Thursday, 22 September 2022
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 27 September 2022, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; and No. 2, statements on new innovations for people with disabilities (digital assistive technology), to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to conclude at 2.45 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the opening contribution of the Minister of State not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes and all other Senators not to exceed four minutes, and the Minister of State to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate.
I wish to refer to the war in Ukraine. We are seven months into the conflict. I will focus on the sexual violence perpetrated on the women and children of Ukraine. We know sexual violence is a recognised weapon of war. There has not been much discussion in Ireland around this aspect of the war but we really need to have a conversation about it. Rape is recognised as a weapon of war. It spreads disease, destroys family ties, inflicts harm on generations and is used to terrorise, humiliate and subdue a population. It also reinforces gender inequalities and normalises sexual violence even after the conflict has ended.
Using sexual violence as a weapon surged after the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. We know it has been used in a number of conflicts across the globe such as those in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Uganda and South Sudan, and against Yazidi women and we know it is happening in Ukraine as well. Reports have started to emerge from liberated towns such as Bucha.
Last week, I met with other parliamentarians in the Basque country to discuss this topic. We met two amazingly brave Ukrainian MPs who gave some really harrowing details of what is emerging from various towns and villages across Ukraine. It is really shocking. Survivors of war-time rape internationally have reported long-term physical and mental injuries. There are children born of rape in conflict zones. This often leads to continuous family conflict, domestic violence and an intergenerational impact on the fabric of that society and the identity of a nation.
To mitigate the long-term impact of rape in conflict zones, survivors need access to emergency contraception, abortion care, mental health supports and medical care for physical injuries. We need to talk about rape as a weapon of war so that Ireland and other countries who are supporting Ukraine as its people fight to protect their country against Putin provide this level of support for the survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine. We also need to support survivors by recognising the harm done to them and helping to dispel any stigma and shame associated with sexual violence in a conflict zone.
The conversation regarding the prosecution of war crimes in Ukraine has started and a number of people have been convicted. However, war-time rape is very rarely prosecuted and when it is, it is very hard to secure a conviction. I would like to see Ireland take a leadership role to ensure that more of these crimes are investigated and prosecuted, and convictions secured. I would also like a debate in the Chamber with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on sexual violence as a weapon of war in Ukraine. I urge the Minister to ensure our aid budget has an element of targeted support ring fenced to help survivors get the healthcare they need in a timely fashion and that Ireland uses all its diplomatic power to ensure that war criminals are pursued and prosecuted, and the rape perpetrated on the women and children of Ukraine is dealt with.
I rise today because I am quite concerned about many of the projects funded by Pobal and the various local development companies with regard to the rising costs faced by people who have been able to secure funding and grants. As we all know, a grant could be issued and approved for somebody two years in advance but by the time builders get around to commencing the work, it could take 18 months to two years. There is significant cost inflation so if somebody was approved for €100,000 two years ago, that sum will only go so far.
I am calling for a debate on cost inflation and its effect on community groups, small businesses and people who have secured funding who wish to develop businesses. I hope we will see a flexible approach with Pobal because it has been brought to my attention not just in County Clare but throughout the country, that letters have issued telling people that they need to draw down the funding by the end of the year and meet the exact specifications of the grant for which they applied in terms of what is being spent. Flexibility is needed in that regard.
I also want a debate here at some stage on Taiwan. I know we have had all-party motions on Taiwan over the years but given what is happening in Ukraine, we need to open an embassy in Taipei and establish full diplomatic engagement with Taiwan. We saw what happened over the summer with Nancy Pelosi travelling to Taiwan, which was a great boost for what is a wonderful, vibrant independent country. We should have a debate on Taiwan at some stage but what really needs to happen is for Ireland to stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan and open an embassy there and for the Taiwanese Government to open an embassy in Dublin.
Yesterday, we had a debate on the issue of search and rescue procurement. Most of those who spoke agreed that there were questions to be answered and called on the Minister of State to answer them. The Minister of State was aware of the questions I have been asking since August. I asked them on the floor of the House yesterday because they needed to be asked. The Minister of State was not coming in to be surprised by me or anybody else. I say to everybody that when we allow Ministers to come before the House to provide answers that are vague, to not answer the questions that were asked or to leave themselves in a position where they are unable to say, like most good teachers would say, that they are sorry they cannot answer the question but will answer it tomorrow, we debase ourselves and the very Parliament to which we were elected. We debase the role of the Oireachtas. We make a nonsense out of democracy. It is no wonder that people ask why we have the Seanad.
I found the way I was treated in the House yesterday deeply insulting. I do not blame the Leader, the Cathaoirleach or anybody else. The Minister of State came here with a prepared speech written by bureaucrats who were then not present in the House when she delivered it. They assumed they knew what would be asked or wrote a speech that was so vague it covered everything and nothing at the same time.
There is no getting away from the fact that the Department is planning to do away with the Irish Aviation Authority regulation of having 12-hour shifts only and move to 24-hour shifts. There is no getting away from the conflict of interest. There is no getting away from any of the questions that were asked. I will be writing to every Member of the Oireachtas and providing transcripts of yesterday's proceedings. I will also write to the Committees on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight of both Houses. If we continue to allow both Houses to be treated in the way they have been treated and if we are going to allow committees to be dismissed by senior civil servants, then we may all pack up our bags, go home and forget about it because we are wasting our time. It is public money that is being spent. It is the public interest we are here to protect. I feel deeply insulted.
I thank everybody who spoke yesterday. Nobody jumped for joy or tore anybody apart. Only one Member of the House did not agree with the need for questions, and that is his right. Ultimately, everybody asked for the answers to the questions that have been asked for a long enough. I will leave it at that. We need to look at ourselves. There needs to be a coming together of politicians in the House. It is so easy to have a crack at government for the hell of it but we are all in this. Members in opposition today could be in government tomorrow and they should remember this. We should all stand together when we see a cause worth standing for.
I want to highlight an issue that comes to mind again and again. We all know there is a housing crisis and a housing emergency. We struggle in areas such as Clare as we look for water infrastructure so we can build housing estates in our towns and villages. We look at the cost of building houses, builders struggling to get materials and people struggling to find the money to build houses. I want to flag another issue yet again. Last night I did a bit of research. If I look for somewhere to live in Clare in mid-October or the end of October, there are 627 full homes available to let on Airbnb but there are only 36 properties available to rent. There is 17 times more accommodation available on Airbnb. These are full homes. I am not speaking about people using Airbnb to rent a room in a house. I have no problem with people doing that. I do not care what they do with the money. It can go into the mattress for all I care. As we speak, there are 627 full homes available in Clare on Airbnb. I would love to know how many of them are registered, how many of them have planning permission to be advertised as accommodation on Airbnb and how many of them are third or fourth homes. I will have to dig deeper to find out this information.
There is something seriously wrong with this situation. I am sure Clare is not unique. I know it is a very popular spot to visit. We value our tourists but we also value our people having somewhere to live. There has to be a balance. I am not against Airbnb. I want to be very clear on that. When we have 627 full homes available to let on Airbnb in the middle of a dirty winter in Clare and only 36 homes available to rent normally, then we have a serious problem. The House should seek a proper debate on this matter with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
We know we are trying to build houses. I can see social housing estates being built, which is great. I can see some affordable housing being built. I have not yet seen any affordable housing or cost-rental accommodation being built in Clare. It takes a lot longer to build a house then it does to enforce the relevant rules on Airbnb owners. It is an absolute disgrace that Airbnb is allowed to advertise these properties that could be people's homes. We have to prioritise homes for people over Airbnb accommodation for a couple of nights for tourists. It is just not fair. This summer, we had a huge issue in north Clare when many businesses could not open all of the hours they wanted to because staff had nowhere to live. It is great that tourists have Airbnb, but if all of our restaurants and bars are closed because they do not have staff, it is a joke. This is a serious issue. We want rent pressure zones everywhere, not only in Dublin. We also want restrictions on Airbnb. We need enforcement. Shame on Airbnb for being part of this major problem.
I want to reflect on some of the statistics released today from last year's census in the North. There is a substantial amount of detail to get through. No doubt I will reflect on some of it in the coming weeks. No one can deny the significant symbolism of the details released today. It also shows that we are living in a changed and changing society. In the first instance this tells us in a very obvious and stark way that we need to prepare for further change. We need to do so in an inclusive, positive and progressive way. For a long time in the House, I have advocated in respect of the need for a citizens' assembly that would act as a home for this discussion and the preparation and planning necessary for change. There is a lot of detail to get through. I do not presume to know it all or, indeed, to know what all of what the detail tells us. I appreciate the historic symbolism of what we are finding out today, however.
What we can deal with is the practical issue of a 63.5% increase in Irish passport holders in the North of Ireland since the census in 2011. Last year, for the first time, there were more applications for Irish passports in the North than there were for British passports. I do not say this to presume anyone's particular allegiance or view on the constitutional question. I merely make the point to highlight a practical issue that warrants a response. We all know the issues nationwide and not only in the North with the passport service last year. We know of the delays, problems and difficulties in communication. This morning's figures of a 63.5% increase and more than 500,000 people holding an Irish passport are welcome. I hope there is more of it. A passport is an important document and we all appreciate this. People need to have a service to interface with directly. They deserve and are entitled to a proper modern and accessible service with which they can interact and engage when needed. This is another reminder. I hope we soon get an opportunity to debate the cross-party motion calling for a passport office in the North. I take this opportunity to make the call of the Irish Government once again. If it ever needed a reason, cause or, dare I say it, a justification, although one of those should not be necessary, it is the figure jumping out at us today.
I want to raise the issue of the ongoing shortage of pharmacists in Ireland. This was raised in both Houses last May. The situation certainly has not resolved itself. In fact just last month the Irish Pharmacy Union conducted a survey that showed the shortage is reaching crisis levels.These shortages will lead to some pharmacies reducing their hours and services and in some case temporary closures may be necessary. More than half of the pharmacies surveyed had at least one open vacancy for a pharmacist in the past year and more than one third indicated that these vacancies had remained for more than six months and up to one year. The report shows that to stay open, at least 20% of the pharmacies are relying on pharmacist locums. Of the pharmacists surveyed, 42% were first registered in the UK. This high percentage of pharmacists qualifying outside of Ireland serves to highlight the glaring lack of places for students to study pharmacy here in Ireland.
The president of the Irish Pharmacists Union, IPU, Dermot Twomey, stated that the profession is being strangled by red tape and bureaucracy and that much of the pharmacist’s day is now spent filling out paperwork which provides no benefit to the patient. This is unfortunately leading to the exodus of well-educated community pharmacists. Were the HSE to address this it would make the profession more attractive and boost retention.
Certain improvements to community healthcare in a pharmacy setting such as the introduction of an electronic prescription handling system have been in the works since 2013. According to Mr. Twomey the only changes that seem to come quickly are those that involve more red tape. Will the Minister for Health and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science get together to thrash out a plan to get more pharmacists into training at third level and see what can be done to make the career more attractive to people who want to fill those places? Our pharmacists are a vital cog in the wheel of healthcare in this country. The minor ailment scheme is still on the back burner due to the inaction of the Minister in rolling it out. We need to support our pharmacists better.
I express solidarity with the more than 1,000 workers who are out on strike yesterday, today and tomorrow across a number of section 39 organisations and community employment schemes in Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. Most of these workers provide vital health and disability services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and yet they have had no pay increase since 2008 and nobody to negotiate with. They cannot negotiate with their employer because the employer receives a fixed amount from the Government. When their unions approached the Government, it washed its hands of them. The question that has to be asked is, are we going to force these workers to strike again in the middle of winter to try to get some improvement in their pay? They have been left with no option.
In keeping with the industrial relations sphere, yesterday it was announced that Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, intends to step down over the next few weeks. It is important that we recognise her immense contribution to improve the lives of working people in this country. She was a trailblazer in the union movement, the first woman general officer in SIPTU, Ireland's largest trade union, and the first woman secretary general of the ICTU. Her achievements set her apart in coming to national prominence in 2005 during the Irish Ferries dispute and mobilising thousands of people onto our streets because of the appalling breach of that threshold of decency by Irish Ferries. There was also the 2018 legislation on which she engaged with the Leader when she was Minister with regard to outlawing zero-hour contracts and laying down decent entitlements for those who find themselves on "if and when" contracts. We will see the fruits of all her background work to improve the right to collective bargaining in this country when we see the transposition of the adequate minimum wages directive into Irish legislation next year.
These are but a few of Patricia King's long list of achievements which started four decades ago. To acknowledge her immense contribution any of us who had the privilege of working with her know that she had a fierce determination to furthering the cause of working people. She will be sorely missed across the trade union movement and in this country.
I will speak today about the cost of living protest which will take place on Saturday. While today might be a miserable, wet day it looks like the weather gods are shining down for those of us who will take to the streets on Saturday because the weather forecast is good. Many of us will remember the water protests and how they shook the foundations of the Government at the time. It is hard to believe it has been eight years since those protests first took place. The protests grew on a monthly basis with increasing numbers each time until a large demonstration of nearly 100,000 people took to the streets in March 2015, a protest I was privileged to address at the time.
At the time the Government dismissed the protests, sneered at the protestors and tried to smear them with terms such as "sinister fringes" and such language. However, despite the arrogance of the Government, by April 2017 water charges were no more. The protests were a fantastic example of people power, citizens standing up and telling the Government that enough is enough.
This Saturday, 24 September, a cost-of-living protest will take in Dublin. I encourage anybody from around the country to make their way to Dublin for that protest. It is being organised by the cost-of-living coalition which involves a group of students, activists, unions and politicians who have been brought together by the soaring cost of living, by energy costs, rising inflation, housing costs, ludicrous rents and the ongoing rise in costs across the board.
The cost-of-living coalition is calling on all those affected, including people who have seen their mortgage rates go up because the Minister for Finance will not bring in the banks and demand that they do not pass on the interest rates for the moment. It is essential that the message is sent loud and clear that the cost-of-living crisis has to be addressed by this Government. I urge everybody to join that protest on 24 September.
The recent increases in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance have been welcomed. It has been a difficult time for parents with the cost of living and the cost of sending kids back to school. However, it is very restrictive in regard to who is able to claim the back-to-school allowance.
A great many people in County Tipperary have come to me to talk about their experiences of the cost of sending kids back to school. A recent survey found that it costs about €1,500 per child to include books, clothes, shoes and everything that goes with sending kids to school. If there are a couple of kids in the house, that is extremely expensive.
A number of people came to my office and asked whether people who are working could be given some sort of tax break or some recognition such as a double payment in the children's allowance, that would recognise people who are struggling and do not have enough disposable income. Some people I know are taking out loans just to be able to pay for clothes for their children. A single mother came to me who is working full time but on low income and getting nothing. She gets none of those supports that she feels she needs.
Most people have welcomed the back-to-school allowance, which is good, and the increase in it which recognises how people are struggling. However, working people are also struggling. We need to make sure they are represented and protected during this time. If something could be done in the budget next week to recognise that I would be grateful.
I ask the Leader to arrange a special debate on the experience of children and their families when they are in hospital. This morning on “Morning Ireland” we heard the experience of a woman whose child was in hospital with a long-term illness. She spoke of the cost of car parking and the costs when the child was being treated, for cancer in this instance. If the child felt sick when the food came around then food had to be purchased later or some special treat obtained to induce a child to eat at a time when the child is very ill. All of those costs mount up for families.
I appreciate that we have removed the inpatient fees for children in hospital which is a great step forward in itself. However, there are other considerations at a time when we are in a challenging cost-of-living crisis.
A survey was done a couple of years ago on promoting children's rights and welfare in healthcare across all European Union countries. There is additional financial strain on a family.They can have additional accommodation, food and car parking costs. Car parking charges in our children's hospitals are appallingly high, with some charging up to €35 a day. I do not see why a bespoke arrangement cannot be put in place to support these families. They are a discrete group that could be red-circled and vouchers or passes given to them. It is possible to do that and there is no reason it cannot be done. There are other issues as well. The woman who spoke this morning talked about the possibility of vouchers for hospital cafeterias for families. Such simple things would make a huge difference at a time of crisis. I acknowledge the role of the Ronald McDonald House which is adjacent to Crumlin children's hospital in my own constituency of Dublin South-Central and which I have visited on a number of occasions. It provides accommodation to families from around the country and does extraordinary work. It is not financed by McDonald's itself but it gathers the charitable donations. It provides home-from-home food, sibling accommodation and so on. We need to deal properly with children in hospital and their families and I call for a debate on the issue.
In the run-up to the budget there has been a lot of talk about cost-of-living measures and what is going to be required, particularly in the context of energy, to make sure that households and industries are sustainable going forward. In that context, I would like to raise the issue of our sporting clubs. The cost of running sports complexes has increased dramatically in the last 18 months. Obviously there are the normal running costs pertaining to sports halls but some sports complexes are of such a magnitude and nature that they cost an awful lot to run. A sporting complex in Bandon which had running costs of around €3,500 last year has seen these increase to over €12,000 this year. The running costs of sporting clubs are traditionally met through lottery funding. I am referring to lotteries run by the clubs themselves rather than grants from the State. In the context of the energy crisis, special measures must be put in place to make sure that sporting clubs are sustainable. We need to take care of householders and industries but we also need to make sure that grants are made available to voluntary sporting organisations that are effectively funded by their members. I am referring to our local GAA, soccer, basketball clubs and so on. They all use energy and are going to be affected by increasing energy costs so we need to do something special for them. If we do not do that, the members will have to pay more through weekly lotteries, draws and so on. An additional €9,000 in costs for a relatively small sports complex is really significant. We must think outside the box when designing measures to address energy bills.
I wish to draw attention to the fact that 18 September was International Equal Pay Day. I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage this morning that was also attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Burke. The committee was engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill concerning maternity leave and maternity pay for councillors. In the adjoining room, the Joint Committee on Gender Equality was discussing equal pay. There is a lot of discussion of these issues currently and we should have a debate on them in this House. I ask the Leader to organise a debate on equal pay at her earliest convenience because many females feel they are being left behind. There is quite a significant number of females in this Chamber and it would be good to have a discussion on gender equality and equal pay.
I was contacted by a constituent recently who had been away travelling and came back here to work last year. This person was in a job that paid less than €24,000 per year but was offered a place on a master's degree programme in the University of Limerick, UL and so applied for a grant from Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. However, because they had been working for the last 12 months, albeit on a low income, they were only entitled to a small grant towards fees but were not entitled to any maintenance grant. We really must look after people who are in low-paid jobs. In budget 2023 we need to look after people like carers and people with disabilities but also people who are engaged in upskilling and retraining. The individual I spoke to wants to upskill and retrain but is facing barriers as a result of having worked. Had they been in receipt of jobseeker's allowance or another social welfare payment, they would have qualified for a SUSI grant. Budget 2023 must provide support to those who want to upskill and retrain, particularly those on lower pay. I hope supports will be put in place for people with disabilities, for carers and for those who want to work but who need to upskill and retrain.
Not for the first time in this House I want to raise the issue of water quality in Dublin Bay and the coastal waters off Dublin. For the last two weeks there has been a "No bathing" advisory notice at Killiney beach because of an overspill from a sewage treatment plant there. That should not happen and it has had serious consequences for people who had events planned. I know of swimming events planned for Killiney beach last weekend which could not take place. The advisory notice will remain in place until tomorrow, at least, as we await the results of sampling. However, I do not understand why, when the advisory notice applies to Coliemore Harbour, Hawk Cliff and Killiney beach, it does not apply to the Forty Foot, which is less than 1 km up the coast, or to Sandycove, Blackrock or Seapoint. It does not apply to them and I do not understand how that works.
What I do know is that nothing has happened to secure water quality in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin Bay and along the coast of Dublin. We have not improved the screening of water that leaves the Poolbeg facility or other sewage treatment facilities in the county. We do not have 24-hour UV screening of that material and we do not have provisions in place to prevent overspills from sewage facilities. We do not have proper water quality in Dublin Bay and it is not good enough. This has been going on for far too long and there seems to be some kind of frozen inaction at departmental and local authority level. I do not know that is the fault of the local authorities because they are dependent on resources and directions from Irish Water and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage but nothing is happening. We know how much these facilities are used. We know that far more people are now swimming in the sea and how good it is for them, for both their mental and physical health. Let us try to make progress on this. We must schedule a debate on water quality. I ask the Leader to invite the relevant Minister to have a discussion about what needs to be done, how it can happen, why it is not happening and when it will happen.
I want to raise a couple of issues on behalf of groups within my community. I welcome the recent announcement by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, of a community centres investment fund for the refurbishment and upgrading of much-needed community facilities across Ireland. A sum of €15 million has been set aside but I understand that applications have been made for projects totally more than €70 million . In that context, I ask that extra funding be provided for this fund so that we can invest in community centres throughout the country. In my own area, projects are planned for the community centres in Newtownforbes, in Granard in north Longford and in Drumlish. Significant works are planned for these centres which have not had much funding in recent years. I ask that the fund be increased, which would be particularly welcome in rural areas.
The outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme was announced a number of months ago and applications have been submitted for same. In my own county, a significant application has been made for a rebel trail in north Longford, which will highlight the county's links to the 1798 rebellion and the War of Independence, including General Seán Mac Eoin, the Clonfin Ambush, Granard, Ms Kitty Kiernan and so on. We want to develop a trail from Drumlish, which has connections to the Land League, out to Ballinamuck and so on. An application for funding has been made and hopefully it will be successful so that we can build that tourism project in north County Longford.
Before I call on the Leader to respond to the Order of Business I welcome to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery the former representative, Ms Helene Keeley, who was the Speaker pro temporeof the Delaware House of Representatives. She was the longest serving member of that House at one stage but I do not know if she still holds that distinction. She has worked with the board of the St. Patrick's Day Society, among many other organisations. I have a list before me that is so long that I would never have time to read it all. It would take longer than our Order of Business. Ms Keeley worked with the then Attorney General, Mr. Beau Biden, in 2014 on important legislation.I am delighted she was able to come to Seanad Éireann this morning.
Ms Keeley is very welcome. I congratulate her on such a distinguished career.
Senator Carrigy asked for the extension of two welcome announcements, namely, funding for community centres and the recreational funds scheme that have been a resounding success. I am sure there will be many more applications for the €70 million fund. It is oversubscribed and needs further funding. The Senator eloquently described the positive impact this money is having on communities across the country. We will certainly make his views known.
Senator Ward asked for a debate on water quality in Dublin Bay. The situation strikes me as quite bizarre. There are similar issues in Balbriggan, Skerries and Rush, which are in the same treasured part of the world in terms of swimming. I do not know how something so drastic as a sewage spill can affect only some areas. Perhaps it is something to do with the way the waves move, but it does not make sense, in particular for the people who use the facility. I will certainly invite a debate on the topic the Senator has raised.
Senator Maria Byrne called for a debate on equality, in particular around gender and disability in the context of supports from the State for lifelong learning and just progression within the workplace. I have the privilege of sitting on the Joint Committee on Gender Equality. We have this conversation every Thursday morning. This morning, representatives from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions were in with us. It would be useful to have a wider debate.
Senator Lombard spoke about cost increases for volunteers running clubs throughout the country. I was mindful of and pleased by the fact that the Tánaiste said yesterday that in any small business package for energy we will announce next Tuesday as part of the budget, we have to consider those in our farming community as small business owners, even though many of them receive their energy bills in the same way as I or other Senators do for a household. We cannot leave the social fabric of all of the towns, villages and cities we live in, including the GAA, rugby, soccer, basketball, tennis and other clubs we rely on for our children and which are run by volunteers and funded by weekly lottos, out of the budget. At a time when people are struck by the extra cost of living crisis, we can only assume that the support for those clubs will decline and their bills will go through the roof, just as they will for everybody else. They have to be countenanced and looked after.
Senator Seery Kearney asked for a debate on the additional costs for families when children are in hospital. It is a serious matter and a debate which is very much needed. As a Government, there are a lot of extra things we could be doing to support families during times when children are in hospital.
Senator Ahearn spoke about the cost of living and sought to extend the back-to-school allowance. It has been significantly increased over the past number of years, especially by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, this year through the cost-of-living response during the summer. The means test relating to applying for the scheme needs to be reconsidered. It would be helpful if we had a tiered scheme as opposed to the rigid scheme we have now.
Senator Boylan spoke about the cost-of-living protests that are going ahead this Saturday. I hope the sun shines, because it is miserable outside today. I do not mean to be disrespectful in my response to the Senator, but she made her remarks as if the rest of us are not aware of the requirements of Government for a cost-of-living increase for all sections of society. That is something which is mentioned by all of her colleagues week in, week out. We are well aware of the situation. That is why we will see a significant package in the budget next week, not only for individual households and citizens but also for all of our businesses and employers. I expect everybody to welcome the good stuff and point out the stuff we might miss next week. I wish everyone the best of luck on Saturday.
Senator Keogan asked for a debate on the shortage of pharmacists, in particular community pharmacists. I would very much welcome and support such a debate. Sharon Foley is the secretary general of the IPU and a good pal of mine. She brought to my attention yesterday a pilot scheme for extending services in our community pharmacists conducted in 2017. It was a roaring success, yet it has sat on the desks of numerous Ministers for Health since and nothing has happened. We need to invest not just in college places, but in ensuring that we keep students once they graduate and make it is a viable and decent business to work in and provide the services in localities we all want in the future.
Senator Ó Donnghaile suggested that we have a citizens assembly on the changes happening in society in Northern Ireland. I believe the changes are probably reflected in the rest of the country too. In fairness, we have Brexit to thank for the increase in the number of people applying for Irish passports. He makes a very valid argument. Given the number of people applying for Irish passports in Northern Ireland, it should have its own passport office.
Senator Garvey spoke about the stark contrast in housing figures, which is disgraceful. There are 627 houses available to rent this winter in Clare through Airbnb. This compares with 36 houses available to rent on a long-term basis. We have a problem and we need to confront it in terms of the relaxation of regulations around Airbnb. We probably need to have a debate on that and bring suggestions to the Minister.
Senator Craughwell spoke about the statements we had yesterday on SAR tenders. I contributed to the debate and I believe the Cathaoirleach was also present. Regarding the contribution of Senator Craughwell, the problem with unanswered questions is that they do not go away. If they are not answered in this forum, they have to be brought to other forums which are far more public and involve far more scrutiny. It is a pity we did not get answers yesterday. I do not think this matter is going to go away.
Senator Conway spoke about another group which is experiencing an increase in the cost of living and building. He referred to the grants for Pobal-funded projects. They might have been allocated last year or the year before. Organisations have sought to draw down funding now and the money involved does not meet the bills that will arise once building projects start. We need to be cognisant of that.
Senator Clifford-Lee opened proceedings by asking for a debate on sexual violence and the use of rape as a weapon of war. That would be incredibly worthy and worthwhile, given our show of solidarity in the past couple of months with the people of Ukraine and the interactions between our respective Parliaments and parliamentarians. She has had interaction with other European politicians. It would be very valuable for us to have that conversation and see what we can do to support Ukraine and how the Government can best help not just with money but resources and solidarity.
Senator Sherlock spoke about Patricia King, who announced yesterday that she is intending to retire in the next couple of weeks. I genuinely wish her a very long, healthy and happy retirement. She is one of the most formidable women we have ever seen in this country. Senator Sherlock used the term "trailblazer", which I also used in my statement last night. Ms King is and has been a trailblazer for employment rights and mediation in this country. Her legacy is something that exists not just because she is a woman but because she is a woman in a world which is male dominated, not just the labour industry but also the political industry. It will be a long time before her legacy is matched. I had the privilege of sitting around the leaf table with her for years. It was a privilege on good days and, by God, it was bruising on bad days. That shows the power and passion of the woman. I genuinely hope she has a long and happy retirement.