insurance companies in this country. We see this particularly with small businesses regarding occupiers' liability insurance, on which there is no good faith between insurance companies and the people they purport to ensure. They continue to ramp up premiums despite the fact that there is no basis for doing so in terms of the cost to them of doing business. We in these Houses continue to bend over backwards to facilitate these companies when there is no quid pro quo.
The question is this: what is the Central Bank doing about it? It is the authority of the State and the body that is supposed to protect businesses, acting as a regulator and a consumer advocate, and it seems to have completely failed in that role. It did not take the case, it did not issue guidelines and the same is true of myriad other areas under its remit. The time has come, I suggest, for there to be a debate in this House about what the Central Bank can do to serve the citizens rather than the companies of this State.
I will start by echoing Senator Flynn's concerns about the digital divide and access to laptops and tablets. In that regard, I welcome the Government's announcement today, because it is a concern I also share, of the €5.8 million fund to mitigate the impact of educational disadvantage, particularly in the context of the digital divide.The fund will be administered by the education and training boards. I know that, in the case of Donegal Education and Training Board, €283,000 will be provided. It is really important that we address this.
What I wish to raise follows from Senator Hoey's comments on the reopening of higher education. I entirely agree with her concerns around mandatory placements, but I believe there is a bigger problem for students searching generally for internships apart from mandatory placements. In the context of the debate around the reopening of higher education, I call on all involved to ensure students are not placed at a disadvantage if they are unable to access either mandatory placements or internships.
I would like a broader debate around the reopening of our higher education institutions. A wonderful job has been done by the leadership, staff and students in coping through this period. In particular, our first-year students have lost out on the college experience. They will need considerable support and help to get back fully into the system. If they have some difficulty and are unable to attend college for whatever reason, I do not believe they should be penalised when colleges do reopen.
While it is great that the number of first-year places was expanded to 49,000 last year and that that number will continue to expand, the third level funding crisis continues. In March it will be five years since the Cassells report was published. It is a matter of urgency that we address the question of the funding of our higher education institutions. With the pace of technological change that we are now seeing, we will need far more upskilling and reskilling. I am asking for a full debate around how we are going to fund our higher education system in future.
My thanks to colleagues for the variety of topics raised today.
I will ask the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to come and have a debate with us on reopening. I think we will have many debates on reopening society, communities and our economy in the coming weeks, but certainly a debate about the long-term future of financing third level education is relevant. I will send that request out today.
I am happy to accept the amendment of Senator Ward and allow the Bill to be published. I look forward to the debate. All the points raised with regard to the case taken last week against FBD by the four successful hospitality outlets are relevant. I agree with Senator Ward that there is a ways to go on this. Certain questions are being asked from numerous quarters on the response of some of our State organisations. It might be worthwhile sending a letter to the Minister for Finance outlining the queries the Senator has or perhaps inviting the Minister to come in and talk about this in a Commencement debate. I will discuss it with the Senator later and he can let me know the best way to go.
I take on board all the comments made by Senator Black. What is obviously a difficult situation still is still arising, even though we continually talk year in, year out about looking for reconciliation from all sides, including those in the middle trying to represent everyone. It would be worthwhile to pass on the request from the Senator for the organisation to seek a meeting with the Taoiseach. I will ask, but I believe it would come better from the Senator if she sent a note to the Taoiseach asking him for his response with regard to communications with Boris Johnson and the Northern Ireland Assembly that were agreed in the context of and arising from the Stormont House Agreement framework but which have not been forwarded. I thank the Senator for the contribution she made this morning.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly answered in part some of the questions raised by Senator Sherlock on the issue of paid parental leave. What Senator O'Reilly did not tell the House is that the legislation is in pre-legislative scrutiny at the moment with the committee. Unfortunately, until that aspect is finished, it cannot be advanced. I only know this from my time in the Department, obviously. What is delaying everything is not us trying to be annoying. Paid parental leave was established some years ago. It will be set out. Year on year we will have similar legislation on the Statute Book until each parent gets nine weeks' consecutive or shared parental leave. An information technology system is required to go alongside this. As the Senator said, it is paid leave. The Department of Social Protection, as we are all aware, has done the work of probably ten Departments in the past ten or 12 months in serving the people who have had their lives entirely disrupted and are now dependent on the State until life turns back on again.That IT system will not be ready until April. To reiterate what Senator Pauline O'Reilly said, the legislation will be retrospective which is unusual for these Houses and absolutely everybody who has had a baby since November 2020 will be entitled to the full amount of leave, both the mammy and the daddy. The legislation is in pre-legislative scrutiny at the moment and will be advanced as soon as that report is issued to us from the committee. Senator O'Reilly raised the benefits of it and I will be very happy when we get to having nine weeks leave per parent per child born from 20 November 2020, or 2019 previously.
Senator Ardagh raised the issue of cancer services and indeed we started with Senator Keogan talking about them. I agree with both of them and do not wish to diminish the serious nature of what they have brought forward. However, alongside talking about cancer screening and how much it has been affected by Covid and how much we all want it back because of all the ramifications it will have, it is at the same time very fair to say that those working in the cancer services that continue to be in operation in our hospitals have done Trojan work since last year. I can say this on a personal experience as I had recourse to be a patient of Beaumont Hospital's cancer screening services for six months last year. They worked their absolute socks off. There were times they could not do clinics. When we went back to level 4 and level 3 and it was allowed, they worked clinics around the clock on Saturdays and Sundays to try to ensure they caught up with the women who were waiting in limbo for weeks. I must pay tribute to our nurses and doctors for their Trojan efforts. Senator Keogan is absolutely right, as indeed is Senator Ardagh, that our screening services are absolutely vital to keeping our numbers down and to catching patients at the early stages so they can be treated, helped and cured. That is really important. The poignant letter Senator Keogan read out about the lady who had her own distress last year, which was probably compounded by the fact that she could not have her surgery, is really heartbreaking to listen to. The Senator's question to me was who made the decision and who was responsible. I do not know but I will find out for her. However, I must assume that it was the clinicians who made the decision in the best medical interests and outcomes for their patients but I will find out if she gives me the details later on.
Senator Ardagh raised cancer services and indeed we started with Senator Keogan talking about them. I agree with both of them and do not wish ot to diminish the serious nature of what they have brought forward, what we need tood alongside talking about cancer screening and how much it has been affected by Covid and how much we all want it back, because of all the ramifications it will have, it is probably very fair at the same time to say that those cancer services that continue to be in operation in our hospitals have done Trojan work last year and I can only say this on a personal experience as I had recourse to be a patient of Beaumont for six months last year in the cancer screening services - they worked their absolute socks off. When there were times they could not do clinics, when it was allowed and we went back to level 4 and level 3, they worked clinics around the clock on Saturdays on Sundays to try to ensure they caught up with the women who were in waiting in limbo for the weeks that they were so I just have to pay tribute to them, to our nurses and our doctors, for the Trojan effort that they do. But u are absolutely right, as indeed is Senator Ardagh, that our screening services are absolutely vital to keeping our numbers down and to catching patients at the early stages so they can be treated, helped and cured and I think that is really important. The poignant letter that u read out about the lady who had her own distress last year, which was probably compounded by the fact that she could not have her surgery, is really heartbreaking to listen to but I can only assume, and ur question to me was to ask who made the decision and who was responsible. I do not know but I will find out for u but I must assume that it was the clinicians who made the decision on the best medical interests and outcomes for their patients but I will find out if u give me the details later on.
Senator Gavan talked about a road that currently goes to nowhere. We do not often agree but I absolutely agree with him on this one. The road must be built. I think everybody that has any sense knows that it must be built but I will certainly ask for the debate the Senator wants. I am sure he will have many champions with him on the day to persuade the Minister for Transport and as he says, the Cabinet collectively, to ensure that programme for Government commitment is fulfilled.
Senator McGahon must forgive me because a lot of what he discussed and the technology he discussed went over my head. However, if I am clear what the Senator is looking for is for people with type 1 diabetes to get access to the long-term illness scheme so they can make the choice that is in their own best interest. I will certainly pass that message on to the Minister for Health.
Senator Crowe talked again about the landmark decision. Is it not shocking to hear the concerns of a company that is paying €240,000 per year to insure against what we hope is unimaginable, and yet when it does happen it was so badly let down? I think we all cheered when the courts found in favour of our hospitality sector last Friday but as I said in my earlier contribution, there is a long way to travel on that road and we will have to continue to support the sector in every way we can.
Senator Hoey talked about something that is very relevant to tens of thousands of our students who cannot do their placements. I would be incredibly shocked if any university could not allow a student to go on to the following year or to graduate because of something that was absolutely not within his or her own control. That is not to say Senator Hoey is not telling the truth. I will talk to the Minister with responsibility for higher education today and will come back to the Senator with a response, hopefully in the affirmative. If not we definitely need to take that issue further. It is definitely not acceptable that our third and fourth level students, who are doing internship placements as part of their programme and their training, are not allowed to either carry that placement over to the following year so they continue on their course, or to have some other remedy associated with what has happened, which is that their lives have been interrupted for the whole year. Everyone's life has been interrupted.
Senator Burke referred to the Minister for Finance and what is going to become a very large issue regarding negative rates. I will ask for a debate with the Minister on that matter in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Craughwell asked for a debate on the idiosyncrasies that arise with the placement of our female Defence Forces. I will ask for a debate on that matter. Senator Kyne talked about the welcome increase in the fuel allowance but also referred to the difficulty that the interruption to life has caused for people in accessing the warmer homes scheme. A number of State services have stalled in the past 12 months and this is one of them. Access to driving licences is another. We all expect and hope that life will start to gear up again at some point in the next couple of months but in the absence of an assurance that this will happen, we will have to find different ways to provide services and cut through the red tape that has been created by Covid-19. I will today write to the Minister outlining the discrepancies and delays that the Senator has talked about and ask for a debate on the warmer homes scheme and the concept of retrofitting in its entirety.
Senator Gallagher raised the €100 fine. To be fair, he also raised this issue on the Order of Business last Monday. I, too, would welcome the imposition of a fines system in Northern Ireland. It never ceases to amaze me that at the end of the week, we are told by An Garda Síochána how many thousands of people have been fined as if it is no big deal. People seem to think that it is only 100 quid. I do not think that people understand how prevalent the virus still is in our communities. It is a big deal and we are continuing to put people at risk. It would be great if there were a scenario whereby we could have cross-community co-operation between the Northern Ireland Parliament and ourselves, including in the context of reciprocal arrangements. I will ask the Department of the Taoiseach to come back to us with a response on that matter.
Senator Flynn brought up the digital divide which has become evident to us all and which was evident to many people before the arrival of Covid. For many months, young people in universities and children in primary and secondary school have been educated from home. It is difficult to do that without access to broadband or to a computer to get onto the broadband. That is why I am proud that the previous Fine Gael Government backed the national broadband plan, despite the many objections to and reservations about it. We all know how empowered and changed lives can be by access to technology. There was €10 million given to secondary schools in November last year but, clearly, it has not provided every child and household with IT equipment. This morning's announcements are welcome but we will have to monitor them to ensure that they provide access to education for every household as is our intention.
Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to the sad events of the weekend. It is an awful pity. I am loath to comment further than that, other than to say that I acknowledge Simon Byrne's apology and the actions that he took on Saturday evening, arising out of the event on Friday. There is a distance to travel on this issue but I will pass on the Senator's comments and reflections to the Taoiseach today.
Senator Martin raised the effects of the lockdown on us all and the weariness that has nearly seeped into the bones and mindset of everybody. Even the most positive people are fed up. The debate around zero Covid has been thoroughly assessed by the National Public Health Emergency Team and our clinicians but I will pass on the Senator's request to have the matter discussed further by the Cabinet and Government.
Senator Sherlock talked about the delay in extending parental leave, which I have already addressed. She also asked about the Dumping Sea Act 1996 and I will schedule a debate on the matter in the next number of weeks. That debate will perhaps apply not only to this particular topic, but on a wider range of topics, if that is okay.
Senator Keogan talked about cancer screening services. I hope to come back to her with the reopening of all screening services.
Senator O'Loughlin started the day by talking about two issues that are pertinent and topical. The remote working strategy was launched by the Tánaiste a number of weeks ago. We all know that the future probably lies somewhere in the middle of the road between people having access to the office - not just for reasons of sanity and sociability - and being able to work from home to enhance their lifestyles. I am sure these considerations apply not only to the Senator's county but to all counties. We are going through county development plans at the moment. It is important that we develop the plan today for the next six to seven years, cognisant of the changes that we expect to happen over that time. It will not just be business as usual and zoning a bit here and there. The remote working strategy needs to be integral. I will today ask the Tánaiste to write to every single local authority chief executive to ensure that before we finalise any county development plan, it will have a remote working strategy at the heart of its economic development strategy.
The Senator raised another important matter. We have talked long and hard for a number of years about delivering all types of housing.What is sometimes absent from the delivery or the plan is independent living for our older people. There are probably tens of thousands of houses in which either two grandparents or one grandparent is living where they do not need the space and there are many families who would value and relish the opportunity to make those houses their family homes. We should not be asking those people to independently move from their family homes and to the sticks up to 10 km outside the towns and villages in which they are living. Our county development plans must have strategic zones and strategic plans to make sure that independent living is at the core of all our villages and towns and that the services are there. I will write to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and ask him to ensure that.
As regards Senator O'Loughlin's point, it is a tremendous pity that Pat Tinsley's funding did not come through. We need a debate on that €50 million to find out exactly where it is going and which new drugs, families and ailments we are going to support in the coming years.