The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 8 December 2020, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; and No. 2, Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 11 a.m.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Five years ago, the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed. Yesterday, three reports were published, which I read last night. Their findings did not help me to sleep. These were the World Meteorological Organization's State of the Global Climate 2020 report, the UNESCO report on conservation of nature and The Lancet report on health and climate change. I will outline why some of the findings are particularly frightening. It has emerged that global emissions must fall by 7.6% each year from now until 2030 if we are to remain below the 1.5°C increase that is necessary to avoid some of the disastrous consequences we keep hearing about. Arctic sea levels were at record lows and April and August.
This year, there have been 30 named Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes, which is another record. Just like Covid-19, we found that vulnerable groups are now most at risk from climate change, particularly the elderly and those with respiratory diseases such as asthma. Conditions conducive to the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever continue to develop. In the south Pacific region, the conditions for malaria have now spread to an area that is 150% greater than it was in the 1950s. We have seen the stories internationally about droughts and wildfires. Here we have seen particular challenges with floods. Climate change now threatens one third of the world's natural heritage sites. People know about the Coral Reef. Those who know Australia will be very familiar with the Blue Mountains, where much of the natural heritage is under threat.
I know the Government is making major moves with regard to clean energy sources and the introduction of the just transition programme which we have mentioned in this House. The Joint Committee on Climate Action under the chairmanship of Deputy Leddin is doing excellent work on the climate change legislation. However, I do not think we are taking this seriously enough. The recovery from Covid-19 presents us with an opportunity to address the greatest existential challenge we now face, namely, that of climate change. It is not enough for just the Joint Committee on Climate Action to debate these issues. The Dáil and Seanad should debate climate change. We should have an approach to it similar to the approach to Covid-19 both nationally and internationally. This threatens our very existence. In the five years since the signing of the Paris Agreement, there has, unfortunately, been very little progress.
I also wish to talk about environmental protection. We can all agree that environmental policy and legislation are vital to protect the environment not just for the sake of the 7 billion to 8 billion people inhabiting this miraculous blue planet of ours, but also for our children and for generations to come. Rigorous implementation of environmental policy and legislation is certainly good and is arguably an ethical and a moral obligation. A clean environment promotes and maintains the health and well-being of communities and individuals, consumers and workers. It is also important for the aesthetics and reputation of Ireland's tourism industry, a vital part of our economy which provides employment for approximately 265,000 people.
In such circumstances, it is imperative that we protect the environment in order to ensure long-term sustainable economic growth. We all have a part to play in protecting the environment in our daily lives, our choices and actions. However, the statutory role of environmental protection and environmental law lies with a range of Departments, 34 local authorities, An Garda Síochána and several agencies. The principal regulator and enforcement body is the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. Does the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, believe that the EPA has all the powers and resources it needs to implement and enforce environmental law in Ireland? I have my doubts.
Every year, we pay tens of millions of euro to the EU to avoid harsher fines for failing to comply with our environmental obligations as a member state. This could become billions by 2030 if we continue to breach our greenhouse gas emission limits. Every year, we see reports of our land and waterways - the land that feeds us and the water we drink - being polluted with untreated sewage and effluent from industry and agriculture.
On the topic of fines and the principle that the polluter pays, which is at the heart of environmental law, are those who pollute in Ireland paying to the same extent as polluters in neighbouring countries? To give one example, the document I have before me shows that airlines in the UK have been hit with fines of £132 million for failing to meet emissions trading system rules. What has the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, done to ensure our airlines are complying with these rules? The Minister needs to look at and address the issue of pollution and at the EPA's effectiveness in combating it immediately.
I thank all colleagues who spoke last night and who supported the Labour Party's Private Members' Bill on citizenship. I very much appreciate colleagues' support in ensuring the Bill makes further progress. I look forward to working with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to ensure we have time for this early in the new year. I thank the Leader for her personal commitment to ensuring that Government time will be made available for that. On behalf of all my Labour Party colleagues, I thank everyone for their support. There was real agreement on the need for legislative pathways to citizenship for children born in Ireland, which we will work together to achieve. It was a good evening for the Seanad. We saw the best sort of constructive co-operation and collaboration on legislation.
Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which I am wearing a purple jacket to mark. The theme for today is that not all disabilities are visible. I have just come from a wonderful meeting of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters at which we heard powerful presentations from Special Olympics Ireland and the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. We heard from Margaret Turley, a basketball player with Special Olympics Ireland and a brilliant presenter, who gave us a really strong sense of the importance of ensuring that organisations like Special Olympics Ireland are supported and that the enormous contributions persons with intellectual disabilities make to society are recognised, acknowledged and affirmed. Perhaps we could have a debate on the need to pass various measures to fully implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the new year. That is the issue on which the committee is working. It is a new joint committee on which many colleagues from across the House sit. The work we are doing is very important in seeking to ensure that Ireland becomes a better place for persons with disabilities to live. I ask that we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities today.
It is interesting that two of three previous speakers spoke about climate and environmental matters. It shows the importance of these matters to the House. It is something we can forget about but which we must put on the agenda, in some shape or form, every day. I would look for a way to include it in our business every week in the future.
Last night, I attended a public meeting at which I was one of three panellists, along with Professor John Sweeney and Ms Sadhbh O'Neill. We were discussing the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020. As Senator Byrne quite rightly said, this is not just a matter for the Joint Committee on Climate Action. Five Members of this House, Senators McGahon, Dooley, Higgins, Boylan and I, are members of that committee, in addition to the Deputies and the Chair, Deputy Leddin. At the moment, we are meeting for two to three hours every single day. We are now in the eighth week of our scrutiny of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020 so if I have been missing from the Chamber more than usual, it is because of the amount of work we are doing. All of these meetings are being held in private session but this work shows the commitment of the Government in respect of climate action. We need to bring the debate out into the public so that everyone will know that this work is critical to us and that the reason it took so long to agree the programme for Government was that we hammered out the detail. This Bill was a key part of that.
It is now for us to deliver. I hope the Bill will come to the Seanad first and that we will have proper debates on it but I also believe we need a proper opportunity to debate it in the House. I thank Senator Byrne for raising the matter today because it is a good opportunity for us to deal with the issues facing our planet and our children. We talk about how our children are affected by Covid. This is a crucial issue for our children. We are looking down the barrel of an existential crisis. According to the World Meteorological Organization, this is set to be one of the three hottest years on record. We have not been doing what we should. We are seeing record levels of deforestation in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, which raises the issue of international climate justice. It is a great opportunity for us all to debate the issue. I thank the Senators and the Leader.
I agree with a number of previous speakers on the issue of the environment. The suggestion that the Bill could start here is an excellent one. It would benefit from constructive cross-party discussion and debate.
I will raise two issues briefly, if I may. The first relates to student nurses. I will quote the words of a student nurse, which I read late last night.
Just home from unpaid 13 hour shift. I struggle to reach my learning goals on placement because I am carrying out duties that should be carried out by a paid staff member. I am working not just learning and govt just doesn’t value that. Is it any wonder we all want to emigrate?
That is quite a stark message. An issue was pointed out to me that is worth noting. Apprentices to electricians, plumbers and so on, which are male-dominated professions, get paid while they learn. I have no doubt that if nursing was a male-dominated profession, we would not be talking about this issue now because it would have been solved years ago. I am at a complete loss as to why the Government has not dealt with this issue to date. It occurs to me that it must be because of a lack of political will. We have been talking about it since the beginning of the pandemic and yet, nine months on, these nurses are still working for free. It is a shameful situation that requires action. I ask the Leader to insist, on what I hope would be a cross-party basis, that this issue is tackled as we enter the crucial months of December, January and February.
The second issue I wish to raise is that of Shannon Heritage. This is again a matter which has received cross-party support in recent months. In August, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform told us that €2.6 million had been allocated to Shannon Heritage to keep key sites such as Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle open. That was not the case, however. We were subsequently told by the management of the Shannon Group that actually only €550,000 of funding had been allocated. We now know that both Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle, which is a prime site in Limerick, will close on 31 December and their workers will be laid off until at least Easter. This goes entirely against what we were promised by Government Deputies. The staff and union representatives feel absolutely betrayed. "Betrayed" is the only word I can use in this regard. I do not think a city like Dublin would accept the closure of its key sites. The people of Limerick certainly will not accept the closure of King John's Castle. It strikes me that this issue shows a lack of commitment to the west and Limerick.
It also frustrates me that, to date, Sinn Féin is the only party which has called for Shannon Heritage to be removed from the Shannon Group. Privately, a number of Deputies from other parties have said it is the right thing to do. We are calling for its transfer to the Office of Public Works. We can see that Clare County Council has no problem keeping the Cliffs of Moher site open all year round. There has been a series of failures and broken promises from Government. I ask for a debate on the matter.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 4 be taken before No. 1. On behalf of the Civil Engagement Group, I am today introducing the Deportation Moratorium (Covid-19) Bill 2020. This will be taken in our Private Members' time next week and I call on all Senators to support it. The Bill is very straightforward. It would implement an emergency moratorium on the deportation of refugees and migrants from the State for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic and for as long as general measures restricting movement and travel are in place.
The principle underlying the Bill is very simple. Since the beginning of the pandemic, international travel has been identified as a key source and transmitter of the Covid-19 virus. It is Government policy to restrict the movements of people coming into, travelling within and leaving the State to restrict the spread and incidence of the virus. However, this policy has not been extended to those seeking refugee or legal migration status. Deportations have continued unabated throughout the pandemic. Ireland has drawn international criticism and scorn for relying on migrants in our health service to combat the virus and then issuing them with deportation orders after a few short months. It is frankly hypocritical for the Government to tell people that international travel is too dangerous on the grounds that they may spread the virus while at the same time forcing vulnerable refugees and migrants to leave the State and return to potentially less stable or safe jurisdictions, thus endangering their own health and global efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19. If international travel is off the cards it must be so for everyone, particularly for vulnerable migrants. Our Bill is timely emergency legislation to support those in need of protection and I call on all Senators to support it next week.
In response to Senator Gavan, I note that I have publicly stated that Shannon Heritage should be moved to the Office of Public Works, OPW. A debate on the issue would be welcome.
I stand today to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities. That day has been marked on 3 December for many years. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on what needs to be done and on what we have achieved. When I was first elected to this House in 2011, Ireland was marked by inequality. There have been many positive developments for persons with disabilities. In life I have always tried to be positive, speak positively and think positively. We have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. This hugely momentous step was taken by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in 2017. We now have an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters to monitor the implementation of the UNCRPD. This is absolutely appropriate because we must also ratify the optional protocol to the UNCRPD. I note that the committee includes Members of this House.
For four years a Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, in the person of former Deputy, Finian McGrath, sat at the Cabinet table. I pay tribute to him for what he achieved during that period. The most recent budget saw the biggest financial supports ever allocated to realising equality for persons with disabilities. Finally, under the stewardship of the Cathaoirleach, this House voted in the past four years to give State recognition to Irish Sign Language. It is great to see interpreters at all the Covid-19 briefings. That service needs to be extended. There should never be a Government briefing on any issue without these interpreters. There is a lot more to be done. In the new year, I would like the Leader to invite the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, to the House for a debate on disability, so that we in this House can support the work of the Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters.
The theme of this year's International Day of Persons with Disabilities recognises that not all disabilities are visible. I wish all persons with disabilities in Ireland and the world an enjoyable day. I would like them to view Ireland, the world and the people in the Oireachtas who are fighting on their behalf in a positive light.
Last night there was a discussion in the Dáil on pay for student nurses. While I fully understand that politics were at play, there is a conversation to be had about how we can justify student nurses not being paid. That applies not just during the pandemic but beyond it. Electricians, plumbers and apprentices are all paid something during training. They do not receive a full wage rate but their work is acknowledged and paid for. The same should apply to student nurses. When this pandemic is behind us we need to have a conversation about how we can do this. Student nurses in hospitals may not do the full complement of professional work - they do not administer drugs or perform other tasks requiring training - but they are working extremely hard. Our health service relies upon them. It is no coincidence that this issue remains unresolved for a predominantly female profession. I will work with my colleagues in Fianna Fáil to ensure this matter is resolved to the satisfaction of student nurses.
To follow up on what Senator Chambers said, we need a wider discussion on those who are in training. The legal profession and the accounting profession exploit people to the very last during their training periods. We need to look after student nurses but we must also examine internships and training periods in which people are exploited.
I would like to thank the Leader's office. Yesterday I had difficulty in getting information on Covid-19 restrictions for a person in Cork. The Leader's office came back to me very quickly to tell me where I should go for the information. This brings me to another point. We need a searchable database for people concerned about how Covid-19 impacts them. The query I had concerned an outdoor Christmas market that was being set up in the south of the country. The organisers were told that only 15 people could attend the market at any one time. The person who rang me said this was absolute insanity in light of how busy Patrick's Street in Cork or Henry Street in Dublin are. We are trying to get to the bottom of this issue. Senator Byrne raised the issue of markets and how Covid-19 restrictions apply to them. We need clearer information for the nuanced areas that are arising.
Last night, we had a very good debate on higher education. I argued that the management and staff of Munster Technological University, MTU, needed their heads knocked together. I got a very quick awakening last night when someone asked me why the university is in the Workplace Relations Commission if the staff are at fault. Clearly management is not engaging with the staff. We are 30 days away from the establishment of MTU and it is before the Workplace Relations Commission today. That is wrong in every sense of the word. The management must engage and get that technological university up and running quickly.
I wish to raise the issue of non-geographic numbers and premium rate services, which are provided by various institutions, companies and organisations throughout the country. Non-geographic numbers begin with 1800, 1850, 1890, 0818 or 076. These are reduced-cost services, often those provided by State agencies. This week marks one year since ComReg stepped in to ensure that the costs of those numbers are deducted from mobile bundles. The way people use telephones has changed dramatically in recent years. Prior to 1 December last year, mobile companies would essentially charge extra if a caller rang the then Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or somewhere like that. That has changed, which is a very welcome development. We are also about a year away from 1 January 2022, when that will change again. The number of those prefixes will be reduced to just two; 1800 for freephone numbers and 0818, for fixed-cost numbers. This is to be welcomed.
We need to mount a communications campaign around this to ensure that certain people are aware of that change. I am thinking particularly of elderly people, who may be unaware of, or confused, by these numbers, and other people in vulnerable categories. Perhaps even more important in this context are premium rate numbers, which can be exorbitantly expensive. There are 15 prefixes. They range from 1512, which costs 50 cent per call, to 1590 numbers, which cost €3.50 per minute. The text services that use these numbers are frequently advertised on various platforms. There must be a public information campaign on the costs of these services and the risk to phone users. Sometimes a cost is levied both for sending a text and receiving a text.
There is vulnerability here for lots of different sectors of society. We need to talk about how we make sure that people know about the risks associated with premium rate numbers and provide clarification on non-geographic numbers.
It is very positive to see a number of Members of the House raise the issue of student nurses, which has been raised continuously by my colleague, Senator Hoey. Student nurses are the backbone of the health service and have been on the front line assisting us in the fight against this pandemic. It is also worth noting, however, that the fact that there is no payment constitutes a barrier to entry, particularly for people from working-class backgrounds. While we blame people for being unemployed, we do very little to help people be activated. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, released figures yesterday that show that unemployment has risen above 20% again, with younger adults most affected. An Irish Fiscal Advisory Council report released this week noted that the Government announced just a 20% increase in funding for labour activation measures, despite the fact that we have extremely high numbers in unemployment as a result of the pandemic and it will be difficult for people to find new jobs in the months ahead. We also have a worryingly high client-case worker ratio. The optimal figure is 150:1 but ours is 500:1. I would like a debate in the House on the issue of activation measures and the people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and who potentially will not be going back into the same jobs. This is vital if we are to get over this and get the economy back working. It is also vital for people to have access to resources so they are able to retrain and not be locked out of the workforce in the long term.
Is the Senator seconding the amendment?
Yes, I second the amendment.
I wish to raise the issue of the hospitality and tourism sector. I am disappointed to have to do so. The whole sector has been treated very badly this week. I have always called for any decisions made by governments to be based on the evidence. No evidence has been presented to our sector for the strategy the Government has taken. While I accept that public health has to be front and centre and the priority issue, there is now frustration about the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. I was fully supportive of the CRSS when it was announced, but the more the details as to how it will be calculated and paid out evolve, the more frustrating it becomes. Now that the Government has decided to move to level 3-minus, or whatever it is, and hotel restaurants can open, hotels no longer qualify for the CRSS. This is having a horrendous effect on the industry and the people in it. We ask that we be allowed to open our doors to the whole country. We are prevented from doing that. It is allowed only from 18 December. We are asking people to come back to work for 20 days. We are trying to get staff to come off the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and to come back and work in our industry for 20 days, only to be told their jobs could be gone on 6 January. This makes it impossible to operate a business. We must consider the people this is affecting, especially at this time of year. We are asking people to come back to work at Christmas and to abandon their families but also telling them that, by the way, we will let them go on 6 January. This House needs a full debate on the hospitality and tourism sector. It is disappointing that our sector has not operated as one, be it the wet pubs, the dry pubs, the restaurants or the hotels. As an industry, collectively, we need to come together and form a stronger union because we have been mistreated during the pandemic. We were promised the data. We have never been given the data or the evidence to back up the Government's decision. The CRSS is just the final straw. This survival payment that was promised to the industry is now being pulled by bureaucracy and detail.
I raise the issue of admissions policies in primary schools in Dublin, as set out directly by the archdiocese. Unfortunately, public representatives, the Minister for Education and even boards of management in many cases do not have influence over this. There has been a break from the "sibling first" policy, and I for one am not in favour of it. Some families in Castleknock and Carpenterstown will find out this week that the younger children in their family may not be able to go to school with their older siblings unless the parents want to wait until their children are five and a half or nearly six. Can anyone who is a parent or who empathises with family life tell me the logic of this? It will potentially involve two school drop-offs and pickups, two sets of school rules for small children within the one house, two different uniforms, two different training days to be juggled, two different family contributions and raffles, two different parent-teacher associations, special occasions done in different ways and different dress-up days and Christmas concerts.
Whenever a small family starts to send the children to school, the parents really buy into the ethos of the school and think very carefully about it. I cannot explain the logic of this change because it is ludicrous to me. "Sibling first", to me, means siblings first. It does not depend on age or undersubscription in the school. Parents know the appropriate age at which to send their children to school and when they are ready to go to primary school. We should be doing everything we can to keep families, especially those with small children, together in the same school rather than sending them to different schools. This is an additional and completely unnecessary stress for families. I urge Members to look at the admissions policies of their local schools and write to the archdiocese if those policies affect the people in their area.
I think most of us yesterday breathed a sigh of relief when we heard we were a step closer to a Covid vaccine, and we have been reassured by the Irish Government that it has a plan to roll out and administer it, that it will be free of charge and that there will be no issue obtaining it because we are part of an EU-wide procurement deal. This is all very welcome news, but I wish to spare a thought for the Palestinians because it seems that even in a pandemic Israel is, with the help of the EU, facilitated in continuing its apartheid system. News broke this week that the EU deal to procure the vaccine, the deal to which Ireland is a party, is cutting in the Israeli people but cutting out the Palestinians. The Israeli public health officials have counted only the number of vaccines required to vaccinate Israeli citizens, claiming that it is the Palestinian Authority's job to look after Palestinian citizens. This is a breach of international law. The Geneva Convention requires that the occupying force take preventative measures to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.
After 13 years of an Israeli blockade, the Palestinian health system is on its knees. It has been starved of all the tools to combat Covid, including PPE, ICU beds and ventilators. This is nothing new. I visited Palestine after Operation Protective Edge and the destruction of Gaza and witnessed at first hand the discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. I spoke to terrified children who were forced to travel to hospital alone because their parents were prevented from getting permits, children who had lost limbs and who were suffering from cancer alone in their hospital beds. I also witnessed vital medical supplies being withheld from the Palestinians in a Red Crescent medical storage unit. That was six years ago, and the EU and Ireland are continuing to facilitate this apartheid. We have heard time and again that the virus does not care about borders, that it does not discriminate. Sadly, however, for the people of Palestine, the Israeli Government does. I ask that the Minister for Foreign Affairs show leadership and demand that the EU vaccine be given directly to the Palestinian Authority and that Palestinian citizens be facilitated with the vaccine.
I echo Senator Casey's views and support him. I also wish to discuss bars, gastropubs and restaurants. It seems absolutely ridiculous that we cannot leave our counties but the Government expects hotels the length and breadth of the country, including in Galway city and county, to have no supports. It is just not acceptable. The fundamental point is, as we are aware at this stage, that a main course has to be provided, it has to cost in excess of €9 and the preparation and commercial kitchen must be on site. I have no issue with that.
I have been contacted by a number of councillors and employers. What I have an issue with is this: in County Galway, along the west coast and right across rural Ireland, there are many bars and restaurants that open seasonally, by which I mean that they open from April until September. As Senator Casey alluded to, their supports have been removed. Something has to change because that is not acceptable. Currently, as we are all aware, the tourists are not there, so the restaurants and bars cannot open. At this time of year, they are under pressure in the context of staff, namely, chefs and senior staff members. For those reasons, the CRSS needs to be revisited. I have contacted the Government, particularly the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and I am hopeful that this will be dealt with as a matter of urgency in the coming weeks.
As colleagues have noted, today we celebrate the International Day of People with Disabilities. Many buildings are being lit up with purple lights and people are being encouraged to wear purple. The theme this year is "Not all Disabilities are Visible", and we see this often in the context of mental health and those who suffer traumatic brain injuries. It is about recognising that inclusion and accessibility are important for all of us in society in our day-to-day lives but also in our workplaces. I would like to pay tribute to accessibility groups such as Brothers of Charity and Ability West that run many organisations in the west of Ireland close to where I live. I want to thank the advocates who speak on their behalf and who have approached me many times with representations. Sometimes the things we can do to help are very simple and practical. For example, when those of us who have pets clean up after our dogs, it means that wheelchair users and those with prams do not have to clean them when they get home. There are many things that each of us can do at a practical level to help build awareness in the context of disability.
I also wish to highlight the importance of the rural regeneration fund. The deadline for applications from local authorities is coming up and strong applications have been submitted from Roscommon and Galway. The importance of the fund cannot be understated. It is crucial in the context of developing our towns and regions. Many of these applications are looking at matched funding. When local authorities are able to work with others to organise matched funding, this can only strengthen applications. In Roscommon and Galway, we are in a position to submit strong applications for the rural regeneration fund.
I understand that the Bill which my group is putting forward next week has already been formally seconded, so I simply want to voice my support for it. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have talked a great deal about solidarity and vulnerability. One cohort of people who are extremely vulnerable are those who have received letters informing them that they are to be deported and who face the prospect of being placed in unfamiliar situations. Senator Boylan spoke about the vaccine. While we may have the vaccine in Europe, we know that right across the world there are many countries that are struggling to find out how they will be able to source adequate supplies. The COVAX scheme is limited but needs more work regarding what the health supports might be in different countries. In that context, I am very proud to be co-sponsoring the Bill that we will bring forward next week.
Like previous speakers, I also want to highlight the UN International Day of People with Disabilities. As a member of the special committee that has been set up to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, I think this is a particularly important UN day, because we are now at the beginning of a process of really implementing this convention and changing society as a result. The Seanad has a very proud record - as does the Cathaoirleach - on such issues such as leading in the recognition of sign language. The UN International Day of People with Disabilities is a day to celebrate those with disabilities, who are becoming visible and active in every area of life, and are shaping our society. It is also a day to renew our commitment to transforming society so that it is more inclusive. That is the job of work ahead of us.
In the Ballinasloe area, a number of residents were woken in the early hours of Sunday, 22 June 2020 by a low-flying aircraft. It has now been established that the aircraft belonged to the RVL Group, an English-based firm that specialises in aerial surveys. It was previously reported that the firm had completed survey flights over parts of Westmeath in the early hours of 4 November. Online flight records show that a Cessna 404 Titan registered to RVL Aviation took off from East Midlands Airport near Derby in England at midnight on Sunday, 22 June, and arrived over Lough Ree at 1.45 a.m. The flight passed over south Roscommon, including areas such as Taghmaconnell, Ballyforan, Creggs, Ballinasloe, and parts of County Westmeath. It returned to East Midlands Airport at 6 a.m. I have to say that the incident has annoyed, frightened and upset people. From my perspective, that type of manoeuvre, which upset families and livestock, should not be taking place in the middle of the night. An older man living across from where the aircraft passed over said he was up for most of the night and that the noise was particularly bad between 1 a.m. and 3.20 a.m. The Leader is very good at taking our requests back to the Cabinet, but I am not asking for a Minister to appear. I am asking her to contact the Department for Transport and those who have responsibility for air traffic control, because this type of manoeuvre should not be happening in the middle of the night, unless it is an emergency or there is a situation on the River Shannon that must be dealt with. This sort of flight in the middle of the night is totally unnecessary and it is very concerning for people when it does happen. Thankfully, it does not happen too often.
I am sure that many Senators heard on the RTÉ news bulletins and from other media outlets this morning about the publication of a report that was commissioned by Government, which has recommended legislative change. It recommends such change in the context of corruption, fraud and economic crime. This raises extremely serious concerns. The Hamilton review, which is the report in question, states that legislation is required to deal with the ethics breaches of former Oireachtas Members. That was reported in the hourly radio news bulletins between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. It clearly presents a challenge for the Oireachtas. This report clearly needs to be the subject of a debate, when appropriate. I suggest that once it has been cleared by the Government and in various quarters, there should be a presentation on the Hamilton review and that the House should debate it early in the new year. If there is a suggestion that there is something wrong in the Oireachtas, then the Oireachtas should at least have some debate on the matter. When appropriate, and given that these kinds of reports must undergo a particular process, I am asking the Leader to keep the matter actively under consideration and for there to be statements and debate on it in the House.
I want to speak about the current crisis in the local media sector. We all have local radio stations and publications based in our parishes. The pressure that they have been put under due to Covid-19 is immense. This is more of a rural issue than an urban one because the newspapers concerned are based in rural Ireland. They are part of the dynamic there and have been for a long time. There has been a lack of credible supports to help them survive. Advertising has collapsed and is down by 60% to 70% from where it was previously. This is for the obvious reason that the businesses do not have the money. Circulation is under pressure because people do not want to go out. It is a ticking time bomb and, because of that, a debate is required as a matter of urgency. If we do not move on this issue in the next six to eight weeks, a number of titles that are important to the entire country could fail. That would result in a deficit for our society. This is an issue that needs to be addressed. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House so that we can have a debate on the matter. She has proposed that a commission on the future of the media be established. That commission will be sitting again in the next few weeks.
Its report has to be laid before these Houses in the next few months. Without that sort of interaction, unfortunately, in a short time, we will lose many publications and that will be a deficit for society.
I also ask the House to recognise that today is a day we should all be mindful those with challenges and who battle disabilities daily, and also their families and friends and the communities that support them. It is really important. We all have our challenges, visible and invisible, but today is a day for those with specific disabilities. We should all be mindful of them.
A related matter is those who care for people with disabilities. Many are carers, family carers and friends who care in an informal way, but also the nurses, midwives and those in formal care settings. The Leader raised this as a Commencement matter earlier this week and it is an issue of significant concern to my Fianna Fáil colleagues, and was discussed at length at last night's meeting of our parliamentary party. We need the Minister of Health to come to the House to address the treatment and value of our nurses and midwives and, in particular, student nurses and midwives. I understand he was dealing with other health matters yesterday and was in the Dáil to deal with the debate on a Private Members' motion, which was a political stunt, largely aimed at gaining political currency, but there is a sincere interest and commitment on all our parts to ensure that the nurses and midwives who have worked tirelessly and generously throughout the Covid pandemic, as they always do, are properly valued in our society and by Government. The Government has awarded a historic additional €4 billion in funding for the health service. I and my colleagues believe that all our nurses and midwives need to be valued not only with expressions of our appreciation but with financial reward and compensation. There will never be enough money to pay for the work they do and to put a price on that work is to cheapen it but fair is fair. I ask the Leader to again raise this with the Minister for Health.
I concur with Senator Fitzpatrick's comments. We need to value our nurses, and I believe we do. It is important that the Minister for Health should come before the House to deal with that. The demand for a €100 registration fee, which was sent out to nurses in recent days, is another issue. It is only correct that this be waived for this year, at least.
The Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was recently before the House. There is a crisis caused by the lack of delivery by the forestry division in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have reached a position where the entire industry is grinding to a halt. The Act was signed in October but the crisis has continued to deepen. Thousands of jobs, all in rural Ireland, are under threat. There are 495 jobs at risk in my county of Longford, including 250 jobs at Glennon Brothers, one of the largest timber manufacturing companies in the country.
It is clear that the Department has consistently not delivered on its stated goals to provide the necessary number of licences needed and has missed all its targets. The entire system is operating at one third of the required rate. The forestry appeals committee is still dealing with fewer than 20 appeals per week, rather than the 40-plus required to clear the backlog within the next three months. I ask that the Leader to speak to the Minister for Agriculture to get the Department to deal with this or the industry will grind to a halt. We brought in the legislation and pushed it through the Houses to ensure it was in place but it is not being delivered on the ground. There are 12,000 jobs in the entire industry and nearly 500 in my own county. I ask that this be prioritised.
Currently, credit unions are unable to hold in-person annual general meetings, AGMs. There is no point in holding virtual AGMs because, without legislation being passed, they are unable to payout the annual loan interest rebate or dividend. The credit union in Clonmel, where I am from, has a dividend of approximately €1.7 million to distribute to members, which equates to between €200 and €300 per individual. It is always very welcome at this time of year. People spend it locally at Christmas time. It is an extra bit of cash that people need at this time. It is important that we bring through legislation to make it possible for credit unions to hold virtual AGMs that they might be able to distribute dividends. Will the Leader contact the Minister for Finance to ask that legislation be brought through as quickly as possible? I do not wish to over-promise that this can be done before Christmas in order that people could get payments before then, as that would be very tight. Nevertheless, it is a payment that people are very much used to and they really appreciate it. It is important that members are involved in credit unions. They give back a great deal to communities. It is no one's fault this has happened that they are unable to have a normal AGM. I ask that we would do something as a matter of urgency, for all credit unions but particularly for my own town in Clonmel.
Today is UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. I have just come from the Joint Committee on Disability Matters where we had an exceptional, inspirational and challenging meeting with Special Olympics Ireland, Trinity Pathways and WALK in Drimnagh on their incredible work.
Every Christmas, I look forward to the RTÉ news report of the children from Chernobyl arriving in Ireland. It is always very moving. On this day, when we remember disabilities, I wish to speak a little about them, because while they are not Irish citizens, they are part our Irish family. They live in archaic institutions. They are loved, supported and wonderfully cared for by Adi Roche and everybody at Chernobyl Children International, CCI, and all its families and supporters.
People with disabilities living in institutions are the most vulnerable but their vulnerability has been exacerbated by the appalling combination of the pandemic and the political instability that surrounds them, which has caused extreme regression. Children who were once going to school and were supported by the life skills and restoration of rights programme run by CCI, now do not know their own names and spend their days rocking backwards and forwards. It is so sad. They will not get to Ireland this year because of the circumstances. CCI is sending a container and I will exploit my position by asking anyone who can to assist in paying to send that there so that we can send Christmas to Chernobyl with all our hearts.
This morning, in light of the commitment of Government to extend supports in to the new year to assist businesses to reopen, the reopening of the economy this week, notwithstanding Members' remarks, and acknowledging that the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, the rate freeze, the VAT reduction, and the availability of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, I am tempted to propose an amendment to the Order of Business to bring in the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, but I will not. There are several reasons he should come in. The first is the public sector pay talks are beginning, if they have not started already. There was discussion this morning, rightly, on the role of student nurses. The public service stability agreement expires at the end of the year.
As I stated on the Order of Business earlier this week, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, has raised the issue of non-Covid permanent spending of €85 billion along with the hiring of 17,000 additional public servants.
To cap it all, this week, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, said there is a possibility some adjustments in taxes will be needed. Is he having a laugh? Who is going to pay an increase in taxes? The ordinary worker is paying enough already. If there is to be an increase in taxation then we need to have a debate on fiscal policy, especially when the Minister is publishing the multiannual budgetary projections in April. I appreciate the work that Government is doing in this Covid-19 situation but let us not go back to the days of people refusing to pay water charges as the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, did when in opposition. We have an important job of work to do as a country. Increasing taxes for ordinary citizens that are struggling is not the way to go, in my opinion.
There are plenty of issues for me to respond to today. I thank colleagues for all of the items raised which I propose to respond to working backwards.
I do believe there is need for a debate on fiscal policy but whether it is beneficial to have it between now and Christmas is probably debatable. I will ask the Minister to come to the House for that debate but there is probably a variety of Ministers that need to come in for that debate. The world is an entirely different place today than it was when colleagues were debating the merits or otherwise of water charges seven or eight years ago. There are challenges arising not just from the costs that have been extended to support citizens in this country because of Covid, but the impact of those actions in terms of the way we do things, not least how we work, shop and live in the future, and on businesses. This demands that we have a debate on supporting industries, creating new industries and, probably, who is going to pay for all of that at the end of the day. I will try to arrange for that debate to happen when the House returns in the new year. It is not fair to put the entire responsibility on the shoulders of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. We are all in this particular boat together and as Oireachtas Members we need to decide how we share the burden of what is going to be a challenge in the next couple of years. We are all very hopeful, notwithstanding the positivities that the vaccine is going to bring, that when society does reopen, it will be like the roaring twenties and it takes off. This might solve an awful lot of our problems and do a lot of the heavy lifting. A debate is required.
A number of Members referenced today being the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The presentation given at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters this morning, as referenced by Senator Seery Kearney, must have been incredibly moving. People live with disabilities every day. There are different days during the year when we pay tribute not only to the people who support them, including their families, but the immeasurable amount of care given that is mostly hidden. It is not good enough that we only recognise that work on particular days, although it is very welcome that we do and that we are having this conversation today. Our actions show how we recognise and value people with disabilities and all of the people who care for them, be they organisations such as Fingal Prosper, WALK or anybody else. There are organisations in all of our towns and villages that do great work. In introducing pensions for parents of children who are incapacitated and will never have the stamps to qualify for a pension, as provided for in the programme for Government, we show that we do not just talk the talk, but we walk the walk. It is important that we have a debate on this issue and I will try to arrange a debate with the Minister shortly after Christmas.
Senator Ahearn raised credit union difficulties. I did not realise there was such a big dividend in towns and villages. A sum of €1.7 million for the town of Clonmel is a sizeable amount and it would be very welcome if it could be spent there before Christmas. I might be speaking out of turn but there may be a possibility of introducing an amendment to the Finance Bill that has not yet been finalised. I do not know if that is possible but I will liaise on it with the Minister today and then we can talk about it again between now and next week.
Senator Lombard raised the issue with regard to our local media, local radio stations and local newspapers. As politicians we are very reliant on them, but our neighbours and friends who buy The Meath Chronicle, The Fingal Independent or any of the other local newspapers and who listen to local radio stations do so for local news and because they want to be attached to what is happening in their local areas. Many of them do it for sport, particularly in the case of newspapers. This is probably more attuned to the local GAA matches at county level. They are hugely important. Notwithstanding the difficulties they are experiencing because of Covid, they were already in trouble. We have had various representations from the organisations. A new organisation was set up to lobby as a collective. It is an issue we need to respond to. The Future of Media Commission is welcome but it is going to take months before it can report and for us to debate that report. The crisis is far more immediate and so I will seek a debate on that particular issue, although I am mindful that I already have a number of other requests with that Minister on other issues.
We had a particularly emotional contribution this morning by a Senator who is walking the walk with regard to the difficulties facing our hospitality sector. Over the last couple of days a number of Members raised the issue regarding the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. There are clearly anomalies as to why a business cannot open and at the same time cannot access the CRSS that need to be brought to the attention of the Minister. On behalf of Members, I will write to the Minister on the basis of the anomalies of which I am aware and have been brought to my attention to see if they can be rectified. I do not think any scheme to support people was set up with the intention of excluding other people. I know from personal experience that not everything can be thought of at the outset when devising a scheme. There are always things that need to be revised. Schemes need to be living schemes and to be adaptable. I will write to the Minister for Finance on the basis of that particular sector. I mentioned in the House yesterday that I think we need a task force on the retail sector. We definitely need some type of force to make sure our hospitality gets back on its feet when the vaccine comes. While there is talk of some sort of immunity for the Irish people it will not be until next September. This means two entire seasons will have been lost for the hospitality sector. The vast majority of that sector will not resurface after those two seasons without supports. I will raise that issue by way of letter to the Minister.
Senator Boylan spoke very poignantly about the discrimination in Palestine. I will write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, today. I cannot believe that an organisation like COVAX would not have a plan B. The Senator is right that there should not be a need for a plan B.. There is a plan A and that plan should work. I do not know the answer to her question but I will write to the Ministers seeking that information. If I get a response today, I will contact the Senator by phone. If not, I will communicate with her in writing.
Senator Currie raised the admissions policies that have been changed by some of our Dublin schools and, probably, some our city schools in Cork and Galway. She alluded to the fact that she could not understand the logic to it. I think that is because there is no logic to it. It makes no sense for a parent to send a seven-year-old to one school and a four- or five-year-old to a different school further up the road. All of us who have children know how difficult it is to get them to the same school in the first instance and to get them all there on time. This issue underlies a bigger issue in so far as there is a problem with school places. The fact that dioceses have to juggle with the rules to try to accommodate within the school places that they have, with changes that do not make sense, leaves us to believe that we have a bigger problem than just them juggling with their own admissions.
Senator Casey raised the issue of the hospitality sector. Senator Ward raised the very interesting topic of how people can fall foul of not knowing what is behind the 1890 and 1590 phone numbers and, particularly, the costs. The change in the legislation last year was very welcome but those 1590 and 1890 phone numbers are still a major cause for concern. The Senator mentioned that there are some older people that would not necessarily be aware of the costs and charges for these numbers. There are some younger people in households who do not pay their own bills who are not very aware of those charges and they enter competitions that result in them receiving a text a day that costs €3. In my own household, my daughter just thought the texts were very annoying and she deleted them and did not bother telling anybody. There is a real need to raise this issue with ComReg and to ask what it might look like to make sure everybody, young and old, is reached.
Senator Craughwell raised the idea of a searchable database, which I think would be very welcome.
I am not sure that colleagues have had the experience I have had in the past days of different people making representations to us about different sectors and what regulations apply to them in those sectors. They went on to the gov.ie website and could not specifically find it. Their own industry, be it sports or dance, has told them they can do this but somebody else has told them they can do that, and there is a bit of conflict. A searchable database would be a very good idea. I may write to the Taoiseach to see what he thinks about it.
I am very happy to accept the amendment to the Order of Business, and second it, and take the Bill next week. I wish the Senators every success with it.
The climate action Bill was raised by a number of Senators. I am baffled that I did not know that our Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action is sitting every single day. I am not sure if other Members know this and I am not sure why we do not know. I am also curious to know why it is meeting in private session because this is a very public conversation. The suggestion by Senator Malcolm Byrne that the topic be a weekly recurring theme on our Seanad Order of Business would be a very good idea.
For Senator Doherty's information, there were a number of public hearings and now it is the finalisation of the report so we are meeting in private session.
I am sorry, I misunderstood that. Again, I genuinely do not believe that people know that the committee is meeting every single day. Most Oireachtas committees meet once a week and some meet only once a fortnight. It is a huge onus on all of us to make sure that everybody knows there is a huge volume of work being done. That is especially the case in a week when we see the reports spoken about by Senator Byrne that do not paint a very good picture, and particularly in a week when the Government had to acknowledge that it is only at 78% of the targets we had set for ourselves on climate action. We need to be telling people far more loudly what it is we are actually doing, what our ambitions are and where we are at. In the new year I will look to see if we can have a recurring theme around climate action on our weekly schedule.
Senator Bacik mentioned last night's debate. I thought it was a wonderful debate. I was not here but I watched it remotely. It was a very inclusive debate. It shows by example that when we in this House work together we work better. This is something that other Houses might take note of. There is some real thoughtfulness around some of the policies that start in this Chamber. Due to the fact that there is the space and time to tease through differences of opinion in a very relaxed and collegiate atmosphere, one gets much better policy and better legislation. I thank Senators for doing what they did last night and I am very happy to continue to facilitate that. I will bring it back in the new year.
Senators Keogan and Byrne started off today's Order of Business with the issue of environmental impacts. I am not sure that the EPA does have the full clout, be it through legislation or through the bodies it needs. We will not know until we ask. I will be writing letters for the rest of the day, but I will send another letter on that issue this afternoon. I will copy the Senators on that letter. We will make this a commitment that we will try to put a weekly part of the schedule on the Order of Business for climate actions.
I shall conclude with a matter that a number of my colleagues have raised, but not just in this House and not just today. The matter was raised in the Dáil last night. I have to say that even though I am a Government representative in this House I am very disappointed in the way Dáil Éireann voted on the issue last night, although I understand the reasons. I had a Commencement matter this week on the issue of student nurses' pay.
Rounds of applause are lovely, they really are, and they show that we genuinely appreciate the work of all our front-line staff. However, one shows appreciation by putting money into people's pockets. It is as simple as that. It is a basic, human function. We all need money to live. This is why people go out to work. We hear phrases such as "I am a teacher because I have a vocation" or "I am a nurse because I am really caring". There is this nonsense that taking a profession that one loves means that one is not really working is great, but we all go to work to get paid. The value we put on it and the appreciation we show to people is by putting money in their pockets. I am really disappointed because the Minister gave me a commitment here on Tuesday. Although we are going to look at the HSE contracts for next year, which is great and is deadly for the student nurses that start next year, we have 4,000 student nurses now. Most of them are women. Most of our teachers are also women. This, however, is another gender-based argument we can have on a different day. Stop with this nonsense of saying we are going to do something in the future. We are in the middle of a crisis, not just in Ireland but also in the world. It is a time for us to be generous and to recognise that people are pulling together and that we need to respond in kind. I will write again to the Taoiseach today to ask for the issue to be resolved now and not at some point in the future. I will do that in everyone's name if that is okay.
I thank the Leader for putting forward the Commencement Matter on student nurses' pay. I selected it because it is such an important issue. There are too many nurses emigrating because of their experience in our health system while they are trainee nurses and student nurses.
On the issue of climate action, I hope that we could include it on our schedule. I was at a foreign affairs committee meeting in the same week the Pope said climate change was a risk to humanity and the Pentagon said it was a bigger threat than global terrorism. If the Pentagon is saying that the issue of climate change is a bigger threat to humanity's existence than global terrorism then we do have an issue.
Today is the International Day for People with Disabilities, and I thank colleagues for raising that issue.
Senator Ruane has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 4 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.