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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Mar 2018

Vol. 257 No. 2

Order of Business (Resumed)

I attended a briefing this morning organised by Senators Humphreys and McFadden concerning the Parkinson's Association of Ireland. I learned that over 12,000 people in Ireland have Parkinson's disease. While I know there are many regions with their own association, the Parkinson's Association of Ireland runs a helpline where a specialist nurse phones people with medical queries back because not every region is covered by its own association. There are only five specialised nurses in the whole of Ireland and one of those posts is vacant so there are only four regions with a specialist nurse.

Parkinson's disease is a very debilitating illness in that people have a shake. It can affect their walk. The talk this morning was very worthwhile. I certainly learned a lot from it. While I know some people who live with Parkinson's disease, I did not realise some of the conditions that were associated with it. The association receives no direct funding from the Department of Health. Many times, those with the disease must travel abroad for treatment because of the shortage of neurologists here. I am looking for the issue to be raised with the Minister for Health in terms of the Department directly funding the Parkinson's Association of Ireland to extend the helpline and create more specialised nurse positions.

I know that on the Order of Business today, we will be dealing with Committee Stage of the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018. In respect of the principal story in today's edition of The Irish Times about time limits and events of that kind, which seem to have been the subject of some discussion regarding Government intentions in that newspaper, will the Leader be in a position before the debate today to give some indication of what is in the Government's mind on that front?

I raise the issue of the serious crisis regarding the provision of acute treatment in mental health services for children and adolescents. I am talking about young people with suicidal ideation, those who are self-harming and those with eating disorders and other mental health issues. They are unable to access appropriate treatment facilities, particularly when they face a crisis.

What really brings it home to me is the fact that I am dealing with a family in the throes of trying to help their daughter who has an eating disorder and is in a life-threatening condition.

Her condition has deteriorated to the extent that it is now critical and life-threatening. The young girl's family have been unable to secure services appropriate for a teenager. After considerable efforts were made, she was eventually admitted to a paediatric department of a local hospital in the west where she shares a ward with other children. The child needs someone at her bedside at all times to ensure she is safe and receiving care. She is still not receiving appropriate counselling or treatment and her condition is not being addressed or progressed. The child is 15 years old and a 12 year old child with the same condition is in the bed opposite her.

The only specialist beds for teenagers are in Galway. Many similar cases have been highlighted recently in the press. There is a serious problem with our acute services and a crisis in CAMHS. Information provided by the Health Service Executive shows that the child and mental health services, CAMHS, teams are operating at 53% of their staff capacity in the west, although the problem is national. We must get to grips with this problem. Unfortunately, the incidence of children and adolescents experiencing mental health problems appears to be exploding and we must do something about it. Families are at their wits' end because they do not know how to address the problem and fear for the lives of their children. We need a full debate on this issue. The Minister for Health and Minister of State with responsibility for mental health services must set out a pathway for dealing with children and teenagers at a critical time in their lives. Time is of the essence. I ask the Leader to treat this issue as a priority and have the Minister come to the House at the next available opportunity in order that we can get to grips with it.

I raise the issue of Catalonia to highlight that a representative of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana or ANC, a non-party political organisation, will visit the Oireachtas at noon tomorrow to meet representatives of all parties and provide an update on the current situation in Catalonia. I encourage Senators to attend the meeting. What we have witnessed since the successful outcome of the referendum on Catalonian independence has been the unmasking of an authoritarian Spanish state. From rejecting the democratic will of the Catalan people to the use of brutal violence to suppress their civil rights to locking up its political leaders, the Spanish state is now abusing its judicial institutions to prosecute innocent political leaders whom it perceives as a threat to its law and order. The judicial system is not a place for political conflicts to be resolved. Political differences are resolved through dialogue and the ballot box, which is precisely what the Catalan people did when they democratically voted for independence.

The continued repression of Catalan democracy is reprehensible and counterproductive. The arrest of Charles Puigdemont and the violent response of the Spanish police to the protests that followed have highlighted that the Spanish Government is firmly wedded to a policy of aggression. The dispute between the people of Catalonia and the Spanish state over independence will not be resolved by incarceration and violence. The mask has slipped when it comes to the Spanish state, and its institutionalised authoritarianism and anti-democratic nature have been exposed. This has also exposed the European Union's lack of empathy and a lack of desire for true human rights in the Union. The EU has a duty to move with urgency. It must show leadership in convincing the Spanish Government that dialogue and mediation are the only way to resolve this crisis. Sinn Féin believes Ireland may well have a positive role to play in this regard. For this reason, I call for a debate on the issue and ask that the Minister come to the House as a matter of urgency when we return after the break.

I echo the concern expressed by Senator Gavan regarding Catalonia. It is sad that Europe has political prisoners and political arrests of this nature are taking place.

We need to push for better peace-building, dialogue and mediation in Europe because we do not want to return to a Europe of hard borders and the divisions of the past.

I note the Leader's comment that the debate on the Data Protection Bill is to conclude after four hours. I will be disappointed if the Bill is guillotined, although I do not expect the debate to last for four hours. I acknowledge that the Minister for Justice and Equality has taken a constructive approach and adopted some of the measures for which Senators have pressed. He has been receiving proper and appropriate praise for taking on board the argument made by Senators, including by Senator Ó Donnghaile and me, on the importance of imposing fines on public bodies that are found to be in breach of data protection rules. In acknowledging the Minister's constructive engagement, I also express disappointment that what could be regarded as a guillotine may be used on such an important Bill.

Data protection is becoming a major story because it cuts across many areas of life. The penny seems to be dropping that the public services card is not being rolled out properly. I note the Road Safety Authority no longer requires applicants to produce a public services card when renewing driver licences. The driver theory test may also need to be examined in that regard. The Cambridge Analytica story which broke in recent weeks has shone a spotlight on data protection, specifically the arrangements in place in Ireland because we are a gateway to Europe in terms of the regulation in place in this area. I ask the Leader to review the proposal regarding the conclusion of the debate on the Data Protection Bill.

I will link that issue with last night's debate. As we face into the referendum on the eighth amendment, it is important that we all endeavour to learn from what we have been hearing regarding Cambridge Analytica, the inappropriate use of data and fake news. We must ensure we are never used to amplify fake news and misinformation and we must hold ourselves to the highest data protection standards.

Some time ago, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of a Bill on marriage equality, which enjoys widespread support in Northern Ireland. I welcome the decision of the House of Lords last night to pass the first parliamentary stage of a same-sex marriage Bill for Northern Ireland. The legislation addresses the vacuum created by the failure of the assembly at Stormont to meet. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, couples are denied the right to marry in Northern Ireland. I also welcome the introduction in the House of Commons today of a Bill providing for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. It is being introduced by Conor McGinn, MP for St. Helens North, who happens to come from south Armagh. The House must welcome these necessary procedures which will effectively provide for the legalisation of same-sex marriage for the island of Ireland in the absence of the assembly sitting at Stormont.

I congratulate my colleagues on the Seanad committee on Brexit on their successful trip to London where they met various groups and saw the difficulties at first hand. They also issued an invitation to Suella Fernandes, MP, a Minister in the UK Department for Exiting the European Union, and David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, to visit the Border region. I do not believe Ms Fernandes has visited the Border and Mr. Davis's first visit to the area was in 2016. Michael Barnier, Manfred Weber and Guy Verhofstadt have all visited the Border. It is vital that British politicians dealing with the Brexit issue also visit the Border.

Jean-Claude Juncker will also visit the Border when he comes to Ireland. He should address the Seanad given that previous visits to the House by persons of his stature gave us an important insight into European thinking and allowed them to inform themselves of our views about a hard border on the island of Ireland. I appeal to the Leader to ensure Mr. Juncker is invited to address the Seanad on important issues such as Brexit and Ireland's involvement in the European Union.

A Chathaorligh, may I clarify a point I made last night? In the course of my contribution last night, I referred to my daughter's early arrival. She was born at 26 weeks. When I checked what I had said, I did not realise I had said she was born at 20 weeks, instead of at 26 weeks.

I take this opportunity to wish everybody a happy Easter. Many teachers are on holidays, but they are paid during the holiday period. However, the providers of, and those working in, the early years sector do not get paid during the holiday period. The early years sector is suffering because the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is marking them as different, even though they play a significant role in our children's education. The early years sector is faced with increasing difficulties. We are talking a great deal about fairness and equality but we need to look at this sector and do something about fairness in it. The Government introduced the Children First Act 2015 and provided an overview of child welfare and protection in Children First - National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children 2017. Every early childhood education and care service in Ireland must provide child protection training for staff and develop a child safeguarding statement for the premises. While primary school teachers can avail of time off to undertake this training, the training must be completed by early years staff in their own time. A great deal was made some years ago about the ECCE scheme, allowing parents free access to child care. The capitation rate is €64.50 per child for 38 weeks but that level of funding does not come close to covering the cost of delivering the scheme. While the sector experienced an upsurge in the number of parents being able to send their children to this all-important stage of education, the providers suffer because they must constantly make up the shortfall even to the extent of taking no pay. This is the truth. At times the providers are not paid for their services. They must process all the paperwork and do everything for the Department in their own time and at their own expense. More needs to be done to invest in this service. The provider gives a high quality child care service. It is not enough to provide funding to parents. Funding needs to be applied to keep the services open or the initial funding will not work. Early years service staff are now recognised as qualified professionals but they are not paid nearly enough. County Carlow has one of the highest percentage of qualified early years staff, yet many of them cannot afford to live on the wages they are being offered. That worries me. This sector is so poorly paid that often graduates from early education working in the sector have to find employment somewhere else.

I will be requesting that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs comes to the House. I know the issue has been addressed in the Seanad before but this unfair system needs to be addressed. More investment in the early years sector is required.

I wish to raise the issue of funding for research. In an article in The Irish Times during the week Professor Orla Hardiman spoke about her research on motor neurone disease. It is not a good diagnosis to be told that one has motor neurone disease and the prognosis is always bad. They call it a 1,000 day illness, so most people will live for up to 1,000 days but one never knows when one gets the diagnosis at what point of the 1,000 days one is at. Some people such as Stephen Hawking live a great deal longer. Professor Hardiman is very optimistic that in her working life a drug will be found that will help people who are suffering with motor neurone disease. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House so that we can have a debate on funding for Professor Orla Hardiman's research and also for the Irish Motor Neuron Disease Association, which provides a service around the country for patients and their families. There are only three motor neurone disease specialist nurses in this country. They are all funded by the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, and not by the State. I would like a debate on motor neurone disease in this Chamber.

I am grateful to the Members of the Oireachtas who have supported coffee mornings and the fashion show that was run by the former Member, Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, to raise funds for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and for research. The charity should not have to do that and it should be provided for by the State. I really would welcome a debate and it would be a fitting tribute to people who have died from the disease or those who get a diagnosis in the coming years. We must remember that several Members, not just one who was dear to my heart, have died from motor neurone disease.

With that in mind, I co-hosted a briefing in the AV room with Senator Kevin Humphreys with the Parkinson's Association of Ireland, which is amazing. Similar to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, it is looking for funding for research, running the association and things that can be done around the country to prevent the HSE having to get involved to the extent that it does. There are 12,000 people in the country with Parkinson's disease. That number is expected to double in the coming years. We need to put money in place to look after these people. If possible, I would like the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss the research on these diseases.

I, too, was at that meeting, which Senator McFadden co-chaired and which was organised by Senator Kevin Humphreys, on Parkinson's disease. The reason I am interested in Parkinson's disease is because of a great friend in County Waterford who was a good looking man of 6 ft 2 in and a terrific athlete but who 12 years ago, when he was in his early 40s, got Parkinson's disease. He died just about six weeks ago. In the end he had a catastrophic decline. Like many people with Parkinson's disease, he became quite isolated and he rejected social interconnection. I had to go down to Waterford and chivvy him along and take him to a fish restaurant and make him laugh.

One of the things that impressed me at the presentation this morning was a man called Garry who had early onset Parkinson's and what was so striking about him, and I think Senator McFadden will agree with me on this, was that he spoke about the excellence of the service delivered by the HSE. I have had experience as a cancer patient of the HSE. I cannot speak highly enough of it. So often we hear nothing but unending criticisms of the health service in this country. Like Garry I, too, found the service was excellent. The difficulty is getting into the system. Once one is in the system, it is outstanding. It must be terribly disheartening for people in the health service to hear unending negative comment, carping, criticism and so on. Much of the time the public is responsible themselves. There is a note in St. Vincent's hospital, detailing the thousands of appointments that were missed. People did not bother turning up. How can a service operate efficiently if people do not turn up for their appointments?

I thank the health service personnel. They are absolutely excellent and professional in the delivery of the services, once one gets into the system. It is important that we give praise where it is due.

I wish to raise the shortage of home economic teachers in Ireland. Many schools have difficulties when they come to recruit home economics teachers. I have heard of situations where retired teachers have to come back into the system because we do not have the throughput of students studying home economics. St. Angela's College in Sligo is the main college for home economics. It has 80 places for students this year. It had 100 places last year but it dropped the number by 20 places. To drop places when we have such a dearth of home economics teacher coming through the system makes no sense. It changed the profile of the students and the courses they can take. Traditionally one could do the course by taking biology, Irish, religion and economics. Now economics has been dropped. That is a problem because the removal of those 20 places will impact on the system. After the junior certificate examination, young students must put a career path in place. The college has changed the curriculum in the past four weeks.

People who have been looking towards the course for two years received notification that it has been cancelled and that is a problem. People need to have a career path put in place and they need to have it planned out. It is unacceptable that a college would change and drop a course like it has done. We need to have a debate about the lack of these teachers and what needs to happen. The course needs more students to go through it because we have a shortage. I hope the Leader will raise the issue with the Department of Education and Skills and maybe the Minister will come to the Chamber to discuss what the long-term plans are for home economics teachers. Unless we get home economics teachers through the system, the shortage will continue to exist. The current system of having retired teachers coming in makes no logical sense at all. There is a gap that needs to be filled. The only way to fill it is to do one of two things: increase the numbers in St. Angela's College or have another college put on the same course. Will the Leader of the House raise this very important issue and report back to us on it?

I will raise a number of issues affecting the congenital heart unit in the Mater Hospital. I have taken on board Senator Norris's comments, which I agree with 100%. Some great work has been done by the HSE. We often criticise the HSE but we do not often compliment it on the good work it does. I fully support the comments made by Senator Norris. Consultants have raised issues with the congenital heart unit at the Mater Hospital. The number of patients with heart defects going through that unit has increased significantly. Consultants say they are finding it difficult to cope with the volume of people coming through. Every year approximately 400 people transition into adult care once they reach the age of 16. That has increased the number and the unit has 2,500 people on its books. The complexities of dealing with people with heart defects means it is a slow and tedious exercise. The unit only has two part-time consultants. It has no secretary and there are two or three nurses. They have claimed that these issues limit their capacity and ability to do their jobs properly because they cannot access outpatient clinics. They have limited access to scanning machines which are all vital to detect heart defects, which I said earlier is very complex. There are currently 2,500 people on their books. They are saying they cannot cope. The result of that is people's lives are being put at risk. I ask the Leader to bring the issue to the attention of the Minister so that he may get involved and put measures in place to address this very important issue.

The Leader to respond.

The Cathaoirleach caught me on the hop. I thank the 15 Members of the House for their contributions on the Order of Business.

We have had 15 hours of debate on the Data Protection Bill. The reason we put the four-hour limit on it today was to give structure to the business of the House to facilitate Members because of other legislation coming through. If we include the four hours from today, it will add up to 19 hours of debate on data protection. I am quite happy to let it roll over. I am not putting any guillotine on it. I am trying to help Members who have come to me and asked if we can finish early tonight. I am quite happy to stay here all night.

We will be with the Leader.

I am quite happy to let it roll over, if that is what people want. There is a duty on us to have the Bill concluded before the Easter recess because it must be enacted by early May. I am happy to allow for its continuation after the Private Members' business if the House so wishes. I will be guided by the House on it.

If the need arises.

If the need arises.

The Leader has an open mind.

I am happy to amend the Order of Business.

At the moment, the order that has been proposed stands.

If needs be, I am quite happy to come back and amend the Order of Business. I am quite happy to do that if it is okay with the House.

I agree with Senator Ardagh and share the frustration of customers of AIB with the way they have been treated so badly. It is important that AIB is held to account for all of this. It has been accused of concocting a notional tracker rate of 7.9% which affects 4,000 people. The bank has agreed it was wrong to deny people the option to switch. The Central Bank has extended and included that cohort of people in its ongoing tracker mortgage examination. There should be a code of conduct for banks. They are and should be about the customer, not just about profit for the bank. I agree with Senator Ardagh that it is important to treat customers fairly and that they are given the right information. The Central Bank has said customers can engage with the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman and that the compensation paid can be banked and will not be lost. It is unfair of the bank to treat customers wrongly. It should be very fair in that. I agree with Senator Ardagh on that.

On the issue of education which was raised by Senator Ardagh and Senator Lombard, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, announced a number of recruitment package measures earlier this spring to address issues in science, home economics and the Irish language. Senator Lombard raised the issue of home economics. The number of places in St. Angela's College in Sligo has been increased. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has convened a specialist group dealing with teacher supply which had its first meeting this week on the matter. We have forthcoming conferences of the teachers' unions over Easter. It is important we look at the issue of pay inequality. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, as the Minister with responsibility for education, has prioritised investment in education where we have seen investment of up to €1 billion in the past two years. There is an issue of pay inequality. Those of us who have been in the education world and who have been in the classroom recognise the importance of pay equality. We have seen an increase of more than 5,000 additional posts in the past two years. I hope we can see further progression on the road to equality of pay for teachers. I thank all of our teachers for the work they do and wish them well in their conferences next week. It is important we resume that debate after the teachers' conferences because we will hear from a number of the unions about the issues affecting teachers. It is important in tandem with pay that we continue to augment the work of teachers with the increase in special needs assistants, that we continue to create and build new schools and invest in facilities in our education sphere, whether third or second level.

Senator Craughwell raised the issue of addiction services in Cork and the need for a detox centre there. I agree with the Senator's comments. Huge work is being done in Cork by organisations like Fellowship House, Tabor Lodge and Arbour House and there is a need for a continuation of investment in addiction services under the national drugs and alcohol strategy through the HSE and other organisations. There is a huge need for detox beds and step-down facilities to be made available. I commend all those who work in the services because it is important that if any deficits exist in the programmes, whether in Cork or any part of the country, that we reach out and work through organisations like Arbour House and Tabor Lodge. I am quite happy to have that debate. Perhaps it would be best to raise it as a Commencement matter. The Senator also raised the issue of education which I have addressed.

I join with Senator Conway-Walsh in welcoming the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill and hope it is enacted quickly. The Senator raised the issue of Clare's Law and it is one we should give consideration to. It is important that we not only protect women, but also men who are in relationships and dating relationships, and provide information and protection to all people.

Senator Nash raised the issue of the AGSI conference and its decision to form a union. As the House is aware, these issues arose in the past with regard to the Workplace Relations Commission. The Garda associations were given direct access to pay determination mechanisms which allowed them to participate in and engage on an equal basis with other public sector representative bodies.

Senator Nash said it is not necessarily about being able to have trade union status. At the time the Minister created a working group under the chairmanship of Mr. John Murphy which presented its first report on the issue. It stated that Garda associations should not transition to become trade unions and noted that trade union status was not necessary for them to access the WRC and the Labour Court or to represent their members.

Another working group was established which is now in its second phase. I do not think it is a question of procrastination or delaying the process. Rather, it is about trying to find a mechanism whereby we can allow members of An Garda Síochána to have access to mechanisms of the State. The Minister wants to work with the Garda on building a stable industrial relations framework so that we can work together. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House regarding that issue.

Senators Byrne, Norris and McFadden congratulated Senators Humphreys and McFadden on their very important briefing today. I apologise for not attending. Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease are very much to the fore today in our communities, in part because of the tremendous advocacy work done by the Parkinson's Association and the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. I agree with Senator Byrne that there is a need to look at the issue of specialist nurse positions and neurology. Senator McFadden is correct. The State has a duty to provide services and should not expect the voluntary sector alone to provide them.

I am not privy to the heads of the Bill to which Senator McDowell referred. The Minister referred to it in his speech yesterday and outlined his thematic approach to the publication of his policy paper in March. He brought the heads of the Bill to Cabinet yesterday. As the Senator knows, the Bill is a separate issue. I am sure if the Minister is asked about it on Committee Stage today, he will be happy to enlighten the House. It is important that in tandem with the referendum Bill, there is a debate on what the Minister and the Government are proposing.

Senator Mulherin raised the issue of eating disorders. It is very important issue which we need to address. A lot of investment has taken place across the country in various units and organisations. There is a difference of approach in terms of how eating disorders are treated. Community settings are recommended. The Government and the HSE have invested in services for obesity and eating disorders. I would be happy to have a debate following the Easter recess.

Senator Gavan raised the issue of Catalonia. I wish him well with the briefing tomorrow. I will not make any comment on the affairs of another country. It is important that we have an informed debate on what is happening in Catalonia. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House to discuss the matter.

Senator Higgins missed my contribution on data protection. There will not be a guillotine per se. We have already had 15 hours of debate and there will be another four hours today, which brings the total to 19 hours. The Senator said the debate might not finish today. I am happy to resume it and I will not curtail it. There were four hours allocated to the debate in order to give structure to Members.

Like Senator Feighan, I welcomed the passage by the House of Lords yesterday of the Northern Ireland marriage equality legislation. I join with him in welcoming the invitation issued by the Brexit committee to Secretary of State, David Davis, yesterday. I hope he takes it up. All members of the House of Commons and House of Lords should visit the Border to see what it means in real terms. It is not an imaginary border; it will have a significant impact. We must ensure there is no hard border. There is a duty on the United Kingdom to bring forward a solution because it is it which voted to leave. In saying that, the best way forward is to extend an invitation to the UK Brexit committee to address the Seanad and meet us in order to continue to explore ways in which we can overcome the issue.

Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of early years education. As she knows, the Government has invested highly in that sector over the past five years, and that continues. A universal subsidy for children has been introduced, but the issue she raised in terms of pay and conditions for those who work in the sector is a contentious issue and one we must all work to try to address. A balance needs to be struck between parents, providers and workers, a balance which I would support. We are lucky that the quality of our early years education is so high. I agree with the Senator that the issue needs to be addressed.

Senator Gallagher referred to the Mater Private Hospital. I am not aware of the issue, but I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House. It is a complex issue. If the Senator has information, perhaps he could table a Commencement matter. That might be a quicker way of getting an answer. The issue needs to be addressed.

If the debate on data protection has not concluded by the end of the allocated time I am happy to allow it to roll over if the need arises.

Order of Business agreed to.