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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 25 Nov 2020

Vol. 272 No. 10

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the Technological Universities Act 2018 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) Order 2020 - back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, the Planning and Development Bill 2020 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 1 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 1, whichever is the later, and to conclude within two hours, with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and a Minister to be given no less than seven minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, motion regarding the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2020 - back from committee, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is later, and to conclude after 75 minutes, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, of all other Senators not to exceed four minutes and a Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 4, Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 3, whichever is the later; and No. 27, motion 7, to be taken at 6 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 4, whichever is the later, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.

I would like to address a number of issues to the Leader and to the House, the first of which relates to Tusla. There is a very disturbing report in this morning's newspapers in regard to Tusla and the problems within that agency. The specific issues mentioned are a lack of consistency in how Tusla operates and the retention of staff, which is a particular concern. There are many fine people working in Tusla and doing an excellent job but it is difficult for them within what is described as "an over-centralised out-of-date structure". As we know, children are being moved from social worker to social worker. This is very traumatic for children because it means they have to relive their negative experiences again and again. There are many challenges facing Tusla, including securing foster parents. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on Tusla, how it operates and what it needs to do to improve.

The other area is remote working and poor broadband and telephone services, particularly in regard to Eir. I welcome that the chief executive of Eir is to appear before an Oireachtas committee this week. Many people are having horrific experiences in their dealings with customer services at Eir. A staff member in my office has not been able to make or receive calls on a mobile for the past four months and cannot access customer services in Eir. As the largest telecoms operator in this State Eir needs to do better. We need to engage with ComReg on this matter and, possibly, a debate in the House on communications would be worthwhile.

The final area is public transport, which is always important. It is important it is accessible, affordable and flexible, particularly for those in the commuter areas outside of Dublin, including Kildare, Laois, Meath and Wicklow. In Kildare, north Kildare is part of a short-hop zone and the remainder of Kildare going forward part of a long-hop zone. There is need for a medium-hop zone, particularly now when many people are working from home and may not need to avail of a full-year annual tax saver ticket. There should be more flexibility for people who need to travel to Dublin once or twice a week. The extension of the Leap card would provide this for people in commuter belt areas. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Transport to come the House for a debate on accessible and affordable public transport.

I would like to propose an amendment to the Order of Business. I propose that No. 1 not be taken without debate and that a 45 minute debate be allowed, with the associated changes being made to the Order of Business. I am a member of the education committee, all members of which had something to say on this important issue. The future of our technological universities and their establishment is an important issue and merits Senators having an opportunity to comment on the matter.

I had intended to raise the issue of the welfare of pre-born children. I am glad the Minister for Health has finally established an inquiry into the use and licensing of the drug valproate, otherwise known as Epilim, which has for decades been licensed and used in the treatment of epilepsy and manage seizures but it has been known for some time that it can cause birth defects and developmental difficulties in a child if taken by the mother during pregnancy. No warnings were given to women about this until recent years and so there is a very low awareness of how much of a problem it is. I was going to ask that the Minister address the issue in this House in due course, so I welcome that development.

The second issue is a specific and tragic issue which requires that the Minister for Health come to the House for a debate. Two years ago almost to the day we debated abortion legislation in this House and several Senators raised the possibility that Irish babies would be born alive as a result of failed abortions, particularly in late-term abortions. This happens regularly in the UK and elsewhere. The former Minister described this as scaremongering. A report published recently by three medical professionals in UCC studied the work of ten doctors who have performed late-term abortions under the 2018 Act. I urge Senators to read it. It is deeply disturbing and chilling to read. It highlights three main issues. First, it is clear from the study that babies have been born alive, having survived the abortion procedure, and have been left to die, with doctors interviewed saying they were "begging people to help deal with the situation", referring to calls for help made to colleagues. The doctors surveyed described what they do as brutal, awful and emotionally difficult. Second, it is clear from reading the study that administering pain relief to unborn babies before late-term abortions is not something that features in the considerations of those carrying out the abortions. This, too, must stir our consciences. Third, there is the heart-breaking accounts of the feelings among doctors, with one doctor describing "stab the baby in the heart in order to induce a fatal heart attack before inducing delivery" and saying "I remember getting sick out in the corridors afterwards because I thought it was such an awful procedure and so dreadful". The doctors reported widespread opposition to abortion from other doctors. This was compiled by academics who broadly support relaxing the restrictions, even currently, in place.

In 2018, I and other Senators proposed amendments to the Act which would allow precautionary pain relief for surgical abortions and after care for babies who survive the procedure as a gesture towards the compassion we should feel in these cases. These proposals were rejected. I call for a rethink. Regardless of how people voted in the past, I sincerely hope we can all recognise that there is something dreadfully wrong here.

I sincerely hope this is an area we can revisit urgently and that we can unite in finding a way to show mercy and compassion to unborn babies who end up in these appalling, horrific and heartbreaking situations. Let us disregard how people voted in the past and let us not be bound by that. This is a call to our consciences. I ask that the Minister would come to the House on this issue and this issue only. It cannot just be dealt with on the fly as if it was some normal everyday issue. I plead with the House on this, that at least we can unite about some aspects of this debate. We should all be extremely disturbed by what this report has brought to our attention.

I want to raise a number of issues on our Defence Forces with the Leader. The first issue is to support calls made in this House by colleagues for getting an update on the commencement of public pay talks. There may have been some preliminary contact with the representative bodies of our Defence Forces, which is always welcome, but I am sure that those representative bodies, like the rest of us in the House, would welcome clarification of the reports in the media of preliminary talks, and referred to in the media as exploratory talks, before the invites were sent out to representative bodies yesterday. From dealing with those representative bodies in the past months I know that they are very keen to be at the table to represent their members but they want to ensure that they are all starting from the same starting blocks with the Department.

I want to use this opportunity to reaffirm the Labour Party's support for the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA's desire, and now the growing need, to affiliate to ICTU. It is events like those over the past days that should finally convince the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that this affiliation should happen.

In replies received by my Labour Party colleagues over recent days we learned that up to 500 Defence Forces personnel will leave our Permanent Defence Force by the end of the year. If we do not address pay and conditions urgently then we are simply not being serious about the future of our Defence Forces and no forthcoming commission will solve this.

With regard to the forthcoming commission I too believe it is very important that the House gets the chance to discuss the terms of reference for the commission. I am sure that like many Members who made a submission to the Department of Defence, we would all like to know how the commission is progressing, what terms of reference are being considered, and indeed the timelines involved.

I have been contacted by a number of members of the public who are very complimentary of our Defence Forces and the work they are carrying out during Covid-19, especially over the past days, and they wanted that acknowledged in the House.

I welcome the meeting this week between the Minister and representatives of the Reserve Defence Force. It was reported that the Department has also agreed that members of the RDF will be able to serve overseas in the future. This is a welcome development, but it needs the support of employment legislation, which I hope will be forthcoming. Our Reserve Defence Force has an important part to play in the future of our Defence Forces, and this meeting was an important step in that development.

I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to the House to urgently address these issues.

I wish to raise reports in the media yesterday in relation to some prisoners in Coverhill Prison who are mentally unwell. In its latest report on Ireland, the Council of Europe's European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment revealed some shocking conditions relating to some male prisoners in Cloverhill Prison, one of whom was left in an observation cell for two weeks, naked and in his own faeces. The prisoner had not received so much as a shower, and the only time the door was opened was when his food was being put into his cell. This is happening in Ireland's prison system. I cannot even say that we can blame the prison system. Clearly, people who are mentally unwell are being sentenced to prison and are being sent into a prison system that is not fit for purpose for someone who is so unwell and who should definitely not be in the prison system at all.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice to come to the House in the near future for a debate on prison reform and prison conditions? I remember reading a quote in some research I did with Fiona O'Reilly, CEO of Safetynet services, when she said that the streets became our asylums. When we moved from mental health facilities and putting people into institutions, we did not necessarily get it right when we said that we would reintegrate people and that we would treat them within the community. In fact, those very people who would have been in institutions have ended up in our prison system and on our streets. We really need to address this issue and do so quickly. When a person who is so unwell is sentenced there needs to be some level of understanding and awareness within the Judiciary of the resources and supports the prison system has in being able to deal with that person, including security staff within the prison itself. They are not mental health nurses, and I am sure they are at a loss in what they can do. We need to be able to fix this.

On Senator Mullen's contribution, we need to be very careful when we say "late-term abortions". It is not a late-term abortion, it is actually for fatal foetal abnormality. We need to be very careful of what language we use. There is no late-term abortion in Ireland unless it is for fatal foetal abnormality. If one looks for the report, the only place one can find it on Google is in the likes of I could not find the original report. I would like to be able to access the original report-----

Through the Chair.

We need to be very careful about our language. They are not late-term abortions. I am sure people will read the report very differently and with a different lens. I just wanted to refer to the language used of "late-term abortions".

I agree with some of the statements made by Senator Ruane on Senator Mullen's language today. It was completely inappropriate.

But it does occur in-----

Members know that under Standing Order 39, if they want to interrupt, they must ask the Chair.

Today is international day for the elimination of violence against women. This is against the backdrop of reports where we have learned that one in eight women suffers violence during pregnancy and that one in five women who are in an intimate relationship suffers violence. Domestic violence did not go away during the lockdown, where one might have thought it may have. This shows that a huge amount of violence is happening within people's homes. Today the director of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Noeline Blackwell, stated that an "epidemic" of sexual violence has been going on in Ireland for the past two decades. Obviously, we need proper resources, including proper resourcing of women's refuge centres, for which there is a huge demand during lockdown. Nearly half a dozen women have been on to me who could not get a place in a refuge.

If they do get a place the women have a struggle to continue on. Leaving a relationship is hugely difficult. Not only do the women need places in refuges they also need the resources to continue on, including counselling support and housing so they can leave abusive relationships.

This is also against the backdrop of anecdotal stories yesterday of the school in Carlow telling young girls how to dress. This has been denied but it feels as though we are slipping backwards when it comes to women's rights and women's welfare. We really need to put our money where our mouths are. We possibly need to have a dedicated Minister, not necessarily just for women's rights, but this area needs to be funded properly because domestic violence has not gone away. It remains very prevalent.

Over the past years we have seen huge investment and resourcing in An Garda Síochána to increase the strength of the force. It is now nearly at 15,000 with the highest budget ever of €3 billion in 2021. New and upgraded equipment, fleets of vehicles and new stations have been delivered in places such as Wexford and Kevin Street, not too far away from where we are now. In Waterford there has been an increase of 29% in Garda numbers between 2011 and September of this year. This is hugely welcome. Their presence has certainly been felt in Waterford. The work they have done throughout the pandemic has been exemplary, which I would like on the record of the House. The increase in numbers presents it own challenges, however, with regard to space constraints and the facilities available to gardaí and civilian staff. I am sure this is reflected in many parts of the State. In Waterford, which I know best, space is certainly at a premium in Ballybricken Garda station. Now is the time to focus on the next phase of investment and development of the force.

Waterford city is home to the divisional headquarters for Waterford, Carlow and Kilkenny. While the station was state-of-the-art when it was opened over 20 years ago, further investment is needed to expand on the existing site, perhaps over the former labour exchange, an old building that the Garda occupies but which is in need of significant upgrade and expansion works. Otherwise, perhaps the solution is the construction of a new substation on the outskirts of the city to house some of the divisional units and equipment that are currently on the constrained site. The latter would probably be a more appropriate use, given the projected population growth in the national planning framework. Given the fact that the current plan runs from 2016 to 2021, early in the new year would be an opportune time to have a debate on the new capital plan for investment in An Garda Síochána. I know that responsibility for Garda stations straddles both the OPW and the Department of Justice. I ask the Leader to organise a debate on this early in the new year.

Yesterday evening on the six o'clock news we heard a report from a secondary school in Carlow. The people behind the story need to be given an opportunity to explain themselves. I was absolutely horrified as a former teacher to think anybody would go into a room of young women and talk to them about their dress and sexualise them on the basis of their dress. The principal of the school involved has issued a statement, and the Department of Education needs to provide a full report on exactly what was said. I cannot imagine how a young girl in that school is feeling today, questioning herself on her dress. This goes back to the likes of young women being told they were raped because they were wearing a particular type of clothing. It is just wrong. It should not have happened, if it did, so we need a full report on it.

I support Senator Wall in his comments this morning on the Defence Forces and Defence Forces pay. As a former president of an ICTU-affiliated union, we need to hear ICTU come out and support the special status of the Defence Forces. I recall from my time in trade unionism that pay differentials were a huge issue. While the Defence Forces are currently prevented from being members of ICTU, ICTU needs to come out and formally support them, and I am making that call today. It is vitally important that the lowest paid workers in the public service are given an opportunity. We should not have heard at the weekend that pay talks were ongoing. The Leader has tried to contact me on this already and we can talk about it later today.

I second Senator Mullen's amendment to the Order of Business.

Today, 25 November, is the UN's international day for the elimination of violence against women. The UN says violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today. It remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame that surrounds it. In general terms, violence against women and girls manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological abuse. This includes everything from rape to intimidation, harassment, human trafficking and female genital mutilation. One in three women experiences physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, quite frequently from an intimate partner.

In the Covid-19 pandemic domestic violence has increased dramatically. In my constituency of Dublin Central, the Garda has reported a 100% increase in the number of reports of domestic violence, and that is just the domestic violence that is being reported. In our Ireland of today, violence against girls, young women and women of all ages includes domestic abuse and the image-based sexual abuse that took place on a mass scale last week with the release of more than 6,000 images. Then today we are talking about the events in a school down the country. However, it is wrong of us to demonise or call out one school. We miss the point if we do that. Whatever exactly happened in that instance masks what is happening generally in our society. We have schools all over the country telling girls that they must wear skirts and not trousers, that they must wear their jumpers over their shirts because their bras might be noticed or that they cannot wear Lycra exercise clothing because it would reveal the shape of their bodies. That is all wrong. It forces all the responsibility on young girls at a very impressionable age for adult men's thoughts. That is wrong. It is a failure of our society. When we fail girls and young women, we fail our society. We must all, therefore, on this day and every day call for and promote gender equality and call for the criminalisation of any form of gender violence or abuse. We must all stand up for young girls and young women and gender equality for all our citizens.

I welcome the news this week of the announcement that an application has been put forward by Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, and Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT, to become a technological university. It is really welcome news for the region - the mid-west and the midlands - and for Tipperary. We have two sections of LIT, one in Thurles and one in Clonmel. It is really important for a region such as Tipperary that we have a university in a town such as Clonmel. It brings so many advantages. I really hope that in a number of months the same will happen in Waterford and Carlow as well, and that an application will go forward for the two institutes of technology there to become a technological university. I encourage the Leader to ask the Minister with responsibility for higher education to come to the Seanad to speak on this issue. In Clonmel the university is coming to Kickham Barracks, which has been closed for six years. The barracks is in the centre of town, and the new university will see extra students come in. There are 14,000 students in the two institutes of technology combined, but the new university will accommodate up to 1,000 students in Clonmel. That will have huge implications for a town the size of Clonmel. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come before the House to make a statement on this issue.

I wish to reflect on third level education. There is a lot of talk about what will happen when students go back to college, if they go back after Christmas. Third level educators and the staff and teachers have been left in a grey area as to how they are to teach. They have been left in the grey a few times already this year, and that cannot happen again. I agree with what IFUT has said, that there needs to be a clear, agreed process as to how to conduct teaching and lectures for the new year.

While the student experience is valuable, safety must be paramount, and it would be possibly more helpful for the Minister to give teachers clarity on whether or not they will be online or offline so they do not find in January that they have wasted December preparing for in-room teaching while they will have to adapt to online teaching again. I am also acutely aware of the number of students who are perhaps sitting at home alone in their bedrooms trying to study and the deep impact that is having on them. I know it is very hard to give clarity in these very difficult times, but we have workers who are trying to adapt to what will come, so I ask the Minister to offer clarity in that area.

I wish to refer very quickly to the Debenhams workers. Last night there was an attempt at an overnight grab for stock in the former Limerick and Tralee stores. The workers and their supporters successfully held back the liquidators' attempts to access the stock. I know this has been raised a few times here, but the Debenhams workers have been holding the picket line for seven months trying to get a redundancy agreement. They met with the Taoiseach last week and were hoping for some resolution to this issue. I would posit that if the buying of clothes is not deemed essential during lockdown, this grab attempt on clothes is also not essential. I wish to put on record that these workers are still waiting for a response from the Taoiseach, and the attempt last night would perhaps suggest that it is not as forthcoming as it was implied to them that it would be.

I wish to start by agreeing with Senators Wall and Craughwell on addressing the terms and conditions affecting those in the Defence Forces, who are the worst paid members of the public service. A role has to be found for PDFORRA as part of the discussion, because this issue has being going on for far too long and it is important that it is addressed.

I agree with Senator Mullen around the need for debate on the future of the technological university sector. I do not know whether it is appropriate to have it right now but certainly in following on from Senator Ahearn's comments, it is essential. The motion regarding the creation of the Munster technological university, which is scheduled to be taken without debate, is extremely welcome. l look forward to the south east having a technological university in the near future but it would be important to have a major debate on the future of our higher education sector in this House, including the role of lifelong learning.

Members will be aware that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, published a quite comprehensive and worrying report this morning on the state of the Irish environment. There are many aspects that we could debate and discuss in this House but I particularly want to focus on questions around air quality. It is clear that there continue to be problems in respect of good air quality in Ireland. At Government level, there is a commitment to introducing clean air legislation and that needs to be fast-tracked. Given that there is supposed to be a ban in place on the burning of smoky coals, I looked at the statistics for last weekend. The WHO has stated that safe levels are those of 15 particles per 1 million or fewer. In Enniscorthy last weekend, the levels were 94.76 particles per 1 million, and in Wexford, where there has been a ban supposedly in place for many years, the levels were 122.34 particles per 1 million. This is replicated all over the country. The reality is that we do not have clean air in this country and it is having a serious impact upon those with respiratory illnesses and diseases. The clean air legislation needs to be introduced as soon as possible.

I welcome the great funding that was announced yesterday as part of the just transition fund, which amounts to over €27.8 million. It is wonderful to see a project in my own home town of Ballinasloe getting funding of nearly €500,000 for remote working hubs. The just transition process follows on from job losses, climate change and us changing the types of industry that we have in Ireland. More than 200 jobs were lost locally in Shannonbridge, more jobs were lost in Lanesborough, and there were also jobs losses in Aptar, so it is great to see this investment, which will bring jobs and people to work the middle of Ballinasloe town and increase footfall in that area.

I also welcome the wonderful funding that has been announced for Roscommon, with greenways being funded, the bog rail train routes being taken off in Cloontuskert and around by Shannonbridge, and action plans being put in place for Shannonbridge. All of this is to support people who are seeking to re-skill and retrain and also to have opportunities for work that they did not have previously.

I would also like to follow on separately to Senator Ahearn in welcoming the announcements of the plans for the Athlone and Letterkenny institutes of technology. That new technological university in Athlone will really be transformative for our region. As Athlone is only 20 minutes away from Ballinasloe, it will have a huge impact in east Galway, as it will in Tipperary. It will have a wide catchment area, and we look forward to having excellent research available and ready to imbed in industry and attract investment into the region of east Galway and into Roscommon. It will be fantastic to have a technological university on our doorstep.

I wish to speak on a few issues this morning. First, I request the Leader of the House to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs for an update on the Brexit negotiations. Every single day we get a drip feed of new crises from Tony Connolly from RTÉ. As the news reporting seems to be the best source of news we can get as Members at present, it would be really good if we could get a Minister into the Houses to talk us through what is actually happening, and what will happen on 1 January 2021. As someone from the Border region, I have more than a vested interest in the negotiations.

I also wish to reiterate what my colleagues said about what basically amounts to gender shaming. We had a great discussion yesterday in the Seanad on gender-based and domestic violence, and I am sick of women's bodies being used against them as a tool or a reason to put them down or to abuse them. Women are being abused and harassed because they can be, and there are no laws in place to prevent this. Thankfully yesterday the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, reiterated her desire to have online harassment legislation passed through the House before the end of the year. It is therefore very important that we grow up in this country and cop on. Women's bodies have been there for quite a long time and we need to grow with them.

My final point is to invite the relevant Minister to come to the House to discuss car insurance and the cost of it, particularly for young people. For young people in rural Ireland there is no public transport and they can no longer even car-share to get to college or wherever they need to be. The cost of car insurance is very prohibitive for young people, and therefore I would welcome a debate on the issue.

This morning we heard the unfortunate news from the Environmental Protection Agency that there are significant risks to the environment throughout the country. We have been made aware now that there are particular identifiable aspects that are causing damage to the environment and to water quality in particular. One of the references made by the chief executive, Laura Burke, on RTÉ's "Morning Ireland" programme this morning was to the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers and waterways throughout the country. This is an issue that really has to be addressed and which is particularly close to my heart, because in Dún Laoghaire, there is a pumping station on the west pier of the harbour, which removes the waste from the broader south Dublin area and pumps it into the treatment plant at Poolbeg. In the ordinary course of events, it works very efficiently and removes it but if there is a high rainfall event, that pumping system becomes overwhelmed. Because of a Victorian sewer system, the run-offs from the streets and gardens etc. go into the same courses as the sewage. This means the attenuation tanks at the west pier cannot cope with it, with the result that if there is a very heavy rainfall event, there is an overflow of untreated sewage into Dublin Bay. Dublin Bay is a UNESCO biosphere, a special area of conservation and a tremendously important recreational amenity for all people in Dublin, including those in Dún Laoghaire. In recent times we have seen an increase in the incidences of bathing water bans and overflows into Dublin Bay at Seapoint and the west pier, which are unacceptable. We need to provide funding to rehabilitate the sewage system in the Dún Laoghaire and Rathdown areas to ensure that when there is rainfall, the associated run-off water is separated and put directly and safely into the sea, rather than putting it into a sewage system unnecessarily, resulting in damage to the water quality in Dublin Bay and the environment.

Everyone in the country is eagerly looking forward to the easing of level 5 restrictions next week, the reopening of retail and the return of many aspects of normal life as we know it. The Irish people deserve great credit for the huge effort and sacrifice that they have put in, and thankfully we are seeing the results of this, with the figures falling day by day. However, I have been intrigued recently with the debate around the wearing of face masks as opposed to face shields or visors. Many people out there are confused as to which is the best option. The wearing of visors is particularly commonplace in the hospitality sector, and indeed across many other sectors including offices etc. Some people have contacted me to seek guidance on which is the best face covering to wear. There has perhaps been a lack of guidance from NPHET and the HSE on this issue. It is timely, as we prepare for the reopening of as many aspects of our society as possible next week, that NPHET and the HSE provide clear guidance on the wearing of visors as opposed to face masks. Irish people, by and large, like to do the best thing all the time and it is important that there is no confusion out there. If visors are not as effective in ensuring the safety of those wearing them and those around them, then clear advice should be given in that regard.

I would be grateful if the Leader would ask the HSE and NPHET to give that clear guidance in view of the reopening of the country or, hopefully, as many parts of it as possible next week.

We have serial advisers in the present company.

I wish to raise in the House something that has come to my attention in the last few months. The fact is that we need to do more for our old people. They are probably suffering the most. I am receiving telephone calls from many old people who have major concerns. Some of them live in cold houses. They have been in contact with me since August about it, but nothing has been done. Some of them want home help, but they are not physically disabled. To get home help on mental grounds one has to be completely dishevelled, falling apart and not dressing or feeding oneself. The standard has to be very low and there does not appear to be any formula for getting home help to prevent somebody getting into that state.

The main cause of their problems is loneliness. We must start to recognise loneliness as a justified reason to provide home help if there are no family members and people receive no visitors. I believe some of the people are reaching out to me because they are lonely and not for any other reason. I do not know if my colleagues concur with me, but I believe a massive cohort of old people have been left on their own and are lonely. The concept of home help must be re-examined because mental health is as important as physical health. It can cost the State up to €3,000 per month to have an old person in a home. If one paid a home help worker €30 per hour, that would give the person 100 hours per month and 25 hours per week of home help. Many old people do not want to be in old folks' homes. They want to be at home and independent, but they need some home help. They might need it just for company or to do shopping and the like.

I would like the Minister of State with responsibility for old people to come to the Chamber so we can have a debate focused on our elders. Traditionally, old people were treated as the most revered and wisest people, but we are not doing that as a society. I feel very strongly about this. The run-up to Christmas has been a very difficult time for old people as well because they have been confined to their houses and are not allowed to move around. When the State provides a house for an elderly person because the person is on a State pension, the owner of the house gets a long-term lease and is paid for 20 years. That money is guaranteed for that property owner, regardless of what he or she does to the house. It is not good enough that old people in their 80s are ringing me to tell me their houses are freezing and nobody is doing anything about it. The local authorities say it is not their fault, but the owner's fault. We must refocus and talk about old people more frequently in the Chamber.

We saw the photographs yesterday from Kent when queues of trucks built up after the French started a trial of post-Brexit checks. Lorries seeking to cross the English Channel were forced to stop in long lines as they tried to approach the Eurotunnel entrance. There have been warnings of queues of up to 7,000 lorries post Brexit. The French were rehearsing post-Brexit immigration procedures. The UK is used as a land bridge and it is now clear that, deal or no deal, there will be queues and delays in places such as the Eurotunnel approach.

As we look at the use of alternative routes and ports, we must ensure there is adequate supply chain capacity post Brexit. My area of Galway is a centre for medical devices and IT. We need to know if the supply chains of raw materials inwards and finished goods outwards are in place. We must ensure there is sufficient capacity in our transport network. I ask for a debate with the Minister for Transport, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Minister for Foreign Affairs on our ports, airports and the land bridge in the UK post Brexit. This is a crucial issue as we approach the final deadline. As I said, deal or no deal, I believe this will continue to be an issue. Some of those 7,000 lorries will be Irish, carrying Irish goods or importing raw materials for use in manufacturing in this country. Irish jobs are at stake. I realise the Government, the Departments and the various Ministers have done a great deal of work on this area, but I ask for a debate on this important subject in the coming weeks.

First, I join Senator Dolan in saying what a great day yesterday was for our region and the towns in the midlands. It is a significant amount of money. I spoke to many people yesterday and, like Senator Dolan, I was delighted to be involved in seeking those projects from Ballinasloe to Ballyforan to Lanesborough and throughout parts of Roscommon and east Galway and the adjoining counties. It is a sign of a Government delivering what it promised it would do, which is important for people. We need it there.

I support Senator McGreehan's call for a debate on the cost of insurance. Will the Leader also invite the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, to the House to discuss the arts and entertainment businesses? I constantly make the case that they will be the last in line to return to business because of the nature of their businesses. Whatever happens with vaccines, and we hope that will work out and we can get back to some form of normality as quickly as possible, the arts and entertainment sectors will be at the end of the line in terms of getting back to business. They have worries. Obviously, the €350 payment is very important, and they would like that to continue. These sectors also have great expense with regard to transport. If one is an engineer or in a band, or one is preparing a stand for a performance, one cannot have a vehicle that has a 03 D or 03 RN registration. It must be from 2018, 2019 or 2020. The cost of vehicles to these sectors is enormous. We must take another look at these sectors. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House for a debate on how we could, perhaps, further improve any payments we make to them.

I again raise the issue of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018. This was debated at great length in the House a number of years ago. This month, a number of provisions of the Act were commenced in law. There was great division among Members and great debates when the Bill was going through the House. Ultimately, the Bill was passed. One matter every Member agreed on was minimum unit pricing, but that is the one aspect of the Act that has not been commenced. This week, Tesco is selling cans of alcohol for 70 cent per can, which is €14 for a slab. I cannot understand why the provision dealing with minimum unit pricing in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 cannot be implemented at this stage, particularly when we have a lockdown and people cannot travel further than 5 km. For a long time, one could not travel from county to county. We were waiting for Northern Ireland and the South to agree on a date to introduce minimum unit pricing together. It has been a great success in Scotland, so for the life of me I cannot understand it. This was a contentious issue and one that, in every Member's view, would bring realism to the price of alcohol.

Why has it not been introduced at this stage? The Government should treat it as a priority, but obviously it is not a priority. It is also not a priority for Dr. Holohan, even though he said it was at the time. I ask that minimum unit pricing be introduced.

My request is that the Seanad receive an update on the status of the provision of universal period products. It is over a year since a cross-party motion was passed in the Dáil calling for the provision of free period products in all public buildings, including schools, universities, direct provision centres, hospitals and prisons. Yesterday, Scotland became the first country to provide universal access, and I hope Ireland will follow as soon as possible. Some measures have been taken at local authority level, in Dublin City Council and by my colleague, Deputy Ward, in South Dublin County Council when he was mayor.

Period poverty is very real. Yes, part of addressing period poverty is addressing the wider issue of poverty and deprivation in this country. Period poverty is also the outworking of our attitudes towards women and girls. Nobody bats an eye when they go into a bathroom and there is a toilet roll provided. In fact, people are very quick to point out if it is absent. However, despite the fact that periods are a normal bodily function, we have a situation whereby it is seen as shameful and something that should be hidden away. We see tampons slipped up the sleeve, discreet packaging and adverts that show blue ink to avoid embarrassment. The provision of period products in public buildings would help to break down the stigma, and it must go hand in hand with an education module in schools that is inclusive of all students. We have seen what happens when one separates students, as in the Carlow situation.

A study conducted by Plan International found that six out of ten young women reported feeling embarrassed about having their period and 50% find it difficult to afford the products. That situation has been exacerbated during the pandemic. I give credit to Homeless Period Ireland and its amazing volunteers who ensured that period products were still delivered to the direct provision centres, food banks and homeless shelters despite their drop-off points being closed during the restrictions. I request that we get an update on where the motion is going and when we will have universal period products for all of our women and girls.

I concur with the comments made by Senators Dolan and Murphy about the significant funding that was received yesterday, in the midlands in particular, through the just transition fund. As much as €5 million was given to specific projects in my own county of Longford and multiple millions of euro was given to others that cross over the area.

I concur with the comments that Senator Burke made about minimum unit pricing of alcohol and the abundance of cheap alcohol that is available at a time when all of the pubs are closed. There is talk of reopening different parts of society. According to media reports in recent days, public houses, which are regulated areas, will not reopen while we allow off-licence sales and, as the Senator Burke said, the sale and consumption of cheap alcohol in an unregulated area, which is causing problems. There is a huge difference between wet pubs in Dublin city centre and those in rural Longford where I am from. If we are not going to allow the pubs to open, which I believe we should, because they are regulated, they are licence holders, and it is up to them to enforce the restrictions that are put in place, none should open. We have seen what happened previously, and we drove alcohol consumption underground. We need to learn from that. I ask that that would be taken on board in the discussions over the next few days.

I know that colleagues will join with me in expressing sympathies to the Senator on the sad loss of his mother.

I will first address the proposed amendment to the Order of Business and ask for the guidance of the Senator concerned. I can offer two choices. I cannot accept his amendment today only because I do not have a Minister available for a 45-minute debate. I can propose that No. 1 on the agenda be withdrawn and rescheduled for next Wednesday or I can ask the Senator to allow No. 1 to go ahead without debate and we schedule a wider debate on technological universities for next Wednesday, as has been requested by other Members.

I thank the Leader for the options and I am happy to withdraw my amendment on that basis.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank Senator Mullen. If the schedule that I will issue this afternoon does not have it listed, then I will make sure to add it on.

I thank colleagues for the number of issues that have been raised today. The Tusla report that was raised gives rise to concerns, particularly when the concerns themselves are being expressed and shared by Tusla. It would be very apt to invite in the Minister for a debate on Tusla, its operation, its planned progress and what issues that it might have, so I will request that today.

Based on what Senator Mullen raised, I will ask for a debate. From the number of responses that he has received, he can see that there are still very strong emotions on this debate. I do not think ignoring the facts does justice and service to people's views, so I will again ask the Minister for Health to schedule that debate in the coming weeks.

In response to Senators Ward and Craughwell, I rang their offices and apologise that I did not get them yesterday evening. Progress was only made at Cabinet yesterday morning to advance those talks. I know that information was leaked before the Cabinet made its decision yesterday morning, but all interested parties received an invitation yesterday evening to sit around the table. I am not sure whether people are starting from a different place than other interested agencies, but I do know that every representative body will be sitting around the table and I very much anticipate that they will express their views and the concerns of their members to the negotiators at the table. I genuinely wish them a successful outcome for all of our public services. I know people are coming and starting from different points from a wage, pay and terms of conditions perspective. I hope that they reach a good leap pad, as it were, for the end of it so that there is a good positive outcome for all of them.

In response to Senator Ruane, a number of colleagues raised the issue and the report in The Irish Times yesterday morning detailing the awful incidences. I wrote yesterday to the Minister and there was a Commencement matter this morning where a Minister gave a response to the effect that the Minister is quite happy to have a debate. I expect to get a date sooner rather than later for a debate on prisoners' conditions, and as soon as I do I will let the Senator know.

Many colleagues - interestingly, mostly women - mentioned that today is the international day for ending discrimination and gender-based violence towards women. I am sometimes dismayed that we have to fight tooth and nail for every little step forward just to be equal in a world where there more of us than the people who seem to deprive us of the equality of opportunity. I will go straight to the end to Senator Boylan's request. I read with interest that Scotland yesterday was the first country, and indeed I hope it is not the last, to end period poverty. The fact is that we have to ask for paraphernalia to be put in a loo for something that happens naturally to women, and Senator Boylan is absolutely right that if anybody went into a loo and there was no toilet roll, there would be blue murder, so it is beyond me why we must fight for something that is so fundamental to our monthly lives. Enough nonsense and interjections that we are busy doing something else; this is a basic human right for a woman. It is not something that a woman can put off or can say it will not happen, although, thankfully, it stops at some point in a woman's life. However, for the vast majority of a woman's adult life, from about 12 or 13 years of age until she is in her 50s, it is something we have to deal with, so get over it and just put them in every public place, in every toilet, in every university and in every workplace. It should not have to be begged for.

I will ask the lads for their help. We stand up in this House as women and talk about the fact that we constantly have to fight arguments over body shaming, discrimination, gender-based equality, and access to healthcare, education and equality in the boardroom. The only way it is ever going to change is if we all want it to change and we have to stop begging for it. It is a basic human right to have equality of opportunity to access every level of service from the State, and it should be something that all men should want for their womenfolk and family members as much as women want for themselves. Help us out, please. That is definitely a debate. We started it yesterday and it is rescheduled with the other Minister the week after next. I invite the people who did not get access to speaking time yesterday to access that opportunity on the next occasion.

I will ask the Minister for Justice to come in after Christmas for a debate on the upgrade of the capital plan for the Garda. I will also schedule the debate for the technological universities next week.

Senator Hoey raised the issue of the safe return of third level education. That is something we can bring up when the Minister is in the House next week to debate higher education. What we need is consistency, and it is not just that sector that seeks consistency but all of us. We all just want to know what the plans are. I know we have to change plans in terms of how the virus reacts, but we would like to know where we will be in six weeks and six months. I think that will arise from our debate on Thursday, but also, obviously, from the announcement that Government will make arising from the NPHET meeting today.

The just transition funding yesterday was very welcome. I wish some of it was coming to my own area, it has given such cheer. It is a real sign that Ireland is changing and we recognise that we need more than a passive engagement to result in the changes required. It was very important to receive that amount of money yesterday.

Others raised the EPA and its chairperson's interview earlier on "Morning Ireland". There is no doubt that this country has serious environmental challenges such as air and water pollution and the surges into our sea from leaks. It is nearly like Groundhog Day. The EPA gives the same report every year and we never seem to make any progress. It definitely needs a debate and I will look for one from the Minister today.

The House will debate reopening Ireland on Thursday. I do not know when either Professor Nolan or Dr. Holohan said that wearing visors was not safe. I will get the text of that. It might be worth reading it into the record here on Thursday, to note precisely when they did say that. It is timely given that we are all hopeful that hospitality and restaurants and pubs will reopen in some shape or form in what hopefully will be a jolly season between now and Christmas.

In response to Senator Garvey, I have mentioned the "L" word a few times in recent weeks over Covid. I do not think loneliness is just an issue that pertains to older people. It might be more prevalent to older people but loneliness and people's well-being is something we need a debate on. I will write to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who has responsibility for well-being and ask him to come to the House for a debate sooner rather than later. It is far more obvious under Covid but there are people who, even under normal circumstances, do not see one person from one Sunday to the next and only do so when they go to mass, perhaps with the exception of someone delivering meals on wheels. Some of our older people do not see anybody from one end of the week to the other and it is not fair. There are also many who are in the midst of lots of people who still experience loneliness. I will ask the Minister for a debate on well-being.

Several Members raised Brexit and its ill effects, including transport links. Next Tuesday lunchtime, the House will start a debate on Brexit. There is no time limit. Everyone can speak for as long as they like. Next Thursday, there will be seven hours to deal with Committee and Report Stages of the Brexit Bill. We will definitely have an update before then but everyone will have an opportunity to talk about the ill effects that are coming. We all hope there is a deal but even then we cannot get excited about that because that will have no positive outcome. No deal is less positive but there is no upside to Brexit. That debate will be significant.

On the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, I do not know why Northern Ireland and the Republic have not done what they said they would, that is, to work together to provide all-island pricing in unison. We seem to be experiencing a number of difficulties working on an all-Ireland basis in recent months which is an awful pity. I will write to the Minister and send the Senator a written response when I hear back.

May I ask the Leader about the arts.

I will ask them to come in and speak on the new pilot scheme for the universal payment to people in the arts industry. It would give the Minister a good opportunity to share her plans with us. I will write today.

I thank the Leader.

Senator Mullen has moved an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 1 be taken with a 45 minute debate." He has indicated that he wishes to withdraw the amendment and the Leader has indicated that she will organise a debate next week on the issue. No. 1 will be taken today.

Order of Business agreed to.