Wednesday, 29 September 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Criminal Justice (Smuggling of Persons) Bill 2021 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 1 p.m. and to adjourn at 2.45 p.m., if not previously concluded, with 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 exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, statements on Housing for All - a New Housing Plan for Ireland, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to adjourn at 5 p.m., with the opening statement of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the Minister should be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate or to the statements made on this day and then statements are thereupon to be adjourned; and No. 3, Private Members' business, National Lottery (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
This morning I raise the issue of special exemption orders for bars and nightclubs across the country. Any licensed premises that seeks to open late currently has an additional payment of €410 per night, made up of €300 in court stamp duty and €110 in excise stamp duty. That is the total of €410. The figure does not include the cost of legal fees associated with court attendance, etc. To put that into perspective, that represents an extra €8,200 per month in charges for a late-night venue that operates five nights per week in any of our cities across the country, so that it can open its doors late.
As Members of Seanad Éireann will be aware, the Government has already signalled its intention to reform licensing laws and to abolish the current late-night fee system. We are emerging from a pandemic that has hammered the hospitality sector. Many of the businesses that will be seeking special exemption orders in the coming months will have been closed for almost 600 days before they reopen. These businesses have followed guidelines throughout the pandemic and made sacrifices for the good of our country and for the good of our people. As they seek to rebuild post-Covid, they need and deserve our support to do so.
Businesses that have been shut for a year-and-a-half are simply not in a financial position to pay these sorts of fees upfront. If the fees are applied in full, many will need to limit the number of late nights they open. That, in turn, will of course have a knock-on impact on other businesses that are part of the night-time economy. As the Cathaoirleach and the Leader will be aware, musicians are outside Leinster House this morning to make known their stance. I have no doubt that many Members in the House will support the musicians, taxi drivers, and many other services that work alongside the late-night economy.
It is my view that these fees should be waived until 2022 at the earliest, so that the night-time economy can start with the boost it so desperately needs. I ask Leader of the House if she could raise this with the Minister for Justice, Deputy Heather Humphreys, at her earliest convenience. It is obviously a time sensitive matter.
I raise the issue of an article that appeared in The Irish Times last week about the proposed increase of vehicle registration tax, VRT, on electric vehicles. My issue around this is twofold. We have ambitious plans about electric vehicles in this country. We want to have 1 million electric vehicles on our roads by 2030. At the same time, there are reports from the Department of Finance that new car prices intend to jump by €1,300 for normal cars and, for electric vehicles, up to €4,100 under budget proposals. That is a result of the Department of Finance's tax strategy group last week, which put forward changes to the VRT system. This will mean the tax rates on regular car emissions would increase by 2% and 5%. The issue is that we want to reach our ambitious long-term climate action targets while at the same time, other arms of Government are coming out with proposals that will hinder and slow this down. Many people in this country want to make the right choices when it comes to climate action and to play a role. Even today, despite there being so many financial incentives and grants towards electric vehicles, they are still out of many people's price range.
When we look to Europe to some of countries that have taken up electric vehicles, Finland stands out as a country where it has increased hugely in the last three years. Finland has swamped the market with financial incentives for electric vehicles. There are so many financial incentives that it would be mad to not drive an electric vehicle in Finland.
In the last day or two, we have had many calls for Members of this House for a debate on transport. That would be timely. I ask that at some stage in the next couple of weeks we have an overall discussion about sustainable travel and transport in general.
If we are trying to reach our climate action goals by 2030 and have 1 million electric vehicles on the road, which is a huge number, we cannot at the same time remove the VRT that would see the price of an electric vehicle increase by about €4,000.We need to make sure that on one side of government, we have the ambitious targets and then on the other side, other arms or channels of government are not introducing things in their Departments that will hinder the work we are trying to achieve in other Departments. I would appreciate a debate on transport in the House at some future stage.
I wish to propose a change to the Order of Business, “That No. 14 on the Order Paper be taken before No. 1”, as I wish to introduce the Registration of Wills Bill 2021 in my name and that of my colleagues in the Independent group. I know that will be seconded later by a colleague.
I want to spend my time this morning on the issue of the meat industry. I circulated to every Member of the House a story about the meat industry and the issues of concern that were published in The Guardianand which had huge traction both in the UK and in Ireland in the last 24 hours. I suggested that when any of us tuck into our next chicken breast, we might consider the plight of the workers and the horrific stories in that article in regard to Ireland and people who have come into Ireland via various routes and through employment agencies to work in the sector here. One woman described having to pull and pack 20,000 chicken breasts. When she was ill and having her period, she asked to go to the bathroom and she was refused. Various other things are described in this article. The article goes on to attribute issues around the Workplace Relations Commission and to suggest “the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), says it has no data in relation to the number of meat workers hired by agencies and sub-contractors” in this country. That surely has to be alarming.
It is an horrific story. These are people who have come into this country with hope, ambition, excitement and the possibility of a new life. These are the invisible migrant workers who are propping up Ireland's €4 billion meat industry. It cannot be allowed to happen and we should not stand by idly. We should stand in solidarity with these people. Some of these people have not been regularised. In a documentary which I downloaded yesterday, some other people talk about how they were so ill that they were popping pills to reduce their temperature for fear they would show up in regard to Covid when coming into the workforce. Some of these people are working 60 hours a week in our meat industry.
I say that as someone conscious of the concerns around agriculture. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am elected on the agricultural panel of Seanad Éireann. I do not want to ruin this industry. I want this to be a good, clean and honourable industry with integrity but, more importantly, I am concerned about the workforce that is producing chickens that we might very well consume and eat here in Leinster House, and we certainly consume and eat them in restaurants around this country. We must stand in solidarity with these workers.
I am pleased to say I had an email the very first thing this morning, within minutes of circulating this, from Deputy Ivana Bacik, who has committed to raising it in the Dáil. My ask here today is that we all stand in solidarity with these workers. I know the Leader would have a particular interest, knowledge and experience of issues around employment rights, being a Minister with responsibility in these areas in the past. Let us all stand together in solidarity and fight for the equal rights of these workers and, equally, to protect our agriculture and agrifood sector, which is a really important industry for the Irish economy.
Over the last number of years, there have been improvements in the area of animal welfare but we still have a very long way to go in this country. This week alone, anybody who was listening to the radio would have been horrified by the stories of animal abuse and torture. Ireland still holds the reputation of being the puppy farm capital of Europe.
Many of the animal welfare issues we have in this country could be easily addressed if the political will was there. Take, for example, the online sale of pets. The regulations on the online sale and supply of pets are in place for 20 months now and there is yet to be a single enforcement taken by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine - not a single case. This is despite animal welfare organisations spending hours, every single day of the week, having to scan through the online platforms and reporting to the online platforms, and then waiting for the advert to go down, by which time the dog is already sold on and the mobile number is no longer active. These are animal welfare volunteers who are spending their time doing this when they could be doing much more important work.
Instead of taking on board their eminently sensible and cheap proposals, all we are asking the Minister to do is put in place a central database that brings together the information on the dog breeding establishments, where they are located and how many breeding bitches each dog breeding establishment has onsite, and also to bring together the information on the microchip number so it corresponds to the actual dog that the microchip is registered to. We do this for cars, so it is not sophisticated software that is needed. We could do it just as well for dogs and that would allow for pre-verification of the adverts.
Currently, the position of the Government is to tell us to do our homework, to tell the person who is buying the dog to go and do their homework and to tell the online platforms that they have to do better. However, they are not equipped with the tools to it. A central database would allow them to do this. We would also like the Minister to run a public awareness campaign telling people not to pay cash for animals, given the amount of tax that is being forgone by the Exchequer in this multi-million euro industry because we do not inform people why it is so wrong to pay cash for animals.
Yesterday, the programme for the autumn legislative session included the Animal Health and Welfare (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 to address fur farming. That is great because we need to ban fur farming. Unfortunately, I asked the Minister without success to extend its scope to take on board the legislation that I have ready to go, which would close down the loophole on smuggling and allow for any animals that are seized at the ports, puppies included, to be rehomed within five days, rather than having to wait for the court process to be completed, which takes anything up to 12 to 18 months.
This House needs to have a debate on animal welfare and it would be an opportune moment now that we have those two pieces of legislation on the legislative programme. I ask the Leader to consider having such a debate.
I want to raise the issue that we see in the media today, namely, the living wage technical group said we need a living wage of €12.90, which is €2.70 higher than the current minimum wage. That is an increase of 60 cent on last year and it is mainly caused by the rising cost of rent. It is calculated that people on the minimum wage are spending some 64% of their salary on rent, which is two times what is considered affordable, which is generally about a third of income. This underlines the need for a three-year rent freeze in order to try to make rents more affordable for people who are living on the edge, the working poor who need a rent freeze. The basics of life are increasing, in particular in regard to the right to a home and energy costs.
I would like the Leader to schedule a debate on the issue of a living wage and how that fits into housing costs. I recognise we are having a debate on Housing for All later but we have to focus on the issue of renters, the unaffordability of renting and those people who are on the edges of society and spending such a high proportion of their salary on rent, with no chance of ever owning their own home and no chance of their living costs or their rental costs going down.
On a related matter, I see today that a circular has been issued to local authorities on student accommodation guidelines. A little like the situation with investors, it is to be seen to be doing something without actually doing something. The Government has said that the circular sent to local authorities leaves them in no doubt that student accommodation changes of use should not be done without a compelling reason. The situation where 1,000 students beds in Dublin have been changed over to tourist accommodation also happened under the same guidance because it was contained in the development plans that there should not be a changeover and there should not be over-concentration in certain areas. It needs to be stronger than simple guidance. It is like writing a letter and asking for something to be done without having proper backup in legislative terms or having more compelling guidelines in order to be able to do it. I can still see some local authorities doing that.The rationale in the student accommodation change of use applications that I have objected to in my area included the fact that there was going to be a drop in the number of international students and the providers did not consider dropping their rent in order to be able to attract students. We need a debate on the issue. It is something that has gone under the radar, but given the student accommodation crisis it came into focus last week.
I attended the launch of a pre-budget submission hosted by the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, outside Leinster House. It was a powerful launch. MEAI was formed in June 2020 as a result of the pandemic which decimated the entire industry. Since then it has worked tirelessly, on a voluntary basis, to represent the industry to Government and help find solutions to reopen the industry. I am privileged to be one of 11 Oireachtas Members involved with the MEAI committee, which was established in May 2021. Thankfully many of its members were in attendance today to support the pre-budget submission. The theme of the MEAI submission is invigorate, involve and inspire, which I thought was wonderful. I believe its requests will help to rebuild and regrow the industry through the plans of invigoration and involvement.
I wanted to highlight two requests in particular. MEAI has requested an increase in funding for the independent live entertainment sector from €50 million to €75 million. It suggested a number of schemes for this €75 million which would create employment opportunities for workers in the sector. This would be done through inclusion and interaction between the sector and children, people with disabilities and the elderly. These schemes are directly targeted towards local authority schemes and bringing music and entertainment back into communities that have been starved of the experience for over 18 months.
MEAI has also requested a pilot scheme for artists with disabilities which seeks to remove the income threshold for artists in receipt of disability payments from the Department of Social Protection. This scheme would empower those artists and promote self growth and development in their work and personal lives.
Other requests include: the implementation of universal basic income for artists; the application of reduced VAT rates for performers and bands in the sector; the creation of a Covid-19 insurance guarantee scheme for events; and a census of the music and entertainment industry in Ireland. We all know and have experienced the joy of live music, as I did outside this morning. It was lovely to hear music at the launch. It was a reminder that we can never take music and entertainment for granted again and must protect and value it in the future. I want to call on the Minister, Deputy Martin, and her colleagues in the Government to consider and act on the requests in the MEAI pre-budget submission.
I endorse the remarks of Senator Black around the importance of music and the arts. As she said, it is great that gigs are back and events are starting to happen again. Things have been difficult and we need to support the sector as it reopens.
I want to raise the question of pensions. I am concerned by some of the very populist debate that is happening around pensions at the moment and that we are not thinking sufficiently long-term. Those who will sit their leaving certificate next year will probably not retire until the late 2060s or early 2070s. They will have a life expectancy of 90. They will live a lot longer. The big difference between now and 30 years' time is that at the moment there are five people working for every one person who has retired but within 30 years we will be in a situation where, on current projections, we will only have two workers for everybody over the age of 65. I worry that this timebomb is something we are not addressing.
When we are having a debate around what age people should retire at now, we are not looking at the bigger picture. We continue to kick the can down the road. Many of our fellow European countries, such as Italy, Germany and France, have failed to address this issue and that has now led to large-scale social unrest and disagreement between the generations. I worry that because of our failure to address this long-term issue, and given some of the populist language being used during the pensions debate, those now aged in their teens, 20s and 30s will suffer far more because we are not having a realistic debate. I ask for a comprehensive and real debate on the long-term implications of pensions.
We all know the difficulties young people have faced in getting time to sit driving tests and the knock-on effect that has had on people who have to travel to or need to drive for work. I welcome the work done by the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to address the backlog and provide an opportunity for people who need licences to get tests early.
However, I was contacted by a young woman in my area who requires an adaptation to drive her vehicle. It seems there exists an extraordinary situation whereby persons who use an adapted vehicle for whatever reason are not subject to the same test as everybody else. They need a special tester and test, and there is no waiting list available to them. People who need adapted vehicles are arguably those who need their cars more than most, but they cannot get onto a cancellation list. They have to wait longer and there is still a problem addressing the backlog for those vehicles.
I do not understand why every tester is not competent to test a person trying an adapted vehicle. We should examine the situation with a view to having a driver testing regime that is available to everybody on an equal footing so that those who need a licence can do their tests and move on. That should apply as much to people who require an adapted vehicle as it does to people who do not. Can we have a debate on this issue? I ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss these issues so we can put in place, and argue for, a system that applies equally to everyone and facilitates those who need licences.
I would like to ask for a debate, which we need urgently, on the meaning of commemorations at this sensitive time. When we had various commemorations of the Famine, and marked it and remembered all of those who lost their lives, it never occurred to me that we might be celebrating the fact that so many people died and suffered. I do not think many of us would have gotten involved if it was the case.
However, a strange confusion seems to have arisen whereby commemorating something or marking it, one is somehow celebrating it. I thought we had arrived at a different understanding in recent years, and that we commemorated and marked things which were of significance to us all, which some of us might celebrate and others might not, but that that joint commemoration would be the basis for going forward together in mutual understanding. I thought that was our understanding, but the people who should be leading us in this area seem to be adding to the confusion.
The expert advisory group on the centenary celebrations recommended for the 2017 to 2023 period that an academic conference be held to mark the centenary of the petitioning of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland. This is exactly the same language that was used by the organisers of the event to take place in Armagh next month. Extraordinarily, one member involved in the expert group, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, has weighed in to criticise vocally that Armagh event which I find extraordinary. Our President, who is not accountable to these Houses, has spoken eloquently about the concept-----
For the benefit of the House, it has been ruled upon and has been Seanad practice for a long time that the President should not be brought into debates within this House because of the separation of powers. I understand this issue is in the public arena, but as it is a practice of the House then it would not be appropriate to directly refer to the President.
Understood. I fully intended to honour what the Constitution says and the practice of this House. His phrase is inescapably relevant. The President has spoken of "narrative hospitality", an eloquent phrase that talks about a willingness to be open to the perspectives, stories, memories and pains of the stranger. All I am saying is that I am confused. It would take a wise man to figure all of this out or, as Pope Francis would term it, a saggio. The idea of a saggiois reflected in the Irish language in the word "saoi".We know nach mbíonn saoi gan locht. It will be interesting to see if the Irish Government sends a representative to this event in Armagh. What will it say if it does and what will it say if it does not? To borrow another Italian word, we are in an imbroglio. It is undeniable that the President had no intention of causing trouble but we find ourselves in a state of confusion.
I am sorry, Senator. I have outlined the practice in the House and the provision in the Constitution. I will not get into the Constitution. The President should not be referred to or criticised directly or indirectly with regard to any matter in this House.
I will outline the practice one more time. It refers to criticising the President. You can praise the President all you wish but the practice in the House is not to criticise or refer directly or indirectly to the President. I ask the Senator to respect that.
I will conclude. I will not do anything to disturb the tranquillity of the Cathaoirleach's job other than to say that we now need to have a discussion about what commemoration means. It is undeniable that a choice that has been made has certainly stoked up something in Irish public opinion that might not be entirely helpful. Forse un saggio e forse anche un furbo.We need to address and reflect on this.
I second Senator Boyhan's proposal to amend the Order of Business today.
I raise the issue of crime on our streets. We have seen a surge since the pandemic of groups of teenagers terrorising people on our streets. There has been a substantial increase in homophobic and xenophobic attacks. Every second day, we see a video go viral on the Internet of people being attacked. They are shared widely and it is terrifying. It puts people off going into the city to socialise and it puts businesses off setting up and reopening. We need to see a policing plan in place. Looking at these videos, there does not seem to be any police presence interfering with or ensuring that the attacks stop. It would be great to know if the Garda Commissioner has a specific plan relating to the police presence, especially in the evenings, in our inner city where people tend to go to socialise. The videos on social media are horrific and terrifying. I cannot stress that enough.
I also send my condolences and those of the Fianna Fáil group to the family of Eileen Rushe, cervical cancer campaigner and HPV vaccine advocate, who died tragically. She continued, after her diagnosis, to urge people to avail of screening services. In her memory, we really should continue to convey that strong and important message.
I welcome the good news that, at long last, a chair has been appointed to Shannon Airport, a former Member of this House, Pádraig Ó Céidigh. I wish him all the best. He was an appropriate choice for the position given the economic situation and it being a driver for the region. I look forward to working with Pádraig. He is the right man for the job, so a good job was done.
Drinks Industry Ireland published a report today, stating that in 2022 there will be 40,000 fewer people working in the drinks and hospitality industry than in 2019. It is frightening. I know it is a result of the pandemic. People had livelihoods and mortgages. Their families were dependent on them working in the industry. In the mid-west alone, it projects that 3,000 fewer people will be working in that industry. I know that Drinks Industry Ireland is looking for cutbacks in the VAT rate for the hospitality industry in the budget. We should all support it because it does not just affect the mid-west but all of Ireland. It is a substantial workforce, with 180,000 people in 2019 and 140,000 in 2022.
I return to a subject which I have raised previously, which is the proposed multi-billion euro, 19 km, high frequency, high capacity rail link from beyond the airport to the south side of our city, called MetroLink. It has been talked about since 2001. As a project, it will potentially reduce the congestion on city streets, reduce the number of cars and help us all to achieve our carbon action targets. It would come through my own home constituency of Dublin Central, by DCU, Albert College Park, which I have raised here before, through Phibsborough, Harts Corner, Glasnevin, by the Mater, Berkeley Road, and down to O'Connell Street, then beyond, to the south side. The delays that are being spoken about until 2034 represent a minimum of an extra decade of talking about it. As I said at the start, it is a multi-billion euro project. There is a significant concern because this is not only an infrastructure and transportation project but it is a project that directly impacts people's lives, the economy, our society, our schools, our education facilities, health facilities, and people's homes. That includes people living in Dalcassian Downs and on Berkeley Road. It affects Na Fianna GAA club and Home Farm Football Club. These are all vital community infrastructure. There are big names outside Dublin Central.
We need the Minister for Transport to come into the House to explain what is causing the delays because from what I have heard, there is no change in the Government commitment to it. We need to understand why there are delays, what is being done to address the delays and the timescale, and what will be done in the interim to address the congestion. Much road space has been taken in Dublin Central, with improved cycling and pedestrian facilities, but the congestion is substantial and we need a plan for the next ten years to make sure the project is delivered on time and that in the interim, the congestion, pollution and all associated costs are addressed.
I raise the ongoing debate about the future of the emergency department and intensive care unit in Our Lady's Hospital in Navan, which the Leader knows well. The debate about this hospital has been going on for decades. I grew up beside that hospital and have been listening to the debate for 40 years. Further claims last week gave rise to more concerns and naturally caused concern for many, from the staff to local people to campaigners. To try to get the facts on this, I spoke directly with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and he assured me that there is no threat to the emergency department or plans to axe it, as has been claimed, and that there are no documents on his desk to that effect, seeking for him to do that. It is important to put that on the record so that people have those facts and statements from the Minister.
As the health debate moves back to a normal debate, away from Covid and back to the running of the health system, it is necessary for us to have a debate with the Minister on the long-term investment in our hospitals, especially in regional areas. Growing towns such as Navan need to see investment because of the growth in population. We can put to bed once and for all the rumours that surround the fantastic service provided by our health teams in regional towns, especially in Our Lady's Hospital in Navan.
One of the great things about being towards the end of the Order of Business is that you have to keep finding new topics since the ones you were going to speak on have been used up. I completely support both Senator Crowe's comments on special exemption orders and a point which I was going to make earlier, which was raised by Senator Ardagh, about the amount of anti-social activity and behaviour, particularly in Dublin city centre.Most of us would like to think that Dublin could be like any other European capital with more pedestrian areas and larger areas that are car free. These places have tended to be the areas that then have had less passive surveillance from buses, taxis and cars and consequently need a different type of surveillance that they no longer get from traffic. Most of these videos seem to show pedestrian streets.
I wish to make the point that we have seen quite an increase in anti-social behaviour and criminality on the Luas system. Yesterday, it was reported that there was such an instance at the Luas stop on Parnell Street but there have been other instances as well and the idea of transport police is becoming more urgent.
I support all of the comments that Senator Fitzpatrick made about the MetroLink, the green line out to Cherrywood and her call for it to be upgraded. As we ask more people to use public transport, cycle and use pedestrian areas, we need these areas policed in a way that they did not need to be policed before. It is an old phrase, and one that I have never used before, but we must do a proper crackdown and say anti-social behaviour is not on. All of these areas must be targeted and these gangs that appear to be in existence must know that their behaviour is unacceptable. Every age of people are being frightened and terrorised as they go about their day. We have seen 20-year-olds being attacked on the boardwalk. Equally, older people feel very vulnerable as they start coming back into the city centre and start using public transport again. It is really important that the Leader arranges a debate with the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Transport on transport police, as soon as possible.
I ask the Leader to request an urgent debate with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on energy costs and the capacity of the national grid. While I accept and appreciate that we had the opportunity to speak on these issues yesterday, it was the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, who came in and gave a reply. It is important that the Minister comes to this House and outlines what will happen over the winter months in terms of securing capacity and not having blackouts. I ask for the debate because people are extremely fearful and worried about price hikes and blackouts.
It seems to me, and to a lot of people, that every time there is an interview on this whether it is on RTÉ's "Drivetime" or "Morning Ireland" that the narrative changes. A number of days ago the narrative was that the Government was fully confident, next the situation is very tight, next was that no guarantees can be given and now the message is that EirGrid is at the pin of its collar. The narrative is not going in a direction that generates confidence. We need a serious debate in the Seanad about what is going to happen over the next number of months because when one speaks to people privately within the sector, one learns they feel there is an inevitability to blackouts in this country, which harks back to the 1970s. When we are trying to explain to people how there is a potential for energy costs to rise by €400 a year yet at the same time there will be blackouts then we need to put a plan in place. Price hikes and blackouts are unacceptable.
I appreciate that a number of things will be done, hopefully, in the budget to support the most vulnerable but all sectors will be hit. Clearly, it is critical that we assist the most vulnerable but every single individual in this State will feel the impact. Businesses also need certainty that there will be no blackouts, that there is capacity and that if blackouts take place, there are back-up plans. I appreciate that we debated these matters yesterday but we must invite the Minister himself to the House for a debate as a matter of urgency.
We have a very proud tradition in this country of people volunteering, supporting, helping and setting up support organisations. Throughout Covid we experienced a lot of that activity at community level.
As recent events in the media suggest, and I will not refer to a specific case but from my own experience from working in criminal law, there are organisations that set up voluntarily to assist in drug rehabilitation. These organisations may be faith-based and may assist young people who seek to rehabilitate themselves and we have heard about recent cases. One issue in this regard pertains to an exception under the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act whereby anything that is on a loose or casual relationship basis does not require the people involved in such work to be Garda vetted. I appreciate that the Minister for Justice has conducted over a number of months a comprehensive and thorough review of the Garda vetting system. I have fed into the review on other issues. I have written to the Minister that we need to address the definition of what is a vulnerable person because it is too narrow in the Act. I also mentioned that we need to address the definition of what sort of activity requires the oversight of Garda vetting. Otherwise, there is a risk that we assume people are vulnerable and caught within that definition but are not and are open to the possibility of being exploited for a variety of reasons. I mean not merely alleged sexual abuse or otherwise but for a variety of other types of exploitation. I know of one organisation that offered an alleged drug rehabilitation course to young people who were recovering from drug addiction yet within a couple of days had them collecting money on the streets for the organisation. There is a whole array of organisations that we assume to be all right yet they are not. I call for a debate in this House to be arranged on voluntary oversight and our definitions, and understanding, of same.
I join with Senator Boylan on the issue of animals. My dog of 11 years died recently and I wanted to replace him. As one cannot find pups in the various rescue centres at the moment, I decided to search online and discovered that puppies are being sold for up to €3,000 each. Let us think about the outrageous amount of money that can be earned from one litter of pups. There also are puppy farms where female dogs are forced to quickly produce litter after litter of pups. As the money that is involved in this game is astronomical, I fully what Senator Boylan is trying to do.
Last night, the Minister for Defence came in here and I am delighted that he has accepted the word of the women in the Women of Honour group. I am delighted to see that Major General Seán Clancy, the new Chief of Staff, is taking a very robust line with respect to the discipline that is required of soldiers serving in the Defence Forces.
There is an issue of corporate governance within the Defence Forces that must be addressed immediately. There are as many as 600 vacant junior managerial posts, that is, corporals, sergeants and company sergeants, within the enlisted ranks. We have had a dearth of commissioned officers run through the Curragh over the last number of years to try to build up the commissioned officers. However, we still have situations where young commissioned officers are going into units and taking over platoons of up to 30 men in their first commission without any serious mentoring taking place. When I served in the 1st Infantry Battalion in Galway, we had a parade every morning at 9 a.m. That parade was taken by the colonel in charge of the battalion. One had the adjutant and every company commander on parade. One had every lieutenant on parade with their platoons. One had every platoon sergeant and company sergeant. We were all there and everybody knew where everybody stood. The chain of command was perfectly clear with everybody. If there was indiscipline, it was witnessed by the most junior ranks and dealt with immediately. I do not suggest that not having these people in place is an excuse for what has happened. What I am saying is that one minimises the opportunities if one has the people in place with responsibility to take over. So I really think that we must deal with the unfilled vacancies for promotional posts in the Defence Forces as a matter of urgency.
I welcome the announcement made today by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, to expand the walks scheme. This is a fantastic way to support rural and regional development. Government investment in the regions is all part of our rural future. As there is now funding for 31 new trails in 13 counties, there will be a lot more places all around Ireland for people to explore. The Department is working with over 2,400 farmers and landowners. This is where farmers get reimbursed and paid for maintaining their land and these routes.In Roscommon we have the Lung-Lough Gara Way, which is included in this route, and I was able to work with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys on this. That would be the Beara-Breifne Way, the whole way from Cork to Cavan and all the way up to Blacklion. It is an amazing route going along by the River Suck in between Galway and Roscommon. It is absolutely fantastic and I thank the volunteers who have worked on this within the Suck Valley Way and within the Lung-Lough Gara committee. It is a great development. It will bring more people and more footfall into areas around Castlerea and Ballaghadereen. Ballaghadereen also has its new street enhancement fund, which comes from the rural regeneration and development fund. This is crucial to bring more people into our area.
This Friday we have the launch of the new Technological University of the Shannon, TUS, in Athlone, about which the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris has spoken much this year. This will be an amazing development for the west. We want to see more campuses. It will bring more investment into our region, linking up industry with third level institutions, with academia and with excellence. I want to see our campuses expand also. This university is an amalgamation of Athlone and Limerick institutes of technology. It will be a phenomenal base in the Shannon area to bring investment west. I thank the Minister for that. I look forward to the development under the realm of Professor Vincent Cunnane and Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin. We look forward to bringing more campuses into areas such as Roscommon and Ballinasloe, and into the west.
I thank Senator Dolan. The expansion of the walks scheme this morning as announced by the Minister is very welcome, particularly in the past 18 months when plenty of Irish citizens took to walking and cycling as we did not really have an awful lot else to do. Investment in the beautiful routes in rural Ireland is very welcome.
On Senator Craughwell's point, it often astounds me as to who has €3,000 to spend on a dog in the first place. There is no doubt that prices for dogs have gone up in the past 18 months because people were at home and took to taking in pets. Now, as people are returning to the office, the reports are that these pets are abandoned. It is a real stain on the Irish character that people would do that and not welcome a pet into their homes for life and not just for a period of time.
I am aware of how passionate Senator Craughwell is about the Defence Forces - and I say to him respectfully, I do not mean any criticism - but he said in his contribution this morning that he was not saying that vacant positions were an excuse for what has happened with regard to the "Women of Honour". I do not believe that there is an excuse. I believe there is a prevailing culture within our Defence Forces that is misogynistic and which believes that women are less equal than men. I absolutely stamp that out. This is not acceptable in any agency of the country. I welcome the speed at which this is being taken seriously by the Minister, the new Secretary General in the Department of Defence, Ms Jacqui McCrum, and by the Chief of Staff Sean Clancy, who has just been appointed.
I sometimes wonder about the way we refer to the issue. I listened to Brian Dobson on RTÉ 1 news yesterday when he discussed this particular issue and the meeting that was to take place between the Minister and the "Women of Honour", and he talked about them telling their stories. Victims of sexual abuse, harassment, misogyny or workplace discrimination do not have "stories" to tell; they have experiences or allegations to put on the record. The words around this kind of unacceptable behaviour really matter. We have seen how, over the past couple of days, one of those women was so fearful that she had to come anonymously and raise her story. Words matter and we must believe victims when they come forward and tell us their experiences or make allegations. We absolutely have to respond accordingly. I really welcome the Senator mentioning this here this morning.
Senator Seery Kearney spoke about a similar topic. We have had the experience in recent weeks of allegations that were made of the most extreme nature against a particular charity. While I welcome the Garda Commissioner stating that An Garda Síochána will need to review the definition of vulnerable people, I do not know why we have to wait until something as awful and horrendous was exposed to realise that people who are living on our streets who have no home, no security and no family support systems around them are vulnerable. Surely to God they are some of the most vulnerable people in the State. I do not find it acceptable that we are going to get another review that will probably take 18 months to find out the changes we need to make to some language definitions. Even if we do have to wait for the changes to be made in legislation, the changes in practice could be happening between now and Friday. I do not believe it is acceptable to kick that off into yet another report.
Senator Ahearn asked for a very much needed debate around energy and price increases, and especially around the gaps in service. I am happy to be in a position to say that the Minister will come to the House on 2 November to talk about that. The matter will be on everybody's minds and it will certainly affect everybody's pockets in the months to come. It is very topical.
Senators Horkan and Ardagh brought to the notice of the Chamber the antisocial behaviour that has been ravaging the streets of Dublin for the past couple of weeks. This morning I saw the video of the young man in Dublin city last night. He seemed to be of Indian origin and he appeared to be on a bicycle delivering food and is therefore providing a service to Irish citizens and to people who live in the city. The disgraceful way he was treated, and the equally disgraceful way that Irish people stood around and cheered the absolute tramps who mistreated that man last night, is an absolute shame and a scourge on all of us. The Senators are correct to say that as an Oireachtas and a State agency, we have left places in Dublin city as absolutely free-for-all areas. At a parliamentary party meeting last week one of my own colleagues mentioned that he walked down O'Connell Street at six o'clock of an evening during the summer with his young son. There was one garda on the entire pedestrian area of O'Connell Street, and when he went over to speak to him the garda told them of how the gardaí who are policing Dublin city are exhausted and how they are crying out for a new policing plan. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that this happens sooner rather than later. There absolutely should not be any no-go areas in Dublin's capital city, and it certainly should not be for the want of resources being put into the policing system.
Senator Cassells talked about what I can only assume is yet another scaremongering tactic on behalf of some of the campaign groups around Navan, of rumours about the future of the accident and emergency department at Our Lady's Hospital, Navan. The Senator is correct that I have not lived in Meath for as long as he has, but for 20 years we have been hearing scaremongering tactics on behalf of people who would like there to be an issue with regard to the future or the sustainability of that accident and emergency department. The Navan hospital accident and emergency department has received hundreds of thousands of euro worth of investment in the last number of years and I am absolutely sure that there will be more to come. In the past, when issues have arisen we have always received reassurances, not just from the Minister of the day and we have been through a number of Ministers for Health over the past ten years when most of these issues have been raised; we have also received assurances from the HSE that even if it wanted to do something, which it does not, there is no capacity anywhere else. I can absolutely assure the Senator, as he well knows, that this capacity has not grown suddenly in the past years. I am very happy to put this on the record of the House. I will schedule a general debate on healthcare and there is one already being scheduled for Sláintecare.
Senator Mary Fitzpatrick spoke about the very unwelcome announcement and confirmation by the Minister for Transport yesterday that he hopes the MetroLink will be delivered by 2034. I have requested a debate on this and hopefully that will happen in the next couple of weeks because this is certainly not acceptable. We do not yet even know why the project has been pushed back.
Senator Maria Byrne spoke on the welcome announcement on Shannon Group plc, which is very welcome. Pádraig Ó Céidigh is a colleague of most people here and we all know and hold him in such high esteem.
Senator Byrne also spoke about the fact that so many workers are not going to be working in our drinks and hospitality and entertainment industries, which is very worrying.
Senator Ardagh acknowledged and put on the record of the House the passing of Eileen Rushe yesterday. We extend our deepest sympathy and our condolences to her family. She was an incredible woman. One could not help but be charmed by her wonderful personality. This is not the least to say the amount of work that she has done advocating on behalf of people who have been much ill treated by the system over the years.
Senator Mullen spoke of what we consider to be celebrations. I did not think that Senator Mullen was being critical of anybody. I thought he was just making observations. I do not know who I could even ask for a debate on the meaning of celebrations, but perhaps it is something that we just take as they come and maybe talk to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media who was involved in the centenary commemorations. Maybe I will put the request to her.
Senator Barry Ward raised the continued waiting list for people with adapted cars. I will write to the Minister on this. If there is a list for people who have a more urgent need for the normal test then there should be a list also for the people who have an urgent need for the adapted test.
Senator Malcolm Byrne asked for a debate on pensions. I am absolutely sure that when the report from the commission on pensions goes to Cabinet we will absolutely have a debate on that.The Senator is probably right. There will be a lot of populist talk but the stark reality is that it has to be paid for by somebody. If we do not take it out of people's left pocket, we will take it out of their right pocket. I welcome that debate, particularly as I was embroiled in it the last time we debated the issue about 18 months ago.
Senator Black spoke about the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland’s pre-budget reflections. I will bring them to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. That industry that has not even begun to start reopening properly. Its members need all support we can give them until they are back up and running and entertaining us on a weekly basis, as they did pre-Covid.
Senator Moynihan raised the issue of a three-year rent freeze. The living wage has increased so significantly as a result of price increases in rent. A debate on the Housing for All plan will take place this afternoon. I am sure the Minister will listen to the Senator's concerns about this issue.
Senator Ruane spoke about animal welfare and the sale of pets. She has raised this issue on a number of occasions. I will contact the Minister about it. I am sure the ban on fur farming legislation is already drafted. I do not know whether it is the legislation to deal with these amendments. If it is, it would make sense for all of us to try to do what Senator Ruane has been trying to do for the past 12 months. I will come back to the Senator on that.
I did not get a chance to reply to the email Senator Boyhan sent this morning. What it set out is horrific and highlights the major gaps that arise when the employer who people work for is not responsible for the conditions in which they work. Agency workers are a special group of people. If most of the agency workers in Ireland were Europeans, they would be covered by frontier legislation with regard to the European Union. The Senator and I know that most of the people who work in our meat industry are not Europeans. That is why it is so easy for them to be so badly treated. The Senator is right that it is up to us to make sure that stops. I will contact the Minister with responsibility for employment affairs and the officials I used to work with to see if we can quickly draft legislation to give these employees equal status, as if they were employees of the companies for which they are doing the work and not of those that are paying them. I will come back to the Senator on that.
Senator McGahon spoke about the jump in vehicle registration tax on electric vehicles. We have all been around these Houses for many years. The one thing we all know is that when we tax something more we get less of it. If we want people to drive electric cars, it does not make sense to tax them more. That is an issue we will have to discuss with the Minister for Finance when the Finance Bill comes before the House in the next few weeks.
Senator Crowe opened proceedings by seeking a special exemption from the €410 per night fee payable by those in the entertainment industry. The review of night-time licensing will probably take a year. We should push for the introduction of a temporary measure in the budget. If the entertainment, drinks and hospitality industries need the support they say they need, a new night-time licence would be a fast way for us to make a difference in the short term. I will bring the Senator’s suggestions to the attention of the Minister.