Wednesday, 4 May 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding membership of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding draft Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2022, referral to committee, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1, without debate; and No. 3, Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 - Committee Stage (Resumed), to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to adjourn at 6.45 p.m. if not previously concluded, provided that if a vote is demanded in the Dáil before 6.45 p.m., the debate shall adjourn forthwith.
As the House is well aware, Covid-19 as an infectious disease is reasonably well under control in Ireland and fairly well under control across Europe. There are still some outstanding issues in other countries. As a result, we see our tourism industry beginning to recover and there is no doubt that scheduled flights are very much back on track, with passenger numbers increasing. I am thankful the frequency of flights is starting to recover. This is all really positive for a major dimension of our domestic economy, namely, tourism and the hosting of international tourists.
I will speak, however, to what can only be described as price-gouging and an outrageous approach to pricing that is taking place in the hotel sector, particularly here in Dublin. People had mentioned this to me so I did a small bit of analysis in the office before coming here and the numbers bear this out.
A hotel room for two nights, Friday and Saturday, next weekend comes to over €700 for two people in a four star hotel in this city. I did some comparisons and in Berlin the same stay would cost approximately €300 and in Paris it would be approximately €450. In London it would cost €500 and in Lisbon it would cost €300. In 2019, the average price for a room in Dublin was approximately €150 per night.That would be €300 or €350 at weekends, so during the space of the pandemic, the price has doubled.
I understand the hospitality sector has taken a very significant battering over the period of the pandemic but the hotel sector succeeded and survived with the support of the citizens of the State because, on behalf of the Irish people, the Government invested very significant amounts of money in the sector. The hospitality sector received about €1.6 billion in the employment wage subsidy scheme, which was 29% of all payments. A total of €717 million was provided under the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme while the figure for debt warehousing was €2.9 billion. Not all of that went to the hospitality sector but it certainly contributed to the survival of those businesses. I know these businesses need to recover but they cannot expect to recoup all their losses in the course of a year because that approach will damage our image internationally. As I said, the price of a weekend stay here is nearly twice that of our main competitors across Europe when we take in Berlin, Paris, London and Lisbon. There is something wrong there.
Perhaps the Deputy Leader would arrange a debate on tourism and the obvious threats to our tourism product development. We can thrash it out and, it is hoped, get the views of the Minister as to how we might approach this issue.
I wish to raise an issue relating to NCT centres. Obviously, Covid has had an impact over a long period of time with regard to the NCT certificate, how long it is valid for and extensions. Considering that in some parts of the country, it will be months before a person will get a date for an NCT, how does that affect the validity of a person's certificate is if he or she has an accident? It is an issue because in certain parts of Dublin city, a person will not get a test before the autumn. If his or her NCT is up, what is the legal standing of the person driving the car if he or she has an accident? From what I understand, if someone is pulled over by An Garda Síochána and does not have a valid certificate, he or she could get penalty points. Will the Deputy Leader contact the relevant Minister or the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to provide some clarity on this because it is an issue of concern? It is always the case there is never a problem with insurance until you have an accident and go looking to claim. That is when issues can arise so there could be people who are affected in that regard.
I also request a debate on our capital plan and capital projects. I raised a Commencement Matter issue regarding a very important project for Galway city and county, namely, the new emergency department at University Hospital Galway. Since I spoke on the matter in this House in January, it has gone backwards. Three months on, it is still going backwards. There is no certainty with regard to the delivery of this very important project, not taking into account any of the inflationary pressures regarding the price of the project. This concerns getting consent to lodge a planning application for a project that in 2015 was deemed not to be fit for purpose by the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny when questioned by the current Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, in the Dáil. This project is vital for the region. Saolta University Health Care Group promised that a planning application would be lodged before Christmas 2018 and here we are in 2022, albeit with a changed specification for the project, and we have seen no progress. This is one of a number of projects. For any large project, from when we start talking about it to when the tape is cut on it, we could be talking about seven, eight or ten years. People tend not to believe anymore what is being said about these projects until such time as the diggers actually go in to start construction, and it is a concern of mine regarding the processes in place for our capital projects.
I ask for a debate on capital infrastructure in the country. We could have one specifically on health projects because there are so many of them and they are so vital, but the debate could include all projects.
One issue I will raise is the sow for Ukraine initiative that came out with the packets of seeds one will see available around this place in the coming days and in every SuperValu and Centra in the entire country over the coming days. SuperValu and Centra are sponsors and have bought into the sow for Ukraine sunflower seed initiative. This is an initiative by people, including Ukrainian people. It is a community initiative from Tullow in County Carlow. Some people think Tullow is in County Wicklow but it is actually County Carlow. There are 50 seeds in a pack which costs €5. It is being co-ordinated and all of the funding will go through the official Red Cross. That is very positive. I ask people to spread the word. It is on redcross.ie. It is a very good organisation.
The sunflower has become a symbol of Ukraine and a worldwide symbol for solidarity against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is the Irish sunflower campaign. The seeds are very easy to sow and to grow. The target is to get 500,000 and they have been walking off the shelves in the past 24 hours. I commend the initiative and acknowledge the work of the people in Carlow and those in the Red Cross who have gathered and put the initiative in place. It is a very good and sustainable initiative. The sunflower seeds can be thrown on the ground and birds eat them.
Another issue I will flag is that the mother and baby institutions payment scheme Bill has gone out to public consultation. I commend the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth which seeks written submissions by 1 p.m. on Friday, 6 May 2022. That is very important. I raised this with the Minister earlier today under a Commencement matter. I acknowledge the significant proactive work on what is a very difficult issue for many people.
Part of this institutions payment scheme will set in place an appropriate compensation package and a special medical card. That is very important for accessing supports. The supports are practicable and tangible supports to give to people who have been involved in this very sensitive area. I ask people and Senators to pass on the deadline of 1 p.m. on Friday, 6 May, for submissions on the public consultation. I again thank the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth which is driving and working proactively in this area.
The outcome of tomorrow's election in Northern Ireland is an opportunity to deliver real, seismic change. It is the most important election not just in a generation but in the history of Northern Ireland. It is an opportunity for a new beginning. A few days ago, I attended a funeral in Northern Ireland for the late canon, Fr. Pat McHugh. He was a kind, decent pastoral priest who was full to the brim of compassion and passion. The funeral cortege made the short journey on foot from his home in Killynoogan to Pettigo in the Republic of Ireland. It reminded me in stark terms of how partition caused such havoc, especially around the Border.
Fr. McHugh was a wonderful man and a super English teacher at St. Macartan's College. On one occasion before the Good Friday Agreement, Fr. McHugh had to assert his civil rights when the RUC was around. Thankfully, those days are behind us. The irony was not lost on me that a police officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland helped with traffic duties during the course of the funeral. The officer told me that things are better these days although there is still work to do.He is a close neighbour of the late Fr. Pat McHugh.
We have come a long way since the funeral of our first President, Douglas Hyde. All but one of the Cabinet stayed outside the church for his funeral service. In 2017, Fr. Pat McHugh, as parish priest of Castleblayney, commenced significant renovations to his church. During the course of those renovations over several months, he was welcomed with open arms into the local Church of Ireland. Pat and Reverend Neal Phair were ahead of their time. That is a glimpse of a better Northern Ireland for everyone. Part of the liturgy at the funeral were the words of Luke 10:5, which have a resonance today as we face the election, "Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace be to this house". I hope that when people return to the house at Stormont they bear that in mind and they adopt the peaceful way of mutual respect and tolerance, in fact, not just tolerance, but celebrate the enrichment of diversity. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
She finally got it. I am very glad to hear that. Unfortunately, that is not the experience for hundreds, if not thousands, of other people, but I am certainly glad it is resolved for the Deputy Leader.
There was a very welcome motion on this issue from colleagues in Fine Gael a few weeks ago and a number of commitments were set out by the Government. However, we are not seeing a clear pathway out of this issue so it would be timely for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House to address it. We should have statements on the issues currently facing the Passport Office and, in particular, the issues currently facing its customers. I stress the word "customers", as people are paying for this service and some people are waiting over a year now. It is not a modest cost either to get a passport. I have full admiration for the work the staff are doing there under pressure, but this simply cannot go on. We must do something to address it.
The second issue I wish to raise is one in which the Deputy Leader will have an interest given her former role as chair of the Brexit committee. It is the denial to young people in the North of the ability to apply for the DiscoverEU programme. The DiscoverEU programme gave 35,000 18-year-olds across the European Union a one-month free interrail pass. Unfortunately, 18-year-olds from the Six Counties will not be able to apply for that. It is another stark denial of entitlements as a result of Brexit. This is something I hope to pursue via a Commencement matter, but I also wanted to raise it in the House. I hope the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, will respond practically in terms of assisting young people in the North to avail of what is a very positive and exciting programme.
Finally, like Senator Martin, I am conscious that tomorrow will see the opening of the polls in the election to the Assembly in the North. I will steer clear of making party political points because you will not let me, a Chathaoirligh.
However, I am in a collegiate mood so I will avoid the temptation other than to say that I wish candidates well. We all know it is not easy to go forward in, and to fight, an election campaign. For them and their families it is a very trying, but often very exciting and worthwhile, time to get out and engage with the electorate on the doorsteps. I wish candidates and their families well.
However, I hope following tomorrow's result that the outcome, whatever it is, will be respected and that the parties will return to the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and work positively, collaboratively and respectfully, as Senator Martin very eloquently encouraged them to do, so we can get back to the work of ensuring not only that budgets are delivered and money is put back into people's pockets but also that we can work through institutions such as the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association so we in the Oireachtas can engage with our colleagues in the North for the betterment of everyone across the island.On that note, I have to go North to knock on doors.
I raise the issue of the tenant in situscheme, which I have raised previously in the House. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has given directions to local authorities that they are no longer allowed to buy second-hand properties and have to focus on one-bedroom properties and apartments. While on paper that can seem very laudable, it does have the unintended and very dangerous consequence of people in receipt of social supports through the housing assistance payment, HAP, or the renal accommodation scheme, RAS, and who are living in rented accommodation being evicted from their rental accommodation and the local authority is not able to buy it. This is a particular concern because while it has operated imperfectly, it has still saved many families from homelessness. We know that people coming from the private rental sector, particularly those who are on social supports, where HAP limits have not been revised since 2016, are the number one type of family who are entering homelessness.
We get the figures for homelessness at the end of every month and, last month, 1,238 families entered homelessness, which was 58 more than the previous month. Since the lifting of the eviction ban, we have seen family homelessness increase and come back again. While I understand somewhat the rationale for that direction to local authorities and the limits placed upon it, the Minister should make an exception for tenants in situ. It has operated as an imperfect method of homelessness prevention, especially for families and children, and we do not want to see children entering homelessness and spending their school years living in precarious housing.
I also raise the issue of the very concerning reports we are hearing from the US Supreme Court in regard to overturning Roe v.Wade. I say this in the context of the rowback on abortion rights generally, what is happening in Poland and Texas, and certain state legislatures rowing back on access, for example, Oklahoma and Tennessee, where people from Texas had been going. It is very concerning for women in the US, many of whom are very frightened, in particular low-income women. Having an absolute ban on abortion does not stop abortions but makes them unsafe and ensures low-income people are particularly affected. I send my solidarity in particular to women in the states that will be affected – Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee - and to women in Poland. As we know, the march of progress is not always forward and it does roll back. We always need to be vigilant in making sure reproductive rights are protected worldwide.
Last weekend marked the all-Ireland confined drama finals in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, and it was won by a drama group from Kilmuckridge, County Wexford. I am sure the Cathaoirleach will join me in congratulating the group and the director, Anthony O'Connor, and equally to wish the best of luck to the ten drama groups which, from tomorrow night, are taking part in the RTÉ all-Ireland open drama finals at the Dean Crowe Theatre in Athlone. This is a culmination after festivals have taken place all over the country where tens of thousands of people have gone along to see amateur drama groups put on some of the best performances that will be seen anywhere in the country. People realise because of the pandemic how much we have missed being able to go to the theatre in our local communities and how important that is. It is important we put on the record of this House our thanks to the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland for its organisation of these events and to all those who organised the drama festivals, and that we also wish the very best of luck to those taking part in the all-Ireland finals. We all understand how much we have missed live theatre and it is incredibly important in all our communities. To get it back up and running is an amazing experience. Now that the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has outlined his proposals on the future of higher education funding, I hope we will have a debate. I welcome the commitments. The Minister was quite specific on "Morning Ireland" about some of the amounts of money to be invested. We need to hear more detail in a debate. We had a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, last week but it was before the discussions at Cabinet yesterday. Now that we know there will be a significant capital investment in higher education, it will be important to address the core funding issue. The Minister has said he will consider Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants and the question of the fees themselves. We should have an early debate to obtain clarity on these matters.
Let me continue on the theme of higher education, as raised by my colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne. I wish to mark and acknowledge the occasion yesterday in the south east when the Minister visited the campuses of the new South East Technological University, SETU. The sense of positivity and optimism among the staff and students was palpable. There are many people who have worked for decades and campaigned tirelessly for a university in Waterford and for the south-east region. Thankfully, it came to fruition over the weekend.
At certain times in politics, one has to take a leap. Certainly, that is what has been done with SETU. There are many who sat on the fence throughout the entire process and who continue to do so. If things go in the wrong direction, they will say "I told you so". If they go in the right direction, they will say they always supported the technological university. I now hope that many of the dissenting voices can get on board with the journey we are to undertake in the region, the aim being to create more balanced regional development but also to have educational and research excellence within our regions so the young people of the south east can go to university in their own locality and develop their careers from there. Yesterday was a step change in that regard. All Members of the Oireachtas from the south east will be working with the Minister to ensure resources are put in place so the new university can progress.
I suppose there are many greats in Irish sport but there is none greater than Katie Taylor, and there is no greater achievement than hers last weekend. Our hearty congratulations go to her from this House.
I wish to voice a concern shared by many others. It relates to the decision to use student accommodation to house Ukrainian refugees during the summer months. I understand the difficulties faced by the Government in housing and providing for the people we have taken in, and how it would not sit well to have bedsits empty while there are those in need of them. I understand how this idea came about. However, the obvious concern, which is in the minds of many, relates to what will happen in September. The Minister, Deputy Harris, said the accommodation is to be made available in the short term to allow time for other options to be availed of. If that happens and everything goes without a hitch, it will be wonderful. However, we have never had to look too far in this country to see short-term solutions that have lingered long past their due date. That, of course, is simply not an option here.
The apprehension is that if things do not all go according to plan and long-term accommodation is not found for everyone who needs it, the Government, a university or other body will be put in the position of having to evict refugees from student housing, or students who have paid for their housing will not be able to use it as it is occupied. Either way, the Government may well have to put the Irish people and our resident Ukrainians on a public-opinion collision course. Already we have seen a significant amount of public discourse on the concerted efforts of the Government to house the refugees we have taken in, which contrasts with the apparent lack of a similar effort in addressing the homelessness crisis.The prevailing question is: if the Government can do that for them, why can it not do it for us? A them-and-us mentality is the last thing we need in this situation but I fear that this decision on student accommodation may end up pushing us in the wrong direction. At this stage it is too late to go back on the decision but my warning to the Government is that it had better have a long-term solution ready on time. Otherwise, in five months we could find ourselves in a very sticky situation
I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on the future of the pharmacy sector. Next week the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, will hold its annual general meeting, AGM. I want to take the opportunity on the floor of Seanad Éireann to pay tribute to the outgoing general secretary, Mr. Darragh O'Loughlin, for his professionalism, commitment, advocacy and drive, along with so many others in the IPU. We heard a clarion call from the co-chairman of the IPU, Ms Kathy Maher, last weekend. She said the pharmacy sector was at crisis point regarding the availability of hormone replacement therapy, HRT, medication, for women. There is a gargantuan shortage, particularly of hormone patches. The Minister for Health should come to the House to have a debate on the future of our pharmacy sector. This would be opportune, given that we will have a new general secretary of the IPU next week.
I also want to support Senator Dooley's call for a debate on the hospitality sector and in particular on the rising price of hotel beds, not just in our capital city but across the country. To be fair, when the hospitality sector was in crisis, the Government stepped into the breach with various measures. It is now incredible to see the rising prices for hotel accommodation across the country, including in counties Kerry, Mayo and Cork. This is not just a Dublin issue but is countrywide. I hope we can have that debate in advance of the summer recess.
I join my colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, in calling for a debate on higher education funding, including the announcement today by the Government. In welcoming that funding, I want to pay tribute to my uncle, Mr. Peter Cassells, who produced a report six years ago on the under-funding of third level in this country, which had left it in a perilous state. Since Mr. Cassells produced that report, we have seen an additional €1 billion provided for college education. The Taoiseach has been extremely strong on the need to ensure additional funding was directed to that sphere. While I welcome the additional €370 million in core funding announced today, it is imperative now that the Minister delivers on his statement today to reduce student contribution fees. That is central to the very essence of what we do here. While investing in the system of third level is important, reducing costs to those who need to access it is essential. Cost cannot be a barrier to students accessing third level.
I wish to raise the report published yesterday on women and ovarian cancer. The report found that many women are presenting very late in the day in terms of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Somewhere between 300 and 400 people are coming forward very late. It is quite frightening to read of such high numbers and the fact that the prognosis for these people is unclear.If people are feeling unwell or have any symptoms, they should come forward regardless of the circumstances.
I am known around here for raising the issue of University Hospital Limerick. In the past month, there were 1,500 people on waiting lists for beds there. There is also a fear that, given that people are waiting on beds and are not able to get into hospital, others are falling behind in terms of the diagnosis of serious conditions because so many have had their procedures or appointments cancelled due to the crisis in the hospital. We need to encourage people to come forward if they are not feeling well. That is something we need to support. More resources need to be provided to deal with serious conditions.
We learned last night that the Government has paused approval of the legal arrangements for the new national maternity hospital for two weeks. I welcome that pause. We need to hear the details of the scrutiny that is going to be allowed for in the Dáil and Seanad. We also need to understand that the concerns that will be articulated during that period will be taken into account. In the Ireland of 2022, it is simply unthinkable that a new hospital funded with almost €1 billion of taxpayers' money would involve anything other than full State control.
I looked at the draft constitution and articles of association for the hospital this morning. I am more alarmed than I had been previously with regard to what I understood to be the legal arrangements for the hospital. Despite the best efforts of some, it is not a simple relocation of the hospital from Holles Street to Elm Park. It is not the case that the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, SVHG, has a seat on the board of directors just to look after the plot of land on which the hospital will be situated. It is something much bigger than that. The Minister and SVHG will be the only two members of the new hospital. The SVHG will have 99 shares and the Minister will have one golden share which, to be honest, is framed ambiguously. It is the case that the SVHG will have the power to appoint the chair of the board when the chair rotates once every six years.
The question has to be asked as to why the State is allowing any involvement of a private entity in what was to be a public hospital. We in the Labour Party and other parties have talked about the need for this to be a public hospital on publicly owned land. If we accept for a moment the 299-year lease, I do not know of any other commercial situation in which the owners of a site have such major involvement in the governance and operation of a building. It is simply untenable that the State would put that amount of money into a site and not own the land. There is enough money owed by the Religious Sisters of Charity to the State, through the residential redress scheme following the Ryan report of 2002 to 2009, to ensure the land should be handed over by the SVHG to the State. Money should not be passed over.
Today, the funding the future report was launched. It is crucial. It will involve an investment of €307 million in our third level sector. We have close to 245,000 students in higher education in Ireland, an increase of almost 20% from 200,000 in 2010. It is crucial the investment reduces lecturer-student ratios and is used for infrastructure and facilities. It is also about accessibility. We need to encourage students coming through post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses and further education into higher education.
The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has confirmed that no income contingent student loans will be part of this. This investment from the Exchequer, through the National Training Fund, will involve an annual review of costs because we know the costs for families of sending children to third level. Ireland is high in the OECD rankings. According to a report in 2019, over 50% of 24- to 64-year-olds have a third level qualification. We rank highly in terms of what we are able to achieve, but we need to make sure our third level sector will be fit for purpose in the time ahead.Ireland ranks high in what we can achieve, but we must ensure our third-level sector will be fit for purpose in future.
Changes are being made to student supports, including to those provided through the SUSI programme. These changes will commence in September. All students receiving SUSI supports will get an additional €200. The adjacency qualification distance will also be reduced from 45 km to 30 km and the income thresholds will be increased. For postgraduate students, the income threshold to allow people to benefit from a grant will increase from €30,000 to over €50,000. All these changes will ensure that third-level education is more accessible to more students in Ireland.
I attended the Easter Rising ceremony in Arbour Hill this morning, as did the Cathaoirleach. As a former member of An Chéad Chathlán Coisithe, or An Céad Cath as it is known, in Galway and a former instructor at the brigade depot in Athlone, I compliment the excellent job done by the Defence Forces and by the members of the 7th battalion that provided the guard of honour. It is right and proper that we remember these events. It is right and proper that we remember all events in our history.
On Sunday of this weekend just gone, I attended the commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary, RIC, in London. It was deeply regrettable that this ceremony could not have been held in Ireland. Many thousands of men served in the Royal Irish Constabulary throughout our history. Many of them served with distinction. They were, essentially, policemen doing the work of policemen. Sadly, somehow or other, we managed to wrap the RIC in the shroud of the Black and Tans, which was a very different organisation and whose members are answerable not to us but to God, if there is one. At that ceremony in London, I met many relatives of RIC men who had travelled from all over the world to be there to commemorate, in one case, their father, and, in many cases, their grandfathers.
In this Decade of Centenaries celebrations, it is sad we could not have facilitated that commemoration in this country. I record that I remembered that many of the people being commemorated were policemen. Not all of them were decent guys, but the majority were policemen who did the job policemen do. I am glad I had an opportunity to remember those men last Sunday. We must look into our souls. If we want true reconciliation on this island, we must be able to extend the hand of friendship to our former foes.
I raise the concerning story that broke overnight about what appears to be the illegal retention of data by the Department of Social Protection. The report published by the Journal.ie today of an investigation carried out by Noteworthy.ie came on foot of a complaint made by Mr. Martin McMahon. It appears data on journeys undertaken by holders of free travel passes were held by the Department of Social Protection until 2020, when an order was given for the complete deletion of the database. This raises serious questions for the Department of Social Protection, because it appears that the journey data on the integrated ticketing system could be linked back to the personal details of free travel pass holders. On reviewing the evidence in the public domain so far, a data protection expert said he believed the type of monitoring and surveillance that was being carried out represented "a profound interference in the privacy and data protection rights and freedoms" of those free travel pass holders.
It also seems the whole process was carried out because there was a suspicion that free travel passes were being abused. However, the data showed 0.0004% of free travel journeys were fraudulent. When we look at the timing of this mass surveillance of free travel pass holders, what is most striking is that it came not long after the now Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, launched his "Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” campaign. That campaign was roundly and rightly criticised at the time and it was called a hate campaign by one former social welfare worker. In that case as well, the level of fraud found was as similarly minuscule as the level found in this instance concerning the free travel passes. Now that we know the Data Protection Commissioner is carrying out an investigation of the database that was held by the Department of Social Protection, we should hear from the Minister regarding who ordered this mass surveillance, on what legal basis it was carried out, who ordered the deletion of the database and how much public money was spent on setting up such a database.
Over the past couple of weeks, while we were all in recess, the numbers on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick increased to new record levels. I am becoming a broken record at this stage to come into this Chamber to speak on this issue because every month the figures seem to get higher and higher. We have been told by the Minister for Health that HIQA will carry out an investigation and inquiry into this. Yet, HIQA itself believes that it has no further role. I have been calling for an independent inquiry into the situation at Limerick hospital for many months at this stage and I welcome the fact that there is now going to be such an inquiry. We do not know the detail of this, who the person or persons who have been tasked with doing this are, what their background or qualifications are, whether they are from abroad or from Ireland, how independent they will be, what the terms of reference are, and what the timeline is. We do not need solutions to this problem in six or 12 months; we need them very quickly in weeks rather than in months. What is the timeline for this inquiry and, most importantly, will the recommendations be published and implemented. I ask for a debate with the Minister for Health in this House on emergency departments in general and, most specifically, on Limerick's at the earliest possible convenience.
It is not that long ago that Senators Ahern, Maria Byrne and myself tabled a tripartite Commencement debate on this issue and the response we received was not what we should have got. We need statements now on emergency departments, specifically on the University Hospital Limerick group.
Finally, I welcome the investment announced by the Minister, Deputy Harris, this morning in third level education. Third level education in this country had been underfunded for a long time and while this is not going to make up for the shortfall, I believe it is a very genuine first step in the right direction and I hope that this funding will reflect equality of access to third level for minority groups and for people with disabilities.
I support the request for a debate on data protection and retention by the Department of Social Protection. These are issues that I highlighted throughout the previous Oireachtas. In addition to the concerns on travel, there are also the concerns on many of the actions and findings of the Data Protection Commissioner, which are no longer contested by the Department but which have still not been carried out, on the improper retention of information and documents. I would also like those to be part of the debate.
I also second the calls for a debate on higher education. It is important that we look to the detail here, including, for example, the issue of public-public research as distinct from public-private research as well as the important core issues of access for students and fair play and decent conditions for those who work in our higher education institutions.
I also ask that we might have a debate on Lyme disease, or that it might be incorporated into another debate. This is an issue that has been highlighted to me and I know so many wonderful people whose lives have been unnecessarily and unavoidably curtailed by the fact that the State still fails to have proper preventative recognition or diagnostic actions in respect of Lyme disease. It is very regrettable that so much has been lost to so many people and to us collectively by the State’s failure in that regard.
Finally, and this is a fundamental point, I welcome the right decision of the Government to delay its decision on the national maternity hospital for two weeks. I look forward to the opportunity for this House and the other House to scrutinise this issue in some detail. This is something that we cannot afford to get wrong and that we will pass on for the next 100 years. There is sometimes the idea that with some costs, we must move on and get it over with. My core concern is that, for no real reason and avoidably, we may decide that instead of having a public national maternity hospital, we will have a national maternity hospital run by a private entity, be that a voluntary trust of whatever kind, in which the State has to negotiate on an ongoing basis for decades ahead on crucial matters, even though the State pays for the hospital, both its building and its running.That is not acceptable and does not make sense. We are not in the Ireland of 1922, a new State which relied on partners. We are not even in the Ireland of 2016 and the Mulvey report. The delays to the project have been from those the State is negotiating with, who waited many years for permission from the Vatican on leasing. If the State cannot get clear language on clinical procedures, why should we make ourselves vulnerable to future negotiations on an ongoing basis, especially looking at Roe v. Wade and at the context wherein we need to move forward and not create hostages to fortune? The State needs to evolve and a new proposal must be part of that.
I rise to discuss Lyme disease. I give my full support to the people who have spent a number of hours outside the gates of Leinster House today.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial infection carried by a tick, as we all know, and has quickly become one of the most common diseases in Europe. It is beyond time that Ireland recognises the dangers of that disease. When we were young and growing up, if one's mother or father saw one getting a tick, there was panic and pandemonium to get this out of one's system and not pick up such. We have an attitude now that this does not matter but it is becoming a massive problem. If we do not deal with it now, in years to come we will regret that we did not move in time.
I know people in my area, including one lady who is so sick she could not come here. That young lady has asked me to come and make the case. That is why I went outside the gates like many others today. When one engages with those people, one sees all the symptoms like muscle pains and dizziness. Sleep disturbance, depression, panic attacks and so many things are linked to Lyme disease. We should take it seriously. One can know from talking to people at the gate how badly they have been affected by it. I fully endorse the calls for a debate. That is the way to go. Let us have a good debate about it and see if we can raise this higher on the agenda because we need to do that.
On the national maternity hospital, I have listened to Professor Higgins and Dr. Rhona O'Mahony today. People are saying to me today: "For God's sake, will we move on on this?" I accept there are concerns but if one leases a piece of land for 298 years in a legal agreement, then one owns it for that period. Most people say they are happy with what is there and we should move on with the project. I hope we do.
I ask the Deputy Leader to liaise with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and see if, with the Cathaoirleach's help, he will come to the House for a debate on e-scooters. I know legislation is being proposed and in draft but it has to be addressed sooner rather than later. As we all know, it can take a long time for legislation to get through this House. They could be dealt with under existing guidelines, at least some of the parts affecting everyday life at present. Anyone who goes anywhere in any village, town or city in Ireland cannot go 20 yds without coming in contact with an electric scooter.
I am all for them but regulation is needed and there is little guidance or regulation, apart from the age one has to be to have one on the road. There needs to be more enforcement of existing guidelines. I have no doubt that can be done through the Minister and the Department. I ask that we bring the Minister in to have a discussion and tease this issue out in the Upper House.
I thank all the Members who contributed to the Order of Business, which was kicked off by Senator Dooley who raised the tourism sector, in particular hospitality and the rising cost of hotel accommodation, especially in the capital city. He gave examples of how Dublin compares with other capital cities, such as London, Lisbon and Berlin. From the figures stated by the Senator, we seem to be far more expensive than those other capital cities. He has requested a debate on this and was supported by Senator Buttimer.
Senator Kyne spoke about the long delays being experienced in some NCT centres. He has asked for intervention by the Minister and the RSA. I suggest the Senator table a Commencement matter as the issue is quite specific. If that does not yield results, we can look to do something further on it. The Senator also requested a debate on the capital plan and capital projects for the country. We are seeking this debate with the Minister prior to the summer recess. I hope to have information on this for Senators in the next while.
Senator Boyhan spoke this morning about the Sow for Ukraine campaign, whereby people purchase sunflower seeds at a cost of €5. The proceeds will go towards helping Ukrainian refugees. The seeds can be purchased through the Red Cross and Senator Boyhan urged Senators to get involved in the initiative. He also drew our attention to the public consultation under way on the mother and baby homes redress scheme and the fact that written submissions are being accepted until Friday, 6 May at 1 p.m. I thank the Senator for that.
Senator Martin spoke about the Northern Ireland elections. He made a very impassioned contribution about the change that is afoot. He urged all stakeholders to adopt a peaceful way of dealing with the potential outcome.
Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke, as he has on many occasions, about the backlog in the Passport Office. He has requested statements with the Minister. We will try to get this organised. He said some families are experiencing delays of a year or more for passports for babies. My experience is that generally it is three to four months unless something is not correct with the application. If this happens people can be put back to the end of the queue and it can be quite lengthy. A wait of three or four months is still far too long. The Senator also spoke about the DiscoverEU programme and students in Northern Ireland not being permitted to apply for the one-month free interrail pass. He also spoke about the Northern Ireland elections in which he has canvassed and he will be there tomorrow.
Senator Moynihan spoke about the tenant in situscheme and the direction to local authorities not to buy these properties and to work instead to purchase one-bedroom apartments. I note the Senator's concerns. There is another side to this, which is that we do not want local authorities competing with other buyers who are trying to purchase properties. It is a difficult balance to strike. The Minister is attempting to strike the right balance. I take on board the Senator's concerns about families entering into homelessness. Perhaps this could be prevented where there is some degree of flexibility in the local authorities. Senator Moynihan also spoke about the rowback in the United States in Roe v.Wade and the worrying developments in Texas and other states where hard-won rights to access termination are being taken away from women. We send our support to the people there. She also referred to the ongoing issues in Poland of which we are all very aware.
Senator Malcolm Byrne congratulated Kilmuckridge Drama Group on its win in Donegal and he wished them well. He drew our attention to the great work being done by the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland in promoting amateur dramatics. We have missed amateur dramatics in the past couple of years and it is great to see people back performing and doing what they do best. The Senator also requested a debate on higher education funding. We had a debate on this fairly recently but there have been new developments. We will certainly request that the Minister, Deputy Harris, come before the House. This request was supported by Senators Cassells, Dolan and Higgins who have also sought a debate. We will try to get that organised at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Cummins spoke about the technological university in the south. He said it was a fantastic development for the region and wished the university well in its work.
Senator Keogan sent her congratulations to the undisputed boxing champion Katie Taylor. I am sure we all join her in wishing Katie well. She has done a phenomenal service to the sport of boxing and to girls and women in boxing. Her achievements will be hard to beat by subsequent women coming through. She has done fantastic work. Senator Keogan also spoke about the use of student accommodation for Ukrainian refugees and raised concerns about what will happen in September. The Minister had said it is a short-term solution. We need to ensure we have accommodation for students. We will have to wait and hope we can find more permanent solutions for those fleeing the war.That it is probably a good use of that accommodation. It would be wrong to leave it empty when we have so many people looking for somewhere to stay as they flee the war and they need our support. I take on board the concerns expressed about students for September onwards.
Senator Buttimer spoke about the pharmacy sector and asked for a debate on the future of the pharmacy sector. He also referenced the ongoing HRT issues and the shortage that is being experienced by many women across the country. It is an ongoing issue. We have been told that there is a global shortage and that supply will increase in June or July. The Government, pharmacies, the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies could do more to meet the demand at a quicker pace. The Senator supported the call for a debate on the hospitality sector.
Senator Cassells referred to the announcement this morning of funding for higher education and referenced the report that his uncle, Mr. Peter Cassells, published six years ago that has yet to be properly acted upon. That work is under way and we look forward to debating the matter with the Minister in this House in the coming weeks.
Senator Maria Byrne spoke about a recent report on women presenting with ovarian cancer and gave the stark number that between 300 and 400 women have come forward. She spoke about her concerns, as she has often done in this House, about University Hospital Limerick and the huge number of sick people on trolleys. I know that there is a particular acute issue in that hospital. She is concerned that people may have their diagnosis delayed because they have been unable to access services as quickly as they should do. The Minister for Health has appointed a special committee to look at the situation in UHL and we hope the situation is resolved shortly.
Senator Sherlock spoke about the new national maternity hospital. She welcomed that the approval by Cabinet to proceed with building has been paused, as does Senator Higgins. From the Government's perspective, we have spent almost ten years looking to get this hospital built. The project was signed off by the previous Government. Significant changes have been made. It was a 150-year lease but the duration has now been doubled to a 299-year lease, which is a long time to lease land. The building will be owned by the State and the HSE. A service level agreement will be given to St. Vincent's Hospital and the National Maternity Hospital to run the services. We are assured that all legally permissible services that are currently available, and legislated for, will be provided at the new maternity hospital as is currently provided in the existing maternity hospital. However, I am very persuaded by the very strong arguments that have been made by so many senior clinicians like Dr. Rhona O'Mahony, Professor Shane Higgins, who is the current master of the National Maternity Hospital, and over 50 clinicians who work in the maternity hospital. There is a strong clinical argument, which I say as a layperson, that co-location is best for women and girls. I find it really concerning that women who are very seriously and critically ill in the National Maternity Hospital must be put in the back of an ambulance to be transferred to St. Vincent's Hospital and St. James's Hospital because the National Maternity Hospital does not have an ICU and there is no critical care capacity in the current maternity hospital. That issue needs to be addressed.
I hear the concerns that have been raised but very few alternative proposals to resolve these issues have been put forward by those who have expressed concerns. I plead with them to do so. Clinicians who work on a day-to-day basis in obstetrics and gynaecology in the maternity hospital have expressed their concerns. I can see from their contributions on different programmes that they are deeply frustrated at the ongoing delays. These are the doctors who deliver care so I trust and I am reassured by what they have told us. I welcome the publication of the legal framework for all of us to scrutinise as parliamentarians, which is our role, and the Minister for Health will engage with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health. It is positive to have that space to do that out of respect for the genuine concerns expressed by genuine people, which have been raised. My sincere hope is that the project gets under way without further delay because the prospect of waiting another decade is simply not good enough.
Senator Dolan spoke about the investment in higher education and the significant investment of €307 million. We will arrange a debate as quickly as we can.
Senator Craughwell spoke about his attendance at the RIC commemoration in London. He expressed his disappointed that a similar commemoration could not be held here and I take on board his comments. The backlash in this country was because the Black and Tans were part of the RIC. So there is a genuine link between them and that anger was very real.
Senator Boylan mentioned the illegal retention of data by the Department of Social Protection. I do not have the full details about the issue. I suggest that she tables a Commencement matter to start with and if that is not sufficient then we will look to get a debate scheduled with the Minister in attendance. The Senator has the support of Senator Higgins to delve further into the issue.
Senator Conway spoke about University Hospital Limerick and the number of people on trolleys. He asked for a wider debate on emergency departments across the country.He has welcomed the third level funding as well.
I think I have dealt with Senator Higgins's main concerns about the maternity hospital. She has also requested a debate on Lyme disease, as has Senator Murphy. We will try to get that organised.
Senator Davitt asked for a debate on e-scooters with the Minister for Transport. Might I suggest to the Senator a Commencement matter to start? Then, if we need a wider debate, we can schedule that through the Leader's office.