Monday, 14 June 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3.45 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply; No. 2, Public Service Pay Bill 2020 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 1 and to conclude after 90 minutes, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed four minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Counterfeiting Bill 2020 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, and to conclude after 60 minutes, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed six minutes and the contribution of all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Private Members' business, Employment Equality (Amendment) (Non-Disclosure Agreements) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 7 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 3, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
I support the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader. As we see the return of football, I commend the Kildare players on their terrific win against Meath yesterday. I am sure the Leader does not mind me saying it. I also congratulate the Kildare ladies who played against our other neighbours in Laois.
This week is Men's Health Week. It is a week when we raise awareness of preventable men's issues. The theme for this week is making the connections - check in, check up and check it out. That is an important message to send out to all men. We rightly spend quite a bit of time talking about women's health issues in the Chamber and it is important to acknowledge the health issues men may have.
I want to talk about domestic abuse and how it impacts men. The statistics indicate that one in seven men suffers domestic abuse but only 5% ever report it. Only one national group deals with domestic abuse for men which is Men's Aid Ireland. It operates in Dublin and has four outreach clinics. Its phone number is 01 5543811. We have no domestic shelter in the country for men who may need to take their children from difficult situations and it is time that we had. I call on the Government to explore establishing a domestic abuse shelter for men in this country.
We now know that 500 testaments to the mother and baby homes commission were not used which is very shocking. It is very clear that the terms of reference establishing the commission were flawed. It is very regrettable that the commissioners will not appear before the Oireachtas committee. Ultimately, the report is flawed. I welcome that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has said that he is seeking independent international advice in terms of judging the report and judging also these 500 submissions. It is important that we get redress for the victims who have been so severely impacted by all of this.
I know many of us have received correspondence regarding Justice for Reggie, the awareness campaign relating to dog theft and puppy farming. The campaign is named after a 12-week-old Labrador that was sold and had a really difficult death three days later. We need much more legislation. We need greater regulation of online selling sites. We need a pet register. We need stricter sanctions for vets who knowingly sign off on ill dogs. All breeders need to be licensed. I call for a debate in this House on the matter.
We have had a week of uncertainty in the aviation sector. Our thoughts go to staff who have lost jobs over the weekend and those whose jobs are under threat within the aviation sector. I welcome that emergency seven-month contracts can issue where a new operator can be found for PSO services to Kerry and Donegal. It seems like a different world when in late 2019 the then Government of which I was a member was able to buy the Connemara airport for the PSO service to the Aran Islands. Little did anyone think we would see the collapse in the aviation sector across the world even a few months after that.I acknowledge that €300 million in State funding has been provided by the Government for this sector spanning employment supports, such as the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme to maintain links between employers and employees, the waiver of commercial rates and the deferral of taxes, all of which are positive in protecting jobs. Having spoken with senior management in some of our US-based multinationals in Galway, I know that the present status of our aviation sector is of concern to them. The view is that we are being left behind compared to other countries. One commented that we need to be more in step with other countries. Another commented that competitor countries are back operating international travel. I am concerned about the impact on businesses supported by foreign direct investment, FDI, the impact on the hugely important tourism industry, particularly from Shannon Airport and Ireland West Airport Knock, the hundreds of jobs in aviation across the regions, the wider impact on connectivity and the increasing peripherality due to the collapse in the sector, and the loss of opportunity of new investment. IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta client companies, National University of Ireland Galway, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and University Hospital Galway, in my own region, depend on connectivity internationally. I am calling for an urgent debate on aviation given recent developments and implications for connectivity for the economy, whether it be in the west, the mid-west, the north west or the south west. We are losing ground on all fronts as a nation on aviation. The Government collectively needs to act to protect a vital national interest. We need to look at antigen testing, how it is being used in other countries, how it is being used internationally, how it is benefiting other countries and why it is not being deemed to be a runner in this country. It is broader than the two Ministers for transport. There needs to be a whole-of-government debate on the sector, on the impact on jobs, on the impact on tourism and on the impact on every sector and every region. I ask that there be a serious debate on the issue of aviation with the Minister for Transport, the Minister for Health, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Taoiseach or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform,
Arising from the remarks which have just been made about the commission in relation to mother and baby homes, I would like to put a few things on the record as my personal opinion on the matter. Firstly, I have had the privilege of reading the letter sent in by the three commissioners in response to the Oireachtas committee's invitation to appear before it. I found that the letter was respectful. It was clear. It set out precisely why, on the basis of the legislative basis for commissions of investigation and the requirement that persons who participate as commissioners in such processes be seen to be independent, the framework envisages the commissioners doing their best to come up with a clear, unequivocal and objective view of the matter and putting that in to the Minister for publication by the Minister.
One of the points the commissioners made - it is one I mention without any degree of recrimination - is that the terms of reference of this commission, as have been mentioned, were ones which were objected to at the very start. The commissioners made the point that a good deal of their critics were the people who now say that the report should be rejected on the basis that it did not conform to the terms of reference they would have liked. I want to put it on the record of this House in defence of the commissioners that under the constitutional jurisprudence which applies to tribunals of inquiry of any kind, there has to be constitutional due process. The idea of the confidential committee was always to be one where a general report would be developed based on what people, who wanted to have their input, gave to the confidential committee report process as their particular experience but, and this is the point, they were given and many of them availed of a guarantee of confidentiality. That is the first thing. Secondly, and more importantly than that, they were given the privilege of having input into what would be a general report on their particular experiences without any obligation to be cross-examined or challenged or to stand up their events. Their version was taken as it was given. That, as a matter of law, is fine as long as a commission hearing does not proceed to say there was no other side to this matter, there was no other case to be made, there was no cross-examination to take place and the commission is taking it as absolute gospel.
I want to put it on the record that the Government is perfectly entitled to get in a third party to look at it from a human rights point of view, if that is what the Government proposes. I took the trouble of ordering the printed version of this from the Department. It is 3,000 pages of substantial work. The commissioners have not got fair or adequate acknowledgement of the massive amount of work they did to uncover a huge scandal in the way Ireland dealt with its most vulnerable people in the past.
Just as we are cautiously reopening, in particular with outdoor hospitality returning, I commend all the businesses and individuals who are running such well-ordered establishments. I have had the opportunity to travel across Dublin Bay South a lot in recent weeks and it has been really great to see so many places reopening and such general delight at being able to socialise safely again out of doors. I commend Dublin City Council on many of the great initiatives it is taking in terms of pedestrianisation in city centre streets and in terms of working with others for really creative use of public spaces. I am thinking in particular of Rathgar village where really good public seating is accessible to all in the grounds of a church run in collaboration with the local authority. However, in my own area, in Portobello, we have had issues around consultation with Dublin City Council. I am certainly happy to be working with local residents now to try to resolve matters there and ensure we can create safe and accessible public spaces that all can enjoy without encroaching on the rights of people to live peacefully in a residential area. I will leave it at that, but we are working on that.
I ask for a debate on maternity healthcare and on women's health because, while we are seeing this welcome cautious reopening, there has been a real lagging behind when it comes to women going into maternity hospitals to give birth. Despite apparent agreement by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer that restrictions on partners attending and accompanying women into hospitals should end or should at least be alleviated, we are seeing and I heard even at the weekend reports from women who are in labour in hospital and yet cannot have their partners with them. It has in some cases led to very distressing experiences for women and it needs to be addressed. I would ask that we might have a debate on it. As it is something the Leader feels strongly about, she might contact the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health to see what can be done to ensure that if there is a directive that partners are allowed in, it should be complied with in maternity hospitals in a safe manner. This is at a time where there is huge public concern that I share about the proposed governance structures of the new national maternity hospital. This is a matter that has been allowed to continue for far too long and we have not heard reassuring intervention from the Minister for Health on it. We might have a debate on women's healthcare, in particular, on maternity healthcare and the new national maternity hospital, in this House. It would be a useful and constructive way to engage with the Minister for Health on these issues.
Finally, I want to ask for a debate on an international matter. Colleagues will have shared the same deep concern that I and others felt on hearing the Amnesty International report from last week about the dreadful abuse of Uighur Muslims in China. I refer to the awful systematic horrors that are being perpetrated on this small minority population in a region of China. I would ask the Leader that we might have a short debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs to express our deep concern about this.
Apologies. Obviously, we have been in recess for the past week. During that time a number of things have happened and a number of those things are concerning maternal health. We bring this up week in, week out. I thank Senator Bacik for also raising the matter. I would welcome a debate on it.
In particular, I would like to raise the issue of breastfeeding rates in Ireland and also the recent appointment to Safefood of an executive from an infant formula manufacturing company.This is concerning because we have unprecedented commitments in our programme for Government around breastfeeding and maternal health. We have had a recent announcement of funding for lactation consultants across the country. We cannot give with one hand and take with the other.
I thank the 24 GPs who wrote about their concern around the recent appointment. A 2020 report inThe Lancetmedical journal found that large manufacturers of breast milk substitutes have inappropriately positioned themselves as sources of public health expertise. We need to be careful and I want to hear from the Minister as to why the appointment was made and what process was followed.
We have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. The WHO has said breastfeeding is the most appropriate thing a state can put its money behind to promote health. However, 64% of women initiate breastfeeding when they enter hospital and only 37% leave hospital breastfeeding, a matter of days later. We have to examine why that is. Let us put money into lactation consultants to support women but let us also make sure we are appointing the correct people in the correct way to our health-promotion organisations. I would welcome a debate solely around breastfeeding or as part of a debate around maternal healthcare.
We are coming to the end of term for primary schools. More children are cycling. There were 65 bikes outside Scoil Iognáid this morning. We have to make sure that we are eliminating the need for cycling advocates all over Twitter telling us how many bikes there are and that we are putting into place all the things this Government has funded to make sure children can safely cycle or walk to school come September.
I raise the delay in implementing a national autism empowerment strategy. The issues affecting autistic children and adults are long-standing. Families, children and adults have had to battle for years for basic rights and entitlements. On World Autism Day 2019, my colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Funchion, secured unanimous support for her motion calling for a national autism strategy. That motion caused for an all-party Oireachtas committee to be established and to produce a national strategy. Ireland is one of the few countries that does not have such a strategy; instead, parents are left to battle the system and rely on support and advice from NGOs and parent support groups. A national strategy would ensure there would be a one-stop shop that people could access for all of their needs, including diagnosis, occupational therapy and speech and language. It would ensure Departments would share and co-operate, including the Departments of health, transport and education. Waiting lists would be co-ordinated so families do not find themselves continuously pushed to the back of the queue every time they need to access a different support. A national strategy would also ensure we have enough school places and additional educational needs, AEN, class places, and that we have fit for purpose second level supports.
I met with the Autism Equality Dublin Bay parents group last week and its members outlined deep frustration with mixed messages regarding AEN classes in the area. With many children facing a new term without a school place, they were informed that the Shellybanks Educate Together National School has planning permission for two prefabs to be installed on the current grounds to enable the opening of an AEN class and sensory room for September 2021. When those parents in the local area, anxious to find a place for their child for the coming school year, contacted the school, they were told the school believes the timeline to be unmanageable and the parents would have to wait. This is not good enough. The planning permission and the space are there. The parents and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, are willing to work with the school to assist them in any preparation needed. The refusal of the school to expedite the AEN classroom is a slap in the face to parents who are desperate to find places for their neurodiverse children within their community.
Neurodiverse children should not be forced to leave their communities to access an education. We need equality across the school system and it is not good enough that access to AEN classes is decided by boards of management not local need. I ask the Leader of the House to see if we can have an update on when the Government will progress the national autism empowerment strategy that was passed unanimously in the Dáil in 2019.
I highlight the report published by Alcohol Action Ireland last week. It is called Alcohol Treatment Services: A snapshot survey 2021. It explores some of the prevailing issues related to alcohol services in Ireland and it is shocking. It highlights the significant gap between services needed and those available, the additional difficulties placed on those seeking services and the added harm to children and family networks. I commend Alcohol Action Ireland for presenting a concise and poignant synopsis of the views sought from service providers who were interviewed over a period of time in 2020. It distils the commentary on a range of issues, including mental health and trauma, reducing the impact on children and families, gaps in services and barriers to treatment. I strongly encourage those who have not read it to do so.
Alcohol Action Ireland encourages a national discussion around a variety of recommendations that I want to highlight today. The issue of dual diagnosis arose in the report findings. It stated the mental health of clients seeking treatment was a significant and serious concern for those surveyed. Many client users often experienced problems getting adequate treatment for both issues. The report recommends that, in order to correct this, an investment must be made to ensure services have the capacity to adequately address alcohol dependency and unmet mental health needs.
The issue of trauma as a result of adverse childhood experiences was explored. It was recognised by many service providers within its client population. The report states that to correct this pervasive problem with trauma, which is so widespread in our country, we need to work to develop a trauma-informed national strategy regarding delivery of the best possible treatment to people accessing alcohol treatment services, including aspects such as models of care and integrated mental health.
Another finding is that children are often forgotten in the programmes of those seeking treatment. Some 50% of those in treatment are fathers or mothers with children having to share the journey to recovery. I am passionate about this area, as the Leader well knows, through my work with the RISE Foundation. The report states providers believe children require a specific response if the intergenerational cycle of dependency and trauma is to be broken. This is so important.
I would like to call for a debate on this issue, if possible. It is an important issue and I also recommend that members read the report and see the impact it has. I would really appreciate if we could have a debate on this issue.
I have been contacted by many people over 60 years of age who feel aggrieved they are still waiting on their second vaccine slot despite the fact that many younger cohorts are now fully vaccinated. Many over-60s feel they are vulnerable to the virus and many medically high-risk individuals are in the same boat. The gap between first and second dose of AstraZeneca was originally 12 weeks but I understand there are recommendations the gap can be reduced to 8 weeks. I appreciate that was the medical advice at the time, but 12 weeks is a long time when we compare it with four weeks for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
When people received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the advice was that, after four weeks, they were free to meet unvaccinated people and it was safe to do so. In my opinion, the arrival of the Delta variant changes that advice completely. That variant is widespread in the UK, accounting for up to 90% of infections.The fear is that it will come here if it has not already done so.
Many countries have already adopted different stances on vaccines. Canada, France, Spain and Finland, to name but a few, have decided to use different vaccines for the second shot. Indeed, some medical experts are of the opinion that by giving a different shot the second time, it increases the recipient's chance of not getting the virus. The time has come for the national immunisation advisory committee and the HSE to update their advice. We are in a race against time to vaccinate as many people as possible against the new variant, the Delta variant. I ask the Leader to contact the Minister with a view to asking the national immunisation advisory committee and HSE to update their advice as quickly as possible.
I wish all the businesses in the hospitality sector that have reopened over the past week or so the very best. I got the opportunity at the weekend to visit a number of them. I remind them that the outdoor service enhancement scheme is open from today. Through it, they can apply to their local authorities for funding. I look forward to visiting some of the businesses in Dublin Bay South with Councillor James Geoghegan in the coming weeks.
On the arts sector, I met an arts group in Longford on Friday last. I ask the Minister to give certainty to the arts sector with regard to numbers in theatres, etc. It is extremely frustrating for all those involved that they cannot plan ahead. I feel the sector can operate with restricted numbers but a support mechanism needs to be put in place to allow it to make sense financially. I ask that this be kept on the agenda.
We all saw what happened to Danish footballer Christian Eriksen at the weekend and noted the importance of having a defibrillator close by. I was involved in fundraising several years ago to put defibrillators in place in our communities. Some organisation needs to develop an app stating where the defibrillators are located in order to make sure that there are people trained in all the local areas and that the defibrillators are all working. From talking to people in various communities, I believe many of the defibrillators that have been put in place are not working. Some organisation, working through the HSE or Croí, should be supported to examine this on a national basis.
An issue arises over the high-level border operating model for products of animal origin, which is basically EU legislation that will come into effect on 1 October. No proper certification role pertaining to veterinarians has been put in place yet. It requires alignment between the Irish and UK authorities to ensure our food exports can be accepted through the UK border control posts. If this is not put in place and there is no certainty, there will be jobs put at risk in my community and throughout the country.
I have spoken many times in recent months on the issue of search and rescue operations in Ireland, particularly in the context of the forthcoming contract. The contract that is about to expire has cost this State over €640 million. That contract has many flaws. I sought to have the forthcoming tender scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications but that has not really been taken up. I have used my Private Members' time here to have the issue debated. Again, the response from the Department was outrageous in so far as it provided no answers. Now, somebody from Mountain Rescue Ireland has seen fit to contact me and provide me with a copy of the submission it made to the search and rescue project team. In that submission, Mountain Rescue Ireland is damning of the helicopters in use in this country. The Sikorsky S-92 is too big and heavy. Mountain Rescue Ireland has criticised the fact that the helicopters are never available when they are needed at night because night vision capability was not part of the original contract, although eight years ago we paid more than €3.5 million to have the helicopters upgraded. To my certain knowledge, the services are still not using the night vision technology so the helicopters cannot be used in the mountains. It is said that the downdraft from the helicopters is so severe that it is a danger to the rescue crews at night. This results in casualties being put up risk because they have to be taken out of the mountains on foot at night.
As a Member of the Oireachtas, I believe I am obliged to do everything I can to make sure this country spends its money wisely and gets the best possible service for its citizens. I have done everything I can. My frustration is unbelievable. I just cannot understand where to go with this now. How do I get somebody to sit down and do something about it? The only thing I have got from the Department was an intimidating letter stating that it informed the expert advising it - an expert that had a balance sheet of €13,000 advising on a contract that will probably cost this State €1 billion - of my utterances and he has chosen not to take any issue with me or to take any action against me at this time. I will not be intimidated by anybody. At the end of the day, this State deserves the best it can get. If those concerned think they can bloody well intimidate me out of it, they can think again. It is in black and white; it is in writing. That is a damned bad way for any Department to go. How did we get a children's hospital that is costing billions of euro? We did not scrutinise when we could do so. We can scrutinise matters on this occasion before the tender is issued, and we should do so.
I welcome the confirmation in the past hour from the Northern Ireland Executive that the Government of Mauritius has agreed to re-examine the murder of Tyronewoman Michaela McAreavey. I welcome the intervention in this matter by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the North. I must mention, in particular, that it is the last act of Ms Arlene Foster as First Minister before she resigned. It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since Michaela was murdered on her honeymoon in Mauritius in 2011. That nobody has been brought to justice only adds to the grief of her husband, John. Yesterday, Michaela's father, the GAA legend Mickey Harte, stated that the authorities in Mauritius want the unsolved murder to go away but that neither he nor John, nor their families, would let that happen. Michaela was murdered in the jurisdiction of Mauritius. It is incumbent on Mauritius to investigate the matter fully, which it has not done. Any help that the Government can give in this respect and any help that the Minister for Foreign Affairs can give the families, as citizens of Ireland, would be appreciated. What has occurred today is a good step in the right direction. I welcome the fact that the matter is going to be re-examined.
Today is World Blood Donor Day. I salute all the people who work in the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, who have been working right through the pandemic, making an unstinting commitment. I also salute the thousands of volunteers who give blood regularly and not so regularly. On this day, I encourage those who might not have given blood for a long time to consider doing so. If there are those who are in a position to donate and have not done so to give it a try because it saves lives.
The hospitality industry is open and, hopefully, indoor dining in restaurants will begin in July. That is fantastic news. We are all very excited about it and welcome it but there is a serious problem with restaurants in this country in the context of their ability to retain chefs. I have spoken to a number of restaurant owners over the past few days who are finding it extremely difficult to hire chefs. I spoke this morning to Adrian Cummins, the CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland. He has explained to me that this is a problem countrywide. Many chefs who were in this country before the pandemic have gone home to their own countries. Therefore, we need a three-pronged approach to dealing with this. First, we need a long-term solution, namely, a certificate-type scheme to train chefs in this country. This is badly needed because we certainly have a massive shortage.Second, we need an approach from our embassies around the world to identify and promote Ireland and its hospitality industry to potential people who may consider locating here. The wages for chefs are particularly attractive because of this shortage.
Third, as an immediate short-term measure, we need to look at lifting the visa restrictions for countries, such as Turkey, where there is a surplus of chefs. There are restaurants which, unfortunately, will not be able to open in July because they will not have chefs. It would be most welcome if the Leader could organise a debate on this issue, and more importantly, if she could communicate these concerns to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
Over the weekend we had yet another devastating blow for aviation. When will we see a comprehensive response from the Government? This has not come out of the blue. We have had disgraceful dithering on antigen testing, along with unacceptable uncertainty for a vital sector in this country. We need to see a comprehensive response from the Government.
I also want to raise the mica crisis in Inishowen and other parts of the north west. I have been going to Carndonagh regularly for almost 17 years as my husband is from there. I have never before seen the depth of anger, frustration and desperation among so many in the community about this issue. Hundreds of families have been left to fend for themselves with their houses crumbling around them due to no fault of their own. We need to have a scheme that provides 100% redress. Thousands are planning to come to Dublin tomorrow to make that point to the Government. We had a scheme put in place for pyrite. We had a lesser scheme put in place for mica, which is not acceptable. The 90% offered in that scheme is not enough. It does not even cover the rent that people will need to pay for other accommodation when their houses are being done up. It also does not pay for the expert reports.
The second key issue involved is that it is not acceptable that a company that sold faulty blocks cannot be held to account because the statute of limitations for product liability is confined to ten years. There is much frustration in the communities affected. We see graffiti and hear stories of workers being intimidated. No worker should ever be subjected to that. However, we now need to channel that anger and frustration into ensuring that companies are held to account and that the statute of limitations is looked at. We cannot have a situation where companies fold, evade their responsibilities and simply set up another building materials supply company. This is crucial for this community and others across the north west. I hope the Government will act as soon as possible.
I want to express my sympathies to the poor cyclist who was injured last night in a hit-and-run incident. That was the second hit-and-run in that particular area. I call on the Garda Commissioner to pursue what is happening in that area and to investigate it. Cars are being abandoned after accidents. That somebody was hit is bad enough. To do a hit and run and leave a person by the side of the road who is now in a critical condition, is wrong and needs urgent action.
I also welcome the hospitality industry's slow, careful and managed reopening. It is great to see so many people out enjoying it and so many people back to work.
I want to continue on the point made by Senator Kyne on aviation. Sometimes we forget just how much Ireland has contributed to world aviation. I know this is a subject close to the Leader's heart. We can go right back to the likes of Tony Ryan and GPA, Guinness Peat Aviation, who went on to set up Ryanair which is now Europe's largest airline by passengers carried and by fleet size, based on 2019 figures. Michael O'Leary, an Irish person, is a giant of the airline industry. Half of the aircraft leasing in the world is based in Ireland. Willie Walsh, a former chief executive at Aer Lingus, then British Airways and the International Airlines Group, is now the secretary general to the International Air Transport Association, representing 82% of the world's airlines. Eamonn Brennan, former chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority, is in charge of EUROCONTROL. The former Senator, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, set up Aer Arann originally which became Stobart Air. Alan Joyce is chief executive of Qantas. Shannon Airport invented the concept of duty free.
As a nation and a people, we have contributed huge amounts to aviation. We are more dependent on aviation than any other European country by a long way. Even people in the UK can get the train from London to Brussels or Paris, something that we cannot do from Dublin. Up to 90% of our inbound tourists come by air and 10% by sea. We need an urgent debate on aviation for inbound tourism. The Cathaoirleach is from Kerry and is affected by it in terms of connectivity. My heart goes out to people in Stobart Air but we need an urgent debate on aviation to find out what the Government can do in addition to all it has done already.
There are times when emergency measures are required and when decisive action can be the difference to saving homes, farms and families. Last winter at Lough Funshinagh in County Roscommon we saw on the news a couple in their 80s abandon their home and farms flooded. We saw family homes devastated with water pumps going non-stop. A road was raised 8 ft by the county council to protect homes. This is a turlough, a disappearing lake. However, water levels have reached their highest in living memory with no sign of waters receding. Such levels cause fear and anxiety which are endured every single day by families in the area. They have sleepless nights if there is heavy rain. This also affects council workers who have to come and save people's lands, farms and homes.
The Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, and the OPW meet weekly. The Minister of State confirmed that flooding at Lough Funshinagh was always on the agenda. It was wonderful to have the Minister of State visit our communities around Lough Funshinagh last week. With funding commitments in place and working together with Roscommon County Council, an engineering solution was found. An overflow pipe will now bring the waters away from this area. Last week, the communities of Lisfelim Ardmullen, Rahara and Ballagh around Lough Funshinagh actually saw action to save their homes. They saw three diggers making way. People from the local community told me they welcomed the noise of the diggers just like the sounds of birds singing in the morning at 6 a.m.
I have worked with the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, along with many public representatives, as well as the cathaoirleach and chief executive of Roscommon County Council, to achieve a solution. The Minister of State has given significant funding commitments which have provided action for County Roscommon. I acknowledge the Lough Funshinagh flood crisis committee which has been in touch with all public representatives in the area since last year, in particular since last October and November. It means relief, an end to anxiety and such joy to the communities affected.
I want to acknowledge and welcome the announcement earlier today from the First Ministers in the North that they have secured agreement from the Government of Mauritius to re-examine the investigation of the murder of Michaela McAreavey. It is hard to believe that it took place ten years ago. For a decade now, John, the McAreavey and Harte families have been campaigning for justice for Michaela. I do not want to say too much about it with the investigation being reopened again, other than to extend, on behalf of ever Member, our continued sympathies and solidarity with the McAreavey and Harte families as they take those next steps on that long and arduous journey for truth and justice for Michaela.
Other colleagues have reflected on what happened during the Finland and Denmark game during the Euros at the weekend. Thank God Christian Eriksen is on the mend. We know, however, of instances across various sports in Ireland where, sadly, people have lost their lives in circumstances such as those we saw at the weekend. My colleague in the North, Pat Sheehan, MLA, has called on the Minister of Education there to roll out CPR and defib training in schools. That is good idea which we should consider taking forward.
Such training is also something which Oireachtas Members should look at through the good offices of the Cathaoirleach. There are defibrillators in this building. It might be worth just taking the opportunity to refresh our memories of where they are, how to get to them and, more importantly, how to use them. That is a challenge to which we could all step up. We should look at this for all the obvious reasons should anything similar befall us, no matter where we are.It is an issue of such critical importance and we all know why. It is timely that we would re-examine it now.
I have regularly raised the issue of how technology is changing the nature of everything we do. In that context, I hope we can have a debate on the future of work and the need to constantly upskill and reskill our citizens. I say this in the context of the recent Facebook announcement that it is going to allow staff who are based here to work remotely. We have seen consumer trends shift dramatically towards e-commerce during the pandemic and last week's G7 communique from Cornwall on securing future prosperity referenced collaboration from cyberspace to outer space as well as protecting our planet. The World Economic Forum last month suggested that a number of the new jobs that will be much in demand over the next few years include director of remote work, algorithm bias auditor, tidewater architect and human machine teaming manager. There was also, interestingly, a report by the Law Society of England and Wales, which may cause some concern for colleagues in this House. It predicted that within the next decade, because of advances in artificial intelligence, we will all have access to lawyers for free and that they will operate in a way very similar to Siri.
I welcome this morning's announcement by the Minister and Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science of more than 10,000 Springboard scheme places in areas where there are specific skills shortages in the economy. My former colleagues in the Higher Education Authority published a report on the difficulties experienced by mature students in accessing further and higher education, many of which are financial. Given how quickly we are going to see technology changing all of our lives, we need a full debate on how to upskill and reskill our citizens to enable them to avail of new opportunities.
As one of the few Senators from the midlands, I am concerned about some of the negative press the midlands receives, particularly and disappointingly from some of its own political representatives. As a progressive and pragmatic Green Party politician, I refuse to accept their destructive story that decarbonising this important region means we are losing something valuable. We are not and I am calling that out because what we are actually doing is gaining. Times are changing and the midlands region is moving on. Nostalgic memories of days on the bog and the smell of burning turf cannot hold us back. I acknowledge that turf is still an important energy source for some but our children will not be heating their homes with turf or coal or even with oil or gas. They will be using electricity and that vital energy will be generated from renewable sources, of which we have an abundance. Our children know this because they are environmentally and socially aware and as policymakers and legislators, it is our responsibility to be so too and to make sure they have a future in rural midlands counties such as Laois and Offaly.
I have seen first hand how enthusiastic people in the midlands are about using our tired, spent bogs as the basis of regeneration. They want to bring tourism to the area, to work in renewable energy and to create people-first and town-centre-first towns in places such as Portlaoise and Tullamore. Some would like to keep the likes of Laois and Offaly in the past, forever suppressed, for a few populist, self-serving headlines but I am focused on the future - a clean, green future for which our children will thank us. When they want to come home, come home they will to good jobs, to a place where they can settle and rear their own families and to an area that has rejuvenated itself into the vibrant and modern region it deserves to be. This is the green agenda and it is also this Government's agenda. This is the move from brown to green. This is the future for the midlands and I intend to play my part in bringing that future vision to reality.
Last Friday, we learned of the liquidation of Stobart Air with more than 420 job losses as well as the potential loss of air connectivity on the island and between Ireland and the UK. Media reports over the weekend suggest that a strategic review is under way at Lufthansa Technik in Shannon and related companies. Approximately 500 people work there and there is real concern as to what the review will hold for them. All of this comes on the back of the recent announcement by Aer Lingus that it will close its crew base at Shannon Airport. There is no timeline for the return of services at the airport and there will be a similar reduction of services at Cork Airport.
This is a sobering reminder that notwithstanding the roll-out of the vaccine and the end of the pandemic being in sight, many businesses, particularly in the aviation and hospitality sectors, will not come out of lockdown the way they went in. It looks like it will take many years for those sectors to recover. Unfortunately, we are not seeing the kind of engagement from Government that is necessary to give certainty, security and some degree of confidence to the aviation sector in particular. We seem to be taking a wait and see approach, which is not good enough, quite frankly, either for the people employed in the sector or for those who will be affected if we lose key connectivity. I acknowledge the Leader is doing her best but I ask her to organise a debate in this House on an action plan from the Government to assist the recovery of the aviation sector.
Finally, others have mentioned the issue of defective blocks and the impact this has had on people's lives. In County Clare, there is pyrite in the blocks and I know from speaking to members of the group from Clare that they will be in Dublin tomorrow to highlight this issue. It is devastating for families to see their homes that they lovingly built and created crumbling around them. We must stop the penny pinching. There must be 100% redress for these people. They are expected to leave their homes for up to 18 months while they are rebuilt but are only being offered 90% of the cost, with no support towards rent. This is outrageous. We must stop the bean counters buried in the bowels of Departments from ruling the heads, minds and hearts of the Government. We were able to borrow money quickly when we needed to when the pandemic struck. Let us keep that simple ethos in place to address a crisis like this.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Taoiseach to come to the House to discuss the pyrite and mica crisis. This issue was raised in this House by former Senator, Michelle Mulherin, week after week for four or five years. The current scheme is not adequate and as others have said, it does not even cover people's costs. We must meet 100% of the costs involved. A number of other issues must also be addressed when the Taoiseach comes in. There is pyrite in many council buildings in County Mayo. What is going to happen to those? Houses are only supposed to be returned to the condition they were in when first built but in some cases, that was ten or 15 years ago. What is the position on council houses? Are they going to be put back to the standards of ten, 15 or 20 years ago or will they be rebuilt as modern houses? These issues must be addressed. There is also the issue of accidental landlords and second homes, which is not addressed by the current scheme. While the 90% scheme is very welcome as a starting point, we must move to 100% and I ask that the Taoiseach comes to the House to address this issue.
I am sure the Cathaoirleach would like to join me in wishing a very happy retirement to Ms Ann Nolan from Ballycastle, County Mayo and Ms Mary O' Malley from Achill Island, County Mayo, who have manned the switchboards in Leinster House for the past 37 years and 35 years, respectively. They have done a magnificent job over those years. It is great that when one rings Leinster House somebody answers the phone, unlike so many other institutions around the country. I would like to wish them both a happy retirement.
I thank Senator Burke and before I call on the Leader, I join him in wishing Ann and Mary all the best in what will hopefully be a long and happy retirement. Their long and excellent service to Leinster House is well known by all of us. When one rings the switchboard, they are always very professional and courteous. It is great that Leinster House offers a service where human beings answer the phone. Ann and Mary have been the voice of Leinster House for decades and we wish them a long and happy retirement.
I call on the Leader to respond on the Order of Business.
I thank my colleagues and join them in expressing good wishes to Ann and Mary. I thank them for all of their service and wish them a healthy and happy retirement, which will hopefully be very long. Senator Paddy Burke asked me to ask the Taoiseach to come in. I will certainly make the request but I suggest it would probably be more appropriate if the Minister comes to talk to us today. I welcome the announcement of the Taoiseach on Saturday or his utterances. He wants to find a solution to this. I think we all know what the solution is. It is to put an end to the stress the families have been living under for far too long. In any event, I will make the request and come back to Senator Burke.
Senator Dooley, among others, asked for a debate on aviation. I am pleased to be able to say that I had foresight that this issue was not going away. I genuinely did not expect the announcement that we got on Saturday morning. The debate on aviation and the future of aviation is set for 21 June, next Monday. It will be with the Minister for Transport. I agree with the Senator that there needs to be a wider debate. The ramifications of our continuing stubbornness with regard to engagement and action on the reopening of our aviation sector, and the other industries it directly affects, are mind-boggling, to be straight up about it. The impact on connectivity, not only on jobs in aviation but on all the industries that rely on 90% of the tourists we heavily relied on in the past, is going to have a direct effect on the future recovery of the country. This is not only because of international connectivity. I note with interest the number of people who talked about the importance of regional connectivity on Saturday. I am not down-playing the importance - it absolutely important - but we are a small country that heavily relies on international connectivity. A person can drive from Kerry. I am not saying we should not have connectivity from our airlines but, with the exception of colleagues in the House and Members of the Dáil, I do not hear anyone talking about the value of our international connectivity that has been built up by the likes of Ryanair that Senator Horkan has talked about over the years as well as our national flag carrier, Aer Lingus. I am genuinely at a loss to understand and appreciate the explanations being given to us. If I hear once more of the €300 million given in financial support to our airline carriers I think my head will explode. That money was given to people to replace the incomes taken from them because we closed down our country on 13 March last year. It is facetious and disingenuous at the very least to be trotting that number out as if we have somehow supported Stobart, CityJet, Ryanair, Aer Lingus, Lufthansa and all the other carriers that provide international connectivity. We will have the debate on 21 June and I hope it will be robust.
I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett, this morning. In many ways I agree with her.
Senator Malcolm Byrne talked about the technology debate that will be needed on the future of work. He talked about one of the vacancies this morning as the human machine team manager. It sounds interesting. The Senator might elaborate when we have the debate. It is a debate that is needed.
Senators Niall Ó Donnghaile and Cassells talked about what I believe to be a welcome announcement this morning. It is probably one of Arlene Foster's last announcements in this role in her public life. It is important that the families, who are still grieving and who will always grieve until they get justice, are supported by all the institutes of the State. I wish them well and I hope they get openness and transparent willingness and engagement from the Mauritian authorities to try to find out what happened that beautiful young woman on her honeymoon. I wish to acknowledge the contribution of both Senators this morning.
Senator Dolan spoke about the welcome news this morning for her community in Roscommon. It is lovely to see a full circle especially when the State responds to communities in crisis and the response kicks in fast. I wish to acknowledge that contribution as well.
Senator Horkan talked about the second awful accident that happened in his neck of the woods last night. I wish that young man a speedy recovery. We need to have a proper debate in this House and in Dáil Éireann on how road users - the term applies whether I am using my legs, on a bicycle, in a car or using a forklift truck - share the roads and respect each other. This is especially the case now.
We have talked much in recent weeks about putting cycle lanes in where they are needed not simply because we can and about putting in place pedestrianisation to enhance the lives of people. However, we should not fail to acknowledge that it comes with other occurrences. The debate around how we share our spaces should be valuable. I will try to arrange that in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Marie Sherlock talked about the antigen testing. This is something about which many of us are scratching our heads. It is not a panacea or magic wand. It is a tool that other countries, including European countries, are using to aid in their recovery and reopening. Yet again, for some stubborn reason, we have decided against doing it. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science seems to be the only brave soldier today announcing his four pilots in the universities. One would be minded to know how he has managed to get around the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team. Perhaps he has a little more business sense than other people. The Senator also talked about Carndonagh and the mica crisis. I hope we all see resolution to that this week.
Senator Martin Conway talked about hospitality opening, as did others. It is welcome to see some of the normal activities, which people probably took for granted before March last year, starting to come back, even if we are all sitting outside with coats waiting for the long-awaited sunshine. It was supposed to come over the weekend but did not for many parts of the country. It is, however, welcome to see. There was a good request to talk to the Minister with responsibility for employment affairs with regard to visa relaxation. I will send a letter to him today.
Senator Craughwell talked about something he talks about frequently. I am at a loss for what to say to him because I understand and appreciate that he has explored all the avenues. I am not really sure how to respond to him. I am sorry but I have no doubt he will keep raising it until he gets some sense of satisfaction, and I wish to acknowledge that.
Senator Micheál Carrigy talked about business hospitality, especially in the arts sector. I will send a letter to the Minister today to see if I can get any information from him.
Senator Gallagher talked about some of the people still waiting for a date for their second vaccine. The national immunisation advisory committee met last week. The committee acknowledged that it would reduce the period from 12 weeks to eight weeks and that it would be staggered. It would be nice to see a full statement. I will come back to the Senator as quickly as I can.
Senator Black talked about the new report released by Alcohol Action Ireland. I will try to schedule a debate on the wider responses of the recommendations of that report as early as I can. Senator Boylan talked about a national autism empowerment strategy. While I believe everyone in this House and the other House would agree with her, I do not have a response. However, I will try to come back to her as quickly as I can.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly, among others, asked for a debate on maternal health. Senators Lisa Chambers, Fiona O'Loughlin and Bacik are among the people who bring this up week in, week out. I know many of us follow stuff on Twitter. On Twitter this weekend there were two harsh stories that caught my eye. One was from a Sinn Féin colleague, a gentleman who works with two of our Senators. His wife was taken in and he was left outside the door. Another was from a lady whose daughter had been taken into the Rotunda at the weekend. She had a photograph of approximately eight or nine men, daddies, who were left standing outside the door on their telephones. It is simply not good enough. I do not know what part of the directive that Paul Reid and the Taoiseach have given to our maternity hospitals is not understood. Partners are not there simply for the fun of it. They are an integral part of the entire maternity process and the process of giving birth. Again, probably for the eighth week in a row, I will write to the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach to ask them to respond to us. This is becoming untenable. The excuses from hospitals are simply not believable when we saw concerts taking place, albeit small concerts, last week. We cannot have a prohibition on partners attending births or going in in emergency situations. It is simply not on. I will try to organise that maternal debate in the coming weeks but I will try to get a faster response for people with regard to what is still going on.
Senator McDowell expressed some of his feelings this morning with regard to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. I do not know that I agree with him but he is absolutely entitled to raise his views, just as people who have different views are absolutely entitled to raise them. One thing I will take umbrage at is that he stated in his contribution this morning that women were given the privilege of telling their stories to the commission. It was not a privilege to tell their stories. I am sure it was harrowing and something they wished to God they never had to do. It is all of the subsequent actions and inaction arising from those women giving their stories that we are expressing concerns about rather than anything beforehand. I wish to put that on the record.
Senator Seán Kyne opened today with the aviation sector. Again, he referred to antigen testing. The debate will be on 21 June.Senator O'Loughlin spoke about men's health. We talk a lot about women and equality of opportunity in this House. We need to talk about and mind men's health as much we do women's health.
A number of colleagues spoke about what happened to Christian Eriksen on Saturday evening. It is not something that would come naturally to me. I do not watch football but because there was a break in the match on Saturday evening, it became very topical. One thing I was so impressed by was the solidarity shown by that gentleman's team - how they treated him, his wife and each other and how they supported each other - and the outpouring of solidarity from people all over the world who were watching it. It was incredible to see the binding nature and how sport can so often bring people together. I just wanted to say that it was something to behold.