The Order of Business is No. 1, Data Protection Bill 2018 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to adjourn not later than 1.30 p.m.
Order of Business
I wish to raise three items today so I beg the Cathaoirleach's indulgence.
I wish to express my genuine disappointment at the collapse of the power-sharing talks in the North yesterday. I concur with the statements my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, made when he expressed his bitter disappointment at the lack of an agreement to restore devolved government. As he said, politics is about governing and the people of the North now continue to face into another prolonged period without representation. This is, of course, amid one of the most uncertain economic and political times, with Brexit on the horizon. Mrs. Foster's call on the UK Government to set a budget and start making policy decisions on schools, hospitals and infrastructure is regretful. All the hard work and achievements of the Good Friday Agreement seem now to be forgotten. The DUP is clearly looking for direct rule and it is such a shame we are now in this position. The Irish and UK Governments have failed to nurture and nourish the relationships between all parties in the North in recent years, and this has led to the breakdown and the disappointment we all feel today. I note the surprise of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney. I ask that he be invited to this House to explain what he knew and to outline his view of this impasse.
The second item I wish to raise is Permanent TSB's sale of its loan book. We learned yesterday that Permanent TSB has decided to sell a loan book of non-performing loans worth €4 billion. The amount represents 28% of the total Permanent TSB loan book. We understand that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, was aware of the forthcoming transaction and knew it would possibly cause great upset and a political storm. I ask the Minister to come to the House and explain what he knows about the transaction and when he first knew it, and what he will do to safeguard the interests of vulnerable homeowners who may soon be at the mercy of global private equity funds and distressed debt investors. Many people are now at home, sick and worried that their loans will be sold off and they have not been given any assurances by the Government to date.
Finally, I wish to raise the issue of the State Ombudsman's report on the Magdalen restorative justice scheme and the scathing remarks of the Ombudsman, Mr. Tyndall, about the administration of the scheme. I raised in the House in November, when his report was originally published, the criticism of the way in which the scheme was being administered, in particular how many vulnerable women have been left out of the scheme. Approximately 100 women have been wrongly left out of the scheme. The scheme had a budget of €58 million. To date, only €25.7 million has been paid out. To include an extra 100 women would cost in the region of €3 million to €5 million, which is a fraction of the initial budget. Of particular concern and worry to me are those who were excluded from the scheme on the basis that they lacked capacity and therefore a mechanism to receive a lump sum. The Ombudsman immediately recommended that the State work with the Courts Service to appoint wards of court for these women in order that they may be included in the scheme without delay. It is extraordinarily important that in 2013, 40 such women were alive, but five years later only 17 of these women are still alive. This is a damning indictment of our treatment of women, especially vulnerable women, in Ireland. The Minister must not delay any further. Time is crucial, and these women must be cared for. I call on the Minister for Justice and Equality to implement immediately all the recommendations in Mr. Tyndall's report.
I wish to address two matters. First, I note that the Leader has proposed that the debate on the Data Protection Bill should finish at 1.30 p.m.
He has explained to me the personal circumstances of the Minister for Justice and Equality and his inability to bilocate on this occasion. The Leader has put this forward as a reason for the debate to be adjourned at 1.30 p.m. The consequence of this is that important issues will not be reached today which I had a significant personal interest in having read. However, I know the House is not run at my personal convenience.
The age of digital consent is a very substantial issue and if and when this House gets to it, I will appeal to every Member in every group to think very carefully about its implications. It is a significant issue which cannot be dealt with superficially as it deals with the erosion of childhood. People say it is being done in the interests of children's rights, forgetting that parents and children are members of a family under the Constitution, with parents having obligations to protect their children, as well as the State. I hope Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and all the Independent and non-aligned groups will take the opportunity to look at the material which is now being circulated to see where they really stand on this issue before we make a major blunder.
I echo what the leader of the Fianna Fáil group said on the sale of non-performing home loans by a bank which is owned by the Irish State. I have seen at first hand, as a practising lawyer, the consequences of sales of personal indebtedness to vulture funds. A non-performing loan is where homeowners have got into difficulties and it may be culpable or non-culpable but banks who took the risk of lending them the money originally, taking the upside when it was all upside, are now selling those loans for a fraction of their nominal value, maybe 10 cent or 20 cent in the euro depending on the quality of the loans, to a group of people who will look for 100%.
Exactly. Why do they not sell them to the mortgage holders?
There is a moral issue here.
The one group of people who will not be offered 10 cent or 20 cent in the euro is the homeowner whose house is being repossessed. There is a serious moral issue and it is entirely wrong for the Irish State, through a wholly owned bank, to hand over homeowners who are in difficulty, for whatever reason, to people who will gouge them for every last cent and sell their property without offering them the opportunity to buy on the same basis. The banks do not have the moral courage to do it and no Member of the Oireachtas would stand over it being done. This is not theoretical as I have seen it happen. Lawyers acting for victims of these sales to vulture funds are never allowed ask how much those funds paid for their client's loan. How can it be just to ask for 100 cent in the euro when one has bought the loan for 10 cent or 20 cent?
It is shocking.
I ask the Leader to ask the relevant Minister to hesitate and to ask him or herself whether it is appropriate that a State-owned bank throw a load of people to the wolves for profit. It is out of cowardice as they are not able to deal with these difficult cases themselves so they prefer to allow greedy people to pick at the corpse of other people's lives.
Absolutely. 1916 how are you?
We in Sinn Féin are very disappointed that agreement has not been reached in the North. I find it very difficult to listen to what Deputy Micheál Martin has to say on the subject. He has never sought to be constructive around the talks and has no credibility whatsoever. Sinn Féin has engaged fully and we have worked in good faith with the DUP. We have stretched ourselves and we had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP, only for them to fail to close on it and the talks have now collapsed. The issues have not gone away, however, and we will continue to work in a constructive manner with the British Government, the Irish Government and others who want to be constructive to get the institutions up and running again.
I thank the Leader for accommodating my request for a full debate on Versatis at 3.30 p.m. next Wednesday. I look forward to it and to the Minister being present for it. We are indebted to all the people who have contacted us on this in the past number of months, including consultants, GPs and other medical professionals. I also thank those who came into the AV room for the presentation, particularly John Lindsay and Deirdre Ryan from Chronic Pain Ireland, and I thank them for the work they have done, as I do Brian Lynch from Arthritis Ireland. I also thank Mary Carroll, who has personal experience of using Versatis, for being there.
This issue affects 25,000 people across the State in every constituency but there has been no constructive response to the questions we have raised to date. The patients' voices detailing their own suffering, and the effectiveness of Versatis in treating their chronic pain, have been ignored. We know that this particularly affects low-income patients and this means if one has the money one does not have the pain, while if one does not, one continues with the pain or goes on morphine patches or other less effective remedies.
Introducing a secondary layer of approval completely undermines the relationship of the consultant, the GP and the patient. No indication was given to GPs on how to take patients off this drug safely and there were only guidelines around the cost, which tells us a lot. There was no clinical treatment plan for an alternative and we have no evidence that the manufacturer of Versatis was approached by the HSE to reduce the cost of the patches. It is absolutely unclear as to whether a cost-benefit analysis was carried out before the decision was made. The additional costs for alternative medicine, hospitalisation, homecare packages, home help hours and antidepressants were not taken into account, not to mention the loss of working hours, social isolation and exclusion. Even at this stage and before next Wednesday, I appeal to the Minister to ask the HSE to review this decision and to take time out until some of the concerns have been addressed.
I wish to raise issues related to the voluntary homeowners relocation scheme. Nobody takes the decision to seek to leave their own home lightly but where a person is left without options, we must ensure we provide the greatest possible level of support for homeowners. This scheme is apparently targeted at individuals whose homes are no longer suitable due to flood risk but I am working with a family whose home is located in a turlough area and they have been rejected for the scheme. The family, their neighbours, the wider community, emergency services and the county council all worked around the clock for days and weeks to keep flood waters out of their home. Their entire property was surrounded by several feet of water but they successfully managed to keep the waters out. This scheme is not supporting them. We are punishing them for the hours of work they put in and had they not taken action, but let the flood waters into their home, they would have been accepted into the scheme.
The OPW and local authority have not found an engineering solution that would remedy the flood risk and this family has not been able to secure flood insurance. There has been no site visit from the OPW. The scheme does not serve its intended purpose. Turlough areas are very unpredictable in terms of water levels. Are we going to allow this family live in constant fear of flooding and of losing their home, as they do at the moment? It is illogical to punish a family which worked tirelessly to protect their home, which otherwise would have suffered significant damage.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, who has responsibility for flood relief, to come in here. I want him to tell Members how he will support and is supporting families like the one I have mentioned. I also want him to tell Members how many people have applied for the scheme and how many people have been accepted into the scheme.
That might be a matter more appropriate for a Commencement notice but I will let the Leader reply. I call Senator Craughwell.
First and foremost, the situation with Permanent TSB is outrageous. God be with the days when one could walk into the office of a bank manager, sit down with him or her and discuss a matter. I will never forget the generosity of the bank manager who dealt with me when I went bust financially. He sat me down in his office and gave me a cup of tea and biscuits before proceeding to discuss how I would transfer my home to him. As my colleagues have said here this morning, the Permanent TSB is a State-owned company. God help us if that is what we are up to now.
All day yesterday and this morning I felt a sense of foreboding. We are back where we were with regard to Northern Ireland and we cannot get an Assembly. What has happened is detrimental. We visited north Belfast during the summer and there was a lot of correlation between north Belfast and north Dublin because there were thugs in the wings waiting to start up again.
I deeply regret having to say the following. Right now there is no republican voice in Westminster. There is nobody there to speak for the republicans who live in the North of Ireland. There is nobody in Westminster to represent the citizens of the Republic of Ireland who have passports in the North of Ireland and who are unable to have a voice. I urge Senator Conway-Walsh not to look at me in that way.
No, I am not.
I suggest that the Senators do not look at each other at all.
Senator Craughwell thinks that somebody swearing allegiance to a foreign queen is going to solve the impasse.
She is not foreign. She is more Irish than Senator Conway-Walsh and is a direct descendent of Brian Boru and Hugh O'Neill.
I suggest Senators do not interact with Senator Conway-Walsh.
What right has the Senator to stand up in here and say what he said?
The clock is ticking. Please allow Senator Craughwell to conclude. He tried to make his point and Senators might not agree with him.
The citizens in the North of Ireland, who are petrified out of their lives at the thought of Brexit coming down the road towards them like a railway crash, have no voice. For this reason alone, we must immediately ensure that all of the North-South institutions are brought back into full being. If the people who live in the North of Ireland and are elected in the North of Ireland are unwilling, for whatever reason, to represent their constituents, then we in the South must take a proactive step to ensure they are protected as best as possible as we move into Brexit.
When the Senator is President he can do that work.
When that happens, Senator Craughwell can carry out the wishes of the people.
Having a swipe at me before the Senators nominate me for the job of President is probably not a good thing to do.
I ask the Senator to sit down before he is interrupted again, please.
Yesterday, my colleague, Senator Craughwell, mentioned the ruling by the European Committee of Social Rights in response to a case lodged by the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA. The committee ruled that there was justification for the absolute prohibition of the right to strike. However, the committee has upheld the entitlement of the Irish armed forces to better collective bargaining and negotiating rights. The issue of industrial relations in the Defence Forces is big news this week. Whether the changes to pay and conditions come about as part of collective negotiations through ICTU or as a result of the review of the current conciliation and arbitration processes within the Defence Forces, one thing has become very clear. There are issues concerning pay and conditions for the Defence Forces that must be dealt with.
One issue that is of particular concern to many members of the Defence Forces is the allowance paid for security duty. In 2013 the allowance, along with other allowances paid to the Defence Forces, was cut by 10%. On top of that, a bonus rate of 40% for working on Saturdays and 60% for working on Sundays was also cut. Therefore, all days are treated the same. The Leader is probably tired of my constant raising of issues about pay and conditions for the Defence Forces but this issue is of huge concern to the men and women who serve our country with distinction. I do not argue necessarily for a specific rate for weekends but emphasise the double cut was particularly unfair. Instead, we should be looking for ways to improve the terms and conditions for members of the Defence Forces and an increased duty allowance is one way to do so. We should do so, in the first instance, to reflect the fact that the crater blown in our economy by the Fianna Fáil Government is being repaired, due in no small part to the sacrifices made by the citizens of this country, including members of the Defence Forces. We should also be aware that the improving economy offers an alternative option to the well-trained and dedicated personnel in the Defence Forces. We need to ensure that military service remains an attractive option for them.
I call on the Leader to convey to the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Kehoe, the message that we need to address these issues promptly and to the satisfaction of all members of the Defence Forces. I also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter.
I wish to address and highlight the comments made by the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, last weekend when he took the opportunity, yet again, to take a swipe at general practitioners, GPs, and to blame them for contributing to the current health crisis and overcrowding at accident and emergency departments. Over the past week, I have spoken to a number of GPs and they conveyed to me how disappointed, angered and saddened they were by the Taoiseach's comments and even more so due to the fact that he is a GP himself. All Senators know and appreciate the vital role that GPs play in the health service. They are the first point of contact for many of us whenever we become unwell. The Taoiseach's comments were insulting to all of the hardworking GPs who work throughout this country. He demonstrated a lack of understanding of what is needed to address the critical situation that exists in the accident and emergency departments.
Let me be very clear. GPs only refer patients to accident and emergency departments when they, in their professional opinion, feel it is in the best interest of their patients to do so. To say otherwise is an insult to GPs. It is an insult to their professional integrity and insults a profession that is one of the most respected throughout this country. Clearly, we need the Government to provide our hardworking GPs with more resources, which would allow them to expand the services they currently give. Action, and not talk, is needed immediately to tackle the overcrowding situation we read about every day of the week.
The House should send its condolences to the teachers and pupils who have been shot at a school in Florida. As many as 17 people have been killed and many others have been injured. Florida used to be known as the sunshine state but that has been changed to the gunshine state. The state of Florida hands out millions of gun permits and more than any other state in the US. President Trump's tweets and condolences ring false.
Senator Craughwell, presumably as part of his presidential campaign, asked republicans to take their seats in Westminster and represent their voters. Does he understand what he has just asked? Does the House understand what he said?
I certainly do. This is the Senator's job. One should do the job that one is paid for.
Excuse me, Senator, I am addressing Senator Craughwell.
Yes, Senator Craughwell.
Does Senator Craughwell understand what he has just said? Perhaps his presidential campaign has got to his brain.
The voters who voted for Sinn Féin and who Sinn Féin represents voted for the party and gave a mandate not to sit in Westminster.
One must represent all of the voters in one's constituency and not just the republicans.
Perhaps Senator Craughwell should learn a little bit more about the issue. In terms of him raising the issue on a continual basis in this House, he is misguided and misinformed. Perhaps he knows but does not really care for the voters who are republican - and not just voters in the North - who do not want Sinn Féin to sit in Westminster.
How does the Senator know that?
I support what my colleague, Senator Hopkins, said about a house. The family concerned did a huge amount of work with the local authorities to save the house from being flooded but it is now in no-man's land, for want of a better word. The Minister of State, Deputy Moran, or the Minister should come in here to outline what will be done. The Minister is working hard around the country but the Minister must intervene on this occasion and do the right thing.
I support my colleague, Senator Craughwell.
We are in a very difficult situation. I go back and forth to Westminster and there is an Irish voice lacking there. There is a huge Irish caucus in Westminster and we are working closely with an MP called Conor McGinn who is from Crossmaglen and whose father was a Sinn Féin councillor. He is an MP for St Helens North and chair of the all-party Irish in Britain group. We are lacking a nationalist voice in a Parliament that needs it. Sinn Féin has its own views but in 1997 there was an abstentionist policy in respect of the Dáil. There was an abstentionist policy or boycott of Stormont. Sinn Féin members changed their minds then. It is up to its members but I really think it is in the interests of the Irish people and the island of Ireland and could be of huge benefit. Sinn Féin has changed its mind twice already on it. We are allowing militant unionism to have that say in a Parliament that we should really be using. It is up to Sinn Féin, of course.
There is great goodwill in Westminster towards the island of Ireland on which we need to work. We are missing a nationalist voice because the SDLP is not sitting there. I know the work it has done. It has articulated the needs of the Irish in Britain and of nationalism in Northern Ireland. Those who get elected and do not use that voice are allowing somebody else to fill the vacuum. Sinn Féin changed its mind when it came to Stormont and Dáil Éireann.
Why were we elected?
Fine Gael could always run its own candidates up there. We could see how much support they would get.
It is disappointing that we have had a breakdown in respect of devolved government in Northern Ireland. It is a time for cool heads and calm words. At stake are the issues in terms of Northern Ireland and its people on all sides. There is great volatility and danger in Northern Ireland; there are the challenges of peace and economic prosperity and the challenges that come with Brexit. One must ask who is representing those who do not vote DUP or Conservative. That is another very profound question. Who is representing that large cohort? I am always concerned when there is a vacuum. I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA. As the previous Senator said, there is always ongoing dialogue with people in this House, the Dáil and all political dimensions within the island of Ireland. It behoves us to continue to keep that dialogue and discussion going on. Anyone who is a member of BIPA will say we are warmly received and have many opportunities to engage on a social, personal and political level, which is very sensible.
Some young people attended a BIPA conference last year and they told us of their frustration at the lack of any representation. It is a whole generation of people aged 18, 19 or 20, who are really getting fed up with all of the political parties and the whole political process. They cautioned us about many issues such as high unemployment, disadvantages, prejudice and alienation. All of that adds up to volatility and a dangerous situation.
I am hopeful that discussions will be ongoing between Sinn Féin and the DUP and that they can get back together. It might be helpful if people had some idea of the terms. Nobody should be allowed get away with compromising fundamental rights of the people and their expressions of their culture, language and identity. We would be failing if we backed down and did not support people of any political hue who fought hard for people's rights and their expression of culture and language.
I call Senator Norris.
I completely agree with Senator McDowell. If he cares to put down a motion that Seanad Éireann utterly condemns the decision of Permanent TSB to sell off those mortgages, I would certainly be honoured to second it. We had a discussion in the House about a year ago when I introduced the National Housing Co-operative Bill 2017, which would have addressed the situation of the vulture funds. It is an absolute disgrace. I have to laugh when I think of 1916. God almighty, when we have the State evicting people it is a bit of a nonsense.
Last night I saw a film on television. I congratulate RTÉ on producing it. It was a documentary called "Condemned to Remember", by Tomi Reichental, who is a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. It was extremely powerful. It was in two parts; the first dealt with his origins in Czechoslovakia and his capture at age seven by the SS, when he was sent to Bergen-Belsen. The second part was even more powerful. It showed interviews with people all over Europe and news footage of what is going on now in places like Bratislava, where Muslims were having stones pelted at them and being told "Slovakia for Slovaks", "we do not want you", "we do not want Muslims" and "F-U-C-K Allah".
It is absolutely disgraceful. It is not a laughing matter. It is extremely serious. We are now looking at a recreation of the kind of conditions that happened in the 1930s. We really have to do something about it.
Tomi Reichental also spoke to a young Syrian man. The documentary showed hundreds and thousands of desperate Syrian refugees. It showed the conditions in Aleppo, with completely bombed-out suburbs. Where are these people to go? It is the same situation as in Nazi Germany and the rest of Europe, yet Europe is turning its face against these refugees, with the exception of Germany. This is something that, out of humanity, we must address. We really should look at the refugee situation. I have known Tomi Reichental for many years and have always honoured him but my respect for him increased enormously as a result of that powerful and moving film.
We need to be very careful in respect of Northern Ireland at present. It is a time for cool heads and calmness. There is a problem in that we do not have an Assembly. We have a group representing the entire population of Northern Ireland in the House of Commons that has the support of about 36% of the population. There is another 64% that is not represented there. We really do not know where we are going in respect of Brexit and how it will affect Northern Ireland. It is a very difficult time. We need to be very careful about how we deal with it. There have been set-backs in the past after which progress was made. Hopefully, over the next six to eight months, we will see some real progress on all sides. There has to be some movement by the people who are purporting to represent all of Northern Ireland in the House of Commons. It needs to be very carefully managed from the point of view of the entire island of Ireland. I might have had my disagreements with Sinn Féin previously but I believe that it made substantial concessions and tried to bring about a solution to this problem. Let us not play the blame game at this time.
My colleague raised a matter in respect of the Taoiseach and I think his comments were taken out of context. I have been very much to the forefront of the general practitioner contract negotiations. I have been consistently meeting and discussing the issues with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, and the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP. We need to make progress on this matter and it needs to be fast-tracked. I have dealt with this within my own party and will continue to deal with it. I assure the House that serious efforts are being made to bring all sides together in order that we can progress the negotiations on this matter. Over the next three to four weeks, I hope that substantial progress will be made.
We need a new contract for GPs and we need to give them the support they deserve. A very interesting figure was highlighted at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health yesterday. The cost of funding St. James's Hospital for 12 months is €864 million. That is exactly the same amount of money that is paid out to cover the cost of supporting GPs. This is an issue that needs to be given priority. We need to give priority to the people on the front line. Finally, I am a little disappointed with the way the HSE has used funding. There are now 2,600 more people working in administration and management in the HSE than was the case in December 2014. This is at a time when the issue in respect of front-line staff is not being given the same priority.
I was contacted by a councillor yesterday. I know many Senators talk to councillors every day. This lady is a hardworking single mother and she is surviving solely on her councillor's pay. Due to her mother's death in January, she missed two council meetings and somebody in the council saw fit to deduct €600 from her pay and allowances. That is absolutely sickening. I could not believe how somebody working in the same building could have had the stomach to carry out such an act. I contacted her after she emailed me to clarify the position and to ask if she minded if I mentioned her case in the House. I would say she just wanted to get it off her chest. She was happy to let me raise the matter and I told her I would not mention her name. It beggars belief that somebody would carry out such an act. I will give the Leader the details afterwards. Perhaps this is something we could mention to the council. I could not see this as being correct.
I have listened to several colleagues speak about the sale of loans by Permanent TSB to an investor, a so-called vulture fund. I was particularly taken with what my colleague, Senator McDowell, had to say as he got to the heart of the matter when reflecting on his professional experience of cases of people losing their homes. He spoke to the heart of the moral problem in this area. We know what is happening here. Banks are bundling loans together into larger instruments and selling them to investors at a discount. Of course, the reason these are attractive products is that the investors know they can pursue the loans for greater value.
In a sense, I agree with the approach of Mr. Justice Kelly who does not permit the term "vulture fund" to be used in his court because, he says, it has no legal meaning or value. It is important to protect the rights of people or institutions to access the law, especially the rights of those with whom we do not sympathise. Their access to law is a very important thing. That was why I challenged Senator Ó Ríordáin last week when he was giving out about some developer threatening him with the possibility of legal proceedings. People should always feel that they can access law.
What is the solution? There is a manifest injustice if an investor fund - let us call it that - can make big money from buying properties when, had the distressed homeowner been offered a similar deal, he or she would have been able to avail of it. We sense the injustice in the ordinary individual not being able to access the same kind of deal, but it is our job, as legislators, to discuss whether there are solutions. We point to the moral problem, and what is going on is odious, but what is the solution? We need to have a debate on what can be done. Part of the reason this is happening is that banks are trying to protect their deposit capital retention ratios. They are doing this for a reason. Is this about tightening the code of conduct of the Central Bank in order that banks would be required to disclose the terms before entering such a deal-----
-----so that the homeowner could have one last shot at negotiation? Alternatively should we be thinking of something bigger? Should we be thinking about some kind of instrument or some kind of body that would be given access to privileged information about the deals on offer and which would then be able to intervene and to deal with individual homeowners? Those are the kinds of solutions we need to be thinking and talking about in these Houses.
In respect of Senator Robbie Gallagher's comments, I am a practising GP and I talk to other GPs. I know that what really makes them cross is the FEMPI legislation. I put my hand up because I was responsible for the introduction of some of those cuts during our financial emergency. However, the Senator's party was responsible for two thirds of the cuts. This has caused general practitioners tremendous problems in attracting new people into the profession and is also inhibiting those in it from staying on. We will see 600 GPs retire over the next couple of years. At the same time, our young doctors go abroad. The FEMPI legislation must be addressed urgently. I have raised that time and again.
I know that the Taoiseach understands general practice. He is trained as a GP, his father was a GP and he grew up in a household of general practice and family medicine. He is committed to the health sector and to taking the wonderful opportunity that has presented itself to us to start negotiations to introduce a new contract which will focus more on prevention and early detection than on episodic illness. If we want an example of that approach we should look at the excellent work carried out by Dr. Velma Harkins and many of her colleagues in the midlands. They reduced the rate of complications relating to diabetes by 80% over the period of several years for which their scheme ran at a fraction of what would be the cost to hospitals. Not alone is it more cost-effective, it results in better outcomes for patients and operates in a setting which is in their community and which is more convenient to them. General practice delivers more than 100,000 consultations every single day. A 1% shift from general practice creates serious problems for the hospital system. A 4% shift and it would all be over.
I will conclude by asking the Leader to call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House and introduce the legislation on the new regulator to be appointed for noise at Dublin Airport in the Fingal County Council area as quickly as possible. We need the legislation to allow for the appointment and we need a funding mechanism to be put in place to allow specialist individuals to be employed to take charge of such work in order to give confidence to the public and to industry alike.
Before I call on Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, I would like to welcome a former Member of this House and current Member of the Lower House, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. It is nice that he has come back to show respect to this Chamber again.
I will begin by expressing my disappointment at the seeming collapse of the talks process in the North yesterday. Despite having what appeared to be a comprehensive deal on the table, the DUP has walked away, unfortunately, and it appears that it has not been able to seal that particular deal. I will take a lead from Senator Colm Burke and agree with him that this is a time for cool heads and for respecting the delicate political situation in the North, particularly in light of the key, critical and important issues that pertain to the negotiations and the need to restore not just the devolved institutions but also the all-Ireland institutions that flow from them. The latter is a need to which Sinn Féin is fully committed.
In the most respectful, measured, collected and calm way, I want to challenge a negative narrative that may be creeping into this Chamber. I want to put a few things on the record. The key issues that pertain to the problems and the lack of an Executive in the North are primarily, but not exclusively, rights-based. Part of the reason there is no executive in the North is an ongoing litany of disrespect being shown not just to an Irish national identity or to people who choose to live their lives through the medium of Irish, but also to our LGBT citizens, our ethnic minority citizens-----
These issues could be dealt with if there was an assembly, no problem.
That displays the highest level of ignorance yet because, unfortunately, despite the majority of the Assembly voting for marriage equality in the past, one party blocked it. This notion of two problem parties being as bad as each other-----
Then it is as bad to appear to do it again
Allow me to correct the record.
I ask Senator Norris to allow Senator Ó Donnghaile to speak. He is running out of time as a result of interruptions.
I will be very quick. The Irish language is one issue. The rights that are envisaged there are available to everyone in this State and to people in Scotland and Wales as well. Marriage equality is another issue that a majority of MLAs support, just as a majority support Acht na Gaeilge. It dispels this myth of two problem parties being the issue.
We need access to funding for legacy inquests. Some victims in the North have been waiting 40 years. Their grandchildren now have to take on the mantle of campaigning for inquests. An inquest is the most basic of rights when someone loses his or her life. People are trying to cite national security to prevent the release of funding for that. Again, it is not down to two problem parties. I wanted to correct the record in the calmest possible way. If we are serious about getting the institutions back up and running, all of us should follow the lead of Senator Colm Burke and remain measured and calm. It is very politically important to remain factual and truthful in this.
Dogs not being microchipped is a serious issue in urban and rural areas. In 2016, it became compulsory for every dog to be microchipped. Since then, it has been the responsibility of a combination of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and local authorities through the dog wardens to police this. In reality, however, nobody is checking if a dog is microchipped until that dog is taken in by a warden or shot by a farmer after it has attacked his sheep. Only at that stage can it be checked if the dog has the required microchip. It is not being policed or enforced. There is a serious spate of sheep attacks at the moment. Unfortunately, it is the same in every sector and now it affects dog owners also. A large number of dogs that are not microchipped are out there running wild.
I would say that most people here are dog lovers. A tame, quiet dog can change when it becomes part of a pack, which can happen unless they are under lock and key. The perpetrators come in a pack and a quiet, tame dog, owned by a person who has adhered to the law and microchipped it, will get out through a stone wall to run with that pack in the heat of the moment and the excitement that is involved. When the incident happens and the dogs are captured, the poor unfortunate owner of the quiet dog that was brought along is the only one identifiable and the buck then stops at that owner's door.
I am aware of housing estates in two villages near my home where people could not let their children out in their own gardens to play because dogs were rampaging in packs around housing estates. Eventually, the animals were taken in but they had no identification or microchips. It needs to be policed. It is a combination of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and local authority dog wardens. Nobody is checking if dogs are microchipped before they get themselves into bother.
I agree with those who spoke about Permanent TSB. It is a disgraceful way to proceed as far as I am concerned. I do not know how much control the Minister has over what it can do. That is the problem, is it not?
He is a shareholder.
That is, perhaps, the difficulty here. Legally, it is entitled to do as has been outlined unfortunately. It is a disgusting way for the bank to proceed given the context of many of these loans.
I want to make a positive suggestion that could benefit the environment, our pockets and our health. Many European cities have taken serious steps to reduce plastic waste. The amount of plastic used on a daily basis is likely to be one of the biggest problems over the next 100 years. I like to drink sparkling water in order to stop me drinking something less healthy. With all these plastic bottles, I am contributing to it. There are novel ways in which we could try to help the environment. In Ireland, we have a very deep connection with land and our environment. We should try to come up with more innovative ways, one of which might be to have more water fountains in private and public areas around the country so that people could reuse plastic bottles and reduce waste. That would be cheap for people. When one thinks of it, bottled water is ridiculous in a country where we have good water in the taps. We are willing to pay more than in any country I ever visit. We spend more on water than the rest of our EU neighbours. We should have a debate with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on innovative ways to deal with this. Small ways all add up so that we all become more aware of the environment and the huge problem we have with plastics.
An issue close to my heart is football. It is not because Spurs had a great comeback the other night - fair play to Harry Kane. The tragedy about Harry Kane is that his folks are all from Ireland and he really should be playing for us.
Correct. Well said. Hear, hear.
That is a whole other kettle of fish. The League of Ireland is kicking off this weekend.
I cannot wait.
It is a tremendous league that does not get the support or recognition it deserves. All of us should support our local clubs. We have a great club in Limerick, Limerick FC, which returned to the Market's Field a few years ago. We are getting much better crowds now. The standard of football would surprise people. There is an idea out there that the standard is pretty low. I ask people to think about the wonderful players who have come through the League of Ireland, including Roy Keane, Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle and Paul McGrath.
This matter merits a debate at some point. To some degree, the League of Ireland is the poor relation when it comes to funding and recognition. That should not be the case. This weekend, thousands of people throughout the country will support their local teams. It is apt, just before the league starts, to highlight that all of us should get out and support our local teams. When people do that, they are supporting the development of young players. They are supporting the league and supporting football in the truest way possible. I like watching Spurs, of course, but the point is that we should start at home. Our home clubs need support and it is kicking of this weekend.
That is a significant advertisement for the sport.
I join colleagues in expressing my disappointment that the talks in the North have broken down somewhat unexpectedly. I have no doubt that the outline of an agreement had been agreed between the leadership of the DUP and that of Sinn Féin. Unfortunately, however, it appears that Arlene Foster was unable to get it through her party. We now have a weak British Prime Minister who is leading a weak British Government and dealing with a weak leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. That will lead to major difficulties if progress is not made quickly. It will create a vacuum that will be very difficult to fill. Senator Colm Burke spoke about calmness and Senator Ó Donnghaile referred to that also. I respect what Senator Ó Donnghaile has said because he is at the coalface, living in Belfast and being a member of the hierarchy of his particular movement.
There is one way Sinn Féin might concentrate minds in the Democratic Unionist Party, which is obviously stalling matters. I am a nationalist and a 32-county republican. I was born and reared on the Border and I observed the consequences of the conflict for over 30 years. There is one way to concentrate the minds of those in the Democratic Unionist Party. In that context, if I had been elected there, I would temporarily take my seat in the House of Commons. I understand - that is why I asked for calmness - why that would seem an affront to the people who vote for Sinn Féin.
By temporarily taking their seats in the House of Commons - and they could hold their noses if they wanted while taking the Oath of Allegiance - Sinn Féin MPs would put a weak British Prime Minister and her weak Government out of office, thereby eliminating the problem of the influence of Arlene Foster's party. Ms Foster's party is effectively in government and holding the British Government to ransom.
Sinn Féin cannot do that. It does not have the numbers.
By doing that temporarily, they could put an end to Brexit.
That would be a good thing.
I ask Sinn Féin Senators to consider that proposal or to bring it to their party leadership in Belfast.
I take this opportunity to wish Gerry Adams the best of health and happiness in his retirement. If this vacuum is created, I hope, for the sake of many communities in the North of Ireland, that he has not gone away.
Diarmuid, we are best friends today.
I thank the 20 Senators who contributed to the Order of Business. Senators Ardagh, Conway-Walsh, Craughwell, Devine, Feighan, Boyhan, Colm Burke, Ó Donnghaile and Wilson raised the issue of the collapse of the talks at Stormont yesterday. All of us are disappointed at the outcome and about what has failed to materialise, namely, the return of devolved government. It is now a time for reflection, for regrouping and for leaving the door open to those on all sides of the political divide. I will not exacerbate the antagonism shown by some Senators, other than to say that it is imperative there is devolved government in the North and that all sides come together. We were all of the view that there was an impending agreement. That was what was indicated by the smoke signals coming from the talks. It is incumbent on all involved, be it the British Government, the parties in North or the Irish Government, to take a mature, reflective step back and then proceed. What does not help, and I will not do it now, is to apportion blame. It is critical that there be a government in the North at a time, as Senator Wilson rightly said, when there is a very weak British Government. The North and the Republic are at a critical juncture in the context of Brexit. There is an obligation to wear the green jersey. As we said yesterday, the majority of people in the North voted to remain in the EU. I wish everybody well. It is now a matter of people continuing to keep the door open and talking.
I thank the Senators for their co-operation regarding the Data Protection Bill. The Minister does not have the power of bilocation. I am not sure how the scheduling ended as it did and I thank Senators for their co-operation with adjourning the debate on the Bill at 1.30 p.m.. That has not been done since I become Leader and I hope it will never happen again.
Senators Ardagh, Craughwell, Norris, McDowell, Mullen and Noone referred to the sale of Permanent TSB's loan book. That is disappointing. It is also a source of concern and worry. There is a duty on the bank, in terms of whatever happens with the sale of its loan book, to ensure that the rights of its customers and mortgage holders are protected and upheld. Senator Mullen was right to ask the fundamental question as to what is the solution. As Senators will be aware, under the terms of the relationship framework with the banks, loan schemes do not require the Minister's consent. The bank is required to consult the Minister and I believe it is doing so. It is also important to recognise the contractual rights of the borrowers or tenants will remain in place following the sale of the loan book. Many of us would prefer that it would not happen. I would be happy to arrange for the Minister to come to the House to discuss this issue in due course.
Senator Ardagh referred to the remarks made by the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, regarding the Magdalen laundries. I know he appeared before the relevant committee yesterday. There is a different viewpoint between the Department and Mr. Tyndall in this regard. The matter needs to be ironed out. There is a need to achieve justice for the women involved. I am sure all of us will work to ensure that happens.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of Versatis. Senator Ardagh's party, Fianna Fáil, has a motion relating to this matter on the Order Paper and agreed to allow the facilitation of a debate on it next week. We have a combination of Senator Conway-Walsh raising the issue and Senator Ardagh's party having tabled a motion, in respect of which a debate has been arranged, on it. I thank all Senators for their co-operation regarding that debate. I am happy for it to take place next week and, therefore, I will not have an engagement on the issue now.
Senators Hopkins and Feighan referred to the relocation scheme. The Cathaoirleach made the sensible suggestion that it might be more appropriate to table a Commencement matter on the issue. I hope the Senator Hopkins will do so.
Senator McFadden again raised the issue of PDFORRA and the issue of pay and conditions in the context of the role of the Defence Forces. The Senator made a fair point. I would be happy to arrange a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on that matter. Certainly, the issue of security duty and rates of pay is one that needs to be continually addressed, especially in view of the work Defence Forces personnel do at very unsocial, family unfriendly hours and which can be very dangerous at times.
Senators Gallagher, Colm Burke and Reilly referred to the role of GPs. As the a former chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I have great respect for all GPs. They do a tremendous job within our health system. It ill behoves people to come in here with half-baked stories. What the Taoiseach said - and it was a fair point if the Senators want to listen to it properly - was that if two fewer patients per GP practice were referred to hospital and could be dealt with in primary care settings, that would free up nearly 6,500 spaces in accident and emergency departments in acute hospitals. That is not a very unreasonable suggestion.
In saying that, the Leader is implying that GPs are sending to accident and emergency departments people who should not be going there.
No. I did not interrupt the Senator. He must be fair about this.
The Senator is not. He is being mischievously political, which is disappointing.
I am absolutely not. I am only relaying problems that were outlined to me by GPs in my constituency.
Earlier, the Senator did not acknowledge the new primary care centres that have been built, the changes in the GP contract hours and the provision of medical cards to all children under the age of six. In addition, he failed to recognise that talks are under way on a new GP contract. Let us be fair. If the Senator wants to be political, I will have a right political palaver with him about the way his party leader ran out of the Department of Health.
Here we go again.
Will the Leader try to stay in the present if at all possible? That might be more helpful than delving into the past. People are only interested in solutions for today and tomorrow.
The Senator is normally very balanced. He made a point which the Leader is entitled to answer.
As the Cathaoirleach knows quite well, that is what the Taoiseach is trying to do with the new GP contract. As a doctor, he is committed to the health system, unlike Senator Gallagher's party leader who would not let any Senator sit on the committee that worked on the Sláintecare report and, in that way, deprived Members of this House from having that opportunity.
Come down to Mullingar hospital and see the number of people waiting for treatment on trolleys.
Let us have that debate again when we see what happens with the GP contract. I advise Senator Gallagher that it is important to acknowledge the importance of the role of GPs in our health system. Nobody has ever not done that.
On behalf of the House, I join Senator Devine in sympathising with the parents and members of families of loved ones, young children, adults, teachers and members of staff who were shot and killed in the tragedy in Florida last night. It is absolutely unacceptable to those of us who do not live in United States of America to see this carnage continue. This is the 18th gun shooting in America this year. It is in the hands of the American authorities to deal with the issue. I know Americans have the right to bear arms under their constitution but there comes a time where vested interests must not be allowed to continue to dominate the debate on the need for change regarding legislation on guns in the US.
The tragedy and heartbreak in the homes of many people today as they wake up to a new day in Florida is unimaginable to us here. We should ask our Government, as part of the St. Patrick's Day visits across America, to lobby and advocate for gun reform. It is unacceptable that this continues and we should all stand up and say, "Enough is enough".
I missed the second half of the contribution from Senator Norris. I apologise; I did not hear what he said.
It was about Tomi Reichental.
I beg the Senator's pardon. I saw the documentary yesterday. It was very powerful and moving. Senator Norris is correct. It posed lots of questions. As Senator Gallagher said, we should move on from the past, but we have to learn from the past. Anyone who watched the documentary had to be moved by his courage and strength. I thank RTÉ. The power of public service broadcasting brings such documentaries to us. It poses the question of what type of world we live in and whether potential still exists in the minds of many around the world.
It clearly does.
It clearly does. That is why it is important that the issue is kept to the forefront and the Minister would come to the House. I would be happy to have that debate in due course.
That would be great.
I join with Senator Davitt in offering our sympathies to a councillor on the death of his mother. I understand one has to miss 80% of council meetings before pay is deducted. I will be happy to talk to the Senator later. It certainly shows very poor judgment on the part of the officials if a letter was sent so soon after the death of a loved one, given that the person was still in mourning and involved in the care of his mother. It is very insensitive and shows poor judgment.
I appreciate it. I thank the Leader.
I would be happy to discuss the issue with him
Senator Reilly referred to the need for the Minister, Deputy Ross, to come to the House regarding legislation. I will put the question to him as part of a legislative meeting with the Chief Whip's office. I would be happy for the Bill to come to the House as soon as possible.
Senator Paul Daly raised the very important issue of the need for ongoing vigilance and action around people who fail to comply with the law on the microchipping of dogs. He is correct. Now is a critical time, given that the lambing season is beginning and we will, unfortunately, have tragic outcomes for farmers such as sheep being destroyed, lambs being slaughtered and a loss of income. This can be prevented in many cases by action. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House.
Senator Noone raised the issue of the environment and plastic water bottles. The suggestion of a water fountain is worth looking at. I was amused when she said people are willing to pay for water. Some do not want to pay for it at all. We will leave that where it is.
I join Senator Gavan in wishing all the teams well.
I will talk about the League of Ireland. I hope Cork City win another title this year back-to-back. I wish every team well. It is a very competitive league and an expensive operation for clubs. It brings great joy and creates bonds of unity among supporters when they go to Turner's Cross or Markets Field, as Senator Gavan said. It is important that we support League of Ireland football and all the nurseries which allow players to become part of the league. We must also recognise the contribution the League of Ireland has made to our international team and cross-channel football.
I again thank the Members for their co-operation today.
Is the Order of Business agreed to? Agreed.