The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2016, referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Social Welfare Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6.15 p.m. with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be called to reply to the debate not later than 6.05 p.m.; and No. 3, Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 and to conclude not later than 11 p.m. by one question which shall be put from the Chair and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government.
Order of Business
I would like to call on the Seanad to schedule a debate on the Government's funding, or lack thereof, of the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi. It was with deep regret that I learned that the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics said the drug does not represent value for money and should not be funded by the Government at its current cost. Professor Michael Barry of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, who is also on the HSE's drug groups, said Orkambi can greatly alleviate the symptoms of cystic fibrosis but was not value for money because of its inherent efficacy. He said the drug, which costs about €160,000 per patient per year, would only work for 25% of patients.
On the other side of the debate, Cystic Fibrosis Ireland has called for Orkambi to be made available in Ireland and has said that it is a life-lengthening drug and would benefit up to 550 patients. Ireland, as we know, has the highest rate of cystic fibrosis per head of population in the world. Approximately 1,200 people live with cystic fibrosis in Ireland. We also have some the most severe forms of the disease in Ireland. Orkambi has been shown to reduce hospitalisation of up to 40% of patients and significantly retards the progression of cystic fibrosis for those who stand to benefit from the drug.
Cystic Fibrosis Ireland said the drug would result in other major savings to the HSE from reductions in hospitalisation, reliance on other expensive cystic fibrosis drugs and dependency on transplants. We know many cancer drugs currently in use cost a lot more to the Exchequer. I ask the House to open up the debate and have a proper discussion about Orkambi and its use for cystic fibrosis sufferers.
I ask the Leader for an update on the following matter. We listened to Ms Nicola Sturgeon speak about Ireland's response to the refugee crisis. This is not the time to have a wider debate, but our response has been very disappointing. A number of figures and promises were reneged on. Many refugees in Europe are unaccompanied children and the refugee crisis is a major issue. The words of Ms Sturgeon earlier were very poignant. She may have been slightly misled or misguided, or misunderstands the situation. Our response to the refugee crisis has not been what it was meant to be. It is extremely disappointing. When we reflect on the words of Ms Sturgeon and as we approach Christmas time and talk about people who are desolate, isolated, vulnerable and left behind, we should realise that we need to honour the commitments and promises we make.
I drafted some words the other day in order to pursue this matter in another forum this week, and I still intend to do so next Friday. I will be highly critical of the Government. I have some qualitative research on the commitments that have been given.
The people in the various reception centres around the country have been in the system for years and we have reneged on promises in that regard.
It is very disappointing and we can only hang our heads in shame. We have not done what we set out to do. We have not fulfilled our promises. It is a humanitarian crisis and we have a short period of time in which we can turn things around. I would like the Minister to make an absolute commitment and deliver the commitments she has put on record on the issue.
As a representative of the largest party on the left in the Chamber, I pay tribute to Fidel Castro. I ask the Leader to put time aside so we can make statements of sympathy to this great international statesman and hero of the revolutionary left. Fidel Castro was a giant. He was described as a man of the century, and rightly so. He led a heroic struggle against American imperialism and established an independent, sovereign and socialist state free from the stranglehold of its aggressive neighbours just 90 miles away. Cuba had previously been a playground for the US mafia under the brutal dictator, Batista.
Fidel Castro built a country free from extreme poverty and established health and education services that rank alongside the best in the world, an incredible achievement for a country that was under an illegal trade embargo by the most powerful nation in the world. Cuba's positive role in world affairs is often overlooked. It sent thousands of doctors to assist the most impoverished countries at the time, such as Honduras, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Angola, Laos and Algeria. Most recently, in October 2014, it sent 256 doctors and nurses to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to join the efforts to contain the ebola outbreak. The US sent troops; Cuba sent doctors. This speaks to the values of the country.
Cuba has not only one of the best health services in the world, but also, perhaps, the fairest. This is illustrated by the life expectancy and low child mortality rates, statistics that compete with the global superpower of the US. Cuba has consistently managed to put roofs over its citizens' heads. There is no homeless crisis in Cuba. It has always managed to provide full employment. Its achievements are second to none. I pay tribute to President Higgins for his fulsome words of praise. Some of the nonsense that has been said in response to it is from the Ireland of a 1950's comic film. The only thing that has not been asked for is a prayer for the conversion of Russia.
Let us be clear. Fidel Castro was a great man. Cuba is a country to be proud of. I was proud to spend time there some years ago and saw the moving tributes in Havana to the hunger strikers. I recall the words Fidel Castro said at the time about our gallant men: "Let tyrants tremble before men who are capable of dying for their ideals, after 60 days on hunger strike." He was always a consistent supporter of unity for our country. Fidel Castro is one of the greatest world statesmen we have ever seen. As a socialist, I am proud of his record. I ask the Leader to set time aside so we can pay tribute and express our sympathies to the Cuban people.
I call for a debate with the Minister for Health on gynaecology services. The lack of gynaecology services, particularly in Cork, has moved beyond unacceptable to dangerous. This is not an ordinary crack in a broken system. Women in Cork are being made wait drastically longer than women elsewhere in Ireland. It is a crisis on the boil which is having a devastating effect on women and their families.
There are 4,193 women waiting for an outpatient gynaecology appointment in Cork. This is the longest waiting list of all gynaecology units nationwide and is increasing by 1,000 patients year on year. The waiting list in Cork is twice as long as that of the Rotunda Hospital, which ranks second in the country. One in three women will wait over a year for an outpatient appointment, with many waiting two to three years. Many women arrive in accident and emergency departments in crisis as their conditions deteriorate due to long waiting lists.
There is a significant impact on these women's quality of life. Many of them suffer chronic pain, bleeding and menstrual disorders as they get sicker without treatment. There is a risk of delayed cancer diagnoses among women who have to wait years for outpatient assessment. There is a personal economic impact regarding income lost due to people having to take time off work, and a loss to society when people are not able to go to work.
Cork University Maternity Hospital, CUMH, also has the largest waiting list in the country for gynaecology surgeries. Some 557 women are currently on the waiting list for surgery. More than one in three of these women, 38%, have been waiting for at least one year to have their planned surgery performed. Gynaecology theatres in CUMH are functioning at just 40% of their originally intended capacity. The hospital has two fully commissioned state-of-the-art gynaecology theatres and only one is currently available for gynaecology surgery. It is working only four days per week. No new consultant gynaecologist posts have been created in Cork in the past decade. This is despite 26 such posts having been advertised nationwide. As reported in yesterday's Irish Examiner, these are issues of national importance, and they deserve to be debated in the House. I urge the Leader to invite the Minister for a debate to answer on how this life-and-death matter for women in Cork and surrounding areas is to be addressed.
I, too, wish to raise the issue of maternity services. I acknowledge the work done in regard to Holles Street hospital and its colocation. I am thankful that the difficulties have finally been resolved. We now have a start date for applying for planning permission. It never should have taken nearly a year to get to that stage.
What is happening with Holles Street highlights the issue raised by Deputy Kelleher. Holles Street fought so hard to make sure it had control over its budget. Dr. Boylan says the budget has been eroded, unfortunately, and this is what happens when there is a maternity service attached to a general hospital. The first thing to go is anything to do with women's health care.
I have raised the issues of Holles Street and the Coombe, which is seeking €15 million to be invested in its operating theatres. The HIQA reports from both the Coombe and Holles Street hospitals, in addition to the rising concerns over CUMH, really highlight the need to ensure that when children are born in maternity hospitals, they are born in hospitals that are properly resources and managed and, above all, have a functioning board of governors to ensure long-term investment.
Since I came into the House, I have highlighted Holles Street and other maternity hospitals. I join Senator Kelleher in calling for a specific debate on maternity services. We need a debate on who becomes a member of a board, how the budgets are controlled and who controls them. We must also ensure the money being set aside by the taxpayer for investment in maternity services goes into maternity services and is not hived off for general hospitals and does not become used to fill the hole in the budget. This matter is far too important just to talk about a particular maternity hospital. We must look at them in their entirety, and we must ensure the investment is made. For heaven's sake, let us ensure that a newborn baby is born with the best possible outcomes and that the mother has the best health care service possible. We are not getting this at present. We really need to examine the structures, how boards of hospitals are being appointed and the control the boards have over their budgets.
I compliment mathematics teachers and acknowledge the new finding that there has been a major improvement in the teaching of mathematics. Ireland has been ranked on a list of high achievers and has come in ahead of Finland, which is one of the highest achievers. Low achievers have actually done very well but the pupils who are high achievers are still in the risk category, which is frightening. This really needs to be highlighted here today.
The trend in the mathematics and science study shows there were major improvements in 2015. Fourth class primary school students ranked ninth out of 49. This is a big leap from 17th place in 2011. Secondary school students ranked ninth of 39 countries. Therefore, great credit is due to the mathematics teachers of our country. This is certainly a matter that needs to be considered further.
There has been a spike in demand for Irish passports since the Brexit vote. Figures reported by RTE yesterday show that over 700,000 passports have been issued this year to date. Of that 700,000, some 117,000 are from the UK and of that figure, 59,000 are from Northern Ireland. It is time for us to consider locating a passport office in a rural area like County Monaghan, an area that is unique in that it adjoins three Northern counties, Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Geographically it is ideally placed. It would be a positive statement by the Government given the ongoing difficulty the Border region faces, even more so after the Brexit vote and the leakage in retail spending we are currently experiencing. I ask the leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister so that he might seriously consider locating a passport office in County Monaghan in the not too distant future.
I wish to raise the HPV vaccine. In this State and also in the UK we have a history of burying our heads in the sand when there are issues with various drugs - Thalidomide comes to mind. We suddenly at some stage find we are in serious trouble, the drug is withdrawn and then there are legal battles lasting years. Anecdotal evidence is arriving in my office on a daily basis. I do not court constituency contact. I do not go looking for people to contact me. I have no interest in sitting in the Lower House and as such I do not seek contact with the members of the public. However, people are coming to me about this vaccine and they are telling me that their daughters or people they know, who were active sports-inclined people and who had this vaccine, are now chronically ill.
While I might be wrong in this - which is why I am calling for a debate - I understand Ireland may have indemnified the drugs company when it adopted this vaccine and effectively said it would cover the cost if problems arose. If that is true, we may have dug a hole for ourselves that is getting deeper by the day. I am no medic and we might need a medic in here to explain the pros and cons of this drug and whether it is worth continuing to take the chance of administering something that is resulting in fit girls, who are involved in sport and other activities, suddenly becoming listless, tired, unable to attend school and having a lack of attention span.
Many things are being reported. I am not sure what empirical evidence there is to support this, but it is time we had a look at this drug. If it is dangerous, we need to know. If there is a particular cohort for whom it is not suitable, we need to know that as well. I am asking for a debate with the Minister for Health at the earliest possible convenience although I realise we are in a very busy period.
I agree with Senator Gallagher's call for a debate on the issuing of Irish passports. Over the weekend I attended the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Cardiff. The First Minister of Wales was happy to say that his wife and two siblings had Irish passports. The ambassador, H.E. Mr. Dan Mulhall, said there was a huge upsurge in applications for Irish passports. It is timely to have a debate and see where we might be able to locate offices.
Talking about passports and North-South matters, I welcome that two air ambulances have been located in Northern Ireland, at Belfast International Airport and at St. Angelo Airport in Fermanagh. Three years ago Senator Reilly and Alan Shatter, who has left the Oireachthas, located an air ambulance in Athlone which has saved dozens of lives.
Where once a person involved in a traumatic car or other accident was brought to hospital by ambulance, the air ambulance brings people to centres of excellence within 18 or 19 minutes. It is incredible. We have co-operation in the provision of cross-Border health services and now need to bring the Minister to the House for a debate on how best to utilise air ambulances. I appreciate that these are different jurisdictions, but if we are able to use ambulances on a cross-Border basis, we should be able to use air ambulances in the same way. They have been proven to save lives and we must consider where we can locate them around the country to save many more.
I support my colleague Senator Craughwell 100% on the need for a proper full and frank debate on the HPV vaccine. The experience he outlined is the same as the one I have had in my community where young girls are extremely unwell for no reason whatsoever after receiving the HPV vaccine. They are unable to participate in their education or fully in society. I want to have that debate in the House. I am appalled by the attempts to discredit the parents and the young girls who have come forward to set out their experiences.
I want to raise the issue of Cerberus only paying €1,900 in taxes on profits of over €77 million. The era of vulture funds operating virtually tax-free must end. During the debate on the Finance Bill in the Dáil my colleagues made efforts to have inserted amendments which would have forced the Government to report every 12 months on exactly how much the vulture funds' creative use of existing Irish tax law had cost the Exchequer. I asked the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, the exact same question several months ago during the dialogue at the economic forum, but he refused to answer. One of the loopholes to avoid paying tax on Irish property assets sees tax-free rent and gains for those who hold Irish property in a fund that derives under 25% of its value from Irish property and tax-free gains when Irish property is held for over five years by widely held funds. There is something unsettling about learning about the Cerberus tax bill in a national newspaper this morning. While many will point out that it is perfectly legal, I wonder how many would still hold that view if they were presented with a figure annually that showed the huge profits made and the minute taxes paid on them. An overall figure showing the loss to the Exchequer would focus minds. I look forward to the Finance Bill being brought before the Seanad this week and would like to see this morning's story act as a wake-up call to use the new dynamics in the House to highlight what remains to be done in legislation to close the loopholes. I will be bringing forward amendments in an attempt to shut the remaining loopholes. There is no point in people decrying such loopholes and the immoral figures earned while failing to support amendments to shut the same loopholes.
It would be useful if we were to recognise the presence in the Visitors Gallery of heavily decorated UN volunteers from County Carlow. They have done the country proud.
I refer to the passing of President Fidel Castro. I am old enough to remember the regime of Fulgencio Batista which he ousted. It was a filthy, disgusting, criminal conspiracy against the Cuban people. Thank God, Fidel Castro stood up to it. Subsequently, I visited Cuba and was immensely impressed by the urban farms, the medical services which they exported to crisis points internationally as a humanitarian gesture and the education system, but, of course, there was an embargo imposed by the Americans. They embargoed everything and tried to crush Cuba which they invaded. They helped to bring down civilian aircraft with bombs and made 40 attempts at assassination. Naturally, there was a reaction there. I do not commend the behaviour of the Castro regime for the way it closed down journalists, but it was understandable in a state of war. It was also extremely ignorant and stupid in the way it harassed gay people in Cuba, about which I protested. However, if one looks at the American experience, democracy was attacked everywhere it turned up in South America.
They destroyed Nicaragua and established the School of the Americas. They should be ashamed, not the Cubans, a valiant people struggling for the rights of humanity.
I wish to raise a question I raised here previously, namely, the mistreatment of gay couples, particularly in the Civil Service, who have recently got married. Marriage has only been allowed since last year yet a technicality is used to deprive the spouses of their pensions if they did not get married before 1980. They could not do it. It was impossible. They were not allowed to marry so it is a complete nonsense. I utterly condemn the niggardly, miserable and wretched attitude of Trinity College, my old employer, in harassing a very distinguished French lecturer, David Parris, who attempted to establish his rights. The same applies in respect of the European Court of Human Rights. I accept that in the major aspect of this, the court did not have jurisdiction because leeway is allowed for different countries but I condemn Trinity College and its insurance company for their shamelessly stingy approach in this area. A tiny number of people are involved.
Senator Norris is testing my patience.
It would not bankrupt the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity to act with a bit of charity.
I agree with Senator Kelleher in respect of the maternity service in Cork. I raised this issue two weeks ago at a meeting of the Committee on Health and looked for some work to be done to resolve the delay in the availability of gynaecological services. My understanding is that there are more than 4,000 women on the waiting list. I also understand that the people in the maternity service are concerned about the system of governance there. More than 9,000 babies are delivered per annum in Cork University Maternity Hospital. This is the same as any one of the three big Dublin maternity hospitals, which have their own system of governance. We need to look at how it is managed and how those in the medical team do not believe they are getting enough support from management. It is a serious issue. I raised it two weeks ago at a meeting of the Committee on Health. This issue is not going away. I agree with my colleague that the Minister should come to the House and we should have a debate on the matter because this is the biggest unit outside Dublin. It is important that any of the issues that are being raised are fully aired in this House and an immediate solution to the problems found.
There were two good media reports on the HPV vaccine recently. The "Prime Time" investigation was a very comprehensive review. The evidence is there from Australia where they have been using the vaccine since 2007 and where there has been a 70% drop in cervical cancer rates among those who have received the vaccine. It is wrong that incorrect information is going out and that people are misleading the public on this matter. There has been a drop in the take up of the vaccine, which is now less than 50%. I have no difficulty with an open debate but both the "Prime Time" programme and the report in The Sunday Business Post gave a very detailed explanation of the inaccurate information that is out there and why people are concerned.
I welcome the news that talks are ongoing between ASTI and the Government through the Teachers Conciliation Council, which will, hopefully, conclude this week and will be put to a ballot of some description involving ASTI members. I do not want to jinx anything so I just welcome the fact that talks are ongoing, seem to be going reasonably well and are progressing. The strikes were based on pay equality for new teachers while the days on which schools were closed were based on the withdrawal from supervision and substitution. There is another issue that ASTI has an issue with, namely, junior certificate reform. Junior cycle reform has much to commend it in terms of short courses, an element of well-being that was not there previously, eight key skills, 24 statements of learning and an emphasis on literacy and numeracy, to which Senator Byrne referred earlier when she said our numeracy seems to be improving, which is to be welcomed.
The former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, wanted to get rid of external assessment, and now there will be an element of external assessment.
There is a significant issue with ASTI members dealing with classroom-based assessment and having to formally assess their own pupils. Many people regard it as being more difficult to be objective when dealing with their own pupils as they live in the same community and see them every day. The idea the leaving certificate is the first real external assessment a pupil gets will create extra pressure, which is unnecessary and unwelcome.
I ask the Leader to bring in the Minister for Education and Skills to explain where he is on junior cycle reform. At present, some pupils in schools are doing classroom-based assessment but ASTI members are not and therefore there is a disparity between one group and another. I call for the Minister to come to the House.
In the Seanad this afternoon the First Minister of Scotland spoke openly about her support for 16 and 17 year olds casting their vote and having their say. In advance of the Bill that will come before us in the coming months I ask that all of us continue this positive conversation. In 2013, the Constitutional Convention recommended that those who reached the age of 16 should be allowed to vote in presidential, general, local and European elections, and in referenda. I am grateful for the support of Senator Lynn Ruane in co-sponsoring the Bill, which reflects the urgency and seriousness with which we take this issue. Young people are consistently painted as apathetic and indifferent to current and political affairs. The referendum on civil marriage equality and the referendum for Scottish independence represented a reality that is far different.
In light of this conversation, will the Leader revisit the issue with the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, from whom I have received a response on a referendum on the issue? The Bill only goes as far as local and European elections. Ideally we should move towards a position of a referendum on the issue. I ask the Leader to pursue this and for us all to consider the conversation.
I would like to remember the death of Fidel Castro. We must remember that for quite some time he was seen as the enemy No. 1 of Western democracy and capitalists-----
I am having my go.
Allow the Senator to continue.
He was seen as evil by capitalists in promoting communism but he was a great soul, particularly in making the stand he did against the might and sometimes paranoid power of the United States. He made a sovereign stand in terms of humankind in not allowing one ideology, namely capitalism, to bully us into submission. We know people suffered as a result, but he did win the ideological war. A true assessment of him also requires us to praise his legacy in areas of health and education.
I ask the Leader to invite to the House the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to discuss defined benefit pensions and the further difficulties on the horizon. I understand approximately 600,000 people, many of them ordinary workers, have paid into private pensions. This issue is getting press now because of the Independent News and Media workers, but ordinary workers in my town paid in all their lives, never thought they had any choice and were never advised there were any risks in paying in so much of their salaries. They thought they were providing for their futures and their retirements. Now, they are so out of pocket and the companies and employers who encouraged them are still trading away. Surely something must be done about this. If something is not done, as usual when people fall on hardship it will all fall back on the State and the taxpayer.
The Minister should come to the House. His predecessor, Deputy Joan Burton, looked at the issue but it was not resolved for the ordinary retired person who did not make the cut on time and did not get to retire when there was still money in the funds. These people are severely out of pocket.
In the coming weeks there will be an official announcement on the leadership shown by Trinity College Dublin in divesting from the use of fossil fuels. This would be the perfect time to invite the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, to come to the House to discuss how this policy could have a more far-reaching impact in other sectors. The issue of fossil fuel divestment came to me at the beginning of my presidency via a freedom of information request. The leadership shown by the students and the college was commendable. The chief financial officer and the provost had an open engagement with us from the beginning. They allowed students to attend finance and investment committee and board meetings in order that we might make the case for divestment. This is a good example for other student movements that are also trying to address the issues of climate change and fossil fuel divestment. For example, students at NUI Galway are being met with closed doors. To coincide with the official worldwide announcement by various bodies that are divesting from the use of fossil fuels, we should invite the Minister to discuss the issue.
I welcome the announcement yesterday that the former President, Professor Mary Robinson, is to gift her archives to NUI Galway and waive any tax benefit to which she may have been entitled as a result. It is commendable, if somewhat late.
She never said-----
Put her under pressure.
It is in line with the long-established tradition for public figures, starting with Éamon de Valera, to donate their archives to the State. That said-----
What about me?
The Senator must answer for himself. I read his book. It was excellent, but-----
Can we come back to the Order of Business, please?
The Chairman of the arts and heritage committee, Deputy Tóibín, has arranged for the matter of the foundation in Ballina to be placed before it. He has invited the county manager of Mayo to attend. I hope the meeting will proceed, despite the announcement because the project bears investigation. I commend RTE's "Prime Time" programme which was the catalyst for movement on the issue. When money is tight and every project has to be evaluated on a pound for pound basis, we cannot afford to have local authorities, county managers or anyone or anything else of that nature getting involved in large projects without every single aspect being teased out fully in order that the country and the taxpayer get value for money. Projects should not proceed for their own sake or just to promote a particular region. All regions need investment, including my own. I would love to see every possible investment being made in Ballina, but everything has to be assessed. We cannot have major projects rolling on until someone decides they should be examined. In this case, the issue was raised by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter in The Irish Times, on "Prime Time" and, perhaps to a lesser extent, by me in this Chamber. We must be vigilant.
I call on the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, to attend the House to discuss the concerning development that is the increase in the number of claims against heritage and wildlife sites. The Wicklow Way was recently involved in a high profile case before the courts which brought the matter into focus. I call on the Minister to be staunch in her defence of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It would be a backwards step for tourism and the public's welfare if we were not to take a strong line on the issue.
I thank the 18 Senators who raised matters on the Order of Business. I also thank the groups and Members for their co-operation this morning during the visit of the Scottish First Minister, Ms Sturgeon. As everyone will agree, it was an extraordinary event, one of which we should be proud. I thank the secretariat and staff of the Seanad Office - Mr. Martin Groves and the team - for their co-operation.
I thank all of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, including the ushers, and staff from the Scottish office for their efforts in ensuring the event was a success.
Senator Ardagh raised the issue of the Orkambi drug and the importance of it. The Minister for Health is to hold a briefing on this issue with the spokespeople on health. I have asked that Members of the Seanad be included in that briefing. It is important to recognise that this is a stressful time for the families, and in particular the parents, of young people who are in need of Orkambi. All of us want to see our loved ones treated. The drug company in question, Vertex, needs to come to the table. It is also important to put on record that the drug works in only a percentage of cases. The drug company has a duty of care to work with the Department of Health and the HSE on the issues of-----
-----affordability and risk-sharing in relation to the cost of the drug. The Minister for Health is engaging on this very sensitive matter. The cost of high-tech drugs is an issue about which we need to have a conversation but it is not one on which we should be pitting people against each other. I am happy to engage further with Senator Ardagh on the issue. Professor Michael Barry of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics has made his views on this matter very clear. It is important that Vertex reconsiders its position-----
-----and puts forward a proposal on the cost and pricing of this drug that represents value for money for the health service, patients and the taxpayer. As I said, the Minister for Health is currently engaged on this issue. I hope that a resolution can be reached soon.
Vertex is profiteering.
Senator Boyhan called for a debate on the refugee crisis. I am happy to ask the relevant Minister to come to the House. The Senator is correct that it is an important matter in respect of which we should not seek to obfuscate or dilute our responsibility. To be fair to the Minister, she has never flinched from that responsibility, nor has the State. This is about ensuring that we do what is right. The State will not be found wanting in that regard.
Senators Gavan, Norris and Mulherin raised the issue of the passing of Fidel Castro. The death of Fidel Castro has illustrated that he is as large in death as he was in life. He was a complex person. We all have different views about Fidel Castro. What is clear is that he was a major force in the 20th century. He did undoubtedly pursue a model of delivery of education and health in his country that has found favour with some but there are other aspects of his actions that must be questioned. However, this is not the time to do that. We should allow him to be mourned by those who supported him. His denial of freedom of expression and free elections in Cuba and his suppression of opposition and persecution of men and women of the LGBT community leaves a landscape that I do not salute. In death, we should mourn-----
There have been several masters degrees written about the man.
Please allow the Leader to respond without interruption.
Long before I conclude here there will be further commentary elsewhere. I do not intend to fall into the trap of condemning the President or commenting on what he said. The President is a long time supporter of Cuba and Fidel Castro, as is his entitlement. I have no issue with that.
Senators Kelleher and Colm Burke raised the issue of gynaecological and maternity services at Cork University Maternity Hospital, CUMH. It is important that CUMH and the HSE work together on an action plan and roadmap to ensure the delivery of babies and women's health are not undermined or threatened. This will require continued dialogue. We would all welcome the delivery of a safe model of maternity and gynaecological services at CUH maternity. I hope that as a result of the publication of the letters and the consultation and communication that will take place after that, there will be a resolution to this issue.
Like Senator Humphreys, I welcome the signing of the agreement between Holles Street hospital, the Department, the HSE and St. Vincent's hospital. The Minister has worked hard on the agreement. The development of the project is vital for the future of maternity services in this country and this city. The delivery of a world class, state-of-the-art new maternity hospital for women and their babies, young children and young infants is a priority for the Department and the Minister.
Senator Byrne raised the topical issue of Ireland being ranked ninth out of 49 countries for mathematics. I congratulate everyone involved in the project, particularly the people who teach maths in schools.
Senators Gallagher and Feighan raised the issue of passports. The year 2016 has been a record breaking year with 700,000 Irish passports issued. It has resulted in a huge increase in workload for the Passport Office. The increase illustrates the importance placed on having an Irish passport. What an Irish passport gives to people must be saluted and commended.
I join both Senators in their call for more passport offices. My city of Cork has a passport office and I have seen how beneficial the service has been to the region and its people. Even with a post-Brexit scenario I do not see why we could not have passport offices in counties Monaghan and Donegal or anywhere we find a suitable location. Without going too far, the scheme could be rolled out like the decentralisation model.
It is important to recognise that passport offices should be brought to the people. I do not see why we could not do so in the future.
A few old people can vote there as well.
Senators Craughwell, Conway-Walsh and Colm Burke raised the issue of the HPV vaccine. I have no issue with arranging a debate on the matter as former Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children that carried out a substantial piece of work. I do not wish to denigrate or take lightly the concerns and views that were expressed this afternoon in the House by the Senators, or the views expressed by the families. Cervical cancer is a killer and its prevalence is growing in the female population, in particular among young women. There has been a lot of misinformation on the vaccination programme. The vaccine, and vaccination in general, prevents the risk of cancer; a fact we must underline in our approach.
That is why we need empirical evidence.
A huge amount of empirical evidence was given to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children that I chaired.
That is what I said.
A lot of evidence has been given to the committee since I left the position of Chair. Let us consider the whole issue.
As many as 250 million vaccines have been administered worldwide, 660,000 of which have been administered in Ireland. In Australia there has been a 70% reduction in the level of cervical cancer for females who availed of the vaccine. I understood and have heard the testimony of the children, young women, young girls and parents involved. I do not belittle their testimony and understand their frustration at how their world has completely changed but vaccination programmes work. The decline in the take-up of the HPV vaccination is a source of worry for us for the future. I am happy to arrange a debate on the matter in the House and will invite the Minister to attend because we have nothing to fear. If there are issues to address in regard to the comments made by the Senators opposite then I wish to adapt. It is important that we present the full works and that is what I hope we can do.
Senator Feighan raised the issue of air ambulances. It is important to recognise that air ambulances have saved lives, which is welcome.
I neglected to mention Senator Norris when I mentioned Fidel Castro. In terms of pensions, I am happy to invite the Minister for Social Protection to discuss the matter. I suggest the Senator raise the matter with him when we discuss the Social Welfare Bill later today. Pensions are important and we should not have the anomaly of a two-tier pension system.
I thank the Leader.
Senator Horkan mentioned the ongoing negotiations between the Government and the ASTI. The talks lasted into the night and continued early into the morning. All of us would welcome a conclusion of talks, including the students seated in the Visitors Gallery.
I apologise to Senator Warfield, as I missed his remarks last week in my reply to the appointments to the board of IMMA. Knowing the Minister and knowing personally some of the people appointed, both men and women, they are people of the highest quality. We are all about appointing people with competence to boards, and in particular if there are women who can be appointed it is important to do so, not because of their gender but because of their competency and ability. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.
He also raised the Bill on extending the franchise to young people aged 16 and 17. If I am correct it is due to be taken during Private Members' time this week.
No, it will be after Christmas.
It is something we need to debate. I was on the Constitutional Convention that debated the issue, and we heard the First Minister of Scotland this afternoon speak about the importance of young people being engaged. It is important that we educate young people in their civic duty and in their responsibility before they vote, as they vote and after they vote.
Senator Mulherin raised the defined benefit pension schemes, an issue she raised previously. The Minister for Social Protection will be in the House this afternoon for the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, but I believe we should also have a debate on pensions in the new year.
Senator Ruane raised the issue of divesting from the use of fossil fuels. I would be happy for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, to come to the House for a debate on the issue.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan has returned to an issue he raised previously, namely, that former President, Mary Robinson, will not be availing of tax break. She is to be commended on that. I welcome the fact that she is donating her archives to the State, as did Senator Norris. That gives rise to a question, however. Having visited a number of the presidential libraries in America, which are private institutions that raise funds for the operation of the libraries, I do not see anything wrong with having a national presidential library or a separate national library for taoisigh. I am all for the donation of State papers and keeping important papers in the country but an issue we must consider is how we can ensure access by ordinary people - students, postgraduate students, and those of us who are anoraks, if one likes, to read those papers. Undoubtedly, the presidency of Mary Robinson was an exciting time. She was the first female President and I am sure her papers will be of considerable value to the State and the people of Ireland.
Senator Davitt raised the ongoing claims against heritage and wildlife parks, facilities and services. It is a major issue for the OPW and those who are charged with responsibility for the area. We saw in the recent report on insurance from the Oireachtas committee on finance how people claim ad nauseam. We must have a major debate about insurance and insurance claims and how people claim for certain things that perhaps are not the fault of the OPW in this case or the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Serial claimers are a serious problem.
Yes. We will come back to the issue in the new year. I again thank all Members for their contributions this morning during the visit of the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. I thank the staff in particular for their co-operation and great work. We are very fortunate in this House that we have people in the Seanad Office and ushers who work above and beyond the call of duty. Today did not happen because we flicked a switch and the lights came on. It happened because of great people working behind the scenes and I thank them. I also thank Senator Paddy Burke, who made the proposal to invite the First Minister to the House today. If he did not make the proposal and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, through you, a Chathaoirligh, did not support it, then perhaps we would not have had a very positive visit of the first Head of Government to speak in the Seanad. I thank everybody.