Tuesday, 11 May 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, the Education (Leaving Certificate Examinations) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 11.45 a.m. and to conclude at 12.45 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall with regard to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government.
First, I wish to pay tribute to a great Irish patriot, Mr. Seán Lemass, who died on today's date 50 years ago. He was a democratic, practical and visionary republican. He believed that social and economic goals should not be in conflict, but should be achieved at the same time. That is the reason the Lemass era was defined by expanded access to education, new social supports, health services and social housing, the opportunity to have jobs, the attraction of foreign direct investment and, of course, working in co-operation with other European countries. It is important that we reflect on his legacy today. The goals he had are still important today. Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for allowing me the opportunity to mention that.
There are other issues I wish to raise, one of which is driver tests. We all know there is a massive waiting list of approximately 100,000 throughout the country. Kildare has one of the highest waiting lists outside Dublin and Cork, with more than 5,000 people on the waiting list for Naas. We all accept the reasons there could not be driver tests over the last few months, but at this point there is an absolute need to ramp up tests. I welcome the recruitment of more testers and I am aware the Minister is considering the addition of new test centres. I suggest that Kildare be one of them. We also must look at recommencing driver theory tests in conjunction with that.
I also wish to raise an issue we all are greatly concerned about, the many challenges facing people who want to have their own home. Every day, I and every other Member deal with people who are trying to acquire a home, be it through social housing, renting, planning to build or buying privately. Indeed, those who are trying to buy privately are being pitted against local authorities, approved housing bodies and, as we know from the last week, institutional investors. We absolutely must take away the financial advantage that has been given to international investment funds. This must be a priority for us as we move forward.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for giving me the opportunity to raise those items.
The Leader may recall that before Christmas I asked her - and she agreed - to organise a debate with the Minister for Health present about the working of the new abortion law in the light of the troubling research done by some UCC researchers on the provision of abortion in Ireland. That was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. As Members will be aware, the three-year review of Ireland's abortion law is scheduled to take place this year as required by the legislation. When that legislation took effect in 2019 the then chief executive of Britain's largest abortion provider tweeted that to her amazement Ireland now had a more permissive abortion law than even England had. Everything that has happened since proves her assessment to be correct, with 6,666 abortions in Ireland in the first year. This represents an increase of between 40% and 75% on the number of abortions in the previous year, depending on how we count it.
Listeners to "Today with Claire Byrne" on RTÉ yesterday would have been left a rather different impression by the item I heard. It was a 14-minute package on the review and featured three spokespersons for the pro-abortion position and just one pro-life representative. The distinct impression was given that the new law was extremely restrictive and that few abortions are taking place. By any objective measure that could not be further from the truth. Under the new law babies, having survived the abortion procedure, are being left to die alone without receiving any medical or palliative care. Doctors are now being trained to perform ghastly dilation and extraction late-term abortions even though voters were promised this would never happen. Over €20 million of taxpayers' money has been spent to date on the roll-out of abortion provision but no money has been spent on promoting positive alternatives to abortion. It is a tragic situation but a listener would never think that from listening to RTÉ. If a listener were to rely on RTÉ to bring any of those harrowing details he or she would never hear them because RTÉ does not interest itself in that side of the story.
That prompts two reflections. The Eoghan Harris era may be over but the culture of behind the scenes manipulation of analysis, failure to tell certain truths and unseen manipulation of the public debate, of which Harris was a part back in the day in RTÉ, has not disappeared from RTÉ. This is especially the case in the coverage of social issues and especially on the issue of abortion.
That prompts a second reflection relevant to the people who are indignant about that and who decide to withhold their licence fee as a result. We hear from Jon Williams of RTÉ every time there is a positive or good programme and he says it justifies the licence fee. Many people believe they are not being fairly treated. These comprise the one third of the electorate who voted against repeal of the eighth amendment and many more who voted for repeal but who have been shocked by the extent of the new legislation. Many of these people do not believe they are getting fair treatment by RTÉ. A decision by them to withhold their licence fee is frankly one that I would support at this stage, because something needs to change about the way the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is treating important social issues.
I wish to take strong issue with the comments of Senator Mullen just now as to the reporting of RTÉ. Senator Mullen needs to remind himself that in 2018 the people voted by a two-thirds majority to repeal the eighth amendment having had sight of the legislation proposed to bring in legal abortion in Ireland. That legislation was sorely needed for the reproductive health needs of all women in this country. I wish to remind Senator Mullen of that. People were not, and should not have been, in any way perplexed by the legislation. It is reasonable and fair by European standards. I look forward to the review process that is under way.
I take strong issue with the comments of Senator Mullen to the effect that people are pro-abortion. Those of us who campaigned over many decades for repeal of the eighth amendment are pro-choice. We seek to ensure that women will have choices and access to the reproductive healthcare that we so badly need. I wish to remind Senator Mullen of that. We had a full debate in the House over that legislation even after passage of the repeal amendment in 2018. Again, I wish to remind all colleagues of that.
I welcome the fact that yesterday we saw some positive reopening of society in a cautious and careful manner. I welcome the ongoing plans for reopening, albeit on a careful and incremental basis. I welcome in particular the fact that now so many people will be able to see family and friends again and be able to get haircuts. I am one of those who is very much looking forward to that. More important, so many people will be able to see their businesses reopening and that is most welcome. I urge everyone to remain mindful of all the public health guidelines and restrictions.
I call on the Leader to convey to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, what is probably a shared view across the House to the effect that Ireland needs to condemn strongly the terrible carnage that we see unfolding in Israel and Palestine and, in particular, the dreadful killing of so many people. Some 24 Palestinians, including seven from one family were killed. Nine of the 24 killed were children. We are seeing appalling carnage.
Ireland needs to push for peace talks and for an end to the carnage. We need to demand that international law is obeyed and that Israel does not proceed with the eviction of Palestinian families to make way for settlers. We should also condemn of course the Hamas rocket attacks that we have seen injuring Israeli civilians. Clearly, the carnage we are seeing in Gaza is terrible and shocking. I call on the Leader to convey that to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney.
I call on the Leader for a debate on housing and in particular on the housing crisis and the lack of provision for young people to be able to buy their own homes. My call is in light of the ESRI report by the economist Barra Roantree which shows us that the most severe impact of Covid-19 and the pandemic has been on our young people.
It is good to be here in the convention centre again, where Deputies have been sitting. Contrary to some perceptions, it is not costing the State any more money. It is being paid for today because Deputies are in later today.
Often I stand up here and speak about breastfeeding, periods and the different stages in the lives of women. One thing I have not spoken about is something I was alerted to yesterday. There is a conversation ongoing in Irish society about the menopause. The fact is that we do not talk about it in this Chamber despite the fact that it has been on "Liveline" for several days. This shows that people are afraid to speak about some things relating to the health of women. It is not only mothers who go through the menopause. Fully 50% of the country are impacted. It is time we had a proper conversation about it. It is time we brought it into all our healthcare debates. People are joining a particular Facebook group in droves. They are saying they do not understand fully what is happening to them for many years. They say general practitioners are not fully educated around hormone replacement therapy or anything else for that matter. A high proportion - up to 10% - of women who are suffering symptoms actually leave work as a result of the menopause. When then go to the doctor, this is not really recognised. They may need a sick certificate for a certain period. Do their employers recognise the impact this is having on them? The impacts range across mental and physical health and can be really debilitating. I would like those of us making up the Chamber to speak about it more. There are many recommendations we could put forward to the Minister for Health to take on board and recognise what so many women are going through.
I wish to make another point about reproductive health and abortion. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Bacik. I am stunned that Senator Mullen continues to say we should have a conversation where it is 50:50. The people have already voted on this issue. We have abortion in this country. It was very much needed and people looked for it for a long time.
I look forward to the review of the legislation but we have to put stakeholders front and centre. These include those who had been leaving the country for a long time and those who continue to leave the country because they do not have everything they need here. Let us have stakeholders - those who are actually impacted by terminations - front and centre when it comes to reviewing this legislation.
Last week, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, brought the affordable housing Bill to Cabinet. There are two good proposals in it - an affordable cost rental scheme led by approved housing bodies and a council-run affordable purchase scheme. These two proposals will only be effective if the Government sets ambitious targets and meets those targets with real cash. However, we have seen little cash and ambition from the Minister so far. In budget 2021, just €35 million was allocated for a cost rental scheme and €50 million for the council-run affordable purchase scheme. That will deliver just 530 homes this year.
In 2019, Sinn Féin proposed increasing to 25% the percentage of a private development that would be set aside for social and affordable units, so it is welcome that a slightly lower proposal of 20% is included in this Bill. The Government should adopt more Sinn Féin policies, particularly in housing. The truth is that the Government does not have the political will to help renters, first-time buyers and people in mortgage distress or to end homelessness. This has been nowhere more obvious than in the Government's shared equity scheme. According to the London School of Economics, upon which the Minister's proposal is based, this kind of scheme has increased house prices in London by 6%. The scheme has a series of price caps, including €500,000 for a Dublin city apartment and €450,000 for a house in Dublin city. I do not have to tell Members that this is not affordable. This has no place in housing policy, let alone in an affordable housing Bill. When does the Leader expect this Bill to come to the House? I reiterate that we need to ban rent increases, put an amount equivalent to one month's rent back in the pockets of people who are renting and drive supply with a €900 million investment to deliver 4,000 affordable rental homes a year.
Finally, t is vital Ireland uses its position on the UN Security Council to call for an immediate end to the armed assault on the Palestinian people. The Minister for Foreign Affairs cannot equivocate any longer. The Government must recognise the state of Palestine as the Dáil has done. We must condemn Israel at the Security Council. We need actions, not endless gestures.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to remove the guillotine on the Education (Leaving Certificate 2021) (Accredited Grades) Bill. There are only five amendments and mine is the last. Since the number of amendments is very small, a guillotine is not needed.
I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Frankie Feighan, for his engagement yesterday. I am the Chair of the Oireachtas cross-party group on drug policy reform, which I set up during my previous Seanad term after spending some time in Westminster looking at its very active and effective cross-party group on drug policy reform. We met with the Minister of State and his officials yesterday and it was a good engagement. There is only so much we can highlight in the Chamber during Commencement matters. The Minister of State and his officials spent two hours with us yesterday, covering everything from Naloxone to Suboxone to the ageing population using drug services. We now have an ageing population of people who were on heroin in the 1970s and who still have addiction issues in some cases. Their needs are changing, including issues such as access to buildings or what they require as older people affected by drug use or abuse. It was a very positive engagement. I encourage more engagement with cross-party groups outside the Chamber so that everybody has a fair chance to air a broad range of issues.
I also acknowledge that 16-year-olds voted for the first time in Scotland last Thursday. There are no exit polls indicating how many 16-year-olds voted, but all the articles we read about youth employment indicated a big difference was seen in the kind of policies put forward. The party manifestos had really geared towards the idea of youth politics. That is what happens when we encourage different cohorts to get involved in the political process. We see the agenda of parties change to meet the needs of younger people, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when young people lost out on significant generational opportunities and life-shaping parts of their lives, including missing out on all that is involved in attending college or school. I hope we can look to Scotland and move positively in the same direction over the coming year.
I wish to raise two issues. I first wish to express my delight at the reopening of society. It seems that members of society are like prisoners released to some normality. We should also be aware that we are on probation and if we disobey the guidelines, we might find ourselves back in prison but, hopefully, that will not happen. As the tourism season begins, I observe a large influx of people and an interest in coming to places like west Cork or south Kerry, which is very welcome. In the part of the world I live in, Schull, tourism plays a massive role. The population of our town, or village as some people call it, multiplies by five in the months of July and August, particularly.
Having said that, I am particularly concerned by the plight of small inshore fishermen, not alone in Schull but in Union Hall, Baltimore, Kinsale and other coastal towns. It has recently come to my attention, and is something I have observed, that there is an influx of approximately 50 or 60 camper vans that come and park on the pier with little regard for fishermen. These fishermen fish from boats that are approximately 18 ft to 30 ft long; I am not sure what that is in metres. They are inshore fishermen whose guidelines and parameters for fishing are in accordance with the weather available to them. They may have to fish on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday because they cannot go out if there has been a terrible week of weather. They are impeded from accessing their gear, whether it is lobster pots, crab pots, shrimp or whatever, because the camper vans park in such an indiscriminate way. I raised this matter through a councillor with Cork County Council and it stated that tourism is very important, as if this is in some way relevant. That is not the case.
I ask the Leader to look at this situation since Schull is not the only place affected. The rights of traditional fishermen who are, unfortunately, becoming very scarce, must be respected. Tourists love their gourmet restaurants but they must remember that lobster, crab, shrimp, prawns and so on do not fall from the sky. The fishermen have to go out and get them. I ask that small inshore fishermen are respected whether they are in Cork, Kerry, Donegal or Galway.
We are back in the convention centre, which might not be the best place for Parliament to sit, but is a wonderful setting and vista. It is great to see the rejuvenation of this area of Dublin, which has taken place over a large number of years. Last week in Galway, representatives attended a virtual presentation from Galway Harbour Company regarding its vision for the inner docklands of Galway city. Some 17 acres of land has the potential to transform Galway city and reshape it towards the sea and the beautiful Galway Bay. The proposals include the creation of a new urban quarter for significant new residential, commercial, cultural and amenity space in the heart of the city. We are talking about the heart of the city since this is some two to three minutes' walk from Eyre Square. All of this will be beside the sea with its view, calming setting and maritime history.
This is all possible due to key decisions made by Galway Harbour Company. As a former director of this company, I am delighted to have been able to assist in the progress of plans for a new, deeper, non-tidal pier and harbour. Over recent years decisions have been made that have freed up lands for some of this development with the rest of the progress of the new port being built.An Bord Pleanála has agreed that the new port should be considered under the imperative reasons of overriding public interest, IROPI, process and the next stage is with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage for decision. I am sure he will assess that in the very near future.
Ports have and will continue to play a hugely important role in Ireland's trade potential and will have a role in the renewable industry. We must also look at lands that can be utilised, reimagined and re-envisaged, as has been done here in Dublin and as can be done in Galway, and the potential of the urban regeneration development fund towards assisting in that vision and reimagining the port in Galway.
The repair and leasing scheme is one that seems good in principle. It provides upfront funding to property owners to perform renovations on vacant properties and, in return, the property owner agrees to lease the renovated property back to the local authority to provide social housing for 25 years. I have recently established the number of dwellings delivered by local authorities under the scheme. From 2017 until the end of 2020 the number of dwellings delivered nationally under the scheme was a mere 234 in four years, fewer than 60 a year. This is a paltry figure. In spite of the increase in the scheme's funding limit to €60,000, it is still inadequate to stimulate demand. Not enough money is being made available to repair the houses. With steep inflation in building costs, I doubt the budget of €11 million for the scheme in 2021 will deliver the number of units anticipated. The scheme is another abject failure of the housing policies of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
I also raise the issue of the vaccination programme. Last December, the Government's own national vaccination programme and implementation plan had assigned the central role to pharmacies in the programme. Why have they not been involved in administering a single vaccine? Some 2,000 pharmacists have been trained and are experienced vaccinators. They have a capacity to administer more than 50,000 a week. If the Government wants to hit its vaccination target by the end of June, I urge it to delay no longer.
Finally, on reproductive health and abortion, I say in support of Senator Mullen that the review is welcome. I was not aware until yesterday that no data on abortions were kept. I am particularly concerned about the late-term abortions and the question of pain relief for the unborn. A question and conversation needs to be had no this. While many support reproductive health, I am sure that, similarly, they will show compassion for the unborn and, it is hoped, agree to support pain relief in late-term abortions.
This is my first day as a returning Member in this Chamber and it is great to be here. I also echo Senator O'Loughlin's remarks on Seán Lemass. I had already put a few words together, but she has covered most of them. It is important we remember he was really the driver of the opening up of Irish society to investment from abroad, to foreign direct investment which has provided so much employment and improved our living standards. He was also the Taoiseach at the time free education was being put through the Houses. Donogh O'Malley gets a lot of the credit but Seán Lemass deserves a fair share of it too. His legacy lives on with his grandson, Deputy Seán Haughey, who is still a Member of this Oireachtas.
I really welcome what happened yesterday in the reopening of society. It was fantastic. You could hear the joy of people being able to think about going shopping, organising to get their hair cut and feeling there is a freedom there now that was not there before. However, we are all aware that takeaway pints are being served and hospitality is occurring in a less than ideal regulated environment. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister and NPHET to look at the reopening of the outdoor hospitality sector perhaps a couple of weeks earlier than planned on 7 June, mainly because it is happening already. It would be more regulated, it would involve social distancing, table service and toilets being available. It would stop the free-for-all attitude there at the moment. I also ask that the possibility of indoor dining be pursued as soon as possible for employment and tourism throughout the country. The sooner indoor dining and socialising is available, when safe, the better for society as a whole.
It is great to be back in the Chamber. I raise An Taisce's decision to appeal a significant proposal by Glanbia to a higher court last week. It is a really significant decision and something we need to start having a conscious debate about. The hard-working farming community and food industry are under enough pressure without having An Taisce taking this decision this morning. It is having a huge impact on the industry and the communities. The economic and social impacts of this decision could have long-term consequences for rural Ireland. Unfortunately, An Taisce pulled out of the agrifood strategy consultation phase. It should be the friend of the farming community but at the moment it is considered anything but. We need a debate on how we will work with An Taisce and how we progress this. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage should be brought before the House.
The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) (Amendment) Act 2018 needs to be amended. It allowed for a fast-track legislative route for housing development and for economically sustained development. The dairy industry and the agricultural food industry should be a part of any such Bill. We amended it before for data centres. We should now look at amending it again to incorporate the food industry. It is one of the primary parts of our society which directly employs 10% of our economy. Vast parts of my area and Ireland generally need that protection in law now. We are not talking about fast-tracking laws but about making sure the agricultural industry can be protected.
It is really important to acknowledge the very important research undertaken by the ESRI, published this morning, on how young workers now fare worse in wages and access to housing compared with previous generations. For years, trade unionists and others on the left raised this and we were told Ireland was different because we had the most highly educated workforce across any EU member state. Well, that is not the case; Ireland is not different. We now need to hear from the Government about how it will take seriously the employment issues for young workers and the rental and housing crisis that befalls all young people now.
A paper by Dr. Úna Monaghan published on 31 March in Ethnomusicology Irelandtalked about the mechanisms and structures of the Irish traditional music scene and how it continues to privilege the contribution of men. This cosseted position is enabling some within the music scene to abuse their power to harass, assault and coerce women without consequences. Many of us watched the "Prime Time" programme last year which described the culture of fear and sexual harassment perpetrated by some within that scene. We have enormous thanks to Fair Plé and #MiseFosta in their campaign tackling that culture. There are very serious questions about what we are prepared to do as legislators. Are we prepared to allow public support and funding to be given to some of those artists who are perpetrating that harassment and coercion?Will we sit back and let these women be silenced into saying nothing because of the impact on their livelihoods, their hopes and their ambitions? We, as legislators, need to do more to ensure compliance with bullying and harassment requirements is made a condition of airplay, performance and other financial support that the State gives to the arts and music sector. It is no longer acceptable to stand by without having conditions in place for financial support to the music and wider arts sector.
I call on the Leader to organise a debate on the Irish Water investment programme at the earliest opportunity. Every county in the country has issues with water and wastewater. In west Clare, there is a very serious issue with an ageing asbestos water pipe network that has been there for more than 50 years and has gone beyond its operational life span. There are recurring incidents of burst pipes in the line. In the last three or four weeks there have been five or six breaks in a section of the pipe network between Creagh and Cooraclare, which has a major impact on that community.
I compliment the staff of the local authority along with Councillor Bill Chambers who have done their best to get the leaks fixed. However, that as a policy is not good enough. Investment is required to replace the ageing pipe network. It is not good enough for the communities that suffer as a result. Over the weekend I spoke to families who are very severely impacted. Families with young children need to prepare bottles along with the usual stuff associated with the domestic household. Unannounced, breaks occur in the line and families find themselves without water. When the water supply is restored, they have all the associated problems of dirty water for hours. Sometimes it takes a day or two to flush out that dirty water and there are also airlocks. Farmers, particularly dairy farmers, are going through a busy period. They need fresh water to clean out their milking systems but they cannot be guaranteed a water supply to do it. After the morning milking, it must be completed before the evening.
That area of the county is also looking forward to the reopening of tourism. It is not a great image to portray when trying to welcome people back to tourist facilities and not being able to assure them that they will be able to have a shower in the morning or that there will be water to boil the kettle. We need a serious debate in this House on that investment programme. The sooner we can arrange it, the better.
I echo Senator Lombard's call for planning laws to deal with An Taisce. The decisions it has made or the lack of acceptance of court judgments are reprehensible in many ways. This has a real knock-on effect on farmers in my area in Tipperary. It is attacking farmers in one region and not farmers around the whole country, which is extremely unfair.
I want to talk about the arts and entertainment sector, and dance schools. Some months ago, people representing dance groups protested outside Leinster House asking for clarity on what they could do at the time. We eventually provided that, but only after they had come to Dublin to look for it. We are in a similar situation again with a lack of clarity for that sector. I call on the Leader to write to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to request clarity. Clonmel is due to host the Clonmel Arts Festival which is a big annual event. However, there is no clarity on how it will be hosted, whether it will be outdoor or indoor, etc. I ask for clarity.
A real game changer in the ability of the arts and entertainment sector to host events will be antigen testing. We have seen gigs around the world. Places like Barcelona have hosted gigs with 5,000 people, which went really well. If we are going to introduce guidelines for antigen testing in the coming days, we should also launch an awareness campaign on the usage of antigen testing. Anyone who has had a test for Covid-19 knows that it is a bit more complicated than one would think. It is not as simple as one would think. There is no point in doing a test incorrectly and assuming the result one has is the correct result. We need to educate people and provide the public with guidelines and a demonstration on how it should be done.
I offer my solidarity to two groups of people today, first the Palestinians whom I witnessed at first-hand being denied medical supplies in 2015 when I was there after the Israeli defence forces bombed them. I also offer my solidarity to the Ballymurphy families who are awaiting the findings of the inquest into what happened to their loved ones.
This morning, once again we have woken up to news about how broken our housing system is. An ESRI report found that home ownership by the age of 30 has halved in the space of a generation. Young people are forced to stay with their parents or live in the precarious overpriced private rental market. A second report this morning exposed how a Government agency, set up to boost small house builders, is now ploughing millions of euro into cuckoo developments. Sinn Féin warned that would happen. When the Home Building Finance Ireland legislation was being introduced, we tabled amendments to ensure that those loans would go to small builders and developers. However, once again Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael sided with the big players and voted against our amendments.
Large-scale investors are ploughing billions of euro into the private rental market. They are treating our population, especially the young, single and divorced, as cash cows. Home ownership is out of their grasp and so too is secure low-cost rental. Today, Sinn Féin will introduce a Private Members' Bill in the Dáil to rein in the vulture funds that Fine Gael invited in with open arms in 2013 when Enda Kenny said Ireland was a great little country to do business in. He sure as hell was not messing about. Real estate investment trusts, REITs, and Irish real estate funds, IREFs, pay no corporation tax and no capital gains tax. They enjoy preferential tax advantages and exemptions on their private rental business. Sinn Féin would end those tax advantages and exemptions, and we would impose a stamp duty surcharge on the purchase of residential property by REITs and IREFs.
I call for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come before this House to outline his urgent plan to address vulture funds. We hear he has no plans to present to Cabinet today. The Government ignored our warnings on vulture funds and ignored our warnings on Home Building Finance Ireland, but it cannot continue to ignore the enormous anger among people who just want a secure home.
Today I wish to remember someone who lived in the Dublin Central constituency. He was a visionary, a leader, a true revolutionary, and an innovator of unparalleled intellect, integrity and modesty. I would like to remember Seán Lemass. He grew up on Capel Street. He attended O'Connell boys' school on the North Circular Road where he was an excellent student. He fought in the GPO in 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Along with Eamon de Valera in 1926, he tried to convince Sinn Féin to recognise the Free State, to oppose the partition of our island and to engage in democratic politics to lead our country and our republic forward.
Along with de Valera and others he founded Fianna Fáil. He is seen as the father of modern Ireland. He saw economic success as a direct contributor to social success. He supported innovation and industry. Most importantly, he championed social values that delivered free education, social housing, investment in health and protection for workers.
Today is the 50th anniversary of his death. I am proud to say that in Dublin Central today, Fianna Fáil in government is true to those values, is championing social housing, will deliver the biggest social housing programme in over a decade, is legislating to have the State provide affordable housing both for purchase and rent on State-owned lands, and is investing more than €120 million here in Dublin's north inner city to ensure there will be a State-led commemorative centre on Moore Street for 1916 and that the dereliction that has dominated Moore Street for more than a decade will be reversed. There will be a vibrant rejuvenated street market on Moore Street and there will be a national monument that will forever pay testimony to those heroes who brought about our great Republic.
I wish to talk about local enterprise offices and the Intreo offices.I seek the support of the House to call on the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to give both these important offices extra supports at this time when we are opening up the country. According to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office, we have 248,000 small businesses that employ between one and ten workers. I do not know about businesses in other places but I know that in Clare one cannot rely on the big businesses and the multinationals as one does not know how long they will stay around. However, one can rely on small businesses doing everything they can to keep their employees and themselves in business. The local enterprise offices have played a blinder in the last 14 months in supporting small businesses but I know from speaking to those in that sector that they need extra supports and additional staff. As we open up the economy, more jobs will come onstream. The Intreo offices are dealing with people who are unemployed and looking for work. It is important for those two offices to connect more and to get the supports to do so. In that way, we could get people off the live register but also give them choices in jobs that might keep them employed, as opposed to being forced to take a job simply because it is available but which they might drop out of later. We all want to do work that is valuable and for which we are appreciated. There is no better sector than the small business sector to appreciate its workers. Working in that sector is more like being in a family than working for a large corporation. We underestimate the power and importance of the small business sector in Ireland. We have nearly a quarter of a million small businesses with fewer than ten employees in the country. Clare has approximately 6,000 small businesses providing 66,000 jobs. We need to focus more on the Intreo offices and the small business sector to support small businesses in finding staff and also to support people who want to come off social welfare.
I wish to raise two related issues. The first concerns South Westmeath Hospice. Its current site at the St. Vincent's centre in Athlone is closed and the hospice is to be moved to a newly built nursing unit at Clonbrusk. The voluntary group which has raised more than €1 million to develop the current site was given assurances last October that the new building would mirror the old one. However, the HSE now plans to incorporate four hospice beds into the rest of the facility, contrary to the written agreement that was given a few years ago. This is utterly devastating to the hardworking committee. I ask for the Minister for Health and the head of the HSE to meet the voluntary committee immediately to alter these plans. The decision that has been taken is outrageous. It mirrors an issue in my county of Longford. Two years ago I and a number of my colleagues met the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, at St. Joseph's Care Centre along with members of Longford Hospice. We got agreement for a two-bed unit to be incorporated into a new building that was being developed there. Recently, I received a letter from the HSE in response to my following up the matter on behalf of Longford Hospice. The letter states that any commitment to increasing the number of palliative beds at the expense of a long-term bed would have to be accompanied by an appropriate budget allocation to compensate for the fair deal income reduction in order to maintain services for current and future residents. That is the response to a voluntary committee which raises funds of more than €100,000 a year to provide vital services. It is outrageous that we will put a price on providing palliative care for people to be close to their homes before they pass away. I would like the Minister and the head of the HSE to meet with both committees and reverse these decisions.
Following the ESRI announcement this morning highlighting the difficulties being experienced by young people with respect to housing and employment, we should look towards establishing a State internship programme for young people and not so young people. It should have a proper established format where young people who come out of college or school could get an internship in a State Department or body and get practical, proper work experience. I was one of the people who benefited from working in Louth County Council for three summers. That work experience benefited me and gave me a knowledge of how matters operate at local government level, a taste for economic research and an interest to move on to my master's in economics. That experience cannot be underestimated. Under Charlie McCreevy's decentralisation programme, he and Fianna Fáil provided for the creating of State Departments and bodies throughout the country. We need to have a proper programme to help young people to get into work. Getting office and work experience will be a problem for young people in the aftermath of Covid because of the change in the way we now work. It is up to the State to look after young people to give them a boost with respect to their CVs, experience and lives. That is what I propose this morning. I would welcome that proposal being discussed at a later date.
I wish to raise two issues. When I called last week for the Minister for Health to come into the House to discuss the vaccination programme, I raised the case of two vulnerable people who had not been vaccinated. I am ashamed to say that a week later they still have not been vaccinated nor have they received a phone call, even though the respective Departments have given many promises that they will be in touch with them.
As we open up society, and now that many people have got accustomed to online shopping, we need to run a marketing campaign to encourage people to stay local, support local and shop local. Such a campaign needs to be run not only in our local villages, towns and cities but nationally. As society opens, it is important that small businesses, which were mentioned already, should be supported in every way possible.
I said I would raise two issues but I want to also raise a third one. Limerick Lifelong Learning Festival was launched yesterday. It will be a virtual festival that will run from 24 to 30 May. More than 100 presentations will be made during the festival for the young and the not so young. As we open up our museums and libraries, it is important that education and lifelong learning are supported and highlighted.
A wide variety of topics have been raised for discussion. In response to Senator Maria Byrne's matter, I have requested a debate with the Minister for Health on the ongoing vaccination programme. It is quite disheartening to hear that the two people the Senator brought to this House’s attention last week still have not even had contact. I do not know if my office can be of any assistance but I am willing to help. If the Senator would like to make contact with me afterwards, I will see if I can help. I wish the Limerick Lifelong Learning Festival every success. It will probably be a little bit strange for those involved to be doing it online. but we will find every way possible to make sure it can be a success.
Senator McGreehan raised a very good idea and I will ask for a debate on her proposal. I would highlight that the public sector supported 750 apprentices last year and will strive to do more. The Minister with responsibility for further and higher education announced only recently that his ambition is for us to have 10,000 apprenticeships. We can all acknowledge our young people have been adversely affected, as have women, because of the pandemic and the unemployment statistics, which are not pleasant to read. It is definitely an issue we will have to debate in the future.
Senator Carrigy asked for the Minister and the CEO of the HSE to meet a local organisation that has championed the project he raised for the past number of years. I will write to Paul Reid and to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, today to ask them to meet those local people to discuss the ongoing events in the Senator’s area.
Senator Garvey spoke of the wonderful work our local enterprise offices and Intreo offices do and reminded us there should be more co-operation between the two to specifically home in on what requirements with respect to educational support, mentoring and work experience are needed in each area. We might have a debate with the Minister with responsibility for employment affairs in the coming weeks on what plans are afoot to make sure we support our unemployed people to get them back into work.
Senator Fitzpatrick, as did Senators Horkan and Senator O'Loughlin at the start of proceedings, spoke of the powerful legacy Seán Lemass has left that is enshrined in many aspects of Irish life. I want to say how powerful and passionate Senator Fitzpatrick's contribution was and not only in paying tribute to Seán Lemass. She had not a note in her hand and she delivered her contribution very eloquently. One would certainly know it came from the heart. I want to acknowledge that to the House.
Senator Boylan spoke of her solidarity with Palestinians and the Ballymurphy families who are awaiting the much anticipated news today from the inquest.I am acknowledging that we are thinking of them. I have requested a debate on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and, once I have a date, I will let colleagues know when that will happen.
Senator Ahearn spoke about An Taisce as indeed did Senator Lombard. It was raised yesterday and I said we will acknowledge and note the comments that have been made.
Senator Dooley asked for a debate on the Irish Water investment programme. I will write to the Minister today and ask for that. It is very poignant, given some of the reports that have been issued this morning and some of the requests that have been made, which should not go down very well not only in political circles but in many other circles in respect of water charges.
Senator Sherlock spoke about the ESRI research that was also mentioned by other Members. This is something on which we should possibly have a debate. Colleagues have asked when we are going to have a debate on the affordable housing Bill, if it is published this week, and I expect it to be published tomorrow. I will try to start that debate next Monday. There will be no confinement in that debate and everybody who wants to discuss the very good merits of the Bill will have the opportunity to do so.
Senator Sherlock also spoke about the vast inequality female artists in this country experience, let alone the discrimination they experience. It was very nice, therefore, to see Imelda May’s long-awaited album go straight to No. 1 in the charts and to see that she is supported by everyone in this country. Long may she reign.
Senator Horkan talked about the reopening of society. We have a debate scheduled and I am just waiting for a date from the Minister and will come back to the Senator on that issue.
Senator Keogan talked this morning about the repair and leasing scheme. There are so many facets to the housing response by the State and this is a very good one. You would wonder sometimes why so few houses, only 234 in four years, which seems like a tiny number of houses, have been put forward to avail of this scheme. A grant of €60,000 is not that small an amount of money to incentivise people. We probably need to look to see if there are other routes or if there are other issues within the industry or sector that cause people not to want to reinvest in their houses and lease them back to the local authority. That should form part of the wider debate on housing we will have in the House in the coming weeks.
Senator Keogan also mentioned the review, which was also mentioned by Senator Mullen, on the third anniversary of the legislation to repeal the eighth amendment and the introduction of rights for women in this country that we never had before. That review will take place at some stage this year and we will come back to it once I get a date from the Minister.
Senator Kyne talked about the Galway harbour company and the vision it has to do something similar to what was done in the Dublin docklands area, which has been much rejuvenated in the past 20 years. The Government’s decision and the port’s role in the future development of international trade in this country, given that we are a very small island, will play a vital role in this. I look forward to seeing that Government decision and of it being in favour of Galway.
Senator O’Donovan talked about reopening and urged us all to be cautious, as indeed did Senator Ahearn with regard to the use of antigen tests. I mentioned yesterday in one of my musings that rather than being so critical of the use of antigen tests from the perspective of NPHET, we would all have been brought a little bit more along the process had the wording of one of our adviser’s tweets been a little bit more encouraging of us and perhaps of having a positive campaign on the best use of antigen tests and how their results can be administered. I am also mindful, and I do not mean this in any disrespectful way to Senator Ahearn, that women and their partners in this country have been using pregnancy tests since time immemorial and we have no problem reading the instructions and figuring out what the actual results mean. An antigen test, therefore, is not going to be that much more difficult, but I take the Senator's point.
Senator Warfield talked about the affordable housing Bill. As I said, if it is published tomorrow, I hope to bring it before the House next week. The Senator also acknowledge our position on the UN Security Council with regard to condemning the conflict in Palestine and Israel. As I said, I will come back again once I have a date for that debate.
Senator Pauline O’Reilly spoke about something that is very topical recently. A lady I have great admiration for, Anne O’Leary, the head of Vodafone Ireland, introduced a menopausal policy in the company, which is one of the largest employers in the country. It is an example that many more employers could take on board and it is definitely something we could have a conversation in the House about because it impacts not just the many women in this country going through that at a certain time in their lives but also their families, employers and work colleagues because of the impact it has on a woman’s health.
Senator Mullen spoke about our abortion laws. We can all acknowledge he has a particular view and other colleagues have a different view. This does not take away from the fact the review of the legislation after three years will take place this year, and it may be appropriate to have a conversation about the review and allow people to express their concerns or indeed their positivity towards the new medical care available for women in this country.
Senator Bacik spoke about the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and looking for a condemnation. She also sought a housing debate which it is hoped we will have next week.
Senator O’Loughlin opened with a tribute to Seán Lemass and sought a very urgent assessment of the review that is needed of the driving test backlog. Some 100,000 of our people are looking and waiting to have their driving tests. Under normal circumstances that would take years and that is certainly not something that can be countenanced. I look forward to the response of the Minister for Transport as to how he intends to manage that.
There was one amendment proposed. Unfortunately I cannot accept it for two reasons. One is that we are time constrained today and have to leave at 1 o’clock, which means the last vote has to be called 15 minutes beforehand. Probably more importantly, however, the Bill is going to the Dáil on Thursday and I could not ask for it to be rolled over until next Monday. The four Government amendments are technical ones and should not take any more than about 15 minutes, which would give an hour to discuss and debate the Senator’s amendment, which I hope may be enough for her. I thank the Cathaoirleach.
Senator Ruane has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That the proceedings of the Committee and Remaining Stages of the Education (Leaving Certificate) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021 be adjourned at 12.45 p.m. if not previously concluded." Is the amendment being pressed?