Friday, 19 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Monday, 22 February 2021, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion on the Planning and Development (Exempted Development) Regulations 2021, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, motion on the Planning and Development (Exempted Development) (No. 2) Regulations 2021, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 2; No. 4, statements on the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes (resumed), to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3 p.m., with the contributions of all Senators not to exceed six minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 5, Student Nurses (Pay) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 3.15 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
I agree with the Order of Business. This morning we heard the confirmed news that Ulster Bank is to wind down its operation in the Republic of Ireland after 160 years of banking in the State. My sympathy and my heart go out to all of the 2,800 staff who work in the 88 branches and to the more than 1 million customers who bank with Ulster Bank. It is a worrying development for the banking sector in Ireland. Effectively, it means that we have a duopoly in commercial business loans. We now have a situation whereby a bank that has 15% of the mortgage market in the State and a loan book worth €20 billion is now to begin the process of winding down and selling off all of that business. There is a huge body of work on the part of the State to do what it can to protect the jobs, the staff and the customers who bank with Ulster Bank.I read reports this morning that AIB is seeking to buy what has been termed the crown jewels, the commercial loan book, from Ulster Bank, but what about those loans that are not performing at 100%? My colleague, Deputy McGuinness, raised this issue on the radio this morning. What about those loans that are on the margins? More and more people will be in that situation because of the pandemic. What are we, as a State, as a Government and as a country, going to do to protect those who have already fallen or are about to fall on hard times? We urgently need a plan for the banking sector in this country. I request that a debate with the Minister of Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on the future of the banking sector be arranged as a matter of urgency. How do we protect those customers who are at risk right now and must be feeling anxiety and pressure at home? I cannot imagine what it must feel like to sit at home and wonder whether one's mortgage is going to be sold to a vulture fund and what that might mean for one and one's family home.
It is also important that we have a conversation about how to inject more competition into the banking sector. How do we ensure fair prices for consumers and reasonable mortgage and loan rates for people? We know that ours are some of the most expensive in Europe. This requires extensive debate and consideration. We need a plan of action.
I have used most of my time to address this particular issue because it is of such importance to the country. The cracks are showing and we really need to move on this. We urgently need to hear from the Minister for Finance as to what we can do collectively, as a parliament, to protect those customers and future customers from the very fragile banking sector in this country.
I may, of course, oppose certain ideas along the way. The announcement of the proposed arrangements for the leaving certificate this year is, it is to be hoped, a move towards certainty where there has been considerable confusion and upset. I have no doubt that some of the confusion will continue and that there will be twists and turns in the road. I am concerned about the cancellation of the junior certificate. Parents have been in touch with me to say that this announcement, made in February, will have a significant demotivational effect on their children who are doing the junior certificate. One mother told me that her daughter would effectively down tools for the remaining three months of the school year. I was accused of being insensitive for using the phrase "down tools" but it is operative in this situation. Is this the right message to send to children? It raises questions. It is to be hoped that the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will look at the issue of leaving certificate reform but we need to think about the State examinations in the context of all of this. Are they the end point of a holistic and well-rounded education for our young people or have they been reduced to a box-ticking exercise and a great hurdle to be overcome if one is to access college? It seems to be viewed as a political hurdle to be overcome, with the cancellation of the examinations being the Government's response in this case. We need a debate on how our education is functioning and, in many cases, not functioning.
I also want to bring to the attention of the House a study reported on in today's edition of TheIrish Times. This study found that the wish to die among older people living in the community is often transient and is strongly linked to depression and feelings of loneliness. Apart from the challenge that poses to us to address such feelings in our society, it is also a reminder to us that is what often proposed as an argument for euthanasia or assisted dying is, in fact, indicative of other problems we need to solve. I also note that a group of UN rapporteurs issued an opinion in late January with regard to recent developments regarding laws providing for assisted suicide or euthanasia internationally.
One of those rapporteurs is a distinguished Irish academic, Mr. Gerard Quinn. The group expressed alarm at a growing trend to enact legislation enabling access to medically assisted dying based largely on having a disability or disabling condition, including in old age. The group warned that euthanasia was increasingly being availed of by poorer people and people from racial and sexual minorities. This opinion stated that these legislative provisions tend to rest on, or draw strength from, ableist assumptions about the inherent quality of life or worth of the life of a person with a disability. We have seen the negative developments in places such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada. The negative trajectory in respect of euthanasia is clear. This raises questions, not only for the Dáil which has the so-called Dying with Dignity Bill 2020 to consider or for the Oireachtas Select Committee on Justice which will also have to consider it, but for the Houses of the Oireachtas regarding how to vindicate human dignity.Facilitating access to assisted suicide or assisted dying is not the compassionate response and, increasingly, it is seen to be a counterproductive response because it sets us on a negative trajectory, which is detrimental to people's lives and happiness.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 7 be taken before No. 1. I refer to putting the Local Government (Use of CCTV in Prosecution of Offences) Bill 2021 on the Order Paper. The Bill seeks to confer a statutory footing similar to that conferred on the Garda Síochána by section 38 of the 2005 Act on the use by local authorities of CCTV in cases where the prosecution of offences is a function vested in them. I hope colleagues can support this proposal to amend the Order of Business.
Given that submissions to the public consultation of the commission on the Defence Forces will close on 5 March, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Defence to come before us to discuss a widespread and somewhat worrying state of affairs in the Defence Forces at this time. My colleague, Deputy Nash, received very worrying figures this week in reply to a parliamentary question he asked about the amount of money returned to the Exchequer from the defence budget in recent years. A total of €56 million was returned to the Exchequer between 2017 and 2020, and €130 million has been returned in the past seven years. These are astonishing figures given the recruitment and retention crisis, the lack of suitable barrack accommodation, the reduction in operational capacity and the failure to backdate increased allowances to members of the elite Army ranger wing, some of whom we understand are owed up to €40,000. PDFORRA and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, have highlighted it for years, yet significant sums of money have been returned to the Exchequer and the problems in the Defence Forces go unchecked. The time has come to examine how we allocate money to defence, including allocating money to cover salaries, training costs and military preparedness, including equipment, and to put an urgent end to the practice of returning money from the defence budget to the Exchequer. The commission is tasked with looking into the recruitment and retention problems in the Defence Forces. I respectfully ask it to begin by undertaking an urgent investigation into these figures, which are worrying to say the least.
I wish to raise the heroes of Jadotville once again in this Chamber. The Leader will remember the widespread support they got from so many Members of this House when we discussed this important event some months ago. Thankfully, in response to the debate that day, the Minister for Defence announced that an independent review board would be set up to examine this most important Irish military engagement. I record our continued thanks to all those local authorities that passed motions supporting the awarding of medals and recognising the bravery of the heroes of Jadotville. It is great to see that this important event in Irish military history and those who fought in it have such widespread support right around the country. I sincerely hope the heroes of Jadotville will get the reward their bravery and representation deserves. To quote the words of George Hamilton from another famous Irish event: "The nation holds its breath."
I also wish to bring up the issue raised by Senator Chambers on the retreat of Ulster Bank. It was a devastating morning for the 2,800 staff employed by the bank to wake up and hear that on the news. It is really interesting is that NatWest, unexpectedly, reported pre-tax profits in the UK of £64 million. We are seeing a banking system in Ireland that is at the whim of profit. Many mortgage holders, lenders and savers are in the middle of this for-profit system of banking and saving. One of the elements of the programme for Government is a commitment to enable the credit union movement to grow as a key provider of community banking in the country. More broadly, we need to have a conversation about public banking because we cannot have what Senator Chambers referred to as a "duopoly" when it comes to banking. We must look at who is benefiting from banking. The SME sector is very much dependent on the banking system.It is key to our economy, but it is also key to our communities. We have witnessed the closure of post offices throughout the country. Post offices were very much part of banking for a very long time and that has kind of been removed from the market as well. We need to have an open conversation about where to next for businesses, communities when it comes to banking.
The leaders of the G7 are meeting today. It is a momentous day because Joe Biden is back on board with the World Health Organization and the Paris accord. As such, this is a significant day for climate and for health internationally. The commitment by many governments to donate extra vaccines to those who need them around the world is very welcome. I know that issue is up for discussion today. Ireland really needs to ramp up in that regard and give that commitment.
Like several other Senators, I wish to raise the issue of Ulster Bank. It is particularly concerning that 2,400 good jobs may be lost. There may be significant implications for mortgage holders and small businesses across the State. I was not encouraged by listening to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, this morning. He seemed to be speaking in terms of a hands-off approach. I hope that will not be the case. There was a more encouraging response from the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, yesterday in terms of the need to build a third banking force in the country. A point made very eloquently this morning by Deputy Pearse Doherty is that the State has a real say in this because it is the majority owner of AIB and PTSB. As such, the Minister for Finance is in a unique position, as a result of the powers he has at his disposal, to build that third banking force. The State did not have those controls before the previous crash but it has them now and it needs to use them. To adopt a laissez-faireapproach on this issue would be disastrous for all concerned. I call for a debate on this matter.
I wish to raise the issue of Iconic Newspapers. Many Senators will be familiar with that particular brand which owns titles across the country, including the Limerick Leaderin my neck of the woods. I am very concerned that it has laid off 16 editorial staff in recent weeks and cut the weekly working hours of 20 other journalists. The key point is that was done without negotiation. All present appreciate the challenges the newspaper industry is currently facing. I certainly support calls for creative Government intervention to ensure the survival of local newspapers and independent local radio. The key point is that collective bargaining is essential in this situation. Unfortunately, Iconic Newspapers is refusing to speak to the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, which represents the staff in question. I hope that all colleagues will join me in calling on Iconic Newspapers to engage with its workforce and the union to ensure proper progress on these issues and challenges.
Of course, I would not need to make the call for collective bargaining between the NUJ and Iconic Newspapers if there was a statutory right to collective bargaining in this country. As colleagues are aware, such a right does not exist. I call for a debate on the whole issue of collective bargaining because I am concerned, as are many in the trade union movement, about the decision of the Tánaiste to write to the EU Commission to lobby for the new EU directive in respect of minimum wages and collective bargaining to be watered down such that it will not be legally binding. I note a letter sent by Mandate Trade Union to the Tánaiste earlier this week. It stated that his stance on this issue is totally unacceptable and can only be seen as an abdication of moral and political responsibility towards some of the most vulnerable workers in our society. It is not good enough to speak about collective bargaining and say workers have these rights when it has not been acknowledged that Ireland is one of the few countries that does not have a statutory right to collective bargaining. I would like to hear from all parties on this issue. For example, does Fianna Fáil go along with the view of the Tánaiste that we should water down this crucial EU directive to give rights to every worker in the country to have collective bargaining in his or her workplace?
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I highlight the demolition of Irish and EU-funded aid structures, including homes and schools, in the occupied Palestinian West Bank in recent months. In the past few weeks, Israeli authorities have once again demolished or confiscated homes in the Palestinian village of Humsa al Bqai’a in the northern Jordan Valley. When this village was demolished in November 2020, it was, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which is a fantastic organisation, the biggest single demolition since 2016. It left 11 Palestinian families homeless, including 41 children, in extremely cold weather and a pandemic. This is an unconscionable violation of international law and it is extremely hard to imagine children being left in this situation.
Since November, the Palestinian families involved have tried to rebuild their lives and homes with important and welcome EU and Irish support, mainly through the West Bank Protection Consortium and humanitarian organisations. In that time, however, Israeli authorities have simply come back and again destroyed or confiscated the structures. It has happened four times in as many months and it is greatly traumatising for the families impacted. I cannot even imagine the anguish they are going through.
In that context, I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to come into the House to answer some questions about what the Department of Foreign Affairs and the EU are doing to recover the aid money which was provided for these destroyed structures. In October, in response to a parliamentary question in the Dáil, the Minister mentioned that EU states had sought up to €625,000 in compensation. How much of that money has been recovered? Is that figure just for 2020 or to what period does it apply?
More important, what is the longer term strategy for these aid projects? It is surely not sustainable to give money to build houses and schools, see them demolished, issue statements of concern, rebuild those houses and schools and then wait for the next round of demolitions. In this case, that has happened four times in four months. It is like the definition of insanity. What is happening is devastating and traumatising and is leaving families in horrendous situations, not to mention the wasteful and recurring destruction of structures funded by Irish public moneys. In that context, I ask the Minister to come into the House and to answer some questions. Is the plan to just continue with this current strategy and, if not, what will change?
Today, I would like the House to remember that 100 years ago tomorrow the Irish Republican Army in east Cork suffered the largest loss of life of volunteers at Clonmult, some 7 miles outside of Midleton, when 12 young men - two of whom were my grand-uncles - were killed and eight were taken prisoner. The defeat was a great boost to the British at the time. The event has largely been forgotten because it did not end in victory for the republicans. It is important, however, that this House remembers these people. If the Cathaoirleach does not mind, I will read a poem written in 1922 by Isabel Burke from Cork.In Memory of the Brave Boys who fell at Clonmult
In the glory of manhood and strength they came
To fight for their cause and true,
And the patriot fire in each breast aflame
Blazed brightly for Roisín Dhú.
Stout hearts full of hope on that threshold stood
Which led to the fields of death,
For the fury of foemen around them brewed
They felt it in every breath.
But never a shadow of fear knew they
It was theirs but to do or die,
Theirs to fall in the hush of a springtide day
'Neath the blue of an Irish sky.
They are gone they're asleep in a martyr's grave
They have earned a martyr's crown,
Just one short year to-day their pure lives they gave
For love of Eire they laid them down.
But in letters of gold their names shall shine
Angels hover where oft' they've trod,
May they rest evermore in His realms divine
Those brave soldiers of Eire's sod.
It is looking like the schools might reopen in some fashion on 1 March, maybe for junior infants, senior infants and up to second class, and leaving certificate and fifth-year students. There are positive signs from the Cabinet subcommittee but nothing has been set in stone. The reopening of schools is the single most important action that we can take for students' physical movement, education and socialisation, and it will be a huge relief for a lot of parents. I am at a loss at how the same collective empathy and efforts were not there for pupils of special education. Everyone should have rowed in behind the Minister with responsibility for special education to get pupils back to school as has been done in the North and in most of the countries in western Europe. Half of all primary school children could be back at school on Monday week but ten days before that we only have 50% attendance at special schools. Special classes are due to open on Monday but many parents have not received a communication from the schools about those arrangements and there is a lot of anxiety out there. Last night, Fórsa issued a statement about a work to rule in terms of special needs assistants and caused a lot of anxiety this morning concerning the purpose of that statement. There are a lot of worried parents and I feel that the language around this has been all wrong. Where is our collective will for such a vulnerable group?
I wish to mention another issue. Consideration must be given to exempting the strict two-year rule for early childhood care and education, ECCE. I ask because pupils who have special needs, and may have had their assessment of needs as part of ECCE, have had a very disrupted two years. Some of their parents, teachers and principals of the preschools feel that these pupils should remain in ECCE for another year. They have been told that they cannot and there needs to be some reflection on that.
It is no secret that I was a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann. For a number of years I was stationed in the Western Command in Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa in Galway. I am very proud of my time in Óglaigh na hÉireann.
On Monday of this week, I was contacted about the commemoration of an IRA bomber in London. Looking at Senator Fitzpatrick and the brave men that she referred to a few moments ago, I wish to say that these people who went to London and bombed places, bombed people out of their homes in Northern Ireland, and terrorised people to hell and back do not fit into the same category as the people the Senator spoke about. To use the term Óglaigh na hÉireann for members of the Provisional IRA, or any of their trappings, to my mind is an outrage. It is an absolute insult to the fine men and women who have served this country since the State was founded, and to those who put their lives at risk in the name of peace all over the world. These cowardly so and sos who instructed or coerced that young man to take a bomb to London, these are the same so and sos who rang my mother at 3 o'clock in the morning to tell her that I would be shot, or my father.A couple of weeks ago the Cathaoirleach gave me great leeway to speak about getting past where we are now and the constant statement "They haven't gone away, you know". When they use the words "Óglaigh na hÉireann" to commemorate bombers, including online, they insult this country. I have tried my damnedest to be fair to Sinn Féin since coming into this House. There are some wonderful parliamentarians in Sinn Féin, some really talented people, but they seem to have a block when it comes to saying "What you are doing and saying is wrong". I ask that the Sinn Féin Party step out and say it is a normal political party and does not accept the trappings of commemorating bombers who killed innocent people. There is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann in this country. It is our army, our Air Corps and our navy, and I am damned proud we have them.
I also wish to raise the issue of Ulster Bank raised by some of my colleagues. It is the end of a 160-year era. We all remember the Henry the Hippo money box growing up. Today is a huge blow for the 2,800 staff. It is also hugely worrying for those customers who have non-performing loans or who may have restructured their loans recently due to being put on the pandemic unemployment payment. We therefore need to ask the Minister what we will do for these customers. Where do they land? Will their loans be taken over by vulture funds? How can we give them proper assurances that the terms and conditions that apply to their current Ulster Bank mortgages will apply in the case of whatever institution takes them over?
We also have to be very cognisant, as Deputy McGuinness has pointed out, that vulture companies are very aggressively pursuing in the courts people who are defaulting on their mortgages and, more importantly, that such companies have not turned up to the Committee of Public Accounts when invited to address issues its members have raised. I would like to see, as my colleagues have said, an urgent debate in this House on how we will protect those vulnerable customers before any decision is made.
I wish to raise a campaign by Hyperemesis Ireland that routine drugs for women suffering from severe morning sickness such as Cariban be provided on the drugs payment scheme. These drugs can cost some women up to €2,000 during their pregnancies. This affects 1% of women, and that 1% is regularly hospitalised during pregnancy. If, however, they are able to take these drugs regularly and on time, hospitalisation is generally not necessary. We are asking the Minister to put these drugs on the drugs payment scheme because this is really unfair on these women. The drugs are hugely cost-prohibitive. It is a reasonable ask.
I wish to raise the issue of beef prices and where they are going at the moment. We have seen an alarming decline in beef prices in the past three or four weeks. I had beef farmers on to me yesterday absolutely devastated that there has been a further decline in prices of 10 cent per kilo this week alone in the factories. Taking into consideration that fertiliser prices and grain prices are going up and beef prices are going down, the industry is going into crisis. We have had beef protests over recent years; we had tribunals years before that. We have never solved the question of how farmers can get a fair price for a fair product. We have a top-quality product, and that lack of fairness and traceability in the marketplace is becoming a huge issue. It is appropriate now that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine come before the House to explain his views on the food ombudsman, which is his silver bullet to ensure that the market can be shown how it will work on the ground. This ombudsperson has the ability, if properly legislated for, to become a game changer. That is the issue. If proper legislation and proper finance are put in place and a proper person put in charge to ensure he or she can drive the agenda, I believe we can have that fairness in the marketplace that we do not have now. We have spoken about this ombudsman for many years. We put money into the last budget for the ombudsman. Now we need to see the legislation come before the Houses and we need action from the Government.To be perfectly honest, if we do not get this ombudsman in place, if we do not fund the office and if we do not have the right person in charge, then we will have no beef industry. One thing is certain, namely, that the beef barons do not care about beef farmers in west County Cork. The only way we can protect them is to ensure that we put proper legislation and a proper ombudsman in place.
I wish to second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by my colleague, Senator Wall. Illegal dumping may not seem the most important issue but for those of us living in communities in counties Dublin and Kildare and right across the country, it is an enormous issue and causes a huge amount of frustration to many.
I, too, raise the issue of Ulster Bank. I express my solidarity with the 2,800 staff who still face a hugely uncertain future. The bank also has more than 1 million customers, a large number of whom have loans with it. The non-performing loan ratio in Ulster Bank was just under 10% last year. There is now huge fear and anxiety among those people about where there loans are going to go to. I wish to register my great and deep alarm at the comments made by the Minister for Finance this morning on RTÉ radio and at his rather laid-back attitude to the future of the banking sector. We heard repeatedly that this was a commercial matter but that is not good enough. We have a majority share in AIB and Permanent TSB and a minority share in Bank of Ireland. We have an onerous macroprudential system that seeks to ensure the stability of banks and the banking sector, yet we cannot bring ourselves to talk about competition in the banking sector in this country. That needs to change. I ask that it be requested that the Minister come to this House.
I reiterate my call for the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to also come to the House. I am conscious I have only a few seconds left but once again more and more stories are coming through about people falling through the cracks because they are not a rateable business. I do not understand this illogical fixation with businesses needing to be a rateable to qualify. We have the Covid restrictions support scheme and the Covid-19 business aid scheme, both of which require that businesses to be rateable. Why do we not use VAT as the identifier for businesses in trouble? Turning to the Department of Social Protection, people who are working in the arts and who were employed but failed to get pandemic unemployment payment because of their circumstances last year are continually being failed. I am asking for the Minister for Social Protection to be asked to come to the House as well.
Like other Senators, I refer to Ulster Bank and call on the State to intervene yet again. We did so ten years ago and it was the right thing to do. We must intervene again. We must do so for the customers and the workers and to ensure that there is a competitive banking sector in this country. Our previous intervention was aimed at ensuring that we had an effective banking system. We cannot allow a situation to develop where effective competition is reduced to the point where we do not have an appropriate marketplace. That will require the intervention of the State and if it is done appropriately and correctly - and quickly - then the many workers who earn an income and who depend on the bank for their livelihoods will be protected, as will customers.
The State must also, as part of addressing banking system, look at addressing our post office network. We have spoken previously about how a Grant Thornton report prepared for the postmasters identified a requirement of €17 million to protect the network as it is currently constituted. Today, in the village of Broadford, east County Claire, final notification is coming of the closure of the post office just because the postmaster has retired. This is at time when Covid-19 has restructured the way we live our lives such that people want to go back and live in rural communities. They want to telework and to work through Zoom and Microsoft Teams and other mechanisms. They want to live in their villages away from the clusters they had become used to. Why then is An Post closing post offices in places like Broadford where there is a growing community? The nearest other post office is 15 km away. There is no justification for what is happening. State intervention is required. A level of funding is needed to support a public service obligation on the part of An Post to maintain the network as it is currently constituted.We, in this House, need to address that as soon as possible.
I am most disappointed that the issue of special needs education seems to have fallen down the pecking order again in terms of priority. It is great that some classes are coming back in a week's time but no classes should be coming back ahead of those containing special needs students. Every student with special needs should be back at least at the same time as the first classes that return. We need to get the Minister for Education back into the House to get an update on exactly what is happening in that regard.
I raise the issue of Ulster Bank. The Ulster Bank network, particularly in County Clare, has been quite successful. I feel sorry for the dozens of people working in the Ulster Bank branch in Ennis and its customers in County Clare. Many of those customers live in rural parts of the county and have benefited from a mobile Ulster Bank service for many years. It has traversed the length and breadth of the county to provide banking services in areas where such services would not otherwise have been provided. We need an urgent debate on the matter. We also need Government intervention to deal with the Ulster Bank issue.
The appointment of a chairman of the board of Shannon Airport was made last Tuesday but was revoked six hours later, for good reason. I now believe that business people in the mid-west, the tourism sector and various stakeholders should have an input into the appointment of the board chairman because it is such a critical appointment for Clare, the mid-west and Shannon Airport and also for our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Aviation is the lifeblood of Clare because it generates tourism and we need to deal with that matter.
I know the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, will come before the House to discuss the mother and baby homes this afternoon. Like others, I am perplexed and disappointed that we have not made quicker progress on the issue. Where have we been on this issue for the past month? We have not made the progress that we urgently need. We have let these people down since the day they were born and we need to deal with the matter immediately.
Last weekend, the Business Postled with the Tánaiste's statement that there would be no indoor gatherings of more than 50 people until the autumn. While the GAA and weddings receive an awful lot of warranted attention in these Houses, nightlife and the night economy rarely do. That is probably because those who legislate for it, with all due respect, have little experience of that sector.
There is no specific nightclub licence or permit in law. Instead, we have a shocking special exemption order system, which is a ridiculous mechanism that costs businesses hundreds of euro every month in court and solicitor fees, and an additional tax for later opening hours. Millions of euro leave the industry to pay for bureaucracy every year.
I understand that the Government has set up a night-time economy task force which is due to report in June. I would welcome a debate in this House at the point when the Minister presents the Houses with the report from the task force. Dublin, Cork and other cities around the country need a thriving nightlife. The world can no longer be placed into a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. box and a 9 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. box. Better use of our cities and spaces is needed. We are spending more time on our screens and more people will be working from home. People need social interactions and we need a situation that is comparable to that enjoyed by our European neighbours. Dublin does not even rank among the 30 best cities in the world for quality of life. We cannot reopen nightlife on the same terms on which it closed. It needs to be reformed and we need to do that in time for its reopening.
I want to touch on the Land Development Agency Bill which came before the Houses of the Oireachtas this week.Coming from a county with such a huge population as Meath, the pressure of providing homes is something we deal with on a daily basis, whether through social housing waiting lists or private developments. I back the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, 100% in his remark that this is about delivering homes, not dogma. During the debate, several Deputies from rural areas stated that there was nothing in this Bill for rural Ireland. We are talking about trying to develop large-scale housing. By its very nature, one would not be doing that in the countryside. One Deputy from Limerick attacked the LDA as the death knell for rural Ireland. One of the current developments on the books is the Colbert Station Quarter development, which will include thousands of homes, thousands of units of student accommodation, enterprise and hotels. One would not build that in the countryside. Responsible politicians either want to develop large-scale housing or play to the gallery, but they cannot do both. We have to be honest with people.
What yesterday's debate did show is that there is clearly a growing frustration surrounding planning in rural areas, which is equally valid. People see planning policies driving urbanisation and they see it, rightly or wrongly, as being at the expense of rural areas. The national planning framework is without doubt driving a wedge down the middle of this country and creating a lot of anger. The Office of the Planning Regulator and the Minister need to take account of this and we need to reconcile it. I am a townie. I believe in creating large-scale urban areas in order to provide services and have a centralised population for transport, broadband and cultural and viable commercial enterprises. However, I equally respect people from rural areas who want to continue working and living there, and so should the planning regulator.
The backdrop to this debate in the Dáil in the previous term was that services such as post offices were being closed in rural areas. Services can only be provided where there are population bases. This exceptionally rigid approach is going to result not just in people not being able to live in the areas in which the were born, but also, ultimately, in the death of rural services because there will not be a population base to serve them. That will mean the destruction of the fabric of these areas. The Leader is well aware of the anger in places such as rural north and south Meath, where the urban influence is now restricting planning greatly. We need a debate with the Minister on both the planning framework and the legislation that has come before the Dáil in tandem with it, in order that we do not value one aspect of Irish life above the other.
In the midst of the pandemic, accurate and reliable information is vitally important, as it curbs anxiety. Such information about the pandemic should also be readily accessible and easy to understand. If that information happens to report positive progress, it also harnesses hope. Since the start of the pandemic we have gotten daily reports and the tragic statistics of the fatalities. Yet, the way the daily information in respect of vaccines is disseminated and published at the moment leaves an awful lot to be desired. We are given an overall number of six figures and the following night we are given the new figure but the number of vaccines given in the previous 24 hours is not reported, as is the case in the British media. This should not be too hard to do. It would be transparent and would not be about criticising the Government if on some days there were no additions, as was the case in the recent past. We need clear and accessible information on the number of new, increased and additional vaccines given in the previous 24 hours. Otherwise, people at home will be scampering for their pens to subtract from the previous night's figure, and that is only if they were lucky enough to be tuned in to the report of the numbers on the television. This information should be easy to follow. It will be a great injection of hope which we can harness in such challenging times. NPHET and RTÉ must give people easy to follow, transparent and accessible information on a daily basis, especially when it is such good news.
Gabhaim buíochas, a Chathaoirligh agus a Cheannaire. I welcome the statement by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, that she will extend access to rent supplement for the victims of domestic violence without a means test. The Leader will be aware that this measure was introduced last August to facilitate people who had to leave home because of domestic violence and to ensure they were not left with nowhere to go. I also acknowledge the work done by the women’s caucus on Limerick City and County Council and my colleague, Councillor Sarah Kiely, the leader of that caucus, in recognising how much more difficult the lockdown has been for women, in particular, the victims of domestic violence. It is important to acknowledge this.
I note that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is the only local authority in the country that does not have a women’s refuge. I have raised this issue with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman. We have been talking about this since I was elected to the council in 2009, when the matter was raised. It seems bizarre to me that in a large populous area like Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown we do not have a women’s refuge. There is a major lacuna in the provision of services in the area and we know from statistics given by Safe Ireland that seven families, that is, seven groups of women and children, are being turned away every day because facilities are not available. The position is obviously worse now in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area. I ask that the House agree to discuss this issue and have it brought to the fore of the debate, particularly in the context that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is the only local authority area in the country where these services are not provided. The issue is also particularly acute given that it is probably the local authority with the highest property prices and rents in the country. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed. I call for a debate on the issue.
I lend my support to the Senators who spoke about the staff and customers of Ulster Bank. A worrying situation is developing in banking. Senator Dooley mentioned the post office network. Credit unions, which are in every urban and rural area of the country, have also provided a tremendous service. They are seeking greater involvement in the banking system but have been prevented from doing this mainly by the Central Bank. That should also be taken into account.
Before I speak about turf cutting, I fully endorse the environmental programme of the Government and the just transition fund. I acknowledge that we have a world crisis with regard to the environment. Ireland cannot be left behind and must move with the world. We must make many moves and changes to improve our environment to ensure our people have a good supply of healthy water and air. In that regard, I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, come to the Seanad in the coming weeks for a discussion on solid fuels and, in particular, turf cutting. I listened to the Minister yesterday morning on “Morning Ireland” and, in fairness to him, he said that those who cut turf for domestic use do not have anything to worry about. I fully endorse the actions of the Minister and Government on extending the ban on smoky coal. I also agree with the Minister that wet timber is not a good fuel to burn. Common sense would indicate it is a bad thing. Many older people rely on turf cutting. I hope the House will have a reasonable debate on this issue. The Minister stated this was a consultation. Consultation has been taking place on issues since year dot or since Jesus was a boy. Some people are saying the consultation is a big deal. I urge people who have an opinion on this to do as the Minister and Government have asked, namely, put their opinion to paper and send it in to the consultation process. I ask that the Minister come to the House, in his own time, and have a constructive debate about this whole matter.
Séamus was an outstanding and very efficient public official, who always came back to Members when we had queries for the library. He treated every Member of both Houses in the same manner.He will be a huge loss to the library service and a huge loss to the House. I wish him well on his retirement next week.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to come to the House in regard to the technological universities Bill. What is the position in regard to the west and north-west technological university? Has an application been made yet in regard to the proposed university? The other issue is that of governance so that each area would be represented within the university, each area would have a representative on the governing body and each would play an important part in regard to the governance of the proposed technological university. This is a Bill and an area that brings education right to the regions. It is a hugely important step forward and it is very important at this point in time that we would have the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to the House.
Like other Members, I would like to express my sadness at the closing of Ulster Bank. It will be a huge loss as a banking force to the country and, not least, to the 2,800 people working in it and its thousands of customers. We have an outstanding branch in Castlebar, the county town of Mayo, and it will be a huge loss to our area. The Minister needs to come to the House for a debate on banking in this country and I look forward to that taking place in the near future.
I join with the Senator in paying tribute to Séamus Haughey after 38 years of service. He is an outstanding researcher with a wealth of information and knowledge, and he was able to get it to Members as quickly as they needed it, often under huge time constraints. He is a consummate gentleman to his fingertips.
I call the Leader to respond on the Order of Business.
I join in the good wishes. Hopefully, Séamus will have a very long, healthy and happy retirement. He has served countless generations of Members of both Houses exceptionally well.
I want to take the issue of Ulster Bank in the round because a number of Senators have raised it and I will not reply to them individually. Arising from the announcement this morning on Ulster Bank and, indeed, the devastating impact it is going to have on our banking sector, not least the impact on its customers and employees, I made a request to the Minister for Finance for an urgent debate, not just on the impact of the closures of Ulster Bank, but on the future of banking for Irish citizens and the Irish society and economy as a whole. The Minister is in Brussels on Monday and, because of his restriction requirements, he will not be able to come to us on Friday, but he will give us a date the following week. I ask for the patience of Senators. I know it is an incredibly important situation and, notwithstanding that we are going to get a lot of inquiries from employees and customers over the next couple of weeks, the week after next is the earliest that I can ask the Minister to come to the House.
In response to Senator Burke, I will certainly ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to come to talk to us and to have statements or a debate on technological universities. They are going to be a game-changer for the regions and they will take away the impetus of people, in particular young students, to go to our cities. It would be a very welcome debate.
In response to Senator Murphy, while I do not have any connection or association with anybody who cuts turf, I know how important it is to those families and to counties where people rely on it. For those people who are going to be using it for their own domestic use, it is very important, following the assurances that the Minister gave this week, that the information is very clear. We need to have a general debate on it in the round. The Minister is with us the week after next, although that is with regard to aviation, but I will ask for a debate to be scheduled around domestic turf cutting and the future of fuel and fuel usage in this country.
Senator Ward raised the very welcome announcement yesterday by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, of the initiative that we took to alleviate the normal conditions of rent supplement applications for women and their children who are fleeing dangerous situations in their home, although this shows how much it is still needed. To be honest, I think it is something that should be made permanent. It is not something that is just prevalent for those women and their children during the pandemic. I realise why we did is and I want to thank Safe Ireland for its representations and its pushing on this issue last year. It is something that exists in a woman's life when she is fleeing domestic violence at any time, not just during the pandemic, so we should probably look to make it more permanent.I do very much welcome it.
Senator Martin raised a point that is important during normal times but is absolutely important during these times. It applies not only to the information on vaccinations, which I hope will gather pace and become more clear. At a time when people are suffering or, at best, despairing or fed up, it also applies to the communication that comes from the Government, government agencies and the representative bodies that give us our information, our guidance and our tour. The quality of the information and the mediums through which it comes absolutely must be consistent and pitch perfect. One of the criticisms of the Government in recent months is probably that it has not been 100%. It certainly needs to be 100% from now on. I believe we have enjoyed social cohesion in this country over the past year because people have trust. We need to maintain that trust. The information we give to people must be clear, concise and in a medium they can accept and trust. This is very important.
Senator Cassells spoke about the Land Development Agency Bill 2021, which will be in Seanad Éireann in the coming weeks after it has gone through the Dáil. I agree with the Senator that there is a risk of trying to divide society. The national planning framework cannot be allowed to pitch rural Ireland against urban Ireland. We absolutely need to have both sectors thriving. I believe the Minister will come to the House on 22 March to talk about the national development plan. I will confirm this to the House once it has been confirmed to me.
Senator Warfield has asked for a debate on our night-time economy. I wish I felt young enough to be looking forward to a night-time economy in the future. The report is due in June. I will give a heads-up now to the Minister to set a date for us. As soon as the report is published, it will be a very worthwhile experiment for us to talk about what we look forward to when our economy reopens and the new development of having a night-time economy for those revellers who are able to go through the evening.
Senator Conway brought up a number of issues, one of which was the issue of the mother and baby homes, which continues to cause no end of hurt and despair to survivors and their children. The Minister will be in the House this afternoon for the last session. When we started talking about the report in January, I committed to continuing the debate until every Member of the House who wanted to have an opportunity to speak on the report had the opportunity. We have nine speakers this afternoon and there are six free slots. I encourage any Member who has not put his or her name down to do so for this afternoon. There are still many questions outstanding arising from the report. It is our responsibility and duty as a State to make sure we give the answers to the ladies and to their families that they so wish, and which are so badly needed, so we can start the reparations and that they are started now. There are a number of Bills before the House from different parties with regard to adoption and tracing. The Government's Bill will be published in the next few weeks. We need to come together collectively to give a resolution to the many generations of hurt and pain and not to compound it, as has happened over the past weeks, with hurt on hurt because of some of the difficulties with the commission's report.
Senator Conway also talked about Shannon Airport. I agree with the Senator. I commend the members from the counties of Tipperary and Clare, and Limerick city and county. Shannon Airport is obviously the cornerstone to the recovery of the economy in that area. It is wholly dependent on making sure we have the routes and the traffic in and out of that airport. The development body will be incredibly important to that. I acknowledge the Senator's request for that debate.
Senator Conway and others requested a debate on special education. The Minister was here some weeks ago but we have travelled a bit of a journey since then. We might request another debate going back, to make sure all of our children who have additional needs and requirements are looked after over the coming weeks.
Senator Sherlock seconded Senator Wall's amendment to the Order of Business. I am very happy to accept that amendment and to add the Bill to the Order Paper. I do not believe we should downplay illegal dumping. People may think it is a niche area but in rural Ireland in particular, and in some of our urban towns, it is an absolute scourge. We are all on Facebook and we are all part of social media groups where we can see that Irish people are driven insane by the ignorance, rudeness and callousness of some of our citizens who think nothing of dumping their own rubbish at a bin in the middle of the city, town or village where they live.It is the same for those who drive into our countryside to dump stuff in our hedges and along our roads. It is absolutely disgusting behaviour. The biggest issue facing us is that we need to tackle this through a war on litter. If we continue to tackle it in the way we have, we will still be talking about it in five or ten years' time. Our local authorities need to be given far greater resources and our fines and naming and shaming need to increase. If we do not up our game and hit people where it hurts, we will still be talking about this issue in the future. The CCTV element of the Senator's Bill will help highlight who is doing this, allowing us to make further progress, so I am happy to accept the amendment. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is due to come before us in a number of weeks but she is due to talk to us about tourism so I am not sure we can discuss the Bill. I will request a debate on that particular topic for the Senator. That is no problem.
Senator Lombard talked about beef prices. The mantra for our farmers has always been that anybody producing a good product should be given a good price for it yet we find ourselves continuously talking about beef, milk and lamb. The legislation on an ombudsman will be very welcome. I will find out when it is due before the House. If it is not relatively soon, I will ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House for a debate about his plans for the sector.
Senator Ardagh talked about Ulster Bank but also about the drugs payment scheme and the small number of women who are affected by morning sickness for lengthy periods of their pregnancy. It is a false economy not to include this medication in the drugs payment scheme because those women who cannot get the drugs end up in hospital where they probably cost the State a greater amount of money than they would have if they had the drugs. I am happy to raise the matter with the Minister.
Senator Craughwell brought to the attention of the House a matter that is very topical this week. Apart from welcoming Senator Byrne's Bill and hoping it gets full support in this House and in the other House, the only thing I can say is that I am pleased that the family's wish for the commemoration not to go ahead in their name this week has been fulfilled. I am very glad that sense has prevailed with regard to this senseless operation and that the so-called commemoration has been cancelled.
Senator Currie talked about something which put a smile on the face of every mammy and daddy in the country yesterday, the Minister for Education's announcement that schools were to reopen on 1 March. They are not just reopening because our children need their educators, who have, to be fair to them, done a super job over recent weeks where they have had the requisite technology and broadband, but because they need their friends. They need a social life, to leave their houses every single day, to get the exercise of walking to school, to have chats and all of the other things which we take for granted. I, for one, have four children at home and very much look forward to everybody getting back to school in the coming weeks.
I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for the very poignant and beautiful poem she read. There was silence in the House as we all listened to every single word. The poem commemorated the day that is in it tomorrow and paid respect to those people who lost their lives on all of our behalf.
Senator Black raised an intolerable situation which, on the face of it, appears to be lunacy. I do not have a response for her but I will contact the Minister for Foreign Affairs today to see if I can get her a written response this afternoon as to what the plans are because to continue doing the same thing over and over again seems to be the definition of madness. More importantly, what needs to be addressed is the cause and root of the need faced by our aid agencies to keep providing homes and shelter for those people who are continuously displaced. I will see what I can find out for the Senator today. We should have a debate on Palestine in the coming weeks if that can be arranged with the Minister.
Senator Gavan spoke about Iconic Newspapers and about Ulster Bank. The former issue has been raised a number of times in recent weeks by different Members, each of whom represent counties that have local newspapers owned by Iconic Newspapers. It is really sad. We all know the reasons. I know the Senator wanted to talk about collective bargaining and so on and that is something we can certainly have a debate on. That is no problem. We all know, however, that the supports that have been made available to our local newspapers, such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, the earlier temporary wage subsidy scheme and the rates holiday, are not enough because the advertising revenue that is these newspapers' bread and butter has been devastated.The State needs to step up if we value the quality of production in local towns and villages and the type of news they report, which is completely different to the type of news national newspapers report. If we value them, we need to support them. That is something we should all share and seek to debate, as I have done already. When I have a date, I will come back to the House with it.
Senator O'Reilly referred to the banking sector and the need for a debate. I will let her know as soon as I have a date. More importantly, she referred at the end of her contribution to COVAX. While we are all caught up in when our parents are going to get their vaccine and when we will move through the age groups from the over-80s to the over-70s and eventually move downwards, and that is hugely important for all of us, but we must also be mindful of the fact that there are countries that will not be able to afford to give a vaccine to any age group. It is incumbent upon on all of us to make sure that we realise our responsibility to the rest of the people who live on the planet and not just in our own country. The contribution of Dr. Michael Ryan yesterday afternoon was spectacular. We have all grown in our admiration for him over the past year. I did not even know the man existed before the pandemic. He is one of the most compassionate, educated and smart people I have ever come across. His contribution yesterday was particularly poignant. We all have a responsibility to every human on the planet and not just in our country. That is something that needs to be highlighted.
Senator Mullen was not quite berated, but somebody was perturbed when he said last week that some students might down tools. He now has the proof that a mammy is telling him that she has a fear that some of her kids might. The only thing I can say to all of our junior certificate students is that the junior certificate may have been cancelled in the format we traditionally know but all of them are going to have to do exams in their schools or relevant environments in order to get A, B, C or D grades on their papers. They will get the results in September. Anybody who downs tools is going to get a rude awakening when he or she gets a piece of paper back in September. I can only encourage all of our children to continue to do the hard work they have been doing in recent months. Some of the language in the delivery of the message could have been more fine-tuned. We need to support schools in doing those exams in the coming months.
We started today with Senator Chambers referring to the devastating news about Ulster Bank. We do need to know the future plans we have not just for the banking sector but for the economy. I genuinely look forward to us all being vaccinated and coming out the other end and enjoying what will be a new normal life, but there is the trepidation of knowing that a lot of people will be affected by the economy, and that certain sectors might not return to the extent we enjoyed prior to March 2020 and the impact that will have on them. We need to start planning to help those people to retrain and reskill and to provide a new life, not just socially in their communities but also in their work environment. That is a debate I think we should have sooner rather than later.