Monday, 5 July 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1.30 p.m, and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.30 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by Government; No. 2, Sale of Tickets (Cultural, Entertainment, Recreational and Sporting Events) Bill 2021 - all Stages, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 1, whichever is later, and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 60 minutes by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by Government, and the proceedings of the debate on Second Stage shall be confined to an opening contribution of five minutes by the Minister, contributions of five minutes by group spokespersons and a reply not exceeding five minutes from the Minister, and Committee and Remaining Stages shall be taken immediately thereafter; No. 3, Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 5 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is later, and the proceedings thereon, if not previously concluded, brought to a conclusion after 150 minutes by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by Government, and the proceedings shall be interrupted after two hours for 15 minutes to allow for the sanitisation of the Chamber and the order of the debate shall resume thereafter; and No. 4, Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 7.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 3, whichever is later, and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 9.45 p.m.by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by Government.
I welcome and agree to the Order of Business. I wish to raise the issue of dementia and Alzheimer's day care centres across the country. It was brought to my attention recently that very few of these centres have reopened. The person who spoke to me wisely put it that we spend a lot of time talking about pubs, bars and restaurants and very little time talking about the essential services families rely upon that have been shut for a year and a half. I have spoken to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, who informs me that initially only 14 of the Alzheimer's day centres are to open and that we are looking at 100 opening this week. That is still a long way off getting all centres open.
Families rely on respite care for their loved ones to get time to themselves and recharge so they can get back to doing full-time care work for family members that need it. For the person suffering with dementia or Alzheimer's, part of ensuring longevity and coping with their condition is having those activities and day care centres. People deteriorate fast if they do not have access to same. I am dealing with a case at home where the individual went from having five days per week to having nothing for the past year and a half. This has put huge pressure on the family to keep him at home and make sure he is looked after. They are doing a fantastic job but he needs those day services. Will the Leader submit a request to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to see what we can do about getting the centres open without further delay?
I raise the ongoing negotiations involving the hospitality industry. Today, the industry is meeting a cross-departmental group. I listened to Adrian Cummins on radio earlier. He put it well when stating that discussions are taking place but that NPHET will not be at the table. Those involved know they have to go through NPHET to get their plan off the ground. I agree with them and support the call for NPHET to get involved in the negotiations with the hospitality sector and find a way to get the industry open in the next couple of weeks.
I reiterate a point I made previously: I am not in favour of a Covid pass that would exclude those who have not had the opportunity to have a vaccine or, for whatever reason, cannot take a vaccine from indoor hospitality. I point to the ridiculous situation whereby many of those young people will be working in hospitality, serving others dinner and drinks and will not able to come around the other side of the bar and have a drink after their shift. That sends the wrong message. The Leader has repeatedly made strong calls for rapid antigen testing and that should coincide with the reopening of hospitality to make sure nobody is left behind.
This week, the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU will publish its interim report. It will be launched at 11 a.m. on Thursday. An invitation will go to all Senators. I thank committee members and the Cathaoirleach for their support and the committee secretariat for its work over the past six months in putting the report together. We have made strong recommendations and will resume our meetings in the autumn session to follow up on those recommendations and look into any further developments in the Brexit process that might occur over the summer months.
I wish to highlight that there is some concern in Galway. An Bord Pleanála has indicated that the new target date for the decision on the building of the Galway city ring road is 27 August. The latter is the third indicative date given in respect of a decision on this vital project. The first date was in March and the second was in June, a number of days ago. The new date is in August and there may possibly be a further extension. This road is crucial to Galway city, Connemara and the western region in terms of quality of life, traffic congestion, continued investment and tourism. The project was agreed by the Cabinet in October 2018 and the cost involved at the time was €588 million.The commitment of the Government then and, I have no doubt, now is clear. I expect the project to be part of the review of the national development plan. Indeed, the project has been in various national development plans going back for the past two decades. This is a long-running saga in Galway and one on which people are probably sick hearing about but I will continue to show my support for the project to be sanctioned and constructed. I have always said that if we get planning permission for this project, it will be built. The commitment is there for it, it is of such vital importance and the cost-benefit analysis has been proven time and again. The political support in the main is there and it is certainly there from the Tánaiste and former Minister for Transport, Deputy Varadkar, who is very familiar with the importance of the project to Galway and the region.
The second issue I will touch on is the reopening of our hospitality sector, including restaurants and pubs. They have been through an horrendous year and three months at this stage. The expectation was that they would reopen this week. Unfortunately, that was not to be and they are clearly looking for a definitive date with 19 July being indicated to coincide with the reopening of international travel. The majority of travellers coming to this country stay in hotels where they can dine but they will not be able to get the feel of real Irish hospitality in our towns, villages and cities, unless they also get the full experience of indoor dining. We would love to have the Mediterranean climate for our summer but that does not always happen and businesses have tried to accommodate outdoor dining as best they can. I wish the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the hospitality sector well in their deliberations today and in the coming days and I hope that we can have a definitive opening time and date for the sector.
I sound something like a broken record but I want to talk again about mushrooms and the mushroom sector, this unique product which is neither a vegetable or fruit but is a fungus. This product is branded at great cost and expense by Bord Bia on behalf of the State and is exported all over the world. Up until recently, it was being flown out of the country and three days later it was sitting in the refrigerators of Harrods, and all over London, Paris and Europe. There has been great innovation in the mushroom sector in its growing methods and in the development of vitamin D and added subsets into the mushroom food as part of this imagination and innovation. The sector faces wipeout unless the Government urgently brings in legislation to introduce a resumption of peat harvesting on some selected bogs and I deliberately use the term “some selected bogs”. I understand the challenges and they are important but the reality is that shipments of peat imports are now arriving into Ireland, despite all of the debate about carbon leakage. Despite all of the issues we now have, peat and alternative peats are coming in here from the Baltic states, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the UK. This is total hypocrisy in terms of greenhouse gas policy.
I have referred to Bord Bia and the significant budgets it has used, and rightly so. Bord Bia is an amazing organisation that we can be proud of. It has done amazing work in the agrifood sector, one which I support. Last Friday, we debated just transition and we will talk again about it this evening in respect of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill, but just transition is also about jobs, household income and bringing all the people with us. Most of the representations that I receive are from the workers in the mushroom sector in Monaghan, Kildare, the midlands, and in particular, Wexford. They are challenged by this. They tell me - I believe them and I have questioned Teagasc on these matters - that there is no real, practical, viable alternative to milled peat. I am not making a case for the nursery or forestry staff because I understand that there are alternatives, difficult as they are, but for the mushroom sector, other than vermiculite and other substances, there are no such alternatives. Let us support the workers, these rural communities and the mushroom sector and bring in emergency legislation to deal with this crisis, which will be a difficulty for us in respect of jobs and incomes for these families in a matter of weeks, not months.
I welcome the Government decision last week to allow people aged between 18 and 34 to avail of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson or Janssen vaccine from today in pharmacies. It is a development that is greatly welcomed in the roll-out of the vaccine programme. I compliment Senator Chambers on her work last week in opposing a two-tier reopening for younger people and, in particular, hospitality workers. I have no problem with having a two-tier reopening if people refuse to take a vaccine but it is unfair to put people into that situation if they have not had the opportunity to get a vaccine. I hope that people between the ages of 18 and 34 avail of the 800 pharmacies around the country that are offering a vaccine. It is welcome that there not appear to have been a great rush of vaccine hesitancy among our young people and they want to get these vaccines. That, combined with the roll-out of antigen testing in the autumn, will be a significant armoury against the spread of the Delta variant to enable us to get back to some form of normality and for people to be able to resume their lives and jobs.
The second issue I wish to raise is the worrying sounds from Government on the reform of the strategic housing development, SHD, process and kite-flying around making people more financially liable for judicial reviews that are taken. The SHD planning process has not worked. It is delaying the delivery of houses, which is not what it was intended to do. The basis for that is that the only opportunity that local residents have for appeals of bad decisions or bad planning is to go through the court system, which is cumbersome, long, and expensive.
Rather than examining ways to limit judicial reviews, we need to get back to a planning process that engages local communities while encouraging the need for the development of housing. A situation is developing where people’s voices are feeling very powerless and this process is not achieving what is needed. All the indications are that the SHD system is going to be replaced by something that is more restrictive in respect of the courts. We need to have a proper, open, democratic and robust planning decision process and have people buy-in to the delivery of houses. Most people do not want to oppose housing in their local communities or end up having to take judicial reviews but it is not unreasonable for them to be able to go through a process where they have some of their concerns listened to. If it is blatant NIMBYism, that will not be listened to because these concerns have to be within the parameters of the planning and development Acts. It is, however, reasonable for people to have a say on what is sustainable development in their local communities and it would be a regressive step if the one I am hearing about is the one we are going to take.
Single elections naturally attract significant and prominent media attention and we only have to reflect on previous presidential elections in this country. These, however, went beyond the point of proper examination and scrutiny and turned out to be unnecessarily bruising affairs. One would only have to ask the father of this House, Senator Norris, for his personal experience. These elections intruded into people’s private lives. That is not good because it will disincentivise people from getting involved in politics at a time we want to attract people into this space.
There is a by-election later this week. By and large, this has been a clean contest and while I hope it will be a Green Party success, the campaign is a great credit to each candidate and to the media, which has restored some much-needed faith in politics. I do not want people to be scared; I want to encourage people into politics. I am naturally delighted that so many people have got to know the Green Party candidate. She has been a sensation-----
-----as has each and every one of them. I sense the camaraderie when one canvasses. We are all in politics together and there has been a mutual respect among everyone. They know that it is a tough business.I am glad it has not been a bruising business on this occasion.
The European Commission has stated that there has been an alarming decline in pollinator species with 10% of bee and butterfly species nearing extinction. The loss of wild pollinators is a cause of concern because 80% of crops depend in part on pollination. According to the National Biodiversity Data Centre, one third of the wild bee population is facing the threat of extinction. At Castletown House in my home county, in the constituency of Kildare North, the people there have done amazing work nurturing the meadows at the front to feed the wild insect population. That large grassland of meadow at the front is now full of clover, buttercups and many types of grass. Rory Finnegan, the head gardener there, recently gave a wonderful public talk organised by the Green Party in Kildare. I commend everyone who is working on this, including the Native Irish Honey Bee Society that has, for more than ten years, been deeply concerned about the hybridisation of the Apis mellifera mellifera strain. It has called for a ban on the importation of non-native honeybees. Ireland is the last stronghold in northern Europe of the black native honeybee and we should protect it. The other bees are less frugal, prone to swarming, aggressive and they will dilute the black native Irish honeybee that is special and unique to Ireland.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to take No. 18, the National Minimum Wage (Removal of Sub-minimum Rates of Pay) Bill 2021, ahead of No. 1.
I will raise two issues today. I wish the talks between the hospitality sector and the Government well today. We are all anxious to see progress and to see indoor dining becoming possible as soon as it is safe to do so. I wish to draw attention to one thing. This morning, Adrian Cummins stated that he wanted all partners in the room and he is right to say that. In that respect, I notice the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has requested to be a part of those talks and, in fact, wrote to the Tánaiste over the weekend making that request. It is an eminently sensible idea. ICTU has already made some sensible proposals in relation to helping the hospitality sector, including the introduction of a continuous antigen testing programme, possibly modelled on meat factories' experience. To put this into context, who else is going to stand up for front-line workers in the hospitality sector? Surely, we need a union voice at those talks. I hope that nobody from the restaurant association or the hotel industry would object to that. It is a perfectly reasonable request. I call on the Leader's assistance in supporting that request today, if possible.
The second issue I want to raise is in relation to nursing homes. We are all aware of the real concerns about nursing homes over recent weeks. There have been serious allegations of neglect and abuse, and, of course, the horrendous death toll in nursing homes. I refer to the exposé on "RTÉ Investigates" last week. I join with others in calling for a public investigation into these issues. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, she has promised to investigate these issues. It is urgent that we do so and I believe it needs to be a public investigation. The thing that has concerned me for some time - I have raised this before - is the model that is used. Over the last 30 years, we have moved from 80% public-sector control of elder care to 80% private-sector control. That did not happen by accident. There has been a rapid privatisation of elder care and yet I do not remember it being a cause for debate or discussion across politics, but that is what has happened.
I know from my experience as a trade union official that the private-sector for-profit model is based on minimum rates of pay and extremely poor conditions at work. This results in a significant turnover of staff which in turn relates to a disimprovement in quality of care for our elders and loved ones. I pose the question: if a nursing home is not prepared to deal with a trade union, could a person trust it to look after his or her loved one? The reality is that the private nursing home sector at the moment consistently refuses to engage with trade unions. That is why one will never see a trade unionist talking about what is happening in terms of the pandemic, one only sees the nursing home managers. That is a fundamental flaw in a poorly structured sector, and I call for a debate on it.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to extend the time for the climate action Bill to 8.30 p.m.
I was glad to see the vaccine roll-out extended to people from the age of 18 years because our children and young people have had a hard time of it lately. I was thinking of that when I read the annual report of the Ombudsman for Children entitled 2020 Childhood Paused. At the launch of this report, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, said that when we are on the other side of this pandemic, we cannot go back to normal. What he meant by that was that we cannot go back to two-year waiting lists for children seeking psychological help for mental health issues. We cannot go back to long waiting lists for children with disabilities who are awaiting assessment of needs. Our normal should not be direct provision and emergency homeless accommodation where families are stuck in one room. It should not be appalling living conditions at Traveller halting sites. We have to consider the new normal. We hope to learn from this experience.
The Ombudsman for Children's office dealt with more than 1,180 complaints in 2020. While the number of calls was slightly down on the previous year, it is hearing from more children directly. More often, it hears about the new issues affecting children in the pandemic, including the digital divide, the lack of clarity around State examinations, disproportionate effects the pandemic is having on children with disabilities, and children in high risk households who were not able to access remote learning. Dr. Muldoon said that we need to look at ending homelessness and reducing poverty so that children and families are safe and secure. Who could disagree with that?
I know we had an important debate in this House recently on young people and their needs, and ensuring their voices are heard. I would like us to continue to keep the focus on the future and what our new normal will look like. What is the future for Ireland's children? This is a conversation we need to have. I am talking about young people such as my little girl, Billie. What will the future hold for her? What will the future hold for the next generation of children who are growing up in this era? I know it is something that we cannot address in this House today, but I would love to see our young people invested in and valued, treated with dignity and respect, and that there are no more inequalities for young people in Ireland.
As our schools are now closed for the summer period, it is an opportune time for us to record a vote of thanks to all those who worked so hard to ensure that our children got through a difficult educational year. Often, the unsung members of schools are those on the boards of management who help to keep both our primary and secondary schools running. It is worth noting that they do this in a totally voluntary capacity. This year has been a particularly difficult one for them because they had to get used to online meetings and additional tasks in order to open our schools and, importantly, to keep them open. They deserve our gratitude for the generous time they give in that area.
The same is true of management committees in educational centres throughout the country. There are approximately 21 full-time and nine part-time educational centres in different parts of the country. I drive past the one in Monaghan every day on my way to this House. It is always a hub of activity where continuing professional development courses and in-service training are delivered to teachers and it is a vital cog in the educational wheel. They also deserve great credit because those committees also do that in a voluntary capacity. As someone once said to me, in regard to what goes on in educational centres, "If the school is the place where children grow, the educational centre is the place where teachers grow". I wish them all the best for the weather while on summer break. Finally, I wish to raise again the issue of school secretaries. Unfortunately, as others go on their school holidays, school secretaries have to go and knock on the door of the Department of Social Protection because they will not get paid while the schools are off for the summer holidays. I thank the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, for taking this issue on board and I sincerely hope this will be the last year school secretaries and caretakers will have to knock on the door of the Department of Social Protection while schools are off for the summer holidays.
I will follow on immediately from what Senator Gallagher said by acknowledging the courageous and dedicated work of teachers for the past two difficult years. I am very troubled by the fact that, unlike last year, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, which provides specialised support to visually impaired children, seems to have been excluded from the summer scheme for special educational needs and students for this year. I have tabled a Commencement matter for tomorrow to try to get clarity on this and I hope the Cathaoirleach will accept it.
I have two things to raise with the Leader. We need a debate on long Covid with the Minister for Health. More and more people are showing symptoms of long Covid, whether it is difficulties with their senses, such as loss of their sense of smell, pains or fatigue, which is a major problem. We need a defined, dedicated and funded strategy to deal with long Covid. This is a debate we need to have in this House because Covid will be with us for a long time and people suffering from long Covid need our support and our understanding. The symptoms in these cases do not go away after seven or 14 days. I would like to see a summing-up debate on Covid with the Minister for Health before the summer recess, given the fact that Covid has dominated matters this term and since this Seanad was constituted. Perhaps the Leader could organise that with the Minister.
On a more positive note, the Cathaoirleach's part of the country, just like mine, depends very heavily on tourism. It is great to see tourists starting to come back this year, as they did last year. Tourism will be one of the cornerstones of rebuilding our economy post the pandemic. We should have a debate on tourism and the evolving strategy relating to it, particularly what we are going to do to encourage people in America and other countries to travel to Ireland in the years ahead.
I second the proposal that the time limit for debate on the climate change Bill be extended to 8.30 p.m. In that context, the Bill is just a Bill. I spoke about this briefly last week, but I will say one more thing about it. Over the weekend we had evidence that the ESB is now installing emergency generating capacity in the Dublin docks because of problems and to avoid blackouts. If this plan is implemented, and if everyone's ambitions are to be met, we are moving towards a society that will be much more dependent on electricity. We have turned our back on fossil fuels - or are trying to. We have limited capacity for hydroelectric generation. Wind power, onshore and offshore, is opposed by interest groups all over the country, and we want to see when that infrastructure will be built to a satisfactory degree. However - and this is the most crucial thing - side by side with all the rhetoric about sustainable energy, we are building data centres. The Apple centre in Athenry, which has recently been revived, will, if fully built out, account for an increased demand for electricity of 8%. Five data centres would increase our electricity usage by 40%. There are two schools of thought in the Government. I say this to the Leader but I am not making a party political point. There are two departmental schools. One is that we cannot fail the multinationals, we must do what they want and we must build all these data centres because they are the future. The other school of thought is that of economic reality as it relates to electricity generation. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said he is not ruling out nuclear power. If nuclear power is necessary and is an essential part of the implementation of Government plans, we should be told so and there should be no more hiding behind statements such as "I am not ruling it out". It is either in or it is out. Let us hear which it is.
In recent weeks, we have seen from Amnesty International and a number of other global human rights agencies, further details of the continued genocide against the Uyghur people by the Chinese Communist Party. The oppression of a minority, of course, is nothing new. We know how the Tibetan people have been subjected to brutal persecution and repression for decades. We have seen throughout the past year the introduction of the national security law and how China has crushed press and legal freedoms in Hong Kong and detained political opponents and dissidents there. On Wednesday of next week, outside the convention centre, there will be a protest by practitioners of Falun Gong. They will highlight the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing persecution of minorities. We know only too well in this House, as we have discussed this before, the issues surrounding the summary detention of Richard O'Halloran, and we have seen others detained by the Chinese Communist Party.
I would hope that The Irish Timeswould give as much attention in its editorials as it has in its advertising to the Chinese Communist Party. I am calling again for us to have a debate on China, our relationships with China and human rights abuses by the Communist Party, including issues surrounding the belt and road strategy. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Chambers, has confirmed to me that there will be no official Government representation at the Beijing Winter Olympics but I still believe the Government should go further and support others and other countries that have been calling for the Beijing Olympics to be moved.
We also need to start to call out those who are embarrassing Ireland at a European level by apologising for the actions of the Chinese Communist Party and those MEPs who have condoned the human rights abuses of the Communist Party. It is no surprise they have done so because they have backed Lukashenko, Assad and Maduro. We need to call them out in the same way I have in this House called out Fine Gael for its being previously allied in the European People's Party, EPP, with Viktor Orbán. Those who sit on the left in the European Parliament need to decide whether they are on the side of human rights or on the side of the Chinese Communist Party, and we need to make that call now.
I support Senator McDowell in what he said about electricity. There will be more and more dependence on electricity. There will be more and more electric cars and electric bikes and more electric gadgets in houses, so there will be a huge dependency on electricity. Where will we get certainty in this regard?
I am delighted that the marine planning Bill is being published. It needs to be put in place, and I ask the Leader that it be brought forward, even if it has to be brought into this House first. It is crucial legislation that will lead to crucial pieces of infrastructure being brought forward, particularly along the west coast, where we have the highest wind speeds in Europe. There is also the problem of parking and charging points on streets in our cities and our main towns. The more electric cars we have the more problems we will have charging those cars. There will be less and less street space. We have seen the hospitality end of this, and I am delighted that that sector is getting more space. There is more space for bicycles and so on around our cities and towns. There will be a greater need for charging points going forward. Where will this start and where will it end? I would like the Leader to arrange for a debate, after the climate Bill has passed, on the practical issues that could arise such as what Senator McDowell has said about various proposed planning applications, the issue I have raised with charging points and parking spaces for cars and so on. I hope the Leader will arrange a debate on those practical issues in the near future.
I want to raise an issue which has been discussed in this House before but has yet to be resolved and that is the issue of pay disparity in Leinster House. For years now, secretarial assistants have been working with their union to try to resolve the issue of unequal pay and as of yet, the Minister for Finance has not even met with them to discuss the matter directly.
The Leader's party leader, the Tánaiste, spoke publicly about how Fine Gael is in favour of a living wage and yet the largest cohort of political staff in Leinster House are not guaranteed one. There are more than 200 secretarial assistants working in Leinster House. They have a starting salary of €24,000. To put that in perspective, parliamentary assistants start on approximately €41,000, a Senator starts on more than €69,000 and Deputies make a minimum of €96,000, which is due to go up to nearly €100,000 in the next round of pay rises.
Our secretarial assistants keep the lights on, the phones answered and the letters written. They write our speeches, policy papers and legislation. They commit hours and hours of their time, outside of the working hours, to help our constituents and they work hard to get many of us, in both Houses, elected. Despite all of this, they would not even be able to pay rent in most cities in Ireland on the starting wage we give them.
I remind the Leader this ongoing issue of pay was raised a number of years ago as part of a wider cultural problem of bullying and harassment in the Oireachtas. Many strides have been made to address these issues through well-being initiatives and training for Members on how to manage staff. However, nothing has been done to address the power imbalance which comes when a secretarial assistant is learning less than one fifth of what his or her boss takes home.
The Oireachtas should be a place of equals and that starts with guaranteeing an equal standard of living for all our staff. Secretarial assistants in the Seanad and the Dáil do as many hours as parliamentary assistants and should be paid equally. They are as committed to their work as we are and they make a valuable contribution to the administration of our work. I ask the Leader of the House to write to the Minister and invite him to give us an update on this issue.
This House passed a motion by a unanimous vote in the last term to end the practice of paying secretarial assistants so little. I assume we can all agree this unfair pay disparity needs to be addressed before the end of this term, if fair is indeed fair.
We all know we are going through our centenary celebrations or commiserations, whatever way you want to look at it. We are entering a new century of the two jurisdictions of this island. I have great ambition for this entire island. I ask for the Seanad to take up a leading role in our North-South dialogue. We often complain in this House that we do not have enough Northern voices. Maybe it is about time we ask leaders of the North to come to address us and talk about what this island wants. We can have an active engagement in this Seanad, between North and South, by having our political leaders in the North come to discuss how we move forward in the next 100 years.
Whatever the constitutional status, be it the status quoor a reunited Ireland, we are better off talking, engaging and moving forward. I would like if we could discuss, in the next session, inviting some of our political leaders in the North to come to address us here.
Today was due to be the day indoor hospitality reopened. We all know that last week a decision was made to pause that reopening, based on dire modelling figures presented to the Cabinet. Naturally, this has caused significant hurt and anger. I am especially sorry for those establishments which do not have outdoor seating areas and are restricted from even having limited opportunities to trade. A large number of those in my constituency in Waterford have been in contact in the past week.
Whatever we do, we have to make sure indoor hospitality is reopened in a safe manner and we use every mechanism possible, including antigen testing, to facilitate those who have not had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet. I am a 34-year-old who has not had the opportunity to register on the HSE portal for a vaccine. As I said last week, the last time I wished I was a year older, I was 17 and hoping to get into a pub or a nightclub but this time it was so I could get a vaccine to facilitate the same thing. I was especially happy to see pharmacies now being offered the opportunity to give the Johnson & Johnson vaccine through their network of approximately 800 pharmacies nationally. It is really welcome that we have done that and made that decision as a Government.
On a related point, it is essential to make sure that the details of any 18- to 34-year-old who goes that route from today are inputted into the HSE COVAX system, because that is being used for the issuing of the EU travel certificate. We have to make sure anyone who goes that route is not disadvantaged. I hope the House would agree that it would be appropriate to invite the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, into the House next week ahead of the 19 July reopening of travel.
I would like to raise the issue of the crisis in the rental sector. We all know rents are way too high. The average rates across the State are €1,250 per month. In Dublin, average rents are €1,745 per month. New rents are even higher again. In Dublin Bay South, a new two-bed apartment can cost between €2,500 and €3,000 per month. How on earth can working people afford these kinds of rents? Even people in good jobs are struggling. The financial burden that renting is putting on hundreds of thousands of renters is enormous. It is even worse if you are trying to save for a deposit.
We are seeing young people and an entire generation being locked out of home ownership and their lives being put on hold. It is making it more difficult for others to put a secure roof over their heads. In 2016, Sinn Féin tabled rent certainty legislation which linked rent to inflation. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voted that down and because of that, renters are now paying up to €6,500 more per year in rent. That is the cost of this Government's failure to stand up for renters.
Rents are now so high that linking rents to inflation is not enough. We need an emergency three-year ban on rent increases. When Sinn Féin tabled its ban on rent increases Bill a year ago, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party voted it down and because of that vote, renters are paying even higher rents today. Tomorrow, the Sinn Féin team in the Dáil will be tabling that Bill again. The Government is proposing to link rent to inflation which is too little, too late. Inflation is running at 1.9% and rising. Renters cannot take any more increases. I hope our colleagues in government will support Sinn Féin's Bill tomorrow in the Dáil. It is time to ban rent increases and it is time to stand up for renters.
Last Thursday, the Mental Health Commission published its annual report. The main findings from that report made for some troubling reading. Its CEO, John Farrelly, noted the review carried out by Dr. Susan Finnerty. With regard to the number of people detained against their will at inpatient centres in 2020, there were 1,919 admissions or involuntary detentions. Some 32% of those were applications by An Garda Síochána, which is the largest such figure in the history of the State and quite worrying, given that it was during a pandemic and people in those circumstances needed help.
It noted that 41% of services did not develop comprehensive individual care plans which is another troubling statistic. Of course, there are ongoing issues with buildings. There has been significant investment in buildings for mental health services but 55% in terms of compliance, compared with other regulations, is a troubling statistic as well. This report was pertaining to the statistics from 2020. I note the work done by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, since she came into this portfolio in the second half of last year. She has taken on the brief with gusto and is addressing a number of the issues raised in this report from 2020. It especially highlights the continued investment needed in this sphere.The Leader will share my concern about the fact a day patient service is not longer available in County Meath. An inpatient service is available at Crosslanes in Drogheda but only day care services are available in Our Lady's Hospital in Navan. I pay tribute to Dearbhla Ayres and all the mental health team who administer services across the midlands and the north east. There is a need for a debate on these particular statistics with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on the work she is doing and on the long-term strategy given the troubling statistics in terms of the role of An Garda Síochána and the need for the Minister to move forward the legislation before the summer recess.
I completely support the calls we made in the House previously, of which the Leader will be aware, and the cross-party motion we all passed calling for proper pay and recognition for our secretarial assistants who do extraordinary work and are the key and only staff member of most Senators. I want to echo that reminder. I hope the message will go back to the Government that our secretarial assistants should not have to fight for something which has been very well established they need. Even in the previous Seanad, there was full cross-party support for a call for them to get a proper payscale that recognises their work and incredible contribution to our democracy.
There was mention of having a summing up debate on Covid. I do not think we are anywhere near that yet. The fact is we will continue to see new variants. One of the reasons for that is the European Commission and, sadly, Ireland, through the position taken by our Minister, Deputy Varadkar, are not supporting a trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver. They are not supporting a measure which could lead to an escalation and scaling up of supply. We are told it is not that simple. The World Health Organization is calling for this. It knows exactly how complicated and important a TRIPS waiver is. I have a recent edition ofThe Lancet, the most respected medical journal in the world, and its cover page reads "Rich countries behaved worse than anyone's worst nightmares". That is with respect to Covid. That is where we are right now. It is a huge indictment. We need for all our sakes to make sure the virus does not have infinite space to develop new variants in terms of the population of the world being exposed.
Time needs to be provided this evening to debate the other crisis we face, that of climate change. We saw what was described as a "portal to hell" in terms of the gas fire in the Gulf of Mexico. The amendments to the final sections of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill relate to whether we will continue to grant licences for oil and gas extraction. It is really important we have time to debate them. I hope the Leader can allocate additional time to ensure those crucial points are addressed. These are existential issues.
Following a weekend which featured three significant championship hurling games exclusively on Sky Sports, namely, Galway versus Dublin, which, unfortunately, was not successful for us, Kilkenny versus Wexford and Limerick versus Cork, I want to raise the issue of coverage of our games not being on free-to-air television.
As I have noted previously in the House, the GAA belongs to the Irish people, including the minority who have no interest in it, given the amounts of taxpayer funds which have always gone to the GAA, far exceeding any other sport. To be clear, I fully support the funding, believe in the good work the GAA does and have been involved in the GAA all my life. The GAA was founded with the stated goal of promoting Irish culture but I fail to see how it is doing that by depriving millions of people across the country of watching our national games.
I am aware of many people who have given countless hours to their clubs, the development of the GAA, have dedicated so much to the GAA and have missed out on watching their county team play in recent years because they cannot afford to pay for Sky Sports or because they are in hospital or a nursing home where Sky Sports is not available. I spoke to a man on Saturday who has been involved in our GAA club for more than 60 years who could only listen to the Galway versus Dublin game on the radio. The deal was wrong in 2014 and it remains wrong today. The seven-year broadcasting deal was signed in 2014. It is up for renegotiation in the coming months. I have spoken and written to my colleague, Deputy Niamh Smyth, chairperson of the Oireachtas joint committee with responsibility for sport, and requested she invite GAA officials before the committee to discuss this matter, to right the wrong and bring the games back to our people.
We received a submission this morning from the National Taxi Forum requesting we discuss the plight of taxi drivers. I am in regular contact with a group and with one of my constituents, Peter Jarvis. Those in the group have said there are few if any international travellers and little if any shopping or social life. Everything that would have provided support for taxi drivers is gone. While we have provided them with the pandemic unemployment payment, and that has been a lifeline and has been very much acknowledged in the submission from the National Taxi Forum, the potential of the industry to recover is not like that of other industries. There has been grant aid but we need to do more. I would like a debate in this House regarding their plight.
A number of things could be done. The first is to acknowledge that while taxi drivers come under the remit of the Department of Transport, and that makes sense, these are vehicle-based small businesses. Each one of the drivers operates as a small business. Every one of these individuals is supporting their family and home and running their operation as a sole trader. They work the hours they operate to do that. If we were to run the employment test we would do that on the basis of they being sole traders. They would satisfy that test.
We need an extension to the ten-year rule. While there is a need to change the fleet, we could make the requirement for drivers to replace their vehicles inextricably linked with replacing them not only with wheelchair accessible vehicles but with electric vehicles. We need to freeze the number of taxi licences being granted. While the State is supporting taxi drivers with the pandemic unemployment payment, it seems ridiculous we are admitting more people into the industry. There is a failure on the part of the Minister to engage in the context that the industry is currently not financially viable. We need a debate on this issue as soon as possible.
I thank colleagues for their contributions. Senator Seery Kearney is right in that we need a debate and not only on this sector as a number of industries will not recover in the way we hope they will. They will continue to need supports. A specific debate on the conditions that exist in the taxi industry is very relevant for us to discuss. Other colleagues have also asked for debates in the next number of weeks. Next week’s schedule is already accepted and agreed. I will be proposing the following week’s schedule to leaders tomorrow. We are literally to the pin of our collar. I have requested from both the Superintendent and the health advisers if we could have access to the Dáil Chamber on a Wednesday and a Thursday but it has been refused. I am curtailed by having Monday, Tuesday morning and Fridays sittings and I am trying to do the best for all of us. I hope the Senator will understand I do not have space between now and the recess for that debate. I will do my very best to fit it in at the beginning of the new term. All these issues will not go away over the summer, much and all as we would like them to. It is relevant that we have that debate.
Senator Crowe raised an issue that aggravates most people in the country. It is very relevant that coverage of our national games should be free-to-air for all of us to enjoy. We should not have to listen on the wireless or in a car to some of the most exciting sports. We were spoilt for choice over the weekend. Most of us were dual screening switching between the Tour de France, Wimbledon and Euro 2020. It is wonderful to have that little glimpse of normality and excitement just to be able to enjoy sport again. We should write to the Minister on behalf of all of us. It would great if the Chair of the Oireachtas committee would bring GAA officials before the committee prior to it negotiating any new deal for the next number of years.
Point taken. That is no problem.
I commend Senator Hoey on raising the issue of pay for secretarial assistants, SAs. The Senator may not be aware that we discuss the issue almost on a weekly basis at our leaders' meetings. There is work ongoing, but it is very slow, so I take on board her suggestion to write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. I will be happy to do that on behalf of the House today. There are two separate issues. The issue of SA pay is one that is long overdue refining and fixing but all staff of Senators and other parliamentarians should be considered to be parliamentary assistants, rather than secretarial assistants, given the amount of work they do. They are distinctly different roles but one is inherently connected with the other. I am very happy to send a letter on behalf of the House today.
Senator Higgins referred to a Covid debate. Again, it is very relevant. I am not sure Senator Conway meant that we were wrapping it up and that it is a done and dusted deal in terms of the next couple of weeks-----
-----but we will be having ongoing debates regarding the issues pertaining to reopening, current variants and future variants. We will have debates about the impact of Covid for many moons to come. I will certainly organise a debate on the matter as quickly as I can in September.
Senator Cassells asked for a debate on mental health. It is one of the issues we will speak about for many moons to come. The increased demand for the services of all providers - private charities and State providers - has increased significantly in the past 15 or 16 months by approximately 40%. The funding to those organisations from the State has not matched that level of increase. Many young people and older people will experience significant issues in this regard for many moons to come. A debate on the matter would be welcome.
Senator Boylan raised the issue of rental prices in Dublin.
Senator Cummins referred to the HSE advancement of the vaccine to 18- to 34-year-olds. I wish them well.
Several colleagues spoke about the hospitality industry. The only thing we can do, to be fair, is to support the hospitality sector, both the workers and the owners, in the negotiations in the next couple of weeks. We want them all to be able to earn their own livelihood and provide services not only to Irish people, but to the people who are now, thankfully, coming to Ireland, and to do so in a safe manner. I agree with Senator Gavan that decisions can only be made by people at the table. All concerned should be at the table to find a productive way forward on this issue.
Senator McGreehan raised the centenary memorials that will be take place in the coming years. Indeed, we will celebrate Seanad 100 next year. I wish the people organising those events well.
Senators Burke and McDowell raised the issue of the generation of electricity and how much more reliant the State will be on electricity generation. The debate on data centres versus green energy production is not an issue that has just been dealt with by this Cabinet; it has been there for a significant number of years. It was certainly a relevant issue in the couple of years I was a member of Cabinet.
I know. It is not for the want of debate, but I concur with the Senator that we need to have such a debate not just in this Chamber, but in the other House too and in wider society. Senator Paddy Burke is correct with regard to the marine planning Bill. I will make recommendations today that it be commenced in the Seanad so that we can get that debate and legislation moving in September. We have golden coasts that are abundant sources of natural energy and we need to get the Bill passed so that we can start using them. I concur that it is not just on the west coast that we have an abundance of supply; we certainly have an abundance of it on the east coast. I will try to arrange that as quickly as I can.
Senator Malcolm Byrne is seeking a debate on China.
Such a debate on China would be worthwhile. I have requested a date from the Minister but have not received a reply.
Senator Conway spoke about tourists coming back. The debate in respect of hospitality will be ongoing daily for the next couple of days.
Senator Gallagher thoughtfully spoke about the fact as schools, particularly primary schools, have closed for summer in recent weeks, it is an opportune time to pay tribute and thanks not just to the teaching staff, but to all the staff who mind and care for children, as well as all the governing staff who help them in their daily lives in school environments, which are a wonder for children to be able to grow and develop. As regards the school secretaries issue, I hope he is right that this will be the final year in which we have to discuss secretaries having to arrive at Intreo offices at the end of June. It is just not good enough.
Senator Flynn proposed an amendment to the Order of Business. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to accept the amendment. However, the Senator raised a valid issue as eloquently as only she can. We need a debate across multiple Departments and services on the future of children and I will try to arrange that as soon as possible when we come back in September.
Senator Gavan referred to the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on nursing homes that was aired the other night. It was difficult to watch. I agree with the Senator on this issue. I know inquiries will be taken on board by the Department of Health and maybe even the HSE but we probably need a public inquiry into this matter. The purpose of such an inquiry would not necessarily be to apportion blame. I am sure the situation most private providers and some public providers found themselves in was unprecedented and I do not know how they managed. We need to shine a light on the lessons that can be learned to make sure that if anything like this ever happens again, the State will step in far more quickly than it did to help nursing homes, probably because of the ideology the Senator spoke about at the beginning of his contribution. I will try to arrange for the sentiments of the Seanad to be sent to the Minister with regard to any proposed inquiry.
Senator Martin spoke about the by-elections and how single elections may be becoming more bruising. We have seen that elections have become more personality focused, which is an awful pity. I know that in the cut and thrust of elections candidates jibe one other from a policy perspective, but all Members know how vital it is, whether from a party perspective or another perspective, to have quality candidates who are able to come on board. We do not need potential candidates to wake up one day and ask themselves if they are mad to go for election; that they should not touch it with a barge pole. We parliamentarians and society at large will be the ones to suffer if we do not have great people putting themselves forward for election. I wish all the by-election candidates well on Thursday. The outcome will be decided by those who show up to vote, rather than those who criticise or stand on the sidelines.
Senator Moynihan welcomed the extension of the vaccine to 18- to 34-year-olds and referred to the antigen testing that will be required to help people to reopen their employment venues safely. She also referred to the SHD planning process. She has made valid points in that regard and maybe we will try to organise a debate on that in September as quickly as we can.
Senator Boyhan referred to the mushroom industry. It is a bizarre example of carbon leakage that the production of something that is needed for the production of other goods has been stopped and that it has to be imported from thousands of miles away, which makes no sense. I agree with the Senator that a debate is needed on the matter. Notwithstanding the climate action Bill that is currently before the House, the particular issue raised by the Senator should be debated in the House, possibly by way of a Commencement matter, or I can ask the Minister to address it subsequently.
Senator Kyne spoke about the Galway city ring road. It seems like we have been waiting for the planning permission decision on the project for ages. I hope the decision is delivered on schedule in August so that the road can start to be built. It will have a significant impact on the lives and livelihoods of people in the area.
Senator Chambers spoke about dementia care centres. While other colleagues were raising issues, I took the opportunity to contact the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I can inform the Senator that all dementia care centres will reopen this week, save where they have individual issues. The Minister of State asked me to convey that any centre with an individual issue relating to training, staffing or finances should contact her Department immediately, which is welcome. We take it for granted that just because a person is in his or her own home, everything is grand and hunky-dory, but I know from first-hand experience that dementia patients have suffered incredibly as a result of the lack of socialisation in the past 12 months. It has had a massive impact on them. Just being able to go to their day centre will have a hugely positive impact so we need to try to get those centres open as quickly as we can.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to Senator Chambers on her chairmanship or chairwomanship of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, as well as all of the committee members, who have worked hard and effectively in the past year. I wish them well in launching their interim report on Thursday.
I am happy to accept the other proposed amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator Gavan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 18 be taken before No. 1." The amendment was seconded by Senator Boyhan. The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.
Senator Flynn proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That the proceedings of Committee Stage of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 8.30 p.m."Is the amendment being pressed?
No. Again, this highlights the issue of time. Hopefully circumstances will change when we come back in September because it is very tough to make the relevant points and have our discussions. We will not press the amendment.