We have a tight agenda today so I ask Senators to stick to their allocated time.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No.1, motion regarding the arrangements for the sittings of the House on Thursday, 15 July and Friday, 16 July 2021 to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 10.45 a.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 60 minutes by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to recommendations, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; and No. 3, Companies (Rescue Process for Small and Micro Companies) Bill 2021 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 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 the Government.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to move No. 18 before No. 1 on the Order Paper. I wish to bring the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill 2021 to the House today. I have been working on this Bill for the past number of months with Eve McDowell, Una Ring and Catherine O'Sullivan from Stalking Ireland. Ms McDowell and Ms Ring bravely spoke about their personal experiences a number of months ago. Both were victims of what I consider to be an offence of stalking but it does not exist in Irish law. Both women came close to losing their lives and had horrific experiences. Ms McDowell is from Sligo and Ms Ring is from Cork. They both went through the justice system and got what they said was partial justice because of the inadequacy of the law in this area. This Bill seeks to introduce a separate stand-alone offence of stalking into Irish law, similar to that in existence in the UK. This is also a recommendation of the Law Reform Commission. I intend to bring that Bill before the House in the next term.
I again raise an issue I raised last week, that of the Alzheimer's day care centres that still remain closed throughout the country. I will focus in particular on the day centre in Castlebar, County Mayo. I have been working with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler, who has been excellent in providing information and is doing her best to get these centres open. Unfortunately, it appears that the Alzheimer Society of Ireland has classified its locations or premises into three separate categories: those that will open in the next couple of weeks, those that will open in September or October and those with no date for reopening because the building or location is no longer fit for purpose. Unfortunately, Castlebar falls into that third category. We do not have a date for reopening and we do not know when we will get these vital day services back.
I understand that HSE officials are working on this. They have set up a group to look into this deficiency in services in County Mayo and they are trying to put something together to replace the loss of that vital service. I ask the Leader to use her good offices to reiterate to the HSE the importance of these services. It has been pointed out to me by people who use this service, and their families, that we spend a lot of time, understandably, talking about the reopening of pubs, coffee shops and hospitality. That is important as it impacts on so many people because of jobs, in addition to just living and socialising, but we do not spend a huge amount of time talking about the vital services people rely upon to keep their loved ones at home for as long as they possibly can. It is a priority for Government, and for the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to ensure that people can remain at home for as long as they want to and get the full supports to do so. This is a significant support that people rely upon to get a break and some respite for their families. For the service user, it improves their quality of life and standard of living and it is an important service. It is important that we acknowledge in this House that there is still a lengthy backlog for services in day care centres, and outpatient appointments, that are impacting on citizens' rights throughout the country.
I will raise the issue of the south Kerry greenway, which I am sure is an issue close to the Cathaoirleach's heart. The reason I raise it is to welcome yesterday's High Court decision decreeing that the planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanála to Kerry County Council is valid and upholding the council's decision. It is important because this was viewed as a test case for greenways throughout the country. Some magnificent sections of greenway have been built in Connemara as part of the Connemara greenway. Sections have been built between Recess and Clifden, but we want to see the greenway completed as far as Oughterard and from there into Galway city. Greenways were initially viewed as being only for tours. While they clearly will be used for that, and will be very important in regenerating parts of rural Ireland, they are also being used by local people for exercise. Indeed, we have a vision for the greenway between Oughterard, Roscahill and Moycullen, through Bushy Park and into Galway city, to be used for commuting, because it will go through the grounds of the National University of Ireland, Galway and will be in close proximity to the hospital in Galway, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, businesses and industries. There is great potential for commuting along that section of the greenway once it is constructed. It is a case of when it is constructed between Oughterard, Roscahill, Moycullen and Galway city.
The issue that has stalled and stymied development of greenways is access to lands to allow the completion of environmental reports and to lodge planning applications. That is why the decision of Kerry County Council to pursue a compulsory purchase order, CPO, on lands in Kerry and to get validation in the courts has been hugely important as a test case for greenway development on private lands throughout the country. Heretofore, projects in County Mayo and elsewhere have been successful to a point but we need certainty on the issue of land. We want to see completion of the greenway from Recess to Clifden in Connemara and the buildout of the remaining section. This is a hugely important issue for regional Ireland and, therefore, I welcome the validation by the High Court yesterday. I hope that Galway County Council can now power on with the planning application in Connemara to build a world-class greenway to allow tourists, locals and commuters into the heart of Galway city. I welcome yesterday's decision. I want to see county councils in Galway and elsewhere move on with developing and rolling out greenways, lodging their planning applications, completing their environmental reports and providing something for which there is significant popular support in the community.
I am blue in the face speaking about the search and rescue contract over the past 12 or 18 months. That contract is likely to go to tender over the summer so this is probably my last attempt to say anything on it. We were told in 2010 by the then Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey, that Ireland had signed a contract for a fleet of new Sikorsky S-92s. In 2014, the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, announced that the new helicopters, which come at a retail price of €40 million each, were being leased as part of the CHC helicopters package. We did not get new helicopters. We got two that were built in 2006, two that were built in 2007 and one that was built in 2011. Did we pay for new helicopters? I believe this is a legitimate question to ask.
I have also asked questions about neonatal transfers. Part of the future helicopter study group was to provide transfers for the HSE, one of the most crucial of which is neonatal. That is not available today with the S-92s. At the time the contract was being put together, the Coast Guard stated that the Air Corps AW139 helicopters were not suitable for search and rescue operations and no money could be saved by putting the Air Corps into that role.
Geoff Russell of AgustaWestland, the manufacturer of the 139 helicopter, told the Sunday Independent that a headline in the newspaper stating the Air Corps was not equipped to provide rescue services was misleading. He said it did not help any government to make decisions on search and rescue services if such an important decision was made within incomplete or inaccurate information. That might explain why I have constantly pursued this issue.
Regarding the issue of night vision goggles, the junior Minister at the Department of Transport informed me only a few days ago the reason the goggles were not in use was that the training was not yet completed. They got the hardware eight years ago.
On the question of the contract signed in 2012 with CHC, it was suspended from search and rescue where it was preferred bidder with others in 2011 in the UK because the consortium member, CHC Helicopter, had commercially sensitive information regarding the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport. I have received three letters, two from Ministers and one - a copy - sent to me by Mr. Ken Spratt, Secretary General of the Department of Transport. In all three letters I have been threatened. They say, as professionals, the companies involved which they contacted to tell them what I was saying will not take any action at this time. What sort of a relationship has the Government got with a private contractor when Ministers are contacting contractors to advise them of what I have said in this House? It is outrageous. It suggests a relationship which is repugnant to any sort of public procurement. We have had Ministers visit search and rescue sites in Dublin, which is repugnant to any procurement process. I have said from the outset this process needs to be examined fully before it goes ahead. The chances are this procedure will go ahead when we go into recess and we will not be able to speak about it again but, by God, I promise I will follow this to hell for as long as I am a Member of this House and if I find something is rotten at the bottom of it, I will expose it.
The Senator's time is up.
Finally, I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Leader and staff of the Seanad as we head into the summer recess. Senator Doherty has been a very good Leader and responsive to anything I have asked of her and I wish her well for the summer. I also wish Cathaoirleach and his staff and Martin Groves and his staff well.
I thank the Senator. I call Senator Boylan.
I would like to raise the ongoing lack of clarity regarding the Government's position on the importation of fracked gas. We were told the programme for Government contained a commitment to a ban. When Sinn Féin brought forward an amendment to a Private Members' motion we were told the reason it could not be supported was that legislation was currently being worked on. Then, during pre-legislative scrutiny of the climate Bill we were told its inclusion would delay the Bill. Then, in a public meeting when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was asked when the ban would be introduced, his response was that it was legally complicated. Finally, in May, the Minister produced a policy statement on the importation of fracked gas, not legislation as was promised in the programme for Government but a watery policy statement. The excuse for the failure to introduce a ban was, lo and behold, the one we always get from the Government that the Attorney General says “No.” It is like a bad episode of “Little Britain” whenever there are calls for progressive policies in this country it seems the Attorney General always says "No”. Allegedly, the Attorney General’s advice is that a full legislative ban on the importation of fracked gas is not possible because Ireland was bound by EU energy market rules. I am not buying it because the Irish Centre for Human Rights has produced a 40-page legal opinion outlining exactly how we can have an ban on any importation of fracked gas and, not only that, I have it in correspondence, in black and white, from the EU legal service that it is entirely up to a member state what energy mix it chooses to have.
I would like the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to come into the House and clarify something for us and for the benefit of those non-governmental organisations, NGOs, he worked closely with before entering Government and to whom he promised a ban was in the programme for Government. He needs to answer a very simple question regarding the Attorney General’s advice and it is as follows: was the caution that was urged by the Attorney General because of the investor clause in the energy charter treaty? It is a simple question. On the face of it, I would say New Fortress Energy would feel very confident it has a very strong legal case for compensation of millions of euro if the Government decides to proceed with a ban. I suggest the refusal of the Minister, Deputy Ryan’s Department to release the correspondence I requested under freedom of information legislation between the Department and the New Fortress Energy is that the Government has most likely received legal threats of the consequences of such a ban. Why would Ireland be the only member state to be spared from a compensation claim when all across the EU fossil fuel companies are availing of the energy charter treaty to stop climate action? The Minister, Deputy Ryan, needs to be honest with the people. Is the energy charter the reason this Government is not banning the importation of fracked gas?
I want to raise an issue I raised by way of a Commencement matter yesterday to ensure when we resume after the summer recess we can have a real conversion about the expulsion of kids with special needs from schools. I have spoken about autism and special needs many times in this House but every time I read a newspaper article or get an email and read the words “violent”, “behavioural challenges” or “not suitable for the school” I cannot seem to wrap my head around why that is an acceptable thing to say. I read a story in The Irish Times a few weeks ago about another school, Stepping Stones Special School. I am not sure where it is based. A mother, Lourdes, spoke eloquently in that newspaper article about the experience her family has had of their 16-year-old boy, Conor, being expelled from the school. I cannot understand how an educational setting, established to meet a particular set of needs, frames things as behavioural challenges or deals with things in a punitive way. Kids are literally expelled from schools that are supposed to be set up to meet their needs. It is framed that the schools were not a suitable placement for those children. How can we say a school is set up, resourced and its staff trained to work with children with additional needs but when they present with those additional needs, they are told they have too many additional needs or their meltdowns are too much for that school? It is framed as if there was a breakdown in communication or a breakdown with the family or with the school when we have not levelled enough of the blame on the schools. They cannot continue to claim to be schools that specialise in these areas and then expel kids for the very reason that they are there. Meltdowns vary and manifest themselves in different ways. They can be very physical, loud, include lots of crying or lashing out. The answer in some schools is to expel those kids for the very thing that they do most naturally to calm down and to manage a sensory overload and the situation in the school. If our schools are set up supposedly to meet the needs of children like Conor, how can schools expel such children? How does that make sense? We need to start to have a real conversation about the fact that if a school is set up to meet additional needs and expels a child, that school cannot meet the criteria of being that type of school.
We need to address this as we go into another academic year to ensure no more children become collateral damage due to our inability to create educational systems that can meet their needs. When we resume after the recess in September, I would love if we could have a conversation on meeting the constitutional right of children to be able to access education.
I fully support Senator Ruane. I was going to raise that issue. Like her, I was horrified when I saw how Conor had been treated. It is so wrong. His mother eloquently spoke about how he looked out the window waiting for the bus to collect him to bring him to school every single day but, as of now, he has no place to go. It is appalling. No child in this country should be in that situation.
I second Senator Chambers's stalking Bill. We must seek to make our country a safer place for women and for all. That Bill certainly would be another piece of the armoury.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, for his sanctioning the drug, patisiran, at the weekend. Members would have heard me speak about Pat Tinsley and his need for this lifesaving drug. Only this day last week I raised this issue in the Seanad. I was thrilled to get a phone call from the Minister over the weekend advising me that this drug was going to be sanctioned.
It is literally life-saving for Pat and his peers.
The main issue I wish to mention here is the 12-month ban on gay men donating blood which I raised some time ago. Two weeks ago, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service announced that it was importing a bulk consignment of blood from the UK for the first time since the late 1900s due to a current shortage of supply here in Ireland.
This 12-month ban does not exist in England so gay men who were willing to donate blood in the UK would very possibly be donating blood to us in a situation where gay men here cannot donate blood unless they consider that they have not had sex with another man for 12 months. This is a blatant discrimination and inequality. I commend Tomás Heneghan for highlighting this and for his campaign. PrEP is a medication taken by HIV-negative men and is available through the HSE free of charge. I recommend that the Minister and the Department of Health would look at a situation where if they can prove that gay men are taking PrEP that they would then give blood. This is a discrimination and an inequality that should be addressed. I thank the Cathaoirleach.
I congratulate and wish the former Member of this House and Senator, Deputy Bacik, the best of luck on taking her seat in this Dáil Chamber today. She will be a great loss to the Seanad Chamber but will be a very good gain for the Dáil and I wish her well.
I also propose a vote of sympathy for the late Dr. Seán McCarthy from Tipperary, a former Deputy, Senator, Minister and gold medalist in his education when he did his medical exams. I extend my sympathies now to his family.
I raise the issue of social media abuse online. We have seen how the English players who did not score the goals in the penalty shoot-out were subjected to tremendous abuse on social media. I ask the Leader to arrange that this House pass a motion to call on the European Parliament to bring in some sanctions or legislation that would cover the area of faceless people on social media and to provide that a person would have to have a name and to be person in order to have a social media account. This is the only way forward. We as a country and as a Parliament here can do a little but can do something. As a European continent, however, we can do a great deal and have great power. We should bring those social media platforms to book on this because the local media, be it the print media, the national media, or the local or national radio stations would not get away with this. It would be libellous on all counts and I do not see why it should be any different for those social media platforms. I ask the Leader to arrange that we bring forward a cross-party motion in this House calling on the European Parliament to bring in some legislation in this regard. I thank the Cathaoirleach.
Gabhaim buíochas mór leis an gCathaoirleach. There are two Bills on the Seanad Order Paper on the problem of gambling. One is Senator Wall’s Bill which would ban broadcast and non-broadcast advertising and then there is Senator Ward’s Bill which would ban betting on the national lottery. Both of those are very welcome. It was a happy coincidence that President Higgins took the unusual step at the weekend of issuing a statement reiterating his comments at the Tiglin facility at the end of June, in time for Senator Wall’s Commencement matter, as it were.
Normally I would prefer that the President would be seen to defer verbally to the role of the Legislature on such matters but what he said was important. He talked about the saturation of the media landscape with sports betting advertising and he warned against and criticised the tokenistic small print warnings and invitations to be responsible. He is completely right in that regard.
There are aspects of Senator Wall’s Bill with which I might not fully agree. I would be concerned if the likes of the Racing Post would be able to continue to carry gambling advertising and I might allow a carve-out there. However, I am not sure if I would allow such a carve-out for the sponsorship by gambling organisations of sporting events.
I apologise for interrupting the Senator but when referring to the President he must be aware of the separation of powers between this House and the President.
Indeed I am and I was speaking about the separation of powers even while referring positively to his comments.
Criticism or any reference to the President should be done in a proper manner.
That reference was proper.
In conclusion, the Government has promised legislation on this issue and Senator Wall has welcomed that. He is right to do so but we need to be careful as to how the vested interests might act in the interim. The figure from 2019 is that some €90 million is being raised in gambling advertising revenue which is double what came in the year before. As we know, the betting tax is used to fund the horse racing industry and this industry is very important. We only had to see, however, the saturation of gambling advertising during the recent European soccer championships, with the use of drumbeats with messages of solidarity and crowd happiness to see how seductive and clever this whole industry is at manipulating people’s emotions and feelings. We will need to watch out for the influence that they will seek to play in advance of this promised Government legislation. We will have to watch it like hawks to ensure that it is effective and curbs things like the advertising of sports events by gambling organisations because we have a ballooning problem in this country and we must act in the public interest and combat it.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I am conscious that this is the last week of business before the recess and the Order of Business matters are fairly much taken up by now. I ask the Leader if she might organise a debate at the earliest opportunity when we return after the recess with the Minister for Health on the area of dental services for persons with medical cards. It has come to my attention for a considerable period of time that for whatever reason a lower number of dentists are now accepting patients with medical cards. I do not want to suggest that it is the fault of the dentists and there may be some issue within the system. However, young people in particular are being greatly affected. Quite frankly, the cost of dental services for people on low incomes or on medical cards generally is too high. We know the importance of dental hygiene and of people taking care of their dental health. We have to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.
A town like Killaloe up until recently had access to a dentist who accepted medical cards. That is no longer the case for whatever reason. That is not good enough and is affecting many people in the area who will now have to travel perhaps to Nenagh or Limerick. For some, particularly those on low incomes and medical cards, that is too far. We know that in situations like these people who cannot afford the private services will unfortunately opt to feed their children or spend the money on other very essential services and their dental health will be left behind. We are also aware of the damage that can do to one’s health generally and we certainly know that children who do not have good dental hygiene from the early stages, or do not have access to a check-up on a regular basis, suffer later in life. This is one of those very important issues which we need to focus on. Perhaps the Leader could organise a debate in September. I thank the Cathaoirleach.
I thank the Cathaoirleach very much. I use my time on the Order of Business this morning to welcome the pathway which has been created to reopen indoor hospitality. I do so with reservations. As a 34-year-old who is receiving his Johnson & Johnson vaccine today, I have reservations about younger people, in particular, and those who are unvaccinated not having the same ability to access hospitality venues. We need to roll out the use of antigen testing to give people that option.
When faced with the option of keeping hospitality premises closed, especially those without outdoor areas, until the end of August or September or putting in place such a system, I know which side I will support. I understand that changes made to that draft legislation yesterday now allow premises to be prescribed in regulation as opposed to primary legislation, which will make it much easier for the Minister to add other indoor areas. I impress on the Leader and the Minister the importance of considering other community venues, including bingo venues, in the next phase of the reopening process. There is no reason that vaccinated people, people who have recovered from Covid or people who can prove they do not have Covid with antigen testing cannot have access to such venues using the same process. It is important that our older people in particular have a social outlet to allow them to get back to what is the new normal. I call on the Leader to engage with the Minister in that regard and to impress upon him the importance of focusing on those additional areas.
Colleagues have raised the issue of birth partners on several occasions. I wish to raise it specifically in respect of Limerick maternity hospital. There continue to be issues with access for birth partners. The Leader will agree with me that birth partners are an essential part of a woman's healthcare at every stage of pregnancy. Service users still face several restrictions in Limerick maternity hospital. They still labour alone for hours or days until they undergo a now mandatory vagina examination to determine whether they are dilated by 4 cm. I cannot even believe I am reading this. This is cruel and raises issues regarding informed consent and in some cases traumatises the birthing person.
I know the Minister has spoken out about this and the HSE has given guidelines. The difficulty is that some local hospitals are not following those guidelines. I will write to the Minister today because it is just not acceptable. As someone whose partner had three Caesarean sections, I cannot imagine how women are feeling at the moment if they do not have access to their birth partner. It strikes me as incredibly cruel and I ask for the Leader's support on that issue.
Representatives from throughout the country will be aware of the plans to effectively privatise our local employment services. Why is the Government set on privatising our local employment services? A SIPTU representative has said that the current tendering processes, which include financial rewards for companies, are the beginning of the process of wholesale privatisation. If these tendering processes proceed as planned, it will lead to the wholesale privatisation of local employment services. This will effectively force out the community-based non-profit providers of local employment services.
Disturbingly, SIPTU wrote to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in March and is yet to receive a reply. I predict that after these services are privatised, people from all parties will claim it is terrible and ask why it happened. It is happening now and the Minister has not even agreed to meet the union representing these workers. I call for an urgent debate on the matter.
I pay tribute to two very special athletes from the Roscommon and Galway region who will participate in the Paralympics and the Olympic Games at Tokyo: Richael Timothy from the Ballymoe area competing in para-cycling, and Aoife O'Rourke from the Castlerea area competing in boxing. There is great excitement throughout the region with many flags flying in celebration of them representing Ireland at the Olympics. It is a very proud time for the people of Roscommon and Galway. I am sure the Leader will join me in sending best wishes to our athletes who will proudly display their talents for Ireland over the coming weeks at a most difficult time for sport.
We all know that outdoor summer camps are going well. It is great to see them up and running and it is very important for children. Several children have been affected by the fact that indoor camps cannot reopen. I am talking about many forms of art, martial arts, all sorts of other arts classes and science workshops. I could go on and on. Given that we did well in ensuring that our children could attend schools and were safe, and that 50 people can gather indoors for other events, I find it difficult to understand the restriction on indoor camps. We need to realise that many children do not like sport, and avenues for them are being closed off. We all accept that the children and young people have been badly affected by the Covid pandemic. I ask the Leader to see if we can do anything to reopen those indoor camps which are important. Most of them have considerably fewer children than are in an average primary school class. We should do it.
Almost a year ago in August 2020, Belarus held a presidential election that was totally unfair and not transparent, as acknowledged by the European Commission and many international organisations. Viktor Lukashenko kept power after that election notwithstanding that it was widely viewed that he did not and does not have the support of the Belarusian people. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader who is widely deemed to have won that election but is now essentially in exile, will visit Ireland today.
It is very important that we stand up for Belarus not just because there are many Belarusian citizens in Ireland, not just because Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe and on the borders of the EU, not just because Ireland is on the United Nations Security Council and not just because the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has deep personal connections with Belarus and has taken a strong line on this, but because we all know and recognise that what is happening in Belarus is wrong.
At least 30 Irish parliamentarians have adopted Belarusian prisoners. There are some 550 political prisoners in prison in Belarus at the moment. One of the other candidates in that presidential election was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment this week. On the borders of the EU, our neighbours are suppressing their opponents, suppressing their population and suppressing democracy. We must ensure this is not allowed to continue.
On Thursday, meetings will take place with Ms Tsikhanouskaya. I hope we will take a strong line on that. I hope that Ireland will take its role seriously as part of the international community to re-emphasise that the behaviour of Viktor Lukashenko and his regime is illegal, undemocratic and unacceptable, and will not be tolerated by us or by the international community. The sanctions imposed by Europe in this regard are simply insufficient. Steps must be taken to move this matter forward and to advance the case of democracy in Europe and across the world.
With the withdrawal of Ulster Bank and KBC from the Irish market, and the recent announcements that Bank in Ireland intends to close 103 branches and that Permanent TSB is withdrawing cash services from 44 of its branches, there is no doubt that the banking sector is in a deep state of change. This will leave Irish customers with only three full-service banks to choose from, which will have a significant impact on individuals and business customers throughout the country, especially the elderly and those in rural areas where poor broadband may not allow an easy transition to Internet banking.
Banks here have been slow to do show genuine progress and integrity when it comes to serving the public. The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman lodged 2,782 eligible complaints against the banking sector in 2020, with more than half of them related to mortgages, showing that Irish banks have plenty to do to change the way they do business.
The Irish banks have also had plenty of opportunity to improve their technology but this uptake has been slow while many other countries have shown how technology and digital offerings can be transformative and, in turn, improve the experience of their customers. We have been told of a proposed instant payment app, which I have been informed may be used by the three remaining banks to close ranks and use exclusionary tactics to keep new challenger banks out of Ireland, reducing customer choice and competition. The European payments initiative is looking to build an instant payment standard with more than 30 lenders taking part in its development. Questions need to be asked as to why AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB want to go it alone.
Could it be that by developing their own app they will have full control of which lenders are allowed to join the instant payments system while also discouraging other entrants to the Irish banking sector by excluding them from this app? In the guise of offering instant payments, they are acting in their own interests. Once again, it will be the public and businesses that will suffer the lack of competition. I ask the Leader to organise a debate with the Minister for Finance on this issue in the coming months.
I offer my condolences to the family and friends of Dr. Seán McCarthy. I also congratulate Deputy Ivana Bacik. I wish her well in her new role. She will be missed in the Seanad, but I am sure she will make an enormous contribution to the Dáil.
I am delighted also to co-sponsor the Bill being proposed by Senator Chambers to make harassment a crime. The Bill is worthy of support right across the House and I hope all Senators will support it.
As this is probably the last Order of Business before the recess, I want to take this moment to thank the Cathaoirleach, as well as Martin Groves, all of the staff in the Seanad, and the staff of the Oireachtas joint committees. As Fianna Fáil’s Seanad spokesperson for housing, we have had a very busy year. I commend all staff on their professionalism, patience and for keeping us all on track.
The housing crisis was the number one issue when this Government was formed. It continues to be. Since the pandemic hit, obviously the housing crisis has been compounded. However, in the year we have made significant changes in terms of protecting renters from evictions and rent increases, capping rent increases at inflation, limiting the upfront payments, and adding benefits and supports to student renters. Most importantly, for those who want to own their own home, the Affordable Housing Bill 2021 passed in the Dáil last week, 101 votes to eight, following a year of trenchant and spurious opposition. In that Affordable Housing Bill 2021, the State will take the role of providing people the opportunity to own their own affordable home. Local authorities will be empowered to build affordable homes to purchase and to rent. We have introduced for the first time the affordable cost rental model. We are doubling the amount of social and affordable housing on every new private development. On top of that, we are providing financial support by way of a five-year interest-free loan for would-be homeowners. All of this is welcome. That is why the Bill got cross-party support.
We have one final, significant piece of legislation to do before the recess as a Seanad, and that is the Land Development Agency Bill 2021. That legislation will allow the State strategically to manage its land to deliver social and affordable homes - 100% public housing on public land. I ask Senators from all parties and none to do the right thing on that legislation and give the State the power to use the land to deliver homes for our people. If Senators are serious about wanting to address the housing crisis in terms of both supply and affordability, they should back this proposal to allow us to use the State-owned lands to deliver homes for our people.
I am almost the last speaker, so many of my points have been made already, but I do want to make them briefly again. I pay tribute to and congratulate former Senator, now Deputy, Ivana Bacik, with whom I worked quite closely in the previous Seanad, particularly when I was involved in some of the group leaders' and whips' meetings. She was an excellent contributor to this House and I do not doubt that she will be an excellent contributor to the Dáil. She will enter this Chamber this afternoon for the first time as a Deputy.
I also pay tribute to Dr. Seán McCarthy, who was a Member of this House between 1989 and 1992. He was also a former Minister, Deputy, and long-established councillor for many years in Tipperary. He was an expert medical doctor and was regarded in his field. I know his daughter, Maria, who lives quite close to me. I pay tribute to him and pass on my condolences and sympathies to all his friends and family in Tipperary, the wider Fianna Fáil family and, indeed, throughout the country.
Like Senator Fitzpatrick, I am conscious that this might be my last Order of Business. While there may be another on Thursday, in a Covid-19 world there are restrictions as to how many of us can be here. I therefore pay particular thanks to every Member of this House and the other House for re-electing me in Seanad by-election. It would be remiss of me not to mention that I got significant support right across the three Government parties and, indeed, from many others. I acknowledge all of you right across the House. You all know who you are. I know who are too, which is even more important. I thank all of you for that.
I welcome all of the progress that has taken place under Covid-19. The hospitality industry has been through so much. Let us get a date for them. Let us bring them back into the real world of hospitality as soon as we can, operating for our benefit and for theirs. I wish everybody a very good break over the summer. I thank Martin Groves, all his staff, and the Cathaoirleach for the welcome I got when I came back.
I ask the Leader that we would facilitate a debate in the House in the autumn on the national sexual health strategy. This is a critically important strategy, especially in the area of HIV, which we have seen an increase in. Acknowledging that there has been much work done in terms of HIV and men’s sexual health, it is important we have debate. Acknowledging the work done around PrEP and Fast-Track Cities, it is important we see a wide consultation on national sexual health strategy around screening and testing with a focus not just on prevention but also on living well.
If the Cathaoirleach could indulge me, this week, Ms Ruth Lawlor, who has the privilege of working in my office – I say that jokingly – will celebrate 40 years of public service to the Oireachtas under the Fine Gael Party. In 1981, she entered Leinster House on work experience with the late Jim Mitchell, and she has served in numerous offices, including with people like John Kelly, Dino Cregan, Liam Burke, Paudie Coffey, John O'Mahony in the previous Seanad, Imelda Henry, and now with me. I can tell Members of the House who do not know Ruth Lawlor that she is a person of energy, youthfulness, vitality and good humour who has put the interests of staff, Members, Leinster House, and the people we work for and represent at the heart of everything she does. I say to her and to her family today míle, míle buíochas for 40 years of tremendous service. It is rare in this world of public service that someone would spend 40 years in one place. Ruth Lawlor has served not just all of us but also her State with distinction. I say míle buíochas and I thank her today.
I join Senator Buttimer in wishing her many happy years of active retirement. I am sure someone who is as energetic as that will not be retiring in the sense of putting her feet up on a beach. I am sure she will find plenty of other things to be doing and will keep involved in politics and community service.
She is not retiring. She has done 40 years of service.
Forty years of service and more to come. I now call the Leader.
I tell you, a Chathaoirligh, Ruth Lawlor is a cracking, energetic woman. It is Senator Buttimer’s privilege to work with her, as indeed it has been for many other Fine Gael politicians over the years. It is a real credit to her because she is one great woman. I wish her well and continued success in her career here in Leinster House campus.
To answer Senator Buttimer's request, I will organise the debate on sexual health when we come back in September. To Senator Horkan I say we are all privileged to have him re-elected. He is a prominent member of this Seanad and makes welcome contributions, not least of which was today when he reminded us of the contribution Dr. Seán McCarthy made in his political life and of his service to his local community. I send condolences on behalf of all of us here in Seanad Éireann, along with those of Senators Horkan and Burke, to his family on his passing.
Senator Fitzpatrick talked about the housing advances we have made. We all acknowledge that a lot has been done in the past year but much more has to be done.
Senator Wall requested a debate on financing and banking. What some of the larger banking institutions are talking about doing is quite insidious. I will certainly organise that debate after the summer recess.
Senator Ward talked about the welcome visit of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya today and tomorrow. She will meet representatives of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and both the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, tomorrow. She is very welcome.
With 550 political prisoners in prisons in Belarus we have an awful long way to go to redress the situation. I join Senator Ward in agreeing far more serious sanctions need to be employed on behalf of the European Union to address the issue that Lukashenko is in that country and what he is doing to his people.
Senator Murphy talked about an issue many people find incredibly frustrating. I certainly will raise it with the Minister. Indoor summer camps have been refused the ability to open whereas hundreds of thousands of children have been going safely to school for many months since they reopened. It is a dichotomy people cannot understand; how is it safe in one environment for our children to go to school but it is not safe for them to go to indoor camps? I will raise the issue and I hope we will get it addressed quickly because the summer will be over before we know it.
Senator Gavan talked about the ongoing issues he has experienced in Limerick. To be honest with him, we are probably blue in the face raising it here. I do not mean to be disrespectful to him but every week we raise it we get reassurances and the following week we are told of the stories of women being prohibited from having their birth partners with them. It really is not on. I will certainly raise it again with the Minister for Health today but I could nearly tell the Senator that I will be told he sent the letter. The only thing I can suggest we do is to keep highlighting it so that people still know the frustrations women and men are experiencing.
I want to comment on the other matter the Senator raised. I am quite nervous about doing that given I am no longer in the Department and it is probably not politically correct to comment. I gave reassurances while I was there that there is a space for every single offering, probably far more so today than there would have been when I left in February when we were at near full employment. Our job clubs and local employment services do enormous work in parts of the country where private enterprise would not bother their backsides ever going. These are honourable decent people who extend the services far more widely than the contracts they have with the State. There is a place for every offering to all the people who are unemployed. The Minister launched Pathways to Work yesterday for some of those extra hundreds of thousands of people who have become unemployed because of the pandemic and will find it difficult to get jobs. There is a place for all offering their services. I concur and stand with our job clubs and local employment services. They have been giving services to the State for many generations and will be needed in time to come. I will ask for a debate on that issue when we resume in the autumn.
Senator Cummins talked about a pathway to reopening indoor hospitality and the reopening of summer camps, bingo halls and other such venues. We need to get to a scenario where people who are vaccinated are able to feel the liberties they were promised by that vaccination and we must also provide pathways for those people who either cannot or do not want to get vaccinated to be able to get back to some sort of a new normal. I will organise a debate on that matter for the Senator in September.
Senator Dooley asked for a debate on dental health services for people with medical cards, which is an issue not only in his home county of Clare but in every county. Many of our dentists have stopped providing services to medical card patients, which is not acceptable without a plan B from the Department. I will organise a debate on that issue.
Senator Mullen talked about the gambling Bill. It is unusual to see the separate arms of State interjecting, particularly the President, in a political matter, but this issue is far greater than a political one. It is an insidious issue that stretches into our towns and counties and it certainly needs to be addressed. Both Senator Wall's and Senator Ward's Bills should be advanced but in the absence of those being brought forward in the Senators' Private Members' times I will try to make inroads into what the Government’s plans are and come back to the Senator Mullen on it. It is definitely something that should be done sooner rather than later. I for one very much welcomed the President's intervention at the weekend as this is such a serious issue and has caused and continues to cause many problems, and is a blight on many people's lives.
Senator O’Loughlin talked about Pat Tinsley and a drug being awarded funding over the weekend, which is welcome. She raised that issue on several occasions. It is a testament to her tenacity and persistence that this drug is now on the drugs scheme. I congratulate the Senator and wish her continued success in her other anticipated campaigns. She also raised the 12-month ban on blood donations. It seems illogical and ties in with Senator Buttimer's request for a debate on sexual health. We will arrange that for the end of the summer to try to get some changes made in that regard..
Senator Boylan talked about fracked gas. I will ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss the issues she raised.
Senator Ruane raised the issue of the expulsion of children. Stepping Stones is a school in Kilcloon with which I have been involved for many years. The expulsion of Conor was something that was very difficult for both sides, but a debate is needed on this issue. There are children who provide challenging behaviour who are not suitable for our schools. Instead of expelling the children we need to add additional resources to the schools to make sure children like Conor can continue to go to school, get collected by the bus every day and enjoy the obvious benefits of being in an environment where they can grow, make friends and continue their social and educational life.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the search and rescue, SAR, contract, as he has done on a number of occasions. On the last occasion he raised it I wrote to the Secretary General of the Department of Transport looking for some answers for him. I will come back to him once I get a response to that letter.
Senator Kyne spoke about the planning application for a new greenway for the west from Oughterard and Moycullen right up to Galway. It would be a stonking welcome addition for the tourists. I wish the people there success with it.
Senator Chambers opened the Order of Business of business by raising the issue of the Alzheimer's day care centres. There is one in Skerries we are desperately trying to get open. It is an issue that has caused considerable angst to dementia and Alzheimer's sufferers and patients during the past 12 months. They have lost an enormous social outlet and it has caused an acceleration of many of their symptoms. It is unacceptable we do not have plan B for those that will not open now or in September. We need to make sure we put the necessary resources and finances in place. The Minister is committed to this issue and to getting the venues that are not suitable for reopening to be in a position where they are suitable for reopening.
I am happy to accept the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Fianna Fáil group for the taking of the stalking Bill. I very much welcome it and wish her every success in getting it passed through the House.
Senator Chambers has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 18 be taken before No. 1." The amendment was seconded by Senator O’Loughlin. The Leader has indicated she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.