The Order of Business is No. 1, Private Members' business, Civil Liability (Capping of General Damages) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I am sure colleagues will join me in wishing one of our most esteemed members of staff, Mr. Donal Hickey, well in his retirement tomorrow. He has been courteous to all of us in our time here. We wish him a long and happy retirement. He is retiring to Kerry, which is always a great idea. When he gets there, I will be sure to show him the bakery run by the three Moriarty brothers which shut down after 49 years of business. When they retired, they wrote a lovely thank-you note on the window of the bakery in beautiful script and gave a piece of advice to others who seek to retire. The note in question stated that the brothers would have to learn how to spend time without spending money. I hope Donal Hickey masters that art as well.
Under this Government, we have reached the tragic landmark of 10,000 people being homeless . I note the continuous activity masquerading as action on the part of the Minister with responsibility for homelessness. I would call him the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if he was providing any, but we will just have to call it as it is. On his watch, homelessness has become an acceptable face of Government policy. We will be looking for another debate on this issue. It goes with other promises like Fine Gael's pledge to end the trolley crisis. We need to hear what the Minister has to say for himself about this issue.
In the coming weeks, Fianna Fáil will propose an amendment to the Order of Business in respect of the issue of corporate manslaughter. The relevant legislation was first proposed by the Law Reform Commission in 2005 as a result of the hepatitis C scandal in which blood products which were contaminated with hepatitis C were knowingly distributed to women. Thousands of women were infected and hundreds died as a result, yet no one went to prison. The man who knew the blood products were contaminated did nothing about it. I raise this issue again because we have brought our Bill forward again. The officials in the Department of Justice and Equality have refused to meet me, despite the Minister's pledges that they would do so. They have concerns about the Bill. The part they are concerned about is that under which people would actually go to prison as a result of corporate manslaughter. In the North, there were arrests over incidents at a nightclub. We have seen court action resulting from the Hillsborough tragedy in which nearly 100 Liverpool fans died as a result of corporate neglect on the part of the police. The person in charge is facing prosecution and possible conviction. If the hepatitis C scandal happened again, nobody would go to prison because the Government has refused to allow the legislation to move forward. I wish to ask the Leader why that is the case. I suspect it is because many senior officials in a lot of Departments are afraid that at some stage they might face prosecution under the legislation as a result of their inaction.
I concur with the previous speaker's remarks in bidding farewell to Mr. Donal Hickey, one of our senior ushers. He is extremely courteous and professional and has always been pleasant to me throughout my long years of service. He will be missed in this House. Senator Mark Daly notes that he is returning to his native Kerry. If one cannot retire in beautiful west Cork, Kerry is the next best place to go, so I will forgive him for that. I am sure he will be at Croke Park next Sunday, shouting for his native county. I call on Senator Craughwell. I almost addressed him as an officer.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. It would be nice indeed to be promoted to the commissioned ranks. Sadly, that was not an option during my time. It is interesting that the Cathaoirleach mentions them. We frequently discuss issues relating to the Defence Forces in this room. Some work has been done with respect to the retention of commissioned officers. It is not really working, but some effort is being made in that area.
I have been contacted recently by a number of non-commissioned officers, including sergeants, quartermaster sergeants, company sergeants, sergeants major and a barrack quartermaster sergeant. They are all highly experienced and approaching retirement age. Sergeants are retiring at 50 years, some with 20 years' service, and have vast experience that is available to the State. Could the Deputy Leader examine the strategy in place on retention? Is there a strategy on retaining non-commissioned officers, from the rank of corporal upwards, who have vast experience and do not want to retire early or at a young age? Is there a policy in place? I cannot find one. If there is none, could we have one put in place?
The Deputy Leader will know I have been supportive of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, throughout the homelessness crisis. The figures today are quite shocking. I am sure they are attributable, to a large degree or at least in some cases, to Airbnb. My colleague, Senator Kevin Humphreys, has constantly referred to the Airbnb scandal, which is leaving families homeless while landlords are making a killing. I will let the Senator speak for himself on this in a few minutes. He has been the champion in the House in this area and has brought much pressure to bear right across the Oireachtas on the short-term profiteering that is taking place.
We are told there is a shortage of building capacity in the country. I sit on the Luas in the morning on my way in and count the number of cranes. We are building offices at a phenomenal rate. If one goes to Sandyford today, one will see hoardings all over the place showing offices with 220,000 sq. ft here or 230,000 sq. ft there. If we are able to build offices, for God's sake why are we not able to build homes? Why are we not able to put people into homes? Are there empty office blocks, particularly around the city of Dublin, that could be converted into homes? There is no point in having offices for businesses setting up in this country if there is nowhere for their staff to live, or if the enormous multinationals are renting properties at inflated prices in order to accommodate their staff. It is acceptable in the short term but it will be detrimental to the country in the longer term. Therefore, I ask that the Minister be invited to the House at the earliest possible date to have a discussion on the difference between commercial housing and non-commercial housing. I still support what the Minister is trying to do through Rebuilding Ireland but it is becoming increasingly difficult.
I welcome to the Visitors Gallery the visitors from St. Clare's primary school in Cavan town. The teachers include Ms Simmons, Ms King, Mr. Walsh and Ms Shannon. I welcome, in particular, Senator Wilson's twin daughters, Niamh and Maeve. Many of the children have a big occasion on Saturday week. I wish them every success. I hope they have a lovely day in Oireachtas Éireann. Sometimes we have a falling out with Senator Wilson but the visitors, particularly Niamh and Maeve, can be very proud of their local Senator. He is a long-standing and well-respected Member of this House.
I welcome all the students from Cavan. There was a group in earlier also. I hear some of them will be budding politicians. Niamh and Maeve might be Diarmuid's daughters but I hope they do not take any notice of Daddy and join the right party.
I wish to say farewell to Donal Hickey and thank him for his exceptional work. I wish him well in the future. I apologise in advance as Kerry will be beaten on Sunday by Mayo. I am sure he will get over that.
I commend the report issued this morning by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, which is chaired by Deputy Ó Caoláin. I ask the Deputy Leader for a debate on the report's recommendations and outputs. It would be very interesting. I will not get into the details of the report; suffice it to say that some of the content is very good and some of it needs to be expanded in respect of rural crime. I would appreciate it if the debate could be facilitated as soon as possible.
This morning, it was reported that only 7% of women who had repeat smear tests for cervical cancer have received their results. That leaves around 2,370 women still waiting on repeat test results, despite being promised priority testing and results within four to six weeks. IT problems in the laboratory company, Quest Diagnostics, and the unexpected high volume of samples have all been mentioned as reasons for the delay. That is absolutely unacceptable. It shows the system is not working and is broken. I call on the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, to rectify this immediately. If it were not bad enough that these women have had to go through the harrowing process of getting tested again, they are now forced to wait for unacceptably long periods to find out the results. We recently had statements in the House on this issue and all sides agreed that the highest priority was to ensure those who still needed screening completed would be a priority. Screening works and saves lives, as we know, but the Minister must ensure that such a vital service is properly resourced and fit for purpose. Yesterday's figures show the system is still chaotic.
Yesterday, we saw that the number of people homeless in the State reached over 10,000. Other figures suggest the number is much greater. Three thousand seven hundred and eighty-four children have no home to go to tonight. We have become immune to increasing numbers of people with no place to call home.
I want to nip something in the bud. Homelessness is not an ideological battle with Sinn Féin on one side and the Government on the other. On RTÉ radio last night, my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, had to remind the programme's host that when it comes to homelessness, there are no sides. We want to offer solutions in opposition and are more than happy for Fine Gael, backed by Fianna Fáil, to implement them. We have a Bill that would make it illegal for a landlord who benefited from a buy-to-let tax break to evict tenants and families in order to sell the property. The landlord would have to sell it with the tenants in situ. Eviction is the main cause of family homelessness. The legislative proposals should be made law urgently but on "Morning Ireland" this morning, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, showed that he simply does not get it. He said Rebuilding Ireland is working, even if the homelessness figure continues to increase. That is completely contradictory. He refused to answer directly the question on how many homes Dublin City Council built last year. He also could not give a timeline for ending child homelessness. The message from the Government is that the policy response is working, and this is all happening because Deputy Micheál Martin and his party, Fianna Fáil, are facilitating budgets and refusing to express no confidence in the Minister. It is time that action was taken.
I thank Senator Craughwell for his kind remarks on my views on Airbnb. Addressing this issue will not solve the housing crisis but at least if the proposal is implemented, it will result in approximately 5,000 new homes in the Dublin area. This is much more than what the Minister has achieved in his term of office.
There is genuine concern about evidence-based policy on housing across the country. Senator Craughwell was correct to comment on the number of cranes on the skyline. Most of the developments in question have traffic management plans. One has to submit a traffic management plan for a major development but an accommodation plan is not needed. The Taoiseach's Department is heading up a project for an innovation centre in the south inner city that will employ approximately 10,000 people. Of those, 7,000, will come from abroad and will need accommodation. Is there an accommodation plan? No, there is not.
The Minister stated this morning the issue is one of supply. I fully agree with him but the problem is that his policies are worsening the supply problem because he calls for review after review. There is a review of apartment sizes, a review of car parking spaces, and a review of the height strategy. Let us examine what these reviews have meant. They have meant withdrawals of planning applications from An Bord Pleanála and the city council to increase the numbers of units on sites and produce new applications.
That was fine. The target is to increase the density, but then he changed the height strategy and we had a further withdrawal of planning applications and no build starts. We then had a review whereby planning applications could be made directly to An Bord Pleanála if they were for more than 100 units. We had another withdrawal of planning applications but the outcome was that nothing was built.
An example of that is the strategic development zones, SDZs, three of which are in the Dublin area. Pressure was put on Dublin City Council and the Department, which was well covered by The Sunday Business Post, by a certain developer and now we have an announcement of a review of the North Lotts strategic development zone. We have sterilised the planning applications for accommodation there because they will wait for the review in respect of the height. We could probably survive one strategic development zone review but we may be led now into reviews of three strategic development zones, which is the North Lotts, the South Lotts and Poolbeg West. Poolbeg West could probably provide 3,500 homes. An Bord Pleanála has not made a decision yet on whether it will give it the go-ahead but I bet the Minister €1 to €100 that when that decision is made it will seek another review because of the Department's change to the height guidelines. The end result of all of that is that nothing has been built. It is review after review. That is not good policy.
I want to be associated with the remarks about Donal Hickey. I will conclude on this point. The National Transport Authority, NTA, announced the MetroLink but there is a marked difference in the way various groups were dealt with regarding the review of the NTA's proposal on MetroLink. That is down to political pressure. I hate to say it but I believe that because residents in the south inner city are probably socially disadvantaged, they did not have a proper input into the alignment of MetroLink. I fully accept that we need a station in the city centre. Proposals were put forward on that and I believe they were ignored because members from the south inner city did not have the same access to senior Ministers and the Taoiseach. It is the case that because of their social and economic backgrounds they have been very much ignored in the entire process.
I am sure Members of the House will join me in sending our condolences to the family of the late John Browne. John Browne was nominated to this Seanad in 1983 and was a Deputy from 1989 to 2002. Any time I met him I found him to be a very decent man who imparted of his knowledge. His son Fergal was a colleague of mine in the Seanad from 2002 to 2007. Our sympathy and condolences go to his wife, Nancy, his daughters Carmel, Deirdre and Geraldine, and his son Fergal.
We saw in Westminster last night the Members of Parliament negotiating with themselves again. It is nice to see that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit has diminished somewhat but I would be very concerned that Brexit has created huge divisions, certainly in Northern Ireland and on this island. I read a news item recently about Trevor Ringland, who played rugby for Ireland. At the height of the Troubles, he and Hugo MacNeill were champions of co-operation and breaking down barriers on the island of Ireland but I am very concerned that Trevor Ringland has stated that there is no space in a very nationalist Ireland for even moderate unionists. I know the work that Trevor Ringland, Hugo MacNeill and many in the British Irish Association have done since the early 1970s in Oxford and Cambridge every second year but I am very concerned about that kind of rhetoric about a Border poll and nationalists being emboldened because of Brexit uncertainty. Nationalists have every right to aspire in that regard but these are difficult and dangerous times when we see somebody like Trevor Ringland, who was at the vanguard of cross-Border co-operation, coming out with a statement like that. We have to be very careful to ensure that we do not send out the message that we do not care what happens as a result of Brexit. We have to work very closely together on that. I was very concerned to see someone with the pedigree of Trevor Ringland coming out with a statement like that.
I am sure everyone watched with interest the ongoing proceedings in Westminster last night. Although it is not conclusive on any strategic plan, what they did achieve was to clearly demonstrate that a no-deal Brexit or crash out for the UK is well and truly off the table.
As I indicated to this House a number of weeks ago, reading between the lines of the discussion that was going on at Westminster and the language that was used, the supremacy of Parliament over Government was key, and last night clearly demonstrated that. The outcome of last night's vote indicated that the favoured proposition is a close alignment with Europe, a softer Brexit and support for close management of this situation. Interestingly, even though the vote on a public vote to approve a Brexit deal was lost, the margin was tight at only 27. It must be remembered that only 563 votes were cast so that position could evolve next week.
I am disappointed that a number of key individuals are changing their position on a daily basis to achieve Brexit at all costs. It begs the question about the integrity of the argument they have made and their motivation. Furthermore, to put the head of a prime minister on the block to satisfy the baying pack serves no purpose, especially at this point when she has already given a commitment to vacate her position at a later stage.
I listened to the argument about respecting the result of a referendum but I would like to clarify that by a process of discussion, negotiation, dialogue, debate and public engagement, as well as the UK, Irish and European discussion, we have already completely respected a referendum. What we have done is interrogate the information, have the negotiation and demonstrate that the ideology that was sold to the British people was undeliverable, and it is still undeliverable. The past two years have proved invaluable. They have challenged the process of democracy and will give the UK Government an opportunity to re-establish its position as a full member of the European community.
Due process is taking place and, as I urged this House previously, we must give it space to do so. The statutory instrument to change the date for withdrawal from today's date was passed last night. Ireland and the EU have done all they could be expected to do in this discussion. It is now in the hands of the elected representatives in Westminster. For Ireland, this is now a waiting game, with next week determining the next steps. I therefore urge the Government to refrain from commenting too much at this stage and not to distract from the debate that must take place within Westminster.
It is no longer tenable for the Government to claim that the housing policy or Rebuilding Ireland is working.
The number of children in homelessness is up 490% since Fine Gael took office. Those figures are much more than disappointing. It cannot in one breath claim that those figures are disappointing and in another suggest that Rebuilding Ireland is working yet the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, spent the weekend lying about Sinn Féin's record on policy and has the neck to mock our policy on housing. As Focus Ireland has suggested, is it time to draw-----
Senator Warfield, we have a protocol in this House. You may find fault with the Taoiseach but it is a very serious charge to accuse him of lying.
I might use another verb. I am not curtailing your contribution but that is a word that we are not to use here against the Taoiseach.
The Deputy may feel strongly about it but he might find another adjective to explain what the Taoiseach said at the Ard Fheis. I do not particularly like the word "lying" because he is the Taoiseach.
It was on "The Week in Politics" actually.
I apologise for interrupting the Senator. He can continue.
To reflect on what Focus Ireland has said, is it time to draw a line in the sand? This is a symbolic moment and I use "symbolic" for want of a better word - 10,000 people in homelessness. The Minister also said on "Morning Ireland" that rent caps have led to rents falling but Dublin rents have increased by 8% since 2017 according to the RTB. We can do something about this. Members of the other House will have an opportunity to vote for a Bill that, if passed, would prevent many families from losing their homes - families at risk of homelessness. The Bill, which is based on a Focus Ireland amendment, would prevent buy-to-let landlords from issuing vacant possession notices to quit to tenants when they are selling their property. This is the single biggest issue and cause of family homelessness so I call on Senators to talk to their colleagues in the other House, particularly Fianna Fáil, which blocked this measure in 2016, to support this very small but important measure that would help people facing imminent homelessness.
I join with Senator Feighan in offering our condolences to the family of John Browne, a former Deputy and Senator and an absolute gentleman. He was also a former primary school teacher. He was a man who gave public service of the highest quality in the classroom, Seanad and Dáil for many years. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. I am very happy to second the call by Senator Feighan for the House's sympathy to be conveyed to his family.
I want to raise an issue related to our conversation this morning that would go a good bit towards solving the housing problem. Could we have a debate on remote working incentives and people working from home? With advances in technology, it is easier for employees to accomplish work and communicate with their employer from home. There is accessibility everywhere with the Internet. I know there is an issue with some rural areas but, hopefully, that will be resolved. We need to deal with the areas that have it at the moment and get people working there. Video chatting is easy. Cloud computing makes accessing company data handy. The costs associated with transportation, commuting, fuel and work wardrobes would be reduced. Of course, it would make a big dent in the housing problem. It would leave workers free to create their own schedule and give people the choice to live outside the city, which is so relevant here. It would bring about better local communities and cut down on the need for office space and possibly free up some of that for housing. Getting people to work in their local communities is a win-win situation and should be incentivised. I ask the Acting Leader for a debate on that issue. We should look at where a Government function could be sublet in that regard. We could show leadership because we could allow people to fulfil some Government functions by working from home thereby creating space in the city. It is one of a menu of solutions to the housing crisis but in itself, it is the right thing to do. I ask the Leader to take this up. I am convinced that this is the way forward and must happen.
I want to, again, raise the issue of Shannon Airport. Earlier this week, ten Afghan children from one extended family were killed - murdered by a US air strike in Kunduz in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that this country is complicit in that killing and the range of killings by US forces in Syria, Iraq and the aforementioned Afghanistan. I have asked for a debate on this issue countless times. It has been denied each time. I can understand why it is being denied. It is because the Government has no defence for our complicity in handing over our airport. I raise it this morning because on St. Patrick's Day, two US veterans made a peaceful protest at Shannon Airport - Ken Mayers, who is aged 82 and Tarak Kauff, who is aged 77. They were arrested, put in prison and denied bail the next day and they remain in prison. These are two elderly men making a peaceful protest who are no threat to anybody. They were making a peaceful, legitimate protest about the appalling use of our airport in Shannon and this is how our State has treated them. They have a High Court appeal regarding bail this morning. I am calling for their release and hope that everyone here would join me in calling for their release so that they would be allowed to return home. The idea that our State would victimise these peaceful protesters in this way should be abhorrent to all of us. It just goes to show the lengths to which this State will go to threaten anyone who stands up to speak out about the atrocities that are being supported through Shannon Airport. I am calling once again for a debate. I wonder whether Fine Gael will hide as a party throughout the full length of this term rather than confront the shameful use of Shannon Airport.
Like my colleagues, I join in wishing Mr. Donal Hickey well and thank him for his contribution and work in the Houses of the Oireachtas over a long number of years. I wish him well in his retirement.
I refer to the issue of housing. One of the issues that is being missed in this debate is the reason we have a significant demand for housing is because there has been a significant increase in the numbers of jobs delivered. A total of 2.28 million people are now working, which is the highest level of employment in this country. I remind Senator Mark Daly that when Fianna Fáil left office, there was net outflow from this country of over 50,000 per annum. There is now a net inflow because the jobs are here. It is interesting to see the economic analysis. I was at a presentation at the economics society in UCC on Monday night. Seamus Coffey, chair of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, was there. He presented some very interesting figures. One statistic was that earnings per capita in real terms in this country are ahead of other European countries because there has been growth in jobs and areas that are very specialised and that generate higher income. Therefore, there is a demand for housing.
A total of 25,000 new units will be delivered this year. In addition, a significant amount of new student accommodation will be completed, which is extremely welcome because it will take students out of dwelling houses and into proper accommodation. This needs to continue. Yes, there are challenges that must be met. Likewise, I agree to an extent with Senator Craughwell about where office space is built. It just shows how Cork is developing. The 1 Albert Quay complex was built in the past two years and 1,700 people now work there. A further three commercial units are being built that will accommodate an additional 8,000 to 8,500 people. Yes, there will be a challenge regarding providing housing for the people who work there but these offices are within five minutes walking distance of the train station, therefore, people could live in Mallow, Cobh or Midleton and get to work by train without having to drive. A lot of good work is being done.
We must deal with the challenges posed by housing but we must deal with them in a progressive and constructive way. It is interesting how some people speak about housing yet people in those same parties have objected to housing projects and local authorities proceeding with housing projects in their own local authority areas. We do not hear them talking about that. Let us look at it. We all have to work together to resolve the problem. A lot of work is being done.
Many new dwelling houses are being delivered and that process will continue.
I would like to be associated with the tributes to Mr. Donal Hickey, who we would all agree has been a friendly and helpful presence in this House over the years. I hope he will enjoy good health and be able to spend both time and money ad multos annos in his years of retirement. I also wish to be associated with the expressions of sorrow for the former Member, Mr. John Browne. My sympathies also go to his son, Fergal, and the family.
I was listening to Ms Arlene Foster on the radio this morning. Given her position and the goals she wishes to protect and obtain, I was quite struck by the reasonableness of her tone and perspective. The history books may be kinder to the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, than many of us have been tempted to be. Many people calculated some time ago that a no-deal Brexit would not take place, and if the party made that calculation, it would have the best of both worlds in staying with Brexiteers while being quite comfortable in the knowledge that way end up with a much softer Brexit than even Prime Minister May's plan entails. I am hopeful of that but time will tell.
One of the Brexiteers, Mr. Jacob Rees-Mogg, used the term "terminological inexactitude" recently, although he was not the first to use it. This was when the word "lie" was considered to be unparliamentary. It struck me while listening to my friend and colleague, Senator Warfield, that perhaps terminological or even "opinionological" inexactitude might serve his purposes in describing the Taoiseach's characterisation of Sinn Féin policy. I listened to Senator Warfield yesterday speaking about conversion therapy, an area into which many people fear to wade. With issues such as that, the highest value comes from what people want, provided it does not do harm. I do not know enough about it at this stage but if it can be demonstrated that this is harmful to people, there is a very good case to make it unlawful. If it cannot be shown to be harmful to people, we are back into the realm of individual choice. I say this because in these Houses we do not speak enough about the importance of an evidence base for proposals. I hope that if it is in the area raised by Senator Warfield or the very fraught and difficult area of transgender persons' rights and needs, we look honestly at the current evidence.
Many parents who I know are quite concerned about what is taught in schools in the name of equality with respect to transgender issues and they question whether children's best interests are being served by what is now often proposed. I do not know the answers to those questions but we have a better chance of getting those answers if we insist that anything we call for has a sound evidence base. As legislators, we have a particular responsibility in this respect. Perhaps we could make progress in this House on such matters by using the Seanad as a forum to establish a precise evidence base. I am not sure that our committees are serving us sufficiently in considering issues from an actual evidence base. The Seanad could have a solid and significant input in that space.
We are all very aware of the fragility in the negotiations regarding the United Kingdom and Brexit. I remind Senator Feighan that his party and Fianna Fáil are picking the leftovers of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP. It has been that party's continuous position that there should be a poll after Britain withdraws from the European Union, which could happen two weeks from now. There must be a nuance in being careful about these matters but we must hold our side as well. This debate has been popularised on the entire island of Ireland like never before in the two or three years in which we have heard the Brexit discussion. It is important for our confidence as a nation that we can have such a debate in a meaningful manner among ourselves and decide what we want. We should not shy away from it. It is not about keeping quiet so the debate in Britain can continue as we must look after our country and citizens as well.
I attended the launch of the justice and equality committee's report on community and rural policing. I am delighted because two of the recommendations are associated with health, particularly mental health and vulnerability. They relate to the Garda Síochána being used as front-line or first responders, which is inappropriate in cases where vulnerable people are having episodes and the community or mental health services cannot cope. The only recourse for the professionals now is to call in the Garda. Mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, have been told to call the Garda. I have been dealing with a case like this where the child is as young as four. I know that is exceptional but children grow up with symptoms of ASD and they can have difficulty finding treatment. The difficulty is we are criminalising people with a vulnerability, with many ending up in the prison system or Garda stations. A Seanad team visited a hub last Monday in Derry that is dedicated to a multidisciplinary approach to the matter. I will put down a Commencement matter on the subject at some stage in order that we can learn more about it.
I thank the Senators who raised matters on the Order of Business. I extend my sympathies to the family of the former Member, Mr. John Browne, and, in particular, his son, who was also a Member of this House. I wish Mr. Donal Hickey well in his retirement and he is an absolute gentleman. I hope he has a very happy and healthy retirement.
Senator Mark Daly referred to the Corporate Manslaughter (No. 2) Bill 2016, which he introduced in July of that year. As he knows, a number of issues required further consideration to ensure the best approach to the provision of a criminal law response to the type of fatalities that are the focus of the Bill. At the time, the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, wrote to the Senator indicating that, having considered the Bill, a number of specific issues arose. The Senator is aware of all this but I am just putting it on the record. Those issues need to be clarified or addressed. They include the range of bodies to which the Bill would apply, the range of unincorporated bodies to which the Bill would apply, the legal ingredients of any offence, including who would be liable within an organisation, exemptions to any offence, etc. Those matters continue to be considered and they have wide-ranging implications for all organisations, as the Senator noted, including voluntary bodies providing a service to the public.
Detailed scrutiny of the Law Reform Commission report is required by all invested in this process and officials in the Department of Justice and Equality are continuing to consider the contents of the report in the context of examining further amendments to the Bill. It is also worth pointing out that witnesses from the Law Reform Commission appeared before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach on 26 February to discuss the report. Officials have agreed to meet the Senator to discuss this matter and the Leader's office will write to the Department to facilitate a meeting involving the Senator in the very near future. I hope that will be satisfactory. The officials have already indicated they will be happy to do it so I can ensure that it happens sooner rather than later.
The Senator also referred to homelessness, as did almost everybody else who contributed.
It goes without saying that the increase in homelessness in February is hugely disappointing.
Senator Colm Burke made an interesting contribution on the jobs that have been created. I know that it is no comfort to people who do not have a roof over their heads but we are victims of the recovery in that sense. It is more expensive than ever to build housing and housing supply is obviously at a critical level. I am not trying to defend the homelessness figure because it is extremely unsatisfactory. However, compared with 2017, the number of new homes built in 2018 increased by 25%, with more than 18,000 new homes completed. Roughly one in four of the new homes built was for social housing. The latest report from the Residential Tenancies Board also shows that average rents fell at the end of 2018. It is not a fabrication to say there are indicators that things are moving in the right direction but this glaring figure for homelessness is seriously concerning.
The housing assistance payment, HAP, will continue to play a vital role in providing families with a place to live until supply catches up. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will continue to work with families to demonstrate the benefits of this scheme compared with emergency accommodation. The Minister is in constant contact with the local authorities. I have come across numerous cases in my area of politicians objecting to housing developments. This underlines the difficulty of the problem we are dealing with. We have politicians from all parties, including Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, objecting to housing in Dublin city. How are we supposed to fix the housing crisis when Members of this House and the other House rightly complain about the housing figures and or the fact that 10,000 people are homeless when, later on the same day, the same politicians submit objections to housing plans? Councillors from all parties are objecting to planning being given in areas throughout the city. We must have integrity when we speak about this issue.
It will take time to solve the housing problem. I ask Members to look into their hearts when we talk about homelessness. To give a glaring example from my area, one individual politician has objected to between 1,000 and 1,300 new homes. We need to consider this matter in a holistic way. The figures that underpin Rebuilding Ireland continue to improve in many areas. I suggest that we invite the Minister to the House to discuss this issue in the near future. I am in no doubt that he would be happy to discuss many of the issues that have been raised today. Such a debate would be timely in the context of these figures.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of officers in the Defence Forces. I suggest that he table a Commencement matter on the issue. He also raised an interesting issue about non-commercial and commercial housing in the context of homelessness. That issue could be discussed during the debate I mentioned in response to Senator Mark Daly's contribution.
Senators Conway-Walsh and Devine raised the joint committee's report which deals with rural crime. It would be worthwhile to arrange a debate on the issue. I was interested to hear Senator Devine's remarks on the mental health aspects of the report, which are positive. Senator Conway-Walsh also raised the issue of smear tests and cervical cancer. A discussion with the Minister for Health would be timely because, more than anything, we need to restore confidence in that process. Women who have been through that process understand where other women are coming from on the issue. I had a repeat smear test done because I was concerned when I heard about the issue, even though I knew logically that I did not need one. Such concern has, however, created a backlog, which is a natural consequence. We need to encourage people to continually engage with the process. I agree that we need a tangible statement from the Minister on the matter to help restore confidence in that area.
Senator Humphreys raised the issue of Airbnb and housing. I addressed housing when I responded to the remarks made by Senator Mark Daly. Senator Humphreys made an interesting point about the innovation centre being established in Dublin which will create 10,000 jobs. It is a difficulty when the economy is improving so much. We have to house people and strike a balance in all areas of housing.
Senator Feighan, as always, raised the issue of Westminster and highlighted the fairly depressing issues that are unfolding daily. It is sad to watch one of the oldest Parliaments in the world, if not the oldest, tear itself apart and show itself up in the way it has done.
Senator Marshall made some insightful comments in his assessment of what is happening. I take from what he said that we must be careful not to inflame the situation. In fairness to the Tánaiste, he has been excellent in that regard. Where possible, as Senator Feighan said, we have left the British to fight it out and debate Brexit among themselves. We have done our negotiations. It has struck me in recent days that many politicians in the UK seem to be changing their minds yet they will not countenance the possibility that the British people could also change their minds. It seems fine for Prime Minister May, who was a remainer, and various other politicians to change their minds, yet a different approach is taken when it comes to the people. The British people voted in circumstances where scaremongering messages were displayed on buses. The referendum was fraught with inaccuracies, yet there is still no real talk of holding another referendum. It is hard to relate to such a situation.
Senator Warfield raised the issue of homelessness, which I addressed.
Senator Joe O'Reilly raised the interesting issue of incentivised remote working. Many employers would probably be concerned about that at an instinctive level because there is a perception that people will be at home in their pyjamas and not working. A shift in mindset is needed to get employers to buy into the idea of remote working. It is an excellent idea, particularly as the M50 is absolutely packed. I wonder how many of the people who use the M50 could potentially work from home on at least a couple of days a week. We should consider innovative ideas that would reduce the number of people on the roads and reduce demand for accommodation in the bigger cities where we are obviously struggling to provide housing.
I suggest the issue raised by Senator Gavan would be suitable for a Commencement debate. I genuinely do not know the particulars of the case he raised and I am not trying to be evasive. It would be good to discuss Shannon Airport in the context of a general debate on airports. I will suggest such a debate to the Leader, which would give Senator Gavan an opportunity to raise the issue. As I do not know anything about the case he raised, I do not wish to comment on it.
I remind the Deputy Leader that an attempt was made to raise that arrangement not too long ago and it was ruled out of order by the Department.
I did not realise that. In that case, I would not suggest that Senator Gavan raise it as a Commencement matter. I will suggest instead that the Leader have a debate on transport and airports, which would afford the Senator an opportunity to raise the matter with the Minister.
I referred to the insightful and interesting contribution made by Senator Colm Burke.
He is always very good with statistics and figures. I thank him for raising something positive on the Order of Business.
Senator Mullen is probably the only Member of the House who could move, with an even flow, from discussing Brexit to talking about conversion therapy. It was quite remarkable. I congratulate him.
It is conversion therapy that we are looking for over in Westminster.
Maybe when it comes to Brexit we do need conversion therapy for the Brits at this point.
Getting from Brexit to conversion therapy in an even flow certainly shows a peculiar way of thinking.
I thank the Senator.
I missed Senator Warfield's contribution on conversion therapy yesterday, but I have no doubt that he would be poles apart from Senator Mullen in what he might say in response.
I live in the hope of mutual understanding.
We are all in favour of evidence-based policy. I will take it no further than that. I categorically disagree with conversion therapy and the type of policies propounded in America by the likes of Vice President Pence. In a way, I do not know what Senator Mullen is talking about.
That is all right. It is not the first time.
No, but Senator Mullen did go around the issue without actually stating what he meant.
I am just looking for an evidential basis for policy and legislation. That is all I am saying.
There is no scientific evidence that someone's sexuality can be changed. That is the evidential basis.
Let us agree then that evidence must be the driver for all our discussions in this and other areas.
We might leave that for another day, when we have the debate.
I am staying out of that because I did not hear the remarks yesterday. Personally, I fundamentally and entirely disagree with any notion that conversion therapy is a way forward-----
If the Senator is speaking on the basis of evidence, I will always agree with her.
-----in the case of homosexuality. I will leave it at that.
I ask the Senator to think about it.
Senator Devine referred to Brexit. I understand what she has said about a Border poll. It is a discussion that needs to be had. At this particular juncture, it is not timely to talk about-----
We have had this discussion for the last three years.
Yes, but we need to let the situation settle. We need to get a result on the Brexit issue. I am not suggesting that we leave it for ten or 20 years, but we certainly need to wait a few months before we start having this conversation. I understand that this is the position that Senator Devine's party is pushing for, so I understand why she raises it.
I have already mentioned report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality this morning. I have not read it yet but by all accounts it is an excellent report. In particular, I refer to the aspect concerning mental health. There is a focus on supporting the Garda in that regard. That is very positive.