The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding a report of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, Communications Regulation (Postal Services)(Amendment) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes each, and the Minister to be given five minutes to reply to the debate.
Order of Business
I wish to convey my sympathies and that of the Fianna Fáil group to the family of the late Peter Mathews on his passing - to his wife, Susan Mathews, and to their four children. Ar dheis láimh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
The non-principal private residence, NPPR, tax, colloquially known as the second home tax, was in place from 2009 to 2013 until it was replaced by the local property tax, LPT. The explicit guidance of the Revenue Commissioners was that the NPPR tax paid could not be used as a deductible expense when filing an income tax return.
As Senators will know, the High Court ruled recently that this was not correct and that the NPPR charge could be deducted from income tax. However, in 2017 the law states one can only amend one's income tax returns for the previous four years. This means that anyone who did not include the NPPR charge-----
Is the Senator referring to the local property tax?
No, I am referring to the non-principal private residence charge, known as the second home tax, which was replaced by the local property tax.
I thank the Senator for the clarification.
Most people did not include the NPPR as a deductible expense because the Revenue Commissioners were so explicit in stating it was not deductible. It has now been made clear that it is a deductible expense but only as far back as 2013. Those who paid the charge will only be able to submit claims as far back as 2013 because of Revenue's rule that one can only amend one's tax returns for the preceding four years. In that context, I ask the Minister for Finance to make a special exception to allow people to amend their tax returns as far back as 2009 on the basis that the Revenue Commissioners issued very clear guidance in that year on the interpretation of the Taxes Consolidation Act to the effect that NPPR was not a deductible expense. It now transpires that it can be treated as a deductible expense but only for the previous four years. This could represent a huge saving, given that some people were paying up to 50% in income tax. The Minister must examine this issue because it is very unfair to landowners. The charge was levied at a time when the country was on its knees. I ask the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister.
The second matter I wish to raise is the ongoing dispute at Bus Éireann. Everyone is aware that talks at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, have broken down. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, is taking a hands-off approach and has argued that he cannot intervene in a pay dispute. However, this is not merely a pay dispute; it is also about the structural formation of Bus Éireann and its financial difficulties. In January 2016 the previous Government was aware that there was a deficit of €20 million, which has since grown to €30 million. The Minister became aware of the problem when he took on the transport brief. I call on the Government and the Minister, in particular, to deal with this issue and ensure the country will not be affected by a strike. The Minister has been sitting on the fence and letting the dispute work its way out at the WRC, which is not acceptable. He needs to get involved. I ask the Leader to bring the matter to his attention forthwith.
I join colleagues in offering my condolences to the Leader and Fine Gael Members on the death of former Deputy Peter Mathews. He was a school and college friend of mine and always a gentleman.
He was a person who paid a serious price for living by his principles in his political career. I ask the Leader to convey to his widow, Susan, and four children my sincere personal condolences on their tragic loss.
I raise with the Leader a matter which is increasingly of concern to me. It is now nearly six months since the Taoiseach indicated in this House that he proposed to establish an implementation group to advance the recommendations made in the Manning report on Seanad reform. As far as I know, although nominations for the group were sought in recent times, no progress whatsoever has been made and the implementation group remains inert on the shelf. Bearing in mind that it is part of the programme for Government which may cause some here to smile, something should be done about it.
Now that the Taoiseach has an extension of his tenure in political office, will the Leader ask him if he could spare the time to come to the Seanad to explain precisely what he proposes to do in implementing the Manning report, whether he still intends to establish an implementation group and whether and when the group will meet? He asked us to further stall consideration of the Bill which I had got through Second Stage. Given that he asked us to postpone further action until he had established the implementation group, when is it proposed to make Government time available in the House to explain the reason for the delay?
On my own behalf and that of the Sinn Féin team in the Seanad, I extend my deepest sympathy to the wife and family of the late former Deputy Peter Mathews and acknowledge all of the work he did both inside and outside the Oireachtas.
I intend to talk about Grace, but before I do so, I wish to show the Cathaoirleach and Members a photograph. While people in Dublin were concerned last week about the storm in case their hair or hats might be blown away, the photograph shows what happened to the houses in County Mayo affected by pyrite and mica. I ask the Leader to, as a matter of urgency, invite the Minister responsible to come to the House to update us on the expert group he appointed to deal with the mica and pyrite issue. Hundreds of homes across County Mayo are affected by it. My colleague, Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, has spoken about the thousands of homes affected in County Donegal.
And in Dublin.
People in Dublin had access to a redress scheme. We need such a scheme-----
Many people were excluded from it.
Please allow Senator Rose Conway-Walsh to continue.
I doubt that any house in Dublin ended up like the one in the photograph. That is what people in counties Mayo and Donegal must contend with. Their houses are falling down around them because proper standards were not put in place and there were appalling building regulations and regulations for quarries. This matter must be brought to a conclusion and a redress scheme put in place immediately for the people affected. I, therefore, ask the Leader to invite the Minister responsible to come to the House as a matter of urgency.
I refer to the two reports published today on the foster home where the woman known as Grace was left for years. Even though allegations of rape and the abuse of Grace and 47 intellectually disabled children were widely known, she was left there for nearly 20 years. I have three questions for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, to answer on behalf of the Government she represents. Why was Grace abandoned by those who had a duty to ensure she received the care she desperately needed as a vulnerable human being and citizen of the State? Who stopped the 2012 report by Conal Devine from being published until now? Who stopped the 2015 report from being published? We are told it was because criminal proceedings might take place, but who has been arrested? How many files have been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions?
It is welcome that a commission of investigation will be set up in the coming weeks, but where is the accountability? Like me, most people are sick and tired of cover-up after cover-up. We are fed up with the protection of State institutions being sacrosanct. There is a vulnerable young woman - there are many other vulnerable adults - at the centre of this scandal and we know that it is by no means an isolated case. The ad hoc approach of State services, whether they are provided directly by the State or contracted out to other service providers, is an abomination. I commend the young social worker who acted as a whistleblower in this case. Her courage and the tenacity she showed in exposing the plight of Grace are laudable. As in the case of Sergeant Maurice McCabe, I hope her actions will serve to encourage others working in State institutions to come forward and expose the scandals and subsequent cover-ups that blight the nation.
While I am talking on this subject-----
The Senator is well over time.
-----it is absolutely deplorable that the Garda Commissioner is still in place two days into the inquiry being carried out involving Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
The Senator has run well over her time limit. I call Senator Black.
I, too, would like to convey my condolences to the Leader and members of Fine Gael on the passing of Peter Mathews. I also extend condolences to his wife and family. He was a good man and he will be missed.
Today, I would like to highlight the case of Cork woman, Vera Twomey. She is the mother of a six-year-old girl called Ava who suffers catastrophic epilepsy. The mother has expressed her devastation after the HSE turned down her application for medicinal cannabis for her beautiful daughter. She was left heartbroken when the HSE turned down her application for medicinal cannabis for Ava and now fears her daughter will die. She has tried to get the Minister for Health to make medicinal cannabis available to her young daughter, Ava, who suffers from a very rare form of epilepsy. The Minister has been informed that the condition can be alleviated by taking medicinal cannabis. Ava's condition has improved in recent months after she started taking cannabis oil. Ava has taken cannabis oil, which is legally sourced from a shop in Dublin, since last October. Vera says that her daughter's life has been transformed since taking cannabis oil. Ava has thrived and there has been a 90% drop in the number of seizures. Little Ava can have up to 20 seizures a day, which is devastating. I know because I have a family member who has seizures. I can attest to the fact that it is heartbreaking.
The Minister has told Vera that she cannot get the medication to help treat her daughter because it has not been prescribed by a paediatric brain specialist and no exception will be made. I urge the Leader to ask the Minister to consider granting a compassionate exemption order that would allow Ava to use the THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, form of cannabis.
I wish to briefly highlight the three homeless people who are in tents that are located outside of my office.
Just a second, Senator. The first issue might be more appropriate for a Commencement matter because it would afford you an opportunity to give special details.
I understand but I would still like to highlight the issue. I would also like to highlight the fact there are three homeless people living in tents located outside my office. I do not know if the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, has seen them but they are right outside my office. They are living in tents. It is horrendous to see people living in tents just outside Leinster House in this day and age. I would like the Minister to see those people living there. It is a horrendous situation.
I thank the Senator and call Senator Bacik.
I would like to join with others, on behalf of the Labour Party group, in expressing sympathies to the family of the late Deputy Peter Mathews on his sudden passing yesterday.
I call on the Leader, as other Senators have done, to arrange a debate on the State's response to the reports of abuse committed against the child known as Grace while in foster care in Waterford over a long period of years. The reports have been published today after a five-year delay. The findings have been widely publicised in the newspapers. I do not suppose any of us have had a chance to read them in detail. I would like us to have a debate once we have had an opportunity to read them. The litany of sexual and physical abuse and, indeed, of neglect perpetrated on this child right up until she was finally removed from the home in 2009, many years after the initial decision to remove her, as we understand, to have been made in 1996.
I find it hard to hear the Senator because there are about four conversations taking place in the Chamber. When a speaker is on her feet, or anybody, please give him or her the respect to have the floor.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I appreciate his assistance.
I do not think I am losing my hearing. I could not hear the Senator because so many conversations were taking place. Ar aghaidh leat.
I ask the Leader again for a debate on the State's response to the abuses perpetrated on this child while in foster care. We should also hear why it took so long to publish the Conal Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report. There has been a five-year delay since the reports were prepared.
We must also hear about the other children who were placed in the home. We now know from the findings that have been publicised that 47 children were placed in the same home between 1985 and 2013. Some reports suggest that there are a number of other cases that require further examination and where there is a suggestion that similar abuse occurred. It would be good to have a debate once we see the reports published in full. It would be good to have a debate that focuses, in particular, on the State's response and on what can be done to ensure accountability, as others have said. The key issues are accountability and ensuring that such abuse simply will not be able to happen again. Some colleagues of mine, who practice in the area of child care and children law, have expressed their fears. Notably, the solicitor, Ms Catherine Ghent, expressed her fear today on radio, in response to the reports, that cases like this can and do still happen and called on everyone to be mindful of proper processes. She warned about the lack of resources available to social workers that would allow them to visit foster care homes and ensure there is adequate monitoring and supervision of children placed in homes even now.
This is not just an historical matter. It really does affect child welfare now in this country and we should have that debate. I ask the Leader to facilitate that, perhaps next week or as soon as possible, once we have had a chance to absorb the report.
I join others in expressing concern at the prospect of the Bus Éireann strike next week and, in particular, at the letters that were sent to workers yesterday by the board of Bus Éireann expressing its intent to proceed with the changes to be made. I also join with others in calling for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House. I know he will be before the transport committee but he needs to take a much more active role in seeking to ensure the strike does not go ahead and that talks may proceed at the Workplace Relations Commission. We would all very much hope to see some resolution reached before an all-out strike is commenced.
I ask the Leader to bring in the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to discuss the application by Irish Cement in regard to replacing fossil fuels with an incinerator and the proposed burning of tyres. A prominent group, Limerick Against Pollution, has been set up and Professor Anthony Staines addressed a well-attended public meeting last Friday at which many concerns were highlighted.
There are two aspects. The first is the planning application, which is with Limerick City and County Council at the moment, on which I have made a submission and have spoken to the planners. A decision on the application is due on 9 April. Second, the EPA has been asked to monitor and review the licence, although I know it cannot make a decision. There is a fear factor in regard to air quality, in particular as there are quite a few farmers in the area and very strong odours from the cement factory have been experienced in the past. Given this fear factor, more than 1,000 submissions went to the EPA, with a similar number having been made against the planning application. It is an issue that is very much to the forefront of people's minds in the Mungret, Raheen and Dooradoyle areas, and it affects roughly 30,000 people living in the vicinity.
Senator Bacik referred to the Bus Éireann dispute. I too call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to intervene directly in the dispute. Bus Éireann goes into every nook and cranny across Ireland and into all communities. I believe the letter issued by the management will have a detrimental effect on those communities.
I ask the Leader to talk to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in regard to minors purchasing mobile phones and SIM cards with no checks being carried out as to their identification or age by some of the telecommunications companies. At present ten year olds can rock up to a mobile phone shop and buy a pay-as-you-go phone or ready-to-go SIM without being asked for identification or for their age. This is without doubt leading to a jump in underage gambling via mobile phones, an explosion in cyberbullying, the scourge of sexting, which we hear is happening in schools every day of the week and the use of porn by young kids. We have opened the door to vices and let kids enter with little or no control. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment needs to urgently address this anomaly in our law in order to safeguard and protect the lives of our youth. It is a serious problem and one we have to address. We cannot just sit on our hands in this regard.
I agree with the point made by Senator Frances Black, given I too was appalled when I came back to the House today to find that 100 years after Independence, three people are living in tents in the shadows of Leinster House and must urinate in corners and wash themselves in the rain coming out of a gutter. It is just not good enough. I could not believe my eyes at what I saw today. We hear that all these people are being housed and about all that is being done for those on housing lists but the homelessness crisis is out of control. The sooner we admit that and try to tackle it, the better. Something serious has to be done.
First, I express my-----
The Senator is welcome back, but that does not give him any extra latitude.
The Cathaoirleach is very kind.
Let him off.
I appreciated the Cathaoirleach's good wishes while I was in hospital.
The Senator is very entertaining.
I express my sadness at the death of former Deputy Peter Mathews who was a very decent man. He was a traditional old-style Roman Catholic but not in any narrow sense. He was always very friendly to me. I liked him and found him very helpful. When I spoke some years ago at the beginning of the financial crisis, he contacted me and said I was the only one who was speaking out and that I was the only one who was right in the debate. However, he noticed that there were no figures and asked why. I said I had been absolutely hopeless at arithmetic at school and had not improved. He supplied me with the figures and as a result in the Seanad I contradicted the then Minister for Finance, the late Brian Lenihan. His figures were completely wrong and the ones supplied to me by the late Peter Mathews in support of my arguments were correct to the last decimal point, which was an astonishing feat. He was a most brilliant economist, as well as a thoroughly decent man.
I also wish to raise, if it has not been raised already, the question of the Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance service. It is quite shocking that the head of Dublin City Council, Owen Keeg---- I am not allowed to mention his name - has decided to take steps to replace the fire brigade ambulance service with a general fire brigade warning. He wants to take the service to Tallaght, with a backup centre in Ballyshannon. The Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance service answers all 999 calls in Dublin, the rest of Leinster, as well as counties Cavan and Monaghan. It deals, for example, with people who need an epinephrine injection. We all remember the girl who tragically died because she could not get an epinephrine injection. The service deals with people who have had a heart attack or suffer a cardiac arrest, road traffic accidents and so on. If it is transferred to a national agency, there will definitely be delays. SIPTU members in Dublin Fire Brigade have been balloted and 97% have voted for strike action if this goes through. It is a really serious matter. It involves the Dublin city manager interfering again in a most stupid way. Seanad Éireann should have an opportunity to discuss the matter. I, therefore, ask the Leader to contact the responsible Minister on my behalf.
It may be a little unfair to mention - it is obvious, even though the Senator did not mention his name-----
-----the Dublin city manager because he is not here to defend himself.
I know; I stopped half way through his name.
The Senator still hit the point.
He is an ass anyway.
It is most inappropriate to say that. The Senator should withdraw that remark. I ask him to withdraw the last remark he made about-----
No, I think he is.
That is unfair. The matter will be dealt with.
It is at your direction.
For the decorum of the House, I ask the Senator to withdraw the remark.
Yes, I will because it is you.
I thank the Senator.
I join colleagues on all sides of the House in offering my deepest sympathy to the family of the late former Deputy Peter Mathews, with whom I worked very closely as a colleague from 2007 to 2011 when he had an office next door to mine. The best way to describe him is that he was fiercely determined, but he was also a decent person. He was somebody who would argue about an issue, but he would never hold personal grudges. I offer my deepest sympathy to all of his family.
As a person who has been involved in sport all my life, I note that today the Irish Amateur Boxing Association high performance unit has lost another person as Eddie Bolger is taking up a post in Germany. A few weeks ago the head of the Irish rowing high performance unit resigned. I note that neither of the resignations took place on bad terms. I am concerned in the sense that we had our best performance in winning medals in rowing at the Olympic Games.
Everybody knows that sport has the ability to lift the nation and we can think of the O'Donovan brothers and all the boxers over the years. I note with concern the fact that the people who organise and train our teams are being allowed to go abroad, even though it is a great tribute to them. It is important to keep them at home if it all possible.
I refer to two important issues that have been raised. The first is the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports which were published earlier. We have not had time to trawl through them in detail but the horrific nature of what happened and the issue of people turning a blind eye to horrific child sexual abuse or sexual abuse of vulnerable adults are evident along with the issue of the suitability of carers. A total of 47 young children and vulnerable adults were placed in the home in question. They were not monitored even though what was going on was known. We have had inquiry after inquiry. When do we stop and say we have done something well? Tusla is an underfunded HSE organisation. It took a young social worker to act as a whistleblower to ensure action was taken but the action was delayed for years, leaving our children at high risk. Do we ever learn?
I say, "Well done", to Vera Twomey, the most feisty, tenacious woman I know. I spoke to her before I came to the House. She has just left Mitchelstown and we should form a welcome party for her in Leinster House. Deputy McDonald and I met her and her family in Cork in January and she outlined the harrowing experience her young daughter is going through and how they are coping with it. They have found something that works but there has been a long wait for legislation to legalise it. The Leader said last week that he welcomed the legislation. Could he ensure it is put through speedily? Two neurologists are treating Ms Twomey's daughter, Ava, and they are willing to prescribe this if they are given training. The training would take six hours and then they could become experts and be able to prescribe for Ava and other children and adults like her. We need the legislation to be hurried through. I would like the Minister for Health to answer the following question: what is it that allowed him to grant a licence for one child in this State recently but prevents him for granting one for another child who has experienced a 90% improvement in her physical condition?
I raise the issue of the withdrawal of the telephone allowance for elderly people, which has featured in the media in recent times. This has raised its head again in light of the tragic death of an elderly gentleman in County Waterford last weekend. Elderly people, especially in rural Ireland, depend on the telephone and as a result of the withdrawal of the allowance in 2014, many were forced to take out their telephone lines. This resulted at a time in a substantial reduction in the number of the elderly applying for a panic alarm system linked to a telephone service. Unfortunately, because broadband provision is so poor in rural areas and because the mobile telephone service is also poor, it is not possible to use the panic alarm system unless there is a telephone line. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Social Protection to reintroduce this system in order that old people, particularly in rural areas, do not have to live in fear of being attacked and can maintain regular contact with loved ones and neighbours whenever they wish?
We all woke to hear the sad news about the passing of our friend, Peter Mathews.
I say to his family, may he rest in peace. We can describe Peter by saying he was a friend to all and a lovely man.
I want to speak about the Tunisian attacks of 2015. A coroner in London said today that Tunisian police were, at best, shambolic and, at worst, cowardly in their response to the attacks that killed 38 tourists, some of them Irish citizens and friends to many of us. According to the coroner in London, not enough was done to protect people. We have seen the photos of a gentleman jumping off the boat, going up and down the beach and just mowing people down with his submachine gun. Where were the police? We need to write to the Tunisian Embassy to say we are not happy and that we need answers about what really went on. I hope the Irish Embassy in London has officials at the coroner's court and that we are getting as much information as possible for the families and friends in this country who lost loved ones.
As many other speakers, I pass on my sympathies to the wife and family of Peter Mathews, who was a constituent of mine in my old Stillorgan electoral area before I ever became a constituent of his in Dublin South. The first time I met Peter was in a professional capacity as a county councillor back in 2003. He was, as many people have said, an absolute gentleman, a very nice person and a great man to meet and have a chat with. One would often see him around Mount Merrion in particular, but also around Dublin South. I pass on my sympathies to his wife, Susan, his four kids, James, John, David and Maria, his wider family, friends and a very wide circle of colleagues. It is very sad. I remember being at a road opening in Sandyford with Peter in the middle of June 2011 when the news broke of Brian Lenihan's very premature death. It is very sad that both Brian Lenihan, who was also mentioned today in the House, and Peter died very young from cancer.
I also want to raise the issue of Bus Éireann, which has been covered by many people. It is important that we remind ourselves that the Minister, Deputy Ross, is the 100% shareholder in Bus Éireann on behalf of the State. If I owned 100% of a company or was shareholder of 100% of a company, I would want to know what was going on. I would want to make sure the company and its workers and management were all getting on with their business in as effective a way as possible. It is not acceptable at this stage, when we could be facing an all-out transport strike because there is risk of contagion, not only in Bus Éireann, but onwards into Iarnród Éireann and Dublin Bus. It is important that we remind ourselves that it is a State company and one that has been around a very long time, formerly in the guise of CIE. It is 30 years old as Bus Éireann. For many years Expressway was profitable. We all know there are many reasons it is not profitable at the moment. It is not acceptable for the Minister to continue in this way. The Minister for transport is also the Minister for tourism. It does not reflect well if tourists coming into the country, who presumably want to go all over the country, which we want them to do, only experience a product near Dublin Airport or Shannon Airport. They should be able to travel all over the country. It is important that, when reflecting on his duties, he tackles the issue in terms of both tourism and transport.
I join other speakers in expressing my sympathy to the family of Peter Mathews, who was a lovely colleague and a true gentleman. May he rest in peace.
I join others who spoke about the case of Ava. It is something I have called for in the recent past. My feeling was we were getting closer to legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes. It is disappointing to me that it has not been achieved yet. When one hears of a case like this where, as Senator Black said, there is a 90% reduction, in the number of seizures the child experiences, it is just crazy that we cannot get our heads together. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say directly on the issue.
Figures released by the Revenue Commissioners on alcohol consumption show it increased by 4.8% in 2016.
The figures show that per capita alcohol consumption was 11.46 litres of pure alcohol per person aged 15 plus in 2016, up from 10.93 litres per person. Increases were recorded in all categories, with the highest increase in the area of spirits, which obviously have a detrimental effect.
The figures highlight something of which we are all aware, namely, that we have an increasingly unacceptable level of alcohol consumption in the country. International studies show that a high average level of alcohol consumption in the population has a direct correlation to high levels of alcohol harm, not to mention the harm to the health of children and individuals as well as the severe burden on the health services.
This is an issue I have spoken on many times in the House. I am querying with the Leader when the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will be in this House again. I believe it is overdue at this point. Clearly, measures such as that Bill are needed to tackle this ever-increasing problem in the country.
Like everyone else, I wish to pay my respects to the late Peter Mathews. I first got to know Peter before he became a politician. He was, to a certain extent, some would say, ploughing a lonely furrow back in 2008 and 2009 when he was saying the banks were in serious trouble. History has shown he was correct. Peter was a combination of a real gentleman, a decent man and a persistent man who very much stuck to his convictions. I believe Peter has left his mark.
I pass on my sympathies to his wife, Susan, who happens to be a Limerick woman from Corbally. They were a particularly nice couple and great company. The greatest loss will be to his family. I met Peter recently when he was around the House. He was his ebullient and effervescent self. There was a sense of sadness with him – I could see that – but he was very much getting on with life. He still had the same convictions around the issues and the same determination. I want to acknowledge this publicly. I regard him as a friend and a colleague. More specifically, this is a sad occasion for his wife, Susan, and their family, and I pass on my sympathies.
I join colleagues in extending my sympathies on the death of Peter Mathews to his wife Susan and to his family. Peter was a person who held strong views but he was always prepared to listen to the views of others as well. He made a substantial contribution to the debate on economic development. As my colleague, Senator O'Donnell, noted, he was someone who flagged the cards far earlier than many, when we should have been far more aware. He will be a big loss. I extend my sympathies to his wife and family.
I wish to raise the issue of the Central Statistics Office figures out today. They show that unemployment is down again this month. The figure is now down to 6.6% from 15.1% back in 2012. This shows a strong trend in recent months in that unemployment is now coming down at a faster rate, and that is welcome. I imagine that in the not too distant future we will see the unemployment figure down below 6%.
This is good news but it means we need to start planning for the future. One of the areas of the workforce where we have a shortage of people is nursing. I got some figures last week on the increases in people working in the HSE. I have criticised one increase but I welcome another increase, that is, the increase in the number of care assistants. The number has gone up by more than 2,000 in the past two years. Many of those care assistants are ambitious to move on in their careers. We should examine how to afford them the opportunity to go on to the next step and qualify as nurses.
We should be encouraging that now, because they already have a huge bank of experience that they can use. We need to make sure the necessary incentives are given to them to move on to that next step. I saw today that there is going to be a huge shortage of workers in the health care area across Europe over the next ten to 15 years. We need to start planning and to prepare for it because we have a change in demographics which I have referred to repeatedly in the House. Now is the time to start planning, not when the disaster arises. That is something that we should bring to the attention of the Minister. We should have the Minister to the House in the not too distant future to talk about future planning in our health service.
I thank the 16 Senators who contributed to the Order of Business.
On my behalf, on behalf of the Fine Gael Party and on behalf of the House, I join all those who paid tribute to the late Peter Mathews, who passed away today. Those of us who had the pleasure of knowing Peter recognised many admirable and warm qualities in him, not least, as Senator McDowell referred to indirectly, his conviction-based approach to politics, his need to find solutions and his willingness and determination to stand up for what he believed in, whatever aspect of politics it was.
I had the pleasure of getting to know him and his wife Susan, who is an absolute lady. I know no words of ours today will suffice, but we offer our condolences, sympathies and comfort to her. It is important she recognises and understands that we value the part that Peter played and the work he did as a politician here in Leinster House. He was a man of absolute integrity and sincerity. He was principled and determined. There was a humour and a warmth about him that one could only admire. One rarely fell out with him over issues that lasted beyond that conversation, as many Senators have said.
In his wife Susan he had a pillar of strength, a great companion and a wonderful friend. Whether one met her in the House here or at social gatherings, she was always in good form and was always good company. He was very proud of his family and they meant a lot to him. He had a family of tremendous value. I send my sympathies and condolences to Susan and the family on his very sad and early passing. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I also welcome the father of the House back from his absence. It is great to have him here and to hear his voice interjecting and to have his physical presence back in the House. I wish him well in his return to us here.
Senator Ardagh raised the issue of the non-principal private residence, NPPR, tax and the ruling. She made a good point on the deductible expense, that the payment that can be claimed back, and that the €200 that is available. It is a matter we can bring back to the Minister for Finance. I share her view on that and thank her for raising that matter.
The issue of the inquiry that was announced and the publication of the reports into the treatment of Grace have been raised by a number of Senators, including Senators Conway-Walsh, Bacik and Devine. The Government will establish a commission of investigation and the terms of reference will be brought to the Cabinet by the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, which will be published next week. It is important to recognise today, as many Senators have raised it, that this is a woman, a person and a citizen of our State, and she is entitled to respect, dignity, care and protection. I join all the Senators who have raised it today in the House, and I join the Taoiseach in his remarks in the other House, in saying that the way she was treated is a disgrace. It is unacceptable in a modern, 21st century Ireland. The very least, as the Taoiseach said, that this House and the other House can do is apologise to Grace and to her family for the way she was treated. It is a matter for which the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, has responsibility, not the Minister, Deputy Zappone.
The two HSE reports have been published. It is important that we not just publish those reports and have an inquiry but also that we have accountability and responsibility. I make the point again today in this House. It is about time that responsibility and accountability are accepted and stood up for by those who are charged under the State with the care and protection of people within our society.
I agree completely with what Senator Devine said. How many more times must we come into this House and lament and deplore the condition and the treatment of people like Grace? It is time it stopped. We thought we had drawn a line under these sagas in our society but this has been ongoing for 20 years. We have come to recognise that this is not acceptable any longer. There is a need for accountability and responsibility to be accepted and we should not have to come in here any more to discuss negligence and incompetence. I have already put in a request for a debate in this regard to be held in the House next week and I waiting for the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to respond to me on that.
Senators Ardagh, Bacik, Byrne and Horkan raised the issue of Bus Éireann. It is a matter of grave urgency and concern that there is an impending public transport strike. I hope there will not be an all-out strike. It is important there is engagement by everybody involved regarding this proposed strike. There is a need for the talking to continue and for there to be a proper conversation around what is being asked for, what is being proposed and for how we can have a roadmap for the way forward to bring a resolution to this dispute. The Workplace Relations Commission is still the way to go. That requires all parties to this dispute to be involved.
I wish to put on record and it is important that people recognise that the subvention to the company has been increased to €40 million; in terms of free travel, the public service obligation funding has been increased by 11% and Bus Éireann has seen a 21% increase in its subvention. The bottom line, however, which we cannot ignore at one level, is that there is a €50,000 loss per day on the Expressway service. However, the approach taken by Bus Éireann yesterday in issuing a threat to cut public sector workers' pay straight away was the wrong one. One cannot threaten people or engage in that type of activity in a public manner. The way to reach a resolution to this dispute is by all sides sitting down, engaging and reaching a compromise and a solution to ensure that the travelling public will not be discommoded. The Government is committed to a public service transport entity being continued. It is important there is a continuation of the talks.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of Seanad reform. I understand the delay in the progression of his Bill rests in the appointment of a chairperson of the implementation group. I do not have a timetable for it or any further involvement in it. I am not in any way acting as a barrier to its progression despite what he might think. Therefore, I cannot give him an update on that.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue relating to mica. Our colleague and friend, Senator Paudie Coffey, when he was Minister of State, set up an expert group on this matter. My understanding is that the expert group met in Donegal recently. I am told it is either finished or very close to finalising its report. That report will be given to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and to the Minister of State, Deputy English, who was in Donegal recently. They will be fully informed of the issues at hand, the report will be published and I am told an implementation plan will arise from it. The work is ongoing. There is no question of procrastination about this. I very much look forward to that report being published and subsequent to that to our having a debate on this matter in the House.
Senators Black, Noone and Devine raised the issue of the treatment of Ava Twomey and of her mother, Vera's protest walk on which she set out today. The Health Products Regulatory Authority report was published two weeks ago. It provides for an access scheme in terms of the issue being discussed, that of a cannabis-based treatment relative to specific schemes. This relates to certification and to a medical practitioner of some description being able to sign the relevant form. The Minister for Health is committed to a compassionate access scheme. He met Vera Twomey last week. Senator Colm Burke also met her and I advise Senator Devine that I spoke to her yesterday. All of us are committed to finding a resolution to this issue.
This is about the treatment of a young child and a family. Some of the information the Senator has put into the public domain today might not necessarily be correct, but I am not going to have a row about it. It is important-----
The Leader is being told who will be the chairman of the implementation group.
If I am, I will let the Senator know. This is the story of a young child. If we are honest, if any of us had to endure and witness what Ms Vera Twomey and young Ava had to endure, we would all be sympathetic and would all want to see a resolution, which we do. The Minister is committed to doing that but I believe it is important that we continue to have talks about the matter. It is through conversation and dialogue that we can reach a compromise. However, the Minister cannot just abandon protocol and processes at the click of his fingers. It is important that we allow him the space and time to arrive at the right decision. I think he will do that, but he cannot do things automatically. There is a report published and he has to take advice from the chief medical officer. It is important that we do everything humanly possible to ensure that the quality of life of young Ava is improved, because what is happening to her is a tragedy.
Senator Black raised the issue of the homeless people outside her office and Senator Davitt also raised the issue. It is important to recognise that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has put together an action plan regarding housing and homelessness. There is significant investment gone into it. Rather than having a political debate, I believe it is important that we work with the different agencies to ensure that the people Senator Black referred to are housed or given accommodation. If the Senator wants to e-mail me the details, we can talk to the office of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, regarding that particular case.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of Irish Cement and fossil fuels. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss the matter.
Senator Davitt raised the issue of mobile phones. He is right. There is a need for checks and balances in terms of how young people, minors in particular, can access and buy SIM cards. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House.
Senator Norris raised the issue of Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance service and the decision regarding the outsourcing of the ambulance call and dispatch function. It is a matter of concern that has reached a point where SIPTU has balloted its members. A forum was set up. It is important for Dublin City Council to re-engage and reconvene that forum. I know I am repeating myself, but it is through conversation and dialogue that we can reach solutions. I appeal to Dublin City Council to reconvene that forum so we can reach a resolution in regard to the matter Senator Norris raised.
Senator Gallagher raised the issue of the withdrawal of the telephone allowance. I share his view. I hope that a mechanism through the Department of Social Protection can be formed to allow for that to happen. I also join Senator Gallagher in sympathising with the family of the late Mr. Paddy Lyons in Waterford who died over the weekend. I know there is a man in custody with regard to his death and therefore I will not say anything further, other than to offer my sympathies to his family.
Senator Butler raised the issue of the Tunisian attacks of 2015 and today's report by the coroner. I will bring the Senator's remarks back to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade because the Senator is right. It is important that the Irish Embassy engages on behalf of the Irish citizens and families who lost their lives. If there has been any sort of shambolic or cowardly treatment by the police, it should be addressed immediately.
I do not have a timetable for the alcohol Bill, but Senator Noone has raised a very pertinent point around the increase in the sale of alcohol, particularly around the use of spirits, which has increased considerably. There is a worrying trend but I have not got a specific date regarding the public sale of alcohol Bill.
I hope all Members of the House will join with Senator Burke and I in welcoming the further fall in the numbers of unemployed and the increase in the number of men and women who are back at work. It is great to see that just 6.6% of people are now unemployed. It has been of source of great joy to all of us that the policies of the last Government and this Government are seeing many of our citizens going back at work.
Senator Colm Burke is right in that the future planning of our health system around the issue of a changing demographic is something we should perhaps debate in the House. I would be happy to have that debate.