Wednesday, 18 May 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 1 p.m. and to adjourn at 5 p.m. if not previously concluded; and No. 2, Private Members' business, Quality in Public Procurement (Contract Preparation and Award Criteria) Bill 2021 – Order for Committee Stage and Committee Stage, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. and to adjourn after two hours if not previously concluded.
I will raise three issues. I welcome the three-year strategy on research and development announced this morning by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. It is a comprehensive document. It places greater emphasis on interdisciplinarity in research and refers to how we need to learn from the experience of Covid-19. The Minister is also committed to introducing underpinning legislation to strengthen our research capability. Given the enormous changes we will see in technology and some of the challenges we will be facing with climate change in the next decade, it is important that not only are we prepared for these developments but also that Irish research endeavours are able to contribute collaboratively to shaping some of these changes. Therefore, I ask that we have a debate on the research strategy and the importance of research in this country.
The Deputy Leader will be aware that much mention has been made in the news of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, IABA. The Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Chambers, has indicated he will look at potentially withholding funding if action is not taken in the IABA to resolve some of its current difficulties. When we listen to former coaches and, more importantly, for me, some of the people involved in boxing on the ground talking about how dysfunctional this organisation is, it becomes clear something is wrong. When John Treacy appeared before the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, I asked him if he thought this was a case similar to what happened with the FAI in the context of some of its past problems. He said he did not think it was. Frankly, based on the stories now emerging, this situation may be worse than what was going on in the FAI. Our only interest should be focused on being able to support young boxers and boxing clubs around the country. It is time for an independent person to be appointed to examine the IABA and the sport of boxing. It is too important a sport to this country to allow this issue to continue to be unresolved. I ask the Deputy Leader to raise this issue with the Minister.
The Deputy Leader will also be aware that Finland and Sweden this week submitted their applications to join NATO. It is not something I am suggesting Ireland should do, although I have said here that we should co-operate more closely with the non-aligned EU member states, such as Finland, Sweden and Austria. This development puts Ireland in a very different position.
The Deputy Leader will also be aware that I have regularly raised, as she indeed has herself, the question of food and energy security, as well as that of cybersecurity. We are not taking these issues sufficiently seriously. Considering the decisions made by Finland and Sweden, we must have a significant debate around Ireland’s future defence capabilities. I ask that such a debate be arranged urgently.
The first phase of the redevelopment of Kickham Barracks in Clonmel is under way, in conjunction with the building of a sports hub just outside the town. This involves funding received in the context of the urban regeneration development fund and allocated by the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government several years ago. It is an exciting and significant project for Clonmel.
Last year, however, a second phase application was submitted by the county council, involving an ambitious proposal for a further €50 million development of Kickham Barracks and the rejuvenation of the town centre in Clonmel. The main thrust of the application was to move the premises of what was previously the Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, and which is now part of the Technological University of the Shannon, TUS, from outside the town into Kickham Barracks and to transform that old Army facility into an educational centre.It was to a be a real hub for the town, creating a new atmosphere and new town centre, essentially. Unfortunately, we heard that the application was unsuccessful before Christmas. A new application will be submitted when the call goes out from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, probably next month.
When the application was unsuccessful, many Opposition politicians, local politicians in Clonmel and national politicians were critical of the decision and gave up all hope. Some even criticised the council itself for the application that was submitted, saying it was being too ambitious. That is an outrageous accusation, in my view. We can never be too ambitious for Clonmel and in respect of what we can do for the region. On the back of that disappointment, in fairness to the Government, the Taoiseach has been down to visit Clonmel. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been in contact constantly about what needs to be done. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has also visited the town, seeking to establish what his Department can do. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke and the Minister for Defence have also both visited the area. They have all visited. None of the people who criticised the project were there when they visited.
The reason I say that is because, at the time the application was made, one of the requests from the Minister and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage was that the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science would provide more funding because the project was for an educational complex. It requested that the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science put up some money to justify the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage supporting the rest of it. I ask that we get a decision from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Perhaps the Senator, in her capacity as Deputy Leader, could write to the Minister in support the application. I know the Minister of State has submitted a similar application for a project in Mullingar.
If we can get funding from the office of the Minister of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, it will reduce the amount of funding we need from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and increase the possibility of the application being successful. The Minister has around €200 million left to use from the urban regeneration and development fund. There will be many applications being submitted looking for support. If we can reduce the cost, we have a better chance of getting the funding, but we need the support from the Minister of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science's Department. He has been very positive about it. He was very positive when he visited Clonmel. It is a key decision if we are going to be successful in the application for funding and the redevelopment of Clonmel.
I propose an amendment to the Order to Business, that No. 18, Planning and Development (Built Heritage Protection) Bill 2022 - First Stage, which is being introduced on behalf of my friend and good colleague, Senator Norris, be taken before No. 1. I understand my colleague Senator Keogan will be seconding it.
Today, I ask for a debate on the 2021 annual report of the Ombudsman for Children. Yesterday the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, talked about how his office was frustrated by the lack of places available for children with special educational needs. It was one of the key takes from the report. The ombudsman stated he was concerned the best interests of children are still not put at the centre of decision-making, but instead many choices about children are being made based on available budgets and funds. I understand where he is coming from and I understand the constraints of Government. However, we have to be ambitious. We must put the child at the centre of all Government policies. When the ombudsman voices his concerns, we really have to be concerned. I took the time to look at the 2021 annual report, which was launched yesterday. In the report, key issues such as education, health, homelessness, local authorities, justice, finance, social protection, welfare, family supports for children and care and protection for children are highlighted. Interestingly, I did not find much in the report about housing, so I took the time to do a word search. I was somewhat surprised how little mention there was of housing. However, there was mention of homelessness, which was interesting. I also want to share the ombudsman's positive commentary on the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022, which we will be discussing later. I think that when an advocate for children, such as the ombudsman, talks about an issue like that, we should sit up and listen.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Children is required under statute and law made in these Houses to submit to the Oireachtas a comprehensive annual report on the performance of its functions. Therefore, I call on the Deputy Leader to arrange for a debate, in line with the provisions in legislation that the ombudsman lays his report before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is timely. It is not good enough to have a report sitting in our libraries gathering dust. When Deputies and Senators passed legislation relevant to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, it was clearly envisaged we would review these annual reports and their recommendations. It would be helpful if we could have a debate on the report, time permitting, focusing specifically on the ombudsman's recommendations and the current annual report that was launched yesterday.
I reiterate my support for the programme for Government commitment to ban so-called conversion therapies. The commitment followed legislation in the Seanad that I proposed in 2018. The Bill remains on the Order Paper today. Yesterday, at the Museum of Literature Ireland on St. Stephen's Green, LGBT Ireland launched a campaign to ban conversion practices. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, who was there, reiterated his commitment that conversion practices would be banned within this mandate. The Minister has said Government research will be published by the end of the summer.
All of this is taking place while the British Government is taking a very different approach in excluding our trans bothers and sisters from the ban. I know Ireland will do better. No lesbian, gay or bisexual person needs to be cured. Certainly, no trans person needs to be cured either. Indeed, members of the trans community in Britain are twice as likely to be offered conversion therapy to change or repress their gender identity. What we are saying is there should be no predetermined outcomes in therapy. No person needs to be cured. The open expression of identity issues or sexual orientation should happen with no predetermined outcomes.
I very much hope this time next year we will be looking at passing legislation, whether it is Government legislation or my own Bill, that will ban these practices. I have a few amendments I wish to make to my own Bill in time, including an amendment I have drafted that will allow for a civil remedy for any person who has suffered harm or loss as a result of conversion practices. At some point, I would also like to amend the Title of my Bill, to change the word "therapies" to "practices".
I have just come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, where we had in representatives of Family Carers Ireland. We also heard heartbreaking and powerful testimonies from three families. I want to put on record the name of the three carers and those for whom they are caring. I thank Mr. Damien Douglas, Ms Niamh Ryan and Ms Anna Budayova, and indeed their children, Una, Ailis, Liam and Esther, for their powerful contributions to the committee meeting today. We all know what carers do for us. It is estimated they save this State up to €20 billion per year in costs. One of the issues we discussed today was the means test. There is a growing call for the means test to be disregarded. I support that call. We need to debate the issue. We need to bring the Minister back to the House to speak about what carers do for us in this country, and to talk about getting rid of the means test once and for all.
I also want to raise again the issue of housing adaptation grants. It was discussed at length at the committee meeting today. Unfortunately, the current limit on housing adaptation grants is €30,000. I have cited previously in the House the example of a family with whom I am dealing. The cheapest quote they could get for essential work for a loved one coming out of Dún Laoghaire hospital was €70,000. They are still seeking the adaptation to be carried out. They are still seeking that difference in funding to create a loving home space. In fairness to them, they want to take their loved one home. We need to review the housing adaptation grants. We also need to provide social housing adaptation grants. I am aware there is a two-and-a-half-year waiting list in my own county for social housing adaptation grants. I know of six families who are currently waiting for extensions to be completed on their houses to enable them to care for loved ones.It is simply not good enough and money needs to be provided urgently for those families.
I also want to raise an issue raised by Family Carers Ireland. Many of those families have to fundraise for the difference between the €30,000 and the €70,000 in the case I have just raised. However, as was mentioned this morning by Family Carers Ireland, that funding is now considered as part of the means test. The GoFundMe page that is set up to ensure someone's loved one can come home and stay with them is now included in the means test and many of those people are now being thrown out of the carer’s allowance, for want of a better description. This is simply not good enough. The Oireachtas needs to change this urgently. It is a new phenomenon that GoFundMe pages have to be set up to get the additional money but, unfortunately, it is causing severe problems for those who are entitled to and getting carer’s allowance.
I welcome the justice committee's pre-legislative scrutiny report yesterday in regard to gambling, which is something the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator Cassells and I have long campaigned for in this House. We all hope the Bill that was promised comes quickly to this House and the Lower House and we can get some legislation on the books as quickly as possible.
Last night, I attended the Irish sports awards, where we were told how sport is worth €3.3 billion to the Irish economy annually. However, this morning, we learned how sport is actually invaluable. Those of us listening to RTÉ radio sport on “Morning Ireland” earlier will have learned of the world record-breaking exploits of an Irish man, and more importantly a Navan man, Keith Russell, who was competing in the gruelling Race of Champions Backyard Masters in Germany. This race began last Saturday and runners had to cover 6.7 km every single hour since last Saturday. Keith had competed last year and ran 63 laps but, by last night, he and his opponent from Germany, when there were only the two of them left in the race, had both broken the world record of 85 laps as they set into a fourth night of running. In the early hours of this morning, while we were in bed, his race came to an end at 89 laps after covering 597 km in a time of 66 hours, 14 minutes and 22 seconds. This is an epic event and it is by invitation only. Keith had smashed the Irish record in County Down last June and had been invited to this world championships.
I know Keith personally. He started running only in 2016 for his daughter Alanna, who had cerebral palsy, and he ran the 2017 Dublin marathon pushing Alanna in her special running chair. Sadly, Alanna has passed since then but Keith has maintained his dedication to her memory and to fundraising for children like Alanna as well. He described himself to RTÉ last year as just a runner, just an average person. I think he is far from average. Ireland, and more importantly Navan, is very proud of Keith.
That is good news for a change and it is nice to sometimes have good news. The announcement this morning that Ryanair is taking a lease of a hangar at Shannon for aircraft maintenance, creating between 150 and 200 jobs with an investment of €10 million, is welcome news. We all know how successful Ryanair is and it is a company that is sustainable into the future. It is Irish-based and to have it bringing this business to the west and to Shannon is very good news and very welcome, especially given what we have been through over the last couple of years.
Medical scientists are on strike today and I think they have a case. I am calling on the Minister to engage with them. He and his officials need to recognise the very valuable work the medical scientists have done in the last two years. They dealt with the testing and tracing and with ensuring that we had the infrastructure to react to the pandemic, yet they find they are out on strike. We had an engagement this morning in the health committee with Paul Reid and, in fairness, he recognises the good work they have done. However, at this stage, I believe ministerial intervention is needed. We need to nip this in the bud. We cannot have a situation where medical scientists are going to be out on strike again next week and into the future. A resolution has to be found anyway, so let us find one.
I would like the Minister for Education to deal with the issue of the leaving certificate results date. Students are under enough pressure and this is not fair or acceptable. We had the whole debacle of what type of leaving certificate it was going to be in recent months, and we now have this stress on top of it. Clarity needs to be brought to that issue as a matter of urgency and I call on the Minister to deal with it.
I would like the House to look at the citizens information centres and how we might go about ensuring the continuation of these vital service providers. There are a number of these centres around the country offering a diverse range of services to anyone who is in need of them - tax and money services, free legal advice, immigration assistance and Workplace Relations Commission issues. The importance of these centres cannot be overstated yet many fear they are going the same way as the humble post office, with people thinking that if they do not use it, it cannot be that important. In the same way, however, not everyone orders online from Amazon or Etsy, and not everyone has the capability to join a Zoom conference or do DIY research on tax or immigration law. That is why these services exist - to help those people who have no recourse to alternative measures.
It would be appear the Citizens Information Board, the statutory body under the remit of the Department of Social Protection, is implementing a switch, becoming mainly a telephone and website service and failing in the delivery of the traditional face-to-face consultations which have served the people of Ireland very well. The centre in Rathmines was one of the busiest in Dublin, serving Dublin 2, 4 and 6, and anyone could call into it. That centre closed on 22 April and will not be replaced. The paid staff were told of its closure only a week before it closed. Closures also happened recently in Enniscorthy and Wicklow town, and I am told the Crumlin centre is similarly under threat. Buildings used for these centres are seeing their leases run out, with no attempt at renewal and no effort to find alternative premises.
If this trend continues, the service of face-to-face meetings with experienced people in the user's locality will effectively end. This would be especially hard for rural dwellers with limited broadband and limited public transport. I do not need to remind the House there are 500,000 people in this country who can neither read nor write. For that reason, we would do well to invite the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to the House to see what we can do to ensure future access to the services.
This morning, I met with Liam Grimes and Derek Reilly from Nevo.ieto have a discussion about our electric vehicle industry, the charging network and some of the opportunities and challenges the industry faces over the next couple of years. There are two key points that I thought valuable and we should have a discussion about them at some stage in the future.
One of them was a point I had raised previously, which is that anyone who does not have access to a private driveway cannot avail of an electrical vehicle charging point, so anyone in a terraced house on a street cannot get one. There are a number of ways around this but one of the key ones is to have dedicated charging points on streetscapes where there are 20 to 30 fast chargers operating over 30 minutes. We need to start the process now of local authorities identifying those areas within the urban setting where these fast-charging hubs can go, so people on streets who do not have connections to private driveways can go along, charge the car for 30 minutes, get a full charge and drive away. It is important that, at local authority level, we start to identify those areas now.
There is another issue that many people come across and as we move towards the mass adoption of electric vehicles, this will become more and more common. When people get a charger installed in their home, they then realise that because of the age of their house, rewiring of the house needs to take place to accommodate an electric vehicle charging point, and that rewiring can cost anywhere between €2,000 and €4,000.We should look at some sort of a subsidy, perhaps within the retrofit programme, specifically for the rewiring of a home in which someone wants to put in an electric charging point for an electric vehicle. It would remove another impediment to electric vehicles and would be very useful. They are two parts of the overall debate about electric vehicles that will be important to facilitate a mass shift from diesel and petrol to electric vehicles. A debate on that at some stage in the future would be very useful.
I rise today to discuss the criteria for qualifying for the long-term illness card. A number of families across Galway city and county have raised this issue with me. As we are aware, the diseases and disabilities covered by the scheme include epilepsy, diabetes, spina bifida and a number of others.
I wish to raise the fact that Crohn's disease is not covered by the long-term illness scheme. That is a huge issue, about which a number of families have made representations to me. As most Members will be aware, it is a very sickening and difficult disease of the bowel that can lead to colon and bowel cancer. It puts huge stress on families due to medical costs because it is not covered by the scheme.
I acknowledge and welcome the recent reduction in the maximum payment rate in the drugs payment scheme, from €120 to €80 per month, which is a help, but for an awful lot of families it is a substantial amount of money. Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Health to come before the House to explain why a sickening disease such as Crohn's disease is not part of the criteria for qualifying for the illness card? Hopefully, we can come to a resolution and have Crohn's disease included in the scheme. That would assist many families throughout Galway county and city.
I once again despair for the families of victims who are dealing with the news that legislation has been introduced in Westminster that will affect their cases, without any consultation with them whatsoever. We are living with the consequences of Boris Johnson and the British Government's policy in relation to the island of Ireland, the hallmark of which has been unilateralism and brinkmanship rather than prioritising partnership and reconciliation. Nowhere is this more stark than in the case of legacy.
If the British Government is so confident that this legislation will now deliver for families, why did it not consult with them on it? For years, the families of victims have been told the system does not work, but suddenly an approach is promised involving robust and independent investigations into killings. We suddenly find that unprecedented access to the UK documents record will be opened, promising an in-depth examination of UK Government policy towards Northern Ireland during the conflict. Why are these only in the gift of the British Government now? Why is access coming with strings attached? More importantly, why has there been no consultation with families of the victims? They have already given so much, including provisions in the Good Friday Agreement that saw the release of prisoners and a cap of two years for future prosecutions.
Instead of comprehensive legacy proposals for victims, yesterday we saw yet more concessions for perpetrators, for whom immunity will be given to those judged to have co-operated by a panel appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is just not right, and victims tell me today that they feel betrayed.
We have always said that all families, regardless of the perpetrator, must have access to an effective investigation and a process of justice. It looks like inquests will be barred unless they have reached an advanced stage, and civil cases have been blocked from the day of the First Reading of the Bill before the UK Parliament. This is a tragic day for the rule of law and Britain's reputation in upholding it, whether it is in relation to the protocol and its overriding or the continuing suppression of truth, justice and accountability regarding legacy. This legislation cannot be a fait accompli. Victims and families, not veterans and perpetrators, must be at the heart of this issue.
I raise the damning State of the Climate report, released today by the World Meteorological Organisation. It clearly outlined that four critical climate indicators broke records. Greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat, ocean acidification and global sea levels are worsening. We know that extreme weather has wreaked a heavy toll on human lives and led to billions of dollars in damages.
I raise this not only because it is a warning to all of us as legislators, but because yesterday we were due to hear the results of the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, 2 auction in renewable energy, however, they were postponed. The results are due to be released on Friday and it is widely believed that they will show an increase in the cost of renewables. This is at a time when in the first RESS auction, Ireland already had the highest prices for renewable energy in the EU.
The renewable energy strategy in Ireland is not only critical to reducing our emissions but it is also critical to our green hydrogen strategy, whenever we get that. The stakeholders have repeatedly called for an interdepartmental stakeholder forum that will consult with stakeholders in renewable energy and identify the policy issues that are causing Ireland to have the highest renewable costs. We know planning delays is one of them, as is the cost of grid connections. I want to raise those concerns about the RESS 2 auction, but we also have concerns around battery storage. In Britain, battery storage is now displacing gas fuel burners. Whereas we have a grid that does not recognise multi-hour or multi-day battery storage on the grid, and we are introducing seven temporary gas powered stations to feed data centres.
We also have a ban on direct lines, which prevents renewable energy connecting directly to buildings. One only has to go up the road to see direct lines in use. Belfast City Airport is being powered by its own solar farm, whereas down here we cannot even have solar panels on the rooftops because we are waiting on the planning guidelines.
We need to get our act together on renewable energy. Today's report is a wake-up call for all of us. I am seriously concerned about the RESS 2 auction, and I would like the Deputy Leader to organise a debate with the Minister responsible for climate action about how he will tackle the cost of renewables in this country.
I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on Irish Water and how one might get an extension to a water or sewerage scheme. There is a lot of ambiguity about how it works and how extensions are prioritised. There are many small towns throughout the country that need extensions, and I wonder how these are prioritised.
Will the Deputy Leader also ask the Minister about the charges imposed by Irish Water on land connections? This affects fragmented farms particularly along the west coast, where most farms are small and fragmented. The fact that Irish Water is planning to introduce a standing charge for each connection will put huge pressure on small farmers.
A number of years ago, when Irish Water took over responsibility for water connections, it was agreed that there would be only one standing charge. I ask, as a matter of urgency, that we find out the position on the introduction of standing charges for fragmented farms because this will put a huge burden on a lot of small farms throughout the length and breadth of the west of Ireland in particular. I ask the Deputy Leader to investigate that matter.
I give a belated welcome to the establishment of the Shannon Estuary task force, which was put together in recent weeks. We in Kerry were somewhat disappointed that there is only one Kerry person on it. After all, it was set up to somewhat alleviate the disappointment we suffered when liquefied natural gas, LNG, was parked in the programme for Government.Thankfully, that programme is up and running and very much alive again in the current circumstances. Having said that, we welcome it greatly. We have a very good Kerryman on it, Professor Brendan O'Donnell of Munster Technological University. The Shannon Foynes Port Company is represented on it as well. We hope to get regular reports from this task force. Task forces tend to become talking shops and after four or five years, they are wound up with a report that no one will ever read. I would like regular confirmation and updates on what it is doing and on what progress it is making.
I do not know if the Deputy Leader is aware that there are certain agencies that advertise and work online to provide services for householders. They help householders to get a painter, a decorator or a gardener. Some of them are fairly well known. The biggest one of them is based in London. That is fine as it is very hard to source workers in rural areas. Due to Government policies, we almost have full employment and it is not as easy to get casual work as it used to be. In what I am sure is a minority of cases, this is being abused by rogue operators who find out who is looking for a service such as gardening. They get the details, offer a price and come on site. In some cases, they do not give any service at all. It leads to an awful lot of problems and very often they leave the premises with the job undone and the money paid up. That should be regulated. I do not know what Minister should do that. If one has a problem with these operators and one looks for recourse, one is more or less told to take a jump. They say they cannot help. They are just like the Golden Pages. However, they constantly bombard one with questions and ask whether one needs a professional painter and gardener. They say they will help one to get a professional. If the professional lets one down, they do not want to know about it.
I want to speak a little bit about our programmes under Housing for All to tackle vacancy and dereliction in our towns. The Croí Cónaithe or living heart fund has been launched recently. Under the town centres first policy, the Croí Cónaithe cities scheme focuses on how we develop apartments within city centres but I want to speak about the Croí Cónaithe towns scheme. We might request the timeline for the launch of this fund. We are seeing that town regeneration officers are being allocated to local authorities. This is crucial because we can see in many of our towns buildings that have been left derelict. Although county councils and local authorities can target these, under dereliction notices, it takes a long time for them to be moved on. I know we have the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who is over local government. He will be visiting us and some of our businesses in Ballinasloe to give an update on the town centres first policy and what it will mean for businesses and retailers in our local areas. However, it would be good to know how we will develop this policy further in terms of having the fund available through local authorities. I request that the Minister or the Department give us a timeline or speak to us about the Croí Cónaithe towns fund in particular.
This morning, the Irish Property Owners Association had a very informative briefing across the road in Buswells Hotel. All of us recognise, from our work as politicians living in communities, the difficulties in housing provision and the housing market. It is probably the greatest challenge our generation is facing. I ask that the Deputy Leader facilitate a debate on housing in the context of the exodus of private landlords from the housing market, supply and the issue of Government policy. Indeed, we need to hear about and interrogate the policies of all political parties. We cannot govern by sound bites and slogans, unfortunately. As we see from the North, Sinn Féin, the party of government there, has a very different policy and the outcomes are very different from its prose and rhetoric down here in the South. It is important that we look at the issue of rent pressure zones and why there is an exodus of landlords from the market and the import and implications of that.
I have made the point on a number of occasions that while we do not have a role in the budgetary process in this House, as the Upper House we can facilitate a debate on the formation of Government policy as enunciated in the budget in October. I hope that the Cathaoirleach, the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Leader and the Deputy Leader will look at how this House can play a role in the facilitation of a debate on certain proposals and policies. While it is all well and good to have debates and bring in different speakers, our job as lawmakers and policymakers is to interrogate and put forward solutions that will work on behalf of the people. We are a republic and we are the Upper House. If we are serious about reform of Seanad Éireann, one of the reforms we could undertake instantaneously is to have a greater say and role in the budgetary process of government and the Lower House.
I did and I lay in bed looking at the ceiling for an hour. I thank all Members for their contributions this morning.
Senator Malcolm Byrne kicked off by welcoming the three-year strategy announced by the Minister, Deputy Harris, on research and innovation. He then spoke about the difficulties in Irish amateur boxing. It might be worthwhile to have a debate on sport in the House, but perhaps a Commencement matter on that issue would be worthwhile at the outset. The Senator then spoke about Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO. We note the implications of that. I have heard some Finnish politicians speaking about this. They have been far more aligned with NATO over the years and have built up a relationship. However, it is a significant shift in the geopolitical landscape and will no doubt have implications for Ireland and the European Union. We need to discuss this. I have requested a debate on a defence at the earliest opportunity with the Minister.
Senator Ahearn spoke about the urban regeneration fund and the money that was made available in Clonmel for the regeneration of Kickham Barracks and the development of a local sports hall. The Senator raised a specific question about getting part-funding from the Departments of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and Housing, Local Government and Heritage to try to make phase 2 of that project potentially more successful. I suggest a Commencement matter on that issue might be appropriate because the Senator has a specific question.
Senator Boyhan initially proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, seconded by Senator Keogan, to introduce a planning and amendment Bill around heritage. I believe the Bill has been drafted by Senator Norris. I am happy to accept that amendment.
Senator Boyhan then spoke about the publication yesterday by the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Muldoon, of a report which relates to particular issues with children around special education and the difficulties in accessing school places and services. He asked for a debate on that report and the work of the Ombudsman for Children. We will request that debate with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
Senator Warfield spoke, as he has on many occasions, about the banning of conversion therapy. That needs to be progressed. I am not sure what the delay is on that front, or whether the Senator has tabled a Commencement matter on it or met with the Minister. He might talk to the Leader or me about getting a debate on that because it needs to be advanced, especially given the Senator has legislation on the Order Paper since 2018.
Senator Wall mentioned the attendance at the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands of representatives of Family Carers Ireland. He referenced the very powerful testimonies given by some of the witnesses there. We know the important and valuable work that carers do in this country. Not only do they save the State a considerable amount of money, but they also do very valuable work, often at their own expense. That needs to be recognised. The Senator raised the limit on housing adaption grants, which he has raised on numerous occasions. There are ongoing difficulties with the increased costs of acquiring building materials and getting work done. He also spoke about the need to work on gambling restrictions and referred to other Senators in that regard as well.
Senator Cassells spoke about a local Navan man, Keith Russell, and his incredible sporting achievements since he took up running in 2016 in support of his daughter. I concur with the Senator's remarks and wish Mr. Russell well. We are all in awe of his achievements. He is certainly not an ordinary individual. He is an extraordinary individual. Senator Cassells may follow in his footsteps with similar sporting exploits. Senator Conway spoke about the welcome and really good news that Ryanair is to lease a hangar at Shannon Airport, with an investment of €10 million in the airport and the region and the creation of 100 to 150 jobs. I wish all in Shannon Airport the very best with that. It is fantastic to see some good news. That level of announcement is important for the airport.
Senator Keogan spoke about citizens information, the digitisation of those services and the lack of face-to-face interaction. I agree with the Senator that face-to-face interaction is important for many people. Those services are there. We must acknowledge as well, though, that times are changing and many people are accessing information online through their phones or their PC and over the phone and email. It is a matter of trying to strike the right balance to cater for those who still want the face-to-face interaction but acknowledging that nothing remains the same, services change and move, and people are accessing information remotely at a greater level.
Senator McGahon spoke, as he has done previously, on the challenges facing the electric vehicle industry and the charging network and the fact that if a person does not have a private driveway, he or she cannot install a charging point. The Senator made an interesting suggestion around a retrofit grant for the installation of charging points where it may be necessary to rewire the house. It is a good suggestion. That would come under the remit of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. It would be certainly worthwhile to raise a Commencement matter on that because it is quite a specific question. It is an interesting suggestion by the Senator.
Senator Crowe spoke about long-term illness benefit, the particular conditions that are covered and, more importantly, those who are not covered. The Senator referenced specifically Crohn's disease and the need to look to try to expand that service. That is an interesting suggestion. I agree there are certain other conditions now we know are debilitating and lifelong conditions that do not have a cure and that there is a strong argument for those to be included under the scheme. The Senator might want to liaise with the Leader's office in terms of talking to the Department about that, and perhaps raise a Commencement matter.
Senator Currie made a passionate contribution. I concur with everything she said about the ongoing legacy issues in Northern Ireland, the treatment of victims and families, and the actions and commentary in recent days by the British Government to try in some way to take unilateral action to remove completely the rights of some victims and families to access justice and get accountability. The Government's position is that we are totally opposed to this. I am sure all Members in this House would join in the Senator's remarks by saying we absolutely oppose any action by the British Government to deal with legacy issues that removes the rights of victims and families to get justice and accountability for what has happened to them.
Senator Boylan spoke about the World Meteorological Organization and its recent report on climate. I agree with the Senator that there is a need to focus on the cost of renewables. In this country, we must focus on the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as well. The recent debate on turf burning showed there are difficulties and not all parties are in agreement. Some parties could not decide what their position was on the turf burning issues. Some parties are not in favour of carbon tax, whereas carbon tax and carbon budgets are important mechanisms and tools by which we are reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. You must be on one side or the other. It is difficult to see how the two situations can be married. Certainly, the cost of renewables needs to be tackled to make them the more affordable choice.
Senator Burke spoke about Irish Water and the need for a debate. We will request that. We have requested a debate with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the housing issue. Obviously, Irish Water comes under his remit as well and we will try and get some answers on that. I am aware of the issue with Irish Water and the fragmented holdings, which is of particular concern to smaller farmers, particularly in the west, where land might be in different locations and a connection fee is charged for each holding even though it is one business or farmer. My information is the IFA is now involved in that issue. The Department is awaiting the outcome of a meeting with the IFA to try to advance that issue, but the Minister is aware of that concern and is looking to address it.
Senator O'Sullivan spoke about the task force on liquefied natural gas, LNG. I agree with the Senator that often these task forces can go on for a protracted length of time with maybe little or no action flowing from them and that there is a need to keep an eye on them. Perhaps we will seek regular updates in this Chamber on where that is at and keep the issue live and at the top of the agenda. I take on board the point the Senator is making about the exploitation of some workers and some clients when it comes to getting people to do odd jobs or different types of work around the house. It is difficult to get workers, but it is an industry that requires regulation to protect the consumer, first and foremost, to make sure there is transparent information and that there is recourse to some sort of a dispute resolution mechanism or complaints mechanism where there is a difficulty.
Senator Dolan spoke about vacant and derelict houses and the Croí Cónaithe scheme. It is my understanding that 5,000 properties will be delivered over the next four years under that scheme. It has just been announced but I understand the roll-out will happen quickly and certainly by the end of this year. On the specific issues in Ballinasloe, perhaps the Senator would raise a Commencement matter because it is quite a specific question about how many units there will be for her area. I understand the scheme is under way and will be moving very shortly. It is a four-year scheme.
Senator Buttimer spoke about the Irish Property Owners Association. A number of Senators attended that briefing. A debate request has gone to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We will get the Minister into the Chamber at the earliest possible opportunity. We need to have a conversation around why are landlords leaving the market and how we stop that from happening. There is a big difference between the small landlord with maybe one or two properties and the big institutional investors with which we have particular difficulties, but we need to maintain supply, and access to rental properties is a big problem. We have requested that debate.
I should say as well we have a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications in the month of June. The date is to be confirmed, but next month we will have the Minister, Deputy Ryan, into the House.