The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the report of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach entitled "A report of the review of the credit union sector with specific reference to the Credit Union Advisory Committee review of implementation of the recommendations in the Commission on Credit Unions report (June 2016)", to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to conclude no later than 6 p.m. with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 2, Private Members' business, Local Government Accountability Bill 2018 - Second Stage, to be taken at 6 p.m. with time allocated to the debate not to exceed two hours.
Order of Business
I will raise two issues. This morning I was absolutely shocked and horrified after learning that more than 500 people in Dublin have been warned by gardaí that their lives are in danger. Unfortunately, many of these people are involved in the drugs trade and many of the threats are gang related. There seems to be no end in sight or plan put in place by the Government to counter the scourge of drug-related crime in our city. The people living in the inner city and the communities of the inner city should not have to live in fear on a daily basis. We learn that of the 500, 11 are in imminent danger and Garda resources are now deployed on a preservation-of-life beat. What is most worrying is that the assistant commissioner, Pat Leahy, intimated that the Hutch and Kinahan feud was unlikely to end any time soon. I call on the Minister to come to the House to address the matter and outline how the Government plans to support inner-city communities who are affected by this scourge.
The second issue I will raise is housing and homelessness statistics. It is a subject I have raised on many occasions in the House and I reiterate calls for the Minister of Housing, Planning and Local Government to come to the House and confirm whether he instructed local authorities to amend or reclassify homeless figures in any way. Why was there a deliberate attempt by the Minister to reduce the figures of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government by misrepresenting people's situations? We all know from our clinics there has not been a massive increase or recovery in the social housing lists across the country. Does the Minister find the monthly publishing of these lists and accountability tiring and troublesome? We need to know exactly what is going on here.
In the meantime, we know rents are increasing, house prices are spiralling and the State is contemplating the acquisition of private lands when there are huge tranches of public lands lying idle where houses could be built. Another facet is new-build houses. If any Member has been on daft.ie or myhome.ie, they will see that a lot of the new-build estates are shown as price on application, POA. It is really worrying because it seems that developers are making up prices on a weekly basis. Prices start off at €500,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and we are now seeing two-bedroom apartments in parts of Dublin going for up to €800,000. There needs to be some measures in place so developers do not just throw out prices. There needs to be some transparency for consumers because it is not fair. We need to see fairness in the market. As we do not have supply, people are able to make hay but ultimately people need to be able to afford houses at a fair and transparent price.
Senator Boyhan requested to speak first.
He confused me.
I take the opportunity to wish the Seanad reform implementation group well in its work and deliberations. I understand its members met briefly today and elected a chairman, my colleague, Senator Michael McDowell. I wish all of them well. It is a difficult job. I presume it is based on the Manning report. I cannot pre-empt it because I do not know what its full terms of reference are. The sooner we know them the better. I wish Senator McDowell well. He has vast experience in government. I wish the entire committee, which is representative of all groups in both Houses of the Oireachtas, well.
I wish the Senator well.
I too wish Senator McDowell well.
Yesterday I raised an issue in the Seanad of a report that was covered in The Irish Times about Donegal. It is an unpublished report called the Mulcahy report and is a report into very serious allegations of corruption in planning in Donegal. The report is on the Minister's desk. I undertook yesterday to seek further details about it. I am now satisfied it has been on the Minister's desk since June 2017. It has very serious implications. It is in the public domain. It suggests with regard to colleagues who submitted applications that there was interference. There were suggestions of forgery of signatures to do with planning. There was a suggestion that major planning documents were destroyed and that recommendations of planners were destroyed and done away with. This came out through a whistleblower who formally made these complaints.
Two investigations were established into these matters. A final report called the Mulcahy report was delivered to the Minister. It is very important that we have the Minister in at some point in the very near future to discuss this report or put it into the public domain. It is unfair for Donegal County Council, its staff and members to have this report hanging over their heads. I ask that as soon as we can some sort of statement can be issued. The Minister might give us some indication of his intentions and how he intends to deal with this report but, more importantly, what recommendations will come out of it.
Again today I have to raise the issue of the cervical screening scandal and the failure of the Government to respond to the calls for the head of the HSE to be removed. It symbolises its ineptitude to deal with the horrific situation that presents for women. The words "contempt" and "unfeeling" come to mind when I see the response of the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar. It is certainly not the response that I or other women I speak with would expect from a State leader.
Women have died and others are fighting for their lives while the Government fails to act decisively to hold those in a position of responsibility and authority to account. The women and families affected by this scandal are speaking but the Government is just not listening. I have spent the past two days in the finance committee questioning the State Claims Agency, and today in the health committee with the Ministers and the HSE. I have come to the conclusion that the web of unaccountability and the lack of transparency and clear communication pathways are beginning to look like an aerial shot of spaghetti junction on a very foggy day. This is just not good enough.
I also ask for the Minister for Finance to come into the House to discuss the approach of the State Claims Agency regarding medical negligence. There are further questions to be asked in this area but the Minister also needs to take on board the suggestion from my party colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, that the HSE and the State Claims Agency address the situation with the two private American companies rather than have individual women and their families go through legal battles with profit-maximising companies. The person who presided over the confusion, and played a key part in the decision to contract out these key services to these private American companies, must go and must go now. He has presided over negligence, concealment and misinformation with the most serious consequences for women and their families. If we do not do this we are left with the question, "What would it take to hold the head of the HSE to account?"
I refer to Seanad reform and I understand there will be a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, on 15 June, at which Standing Order 41 will be discussed. I wish to ask that the representatives of all groups attend that meeting and vote to remove Standing Order 41. This is one clear example of Seanad reform that this House can take itself so I ask everybody to attend the meeting and vote to remove Standing Order 41. If we are serious about Seanad reform we can do this.
I extend my congratulations to Senator McDowell on being made chairman. It was a rocky road to get there and I understand it was opposed by former colleagues but I am sure he will do a good job as he is a very effective lawyer. I hope, however, that he has learned from the idiotic Bill he introduced, which I do not believe he even read. It contained nonsensical things such as a requirement to pay €1,000 to stand for Seanad Éireann. What a laughable piece of tripe. The way it dealt with universities was also nonsense. Senator McDowell is a very good advocate and can take a brief on the hoof so I hope he has learned from his experiences in the House and from the forensic analysis I did of his lamentable Bill.
I also understand that former Senator and now Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, has put himself on this committee.
Is Deputy Ross on the committee?
As I understand it, yes. Senator McDowell is nodding in sadness I take it. It is extraordinary business for a Cabinet Minister to put himself on this committee. I have withheld public comment on Deputy Ross but his attitude to the Seanad has, in the past, been marked by a mischievous note and I hope that will be absent from the deliberations of this committee. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport - and whatever you are having yourself - his hands will be pretty much full if he was doing his ministerial job. I am perfectly entitled to say that. If he is doing his job as Minister for practically everything-----
The Senator should withdraw that comment.
I will not withdraw it
It ill-behoves the Senator to say that.
It behoves me and it is very much in character. I hope that, despite its curious pedigree, this committee will do some good. I hear a kind of frog-like note from the back benches.
It is not a terrible statement. Looking at Senator Coghlan's face-----
I ask the Senator to conclude.
As the Cathaoirleach has asked me, I will abide by his request.
For the first time ever.
If I recall correctly, the Senator stood shoulder to shoulder for many years with the Minister in question.
I did, but then the veil was lifted from my eyes.
An information session was held today in the Great National South Court Hotel for farmers regarding the basic payment scheme. The closing date is 15 May and it is the first time farmers have had to apply online. I encourage all farmers to ensure they meet the deadline for their applications.
Recently, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, and his Department announced the town and village renewal scheme and I had the honour of bringing him to visit Murroe in County Limerick, where he saw at first hand the work of the community council there and what they have done under the scheme. He was very impressed. The new application date for the town and village renewal scheme is 25 May and I encourage all villages and towns that wish to make an application for this very worthwhile funding to get their applications in before that date.
I ask for a debate on the steps we are taking regarding mental health. May is mental health awareness month and mental health affects all of us. There are lots of events across the country to encourage us all to talk more openly about our mental health struggles and experiences. Pieta House's Darkness into Light 2018 initiative, created by our colleague, Senator Joan Freeman, will take place on Saturday, 12 May at 4.15 a.m. across Ireland. Last year, 180,000 people walked to promote suicide prevention and to tackle the stigma that leads people to the doors of Pieta House centres. This year marks the ninth year of the event, which is growing every year. I will join my family and friends to talk and walk from the dark of night into the morning light to raise awareness.
Tomorrow, 10 May, in my own county we will celebrate Hello Carlow Day, when the Carlow Mental Health Association and local business and community groups are encouraging everyone to ask "How are you?" Little things such as these can really effect change. Someone asked me recently what mental health was to me. To me, mental health is in my head. If I feel I have a conversation with the voice in my head I know I can get through the day. The days when I cannot talk to that voice and discuss my worries, air my fears and review my emotions, are the days I feel really alone and I worry about my mental health. That is why I place so much importance on talking. Maybe it will not be enough but maybe it will be. Maybe just one conversation will save someone so it is never a bad idea to talk about what is inside one's head and I encourage everybody to support our local events to raise awareness of mental health struggles across society. I encourage all of us to check in on one another to ask how we are, because that conversation could be the one that changes the course of our day.
The Vicky Phelan case has brought into the public domain the deep pockets of the public purse when it comes to fighting legal battles. My colleague, Senator Conway-Walsh, outlined exactly the approach this State takes to its citizens when they find themselves in conflict or needing to make a claim.
Two years ago, I brought the case of Lieutenant Colonel John Hamill to the Seanad and we had two Commencement debates on his issue. The Ombudsman for the Defence Forces found that he had been wronged but, despite the ruling of the ombudsman, the Department of Defence has sat on its hands and refused to deal with the man by giving him the solution he deserves. It is outrageous that the Department of Defence uses public money in this way. The only way this man will now get redress is through the courts and by exposing himself to a massive court battle to get what the ombudsman said he was entitled to.
The time has come for us to sit down with whomever is responsible for the public purse and discuss how these cases are taken on. The Leader and I and most Members of the House will have seen State and semi-State agencies using the public purse to fight unwinnable court cases. Why? It is because it is not their money they are fighting with. Lieutenant Colonel Hamill served with distinction for this State. An ombudsman found in his favour that he had been wronged and that he was forced out of the Army at the age of 58 when he should have been promoted to colonel. What has he to do to vindicate his right? He has to go to the High Court and expose himself to risk. That is wrong in every sense of the word and makes me ask how many more citizens are having to sit on their hands and suck up some injustice that was done to them, purely because they do not have the deep pockets the State has. It is time we kicked this debate out in the open. I agree with Senator Conway-Walsh. The State Claims Agency seems to do whatever the hell it wants and that feeds into every other Department. I would appreciate if the Leader could organise a debate on that issue.
I would like to raise the very serious issues arising from an external, independent clinical review of the maternity services at Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe. I attended a briefing last Thursday evening, when the report was published. This has been and continues to be a very difficult time for the 16 families involved.
Many of the challenges highlighted in the report indicate that inadequate levels of staffing impacted on training, staff support available and the escalation of more complex cases. There are almost 150 recommendations in this report. I was informed last Thursday evening that 90% of them are either implemented or in progress. Significant improvements have been made to ensure that we have high-quality maternity services at Portiuncula. One of the most important points made at that meeting was that they are trying to create better working relationships and a better clinical maternity network, particularly with Galway University Hospital. This is very important in terms of escalating more complex cases.
In respect of the difficulties that have arisen in cervical screening, open disclosure is and should be a basic requirement. This report found that disclosure was unsatisfactory in 17 out of the 18 cases. As we discussed last week, withholding information from these families, like other women and individuals whom we may not even know about yet, is completely disgraceful and unacceptable. This must have been very distressing for the families involved. I have spoken with many families across our region who emphasised that there is excellent care provided at Portiuncula maternity unit and that significant progress has been made through the implementation group that has been established. Some 17 additional posts have been put in place across obstetrics, anaesthetics and paediatrics.
It is important that the Minister, Deputy Harris, comes to the Seanad to discuss maternity services in the context of this review and more generally, in order to ensure that we provide the highest possible standards for mothers and babies.
I wish everybody a happy Europe Day, which falls on 9 May every year. Some 92% of the Irish population is still expressing support for the EU and EU membership. It is important that we acknowledge it. It has come a long way since the foundation in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community. I am sure some of my colleagues who are members of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs will be mentioning Europe Day.
If we are going to have a Seanad reform committee, I am delighted that Senator McDowell is to chair it. I am not so sure I am delighted with some of the other members of whom I was informed this afternoon. They have obviously done everything in their own constituency, which is where I live, and have so much time on their hands that they can reflect on Seanad reform. I hope that the committee does not just consider how one gets into this Chamber but also examines what the Seanad could be doing that it is not doing and what it could be doing better. It is not the Cathaoirleach's or the chairman's fault, but all I have heard so far is about how Senators get in here. I have heard nothing about what they do when they are here, or what they could be doing and so on.
I heard a speech by the Taoiseach last night in which he mentioned climate change in the course of a much broader debate. He fairly brushed over the fact that we will not meet our 2020 targets or even our 2030 targets but that we should make our 2050 targets. It is probably easy to say that we will meet targets 32 years from now. From 2020, I understand we will be facing fines of between €300 million and €600 million a year. Surely it would be better if we could achieve the targets. We should do whatever we need to do in terms of electric vehicles, building insulation of public buildings and private housing and so on. We should try to mitigate against whatever fines we are going to have to pay. I call on the Leader to bring in the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to have a debate on climate change and where we are going. It is not about agriculture or vehicles only. Let us try to make sure that we mitigate against the worst effects of having to pay these fines and, equally, that we improve the quality of the planet for generations to come.
I thank those Members who have congratulated me on my election as chairman of the implementation group for Seanad reform. I assure all Members of the House that this group, which has yet to convene and have a full meeting, will be open to all suggestions from everywhere in this House and will not have a closed mind. I think I can guarantee that.
In response to what Senator Horkan has just said, the Manning report does refer to the role of the Seanad and has ambitious aims to involve the Seanad in European matters, not just looking at secondary legislation but giving some teeth in Irish parliamentary procedure to the Lisbon treaty proposals and other things. I think it was an English Prime Minister who said, "Reform, reform - aren't things bad enough already?" Whatever worthwhile reform emerges from this process will take time to implement. A deep and well-organised reform should not cause too much fluttering in the dovecotes here as regards the next election to Seanad Éireann.
I have been reading in the newspapers over the last few days about Dublin City Council's proposals to consider knocking down a lot of its apartment buildings because they are old or whatever. The funny thing is that the older they are, the better they are. The communities in them are more settled. Dublin City Council should not be so devoid of ideas that it would now start to cannibalise its own existing apartment buildings, such as Mercer House off St. Stephen's Green, which are fine buildings. If there is something needed to modernise them, it should be done. What we need is more houses, not to be knocking down existing apartment buildings. The irony is this that with places like Fatima Mansions, St. Theresa's Gardens, O'Devaney Gardens and the like, and some of Ballymun, the more recently a big development has been carried out by Dublin City Council, the worse it has turned out to be in terms of the overall environment for living.
I want to put on record my strong opposition to the idea that Dublin City Council should start to devour its own decent buildings to create space for replacement buildings when there is plenty of land in Dublin, including land that can be acquired via compulsory purchase orders, if necessary, to provide decent homes in the city centre for people who want to have a decent way of life and access to affordable and social housing.
Like Senator Horkan, I wish everyone a happy Europe Day. I was going to say so much else, but I fear the Senator may have stolen my speaking notes. It is more likely that great Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown minds think alike.
I did not steal the Senator's notes.
Good, although I suppose one would need to write notes down to have them.
I did not have any.
Senator Horkan imparted the recent findings of the European Movement Ireland-RED C poll, according to which 92% of Irish people are in favour of Ireland remaining within the EU. It is an encouraging statistic, but far more encouraging is that, in the 18 to 24 years bracket, the figure is 97%. If North Korea made these figures up, we would still struggle to believe them.
Something that is discouraging, however, is the Irish population's lack of linguistic skills in second, third or fourth languages. Will the Leader call on the Minister for Education and Skills to attend the House to discuss a strategy that encourages young and not-so-young Irish people to take up additional languages, specifically European ones like French, Spanish, Polish and beyond? As we embark upon the post-Brexit era when our exposure to and reliance on the Continent will grow, it is important that Irish people not simply do so with an ability in English, a lesser ability as Gaeilge and no third or fourth language. This is putting us behind the curve economically and socially on a European level.
I dtosach báire ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil le mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Mac Dowell agus tá súil agam, agus táim cinnte go n-éireoidh go breá leis mar chathaoirleach ar an gcoiste fíorthábhachtach seo. Go n-éirí leis, maith an fear.
I do not know whether the Cathaoirleach and Leader drive along the roads of rural Ireland much - I am sure they do - but they will notice that, in some areas, speed vans appear in the same spots time and again. That is mainly the case in south Connemara where I am from. I have done some research on this matter that I would like to share. I would also like the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to the House to brief us on the speed camera situation. I have no problem with the cameras, but I need to understand them better and the public is entitled to that information.
Perhaps the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, could also attend.
Possibly. In 2016, there were 50 vehicles.
No prompting, please.
I could do with the prompting every now and again. A company called Go Safe, whose parent company is based on the Isle of Man, won the contract, which came into effect on 1 May 2017 and will last for six years with a 12-month extension. The value of the contract over seven years is just over €100 million. It is due for renewal in 2023 or 2024. The number of hours cameras are in place is roughly 90,000 annually plus an additional 1,500 hours per month. That is approximately €160 that the company is paid every hour. In some ways, that is not bad going.
I would like the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline to the House the strategy, the contract, who is behind the Go Safe parent company, what other company is involved, what Go Safe's strategy is and how it decides where to place speed vans. I would also like him to give an outline per county, road or partial road and to tell us what the company is doing. The Irish people are entitled to this information. I believe that many of them are quietly asking these questions. Time and again, people are flashing their lights to signal that there is a speed van ahead. I am not saying the vans do not do a good job, but there are questions of accountability, so I would appreciate it if the Minister was invited to attend.
Next is Senator McFadden.
No, I did not indicate.
Sorry. My vision must be slightly blurred.
One of the issues that we have faced over the past two weeks is a difficult one for many families. I raised it at the health committee this morning and want to do so again now. It relates to pending cases. I agree with my colleague about having the Minister attend to deal with a number of issues around maternity care and CervicalCheck. At the committee meeting, someone asked about the need for legislation. I do not believe there is a need, but the HSE and the State Claims Agency could reach settlements in those pending cases where there is clear evidence of negligence. The State Claims Agency could then step into the shoes of the claimant in order to recover the moneys from the company that provided the analysis, be it in the US or elsewhere. This would be done instead of forcing people to go through court processes and delays. We need to give this suggestion serious consideration. At this morning's meeting, I asked the Minister to address it.
The House should debate maternity services and whether there other issues of which we should be mindful if we are to ensure that a catastrophe like the recent one does not recur. The health service faces many challenges, for example, recruitment of consultants and the need to compete with other jurisdictions just to retain medical and nursing staff. It would be appropriate for the House to debate these matters and the question of how to proceed. Linked with Senator Hopkins's point, Portiuncula Hospital recently advertised a consultant obstetrician's position for which there were no applicants. Indeed, there are many consultant positions for which there are no applicants. We should examine this issue now instead of waiting to respond to another catastrophe. I support my colleague in seeking that debate.
Ahead of this evening's debate on the Local Government Accountability Bill, will the Leader and his colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, explain why they are preventing the publication of a key report into possible corruption in local government, a report that the Minister admits has been sitting on his desk since last June? Allegations of nepotism and other corrupt practices have been coming out from Donegal County Council for more than a decade, with whistleblowers risking their livelihoods and standing to release information about low standards and shady practices. The former Green Party Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Mr. John Gormley, commissioned reviews of such allegations in Donegal, Carlow and Offaly only to have the reviews killed by the Minister in the next Government, Commissioner Phil Hogan. Subsequent internal reviews claimed to find nothing, yet these were rejected by the courts and an independent report was ordered. That report has sat for almost a year gathering dust in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
Past Green Party Members of this Chamber and the Dáil, such as Ms Déirdre de Búrca, Mr. Paul Gogarty and Mr. Trevor Sargent, have had a proud record of standing against low standards in local government. They were often told that they were doing it wrong, not adhering to protocol and not observing their place, yet they were eventually vindicated. My Green Party colleague, Dublin City Council member, Mr. Patrick Costello, is taking up the fight and has lodged a request to access the report in question under the Aarhus Convention.
We have seen the consequences of the corruption in planning that has been exposed by various tribunals in recent decades. The last thing I want to see is another lengthy and costly tribunal, yet that is exactly what the Minister's delay will end up causing. When will the independent report be published and what remedial measures will be taken by the Government to tackle these problems?
I wish to raise something that has been an issue of concern for many people in the past ten days, namely, cervical cancer.
I concur with Senators Hopkins and Burke and their appropriate acknowledgement of what needs to be done next. It is the biggest issue. We need to try to bring confidence to the system because currently that confidence is draining from it. There are issues as people are forced to go down legal avenues, which is totally unacceptable when there is a clear matter of accountability to be sorted. Senator Burke has raised the issue quite capably and there must be movement on it. We cannot drag families through the courts, as we have seen in the past few days.
I listened with some sadness to an interview on RTÉ radio yesterday with Mr. Stephen Teap from Cork and his story of how his poor wife, Irene, was lost. She was one of the 17 women who died. These are very serious cases and accountability at the very top is required. We need to do the right thing in this regard. The accountability from the top man needs to be there and he must be straight. The Health Service Executive, HSE, boss needs to consider what he is doing. The lack of compassion is a major issue. It is something we must consider as a Government. The boss of the HSE must take responsibility for this decision. It is sad and I hope we can get some closure for the people who have lost their loved ones. We should be able to put a process in place to put confidence back into the system. Sadly, that confidence is lacking currently. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss the matters raised by Senator Burke, in particular. We do not want these families going down the legal avenue. There must be a more sympathetic way of doing business rather than putting these people through a court case to get what is due to them from this sad issue.
Counselling services must also be put in place. Those of us who listened to that man's interview know he had no counselling when he got the news about how his wife was misdiagnosed. The HSE must seriously look at that. It must consider the whole family and the patient rather than having the clinical approach of providing information and seeing what can be done. There are many questions and we must learn from them. We must welcome the scoping inquiry, which is positive, and we need to learn fast how to deal with people, especially those affected by this very sad affair.
The front page of The Irish Times caught my eye and the report that the lives of more than 520 people in Dublin are at risk from criminals. Perhaps this was covered by a Member previously on the Order of Business but it is quite startling. It is noticeable that more and more of the resources of the Garda Síochána in the city go towards preventing killings due to the internecine feuding going on between the infamous Kinahan and Hutch people. There are other minor feuds as well. I reside for half the week on the north side of the inner city and I am becoming more aware of the increasing licentiousness, rough and untold behaviour on the streets of our city in broad daylight, and not even late at night. I am here 11 years. The Garda need every possible resource it can be given to deal with this.
Some may say these guys are criminals and it is no big deal what they do to each other. That may or may not be the case. There is a danger to innocent lives and to people caught in the crossfire who are living in fear. Security is being compromised and people are afraid to speak out or move in certain areas of the city, which is a worrying trend. It might be timely to have a debate on Dublin city crime and perhaps Garda funding and resources in general.
I congratulate Senator McDowell on his chairmanship of the committee to deal with Seanad reform. Have I heard correctly that a Cabinet Minister will sit on the committee? It is surely a first. I very much welcome Senator McDowell's indication that he is open to all sorts of suggestions. We all have ideas for the Seanad. Perhaps the Leader will outline in his response how his hands are tied, if they are at all, and the terms of reference. Is there any general information he can give us?
I neglected to congratulate Senator McDowell on his unanimous election as Chairman of the Seanad reform committee.
He has had many people congratulating him and I am about to add to them. I am afraid his head will swell. I offer my congratulations as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann to the Senator. I am sure he will treat his work with the attention it deserves and the results will be something of credit to the Senator in the decades to come.
I join the congratulations to Senator McDowell on his unanimous election as Chairman of the Seanad reform committee and I wish him well. As I stated in my opening comments - I have not demurred despite the commentary of some - we will all work to bring reform to Seanad Éireann in a collective and collaborative manner. It is what we will do and I wish the Senator every success in his endeavour.
I join with Senators Horkan and Richmond in welcoming Europe Day. There was great news last night with Mr. Ryan O'Shaughnessy qualifying for the Eurovision finals next Saturday night.
It is critical to Europe.
It is five years since Ireland qualified. On Europe Day is it not great that we can celebrate our participation in Europe and the Eurovision song contest final? As Senator Horkan rightly stated, it celebrates the importance of Europe to us as a nation. Survey results have indicated that 92% of our people want to remain in Europe, which sends a positive message to all of us as Europeans. We are at the heart of Europe.
Senators Ardagh and Ned O'Sullivan raised the issue of threats to life as detailed in The Irish Times report this morning. I reiterate that gangland crime has no place in a civilised society and any threat to life, as described by both Senators, is to be condemned out of hand. It should not and is not being tolerated by An Garda Síochána. I remind Senator Ardagh, in particular, that this Government set up Operation Hybrid with the Garda in the context of the Kinahan-Hutch feud. There were increased resources for An Garda Síochána and new legislation around the Criminal Assets Bureau. I remind the House that the previous Government reopened Templemore and we have seen an increase in the number of gardaí. We have also seen a commitment to the civilianisation of the force to allow more gardaí on the street. There is a commitment to have 800 new members in 2018. Garda numbers increased to 13,551 by the end of last year, an increase of 600 in that year. I encourage people to become aware of the facts.
We have seen an increase in resourcing around overtime and expenditure for An Garda Síochána. There has been €1.65 billion allocated to the Garda Vote for overtime in 2018, which is an increase of 2%. A Supplementary Estimate was brought forward yesterday by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. It is important to recognise that we must stand up to crime and criminals. We must stand with people in communities in the inner city, as mentioned by Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Ardagh. Suggesting the Government is doing nothing is incorrect. Members should cast their minds back to the Garda special crime task force established in 2016, which was again aimed at targeting those crime gangs in our capital city. The work is supported by the increase in resources by the Government. I accept we need to do more and I will always stand up for An Garda Síochána.
The issue of homelessness was raised by Senator Ardagh. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has not in any way changed, tampered with or massaged the figures. He commissioned a report from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to investigate increasing numbers with a view to preparing a detailed report and recommendations. There was an issue with Louth County Council. The Minister is committed, as is the Government, to prioritising the tackling of the issue of homelessness.
Senators Boyhan and Grace O'Sullivan raised the issue of the Mulcahy report. I have no information for the House regarding this particular matter. I am happy for the Minister to come to the House on it. If both Senators put it down as a Commencement matter, however, they may get a quicker answer.
Senators Conway-Walsh, Craughwell, Hopkins, Colm Burke and Lombard raised the issue around the cervical screening programme, the way in which women have been badly let down, the issue of the State Claims Agency and the report on Portiuncula Hospital published last week. This is a distressing, harrowing, disgusting and tragic chapter in our nation's history. It is imperative that we get answers and all the facts into what took place and transpired. That is why the Government has set up a statutory inquiry. The Government and all Members want to see accountability. The priority is women's health and getting the answers. The Government is listening. That is why we want to ensure that the statutory inquiry establishes every single fact and puts things right. It must also restore confidence in the cervical cancer screening programme and in our health system in general.
What we do not want to see happen is a race to have a head roll and then a vacuum which must be filled. I want to see every person, not just Tony O'Brien, held to account regarding this issue. It is easy to point the finger at Tony O'Brien. He is just one person. There are many different layers into which we must delve down to get the answers for the women and their families that they deserve. That is why the Taoiseach has asked the Attorney General to settle such cases. We cannot assume all cases will be the same. I agree with Senators Conway-Walsh, Lombard and Craughwell that we cannot put women and their families through the harrowing experience, hardship and difficulty of going up the steps of a courthouse and into a courtroom for a prolonged time. That day is over. That is why the Taoiseach has asked the Attorney General, where possible, to mediate and have these cases settled.
It needs to go beyond health.
We have started and we are going to see it through. That is why we have the whole issues around disclosure and accountability. It is important, in the long term, that we avoid these cases going to court. There is a programme of reform initiated by the Government and we will see the outcomes. I agree with Senator Conway-Walsh that there must be complete answers. We cannot allow for obfuscation. I want to see the answers and I hope we will ensure this will happen. I hope that Dr. Gabriel Scally's inquiry will be able to get to the bottom of this matter. He said he may not be able to get all the facts. However, he has undertaken his work. He is an experienced medical practitioner and has a distinguished career. I wish him well in his investigation. From talking to the Minister for Health and his officials, I know they want to see this matter resolved on behalf of the women of Ireland and their families.
As I said on a Bill yesterday, the Irish people go berserk when there is no accountability. They are correct. We need to see that happen and I know we will. It is important we have this matter resolved.
Senator Norris raised the issue of his motion before the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP. In a politically charged environment - I am a fairly good man myself to be involved in political charges – this afternoon's attack on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, was unfair. He has never once refused to attend the House. He has always been available to participate in this Chamber on the various debates we have asked him to attend. I think it is unfair the way he was characterised this afternoon.
I join with Senator Byrne in appealing to farmers to apply online for the basic payment scheme with its closing date on 15 May. I congratulate all those involved in the town and village renewal scheme and hope those interested in it will apply this year.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of mental health and that May is mental health awareness month. I wish all those participating in the Pieta House Darkness into Light event next weekend every success. I commend all who work in the area of mental health. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is doing a sterling job with cross-party support in this House. Senator Murnane O'Connor is correct that talking is right. It is important to talk and highlight the issue completely.
Senator Craughwell also raised the issue of Lieutenant Colonel Hamill. I have not got the information he needs but I am happy to talk to the Senator afterwards. Where wrong is done, it should not have to be solved at the 11th hour on the steps of a courthouse. We should seek mediation by both parties much earlier.
That is appreciated.
Senator Hopkins raised the issue of the recent report on Portiuncula Hospital. Like many of us, we would like to offer our sympathies to the families whose lives have been devastated and tragically affected by the failures of the care given to them at the hospital. From looking at the news last Thursday night, what should have been a joyful and happy occasion turned out to be one of grief and sadness. I thank the families for coming forward to share their experiences with the review team. What we need now is absolute action. We have seen changes with the appointments of staff at the hospital. To the untrained eye, however, some of the issues involved, from reading X-rays to different functions, were not rocket science. I was stunned when I read the report and the testimony given. I welcome that we have seen changes. There is lead management in place and a different model for the delivery of care, along with significant investment in the hospital. Senator Hopkins is right that there is a need for the Minister to attend the House. I am happy for him to attend on a debate on the national maternity strategy, an important piece of work being done by the Government and which I hope will deliver for women.
Senator Horkan raised the important issue of climate change. The European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, referred to it in his address to the House several weeks ago. There is an obligation on us to have a conversation around climate change, in particular given the importance of agriculture to the country. The farming community has a critical role to play in the issue of climate change. I am happy for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, to attend the House on this matter. We must prioritise it and keep it to the forefront, in light of the fact that the US President, Donald Trump, has taken the US out of the Paris climate change agreement.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of Dublin City Council's proposals to demolish its apartment buildings. It is a matter for the council. However, he is correct that we need more housing. How we arrive at a model of delivery of housing is one that we can have a debate on and I am glad for the Minister to come to the House in that regard.
Senator Richmond raised the issue of linguistic skills. It is one we need to address given that we will soon be the only English language speaking country in the European Union. It is also important we promote the use of other languages with our schoolgoing population through our curriculum. I will be happy for the Minister to come to the House for a debate on that issue.
Senator Ó Céidigh raised the issue of the location of speed vans. It is important to recognise that one third of the deaths on our roads are caused by speeding. I know from travelling around the country that the speed vans are always in the same place. One could almost set one's clock as to when they will be at a certain location. They are, however, in places where there are many accidents.
Having said that, they should not be used as part of a moneymaking operation either. It is important that we all work to reduce accidents and deaths on the roads. Perhaps that means all of us taking the foot off the pedal a little more and being more conscious of speed. I would be happy for the Minister to come to the House to discuss speed cameras.
Senator Burke made reference to our health system and the challenges in that regard.
I have dealt with the remarks of Senators Grace O'Sullivan, Lombard, Ned O'Sullivan and Coghlan in my reply.
I will conclude by congratulating Senator McDowell on his election and I wish him well. It is a big committee of 26 people and I hope he can herd the committee to a safe harbour to produce a report in a timely fashion.