Thursday, 14 October 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Finance (European Stability Mechanism and Single Resolution Fund) Bill 2021 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 1 p.m., 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, with the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply.
I support the Order of Business as outlined.
Today is international e-waste day, the purpose of which is to raise awareness and to call on households and businesses to get behind efforts in recycling waste electrical products. I was shocked to learn this morning that we had 60 million electrical devices in Ireland in 2020. That includes all household devices, phones and all types of lighting, etc. These items were brought into the country and purchased. It is a huge number when we consider how they are used. Households are being called on to recycle at least five items this week and ensure they are disposed of appropriately. This can be done at all of our recycling centres around the country. I must mention Silliot Hill recycling centre in County Kildare, which is an excellent resource. It is important that we endorse this call to reuse and recycle. We must also think about electrical equipment that we buy.
Recently, my fridge-freezer, which I had for less than seven years, broke down. I would have paid for it to be repaired because I felt the lifespan of a fridge-freezer should be longer than seven years. However, I was surprised to learn that seven years is the average lifespan of such products. It is shocking to think that such large pieces of equipment are effectively disposable. We need to issue a call to the manufacturers in relation to that also.
Yesterday, Kildare County Council awarded a contract for the Athy distributor road to BAM Ireland. This will allow the company to take possession of the land in the coming weeks, with construction to commence shortly afterwards. The project is vital to Athy and the surrounding areas. It is a project that I have continuously championed, along with my colleagues. I am glad to see it moving forward. I wish to issue a gentle reminder that the next important project in County Kildare is the construction of a second bridge in Newbridge. We need to keep that on the radar.
The third matter I raise concerns changing facilities and the need for Ireland to keep up to date with legislation in this area. New legislation on this has been introduced in England. In Ireland, we only have 17 publicly available changing facilities, and they are mainly in Dublin. It is about accessibility for persons with disabilities and those who have babies and small children. Going to the toilet is such a natural function. To think we should have to plan our lives around that is shocking. Funding has been provided in England for an extra 150 changing facilities a year. Currently, there are 1,400 places in England. Ireland pales in comparison with only 17 such facilities available. We must call for more adequate changing facilities.
We are all very aware of rising fuel costs. That is why, as a Government, we made the decision in budget 2022 to increase the fuel allowance immediately by €5 a week for 28 weeks. What may have been missed by some people is the increase in the income threshold for the means test, from €100 to €120, as of 1 January 2022. This will enable many more people to qualify for what is a very important payment.
I spoke earlier in a Commencement matter debate on disablement benefit and the fact that it is a disqualifying payment for the fuel allowance. This issue must be addressed. We must also ensure that those in receipt of the carer's allowance, particularly those on the half-rate payment, who meet the means-test requirements under the increased income threshold of €120 are paid the fuel allowance.
Yesterday, I spoke about the €1.8 billion hole in the Opposition's alternative budget in relation to housing and its claim that it could build 20,000 public homes at a cost of €3 billion. A primary school child could tell us that €240,000, which is the average cost of providing a social home in Ireland, multiplied by 20,000 is €4.8 billion. That leaves a €1.8 billion hole in the Opposition's calculations. It would be appropriate if we could schedule a debate in the House on affordable housing policy so that Opposition parties and those of us in government could outline what each of us is proposing. Under the Housing for All plan, the Government intends to introduce two affordable schemes next year, the first home scheme and the local authority affordable purchase scheme, both of which are based on an equity model wherein the State will take an equity stake in the property being purchased to bridge the gap between the cost of the home and what has been approved in the mortgage.This contrasts greatly with what the Opposition is proposing in that you will get a mortgage for €200,000 to pay off over 20 to 30 years but you will never own the land on which the house is built and you will be restricted in terms of whom you can sell the property on to. My constituents and the people who I speak to tell me they want support to get on the property ladder and they are in favour of an equity stake being taken in the house but they do not want to be restricted in who they can sell that property on to in the future and they do not want a hold over the land on which the house is built. I would welcome a realistic debate on this issue in the House.
Yesterday evening this House passed a resolution in regard to the British Government's proposal to introduce an amnesty in respect of certain offences committed in Northern Ireland. In the short time available to me last night I made some points which I wish to put in context today. I understand it is intended to convey the resolution of this House to Members of the British Parliament, specifically the House of Lords. I have no problem with that proposition.
Going back to what the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said, it is time that we examine all the alternative ways to consider historic cases. This House should have a considered debate on that subject where we could consider at great length what the realistic possibilities are of having a reconciliation based on some form of historic review. For my part, I am of the view that there is little or no chance that MI5 or MI6 or, indeed, the army council of the IRA and those who are still under its sway will ever participate in an open way in some kind of truth commission. We will never find out officially who planted the bomb in Enniskillen or who blew up this person or that person. I do not believe we will ever get to the bottom of the Scappaticci stakeknife issue because there are two organisations, the British security establishment and the Provisional IRA, which do not want us to find out what happened in respect of that.
As I said last night, given that it was the case that the leadership of Sinn Féin sought immunity from criminal prosecution for IRA volunteers for their part in the Troubles during the period from 1998 to 2007, of which I have personal knowledge, we need a more honest and truthful approach to the question of whether it is only to be private soldiers in the British Army who are prosecuted for these offences while their superiors and people who are concealing the truth walk away scot-free, or whether an imbalanced, one-sided investigation of historic crimes, such as we are faced with at the moment, is really going to bring about reconciliation or is it going to make the victims of those unexplained crimes of the IRA and others feel more bitter and more alienated in the future. It is time we had such a debate.
Tomorrow marks the UN International Day of Rural Women. I want to mark it by honouring the contribution of women and girls to agriculture and rural community development in Ireland. In agriculture, women have long been referred to as the invisible unpaid workforce on farms and there is plenty of evidence to back this up. NUIG research from a few years ago indicated that women are the sole owners of just 10% of all farmland in Ireland with most of these women owning the land through marital transfer rather than succession or inheritance. Only 4% of farms registered with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are in joint male and female names. We know that one quarter of our farms' workforce is women. These figures do not tally well for equality. No other occupation has such an imbalance in property ownership.
As rural women, we are not a homogenous group and I have been unfailingly inspired by so many rural women I have met. Indeed, there are many in this Chamber. As Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I have had the opportunity and privilege to visit farms and rural enterprises throughout the country and have been lucky enough to encounter many wonderful women with unrelenting drive, determination and resilience to be innovative and industrious, to diversify and to drive on after personal trauma and difficult times. These are daughters and sisters, widows and mothers who all striving to provide for themselves and their families in sometimes very remote rural areas.
We are going to need every ounce of that determination and innovation as we tackle the huge climate and biodiversity crisis we face. It is vital that we as a country continue to deliver on the sustainable development goal of gender equality with every pillar of society supporting the others. We expect it of other countries, why not of ourselves?
With each new land registration, herd number or farm payment in a woman's name, each new qualification she gains, each new female successor named, each business sale she makes or each rural tiktok video she posts, rural women are challenging prevailing culture. They are challenging the future face of Ireland's rural enterprises. I honour them all for the part they play in ensuring our young girls know of the possibilities open for them. They have to see it to be it.
To rural men, we need your support in this too. I ask the farmers of Ireland why their daughters not their successors. What can we as policymakers do to help? How do we address that cultural bias that exists? We need to keep young women in rural communities and farming is as good a way as any of doing this.
Finally, to all my rural female colleagues and friends, let us enjoy our day on International Day of Rural Women and be sure to pause and admire the beauty of rural Ireland and celebrate our part within it.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senator O'Loughlin's remarks on Changing Places. It is transformative in terms of what it does in helping families facing real difficulties in daily life. The dignity of knowing they have support for their loved ones and that they can plan a day or a series of days out makes a real difference in their lives. This is something I have raised in the Seanad previously, so I would support working with Senator O'Loughlin and other colleagues into the future.
Throughout this week a number of us have referenced the fact the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly will take place at the weekend. A number of Members of this House and the Dáil will travel to represent the Oireachtas. There is a large, engaged and active Irish diaspora and community in Britain. It has been a challenging and difficult time for it. It has been an uncertain time, not least with Covid-19 and with Brexit and everything that came with that. I call for statements on the diaspora strategy from Government. It is timely as we have not had those statements in this term. In regard to the diaspora, we would need to keep in mind that we need to be engaged and active on this issue beyond and around St. Patrick's Day, and that is not to demean or belittle anything that is done around St. Patrick's Day. It is a very important time for the State and for all of us. If Covid-19 has shown one thing, it has shown that we can be connected in ways that we never had before. There is an opportunity for us all to engage with the diaspora using new technological means.
I have long advocated in this House for the referendum to extend presidential voting rights to the diaspora and citizens in the North. That remains a very live and active call. That is perhaps something the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for the diaspora could update us on. As we emerge and reconnect, please God, post-pandemic, it would be timely that we have an update on the strategy and on how the Government and the State support services throughout the world are engaging with the diaspora to ensure it has all the support and help needed to get back on its feet, whether business organisations, cultural organisations or our Irish community.
I join my colleagues across the political spectrum in welcoming the announcement that BAM has been awarded the long-awaited contract for the Athy distributor road. My home town has been waiting a long time for this announcement. It is great news and has been widely welcomed by the people of Athy. All we want now is to see the diggers on the ground - the sooner, the better. I also support colleagues in regard to the construction of a second bridge in Newbridge, which is essential for the growth of the town.
I wish to raise two issues with the Leader. The first is the lack of gardaí in the south Kildare area, which causes problems both for morale in the force and in the interactions with the Garda stations in our communities. We all welcome the allocation of an additional 800 gardaí, as announced in the budget, however, the communities in Kildare South want to see the gardaí on the beat, on their streets and in their communities. They want to hear a local Garda on the phone when they ring their local station, rather than being transferred to a station in another town. It is safe to say that the gardaí themselves want to ensure that their units are at full capacity and are not left without the adequate cover to perform their duties.
In Athy Garda station, I am told we have 11 regular gardaí who are trying to service four units. Each unit should have a minimum of five regular gardaí, however, Athy station has only 11 and is, therefore, short nine gardaí in these units, at a minimum. Historically, and for some reason it has never been explained, the number of gardaí per head of population in Kildare South has always been among the lowest in the State. This must change given the expanding population in the towns of Newbridge, Kildare, Athy, Rathangan and Monasterevin. Each of these towns has a growing population and needs additional gardaí. Will the Leader arrange a discussion with the Minister for Justice on policing and Garda numbers?
The second item I wish to raise is an issue I have previously raised with the Leader. It is the urgent need to record the location of all automated external defibrillator, AED, lifesaving devices, for which many communities around the country have fundraised. There are some wonderful initiatives in place around the country, such as in Enniscorthy and in Laois where they have developed apps that show the exact location of these defibrillators. During a Commencement matter debate, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Frankie Feighan, informed me that I had given him the chance to speak about the exceptional work carried out by those in these communities and that he expected "that the funding provided by the Government in 2021 will result in real progress in the development of an AED register, and the HSE is already making progress on some of the practical elements that need to be [done] in that regard." However, when following up on this progress, my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, received the following reply from the Minister of Health this week, four months on:
The location, maintenance and upkeep of these devices is a matter for the supplying organisations. The HSE is not responsible for the supply or upkeep of AEDs. As such, an AED register would not be within the scope of the Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrest Strategy.
I know the Leader has supported the tremendous work of first responders in this country and the wonderful groups who fundraise in their communities to provide these AEDs. There is something seriously wrong here and I would appreciate it if she would follow up with the Minister, as this is an essential national life-saving service.
I wish to raise the issue of the student accommodation crisis in Dublin and in our towns and cities. A month ago, many Members of this House and the Dáil went out in support of the Union of Students in Ireland when it held a demonstration to highlight the issue of housing poverty in the student population, the unaffordability of student accommodation and concerns about a the conversion of purpose-built student accommodation to short-term lets. I met with representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland and they welcomed the Housing for All strategy and the multi-annual funding that this Government has committed to address the housing crisis. They specifically welcomed: the fact that Housing for All gives powers to the technical universities to build not-for-profit purpose-built student accommodation; the innovations made in regard to the rent controls and the legally binding rent caps introduced by this Government; the fact that it can no longer be demanded of students to pay six-months' or a year's rent in advance; that payments up front are limited to two months; and that they have extra protection in regard to their notice periods.
They welcomed of all those initiatives, however, they have another concern. In the recent budget, they were pleased with the increases in the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant and the modifications to the qualifying threshold in that regard. More than 72,000 students will qualify for the SUSI grant this year. They are concerned that a holistic approach has not been taken by the Minister and the Department on the funding of third level education. Will the Leader invite the Minister with responsibility for third level education to come to the House to address the issue of the funding of third level education and, in particular, the enabling of the third level institutions to provide not-for-profit purpose-built student accommodation.
I welcome the decision by Facebook to remove the page of one particular far right activist who has propagated misinformation and conspiracy theories for a long time. That is a welcome move, however, at the same time we recognise that there are many other pages online that are ignored by Facebook, such as pages that spread misinformation and abuse about which nothing is done. A great feature of the Internet is that it is a forum for free speech and people can express what they think and what they like. On the one hand that is wonderful while on the other hand it is enormously damaging. Whatever about the Internet, social media platforms have become a very toxic place for many people and the difference between these platforms and the Internet, crucially, is that they have owners, moderators, editors and people who are in charge of them. In many instances in regard to those pages, the owners, moderators and editors are doing absolutely nothing to safeguard their users. Platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have become toxic places for many people, and all Members of this House have been the victims of pile-on harassment, whereby abuse is piled on a person due to something he or she said that is unpopular with a particular group. It is notable that when that person is a woman, the abuse is invariably sexualised, and the threats and abuse targeted particularly at females in the public eye is notable for the nature of its content. We all suffer with it but there is a particular focus on females in the public eye.
I have reported many tweets that Twitter subsequently informs me are not in breach of its terms and conditions. I do not understand this because the tweets propagated misogyny as well as defamation, etc., against men and women in the public eye. We should put greater pressure on those platforms to takes some of the responsibility. Many of them are quite proactive, such as YouTube which responded to laws passed by Congress on copyright. It is very quick in removing content if it fears an action may be taken. In this country, social media platforms appear to act with impunity. We should have a debate because enough is enough. The users of social media platforms are being damaged by the material that is put online and we as a Legislature must seek a debate on that subject.
I welcome the addition of 800 gardaí announced in the budget and 400 civilian staff who are to be recruited by An Garda Síochána, however, this is in sharp contrast with the situation in the Defence Forces. The paltry €35 million allocation in the budget for the Defence Forces for next year will only cover the increase in salaries as result of the most recent round of public service negotiations. Last week, we were hosted in Haulbowline, Cork, the Naval Service depot, by the flag officer and his entire team. It is absolutely appalling what is going on. Seven of our nine ships were tied up last Friday in Haulbowline, while there are European vessels coming into Irish coastal waters to patrol Irish fishery areas. Have we no pride left whatsoever in this country or in the services we offer? Sailors at sea receives €56 per day, which is subject to tax, PRSI, the universal social charge, etc. They therefore come out with about €22. If they take a fisheries officer on board with them, that fisheries officer will get the full Civil Service overnight rate which amounts to about €147 tax-free, as will a member of An Garda Síochána if on board that ship. Where is the equity in that scenario?
I have been harping on about the Defence Forces for the last seven years and I am getting tired of it. We had an incredible meeting last Friday where the flag officer took the initiative to step back and allow his people talk to us without interference from commissioned officers or those at the top. We heard pride among the men and women we spoke to. They had pride in the service they were charged with. Later in the day, a captain of a ship said that when the crew go to sea, at each rating they have four different rates of pay because of allowances that were introduced. That is not equitable and cannot last. Thus, I am afraid we are looking at the death of the Defence Forces - the Naval Service, the Army, and the Air Corps - in the coming years. In two or three years, at most, we will no longer have a Naval Service.We have to do something quickly. Allocating €35 million is not the answer.
I wish to raise the issue of enhanced funding for the education sector in budget 2022. I welcome in particular the greater staffing in terms of special needs assistants, with funding provided for more than 1,100 special needs assistants. There will be 980 new special education teachers, 620 of whom will provide additional support for children attending mainstream classes, including in new and expanding schools. Funding has also been provided for an additional 360 posts to facilitate the opening of 287 new special classes. The latter will provide more than 1,700 new places and 140 new special school places in 2022.
Senators of all parties and none will appreciate how much these additional resources are needed. Like other Senators, since the beginning of the pandemic I have spoken about the particularly damaging impact that lockdown has had on children and their families. The parents of children attending these schools and classes have told me about the regression that lockdown caused - and continues to cause in some instances - for children and the incredible strain it has put on their families. While lockdowns involving the closure of schools are hopefully a thing of the past, the families of these children have spoken passionately about the need for greater resources in schools and classrooms.
Having spoken to the Minister of Education about the matter on a number of occasions, I know she is very aware of the issue and was determined to ensure that additional resources were allocated in budget 2022 in order that these children and their families will have greater resources in the years ahead. I commend her on ensuring that such resources were allocated. I would be grateful of the Leader of the House would invite the Minister for Education to Seanad Éireann in the coming weeks in order that we may have the opportunity to discuss this and other matters in more detail.
I wish to raise an issue which, as the Leader well knows, needs to be dealt with and which presents a huge threat to our economy and way of life, namely, the current labour shortages in our country. The shortages affect many sectors. I will go through just a few of them. In respect of agriculture, there is intensive pig farming in County Cavan. The processing sector there is experiencing shortages such that batches of pigs cannot be sent for processing to create new stock. This is creating a nightmare scenario in the sector. In the dairy sector, a few hundred farms assistants are needed across the country. My good friend from Cork, Senator Lombard, will be much more au faitwith that than I am, but it is the case. It is the same right throughout the agriculture sector.
According to Fáilte Ireland, two thirds of businesses in the hospitality sector are underperforming because of a lack of labour. The shortage is also affecting nursing homes and the entire health service. When home help packages are approved, there is nobody to provide the care.
Obviously, we must be solution-focused in our efforts. There is no point in identifying the problem and not seeking to solve it. Therefore, we need to fast-track work permit applications from those outside the country immediately. I understand that quite a number of applications are being processed. They must be fast-tracked. We are trying to eliminate the direct provision system, and rightly so. However, we need to fast-track the direct provision process. Asylum seekers who come into the country should, within reason, be brought into the labour force as quickly as possible.
I ask the Leader to advocate for a holistic and whole-of-Government radical approach in respect of this issue and ensure that it is done. This is a most serious matter. It is particularly serious in view of the fact that there are people from non-EAA countries who are willing to come into the State. If they are willing to come to this country to work, it is shocking that we cannot speed up the process and get them here immediately. I look forward to hearing the Leader's response in respect of this crucial issue. I could cite more examples chapter and verse, but now is not the time. I will provide them if required, however.
I wish to raise the issue of low pay. I respectfully suggest that it might be connected to the last topic that my good friend and colleague, Senator O'Reilly, raised. One of the big issues we have in this country, of which the Leader will be aware, is that we have the largest proportion of workers on low pay of any country in the EU, at 23%. Indeed, it was a topic that was explored by my colleague, Patricia King, of SIPTU. She quoted the papers produced by the Government's own tax strategy group, which estimated that 750,000 employees earned less than €400 per week in 2019. That represents 31% of the total class A PRSI employees. What that means, in essence, is that many people who work for a living are unable to earn a living. We know this because they are paid significantly below a living wage.
As the Cathaoirleach will know, the living wage for next year has been increased to €12.90 because of the significant increase in the cost of living that everyone in the country is facing currently. I do not want to fight the budget battle again but I call for a debate on this particular topic. The reality is that while I welcome the 30 cent rise in the minimum wage, if you take the Government's record as a whole over the first two budgets, then you realise that the total increase in the minimum wage has been 40 cent. This means that over the scheduled five budgets of this Government, we are at best are on course for a €1 rise in the minimum wage. That will leave us further behind the living wage than ever. I know the Tánaiste has spoken about moving to a living wage, and I welcome that. It will not happen without a significant step change in current budgetary policy, including these first two budgets.
My colleague, Senator Joe O'Reilly, mentioned nursing homes. As a trade union organiser, I can tell Members that there is a reason why nursing homes cannot get staff. It is because they are not allowed to organise, they are not allowed trade union representation and they are paid appallingly. Unfortunately, that goes for a number of other sectors to which the Senator referred. That, in turn, raises an issue to which I keep returning, namely, that of collective bargaining. Until we have collective bargaining rights in this country and until working men and women can organise themselves and have trade union representation, the scourge of low pay will be with us. I urge the Leader to organise a debate on this topic.
As we are seeing an increase in the number of Covid-19-positive patients in hospital and intensive care units, we must consider the best approach to lifting the remaining restrictions before Friday of next week. I know that many people wish to continue going into bars and restaurants over the winter months, but the prospect of sitting beside unvaccinated groups in the absence of public health restrictions makes many people feel very uncomfortable and could limit business within the hospitality sector. Among constituents and business owners I have spoken to, there is a general consensus that retaining the use of digital Covid certificates during the winter months for entrance to cafés, bars and restaurants would be a smart idea.
It would provide peace of mind for customers and ensure that those who have enjoyed indoor dining over the past few months will continue to support their local hospitality businesses during the winter. The continuation of the use of digital Covid certificates would also act as an incentive for those still unvaccinated to go and get the vaccine. At the moment, a disproportionate number of those entering hospital with Covid-19 are from a small sector of the adult population that remains unvaccinated. While less than 10% of our population is unvaccinated, the group to which I refer is driving approximately 50% of all hospital admissions. We must ensure that public health is protected during the winter months and that people feel comfortable going into hospitality environments in order that business remains strong for cafés, restaurants and bars in the period ahead.
The digital Covid certificate system has worked extremely well to date. Business owners are familiar with the set-up and customers are now well used to presenting their certificates before they sit down. The continuation of the system is a win-win for customers and business owners alike, and will act as an incentive for people to go and get vaccinated. It is important to state that people have a choice of getting vaccinated or not. That is right and proper, and is the correct thing to do. However, we, as a Government, have a responsibility to protect the 93% of the population who have chosen to get vaccinated and be protected. It is important, over the winter months, that we protect those people so that they can have as normal a life as possible, albeit with some restrictions still in place. The digital Covid certificate is a key element of that. It supports businesses, because there are still many people who will not come back into those settings because they are still nervous. If we get rid of the certificate, it will increase their nervousness. I stress the need to continue with the use of the digital Covid certificate system, which has been in place for a number of months, after Friday of next week.
In the context of our debate yesterday on peat, a press release was issued by Friends of the Environment which stated that X number of tonnes of peat were exported out of the country. The purpose of that press release was to try and negate the debate we had yesterday. I remind Friends of the Environment that we live in the EU free market.We have the best quality peat in the EU. The reality is that we cannot stop it from being imported by other countries that purchase it. I want to clarify that is the reason that a certain number of tonnes are exported.
Last year, we introduced emergency legislation to deal with the forestry licence issue. We still have a major logjam in the system. Forestry licences are not being issued, which is having a knock-on effect for landowners and farmers, as well as the price of timber in the building market. I understand prices have risen by 45%, which is significantly increasing the cost of building new houses. That has an effect on people with mortgages, etc. If the Minister came before the House, we could introduce whatever further legislation is required to deal with that.
As I travel home by the canal, I have noticed the evenings are becoming dark. I was struck by the large number of people on bicycles, tricycles, mopeds or whatever else. I would estimate that not even 10% are wearing yellow vests, highlight themselves or have lights. It is a danger to be a driver trying to get through Dublin at the minute. I am sure it is the same in all other cities. I want to highlight that. Perhaps we should consider legislation to deal with this, because there is nothing to deal with people who are not wearing yellow vests. As I said, it is a danger for those driving out of the city at present. People are jogging or running or are using mopeds. I want to highlight that issue.
I will follow on from the theme the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke about, namely, women's participation in agriculture. I understand there are approximately 127,000 farms in Ireland, one eighth of which are owned or operated by females. We had a really interesting discussion on this issue at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 21 September. More debate and acknowledgement of it is required. Maybe we could use this good Chamber to have such a debate and bring the women's forum involved in agriculture before us. That would be a good meeting.
I also raise the issue of sports capital grants and the budget. Realistically, there is a call for €200 million for sporting projects under the current call for funding for clubs. Of the €40 million allotted in the previous budget, €12 million has been spent, which means that €28 million is left. There is a deficit in the fund, to say the least. Funding projects is a huge issue. Projects give communities the ability to empower themselves and provide local amenities for children and adults. During Covid times, we saw the benefit of having such amenities. A debate on sports capital grants and the allocation provided for in the budget, in particular through the Finance Bill, would be very welcome. If we get the budget for this right, it will have an impact on every village and town in Ireland.
On Thursday last week, I began to implement a commitment, on which I will follow through every Thursday, to speak about the issues raised in the Joint Committee on Disability Matters in this House because it is an excellent forum for us to challenge some of our thinking around what I termed last week "ableist privilege", a phrase used by one of the witnesses. This morning, the committee heard from various wheelchair users, including a fantastic woman, Ms Karen Smith, from Changing Places Ireland, and Ms Bernadette Egan, who is an architect. I want to read a small piece of what Ms Egan had to say about what happens when she goes out and about on a daily basis. She said she faces difficulties most people take for granted, and went on to say:
Will the entrance door be too heavy and awkward to open or is there an out-of-order platform lift? Will I need to search for a key for the "accessible" toilet? Will it be too small for my motorised wheelchair, and will I need to jostle the bins or get hit over the head by a loose drop-down rail? If there is a fire, will I wait for someone to find me and try to slide me on a deckchair down a steep staircase? These are just a small sample of the questions about the accessibility of the built environment I try to answer before leaving home as I attempt to map out my day mentally.
People with disabilities who live among us have lived experiences that we do not see. We have a list of things, such accessibility to buildings, lifts and toilets, and we think that is enough. That is not enough for a truly inclusive and equal society. Everybody has to be able to do ordinary things every day, such as go to a café or supermarket and meet friends without facing a plethora of worries that have to be negotiated before even having to deal with the incumbrance of his or her disability. This House is the place to get that conversation started, and I ask that we facilitate a debate on that.
I support Senator O'Reilly in his comments on the shortage of work permits. There is a shortage across all enterprises in Ireland. I ask the Leader to raise the matter with the relevant Minister because a solution is badly needed.
I call for a debate on Irish Water. It is now six or seven years since the organisation was set up and it would be timely to have a debate on it in the House. Between 2021 and 2025, €6 billion will be spent on water services infrastructure the length and breadth of the country. How is further expansion planned? Does the issue come up at local authority meetings? I do not see it raised in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Local councillors know exactly where growth is taking place. I often wonder how one would apply for an extension to a sewerage or water scheme and how applications progress from the point where such works are needed to the planning stage. I do not see any great strategy or purpose in how things are done. I do not think this issue is being raised at local authority meetings. I would like a debate on it because a significant sum of money, €6 billion, will be spent on water infrastructure in the next four years. We could have a review of Irish Water, ask how it has progressed, the amount of money it has saved and the advances it has made over the past six or seven years. I would welcome a debate on this issue.
I join Senator Ahearn and other Senators in calling for a debate prior to next week's Cabinet meeting on the reopening of the country. I ask the Leader to convene the House early for such a debate. There is a rising number of Covid cases and, to paraphrase, the virus is on a new trajectory.
It is important that all of us use appropriate language. Statistics do not lie. Dr. Anne O'Connor stated that the 10% of the adult population who are unvaccinated are driving 50% of admissions in hospitals. That is a stark figure on which we should all reflect. I appeal to all of Members, as leaders, to urge those who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated. I am a civil libertarian and appreciate the rights of individuals, but it is important that we have a measured debate on the lifting of our Covid restrictions on 22 October.
I believe we should go ahead with the reopening of the country but, like Senator Ahearn, we should keep the Covid app and certificate as part of what we are doing. I cannot comprehend the approach of NPHET and the Government regarding face masks. We either have them for retail and public transport or we do not have them at all.
We should have a measured reopening and a proper conversation about it. I appeal to members of the Cabinet to step away from the microphones between now and the Cabinet meeting next Tuesday and not add to the tension and hype. Let us give certainty to the hospitality sector which has been decimated. Let us all appeal to those who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated. It is a public health issue. I appreciate the rights of individuals not to get vaccinated, but the fact that 10% of the adult population is driving 50% of hospital admissions tells its own story.
Senator Buttimer said pretty much exactly what I was going to say, but I will say it a little bit differently. I want to build on the comments of Senators Ahearn and Buttimer. The figures do not lie. Professor Philip Nolan spoke on the radio this morning. Everybody is calling for certainty, but unfortunately if certainty was given today, it might be the wrong certainty. It might be the certainty people do not want to hear.
I agree with everything Senator Ahearn and, in particular, Senator Buttimer said.I ask people who have not been vaccinated to please think about it again. I ask them to think about it not just for themselves but for their families, elderly relatives, brothers, sisters, children, neighbours and the people they interact with in supermarkets and shops, on public transport, in the workplace and anywhere else they may go.
It is so awful to hear of people who decided not to get the vaccine and, especially in America and Britain, the Covid-19 deniers who think that it will not happen to them. On YouTube, there are videos of such people saying that they wish they had got the vaccine. The vaccine is available and free. More than 7.2 million doses have been given to the Irish population and we know it works. I think I heard Dr. Colm Henry at the weekend saying that 67% of the people in intensive care units had not received a vaccine and 3% or more had only received one dose of vaccine. Most of the people in intensive care units have not been vaccinated, despite us having the highest vaccination rate in the EU and almost in the world. I give credit to all the people involved for that, as well as the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and the Government in general. All those healthcare workers have helped to do this.
If people have not been vaccinated, I ask them to think about it again. The risks from getting Covid-19 are far greater than the risks from being vaccinated. They are multiple times greater. I ask all the influencers and celebrities to advocate for this. They all have their own followers and they bring people with them. This is not necessarily about young or older people but it goes right across society. It is about 300,000 people in the qualifying population - children are not in that population. They have decided, for whatever reason, not to be vaccinated. That cohort comprises the vast bulk of people in intensive care units. Some of them will die, which is terrible for them, their friends, families and everyone they might leave behind. I urge people to think about it and to please get the vaccine. As the phrase goes, it is for all of us.
As somebody who grew up and worked on a farm, I thank the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for highlighting International Day of Rural Women. My mother was a powerful force on our farm and 30-odd years ago she was probably the only woman in the mart able to reverse a tractor and trailer. That is changing, however. I was involved in the visit of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to County Galway. He was at Maam Cross mart last night and there were quite a few women in attendance, along with quite a few men. They were farmers who wanted to hear what he wanted to say. Ms Maria Walsh MEP also attended and spoke about the importance of women's voices in agriculture. The Minister will meet women to highlight this importance in the forthcoming Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations.
As Fine Gael spokesperson on further and higher education, I look forward to attending the UCD Student Union meeting this evening to discuss Government support for students accessing affordable accommodation. In the budget, through the Department led by the Minister for Further and Higher, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, we have increased the income eligibility criteria for the SUSI grant by €1,000 and added €200 to the grant while decreasing the distances applying to the adjacent grant from 45 km to 30 km.
I also highlight the Global Wave of Light. In Ballinasloe, Portiuncula University Hospital will join many others illuminated by pink and blue light tomorrow, Friday, 15 October, from 7 p.m. to mark pregnancy and infant loss. Throughout Ireland and across the world landmarks and buildings will be lit by a pink and blue light as part of a continuous wave to recognise, acknowledge and remember babies who have passed away due to miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and other causes of infant loss. The Global Wave of Light asks all of us, including families, loved ones and supporting organisations, to join together in remembrance. I hope I speak for all my Senator colleagues in saying that our thoughts are with women, their partners and families who suffered this type of loss.
It is funny that the Cathaoirleach is congratulating a woman on being able to drive a tractor because the vast majority of women on farms in rural Ireland know well how to drive tractors. They drive them on a weekly or daily basis. Senator Dolan, along with Senator Tim Lombard and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, mentioned that International Day of Rural Women will be celebrated this weekend. Any of us with any relations involved with farming know the absolutely enormous contribution that women and their daughters play in the running of farms, food production and the love and care of the land we have seen over generations and decades in this country. I hope each and every one of them gets a day off this weekend, which would be very unusual in the world of farming. They should be honoured and enjoy the weekend.
Senators Garret Ahearn, Jerry Buttimer and Gerry Horkan raised this morning the concerns raised about Covid-19, and perhaps hyped a little by the media, given there can be a frenzy to grab a Minister and hope he or she would say something wrong. We know 22 October is a day many Irish people have been looking forward to. To put the matter in context, the NPHET models released in August indicated an expected increase in hospital numbers, including those in intensive care units, in October and November. We had a spike yesterday and the day before that will cause concern. Nevertheless, the reported numbers are currently tracking the most optimistic scenarios from August's models. We need to temper the comments somewhat.
Senator Horkan is right, nonetheless, in saying it is shocking that 70,000 people got their first jab and did not bother showing up for whatever reason to get the second dose. What is really concerning is that because of the 300,000 people who may have made the conscious decision not to get a vaccine, we must now have a debate as to whether society will allow those 300,000 people who have made that personal choice to put everybody else's health in jeopardy. Senator Horkan is correct that we must have a conversation about it. The schedule for next week has already been agreed, but I will do my best to try to put something in the schedule next week so we can have a conversation about what the people we represent feel about this and would like to see happen.
Senators Burke and Joe O'Reilly both mentioned a matter this morning that has been raised on the Commencement on a number of occasions. We have a shocking shortage of people to work in particular industries, including agriculture, hospitality and healthcare. I recently visited a farm in north County Dublin where an entire crop of scallions had to be left in the ground because there was no labour to harvest them. That is criminal. To answer this, we can first look at the 100,000 people still on the pandemic unemployment payment and try to find out why they are still on it in light of the fact that all of our industries are open. We should absolutely fast-track a permit system for the people across Europe and further afield who want to come to work in our agriculture and hospitality sectors and healthcare service. I support the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, in the work he is doing to ensure that can be fast-tracked.
Senator Burke also asked for a debate on Irish Water. I will try to arrange that as quickly as possible.
Senator Mary Seery-Kearney spoke about the work of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters this morning and the lived experience we all take for granted when we do not really know how much preparation and stress is involved with many people's lives just to do what she described as ordinary. I will organise a debate on that. I heard the Minister say the cost of disability report will be published at end of this month so I might wait so we could have a full and lengthy debate on the reality of the costs affecting these people's lives and what must be remedied by the State.
Senator Micheál Carrigy spoke about the very obvious reaction we would have expected yesterday from the Friends of the Earth in pointing out that Bord na Móna exported for the first seven months of this year before it ceased harvesting. That was simply because it had contracts it had to fulfil. I am not sure if Friends of the Earth was suggesting that those contracts should have been breached. We absolutely know there is no peat in Ireland for the moment for the producers that need it. We described here last night the untenable position of having to ask businesses to import peat of a lower grade that will output a lower grade of product from Ireland than we have been used to. It will also increase our carbon footprint, so it is a lose-lose position for everybody, and we all recognise that we must find a resolution to that.
The Senator raised a concern, given that the nights are getting darker, that people are putting their lives at risk by not lighting up when walking, cycling, scooting or skating. We must highlight that matter and I will try to have a debate on road safety in the next couple of weeks if possible.
Senator Gavan spoke about low pay and the need for a debate around the living wage. The Senator knows that the Low Pay Commission has been set up to determine what should be the minimum wage every year. We are given the specific directions for the target at the end of the programme for Government and it knows where we want to get to. The Senator is correct, however, in saying the time is running out for us to get there. It might be worth sending a letter as a gentle reminder but I can genuinely say the commitment stands, as I was the one who made it in the first instance. It follows through into this programme for Government but the Senator is correct to highlight that the time is running out.
Senator Craughwell spoke about the very welcome additions to the resources of An Garda Síochána but highlights a stark difference in what he sees as €35 million being put into the Defence Forces.There is a debate request in with the Minister. I know the Senator is aware of that.
Senator Crowe asked for a debate on education, particularly the welcome additional announcements this week of 1,100 special needs assistants and 980 new special education teachers. I will do that as quickly as I can.
Senator Fitzpatrick talked about her interactions with the students' unions over recent weeks and how much they have welcomed all the new announcements in the budget in recent days.
Senator Wall talked about the increase in the numbers of gardaí in the budget but expressed concerns about the numbers allocated to south Kildare. As I think he will be aware, that is an operational matter so I cannot interfere with it. He might write to the Commissioner himself to make him aware of the concerns of the people of south Kildare. Senator Wall also welcomed the contract for the Athy distributor road finally being awarded, as did the Fianna Fáil leader this morning, Senator O'Loughlin. I am sure they will welcome the boots on the ground when they see them, as will the people both Senators represent.
Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke of the BIPA meeting this weekend and the Irish diaspora strategy statements request. That is a really good idea, so I will try to arrange that as quickly as I can.
Senator McDowell, as eloquently as only he can, made a really thoughtful and considered debate request. I will put it to the relevant Minister. I cannot promise the Senator I will get a positive response to the request, given the nature of the debate and given that the contributions from some quarters might elicit certain emotional feelings at a time when they might not necessarily be welcomed by other contributors. The Senator is right, however, that we must have an honest conversation. It cannot be honest and pleasing only to one set of people affected by the atrocities of the legacy of that period. I certainly will ask for the debate because it would be a valuable one and I would really enjoy listening and, I hope, contributing to it. I will come back to the Senator.
Senator Ahearn raised the means test increase. It will allow a considerable number of families to access the fuel allowance, on which families definitely rely. That in itself should tell us its own story, that is, that people need to rely on the allowance because of cost increases. We all need to be mindful of that.
The Fianna Fáil lead speaker today opened the Order of Business by talking about international e-waste. The flippancy of some people today is such that when something breaks they just throw it in the bin and get a new one. I had to get my washing machine fixed in recent weeks for the third time in about three months and the man said to me, "Would you not just throw it out?" No, I will not just throw it out. It is a very important issue for the Senator to highlight, so I thank her for making people aware of it.
I ask the Chair to indulge me. Nobody raised this but I would like to raise it. All Senators are aware that a group of wonderful, thoughtful women established an organisation called #BetterMaternityCare over recent months because of inequalities in access to care, particularly the discrimination against the partners of women having babies in our 19 maternity hospitals. They took to our streets last week and were supported by all Senators, and I thank everybody for going out to them. In some way, leaders in this country, particularly healthcare leaders, thought that that would be the end of it, that we had had our day and had our say and that we would go back to doing the normal things we all have to do. This week a lady called Breege O'Connor gave birth to her second Covid baby. She is a wonderful woman and gave birth to a lovely little baby boy. The reason I highlight this is that she had to have her entire labour period in the car park of the Coombe Hospital. What she was offered was to come in on her own and leave her husband in the car or walk up and down the car park of the Coombe Hospital to suffer her labour on her own with no pain relief or support. She was left in the car park by the people in the Coombe Hospital until just before she was ready to give birth to her little son and was at that stage brought in. I do not know how anybody in this country can think that is acceptable, but what is really bizarre is that the treatment she and her husband received is absolutely okay under the HSE guidelines that were issued on 13 September. I want to put down a marker here to say it is absolutely not okay for any woman at any stage of her labour period to undergo labour and suffer pain in the car park of any hospital in this country. It is an unfit service, it is reprehensible, and I would nearly go so far as to say it is inhumane that we would ask any woman to make a choice between coming into the hospital on her own or staying in a car park to go through labour just because she needs to stay with her husband. It needs to stop now.
This message and this issue are not going to go away until the leaders of our 19 maternity hospitals, the CEOs of our hospital groups and the heads of midwifery stand up and say, "Enough is enough: this is wrong." To that end, I will arrange a meeting for the female caucus members again to meet with the 19 heads of midwifery of our 19 hospitals to see what they have to say about the continuing mistreatment of the women of Ireland by the maternity services in this country. It is not on and it has to stop now. Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for indulging me.