The Order of Business is No. 1, Data Protection Bill 2018 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, and No. 2, motion for earlier signature of the Data Protection Bill 2018, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of No. 1.
Order of Business
I am alarmed and saddened today to learn of the rise in suicide rates among young women living in Dublin South-Central.
We learned that there were 37 deaths by suicide in Dublin South-Central in 2017, 50% of whom were women. The numbers are equal, but this is a very new departure. Unfortunately, young men are more likely to take their lives by suicide. There has been a rise in the number of women doing so. These women have been described by HSE psychiatrists from Dublin South-Central as a new profile of women and it was stated that the statistics are unique to the area.
They include mothers with young children, women who were early school leavers, women who are homeless, women with adverse childhood experiences and women with drug and substance abuse histories. These figures are very worrying and shocking and cannot continue. They demonstrate the importance of women's mental health. These women clearly did not have the right supports and are not being given any supports from the State. I hope the figures do not become the norm into the future. It is very worrying that the figures are so unique to one of the poorest parts of our country. We need to take heed of them and do something about the issue. It is outrageous that it has been described by psychiatrists working for the HSE as a unique situation to the particular area. I would like the Minister to come to the House to discuss this matter.
The second issue I would like to raise is the former Harold's Cross stadium site which has been earmarked for use as a school. I have been contacted by groups of parents from primary schools in Dublin 8 and 12 who have raised concerns about their exclusion from the process by which the Minister is awarding patronage to the intended school for the site. I would like to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to reconsider disallowing groups in Dublin 8 and 12 from participating in the process for applying for patronage of the school at the site. I cannot understand why they would be disallowed from applying for patronage as the school is in close proximity to residents of Dublin 8 and 12. There is a lack of multidenominational, non-fee paying schools in Dublin 8 and 12 and given their proximity to the site it is outrageous that parents have been excluded from the process. Would it be possible for the Minister to come to the House to explain how the catchment area for the new school was decided and why Dublin 8 and 12 were excluded?
I refer to small and medium enterprises, SMEs, an area on which I will focus. They are the backbone of our economy. Some 97% of all businesses in Ireland are small or medium sized and employ a significant number of people. The EU Commission recently published a report which stated that small and medium sized businesses in Ireland contribute €55.5 billion to the Irish economy. I want us to focus on this issue and support SMEs in any reasonable way we can in terms of their growth, development and sustaining them in future.
I will focus on two areas today. One is the skills gap. A significant skills gap is appearing in Ireland, in particular in respect of SMEs. Larger companies, many of which are multinational, are attracting many prospective employees, but SMEs do not have the resources to compete with them in incentivising people to work for them. This is particularly true in rural, rather than urban, areas of Ireland. I have the details of the report here. It found a 39% skills gap in marketing, 35% in sales and 33% in production. It is a significant in issue in the technology industry in Ireland. Most of the technology industry comprises small and medium sized companies. Some are based in third level institutions.
Apprenticeships and qualified people staying in particular businesses are also issues. Senator Craughwell spoke about pilots from the Air Corps on a number of occasions.
They are leaving in droves and we have to do something about it, from a State perspective and from an SME perspective. Staff retention and acquiring staff are huge issues and I will come back with suggested solutions to these. This Friday, 25 May, the general data protection regulation, GDPR, comes into effect but the majority of small and medium-sized businesses know next to nothing about it or about how it affects them, which will be in a huge way. There are consequences, unintended when the legislation was passed, for small and medium-sized businesses with significant fines in what is significant legislation. There is a significant disconnect between the State and SMEs on what it is about, how the legislation can be put into practice and its cost, which is very significant. There should be workshops and some space should be afforded to SMEs to allow them to get up to speed with the legislation.
I have a couple of solutions. We should have an effective employee share option programme, and I welcome the statement made yesterday by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport at a round-table conference I attended regarding employees potentially having some form of a shareholding in State bodies. A programme is available for SMEs called the SAYE programme, a Revenue-approved save-as-you-earn scheme. It is a fraction of what is available in the UK and SME employers and employees are not taking it up. It has to be a lot more user-friendly to be beneficial to both employers and employees. By having such a scheme, employers and employees will stick together more and employees will not jump ship to larger employers as often as they do at the moment. We now have a different problem from the one we had three years ago when there was unemployment of 14.5%. It is now down to just over 5.5% so we need a very different strategy.
I extend my sympathy and that of the Sinn Féin team to the families of Ana Kriegel and Jastine Valdez who lost their lives over the past week. They are tragic and shocking situations and they should refocus us on the work we need to do to keep everyone, but particularly women, safe in Ireland. Everybody is horrified at what happened in recent days.
I also want to talk about agriculture and farming and about vulture funds. Some 2,500 or even 3,000 farmers may be in danger of losing their lands to vulture funds. This amounts to at least 150,000 acres under threat. Vulture funds specialise in forcing though quick-fire sales when an alternative is available, and I have spoken to many farm families on this matter who tell me that vulture funds are refusing to engage. The banks say the protection afforded to the loans they sold off to vulture funds continues after the sale but that is not the case. The funds are refusing to restructure loans, meaning farmers are forced down the legal route when they do not have the money for the huge legal expenses which are involved in that. The vulture funds have the money, however, because they are hugely wealthy companies in the first place but also because they get away without paying any tax. The farming community do not get away without paying tax. The smallest of farm incomes are taxed and farmers have to submit their returns every year.
There is a real contrast between how vulture funds and farm families are treated. Recent comments were made in committees and by commentators that farmers are not engaging on non-performing loans. It has been said again that non-performing loans have to be dealt with but that is not correct because in many cases the level of defaulter arrears is quite small. Our experience is that farm loans are very attractive to vulture funds as their level of security is very strong. The cynicism shown by the companies will have a devastating effect on families that have worked the land for generations and make a hugely positive contribution to their communities. Does the Government have any plans to ensure the agricultural sector is not hit hardest and that forced sales to make a quick buck are not allowed to threaten the social fabric of rural Ireland. One must ask who will end up owning those farms at the end of the day. Farms are located in the middle of communities. In some cases relatives often own parcels of adjoining land and the question is who will end up owning it. That has significant consequences for us in the short, medium and long terms, and it needs to be stopped. Legislation must be put in place to control vulture funds and how they are treating farm families at the moment.
First, I join with Senator Conway-Walsh in expressing my horror at the brutal murder of two beautiful, young, intelligent women in this country. We recently passed the Domestic Violence Bill but that is obviously not enough when young women can be just randomly assaulted and killed in the suburbs.
The second matter to which I wish to refer is child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. I note the fact that the Archbishop of Adelaide has been convicted of covering up child abuse. He is the highest ranking member of the church to be so convicted. The entire hierarchy of Chile has offered the Pope its resignation on this matter. This is a good Pope. He is a Christ-like man. I think he is absolutely wonderful. That is why I initiated the invitation to him from this House. He learns on the hoof. He first of all dismissed these accusations but when he went to Chile he learned about them and he has since apologised. He invited three of the abuse victims to meet him in Rome. That is a wonderful thing. One of the victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the Pope told him during a meeting in the Vatican that the fact that he is gay does not matter. Mr. Cruz said Pope Francis had also told him that God made him this way and loves him this way and it does not matter to him. He said the Pope loves him this way and that he must be happy the way he is. How wonderful. What a magical transformation from the vicious, condemnation we got under the papacy of Pope Francis's two predecessors. I welcome this very much, in particular since last week when I stood in the Phoenix Park at the papal cross holding a message asking the Pope to moderate the language of the catechism on this issue. He certainly seems to me to have gone a considerable way and I welcome that fact.
I also add my sympathies to the families of Jastine Valdez and Ana Kriegel. It is very sad to see a young girl going about her everyday business and to end up dying in such a brutal way.
I wish to speak today about vacant properties in town centres in rural areas. I would like to see tax reliefs such as we had during the Celtic tiger in order that people can do up their premises within a period of 12 months. Councils should be given new powers in order that developers who bought premises in disrepair would be made to fix them up within a certain timeframe or councils could serve compulsory purchase orders.
In my constituency of Meath West, there are buildings in Athboy, Kells, Navan and Trim which have been left in a terrible state with no regard to health and safety. Roofs are ready to fall in and slates are being blown off on windy days. Walls are ready to collapse on pedestrians. Tidy Towns groups try to clean up and do their best for competitions, but these premises are left to go to rack and ruin. The local authority has erected barriers around some of these premises which means people cannot use the footpaths. In Athboy, there is a bus stop right beside one of these premises and people have some job to board their buses. Pedestrians have to step out onto the road to pass these premises.
We need legislation to address this problem. I call for the Minister to come to the House to discuss that legislation. I am not on a witch hunt here and I do not seek to belittle any owner of any premises, but it is unfair to others in the community when someone leaves premises in a terrible state. I would like to see action taken and certain premises in rural Ireland tidied up.
Fianna Fáil also pays tribute to those who have died. What happened to those young ladies was horrific and our sympathy is extended to their families.
On education and the priority we place on it, I want to discuss investment in education before the next budget is decided. I agree with Senator Ardagh that we need to have the Minister for Education and Skills attend the House in the next few days. We have long prided ourselves on our terrific education system. That is great. There are great schools, principals, teachers and students. We are placing huge pressure on parents, however, to keep the lights on in some schools. It is just not good enough when they are paying tax to provide these utilities.
I have been in contact with the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association and individual primary school principals following the slashing of €100 million in capitation grants from education budgets over a number of years. Capitation grants are paid to voluntary primary and secondary schools based on the number of recognised pupils enrolled. While the grant is supposed to cover the overall cost of running schools, it fails to meet these. Although it costs as much to run a large primary school as to run a secondary school, the rate of pay for the latter is almost three times the rate for the former. Primary schools are losing out. Unless parents reach deep into their pockets, some schools will be at a disadvantage. While some schools are lucky to have amazing fundraising committees, the parents at others are under severe stress because they cannot pay their voluntary contribution. They simply cannot afford it. While we spin the idea of free education, any parent will say that it is far from free.
I join principals in calling for the restoration of the grant to the pre-cut level of €200 per annum per child. We must invest more in the schools we have now. We must complete the school building projects we have started and fulfil the promises we have made before announcing new schools and, as usual, blaming the guys from before. Our children deserve our full commitment to giving them all the best chance, not just those with wealthy parents or machine-like fundraising committees. Grants for primary schools can certainly be increased if we see them as a necessity. We all look at them that way, or at least those of us who have put our children through the Irish school system. If the grants were restored, we could then contribute for nice things instead of paying for heat, light and paper as is happening now.
I call on the Minister to come to the House to address this very serious issue. Children are returning to school in September and their parents are panicking about what they can pay. They just do not have the money.
I join Members in offering sympathy to the family of Ms Jastine Valdez. It is a beautiful part of the country and it is hard to imagine that a young lady walking along and minding her own business could be grabbed and murdered. I also offer my sympathy to the family of Mark Hennessy whose wife and two children will be left trying to explain matters to themselves if it is proved that he killed this girl. I cannot begin to imagine what those children will grow up thinking of their father. While it is easy to show sympathy for the person who was murdered, we must also have some respect for the family of the murderer.
I note also that there has been a rush to judge the actions of the garda who fired the shots.
None of us can make any judgment on that case. None of us was there. None of us knew what was going on. I commend the garda for doing what he thought was right at the time. Time will tell whether the decision he took, obviously, a split-second decision, was the right one.
Yesterday, in Galway, the Minister for Finance delivered a speech on insurance and the insurance industry and it was most impressive. The work that is being done on insurance, particularly for young drivers, is quite impressive. I understand there has been as much as a 20% drop in premiums in some cases. That is good work. However, the Minister told the assembly in Galway yesterday that there is urgent legislation needed and he is ready to move on some immediately. He stated there were four pieces of legislation. While there is a need from time to time to have statements in this House on various issues, can we shorten the statements and find time to start introducing the Minister's legislation? It is important that we get that legislation before the House. I would ask the Leader to consider that and let us know.
I presume the issue the Senator raised about that incident on Sunday where the man was shot is a matter on which GSOC will decide and it is not a matter for the Leader or the Government, although I understand the Senator's reasons for raising it.
I draw the attention of the House to the fact that today is the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which brought power-sharing to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It brought cross-Border institutions and the principle of consent, and recognised the legitimacy of the people of Ireland to aspire to a united Ireland while recognising the current wish of the majority to remain in the UK. Over the weekend we saw a poll which effectively looked at a Border poll. It is quite interesting that should Northern Ireland remain in the customs union and the Single Market, the results would not be hugely in favour of a united Ireland but should a hard Brexit happen, we would be in a very different space. We should have a debate in this House regarding this poll and its significance.
We had the royal wedding last Saturday. I did not watch it, but I visited pubs and I visited my mother in the nursing home. Nobody talks about Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin Ard-Fheiseanna that are broadcast live but everybody seemed to be talking about the royal wedding. It was a little crass of politicians to state is was a waste for RTÉ to spend funding on the royal wedding because there is a significant amount of people on the island of Ireland who want to watch this. Some 20% of the people in this country aspire to watching royal events. If we really are reaching out and talking about uniting the people of our country, remarks such as this are crass. Everyone knows who I am talking about. These are one-off remarks and they do not represent the thinking of a certain party. For anybody talking about a waste of money in RTÉ, if we want to unite the people of Ireland it will cost our country an awful lot more. I have no problem in putting my hand in my pocket but it is a two-way street.
I add my voice on the matter of the brutal and tragic killing or murder of a young child and a young woman over the past few days. I am not sure about others, but I and the women of Ireland feel a deep injury at the killing off of the voices of this girl and this woman who would change our nation. My sympathies and heartfelt condolences go to the families.
According to recent research by the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, the rates of psychosis and mental illness among inmates in prisons is much higher than for the rest of the population, yet we have the lowest per capita secure psychiatric bed availability. The prevalence of mental and psychological illnesses is at 8% in prisons. Alcohol and substance misuse disorders are at 51% and the homelessness rate of prisoners on committal is at 18%. They are all significantly higher than the general population and all are both a cause and consequence of imprisonment. We have the opening in 2020 of the new forensic unit in Portrane which will accommodate some of the extensive waiting lists.
There are people in approved centres and in prisons. The majority in prisons are very unwell and awaiting transfer to this high security unit, the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum. Some wait for 15 years and some are released because they have served their sentence with no treatment whatsoever and then come back into the prisons because of reoffending due to mental instability. We know that it increases demand, that there is a staff shortage and that retention and recruitment is difficult. It is endemic throughout health services.
Tomorrow, at the Joint Committee on Future of Mental Health Care, we will discuss this and plans for the future. I hope that the Minister will at some stage come and inform the rest of the Members of this House of policy and plans to realise A Vision for Change, although it is well past its sell-by date, and to give the healthcare needed by patients in the prison system which criminalises them.
Senators might notice that some of us are wearing our green ribbons in the Chamber today. I know Senator Devine works very hard on the areas of mental health, as does Senator Ray Burke.
It is Colm Burke.
The green ribbon signifies our opposition to the stigmatisation of mental health here in Ireland and acts as a reminder of the damage that such stigmas have done to those suffering from mental health issues in the past and in the present. One would think at this stage that this would be clear and would not be a controversial issue. During the current debate on the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, we have seen some serious assaults on the concept of mental health and we have heard words like "vague mental health" and terms that simply contribute to the further stigmatisation of mental health.
On "Claire Byrne Live" and "The Week in Politics", it was insinuated by someone that he does not believe that mental health is health. That was Senator Mullen. I do not know what utopia he lives in but I live in a world where mental health is a real health issue to which we in this country, as Senator Devine just said, are not giving enough time . In this debate, the fact that something such as mental health should be lowered by people from this House is unacceptable. I ask for Senator Mullen to come into the House to explain to us why he said that he does not believe that mental health is health. I would like him to qualify that statement.
I join my colleagues in conveying my sympathies to the families who have suffered a loss over the past week. It is a difficult time for them and for all of the people directly or indirectly involved in the events of the past seven days. It is important that we pay tribute to everyone involved in helping, including the Garda, those who volunteered to assist the Garda, and those who gave information about the events at a very early date. They reacted in a positive and proactive way to assist the Garda.
The remains have been identified and located in both cases but there are many cases of remains not being located with families left without knowing what happened when a loved one went missing. That is the reason I introduced the Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill in 2016. It has passed two Stages in the House. I have had discussions with officials in the Department of Justice and Equality about it and they intend to table amendments, but I ask the Leader to progress the legislation. Where a body is not found, a death certificate cannot be issued and that causes problems for families. Will he ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to take the next Stage of the Bill? A mechanism like this has been in operation in Scotland for more than 30 years and it is time it was in operation in Ireland as well.
I pass on my condolences to the families of Ana Kriegel and Jastine Valdez. As a former councillor in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, I am familiar with Rathmichael and Cherrywood, as I have driven through them regularly. These were awful tragedies for both families, particularly the abduction in Enniskerry where someone was walking along a road and had this happen to her. I extend my sympathies to her family.
I wish to raise the planning process. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is busy on the housing and local government fronts but the planning process is antiquated and is not delivering for those who make planning applications or those who have issues with those who apply. Recently, other Members have raised the Apple issue in Athenry, County Galway, and how we build critical infrastructure. We must also accommodate the housing needs of everybody in the State and those who feel under siege in their communities from what is going on. It is a long-winded, convoluted and expensive process and it is of a different time.
I do not blame anybody working in a planning department. They are doing their best 99.9% of the time, if not all the time, under outdated and inappropriate legislation in many cases. It would be helpful to invite the Minister or the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the Chamber for a discussion on what changes the Government proposes to the planning process because we need to deliver infrastructure for the benefit of all our citizens. We also need safeguards to ensure the infrastructure takes account of the current population, pylons, wind farms, high rise buildings and Luas or metro extensions.
All these issues take much longer that most of us would like. In other countries a light rail system is promised one year and, two years later, it is operational. Here something is promised and 20 years later it is still not operational. I do not criticise a particular Government but the planning system tends to slow us down and the current Government needs to examine it. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House as soon as possible to do that.
I welcome the announcement yesterday by the National Youth Council of Ireland, NYCI, that based on preliminary figures, 125,000 young people have been added to the supplementary electoral register ahead of this week's referendum. This highlights that young people have a deep affinity with the issue of abortion and that they will respond and vote in droves when engaged. They are major stakeholders in our political system.
The marriage equality referendum, the third anniversary of which is today, proved that young people, when engaged, will be at the forefront and cutting edge of change. I commend the efforts of the NYCI, the Union of Students in Ireland, individual students' unions and youth groups who tirelessly reach out to young people and fill a void on the part of the State and its institutions, which largely shirk their responsibilities when engaging with young people and new voters.
The last data collated on youth turnout was compiled in the 2011 election by the CSO. In that election 62% of young people aged between 18 and 25 voted and the overall turnout was 69%. I expect it would have been higher if it were not for emigration in 2011. When asked by Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire in July last year whether the Government would consider collating turnout data by age, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, stated the Government had no immediate plans to do so. There seems to be no political will to collate such important data. The Department does not seem to want to place that responsibility on any other public body either. Without sufficient data on age, a behavioural analysis of youth turnout cannot be carried out. We also cannot encourage it. Following the referendum, I will call on the Minister of State with responsibility for electoral reform to the House to discuss options for enhancing youth voting and to ask why such obvious measures have yet to be put in place.
I raise the issue of farm safety. In 2017, 50 people lost their lives in farm-related accidents. Farms, by their nature, are generally family enterprises. They are great places to grow up but unfortunately dangerous places to live in. The age profile of those killed is also of great concern. The old and the young are exceptionally vulnerable to death and serious injury on farms. Animals, machinery and slurry pits are among the greatest dangers posed to adults and children on family farms. The nature of the accidents on our farms can have long-lasting, heartbreaking and devastating impacts on families. At this time of year, farmers are exceptionally busy working long hours, often on their own. In cases such as this, fatigue can creep in. The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, has now refocused on improving farm safety by way of a television and radio campaign that focuses on all aspects of farm safety. I too appeal to members of the farming community to be extra careful on their farms. It is an exceptionally busy time of year for farmers. School children will be getting their school holidays shortly and will be helping on the farms. I appeal to all members of the farming community to be extra careful and to be conscious of all the dangers that surround them as they go about their daily tasks.
I thank the 14 Members of the House who made contributions to the Order of Business. On behalf of the Government and the House and on my own behalf, I join with Senators Conway-Walsh, Norris, Butler, Murnane O'Connor, Craughwell, Devine, Colm Burke and Horkan in offering our sympathies to the families of Jastine Valdez and Anastasia Kriegel on their very sad deaths. The brutal and callous killings sent a chill across society. They were brutal. We all know there is no place for killing in our society. We must always respect each other. Today there are families distraught. They have lost a loved one, an only daughter. It is mind-boggling. Senator Craughwell also mentioned the family of Mr. Hennessy. We should remember that family as well. I commend the gardaí for their tremendous work. I commend all the first responders who helped and those who gave assistance. We must always work to ensure our society and our streets are safe for all people. When one sees young women and girls being killed, it prompts the question: why and what more can we do as a society?
I join in the condemnation of the killings and hope we will all stand in support of, and solidarity with, the families at this awful time.
Senator Ardagh raised the suicide rates in Dublin South-Central. The increase is a worry. Senators Devine and Grace O'Sullivan also referred to the issue of mental health. First, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, is focused on increasing resources in the mental health area to ensure that we continue to develop mental health services and to improve access to treatment and assessment. He secured an increase in the budget for 2018 and current funding is €910 million. As Senator Devine mentioned, there is capital investment in new facilities and new staff. Mental health is an issue we must continue to prioritise. I agree with Senator Devine about the people in our prisons. They are in there for a variety of reasons but if one believes in restorative justice and rehabilitation we must always ensure that our prison system, which has one function we are all aware of, rehabilitates people as well. I agree with the Senator that people in our prisons who have mental health issues deserve to be looked after and treated. Equally, I agree with Senator Grace O'Sullivan that mental health is health, pure and simple. Regardless of what viewpoint one has in the referendum campaign, mental health is about the health and well-being of all citizens. It is an important issue that must be prioritised.
In referring to the increase Senator Ardagh also referred to the new profile of women. It is a worry. The mental health of women is an important matter and it needs to be addressed in view of the figures she gave us today. As I said, improvements have been made in a variety of areas but it is distressing to hear Senator Ardagh's remarks. I do not have that information to hand. However, we will have a continuing debate on mental health. She also referred to the former greyhound racing stadium in Harold's Cross in Dublin. It is a good news story that there will be a new primary and secondary school with 1,000 places. I believe it is open to all prospective patrons and patron bodies to apply for patronage of a new school under the patronage process. The Department of Education and Skills is developing a new online patronage scheme. I am not familiar with the matter Senator Ardagh raised but I will be happy to invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to the House again.
Senator Ó Céidigh spoke about small and medium enterprises and awareness of GDPR. The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, produced a survey which showed that 90% of small and medium enterprises are aware of GDPR but the Senator is correct that we must continue to promulgate awareness of the effect and potential consequences of the new regime that comes into force at the end of the month. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, have been very proactive on the skills gap. I agree with Senator Ó Céidigh that small and medium enterprises are the heartbeat of our country. The Government is committed to developing that sector. I will be happy to invite the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, to the House to discuss the points the Senator made in the context of small and medium enterprises.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the agriculture sector and the issue of vulture funds with regard to farmers, particularly small farmers. The Government is acutely aware of this. I hope the loans can be resolved within the existing bank structure. The banks and the farmers or landowners have an obligation to engage. As the Senator knows, when one engages one puts a stop on the clock and an element of fear and uncertainty is taken away. It is important to recognise that the farming community and small and medium enterprises are at the heart of what we are as a people and nation. That is the reason there is regulation by the Central Bank to regulate the matter raised by Senator Conway-Walsh. However, it is important to have engagement and conversation so I will be happy to invite the Minister to the House to discuss the matter.
It is an issue we recognise as important.
Senator Norris raised the issue of the court case involving the cover-up of child abuse and the Archbishop of Adelaide. I am happy to let the courts decide on that matter. We have a very robust child protection code in our country which needs to be upheld at all times.
Senator Butler raised the issue of vacant properties. The Government is aware of the needs in some rural towns. A variety of schemes have been introduced by Government to try to incentivise people to relocate and open businesses, but there is an obligation and duty on local authorities, Government and the business sector to work together to ensure that we continue to have vibrant rural towns.
Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of education. I regret that she is not here. I was not going to blame Fianna Fáil for cutting funding at the beginning. I was going to say that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is committed to increasing the capitation grant in the forthcoming budget. He was the Minister who secured an extra €1 billion for education in the previous two budgets. He has strengthened the core of our education system. The Minister has created more school places, employed additional teachers and taken on more special needs assistants. This means that the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced and that our education system has more teachers, more places and more new buildings, which is a pretty good record, to be fair to him. A sum of €10 billion was allocated for education in the previous budget, and the Minister has also committed to reducing costs for parents with the forthcoming publication of the education (parent and student charter) Bill. Senator Murnane O'Connor should reflect upon that.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the garda who fired the shots on Saturday night. The Cathaoirleach rightly said that there is an inquiry by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I will not stray into that area. The Senator also mentioned the Minister of Finance's speech in Galway. I am happy to have the Minister come to the House to debate that matter.
Senator Feighan recognised the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. Is our country not a better place as a result of the signatures of Ireland, the UK and the parties in the North to the Good Friday Agreement? It is important that we continue to promote the benefits of the agreement. In that context it is equally important that we all resolve to have Stormont back in action and a government in the North of our country. I commend Senator Feighan on his work not just in the UK and on British-Irish and North-South bases but across the United States where he has been promoting Ireland and good relations.
I commend Senator Feighan on his words of wisdom on the royal wedding last weekend. While many people pretended that they did not watch it, the number of people who said to me, when I was out canvassing, that they could not talk because they were watching the royal wedding was extraordinary. It is good that we can have the conversation here. It is important that we continue to promote good relations. We are lucky that Senator Marshall has joined us to show that we can build bridges and have diverse views in the Houses of the Oireachtas. That is a positive.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan raised the issue of the green ribbon and mental health. I have addressed that. Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of his Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill 2016. I assure the House that it is not the Leader stalling the Bill. I commend the Senator on his work. He makes the very wise and legitimate point that death certificates cannot be issued and that is a significant issue for many families awaiting news or who, for a variety of reasons, understand that the only outcome is going to be death. I commend Senator Burke on his work. We on the Government side will bring that Bill back to the House as soon as possible. It will not be held up from my end.
Senator Horkan raised the issues of planning, the planning process and the need to have a debate about planning. He is right. The decision by Apple in the context of the planning delay illustrates difficulties we have and which we must overcome. The Senator is right and Government is looking at the issue of streamlined and fast-tracked planning. It is important that we look at having a debate on making our planning system more efficient.
While we do not want to go back to the bad old days, it is important, as the Senator rightly said, for the development of key infrastructure to take place in a variety of ways. I think his point is well made.
Senator Warfield raised issues relating to the supplementary register, young people and voting. I think his comments highlight the need to have an electoral commission that can take charge of election issues independent of the Government and of the Oireachtas. I would be happy to have a debate on this matter when we resume after the referendum. It is important for us to have an independent electoral commission to deal with the electoral register, encourage people to vote, look at what happens between elections and manage the democratic process. I would be happy to have a debate on this issue.
Senator Gallagher spoke about farm safety. As he will recall, Senator Conway chaired the Seanad Public Consultation Committee when it considered this matter. The Minister has been to the House to discuss farm safety. The points made by Senator Gallagher are very relevant as we approach the busy season for the farming community. The Senator highlighted the potential dangers associated with parts of the farm like the slurry pit, the silage pit and the machinery yard. It is important to create awareness. Regardless of the section of the Government that deals with this issue, it is important during the busy farming season for people to be aware of the potential disasters that exist on the farm. Farm safety is something we must highlight. I will be happy for the Minister to come back to the House again.