Tuesday, 21 June 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion in regard to the National Archives Act 1986 (Section 1(2)(d)) Order 2022 to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Insurance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 2.45 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.45 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 3, Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2022 – Committee Stage (resumed) to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 6.15 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by the Government; and No. 4, Electoral Reform Bill 2022 – Second Stage to be taken at 6.15 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 3, whichever is the earlier with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.
On Thursday, 23 June, and Friday, 24 June, there will be a public consultation for the Galway hydrogen hub, GH2. The consultation takes place in the Galway Harbour Hotel. It starts on 23 June, running from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m on that day, and continues from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 24 June. Along with many other people, I attended a launch of the public consultation yesterday. The members of the Galway hydrogen hub consortium include SSE Renewables, National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, Córas Iompair Éireann, Bus Éireann, the Port of Galway, Aer Arann Islands, Aran Islands Ferries and Lasta Mara Teo.
This is an innovative approach to decarbonising sectors, particularly those that cannot be electrified. It is a multimodal, zero emission, green hydrogen transport hub that can be easily replicated throughout Ireland. It is a wonderful initiative and a new approach. Clearly, there are other things that are needed, including a hydrogen strategy in this country. It is anticipated that during peak production, approximately 8 tonnes of hydrogen will be produced per day. Hydrogen produced at the site will be compressed and stored in permanent hydrogen storage tanks before being dispensed to vehicles at the hydrogen refuelling station. This is a wonderful concept. There is a whole consultation being developed with the intention to go to planning permission and all that goes with that as well. I urge people in Galway to drop into the Galway Harbour Hotel on 23 and 24 June to get a complete overview of the project. Environmental surveys and scoping are going on at present. It is anticipating that a planning application will be lodged in the autumn and the decision is expected later in the year or early next year. It will then go through the whole tenders and construction phases. Using the natural resources of our wind farms is a wonderful innovation and approach.
Yesterday, I asked the question of whether it would require the development of offshore wind for this to reach the full ambition and scale that is necessary. There would be enough offshore projected up until the end of 2030. However, for this to realise the full scale and ambition that is necessary and to allow for hydrogen buses, taxis, shipping and heavy goods vehicles, offshore needs to develop. I know there was a Commencement debate on it this morning. This is a very exciting development in Galway. Again, I would urge people to engage in the public consultation on 23 and 24 June at the Galway Harbour Hotel.
The State agriculture research agency, Teagasc, recently reported that among farm families in Wexford, Wicklow and Carlow, the average age of a farmer is now 56.6 years. This is slightly younger than the national average, but it points to the continuing challenge of the ageing profile of those within our farm communities. I have raised on a number of occasions in this House the question of incentives for young farmers and the need to encourage more people into agriculture and food production. I hope we have a full debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on this issue. If it was any other sector of society or the economy where we had such a problem with an ageing population, it would be much more to the fore. Therefore, I ask for a debate on how we can encourage more young people into farming. Indeed, we should engage with Macra na Feirme, which has done much work on this issue.
This is the seventh occasion on the Order of Business that I have brought up the question of the Future of the Media Commission report. This report was provided to the Minister, Deputy Martin, by the group that was chaired by Brian MacCraith and charged with looking at the future of media in Ireland. We know that just prior to when Covid hit, a number of local radio stations said, and the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland presented evidence of such, that they were within a week of closure, only for Government supports. We know local newspapers are under much pressure.The future of RTÉ depends on decisions being made on its future funding but also how it will operate. This is something the joint committee on media has raised regularly. We had to do pre-legislative scrutiny of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill without this report being published. We went through Committee Stage in this House without the report. I cannot figure out why, after nine months, we still have not seen the report of the Future of Media Commission. I am very conscious that, today, its chair, Professor Brian MacCraith, again criticised the Government for its failure to publish the report.
I am asking the Deputy Leader to write to the Minister to say this House expects the report to be published immediately in order that we can have a real debate on the future of media in Ireland. The Leader gave a commitment to me less than two weeks ago that we would schedule a debate on the future of media in the House regardless of whether the report was published. It would put some pressure on the Department to get it out there. It is simply unacceptable that a report that was provided to the Government nine months ago, and where several aspects have been leaked to the media, still has not been published. I ask that it is immediately put into the public domain.
I wish to raise a serious issue that impacts on all of us. Last week I spoke of the harm being done to children in the Republic through domestic violence. One child an hour experiences domestic violence. That is somewhat beyond our control, but what is in our control is the harm being done to children with disabilities throughout the State. The numbers are extremely alarming. Some 48,000 children are waiting on physiotherapy, more than 10,000 of whom are waiting for more than a year for an appointment, not even for meaningful physio intervention. Some 21,000 children are waiting for an occupational therapy appointment, with 10,000 waiting for more than a year. Some 16,000 children are waiting for speech and language therapy. Again, 10,000 are waiting more than a year.
For those children that wait is time that cannot be revisited. The interventions must be timely. The damage done to children on those waiting lists is life altering and life limiting. I have experienced that myself. I have seen the deterioration in my own son, which is irreversible. We are actively harming children by not providing them with the timely and necessary interventions that would be expected in a country in the European Union, in the so-called developed world.
There is a similar situation for children waiting on psychological assessments. Some 2,000 have been waiting for more than one year for their initial appointment. The child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, has a similar issue. The scandal we became aware of in the Kerry service is replicated throughout the Republic. Most of the 73 CAMHS teams are understaffed.
We do not have psychiatric nurses, community engagement teams or psychiatrists, including those with higher specialist training. They will not work here. The problem is not with physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, nurses or any of the clinical or front-line medical staff but with the very highly remunerated management of the HSE and the people in the Department of Health who are failing our children in this regard.
There are 250,000 people awaiting community services. To put the children's figures in context, 42,000 children went through our industrial schools. That is a scandal of the ages that impacts on the history of this Republic. There were 60,000 mothers in the mother and baby homes. We are talking about a much larger number of children with disabilities who are being hurt right now. This is the scandal of today.
I would say to all the Senators and especially those in Government parties, when they go to their parliamentary party meetings tonight, they should talk to their leaders. There is no coming back from this scandal, the hurting of children and the harm being done to them. We must intervene. I am aware that no risk assessment has been carried out in the implementation of the progressing disabilities services, PDS, programme.The waiting lists to which I referred are increasing exponentially in every three-month period. The numbers on them are going up by thousands. We are in a state of failure in this regard. Notwithstanding the other challenges that confront us, this is something we must address. The Catholic Church and other institutions could tell us that when we are aware of but do not act on a harm being done to children, there is no coming back from that for any political party, cultural institution or any other organisation in our Republic.
We need a very robust debate on the harm that is being done to children as a result of these waiting lists. I have personal experience of it and it is being replicated in hundreds of thousands of households throughout the State. We must act to address it.
I want to return to an important issue I raised with the Leader two weeks ago, that is, the reduction in the allocation of SNAs for some schools following the recent announcement. Setting aside the totally unacceptable way in which some SNAs found out on a website at 4.20 p.m. in the afternoon that they no longer had a job, the issue now is the unrealistic demands facing the schools that lost SNAs, which are seeking the reallocation of those positions through the exceptional review process.
Under that process, undertaken by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, schools have been sent the details of the lengthy replies that are required of them. On top of all the administrative work required under a normal process, the NCSE is now looking for specific, up-to-date psychological reports outlining schools' specific needs for an SNA. My colleague, Senator Clonan, touched on this issue. We are all aware that schools are being told the NCSE will not engage with them unless these new reports are in place. We all know such reports cannot be assessed in the short term. Indeed, like me and the speaker before me, I am sure all colleagues in the House are dealing with large numbers of parents who are waiting months and years for such assessments for their children. For many of the schools that have contacted me, meeting the requirements is an unrealistic demand in the timeframe involved.
The replies we have received from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, outline the process and method of appeal but do not acknowledge the timeframe involved in gathering the information for those appeals. We need to allow schools to put forward their best case, based on the information they have on the children involved, without having to go through an assessment that takes so much time. Fórsa has outlined in recent publications that more than 30 SNAs have been lost as a result of the special class reductions. Those SNAs were assisting the most vulnerable students in our education system and I am sure that vulnerability remains. Those children need the expert assistance of SNAs. Without their support and the great work carried out by them, the most vulnerable pupils in our mainstream education system simply will not be able to function on a day-to-day basis.
As I said on the previous occasion we discussed this issue, we need a review of the way allocations are completed and how they are communicated. At least 30 SNA school positions have been lost as part of the review that took place. There are many very upset staff in school communities as we head into the summer. Schools must now try to develop a school plan in time for September as well as preparing for exceptional reviews. Many parents are only now learning that the schools involved will have to adjust their plans for September and are realising the upsetting consequences that will have for their loved ones.
The Leader committed on the previous occasion to raising the way the loss of the SNAs was communicated with those involved. I ask the Deputy Leader to raise the demands being placed on schools via the exceptional review process with the Minister of State and to ask for a different way of conducting the reviews and a change in the timeframes involved.
We all need to be mindful of our language in this House, as do our colleagues in the Dáil. I will not repeat any of what was said last week because doing so is not the answer and will only ensure more people hear it. My mother used to say that you can tie a knot with your tongue that you are not able to open with your hands. She meant by this that people can get themselves into big positions where others are looking to them to be a leader and they should not use inappropriate language.
Many members of my community live in nasty accommodation, if that is the right word, due to a lack of services. Many of them felt there was a comment made in the Dáil last week to the effect that people living in trailers or caravans are not respected.I would like the Tánaiste to reflect on his actions last week in the Dáil and, most importantly, to be mindful going forward of the poor people in our society.
While I have the opportunity, I will say to every Member of the House that they may not be anti-Traveller and stand up and be anti-Traveller here in the Seanad or in the Dáil, but we see it on their social media pages, their Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts. It is inappropriate in this day and age for any Senator or Deputy to be coming out and stirring up hatred online. I do not know what we can do about it in the House because, obviously, it happens outside the House and they will not come in and make such comments in here because, of course, there are rules and regulations against it. Again, times are changing and they should not be using inappropriate language and stirring up hatred on social media if they are representing this House or the Dáil. We all know about freedom of speech and we do not have to get into it, but hate speech or stirring up hatred is not freedom of speech.
On another note, on the Order of Business in recent weeks, I have been looking for the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to come to the House for a debate around ending direct provision. As we know, the White Paper was launched over a year ago. I understand the Leader put in a request but, unfortunately, I have not heard anything back. It would be good to have a debate before the recess around ending direct provision because we are at such a critical point and, as we know, hotels are full and people are living in dire accommodation. I would like to know where we stand with that.
Ba mhaith liom labhairt inniú faoi parental alienation. This is a situation where parents are estranged and one parent acts decisively to alienate the other parent from their children, be it psychologically or physically preventing them from accessing their children. It is an awful thing. It is not just hard for the parent but it does terrible damage to the children, and we have spoken about the damage done to children. This is something that is done deliberately by an adult to his or her own children. It is pervasive and much more common than we think. Many people have contacted me recently about this issue.
I am grateful that the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has taken steps to start a process on this and there is a public consultation under way through the Department of Justice on parental alienation and what is involved in that, asking people to share their experiences and what they think should be done. The deadline for that public consultation is this coming Friday, 24 June. People can make a submission by emailing email@example.com. I encourage anyone who has suffered as a consequence of parental alienation to share their experiences with the Department. This public consultation gives us a full and proper picture of what is actually happening. It is important that people keep the details of any personal experiences to themselves so the parties are not identifiable, but I know people will be aware of that.
I personally think this should be a crime. It damages the children in a way that we cannot even understand until many years later. In many respects, it is as bad as the other abuses and the other difficulties children face that have been discussed in the House today. I encourage anyone who has experience or ideas in regard to parental alienation to make a submission to the current public consultation by this coming Friday.
It has been widely accepted there is a role for the Government to play in the funding of good causes at community level or, indeed, at a scaled-up regional and national level, where charities and volunteer services carry out important functions and services for the people of this country, services which otherwise would be carried out by the Government anyway. Where this system breaks down and becomes suspect is when the Government finds itself funding bodies whose sole purpose is not to help, serve or facilitate and to organise volunteers, but to lobby.
Ireland has an astonishing 32,141 NGOs, with many being taxpayer-funded to the collective tune of €5.9 billion annually, a figure worth remembering any time a lack of funds is used as an excuse for not meeting some basic need. It is a case of “Sorry, we are giving that money away to spend it on trying to change people's minds.”As has been seen recently, many of the NGOs wield enormous lobbying power which is completely disproportionate to the actual support they have the community. They are hot air balloons puffed up with government money and are presumed to be large based on the shadow they cast on Twitter, which we all know is not a real place. It really has become the case that in Ireland the massively bloated NGO sector has become the tail that wags the dog. We should have a serious look at restricting taxpayers' funding to organisations that are non-political and truly non-profit and engage in clearly charitable pursuits or are involved in policy implementation rather than policy influencing. We politicians are here to serve the people. If someone wants to come to speak to us and share an opinion or idea, they can do so. They do not need to be on a payroll to do it.
Speaking of payrolls, I ask the Deputy Leader to invite to the House the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to facilitate a debate and provide us with an update on the public sector pay talks that have unfortunately stalled. I hope all in the House will join me in asking both sides to return to the table so we can have a collective public sector pay deal, which is the only show in town. These are the most important pay talks of recent times. I hope the Minister can come to the House and that the House can play a role in facilitating the return to talks. We need a public sector pay deal.
I have made the point a number of times on the Order of Business that the budget in October will be important. Rising inflation and energy costs are having a gargantuan impact on the lives of ordinary people who are struggling. It is not just the Opposition saying this. It is all of us who live in the real world and know from people and our families the experiences they are having. Accepting that the Government has made exceptional interventions in recent months, the budget in October is a long time away. I accept the Government cannot chase inflation but it can intervene, make a determination and have an impact to help people. I hope we can have this debate again and that the Government will listen to all of us, notwithstanding that there have been interventions and that the budget is in October.
I concur with Senator Clonan on the matters he raised. There is a real need for a whole-of-government approach with the HSE on the specialisms he has spoken about this morning. I know from friends of mine and family members about the regression that has happened during Covid and about the lack of a joined-up approach since Covid by agencies dealing with the issues Senator Clonan has raised this morning. Last Monday week in Cork, we had a briefing from the HSE. This issue is something on which the House should have a rolling debate in advance of the budget with the line Minister.
The Cathaoirleach has been very innovative in his approach to reform of the Seanad. The following point might be something to reflect on. I am not sure whether we can do it but the HSE should be brought somewhere with regard to accountability and a roadmap for disability services and the issues we have raised this morning. We can say and do so much. To be fair, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is doing a very good job but there is a piece missing and it needs to be joined up by the Government with the people for the people. Senator Clonan is right that it is about people. I use the phrase an gnáthduine. If we cherish all of our children equally, then those who need services should not have to wait, beg or go to court. At a time when the Government is throwing money at the HSE, I ask that we look at this. Perhaps the Cathaoirleach could be innovative in his approach but I am not sure whether he can.
I am glad to see that the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media where it was proposed to bring in representatives from RTÉ on foot of the discussion of transgender-related issues on "Liveline" is not now going ahead. Though I have often criticised RTÉ over the waste of public money and often raised questions about issues of fairness and balance, I thought it was strange that on foot of complaints about a particular programme that the joint committee would have moved to appear to haul representatives of the national broadcaster in to explain themselves. If we imagine that a Russian television station had had a debate about the merits of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that people from that station were to be hauled in front of a committee of the Duma to be berated, we can see how inappropriate it would be for an Oireachtas joint committee to overstep the mark. RTÉ was right in its correspondence with the joint committee to seek agreement on the point that it would not be the role of the joint committee to "investigate, examine or adjudicate the content of broadcast programmes, on RTÉ or any other broadcaster". Additionally, if there is a perception of ongoing problems concerning bias, impartiality and some communities being treated differently from others, then it is, of course, appropriate for a joint committee to ask questions and to seek engagement in that regard. The knee-jerk nature of last week's reaction by the joint committee, however, was ill advised.
This does, though, raise issues concerning free speech and freedom of expression in our society. We should get back to this aspect now in the context of reports that the legislation on so-called "hate speech" is due in the autumn. I note that the Department of Justice is at pains to say there will be a high threshold for any prosecutions. That would certainly want to be the case because there is a real danger here that we will allow free speech for some people in our society, but not for others. In a healthy democracy, all sorts of points of view get to be raised and the threshold should be very high indeed before anybody can be prevented from doing so or from being in any way persecuted or prosecuted for expressing a point of view that they are willing to back up with sound argument while avoiding abuse, incitement to hatred or any kind of threatening behaviour. We must, though, always err on the side of facilitating free speech.
I welcome that a 150-bed private hospital to be owned by the Bon Secours Health System, BSHS, was announced for Limerick yesterday. This is a private hospital, but in the context of the Commencement matter I raised earlier today regarding University Hospital Limerick, UHL, once it is up and running it will complement the already-existing smaller BSHS-owned hospital, which was formerly Barringtons Hospital, and help to alleviate the numbers of people attending UHL. This is a serious issue for Limerick and the mid-west. The Deputy Leader was here earlier and heard my contribution on this issue. This is the right thing to do. The provision of more hospitals, public and private, in the region should be explored. There is room for the expansion of St. John's Hospital as well, for example, and that is a public hospital.
I also note the election of Councillor Olivia O'Sullivan as the chairperson of the Limerick Metropolitan District, which is the old metropolitan area in Limerick city. I wish her all the best for the coming year. She is the third female in a row to take over this role. This is worthy of note because we have had almost 1,000 years of mayors in the city, but only five females have held the post.
I raise the issue of maternity leave for county councillors. As the Deputy Leader knows, this matter is coming before the Cabinet this week. It is a matter I have discussed over several years here and I am delighted to have fed input into the proposed policy coming before the Cabinet. On reflection, this type of leave scheme is one that could be expanded. Recently, one of our own exceptionally hard-working councillors in Westmeath, Liam McDaniel, fell ill. He was ill for quite a long time.In such circumstances, where a person has had the misfortune to have a protracted illness, that they could look to nominate a replacement for six months or for a given timeframe is something that is worth looking at because a great deal of pressure at that time filters down to the person who is sick and to his or her family. This is something that could possibly be shared, looked upon in a different light and that we could do. With fixed-term county councils, people are aware of what is and is not the case.
I would like to add that Councillor McDaniel has made a good recovery and I was delighted to hear he attended a number of council meetings over recent weeks. It is something is worth discussing and looking at.
It is an honour for me to welcome a number of neighbours of mine from home here who are members of the Killoe Men's Shed in County Longford. I pay tribute to them for the work they did through the Covid-19 pandemic period, and I take this opportunity to express my thanks to them. It was a difficult time for everybody but the Killoe Men's Shed and men's sheds throughout the country did magnificent work in helping with rural isolation etc. I say, "Well done."
A number of weeks ago we met with the Irish Men's Sheds Association and it was looking for supports from Government for the sheds. I have a list of things it asked to be taken into account when discussions are taking place, namely, an annual maintenance grant, a sustainability grant, more supports for new start-up sheds, the issue of VAT and commercial rates on some of the buildings the sheds are in, and security of tenure for those that are in buildings or publicly owned buildings so that they know there is a guarantee for the future. I put that on the record and I hope the Government will be positive towards supporting the very good work that they do.
I also wish to raise another matter, which is the loss of commercial rates due to the closure of Lough Ree power station in Longford. As Members will know, this station closed a number of years ago, along with the power station in Shannonbridge. It led to a €1.2 million reduction in the intake of rates for the local authority in Longford. Every year since we have had to appeal and look for money to be provided, and it is only really at the last minute that our local authority finance department is told that money is going to be provided by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. In a Commencement matter last year I received a commitment from Government that we would put a long-term plan in place between now and 2023 to last up to 2026, when we were to have a just transition. The loss of such rates has a serious impact on the ability of our local authority to provide the services that are needed by citizens in our county. I am asking that a multi-annual budget be put in place now, before the recess, for 2023 so that our finance department can put the plans together for the services in our county and so that we know for the years ahead exactly what finance we have and need to continue to provide the vital services in our county.
I welcome the gentlemen from Killoe Men's Shed and I thank them for all they do in providing a place for people to come together, socialise and do small projects for the community. I know the value of the men's shed in Kenmare and in other locations and I thank our guests for being in Leinster House today.
I raise the issue of housing. As we all know, we are coming out of a decade of undersupply of housing, so I specifically welcome the latest report on housing supply and delivery that indicates the highest number of housing commencements on record in more than a decade. There have been more than 30,223 new housing commencements which are to be welcomed. These are new homes being built, and Housing for All is determined to deliver a mix of social, affordable and private housing through using State-owned lands. To deliver housing, it is very important that not only do the commencements get approved and the housing is started but that they are delivered upon. There are many pressure points with inflation and other resources but, with that in mind, I very much want to encourage all politicians from all parties on both sides of the House to stop objecting to housing, to stop putting barriers in the way of housing delivery, and to stop encouraging objections and barriers to the granting of planning permissions for housing and the actual commencement of construction of it.Every new home that is built, whether it is private, social or affordable, is a home for somebody. There are more than 10,000 people homeless in this country. On top of that, more than 30,000 Ukrainians have arrived and Europe is at war. I urge those who object to housing to please stop and think of the human impact their objections have and allow commencements to proceed. We also need to increase the number of commencements.
On a secondary issue, the Intreo office on the Navan Road, which is known locally as "the labour", has been closed since April. Its closure was unannounced and notices were erected. Many people do their transactions online with Intreo and the Department of Social Protection. However, the surrounding area, which has a population of more than 10,000, has large elderly and disabled communities. I ask the Deputy Leader to write to the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Minister for Social Protection to ask for a firm date for the reopening of the Intreo office on the Navan Road in Dublin 7.
I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Fitzpatrick on what she said about public representatives objecting to housing. I can never understand such objections because ultimately the planners are supposed to be the professionals who can adjudicate on whether something is appropriate. The days of public representatives making such submissions should be well and truly over given the crisis we are in.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about the lack of a date for leaving certificate results to be released. It is very disappointing that a firm date has not yet been given. Earlier today, Mr. Jim Miley of the Irish Universities Association outlined on radio the difficulties, challenges and complexities. He explained that it is impossible to plan when one does not know the date. I do not know what is going on but resolving this is not rocket science. Whatever the challenges, this is totally unfair on the students, in the first and last instance, as well as on all of those who rely on a date for the leaving certificate results to plan and ensure third level colleges are in a position to give the best possible support and services to students. Again, I appeal for a date to be provided on when the leaving certificate results will be published.
I will raise an issue I have spoken about before, namely, the need to locate retirement villages in towns and villages. Where possible, each town should identify an area of ground where a retirement village could be funded. There are lots of approved housing bodes and I am sure they would be only be too delighted to help in the creation of retirement villages. In turn, this would free up larger houses to be used by younger people with large families. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on the whole issue of housing elderly people, those who wish to downsize and those who want to have a more modest affordable housing unit and are willing to surrender larger houses. These may be houses outside villages and the older people would prefer to be near services and supports. I realise we are approaching the end of this term. I would like a debate on housing the elderly arranged for the autumn.
I welcome the Government's commitment to a HIV and AIDS national monument. The Department of the Taoiseach and the Office of Public Works have announced a competition for the monument. I commend the Government on backing the campaign that has been under way for almost a decade.
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, more than 70 million people around the world have acquired the infection and 35 million people have died from HIV and AIDS. It is 40 years either last week or this week since the first cases of HIV and AIDS were recorded in Ireland in 1982.Much has changed. I am conscious I have spoken about HIV since "It's a Sin", on Channel 4, was released. It got everyone talking about that period and about sexual health in general. Crucially, it got sexual health professionals and front-line workers talking about sexual health strategies, and HIV and sexually transmitted infection, STI, prevention, right now. That is what we need to be doing with a memorial.
I hope the Department of the Taoiseach and the Office of Public Works, OPW, will have a consultation process that fully engages stakeholders, community folk and working-class communities who are affected by the epidemic because that is the potential the memorial presents for members of the LGBT community. The first out older generation of LGBT people have a guilt that they survived that period. As Tonie Walsh says:
It's time. Time to dry away our tears and build from them a monument to the destruction and loss from AIDS in Ireland.
I commend the Department of the Taoiseach and the OPW and call for a wide-ranging consultation process to best inform the memorial.
I thank all Members who contributed to the Order of Business today.
The first contributor was Senator Kyne, who alerted Members to the Galway hydrogen hub public consultation taking place on Thursday and Friday next in Galway. The Senator spoke about the need for a hydrogen strategy, with which I would agree, and referenced the view of the hub that offshore wind would be needed. The Senator mentioned the Commencement matter I raised this morning which spoke about the State's offshore wind strategy. It appears to be more focused in the east and the south, which is something we must work on, certainly for Members in this House living in the west who might have an interest in advancing that strategy there.
Senator Malcolm Byrne requested a debate on the future of the media. That has been requested and we are awaiting a debate on that, with or without the report. I take on board the Senator's comments that there is a significant delay in the publication of that report. We are now waiting nine months for that.
Senator Byrne then spoke about Teagasc and the average age of farmers in Wexford, Wicklow and Carlow being 56.6 years, which is below the national average. It is still a mature age, if I can put it that way. The Senator stated there is a significant problem in getting young people into farming for various reasons, many of them to do with access to farm land. The need to facilitate farmers retiring and transferring land is one of those issues to be dealt with. We will request that debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It will likely be in the autumn session because we are in the last four weeks and we have a lot of business in terms of Bills to pass. It will be difficult to accommodate statements on a particular issue.
Senator Clonan spoke on an important topic on which all of us on both sides of the House need to work. It is abhorrent that we have thousands of children and young people waiting for intervention services when we know that "early intervention" is the term and, if it is not early, it does not have the same impact. We all know people within our communities and within our friends and family circle who are fighting day after day to get basic services. It is a fight parents do not have time for because they are caring for their children as well and trying to support them as best they can. Many parents are paying privately when they cannot afford it and even getting private services is becoming difficult because the waiting lists for public services are so long. We will request that debate, probably at the outset with the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities. That is a junior post. Ultimately, it should be a cross-departmental responsibility at Government level to tackle what is a State failure to provide these services for children. The Senator is correct that we will be looking back on this in ten or 20 years and we will be ashamed of ourselves as a country that we left children languishing on waiting lists for such a lengthy period.
I take on board Senator Clonan's points about child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, being continually understaffed as well. There are difficulties in recruiting the right people. I do not know why it is so difficult to recruit people. Perhaps we need to look at pay and conditions for those senior posts. There are many vacant posts that have been funded. The money is there to pay those salaries. We are finding it difficult to get people to take up those posts and we are competing on an international level to get people into some of these posts as well, particularly at the highest level. That is proving a challenge for us right across the health service. I take on board as well the Senator's point about the progressing disability services programme and the issues surrounding that.
Senator Wall spoke about the issues concerning special needs assistants, SNAs. There was an announcement from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan's office. I accept the Senator's comments on the frustration with the communication around that issue and that there are ongoing issues in terms of accreditation for SNAs.It is about proper recognition for the work they do, the responsibilities they have and the key role they play in schools. Senator Malcolm Byrne was at that committee meeting, as were other Members, and there are issues around the contract. My information is accreditation is something that is accepted and agreed by Government and is on the way but I accept absolutely there is frustration it has not happened by now.
Senator Flynn touched on an issue around the use of language and the importance of proper language. Words matter and what is said cannot be unsaid. It is forever on the public record once one opens one's mouth. The Senator's mother's comments are wise and a very nice way to put it. The Senator is right that any commenting around people's living situation, especially when there is a consistent State failure to provide proper accommodation, is wrong and should be reflected upon. Many people in both Houses and beyond have at times used inappropriate language that caused hurt, so we can all think better about the language we use.
The debate with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on direct provision has been requested. Again, it will probably be in the autumn session but we are working on getting that date for the Senator. I am aware other Members also want to have that conversation with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.
Senator Ward spoke to alert the House to the public consultation taking place through the Department of Justice around parental alienation, which is where one parent stops another from accessing the child and this does damage to the child as well as the parent. There are obviously lots of difficulties there. One parent may have genuine reasons for not wanting to engage with the other so we must be very careful in how we work through that. The Senator has encouraged Members to alert their communities to that particular public consultation.
Senator Keogan spoke about the NGO sector and the vast amounts of public money spent on these organisations. She is right to raise the point there should be a specific role for NGOs in servicing the community, assisting people and advocating but that it should not simply be to lobby and that is not really the intention at the outset. It is important we continually assess and reflect on the expenditure of public moneys and always ask the question of whether we are spending public money in the right way and can we justify it to the public. Genuine questions can be asked there and we need always to hold Government to ensure public money is spent in the right way and with the right intention.
Senator Buttimer spoke about public sector pay and asked for a debate with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. We will make that request. He also asked for a debate on the budget. He made the point the budget is quite a long way away and he would like to see measures implemented before that. It is worth noting we have seen almost €2 billion of public expenditure on measures to try to deal with the cost of living. Budget 2022 includes the largest social welfare budget the State has had in more than 14 years. There have been specific targeted payments in the form of the fuel allowance and extra payments for those receiving it of €125 in March and another €100 in April. There were specific measures around reduction in VAT on gas and electricity for everybody. There was an energy rebate for all households as well. Thus, there have been specific targeted measures and more broad-ranging measures.
There was obviously a reduction in the cost of diesel and petrol that seems to have been erased in recent weeks but there have been emergency measures taken by the Government. It is worth pointing out those measures can be taken in advance of a budget as well if needs be. The Government is monitoring the cost of living issue on a weekly basis and it is the top priority for the Government to deal with.
Senator Mullen spoke about RTÉ now not coming in to the Oireachtas committee. I completely agree with his remarks. It is right and proper the broadcaster is not coming before an Oireachtas committee. Despite the fact there was considerable upset and anger at that debate we must be very careful around the role of Oireachtas committees and that line between the State broadcaster and the Oireachtas as well, in that there is a relationship there that needs to be harmonious to ensure the proper operation of a democracy and the Oireachtas, as well as the proper functioning of the broadcaster. There is a fine line. There have been debates in the past on different issues like marriage equality and the referendum on the eighth amendment where at times others call for debates to be closed down as well. However, again, it is about taking on board that we must listen as well, where certain language is used that maybe did not need to be used, that there are times when we can intentionally need to hurt others without any real benefit to it and there is no need for that either. It is just to learn from that, move forward and hope that particular issue can be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.
Senator Maria Byrne spoke about welcoming the new planning for a 150-bed hospital in Limerick to be run by the Bon Secours group. She acknowledged it will be a private facility but made the point there is a role for public and private healthcare and the additional 150 beds, though they are private ones, will help alleviate the pressure on UHL. That pressure is considerable.We know that HIQA recently reported that the circumstances of patients in the hospital are far below the standard expected. The Senator congratulated Councillor Olivia O'Sullivan on her election as mayor of Limerick. She is the third woman mayor in a row and there have been only five in the past 1,000 years. That is quite significant. I wish the councillor well in her time ahead.
Senator Davitt spoke about the plans to provide for maternity leave for councillors that are going to Cabinet and welcomed that move. We all concur with that. We have certain steps to take in this House also. We still do not have maternity leave for Oireachtas Members. A bespoke solution was put in place for the Minister for Justice that was absolutely appropriate and needed, but there has been no change whatsoever for any other Member of either House. There is a public perception that the issue has been resolved but it has not actually changed at all. If we are serious about encouraging women into politics and retaining them in politics, this is one of many issues we will need to address as an Oireachtas. Senator Davitt said there is potential to expand a plan to cater for councillors with long-term illness whereby they could nominate somebody to stand in to do their job for a number of months. It is a reasonable suggestion and one that should definitely be explored.
Senator Carrigy spoke about the Men's Shed in Longford, whose representatives in the Visitors Gallery are welcome to the Chamber, and also about the importance of the Men's Shed movement right across the country, particularly in rural areas. In my county, Mayo, several men's sheds have no doubt saved lives by dealing with mental health issues and rural isolation. I do not say that lightly. Having an outlet and the ability to meet up, make new friends, reconnect with old friends and do something positive in the community is really important.
Senator Carrigy also spoke about the loss of commercial rates to Longford County Council when Lough Ree power plant closed. There was a reduction of €1.2 million. The Senator said there is a need to bridge the gap and ensure the funding is still provided to the local authority. It is Government policy to ensure that we have just transition such that when we close power plants like the one in question and it has an impact on employment and commercial rates for a local authority, there is an onus on the Government to ensure no detrimental impact on the local community. The Senator's comments are certainly valid and of genuine concern.
Senator Fitzpatrick spoke about housing and has urged certain groupings, parties and individuals, and everybody in between, to think before they object to housing in their local areas. This is a problem right across the country. Projects are not getting under way as quickly as they could or at all because of local objections. Taking into account that planning and community engagement need to be done in the proper way, it is urgent to get houses built and finished. The Senator also acknowledged the latest report that shows housing commencements are at an all-time high, with over 30,000 commencements in the past 12 months and the number going in the right direction.
Senator Fitzpatrick also alerted the House to a particular issue on the Navan Road, with the Intreo office, locally referred to as "the labour", having been closed since April. I suggest to the Senator that she raise this as a Commencement matter given that it is a quite specific issue. We can take it from there if a satisfactory answer is not provided to her.
Senator Conway spoke about the need to provide more housing for elderly people to facilitate them in downsizing and freeing up larger homes for younger families coming through. It is a sensible suggestion. He has asked for a debate on this matter. We will request it for the autumn session.
Senator Conway has once again raised the issue of the leaving certificate. I take on board his comments in that there is frustration because we still do not know the date on which the leaving certificate results will be published. It is important to know because it has an impact on the Central Applications Office offers for college and students starting college. The delay is because there have been a number of re-sits of the examinations because of Covid, in addition to other reasons. I am aware that the office of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, is working very hard to resolve the issue at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Warfield spoke about the Government commitment to a HIV–AIDS memorial. I take on board the Senator's comment that there should be consultation on the right way to achieve this. It is hard to believe it is 1982 since the first case was reported. We have come a long way. Millions of people lost their lives over the period. What is occurring is really important and I am glad to see it is finally progressing to the public consultation phase.