The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on recent education announcements, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 6.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given ten minutes to reply to the debate.
Order of Business
I wish to raise the plight of homelessness, an issue that my party has raised on numerous occasions. Sadly, it is an issue that affects many families today. To put it mildly, I was disappointed to read this morning in The Irish Times that the number of people homeless has reached a new high with over 7,000 people now homeless. It is new high in terms of homelessness but it is a new low for this Government.
In early January the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, said he would end the scenario of homeless families living in hostels by the middle of this year. While I am sure the Leader of this House wishes his constituency colleague every success in becoming leader of the Fine Gael party, the figures published today show exactly why Fine Gael Ministers, like Deputy Coveney, must prioritise their Departments and the interests of the country above their personal ambitions.
Likewise, if the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, who refused to come to this House in recent weeks to discuss the important issue of the national children's hospital, is so anxious to be rid of responsibility for the Department of Health, I am sure there are many others who would be committed to resolving many of the problems facing that Department rather than running away from them.
Returning to the homelessness challenge, it is nothing short of sickening that more than 7,000 people are homeless, of whom almost 2,500 are children. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, has claimed that he will put an end to homeless families living in hostels by June this year. It is incumbent on him to publish a report every month on the progress, if any, being made. The sad truth is the Government has sleepwalked into a homeless crisis and now appears to be totally incapable of tackling the problem. The circumstances of some of the most vulnerable people in society are worsening rather than improving, as evidenced by today's report. This topic has been on the agenda for some time, but the Government appears to be incapable of dealing with it. The figures do not lie. The figures for January were the worst on record. The people concerned are being failed, miserably so, by the Government.
On Senator Catherine Ardagh's comments on Rebuilding Ireland, I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, at a meeting of which this morning we were given comprehensive statistics for a range of measures in the context of that document. In fairness, the Minister has set targets and timelines, which is brave in the context of any programme, but I am not here to make a case for him. I have been critical of him many times at the joint committee, but he is delivering.
I would like to raise with the Leader the issue of GLAS payments for farmers. I was elected to the Agricultural Panel. In that regard, I have received a number of e-mails and telephone calls about an article that appeared last week in the Irish Farmers' Journal on late payments under GLAS, something of which I am sure many Members are aware. Farmers are spending on the basis of payments owed to them under the EU-Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's GLAS 1 and GLAS 2. Late payments are impacting on their cash flow. They are borrowing from the banks on the strength of these payments. I am speaking not about large amounts but small sums of money, ranging from approximately €300 to €7,000, but any amount is large when one does not have money, particularly at times when farmers are hard-pressed. This is a key issue. Farmers who signed up to GLAS 1 signed up to a range of conditions and commitments in regard to soil nutrients, the GLAS plan, the management plan and the camouflage and other environmental initiatives. They have done what they were required to do and now want their payments. They kept to their side of the bargain and have delivered in accordance with the terms and conditions set down in GLAS 1 and GLAS 2. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine stated on a number of programmes last week and in a one-to-one interview with the Irish Farmers' Journal that he could not be sure when the payments would be made. I understand there are complications in the scheme. However, where people have entered into an EU scheme, administered on their behalf by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and have complied with the terms of the scheme, as farmers have done, they should not have to wait for their payments. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come to the Seanad at his convenience to outline how he proposes to address the issues arising with this scheme. The farmers' charter of rights, 2015 to 2020, to which the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is a party, sets out the terms of the scheme and the terms of payment and what can reasonably be expected by the farmers and participating agricultural organisations involved in GLAS 1 and GLAS 2. This is a crisis; it is about cash flow for farmers. Something needs to be done. It is important that the Minister come to the House soon to explain what is happening. I am not interested in hearing about further delays or excuses for the current delays. I am speaking on behalf of the farming community, particularly small farmers to whom €4,000, €5,000 or €6,000 is a lot of money. I want the Minister to come to the House to outline how he proposes to ensure the payments will be made.
I second Senator Victor Boyhan's proposal that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine be asked to come to the House to discuss the issue of GLAS payments.
The GLAS files were submitted to the Department in May and December 2015, but payment is still awaited. I raised this issue in January. It is not acceptable that we are being told at this late stage that the computer is not compatible with the task it needs to perform.
I rise to discuss a matter of which every Senator is aware. Everyone will be disappointed for the family of Pat Finucane following the decision of the Belfast High Court this morning to reject the family's appeal for an international inquiry into his killing. The Finucanes, led by Pat's wife, Geraldine, have been campaigning for the truth about his killing for nearly 30 years. It was one of the starkest examples of collusion between British Crown forces and loyalist paramilitaries. It was a high-profile killing at the time and has remained so for the past 28 years, not just because Pat was a human rights solicitor, but because of the scale of the collusion involved in his killing. Thanks to the determination of the Finucanes and many hundreds of other families, we now know that collusion was a routine and standard method used by the British Government's armed forces to kill hundreds of people.
The court's decision is disgraceful. It is also a reminder of the absence of justice at the heart of the judicial system for those who suffered greatly, and still do, at the hands of the British Crown forces. I urge the Irish Government to continue its efforts to pressurise the British Government to co-operate and set up an inquiry into Pat's killing.
I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, on accepting an invitation to speak at a memorial lecture dedicated to the memory of Pat Finucane this Thursday evening in Belfast.
There will be statements on education in the Chamber today. I wish to raise the case of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT. Its multidisciplinary Mayo campus is successful and has offered a range of business, technology, construction, nursing, child care and social care programmes to many who would not otherwise have had access to education. It is my firm belief that there has been a sustained and targeted agenda to dilute and diminish the programmes available through the Mayo campus. The strategic neglect of that campus, including delays in decision making around long-term management and programme development, has angered many people in Mayo. It is not acceptable-----
This would be more appropriate to the debate when the Minister is present.
I will be at a meeting of the finance committee then.
I call on the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, to return to the Chamber to explain how, on one hand, action No. 124 of the Action Plan for Rural Development asserts that, "these regional institutions will have greater industry links, support enterprise, underpin diversity and promote access and participation on a regional basis with a view to significantly boosting our capacity to create and retain jobs in regions", when, on the other hand, there is a failure to market, promote and resource the Mayo campus. I call on the Minister and, before he leaves, the Taoiseach to restore "Mayo" to GMIT.
I believe the Minister will be present this evening.
When will this or the Lower House see Government legislation regulating the use of zero-hour, if-and-when, and low-hour contracts? We can all be gratified and satisfied that, through the work of the previous Government and the continuing work of elements of this Government, there are now 2 million people in work across the economy. That is a record. The unemployment rate has decreased by 40,000 in the past year. It is fair to say that approximately 90% of all of the new jobs created during the term of the previous Government were full-time jobs.
The difficulty is that the traditional employment relationship, the standard model with which we are all familiar, is fraying at the edges. Unfortunately, many labour market practices are operating at the edge of what employment law permits. I introduced the uncertain hours Bill to the House in recent months so as to provide legislation and regulation for people who were on insecure contracts and, because they were going to bed on a Sunday night not knowing how much they would earn that week, unable to plan their lives. This is not the type of society that Senators wish to preside over or encourage.
A year and a half ago when I was Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, we published the UL study of the prevalence of zero-hour and low-hour contracts in the State. It contained a series of recommendations that we proposed the Government adopt to regulate this area better, but there has been no product from the Minister who has no interest in regulating the labour market or the quality of jobs. She is interested in the quantity of jobs but not their quality, which is a huge challenge. When can we expect the long-awaited legislation from the Department to be before the Dáil or this House? Perhaps there is a message in the Fine Gael WhatsApp group and the Leader will inform the House of the status of the proposed legislation because I cannot locate it.
We should congratulate the Taoiseach and all of his Ministers on the jobs outturn published earlier. A total of 65,000 additional jobs were created in the past 12 months. The target set in 2012 was to have 100,000 additional people at work by 2016, but a total of 200,000 new jobs has been achieved in a short period. The State has not relied on the construction industry which is expanding to create these jobs. Senator Gerald Nash raised the issue of zero-hour contracts. Employers will have to change what they are offering in the not too distant future because the unemployment rate will reduce to 5% or even 4.5% in a short timeframe and they will have to compete for employees. That is when the Senator will see a response to that issue. The work being done on the job creation programme by all State agencies needs to be acknowledged, whether it be IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland or Tourism Ireland. Everyone has done a tremendous job because good leadership has been provided.
Senator Catherine Ardagh raised the housing issue. We set a clear target. We had to make sure jobs were created in order that income could be generated to provide services. The building of houses can now take off because funding will be available. Likewise, we will be able to respond to requirements in the health service because there will be access to funding. That is the key achievement of this and the previous Government.
I refer to the apparent slowness and reluctance of energy companies to pass on reductions to hard-pressed householders. A recent report issued by the regulator has found that wholesale electricity prices fell by almost 39% between 2013 and 2016 due mainly to wholesale prices of oil and gas falling during that period. However, the electricity and gas bills of consumers have only reduced by 3% and many are rightly asking why the 39% reduction in wholesale prices is not being passed on to them. The regulator has belatedly - after three or four years - announced a review of what is happening, which I welcome. Will the Leader ensure the review will take place as a matter of urgency in order that reductions in electricity and gas prices will be passed on to hard-pressed consumers?
I have long been a supporter of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and the work he is doing to get house building back on the rails and people into housing. During the discussions on the programme for Government I asked if the Government would contact the Central Bank with a view to having rent paid recognised for the purposes of mortgage applications.
As the Leader knows, I never get involved in local politics but this issue has national implications, so it suits my national political profile. I met a young couple at the weekend who, in eight years, spent €110,000 renting an apartment. Out of a middle-of-the-road salary, €110,000 over eight years did not leave much room for saving money. From what I understand, they are now in a position where they are about to lose their accommodation and they would like to buy. The help to buy scheme which the Minister brought in was helpful, although it managed to push up prices in Dublin by €20,000 within days of it being announced. This couple has no savings worth talking about. They do not want to buy a big elaborate place; all they want is a nice little one bedroom apartment which would cost about €230,000 in south Dublin. The banks are telling them they can have 75% of a mortgage. A couple, which has shown that it is capable of paying out €110,000 over a period of eight years, should be considered for a 100% mortgage. I do not see anything wrong with that. I do not see it as an inflationary or a bubble-creating exercise. I believe it is recognition that they have the money to pay.
I ask that we have a debate on how the banks are treating people. This Government has gone a long way in trying to solve the housing problem, and I am not for one minute throwing bouquets at anyone nor am I trying to get involved in things that are going on in Fine Gael because the Minister for Social Protection has done a great job as has the Minister for Justice and Equality and anyone else who is in the ring. The truth is that we should be able to provide homes for these people who have shown they have a track record of being able to repay the value of a mortgage up to around €300,000. I would appreciate hearing the Leader's views on it and if he thinks it is worth bringing the Minister in. I am not 100% certain whether it is the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government who has responsibility for it, although it is probably both.
Like my colleague, I welcome the reduction in the unemployment figures which have now fallen to 6.8%, having been as high as over 15% when the leader of the Opposition's party was in power. The good news is that the majority of new jobs are outside Dublin and that the regions are starting to feel the recovery. Employment has grown in all sectors of the economy, and what is interesting is that the biggest growth is in the construction industry, so we are getting our builders back to work and are starting to impact on the shortage of houses and the shortage of office space. Obviously, from the day a shovel is put in the ground to the day one can see the finished product is quite a number of months, or sometimes a year or more, but this is a sure sign that this problem is being addressed. It is not quick enough for those who find themselves without a home and the Government and the Minister, in particular, are doing everything they can to expedite the provision of accommodation.
We now have the resources to start repairing our society and the economy is only useful to us in so far as it supports our communities, our families and our friends. We need these resources because as our population continues to grow, and nowhere more so than in Fingal, we need new schools, new health facilities and, as I mentioned in the past few days, a hospital for Swords, but the really good news, as my colleague has alluded to, is that it is rapidly becoming a jobseekers' market and the quality of the jobs and conditions going with them should improve. That is not to say there will not still be individuals who may seek to exploit employees and certainly the Minister and her Department are addressing this issue in a very aggressive fashion and will be come back to us with solutions. Therefore, I reject out of hand the idea of the Senator that this Minister does not have workers' welfare to the fore in her mind.
I propose that we adopt No. 33, non-Government motion 16, before No. 1 without debate.
The motion calls on the management of Tesco Ireland to respect the rights of long-serving Tesco workers to maintain their existing terms and conditions. This is an issue which should unite all of us across the Chamber. At the heart of the dispute are issues of respect and decency - respect for workers who have given a lifetime of service and decency with regard to their terms and conditions. Up to 250 long-serving Tesco workers have been told that they can either lose their jobs or take cuts in pay and accept changes to their shifts. I have met several of them and, as I said previously, have been shocked by the levels of intimidation and bullying. I have been shocked by the fact that Tesco hired a legal firm of union busters and initiated what it calls Project Black, a project to de-unionise the company. I was shocked to hear a story of a woman with over 20 years' service who on coming into work was presented, without warning, with flowers and a leaving card by management. Many workers have been reduced to tears.
We have worded the motion carefully and are not being in any way prescriptive as to how the dispute should be resolved. We are simply calling on Tesco management to respect the rights of their long-serving employees. That is all we are asking. Surely, we can all sign up to that. In a week when, to be frank, we will not have much to do in this Chamber, with only one Bill to be debated, we can do this to send a strong united message to Tesco management. There are Members on all sides of the Chamber who have been members of trade unions and Members who, regardless of whether they were ever in a union, believe in the principles of decent work and respect. We must speak with one united voice today. We should support the men and women who are out in all weather conditions today because they want to stand up for decency and respect and, above all, in solidarity with their fellow workers.
Before I call Senator Terry Leyden, I welcome Councillor Mattie Ryan from Tipperary County Council and his friends who are visiting the Seanad. Councillors are always welcome in this Chamber.
I second that with great joy and pleasure because the next Seanad election might take place sooner rather than later.
Is the Senator ready for it?
I am always ready.
Is the Senator running?
Please allow Senator Leyden to continue, without interruption.
I am like the Taoiseach - I keep my own counsel.
The Senator changed quickly.
The Leader is interrupting tbusiness.
You had better tell Frank.
Last night in my parish of Castlecoote, County Roscommon, 140 people attended a public meeting which had been called by Councillors Orla Leyden and Ivan Connaughton. A unanimous decision was taken to oppose with all strength and in every possible way, politically and legally, a proposal that Coillte dispose of our lands, not its lands, for sustainable commercial development as listed in advertisements in the Roscommon People and the Roscommon Herald. The bottom line of the advertisements referred to the "sustainable development proposals and the likely financial returns to Coillte". Coillte is a State company owned by the one shareholder, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We will oppose wind turbines destroying our area, a most beautiful area for tourists, with rivers, streams and lakes, encompassing fishing and sustainable development. The Cuisle Irish Wheelchair Association national holiday centre is located close to the area in question. These wind turbine monstrosities are to be imposed on our communities which they will destroy and defile by bribing farmers to give sites to foreign companies. I thought we had got rid of them in the 1920s, but they are back again and trying to buy up properties. I want to have a debate on this question with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We will fight tooth and nail in our parishes to ensure a sustainable living for our people. We will not have these monstrosities which will be higher than the Spire on O'Connell Street in Dublin hanging over their heads. I am putting down a marker that this is a fight to the finish. We will oppose any politician who will back the project in the next general election. If we have to, we will fight them every inch of the way. I cannot understand how anyone could do this to us and wreck our beautiful area which I invite any Senator to come to see.
I want the support of Senators to oppose these people. This is not Coillte's land; it is our land and we should decide how to use it for the future of Ireland.
I wish to raise the issue of rates, which is close to my heart and close to many business people's hearts. We see that €60 million will be put into the rural regeneration scheme, but rates are a problem in many small rural towns, although previous Governments have done nothing about it. Legislation governing the rates system goes back to the 1800s, but the only rule concerning rates is that one must pay them. In the midlands and Munster, the Valuation Office went into businesses that had fought through tough times in the recession and revalued their rates upwards. In some cases, their rates have been trebled. We are trying to keep family businesses in town centres but they have struggled for survival in the recession. Now, however, we are multiplying their rates threefold.
Many respectable business people are currently being dragged through the courts due to unpaid rates. We helped GAA clubs, and rightly so, when bars were put in via new legislation. We now need new legislation to deal with rates. We also need a debate on this matter to get something done.
I wish to second Senator Gavan's motion on the Tesco workers. Shame on anybody who does not support it.
As regards Senator Leyden's point, the Dublin Mountains were to be sold off by Coillte. As a little reminder his colleague, Bertie Ahern, was involved in that about five years ago.
The Children's Rights Alliance launched its 2017 report card this morning as it has done this for the past nine years. It is a report on how children are faring in Ireland today. The CRA has given access to mental health services a grade D minus. Although it comes as no surprise, child homelessness gets a shameful grade E, which is bottom of the league.
Medical cards, which were a big issue about two years ago, got a grade D. Medical cards are now granted to all children who qualify for the domiciliary care allowance. This is a positive step, although it took a while for parents to obtain that right. However, the Minister should sort out the unnecessary and traumatising annual application process, given that they are subsequently allowed on appeal. In 2016, 1,198 applications were refused, while 90% of them were subsequently revised and allowed on appeal. This occurs year in, year out. It seems that the process is deliberately designed to sap the will of parents who are already struggling and exhausted. I ask the Minister to hurry up the HSE's plan for this scheme. The Minister should attend this House to update Members on the expected passage through the Oireachtas of the relevant legislation. If that could be done, it would be much appreciated.
On a number of occasion in recent weeks, there have been consistent call in the House for a debate on migration, specifically focusing on Europe's migration policies, including Ireland's.
As the issues accumulate, I would like to highlight another that may need to be addressed in the debate. We need to have the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in the House to discuss this. We also need to consider some of the decisions recently taken that have caused great distress across Ireland. In light of the new international protection order and organisation under the new policies we have, a 60-page form was issued in late February to many of those in the State's asylum system. They have been encouraged to return it within 20 days. It has been documented in the public sphere that great distress has been caused by this. The asylum seekers have been advised to seek legal advice. Asking many of those in direct provision, who are on €19 per week, to seek legal advice on filling in a 60 page form at such short notice that could affect their future and could be extraordinarily intimidating is completely unreasonable. Some have now indicated they will talk to solicitors and they are seeking advice. There has been a lot of confusion.
Could the Leader of the House ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, even in advance of the debate we will have here on migration, whether she will issue clarification and reassurance and, if necessary, offer legal support to all those facing this very daunting and intimidating prospect? It points to the unfortunate fact that we in Ireland are failing in our migration policy in terms of accepting adequate numbers in the European context and also in terms of ensuring full dignity, support and fair treatment for all those within the system. I would like the House to address this.
I wholeheartedly support the motion put forward by Senator Gavan. It is very reasonably worded and fair. Considering the amount of resources expended by Tesco, a company with €250 million in profit, one knows the matter cannot be about a small number of workers. In the human resources blogs, we see exactly what this is about; it is about remaking the way work is done so an individual's contract no longer stands when facing the preferences of a company for a new business model. As representatives of the public, we are an important counterbalance and reminder in this regard. I look forward to what I hope will be the passage of the motion today.
I wish to raise two matters, both of which are business related. The first concerns the upgrade of the N52 from just outside Mullingar, at Cloghan, to Turin church, which is approximately seven miles from Delvin. It is proposed to close this stretch of national roadway for three months for upgrade works to continue. For one of the three months, there will be no work done. It is hard to believe but only in Ireland could this happen.
Over the Easter break, St. Patrick's Day and weekends, no work will be done. Much of the road is just passing through farmland. The new road is passing mainly through farmland; it is not passing by houses or is doing so only to a very small extent. If anything, the stretch of road is ideal for work during the night.
What is occurring really beggars belief. I implore the Leader to talk to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport about this. I acknowledge the Minister has much hassle to deal with at present but what is occurring is scandalous. The number of businesses that the works are pushing to the verge of closure is incredible, not to mention the 20-mile round trip that must be taken by way of a detour. It is absolutely crazy stuff. The work is to take three months but no work will be done for one of them.
I fully agree with Senator Ray Butler on the Revenue Commissioners. It has been floated for quite a while that councils will get the same powers as the Revenue Commissioners. This is unheard of. It would be criminal if councils could have access to one's bank account. If one were making a joint tax return with one's wife, they could take money from her. She could be a director in one's company. This is for the birds. I cannot believe this is being floated. It was in the newspapers. I saw it floated six months ago and believed it was incorrect. It is being floated again at present. I implore the Leader to nail this down.
People have come through a very difficult time, particularly those with small businesses. We are talking about giving councils the same powers as the Revenue Commissioners. It would be criminal for us to do that. I implore the Leader to ask the relevant Minister to come into the House to discuss that and tell us that this is one kite that will not fly.
Last week, Senator Landy raised some pertinent issues regarding the Harold's Cross greyhound racing track. A number of other issues of great concern arise concerning the operation of the greyhound industry. I believe the relevant Minister is the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle, who has responsibility for food, forestry and horticulture. I ask that he come into the House to address those issues.
That will be tomorrow.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I hope we can get a particular focus on it because it is sadly the case that a gentleman who was found by the Australian greyhound authorities to be using live animals for baiting and who was barred from working for the industry in Australia, and who I believe was barred in England also, is back working in a kennel in Ireland. I wonder whether the Minister of State is aware of that and if he is, what has he done to ensure that such a man will have no contact with the industry?
I understand that an RTE "Prime Time" programme to be broadcast next week will deal with the greyhound industry. There are significant issues of public concern, given that this is an industry that is being funded to the tune of €16 million a year. That is the figure given annually to Bord na gCon, which has the responsibility of developing the industry. It would be good to hear from the Minister of State tomorrow on the subject because far too often we have reaction to what emerges in RTE documentaries. There are facts already in the public domain. There was a disturbing article in The Sunday Times in December about the doping of greyhounds in the sector. It is important that the Minister of State would take the opportunity tomorrow to tell us what he knows about these disturbing reports, the action he has taken if he does know, if he has not known up to now, the reason for that, and what he intends to do now.
Beidh mé díreach agus go dtí an pointe sa chás seo. The election campaign continues in the north east of the country and the Leader has rightly and wisely advised us to steer clear of partisan statements or engagements in that regard. I will take his advice and guidance on that but it is important that I draw Members' attention to an incident that occurred last night and hopefully galvanise Members regarding it. The car belonging to the election agent of the Sinn Féin candidate in North Down, Kieran Maxwell, was petrol bombed in front of his home last night. North Down in recent times has not been a hotbed for Sinn Féin or republican activity. It is not a place that is greatly familiar with that political outlook but, nevertheless, a small group of locals have engaged diligently, passionately and, in this instance, openly and transparently in trying to build their politics. Regardless of where we sit in this House in terms of party politics, we can all agree that we enter this realm for genuine and hopeful reasons in terms of trying to improve the quality of life for the communities in which we live. I believe this House should express its solidarity to the man involved in this incident, which comes on the back of threats being made to him and other cumann members via social media. It also follows the removal of election posters in the area.
This is a dangerous and brutal edge to this campaign and we should send a clear message that that kind of brutal politics has no place on our island. Through the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and, critically, officials in the British-Irish Joint Secretariat, we should ensure that pressure is put on the PSNI to investigate this incident fully but also that the message goes from this House that regardless of who they are, where they come from or the party politics they intend to engage in, this kind of intimidation, bullying and violence has no place in political life and should be faced down.
I wish to raise two issues. I wish to raise the same issue as my colleague about the homelessness crisis. The Minister is not listening. I can genuinely say that every few weeks I raise housing and he is not listening. In 2015 to 2016 there was a 50% increase in homelessness while at the same time the number of vacant properties is 260,000. I had a family in my clinic during the week. The mother has been trying to find out for months about the vacant house across the road from her. I have contacted the council and the banks and there is no information on vacant properties. Where does one go? The woman has a mortgage and she wants to buy a house. The house to which I referred is in her locality but nobody can tell her about it, who is responsible for it, be it the banks or whether it has been repossessed from a family. Until the Minister puts a regulation in place or introduces legislation to make people accountable then the situation will get worse.
On average, the rate of vacant properties around the country is 5% but in my area in Carlow the rate of vacant properties is highest at 15%. That is unacceptable. In addition, we do not meet the criteria for the new rent cap. We do not qualify. I brought that to the Minister's attention last week. I told him that local authorities in all counties need to come under the legislation that was introduced regarding rent caps. I urge the Leader to bring the issue to the attention of the Minister, who must come to the House.
The second issue relates to mental health. There has been a 60% cutback in the number of mental health beds available in Waterford. There were 14 beds and now there are only six. That is unacceptable. As it is, there is a queue. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, must come to the House to address the matter. There is no need to cut mental health services. The combined population of Waterford and Wexford is 300,000 and it is unacceptable that eight beds are being closed.
I thank the 17 Senators who made contributions on the Order of Business. Senators Ardagh, Boyhan, Colm Burke and Murnane O'Connor referred to housing and related issues. The important point is that yesterday the Minister, Deputy Coveney, announced 8,430 social housing units across 500 developments, building on the Rebuilding Ireland initiative. He announced a total of 504 social housing schemes, and a further 450 public private partnership developments are also due to take place.
In response to the issue raised by Senator Murnane O'Connor about voids and vacant houses, 2,300 such houses are being redeveloped as we speak and over the course of the year. I agree that the level of homeless people is unacceptably high but it is important to recognise that the Minister has set targets and that he must be accountable for them.
In response to Senator Murnane O'Connor's point about voids, I would like to hear what the county manager and county council are doing about it. They are the line people who are responsible. The Minister can only do so much. In addition, the Senator must accept that it was when her party was in government that it created the worst recession in the history of the State, which decimated the construction industry.
On a point of order, a Chathaoirligh.
No, that is not a point of order.
That is unacceptable. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, told us things would get better-----
They are better.
-----but they are worse.
Senator Murnane O'Connor must please not interrupt the Leader.
Blaming Fianna Fáil is wrong. The Leader must let that go.
The Senator should please not interrupt.
Fine Gael has been in government for six years and it should take responsibility.
An extra 200,000 people are in work.
Senator Murnane O'Connor must please not interrupt. Anybody speaking apart from the Leader can only raise one point. I allowed Senator Murnane O'Connor to make two points and she should not be unfair. The Leader is entitled to respond and there should be no argy-bargy.
I welcome the former Minister of State, Mr. Parlon, who is in the Gallery. In his role with the Construction Industry Federation he will tell Senator Murnane O'Connor that the Government is ambitious about building houses. We want to get the construction sector moving. What we have in Rebuilding Ireland is a comprehensive plan to address the imbalance the Senator spoke about and to redress the deficits.
The Government should build the houses. It is just rehashing the news.
We are addressing homelessness.
The Government should build houses.
We are accelerating the building of social housing. In tandem with the construction sector we are building more houses.
We are improving the public realm across the country. As Senator Colm Burke said, more people are back at work. One of the things associated with people being back at work is the need for housing. It must be recognised that the Fianna Fáil-led Governments decimated the construction industry. That is the bottom line. For the first time, we have a Minister with an accountable target for the number of houses to be provided. I ask Senators to come with me to Tramore Road in Cork where yesterday the Minister opened a new social housing scheme, the quality of which one would not see anywhere else.
What about Carlow, Kilkenny and other areas?
Please allow the Leader to continue, without interruption.
In tandem with that, there is an ambitious programme, Rebuilding Ireland, to address the issues raised by Senators. It is unacceptable for people to be homeless or families to be living in hotel rooms. I live in the real world, in a constituency where people come to me. This is a Government that has set about addressing the issues about which Senators have spoken.
Senators Colm Burke, Reilly and Nash raised the issues of unemployment and employment contracts. We should celebrate today. Unemployment is down to 6.8%. There are 65,100 more people back at work. For the 17th successive quarter there has been an increase in the number of people at work. In 2010 the unemployment rate was 15.1% - men and women who had lost hope and who had no chance of finding a job - but today jobs are being created. There is the highest number of people at work since 2008. We were told it could not be done, but we are doing it, with the help of the people. We are getting people back to work. The unemployment rate continues to fall. In 2016, 1,300 more people were back at work every week. Since 2012, 205,900 people are back at work. That is to be celebrated and an achievement many in the House thought would never happen. It is important, therefore, to put things in context.
What about the health service?
I am responding to the points made on the Order of Business. If Senator Davitt ever has the good fortune to be in this position someday, he can reply to the Order of Business. I want to put things in context. According to the Central Statistics Office which is independent of the Government, 70% of the new jobs created are outside Dublin. The region with the fastest growing number of new jobs during 2016 was the mid-west in which the employment rate was up by 7.4%; in the west it was up by 5.5% and in the south east by 4.6%. I think Senators will agree that is good news which we should all rejoice and celebrate.
Senators Boyhan and Conway-Walsh correctly raised the issue of GLAS payments. I will be happy to have the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, come to the House to discuss the issue. As the House knows, the scheme is paying a key role in enhancing Ireland's ability to promote sustainable agricultural production. Some 38,000 farmers were included in the first tranche of those who were paid. However, the Minister and I accept that there is an issue with the number of applications being processed. He will come to the House to address the matter. It is important to recognise that this is a very important scheme for rural Ireland. The issue of why payments have not yet been processed has to be addressed.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to the Pat Finucane case. The announcement in the courts in the North today was disappointing. Geraldine and the family deserve our support and acknowledgement, but it is a matter beyond the jurisdiction of this Chamber.
Senator Conway-Walsh asked that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, come to the House to discuss a certain matter. I will be happy to have the issue addressed.
Senator Gallagher raised energy prices. I will be happy to have the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, come to the House to discuss the issue. Senator Craughwell referred to the banks. I share his view that €110,000 is a large amount. I will be happy to accept Senator Gavan's motion because it is important that the House collectively sends a signal on the rights of workers. Senator Nash also referred to this matter. We must protect workers' rights irrespective of who or where they are. As to the dispute at Tesco, it is important that both sides sit down and discuss the issues through the mechanisms available. Rather than having a motion from one party, it would be preferable to agree to an all-party motion on the issue and I will accept Senator Gavan's motion in that spirit.
Senator Leyden referred to wind farms in connection with Castlecoote. He is correct that people in rural areas need to be able to live sustainably. The Senator should submit a Commencement matter to have the issue discussed with the relevant Minister.
Senators Butler and Davitt raised the issue of rates. Senator Butler has been a champion of communities and businesses on the issue of rates. We must give small businesses every opportunity to develop and grow. I hope the Department and Revenue Commissioners can work with local authorities, chambers of commerce and the Small Firms Association to ensure the viability of small companies, particularly in rural areas and smaller towns.
I did not catch all of Senator Devine's contribution on the report card published by the Children's Rights Alliance today. Perhaps she will send me an e-mail on the issue.
I asked about legislation to provide children whose parents are in receipt of domiciliary care allowance with medical cards.
The former Minister of State at the Department of Health, Ms Kathleen Lynch, was working on that issue. I will be happy to have the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, come to the House to discuss the matter.
Senator Higgins raised the issue of migration. We have asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, to come to the House. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to a matter on which the Department communicated with him directly. I will try to obtain a copy of the reply for him.
Senator Davitt raised the N52 road project with which, to be honest, I am not familiar. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, was in the House earlier to respond to a Commencement matter. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to raise the issue as a Commencement matter to have it addressed.
To respond to Senator Mullen, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Doyle, will be in the House tomorrow to discuss the greyhound industry. While I am not familiar with the case the Senator raises, it is important that anyone with specific information on the greyhound industry should forward it to the relevant authorities, including the Minister. As we have seen in other areas, it is important that people in possession of information share and communicate it directly with the relevant authority or individuals, whether Bord na gCon or the Minister. I do not want anyone to condone or support malpractice or bad practice in the greyhound industry because the sector is very important to the country. As Senators are aware, the Government commits more than €16 million per annum to the greyhound racing fund. The industry also employs large numbers of people directly and indirectly. It is important, therefore, that we uphold its good name.
I am not familiar with the incident raised by Senator Ó Donnghaile. I agree that bad or brutal politics have no place in democracy, irrespective of which side of the political spectrum we are on. We must not allow sectarianism to take root or grow in any community, whether in the North, South, east or west of the island. I look forward to joining the Senator on the campaign trail in the North next weekend when I will be up there campaigning for a couple of friends.
It is okay for the Senator to name them.
I will not politicise the House.
He should tell us who they are.
Ciúnas, le do thoil.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of beds in the mental health services. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy McEntee, increased funding for mental health this year. She has taken a proactive approach to mental heath. It is important to talk more about mental health and achieve a cross-party consensus on the issue. As I am not familiar with the case in Waterford, the Senator may have her question answered quicker if she raises it as a Commencement matter.
I am happy to accept Senator Gavan's motion on the Order of Business.
Senator Gavan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 33, motion 16 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated he is willing to accept the amendment. Is that agreed? Agreed.