Wednesday, 21 September 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I concur with the Cathaoirleach's remarks and welcome the Speaker and our Maltese friends to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery. They are most welcome here this morning.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the Seventeenth Report of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion regarding the reappointment of members of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, motion regarding proposed approval by Seanad Éireann of the Institutional Burials Act 2022 (Director of Authorised Intervention, Tuam) Order 2022, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude after one hour, if not previously concluded, with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed six minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes each, and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 4, Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, Report Stage (resumed) and Final Stages, to be taken at 1.45 p.m. and to adjourn at 3.45 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 5, Air Navigation and Transport Bill 2020 – Committee Stage (resumed), to adjourn at 5.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 6, statements on the procurement process for a new Irish Coast Guard aviation service, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 5, whichever is the earlier, and to conclude after one hour, if not previously concluded, with the opening contribution of the Minister is not to exceed six minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes each, and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; and Private Members’ business, No. 114, motion 3 regarding school transport, to be taken at 6.30 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 6, whichever is the later, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming our Maltese friends and the Speaker. I have a family connection with Malta insofar as my mother's great aunt was a Little Sister of the Poor who went out to Malta aged 16 years, believe it or not, and was in the convent in Hamrun near Valletta. I visited her grave some years ago. It was a tremendous commitment on her part but it was also a very sad story. She left Ireland as a young woman at 16 years and she never returned. At some stage in the 1950s or 1960s, a group of our family were emigrating to Australia and the boat they took was to stop in Valletta. There was great excitement as a package was prepared for a Sr. Louis Charles, as her name was. She went down to Valletta to meet the boat but, unfortunately, there was a storm and the boat was unable to dock. It was a terrible sadness at that time. The boat continued and she never got to meet anyone from her family again. It shows that, going back, the links between Malta and Ireland are very strong. I have heard people say we are the only English-speaking country left in the EU, but of course that is not true. It is great to see another English-speaking nation join us here today. They are very welcome.
In the context of the EU, colleagues here are members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It is responsible for the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, in Strasbourg. This week it elected Síofra O'Leary, the Irish judge, as the president of the court. That is a tremendous honour. Síofra O'Leary is a very accomplished European lawyer and has a proven track record on the court. It is very welcome that the honour has been bestowed on the Irish judge on the court and that she would be elected president. It is important to point out the ECHR goes beyond the borders of the EU and to the Council of Europe. It is an incredibly important body.
One of the most important things we have done in Ireland in recent times, which I very much welcome, is that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has moved to join a case against Russia under Article 16 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia has been excluded from the Council of Europe because of its illegal actions in Ukraine, but there was a six-month window which ran until last Friday within which actions could be taken against Russia in the European court for breaches of the convention. I called in the House on 25 May last year for Ireland to initiate or join such a case. I am delighted the Minister, Deputy Coveney has now done that and we will be part of an action taken by a number of European states against Russia for its egregious breaches of the convention against Ukraine. We know the history of that conflict. We have had Ukrainian MPs here and some of us have visited Ukraine. It is entirely appropriate and laudable that Ireland would join that action and put down a very clear marker that we in no way accept the validity of Russia's actions which were compounded this week by Mr. Putin's support for sham referendums in the occupied territories in Ukraine. I welcome that action by this country. It is part of our proud tradition as part of the Council of Europe. I congratulate the president of the court.
I also add my voice in welcoming our distinguished visitors form Malta. I have had the opportunity to visit Malta on the area of inclusion in sport, the Special Olympics and the Paralympics. I know the Maltese have a very strong and proud tradition of excellent inclusion in their country. I also add my congratulations to judge Síofra O'Leary. She is not only the first Irish person to hold the post but also the very first woman to hold the position of president. We are all incredibly proud of her. She is a very strong leader over in Strasbourg in the European world of justice.
The National Transport Authority, NTA, has just released the new timetable to come into effect from 11 December, with additional train services in Mayo, Carlow and Tullamore and the commuter belt. Newbridge will have 12 extra services, which will be very welcome. They are very important to us. There will also be additional services between Hazelhatch and Pearse and Grand Canal Dock stations. I contend we need to have the extra services to Grand Canal Dock starting before Hazelhatch. It is very important Newbridge and Kildare have the opportunity. I got the train this morning. There are only two of those particular trains and only one that would suit if someone had to be somewhere for 9 a.m. There is a consultation on this on the NTA website. It is open until Sunday, 3 October. It is important the public gives its feedback and keeps pressing for the extension of the short hop zone to that area.
I also raise the issue of modular housing. All our communities and towns have been under a lot of pressure with housing, and at the same time they have shown a very strong welcome to the Ukrainians. There is a pilot scheme of modular housing for Ukrainians in five counties. I am not opposed at all to modular housing. In fact, we should have been looking at them long ago for our own housing situation and for students. However, I really object to the manner in which they are happening. Two pilot sites have been chosen in Kildare. There will be no planning process whatever. Kildare councillors have just come through a very detailed process of the county development plan. It is wrong when all that is ignored and there is no room for third level submissions. It is the wrong system and the Minister needs to look at that.
The Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE, looks after ex-military personnel and does incredible work in our communities. We are very lucky it has a full-time centre in Athy. Newbridge has a considerable concentration of former military personnel. The St. Conleth branch in the Curragh camp has to leave because the premises is not suitable. It is crucial we provide a place in the town of Newbridge. It is basically an advice centre combined with a community-type men's shed. The Department of Defence should help support it along with Kildare County Council.
Before we proceed, I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the Maltese delegation. I had the privilege of meeting them with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs committee yesterday. I echo the Cathaoirelach's words and those of the other Senators on that. They are very welcome. We are friendly countries with a lot of cultural ties and many political issues in common. It is great to have everyone here and I hope this will start a period of further friendship between our two great countries.I echo the words of our Cathaoirleach. I hope the rest of their trip is successful and that they have a safe journey back.
I return to the list of speakers. Next is Councillor Sharon Keogan, my neighbour from Cavan. I could hardly ignore a Cavan woman.
I was elected as a Senator, but as the Leas-Chathaoirleach addressed me as "Councillor", that is fine. I echo the welcome to the Maltese delegation. I visited Malta this summer. It is the most beautiful country. If Senators have not been there, please go.
I raise an issue regarding the Covid-19 inquiry. At the end of August, both the UK and Northern Ireland established independent Covid-19 inquiries examining the response to the pandemic by Boris Johnson's Cabinet and the Northern Ireland Executive, respectively. Ireland is nowhere to be seen. Why is this country's leadership so afraid of accountability? I first raised this issue in the House as far back as July of last year. I knew then that the far-reaching and sweeping measures being adopted by the Government at the National Public Health Emergency Team's suggestion-order would demand retrospective appraisal and critical analysis.
I reiterated the call for an inquiry in January of this year and we finally got the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to spill the coffee and address the matter, with the former, amid much humming and hawing, making a promise to carry out an evaluation of how the country managed Covid-19. Eight months on, that pledge seems to been given the old Irish political treatment of do not mention the war, hope that people will forget and sweep the matter under the carpet. After all, we are in a cost-of-living crisis now. Why learn from one crisis when we can jump straight into another? The Taoiseach said he would prefer if we use the term "evaluation" as opposed to "inquiry", as the latter implies there are people to blame.
The former minister for health in France was under investigation over her handling of Covid-19. Investigators have concluded that there are grounds for prosecution. Only in Ireland could the Government implement two years of rolling lockdowns, restrictions and various other direct interventions in the lives of members of the public and then turn around and say no one is responsible for that. It is the insulating effect of a whole-of-government approach, perhaps. The UK inquiry is set to become the largest statutory enquiry in British legal history, with 20,000 submissions passed last month. The chair has told Departments there to protect evidence, including WhatsApp messages, from destruction. It is probably too late for that here.
Postponing the establishment of our Covid-19 tribunal serves no one but those who fear it and what it will find. Ignoring the need for it completely would be an abject failure on the part of the Government and an insult to the Irish people, who deserve answers based on hard, cold facts now that the cobwebs of Covid spin and narrative-building have fallen away. There are questions that need to be answered. I am not sure if even Ireland's carpet is big enough to conceal what happened in the past two years. Our Covid inquiry needs to be established. I do not know who the Deputy Leader wants to bring in here to tell us what is being done, just as long as there is someone who can say that we will start the process and mean it. Government needs to stop hiding in the dark because this will not go away.
I join Senators O'Loughlin and Ward in congratulating Síofra O'Leary, who I have met on many occasions in Strasbourg, on her appointment as chief judge in the European Court of Human Rights. It is a wonderful honour and huge personal achievement for her. She is, as Senator O'Loughlin will know, a particularly nice individual and a lovely lady who is proud of her Irish identity. Her father was Captain of the Guard here and a member of the staff for many years. It is something of which all the staff of the House can be proud. We need to move on. I will make no further interjections.
It would have been good to welcome our Maltese colleagues but I look forward to the day we can celebrate the independence of our island from Britain. I commend Malta, as an island nation on the periphery of Europe, on its support during the Brexit negotiations and on being a leader in Europe and across the world in the area of LGBT rights. Malta was the first country in Europe to ban conversion therapy in a Act on which I based the Bill I introduced here.
Every day, young people and students are boarding overcrowded trains because they cannot find accommodation in Dublin. Hospitality workers tell us they are taking a year out from their studies because they cannot afford to pay fees. We listen to young artists and graduates who are making a cultural and creative life in cities around Europe, including Berlin and Glasgow. Those anecdotes are not the exception. Recent Red C research for the National Youth Council of Ireland suggests they are becoming the norm. It found that more than 70% of young people aged between 18 and 24 are considering emigrating because they think they would enjoy a better quality of life elsewhere, 80% are fearful of the future, 50% report worsening mental health in the context of the cost of living and 40% are less happy than they were six months ago.
Those fears and belief are not unfounded. A recent report by the Residential Tenancies Board shows average rent for a new tenancy in quarter 1 of this year was €1,460 nationally and €2,015 in Dublin. What future is there for Ireland if we do not invest in our young people and solve the housing crisis? The National Youth Council of Ireland has called for investment in youth services and mental health reform in budget 2023. There needs to be targeted action in this budget for young people to address the cost of living and prioritise progress in tackling youth homelessness. I support the National Youth Council of Ireland's pre-budget submission and call on the Government to consider it and adopt the council's proposals.
I will raise two issues with the Deputy Leader. The first is one I am sure other Members of the House have come across in recent weeks. It is the delay in exceptional needs payments through the community welfare officer service. I recognise the important work that our community welfare officers, CWOs, carry out each day on the front line of this cost-of-living crisis. Over many years, I am sure like others, I have worked closely with many CWOs for the benefit of those that need help most. However, the community welfare service is changing and we need to debate those changes in this House before the community and welfare parts of this once great service are taken away for good. On average, I am told, exceptional needs payments take four to six weeks to get to the CWO for decision. This is not good enough, as I am sure we can all agree.
There seems to be an attempt on the part of Government to centralise the service, introducing an unnecessary and delaying step where clerical officers first see the claims, rather than the CWOs, as was always the case. There is now a centralised phone number which many people I speak to find it impossible to get through, and which advises in the first instance that those wishing to avail of the system should send an email. This is difficult for many of those who have to avail of the system.
I spoke in this House before the summer of the additional needs payment which was announced by Government and advertised by the Department. This scheme and the ads promoting it seem to have disappeared and been abandoned by the Department. We are now in a cost-of-living crisis and are told it will deepen yet the service many depend on is changing and not for the better. I am sure many Members have developed great working relationships with the CWOs in their areas. That relationship is under threat. The service is not working. Those CWOs left in the system are being put under great pressure to change practices that have worked in our communities for many years. They need our support. Most importantly, however, the service must continue to do what it says on the tin. It is a community service to assist those who need it most. It must remain rooted in our communities and not be centralised to major towns and cities. I would appreciate an opportunity to debate this with the Minister. I raised it this morning at the social protection committee, of which I am a member, but I think we need to debate it in this House as well.Like my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, I welcome the extension of train services to Newbridge. The short-hop zone needs to be extended too. We will continue to campaign for that.
The second issue that I want to raise is the youth travel scheme. I welcomed this scheme in this House previously. I also welcomed that it has been extended to private operators, which was great. As my colleague, Senator Warfield, said, we have a student accommodation crisis. Those who are attending third level education who are 17 or 18 years of age cannot avail of the youth travel scheme. They are outside the scheme. I have been contacted by many people, particularly those of 18 years of age, who are paying double the cost that a sibling who is two or three years older paid to go to college. They have no other option because of the accommodation crisis. I ask that the matter be raised again and for the youth travel scheme to be changed.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for giving me the right time to speak. Over the last two or three days, we saw on social media what happened in Cherry Orchard in Ballyfermot. I want to put on the record that these young people are not scumbags, thugs or low lifes in society. They have been failed time and again. Their parents and their grandparents have been failed by the State, by previous Governments and, unfortunately, by this Government.
Instead of this House and the media calling these young people names, we should invest in young people. By calling them names and feeding into it, we drive young people further into poverty and away from society. We should not do that. I know Ballyfermot. I went to school in that area. With all my heart, I say that Ballyfermot is the loveliest community in all of Ireland, even though Senator Ruane might think it is Tallaght. For me, it is genuinely Ballyfermot. People would give you the coat off their back. I ask that we invest in services, including the Ballyfermot Youth Service, the Ballyfermot FamiliBase and schools, to support young people. I ask that we have a Garda presence in our communities to stop what is going on. I know, as a person who was born and reared in Ballyfermot, that we are not all bad people there. If we were not failed by the State and had good services put in place, with good outcomes and jobs for people in this area, we would not see what we have seen over the last few days.
On another note, I welcome a young Traveller man who is on placement at the moment. He is not in my office, because I am not good enough for him, but he is with the Ceann Comhairle. He is there today and will be there next Wednesday. I welcome the opportunity for young members of the Traveller community to have placements here in our Parliament. His name is James Stokes. He said to Senator Conway earlier that he is going to be the Taoiseach. I hope that James will continue to go into politics after hopefully having a positive experience here in our Parliament.
I join with my colleagues in expressing my admiration for Síofra O'Leary. Members of this House have congratulated her. It is great to have the insight that her father worked here. It brings us even closer to her. I congratulate her.
I add to what Senator Flynn said about the videos circulating on social media. The ramming of a Garda car anywhere in the country is disgraceful. These are kids who have been abandoned and neglected by us. These communities do not just need more resources, although obviously more resources are welcome. There is a cultural and socioeconomic aspect to this. We need a deep dive into how we can support and help communities more. Many structures are already in place. Some are supported, but some are not. I know my colleague, Senator Ruane, has called for a citizens' assembly on drugs. While it is not as simple as having a citizens' assembly on drugs, that would provide a deep dive into our communities and how drugs affect families, communities, housing and education. It would also look at addiction issues. We need to go back to what is causing these problems. It is not just drugs, but also education.
When the DEIS programme was originally set up, it was set up to combat social deprivation in our cities. I welcome the recent expansion of DEIS to rural areas, but I think that we might have lost sight of what DEIS was actually about. It was about giving kids an equal playing field. It is great that rural areas and other areas in Dublin have got DEIS status. It has lost the focus that was there when DEIS was originally established. We need to go back to our education system and see what supports we can give our young people. No one can decide exactly where to live. Obviously, we would all love to live in a big palace with every support possible, which is not possible. We do not choose where we are born. These children are not affected by additional issues. They are affected by addiction, poor housing and a bad education system. The Government can do something to give them a better education. My message is that we should look at DEIS. I would appreciate if that could be brought back to the Minister.
I raise the issue and ask for a debate, as the budget approaches, on the 9% VAT rate. I come from a rural part of the country where tourism is really important to how we will sustain ourselves in future. Other speakers have mentioned the talk in the media and in political circles about price-gouging and hotels implementing costs for rooms and food which are too high. There is a difference between a family-run hotel in west Cork and a conglomerate based in Dublin. That rural-urban divide in the prices needs to be taken into consideration in the debate. Last weekend, I went to a concert in Croke Park. We drove back to Cork because the closest accommodation we could get had a price range of €500. There is an issue with price-gouging in the capital city.
If one looks at that scenario in other rural areas, whether Cavan, Mayo or Cork, I do not think that is the real issue here. We need to focus on rural tourism and trying to get people into the regions, in places like west Cork. We are affecting that by talking down our industry, which is a real issue. By talking it down and saying there are issues with price gouging, when we do not have such issues, there will be a knock-on implication for the sustainability of rural Ireland.
I met a group of hoteliers last Monday at 7.30 a.m. It was obvious that some would be closing for three months next October, because that is their model. A hotel in Glengarriff would not be open for 12 months of the year. Those hoteliers are looking at a scenario where they bring in Ukrainians or they try to sustain their model to go back into tourism next year. The debate about the 9% VAT rate has to take into account the context of where the hotel is and not tar everyone with the same brush.
I welcome the comments of Senators Flynn and Ardagh. I am always apprehensive about speaking on these issues because some people would like to think that we are condoning behaviour when we are not. People can call out behaviour as wrong. What happened in Cherry Orchard is wrong. How we challenge that is a whole different story. How we speak about and understand it is much more nuanced than one will ever see online or often even in this Chamber. Some of the commentary I saw online stated that there are no repercussions or consequences for these young men. Their lives and how generations have lived for years are the consequence. We are living with consequences every single day when we continue to bury our loved ones and our family members, and when we continue to be destroyed by chaotic drug use, by death in our community and by violence in our community.Our literal existence is often the consequence.
A garda coming into an estate or a potential day in court is not a consequence in comparison with what people are actually living within their everyday life. Of course it does not matter because, to them, they do not matter and their future does not matter. They have never mattered and their parents never mattered. How can they even begin to engage with a justice system as something that will deter them from engaging in any sort of criminal or antisocial behaviour? Their lives are already so difficult that it is not relative. You or I might be afraid of ending up having to do a stint in St. Patrick's Institution or Oberstown Children Detention Campus or of going to court because our lives are nice, safe and happy and we have a lot to lose. If you have nothing to lose, how can you even begin to think that a justice approach or asking for more gardaí will solve the problem? There is something very wrong with our society if people have nothing to lose. That is what we need to look at and invest in.
I ask that we have a debate with the Minister for Health in the context of private nursing homes. They are at a crisis stage at this point in terms recruiting staff but even more so in terms of retaining staff. Many members of their staff go to work for the HSE and have left them in the past number of years. They have struggled to replace them and this is for a variety of reasons, cost being one.
People who do not understand the private nursing home system ask why we do not just pay them more money, but they have a cap on how much they can charge people who are coming into a nursing home. They are limited in what they can do. We have a crazy situation whereby people who would have worked in private nursing homes were not able to avail of the Covid-19 payment that people who work in the public health sector received. Yet, if they move into HSE role, on top of having a higher salary, they can get the €1,000 payment because worked throughout Covid-19 and because they are now in HSE system they can receive the payment. This is another attraction to leave nursing homes and to go to work for the HSE. This is a real issue. I have spoken to a number of nursing homes that are at their wits' end in terms of trying to maintain staff and recruit staff.
We, as a Government, are prioritising childcare. We have new system in place for capping the price of childcare, for increasing payments for people who work in that sector and for supporting businesses to maintain themselves. We need to do something similar for private nursing homes in order to make sure that they can maintain the quality service they provide, which is really important in local areas such as that in which I live in Tipperary, and that people who want to work in the sector are not being drawn away to work for the HSE.
I raise the issue of the workers in section 39 organisations who are going on strike this week. A number of workers from the Irish Wheelchair Association, St. Joseph's Foundation and EmployAbility are on strike today in Cork. Tomorrow, workers in the Western Care Association in Mayo, Ability West in Galway and selected community employment schemes in Donegal will be striking. The final group of workers taking part in this wave of strike action will be those employed by Enable Ireland in counties Cork and Kerry.
Here are the stark facts. For 14 years these workers have been denied a pay increase. Interestingly, when Fianna Fáil was in government, it was happy to include these workers in pay cuts, but now, following 14 years of a denial of a pay increase, the Government is unbelievably saying that this has nothing to do with it. That is even though every one of us in this room knows that the only way these workers can get a pay increase is through an increase in grants to the HSE. This is the second set of strikes to take place because of the Government’s refusal to engage with the unions involved, namely, my union, SIPTU, Fórsa and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. I have to ask for how much longer will these workers have to go on strike? For how much longer will they be ignored? These are the very workers that the Government was happy to applaud during Covid-19. They are essential workers who do transformative work with people with disabilities, children with disabilities and the most vulnerable people in our society. The Government was happy to applaud them, and now it turns its backs on them. They have been 14 years without a pay increase. That is shameful. There is no excuse for it.
I ask for an urgent debate on this matter. I would like the Deputy Leader to make a clear statement calling on the Government to engage with the trade unions without delay because these workers cannot afford to go on strike. We have the greatest cost-of-living crisis we have seen in decades, and these essential workers, who look after the most vulnerable in our communities, have been denied a pay increase for 14 years. That is a disgrace. I call for an urgent debate on the matter.
I will briefly raise the issue of school transport. I ask the Deputy Leader to get the Minister for Education to come before the House as a matter of urgency. The Minister was before the education committee earlier. People understand the flexibility that was adopted by the Department of Health during the health crisis caused by the pandemic. People cannot understand why we cannot have that same flexibility within the Department of Education in the context of school transport, which has been in crisis. There are places such as Strade and Ballyvary that are in dire need of having the situation with school transport resolved. Buses are available, but it would seem that the Department is not in any way flexible. I have seen that over a number of years, not just with this Minister for Health but also with a number of his predecessors and successive Ministers for Education. The Department of Education is in no way flexible regarding school transport. I ask that the Minister come before to the House as a matter of urgency because what is happening is visiting great hardship on a large number of families who have a lot to put up with.
Over the past number of weeks, many Senators will have received representations from and spoken to members of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, ahead of next week's budget. I did that consistently with people in my own hometown of Dundalk. I met one teacher who made to points that hit home. Her name is Muireann O’Keeffe and she teaches at a school in Ravensdale in north County Louth. The two points she made relate to the pupil-teacher ratio and to the real lack of availability of mental health supports for students.
In terms of the pupil-teacher ratio, when we look at it the European average is approximately 1:20. In this country, many classes contain 28, 29 or 30 pupils per teacher. Naturally, that makes it difficult for students to get the quality of learning that they can get during a class lasting 40 or 45 minutes. If we can reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to the optimum European average of 20, that would be incredible. It is easy to stand here and state that we should do this or that, but it will take substantial investment. The INTO is looking for approximately €20 million to deal with the pupil-teacher ratio. Although it may be difficult to do something, that is no reason to have a lack of ambition. We should aim to get pupil-teacher ratio down as low as possible and as close as possible to the European average. I hope the Minister will look at the matter in the context of next week's budget.
The second issue relates to mental health supports. Many teachers have to fill a gap in the context of the provision of mental health supports in primary and secondary schools. A large number of them are not qualified to do so. As a politician, I am visited by and deal with people in my office at home. I am not a qualified social worker, so I understand how certain teachers feel. One of the key things that the INTO and teachers are saying is that if there was a grant of €20 grant per pupil in the budget, the overall cost would €11 million. That would allow for on-site counselling. This is what teachers in my home of Dundalk and in County Louth - particularly Muireann O'Keeffe, with whom I had a detailed conversation - have been saying to me. I would like to see some action on this matter in next week's budget.
I wish to raise two issues. First, I wish to congratulate Shannon Airport on being shortlisted as being an age-friendly airport. That is good. The airports in the west were both shortlisted. I wish them both the best of luck with that, particularly as the services they provide to older people are phenomenal. It would be good to see the other airports offering the same level of service.
I also raise the issue of the €1,000 pandemic payment for staff who work in the medical profession.Many people who worked in the HSE have received their money but not, seven months later, those working in non-section 38 organisations, private sector nursing homes and hospices or those working in private and voluntary section 39 organisations, eligible staff who work on-site in section 39 organisations or in long-term residential care facilities for people with disabilities or agency workers in the HSE and healthcare support assistants. Seven months have elapsed and none of them have received their money. My understanding is that a third-party tender to assess how to administer the fund was sought. On 9 September, the tender closed yet there still has been no communication as to whether people will receive their €1,000 payment. The delay is unacceptable because these people have worked during Covid-19 and been included in the scheme. It beggars belief why a third-party person was necessary to administer the scheme. I have seen a copy of a letter that was sent to staff in which they were told to wait until the third party works out how the scheme will be administered. It is totally unacceptable that these people await their €1,000. I ask the Deputy Leader to write seeking clarification from the Minister for Health because I certainly have not got any clarification.
As the Leas-Chathaoirleach will be aware, the budget is coming up. One issue that is of critical importance to this country's long-term social and economic development is investment in further and higher education. We know that the higher education sector has faced a funding crisis for a long period and earlier this year the Minister, Deputy Harris, quantified the scale of the need for investment at €307 million.
We anticipate that the budget will contain measures to help students. We have pushed for significant improvements to the Student Universal Support Ireland grants scheme and the Minister is looking to cut student fees. I want to be assured that any additional funding that is provided for the higher education budget to support those initiatives is not done at the expense of addressing the core funding issue. What we cannot see is an announcement for an increase in higher education funding but at the same time, because of a cut in student fees, the real income is cut to universities and other higher education institutions. It is important that we have a debate on the future of higher education and higher education funding in light of what happens in the budget.
Yesterday, An Bord Pleanála approved the development of what has the potential to be Ireland's largest film studio at Borleagh Manor, which is located just outside Gorey, County Wexford. I congratulate Mr. John Gleeson and Mr. Ivan Dunleavy who have been the two primary promoters of the project. A film and television production studio has enormous potential and this country has a strong record in this regard. Given the number of new studios that are being granted planning permission, these are very welcome measures and we need to support the entrepreneurs who are moving in that direction.
I am delighted with all that is happening across the country this week. The National Ploughing Championships commenced yesterday and continues today and tomorrow. Very many people attended yesterday and are there today. I look forward to getting there tomorrow at some stage. However, one needs to know where one is going because the event is so huge that it feels like a jungle due to the amount of stands and everything else.
Many agricultural shows have resumed. In County Galway, the Ballyforan Fair will take place next Saturday and the Ballinasloe Horse and Agricultural Show will take place on Sunday. These occasions are crucial because they are family events. There is so much for people to enjoy, regardless of whether one has anything to do with farming or agriculture. These are great events because they are local community-driven events.
I wish to highlight the Night & Day Festival at Clonalis House, Castlerea, County Roscommon. It is a beautiful estate and grounds located close to the banks of the River Suck. It is a stunning location for a festival in the west of Ireland. The festival will take place on Saturday and Sunday with performances by bands like Villagers, The Zutons and Cathy Davey. There are five stages, including a comedy stage and political stage so I look forward to seeing Deputies and Ministers attending. On Saturday, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, will attend around 3 p.m. and, on Sunday, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, will attend. The festival has so much to offer people be it music or current affairs. Finally, I encourage people to think about coming to the west this weekend..
I will begin by associating myself with the remarks of Senators Ruane and Flynn. In terms of certain videos broadcast online, people are to be condemned for their behaviour and condemned for ramming a Garda car and my thoughts go out to the gardaí who were in that car. At the same time, stigmatising a whole area and community as a consequence, and labelling the people of that community with the hashtags that have been seen on social media is equally outrageous. It shows a complete ignorance about the real lived existence of people in these communities.
I spoke about the following issue with our MEPs last night. Yesterday I received an email from the St. John Bosco Youth Centre in Drimnagh, Dublin 12 to inform me that its gas contract will go out of contract on 22 September with a resultant price increase from 2.6 cent per unit of gas up to 17 cent initially, then 22 cent and yesterday, the rate increased to 27 cent per unit of gas. The centre hoped to lock the provider into a contract at the latter rate so the centre's gas bill will increase from €700 to €4,500 a month. Let me put that in context by saying that drugs task forces have not had their core funding increases since 2013. That means they have cut back on the number of people who work and reach out into communities. If organisations are being faced with huge increases in their energy costs, the number of youth workers and community services will be cut back. If we view videos from any area then we must bear in mind the fact that there has been gross under-resourcing, which is a fact that I have raised with my own party and at Government level since February of this year.
I support the reasonable pre-budget requests made by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland. For example, the society has called for €600,000 to be invested in its national care centre to fund the great work that is done to provide respite to people and people who visit on a daily basis.
I wish to point out that the physiotherapy that people with multiple sclerosis, MS, need is not like what one sees when somebody runs on to a GAA field with a bag of ice. I mean MS sufferers require physiotherapy on a weekly basis and usually for a lifetime. Therefore, I believe that the State should fund the vast majority of this type of support because it is needed.
We all know about the campaign that calls for the recruitment of an extra 100 neurological nurses. I think such recruitment should incrementally happen. While I acknowledge that this budget will not provide for the recruitment of 100 nurses, we should at least go a significant way to providing some of these much-needed nurses to care for people and support people in their homes. Such recruitment would be good because caring for and supporting people in their homes is a lot less expensive for taxpayers than long-term residential care.
Tomorrow is Culture Night and I am delighted that in-person cultural events will take place the length and breadth of this country after the last two years of Covid. I wish all of the participants the very best, particularly those taking part in County Clare. I hope that the weather stays dry and that Culture Night is very successful. The Houses of the Oireachtas will host events for Culture Night that will include a Ukrainian element that will act as a thank you from the Ukrainian community who now live in Ireland, done through the Oireachtas. It is wonderful that Ukrainian people are coming in and will play a full and central part in Culture Night in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Senator Ward congratulated Ms Justice Síofra O'Leary on her appointment as President of the ECHR. Senators O'Loughlin and Wall concurred with those remarks.
Senator O'Loughlin spoke about the expanded timetable announced by the NTA, with 12 extra services to Newbridge. She also kindly mentioned Mayo, which is getting an extra service that has been sought for many years, namely, an early train from Ballina to connect to the Westport train.
The Senator also spoke about modular housing and the two pilot units without planning. I am not aware of that issue, but it might be one she should raise directly with the Minister via a Commencement matter.
I concur with the Senator's remarks on the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE. Is St. Conleth's branch based in the Curragh?
As I am an honorary member of the ONE, it holds a special place in my heart.
Senator Keogan spoke about the need for a Covid inquiry and how a date was yet to be set. I suggest that a Commencement matter raised with the Minister for Health might be the route she should take to get a date for that. There is no fear of accountability in respect of Government action on Covid. We have fared extremely well compared with our close neighbours.
Senator Warfield spoke about the need to address student accommodation. There is a particular crisis in that regard, with many students travelling long distances. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is aware of the challenges. I expect that he is working with colleges across the country to address them.
Senator Wall spoke about the exceptional needs payment. It is taking up to eight weeks in some community welfare offices to administer those payments. Work is actively being done to reduce that timeline. When someone applies for this payment, he or she needs it sooner rather than later.
The Senator also spoke about the youth travel scheme and raised particular issues about it not applying to those under 17 years of age. I ask that the Senator raise the issue with the Minister for Transport as a Commencement matter.
Senator Flynn spoke about an important issue relating to Cherry Orchard. She was joined by Senators Ardagh, Ruane and Seery Kearney. I concur with the Senators' remarks. My first thought when seeing what had happened was that it was clearly a deprived community with few resources over many years, with the incident in question being the culmination of all of that coming together. I concur with the Senators, particularly Senators Flynn and Ruane, that we should desist from labelling people, that no child is born bad and that, if there are unacceptable actions, as there was in the ramming of a Garda car, we must ask why it ended up happening. Those were important remarks.
I wish James Stokes well. He is working with the Ceann Comhairle and is a member of the Traveller community. Senator Flynn alerted us to the fact that he hopes to one day become Taoiseach and she hopes that he gets involved in politics. It is great to see the link with the Ceann Comhairle's office.
Senator Lombard sought a debate on the 9% VAT rate for the hospitality sector. The rate is under active consideration by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. We will get more details on that next week. The Senator also alluded to a rural-urban divide in terms of price gouging. There are particular difficulties and challenges for the hotel sector. Expensive hotel prices are not confined to Dublin and we have seen expensive hotel prices in many tourist areas. It is unfortunate that some of them were excessive.
I will pick up on a comment that Senator Ruane made about the Cherry Orchard issue. She stated that many of these children felt that they had nothing to lose. It was a poignant remark. As she stated, we are coming from a safe environment and we have nice lives with plenty to lose, whereas every day in the communities in question is difficult.
Senator Ahearn spoke about the need for a debate with the Minister for Health on private nursing homes. That is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. The Senator's request for a debate will go to her office at the earliest opportunity.
Senator Gavan spoke about section 39 workers, who are on strike. I spoke today with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is working on this issue and agrees that there is undoubtedly a need for a pay increase. It is long overdue. If these workers did not do the work that they did, there would not be disability services in most parts of the country. I hope that our Government colleagues examine this matter seriously and address it without further delay.
Senator Burke spoke about school transport and asked for the Minister for Education to attend the House for a debate. She will actually be in the Chamber at 6.30 p.m. for Fine Gael's Private Members' business. She also attended the education committee this morning.
There are particular pinch points. Free school transport was signed off on by the three Government parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. The intention was good and many families have benefited to the tune of €650. However, there was undoubtedly extra demand because it was made free. Some people took tickets when they did not need them and are not using them. That poses a challenge. If we are to continue the scheme next year, we must consider having a nominal charge so as to put a value on it and ensure that those who purchase tickets actually want to use them. We will see a breakthrough in this issue in the budget's cost-of-living package. Obviously, I do not know the details of that, but it is a top priority for the Government to address the school transport issue and alleviate those concerns. My view is that we need to get rid of concessionary and eligible tickets. Any child who wants a school bus place should be given one. We want to get cars off the roads. Facilitating children in using school transport should be the aspiration, not this concessionary and eligible nonsense that is causing challenges all over the country.
Senator McGahon spoke about mental health supports, specifically the INTO's request for additional mental health supports in schools and reducing the pupil-teacher ratio. While we have made great progress in reducing the ratio in recent years, we still have a long way to go. Everyone would love to reduce it to 20 students per teacher, which is the aim, or even less. That is where we need to go and it is a top priority for the Minister for Education.
I concur with the remarks of Senator Maria Byrne, who acknowledged that Shannon Airport and Ireland West Airport Knock had been short-listed for recognition as age-friendly airports. I can attest first-hand to the services provided at Ireland West Airport Knock. When I brought my grandmother through it, the service was amazing and the people there could not do enough for us. I have no doubt that Shannon is the same. I wish them both well in the competition.
Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about the need for a post-budget debate on funding for the higher education sector. That request will be made and I hope that the Minister, Deputy Harris, will be able to return to the Chamber after being here for many lengthy debates recently. I am sure that he will be more than willing to return after the budget to discuss the funding of higher education. It has been an ongoing saga. Ever since the Cassells report, it has not been addressed. We need to get to grips with it.
The Senator also mentioned Borleagh Manor in Gorey. The film industry in Ireland is thriving. Some high-level celebrities have come to Mayo in recent times to film, for example, Ms Emily Blunt. It is great to see locations like Borleagh Manor doing so well.
Senator Dolan encouraged us all to go west over the weekend. I concur with her remarks. She spoke about the National Ploughing Championships, the Ballinasloe agricultural show and a new festival, the Night & Day Festival, which is taking place in Roscommon. I believe it is the journalist, Mr. Craig Hughes, who is organising that. I wish it well. It is great to see other people setting up new festivals beyond the east of the country.
Senator Seery Kearney spoke about Cherry Orchard, which I have addressed, and the consistent underfunding in deprived areas that lead to these social problems. We wonder why they are happening but it is because we have not supported these communities and they have been left behind.
Senator Conway spoke about the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland and its pre-budget request for funding towards its national care centre and rehabilitative services. He also wished those participating in Culture Night, including the Oireachtas, the best for the event.