Wednesday, 3 November 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Defence (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1 p.m. and to adjourn at 2 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 2 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2.15 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 1, whichever is later, to conclude at 3.30 p.m. with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, motion re extension of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020; No. 4, motion re extension of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020; No. 5, motion re extension of Health (Amendment) Act 2020 - to be taken at 3.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is later, and to conclude after two hours if not previously concluded, the motions shall be discussed together but decided separately, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 87(3), Private Members' business, motion re public transport, to be taken at 6 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 5, whichever is later, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
I raise the issue of the standing down of the Doolin Coast Guard unit yesterday by the national Coast Guard. To say that it caused shock throughout County Clare and the mid-west would be an understatement. In fact, it caused very considerable shock throughout the country because there is little doubt that the Doolin Coast Guard is probably one of the best known units in the country. It is known nationally and internationally. Its volunteers have put to sea in the most hazardous conditions and carried out search, rescue and recovery missions 365 days a year, both day and night. It is probably one of the busiest stations in the country and, sadly, much of its work involves the recovery of loved ones who have departed through suicide from the Cliffs of Moher. The work is arduous and difficult.
It appears that some HR issues are at the core of this decision, but such issues are in every organisation and office in the country. It is very unfortunate that matters have been allowed to reach a point where this has now happened. The people who depend on the service and those who work in it deserve better. I call on the Minister to come before the House at the earliest opportunity to set out a path to the reinstatement of this service. It cannot be allowed to go on for a protracted period. We have waited five years for the publication of an investigation into the death of one of its volunteers, Caitríona Lucas. That is a very long time and should never have been allowed to happen. We need to bring closure to this issue and see the service reinstated. I am not suggesting there are not issues that have to be resolved, but the operational management of the Coast Guard is there to ensure that issues like this are brought to a head.
I will draw the House's attention to another matter, which is the recent media reports of anti-social behaviour on public transport. It has been well documented and many examples of it have been quoted on a regular basis by random journalists who have seen these matters taking place and have reported on them. The National Bus and Rail Union is now balloting members on what should, and needs to, happen. That is a wake-up call to us in the Legislature to call on the Minister for Justice to come to the House to outline the plans her Department and, hopefully, An Garda Síochána, have. The way forward is a dedicated public transport unit within An Garda Síochána. It works well in other countries and would be the appropriate method to address this situation rather than expecting transport companies to establish their own security within the service they provide. The responsibility should rest and remain with An Garda Síochána and form part of a dedicated public transport policing unit.
I welcome last week's announcement of the establishment of a technological university, TU, in our region of the west and north west. One of the beautiful things about this proposed TU is that it is a multi-campus university. There are now university towns throughout the region, from Castlebar to Galway city, Killybegs, Letterfrack, Letterkenny, Mountbellew and Sligo. A unique aspect of this TU, and one that will enhance the offering in the region, will be the ability of students to obtain a technical university qualification and, all going well, which I expect it will, the fact that students graduating next year in the existing institutes of technology, ITs, will do so with a TU degree. That is a wonderful acknowledgement of the process of the TUs.
I acknowledge the dedicated National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology in Letterfrack, whose present campus has a great reputation, and the fact that Letterfrack will also be a university town. That is a wonderful achievement. It will increase higher education access, drive enhanced regional development and increase opportunities for students, staff, business and enterprise, and local communities. It is a wonderful acknowledgement of the process and I welcome last week's announcement by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and the engagement across the political spectrum that took place with the constituent ITs of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, Sligo and Letterkenny. It is a wonderful day for the west and north-west region.
I have previously raised the issue of funding of local authorities. As a former member of Galway County Council, the continued funding issues within that council, in particular, are evident. People of all parties are aware of the issues. It is not just me as a politician saying it. Officials within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage acknowledge the funding model is broken, especially as it relates to Galway, which is a county with a large geographical area, population and coastline, with offshore islands. The model is broken. The officials stated it would be fixed or, at least, somewhat repaired by the review of the local property tax, LPT, which is ongoing. I ask for a debate on the issue of funding for local authorities.I am especially parochial. I know other local authorities also have an issue but it is an issue in Galway in particular. They are in dire straits, especially in this coming budget. The distance between the decision to increase or not increase a LPT and the final allocations from the Departments post the passing of a budget in October is too long. The allocation should come first and then the council and members should be able to decide whether to increase the LPT in response to that. I ask for a debate with the Minister.
I welcome the Deputy Leader to the House and welcome her setting out her draft Order of Business for today. I concur with Senator Dooley on his comments about a designated policing unit in An Garda Síochána for transport. I will not elaborate much more on it because I have an amendment to that effect and look forward to Senator Dooley's support and engagement as we discuss the Private Members' business later this afternoon. It makes common sense. We have heard much talk about a designated policing unit in all quarters, but today we will have an opportunity to support it. I thank Fine Gael for giving me that opportunity to use its Private Members' business on transport today. It will be an interesting dialogue.
I thank the MEPs Frances Fitzgerald, Barry Andrews, Clare Daly and Ciarán Cuffe for their meaningful, helpful and comprehensive engagement on the European Union yesterday. I took a look back at some of the commentary on it and the recurring themes were: EU scrutiny; agriculture; just transition; social solidarity; the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA; workers rights; the energy crisis; equality; social progression; the European Charter of Fundamental Rights; social cohesion; migration; EU policy, the European Green Deal; social progress; climate change; human rights; EU trade; recovery and resilience; EU care strategy, which was especially well set out by Frances Fitzgerald; and the horizon European project.
What came out of that was what Clare Daly said in the end in that there was so much there. We need to have themed discussions. Yesterday was a good beginning, but I would like to see, with some engagement from the groups, how we can put some themes around some of those issues such as energy or the European Green Deal over the coming 12 months. It is important we discuss those and stay focused. There is a role for the Seanad in that regard.
Another recurring theme we talked about was parliamentary scrutiny. I referred to a report which dealt with identifying issues of legal and political importance to Ireland. How do we hold our Government and Ministers to account in terms of influencing Government decisions on EU issues? How do we influence EU policy makers and especially MEPs on what they will do? I cited the Bundestag yesterday and the elaborate and well-resourced unit it has to do this.
There are real key issues. It was a good day and I thank the Cathaoirleach for initiating it and the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the excellent way he conducted the business. There was an energy about it and real engagement in this House. I commend the secretariat, the Seanad Office and all the people involved. It was a positive engagement and shows when we work well, it is in everyone's interest. It was a very good day. In time, if we could develop some of those themes and have specific topics in the Seanad and debates on those issues, it would be very helpful.
I will talk about the Coast Guard situation in Clare. It is not just an issue in Clare. The only reason we have a Coast Guard in Ireland is the volunteers. The management would not be able to carry out the Coast Guard functions, of which there are many, by itself. I thank all the volunteers in the Irish Coast Guard for all the work they do, for free, off their own bat. They put themselves at risk which affects their families, in order to protect all of us in this beautiful, large coastal island of ours. We have to recognise the work of the volunteers.
It is sad to hear that some people have left the service and will probably never return because of conditions with which they have been dealing. We have seen this before. It is usually between employers and employees that there are employment issues and workplace disagreements. This situation is worse in some ways because these people are not even getting paid. It is terrible that Doolin Coast Guard has been closed down. Despite what people say, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, did not close it down. It is quite the opposite. He has been trying to get these issues resolved and there is no shortage of supports, both financial and resources, coming from within the Department to try to resolve this issue.
Unfortunately, from listening to many people who work in the Coast Guard over the past number of weeks and years, there seem to be serious issues with Coast Guard management and volunteers, and how all that does and does not work. It is dysfunctional. It is not good enough to say Inis Oírr can sort out what is happening in Clare. That does not cut the mustard at all. We cannot be waiting for somebody from Inis Mór to come down with a lifeboat. It is a serious issue. Clare is one of the largest coastal areas in Ireland. We need this rectified as soon as possible.
There is no shortage of supports from the Department. We need Coast Guard management to step up to the mark. It has been using mediation, but it has not worked. I have experience of HR companies that are great for representing the management or employer, but do not always represent the volunteer. That seems to be the issue here. We need it resolved. It is not fair to treat volunteers in this way. There is obviously a huge issue when one has volunteers leaving, not just in Clare, but all over Ireland. There is a huge issue in the Coast Guard. It needs to be resolved before any more lives are lost.
I will mention Caitríona Lucas who lost her life five years ago. We are still waiting for that situation to be properly rectified. The report initially produced on what happened to her was completely inaccurate. The report authors did not interview the right people and had her one nautical mile out to sea which was not the case. Huge issues are ongoing with the Coast Guard and it is a disgrace it has to come to this, where Coast Guard stations are closed down. I know from speaking to the Minister that there is no shortage of supports from the Department to rectify the issue. We need to push it back on Coast Guard management, come up with a plan and stop wasting money on consultants covering HR and mediation. It is not working. We need to do better and the volunteers deserve that.
I will use my time to bring Members up to speed on two reports launched yesterday on which I had the pleasure of working with other Members of this House and the Oireachtas over the past many months prior to the summer recess. The Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media produced its pre-legislative scrutiny report on the online safety and media regulation Bill yesterday. The Bill is an immense piece of legislation to come before the Houses and will place Ireland among the first countries in the world to provide a systematic regulation of online platforms.
The committee engaged in an extensive pre-legislative process. We have called for an individual complaints mechanism for citizens to be established for the big designated online platforms. We have also called for an online safety commissioner to be explicitly included in the legislation, and for children's navigation of online spaces to be protected so as not to render children vulnerable to data profiling or harmful advertisements. This work is crucial to a democratic and pluralistic society. I commend Senators Hoey, Carrigy and Byrne who served on the committee. I thank the Chair, Deputy Smyth. We have also called for a content levy that would help the funding of independent productions in Ireland and other policies that would support the media production sector.
I also had the privilege of serving alongside the Deputy Leader, Senator Chambers, on the forum on a family-friendly and inclusive parliament. It was a privilege to be invited to take part in that by the Ceann Comhairle before the summer recess. I commend former Deputy, Mary Upton, who so ably chaired the committee and Senators Chambers and O'Loughlin, and Deputies Cairns and Richmond for partaking. We did so alongside members of civil society groups, private citizens and business people. We have 51 actions in the report and I encourage all Members to read them. The actions involve: how we include all perspectives when legislating; modelling a family-friendly parliament for the 21st century, affecting the sittings of the House for all Members and staff; online abuse of Members; and staff safety.I encourage Senators to read both of those reports if they get a chance. I hope for their implementation over the coming months and years.
I want to raise the reported legislation coming before this House to limit rent increases to 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. While this is very welcome in terms of stabilising rents in the long term, immediate action must be taken to provide a short-term intervention and a rent freeze for tenants. We are told there are legal impediments to that, but we know it is possible because, when he was Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly implemented an effective two-year rent freeze on rent increases in 2015.
Covid and the lack of supply have led to a rental accommodation crisis. Last year, we had a rent growth of 7%, despite a supposed 4% limit in three quarters of the country. Let us take a look at the counties that were affected. It was not just urban centres such as Dublin, Cork, Galway and elsewhere. There was a rental increase of 17.3% in Leitrim. The rate in Kilkenny was 15.5%. In Clare the rate was 16.1% and in Mayo it was 11.8%. This does not just affect urban centres; it affects the whole country. Every single county has had rental increases in the past year of more than 4%. Despite that, just 29 landlords were sanctioned for breaking rent cap rules. We need an immediate rent freeze to stabilise the rental market and to bring rents back in line with wages. We also need proper enforcement of the rules.
One of the reasons renters have not reported increases to the Residential Tenancies Board is because they are afraid of losing their homes. One could ask why that is the case. It is because we have some of the worst tenancy rights in Europe. There are approximately 350,000 people living in private rented accommodation. The largest cohort of families entering homelessness are coming from the private rented sector. Since the end of the ban on eviction, we have seen a month-on-month increase in the number of families entering homelessness. People are banned from having pets or are being charged pet rents. We know the importance of pets to families, particularly children who are living in rented accommodation. What we need is proper renters' rights. We need to have affordable rents with a rent freeze. We also need proper standards and security of tenure for renters in this country.
I am here today to raise the same issue I raised two weeks ago, namely, adult safeguarding. I stated then that we are in desperate need of adult safeguarding legislation. That week I was responding to a horrendous report in The Irish Times, which revealed that more than 108 instances of abuse were experienced by adults in a HSE care facility in Donegal and that the HSE not only failed to stop this abuse, it also covered it up. I am back in the Chamber to raise this issue yet again because in the space of those two weeks there have already been more distressing revelations. This just goes to show how urgent and pressing the matter is. First, it was revealed this week in The Irish Timesthat HIQA knew the names of those who experienced the abuse at the Donegal facility in 2016 but that the families were not notified until 2018. It seems now that HIQA was also part of the cover-up.
In addition, last week the HSE national safeguarding office released its report for 2020. I will read out some of the statistics in the report. In 2020, there were more than 10,000 safeguarding concerns reported to the HSE. That might just sound like a number, but it means 10,000 people, loved ones, family members, who were potentially experiencing abuse last year in the middle of the pandemic. Between 2016 and 2020, there were 51,000 safeguarding concerns reported to the HSE. That number is staggering.
I point out again, as I did two weeks ago, that the Civil Engagement Group's Adult Safeguarding Bill was introduced in 2017. We are still waiting for it to be progressed. I ask Senators to imagine how different things might have been if we had progressed the Bill more quickly. Could we have prevented those 10,000 cases of abuse? Could we have prevented 20,000 cases? The HSE report also states that abuse of adults is still likely to be under-reported. That is truly shocking. There have been 10,000 safeguarding concerns reported and it is likely that even more will be reported.
We met with the Law Reform Commission in the past week, which is still working on reviewing our 2017 Adult Safeguarding Bill. Unfortunately, its report is not due out until the second quarter of 2022. To be honest, that is a little bit disappointing. I would have thought it would have been sooner than that. I know that the commission could complete the report earlier if it had more resources. I ask the Deputy Leader to take quick action to help the Law Reform Commission to complete its work as quickly as possible. We need adult safeguarding to be made a top priority for the Law Reform Commission. We need extra resources allocated to its team and we need the report published by February 2022 at the latest.
Given the rate of 10,000 reported cases of abuse each year, we can assume more than 800 cases are occurring each month. Every month we wait for this report and every month we wait to introduce legislation we are complicit in the abuse experienced by 800 more people. These are our citizens, our families, our loved ones and we must take action now.
I thank the Deputy Leader for attending. I wish to raise the matter of disability services in Dublin 12. The first service to which I wish to refer is the Employ Ability service in Dublin west, which is based in Bluebell. Service users were told in November that the office would cease operating next month and that it would continue to give support until then. When I made my own inquiries with the Department as to what was happening to the Employ Ability service in Bluebell, however, I was told that its contract will expire on 31 December 2021 and that the Department had started proceedings on new contracts for 2022 and that bid proposal documentation had been issued to Employ Ability services, including the Employ Ability service in Dublin west. It is waiting on the bid to come through.
It is completely unfair that service users are being told a completely different story from that which the Department has told me. We need to find out exactly what is going on. If there is an issue with Employ Ability Dublin west in the context of why it is not putting in a bid, then that issue must be brought to light. Any opportunities there might need to be advertised to other providers that might offer these services to the community. It is a real loss to those who are availing of the Employ Ability service in Bluebell. I cannot understand why there is a such a divergence between what the service users are being told and what I am being told. It seems like I am being placated and the service users are being given more harsh information.
The second issue I wish to raise is therapies for children with autism in Dublin 12. The Dublin 12 autism inclusion group-----
I ask you to bear with me for two minutes, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. The group has told me that not one child in Dublin 12 is receiving therapy. We know that the three-month assessment rule applies and that children are getting assessed within that time, but there is no point in a child having an assessment of need if he or she is not going to get the therapy arising from it. It makes no sense. A parliamentary question was tabled by an Oireachtas colleague asking how children are affected and a blurb outlining the policy position came back. Ultimately, it did not say how many children are getting services. Anecdotally, no children in Dublin 12 are getting any therapies. The issue must be examined. It is a disgrace. We are not looking after our most vulnerable.
I rise to ask that the Minister for Education come to the House as a matter of urgency. I know we have the Minister for Health coming in this afternoon, but there is a need to have a debate on our response to contact tracing in an educational setting and substitution in schools.
I heard Colm Henry's remark on "Morning Ireland" earlier to the effect that transmission in schools is low. The reality is that the Government reduced, curtailed and stopped contact tracing in educational settings. It should not have done so.I call on the Government to return to contact tracing in schools. In tandem with that, there is an issue around substitution in schools. This is not a made-up issue; it is a real, living problem every day for teachers and principals in our education settings, primary and post-primary. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Foley, would come to the House as a matter of urgency. I accept the remarks of Dr. Colm Henry this morning that it may well not be the case that pupils are contracting or transmitting Covid-19 in schools but it is a fact of life that Government stopped contact tracing and it should not have done so.
I also seek a debate on the issue of Taiwan. It is high time that this House took a firm stance with regard to our relationship with Taiwan. I am utterly appalled and dismayed at the remarks last week of former Deputy, Mick Wallace, MEP, with regard to Taiwan. It is complete fake news. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy which upholds human rights at all times. As I have done previously, I call for a debate in this House on Taiwan and our relationship with Taiwan.
It is interesting that this morning the other House is debating the Credit Union (Amendment) Bill 2021. I am seeking a debate in this House with the Minister for Finance on the future of banking. This summer, the Governing Council of the European Central Bank decided to launch an investigation phase of the digital euro project. Our Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, was there in his role as the President of the Eurogroup and he expressed his full support for the project. As cryptocurrencies increase steadily in number and popularity, their potential to both improve international trade and to be used as payment looms ever larger in the eyes of the international community. The European Central Bank is investigation into the digital euro is in the interest of ensuring its continued grip on monetary transmission. The ECB needs its transmission channels to carry out its primary task of price stability and cannot conduct monetary policy if the euro disappears from the eurozone. While this is a welcome move in the right direction, there is no reason Ireland should be idle as it awaits a response to cryptocurrencies at a European level. Other countries are not sitting on their hands when it comes to laying the groundwork for early adoption.
On Monday, the US Government released a long awaited set of recommendations on how regulators and lawmakers should treat stablecoins and digital coins, the values of which are tied to fiat currencies such as the US dollar. The move has been welcomed by market participants and the US Acting Comptroller of the Currency, Michael J. Hsu, stated that while the salient risk may be mostly trading-related today, tomorrow the risks will be much broader than that and it behoves us as regulators to be strategic in how we approach this issue and think ahead. All countries will have to react to this at some point. Let us not be left behind in the dust by the way of stubborn caution. Let us instead be proactive in preparing for the inevitable global financial shift. We are always quick to talk about being a global world leader when it comes to climate activism. Why not the same appetite to be number one when it comes to something that may actually improve the lives of the Irish people? Another debate with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on the future of banking is needed in the new year.
This afternoon, I want to speak about Eyre Square in Galway city, which has suffered from a spate of antisocial behaviour in recent times. Having grown up 200 yd from Eyre Square, I can say with certainty that this is unprecedented. At a recent joint policing committee, the chief superintendent of Galway city suggested that consideration should be given to closure of the area at night time. I can inform him that this is not an option and will not be happening.
Eyre Square is in the heart of Galway city. It is often the first impression of Galway for visitors and tourists. It has been, largely, a safe and happy place to live and visit. We cannot allow the actions of a tiny minority to change that. The Christmas market in Eyre Square commences next Friday week and will continue until close to Christmas, with the support of a private security firm. This allows time for a plan to be implemented, which will ensure the safety of Eyre Square for both residents and visitors. A co-ordinated plan involving An Garda Síochána, Galway City Council and the Department of Justice is required as a matter of urgency.
Budget 2022 commits to the recruitment of 800 additional gardaí. Galway city needs to be prioritised for additional Garda resources in terms of upcoming graduates from Templemore. The Deputy Leader will be familiar with our city. She will have noticed in recent weeks that these incidents have taken place. I ask that she would write to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, with urgency.
Yesterday afternoon I met representatives of the Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland, members of which I also met earlier outside the gates of Leinster House. The forestry issue in Ireland is one that we need to address immediately. Over the past two years, we have had discussions on forestry in this House and at the agriculture committee. We have seen changes in legislation with regard to the serial objection issue and with regard to environmental issues but there is a huge issue in terms of licences. At the moment, the ambition in terms of licence production for this year is 4,500, which is exceptionally low, but we will not reach it. According to the industry, we need to be producing 8,000 licences per annum.
That Ireland of all places is importing raw timber to keep its timber mills going is disgraceful. This has the potential for us to bring in pests such as beetles, which could have a huge impact on our forestry in the future; the biosecurity measures are not good enough. This could have a huge impact on our industry in the future as a legacy. We need to have an urgent debate but we also need legislation to be brought forward with urgency. There are no timelines when it comes to a forestry licence. When you apply for a planning permission, you get a timeline through a local authority, which is usually eight weeks. You then submit further information and the whole matter can be sorted out within six months. There is no fixed timeline with regard to forestry licence applications. Some applications have been ongoing for almost four years. Could one imagine any business waiting four years for information as to when it might be granted a licence? We are in a time lag. Unless we get our act together, the real issues of carbon and climate action cannot be addressed. We have a decade to make sure we get our forestry services up and running and have trees growing in the ground. Only 30% of our afforestation targets for this year have been met. People are not planting trees because they have no confidence in a system that provides no timelines.
I propose that the Deputy Leader would ask the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett, who is a Member of this House, to come to this House to discuss the introduction of legislation to put fixed timelines in place so that the industry has a chance. If we do not do that, we will have no forestry industry and we will not reach our climate targets.
I agree with was said by Senator Buttimer with regard to Taiwan. I support him in that regard. There is a motion on the Order Paper, in my name and that of other Senators, in regard to Richard O'Halloran who is entering another year of captivity in China. I want to emphasise that.
Today, I want to raise an issue of volunteerism and, in particular, to ask the Deputy Leader to seek the presence in this House of the Minister for Justice, when available, to discuss the issue of the Garda Reserve. The Garda Reserve is withering on the vine. When I was Minister for Justice and Equality, I had all-party support for its introduction. The recruitment process for the Garda Reserve has completely collapsed. At the moment, it is in that terrible limbo of being under review. I support Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in all of his reforms and all of his improvements of standards within An Garda Síochána in its professionalism and policing function, but he does not see the urgency of having local contacts for An Garda Síochána, people in every area in Ireland who have direct links with An Garda Síochána.I will go back to what Senator Crowe said about Eyre Square. If there is a resourcing issue in Galway at night or whatever, there is a simple way to deal with that and that is to have reservists who will support An Garda Síochána in carrying out their functions.
It may be that Commissioner Harris, who comes from Northern Ireland, has a slightly different view of reserve constables and, historically, I could well understand that. I believe that keeping An Garda Síochána in contact with the people rather than patrolling and policing from cars travelling at 30 km/h through areas does require new consideration to be given to improving the Garda Reserve recruitment, and making use of those decent people who have been effectively left aside, having volunteered and become members of An Garda Síochána.
I want to raise the policy of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, of turning off or dimming lights at motorway junctions. This has been a policy for some time and it was brought to my attention again over the weekend. Only in recent days the lights have been turned off at the junction of the M4-M6 at Kinnegad, with which she will be familiar. The person to whom I spoke is very familiar with the route but almost missed the junction due to the lack of lights. He told me that only for the fact that he was familiar with the site layout he would have missed the junction as he could not read the sign. I have researched the matter and know the reasons that have been given. In the current climate there is a threat of power cuts and it has been mentioned that this energy and money saving policy will save €1 million. Without sounding flippant, €1 million is not a big price to pay to protect the health and safety of motorists. These roads were built in the not too distant past and designed with enough lights to protect the health and safety of road users. I do not recollect a change being made to health and safety laws or observations. We should invite the Minister for Transport in here to discuss this matter. I can see where the policy has come from but I can also see the associated dangers. I believe that the risks far outweigh the potential saving and we need to debate the matter. The person told me that the junction was in complete darkness last weekend and if he had not been aware of it, he would have taken the road to Mullingar instead of Athlone.
The citizens of this country have worked hard to follow Government guidelines with respect to Covid-19. We now have a situation where the numbers are rising again at a worrying level. I will outline an issue that has been brought to my attention recently. A few fully vaccinated people around the area in which I live have came down with Covid-19 and this is causing massive worry among people of my age group. The older lemons in society are concerned that the vaccines may not be as effective as they should be although all of the assurances are that everything is fine and people should hang in there. We need far better reporting by Government. We need a breakdown of the age groups who have been diagnosed with Covid-19. We need to know how many of the people in ICU are not vaccinated. We need to get the word out there that vaccination is the only way to beat this and reassure people.
Yesterday I spoke to some grandparents and they are now afraid to bring their grandchildren into their houses because the word has gone out that children get and can carry Covid-19. This is causing people to think in a very different way so I think we need far clearer reporting. We need a breakdown, on a daily basis, of the age groups in ICU and the age groups who have been diagnosed so as people can be relatively comfortable in their thinking around Covid-19. To throw out a figure of 3,796 cases last night has left people asking what the point is in getting a booster vaccine if the thing is no good. We need to retain faith in the system. The system is working well but we need better reporting right across the board.
Recently Members will have heard the legendary broadcaster, Mr. Charlie Bird, talk about the impact that motor neurone disease, MND, is having on his life. It is a debilitating disease. Any of us who knows anyone who suffered from MND will know how horrible the impact is on the person. It also has an impact on their families and those who are close to them.
One of the difficulties is that only four nurses are dedicated to dealing with the disease in the entire country. They are primarily funded by the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. We need to invest more money in research into how we will deal with MND and ways to combat it. We have to have a greater support structure not only those with MND but also for their families. Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Health to consider putting in place the necessary supports for individuals who suffer with this disease and their families.
I have previously raised this matter in the House. It is a horrible illness and Charlie Bird spoke eloquently about its impact. We do not have to continue to listen to those stories. There is a need for more than just four nurses serving the entire country who are funded by a charity. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister for Health to provide greater support.
I want to raise the issue of Doolin Coast Guard, which is of great concern in County Clare. I am not sure if the Deputy Leader is aware of the fact that Doolin Coast Guard unit was stood down yesterday by the Irish Coast Guard. Let me put that in context. It is one of the longest serving and busiest Coast Guard units in the country, servicing serves the coast of counties Clare, Galway and Kerry.
The standing down of the Coast Guard is a worrying development for a number of reasons. First, 12 volunteers have been stood down and I want a clear answer from the Minister for Transport as to why that has happened. Can he guarantee the safety of people off the Clare coast at this moment in time given the fact that the Doolin Coast Guard is one of the busiest units? If an accident occurs off the Clare coast we will have to rely on the Aran Islands service. They are great people but they can only do so much. I want the Minister to assure us that he is satisfied with the emergency response that will be available if an accident or tragedy occurs off the Clare coast.
I want him to outline when the Coast Guard intends to reinstate the Doolin Coast Guard. What are the plans? Are we talking about days, weeks, months or years? Will Doolin Coast Guard be reinstated at all?
The current situation is unacceptable but the overall picture in terms of Coast Guard volunteers needs to be addressed. We are an island nation and it is not acceptable that we must rely on a largely volunteer-run Coast Guard operation. Proper terms and conditions for Coast Guard volunteers need to be introduced. At the moment a good fire service model operates throughout rural Ireland where volunteers are paid a retainer fee and paid per call-out. It would be reasonable for the Coast Guard to have the same facility where a retainer and call-out fees are provided. I also believe that the scheme could be operated by the local authorities.
A number of years ago I tabled Commencement matters on this issue in this House which the then Minister, Shane Ross, addressed but nothing happened. The fact that one of the most successful Coast Guard units in the country was stood down yesterday has escalated this issue to a point where action is urgently needed.We need to look after, respect and pay these front-line workers.
I call for a debate on the future of agriculture in this country. We hear an awful lot of talk about it, especially with COP26 going on. There is an awful lot about what could and should be done. Are we reaching a point where we will start paying, especially marginalised farmers on poor land, to be unproductive, pick blackberries once a year in September and stand at a gate for a tourist? It seems we have no plan on what we will do with agriculture. There are incredibly environmentally-friendly marginalised farmers on hill farms and special areas of conservation who are very productive and eco-friendly. These farmers need to be protected. They are on small family farms and provide an incredible amount to their local economy because nearly everything a farmer earns goes back to his or her community. We need a proper, strong and honest debate in this House on the future of agriculture.
I endorse everything Senator Conway said on the Doolin coast guard. It is high time we addressed the issue of terms and conditions and ensure people are properly recognised for the amazing work they do. The issue I will raise this morning is that of the proposed public holiday, which all of us think is a welcome recognition for the incredible work that not only our front-line workers but the entire country has undertaken to face the challenge of the Covid pandemic. I am concerned by reports it may be a one-off. Let us be clear that Ireland is bottom of the table when it comes to public holidays. We are four days behind countries such as Portugal, Poland, Sweden and Austria and three days behind Germany and Greece. Why on earth would we introduce a bank holiday as a once-off just for next year?
We should all agree we want to build back better after the pandemic and give people a better work-life balance. A number of us have spoken about that in terms of the right to disconnect and work from home. We need a clear signal from the Government that this public holiday will be a permanent addition.
I invite the Deputy Leader to endorse that call for a permanent public holiday and not a once-off one next year. People have worked to keep this country going, not just in the past couple of years, but the past decade. We have come through a hell of a decade and working people have brought us through it, in particular. The least we can do is take a significant step towards a European model of better work-life balance. The idea that this bank holiday next year will be a once-off is entirely unacceptable to me or trade union movements and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should be clear it needs to be a permanent addition. If we need a debate on it, let us have that debate.
I spoke on a proposal the Deputy Leader made to have statements with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on the future of forestry, which I endorse. I met with the Social Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland, SEEFA, yesterday and there is a large group from throughout the country here this morning. It is important we have that sooner rather than later to address not just the logjam in the felling licences due to the objections, but the logjam in the planning applications for putting in more forestry. Then we have the whole issue of having to plan for road licences and thinning. We need to readjust the whole forestry system, as it is in other European countries. I ask that be done sooner rather than later.
Sport is in my brief and it has been in the news this morning. We need clarity from Sport Ireland and the Department on underage sports indoors. Certain sports such as basketball and squash are not taking place and are being cancelled because they are indoor and we cannot ask for vaccination certificates for children between 12 and 18. Those under 12 do not have certificates. There needs to be clarification to make sure those sports can continue. That is important for our youth. If people are vaccinated, which they are from over 12 years of age, those sports should be allowed go ahead, rather than be cancelled as they have been over the past number of days.
I will raise the Wind Turbine Regulation Bill 2020, which was withdrawn by Sinn Féin in the Dáil this week. It is important to recognise the huge contribution wind energy makes to this country. Some 5,000 are employed in it and if we hit our targets by 2030, another 2,000 people will be employed in it. It contributes €410 million to the economy every year. The problem with the legislation was the fact it would have increased the distance of wind turbines from homes to ten times the height of the turbine. At present, it is three to four times the height of the turbine. If one was to increase it to ten times the height of the turbine, from any dwelling anywhere in the country, this would mean the land space for any wind turbine is null and void. If one were to increase it by four times, that reduces 45% of the land available to wind turbines in Ireland. If that is 40% at four times the height, imagine what it would be at ten times the height. That is not me saying that, but it is Maynooth University saying that in a study it carried out.
The reason I raise this is I am travelling to Glasgow in a few days for COP26. It is a week in which the world is meeting to discuss how we stop global temperatures rising and coming together to ask how we can combat climate action. On one hand, we have the cleanest, safest and most renewable form of technology in the world, which we should be using and can become a huge natural resource for Ireland, while on the other hand, we have a political party that, thankfully, withdrew a Bill, but one which was knocking around for seven years. Just last year, on 24 November 2020, was reintroduced for the third time. The Bill would have dramatically reduced and basically made null and void the ability to build inland wind turbines. We all have to be on the same page and to make the same sacrifices and move the same way. It is not on that we have people who claim they fight in support of climate justice, while introducing legislation that would hinder renewable energy.
After a decade of fundraising, coffee mornings, tractor runs, quizzes, cycles and marathon runs by clubs, schools, businesses and everyone, the Mayo Roscommon hospice, in Roscommon, will be officially launched this Friday. It is due to incredible fundraising over decades. It is phenomenal. The hospice will cost an estimated €6 million to complete and is an eight-bed inpatient unit with full day care facilities. The Mayo Roscommon hospice has been fundraising for these community palliative care facilities for families. Every family in Ireland has lost loved ones to cancer. We know the painful end to this disease and condition and the palliative care that has been put in place is incredible.
In Roscommon town, each of the rooms in the hospice will have a door and a private garden in order that family members will be able to visit their loved ones. I thank the volunteers and the fundraisers and acknowledge Martina Jennings, CEO, and her team and the board of the Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation which has funded two hospices in Castlebar, which the Deputy Leader would know very well, and one in Roscommon which will launch on Friday. It is absolutely incredible. There are such advocates at local, regional and national level and even at a global level. President Joe Biden has close links with Mayo and especially with Larita Blewitt and the Blewitts and wrote this year to say what it has meant to have been involved in this project since the start.
I thank Tony Canavan, CEO of Saolta University Health Care Group, and Mary Garvey, Roscommon University Hospital, as this facility will be adjacent to the hospital and will help and support its services. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, will be there to celebrate this launch on Friday.
What can we do? We can support it by making donations at hospice.ie. These community pallative care services have to be fundraised for every single year. There are also the hospice shops. Every single time you see those wonderful charity shops, do not forget to think of the treasures that lie within and of supporting them with a few euro or even donations?
I have been contacted quite a lot by Ongar Chasers Basketball Club in the past 24 hours, because of the guidelines issued by Sport Ireland which relate to basketball, volleyball and squash.This is a club, like so many other clubs around the country, that has kept going throughout Covid. Even in the deepest, darkest winter last year, they were playing outside, rallying around the community and the sport. What has been said is that children under 18 who cannot show proof of vaccination cannot play indoors, which obviously throws up all sorts of questions that the clubs need clarity on. Under-12s cannot be vaccinated at the moment so how are they taking part in other activities? Assistance needs to be given to Basketball Ireland and to the basketball clubs on this. Of course, those aged under 18 are not being asked for proof of vaccination in other areas. We have done such a good job with the digital Covid certificate that we have a lot of confidence in that system, but we have to make sure it is consistent. It is important that clarity is given to these voluntary organisations to make sure that whatever other sports are doing, it is applied to these sports as well.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na baill de Pharlaimint na hEorpa a tháinig anseo aréir chun labhairt linn, chun éisteacht linn agus chun ár gcuid ceisteanna a fhreagairt. We had an impressive display from the four Dublin MEPs who came to the House yesterday. One of the issues that arose in the course of the discussion was Taiwan. Members will be aware that, last month, the European Parliament passed a motion or approved a report in respect of strengthening ties between Europe and Taiwan, which was passed with a huge number of MEPs supporting it, some 580 to 26 against, with, I think, 66 abstentions. Unfortunately, two of the MEPs who voted against it were Irish MEPs and one Irish MEP did not turn up for the vote.
This is a very strong statement from Europe that we need to strengthen our ties with Taiwan. We need to look at Taiwan as we approach a situation where China is essentially threatening to take over Taiwan and to integrate it into the mainland of China as part of its "one China" policy. One of the answers given by one of the MEPs yesterday was that that is Government policy and, therefore, that MEP voted against the motion on the basis that she did not feel she could contradict Government policy, notwithstanding the fact she contradicts it in lots of other ways, which is her right.
As a legislature, I wonder if the time has come for us to make a clear statement about our views on Taiwan. I had the opportunity in Rome last week to attend a conference with Minister Wu, the Foreign Minister of Taiwan, to discuss these issues. For us, as a small nation, we should understand this better than most. Granted, we are a great deal smaller than Taiwan, but there is a larger country next door and we know what it is to be taken over or to be overruled by that country. We must understand how frightening it is for ordinary citizens in Taiwan facing down an increased militarisation in that area. I wonder if we could have a debate in this House to discuss what we feel about Taiwan and what we should be saying about strengthening our ties, as well as those of our European colleagues, with Taiwan.
I thank all Members who contributed to the Order of Business this morning for their comments. Senator Dooley started the day by bringing up the issue of the Doolin Coast Guard, which has been brought up by a number of colleagues this morning, including Senators Garvey, Conway and others. I join with colleagues in sharing their frustration and concern over the standing down of that very busy Coast Guard. My current information is that the Department of Transport is working with local stakeholders and the community to try to get the issue resolved and get the Coast Guard back up and running as it is not the intention to permanently close that Coast Guard. It is a fair request by the Members of this House to ask for a timeline as to when that service will be back up and running. Senator Conway asked whether the citizens in that area are safe currently without that service, given they are now relying on the Aran Islands. It is a question I cannot answer but it is a fair question that has been posed.
Senator Kyne raised the issue of the Technological University for the West and North West that was announced last Thursday with great fanfare across the north-west region. I join with him in congratulating all of the institutes of technology involved - GMIT, Sligo IT and LYIT - which came together to make this happen. I join with him in saying it is fantastic to have a number of university towns across eight campuses, one of them being my own hometown of Castlebar. I can say it is something that is a very exciting prospect for the students and communities in those regions.
Senator Kyne also raised the issue of funding for local authorities. I concur with his remarks in that there is an issue around current funding, given the current levels of funding are based on 2014 assessments. There is a deficit in funding, particularly in smaller and more rural local authorities, which do not have the same level of income as some of the larger urban centres. It is something that should be reviewed and we will seek a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility, Deputy Peter Burke, at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Boyhan also raised the issue of the Doolin Coast Guard and spoke about the need to reassess how we do the debates with our MEPs. I join with other colleagues in saying we had a very good debate last night with our Dublin MEPs. The standard and quality of the debate was quite high. It is fair to say that all four MEPs took a lot of questions on a variety of topics. The suggestion from Senator Boyhan is that we would perhaps look at themed discussions going forward. As I understand it from the Cathaoirleach, it is the understanding that once we complete the third constituency in the south, we might take feedback from Members and MEPs as to how we can improve that process for the next round of engagements.
Senator Garvey raised the issue of the Doolin Coast Guard and spoke very passionately about her work in trying to resolve that with her party leader, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
Senator Warfield spoke about two reports that were launched this week in which he was personally involved, namely, the report on online safety from the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, chaired by Deputy Niamh Smyth. A number of Members of this House are participants in that committee, including Senator Warfield and Senator Malcolm Byrne. I commend the committee on its work. Some 33 recommendations were made. One of the key recommendations is around an online digital safety commissioner but various other recommendations are around making the online space safer for all of us, in particular children. It should certainly be viewed by all Members of this House. I hope the Department and the Minister will take on board the recommendations made by that cross-party joint committee.
Senator Warfield also spoke about the report launched yesterday by the Forum on a Family Friendly and Inclusive Parliament that was launched and initiated by the Ceann Comhairle almost a year ago. I am a member of that forum. The culmination of all of that work came yesterday, when we produced our report with over 50 recommendations as to how we can improve both Houses of the Oireachtas as a workplace for all Members and make it more family friendly and inclusive for everybody. I urge Members to have a look at that report at a time of their convenience.
Senator Rebecca Moynihan raised several issues around housing, as she very often does, namely, the need to improve standards in rental accommodation, improve security of tenure for rental tenants and deal with the ongoing increase in the cost of rent across the country. She correctly pointed out that it is not just an issue in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford or Galway, and it is affecting other areas. She pointed to Mayo, where she said there was an increase in rent cost of 11.8% last year. I can attest to that. I can see that the prices are increasing across the board and it is something we need to deal with.
Senator Frances Black raised the issue of the adult safeguarding legislation that is currently with the Law Reform Commission. We will certainly do our best to see if we can assist in getting that report published sooner. I suggest to the Senator that she might circulate the proposed legislation to Members of this House so we can have a look at that.
Senator Ardagh raised two particular issues in regard to disability services. One was the around the EmployAbility service (west) in Bluebell and the conflicting information that service users have received and that she has herself received as a public representative in that area. There is a need for clarity. I suggest to the Senator that she might table a Commencement matter to try to bring clarity on that issue.
The Senator also raised, as she has on a number of occasions, the issue around therapies for children with autism, which I know is an issue many Members have raised in the House. A very worrying statement from her was that no child in the Bluebell area is currently receiving any therapy.
Senator Jerry Buttimer requested that we have a debate in the House with the Minister for Education, in conjunction with the Minister for Health, around contact tracing in schools in regard to Covid-19, and also the ongoing difficulties many schools are facing in getting substitute teachers to cover where a teacher is out. We will certainly request that.
The Senator also sought a debate on Taiwan. Many other Members, including Senators McDowell and Ward, also raised the need for that debate, and I know Senator Malcolm Byrne has on many occasions requested a similar debate. We will try to get that debate at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Keogan spoke about the need for a debate on the future of banking and finance. She went into a lot of detail around cryptocurrencies.I will not even suggest I have a level of knowledge to debate with her on that. It is certainly a worthwhile debate to have in the House in order to get some information from the Minister for Finance.
Senator Crowe raise the issue of antisocial behaviour in Eyre Square. I know the area well. I went to college in Galway so would have frequented Eyre Square regularly. I am surprised to hear the response from gardaí locally was to just close Eyre Square. That is not really possible. It is the centre point of the city and that would be devastating for businesses, I imagine. Again, that might be one for a Commencement matter with the Minister for Justice because what the Senator is requesting is quite specific.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of forestry and the ongoing licensing crisis in the forestry sector, as did Senator Carrigy, and I raised the issue myself yesterday. We are looking for a debate with the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, at the earliest possible opportunity. Many of us had the opportunity to meet with that sector yesterday, when they were in Buswells Hotel for a number of hours to provide a briefing to Oireachtas Members, and I thank them for making themselves available to us to do that. I concur with the remarks of the Leas-Chathaoirleach that it is a huge issue that has been dragging on for many months. I know the agriculture committee was meeting throughout the summer with the Minister of State to try to resolve this and it is still not resolved. A debate on that is certainly required.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of volunteerism, in particular in regard to the Garda Reserve, which I think is a fantastic initiative. As somebody who served in the Army Reserve, I can attest to the importance of volunteerism, giving people in the community an opportunity to serve in those organisations, to give back to their communities and to work in the local space. We see how much it benefits young people to be part of those organisations. It can be character forming if people come in at a certain age, and it certainly was for me. There is a very lax attitude in regard to maintaining that organisation. It is the same with the Army Reserve, which has just been left to wither and die, in my view. I am sure Senator Craughwell will know a lot of the issues around that as well. This is an issue that needs to be debated with the Minister for Justice to get an update on what are the plans to maintain and enhance the Garda Reserve and ensure people can apply and join again, which is not happening currently.
The Senator also raised the issue of Richard O'Halloran and the ongoing nightmare that he and his family are living through. This was also raised in the Chamber yesterday. I hope the Department of Foreign Affairs is doing everything it can to try to get justice and get him out of there.
Senator Paul Daly raised the issue around the dimming of lights and poor lighting on our motorways. I suggest he puts forward a Commencement matter on that as it is very specifically around whether there has been a policy change within TII and the Department in order to try to make those savings. It seems like a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, given it is a matter of health and safety.
Senator Craughwell raised a number of issues around vaccines. We need to take on board that questions are being asked. It is very important that Members of this House and all public representatives hammer home the message that vaccines work and they are protecting the country. It does not mean people cannot contract Covid-19 and that was never suggested, but there is a lot of misinformation flying around. It is incumbent on all of us to try to correct that and to try to get the message out that vaccines do work. A booster has been approved for healthcare workers, which is very welcome and I know they welcome that. It is important that we continue to do the things we have been asked to do all along. We know what we need to do at this stage. That is all I can add on that front.
Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the issue of motor neurone disease and the need to increase support around that. That would be a welcome debate with the Minister for Health. The fact we only have four nurse specialists in the country who are funded by a charity is not sustainable and that should not be how we provide healthcare. Credit to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association for providing that service because, otherwise, it would not be there. We will certainly seek a debate on that with the Minister at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Conway also raised the issue of the Coast Guard, which I have dealt with.
Senator Erin McGreehan asked for a debate on the future of agriculture. This is timely, given the comments that have come out of COP26 around emissions reductions and methane. There is a lot of change happening in agriculture, particularly with CAP being out for public consultation and Ireland needing to finalise its plan by the end of this year. There are competing interests and the farming organisations, unfortunately, are not on the same page and not united in what they are requesting of the Minister. There is a lot of change. It would be timely to have a debate with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, on that at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Paul Gavan joined others in asking about an update on the Doolin Coast Guard and, in particular, spoke about the need for improved terms and conditions for the workers. It is a conversation we need to have. It should be a service that is paid because of the work they do and the risks they take.
I concur with the Senator that if we are going to have a public holiday, it should be a permanent fixture. I am not sure where the one-off suggestion has come from. I know my colleague, Senator Fiona O'Loughlin, is pushing for St. Brigid's Day to be the new public holiday. I join with Senator Gavan in aspiring to bring Ireland in line with other similar countries in increasing the number of public holidays we have. We should aspire to that as a country, why would we not? With advances in technology, we should be looking to reduce the number of hours people have to work, that being a choice, of course, but it should be something we try to do.
Senators Carrigy and Currie raised the issue around Basketball Ireland and sport. I am not fully up to date as to why that directive was issued by Sport Ireland. It needs to be clarified and, again, I suggest a Commencement matter on that or we could seek a wider debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for sport as to why that directive has come from that particular sporting body but has not been applied across the board to children in other activities. There is confusion there, of that there is no doubt.
Senator McGahon raised the issue of the Wind Turbine Regulation Bill from Sinn Féin. It is welcome that it was withdrawn. The Senator raised the wider debate we need to have around renewables, wind energy and how we manage that. There are a lot of things happening offshore as well and I know it is a big conversation, particularly in the west, where there is huge potential for offshore wind. We need to take all angles on this because we have a huge gap to make up in terms of how much renewable energy we produce and can rely upon to meet those demands for energy.
Senator Dolan spoke very positively about the Mayo Roscommon Hospice. I have been involved with the hospice for many years as a public representative and I can attest to the huge amount of fundraising done. No stone has been left unturned in terms of gathering funds from every corner of the counties of Mayo and Roscommon. Credit to all involved, the hospice was opened in Castlebar a couple of years ago and it is great to see the hospice in Roscommon being opened as well, with a €6 million investment in an eight-bed unit that will make a huge difference to the lives of the people and families who go through that service. It is a positive day for Roscommon. I commend all involved in the Mayo Roscommon Hospice on delivering that.
Senator Barry Ward concluded the debate. I concur with his remarks on yesterday's debate with the MEPs and how good it was. Credit to the four MEPs who attended and made themselves available.
I also concur with his remarks around Taiwan. We will seek to have that debate at the earliest opportunity.