Thursday, 28 September 2023
Address to Seanad Éireann by An Taoiseach
Ba mhaith liom fíor-fháilte a chur roimh an Taoiseach go dtí Seanad Éireann ar mo shon féin agus ar son bhaill Sheanad Éireann. I welcome the Taoiseach to Seanad Éireann.
I welcome to the Public Gallery the students from Scoil Úna Naofa, Crumlin, who are here as guests of Senator Seery Kearney. They are very welcome. I also welcome Mr. Conor Myers and Mr. Conor Doherty, who are here from the British Embassy. I thank them for all their work and friendship. I extend céad míle fáilte to our honorary consul in Delaware in the United States, Mr. Brian McGlinchey. He was here earlier in the summer for the American football game. He is very welcome. I thank him for all the work he does for us in the US.
It is an honour for us to have An Taoiseach with us today. We look forward to his address and the themes outlined in his speech. Having been a Minister and Taoiseach, he is no stranger to this House. As he will be well aware, the quality of our debate and interrogation or inquisition of legislation at all Stages, particularly Committee and Report Stages, is, by any parliamentary standards across the world, high, whatever about the sartorial elegance of certain Members. We will not mention the latter. As the Taoiseach knows, many Members have varying views on Seanad reform and Seanad elections. There has been a myriad of reports and committees established. I am sure that, as part of his address today, the Taoiseach will make reference to these. A view articulated yesterday by Senator Boyhan on the Order of Business, but which is held by many of us and has been expressed to the Taoiseach and others, is that in many cases legislation could be initiated in this House, benefiting its outcome. However, that is a matter for the Government. I hope that as part of our debate today, we might be able to have a conversation about that.
Today, as we gather in this parliamentary Chamber, the European Conference of Presidents of Parliaments is taking place in the convention centre, hosted by the Oireachtas. It is an opportunity for parliamentarians from Europe and the rest of the world to meet to discuss many different topics in a world that is ever-changing and evolving. All of us are in a position of privilege, elected to represent and be a voice for people. Parliamentary democracy is precious, and representative democracy around the world is facing a range of complex and interrelated challenges. We will all agree that we live in volatile times but it is our job to uphold democracy. It is our job as representatives to stand strong for our parliamentary democracy, and today we look forward to our Taoiseach's address and to engagement by all of us in this House. It now gives me great pleasure to ask An Taoiseach to address Seanad Éireann.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. A Sheanadóirí, táim an-sásta labhairt libh inniu agus an t-eolas is déanaí a thabhairt daoibh ar roinnt obair an Rialtais. Déanfaidh mé mionsonrú freisin ar ár gcuid oibre chun tosaíocht a thabhairt do bhochtaineacht agus folláine leanaí.
This Government is now more than three years in office. This term has not been defined solely by the pandemic, as many thought it would; it has involved dealing with a range of unforeseen issues, including the outbreak of war in Europe, an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, and a protracted inflation and cost-of-living crisis.
The devastating effect of climate change is contributing to some of these issues and, as I have often said, we need to be the generation that turns the tide on this. We have the high-level goals, laws, targets and plans, and now we must translate them into meaningful actions on the ground.
Sláintecare is already transforming our health service and is backed by unprecedented levels of investment in our health and social care. Sláintecare, the Government's plan to introduce universal healthcare in Ireland, which is being implemented with the support and oversight of the Department of the Taoiseach, is about four main things: making healthcare more affordable; making healthcare more accessible for our people; ensuring better outcomes for patients; and reforming our health service. Patient outcomes are extremely good in Ireland. We have among the highest life expectancy in the European Union. While there are deficiencies in our health service, which we should never be afraid to talk about, we should mention the incredible successes for patients. I include major improvements in the past ten years in survival rates from stroke and cancer, for example.
Recent years have seen massive increases in health funding, rising to €24 billion in 2023 and likely to be higher next year. We are hiring more staff, with more than 20,000 hired since the start of 2020.This, of course, is needed - we have a growing and ageing population - but it is fair to say that these kinds of increases in spending will not always be possible. That is why reform is so important, that we do not just do more but also do things better and differently.
The third and fourth aspects of Sláintecare are affordability and access, meaning that patients can receive healthcare either free of cost or at a cost they can afford. We have made a lot of improvements in that area in recent years, such as reducing the cost of medicines and extending free GP care to many more people. By the end of the year, most people in Ireland will not have to pay to see their doctor. We have also introduced free contraception, abolished hospital charges for public patients and, from this week, State-funded IVF became a reality for the first time.
As Senators will know, the housing crisis is affecting people in many ways, from high rents to homelessness to all the people we know who are struggling to buy their first home. However, real progress is being made. More first-time buyers are purchasing their first home every week. At about 400 or 500 a week, these are the highest numbers we have seen since the Celtic tiger period. In raw numbers, more families own their own home than ever before, about 1.2 million, which is 60,000 more than ten years ago. We are building more social housing than in any year since 1975. Almost 30,000 houses were completed in 2022. That was a 45% increase on 2021, the best year in more than a decade and in excess of our targets. We are also providing grants to help people renovate old buildings, breathing new life into them, thus creating more vibrant towns, villages and rural areas. We know this progress is nowhere near enough for many, particularly those who are experiencing homelessness. We are doing all we can to speed up implementation of Housing for All. We are ensuring the initiatives we have committed to are implemented quickly and effectively.
After many years of progress - rising incomes in real terms, falling inequality and reductions in poverty and deprivation - last year saw poverty rates increase for the first time in a long time due to inflation. Now that inflation is easing, our objective is to restore the buying power of people’s incomes and push poverty rates back down again in the right direction. Like last year, the next budget will put money back in people’s pockets and also ensure the money they do have goes further.
As Senators know, some people argue that we must choose between saving or spending the budget surplus, increasing spending or decreasing taxes. The truth is, you can do all these things if you have a growing economy. The choice rather is one of quantum and split. However, we must never take for granted our economic success or assume that full employment, record levels of trade and investment and budgets in surplus will persist no matter what economic policies we pursue. Wealth and jobs have to be generated and that requires the protection of an economic model that has served us well. A change to economic policy, trade or tax policy or our policy on the European Union would almost certainly be change for the worse for our country.
Budget 2023 was a cost-of-living budget. Recent research by UNICEF examined the effect of food and energy inflation on child poverty in the European Union. Interestingly, in comparison with many of our European neighbours, Ireland’s Government interventions proved very effective in protecting children. In budget 2024, now only a few weeks away, we will help households again. We know that for some, poverty and exclusion continue to undermine their potential to benefit from the success of our economy. That is why I announced in December that a child poverty and well-being office would be established in my Department. Above all, we want Ireland to be the best country in Europe in which to be a child, and ending child poverty has to be central to this ambition.
This is important not only because we want every child to be happy and well cared for, but also because happy childhoods are the foundation for realising broader economic, environmental and social goals. We know from research done by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and others that the experience of poverty during childhood is associated with poorer outcomes across a range of dimensions, including educational attainment, life satisfaction and chronic illness.
It is important to put on the record that over the past decade, Ireland has made significant progress in reducing child poverty and promoting child well-being. Our income measures, public services and community infrastructure all play an important role in protecting children and promoting child well-being. The number of children experiencing consistent poverty reduced from 11.7% in 2013 to a low of 5.2% in 2021. Although there was an increase last year, driven by the cost-of-living crisis, it still means that there are almost 50,000 fewer children living in consistent poverty than was the case ten years ago, notwithstanding a rising population.
We need to build on this. Recent initiatives taken by the Government include free schoolbooks for primary schools, free GP care for all children under eight years, the extension of the hot school meals programme, as well as significant investment in early learning and childcare which is helping to protect children and families from poverty. These are practical actions that are making a difference in everyday lives. We will accelerate this progress, overseen by the newly established child poverty and well-being programme office in the Department of the Taoiseach.
In August, the office published its work programme for the next two and a half years, From Poverty to Potential: A Programme Plan for Child Poverty and Well-being 2023-2025. The initial programme for the office focuses on six areas that will have the greatest effect on the lives of children experiencing poverty. These are: incomes and joblessness; early learning and childcare; reducing the cost of education; family homelessness; consolidating and integrating family and parental support; health and well-being; and enhancing participation in culture, arts and sport for children and young people. It must be said that these are not the only areas that are important but by focusing on them, we can make the difference that makes a difference. There may be other issues the programme office will need to focus on in the future and we can adapt and evolve the plan as work develops.
The programme office is accountable to and will report to the Cabinet committee on children and education. It will work closely with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth and contribute to the work and structures of the new national framework for children and young people. It will ensure that children are aware of and feed directly into cross-government action on the child poverty and well-being agenda by publishing child-friendly versions of reports and using established child participation structures.
The annual budget, which is coming up in only a few weeks' time, is a critical moment for the Government. It is when we articulate our ambitions for the coming year, and I want to make sure that child poverty and well-being is a strong theme in it. I am working with my Cabinet colleagues to establish what can be achieved in budget 2024. I have asked the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to examine the ESRI proposal to introduce a means-tested second tier of child benefit. Such a change would not be possible to introduce in 2024, so further work will have to be undertaken to ensure no unintended consequences occur, as identified by the ESRI. The proposal has real merit and I look forward to understanding more about how might be implemented.
While the specifics of many other issues are still to be decided on budget day, it will be evident that Government Departments are working towards a shared goal of improving child welfare.
Baineann bochtaineacht leanaí ón óige agus goideann sé a dtodhchaí uathu. Tá plean trasrialtais againn anois chun é sin a athrú. Tá mé muiníneach go dtabharfaidh an plean seo i bhfad níos gaire muid d’Éirinn a bheith ar an tír is fearr san Eoraip le bheith i do leanbh.
I look forward to hearing Members' comments and questions.
It is an honour to have the Taoiseach in the Seanad to address Senators and to have an opportunity to raise issues with him.
Ireland has a good story to tell and often it is not being told fairly. As the Taoiseach mentioned, we have one of the longest life expectancies in Europe, education attainment is high and we provide very good opportunities for all the children of this country to reach their full potential. Despite that, we do, as the Taoiseach acknowledged, still have certain challenges and these challenges persist in the areas of housing, crime and policing, health and childcare, as we saw demonstrated outside the gates of this complex this week. Not everybody is feeling the benefits of Ireland’s success story. That is our greatest challenge.
The social contract, as we know, is vulnerable and has to be protected. Everybody has to feel the benefits of Ireland’s success and that is not happening. Housing is the key challenge for many young people. When we look at childcare and the challenges there, while we are making good inroads and progress, I have deep reservations and concerns about Government policy in this area. My fear is that while the policy we have adopted will reduce costs for parents, it will squeeze out the small providers which have been the backbone of our childcare system.It is an issue that I raised with the Minister this week. I hope he listened and will take those views on board. Many of my colleagues also raised the issue.
The Taoiseach also mentioned the pensions issue, which is one that we will be watching in the budget. I say that because often, the accusation that is levelled at Government is that younger people are not prioritised in a budget and those of a more mature age are given priority. I hope we see the commencement of pensions auto-enrolment and a significant plan in place to deal with what we know will be a problem for us in the future. Often, because Governments have five-year terms and slightly less sometimes, we deal with the problems in front of us today and do not make plans for ten and 15 years down the line. That is a challenge for every Government. We owe it to our younger people to address the pensions issue today to make sure they have the supports they need in older years.
I want to acknowledge, as the Taoiseach has, that this Government has faced unprecedented challenges. We were in the midst of a pandemic when this Government took office. We then had an energy crisis and points at which Europe was not sure it could keep the lights on during the winter period. That was a huge challenge which highlighted some of the weaknesses in our energy system. We are now addressing these at a European level. We have had high inflation, which led to higher food prices and prices in general and a cost-of-living crisis for our people. I know this is a top priority and front and centre of negotiations in the lead-up to the budget. We have also had war in Europe, in Ukraine, where we have watched our friends and neighbours deal with an attack on their sovereignty and an illegal invasion by Russia. These challenges are real and any one of them could destabilise a Government. We are dealing with them and I believe we are weathering the storm better than anybody could have anticipated.
When we look at what is happening at European Union level, we see there is now a push for expansion that will bring some challenges in how we organise the EU and additional member states. There is a push for greater centralisation. That will involve us having a challenging conversation here in areas such as taxation and defence, which will always be controversial and topical discussions. We have also seen the recent attempt, at an EU level, to get a greater slice of our corporate tax. I was glad both our Minister for Finance and our Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform pushed back on that on the basis that it was simply unfair.
I will use my remaining time to address the points the Taoiseach made around the child poverty and well-being office he has established, and which formed a significant part of his contribution. I commend him on that. As a society, we will be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, namely, our children and elderly. That links back to the points I made about our childcare system. There is really no excuse for a First World developed economy, one which is wealthy and has significant resources, having the levels of child poverty that we have, despite the improvements we are making in that area. That points to the challenges we have around homelessness and child homelessness, which have to be addressed as an absolute priority. Even a week spent in homelessness will have a lasting impact on the well-being of a child. I hope that is a priority for the Taoiseach's Department.
Access to therapies is also an ongoing challenge. We are setting limits on children reaching their full potential. It should be top of the agenda and a priority for any Government to tackle those two issues.
It is a great opportunity and the sign of a democracy that we can have the leader of our country come into the Seanad in order that Senators can ask him for things and say things. In most countries these days, democracy is suffering. When we look around the world, we see that one of the last bastions of democracy is freedom of speech, in some ways. Even my European friends are often amazed at how accessible our politicians are to each other and the general public. I appreciate that we still have that.
I will focus on one issue, namely, the climate action plan. As leader of the Green Party in the Seanad, I think somebody has to speak about it and there is no better person to do so than me.
I am compared to the rest of ye. It is as if there is a cartoon depicting what it would be like if climate change was a hoax and we would still have clean air, happy homes and all these good things that come as a result. In debates on the issue, we often mention the Chinese, we say that we are small and ask what the point is. I want to focus on the fact that climate change is real and it is affecting us now in this country. We have to take it seriously and be ready to mitigate it.
If the climate action plan is to be taken seriously, it should override everything. It affects housing. It will lead to healthier, warmer homes with lower carbon footprints. It will lead to cleaner air and more social and green spaces which help to improve everybody's mental health. If we take what the car has done over the years, people have been shoved into metal boxes that separate them from everybody else around them. During the Covid lockdown, we saw that everybody got to know their neighbours again, especially in rural Ireland, where we have to drive everywhere most of the time because of road safety issues. The Minister for Transport and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, are working on these issues at the moment. We do not prioritise people over cars and trucks.
We would really change our cities, towns and villages if we took climate action seriously. It would improve both physical and mental health if we introduced a new affordable public transport system. We have had great success of late, with Local Link services being seen in villages that have not seen a bus in 70 years. That is brilliant. A public bus in every village and town at every hour of every day is the ideal and we are working on that. With our retrofit programme and the Croí Cónaithe fund offering grants of €70,000 and €50,000, we can bring life back into villages and towns. I see that in Clare where vacant buildings are being turned into homes for people. It is amazing to see this in villages and towns in rural areas that have been left abandoned for years. The Croí Cónaithe fund is a real game-changer. Over 100 young families in Clare alone are taking the grants and turning empty buildings in our villages and towns into homes. That is really good.
We need to expedite the work being done to enable people to live above premises again. That is a major barrier. We have empty shops downstairs with families living upstairs and shops downstairs with empty rooms upstairs. We want to have eyes on the street. It can be done through technology. There are architects who have worked on these projects in Limerick and other places. We have been talking about it for a long time. We need to enable people to live upstairs again. It is key to bringing our villages and towns back to life and I know it is important to the Taoiseach and everybody here.
Water infrastructure has to be a major because without it, we will not have housing anywhere in our towns and villages. We do not have water capacity at the moment. Irish Water has been handed a huge job but its work is probably among the most important work in Ireland if we want to keep our villages and towns alive. There are lots of towns where people want to build houses but they do not have the water infrastructure to do so. That is the number one priority, even before housing.
On apprenticeships, I have tradesmen ringing me all the time. I know of a plumber who has 12 apprentices. He has told me that the curriculum is not fit for purpose. It is still about fitting oil and gas burners. There is nothing about fitting heat recovery systems or air-to-water systems. The curriculum is out of date. I know carpenters with 30 years' experience who are not allowed to take on apprentices because they are not getting prior learning recognition. That is a huge issue as well. If we are taking the retrofit programme seriously, we will need to take apprenticeships much more seriously and recognise these great tradespeople who are at the forefront of making our houses better, warmer and safer places.
Five years and eight months ago, the Taoiseach delivered an address to this House nine months after his appointment as Taoiseach on St. Brigid's Day, Lá Fhéile Bríde. He told us he wanted to share his thoughts on the reform of Irish politics. He told us that while he had originally supported the abolition of the Seanad, the people had spoken and the matter would not be revisited. He told us his programme for Government committed him to the implementation of the Manning report, and he added that he was happy to do so. He told us a committee would be established to consider and report, with specific proposals to implement the Manning report. He said his timeframe was to put in place changes that would be used to elect the Seanad after next. That is at the next general election. In other words, he said the Seanad would be elected on a new basis after the forthcoming general election in a year's time.
The Taoiseach said: "There will be universal suffrage using the panel system, allowing people to choose which one suits them best." He promised provision for online registration and the downloading of ballot papers. He said he would also implement the referendum of 1979 to open up the university franchise to all third level graduates. He promised one person, one vote. He promised Northern Ireland Members but he dropped Ian Marshall. He praised the work of Billy Lawless and said he supported the election of more diaspora Senators but he dropped Billy Lawless. The Taoiseach did none of the things he said he would do on that day.
The all-party Seanad reform implementation group, which I chaired, carried out its functions and presented the Taoiseach with a report in late 2018, that same year. When I met with the Taoiseach subsequently to discuss the report in his office, he indicated to me that the Government would not legislate on the matter and would only permit a free vote among Dáil Deputies if the Bill was introduced by anybody else.I regret to say that discussion in the Taoiseach's office, concerning his proposed reform of Seanad Éireann, marked the lowest point of political cynicism I have encountered since first being elected to the Oireachtas in 1987. We have Mr. Tomás Heneghan today in the Chamber, who brought a court challenge to force the Government to reform the Seanad across the board, as it had promised. He partly succeeded in the Supreme Court recently, where the Taoiseach's Government had sent its Attorney General to seek a further five years to bring about even the university Bill reform. He succeeded in the Supreme Court as far as the university seats are concerned, but there has been no further indication of willingness to reform the way in which this Chamber is elected. Under the Taoiseach’s stewardship, every commitment he personally made on 1 February 2018 in this House, which some of us were naive enough to believe, has been cynically discarded.
There will be a political price to pay for reneging on the political promises he made to us on 1 February 2018. One just has to look at the newspapers today. I ask the Taoiseach to look at the newspapers today, to take a long, hard look in the political mirror and to ask himself whether there is not going to be a heavy political price for breaking commitments of that kind made in public, in accordance with the expressed wish of the people to reform this Chamber. They voted to retain this Chamber. They were promised by successive Governments, including by the Taoiseach in this Chamber, that there would be reform, and there has been a cynical abandonment of all that such that, in the current programme for Government, there is not even a mention of Seanad reform. Shame on the Taoiseach. He has time to make some redress for this abandonment of his commitments and I call on him to do so.
On behalf of our Fine Gael group, which I am incredibly proud to lead in this House, I welcome the Taoiseach. There are 16 of us in total and a great mix of youth, experience and expertise unique to most of us on individual matters, and I rely on that expertise of our colleagues today. I thank the Taoiseach for that honour.
I have been in these Houses, both Dáil and Seanad Éireann, for almost 13 years. It is often said Seanad Éireann is far more collegial in the debates we have than is the case in the Dáil, which is probably a little more lively than here. The unique aspect of this Chamber is that despite major ideological differences between colleagues, we try to find consensus and common ground on issues in order that we will not divide the House. That is not always possible but even when it is not, I genuinely believe the debate is always respectful and the Chamber is a nice place to be in. That belies the level of work that gets done, given we get through a considerable volume of work without grandstanding. This is a forum for discussing matters of significant concern to people that sometimes do not make the agenda of the Dáil. The emerging voices we have and the new issues that are brought to the public domain show the value of this House and the democratic system at work. That is why it is important we cherish it.
We all know protest is absolutely part of our democratic process and it has to be enshrined that people can make their cases heard, vociferously if they need to, but what we saw last week was not a protest. We have all made comments on it and I am not going to add to them, but we need to have a serious conversation about those topics that are being discussed on the margins of social media and WhatsApp groups and about the level of misinformation that is being spread. Unfortunately, some people in the centre believe that misinformation in the absence of the Seanad, the Dáil and the Oireachtas committees having those respectful conversations and putting accurate information into the public domain. I ask the Taoiseach to help us do that and to lead that conversation because it has to be done. I know he is proud to lead the Government, with the list of all the achievements we have had so far through a pandemic, Brexit, the Ukraine war and the cost-of-living crisis. We sometimes take for granted what we have done and are proud of because there is still a long list of things left to be done. I congratulate him on his children's initiative because it is very worthwhile.
The myriad issues across that spectrum that affect children are wide and varied, but I ask him to make a statement today on children and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. I believe we need a radical overhaul of CAMHS and that will require root-and-branch systemic changes, and probably new legislation, to address the assessment process. Despite the fact significant funding is going to CAMHS of some €300 million-plus per year every year, the aptitude does not deliver a response to people under the age of 18 and in particular young girls. One in five girls under the age of 18 self-harms. They are probably the single biggest cohort of young people going to counselling services for suicidal ideation, yet the State is spending year in, year out €300 million-plus on an organisation that is not having the impact we would love to see. I am a proud volunteer with Pieta House. Of the €1.2 billion we spend on mental health every year, we give Pieta House a miserable €2 million, yet if you ask anybody to name a charity that is responsible for leading the change and helping people, the first name they will mention is Pieta House. They will not start talking about how brilliant CAMHS is but rather about how brilliant Pieta House is. I am asking for proper funding for Pieta House in this year's budget that is risk averse, but I am also asking for the Taoiseach's offices to have a radical look at how we approach assessments and how we fund CAMHS.
I welcome the Taoiseach. I believe that his recent remarks stating he believes we are on the path to unification and that there will be a united Ireland in his lifetime reflect the views of most of the people on this island. His attendance and speech at the Ireland's Future event in the 3Arena last year was a significant moment in the debate on constitutional change. There is, of course, a diversity of opinion on how a new Ireland is to be brought about, but there is broadly common purpose and common cause on this issue. Common cause is essential, especially on the need for a detailed discussion with those unionists who are prepared to take part in the debate. We also need new thinking about the type of new society that will legally guarantee the rights of the British and unionist population in a new Ireland. There is a gap between where we are now and where we need to get to, and the Taoiseach and the Government need to fill that gap with a thoughtful and worked-out plan that explores ideas, timelines and referendums for change. Those discussions need a setting and a framework, and that is why a citizens' assembly needs to be set up sooner than later.
Earlier this week, the law society in the North of Ireland postponed a conference, due to take place tomorrow, that was to discuss the British Government's legacy Bill of shame. It did so in response to a lobby by the relatives of those who had died in the conflict because a legacy Bill is an amnesty and a cover for the actions of the British Government's armed forces. Those same relatives and others of influence are calling on the Taoiseach and the Government to take an interstate action in the European Court of Human Rights against the British Government. An interstate action would be heard within months, while an action by a relative would take years to be heard. This is not just a legal and moral issue; it is a humanitarian one as well. Will the Government take such action?
Turning to housing, the figures for completions in the first half of the year are truly abysmal. Of the Government's target of 5,500 affordable homes, it had built just 123 by the end of June. Of its target of 9,100 new-build social homes, just 1,400 had been built. There is about as much chance of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage hitting his targets as there is for meaningful Seanad reform to happen in the lifetime of the Government. Indeed, when we reflect on the promises the Taoiseach made on Seanad reform, his real attitude to Seanad reform could be summed up by St. Thomas Aquinas: "Lord, make me in favour of Seanad reform, but not yet."
Apologies, I was never strong on religion. I stand corrected.
The final issue I raise relates to health and community workers. Approximately 5,000 of them will go on strike on 17 October. These are the front-line workers the Taoiseach was happy to applaud during Covid, that is, the people who make an incredible difference to the lives of those with disabilities, who help them get up in the morning, shower, get dressed, go to the toilet or even get them a drink of water. These are the members of SIPTU, Fórsa and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, whom the Taoiseach, his party and its sister party, Fianna Fáil, have ignored for more than a decade. They have not had a pay rise since 2008.I know some of these workers. I had the honour of representing them during my time with SIPTU. The last thing they want to do is to go on strike. These workers deserve pay parity. The Taoiseach knows the issues. It is all about how the sector is funding them. The cost of ignoring them and not settling this dispute will be devastating to the people who rely on these workers. I am asking the Taoiseach to act now to deliver the pay justice his Government has denied these workers for more than a decade. As things stand, the week after next the Taoiseach will be boasting about tax cuts, even as the Government leaves these workers and the people for whom they care to twist in the wind. It is not good enough.
I thank the Taoiseach for coming to the Chamber. We are just two weeks away from budget 2024. The State is now in a position that every other Government in the history of the State could only dream. It has surpluses that are the envy of other EU member states. Even when corporation tax revenues are excluded, the public finances are expected to generate surpluses in the coming years. Although inflation and central bank policies to try to deal with inflation have wreaked havoc on the living standards of working people, their families and those who rely on the State, the reality is the State has the wherewithal to, at least, ensure households can be supported to stand still in this budget. At a time of such healthy public finances, the key question is whether we will have a confetti-like budget, with a bit for everybody, or whether the Government will go beyond and make a tangible, dramatic and permanent impact on the lives of people.
I listened to the Taoiseach list certain matters in his address. The list is welcome in terms of free GP care and free schoolbooks but there are more than 3,000 children growing up in homeless accommodation, with the impact that will have on them for the rest of their lives, and one in four children in Dublin’s north inner city cannot access even a free preschool place, with the associated disadvantage being entrenched in their lives before they walk in the door of a primary school. We need to fix that. The key test for the Government, with these public finances, is the permanent improvement it will leave on the lives of people that will be felt for many years to come.
This country has a serious problem with low pay. One in five workers in the economy is subsisting on low wages. The recommendation from the living wage technical group this week is to have a living wage of €14.80. We have the Low Pay Commission. The Government spoke about moving to a living wage but the reality is that even if there is a substantial increase to the minimum wage, that will not fix the problem of low pay. It is within the power of the Government to change the course of low pay. The State pays out more than €17 billion in public procurement contracts year in, year out. We have to ask what it is doing with that money to ensure it goes to companies that are supporting decent incomes and sustainable jobs. It is about ensuring workers can join a union and bargain for themselves. We will be watching very closely the Government’s approach to the adequate minimum wages directive when it is due to be transposed next year. It is about building resilience in the world of work in order that when there are periods of inflation, it is not just about a divisive battle between employers and workers in terms of increasing the minimum wage. Rather, it is about ensuring we support employers and workplaces that pay decently.
Another issue is that of building resilience within disability and health services. Reference was made to this issue in the context of an all-out strike by section 39 workers in the coming weeks. It is an appalling vista. It is outrageous that the Government has given lip service to those workers, who are looking after the most vulnerable in the State, yet has failed to pay them decently. This is not just about pay. It is about a recruitment and retention crisis in the disability and health sector. The Government has turned its back on those workers and we need to see a change in that Government attitude in the coming weeks.
On building resilience, this permanent legacy of the Government, what is being done to build resilience among the 250,000 households that are in arrears with their energy bills as of the second quarter of the year? Many of them are in energy poverty. Yes, the energy credits will be needed, as will an expansion of the fuel allowance, but there is also a need to dramatically reform the attitude of the Government to retrofitting. It is not good enough that those who want to take up retrofitting grants can do so. It must apply to all houses in energy poverty. I want the Government to take the approach that it is a public good benefitting households, the climate and society, rather than just those who can afford to pay out thousands to improve their household situation.
I welcome the Taoiseach to the Chamber. Reference was made to the decrease in poverty rates during the pandemic. It is understood that decrease in child poverty rates was linked to the economic measures during the pandemic. According to Central Statistics Office, CSO, data, there were 671,000 people living in poverty in 2022. Of them, approximately 188,000 were children, while an additional 247,000 children were living in households experiencing deprivation. The at-risk-of-poverty rate for individuals and households with one adult and one or more children under the age of 18 was 23.8%, compared with 13.1% for persons living in two-adult households with one to three children.
I heard the Taoiseach’s comments yesterday in the Dáil Chamber. For that reason, I asked an adult who once experienced child poverty, and who is in a prison cell, to provide the following contribution on poverty.
Childhood poverty is more than just numbers. Behind every statistic is a human being. You see, I know childhood poverty. I have lived within and amongst it. It is not some abstract concept. Childhood poverty is sadly an all too common element of my community.
Poverty has many insidious nuances. It's the heavy air that fills the home. It's not having a home.
It's the helpless feeling you get as you watch your mother cry because she hasn't got enough money to feed everyone.
It's the struggle of trying to do your homework while the prepay power meter screams in the background. Childhood poverty is the anger that explodes from Mam when the power cuts off before the washing machine finishes.
It's cramped spaces and a lack of privacy. Childhood poverty is also violent. You see, an inability to meet one's economic needs is a core driver of violence. Poverty drives violence, violence drives shame, shame drives violence. It's a vicious cycle that becomes imprinted in the minds of our vulnerable youth. It consumes entire communities.
Childhood poverty is feelings of shame and embarrassment.
It's the ache you feel when you can't stop crying and you don't know why.
It's the inability to concentrate in school or control your emotions.
It's a starving belly but no appetite.
It's feelings of frustration, anger and happiness all at once. It's trying to solve adult problems with a child's mind. Childhood poverty brings questions too. Why do mam and dad cry when I go to bed? Did I do something wrong? Do they love me? Will I ever be good enough?
Childhood poverty is not just a lack of money. Childhood poverty steals people of the love and care that they need to grow and flourish. Childhood poverty causes an internal emptiness. If we look inside our state-run institutions, our prisons and psychiatric hospitals, we will find the carnage that childhood poverty leaves behind. Yours, and successive governments must take responsibility for that carnage, for that deprivation of freedom. Poverty is a lack of freedom, and until we move from the illusion of doing something, to real action our system stands over large numbers of its citizens not being free. There is no real democracy where there is such poverty.
As regards the child poverty and well-being programme office, I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the extent to which the office is staffed or supported by people with experience of poverty at the coalface and the impact it has on individuals, families and communities. Will he commit to supporting and resourcing independent research based on the minimum essential standards of living or looking at a universal basic income for certain groups such as care givers? I have far more to say but I will leave it there.
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming my friend, Brian McGlinchey, the Irish consul to Delaware. He is very welcome. I thank him for his work in the United States on behalf of our country.
The Taoiseach is very welcome to the Chamber. I thank him for his address. He put the issue of healthcare at the core of his speech, and rightly so. He spoke of reforming the health service and making healthcare more accessible for people.I am battling a HSE whose notion of reform is to close my hospital in Navan and whose notion of accessibility is to stuff people from Navan in taxis and buses and put them in an overcrowded hospital in Drogheda where they have to wait for eight hours to be seen. It is neither reformed nor accessible. Being experts in medicine does not make these people experts in planning societies. They need to remember that. They need to remember who is in charge of actually delivering the services for societies. Those in HSE are not gods. They need to remember that.
In terms of planning facilities and what our towns and our cities need, one huge thing is the issue of sustainable transport. Key to that is rail connectivity. The town of Navan remains the largest town on the east coast without a rail service. I know the Taoiseach appreciates that because he sees it every morning in Blanchardstown in his constituency with the tailbacks of thousands of cars. We could eradicate that. This week, we took a huge step forward when Irish Rail moved to put consultants in place on Monday to deliver the much-needed Navan rail line. It is a huge step forward for us and I urge the Taoiseach and the Government to ensure the finance package for it is delivered swiftly.
Finally, I raise another key aspect around safety in our communities. Yesterday the Minister for Justice came into this Chamber and addressed us. I raised with her the violent incidents on the streets that have been captured on YouTube and viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, showing workmen being assaulted in broad daylight with hammers and shovels on the main street in Navan. The inadequate levels of policing in our towns have to be tackled. Our Garda Commissioner deflecting and not addressing this is simply unacceptable in a scenario where new Garda divisions have been created and counties such as Meath, with 200,000 people, have less than half the Garda service of counties like Westmeath with half the population.
I look forward to the budget in a couple of weeks' time and the Minister for Finance delivering the investment in key services that we need and which I have outlined. I wish the Taoiseach and the Government well.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. Tagann sé anseo go rialta agus bíonn sé réidh le ceisteanna a fhreagairt i mbealach cuimsitheach. Molaim sin. I will digress into a brief retrospective as a Border person to thank the Taoiseach for his management of Brexit and the avoidance of a hard border.
Moving to the present day, I am very happy that child poverty is a priority for the Government and that the Taoiseach is personally committed to dealing with eliminating it. Obviously the free books are great initiative and the hot meals are critical intervention. Any educator would tell you that. The fifth area the Taoiseach identified in his list of things was health and well-being. We need a quality child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, and we need an immediately accessible CAMHS. I would like the Taoiseach to comment on making that possible. Yesterday, Seán Campbell of Foróige was here through the good offices of Senator Currie. He said that if €40 million over three years was devoted to youth services it could reach 83,000 young people and that every euro invested would lead to €22 in long-term benefits. Could the Taoiseach please comment on that as another way of addressing youth poverty? I look forward to those responses.
I am so delighted the Taoiseach is here today and I thank him for his address. There are two or three areas I would like to highlight. One is his commitment to Sláintecare. I know of his own personal interest in doing things better and doing things differently. University Hospital Limerick is an area he has taken a personal interest in himself in terms of seeing that happen. We need to do things better there and do things differently. There is still a crisis going on down there and I would like the Government to keep an eye on what is going on there and see how we can address the issues.
Child poverty is very much key to the Taoiseach's speech. This is most welcome. I refer to the cost-of-living supports that were given last year and things like the energy grants that supported all people right across society. I know the Government is committed to looking at this but I believe we need to deliver for all and to support all. The UNICEF report said the supports that were put in place helped children, especially those in child poverty. That needs to be looked at again.
With regard to housing, I compliment the fact that we are going to pass our target again this year, based on reports I have seen. Affordable housing has to be high up on the agenda. A huge number of people come to me looking for affordable housing as well as social housing.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating this engagement with the Taoiseach. I warmly welcome the Taoiseach to this House. I will start by acknowledging the very significant and excellent speech he made at the United Nations General Assembly on 22 September. He gave a very passionate speech. He touched on the issues of dignity, equality, solidarity, environmental responsibility and social responsibility. Therefore, I am not surprised that he has made central to his theme here today the issue of child poverty. That is a really important issue. Other people may have expected other issues to be raised but they were not raised.
I keep this little book on my desk beside the Irish Constitution. It is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is done as Gaeilge too. I appeal to the Taoiseach to arrange to have one of these issued to every home in Ireland. Every home should have one of these. I reference this very simple childlike book on the convention that was issued by the Government some years ago on a daily basis in here. It is one of my guiding books that I have on my desk. I again acknowledge and thank the Taoiseach for the significant UN address he gave.
I want to start off on an equal start. Children who are seeking protection in this country, wherever they come from and wherever they belong, need our support to acclimatise and to recover from the trauma associated with their life's journey. We need equal access to childcare, social care and education. Children with special needs waiting for central services can no longer be tolerated. We need equal access to healthcare. Spina bifida and scoliosis are just two issues I could mention. Today I checked with the national treatment purchase fund and in its figures released in July there are 20,000 children waiting over one year for our health services. That simply is not good enough.
I will just touch on agriculture. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Taoiseach did not reference agriculture today. I know he could not reference everything. Farmers have concerns about the nitrates directive. Farmers have concerns about the zoned land residential tax on active farmland. We have been promised the new rural housing guidelines for three years and every few weeks we are promised a further letter but nothing happens. We need to establish a national forestry authority and get forestry up and running in a way that embraces both the public and the private sector.
Finally, I ask the Taoiseach to look at the Irish Timesof 16 September, 2023. It states that children are arriving hungry and sick, according to the head of education in a part of north County Dublin. Shame on all of us. Shame on the policymakers. Let us do something about it. We need to put children at the centre, not only in talk and words but in policy and resources.
I thank the Taoiseach for coming in to us today. It is great to have him in the Chamber. I just want to raise two big issues coming up to the budget. The first is disability and the hidden costs of disability. If someone has a child with a disability and he or she gets a diagnosis, there is a huge outlay in getting a private diagnosis because, as we all know, the assessment of needs system is not working. Then there is the huge cost of therapies because access to HSE therapies is pretty non-existent. There are 10,000 children waiting at the moment for therapies. As other colleagues have pointed out, we have a retention and recruitment crisis. Many children's disability network teams, CDNTs, around the city and the country are without the therapists they need. A lot of the Taoiseach's speech outlined child poverty. For one-parent families, having a child with a disability makes it even tougher. For the budget, I would like the Taoiseach to relay our concerns in relation to the cost of disability, especially looking at the core social welfare payments and domiciliary care payments for families with a child with a disability.I also ask for the issue of carers to be examined. There was a great debate in this House yesterday by the women's caucus in relation to family carers and getting rid of the means test for family caring. I hope something is done in the budget in relation to it. The second item is in relation to childcare. It needs a root and branch reform. We saw the people protesting outside Leinster House yesterday. We need to do a lot more than just throw money at the problem, we need a proper, publicly funded childcare model.
I welcome the Taoiseach to the House and thank Senator Ardagh for sharing her time, although it may not be on a 50-50 basis. I am the spokesperson for agriculture in my party and my colleague on the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine spoke about agriculture so I will not rehash the areas he mentioned but one that needs serious attention is the whole forestry sector. There is a new forestry programme, which looks good on paper, but if you look at the figures of what planting is going on at the moment, it is not happening. Forestry was to be the silver bullet for us meeting our climate action targets. It is not happening and it needs to be addressed. A major area I would also like to address within forestry is ash dieback. An improved scheme needs to be put in place - there is a scheme available - for people who planted and are suffering from ash dieback through no fault of their own. It was a disease brought into the country through no fault of the people who planted. One-off trees in roadside hedges and ditches now suffering from ash dieback are becoming a danger and will fall on days like yesterday, with the storm, or lesser, because they are rotting due to ash dieback. They are a danger to public transport and people using the roads. It is an enormous expense and cost for the farmers or land owners who own the hedges with those trees in them. A scheme will have to be put in place to help those farmers and roadside land owners to remove those trees or we will all be up in arms when there is a fatality.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. I wish to raise the Government's autumn legislative programme and express my disappointment at the absence of any priority for drafting legislation that would disregard the criminal convictions of gay men convicted of historical offences, namely consensual same-sex intimacy. In May, the Seanad passed a Sinn Féin motion that called for the introduction of legislation and a scheme that would disregard these criminal records. It has been eight years since the start of this process, yet, as Karl Hayden said, those living for decades under the cloud of criminal convictions are kept waiting for justice. I commend the job the Department's working group has done and I give the Government credit for being committed to this but missing out on the autumn schedule has caused upset and disappointment. Many of these folks are in the harvest time of life, old age, and the move to formally disregard criminal convictions would come too late for many, especially those no longer with us. It is important to reclaim the dignity and humanity of those imprisoned men for themselves as much as their surviving families. Those families were forced to carry the burden of shame, taboo and criminality attached to homosexuality in all its forms before decriminalisation. I ask the Taoiseach to get the Department of Justice to publish a timetable for this legislation. Time is of the essence to introduce legislation on a scheme. It is a commitment the Government made and should honour.
Sinn Féin welcomes the Supreme Court judgment that current voting provisions in the Seanad are unconstitutional. We commend Tomás Heneghan for taking the case. This judgment is a wake-up call. It has parachuted Seanad reform into the autumn legislative programme. The Manning report, the Seanad reform implementation group report and the legislation attached provide the Bills and basis for reform without the need for constitutional change. It is disappointing that Seanad reform was not mentioned today in the Taoiseach's speech but I am sure he will have the opportunity to address that in his responses. The majority of Senators should be elected by the public; it is as simple as that for us. I ask the Taoiseach to tell us how we can help to achieve that. We are ready to work with him on it.
I welcome the Taoiseach to the House. In my capacity as health spokesperson for Fine Gael, one issue that predominates discussions on a regular basis is family carers. People who give up their careers to look after loved ones find themselves in a situation in which they do not get paid for it is not acceptable in a modern society. We need not just to radically overhaul the whole means test element associated with the carer's allowance but to eliminate it. If people are doing a job that is essentially saving the State money, they should be in a position to get paid for it without going through enormous amounts of red tape.
Four out of five people who suffer sight loss do so unnecessarily, simply because there is not early or timely intervention. There is no national strategy at the moment to eliminate and reduce preventable blindness or preventable sight loss. I would like this Government to lead in that area. It ties into the child poverty unit because sight loss leads to poverty, with 83% of people with sight loss unemployed. If there was a national strategy on the elimination of preventable sight loss, it would do a huge amount to help the next generation.
As a Taoiseach's nominee, it is an honour to be a representative from the west for the Roscommon-Galway region and a voice in the Seanad over the past three years. His recognition of the importance of balanced regional development is also reflected in the investment in the national broadband plan. It connects every home, farm and business and will drive jobs in the west with remote working and digitalisation to deliver e-health. It builds equality in terms of access to education and jobs. This week alone, the Cabinet made a decision on an investment in the west of more than €460 million to deliver road safety and save lives in County Roscommon. As Seanad spokesperson on education, research and innovation, thanks to this Government, technological universities are making qualifications accessible to people living in towns and cities, such as the Atlantic Technological University in the west and the Technological University of the Shannon, TUS, in Athlone and Limerick. We have the highest level of graduates with third-level qualifications in the EU. We have apprenticeship programmes, more than 19,000 special needs assistants, one quarter of all schools avail of DEIS supports, there are hot school meals and, now, free school books for primary schools. We need excellence through investment in research, innovation and science and to support our new Research Ireland agency, which is driving advancements in society, healthcare and our economic success. Our country has the highest population it has ever had, 5.2 million, and the highest life expectancy. This Government has a plan to build school buildings, hospital beds and emergency departments. We have to deliver this in the next year to two years.
It is brilliant to have the opportunity to speak in front of the Taoiseach today as a member of the Traveller community and somebody from a minority group. I agree with the comments on the reform of the Seanad. We need diversity in both Houses, with people of colour and people from all different backgrounds as part of our parliament. I would like to raise the issue of the two-tier refugee system. I understand international protection and people just seeking temporary protection, of course. In the programme for Government, the Taoiseach promised to end direct provision; that is nowhere in sight. It is a major issue and we see, even outside of these Houses, that some people are treated with little or no dignity or respect.
Whether young or old people, we have a very bad mental health crisis. We need to deal with that crisis and recognise it for what it is. The Traveller community has even worse mental health problems. Traveller men are seven times more likely to die by suicide than men in the general population and Traveller women are six times more likely to die by suicide than women in the general population. In the past year, two 13-year-old boys in our community died by suicide. One of my great friends passed away in July by suicide. The Government is not investing as was promised in the programme for Government, with a ring-fenced budget set aside to deal with Traveller mental health.Unfortunately we have been failed again. Traveller accommodation has become worse in the past four years. If the Taoiseach wants to see poverty with his own eyes, I am happy to accompany him to Labre Park halting site on an announced visit. I would love him to take up that invitation to come onto the site with me to see how children on halting sites still have to live in Ireland in 2023. Just yesterday saw the report from Cork where segregation of the Traveller community is still happening. This is something that happened in the 1960s and 1970s whereby Travellers were put into one room to be taught in our education system. That is happening again. The Oireachtas joint committee on Travellers has 84 recommendations of which only four have been implemented. We talk about employment in Ireland having reached full capacity. I do not see that. Nearly 90% of the Travelling community are unemployed. That is appalling in today's Ireland. Travellers want to work and want education. We want to be an equal part of this society. This Government needs to give us an opportunity to do that and to start its programme for Government. Ending direct provision and supporting Travellers and mental health would be a great starting point.
The Taoiseach is most welcome. I will begin by addressing the UK's Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, which is the one issue on this island that unites all in opposition to it. This Act should look after victims and their families. They should be front and centre of that legislation but the complete opposite is the case. In regard to a case before the European Court of Human Rights I believe the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are currently looking at legal opinion. I wish to impress upon the Taoiseach the urgency of this case. If ever there was an opportunity for us as a southern Government to demonstrate our interests and the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, this is it. Many outside bodies throughout the UK are also against this legislation, as is the European Commission of Human Rights. Many representatives in the USA have spoken up about it also. It is right that the Government acts as quickly as possible. I hope the Taoiseach and the Government make deliberations and duly act on that.
I also wish to address a matter that has become common within political circles and elsewhere and that is the discussion about Northern Ireland and Irish unity. I am reminded of an interview between Patrick Kielty and Tommy Tiernan where Patrick Kielty talked about how people nowadays like to sing republican songs about a united Ireland, but are not prepared to not sing them to achieve it. The same can apply to politicians. We are all very good at talking about a united Ireland but we are not sufficiently invested actually to have engagement with communities in Northern Ireland, in particular unionist communities, to build up relationships that existed 25 years ago. We learned a great deal in the past year, on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, about how hard the peace was won, how hard the Good Friday Agreement was to achieve and about the decades of work that preceded that. It is fair to say that since 2016, North-South relations are not as good as they used to be. I implore the Taoiseach to make an all-out effort to start building relations in Northern Ireland again. It is critical for the people in Northern Ireland that the Assembly sits. The Government needs to go on an all-out effort to make sure that happens.
I welcome the Taoiseach. I wish to express my appreciation for his leadership in his various roles since 2017 when he took over the role of Taoiseach. He has prioritised child poverty. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Autism launched a report in June. One of its major concerns was the lack of services and therapies for children, in order to give every child an opportunity to reach his or her potential. As the Taoiseach said, child poverty will be a major focus of the budget. We will prioritise funding for parents and families that have to access privately the therapies the State is not able to provide. That will provide some solace for families that have to go privately and find things difficult.
I also wish to highlight another area of concern. The Cabinet recently passed funding for the N5, which is much warranted for safety concerns and access to the north west. However, the section of road between Mullingar and Longford is the access point to the north west and it presents serious safety concerns. When discussions are taking place with regard to finance for budget 2024, I ask that funding be put in place to allow that project to continue, due to safety concerns and for access to the north west.
I thank the Taoiseach for coming in. One of our values as a party is equality of opportunity. I see the child poverty and well-being programme office under the Taoiseach’s office as the embodiment of that equality of opportunity. In order for children to have equality of opportunity they need a structure and a community that is empowered and supported especially when suffering the deprivation brought about by drugs and drug-related issues. In that regard I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, on her recent announcement of €3.5 million for the drugs task forces. I appreciate the Taoiseach’s support on the occasions when I advocated for that.
I also note that Foróige was before us yesterday. The National Youth Council will be in next week. We need to empower youth work as it is instrumental in providing that parenting model for children in communities. They do incredible and invaluable work. One of the themes is the provision of the supports that children need. I appeal that in this budget, the Taoiseach takes heed of what the Fine Gael policy group has been saying around children with disabilities, that we ensure there is either a treatment purchase scheme or a refund to parents when it comes to availing of structures and a focus on making sure that children with disabilities get a timely intervention.
In the week that is in it, for the well-being of children, they need to know that they have a secure, lifelong relationship with their parents, and children born by means of surrogacy need legislation urgently.
I welcome the Taoiseach and thank him for taking the time to come to the Seanad, and for the work he does as Taoiseach representing the Government and the country. I thank him for the leadership he has shown in regard to bringing our three parties together, Fine Gael, the Green Party and Fianna Fáil, which are three distinct parties, at a time when democracy is under attack from autocratic powers and those who support autocratic politics. Leadership in democracy is important and I want to thank him personally for the part he has played in that. In his speech, the Taoiseach mentioned housing. This Government has made unprecedented changes to our housing policy and to our delivery of housing. The numbers can be quoted. The Opposition will always cherry-pick numbers that do not flatter but the reality is that this Government has invested in more housing than any Government in a decade; has supported the delivery of more homes in this country than any Government in a decade and is changing how housing is being delivered in this country. It is doing it because it is the right thing to do. We talk about child poverty, equality and opportunity but if you do not have a home, a safe and secure place from which to go to school, to work and out into the world, you are held back. You are disadvantaged. I urge the Taoiseach to keep going with it. We need to see more in this budget. The €20 billion that has been delivered is empowering local authorities, approved housing bodies and the Land Development Agency. That is all delivering and it is making great changes. However, we need a massive acceleration in regard to affordable cost rental. With a country as rich as ours, no greater investment could be made.There will be greater investment in the delivery of affordable housing, most particularly in our cities. It makes economic, environmental and social sense. I ask the Taoiseach to support that initiative and I thank him again for giving us his time.
I thank the Taoiseach for being here and I will not take a lot of his time. There are two issues close to my heart and the first is the Defence Forces. We saw the wonderful operation off the south-west coast in recent days. We have to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to remunerating members of the Defence Forces. We have to rebuild the organisation, particularly the Navy. We have €300 million worth of ships tied up in Cork, not able to put to sea because we do not have crews, which is not good.
Second, I ask the Taoiseach to consider the development of a cybersecurity fund in the near future. I ask for €1 billion to be ring-fenced over ten years for cybersecurity training and education, including academia, skills and training. I will leave it at that as we do not have a lot of time.
I welcome the Taoiseach to the Chamber. One of the most powerful speeches I heard this morning was by Senator Ruane. I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I know first-hand about the children who suffer from poverty and I have dealt with them for the past 12 to 13 years of my life. How we treat the children of this nation is really important to me. How we are treating the refugees who are coming here is equally important to me. I witnessed some of the awful conditions in which Ukrainian refugees are living in Stradbally, County Laois. I am disappointed that the Government thinks that is acceptable accommodation for anybody in this day and age, and I have been particularly disappointed in recent days. I was sent videos yesterday after the storm and I did not put them up because they were so harrowing that I was embarrassed to put them up. Some of the Portaloo toilets are locked because they have not been cleaned out in days, and they do not have changing rooms to change in beside the showers. It is unacceptable. If we do not have room for refugees, we should say that we just do not have room at this time. Let us get our house in order and put in proper accommodation for those we have here, look after the people we have here and then, when we have proper accommodation going forward, we can open the doors again. I ask the Taoiseach not to bring people into this country in these circumstances and not to set the bar that low. We are better than that.
I welcome the Taoiseach. I want to congratulate the people involved in the narcotics find off the south-west coast. According to today's newspapers, the value of the seizure is up to €500 million. The European market for cocaine is somewhere in the region of €12 billion, which is massive, and people say there is little we can do. There is something we can do, which has to be done at a European level. We all know where the drugs are coming from; the majority of drugs are coming from South America. The EU should consider imposing sanctions on countries that are doing little to curtail the production and outflow of narcotics from their countries. It is obvious that they know what is going on and that they know where it is taking place within their borders. The Taoiseach should lead a campaign on this at European level, where it would have to be done. A €12 billion market is massive and it has huge repercussions on society. We have to look at this at a European level as there is something that can be done there.
I welcome the Taoiseach to the Chamber. On the theme of agriculture, it is important that the nitrates derogation is front and centre in the coming weeks and months. There is an important debate about where we will go with our dairy sector in particular. As an industry, it is worth €17.2 billion to our State, with 59 different milk plants all over Ireland. It is a driver in our rural economy and we must make sure to do our best in the long term to ensure we can keep the derogation to 250 kg N/ha in the entirety of Ireland, which is important. It is important that the EU Commissioner comes to Ireland. The Taoiseach's involvement in recent weeks has been welcomed by farming organisations and by myself. It is important that we get the EU Commissioner onto the island; that is key. We must show him how we produce our milk. The most environmentally friendly milk produced on the globe is produced on this island. The Taoiseach's interaction and engagement on that topic were welcomed by the agricultural community and I thank him for that. I look forward to having the EU Commissioner in Ireland so we can show him what we do well here.
I thank the Taoiseach for coming in. I had the pleasure of meeting his lovely mum here two weeks ago, so I appreciate the importance of family. I am conscious that more than 100,000 disabled citizens and their families live in continuous poverty in Ireland. I refer to the time that is left in this Administration. Since I came in here, I have enjoyed very generous support from everybody in this House and from all Senators. That includes Senators from this side of the House and Government Senators from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. I appreciate that a lot. I have not had an opportunity to thank my colleagues for the support and generosity that they showed towards me before the summer recess in my disability Bill, which I hope will become an Act at some point.
Budget day is upon us and then it will be Hallowe'en and Christmas. The lifetime of this Government is measured out in months now and it is part of the programme for Government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. I ask the Taoiseach to do that. It would be a landmark achievement for him, the Government and Deputy Micheál Martin as Tánaiste if they could fully ratify the UNCRPD, including the optional protocol. That would be of huge assistance to our disabled citizens, who are among the most poorly treated throughout the EU on so many measures.
I also ask the Taoiseach and his partners at Cabinet to reconsider any notion of starting to medically assess disabled citizens on the basis of their capacity to work. That is a retrograde step and it has been brought into disrepute in the UK and Northern Ireland. Most of all, I ask the Taoiseach to fully ratify the UNCRPD.
I thank the Taoiseach for being in the Chamber. In the brief time I have I want to stress the importance of continued investment in regional Ireland, particularly in the context of the review of the national planning framework, NPF, that is under way. To have propulsive growth in the counties and cities outside of Dublin, namely Waterford, Galway, Limerick and Cork, we have to have strategic investment. That is why projects like Waterford north quays, a €170 million investment by Government, are so important, as is the continued investment in our new technological universities in terms of buildings, student accommodation and course development. It is welcome that the likes of veterinary medicine and pharmacy being prioritised for the technological universities. I want to stress the importance of continued regional investment by Government in the context of the NPF.
I welcome the Taoiseach. I welcome Mr. Tomás Heneghan to the Chamber and I congratulate him on his advocacy on a lot of different matters, particularly Seanad reform and the extension of the franchise in Seanad elections to all university and technological university graduates.
It is five years since the Saolta Hospital Group promised that the planning permission for the new emergency department, paediatric and maternity building in Galway would go for planning permission. It is five years on and there is still no date for that in sight. I have raised this on numerous occasions since then. The chief executive officer of the HSE has admitted that capital infrastructure in Galway is years behind the rest of the country and that the need for investment is evident in Galway in the context of our university hospital.I ask the Taoiseach to intervene again to ensure we will get what is required for the citizens of Galway and the wider region.
Judging by all the contributions, the Taoiseach has an awful lot of problems to solve and money to give out after today, and I am going to add one more that has not yet been spoken about, although I have spoken about it many times previously. It relates to speeding up investment for infrastructure in Irish Water. Clonmel has been decimated with outages and disruptions all year to the point where 40,000 households in the region around the town were out of water for three days. It is happening weekly and affects businesses, crèches, parents and everyone else. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage spent a day in Clonmel two weeks ago but did not meet any of the organisations on the matter, although that was not his fault, given he did not know about it. He was with a local councillor who clearly did not see it as a major issue, but it is the major issue in Clonmel affecting absolutely everyone. Will the Taoiseach speak to the Minister to try to speed up the issue for us in Clonmel?
I welcome the delegation from the Kildare branch of Down Syndrome Ireland, who are here with Senator O'Loughlin.
I thank the Taoiseach for facilitating the extension of the debate. Twenty-nine Senators have spoken. The Chair does not set the order of speakers, in case people were wondering, and the co-operation of the majority of Members of the House is welcome. To those who do not understand Standing Orders, I ask them to become acquainted with them in order that they will understand how the House is run. The Taoiseach has had a long morning with us and I thank him for his patience and courtesy in extending the time. I understand he has another engagement at 12.15 p.m.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Senators for their contributions. I will try to respond to as many issues as I can in the order they were raised. Senator Chambers said that while our country is by any objective measure a very successful one - at least, when the UN calculates its international ratings, it usually puts us in the top ten countries in the world, in terms of not just economics but also human development, education, health and all the other things that matter - she rightly said not everyone feels that in their lives. Areas such as housing and childcare are ones in which we need to make a lot more improvements. When it comes to childcare, the Government has three objectives, one of which is to make it more affordable for parents. We made some progress on that this year and we can expect more progress in the budget in a few weeks' time. The other objectives are to make it more available by making more places available - in my constituency, that is a big issue, with people just not able to get a place at all - and to improve the quality, which is down to making sure we have good staff and that they are well paid and have proper career progression. I understand some of the issues that have been raised by Senators and Deputies about small providers and the financial pressure they are under. I am sure there is a solution but I am not sure exactly what it is. Money does follow the child, in the same way it follows the patient, or a child in education, but we make special provision for small schools and rural general practice, so there must be a way we can resolve this issue but it has to be in a way that is affordable and that works.
I was delighted Senator Chambers mentioned auto-enrolment. It is not something that excites the public very much but it is really important. It is a project I helped progress as Minister for Social Protection many years ago and, as is often the case in politics, where you get something started, you tend to feel attached to it for a long time. I am determined that this Dáil and Seanad should get that legislation done in the next year because it will transform pension provision in Ireland. A lot of people in Ireland are dependent on the State pension, while a lot of other people have both the State pension and an occupational pension. We are all among those people who have an occupational pension, and we do pay for it by making significant pension contributions, as we should. The same goes for pretty much everyone in the public service and everyone who works for a multinational or a big company, but there are huge numbers of people, pretty much half or even more than half of people who work in the private sector, who have no pension provision beyond the State pension, and that is not fair or right. It creates almost a pension apartheid between public sector workers, on the one hand, and people who work for big companies and private sector workers, on the other. In general, of course, people who work part time, often women, are the ones who do not have that occupational pension, and that should change. They did it a long time ago in Australia, where it really works, and they have done it in the UK. It will mean everyone who works will have an occupational pension in addition to the State pension. They can opt out if they want to - that is their choice - but we know from other countries that most people do not opt out. People are slow to sign up to a pension scheme but once they are in, they never leave it. It will be a transformative change that people will be very glad we made in 20, 30 or 40 years' time, and that is in many ways what politics is all about.
Senator Chambers also mentioned the issue of enlargement of the European Union. That is going to be a big challenge and we will need to talk about it at some stage. A lot of new countries are going to join the European Union. It is not going to happen within a couple of years but it is going to happen within the next decade or so, and it will mean change. The institutions and the voting system are designed for 27 member states and are already quite cumbersome. The budget will totally change. Countries that are now net beneficiaries and net recipients in eastern Europe will become net contributors, and it will also totally transform the Common Agricultural Policy. Think of all that farmland in Ukraine alone. These are enormous changes and pretending they are not going to happen is not at all an option. We have to start to plan ahead for what the European Union of 2030-something will look like and it is going to be quite a different place.
A lot of Senators raised the issue of access to therapies for children, one of the most difficult issues we all deal with as politicians. One of the things I find hardest to explain to my constituents and parents is why they cannot get access to therapies for their children and the truth is I have no good explanation. It is certainly not a lack of political will or compassion. It is not a lack of funding, although it might have been in the past. It is to do with much more difficult issues to resolve, such as finding the trained professional personnel we need and also changing our systems in order that they will be more modern and use new technologies. That is a lot harder to do and it is a big piece of work we will have to embrace over the next year or so, and I know the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is particularly and personally committed to exactly that.
Senator Garvey mentioned the issue of climate action and I am totally at one with her on this. We have to stop seeing climate action as some sort of obligation, a legal target we have to meet or something that is really painful. I often hear people talk about climate action as though it is some sort of old-time religion, whereby we have committed sins and if we do not now do our penance and take our punishment, there will be an apocalypse and the world will end. It does not, of course, have to be that way and, in fact, it is not that way. Climate action is an enormous economic opportunity for Ireland to go for our moonshot and move from being a country totally dependent on imports for fuel to being one that produces energy for the world, with new industries throughout the country, not just in the big cities. The Senator referred also to our quality of life, with less commuting, cleaner air, more green spaces and trees and all the other things we all believe are desirable. We just need to start changing our thinking in that regard and how we talk about it. It is an economic opportunity, not a punishment for our decadent ways of the past. She spoke also about enabling people to live upstairs in buildings and I know a lot of the difficulty in that regard is down to fire certificates and access but if other countries can do it, surely we can do it too.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of Seanad reform. As Senators will know, I supported abolition. I think a small country can get by successfully with a unicameral system but, as I have also said, that matter has been settled. We had a referendum on it and it is not going to be revisited, at least if I have anything to do with it. Nevertheless, one of my biggest concerns during the referendum was that people who were campaigning for a No vote were promising there would be reform and that reform would happen quickly, that there would be consensus on it and that it would be easy. I always felt that there would not be consensus on reform and that that was going to be one of the difficulties-----
Senator McDowell, you know the rules of the House better than most. You had your opportunity and you served in Cabinet, so please respect the Office of An Taoiseach. You have made your point quite forcefully on numerous occasions. Please let the Taoiseach conclude.
I think any reform should be a good and meaningful one. I am not sure whether, if the public were actually aware of the all-party proposals and the different reports that were made, they would actually be supportive of the reform that was proposed. I am being honest about that. If we are going to reform the Seanad, it should be a reform for the better, and the difficulty with what was proposed, in my view, is that it was constrained by the Constitution, which requires that, for example, the Seanad be elected by postal vote. How would we explain to a public who all went out to vote in September that 90 days later, we would have to have a postal vote of 3 million people?That is kind of impractical, and the public would think so too. That would also require people to sign up to certain panels. People in our country identify in different ways. They might identify by the county or region they live in, or they might identify by being part of some affinity group. Asking 3 million citizens to sign up to administrative, labour, industrial and commercial or university panels is not actually a good idea. Those panels do not reflect Irish life, nor did they ever. They derive from a papal encyclical from, I think, the 1930s. I also do not believe in excluding local authority members from having a voice in the Seanad.
There is a case for indirect election of a second Chamber, if we are going to have one. If we have a directly-elected Chamber, there is a case for indirect election to a second Chamber. I would not like to say to our councillors that they will no longer get to elect any Senators. That is what was proposed, so they are among-----
It is fair to say that it would certainly be a much more diminished role for local authority members than they currently have. Like I said, we have a Supreme Court judgment now that Government has to respond to. The deadline is set. It is not practical to change how we elect the Seanad for the next Seanad election. That is only 15 months away at most. However, it is a necessity that it be done for the subsequent one. That has to be done now. We have options. It can be a minimalist reform that relates just to the universities. We could do as little as just add one university. I do not think that would be a solution. We could add all of the universities, but then we would be in the very strange position of having maybe 1 million people enfranchised to elect only six seats. That would create difficulties in itself, and it triggers the need to have a comprehensive forum to reform how the Seanad is elected but I firmly believe that it should not be within the current constitutional restraints. They do not make it possible to have a Seanad reform that would be desirable and supported by the public. I have outlined some of the reasons that would be the case.
Regarding Senator Doherty's comments on CAMHS-----
On CAMHS, I agree with Senator Doherty and her comments on the need for a radical overhaul, and root-and-branch reform. It is not working. We all know that from our experiences with our constituents. I am not actually sure what that root-and-branch reform would look like in detail, and that is what we have to figure out. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, is very committed to that. I also agree totally with Senator Doherty's comments on Pieta House and the work that it does as an organisation, which we all appreciate.
Senator Gavan mentioned a citizens' assembly on unification. I am not sure that a citizens' assembly would be the right model. There are different models for consultation. Citizens' assemblies are not the only ones and we have used other models in the past like constitutional conventions, the New Ireland Forum and so on. One of the difficulties of a citizens' assembly would be that if it was done the way we do citizens' assemblies, only one in seven of the people present would be part of the British tradition and that minority on our island. As I have said previously, if a united Ireland is going to happen, and if it is going to be successful, success will be judged on how the minority will be treated, and whether they feel part of that new State and whether they are willing to support it and come behind it. If the first step was to bring them into a citizens' assembly where they are only one seventh of the membership, that would be a bad start. That is the kind of thing that we need to discuss more.
On the issue of the UK legacy legislation, the Government reiterates its position that we think it is the wrong way to go. It is not the right approach. It is disrespectful to victims and we will make a decision in the next couple of weeks as to how we act. There is the option of supporting a case taken by one of the victims or victims' groups. There is the option of taking our own case to the European Court of Human Rights. We will have legal advice on that quite soon, and we will have to make a judgment. It is both a political and legal judgment as to what the right course of action is. I expect to see the British Prime Minister next week and that will be an opportunity to discuss it further.
Senator Sherlock mentioned budget 2024 and some of the problems that we face, which are less about money now than they used to be in the past. I know when I served in government with the Labour Party, we were often constrained by finances. There was so much we wanted to do but could not do it because the country did not have the money. That is not the constraint now. The constraints now are often very different ones, and often it is a case of finding the people and materials.
On the move to the living wage, we are doing it. It has been set at 60% of the median wage. We have a particular reason for going for that particular benchmark rather than the minimum essential standard of living. That has been set out on the public record. We will make a big step towards that in January. The Government has the report to the Low Pay Commission. We will make a decision on that next week or the week after, and we will see a very big step forward towards a living wage with the increase that came in January, which is 7.8%, and a further increase due in January 2024. We need to not forget that this will be difficult for some employers. It might not be difficult for the public service or the big companies but it will certainly be for SMEs and small businesses in urban and rural Ireland. Some of them will struggle to pay it. Some of them may even have to cut back the hours of their staff. We have to make sure that we do this in a way that does not result in a negative impact on employment that would see businesses closing.
Senator Ardagh talked about the reduction in poverty rates. The reduction in child poverty rates actually began in 2013, long before the Covid-19 pandemic. It goes up and down every year but the downward trend went up with the Great Recession. Child poverty started falling again in 2013, seven years before the pandemic started. The introduction of the pandemic unemployment payment brought it down further. We have had a reversal now, largely driven by inflation and the cost-of-living increases. We need to turn that around again by making work pay, and by investing in education, training and also welfare and social transfers that are targeted.
I fully support Senator Cassells on Navan rail. It would be of great benefit to his constituents and mine, and we need to get on with that. Our Lady's Hospital, Navan is a hospital that I worked in. It is not going to be closed. The population of County Meath is only going in one direction. If it were closed, it would have a very severe impact on Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown and on Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda. We need to make sure that does not happen. However, it is sensible to make sure that patients go to the right hospital for their care and that is not always the nearest hospital. We have bypass protocols for ambulances all over the country. If my dad or mother, God forbid, were to have a heart attack tonight, they would not be taken to my local hospital, Connolly Hospital. They would be taken straight to the Mater University Hospital. That is the way it should be. We need to be a little bit more open to the idea that while it is good to have the network of hospitals that we have around the country, and we should not close any of them, it does not necessarily mean people being taken to the nearest hospital because it just might not have the services. We cannot have those kind of one in a million or one in 100,000-type patient services in every hospital.
I heard the case made very strongly by Senators around youth work and the need to invest in youth work and youth services. It is certainly clear that the youth organisations and Foróige have done a very good job in the past week or so in making public representatives aware of the work they do. It will, of course, be up to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, to prioritise within his own budget but youth work is something that he very strongly believes in.
Senator Maria Byrne always makes sure I never forget about University Hospital Limerick. It is always on the agenda and it is a hospital that has had a lot of investment and needs a lot more. As we all know, it is not just about the hospital. It is about the community services as well in Ennis and Nenagh, and other issues too. She also pointed out the need for affordable housing, and a lot more of it. It is great that we are building 30,000 houses a year now. How many of them are actually for sale? I am not entirely for sure. If social, own-build and build-to-rent housing are knocked off, how much of thee 30,000 homes are actually available for people to buy? It could be as few as 7,000 or 8,000. Do not get me wrong; we need more housing of all types. I am not saying we need less social housing and more housing to buy. I am saying we need more housing of all types but we particularly need more housing that is actually available to buy. As we up the targets, that is the area that we are going to need to up the most.
The residential zone land tax was raised. I had a very good discussion with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, on this recently.We are going to make some changes and modifications in the forthcoming Finance Bill. They need to be made. It is a tax that is designed to stop land hoarding. We do not want to gut the tax. It is working, by the way, and we already seeing land around the country being put up for sale when it had just been left dormant for years. If somebody’s land is zoned by the State and then serviced by the State, that is a massive State investment into their land. It is right and proper that they should be taxed if they do not develop it. I am seeing situations where somebody has sought a dezoning and has been refused, where somebody has applied for planning permission, where somebody has planning permission and are in judicial review, and they are being hit by the tax. That was never the intention. The intention was to penalise people who have zoned and serviced land and could sell it and develop it, but choose not to. We will need to make some modifications and get that tax right. I know the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, totally agrees with me on that.
On the issue of the nitrates directive, we have a real fight on our hands to hang onto the 220 kg N/ha. That must be a big priority between now and 2025. Going to 175 kg N/ha would be devastating for family farm incomes. It would be really damaging to our economy and export industry, which is what our food and dairy industry is. It is not just about farmers but about all the businesses linked to farms, as well as the wider economy. We will have a battle on our hands and we might be the only country that has it. We need 27 countries to vote for it, many of which see it as a competitive advantage for us. We need to bear that in mind; we need to win the votes on this and that means convincing those countries that we are serious about improving our water quality and our environmental sustainability standards, too.
The Commissioner has agreed to visit Ireland, so I look forward to meeting him. I hope he will come and visit a farm, although I am not sure if he will be able to or not. I look forward to meeting with him to talk about that and any other flexibilities we might be able to achieve. For the record, the invitation was jointly extended by me and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, because we are working together on this.
Senator Ardagh mentioned disability and the domiciliary care allowance, DCA, payment, which is a very good and targeted payment to people who need it the most. Senator Paul Daly mentioned ash dieback. We are looking at that, both as a safety issue and in regard to the need to compensate people who essentially have seen their crop fail through no fault of their own. I am not sure what we will do there, but we are going to have to help.
Senator Warfield raised the issue of forthcoming legislation. The decision was taken to prioritise the legislation around the abolition of so-called "conversion therapies", and I know Senator Warfield has shown much leadership on that. That is the priority for this session but I will get a timeline on the legislation on disregarding same-sex criminal convictions. We have announced many times that we will be doing that, but the next thing people will need to see is the heads of Bill. I do not have a timeline for that, but I will try to get it.
Senator Conway mentioned the carer's allowance. We have relaxed the means test. It is one of the most relaxed means tests within our system. Perhaps we can relax it some more but we need to bear in mind that it is a welfare payment. If we are paying for their work, that is an employment relationship, and it is a whole other issue. That would mean there would have to be minimum qualifications, there would have to be some form of regulation and the position might have to be advertised. There is also potential liability for the State if we were to pay someone to do work for which they are not qualified, and if there was a job that was not properly advertised, if the Senator understands what I am saying here. Therefore, if it changes from a welfare payment to a payment for a service or for work, it would become a totally different payment and would require some very big changes that might not be welcomed by family carers. However, we do have the carer's support grant, which is not means tested. That is a very valuable payment, too.
Senator Dolan, as always, made the case for balanced regional development in the west, as well as the need to invest in infrastructure. I know she will stay on my case when it comes to that, and so she should. Senator Flynn made some very important points about mental health and Traveller health, which I know are very important and need special attention. I have been to many halting sites in my time but I have not done so in a while. I would be happy to take the Senator up on her invitation to do that some time.
I have covered the UK legacy legislation. Senator Carrigy mentioned the roads programme. He never lets me forget about the Mullingar to Longford road, which I know we need to progress. We need to find funding for that. Senator Seery Kearney rightly pointed to the need to build strong communities as a safety net against poverty because we know that for lots of different reasons, some families are not able to look after each other. It is the strong community and the strong State that must provide that safety net. I agree about the surrogacy information. I say, "Well done" to her for her contribution on "Prime Time" the other night.
She gave a lot of information and hope to a lot of people. I will not insult anyone's intelligence by telling them that it is complex legislation, because we all know that. We just need to progress it now and I hope we get that done in this Dáil session.
Senator Fitzpatrick touched on the cost-rental model. I am a big fan of that, too. Senator Craughwell spoke about the Defence Forces. We are rebuilding the Defence Forces. We are now seeing a big investment into buildings and equipment. We have great ships and planes. All these things are either with us or on order. We are making building improvements, too. As we all know, the real difficulty with an economy where there is full employment and even before that, is with recruiting and retaining personnel. I do not think this is just a matter of pay. If you look at pay levels in our Defence Forces when compared with the UK, US or France, they compare very favourably, even when adjusted for the cost of living. One can join the Defence Forces at age 18 and be earning €40,000, including allowances, by the age of 21. Then, you can have your college paid for. It is not as unattractive a pay offer as people may say it is. There are other issues and deeper problems as to why people will not join and why, when they do, they leave so quickly. We know about some of those.
Senator Keogan mentioned the issue of refugee accommodation and the fact that we have to accommodate people in tents. The truth is that it is all we have at the moment. Only in the past year or so, more than 100,000 people have come to our country either as refugees from Ukraine or those who are seeking international protection. We need to be honest with ourselves about this. I know some people make the argument that we should say the country is full and that people should not come here, but they will continue to come here. Some 6 million people have left Ukraine. It is not a surprise that a small percentage - 1% or 2% of them and that is all - have come to Ireland. Horrible things are happening across the world such as war, oppression, dictatorships and climate change. They are going to keep coming.
Ten or 15 years ago, the United Kingdom decided to become a country that had a hostile environment to migration. That was the official government policy. They said: "Let us have a hostile environment for migrants". They left the European Union in part because they wanted to be able to control their borders. They now accommodate refugees and asylum seekers on barges. They sometimes even detain them. Yet, this does not stop them coming. Look at the numbers of those who are now travelling on boats from France to Britain. President Trump promised to build a wall and he separated parents from their children. Yet, record numbers of migrants are going into the US. Italy elected a far-right government largely to stop migration. Look what happened in Lampedusa only in the past couple of weeks. It is totally naive and wrong to think that people are not going to keep coming. They are. We have to try to manage it as best as we can, make sure decisions are made quickly and that people are treated as humanely as they can be.
Finally, on the issue of trade in narcotics, which Senator Burke raised, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is in Brussels today. She is at a meeting between EU and Latin American ministers to discuss exactly that issue. I have covered the nitrates derogation already.
Senator Clonan made an appeal for us to ratify the optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. One of the things I am proud of having done in my first term as Taoiseach is the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This was very much driven by the former Ministers, Finian McGrath and Senator Regina Doherty, as part of that Government. They were big supporters of that. I do not know when we will be in a position to ratify the optional protocol, but I do want us to do that and I will check up on that.
Senator Cummins mentioned the continued investment we need in all parts of Ireland, including the Waterford North Quays and South East Technological University, SETU. We need to build up Waterford as a regional growth centre for that critical mass of population and investment. I know Senator Cummins is determined to make sure that happens.
Senator Kyne again reminded me of the long-overdue project that is needed in Galway, which is the new emergency department, as well as paediatric and maternity. I will take that issue up with Bernard Gloster, who is the new CEO of the HSE. He probably does not believe it but I am as dissatisfied as he is that progress on that particular project is so slow. It is not just for Galway; it is the regional hospital and the regional centre for all the west and it is not what it should be.
Senator Ahearn made comments on Clonmel and Irish Water. I will take that up directly with Irish Water. We have an investment programme of €1 billion in water every year and we need a timeline for that to progress. I will personally take that up, too.
I thank the Taoiseach for being with us in Seanad Éireann today, as well as for outlining the work of the newly established child poverty and well-being programme in his office. In a very real way, it gives truth to the pledge in the 1916 Proclamation, which is in the main hall of Leinster House and speaks of "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". In the past number of years, Members of Seanad Éireann have implemented the Seanad reform recommendations set in the various reports where it was within the power of the Seanad to do so. However, there were other recommendations on which we need a Government decision. One was to provide for the scrutiny of EU directives, by way of statutory instrument, to remove the current democratic deficit whereby Departments add to EU laws and no Deputy, Senator or even Oireachtas committee sees them before they are signed into Irish legislation. The decision to establish a Seanad select committee on that important work was taken last year by the Cabinet with the support of the Taoiseach and his predecessor. The order reference of the committee is that the committee may examine proposals for any statutory instrument being made under section 3 of the European Communities Act. Unfortunately, at our first meeting with him, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for European affairs stated that he was not able to give a commitment to the committee that we would obtain those statutory instruments. I ask the Taoiseach to meet the Chair and members of the Seanad Select Committee on Scrutiny of Draft EU-related Statutory Instruments in order that it can do the work it was established to do and end the democratic deficit relating to the scrutiny of EU laws that affect all the people in this country.
Another key commitment in Seanad reform was the issue of public consultation committees. The committee we are working on at the moment relates to the future of local democracy. Last week, we saw an attack on our democracy. Local democracy in Ireland is not as it should be. In a report due to be officially published, the Council of Europe will outline that Ireland is the worst in Europe in this regard. We see there is a lack of people engaging in local democracy. All parties and the Independents are finding it hard to get people to run for election. We are finding it hard to get women to run, which is not a surprise given the abuse we see on social media. We look forward to the Taoiseach making a contribution to that important debate in this Chamber so that we can protect our local democracy. The Taoiseach went from a local democratic chamber to the national democratic chamber. Where will our national politicians come from in ten years' time if we cannot get them to look at this issue?
The other issue the Seanad is looking at is the constitutional future of the island of Ireland. We are doing so in the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. We have had people from all traditions before the committee. We have listened especially to the voices of young people and the unionist community. It will be no surprise to learn that I agree with the Taoiseach's statement that we are on a pathway to unification. I believe that will happen in his lifetime and, I hope, mine. I hope we live a long life. The lesson of Brexit is that you do not hold a referendum without proper planning and preparation. The all-party committee stated in its conclusions that it is clear that what we do in the next ten years will decide the next 100 years on this island.
We look forward to working with all the minority voices on this island. The theme of Seanad 100 was Minority Voices, Major Changes. Protestant unionist voices made up 30% of the Seanad 100 years ago. We look forward to being a central part of that debate. We will then finally be able to fulfil the pledge in the Constitution, to which the Taoiseach referred and on which we look forward to working with him, which is, as I said at the beginning, to "resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally". I thank the Taoiseach for being here.