Friday, 26 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. a1, motion regarding the Sixth Report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 1, statements on Covid-19, transport matters, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3 p.m., with the Minister's opening remarks not to exceed ten minutes, the contributions of all Senators not to exceed six minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, statements on Covid-19, aviation matters, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to conclude at 4.30 p.m., with the Minister's opening remarks not to exceed ten minutes, the contributions of all Senators not to exceed six minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than eight minutes to reply to the debate.
I support the Order of Business as read out by the Leader. There are a number of points that I wish to raise.
The Kerry Group, as we know, is a company that prides itself on its Irish heritage, from its modest beginnings as a dairy co-operative in Kerry to how it has always stayed close to our food heritage and to its roots. The Kerry Group has also benefited significantly from project support from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment through Enterprise Ireland. We were all very excited a number of years ago when we heard the Kerry Group was coming to Millennium Park in Naas, County Kildare. At the opening of that particular facility the chief executive spoke about the tremendous support the Kerry Group had received from the Irish Government, from State agencies and from Kildare County Council, of which I was a member at that time, and that the centre would support functional and business leadership development and scalable sustainable growth right into the future.
I was absolutely shocked last week to see that 150 jobs were going to go from the group in Naas and another dozen jobs were to go in Charleville in Cork.The reason redundancy is being offered is that Kerry Group has decided to farm the jobs out to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. One of the workers impacted by the job losses contacted me to say that exactly the same jobs will be advertised and people hired over the coming weeks, that there is a schedule of transition in respect of all the existing employees sharing their knowledge and expertise and that exit dates will start on 1 October. This particular company posted profits of €800 million in 2020. This is pure corporate greed. The Seanad should call on the Minister with responsibility for business and jobs to contact Kerry Group to ensure that negotiations take place on retaining these jobs, if possible, and that no other jobs leave Ireland. What is happening is a disgrace.
I welcome the White Paper on the ending of direct provision. This is a significant development which complies with the commitment in the programme for Government on ending direct provision. Coincidentally, I submitted a Commencement matter for today, which was not chosen, on ensuring that asylum seekers and immigrants working in the health service have an opportunity to have their citizenship applications fast-tracked. To give a brief example, last week, a lady in direct provision who is a front-line healthcare worker has to get two buses to work because she cannot get a driving licence as she is in direct provision.
I am sorry I have not been in the House for the past month but I was in hospital having a couple of operations for cancer, which I think were successful.
I would like to raise first the remarkable work of Les Martin, which I have drawn to the attention of the House previously, with regard to screening for genetic disorders in children. There has been a report from the national screening advisory committee but, unfortunately, it still leaves responsibility for applying for new conditions to be included with the public and patient organisations. That is extremely lazy. The committee should be doing it. It is up to the Government to do these things. When is the report the Minister promised me due and how will legislation progress?
With regard to metachromatic leukyodystrophy, MLD, one of the conditions Les Martin did not ask to be included because no treatment was available, there now is treatment so it is a condition that can be included.
There are four considerable points to be made. First, we should be helping patients to get a final diagnosis faster. Second, we should be increasing awareness of rare diseases among healthcare professionals. Third, there should be better co-ordination of care. Fourth, we should improve access to specialist care treatment and drugs. That is particularly important because this is rare disease week, as I am sure the Leader knows. I draw her attention to a report by EURORDIS Rare Diseases Europe, of which I am sure the Minister is aware.
I raise the issue of hedge cutting during the bird nesting season. It is interesting that between 5% and 7% of the land area of the country is covered by hedgerow, which is a considerable amount. Between 2018 and 2020, at least 3,000 km of hedgerow and verges were cut by local authorities during the prohibited season, at a cost of over €1.4 million. Unfortunately, we do not have the true figure because no accurate records are kept. That is deplorable. Nearly all cases were carried out on road safety grounds. However, local authorities were unable to provide documents on road safety assessments carried out. That is extraordinary. They are giving the reason, yet there are no statistics available to support it, particularly when we take into account that in counties such as Tipperary and Donegal it turned out that less than 1% of roadside hedgerow posed a safety risk. That is an issue that needs the attention of the Government.
Last September, a Bill to introduce the right to paid sick leave in this country was introduced in the Dáil. That Labour Party Bill on sick pay came after a summer with a series of outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat plants and other workplaces across the country. It came after workers told us that, in many instances, they could not afford to be out sick without pay. It came after Patricia King of Congress, Greg Ennis of SIPTU and many across the union movement pleaded for a system of paid sick leave in this country.
Our Bill sought to give workers access to paid sick leave from the first day of falling ill and on full pay. The Government at that time decided to postpone a vote for six months. I know it takes time to get good legislation right and I know consultation was needed, but the six months is now up, March is upon us, and we have heard zero inkling from the Government as to its intentions with regard to sick pay. It is interesting that, in that time, the US Government under Trump introduced a very comprehensive system of sick pay at the end of the December yet, here in this country, we are still waiting.
In that time, between August and 20 February, 1,681 workers across food workplaces and commercial workplaces were infected with Covid-19 and there were 391 outbreaks. We do not know how many of those cases would have been prevented because of paid sick leave, but we know the Chief Medical Officer and the clinical director of the HSE have said that the lack of paid sick leave in this country is a fundamental weakness in fighting Covid-19. The Irish Cancer Society also came out last week and said we need to have sick pay, so this is not just about Covid-19 and is about the world of work beyond. I want to hear what the Government is planning with regard to sick pay because workers cannot afford to wait.
On another issue, I listened on radio this morning to the news of a new variant of Covid-19, one that was first detected in Nigeria. I am very worried about the inclination to name a variant after where it was first detected. We have enough problems with racism in this country without exacerbating it because of a poor or lazy choice of language. I want to make a special appeal to health experts, to the Government and to all of us in the House that we use the actual terms for the variants – P1, 501Y, VOC 202012/01 or B1525. It is not beyond us to use the appropriate terms as opposed to labelling a country, because we know Covid-19 travels and it does not recognise borders. I think it is regrettable that, by calling it after the country where it is first detected, we are almost seeking to assign blame to those countries where the variant arose.
I wish Senator Norris all the best. It is great to hear that the operations he has gone through over the past month have been successful. I wish him a speedy recovery.
I agree with Senator Sherlock that it is important that we use proper names when talking about variants. We all know what they are and we do not want to label people, so that is important.
What I want to talk about predominantly is the White Paper announced today on direct provision. This is an historic day for us and we should all mention this. We have had a little over 21 years of a system that is inhumane, and we all know that at this stage as it has been called out so many times. We are now, finally, putting in place a plan, and there has to be a plan to see how we are going to achieve that. It is really progressive and is something I know the Government is fully behind, but I hope it is something all of the Opposition are also behind.
The Green Party is well known for its environmental stances. What people do not realise is that all around the world, particularly in Europe, Green parties call out human rights abuses and work to actually make the change. That is why we went into government and we fundamentally would not have gone into government unless this was in the programme for Government.It was a red line issue for us. We must see an end to direct provision within the lifetime of this Government. We all recognise we have waited for it for too long.
In my constituency in Galway, people will know people whose children cannot visit other children in their homes because they live in a centre. Children cannot bring friends to what are supposed to be homes. They are not homes but are for-profit facilities which are inhumane. There have been occasions when people have spoken up about this. It is very difficult for people who live in a for-profit system to speak up against the system. They have described the food being given to them as being the very cheapest kind. Changes have been made in that regard but we need to ensure there is an end to direct provision, that we provide state-of-the-art not-for-profit new builds and that people remain there for no longer than four months before moving on to own-door accommodation. That is what is in this White Paper. I refer to vulnerability assessments and ask whether more things need to be put in place for people who are often fleeing very dangerous situations. Most people in direct provision are women but there is also a large number of children. Particular supports need to be put in place for these individuals. I welcome the White Paper. By working together we can achieve something which we have been calling for for many years.
I echo the words of others by acknowledging Senator Norris's return to the House and wish him well in his recuperation.
I commend the family of Margaret Keane in Coventry, England. Members may have read about the case on social media. Margaret's family had to lodge an appeal following a decision by the Consistory Court of Coventry, which initially refused an Irish-only inscription - in ár gcroíthe go deo which means in our hearts forever - on Margaret's headstone. The Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry said that it could be interpreted as a political slogan. If one can read, understand and speak the Irish language, one will know very clearly that in ár gcroíthe go deo is not a political statement. That ruling says to me that if one does not speak, read or understand the Irish language, then one just assumes something is a political statement because it is written in Irish. This says quite a bit about the thinking many Gaeilgeoirí have faced and, in some instances, continue to face. I am glad to say that following the appeal, Margaret's family were successful and will get to have an Irish-only inscription on their mother's headstone. Margaret was steeped in the Irish language and culture and in Cumann Lúthchleas Gael in Britain. As is obvious, it means a tremendous amount to her family that this has been allowed. I wanted to take the opportunity to say comhghairdeas leo, agus maith siad as an seasamh a ghlac siad. Déarfainn go mbeadh a máthair iontach bródúil as.
I want to touch on the Sinn Féin motion, which was passed by the Assembly earlier this week. This motion acknowledged the importance of North-South and east-west trade to the economy in the North. It supported the protections afforded to all of us by the protocol. It called on the Executive to develop an overarching economic strategy involving all key stakeholders that will layout a clear vision to government and non-government agencies with economic responsibilities, so that we can help develop the supply chains across Ireland to the benefit to all our people. That was a positive and welcome piece of work.
It would be right and appropriate if we were to replicate such a motion in this House that acknowledged the protections of the protocol and that worked with economic and business agencies in this State to encourage and layout a vision for them to develop their supply chains and an overarching economic strategy that maximises and implements the protections afforded by the very hard-negotiated and hard-won protocol. That is something I want to flag with the Leader and colleagues. I intend to table a motion in the Seanad.I will engage with colleagues and I hope it is something they can support.
I am delighted to see Senator Norris in the Chamber and back to full health.
I also welcome the White Paper on ending direct provision. I visited some direct provision centres in my role as member of the justice and equality committee in the last Oireachtas. What I saw was horrendous and shocking. I have no doubt the residents are celebrating today. Hopefully, it will happen for them soon.
I draw attention to the worrying figures released by the Central Statistics Office which show that nearly three quarters of those aged between 18 and 34 years old reported their mental health had significantly suffered during the pandemic. Women were more likely to report their mental health and well-being had been negatively affected. More than six in ten women said their mental health was impacted. Behind these figures lie the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to deal with the impact and pressure of the changes forced on them by the pandemic and lockdown.
I have seen a 50% rise in people with a loved one in addiction seeking support from the Rise Foundation. Many people living with a loved one in addiction are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress. They are coping with being cocooned with a family member without any social outlet and unable to access outside supports.
There is widespread concern about the impact of Covid-19 and associated restrictions on mental health. Evidence shows that the combined effect of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions is that approximately one in five people in Ireland has significantly increased anxiety and depression.
The stress and anxiety associated with lack of job security and loss of social interaction can lead to an increase in demand for mental health services. As the Leader is aware, I have seen the impact and devastation it has caused in the music industry because people feel that not only their income is gone but also their identity. What role do they have now?
There has been an increased in rates of domestic violence during the pandemic and there have been altered patterns of alcohol and substance misuse. The full extent of these issues will manifest itself in the coming years and put an enormous strain on our mental health services. It is worrying that rates of significant psychological distress among healthcare workers are approximately double those in the general population. It is essential that healthcare staff can take leave and receive support from employers where necessary psychological support is needed.
The Covid-19 infection itself affects mental health and body immediately. I ask the Minister to ensure that all healthcare workers receive whatever support they need to protect their mental health. Our healthcare workers are absolutely vital at this time.
I also welcome the White Paper. In 2014, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon said that anyone forced to live in a system that denied them the right to work or study and determined almost every aspect of their life without any indication as to when their circumstances might change would go mad. Some of them said to him that they would prefer to go to jail because they would have a definite sentence and would know when they were getting out.
Many of us have been championing this cause for a long time. One of the first motions I put my name to in Dublin City Council in 2014 was to end direct provision. The campaign to end it has been going on for a long time. Today is a cause for celebration. We hope the Government implements this report because we have seen many reports. There seems to be huge political will behind it. I hope we will go ahead with this.
I am aware and welcome that the Taoiseach said he would contact our former President, Ms Mary Robinson, about her trip to Dubai and proof of life mission in respect of Princess Latifa. Serious human rights implications have been highlighted in the media in the last few weeks.I ask the Leader to get an update on how the conversation between the Taoiseach and Ms Mary Robinson went. It was very peculiar that when Ms Robinson came back from the mission, she stated that this young girl had difficulties with her mental health, without having any medical knowledge or without having spoken to a doctor. It is something we need to highlight.
We are all very proud of Ms Robinson. When I was a child, I really looked up to her. I was eight years old when she was elected President of Ireland. I felt a little bit let down but I hope we will get some clarification as to what exactly went on.
I also welcome Senator Norris back to the House.
Cumann Lúthchleas Gael begins its annual convention today. I congratulate and wish the new uachtarán tofa, the incoming president, Mr. Larry McCarthy, every success. He is the first overseas president of the GAA, although he is not from overseas. He is from my club in Bishopstown in Cork and on behalf of the club, I congratulate him. I hope Seanad Éireann will congratulate him on his elevation to the role as uachtarán Cumann Lúthchleas Gael and I wish him, Barbara, Conor and Shane every success in the three years ahead.
The GAA is the lifeblood of many communities. I ask for a debate with the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Jack Chambers, on the role of sport and the role of an Cumann Lúthchleas Gael in our urban and rural communities, in particular around the restoration of elite status to inter-county players. The GAA player strives for excellence, individually and collectively as part of a team. We need to be realistic about the importance of sport and in particular Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, GAA, in many of our communities.
Senator Black referred to mental health. Young people are standing or sitting in rooms, looking at screens all day. It makes no sense that young people are unable to train in pods in their clubs, without a game being played. Mental health is linked to sport. Participation in sport, particularly outdoor sport, has benefits for mental health, physical health and well-being.
However, today is a very proud day for my club in Bishopstown and I wish Mr. Larry McCarthy every success.
The last 12 months have been very tough for charities, particularly charities that normally fundraise outdoors or at events. They have been badly hit. One thinks, for example, of the Irish Cancer Society's annual daffodil day appeal which is coming up next month. It is likely to be greatly affected. We need to do all we can to support charities and promote charitable giving at this time.
At the same time, however, we need to make sure we do not forget the lessons learned in recent years about problems in charities relating to governance, accounting practices and excessively high salaries being paid. I am thinking in particular about recent comments by the Charities Regulator, Ms Helen Martin, on a Bar Council webinar, where she warned that too many charities are rushing to appoint highly-paid CEOs before they have engaged in any proper fundraising at all. There was a case of a charity that wanted to appoint a CEO at €150,000 without any money yet raised by it. Often in these cases the CEO is the only full-time employee. Groups seem to think about employing highly paid staff before they have even mapped out their governance or focus. Ms Martin said an amendment to the legislation was needed to require full disclosure of salaries in accounts. I was surprised to hear such provision did not exist in law. Maybe I should have known that.There was coverage recently of an advocacy group which received more than €300,000 from the HSE in 2019, despite the fact it had failed to produce audited accounts for that year. In excess of €200,000 has been committed to that group for 2021 and still no accounts have been provided for 2019. How is this acceptable? Where is the accountability for taxpayers' money? One reason we give money to voluntary and charitable groups is so they can put the proper accounting practices in place. We need a debate on this sector with the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Rural and Community Development and we need to look at changes to the law to provide for two things: transparency around salaries in this sector and proper accounting compliance as a condition of getting State funding.
Tomorrow we have a truly historic event taking place in the sporting and cultural history of this country. For the first time in 137 years of the GAA, an overseas candidate will become president with the elevation of Larry McCarthy from New York. It will be a unique day in many respects. First, like everything in this country, the GAA congress, which convened this morning, is taking place remotely. The conference room in the Hogan Stand will not have the usual hustle and bustle of delegates from all over Ireland, London and New York. It will be an extra special day for president-elect Larry McCarthy and all the membership of the GAA because his election shows how the diaspora of Ireland is being represented in the highest office in the premier sporting organisation of this country. He will give voice to many millions of Irish living not just in America but across the globe and many people will take great joy and solace from this tomorrow.
I have spoken about the GAA on many occasions in this Chamber because it represents far more than just a sporting organisation. It has a rich cultural programme that promotes Irish culture through its Scór programme. The museum at Croke Park has a team that works closely on the history of this country, as evidenced by their new exhibition detailing and remembering Bloody Sunday and the events of November 1920.
In Larry McCarthy, the association has a president who will speak for Irish people not just here but across the globe where GAA is played, from Navan to Dubai. His personal experience as an emigrant will give new voice to those abroad. Accordingly, I propose that this House extend an invitation to the new president to address the Chamber as the first overseas president of the GAA so those experiences and, most important, the plans for how he intends linking our extensive diaspora will be expressed by the new president. I do so in accordance with section 57 of the Standing Orders and will seek a recommendation of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight and the leave of this House that a person from public and civic life may be heard in the Seanad. Larry McCarthy sold programmes as a boy at county championship matches in the old Athletic Grounds, or Páirc Uí Chaoimh as we know it now, and now stands set to become president of the largest sporting organisation in Ireland. As a proud member of the GAA, I wish him well.
I welcome the announcement made on Wednesday by the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, in relation to the further extension of driver licences, due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. The Minister will be in the Chamber later but I am not down to speak on that so I thought it was important to put information into the public domain on this very important topic. My office has been inundated, as I am sure have other offices across the country, with people whose licences are nearing expiry or have expired over recent months. I do not think we can underestimate the importance of this issue because for many people, particularly elderly people in rural or isolated areas, their car and their driving licence are so important. At the same time, they did not want to put their health at risk by attending a national driver licence centre. The extension is hugely welcome.
For clarity, anyone who receives a licence extension will not be sent a new licence. Rather, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, which manages the national driver licence system, will automatically update driver records to show the new expiry date and a letter will be sent to every customer who is entitled to the extension. Importantly, An Garda Síochána and Insurance Ireland have also been informed of the changes.Any licenceholder who has not already renewed or whose licence expired between 1 March 2020 and 31 May 2020 will have a new expiry date of 1 July 2021. Similarly, any licenceholder who has not already renewed and whose licence expired between 1 June 2020 and 31 August 2020 will have 13 months added to his or her licence. Any licenceholder who has not already renewed and whose licence expiry date is between 1 September and 30 June will have an extra ten months added to his or her licence. I thank the Minister of State. This is an important issue and I am glad it has finally been clarified.
I welcome Senator Norris back to the House. It is great to see that he is doing well. I wore a suit that matches his for the special occasion.
I want to be associated with my Labour Party colleague's comments on the naming of viruses. It is important that we think about the words we use. We noted how a former President of the United States used the naming of the virus as a quite racist weapon towards the end of his tenure.
On direct provision, the announcement today was very welcome. I have friends in Mosney who have been there for over a decade, and I am sure they hope there is light at the end of the tunnel. I hope we will truly see an end to direct provision and the institutionalisation that comes with it. The hope is that asylum seekers will no longer be ghettoised and instead be welcomed into the heart of our communities. The plan to dismantle direct provision presents an opportunity that we must not miss.
I want to mention the issue of Gaeltacht fees for students. Students in Hibernia College are having an issue with being charged a Gaeltacht fee of €650 for a mandatory two-week course online. The original fee was €750. Calls have been made to both the Minister for Education and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to intervene to determine whether there is a solution because the students will be State employees when they receive their qualifications. I request that the Minister step in.
I attended a really good session yesterday with Travellers who ran in local elections. They outlined the experience of Travellers running for election. We talk a lot about representation at national and local levels but we need not only to pay lip service but also to determine what we are going to do to ensure more diversity in representation. I ask the Leader for a debate on that issue.
The question I am raising is on the role of State bodies in sustaining the tourism product but also on providing services to the wider society. There is an ongoing review of the National Parks & Wildlife Service, NPWS, and its remit. My question also covers the remit of the likes of the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the National Monuments Service. At the core of the remit of all the agencies is protection. We all know now that they have to perform a role that must cover more than protection. It must include promotion of their products. In the past year, open space and the open landscape have been vital to the mental health of us all. It is not just about tourism but also about us as a society. The review of the NPWS is in the context of ambition for the protection, conservation and restoration of biodiversity in Ireland. I fully welcome that, but we must also consider how we act within that landscape and develop the product as a tourism product and as a product for us as a society. I have spoken to the Minister about this and he agrees we need to expand our approach a little.
The tourism industry is completely shut down so now is the opportune moment for the OPW to consider its remit. Its remit is solely about protection. Many of us who have dealt with the OPW over the years could say it is a bit hard to deal with when trying to get it to move forward in its way of thinking. That is because its role is solely based on protection. What we need to move to now is both the protection and promotion of the vital assets that State bodies hold for us, using them collectively in a more sustainable manner for both biodiversity and for us, as a society.
I add my words to those of Senator Pauline O'Reilly and others in welcoming the publication of the White Paper on direct provision this morning. It is important to highlight that this was a Government commitment but it is also important to recognise and acknowledge the role the Green Party played in this when joining government. I hope the provisions will be implemented by 2024.
I wish to refer to a different White Paper. We had extremely bad weather in Tipperary earlier this week and we had road closures and water outages. Almost any time we have a mist in Clonmel or Tipperary, we have a water outage. At the same time we had all these problems, the White Paper on Irish Water was brought before Cabinet. I ask the Leader if it is possible to bring the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in to discuss the White Paper in detail. I ask that because it is important when local authorities are putting local development plans together that we align the priorities of local authorities with the priorities of Irish Water. That is not happening at the moment. If we need to think about regional investment going forward, then we need to have those two things aligned. Serious concerns are raised in the White Paper, and certainly in terms of staffing issues. Some of the measures seem to be fairly optimistic in terms of having an 18-month implementation period. A reasonable phased transition should be considered as part of it.
One of the striking things about the White Paper is governance and accountability. From my reading of it, there seems to be very little accountability in terms of the interaction between local authorities and elected representatives, whether local or national, to follow up on items on behalf of the public. When we are looking at an organisation that is going to be 80% funded by the Exchequer, then to have no accountability to public representatives who represent the public is of serious concern. I would like the Minister to come in here and outline his vision for Irish Water.
I raise the issue of workers in Rehab Enterprises in Raheen, 37 of whom have been told they are going to be made redundant shortly. This is truly concerning because these particular workers suffer from a range of disabilities. Some have visual impairments, some have learning difficulties and some have Down's syndrome. These people have given decades of service to Rehab Enterprises in Limerick. One can imagine the huge blow it is to them to find that their jobs are going but to also find that the long-established and agreed redundancy terms, agreed with their union, SIPTU, which would have at least ensured some degree of financial security, appears to have been tossed aside by Rehab. Rehab has unilaterally decided to cap redundancy at just one year for these workers even though one of these workers has worked there for 40 years and many of them have worked there for decades. There is something truly appalling about this matter. We all know we are going through a difficult time financially, and we know Rehab is also going through a difficult time, but the fact it is going to turn its back on these vulnerable workers who are really going to be challenged to find work anywhere else in the middle of a pandemic is truly shocking.
The fact Rehab will not engage with the Workplace Relations Commission is unforgivable. I am under the impression that Rehab's stance is to say nothing around this, let the 30-day consultation period pass and then just pay off these workers but cap it at a year's earnings. The difference the cap will make to these workers could be as much as €40,000 in redundancy payments. We are talking about vulnerable workers losing their jobs, which will have a huge impact on them, and them being literally short changed by Rehab. That is the only way I can describe it.
I ask the Leader to write to Rehab on behalf of all of us, asking it to engage with the Workplace Relations Commission. All of us should agree that this is the process Rehab should follow. There is an urgency here because these workers are going to run out of time by the middle of March, so we should do all we can to support them and their right to a decent redundancy package.
I welcome the White Paper released by the Government outlining a plan to end the temporary arrangements which were put in place as an emergency response by way of direct provision. I also welcome the commitment to State-provided and NGO-supported accommodation for those seeking asylum in our country. Those seeking asylum will be staying temporarily in this accommodation. Wrap-around services will be provided to them in order that they can actually get on with their lives, integrate, assimilate, take up employment and pursue studies in education.
This is welcome news and a real sign of commitment from the three parties in government to actually deliver on that promise we all made. Will the Leader take up with the Minister for Justice, however, the backlog that exists for those who are seeking asylum and permission to remain? It is vitally important that the time is used now to clear that backlog.
I congratulate the director and board members of the Hugh Lane Gallery and all those who have been involved in brokering an agreement for the bringing home and sharing of the Hugh Lane bequest. This is a saga that has gone on since 1915. Hugh Lane was a young boy from Cork with very limited education who went to the UK. From a young age, he educated himself in the arts and became one of the first directors of our National Gallery. Most visionary and altruistic of him was his commitment to open a modern art gallery in Dublin for the people of Dublin. I was delighted that, ultimately, after a very long saga, they did locate it on Dublin's north side, despite fierce opposition from conservative forces who felt that it would keep workers away from their work and queried why they would want to be distracted by art. I can say to all of the workers in Dublin that once the pandemic is over, I invite them all to come to the north side and Parnell Square to enjoy the beautiful Hugh Lane bequest and the works of Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas. They will be there for everybody to see for free on the north side. Please put it in your diaries.
I welcome a recent announcement made of a new bus route in west Clare down along the Shannon Estuary which will go through Labasheeda, Kildysart, Ballynacally and other beautiful places that people rarely even hear about. It is a whole new opening for that part of the county.
There was much consultation about rural transport and Local Link up to last March with local authorities, local community groups and individuals. To that end, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, listened and took action. As a result, we have Local Link services all over the Twenty-six Counties, including rural Dublin, that offer two services. The first is door-to-door which is a responsive service for people who have disabilities or cannot drive. They can ring to get the bus to come their house. The second is a regular daily service.
This will monumentally change people's lives in rural areas who have been stuck in their homes with no public transport or relying on neighbours or their parents to give them lifts all the time. As somebody who lives in the countryside, having to drive my son around for years while forcing him to go out cycling for short distances, for long distances this is phenomenal.
The costs of the service are affordable with an adult fare at €3 and a student fare at €2. This will enable people who have disabilities, older people who live alone, or people who want to be independent. Often it is good for teenagers to be independent of their parents instead of relying on them. This is good for rural Ireland mentally, physically, socially and environmentally. It is really important that we have a Minister who values the importance of rural transport. It might not have the footfall we have in urban areas but he recognises the importance of it at the same time.
It was great to see this morning's news on the White Paper on direct provision. I congratulate those I know who have been working with asylum seekers for many years. They were themselves asylum seekers who, after they got asylum, turned back to work with NGOs and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI. We had a great group in Miltown Malbay where we had a direct provision centre. I really look forward to this White Paper on direct provision being the beginning of the end of the system, as was promised in the programme for Government.
Over the last number of weeks, the Houses have discussed the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters at length. Pressure on time and speaking slots has made it impossible for me to contribute. However, I want to take a few minutes today to put my views on the matter on the record.
Unfortunately, the report of the commission was attacked by people who had not read it. They actually admitted that they had not read it. They claimed that it said there was no evidence of forced adoption. In fact, anyone who had actually read the report would know that the report made it clear that the mothers in most of those homes had absolutely no choice in reality. It made a distinction between what is legally termed forced adoption, and what might generally be understood by that term, nowadays, in other words, that people were coerced by circumstance, pressures - religious, moral, family, economic - and so on. I find the language of the report to be immensely careful.
The second point I wish to make is that it is an immensely valuable piece of work. Members of this House should pay tribute to it. People should read it - all 3,000 pages of it. I have not read all 3,000 pages, but I have read about 1,200 pages of it. It is an immensely valuable piece of work. I want to pay tribute to the commission for its work.
The last point I wish to make is that the terms of reference of the commission of investigation set up a confidential committee. People have misunderstood the purpose of that committee and have thought that it was to create a permanent archive of individual people's experiences. There is nothing to stop such a permanent archive being created now. Time did not permit it before, but I want to express my view that I am immensely grateful to the members of the commission of investigation for all of the hard work that they did.
The issue I wish to raise today is one that I have spoken about in recent months and it concerns urban regeneration funding. I raise the issue because I would appreciate it, were the Leader to convey to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the urgency of the need to make a decision on urban regeneration projects around the country. I will use the examples of Bridge Street and Linenhall Street in Dundalk to illustrate why it is so important to at least have the outcome of the decision made known to the local authority and to people in Dundalk.
Louth County Council submitted substantial further evidence and information in April 2020 on why this particular project is so important for the north end of Dundalk town. It is nearly one year into that process and there has been no response from the Minister yet. It is important for the council to get a response because it needs to know whether it has been successful. It not, Louth County Council will need to look at where the project went wrong in order that it can make the necessary additions to make it successful when the urban regeneration fund opens up again in the future.
I am raising this issue to ask the Leader of the House to convey to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the urgency of a decision being made at least in order that the council can determine where it will go from there. The council has been waiting around for too long now. I fully accept and understand that Covid-19 restrictions have slowed the process down but I would appreciate it if the Leader could convey the urgency to the Minister. The decision needs to be made to let the council know whether it has been successful. The situation does not just apply to my own town. It is the same for many other provincial towns around the country that are awaiting this announcement.
A number of colleagues raised the same issues, so if I respond to one Member, I ask Members to assume that I am responding to all who raised the same issues.
Senator McGahon raised the issue of urban regeneration funding. Both this Government and the previous Government have made it an important stay of their commitments to funding projects, both rural and urban, in Ireland. We know there was literally a lost generation of investment in this country because of the difficulties we faced arising from the financial crash in 2008. It is most important that we continue to invest. I will write to the Minister today to ask him about this issue. I will do so notwithstanding that many public and private sector workers are working from home and there are slight delays in the provision of services but I will certainly write to him today. I am pleased that Senator McDowell made his comments on the mother and baby homes commission's report in the House today. In case people would get a different impression, I should say that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, came to the House for three separate sessions. When we decided to have statements on the mother and baby homes at the beginning of this year, I said that he would do so, and he gave a commitment that he would continue to return to the House until every Member who wished to speak on the mother and baby homes got the opportunity to do so. I am glad the Senator had that opportunity today. I take his views on board, and he is entitled to them. I must say, however, that the most important contributions on, and criticisms of, the report were those made by the women and their children who contributed to the report, not just those of politicians and commentators. Their criticisms of the report were well-founded. Their opinion that the language in the executive summary was deeply hurtful also must stand, alongside the Senator's compliments today.
Senator Garvey spoke about new bus routes in Clare. As somebody who lives in a bordering county that has enjoyed local links for many years, I am delighted that every county has them. It makes an enormous difference for both our younger and older communities. I am glad the Senator put the new routes in Clare, and the welcome for them, on the record today.
The White Paper on direct provision was released this morning and a number of Members spoke about it. Some of them have been speaking about this matter for many years. This is a real Irish trait, where we are still talking about something that was introduced 21 years ago as a temporary measure. However, we are talking about it today because we have a very progressive and ambitious White Paper. Again, I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. He has had a tough couple of months, but I know how committed he and the Government are, as are all of us, to ensuring that this ambitious White Paper becomes a reality, not just for the new Irish but also for the people who have been living for far too long without a resolution to their applications. Please God, it will not take too long for it to become a reality.
Senator Fitzpatrick also mentioned the backlog with the Minister for Justice. I will raise it with her. That is no problem. She spoke very eloquently about Hugh Lane. It is great that we will have his bequest back in Ireland.
In response to Senator Gavan, I will write to the chief executive officer of the Rehab Group today. Senator Mullen raised some concerns about the Charities Regulator. There should be a stipulation that any body that receives State aid under sections 38 and 39, as the Rehab Group does, should not be allowed to walk away from the State agencies that are responsible for protecting the rights of workers in such bodies. I will write that letter today and send copies to all Members.
Senator Ahearn spoke about road closures and water outages in Tipperary arising from the weather difficulties over the past couple of weeks. What is important is the White Paper that was released regarding Irish Water. Again, we cannot make the mistakes that were made in the past and assume that something that is good for one organisation will naturally be good for another. The local authorities and Irish Water have to work side by side. The staff members are the same. They might move from one organisation to the other, but they still provide the vital services we need in rural and urban Ireland. I will ask for a debate on that with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in the coming weeks.
Senator Casey raised the promotion of all the natural assets in this country and the organisations and State agencies that have responsibility for them. He is correct. We have come through a very difficult 12 months and there are probably a number of months to go. The agencies need to change tack in the way they have always done business and recognise that we must reboot certain sectors of the economy that have crumbled in the past year. I will convey the Senator's thoughts and concerns to the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works in the coming days.
Senator Hoey and other Senators spoke about the naming of viruses. It is an awful shame that we must even have a conversation about racism when discussing a virus that has wiped the floor with every country in the world, without discrimination. It still comes down to the fact that people use it as a weapon to diminish and demean nations. It is a shame. The Senator is correct, and other Members mentioned it, that they all have specific and very long names. It is lazy of both the media and commentators to call it by the name of the country where it first arose.We must be mindful not to allow people to weaponise or allow certain sections of society to weaponise something that is causing us so much trouble and issues and allow them to use it for their own purposes. I take on board the Senator's comments completely and her welcome for the announcement on direct provision.
The announcement of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, on extending the licences is very welcome but I reiterate that we are still a number of months away from normal life resuming and business returning to normal. We have to find a way for State agencies and the Government to be able to continue to provide essential services, even in the emergency we are in. The extension is very welcome.
With regard to the suggestion by Senator Cassells, I am relatively new to the Seanad so I do not think I have ever seen anybody come in from outside and make a presentation. It would be wonderful and it is certainly something that should be raised with the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight. For what it is worth, and Senator Buttimer raised this also, it is an enormous achievement for Larry McCarthy, who hails from New York and is originally from Cork, to be in this very important position, particularly at a time of such difficulty for the GAA. We have seen the announcement of its figures, as we will probably see from lots of organisations and businesses in the coming weeks. It has had a really tough year. To be fair to Johnny Horan, he has done an incredible job and as really transformed the organisation in recent years. I congratulate him and wish him well in his future career. As we all know, he is a teacher and a very good one. I wish Larry McCarthy the best for the coming three years and I will extend the invitation through the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight.
Senator Mullen spoke about the difficulty for charities over the past year and he is correct. In some instances, giving has increased enormously for some organisations but for most of them it has not. We have stopped giving to the man on the street or the person selling lines. An awful lot of local fundraising has been hampered because of the lockdown. It is important for us to be mindful of the charities we care about when we consider giving. This does not allow any section 38 or section 39 body not to be able to return financial books to the HSE. Any body that receives State funding to provide a service on behalf of the State or in conjunction with the State absolutely has responsibilities not just to the Charities Regulator but to the agency that gives it the money. It is up to these agencies to make sure ensure full governance. I know the HSE is particularly good at this so it is a bit funny that there is an organisation that has received money two years in a row without returning accounts. I have to assume the HSE is on top of it but I might just send it a little note to get the information, if Senator will give me the details of the charity later.
Senator Ardagh asked about Princess Latifa. I will certainly ask the Taoiseach's office for a response on his conversation. To be fair to the wonderful Mary Robinson, she did admit last week that she had been duped, as can happen the Pope. She is one of the most incredible international ambassadors we have in Ireland for all of the things she represents. I will come back to the Senator with a response from the Office of the Taoiseach once I get it.
Senator Black spoke about the impact on mental health and the report issued this week. What struck me the most about the report was that the biggest issue reported by people between the ages of 18 and 25 was loneliness. I have two adult teenagers aged 20 and 19 at home and they do not leave the house so they must be lonely. For years I have been giving out about Snapchat and Facebook and the fact they spend their lives on them but they have probably been a lifeline for them in recent months because otherwise they would not have interaction with their friends. When we come out of this lockdown, the fallout from the restrictions on every section and age in society is something we will have to deal with and be very mindful of and reactive to. The report is probably a step in the sand this week to tell us this is what we are dealing with and that there is more to come down the line. I very much welcome the intervention of Senator Black.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the issue of Margaret Keane's gravestone and I am pleased that her family have finally, after what was such a senseless disagreement, got their wishes and will be able to remember their loved one. I have to tell the Senator it is probably indicative of how many people in the UK see Ireland, which is a huge pity. It goes to show us that we have an awful long way to go to try to become friends again. The past couple of years in particular have been acrimonious and have probably raised nationalist feelings in both jurisdictions so we have a bit of work to do there. I will welcome the Senator's motion on Northern Ireland with regard to the economy and the joint agreements on the protocol and how we can benefit.I saw a report during the week indicating a huge increase in online trade from the Republic into Northern Ireland. Many of our young people now seem to be buying from Northern Ireland outlets as opposed to UK or English outlets, and that is very welcome. It is one positive from a bit of negativity this week.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly raised the very welcome announcement on behalf of the Government by a Green Party Minister of the White Paper on direct provision. She is right and we need to acknowledge this. It should not be, and is not, something unique to the Green Party. Social justice matters should be important to every one of us as individuals, citizens and politicians. This is a line in the sand again to say that we as politicians and as a nation have decided to do something right for the people who come to our shores seeking our help and that we are going to treat them the way we expect our people to be treated.
Senator Sherlock spoke about the commitment in the programme for Government to introduce the right to sick pay for everybody in this country, rather than just having the sick pay entitlements that currently exist under the social welfare legislation. I am aware the Tánaiste is working on legislation and will bring proposals to the Dáil in the next couple of months. I very much look forward to seeing them. The Senator also mentioned the variants of the virus.
I acknowledge the very welcome presence of Senator Norris this morning. He looks great, notwithstanding the difficult months and times he has had in the past. On behalf of all of us, we wish him a speedy recovery. We want to see him in here every day that we sit, please God. We wish him well.
Senator O'Loughlin mentioned the events at the Kerry Group. It is unique that an organisation that has received so much aid and assistance from the agencies on behalf of the State would do what it is doing. I will ask the office of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to make contact and ensure not only that the remaining jobs are safe but to see if anything can be done to save the jobs that may potentially go to Kuala Lumpur.