The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on budget 2022, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 8 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the Minister’s opening speech not to exceed 12 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 12 minutes to reply to the debate.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I call the Deputy Leader, Senator Chambers.
As today is budget day, I will have an opportunity to address the House later on my views on the budget that has just been announced.
I wish to raise two items on the Order of Business. The first is a radio interview I heard as I was driving to Leinster House. I am not sure if other colleagues heard it. One of my colleagues beside me is nodding. It was the story of a young boy, Adam Terry, and his mum, Christine. It was one of the most heart-breaking radio interviews I have ever heard. This boy who is ten years of age has been waiting for years for scoliosis surgery and he can no longer go to school because of the pain. He was told he would have his surgery in February of this year but it has again been kicked down the road a little further. The most heart-breaking and devastating part of that interview was to hear the news from his mum that because he did not have the surgery sooner, the surgery he will have at the some point will not produce the same outcome that it could have done. He will never be as well as he could have been had he got the surgery when he was meant to get it. He spoke on the radio, which was an incredible act of bravery for such a young child, about the pain he is suffering, that he cries himself to sleep and that he wants his voice heard. The reason he and his mum, Christine - they are a very private family - have done this is that they want those in a position to be able to do something for them to listen and to hear their story.
I ask that a letter go from the Cathaoirleach’s office to the Minister for Health asking him to contact that family immediately, to sit down with them and give them a date for surgery. I do not care what it takes. If we have to send that little boy to the UK and bring him home for the aftercare - whatever it takes to get him the surgery - that is what needs to happen. The word "disgraceful" does not cut the mustard, having listened to that boy's story and what his mum has to endure as she watches her child in pain every day. That is so wrong in a first world wealthy country. It should not be happening. They deserve to have that contact directly with the Department and the HSE.
The second issue I want to raise is Brexit. People will be aware it is back on the agenda, not that it ever went off it. Today, the UK's Brexit Minister, David Frost, will deliver a speech. Unfortunately, it is a day in advance of when the EU will publish its new proposals on the Northern Ireland protocol. That has been the subject of many months of negotiation, engagement in Northern Ireland, in particular, with citizens and businesses understanding the crux of the problem and what it will take to make the protocol work more smoothly, using what flexibilities we have to make what we have work better. That can be done.
It is unfortunate that here we are yet again - it is almost like Groundhog Day - at another cliff edge with another ramping up of tensions between both sides, but at the end of the day who loses out? It is not the politicians at the table making the decisions. It is the ordinary citizens and businesses on this island and in the UK.
An update on Brexit from either the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, or the Minister, Deputy Coveney, at the earliest opportunity would be welcome. We will see what happens over the next couple of days. One of the strong messages coming back from the engagement Maroš Šefčovič has had in the North and with the Irish Government is that people are worried about matters such as having food on supermarket shelves, the customs union and imports and exports, essentially the general day-to-day working of the protocol and trading in what is a new environment. What they are not concerned about, or have not raised issues about, is the European Court of Justice having a say over the protocol, which was built into Article 12 of the Northern Ireland protocol. It was there from day one. Its job is to adjudicate on matters of European Union law, which is what the Single Market and customs union are. It is unfortunate that at this late hour a new issue has been thrown into the mix, which makes it very difficult to see this being solved in the near future.
I too want to raise the heart-wrenching interview that I heard on "Today with Claire Byrne" this morning. Any parent who heard that interview could feel the pain that family is in.
My wee girl underwent an operation in Crumlin children's hospital some years ago. Everything went smoothly, but I remember waiting for the date. It is terrible that a child who has been on the urgent list since August 2019 and who was told his surgery would take place next spring has now been told that he must wait another six to nine months. That is despite the fact very day his parents can feel the pain he is in and can see that is quality of life is what it should be. I completely agree with my colleague that we need to send a letter to the Minister for Health. That would let this family know that they have been heard and that there is a solution. The family are considering travelling to London but it would be better if the procedure took place here because this is where the little boy's family and friends are.
I take this opportunity to welcome the budget and the focus it has on quality-of-life issues such as remote working. There are incentives relating to the latter, including extending the personal tax relief to 30%, not just for broadband but also for heating and electricity. That is a positive step. At the same time, however, we are in a period of transition whereby employers are trying to figure out what their offices and teams will look like into the future and identify where they can make savings. Ideally, if employers make savings then they should pay for people's utilities. You can claim a €3.20 expense tax-free if it comes from your employer. We need employers to think seriously about that because it might become mandatory at some stage. However, we need to know what savings employers are making. Let us not forget about the hubs. By supporting hubs, we are supporting towns and villages. I am sure there is more in the budget relating to the opening and supporting of local hubs. Let us not forget how important they are to local communities.
At the outset, I wish to remember Paddy Moloney, who sadly passed away earlier today at the age of 83. Paddy was a great ambassador for Ireland and for Irish music.
Chinese aggression towards the democratic island of Taiwan is intensifying and should be giving rise to concerns that China will try to take over the island by force. We have already seen how Beijing used a heavy-handed approach to impose its authoritarian ways in Hong Kong. Ireland is a member of the United Nations Security Council and must speak out against any and all aggression by China. As an act of solidarity, now might be a good time for the Government to open an office in Taipei. In addition, we have spent months if not years talking about the fate of Richard O'Halloran who is still in China. It is simply not good enough that he continues to be detained there at this stage.
The Irish Coast Guard and its volunteers, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, and the search and rescue helicopter service form the backbone of first responders for rescue at sea. At the weekend, one of the Sunday newspapers carried a headline, "Coast guard 'has to fix toxic workplace'". I was not surprised to see this headline because for some time I have been receiving reports of problems within the Irish Coast Guard. Despite the fact that the acting director of the Irish Coast Guard has rejected the claim that volunteers have been targeted or subjected to unfair disciplinary inquiries, the evidence suggests that he must be totally out of touch. As a result, the Irish Coast Guard is now in a crisis situation and there has been a complete breakdown of trust between volunteers and management. The volunteers have been forced to set up their own representative body because they are so afraid of the way things are going. Coast Guard members voiced their concerns following two separate incidents that shook the organisation. First, a report by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, into the death of Cathríona Lucas in September 2016 off the coast of County Clare after an inflatable boat she was in capsized during the search mission, was critical of the safety management systems in place at the time. Second, the long-awaited report on the accident involving Rescue 116 in March 2017 with the loss of four crew will, I believe, be damning of the corporate governance of all of the organisations involved with search and rescue, and will be particularly damning of the oversight of the Irish Coast Guard.
Equally damning is the fact that the officers in charge of a number of stations around the country have been forced to resign or have been dismissed. The officer in charge of Dunmore East was dismissed in 2019 despite having served for more then 20 years with the Coast Guard. The officer in charge of the station in Youghal, County Cork, having spent ten years in the position, resigned in January 2019. At the time, he complained about the poor treatment of volunteers in recent years and wrote in his resignation letter, "I feel I can no longer serve an organisation that values its volunteers so poorly". Another officer in command of the station at Killala Bay, County Mayo, resigned after 20 years of service. If this is not a crisis, then nothing is. We need urgent action to bring about a resolution in respect of this matter.
Finally, on behalf of those of us who visited the naval base in Cork last Friday, I want to thank the flag officer for his downright openness and honesty with respect to the crisis that is in the Naval Service. That is a matter I will raise in the coming days.
Ba mhaith liom comhbhrón ó chroí a dhéanamh ar bhás Paddy Moloney, comhbhunaitheoir an bhanna ceoil The Chieftains. Ba laoch mór ceoil agus cultúir na hÉireann é atá imithe anois ar shlí na fírinne agus go ndéana Dia trócaire air.
I thank the Leader for outlining the Order of Business. As other colleagues stated, we will have an opportunity to outline our views and perspectives on the budget in the allocated time this afternoon. For now, I want to raise a number of issues. I welcome the announcement by the EU that it will provide free rail travel passes to 60,000 18- to 20-year-olds across the Union . As they say in Irish, bíonn siúlach scéalach. This is a fantastic opportunity for young people to broaden their horizons, and it is particularly good when it is free. I am sure that the initiative will be welcomed across the board. I will make my own inquiries in this regard, but I suggest that it would be useful to find out if people across the Thirty-two Counties will be able to apply for the passes allocated to this State. It is important that people aged 18 to 20 in the North will not be not excluded from this very welcome and exciting scheme.
Yesterday, the High Court in Belfast found that the refusal by Democratic Unionist Party Ministers of the Executive to attend meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council - a core component of the Good Friday Agreement institutions - is unlawful. That should give us all cause for concern. We should all recommit ourselves to ensuring that we work the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to the fullest extent. I look forward to attending, along with colleagues from across this House and from across the Oireachtas, to attending the plenary meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly next Monday. The meeting comes at a crucial time for relations between Britain and Ireland. It is also a time of great challenge and difficulty, but we must remember that it is always better to talk.
My colleague, Senator Currie, spoke about remote workers. I again met with representatives from the Cross-Border Workers Coalition this morning. Senator Currie and others have previously mentioned the potential for double taxation in respect of people from this jurisdiction who are employed in the North. We need to ensure that workers can work from home as much and as efficiently as they possibly can. For people who live in Letterkenny, Milford, Muff, Dundalk or wherever and who work in the North, we must ensure that they are protected and that there is no threat of double taxation coming at them down the line. Is é sin an méid atá le rá agam.
Likewise, I am going to refer to the measures that were taken in the budget during the allocated time we have. Today, I want to raise the issue of the prohibition on men who have sex with men from donating blood in the Republic of Ireland. The remit of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service is to provide safe, reliable and robust blood supply for the health system and it can continue to perform this role and minimise the risks while removing the 12-month automatic prohibition. The ban is not reflected in many countries across Europe, including our closest neighbours. In fact, because of the pandemic, I understand that this year, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service bulk-imported blood from England due to a shortage of blood here. It came after Britain had moved to an individual risk assessment system for all prospective donors, and the same has recently happened in Northern Ireland. As England accepts blood from Irish donors, this means that an Irish man who has sex with men could have donated blood in the Irish supply system in Manchester but not in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland.
I was contacted earlier this week by a man who has been travelling to donate blood in Northern Ireland and London since he has been able to do so, in a hugely altruistic act. At the end of August this year, that person gave his 18th blood donation. He has O negative blood, which is always in great demand and short supply because it can be given to any blood group. These 18 donations could not have been given in the Republic of Ireland and 18 patients potentially would have gone without the blood they needed.
It is unreasonable that the men who contacted me, who are so willing to help others and who would much prefer to donate safe and needed blood here at home, cannot do so in their own country because of the very outdated viewpoint of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. We have not adopted an individual risk assessment system. I call on the Minister and the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to reassess the 12-month automatic ban on blood donations for men who have sex with men and to assess the individual risk assessment management system in order to ensure the safest and most reliable blood supply is available in Ireland and that we get the blood we need within our own system.
I ask the Leader to consider holding a debate in due course on anti-Semitism in the Republic of Ireland. Most Members here will have seen the type of toxicity that is on Twitter and other social media in regard to members of the Jewish persuasion. A recent report by David Collier highlights this in a very serious way. If Members want to research him online, I assure them they will not find it very pleasant reading, given that some of the comments, tweets and posts are of the most heinous nature.
We all know the history of anti-Semitism. It is as old as time. It has been throughout Europe and all over the world, culminating, naturally, in the Holocaust, which was the worst example of it. We see the programmes all the time on the concentration camps and I hope they will be continue to be seen on our television screens so younger generations will know what the Jewish people had to undergo at that time.
I am happy to be from Listowel, which is one of the few places in Ireland which has a Holocaust memorial, which was erected about 20 years ago by the late, lamented Mervyn Taylor of the Labour Party, who died just recently. Most Irish people are very reasonable about racial differences and all the rest of that but there is definitely an element somewhere that seems to be unable to escape this atavistic anti-Jewish sentiment that is so evil.
It is in that context that I have to express regret at the decision by our very well known, popular and successful author, Sally Rooney, to deprive her fans who like to read in Hebrew of being able to read her any further in Hebrew because she is not allowing her books to be published in Hebrew hereafter, ostensibly as a protest against Israeli policies. First, not all Hebrew readers are living in Israel, so it seems a very ill-judged protest to me. It sort of opens the door to that sort of cultural hatred that we have witnessed in the past. Book burning was one of the most prominent ways of attacking people of the Jewish persuasion and whereas this is not book burning, it is not altogether unaligned to it. I think it is ironic that this should be her decision. Are we going to have a situation where authors will disallow their books from being published in Chinese because of the totalitarian regime in China, or in Russian in Russia? Will Irish authors stop allowing their books to be published in the UK because of the despicable English Brexit policies? Where is it going to end? The Leader might be able to organise such a debate for us at this time.
I thank the Senator for raising that important issue. I know she has issued a statement in that regard. I thank the Senator for his comments this morning. I call Senator Aisling Dolan.
Today, we have budget 2022, which has €87.6 billion of supports. It is there to help people get back up on their feet again after this pandemic and lockdown. For jobs, we are seeing a continuation of the wage subsidy scheme and the raising of the standard income band by over €1,500. For young families, there is the largest budget ever allocated for Housing for All. For older members of our community, there is an increase in the fuel allowance by €5 and €5 for the pensions. There is an increase in the minimum wage and in the USC rate bands to accommodate that rise. We are also seeing a focus on healthcare, with the increase in acute beds and in mental health as well. For young people and students travelling to work or college, that 50% off public transport with the youth travel card is going to make a massive difference, in particular as many students are commuting as they are unable to find accommodation. In further and higher education, there are over 7,600 new places and over €200 million is being allocated for students under the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, scheme. In our primary schools, the staffing ratio has been reduced by a point, with 350 new teachers and 1,165 extra special needs assistants, SNAs, bringing their number up to 19,200.
With regard to my area of Roscommon and Galway, the remote working income tax reduction will encourage people to live and work in rural and remote areas, in regional areas and in towns and villages outside of urban and city centres. That is proposing an income tax reduction of 30% in regard to heating, broadband and electricity. For hospitality and for pubs, cafés and hotels in our local areas, the VAT rate is maintained at 9%. The zoned land tax is crucial to getting developers moving and building homes. Retrofitting of homes is also crucial and it is happening in our estates and in my own town of Ballinasloe.
Some €11.1 billion in 2022 is allocated for the national development plan. That is about getting the 50-bed unit Portiuncula Hospital, it is about getting the new national rehabilitation unit in Roscommon hospital and it is about getting another 50-bed unit for the Sacred Heart care home in Roscommon. It is also about getting the Galway to Athlone cycleway, which was launched yesterday. It is incredible to see that work is starting and progressing on the bridge over the River Shannon. That is investment into the west. We are also seeing the importance of sport and physical activity, which, of course, is linked to mental health - it is good for heads and good for hearts. We are seeing an increase, hopefully, to the funding allocated to sports capital.
This is a budget to support all and I look forward to more discussion on it. It is important that it is bringing benefits to rural areas as well.
I would like to follow up on and commend Senator Ned O'Sullivan on what he had to say about anti-Semitism and the decision by author Sally Rooney to refuse permission for her novel to be translated into Hebrew. Perhaps somebody needs to remind her that Israeli people are normal people as well. Perhaps this is an example of when virtue signalling can actually turn quite vicious, wittingly or unwittingly.
It is in that context that I wanted to raise the recent 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. After that session, 48 countries, led by Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, issued a statement pledging to combat the growing international scourge of anti-Semitism, and Ireland was not a signatory to that statement. I would like to know, and I would like a debate at which we can ask the Minister, why not. What possible reason could there be for the Irish Government not to sign up to such a statement? This very strange omission by the Government comes at a time of growing evidence of anti-Semitism here. Within our political system, in academia, on our streets and, of course, on social media, we see the problem increasing by the day. We have seen it in politics. We have even seen it in these Houses on occasions, and I will not mention the people or the parties, but we see subtle and tacit support being given to individuals and groups who are on the record as supporting the genocide of Jewish people.
Much of this arises from the ongoing conflation of Zionism with anti-Semitism. In other words, some people seem unable to draw the line between opposing Israel's actions as a state on the one hand and opposing Jewish people on the other. I am on the record of this House as being very uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with how the state of Israel conducts itself at times, particularly in regard to settlements. There is an increasing trend among the Irish political class to strongly criticise that country while remaining mute about anti-Semitism. Last week, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, stated that he seeks to be balanced and fair, that he has criticised Israel's foreign policy towards Palestinians and that he has been extremely critical of violent movements such as Hamas. That has to be acknowledged, but at the same time I do not like it when, one week, he excoriates Israel in the Dáil for its retaliation against Hamas and then days later meets the Foreign Minister of Iran, the very country that is arming Hamas with rockets designed to kill Jewish citizens. Mit Brennender Sorge, I ask for a debate on this important issue as early as possible.
I am sure the Leader will point out the following but, as the Senator will be aware, the meeting with the Foreign Minister of Iran was in regard to our membership of the UN Security Council and our designation in regard to the ongoing agreement on the nuclear issue in that country. I remind Members that when speaking about people outside of the Chamber they should be mindful that such people are not here to defend themselves and that when in the same contribution they speak about anti-Semitism they must be careful when they speak about an individual and their actions and other issues. I do not want Members to infer or make allegations against people who are outside of this House who are not able to defend themselves.
That is true. We can always call out foolishness or, at least, I hope we can in this House. There is a lot of it abroad in the culture at the moment.
We do not have enough time.
Last night on "Claire Byrne Live", Irish entertainer and comedian, Rory O'Connor, spoke openly and candidly about his challenges with gambling and its impact on his life and family. An hour earlier, on BBC One, the famous soccer pundit and ex-Arsenal footballer, Paul Merson, had a special show detailing his lifelong battle with gambling and how he has lost £7 million to gambling. He was left penniless and living in rented accommodation, never mind the impact on his mental health.
Over the last year, I have spoken extensively in this Chamber about the scourge of the gambling sector in this country. I was glad to hear the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, announce in his budget speech that funding is being made available for the establishment of the gambling regulatory authority. However, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in his speech announced a tax relief credit for the digital gaming sector at the rate of 32% of expenditure up to €25 million on the design, production and testing of a game. This is a wide encompassing sector, primarily focused on children and teenagers in the area of gaming. In recent years, the gambling industry has sought to rebrand its online gambling casino products under the name "gaming". This includes digital technology adopted from the gaming industry. I am asking that in the Finance Bill, where this is to be fleshed out, we make clear that products developed by these independent companies for the big gambling companies, which are billion euro enterprises, do not qualify for this particular relief. It was explained on "Clare Byrne Live" last night that these companies have analytic technicians who detail the cookies of addicts so that they are then able to further fuel their addiction. They create case studies on these people. They know through their analytics that these people are addicts and they keep fuelling that addiction with these products. What an irony it would be if we were to afford them a tax credit to allow them to further enhance their research to keep people addicted to this drug. I am aware of the area at which this is primarily focused, but I would hope that the Finance Bill can be strengthened to make sure that no company developing products for the gambling industry can qualify for this relief.
I am seeking clarity on when the legislation for the regulation of e-scooters is to be introduced. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, announced that it would be introduced in the autumn of this year, but it is important to have that clarified as soon as possible. In most European countries, there is a lack of regulation of e-scooters and active travel and as a result this area has become a bit like the wild west, with companies setting up in capital cities and doing whatever they want in terms of bringing in e-scooters. I am an advocate of active travel and e-scooters. It is important we get the legislation right in Ireland to ensure there is a positive view of e-scooter use in this country. I attended the United Nations pre-conference on climate action in Rome, which is one of the cities in which there is no regulation of e-scooters and as a result there are e-scooters parked anywhere and everywhere on the streets, which causes a real issue for people with disabilities and people with visual impairment. It is a form of littler as well in that one is constantly dodging obstacles on the footpaths. We have to change people's mindset in regard to transport and to convince them that active travel is better than the car. For active travel to work, the system has to be as flawless as possible. We can ensure that it is flawless by providing in legislation that the tender process must make clear to e-scooter providers coming into this country that e-scooters can be parked only in designated areas, similar to Dublin Bikes. We must provide in law for designated parking for e-scooters and, also, that they must be well maintained, properly parked and not present any obstacles on our footpaths.
I too will reserve my comments on the budget until later. I cannot let go uncountered what was said in this Chamber today about a particular author. It is important that facts matters. It is clear from the statement made by the author that it is not the language to which she objected in regard to the translation of her book. This is part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, BDS, campaign which is a non-violent campaign and should be supported, in the same way that this country proudly supported South Africa against apartheid. It is important to put on the record that the objection was not about the language.
There is a big difference.
The book is open to being translated into Hebrew by any publisher that is not covered by the BDS campaign.
Today, I want to focus on the comments last night of Mr. Owen Keegan, the chief executive of Dublin City Council, to the UCD students' union. I support the Sinn Féin council team in saying that his position is now untenable. He has proven himself to be ideologically opposed to policies that will benefit the people of Dublin city. Last week, I raised the destruction of the social and cultural fabric of our capital city. The comments made yesterday to the students' union were significantly lacking any form of empathy with regard to what students' are experiencing in terms of the accommodation crisis. One academic spoke about a student in her class who gets up at 4.30 a.m. to travel from Cavan to Dublin because there is no accommodation. Other students are renting hostel beds, with nowhere to study or put down roots during the academic year, or deferring their opportunity in life. For the chief executive to dismiss the concerns of the students' union about student accommodation, which was built in this city against the wishes of the vast majority of those communities, being converted into tourist accommodation when there are students who have no roof over their head is astounding.
Like Senator Craughwell, I too, once again, call for a debate on our policy on China. I remain disappointed by the approach of the Department of Foreign Affairs in regard to the Richard O'Halloran case. It is clear there has been no progress made. It is now a matter of urgency on a whole range of issues, including the genocide against the Uyghur, the treatment of the Tibetan minority and what has been happening in Hong Kong. We need to have that debate on China.
I also want to raise a question of abuse of power closer to home, that is, what has been happening in Poland.
It is very clear that the overwhelming majority of Poles support European Union membership. The Polish community, which is now our largest ethnic community, has enriched and contributed enormously to Irish society and, indeed, the European Union is enhanced by Poland's participation. What we have seen in recent years through the Law and Justice Party is a deterioration in the rule of law. Any modern democracy has to function on the basis of checks on power. We value enormously the independence of our Judiciary but what has now happened in Poland is that there is a politically appointed constitutional tribunal at the behest of the government that is seeking to undermine the core pillars of the European Union. We have seen how the Polish Government has treated minorities, including the LGBT minority, and this is a crucial question about the values of the European Union.
This House needs to send a message of solidarity to the Polish people. Polish people have a long history of rebelling and standing up against authoritarianism and authoritarian regimes. I ask that, on behalf of this House, the Cathaoirleach write to the Polish ambassador expressing our concerns and that we have a debate on the questions of the rule of law within the European Union and European values.
There will be statements on the budget later but as I am not due to speak until tomorrow, I wish to touch on a measure in the budget which was announced a short time ago, that is, the extension of the help to buy scheme. This has been pivotal in assisting 28,500 individuals and families to build or purchase their first home. It has been an essential measure to assist them in getting their deposit together. Under the Central Bank rules, that is 10% of the price. People my age seeking to get on the property ladder for the first time, tell me that this scheme has been important in enabling them to buy their first home. That is why it is a very positive decision by the Government to extend that scheme in the budget for the coming year.
All Opposition parties want to abolish that scheme, which is absolute madness. What is their solution for those people trying to get their 10% deposit together to get on the ladder? It is all well and good to saying they will build affordable homes, but under the Central Bank rules you still need a 10% deposit to get on the property ladder and purchase that affordable home. I would welcome a debate in this Chamber where every party can lay its cards on the table in regard to what its affordable housing plans are. Under both our schemes, which will commence next year, an equity stake is being taken in the property whereas in other schemes being touted, you will not own the land on which the property is built and you will be restricted on who you can sell the property on to. If I was a first-time buyer, I know which scheme I would prefer.
Like my colleague, I will not be speaking on the budget today but I want to welcome the disability budget that was announced today. I especially welcome the single biggest increase in personal assistants hours, totalling 3 million. This is a very welcome announcement.
On another note, I propose that this House has a series of debates where each Department could show how it is going to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. The UNCRPD needs to be implemented. We will be ratifying and implementing that protocol, hopefully next year. Departments have a role to play in that implementation and I would like to see their strategies. They would be very welcome to the House.
Last Friday 88 branches of the Bank of Ireland throughout the country closed. This is another blow to the rural economy. Along with that went the only ATM machine in a number of towns. One of those towns was Granard in County Longford where the local credit union has applied for planning permission to install an ATM at its facility. When that happens, I urge people to support their credit union and their post office. As a postmaster, I am naturally biased. We have those facilities available but I would urge people to support the financial institution that remains in many towns in rural areas because the reality is that within the next 24 months, it is likely many other branches of other banks, such as AIB, will also close. I would ask people to support the financial institutions that remain.
As Members are aware, I am still battling to get support for the post office network. The reality is that within the next 12 to 15 months, unless there is a significant increase in social protection payments going into post offices, which decreased at an alarming rate specifically after Covid-19, we are looking at in the region of 300 post office closures in early 2022. That is a reality and people need to grasp that.
When a post office closes - a number have closed, in particular in Dublin - I ask people to transfer those payments to another post office rather than to a bank, which is more than likely going to close its branch. We have always used this analogy of use it or lose it, so I ask the public to support those financial institutions that remain because otherwise they will be gone within the next 24 months.
I wish to bring up two issues, one of which is the takeover of Lufthansa in Shannon by the Atlantic Aviation Group, AAG. While 300 of the staff will be subsumed into the new company, it is uncertain what will happen with the further 180 staff. I call for immediate Government intervention in regard to this. The unions are due to meet in the coming hours and I hope the Government will not be found wanting, which I am sure it will not.
The other issue is University Maternity Hospital Limerick, UMHL, which has gone green for mental health month. It is doing this every day. It is the only perinatal health clinic outside Dublin, which was established in 2018. It has a staff of nine. However, it has seen a huge increase of more than 50% in terms of women and their mental health, especially in light of Covid-19. I would like to see more supports being put in place to support the perinatal unit and to see more perinatal units established throughout the country to support women.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the National Ambulance Service. This issue has been raised by a number of Senators over the past while and by various radio stations throughout the country. It is quite obvious that the National Ambulance Service is not working efficiently. I was approached recently by a very worried citizen who was in a desperate state one night trying to get an ambulance for his wife. There was no ambulance available. The ambulance service is not working properly and that is why I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate.
We have the National Ambulance Service and a private ambulance service also. We have the 90 second window where, when you phone 999 and get through to the ambulance service, it despatches an ambulance within 90 seconds but that ambulance could be two or three hours away. At the same time, a private ambulance could be available in the nearest town, or in the same town. It would seem there is no joined-up thinking in regard to the National Ambulance Service and the private ambulance service. It is important that we have a good debate in this House on this issue and put the cards on the table in regard to the National Ambulance Service and the private ambulance service to see how they can work together for the betterment of communities and people.
I know we will have statements on the budget later but I have to express my delight at the announcement this afternoon of the change of the national childcare scheme, NCS, to include projects such as those in the Dublin 8 After School Alliance, including the Robert Emmet Community Development Project and the Solas Project. Those organisations have been advocating for that change because as an unintended consequence of the introduction of the NCS, children in disadvantaged areas in particular were unable to avail of after-school care. Now the criteria have been changed such that this anomaly is over. I also want to pay tribute to the Leader because when she was Minister for Social Protection, she brought in the school meals programme as a pilot for 36 schools and today we have seen it extended. It has been such a great success so I pay tribute to the Leader and to our Fine Gael colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, for the increase in that provision. It was also strongly advocated for by our colleagues, Councillors David McManus and Clodagh Higgins.
I seek a debate on sexual health education in this House. Yesterday was International Day of the Girl Child and Plan International launched its report, KnoWhere To Go. That report detailed from where young people get their information on sexual health, as well as their understanding of consent. In that context, I know the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has done a huge amount of work on consent education at third level but we need a discussion on primary and secondary schools, particularly in light of the fact that some of the school patrons are promoting their own version of sexual education. I would value a debate on that in this House and I am sure it has been called for before.
I would like to join with other Members who remarked on the passing of Paddy Moloney, who was a Blackrock resident. He will be missed for his good humour and patience with people as much as for his skill and music. He was a great member of the community and someone who contributed at every level. I was aware he went into hospital last night but I am sorry to hear that he passed away. He will be greatly missed.
I also want to comment on what has been said about anti-Semitism. I join with calls for a debate on that subject but I advise that Members should be careful about throwing that moniker around in respect of somebody who makes a conscious and justified decision to boycott Israel for a specific reason. That is justifiable and just because one is opposed to Israeli policy in the Middle East does not make one an anti-Semite. It is tremendously important to recognise that.
I would like us to talk about bus services. We have heard there will not be a resumption of the Nitelink service after the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and that is a retrograde step. We need to move towards a 24-hour bus service for the communities on the outer parts of Dublin. If one takes Dún Laoghaire, for example, which was served by the 46N, that bus will not come back to it. That area relies on the 46A and other buses but I am calling for a 24-hour service. This is not just for late-night revellers but for people who work in town as part of the entertainment industry. To get home from town to Dún Laoghaire, Blackrock, Dalkey, Loughlinstown, Bray or anywhere in the outer suburbs of Dublin is an expensive trip by taxi. We must put in place public transport solutions for those people. The DART does not run late but the buses did and now we are being told they are not going to resume that service. We must put in place 24-hour services for people along certain key routes that will allow people to work in town and live in the suburbs.
I would like to speak on an announcement in the budget as well and I welcome the significant €898 million funding towards the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in particular. There is a €91 million increase in capital funding in that Department, which represents a 21% increase. I want to focus on decisions that were made on the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the extension of that until April and the significance of that to businesses across the country. We expect that almost all public restrictions will be eased in the coming weeks but that does not mean businesses are back to normal. The extension that is being announced today up until 30 April will be beneficial to businesses that need time to get back to where they were pre-Covid. That is significant, along with the waiver of rates for quarter four, but it is also important that we support councils in the loss of those rates up until the end of quarter four. The Government has proven that it is here to support businesses, including employees and employers. I mention the change in the tax bands of €1,500 between the lower and higher rates of tax. The increase in the employee tax credit of €50 is significant, as is the announcement on remote working. People who are working from home are being supported to claim back 30% of their electricity, broadband and heating costs. That is a hugely significant change and it acknowledges the number of people who are working from home. It will benefit approximately 500,000 people. That is hugely significant and I encourage people to apply for that.
Before I call on the Leader to respond to the Order of Business, I will join with colleagues in extending our sympathies to the family of Paddy Moloney, one of the great musicians of our time. He was a great ambassador for Ireland and Irish culture. We will always remember the visits the Chieftains made to China when Irish music was performed in the Great Hall of the People. That was a great honour for Ireland and a great example of how Irish culture can be used in diplomacy and reaching out to people. We extend our sympathies to the family on its sad, tragic and sudden loss.
I add my condolences to that. Many of us of a certain age had the Sunday ritual that after Mass, we came home and the old record player was put on. Certain LPs were played and the Chieftains was one of the big ones in our house along with the Dubliners. Sometimes when these things happen so suddenly it is hard to even take it in but he will be sadly missed by every household in Ireland.
Senator Ahearn raised the welcome addition of nearly €900 million in resources to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for budget 2022. It is significant recognition that our businesses have struggled over the past 18 months and that we need to be there for them to make sure they recover. Some businesses excelled; they do not need our help and they have helped to recover the economy. Those businesses that are viable and vulnerable at the moment need to our continued support and that is welcome today.
Senator Ward raised the lack of a 24-hour bus service and the recent announcement that the Nitelink will not return. It is kind of bizarre and I am sure no one will thank me for saying that only a short number of months ago, we announced a provision for a night-time mayor to have a night-time economy. I recall standing here and wishing I was young enough to think I could be out until 2 a.m., 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. but nobody will be out until that time if they have no way to get home. A little bit of joined-up thinking would not go amiss in this. If we are going to have a night-time economy, we have to have ways for people to get into it and get home from it so that is something that needs to be brought to the Minister's attention.
Senator Seery Kearney talked about the welcome changes to the NCS and what gives me hope is when something is amiss and then somebody listens and fixes it. That is positive and for that to happen as quickly as it did is welcome. It gave me a little bit of pleasure this morning to see that the hot school meals programme has increased tenfold from when it was first introduced as a pilot programme a couple of years ago in Dublin 8. I hope we get to a situation soon where every school gives a hot meal to our children every single day. The Senator is also right that we need a debate on sexual education for our younger children and on age appropriateness so I will ask for that debate to be organised in the coming weeks.
Senator Burke asked for a debate on the National Ambulance Service and other colleagues have raised that in recent weeks. The request is in with the Minister but I will go back and see if we can get it moved up the list.
Senator Maria Byrne talked about the maternity hospital in Limerick and the sole perinatal services outside of the capital that we have there. She is right that it is a requirement for every one of our 19 maternity services and hospitals to have their own perinatal support services for our women and their partners.
Senator Carrigy talked about the 88 Bank of Ireland branches that closed and one of them was in Skerries, where my office is. On Friday evening, people were crying and hugging staff who had served the town for decades.
The Senator is correct, and a pattern is evident. When one of our pillar banks leaves a town, the second pillar bank then automatically moves because there is no competition left in that town. The second bank does not need to be there. There has been a shift in banking culture. What is poor about this change is that every Irish citizen had no choice but to support our pillar banks for the past ten to 15 years because of the bloody mess they got themselves into. Those banks feel now that making decisions like this supports communities. There is something amiss. I support and commend the Senator on what was said. Those organisations, such as our credit unions and post offices, that remain in our communities to serve the people should get our thanks and support. We should support those organisations by using our feet. I commend that happening.
Senator McGreehan talked about the welcome addition to the disability budget this morning. She is right, however, that a debate is needed on how Departments and Government agencies are going to ensure that they adhere to the criteria relating to people with disabilities. We must ensure that we honour people with disabilities and treat them with dignity and respect.
Senator McGahon referred to the extension of the help-to-buy scheme. It has helped many young couples to buy houses and will continue to do so for the next year.
Senators Malcolm Byrne and Craughwell asked for a debate on China. That request has been made. Our colleague, Senator Buttimer, raised the matter last week or the week before. I will chase it up again today. I will also send a letter to the Polish ambassador today to question the actions, some of them outrageous, over the weekend. We will wait to see what kind of response we will get.
On the point made by Senator Ruane, the response from Owen Keegan to the student's union says a lot about him. I am sure that reaction will probably cause him to reflect on and consider his comments in the days to come. That is all I will say about the matter.
I concur with Senator McGahon regarding scooters. He is only just home from spending time in Rome at the weekend. I spent a few days there during the summer and scooters were scattered about everywhere. It was necessary to step over them. It must be a minefield for people who have small children in buggies and for people in wheelchairs. When our scooter scheme regulations come into effect, we must ensure that we treat it like our bike scheme, which is well managed and maintained in Dublin and some of our other cities.
Senator Cassells spoke about the moving stories recounted by Rory O'Connor. He is right. I do not suppose for a second that the extension of tax reliefs announced by the Minister for Finance earlier is to encourage the gambling industry in the same way as was done by the welcome move to encourage the film industry in recent years. It is incumbent on us to be careful to ensure that we do not allow companies in certain sectors to gain tax reliefs through the back door.
Senator Mullen talked about anti-Semitism and the need for a debate on that issue. I will arrange that as soon as I can.
Senator Dolan welcomed the budget, and especially those aspects relating to her home county of Roscommon.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan spoke of his surprise at the growing sense of anti-Semitism here and of the need for a debate on the issue. I will organise that.
Senator Moynihan raised an issue that my colleague, Senator Buttimer, addressed only a few weeks ago. I refer to the donation of blood by gay men. It seems ludicrous that we have not updated our standards and assessments to meet European norms. I will raise this issue with the Minister.
Senator Ó Donnghaile talked about European rail travel passes. I will check with the Minister, but I am certain we ensured that INTERREG and all the PEACE funds remain applicable to the island of Ireland. We will continue to act on behalf of the people of the island of Ireland. I will double-check that for the Senator, though, and respond to him today.
Senator Craughwell spoke about Chinese aggression against Taiwan and the need for a debate on this topic. More importantly, he again eloquently described some of the conditions in our Defence Forces and in the Naval Service and his worries in that regard. I will raise his concerns with the Minister today.
Senators Currie and Chambers opened today's proceedings by talking about the little boy, Adam Terry, featured on the radio this morning. I had tears in my eyes listening to the report. I suppose most of the women listening to the programme did and maybe most of the men as well. I do not say this lightly, but it is reflective of us and our State that a mother of a ten-year-old boy finds herself having to go on a national radio programme to plead for the supports and the bloody operation that her child needs to have a chance at a normal life. What was most heartbreaking this morning was listening to her and knowing that the best opportunity that he had has already come and gone. I do not know how she was as eloquent and dignified as she was. I will send a letter to the Minister today. I ask all the Senators to send letters to the Minister because I am not sure how effective my one little letter will be. We, as parliamentarians, must respond to the situation of this mam and her little boy.
I will not have an opportunity to speak on the budget later. We will all have our ding-dongs as to whether this or that was included or whether enough was allocated. Some €1.5 billion of taxpayer's money has been directed to be spent today in order to allow our country to recover from what has probably been the most horrendous 18 months for people and to restore the services interrupted during that time. Most important for me is the need to rebalance our economy and restore order to our finances. We needed to be generous for the past 18 months. I have no doubt about that. A tremendous amount of money has been spent, but it was well spent. We must now get back to being prudent, however, and to ensuring that the value for money we get out of allocating taxpayer's money is achieved by making sure that funds go to the most required and urgent services. The case of that little boy this morning is a prime example of where our money needs to go.
The Leader needs to take a bow. As Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, she motivated and led her Department through what must have been the greatest crisis it ever faced. We must recognise that as well.
I do not normally allow interruptions after the Leader has outlined the Order of Business, but we can allow it since it was praise for her.