The Order of Business is No. 1, address to the Seanad by MEPs representing the European Parliament Midlands-North-West constituency, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. in accordance with arrangements set out in the motion passed by the Seanad on Tuesday, 21 September 2021; No. 2, Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to adjourn at 6.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the Minister's opening speech not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Private Members' business, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 6.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 2, whichever is later, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I will bring to the attention of the House the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report, commissioned by the National Disability Authority, which highlights employment rates among people with disabilities in Ireland. We are fourth lowest among the countries surveyed in that report. People with disabilities in Ireland are twice as likely to experience poverty and deprivation than those without disabilities. This is predicted to worsen, post Covid. I am aware we published a ten-year comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities in 2015. I ask the Minister of State responsible to come to the House to report and update us on that strategy so we may have a debate on it. Even where people with disabilities are working full time, there is a higher rate of poverty than among those without a disability. There is also an education gap in the lack of progression into third level education.
We need a very serious debate in this House on this matter to ensure the House gives its full support to people with disabilities, ensuring they live their best lives and have every opportunity. Whatever obstacle is put in their way, we should always have a disposition of ensuring their equality and access, regardless, to education, schooling and whatever else. We should put the weight of this House behind that and make that statement.
In my final minute, I want to refer to an event or so-called protest that occurred last Sunday in my constituency, Dublin South-Central, outside the Tánaiste's house. I call it a "so-called protest" because it was not a protest; it was an intimidation and bullying tactic by a group to ventilate its particular anti-vaccination position. It also included appalling and vile homophobic slurs. There is now a pattern whereby many Ministers have had the experience of their homes being beset by protesters. The group behind the so-called protest on Sunday has said every politician is now liable for a protest outside his or her home. The group is also threatening to protest outside the homes of GPs. It is not acceptable. I am referring to where a group takes it upon itself to engage in the activity I have described, has no reasonableness and cannot be appealed to. My home has a young child and elderly parents. Are their private lives to be open to interference? It is certainly not what any of us signed up to. Maybe we need legislation and to talk about safe zones. We are already talking about safe zones in the context of abortion clinics. We need to address the matter in the context of determining what constitutes a reasonable protest. Our constitutional right to protest and to freedom of expression comes with a responsibility regarding how we do things.
We need to make sure this House provides for a debate on this, explores the possibility of legislation and determines whether the boundaries of our public order arrangements are too tight.
My colleague, Senator Chambers, and I spoke yesterday about "Women of Honour" and the need to take the group's stories seriously and act. This morning I wanted to mention the nine Army rangers who went to Afghanistan to help to bring our citizens home. I congratulate them on the work they did. Two officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs were present. We need to recognise the work that the rangers and other members of our Defence Forces do and that the difficulties over pay and conditions still exist. We need, once and for all, to deal with these issues.
I also want to raise the issue of drinking water. There was a problem earlier this summer. There are ongoing issues in Gorey and Ballymore Eustace. Silver eels were found in a water treatment plant serving approximately 10,000 people in the Castledermot area. The EPA condemned that. People are experiencing ongoing problems over the security and safety of their water supply. It is not acceptable and we need to do far more in this regard.
The last issue I would like to raise concerns a conversation I had yesterday morning with Kildare branch of Down Syndrome Ireland. It relates somewhat to what Senator Seery Kearney was speaking about. Some training courses for young people with an intellectual disability and for young people who have left formal education are offered during mainstream school hours. In Kildare, the courses have covered literacy and horticulture. I visited the premises myself and tremendous work was being done. A grant was given through the Department of Health to fund the courses. That has now been stopped but no alternative has been put in place. The response to the organisation in question was that it should become a section 39 organisation. That is ridiculous. Groups of volunteers working hard to put in place positive experiences, including learning experiences, for young people with intellectual disabilities do not want to become formal organisations. They are giving of their time and energy. We need to have a debate on how best to support young people with intellectual disabilities in acquiring the skills they need for life, education and, hopefully, employment.
I thank Senator O'Loughlin for bringing up the issue of the rangers. Her strong support for the Defence Forces is noted always. It is a little sad that we are talking about the Army rangers and the work they did in Afghanistan when the unit is falling apart for want of new recruits. We have a new Chief of Staff coming on board now and a new Secretary General in the Department. We also have a Minister who says he is committed to the Defence Forces and, therefore, it is my hope that we will see a tremendous improvement in the overall structures in the Defence Forces in the very near future.
The Deputy Leader, Senator Chambers, spoke yesterday about "Women of Honour", as did Senator O'Loughlin. We want a thorough investigation of the matter. We want it independently chaired by an individual from outside the Defence Forces. Every officer, non-commissioned officer and enlisted person I know is devastated because there are people within their ranks who have brought them into disrepute and because it is not known who the perpetrators are. The quicker we get the commission up and running, the better. That is a job for Major General Sean Clancy, the new Chief of Staff, as he comes in. I wish him well with that.
At the end of the summer session, I spoke about the search and rescue contract. I said it would be placed before the Cabinet as an any-other-business item at the last moment. Indeed, it has gone before the Cabinet and has been approved to go for tender. I wrote to the Minister following the approval and said we cannot go to tender while we are awaiting the outcome of the report on Rescue 116. There are three companies big enough to serve as a search and rescue operator for Ireland, one of which is CHC, the incumbent. There are serious questions that will be asked of CHC in the report on Rescue 116, which I understand is imminent. The adviser on the business case, Frazer-Nash Consultancy, is associated with another of the three companies that will tender. Really and truly, the system raises more questions than it answers. This is something this House will have to watch as it progresses. There is a maxim that once something is approved to go to tender, we should all step back from it and allow the process to go ahead but I have serious concerns about the process that has brought us to this point. I need to have that firmly on the record.
With regard to search and rescue operations, there should be no tender until we have the full outcome regarding Rescue 116. The company in question was provided with night-vision solutions for the cockpits of its helicopters almost ten years ago but those solutions have never been implemented. I am not a pilot but I believe it is reckless not to be in a position to use technology that will allow flight at night. These questions have to be answered before the tender is agreed at any stage in the near future. I will leave that with the Deputy Leader. We may need to have a debate on this.
I extend my condolences to Senator Hoey and her family. It is a very difficult time for them. I am sure all our thoughts are with her.
I thank the Deputy Leader for sitting in the Leader's seat today. It is appropriate because I am going to be speaking today about the Department of Education and one of her party's Ministers, who, as I said at the meeting of the education committee yesterday, is doing fantastic work. Looking forward, I would like to have a conversation on what the Department can do, in conjunction with some of the other Departments, on climate action. This is a significant year for climate action. A report was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, during the summer, while we were not sitting. We have not spoken about it but it is important to mention it in the Chamber. It was a wake-up call for all of us, including all of us in the Green Party, but we have put in place a climate action Bill. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, is coming up, which means every Department, ahead of the budget, will need to think about what it can do. My party can given assurances that it will work with the Minister for Transport to invest in something that will make a significant difference for the Department of Education when it is examining its carbon footprint in respect of school transport. We have probably all received many representations from people whose children have been refused school transport. We now need to consider removing the barriers for children in obtaining school transport because the majority are going to school by car.
This is not just a rural problem but is an urban one as well. One should not have to say that one is 4.8 km away from a school in order to get school transport. We should have a revolution in school transport, not just because it is difficult to get to school but also because it reduces our carbon footprint and would be a significant achievement for this Minister in her term of office. We will certainly do all we can to support her in that.
Leading off for Sinn Féin this morning is Senator Boylan.
My first point is to note the Sinn Féin Seanad team’s disappointment at the manner in which our MEP, Mr. Chris MacManus, was invited to today’s debate on the future of Europe. As someone who was an MEP, I know how difficult it is to manage a calendar that sees one in three different countries every month and it was a disappointment that Mr. MacManus was put at a disadvantage to his constituency counterparts by those being contacted earlier. Sinn Féin, therefore, will not participate in today’s debate with the MEPs.
The key issue I want to raise today is once again - I cannot believe I am here saying this - the issue of funding for the inquest into the Stardust fire. From September 2020 to February 2021, the Department of Justice and the legal team representing 46 of the 48 families engaged in a six-month negotiation regarding how the costs should be covered. Despite the legal team continuously warning the Department of Justice that an inquest of this magnitude and this significance would require a bespoke arrangement the Department insisted that the legal aid route would be the route to use. The legal team proceeded in good faith and is now being told by the Legal Aid Board that it was not informed of this decision. This is despite a letter from the Minister and the Department of Justice saying that it is now up to the Legal Aid Board and the lawyers because it has agreed that the Legal Aid Board is the route that the families are going to take and that they will be paid a month in arrears. It now appears that the Department of Justice is trying to wash its hands of the fact that it gave that written confirmation to the legal team and the families it represents and is saying that it is up to the Legal Aid Board and the lawyers to once again negotiate and thrash this out. Is it seriously suggesting that having wasted six months on negotiating how this inquest was going to be funded, the Department now wants the lawyers to start that process all over again with the Legal Aid Board?
I also have very serious concerns about the statement by the Minister of State in the Dáil this morning on the costs and the funding that was allocated in the budget to help with the cost of the inquest. We had a commitment from the then Minister, Deputy Flanagan, at the time the inquest was granted that all adequate resources would be put in place. We had the Taoiseach talking about €8 million being allocated for the funding of the inquest and today we had a statement from the Minister of State that the Government will put in place €8 million to help cover the costs of the inquest. That is a significant move and shift in position from what we were told when the inquest was granted. I am absolutely disgusted by the senior Minister and the Department of Justice in how it has treated the families of the Stardust fire. I ask again why it is that the State continuously forces these families to go through the mill in order to get the answers as to what happened to their loved ones on that night in 1981.
I express my sympathies to our colleague, Senator Annie Hoey, and her family. Just a number of short weeks ago we were congratulating her on her wedding. Thankfully her father, Ray, was able to attend it but after a very long illness, he lost that battle last night.
The issue I raise this morning is one that many Deputies, Senators and other elected representatives from north County Dublin have been most anxious about over the past number of days, namely, the leak last Sunday in respect of MetroLink and the prospective delay in that project to 2034. While it is understandable that communities in north County Dublin are outraged by this, it is also important to say that this is a very important issue for the communities in the north inner city and the communities of Cabra, Glasnevin, Phibsboro and Drumcondra. These communities were very excited and very much needed MetroLink, believing that it was going to be a game-changer for them. These communities are the gateway to the city. They have to bear the brunt of commuter traffic and deal with emissions with nitrous oxide levels often 25% above the EU maximum limits. MetroLink is, therefore, very important but now we hear that it may be delayed and, indeed, the question is being asked as whether it will happen at all.
The important issue for me is that MetroLink is not a stand-alone project. MetroLink is crucial to the full roll-out and success of BusConnects and it is also dependent on the DART+ South West project, in particular as it is connects Heuston Station to the new station in Glasnevin. Anybody cycling or driving in the north inner city or just north of that area at the moment will know of the congestion in these communities.
I listened very carefully to the Minister’s reply to the Leader of this House when she posed the question about MetroLink this morning and a number of things stood out. The Minister said that MetroLink is an option. How can one call something an option when €170 million has already been spent on metro north and another €49 million has been spent on MetroLink? It is crucial that we see this project progressing.
The Department is also playing games with us because it is said the dates that were given were provided at the early part or start of the consultation. At the start of this year the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, said that the railway order application would be made in August of this year but that has not happened. The Department has wantonly attempted to mislead public representatives on what exactly is happening. We need a clear answer from the Government as to whether it is committed to this project and, if it is committed to it, a clear timeline on when it is going to happen. It is not good enough that these communities have for the past two decades dealt with uncertainty around this project. They are now looking at another two decades of increasing congestion in their communities.
I want to highlight the issue of the Owenacurra Centre in Midleton, which is home to 19 people who have severe and enduring mental health difficulties, some of whom have lived there for many years. It is the only long-stay adult mental health facility in east Cork and prior to the Covid-19 emergency, it also provided respite and day care.
On 28 June the residents received the shock announcement that the Owenacurra Centre was to be closed by 31 October due to concerns about the building. To get an understanding of this we have to understand that the town location of the Owenacurra Centre has allowed residents to integrate into the local community. The residents are known within the town of Midleton and are very much looked after, not just by the staff of the centre but by the local people they meet every day in the cafes, shops, the post office and the library. As well as the loss of their home, residents are facing the loss of many therapeutic relationships and staff all at the one time. Families are deeply concerned that much of the progress that their loved ones have made over many years will be undone by the closure of the centre and the loss of their support systems.
We had two meetings of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Mental Health about the proposed closure in recent weeks. The first of these involved family members and it was very emotional. Yesterday, we heard from the HSE management. Family members of residents wrote to me this morning and said there were greatly concerned that there are plans to start moving residents from the Owenacurra Centre next week and that management have not ruled out St. Stephen's Hospital in Glanmire as an alternative placement option. St. Stephen's Hospital is an institutional ward setting where the Mental Health Commission has raised more serious concerns about the premises than the Owenacurra Centre. It is in the countryside and residents do not have the same access there to community supports. Dormitory-style accommodation is the norm there rather than single rooms.
HSE management also did not rule out St. Catherine’s ward for some of the Owenacurra residents. St. Catherine's ward is a facility near Cork city which also received a lower compliance rating from the Mental Health Commission than on the commission’s most recent visit to the Owenacurra centre. The Mental Health Commission said that the residents of St. Catherine’s were not allowed to access their rooms for 12 hours of the day. Yesterday’s Oireachtas committee raised many questions about the building reports on the Owenacurra Centre which HSE management were not able to answer. I am also concerned that there appears to be no clear service plan for people in east Cork with either respite or long-term placement needs into the future.
The four Cork East Deputies were united yesterday in calling for the closure of the Owenacurra Centre to be halted. According to HSE management no current safety risk is posed by the building issues.
A strong message was sent from the meeting that plans should be made for either a renovation or a rebuild of the facility on the same site. Deputies had attended a large public meeting in Midleton about the proposed closure the previous evening, which Deputy Stanton described as the saddest meeting he had ever attended. I appeal to Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to intervene in this closure decision and provide a funding commitment to retain these essential services in their current location.
I also raise the matter of the ESRI report on the employment rates for people with disabilities. Those figures have not come as a surprise because we know about the barriers to helping people with disabilities into our workforce. It is not a friendly place. I call on the Department of Social Protection to publish the Indecon report on the cost of disabilities. The report was commissioned over two years ago and should be released. It should be published before the upcoming budget because as we know, there are extra costs for people with disabilities.
The ESRI report referred to the number of people with disabilities who are employed in our country. We must look at our public sector. I want to highlight that the reasonable accommodation fund is only open to people in the private sector. If we want to raise the number of people involved and have a more inclusive workplace, we need to start with what we have control over, that is, the public sector. People in the public sector who might need reasonable accommodation and some assistive technology must go to their line managers. A person told me they had to write a business case to get help to do their job a little better and more productively and to help them to feel like a part of the team. That business case was not accepted and the person in question was told they had to prove themselves. That is because the reasonable accommodation fund is not for public sector employees, and is only for those in the private sector. It would be great if that was taken into consideration in the next budget. It would also be great if the Indecon report was published and some action was taken on foot of it.
I join others in sympathising with the Hoey family on a very sad loss.
I ask the Acting Leader for a debate on aviation as a matter of urgency. As the Acting Leader will know, all airports must be, and should be, treated fairly and proportionately. Given that the Government is looking at putting in place an incentivisation fund to assist airlines in restoring routes, it is important that in that hierarchy of routes, as the Tánaiste said yesterday, Cork Airport, which is the second busiest airport in the country, is not treated unfairly or put at a disadvantage in terms of state aid or state support. If other airports are to benefit, Cork Airport should also benefit. It must be treated to the same equity in the context of financial incentivisation to restore connectivity on a proportional basis. Cork Airport is the second busiest airport in the country and must get its fair share of Government support. I ask the Acting Leader to have that debate as soon as possible. In fact, I suggest and hope it could be done next week, ahead of the budget. As the Acting Leader knows, routes are already being planned for next summer. The summer season will begin in April of next year and it is incumbent on us to ensure we have as many aircraft bases in Ireland as possible.
I also ask, in the context of aviation, for a debate on the issue of work practices in the Irish Aviation Authority. Many of us have received reports from employees of the authority. I ask that we have a debate on the matter. It is important that we plan for next summer and support our aviation sector, and that is why this debate is timely.
I raise the lacuna in the national childcare scheme. This issue may have been raised before but thousands of children, especially in the inner city of Dublin, are going to lose out on after-school places because of the October 2019 changes. Many childcare providers are still staying afloat because of the current wage subsidy schemes, which will end in September. Those schemes have given childcare providers some respite and space to figure out what to do.
We know the part of the national childcare scheme that affects the Robert Emmet Community Development Project is the income assessment scheme whereby children of parents who are not working will only be entitled to 20 hours of childcare per week. We may need to review the scheme in light of the fact that these are the most disadvantaged children in the country. For their primary education, they have the advantage of attending schools with Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, status. We might need also to look at DEIS after-school facilities so that these children are not left with nowhere to go. The Robert Emmet group provides a huge service. It is after school and includes a warm meal and help with homework. To cut the service off would be an absolute indictment on us. I would appreciate it if the Cathaoirleach and the Acting Leader would raise this matter with the Minister.
I concur with my colleagues, Senators Seery Kearney and McGreehan, on the ESRI report into those working with disabilities. We had the fourth lowest rate of employment for people with disabilities of working age in 2018. A contributing factor was obviously the lack of supports for people going from second level education, where we are quite good, to third level education, where we are failing miserably. Nearly 11% of us have some sort of disability so it is a considerable amount of the population. We need to do a lot more to support our loved ones, family members and friends with a disability.
I also pass on my condolences to Senator Hoey and her family on their sad loss.
A large number of people from the campaign to save St. Brigid's Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir are today travelling to Dáil Éireann. They are coming to deliver 11,000 signatures requesting the reopening of the hospital. I ask the Acting Leader to make sure that the Minister for Health or the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will meet representatives from St. Brigid's today. They are going to be outside from about now until 4 p.m. They have genuine concerns about the decision made by the HSE to close St. Brigid's. All they are asking for is a fair opportunity to voice their concerns today. To get 11,000 signatures is significant in a small area such as Carrick-on-Suir. I ask the Acting Leader to do that.
AIB in Fethard wrote a letter to its customers last week stating that the branch in the town will no longer offer over-the-counter transactions such as cash, cheques, foreign exchange and draft services from Monday, 6 December. That is devastating news for the town. Many businesses in that area use it as their local branch. They are now being asked to move to Clonmel. The same thing happened up the road in Killenaule and the people affected were told to move to Fethard and use the branch there. Now the branch in Fethard is being closed and people are being told to go to Clonmel. People will have to travel approximately 30 km. I request that we ask the Minister for Finance or the Minister of State at the Department of Finance to come in. This sort of thing has been going on in every single county. It has happened in different parts of Tipperary, including Cahir, Cashel and Templemore, where Bank of Ireland has closed branches. That has a considerable and detrimental impact on an area. My colleague, Councillor Mark Fitzgerald, is meeting businesses and trying to get clarity from the bank. If the Minister could come in and make an overall statement about the impact this has for rural areas in Tipperary and other counties, I would be very grateful.
I raise the issue of housing in Limerick. According to Daft.ie yesterday, there were only 13 properties available to rent in the whole of the city. Four of those cost over €3,000 per month to rent and one of them is a one-bedroom apartment. That is something, is it not? That tells us the scale of the crisis. There are simply no available properties to rent in Limerick city. That is why almost 6,000 people are on the housing list in Limerick city. Half of those people are availing of the housing assistance payment, HAP, because they simply cannot afford the extortionate rents that have been allowed to rise shockingly over the past ten years.
I will also tell the House briefly about residents in Mount Kenneth on the Dock Road, Limerick. They have seen their apartments run down by landlords and estate management to the extent that even the lift does not work. People on the fourth or fifth floor cannot get up to their apartments without walking. These residents have been given notice because their rents are not high enough. The landlords know when they kick them out, they can increase the rent to between €1,200 and €1400 a month for two-bed apartments. Of course, there are no protections whatsoever for these renters.
We have a housing policy that continues to fail. The well-trumpeted Housing For All policy will not fix this issue. There are certainly not enough cost-rental models in place. We have also seen in Limerick the disgraceful issue of this new model of leasing housing back to the council. The council pays for housing for 25 years and owns nothing at the end of it. Unfortunately, the Deputy Leader's Government has sanctioned and green-lighted tax exemptions for those institutional funds so they can make a fortune out of it and, at the same time, be given far too much leverage over future public housing. There is something fundamentally wrong. In Limerick, we are in absolute crisis and things continue to get worse and not better. I call for an urgent debate on the issue of housing.
Is deas an rud é go bhfuil gach duine ar ais sa Seomra agus cuirim fáilte ar ais rompu. Like many others, my thoughts this morning are with Senator Hoey and her family. I want to refer to two issues. One is local to my area and one is national. Last Thursday, a young boy from Tulsk National School in County Roscommon, Callum Clarke, who is 11 years of age, saved his grandfather from drowning. His grandfather had taken him out fishing on a local lake. His grandfather stood up to disentangle the line that had got caught in the reeds. I do not know what happened but the boat capsized. This remarkable young lad got a piece of timber. His grandfather had gone down under the water twice and the third time he came up, he got him to hold on to the piece of timber, rested his body some way on his body, got them back onto the boat and rowed the boat in. It is one of the most remarkable stories I have ever heard. On behalf of everybody here we should write a letter to him and other people who do such things to acknowledge what they do. We might take this on board and if it can be done I would appreciate it.
I ask the Deputy Leader to get the support of the House to ask RTÉ to appoint an agriculture correspondent without further delay. In fairness, this matter was raised by Senator Dooley a number of months ago. I said at the time the matter was going to be decided on by RTÉ as that was my information. However, it has not done so and it is time it did. Everyone recognises, whether they are urban or rural, that agriculture is still the backbone of our economy. The agricultural sector should have an agriculture correspondent at the national broadcaster. This correspondence subject should not be shared with any other. It should not be an agriculture and climate change post. Both are entitled to due coverage. Fran McNulty was the previous agriculture correspondent. He was an excellent presenter. It is more than six months since he left and RTÉ has not filled the position. Will the Deputy Leader contact the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the director general of RTÉ, Dee Forbes, to ask them to fill this particular position without delay.
Yesterday, the Limerick Leader reported that almost 50% of family carers have some form of mental health issued. During the pandemic we have depended so much on family carers to care for loved ones. They have helped to keep people at home and maintain stability. Care Alliance Ireland has shown that in the ten years between 2009 and 2019 there was a 70% increase in the number of carers diagnosed with depression. These are stark figures. I call for a debate on how we can support family carers. They play a key role and are necessary for the stability in many people's lives. The figures reported yesterday are so stark that it is a serious issue on which we need to have a discussion.
I join colleagues in sending condolences to my Labour Party colleague, Senator Annie Hoey, on the passing of her father, Ray. As colleagues said, our thoughts and prayers are with the family on this day.
I want to raise two issues. The first is an urgent request for a debate with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the proposed review of housing aid and housing adaptation grants administered by local authorities. My office, particularly in recent months, has received an increasing number of calls from constituents stating the grants and assistance being offered do not cover the increased building costs and are no longer fit for purpose. In one case, the cheapest quote the person dealing with my office received was more than 200% above the maximum grant payment, which is €30,000. The quote that person sought was for the works recommended by the local authority's occupational therapist. The person had engaged with five different contractors to try to get a cheaper quote. The problem many people in Kildare and, I am sure, throughout the country are having is that the amounts being offered by the local authorities are falling well short of the increasing quotes they are getting. This is having a knock-on effect. In some cases I am dealing with, the applicants have to remain in hospital because the family cannot afford the cost of the works to bring them home. In an increasing number of cases, the people can no longer live in their own home, causing an additional cost to the State through the nursing homes subvention scheme. I am turning to another arm of the State and trying to engage the community welfare service to see whether it can come up with the difference to secure these payments and ensure the grants are paid. These issues causing a lot of stress, as the Deputy Leader can imagine, to loved ones at a most difficult time. There is a feeling of helplessness in offering them assistance. I ask her to contact the Minister for a debate.
The other issue I want to raise is the publication of the long-awaited gambling Bill, which is due this month. I ask the Deputy Leader to write to the Minister to ensure the legislation that has been promised for this month will be delivered. Over the summer months, I am sure like other Members, I heard harrowing stories from families whose lives and communities are being torn apart by gambling.
Along with others I join in expressing sympathy to Senator Hoey on the passing of her father.
I want to raise two issues. The first is the spiralling cost of oil and gas fuel for aviation, transport and home heating. It is having a significant impact on economic activity and it will certainly lead to fuel poverty. This is happening at a time we have, rightly, adopted carbon pricing. The budget will require an increase in the cost of carbon, which will have an impact on fuel. What is important is that the Government ensures there is an appropriate safety mechanism for people on low incomes and not just for people who are getting the fuel allowance. There has to be a lot of work done on this. I would welcome a debate in the House. We need to consider some kind of rebate scheme. When carbon taxing was introduced, the expectation was that oil and gas prices would remain relatively stable because demand was expected to reduce in line with the direction of travel of eliminating carbon from our environment. This has not happened. As a result of the pandemic, costs have spiralled. We need a debate in the House to address this at the earliest opportunity.
Over the weekend, there was significant commentary in the media about an internal dispute in the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, among air traffic controllers. Like others in the House, I have been contacted about this. The scale of the contact is immense. Many people are very concerned about what is going on in the authority. Yesterday, the transport committee decided to write the Minister, Deputy Ryan, asking him to appoint Kieran Mulvey as an interlocutor to try to find a resolution to the crisis. It is not just any other internal relations issue. This is air traffic control. We cannot afford to have a period of instability or anything that might happen that would raise issues of safety of personnel or within the aviation sector. It is paramount that the Minister responds. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Deputy Leader to communicate with the Minister the desire of the House to support the wishes of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications.
I too offer my condolences to Senator Hoey and her family at the very sad time of the passing of her dad. May he rest in peace.
Transport has featured in the contributions of many speakers today but I must return to the subject. Investment in public transportation is of great importance to us as a society and as an economy, and in achieving our climate action targets. We all want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. I want to talk about two projects in particular: MetroLink and DART+. Between them, more than €5 billion of public money will be invested in these massive infrastructure projects. With regard to MetroLink, there have been unsubstantiated reports in the media which need to be responded to. I ask that the Deputy Leader write to the Minister for Transport and ask him to come to this House and update us on MetroLink.
The DART+ West upgrade is part of the overall upgrade to DART services and the main rail lines from Drogheda, Celbridge and Maynooth. In my own constituency of Dublin Central, the Maynooth line, which runs from the docklands out to Maynooth, is due for an upgrade. That is a really important public transport service that needs to be upgraded. We need more frequent, more efficient and more affordable public transport. Part of the upgrade proposes to compulsorily purchase the Ashtown Stables. Those stables have been in family ownership for decades. Young children and adults from Cabra, Drumcondra, Phibsborough, the Navan Road, Castleknock and all of the surrounding areas have benefited, and do benefit, from those horse riding stables. Not only do they provide an educational and cultural activity within the city, but they are also a tourist attraction. Irish Rail has been conducting a non-statutory public consultation that has failed to engage properly with the owners of the stables. It needs to meet with them. I have written to the CEO of Irish Rail. I ask the Deputy Leader to write to the CEO of Irish Rail and to ask him to meet with the family and to engage constructively. We need the upgrade of the public transport system but we also need to protect our vital amenities within the community.
Senator Fitzpatrick has made her point well. I extend my sympathies to Senator Hoey on the passing of her father. It is very sad news.
I want to bring up the issue of maternity restrictions. It is not the first time, but I hope it is the last. It is not enough that the HSE has its version of guidelines for access for partners on its website when the lived experience of women in hospitals is entirely different. That is where politicians step in on behalf of their constituents to say that this is just not good enough. If the discrepancy in compliance is about infection control, where is the oversight and where is the transparency? I thank the Leader, Senator Doherty, for organising the meeting of the Oireachtas women's caucus on better maternity care and on sending the letter to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I wish the caucus luck in its meeting with Paul Reid today. I agree with its call for each hospital to return to pre-pandemic access arrangements for one nominated partner. It is too little, too late. We have to revert to the arrangements that were in place before.
I will also comment on the extraordinarily worrying comments by the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, suggesting that the North's health service is set to topple without immediate action from the Stormont Executive and that there were staff begging for help when she visited a hospital yesterday. We are focused on reopening and recovery. The North's death rate is three times higher per head of population. It was the highest in Europe for months until it was recently overtaken by Greece. Some 88% of adults have received their first dose of vaccine but a quarter of 18 to 29-year-olds have not. Those figures are reflected in ICUs. They are facing this situation while also dealing with essential non-Covid care. Last week, help from military medics was being looked at. The Ministry of Defence was considering that. What are we doing to help? This is a really serious situation. I know we have problems of our own with regard to waiting lists and trolleys but we need to be helping out in this situation.
I offer my condolences to Senator Hoey and her family on her recent bereavement and the loss of her dad.
I am very troubled and disturbed by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report published this morning with regard to the level of unemployment and lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. As a country which has done so well with regard to employment generally and which bounced back so successfully from the economic crash back in 2010, it is shocking that we are the fourth worst in Europe with regard to people with disabilities. The disability employment strategy has clearly failed. The figures from 2018 are extremely concerning. We need to have a debate in this House on that specific issue. We need to engage with the Minister and to try to identify where the problems are. We also need to look at offering incentives to the private sector to hire people with disabilities. There is no reason in the world that we should be the fourth worst in Europe. As a matter of fact, we should be the best in Europe. I have always looked at things positively but I was certainly troubled by that report today.
I am also very annoyed that we still do not have an aviation strategy. We are an island nation. We depend on aviation for connectivity for tourism, industry, business and people who want to visit loved ones. There are tens of millions of Irish people living all over the world. Aviation is critically important to our economy and to my region. It is shocking that we do not have an aviation plan at this stage. It is also shocking that we do not know as of yet who will be the new chair of the board of Shannon Airport. No announcement has been made. We all know how important the airport is to the mid-west region. Months later, a replacement chair has not been announced. Nobody is accountable. Nobody is explaining what the delay is. It is totally unacceptable. It shows scant regard and disrespect for Shannon, the people of Clare and the people of the mid-west.
We should have a debate in this House about the manner in which high profile appointments such as those of UN special envoys are made by the Government. I do not agree with the Taoiseach when he says that the result of the recent debacle should be that such appointments would be made by open competition in future. An argument can be made that, provided the process is transparent and deliberative - which it certainly was not in the case of the proposed Zappone appointment - it should be within the gift of the Government, having duly considered matters, to make such appointments. However, there are two important lessons to be learned from the affair. The first is that Cabinet Ministers are leaking and that the Taoiseach does not seem to care. He seems to think it is part and parcel of politics. Those are the words he used but Article 28 could not be clearer. It says "the confidentiality of discussions at meetings of the Government shall be respected in all circumstances" and that only the High Court can determine otherwise. Despite this, we have the bizarre situation of an alleged sting operation involving a junior Minister to find out if a senior Minister is leaking. At this stage, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, should be invited to take a polygraph test because the public is concerned. People would be greatly interested. It is a matter of public interest.
The second lesson is that appointments are being made because people have, shall we say, special privileges because they are in tune with the zeitgeist. The rights of LGBT people worldwide are certainly important and need to be defended, particularly in countries where those rights are being abused, but the more obvious tried and trusted appointment to be made in this case would be a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief under Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That includes the freedom not to have any belief. Many more people are being persecuted in the world today because of their religion than are being so persecuted because of their sexual orientation. Atheists are being persecuted by certain regimes because they do not have religious belief. The EU has such an envoy, as do Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary and many other countries.
Is there any sign of a concept note on that issue from our diplomats? They are well in tune with LGBT rights, and good luck to them, but priorities should always be priorities and you cannot have the vindication of one group's rights unless there is an equivalent interest in defending the rights of other groups. It is obvious in the eyes of other countries that freedom of religion and belief is one of the critical issues in the world today. It is not just Christians, though they are by far the most persecuted groups. There are others, including Muslims in various Muslim countries, Yazidis - it is a long list. I would like to see a greater level of interest from our Government in appointing such an envoy. I would like a deliberative and transparent process. By all means let Katherine Zappone apply for that position. She should have that right along with everybody else.
I raise the concept of county development plans and how I feel the Planning Regulator and the views he passes down to council executives and councils are divergent from the Government's ambitious housing targets and the number of houses we want to build each year. They are not going hand in hand or helping each other. I will give two examples, one relating to urban centres and the other to rural areas. Not to be parochial about it, but I can only speak of what I know well, which is my home town of Dundalk. We have the Planning Regulator coming down to the local authority to dezone land that is strategic 1 land. It is land that is ready to be built on in the middle of an urban centre. It is shovel-ready and can be built on straight away. It is dezoned to strategic 2, which will not be built for five to ten years. How do we correlate that with our desire to build so many homes each year over the period of this Government?
I know the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is doing a lot of this but it would be important for us as a House to have a debate about the Planning Regulator, county development plans and how we have two sectors working in tandem. There is no point dezoning land we can build a load of houses on and, in two or three years, wondering why we cannot build houses. It is because we are dezoning it now at the behest of the Planning Regulator. As a result, there are many local councillors and local authorities saying "No" to the executives and the Planning Regulator. They have to get independent legal advice and pay for it themselves to put a good case against it. I do not think that is fair.
It is the same in terms of rural one-off housing. I have just come from a meeting with the IFA which brought up that the restrictions we are putting on such housing means we do not want anyone to live in rural Ireland anymore and we want people to move from rural areas to urban centres. You would not expect some from an urban centre to move to a rural area they are not from, so I do not think it is fair. I would appreciate a debate about that.
On public representatives getting their own legal advice at local authority level, they are entitled to get a second opinion in those types of issues and this should be paid for by the council.
I thank all Members who contributed. Senator Seery Kearney started off the day by mentioning the ESRI report on the employment rates of people with disabilities. She was joined by Senators McGreehan, Ardagh and Conway in rasing that important issue. It is a worrying statistic that we are the fourth worst country in terms of people with disabilities accessing meaningful employment. We have a job of work to do today. The Indecon report commissioned by Senator Doherty when she was the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which is a good piece of work, is long overdue in terms of publication. It has been recommended by the Joint Committee on Disability Matters that it be published. That is something tangible we can do early on.
I concur with the remarks about what I will not even call a protest. That is not what I understand protest to be. That was harassment of a citizen of this country. Regardless of his or her profession, nobody should have to endure that. The idea of safe zones outside people's houses will be a complex debate. It is something we could discuss but we need to be cautious about not restricting protests. It will be a thin line to try to walk but it is an important conversation.
Senator O'Loughlin raised the issue of the Army rangers who went to Afghanistan to extract citizens and their families, as did Senator Craughwell. I commend them on their work. Senator O'Loughlin raised it in the context of the "Women of Honour" discussion we had yesterday at Commencement matters. There are ongoing difficulties with the Defence Forces. There is a cultural issue which I hope is no longer there but it certainly was there. It is important to acknowledge the fantastic work the Defence Forces do. As Senators Wall and Craughwell pointed out, there is devastation across the Defence Forces following those revelations. All current and past members want an independent inquiry. That is important.
Senator O'Loughlin also raised the issue of the Kildare Down's syndrome association and the need for support for young people in achieving their full potential. That links in with the ESRI report.
Senator Craughwell raised, as he has done on many occasions, the issue of the search and rescue contract. I am persuaded by his argument that the tendering process may find some difficulties given we have not concluded the investigation into R116. I have no doubt he will make that matter known further up the line and I will do the same.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the Minister for Education and I concur with her comments to the effect that the Minister has been doing fantastic work in education at a difficult time. The Senator raised an interesting point on the role of the Department of Education and the Minister in climate action. Our young people are leading the way in climate action and teaching us what we need to do better and that we can be better. Senator O'Reilly mentioned the IPCC report and that we have not had a debate on that. It might be worthwhile for this House to have a proper debate on that report. It was stark. It was nothing overly surprising for many people, but it sets a high bar for us to achieve as a country to achieve our emissions targets. We will try to get the Minister in to have a debate on that. Previously, the Senator brought a Bill to the House about solar panels in schools. There are clever ways we can work with education and address the climate challenge.
Senator Boylan started by raising the manner in which Chris MacManus MEP was invited to the debate later today with MEPs. We had a discussion about that within the Seanad Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight. Senator Gavan raised concerns on behalf of the group and we all agreed it would have been preferable had invitations been sent earlier and had people had more time. It was agreed by the group that the MEP would be facilitated at another date to address the House so as not to be disadvantaged. we were all keen to hear from all of our MEPs. There is another MEP who cannot make it, namely, Luke Ming Flanagan. We would like to facilitate all MEPs at a date that works for them and we will make sure to get all voices into the Chamber.
The Stardust matter is one that Senator Boylan has raised before and it was raised in the Dáil today. It is an important issue and as a country we have not always been great at listening to victims, taking our lead from them and framing our responses to these types of issues. I stand with the Senator in supporting those who have been victims and their families and community who have suffered for a long time.
Senator Sherlock raised the north inner city MetroLink, as did Senator Fitzpatrick. There have been media reports of a delay. They are unsubstantiated. The most recent advice we have from the Minister for Transport and his Department is that there is no requested delay on his behalf but there may be planning issues. He has given a commitment that it is his intention to proceed with the project during the lifetime of this Government. That is the most up-to-date information we have but I concur that we probably need to get a proper update in the House to clarify matters because there is media speculation and that serves to upset the communities involved. I agree it links in with other public transport projects and we know how important public transport is for many reasons, including quality of life for people in those areas and meeting climate obligations.
Senator Black raised the issue of the Owenacurra Centre in Midleton, County Cork, the long-stay adult mental health facility. That is a major issue throughout the country. In my county of Mayo there are not enough residential facilities for people. We are leaving families in an awful place where it is a life sentence because they get very little support from the State. We have many elderly carers who are at a stage of their lives where they need help and they need a break. These facilities are very important. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is working on it. She is an empathetic Minister and takes these issues to heart. She is doing her best to find a resolution for that centre. I wish the residents, staff and community well because it means a lot to them. I thank the Deputy for bringing that issue to the House.
Senator McGreehan raised the issue of the ESRI report and spoke passionately about the need for people with disabilities to do their jobs well in the workplace and to help employers help their employees.
It should not be necessary to have to put together a complex business case to advocate for very basic assistance in the workplace to help the worker to do his or her job to the best of his or her ability. There is definitely space in the budget negotiations to try to do better for people with disabilities.
Senator Buttimer raised the issue of aviation, as he has done on many occasions, particularly in respect of Cork Airport and the whole aviation sector. We have seen the impact on the aviation sector in the past year and a half, but also the importance of retaining routes and connectivity to Ireland as an island nation. We have a job of work to repair the aviation sector, restore confidence and look after staff in the sector. I concur with the Senator's remarks on supporting Cork Airport. We cannot just rely on Dublin Airport; we have to support regional airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock, Shannon Airport and Cork Airport. They are really important for the country, not just for the location in which they are situated.
Senator Ardagh raised the issue of the national childcare scheme and spoke passionately about the inner city, the disadvantage that many children in the area face and the importance of the Robert Emmet group in supporting children after school with hot meals and homework. They are our most vulnerable citizens and we have a duty of care to them, particularly those who are in such situations. It is small money in the grand scheme of things and I hope something can be done on that issue. I will certainly relay that to the Minister.
Senator Ahearn raised the issue of Carrick-on-Suir and the St. Brigid's hospital campaign. I thank him for bringing the issue to the House. I agree with him that more than 11,000 signatures is a significant number for a small community to gather. We can see how important the issue is to those in the community. I hope they will have an opportunity to speak to the Minister at the earliest opportunity and have their concerns heard. If anything can be done, I hope it will be done.
The Senator also raised the issue of banking services in rural communities. He mentioned the AIB branch in Fethard. The loss of public services and banking is a concern for many rural communities. Difficult as it might be, there are challenges relating to the demand for some of those services. We need a conversation on how we support communities where, though the bank might be the centrepiece in the town, the services are not being used to the same level they were previously. Particularly during the pandemic, many people who ordinarily used in-branch services began using online services, so the degree of change in this area has escalated and accelerated. It is an issue to watch because it has a knock-on effect on other businesses in the town as footfall decreases when a business is lost. There is certainly a conversation to be had regarding supports for those towns. Senator Gavan raised the issue of rental costs in Limerick city. They are extortionate rents and there is no point in saying otherwise. It is a significant problem but it is a problem across the country. In my county of Mayo, rents for a two-bedroom apartment in a small regional town have increased from €600 per month, for example, five years ago, to maybe €1,000 per month. This is a widespread issue. It has been years in the making and it will be a job of work to get things back. That is why the Government's Housing for All policy is so important and why all political parties should get behind it. The affordable cost rental scheme will be really important not just for the cities of Limerick, Cork and Dublin, but for smaller towns as well. We need to think across the board to give people options and to start building affordable homes on State land, as the Government has committed to doing. It has put its money where its mouth is. There is a €4 billion annual commitment of Government funding. It is the largest housing budget in the history of the State. It is incumbent on all public representatives to work together on this because, at the end of the day, we need to get people homes. Working collectively will get that done more quickly.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the issue of family carers. She referred to the stark statistic that 50% of family carers report having mental health issues. All Members deal with families in their constituencies that are looking for extra pay hours, home help and respite. It is just one battle after the next. It wears people down to the point of exhaustion and they just give up. I believe we are failing families in this space. There is just not enough help for people. They save the State a significant amount of money by caring for their loved ones at home and that is not acknowledged to the point it ought to be. Families are often pushed to the point where they just cannot do it any more, there is no one able to care for the person in question and there is then a need for a long-term residential facilities that do not exist. There is a significant job of work to be done there. That work has started under the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, but we need to start thinking outside the box on what supports we can give and not have it such a battle for families all the time to get those supports.
Senator Eugene Murphy spoke about young Callum Clarke. I wish to pay tribute to Callum on behalf of this House for his really brave rescue of his grandfather, Sean Stroker, who I heard being interviewed by Joe Duffy on the "Liveline" radio programme. He was really emotional talking about his grandson. He was so proud of him and grateful to him. It was a good news story and I want to wish Callum well. I am sure he is taking it all in his stride, as young people often do.
Senator Murphy also raised a very important point regarding an agriculture correspondent for RTÉ. It is an important role to fill and I hope RTÉ does so without any further delay.
Senator Wall raised the issue of the housing adaptation grants and building costs. It is a really important issue. I was told yesterday by a local auctioneer that the cost of building has gone from €120 per square foot to €160, which is a huge leap. Those grants need to keep up with the increase in costs. It is an important issue. We need to have a debate on housing in general and perhaps this issue can be brought under that debate in order to get a response from the Minister.
I am assured the gambling Bill is progressing. I know that in the last term it was a key priority for the now Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and it is a key priority for the Government. I totally take on board the impact gambling has on individuals. It is a scourge. Young people and children are being targeted with very clever online advertising and in-play gambling, which is really dangerous.
Senator Dooley raised the issue of the spiralling cost of fuel. I concur with him that this is a massive problem coming down the tracks. The cost of fuel is increasing at a rate we did not expect. We will need certain provisions to be put in place in the budget to offset that cost and protect our must vulnerable. It is a commitment of the Government that any increases in carbon tax will be ring-fenced and put back into climate action and addressing fuel poverty to ensure those most at risk of experiencing fuel poverty are protected and do not experience it. That is a really important pillar of our climate policy.
The Senator also mentioned the Irish Aviation Authority and the aviation sector, particularly air traffic controllers. Perhaps that whole issue can come in under the debate on aviation.
Senator Fitzpatrick raised the issue of public transport. She touched on the MetroLink, which I have addressed, but also the Maynooth line, the DART+ West service and the need to upgrade those services. It goes to show the importance of public transport and the role it will play in those communities.
Senator Currie raised the issue of maternity restrictions. That issue has been raised almost weekly by Members. It is an ongoing issue. One of the positives that has come out of this is that we now have an Oireachtas group of women from both Houses, all parties and none, who have come together to try to deal with this issue collectively because we realise there is power in numbers and the collective voice. Today I will join other female Members of the Oireachtas, including the Leader, Senator Doherty, who organised the meeting, to meet the HSE, represent the women of Ireland and try to get this issue resolved. We are hopeful of a resolution to it soon but it is long overdue.
The Senator also raised the issue of the health service in Northern Ireland being almost at breaking point. I concur with her that it is incumbent on us to assist our friends in the North and do our best to help them. I wish them well. It is scary to listen to the descriptions of the scenes in hospitals that have every bed full and in which the health workers are put to the pin of their collar. It is something we can do to help while we are doing really well here in Ireland in terms of our vaccination programme. Our success in that regard has not been replicated everywhere else to the same degree. People will get there, but if there is anything we can do to help, we should do it.
Senator Conway spoke very passionately about the ESRI report on disabilities. Obviously, he has key lived experience of that issue and always speaks on behalf of people with disabilities in this Chamber. I commend him on his comments.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of the Zappone appointment and how the Government appoints people to those roles. He made a very interesting point regarding the need for an envoy for freedom of religion and belief. I agree with him that there is definitely merit in that proposal. As regards the leak from Cabinet, I concur with his remarks that it is very serious to have a leak from Cabinet. It should not be chalked up to normal political operations; that is not what it is. It is not acceptable and it is prohibited by the Constitution. It should be addressed very seriously. I concur with his remarks in that regard.
Senator McGahon raised the issue of county development plans. I too have been engaging with many councillors across the country on this issue. It is a massive issue. There is a significant amount of tension between the Planning Regulator, elected members and local authorities. One of the biggest issues is that the planning framework was published prior to the pandemic and it is possible that it now does not quite fit the needs of Ireland today, post pandemic, with all of the changes we have seen in work. There is not yet a planned review of the national planning framework. As Members know, it informs the regional plan, which informs the county plan, so it has a knock-on effect on county development plans. I refer to the issue in respect of the dezoning of land by the Planning Regulator. Many elected members are not happy with the direction they are getting from the Planning Regulator. That has to be acknowledged. That relationship needs to be worked out and the elected members need to be listened to.
At the end of the day, they are local representatives. They are elected by the people in their communities to represent those communities. They are the people's voice and if they are not happy across the board, in every corner of the country, we have a problem. The county development plans are very important for planning for all our communities over a five-year period, which is a significant period. There is a great deal of work to be done there and it is an important issue to raise in this House, given that most of us have come through that electoral process in local authorities.