The Order of Business today is No. 1, motion re discharge of order for committee for the Diplomatic Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017, to be taken after the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion re the notification of a vacancy in Seanad Éireann arising from the resignation of Senator Denis Landy, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 2a, subject to the agreement of No. 1, Diplomatic Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017, Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2; and No. 3, statements on the new Department of Rural and Community Development, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2a, with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Order of Business
Before I ask Senator Mark Daly to contribute, I welcome to the Gallery some Cavan people who are here as guests of Senator Wilson. Senator Joe O'Reilly is fishing in the same pool, so it is a joint venture for Cavan people. I wish them a pleasant stay and I hope they are well catered for by the two Senators in question.
I also welcome the gentlemen from Cavan. I hope they enjoy their time in Leinster House.
The issue of the moment is Brexit, and the fact the ball is in London's court yet again. I do not think it has actually left London's court for the past year and a half. The issue of the DUP's effective veto on these negotiations and on the agreement yesterday is a matter of concern. We agree with the Taoiseach's statement that it is important to remember the nationalist community, and that we will protect their rights and freedoms and protect the peace and equality to which they are entitled. The Taoiseach also reminded the DUP and those in Britain that there is more than one political party in Northern Ireland. The DUP has only 30 members in the assembly. There are 60 other members of the assembly in Northern Ireland, comprising the SDLP, the UUP, the Alliance Party, the Green Party, Sinn Féin and others, who did not support Brexit and were anti-Brexit. A very small party is essentially stopping progress on this issue and wants to turn back the clock.
The issue we are concerned about is the statement yesterday by the Taoiseach, that there is very little difference between there being no regulatory divergence and that the regulations would be aligned. Legal experts would tell us there is quite a huge difference between these two, and that the wording is very important. Of course, the wording has not been released, but this has to be clarified because there is a lot of wriggle room when it comes to the interpretation of such terminology and phraseology. This is something that needs to be clarified by the Attorney General. We should also get a view from the European Union in advance, so we do not end up in a situation where interpretation by the UK side of there being no regulatory divergence and that regulations would be aligned would not lead to a hard border. If there is a hard border at this stage, the responsibility for it will lie at our door and at the door of the Irish Government, because we are the ones who have the support of the European Union, and we are the ones who need to ensure we keep everybody informed and we put the truth out there. The problem the British seem to have is they do not even get the basics right.
In a news interview that took place today, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, an MP in Westminster thought that Enda Kelly and Bertie Ahern were both Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland. One can say that the British do not understand the problem of Brexit, Ireland and the history of Ireland, but they do not understand the current affairs of Ireland never mind its history. They need a lot of education.
I hope that we will never have to revisit the Brexit negotiations. Yesterday, the Taoiseach talked about semantic differences and how there is very little difference between no regulatory divergence and regulatory alignment. There is, however, a huge legal difference between the two and we need to know which one will be in the text. We also need legal clarification not as much from our Attorney General but from the European side as to their interpretation of that.
I, too, wish to talk about Brexit today and I start by acknowledging the work of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney. He must be congratulated on his work to date. It is important that we continue to advance the interests of the Irish people, but we can advance the interests of the people and Irish Republic as well as advancing the interests of the people of the island of Ireland. On many occasions I have spoken about the great opportunities that exist in agriculture, food and many other economic sectors. One can win the hearts and minds of people when one talks about the mutual interests of people, particularly on the island of Ireland.
It is incumbent on all politicians to step back, rather than step out. It is clear that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is in a very difficult position and we must respect that. Clearly, she is in difficulty with the DUP. While we do not have to expect it, we must acknowledge that it is a fact. Prime Minister May has been backed into a very difficult place. Now is a time for cool heads and stepping back. We have waited long enough in this process so we should step back a little. It is unhelpful to be over critical of the political processes.
I am always conscious that Sinn Féin has a mandate and has sought election and mandate to the House of Commons. The party has chosen not to take its seats and sometimes I think that is a terrible pity. That is a personal comment from me but Sinn Féin has enormous leverage that it could use in these particular circumstances. I do not mean to criticise the party, but Sinn Féin has opportunities, because it has a mandate in terms of the British House of Commons elections. It is a pity to have a franchise and a mandate but not use the important leverage that brings.
This is an important but delicate time for Anglo-Irish arrangements and agreements, particularly in the context of Brexit. Let us not allow the issue to fall back into an orange versus green and green versus orange scenario. Let us not take a step back in that regard. This is a time for cool heads and to see how we can get this right. Let us move away from the narrow inward thinking mentality of orange versus green, and this goes for both sides.
Again, I acknowledge the work of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade who has special responsibility in this area. It is important that he continues to steadfastly move forward. I thank him for proceeding to advance the interests of Ireland and, hopefully, the whole of Ireland.
I acknowledge the work of Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh who has left the Sinn Féin group. The Senator was a valued and respected member of the team and I thank him for his work. I wish him and his family well. I am sure that we will continue to co-operate on the many issues that remain important to us all.
Today, like others, I want to speak about the failure to reach a deal regarding the future of the Irish Border and the progression of Brexit negotiations, which was regrettable. Far from being a victory for any particular side, it would have offered clarity and certainty to all of us. The DUP-Tory deal was always going to end in disaster. It was cobbled together in chaos and is now delivering political chaos. One only has to listen to some of the interviews conducted with Tory politicians yesterday to see how they simply do not get it.
Their grasp of the challenges presented by Brexit to the island of Ireland is limited because Ireland, let us face it, is of no real significance to many of them. That is why this Government must hold firm to what is best for Ireland and not be forced into reacting to the internal squabbles of the British Tory party.
One positive outcome to emerge from yesterday's shambles was the obvious interest and concern shown by so many sectors and groups right across the island. We now have a broad consensus on what is needed. Right from the beginning of this Eton mess, Sinn Féin has been clear and consistent in identifying the solution, namely, a designated special status for the North within the European Union. While I take Senator Boyhan's point, what he has said here today shows disregard for the very hard work being done by the MLAs, MPs and all people across the Sinn Féin Party. Just because we will not swear allegiance to a foreign queen and sit on the green seats of Westminster does not mean that hugely valuable work is not being done there at all times. While on the face of it, it might seem that the influence is not there, we seek every single day to work on and influence decisions that are made for the benefit of the people of the North and indeed right across this island. The designated special status would include membership of the Single Market and the customs union while ensuring a convergence of standards across the island.
The Good Friday Agreement is incompatible with a hard border exit. This agreement was arrived at after long negotiations and was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of this island, whereas Brexit was rejected by electorate in the North. The Good Friday Agreement must be defended and has to be to the fore in the Government's strategy. The Taoiseach must stand firm and use his veto to defend the Good Friday Agreement.
I join those who have been speaking about Brexit and the Brexit negotiations. I do think that Ireland has been represented well in those negotiations, and I share the same concern that others have expressed about the deterioration yesterday afternoon and the hope that we can step back and resume progress again.
I want to highlight three issues which I consider to be very important in respect of those negotiations and which have perhaps not got the attention that is necessary. Time is pressing, and even while the Border is such a key focus, it is important that we be able to operate on a number of fronts. I want to talk specifically about a letter written to a newspaper yesterday by a number of prominent human rights lawyers and academics highlighting the importance of human rights equivalence as a pillar of the Good Friday Agreement and the need for clear guarantees in respect of the protection of human rights equivalence as a central part of these phase 1 negotiations and of the Good Friday Agreement . I note that human rights equivalence is separate from the citizens' rights question. It goes a little bit further. It is that question of human rights and how we manage to ensure that equivalence, particularly, for example, if the United Kingdom were to leave the European Court of Human Rights.
In respect of the regulatory alignment that has been discussed, it is very important and right that we raise these issues of regulatory alignment, hold the United Kingdom to account in this regard, and look for the guarantees that we need. I would like us, however, to give a guarantee here in this House to ourselves that we will not invoke regulatory alignment in the future in any case of a race to the bottom in any respect or the lowering of our national ambition on standards in areas such as environment, employment and other areas. We must continue to improve and progress our regulations and it is important that we maintain our own right to do that. This is something that is compatible but it is important to emphasise it.
I would also like to flag the question of the investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, mechanisms. If we move to phase 2 then there will be a question about what role ISDS mechanisms, which are disputed and are under the consideration at the European Court of Justice, could or should play in the mandate to begin the second stage of negotiations. While I absolutely give full acknowledgement to our negotiators, who I feel have represented us very well, it is important that we keep on eye across the breadth of issues.
I have two final points. Today is International Volunteer Day and I would like to take this opportunity to commend the volunteers who have served Ireland so well, both internationally and at home.
The work of organisations such as Comhlámh, the organisation for returned volunteers, shows how volunteers can not only contribute in a practical way internationally but can also bring critical and interesting perspectives on international development issues. Citizens Information Services throughout Ireland and the 1,100 volunteers who work at the front line are very concerned about the heavy-handed approach to the destruction of local citizens information services. Many of these people volunteer because they have a community ethos and they know the importance of maintaining that independence and community ethos in the citizens information services. This issue has been discussed extensively by the Joint Committee on Employment and Social Protection and it might be considered further here, as it is also an issue of national relevance.
I wish to speak about the proposed mortgage restructuring Bill 2017 to be introduced by Deputy Durkan. This Bill will apply to family homes and small enterprises and seeks to curtail the activities of primary and secondary lenders that are insisting on repayment of mortgage in full even though borrowers have been making repayments within their capacity for several years. I have been dealing with a case on behalf of a family comprising a husband, wife and two young children. When the husband became ill, the family fell behind in their mortgage repayments. While they put reasonable monthly repayment offers to the company, they were not accepted. The mortgage was then sold to a secondary lender, which was ruthless even though it purchased the mortgage for 30% of its market value. The family had to surrender the family home and is now living in social housing under the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, which is costing the taxpayer €1,100 per month. We bailed out the banks to the tune of €68 billion and they are now selling loans and this is resulting in many families and taxpayers ending up on the streets. Having attended the courts, I know that there are many similar cases before them. Judges are adjourning cases because they do not want to deal with the issues arising.
The proposed Bill contains three elements, namely, the wiping out of compound interest on the grounds that the lenders caused the problem in the first instance and were rescued by the banking bailout and ultimately by bank customers as taxpayers; the introduction of a new code of conduct to be applied by the Central Bank to ensure the repossessions do not take place in a situation where the borrower has made or is making reasonable payments in accordance with his or her income; and the restructuring of the extent to which lenders can pursue borrowers, within reason. The consequences of the actions of the companies that have purchased the banks loans are often fatal. We have the backing of the Business Retail Union of Ireland for this Bill. I ask the Minister for Finance come to the House in January to discuss this proposal in an attempt to address this serious problem.
I raise the water refund cheques issued in the past few days, which have been brought to my attention by people in Carlow. The issue also was discussed on "Liveline" today. It is an issue that affects elderly people in particular and is another attack on rural Ireland. As I understand it, a person issued a water refund cheque who does not have a bank or post office account is unable to cash the cheque. The cheque is an AIB cheque but if the recipient does not have an AIB bank account or a post office account, it cannot be cashed at the post office, which is where many elderly people in particular paid their water charges. Many people are very upset about this. Many more water refund cheques will be issued in the next few days. The process of opening a bank or post office account takes a long time because of the requirement to produce various pieces of documentation and photo ID.
I ask that the Minister put something in place, particularly as this is an attack on rural Ireland. There are people in Ireland who do not have bank or post office accounts. They live from day to day and do not have accounts. The Minister needs to address this or clarify whether one must have an account if one goes in with one's water cheque to get a refund. It also is important to be aware that Focus Ireland, the Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust have all joined forces to ask people, if they can, to help by donating their payment to The Refund Project. As Members are aware, there is a housing crisis and they have got together in this way. The issue I raised is serious. People today are disheartened because when they got their cheque, they thought they would have the money for Christmas. They need it and I again seek clarification from the Minister.
It seems extraordinary that in some parts of the country, including where I live, one must travel 35 miles to find an AIB branch. I call on Senator Craughwell.
The news that came yesterday of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, and the problems it caused is most distressing. I wish to place on record my congratulations to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste for the way in which they have stood their ground and have represented this country and for their determination to get the best deal for the country, North and South. It is important to put those things on record as a lot of people are beating the old drum about what they did not do. They have played a sterling job to date and need to be congratulated for that.
I also wish to thank the Government for the ceremony on Saturday for veterans of Jadotville. I also thank my colleague Senator McFadden. It was a wonderful day. It worked out perfectly at the end of the day. It was a credit to the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. Senator McFadden and the Leader put a lot of work into making sure that we got a dignified occasion. There have been one or two lash backs through my own social media but one will always get that. Some people apparently were disappointed at not being there on the day for the medal but there was no deliberate attempt to exclude anybody. I am sure if they contact me, Senator McFadden, the Leader or anybody in Leinster House, he or she will be happy to see to it that they get it.
As some people are overseas, would it be possible to organise it so that they could collect their family medal from the consulate or embassy rather than just having it posted to them? That might be a nice turn of events. On a positive note, it was a great weekend and a great start to the week for this country. I congratulate the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste for their stance.
I also wish to put on record my views regarding the Brexit negotiations that all agree are at a critical and sensitive stage. I acknowledge the work of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy McEntee, for the sterling work they are doing on behalf of every citizen of this country and for being a voice for those citizens in the North of Ireland who may feel their concerns are not being heard. There is no doubt but that it is in the interests of the entire island of Ireland that a resolution be found and that there is no hard border. One cannot underestimate the importance of a unified approach from the Republic. I acknowledge the support of all political parties here in the Republic of Ireland, as well as the support from the EU 27 for our negotiating team at this critical time.
Only last week, I heard representatives from the Newry Chamber of Commerce voice a very similar position to that held by the Irish Government, which was there should be no hard border. It also was in favour of a customs union. The contradiction here and the great irony is that I am sure that many members of that business community north of the Border are supportive of the DUP, Sinn Féin, and other parties. That is where the dichotomy is. I hope a resolution can be found to give those people a voice in the political sphere at this sensitive time.
I also wish to raise concerns regarding a regional and local issue that is happening today in Waterford and Kilkenny. Psychiatric nurses are protesting the under-resourcing for mental health services in both St. Luke's General Hospital and University Hospital Waterford. The Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, represents the psychiatric nurses who feel they are left with no other recourse due to overcrowding and staffing pressures due to the demands in both centres.
I ask the Deputy Leader to make time available for a debate on the policy relating A Vision for Change, which is supposed to be adhered to by the HSE, and also on the budget for mental health. The management of the HSE is not responding to the demands and pressures on the ground. We need a debate in order that we might discuss the provision of adequate resources for those who are in need within our mental health services. It is not good to see psychiatric nurses, who do sterling work at the coalface, having to take to the picket lines to raise their concerns. We need action by Government. I ask the Deputy Leader to join me in taking up the baton on behalf of the psychiatric nurses who are trying to deliver these essential services.
I wish to raise the crisis relating to homelessness. The reality is that people are dying on our streets. Two people died last week. I believe most citizens would give up tax cuts in order to ensure that children have homes at Christmas. All children have a basic human right to have homes. Almost 8,500 people are homeless and, of these, more than 3,000 are children. I know that Members have heard these statistics many times but I feel I have to highlight them again. We are facing a major crisis that needs to be addressed. We must do everything we can to bring about change. The first thing we must do is that which must be done in dealing with any problem - that is, it must be named. I want to do this today. We have a crisis and we must put in place the resources necessary to address it. The Government should take the lead in respect of this matter. It would be fantastic if the Government did so.
In a country as rich as Ireland, it is disgraceful that people are being forced out of their homes by banks and unscrupulous landlords. Until the State provides housing for its citizens, people will continue to be housed in unsafe accommodation and will continue to pay high rents. This will continue until there is a fire at one of the premises in question and people are killed. There is an urgent need for a holistic approach to be taken in respect of housing in Ireland. Such an approach would include taking account of the needs of new communities and low-paid workers and giving security to all people who live in this country. Vulture funds and banks cannot be relied upon to look after the most vulnerable in society because their primary aim is to maximise profits.
The welfare of the people is the duty of the State. The National Homeless and Housing Coalition has come together in order to start addressing these issues. It is calling on the Government to take immediate action as follows: to declare a national housing emergency; immediately acquire properties that are available through NAMA and transfer to councils for those on the housing waiting list; introduce measures that will facilitate access to finance and build as many social housing units in the next five years as is possible; introduce measures that limit rent increases and escalating rents; end the practice of evicting families who show genuine financial distress in mortgage repayments; and introduce a 30% increase in rent allowance and HAP to enable access to rented accommodation while the supply problems in public housing are addressed.
As public representatives, we have an obligation to ensure that everybody has a home. We must never minimise the problem or blame the people who find themselves without homes. We must all work together. It is a terrible to think that people are going to be out in the freezing cold at Christmas. I urge that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government come to the House in order that we might engage in a debate on this issue.
I was very disappointed with the negotiations on Brexit yesterday. We felt that an agreement in respect of one of the most significant issues relating to the island of Ireland was coming to a satisfactory conclusion. I was in the House of Commons a year and a half ago and I helped to launch the Irish4Europe campaign. We were hoping that the members of the Irish diaspora in the United Kingdom would vote to remain in the European Union. I said that a referendum was a very blunt instrument to use in respect of such a very complex issue. At that time, there was a perfect storm in that the Conservative Party was fighting to protect its flank from UKIP and the Labour Party had come under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn who is anti-Europe. Now, there is no Northern Ireland Assembly in place at Stormont. We are in a very difficult situation.
I wish to pay tribute to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy McEntee, and also to the various parties in the Oireachtas which wore the green jersey and which did not play politics with such a sensitive and emotive issue.
The Union of 27 countries of which we are part, also stood firm with Ireland. We are in a unique situation now. Ireland can hold its head up high as an equal partner in the EU. I have told many of my UK colleagues that we in Ireland viewed Brexit as the United Kingdom accidentally shooting itself in our foot. Yesterday, it looked as if it got out a blunderbuss and shot itself all over the place. I always felt that the Border would be the Achilles heel of Brexit because it is simply unworkable. It is ironic that the Border could now be the death of Brexit, which I would welcome, but could also undermine the British Government. We are in a very difficult situation. I agree with Senator Boyhan that we need to take a step back and take some time to reflect. I hope that we will have a satisfactory outcome to this very difficult issue in the coming days.
I echo the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Senator Conway-Walsh, regarding Senator Ó Clochartaigh whom I admire and respect. I send him my good wishes and wish him and his family all the best.
I am asking today for an update on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, has published monthly updates on the website of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and is planning to bring proposals resulting from the recent facilitated meetings across the country to Cabinet. I am also aware that there will be more substantial news on the commission of investigation in the form of an interim report. Could the Deputy Leader shed some light on this? It might be an idea to invite the Minister to the House to give an update on this issue in its entirety. She was here before and that engagement was very useful to Members and survivors alike. Will the Deputy Leader please consider that?
Finally I applaud the group, Mental Health Warriors, which held a successful protest on Dame Street last night demanding 24-7 mental health services and expressing alarm at the significant increase in self-harm and suicidal ideation among children. Such issues are beginning at a much younger age. They are now quite frequently observable in primary schools and often end in tragedy, as we saw in the coroner's report on an 11 year-old girl last Friday.
I would like to add my voice to others in expressing concern at the failure to achieve a successful outcome at the Brexit negotiations yesterday. Anyone watching the events yesterday would have been dismayed to see what appeared to be an agreement on wording collapse with the shambolic approach of the British Government and the walking away of the DUP, which betrayed the very tenuous basis of the confidence and supply arrangement between it and the UK Government. I also join with others in urging the Government to hold firm, particularly given the very heartening words of support offered by Donald Tusk to Ireland as one of the EU 27 on Friday. They were very good to hear. We should all hope for and work towards a resolution, even if it is couched in language which is somewhat ambiguous, as was much of the language in the Good Friday Agreement, such as the term "regulatory alignment" which we saw yesterday. If that sort of text enables us to move forward it is all to the better.
I ask the Deputy Leader for a debate in the new year on penal reform. I want to revive the all-party Oireachtas penal reform group which was in place prior to the last election in which members of all parties and none could work together to develop policies on penal reform issues. Those of us on the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality prepared an excellent report on penal reform and I would like to continue to work on that. I would also like to let colleagues know that next Wednesday the penal reform group will have a first briefing in the AV Room in Leinster House with the Irish Penal Reform Trust and others. We will be speaking about the optional protocol to the convention against torture, OPCAT, which Ireland has not yet ratified. That should be the focus of any debate we have here in the Seanad in the new year. Why have we not yet ratified OPCAT? What improvements would it make? Essentially it would ensure independent regulation, monitoring and oversight of all places of detention in the country. It is vital that we move towards ratification of that protocol.
I ask any colleagues with an interest to let me know and to attend the briefing next Wednesday.
I want to join the discussion on Brexit. I come from the Border constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, which stands to be devastated by the doomsday scenario of a hard border. I hope this can be averted. This Parliament should say a couple of things to the DUP. First, we should make it very clear that there is no attempt by the Irish Government or anybody in the Republic to undermine the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without consent. It should not be necessary to clarify that there is no threat and no proposed threat to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, given that this is enshrined as a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement and is accepted by an outright majority of the people of this island, but I suggest we should restate it nonetheless. My personal view is that a hard border scenario would, perversely enough, present a greater threat because it would accelerate a level of chaos that would be much more detrimental to the interests of unionism in Northern Ireland.
The second thing that merits saying in this regard is that we have no ambition to create an east-west border in the Irish Sea. The contrary is the case. The position of the Irish Government is that it wants to have the UK within the customs union and the trading arrangements without any alteration in that regard. My view differs slightly from that of Senator Mark Daly in one nuanced respect. If the alteration of a word here or there advances the efforts to seek an agreement, for example by getting people to move on from bargaining positions or limbs they have put themselves out on, my personal belief is that this should be looked at as long as the central meaning, which is that there will be no hard border, is maintained. That is for others to decide. I join other Senators in paying tribute to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Government and the diplomatic service for the way they have handled this matter. I thank all the Opposition parties for choosing not to make a political football out of this issue. That is so important in this instance.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his felicitous remarks in welcoming the Cavan rugby choir, which has been brought to Leinster House by Senator Wilson. We are very proud that this much-esteemed choir is performing here as part of today's festive occasion.
I think that is a forward pass.
I congratulate the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, on her appointment and wish her well. I ask the new Minister to clarify the excessive spending on marketing and public relations in the Creative Ireland budget. A freedom of information response that has been received on foot of a request from Sinn Féin shows that less than 33% of the €4.4 million budget that has been spent on the Creative Ireland programme to date has been spent on supporting genuine cultural activity. By contrast, 30% of the budget, or €1.3 million, has been spent on marketing. I suppose I am continuing the trend of Opposition Senators expressing concern about the Government's marketing initiatives. Artists are struggling to make ends meet. The Taoiseach has yet to set out a roadmap to outline how the Government will double arts funding. It is disheartening to see the Department spending excessively on marketing initiatives rather than supporting artists. One has to wonder whether the Creative Ireland initiative is a window-dressing exercise for the Department. The Creative Ireland budget will be increased from €4.4 million to €8.5 million in 2018. I ask the Minister, Deputy Madigan, to ensure this increase has a real and genuine impact on cultural activity and on the lived experience and work of our artists.
I thank Senator Warfield for his brevity, as always.
I ask the Deputy Leader to update the House on the report of the working group on the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology campus in Castlebar, which was established in May or June of this year.
I understand that the report has been completed. The future of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology is hugely important to Castlebar and Mayo in both educational and economic terms. I ask the Deputy Leader to obtain clarification from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, on when the report is expected to be published.
I join my constituency colleague, Senator Joe O'Reilly, in his forward pass in respect of the Cavan Rugby Club choir, to use the words of the Cathaoirleach. I welcome them to the Oireachtas. It is an historic day for them. I have no doubt that they will enjoy the occasion and that members will enjoy their singing this evening.
It is with great disappointment that I learned of the Government decision to remove the over-age exemption for children with disabilities in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. It is very regrettable that the exemption is to be removed from the scheme from September 2018. The issue is of major concern to parents because they believe it will severely handicap children who are about to attend primary school and who need a little extra help to make the transition in as smooth a fashion as possible. It will greatly worry parents and have a knock-on effect on the smooth running of primary schools because more pressure will be applied to teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs. It is a very regrettable backward step. However, if a positive can come out of such a negative decision, it is that we have time to sort this out. I ask the Deputy Leader to bring the issue to the attention of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and ask her to reconsider this very regrettable decision. The Constitution states that we should cherish all our children equally but this measure flies in the face of that declaration. I ask the Deputy Leader to bring the matter to the Minister in order that the decision can be reversed and the trauma and stress it is causing to families can be dispersed.
Ba mhaith liom aitheantas a thabhairt do na focail deasa ó mo chairde i bPáirtí Shinn Féin trasna uainn. I would like to acknowledge the kind words of my colleagues and very good friends on the Sinn Féin Seanad team. I thank them for their support and solidarity in recent times, as I do all colleagues and the staff of the Seanad office and the Houses. I look forward to working with them on issues of mutual concern.
An issue of concern about which Senator Gavan has been banging on for a long time is in regard to the rights of hospitality workers. We are heading into the Christmas party season, as one can see from the activity in hostelries in most towns. I ask people to spare a thought for the staff in those hostelries, restaurants and so on, many of whom are working in circumstances that are not good enough. Some are not being afforded their rights as employees. A group we put together in respect of the hospitality industry in Galway and which recently carried out a survey in respect of this matter had a very good meeting with the Galway Chamber of Commerce yesterday. We intend to try to promote best practice in the Galway area and explore setting up an award for restaurants that treat their employees very well. It is hoped that people would then vote with their feet and go to those establishments and spend their money there. We have met the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to discuss the issue and he was quite supportive. The issue should be debated in the House. However, I must convey my disappointment with the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland because, to date, they have not engaged with us on the issue of abuse in the hospitality sector. I know the Deputy Leader has connections and a very good working relationship with those groups. She might pass on to them that we are not here to cause trouble but, rather, want to work with them. The nature of the engagement yesterday was a sign that we can turn this into a huge positive by creating a centre of excellence in Ireland whereby tourists will come here because they know workers are being treated well in the places in which those tourists are eating and staying.
I have come to the House this afternoon to discuss the big issues happening in the southern part of the State. We have had a lot of discussion, and rightly so, about the Brexit issue but last night the two local authorities in Cork came to an agreement regarding the boundary movement in Cork county. This issue has dogged Cork and the southern half of the country for some 50 years since the previous boundary extension was agreed.
I pay tribute to the councillors for their hard work in coming together and putting a solution in place. It was really tedious work moving vast areas of Cork county into the city boundary. The city boundary has been moved to include some 100,000 people. This has increased the city geographical area by a multiple of four, and it has increased the city population by more than 100,000. There is a feeling in Cork currently that the executives, public representatives and academics have been asked for their views, which they have given, and that we now need to step outside that cosy cartel and ask the public for their views. The appropriate step for Cork now is to hold a plebiscite on this massive boundary review and put it before the people so they can give their views on it. There was a previous plebiscite in Ireland in this regard and the legislation is there. I have researched it, and I believe the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, should look at that issue. When we consider such a vast change in population and geographical area in boundary reviews, the most appropriate step for us to take now is to ask the people. We should not be afraid of asking people. That is, after all, what we are here to do.
I begin by wishing my colleague and comrade, Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, well into the future. I will develop the theme on which he spoke. Precarious work obviously impacts the restaurant sector and an excellent report has been published by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. It is excellent because it is facts based. It tells us that in 2016 some 158,000 workers had their hours varied from one week to the next. We should imagine the uncertainty this must cause these workers and their families in not knowing, from one week to the next, what hours of work they will have. The report also shows a step-change in the economy. For example, there are now 109,000 fewer workers in full-time employment than in 2008. It shows that 50% of workers last year said they were in temporary employment, not through choice, but because they could not find full-time employment. ICTU has also called on the Government to publish the Department's report on bogus self-employment. It is a puzzle as to why that report has not been published. I call for a debate on this issue.
I am aware the Government has planned legislation to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, and I welcome this initiative, but ICTU has pointed out that it does not go anywhere near far enough. I am particularly delighted that ICTU has endorsed the Banded Hours Contract Bill which Sinn Féin brought to the Dáil last year, but which regrettably was dropped by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There is a need, in justice terms and in economic common sense terms, to address the issue of precarious work. It is becoming far too widespread in the economy. The Government has the power to address the issue and I call for a debate on it and for all-party agreement so we can afford justice and economic certainty to hundreds of thousands of workers in our economy today.
I wish to raise a concern in respect of housing. Seven projects were submitted by Cork City Council to the Department for approval. Planning was obtained and an estimate was prepared regarding the cost of the projects. The tendering process, however, has shown that the projects are proving more expensive than the estimates originally indicated. I understand that the city council submitted the final proposals to the Department in early September. I am concerned that, three months on, they have not received the go-ahead from the Department. I ask the Leader to raise this matter with the Minister and that the Minister would also come to the House at the earliest possible date to discuss this issue.
While he probably is not due to appear before Christmas, issues like this must be dealt with to make sure there are not delays in housing projects. Quite a number of houses are involved as seven projects require this sign-off by the Department. A three-month delay is a little too long, especially on this important issue.
The change in the city and county boundary in Cork was raised. I come from the county, was a member of the city council and had the privilege of being the Lord Mayor of Cork. I believe there is a need for change as the land available for the development of new housing within the city is inadequate. It also is important to note that a huge number of ratepayers who pay rates in the city are not living in the city. Extending the city boundary will bring a huge number of them into the decision-making process concerning the running of the city, and that is a very important issue. While it is hard to come to a conclusion about where the best boundary should be, I agree with my colleague, Senator Lombard, that a lot of hard work has been done by the council staff and councillors on both sides to reach a compromise. We should now progress and make the final decision on this in order that we have a clear plan ahead for the development of the city, the county and the entire region.
I too wish to add my voice in support of the all-party consensus on the Government's approach to Brexit. That is very welcome.
I also pay tribute to all involved in the public hearings of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on the national anthem this morning. That formula is working very well. The Cathaoirleach was the Chair of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee in the last Seanad and I think this House could adopt a Citizens' Assembly-type role with the Public Consultation Committee. It could easily be developed into something much bigger, which could do the work the Citizens' Assembly has been doing. The place for the type of work the Citizens' Assembly has been doing is the Houses of the Oireachtas, specifically in respect of the public consultation model. I believe the people voted to retain the Seanad because they thought that is the type of work Members should and can do. Members are well capable of doing it by bringing in outside experts, calling for public submissions and inviting in the public to give their own views and observations and so on.
I have not spoken in the Order of Business since our former colleague, Denis Landy, announced his retirement from politics. Like everyone else here, I wish to join in the tributes to Denis, who has given many decades of service to local government and has served as a national politician for the last six years.
As many Members, including Senators Boyhan and Mark Daly, raised the issue of Brexit, I will come to that issue last. I will first address the other issues briefly.
Senator Higgins raised the issue of volunteers and articulated the point very well. I agree with her comments. It is an issue on which Members could easily have a debate in this House in the new year. Senator Butler raised the issue of the mortgage restructuring Bill 2017. It sounds like very sensible legislation. He suggested that we discuss it with the Minister for Finance in this House but I would be keen to see it before the Seanad as legislation sooner rather than later. Obviously, as Deputy Durkan has created the legislation, it will need to go to the Dáil first but we would be very happy to take that Bill, together with other legislation, into this House in the near future. Senator Murnane O'Connor raised an issue around water refund cheques. She has raised a wider issue, however, because there are money laundering concerns to consider there.
The Department has to be able to issue cheques because it is not feasible for it to do anything other than that. It would be a logistical nightmare for it to try to find a way to give people cash. The day of cashing cheques, thankfully, is in the past. I find it hard to believe that people do not have bank accounts.
They do not.
The post office should be a possibility or something along those lines. It is not up to the Minister to sort that out but I will communicate to him that it is an issue for some people the Senator is meeting. I do not believe it is an attack on rural Ireland. It may be a reflection of the fact that some people in rural Ireland do not have bank accounts. I do not understand why they do not.
Fair play to Senator Craughwell for being positive and giving credit where it is due. I welcome that. To answer the point he raised on Jadotville, I commend the Senator and give him credit where it is due, as well as Senator McFadden and the Leader, Senator Buttimer, who are due a lot of credit for that also. That has to be acknowledged here.
Senator Coffey raised a point on psychiatric nurses. I am the daughter of a psychiatrist and since I was a child I have been hearing about the issue of mental health services, not that my mother is a complainer as such because she tries to find positive ways to go around things. It is a huge issue. As a population, not as a Government, we do not treat mental health as seriously as it needs to be treated. The forum on the future of mental health is addressing that issue but that needs to be meaningful. We need to restructure the way we treat mental health. It is part of health. We all need to mind our mental health. Those of us in this job certainly need to mind our mental health. I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator on that and I believe we should have a debate in this House on the way we treat the area of mental health.
Senator Black spoke about the homelessness issue, which she validly raises at this time of the year. We have to be careful about anything we say in this area because it can be misrepresented but homelessness is nearly a business of its own now. There are so many different stakeholders and vested interests in that space. It is really about the individual who is having the difficulty. The Minister, in fairness to him, is working day and night on this issue. The Senator will say I would not say otherwise standing here as a Fine Gael Member, but we need to be reasonable in our expectations because it is a complex issue. Everybody accepts that there is a great deal of work going on, and in certain instances it needs to be more joined up, but there must be some trust in the Minister, who is devoted to this issue, on the part of some of the other stakeholders in this space. Both he and the Minister of State, Deputy English, are committed to dealing with it. The least objective of people would have to acknowledge that and I hope we will start to see real results in the new year.
I will come back to Senator Feighan.
I commend Senator Devine for all the work she does in the area of mothers and babies. Her voice is always heard on that issue. I am spokesperson on children also and I bow to her superior knowledge of the area in so many ways. I do not know the state of play but I will request that we have a debate with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, in the House on that issue in the new year. The Senator also mentioned the Mental Health Warriors. I refer her to my response to Senator Coffey on that issue.
Senator Bacik spoke on the penal reform group. I want to attend her briefing. I hope I am available, and I would encourage other Members to attend. It goes without saying that ratification should be done. I am one of the highest on the list of those who should appraise myself better on that issue and I encourage colleagues to support the Senator on it.
Senator Reilly mentioned the choir, which all of us look forward to hearing later.
If Senators have a spare few minutes in their busy schedules to listen to a bit of singing, it would be nice. Senator Warfield raised the issue of Creative Ireland and the €4.4 million. I am a big supporter of the arts. I know a lot of artists and I hear the Senator. The reality is that a new Minister is in place. The old Minister did a great deal of good work and we should afford the incoming Minister the opportunity to come to the House to dispute some of the facts Senator Warfield has presented. The Leader would be delighted to organise that in the new year.
Senator O'Mahony raised the issue of GMIT. I do not know what the state of play is there, but the Minister, Deputy Bruton, should. It is something the Senator could table as a Commencement matter to get a clear answer.
Senator Gallagher also mentioned the choir. He is not here now but I will ask him to email me directly so that I can raise the issue he brought up with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone.
I wish Senator Ó Clochartaigh well. He is a brave man. There is a great deal on which we agree in the hospitality area and the arts. We often speak to the same issues. I agree with him on the hospitality industry in general. There is probably a need to have a better practice for workers. A Fine Gael councillor in Wicklow has an organisation which runs an initiative to recognise the best places to work, which is a really good one. A lot of employers are so busy trying to keep the boat afloat that they do not take time to realise people may be struggling. We need to create policies which improve lives because that is what a Government must be about. A centre of excellence would be a great thing and I would hope people would not be too political with it. In the hospitality space, that 9% VAT rate should be getting to the employees as well. I will certainly pass the Senator's remarks on to the organisation with which I am involved, namely, the Irish Country Houses and Restaurants Association.
Senator Lombard referred to the boundary movement in Cork. A plebiscite sounds like a good idea but it is not for me to decide. His comments are very positive and a good suggestion. Equally, Senator Burke's comments were also positive.
Senator Gavan also referred to workers and I agree with a lot of what he said. The point about economic certainty is valid and well made and we could have the Minister in for a debate on it in the new year.
Senator Conway raised the issue of the Citizens' Assembly. We are in danger of being "Citizens' Assemblied" out of it. The Houses of the Oireachtas constitute the citizens' assembly for the State. By all means, we can use the Seanad's public consultation process to discuss other issues of importance, which is probably what the Senator was referring to.
To come back to Brexit and the DUP veto, none of us liked it when we heard the Conservatives were to be backed up by the DUP, least of all, I imagine, Sinn Féin. I am not trying to get in a dig, if it is one, but it highlights the prospect that Sinn Féin should take up its seats. It might be something the party should discuss at its next Ard-Fheis. It highlights how much influence Sinn Féin could have in UK politics whereas I do not know what anybody achieves by abstention. I acknowledge that the Senators here do not make those decisions personally, but that is my tuppence-halfpenny's worth. I am not trying to get into a fight with the Senators and it is all I have to say on the matter.
This is about more than one political party. I commend all the political parties for wearing the green jersey on this one. It has been very consistent. It has been very helpful to the negotiators, including our diplomats, led by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, to know the whole political system is behind them. As a country, we punch far above our weight internationally.
One has to pay tribute to Deputies Enda Kenny and Noonan for the work they did in establishing relationships in Europe and internationally. People underestimate how important it is to have good foreign relations to get work done. We are bearing the fruit of that now because we are so well-respected internationally and in European circles. We have their backing and that is not by accident. It is because we play ball in Europe and do so well as a result.
The point is that it is greater than the DUP now. There is UK politics at play when it comes to Wales, Scotland and, indeed, London. That is the difficulty Theresa May is dealing with now. The DUP's worst nightmare is Corbyn. That is what the DUP will face if it does not play ball as he will end up as UK Prime Minister. That is the way I see it. I do not know about others. I hope that in the coming days we will have some white smoke, for want of a better term.
Senator Mark Daly spoke about semantics. While I agree with him on much of that, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade are well aware of the subtleties involved. It is an important point the Senator raised but the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are on top of that.
I liked Senator Boyhan's comments about stepping back. Sometimes we need to get a perspective on politics and look at matters more objectively because we can be in a serious bubble in here. There is more that unites us and the UK than divides us. It is to be hoped we will be able to come to some agreement.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of the DUP and the Tories, which I have addressed. She said the Government needs to hold firm. The Government has exhibited it will hold firm on this issue. We could not be firmer and the EU and the North of Ireland are backing us. It is the first time in history that we are in a better bargaining position than the UK, which is remarkable. It is to be hoped we will hold strong.
Different Members brought up the point of how the UK views Ireland. That is relevant. I was at a meeting yesterday with Senator Boyhan in the House of Lords. One UK politician referred to the Irish people needing to realise about the mainland. I explained our mainland is Ireland. It showed a remarkable mentality.
Senator Alice Mary Higgins referred to the European Court of Human Rights, which is a valid point.
Fair play to Senator Craughwell for being positive about this matter. Credit has to be given where it is due to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. The Government has had a difficult few weeks, but we have had a good week this week. People are quick to acknowledge the bad weeks. We should acknowledge the good weeks too. Although we have not got there and we should not be triumphant, it is going well in that regard.
Senator Coffey referred to Brexit and paid tribute to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. Senator Feighan articulated it well when he spoke about the perfect storm and references to shooting. We are in a position of strength. He acknowledged that people have not played politics. Senator Bacik mentioned that Donald Tusk was supportive, which is crucial. When we heard that last week, everybody felt a real sense of confidence going into these negotiations.
It was very heartening. Senator O'Reilly always works hard on Border issues. Realistically, this is a bigger issue in the area he represents. He also paid tribute to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and had various positive comments to make. Senator Conway made various comments about Brexit.