The Order of Business is No. 18, non-Government motion No. 11 re the conflict in Syria, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business, and No. 1, Finance (Certain European Union and Intergovernmental Obligations) Bill 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 1.30 p.m.
Order of Business
The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence met this morning in the Dáil Chamber. The statement of strategy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the period 2015 to 2017 refers to strengthening our influence in the European Union, to the United Nations and so on, but it makes no mention of Irish neutrality, which is worrying in the context of the Union's relentless progress towards militarisation. The President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, has spoken about the need to move towards common military assets, which is about people making money from the sale of hardware. That the statement of strategy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade neglects to mention our stated position on neutrality reflects badly on the Government. There is no point talking about it; it must be stated in black and white. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, was unable to explain why departmental officials had not included in the strategy a reference to our stated position on neutrality. The reply I received when I raised the matter at the committee was that the statement of strategy was not solely a policy document but an articulation of how we intended to implement our programme, which is straight out of the top drawer of Sir Humphrey's manual on how to reply to a question without actually giving a reply.
We have spoken at length in this House about the issue of Brexit. I understand the issue is being discussed this week in Europe. The stance we have taken on it is in no way as aggressive as that of other EU countries such as France in terms of the manner in which they are pursuing businesses based in London or throughout the European Union that are uncertain about their future because of Brexit. EU institutions based in England are also being pursued by other European countries. We need a strategy that will enable us to pursue EU institutions and businesses located in England in the same manner as other EU countries are doing.
On my original point about Irish neutrality not being mentioned as a core principle in the statement of strategy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the period 2015 to 2017, members of the Fine Gael Party also expressed disappointment at the lack of reference to it in the Department's strategy.
Following on from Senator Mark Daly's contribution, I attended a conference on Brexit in Brussels last week, a central part of which was the need to develop a European army. I recall making the statement at the time that if the European Union moved to do so, another country, namely, Ireland, would be exiting the Union.
I call on the Leader to discuss with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the major industrial relations collapse into which we appear to be steamrolling. The ASTI, the GRA, the AGSI, the INMO and the IMO are in difficulty with the Lansdowne Road agreement, regardless of whether they are inside or outside it. I have sat around the table with the executive committees of unions. Unless something is done, the Government runs the risk of the Lansdowne Road agreement collapsing. I agree with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and all of the Ministers who have publicly stated the only show in town is the Lansdowne Road agreement, but if side deals are done to halt industrial action, they will lead to the leapfrog syndrome which is creeping into industrial relations and to everybody looking for more. We must reopen the Lansdowne Road agreement and have only three weeks within which to do so if we want to put this industrial unrest to bed. To be fair, the Leader's party bears the responsibility for overheating expectations within the economy during the election campaign. The peace and harmony in industrial relations have been stalled, with some of the main unions having stepped outside the industrial relations process. Unless we get them back into the tent, not only will they leave the process but so, too, will other unions. That is my prediction. I ask the Leader to engage with Ministers on the need to get all of the unions back into the process. There is no need to be afraid. Trade unions have shown in the past that they are pragmatic and capable of doing a deal. It strikes me that members of the Fine Gael Party are not really labour people. They do not understand public service workers. Perhaps Fine Gael might engage with the Labour Party which helped it so much in the last Government on how to find its way in the public service and solve the problems therein.
I pay tribute to Senator Ivana Bacik for tabling her motion, to which we have all signed up, on the conflict in Syria. It shows what this Chamber is capable of and the fact that we could all negotiate successfully to agree on such an important issue shows that the House can at times be a very effective unified force for doing the right thing. I will, therefore, bring up the issue of Shannon Airport again. I am afraid that it is the elephant in the room because we know what is going on there. I can read the House reports from this week alone on the aircraft, including commercial aircraft, that have come and gone. We know that they were carrying troops and ammunitions. We know that this week troops had to stay over in County Clare because there was a problem with an aeroplane. I do not make this point in a party-political manner; I just want us to be honest with ourselves. How can we, on the one hand, rightly demand peace in Syria, while, on the other, turn a blind eye to the use of the civilian airport at Shannon to carry troops, munitions and weapons to the wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq? In all honesty how can the excellent motion on Syria have real standing when the world can see that we are turning a blind eye to what is continuing to happen at Shannon Airport? I am delighted to hear Senator Mark Daly raise the issue of neutrality, but I have not heard him say anything about Shannon Airport. There was a time when Niall Andrews and other good people such as Dan Breen in Fianna Fáil were prepared to stand up for our neutrality, not just talk about it. However, there is now gross hypocrisy - they are the only words I can use - in this regard because we all know what is going on at Shannon and that we are turning a blind eye to the transport through it of military troops, weaponry and munitions that were used to blow up women and children in Yemen last Saturday and it continues to happen. I, therefore, ask the Leader whether we could have another look at this issue. I ask that we be very serious about this and not decide that we are only in favour of peace when it suits us.
I would like to raise a number of matters. First, I congratulate the Union of Students in Ireland for having got more than 10,000 people out on the streets yesterday in the fight for free education and access to education and to show students' distaste of the possibility of third level loans being introduced. I know that the education committee is due to discuss the Cassells report, but something must be done in the interim. We need to go back to the Minister for Education and Skills and consider the bureaucracy in the likes of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. I received very distressed emails from mature students. I received one this morning from a nurse who was about to quit third year. It will be a loss to this country to lose nurses owing to bureaucracy in the likes of SUSI which was set up by the State to provide access for students who needed it. SUSI insists every year on treating this nurse as not being a dependant of her mother, with whom she has not lived for years, but she has always looked after herself and lives on her own. It is a real shame that we cannot set up a system under which we could give the most vulnerable students the access they need. I also have a handwritten letter from a young child in fourth year who is quite distressed. It is a shame that the emotional well-being of someone so young is being affected because he is so worried about how he will access third level education three years from the time at which he is even due to consider it. We should come together and support the likes of the students who were outside Leinster House yesterday seeking reform in the education system.
I also read this morning a very exciting article which I showed to Senator Mark Daly about Deputy Jack Chambers who has circulated a policy seeking to relax the criminalisation of drug addicts. I hope the other Fianna Fáil Members in the Chamber will take some heed of the younger people in the party when the Bill with this aim which Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and I are to introduce is brought before the House.
Is the Senator saying we are not young? That is very disappointing.
I would also like the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to come before the House to discuss a disgraceful article he wrote in which he suggested we should have a school in the inner city only for the children of international bankers. I could not believe what I was reading, that a Fine Gael Minister of State would suggest widening the huge deprivation and inequality already present in the area and make it even more observable than it already was. It is hard enough for children growing up there to look at the IFSC and know that they will never be employed there or be part of it without a Minister of State suggesting the placing of a school there that would segregate people from abroad coming here to live or work from the ordinary citizens of the north inner city.
I pay credit to the credit union movement because today is International Credit Union Day. I thank the movement personally because its members worked very closely with me in developing the micro-credit scheme. I hope its eventual outcome will be the closing down of what I call the legal money lenders who charge interest rates of up to 130% to many people in deprived areas who cannot access money elsewhere. The credit union movement played a key role in rolling out the micro-credit scheme which is worth €100 million as an anti-poverty strategy. It has been successful and I hope it will go from success to success.
Very often I have used the floor of the Seanad to criticise new politics and ask what it is. However, reading Fiach Kelly's article in The Irish Times this morning in which the Minister for Finance is quoted as saying he will adjust the help-to-buy plan, it is positive when a Government can see it has made a mistake and then start to make adjustments. However, several more adjustments need to be made to the help-to-buy scheme. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, wanted to attract people back to Ireland. Many people I know who emigrated want to come back to Ireland, but they will not be able to compete with other families in buying houses. They will be disadvantaged because they will not be able to get the tax benefits having worked abroad for many years.
The other element of the budget I ask the Leader to consider is the lack of any measure to benefit renters. While there have been tax cuts for landlords and an increase in the threshold under the rent-a-room scheme, there is absolutely nothing for people who are living in rental accommodation. They are paying rent increases of up to 25% and at the same time must try to save for a deposit on a home. They are hugely disadvantaged.
I welcome wholeheartedly the decision of An Bord Pleanála on Airbnb. Senator Denis Landy and I have highlighted this issue in the House over and over again. We have a housing crisis, in this city in particular. Some 2,000 apartments and homes have transferred to Airbnb. The decision by An Bord Pleanála means that the owners of these properties will have to obtain planning permission to rent their properties through Airbnb. Think of the impact if we were to bring forward a regulation to control Airbnb and could put the 2,000 units back into the rental market for people with families. This decision will have the single biggest impact on the rental market in the Dublin area, as well as in Cork and Galway, in dealing with the housing shortage. The Minister may bring forward new initiatives, but we are still leaking units at the other end. If we could bring the 2,000 units back into the long-term rental market, it would have a significant impact.
With regard to the debate on new politics, it is positive if Ministers listen and adjust and change, but there is an issue with Cabinet collective responsibility, a matter I have raised before in this House. I feel very strongly about the repeal of the eighth amendment and believe it should be repealed. However, a Cabinet decision has been made by all members of the Cabinet for the Government to take a particular line, that is, the Citizens' Assembly, which met last Sunday. Now we hear talk of Cabinet members seeking a free vote on the issue.
Should we abandon the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility so easily and without a proper debate and discussion? I urge caution. The vote has not been taken and they may vote. However, we really need to have that discussion. Perhaps it is good that we abolish the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility.
The Senator is well over time.
However, we should not do so blindly and without discussion.
I also raise the issue of Shannon Airport but for a totally different reason. It follows from the proposed Garda strikes which are due to take place every Friday in the month of November. Will the Leader to talk to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to find out what plans he is going to put in place in the immigration unit which staffs many airports? There is a fear that if there is no one there to run things, passengers may be affected. Will airports be able to open? It is an issue that affects all airports as a result of the threatened strikes.
One of our other Senators hit on the following. In his budget proposals the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, got his lines badly wrong as I suggested at the time. He is now reconsidering and redrawing his plans for a tax rebate for first-time buyers. He is on shifting ground. After meeting him this morning, the IPAV released an in-depth survey of the housing market. There are two figures which jump out at me. The first is that over 92% of homes in the State are second-hand homes. It is not a shocking statistic in that there are not too many new homes being built. The second figure is that 90% of house sale completions for first-time buyers are in the €100,000 to €350,000 range. The budgetary instruments are devised to stimulate the building industry, but they are ill-judged and will only end in failure. One more year will be wasted in house building and house starts. The core problem is the cost of building. As has been outlined many times, the cost of building has increased by 50% in the past few years owing to regulation, new engineering requirements, dezoning and a plethora of other reasons. All new homes must be A-rated, which is a great jump forward in the standard of homes we are to produce, but the cost has been passed directly to the builder. There is no extra benefit for the builder in meeting that requirement. Until we tackle the core cost of building with a lower VAT rate, this problem is not going to disappear. If the Minister was to introduce a lower VAT rate, it would certainly be tax efficient. The reduced VAT rate in the hotel industry has led to a tourism boom. A reduced tax rate of 9% on goods and services on homes being built would immediately address the housing crisis, boost the State's tax coffers and increase employment. That is going to be the answer and we will have to look at it. We are tinkering around and failing to increase supply. The core issue, as I said, is the cost of building.
This is International Credit Union Day and many of our colleagues were in the Davenport Hotel from 8 a.m. for a presentation. The credit union movement in Ireland is a North-South one. Most of the credit unions in Northern Ireland are accredited to the Irish League of Credit Unions, which is a really important point. What do the credit unions want to do? What did they state to us this morning? They asked us to come back to the Chamber to talk to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The credit unions state there is a commitment in the confidence and supply agreement between the two parties to develop a strategy for the growth and development of the credit union sector. Some might smile and ask what that is about when the State owns approximately 95% of AIB. Clearly, the State wants to see AIB boosted because at some point the Government intends to sell part of it. As such, some will ask why it would assist credit unions at this juncture. It would be timely for us to support credit unions. They have given everyone a pack setting out ten simple objectives and commitments, some of which appear in the programme for Government. In fact, some of them were to have been implemented within the first 100 days of the action plan for Government, but none has been achieved thus far. We should all try to get the pack or log onto the website to see what is in it and support the Irish credit union movement.
We had an excellent debate a few weeks ago on the action plan for education with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton. It was a great debate, with a high level of participation in what was a great discussion. I ask the Leader for a focused, stand-alone debate on the following aspects of education. The first involves those young people who leave school prematurely. While the number of such young people has fallen in recent times, there continues to be a significant cohort who leave prematurely. We need to discuss the factors at work in that regard and the remedies we could put in place to reduce the risk of early school-leaving to keep them in school.
A closely related matter involves the large cohort of young people for whom the academic option is not the best. We need to look at the German model of apprenticeship. While it has some academic input, it is mainly an apprenticeship model. We must look at the entire range of apprenticeships on offer. I notice that more of the traditional apprenticeships are returning, including in areas such as insurance.
I ask the relevant Minister to attend the House to consider why people leave school early, the strategies we can put in place to cope with this and, in respect of those who remain, how we can make school and lifelong learning more attractive. There is a lacuna which we need to address, including by way of a specific debate in the House.
I refer to the annual report launched by the One in Four organisation. One in Four provides group treatment programmes for sexual abuse victims and offenders. Its treatment programmes also cover families, including wives, husbands, partners and parents. They are evidence-based and work. Most importantly, they protect children. I raise the issue to help us all to continue to protect children. In the vast majority of cases sexual abuse happens within families. Most offenders will never face a criminal trial as the victims rarely report the crimes which are kept secret within families. What is extremely worrying is the fact that over 40% of offenders are under the age of 18 years. Tonight's edition of "Would You Believe" to be broadcast on RTE One is entitled "Beyond Redemption?" I ask Members to watch the programme and consider its content and how we can make Ireland safer from the abuses discussed. In time we could have a wider discussion and debate. I will be discussing the matter as a member of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, to which I hope we can invite Maeve Lewis from One in Four to discuss its annual report. One in Four is completely overburdened. It provides counselling for 116 adult survivors of child sexual abuse and 40 families. It provides almost 3,000 therapy hours and practical information on child protection notifications. It worked with 38 sex offenders and 19 wives during 2015. There is a delay of up to six months for those waiting for an appointment with One in Four. From my experience as a psychiatric nurse and having dealt with victims and offenders of sexual abuse, I encourage the House to have a wider discussion on this issue. I welcome and I am grateful for the extremely difficult work One in Four does and, again, encourage Members to view the programme "Would You Believe?" tonight.
I raise the issue of mental health services in County Roscommon. Those who use mental health services in Roscommon, their families and the staff must be provided with the facts about the current and future provision of services in the county. I have listened to a wide range of individuals in the past few days who are involved in mental health services throughout the county. They have all been clear and definite in their view that the HSE is implementing a different agenda on the ground from that which it states publicly. What is clear is that the statements from the HSE and the experiences of people within the mental health services do not match. I have spoken at length to the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health services, Deputy Helen McEntee, and the chief officer of community services. Both have advised me that there are no active plans to close the various day centres and hostels mentioned, namely, those in Ballaghaderreen, Boyle, Strokestown, Castlerea and Athleague. The HSE has also informed me that there are no plans to close the community nursing unit in Áras Naomh Chaolain or relocate residents to private nursing homes. I have been advised that the HSE is consulting residents, families and staff in one setting from which patients are being transferred to a more appropriate one. That is an ongoing process. I want to make it very clear that this information has been provided by the HSE for me in writing. The difficulty is that there is an obvious difference between what people are saying to me and what the HSE has stated. I want to know the truth. I also want the external report on mental health services in County Roscommon to be finalised and made available as quickly as possible. I expect the report to identify challenges and weaknesses within services and an action plan to support and bring about improvements for those who need to use mental health services and their families. I ask the Minister of State to address us on the issue as quickly as possible.
I raise the issue of the provision of minor works grants for schools. School principals throughout the country are dismayed and concerned that there was no mention of the minor works grants scheme in the budget. For schools, the grant was always a vital part of school funding. Its removal a number of years ago caused difficulties for school managements in carrying out basic repairs, be it maintenance of school infrastructure or equipment. The rates applicable typically were such that a school with about 50 pupils, for example, could have expected to receive a grant of €6,400, whereas a school with 300 pupils could have expected to receive a grant of €11,000. We all know that the failure to maintain and invest in the upkeep of schools is false economy. The old adage of a stitch in time saves nine springs to mind. As Members know, the grant was spent on the physical infrastructure of the school and items of school equipment, including IT-related equipment. The money might have been needed for general maintenance which could have been the replacement of windows, the purchase of PE equipment, as well as the repair of equipment such as computers, printers, etc. It was for all of the basic stuff that kept schools going. Principals also state that having certainty about whether the grant would be paid was nearly as important as the grant, as it allowed the board of management to manage the budget required for various minor works throughout the year. As we all know, the board of management is made up of volunteers who work for nothing on behalf of the community. We are very lucky to have them and cherish their involvement. The very least they deserve is the security of knowing what they will get, if anything. At the end of the day, no funds for schools means extra fund-raising for parents, which is another form of taxation. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to address the confusion about whether the school grant is to be paid this year?
I thank the Leader for putting on the Order Paper the motion on the conflict in Syria. We will be taking it without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business and I thank all colleagues who signed up to it. Every political party grouping has signed up to it. I know that Senator Victor Boyhan's name is to be added to it also. Any other Independent colleague who wishes to have his or her name added should do so. It is important that the Seanad speaks with one voice on this hugely important humanitarian crisis. We all share such immense concern and horror at the unfolding events in Syria. The fact is that the eight-hour cessation announced by the Syrian Government with its Russian backers is of very little comfort to the besieged population in Aleppo. We are all conscious that there are other besieged civilian populations across Syria, not just in Aleppo. We have seen the horrific bombardment of medical facilities, aid convoys and civilian populations, with hundreds of people being killed in Aleppo this week alone. I raised the issue at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence, as did other colleagues. We joined in calls that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, express in the strongest possible terms his condemnation of the Syrian Government's treatment of its people and of those who backed it, particularly the Russian Government. I will be communicating directly with the Russian ambassador to let him know that the Seanad has passed the motion. I ask that the Leader and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to do the same. I also told the Minister that the motion would be passed in the Seanad today. Last night we heard particularly strong language from the French and German leaders, Mr. François Hollande and Ms Angela Merkel, against Russia in speaking about war crimes having been committed in Aleppo. At the European Council meeting this afternoon it is likely that further sanctions against Russia will be on the agenda, given the very strong language used and the ratcheting up of pressure on Russia that we have seen from France and Germany, in particular, which I hope we will see the Government support. I put this to the Minister at the committee meeting this morning. A number of us also asked that Ireland take a position in voting against the inclusion of Russia in the UN Human Rights Committee. We are awaiting a response on that matter.
Will the Leader arrange a debate in the House on migration and Ireland's response to the Syrian crisis in the context of our reception of Syrian refugees which has been very slow to date? It is a matter that we also raised at the committee meeting this morning. The Minister acknowledged that while the resettlement targets were being met in the resettlement of Syrian refugees coming through Lebanon, we had seen real delays in welcoming refugees from Greece and Italy, in particular. There have been, as he accepted, bureaucratic delays. As a result, the relocation programme has effectively been stalled. We are nowhere near the admittance of the 4,000 refugees we committed to welcoming here. I ask the Leader for a debate in the House in early course on the issue with, more appropriately, the Minister for Justice and Equality.
I refer to the Organisation for National Ex-Service Personnel, ONE. I refer, in particular, to the funding for housing for ex-servicemen. A fuchsia appeal was launched in July. It is a charity. I do not believe ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen who have served their country so proudly should have to rely on charity when they fall on hard times. ONE has several houses throughout the country, one of which is in my home town of Athlone, while others are located in Dublin, Letterkenny and Limerick. There are also several drop-in centres, all of which are funded by charity, which I do not think is good enough. Single men, in particular, fall through the cracks when they leave the Army and find themselves in a situation where they need support. All of the ONE fund-raisers are volunteers. Will the Leader to speak to the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, and ask him to address this issue within the housing strategy and his budget? Nothing is received for these houses from the Government or county councils, although I think some money is received for the house in Dublin from one of the Dublin county councils. I urge the Leader to raise the issue with the Minister, as it is not good enough that ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen who have served their country gave to rely on charity.
Before I call the next speaker, I acknowledge the presence in the Visitors Gallery of Mr. Jim Pavlock from the USA. He is here as a special guest of the esteemed Leader of the House, Senator Jerry Buttimer.
I take the opportunity to recognise the great work that was done here yesterday in passing the Irish Sign Language Bill on Second Stage.
I acknowledge the great work of my colleague, acting leader of the Fianna Fáil group today, an Seanadóir Mark Daly in bringing forward the legislation. The sentiments expressed by the Irish deaf community are very favourable towards the work done here yesterday. The Seanad can recognise minorities by bringing forward and supporting legislation to deal with issues such as the one we addressed yesterday.
I call on the Leader to facilitate a debate on the Government’s regional and rural development policy. I would like the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to come to the House to discuss the issue of regional and rural development.
The final issue I wish to raise is the new home grants or tax rebate scheme. I remember on the day it was announced mentioning that the 80% loan-to-value ratio would incentivise people to take on debt. Now we see in the media today a report that it is being tinkered with and may be reduced to 70%. The scheme is incentivising individuals to take on debt in purchasing a home, which is wrong. Is it possible for the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, to come to the House to discuss the scheme? In parallel, he might discuss the Government’s social housing allocations for local authorities. Both issues are relevant and it would be of benefit if the Minister discussed the home grants scheme before the debate takes place in the House on the relevant legislation which I presume will be introduced later in the year.
Like my colleague, Senator Kevin Humphreys, I welcome the decision made by An Bord Pleanála to uphold Dublin City Council's decision on the requirement to have planning permission for the short-term letting of apartments in Temple Bar. I have no doubt that the situation impacted on the homeless crisis in Dublin. The Government’s rent-a-room scheme and the increased provision of apartments might help to ease the problem. However, there is an issue which I raised some months ago in terms of how Airbnb was helping to resolve the crisis arising from the lack of hotel bedrooms in Dublin city centre. I understand more than 3,300 rooms in Dublin are being used for the purposes of Airbnb which I have used when I have travelled to attend meetings in London or elsewhere in the country. In effect, one can obtain good value in renting a room at a time when one cannot find a hotel room for less than €200. The same is happening in Dublin. Because of the shortage of hotel rooms, effectively hoteliers are trying to fleece many tourists, as well as Irish people who come from rural areas and simply cannot find a hotel room. We need to examine the issues of homelessness and the lack of accommodation, but we must also consider the problem overall. I would, therefore, like the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to come the House but also the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for a debate on how we can get things right. I welcome the decision, but it may result in a shortfall of 3,300 beds that will impact on the viability of the tourism industry in the city centre, in particular.
I commend the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and the thousands of students who took ownership of the streets of this city yesterday. Their message was loud and clear - they do not want to see student fees being introduced and neither do their parents. The State and this society cannot afford them. We have seen the disastrous impact of student loans in every country in which they have been initiated, including the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. All of these countries have taken on a massive national debt and created mass indebtedness among young people. Student loans are a surefire way to limit and stifle access to third level education for young people, in the process saddling them with debt earlier in their careers. I commend the USI and the students who took to the streets in their thousands yesterday. Sinn Féin supports their call for a publicly funded education system. Our pre-budget submission outlined clearly a reduction in the student contribution charge of €500 in 2017. We seek a statement from the Minister for Education and Skills on the matter.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to come to the House to tell us what plans he has for retail development in rural Ireland? We all know that the retail sector has changed in rural areas and that many transactions now take place online, but the big issue is planning permission for out-of-town shopping centres and filling stations where parking is free. Paid parking is killing town centres. In many cases it is costing local administration to have machines emptied. Local authorities are talking about privatising the traffic warden service to get rid of that cost. It costs a lot of money to provide parking meters in town centres, but it is having the effect of killing the retail sector as people can avail of free parking spaces in the bigger shopping centres and at filling stations. I call on the Minister to outline his plans for town centres. We have all travelled the country during Seanad election campaigns and have seen the impact of parking charges which are to the detriment of the retail sector. In certain areas there is tumbleweed in the centre of towns because people are not prepared to pay for the luxury of parking to spend ten or 15 minutes purchasing a few items when they can park for free in out-of-town shopping centres or at filling stations. This issue must be examined. Revenue from parking meters has dropped by between 50% and 75% because people are travelling out of town to shop.
I thank Senator Ivana Bacik and all those involved in bringing forward the motion on the situation in Syria. It is extremely important that we speak with one voice and send a clear message on this matter, given the significant number of innocent people, especially children, being killed.
In talking about the need to speak with one voice I wish to refer again – I am sorry for doing so – to the ten-year health strategy. Senator Mark Daly raised the matter yesterday. My understanding is that Fine Gael was to bring forward a motion this week in the Dáil to allow Senators to become full members of the Committee on the Future of Healthcare, but I believe both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin indicated that they would vote against the motion. I am extremely concerned about this as it is very important to have agreement on a ten-year health strategy. It indicates to me that the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin, and the leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy Gerry Adams, have no confidence in the Senators of the respective parties represented in this House and they consider they have nothing to contribute to the strategy. That is a terrible indictment of this House and it is regrettable that this is the attitude of the leadership of these parties to Senators who have a contribution to make to the strategy, yet they are being excluded from involvement in the committee that is devising it. Is this new politics? Is it about excluding 60 Members of the Oireachtas from the process of dealing with a major policy issue which affects every man, woman and child in the country? Is it about making sure Senators are not included in a major strategic planning process? It is appalling that the leaders of the two main Opposition parties are objecting to Senators being included in the committee. The Leader should write to them to ask them to explain why they have adopted this policy towards Members of this House. That is not the new politics I want to see and it is not the new politics Senators want to see. I take extreme exception to the fact that Senators are being excluded from the process.
The Senator’s point is well made.
I join other Members of the House in sending birthday wishes to Senator Lynn Ruane today. We wish her well.
I welcome to the Seanad Chamber my friend Mr. Pavlock from Philadelphia. He is a welcome guest.
I thank the 19 Members who raised many issues. I will begin with Senator Colm Burke's remarks about the future health strategy and do so in a spirit of co-operation and cross-party consensus. It is not good enough that the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are opposing the appointment or nomination of Members of this House to the Committee on the Future of Healthcare. It means that we are not good enough and do not have expertise. In the context of its retention, they are doing a bad job in promoting the Seanad. I appeal to both of them to go back to their parties. It is wrong, not good politics and sends the wrong message. To be fair to Senator Mark Daly, he was not party to the decision of his party and I am sure the Sinn Féin Whip, Senator Paul Gavan, and the party's health spokesperson, Senator Máire Devine, are not complicit in it, but it is absolutely appalling that Seanad Members are not being supported in serving on a committee that will set the health policy of the nation for the next decade and beyond. It is unacceptable and the two party leaders are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. If they want reform, political correctness and new politics, all of us should be included. Senators Mark Daly and Paul Gavan should go back to their parties and make a stand because it is not good enough. I intend to raise the issue at the next meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in the next few weeks.
Senator Mark Daly raised the issue of neutrality and referred to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I did not think our position on neutrality had changed, but the Senator made a good point. The document to which he referred is a statement of strategy which outlines the goals and objectives the Department intends to pursue to promote the State and the values of the people, while advancing our prosperity abroad. I assume the value to which he was referring was neutrality and hope our position on it will not change. We should come back to this issue at a later date. I very much support his call in that regard.
On Brexit and job creation, I mentioned yesterday that the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Dara Murphy, had been travelling throughout the eurozone to highlight Ireland's importance and try to attract companies to locate here. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation secured additional resources in the budget for her Department. This funding will provide for the recruitment of an additional 50 staff in the Department and its agencies who will be specifically tasked with assisting companies in adjusting to the challenges to be faced in the post-Brexit era. It will equally help to secure new business and innovation opportunities and diversification into new markets. The Government is prepared and working on this issue. If the Senator has ideas in that regard, I will be happy to convey them to the Minister, but he is correct to raise the issue.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell raised the issue of industrial relations. We are in uncharted waters post the recession. Expectations are growing and people want more money in their pockets, but, at the same time, the Government parties have a limited amount to spend. On one level, we want increased public services and increases in take home pay, but the Government must balance the books not only in fiscal terms but also to ensure there will be the mix right between public expenditure and service provision. It is important as Members that we invite members of the GRA, the AGSI and the ASTI to engage in meaningful talks on the issues they have. This will not be done through megaphone diplomacy on the airwaves through the broadcasters. It is important that union representatives sit down with officials from the Departments of Justice and Equality, Public Expenditure and Reform and Education and Skills and the respective Ministers to reach a resolution. The Lansdowne Road agreement, to which Deputy Brendan Howlin and Senator Kevin Humphreys were party, is the framework within which pay restoration for public servants can be delivered and managed. We all recognise the fundamental difficulties gardaí encounter in doing their jobs and understand the importance of education. I, therefore, appeal to all sides to engage in talks.
Senator Paul Gavan referred to Shannon Airport yet again. As he knows quite well, as a neutral country Ireland is not prevented from allowing military aircraft to land or overfly. There is a UN resolution in that regard. Post-9/11, the Government of the day took a decision, in conjunction with the UN Security Council, to allow the use of Shannon Airport, but I will be happy to have a debate on the issue, on which our position has not changed. Perhaps the Senator sometimes comes into the House to try to gain headlines with some of his comments on Shannon Airport.
It is the truth.
If he was to talk to people on the ground, he would get a different perspective.
I live there.
I will be happy to invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House for a debate on the issue.
Senators Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield and Joe O'Reilly referred to education. The Cassells report has been published and there are different viewpoints expressed in it. What we all aspire to and what we all want to achieve is ensuring people have access to affordable education. The rainbow coalition Government introduced free third level fees, the cost of which measure has increased exponentially during the years. I am not sure about the remarks made by the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, but I think he was referring to the international European school and attracting foreign direct investment into the country post-Brexit.
Senators Kevin Humphreys and Victor Boyhan mentioned International Credit Union Day. I join them in congratulating the members of the credit union movement on the work they do. I am a former supervisor in my credit union in Bishopstown and aware that it plays an important role in people's lives.
The concept of collective Cabinet responsibility has not changed. I agree that when the Cabinet makes a decision, it is a collective decision and that, therefore, all members of the Cabinet are bound by it, unless they choose to resign.
As regards the eighth amendment, the Citizens' Assembly has been set up and it behoves Oireachtas Members and Ministers to stand by it and allow it to do its work. Another motion in this House or the Dáil on the amendment would be unhelpful and only serve to create political controversy. There is a process in place and it should be allowed to proceed in order that all options can be explored. The assembly can come back to the Government with a plan of action. The Government will then refer it to a committee before the people ultimately decide. That is what should happen.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the issue of Garda vetting and referred to the industrial dispute. I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House for a debate on the issue.
Senator Aidan Davitt called on the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to come to the House to discuss the housing issue. When the Finance Bill is brought before the House in the next few weeks, it will present Members with an opportunity to discuss the issue. It is important that the supply of housing increase in order that first-time buyers can buy houses.
Senator Joe O'Reilly referred to early school leavers. It is an important issue which the former Ministers of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputies Sean Sherlock and Damien English, and the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, have begun the process of addressing it through the apprenticeship programme.
I thank Senator Máire Devine for referring to the important work One in Four is doing. She is correct that the protection of children is important. That is why we had a children's rights referendum and the first Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was appointed to the Cabinet. As we need to be proactive, I will be happy to have a debate on the issue with the Minister.
Senator Maura Hopkins raised the issue of mental health. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health issues, Deputy Helen McEntee, is happy to come to the House to discuss it.
Senator Robbie Gallagher asked about the minor works scheme. The Minister for Education and Skills announced in the budget debate that further projects to be undertaken under the summer works scheme would be announced early in 2017. The details will be outlined at that time.
I commend Senator Ivana Bacik for the motion she has tabled on the conflict in Syria and the work she had done in that regard. It is an all-party motion on which I will be happy to work with her.
Yesterday Senator Colette Kelleher referred to vulnerable child refugees. The Minister for Justice and Equality will come to the House to discuss the issue.
Senator Gabrielle McFadden raised the important issue of housing for ex-servicemen and women. I will be happy to invite the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to come to the House to discuss it.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill raised the issue of regional and rural development. The Minister for the Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs will be in the House on 17 November for a debate on it.
Senators Frank Feighan and Kevin Humphreys mentioned Airbnb. The Government reduced the VAT rate for the hospitality sector, but hotels are raising prices and forcing people to pay exorbitant fees for rooms. That is not in the spirit of what the Government intended. The reduction in the VAT rate was designed to attract visitors and mobilise local economies. I again appeal to hoteliers to reconsider their prices.
Senator Ray Butler referred to the retail sector in rural Ireland. The matter can be raised with the Minister for the Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs or the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government when they visit the House. The Senator is correct that the level of parking fees is an issue and that we must get the balance right.