I welcome everyone back for the new season. We are back in gale force winds. I wish Senators every success in this new term, particularly Senator Freeman, who is the only Senator in the Presidential race-----
Order of Business
Indeed, so far. I wish her well. It is a great honour. There is a great tradition in this House of former Senators being elected to the Presidency.
I invite Senator Buttimer to outline the business of the day.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Children's Health Bill 2018 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to be adjourned no later than 6 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 71, motion 14, regarding post offices, to be taken at 6 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 3, Mental Health (Renewal Orders) Bill 2018 - All Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 71, with the time allocated to group spokespersons in the Second Stage debate not to exceed six minutes and all other Senators not to exceed four minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to that debate, with Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter.
I wish to clarify that the Leader referred to the Mental Health (Renewal Orders) Bill 2018 as No. 3 but that is actually No. 2 on the Order Paper.
Gabh mo leithscéal.
I have very alert advisers.
I welcome the return of my colleagues and the staff of the Seanad. I am delighted everybody is present in spite of the blustery weather.
I wish to convey my sympathies and those of the Fianna Fáil Party to the family of the lady who died when her caravan was blown off the cliff in the west. It is a stark reminder of how dangerous this type of weather is. We must be especially vigilant when we are driving cars and on the roads.
I join with others who have expressed support for the members of the Defence Forces and their families who gathered outside Leinster House earlier in support of better conditions and increased pay for those who serve in the Defence Forces. I have raised this matter in the Chamber and many colleagues, especially Senators Craughwell, Wilson and Leyden, have raised on numerous occasions the standard of living and the meagre allowances paid to members of the Defence Forces. Many female relatives of members of the Defence Forces have been vocal and they have not ceased in their campaign to ensure the standard of living for members improves. It is a damning indictment of the Government that 30% of the Defence Forces' members are in receipt of family income support, FIS payments. I call on the Minister to address this matter in the House; to make a proper statement on it and to put his money where his mouth is and forget about lip service.
The second issue I wish to raise is BusConnects, a radical new proposal for Dublin Bus. We all want better infrastructure and more investment in Dublin. However, the current plan, although it has some benefits, including a more transparent and streamlined fare system, is causing massive anxiety for many people in the city, so much so that thousands of people have attended public meetings organised by Oireachtas Members regarding this plan, which is colloquially known as the "bus disconnects plan". Bus routes in my constituency such as the 123 and 15A service St. James's Hospital and St. Luke's Hospital, which provide oncology services, but people will no longer have a direct route to these hospitals.
The current proposal seems to affect the elderly, the disabled and infirm. It is not realistic for people who need to attend an appointment to wait and have to change buses once, if not twice, to go to hospital. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport cannot hide behind the National Transport Authority, NTA. The NTA reports to the Minister, the Minister is responsible to Government and the Government must report to the Dáil. I am glad this matter is being debated as we speak in the Dáil. My party has tabled a Private Members' motion on extending the consultation period and I hope the Minister accedes to that request. It is important that we have a better bus service in Dublin but it must be the right service and bus users must be allowed to contribute to the consultation process.
I wish to raise the proposed sale of the John Player site on the South Circular Road, a site that could house 600 people. NAMA is putting this site for sale on the open market in the same week the Government launched its new land initiative plan, under which it proposes to buy houses on the private market. The agency has been allowed to put this site on the open market yet it seems the Government is washing its hands of the process, saying that it cannot interfere with NAMA or the receiver. This property is in the ownership of NAMA, and the Minister for Finance has responsibility for NAMA. He should come to the House and explain the reason this site is being put up for sale on the open market.
I wish to draw attention to mental health in the workplace, especially following the VHI report on mental health in the corporate workplace. The VHI released a study during the summer called Mind Matters, which examined mental health and resilience in corporate workplaces in Ireland. One in five corporate employees feels extremely or very stressed and this increases to one in four in the cohort aged 34 years and under. One in five employees has missed work in the past year due to stress, anxiety or depression.
Half of those surveyed feel the need to disguise the stress they are under at work in order to maintain their career prospects. These are troubling figures. Just 16% of those surveyed said they were extremely satisfied with their lives, whereas 21% of people - essentially one in five - are extremely or very stressed. In a recent case, a business executive who had been required to deal with out-of-hours work emails, including some at midnight, was awarded €7,500. This shows that technology in the workplace can increase the pressure on workers. In many cases, this compounds the plight of workers who are terrified about not being able to pay their rent or make their mortgage repayments.
Many staff in this building know about the toll that workplace stress can take on employees' mental health. I am asking the Seanad, and the Oireachtas as a whole, to show an example to employees here by taking up some of the advice of the VHI expert group. For example, the expert group has suggested that resilience training should be provided to maintain employees' mental health. I feel strongly that there should be flexible options. I recently stayed in an apartment in town that overlooks some offices. I was horrified to see people working until all times of the day and night. The reality is that there is no flexibility, especially for young people and young parents. I suggest that we should be showing flexibility to Oireachtas employees, for example by enabling them to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In some cases, they have to work until 10 p.m. We should ensure their working conditions and working hours are flexible. I think we should show an example. I would be more than happy to talk about these issues with the human resources people in Leinster House.
Cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh na Seanadóirí go léir. Up to 3,850 children nationally are waiting for initial assessments of need. Children with signs of autism make up a large proportion of this figure. I speak to the parents of such children every day. They are isolated and desperate as they try to find out why their children have unexplained symptoms.
Under the Disability Act 2005, assessments of need should take place within six months. This is the first test of how children's rights are treated in this country. Once again, they are being failed. The national figure has increased in the first six months of this year. Many parents need these assessments so they can proceed to seek full diagnoses and ultimately access services.
Supports and services are very thin on the ground and often depend on where one happens to live. At least 57 children in counties Mayo and Galway are currently waiting for assessments. This is more than unacceptable - it is in breach of the legislation. These figures mask the reality that many parents have lost faith in the system and the long waiting lists. They have given up applying for assessments and have instead had to beg for or borrow the money to have assessments done privately. This is not right because it means that people who have money are able to get assessments and people who do not have money are deprived of assessments.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to come to the House for a full debate on the lack of supports and services for children with disabilities and their families. I am also asking for resources to be allocated in the forthcoming budget to underpin the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I want the money that is allocated to go directly to children and others with disabilities, and their families, rather than being absorbed by agencies that are ultimately unaccountable.
I welcome all of our colleagues back to the House. It feels like we have a lot of work ahead of us.
As most Senators will be aware, since I was elected to this House I have worked very hard to tackle alcohol harm in Irish society.
I have watched the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill come through the Seanad and I am pleased that we have gotten it through the Seanad. As we know it has been over 1,000 days and over 3,000 people have died in Ireland because of alcohol. I know that the Bill was meant to come into the Dáil tonight and that it has been postponed until next week but I am seriously concerned about the Final Stages and how the alcohol industry has been working so hard over the summer months, making one last shameful attempt to weaken the Bill and to remove some of its key provisions.
My colleagues will remember that we agreed in the Seanad in November with cross party support, on amendments tabled by myself and Senator Nash, that cancer warnings would form a key part of this legislation. This is important because public knowledge on the empirical, proven link between alcohol and fatal cancers is shockingly low. People know that smoking causes cancer but the awareness is just not there with regard to alcohol.
We know from research in the UK that 90% of people do not know that alcohol increases the risk of cancer and we have a similar figure of 80% here in Ireland. Those numbers aware of the link are shockingly low and the industry would like to keep them that way because it does not want people to know that alcohol causes cancer.
What is important is that we are not just talking about health issues caused by high levels of problem drinking, but by frequent, moderate use. I want to emphasise that alcohol can cause cancer by moderate use. People do not realise the effect it has and this is particularly worrying when it comes to cancer. The Healthy Ireland survey data shows that only 27% of women and 16% of young women know that even one glass of wine a night can substantially increase the risk of contracting breast cancer. Reasonable estimates say that this has resulted in about 350 cases of breast cancer a year. I wonder what an industry lobbyist would say to a young woman dealing with a cancer diagnosis as a result. I am sure they all have mothers, sisters and daughters. Would they be happy that they fought so hard to resist reasonable awareness raising health warnings that could have prevented some of these cases? This is about making sure that people have the information needed to make an informed decision and I ask the political parties to stand firm on this point, to put public awareness and health above profit. I ask the Leader to reintroduce the Bill in this House as a matter of urgency once it has passed Final Stage in the Dáil so that we can finally get it up to the Park and signed into law. I will be one happy woman when I see that day.
Fáilte romhaibh go léir. I welcome everyone back.
I ask the Leader for an assurance that we will have the legislation to give affect to the repeal of the eighth amendment in this House without any delays. I strongly welcome the fact that the President last night signed the legislation following the conclusion of court challenges. The eighth amendment is now officially removed from the Constitution and there is no further impediment in the way of legislating for abortion.
We know that the Minister, Deputy Harris, has produced a very welcome Bill and I am anxious because I hear from the Joint Committee on Health proceedings this morning that there was some scepticism expressed at that committee by health professionals that it would be difficult to have the legislation and framework in place in time for women to be able to access reproductive health services in January. I want to get the Leader's assurance that we will have the legislation in here without delay. I offer the Leader my assurance that we will do nothing to impede the progress of the legislation and most of my colleagues would share that view. We want to see it introduced without delay.
I also ask the Leader for a debate on policing over the coming weeks when we have had time to read in detail the new report published yesterday by the Commission on the Future of Policing, chaired by Ms Kathleen O'Toole. I welcome the overall theme of the recommendations which will undoubtedly bring about a transformation in our policing system in Ireland, akin to that which was brought about by the Patten report in Northern Ireland. I also welcome some of the really important recommendations, particularly that the separation of the prosecutorial function from the policing function should be implemented in a speedy fashion. I would like us to have a debate on how the recommendations may be implemented. There seems to be broad support for them but it is now really a case of seeing that they can be implemented without delay.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the separation of church and State in education.
My colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, has been seeking a national debate and indeed the establishment of a citizens' assembly on this topic. I have been made aware by Trinity constituents of a very serious issue concerning linking of church attendance with school admission that has arisen in a particular school in Greystones, St. Patrick's national school, which has been named in the national media. This has resulted in the resignation of the highly experienced and respected principal and a board member. I believe that the manner in which the patron, the Church of Ireland, is engaging with this serious issue has raised serious concerns around the separation of church and State in our education system, concerns that are much broader than just one school. I will put down a commencement matter in the Seanad next week specifically about this issue and this school. I will ask that the Department of Education and Skills appoint an inspector or establish some other mechanism to investigate the matter fully and report to the Minister. However, I also wish to raise this issue in a broader fashion and seek a debate on it in the Seanad Chamber. It is part of a much bigger issue concerning the continued linkage of church and State within our schooling system.
As an example, we still have serious issues regarding religion within teacher training colleges. For example, the new teacher training strand at Dublin City University, DCU, which I understand does not admit Catholics, requires 98 fewer Central Applications Office, CAO, points for admission than teacher training in other colleges. There are some very serious issues in respect of teacher training mechanisms, the issue of patronage and how school admissions are run at particular levels. I may be corrected on the issue of the DCU teacher training strand, but I understand there is an issue where priority is given to other religions. It may not be the case that it does not admit Catholics, but there is an issue regarding admission of particular religions and lower CAO points requirements than for other teacher training courses. I ask the Leader for a debate on this matter in due course.
I too wish to join Senator Ardagh in passing our sympathies to the family of the lady in Galway who died in the horrific accident in which a caravan was blown off a cliff.
I raise the fact that 52 people are currently on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. This is the highest number of people on trolleys in any hospital in the country, despite the recent opening of 17 extra short-stay beds in the hospital. The hospital is under increasing pressure and I pay tribute to the staff members, who work in very uneasy conditions in which people constantly wait on trolleys while in need of care and attention. University Hospital Limerick is on the shortlist for extra beds and is awaiting 89 units, with 120 beds to be assigned to St. John's Hospital. However, University Hospital Limerick seems to be at the top of the list all the time. Extra beds must be provided as a matter of urgency to alleviate this issue as it is the main hospital for the mid-west. To return to the storm, a great number of emergency services and crews were out on the roads today. I pay tribute to the emergency services for the work they did today, because many trees have been felled and people have been injured in cars, and I thank them for their sterling work.
I thank the Senator for her brevity, as usual.
Like Senator Ardagh, I wish to raise the issue of BusConnects, which is a major issue here in Dublin. As a matter of priority, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, should come to the Chamber for a full, dedicated debate on the BusConnects issue. The BusConnects plan proposes a redesign of the bus network in Dublin. This was announced in July, conveniently when the Dáil and Seanad had risen. The consultation period was supposed to end on 14 September which, again conveniently, was just before the Dáil and Seanad were due to resume. Fianna Fáil managed to get this consultation period extended by two weeks but that is still not sufficient to get the opinions of everybody in the communities that are badly affected by this redesign, as well as those of the advocacy groups for people with disabilities, learning difficulties, dementia and other issues who use the bus service regularly.
The consultation period was very short. There has been unnecessary anxiety and concern in communities because there has been a lack of information from the NTA and the Government on the impact of the plan on people in Dublin. There are very real fears about communities being cut off, about quality of life being severely affected and about a disproportionate impact on the elderly and those with mobility or learning difficulties. In particular, the plan does not take into consideration the needs of a rapidly expanding population in north County Dublin, where I live and which I represent.
It is clear that there needs to be a redesign of the bus network but one needs to consult the people who depend on the buses. It is clear, particularly regarding north County Dublin, that the whole aim of the plan is to get people to use the trains but if one knew anything about commuter trains in north County Dublin one would realise they are operating at capacity. They do not have the capacity to take extra passengers. Many living in north County Dublin cannot access the trains because they live a significant distance from a train station. By having the short period of consultation, the Government, with the NTA, is not taking into consideration the views of the people who use the bus service.
The new bus networks should be linking people and communities with places they want to go, such as universities, hospitals and the airport, not shopping centres. I would really like the Minister to come to the Chamber as soon as possible to have a full, dedicated debate on the BusConnects plan.
I echo the call made by Senator Bacik for a real debate on the report of the Commission of the Future of Policing in Ireland. It is a very thorough and challenging document. It will require very considerable political commitment and the application of resources, not merely financial but also intellectual and emotional, in changing the culture of An Garda Síochána and supporting the process of change.
The report itself has provided for some oversight of its own implementation by suggesting the process can begin within three months. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, appeared to say this would be the blueprint for the development of policing in Ireland over the coming years. If it is, we need to see a firm statement of Government commitment as to how the Government will achieve all the various aims in the report.
The policing system in our country has faced many difficulties recently. Morale among members of An Garda Síochána is low. The self-esteem of An Garda Síochána has been dented by recent events. The proposals of Ms O'Toole and her group should be implemented rapidly. Members of An Garda Síochána - men and women - and civilian staff in An Garda Síochána should be given a very clear message that change is on the way and that the Government is 100% committed to this and that it will happen.
Senator Bacik mentioned the referendum result and the fact that the challenge has finally gone through the courts, that the President had finally signed the legislation into law and that our Constitution is now changed. The whole process of referendum petitions should be re-examined. It seems to me that it is possible for one person, just using ordinary procedures in the courts, to delay every referendum's implementation by about three months.
That is wrong.
Somebody who really has a challenge should have to meet very significant initial thresholds or else the process should stop immediately. The idea that one can consider appealing to the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court and then engage the activities of those courts in the process is a real problem. We should speed up the process and make it more certain. This is not the first time it has happened and it will not be the last unless we do something. That is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, whose Department is in charge of referendums and the like.
I went out to meet ex-members of the Defence Forces who had a coherent and loud message for Government that they wanted better conditions. It is something as a member of Government I certainly support. I hope the Government can see a way to working towards getting better conditions for people who have effectively held the line in difficult times and who have represented our country around the world on United Nations duties.
I agree with the future of policing report under the new Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris. We need to have a debate in this House. If it goes the same way as the Patten commission on policing in Northern Ireland, it would be a huge success. People do not realise that Mr. Chris Patten's grandfather came from Boyle in County Roscommon. We are proud of Chris Patten and how he has handled himself, especially in the Brexit negotiations.
Recently there was a housing protest in the north inner city of Dublin. Commissioner Harris rightly said that the form of attire used by gardaí was not correct. Sometimes in this Seanad or even in politics more generally we need to be careful of how we criticise An Garda Síochána. My grandfather was one of the first gardaí. I am proud of the role they have played. They have made mistakes but I am very much behind An Garda Síochána and politicians should be also. The policing report will hopefully draw a line under what at times can be an easy go at members of An Garda Síochána. They do a tough job. I recently saw that a member of An Garda Síochána was attacked by a criminal gang while bringing his child to school. We should be careful about these online threats on social media. I would not like to be a garda and have people taking my photograph, putting it online and knowing where I live. The policing report is worthy and welcome but it is our police force and I am proud of it.
I wanted to use the first opportunity I had to call for a debate on the worsening housing crisis. I call on the Leader to ensure that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government comes to this House as soon as that can be scheduled. I know I will say when he comes here that his plans most recently for a new Land Development Agency will cause only further harm to people's lives and will do nothing to solve the crisis.
The proposal for the Land Development Agency is that just 10% of public land, which is our land, will be available for social housing. Some 30% of that land will be affordable, whatever that means. It might be €50,000 less than the market rate. The really unconscionable part is that some 60% of the houses built on what was our land will be sold at market prices, completely out of the reach of the many. Do not get me wrong, there is merit in a State agency that co-ordinates State land for regeneration and development to drive strategic land assembly, but is there anything this Government will not privatise?
This is not just an ideological difference that we have. The process is also slow and is proved to add up to 18 months to the overall development timeline. I wonder how many people and how many experts have to say that a blind over-reliance on the private market to solve the housing crisis is destroying people's lives and young people's future. I ask for a debate on housing as soon as possible in the Seanad.
I welcome our distinguished guests in the Gallery, the chairperson of Monaghan County Council, Councillor David Maxwell.
He and his family are more than welcome. It is great to see him here and I hope he enjoys his trip.
I raise the issue of school transport, which is one of the key issues in my part of the world, as, in many way, is the lack of changes in the structure itself. There was a Commencement debate earlier on this issue. I listened intently to the debate on the key issues for school transport and how we need to address a major change in that structure. We are seeing an increase in the population going to school and concessionary tickets are fading away and because of that students in my part of the world are not getting buses. That is becoming a huge issue. In my own parish of Minane Bridge, students are not getting buses and these were students who traditionally got the school bus. We need to have a complete review of the structure, how it is set up, and these 314 districts regarding school education itself. For that to change, we need to look at our general approach. We need to put a service in place where the vast majority of students have the opportunity to get a school bus. That is not happening at the moment. The stress that is caused to parents, pupils and the entire community because of that is a huge issue.
The other issue is not knowing whether one will get a place on the bus. I know of people who, in the first week of September, were waiting for the phone call to say their son or daughter was going to be on the bus. In one case, the parents got a phone call to say that their son was being taken off the bus, which was totally unacceptable. I propose we invite the Minister with responsibility for school transport to the Seanad, have at least a two hour debate and thrash out these issues. Unless there is a new policy and budget in place, we will miss an opportunity to ensure young people can go to secondary and primary school on the school bus which is a basic right.
I join with Senator Lombard in welcoming the Cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council, Councillor David Maxwell, and his family to the Chamber.
I hope he has an enjoyable stay and I think it is more sheltered here than it is in Monaghan at the moment. In the event Senator Lombard does not make it to the Lower House, he is spreading his wings with regard to being re-elected to this Chamber.
I must spread my wings too and welcome David Maxwell, Cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council, to the Chamber and wish him well if he decides to run for the Seanad, provided he is not on the Labour Panel.
I congratulate our colleague, Senator Joan Freeman, on being nominated to contest the Presidential election. It is a great achievement for her. I wish our present President, Michael D. Higgins, who was a former lecturer of mine, every success as well because he is an extraordinary, wonderful President. He taught me well. He taught me so well that I got into the Dáil before him, which was a great achievement and I told him that at the time.
You must have been a mature student.
It is never too late to learn.
The other people, who have been funded by the €160 licence fee, are Sean Gallagher, Gavin Duffy and Peter Casey. I do not know how we managed without them. I cannot figure that out. The last guy we funded was George Lee and he did not last too long. He was funded by RTÉ. I wonder how we will manage without "Dragons' Den".
Fianna Fáil had a good few of them. Will we name the people in the Senator's party who ran under the licence fee?
It is a programme-----
We could start with "Trom agus Éadrom" and go on from there.
The Senator should relax. He is being provocative. He has a chance to respond.
The Senator has a very short memory.
It is not appropriate for the Leader to interrupt.
Do not be trying to impress David Maxwell here.
I impressed him a long time ago, as he impressed me.
I send our best wishes to Anna May McHugh and the people at the ploughing championships. It was upsetting today for all the people participating in, and all the people who are en route to, the ploughing championships. I hope it resumes tomorrow and they get an extra day on Friday. I hope they get a response to that. I know companies that are there and it is extremely disappointing. It was a wonderful day yesterday.
All the Presidential candidates were there yesterday canvassing as well. They were lucky they picked yesterday. I wish Ms Anna Marie McHugh well. It is a marvellous event taking place near Tullamore and I wish it well.
Finally, I wish the Taoiseach success in Salzburg, Austria, today. He is swimming with sharks when it comes to Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker and others in respect of the EU. It is vital that we retain our 12.5% corporation tax rate and it should not be a matter for negotiation. Brexit or not, the 26 other members should support it on the basis that we will be the most affected and the most damaged if the Brexit negotiations are not good. The best Brexit outcome is a return to the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1965 when the United Kingdom and Ireland had an agreement prior joining the EEC. It is a separate zone in Europe and should be supported on that basis.
I ask the Leader to find out what I asked of him. On 17 October, I will work with Dublin University staff in the House on an innovative possibility for a seamless Border. I will give him more details about that. I have put forward a plan to them, which they are working on, and they will come back with a proposal as to how we could apply modern technology to overcome the Border issue.
I welcome back all my colleagues and staff as well.
I had not planned to speak on the policing issue. I look forward to studying the report, which has been welcomed in principle by my party's justice spokesman, Deputy O'Callaghan.
I echo what Senator Feighan stated in respect of supporting the Garda. It is incumbent on us as elected representatives, especially in the Oireachtas, to stand by and support the Garda. It is easy for groups out there to attack the force. No organisation is perfect. There is not a police force in the world, not even in heaven above, without its flaws. We are proud of the Garda. It is incumbent on us to support gardaí when they become the subject of unacceptable criticism. A few weeks ago in Dublin, I was walking along the street when an altercation took place. Two young gardaí were attempting to arrest a group of people who had clearly been in breach of the peace and a group of people gathered around them with mobile phones, sticking the phones literally into their faces and asking "What's your number? What's your number?" and all that type of thing. There is a fine line between civil liberty and harassment of the Garda and I, for one, would come down on the side of the latter.
Members have heard me speak ad nauseam here about our gas security. I ask the Leader to try to get the Minister for Communications, Climate Act and Environment, Deputy Naughten, into the House to give us an update on our energy security into the future, particularly in relation to gas. I am delighted to tell the House that the Shannon LNG project, which I have been very involved in and supported for almost 12 years, is about to come to fruition with new investors. It is facing one final hurdle, which is an attempted injunction next month. We will let that case take its course. Work should hopefully begin in January, with 500 valuable jobs for us in the mid-west region. I seek that debate.
In congratulating Senator Freeman on being nominated to run for the presidency, and all the other successful candidates who have come through the nomination process, let me compliment the local authorities. The local authorities did their own thing. The Constitution allows for local authorities to nominate. It was not the practice in the past. It is very much the practice of the present and into the future and I like that. The more candidates who are nominated the better. I hope we will have a good, straight, honest debate. I will keep a close eye on how these debates are handled by the media, in particular, by RTÉ.
Finally, I congratulate our colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, on the publication of our autobiography, People Like Me. I was glad to be in Trinity College last night for the launch. The Senator gave a wonderful interview to Mr. Vincent Browne. Senator Ruane would make one proud to be a colleague of hers in the Seanad. All the Civil Engagement Members deserve to be congratulated. They are a wonder ginger group here and they certainly have made their presence felt.
I also welcome everyone back.
I see the Leader is in good form today. I am glad to be back. Today, outside Leinster House, the families of our Defence Forces are being forced to withstand gale force winds in order to be heard, as they seek respect for their loved ones. Today all of us here must give our support to the Defence Forces, along with proper pay and respect. They protect us, rescue us and save us but what do we do for them? Very little.
The Defence Forces are the poorest paid in the public sector. They are salaried. They are not paid by the hour and many are on family income supplement because they cannot support their families on that salary. They are not provided with free accommodation or married quarters. They have to pay for school books and uniforms. Like every family, they must put food on the table as well as pay their mortgage. It is time the State recognised these men and women for what they do for us here and abroad. We applaud them and must show them the respect they deserve. I was proud to stand beside those families outside and to call this Government out for the appalling way it is treating them.
During the recent Papal visit, members of the Defence Forces slept on camp beds, were away from home for three days and received no extra pay, only an allowance. That is not good enough. I call on the Taoiseach to outline how he intends to support his Defence Forces in the upcoming budget.
I also raise the policing report. It is very important and I have listened to people speaking on it. We know the members of An Garda Síochána work extremely hard which we must respect. The biggest issue is resources. We need more gardaí and to give them more funding. Community policing is the biggest area that must be addressed. I am glad this report has been received. We must say well done. The gardaí are under a great deal of pressure and we need more of them.
I join the Leader in welcoming all our colleagues to the new session. No doubt everyone is suitably refreshed and ready for the fray. I have already said hello to my good friend, Councillor David Maxwell, and his group and look forward to meeting them again before the day is out.
I very much welcome the Future of Policing report. I listened with great interest to our colleague, Senator Michael McDowell, who spoke on the matter on the radio this morning. I very much agreed with the views on the late Senator from the North. Senators will forgive me, it was our great friend from the North-----
Senator Maurice Hayes.
It was Maurice Hayes, of course, forgive me. My memory was blocked for a second.
A Listowel man.
Absolutely. A man who I often had breakfast and tea with. We happened to stay in the same house up on the Green.
A private club.
I think Senator McDowell agreed with him. I very much welcome the report and when the Leader arranges for us to discuss it we will all be interested in it.
I was also at the same book launch last night, thanks to Senator Ned O'Sullivan for reminding me of the matter. It was a very enjoyable function. I was unable to be detained for as long as the Senator was but it was very enjoyable and I congratulate our colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, on her success.
Before they head off, I also welcome my good friend, Councillor David Maxwell, and his group to the Seanad this afternoon. Judging by the contributions from my colleagues, David will not have the opportunity to put his hand in his pocket today because all the food and drink he can consume will be bought for him before he leaves. I hope they all enjoy the rest of their day and I look forward to seeing them later.
On a more serious issue, like others, I rise to raise the flawed operation of the school transport system throughout this country. It is failing children, parents and schools throughout rural Ireland. I am aware of one school in County Monaghan, Scoil Mhuire, where children were not allowed onto the bus and were left standing at the side of the road.
It is clear from looking at newspapers and listening to local radio stations throughout the country that we have a serious problem. It is not working. It is failing school children, parents and rural communities. This system was introduced by the Government in 2016. I am sure the Leader will agree it is not working. Surely it is not beyond the competence of those in the Department to come up with a common-sense scheme that will allow our school children to be taken to school. I ask the Leader to take the message back to the Government that the system needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. We all stood here this time last year and discussed the same issues and problems and we are back here this year doing likewise. I ask the Leader to get the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, to come to the House to discuss this issue and undertake a review of the system as a matter of urgency.
I thank the 16 Members of the House for their contributions to the Order of Business. I dtús báire, ar mo shon féin, cuirim fíorfháilte ar ais roimh gach duine, go mórmhór roimh fhoireann Teach Laighean agus roimh an gCathaoirleach. I welcome everybody back to the very busy autumn term and hope we have a very successful and co-operative session. We have much very important work to undertake. I join with the Cathaoirleach in welcoming everybody back, in particular members of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I hope they have all had a very pleasant summer. I welcome Councillor David Maxwell and his family and representatives from Monaghan to the House. I welcome colleagues from Limerick who are guests of Senator Maria Byrne.
I begin by offering, on my behalf and on behalf of the Fine Gael group and the House, our sympathies to the family of the lady who was tragically killed this morning in the west of our country during the storm which took hold of part of our nation. It is a very tragic loss of life and we send our deepest sympathies to her family. We thank all those who today worked tirelessly to ensure our roads were safe and that our public services were working. I thank all first responders, staff of local authorities, the Defence Forces and other people who have been involved in the operation today across our country. It is important that people take care. Met Éireann does not give out weather warnings lightly. I hope people will take notice of them.
Senators Ardagh, Feighan and Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of our Defence Forces. We are all rightly proud of our Defence Forces. The Government respects and values each and every member of our Defence Forces. Today, the members of the Defence Forces and their families held a parade outside Leinster House. Unfortunately I could not get to it because I had a meeting of the group leaders. It is important that the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, was in the House today. Senator McFadden had a Commencement matter on the issue. The Government has established a public sector pay commission to look at the pay and conditions of public servants, including members of the Defence Forces. It will look at retention, recruitment and pay.
It is important to put the issue in context. Senator Murnane O'Connor will say "Here he goes again" but we should look at where we have come from and where we are today. I will begin this term as I have always done in a spirit of co-operation and bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle but I will not take a lecture from members of the Fianna Fáil Party on fiscal management and public sector pay and conditions when they were part of a Government that decimated and destroyed the lives of people.
Fine Gael is eight years in government now. It has to be responsible.
Fianna Fáil is now travelling the road of promising all things to all people and if that is the way it wants to behave then let us go to the country and have an election.
Look to the future. That is what we are saying. We all need to work together.
Should we not be old enemies?
I know that Senator Ned O'Sullivan is getting ready to hit the road himself and I know that he was very close to the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin, when they gathered in Malahide. I worked well with the Senator on the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, however. Let us put things in context. If we want to have a real political debate then let us have that.
One cannot just keep promising and then not deliver. That is what Fine Gael has done.
I remind members of Fianna Fáil that we have had a number of debates in this House on the Defence Forces and we will have them again. Senators McFadden, Craughwell and Wilson also have raised these matters here on the Order of Business. I ask Senator Murnane O'Connor to put things in context. The public sector pay agreement from 2018 to 2020 provides for further increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement. The first increase was due on 1 January 2018 and has been paid to Defence Forces personnel. A second increase is due on 1 October. By the end of the current public sector pay agreement, the pay of all public servants earning under €70,000 per annum, including members of the Defence Forces, will be restored to pre-financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, levels. It was Senator Murnane O'Connor's party that brought in FEMPI when it was in government. The Senator cannot have it every way. Does she want to come over here to do the reply?
Senator McFadden said today that the Government needed to step up. I listened to her speaking and she said she was not happy. She said that the Minister needed to step up and was not doing what he said he would do. That is coming from one of Fine Gael's own Senators. I heard her today in the Chamber.
Please. I ask the Senator-----
Step up to the plate.
I heard that today. I am glad to be back, Leader.
I also heard all of that today, both from the Minister and from-----
Senator McFadden asked the Minister to step up.
The restoration of public sector pay commenced under the last Government and continues under this one. I ask that Senator Murnane O'Connor not forget that.
I am watching everything the Government is doing.
What Senator McFadden said, as to be fair did Senators Craughwell and Wilson in a non-partisan way, is that we need to do more. We will do that but Senator Murnane O'Connor should not use the men and women of the Defence Forces as political pawns.
Absolutely not. I was proud to be here. When Fine Gael's own Senator does not agree with the Minister-----
They are members of Óglaigh na hÉireann, our Defence Forces, who travel the world. We should have pride in them and value them and not use them as political pawns-----
Absolutely and that is why I was proud to stand outside Leinster House today. The Leader was not out there but I was.
That is the seventh time that Senator Murnane O'Connor has interrupted.
I am sorry but I was proud to stand outside there today, a Chathaoirligh. I made the effort to go out.
The Senator has made her point. I know that the Leader is anxious.
I am anxious to get going with my winding up.
More wound up.
Senator Murnane O'Connor, I apologise, I mean Senator Clifford-Lee-----
I am delighted to be back, Leader.
The Senator is probably in Dublin North and Dublin South-Central as well. Senators Ardagh and Clifford-Lee raised the very important issue of BusConnects. I know that Senator McDowell has been knocking on doors about this as well. The Senators are correct to raise this very important issue. Many of my party colleagues, such as Councillor Emer Higgins and Deputy Rock have also held public meetings on the matter. There is a need to have meaningful consultation. I do not buy the conspiracy theory argument that suggests people are not engaged when the Dáil goes into recess. They are engaged and the fact that many Members of the Houses and councillors have had public meetings shows people are indeed involved and engaged with the process.
What is important, however, and where I agree wholeheartedly with the Senators is that we need to have full public consultation. There needs to be real meaningful dialogue and engagement. What outcome do we want to see? We want to see better routes; increased journeys; and faster bus connectivity. Public transport is something to which the Government is committed. If we need to see an extension of the consultation period, I would have no personal problem with that. The points made by Senator Ardagh and others today were valid.
I have no answer for Senator Ardagh regarding the sale of the John Player site.
NAMA is not open to political engagement. As far as I am aware, engagement with NAMA is precluded under the Act. However, the issue raised is one on which there is need for consultation.
I wish Senator Freeman well in the Presidential election and I congratulate her on attaining the nomination and on raising the issue of mental health. Yesterday, I spoke at an event and I made the point that there is a need for mandatory mental health training in the workplace in order that people will have the tools to promote positive mental health and to address stress in the workplace owing to, in some cases, inflexible and long working days. It is important that we recognise that the workplace has changed. In times past, there was a considerable amount of emphasis on vocational training and the physical health of employees. We now need to do likewise in respect of mental health and wellbeing. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, has made changes in the curriculum in terms of wellbeing but I agree with Senator Freeman that it is important that there is mental health training in the workplace.
Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of waiting times for assessment of needs, in respect of which she rightly quoted the disability Act and stated that the number of applications is way too high. Following on from enactment of the legislation, 1,138 applications were received in 2016. This increased to 5,839 last year. Between 2005 and 2017, 43,521 completed applications were received by the HSE. It is important to recognise that there has been profound change. An assessments of need compliance improvement plan has been put in place by the HSE and the Minister of State with responsibility for this area, Deputy Finian McGrath, has allocated additional resources to areas where there are significant backlogs. I agree that we need to erode these waiting times as they are a source of stress to people and families.
On the point raised by Senator Black, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 was not delayed by the Government in the Lower House, but for other reasons. The Taoiseach is on record as saying as late as yesterday that it is a priority of the Government to have that Bill enacted as soon as possible. It is my understanding that the Bill will be back before the Dáil next week. I give the Senator a commitment that the Bill will be taken here as soon as possible after the Dáil has done its work. The Senator will be aware that much of what happens in the Seanad is conditional on the Dáil concluding its business. She is correct that we need to have the conversation about the continued misuse and abuse of alcohol in our society. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is but one measure in this regard, although an important one. Senator Black is to be commended for the work that she does. Having the type of conversations which bring people on a journey forms part of what we must do.
Senator Bacik raised the issue of the eighth amendment. I welcome the signing into law by President Higgins of the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018. The eighth amendment is now repealed. Those of us who campaigned for it very much welcome that signature yesterday.
As the Taoiseach said, the legislation will come before the Dáil in the first week of October. It is my intent that the legislation will not be delayed in this House but that is dependent on the co-operation of all sides. I understand that at the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health this morning concerns were expressed by a variety of spokespersons for different organisations. If the views articulated by the Irish College of General Practitioners, ICGP, and the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in terms of the infrastructure not being in place are true then we need to have that conversation in tandem with the passage of the legislation. I hope that by the end of the year we will have all of the necessary pieces in place. Yesterday's announcement from the Áras was important. Equally important were the comments of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health about the Bill. I look forward to the debate on that legislation and to its passage as quickly as possible.
I join Senators Bacik, McDowell, Feighan, O'Sullivan, Murnane O'Connor and Coghlan in welcoming the publication of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and in wishing Drew Harris well in his new role as Commissioner of An Garda Síochána.
I welcome the publication of the report and compliment the chairman, Ms Kathleen O'Toole, on a comprehensive, thorough and thought provoking report. There is universal acceptance that the culture within An Garda Síochána needs to change but, equally, as outlined by the commission, its structure and management, along with the culture and oversight, must also be tackled. I might get attacked on this but 2022 is the centenary of An Garda Síochána and there is a window between now and then to bring about this much needed reform. Members have spoken about the Patten report in the North on what is now the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI. It is a watershed moment for An Garda Síochána and one we should embrace and move forward with. I give a commitment that we will have the Minister in the House to discuss the report.
The report makes many innovative and exciting proposals. I am not going to go through it all but the Minister has requested the Department of Justice and Equality, in consultation with the Department of the Taoiseach, to move quickly to put in place arrangements for an implementation group on policing reform and an implementation programme office, as recommended by the commission. I hope we will debate the report in tandem with what the Government is doing. I join Senators O'Sullivan, Coghlan and others in endorsing the need to have balance in the way people criticise members of An Garda Síochána on social media, in the media or on any other platform. They are guardians of the peace and go about their work professionally - whether it is in sporting organisations, as voluntary stewards, in the traffic corps or during the papal visit. We need to give them support and stand with them.
The Commissioner made comments on the headgear worn at the protest and incident on North Frederick Street. We cannot allow, however, a situation where agitation transcends the rule of law. We must uphold the law at all times; that is what democracy is about. We know what happens if we go down the road of anarchy. The democratic process is one we should all stand up for. An Garda Síochána deserves our support and I support fully the remarks of Senator O'Sullivan about its members.
On Senator Bacik's point, the Minister for Education and Skills has been in the House to debate the separation of church and State in education but I will ask him to come back to the House.
Senator Byrne raised the issue of patients on trolleys in Limerick University Hospital. The number is too high and the Government is committed to tackling the waiting lists and it has committed to opening additional beds in Limerick.
I join Senator McDowell in calling for a review of the situation where a citizen can appeal a referendum result. That is outdated, outmoded and has served its time. I say that in the context of many referenda that we have had, whether on children, marriage equality or the eighth amendment. I will explain why I agree with Senator McDowell. We had pre-legislative scrutiny, the Citizens' Assembly and the Constitutional Convention. These provided for all the issues in the relevant referendum to be debated but, in some cases, one person put in serial objections. That is wrong. We should not have a situation where the will of the people is delayed for 90 days or more. I agree fully with Senator McDowell and I will be happy to have a debate on the process where a referendum petition can be put before the courts. I do not oppose people challenging a result but there must be a way or, as Senator McDowell put it, a threshold that must be overcome. I endorse his remarks on that.
I am sorry but Senator Feighan also made the point I referred to earlier, not Senator Coghlan. With the indulgence of the Chair, I commend Senator Feighan. During the summer he sent all of us a letter with a shamrock poppy to commemorate the sacrifices of Irishmen and Irishwomen who fought and died in the First World War. The Senator has been a champion of marking the significant centenary that is Remembrance Sunday and I thank him for his letter and his shamrock poppy. It is particularly important as the centenary is this year on 11 November. It is one we as Members of the Oireachtas could support him on and I thank him again.
Senator Warfield raised the issue of the housing crisis of which the Government is very cognisant. I am very conscious that we have a lot of work to do, notwithstanding that we have work done and undertaken. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has been in the House on numerous occasions. I am happy to have him come back to the House again. We need political parties to make a strategic decision and not table motions of confidence or no confidence in the Minister because, as the leader of Fianna Fáil has said, the latter will not build a single house. We need to adopt a joint approach to tackling housing, which is what happened at the beginning of the Oireachtas term. It beggars belief that members of political parties on councils have opposed and blocked housing developments at a time when we need them.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil did it.
Sinn Féin did it in the county in which we reside and Sinn Féin councillors on South Dublin County Council voted against the provision of social and affordable private housing.
That is not the case.
The Senator's party voted against the provision of 975 houses. We either want houses or we do not. I am of the view that every person needs to have a home whether it is private, social or affordable. I know that the Senator did not say the following but I wish to dispel the notion that the Fine Gael Party opposes the provision of social housing, on the contrary. I support the need to have affordable houses built to give people an opportunity to buy and live in their own homes, and to have social housing built. I welcome the proposed establishment of the Land Development Agency. I hope, in tandem with county and city councils, that houses built will be built faster. In my own city of Cork, where Senator Colm Burke and I live, there are building sites where social houses are being constructed such as Deanrock Estate, White Street and in Carrigaline, which is in my constituency of Cork Central, to name but three sites. As we speak, social housing is being constructed by this Government and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.
Senators Lombard and Gallagher raised the issue of school transport as did other Members. Earlier the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, was in the House to take a Commencement matter. School transport is a significant issue and many Members of this House have had to navigate the choppy waters of this issue over the summer months. I accept that there is a need for reform because there are people whom the nearest school does not suit. I am talking about children with disabilities who must attend another school but were deprived of school transport. That is wrong. I heard the Minister of State say that the Government has spent over €190 million on school transport. It is important that we consider the scheme in terms of the nearest school option and eligibility for transport and I hope that the scheme is reviewed. Senator Lombard was right to say that accessing school transport is a source of huge stress and a burden for many families.
I thank Senator Leyden for raising the important issue of the Taoiseach's visit to Salzburg. The issue of Brexit is the question of our time and there are many unknowns. I believe that the Brexit negotiations and tax reforms are two separate issues. The Senator used the phrase that the Taoiseach was swimming with sharks. I assure him that the Taoiseach is a good operator.
A shark, yes.
Yes, but the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is a good swimmer.
The Taoiseach has a fine fin himself.
The Taoiseach is well able to navigate choppy waters-----
The Taoiseach is not as good as Enda Kenny.
-----as is the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and his Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee. I know that the trio are united in their approach to Brexit and appreciate that Senator Leyden wishes them well-----
-----in their talks today but also in the ongoing negotiations.
I urge them to be aware, to be warned and to take care.
I appreciate where the Senator is coming from and I know where he has come from when he says that. I know that his involvement in Europe has granted him the experience to come in here and make such a comment. I do not dismiss his comments at all, in case he thinks that I am.
I thank the Leader.
I wish the Senator well with his impending report on a seamless border.
I thank the Leader. I hope that he will attend my function in the AV Room on 17 October.
If my party is invited my colleagues and I will give it consideration.
The Leader's party will be invited.
We will attend, if we can.
Tá an t-ám istigh.
I join with Senator Leyden in congratulating and thanking the executive of the National Ploughing Championships for cancelling the second day of the event.
It was done in the interests of public health and safety. I know that there were many disappointed people who had travelled and who were in Screggan but the event was cancelled in the interests of health and safety.
I wish all candidates for the Presidency every success, including those who have already been nominated and those who may be nominated before the deadline. I also join Senators Coghlan and Ned O'Sullivan in congratulating Senator Ruane on the publication of her book People Like Me. I was not able to attend the launch last night but I saw Senator Ruane's television interview on Saturday night. I know from that interview and from her personal commitment as a public representative and as a citizen that she brings a huge amount of passion, energy and intellect to what she does. I am looking forward to reading her book. I wish her well and thank her for having the courage and the temerity to go public and to speak very eloquently and passionately. Perhaps there is a book in all of us, Senator Leyden---
The Leader could write a very interesting book himself.
Been there, done that---
I will now happily conclude my reply to today's Order of Business. I wish the Cathaoirleach well as he navigates us safely through a very interesting and hopefully peaceful time in this House.
The Leader should also wish me the strength of tolerance.