Wednesday, 26 January 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Before I ask the Deputy Leader to outline the Order of Business for the day, I remind Senators that, as we discussed yesterday, there will be a minute's silence before she responds in order to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the roll-out of broadband, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3.30 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements on the final report on the impacts of Brexit of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to conclude at 5 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 3, Private Members' business, Local Government (Surveillance Powers in Relation to Certain Offences) Bill 2022, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 5.15 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
I thank the Deputy Leader. There is much pent-up demand within the country to travel abroad and, whether at the Easter break, the elongated St. Patrick's Day break or in the summer, Irish people will avail of opportunities to travel to Europe or further afield. While we always encourage people to take staycations and to experience the great offers we have in this country in hospitality and tourism, we can understand that, given the pandemic, people have not had the opportunity to travel and there will be an appetite to do so.
The issue of passports is one that, as public representatives, we all experience. We have all experienced the fear, dread and upset felt by people when they find their passport has expired, or will do so presently, after having booked holidays. The Passport Office does great work to expedite and assist public representatives and people in general to get passports processed, but there were issues last year and, based on all the evidence, there may be issues again this year. We need urgently to have a debate on the plans of the Minister for Foreign Affairs to assist in the processing of, in particular, first-time applications for citizens to avail of passports. We appreciate the relief when a passport application can be expedited, but we have also heard of cases of people who have had to cancel holidays or rearrange plans or where one group is able to travel while another has to stay behind because they cannot get their passports. It is a great cause of stress.
I have said previously that, with all the modern technology we have, it should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for a reminder text or email to be sent to remind people that their passport will expire in, say, five or six months' time and to encourage them to get online and apply. Obviously, applying online is the most efficient and easiest way to apply and it allows for a quick turnaround time, so we have to encourage people in that regard. Nevertheless, assistance needs to be provided to those who cannot apply online or who do not have the wherewithal to do so, and there could be a role there for Citizens Information or other State agencies to assist those people because online applications are faster and more efficient and allow for quicker processing. I ask for a debate, therefore, on the issue of passports at the earliest opportunity with the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
I raise a substantial report that was produced in 2017, Finite Lives, by the then Senator, Marie-Louise O'Donnell. It was a substantial body of work, supported by the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and its launch was one of his final farewells. It was his largest gathering in the House, with many people packed into the Chamber. The report, which was extensive, examined dying, death, bereavement, the challenges in that context and the need for a major conversation on the subject.
I was reminded of the report in the context of Covid, when many of us lost loved ones during the period and many of us did not have the opportunity to say goodbye. I thank all the people who spent time with people who were dying and coming to the end of their lives. I suggest we have a conversation about the report. I do not believe in rehashing reports. We should dust it down. It is an extensive report and I acknowledge the work that Marie-Louise O'Donnell, the then Senator, carried out in producing it.
One matter that jumped off the page at me when I had another look at the report yesterday related to elder abuse. We need to begin that conversation about dying, death and bereavement, and we need to see it and talk about it in the context of elder abuse. The report quotes somebody as stating, “The older, the poorer, the sicker the higher the level of abuse.” What a terrible thing to have to say, but at least it is out there. It is a challenge and we need to examine it.
I call for a debate in the House on this subject, and this report may be the basis for statements and discussion. Let us examine where we are. The report contains chapters specific to each Department, setting out the aims, objectives and key recommendations for them, and it is as relevant today as it was in 2017.
While on the issue of Covid, I pay tribute to the many healthcare workers who have battled on the front line during the pandemic and saved so many lives. We have lost many people and did not always have the opportunity to say goodbye, and that is something we have to acknowledge and perhaps address as part of our wider debate.
Turning to the Community Call campaign, local government shone at its brightest during that period, when people collaborated and worked together, whether in the case of State agencies or, in particular, volunteers and workers on the front line. I refer to the front line throughout not only the health sector but also the community sector. They came together and gave hope, assistance and practical support. They stood in solidarity with people who were vulnerable and alone, who needed that extra support and encouragement, and I acknowledge that.
I reiterate that the report is the basis for a really good discussion and debate in the House, and I ask the Deputy Leader to consider it.
I will start by agreeing with Senator Kyne. Several of us have been calling for debate on the Passport Office. It is now becoming a matter of serious urgency, so it could be arranged in the next week or two, it would be appreciated.
Yesterday, I referred to the appointment of the expert panel that is due to be set up to examine how an individual complaints mechanism could operate with the office of the online safety commissioner that is due to be established as part of the online safety and media regulation Bill. On “Prime Time” last night we saw further development of the story around Eden Heaslip and about how Eden Heaslip’s bullying continued in the online space. Very clearly, his family desired that there would be some form of individual complaints mechanism. It is something that the Ombudsman for Children and children’s rights organisations have all sought. In addition, as I pointed out yesterday, our Oireachtas committee recommended this as well.
I was a little concerned when the Minister appeared on “Prime Time” last night. She indicated that this legislation will be coming to the Seanad very soon, and I welcome the fact that we will finally be debating it. However, we may be debating it in the absence of the report coming from the expert panel that is charged with setting up the individual complaints mechanism. My concern expressed yesterday was around the terms of reference that were given to that expert panel.
The Oireachtas committee recommended it because we found the testimony of Ms Julie Inman Grant, the Australian eSafety Commissioner, compelling. I have engaged separately with her office. This being Australia Day, it is appropriate that we look and learn from our Australian cousins in respect of what they have done in this space. There is a model that works very clearly in Australia and it is the model we want to see followed.
If the legislation is brought in here before we have any clear picture of what an individual complaints mechanism might resemble, I will propose an amendment to the legislation that will require the new online safety commissioner to introduce such a scheme within 12 months of his or her appointment. Many of us have spent much time on this legislation, including on a cross-party basis. Senators Cassells, Carrigy, Warfield and I have all worked very hard on this to get it right. It is one of the most important items of legislation that this House will debate over the next number of years because it will talk about shaping our society, culture and, indeed, our democracy.
I urge that adequate time be given for this and that there be active engagement by the Minister in the Department with officials on this issue.
I wish to raise the report that was sent to the Committee on Environment and Climate Action yesterday by the European Court of Auditors, ECA. The ECA is the body that is charged with ensuring taxpayer funds are spent wisely. Historically, the ECA had very strong words for the Irish Government about the way it does energy efficiency upgrades.
In 2020, the audit revealed that, incredibly, over half of the funding given out in residential schemes resulted in no energy rating improvements. In the latest audit, which was released yesterday, the ECA turned its attention instead to energy efficiency upgrades in enterprises, which include public sector buildings.
The Government, again, does not make it through this audit unscathed. In fact, no financial data were available. The State did not plan any funds and it had no financial information to report for enterprise energy efficiency projects. The EU programme allocated €2.4 billion in total and the funds were divvied up between 12,000 projects across the EU. Not a single penny of that money was allocated to Irish enterprises, neither businesses nor public sector.
While Government was wasting EU funds in 2020, this time it is wasting the opportunity to spend EU funds and failing to plan to spend them at all. Ireland was one of only three countries to not avail of funds for this priority. This is despite being in the middle of a climate crisis. Commercial and public sectors make up 18% of the primary energy use, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, Energy in Ireland report. There is massive room for emissions reductions through efficiency improvements and these sectors need to be showing more leadership in setting an example of how energy efficiency should be done. Instead, the opportunity to avail of funding to address the climate crisis has been squandered and potentially hundreds of millions are spent elsewhere within the EU.
We are in the midst of an energy crisis and it is not just households that are facing increasing energy bills, as SMEs are feeling the squeeze as energy prices skyrocket. One of the best things they can do to protect themselves from these price shocks is to insulate those buildings and make them more efficient. Yet, not a single penny of the EU fund was spent on enterprises here.
Why is the Department allowing such prime opportunities to pass it by? There was a Fine Gael Minister at the helm of climate change for the period in question. Can the party representatives keep straight faces when they claim the mantle of economic prudence?
What change has the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan implemented to make sure that the mistakes of his Fine Gael predecessor are not repeated? Does the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications have enough resources to make sure that it does not miss other opportunities going forward?
I wish to raise, once again, our community first responders and the wonderful work that they do throughout all of our communities. I am sure the Deputy Leader is well aware of the work that they do her own community. I raised this matter previously in the House through a Commencement matter, namely, the need for a national register of automated external defibrillators, AEDs in this country. At the time, the Minister reported that such a register would be carried out through the out-of-hospital cardiac arrest strategy, which is obviously currently being carried out.
Surprisingly, the Minister for Health, in a follow-up parliamentary question - which is what I stated last time I spoke on this late last year – said that there were no plans to carry out such a register. However, I am glad to report that this has since changed again. The most recent reply through parliamentary questions to my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, and in a Commencement matter here in the Seanad yesterday, confirmed that this much needed register will be back on the table and will be implemented through that particular register.
Of course, there are some wonderful examples of groups throughout the country that have already completed an audit of their community AEDs and their locations. For example, it has been done in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, and in County Laois. I hope the current review will talk to those involved and gather their experiences which have improved a life-saving device in relation to their local communities.
A very important add-on matter that I would like to highlight as well is the urgent need to deal with criminal damage to our community-located AEDs that colleagues have highlighted to me. This is an horrendous piece of criminality. My colleague, Councillor Carrie Smyth, has recently highlighted a number of AEDs that were damaged in her area. The national first responder network has also highlighted a number of other locations throughout the country where life-saving devices have been damaged. We never know when somebody in our community will need that AED. We need to do more to highlight this crime. It is just simply not acceptable.
I also would like to highlight the proposed military exercise by Russian military forces off our coastline. It was highlighted here yesterday and I wish to add my voice to the growing cause to highlight this particular matter. We are all aware of what we can and cannot do about these proposed exercises. I note the concerns last night, again, of our fishing fleet in the southern part of the country, who feel that its livelihood and, indeed, its environmental fishing rights will be directly impacted by these training exercises. I note from the reply from the Russian ambassador that such military moves will be no threat to Ireland. However, that obviously contradicts what our own fishermen are actually saying.
It is incumbent to us as a neutral State to use every avenue open to us to highlight this. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has highlighted this matter with his European counterparts and raised it again with the Russian ambassador. We need to further, more often and consistently. It is simply not good enough that this environment and area, which is within our exclusive economic zone, EEZ, could be damaged by any such exercise. I, again, ask the Deputy Leader and this House to continue this very important matter.
First, I would like to note the reports from the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman’s Department this morning in relation to the recent debate in this Chamber on care and those who have experienced the care system. In addition, I tabled a Commencement matter specifically on the issue that was announced this morning, where the Department and the Minister have launched the largest ever research and data collection project on those who have experienced care, which is a direct suggestion from the Ryan report in 2009.I am glad to see that. I look forward to continuing to support the work of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in making sure that this is life-changing research that fixes a broken system.
Second, Senators may see in their Oireachtas email accounts that I have sent around a survey about conceptions, biases, insights or myths that people may have about those who are in prison or have been in prison. I encourage Senators to fill in the survey. It comes directly from a prisoner, although I do not like describing people as prisoners because it is kind of dehumanising. While I cannot give the details yet, I am working on a creative project in the prison system, in Wheatfield Prison. One of the suggestions for the project came from one of the men there. He said that I cannot really ask the right questions, which was insightful because he is right. He said I did not go into the system with bias or judgment because I am so used to working in these systems and living with people who had experienced prison. He said that for them to really engage in the creative project with me, the prisoners would need to understand the biases people have, whether unconscious or conscious, and the preconceived ideas people might have about people who have gone to prison and what the prison system is actually for.
The survey in Members' inboxes and the questions were written and developed by another man in the prison to gather some ideas. The survey is completely anonymous, so I ask Senators not to answer with a political hat on but to do so on the basis of what they think about people who are in prison and why and for what they might be there. This will form part of a positive piece of work we are doing in the prisons. I will hopefully be able to relay it back to the Chamber in a couple of months. I encourage Members to support the work I am doing.
I raise again the issue of hyperemesis gravidarum, the medical term for a condition that arises during pregnancy whereby women become severely ill. It is a condition that involves severe sickness and vomiting. Famously, the Duchess of Cambridge, if that his her title, suffered from it. There was a huge campaign last year but to date nothing has been done by the HSE. The campaign is to have the drug pyridoxine-doxylamine, more commonly known as Cariban, made available on our drugs payments scheme.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to prioritise this issue and outline what immediate actions he is taking to ensure that women with hyperemesis do not face further financial hardship in accessing the basic HSE-recommended drug. The drug, which currently costs about €45 per week, needs to be taken over the course of the woman's pregnancy. That adds up to a large sum money but the drug is still not available on the scheme.
Women with morning sickness have been treated in a particular way since the 1960s. We are all aware of the scandal around thalidomide, a drug which caused malformations in 10,000 children. We are now forgetting about these women again. Although 1% of pregnant women are affected, we have to do much more. The HSE needs to include this drug on the refund scheme.
With 130 or 140 weeks to go until local elections, a debate is needed on local government and how it will be prioritised in the next two years. There have been huge changes in local government, particularly since 2014. In my area, the abolition of the town councils was a controversial and, in many ways, wrong move. We had six town councils in west Cork, in Kinsale, Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry, all of which played an important role representing the public and serving people at a local level. The town councils were all abandoned in 2014 and there has been a deficit ever since. We need to have a genuine debate about what we want for local government, how we want it to be effective and what powers we want to give to the people. It is appropriate now, with the local elections two years away, to have a debate. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, should come to the House to set out his vision. Town councils should be a part of that vision.
Today, Jennifer Bray of The Irish Timesreported, and the Minister for Health has announced, the so-called independent chair of the review into the State's abortion laws. Ms Bray's article states that all of this is following a tender process. She does not say, and I do not understand why, that it is not the open tender process to which the Minister and his officials committed last December. This is because, as the Minister revealed last week, a small number of people were contacted and invited to express interest in the role of independent chair. I do not know the person who has been appointed and I wish her well. Her name is Ms Marie O'Shea and she has an important job to do now. It is vital to look at this legislation through the lens of how it has impacted on women's welfare but, equally, how it has impacted on the welfare of unborn children from the point of view of cruelty issues and minimising of abortion rates, all of which should remain desirable objectives in any country that would want to call itself civilised. I have to say the opaque nature of the process that led to Ms O'Shea's appointment does not inspire confidence. There is ground be made up here.
In far happier news, I would like to welcome-----
That is understood.
I draw attention to some happier news and welcome the announcement that my home village of Ahascragh is to get a €3 million wastewater upgrade project. This is needed to end the discharge of inadequately treated wastewater into the Bunowen river. It is hard to imagine, but this will stop the equivalent of more than 300 wheelie bins of inadequately treated wastewater from going into the river every day. I am delighted, by the way, that Coffey Water limited, a company with roots in our parish, will be delivering these works on behalf of Irish Water and Galway County Council.
I would like to say again that it is a disgrace in this day and age that any inadequately treated wastewater is being deposited into any river in the country. Ireland has a remarkably low population compared with most countries and our historical population levels. We are a small country, but we have a low population. We are also a rich country. There is no excuse for the despoliation of our environment in this way. I would like more of this and quicker, please.
I agree with Senator Mullen on his final point about wastewater. I concur with his statement on the infrastructure being provided by the Government to upgrade the water system. Long may it continue.
I raise the issue of training centres and apprentices schemes through training centres. I believe there is a backlog in quite a number of these schemes due to the non-availability or a shortage of teachers. While I intend to submit a Commencement matter on this issue, I also ask the Leader to inquire about the numbers of trainees who are waiting to avail of some of these schemes. If she could find out where the backlog is, we could see if we could work on some of these areas. I would appreciate that.
Yesterday, Senators in the mid-west raised their concerns regarding University Hospital Limerick. There are over 100 people on trolleys in the hospital today and the figure is increasing. The CEO and her team have said they are looking at ways of trying to reduce the numbers. Some of the beds cannot be used at the moment because they are being used for isolation for people who still have Covid-19. I note the Leader was to write to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, yesterday to support the three Senators who called for an independent review. However, something needs to be done because more than 100 people are on trolleys.There is also the fact that 25 children were also seen in adult psychiatric services. It is just not acceptable. Those are two issues I would like to raise today, which perhaps the Deputy Leader could bring to the attention of the Minister for Health.
The actual figure of patients without a bed in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, this morning is 111. It was 97 yesterday. I appreciate the Deputy Leader's support for an independent investigation but we need action today. We need the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to act. We have been talking about this for six years and each year it gets worse. Fine Gael has been in power for 11 years and Fianna Fáil, effectively, for six years and still it goes on and gets worse, and still, we wait for intervention. It is not what I wanted to speak about but I needed to make that point.
I spoke this week at the Council of Europe on the European Pact on Migration and Asylum. My party is very concerned about this proposed pact and the impact on human rights. I want to highlight something that has been going on for years that everyone knows about but, unfortunately, that conservative political groups such as the European People's Party and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, have nothing to do with. They do not want to act on it. I refer to the disgraceful arrangement between the European Union and the Libyan coastguard.
I will give Members a couple of quotes from a direct report on the issue of people trapped in those horrific prisons. I will read the most important quotes. The camp is called Al Mabani in Tripoli. The author of the report wrote, "Beatings can be doled out for transgressions as minor as whispering to other migrants, speaking in a native tongue or laughing."
The author went on to recount later speaking to a witness. He wrote:
... a thirty-six-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast, who was held at Al Mabani with her 14-year-old daughter for two months, told me that women were frequently taken from her cell to be raped by the guards. 'The women would come back in tears,' [she said]. One day after two women escaped from Al Mabani, guards grabbed ... [this lady], took her to a nearby office, and beat her for reasons that remain unclear.
This is not news. The European Union knows about this. I call for the disgraceful relationship to be ended. The European people's Party and ALDE are propping it up. How much longer are we going to see migrants beaten, raped and tortured? The European Union not only turns a blind eye but gives financial support to the Libyan coastguard, which is implementing that policy.
We need state-led rescue missions to stop the drownings in the Mediterranean. Instead, what we have are bandits from the Libyan coastguard financed by the European Union. We hear about European Union values. Where are those values? Unlike the European People's Party, when are MEPs from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael going to stand up for people's rights in Europe as opposed to carrying on with this disgraceful silence in the face of the most shameful of human rights abuses?
I ask the Deputy Leader for a debate as a matter of urgency in light of the CAMHS report today on child and adolescent mental health services in counties Cork and Kerry, where 46 children have been diagnosed as suffering "significant harm" while attending the services. It is a damning report on the whole issue of the care of our young people who are in a state of significant vulnerability. The review of the care of more than 1,300 children found there was clear evidence that 46 of them suffered significant harm. That is an extraordinary indictment of a service.
What is even more critical is that the HSE did not brief Members of the Oireachtas prior to the publication of the report but afterwards. That is a separate matter, however. The HSE has a duty of care to our young people. I ask that the Deputy Leader bring in the Minister with responsibility as a matter of urgency. It is important that we get clarity and answers for the children, their parents and families.
I also ask that the Deputy Leader facilitate a debate on the whole area of aviation. I raised this matter last week and do so again this week. It is important given that we have changed our rules around Covid-19 that we have a debate on the future of aviation. It is an important matter because the load factors versus the breakdown in terms of cancellations is quite high and worrying. I ask that this be facilitated as a matter of urgency.
There has been much discussion over the last few days about Ireland's neutrality and the Russian exercise off the south-west coast. I ask somebody to show me an Act of Parliament from this or any government that states that Ireland is a neutral country. Show me in the Constitution where it states that Ireland is a neutral country. Where can we find a reference to Ireland's neutrality anywhere in State legislation? We cannot. We are not a neutral country. We never have been. If we want to talk about neutrality, two things must happen. First, we have to go to the people of this country and enshrine it in our Constitution and, second, we have to fund the Defence Forces and security systems of this country to protect that neutrality. I asked for a debate some time ago on neutrality and I ask for it again. It is time we had it.
The second issue I wish to raise this morning is that of Government and governance. I look at the responsibilities that are laid out for Ministers and no organisation outside of this one would expect anybody to take on the level of responsibility we are asking Ministers to take on. Ministers have multiple portfolios in which they are covering multiple issues, for instance, climate, transport and communications with one Minister and Foreign Affairs and Defence with another.
The responsibilities the Government Chief Whip has are just unbelievable. He is the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media with special responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs and sports and Minister of State at the Department of Defence as well as being Government Chief Whip. How in God's name do we expect one individual to provide the oversight that is required to manage that amount of a portfolio? It is time that we looked at the structure of Government. If that means going back to the people in order to be able to extend the number of junior Ministries we have, then let us do that. Let us stop trying to pretend there is political oversight, however. I would, therefore, like a debate with the Taoiseach on the issue of Government and governance and how we intend to manage the country going forward. We live in a very complex economy now and we need very different responses to what we had when this was all set up.
This morning I want to come back to an issue I raised late last year, specifically burglary and the light sentences being handed down for this horrific crime. Just before Christmas in the area in which I live, that is, the Carnmore-Oranmore-Claregalway area, there were 14 burglaries across ten days. They largely followed a similar pattern. It was obvious that prior surveillance was being carried out on the houses. They were not random burglaries. They were planned and targeted with a number each night.
I have spoken with my neighbours and the people in these communities that have been affected. I can only outline this morning the trauma to people. It is not just material items, money, vouchers or jewellery; it is also the sense of peace and comfort that people feel in their own homes. Victims of this crime then see burglars being handed down sentences of six and nine months. On 6 January - this is a matter of public record - a chap with more than 80 convictions got ten months. It is beyond belief that this is happening. The reality is that the sentences do not fit the crime. The Department of Justice has acknowledged this and I have written to it on a number of occasions. The reality is that it is just not working.
When we look at the statistics I received from the Department of Justice, we see that 75% of the crime in this country is being committed by 25% of the people. Naturally, therefore, if they get longer sentences, the crime is automatically going to reduce. That is the reality. As I said, 75% of the crime is being carried out by 25% of the people. It has gone on for far too long and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to come to the House at her earliest convenience.
Yesterday, the joint policing committee of Dublin City Council heard a report from Detective Inspector Daniel Kelly on human trafficking statistics and actions for 2021. He said that there were 44 victims recorded by the Garda, 28 of whom were female and 16 were male. Some 19 victims were identified as being of labour exploitation and 25 were victims of sexual exploitation. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, was before the Seanad in October. During that debate I raised the need for the public to be able to spot trafficking. We are in a time when there is a lot of platform engagement on services, including cleaning services. There are a lot of services that ordinary members of the public access and they have no idea whether the individual coming into their home, or otherwise, has been trafficked into the country and is obliged to labour for the profit of criminality. At the time, the Minister of State agreed with me that we needed a publicity campaign to educate the public on how to spot trafficking. The Garda was very reassuring that if person comes forward and has been a victim of trafficking, there is a whole suite of supports that come in around him or her. These include contacting immigration that such people are not to be deported, support for them with a stamp 4 permission, accommodation, medical care, education and training supports. There are supports that come in if an individual victim comes forward. It is really important that the members of the public are able to identify this, given that the anecdotal evidence suggests that we come across people who have been trafficked on a daily basis.
I spoke here yesterday on the number of people on trolleys on the hospital in Limerick. It was 97 yesterday and it is 111 today. The call I made yesterday for an immediate independent investigation has been strengthened by the sad news of 111 people on trolleys in Limerick.
January is cervical cancer awareness month. We all know how important the HPV vaccine is. Thankfully, there is a greater culture in this country of taking vaccines as a result of Covid-19. If greater numbers of people are embracing vaccination as an result of Covid-19, that is a good thing. Over the years there has been a certain hesitancy around the HPV vaccine. Good people were hesitant, had concerns and did not allow their children to be vaccinated. Now that they have changed their minds, they are being charged between €400 and €600 for a catch-up vaccination. That is totally unacceptable. I tabled a Commencement matter on this about six months ago. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, following discussions with the Minister for Health, replied to the question by saying that they were going to abolish the catch-up fees. Sadly that has not happened yet. I ask the Leader to contact the Minister of State and the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to establish when there will be a free catch-up programme for those who want to get the HPV vaccine. It is critical. There has been a commitment to it in the House but unfortunately it was not followed up. I ask the Leader to find out when the commitment that was made in this House in good faith will be delivered on.
I wish to raise an issue in respect of passport applications. My office has been inundated with queries on this, particularly where one or both parents are not Irish citizens but their child is, having being born in the State and having been living her for many years. That child is entitled to his or her Irish passport. One set of parents, originally from India, has been waiting since July last year for a passport for their child. It is unacceptable, particularly when we are coming out of Covid and when people are in good spirits and a good mood and want to get away on holidays. Your passport is such an important document. I ask for a debate in the House. I believe all of us will be inundated in the coming months by people whose passport requests are in the system. There are clearly issues that need to be addressed, not only basic renewals and the first-time applications for children but especially those where one or both parents are not originally from Ireland. It seems as though those applications are being put to one side and being ignored. It is not right, fair or equitable. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I raise the question of trust in the HSE as an organisation and in medical procedures and practitioners. What happened with CAMHS in south Kerry was disgraceful. I will not say much about that or the 40 or so families who may bring legal cases. However, I would like a debate from the Minister for Health on how he proposes to ensure that the HSE has proper structures for complaints in order that people be made accountable for their actions. In any job, we should be accountable for wrongs. When there are wrongs of a serious life and death nature, there should be repercussions. We see it in Donegal in the Brandon report. Where are the consequences for deplorable carry-on in our health system, a system that we need to trust and which we go to at our most vulnerable to seek help and care? I speak from a personal point of view. I went for care and was let down at every step along the way. There has to be reform of the entire system in order that all of us can trust in the system when we get an appointment after many long months of waiting and that we can trust in our professions. There is an awful lot of fear among families, parents and us all, that we cannot trust the HSE in some situations. I absolutely acknowledge the great work they do in other areas but there is a lot of fear out there.
I wish to take the opportunity to commend once again the bravery of the Women of Honour group. This is something that will be of interest and concern to the Deputy Leader. Colleagues will have seen the reaction of the Women of Honour after their meeting with the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, this week. They continue to feel let down. It is really important that the Government listens to their concerns and actually acts on what they are calling for. We have heard all the right things being said over recent days and weeks.When it comes to the bit, the Government has the opportunity to stand by these women, to do right by them and to properly investigate the concerns, allegations and awful situations they faced in their time in the Defence Forces.
When we debated the defence Bill in this House before Christmas, the Minister made what I found at the time to be very sincere and robust commitments in terms of acceding to the demands of these women but it is clear, having listened to them, that they do not believe the Minister's review goes far enough. In fact, they are concerned that it has the potential to be a whitewash. These allegations, as acknowledged by the Minister and his colleagues from every party and group, are much too serious to befall a whitewash. We need a full commission of investigation with the power to compel witnesses in terms of the allegations raised by the Women of Honour group. We urgently need a comprehensive and fulsome commission of investigation. We need it to ensure that the culture and the practices that these women are so concerned about within the Defence Forces are changed. I call on the Deputy Leader to invite the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, to come in here and speak to us about the allegations raised by the Women of Honour group, and outline exactly what his Department intends to do. A debate would mean we have the opportunity, across the House, to raise our concerns and views, and the views expressed by the Women of Honour.
When I walked from my office to this Chamber I had to walk past the Dáil Chamber and it is great to see Deputies working side by side. I know that arrangements are under discussion but I think the sooner the Seanad gets back to normal the better. We should set the standard as soon as possible because it does not make sense that we are social distancing here yet a couple of yards down the hallway things are back to normal.
I wish to follow up on what was said by Senator Cummins and to refer to one of the things that is really unfair about the passport system. For first-time applicants it takes 40 days, which is fair enough, particularly as there are many child protection issues. However, if a mistake is made when filling out the form, and it could be a simple and genuine mistake, the application must go straight back to the back of the queue and wait another 40 days. The other day a person came into my office and asked me to sign their passport application form. I was absolutely terrified of signing their form in the wrong place for fear of creating a delay. If we are going to reform the passport system, then we should create an appeals process. We should ensure that when a mistake is made that an application is not sent back to the start of the queue and ensure we avoid delaying a child's first passport by 80 working days.
Finally, I would appreciate if at some stage we could have a debate on the concept of a one-stop-shop for climate action. It is an initiative that will be introduced in the next couple of months in local authorities. It will mean that members of the public can walk into one of these offices and get good up to date advice about climate energy and efficiency savings that they can do in their house, how they can sell energy back to the grid when that is announced, and get information on a whole variety of things like Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants. I would appreciate a debate on that at some stage in the future.
I support Senator McGahon in his call for a debate on a one-stop-shop for climate action and climate control, which is taking in some the local authorities. The initiative will be a great addition and warmly welcomed. A debate on the matter in this House would be very worthwhile.
I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on tourism in the not too distant future. It would be timely to have that debate now as we are at the start of the tourism season. Plus many people seem to be going away on holidays and we should debate ways to attract people to this country to see what we have to offer. We have some of the finest greenways and opportunities to climb mountains in the world. We could at this stage divert some moneys towards different sporting activities like the use of lakes, water skiing and so forth. That is an area we could debate if we had a debate on tourism.