Monday, 19 April 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2021, referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion re Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2021, referral to committee, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, motion re Protection of Young Persons (Employment) (Exclusion of Workers in the Fishing and Shipping Sectors) Regulations 2021, referral to committee, to be taken on conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, motion re National Marine Planning Framework, to be taken on conclusion of No. 3, without debate; No. 5, motion re defence of legal action by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, to be taken on conclusion of No. 4, without debate; No. 6, Children (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Report Stage amendments from Dáil Éireann and Final Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude no later than 2.15 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government; and No. 7, Criminal Procedure Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude at 4 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate. Private Members' business is No. 57, motion 9, to be taken at 4.15 p.m. with the time allocated to the debate not exceed two hours.
I begin my contribution this morning by acknowledging Jennifer Poole, a lady who lost her life at the weekend at the hands of her partner, a man. Once again, yet another woman has died in this country because of domestic violence and the violence of a man - her partner, someone she trusted and knew. She leaves behind her two children, family, friends and neighbours, who are all devastated by her loss. I take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathies to her family, friends and children on their huge loss. I am glad to see that the perpetrator, Gavin Murphy, her partner, has been charged and will face the full rigour of the law for his actions.
Today marks the beginning of Reusable Nappy Week. It is quite a novel idea. Many people will have raised eyebrows - possibly some sceptical eyebrows. I would have been the same. I commend the work of my colleague on Meath County Council, Councillor Deirdre Geraghty-Smith, on her campaign on this issue. She became a first-time mother a number of months ago and, to her credit, is using cloth nappies full time. She has done much work and research on this. We are all very familiar with disposable nappies. I must put my hands up because I used these with my son. I was not educated or informed about the other options but thanks to Councillor Geraghty-Smith, I am now and it is something I would love to try if the opportunity arose again. Disposable nappies have been around since the 1960s so we have all been in them and used them but they largely comprise wood pulp, plastic, which is the key, and many chemicals used to form what is called the absorbent layer. Following a recent study of 4,000 nappies in France, manufacturers were issued with a warning by the French health agency, which found that the nappies contained elements of a dangerous chemical called glyphosate. Glyphosate is probably best known to people as the main ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup so that was certainly a shock to me. The figures are startling and speak for themselves. It is estimated that in Ireland, more than 600,000 plastic nappies are disposed of in household waste every day.This year alone, the most conservative estimates indicate that 75 million nappies could end up in household waste. That is a colossal figure. Each nappy takes between 200 and 500 years to break down in landfill and each baby is estimated to generate between 3,000 and 5,000 nappies from birth to potty. This equates to 2.5 tonnes of single-use plastic waste per child. In fact, more than half the household waste in a family with just one baby comprises nappies. Those figures floored me.
Other countries, as often is the case, have moved ahead of us. A good example is the UK, where many local authorities are proactively supporting the switch to cloth nappies by offering so-called cloth nappy libraries where parents can hire kits, running awareness campaigns, providing grant schemes and offering cash back to parents who purchase the cloth nappy system. In addition, they offer advice and support to parents. That is what is needed when starting out, to know this is doable and is not as big a task as one might think. Again, this is something I learned from talking to Councillor Geraghty-Smith and her experience over the past number of months with her baby girl.
Councillor Geraghty-Smith is a full-time working mother. She did her research, got organised and managed it. She says it is a very easy and green way of doing things. I want to raise awareness that this week is Reusable Nappy Week and make the House aware that we can make those positive changes.
Earlier on "Morning Ireland" we heard two young ladies talk about their experience of stalking. They asked that we amend legislation to make stalking a criminal offence in its own right. The two perpetrators in this case ended up being jailed for seven years each with two years suspended. As one of the young women said, the guy who stalked her will be out in three years. I cannot begin to imagine the fear that must exist in somebody's life if somebody is stalking them like that. It is something we should probably have a debate on in this House and we should consider legislation. While I would love to bring a Bill to the House, knowing the balance of power in the House, I will throw it over to the Government side to bring in legislation. It was absolutely horrific listening to those two women this morning.
Over the weekend, I was contacted by a number of people in Northern Ireland with respect to what is expected to be a week of rioting and violence by young unionist men, particularly. The way the message was put to me last night was that the old guard has lost control and these young guys are out on the street. The comments I listened to this morning from Deputy Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, and her apology regarding Lord Mountbatten, were really welcome. All these things change the perception of how we are seen in the Republic. There is a need for the European Union to engage directly with the political parties in Northern Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs could facilitate that type of engagement.
I understand the sensitivities of the alleged border down the Irish Sea. I understand how some deeply committed unionists feel it is an attack on them. I compliment Northern republicans, at this stage, for maintaining their counsel and not getting involved in the spat that is going on up there. The people who contacted me over the weekend are extremely concerned at what is taking place. They think it will not take an awful lot to tip it back to where it was in the bad old days. Thankfully, one side of that equation is very measured in their movements at the moment. However, these young men apparently feel they can do better than their forefathers with respect to maintaining the union.
I ask the Leader to discuss this particular issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and ask if there is a way we can bring Northern politicians to Brussels to engage directly with the Commission and see whether we can find a way around this problem.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 13 be taken before No. 1. I refer to the Gambling (Prohibition of Advertising) Bill 2021 on the Order Paper.The purpose of this Bill is to prohibit in the public interest the advertising of gambling subject to some limited exceptions. I acknowledge that the Leader has arranged a debate with the Minister on the forthcoming gambling legislation on Friday next. I also acknowledge that colleagues on every side of this House have spoken previously of the urgent need for legislation on gambling to be enacted. However, I am asking that this House supports this legislation which, in my party's opinion and in the opinion of those working with those who have developed a gambling addiction, is urgently needed.
A 2019 survey estimated that as a country we spend €9.8 billion on gambling every year - the seventh highest per head of population in the world and the equivalent of €379.51 for every person in this country. Over the past number of months and in advance of introducing this Bill, I have spoken to so many people who have lost their homes and their families because of their gambling addiction and debt. They would tell you that they are still tempted by these advertisements that they read on their laptops and on their mobile phones, and, indeed, in the newspapers. Recently, we in the Labour Party, in advance of introducing this Bill, carried out our own survey, called "Beat the Ads". The results were worrying, indicating that 75% of respondents knew somebody who had a problem with gambling. The results of this survey indicate that 80% of respondents have noticed an increase in the number of gambling advertisements. Other surveys have found that there is a 75% chance of seeing a gambling advertisement during any sports event being shown on our television screens. These are odds that nobody should have to face while enjoying sport. The issue here is, of course, that the gambling companies have tried with much success to normalise the relationship between sport and gambling. They want us to think it is okay to have a bet, that all one's friends are doing it, it is a great social occasion and one will not enjoy that match, race or any sporting event unless one has a bet. The reality is, of course, that those who develop a gambling habit most of the time gamble in complete isolation, keeping their addiction away from their loved ones with the reality of the problem only coming to light, the experts will tell you, when it is too late and much damage and heartache has already been done.
Of course, my party's Bill does not set out to ban those who want and can afford to have a bet. It is, however, an attempt to break the stranglehold that the gambling companies have on how we enjoy sport in this country. It is an attempt to reduce the normalisation of sport and betting that these companies send through our screens and print in ever increasing numbers. We need to protect our younger population and an ever increasing percentage of our female population who are being targeted by gambling companies day in, day out. I look forward to Members supporting this Bill and ensuring its passage through the Oireachtas as quickly as possible. I also look forward to the Minister coming before us on Friday to debate this and many other problems in this industry at this time.
First, I want to cover the great news today from the Minister, Deputy Ryan's Department, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton's, office regarding support for regional airports. There will be €6.3 million allocated to Shannon Airport at a time there has been zero flights, which, in itself, causes considerable hassle for regional tourism in the area because it is one of the main ways people come in to visit the west coast. It is great news today. It is positive, not only for the airport but for the entire region because so much depends on that. I also welcome the fact that they will be able to use it for flexibility to roll out incentives, charge rebates and in consultation with airlines with a view to support recovery and growth of connectivity. That is important because we have to get back to where we were at least. We also have to look at the balance between Dublin flights and flights to other regional airports, including Shannon. At present, more than 90% of flights that are coming into Dublin come in and just leave the country. There is such good value to be given to flights coming in to other regional airports. It is also less of a carbon footprint, for example, to land in Shannon Airport. I welcome that great news today of €6.3 million for Shannon Airport, and other regional airports also benefiting.
The second issue I wanted to raise only came to my attention on Friday. I was talking to an academic about an academic matter in Galway and she ended up almost breaking down in the middle of the conversation over nothing to do with what we were talking about. She is a new mother. She has been breastfeeding her child for the past six months and she has struggled repeatedly with that. On her most recent visit to her GP, her own doctor was not there and a second doctor came in. He told her she was mad, that she should have given that up ages ago and at four months you should give up and get the solids going. I got so mad. My son is 22 since Saturday. We fought for and supported breastfeeding rights back in the day, with La Leche League and other groups. Twenty-one years ago I was at this craic and to think that a doctor in this day and age can say that to a woman makes me so mad. Not only is breastfeeding best, it can be challenging, which is why one should never discourage a woman from doing it.They need all of the encouragement in the world. Often women give up because they think they are failing. They are not failing but it is difficult, sometimes, to establish; it took me six weeks. There is a myth that it is best and therefore is easy but that is not the case. We need to get the message out that while breastfeeding is best, it can be challenging at the beginning but if one perseveres, one will succeed. The fact that a GP in this day and age would be in any way discouraging a woman from breastfeeding, as long as she wants to, is just appalling. We must nip that in the bud. It is 2021, for God's sake. The main reason the female body of any animal has breasts is to feed its young. I cannot believe that in this day and age we still have qualified people giving such ridiculously bad misinformation. It is important to note that breastfeeding is much cheaper than bottle feeding. It saves money and makes women feel good about themselves because they are doing the right thing for their child. It is also much healthier and much more hygienic. In 2021 we need to put a stop to any myths around breastfeeding and say that not only is it the best thing, it is better for the mother and the child. Everybody should be encouraging mothers to breastfeed. We need to stop throwing money at multinationals and their brands like SMA and Cow & Gate for the gack they are making and pushing on people all over the world. We have to stop that and represent the rest of the world. We are a developed country and we know what is best.
I do not want to dwell on this topic but this is my first opportunity to raise, since the break for Easter, the disturbances that took place in Belfast last week and the week before. I want to use this platform in the Seanad today to thank those community, youth, political and church leaders who put themselves out on the ground to try to ease and resolve intercommunity tensions. In one example on the Springfield Road, political, community and youth leaders dismantled a barricade by hand. We also saw them form a human chain to keep young people away from being drawn into violence at interface areas. They are an absolute credit and a lifeline in terms of what they do, regardless of the macropolitics that some allege are at play here. Without those people on the front line and at the grassroots, the situation would be much worse.
I wish to touch very briefly on Senator Craughwell's point. It is really important to remember that members of the loyalist community, the same as the republican and nationalist community, have a vote and they elect the DUP and the UUP to represent them. The protocol that we have was delivered as a result of their Brexit. I have been involved for a long time in cross-community engagement and will always champion that and advocate for it but we must put all of this into perspective. We cannot be using inflammatory language or, even inadvertently, raising concerns about the protocol because these were isolated incidents. The groups involved in this are criminal gangs and drug dealers. They are misusing and abusing young people by putting them out onto the street and placing them in great danger. The place to negotiate and talk is via our elected representatives in this instance, at the Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and any other table that is available.
On a completely different note, I want to wish a belated happy 80th birthday to President Higgins and a belated happy birthday to Senator Garvey's son.
That might be a controversial comment.
We are all very proud of President Higgins and have a deep affinity with him. Seeing all of the nice, positive sentiments expressed on social media yesterday was a reminder for lots of us that we still do not have the opportunity to vote for our President, even though we do have that connection with the office and the office holder. As we move out of the restrictions and the lockdown, it would be useful to have statements from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, on the safe holding of the electoral and democratic process and how we will be able to return to that. This is a programme for Government commitment and is something that all parties support. The convention on the Constitution also supported it way back when. It is important to find out, as soon as possible, how referendums can and will be held safely.Very briefly, I want to acknowledge the apology from Randox for a memo issued to staff in west County Donegal encouraging them to use the English language only. It is a real travesty that a company would issue such a memo in a Gaeltacht area, having been supported by Údarás na Gaeltachta, a Gaeltacht enterprise agency. I sincerely hope lessons have been learned. It was important that the apology came and hope we do not see a repeat of this, not least in Gaeltacht areas.
I too send my condolences to the family of Jennifer Poole, who was killed, and all who loved her. Again, we are talking about domestic violence against women and it honestly is really shocking.
I wish to talk about the findings published last week by the Health Research Board in its report entitled Alcohol consumption, alcohol-related harm and alcohol policy in Ireland. At a time when the health service is almost at breaking point due to the pandemic, it is interesting to establish the huge strains that problematic drinking puts on our resources. Alcohol is responsible for three deaths every day and for up to 40,000 alcohol-related hospital discharges every year. During this pandemic the stress and pressure on people is sometimes overwhelming and can lead to increased alcohol consumption. There has been a marked increase in reports of domestic abuse, as I highlighted earlier. A survey of violence against women in 28 European states, including Ireland, found that prevalence of physical and sexual violence by a current partner was significantly higher among partners of women who got drunk frequently.
Alcohol-related harm can also affect persons other than the drinker, especially family members, which is an area in which I am specifically interested. The stress and suffering experienced by family members, especially during this pandemic, has been exacerbated by the lockdowns. I am familiar with this from my own organisation, the RISE Foundation; which has a huge list of family members who are waiting to get into our services. An interesting figure is that the total estimated cost of alcohol's cost to others was €863 million and this does not include the costs that do not have monetary value, such as fear, pain, suffering and loss of quality of life.
Another interesting fact in this report is that the public has a very poor knowledge of the health conditions related to alcohol, including cancer. This lack of knowledge could be offset if the introduction of alcohol health warning labels, as provided for in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, was implemented. On that point, I received a text message this morning from Ms Paula Leonard from the national community action on alcohol network. She also highlighted that there are three groups they were particularly worried about. The first is young people, who need more effective age verification at point of sale and point of delivery. Second, delivery to intoxicated persons may pose a risk to themselves or others as it is impossible to gauge intoxication with phone or Internet sales. The third group is delivery drivers. This all concerns delivery of alcohol at the moment and off-licences that are delivering.
The health of the people could be significantly improved if policies were introduced to reduce per capita alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption can only be reduced if policies which increase the price of alcohol, restrict its availability and reduce its promotion and advertising are introduced. I know, from being a campaigner for the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, that there was a lot of pressure exerted by vested interests to try to prevent the Bill becoming law. I now call on the Minister for Health to implement all the outstanding provisions of the Act as it would be of great benefit to people's health and would dramatically relieve pressure on our health service. My colleague Senator Seery Kearney will probably talk more about the delivery and what is happening around that.
I welcome the recent decision by An Taoiseach that there be a review of the North-South interconnector. I thank all the local authority members in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath for their efforts in trying to secure that review. I thank also the Cathaoirleach and other Members for their efforts to secure it. Following that decision, EirGrid announced its intention to place underground the Meath to Kildare line, which is approximately 50 km to 60 km in length, which we very much welcome. However, as Members can imagine, the communities of counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath are asking why the North-South interconnector is not being placed underground as well.They have consistently made that point for more than a decade, resulting in this project being delayed. EirGrid to date has stubbornly refused to accept the community's wishes. It is interesting that EirGrid has discovered with advancing technologies, something we have always talked about, that it is now possible to install this cable in a narrower trench than heretofore assumed, resulting in a much speedier construction period for this project. However, EirGrid insists that the North-South interconnector is going overhead, full stop. From what I am hearing from the community, as I am sure the Leader is, the people of the affected areas are annoyed, angered and feel they are being discriminated against because all major projects of this nature have been put underground except this one. The insistence of EirGrid that this project would be overhead has resulted in a delay of more than a decade. Judging by the feeling on the ground this past week or ten days, it will be many decades to come before this project ever goes ahead if EirGrid insists on it going overhead.
Will the Minister come into the House at the first available opportunity to discuss this issue? We must insist, as we have done from the get-go, that the advances in technology must be fed into any review that takes place. Otherwise, that review is not worth going ahead with. It is important we get that commitment from the Minister.
There is absolute confusion in Galway at the moment regarding healthcare plans by the Saolta University Health Care Group and the Department of Health. We know capital projects take some years to develop and bring to fruition, but for some years we have been led to believe that a full elective hospital and 200 badly needed inpatient beds are to be delivered in Merlin Park. Now we see that plans by the Department of Health, particularly the Sláintecare team, have cast doubt on that. They have recommended a selective day surgery plus minor see and treat, which is one place above a minor injuries unit and three places below a full elective hospital. I welcome any and all investment in healthcare in city and county and have long championed the need for a new emergency department at the University Hospital Galway, UHG, site. Some in the Saolta hospital group have, in my view, tried to stymie investment in UHG because they have a grand vision of a new hospital in Merlin Park, which I would love to see.
An options appraisal was initiated by the Saolta hospital group to see the best use of lands in UHG compared with Merlin Park and it has come up with estimated or indicative capital costs for such a hospital. To redevelop the UHG site, it estimates a cost of €2.944 billion. To build a new hospital in Merlin Park is estimated to cost €3.247 billion. An acute hospital in UHG and an elective hospital in Merlin Park is estimated to cost €3.15 billion. An acute hospital in Merlin Park and an elective hospital in UHG is estimated to cost €3.46 billion. These are huge sums of money and I would love to see any of those projects being delivered. It is right and proper we have a vision for that but there is confusion about Saolta's plans and the Department of Health's plans. I ask that we have a debate on Sláintecare at the early opportunity so we can discuss these very important plans, not just for Galway but for Cork and Dublin. There was a promise and an assumption that beds would be delivered in all three locations.
On 29 March, three weeks ago today, I asked the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about the precise legal situation relating to the restrictions on public worship, either at the level of organising public worship or at the level of leaving one's house to attend such worship. It was a difficult enough session but the Minister said clearly he would get the Department to respond to me in writing to what he described as a very reasonable and important question I had asked about what was legal and what was advisory.In other words, the question concerned whether these restrictions were a matter of public health guidelines only, or whether there would be a penalty. The question was asked against the background of a priest in County Cavan being pursued by the Garda.
It is now three weeks later and I have received no response whatsoever. I also wrote to the Garda Commissioner around that time, expressing my concerns, and I received no response - not even an acknowledgement of receipt. I realise that there may have been issues in respect of what the Garda Commissioner could say.
I wonder what this says about the way the organs and apparatus of State are treating not just the public, but public representatives, who have a job to ask questions on behalf of the public. We have all since discovered that the Government moved quickly and silently to change these restrictions so as to ensure that such public worship, the organisation of or attendance at which, is actually an offence. It did that without telling anybody publicly that it was doing so, mending its hand, it would seem, in the context of a court case that we all know is ongoing.
At a meeting with the representatives of the Irish bishops which was mainly about their concerns about restrictions on public worship, nothing was said, even though the Government knew at that point that it had changed the regulations. Not even as a courtesy, did it say that it had since changed the regulations, to quote Archbishop Eamon Martin, "formally enacting a potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights."
I wonder at the discourtesy of all of this and democratic accountability. I ask the Leader to take this issue back to the Government. There is something wrong about the way it is going about its business that is not healthy.
I wish to raise the issue of the hospitality sector and the challenges it faces after an incredibly difficult 12 months. Those challenges include the obvious issues caused by Covid-19 and endless lockdowns. They also include challenges which have not received the same attention, in particular, the loss of skilled and experienced employees from the sector. This includes head chefs, senior chefs, managers and so on, who were happy to build their futures in our sector a little over 12 months ago, but out of necessity for their families and for themselves, have gone into other areas during this time. Many will not return.
Having been involved in the sector for more than 20 years and spoken to colleagues who continue to work in the sector in Galway city and beyond, I know this is a most serious issue. As all Members of the House will be aware, the hospitality sector is a key part of the Irish economy, contributing in the region of €6 billion to €8 billion a year to the economy pre-Covid and employing around 200,000 people, many of whom are based in towns and villages across the country, where such jobs are particularly difficult to replace.
I welcome the comments made by the Taoiseach over the weekend in relation to a stimulus plan for the sector. His understanding of the challenges facing the sector is clear. Since he became Taoiseach 12 months ago, I have had numerous meetings and many conversations with him to emphasise that fact. The close involvement of the sector in developing the plan will benefit all parties. I note the Restaurant Association of Ireland has requested a hospitality task force comprising representatives from the hotel, restaurant and pub industries and from State agencies and Departments to implement a recovery plan. Those who are at the forefront facing these challenges on a daily basis have more knowledge of the sector than anyone else. We should utilise that knowledge in order to ensure the sector's recovery is as broad and as speedy as possible.
I would like to use my time to welcome the update which I received from the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, over the weekend in relation to community employment, CE, supervisors. I know the Leader knows the issue only too well from her previous role as Minister for Social Protection.It is a hugely significant step that we are finally seeing progress on this matter. It was a big issue, of course, in the general election last year and I know everyone on all sides of the House will welcome the progress that has been made. Knowing that proposals are now on the table is very welcome. Everyone in the House will also acknowledge the valuable and dedicated service that community employment participants and supervisors provide for their local areas. The services and training in local communities are often provided to many people who have been locked out of the employment market. It is a critical area into which we are putting even more resources this year, which is very welcome, particularly in the context of recovering from the pandemic. Many of the services have operated fully throughout the pandemic and thank all of the participants, supervisors and assistant supervisors for going above and beyond throughout the pandemic in the work they have done to provide services in their local communities. I understand the Department will engage with the trade unions today and put proposals to them and the unions will speak to their members in due course. I wish everyone involved all the best over the coming days and weeks. I hope these proposals will finally bring a resolution to this long-standing issue.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by my colleague, Senator Mark Wall. In 2020, the new national childcare scheme was launched and for working parents it represented great progress in establishing the principle of universal subvention for childcare. The subvention was small but it was progress nonetheless. A significant number of early years services located in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the city, and throughout the country, that work with children coming from these challenging backgrounds, now face the prospect of having to turn away some of these children and not cater for children who need these services the most. The reason is the new national childcare scheme fails to support adequately the children of parents who do not work and children whose parents do not work but are seeking work at this point in time. Many will say the whole point of a childcare scheme is to support families who work but this ignores the reality of the experience of the most disadvantaged families in the State.
The new national childcare scheme threatens to undermine years of incredible work by many services, particularly in the area I am most familiar with, which is Dublin's north inner city, and in other parts of the country. They provide services that are vital to the development and care of these children. As one service memorably informed me, it was established in the early 1920s to support the poorest children in the city. It survived the onslaught of the Black and Tans but may not survive the new national childcare scheme. This is how bad it is for services now facing the prospect of having to close, particularly after-school services. I call for the Minister with responsibility for children to come to the House to account for the design of the new national childcare scheme, undertake a review of the scheme and do what was done in the past, which is to put in place specific provisions for these services that look after the most disadvantaged children and families in the country.
I extend my sympathies to the family of Jennifer Poole. It is a terrible reminder to all of us of the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. I urge anybody living in fear or under threat to contact the Garda immediately.
As we commence this new term in the Seanad, I want to turn to another casualty of Covid, which is the housing crisis. It has not gone away and has been compounded by the pandemic. Estimates are that the shutdown of construction would cost somewhere in the region of 700 to 800 homes a year and the figure could be as high as 10,000 by the end of the year.That could extend the housing crisis for a further three years. Everyone in the Oireachtas must use this term to do all we can to address this crisis of affordability and supply. I urge every Senator to engage on two game-changing Bills, those being, the affordable housing Bill and the Land Development Agency Bill. Under the latter, the Land Development Agency will work with local authorities, approved housing bodies, AHBs, and NGOs to deliver social and affordable homes. The affordable housing Bill has the potential to double the number of social and affordable homes that are delivered in private developments and give local authorities the power to deliver affordable homes for purchase and rent. I urge every Senator to engage with and support these Bills.
We must go further, though. We must ensure that every local authority completes a housing needs assessment urgently and sets targets for the next three, five and ten years for the delivery of affordable homes for purchase and rent. The Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Local Government and Heritage must accelerate the approval process and reduce it to six months for every application they receive from local authorities for social and affordable homes.
I will finish on my next point. The Cathaoirleach is being patient, but it is important. The Minister for Finance must introduce a tax on the vacant properties that the Leader and I know are in Dublin. Given that there is a housing crisis, it is unacceptable that there are vacant residential properties. I urge the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to use some of the moneys that will not be used in the serviced site fund to give a grant to convert vacant properties in rural towns and urban centres to residential use. Will he also update the rural housing guidelines? They have not been updated since Fianna Fáil was last in power. Now that we have a Fianna Fáil Minister with responsibility for housing, it would be appropriate that the rural housing guidelines be updated.
I echo the advocacy of my colleague, Senator Black, regarding the action that needs to be taken to support the work of the Irish Community Action on Alcohol Network, ICAAN, in particular. Last week's report by the Health Research Board contained shocking statistics. There was a doubling of alcohol-related discharges from hospitals, a trebling of cases of alcohol-related liver disease and an average of three deaths per day related to alcohol in the country. That is frightening.
For nearly a year, I have been advocating on changing the legislation on alcohol deliveries to homes or addressing the practice through regulation, which is possible. Experts in the field predict that a tsunami is approaching of people who have relapsed from their alcohol abstinence and are using alcohol as a coping mechanism during this period. Could we at least arrest deliveries to homes where there is no checking of IDs or the capacity of the person receiving the alcohol to take it on board? Unfortunately, it is not unlawful currently. These types of checks are exhibited by supermarkets carrying out deliveries or in off-licences or pubs.
With the support of Ms Constance Cassidy, SC, and Mr. David Dodd, both of whom have volunteered their services from the Law Library, ICAAN has identified where the regulations could be changed. I support its work and call on the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to address this issue as quickly as possible. He is open to doing so. We need to address alcohol consumption and alcohol deliveries.
I thank the Minister for Health for last week changing the arrangements around families involved in surrogacy coming home from Ukraine. It has been a great relief. I am in regular contact with a large number of families who are travelling with their new babies. The idea that they can quarantine at home is a great step forward and I appreciate how quickly the response was to the advocacy in that regard.
I reiterate what I said before the Easter break about the urgency required on the part of the Minister for Justice in signing the statutory instrument to put in place a waiver for legal fees for the families of victims of the Stardust fire. This is a matter of urgency.
I will use my time to refer to an article in the weekend newspapers regarding the microchipping of dogs. The article rightly pointed out the absolute need for microchipping and to encourage all dog owners to ensure that their family pets are microchipped. It is not only the law, it is also the single best step that people can take to ensure that they can be reunited with their pets if they are stolen or lost. I encourage anybody who has not had their dog microchipped to get it done. The article to which I refer did not, however, state that the current microchipping system is not fit for purpose and must be improved. We have four separate databases in this regard that are not linked to each other. Many pet owners are also not aware of the need to update the database when their pet dies, either through euthanasia or as a result of an accident, for example. Therefore we do not even have a complete audit of the number of dogs in the country. It is the same with the information on the Europetnet. I ask people if they want a dog to go to a rescue centre but if they buy online, they are advised to check the Europetnet database. All that database indicates is that the animal is a dog. There is no description or indication of age or gender. It is not fit for purpose.
It is the law in this country for dog owners to have licences for their animals and to have them microchipped but the two items of legislation are completely separate and do not work together. I could go to the An Post website today to get a dog licence without having to include the microchip details of my dog. I have been informed by animal welfare organisations which deal with this matter on a daily basis that individuals are obtaining dog licences hours before going to animal welfare offices to try to claim ownership of dogs. I am seeking that the Ministers responsible for agriculture and rural and community development come before this House to engage in a debate on achieving a robust, fit-for-purpose central microchipping database in this country.
We are again talking about gender violence and that poor girl Jennifer, who lost her life this weekend. This Government must lead in respect of the change that needs to happen, from our young sons to grown men, so that we can respect each other, men and women, to prevent gender violence and abuse, including on our streets. There were two girls on the radio this morning who spoke about being stalked. There is so much work to be done and there must be a whole-of-government response. I would love to have a debate on that in the House.
I echo Senator Boylan's call for a debate on dog licensing. The system is completely antiquated and not up to date. I absolutely agree with the Senator's comments.
On a positive note, I welcome the funding announced this morning for Omeath in County Louth, which is one of the most historical and culturally significant towns in the north east and the country in general. There is €2.8 million for the regeneration of the town, which has been left between two stools because it is so close to the Border. It has been left behind for so long. I am absolutely delighted for all the community groups and people in Omeath who have worked so hard to keep the town going over the past couple of years. I congratulate the council and thank the Minister for allocating the funding.
I also welcome the apprenticeship scheme announced this morning. It is very significant and will increase the number of apprenticeships on offer. It is a really inclusive and diverse plan. There will be supports for employers, with a bursary for people who are disadvantaged, including lone parents, those with disabilities and people from ethnic minorities. The apprenticeship scheme announced is really progressive and I look forward to seeing the results to which it will give rise.
Last Friday KBC decided to pull out of the Irish market. This follows the decisions of Ulster Bank to do the same and of Bank of Ireland to close 88 of its branches in our State later this year, causing much distress in many Irish towns. As it is clear that private banking is not serving us well, it is time to reconsider our options. Public banking has been a policy of the Green Party for a long time. In 2019 the Indecon report on public banking stated there was no need for a public bank because the level of competition in the Irish market was so strong. This, however, is clearly not the case any more. Before that, in 2018, the Government of the day commissioned the Local Public Banking in Ireland report, which, interestingly to me, examined the possibility of piloting such a bank in the midlands, suggesting it should be headquartered in Mullingar, with branches in Tullamore, Port Laoise, Athlone and Longford. We should consider such a pilot. The midlands in particular have had a tough time of it in recent years. Public banks keep money in a community. What is generated there stays there and is pumped back into new ventures or expansions. Credit unions already do this to an extent but are limited in their ability to function as banks. An Post also offers a range of financial services but they are similarly limited. A full public banking system could remove the barriers to microbusinesses, which are often turned down for credit. I am talking about the local café or hairdresser, those enterprises we have missed so much during this lockdown and which have suffered badly. Think also of new tourism ventures such as bike hire or small food-producing enterprises. Public banking allows for greater financial inclusion, and this has been linked to stronger, more sustainable economic growth. This is why so many countries support public banking. Public banks are already a successful part of the banking sector in 21 EU countries. In fact, the well-known German system of Sparkassen has been operating successfully since the late 1700s.
No doubt there will be much discussion about the future of Irish banking in light of these recent developments, and a banking forum involving all stakeholders, including the Department of Finance, would be a good place to start. Public banking needs to be part of that discussion.
I agree with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on the proposal of a public bank. It has worked very well in Germany, which is a European colleague country of ours, and should be looked at.
I am speaking today because coming from County Clare, which is heavily dependent on tourism, I am concerned that we are not necessarily properly prepared. A lot of work can be done in advance of the tourism sector's reopening. This work is critical and we need a debate on it. In the first instance, Shannon Heritage last year faced quite an amount of uncertainty. This has not been clarified; the uncertainty continues this year. We learned recently that the head of operations has now moved on from Shannon Heritage. We need clarity on the future of Shannon Heritage. We need to know whether it will remain with the Shannon Group or whether it will move to the Office of Public Works, OPW, which would be a far more appropriate home, with the knowledge, infrastructure and marketing capability for Shannon Heritage to achieve its potential. Similarly, we have no clarity whatsoever regarding the position of the chair of the board of Shannon Group. The last incumbent, who lasted a day, resigned in the middle of February. We are now towards the end of April and we still have no clarity whatsoever as to who will take up this extremely important role in chartering the future of Shannon Airport, which in turn will drive the economic development of the entire midwest region, including County Clare.
Finally, many of the Government measures for the hospitality and tourism industry are welcome, including the announcement of funding for restaurants and so on to buy infrastructure for outside dining and to become capable of outside dining and that the outside areas of their premises would be brought into use for outside catering. However, this funding needs to extend to all establishments doing food. The position regarding pubs is absolutely ridiculous, many of which throughout the tourism areas of Clare, Kerry and other parts of the country provide dining and catering facilities. It is absolutely critical that this anomaly is addressed without delay.Publicans and the pub, catering and hospitality industries have suffered enough. Simple clarity like that should just happen. We should not have to stand up here, looking for it to happen.
I wish to follow on from the remarks of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. Having seen the departure of KBC Bank from significant parts of the Irish market and following the planned closure of quite a number of retail bank branches, it is very clear we are lacking competition in the Irish market. We know that Irish consumers are already paying interest rates roughly double those of other European countries. Therefore, I welcome the call for a full debate around banking and finance in Ireland. However, it needs to be broader. As part of that, we need to give the Central Bank specific statutory responsibility for promoting competition across the financial services market. The Central Bank does not at present have that power to try to ensure we have competition.
If the forum on banking is only comprised of the traditional players, it will be a failure. We need it to be much broader. I worry that if it is the traditional players, it will be like getting horse and cart owners to debate how we make horses go faster while the motor car is being developed at the same time. It is essential that we have consumers in there and, if anything, teenagers and those in their 20s have a greater idea around where the financial markets are and where the products are going. That is part of the debate we need to have. If we look at where the rapid growth is happening in the Irish banking market, with Revolut, N26 and digital accounts, what consumers are looking for is to be able to make instant payments, and the banking sector here has not responded to that. We need a debate around the adoption of the digital euro because Europe is falling behind. I am particularly looking at what is happening in China with regard to the introduction of a digital currency there and what has happened with WeChat and Alipay. We are not competing at a sufficient level in Europe.
With regard to financial literacy, in the leaving certificate review we need to look at the question of the knowledge of financial literacy and taxation to be provided for students at second level.
This is a crucial question for the future of this country. It is a debate about public banking but it is broader and is about how we use technology. If we establish a forum on the future of banking and finance, it has to be consumer-centred.
I want to raise the issue of the national lottery. We know that the national lottery provides a number of different products, from the lotto to scratch cards. What is very important is that it also provides a social dividend for the people of Ireland. Approximately 28 cent out of every €1 that is spent on national lottery products in Ireland goes back into a good causes fund that benefits communities and people throughout the country. That is very important. It is not true to say that of gambling companies or private gambling outfits in the State. Similarly, the national lottery has in place protocols to protect people who play its games, who cannot gamble after a certain time and cannot spend more than a certain amount of money every day, which is very important.
Unfortunately, some private gambling and bookmaking outfits in Ireland now use national lottery products to piggyback for the purposes of allowing people to bet on the outcome of the national lottery. With that, there is no positive outcome for the taxpayer or the country. We must prevent profiteering by those private gambling organisations which are piggybacking on the national lottery infrastructure without providing that same social dividend for the citizens and people of Ireland. While the national lottery funds innovation, community organisations and local projects throughout this country, private bookmakers make no such altruistic contribution. Important national and local funding is provided by the national lottery to sports, arts and culture, health and well-being, heritage, community and youth organisations.
It makes no sense to me that we should continue to allow those private organisations to profit from the lotto and other products that are put in place by the national lottery. I will be introducing the national lottery (amendment) Bill 2021, which will make it an offence for a profit-driven bookmaker to hitch a free ride with the licensed and regulated national lottery. The Bill will also extend the provisions of the National Lottery Act 2013 to increase penalties and allow the prosecution of corporate entities, as well as individuals.
We recognise that the national lottery provides a service, that it does so under licence and does so with a social dividend. That is the way it should be. Let us make sure it is used for that purpose alone, rather than for the profit of private individuals.
I thank colleagues for raising a wide variety of topics. I could not agree more with Senator Wall. I read with interest this morning our plans to ban the current practice of bookies being able to ask people to come in and bet, on a reduced number of numbers, on either a EuroMillions or a weekly lotto draw. It is very welcome. The national lottery, as an organisation, does tremendous good. It provides enjoyment for people, notwithstanding that we have been talking about gambling and will be talking about it later this week in the Seanad. One of the most enjoyable programmes for some of our citizens in the past year has been "Telly Bingo", which is broadcast every week. The weekly trips they make to their local community halls have been closed down and curtailed and "Telly Bingo" on a Tuesday, Thursday and Friday is a real lifeline for those people to be able to continue their activities. I commend them on continuing to do that.
Senator Byrne and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, both raised the importance of the debate we have requested with the Minister of Finance in the House on the future of banking. The announcement of KBC last week was yet another significant blow, not least for the customers of KBC in Ireland but particularly the 1,300 people who earn their livelihood working for that bank. In the past ten to 15 years we have experienced a real lack of competition in banking in this country. We have had a variety of players who were supposed to induce competition and we know that for the clients and the Irish customers, that has not materialised. Now that the numbers of banking players here are reducing significantly it is time we revisited the report from a number of years ago in which Indecon said that the Irish society marketplace - the infrastructure - did not suit a public banking system. That society has changed a great deal since that Indecon report was produced. I believe there is a real need now, and Senator Hackett gave a very good example of it. I note Mr. Noel Kinahan has, on a number of occasions, asked that a public pilot for a public banking system be conducted . I believe it would be worthwhile for us to do that now.
I support the calls for a banking forum. I would say to Senator Byrne that the only concern I have is that we tend to talk ourselves to death in this country. What we need now is action. We do not need another 12 or 24 months of navel-gazing and talking to ourselves about what needs to be done. We all know what needs to be done, which is that serious competition, even if it is by the State, must be introduced into this marketplace. When I have a date for that future of banking debate for the Seanad I will let everybody know. I thank the Senators for raising it.
Senator Conway raised the requirement for certainty around Shannon Heritage on whether it is to remain in the Shannon Group or come under the remit of the OPW. I will write a letter to the Minister today and revert to the Senator with regard to the response.
A number of colleagues raised the very sad death of Jennifer Poole over the weekend. I read last night what her father had to say and it was heartbreaking. It highlights again the severe problem we have with domestic violence in this country. We have had a number of debates since we constituted last June but it is timely that we would have one again. I will ask the Minister to come into the House and have a debate with us again. I would like to express my sincere condolences to Jennifer's family, and to her two small lovely children, on behalf of all of the Members of this House.
Senator McGreehan warmly welcomed the announcement this morning of the significant number of apprenticeships that will be supported and financed by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I wish to acknowledge that it was Senator Keogan who made the suggestion here last July that a significant number of those apprenticeships should be within our public service. I want to put on record that the announcement this morning that 750 of those would be is credit to Senator Keogan. The one aspect that made me a little angry this morning was the fact that we have to incentivise employers to take on women. What the hell is that about? Do they not realise how hard-working, industrious and great we are? The fact that we would have to incentivise any employer to take on a woman shows just how far we still have to go on that.
Senator Boylan raised the disjointedness of our systems that attempt to regularise the owning of a dog. The fact that we have so many dogs in this country and so few licences tells us that system is not working and we have a problem. It seems bizarre and stupid that we would have a database that does not have any data on it. I will send a letter on that but I will ask for a debate. In the grander scheme of things it probably will be something we will do in the coming months, as opposed to the coming weeks, but I will revert to the Senator.Senators Seery Kearney and Black both raised a shocking report from the Health Research Board last week. I know we get these reports every single year. I am always struck by the fact that they refer to consumption in bottles of vodka. As I do not drink vodka, it is not something that I would think about. When it is announced in such stark terms, however, it highlights we have a serious problem. It is acknowledged by many - we see it on social media - that people have been using alcohol as a crutch for the past year. It certainly is one of the issues on which we will have serious talks about supporting people as we come out of recovery.
Senator Fitzpatrick spoke about the need for a debate on housing and construction. I will certainly organise that. I will also send a letter to the Minister today on the Senator's specific questions about rural housing guidelines.
Senator Sherlock talked about the national childcare scheme and the universal subvention. I will send a letter to the Minister responsible today with the Senator's specific questions. Once I receive a response, I will come back to the Senator.
I can tell Senator Cummins that I got such an incredibly great smile from the phone call that I got from one of the community employment, CE, supervisors on Saturday afternoon. Michele Rohan is a wonderful woman and a CE supervisor in Galway. She has been doing significant work, as have all our CE supervisors for time immemorial since the programme was established. I know from first hand that, on the ground, they actually do a hell of a lot more than what it says in their book. It gave me great pleasure to hear there was a breakthrough and acceptance by the Ministers for Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform of the negotiated agreement which had been conducted over the past several years. I wish them well and hope the CE supervisors will be happy with the proposals put to them today. We all look forward to a speedy resolution because, by God, they have been waiting for it long enough.
Senator Crowe talked about the hospitality sector. It is a real concern that many in that sector may have got employment elsewhere, if they were lucky enough. It is nice and fills us with hope that we are now starting to talk about recovery plans for certain sectors. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the Minister's attention.
I am sorry that Senator Mullen did not receive any correspondence from the Department of Health. That is a real shame. Archbishop Martin's comments this morning reflect the views of a large part of our society for whom worship is an incredibly important part of their lives. It is a real shame what was done over the weekend. I will endeavour to get the Senator a direct answer today. I will come back to him later.
Senator Kyne talked about the healthcare plans in Galway. There is a need for a debate on Sláintecare. I will try to arrange one as quickly as we can. We need to start talking about recovery and the issues we would normally be talking about as parliamentarians now that we are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Senator Gallagher talked about the absolute importance of having input into the terms and conditions of what is a very welcome announcement of An Taoiseach of a review of the North-South interconnector. This was the first political issue in which I ever got involved. Having run, unsuccessfully, in the general election of 2007, I recall the first meeting on this matter was held in a hotel in Trim with more than 7,000 people. That is how long - 14 years - EirGrid has been pig-headed on this issue. The refusal still to even acknowledge the possibility of putting the North-South interconnector underground defies logic. The announcement last week that the Kildare-Meath line will be put underground has only served to incense those who live in Meath, Cavan and Monaghan. I have no doubt that Senator Gallagher is right when he says EirGrid has wasted a decade. If it does not come down off its pig-headed stance, it will be wasting another decade. The people of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan will not accept being ignored for much longer.
Senators Ó Donnghaile and Craughwell both raised the issue of what will be a significant week in Northern Ireland. It is incumbent upon all leaders, North and South, east and west, to make sure we resolve the issues raised by both sides in the past couple of weeks. The former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, made a good suggestion yesterday that it might be time for an American envoy to come in, bring some clarity to the issues and find a way out of the path that people are expecting we will end up on this week.Senator Garvey spoke about regional funding for airports. It really is welcome. The Senator also spoke with passion about breastfeeding. It is something she has advocated for in excess of 20 years. It is very annoying to think that a doctor would so easily dismiss a woman's attempts to try to breastfeed her baby by saying, "Just get the baby onto solids". It defies all of the logic and all attempts by the State to try to encourage women to do it in the first place.
Deputy Chambers spoke about something that made me smile. I have only one little brother, who is 12 years younger than me, so it is a long time since we had nappies in buckets and the lovely little packets that one had to bring to the toilet. Senator Chamber's point is something about which we should seriously concern ourselves, given that our climate agenda is very topical and is on all our minds. We should be highlighting the amount of waste caused by nappies. Fair play to Senator Chambers for bringing the matter up.
I wish to talk about the two women who spoke so eloquently this morning about their experiences. Stalking is probably one the of the most hideous and insidious things any person can do to another human being. It goes to the root of a person's own personal security. This is as true of being stalked online as it is true of being stalked in person. I commend the two ladies this morning on baring their souls and allowing people to hear the realities of it. It also highlights that we have a serious problem with sentencing in the State for crimes that we do take seriously. It shows that maybe the State and society do not really deem the crimes to be as serious as they are for the people who have experienced them and who must live through them.