Wednesday, 14 September 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, or the Order of the House of Tuesday, 12 July 2022, the address to the Seanad by Mr. Marty Walsh, US Secretary of Labor, shall not be taken today, and the Order of Business shall be No. 111(3) on the Order Paper, Private Members' business, motion on energy, to be taken at 5.30 p.m., with the time allocated not to exceed two hours.
I thank the ambassador for being with us today on the Order of Business for the minute's silence. On behalf of the House, I sent a letter to my counterpart, the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord John Francis McFall, expressing our sympathy on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose visit to Ireland in 2011 did a lot to deepen and strengthen relationships on this island. Her use of the Irish language on that visit was a symbolic gesture that was deeply appreciated by all the people of Ireland. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.
I call Senator Crowe, the Fianna Fáil leader this afternoon.
I welcome the UK ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Paul Johnston, and his colleague, Mr. Jeremy Wilmshurst, to the House and share with them our condolences on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Her visit to Ireland in 2011 was a significant moment in the history of our countries and will long be remembered. That visit was a success in no small part thanks to the warmth and grace displayed by Queen Elizabeth II. We remember the visit as we offer our support and condolences to all those who are mourning her passing.
I wish to raise the issue of Bus Éireann not accepting card payments. That this is still the case in 2022 is totally unacceptable. The reality is that the number of cash payments and of people who use cash regularly are falling consistently. That trend has been more or less exacerbated by the pandemic, for obvious reasons. For one of the main transport providers in this country, a State-owned operator, still to provide no option to pay by card and seemingly no imminent plan to bring in such a payment system reflects poorly on it, to say the least. This is an issue that staff in Galway have raised with me. Drivers are frequently criticised over it, which is obviously not acceptable. Front-line staff are being blamed for it when the matter is entirely out of their control. From my experience of Bus Éireann in Galway, the drivers and other staff are excellent; however, when a person does not have change, there can be a significant confrontation, which leads to a difficult working environment.
The Government is one that wants to encourage people to travel on public transport to build up and expand the system. This can be achieved if non-regular users have a positive experience when they use the services. The Leap card, as all Members will be aware, is fantastic, but irregular users will not have one. Contactless payment is essential from that point of view.
Contactless payment is also important to tourists who visit our country. We know how important the tourism sector is to the country. Little things can become big things for people. Tourists who might want to take a number of buses while here need to be facilitated. We should ensure the process is as smooth as possible. Whether we are dealing with visitors or our own people, it is essential that we send the right message. It is essential that we offer the 100,000 welcomes to tourists. This needs to be considered immediately. I ask the Leader to raise the issue with the Minister for Transport and request that his Department prioritises the matter so it will be rectified in the immediate future. When staff, tourists and citizens are complaining, you know there is an issue.
I would like to be associated with the condolences to the ambassador and the people of the UK.
Student accommodation is crucial. We have three third level institutes in Limerick: the University of Limerick, TUS Limerick and Mary Immaculate College.I have received many calls from people not just in Limerick but throughout the country who cannot source student accommodation. The students' unions in the three third level institutes have started a campaign encouraging people to rent a room. That is something that has been suggested and I raised it myself. However, there is a fear among some of the older people in the community that it will affect their medical cards. Certainly I believe that the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is on board. I have contacted him. He met with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. However, I believe if the Minister for Health was to sign off on this it would be a win-win not only for students but for older people as well because it would help older people with the cost of living. As we can see everything is going up. In regard to students, it would also guarantee them a room. It would not be a full solution but it would go some way towards helping. We need to ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, if he will sign off on this because the suggestion is with him now.
The other issue is the National Transport Authority. Schools are back and a number of bus routes were removed. This is following up on Senator Crowe's theme. The National Transport Authority now needs to put pressure on Bus Éireann to restore some of these bus routes because many children are having an issue with getting to school. I am not even getting into the school passes because I know there was a Commencement matter on that earlier. It is a serious issue at this stage. People are having many problems getting children to school.
The last issue I wish to raise is the cost of living. We will have a debate here later on the energy crisis. We all have to put our shoulders to the wheel in coming up with overall solutions in regard to making things better for all families going forward.
As a member of the Royal British Legion and former member of the Royal Irish Rangers and a colleague of the many who served in Her Majesty's forces who now live in the Republic of Ireland, I would like to express my sympathies on their behalf. Her Majesty when she visited Ireland won the hearts of the nation of Ireland in a few short words and she is indeed a sad loss. I ask also that the Government might consider allowing employees to take some time when the funeral of Her Majesty takes place. It may be something odd to say but our country has grown quite a lot in recent years and I think it would be a decent and honourable thing to do.
I have spoken on search and rescue services many times in this House. I am not going into the detail of it today but facts were released in recent days through The Sunday Business Post. I have had two Private Members' sessions here and on both occasions the Minister did not do the courtesy of answering the questions I asked. There is now clearly a prima faciecase for a conflict of interest in the establishment of the business case for our next search and rescue service. The people of Ireland are entitled to know why we are going to be paying somewhere between €1 billion and €1.5 billion for a contract for five helicopters in four bases while our brothers and sisters in the UK are getting 18 helicopters in 12 bases for €1.6 billion. I ask for time to have the Minister, the senior Minister, in here to discuss this matter and let us see where we are going with it.
The Cathaoirleach is aware of the fact that the report on our secretarial assistants' claim came out today. Quite frankly it is a good deal for those who have just joined the service but for those who have served us for many years it is a terrible deal. There is about €800 a year, at best, in it before tax for senior secretarial assistants. I know the Cathaoirleach sits on the commission. The author of this report clearly failed to understand the job of Seanad Éireann and in particular those who work for us within Seanad Éireann. I ask the Cathaoirleach in particular to ask that we go back to the drawing board on this issue. It is an appalling misunderstanding of the work. The Cathaoirleach's own secretarial assistant puts in a massive amount of work keeping all of us informed all the time. We need to better respect those who work for us.Giving new entrants a massive increase is great but it should have ricocheted up the line fully. I know that the woman who works for me is often down in my office at 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock at night finalising things for the following day. I ask all of my colleagues to join with me on this issue and support those who support us because we could not do the job we do without these people. They are not secretaries or administrators. They are researchers and they are support people. I could not operate without Jean in my office and I think that all of the rest of us are the same. I ask the Cathaoirleach to bring that to the committee and ask the Leader to write a letter to the commission to that effect.
The commission met this morning, as Senators know. It will seek all of the Senators' views and that of their staff regarding the report that has been spoken about so I would ask you all to engage in that particular consultation. I call on the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett.
I, too, extend my condolences and those of my Green Party colleagues to Ambassador Johnston and the British people on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
It is great to be back in the Seanad and I take this opportunity to welcome all of my colleagues back after the recess. I have spent quite a bit of my time over the past month or so travelling around my constituency of Laois-Offaly meeting people from all walks of life. Such activity is a central part of our democracy and helps to inform us, as public representatives, about the issues close to the lives of our constituents. The hardship caused by the continued cost-of-living crisis is clear and this Government is determined to bring forward measures in budget 2023 to support those who are most impacted by the crisis.
On my travels I visited local producers and entrepreneurs. To hear their stories and concerns highlights to me that it is now more important than ever to support local businesses. They are the beating heart of rural Ireland and I shall speak about some of the wonderful examples in counties Laois and Offaly, including the Ferbane Food Campus.
Ferbane is a community that suffered hundreds of job losses linked to Bord na Móna restructuring in the 1990s. The Ferbane Food Campus has enabled and supported 30 local food businesses. The campus has also trained more than 300 people over the past 20 years. One such business is Ballyshiel Artisan Foods which produces delicious, chocolate-based products that are made from locally supplied milk. I had a really interesting chat with Tommy and Karina about the potential to expand into food tourism, which would combine the food that they produce with the local, beautiful bogland landscape. What a unique tourism offering that will be.
I welcome the objective of the Ferbane Food Campus to collaborate with local farmers for short supply chains. This is something that my Department and Food Vision 2030 supports. I look forward to the day when I will enjoy a food trail where we can discuss the terroirof west Offaly with hints of chocolate and cranberry on the palate.
Despite the current cost of living we are lucky to see some new businesses opening. An example is Audrey Kingston who has recently opened a new pharmacy in the centre of Mountrath and I wish her all the best. Another example is Ballintubbert Gardens and House, which is located near Stradbally. It is a beacon for the ecotourism sector of the midlands and earlier this year the gardens achieved full organic status. This week, I was lucky to see the gardens in late summer splendour and so can anyone as the venue is open to the public next Saturday, 18 September. I can attest to the fact that the gardens are truly a feast for the senses.
There are other excellent examples of ecotourism. For example, one can stay at Mount Briscoe, which is near Daingean in County Offaly. Mount Briscoe Farm has belonged to the same family for seven generations and been organic for over 20 years. It also offers some traditional and some less traditional sustainable accommodation options. The farm produces wonderful food, which will be served al fresco to some lucky customers on the evening of Tuesday, 20 September.
I wish to mention the heat-pump and soon to be solar powered outdoor swimming pool in the gorgeous village of Ballinakill, County Laois. It is another ecotourism attraction. The village will host the Pride of Place judges on Friday so I wish everyone the very best of luck.
From Ballinakill to Ballyshiel, Ballintubbert to Mount Briscoe and so many more places that I could mention, these are the hidden gems in the hidden heartlands of Ireland. With the wonderful entrepreneurial spirit of these enterprises, together with support from relevant State agencies, and Government support for greenways and blueways, these places will not remain hidden for long.
Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh ambasadóir na Breataine agus comhbhrón a dhéanamh leis. I join colleagues in expressing condolences to Ambassador Johnston and to the British people. I am mindful that the unionist people in the North, in particular, are in a period of mourning along with the people of Britain and, indeed, many other places around the world.Earlier this week, I returned from a trip to Canada.
I am also mindful of my friend, the late Martin McGuinness, and the genuine connection he developed with the Queen, which was a central part of Sinn Féin's commitment to reconciliation and outreach to the broad Unionist family throughout all of Ireland. In that spirit of reconciliation that was reflected in the exchanges between Martin and Queen Elizabeth, I acknowledge her support for the peace process and, in particular, during her historic visit to Ireland; for her remarks that she wished things had been done differently; for the respect she showed in the Garden of Remembrance when bowing her head to those who died for Ireland's freedom; and for the respect she displayed towards an Ghaeilge, the Irish language. These are all important moments in our peace and reconciliation processes. In the past 24 hours, at Hillsborough Castle we have seen even more historic moments develop and take place in the changed, and changing, relationships between Ireland and Britain. That is to be welcomed and encouraged, and will no doubt continue in the time ahead.
I want to mention, on a personal level, the passing of a well-known, respected and committed Republican Irish language and women's rights activist, Donncha Mac Niallais. He was centrally involved in the development of the Irish language in the city of Derry and throughout the county. He was associated with the Irish language education sectors. The Alliance for Choice Derry, after Donncha's passing, said this week that he was a committed champion for a woman's right to choose for many years. He was also a former Republican prisoner and was a dedicated proponent of our peace and political processes.
I welcome the period of consultation that was carried out by the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on Ireland's constitutional future. I thank all of those who took the time to make submissions to that initiative. I look forward to the work of the committee, hearing people's views and engaging with those views across the spectrum, no matter where they fall on the question.
It is under sad circumstances that the ambassador is here, but in acknowledging this sad occasion I also acknowledge the election of the new British Prime Minister, Liz Truss. I recognise her appointment and encourage the Irish Government to remain steadfast in ensuring the political relationships between Britain and Ireland are restored and that the Good Friday Agreement must be at the heart of our joint approach. We must ensure that for all the importance of symbolism, the institutions to which we all give support are back up and running and deliver for all our people.
I welcome the Leader and Senators back to the House after a long summer.
I begin by commiserating with Ambassador Johnston and the British people on the death of their Head of State and monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
I wish to raise the following issue because we hit a milestone over the summer; more than 10,000 people are now homeless in this country, the highest number since records began. Evictions are up 55%. While the housing issue is complex and takes time to address, there is something we can do on an immediate level to try to bring those numbers down. We know the majority of people entering homelessness come from the private rental sector. The number of evictions due to landlords selling up is an issue and a problem.
During the winter months in France, people were not allowed to be evicted into homelessness. From our perspective, we should look at changing legislation. The Labour Party has included in our renters' rights Bill that when a landlord is selling a property, which has a tenant is in place, that tenant may stay in situ. It is the same when it comes to a commercial tenant. If I were to buy a Brown Thomas building from the current owners or any other building on Grafton Street, the commercial tenants on the lease have the right to stay. If I do not want them to stay, I would have to buy them out of the lease. That gives them security of tenure and a right to stay. We must extend the same protections to people as those extended to commercial operations.At a really basic level, we know that one of the consequences of the eviction ban at the time of Covid was that homelessness fell. We need to immediately move to stop evictions. At the very least, if a property is being sold by one landlord to another, people should have security of tenure.
I want to raise an issue that arose over the summer, that is, construction defects. That report is now on the Minister's desk. We know that a potential 100,000 units built over the course of the Celtic tiger from 1991 to 2013 have defects. I was on a call last night with constituents who are living in an affected building. They are being told their bill is going to come to at least €68,000. They are terrified that the fire officer is going to kick them out. That has already happened to one person in Priory Hall. We need to move immediately in the budget for a redress scheme for these people who are affected by construction defects. We must make sure that is retrospective. These people need certainty. That work needs to take place as soon as possible. They are terrified the fire officer will kick them out. They are terrified that there is no certainty around whether they are going to start the works. We have established the precedent in the mica scheme and we need to extend that to the 100,000 people who are affected by construction defects.
I welcome everyone back after the recess which I hope was peaceful and restful. I also want to be associated with the condolences to Ambassador Johnston and to all in the UK who are in mourning. It is a very sad day.
There are many things which we all know eat away at the peace of mind of ordinary Irish people as winter approaches. One issue common to almost everyone is the increasingly crippling cost of living. Energy providers across the Irish market have repeatedly hiked their prices in an extraordinary and extortionate fashion. Energy companies have cynically invoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other geopolitical events to justify these price hikes. The remarks of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, about price caps and a windfall tax are very encouraging. We have yet to see the specifics but I am hopeful and positive that it will be a decisive and meaningful intervention. That was very welcome today.
The cost of living crisis is impacting everyone, but it cannot be said that it is impacting everyone equally. That is the real concern. In June, the ESRI published a report indicating that an unprecedented 29% of households are living in energy poverty. These households spend more than 10% of their net income on energy. Since the publication of that report there have been a number of vicious price hikes, so the situation is undoubtedly worse now. In a very low economy such as Ireland, many households at the bottom of the income gradient will be faced with making impossible choices. How do people choose between keeping their children fed and their house warm? The impact of inflation and poverty does not only affect low-income households. It has the potential to wreak widespread economic havoc. That is what I want to highlight today. The soaring cost of living erodes even middle-income earners' spending power. This means that people are less likely to go to restaurants or to the theatre, improve their homes or purchase consumer goods. This erosion of demand then threatens the viability of businesses that are themselves struggling with high energy costs. If these businesses close, the resulting job losses only further weaken demand. The vicious cycle is evident here.
Protecting consumer demand, particularly among low- and middle-income households, is essential for the purposes of social justice and effective economic management. That is why I am asking the Government for bold and ambitious thinking in respect of the recent recommendations of the Low Pay Commission. The Government is set to accept the commission's recommendation of an 80 cent increase to the minimum wage. The two members of the commission nominated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have dissented from this recommendation because it is an insufficient response to inflation. I ask that the Government institute an increase to the minimum wage above the 80 cent recommendation. I urge it to do so. Workers on the minimum wage do some of the most essential and difficult work that keeps our society functioning. We are failing them badly. They deserve real security and relief.Finally, I send my condolences to the families who lost children. Two children were lost in Tallaght last week as well as two in County Westmeath. It was a very sad week for Ireland. I send my condolences to those families. We are thinking of them.
I join Senator Black in remembering those two families and also the de Bromhead family. We sadly lost a little girl of eight years of age in County Roscommon as well and we are thinking of her today. It has been a sad time for many families, particularly when so many children have lost their chance to live, which should not happen.
I very much support the comments of Senator Craughwell regarding staff and ensuring our staff are well paid and looked after properly. My colleagues and I will insist that the staff get a proper deal. Everybody accepts that. I refer to Senators' staff in particular. Each Senator has one member of staff. They work very hard and, at times, very long hours. We have to look after them.
I think of the campaigners outside the gates of Leinster House today, particularly those campaigning with regard to cystic fibrosis. I think of the 35 children who need a particular drug. The matter has not been cleared up. I know the Taoiseach and the Minister are aware of it and want to do the right thing, and they will, but it is urgent that the drug be made available to those children. As far as I know, when they get to 12 years of age, they can have the drug. I met Caoimhe and Fiadh, sisters aged eight and six, respectively, who have Ballinasloe connections and who were outside Leinster House campaigning today. It was difficult and sad to see them out there. I appeal to the Leader to use her good offices to ensure that drug is made available to those 35 children. It is urgent.
I, too, wish to acknowledge the presence of the British ambassador, although he is not here now, and pass on condolences on the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Yesterday at Dublin Castle, the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach led an event aimed at increasing the participation of diverse and minority groups in politics. It was an excellent event, with three segments; one relating to diversity; another to young people's participation in politics; and another to female participation in politics. Each of the three segments was of very high quality. The contributions, the standard of debate and the ideas that were spoken about were excellent. I propose that we follow up on this in the Seanad by having three separate debates on those specific issues. In particular, we should debate the issue of diversity and minority groups because that is an area in which we are failing badly. I commend our colleagues, Senators Warfield and Flynn, on speaking at the event yesterday, along with the other speakers. In terms of youth, it is shocking that there are only three Members of Dáil Éireann under the age of 30. That figure was a lot higher two decades ago. There is clearly an issue in that regard. Although gender quotas have worked and we have 40% female representation in this House, there is work to be done in that regard in politics overall, such as at local authority level, and indeed in Dáil Éireann. That is something we could debate. We could consider issuing recommendations to follow up on the good work that was done yesterday.
I agree with the remarks of Senator Crowe in respect of transport. I have spoken regularly on the issue of standardised fares. In County Clare, there are several different buses serving a route from north Clare to Ennis and they are charging different prices. We need to standardise it. It needs to be fair to everybody - urban, rural, within counties and within the country as a whole.
I wish to raise the issue of the 35 Irish children with cystic fibrosis who are not yet being supplied with Kaftrio, a groundbreaking and life-saving drug.Many of us know that the exclusion of the 35 children stems from a price dispute between the HSE and the manufacturer Vertex and the fact that their inclusion was not foreseen in a 2017 pipeline agreement. All other eligible children and adults with cystic fibrosis in Ireland have already gained access to Kaftrio with the exception of the 35 children at the centre of this dispute. Lack of agreement could delay access to Kaftrio for up to five years for some children. Without Kaftrio, some might not even make it that far. However, the HSE's corporate pharmaceutical unit and Vertex have tied themselves up in a pricing dispute. Despite having met multiple times from the start of the year, there has been no meeting between them since 4 July. That means more than two months of no progress.
I raised this issue in the Chamber in June and it was raised in the Dáil as a parliamentary question in May. The response was that talks were ongoing. We were not told that negotiations would take a primary school summer holiday. Seeing as how neither the HSE nor the Minister seem to be prioritising their interactions with Vertex, I decided to reach out to it myself. I spoke on the phone yesterday to its executive country manager who filled me in about the negotiations. I am sure the families of the children in question would be interested to hear that Vertex actually offered to cover these children at the same cost per patient as in the existing agreement but as this would involve an additional budget commitment by the HSE, it was not quite good enough. It was not one of the many mantras of Covid along the lines that "we should not be gambling with lives" but apparently haggling is okay. I met Philip Watt, the CEO of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, outside Leinster House this afternoon. People with cystic fibrosis do not need more boardroom meetings or margins in an Excel spreadsheet. They need that medicine and we need to get it for them. I heard children talking out there today. I saw families who have lost daughters and daughters who now have children with cystic fibrosis waiting on this drug. It is criminal that we are not signing this document this week.
As party spokesperson on Northern Ireland, I express my condolences to Ambassador Johnston, his staff, everybody in the UK and not just the Protestant Unionist community but everybody across all counties on the island for whom she was their queen. I would go further and second the proposal by Senator Craughwell. I believe we should write to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and ask that those people in the public sector who want to view the funeral and who deemed her their queen be facilitated. I ask that the private sector try to facilitate that as well. I think it is only right given the large steps taken and the leadership shown by her in the past number of years, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. At a time when we are talking about sharing this island, it is only right that this be done.
I also request that we write to the Government, particularly the Minister for Finance, regarding the help-to-buy scheme. This scheme has helped over 30,000 people buy or build their homes over the past five years. It has been a vital cog in ensuring that people had enough money along with their deposit to get a family home. It is a vital scheme for which the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage increased the grant to up to €30,000 in the past couple of years. It is very important it is retained. It will reach the end of its life at the end of this year and it is important that a provision is included in the budget to ensure families can get this extra support of €30,000 to buy homes.
I also wish to be associated with the condolences expressed on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and to congratulate King Charles III. I express my condolences to the British ambassador, all those British people resident in Ireland and indeed many Irish people resident in the UK.There was a welcome announcement in the last budget of €50 million in funding for wastewater treatment schemes across the country. I understand that counties are to submit lists by tomorrow with two wastewater projects per county. I certainly do not wish to detract from the claims of any other counties, all of which also have high demand. County Galway, however, being the second biggest county, has a huge deficit in wastewater treatment schemes. It has only approximately 33 wastewater treatment schemes, compared with 93 in counties Tipperary and Donegal and more than 150 in County Cork. Therefore, a case could be made for counties such as Galway to have more than two of these schemes granted. We also have two offshore islands with inadequate sewerage schemes, namely, Inis Oírr, and Inis Mór, at Cill Rónáin. This is an excellent scheme, with 85% of the funding coming from the Exchequer and 15% from local authorities.
A case could be made in this regard. Ba cheart cás speisialta a dhéanamh i nGaillimh mar gheall ar an daonra agus an t-easnamh sa chaiteachas ar scéimeanna séarachais an Stáit le blianta. Tá áiteanna i nGaillimh cosúil le Carna, Cill Chiaráin, Baile na hAbhann, Inis Oírr, Cill Rónáin, Tully Cross, Lackagh agus Clarinbridge a theastaíonn scéimeanna go práinneach. Tá impleacht mór ar fhásadh na gceantar seo agus tá a fhios ag chuile dhuine go bhfuil easpa tithe le fáil in a lán áiteanna mar gheall ar easpa scéimeanna séarachais.
We know the importance of wastewater treatment schemes for preventing pollution but they are also important to ensure we have the infrastructure to build homes. Therefore, I ask the Leader to engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to see whether the number of grants for Galway, and other similar counties, could be increased from two to three or four to allow the backlog in this regard to be cleared.
I would like to be associated with the comments made and sympathies expressed to all the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ambassador and his team in Ireland and all those British people in Ireland and, of course, in Northern Ireland. The late Queen played a significant role, particularly in 2011, in improving and working with us all in the reconciliation process between ourselves and our closest neighbour. We all probably have friends and family living in the UK. I certainly do and I am sure many other people do too. We have great connections with our closest neighbour and Queen Elizabeth II certainly helped to improve those relations.
I welcome everybody back. It is an important time in our country and we need to be examining the issues affecting us. Most of them have been addressed. We have talked about the cost-of-living crisis. In that context, I would like to see a debate on retrofitting and other ways we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Many people would like to undertake retrofitting. Some do not have the cash, but, equally, there is a shortage of people available to provide these services. I would like to hear from the Minister how we are ramping up delivery in this area. Senator Moynihan referred to houses that were badly built from 1991 to 2013, but we all know of much older houses that also have poor insulation. People want to do this type of work, and not just for their budgets but also to improve their standard of living and the quality of life they experience in their homes. The problem is the labour is just not there to do this.
I also echo Senator Craughwell's support in the context of the issue concerning secretarial assistants, those who help us in everything we do. I refer especially to those here in the longer term. It is, of course, great that the new entrants are having their rates of pay improved, but it is also important that those who have been here longer, and who have shown just how valuable they are, also be recognised for all their contributions.
I mention as well today's State of the Union address by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She outlined the potential of windfall taxes and money being available to divert back to all of us, particularly to those most in need. Reference was also made to the EU's solidarity with Ukraine. The news coming from there in recent days has been positive. I am not sure if anyone else has mentioned this point yet. I refer to supporting the people of Ukraine and their President in all they are doing to try to re-establish control of those territories taken over during the illegal invasion in recent months. I thank the Leader and wish all of us the best for the next few months.
On this first day back, I again raise the issue of housing. This is simply because each week and each month the situation continues to get worse. The figures for July are shocking. The number of homeless people rose to 10,568, including 3,137 children.That is higher than the previous peak in October 2019. I have to put it to the Leader that the policies pursued by this Government directly resulted in that increase in homelessness, specifically, the decision to lift the ban on evictions in April of last year. Since then, homelessness has increased by 25% and child homelessness is up by 43%. That is the record of this Government since April of last year. Family homelessness is up by 30%.
We are spending half of what we need to on housing. Those are not my words; those are the words of the Government’s own think tank, the ESRI. We need an immediate ban on evictions. We need a doubling of investment in housing. However, perhaps the issue that shows quite how out of touch the Government is is the refusal of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to raise the income thresholds for local authority housing. An increase has been allowed in just five counties. In Limerick, the threshold is €30,000 for a single person. Does anyone on the Government benches think that someone earning more than €30,000 can fund their own housing at this point in time? They are facing rents of up to €1,500 a month. They are trapped in the rental market and local authorities are saying that they will not help them. The threshold is there at €30,000. The Minister has a report on income thresholds on his desk since last December and he has refused to publish it. That is a political choice he is making that is trapping hundreds of thousands of working people in this horrific rental market where they are paying ridiculously over the odds and have no prospect of getting out. These are Government choices. We need better choices. I am asking for an urgent debate on this issue.
I would like also to acknowledge the presence of the British ambassador in the Chamber. I express my condolences as well to the Royal Family on the death of Queen Elizabeth II. I congratulate King Charles III and wish him well.
I would also like to be associated with the other expressions of sympathy to the families that have been tragically lost over the past week. We had one in County Mayo as well. It was a very sad week for this country.
I would like to ask for debate on inland fisheries. We should invite the Minister with responsibility, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House as a matter of urgency. We do not have a junior Minister for fisheries or inland fisheries, so the full responsibility is with the Minister. I received information that things are not all what the are supposed to be in relation to Inland Fisheries Ireland and there are issues relating to the board. The chairman of the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland has resigned and there are problems with staff and employment. We should have an urgent debate on all those issues in the very near future.
Recently, Inland Fisheries Ireland published a report on the western lakes and plans for them. However, not all of the lakes are included. For example, the Castlebar lakes in my own area do not seem to be included. We have had weed cut every year on those lakes. So far this year, the weed on those lakes is overgrown. We have had that weed cut every year, but there does not seem to have been any action this year in on weed cutting on those particular lakes.
I would be delighted if the Leader could arrange a debate on inland fisheries as a matter of urgency.
I also express my condolences to the British people, the ambassador, H.E. Paul Johnston and everyone who is grieving the Queen’s loss.
I ask that we have a debate on school transport and the challenges we have had in respect children who have not been able to get school buses over the past number of weeks. I have been inundated in County Tipperary with calls from parents whose children have been getting the bus for a number of years and, because of an increased demand, have not been able to get on it this year. In particular, I refer to the bus route between Drangan and Ballingarry. My colleague, Councillor Mark Fitzgerald, is dealing with an awful lot of parents there who have still have not gotten any answers. We keep going back to tell them that we think a decision will be made sometime soon.It is infuriating for them. I know of one person who only needs a seat on a school bus for the journey home on Wednesday afternoons. On nine of the journeys a week that seat is free. It is incredibly frustrating for people who genuinely need the bus twice a day five days a week. Certainly the view out there is that this has happened because of the decisions the Government made. I am not sure this is entirely true but we need to make sure the issues facing people who are genuinely struggling and have had to make changes to their work or employment over recent weeks, which they did not expect to have to do, can be sorted as quickly as possible. On the route I am speaking about, Drangan and Ballingarry, the issue is a very simple one. Kavanagh's bus company has a bus ready to go to bring all of the children. All we need is for it to be signed off by the Minister.
I second Senator Ahearn's proposal. The issues we faced over the summer, in August in particular, had to do with school transport. This has been highlighted. The Government made a commitment to provide free transport for the year. We have neglected to provide transport for some and this is not acceptable. From our children at home I am aware of two routes to Moyne Community School and the secondary schools in Ballymahon. I know of one family where the father drives to Dublin at 6.30 a.m. and the mother drops their children and those of other people from 7 a.m. because they do not have transport. I know of another family with three children who have no transport to school. We need a debate on this. We need to sort out the situation for families. It is unacceptable that this has happened.
I cannot understand why this issue arises every year. Applications are made in April but payments are not made until the end of July. Why can this not all be sorted out over the summer? The same issue arises every year with problems at the start of the school year. It is not acceptable and somebody has to answer for it.
I met a large group of parents from Cystic Fibrosis Ireland outside Leinster House, including someone I know very well. Jillian McNulty is well known to Senators. She led the campaign for the drug Orkambi. I was delighted to see her there. I was not expecting to see her because she received a kidney transplant only three weeks ago. She is doing well and in great form. I was delighted to meet her outside. She was campaigning for 35 children from throughout Ireland who are not able to receive a life-saving drug called Kaftrio. This is not acceptable. Some of the children were there today, as were the parents of other children. The HSE cannot come to an agreement with the drug company to fund this treatment. The treatment exists and it is accessible. Other children receive it but these 35 children do not. This is not acceptable and I want to highlight it to the Minister for Health.
I pay my condolences to the British ambassador who was here earlier on the impact of the loss of the Queen. She made such a stir when she travelled to Ireland in 2011. It tugged at everyone's heartstrings to see the effort she put into every meeting she attended and speech she gave when she was here. It built an awful lot of bridges that we need to continue fighting for.
I also want to speak about the cystic fibrosis group whose members were outside the gates of Leinster House today and who were mentioned by Senator Carrigy. There was a young mother there with links to my home town. Two of her daughters cannot access the drug. It is a very difficult situation. From what I understand, the Minister for Health will meet the pharmaceutical company involved on Friday. This is the notice given to the group. We would like to see some action taken. The negotiations on it are difficult.
I acknowledge the funding that has come through CLÁR, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and her Department. Yesterday, a second tranche of funding was announced. This includes more than 15 projects in County Galway and 12 projects in County Roscommon. Funding through CLÁR for towns and villages has increased from €5 million to €7.5 million, which means a large number of groups and communities will benefit. Many people received positive news yesterday and I hope we will see more rounds of CLÁR funding in the future. It is all thanks to the Our Rural Future policy driven by the Government and Fine Gael.
That is alright. It is marvellous to be back in here again. I hope everyone, Members and staff alike, had a pleasant summer.
I rise to continue with the topic I raised in the House just before we finished for the summer, that is, animal welfare in Dublin Zoo. Dublin Zoo responded via the media to the statement I made then to call for "an independent investigation into these allegations" and that seems right and proper, but what did the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage do? That Department oversees the zoo by the way, not that one would have known that over the summer when I and my office were being bounced from Department to Department. No-one seemed to have a clue who was in charge and it was certainly a lesson for bright-eyed and bushy-tailed me. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out who was responsible for the zoo. It was, by all accounts, the mystery of the summer. I am thankful the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage realised the error of its ways and that it was the body that had responsibility for the zoo and had the protected disclosure.
Colour me surprised when I learned, once again via the media, that the Department's own body for parks and wildlife would be investigating the claims made in the protected disclosure. I fail to see how it is possible for the same body that routinely inspects the zoo to now be charged with investigating the allegations of animal mistreatment. The allegations in that protected disclosure - more of which I will be raising in the coming weeks - should be properly and independently investigated and I do not understand how a body that was already overseeing the zoo can be charged with looking at things again. It is investigating its own investigations and that is ridiculous.
I have spoken to some of the staff of Dublin Zoo who were interviewed as part of this investigation. They told me they felt very intimidated. Another staff member was told they could not count when it came to issues of missing or indeed additional animals. The investigators also told staff they were there to investigate animal welfare and not issues of management or human resources. Let me assure Members that issues of human resourcing and management were covered in the protected disclosure. I am now not entirely sure what body is responsible for that. Will I be sent on yet another wild goose chase from Department to Department until the Minister eventually cottons on that these things fall under the Department's remit? To add insult to injury, there are no transcripts or recordings available of those interviews, despite interviewees making requests for their own data.
I had hoped I would come back here with news these concerns were dealt with and that a robust, open and fair investigation had taken place. However, I think I was overly ambitious and I do not have faith in the investigation. The staff I spoke to do not either. It seems to me there is going to be a whitewash to try to silence and cover up the allegations disclosed to me and shared with the Minister responsible. We owe more to the animals in the zoo, the public and the staff, and as politicians we owe more to our own public, than to stand over this ridiculous investigation and silencing of brave staff who are coming forward to raise real, genuine concerns for the animals because they know and believe Dublin Zoo can and should be the best zoo in Europe. I am immensely disappointed and can only try to relay the frustration, fear and disappointment on behalf of the staff who have come forward and spoken to me about this investigation and how things are happening. I assure everyone here I will not be letting this go.
I agree with my two colleagues on the issue of cystic fibrosis. What we saw this afternoon was a real, passionate cry for help in so many ways. The 35 kids who are waiting for this drug are stuck in limbo as they wait for the negotiations next Friday between the Department and the drug company. Accordingly, I suggest to the Leader that we might write to the Minister to say the matter was raised. Perhaps we should put on the schedule that the Minister should come in and speak about the issues regarding CF. It is a real issue in so many ways for these poor families who are caught in limbo.
The other issue I wish to raise is the report of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare that was published recently. This a huge issue, especially the recommendations on inheritance tax and how that is going to affect people. There is an expectation out there that there are going to be huge changes. The changes will have a huge impact on society if they happen and a debate in this House would be appropriate. There will definitely be different views in the House but if we look at it from the agricultural point of view, these people are just making a living. If they must pay capital gains tax on land transferred from a farmer to his or her son or daughter at the percentage being talked about, it would mean the entity itself would be unviable. Therefore, we will have to be very conscious of what we are talking about and the real knock-on effect it will have for rural Ireland. We have a huge issue at the moment with the age profile of farmers.If we are to implement this measure, the age profile will only go one way for the obvious reason that farmers will not be able to afford to transfer their land. We require in this Chamber a debate on the commission's report with the Minister of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue. We need to allay fears and make sure we get the right message out there, particularly when it comes to that issue.
I thank colleagues for raising the various topics today. Senator Lombard requested a debate on the taxation and welfare report. I suggest we would have to allocate a hell of a lot more than the normal 90 minutes to that particular report. I note the large amount of sensationalist reporting and scaremongering in recent weeks, maybe to fill the pages of our newspapers because there was not much else to fill them with. I will be pleased to arrange a debate. I am even more pleased that the Taoiseach announced yesterday that the kite flown by a newspaper with regard to inheritance tax is not one that will be considered in the budget negotiations over the next couple of weeks.
Senators Lombard, Dolan and Carrigy, and Senator Keogan who led on the matter today, raised the issue of the 35 supporters of children who are outside the gates of Leinster House this afternoon. It is fair to say that we all support the people who are waiting on this drug, Kaftrio. We know the life-changing impact it has had from the previous campaigns by parents of children aged over 12 who were provided with the drug some years ago. When the negotiations were held between the HSE and the company that makes the drug in 2017, the drug had not then been verified for use by children under the age of 12. Therefore, even at that stage we could not have included children under 12. I totally appreciate that and that is why they were not included then. However, we now know the benefits the drug would provide for the 35 children whose parents were outside the gate today. They come from all parts of the country. It is a crime that we have been farting around since 4 July talking about how much we are going to pay when an offer has been made to provide the drug at exactly the same price that is paid for children over the age of 12. I am embarrassed to have to say that I will write today to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, not just expressing the Seanad's wish to have this matter sorted out but, on behalf of Senators, seeking a meeting with the Minister and the Taoiseach. There are some instances and issues that are above and beyond politics and this is one of them. I thank colleagues for raising this matter.
I wish Senator Hoey well in her investigations and her representations on what is clearly a distressing issue for the staff of Dublin Zoo related to the welfare of the animals there. When a protected disclosure is made to a Minister or Department it is incumbent on them, under the legislation as written, to carry out an investigation. It seems bizarre that those doing the investigation are investigating themselves. I wish Senator Hoey well with this matter and I hope she will not be given the run-around in future.
Senators Carrigy and Ahearn requested a debate on school transport. The initiative, which seemed to be wonderful when it was announced, has clearly had unintended consequences because thousands of children who were able to get a school bus last year cannot get school transport this year. Saying we have issued 125,000 tickets this year whereas we only had 102,000 tickets last year does not herald this as the success we would like to think it is. We have a kind of Groundhog Day every single year when school transport issues arise and everybody raises them. It is the same issue every single year. This year, we have added fuel to the fire and we certainly cannot wait any longer. The Minister was in the Chamber earlier taking a Commencement matter with a number of colleagues. I will ask for a debate because this issue needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.
Senator Burke requested a debate on inland fisheries which I will facilitate. Senator Gavan requested a debate on housing which I will also facilitate. Senator Horkan requested a debate on retrofitting and the shortages of labour that seem to be stalling these projects, and I will facilitate that. Senator Kyne asked me to engage with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, regarding the level of funding for water treatment facilities around the country. It seems bizarre that a county as large as Galway only has 33 such facilities. While Tipperary is a large county, the difference - 33 facilities versus 99 - does not correspond to the size of those two counties. I will engage with the Minister on the matter.
Senator Blaney asked me to write to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, urging him to continue the help-to-buy scheme, which has been a success for all of those who have managed to get their tax back and help pay towards their houses. I will be happy to do that.
Senator Conway requested debates on the three topics that were central to the debate at a symposium in Dublin Castle yesterday. Again, I will try to facilitate that.
Senator Murphy, among other colleagues, raised the secretarial assistant contract negotiations and the recommendations issued to all of us this morning. An invitation has been made to every one of us to respond to the recommendations. As mooted today, some elements are welcome while others are clearly not welcome. I encourage all Senators to make their views known and make representations on behalf of their staff.
Senator Black asked us to be bold and ambitious with regard to the increase in the minimum wage. This will be the tenth increase in the past ten years, which is welcome. I fully understand and appreciate that certain bodies do not feel the increase will cover the cost of living. I will certainly relay that view on the Senator's behalf.
Senator Moynihan asked for the construction defects report on 100,000 homes. They are homes. Sometimes reports describe them as "units" but people live in houses or homes, not units. These are real people's lives. They have been living in stress and fear for far too long. I will write to the Minister asking for a resolution or at least a response to the report he has had for many months now.
Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke very eloquently about the response to the Queen passing. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke this morning about food producers in counties Laois and Offaly. Senator Craughwell asked us all to write a letter to the commission regarding secretarial assistants. He also sought a debate on a conflict of interest that has been uncovered. In fairness to the Senator, as we are all aware, he protests in the House week in and week out about not getting answers. Finally, during the summer, he did get answers and they were not pleasant. I will seek a debate with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, with regard to the search and rescue, SAR, tender and the business case.
Senator Byrne highlighted the student accommodation issue at the University of Limerick and Mary Immaculate College and asked me to check with the Minister for Health with regard to the effect on medical cards, which I will certainly do today.
Senator Crowe stated that is unacceptable in 2022 that Bus Éireann does not take card or phone payments. Cash is no longer the only acceptable payment method and he asked that the company be brought out of the dark ages. I will certainly raise that matter with the Minister for Transport