Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 November 2023

1:00 pm

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on sports funding, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and to conclude at 5.15 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and time may be shared, all the Senators not to exceed five minutes and time may be shared, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill 2022 – Report Stage (resumed) and Final Stage, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after two hours by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the lump sum payments that are commencing this week as part of budget 2024. As the Leader knows, that budget was aimed at putting money back in people's pockets. It contained a whole host of universal measures as well as targeted supports for the most vulnerable. This week, there will be a €400 payment to anyone in receipt of the working family payment, which will support lower income families who are out there working hard across our economy. We will also have a €300 lump sum for those in receipt of the fuel allowance. As the Leader knows, we extended the criteria for the fuel allowance in January of this year to another approximately 70,000 individuals and couples. There are still people who have not availed of that fuel allowance as they probably still think they are above a threshold because they applied previously, whereas that is not the case anymore. All of them, however, will be in receipt of the additional payment this week. In addition, those in receipt of the disability blind pension and invalidity pension will get a disability support grant. Next week, there will be additional payments to those on carer's allowance and those in receipt of the living alone allowance. There will also be a double child benefit payment in the run-up to Christmas on the first week in December. These are very important measures.It was put to me on the radio this morning as to whether we should be giving people additional child benefit payments when they do not need them. My answer to that is simply that this Government and this country is moving more towards a universal support payment where a person gets back what he or she puts into the system. We see that with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, now moving towards jobseeker's benefit being linked to a person's previous income, the roll-out of universal healthcare and free GP care for those aged under eight as well as child benefit payments. It is, therefore, a different way of looking at the social protection system. It is about supporting those people who are paying their taxes while also targeting the most vulnerable here with increases in payments and lump sum payments across the board. I commend the budget once again on the floor of the Seanad this afternoon. I really look forward to those people who need it most receiving payments in the coming weeks.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I came this morning from Naas General Hospital where I and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, had the opportunity to celebrate ten years of Project Search. Indeed, that was the precursor to the Oireachtas Work Learning, OWL, programme that we have in Leinster House. Every year, ten young people from care with an intellectual disability are involved in an internship there. Honestly, to be met by joy and smiles and the warmest of welcomes when going into the hospital is good for everybody. As the new general manager of Naas hospital said, it brings so much to the patients and staff and, of course, the young people who are there are learning very transferable skills. Many of them have then gone on to be part of the OWL project. The proof of the pudding is that following this project, 72% of the young people who have participated to date have gotten permanent jobs. That in itself is something else, particularly when we had the damning report from the European Disability Forum earlier this year, which found that Ireland was in bottom place along with Greece with regard to employment for people with disabilities. In Greece, they have much higher unemployment than we have. This is the only project of its kind in Ireland. There are 714 in the world - it was started in Cincinnati - and 150 in the UK. It is important that we take these learnings on board and see what we can do with other organisations to really give that quality of life. Well done to Mr. Christy Lynch and Mr. Peter Fenton, who started this. Mr. Alan Kinsella was the general manager of Naas hospital at the time and Caroline and Aoife are the co-ordinators now.

I also wish to raise the following issue. A number of us had the opportunity to meet some foster parents last week and, really, they are the unsung heroes in terms of the work they take on behalf of the State in giving warm and loving homes to vulnerable young people who absolutely need it. Since 2009, there had been no increase in what a foster parent received. This year, a small increase was put in place but it is not to be paid until November 2024. That is simply not good enough. That needs to be addressed in the Finance Bill.

We also need to see supports with regard to PRSI and pensions. Many of those who are acting as foster parents are really giving their best and they are being penalised in their later age by not having that. They are also not entitled to apply for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. At a time when back-to-school costs are going up quite significantly, albeit wonderful to have the free schoolbooks scheme, it is important that there is an allowance in place for that. It is also important to say that many children arrive in an emergency situations without anything and without any extra financial supports. I would like to see a debate in the House before Christmas, possibly with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, or the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, regarding how we support fostering in this country

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I extend my congratulations to all involved with Project Search. I would like the Minister for Education to come into this House to explain what is going on at the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the very strange approach it is taking to its draft curriculum for social, personal and health education, SPHE, cycle in secondary schools.Many are concerned that questionable ideology and assumptions about reality that are not evidence based are to be found in this draft curriculum. There seems be evidence of critical race theory, queer theory and gender theory. These are being pushed, not discussed, and there is certainly no room for challenging them. Throughout the draft curriculum, we find language designed to push these ideologies, but no suggestion that it is ever appropriate to consider the worth of or to push back against some of the highly contestable ideas being promoted. What would be of concern to most people is the potential doubt being sown in young people's minds about the reality that, whatever about the existence of gender dysphoria and confusion about gender identity, there are, in fact, two genders. To deny this and push controversial and unevidenced theories is no more and no less than to push a sexual ideology on young people that is not conducive to the mental health of some.

I wonder how this has come about. A recent freedom of information request by the Federation of Catholic Secondary School Parents Associations threw up something revealing. At a recent round-table stakeholders' meeting - note the use of the word "stakeholders" - held by the NCCA on 2 October as part of its supposed consultation on senior cycle SPHE, and at which 70 people were present, not a single official representative of parents was present. I do not deny that there might have been people there who were parents, but nobody was there as a representative of parents. None of the national secondary level parents organisations were invited. Strangely, the CEO of the National Parents Council, primary, was invited to a stakeholders discussion about second level SPHE. However, she did not show up and failed to send a parent substitute. Among the attendees were plenty of the in groups. There were university consent teams, in other words, sex educators. It seems the NGOs on the inside track, the government within the Government, were present. The well-financed Trans Equality Network Ireland, TENI, Belong To and ShoutOut were all invited and attended. Good luck to them to be given a place, but what does it say about the NCCA that it carried on with a consultation without a single secondary school parent representative being invited? It gets worse. When the question was put to the NCCA for the names of the parents' representatives invited, it took them a month to reply and reveal the embarrassing truth that no secondary parent representative was invited, and only one primary representative who did not show up.

The problem is that I do not believe this is a cock up. This is an attempt to exclude parents from having a decisive say on what goes into the curriculum about social, personal and health education. It goes against the letter and spirit of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Is the NCCA going rogue, when you have an attempt to control how people think by obsessive control of the school curriculum and very little respect for parents and their vital constitutional role in these matters?

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Over the past few weeks, the Oireachtas has been a venue for some important debates on Irish unity. Ireland's Future met 11 political parties from across Ireland, most of them with representatives elected to the Dáil and Seanad. I pay tribute to our colleague, Senator Black, for her work in that regard. They discussed how best to develop dialogue among the parties to ensure the momentum for constitutional change is expanded. The Good Friday Agreement committee discussed a report called Mapping Diversity, Negotiating Differences: Constitutional Discussions on a Shared Island, presented by Professor Jennifer Todd of UCD, and Dr. Joanne McEvoy of the University of Aberdeen. The report revealed a high level of interest in the debate about a united Ireland and the difficulties for marginalised groups - women, ethnic minorities and young people - to be involved in the debate.

I will give an update on events that have been taking place in the North in recent weeks. The Houben Centre is in north Belfast and straddles an area profoundly affected by the conflict. It has two doors. One opens onto Ardoyne, a nationalist area, and the other open onto the Shankill road, a loyalist area. It is a venue for all-community dialogue. It was the location for a Sinn Féin event, as part of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, entitled Tackling Sectarian Segregation. The place and ethos of the new Shankill Women's Centre is a good example of community and personal responsibility being exercised in this regard. In Áras Uí Chongaile, a former British soldier and two former political prisoners - a loyalist and republican - took part in a debate on memory and how it should be expressed without offending people. This is a cutting-edge venue funded by the US trade union movement to honour the legacy of James Connolly. I recommend that all colleagues visit the venue should they get the opportunity to do so when they are in Belfast. Its doors are open to all progressive movements and ideas. Minority, women and language rights in a united Ireland were discussed in detail at Ulster University, which discussions were chaired by Queens University law professor Colin Harvey and Patricia McKeown of UNISON.This is a snapshot of the widespread dialogue that is taking place across this country. It is quality dialogue that is breaking new ground. It not only needs to be supported by the Seanad and Dáil, but its development needs to be a priority for the Irish Government. The people involved need a home for their energies and vision and that home is a citizens' assembly. The Government needs to establish one without further delay and I call for a debate on that issue.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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Last Friday, we got word that Ireland is one of three countries the European Commission is referring to the European Court of Justice for failure to implement the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act which was enacted by both the Dáil and Seanad in April of this year. The Labour Party has previously been critical that seven months since the enactment of that Bill, the Government has failed to commence key sections to provide a legal framework for workers regarding flexible and remote working.

In some ways this is about the law catching up with reality on the ground. Many people who people commute, who are lone parents or who need flexibility because of care responsibilities need that legal framework and right of appeal. We need to ask about the Government's attitude to remote and flexible working. Right across this Chamber we heard many very pleasant words about the need to stay in line with the modern workforce of today and to ensure we have laws recognising flexible and remote work. However, for some unexplained reason - we have not heard anything from the Government so far - it has failed to act.

There is a wider question here. There is a 17% office vacancy rate here in Dublin at the moment with another 22,000 sq. m of offices currently under construction. There is obviously an interest on the part of some employers to ensure their workers are in the office. Given the issue with commercial construction and office vacancy, is the Government now pushing workers back into the workplace as opposed to allowing them to work in a hybrid fashion?

Last night, the Department of Health published the report of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. While I totally understand that there could be disagreements between people and personality clashes, the document produced last night was petty, self-serving and disingenuous - I do not use those words lightly. In my reading of it, it casts very serious aspersions on the outgoing chair of the north inner city drug and alcohol task force, a clinician with a fantastic reputation who gave years to the drug and alcohol task force in the north inner city and on the incoming chair, who has given years of dedication to ensuring we have better services for those who find themselves in addiction.

There is a bigger question to be asked: what is the Government's approach to the drug and alcohol task forces across the country? What the drug section of the Department of Health has done is to undermine the north inner city drug and alcohol task force. It has gone against all the lip service by the Government about its commitment to the drug and alcohol task force and wanting to subsume it into another body. What is the Government's position now with regard to the north inner city drug and alcohol task force? I think there are implications for the task forces across the country.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Leader at her convenience to organise a debate in this House on the renewable energy sector. We frequently talk about the importance of moving away from fossil fuels owing to the positive impact that would have on the environment and we look at the various different options that are there. Of course, more wind needs to be captured to generate electricity and we need greater use of solar. It is very clear from the work we all do that there is considerable pushback in communities over what is now referred to as onshore wind. Many of the sites that were more accessible and more easily developed with less intrusion on local rural communities have already been developed and yet we have targets we must meet by 2030 and 2050.

If we are to continue as we are, we will get heavily bogged down in appeals, judicial reviews etc.The area on which we need to move much more quickly is the potential for offshore wind capture. There are many proposals out there but when you talk to the developers, the State seems to be considerably behind on the designated areas mapped for development. There seems to be a dearth of skill sets in the Department of energy to perform the necessary groundwork to allow for applications for the various permissions. It would be useful to have a debate with the Minister to tease out that aspect of it. From the way I have looked at it, there seems to be a logjam. Investors or companies that were looking in Ireland for potential investment are now looking elsewhere. That is potentially damaging for us because not just is there huge potential to capture wind offshore for Ireland’s future needs, there is also huge potential to develop new skill sets to allow us be part of the technologies involved and benefit our country economically.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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All of us would agree the Covid vaccination programme was an extraordinary success. It has been fantastic. All of us queued up, got our vaccinations, stayed safe and were kept safe in the main. So it is worrying that today Professor Éamonn O’Moore, director of national health protection in the HSE, has said there has been a low uptake of vaccinations and that we need an urgent uptake in vaccination for both Covid and flu. In Ireland we have the advantage of seeing how the flu happens in Australia and by the time winter comes here we can get ahead of that with vaccinations. I urge people to make sure they are vaccinated.

A cohort of people can get the vaccine free of charge. If you are in an at-risk group, under 12 or over 65, you can get it free of charge, as can all healthcare workers. One sector that does not get it free is childcare workers. They are susceptible, given the nature of the job, to bodily fluids from children, children getting sick on them and all sorts of things. It is a crucial profession for the care of our children and the running of our economy, allowing people to go to work so that we have a full complement. The childcare sector is already under a lot of pressure. Yesterday, I wrote to the Minister for Health and the Minister for children to support adding childcare workers to that cohort who can get the flu jab free of charge. It is at a cost of €35 which, in some instances, is twice the hourly wage for people in the sector. The Leader has supported childcare immensely and I ask her to write on behalf of the Seanad to the Minister urging support for childcare workers getting the flu jab free of charge.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I raise an issue that came to my attention this afternoon when it was published on the Government website. It is the modular development plan announced by the Department of the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman. It is accommodation for the beneficiaries of temporary accommodation from Ukraine. There are 74,744 Ukrainians currently in State accommodation. Another 30,000 have sought alternative accommodation either by renting because they can avail of the rent allowance scheme or living with family or friends already here. The Government has stated it is expecting another 30,000 to 50,000 next year from Ukraine.

Today the 100,000 already here got the best news ever. The Government announced the guidelines for submissions from developers to provide independent own-door modular accommodation for Ukrainians. It is not bad for those who might have only been in the country for 18 months to land a brand new, state-of-the-art modular home compliments of the taxpayer. What is this Government thinking? Is it listening to the people on the ground? There are over 13,000 people homeless and 97,171 on the local authority housing lists, some waiting over 15 years. We have 25,000 in direct provision centres. I know of one man who is in there for 17 years. Where are the own-doors for all these people? We have family homes overcrowded with second generations living in them, families with disabilities or medical needs waiting for independent living accommodation and families with land who cannot even put a modular home for their own growing families on it.Where is the “own door” for the families trying to buy houses and people trying to get on the property ladder for the first time? This is a mess. It is out of control. In Swords, there were 575 applications for 13 houses through the cost rental scheme. The Government is not reading the room. Throughout this country, people are protesting the numbers communities are expected to sustain. I am sick to death of the fact that every time I raise this issue, I am shouted down by the do-gooders in here whose parties last week have flip-flipped on the issue of immigration. We need a debate with Roderic O’Gorman on this serious issue because his Department is not talking to Darragh O’Brien’s Department and they are competing against each other.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I am in agreement with the Order of Business.

I wish to raise the following issue. We will all pass away eventually and it is likely to be of one of the three main causes: cancer, dementia and cardiovascular issues. We have made great strides in cancer and dementia is still very much a challenge. However, regarding cardiovascular issues, one of the simplest things all of us could do, particularly any of us over the age of 40, is get our blood pressure checked regularly. It is something I do not think enough of us think about. It is known as a silent killer because people can have it for many years, showing absolutely no symptoms or signs of it at all, and then all of the sudden have a stroke or some kind of a transient ischaemic attack, TIA , that imposes enormous and, in many cases, life-changing damage. People literally have been running around the place, working hard and doing everything with not a day sick for many years. It happened to people in my family.

I wish to see a discussion and an awareness with the Minister for Health. We can save money by people not needing to be treated for stroke or treated at a later stage. In the same way we do an NCT for cars, I would like to see us have some kind of situation where we can go to a pharmacist for free - obviously, people can buy blood pressure monitors but many people would not have them – and find out whether there is an issue. If you get that issue tackled in advance, you are saving the taxpayer a huge amount and you are also saving yourself a huge amount of grief. In many cases, possibly a slight change in lifestyle and diet and equally perhaps some level of medication to regulate blood pressure can help. It is an enormously positive thing we could be doing and talking about. I agree entirely with Senator Seery Kearney on vaccines for people who want them but this is something we can do without a vaccine or anything. It would do a lot for a large number of the population, many of whom have high blood pressure and do not know anything about it.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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Over the past two weeks, on different occasions I have raised the issue of all the flooding that happened in north Louth and the Cooley Peninsula. Last night, Louth County Council had its annual budget meeting. It was told that the council has applied for €2 million from the Government to deal with many of the issues that have incurred in respect of roads, infrastructure and stuff like that. That €2 million will be provided by the Government.

However, the issue I have is that the €2 million will just cover public roads. There is a huge number of private roads throughout north Louth that are not maintained by the council that have been completely washed away and are impassible. They are not physically able to be used and that €2 million will not go towards those. It has been said that we may need to look at asking for more money for a local improvement scheme, LIS, or a community involvement scheme, CIS, later in the year. I do not think we can take this bit-by-bit approach to something like this. When something like this happens in any part or area of this country, the Government is clear in its commitment that we are willing to put money back into those communities to get them straight back up to the standard they were prior to any sort of flooding, whether it is through the humanitarian scheme, business schemes or providing money to a local authority to get the infrastructure back up and running. It should not be the case that the local authority turns around and states it will only ask for money for X number of projects. This has to be a wide-scale financial package that goes into north Louth to get it back to where it was. It cannot be the case that we pick some roads and not others.

There has been talk as well about a scheme for farmers or people affected with agriculture for much of the damage caused to their land. I would appreciate if we get some clarification from the Minister for agriculture on if and when a scheme will be opened. That would provide much reassurance for many people in the Cooley Peninsula.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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We have been informed today about the provision of an additional €4 billion, which brings to €6 billion the amount providing in Supplementary Estimates this year. This is obviously to be welcomed. I just want to highlight the €850 million that has been ring-fenced for the Department of Education's school building programme. It would be beneficial for us to have a debate or a chance to put questions to the Minister for Education about the programme. I have many schools sitting on applications and waiting to hear about additional accommodation, emergency works, summer works or new school buildings. There is a school called Éiriu Community College in Ongar that has been waiting for two or three years to find out about its permanent site. In Tyrrelstown we are in need of a new secondary school. In Castleknock there are several special classes where the schools have wanted bricks and a proper extension. They are being given modular special classes. If a school is looking for an extension, if we are working with the school, that should be our first choice. I refer to St. Francis Xavier's school in Roselawn, 37% of the roof of which is waterlogged. The school has had a submission in since January about this, but there has been no movement. It is really important that we have an opportunity to put these questions to the Minister and get essential updates for the relevant communities.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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This morning, we heard funding announced by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in respect of outdoor recreation feasibility grants. That is really crucial for developing projects in rural areas over the next number of years. More than €100,000 has been allocated for two projects in Roscommon - in Castlerea and Athleague - to build a boardwalk in Castlerea that will connect with the demesne there. In Athleague we are looking at a project to deliver a walkway to connect with the Suck Valley Way. In Galway, there is close to €150,000 for three projects, one of which is in Ballinasloe on the location of a landfill. Over 20 years ago, the families in Ballinasloe fought so hard and went to the High Court to have the rubbish that was being dumped in a bog without proper facilities in place. They fought that, and over six years the facility was halted. As part of the High Court order, it was indicated very clearly that funds for Galway County Council needed to be used to create a recreational amenity for the people of Ballinasloe town. Today, outdoor recreational funding of close to €50,000 has been allocated to allow feasibility and a survey to be done to turn what was a landfill, a place that took rubbish and waste, domestic, industrial and commercial, into something that the local community can use. That is a phenomenal thing to say because we do not have a part in Ballinasloe. We have a school that has a wooded area, Garbally College and thankfully the trustees, principal and staff allow the public of Ballinasloe to use that area. We do not have parks as such. We need this, we need the Dublin to Galway cycle way to come into Ballinasloe. These are projects that are going to deliver for our local area.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I want to raise an issue involving a lovely lady from Rush who is just about to buy one of the new affordable houses we have there. She is a single mom looking after three beautiful children. She has gone through the hoops for the past couple of years and is just about to lose a house that was secured for her, one of the small number of houses that were available. The local authority housing loan as part of Fingal County Council and the affordable housing people who are offering the houses do not seem to be able to talk to each other. The scheme that we have with the local authorities to get a mortgage has a €65,000 salary earnings cap. That is not based on last year's earnings but this year's, even though this year is not over.The lady's current salary slip shows that if she worked for the 52 weeks of the year, she would probably earn over the €65,000.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Before she leaves, I welcome Leslie Hamilton to the Public Gallery. I welcome her back and thank her for being here. We miss her in Leinster House. Apologies to Senator Doherty.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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Not at all. I spent many years working with Ms Hamilton, so it is very nice to see her.

The frustration here is that the lady does not breach the earnings cap. The council has assumed that she is going to work for the 52 weeks of the year whereas she takes more than seven or eight weeks of parental leave every year, at her own cost, because she has an eight-year-old son and she cannot get childcare for him during the school holidays. Neither part of Fingal County Council is talking to the other and she is going to lose the house because the deadline of 15 November for the loan application has come and gone and she is on days' notice. I have been banging my head against a wall trying to get one part of the council to talk to the other in order that this lady can get the home she needs. Otherwise, she is going to end up homeless. Could the Leader ask the Minister for housing to get one of his officials to please call Fingal County Council in order to try to sort this lady's house out? Otherwise, she is going to lose it and that is going to be down to us.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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It is estimated that four out of ten shoppers - that is about 40% - plan to complete their Christmas shopping for gifts of non-food items on Black Friday at the end of this week. I was very taken by the campaign launched to encourage everybody to turn Black Friday into "Buy Green Friday". The campaign highlights the massive importance of people supporting local businesses and service providers, either online or by going in person to purchase local goods. Every euro we spend locally is worth five to the local economy. It is vital to remember that. I came across a statistic recently which shows that every year Irish consumers spend €5 billion online that goes abroad. That is money lost to our local economy. Ultimately, the local businesses and local shopkeepers are the ones whose doors we knock on when local sports clubs, local schools or whatever are holding fundraisers, a table quizzes or what have you. I plead with people and encourage everybody to shop local where possible. By shopping local, we are supporting local businesses and local jobs and, by extension, our entire community. I would like the Government to again initiate a campaign to encourage all of us to think before we press that button and try to shop green where we possibly can.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the proposal from the Minister for Social Protection to extend pension rights to family carers. I want to ensure that it is extended to foster carers. Foster carers do an incredibly important job in this State. There are about 6,000 vulnerable children and young people in care, and 90% of them are looked after and brought to realise their full potential by foster carers. One of the difficulties is that, because people make so many sacrifices in order to become foster carers, they can lose out on some of their pension entitlements. It is welcome that the Minister for Social Protection is looking to extend pension rights to family carers but I would ask that the Leader ensure it is also extended to foster families and foster parents. Perhaps we might have a debate with the Minister in this Chamber on the pension entitlements of foster carers.

I also want to express concern about the fact, and the Leader will be aware that I have raised this previously, that the bulk of the increases being given to foster carers will not come into play until next November. This is not fair when other social protection increases are coming in early in the year. It is not fair to expect foster carers to have to wait that long, particularly when we are not talking about huge sums of money and we are only talking about 5,000 individuals. I ask the Leader to please raise that with the Minister for children, Deputy O'Gorman. A broader debate on how we can support foster carers would be welcome.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Before I call on the Leader to reply, I welcome to the Public Gallery members of the Children and Young People's Assembly on Biodiversity Loss. I thank them very much for being here. We also thank them for their deliberations and their work.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome those in the Gallery.

I thank all those who contributed to the Order of Business today. Senator Cummins wanted to draw attention to the lump sum payments as part of budget 2024 which are coming into people's accounts this week and to acknowledge the significant work done by both finance Ministers in putting together a cost-of-living package to assist those most in need.

Senator O'Loughlin spoke about Naas General Hospital and her visit there with the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte. They are celebrating ten years of Project Search which led to the Oireachtas Work Learning,OWL, programme, where 72% of participants ended up with a permanent job. She commended all those who participated.

She also drew our attention to the plight of foster carers, as did Senator Malcolm Byrne, and the fact that in the Social Protection Bill, it is anticipated that those payments will not come into effect until November of next year which is quite late into the year. The Senators have requested a debate with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on the issue and I will request that debate. Both Senators spoke about the fantastic work foster carers do, the need to ensure that there is a pension in place, proper renumeration, and the significant pressures on those doing that work.

Senator Mullen spoke about the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA; the development of the social, personal and health education, SPHE, programme; and a round-table discussion which did not, he said, include parent representatives. Certainly, there should be room for discussion and a challenge to what is being proposed in order to have a full and transparent process in establishing that new curriculum. There is no doubt that there are elements which for some people are difficult to deal with and there is not a consensus on those things. I take the Senator's comments on board.

Senator Gavan spoke about the progress towards Irish unity and the Ireland's Future group. I remind the Senator that under this Government we have seen the establishment of the shared island unit which is the first truly inclusive project which looks at how we share the island as opposed to taking sides. There has been meaningful engagement cross-Border with that unit and significant funds from the Government have been put behind that project to fund and develop cross-Border projects and initiatives.

I know that in my own county of Mayo we have the Daisy Lodge facility and cancer respite centre for children which was also funded under the shared island unit because it has a facility in the North and children, cross-Border, will travel for those services. This Government has shown its commitment to Irish unity, not in a way that alienates any particular community but in a way that ensures we all move together, and can share the island together.

Senator Sherlock spoke about the referral of Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union, ECJ, with regard to the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act and she asked if the Government is intent on pushing workers back to the office. I believe it has been quite clear that following the pandemic, the view of the Government is that people should be facilitated in flexible and remote working. In the public sector, where the Government is the employer, employees are facilitated with 20% of their work being done from home. That is already an established policy from the Government's perspective. Employees are voting with their feet and are going to employers where that flexibility is facilitated. The legal framework will be forthcoming but it certainly is the view of the Government that it leads to a better work-life balance if people have that flexibility and can work remotely.

It is also important to say that many workers have said, when surveyed, that they also want a balance and to have the option to go to the office. It is not about a one-size-fits-all approach.

Senator Dooley has asked for a debate on the renewable sector and I agree with the Senator's remarks on the opportunities for offshore wind. That is where it is at now. We have exhausted all of the viable projects onshore and it has been a difficult and painful process over the past number of decades getting wind farms where communities have significant resistance. There are very significant possibilities, particularly off the west coast, which is the windiest part of the country. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communicationsn has spoken in the Chamber previously on this topic where he is keen to progress this but does not believe that the technology is quite yet there for the north and north west. I have disagreed with the Minister on that issue as I believe the technology needs to be supported and the planning needs to start now to get these projects up and running. We will request a debate on that to see where we are at with regard to our renewables sector because in the context of the 2030 and 2050 targets, we have big targets to reach in the next number of decades.

Senator Seery Kearney spoke about the Covid-19 vaccination programme and its success and the worrying trend where we are seeing a low uptake of vaccinations for this winter. She has asked that vaccinations be provided free of charge to those in the childcare sector because of their interaction with small children.

Senator Keogan spoke about the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth website and the modular housing programme which will be rolled out to provide accommodation. I take on board the Senator's comments around the challenge we have with homelessness figures, with people on housing waiting lists, and now we are trying to house those who are seeking international protection. I believe that the Government has been very honest in articulating its position that this is a great challenge to deal with because the numbers are so great. It is putting pressure on housing. I think the Ministers, Deputies O'Gorman and O'Brien, have been very honest that they are finding it difficult to provide housing for everybody. It is an ongoing challenge. Modular is part of the solution. We need to progress that across the country, make sure communities are involved and liaised with and make sure information is provided. It will not reverse engines - it is a challenge that is here to stay. It is happening across the European Union. We are not the only country dealing with this. There are two Departments dealing with two different areas but there is of course a connection. Both Ministers have an understanding and a respect for one another to work on the issue despite the pressures they both face on the housing issue.

Senator Horkan spoke about the three biggest killers being cancer, dementia and cardiovascular issues. He spoke primarily about cardiovascular issues and the need to highlight that regular testing of blood pressure could provide early detection and prevent serious disease. It is important to get out the message that you can be asymptomatic for quite a long time before it presents in a more serious way. It is good advice. We will have a debate on health in the new term. It is unlikely to happen before the end of the year. A number of health Bills are coming through so there may be an opportunity under health legislation to raise this matter at that point.

Senator McGahon spoke about flooding in County Louth and the €2 million request from Louth County Council to the Government to assist with repair works. While that has been granted by the Government, the Senator said there is an issue around private roads where there is no specific funding. He has been advised that the LIS may be sufficient. That is fine where the road might qualify for the LIS; if it does not, you are in difficulty. I take on board the Senator's comments. He also asked if there will be a scheme for agriculture and for the farms that have been affected. I suggest a Commencement matter would be suitable for that particular question.

Senator Currie spoke about the Supplementary Estimate of €4 billion. She drew attention to the €850 million for Department of Education school buildings and requested a debate on the school building programme, which we will request.

Senator Dolan spoke about the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme for the development of rural projects. It is great to see projects coming through in rural towns that still have a significant population and serve many people. She spoke about Castlerea and Ballinasloe. It is important for recreational purposes for the community that these projects are funded; €100,000 is a huge amount of money for a small town. It might seem insignificant in the bigger scheme of things but it is hugely important to those areas. The Government has done a good job targeting funding at smaller rural towns where there is huge appreciation for these works when they are done. There is large use of those facilities.

Senator Doherty spoke about the affordable housing issue and a single mum with three children in Rush in north County Dublin. We will try to work on that and engage with the Minister's office and his advisers to see if we can get Fingal County Council to communicate and deal with the different silos that appear to exist. It should not be the case that she would lose out because of not getting the schemes to match up. We will try to get something resolved for that woman. I appreciate we are on borrowed time. We will try to get something done soon.

Senator Gallagher spoke about shoppers preparing for Christmas and made a call that we embrace green Friday and try to shop local when we can. Online retailers are very good at tempting you to purchase online. I am thinking of the likes of Amazon, which really pushes its black Friday sale and calls it black Friday week. Anything we can buy locally, as the Senator pointed out, is a huge benefit to the local economy, with €1 resulting in €5 of benefit to the local economy. He requested a Government campaign. I do not know whether it will happen in time for this year, but it is good to request that the Government highlights the importance of shopping locally and reminds people not to click as easily as we often do.

Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about foster carers. He welcomed the extension of pension rights to family carers. He made a call that something similar be done for foster carers. He highlighted that the payment announced in the budget will not come until next year. There may be scope to deal with that in the upcoming finance and social welfare Bill.

Order of Business agreed to.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome family members of the late Brian Donnelly who are here today in Leinster House. Today, the Oireachtas United States Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group held a powerful commemorative event in his great memory. As we all know, he was a huge advocate and friend of Ireland. We associate him primarily with the Donnelly and Morrison visas. His family are welcome, as are Willie and Eibhlin Keilthy from the JFK Summer School. I also thank Larry for being here. Today, we remember Brian Donnelly in our thoughts.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.20 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.46 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.46 p.m.