The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding extension of timeframe for the Citizens' Assembly, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the national planning framework, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; and No. 3, statements on the fair deal scheme, to be taken at 4.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no fewer than five minutes to reply to the debate.
Order of Business
Today our sympathies, thoughts and prayers are with those who were killed in the mass shooting in Las Vegas. To their families and friends we send our heartfelt condolences. What happened in Las Vegas, as is often the case, is a failure of politics to regulate and control the ownership of guns. Whatever about the constitution of the United States of America, the fact that families have been left without children and loved ones because of this fundamental right to bear arms and the inability of politics to regulate that, is a shameful indictment of the whole political system.
Systems fail, as we saw in Las Vegas. We previously saw this tragically in the United States at Sandy Hook elementary school where, despite the fact that six adults and 20 children were murdered and massacred, no change occurred. When things like that happen and when failures happen in politics, whether it be in Ireland or anywhere else, change needs to occur. Unfortunately, as we have seen so often in the past, it has come all too late for the bereaved and the loved ones of those who were killed in Las Vegas. Our sympathies to all who have been caught up in those tragic events.
I ask the Deputy Leader to organise a debate on our Defence Forces and the fact we are spending a massive amount of money on equipment and a new naval ship that we do not have enough personnel to man. We do not have enough personnel in the Naval Service to keep all our ships at sea at any one time. We do not have enough personnel to man our Air Corps aircraft. We do not have enough personnel to meet our UN requirements. That is not a situation the State should continue to tolerate. While it costs over €100,000 to train up some of the technicians and skilled personnel within the Air Corps, the Naval Service and the Army, for the price of €300 they are allowed to relinquish their contracts with the State.
I am not saying that should be increased; it should be zero. They should be recruited and their terms and conditions should be such that they will not want to leave or go to private industry and that they will continue to serve the State, as their predecessors in the Defence Forces have done for so many years at home and abroad.
I ask the Deputy Leader to organise a debate on this but, at the same time, I ask that we have fewer debates and more legislation. We might look at introducing some legislative measures in respect of the Defence Forces in the Finance Bill that would allow the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to reinstate payments that were put in place for Air Corps personnel, especially pilots. Such a move would allow them to be given extra pay in light of the skills they possess. Those who possess such skills, including aeroplane and helicopter pilots, are highly sought after by private enterprise. When the Finance Bill comes before it, I ask that the House consider addressing that issue in the context of the range of personnel employed by our Defence Forces. This situation will only get worse unless a change is made by this House and by the Dáil.
I am absolutely horrified by what has happened in my adopted country in the past couple of days. It is absolutely incredible to think that so many people have died and been injured. As Senator Mark Daly said, it does not seem to matter how many massacres take place in the United States: they just cannot seem to get it. One would think the United States, being supposedly the most civilised and humane country in the world, would get the whole issue of guns. Since I went there 20 years ago, I have been amazed by the gun laws in the United States. A couple of years ago, when President Obama wanted to introduce background checks, 91% of the American people voted in favour of them, and in the US Senate, where I have many friends, they could not get 60 votes out of 100 to bring the matter to the floor. They have to get what is called cloture, or two thirds of the vote. They could not get 60 votes to debate it on the floor of the Senate. In my restaurants in Chicago, I have a photograph of a gun with a red line through it-----
-----to show that people with guns are not welcome on my premises. It is legal in Chicago to carry a concealed weapon, but I do not know whether or not people coming to my restaurant are carrying them. We all know what alcohol can sometimes do and that rows can develop. We see this everywhere. It is very easy just to pull out the gun. It is part of their nature now. However, imagine that we could not get 60 votes to debate the matter in the US Senate. That is appalling, and there is no word today about doing anything with the gun laws. We in this House should send a strong message to Congress of our abhorrence of what is happening with guns in the United States. Again, I offer my sincere condolences to all 500 of those poor people - can you believe it - injured and, of course, the 60 poor people who have been murdered. This House should do something about it.
On behalf of the Sinn Féin team in the Seanad, I wish to express our sincere sympathies to the families of those who were killed and injured in the Las Vegas atrocity. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this painful time, as indeed they are with those who lost their lives in the incident in Marseilles at the weekend.
I wish to move the National Asset Management Agency (Amendment) Bill 2017.
This Bill will amend the NAMA and National Treasury Management Agency Acts to empower NAMA and the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, to contribute to the stability of the housing system through the provision of social and affordable housing.
My central business today, though, is the refusal of the Government to approve Translarna for the treatment of five young children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Just two young boys are currently of the age to receive the treatment as we speak. I welcome the families to the Visitors' Gallery. They are present to attend the briefing at 4 p.m. in the AV room. As legislators of all political persuasions, we have a responsibility to join their fight for access to treatment that, as it has done in the North and elsewhere, significantly delays the loss of ability to walk and associated medical difficulties for these children. Today's briefing will provide these families with the opportunity to share with us the story of their campaign to secure access to the drug Translarna, which has a proven life-changing impact on sufferers of muscular dystrophy. Translarna is available in the North and my colleague, Ms Michelle O'Neill, approved it during her time as Minister of Health. Along with our party president, Deputy Adams, she met the parents of muscular dystrophy sufferer Lewis Walsh Harte - they are present today - to hear their account of how crucial a factor time is in obtaining access to this drug.
Translarna is available in 22 other EU countries as well as the North. This leaves parents facing an unjust decision, namely, must they move to another jurisdiction to obtain this drug? It is imperative that, in cases such as these, we have an all-island approach to accessing life-changing and life-saving medicines. It is illogical and unfair to have different levels of access for sufferers in different parts of the island.
The families have been told that there is no money, and the data are insufficient, to fund Translarna. How can we possibly explain to these young children that the reason they are not walking like their peers in 22 other countries, the North and their very own country is that the data are not sufficient? How can we possibly tell these five children that we cannot afford to provide this vital medicine when we see millions of euro wasted on renting empty office spaces for Departments? These children cannot wait for lengthy legal processes that are likely to cost much more than the treatment would cost in the first place. I urge the Government to right this wrong, make the right decision and approve Translarna without further delay. I call on the Minister for Health to attend the House to discuss the matter and make Translarna available sooner rather than later.
I join others who have spoken of their regrets about the failure of politics in the US in terms of gun control, but the issue that I wish to focus on is one in which politics must not be allowed to fail. It pertains to the scenes that we saw in Catalonia over the weekend. The response from the Taoiseach has not been adequate. He stated that he would not recognise the result, and so be it, but it is incumbent on him to recognise not only the frustration, but the urgency and danger to the European project of what has been unfolding in Catalonia. The Taoiseach spoke rightly about the danger of state violence leading to radicalisation, but it also leads to another danger stalking Europe at the moment, namely, authoritarianism.
We need to address both concerns. That requires active engagement. It is not sufficient that Europe has said that it trusts the leadership of Prime Minister Rajoy, who has praised the "serenity" of riot police, who injured 900 people and used rubber bullets. We need to ask about the role of EU mediation. The Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, has called for EU mediation. Where does Ireland stand on that call? Will Ireland support a role for Europe in this situation?
In addition to Spain, Europe has a responsibility to move past our focus on securitisation in recent years, which has caused us to neglect the work of peace-building and diplomacy. This is something on which Europe - and Ireland within Europe - should be leading. We need to show we can step forward and recognise that peace-building and politics are not simply about law enforcement. They are about diplomacy, sensitivity, recognition of complexity and facilitating dialogue when it may seem impossible. This is something Ireland knows from its own history and role in peace-building and something we urge in Europe. We have relied on international engagement in the past to support us in this area. We now need to engage further with this issue. Where will Ireland stand? What will Ireland say at the Council of Ministers? Will we be demanding mediation? The 2012 decision to roll back on autonomy in Catalonia, for example, was allowed to pre-empt some of this. The role of regional development in Europe has taken a back seat in some of the short-term national fiscal targets. Public consultation and democracy have been neglected. There is an urgent role incumbent upon us now not simply to say the law is the law and so be it but rather to ask where is the space for new laws and new dialogue and how can we open this up. Ireland has a unique role in Europe. I would appreciate it if the Leader could pass this on to the Government and ask for detail, not just on whether Ireland will recognise the referendum result but on what Ireland intends to do to address this danger at the heart of Europe of disintegration and a loss of faith in democracy and in Europe's principles of solidarity.
Following from Senator Higgins's remarks, we in this House must send a strong message to the Government of Spain that the actions of its police force last weekend were entirely unacceptable in a modern European democracy or indeed in any democracy entitled to bear that name. Regardless of where one stands on the question of Catalan independence, I acknowledge there will be a variety of views in these Houses in that regard, the brutal actions of the Spanish police towards people expressing what they consider to be their democratic right should be abhorred by all of us who are democrats, that is, everyone in this House. I support what Senator Higgins has said. Cool heads must prevail at this point and the Government must urge both the Spanish authorities and our European Union colleagues to make whatever contribution they can to ensuring that the future of Spain as a polity is a democratic one. What we saw at the weekend was that the authoritarian forces that many in this Chamber will remember prevailing in decades past in Spain are clearly not too far from the surface, and this is an absolute tragedy.
My sympathies and those of my Labour Party colleagues go to the family members of the dozens of people murdered and the hundreds maimed while simply attending a musical event in Las Vegas a few short days ago. It is a constant source of bafflement to me and to Senator Lawless, who has more experience of living and running a business in the United States, that there is still such a huge reluctance to deal with this massive problem which occurs, unfortunately, far too often and results in the senseless taking of far too many innocent lives. While the United States likes to identify itself as a beacon of freedom and civilisation, when one looks at its attitude to gun laws one must ask if it really deserves that label if it cannot do a basic thing like controlling its gun laws to protect the lives of those who deserve the protection of the State. I ask that question advisedly.
I want to raise today an issue that is on everybody's mind, namely, the budget.
In particular, I want to raise the issue of prescription charges that were introduced in 2011 when the country was in a financial meltdown. The initiative raised €27 million in the first year, the figure rose to €117 million in the past two years and during the first six months of this year it has raised €54 million.
There has been a huge increase in the health budget in the past two years, for which I compliment the Government. It is now time to abolish prescription charges. The Irish Cancer Society has already made a statement that it believes the charges are no longer necessary from a financial point of view, with which I agree. The society has also stated that many people with cancer forgo the essentials of daily living in order to pay the prescription charge, which interferes with their well-being and ability to recover.
Ample research has also been compiled by the British Medical Association, the Coughlan Foundation and the World Health Organization, WHO. They have all carried out independent research that show charges cause people to not take their medicines and act as a barrier to doing so. In fact, the organisations have made the bald statement that these charges cause as much as a reduction in necessary care as they do any reduction in unnecessary care. I believe that the time has come for us to remove the charges.
I call on the Minister for Health and the Minister for Finance to abolish prescription charges in this year's budget. If that is not possible I would like to at least see the process started by abolishing the charge for people over 65 years and those with chronic illnesses. These are the very people who are the most vulnerable in our society. They are the very people who need to take their medicines. They are also the very people that if they do not take their medicines will fall ill, end up in hospital and cost the State an awful lot more money.
The financial crisis is over. I know we need to be prudent but this is an area that needs to be addressed, and addressed urgently. We must send a strong signal to the many people who approach the last quarter of their lives that the sacrifices that they made to keep this country on its feet will be acknowledged now by giving them more affordable health care.
I think we are all in agreement that homelessness is destroying lives in Ireland. As many as 3,000 children now live in emergency accommodation, which is profoundly shocking because we have been told that resources are not an issue for this crisis. As a physician I have considered the human cost of this crisis, including research from Harvard University. I have learned that the type of scenarios that many of these children face can be toxic to their developing brains. First, the research is clear that "strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences" lead to excessive cortisol and disrupts developing brain circuits.
Second, and significantly, early adversity can lead to lifelong problems, developmental delays and a "cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health". Of course, stigma goes hand in hand with homelessness. Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. All of us will remember a time when we felt extremely self-conscious. We worried whether anyone would notice that one had the same schoolbag, pencil case or, indeed, uniform that was handed down from an older sibling or cousin, or that one stayed outside at lunchtime because one had no money for the tuck shop and all the while hoping nobody would notice. Thankfully, these experiences for many of us were transient and short lived.
Let us imagine how it feels to be a homeless child. What does that do to one's self-esteem? There would a stigma due to being unable to invite one's friends back to one's house for a game of football. That stigma is corrosive to a young brain. In 2013, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, apologised unreservedly to the women who suffered the stigma of the Magdalen laundries. In 1999, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, apologised unreservedly for the stigma of those victims of institutional abuse. Who will be the Taoiseach when an unreserved apology is given to the children trapped in homelessness? That day will come unless we, as legislators, act swiftly and decisively. In many cases these children need immediate psychological support because the damage being visited upon them by this stigma is profound. It will last a lifetime and it will, undoubtedly, leave indelible mental scars.
I call on the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate on homelessness, how it pertains to young children and the psychological effects on same.
Last week the necessity of having a proper debate in this House on the future of Europe was raised. I ask the Deputy Leader to consider allowing such a debate. Our agenda is fairly unpacked, if I may use that phrase. There is plenty of time to debate this issue and much has to be considered in respect of it, such as the attitude of the State to what is happening in the European Union at present, the various options open to the European Union, and the agenda that is being prepared by the extreme federalists such as Guy Verhofstadt and others to bring about a federal superstate in Europe, which is not being in any way contradicted or even considered in this Parliament.
In that context we have a network of Jean Monnet professors who are paid from European Union funds, and many people who participate as experts on the future of Europe. We do not have a balanced debate because such debate as there is normally in our media on the subject of the future of Europe is between those who are absolutely and radically opposed to the European project at all and those who are quiet sleepers or active enthusiasts for the federal superstate project on the other.
The last time The Irish Times asked its readers what they genuinely thought about the process of European integration, the people by a margin of 3:1 or 2.5:1 were in favour of the position adopted by David Cameron in his requests to his fellow European partners for some latitude which would enable him to win the Brexit debate. That is worth remembering. A very considerable majority of Irish people do not share the minority federalist view and, when asked about it, fairly and squarely say so. It is about time that our Government clearly articulated a vision of Europe which is based on partnership among member states who share certain aspects of their sovereignty and which states that there are other areas, particularly relating to tax sovereignty that we have no intention whatsoever of backing away from and on which we will always maintain our independence.
I wish to convey my condolences to all the families in the USA. It was terrible to see the scenes on the television. I wish to raise again the question of commercial rates. I have been dealing with a business family in recent weeks who owe €12,000 in commercial rates. They offered to pay €100 a week on top of paying this year's rates. The offer was accepted with a struggle.
In some counties business people are getting write-downs on rates outstanding, whereas in other counties families are being dragged through the courts. The only legislation on rates dates back to the 1800s. Property tax was introduced to start a new rate base when the crash came because the business rate base was gone and local authorities had no funding. Business people thought that with the property tax and a new structured rate base, they would get relief. Instead, things have remained the same and there has been no relief for businesses. Now we see a new rate evaluation happening in most counties. In County Westmeath, Senator Davitt has raised the issue of commercial rates and, like me he, has rattled the cage on the subject. The commercial rates on small businesses have risen by 16%, whereas the rate bases of the large multinational businesses have reduced. The figures Senator Davitt has given me show that with this new evaluation, 50% of retail shops will experience an increase in their rates. It looks as if some people want to close down the small towns in rural Ireland. We will see cactus and weeds growing as we go down the main street.
The organisation, Business Retail Union of Ireland, some of whose representatives I have met, is starting a campaign calling for a national strike on paying rates until something is done. I call on the Deputy Leader to invite the Minister to debate this issue with us to see if there is any light in the tunnel for rural Ireland.
Before I begin, I would like to second the moving of the National Asset Management Agency (Amendment) Bill 2017 by Senator Conway-Walsh.
I join colleagues in remarking on the weekend's events in Catalonia. Regardless of how they voted in the weekend's referendum, I want to express my solidarity with and commend the people there on taking their courageous stand in participating in that most basic tenet of the exercise of democracy. The response of the Spanish state, which has been referred to, was to meet those people with baton-wielding riot police and, ultimately, violence. The response of the Irish Government was slow in coming but I welcome an Taoiseach's remarks in the Dáil to the effect that he was horrified by the scenes of violence on Sunday and that he would raise the matter with the Spanish Prime Minister. I encourage Fine Gael Senators to do the same with their sister-party colleagues in the Partido Popular, PP.
I believe to my core in the right of the Catalan people to national self-determination. We should all be able to agree, not least here in Ireland, on the fundamental right of any people to pursue that objective peacefully and through the ballot box, as was seen on Sunday. It is my view that the momentum is behind the people of Catalonia who voted overwhelmingly in favour of their right to independence. The Taoiseach's assertion that the Government will not recognise the vote of the Catalan people will not only put this country on the wrong side of history, it is not reflective of the broad view of the people of Ireland.
Ireland's bond with the Catalan people dates back many generations. My own home city of Belfast sent many volunteers to fight against Franco and against the kind of tactics which we saw deployed against the people of Catalonia at the weekend. My parish sent two IRA volunteers, Liam Tumilson and James Straney, who died in defence of the kind of democracy we saw exercised by the people of Catalonia on Sunday. The people there have spoken. They have voted for their independence. As we prepare in the coming years, quite rightly, to remember and honour the historic election of 1918 and the establishment of our own democratically-elected Government in 1919 and the First Dáil, which too faced repression and violence, it ill behoves the Government to be a passive observer to the changing political and social dynamic across Europe. The Taoiseach should address us on this matter and heed the calls coming from Catalonia for an independent, international mediator to be appointed by the EU to help navigate the changed political paradigm which now exists between Spain and the people of Catalonia.
I send my condolences to the people of Las Vegas and to those who lost loved ones in the horrendous atrocity that happened there. I also join my colleague, Senator Higgins, and others in strongly condemning what happened in Catalonia in recent days. No matter one's position, brutal police violence against people trying to exercise their right to free assembly and the democratic process is a disgrace. The Irish State should never hesitate to condemn that sort of behaviour.
I am also concerned about the democratic process in this country. Seanad Éireann is supposed to sit on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to debate issues of national importance and scrutinise legislation. However, the schedule for this week leaves Thursday completely blank - no debates, no motions and no legislation. We need to look at this. There is a lot of really important legislation coming up. I am reminded of Senator Colette Kelleher's excellent Bill on adult safeguarding in particular. I am also reminded of Senator Colm Burke's legislation on home care. We need to introduce legislation which can change people's lives for the better.
I will talk about legislation about which I have been very concerned. Fine Gael introduced the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. I am very concerned that it still has not come in. It has been talked about for the last few months but there has been no sign of progress. I recently held a public meeting about the Bill in Cork. I was amazed and surprised by the amount of non-governmental organisations, NGOs, which came out in Cork in support of this legislation, including Pieta House, the ISPCC and the emergency department of Cork University Hospital. These NGOs came out and spoke on the importance of this legislation being enacted in its entirety - all four measures. The Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society also came out in support of this legislation in its entirety. I ask the Deputy Leader when this legislation will be progressed. It needs to be enacted sooner rather than later.
I join other Senators in condemning what happened in Las Vegas in the past 48 hours. It was a ferocious atrocity which was frightening to watch.
I am slightly disturbed by the lack of reaction from the US Government regarding this incident. It has not issued a major statement saying it intends to change its gun laws. Senator Lawless knows much more about the issues in the US than I do. It is frightening to think that the reaction is so weak in so many ways. Perhaps it is time for the Seanad, as a grouping, to approach this issue, perhaps by sending a letter. Something needs to be done. While this is an American issue, we must remember that there are many Irish people living in the US. It is a part of Ireland in so many ways because we have a connection to that part of the world.
The other issue I would like to raise relates to Irish Water.
Senators are allowed to raise just one issue, but I will allow the Senator to continue.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his liberty. He is very kind to me.
We saw further issues with Irish Water during the summer. People in a large part of County Louth did not have water for several days. Similar issues have arisen in County Cork in recent weeks as a result of continual breaks in service. Twice in three weeks, big primary schools in the county had to close at 11 a.m. and send their students home because Irish Water was unable to provide water to them. We need to address issues with our infrastructure. I hope whatever is required to increase the budget for Irish Water in a way that allows it to do something with this infrastructure is provided in next week's budget. Children's education is being affected by water mains repeatedly collapsing and having to be repaired. This is a huge issue. The school authorities in Ballygarvan, which has been affected by these problems, are trying to ensure pupils will get the minimum number of days of education in the current school year. Can Senators imagine that this is a core issue? Although we are in the early days of October, the school authorities are already worried that kids will not spend enough time in school this year as a result of being sent home so that water mains could be fixed. We need to ensure infrastructure is improved so that people can enjoy an appropriate quality of life.
The two independent Independents must understand the position of the Chair. As they are not on the rota, the Chair must exercise some discretion.
I would be delighted if you would.
Do not interrupt. I am following the practice of the Cathaoirleach. Now that I have a gap, I am calling Senator Norris, who indicated at the very outset.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I appreciate his generosity.
The situation in America is appalling. Sixty people have been killed and a further 500 have been injured. Americans always go back to the second amendment, which protected the right to carry a blunderbuss in an 18th century rebellious colony. Things are completely different now. This man had an arsenal of over 40 guns, including machine guns. He could outgun the police. It is a ridiculous situation. I do not understand why the Americans will not face it.
I have been contacted by a US-born transgender person who has received Irish citizenship through descent. She has obtained a personal public service number and a gender recognition certificate through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. She has the highest praise for the way she has been treated by that Department. When she applied to get her passport changed, she was told she needed to get her foreign birth registration sorted out first of all. When she contacted the embassy, she was told there is no mechanism for such a change. It looks as if the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is blocking passport changes for people with transgender identity in defiance of the will of the Oireachtas. I ask the Deputy Leader to bring this to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade so we can ascertain whether the catch-22 situation in which this unfortunate person is caught can be sorted out.
I ask the Deputy Leader to bring the Minister for Justice and Equality into this Chamber as soon as possible to discuss the second interim report on the reopening of Garda stations that were closed by the previous Government. The report in question, which was published in recent days, recommended the reopening of four Garda stations and the opening of two new stations. Moves have already been made to reopen Stepaside Garda station.
It is clear from the second interim report that Rush Garda station in north County Dublin was given the same status as Stepaside. The population in Rush and greater north County Dublin is increasing, as is crime in the area. All Members know why Stepaside was cherry-picked ahead of Rush but it is not good enough that the report has not been finalised. I want the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to come to the House to discuss the issue in the wider context of a lack of resources being allocated. Garda stations are to be reopened and it is very important that additional gardaí are supplied to such stations. Residents of north County Dublin are very disappointed that the report has not been published in its final form and I ask the Deputy Leader to facilitate the Minister for Justice and Equality coming to the House to discuss that issue.
I call Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell.
I wish to point out-----
I have discovered another gap-----
Good. I hope it is big enough to fit me in.
-----and I am exercising discretion.
Before I raise the point I want to make, I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach to reconsider how the Order of Business is done. It should be on a first-come, first-served basis. The Leas-Chathaoirleach is not listening to me. The Order of Business should be ordered on a first-come------
The Deputy Leader is listening to the Senator. I am trying to keep order.
------first-served basis because, whatever about the rights of parties and groups in regard to legislation, it is very unfair when the Order of Business is what it says it is------
There is an agreed rota.
That is compiled in relation to groups and those who are not------
I am obliged to do so. The Senator can approach the Chair after the session and I will explain it to her.
I am suggesting a change in that procedure.
I suggest that the Senator raise the issue at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
I will do so. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I ask the Deputy Leader to request that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, come to the House to tell Senators what exactly and definitely is happening with An Post. I raise this because it is a very big national issue in which the Seanad should be involved. Can the Minister tell us about the closures of post offices and his thoughts for the future and waylay the arguments taking place on the matter on television, radio and in the press?
PostPoint-operated "post and pay" sites offering the same products as An Post offices, such as bill payments, stamps, gift cards and additional services such as national, international, express and registered mail and Post FX Load, are now being opened in Tesco stores. There are such sites in Tesco stores in Naas, Tullamore, Cabra, Ballybrack and Gorey along with Eurospar in Laghey and SuperValu stores in Monksland and Navan. That locks into the federal state and authoritarianism because one will now have to capitulate to the great Tesco if one wants to use An Post services. It is another reason for An Post offices around the country to be closed down. In order to use post office services, people will have to congregate in the great supermarkets that never display their profits in this country. We should instead consider community banking systems such as that offered by Kiwi PostBank of New Zealand or the German public banking model that would offer an alternative to the commercial banking system here in which one cannot talk to anybody because the only option is to talk to a machine or the wall. I want to know what is going on with An Post and how this type of thing is happening below the radar in a clandestine manner such that people are not noticing it. Perhaps the Minister could come to the House to tell us exactly what is going on.
I will bring the issue of the Order of Business to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his advice in that regard.
I join fellow Senators in expressing condolences to those who lost loved ones in Nevada. I performed in the Mandalay Bay hotel many times with the Wolfe Tones and the Irish bar there became a home away from home for me while on the road in the United States.
I spoke last week about my hope for a national AIDS memorial. Citizens mobilised today outside the Four Courts to demand access to HIV prevention and a measure called pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP.
When taken daily, PrEP can stop transmission of HIV, with an effective prevention rate of almost 100%. Senators may be surprised to learn that condom use among men who have sex with men only has a 70% effective rate in preventing HIV transmission.
One of the priority actions identified under the sexual health strategy 2015 to 2020, which we are more than halfway through, was to prioritise, develop and implement guidance to support clinical decision making for sexually transmitted infection, STI, testing, screening and treatment and on the appropriate use of antiretroviral therapy in HIV prevention. However, between 2014 and 2016 rates of HIV infection increased by 36% from almost 400 to more than 500. PrEP is currently undergoing the necessary review processes by the Health Service Executive and it results will not be returned or a determination made in the matter for between six and 12 months.
A large proportion of men who have sex with men take PrEP and imported generic versions of the drug to stay safe. The HSE does not provide clinical support or information and no alternative contraceptive is available that is as effective in preventing HIV. Customs and Excise are starting to seize generic versions of the product. I ask the Deputy Leader to request the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, to come to the House because his silence on increasing HIV rates is troubling.
I raise a local issue that I have raised several times previously with the Minister without success. Four months ago, we received the bad news that a proposed respite house in Bagenalstown would not proceed. Four or five months prior to that decision being taken, the HSE indicated to me that it was considering placing a deposit on a house in Tullow. Several weeks ago, in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister stated the Government was committed to providing services and supports to people with disabilities which would empower them to live independent lives and provide greater independence. It also advised me to revert to the HSE on the issue. I was extremely disappointed with the Minister's reply.
In recent days, I received a response to a query from the HSE in Carlow-Kilkenny reiterating that a deposit had been paid on a house in Tullow and noting that it would be 12 months or more before a respite service would be available. This Christmas, the Tír na nÓg respite service for children in counties Carlow and Kilkenny will have been closed for two years. We were informed a new service would be provided in Gleann na Bearú in Bagenalstown but the project fell through. I have since been informed by the Minister and HSE that it will be 12 months before the house in Tullow is ready. When I received the letter from the HSE last week, I did not call any of the affected parents because I do not know what will happen. It is a disgrace that for almost two years, we have not had a respite service for children with disabilities. Waiting another 12 months will mean a service will not have been available for three years, which is unacceptable. Children and families waiting for this respite care service to open are being given false hope. This is an urgent case and I call on the Minister to address the matter in the House.
The budget will be introduced next week and I hope it will be a good one because children are suffering.
The Senator has made her point.
I strongly support Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell's comments on post offices. People are confused, with redundancy packages being offered to postmasters and the chief executive officer making a statement that An Post would not close post offices. This is a crucial issue for rural and urban areas and clarity must be brought to the matter. Six months ago, there was confusion about which Minister was dealing with the issue.
I ask that the Deputy Leader support our call to get the relevant Minister to come before the Seanad in order that there might be some clarity, especially at a time when all the banks are reducing their facilities in many towns and villages. It is very important that An Post is strongly supported and that it is placed on a firm footing in the context of its activities throughout the State.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Tá mé díreach isteach an doras ó Barcelona agus tá uafás agus alltacht orm leis an méid a chonaic mé. I am literally just in the door from Barcelona. I spent the weekend there as part of an international observation delegation for the referendum in Catalonia. To say that I am shocked and disturbed by what I saw would be a massive understatement. What we saw was state-orchestrated abuse of human rights and civil liberties. I am not the only person saying that. There was also another very large delegation of international experts who came out with the same opinion.
There has been much rhetoric around the fact that this was not a legal referendum. Was it legal to strike a 70 year old man on the crown for standing in line waiting to vote? I spoke to that man on Sunday afternoon. Was it legal to injure 900 people? Was it legal to smash and damage the property in schools across Catalonia? This was a massive attack on the right to free speech, the right to freedom of assembly and the right to self-determination.
The Catalan people were absolutely incredible. Not one of us in the delegation of almost 100 people saw one person provoke any of the Guardia Civil. They were absolutely peaceful and determined. Great praise goes to their local version of An Garda Síochána, the Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra and to the firefighters of Catalonia who, in many cases, stepped in between the Guardia Civil and the civilians. This was and is State enforced oppression. It was extreme and totally out of proportion. What happened was an absolute disgrace. This was not just an attack on the people of Catalonia, it was an attack on democracy itself. The members of the Spanish Government should, in my opinion, hang their heads in shame. The Spanish Prime Minister did not come out to condemn the activity; he praised it. The EU should hang its head in shame because it has agreed with the Spanish position. Those leaders across Europe and the world who agree with that opinion should certainly rethink their position. The President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who we met on Friday, has called for an international, non-EU mediator to be appointed - sponsored by the EU - and I am of the view that this needs to happen. This Parliament needs to take a stand and be counted in favour of democracy. I note that Senator Swanick made a very good proposition last week that we invite President Carles Puigdemont from Catalonia to address this House, as Nicola Sturgeon did. I certainly would call for that, along with a full debate on the matter with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is an issue for democracy.
That would have to go to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, first.
We would certainly put it to the CPP and will do so as quickly as we can.
As is often the case, I find myself in agreement with my colleague and friend, Senator Ó Clochartaigh, on this issue. It was appalling to watch the television images from Catalonia. These people were going to vote. Let the Spanish Government make the case, as it will, that it was not a legal exercise but these people were going out and doing something that was not causing any trouble. There was no violence. The vast majority of the people are very proud of their region. The behaviour of the Spanish police was appalling and is an international crime. I do not say this lightly but one could not be anything but horrified to watch what we saw on our television screens.
I shall now turn to the issue of rural post offices. There have not been any closed in recent times, but there needs to be a recalibration of the role of the post office. The post office really needs to become a one-stop shop for all official State transactions in towns and villages throughout the country.
In the suburban areas of cities and large towns, where there are no connectivity issues and buses are available, it is very hard to make a case for retaining those types of post offices. Certainly there is a very strong case to be made for retaining post offices in towns and villages that are otherwise isolated, where there is no Bus Éireann service every 20 minutes or half an hour and where the nearest post office is inaccessible for lots of people. However, An Post needs to step up to the plate as well. As somebody from a business background, I am sure the Leas-Chathaoirleach will agree with me. There needs to be a total rethink. What we are really talking about is a partnership between the local authorities, the State and An Post. Why can I not go into the post office and tax my car? Why can people not go into the post office to pay things like fines that An Garda Síochána issues? Until such time as there is a proper working group set up with real powers to put in train a changed management culture, ethos and programme at An Post, we are going to be here next year and in future years talking about the threat to rural post offices.
I thank all Senators who raised matters on the Order of Business today.
I join with colleagues who have expressed sympathy with those who have lost loved ones and relatives in the horrific, shocking and tragic scenes in Las Vegas that we have witnessed on the television. There is no question that a lot of the points raised by Senators with regard to gun control are very valid. I will certainly talk to the Leader and perhaps the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about what could be done in the way of a communication with the US Government on that issue. It is certainly something that happens too regularly in the United States. It is difficult to get one's head around it. I share Senator Lawless's frustration as a person who has a business. I remember being in Chicago and chatting to some people one night, when a guy gestured that he had a gun in his jacket, which was supposed to be so impressive. I was totally disgusted. It is certainly something I have never come across in Europe and it is something I abhor.
Senator Mark Daly raised legislation and issues in the Defence Forces. They are issues that are well raised. I think we should have a debate and that the Senator should share any ideas he has with regard to legislation. It is always up to individual Members to decide to initiate legislation as Senator Daly has done in the past. It might be worth considering. A debate in the meantime to highlight the issues he has raised would be worthwhile.
I have already covered the points that Senator Lawless raised. I seconded Senator Conway-Walsh's request in respect of the NAMA Bill. That is agreeable. I compliment her on arranging a briefing for Members on muscular dystrophy. The Translarna drug is not something with which I am very familiar but I will familiarise myself with the issue. It is certainly something I will bring to the attention of the Minister although I have no doubt that he is aware of it. If so many other EU countries are funding it, it may be something we should consider.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins raised some interesting points on the EU, Catalonia and the overall democracy issue. Senator McDowell mentioned the possibility of a debate on the future of Europe. We are going to have a debate next week on that issue. There are two hours scheduled and it is up to Senators to contribute to it. Clearly, there is more action required than that, but in the short term it might be an opportunity to raise the issue. The Irish Government respects the constitution and territorial unity of Spain but violence is absolutely never justified.
We know from history across the world that this type of violence does not work. They are not achieving what they hope to achieve in carrying out these very violent acts against their own civilians, regardless of the side of the argument they are on.
The idea of a mediator can only be a positive suggestion and the European Union has a huge role to play. The Senator raised the point about the Council of Ministers. I would be shocked if it is not a topic for debate at the Council of Ministers. Regardless of the illegality of the referendum, that could have been addressed in a much more peaceful manner by those objecting to the referendum. If the Senator believes a debate on it is warranted in its own right, it is one I am sure the Leader will be willing to facilitate over the coming weeks.
Senator Nash raised the events in Las Vegas and Catalonia. I have covered his points regarding the EU on which he was supporting Senator Higgins.
Senator Reilly raised an issue about prescription charges. That strikes me as an issue that might make sense as a Commencement debate in advance of the budget. Time constraints may not allow for that but I am sure it is an issue he can raise with the Minister at our parliamentary party meeting, if he has not already raised it with him.
Senator Swanick raised the issue of homelessness. I could not disagree with his words regarding the effect it is bound to have on children. I know he does not want me to give him a long list of the actions we are taking, and there are plenty of actions being taken, but I will suggest that we have a debate on that issue because it is one we endeavour to address on a regular basis as long as the crisis is ongoing. It is certainly an issue we could usefully debate in the House in the near future.
I addressed Senator McDowell's point on the future of Europe. There will be a debate on that issue next Thursday at 12.45 p.m. for two hours. I agree entirely with his proposal that we have a balanced debate because like many issues, it is those who are particularly motivated who tend to get the most air time on any issue so it would be good to have that debate.
Senator Butler has long been a champion for the issue he raised, namely, the self-employed and small retailers. I agree with him that a more professional or strategic approach needs to be taken when it comes to rates, and there are huge anomalies in that regard. Clearly, there must be a need for legislation in this area and, in the meantime, the Senator is requesting a debate on it. It is certainly something we will facilitate, perhaps after the budget.
Senator Ó Donnghaile also raised the events in Catalonia. I have covered the issues and note that the Senator noted the Taoiseach's comments on it and that he would like the Government to go further.
Senator Black raised the events in Catalonia and Las Vegas as well as the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill on which I agree with her comments. It is being said that it will come into the House in the next few weeks. I know no more than that but I have been pushing for it to come in as soon as possible. I raised it today to see when it will be in the House. It is legislation the Government initiated and there is a lot of work, for want of a better word, going on behind the scenes but we need it to come into this House. I believe it will be here before the end of October but I do not have a precise date as yet.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of Irish Water. I do not know the details of the cases he mentioned with regard to schools but that is clearly unacceptable. I want to get more detail from the Senator but then I will raise those issues with the Minister.
Senator Norris mentioned the events in Las Vegas and gun laws. He also raised the case of a transgender individual he has been working for and it strikes me that that would be a good Commencement matter to raise. As he asked, I will relay the comments to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade but he will not be able to do much without knowing the specific case. It would make sense to raise it as a Commencement matter.
In response to Senator Clifford-Lee, it would be a good idea for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come into the House to discuss that report, not least so that he can address concerns, rumours and discussion that has been had in the public at large, in politics and in the media.
As such, the Senator's suggestion presents the Minister with an opportunity to set the record straight or to clarify any questions Members might have.
Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell referred to An Post, as did Senators Martin Conway and John O'Mahony. Clearly, this is another matter on which we need the Minister to come to the House. A great deal is being reported about what is going on. The Government continues to closely monitor the situation at An Post but the reality is that modern technology presents An Post with challenges. People are not sending letters as often as they used to. Clearly, we need to reinvigorate and restrategise how An Post carries out its business. Certainly, it is an issue on which the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, would benefit from the opportunity to set the record straight, if that can be done.
Senator Warfield raised the events in Las Vegas as well as the issue of AIDS and men's sexual health. It might make sense to arrange a debate where the Minister attends to discuss sexual health overall with an emphasis on AIDS and homosexual requirements for individuals to have a good sexual health strategy when it comes to the difficult area of AIDS. A conversation around contraception and sexual health for all sexual orientations would be a good one for the House to have.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised a very important issue for her area. Would she consider raising it as a Commencement matter so that she can get a precise answer from the Minister? The Minister or a Minister of State would have to come to the House to give her a response. It would give her the opportunity to get into the issue in more detail. That would be a good approach.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to Catalonia. He has long been a supporter of the issue there. I have already addressed the issues and a debate could be worthwhile. There might be an opportunity to have that next week as a debate is already appointed in the diary on the future of the EU. Democracy and issues like this would be very relevant ones to raise at that debate, which represents an early opportunity to discuss the matter.
Senator Conway referred to Catalonia and made some interesting comments on An Post and the recalibration thereof. That completes my response to the Order of Business. I hope I have not left anything out.
Senator Rose Conway-Walsh has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 14 be taken before No. 1." The Deputy Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the proposed amendment agreed to? Agreed.