An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to adjourn at 6 p.m., if not previously concluded. This item will be suspended between 3 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. to allow for a sos. If Members wish to have another suspension of sitting, they can organise it accordingly.

That is a stupid time. The restaurant will not be serving proper food at that time.

Please allow the Leader to proceed.

Private Members' business is No. 2, Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 6 p.m., with the time allocated for the debate not to exceed two hours.

I thank the Leader for outlining the Order of Business. On the day that is in it, I could not go without mentioning Brexit again and the special meeting of the European Council in Brussels. Theresa May is now hoping for a delay until 30 June but there does not seem to be a lot of co-operation and collaboration among the parties in the UK yet. I still hope they will come to their senses and cancel Brexit but in the absence of that, although it is not necessarily wonderful to leave us all in an uncertain position, I would prefer an uncertain position to a certain position that was not very positive so we should try to encourage them to resolve it if they can but if they are unable to resolve it, we should allow them a delay to enable them to come to a position that, hopefully, will be better for Ireland than what is being proposed at the moment.

The report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, regarding the National Children's Hospital still raises concerns that there are significant risks and potential cost overruns even at this point. The governance procedures and the way in which capital projects generally are being managed, not managed or poorly managed is a matter of concern for all of us. We have the National Children's Hospital, the national broadband plan and various other capital infrastructure projects. Only this morning, the Minister for Health was talking about wanting to turn a sod this year on the national maternity hospital. There is potential there for significant cost overruns unless it is properly managed. We should have a discussion with the Minister for Finance, and Public Expenditure and Reform regarding procurement generally but particularly the procurement of large capital projects in the best interests of the nation. It should not be rocket science at this stage. We have motorways, airports and various other infrastructure but we need to examine how we do these projects in the longer term.

I also wish to flag the fact that we have the highest trolley numbers so far this year with 631 people currently awaiting a bed in a hospital.

It is a nationwide problem with Limerick, Sligo and Cork being particularly badly affected. This House should hear from the Minister for Health as to what is being done. This happens every year but this is the highest number so far. One would have hoped that by April, as the weather improves and so on, that the situation would have improved rather than got worse.

It might be useful at some point for the Minister of State at the Department of Defence to come to the House to discuss Air Corps numbers and staffing because there is a report that the Air Corps is significantly understaffed, particularly in key grades, which has resulted in operational difficulties. I ask that the Minister of State come to the House to outline his plans in that regard.

Yesterday, I raised on the Order of Business the attitude of the Government to the declared statement of the then candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the annexation of the settlements in the West Bank and the declaration of Israeli sovereignty over them. Today, all appearances are that he is going to be the head of the next government with the support of parties of the right and religious parties in the Israeli Knesset. This gambit of his, which may have appeared to some to be a last throw of the dice in order to consolidate his electoral support on the day before an election, is now likely to be endorsed by a majority of the parties in the Knesset. It is of some significance that a member state of the United Nations should ignore all precepts of international law and all of the previous resolutions of the United National in terms of this matter, and should now purport to steal territory which was never part of the State of Israel, as recognised internationally, and appropriate it on the basis of just simple conquest from the people of Palestine.

When looks back at the history of this matter it becomes so clear that if there is any chance of there being peace in the Middle East in the long term, whether it is the Camp David Accords, something like that or something different, one thing is absolutely certain that there is no chance of peace based on the proposition that all the settlements "authorised" and "unauthorised" are now to be adopted as the sovereign territory of Israel. It means, effectively, that the West Bank is being dismembered and made ungovernable and the possibility of a Palestinian state is being swept away.

I mention this simply to say the following. It is important that voices are raised against this. It is important that voices are raised against this without the ridiculous charge of anti-Semitism being thrown in our faces. I have indicated on a number of occasions, and I reiterate now, that I believe in the right of the Israeli State to exist. I believe in the right of the Israeli State to defend itself. I have absolutely no anti-Semitic intent at all. I know that the views that I am expressing now are supported by a considerable number of people in Israel, so the charge of anti-Semitism simply does not stand. In those circumstances, the Irish Government should become more courageous in standing up for what we believe in. We should become more vocal. The Bill that we passed on settlement goods was not an affront to international law. It was condemned roundly by Prime Minister Netanyahu and he dubbed it anti-Semitic-----

I suggest the Senator moves his amendment.

-----some of the Prime Minister's fellow travellers accused this House of anti-Semitism. It is wrong and I just want to put that on the record.

I want to move an amendment to the Order of Business that the sos be from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. so that we can have a lunch in the restaurant-----

-----when the restaurant functions as a restaurant rather than a sandwich break, which would be envisaged by the Leader's proposal.

By people like the Leader will not be here for the debate because they will be having their lunch.

The time is up.

(Interruptions).

That is noted. The Senator is sailing close to the wind time-wise. I call Senator Conway-Walsh.

We are approaching the end of the second school term and I want to again raise the plight of school secretaries. Many school secretaries and caretakers are paid out of their school's ancillary grant and only around 10% are paid directly by the Department of Education and Skills. The two-tier system means that some secretaries are paid way more than others with some being paid as little as €12,000 a year. This is deeply unfair and unjust which is why Sinn Féin fully supports the campaign being led by the Fórsa trade union. Some of these secretaries will also have to sign on the dole during the summer months such is the lack of stability around their wages. The campaign seeks to ensure that all school secretaries are employed directly by the Department and enjoy full pension entitlements as public sector workers and equity in pay achieved through the linking of school secretary pay to the appropriate public sector pay grade. It is atrocious that school secretaries are not treated in the same way as other staff within a school. One cannot have that but we have seen it happen with CE supervisors and assistant supervisors where, despite a Labour Court ruling that they get a pension, they are told they are not entitled to one. These are very simple things that must be put right. If we are really serious about equality and fairness, we have to right those things to ensure that everybody is on the same playing field and people are paid in a proper manner.

I draw attention to the report launched by Women's Aid this morning on the incidence and reporting of domestic violence. While much progress has been made in terms of the new legislation we passed and the greater awareness of the help and assistance available, the figures are really shocking. Last year, 19,089 contacts were made with Women's Aid. Out of these contacts, 16,994 cases of domestic violence were against women. In many cases, the violence was witnessed by a child in the family home setting. Some 27% of these reported cases of abuse involved an ex-husband or partner. There is no guarantee that ending the relationship means an end to abuse by the partner. The report highlights many of the shortcomings in family law. It starkly states that we have a system where there is a presumption of access for the father even where domestic violence is involved.

We need to resource front-line services in a proper way, to reform the courts, to make the system easier for women and children who are fleeing abuse and to take these figures seriously. Let us remember that only 20% of cases are ever reported so 80% of cases are never reported. The crime of domestic violence must be tackled in a serious way not just through the legislation we have passed. We need an all-island strategy on domestic violence and how to combat it.

I touched on the following issue yesterday. I note the Israeli elections today and the news that Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to be returned as Prime Minister. That is very worrying. All of us who are internationalists and who are concerned about human rights and the rule of law should consider what these elections mean in practice. We have a situation where millions of people living under permanent military occupation did not get a say yesterday. They did not vote for the government that ultimately controls the most fundamental aspects of their everyday lives. The occupation has been in place for 50 years but while Palestinians living in the West Bank know these elections will determine their futures and shape the conditions that they somehow live under, they can only look on in hope or, more accurately, in despair.

Polling stations are set up in illegal settlements built across the West Bank to facilitate the franchise of Israeli citizens transferred into occupied territory no matter that this is a war crime, a flagrant violation of international law and the stark anti-democratic reality of an occupied population watching on as their neighbours vote on competing promises of annexation. To put it mildly, this is not what democracy looks like. In a closing day pitch to this base, Netanyahu promised that if re-elected, he would formally annex the West Bank. In reality, this shameful promise is essentially about formalising a situation that has already taken place over decades. The de facto annexation of the West Bank has been a gradual process settlement by settlement and has been facilitated by an international community quick to harshly condemn this illegality but totally unwilling to take any meaningful steps to halt it. This election and the right-wing government it will produce should act as another reminder. We will soon come to the point at which we will drive past the last exit on the road to annexation. This is the reason I tabled the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill. I was proud to see this legislation being supported strongly by both Houses of the Oireachtas and to present it at the UN last week. I saw strong support and an understanding that countries like Ireland, committed as we are to human rights and international law, have a duty to stand strongly against these practices. As we share the same goal of realising the basic human rights of the Palestinian people, I urge the Government to reconsider its position on this Bill. It can provide important input at a time of little hope and I fully intend to see it through these Houses and into law over the coming months. The signal we send would be stronger still if we can do it unanimously.

I support the point made by Senators McDowell and Black regarding Israel. It is perfectly obvious that the policy of the Israeli Government is to drive the Palestinians into the sea. This is a covert policy. Any attempt to propose or promote the gentleman who came second - the former Israeli general - as some kind of liberal is madness. He was in charge of the appalling onslaught on Gaza. I completely support my colleagues.

I do not agree with the Order of Business and am proposing an amendment, namely, that we do not take No. 1, the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, before 3 p.m. and instead, take No. 15, statements on communications, climate action and the environment.

(Interruptions).

Did I hear some peculiar explosion?

He did. I said there would be plenty of hot air coming from the Senator.

I could not hear that. I think there is a mouse in the House.

Could we avoid the unnecessary interruptions? It is like-----

From the Leader, absolutely.

We come back to the Oireachtas Channel.

I am sorry to interrupt this back and forth between the father of the House and the Leader of the House but how and ever, there is an issue I would like to raise. As Senator Horkan rightly noted, today is yet another crucial day in yet another discussion about the ongoing malaise that is Brexit. Whatever happens this afternoon, tomorrow or indeed the next 12 months, one of the key issues facing the country is the level of diversification, be it in terms of trade, exposure to the wider world and connectivity. One issue where this is quite clear is increasing direct flights from Ireland to various parts of the world. We have seen the success of this with regard to China and certain cities in the US but there is a clear need for a direct flight from Dublin to India, be it to Delhi or Mumbai. I call on the Leader to bring the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the House to discuss this and other ways that Ireland can further diversify its ties to the wider world in the post-Brexit era.

I thank Senator Richmond for his brevity. Could we have some silence?

I am consulting with a colleague.

We like to have order while Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell is on her feet and to give her a chance to express her view.

I wish to alert Senators, Deputies and councillors around the country that we have a significant problem with healthcare assistants. The reason for this problem is that we do not have enough of them and the reason we do not have enough of them is because they cannot come to this country under what we call critical skills, which involves eligibility to come and work here. There is a lack of suitable staff in our voluntary, private and public nursing homes. I do not know whether or not anybody has noticed but we have an ageing population. We are getting older and those who are becoming frail and feeble in their homes, communities or nursing homes need healthcare assistants. They need healthcare assistants to feed, wash, turn and dress them and to be their friends because they are there 24 hours a day. We cannot get candidates in Ireland for these positions and we are looking outside the EU. We are looking to the EU but it has its own problems.

I am calling on the House to think about this. I have written to all the Ministers about it and am trying to organise some way of changing eligibility. Did Senators know that a person can come here as a bone person within an agricultural setting or that a person working in a meat factory or a sheet metal worker is eligible, but a person is not eligible if he or she is going to deal with a human being for 24 hours every day of every week of every month of every year who happens to be in the home or community or trapped in their own homes? It is extremely important that we have a pilot scheme with India and Mauritius, particularly India. Our Taoiseach is from an Indian background. The greatest doctors and nursing and medical staff have come from India and perhaps it is time we set up a pilot programme to see how we can work this.

We should come together across all divides here to address this problem because most of the young people who come to help must either re-apply for visas and are ineligible because they do not come under what are called critical skills. It is very simple. We could expand the definition and organise our lives as we grow older. We need these people. When people talk to me about immigration, they do not know what they are talking about. We need people to come from other countries to help us stay alive on our own island as we get older and as our children grow up and get educated. What are we talking about? There are all the wrong inferences about immigration. I am sorry the Seanad is not fuller but will the Senators think about this because I will pursue it over the next two or three weeks?

I second Senator McDowell's amendment to the Order of Business. I think that thing is insane.

I wish to speak about general practice. As most Members know, I am a GP working at the coal face. I will explain some of the changes that were announced recently. Last Saturday, the Taoiseach and Minister for Health announced some preliminary agreements for changes to contracts for GPs. A full general medical services contract has been promised since April 2017 - two years ago. Assurances have been given that negotiations are slowly moving in the correct direction. The increased funding of €210 million over four years sounds impressive but it might be slightly misleading.

Given the pedestrian nature of the talks so far, any progress is welcome but I would like to explain in more detail how this money will be spent. I and many other GPs across the country have serious concerns about details of the agreement with the IMO. In 2014 alone, €219.8 million was cut from general practice to medical card patients. Capitation rates were, in effect, cut by 38% due to the expansion of entitlements to free GP visits. The Government appears to be trying to play the same trick by introducing free visits for six to 12 year olds while not actually funding the policy. We have a trolley crisis because GPs are overstretched. For every €1 spent on primary care, €5 is saved in the rest of the health sector. If a proper general medical services contract was negotiated with GPs, midwives and nurses, we would not be in a situation where patients have to wait hours on end in accident and emergency departments to be seen and are then left on a trolley waiting for a bed. Patients would be seen before their health deteriorated to the point where they needed hospitalisation and hospitals would not have to be used as the first point of care for patients who are unable to get appointments with GPs or a public health nurse.

When I left Wales a number of years ago, there was a four-week waiting list to see a GP while in Ireland it is looking now like one week. We used to have same-day access only a few years back. As of 1 March 2019, just over 2 million people, or 42.6%, of the population had access to free GP care. While this step forward towards universality is wonderful and I applaud it and while I support Sláintecare, time and again the Government has announced new healthcare policies without considering how to fund them. Hence, 80,000 people have waited 33 weeks for the results of smear tests. I have patients who had a smear taken in August 2018 and who have still not received a result. They come in and ask me where the results are and when they are going to get them and I say, "I don't know". We do not know because we have been kept in the dark, which is a problem.

Rural and deprived urban areas cannot recruit young GPs. That means this cohort of patients is being disenfranchised, yet the Department of Health can overspend its budget by €1.3 billion, which does not even take into account the national children's hospital overspend. If we are to be serious about providing adequate primary care services nationally, especially in rural locations, we have to look at putting a proper contract in place as soon as possible. The FEMPI cuts must be reversed. This is about providing care to the most vulnerable patients who, in this country, are patients with medical cards who live in urban deprived areas and rural areas which cannot attract a GP. It is unfair. Patients have to travel 30 km to 40 km to access GP services. I ask the Leader to consider having a debate on this matter, which is one of major importance. GPs are the front-line soldiers in the battle within the healthcare service. If we do not have an adequate primary care service, we do not have a health service at all.

I thank Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for raising a most important subject on which I agree 100%.

There is a lot of talk about immigration and keeping them out and whatever. We need these people. Of course they have critical skills. I back that 100%. I also second the proposal by Senator Norris to amend the Order of Business.

I thank the nine Members for their presence and contributions. I will not accept the proposed amendments to the Order of Business. For the information of Senator McDowell, the Members' restaurant is closed between 12.30 p.m. and 2 p.m., which his proposal does not cover. However, the canteen is open for hot food, not just sandwiches. He will be glad to hear that.

It is only open for sandwiches from 3 p.m. One has to take away the hot food. Of course, the Leader eats in the Russell Hotel.

Senator Norris, we are on the response of the Leader.

Senator Norris is a bit behind the times.

I do not want to bring the restaurant menu into the Chamber.

We might have to if the Leader does not give us a proper sos.

I am sure Senator Norris has a good speed dial facility on his phone and can call for pizza.

The Leader must be joking that there is speed dial on my phone.

He has an app for that.

Let us abandon the frivolity and move on.

I suggest to Senators McDowell and Norris that rather than calling for walk-through votes and quorums-----

Yes. We must have some walk-throughs.

-----they might be best served going off to get proper food rather than getting indigestion.

A walk is very good exercise.

As I said earlier, we have allowed for a sos. If there is a need for other refreshment or to address such vicissitudes as the Members face, I am sure the Minister for Justice and Equality will, in conjunction with the Chair, agree a sos. I am conscious of the sensitivities of the Members and their need for nourishment, rest and water.

Punishment not rest is deserved.

We are getting that already. Senator Conway-Walsh is dead right.

Senators Horkan and Richmond raised the issue of Brexit. Today's special EU summit is important. It is a bit like Groundhog Day on one level but time is advancing and there is a need for a decision to be made regarding whether Brexit involves a 30 June departure or a different date. That is a matter for the Heads of Government today. It is important that we in the Chamber continue to look to Westminster to resolve this impasse and to take a leap of fate and act of bravery in reaching a conclusion. We know what they do not want but they must now tell us what they want. Senator Richmond raised an important matter with regard to the diversification of transport and connectivity in a post-Brexit era. The matters he raises are important for us, not just now but post Brexit. I would be happy to have the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport come back to the House on the matter.

Senator Horkan referred to the PwC report on the national children's hospital. I concur with him on the need to have a debate on procurement and capital projects. The report is 160 pages long and I have read some but not all of it. I must be honest. I ask all Members to read the report, which is most interesting and informative from many perspectives. We must put matters in context. The report deals with a project that is unique in scope, scale and complexity by comparison with any other health infrastructure built in the history of the State. The report identifies and illustrates clearly weaknesses in the set-up, planning, budget, execution and governance. I would be happy to arrange a debate on the report in due course.

Senator Horkan also raised the issue of hospital trolleys, which is of great concern. There has been an increase notwithstanding the increased level of investment by Government, including €30 million for the winter investment plan and the opening of additional acute and community beds in many parts of the country. We need the matter tackled. It is linked to Senator Swanick's contribution, which is a matter now for discussion with the IMO and the NAGP. There must be continued improvement and investment in primary care. I agree with the Senator on the Defence Forces. I read the article in the paper this morning and would be happy to have the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, come to the House again on the matter.

Senators McDowell, Black and Norris mentioned the Israeli election and the likely outcome of the talks that will take place, given that no party in the Knesset has a majority. A coalition is required. Whether it is Mr. Netanyahu or Mr. Gantz, it is important that those who want peace know it is about a willingness to come to the table and engage in a spirit of co-operation, equality and fairness. I would be happy to have the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade come back to the House on that.

Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of school secretaries. I attended the Fórsa meeting in Cork on school secretaries. The significant administrative burden on schools is growing and in recent days the Minister for Education and Skills lifted the moratorium for schools with enrolments in excess of 700. That will allow schools to employ additional school secretaries up to a maximum of two per school. Approximately 90 schools meet the criteria and 58 will benefit immediately from the announcement. The remaining 33 have this level of staffing but will be permitted to fill vacancies under the clerical officer vacancies scheme as they arise. There is an issue in schools and I addressed it in my contribution yesterday. Secretaries fulfil a major role in our schools and perform perhaps the most important job in keeping schools functioning and running smoothly. There is an anomaly here which must be addressed in the long term. I hope that can be done.

The Women's Aid report was published earlier. Senator Conway-Walsh mentioned the 20,000 calls to Women's Aid in that context. In tandem with that, we saw the publication recently of the report by the PSNI on 31,000 cases, or 80 per day, in the North of our country. Hopefully, some of those are historical cases given the changes in the legislative route, as the Senator said. It is far too many cases to have and I agree fully with her on the need for legislative action and resources. It is about ensuring societal attitudes change and that we educate young people and everyone else on their attitudes to women and domestic and sexual violence. Education has a critical role. I would be happy to have that debate in due course.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell made a telling and fine contribution on the role of immigration in our country. I cannot but completely agree with her that we need to have the right inference put on immigration. We have a significant skills shortage. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, has made some changes to the visa programme but others need to be put in place.

Last week, I met with Nursing Homes Ireland which made the case for the need to have changes brought to their sector to deal with the skills shortages in nursing and healthcare assistant provision. We have also seen the changes that will be required to deal with skills shortages in our hospitality sector. This landscape needs to be changed to allow people to come to work here and make a contribution to our society. We always have been an island of welcomes. We have always had people come to our country and make a contribution. As Senator Lawless will testify, it works the other way too when Irish people travel across the world. They also have made telling contributions to the societies in which they have settled.

We need to change the visa permit system to allow people to come to Ireland. The Senator referred to India. I have no issue with what the Senator suggested and I am quite happy for the Minister to attend the House. While some changes have been made to the visa permit system, I accept much more can be done. We must have a wider debate on immigration and the proper inference which must be put on it.

Senator Swanick referred to the GP contract. The Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, has welcomed the conclusion of the contract talks. We will not have a debate today on it because it is a discussion for the IMO membership. I agree there is a need to see a reversal of FEMPI cuts and continued investment in primary care. I would be happy to have a debate on that in due course.

I will not be accepting the amendment to the Order of Business for the reasons I have outlined.

Senator McDowell has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That the sitting be suspended from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. instead of from 3 p.m. to 3.30 p.m." Is the amendment being pressed?

I must press it. The Leader should remember that lunch orders close at 2.30 p.m. in the Members’ restaurant.

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided by electronic means.

Under Standing Order 62(3)(b) I request that the division be taken again other than by electronic means.

Amendment again put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 21.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Freeman, Joan.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Lawless, Billy.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Norris, David.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • Ó Céidigh, Pádraig.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Swanick, Keith.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Michael McDowell and David Norris; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony.
Amendment declared carried.

There was an equality of votes. Therefore, pursuant to Article 15.11.2° of the Constitution, I exercises my casting vote. I vote for the question in this case, the result of the vote now being: Tá, 22; Níl, 21.

Senator Norris has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate on communications, climate action and the environment be taken at 12.45 p.m. and conclude no later than 3 p.m. and that No.1 be taken at 3 p.m." This amendment is a logical alternative to the amendment already made. I ask Members to be quiet. If I am interrupted again, I will suspend the sitting for one hour.

Good. I am going to interrupt. Yum, yum, yum.

Senator Norris should not test my patience. He should respect the Chair and the House. There is much disrespect in this Chamber. Senator Norris’s amendment is a logical alternative to the amendment just adopted. Accordingly, it must fall.

May I inquire what happened with the first amendment?

I used my casting vote and the amendment was declared carried. The sos will be between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.40 p.m. and resumed at 12.45 p.m.