The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Friday, 2 July 2021, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; and No. 2, Counterfeiting Bill 2020 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 11.35 a.m., and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 12.45 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments include only those set down or accepted by Government.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I call the deputy leader of the Fianna Fáil group, Senator Fiona O’Loughlin.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on the first anniversary of his election as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. He has served and represented all of us with great dignity. He has brought in innovative practices, in as much as he could during the Covid-19 period. I congratulate him on that and wish him well in the time ahead.
Thank you, Senator.
You are welcome.
Kon'nichiwa. For those non-Japanese speakers of which I am one, that is basically “Hello, how are you?” in Japanese. That is to mark today which is the last day of the leaving certificate in 2021. Japanese is the last exam subject to be taken. It has been a difficult and arduous year for those leaving certificate students. They have shown terrific resilience throughout the last 18 months. They deserve not our gratitude, but our best wishes for what lies ahead of them. There are two important dates for them which I want to mention, namely, 1 July 2021 the last day for a change of mind for the Central Applications Office, CAO and 8 July 2021 the last day for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, applications.
On what they have to look forward to, we were all taken aback when we heard what NPHET proposed to Government. Indeed, the Government has a difficult task ahead in regard to its Cabinet meeting today. I immediately thought of those young people doing their leaving certificate and those who were looking forward to jobs in hospitality during the summer.
If we implement what NPHET recommends, what about all of those young people who were hoping to have jobs in hospitality? Will they be able to get those jobs, if it is insisted that only those who are fully vaccinated can avail of indoor dining, hospitality, and entertainment? If that is the case, we need to look at bringing the vaccination programme forward for our young people, so that they can avail of the summer work they need and indeed the hospitality industry needs hen it has the opportunity to reopen. We wish them well.
I want to raise the issue of the 200,000 vacant homes in Ireland. I congratulate Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, on the work he has carried out on voids with local authorities. However, more needs to be done on vacant homes. One way we can do that is by including second-hand homes in the first-time buyers' grant. We know the importance of the first-time buyers' grant but it is only for new buildings. That is wrong and we need to change it. We also need to change it for couples are divorced and who may not be able to avail of this.
The last item I want to mention is the national peatlands project I mentioned last week on the Order of Business. This week I want to mention a pending application for planning from Bord na Móna for exactly the same area. It is for 50 wind turbines at 220 m in height. This is in an area through which we are bringing the blueway. We have Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park and the Umeras peatland park is coming up. Bord na Móna is talking about introducing this in an area where two private companies have put in for planning permissions and have been turned down. The people in the Rathangan area are not going to roll over and accept this. We are going to fight this with every bit of our being.
I thank the Senator for mentioning the leaving certificate students who are finishing their exams today. We wish them well after they have completed their Japanese exam. Konichiwa, Seanadóir. I call Senator Emer Currie.
Kon'nichiwa, a Chathaoirligh, and a happy one-year anniversary to both of us. He has been fair, fun and approachable and I can ask for no more.
I want to raise the matter of Farmleigh estate. Farmleigh estate has 78 acres at the edge of Phoenix Park. The house accommodates dignitaries when they come to visit, but the grounds are open to the public. Last year, I was able to convince the Office of Public Works, OPW, to extend the opening hours from the gates opening at 10 a.m. with last entrance at 5 p.m. and the gates closing at 6 p.m. I was able to get it to extend those hours because of Covid-19. We are working from home and stuck at home and our outdoor spaces have never been more important. However, our outdoor spaces are still and will remain important.
I ask the OPW to facilitate keeping the gates of Farmleigh open as part of the outdoor summer again this year and maybe even going forward. Since May, I have been working on this. I have faced some resistance from the officials in the OPW. I have now raised it with the Minister of State with responsibility for Office of Public Works and the Department of the Taoiseach, as they are both stakeholders. I hope there can be some movement on that. I know there are issues of rotas and of security, but those things can be overcome.
There is welcome news for people who have been planning their weddings for July. They will be able to go ahead with 50 people. I ask that there is clarity as soon as possible for couples who are due to be married in August. They are going through the same angst. I recognise this is a worrying morning for the hospitality sector, which is bearing the brunt of restrictions. However, let this be a reminder that we still do not have specific sectoral guidelines for weddings. They are tucked in under the reopening of hotels and bed and breakfasts. Anyone who has gotten married will tell you that there is much more to a wedding than a hotel and bed and breakfast, if at all, because so many people get married in other venues. At the moment, couples and planners are sifting through different guidelines, whether for churches or for other ceremonies and on whether one can having singing or music. In hospitality, do the same rules apply around tables of six?
Hotels versus marquees is a big question. Do the same restrictions apply? What are guidelines and what are rules? From talking to people, there is variance in their interpretation of the rules. Given the precarious position we are in and that weddings today are getting the green light for July and that this is one day in people's lives, this needs clarity. The last thing anybody wants is that a wedding turns into a super-spreader event and that could have a knock-on effect for all the other couples and suppliers dependent on these events.
I also thank the Cathaoirleach for all he has been doing over the last year. While we are engaging in a bogus debate about the non-existent future influence of the Religious Sisters of Charity and procedures at a future national maternity hospital, the negligence, and the heartlessness of the existing secular medical establishment has been very much on show but received practically no comment in these Houses. I am referring, of course, to the tragedy of the death of Christopher Kiely as a result of a misdiagnosis of trisomy 18 and negligence by the National Maternity Hospital and the Merion Fetal Health Clinic. People were warned about the possibilities of such medical mishaps but contrast Christopher's tragic death with the tragedy of what happened to Savita Halappanavar. In that case, a mistake in the handling of her care gave others the opportunity to claim, wrongly, that it was an overly-restrictive law that had led to her death. This is a case where a rushed, overly permissive, carelessly heartless and negligently applied law, cost a child his life and broke the heart of his parents. One of the tragedies was the near operatic levels of certainty with which the consultant obstetrician in the case told the parents of Christopher, that there was no hope of survival after the initial chorionic villus sampling, CVS, test. Then there was the misrepresentation of the confirmation of the eventual results when they said it was theoretically a small chance that he did not have trisomy 18. The parents were left to find out for themselves just how obvious it was that he did not. There were further outrages, including the lack of an apology and the profit motive of Merrion Fetal Health Clinic which offered a couple a discount if they took the initial harmony test on the same day at the scan. There is also the fact that the guidelines, hastily prepared, were not followed.
The family believes that the current practice not to wait for the results of the chorionic villus karyotyping analysis, where genetic anomaly is suspected in the case of a normal scan needs to stop. There needs to be a public inquiry. How many other parents have lost a child because of this type of misdiagnosis and reckless haste since the new law came in? The idea that voluntary hospitals can be subjected to an independent inquiry by the Government is dishonest rubbish when we know there have been inquiries into the church and abuse, when the church is not under State control either. It needs to be said that those who are worried about the new law introduced people to the Houses of the Oireachtas who spoke are feeling pressurised by doctors where anomalies were being diagnosed. There were warnings about the possibility of such mistakes in these cases. However campaigning journalists, activist and perhaps profit-seeking doctors and reckless politicians contributed to a situation where we have a non-scrutinised law. The very least we can do for the memory of Christopher, and in support of his parents who have asked for changes in the way these practices are carried out, is to have an inquiry. The Minister of Health needs to be able to tell people in how many cases this kind of misdiagnosis has happened and what is being done to ensure that it can never happen again. We all, but especially those who rushed through this legislation, need to reflect on what they have done.
Last Monday the Minister for Health said restrictions on visits by partners to maternity units had been lifted and that all maternity units would be following the same guidelines. Last Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Health was told by the HSE chief executive, Mr. Paul Reid, that the HSE could not direct individual hospitals on restriction and guidelines because that was a matter for local hospitals. I have been dealing with parents across Galway who are very disturbed that each hospital can define for itself what being in labour means, so in some, it is 4 cm dilation. I do not understand why a public service that the State is paying for cannot roll-out the same guidelines across all our maternity hospitals. There is no difference between a woman, a baby and a partner in the west and a woman, a baby and a partner in Dublin. We need to have equality across the island. Will the Minister for Health ask the HSE how, with the funding the State is providing, we can insure equality of care across the island, particularly in relation to maternity services. It is simply not good enough that we went out with an announcement that the restrictions were lifted and two days later we found out that was not the case.
I met with the College of General Practitioners last week. I understand that while courses are being put on on women's healthcare, the State is not providing any funding whatsoever for those. I spoke in the House some weeks ago on the menopause and a debate that was taking place across the airwaves. It is our job as public representatives to bring that into the Oireachtas and into the political sphere and to exert pressure to ensure that women get everything they need. We need to ensure that we are adequately resourcing GPs and those who are providing their training because every woman who goes into every practice needs to be sure they are getting the same information.
I raise the Donore Avenue community centre which was badly damaged by fire last week. I will not speculate on the causes of the fire but it is essential that the Department ensures that funding is made available for this community centre to be restored. It is right beside St. Theresa's Gardens where regeneration is happening. It is an essential community centre in a very disadvantaged part of the inner city, which helps people from young to old, those at risk of leaving school early, the old folks groups and the majorettes. It is essential that it be brought back to use as soon as possible. I have previously raised how housing and regeneration projects are built without the Department making available community infrastructure to support it. This is a real opportunity for the Department to put its money where its mouth is and fund the restoration of what is a great community centre. That whole area will be regenerated and built on in coming years.
There is speculation and reports that indoor dining will be delayed for those who are not yet vaccinated. When I think of Ireland, I often think of how much we scapegoat our young people, particularly during this pandemic, in public discourse. It ranges from socialising outdoors to claiming the PUP without previously working enough hours. Now it looks as though we are penalising young people for not being vaccinated.
It is important that we maintain the social solidarity we have had over the last year and a half. We were all in this together. Young people had their lives up-ended, whether it was in regard to how the leaving certificate was conducted or those who went on to third level not enjoying the first year. It would be bad faith for there to be a two-tier reopening of society just because younger people have not yet been reached in the vaccination programme. I have no problem with a two-tier approach for people who choose not to be vaccinated.
However, I have a problem when a whole cohort for vaccination has not been reached. We are saying they can serve people, they can get Covid but they cannot dine indoors. We need to be careful about the message that sends to our younger people who have had their lives upended and have been scapegoated by many sections of the media and some other people during the past year for doing the normal things young people do.
This morning's news regarding uncertainty over reopening brings into view again the fact the Covid crisis has some way to run. I want to raise the morally indefensible stance of the Government on the issue of intellectual property rights for vaccines. World leaders at the G7 summit two weeks ago proudly proclaimed they would give 1 billion vaccines to poor countries across the world, and that will be welcome if and when they are delivered. However, the world needs 11 billion vaccines. To put it in context, the people of Cornwall where the G7 summit took place outnumber those vaccinated in the 22 poorest countries in Africa. That is the stark injustice and inequality we are facing on this issue. I note from Oxfam if we took the increase in the wealth of the ten richest billionaires on this planet - not their wealth just the increase in their wealth - it would be enough to vaccinate everyone in the world and remove them from poverty. There is something very wrong going on and I have to be direct at this point. I am disgusted by Fine Gael’s attitude to this issue. Its MEPs refused to support a motion calling for the intellectual property rights on vaccines to be removed. One of them voted against that proposal. I am glad colleagues from all parties at the Council of Europe supported the call for the intellectual property rights to be removed.
I must highlight some of the spurious arguments that have been made, including by our Tánaiste. The first is there is no idle vaccine production capacity. That is not the case. Companies in Israel, Canada, Bangladesh, South Korea and Pakistan have all tried in vain to obtain the rights to increase production of Covid-19 but the EU and the Fine Gael Party in Ireland have stood against them. The second argument is the global south does not have the capacity or know-how to produce more vaccines. That is a line peddled by the Tánaiste. That is absolutely not true. Manufacturers are making safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines and medicines in South Africa, India and Brazil and there is plenty more qualified capacity we can draw on from Bangladesh to Senegal to Vietnam. A further such argument is quality cannot be assured, which is a red herring. There is no evidence whatsoever to support that. What we are dealing with here is evidence-free arguments from the Government. The reality is the Government is standing with big pharma against the people of the world regarding the most important issue facing the people of the planet right now.
I want to ask people when the history of this Covid epidemic is written if they want to have it on their record that they did not call for the intellectual property rights to be waived in order that we could get vaccines to the people who need them across the world. Is that the stance they are prepared to take? I call for an urgent debate on this matter. It will not wait until after the summer recess. We need to have answers from each member of the Government parties as to why they have not stood up and called for justice for the world in the face of the greatest crisis. We all know no one is safe until everyone is safe. It is common sense. If we can defeat this virus, we need to make sure the world is vaccinated and yet it is a matter of record and regret that this Government, particularly the Fine Gael Party, is standing in opposition to the actions needed right now across the world.
June is Pride month and it is also Gypsy, Traveller and Roma History Month. It is important to remember as we celebrate that LGBTQI+, Traveller and Roma people have always been with us. It is important to remember activism and support must be intersectional. The national action group for LGBT+ Traveller and Roma people understands that. It needs to be supported in the vital work it does. This national group is supported by most Traveller organisations. All the organisations recognise a need for supports and services to be provided in a specific way through working with LGBTQI+ Traveller and Roma communities.
When organisations say there is a need but do not have the resources to support LGBTQI+ people, the Government needs to step in. If a young Traveller LGBTQI+ person comes out and is put out of their family home, who will give them a job? Where will they get accommodation? What are their options? It is important to say this is not an issue for the Traveller community alone but Travellers face other barriers that add to the pain. It is hard being a member of the Traveller community. It is harder when one is a member of the community and is LGBTQI+. Where is their lifeboat? The response to those questions must be mindful of Traveller history and culture. I know Travellers who had no problem coming out to their family and being accepted within the Traveller community but they did not feel accepted within the LGBTQI+ community. They felt the rainbow did not extend to them because they were not only a Traveller but a member of the LGBTQI+ community and the intersectionality that goes with that. I call on the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, to support this national group. The Government announced last week that €700,000 would be made available for LGBT+ services. I ask the Minister to support the national action group for LGBT+ Traveller and Roma people.
I would like to follow on from what other Senators said and congratulate the Cathaoirleach on being a year in his role. I have found him to be fair and a very good support to me. I would like to thank every Member of this House and the Dáil for all their support in the past year in helping me to come to terms with understanding how the Oireachtas works. I would also like to thank Oein de Bhairduín and Colette Kelleher for all the work they have done on the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill. It will come before the Dáil this Thursday. I ask all Members of the Dáil to support it. It is vital we do not only recognise Travellers in a tokenistic way, as we did in 2017. Thursday is an opportunity to value young Travellers within our society in the education system and give my child and other Senators’ children the opportunity to learn about Traveller culture. I call on every Member of the Dáil to take part in the debate and support this Bill on Thursday and in that way to have meaningful representation and meaningful value of the Traveller community and Traveller children.
I thank the Senator for her contribution this morning and to this House during the past year.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on being a year in the job. It has been my first year as an Oireachtas Member and he has been a great support. I found him to be fair and approachable at all times.
Moving on, the hospitality sector is again in crisis this morning. Regarding the proposals being considered by Cabinet, having been involved in the hospitality sector throughout my life, it certainly seems those of us in the sector are being scapegoated. We have been hammered since March 2020. It was proposed there would be full resumption of business next Monday. More than 40% of the population is fully vaccinated across the country. In excess of 70% of people have received their first vaccination. Now at this eleventh hour, NPHET thinks it is suitable to change the roadmap. There will always be a certain level of risk. The risk will not be zero for the foreseeable future. What we need to decide is where is our vaccination bonus. People need to take personal responsibility. We are asking the hospitality sector to police itself. What about all the staff in the sector? Where will they stand in this process? It is extremely difficult.
We are talking about tens of thousands of jobs. Families throughout this country were decimated this morning. I say this without fear or favour. My phone has not stopped ringing in the past 24 hours. We need to show leadership, the Government needs to take control and we need to be realistic. There are significant concerns and questions. What we need this evening is a clear and precise message. We need to consider more than NPHET. We need to stand up, be strong and make a decision.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his first year as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. I wish to raise the issue of driver theory tests. The way they are being treated is disgraceful. People who are scheduled for tests go to the testing centre to find out it is closed. They have not been notified that their test has been rescheduled although they should be. I am calling on the Leader to contact the Minister for Transport and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to ask for an amnesty regarding driver theory tests for young people in particular. The sons of farmers and agricultural contractors, those looking for new jobs, those who have new jobs and people going back to college will not be able to do what they normally do or what people before them did with regard to those activities because they will not be able to drive because they will not be able to do their driver theory test. We are told that departmental staff are working from home in many cases and that working from home is going well, so it beggars belief the Department cannot come up with a solution when it has had months to do it. There is no answer to this other than an amnesty regarding driver theory tests. I ask that, as a matter of urgency, the Leader contacts the Minister and the Taoiseach regarding this issue.
I thank the Senator for his service to this House in his term as Cathaoirleach.
I also congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his first year in office. I wish to highlight an issue many businesses, particularly those who buy online, will face from Thursday. From 1 July, VAT will be charged on all goods imported from any country outside of the EU, including the UK, irrespective of value. Of course, in Ireland, VAT on most goods and services is 23%.
Another issue I wish to draw attention to is carbon gas and its dangers. Radon is a radioactive gas linked to 300 cases of lung cancer each year in Ireland and, after smoking, it is the second largest cause of lung cancer, with one third of the country classified as a high-radon area by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The EPA and Geological Survey of Ireland, GSI, mapping shows that nearly half a million people are at risk of having high levels of radon in their homes. Radon gas seeps into homes through small cracks and gaps in foundations or openings of service pipes. As it has no colour, taste or smell, it can only be detected through a radon test. It costs around €50 for a test kit. A fan-assisted sump, which can cost up to €1,500, can be installed in a day by a contractor to reduce radon levels by over 90%. However, there is no grant available to cover the cost of the test or installing a sump. The cost to our health system of treating lung cancer caused by radon is many times more than the cost of offering free sumps to high-radon homes and the human impact is incalculable.
The Government published a national radon control strategy in 2014 followed by a second five-year phase that launched in 2019 with a focus on prevention and awareness through testing. This is a hidden and issue that is not spoken about and needs urgent attention. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to come to the House to give us an update on the progress made and whether he has considered providing financial support to local authorities for radon remediation works?
This is an important issue that the Senator might raise as a Commencement matter.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his year in office. I know he was a very happy person this day last year. I was slightly less happy as it was the first day the Seanad was sitting that I was unable to participate in, but who was to know that I would be back within a year? It is good to be back. I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his year in office, which has been a very difficult year.
On the day that is in it, it would be remiss of me not to echo the sentiments and build on much of what has been said by Senator Crowe, a publican who knows far more about this than I do. I know many people in the restaurant trade and pub trade, especially the Dublin pub trade. So many of them have contacted me. I have been talking to them, seen stuff on Twitter and heard stuff on the radio. It is such a devastating day for them - another devastating day. Dublin pubs that do not serve food have been closed since 13 or 14 March last year, which is nearly 470 days at this stage. This is devastating for their financial existence but also for their mental health and their staff. While the proposals might be well intentioned in terms of allowing people to do things if they are vaccinated, I do not believe they are workable. I do not think the HSE has the spare resources after the cyberattack to set up a system. I do not think it is fair to ask publicans and their staff to police whether someone has been vaccinated. People who have not yet been vaccinated would feel very disgruntled.
We are the only country in Europe that does not allow indoor dining. We will let people fly to other countries to dine indoors but we are not letting people do it in our own country. We need to think about this very quickly and decide that we will try as much as possible to give people in the industry a break and trust they and the people going into these establishments know what they are doing; that they will maintain social distancing, wash their hands and wear their masks when they are not at their tables; and that there will be table service. It is such an important industry and the people involved in it are such hard-working members of our communities. We need to make sure this industry is given respect and to acknowledge all the work it has done. NPHET has a place and I welcome everything it has done but this is such an important industry. I ask the Government to consider seriously trying to reopen this industry safely as soon as possible but not to be divisive with vaccinated versus non-vaccinated people.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach and all our Senators. It is our one-year anniversary. It is one year since 29 June 2020, we are in the same seats in the Convention Centre and it is fantastic to be speaking here as a voice representing the west. It has been an incredible year. We have seen what has happened in terms of a pandemic and lockdown. For all of us new Senators, it is a very different world. I have had the chance to speak in both the Seanad and the Dáil Chambers, which was an amazing privilege. It is a privilege to have been nominated as a Taoiseach's nominee and a Fine Gael nominee to represent Roscommon and Galway.
As Fine Gael spokesperson on further and higher education, research, innovation and science, I have had the opportunity to fight for schools in my local area. They include the new building for Scoil an Chroí Naofa and St. Teresa's Special School, which is getting two new classrooms for students starting in September. It has also been really exciting to see the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, which includes GMIT. This is making Mountbellew a brand new university campus town. We know that Technological University of the Shannon has already been granted technological university status. This means, it is hoped, that we will see brand new campuses targeted for Roscommon and east Galway.
The investment to date has been great. The campaigns in which I have been involved include the cycleway, which is very important for south Roscommon and east Galway. We have opportunities with the green route through Cornafulla and Athlone into Ballinasloe out to probably Caltra, Ahascragh and Mountbellew. There is also the blue route coming through Ballinasloe and out to Kilconnell, Woodlawn, New Inn and Athenry. It is hoped this decision will be made at the end of this year. We have seen fantastic investment in roads and job creation involving great jobs in Roscommon town, Westcare Homecare and Harmac Medical in Castlerea, and Chanelle Pharma in Ballinasloe. It is wonderful to have seen investment, even in these hard times over the past year. I am really looking forward to the year ahead. I know it will be exciting but also I am sure there will be some tough times ahead. I look forward to representing and being a voice for the west.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on the first 12 months of his term and I look forward to the next 12 months.
Senator Burke spoke on driver theory tests. We have had that issue where people have turned up to do the test and have not been notified that the place is closed. I concur with the Senator's proposals.
I welcome the increase in capacity proposed for sporting events. I hope it could be introduced by this weekend. We have a large number of championship games on and it would give an opportunity for the public to travel and support their home counties.
I will speak on the hospitality industry, as others Members have. As tourism spokesperson for Fine Gael in the Seanad, I have empathy for people in the industry, given what they are hearing this morning. These businesses have been closed in the region of 15 months. Over recent months, we have seen how successful outdoor dining has been. Some businesses are open and grant schemes have been put in place but those that have not been able to open have been waiting for 5 July and now it looks like that will be put back further with no definitive date given.
We have people travelling to Northern Ireland for their holidays because they cannot dine where they wish. NPHET states in its proposals that it is not opposed to vaccinated people eating indoors. We need to look at the possibility of that proposal. We need to take control. There are tens of thousands of people in the hospitality industry in restaurants and pubs and they are entitled to make a living, which they have not been able to do over the last 15 months. We need to take a serious look at this and put definitive dates in place for when they can open their businesses.
I join others in congratulating the Cathaoirleach. I agree with Senator Burke that there is a big problem with driver theory tests. It is not just the sons of farmers and agricultural contractors but also the daughters who have concerns about the delays.
I have been fortunate in recent weeks to take part in a big fundraiser and awareness-raising campaign in County Wexford around motor neurone disease organised by Vanessa Davey, Rory Cassidy and others. There are other such initiatives, including by Malcolm McGrath, who has cycled 1,000 km. They are doing it to raise awareness of a most debilitating and horrible disease. The work is being carried out quite often by the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, IMNDA. We need to recognise this disease to a far greater extent and have greater support and investment in research to tackle it.
The IMNDA is a well-run charity. Unfortunately, that cannot be said for every charity. I draw the House's attention to the report of the Charities Regulator around ChildFund Ireland. It is another charity which has abused public trust. It received over €8 million in taxpayers' money over the last decade through Irish Aid. Even though in 2017 a warning was given that 64% of the annual grant was being spent on salaries and administration costs, ChildFund Ireland continued its activity. This comes in the wake of Bóthar and the bags of cash we saw recently. The problem is that, where a minority of charities behave in this way, it brings the whole charity sector into disrepute.
The Charities Regulator has spoken out on this. We really need to clamp down on the abuse of fund-raised money and taxpayers' money by a small minority of charities. Some of the stuff that appears in this report is outrageous. There are examples of the chief executive staying in five-star hotels in Dubai for three days. That does not give the public confidence in those charities. It does not give the taxpayer confidence in the money that is made available to them and damages the reputation of charities. We need to strengthen legislation to deal with those who abuse public trust.
I know that issue is in the public domain but I ask for caution when referring to individuals in the House. I congratulate the Senator for his run down the length of Wexford for motor neurone disease and the money he raised.
I pick up on what Senator Carrigy said about the GAA matches. I welcome the announcement of more spectators being able to come to matches. Last week in my county of Tipperary there were only 200 at the Waterford-Clare game. It is a massive stadium and I urge that those changes come in this weekend for the match in Semple Stadium between Cork and Limerick. We can surely host more than 200 people in an outdoor setting that can accommodate over 40,000 people.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly brought up maternity restrictions and a lack of full understanding of what is happening. We have been told by the Minister that all maternity wards are in line. We are told by Paul Reid that he cannot dictate running and management of all maternity hospitals. An expectant mother or partner who goes on the HSE website and looks at each of the 19 maternity wards in the country sees they are not aligned. Every hospital is slightly different. One talks of coming in established labour; another says one can come in on arrival. The guidance is totally different and that is just on the website. In terms of how they manage it outside of that, who knows?
I refer to the announcement today on possibly extending time. I ask the Government to give real guidance on holy communions and confirmations. Many of them are happening across my county and they need guidance and clarity on what will happen. Letters have been sent out to the Cashel-Emly diocese recommending they should be delayed until September. The Waterford-Lismore diocese I am in is told they are okay to continue. We need clarity for all of these. Parents and kids need to have it if it is okay.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on one year in his position. Today is a great day for me and an incredible way to mark my first year in this House with the announcement of the funding to bring the Narrow Water bridge project to tender. As someone from the area, I have seen that things have not always been so simple in the Cooley Peninsula and on Carlingford Lough. Long gone are the days of gunboats on Carlingford Lough and British army patrols stopping us at Narrow Water going about our business. Today's announcement is a symbol of belief. Finally, someone outside the area has belief in my region. This bridge is more than a piece of infrastructure. It is about bringing the North and the South together, leaving the tragedy, heartache and pain behind and looking towards the future of what this great island can be.
I thank An Taoiseach. He has been dedicated to this project. We have heard him on endless occasions talk about his and Fianna Fáil's commitment to this project going back decades. Finally, we are at the next stage of the project. It brings back opportunity to this entire region, North and South. Omeath has struggled with tragedies, disadvantage and being left behind for being in the Border region. Today is a really good day for the Cooley Peninsula. I urge Senators to visit and see what the place looks like before the Narrow Water bridge, and what it looks like afterwards. It is a good day for County Louth.
I thank the Senator for raising that good news story. She and many of her colleagues have campaigned long and hard on that initiative, which is a welcome one.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his understanding. I was tied up with a Zoom meeting. As the Acting Leader well knows, many students, last year and this year, through no fault of their own, have been unable to find summer work at home or abroad and have had no choice but to resort to accepting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Unfortunately, that payment is now working against them in the context of their SUSI grant for this year because last year's PUP income is being added to the family income. In many cases, this is putting them over the threshold under to attain the SUSI grant. Those in this cohort have probably suffered more than anyone throughout the pandemic. They have suffered a loss of opportunity and a loss of contact with friends, and they have been under enormous pressure. In many cases, the money was not saved. It was spent on online shopping and various bits and pieces in the expectation that it would not count as part of overall household income. This is putting an intolerable burden on students' parents. In many cases, the parents have also been on the PUP or have been on a reduced income and have gone through so much.
I appeal to the Acting Leader to intercede with the Department of Education regarding the higher education grant to try to ensure that the PUP will not be regarded as part of a family's income in the awarding of the SUSI grant. It is a one-off payment. The pandemic was a one-off event. We have supported so many sectors of society. We now have a job of work to support students, particularly those on lower incomes who would normally be provided with a SUSI grant and whose PUP might push them over the threshold by a couple of hundred euro and, in some cases, make their return to college impossible. It will certainly cause enormous pressure for some families. I ask that we engage with the Department to see whether there is a way around this debacle.
I, too, take this opportunity to congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his anniversary. He has done a wonderful job. He has been very fair in the Chair and has brought about many innovations in his work. I congratulate all Senators who were elected to this House a year ago or whose first day in the House was a year ago.
Kon'nichiwa to Senator O'Loughlin. She is correct about the pressures and stresses that leaving certificate students and many others have endured over the past year regarding the reopening.. So many of them took up jobs in the hospitality sector, including in cafés, restaurants and pubs, throughout the country, particularly in the height of the summer during the tourist season. Such positions are now in doubt. I will touch on this later.
The Senator also referred to voids. At various stages, funding has been given to local authorities to bring voids back into use to provide homes to people. She also touched on the issue of Bord na Móna and the difficulties associated with planning applications and permissions for projects that are perhaps deemed worthy but conflict with the wishes and views of local people, such as wind farm projects. It is a difficult one to assess. The planning process is robust in that regard.
Senator Currie touched on Farmleigh House and Estate. I congratulate her on her work on in this regard and on the opening hours in 2020. I hope she will succeed in this regard in the coming year. There has been a renewed connection with the great outdoors over the past year, obviously within the 5 km radius and within a wider radius when the restriction was lifted. That is important. I commend the Senator on her ongoing work with the Office of Public Works. She is correct on the need for clarity on weddings. A wedding day is a very important one for people throughout the country. It is a special day. I will not say it happens only once in a lifetime because it may happen more often but generally the first wedding is important to many people. The Senator is also correct that people need clarity on numbers and the sectoral guidelines. I hope that can be provided later.
Senator Mullen talked about the tragic case of baby Christopher Kiely and the issues of the National Maternity Hospital and the Harmony test. What can I say? It was an absolute tragedy. It should not have happened. Irrespective of what I feel, I can only imagine how the parents feel today and how they will feel every day about the case. As with any tragic case, lessons have to be learned about future tests, results and retests because there are monumental consequences.
Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Ahearn talked about the issue in the maternity hospitals and the ongoing restrictions or uncertainty regarding partners' access to women giving birth . I am a member of the health committee. We had Mr. Paul Reid and his team before us last week. Most members raised the ongoing uncertainty regarding the restrictions in many maternity hospitals across the country. They asked how labour is defined. An expectant woman has every right to have her husband or partner present during labour, or at whatever stage she wants. She needs physical support and it needs to be provided. I said last week that there should be no ifs or buts. The health committee received email testimonies from people who were, after a scan, presented with the most difficult and heartbreaking news alone and without a partner present. That is terrible; it should not be happening. Covid or no Covid, that needs to change. There needs to be certainty on that.
Senator Moynihan referred to funding for a community centre in her area that was damaged by fire. I am not sure about the position on insurance but I raised with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Tánaiste the absolute need, during the national development plan review, for a community centre fund for new builds in rapidly growing areas and for restoration and improvement works at many community centres in respect of which the local authority has not the required finances or the community cannot be expected to fundraise. It is an area on which I have been pushing. I would welcome the support of colleagues in pushing the Government over the coming weeks in advance of the development plan.
Senator Moynihan also talked about indoor dining being delayed and the scapegoating of young people. The Government has difficult decisions to make today on indoor dining. The advice of NPHET has to be considered. It is going to be a difficult decision based on what occurred when we ignored health advice in the past, yet the public is making the absolute demand that indoor dining be allowed.
Senator Gavan raised intellectual property rights for vaccines. The European Parliament voted in support of investing in manufacturing capacity, resolving issues with production and supply bottlenecks, including in respect of increasing the supply to the African Continent as an alternative. What was being suggested was a good sound bite and might have been deemed to be a quick fix but it was not agreed by the parliament that there was a better approach.
I agree with Senator Flynn's comments on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month and the LGBT Traveller community. I will certainly pass on her comments to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman.
Senator Crowe, my colleague in Galway, has, in fairness, been a strong advocate of the hospitality and pub sector over the past year since his election. He mentioned the vaccine bonus and the roadmap. We have to ask when and where it is all going to end.
We have the Delta variant and, possibly, the Delta plus variant. Who knows what variant we will have in the autumn or next year? It is likely that Covid variants are now with us and will become as common as the flu. This a very serious issue that we face. The business community and the hospitality sector have faced enormous pressures over the last year and continue to do so. It is possible another delay will be announced today, depending on the Cabinet decision. It is a very stressful time for these sectors. I acknowledge many Members have concerns about this issue, including employment, the viability of future businesses and the impact at the height of the tourism season. I certainly wish Cabinet well in its deliberations on that today.
Senators Burke, Carrigy and Byrne talked about driver theory tests and asked me to liaise with the Minister for Transport and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, on the matter, which I will do. I have had representations from people in that boat who have been unable to take the test. One individual even had a job offer on the Continent but could not get the driver test in time and so could not take it up.
Senator Keogan talked about radon, the importance of radon testing and a grant. A grant towards the cost of kits and radon sumps is a good idea. As the Cathaoirleach mentioned, she might raise it as a Commencement matter and possibly get a more comprehensive response, but it is something that is worthy of a positive answer.
Senator Horkan also talked about the restaurant and pub trade, the devastating impact of pandemic restrictions on that sector and the need to trust people in the industry to reopen as soon as possible. I concur with his comments that there should be a reopening as planned. It should obviously be a controlled and restricted reopening with all the social responsibilities we have got used to over the last year. As I said, Cabinet will be deliberating on that today.
Senator Dolan gave a very enthusiastic commentary about her role over the last year as a strong advocate for Galway-Roscommon, the west and the education sector. She touched on the technological university, her work on school accommodation and her advocacy for greenways in her community. I wish her well in her continued deliberations and congratulate her on one year in the Seanad.
Senators Carrigy and Ahearn touched on sporting events. Again, I am sure that topic will be discussed at Cabinet today, but we see the crowds at the European Football Championship and, on television at the weekend, a small number of people at our championship matches throughout the country. It seems obvious to me but, again, I am sure Cabinet will be deliberating on that today, hopefully with a positive outcome. Senator Carrigy also touched on the reopening in the context of people now taking holidays in Northern Ireland because of it. While we want to see cross-Border tourism and all of that, it is at a cost to businesses in this country because they continue to be closed. As I said, Cabinet will be dealing with that today.
Senator Byrne touched on motor neurone disease, which is a very important and worthy topic. I congratulate him on his advocacy in that whole area and wish him well in it. He touched on the charity sector and the excesses in a small minority of charities. Irish people are very generous in giving to charities both here and abroad. Many people give in the belief that when they do so, whether it is €10, €20 or whatever, it is going to a good cause and making a real difference. In most cases, it is. Many charities around the world, and throughout the country, do so much good work in such areas as cancer, heart disease, hospice care and motor neurone disease, as we touched on. Then we have examples - I will not name them - of charities that have let themselves down and let the charity sector down. It is a huge area.
Senator Ahearn touched on sporting events, maternity restrictions and communions and confirmations. Again, various bishops have made their views known in their dioceses but, again, there should be one rule, supported by Government, on whether it is in everyone's best interests to delay. That should be decided today as well.
Senator McGreehan talked about the Narrow Water bridge project going to tender as a symbol of belief in North-South being together. I agree. I am not very familiar with the project, or with the area I am ashamed to say, but from what I know it is a great example of the two parts of our island coming together in co-operation. It is something that is great to see. We want to see more of that progress and co-operation and no return to anything that we know too well from our past.
Senator Dooley talked about the important area of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, as it relates to qualification for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. I have been dealing with individuals on this matter as well. It should be raised and I will raise it with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. In many cases where, for example, a student who received a much smaller amount of money for part-time work in previous years, and is now receiving the €350 PUP, there should perhaps be some sort of waiver, or disregard, of the portion of the PUP above what they would normally be receiving, if that makes sense. If the PUP is putting a family over the threshold for payment that is placing a huge burden on students and their parents.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions.
Will the Senators claiming a division please rise?
As fewer than five Members have risen I declare the question carried. In accordance with Standing Order 61 the names of the Senators dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Seanad.