Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, to be taken at 12.45 p.m., with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and all other Members not to exceed five minutes each and the Minister to be given five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements on agriculture, to be taken at 3 p.m. and conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes each and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 3, Private Members' business, National Minimum Wage (Protection of Employee Tips Bill) 2017 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m., with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.

Yesterday I heard the Taoiseach suggest to the nation that people attend BOD, bank of dad, to look for a loan to fund a deposit to buy their first home. That is all very well and good for the minority, but it clearly indicates that we have a very serious issue on our hands. If the Taoiseach, after years as a Deputy, a doctor and a councillor, has to attend BOD to fund his deposit, how are ordinary hard-working citizens on lower salaries meant to manage it without access to BOD or BOM? There is a serious teaching staff shortage. We have heard about many tenacious teachers who are in the Middle East teaching other people's children in order that they can return to this country and put a deposit on a home. Does the idea of the Taoiseach obtaining a loan and suggesting in the Dáil yesterday that others do likewise not indicate that we are in serious trouble? We need ambitious solutions to the housing crisis that will benefit all of us equally, not just those with access to large sums. I call on the Taoiseach to withdraw his advice as it is completely nonsensical.

I refer to primary care centres. In 2012 the then Fine Gael and Labour Party Government announced the solution to the hospital crisis in the form of primary care centre project announcements. It is, of course, a sensible solution. Providing health care away from hospitals in the community is the gold standard. One project announced at the time was a primary care centre on Curlew Road in Drimnagh which held my attention and interest. In an effort to find out what progress had been made in 2105 before I became a Member of this House I asked my colleague Deputy Billy Kelleher to table a parliamentary question for me. The written update received from the Department of Health was that the planning application had not been completed in the timeframe for PPP projects. This morning we are learning how disastrous that concept is. On my election to Seanad Éireann in 2016, I continued my project to find out what was happening in the provision of this primary care centre and raised the issue on many occasions on the Order of Business and by way of Commencement matters. Yesterday I was informed in a letter circulated by Ms Ann O'Shea, head of services with the HSE, that work on the primary care centre in Drimnagh would not proceed. The letter stated there were no plans for the development of a primary care centre on Curlew Road. I ask for the Minister to come to the House to explain how this happened and the reason for the change of mind. The community in Drimnagh deserves top quality services as much as any other in the country. I am sure there are other primary care centre projects elsewhere in the country that will not go ahead and the local people do not know it yet. Would the Minister be kind enough to make a statement on the matter? The decision not to build a centre in Drimnagh must be reversed. The residents have been waiting since 2012 when it seems the announcement was nothing more than spin. It seems that there is no substance or genuineness to any of the Government's announcements. How are we to trust it if its promises continually fall through?

On gender pension inequality, I welcome the announcement made by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, of the change in the method of calculation of the State pension which mainly affects women. However, I voice my outrage that the reason women and other applicants will not be able to avail of the higher rate sooner is that the Department's IT system is not adequate. This is being used as an excuse not to backdate the payment due to pensioners. It should not be used as the reason. The Minister should go further and backdate the payment to 2012 or at least January this year.

I would like to raise two issues under the Order of Business today. The first of these relates to Coillte and the forestry sector. I attended a meeting of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association in Leitrim a few days ago, at a packed venue in the Bush Hotel. I listened to distraught farmers talking, one after the other, about the devastation of their beloved County Leitrim through forestry. I recognise that there is a need to address our carbon emissions, our carbon targets and the need for the plantation of trees. That is not the issue. The issue concerns the survival and sustainability of communities, particularly rural communities. It is about sustainable plantations and sustainable forests, with broadleaf trees mixed with Sitka spruce and other trees. The issue concerns farmers having to compete with multinationals for small plots of land of five, ten or 15 acres. These farmers aspired to extend their holdings and are now up against competition from vast concerns.

Who owns Coillte? I acknowledge that it is a private company. However, its shares are vested in the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Therefore, the State has a full involvement. As such, it can make interventions to allow communities to survive. We heard a litany of problems: schools closing down, houses being knocked down, land being purchased at exorbitant prices, local people being bid out of their communities, rural communities in devastation, with no sense that they can hold on to their beloved Leitrim and extend their prosperity and business in small agricultural holdings.

I know that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is coming to the House today, but this is not an issue for him specifically. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle, has special responsibility here. While he is an exceptionally good Minister, we need a strong debate about this issue. It concerns sustainable forests as well as sustainable communities. It is about protecting and supporting rural communities. It is about the importance of alternatives such as broadleaf trees. It is also about small agri-tourism concerns and allowing the community to prosper. If the Leader could organise a debate on that, it would be very helpful.

I acknowledge the work of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. I am a member of the committee and today, less than an hour ago, we launched a report on building standards, building controls and consumer protection. I acknowledge the enormous work of Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, who is the rapporteur on that committee, as well as the Chair, Deputy Maria Bailey of Fine Gael. It is an excellent report. There are 26 key recommendations in this report, but one thing we are clearly saying to Government is that there must be independent oversight of the construction industry. There has to be some mechanism of redress for the people in houses where there are water leaks, where there is pyrite or where there are serious issues of damp in substandard accommodation that people are living in and paying for. That is the galling part. They are paying to live in these homes to keep a roof over their heads. I recommend that everyone gets a copy of the report today, and I commend the committee and all those involved.

I thank Senator Boyhan for mentioning the report on which Deputy Eoin Ó Broin was rapporteur. I commend that report to the House. There is very good stuff in it, which we will no doubt talk about in the coming weeks.

On the issue of pensions, while I welcome the changes in pensions that were announced yesterday, the issue brings home the stark reality of the inequality in this country. Something like €270 million was saved over six years by taking money from some pensioners' pockets. We can contrast that with the CEOs of some banks. These are the banks we have been dealing with on the tracker mortgage scandals and similar issues. There are individuals from those banks who have got away with pensions in excess of €600 million. When one compares that to the way that ordinary, decent pensioners are treated in this country, it gives people the answers they need about policies that are driving the inequality that is destroying our country.

I must raise the issue of Translarna. Five young children are left without a drug that is available in more than 20 countries throughout the world, many of which are in the EU. I thank the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, for meeting Anne Marie and Padraig Harte, the parents of one of those boys, Lewis Harte, when he came to open the primary care centre in Castlebar. I appreciate his meeting them. Moreover, I appreciate the fact that after that meeting he met Muscular Dystrophy Ireland and the HSE to see if there was some way that an agreement could be reached between the drug company, PTC Therapeutics, and the HSE.

I am really dismayed that the HSE is ignoring the recommendations of the Minister. I have to ask to whom the HSE is accountable. What is the role of the Minister? Can he not instruct the HSE to carry out the simple task of arranging a meeting to discuss an important issue and something that will ensure a quality of life for five young boys in this country? I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Health to come into the House and explain to us the accountability of the HSE. Is it just a monster, a body that is allowed to do what it likes and ignore the instructions of the Minister? These boys need this drug desperately. These families are facing a choice. Do they have to move out of this State to get the drug that is necessary for these children to stay mobile? It is wrong. It was wrong when I raised it last year and it is wrong now. Something needs to be done about it immediately. I would really appreciate it if the Leader could speak to the Minister in the meantime to see if he can instruct the personnel within the HSE to do what they need to do.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 18 be taken before No. 1.

It must be seconded.

I second the amendment.

Will the Leader invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to speak to the House about driverless cars, an issue I raised here on a previous occasion. This House is perfectly placed to debate this issue. Whether we like it or not, driverless cars are coming down the road at a very fast pace. It will require many changes in legislation. We will have to look at issues like traffic lights and driving licences. Will a driving licence be required for a driverless car? Will it be a different type of licence? Will a person need a licence to be in charge of the car? What will it mean for the insurance industry? I believe we will have fewer accidents and fewer people going into accident and emergency units. It will have lots of benefits and there will be lots of changes. There will be a great need for change in legislation in the not too distant future.

I ask the Leader to bring in the Minister in this regard. We need to do a lot of forward planning to be ready for driverless cars when they come. Will roads have to have a white line on the inside? There will have to be parameters so that the car can see where it is going. This House could draft a report. It could interview people involved in this industry, because it is something that is coming down the tracks. This House is well-placed to draw up a report on this issue, which will be a major change in the lifestyle of people in the not too distant future.

I raise the issue of a school called Edmonton school, which is just south of Delvin, County Westmeath. Recently the management were delighted to hear that they were successful in their application for a new classroom and that they were to receive a grant of approximately €220,000. The school board, the principal, my local Deputy, Robert Troy, Councillor John Shaw and I feel that a genuine mistake has been made in this case.

The recommendation was to build a stand-alone classroom, something which is rarely heard of as the Leader will appreciate. The first complication with the stand-alone classroom is that, if one looks at the maps, the site is very unsuitable. This is borne out by engineers, architects and the board of management. Even to myself, coming into it from a little further afield, what has been recommended would seem quite absurd.

Second, it is vastly more expensive to construct when there is already an existing modular structure in place in the school. Third, there will be internal disruption in the school as children and staff cannot circulate in the way that is the norm in any modern school facility. Finally, the board, the principal, myself, Deputy Robert Troy and Councillor John Shaw feel that there was a genuine mistake made in this regard. Perhaps there was a clerical error or something of that nature. The Leader might ask the Department and the Minister if they will look at this matter urgently, because this will be ready for the summer works programme and work could begin on it in the near future.

When my colleague raised the issue of driverless cars I was wondering whether the cars will be geared to avoid the potholes.

They will have radar.

It will be an interesting challenge. I want to raise an issue which the Leader touched on yesterday, namely, apprenticeships and the demand there will be in the building industry over the coming months. I have met with members of the construction industry over recent weeks and they are very concerned about the shortage of trained people in a whole range of areas, from electricians to plumbers and from block layers to plasterers. One of the things on which we now need to focus is how we can address that issue. I am not satisfied that enough is being done to deal with it. Would it be possible to have the Minister in to have a discussion on this matter? I know it may have been touched on previously but I think the situation is now becoming serious.

One of the advantages of the upturn in the economy is that there is more demand for people with these skills. We have had a huge improvement in the area of housing over the past 12 months and that will continue over the next 12 months to two years. It does pose challenges, however, and we need to deal with them not in 12 months' time, but now. I seek a debate on this issue in order to see what else can be done. It is also about making sure that we have people with the necessary skills to provide the training. Subcontractors being brought in by the main contractors is a big issue at the moment. There is a disadvantage for subcontractors in having apprentices doing jobs and the main contractors are not interested in taking on apprentices. That issue also needs to be looked at and addressed. The educational authorities need to look at how to work with the construction industry and all of the trades right across the board in this area. I seek a debate on that matter.

I believe Senator Norris wished to second the amendment.

Yes, I second the amendment. Uncharacteristically, I have just come to listen to the wisdom of my colleagues this morning and not to make any contributions, other than to second the amendment.

The Senator is quite entitled to do that. That issue has been dealt with.

My colleagues were very informative today.

There has been a lot of discussion about people buying their first homes and whether they can get help from their parents. I am sure that many people have done that and that many people are not in a position to. Perhaps the Leader might arrange some kind of a debate with the Minister with regard to people who have not been able to save because they have been spending so much on rent. The rent on a three-bed semi-detached house in south County Dublin is approximately €2,000 to €2,500 a month at this stage. Those are figures from daft.ie, they are not anecdotal. People can have a look for themselves. If people have spent years renting, it means that they have a decent capacity in terms of their earnings and have the ability to produce a certain amount of money every month, but they are not in a position to save, they are not able to show that they have a history of savings and they cannot build up deposits.

Is there a way, perhaps through the Private Residential Tenancies Board or through landlord certification, for people to get certificates of rent paid in previous years so as to demonstrate that they are in a position to pay a mortgage? Quite often people's mortgage payments, if they were able to get mortgages, would be lower than their monthly rent payments. They have been paying, they are working hard and they are getting up in the morning, as the Taoiseach might say. They are earning for themselves and producing for their employers. They are working away and being productive but they are not in a position to start saving a great deal. I am not saying that we should have 100% mortgages, but there must be a way to address this particular cohort of people who are working hard, who are generating enough cash to pay a mortgage, but who are not in a position to get one because they do not have savings. Perhaps there could be some kind of up-front deposit which could be repaid over time, some kind of shared ownership or some other kind of system to allow people to get on the rung. It is a catch-22. They are renting and are spending so much on rent that they are not able to save. Not everyone is able to move in with their parents or move back home, depending on their circumstances.

Yesterday the planning authorities in Northern Ireland granted planning permission for the Northern phase of the North-South interconnector. This is an issue which has caused great concern in the counties of Meath, Cavan and Monaghan for more than ten years. It has been subject to a number of reviews and a number of court challenges. The granting of the permission in the North of Ireland has given impetus to the decision by EirGrid to ignore the concerns that have been highlighted. I understand that it is its intention to proceed to construction by the end of the year. This will see the need for more than 400 pylons to be erected in these three counties: Cavan, Monaghan and Meath. The opposition in this region is of such an extent that I do not know how EirGrid can progress or proceed to construction, because not one of the landowners will grant it permission to enter their lands to construct these pylons. The underground option is viable. EirGrid is totally ignoring that fact. I ask the Leader to once again invite the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to the House so that we can get a clear understanding of why EirGrid has ignored the expert advice which shows that the undergrounding of these cables is a viable option, and why it is insisting on the persecution of the communities in the affected areas. No doubt there will be huge opposition in the North of Ireland to this as well.

I call on the Leader to respond. Sorry, Senator Paul Coghlan is last, but not least.

I thank the Cathaoirleach.

I totally forgot my Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I simply want to welcome the decision of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, to consider the appointment of a senior counsel or retired judge to examine the findings of the tribunal on the Kerry babies and to assess them with a view to having them quashed or set aside. As we all now know, this was a botched investigation by the Garda at the time. The Garda has issued its apology to the Hayes family, as is proper. As we also know, the Minister and Taoiseach have issued apologies on behalf of the State. Joanne Hayes was wrongly charged with the murder of baby John, who was stabbed 28 times and found on White Strand, Cahersiveen, 34 years ago; a crime she had nothing whatsoever to do with. The tribunal's findings can no longer stand in light of these events. An order quashing them is now essential. While everybody naturally wants to respect the privacy of the Hayes family, it is essential and imperative that these findings now be urgently examined with a view to having them quashed and set aside.

I thank the ten Members who spoke for their contributions on the Order of Business. I thank Senator David Norris for his brevity.

Senator Catherine Ardagh raised a number of points. She referred to the remarks of the Taoiseach yesterday, to which Senator Gerry Horkan also alluded, on the bank of dad. If the Senator was honest, all of us were lucky to receive a contribution from our families when we were buying our own home. There is nothing wrong with receiving a contribution from our families; it is not a sign of privilege. Deputy Barry Cowen yesterday commented on the Taoiseach's remarks. He should read his own remarks on the proposed closure of the school in Roscrea in which he spoke about the sacrifices which had been made by his parents. Senator Gerry Horkan and I completely agree that the State is spending billions of euro in supporting people through the payment of rent allowance and housing assistance payments. As he rightly said, what we are spending on rent payments could be spent better. On Monday I met a young woman who complained about the difficulty in being able to save for a deposit when she was spending nearly €1,200 a month on rent, which is dead money.

The question I pose to Catherine Senator Ardagh is: do we want to go back to the old days when people were given 100% mortgages and the Fianna Fáil Party gave developers tax credits from here to Belmullet and back? We can look at what happened as a result. Houses were built in many parts of the country in which no one wanted to live. What does the Senator want? What the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced yesterday was an affordable housing scheme for first-time buyers. Perhaps the result of the Taoiseach's remarks yesterday might be the initiation of a conversation about home ownership, the requirement to have a 10% deposit and the role of the banks. I agree with Senator Rose Conway-Walsh and other Members in what they said about the banks. The question is: do we want to go back to the old days when people were given 100% mortgages? Members can reflect on that issue. Do they want developers to be given tax breaks, as happened previously? Like Senator Gerry Horkan, I think the bigger debate is about how we can ensure people can get onto the property ladder without spending endless amounts of time and money in bidding unsuccessfully online for properties. As the Taoiseach said yesterday in the Dáil and I said on the Order of Business, the priority of the Government and those of us who work on the ground in our constituencies is to ensure people can get onto the property ladder, either through the provision of more social housing and equitable arrangements in schemes for first-time buyers such as that announced yesterday.

I will work with all Members on this issue. I commend the report of the all-party committee chaired by Deputy Maria Bailey and the rapporteur, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin. Such a debate needs to happen and it is not about class or privilege. I am not a person of privilege. I had to borrow, beg and nearly steal to buy my own house and then had to suffer being in negative equity, although the position is now beginning to improve. I do not live in a mansion, nor do I aspire to do so. As a society, we need to have such a conversation and I hope we will have it. I will work with the Government to ensure people will be able to buy a house, including an affordable house, and that the State will be able to provide social housing. That is the model on which I campaigned and I will work with all concerned to achieve it.

Senator Catherine Ardagh also referred to primary care centres. This and the previous Government are responsible for building more primary care centres than any other Government in the history of the State. Almost one centre has been built per month in some parts of the country. Approximately one a week was the intention in the plan for the period from 2012 to 2016, inclusive. I think 44 were planned. I am not familiar with the primary care centre that was to be provided on Curlew Road in Drimnagh, but as I said yesterday on the Order of Business, we need to see greater investment in primary care services. It is the health model for which many of us advocate and support because it takes people away from the hospital setting and places them in the community where they can be treated closer to home and more quickly. If the Senator wishes to give me the information, I will be happy to raise the matter with the Minister for Health. As she will appreciate, I am not familiar with the issue.

The issue of public private partnerships with reference to schools was raised yesterday and today by Senator Catherine Ardagh. Through the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, the Government is responsible for the management of the five bundles affected by the liquidation of Carillion. The Government's commitment is to provide €100 million, of which only €4 million has been spent. Under the terms of the public private partnership contract, in the case of a liquidation or termination by one part of a consortium, a rectification measure will be put in place at no extra cost to the State that will ensure a project is completed. Yesterday Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor referred to the project in Carlow. This morning I heard references to the issue on "Morning Ireland". It is very important that education projects be completed. I will keep the House informed on the matter because it is important. When I was involved with Ballincollig community school, the then Minister for Education and Skills introduced a public private partnership whereby a number of schools would be built in County Cork. One of them was built in Dunmanway, while another was built in Ballincollig. A third project involved the Cork School of Music. The first time we had public private partnerships for school building projects was under a Fianna Fáil-led Government in the noughties. The model has worked reasonably well in the provision of new school builds since it was introduced, but there have been pitfalls in terms of the ownership of some consortia. However, the current issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency, not least because many of the school projects are 90% completed. One school was meant to be handed over, but, unfortunately, it was not. As I said, the NDFA is responsible, in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton. I will keep the House informed of progress.

I welcome the pension changes announced yesterday by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, and commend her for engaging with and listening to people. I will be happy for her to come to the House in the coming weeks to update us on the issue. Pensioners who are assessed under the 2012 regime will be made aware of the new situation by the Department. It is about finding an equitable and fair solution. We will debate in the coming weeks the new total contributions approach, TCA, announced yesterday by the Minister.

Senator Victor Boyhan referred to Coillte. To be fair, his request is reasonable and about ensuring we will have sustainable forestry to maintain the sustainability of rural communities in the context of ecotourism. The Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, has been very involved with Coillte, both in his private capacity as a farmer and now as Minister of State. I will be happy for him to come to the House to discuss the matter.

On the Oireachtas committee's report, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is very committed to upholding standards and quality control in buildings. I support the notion of having debates in this House on Oireachtas committee reports. The previous Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Barrett, initiated a measure to enable such reports to be debated on the floor of the Dáil and the Seanad. It is important that we do so in this House because, as Senator Paddy Burke said in his remarks about driverless cars, such debates give us an opportunity to go into more detail than might have been the case at the committee or in the other House. Such debates also make this House relevant. I will be happy, therefore, to have the matter debated in the House.

Senator Rose Conway-Walsh raised the pensions issue. In the case of Translarna, the HSE is accountable to the Minister for Health and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health. I do not know what the reason is for the delay, but the Minister is engaged in the process.

It is important that people who require this treatment are able to avail of it as a matter of urgency. Perhaps the Senator could table a Commencement matter. If she cannot do so, I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House in the coming weeks. I am happy to accept Senator Black's amendment to the Order of Business, though I was not aware she was moving it today.

Senator Paddy Burke raised the issue of driverless cars and this is the most important and pressing issue in our automobile and transport sector today. There has been a lot of debate on it and periodicals in the industry suggest it is coming down the track fairly quickly. We can also see what is happening with diesel cars and I would be happy for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to come to the House in this regard. I agree with Senator Burke that we need to examine the matter to a greater degree in this House.

Senator Davitt raised the issue of Edmonton school. I am not familiar with the locality or the specific issue but I would be happy for the Minister to liaise with him on the issue. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I accept the point made by Senators Horkan and Colm Burke on the need for the Minister to come to the House for a debate on apprenticeships. This is one of the most important pieces of work this Government will do in its lifetime. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, have been proactive and have put 26 new programmes on stream, with a target of 20% school leavers to be inducted into apprenticeship schemes in the coming years. There is a pressing urgency for people to take up apprenticeships in a range of areas. Senator Burke raised the issue of the construction sector and builders and labourers. Those charged with managing the sector tell us there is a skills and labour shortage. Even if we had the ability to deliver housing units, there would be a deficit in that regard, and it is an impediment to building houses. The Apprenticeship Council has approved a range of schemes and the Government has created a fund of €122 million. It is an important issue and I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House for a debate on it in the coming weeks.

Senator Wilson raised the sensitive matter of the North-South interconnector and residents in Meath and Cavan deserve great credit for their campaigning zeal and their ability to advocate. They have given an understanding of the issue to people not affected by the project. We need a debate on it and I would be happy to have it. Senator Coghlan raised the impending appointment by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, of senior counsel, a retired judge, to review the Kerry babies tribunal. A dreadful wrong was done to Joanne Hayes and her family which needs to be rectified. In the context of comments in newspapers over the weekend, however, there is a need to respect the request of the Hayes family for privacy, so as not to reopen the painful wound. It is a sensitive matter that requires not only answers but justice for the Hayes family.

I am happy to accept the amendment to the Order of Business. I thank the Members present for their contributions.

Senator Black has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 18 be taken before No. 1". The Leader has kindly indicated that he is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.

Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.