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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 22 Feb 2021

Vol. 274 No. 8

Ábhair Ghnó an tSeanaid – Matters on the Business of the Seanad

I wish to mark the fact that a small country a lot like Ireland this week celebrates its independence. A year before Dáil Éireann sat for the first time, Estonia declared independence on 24 February 1918. It is a small county that, like Ireland, struggled for so long for independence and, as such, we share a common bond. Of course, we also share membership of the European Union and the UN Security Council. We share a love of language. Estonian is an exam subject in schools here and there are statues to Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde, an Estonian literary icon, in both Galway city and the university city of Tartu in Estonia. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Estonia and Ireland. On Estonia's national day, we wish all its citizens a very happy, safe and peaceful Estonia day. We hope that H.E. Aino Lepik von Wirén, the Estonian ambassador to Ireland, will be able to join us next year to mark Estonia Day. In my best Estonian, head Vabariigi aastapäeva.

There is no proposal on the Order of Business. I call Senator Gallagher, who is the Fianna Fáil Whip and leading off for that party.

Last week, NatWest Bank announced its decision to wind down the operations of Ulster Bank in the Republic of Ireland. The reason given was that it was no longer profitable. The loss of Ulster Bank is a major blow to the State and to the many communities in which this bank has operated for more than a century. Ulster Bank has been particularly strong in Border communities, and its branches have operated in prime locations in many towns, including The Diamond in Monaghan town. Branches of the bank have also operated in many other prime locations throughout the country.

The timing of this announcement in the midst of a worldwide pandemic is greatly disappointing. The manner in which the staff of the bank were informed, hours before the press release, was also very disappointing and, quite frankly, not good enough. I reiterate that the decision is a huge blow to the communities in which the bank branches are located and the manner in which staff were informed of this development was also disappointing. It is a worrying and uncertain time for the 2,800 staff members who work with the bank and for all the holders of accounts with Ulster Bank.

I would like us to ask the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, to come into this House to advise us on what the Government can do to protect those Ulster Bank account holders and what future the Government can provide for those people. At the moment we have a duopoly of banks in this country with Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks, AIB. We have a lack of competition. There has been talk of PermanentTSB, PTSB, and AIB coming together in some form to buy some of Ulster Bank's business operations. I think the PTSB option must also be explored. It would be timely for the Minister to come into the House, therefore, so we can have a debate about Ulster Bank, its account holders' future and the broader future of banking in this State and what that will look like in future in order that people and communities can plan ahead.

The other issue I raise is that of green certificates, which are vitally important in the agriculture sector. These green certificates allow young people to avail of existing grants and schemes in the sector, and it also makes the inheritance of land a more viable option. We have a chronic lack of places where it is possible to earn green certificates now. There was an incident recently in Westport in Mayo where 450 people applied for some 200 places in respect of green certificates and those places were taken up within six minutes. Westport College of Further Education has stated that it has demand for about 1,000 places in 2021. I ask that this issue be addressed by the relevant Minister or Ministers. What is needed here are simply more places on the course in question for green certificates and more tutors to deliver those courses so that young people can enter the farming sector without obstruction, which is what we want them to do.

Leading off for Fine Gael today is that party's Whip. I call Senator Kyne.

I concur with the need to examine and address the two issues raised by my colleague, Senator Gallagher. The development regarding Ulster Bank is worrying, and I would welcome an early opportunity for a debate with the Minister for Finance on this important issue. I am thinking of the staff of the bank. I am also thinking about its mortgage holders and other customers, whose status quo continues, which is very welcome. However, the long-term future of Ulster Bank and its branches, which are prevalent in so many rural towns, is an issue.

We are nearly two months into this lockdown and the figures concerning Covid-19 are still too high. They are stubbornly so, unfortunately, which may be evidence of increased transmissibility of these new variants.

This is even before the schools reopen. I wish the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid well in its very important deliberations as we move towards some relaxation and some reopening of the country in the midst of figures that are still very high.

I acknowledge the welcome and encouraging news on Covid vaccines and the increased ramping up of vaccination, which give hope to everybody. It is wonderful to see the photos and video footage of people aged over 80 or 85 receiving their vaccines. It gives encouragement to everybody that the end of this horrible pandemic is in sight. That we will have over 100,000 people vaccinated in the coming week and more than 250,000 people vaccinated next month and in April gives hope that there will be a return to normalisation.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on people's mental health. One way to protect our mental health is to exercise and get out and about in the fresh air. We have seen large numbers of people arriving in various parts of the country. I wish to discuss the two areas of sea swimming and golfing. Playing golf is important, particularly for retirees. If one is not lucky enough to live within 5 km of a golf course or one's local golf course, it creates difficulties. I hope the Cabinet sub-committee will consider this matter because many people, particularly retirees, like to play a round of golf in pairs.

Sea swimming has created a buzz in Salthill and Galway in general. If people who are used to swimming in the sea, perhaps early in the morning, suddenly find they can no longer do so because the coast is beyond their 5 km limit, that has an impact. Perhaps consideration can be given to allowing people to drive to the sea and get in for a swim in a safe manner without meeting or engaging with other people. I ask that those two issues be raised with the Cabinet sub-committee.

Councillor Frank Roche in Cork and Councillor Brendan Fay in Cavan have asked me to request an extension to the hedge cutting season by two weeks due to poor weather conditions, as called for by the Association of Farm and Forestry Contractors of Ireland. The hedge cutting season ends on 28 February so urgent clarification on this issue is required for farmers and hedge cutting contractors.

I was greatly dismayed to learn that Ulster Bank is winding down its operation in Ireland. My first thought was for the 2,800 employees of the bank who face the imminent threat of redundancy and their families. We already face an economic and unemployment crisis. Many businesses and jobs are effectively on life support. As soon as State supports for businesses and workers, such as the temporary wage subsidy scheme, are withdrawn, we could see a considerable lengthening of dole queues.

I am also concerned about the fallout of Ulster Bank's decision for small and medium-sized businesses and consumers, as well as the erosion of competition in the already uncompetitive banking sector. This is a grave threat to the economy, which already has to contend with the impact of Brexit and the Government imposed shutdowns. It is another unwelcome storm cloud when the mood of the nation is already gloomy. People are living under a cloud of fear and negativity being generated by sections of the media, the Government, the political classes and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. People are not being allowed to live. It is not right to permit the country to be ruled as if it were a hospital ward and our people to be treated like they were all vectors of a disease.

The Government's so-called living with Covid strategy is a fraud and has been an abject failure. Is being permitted to leave one's home only to go to a supermarket or a pharmacy living with Covid? Is being fined by the Garda for going for a walk in the hills or swimming in the sea living with Covid? To my mind, this is a dystopic vision of living. Even the term "strategy" is a misnomer. It gives the impression of a plan that is fully thought through, nuanced and sophisticated, that takes account of its consequences and provides predictable clarity and stability. This muddled approach by the Government is anything but that. It is a series of arbitrary and ad hoc policies like the €9 meal with a pint policy, locking people down in their homes, shutting down businesses, squeezing the life out of society and bungling attempts to roll out vaccines.

This is the Government's living with Covid strategy. It is a dubious one which is having a terrible effect on the health and mental health of this nation. I am deeply concerned about what short, medium and long-term effects the lockdown will have on people. I am concerned about the ballooning public debt and the prospects of businesses collapsing. I am concerned about the fallout from the closure of Ulster Bank. This nation needs a fresh approach that requires and provides real leadership. We need a Government that provides hope and opportunities to people to flourish in spite of the virus.

I join other Members in expressing my solidarity and great concern for the many staff of Ulster Bank who are facing such devastating news about the job losses resulting from the closure. I urge the Government to do all it can to ensure jobs may be saved in the sector.

I wish also to ask the Leader to raise some matters with the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid. As Deputy Alan Kelly said at the weekend, we in the Labour Party are seriously concerned about the lack of a coherent strategy on Covid from the Government. All around us, we are all seeing increasing frustration, an increasing drift back into offices as people feel a lack of hope for the future and the lack of any clarity in communication from the Government on how we progress our way out of this awful pandemic. In this House, I have urged successive Ministers to adopt a zero Covid strategy, to adopt a national aggressive suppression strategy along the lines the Labour Party is advocating for. All Opposition parties are united in calling for a more aggressive suppression strategy, the introduction of a much tighter level of control on the level of people coming into the State, the speeding-up of the mandatory hotel quarantine measures and the need to ensure people feel there is a strategy for coming out of this and for ensuring that this is indeed our last lockdown.

There is also a need to ensure that where people are being policed, within the 5 km limit and within all the other restrictions, that it is being done for a purpose and that the purpose is to ensure the rates go down to zero and that they stay down because we keep Covid out of here through much stricter and tighter border controls. I simply cannot understand why the Government cannot adopt a strict border control policy and a strict mandatory hotel quarantine policy for incoming travellers. People are deeply frustrated when they see others flying in and out, apparently without sanction, yet they are subject to such severe restrictions and curtailments of their civil liberties here. It is a real issue.

I welcome the fact that today, pupils with additional needs and special classes are returning to school and we are going to see further opening up of special schools. Again, however, I urge that there be a more coherent and clear strategy on the return to school of all students. That must be a priority. We are again seeing mixed messaging and a lack of clarity around dates. We really need to ensure children know when they are coming back. I think we all know the deep frustration felt by children, parents and teachers about the lack of clarity. I support the call by the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, for a "Covid dividend" for children to invest in infrastructure to ameliorate the terribly negative effects of the pandemic. It is in line with Labour Party policy, specifically the Catch-Up for Children scheme we have advocated. We have urged the Government to adopt such a scheme to ensure supports for children and to put in place a €100 million dedicated fund to enable children to come through this.

I welcome the news about the Georgian museum, that is, that the ESB has been refused permission to close it. I put in an objection myself. It would have been a very retrograde step at a time when we all need to ensure support for cultural heritage. I am delighted with the decision.

I have learned that the famous Billy Brennan's barn, celebrated in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, is for sale later this week. The previous owners were very helpful and cooperative and facilitated access to it by the numerous conducted tours. I am just putting the marker down that I hope anyone who buys it will respect its heritage and its place in that wonderful community.

Recently there were reports in the media on a decision and then the reversal of that decision to commemorate or celebrate or glorify slaughter and incidents related to the Northern Ireland Troubles.

I find that very upsetting but I try to see it through the eyes of those who organised it. Many of them may be suffering deep pain and anguish themselves and we must take that on board. However, expressing their pain by going down that road will be highly divisive and counterproductive. It will not heal them and will not heal the country. Perhaps they could take a leaf out of the book of the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris. I do not know if the Leader saw his recent interview on a TV chat show on a Friday night. That show is disproportionately full of sad stories of late, but that interview was uplifting. Drew Harris lost his father in the Troubles in 1989, when he was a young member of the RUC. He said:

In these things you have perhaps a choice, I was married [with children] and you have a choice in terms of the household your children are going to grow up into, and so I worked hard at not being bitter ... it was very difficult ... nobody would be more upset than my father if he thought I was just living an embittered life.

It is easier said than done but we must try to shake off the bitterness that comes with the pain. We must remember, when we try to glorify recent slaughter, that there are surviving family members still with us - the parents, children, brothers and sisters. We must try to embrace an authentic peace, an embracing and genuine peace. I hope people in pain will take strength, inspiration and hope from the courageous way Commissioner Harris has dealt with a loss that he said is traumatic and awful and which he thinks of every day of his life.

On Friday, I raised the issue of nightlife and the night economy. Thankfully, the Leader gave a commitment to invite the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, in for a debate once the night-time task force has published its review. Little did I know that on Sunday the newspapers would lead with the issues around nightlife and the Minister for Justice's commitment to licensing reform. I amend my suggestion to propose that we instead invite both the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media into the House for a split debate. It should be a two-hour debate if possible but we should split the time between the two Departments. I welcome the statement by the Department of Justice on licensing reform. I will not go over the issues I raised on Friday but a huge amount of money is lost to that industry through needless bureaucracy which could be spent on developing venues, paying artists and attracting talent.

The other issue I wish to raise is that of consumption of alcohol in public. With the good weather, there were an increased number of people socialising around the canals last night. While this is a local authority issue relating to by-laws, I thought we might have a mature conversation about where Ireland is at. We all know there are cultural issues around the consumption of alcohol but I believe society is at a mature enough place that we could pilot a plan in certain areas, such as in Dublin city in the summer. Given that the Government is now calling for an outdoor summer, we should follow suit with other European cities in that respect.

Finally, there is a global shortage of film space, partly due to retail prices in LA and New York.

There is also a content race among the streamers and studio space will be key to attracting big productions to Ireland. We know the tourism benefit of having "Star Wars" or "Game of Thrones" made here. The first report of the audiovisual action plan was published last year. It also mentioned the importance of studio space. Members will be aware that the proposed online safety and media regulation Bill will also give the State an opportunity to ensure that at least 30% of European content in the catalogues of streaming services will be European. There is an important need for a debate on film studios too.

Two weeks ago I spoke here to raise the issue of the digital divide. My colleague, Senator Byrne, said earlier this month that funding of €5.8 million has been allocated to the education and training boards. I very much welcome and appreciate this allocation, which was announced in December. We have not yet discussed how the rural digital divide affects children, young people under the age of 18, children in secondary school and young people in third level colleges. I could read through all of my notes but I will mention specifically children who are living in direct provision and Traveller children. Due to the digital divide, children who are marginalised in this country do not have equal access to education right now. It is very important that this issue is brought to this House.

I welcome the Labour Party's Catch-Up for Children campaign, which aims to fund materials and support marginalised students who have been affected by school closures. I am from a marginalised community. Many people in such communities already have fewer opportunities. I see this every day when I am on the ground with the Traveller community and in rural Ireland. I see young people in rural Ireland not having access. I have raised this matter on a number of occasions at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and on the floor of this House. I ask every Senator to join me in writing to the Minister for Education as part of an effort to engage in collective action on this issue. We have all spoken about mental health and young people not having freedom. We should give young people the freedom to have access to school, if nothing else. If they cannot be there in person, we need to give them this access. We need to allocate funding to close the gap. With the political will, the gap can be closed.

I ask that collectively, as Senators, we write to the Minister for Education. If that does not work can we ask that the Minister come before the House? We may all have our political differences as different individuals, but every one of us here in this House believes in equality of education. Right now young people in Ireland, sadly, do not have that. This is something on which we have the power to apply pressure in order to close that political gap. I am encouraging Senators to work together, no matter what our political differences are, to make this possible for young people in Ireland. I would greatly appreciate it if the Leader would ask the Minister to attend before the House, even in two or three weeks’ time, if a collective letter from us is not listened to. This is a vital and critical inequality in our society right now and needs to be dealt with.

I wish to raise today the "pause", which is the word that is being used, in respect of the issuing of passports by the Passport Office. When our Covid-19 crisis is behind us, there will be a tremendous backlog of passports to be administered at that stage.

The Passport Office is telling people on its website that when we get to level 4, they will have their passports and their information back in 20 days. That is unbelievable. Apart from wanting to leave the country, which is not recommended at present and we are certainly not encouraging it, many people use their passports every day of the week to open bank accounts, rent houses, get married and for many other reasons.

Driving licences can be renewed online, so I cannot see how, a year into the Covid crisis, the Passport Office could not have come up with some scheme to at least renew existing passports. This is a no-brainer. I know there are matters of State and different issues in regard to passports, but this is a basic right of any Irish person. It is just not good enough to say that passport services are being paused. To get anything from the Passport Office now requires that it be an extreme case. It is not good enough. I ask the Leader to liaise with the Minister, the Department and the Passport Office in this regard. This cannot continue. In a modern state in which a sister-type system exists for driving licences to be renewed online, it cannot be right that there is no such system for passports.

I want to raise several issues. The first concerns the duration of planning permissions. I am looking for an extension to existing planning permissions for the length of time for which the construction industry has been closed. I know a number of one-off sites and developments that are coming close to their existing five-year permission, or ten-year permission where there was an extension. Construction has been closed for almost five months and many people are going to run into difficulties in the context of getting developments up and running. Rather than having them go to the cost, expense and delay of applying again for planning permission, it is only fair that an extension would be given, especially in the current climate.

I welcome the funding announced in the last week by the Minister for Education for a number of schools, including Ardscoil Phádraig, Ballymahon Vocational School and St. Mel’s College, in regard to advanced projects for additional classrooms within County Longford. I want to raise one issue that I have brought up previously in the House, which was a commitment I gave prior to the election. It concerns Meán Scoil Mhuire in Longford town, a convent with over 600 pupils that has no playing facilities at the school, which is over 100 years old. I ask for comment from the Minister for Education as to the situation in respect of a new school premises for those 600 students in Longford town. I ask that this issue be highlighted.

I concur with the comments on Ulster Bank and, in particular, the 2,500 employees whose job security is not good at present. I ask that they are looked after and that alternative employment is found. We will also have a situation in a number of years where many towns will have no banking facilities at all. Speaking as a postmaster, I suggest that there is an opportunity for engagement with regard to reinforcing the post office network. If we do not support that, we are going to lose it in every town in the country. An opportunity exists here and I ask people, if they are moving their accounts, to consider moving them to the post office in order to maintain that facility within their community.

I support Senator Bacik and her party leader, who spoke at the weekend on Covid, because they were 100% correct in what they said.

There was an extremely disturbing report in The Irish Times on Saturday about the relationship that exists between the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces. There is a new Secretary General in the Department of Defence. She has been active on the ground and I think she needs time to repair whatever relationship exists. However, the Defence Forces are on their knees in the context of numbers.

I have today some figures from a freedom of information request. For example, 136 men and women sought to get back into the Naval Service and three were taken back. Some 545 sought to re-join the Army and 44 were taken back. A total of 63 applied to re-join the Air Corps and eight were taken back. A total of ten commissioned officers applied to come back to the Naval Service and one was taken back. Some 30 commissioned officers applied to come back to the Army and three were taken back. Finally, 20 commissioned officers applied for the Air Corps and 15 were taken back - they were pilots. That type of situation is impossible to understand.

I have in my office a series of letters that pertain to several commissioned officers. The Chief of Staff said that they were welcome back and that he wanted them back. Some official in the Department said "No". How can that be? The Chief of Staff is the person responsible operationally for the organisation. The Defence Forces are more than 1,000 people short yet people have not been contacted and they have no idea why.

I will make one quick point before I sit down. Atlantic 252 is an RTÉ longwave radio frequency. The campaign is on to save it again. The diaspora, especially those who are elderly, do not use social media but they listen to Atlantic 252. We should put some pressure on RTÉ to retain the longwave service. It is the least we can do.

I will start by agreeing with my colleagues. Senator Davitt spoke concerning the Passport Office while Senator Warfield spoke about reform of the licensing laws and a debate around studio space to support our creative industries.

I want to refer to events in Australia with regard to Facebook recently. They raise important questions about how we ensure payment for quality journalism in future. This is an issue my colleague, Senator Cassells, has raised regularly. They also bring up the critical question of the relationship between multinational technology companies and the State. Who is in charge?

Many aspects of our lives will be increasingly shaped by technology. The amount of time we will spend in these Houses debating this will be crucial. Before Christmas we dealt with Coco's law. We are about to deal with an online safety Bill. We deal with disinformation and fake news. One of the challenges for Ulster Bank and the Ulster Bank issue is the shift to digital banking. We are looking at the audit of the algorithm for the leaving certificate. The Commission on the Defence Forces is dealing increasingly with questions around cybersecurity. The Garda is dealing with cybercrime. The pandemic has led to more interest in remote working. Online shopping will change the fabric of retail. We are going to have to deal with many more of these issues in the House in future, including everything from how we regulate artificial intelligence and machine learning to an automated workforce to big data. How will we prepare for the regulation of driverless cars? We are looking at the rise of drone technology. Drones are already being used for delivery in Galway.

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science cannot simply be an administrative Department. Part of its role has to be around upskilling and reskilling all of us as citizens to be prepared for all those changes. It is not simply about one Department; there has to be a whole-of-government response. I would like to have a debate around how we, as a Parliament and a society, are preparing for all the technological changes that we will see in the coming decade.

As the Senators who are on the rota have contributed, the sitting will now be suspended for 15 minutes to allow for sanitation in accordance with the Order of the Seanad made on Friday, 19 February. Matters on the business of the Seanad will resume thereafter.

Sitting suspended at 12.40 p.m. and resumed at 12.55 p.m.

I want to raise the issue of changes to the opening hours of bars and nightclubs which are to be included in the 2021 justice plan of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. This is welcome news. We need reform of our opening hours as the tourism sector will play a huge role in Ireland's recovery from Covid. The current opening hours are a drawback in this regard. Asking tourists to leave a licensed premises at 11.30 p.m. on a Sunday night is a little short of bizarre.

I also note the intention of the Minister to provide additional licences to support the night-time economy. I would urge caution on this, however. The pub sector is after having the most challenging year in memory. Up to 50,000 people working in the sector have not been able to work at all for the past year with many of them, along with thousands of businesses, facing uncertain futures after a crisis not of their making. That crisis is not over yet. The last thing they need to hear is the sudden announcement by the Government of significant changes being made to their industry. I urge the Minister to engage in meaningful consultation in this matter with the representative bodies of the industry, the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Licensed Vintners Association.

Since being elected to Seanad Éireann last April, I have been struck by how much effort the Government makes in welcoming new businesses to Ireland. When an overseas company announces it will open an office here and employ 90 people, the red carpet is rolled out with Ministers and IDA Ireland attending, along with press coverage and the full works. That is fine of course. We need to be as attractive as possible for foreign direct investment. It highlights the potential of Ireland and so on. However, I know people in the hospitality industry who run hotels, restaurants and bars, employing hundreds of people, but they have never spoken to a Minister in their lives. It is something perhaps worth reflecting on.

I commend the Minister for Justice on the overhaul of the licensing laws as reported in the media today. It is welcome that she is considering a number of measures. I also pay tribute to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, for prioritising culture and the night-time economy. According to media reports, issues being examined include staggered and extending closing times and an annual nightclub permit. I also hope these will apply to promoters who arrange pop-up nights.

For a country that likes to socialise, we tend to have unnecessary rules and a bureaucratic regulation which hangs over any of the socialising that we do at night. We have in the past adopted a moralistic tone when it comes to socialising with the not very well-hidden paternalistic State knowing best in the way of promoting the night-time economy.

Recent years have seen people such as Sunil Sharpe of Give Us The Night, Andrea Horan through her activism Clubbing Is Culture, as well as promoters such as Nialler9 involved with pop-up nights, advocating on behalf of the clubbing community. There is nothing wrong with a party. People have different preferences for what is good socialising. Not everybody wants a civilised dinner with a drink and glass of wine. That is okay. I hope when developing the new licensing laws we look beyond them and look at ways to make it as easy as possible to have pop-up club nights, that we value those nights and we do not judge them. As my colleague Senator Sherlock said, I hope we also involve workers and ensure night-time workers are paid decently but that they also have the infrastructure, such as transport, to be able to facilitate a strong night-time economy. We should, in 21st century Ireland, have spaces where we can dance from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and not be sent home.

We heard calls over the weekend for better working terms and conditions for Deliveroo riders. I have been campaigning and working on this for a number of months. No one expects a Deliveroo rider to take risks with his or her life or personal safety. However, because areas are being red-zoned by riders, communities and businesses in them are being left without delivery services. We have marauding gangs of youths fighting with delivery riders. The footage shown over the weekend of this was appalling. We have had engagement on the northside of Dublin city but we now need this to be a citywide engagement. I wrote this morning to the Minister for Justice about this issue.

It is intolerable that communities will be stigmatised. I have spoken to the gardaí who are aware of this anti-social behaviour and are taking action against it. The gardaí say they do not have the same number of reports of incidents the riders allege are occurring. I will come back to that.

I have met and engaged with Deliveroo over recent months to address its terms and conditions. It denies that its riders are employees and says that they are self-employed. I have made a submission to the Tánaiste proposing a hybrid model, coupling the flexibility of a self-employed person with the protections of an employee, similar to the Uber ruling in the supreme court in London last Friday. We need to ensure we recognise the new gig economy method of working and that there is no race to the bottom in terms of employment rights.

There are two reasons for the lack of Garda reports on this issue. Deliveroo says there is an inherent reluctance to trust the police on the part of some of its riders because of where they come from. I do not doubt that is true, and I have encouraged them to come forward. The second reason is that some riders are working in contravention of their type 2A visa or are facilitating others to do so, and as a consequence are afraid to come forward. These are vital workers and we need to review their work status. We also need to assist the gardaí in tackling the anti-social behaviour at these hotspots and stop the riders having to police themselves. We need to police the areas to ensure that both communities and riders get this delivery service.

I support the issue raised regarding the Deliveroo front-line workers. I have submitted a Commencement matter, which the Cathaoirleach may consider for debate later this week, with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Leo Varadkar. This is a huge issue affecting not just the northside and southside of Dublin, but other cities around the country.

I express to the Leader of the Seanad the feeling that people have expressed to me over the last couple of weeks. We have been dealing with the pandemic for almost a year and people are at their lowest point in some respects. We are coming into spring and the weather has improved but the emotional and psychological strain of the pandemic, the closures and the increased restrictions since Christmas are taking a huge toll on people. The Government is meeting and will look at restrictions for the next phase. I ask the Leader of the Seanad to thank everybody who has put in such an enormous effort, particularly healthcare workers. Some 40,000 people received the vaccine last week, 100,000 will receive it this week and that will increase to 250,000 vaccines a week or a million a month. It is an enormous undertaking and we are eternally grateful for that effort which gives us all great hope.

As the Government looks to the next stage, the 76% increase in welfare reports to Tusla about children and young people is alarming and concerning. I ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, to actively sit down with Tusla to examine the backlog and the cause of delays in responding to these most vulnerable children.

Regarding the restrictions, all the supports should be extended as they are critical for the hospitality and tourism sectors and small businesses. However, young people are going back to school. It is great that some have gone back and some will be going back but let us give them a break by giving them a bit of outdoor space. Before Christmas, 145,000 online Covid submissions were made to the GAA every week for children engaged in socially distanced outdoor training. Can local authority, GAA and soccer pitches be made available to them, with social distancing? Let us give young people a break. We are putting them back into classrooms, so let us give them some outdoor space too.

It is great to be back in the Seanad Chamber for a little while. As The Hollies sang in 1974, "All I need is the air that I breathe".

Last week, the Government announced a consultation on solid fuel regulations because we want to reduce deaths from air pollution and ensure better quality of life for those with breathing difficulties. The Government is committed to delivering a clean air strategy.

Unfortunately, people have no choice about the air they breathe. Anyone who goes out on a still winter's evening in an area with high levels of solid fuel burning cannot help but notice the smoky air. Smoke contains tiny particulates which damage our lungs and bodies. I encourage everyone to read the consultation document before jumping to conclusions about it. It is not about banning solid fuels but the transition to better quality solid fuels - for example, swapping smoky coal for smoke free coal and wet wood for seasoned wood and improving the standards for peat briquettes. It is not about stopping people from cutting and burning their own turf. Turbary rights will be protected. It is about reducing harm and cleaning our air.

However, there are some genuine concerns. People are worried about the increased risk of fuel poverty. I refer in particular to my county of Offaly, where there is a high reliance on solid fuel. People are anxious about where supplies of alternative fuels might come from. Those who rely on supplying solid fuels for their livelihood are also concerned. It is why we are consulting. We want to hear about these concerns. These submissions will help inform us as we make decisions on the regulations. There are no ultimatums.

The homes of the future will not need solid fuel, as we embrace higher quality, energy efficient homes, which use electricity generated from renewable sources for heat. We need to make this transition in a fair and just way. As a Government, we need to support that transition. Have no doubts we are moving forward to a greener future, with cleaner energy, homes and air.

Last week, we debated the important issue of the remote working strategy. My office was overwhelmed by feedback on that debate. A large number of people are looking for a place where they can use this strategy to change their quality of life and want to engage with it.

A digital hub strategy is being rolled out throughout County Cork. Towns such as Bandon, Skibbereen and Bantry all propose to have digital hubs. Unfortunately, Clonakilty does not have that opportunity at the moment and the lack of digital hub is a drawback. To compound that, a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine building has been sitting idle there for a decade. There is a purpose built building in Clonakilty with nothing happening in it.

If we are to have a real strategy on working from home, it has to involve the local authorities working with the State - in the case of Clonakilty, it would be the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine - to utilise all opportunities available to the State. I refer to the opportunity of infrastructure. Key infrastructure is sitting idle. Darrara agricultural college, a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine building, has been sitting idle for more than a decade. We need to get this building back into use. It is an ideal location for a digital hub. The benefit to Clonakilty and its hinterlands would be immense. We need joined up thinking.

We need a real debate with the Departments to see what infrastructure can be utilised to ensure we do not have infrastructure, which could benefit rural and urban Ireland, sitting idle. Making sure our infrastructure is utilised is a key issue, so we can implement this strategy which has knock-on effects for society. Nobody wants to spend hours in cars anymore. That is gone. The big issue is to ensure we legislate so that the State works with local authorities to ensure we can provide these digital hubs.

The general narrative on the change of government in the United States has been good riddance to Trump and welcoming the United States back to the civilised world. However, if one considers President Biden's recent comments on China, one has cause to be worried.

He was at best incoherent and, at worst, worryingly nonchalant about the abuse of human rights and human dignity being perpetrated by the Chinese regime. Asked at a CNN town hall about what China is doing to the Uyghurs, he said: "Culturally there are different norms in each country and their leaders are expected to follow." This might be President Biden's confusion, which would be worrying, or, as I said, it might just be that the emphasis of the new Administration will be firmly on trade. Yet the same CNN a few days later reported what Qelbinur Sidik had to say. She is a former elementary school teacher who was forced to spend several months teaching at two detention centres in Xinjiang in 2017. She made allegations of shackled students and gang rape inside China's detention camps. I will quote her. "When ... [male guards] were drinking at night, the policemen would tell each other how they raped and tortured girls." Mike Pompeo was more direct about the evils of what China is perpetrating on its Uyghur and indeed other ethnic and religious minorities. He spoke clearly before leaving office about the arbitrary imprisonment and other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than 1 million people, forced sterilisation, torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, etc. We passed unanimously in this House a motion calling on Ireland to use its diplomatic and trade channels to put pressure on China, but I wonder how serious our Government is.

The problem is that our education system may be contaminated as well because there are developing links between Irish universities and Chinese universities, including the proposal between UCC and Minzu University to have a joint college arrangement. Can we be sure that human rights and freedom, including academic freedom and freedom of thought, will be guaranteed to Irish staff and students going to China or Chinese staff and students coming here? I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to take this on board and to come before the Seanad on this issue. I ask the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to do so also because what is going on in our education system must be scrutinised where it involves links between Irish institutions and Chinese institutions.

The regulation of social media is a topic I have been talking about for a couple of months. Social media have become the Wild West and can no longer continue to be so. The train has already left the station in terms of governments around the world starting to regulate this. We saw this under the Trump Administration and it will be continued under the Biden Administration. I refer to the real need to repeal section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States, which became one of the first ever Internet Acts when it was put forward in 1996. The importance of section 230 is that it is the section behind which all big tech companies are hiding to classify themselves as platforms and not publishers. Therein lies the difference. They need to be treated as publishers that are responsible for the content on their sites. They have already started to do this with the recent banning of Donald Trump, although they were late in doing so. Facebook is now treating itself as an editor and publisher. It is doing this in theory but not in name. Equally, we see at a European level the Digital Services Act, DSA, coming down the track too, so the train has left the station. The regulation of social media will happen, but I would really appreciate it if the Minister could come before the House to outline the Government's plans to try to work on this.

Finally, the intimidatory tactics put forward by Facebook towards the Australian Government and the banning of reliable news serve only to open up a vacuum that can be filled by conspiracy theories and fake news. I really hope the Australian Government stands up to Facebook on that.

I thank my colleagues. Senator McGahon spoke about something that should be on the minds of every single regulatory authority in every single country in the world. We have long talked about both the ills and the benefits in life of social media and the interaction and exchanges we have. There are many positives to social media but there are also absolute negatives. In fairness, we do not have anybody to blame as regulators except ourselves, but one such negative is that self-regulation does not work. We are seeing the evidence of that both internationally and domestically in the impact it is having not only on disinformation dissemination but also on democracies.

I have great hope that the European Union will pass the digital services Act and the digital markets Act. This will ensure that every member state in the European Union will have to do the same. If we had any gumption we would have long done this. I am aware that Senator McGahon raised this in the media and in these Houses for the past months. I urge the Senator to continue to do so. We certainly need to do it sooner rather than later.

Senator Mullen described the details, from information he had, of the dehumanisation of people and certain sub-cultures in China, which is absolutely abhorrent. I do not have the answer to the questions he asked but I will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the Seanad to have a conversation with us about the Irish activity and our aims to address the human rights violations that are very obvious in China. I will try to do this at the Minister's earliest convenience.

Senator Lombard brought up the absolute need for the digital strategy and remote working strategy that has been launched by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Tánaiste to be part and parcel of every local authority's plans in the next couple of weeks and months as they prepare their county development plans for the next seven years. We cannot have access to remote working strategies unless we have access to two things, the first of which is equality of access to broadband in every town and county in the State. Not everybody wants to work from their sitting room or their landing. Access to digital hubs in every town and county in the country is also very important. An inventory would be very worthwhile of all the available buildings in the ownership of the State that could be turned into digital hubs. Unless we have it as part of the strategy of all our local authorities, however, we might be sitting here in five or seven years' time wondering what the delay is in being able to work from home. It is a very worthwhile initiative that has been asked for.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke about consultation. She is urging and stressing that there is nothing to be fearful of in our new clean air strategy. All that anybody wants is for us to have a better quality of life. I absolutely agree with the Minister of State that it is important for everybody to consult and to read up on what it is we are trying to do and not just believe some of the fake disinformation, which is very easy for people to accept because those who shout the loudest are often the ones that are believed. I commend the Minister of State on the work she is doing and I wish her continued success in her future.

Senator Fitzpatrick talked about a number of issues today. The most important issue she raised was the impact of Covid on our younger people. We are a year into Covid and it is wearing us all down. I genuinely hope, as we have always seen beforehand, that our children are resilient and will bounce back. There are some who will not and we need to be mindful of that and make sure we are aware of this.

Senator Seery Kearney raised an issue she also brought up in the media in the past weeks on employment rights that should be felt and owned by Deliveroo workers and other such workers. I must be honest that when I saw the video footage over the weekend of what they have to deal with, I thought there is nothing so stark as a picture to explain something that a thousand words cannot. I had not fully realised how much of a threat they were under on a daily basis. Many people, particularly in our urban cities and towns, have come to take for granted getting their food delivered, and we would not be able to survive without them. However, it is absolutely not acceptable that these gentlemen and women are under such direct threat every single night. It is not acceptable for us to say that they are not reporting to us, from a Garda perspective. We know that some of these people are vulnerable in the context of being in vulnerable employment situations and coming from marginalised communities. The Garda need to reach out to them and make sure they are proactive in the matter. I urge the Senators to keep highlighting this in the national media, as much as we can, to make sure these workers get the support they deserve. The issue was raised also by Senator Fitzpatrick.

Senator Moynihan and other Senators raised the new and welcome announcement today by the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, on the overhauling of our licensing laws. It was highlighted this time last year, when we had shut down all of our hospitality and our pubs, that we were still expecting licence holders to spend enormous amounts of money to retain their licences and renew them, which was absolutely ludicrous. The extension and the overhaul is very welcome. I showed my age this morning when I was told that people should be allowed to dance from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. if they wanted to. It made me tired even thinking about it. There definitely is, however, a market for such nightlife and Senator Warfield has raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions. The review of the licensing laws and the task force to look at nightlife will be very welcome, especially for the future generations.

Senator Crowe raised the issue of the welcome reviews of opening hours and licences for his sector. I can understand the mentality of his urging not to extend licences because those businesses have had an enormously difficult year. When they are allowed to reopen, they want to be able to bounce back. Notwithstanding that, there is a welcome need, particularly for cultural events, to be able to have those once-off licences and not to be restricted by the annual licence review regulations.

Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the issue of Facebook, as he so often does in a similar vein to Senator McGahon. Self-regulation has not and will not work, and it would be very timely if we had a debate on what the new world will look like. I smiled when he asked me to facilitate the debate because I was trying to figure out which Minister I would get to talk about how we can prepare for technological advancement in all our lives, and I will have to figure that out. It would be an interesting and timely debate on regulation and on planning for the future.

Senator Craughwell spoke about his passion for the Defence Forces, as he regularly does. I have scheduled a debate on their future, and while I do not yet have a date for it, I will stick it in the diary as soon as I do.

Senator Carrigy made a logical request to extend planning permission for the duration of the time in which people are not able to build their houses, whether they are one-off constructions or larger projects, and that should be considered by the Cabinet. He also talked about a new school requirement for 600 pupils in Longford town and I will write to the Minister for Education seeking a response to that.

Another issue the Senator raised, which was mentioned by many other Senators too, related to Ulster Bank and the shocking announcement on Friday last of the potential loss of 2,800 jobs and the massive loss to the sector. The Minister for Finance's requirement for a third banking force in Ireland will be very much on the mind of the Government in the coming weeks and months. He has agreed to come to the House to hold a debate with us. He is in Brussels today and will be self-isolating for five days when he returns, so the debate will be held next week or the week after. The future of banking in Ireland is something we should all be debating. As Senator Carrigy rightly said earlier, perhaps that third banking force can come under the auspices of An Post. We all care for and love our post offices. They have had a difficult number of years and have really played a blinder in the past year with regard to communication and rallying people's spirits with their campaigns. Perhaps they could constitute the third banking force we so desperately need.

Senator Davitt talked about the delays in processing passports and driver licences, among other items. I appreciate that we are in level 5 lockdown and that that has curtailed services, but it is not acceptable that Government and State services cease completely. We have to find a way to continue to provide those services, even in an emergency, to people who need them. I will send the Senator's concerns to the relevant Ministers and ask them to revert.

Senator Flynn spoke eloquently about our digital divide. It is past time that we all recognised that there is considerable disadvantage in certain communities. We cannot keep ignoring it; we need to address it. Welcome money was announced last week and €100 million was announced before Christmas to address the digital divide and to pay for computer equipment for children in schools. The issue was brought home to me by a lady, a mother of five, who appeared on a news station this week. She is home-schooling five children and they are sharing second-hand telephones so that one child can have an hour in the morning and another can have an hour in the afternoon. I have no idea how a child can learn and receive his or her schooling from a smart phone in an area that has slow broadband, with the mother's phone spinning like this. The digital divide is very evident. Notwithstanding the roll-out of broadband to every town, house, business and school in the country, it is dependent on people being able to afford the technology to access that broadband. That is an important debate we should have and I encourage the Senator to continue raising the issue week in, week out until we get the debate.

Senator Warfield talked about the night-time economy, as he often does. We have agreed to have a debate once the task force reports in June.

Senator Martin brought up an issue that was raised in the Chamber on Friday last by Senator Craughwell. I am very pleased that the commemoration was cancelled at the request of the family because it has caused no end of hurt to the community, the family and locals in the area. I cannot understand the response, or lack thereof, from the GAA to the misuse of its logo to commemorate something nothing short of terrorism.

The GAA should come out and make a statement on it. It should be very firm and strong in saying that no organisation should be able to misuse the name of our Defence Forces, Oglaigh na hÉireann, or any other titles or logos that are highly respected in this country.

Senator Keogan brought up the issue of an extension to the hedge cutting season for an extra two weeks because of the recent bad weather. I am not sure that will be facilitated but I hope, given that we will have good weather this week, that everyone can catch up on what needs to be done under blue skies. She also brought up Ulster Bank and again, we have sent a request to the Minister to discuss that.

Senator Bacik spoke about the need for a clear strategy for Covid, which is something we are all desperately looking forward to hearing tomorrow. People are disappointed with the communications over the last couple of weeks but, at the end of the day, I can say from experience that the Government is only dealing with the information available to it and the best laid plans can suddenly get scuppered by the virus. We are attempting to deal with different variants at the moment. As others have said, positivity is something that we must hang on to. We recognise that life is difficult and people are weary. We are all tired of living with Covid and look forward to the day when we no longer have to but the vaccine roll-out is picking up speed. I can only assume that, based on the positivity of Mr. Paul Reid - I do not know how the man gets up every single day and is as committed, dedicated and chirpy as he is - that the vaccine roll-out will build momentum over the weeks and months ahead. We look forward to the day, hopefully not too far away, when everybody will be vaccinated and living a different life. One only has to look to Israel to see the positive impact that mass vaccination is having on the Israeli people, their lifestyle, economy and communities. It is something to look forward to.

Senator Kyne also spoke about living with Covid and the fact that the numbers are remaining stubbornly high. Sometimes it is easy to find someone to blame. There has been an awful lot of focus in the last number of weeks on international and foreign travel into and out of Ireland, with some people struggling to understand why anybody would be travelling. However, there are very obvious cases of people returning home for family funerals or going to their own home. There are enormous numbers of people who live here that we take for granted-----

I am sorry to interrupt but we must start the next business at 1.30 p.m. and-----

I am just finishing now-----

We must also allow for the cleaning of the Chamber. I remind Members that we are due to start again at 1.30 p.m. I am sorry, Leader.

Not at all, I will wrap up now. We are all looking for a little bit of hope and I really hope that the living with Covid plan that will be announced tomorrow will give us that.

Finally, Senator Gallagher started the day by calling for extra places for those in agriculture to get green certificates, which is very worthwhile. I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and revert to the Senator on it later today.

Sitting suspended at 1.28 p.m. and resumed at 1.35 p.m.