The Order of Business is No. 1, Companies Accounting Bill 2017 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to be adjourned not later than 6.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 2, Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016 — Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Order of Business
I rise today again after a significant adjournment of this House. I would like to raise again the escalating housing and rental problem in the country. This is an issue I have raised over a dozen times in this House and it seems to be getting worse by the day. The sector has been described by some as in extreme distress. With reports from Daft.ie and the PRTB showing a steady climb in the cost of rent, and with the desperate circumstances in which young people are not able to save as fast as house prices are increasing, we really are in a crisis scenario. Rents rose by 13.4% this year up to March. The average rent in south Dublin is €1,855 per month, with home ownership at its lowest level since 1971. With only 3,000 properties to rent this month, we will see an increase in the short term.
Statistics showed last week that there are 20,000 people with finance chasing 10,000 available homes for sale. This will only lead to another property bubble and inflated house prices. At the same time, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is concentrating his efforts on winning the hearts and minds of his supporters in a leadership race instead of actually implementing any meaningful measures that might go some way towards alleviating a crisis and encouraging supply.
Previously in this House, I discussed measures including VAT holidays, reduction in development charges and levies, streamlined certification for building regulations and lending initiatives that might support or encourage builders to enter the market and tackle the elephant in the room, namely, the supply of affordable housing in our country, mainly in our cities. Some of these cost barriers are the reasons it costs much more to build a two-bedroom apartment in our country than anywhere else in Europe. I ask the Leader to ask his colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, to put his leadership ambitions aside and to concentrate on the housing crisis and, to start with, implement some of these small measures which will go a long way to tackling the housing crisis.
On the news this morning reference was made to hospital waiting lists hitting an all-time record high. There are nearly 666,000 people on public hospital waiting lists, a new record. Over 7,000 people have languished on these lists for over a year. One of the major issues is that we export and import the highest proportion of nurses per capita than any country in the world. We need to look at staffing in our hospitals and how we ensure that we retain our nurses and ensure we have a proper health system in this country so that people are not waiting on lists for this long. The Government is spending €50 million on initiatives in the form of the National Treatment Purchase Fund but it does not seem to have made any impact to date. I ask the Minister for Health to address this issue because it is not right. A lot of these lists are hidden lists in regard to waiting to get an appointment. This is a very serious issue and I ask the Minister to come to the House to address it.
I rose on 4 April regarding an alleged agreement between the Irish and British authorities regarding the permission for the RAF to overfly Irish airspace. This matter was raised again in the Dáil on 12 April by Deputy Clare Daly and again on 2 May by Deputy Marc MacSharry. In his reply the Minister at best side-stepped the issue and at worst he misled the House. I appreciate that matters of national security cannot be disclosed in a general way to the public but it beggars belief that the two agencies in this country charged with national security, the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces, and the general officer commanding the Air Corps, who is statutorily charged with being the sole director of military aviation in Ireland, have not been a party to this agreement, if an agreement exists.
Apart from the major constitutional and legislative issues this raises, the denial by the Government that such an agreement exists of itself creates a national security risk. It does so because none of the key security players are included or have knowledge of the agreement. If there is an incident, what would the potential military response be? Who would co-ordinate it? Who will respond with the speed necessary to avert a major security incident?
If there is no agreement, what emergency security arrangements are in place? Will the response to a civil aviation security incident in our territorial airspace be political, executive or military in nature? It is widely known in the UK RAF circles that this agreement exists. This is causing unwarranted public humiliation for Defence Force and Air Corps personnel who are on courses overseas. I am asking for an open debate in the interest of national security. If there is an agreement between the Irish State and the British state regarding the RAF overflying our airspace, then it needs to be brought to the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas is the sole body of this State charged with oversight of such matters. If such an agreement exists without Oireachtas oversight, then there are serious constitutional issues involved here.
This is a difficult issue but the dogs in the street are howling that this agreement exists. It has been in every medium that I care to look at. It is all over the UK that this agreement exists and we are pretending that it does not.
This is grossly unfair to those charged with national security management - the Garda and the Defence Forces - and it is a grave insult to the head of the Air Corps, who is the sole person statutorily charged with the management of our airspace for military purposes. I ask that this be brought into the open. If it cannot be discussed in this Chamber or the Lower House, it should be brought to the joint committee dealing with defence matters in camera, if necessary, but let us have this dealt with once and for all.
The House is becoming notorious for its lack of legislation. More than 26 Bills are stuck on Committee Stage in the Dáil, which could easily be advanced and taken here. If the Government is not prepared to send its legislation here, then let us deal with the massive number of Private Members' Bills currently before the Dáil. Let us facilitate their passage through Committee Stage in the Dáil and I am sure other Senators will be as eager as we are in the Sinn Féin team to fulfil our function and do the job we were sent here to do. Statements should only occur on issues where there is a divergence of opinion among Members and parties. Where there is a broad consensus on an issue such as childhood obesity, it is pointless to have two hours of statements with every Senator agreeing more needs to be done.
I would like to raise the recent developments at the Castlebar campus of GMIT. While I welcome the news of the formation of the HEA working group to secure a sustainable future for the campus, I was astonished to learn last week that the situation had escalated for staff and, indeed, students of the campus. Numerous staff have been requested to move to the GMIT campus at Dublin Road, Galway, which is a 175 mile round trip from Castlebar. They have been told that there will be no forced redeployments to Galway but anyone who does not volunteer within three weeks will be placed on a surplus list and not replaced, with the institute washing its hands of such persons. This is a blatant attempt to undermine the Mayo campus and no redeployments, reassignments or surplus list can reasonably be agreed to prior to the HEA working group's report.
Students on one programme have been informed that their add-on level 8 course will not be run in September. This is a deliberate attempt to leave their lecturers without hours to teach and put them under pressure to reassign to Galway. There is a complete absence of transparency and fairness in the procedures used by the institute in suspending this and other CAO-listed programmes at the Mayo campus. Some of the courses being cut have received increased applications in comparison with last year. Courses being cut are in key economic growth sectors such as construction, cultural tourism and digital media. Development of new courses on the campus has been halted pending the outcome of the HEA working group process.
I request that the redeployment process be similarly paused to allow the HEA work to proceed. We are at a critical juncture regarding the future of the Mayo campus and I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills intervene and use his position to ensure a strong and sustainable future for a multidisciplinary GMIT campus. I implore the Leader to ask him to halt what is being done there until the working group reports back with its recommendations.
Currently, 30 or 40 wild fires are burning across Ireland. They are focused in the Cathaoirleach's county, Cork, as well as Kerry, Mayo, Galway, the north west, along the Border, the Dublin and Wicklow mountains and many other areas, including my own county of Waterford. Millions of euro in damage has been done by the 5 km wide fire in the Cloosh Valley in Galway in one of the worst fires this year. A total of 1,500 hectares has been destroyed and the fire continues. Firefighters are battling to bring that and fires in other areas under control, endangering their own safety and putting themselves in harm's way. The Cloosh Valley fire has decimated Coillte forestry lands, endangered a number of wind turbines and put thousands of acres of forest, peatlands and wildlife at risk.
The cost of addressing these fires will run into hundreds of thousands of euro because of the deployment of helicopters and other fire-fighting equipment and personnel. These fires endanger much of the best of Ireland. They endanger our natural heritage, the habitats that are upland area support and the wildlife that exists within them. They endanger crucial jobs in tourism, which is just returning as Ireland and Europe emerge from recession. They sap resources that would be better spent elsewhere in our communities. They endanger crucial energy, transport and communications infrastructure and now they are even endangering and destroying people's homes, including that of the Brennan family in County Mayo. All of this is unforgivable.
Why is it happening? It is true we have seen exceptionally warm and dry weather with high winds, all of which make ideal climate for fires. We also know there is simply no chance that this number of fires is breaking out entirely accidentally. Fire services in Northern Ireland say 90% of fires there are set deliberately. Under existing rules, the burning of uplands was supposed to cease on 1 March. We can see from the constant weekend images of smoke filled hills and devastated acreage this is not being adhered to. What is the Government doing? Instead of acting to preserve our natural and vital heritage by supporting the National Parks and Wildlife Service through greater resource allocation or developing new and innovative methods of fire management and prevention, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is seeking to expand the allowable times for the burning of gorse in our uplands. She says it will be done in a controlled and regulated fashion. After the past two months, how could we possibly take this undertaking seriously? The Government needs to act now to enforce existing rules to penalise those who deliberately set fires outside of the existing regulations. Gorse fires can have an important restorative effect on nature but we are seeing now why we regulate them and why we do not allow them in warm summer months, because they cannot be controlled. I am asking the Government to take action on this issue now.
I call Senator McFadden.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I rise today to raise the issue of the possible threat of closure-----
I am sorry, it should have been the turn of the Labour group next.
Senator McFadden has started.
I call Senator Humphreys. I think I was distracted by the longevity of the previous speaker's contribution.
I will keep it short. It is an issue I have raised in the House on numerous occasions. This morning in the papers we read about the shortage of rental accommodation across Dublin. Since records started it is the lowest number of vacancies in the Dublin region. I have raised the issue of long-term rental apartments that have moved to the short-term rental market. We have referred to Airbnb, perhaps to the discredit of Airbnb because there are several companies doing this across Dublin. Between 3,000 and 5,000 units, which were rented by ordinary working people in a one-year or two-year lease, have now moved to the short-term rental market. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to address this issue. I am not seeking a general debate on how we can address it.
The Minister has written to the local authorities on planning enforcement. The letter stated that where it was brought to the attention of the local authorities they would take action. We need to be more proactive than that. It has been reported in the media that the Minister is trying to work out a voluntary code with those agencies. Voluntary codes have not worked across Europe or in the United States. Legislation had to be put in place. When such legislation was put into place in Berlin, 40% of the units being used as short-term lets moved back into the normal market. If we take the highest figure for short-term lets, 5,000, and get over 2,500 back into the long-term rental market, it would make a substantial impact on the available accommodation in the Dublin region and would also bring rents down. I have given the Minister adequate time to discuss this with the local authorities. He has also discussed a voluntary code with the companies in question.
The time for action has passed. I do not want to introduce a Private Members' Bill as it would get bogged down on the various Stages, but with co-operation between the House and the Minister we could respond in a responsible manner to deliver low-hanging fruit of approximately 2,500 units of additional accommodation throughout the city. This could be applied, in turn, in Cork, Limerick and Galway where the figures are not the same but where the problem is also having a substantial impact. I ask the Leader to oblige and request the Minister to come to the House as soon as possible to discuss this issue and see whether we can work together to find a solution. I understand it involves choices. We must decide whether apartments are to be built to provide accommodation for working people or tourists. I opt for people who are in work and need accommodation rather than tourists. We need to have this issue addressed quickly.
I apologise to Senator Gabrielle McFadden for the false start earlier.
That is all right. I thank the Cathaoirleach.
I refer to the threat of possible closure of the Athlone mail centre which is owned by An Post. There is a lot of uncertainty and worry locally following the recent announcements made by the chief executive of An Post when he addressed the Communications Workers Union. I have written to him to ask that he issue a statement to provide clarity on the issue and repeat that call today. People everywhere are aware that An Post faces huge financial difficulties and that changes are absolutely necessary. However, causing uncertainty, worry and stress to workers is not the best way to engage them in a process that might deliver change. The last thing that is needed is a threat. What is needed is a positive vision. The only way for An Post to successfully meet the challenges of an increasingly digital world is to put in place a strategy to develop and grow its business. DPD in Athlone is an example in that regard. It has developed its business which is the same as that of An Post and is doing very well. There are 180 full-time and part-time workers in the mail centre in Athlone which was purpose built almost 14 years ago. As everybody knows, Athlone is located between Dublin and Galway; therefore, it is well placed strategically. Not only does it serve the midlands, it is also the gateway to the west. For the past five years the mail centre in Athlone has been named the top mail centre in Ireland and An Post is investing money in upgrading its equipment. The staff are very committed and experienced and understand the difficulties facing An Post. We must take advantage of the positives to build a secure future for the facility and An Post. I ask Mr. McRedmond, its chief executive, to remove any uncertainty and reassure workers by making a statement in support from the management of An Post to staff of the mail centre without delay. I also call on the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to get behind the campaign to fight for the retention of the Athlone mail centre. I urge the Leader to raise the matter with him.
I congratulate Senator Freeman and all those who were involved in the Darkness into Light run last Saturday morning. It was a huge success. The event has gone from strength to strength.
I refer to the North-South interconnector which it is proposed to run through three counties, namely, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan. As the Leader is aware, a motion was passed in both Houses calling on the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to undertake a comprehensive review of the total costs involved in undergrounding the project, as opposed to overgrounding it. I saw on the Department's website that the Minister had published the terms of reference for the review and must say I am totally disgusted at and disappointed by their content. They are an insult to the Members of this and the Lower House, not to mention the people of counties Meath, Monaghan and Cavan, who campaigned so vigorously to have the project reviewed and the motion passed successfully through both Houses.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, be asked to come to the House to explain why he has ignored the democratic vote of both Houses of Parliament and the wishes of the Cavan, Monaghan and Meath action groups who met him in this building a few short months ago.
Is the Senator asking that the Minister come to the House today to address the issue of underground versus overground for the North-South interconnector?
On Thursday last in the course of the Seanad Brexit committee hearings one contribution was striking, namely, that of Mr. John McGrane, the chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. Mr. McGrane suggested that the Government should reach out across both parts of this island to all aspects of civic society, including the industrial representative organisations, trade unions, farmers' organisations, trade organisations and legal professions, to explore what the imaginative and flexible options which Mr. Barnier has said he will consider might be. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, the Taoiseach or whoever is handling this particular aspect of the Brexit affair on our behalf, to come to this House to indicate their attitude to that idea.
It seems to me that there are many models by which the best interests of both parts of this island could be advanced. It also seems to me that there is a lot of analysis of the problems inherent in Brexit and very little debate on the positive solutions, at a public level at any rate. I ask that the Leader ask whoever bears responsibility for this matter - in truth, it is probably the Taoiseach's Department - to come to this House to engage in a discussion with Members on the idea put forward by Mr. McGrane, namely, to engage Irish society on a general wide basis to participate in that debate and to come forward with different models and solutions for consideration by everybody on this island and not to have the process entirely conducted in secret.
I thank Senator McDowell for that perfect primer to what I am about to say. Some people might not be aware that today is Europe Day, 67 years on since Robert Schumann wrote his very massive declaration which sets out everything that European integration has grown to become, bringing peace to this continent. I agree with Senator McDowell's proposal but I would like the Leader to call in the relevant Minister with responsibility for European affairs as I think we need to have a discussion on where Ireland is going forward within the European project.
In terms of the disaster that is Brexit, I am firmly of the belief that Ireland needs to be at the heart of Europe. The election on Sunday in France of a pro-European President, and previous to that in the Netherlands, is very encouraging. Even more encouraging are the results released this morning of a poll conducted by European Movement Ireland which shows that 88% of Irish people are happy with Ireland being part of the European Union, 87% believe that Ireland has benefitted from membership of the European Union and 88%, if they had had the opportunity of voting in the recent British referendum, would have voted to remain.
That said, we need to have a discussion and to nail our colours to the mast that we are committed to Europe, are going to remain in Europe and are going to involve everyone from civic society in how we go about mapping that out in the future. We need to start that debate in this Chamber.
It is great to see and acknowledge the Palestinian flag flying over Dublin City Council for the month of May.
We have the Union Jack in the hall of Leinster House.
I congratulate the councillors of all parties and none who have undertaken this exercise to ensure that recognition is given to the Palestinian people. It could not come at a better time given that there are currently 1,500 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. Why are they on hunger strike? It is because they want the right to make a phone call.
They also want the right to see their families once every two months but even these basic rights of dignity and respect are denied them by the apartheid Israeli state.
What a shame then that at the same time our Government decided to buy a fleet of high-powered spy drones at a cost of €1.9 million from an Israeli company. This is part of €14 million worth of expenditure by our Government on goods from an apartheid state. Apparently the Defence Forces have defended the purchase on the grounds of cost. Has this Government thrown morality out the window? Is it now okay to buy military equipment from an apartheid state that practices torture and murder as a daily exercise? One of my colleagues has just returned from Hebron where he witnessed at first hand people being brutalised because they had the temerity to try to plant olive trees on their land.
Every time I raise the issue of apartheid Israel, there is an awkward silence from the Fine Gael benches but that is not good enough. Fine Gael Members should either stand up and tell us why they think it is okay to support apartheid or else they should acknowledge that it is wrong-----
It is not apartheid-----
It is apartheid. The Senator should be very clear on that-----
It is not apartheid.
It is apartheid. The Senator knows nothing about it.
Anyone who has been to occupied Palestine knows that it is an apartheid state.
How would the Senator define apartheid if that is not apartheid?
The Senator's time is up.
I lived there and I have seen it.
It is not apartheid
The Senator's comment is outrageous.
It is apartheid.
No further interruptions, please.
I call on the Minister of State with responsibility for defence to come to this House to debate this issue. It is a shameful act on the part of this Government to buy military equipment from the apartheid state of Israel. It is time that someone in Fine Gael had the backbone to stand up and make it stop.
I agree completely with the previous speaker who raises a very important issue.
I wish to raise another important issue for this country, that of blasphemy. I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on this issue, to include a discussion on whether the Government will consider holding a referendum, if necessary, which could be tagged on to one of the other referenda that will be held. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, said that the blasphemy law is silly but it is much more than silly, it is highly dangerous. When this provision was renewed some years ago, I warned that Islamic State would use the Irish example, that it would point to it as an example of a Christian state doing exactly the same as Muslim states in terms of blasphemy and indeed, it was used in justification. Virtually all of the religious denominations in this country made a statement a number of years ago to the effect that this provision is completely and absolutely unnecessary and it is so.
A number of years ago, Gay News was banned on foot of a complaint of blasphemy. It was seized by customs officials and not allowed into the country. Now we have a situation where the distinguished actor, Stephen Fry, has had a complaint made against him for remarks he made on a television programme hosted by Mr. Gay Byrne. As a practising Christian, I must say that the questions he raised were serious, profound and highly important. They have been debated over many years by prominent theologians. He asked, for example, how we can have a decent God who allows bone cancer in children. That is a real theological problem and it has to be faced. I see nothing wrong with somebody raising such issues in a passionate way on an Irish television programme. These are the kinds of issues that need to be debated. I must say that Stephen Fry was a lot more convincing than the usual rigmarole that one gets from people who are asked the question, "What would you say to God?". His was one of the best answers ever. Apparently the complainant in Ennis was anonymous whereas Stephen Fry had the guts to stand up in a Christian country and raise these issues. I do not think it is too much to ask that if one is going to make a complaint about blasphemy, one should at least have the guts to put one's name to it. I look forward to this provision being removed by this Government.
Last February I raised the issue of the postponement of a proposed major expansion by Eli Lilly in Kinsale on foot of the election of Donald Trump as US President.
This was a grave concern for many people in my part of the world who did not know where the €200 million project was going to be located. The way the Trump Administration was carrying on in the United States had put the project, known as IE43 because it is Eli Lilly's 43rd expansion of its Kinsale plant since 1976, in doubt. I welcome the news that has broken that the €200 million project will now go ahead. It is a significant boost for the local community in Kinsale. One of the key factors to bear in mind with regard to this entity is that Cork has a great name in the pharmaceutical industry which is one of the key drivers of companies such as Eli Lilly. I welcome its decision to move ahead with this huge project. It will have a state-of-the-art premises when the project is completed in the coming months, which is positive news.
I agree with some of the points made by Senator Grace O'Sullivan about the burning that is happening. We have an issue in that regard. There are major fires in many parts of my county. As the Cathaoirleach knows well, places such as Gougane Barra were destroyed by huge gorse fires in recent weeks. We need to look at the implementation of the legislation in place, of which training is a key part. We have to ensure those who are actively involved in burning at appropriate times of the year when it is allowed are properly trained. I was speaking to people about the issue last night and the lack of training is an issue. The Department with responsibility for wildlife has to look at this and other issues to ensure training at this level is provided for locals. Exceptionally good training is required in order to be involved in activities such as this.
I thank all of the Members of both Houses who participated in the Darkness into Light event. It was one of the biggest turnouts we had had. Up to 200,000 people participated in events across the country last Saturday morning and I thank all of those who took part. I am also grateful for the lovely warm congratulations I have received today. However, the dramatic cut in the mental health budget is still a problem. I keep bringing up the issue all the time. According to an article in The Irish Times yesterday, Deputy Micheál Martin has criticised the Taoiseach and the budget cuts. The Taoiseach took part in the Darkness into Light event held in Canada on Saturday morning. It was shown around the world that he was participating in the walk. As the leader of the country, does he not see it as a little ironic, or quite funny in some ways, that he did this after sanctioning the cuts in the mental health budget?
The budget was increased.
I am sorry, no.
It was increased.
The Leader will have ample time to respond.
Senator Freeman should be fair.
No. We are talking about-----
The Senator should be fair.
The budget was increased, a Chathaoirligh.
The €35 million-----
The Leader will have ample time to respond. I will prevent Members from interrupting him.
Let us be fair.
If the Senator is wrong, the Leader can correct her.
The Senator is not wrong.
The sum of €35 million about which I am talking was reduced to €15 million this year. That was grossly unfair. As usual, the mental health service is the Cinderella when it comes to dealing with all of the social issues. It is always the one from which money is removed which is used as a stopgap in some other area that the Taoiseach wishes to fill. I am surprised that the leader of the country had the neck to walk in the Darkness into Light event. When the matter was brought up by Deputy Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach said he was allowing the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, who has no power whatsoever, to meet the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on the area and insisted that this would resolve everything. I am calling for the Taoiseach to meet Deputy Micheál Martin. I would also like to attend that meeting to tell the Taoiseach the truth about what is happening in our nation.
I support what Senator Lombard and my namesake, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, have said about the gorse fires that have been spreading in west and the south west in recent days.
It is a very serious situation. Setting fire to bog is as old as time itself and it is normally done in a very controlled and responsible way. Perhaps it is the weather we have at the moment or people being more irresponsible. We had a long debate here on the Heritage Bill with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, where we tried to tweak the envelope for the time it was legal to cut hedges. One man with one match can do an awful lot more damage than all the hedgecutting in the world. This situation has to be taken in hand and monitored. I do not know the legalities or legal history but I do keep an eye on court cases and hearings in my district and I cannot recall reading of too many prosecutions of people acting irresponsibly in this regard. One does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to know who is doing this, who would be likely, or motivated, to do it. I suggest that the Minister come back to the House and discuss with us her plans to deal with this. It is well-nigh catastrophic now. We have seen houses threatened and one burnt. It is a danger to human life and to the emergency service personnel who have to go into these infernos.
I welcome the announcement today by Shannon Airport of the €15 million upgrade of the runway, which commences immediately. This project will create 100 jobs over a 12 month period. A contract has been given under all the proper auspices. It is the longest runway in the country at almost two miles. Its enhancement will underpin the great success we have seen in Shannon in the past couple of years. Not so long ago we were debating the future of Shannon Airport. It has increased business by 24% in the past couple of years, which is a huge benefit to tourism in the entire mid-west region, counties Clare, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Galway. Good news stories like this have to be recognised and applauded.
Since I raised respite care as a Commencement matter today, several more families have contacted me. They are looking after their sons and daughters at home, providing care and are not able to access respite care. I am very concerned by the lack of planning in this matter. Several facilities are no longer available because of regulations and inspections carried out by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, which is trying to make sure there are very high standards. Several residential units that were available are not available now. Several units, which had permanent residents from Monday to Friday and were used for respite care at weekends, are no longer available. There seems to have been no long-term planning on how to deal with the issue. As a result, approximately 18,000 people are being looked after by their parents at home. To be fair to these people, we should give them the support they deserve.
I spoke to one woman recently who told me that when her son goes into respite care she sleeps for a full two days because that is her break from having to manage and care for him 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We need to deal with this issue. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to deal with this issue and find out the plans of each Health Service Executive, HSE, unit around the country and when they intend bringing forward improvements and making additional facilities available?
I want to support three calls for debates today, first, Senator Ned O'Sullivan's call for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to come in to discuss gorse fires and the damage they have done.
To answer the Senator's question, there have been only 11 prosecutions since 2007. That is 11 prosecutions in a decade on this issue. It would be very appropriate to have the Minister come in for a debate on that.
I would also like to support Senator Gavan's call for a debate with the Minister for Defence in respect of purchases. It relates to a wider issue, which is a question of ethical procurement policies-----
What did they want them for? Who are they going to spy on?
There is a question in terms of Ireland and ethical procurement policies and how we bring social, environmental and ethical considerations into play in our procurement policies.
I want to endorse Senator Richmond's call for a debate on the future of Europe, which is something he is passionate about. It is Europe Day. I would add to Senator Richmond's point that I believe people in Ireland are very passionate about being part of Europe and it is something we feel very strongly about, but what is very clear is that there is no European consensus. There is a very vibrant and important debate to be had now to ensure we strengthen the social Europe commitment and that aspect of Europe which focuses on peace, social cohesion and rights. Those aspects have to be brought to the fore. We cannot simply have a Europe that speaks only of fiscal matters. It is very important that we reclaim the debate in Europe and we engage in it strongly. I join Senator Richmond in celebrating Europe Day, but I ask that Ireland is not simply a team player but also an active agent in the debate on Europe. We can contribute to that debate in this House.
I want to raise a number of issues. The first one is the issue of the gorse fires. In Donegal there have been 50 separate fires throughout the county. Not far from my own home area of Buncrana a fire has been burning in the hills for the last four days. The fire rescue team attending the fire have had very little sleep. I spoke to one of the members of that team today and he reckons the team have had about four or five hours sleep in the last four days. That is the reality of what they have had to face. They are totally exhausted and demoralised. What is missing here is any kind of strategy at national level to deal with this. Where are helicopters deployed? When are they deployed? That can be of huge assistance to teams on the ground. I ask the Leader to raise this with the Minister of Defence or the Taoiseach, who oversee the emergency co-ordination team, and to get a response for me on their strategy on gorse fires, as they emerge every year.
I endorse the call from Senator Freeman. She is correct, and she is better qualified than anyone in this House to say what the gaps are in terms of mental health. All that she is asking is that she would be present at a meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss those gaps. Pieta House is filling the gaps with the endorsement of people across the State because people and their families see the gaps in their communities. It deserves a meeting with the Taoiseach.
I am asking that No. 35, motion 18 on areas of natural constraints, be taken at the end of the Order of Business without debate because time is of the essence on that matter.
Is the Senator proposing an amendment?
I am proposing an amendment that the motion be taken without debate at the end of the Order of Business.
We will get someone to second it.
It is seconded by Senator Ó Clochartaigh.
I raise the issue of the current property shortage in the country. I was struck by the new report released by the National Oversight and Audit Commission which found that fewer than half the 31 local authorities have ever carried out a condition survey of their social housing stock. The study also revealed that 4,200 housing units were vacant in autumn 2015, and more than 13% of these had been empty for longer than three years. This is completely unacceptable in light of the housing crisis and the chronic shortage or rental accommodation, especially when we hear today of the grave situation in Dublin, where rental property prices have increased by over 40% while availability has gone down by 80%.
Many factors are contributing to this, including taxation and landlords leaving the rental market. While I commend the fact that there were improvements for those who wish to rent out a room in their house in the most recent action plan, I believe there is more that can be done. I previously called for a tax on empty homes to incentivise private owners of vacant homes to do the necessary renovations and rent out these properties. In Vancouver, Canada, this has already been introduced after a tax on empty houses under private ownership was approved. It is my understanding that under the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act, a similar levy is to be introduced in the future, perhaps in 2018. It will be up to the local authorities in each area to identify these vacant homes or sites. However, due to the extent of the crisis we need to implement this at an earlier date. It should be fast-tracked. We could easily carry out a publicity campaign of some sort to inform home owners of vacant properties that they would be liable to such a levy if they do not sort out their properties and rent them out as soon as possible.
I am not going to speak very much about the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, because Senator Noone has already referred to it. The director general of NOAC spoke on "Morning Ireland" this morning in detail. What is concerning is that during the period of this study and survey - it was carried out in 2015 - it was noted that there were more than 4,200 empty dwellings at a time when we have a housing crisis. There are 31 local authorities. NOAC is a statutory organisation set up under legislation to scrutinise and oversee local government and make it accountable. It is very important organisation and this exercise is equally important. NOAC has now published this detailed report and recommendations with regard to the local authorities. Of the many recommendations and concerns NOAC has expressed, the most disturbing is the inconsistency and inaccuracy of the data provided by many of the local authorities. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to attend the Chamber to have a debate specifically on the document, its findings and its recommendations. We need to be focused on it. There is no point in all of us of coming in here and ranting about issues. This report has been put up on NOAC's website. It has been discussed in the media today and I believe it should be the basis of a meaningful debate and discussion in this Seanad with the Minister.
I agree with previous speakers. We have a housing crisis and I believe that this Government has been in denial for the last year or more. We have come to many a meeting in the House with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, or the Minister of State, Deputy English, and we have been told that everything is under control and that there will be schemes in place, such as the HAP scheme, and the new rent pressure zones. It has been a disaster. We now have a worse housing crisis than ever before. There are people in homelessness. This Government still fails to act on it. The Minister needs to come to the House and be accountable. We have been told that there is so much money available over the last year and a half for housing, yet there are still people in homelessness who are crying out for houses. There is a lack of supply.
This issue is of crucial importance and we are in a crisis, including in all Departments. There is a crisis in our mental health funding and in people waiting for hospital appointments. A year ago, I brought up the Tír na nÓg respite service that we were to have in Carlow that had been closed 16 months ago. We were told in January that we would get that service, yet two weeks ago we and families in Carlow and Kilkenny in need of the service were told by the HSE that it had fallen through. That is a disaster. Whether it was through its own information or a lack of information, the HSE told us that Respond, the housing body, does not cater for or will not be able to let the Tír na nÓg respite service into a house that was to be ready in six weeks' time. This is unacceptable. It is a disaster. Similarly, we were told five years ago that a day care centre, Holy Angels, would get a new centre but now we are told it will not get it. I ask that the Government stand up and be accountable. It is absolutely not fulfilling any of its promises.
It is an absolute disaster.
Bring it down, then.
I remind Senators that they may raise only one issue. When I was on the Opposition side I respected the Chair. If that is not done, people go all over the shop. A lot of people are doing that but I will crack the whip very harshly one of these days.
Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an leasú ar Riar na hOibre atá molta ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Mac Lochlainn. I second the amendment to the Order of Business. I also share the concerns raised over the gorse fires and I hope we can have a debate on that.
We are back, after the break, to the usual Fianna Fáil hypocrisy on the housing crisis. Some things have not changed. It is ironic to hear Fianna Fáil talking about possibly heading into another property bubble because they certainly know about property bubbles and how to make them. If they were so concerned about the housing crisis their housing spokesperson might attend the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Deputy Cowen has the lowest level of attendance at that committee, as has been highlighted by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin. When we brought the rent certainty Bill forward, which would have addressed a number of issues which are in the Daft report, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael opposed it. Instead of Fine Gael spending so much time on the beauty contest between the two Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Varadkar-----
But they are beautiful.
That depends on your perspective, Senator Norris.
They are some beauties.
Sinn Féin objects to everything.
-----we need to highlight the miserable failure of the Minister to deal with the housing crisis. He has misrepresented the figures on new homes.
The issues around the Daft rental price report are scandalous when one looks at what the Government has not done. Rents in Dublin are up by 66% and outside Dublin they are up by 41%. They went up by 13.4% between January and March and the average rent is €1,131 nationwide. In Galway, rents are up by 14%. This Minister told us he would tackle the rent issue but he and the Government are failing.
I would welcome a debate on the NOAC report. One part that strikes me, from the point of view of Galway, is that there is one staff member for every 66 dwellings in Dublin City Council compared to one for every 1,197 in Galway County Council. Where is the property tax going in Galway? What is the money being spent on? Why do we not have the staff in Galway County Council to deal with the issues we have? The Minister, Deputy Coveney and the Government should be focusing on these issues but they are failing miserably and we need another debate on the housing crisis as soon as possible.
I remind Senator Ó Clochartaigh and his colleagues that Fianna Fáil, which I am proud to represent, has a very proud record of provision of social housing in this country. One should compare Fianna Fáil's record on the provision of social housing and other social measures to the record of Sinn Féin in government with the Democratic Unionist Party for past ten years.
Bring it on.
Bring it on. It will be no contest. He has an empty head on the subject.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business by my colleague, Senator Gallagher, on the question of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, coming to the House. A few weeks ago motions were passed in the Lower House and in this House calling on the Minister and the Department to conduct a review into the comparative underground and overground costings of the proposed North-South interconnector, in light of the decision of An Bord Pleanála last December. The terms of reference have recently been published on the Department's website but they are, in my opinion, flawed. Not only do they disregard the democratic wishes of this House and the Lower House, they have ignored the wishes of the various groups, as outlined by Senator Gallagher, in Cavan, Monaghan and Meath, who are very concerned about the proposed route for the overground cable.
The terms of reference do not take into consideration the devaluation of people's property and land, and the implications of the impact of the proposal on tourism and on people's health in the region. I advise the Leader on behalf of myself and my party that the review, as it is constituted, should not go ahead as it is flawed and can result in only one outcome, namely, proceeding with the overgrounding of these cables. That is not an acceptable way to progress this matter. I ask the Leader, by way of the proposed amendment to the Order of Business, to call on the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to come into the House in order that we can ask him why he is disregarding the wishes of this and the Lower House and of the communities that we represent.
The time allocated has expired but two Members, Senators Devine and Ó Donnghaile, are indicating and, to be fair to everyone, I will allow them to contribute.
I echo the sentiments of Senator Freeman on the great success of the Darkness into Light walks. I do not believe I was that generous at 3 o'clock last Saturday morning in the Phoenix Park. Well done to her.
The Senator was correct in stating that this and previous Governments over the past 15 years have taken a fiscal scalp to mental health services. The Leader should not tell us that funding for these services has improved. The hundreds of thousands who participated in the walks throughout this country last Saturday are proof that they know that more services are needed. The percentage funding allocation for mental health has decreased from 14% over 15 years to 6%. This sector is not the Cinderella but the burnt ashes of our health services. There is no more to be got from the services - new fuel is needed. More services are needed and more finance is needed to allow that to happen.
I congratulate the National Youth Council of Ireland on the launch today of a portal, Youth Mental Health Signposting tool, on its website, which everybody, young and old, can access for training, communication and information on children's rights. It is a simple, accurate, clear and available signposting tool that will advise people where to go in times of need and trouble. It is also a useful tool for education and training purposes for our young people. The council recognises that our people need support and the provision of targeted mental health services. I commend it on this work. It has produced excellent work to support and assist our young people to reach out for help when needed.
Éirím chun rud ar leith a lua a bhaineann le saorántacht ó Thuaidh agus go háirithe le Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to contribute after the allotted time has expired.
I will be brief in raising a matter, as I hope to bring it before the Seanad down the line. It is important for Members to be aware that, currently in the North, particularly post Brexit, many of our new communities - ethnic minorities who are non-EU citizens - do not unfortunately qualify to apply for Irish citizenship under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. An increasing lobby from our new communities is emerging in the North. I have referred to them as new communities but many of them have been living in the North of Ireland longer than I have been alive. They have contributed greatly to society there through their work and in rearing their families. Many of them have been involved in our peace and political processes in the North.
It would be worth raising with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Government that the Government would consider amending the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act to allow our new communities - ethnic minorities who are non-EU citizens who have been living in the North and whose children are entitled to apply for Irish citizenship under the Good Friday Agreement - to be able to engage in this respect in a post-Brexit scenario. There are very serious concerns about their freedom of movement and rights and entitlements post the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union.
I will furnish the Leader with the organisations' details. It is a very credible and reputable group of organisations which is lobbying on the issue. We have talked about many anomalies. This shows a very glaring anomaly that could have a severe impact on many families, not least along the Border corridor.
I thank the 24 Senators who contributed on the Order of Business. I will begin by responding to Senator Ardagh and the other Members who spoke about the issue of housing. They were Senators Humphreys, Boyhan, Murnane O'Connor, Ó Clochartaigh and Noone. It is important to work together collectively to ensure the provision and supply of social housing and housing for first-time buyers, the major issue of our time, will be addressed. It ill behoves Senator Ardagh to describe the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, as having his eye off the ball. To be fair to him, he has probably been the most proactive Minister in his portfolio that I have seen in my ten years in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Certainly, he has his eye on no other contest than ensuring people will be housed and that the availability of housing will be increased. I draw the attention of Members to the remarks today of the chairperson of Threshold, former Senator Aideen Hayden, on the Sean O'Rourke programme. She referred to the decrease in the rate of increase, reaching a peak and signs that the market had stabilised. It is important to recognise that we have come through the worst housing crisis in the history of the State. At the risk of creating a political row which I do not want to do, I note in response to the the Senators opposite that Fianna Fáil presided over the worst recession to hit the construction and banking industries and which had a devastating effect.
Fine Gael has been in government for six years.
I understand that, but Fianna Fáil cannot absolve itself, although I know that Senator Ardagh was not there at the time. It is about ensuring we will have supply, availability and an increase in the number of first-time buyers. We all meet people in our constituency clinics and offices who cannot get onto the housing ladder and are finding it difficult to find social housing. We must ensure those who are citizens and members of our own community have access to finance. We must ensure local authorities can fix voids. The Government is committed to doing so through its action plan.
On the number of houses available in Dublin, I heard what Senator Humphreys had to say. I will be happy to have the Minister come back to the House to specifically discuss the issue. However, to say nothing is happening is not correct. The Government which was criticised has committed to making an investment of €5.35 billion to deliver 47,000 social homes by the end of 2021. That is an ambitious target to which the Government has committed to supply social housing. In many local authority areas there are projects which are commencing or which have already commenced. People are being put into houses. I accept that it is not happening quick enough, but I stress the point that we have come through the worst recession in our history. The building industry was decimated. Let us have another conversation when we review the action plan for housing and homelessness and discuss how we can incentivise the construction sector to build houses more quickly. Sinn Féin Members will then have to question their own modus operandi in opposing developers at all times. They have cast them aside as pariahs in the construction sector. One needs builders to build in association with local authorities under local area plans and with the Government committed to delivering money. It is a circle in which we all need to put aside our political baggage to ensure we will deliver houses for people. I wish it could happen at the flick of a switch, but Rebuilding Ireland has key components which the Minister is committed to implementing with the Minister of State, Deputy English. I challenge any Member to question the sincerity of the Minister and the Minister of State in the delivery of social housing and ensuring we will see an end to the blight on all of our political calendars.
He made a decision that made it worse.
We have to read it again. I am quite happy-----
It is getting worse. The rates are going up.
I am quite happy to scrutinise the remarks that Senator Diarmuid Wilson rightly made about Sinn Féin's commitment in government in the North of our country in delivering housing. I canvassed in the Assembly election and the second issue that people mentioned to me in the North-----
Try standing a few candidates.
-----was the issue of housing.
It was Senator Buttimer's friends in the SDLP-----
Let us make it quite clear-----
It was the Senator's friends in the SDLP that did not build any housing. Was it the SDLP that the Leader was canvassing for?
The Government is committed-----
Senator Ó Donnghaile, please.
I am glad the Cathaoirleach is protecting me.
I protected the House from the Senator when he was trying to interject earlier, so I have to be balanced. Allow the Leader to continue.
The Government has announced €226 million of enabling infrastructure investment to facilitate the supply and construction of 23,000 homes by 2021. That is the yardstick we can be measured on. Senator Ó Clochartaigh knows full well that one cannot just build a house in 90 seconds. It takes a bit of time.
It does not take six years.
This Government is committed to doing that and I am very happy that our record will be judged-----
Six years later.
-----on that when we come to scrutiny.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the matter he has addressed in the House before. I am aware of the Senator's commitment and interest in our security and our Defence Forces. Again, as I said to the Senator - I fully understand his bona fides on this - I have spoken to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, and I have asked them to speak to the Senator. I am not sure if that has happened, and, if not, we will make it happen. This is a matter of national security.
It is in the public interest.
It is important that we balance the public interest that the Senator speaks about with the greater good of national security. If he watched yesterday, in another chamber in the United States where former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was asked about matters of national security, she did not answer. The same thing applies here. We cannot compromise our national security, but I am happy that the Government is engaging in national security. It has co-operated in ensuring that our neutrality is upheld and that we are doing the right thing.
We are not telling the people in charge of national security-----
I would be happy to have the Minister of State speak to the Senator. I had a conversation with the Minister of State to arrange that briefing for the Senator. I am not sure if it took place or not, but if it has not, I would be happy to facilitate that.
Whether the agreement exists is all we need to know.
It is important that we do not bring national security to a political level. I am not accusing the Senator of that. We have to protect the people who work in that area-----
People with the interest of national security that are-----
Allow the Leader to speak.
I would be happy to have that discussion with the Senator again.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the matter of Bills in this House. Some 22 Acts have been enacted in the 12 months that both Houses of the Oireachtas have been established in this session. There has been, as the Senator knows, an increase in pre-legislative scrutiny of legislation and there has also been a greater involvement of committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas in the work of Parliament in the scrutiny of Bills. I have asked on this side of the House, on behalf of all of us, that more Bills be enacted and initiated from the Seanad to go to the Dáil. It would be much better to have Bills start here as much as we can, to have scrutiny and debate here. Then if there are any issues with Bills, we can start them here rather than in the other House.
I say to Members from Sinn Féin and other Members that new politics involves them having responsibility not just to oppose at all times, but to play a greater role in the debate. Senator Devine may well shake her head, but it is not about opposing as if it was old politics-----
Senator Buttimer opposed rent certainty.
Votes for 16 year-olds------
We do not acknowledge-----
Votes for 16 year olds. Rent certainty.
New politics, as the Members in Sinn Féin know from its members in Stormont, requires making decisions to govern. Perhaps Sinn Féin might not be able to do that down here in the South yet, but we will help it along if it needs to have a bit of training on responsibility.
We will certainly not get any help from Senator Buttimer.
As Leader of the House, I am happy to have more Bills initiated here. I have asked on behalf of the House for that to happen, and I certainly think it is important that we work to ensure that there is legislation.
We initiated a second time slot for Private Members' Bills to allow for debate on legislation. This week I gave a commitment to Senator Warfield regarding a gender recognition Bill. We will work with all Members to ensure all voices are heard and legislation is passed in the House. It is important that this is not just a debating Chamber but a House of the Oireachtas which passes and enacts legislation on behalf of citizens.
Senators Grace O’Sullivan, Ned O’Sullivan, Lombard, Higgins and Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of the gorse fires which are happening in many parts of the country. I join with Senator Mac Lochlainn in commending the men and women working across a variety of organisations to bring these fires under control. If people break the law by lighting gorse fires or starting shrub fires or whatever, then they should be prosecuted with no derogation. Senator Lombard referred to the fires in Gougane Barra in County Cork. It was devastating to see the effects of the fires, as well as the amount of time and expense in putting them out. As all Senators rightly said, it is not just about education and training but about ensuring those in the farming community are able to light such fires appropriately in the allocated times. As Senator Ned O’Sullivan said, in different times there were always fires in bogs which were part of life in rural Ireland. We must ensure now that, if there is out-of-season burning, those people are prosecuted.
The Defence Forces personnel are working to assist the different civil authorities. The Air Corps is assisting today in fighting gorse fires in Galway. We all join in congratulating them. In addition, the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is working with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Garda and the fire service in ensuring section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 is implemented. It is important to put on the record of the House that this section prohibits the cutting, grubbing, burning or destruction of vegetation, with certain strict exemptions, from 1 March to 31 August. We must all collectively work to ensure the biodiversity of our areas is not affected.
A significant amount of land, 79,000 hectares, is held in national parks and nature reserves. Senator Coghlan’s beloved Killarney National Park, for example, comprises 26,000 acres. It is important the State has a visible presence on the ground to ensure there is no unauthorised burning in our countryside. Anyone with information should provide it to the authorities to ensure we can identify those who deliberately set fires in open areas without concern for the consequences which can be challenging, not just to working people but to wildlife and farms. I thank all the Senators who raised the matter. It is an important issue we must address as a nation.
Senator McFadden raised the matter of the closure of the Athlone mail centre. I join with her in calling on An Post to ensure the viability of the mail centre there and that it is kept open. As Senator McFadden said, it is an issue of strategic importance and is the top mail centre. I join with her in calling on An Post and its chief executive, David McRedmond, to ensure the matter is not left to one side but the centre is kept open and preserved. Outside of Dublin, Athlone and Portlaoise are nationally important and strategic sites for An Post.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised an issue concerning the third level institution in Castlebar. A working group has been set up which is due to meet with the staff next week and to report back by mid-September. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House regarding this matter.
Senators Gallagher and Wilson raised the issue of the North-South interconnector.
It is important the Government, no matter what it thinks of the decisions we make in this House, takes notice of the votes in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I am told the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is not available today but I would be happy to have him here. He is due to come to the House on 23 May. If that date is not suitable, I will be happy to talk to the Senator afterwards about settling on a date in between. He is coming to the House on the date I mentioned and I would be happy to have him debate the matters the Senator discussed.
Senators McDowell, Richmond and Higgins raised the issue of Brexit and Europe Day. To be fair, the outcome of the decision by the EU leaders was a victory for the Taoiseach in terms of his approach to Brexit but I share Senator McDowell's view that we must have an all-encompassing, all-island approach to Brexit. It is not about one versus the other; it is about hearing from all sides. If we could have that discussion as part of the proceedings of the Brexit committee, I would certainly be happy to take on board the issue the Senator raised today, namely, the comments made at the meeting of the Seanad Brexit committee last week by Mr. McGrane of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce. It is important there be engagement and that we get all people to participate, no matter what their interest is in Brexit. It is a very important matter of which people may not yet have taken cognisance. It is important that an gnáth duine engage.
I join Senator Richmond in welcoming Europe Day today. It is a day that perhaps gains in importance given the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The result of the opinion poll on the Claire Byrne show in regard to staying in Europe and the benefits thereof is heartening. I would be very happy for the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, come to the House in regard to the matter.
Senator Gavan raised the issues of the Palestinian flag, the people held in captivity and the importance of the ability to make a telephone call. We all accept that.
With regard to the Defence Forces, the main purpose of the procurement of defence equipment by the Department of Defence is to maintain the capability of the Irish Defence Forces overseas in peace support operations and to give the greatest possible protection to Irish troops on missions in their important duties and tasks. I am told the steps taken regarding the matter of equipment, as raised, were as a consequence of a competitive tender process. That is the answer I have for the Senator in that regard. If the Government did not have a tendering process, perhaps the Members opposite would be complaining then also.
Senator Norris raised the issue of blasphemy. His remarks speak for themselves. It is a ludicrous situation we are in. If one watches the tape of Stephen Fry's interview with Gay Byrne, one will see it for what it is. I am certainly glad there is no prosecution emanating. It is important, perhaps, that we have a referendum on the matter. I certainly would not be shy about it. There have been no public prosecutions on blasphemy under the 2009 Act. The last prosecution for blasphemy took place, I believe, in 1855. Eminent lawyers can give me the answer to that.
What about Gay News?
I cannot answer-----
Gay News was seized by the customs and banned-----
It was not a prosecution, though; that is the point I am making.
Senator Norris should allow the Leader to continue.
It did not have to be.
The Leader has given a good response so Senator Norris should please not interrupt him. I remind the House that we are 20 minutes over time. It is the combined fault of everyone. There is a Minister waiting. There will probably be a vote and we are not halfway through the response yet.
I am doing my best to get there.
I am trying to stop the interruptions because they do not help. They are just elongating the whole process.
Senator Freeman raised the issue of mental health. Senators Gallagher, Freeman and Devine congratulated Pieta House. I join the Members in congratulating Pieta House on the Darkness into Light walk last weekend. It certainly allowed people an opportunity to have a conversation around mental health, at least. I do not want to have a row with Senator Freeman but I believe it is important to recognise that, in the context of the mental health budget, there has been an increase this year. I know Senator Devine does not want to hear good news but, rather than engaging in circulating fake news and alternative facts, she should note the real facts are as follows. HSE funding for mental health increased from €862 million last year to €853 million this year. That is a fact. In addition, over 160 additional staff had been recruited to the HSE in the mental health area-----
Allow the Leader to respond.
-----from January to March of this year.
Recruitment campaigns are being carried out as we speak to fill the other vacancies. Sanction has been given to recruit 114 assistant psychologists to enhance early intervention primary care counselling services for those under 18 years, in particular, to relieve the pressure on CAMHS. That is the reality, whether Senator Devine likes it or not.
Please allow the Leader to continue. There are four conversations being held in the House. I sent a letter to Members today saying that if they want to converse and have a chat, there is an anteroom, so please comply. As Cathaoirleach, I have a duty in regard to the business following this to be efficient.
The Cathaoirleach is doing very well.
The construction of the new 120 bed hospital to replace the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum is continuing and it has been recently agreed that there will be a contract for a 13-bed intensive care rehabilitation unit. It is important the HSE's revenue spend for 2017 in the area of mental health, allocated in the last budget, included €35 million for mental health. It is to provide a level of service for youth mental health, for improving CAMHS and adult services, for services for older people, for out of hours services and so on. It is not correct to say there has been a reduction in spending for this year for mental health. Where I agree with Senators Devine and Freeman is that for a generation, the mental health service has been the Cinderella of the health system. I disagree profoundly with Senator Freeman in that the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, is a very proactive, engaged Minister of State who has taken her brief very seriously. She has been in this House to debate the issue, has travelled the country discussing it and has put her life and soul into the mental health area. It is unfair of Senator Freeman to criticise the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, who is available. Furthermore, last Saturday, Senator Freeman congratulated the Taoiseach for participating in the Darkness into Light walk and then came into the House today to criticise him. The Senator cannot have it every way. What we need is a collective, cross-party approach to mental health which we had in a previous Oireachtas, which we do not seem to have at the moment. I very much wish to see that happen.
I join Senator Lombard in congratulating Eli Lilly on its expansion in Cork. Senator Ned O'Sullivan congratulated Shannon Airport on its upgrade. I hope it will not be at the expense of Cork Airport. It is good that we have investment in our airports. Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of respite care. He is correct that there is a need for a strategy around long-term planning for those allowed to stay at home and to keep them at home for longer.
I ask Senator Mac Lochlainn to defer his amendment to the Order of Business until tomorrow as I want to get guidance on the matter from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It has been raised in the House before but rather than Senator Mac Lochlainn's amendment being defeated, I ask that it be deferred until tomorrow when I can come back and we can have a substantial discussion. I do not want to divide the House on it. I know where the Senator is coming from and it is about ensuring farmers get payment. If I could get an update from the Department, I would be happy to take the motion tomorrow, if the Senator is agreeable.
Senators Boyhan and Noone raised the issue of having a debate on the National Oversight and Audit Commission. I would be happy to have that. Senator Murnane-O'Connor raised the issue of Tír na nÓg and the Holy Angels. It is a matter she could raise as a Commencement matter. She might get a quicker answer.
She has raised it often in the Commencement debate. We have told the Senator she cannot do so as frequently as she has been doing. I think she has failed in that regard.
I do not have a conclusive answer for her on this.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised a number of issues. The question of spending on property tax is one he should take up with the local council. I would be happy for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, to come to the House.
It is Government policy.
It is not really.
The money is going back to central Government.
It is not really.
It is so. It is certainly not going to the local authorities.
Through the Chair, please.
I gave a response to Senators Wilson and Gallagher. I understand the sensitivities of the matter they raised but I hope they will take my assurance that I hope to have the Minister, Deputy Naughten, come to the House.
On the matter raised by Senator Devine, I welcome today's launch by the National Youth Council of Ireland of a portal. If Senator Ó Domhnaill gives me a note on the matter he raised regarding new communities, I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House.
If the two proposed amendments could be deferred I would be happy not to proceed with the division now. I am anxious to work with both Members on the matters.
For the record, under Standing Orders we have ten minutes for the Leader to respond. We are just touching 25 minutes now. That is how time evaporates. The first matter is a proposed amendment by Senator Gallagher. The Senator has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on the need to place the North-South interconnector underground be taken today." Is the Senator pressing the amendment?
I accept the Leader's proposition. If the Leader can give us a commitment that the review proposed by the Minister will not proceed until such time as the meeting takes place, I would be happy to hold off on it.
I cannot speak for the Minister but I am happy to have him come to the House to discuss the matter. I have it down on the agenda for this month. I cannot speak for the Minister but I am happy to talk to the Senator to ensure we can have the debate and discussion.
I respect the Leader's opinion. If he cannot get the commitment from the Minister, we will revisit the matter again in the House. I ask the Leader to use his good offices to contact the Minister and ask him to hold off on it.
The Senator can raise it again. We do not want a debate on it now. He can raise it again tomorrow or next week if he does not get a satisfactory response. Is Senator Gallagher withdrawing his amendment subject to what the Leader has proposed?
Senator Mac Lochlainn has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 35, motion 18, be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business today, without debate." Is the amendment being pressed?
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Conway-Walsh, Rose.
- Devine, Máire.
- Gavan, Paul.
- Higgins, Alice-Mary.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- Nash, Gerald.
- Norris, David.
- Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Ardagh, Catherine.
- Burke, Colm.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Maria.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Conway, Martin.
- Daly, Paul.
- Davitt, Aidan.
- Gallagher, Robbie.
- Horkan, Gerry.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Lombard, Tim.
- McDowell, Michael.
- McFadden, Gabrielle.
- Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
- O'Mahony, John.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Reilly, James.
- Richmond, Neale.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.