The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re address to Seanad Éireann by Mr. Manus Cooney on 5 October 2016, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion re establishment of Seanad Public Consultation Committee, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1; and No. 3, statements on the European Commission's decision that Ireland provided unlawful State aid for Apple, to be taken at 6 p.m. and conclude not later than 7.15 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes each and those of all other Senators not to exceed four minutes each and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than 7.10 p.m.
Order of Business
Will the Leader call on the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, to attend the House to address us on the industrial relations mess in Ireland? It is an absolute shambles and the position does not seem to be improving. We have a failed Workplace Relations Act, continuous transport strikes, threatened Garda stoppages and still no sign of the promised public service pay commission that was agreed to in the confidence and supply agreement. A recent survey of industrial relations practitioners conducted by the Employment Law Association of Ireland showed that the majority were extremely unhappy with the new Act. One in every two legal and industrial relations practitioners is dissatisfied with the new system. Three in five believe the format of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, adjudication system is inconsistent. Two in five are dissatisfied with the quality of the adjudicating officers' rulings. One in two has problems with how the WRC processes applications for adjournments and a few other details.
Now that the days of the employment appeals tribunal are over, when hearings were held in public and chaired by a legally trained professional, they are now held in private and treated by employers as a dry run, away from the scrutinising eye of the media. Non-legally trained professionals adjudicate in disputes, from which inconsistent decisions stem. Most employers and employees will appeal the decisions of adjudication officers to the Labour Court and there will be a backlog of cases in the Labour Court in the next couple of months. It was envisaged that the current system would be more cost-effective, but it is not. It does not provide value for money for the public and does not give aggrieved employees redress in any form. They are the ones who will ultimately have to bear the cost of high legal fees when matters are appealed to the Labour Court, either by themselves or their employers. I ask the Leader to call on the Minister to address the House today on the ongoing strikes hitting the country, not just the WRC.
Nobody seems to be offering.
I am offering. I am surprised a man from Cork is confused, but we in County Mayo are very confused this week.
Much of the confusion caused by yourselves.
We will leave that issue to one side.
I draw the attention of the House to Sinn Féin's alternative budget which was published earlier today. It is a fully costed alternative to the failed policies on tax breaks for those who least need them which have resulted in a lack of investment in key services for those who need them the most. For far too long, any proposal Sinn Féin has brought forward has been dismissed out of hand in an arrogant, nonsensical, illogical and obstructive manner. I am more than happy to engage in any economic debate based on sound, solid actualities, but the schoolyard gobbledygook I have had to endure from Members of this House from whom I would have expected more only serves to expose and underpin the leprechaun economics with which we have been credited globally. The infantile dismissals of Sinn Féin's economic policies and other policies on key areas, including health, education and rural Ireland, do an injustice to the citizens we are here to serve.
Sinn Féin's priorities are to provide for fair taxation to reduce the cost of living and invest in public services. We have clearly shown that by using the €1 billion in the fiscal space available, combined with measures to introduce tax fairness and bring about savings, we could reduce the cost of living and invest in public services, increase capital investment to build homes, schools, health facilities, undertake flood relief works, repair and maintain roads and develop an all-Ireland economy to achieve long-term growth. We want to invest in the all-island economy to strengthen our response to Brexit, for which we have a strategy. In the document published today we are putting forward concrete and costed proposals to deal with the uncertainty in the period ahead. I commend the document to the Seanad and call on the Minister for Finance to consider our proposals and reconsider his plans to prioritise tax cuts over much needed investment in services that have been neglected for too long. It is a fully costed document that makes full use of EU fiscal rules to allow for massive investment in public services, averaged out over a four-year period so as not to be limited by the fiscal space available. This is the clearest example of an option being open to the Government and it will be interesting to see if it grasps it for the good of the people or if, as in the case of Apple, it will refuse to take it in favour of pursuing its own sectional interests.
I was heartened yesterday to see a large protest in Dublin city centre in support of the provision of funding to promote cycle safety, organised by the Dublin Cycling Campaign and cycling.ie. Over 500 cyclists took time to tell the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, that the current allocation of funding to promote activities such as walking and cycling was a meagre 1% of total transport expenditure and totally inadequate. Recent cutbacks in the transport budget of the Dublin City Council have potentially led to existing plans for infrastructural development to be scrapped.
This is regressive, to say the least.
I was a keen rural and urban cyclist while living in the Netherlands for ten years. It is clichéd at this stage to want to emulate the Dutch on cycling issues, but there is a good reason for this. The Netherlands has turned cycling not only into a transport solution but also a positive attribute of the cities and regions. A country with more cyclists is more liveable in and attractive, with less air pollution and traffic congestion. It is more attractive for both inhabitants and tourists. A fine example of this is the recently opened Waterford greenway cycling and walking system which was largely started up on a voluntary basis. It is open and very attractive. It has safe infrastructure and is already attracting tourists and allowing the people of the south east to see more of their beautiful countryside along Ireland's Ancient East. A vibrant cycling sector can serve as a source of jobs in sales, rental and repairs much as the implementation of infrastructure can provide direct employment. Tourism is one of our largest industries. We must always strive to ensure Ireland is welcoming and a safe destination, particularly for heritage enthusiasts who come here to see our outstanding natural beauty.
The issue of cycling safety has been brought into stark relief recently with the death of Donna Fox on the streets of Dublin and the tragic deaths of 11-year-old Tim Ross as he was cycling to school in County Offaly and 13-year-old Daniel Roche, as he was cycling home near Drogheda. I wish to hear from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, whom I do not believe to be much of a sport, on what he is going to do to tackle the urgent issue of funding and restore faith in cycle safety on the roads. I would like to hear his vision for cycling and walking in the lifetime of the Government.
I echo Senator Grace O'Sullivan's words and condolences to the families of those cyclists who were killed so tragically on the roads. I endorse what she said in calling on the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, to outline plans for cycle safety and increase the level of cycling on the roads. During the term of the previous Seanad, I organised an Oireachtas all-party cycling group for those of us involved in cycling and keen to promote both cycling and greater cycle safety on roads across the country. I hope Senator Grace O'Sullivan, other Members and I can work together to set up a similar group in the lifetime of the current Seanad.
I welcomed the opportunity to speak to the Taoiseach and raise a number of issues with him last week when he came to the House. We have since heard from the UK Prime Minister, Ms Teresa May, on providing greater clarity on the timeline for Brexit. It is welcome that we will have a further debate tomorrow, in which we will be able to discuss Brexit.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House on a future date specifically to address a different matter I raised with the Taoiseach on Thursday, namely, the situation in Syria, the appalling bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, in particular, and the abandonment of the peace process by Russia and the Syrian Government. We need to hear from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the action Ireland proposes to take in ensuring a stronger stance is taken, unilaterally and at EU level, against Russia to try to bring it back to the negotiating table to ensure some respite for the besieged civilians in Aleppo. In particular, the Minister should be calling in the Russian ambassador to explain to him the actions of the Russian Government in breaking the ceasefire and returning to this appalling bombardment.
I renew my call to the Leader for a debate on higher education funding. At a conference in Trinity College Dublin tomorrow morning, with others, Senator Lynn Ruane and I will be speaking about higher education funding models in the wake of the publication of the Cassells report. I ask that have that debate on the floor of the Seanad also.
When will we have a date for Report Stage of the Labour Party Private Members' Bill on collective bargaining rights for freelance workers? Government time has been promised for it. I hope the amendments from the Government will be ready next week. The Leader might confirm the timeframe for it.
Sticking with the theme of higher education funding, I welcome the announcement made earlier this week of €10.5 million in funding for Irish universities through four strands of the Erasmus+ funding scheme.
Erasmus+ is one of many EU programmes that Irish universities, institutions and community groups are able to benefit from in terms of funding such as Horizon 2020, the other streams of Erasmus+, Blue Star and Euroscola. However, this funding is secured in the face of one of the most difficult application processes I have ever come across in my years of completing forms. It is not only putting off groups from applying in the first place but is also stopping many groups from being successful in pulling down much-needed funding for higher education and community activities. I call on the Leader to invite either the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, or the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, within whose briefs it comes, to come to the House to debate the matter. Why are Irish groups not achieving as much as they could from these funding schemes? What efforts can be made to simplify the process? What impact will Brexit have on agreements under Horizon 2020 already in place, which are cross-border or between universities in Ireland and the United Kingdom? What will be the impact in 2019 when the United Kingdom formally exits?
I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, to extend the October deadline for slurry spreading, given the severe weather conditions we have experienced in recent months which have curtailed the spreading activity. The 15 October deadline is fast approaching and owing to the severe downpours we experienced during our so-called summer, land conditions are particularly difficult. It is important that farmers see every effort being made to secure this extension beyond 15 October. I understand our friends in Northern Ireland have been successful in securing an extension. It is possible to show reasons the slurry spreading did not take place. I urge the Minister to seek a similar extension of the 15 October deadline in order to facilitate the spreading of slurry.
The review of the farm assist scheme which provides assistance for farmers on low incomes was recently completed. It would be opportune to do something in the forthcoming budget. About 8,000 people are affected, most of them along the western seaboard. The changes in the 2012 and 2013 budgets by the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, have had a very severe negative effect on farm families, many of whom do not have off-farm income. After the collapse of the construction industry, the effects for those in the west were more severe. As against a national average of one in five working in construction, it was one in four in the west. We know only too well the problem with agricultural commodity prices. These farmers cannot make ends meet and support their families. They will be driven from the land unless the farm assist payment is increased. I support the IFA's call for the income and child disregards to be restored. The plight of the farmers in question and their families needs to be recognised.
I am sure the House will join me in congratulating the Dublin team on their back-to-back win on Saturday.
I raise the issue of the Government placing the health of members of the Defence Forces in jeopardy through the continued use of the anti-malaria drug, Lariam, which is issued to Irish troops who serve abroad. PDFORRA has asked me to raise the issue. It is holding its annual conference in Cork where the matter will be further discussed. It acknowledges that the drug provides protection against malaria but an alternative needs to be sourced and offered in line with UN guidelines. The Government, through its actions, is ignoring the United Nations' advice. Those in the United Nations know what they are talking about at this stage. The side effects of Lariam include anxiety, depression, paranoia and suicidal behaviour. Many of those due to take the drug will not do so and the side effects are the primary reason for not taking it. There are many cases backlogged in other countries and inquiries are taking place into the effects of Lariam on individual soldiers and their families. There have been far too many medical scandals in this country involving drugs.
When concerns were highlighted in the past, they were ignored. There are 51 claims related to the use of Lariam. The Department continues to state there are no plans to withdraw the drug, yet it has been withdrawn and taken off the market for safety purposes. I reiterate that this decision is against the advice of the United Nations and placing members of the Defence Forces at risk. I ask the Department to be fully cognisant of this and to act now and provide a safe alternative.
I raise the issue of commercial rates which will come before local authorities in the next two months. An analysis was undertaken during the summer months to identify the amount of commercial rates being paid in local authorities and the lack of discretion allowed to councillors. For example, Cork County Council collected over €118 million in commercial rates which is local tax, of which some €27 million was collected from the top ten companies. In one of the local authorities in Dublin over €314 million was collected, of which €67 million was collected from the top ten companies. The average amount paid per ratepayer in Cork is €11,647 from a total of 10,200 ratepayers. In Cork city alone 5,500 ratepayers paid an average of €10,899.
One of the points is that discretion must be given to councillors, in particular in areas where there is a need for redevelopment of urban areas in which an incentive is required. Councillors should have discretion in order that rates can be adjusted for specific areas and, at the same time, that adjustment can be absorbed in the overall rate for the rest of the local authority area in order that it would be cost neutral. A number of councillors have raised the issue with me that they do not have any discretion in this regard, yet they are supposed to be in charge of their area. If necessary, we need to bring forward amending legislation if this cannot be done under the existing structures. It is a very important issue, particularly in encouraging new businesses to start in an area from which businesses have moved out or in encouraging development in particular areas. It is a discretion that should be given to individual local authorities.
I support Senator Grace O'Sullivan in her comments and offer my sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives while cycling. It is one of the only sectors in which investment has gone backwards in recent months in that we have seen funding cut for the design of two major greenways. Ministers were appointed on 6 May and nearly every Minister has since outlined a list of priorities. It is 151 days since Deputy Shane Ross was appointed Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport but we have not yet seen a list of priorities. We expect the budget to be announced next week, yet we still do not know what his priorities are. Why is it important? We have well over 200,000 people working in the tourism sector, from which over €7 billion in revenue comes into the State's coffers, yet we do not know what the Minister's priorities are. When he was on the Opposition benches, he clearly outlined his disgust and dismay at the boards of the Dublin Airport Authority and the quangos. He mentioned this with great humour at times, when he would take off his glasses and lean back and give out about the boards of Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and several others, yet since he was appointed Minister, we have never heard him remark about the appointments for which he has responsibility or how he wishes to see investment made. His budget is quite significant at well over €1 billion which has been heading for €2 billion since the last budget. I would like to see him come to the House to outline his priorities. We have heard about every other Department and about him vetoing the appointment of judges, yet we have not heard about him vetoing appointments to boards over which he has control.
He has talked about investment in Waterford hospital. He has commissioned an independent costing and review of the western rail corridor. Will that be the next Waterford hospital resulting in another row with another Minister of State going offside? We urgently need the Minister to come to the House to outline his priorities. Every other Minister has put theirs on their websites. We have no benchmark against which to judge him on the budget and whether he has been successful in securing investment in his area of responsibility. He has been the only Minister who has been quiet about his remit, investment in which is key to the country's recovery.
Will the Leader address the Punch and Judy show in which the Ministers for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and Social Protection are engaging to promote themselves to replace the Taoiseach? A few months ago the Minister for Social Protection was out of the traps first with promises of improved conditions for councillors, while last week the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government floated a kite on councillors' conditions and remuneration. This is not a ball for potential Taoisigh to thrash around while trying to curry favour among councillors who have had enough and are not being fooled by this showmanship. Almost half of them are full-time councillors and their representational payment is 20% lower than that of someone on the minimum wage. It has been agreed by all that this inconsistency must be addressed. Will the Leader call on his colleagues to stop point scoring and address the substantive issue?
I support the call for a slurry spreading derogation. This issue has been on the agenda and needs to be addressed. The deadline is the night of 14 October. It is a major issue for the agricultural community following an exceptionally wet summer. Covers in some areas are too heavy to access slurry. Farmers are still cutting grain in my part of the world; therefore, slurry cannot be spread on the stubbed ground. This usually happens on pig farms. Something needs to be done for the agricultural community. I hope the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine or the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will examine the issue. The derogation was taken away in Denmark and we have to be conscious of this, but 15 October is not an appropriate deadline for farmers to cease spreading slurry. Enforcing it will create a hazard and I hope something can be done. Addressing it should not be happen on the final day. Farmers are spreading as much as slurry as they can because they have to. If the decision is left to the last minute, the damage will be done and it will be no good for farmers or the environment. The issue needs to be addressed this week, if possible, in order that farmers can have a road map.
Caithfidh mé mo leithscéal a ghabháil leis an gCeannaire ónar luaigh mé an t-ábhar seo an tseachtain seo caite. Nuair a thug sé a fhreagra, bhí orm imeacht ón Seomra. Léigh mé siar ar an méid a bhí ráite aige agus gabhaim buíochas leis as sin.
Last week I referred to the promising agreement reached between the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association and the loyal orders in north Belfast on the outstanding contentious parades in the north of the city. Thankfully, following a great deal of hard work, diligence and commitment by a range of people on the ground in the Ardoyne and on Twaddell Avenue, the events last weekend passed off peacefully. The agreement reached meant that immediately after the morning parades we saw the dismantling of what had become known as loyalist Camp Twaddell. There is now a moratorium on evening parades returning along that stretch of road, which has presented, particularly in the past two and half years, major problems for community relations, community safety and the welfare and well-being of young people in local neighbourhoods.
This matter has put huge stress on the policing budget for the city and the North more generally.
Last week, when I took the opportunity to raise the matter, I commended the mediators and those involved in the negotiations who had sought this agreement. Many members and many members of the public will be familiar with Fr. Gary Donegan. For 15 years he has been a priest in the Holy Cross area of Ardoyne. With his colleague, Fr. Aidan Troy, he walked that dangerous and gruesome path with the girls of the Holy Cross School in 2001. Those images stay with us, but Fr. Donegan, unlike those of us who watched the events unfold on television and from afar, stomped those pathways with the young girls and their families. He endured horrific and horrendous verbal, psychological and physical abuse as a result. He has been a steadfast leader and a great shepherd for his people in that community that has been tested with the killings, the legacy of the conflict and with suicide rates that are, unfortunately, exceptionally high. He has ministered to people in very difficult times. Therefore, I was astounded that people chose to attack him on Saturday morning. He has been resolute and steadfast in his leadership, not just on the contentious parades issue. He has been a great friend to many of us and to the process of reconciliation and peace-building in the North. What we saw manifest on the streets on Saturday morning in no way represents the people of Ardoyne. They are a very proud, good and far-sighted community who have lent their support to this positive agreement and will continue to do so. The people who attacked Fr. Donegan used the same tactics used not just against the girls of Holy Cross school but also against him in the past. A clear message must be sent from both Houses of the Oireachtas that Fr. Donegan has our full support. He has our steadfast and resolute support in his new endeavours. Both Houses must send the message that they support the ongoing process of dialogue and resolution in that part of Belfast.
According to the HSE, on average, at least six people die accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning each year. Everyone in this House will be aware that last week was Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week. The reason I raise the matter today is that deaths are preventable. The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is something of which we should be aware 365 days a year, not just for one week. The campaign was a timely reminder to us all of the importance of increased awareness of carbon monoxide. Owing to the fact that it is colourless and odourless, it is a highly dangerous gas. Every year people die unnecessarily from carbon monoxide poisoning, while many more attend emergency departments and GP services with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, breathlessness and vomiting. I ask the Leader to schedule a debate on this important issue, as I know other Senators are concerned about the matter. Senator David Norris was co-sponsor of a Private Members' Bill that was tabled by former Senator Feargal Quinn two years ago, the Building Control (Carbon Monoxide Detection) Bill 2014, on which my party colleague, Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, spoke at the time. Carbon monoxide awareness is a major issue for families, homeowners and landlords. Responsibility for tackling the issue falls between two Ministers - the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney.
The State, through the 31 local authorities, is the largest landlord in the country. The local authorities have made provision in their 2016 budgets to receive rental payments of €391 million from local authority tenants. The role played by each local authority is crucial. I want to know whether they are meeting their legal and statutory obligations in ensuring all domestic boilers are serviced annually. On foot of information supplied to me by elected local authority members, I have submitted detailed queries on this matter to the chief executive of each local authority. I have asked them to outline the number of local authority homes in their areas and the corresponding number of boilers that have been serviced in the each of the past five years.
Everyone in this House has heard of the hippocratic oath, which I have taken. There is a phrase in it that everyone knows instinctively but which is often overlooked when it comes to public policy. It reads, "prevention is preferable to cure". Illnesses and deaths from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning are preventable; therefore, I urge the Leader to arrange a debate on this and related matters in the coming weeks during which we can examine proposals that would place a much greater onus on landlords and the State to ensure safety standards are maintained.
I refer to the plight of the self-employed. For many years I have referred to the situation of self-employed persons who pay tax and PRSI but receive no social welfare benefits if they need them, despite the fact that the people they employ in their businesses receive them. I understand the Government is considering this issue and that there may be some changes. Today on the wireless I heard a man talk about the fact that he had taken out a pension policy 15 or 20 years ago. He paid €500 a month into the scheme. When he retired or his business collapsed or whatever happened, he discovered that the pension scheme into which he had paid was absolutely useless because the value of the pension was being subtracted from the value of the State pension. That meant he received absolutely no benefit. He had literally been throwing his money away. It was of no use to him whatsoever, apart from perhaps the satisfaction of realising he was saving the State a small amount of money. I successfully raised this issue in the House many years ago in the case of a blind person who had gained a place as a PhD student in Trinity College Dublin. The local authorities were subtracting the value of the scholarship from his blind pension payment. I thought this was unconscionable and did get movement on the issue. This injustice perpetrated against the self-employed, in a period when we are looking for as many entrepreneurs as possible, is a substantial discouragement. Why should the man in question not get the benefit of the pension scheme into which he paid for many years? I ask the Leader to suggest to the Government that it address this issue in the forthcoming budget.
I refer to the protest outside the Bank of Ireland yesterday, in which I was pleased to take part. It arose from its disgraceful and vindictive decision to summarily close the bank account belonging to the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. It would be bad enough for any bank to make this decision, but Bank of Ireland is not any bank; it is a bank that was bailed out by taxpayers and in which we have a shareholding, yet it is now acting as the agent for the apartheid state of Israel. It is beyond a disgrace. As a Bank of Ireland customer my entire life, I will be changing my bank account and urge others to do the same. However, beyond this, I ask the Minister for Finance who represents taxpayers who do business with the bank to come into the Chamber to explain what he will do about its disgraceful, vindictive and malicious behaviour.
There is no question but that the greatest challenge facing Ireland is presented by Brexit which has been discussed in the two parliaments and at conferences. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has outlined broadly her position, while the Taoiseach outlined to the Cabinet today what action we were taking. However, we need a dedicated Minister for Brexit, someone who would have complete control over all of the negotiations on the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government must insist on Ireland having a representative at ministerial or ambassadorial level at the negotiations, at the negotiating table, as this is the only country, unfortunately, which has a land border with the United Kingdom. None of the other 26 countries in the European Union has a land border with it.
It is a very special case and the Government must lay down to the European Union that we must have representatives at the negotiating table at the most senior level. Anything else would be unacceptable. The Government has leverage in this regard. We voted in the first instance to reject the Lisbon treaty and probably made the right decision because it contained the Article 50 option to opt out which has allowed this disaster for the European Union to take place. From my experience as representative of the Government from 1989 to 1992 dealing with the Single European Act and the negotiator on behalf of the former Department of Industry and Commerce, Britain worked very hard to get the best possible deal over a very long period since it joined and it succeeded. It is a shame it will throw away all it achieved during that period. The more discussion the better. The Joint Oireachtas Committee European Union Affairs will discuss the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, at 5 p.m. The House should have a further opportunity to discuss Brexit in the near future to monitor the developments taking place at a very rapid pace.
I echo the comments made by colleagues on the extension of the deadline for slurry spreading. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine dealt with the matter in recent weeks. It is a major issue for the farming community and this would be a practical way of assisting farmers through the difficult times they face.
The substantive issue I want to raise is na cúntóirí teanga. Will the Leader raise the matter with the Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, Deputy Seán Kyne? This is announced around this time every year. In County Donegal Muintearas Teo delivers the programme for 26 weeks across a wide range of schools, mostly in the Gaeltacht. It has approximately €42,000 less this year, but initially it was asked to deal with 13 more schools. It has advised all of the public representatives in the county it cannot do this. When we consider the struggle the language faces, particularly in the Gaeltacht, this issue needs to be addressed. There is a real problem and we are asking for a solution. Will the Leader raise the matter with the Minister of State and ask him to get back to me directly on it?
It is quite normal in the run-up to budgets for people to posture and take up various positions. Generally around this time there tends to be a concerted attack on the public service - we see it with every budget - but I wonder whether it is more orchestrated this time. I am not quite sure from where it is coming, but we seem to have some outrageous statements being made just as the Minister is establishing a commission to inquire into the issue of public service pay. The question of public service pensions has been given a new dynamic in this debate. I read in today's newspaper that it is now considered that anybody who retires at the age of 60 years on a Civil Service pension is a millionaire because, in theory, it would cost €1 million to purchase the pension he or she will receive. That totally skews reality because everybody knows public servants, be they nurses, teachers, gardaí or whoever else, contribute to their pensions throughout their working lives. They are soft targets for the Exchequer in everything and must pay for everything. They pay their taxes. A public servant can never say he or she cannot or will not pay because someone in the public service will pay and that is a fact. I sympathise greatly with what Senator David Norris said about self-employed persons and their pensions. I know because I was that soldier. I paid into a private pension scheme when I was self-employed and can tell the House that it was a bottomless pit. Whatever entitlements one may have on the social welfare side are being eroded; therefore, to make a long story short, one is shovelling into two bottomless pits.
It is widely felt by staff in the public service that the FEMPI legislation measures which have impacted tremendously on their living standards in the past seven or eight years and their pensions should be unwound. Public sector pensions are considered to be a type of hidden crock of gold available to all public sector workers. They have paid all their working lives for everything and contributed massively to their pensions while trying to raise young families and so on. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, is no fool. I am sure he will see through all of this rubbish and ensure the commission will be properly chaired and produce a good report.
I apologise to the Leader for the tongue lashing I gave him the other day on the issue of county councillors' pay and the notion that there might have been some sort of deal done in that regard on some Thursday night in a dark smoky room with his fellow Fine Gael Senators. As the Minister set out his views in that regard on Friday last at the Local Authorities' Members Association, LAMA, conference, I think everybody now knows where we are going in that regard.
A few days after the UK Brexit vote, I spoke about the possibility of a hard border being in place. I also issued a press statement on the matter. Quite a number of people scoffed at the suggestion and said there was no possibility of it happening and that a deal would be done between Ireland and the United Kingdom in that regard. This matter will be decided not by Ireland and the United Kingdom but the 26 remaining member countries of the European Union. There are a couple of issues of concern to me. With the agreement of the Leader, I would like the Minister for Defence to come to the House at his convenience to discuss the preparedness of the Defence Forces to man a border should it be required. I am not saying this is what Ireland wants. I also do not believe it is what the United Kingdom wants, but there are other countries involved. This matter may be taken out of our hands in the next number of months. The uncertainty is so great that we must ensure we are prepared for every eventuality.
I also ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to come to the House to discuss the revenue implications of a hard or soft border being imposed. The movement of up to 30,000 people across the Border and the transportation of 1 million gallons of milk back and forth across the Border are issues that will have a massive impact on the Irish and UK economies. We need to address these issues. I compliment the Taoiseach on looking at the matter in an all-Ireland capacity. I ask the Leader to endeavour to have the Ministers for Defence and Finance come to the House to discuss these issues.
We have yet to welcome the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to the House and are now days from from budget 2017. I ask that, following the budget announcement next week, the Minister brief this Chamber on the work of her Department and answer questions in that regard. I raise this issue in the context of previous budgets having ebbed away support from the cultural and arts communities. Modest increases will not serve to repair the cultural landscape. Years of consistent policy damage must be recognised in the forthcoming budget. Only then will we be able to facilitate the creation of a world class industry from the ground up. What is required is an immediate return of support for the Arts Council, investment which directly impacts on employment. Sinn Féin's alternative budget, announced this morning, commits to a €10 million increase in funding for the Arts Council in 2017 and an increase of €500,000 in funding for Culture Ireland which supports Irish artists abroad, the benefits of which can be seen at festivals, including in Milwaukee. Culture Ireland also supports our cultural tourism offering. The film industry has endured disproportionate cuts of 50%. Sinn Féin is committed to increasing funding for the Irish Film Board by more than one third. With sustained investment and resources, Ireland can continue to attract big budget productions and also support the talent in the education system through the small and medium-sized production sector. Aside from all of this, a space must be created for young people not only as an audience but also as artists or future artists.
We need a national youth arts strategy. I reiterate my call for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to come to the House to answer questions on the arts and culture.
I thank the 23 Senators who raised issues. To respond to Senator Catherine Ardagh, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who came to the House last week will appear before us again next week. We have a voluntary mechanism for resolving industrial relations disputes. The Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court have shown themselves to be highly effective in dispute resolution. The issue with the Garda Síochána is different and more precarious than other cases. I hope all Senators will encourage members of An Garda Síochána to engage further as it is important that further talks take place. We all acknowledge the work being done by gardaí who should have their pay restored and conditions of service improved. It is important, however, that they engage in talks. I, therefore, urge the Garda Representative Association to enter talks with the Minister who is available for engagement.
Senator Rose Conway-Walsh referred to the alternative budget proposed by Sinn Féin. I share her view that the tax system should be fair. The middle income group which has been squeezed the most should perhaps benefit most from the budget. From my reading of Sinn Féin's proposals, this group would certainly not benefit much from them.
The Leader should read the document.
The Senator used the term "fiscal space". The figures included in Sinn Féin's document are multiples of the amount of money available. I encourage everyone to be responsible.
The Leader has not read the document.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan raised the important issue of cycle safety. I join her in offering my sympathy to the families of the three cyclists who were killed - Donna Fox, Tim Ross and Daniel Roche. Any life lost on the roads is a tragedy, but it is particularly tragic when a young lad is killed while cycling to school. We have a national cycling policy. In the light of the report from the Committee on Budgetary Oversight which calls for climate change proofing, we must clearly address the issue of cycle safety. I will be happy to have the relevant Minister appear before the House to discuss it.
Senator Ivana Bacik who also raised the issue of cycle safety referred to a Private Members' Bill introduced by the Labour Party. According to the information available to me, the relevant amendments are being finalised in the Office of the Attorney General. They will then go before the Cabinet for approval, after which they will be tabled in the House for further debate on Report Stage. I understand Report Stage is due to be taken by the end of October, but I will revert to the Labour Party Senators on the matter.
Senator Ivana Bacik also referred to developments in Aleppo and Syria. I, too, encourage the Russians to engage. They have an obligation and a duty to do so. I note the decision taken by the Government of the United States to suspend talks with Russia. All of us who are concerned about peace and the protection of life want to see a resolution to the war in Syria. Having listened to the stories of some of the men and women of the Naval Service who returned from the Mediterranean last week, one cannot but view this matter as one of extreme urgency. I will, therefore, ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House.
Senator Ivana Bacik also called for a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on higher education. The Minister will be in the House next week for a debate on education. Senator Neale Richmond referred to Erasmus students at third level. He can raise the issue with the Minister during the debate on education.
Senators Robbie Gallagher, Tim Lombard and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn called for a derogation to be introduced in respect of the deadline for slurry spreading which falls in ten days' time. As the Senators noted, it is too late to provide for a derogation on the day before the deadline. If I am not mistaken, a derogation was applied several years ago. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed. It is an important issue because we had a large amount of rain during the summer. As Senator Tim Lombard correctly noted, crops are still being harvested on unsuitable ground.
Senator Michelle Mulherin referred to the farm assist scheme. This is also a matter for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who is willing to come to the House to discuss it.
It is just a matter of getting him to come to the House between EU, diary and other events, but he will come in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Máire Devine raised the important issue of the use of the malaria drug, Lariam. As she knows, any decision on the use of medications by and tetanus injections received by members of the Defence Forces is taken by the medical officers. Everything is done with the health and safety of the men and women who serve with the Defence Forces in mind. The drug mentioned has been prescribed and it is my information that all members of the Defence Forces are screened individually for their suitability and fitness. As yet, there is no plan to remove the drug from the list. I will take up the matter with the Minister for Defence. It is important that, rather than creating hysteria, we acknowledge that the the drug is taken for medical reasons and that the decision is not made by a member of the Government, an administrative officer or someone in the Civil Service but by the medical officers in the Defence Forces.
In his contribution on commercial rates Senator Colm Burke raised a very important point about giving more power to local councils and councillors. I will bring the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, into the House to discuss the issue.
Senator Kevin Humphreys discussed the priorities of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross. I will be happy for the Minister to come to the House to discuss the matter.
The Senator also referred to cycle ways. I have already discussed the issue.
Senators Aidan Davitt and Gerard P. Craughwell spoke about the conditions of service of members of local authorities. I compliment the Local Authorities Members Association on the very fine conference held in Bantry at the weekend which I am sure many of us attended. It was very positive and there was a great sense that reform and change were needed at local government level. The local authority members who attended the conference were concerned, not about pay and conditions but about how they could better serve their communities. That was the sense I got at it.
I do not know from where Senator Aidan Davitt is coming in his comments on the two Ministers involved in the class K pension issue which was also raised by Senator Colm Burke. Deputy Simon Coveney is the line Minister responsible for the role and functions of local councillors. Like Senator Gerard P. Craughwell, I very much hope the Minister will meet the cross-party group set up in this House. I thank the Senator for his remarks which were necessary. For the majority of Senators, local councillors are our constituents. I genuinely believe it is important that we work in unison with one voice not just on the terms and conditions of local councillors but also on how we can make local government better.
Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile referred to the attack on Fr. Gary Donegan. It is an appalling travesty that a reverend gentleman who works so hard to bring about peace and reconciliation in the North should be subject to such violence, for whatever reason. I do not want to give it a title, but I believe the attack has been condemned by everyone in the House. We wish Fr. Donegan well and thank him and Fr. Aidan Troy for the work they have done. Those of us who are interested in bringing peace to the island and seeing it united know that it cannot be done by way of such provocation. It is only by working and bringing people together that we can achieve peace on the island. I thank Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile for raising the matter.
Senator Keith Swanick raised the very important issue of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. It is an issue we need to raise constantly, not just in Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week. The Senator is correct when he speaks about people not realising the importance of having their boiler and gas fire checked or serviced. I will be happy to have the relevant Minister or Ministers because the matter falls between two Departments to come to the House to discuss it.
Senator David Norris mentioned the self-employed. He neglected, however, to commend Senator Ray Butler who had a Private Members' Bill before the House before the summer. I am pleased that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is looking at the matter of PRSI contributions by the self-employed. I will come back to Senator David Norris on the issue.
Senator Paul Gavan spoke about Bank of Ireland and the account of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. I cannot give an answer to the question of why Bank of Ireland has done what it has. I know that bank accounts in other parts of Europe have also been closed. It is a matter for the bank to give its reasons.
Based on what I have read in the newspapers and online, I understand there was some correspondence with the group early in the summer, but it is an issue the bank needs to resolve. There are two sides to the story and I do not have both.
The State is a shareholder.
The bank has its own decision-making process. I do not know who has made the decision, but he or she needs to communicate the reasoning behind it rather than leaving a vacuum.
Senator Terry Leyden raised the very important issue of Brexit. As he is aware, the Government has discussed the issue and planned for the eventuality which, unfortunately, has happened. During the weekend and in the Dáil today the Taoiseach outlined that it was a priority for the Government and every Department. The Government has developed specific structures to deal with the implications of Brexit. For the information of the House, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Bord Bia are working closely with small Irish businesses to help them to manage the many practical implications. A new Cabinet committee chaired by the Taoiseach has been established. It will oversee the overarching Government response to Brexit. The Department of the Taoiseach will co-ordinate the cross-government sectoral approach, with a new division led by a second Secretary General. There will be an enhanced role for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in dealing with EU matters which will involve a transfer of staff from the Department of the Taoiseach to that Department. More strength will be given to relevant Departments, agencies and overseas missions to ensure they will be on top of the issue. The North-South axis will also not be forgotten.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell made a very important point about a hard versus a soft border. There is a very interesting article today in the Irish Examiner which I am not sure if the Senator has read, but it is a matter on which we need to be very clear. We cannot allow the return of a hard border.
I will be happy for the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to come to the House to discuss the matter. I think I speak for everyone in the House when I say we do not want to see the return of a hard border as it it would be economically unsound, unwise and wrong for us as a country. That is the overwhelming view of Members.
Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn referred to the Gaeltacht. If he wants to give me the details later, I will be happy to send them directly to the Minister. Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh raised the matter last week and the Minister is willing to come to the House to discuss it. It is only a matter of selecting a date.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan referred to public service pensions and kite flying in the context of the budget. It is important that we have a debate on the role of public servants and the manner in which, in some instances, they are being pilloried and viewed by some in the commentariat. It is important that we have a debate on the way in which we can fund public services. It is clear that some Ministers will engage in kite flying and I wish they would not because sometimes they can scare people or cause panic. On other occasions, however, it gives people like Senator Ned O'Sullivan an opportunity to fly kites. It is an issue that should be debated.
Senator Fintan Warfield referred to the arts. I was aware that the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, had not come before the House. I again take the points made by the Senator. We have a world-class industry. If one travels the world, one will find that the Irish diaspora are empowered by our music, song, dance and creative arts. I recently attended a screening of "The Young Offenders" which was filmed in Cork. It is a fantastic film and a great advertisement for the film industry. It weaves the strands of tourism, culture and the people. The Senator's points were very well made and I will be happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss the matter. Again, it is a matter of finding a suitable date.