Tuesday, 30 May 2023
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the ambassador to the House. I hope he enjoys his visit.
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Annita Demetriou, President of the House of Representatives of Cyprus, on Tuesday, 13 June 2023, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion regarding the agreement establishing the EU-LAC International Foundation - referral to committee, to be taken without debate on conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme Bill 2022 - Committee Stage, resumed, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to adjourn at 5 p.m. if not previously concluded; No. 4, Regulated Professions (Health and Social Care) (Amendment) Bill 2022 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to adjourn at 6.30 p.m. if not previously concluded; and No. 129, motion 10, Private Members' business, regarding the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, to be taken at 6.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours.
I raise an issue that was dealt with in a Commencement matter put forward by Senators Gallagher and O'Donovan. Their message needs to echo out loud and clear from the House. I refer to the situation whereby volunteer firefighters are struggling financially. They are constrained because of the nature of their job, which means, in the first instance, they must take a post that is located geographically close to their base. Second, their job requires a boss who is understanding that when the beeper goes, they have to run.As a result, they are very limited in their choice of career. People who are self-employed have to drop everything and go at a moment’s notice. The challenges are immense, yet the retainer they receive does not reflect the modern world. They are providing a professional service and not being remunerated for it. There is something wrong about a system where that is allowed to continue in a country that is in a very strong financial position.
We respect the work firefighters do. They save many thousands of lives right across the country and prevent a lot of damage, yet the retainer and the payments they get is not moving with inflation or the cost of living. I have often argued that those in the Coast Guard should have the same terms and conditions as firefighters. The Coast Guard operates on an almost completely volunteer basis. Those involved get a very small stipend.
We need a debate on the emergency services, especially the volunteer emergency services. We need to look at firefighters, what they are getting and how it needs to be improved in order to prevent industrial action that is planned in June. We also need to look at the Coast Guard and how we can couple it with the fire services. Bearing in mind that local authorities manage the fire services, they could easily manage the Coast Guard as well. We need a debate on the volunteer emergency services generally. We need to treat them with respect and value the work they do.
Antisocial behaviour on public transport has long been a scourge. It inhibits getting more people onto public transport. According to one of the transport unions, it is also driving good, hardworking people away from working in public transport. I have written to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, proposing that all members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces should be given free travel on all forms of public transport. In itself, this will not stamp out antisocial behaviour. However, an increase in the number of members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces on public transport will inhibit antisocial behaviour. It will also take thousands of cars out of our cities where they are parked all day using up valuable space that the Office of Public Works could use. I hope the Leader will discuss this matter with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport. If the political will is there, this would have many benefits and, I hope, increase the use of public transport, which is one of the key objectives of the Government. I am sure the Leader, as a former member of the Reserve Defence Force, will have views on this matter.
I am calling for a debate on Ireland opting out of the amendments to five articles in the international health regulations that were adopted on 27 May 2022 by the World Health Assembly. On that day, 194 unelected, unaccountable and largely unknown delegates to the assembly from the WHO member states agreed on amendments to five separate articles of the international health regulation, namely, articles 55, 59, and 61 to 63, inclusive. These amendments are legally binding on WHO member states and do not require ratification by national legislatures or the President’s signature, both of which are required for national legislation under Irish law. While four of these amendments give no cause for concern, the amendment of Article 59 slashes the period after which future amendments would come into force from 24 months to 12. Furthermore, the time during which a member state can exercise its right to reject was shortened by 18 months to ten.Amendments to the international health regulations often have sweeping effects on WHO member states, and the periods after their passing are an essential time to allow individual states to appraise such amendments and choose whether to opt out. The World Health Assembly, WHA, is now examining a whopping 307 amendments to the international health regulation, which are expected to be decided on at the 77th assembly in May 2024. If Ireland does not opt out of the May 2022 amendments, we will have only one year to prepare for the implementation of these 307 amendments in our country, and even less than one year to decide which ones will be of benefit to Ireland and which we could do without.
No one in this House or outside of it is under any illusion as to the current health of our healthcare system. We need time to make preparations for changes to it at national level. As such, I think Ireland should reject the 2022 amendments to Article 59 of the IHR and that President Higgins and An Taoiseach should write to the WHO to signal this. To that end, we should have a debate in this House on the matter. We have until November of this year to take action on this.
I heard an interesting phrase at our church service in Geashill on Sunday morning, namely, "to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often". Who does not aspire to be perfect? The climate and biodiversity crises have plunged us into a significant time of change for every aspect of our lives. Some of us want to embrace this challenge and see the value in making changes in how we consume, travel and farm. Change requires us all to accept new information and different ways of doing things. It also requires us to recognise bad advice and bad practice and to be brave enough to call it out.
Irish agriculture has a massive challenge ahead, and while we are making progress in many ways, we still have some way to go. Productive farming of the future will be about more than just food production. It will require that food be produced in a way that improves water quality, restores biodiversity, cleans our air and reduces our emissions. Embracing system change is essential, because tinkering around the edges will not suffice. Indeed, how we use and manage our land has been subject to much debate, and this has certainly heated up in recent weeks with increased focus on the EU's nature restoration law. While the law itself is nowhere near complete and more work is needed on data and perhaps on how the emissions factors will be arrived at, it has, sadly, reopened the old fault lines of environmentalists versus farmers, with both camps back in their well-worn trenches and meaningful progress stalled yet again.
The part of my job I really love is getting out of the office, away from all that noise, out on the ground visiting farms throughout the country and meeting farmers who are doing things differently. I refer to farmers who are way ahead of the curve, whether that is through understanding what is real soil health and fertility, way beyond its chemical components and focusing on the very biological life within, or realising our relatively simplistic grass model is not resilient to the change in climate and that multispecies swards with a diversity of root depth and plant types enable pastures to thrive without the need for expensive fertiliser, or that minimal or zero-till arable systems work to save money and help protect vital soil biodiversity in a way many farmers would not believe until they saw it for themselves.
Doing nothing is not an option, yet some would be quite content to do just that. We know we are in trouble when mainstream farming publications see going organic as a threat, when farm organisations turn a blind eye to environmental destruction or when parliamentary parties take advice to scare consumers and farmers that being environmentally responsible will drive up the price of food and land. This sort of nonsense needs to be called out. We need less of the divisive exaggeration and scaremongering, and much more of a solutions-focused approach, examples of which we have throughout the country.
The University College Dublin, UCD, students’ union released a report on student accommodation. It not only highlights the housing crisis that students and their families are facing but also the measures that can be taken by Government in the upcoming budget to reduce the cost of living and studying in Ireland. Two thirds of students are paying upwards of €750 to €900, which is completely unfair. Some 45% of students say that housing has a negative effect and impact on their mental health and 71% had difficulties or extreme difficulties meeting their housing needs.
These pressures are having an impact on student life. More than ever, it is time for Government to consider measures to reduce education costs. Sinn Féin has consistently called for the student contribution to be reduced by €1,000 in year one and that the Government should increase the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, maintenance grant and extend it to thousands more students and their families. The cost of living and studying has spiralled and it is crippling students and families. Many people are deferring courses or are travelling and commuting long distances. If the Government continues to struggle to get to grips with housing crisis, it should alleviate some of that pressure on students and acknowledge that education is a right and not a privilege.
I raise the issue of passports. I hoped that we would not have to raise this issue this year, given the significant resources that Government put into the Passport Office last year. While many get an exceptionally efficient service, particularly with online applications for renewals, it has to be said that there are still issues with paper-based applications through An Post. A person making an application has to wait at least eight weeks for it to be checked. If a person made a mistake – we all make mistakes, we are all human – and, for example, there is an issue with the photo or an address, we are now being told that when that information goes back in, that person goes back into a list for another eight weeks. Last year when this issue cropped up, we were assured that in lieu of the fact that a person had already been waiting eight weeks, it would just go into a three-week queue on the basis of when the additional information was submitted. However, now we are being told that the person goes back to the start again and waits a further eight weeks. We need to have a debate on this issue. None of us in this House wants to spend the entire summer dealing with the chaos of people contacting our office. If there is an issue where something is identified, people should not go back to the start.
There are still many people who use the An Post paper-based system. Of course, we encourage people to use the online system because it is a more efficient way. However, people still use the paper-based system and they are being put at a serious disadvantage, particularly if there is an issue. I ask that we have a debate on this issue as early as possible please.
Recently, in Mayo County Council, Independent Councillor Seamus Weir, cathaoirleach of the council, did something rather unusual. He organised for Mr. Larry Carty to make a presentation to the assembled council regarding the death of Private Billy Kedian. Billy Kedian, a soldier of the 1st Battalion in Galway, was killed on 31 May 1999.
Yesterday, The Irish Suncarried a story about Billy Kedian and others in the Defence Forces who have lost their lives and have never been recognised for it – none of them. We allow our soldiers to die. It is no secret that I served in the British Army. One of the things I learned as a recruit was the battle honours of the regiment. I learned about the great men of the regiment who died in service. We do not do that in Ireland.Lieutenant Colonel Ernán Naughton, who is retired, said yesterday that every Chief of Staff who retires gets a distinguished service medal. For what? For doing his job. Should every private soldier who served for 40 years, who was never charged and who did his duty every day, get a distinguished service medal? They have debased the medal to the point of its being worthless. Yet, Billy Kedian is entitled to a military medal for gallantry. He gave his life to save 14 men. Paddy Kelly from Athlone was shot by the IRA during the Don Tidey kidnapping. The garda who was beside him got the gold Scott medal. Paddy Kelly, or Patrick Kelly, got nothing. Dick O'Hanlon, Martin Fahy and two others, saved John O'Connor while they were under fire and they got nothing. They did not even get a "Thank you". The time has come for the Cathaoirleach and the Leader to write to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Micheál Martin, to ask him to force the Chief of Staff to order a complete review of the acts of valour, as has being done in every in the western world, to see who we have missed out on and that includes the people of Jadotville. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his forbearance on this.
I want to start by referring to two sets of figures that were released today, the first of which are the detailed census figures, which have been released by the CSO. There are a number of interesting figures in that. There is the fact that in the final figures, the population of the country is 25,000 more than it was estimated. The provisional census - and colleagues in this House may be interested in this - according to Adrian Kavanagh, means that the minimum number of Deputies will have to be 172, rather than 171, as set out by the Electoral Commission.
The section of today's report that I want to draw attention to is the level of educational attainment. It shows that in Ireland's population, the level of educational attainment across all sectors continues to grow. People are finishing their education much later and they are staying on in education. More are engaging in lifelong education. As well as that, coincidentally, today the European Union published figures on education attainment. It discovered that tertiary educational attainment levels among those aged 25 to 34, who are recent graduates and who are core for any country's socioeconomic development, is at 62%. This means that we have the highest rate in the European Union and, consequently, one of the highest rates in the world. In terms of Ireland's long-term social and economic development, these figures are very welcome. It is something we do not realise. In the past, the emphasis for our economic development was in tax and talent, we will now be competing on talent. It is important that we, as a House, start to acknowledge the very significant levels of educational attainment, the broader educational community that has achieved those results and the fact this Government and, in particular, our party took the right decision to establish the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We must ensure that we continue to invest in the talent pipeline.
Cuirim fáilte roimh chinneadh an Rialtais inniu polasaí do na hoileáin a cheadú agus tá súil agam go mbeidh an tAire, an Teachta Humphreys, á lainseáil an tseachtain seo chugainn.
I welcome today's decision by the Government to agree on the islands policy. It is something I launched back in November on Sherkin Island with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, Senator Lombard, as well as the President and others. This has been somewhat protracted because of the delays that went with it, which impacted the public consultation and direct engagement with islanders. However, it is a very important day and I look forward to the publication of it. I ask that at the earliest opportunity following its publication, we have a debate in this House with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on islands and islands policies. The most important thing is how we sustain the population of islands and what funding is put in place to ensure the islands are sustained.
I also welcome the official census results, which were announced today. Indeed, the population of Galway grew to 277,737 persons, which is more than 1,000 higher than the preliminary figures announced last year.This is important to the future planning of the region. The population grew by 19,679 between April 2016 and April 2022, which is an 8% increase. The average age of Galway’s population was 39 years, compared to 37.5 in April 2016. The number of people aged 65 and over continues to grow, increasing by 23%, which is indicative of higher longevity of people, to 42,886. Employment increased by 16,452 between 2016 and 2022. All these figures are interesting and I look forward to delving into them further both locally and nationally.
I received a communication from Ms Stella O'Malley of Genspect, an organisation that advocates for an evidence-based approach to gender distress. The organisation is concerned about the recent announcement from the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, that he will bring to Cabinet in June conversion therapy legislation which includes gender identity and not only sexual orientation in its purview. Its particular concern is this will put clinicians working with patients with gender identity issues in an impossible situation whereby if they follow their training and professional standards to complete clinically appropriate assessments, explore factors which may contribute to a patient's gender dysphoria and proceed with caution before advocating for gender affirmation medication or surgery, they might be at risk of accusations of conversion therapy and possible criminal prosecution. This is not to mind those clinicians who accept and affirm a person with gender dysphoria's declared gender identity and do not explore any contraindications for fear of prosecution and might be at risk of legal action from patients who subsequently regret medical gender transition.
The remarkable thing is the Minister commissioned publicly funded research from the Trinity College Dublin, TCD, school of nursing and midwifery. Genspect has exposed many flaws in that research. It does not clearly define what would be included if gender identity is to be included in this legislation on conversion therapy; the evidence on which it relied constituted 23 responses to an anonymous online survey and two interviews; there was no evidence of complaints from any professional or clinical bodies; there is a failure to acknowledge disagreement among medical professionals in the area; and the research was not independent, with activists from various organisations appointed to assist and advise the TCD researchers. Genspect has listed other problems with the research as well.
Should poorly researched and tendentious research like this carry a university label? Would the authorities in TCD really be happy that it should? What is the Minister doing using taxpayers' money to pay for research like this and to pay activists to assist it? What is any Minister with responsibility for children doing proposing legislation that would expose reputable clinicians to prosecution if they try to apply an objective therapeutic standard to working with children with gender distress? The least we could do is ask the Minister to come into this House and explain himself.
I only got part of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett’s, contribution. There is a huge issue about where we are going with the new measures proposed for nature restoration. A real debate is required in this House on how we will deal with this. I am deeply concerned about what is being proposed. An awful lot of fluff is being talked about here but 20% of Europe’s land is proposed to be rewetted. If that is to happen, saying there will be no impact on food supply and food inflation does not make logical sense. If 20% of the European landholding was to be rewetted and its productivity rate changed, Europe would become a net importer of food. Have we learned nothing from what happened in the war in Ukraine? Have we learned nothing about making sure we are efficient and self-sufficient when it comes to issues of food and security? The rewetting proposals need to be looked at. They would have a huge impact on our economic potential, including rural economic potential. It could ensure that no one gets planning permission for a rural house because no one will meet the requirements of the proposed regulation on septic tanks.No economic assessment of these proposals has been done. They are being debated in Europe and we will sort it out on the night afterwards. I respectfully suggest a serious debate in this House with a range of Ministers to make sure we do not walk ourselves down the line of trying to ensure we are saving biodiversity but at the end of the day do not have enough food to feed Europe. That point will be reached in five years under these proposals. This is as serious as it gets. We need to have a serious debate here. If not, I cannot describe where we will go with our food security policy.
I ask the Acting Leader to arrange a debate on the forestry sector. It is long overdue. We receive a dashboard from the forestry division in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine every month and they make for startling results. Forestry in this country is in crisis and we need to do something about it. The national forestry policy was launched last year and then we heard of the need for a formal state aid notification and application to the European Commission. After months and months of debate at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of which Senator Lombard is a member, and in both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry could not tell me the date on which the details were sent to the Commission. We now know it was on 20 April of this year. We need a debate on forestry.
I call for a compensation package for ash dieback disease. The problem is obvious around the country at this time of the year because the leaves have fallen off ash trees and branches are falling onto the middle of public roads. What do we need? We need a forestry programme that benefits landowners, farmers, rural communities and the rural and national economy and also meets our climate goals and objectives. I call for a debate on forestry in this country.
I thank all Senators who contributed. Senator Martin Conway raised the current plight of firefighters. As he outlined, Senator O'Donovan and I had a Commencement debate on the matter earlier this afternoon. It is very worrying that firefighters, who we depend on in our time of greatest need, feel the need to initiate industrial action in order that their plight be recognised. That is very unfortunate. The whole fire service model was discussed earlier. The retainer paid to firefighters works out at 99 cent per hour. I challenge anyone to say firefighters are well looked after. They most certainly are not. It is an onerous occupation to take up and we are deeply indebted to them. I plead again with the Minister to contact both parties to try to find a resolution to this dispute as quickly as possible.
Senator Davitt spoke about antisocial behaviour on the public transport network. This is an issue he has spoken about several times in the past. The Senator had a novel idea of allowing gardaí and members of the Defence Forces to have free travel on public transport. It is a very interesting concept. It is important people feel comfortable using public transport, not just for their own convenience but for the benefit of the climate. If people are fearful of using public transport, we certainly have a problem. A debate on that particular issue, perhaps even a Commencement debate, might be useful in that regard. We will take Senator Davitt's concerns on board.
Senator Keogan discussed international health regulations and the number of amendments coming through from the World Health Organization. She also spoke about the lack of input from member states, including Ireland, regarding the implications of these amendments. It is very important to have transparency regarding all of these matters, so perhaps a debate on this issue would be a good idea. I will endeavour to organise that as soon as possible for the Senator. Senators Hackett and Lombard talked about climate, biodiversity and the crisis that we currently find ourselves in. Senator Hackett talked about asking people to embrace the challenge in this regard and for people not to be scaremongering. Listening to Senators Hackett and Lombard, we get a feel of the challenge that we have and the need for proper debate on biodiversity. I am comfortable in my knowledge that our land is in good hands. Farmers the length and breadth of this country have always have cared for the land. It is important that we provide leadership in respect of this issue. When you lead, it is important that when you look behind, you are sure people are coming with you. I would welcome a debate on where we are going in the context of rewetting and other issues relating to climate diversity. I certainly will try to arrange such a debate as soon as possible. We all accept that there is a global crisis and that a global response will be required if we are to make any serious impact in dealing with it. It is important that there is clarity out there and people know exactly what is expected of them. As stated, I have every confidence in the farming community. It will not be found wanting.
Senator Warfield mentioned a recent study that was conducted by UCD in relation to the cost of accommodation for students. I suppose the cost of accommodation is one issue; the challenge of trying to find accommodation is an even bigger one. The latter is something that those of us from rural areas probably are more conscious of because many of our children have no option but to try and find accommodation in the capital city, Galway, Cork or wherever, and I would welcome any help that Government can give in that regard, as it has done in the past. Last year, the Government moved to give some solace in relation to the reduction of fees and that was very much welcomed. There was a 25% reduction in the cost of public transport for students who were commuting as well. The key to all of this, as we all know, is that we need to increase supply. Thankfully, we are beginning to see progress there. Of course, we all recognise that much more needs to be done, but the provision of 30,000 units last year was a welcome development. We need to build on that as a matter of urgency. In the interim, we must do all we can to ensure that as much as possible can be done for hard-pressed families who are paying for accommodation and paying fees. I would be hopeful that the Government will hear that cry for help from all our students across the country.
Senator Cummins referred to passports. It is the time of year when the pressure is on the Passport Office. I am sure I speak for all Senators when I pay tribute to all those who work within the Passport Office. They are under pressure, and we appreciate the work that they do. If I was to give any advice to anyone as regards passports, it would be that you should check your passport before you book your flight. Sometimes people see a special offer on television or the Internet, they go online, click a button and book a flight. Maybe a week or two before they are due to travel, they go looking for their passport only to find to their horror that it is out of date. Panic stations then ensue. The other advice I would give is that the online option is working extremely well, especially for renewals. I would encourage people to use that route if possible. The paper route can be more difficult. There are issues in that regard. I have come across them, as, I am sure, many other Senators have, where somebody puts a paper application in for what may be a first-time passport, it is in there five or six weeks, or eight weeks, the applicant thinks everything is moving well, then he or she gets a letter in the post to say there is something wrong with his or her photograph and he or she has to go back to square one and do it all over again. I ask people to be careful with their applications. In fairness, in an emergency, the Passport Office is very accommodating and does all in its power to help people out. We can organise a debate on the Passport Office.
Senator Craughwell talked about how Councillor Seamus Weir, who we all know well in Mayo, brought up about Private Billy Kedian, a member of the Defence Forces who sadly lost his life in 1999. We are deeply indebted to all the members of the Defence Forces who lost their lives for the service they have given.It is important that when those events happen, and sadly they do, those people are properly recognised for the great service they give to this country. As the Cathaoirleach outlined in his contribution on this matter, perhaps it would be a matter for a Commencement debate and I can talk to the Senator again in that regard.
Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the issue of the census figures which were published today, in particular the level of educational attainment in this country. While there are many things to complain about in this country, there are many positives too and maybe we do not hear enough about the positives. The level of attainment in education is something we can be very proud of. The Senator outlined that we are probably highest in the EU and maybe one of the highest attainers across the globe. As I said, that is very positive and important, and is very good for our economic development going forward.
Senator Kyne spoke about islands policy and the fact a report is due shortly. The Senator would like to see a debate on islands policy with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which is certainly something we can arrange. Our islands are very important to us and we do not want to see them decline, but to progress, flourish and grow. A debate on that issue would be very welcome.
Senator Kyne also welcomed the fact the census figures show a population increase for his beloved County Galway and show that employment there is up as well. Thankfully, across many parts of our country, unemployment is at an all-time low and, again, that is something we can be very proud of. It is something we take for granted and we talk about how we are going to spend budget surpluses, which we can debate, but before we distribute wealth, someone has to generate it. We are deeply grateful to all of the employers we have throughout this country.
Senator Lombard again raised the issue of the impact of the wetting of lands. A recent report shows that 20% of the lands across the EU would have to be rewetted. The implications of that strike fear into many of us and Senator Lombard talked about the implications it would have for food production. “Clarity” is the key word here. The Senator is looking for a debate in this regard, which would be welcome. The more information we have out there in regard to all of those matters, the better.
Senator Mullen raised the whole area of conversion therapy. He sought a debate with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which would be very welcome. The Senator spoke about the precarious position that he said some consultants and physicians would find themselves in, and the implications thereafter by then doing such procedures. A debate on that would be very welcome and timely. I will certainly do my best to arrange a debate with the Minister as soon as possible.
The final point was from Senator Boyhan, who sought a debate in regard to forestry. Again, I think this is timely. I know it is an issue the Senator has spoken on many times in this Chamber, and the dieback compensation package which he referenced is clearly a big issue. Forestry is vital to many parts of our country and, in particular, is vital to our targets on climate action and so on. A debate on that area would be very welcome and I will attempt to arrange that as soon as possible.