The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding discharge of order for committee of the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016, to be taken without debate on conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, motion regarding exchange of views with Mr. Michel Barnier in joint committee with Dáil Éireann, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1; No. 3, report on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the amendment of Standing Order 70A and the adopting of new Standing Order 104F, to be taken without debate on conclusion of No. 2; No. 4, Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and adjourned not later than 2 p.m. if not previously concluded; No. 5, Private Member's business, Gender Recognition (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Second Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. with time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours; No. 5a on the supplementary Order Paper, Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down and accepted by Government; and No. 6, Private Member's business, Litter Pollution (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m. with time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
Order of Business
I call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality to attend this House and explain what she knows about the current saga of the alleged misappropriation of millions of euro at the Garda training college in Templemore. There appears to be a huge disparity between the evidence given by a senior civil servant within the force, Mr. John Barrett, and that of the Garda Commissioner with regard to both of their recollections of a meeting in July 2015. Mr. Barrett recollects a detailed two-hour meeting in which a recommendation by Mr. Ken Ruane to invoke article 41 of the Garda Síochána Act was discussed. Mr. Barrett accumulated very detailed attendance notes of that meeting. The Garda Commissioner, on the other hand, recollects a very different meeting and describes such a meeting as a brief meeting over a cup of tea. We understand that a 120-page detailed dossier was given to the Committee of Public Accounts last night on the financial irregularities and alleged malpractice. We also know that audits of the Garda training college in or about 2008 and 2010 found a complicated web of company accounts and raised serious concerns about the use of taxpayers' money.
It is now time for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to this House and inform us of her interpretation of the events. The Minister needs to let us know when she found out about the alleged irregularities and what exactly she was told. Can the Minister for Justice and Equality stand over the Garda Commissioner in light of these new revelations? Did the Minister question the Garda Commissioner and ask her why there was a 15-month delay in informing her of these irregularities? Did she question why senior civil servants were prevented from getting information they needed to conclude the audit? That information was the 2008 and 2010 audit reports which, as we have learnt, were denied to the audit committee. Finally and most importantly, does the Minister for Justice and Equality believe that the Garda Commissioner misled the Committee of Public Accounts? If the Minister does believe that, is the position of the Garda Commissioner now untenable?
The second issue I wish to raise relates to the increase in costs of motor insurance premiums. Anecdotally, we learn that car insurance premiums have gone up in many cases by 32% to 40%. We know that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, is investigating potential legal breaches by insurers as car insurance premiums continue to rise. I ask the Minister for Finance to inform this House when the investigation by the CCPC will be complete. We understand that it is a complicated process, but in the meantime, consumers are at risk of being exploited by anti-competitive practices within the industry. Policies put forward by the Minister of State, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in January need to be implemented because consumers are outraged that these nonsensical price increases continue.
I wish to raise two specific issues. Both relate to the portfolio and responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, in the Department of Social Protection. The first issue relates to the carer's allowance payment and the second relates to the maternity benefit. We know that the carer's allowance is a payment to people on low incomes who are looking after persons who need care due to age, support, disability or illness, including mental illness. On 27 April, I contacted the Department with regard to a number of people who had contacted my office about serious issues of appeals over the carer's allowance.
Our contacts were not followed up. After we made contact again on a number of occasions, we were informed by a very senior public servant that there was a huge backlog. We were told in April, as we were heading into May, the Department was dealing with the backlog from December. Carer's allowance payments are not being processed in cases where there are appeals, concerns, refusals or questions to be investigated or pursued. The Department is not in a position to look at anything beyond December 2016. That is nothing short of an absolute disgrace and needs to be addressed. It was reported on RTE this morning, during a discussion on "Morning Ireland" of the media coverage of the maternity benefit issue, that there is now a backlog of 3,000 claims for maternity benefit. It seems again that it will take months to clear the backlog. I have double-checked these facts today. The position with regard to these two key social protection benefits is totally unacceptable.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to come to this House to explain the background to all this and what he is going to do about it. Will additional resources, including staff, be put in place to address the genuine concerns of people who have made appeals to get their carer's allowance payments, which are critical if those for whom they care are to be able to stay in their homes and communities with dignity and with the appropriate and necessary care they need? As a result of the difficulties with maternity benefit, people will be cut off and will have no income. People need to be given assurances that they will get these benefits. This is a process that has been set up within the Department. It is clear that the Department has neither the staff nor the resources to check all this out and pursue it. It needs to be addressed. I am asking the Leader respectfully to invite the Leader to come to this House to brief us on these two specific issues and to set out how he intends to address these appeals processes immediately.
I would like to second what Senator Boyhan has said about carer's allowance and maternity benefit. The Minister is acting deplorably in trying to put the focus elsewhere by suggesting that everybody who is on social welfare is somehow corrupt or trying to defraud the system. It is his responsibility to make sure the system works so that people on maternity benefit get these payments and do not have to wait for a month. Equally, people on carer's allowance should get the small pittance that is due to them.
I am very pleased that Fianna Fáil has finally decided it no longer has confidence in the Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan.
We have a longer list than that.
I am glad to hear it. I am sure there are many Fianna Fáil names on it.
I ask Senator Wilson not to interrupt Senator Conway-Walsh.
Tell him to have some manners.
He does have some manners, but the problem is that they are bad manners.
Think of the children.
Le bhur dtoil-----
The Cathaoirleach is very sensitive this morning.
Fianna Fáil is beginning to realise that this is a really serious matter. According to Fianna Fáil, its decision is based on the contradictory evidence on the Garda College issue that was given at the Committee of Public Accounts. When Sinn Féin tabled a motion several weeks ago calling for the resignation of the Garda Commissioner, Fianna Fáil opposed it on the basis that a Garda Commissioner cannot be removed other than by the Government of the day. I suggest the only circumstances in which a Government would contemplate such a move would be if a majority in the Dáil voted for it to happen. This brings into focus again the complex nature of the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition. There appears to be a threshold of scandal that the Government will tolerate. Fianna Fáil will tolerate a certain amount of wrongdoing and corruption, but when it passes a certain point, it tips off its partners and tells them to act. The Garda Commissioner lost public confidence a long time ago, and she should leave or be removed from office. I look forward to some clarity from Fianna Fáil on when exactly it decided the Commissioner needed to go. One scandal is one scandal too many. That is why Sinn Féin tabled the motion. I welcome the appointment of Kathleen O'Toole to chair the commission to examine Garda reform. However, I believe that root-and-branch reform of An Garda Síochána cannot take place while Commissioner O'Sullivan remains in office. Now that most parties are calling for the Garda Commissioner to be removed, I ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to this House to tell us exactly what she proposes to do. Good and decent rank-and-file gardaí are paying for the public's loss of confidence in the force. That is not fair and it is not reasonable. It is not fair to the people the gardaí are serving and it is certainly not fair to the gardaí themselves. This has to be rectified sooner rather than later.
I join Senator Boyhan in inviting the Minister for Social Protection to come to the House to discuss the two specific issues highlighted by the Senator. I would like to mention another issue with payments, the effects of which women are most vulnerable to. Under the current system in Ireland, women are ordered by the one-parent family system to go to court to seek maintenance from the fathers of their children. When they do so, court orders for maintenance are made and equivalent amounts are deducted from the one-parent family payments made to these women. The State steps back out at this point and does not take a role in ensuring these moneys are extracted from the fathers, for example, through tax or from their social welfare payments. On paper, it appears that women are receiving maintenance, but in reality they are not. This is pushing them further and further into poverty. I would like to add this to the list of issues to be discussed with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, if he comes to the House.
I welcome the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France. I particularly welcome the defeat of Marine Le Pen and the rejection by the French electorate of the politics of the far right.
I think it is a very optimistic sign in what is often a bleak political landscape at present across Europe.
I would like to welcome one aspect of the scheme of the social welfare and pensions Bill, as published by the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, last night. Colleagues will be interested to know that head 14 of the scheme mirrors the Seanad Private Members' Bill I introduced on behalf of the Labour Party group on 22 March last. They might recall that my Bill - the Pensions (Equal Pension Treatment in Occupational Benefit Scheme) (Amendment) Bill 2016 - sought to address the real discrimination that was highlighted in the case that Dr. David Parris brought before the European Court of Justice. The court refused to rule against Ireland in the case, which related to a pension scheme that required people to have married before the age of 60 in order for their spouse or partner to qualify for survivor's pension. Dr. Parris was unable to marry before that age because marriage equality had not yet been introduced. The Bill I introduced earlier this year sought to address the cases of a small number of LGBT couples who are continuing to face discrimination in Ireland in terms of pension benefits. I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the wording of our Bill and has incorporated it into head 14 of the social welfare and pensions Bill. This is a big win for the Seanad and an important step on the road to equality for LGBT couples with regard to the legacy issue of discrimination on pension rights. I thank my colleagues, particularly Senators Buttimer and Norris, for supporting this Bill. I know Senator Norris has worked on this issue for a long time.
I join other Senators in calling for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to this House for a debate on Garda mismanagement. It is clear from last night's edition of "Prime Time" and the revelations at last week's meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts that there is a discrepancy between the various accounts of what happened in 2015 between John Barrett, who is the civilian head of human resources in the Garda Síochána, and the Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan. Her position is untenable. Fianna Fáil seems to be calling for her to go while stopping short of actually pulling the plug as it could do. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to come to this House to address this tension. The mismanagement of accounts at the Garda College in Templemore, as highlighted by Deputy Kelly, is just one aspect of the real structural problems within An Garda Síochána. As we know, many other issues have come to light in recent months. I welcome the appointment of Kathleen O'Toole to lead the root-and-branch review. We need to see a review as fundamental as the review of the RUC in Northern Ireland which was initiated by Chris Patten and which led to the foundation of the PSNI. That is how serious the structural issue we are dealing with is.
The Stephen Fry case that came to light over the weekend highlights the ridiculous nature of our law on blasphemy.
Who came up with the law in question?
There is an absolutely clear need to repeal the provision in the Defamation Act 2009 which introduced the new statutory offence of blasphemy and then to have a constitutional referendum to remove blasphemy from the Constitution.
Remove the Constitution altogether.
As an Oireachtas, we could repeal the 2009 provision by taking out the statutory offence and thereby removing the crazy situation whereby someone like Stephen Fry was apparently facing interview by the Garda for his comments.
Will the Leader invite to the House either the Minister with responsibility for tourism, Deputy Ross, or specifically the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, for a general discussion on tourism and the tourism product. The particular challenges to the tourism industry are presented by Brexit, fluctuations in sterling, etc. I am not convinced that we do enough to market Ireland in a uniform sense. We have focused on the south west, the north west and areas in the east. Areas such as the midlands, the lake district from which I am from and the drumlin countryside in Cavan-Monaghan are not focused on sufficiently. They have a particular topography and very interesting features which present great opportunities to engage in interesting and niche holiday pursuits such as walking, etc. There is huge potential to promote cultural holiday breaks in the region. The list includes Patrick Kavanagh, Henry James, Brinsley Sheridan, Dr. William Bedell and Percy French, huge literary figures associated with the area within which there is the potential to develop specific tourist trails. We are very fortunate in having in Cavan County Council an excellent tourism officer, Ms Joanne Hayes, but the point I am making is that I am not convinced there is sufficient investment to market Ireland in a uniform way. We target certain areas in marketing our tourism product and do not give other areas across the country a fair crack of the whip. I ask the Leader, given the challenges presented by Brexit in my region, to arrange as a matter of urgency a discussion on the dispersing of investment in the marketing of our tourism product. Are we marketing all of the country equally? I ask the Leader to respond specifically on the issue.
I welcome Mr. Darren Aylward and his colleagues from Scoil Aireagail in Ballyhale.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 16, Declaration of Independence Day Bill, be taken before No. 1. It seeks to have 21 January 1919 declared as independence day.
Is the Senator formally proposing that No. 16 be taken before No. 1?
I wish to address the lack of corporate citizenship on the part of the banking sector. Day after day I listen to the news and hear the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government being criticised for his failure to act on housing provision. Thousands of houses cannot be built overnight at the drop of a hat, but there are houses for sale. In the last couple of weeks I encountered a young couple who had been handed €30,000 by their families as a deposit on an apartment that they would have been able to buy. They had been paying €1,500 a month in rent for seven years and never missed a payment. They had told the bank that they had received a gift of €30,000 and said they would like to buy an apartment. The actual cost of the mortgage would have been somewhere around €1,000 to €1,100 per month, resulting in a saving of €400 for the couple and the release of a rented apartment, but the bank had stated the couple had no record of saving, although they had been paying €1,500 a month in rent for seven years. It is time the banks rowed in behind the Minister for Finance who produced the help-to-buy scheme and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government who is trying to solve the housing crisis and actually became good citizens. They were saved by citizens, but they have now turned around and started to focus on their shareholders, ignoring citizens. Will the Leader bring the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to the House to discuss how we can force the banks to behave like good corporate citizens? The quicker we do this, the better as what they are doing is appalling. I will finish by saying I support the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in what he is doing. I do not want it to be taken as an endorsement of his future leadership qualities, but he is doing a good job. It is time we backed off and left him alone to try to finish it.
The Senator should tell his colleagues that.
I only speak for myself.
The leadership of Fine Gael is not an issue for the Order of Business. I call Senator Ray Butler to speak about relevant matters.
I welcome the results of a survey of the self-employed by the Department of Social Protection. Three out of four self-employed persons favoured paying a higher rate of social insurance to allow them to receive benefits similar to those received by PAYE workers. More than 80% of those surveyed put the payment of long-term illness benefit as the top priority. The survey found that 74% of respondents would be interested in a system under which extra voluntary contributions could be made to access more benefits. It also found that almost 90% of self-employed persons would pay a higher rate of PRSI in return for specific extra benefits. Their top choices would be long and short-term illness and unemployment benefit. There were 3,200 respondents. I would prefer if it was mandatory. I have waited so long for this to happen that I could live with a voluntary system, but let us get the ball rolling. Can we have the Minister come to the House before the summer recess to iron out some of the issues with the new stamp? The scheme is very welcome for the 340,000 self-employed persons in the country.
I extend my thanks to the organisers of the Tree of Hope event who were on the lawn this morning. The planting of a Tree of Hope was respectful, bracing and uplifting. I hope we will all ponder and enjoy it as we walk around the gardens.
The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, is in a bit of trouble this morning over the backlog of maternity benefit payments, for which he has apologised. I recognise the urgent need for resources to deal with the backlog which extends to several months. The Department is telling anxious and soon-to-be mothers that it is not possible to give an accurate date as to when applications will be processed and paid. Some are on half an income, but others have no income whatsoever. However, rent, mortgage and bill payments still need to be made. The advice given to go and beg in Intreo or local welfare offices for a loan is unsatisfactory, especially if one needs to bundle up a newborn. The situation is stressful. I ask the Minister to come to the House to set out a clear and immediate plan to resolve the issue. The problem seems to extend throughout the Department. Backlogs in paying carer's allowance, family income supplement and paternity benefit extend to several months. We need to ask the Minister to concentrate on this issue to ensure the smooth running of his Department. It is a less easy catch for him than talking to the media about the fraud line, known colloquially as the "Rat for Leo Line". We need to get the Department in order first.
I welcome the move made by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, to deal with the pension anomaly. I have been involved in dealing with it since the legislation was initially introduced, but I compliment my colleague, Senator Bacik, on the work she has done on it and, in particular, producing the first Bill to deal with it. However, I think it is too narrow as it seems to focus particularly on the David Parris case. There are further anomalies outside it. I hope it will be possible to work with the Minister to tweak the legislation, but I am very pleased that he has taken up the issue. We had a meeting this morning with the Russian ambassador organised by the Leader, Senator Jerry Buttimer, about the horrendous treatment of gay men in Chechnya. The ambassador pointed to the pension anomaly as a blot on the Irish reputation, so it actually has a certain international currency. I think it is too narrow.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh-----
I am sorry but there was one other matter. I ask Senator Reilly to forgive me for interrupting.
The Senator is well over the limit but if he is brief, I will allow him.
I apologise but this is something that was drawn to my attention by Senator Bacik. The provisions of the legislation appear to exclude Dr. David Parris. The legislation asserts that a claim for redress in respect of a breach of the principle of equal pension treatment-----
That is a matter that can be dealt with in the debate, Senator Norris.
-----on the sexual orientation ground must be made within three years of the date the employee married or entered into a civil partnership. That excludes Dr. Parris.
That is a matter that can be dealt with during the debate on the legislation.
Earlier today the Cathaoirleach and many other Senators were present during the planting of a Tree of Hope for those who have lost loved ones through suicide and those who have mental health issues. I mention this because the most common cause of death for people who are higher functioning on the autistic spectrum is suicide. In that context, I wish to propose an amendment to the Order of Business. I ask the Leader to take No. 17 before No. 1 so that we can discuss the need for a national strategy for autism in the context of the Autism Spectrum Disorder Bill 2017.
I understand that we are likely to see Senator Lawless's Bill to repeal the Good Friday licensing laws back before this Chamber in the coming weeks. To be clear, I am quite happy to see that Bill progress. However, I am concerned about the disappearance of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. It is a little bizarre that a member of the Opposition has to raise a Fine Gael Bill and ask where it is-----
It is not a Fine Gael Bill. It is a Government Bill.
Apologies - a Government Bill and to ask where it is. What message will it send-----
Technically, that was a correction from the Leader.
I accept that. What message is this Chamber sending-----
Fine Gael is part of the Government.
What message will we be sending from this Chamber if we are seen to be rushing through legislation to enable people to drink more alcohol, while the Bill to deal with the crisis in alcohol consumption in this country has disappeared? It has disappeared because of difficulties within Fine Gael and we must be very clear about that. I have a very simple request to make. I ask the Leader to confirm that the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will be reintroduced before we proceed with the Bill from Senator Lawless so that the country can see where our priorities lie. We should be tackling the crisis in alcohol before we license for further sales of same.
I second the proposed amendment to the Order of Business by Senator Swanick. I welcome the fact that Sinn Féin is attempting, democratically, to remove a member of An Garda Síochána, namely, the Garda Commissioner because over a period of 35 years, its colleagues in the IRA have removed over 24 members of An Garda Síochána-----
Point of order-----
-----by murdering them.
On a point of order, please.
What is the point of order, Senator?
I have no colleagues in the IRA. Sinn Féin and the IRA are two very distinct and-----
That is not a point of order.
-----separate organisations. Sinn Féin is certainly not responsible for the accusations made by Senator Wilson.
Surely that is defamation.
That is not a point of order.
I resent the implication-----
Senator, that is not a point of order. Please respect the Chair-----
The Leader may laugh-----
Respect the Chair.
The Leader may laugh at such a serious accusation but it will be a cold day in hell before I allow him-----
Respect the Chair, please.
-----given where his party comes from, to discredit my party or any member of it.
With respect, it was not me. It was Senator Wilson.
Please allow Senator Wilson to continue.
I have said what I have said and-----
Senator Wilson, without interruption-----
On a further point of order-----
Senator Ó Donnghaile-----
He is saying that his lie is a fact. That is not in order.
Senator Ó Donnghaile, please resume your seat.
That is not in order.
Please resume your seat. That is not a point of order.
It is not in order for him to make those accusations.
I have ruled against you twice. If you stand again, I will adjourn for 15 minutes.
Perhaps the Cathaoirleach could rule on whether it is in order-----
I have ruled against you, Senator.
Perhaps the Cathaoirleach will explain to me-----
I have ruled against you, Senator.
Perhaps the Cathaoirleach will explain to me, under Standing Orders-----
Allow me to explain-----
Allow me to elaborate on my point-----
No, I am suspending the House-----
Is it in order? How is that in order?
-----for 15 minutes.
The Cathaoirleach does not like Fianna Fáil being challenged.
If the Senator would like to conclude, he has one minute left.
The Fianna Fáil Party in the Lower House could not support the motion by Sinn Féin because it would have been illegal to do so. The Government is the only body which can take a decision to dismiss a member of An Garda Síochána.
Senator O'Donnell is gone so I call Senator Feighan.
I agree with Senator Reilly that we need to do more to encourage tourism in rural Ireland. In my town, many years before I went into politics, I was chairperson of Lough Key Forest Park action group. It is now one of the major tourist attractions in the country. At the time, when we brought the council on board with Coillte, everyone was concerned that Coillte would sell off this huge, fabulous forest park. We brought the council on board with Coillte because Coillte could not draw down European regional development funds. Some 15 years later, we drew down over €12 million in European grants and it is now a tourist attraction. I am saying this because in Boyle town, similar to many other towns, we do not have a flagship hotel. Tourists come to the area but there is no flagship hotel in the town. We seemed to have missed the Celtic tiger practice where hotels were built in places that they were not needed. In this case, there is a tourist attraction but no one in their right mind would build a hotel unless there was some sort of Government intervention, tax break or something similar. There are towns around the country, such as Ballaghadreen, Castlerea and Boyle, which need that vital piece of infrastructure not only for tourism, but also for locals as leisure centres. I appeal for a different look to be given to it.
I welcome the appointment of Ms Kathleen O'Toole to carry out a root and branch review of the Garda Síochána. It is certainly needed. The Garda Síochána was formed in 1922 and my grandfather, James Feely, was one of the first gardaí. I am one of those people who are very proud of the tradition of the Garda Síochána. It is an unarmed force but it has held the line against numerous threats to our State. Someone likened the Garda to the RUC. The Garda was our unarmed force and I am proud of its tradition. If a root and branch review needs to be done, so be it. It probably needs to be done but I am a citizen of this country and I am very proud of its past members, the men and women who have held the line in our State.
Hear, hear. Well said.
Before Senator Ó Donnghaile commences, as Cathaoirleach, and previously as Leas-Chathaoirleach and as a Member for nearly 15 years prior to that, I have chaired sittings of the Seanad and I have never been accused of being political. When I got this job, I left politics aside. Charges are made from different sides against different people. I try to be fair and perhaps I fail at times-----
No, the Cathaoirleach is very fair.
I left my political baggage behind when I got this job.
I accept that wholeheartedly, a Chathaoirligh, and I withdraw the comment. I do not feel-----
We will leave it at that.
We will surely.
I am sure the Senator is rising to raise another matter.
Absolutely. I withdraw the remark.
I understand that sometimes orders might need a bit of guidance and that is the point I wanted to expand upon.
The Twenty-fifth Seanad has been sitting for over a year. It is unfortunate to say that in that-----
That is wrong.
I apologise. We have been elected to the Twenty-fifth Seanad for over a year. It is simply cordial to offer each other some advice now and again and keep each other right.
This Seanad has been sitting for 11 months.
Eleven months is still a good chunk of time. In the course of that 11 months, the Taoiseach has been before us once. That is equal to the number of appearances before this House by the Scottish First Minister and tomorrow by the lead negotiator of Brexit from the EU side. We all agree that Brexit is one of the biggest threats to this State in its entirety in a generation, if not longer. We have been told repeatedly by the Leader that the Taoiseach leads on this important issue, that he is leading the Government position alongside the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. We will have Michel Barnier before us in a joint sitting tomorrow. I do not think it is too much to ask that the Taoiseach would come to this House on a more regular basis to afford us the courtesy of updating us on where negotiations and the Irish Government position has reached.
The Government has been mandated by the Dáil to argue for special status for the North. It would be very useful for Senators to hear where things lie regarding that negotiating stance. We have heard some points emerge from the EU side and while Michel Barnier and his colleagues are here tomorrow, we should take the opportunity to convey a very clear message that we too support special status for the North given the democratic vote there and that we support the preservation and the pre-eminence of the Good Friday Agreement and its all-Ireland institutions. Perhaps the Leader could ask the Taoiseach to come in before we break and update Members on where we are at in the Brexit negotiations.
I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to take control of the situation and for us all, irrespective of our political allegiance, to leave the political point scoring on the Garda Síochána and the Garda Commissioner outside the door. Many people, all over the country and particularly in rural areas, are the victims of our shenanigans. They are the elderly, who are living vulnerably in rural Ireland. I have with me the local paper from my home area which reports that there has been a litany of crime in the past two weeks. In particular, it relates to elderly people in rural areas. We have all heard of the high profile case in Tipperary last week, but it is the same all over the country. The reason for this is that the criminal element sees total disarray among the Garda Síochána from the top down by virtue of the media coverage from these two Houses. In essence, we are the initiators of much of this and it is about time that the Minister for Justice and Equality, the person who can grasp the nettle, takes control of the situation and sorts it out once and for all in the interest of the most vulnerable in society.
I share Senator Feighan's sentiments about An Garda Síochána and I am very proud of it. Equally, I am immensely proud of our Defence Forces. I rise today to praise the members of the 110th Infantry Battalion, who travel today to serve with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. Ireland has a long association with UNIFIL since its establishment in 1978 and I am really proud of the 336 members who fly out today, both men and women, who volunteered to take on this mission. I point out that 95 of those 336 people are first-time overseas travellers with the force, and it could be very daunting for them. They are very brave and I pay tribute to them. Many of their families come from my home town of Athlone.
Peacekeeping is a very important job and it can sometimes be carried out in very challenging circumstances. The role carried out by the Defence Forces is done with complete dedication and professionalism. The 110th Infantry Battalion was on parade last Friday and reviewed by the Minister of State in Athlone; the town was immensely proud to see the troops march through to the barracks. I could not help but be very impressed with their demeanour and obvious pride. I wish them well and hope they do a very good job abroad, coming back safely to serve their country with the distinction they have done until now. With this in mind, will the Leader speak with the Taoiseach and Minister of State with responsibility for defence about giving medals to those who served in the Congo in 1961, the Jadotville group?
Today I will raise a matter that I hope the Leader will bring to the attention of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney. There has been much discussion about our housing issue, as Senators are aware, and the results and formulae we are trying to achieve in solving the housing crisis. There is a history of a certain approach working. There are many vacant houses, as we are aware, and the statistics are there to be seen regarding such houses. We have heard how councils could use their powers to buy houses that we could get people to renovate or use compulsory purchase orders or other threats.
A far more suitable way to get houses back to the market that, for example, have not been in use for over two years would be to apply a reduced rate of capital gains tax. It is the way forward and it would encourage people to sell these houses. Currently, a third of whatever profit these people might make in their houses would go in capital gains tax. I would stress a reduction of the rate to 10% for housing units that are vacant, so it would not relate to currently occupied houses. If we reduce the rate on these properties, it would bring a steady flow of houses to the market that are not there currently.
I second Senator Reilly's proposed amendment to the Order of Business. I do not wish to labour the following point as I know it was raised yesterday in my absence from the Order of Business. Far too many people are showing blatant disregard for the law relating to fire and burning regulations. What has happened in Connemara is a national disaster, with 4,000 ha being wiped out and millions of euro of trees being destroyed. Coillte has told us it will take 25 years to replenish what has been lost. Competence in the provision of proscribed burning operations is critical. As we know, fire services are being diverted all over the place from potentially dangerous domestic cases as a result of this. Perhaps the appropriate Minister might come to the House and outline the Department's strategy for preventing these types of fires.
Tacaím leis an méid atá ráite díreach romham ag an Seanadóir Coughlan. Tá géarghá le díospóireacht faoi na tinte sléibhe. We certainly need a debate around the impact of the gorse fires and the other ensuing fires. The management of that type of cleaning of lands must certainly be debated. We need to see if we can have an impact on that at policy level.
I raise the issue of our coastal communities. We have seen a major loss of population in our coastal communities and a very good report was produced by the joint committee dealing with agriculture and fisheries in the previous Dáil and Seanad on sustaining rural communities. The report made many very practical recommendations that were agreed across parties. It would be interesting to see if any of those recommendations have been moved forward in the life of this Government.
We are seeing major problems in the fishing industry with a depleted fleet and people losing morale in the sector. There are issues concerning technicalities in quotas and tonnage, etc., so it is important to have a discussion around the future of our fishing fleet, particularly in the context of Brexit and the implications it will have.
Connected to this is the issue of seaweed harvesting, aquaculture, etc., as well as the implications of designations in the area. On our priority legislation list we have the maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill, and I understand issues around licensing of aquaculture and seaweed harvesting are being held up until that comes forward. We know the heads of the Bill were approved in July 2013 and pre-legislative scrutiny was completed in February 2014. We have not seen anything of the Bill since. It would be very important to have a debate around that Bill, as well as an indication of when it will come forward. Could we be told if it is to come forward in this session? I will seek clarification of that and a debate on those issues if possible. There are issues around infrastructure in coastal areas, particularly in my own area of the deep water harbour of Ros a' Mhíl. Is that being moved forward? There is also the issue of the road infrastructure leading to those harbours. That is very important in rejuvenating rural areas where the infrastructure projects are located.
I support the Bill being introduced by Senator James Reilly. It is important we start planning in this area. There are simple issues we must resolve, such as the numbers of people getting support or being cared for by family. What is the age profile of parents? What planning must we do to ensure that when parents are no longer able to provide care, there can be someone to step in and take over that care? It is a big issue as there is no planning. I raised the issue yesterday about the need for respite care for people being cared for at home. I very much welcome the Bill being introduced by Senator Reilly.
We have introduced many changes in the primary school sector over the past number of years relating to people who need additional support in primary schools and the educational system. Many children are going forward into the secondary schools system but we do not seem to have planned in that system for their needs. I was speaking to people yesterday and in one school, over 70 people are looking to get into the unit operating in that school. We should have a debate on how we provide forward planning for young people who are getting support in the primary school sector but who are not getting it in the secondary school sector. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come here to deal with that matter in a debate.
I take this opportunity to welcome trainees and staff from Cavan Youthreach who are in the Gallery. I hope they enjoy their visit. I called Senator O'Donnell earlier but he was absent. I will allow him in as the last speaker.
The Cathaoirleach might allow me to take the liberty of welcoming the children from Our Lady Queen of Peace national school in Janesboro and their principal, Mr. Michael Ryan, who are in the Gallery. I will raise the issue of maternity benefit delays. I note the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has stated there are problems with a new system. The delays appear to have arisen because a new system is being implemented in the Department of Social Protection for the processing of maternity benefit.
The Department should go back to the old system to get rid of the backlog and perhaps delay the introduction of the new system. Maternity benefit is based on contributions. It is not a means-assessed payment and, therefore, it is relatively straightforward. Assessment is based on the number of stamps paid in previous years. Women who are employees apply six weeks before they go on maternity leave and 12 weeks before if they are self-employed. Taking all factors into account in respect of the delays, perhaps what is required is a return to the old system and a staggering of the introduction of the new system, perhaps over a slightly longer period, to ensure women who are on maternity leave at the moment and who are not in payment will come into payment as quickly as possible. Perhaps there is a common sense solution in the short term. We all want innovation in the Department but it is critical that a mechanism is found whereby the payments can be sped up. The payments system had been working efficiently. My suggestion to the Minister for Social Protection is that he should process the backlog under the old system and stagger the introduction of the new system, perhaps over a longer period, in order that arrears can be brought up to date and that there can be a smooth transition in respect of payments between the old and new systems.
I thank the 25 Senators who contributed. I join Senator O'Donnell in welcoming the children from the school in Limerick whom I had the pleasure of meeting on the corridor. I also welcome the workers from Cavan Youthreach who are doing great work, not least having to endure Senator Wilson on occasion. I commend them on the great work they are doing. As a former director of adult education, I know they do tremendous work, which is of value to our communities and society.
Senators Conway-Walsh, Bacik, Wilson, Feighan, Daly and McFadden raised the ongoing issue relating to An Garda Síochána. It is important to recognise the importance of the force to our society and our communities. All of us should thank and commend the men and women who patrol our streets and neighbourhoods and who act as the guardians of the law to keep all of us safe. It is important that we acknowledge, and pay tribute to, the rank and file members of An Garda Síochána. We can all point out the community garda, local sergeant, inspector or superintendent in our communities who do Trojan work. They do this at unsocial hours at times and in difficult conditions. I am a member of the joint policing committee for Cork city and county and I am aware of the work gardaí do. They are as frustrated as many of us by the ongoing issues pertaining to the force. It is important that, as Senator Daly rightly said, we do not politicise the issue. That is why I will not take lectures from Sinn Féin Members regarding An Garda Síochána. Their new found interest in, and respect for, the force, while welcome, should always have been there and it should not be ambiguous.
Here we go again.
The Senator can pout all she wants.
The Leader is out of order again. He throws lots of digs and is very defensive.
It is important that we all have confidence in gardaí and the Commissioner-----
The Leader should stop lecturing us. It is his true form.
The truth hurts.
It is the Leader's default position to lecture and to get digs in every now and then.
The Senator should allow the Leader to continue without interruption.
The truth hurts. The facts are the facts.
The Leader is nasty.
If the Senator wants to go through history and speak about being "nasty", she should look at her own party's relationship with An Garda Síochána.
The Leader should please address the Chair.
He does not know how to address the Chair. Day in, day out, he is like a broken record.
The Senator should allow the Leader to conclude.
It is important that all of us have confidence in An Garda Síochána and in the Commissioner. All of us are concerned about, and frustrated by, the recent developments and the ongoing issues but it is important that we allow change, whether it is structural or cultural, to happen in the force. That is why the Minister for Justice and Equality has not been slow in bringing about reform and ensuring the appointment of Ms Kathleen O'Toole and the other appointments-----
She needs to go.
-----to ensure transparency and accountability in regard to An Garda Síochána. I very much welcome the appointment of Ms Kathleen O'Toole.
The Committee of Public Accounts is engaged in an ongoing investigation into the matters relating to the college in Templemore but all of us aspire to accountability and transparency regarding all matters relating to the force. The revelations are upsetting, worrying, frustrating and serious-----
So we do it in reverse.
-----and we must allow for that cultural change to take place. The repeated political requests of the Members opposite to get rid of the Commissioner are about looking for a head; they are not about structural change or transformation.
They are about credibility.
We all accept that matters relating to An Garda Síochána need to be sorted out and that is why the Government has not been found wanting in bringing about change. All of us are frustrated and annoyed because these matters undermine the work being done by the force, but there must be accountability and cultural change.
The Leader will undermine his party's position.
I will be happy to see that change happen in the coming months. We should allow the issues to be resolved.
Senators Boyhan, Conway-Walsh, Ruane, Devine, Bacik, Norris and O'Donnell raised social protection issues. Senator Boyhan raised a particular issue regarding the carer's allowance and I will take that back to the Minister. All the Senators raised the maternity benefit issue. I join those who expressed disappointment at the delay in the processing of the applications. A total of 1,300 women are awaiting the payment of this benefit. I have been informed by the Minister that additional staff have been appointed, overtime has been provided and there is an issue with the roll-out of a new system. Senator O'Donnell made a telling contribution regarding how the issue could be resolved by using the old method. The Minister should do that. As Senator Devine rightly said, women who are at their most vulnerable require that payment and the delays are unacceptable. Senator O'Donnell is correct that the Minister should be asked to postpone the implementation of the new system and the training of staff and have the payments made under the old system until the Department gets the structure right.
Senator Ardagh raised the motor insurance issue. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, along with the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, commissioned a report into motor insurance which has made 76 recommendations. All of us want a reduction in the cost of premia and there is a need for more change, to which we all look forward.
Senators Bacik and Norris raised the pensions issue in the context of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I very much welcome head 14. Senator Norris referred, in particular, to the exclusion of Dr. David Parris. As the Cathaoirleach rightly said, that can be addressed in the Bill and I hope we can reach an accommodation on that.
Senator Bacik referred to the issue of blasphemy, about which we had a discussion yesterday. All of us recognise that there has been no conviction since 1855 but it might be no harm to have the offence removed completely. I am not against that.
Senators O'Reilly and Feighan raised the important issue of tourism in the Border area. As Senator O'Reilly rightly said, the Cavan area has a tourism product. Those who watched last Monday's edition of "Nationwide" could not but be impressed by the product on offer in Cavan and Monaghan. It is something that the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport should come to the House to discuss. He is very much aware of the impact Brexit could have on the tourism strategy but the strategy needs to be accentuated and highlighted in respect of the Border counties and I would be happy to facilitate a debate on that.
I am happy to accept Senator Swanick's amendment to the Order of Business.
I join Senator Craughwell in pleading with the banks to take their corporate citizenship responsibilities seriously. They have an obligation and duty to work with people rather than holding the sword over them all the time. The Senator's points were well made as were those made by Senator Butler regarding the self-employed. The Minister for Social Protection has made significant changes and is working towards a bigger change for the self-employed. Senator Butler, who is a long-standing champion of the self-employed, made some good points.
Senators Devine and Reilly referred to the Tree of Hope.
It is important, as the Senator said, that people do ponder and reflect as they walk past. This is mental health awareness month, and it is important that an awareness is created, that people are able to talk about mental health and that there is an opportunity to have that discussion. As was mentioned yesterday when discussing the Cinderella element of the health budget, there is a stigma associated with mental health that we need to overcome, and that can only be done by having public events where people can speak about the pain of isolation, loss, anxiety and loneliness and other frustrations that have been bottled up for years. Government, despite what some people will say, have put in place a number of measures that will be of benefit to people, but we have a road to travel yet, and I fully subscribe to the view that any initiative that we can take to allow people to speak and highlight mental health is to be welcomed.
I thank Senator Warfield and Senator Norris for joining me this morning to meet the Russian ambassador to highlight the issues in Chechnya and Russia. It is frustrating when one hears the ambassador saying that there are no issues and that all people are treated with respect, but as Senator Norris said we have an issue to deal with.
I would be happy to take Senator O'Reilly's amendment to the Order of Business, and I thank him and Senator Burke for their remarks regarding an autism strategy. We will have that debate next week in the House.
Senator Gavan brought up the issue of the Good Friday Bill. I share with him the desire to reduce the harm alcohol has on our society, and as the former chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Health - our first piece of work was about alcohol - who has scrutinised the public health and alcohol issue, I am working on having that Bill back in the House before the summer recess. I am not hiding or demurring from my responsibilities in any way. I will always be willing to work for public health, as is Senator Gavan. We are not in any way preventing consideration of the measure. From speaking to the Department of Health and the Minister of State at the Department of Health I know she is anxious to progress the Bill on which work is ongoing. It is nearing completion. I as Leader gave a commitment to Senator Lawless on the Bill, and it is hoped we will have it back before the summer recess.
Our priority should be the public alcohol Bill.
We are working to progress that legislation.
Senator Feighan raised the issue of tourism around his area of Roscommon, and he is right to raise that point. It is important that we see a tourism strategy post-Brexit.
Senator Ó Domhnaill raised the issue of Brexit negotiations and the Taoiseach's availability to come to the House. We had former taoisigh before the Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, so it is hoped the Taoiseach will appear before that committee as well. If we look at the agreement secured by the Taoiseach in terms of the recognition of the unique constitutional status of the North and the issue around the Good Friday Agreement and the entire territory of the island of Ireland, we will see that the Government's strategy around Brexit has worked so far. The outcome is attributable to the work of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, the Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Justice and Equality, Deputy Dara Murphy, and all of Government, through its diplomatic and political campaigns in recent months.
I would be happy to have the Taoiseach come to the House or to the Brexit committee. The Taoiseach has been a true leader, and has not politicised Brexit. He has worked across the world pursuing an intensive campaign on the importance of Ireland in the European Union and our unique position. That will be recognised at the European People's Party later this week. We all support the peace process and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement. That is not a political mantra but has been at the heart of Government. I agree with Senator Ó Domhnaill that we need to have a flexible and imaginative solution to ensure that we do not have a hard border in our country and that there is a need to protect the special status of not just the North but of all of Ireland. I look forward to the debate with Monsieur Barnier tomorrow, and I thank the House in advance of the agreement of the resolution later.
Senator Paul Daly is correct in that we should always keep the victims of crime at the forefront of what we do.
Senator McFadden raised the issue of the 110th Infantry Battalion heading off to the Lebanon. On behalf of this House I wish them a very safe and peaceful mission. We are fortunate as a nation that the men and women who serve in our Defence Forces go overseas and act in a way that other countries are extremely complimentary of. The Army has a very strong affinity to Lebanon, and I again commend the troops and wish them well on their mission. I thank Senator McFadden, who has been a strong advocate of the Defence Forces. Senators MacLochlainn and Craughwell have raised the issue of the Jadotville group in the Congo. We will bring resolution to the matter, which has been supported by all of us in this House, in the coming weeks.
Senator Davitt raised the issue of vacant houses and voids. The Senator is correct in that creativity and imagination should be used to fix the situation around voids and vacant houses, and every consideration should be given to the matters he raises on the issues of taxation and capital gains tax. That should be looked at.
Senator Coghlan raised the matters of the gorse fires again today. We had very good contributions yesterday by many Senators on the Order of Business. I repeat my line from yesterday that those who break the law on burning gorse should be pursued and prosecuted, and I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House to discuss that.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of our coastal communities, which are very important to our country. The issue of a report on sustaining rural communities and the issue of the maritime area and foreshore licences were brought up. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss that matter.
Senator Colm Burke also raised the issue of respite care, and the point made is one on which we have to have a special debate. I am endeavouring to have the Minister come to the House to discuss that. He also raised the matter of the primary school and post-primary school sector and planning for the future needs of children. He cited the issue yesterday, and it is a matter that needs to be addressed through a Government-wide approach. I look forward to having that debate.
I will accept the two amendments to the Order of Business from Senators Reilly and Swanick.
Senator Keith Swanick has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 16 be taken before No. 1". The Leader has indicated that he is prepared to accept this amendment. Is that agreed? Agreed.
On the next matter, Senator James Reilly has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 17 be taken before No. 1". The Leader has indicated that he is prepared to accept this amendment. Is that agreed? Agreed.