Wednesday, 27 September 2023
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on road safety, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude at 2 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate; No. 124, Private Members' business, motion 9 regarding crime and policing, to be taken at 2.30 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours and; No. 124, motion 8 regarding the delivery of a rights-based care economy in Ireland on the recommendations of the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 7 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the combined contributions of the proposer and the seconder not to exceed 16 minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, that of the Minister not to exceed 15 minutes, and the proposer to be given five minutes to reply to the debate.
I congratulate all of those who were involved in seizing the €100 million worth of cocaine yesterday evening. The Army Ranger Wing did a fantastic job and the crew of the LÉ William Butler Yeats, the Air Corps, the customs service and the Garda were also involved. It is a really important seizure and it highlights the important work the Defence Forces do in terms of the security of our country. In that context, yesterday the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Deputy Micheál Martin, announced the strategic framework for the transformation of the Defence Forces and that is hugely important. The aims of that are to support the transformation of the Defence Forces into an organisation that is fit for purpose in defending the State and meeting the challenges of today and the future. It also aims to address the issues in recruitment and retention, and importantly, it seeks to enhance the physical working environment of our Defence Forces and to enhance their equipment.
I also want to raise the recent announcement by the Minister for Justice regarding the new domestic, sexual and gender-based violence agency, which is a significant step and it will be up and running by January. It is important and I thank the Minister for her work on this. As an addendum, it is really important that our courts, particularly in family law, are up and running and can deal with the cases they have. For example, last Monday week there were 106 domestic violence cases listed in Naas court. Of those, only 30 were heard. Many people have to take time off work and organise childminders to appear in court, and let us not talk about the emotional stress and so on that is involved as court is a distressing place for all who are there. We have a broken and inefficient service; those 76 other cases were adjourned to another day that was already full. We have to get this right.
I mention the upcoming budget and the need for infrastructure within our country. I have to give a shout out for the second bridge in Newbridge, which I have raised before. Two weeks ago we got planning permission for that second bridge, which is part of the south orbital relief road for Newbridge. That is important for relieving traffic congestion because five schools are situated around the existing bridge, which is the only gateway out towards Dublin. I hope that within the budget we see funding for vital infrastructural projects such as the new bridge for Newbridge.
I welcome the students from the Harold School, who are guests of the Minister of State, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, to the Houses. I thank them for being here on this wet day and I hope they have a productive visit. I welcome to the House guests of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, including Representative Brock Colvin, who is the youngest legislator in the state of Alabama. He is welcome and he is joined by Grace Newcombe, Noah Campbell and Erika Connell. The Leas-Chathaoirleach will extend a quick welcome to them as well.
Not at all. I would also like to welcome the guests and to wish everybody here the best for the forthcoming term. I was struck by an observation by Professor Orla Feely, during her inaugural lecture as president of University College Dublin, UCD, on Monday evening. She pointed out that the ratio of students to staff in Irish universities is, as she put it: "much, much worse" than it was during the economically bleak 1980s. She said that then, "The student-to-faculty ratio in UCD... was around 13 to one. Now... it is over 20 to one." She described this as "the single biggest threat" to higher education and I know this is a view that is widely shared in the higher education sector.
In the recently published OECD Education at a Glance document, Ireland is second from bottom for the student to faculty ratio in tertiary education, and this is not news to the Government. Last year, to much fanfare the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, published Funding the Future, with a press release claiming that it: "settle[s] the question on higher education funding." It identified an annual shortfall of €307 million for the sector from what is known as core funding. This core funding is the crucial funding the universities need to tackle issues such as staff to student ratios, and it is in addition to the funding needed for future demographic increases, capital funding and research funding. The Government made that promise and it should keep it. In last year's budget, however, only €40 million of additional core funding was provided, which does not even keep up when you factor in pay restoration costs and so on. The Irish Universities Association highlighted that "If the annual rate of funding increase were to continue at the Budget 2023 rate of €40m, it would take 8 years to close the gap." By that stage the €307 million would be a dated figure and that would leave a funding deficit of €1 billion over the eight years if you add it up.
There is a general reluctance among university heads to talk down the quality of our higher education product. However, the green jersey of national pride is giving way to the red flag of warning as TheTimeshigher education rankings show that our teaching and learning scores across higher education are dire. There is anxiety that we have missed the Brexit bounce, with many international students not taking up places, not least because of the chronic shortage of accommodation. There is great anxiety in the sector that if an accelerated funding programme is not apparent in this year's budget, our higher education sector will languish and find it impossible to meaningfully address student to staff ratios and to deliver an adequately resourced education service. One mechanism to deliver the extra funding, in parallel to the estimates, would be to leverage the massive surplus in the National Training Fund and create a skills fund. If this was done right it could release funds to help our universities to address the national skills deficit in areas like healthcare; science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM; digitisation; and construction.
We like to tell ourselves that we value education in Ireland but as the saying goes, if you show me your budget, I will show you what you value. We need the Government to keep its promise.
When I came back this time last year the first item I raised on the Order of Business was housing because of the horrendous state of the housing crisis. As we all know, it has got much worse since then. I will stick to the facts. The July homeless figure that I quoted last year was 10,568, including 3,137 children. In July this year it had gone up to 12,847 homeless people, including 3,829 children. That is a total increase of 2,300 additional homeless people, and 700 more children.It is an absolutely disgraceful record but it gets worse. When we look at the Government's housing targets for this year and the first half figures that were released, the target for this year is 5,500 affordable homes. Some 2,000 of those are through the controversial shared equity scheme and are not actually affordable but we will leave that aside for one moment. In the first half of the year, the Government delivered 101 affordable purchase homes through local authorities. Not one affordable home has been delivered by the Land Development Agency, LDA. The LDA has been in existence for four years now and there has not been one affordable home delivered. There were 22 cost-rental homes delivered by the approved housing bodies, so 123 houses is the record for the first six months in terms of affordable homes. Then we go on to the target of 9,100 new-build social homes. Again, at the halfway point of the year, just 1,401 of these were actually delivered. These results are just appalling. They are absolutely disgraceful. I find it hard to understand how there has not been action at Cabinet level given the continuing failure to address the housing crisis. I am calling for a debate on that.
The second issue I will raise briefly is the ongoing crisis in University Hospital Limerick. I get to raise two issues as I am under the three-minute mark. I am glad to say we are very strict on that.
I thank Senator Lombard, though, for his concern. University Hospital Limerick today has a new record with 124 patients on trolleys this morning, in September. What are we going to be facing in the winter months? We have a Minister who is in denial, who came into this Chamber and rejected the figures from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO. He actually said on radio in the summer that things are getting better. Things are getting worse. We are facing into a winter crisis. He has no idea how we are going to deal with it. The people of Limerick have no idea how they are going to manage. A record in September of 124 people on trolleys is nothing less than disgraceful. Both of these Ministers should go. I call for a debate on both of those topics.
Indeed I will knock myself out. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the clarity regarding the three-minute slots. I want to raise an issue regarding the National Transport Authority, NTA, and how it operates. It is a significant issue. The NTA is a major driver of infrastructure in the State when it comes to public transportation. There is a lack of engagement regarding decisions it makes that affect the public and how we deal with it.
I bring Senators' attention again to the huge issue we have with the bus service from Kinsale to Cork city. During the Covid period, the bus stop was changed to an unsafe location. We have done everything from signing petitions and writing to the Minister and the NTA to having the Garda involved, but we cannot even get a response. I think I have written to the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, five times on this issue with no response. That is unfortunate. This is a big issue for many people. There is a massive budget attached to this organisation and my inability, and the inability of any public representative I talk to, to have a meaningful engagement with it is a huge issue for the State. We should have a good debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, about what pathways there are for us, as public representatives, to deal with the NTA. I do not believe there is any significant pathway at the moment. We write and we get no response. Senator Buttimer is in the Chair and will understand it is quite obvious that the organisation needs to have an office in Cork. We have been saying it needs a base or location in Cork. The NTA is a Dublin-based organisation telling us how to do our business down south and it will not meet us on the street or about these issues. We need to have a root-and-branch review of how the NTA operates. I put it to the Leader that we should have a debate about this issue. As Senators can see by the weather out there, it is significant when it comes to weather conditions that we have elderly people standing in the rain at 11.30 p.m. waiting for a bus, and we cannot even put a bus stop there. That is a big issue for me.
The other issue I raised yesterday is that of the grain farmers. Today is an horrendous day. Thousands of acres of grain will not be picked up and will not see the combine harvester this year because of unfortunate weather conditions. The farmers will lose that grain and will not be able to survive. I go back to my original request yesterday. We need to have a significant debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about this issue. He needs to come to this Chamber and put to us his thoughts on how we can put an effective fund in place to save these poor farmers. With the horrendous weather, they will never save their crop.
Before I raise the one matter I wish to raise, I wish to state that I agree with the views expressed by Senator Mullen concerning higher education funding. The issue I wish to raise was reported by Naomi O'Leary in The Irish Timesyesterday on questions around artificial intelligence, AI, and deepfakes but also misinformation and disinformation on social media channels. The article found that on X, formerly Twitter, the level of misinformation or disinformation is by far the greatest of all the major social media platforms. The European Commission has said it will take action under the Digital Services Act. It is alarming and of concern with the major platforms, particularly considering how many democracies are going to face into elections next year. We need to tackle this problem. Meta, the owners of Facebook and Instagram, in the first six months of 2023 took down 426 million fake accounts, which represents about 5% of active users. While the figure is not exact, we know in the case of Twitter that up to 20% of users are fake. There is a very serious risk to our democratic process from the spread of misinformation and disinformation and from the deployment of AI in a negative way, particularly around the use of deepfakes. AI can be used to combat voter fraud and in other positive ways as well.
The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has charged the Electoral Commission with looking at this issue. It is important that we invite the Minister to the House to speak about how we can address some of these issues. In the US, the Federal Electoral Commission has already moved towards regulating AI in the context of elections. Given how important it is not just in this sector but across all sectors of Irish society, I again call on these Houses to consider setting up a committee to look at AI and emerging technologies.
I call for a debate on issues within Inland Fisheries Ireland. The organisation advertised a position for a seasonal fisheries assistant, which it does every year. It states clearly that key experience is essential, as is a leaving certificate, level 5 national framework qualification or recognised equivalent, with minimum grade C in at least two higher level papers, to include one of biology, physics, chemistry, geography or maths. That is a standard requirement for Inland Fisheries Ireland for a junior position of temporary summer seasonal fisheries assistant. If we take the position of an inspector for Galway, however, there are no educational requirements whatsoever. This follows on from a more senior position again where there was a requirement initially for a third-level qualification. That post was pulled and readvertised with just a requirement for a leaving certificate. Why are these things happening? Is it a case that the organisation has people in mind for these jobs? That cannot be, surely, not in Inland Fisheries Ireland where clearly there are no issues. Inland Fisheries Ireland is a fiefdom. It is being controlled by the chief executive officer. Everyone I speak to within Inland Fisheries Ireland in Galway and Mayo knows exactly who is going to get the position of inspector in Galway, who indeed has no leaving certificate or junior certificate or intermediate certificate. I have no particular problem with that. I think there is too much emphasis on educational attainment. How is it that a more junior position requires two honours in the leaving certificate but a more senior inspector position does not? It is because the CEO knows exactly who is going to get the job. The CEO will pick his man. Those who write anonymous letters need to be looked after.
Like Senator Gavan, I am asking for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to come to the House to discuss what is needed in the lifetime of this Government to address the housing crisis. When the Government came into power, it was known that approximately 47,000 houses had to be built every year for the next five years just to catch up with the housing deficit numbers at August 2020. At the time, the Government pledged to build 50,000 social housing units over five years. The Government’s Housing for All strategy estimates Ireland will need an average of 33,000 new homes provided each year from 2021 to 2030. However, research by the Housing Commission says Ireland may need up to 62,000 homes built per year until 2050 to meet the demand. That is almost double the annual target in the Government’s master plan for the decade. I came across a short piece the other night put together by the journalist Jason O’Mahony on “ten things Irish politicians will never admit”. No. 2 read: “Short of a suspension of democracy and the press ganging of unemployed workers into construction it is now impossible for Ireland to build enough housing to meet the level of housing we require.” I think he is right. We have reached a stage where there is no way to climb out of the hole we have dug ourselves into in this decade or the next without major sweeping change. If I was in government I would have grave concerns about what the change may look like.
Until the end of this June, the Department built 101 affordable purchase homes, 22 cost rental homes and the Land Development Agency, LDA, built nothing. However, I understand this morning that 26 LDA homes are open for application in Meath County Council. I am hoping the third and fourth quarter figures do rise. New-build social housing input is at 15% with not even 15,000 completions. We are supposed to have 9,000 by the close of December. The numbers do not add up. We should have the Minister in here to tell us why.
The Northern and Western Regional Assembly has made a call on behalf of the whole north-west area and the counties it covers - Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, Cavan and Monaghan. The Leader is from the area and will be very much aware of the deficit in the whole region, going back to when the EU gave it objective 1 status. That was about levelling up to ensure that we got our spend per capitain line with the rest of the country. That is now over 20 years ago and we are still in the same position where we are playing catch up. The report this morning is very welcome and timely, coming just before the budget. I implore the Leader to give a good sense of that to the Government. It is really important. The Leader has been very strong about rail lines along the western seaboard. There is the N17, which is not progressing, the Galway bypass, the N2 and A5, which has been lobbied on for well over 20 years, and the lack of rail line across that whole region. Many counties there have no rail. It is unacceptable. For Donegal, because the N2 and A5 has not progressed, the trans-European transport network, TEN-T, project is sitting with the Department of Transport waiting to move to the next phase. I know it is being assessed but the quicker it moves on the better. I ask the Leader to raise the report with the Government.
Yesterday, the Irish Independent reported thousands more households had fallen into arrears in their energy bills. Yesterday, also saw the announcement of the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS 3, auction results. Not only have they delivered the smallest volume of renewable energy ever, but it is also the most expensive. The average price is now €100.47 per MWh which is way out of kilter with our EU neighbours. We all know the best way to reduce people’s energy costs is to move away from fossil fuels and get ourselves energy secure in terms of renewable energy. Therefore it is deeply disappointing that the RESS 3 auction has made Ireland the most expensive for providing renewable energy. Sinn Féin and Wind Energy Ireland have repeatedly called for a cross-departmental task force to identify the cost drivers of renewable energy in this country and the policies we need to implement to reduce those cost drivers. We do know the planning system, and the delays in it, is a large part of it. It is an average of 90 weeks for a decision for a wind farm. It has been over a year since the last wind farm got planning permission in this country. It does not send out the signal that we are in a climate crisis if it takes 90 weeks for decisions to be made on renewable energy projects. We are calling for the planning system to be adequately resourced as well as the environmental NGOs, which have a legal obligation to participate in the planning system too. We need to have the legal timeframes recognised and complied with.
Finally, while I am talking about An Bord Pleanála and the delays, I want to welcome its rejection of the Shannon LNG terminal. It was a great decision and one that recognises that we cannot lock ourselves into a fossil fuel future.
Like Senator Malcolm Byrne, I want to identify myself completely with the remarks made by Senator Mullen about higher education. I was present for the speech to which he referred. It is an alarming situation.
Today, I raise a topic that will be of interest to the Leader, namely that of the Defence Forces. I congratulate the Ranger wing of the Army and Air Corps for their operation off the Cork coast yesterday in bringing what appears to be a huge consignment of drugs into Cork harbour, along with arrests. As the boats came into Cork harbour they passed the naval station at Haulbowline. We have eight naval ships. Only two are operational. We have now 750 active members of the Naval Service. At the time the Defence Forces commission made its report, that stood at 867. The Leader and I are former reservists. We know the Reserve aspect of the Defence Forces has collapsed. Manning ships has become almost impossible. Ireland is an open goal for those who want to violate our territorial waters due to the failure of this Government to take the Defence Forces seriously.
It is the duty of the Government to uphold the Defence Forces. They are a constitutional force. They cannot be the also-rans in every budgetary debate. If we are serious about our neutrality and about any of the issues that fill our newspapers, we must take our Defence Forces seriously. The time has come for action, not words. You can send a ship to the Mediterranean to pick up asylum seekers but it cannot defend our own coastal waters adequately and that is a disgrace.
I welcome the news that the Garda Commissioner has included a Garda station for Castletroy in the capital programme for An Garda Síochána for 2025 to 2030. I raised this here in Commencement debates in 2018 and 2019. We were told then it was not warranted but it would be kept under review. The whole area of Castletroy, Lisnagry and Annacotty is one of the fastest growing areas in Ireland. The population is over 20,000 and there is a student population on top of that. I know from attending residents’ meetings and meeting residents and businesses in the area over the years that this is really welcome news. Henry Street Garda Station was tasked with looking after the area but it was too large. I hope the Office of Public Works, which has been tasked with finding a site, secures one very quickly. I hope the Garda station will commence as quickly as possible because support is needed there.
I wish to give credit to and commend the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, IPAV, under the stewardship of Mr. Pat Davitt, on the work it has done in providing a seller's legal pack for property buyers. The aim of the seller's pack is to speed up the process and make it more cost-effective in property transactions. Everybody knows that the conveyancing process can unfortunately take between two and six months and can be very frustrating and stressful for people trying to buy a home. With that in mind, I also commend Deputy MacSharry who is introducing legislation on this issue next week in the Lower House. It is very worthwhile. The idea is to have the process run in a way similar to a public auction sale in that all the legal documents pertaining to the property would be front-loaded into a seller's pack. Anybody who is familiar with the legal process knows that in a public auction, it normally takes approximately four weeks to complete once the deposit has been paid. The intention of Deputy MacSharry's worthwhile legislation is to have a similar period. I ask that the Minister come to the House in order that we can debate the legislation forthcoming in the Lower House. It is an excellent idea. I again commend IPAV on bringing this initiative forward.
I raise the Government legislative programme that was published today. I thank the Leader for arranging with her office to have it circulated to all Senators in the past hour or so. I had a quick look and a substantial amount of legislation at various Stages is scheduled for the autumn session. I thank the Government Whip for pulling all that together. It reminds us that Governments can initiate any legislation in Seanad Éireann. We need to send a clear message that this Seanad is ready, willing and able to process legislation, particularly when it is initiated here. I ask the Leader to use her good offices and contacts in the Houses to see where we can get agreement. Clearly, this is a prerogative of the Government and sponsoring Minister but, where possible, let us have legislation initiated in this House in addition to other legislation that is coming through. We cannot be successful if we do not have legislation so we need to see legislation track down into the House. We are up for it, willing and absolutely committed, and I speak for every member of this House in that regard. Let us see what we can do to encourage Ministers to consider, under their Government's programme, initiating more legislation in Seanad Éireann.
I was just speaking to my colleague, Senator Gallagher, about this issue. It is one of which Border politicians will be very much aware. People coming from a Border area who are involved in business have always had to deal with price discrepancies on either side of the Border. Entrepreneurs in businesses on both sides of the Border have always had to have a certain level of ingenuity to make sure their businesses are operating at a good margin. In recent weeks, I have spoken to a number of people involved in service stations in north Louth and Dundalk. They have been discussing the excise increase and have raised some of their concerns with me.
The Government has taken a three-staged approach under which excise duty on petrol increased by 6 cent per litre on 1 June and 7 cent per litre on 1 September and will increase by 8 cent per litre on 1 November. I know this third increase has been discussed at Government level and I appreciate that there has been much back and forth and engagement with the relevant organisations, but the problem, as is very clear mathematically speaking, is that those increases will make it cheaper for people living in north Louth to drive to the North to fill up. There will be a huge price discrepancy between the price of petrol and diesel in Louth and south Armagh. If someone drives for five minutes, it will be more expensive in Hackballscross. That is the problem, and maintaining equilibrium between both sides has always been an issue in Border areas. We do not want everyone from this side of the Border rushing to the other side to buy diesel and petrol and likewise for businesses in the North. It was the same with food and everything else in the 1980s and 1990s. I want to put that on the record of the House. It is certainly a concern for many people involved in service stations in north Louth and along the Border. I welcome the engagement by the Government so far to try to fix this problem for them.
In any case, they are quite different jobs but they are both essential roles that are going unfilled because of inadequate pay. Ireland is a very expensive place to live and public services and essential social functions are becoming increasingly strained because the people providing them are not being paid enough. Next week, on 3 October, members of the Irish Criminal Bar Association will withdraw their services, bringing criminal proceedings to a standstill. It is not a step they will take lightly but they have been driven to this point by years of Government neglect and delay. Their professionalism and expertise are an essential part of ensuring the criminal justice system operates in an orderly and fair way.
The fees for criminal legal aid, which covers almost all criminal cases, were set in 2002 and were cut during the financial crisis. These cuts have never been reversed. In real terms, criminal barristers have sustained a 40% pay cut that has lasted far longer than the one endured by public servants. During this time, criminal barristers have made significant efforts to enact reforms that have made criminal proceedings more efficient, yet there has been no action on fee restoration. The effect of this underpayment is being felt. Talented young lawyers are increasingly opting not to specialise in criminal law. Two thirds of new criminal barristers leave within five years for better paid civil and commercial work or they cease practising as barristers entirely. This does not just impact on the ability of people who have been accused of crimes to access legal representation. The brain drain in the profession is causing delays in the criminal justice system.
I am glad the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has endorsed the Bar Council's campaign for pay restoration but ultimately it is up to the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to act. Barristers in the UK had to undertake a bruising prolonged strike campaign to win concessions from the Tory government. I ask that we debate this issue so the various groups can put their views on the record.
I will mention one or two good stories and request that the Minister come to the House to discuss an issue. Yesterday was a huge day for our area because the N5 bypass, which has had an up-and-down history in recent years, was sanctioned by the Cabinet and will proceed immediately. Taking into account the work that will be done around towns and villages, the whole project will be worth €450 million. That is a clear statement that this Government is committed to rural Ireland and to giving it funds.
The Leader has been very supportive of me on my next point. On the stretch of road from Scrammoge, where I live, to Ballaghaderreen, we have had a huge loss of life over the past 30 years and we many people have been injured. People have been living as prisoners in their own homes because of the fear of being on that stretch of road. Economically, the bypass will bring huge change to that part of County Roscommon. It will open up the whole area. I look forward to positive things happening in that locality, which is a major tourism area with Rathcroghan and so on. The future looks bright.
On the N4 road, a number of politicians have spoken about the bypass from Mullingar to Roosky. Of course, Roosky is in County Roscommon, as Senator McDowell will know well. The N4 goes to Carrick-On-Shannon and then back into County Roscommon and on beyond Boyle down to Ballinafad. It is important that road project is not held up. The bypass and motorway need to progress as quickly as possible. I ask that we invite the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House to address that issue in the not-too-distant future. It is important that project goes ahead.
I echo the comments of Senator Murphy. I was delighted for everyone to see that funding has been put in place for the N5 project. To get to the N5, however, people must go down the N4 and they are going through a section of road from Mullingar to Longford that is not fit for purpose.
There are 500 access points on that section. It is as much a safety concern as the N5 because it has as high a number of fatalities.Funding for that project should continue to be in place to get it to planning permission stage and get it constructed. There were comments in the media yesterday saying the N5 is essential for the north and the north west. The section from Mullingar to Roosky is just as important for the north and the north west and for us in the midlands, so it is not acceptable for the project to be held up.
Following on from something Senator Black mentioned, I met a significant number of early childhood care and education, ECCE, proprietors yesterday. The Government is putting funding in place but from what I heard at a presentation yesterday evening in the audiovisual room, the funding is not filtering down to where it needs to be in the case of a lot of the smaller providers. Senator Chambers mentioned a meeting yesterday with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. The Minister needs to come before the House and explain to us where the funding is going. Significant funding of €400 million is being put into childcare. Why, therefore, are people on the streets outside Leinster House and why are further small providers prepared to close? It is not acceptable and it needs to be addressed.
In regard to legislation-----
I will finish on this point. In regard to legislation, I agree with the comments with regard to starting legislation in this House. The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 began in this House more than 12 months ago and we had 27 hours of debate. When it got to the Dáil, there was just one hour of debate because it had been so thoroughly dealt with here. This House is a good place for legislation to start. The public health Bill does not seem to be a priority for the current session but it needs to be enacted, especially as kids of ten or 11 years of age are vaping.
Before I call the Leader to respond, I join with Members who earlier articulated their thanks and genuine appreciation for the bravery of the men and women of our Defence Forces, including the Naval Service and Air Corps, and the Garda for the wonderful work they did over the past 24 hours in what has been categorised as the largest drugs seizure in the history of the State. The Leader was a member of the Defence Forces at one stage. I thank all those involved. It just shows the collaboration that can take place, even in very treacherous weather. On behalf of Members, I thank the members of the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and all the Members who raised issues. Senator O'Loughlin spoke about the Defence Forces, as did Senator McDowell and others, and commended the bravery, exceptional professionalism and skill displayed off the coast of Cork yesterday. What may have looked, from the footage, like an easy operation was far from it. In treacherous conditions, they managed to land on the ship and get hold of that large consignment of drugs, which, as somebody noted earlier on the radio, would have brought years of misery, given the quantity. I commend them on their work. I believe they mobilised within hours, and were on site and had the task completed within less than two hours. It was a phenomenal operation, assisted by the Air Corps and the Naval Service, with Revenue and the Defence Forces involved as well. It was a day to proud of and it was the first time the Army Ranger Wing was deployed in our own jurisdiction, so it was a remarkable day.
Nevertheless, it brought to the fore the ongoing challenges in the Defence Forces. As Senator McDowell and others highlighted, the fact only two of the eight naval ships we do have can be manned is a problem for us. Potentially, we are the weak link for attempts to get drugs into Europe from South America. Our maritime waters are five times larger than our land territory, so we have a lot of waters to police and secure. It is important that, as a State, we do that because it protects our citizens and State assets and is also a part of our role as a member state. Yesterday’s operation, therefore, brings to the fore the ongoing challenges, which the Tánaiste is very much focused on addressing.
Senator O'Loughlin also welcomed the establishment of the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence agency under the Department of Justice. I commend the Minister on her work in that area. She has done considerable work on the issue of violence against women and domestic violence, which is to be commended, and the establishment of the agency was long overdue. The Senator also called for funding for infrastructure in Newbridge in the upcoming budget.
Senators Mullen, Malcolm Byrne and McDowell spoke about staffing issues in higher education. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will come before the House next Wednesday for a discussion on both that issue and student accommodation, which was raised yesterday. We need to heed the warnings now and try to put in place a plan to address those challenges.
Senator Gavan spoke about housing, as he often does. It is an ongoing challenge. The homelessness figures are nothing to be proud of and we are all deeply concerned about them. In the three years the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been in office, he has been radical and transformative with the schemes he has brought in and the level of investment in housing. During his tenure, he has done his best to increase the number of completions and commencements, which has happened. There has been an increase in the population and disruptions to supply chains and construction was closed. There have been a lot of exceptional challenges over the past three years and despite that, houses and homes are being delivered. Notwithstanding that, there are significant challenges in terms of the homelessness figures and those on the housing waiting lists, which is a top priority for all of the Government to address. I take on board the points raised about University Hospital Limerick. I have requested a debate with the Minister for Health and we will, I hope, get a debate with him as soon as possible on both that issue and on the winter plan, which was requested yesterday.
Senator Lombard spoke about a bus service from Kinsale to Cork. I am not familiar with the details of that issue but my understanding is the NTA is the best place to get information, as opposed to the Minister for Transport, regarding bus stops because that is where I have previously got such information. Nevertheless, I am sure the Minister will assist where appropriate. The Senator also asked for a debate on agriculture with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, which I have requested, in the context of the impact on crops and grain from the inclement weather.
Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about the issue of deepfakes and misinformation, a big challenge that will be a concern for all parties and Independents going into elections next year and beyond. We will certainly request a debate with the Minister and I support the Senator's call for the establishment of a select committee. As is the case in the establishment of any of these committees, however, it is about resourcing and getting staff and a secretariat to establish it, but perhaps we can discuss how we might get that moving.
Senator Kyne requested a debate on Inland Fisheries Ireland and referred to challenges, as he has done on many occasions to his credit. I cannot answer the question, and people will draw their own conclusions, as to why a post was advertised at a more senior level with no educational requirements, while a less senior post did have educational requirements. It is possible that the position has been earmarked for somebody and the criteria being advertised may have been drafted to suit the person who may be in mind for the job. I certainly hope that is not the case, and if there is any evidence to support those types of practices, any such organisation should reflect on that because it does not create a level playing field or give an equal opportunity to people to apply for those roles, for which everybody should have an opportunity to apply should they meet the qualifying criteria that would usually pertain to a role. That is something to keep an eye on and Senator Kyne has done a good job at highlighting the ongoing challenges there.
Senator Keogan asked for a debate on housing. We will try to get a debate with the Minister as soon as possible. It was raised by a number of Senators both yesterday and today. On the ongoing challenges, I would take a more positive view, in that we have to believe we can solve the problem. If we move to a space where we say the issue can never be solved in our lifetime, that would be a poor place for politics to be in. It is the job of the Government to find solutions and be inventive as to how we can solve this problem because people depend on our delivering solutions in housing.
Senator Blaney highlighted the call from the Northern and Western Regional Assembly for the north west to be classified by the European Commission as a region in transition and the need to invest positively in the area to bring it on to a par with other regions. I certainly agree with his remarks.
Senator Boylan spoke about energy bills and those falling into difficulty. This is a concern for the Government and, in the previous budget, considerable assistance was given not just to those receiving social welfare payments, with increases in the fuel allowance, but also through a universal payment in the form of energy credits. Energy prices were acknowledged by the Government as a challenge for all households, and it was dealt with in the budget, with significant funding put in to support households. In the feedback I received, while I cannot speak for everyone else, people appreciated that that had been acknowledged and that money had been put there to support people. The same will be done in this budget. I do not have the details of the budget, given it is being drafted the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, but there will be support for households in meeting energy costs.The Government has acknowledged that is an ongoing concern for most households, not just people on social welfare, who are the most vulnerable, but also middle-income workers. Many people who are working, and households where two people are working, are still finding it difficult. It is important that we look after as many as possible and extend that support as far as we possibly can.
I take on board the points on the cost of renewables. In fairness to this Government and Minister, there has been a significant focus on renewables in the past three years. We have moved quite fast in terms of wind energy but we are catching up. More should have been done over the past decade in terms of wind energy and renewables. We are trying to catch up a little bit on that. I do not think anybody can doubt the current Minister's passion and belief in renewables and putting policies in place to support that. The ambition or aspiration for the country is that we could be a net exporter of and world leader in wind energy. We have the capability to do that. The west and north west is the windiest part of Ireland. The technology is not quite there yet for offshore floating technology, but it is on the way and has been used in other parts of the world. We will get there with that, but there are challenges and it is costly. That is the direction in which we are going.
I take on board the point made by Senator McDowell about the Defence Forces being a constitutional force and that there is a duty on Government to support the Defence Forces. We will request a debate with the Minister on that.
Senator Maria Byrne welcomed the Garda station for Castletroy. There have been challenges in that area over a longer period. It is great to see that acknowledge and I hope it will be delivered without much delay.
Senator Gallagher welcomed the work by the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers on its seller's pack. I want to commend Senator Davitt and Deputy MacSharry, who will table proposed legislation in the Dáil next week or the week after.
Senator Boyhan spoke about the legislative programme. I looked through it. Senator Carrigy will be interested to hear that we have always made it very clear to the Chief Whip's office that we are open for business and would love to see more Bills starting out in the Seanad. That is not a difficulty on our side. Where a request is made, it is acceded to. I will certainly relay the point to the Chief Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, that we will be quite happy to take more Bills through here. There is a busy schedule of work ahead for both Houses for the autumn session. It was good to see the work programme outlined in the document that was circulated earlier today.
Senator McGahon spoke about excise duty increases and challenges on the Border, which he articulated very well.
Senator Black spoke about underpaid criminal barristers. Many of us attended the briefing by the Bar Council this morning. It is looking for pay restoration. Barristers are the only element of the criminal justice system that have not received pay restoration. The point was made that when they are in the courtroom, the judges, the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, the Courts Service staff and the Garda members have received pay restoration, but a barrister is the only person in the room who has not. My view is that they have been patient, reasonable and measured. They are not looking for pay restoration to happen in one go; rather, they want a process initiated where it can happen over time. Barristers are entitled to have that process outlined to them and costs provided. I have contacted the Minister for Justice to get some details on that because, as Senator Black said, the Minister has outlined her support for that, as have the DPP and the Department of Justice. The ask is now for the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform to fund that and get it started. The strike next Tuesday is unprecedented, however. It will cause disruption to criminal justice matters across the country. That is the intention of a strike, otherwise it will not be noticed. Barristers are where they are, having exhausted all other avenues and they did not take this decision lightly. My understanding is that they have alerted all stakeholders involved in trial processes and other arrangements. Everybody is on notice of what is happening next week. Barristers have been very conscious of that. I want to put on the record my support for their campaign. It is to be hoped the Minister will have a plan in place to deal with the issue without further delay.
Senator Eugene Murphy spoke about the N5 bypass for Ballaghaderreen, a welcome announcement from the Minister yesterday. There will be huge investment in the area. The road is way below par and is not the standard one would expect of a national route. I welcome the €450 million investment for the area. Senator Carrigy also welcomed the announcement. It is important for the region. Those of us who are on those roads know very well the difficulty in getting through them. There are also challenges with the Longford-Mullingar bypass in terms of upgrading roads to the standard they need to be for today. That is important.
Senator Carrigy spoke about ECCE providers. At a meeting with the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party yesterday, the Minister was constructive. The point being raised, which many of us in the House would agree, is that the core funding was intended to reduce fees for parents, which it has done. We achieved that as a Government, in that fees have come down by 25% this year and more will be done in the next budget. That is to be commended and the Minister is to be commended on his work in that regard over the past three years. He has done tremendous work in the space of childcare and there has been record investment, along the lines of €400 million, in that three-year period. However, core funding, as the Minister has said, is designed to support capacity. That means larger providers get a greater share of core funding, to the disadvantage of smaller providers. The point I and many others made yesterday was that in rural parts of the country, and smaller towns and villages, the only show in town is a smaller provider. We do not have the Giraffes or other chains in such parts of the country. A one-size-fits-all approach will cause problems. The message was received and the Minister understood the challenges in that regard. It would be a sad day to think that the childcare sector in the country would not have smaller providers. They have been the backbone of childcare for many years and do fantastic work. Their early intervention work, which has not yet been fully recognised, involves smaller providers spotting children who need early intervention such as speech and language or occupational therapies. They play a fantastic role. There is an acceptance that we have come a long way as a country in terms of childcare and have done fantastic work. We have a long way to go yet. In attempting to retrofit what is a private system and make it public, and make it look and operate like a public system, there will be challenges. Smaller providers feel that they need more support. A lot of the larger providers are doing quite well and are quite happy. We need to make some changes. That is achievable and doable.
The protesters yesterday are to be commended for the manner in which they demonstrated. It was in stark contrast to what happened last week. They were courteous, respectful, engaging and polite. They were a pleasure to go out and meet and engaged with those of all parties and none. It was a fantastic demonstration on how to make your voice heard and protest at the Houses of the Oireachtas. We want to thank them for that, and for the respect that was shown across both sides.
I welcome our visitors to the Gallery. It is nice to have you here on a wet day. I hope you have a very enjoyable visit to Leinster House. You have joined us at the conclusion of the Order of Business. Before we suspend the sitting, I remind Members that tomorrow morning, the Taoiseach will be in the House. I ask Members of all groups to advise their colleagues to have as large a gathering as we can in the Chamber. It would be appreciated. It is an opportunity for us as Members to have an engagement in a respectful manner with An Taoiseach.