Tuesday, 28 September 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to adjourn at 6.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the Minister's opening speech not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Second Stage, to be taken at 6.45 p.m or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 1, whichever is the later, with the time allocated to the Minister's opening speech not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.
Last week in the Chamber a number of colleagues spoke about Ireland's energy supply. At the weekend there were reports from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communication, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that Ireland is facing a tight few years until 2025 in terms of our energy supplies and that engineers were undergoing training for potential blackouts this winter. This is a really serious situation that I am sure has caused much concern right across the board. People are wondering what we are going to do to address the issue. The year 2025 is quite a distance away. It is a long time to be planning to have a deficiency in energy supplies to meet the demands of our citizens. It would be important to get an update from the Minister at the earliest opportunity on that particular issue, especially his comments on the tight supplies that Ireland is facing into for the next four years.
I also want to raise the issue of mica and pyrite homeowners which, as people will know, is a big issue, in particular in Mayo and Donegal where many homeowners are facing substantial rebuild costs for their homes. The current scheme is not fit for purpose for these homeowners. We have heard many tales of families who are devastated and have had to move out of their homes where they can afford to do so. Other families have had to demolish their homes and are living in mobile homes while they try to get the money together to rebuild what were family homes. I hope the issue can be resolved and I urge the Minister to find every way possible to provide 100% redress for those families to make sure they can rebuild their family homes. It is a devastating situation for them to be in.
The final issue I want to raise is the conversation that is currently happening around a bonus payment, a thank you payment or some sort of offering to those workers who were on the front line during the Covid pandemic, how that should work and what form it should take. I mean no disrespect to any front-line worker. Many people worked extremely hard over the past year and a half, in particular those in public-facing jobs. There is a need to differentiate between those who worked in healthcare and looked after Covid patients. I am thinking of a family member of mine. In the early part of the pandemic we were genuinely worried that when she went to work she would get very sick and die. That was how serious the situation was in the early part of the pandemic. Front-line healthcare workers, in particular, went into work every day literally fighting face-to-face with Covid. There were scenes from other countries, in particular Italy, of healthcare workers in full PPE who still got sick and died.There were people who literally risked their lives every day to keep the health service on the road and keep the show going. While not discounting the work done by people working in delivery, retail services or any other job like that, there is a distinct group of people who made great sacrifices and took great risks. Very early on in the pandemic we did not know what we know now and we did not know whether people would be fully protected even wearing full gear. Yet every day, they crossed the threshold of hospitals or home care settings to look after patients who had Covid-19. All of these people were incredibly brave and if all these workers are offered is a bank holiday then that is a huge insult to the risks they took during the pandemic to keep people alive, to keep the rest of us safe and to stop the health service from crumbling. I suggest and request that this particular cohort of workers be put in a distinct category separate from everybody else and that the risks to their lives that they undertook be acknowledged.
No more than the Leader herself, I was proud to be a part of Governments that established the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, that put a new referendum on the rights of the child to the Irish people that was successfully passed, that provided the second free preschool year and included children with disability under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme through the access inclusion model and that enabled the introduction of the national child care scheme that this year will be funded by a budget of €638 million, which is an increase of 141% on the figure five years previously. However, investment lags behind other EU countries and childcare fees here are the highest in the European Union at €184 per week. During the pandemic we saw how society could not reopen in the absence of childcare being provided. Special attention and negotiation had to be entered into to get childcare reopened and established in order that families could get back to some level of normality and provide the services that we all needed.
As the Leader is no doubt aware, there is a campaign by various national associations to increase funding for the early years sector in next month's budget. I ask her to arrange a debate on the issue of childcare and childcare costs next week, if possible, but certainly in advance of the budget with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. I wish to acknowledge the work that both Ministers have done on these matters.
In addition, the wages paid to the people who work in the sector are low. The yearly hourly pay for early years educators is €11.91 and the majority of early years professionals earn less than the living wage. I welcome the agreement and negotiations between the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, in respect of a joint labour committee for the sector, on which work is ongoing.
Recently, I spoke to individuals in Galway who have worked in the sector for ten years but who have never had an increase in pay. I also have spoken to small providers who have seen their insurance costs rise by 20% in a year. It is hard to motivate people to stick with a very important career when there are no progressions, increments and nothing to say that in five years' time, one will be more valued and consequently will receive higher pay. It is for that reason that people are leaving the sector and there is a high turnover in staff, which is regrettable. As the Leader will know, it is difficult to get staff at the minimum wage. There are up to nine organisations, and rightly so, that keep an eye on the childcare sector. They are the HSE, the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Pobal, fire officers, Tusla, the Department of Education and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. That goes to show the importance that we bestow on the sector. It is, therefore, important that we have a full and proper debate in advance of the budget to support the calls for increased funding in this very important sector.
I wish to refer to a report in the media today, which featured in a number of newspapers, that the Government will establish a new national task force to tackle the growing hospital waiting lists. I wish to also refer to the shocking waiting list figures at which we must be alarmed. There are now 907,617 people waiting on treatment or assessment by a consultant and that is an increase over exactly one year of 66,167. Those figures were not compiled by me but by the National Treatment Purchase Fund on whom I keep a keen eye.I am a former director, twice over, and I tend to keep a very close eye on the figures released by the NTPF. It is an amazing organisation and it validates these figures for the Department of Health. The figures are extremely alarming. I say this in the context of Sláintecare. We have had much debate about Sláintecare and a lot of suggestions about why people left and did not leave. I appreciate the enormous challenges faced by the Minister for Health. I admire the Minister and I believe he is courageous. It is a very difficult job but we have to move on and we must address these issues. Based on these growing and alarming figures of 907,000, very shortly we will reach 1 million people waiting for treatment by consultants and for specialist care. We need to have a serious conversation. Doctors are alarmed and I believe the Government needs to be alarmed. As I said before, health and housing will be the hallmark of this Government. It is early and the Government has time on its side to deliver. It is really important.
I ask the Leader to again extend an invitation to An Taoiseach. I am aware she said before that the Taoiseach is always welcome to this House. Through the shared island unit he set up, and in which he has taken enormous interest, I am aware that he works closely and respectfully with all communities in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and issues all around Northern Ireland. There are really exciting opportunities for the shared vision for the island of Ireland. I would like to see the Taoiseach in the House as soon as his diary will permit.
I join with Senator Chambers, who is of course a native of Mayo and who probably knows more about the mica issue than most. It is a real concern and heartbreaking to see people's houses crumbling. I spent weeks in Mayo and Donegal this summer. I met with councillors who live there and who showed me at first hand. We are talking about housing for all and yet these people have homes that are crumbling in front of them. Not only must they have them repaired and replaced, they must also get temporary accommodation while that work is happening. I would welcome some sort of update or debate on that really important issue.
I second Senator Kyne's suggestion for a debate on childcare. One thing we have recognised as a result of the pandemic is just how hard it is to care for children and how important it is. Childcare workers have been front-line workers throughout the pandemic and have kept the show on the road. It is a matter of wages in the sector and also the lack of continuity of care because when people leave the sector it has an impact on children's well-being. This is a critical aspect.
The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said that childcare will be front and centre in his budget proposals. We must deal with the wages in the sector, make the care affordable, and the kind of care children receive must be the very best we can make it. While I will not say it is in the gift of the Minister for Finance, there is certainly a large element at play in terms of that Minister as to whether this can get over the line. A full debate on that issue before the budget would be very welcome.
I acknowledge the fantastic result yesterday in Galway City Council where councillors voted 17:1 in favour of a temporary cycle lane in Salthill. A couple of weeks ago it looked as though that vote would be lost. This goes to the heart of some of the problems we have in our councils across the State. It is not only to do with councillors but it also has to do with executives having a long list for councillors to go through with the reasons something might not work. Funding was one of these reasons. The Minister for Transport, however, is on record as saying that there is no issue around funding. The next excuse will be something else. Another excuse is: "What will we do with cars?". This gets ticked off and then it moves on and on. The same can be said for other projects and not just transport. This must be addressed. The councillors are representative of the people. I was on a cycle trip on Sunday and one two weeks previously.More than 200 people attended last Sunday in the lashing rain. It means the people have spoken. They have spoken through their councillors and through us as their representatives. It means, with funding being made available and legislation being brought forward by the Minister for Transport, it is time for those who are unelected to do what is asked of them and what is being voted for on our councils which is to produce the kind of transport that people want, that is healthier and is better for our climate.
Tá ábhair ghairide ar mhaith liom a lua inniu. The Leader will know, and I am sure she will agree, that in recent months there has been a lot of noise generated about the protocol. It is important to recentre ourselves and actually deal in facts and realities when it comes to the protocol and the protections and mitigations it offers this island and, specifically, to the North. As we know, there is no good Brexit but the protocol protects the all-island economy. It is timely that we consider having a range of statements from the Ministers on the roll-out of the protocol, its benefits including the positive impact it has on our economy, and the extent to which it protects people North and South. Notwithstanding what Senator Chambers said about the issues we may face with energy on this island, when we look across the water and see the unmitigated chaos there, I am sure even those most begrudging of the protocol would understand that it is the protections and mitigations of the protocol that are defending and protecting us from that chaos developing here.
We have seen impressive figures on the increase in North-South and South-North trade. In the first seven months of 2021, the Central Statistics Office stated that North-South trade increased by 60% and trade from the South to the North increased by 43%. I am sure the Leader will agree that they are some of the realities and, indeed, benefits of the protocol. It is appropriate that we hear from Ministers whose briefs relate to the protocol and that they come into the House to update us on its roll-out in the future.
I have submitted the following as a Commencement matter this week. I hope it is something the Leader will raise with Government colleagues. It was announced more than a week ago in the media that the Government plans to make the EU digital certificate available to fully vaccinated Irish passport holders in the North. It said an online portal for accessing that certificate would be available soon. There has been no further update forthcoming. As the Leader can imagine, when news like this finds its way into the public domain - not least in the context of the many entitlements, rights and protections we have lost in the North as a result Brexit - it would be good to get clarity on when and how we can avail of this. Perhaps the Leader will use her good office to encourage Government colleagues to get that message out there as soon as possible and to get it sorted.
I wish to mark International Safe Abortion Day and acknowledge the significant number of people who turned out on Saturday for the annual March for choice. Notwithstanding the enormous progress we made since the historic referendum three years ago, we still have significant issues regarding the delivery of abortion services in this country. While the Government's review is welcome, I urge the Government not to delay publishing and progressing it. The establishment of safe exclusion zones has been a long-promised commitment by the Government. While there have been mixed messages from the Minister for Health during the summer, we need those safe exclusion zones for women and their partners, and for medical staff. We need to look at the three-day waiting period and the 12-week threshold, which has caused significant distress, particularly in complex health cases and, of course, the patchy provision of abortion services since across this country, with only 10% of GPs and just ten out of the 19 maternity units offering the service.We need to see that review as soon as possible.
Another issue I wish to raise is in regard to Dublin Fire Brigade. It is an issue for this city but it is also touches on the entire country, that is, ambulance and fire service response times and services. As of yesterday, 20% of the Dublin Fire Brigade fleet could not be deployed because of serious staff shortages. This is not a one-off situation; it has been ongoing for many months now. There have been systematic failures to adequately recruit. Dublin Fire Brigade is recruiting fewer staff than the numbers retiring this year and it has taken in fewer recruits than it would take in during a normal year. It is failing to adequately plan for its workforce and it has never met the minimum staff standard agreed in 2015. There has been a failure to meet the long-standing commitments with regard to equipment.
While this is an issue for Dublin City Council, which manages Dublin Fire Brigade on behalf of the four local authorities in Dublin, it is also one for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Unless he puts in place the resources for our fire services, we will see a repeat of the horror we saw unfold in County Offaly yesterday. If we had an incident of that magnitude in this city, there would be a very real issue with regard to the response. This is not good enough for citizens or residents in the city communities, and firefighters.
I want to raise one other issue. Last week, the Leader raised MetroLink. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stated over the weekend that it will be the cheapest and quickest project that he wants to see concluded. We need the Minister to come to the House. I know the Leader will be fighting for that as well.
I echo the comments made around International Safe Abortion Day and note the launch today of an atlas of where safe access is across Europe. It is notable that countries like San Marino and Gibraltar have followed Ireland's example in seeking to ensure access, but there are practical barriers still in place. It will be important that in the review we address the practical, de facto barriers for people seeking to access their rights and avoid introducing any of the pitfalls we have seen in other countries which limit women's access to essential healthcare.
I would also like to support the calls for a debate on childcare. It is a matter of wages and conditions, but it is also a matter of progress in that, as identified by Senator Kyne, there are missing rungs on the ladder in terms of progression within childcare. It is important we treat it, not as an area of commercial activity, but as an area of national infrastructure because it is national infrastructure on which all of our society relies.
My main purpose in speaking today is to propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 16, the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Bill 2021, be taken before No. 1. The Bill would grant a five-year extension to the imminent deadline of 30 November for the registration of a right of way. This is an issue I have been raising for over a year with the Government and Ministers. I raised it first with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, because so many of the rights of way have a heritage purpose. I then engaged on it with the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Peter Burke, around planning and development, the infrastructure that we need and the network represented by those rights of way. Prior the summer, I had sought to put an amendment to the criminal justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill 2020 in order to address this simple issue.
The Bill I will be introducing contains only one line, which is unusual for me. As I said, it seeks to extend the period by five years. We realised over the summer that rights of way which have been used for generations in Ireland have, in many cases, found a new purpose as part of networks of green connectivity, allowing family members of different ages to link in with towns, visit friends and connect to supports. If we had a large-scale extinguishment of those rights of way on 30 November, the consequences would be extraordinarily bad, not just for individuals, families and easement rights, but for communities and connectivity.We would also lose the opportunity to reimagine those networks and to connect them with our rights of way in a meaningful way. I am coming to the end of my time but I am delighted and acknowledge that the Government has indicated in the past few weeks that it realises this is a problem. It is a little late, but we still have a month or two. I hope that the Government will support my Bill and ensure that we extend the period by five years in order that we have the space for proper consultation and engagement on this. I acknowledge that the Law Reform Commission and Irish Farmers Association are also engaged on this.
We are all aware of the pressures our health system operates under. Those pressures were added to considerably with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. For many years, GPs have been telling us about the critical lack of new GPs coming into the system and the pressure that puts on them . I am sure, like me, that the Leader is aware of many citizens coming to our towns who find it impossible to get access to a GP, which is a serious problem.
I was heartened by an initiative adopted by the Irish Pharmacy Union. That initiative has been put forward to alleviate some of the pressure on GPs. It is called the minor ailments scheme. Pharmacists maintain that they feel that they can alleviate much of the pressure on GPs in respect of up to 40 ailments, such as hay fever, many skin ailments, etc. Apparently, the scheme has already been rolled out internationally, including in the UK, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. It has proved to be a great success. Research from Scotland indicates that the system has the potential to eliminate one in every 20 emergency department visits and one in every seven GP visits. We know that the pharmacies provide a great service. They are located in many of our towns and villages across the length and breadth of the country. There are about 1,900 in total. Their hours are flexible. Many work seven days per week. With the arrival of Covid-19 and the added pressures on our health system, we need to adopt new thinking. This is a super initiative put forward by the country's pharmacists. I would like to see this explored. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Health to the Chamber in order that we can debate what I feel is an exciting initiative from pharmacists.
I wish to raise two issues, the first of which is the loss of commercial rates in the local authority in my home, Longford, and in Offaly, with the closure of the power plants. I acknowledge that funding was made available for 2021 but no commitments have yet been given for the period 2022 onwards. Just transition was in place out to 2027. However, that has not happened and my county is looking at a loss of €1.2 million in rates as a result of those closures and the closure of other businesses. That is a significant financial impact for the local authority. I recently met with the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, and the just transition commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, and highlighted this issue. Mr. Mulvey said that it would be extremely unfair, in circumstances for which it had no responsibility and in the context of a decision that is not expected until 2027, that the local authority should be burdened with this sudden loss. He recommended that urgent engagement take place with the chief executive of the funding Department in order that suitable emergency arrangements could be put in place for the period 2021 to 2026. Arrangements for 2021 have been put in place but no other commitments have been given. All local authorities are putting budgets together for the period 2022 onwards. The reality is that we cannot sustain the loss of that income. It will severely hamper the delivery of services in our county. I ask that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, address this issue and put firm financial arrangements in place for the period from 2022 to 2026.
I also want to raise the issue of nurses who are put on placements. I know a number who were told, while on placement, that they had to give up their part-time jobs.They were not entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, or the jobseeker's allowance because they were students but had to give up their jobs, some of whom were working on placement in Dublin. That is not acceptable. They have not even received the €100 payment which they were due. Something needs to be in place in such circumstances if they are being told to give up their other part-time work. I thank the Leader and the Cathaoirleach.
Today, the new Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Major-General Seán Clancy, takes over an organisation that is in very poor shape. I wish him the very best. There is a new Secretary General in the Department and I know that she will work with him to try to rebuild the force.
My colleague spoke about front-line workers and of how those who worked in the medical sector should be treated differently when it comes to recognition for their work. We have to be honest about this. What about truck and bus drivers? Truck drivers delivered food to our grocery stores. They did not know when they were going in to collect food who they were meeting and what condition they might be in. At least nurses and doctors had protective equipment. Bus and tram drivers and all of the people worked on the front line - I do not care whether they were medical or non-medical - and the soldiers who were out on swabbing duty at test centres, everybody who went to work had an equal part. This is regardless of whether they were treating medical conditions or just delivering something; they all had an equal part and we must treat them all equally.
We all received a letter from my colleague, Councillor Deirdre Donnelly, from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, over the summer about sexual abuse and sexual harassment and attack etc. Deirdre has gone out of her way to explain to all of us the process she went through in reporting a crime and she went public on this. I call on the Leader to have a debate in this House because these are serious issues, particularly for a woman who goes to Garda station to report that she has been raped or assaulted. We need to kick this debate out into the open to discuss specifically how they were dealt with. We have the evidence from one person and I am sure there are others who would come in. Perhaps it is one of those things on which we might have a public debate on where we might bring in Ms Blackwell or some such person in order that we can talk about the things that need to change because they do need to change.
We see what is going on in the Defence Forces and it has horrified most my former colleagues because sex abuse and bullying takes place in silence behind closed doors. I ask that the Leader might arrange a debate on this issue and let us see if we can kick it out into the open to see what needs to change.
It is a very good idea to create a new bank holiday in order to recognise the work of front-line workers but I will not enter into a debate with Senator Craughwell now. This would be to recognise the heroic work that they have done for us to keep us all safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have no particular preference as to what that bank holiday date should be. I suggest that it would be very appropriate if we were to name such a new bank holiday the shared island bank holiday or day.
I am saying this because it would send a clear message to our loyalist fellow Irishmen that we mean what we say when we tell them that our political aspiration is that we can all live together on this island in peace, friendship and harmony. That is what we said to them when we voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement and it is something that cannot be stressed enough, especially in light of some recent, regrettable controversy. No reasonable person could think that loyalists will ever be bullied or intimidated into a coerced constitutional arrangement that is anathema to them. Loyalist courage and resilience is not in question. The Provisional Irish Republican Army, PIRA, murder campaign proved that, if nothing else.
Certain elements choose to ignore or belittle loyalist opinion. This contributes nothing to the healing process that was the bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement. These elements seek to constantly attempt to frighten unionists with public declarations that a 32-county state is inevitable and that at some time in the future, the sectarian headcount will coerce loyalists into a nationalist Catholic state or force them out of their ancestral homes and that unionists just have to suck it up.These are quite insulting and may well be very dangerous, no matter if they are sometimes couched in the language of respect and reconciliation. We need to restate that we recognise in full without equivocation the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. It is in that context that I make my proposal that we have a shared island day in the Republic and welcome that perhaps there might be a reciprocal shared island day in the North.
I know that I am over my time, but before I sit down I know that the Cathaoirleach will want to join me, as Kerryman, in congratulating our fellow county man, Danny Tim O'Sullivan, who was granted the freedom of London yesterday after 50 years of philanthropy and help to Irish immigrants and people both in the UK and here in the Republic. He herded his sheep across Southwark Bridge in a time-honoured tradition and it would be nice that we would recognise that achievement for Dan here today.
I request that we have a debate on transport. I so doing I welcome that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the National Transport Authority, NTA, have awarded a contract to Jacobs Engineering Group to undertake route option analysis and develop an initial design for light rail from Ballincollig and Mahon Point as part of the Cork metropolitan area transport, CMAT, strategy. I also ask that the NTA would open its promised regional office in Cork. The office is critical to the CMAT light rail strategy's further advancement. It is critical that the office is opened and resourced and that it is done to the highest level. If we are serious about the national development plan and enhancing connectivity, the NTA should immediately open its office in Cork as a priority.
The budget is in the next couple of weeks. It is important that while this House has no role in the passing of the budget, we would have a debate on its provisions beforehand. We are all attending pre-budget briefings across the road in Buswells Hotel predominantly, or else online.
I will conclude on a positive note. Darren Fitzgerald, one of our ushers here in Leinster House, undertook a fantastic initiative over the summer holidays, the 65 holes for 65 roses golf challenge in aid of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland. I want to congratulate Darren, not only for what he achieved by raising funds, but also in highlighting the issues around cystic fibrosis. I pay tribute to him and hope that we can all support him and Cystic Fibrosis Ireland.
I join in congratulating Darren on his fantastic achievement and working on behalf of those with cystic fibrosis and highlighting the dire situation in which many find themselves, often waiting for a life saving lung transplant.
I wish to second Deputy Higgins to take No. 16 before No. 1.
It has been almost a year since the House passed a motion calling on the Government to roll out free access to contraception for women and girls aged between 17 and 25 years. The programme for Government also commits to providing free contraception over a phased period for women and girls aged 17 to 25 years. The Minister for Health has said universal free access to contraception is a ministerial priority for him. I raise this in advance of the budget because yesterday a report was launched on universal free access to contraception by the pharmaceutical company Bayer with the Irish Family Planning Association. I do not need to tell anyone that universal free access to contraception was a key recommendation of the report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution in 2017. There is an onus on the Government to deliver this recommendation, even on a phased basis, now.This is a principle of human rights. People should have the full opportunity to exercise their right to have children by choice. Individuals and couples should have access to the full range of modern contraceptive measures to achieve their reproductive goals. I urge Government parties to keep the commitments they have made on this issue.
As was mentioned today, pregnant people and their loved ones are sometimes stigmatised, shamed and intimidated as they attempt to access reproductive healthcare. My colleague, Senator Gavan, has a Bill on safe access zones and is seeking cross-party signatures for it before it goes on the Order Paper.
I rise to talk on a subject that was flagged to me at the recent Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, IPAV, annual general meeting. I would use its information quite often. The property price register, which has been a great tool since its inception, and is a fount of information on when a property is sold, the area, what it made and it is a great comparative tool particularly for auctioneers carrying out their work. It helps to track prices because you can see the price of anything that has sold.
There is one thing which is not on it. It is hard to tell if a property is a two-bedroom house, a three-bedroom house or whatever. When auctioneers look at a property from outside, they have a fair idea what it is. The Eircode is not attached to the property price register. This information is to hand at present because an Eircode is required for any property sold. This information is there so I cannot see why it is not attached to the property price register. This would be massively beneficial because if you were talking about a house in an area at least if you had the Eircode, you could identify the house and see that it is a four-bedroom semi-detached house, not a two-bedroom apartment or a three-bedroom detached. This is certainly worth chasing up. I am raising the query I received at the IPAV annual general meeting. We might look to put it down as a Commencement matter, if possible.
There are a couple of things I wish to bring to the attention of the House. I welcome the fact that our former colleague in the House, Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh, is being nominated by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to take over as chair of the board of the Shannon Group. This is an inspired appointment given the decades of experience that Mr. Ó Céidigh has had in business, particularly in the area of aviation. Given his forensic knowledge of aviation, his love of the west of Ireland, what he does in regard to tourism and his passion for developing quality of life in the west of Ireland, we are very excited at the prospect of what he could achieve in his new position, when ratified, as chair of the Shannon Group.
I put down a Commencement matter today on the HPV vaccine and I was delighted with what the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, outlined in regard to the significant uptake of the vaccine for the past 12 months. The programme is now ready to go for this year in schools. I welcome the confirmation from the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, that the €400 to €600 charged by GPs in respect of those who did not take up the vaccine at the time but whose parents decided on reflection that taking up the vaccine was the right thing to do will be eliminated. There will be no barriers to anybody who wants to take up the HPV vaccine, even at a late stage.That is very welcome, a Chathaoirligh.
I rise today to express my deep dismay regarding the new completion date of 2034 for MetroLink. The new completion date has been given to us today, after many weeks of speculation following media reports a couple of weeks ago. This is only a hopeful date. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said that “hopefully” we will be able to deliver MetroLink by 2034. I would like to remind the House the exact schedule that we have been given for what was metro north and is now MetroLink. In 2001, the project was first announced. That was more than 20 years ago, when it was known as metro north. It was given a completion date of 2012. In 2011, it was postponed. It was relaunched in 2015, with the completion date of 2027. Now, we hear that it will not be completed until, at the very best, 2034.
This is a devastating blow for the northside of Dublin. When I say the northside, I mean north County Dublin and the north of city, the whole area of north Dublin, which is the fastest growing part of western Europe. Not to have something major like a metro to deliver connectivity between communities, educational institutions and health institutions is a particularly bad blow for the people of Swords. Swords has a population of more than 45,000. To that in context, it is the size of Waterford city. Swords has poor public transport infrastructure. There is no DART in Swords, there is no Luas, and now there will not be any metro. It is a disgrace. People have finally lost hope that the metro will be delivered.
North County Dublin has the youngest and the fastest growing population in Europe. There is much construction going on there at the moment. There are many planning applications in train also to deliver the much-needed homes for Dublin. However, one cannot deliver these homes without transport infrastructure. We need transport-led housing development. This will create sustainable communities. However, what is going on at present is unsustainable. Those of us living in north County Dublin are facing crammed buses, crammed trains and overcrowded motorways. It is disgraceful. We have a busy airport which is serviced, by and large, by country boreens. They are servicing Dublin Airport, which is a major employer and a major strategic point for this country.
I want a full debate with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the metro specifically. I know others have mentioned it, and have mentioned other transport projects. It is a vital piece of national infrastructure-----
On this day 20 years ago, 51-year-old journalist, Martin O'Hagan, lost his life in the most brutal of circumstances. While walking home with his wife, he was shot twice in the back. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter". Among legislators, media participants, and laypeople, a silence pervades about this particular thing that matters. Today, it is compellingly appropriate to mark our appreciation, not just for one journalist, but for freedom of expression and for press freedom. These are vital components of the foundation of our democratic society, which require our vigilance because they are under constant threat from forces which are visible and from forces which are less obvious. Complacency is but one of the less obvious threats to this treasured feature of our society.
The barrister and columnist, Elaine Byrne, said that Martin O’Hagan was a fearless investigative journalist whose love affair with journalism was motivated by a desire to shine a light on the dark corners of organised crime.Fr. Brian Darcy, a colleague of Mr. O'Hagan's at The Sunday World, said at his graveside that, "Martin was gunned down because he got nearer the truth than the rest of us". His killers still walk the streets today. There is a pressing need to reinvestigate his killing. Such a fundamental attack on freedoms should not go unanswered and uninvestigated. We must never give up.
I thank the Senator for raising that issue. Mr. O'Hagan was one of the only journalists killed during the Troubles. Senator Martin has raised the broader issues of press freedom and the importance of journalism. In that context, we also think of Lyra McKee and other journalists around the world who have been murdered in the course of their work. I thank Elaine Byrne. The 20th anniversary of the murder of Mr. O'Hagan was featured on "Morning Ireland" earlier today.
Next, I call Senator McGahon.
I have raised my topic of discussion previously in the House. I refer to the concept of introducing flexible three-day TaxSaver tickets for commuters. I first raised this matter in June of last year. More than 12 months have passed. We have returned to full capacity on public transport and workers across the country have returned to their offices and yet we still do not have this type of ticket. People must still pay for monthly and annual tickets when they may only be making four trips each week instead of the usual ten, which is unfair. I am raising this issue because I ask for the assistance of the Leader and the House in trying to get some clarity from the National Transport Authority, NTA, regarding the process of moving forward with introducing this type of ticket.
The response I received from the NTA referred to TaxSaver tickets being governed under tax legislation from the 1990s, which states that such tickets shall not apply in respect of "expenses incurred by the body corporate in or in connection with the provision for a director or employee of a monthly or annual bus, railway or ferry travel pass". Therefore, the NTA is stating that one aspect of the issue is that it does not know whether legislative change is required to introduce this type of ticket, since the legislation clearly refers to "monthly or annual" passes. The NTA is trying to figure out if it might be possible to introduce a ticket that would be valid for 100 days of travel in a year and which would also fit within the definition contained in the legislation. As I see it then, the NTA is stating that the problem is that it does not know if legislative change is required or whether it might be possible to introduce a flexible ticket within the parameters of the 1997 legislation.
If legislative change is required, it is a pity that it has not been brought forward yet. Given that we passed so much legislation regarding Covid-19 in the past year and a half, I am of the view that this matter should have been addressed by now. It is a bit late in the day to state that we are still trying to determine if legislative change is required. My hope is that we could write to the NTA to get clarity on this issue. If legislative change is needed to introduce a flexible TaxSaver ticket, then we could find that out. If legislative change is needed, let us go ahead and do that and if such change is not needed, then let us take the next step once we have that clarity. The NTA told me that it hopes to introduce this type of ticket in quarter 1 or quarter 2 of next year. We should be pushing to have it introduced before Christmas at the latest.
Senator Clifford-Lee's remarks were well made. Ireland should be a leader in the area of remote working. We can be competitive and be compassionate about our workers at the same time. A working group was launched yesterday called the Remote Alliance. It consists of four leading Irish employers: eBay and Liberty Insurance, companies that I am pleased to say are located in Dublin 15, and the ESB and Vodafone. Those businesses have come together to drive the cultural change required to embrace remote working permanently. People might ask why this is needed now when we seem to have been talking non-stop about remote working over the past year. In that time, we have gone from a situation where everyone was predominantly office-based to one where everybody has been working from home. Now we need to do the hard part, which involves embracing a mixture of both working environments and achieving a balance. Some people will want the best of both worlds and that will mean that some people will be managing teams with different preferences. Therefore, managerial and organisational change will be required. We must also ensure that people working remotely will have the same career opportunities as they would have had if they were working in the office.
The organisation, Grow Remote, is leading the initiative in this regard.It is going to consist of a toolbox, which the group is calling a sandbox, that other employers can then use in their cultural change.
It reminds me that the budget is coming up and we have promised to review the treatment of tax. At present, employers can pay their employees €3.20 per day without deducting tax. At €830 per year, that is a significant amount in anybody's wages. Companies that have been thriving and saving their money should be passing that on to their employees and not all of them have. Employees are then opting for the personal tax relief, which is much less. The question is how we make that more equitable and how do we ensure we are supporting hubs. If somebody is getting €820 a year to work from home, can we also support them in the same way to work from a hub? Working from a village is just as valuable, if not more so, than working from home.
I wish to acknowledge that my local area has a Europe Direct library. There are actually only eight such libraries across the country and one of them is based in Ballinasloe. Our MEP, Colm Markey, who spoke to us here last week, was in Ballinasloe yesterday. What is really good about this particular library is that covers the areas of counties Galway, Roscommon, Clare and Longford. As to the services it offers, it is an information centre where people can find out about European polices but it also is a phenomenal library. This is to point out how important our library services are. We are very lucky to have it in our area. It is just great. There are library books, you can read your newspaper, you can go in and find out about your audio books, especially when you are travelling a lot, which is great. In addition, European LEADER funding is particularly focused on rural areas and more than €350,000 has been made available in this regard. Colm Markey MEP had the chance to meet people in the Galway Rural Development office in Ballinasloe and highlighted the impact of that funding, particularly for places like our Town Hall Theatre, our town band and the wonderful Christmas lights we had last year. All of this is down to European LEADER funding we access through Galway Rural Development.
At this time of year in Ballinasloe, we would normally have our October horse fair and festival. Unfortunately, it has been cancelled this year, as it was last year, due to public health guidelines. It was a very difficult decision that was taken by Galway County Council along with our committee in Ballinasloe. I understand it is difficult for our businesses but we are going to be looking forward to the 300th anniversary of the fair in 2022. I really encourage all our visitors, both local and from abroad, to look forward to the festival we will hold, and the amazing programme of events we will have in 2022 when we can celebrate in a safe way. Unfortunately, we still have more than 300 people in hospital and more than 60 people in ICUs. We cannot hold events that are not ticketed and it is important we consider public health guidelines.
I thank Senator Dolan for informing the House about the Ballinasloe library and all the merits available from what is a huge resource for people. Sometimes we forget about them and they are just in the background of our villages and towns. I wish the horse fair in Ballinasloe every success for its 300th anniversary. I pray to God things will be back to normal by this time next year.
Senator Currie spoke of people showing leadership and I acknowledge the alliance announced yesterday by eBay, Liberty Insurance, the ESB and Vodafone. I wish to put on the record of the House that somebody who showed immense leadership on this particular issue, long before it was a topical one, is the Senator herself. Long before she was even appointed to this House, she was talking about and championing remote work. It is certainly something that has grasped everybody's imagination in the past 18 months. If there is anything we could take from this, apart perhaps a renewed appreciation of time spent with family, friends, community and loved ones, it is the real value of what remote work can actually give people, be it working from the home itself or from hubs. There is the improvement in our quality of life and that extra couple of hours to spend doing things we would much rather do, as opposed to sitting on buses or in our cars in traffic jams. I wished to put that on record and commend the Senator on her work. I wish Grow Remote continued success in the months and years ahead in continuing to keep the momentum behind remote working.
Senator McGahon raised an issue he has raised umpteen times in the House.I will write a letter to the head of the NTA today. It is disingenuous of the NTA to write back to the Senator telling him it does not know whether legislation is required. For God's sake, if the NTA does not know that, we could nearly give up.
Senator Martin described how important the freedom of the press is and reminded us that it is the 20th anniversary of Martin O'Hagan's murder. May he rest in peace. I value freedom of expression and the important role of journalists and how they report our stories. I wish to God we did not have to read so many leaks in the papers, as opposed to hearing the information directly from Departments, but I acknowledge what the Senator has said.
In that vein, Senator Clifford-Lee talked about a leak of which we were made aware last Sunday a week in theMail on Sunday. We were told on numerous occasions last week, in this House and the Dáil, that the leak was not true and we were absolutely committed to public transport. Unfortunately, it took until yesterday for us to discover, to our detriment, that the leak is absolutely true and we will not see sight nor sound of MetroLink until at least 2034. There is no doubt we need a debate in this House and the Dáil on the commitments of this Government to the sustainable modes of transport we have championed for so long.
Senator Conway talked about the Minister of State's announcement in this House of the waiving of the fee of between €400 and €600 for those who do not avail of the HPV vaccine for their children in school and then decide to get it afterwards. That is very welcome.
Senator Davitt asked if I could ensure the Eircode is included in the property price register. I will write to the organisation in question and ask for that.
Senator Warfield raised the issue of free access to contraception in light of the Government's commitment in the weeks before the budget. I hope to see that commitment lived up to and I thank the Senator for raising it today.
Senator Buttimer asked for a debate on public transport. We should have regional debates because one debate on public transport will certainly not cover the commitments in the programme for Government or the national development plan, which will be announced in the coming weeks, or the sectoral and regional interests we have to deliver to the people we represent. I will try to arrange those over the coming weeks.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan voiced his support for creating a new bank holiday.
Senator Craughwell asked for a debate on the reporting of the treatment of victims of sexual crime in this country. That is very relevant and I will organise it. He also wished the new Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Seán Clancy, well, as I am sure we all do.
Senator Carrigy talked about the loss of commercial rates our local governments have endured over the past 18 months and sought security for the coming months, based on the uncertainty of businesses restarting and being able to pay. A response on this should come from the Minister.
Senator Gallagher asked for a debate on the pressures on the health system and the worthwhile initiative the Irish Pharmacy Union has put forward, which is working successfully in other jurisdictions around the world.
I am happy to accept Senator Higgins's amendment to the Order of Business and wish her success in this matter in the coming weeks.
Senator Sherlock talked about today being International Safe Abortion Day and the Government review, which I hope to see before Christmas. We will then have a full debate on what will be required to amend and tweak the legislation. I hope much of it will be in the review and we can all support it. The Senator also raised Dublin City Council and the lack of recruits and resources for Dublin Fire Brigade. It is interesting, as I wrote to Dublin City Council only two months ago to ask about the recruitment of paramedics and I am still waiting on a response to my letter. If that is anything to go by, maybe we should not be surprised. I will the matter with the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government on the Senator's behalf.
Senator Ó Donnghaile asked me to clarify why digital certificates had not yet been made available to all residents on the island of Ireland. I will follow up with the Minister today and come back to him on that.
Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Kyne asked for a debate on childcare. We seem to have been talking about this issue during the terms of successive Governments. I do not say this in a trite way. This Government is talking about childcare and what is required to make it sustainable and, from a career perspective, worthwhile. We were talking about it in the Government of which I was a Member and in Governments before that. We seem to be talking about the issue an awful lot but not doing much as regards taking the action required to deliver a sustainable sector for the people working in it and the parents and children who need it. It is beyond time we started doing something about it. I will arrange a debate on childcare as quickly as I can in the coming weeks.
Senator Boyhan talked about the new task force to tackle growing waiting lists. We need a debate on Sláintecare, for which Senator Gallagher asked last week. I submitted a request to the Minister and will come back to the Senators as soon as I can on the matter.Senator Kyne spoke about wages in the childcare sector. Senator Chambers opened today with Ireland's energy supplies and the insecurities in that regard. The Minister is due in to us on 2 November to have a debate on energy security.
Senator Boyhan asked for a debate on waiting lists. The Minister for Health is due in to us on 4 December and I have been informed that the Sláintecare debate will take place then.
Senator Chambers also gave her view on how the State should respond to all the front-line workers, who over the past 18 months have done tremendous and Trojan work in making sure we stayed safe, were minded and had food to buy in shops and transport to get to and from where we needed to go. The Garda had some tremendously difficult situations to deal with and I do not think its members should be forgotten. I do not believe we should start pitting parts of the public sector and the private sector against each other. I have no doubt it will be difficult to try to please everybody but what we need to do is to show genuine appreciation on behalf of all citizens of the State to all of those workers who made sure that we were safe and minded well over the past 18 months.
Senator Higgins has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 16 be taken before No. 1". The amendment has been seconded by Senator Warfield. The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.