Wednesday, 5 July 2023
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding proposed approval by Seanad Éireann of a meeting of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands on Arranmore Island, County Donegal, without debate, to be taken on conclusion of Order of Business; No. 2, Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 – Report Stage Amendments and Final Stage, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1 or at 12.15 p.m., whichever is the later, the proceedings thereon shall if not previously concluded be brought to a conclusion at 2 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by Government; No. 3, Private Members' business, the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m., with the debate to adjourn on the conclusion of the proceedings in respect of section 1 of the Bill or at 3 p.m., whichever is the earlier; No. 4, Private Members' business, Ban on Dumping New Products Bill 2022 – Second Stage, to be taken at 3 p.m., with the time allocated for this debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 5, Private Members' business, Broadcasting (Restriction of Salaries) Bill 2023 – Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to adjourn after 90 minutes, if not previously concluded.
Can I say how pleased I was to be at a reception last night to see off our team as it heads to the Women's World Cup. It was fantastic to see the energy and enthusiasm in the room. On behalf of all of us, I wish the team and the backroom team, which does so much good, the very best of luck. In particular, I want mention the team's physiotherapist Susie Coffey, who is from Newbridge in Kildare.
Yesterday, I met with members of the UCD students' union regarding its recently published accommodation report. The union has compiled very impressive analysis and data regarding what we know is a national crisis. This is having a very negative impact on students' lives and experiences. The union surveyed 1,553 students. Aside from the need to have accommodation on or near campus, one area that might need to be addressed is the number of students availing of digs-style arrangements as a last resort. One key element is the lack of regulation covering the area. I heard many different stories from students such as students being refused access to kitchens and bathrooms at certain times, which is unacceptable, or the number of days being very limited. I agree with the students' union on the need for greater regulation. It also pointed out that much of the on-campus accommodation is very expensive. We need to do more to support the students.
I met with Newbridge Family Resource Centre on Monday. It has an excellent executive team. Like every family resource centre, it does so much work in the towns it serves in terms of supporting families. In many ways, the family resource centres constitute the heartbeat of our communities. In this instance, which I think would be the same across the country, the family resource centre was lucky enough to be awarded two large grants - one from Pobal and the other from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Unfortunately, when it went to tender to replace prefabs, the tender came in far higher because, as we know, the cost of building, etc., has escalated. We need to do something. We need to send a strong message to the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and the Minister for Finance that we need to support those who are in situations such as that to which I refer and who need more funding. We also need to look at the criteria in terms of spending because there are very tight timelines in terms of drawing down these funds. If an organisation does not draw down the money at a particular time, there is a real problem, which means that it may lose the grant altogether. This is a significant matter that we need to examine.
I ask that we have statements on the operation and value of local drug and alcohol task forces when we come back after the recess. I appreciate that there is no time between now and the end of this session to deal with the matter. These task forces have been operating since the 1990s. They make an exceptional contribution to our communities, but since the economic crash, they have not seen any increase in their core funding. It is not as if the Government is not giving any money to them. It is, but, unfortunately, we tend to give the money for piecemeal work such as, for example, that relating to the response to crack cocaine. Core funding is about looking after the community by putting in place people who have experience and professional qualifications in this area and who are dedicated to carrying out alcohol and drug addiction prevention and supporting those who are addicted and those who are in recovery from addiction. They do an exceptional job on the ground. It is my honour to be the chair of the Dublin 12 drug and alcohol task force. At meeting after meeting in recent years, I have received feedback on all that is done. At a recent conference in the Department of Health with the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, the research unit brought forward research which showed that the taking of and access to drugs are the same across all communities but that the effect of drug taking is felt most in communities that experience high social deprivation.
The chairs of the drug and alcohol task forces are giving a presentation in Buswell's Hotel this morning. They are launching their pre-budget submission, which asks for an additional €3 million. The latter is an incredibly modest amount of money for the extraordinary amount of work they are doing. They are modest because they are trying to be real and get the money rather than putting a value on their work and looking for considerable multiples of the amount to which I refer, which they would deserve and would spend extremely well. They are over in Buswells giving their presentation. Many of the chairs of the task forces, including me, have been over there meeting with public representatives. They talk about the amount of work they do, but we need to target areas. There are areas in our city that are blighted by drugs. There is intergenerational trauma whereby parents and grandparents were the victims of targeting by crime gangs in the 1980s. Those gangs are long since gone. The children grow up with the trauma of having parents in addiction and recovering from drug addiction or even of having deaths in the family as a result of drug addiction and overdoses.It is really important that they are successful in their pre-budget claim. I ask all of us to represent that in our parliamentary parties, to ensure we are representing it well and honouring this €3 million. Within the Department of Health, they do so much and this can get lost but it is vital to our communities and it is important that we do it.
Yesterday I spent the day in the University of Galway where we had a seminar on cyber security and the future. We are talking about cyber security in this country when artificial intelligence is coming down the road at a rate of knots. Really we need to up our game. On 15 June, Martin O'Brien, the chief executive officer of Louth & Meath Education and Training Board, launched a cyber training programme which has courses for everybody from chief executive officers to the person on the street. These programmes are funded by the State. I thank the Minister and Minister of State, Deputies Harris and Ossian Smyth, for their support of that project. I was there at the very beginning of it and brought people to Estonia.
There has been a lot of talk about NATO membership and all this nonsense in the State. What we need is relationships with like-minded countries across the world that have similar feelings to ourselves in the area of cyber security. One of the key countries we need to engage with is Taiwan and we do not even have an office there. Taiwan is one of the major chip manufacturers in the world. As we face the battle in cyber and artificial intelligence, a lot of it is going to take place at the chip level. We need our universities to have relationships with universities and manufacturers in Taiwan. In saying that, the relationship we have with China in our universities through the Confucius Institute needs to be scaled down. I am not so sure the Confucius Institute is solely interested in delivering Mandarin Chinese. I think it might also have an interest in delivering some sort of ethos that it is involved in. I ask that in the fall we have a debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs about opening an office in Taipei. It does not have to be an embassy, just an office like most European countries have, where we can engage directly with people in Taipei on the ground. The geopolitical situation there is quite complex at the moment and I would not want to do anything to make it worse. However, we need the relationship with the Taiwanese for our education purposes. The quicker we do that, the better. The Leader might put that on the agenda for September.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister with responsibility for the arts, Deputy Catherine Martin, to come before the House at the earliest opportunity to outline her views on recent media coverage regarding the practice of the Arts Council of funding lucrative consultancy work for former employees. In particular, it would be important that the Minister would be able to assure the House that such well paying work is awarded, whether directly or indirectly, in line with proper oversight and consonant with good governance and best practice. It would be equally important that the Minister would comment on how one particular ex-Arts Council insider should this year have been paid €15,000 of Arts Council money to produce a four-page report that resulted in the near destruction of one of the country's oldest and most successful arts festivals. The role of the Arts Council in all of this remains murky and opaque. According to the weekend media, there is a clear overlap between this appointment and the scandalous mismanagement and collapse of the Temple Bar Trust which at the time cost taxpayers dearly and left a sour taste in the mouths of Dublin City Council and other stakeholders.
I appreciate that. I have been very careful. I have tried to raise this matter on a number of occasions on Commencement matters and I find an amazing push-back against it from the Minister's Department, which is quite perplexing. I have to resort to this. We have all been shocked, as no doubt the Minister was shocked, by the revelations about bad governance at RTÉ. Perhaps this would be a good time for the Minister to be proactive in ensuring that the highest standards are met in all the other public bodies that come under her remit. I suggest she might make a start with the Arts Council.
I was just at a briefing by the local drug and alcohol task forces in Buswells Hotel. They were talking about investment to support and aid their recovery. I am sure they will have circulated the information to everyone and I need not go into great detail. Drugs and alcohol do not only affect the communities people might think of. There were representatives from Ballymun, Dún Laoghaire, Finglas, Cabra, Bray, canal communities and so on. We have discussed in this House how drugs impact our communities. It was very clear at the briefing that the funding has not increased for the local drug and alcohol task forces. In fact, because of increased costs, the funding has basically declined. The core funding has not kept pace with the reality of providing sufficient services. On pay and terms and conditions, they cannot compete with others, particularly in the public sector. One women said she had five applicants for three jobs. That is a really tough place to be when she is trying to provide a core service supporting communities, and she cannot recruit staff never mind retain them. I want to put on their record their call for Government to put its money where its mouth is. It must attempt to stop the corrosive damage to individuals, families and communities that are struggling to address drug and alcohol problems. They have requested an additional €3 million in 2024 for the local drug and alcohol task forces. That will help them strengthen their capacity to meet current and emerging need. When we hear of the massive budget surplus, €3 million is not an enormous amount to ask for. It is inequitable and ethically unjust that those closest to the reality of addiction are the least resourced. Perhaps we might have a debate in the House about drugs in our communities and what we need to do moving forward.
We have seen the recent Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report on septic tanks, pollution of lakes and so on. I think there is a grant of €5,000 available from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage for upgrading septic tanks. That is inadequate. I call on the Leader to contact the Minister. It is very hard to get a contractor to do a small job installing a new percolation system or whatever. They are quite costly as well. That grant needs to be upgraded. I also ask that we look at the whole area of communal schemes. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we could have innovative systems where a number of houses could come together. We should discuss the whole area of extensions to small sewerage schemes and communal schemes. Since Irish Water has been made a separate business, I am not so sure how small schemes are progressed from local authorities up to Irish Water as regards responsibility for putting water and sewerage systems in place. If an extension is required to a small rural scheme or a new rural scheme is needed in its own right, how does that progress now so that it gets on the radar of Irish Water? Before this, local authority members proposed a scheme at local authority level and asked the management of the local authority to investigate a scheme. I am not sure how it works now. I do not think the local authority members know how it works. I do not think the Government knows how it works either. Is it entirely left to Irish Water? Have the local authorities a function? This is an area we could have a debate on. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in this area and that she might contact the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in regard to the grant for the improvement of septic tanks.
Following on from my colleague Senator Burke, something I raised on the Order of Business last week and on which I had hoped a Commencement matter would be taken either yesterday or today is the issue of people who did not register their septic tanks before 1 February 2013 and are excluded from the grant scheme referred to by Senator Burke. These may be people who did not own the property in 2013 and have since bought one in 2016, 2017, 2018 or 2019. Because the previous owners of that property did not register the septic tank on 1 February 2013, the current owners are excluded from the grant scheme. I understand a review is under way but I must put on record that I was very disappointed that when I wrote to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in respect of this matter to highlight it on the basis of a water quality issue, even though the grant scheme is operated by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, my correspondence with the Minister was just forwarded to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That is inadequate to me. This is a water quality issue and it is something on which his Department should be engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to try to bring those excluded into the scheme.
The second point I wish to highlight is the importance of the review of the disabled persons grant scheme, which is also being carried out currently by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. These grants are essential for older persons to enable them to remain in their homes for longer. This is dragging on at this stage. It is not just a case of increasing the grant amounts so that more works can be covered by this but also that the quantum of grant support being given to local authorities is inadequate. In the context of the budget surpluses we have at the moment, the fact these are one-off grant measures means that the Government has the ability to fund local authorities with an extra block grant this year. This has to happen quickly. There is no point in giving it to local authorities in October or November and telling them they must have it spent by the end of the year. That is not a reality. They need to get that extra grant support now to be able to support older persons and those with disabilities to remain longer in their homes.
We had a very interesting debate with the Irish Dental Association at the Committee on Health this morning, and I have had some dealings on issues of dentistry in my constituency last year where an orthodontic practice closed, which had consequences for patients and for patient care for a time. The Irish Dental Association states the legislation governing dentistry, the Dentists Act, is antiquated and dates back to 1985. Will the Leader contact the Minister for Health to ask for a comprehensive engagement with the Dental Council on updating this legislation? The Dental Council is of the same view as the Irish Dental Association that this legislation is not fit for purpose. It was of its time and there has been a series of changes, including different specialties that very much need to be included and recognised, such as care for those with disabilities and certain other specialties.
We have very significant difficulties within the dental service at present. While the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has suggested there would be an increase in places in dental schools, which is very welcome, that measure alone will have a lead-in time of a number of years. Not all our primary school children are being seen at the three stages of primary school - second, fourth and sixth class - that were introduced in 1984. This was recommended because of reductions in the numbers of GPs involved in the scheme and the lack of dentists engaging with it. We need a comprehensive debate in this House on dentistry and I ask that the Leader engage with the Minister, as I have said, on both the updating of the legislation and for a debate on this very important topic of oral health.
Senator O’Loughlin spoke at the outset of the Order of Business and paid tribute to and congratulated the women’s football team and wished them well as they depart for the World Cup. There was a reception last night attended by many Members of both Houses with Vera Pauw and her team to wish them well. It is fantastic to see the team doing so well and they are great role models for young girls right across the country. We hope they have a successful World Cup.
The Senator acknowledged the work done by UCD students in putting a report together on student accommodation which highlights many issues. The Senator also welcomed significant funding for Newbridge Family Resource Centre but used the word “challenges” in respect of the spending timelines being applied to such funding. It can be difficult for an organisation to comply with such requirements.
Senators Seery Kearney and Hoey raised the briefing on drug and alcohol task forces they both attended in Buswells Hotel today. I will request a debate on the issue, which will be for the term after the summer recess but it is an important topic for us to discuss. Drugs are in every community, town and village and are having a very negative impact on people of all ages. I believe the average age for a person attending addiction services to deal with cocaine, for example, is 33. The idea it is all very young people is not accurate. These are people who are working, in full employment, and it is a different picture from what is generally thought. There is a challenge there for us as a country to meet, so we will have that debate in the new term.
Senator Craughwell spoke about the cybersecurity briefing and conference he attended in the University of Galway yesterday. He has asked for an embassy or a representative office to be established in Taiwan as it produces a significant amount of chips which will be required for future cybersecurity efforts.
Senator O’Sullivan raised a particular governance issue regarding the Arts Council and has asked the Minister, Deputy Martin, to deal with that issue, especially in light of what has been happening in RTÉ. We need to ensure all public bodies receiving State funding are properly run and that there is value for taxpayer money.
The Senator also outlined significant issues in having the Minister attend for a Commencement matter, which I was not aware of until today. I suggest that the Senator resubmit the Commencement matter and I would certainly hope the Minister would attend to answer questions on it.
Senators Burke and Cummins both raised issues regarding septic tanks. I completely agree that the €5,000 grant is completely inadequate as the cost of repairing or replacing a septic is probably around €20,000, so it is just unaffordable. With the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report outlining that our water quality is deteriorating and is going in the wrong direction, we have a great amount of work to do in that regard. We should be assisting people in making those changes.
I take on board the points made by Senator Cummins about the registration of septic tanks and the 2013 date. Again, we want people to access the grants and to be able to carry out the works because it is good for the environment. That needs to be addressed. I suggest a Commencement matter, as I know the Senator wished to submit one. We have tomorrow and next week as well, so it is to be hoped we will have the opportunity to hear from the Minister on that. If we do not get any response back between this week and next, we can look towards having a debate in the new term to try to deal with the issue in more depth.
Senator Kyne spoke about the engagement in the Committee on Health this morning with the Dental Council and the Irish Dental Association on the outdated legislation. Perhaps a Private Members’ Bill might be appropriate on that issue with a view to updating the legislation to get the debate going. Certainly, if contact is made with the Minister, I am sure he will engage on that aspect of the matter. From this House we could potentially introduce legislation or get the debate going ourselves as opposed to waiting for a Government Bill or for the Department. That might be worth considering. Again, I suggest that a Commencement matter be submitted to begin with to see if we can get a response from the Minister as to what his plans might be to address what appears to be quite old legislation in an area which has advanced quite a good deal since 1985 with respect to the types of technology is now used in dental care.
I welcome the Déise Women’s Shed from Dungarvan to the Seanad today. They are most welcome guests of Senator Cummins. I hope they enjoy their day, and if they have any ideas or thoughts, I ask them to share them with us all.