Monday, 15 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Su laisvës diena, Lietuva. Lithuania Day is 16 February so I wish all Lithuanians a very happy independence day, especially the 70,000 Lithuanians living in Ireland. The day commemorates the declaration of independence, which was signed in 1918 and which re-established the State of Lithuania after nearly 150 years of Tsarist Russian occupation. Another independence day in Lithuania is 11 March and it marks its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The Lithuanian community is the second largest in this State.The Lithuanian Association in Ireland, which was established in 1999, along with 30 other organisations, clubs and sporting clubs, organises gatherings, concerts and events in Dublin, Cork, Monaghan, Portlaoise, Tullamore and other locations in the State. There are at present 20 Lithuanian weekend schools, and Lithuanian is taught in some Irish schools. This year marks 30 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Lithuania, from the establishment of the embassy in 2003 to the appointment last year of the new ambassador, H.E. Marijus Gudynas. I wish the ambassador, all Lithuanians, including those living in Ireland, and the Irish people living in Lithuania a very happy independence day. Su laisvës diena, Lietuva.
I ask the Leader to outline the Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding appointment of a member of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the appointment of Shalom Binchy to the Policing Authority, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, motion regarding the appointment of Elaine Byrne to the Policing Authority, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, motion regarding the appointment of Donal de Buitléir to the Policing Authority, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3, without debate; No. 5, motion regarding the appointment of Stephen Martin to the Policing Authority, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 4, without debate; No. 6, Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 2 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 7, Private Members' business, Children (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.15 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 38, Private Members' business, non-Government motion No. 9, to be taken at 4.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours.
I agree with the Order of Business.
I welcome this morning the announcement for the country regarding the regional and local roads funding. I welcome in particular the announcement for my county, Mayo, where over €33 million has been allocated to maintain roads. This may seem like an insignificant news story to some, but I reiterate how important this is for a county such as Mayo. I wish to highlight two projects in particular. The first is the allocation of over €850,000 to the R312. For those not familiar with this road, it is the road connecting Belmullet to Castlebar town. It is the road that that community and people on the peninsula use to access Mayo General Hospital. People have been campaigning for improvements to the road for more than 20 years. This is a really important funding announcement for the community, and I cannot overstate how happy people are to see that amount of money going into that roads project. Second is the R332, which is the road from Kilmaine to Tuam. Again, for the information of those not familiar with the road, since the opening of the new M17 motorway, this is the route that people in south Mayo now use to access the motorway to get to Dublin and other parts of the country. It is a small regional road that has not been fit to take the capacity that has been on it for the past two years. Again, it is a really welcome announcement for south Mayo and the surrounding area. I also welcome the €69,000 for roads in the town of Killala. It is a huge amount of money for a small regional town. The significance of these announcements for the communities in question should not be underestimated.
The second issue I wish to raise is the national development plan and the review under way, that is, the consultation process with the public. It is due to close this Friday, 19 February. The date was extended. This is an opportunity for citizens right across the country to have their say in the national development plan and how we plan, fund and spend our resources across every strand of Irish life, from housing to education, roads, infrastructure, communications and local amenities. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have had a huge shift in working life and the use of public spaces and local amenities. I urge all citizens, particularly those in my community in County Mayo and right across the western seaboard, to have their say.People will be aware that the west and north-west region was downgraded to a region in transition by the European Commission. We need to adjust and fix that imbalance which currently exists. That is why I am calling for positive discrimination to be shown towards the west and north-west regions in this review to ensure we fix the current imbalance. We must ensure the west and north west region reverts from region in transition status to a region that is developed in line with the rest of the country. Our national development plan should reflect that. I urge citizens right across the region to have their say, make submissions by this Friday and make a case for the west and north west.
Finally, I welcome the publication today by Early Childhood Ireland of its Childcare Barometer 2021. Two key findings were that 70% of those surveyed want to see funding for childcare services maintained and increased to ensure they can open during the pandemic and, most important, 73% of respondents indicated the terms of employment for childcare workers should reflect their qualifications. Many such workers have level 7 and 8 qualifications and are earning minimum wage or just above it. That needs to change. The pandemic has shown us how valuable our early years sector is and how much we need to improve conditions for those working in it.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his latitude.
It was my intention to draw the attention of the House to the motion in my name and the names of other Senators, including Senators from all groups and parties in this House, namely, No. 8 on the Order Paper concerning the fate of Mr. Richard O'Halloran who is being detained in China. Last week, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, called me about this motion and requested that, because the matter was at a delicate stage of negotiation, I not have the House debate this matter in case it might set that process back. I regard any request of that kind by a Minister very seriously and not as one to be lightly disregarded.
I have been involved in attempting to have Mr. O'Halloran's fate and the cruel treatment of him dealt with since last year. I told the Minister I would consult Mr. O'Halloran's family about his request and that he could help by indicating the detail of what steps his Department was taking. Years ago, the former Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach, Mr. Pádraig Ó hUiginn, said to me somewhat cynically that there were three stages for Iveagh House in any matter: the stage at which it was premature to do anything, the stage at which at it was too sensitive and the stage at which it was too late. I am giving the benefit of the doubt to the Department in not having the House debate this matter today but I emphasise an article by Ms Justine McCarthy in The Sunday Timesoutlining the great suffering to him and his family. I circulated it to all Members of the House today. No Chinese citizen would be treated in this way in this country and the comparative size of our two countries does not justify wolf diplomacy being deployed against Ireland to try to blackmail this man into doing something unlawful.
On a further point, the Department of Foreign Affairs was renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but we cannot trade the rights of an Irish citizen to have full representation by this State to vindicate his rights and secure his freedom. No question of Irish exports to China or whether the Chinese Government would be offended by anything that is said in this House should colour our treatment of this matter. The time has come for this House to speak on this issue and I am affording the Minister a two-week opportunity to produce results in this matter. I intend, in two weeks' time, to move an Order of Business amendment to have this all-party motion fully debated if the Chinese Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs have not secured Mr. O'Halloran's release in the meantime.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 11 on the Order Paper be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business. I hope that will be accepted by the Leader.
Despite all the talk and focus on the leaving certificate between the Government and the unions, there is very little focus in the media on the severe and detrimental impact that school closures are having on our most vulnerable students, particularly primary school children in DEIS schools, who look likely to miss two key months in the year of 2021. When this phase of lockdown was announced after Christmas, the Labour Party called for a monthly stay-at-home allowance to be targeted at our most vulnerable students, that is, those who receive the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, to allow families to cover the cost of additional outlays resulting from keeping children at home during the coldest months of the year. Many of these families do not have access to broadband and so rely on data for remote learning. Data are needed for them to access schoolwork, and there is also the cost of heating the home and the cost of feeding children at home.
According to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, IFS, in the UK, if schools do not go back until after Easter, children will have lost around two thirds of the normal school year, and the impact this has on those children in the UK can be replicated across Ireland. The IFS says it will have a negative impact on all children but will have a catastrophic effect on the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged children. The IFS report refers to the long-term effect this will have on this cohort of children. It is likely to lead to a loss of earnings over their lifetime as children do not have the digital or home infrastructure to effectively learn remotely. While this is likely to be neutralised among children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds will lose up to Stg£40,000 over their lifetime.
That is why the Labour Party has again focused in on this cohort of children and called for a €1 million catch-up for children scheme to make up for lost school days and related activities. We have argued that this support must be targeted at the most vulnerable children and young people from socio-economic disadvantage, and those with disabilities or other needs. We cannot allow our most vulnerable children to be failed or for the cost of school closures and the meaningful Christmas that we had to be felt by those children, not just for next Christmas, but for their lifetime and for their generation. We have to plan now and focus on undoing the damage that this pandemic has caused to our children's education. We must have a big investment, targeting those children to make sure they are not paying for a lifetime for what we did over a couple of months before Christmas.
I welcome today's announcement by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of the funding he is giving to regional and local roads projects. We sometimes get grief for being Dublin-centric but I certainly am not, and the Minister can stand up and say that he is not either, having given more than any other Minister to local infrastructure and roads, and to funding for walking and cycling. Today's announcement is very important, not just because it is badly needed, but because, due to climate change, the engineers themselves recognise there are more disruptions to roads and weaker road surfaces as a result. Funding of €23 million is clearly earmarked for climate change adaption and resilience works, and it is very good that is being acknowledged and funded by the Department of Transport.
Given the repeated warnings by the EPA of high levels of air pollution in many of our towns and cities, it is also very good to see some funding is still going towards active travel as part of this. To give some examples from my own county, some of the schools, such as at Broadford and Cloonlara, are getting pedestrian crossings, something I have been asking about for a good few years. Having worked with the schools and done walkability audits, it is great to see progress. Sixmilebridge is finally getting a pedestrian crossing.
It is interesting. We have to stop and reassess how we see our towns and villages. Up to recently, the priority has been cars and it is a case of letting the cars go through the towns, but we forget that people live in these places, and elderly people and children want to be able to walk and cycle, and move around their towns and villages safely, which many people noticed during the first lockdown.
It is good to see there is funding for cycle signs because we have a new minimum passing distance that we need to remember, as car drivers, myself included, even though I cycle as well. We often forget that we have to leave a minimum distance.There is now funding for signage. There is also good funding for bridges. There is such an amazing array of bridges throughout the country. In Clare, 29 bridges will be refurbished and saved using the funding. The funding will be rolled out across rural Ireland, which is fantastic.
It is hard for road engineers to do everything. Maybe we will have to stop calling them that and call them engineers for the people because we do not merely have to think about roads but about how people move. As well as a crisis of air pollution, there is one in mental health and in disconnection in society. The car has played a big part in that. When one gets into a car, one moves in a metal box, detached from everyone else whereas those who are able to walk and cycle safely around where they live can meet their neighbours more. No man or woman is an island. The slower we move, the more connected we become with society and the people around us. If I am in bad form and having a bad day, I only have to meet a person or two and I will be in better form. I thank the Minister and the Minster of State, Deputy Naughton, on this €555 million prioritising climate, roads and people first.
I wish to reiterate my call for statements with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the implementation of the Irish protocol. We all agreed at the beginning of the term that we should not allow the issue of Brexit to fall off the agenda or the radar of the House. We are at a critical juncture in terms of getting information to people. The Seanad affords the opportunity to cut through some of the spin and some of the more misleading statements on the albeit imperfect protocol and the teething problems that many businesses have faced. It is a seismic change in the life of this island and between these islands and continental Europe, so of course there will be problems.
I do not want to rehash our united opposition to Brexit and all our unified warning calls on the dangers Brexit presents to us, but it is important for us to remember and articulate that there are opportunities for businesses as a result of the protections afforded to Ireland, North and South, as a result of the protocol that was arduously negotiated over a period of more than four years. We need to refocus our efforts to identifying the opportunities and supporting businesses in helping them reorient and develop their supply chains across the entire island.
There are other issues of concern beyond the macro issues around trade. Last week the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU was told by the Confederation of British Industry, CBI, about the mutual recognition of qualifications North and South and between Britain and Ireland. That was raised again at a meeting I held with colleagues from the Northern Ireland Assembly with the CBI in the North. We must continue to do the work, not only with questions to the Minister but also Commencement Matters. We need those statements to take place as urgently as possible.
Iarraim ar an Aire Stáit ráitis a chur ar fáil ar chúrsaí Gaeilge agus pobal na Gaeltachta go dtí seo. Ní raibh an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Chambers, ós ár gcomhair sa Seanad agus tá orainn é sin a cheartú go háirithe agus muid ag dul isteach go dtí Seachtain na Gaeilge.
I call for statements on the Irish language. We are heading into Seachtain na Gaeilge at the beginning of March. I do not like the idea of confining statements on the Irish language to particular times of the year but it is timely for the many groups, organisations and the Gaeltacht communities given the issues they are facing as a result of Brexit and Covid.
As all Senators will be aware, over two years ago, on 17 October 2018, legislation was passed to combat and stop harmful drinking. The legislation, the Public Health (Alcohol) Act, was praised by international policy experts as being model legislation that was well structured and evidence based. One of its main provisions was minimum unit pricing, which is a targeted measure designed to reduce alcohol consumption. It would enforce a set cost below which alcohol cannot be sold. This is not the case currently. It would mainly affect the price of very cheap drinks and alcoholic drinks with a very high alcohol content. However, it has not yet been implemented in Ireland.
There are compelling international data indicating that pricing is one of the most effective ways to reduce excessive alcohol consumption and tackle alcohol-related harm, especially in the home. We can see this in Scotland, where in the two years in which minimum unit pricing has been in place, the rate of consumption has been at its lowest in 25 years. More important, the number of hospital admissions for liver disease among the lowest income groups has been significantly reduced. I recognise that the programme for Government pledges to introduce minimum unit pricing simultaneously with the North. I appreciate the logic behind that considering the potential for the retail sector to be impacted by cross-Border shopping. Northern Ireland's Minister for Health, Mr. Robin Swann, is developing a substance misuse strategy, but it has been delayed by the pandemic. After the strategy has been finalised, the intention is to have public consultation on minimum unit pricing. This suggests it could take well over two years before Northern Ireland is in a position to introduce minimum unit pricing. I do not believe under any circumstances that we can afford to wait that long to introduce this measure given the impact alcohol is currently having. I ask that the Minister of State responsible for public health be invited to this House to debate the issue at his earliest convenience.
I support Senator Crowe on minimum unit pricing. I have raised this issue before on the Order of Business. I cannot see why minimum unit pricing cannot be introduced at this time, when travel to the North is limited. It should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for us in the South to introduce minimum unit pricing.
I wish to raise an issue relating to local print media. We have all received correspondence from local print media throughout the country. I would like the Leader to bring to the Minister for Finance the message that local print media need financial assistance urgently. Resources have been provided to the local radio stations. There was an allocation of €5 million, in two funding rounds, to support Covid coverage but the print media have got no assistance at all. In County Mayo, there are four print media, namely,The Connaught Telegraph, The Mayo News, Western Peopleand the Mayo Advertiser. They are embedded in their communities. In a time when fake news is rife throughout the world, local communities depend greatly on the local media. They bring balance to media. We can depend on them to bring the right message, and people depend on them in that regard. It is important, therefore, that they survive. Sixteen local newspapers have closed since 2010. The local newspaper employment level is now 50% of that in 2000. Advertising revenue for 2020 reduced by 22%, and this year, 2021, has seen an even greater fall. I ask that the Leader bring a very strong message to the Minister for Finance seeking support for the print media.
I was looking at a graphic yesterday that illustrates how appalling the progress of our vaccination programme has been compared with that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, our nearest neighbour.We have vaccinated only 5% of our population with the first dose of an approved vaccine whereas in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, they have vaccinated over 23% with at least one dose. That is over 15 million people. Looking further afield, the US has vaccinated about 15% of its population. Leading the way is Israel with almost 73% of the population vaccinated with one dose. I read in The Times of Israelabout how effective the vaccine is proving to be in the real world outside of clinical trials. Clearly, the vaccine is saving lives and taking the strain off healthcare workers in intensive care units. It is equally clear, therefore, that the failure of the European Union and the Government to secure adequate supplies of the vaccine is costing lives and livelihoods. It is keeping people trapped in the misery of lockdown and restrictions on their basic liberties. According to a poll of the Institute of Directors in Ireland, a slower than expected Covid-19 vaccine roll-out is seen as the biggest threat to business in Ireland. These pharmaceutical companies use Ireland as a manufacturing base and take advantage of our skilled workers and favourable tax regime. What are they doing for us now? Where is the benefit for the ordinary person?
The Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, has stated that if the vaccine supplies were available, our GPs could vaccinate the over-70s in six weeks, not 12 weeks as our Government has scheduled for. We must accelerate the pace of the vaccinations and the Government must show more ingenuity to resolve the logistics and supply issue that has hampered the haphazard vaccination programme to date.
In the last ten minutes, 37 centres have been announced throughout the country. I would like to know when that will begin. An online community programme needs to be put in place to allow the public avail of vaccinations anywhere in this country. I urge the Government to get on with the vaccination programme.
I raise a national issue which is about respect and manners among our citizens. We have people across the country dumping rubbish and letting their dogs off leads attacking sheep and we need to legislate for all this. We need to put far more restrictions on people and to spend resources on upping the number of litter wardens and dog wardens. It is about respecting our countryside, our walkways and what we have in this country.
I am pushing for harsher dog controls because if anyone has witnessed a dog attack on sheep it is an horrendous thing to come across. I remember it happening our family livestock a couple of years ago and it is horrendous. One should not allows one's dog off its lead. One should not be fly tipping rubbish in the countryside. If people would take a step back from their actions, they would see the economic and environmental costs. The money could be spent on greater things, such as looking after our country's vulnerable older people and our children, funding our DEIS schools, as Senator Moynihan said, and looking after our citizens instead of cleaning up rubbish.
I join other Senators in welcoming the news of €16.3 million in funding for maintenance and renewal of the road network in my county of Waterford, which is on top of the €13.8 million given last week by the National Transport Authority, NTA, for active travel measures. It is significant funding which will make a huge difference across our city and county and make the job of councillors in the coming weeks and months easier in devising the roadworks programme. I am particularly happy to see significant funds allocated to the likes of drainage works, community improvement schemes and the discretionary grant because local authorities on the ground know best where to spend money on road infrastructure.
The national broadband plan is a central plank of Fine Gael policy and one I am exceptionally proud of.Our party signed the national broadband plan in the previous Government and pushed forward the roll-out of broadband to every farm, business and household in our country. We will be one of the first countries in the world to have all those households, businesses and farms connected to high-speed broadband. Were it not for the decision to sign that plan at the time, contrary to great opposition from the other side of the House in the previous Government, 166,000 premises would not have already been surveyed with many more already connected.
Obviously, there is a job of work to be done over the coming years in terms of the roll-out of the national broadband plan. We are, however, starting to see the benefits it will bring with the likes of online GP services and remote teaching and learning. Broadband will have benefit in many other areas we do not even know of yet when it is rolled out across our country. Perhaps we could have a debate on the roll-out of the broadband strategy and get the Minister in as regards speeding up the process insofar as possible. I believe everyone now acknowledges it was the right thing to do.
I wish to second the proposal by my colleague, Senator Moynihan, to take No. 11, the Student Nurses (Pay) Bill 2021, at the end of the Order of Business. We are hoping to debate that on Second Stage on Friday. This, of course, is the Bill being proposed by our colleague, Senator Hoey, on payment for student nurses, which I know is a hugely topical and important issue.
I also welcome the roll-out today of the vaccination programme within the community to over-85s. It is a real piece of good news in the context of what has been a grim start to the year. That it is now being done this week should be acknowledged. We all hope it could be done more swiftly, perhaps, than it has been to date but we hope it will go smoothly. I welcome it.
I join Senator Moynihan in calling for a debate on our Labour Party proposal for a €100 million catch-up for children scheme. I spoke about this on Friday in the context of providing education and supports for catching up for children with additional needs in education. We all very much welcome the fact that certain education has been resumed for children with additional educational needs. Next Monday will see special classes in mainstream schools resuming. That is welcome.
As Senator Moynihan said so eloquently, we need to acknowledge the enormous impact the prolonged closure of schools has had on all our children, the uncertainty around the resumption of opening of schools and the uncertainty around leaving certificate and junior certificate exams for all the children in secondary schools.
The difficulties that prolonged closures have caused for parents have been well discussed but they need to be restated. It is hugely difficult for many people to combine work and homeschooling as well. "Homeschooling" is such a euphemism because there is nothing easy about it. It is such a glib phrase that really downplays the enormous impact of this prolonged school closure upon children and parents. The impact of the denial of educational opportunities on all our children, many of whom have additional needs or are living in poverty, homelessness or direct provision, is absolutely appalling. Therefore, we need to see an acknowledgement by the Government of the importance of providing supports for children. The Labour Party has been calling for a catch-up for children scheme. I would love to see a debate on that in this House.
I will raise an issue today on which the Leader has much experience and has been vocal about, both inside and outside this House, namely, the Irish aviation industry. At some stage in the future, I would appreciate if we could table a debate and have the Minister for Transport come into this House to outline his plans - really good, detailed plans - for the Irish aviation industry.
I raise this issue because two or three friends of mine are pilots and many people in my home county of Louth, who are members of the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, have gotten in touch with me. It is the last sector of Irish society that will be able to recover after Covid-19 because we will have varying different degrees of Covid recovery, for want of the better word, in different countries.It will be the last sector to get back up on its feet. For that reason and because the sector is unique, I would appreciate it if the Government would consider extending the PUP and the EWSS to much later in the year for those involved in aviation and wider airline sector. Those workers will probably be the last who will be able to avail of the PUP and the EWSS. I say that because of the unique position they are in, as the Leader knows better than anyone else owing to the work she has done on this matter. I ask that the Minister for Transport come to the House and outline a clear plan for ensuring those involved in the aviation sector will have the proper financial supports to fall back on over the coming ten or 12 months as we finally begin to get out of this nightmare we all find ourselves in.
I raise the issue of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and figures that were released to Deputy Gould. These figures show that this system of housing supports is not working and that it is time for a review of all rent subsidies. HAP does not offer security of tenure or help people in need of long-term housing and HAP limits are not in line with market rents. HAP rates are particularly low for single people and this has long been raised as an issue. It is near impossible to rent a property within the HAP limits as a single person in this State. The problem is bad across the country, but Dublin has been especially impacted. For example, in South Dublin County Council, there are 2,888 people on HAP and that figure does not include those on homeless HAP. Of those 2,888 people, nearly 17% are in receipt of a discretionary top-up and of those, 46% are in receipt of the maximum top-up of 20%. This shows that the HAP rates are not reflective of the rental market in Tallaght.
The announcement by the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, that he is to build 400 cost rental properties this year clearly falls short when we look at the number of people we have in receipt of HAP. According to the daft.ie quarter 4 2020 report, the average rent in the South Dublin County Council area is €1,814 and continuing to rise. With a maximum HAP limit for a family with three children of €1,300, a 20% top-up does not begin to cover the rent needed. We know people are paying cash top-ups and that this is putting them under serious financial strain. I would like to have a debate on this issue. I know the Minister agreed before his appointment that these limits needed to be reviewed. Now that he is the Minister, maybe it is time he started acting on that.
I echo the concerns expressed by Senator McDowell concerning an Irish citizen, Richard O'Halloran, in China. There is a need for a broader debate around the relationship of Ireland and the European Union with China.
Speaking during a Commencement matter debate earlier, my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, rightly raised the need for urgency in reaching a decision on this year's leaving certificate. I echo her praise of the role of the Irish Second-Level Students Union in its advocacy on behalf of students. I follow what Senators Bacik and Moynihan said about the broader issue of the reopening of schools and ensuring that students are in a position to catch up. While many teachers and schools have been excellent in delivering remote learning, that has not been universal and we need to look at ways in which we can support students who are coming through.
I would like to move an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 10, the Defence (Restriction on Use of Certain Titles) Bill 2021, be taken before No. 1. The purpose of the Bill is to protect the use of the titles of "Defence Forces" and "Óglaigh na hÉireann" so that they can only refer to organisations that are linked to the Defence Forces and Óglaigh na hÉireann. While we are on the subject of the Defence Forces, I extend sympathies to the partner, family and friends of Private Mark Mahon of the 3rd Infantry Battalion, who sadly passed away at the weekend.He served this country with distinction on the UN mission in Lebanon. For him to lose his life so tragically is something that we should remember. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Like others, I welcome the annual roads funding that has been allocated to our local authorities. Roads funding is the bread and butter of our local authorities and what our hard-working councillors deal with daily, be it in respect of potholes, drainage, flooding, maintenance or sinking roads. It is vital for the remediation of these problems and for the community involvement scheme, which is a safety measure in respect of available lands. These are issues that all public representatives deal with, but our local councillors in particular.
I welcome the allocation to Galway of €36.23 million, which will include €400,000 do na droichid agus na calaidh atá ceadaithe do na hoileáin chun obair shábhailteachta a dhéanamh and €50,000 for a pedestrian crossing near the playground in my village of Moycullen. Projects like the Athenry relief road will allow for the proper and sustainable development of communities.
There will also be a range of investment in public transport measures. It should never be an either-or situation. Roads funding is vital, be it for private cars, ambulances, fire engines, buses or bringing children to school. We need to maximise investment in all counties. We know the important work that local councillors do. This funding will be welcomed, but speaking as a former member of a local authority, there is never enough funding and there is always an increase in demand. We will always have to be conscious of that.
I welcome the almost €20 million that Kildare received this morning in respect of much-needed bridge rehabilitation and road works.
I wish to refer to a report that we received recently from Bainne Beatha on a breast is best policy and examining ways in which Irish breastfeeding support services could be improved. Reading the report was interesting. According to it, Irish maternity hospitals have not fully implemented the 2016-26 national maternity strategy or the HSE's 2016-21 breastfeeding action plan. A study published in The Lancetin 2016 found that Ireland had the lowest breastfeeding rate of 27 developed countries. The most recent figures, which are from 2019, showed that 57% of babies received breast milk within a day of being born but that this dropped to 43% at three months. Why is this the case? It would seem from some of the research done by Bainne Beatha that there is not enough support for mothers after they have had their babies. Many go to hospital to have their babies with the intention of breastfeeding but find that they do not get support. There are only 30 full-time equivalent lactation consultants in the public system and no dedicated lactation consultants in five maternity hospitals. In 16 counties, there are no dedicated lactation consultants working in community settings. A number of recommendations have been made. I ask the Leader to take this matter to the Minister for Health.
I call for the Minister for Education to come to the House and facilitate a debate on the arrangements being put in place for the applied leaving certificate. We have had a lot of talk about leaving certificate students, and rightly so. They deserve certainty in what is already a very nerve wracking year within the context of Covid. I have been involved in the introduction and implementation of the applied leaving certificate for groups of students who have dyslexia. I also support the applied leaving certificate in a number of DEIS schools. The whole basis of it is that it happens over two years in four half-year modules. It is about personal development, self-esteem and self-knowledge.
Some of the traditional subjects are also vocational subjects. The list of vocational subjects includes woodwork, agriculture, horticulture, childcare, health and beauty, graphics, construction and engineering. These prepare young people for their transition to the workforce where the normal traditional leaving certificate would not facilitate the opportunity to show off and gain credits for their skills and abilities. Perhaps the inadequacy of the leaving certificate does not allow this. Where is the students' opportunity to do this? Where is their opportunity to perform these tasks, get these credits and do these projects? It is not being spoken about in the media. It is not being addressed. I have written to the Minister about it. They are subsumed among all of the other leaving certificate students but there is a cohort that needs to graduate this year and calculated grades will not meet their needs. We need to have an urgent debate on this particular group of students so their needs can be addressed and prioritised.
I want to raise the issue of travel restrictions under Covid. We all know the Government has quite correctly put in place restrictions on people travelling abroad and within the country. We are told it is acceptable to travel in circumstances where that travel is for essential purposes. Again, I have no difficulty with this.
The difficulty arises in the definition of what are essential purposes for travel. I have been contacted by councillors and their constituents regarding whether a particular scenario constitutes essential travel. I have no guidance as to what essential travel means. To give an example, I was contacted by a young man who is married to a South Korean national. They are expecting their first child around St. Patrick's Day. She returned to Korea before Christmas as they have planned to have the baby there, near her family supports. He was due to travel to South Korea at the end of this month to be with her for the birth of their first child. I believe this is essential but I cannot advise him that it is because there is no central reference point for me to find out what constitutes essential travel.
I would like us to establish an authority or reference point for elected representatives or members of the public to check or verify what exactly constitutes essential travel, instead of having a situation where people have to book flights and then rely on the whim of a garda who might stop them at a checkpoint on the way to the airport. This is no reflection on gardaí because they do not have the guidance either. If we are telling people they can only travel for essential purposes we need to make it clear to people what essential purposes are. In particular circumstances that perhaps do not involve work but do involve an important personal event, such as the one I have described, we need to be able to give people certainty before they spend money, time and expense on travel plans.
I want to raise a number of issues. There has been recent notification from AIB and Bank of Ireland that they plan to charge negative interest on client accounts. This is money which people have saved and on which they have already paid tax. This includes client accounts in solicitors' practices. If my solicitor draws down a loan from the bank because I have purchased a property I immediately start paying my mortgage interest on that money but now I will also be paying between 0.5% and 0.65% interest on the money until it is transferred to the seller. This issue needs to be looked at. Transactions in solicitors' practices such as this should be exempt. We are going down a dangerous road with the banks whereby people who are saving money will be charged interest on their savings. I welcome the progress made towards a decision on the leaving certificate and the return of all children to the classroom. I am concerned that the voices of parents, particularly the parents of children in the schools of my own county, have not been heard and I have been contacted by a number of parents. At present, no post-primary school in my county is being represented by the National Parents Council that is in the talks. In fact, 85% of schools, or 612 out of 726, accounting for 340,000 parents, in either the Catholic Secondary Schools Parents Association or the ETB Schools National Parents Association are not part of the National Parents Council at present, which is a worrying situation. The ETB withdrew because of internal issues in October. The elected directors of the Catholic Secondary Schools Parents Association have been denied access to meetings and are not being informed of what has been discussed. This matter needs to be dealt with immediately.
In response to Senator Carrigy, negative interest rates are an issue that was highlighted in the House last week, I think, and the week before. To that end, I wrote to the Minister for Finance last week asking for his response to it and what plans he might have. Otherwise we need to have a debate in the House to outline the impact on those who might not even realise yet that just holding money on deposit is going to start costing money now. I know that we do not get an awful lot of payback for people who save in this country in terms of positive interest rates in our banks, but it certainly should not cost people money, especially in the examples that the Senator gave of people drawing down mortgages and holding them in solicitors' accounts for a short period.
I am very surprised to hear about the National Parents Council. What the Senator should do, if he does not mind, is write to the Minister for Education asking that every single sector of society be represented at the NPC. Equal views should be highlighted in all of our representative organisations that are around the table, none so which as detrimental as what we saw happen in the past couple of days. The only place that decisions get made is around the table. If one is not at the table, then one's views are certainly not being heard.
In response to Senator Ward, it is instrumental that we have legislation that is being implemented by the Garda, yet with no list of what is and is not essential. I think we can all bear witness to the outcry arising from a number of RTÉ reports last Thursday night and Friday about a particular dentist in a particular country. That morning, the feedback from the Garda was that it was not essential to travel, but by that evening the Garda Commissioner had to come out and say that he had no way of stopping anybody from travelling to a dentist in a sunny climate. There does need to be a list of what is and is not essential. I will write to the Taoiseach today and ask him to include that in the living with Covid plans being prepared in the next couple of weeks. We all need to have a little bit of certainty and stability, and certainly a lot of hope needs to be given in those commitments in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Seery Kearney talked about the leaving certificate applied. Last week, colleagues spoke about similar implications of Covid hampering people being able to do the practical parts of examinations. The Senator talked about a certain cohort of leaving certificate students. Senator Hoey was talking about third level students last week. There has to be some accommodation made and I do not know why it cannot be assessments of their ongoing work during the course of the year or two years. If that is not possible, then there definitely has to be some accommodation made, and I will email the Minister for Education this evening asking her to respond to the Senator directly.
Many colleagues have talked about the €555 million of annual funding that was announced by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, this morning, which is very welcome. It is welcome in every single county and town. It is what we use to maintain the roads network but also to establish new routes. Senators will have heard Senator Chambers talk at the very beginning of today's session about the impact on people's lives when we put in new routes and travelways between towns, so the funding is very welcome. I acknowledge everybody who referred to the funding allocated to their counties and constituencies.
Senator O'Loughlin talked about breastfeeding, and she has raised the issue a number of times. Breastfeeding is not easy. For some people it comes perfectly naturally but for most women it does not so they need help and support. A woman is at a low ebb, even though she is full of happy emotions after her baby is born. She is knackered and tired.There are all those self-conscious feelings and if somebody does not have support, it is easy just to give up. However, it is wonderful and fulfilling for both the mother and the child if the mother does not give up. The fact that there are 30 lactation consultants for more than 65,000 births every year tells us everything we need to know. If we do not put serious supports in place for something, is it a surprise that the Senator can cite The Lancetfigures being so low for us implementing breastfeeding as a natural course of action for women? We must put more resources behind the consultants, we need to have them in multiples in every county and we certainly do not need them to be redistributed to other tasks that are apparently far more important during the Covid pandemic. If we do not put our money where our mouth is, we will not get the outcome we want. I will support the Senator wholeheartedly in raising this with the Minister for Health.
Senator Kyne spoke about the roads funding and the impact on his town. A new pedestrian crossing might appear to be something relatively small, but it has a massive impact on the safety of children going to and from school, as does the reduction of travel speed on the roads. I note that many councils last week adopted the Love 30 Campaign to reduce speeds on the roads around schools. It is very effective. The roads funding is obviously welcome.
I accept the amendment proposed by Senator Moynihan regarding No. 11 on the Order Paper. We can take that immediately before No. 1.
Senator Boylan spoke about the need for a review of the HAP system. This is a long-standing review that must be done. It should be done annually because, obviously, the rates and markets change and rents go up and down. The associated reviews need to reflect that. I have made a request to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come to the Seanad to discuss housing, so I will add the rental sector to the list of items when he comes to the House.
Senator McGahon asked for a debate on aviation. It is in the diary for next week, hopefully. I hope to be able to give the House time not just to discuss aviation but also tourism. They are two sectors in our society that have been desperately damaged over the last 12 months and do not see any hope for the next 12 months. We have to give them reassurance that the State will continue to support them over and above the wage subsidy schemes and the PUP, which obviously will be maintained for as long as they are needed for people who are out of work. We must be able to reassure the aviation sector that there will be an aviation sector in the future, and that there will be routes to enhance not only tourism, which is a massively important industry for Ireland, but also connectivity, which has to be secured for our open economy. I hope that debate will be next Friday, but I will refer back to the House when I have a secure date.
Senator Bacik spoke about the proposed amendment to the Order of Business from Senator Moynihan, which I am happy to accept. I must have misheard Senator Moynihan when she first mentioned the catch-up for children scheme. It is a very good idea, but I heard the figure as €1 million when she first raised it, but it is, in fact, €100 million, which makes far more sense. I will make the request today for the debate and, hopefully, schedule it in the next couple of weeks, if possible. The Senator is correct that the impact of the last 12 months on children has been enormous. We can see certain impacts, and the interruption of their education is one of them. However, I believe there are far greater impacts on children which we have not yet seen. There are underlying currents in households at present because children are not outside. I hope the children are as resilient as they normally are and bounce back, but I fear we will be talking about the consequences of Covid-19 for many years to come, particularly for some of our younger children. I will arrange that debate with haste.
Senator Cummins spoke about the roads funding, particularly the €16.3 million for Waterford. More importantly, he asked for a debate on the roll-out of broadband. I can stand here with some satisfaction and say that I am happy the last Government made the decision to adopt the broadband plan. Again, I realise there were misgivings, but there is no doubt now about the value and benefit of having high-speed broadband in every home, business and school in the country and the positive impact it can have on our lives, not just because we are in the midst of a pandemic but also for the improvement of services in the future, both nationally and locally. I will arrange that debate as soon as I can.
Senator McGreehan talked about respect. We had a discussion in the House last Friday about dog poop and dogs harming sheep, and I had a little rant that got me some attention. One could hear from the emotion in the Senator's voice the impact there can be when we do not have respect. We talk about litter wardens and dog wardens, and most of us could probably say they do not have the desired impact we would like to see in our towns and villages.Fly-tipping is on the increase and the production of dog faeces is not going to stop any time soon so we need to change tack. Using the local authorities to manage both of those issues has not worked effectively to date so we may need to look at a different way of doing it. We may need to talk about levies on dog bags or privatising this and putting it up to somebody to say that they can make money on it. We have 800,000 dogs in the country yet every local authority, even some of the larger ones, has only one or two dog wardens. The numbers speak for themselves, and if we want to take an issue seriously, we need to put the resources behind it.
On the legislation with regard to harmful drinking, two of our colleagues spoke about minimum pricing. We talk about doing things when the time is ideal. Introducing minimum prices in the North and the South at the same time would be the most impactful, but given that the Northern Assembly has told us that it will be at least years, perhaps we should not wait. We should lead by example as we have done very successfully with other public health measures.
Senator Ó Donnghaile asked for the statements on the protocol on Brexit to be taken. It is in the diary. I am just waiting on a date for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to come back to me on it. It will not be next week but I would suggest that it might be the week after that. It is very much needed. The European Commission Vice-President will be before the Joint Committee on European Affairs to talk about the impact of some of the decisions that were made, ill-advised or otherwise, over the past couple of weeks.
Senator Garvey welcomed the roads funding of €555 million but also touched upon an issue that is very close to my heart. Part of the funding is to be used for signage for the safety of cyclists on the roads. I and Deputy Ciarán Cannon, following the serious and many years of successful lobbying by a gentleman in Wexford called Phil Skelton, got the then Minister, Shane Ross, to introduce regulations around 1.5 m for safe overtaking of cyclists on roads. He could not pass the legislation because, apparently, it was unenforceable, but an advertising campaign and signage was to have the same effect. However, if the signs do not exist, they cannot have any effect, so it is very welcome that the signs are being financed, as they should be in every town and county, by the end of this year.
No. 8 on the Order Paper was spoken about passionately and caringly by Senator McDowell. I have no issue with scheduling a debate in the coming weeks if he so wishes. He would have unanimous support in this House, and in any house in Ireland, for the safe return of Richard O'Halloran to his wife and three children. I cannot begin to imagine the difficulty they have gone through in recent years with him being isolated in a faraway country and his three children and his wife being left here isolated in their own county. We need to do everything we can to make sure that we get him home. I would have enormous trust in and a positive outlook with regard to the actions of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his team. It is to be hoped there will be a positive outcome before there is a need for a debate but there is no problem in the Seanad having one if that is where we find ourselves in a number of weeks.
Senator Chambers brought up the issue of the national development plan. It is closing this Friday. I am not sure that there have been as many submissions to it arising from the extension. There are only four days remaining. The national development plan has to be cognisant, as does every local county development plan all counties are going through, of the major impact that remote working, albeit forced on us in the past 12 months, has had on forming and shaping the future world of work. I would very much encourage any Member of this House who has not already done so to get his or her constituents to make a submission to that plan before this Friday.
Senator Moynihan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 11 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.
Senator Byrne has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 10 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.