The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding Regulation (EU) 2021/693 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 April 2021 establishing the Justice Programme and repealing Regulation (EU) No. 1382/2013, back from committee, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, statements on budget 2022, with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to be taken at 1 p.m. and to conclude at 3 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the Minister of State's opening speech not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister of State to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, statements on peat harvesting, substitute consent, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to conclude at 5.30 p.m. if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the Minister of State's opening speech not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister of State to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 81.4, Private Members' business, to be taken at 5.45 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I support the Order of Business as outlined by my colleague, Senator Chambers. Today, as we gather here, for the second day a dig is taking place on the Kildare-Wicklow border. All our thoughts and prayers are with the Jacob family in the hope that they will find some type of resolution to what happened. Their beautiful daughter Deirdre disappeared when she was 18. If she was alive, she would be 42 on Thursday. That puts into context the awful years of torture that the family have suffered. The Jacob family are much-loved members of the community from Rathangan and Newbridge. From my perspective, our families have had an intergenerational friendship. My grandfather and Deirdre's grandfather founded one of the first Fianna Fáil cumanns in the country, in Barnaran, just outside Rathangan. I felt it was important to show solidarity with Deirdre's parents. Let us all hope that there is some closure and that they will be able to find their beloved daughter, bring her home and allow her to rest in peace.
I also want to raise the issue of the Gibbet Rath in the Curragh. I have called before for a national heritage site for the Curragh, which is a unique landscape which is important geographically and historically. The Gibbet Rath is a place of particular importance. In 1798, 350 Irish rebels were slaughtered there by British soldiers. Unfortunately, at the weekend, there was a lot of vandalism there. It is not preserved or protected appropriately. I call for national heritage status for the site.
I raise the Yellow Flag programme. We are all aware of the Green Flag programme. It is a wonderful programme in schools. As the Leader will know, I introduced legislation here relating to hate crime. It is important that we do everything that we can to support policies that support inclusion in a proactive, positive way. Yellow Flag does that. I met with it last week. It does excellent work. It has worked with more than 100 schools but, unfortunately, with the resources that it has, it can only take on ten schools a year. Some 150 are waiting for the programme. The Seanad needs to call for support for the Yellow Flag programme.
The last item that I would like to raise is the extension of visas for people who do not have residency in Ireland. They have been extended until 15 January, which is good. If people need to leave the country because of a family emergency or bereavement, for example, they cannot. That should be amended to ensure that they can do that.
I welcome the budget allocation for the Department of Health. As announced yesterday, there is some €22 billion, including €4 billion provided as pandemic supports, which was exceptional funding which has been maintained for next year's budget too. There are 900,000 people on waiting lists. Some are there because of delays caused by Covid and by the cyberattack. Prior to that, there was an excessive waiting list. We need to treat that waiting list with the same energy and enthusiasm as we have treated the Covid pandemic, with funding and utilising the investment that we have made in facilities, equipment and the expertise of our consultants, theatre staff and nurses. There is a lot of talk about a four-day week. We need to go the opposite direction to tackle this waiting list, by going to a six or seven-day week. Nobody can work 24-7 but we need to harness the expertise and ability of consultants, theatre staff and nurses to tackle this list. I hope and believe that the allocation in yesterday's budget will go some way to doing that, including using the National Treatment Purchase Fund as necessary. During the initial stages of the pandemic and again in January of this year, we had agreements with private hospitals to ensure that capacity was being used, if necessary, for Covid surges. We need to harness that energy again.
I also call for a debate on Sláintecare. Sláintecare has been a cross-party initiative. We have seen some high-profile resignations recently. It is important to debate these issues with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to address the future of Sláintecare and ensure that it continues to progress. There are some outstanding issues. There have been many achievements but there is also much confusion. There was to be a memorandum for Cabinet about elective hospitals last week, which was deferred, which related to the debate around day beds versus inpatient beds.
It is important that we have a fuller debate on this very important issue. There is huge demand in Galway for additional inpatient beds. We built a 75-bed ward, which was officially opened back in 2017 or 2018. It came into its own during the Covid period because it had so many en-suite, single occupancy rooms, which were excellent in terms of prevention of cross-infection and all of that. However, there is a need for inpatient beds. The Saolta Hospital Group has demanded this in response to the plan put forward by the Sláintecare team, which talks about day-only facilities. We have been led to believe that, for example, these elective facilities would allow for hip and knee operations. Hip and knee operations cannot be done in facilities where there are only day-care beds. We do not want American-style healthcare. We want to ensure that people are treated and have their recovery time over a period of three or four days, or however long it takes. We need to have this fuller debate in regard to Sláintecare, in particular on the issue of inpatient versus day beds.
I welcome the Deputy Leader to the House. I have no difficulty in supporting the Order of Business. It is a good Order of Business and I particularly single out the issue of the Private Members’ slot today. I note all of the signatures on it and I look forward to engaging with it. It is a very important piece of work in regard to the legacy issue. I myself travelled to Belfast, as did other Oireachtas Members. I look forward to sharing a different perspective on some of those issues later on.
Senator Kyne is right about the validation of waiting lists. More than 900,000 people are waiting on the lists. I undertook with the Leader last week that I would bring this up on a monthly basis. She prompted me and suggested to me on the floor of the House that I would do it more often, so I did. I welcome that the Minister for Health will be making a statement later today on the funding and how he wishes to address these ongoing lists, which are shocking. They are an indictment of the health service. It is an outrage that people are waiting with tumours, looking for diagnostics, anxious and concerned.
I made contact with the National Treatment Purchase Fund again, as I undertook to do, and I want to share with the House a few issues. It just so happens that Senator Kyne spoke first and I did not realise he was going to speak on this issue. I will circulate a breakdown of the lists later on. The latest list for Galway University Hospital has 54,757 people, there are 31,325 on the list in Cork University Hospital and St. Vincent's University Hospital has 25,000 people on the waiting list, and these are outpatients only. Letterkenny Hospital has 18,772 waiting on the list and Beaumont Hospital has 24,095 outpatients on the list. It is shocking, it is appalling and it is a disgrace that this has gone on for so long. I was particularly concerned about the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, with which I made contact only to be told there are 14,355 people looking for ophthalmic interventions. That is more than regional. That is a national speciality, so they are coming from all the regions and they cannot be broken down.
The list goes on and on. I decided I would share those figures with the House today. We have a serious concern and we need a debate on the waiting lists. To be fair to the Minister, who I support, I think he has a very hard and difficult job to do, but we need to see how we are going to address these lists. In this debate with the Minister, I want to hear who is going to validate the lists. There is a lot of confusion about double listing, double counting and people not turning up. This has to be addressed. They are genuine concerns. We need a debate urgently on how the Minister is specifically going to tackle these waiting lists and what is the role and function of the National Treatment Purchase Fund, separate from the Department, to administer and validate these lists. That is important.
I would like to raise two issues. First, on behalf of the Sinn Féin team, I wish our best to the families of the Stardust fire, who have another pre-inquest hearing today. Yet again, they are not going to be sure whether their lawyers are going to get paid, despite the fact the legal team have been working on this inquest for three years without receiving a single penny for their work. All of the other legal teams who represent the other families, the Garda, Dublin Fire Brigade and the coroner have got paid but, for the families at the heart of this inquest, their legal team has yet to get paid. It is an absolute disgrace. I wish them the best today. I hope that can be resolved and that the inquest can go ahead as planned.
The second issue I want to raise is the story in The Irish Times today about Ryanair and how it is treating a number of passengers regarding chargebacks during the Covid pandemic. These are people who could not fly, for one reason or another, and who were either waiting in frustration for refunds from Ryanair - and we have heard of numerous cases concerning how long people had to wait for their refunds - or where they decided to go down the chargeback route. Ryanair has decided not to take up that dispute with the banks or the credit card companies but, instead, has allowed people to book flights with Ryanair, which takes their money, and then, when those people go to check in, they are refused check-in unless they repay the money they got back in refunds for flights they did not take during the pandemic restrictions.
This raises a number of issues. In one case, a woman was on a return flight so we are talking about an airline that is potentially leaving people stranded in other countries until they repay the money they got back on their cards, rather than going down the road of pursuing others. If it feels the money was refunded wrongfully, then Ryanair has plenty of deep pockets to go and pursue that through the proper manner and not leave people stranded when trying to get home from wherever they have had to travel to. There are also big concerns around GDPR in regard to the manner in which it is doing this. What information is Ryanair holding on people in terms of credit checks? It is not a financial institution so if somebody has got a refund from it, what markings is it putting on those people’s accounts to ensure it is able to identify them, take their money and then, when they go to check in, demand more money from them? This requires a statement from the Minister for Transport as to what he is going to do to look into this issue.
We all have our own views on budget 2022. Of course, the Government Senators, as is their right, will speak about the positive aspects of the budget yesterday, whereas there are others of us who believe it was a confetti-like budget. There is a serious question mark about its capacity to make any dent in the very serious rental crisis we have in this country, the childcare affordability crisis and the health waiting lists. Time will tell who is going to be proved right on that analysis of the budget.
There is an issue in the budget that I want to draw attention to and that this House needs to discuss, but it is one that was glossed over yesterday, and that relates to youth unemployment. We heard yesterday that 275,000 jobs will be created next year, and that is wonderful and great. However, let us put that in perspective. As of September, we have an unemployment rate of 10% in this country and the Department of Finance expects that rate to fall to an average of just over 7% next year. That rate covers the labour force as a whole, yet there was no mention of youth unemployment, which is currently running at 17%, four times the rate for older workers in this country.
If we have learned anything from the previous recession, and as we know from all of the international research on the probable impact of this pandemic, one of the major legacies from the pandemic will be youth unemployment and the scarring impact on young workers or those coming out of college or school in terms of being able to access jobs, in particular decently paid jobs. What really concerned me yesterday was that there was a presumption or an assumption that a rising tide will lift all boats.
When we look at the sectors in which young workers were concentrated pre-pandemic, that is, hospitality and retail, we see that those sectors are undergoing a profound and structural shift and change at the moment and that many of those businesses will not reopen with the same number of staff. The response may be that an increase in the SUSI grant and new apprenticeships were announced yesterday and that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath, also referenced the work experience placement programme in his speech. He did, but what he failed to mention was that the funding allocation for the work experience placement programme was slashed by more than 50% for 2022.
With regard to the costs of going to college, many students rely on part-time work, which is now not available to them, to sustain themselves through college. An increase of €200 in respect of the SUSI grant was announced yesterday. For students coming to Dublin, as I did 20 years ago, in Dublin 1 and Dublin 7, where I am based, that €200 will not even buy them an additional week of student accommodation. The number of apprenticeships announced yesterday is a lot less than that announced for 2021.
Despite the sunny disposition of budget 2022, the impact of the pandemic is far from over. We face a real issue with regard to youth unemployment. I would welcome a debate in this House on that issue.
All of us in this House are aware of the importance of organ donation. We know also that organ donation saves lives. When someone makes a decision to have his or her organs donated, he or she gives the most important gift, that is, the gift of life. The donation greatly enhances and, in many ways, saves the life of the person receiving the donation. It can also give a sense of healing, meaning and consolation to a family of a bereaved person in that they will know that despite their great loss, their loved has the potential to give the gift of life or to enhance the life of another human being. With that in mind, I was disappointed to learn from the Irish Donor Network that in 2020 there was a 32% decline in solid organ transplantation in Ireland compared to the same period in 2019 and a 27% decrease in deceased organ donation for the same period. This can all be put down to Covid-19. That is understandable. We need to get a grip on the blockages at that time so that we can move forward.
I ask Members of the House to support me in proposing that the Leader would write to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, on the matter of expedition of the promised legislation in regard to a soft opt-out for organ donation. The simpler the process, the better. In a recent survey, more than 80% of the Irish population were in favour of organ donation. There is an onus on us in this House to ensure that for citizens of this country there is an opt-in option. I ask the Leader to write to the Minister in that regard not only on my behalf but, I am sure, on behalf of all colleagues in this House.
Without breaching the etiquette of the Chair, I would like to be on the floor to support that. I call Senator Currie.
I thank Senator Boyhan for referencing the Private Members' motion on British Government proposals on legacy issues, which we will debate later. I know he is very invested in discussing and debating legacy issues. I thank all those who will, hopefully, take part in that debate this evening.
Today, I want to raise the issue of obesity. We saw in the media the worrying projection that 90% of people in this country will be overweight or obese by 2030. The World Health Organization predicted that Ireland is on course to become the country with the highest obesity rate in Europe, and that was pre-pandemic. During my time as a stay-at-home mum I trained as a nutrition and lifestyle coach, which training has gone completely out the window since I got involved in politics. If you want a good lifestyle politics is very challenging. On a serious note, we need a debate on lifestyle and supportive interventions to help people make better decisions. Earlier this week, Professor Donal O'Shea, HSE clinical lead for obesity, expressed the view in the newspapers that it is not as simple as eating less and exercising more and that obesity is a complex, chronic disease and especially affects people with a genetic disposition towards it.
The budget is welcome in terms of the extension of the hot school meals to 81 DEIS schools, or a further 16,000 children, bringing the total number of children now benefitting from hot school meals to 55,650. I have seen this in practice. It is fantastic. Nutritious meals such as meatballs and pasta are being delivered to children at their desks. The budget also provides a €10 increase in the weekly threshold for the working family payment. There are many pressures on families. It would be good to have a discussion around issues such as food labelling and what we can do sooner rather than later. If we cannot move because of EU legislation, there might be things that we can do here, such as putting teaspoons of sugar in certain foods on the price points such that you do not have to pick up the pack. We need to talk about cooking and how we are losing that skill. It is time we had a debate on our obesity policy and action plan.
I was not in the House yesterday so I do not know if this has been already done, but I want to express my admiration and great love of the late Paddy Moloney, who, because of my background in radio and as a voluntary director of a number of festivals, I was privileged to have met. I met him only twice but he left a lasting impression on me. It is amazing to hear the BBC, Sky News, the French media and media across the world referencing the death of the late Paddy Moloney, a brilliant player of the uilleann pipes, the thin whistle, the button accordion and the bodhrán. Significantly, he was worth millions to Ireland in tourism revenue. Some of the festivals in my neck of the woods, in which I was involved, were attended by people from Japan, parts of America, Russia and Germany, which always made us proud. When asked how they came to know Irish music, they said it was through Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains.
Paddy performed with Pink Floyd, Ry Cooder, Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger, Elvis Costello, Sinéad O'Connor, Paul McCartney and so many more. I could go on. He had a brilliant influence on people. He has left a massive legacy. It is only in the years ahead we will come to realise the significant legacy of one of the most important human beings I have ever known and who people loved to hear play instruments. One of his most fantastic tunes, "Tabhair Dom Do Lámh", a beautiful melodic piece of music, is being played on media across the world today.
We should not underestimate the benefits of the budget in terms of education, particularly in regard to DEIS schools, as referenced by Senator Currie in her contribution. I have been contacted by many schools, as I am sure have other Senators, seeking DEIS status. There are some towns in my county of Roscommon where the primary school qualifies for DEIS status, but the secondary school does not. The budget announced yesterday makes significant provision for an increase in the number of special needs assistants, SNAs, and special needs teachers.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam, Paddy Moloney. I call Senator Seery Kearney.
I would like to be associated with Senator Murphy's remarks about the late Paddy Moloney. He is truly a great loss; he leaves a fantastic legacy.
I wish to bring to the House's attention and seek a debate on the care of migrant children who have come to our country as unaccompanied minors and their oversight while they are in care. I pay tribute to Ms Shamim Malekmian of the Dublin Inquirer and Ms Fiona Finn of Nasc, the migrant and refugee rights organisation, for highlighting that there is a difficulty. When an child who was an unaccompanied minor goes missing while in care, there is a child rescue Ireland alert, the case is posted to the global database of missing children and the Tusla social workers who were responsible for the child are then responsible for making follow-up inquiries. However, there is a significant disparity between the numbers on the database and the numbers with Tusla. What is happening to these children? Since 2017, 54 such children have gone missing and only 18 have been accounted for. We do not know whether their cases have been resolved or who is following up on them. We do not know who is speaking up for these children. By the very nature of their status in this country, they do not have family in Ireland, so they do not have people to advocate for them except the Tusla social workers. These children, whom the State has a responsibility for and to, are going unaccounted for. We need to have a debate on their care and oversight. Since it involves the Garda and Tusla, this matter crosses two Departments. There is a question of whether the missing persons unit is fully resourced.
I will finish now, and I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence. The House needs to debate this subject. I will raise it as a Commencement matter with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. We need to focus on this. As a state, we have a responsibility to these children. They need to be represented and spoken for in the Houses.
I commend Senator Seery Kearney on that crucial point. The issue has been raised at the Council of Europe a number of times because it is a problem across Europe. I support the Senator's call for a debate.
I wish to speak about Paddy Moloney. Unlike Senator Murphy, I did not know him but I suspect that, like a number of people, I felt as if I did. He was such a warm and engaging man whenever he was interviewed on radio or television. What an ambassador he was for our country. I will set out a couple of my memories. In the early 1970s when I was only five or six years of age, my family brought me to the Albert Hall to see The Chieftains. I did not understand at the time why they were bringing me, but hindsight is very clear. I cannot say whether it was a wonderful performance. I just remember seeing the Albert Hall full of Irish, typically working-class, men and women, who took it over that evening. In the early 1970s, that was quite a thing, given everything that was happening. My family felt pride in going to see The Chieftains at that time.
I take Senator Murphy's point about the revenue but consider what The Chieftains did for our diaspora in London, the rest of England, Australia and America. They toured everywhere and gave us an amazing legacy of music. I wonder whether the likes of Planxty, Moving Hearts, Stockton's Wing and all the other great groups that we have had would have been possible without the legacy of The Chieftains. The Chieftains broke ground and put Irish music on the international stage in a way that had never been done before.
Paddy Moloney was an amazing man, he lived an incredible life and he meant so much to so many people. It is important that we remember him today.
The day after budget day is always one where we analyse, having slept on the budget. If there are large banana skins, they will have emerged by this stage. Thankfully, there are no banana skins.
There are no bananas.
The budget has done a little for a lot of people. The criticism I have heard is that there was a bit for everyone, but I would like to know what area of the budget people would like to see withdrawn.
What supports would they like to remove?
I am amused by why people believe it is necessary to leak the budget and what the purpose of that is, but we probably need a fundamental rethink about the budget process anyway. In the Bundestag in Germany, there is a full debate on the budget for a certain period and all parties and none, including finance committees and so on, get to put their proposals on the table, stress testing and debate take place, and the finance minister, having listened to and engaged, will ultimately give a summation. Essentially, Germany's budget process is an open one. Given the leaking that takes place in Ireland, I suggest that we rethink our process. As opposed to having post-budget debates, the process would involve the Government listening to and taking good ideas from everyone, including its own, talking to officials and economists and doing what was necessary to make the figures work. The Budget Statement would essentially be a summation of the process that had occurred in the months beforehand.
It is important that we note the key points and achievements in this budget. There is a significant recognition of the need to modernise and support childcare. There is a recognition that waiting lists in the health service are at an all-time high, primarily because of the pandemic. Some €200 million is being allocated to address that issue. There is a significant package of supports for disability services. There are measures in respect of fuel poverty and so on.
I thank the Senator, but-----
I will in a minute. I think we need to-----
We need to examine what is positive in the budget. It is a budget that will-----
I thank the Senator for his objective analysis. He can contribute again during statements on the budget.
-----create the building blocks of future budgets.
I thank Senator Conway for his very objective analysis of the budget.
I apologise, as I was at a meeting. I will continue the theme of the budget. We should recognise that this is the first post-pandemic budget. We have all come through a difficult 18 months and we are all grateful to everyone who helped us do that. This budget is designed to help those who need help most and tries to improve everyone's quality of life. Most importantly, it is targeted at those who need the State and the Government's support the most, those being, young people and low-income families, in everything from the improvements in and increased funding for health in terms of free GP care for six-year-olds and seven-year-olds, the reduction in prescription thresholds, the extension of the medical card to dental treatment and free contraception for young women, which is something that our party has pushed for and I am delighted to see being delivered, to halving the price of public transport for young people, which is also a good measure. The increases in pensions and welfare payments, including the living alone allowance, the fuel allowance and the working family income supplement, are welcome.
I wish to call out the disingenuous and divisive social media messaging that is being pushed out by one of the Opposition parties. I will only give one example, but it is an important one. That party has been using social media over the past 24 hours to drive division-----
-----and put out disinformation. Today, it has its slick social media blasting out on people's phones that there is zero in this budget to support renters in terms of paying their rents, stopping rent increases or improving standards, all of which is a lie.
All of which is a lie. There is €600 million to support renters, €11 million to enforce the rent caps for which we have legislated and €10 million to stop and improve the standards in rental accommodation.
I remind colleagues we will have statements on the budget later.
It is very important this House corrects that false narrative being promoted and pushed by the Opposition. It is dishonest and disingenuous.
I will leave my statement on the budget until later on. We had a huge rally in Cork last Friday evening at which nearly 5,500 families turned up to talk about climate action, the CAP reform and the nitrates action plan, and how it will affect agriculture. The acknowledgement this Chamber got for its good work when it came to the climate action Bill was out there at every one of these rallies. As a Chamber, we made a real difference that day. I acknowledge everyone who supported those amendments. There is a huge body of work to go forward. All three issues need support of all parties to make sure our rural communities will be viable, going forward.
In the last census in west Cork, which is probably out of date, the population in most of the electoral districts declined and especially in all the rural ones. It shows the issues in how we will make sure we have a vibrant rural Ireland. Agriculture plays an important role in that. The challenge agriculture faces, especially with those three issues, needs to be acknowledged. We will have a huge issue in terms of where the payments will go following CAP reform. The nitrates action plan could see issues of where we will have storage, the cost of farming and how affordable it will be to farm. The climate action Bill and the climate related issues in our carbon budget, which will be sorted in the new few months, if not weeks, are huge issues for the farming community. A debate is required with not one, but two, Ministers. We need the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communication and the Minister for agriculture to come here for a debate on the appropriate carbon budget given to the agricultural community. If we get this wrong, it will mean the devastation of rural Ireland, in black and white. We will have a scenario in which the carbon budget is unattainable; farmers will be pilloried as the people who did nothing for climate change. They are willing to do their bit. We need to have a debate about what is attainable and what we want for rural Ireland.
I pay tribute and join my colleagues in lamenting the loss of Paddy Maloney. He was an extraordinarily talented person and musician who brought music to a new level. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. I join my colleague, Senator Conway, in his remarks on the budgetary process. Budget day is now redundant. In this House, we created a budgetary oversight committee for the oversight of the budget, from a fiscal and macro point of view. We should, as an Oireachtas and a Government, whoever is in power, look at budget day in the future. Senator Conway is right. One could pick up any newspaper or listen to any radio programme yesterday morning and in the weeks before it and we had the budget before it was published yesterday afternoon. I ask for a debate on that in the coming weeks.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the future of work. Senator Sherlock made reference to work and I commend some of what she spoke about. Our workplace is no longer just a physical office; it has transformed into myriad things and places. The world of work has changed. We need a debate on the world of work, in the context of the Low Pay Commission and the living wage, but also remote working and the hybrid office and work we will have in the future. It is incumbent upon us, as the Oireachtas, to lead in that debate on the future of work. If one were to listen to Paul Hackett of clickandgo.com and the president of the Irish Travel Agents Association on "Morning Ireland", one would be struck by his remarks about recruitment, work shortage, employment, staffing issues and the huge challenges they and the world of work have in retention and attracting people to stay and remain in work, be it non-nationals or ourselves.
We have to have a debate about the world and future of work, as a society, economy and people and about how we have work and those who work. I am a proud member of a trade union and I was a shop steward in my time in school. It is important we have a debate on the future of work and the value we place on work. That debate needs to happen, because, the world of work has changed. We saw in the budget, and rightly so, a nod to the way in which remote working has changed. It is hoped people will be working more in a hybrid model. The Oireachtas should have that debate sooner, rather than later.
I welcome back the members of the Opposition. They were missing last night, for large periods of time, and I was covering the Opposition benches for quite a long time. It is great to see them back. They obviously had nothing to contribute on the budget yesterday. Three Bank of Ireland branches have closed in the past number of days in County Tipperary in Cahir, Cashel and Templemore. It is a huge devastating impact for those towns, businesses and people who live in those areas. Another bank, AIB in Fethard, is closing an awful lot of its services in early December. It is not closing entirely, but an awful lot of its services are closing. Can we have a debate with the Minister for Finance about what we can do to support rural towns and communities with banking services going forward?
It is like a drip feed. Every couple of months, it is one town here, one town there. Before one knows it, a whole region of a county or an area has no bank. The bank in Killenaule closed approximately eight or nine years ago. All the customers in Killenaule were told to move their services to Fethard, which is only 14 or 15 miles away - no problem. They all moved their services to Fethard, until this week, when they are told to move to Clonmel, now Fethard is closing. It is a drive of approximately 35 miles to get to Clonmel from Killenaule. It is not feasible. We have other AIB services in Cahir. The Bank of Ireland is closed in Cahir and we only have AIB. The fear now is over what will happen to Cahir and Cashel.
These are tourist towns in which services are needed. We all know when we go abroad, we use the ATMs and bank services more regularly than we would when we are at home. These are tourist towns that need those services. We need to have a plan for how we can support rural communities and towns, especially in Tipperary and throughout the country, in the services they are provided. I recognise Bank of Ireland services have now gone to the post offices and I encourage people to use the post office, as much as possible, but there is a problem. People are being asked to travel a long distance. Sometimes, businesses are bringing large sums of money with them to banks. People are very upset.
I am not focusing this on any individual, but I remind the House it is not protocol to mention the presence or absence of colleagues, if we can avoid that.
It was extraordinary no members of the Opposition were in the House for the budget speech last night. Nobody was here.
Some of us had seating problems yesterday. Please, let us not cast aspersions.
It was essentially a conversation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about the budget. That was what we were doing.
The Opposition benches were idle. They were empty for the budget speeches yesterday.
I cannot hear the Senator.
I was on my own over here.
The first comment was from Senator O'Loughlin. She referenced the Jacob family. I pay my respects to the family and hope they get Deirdre back. It is right and proper we show solidarity in this House for their long suffering. The Senator also mentioned the national heritage site proposal at the Curragh. I agree it is a unique site and deserves to be protected. With regard to the Yellow Flag programme on inclusion in schools, if there is that level of demand from schools, we should certainly facilitate it. It is fantastic for our young people to be involved in those types of projects.
The issue of visas for non-residents was raised. I refer to those that have been extended but where people cannot leave the country. It might be a good topic for a Commencement matter with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Senator Kyne raised the issue of the health service and the unprecedented investment in health in yesterday's budget. He then specifically referred to the issue of waiting lists, which have plagued this country for more than a decade. These excessive waiting lists are hurting people. As I said to Senator Sherlock, a specific announcement was made in this regard in the budget. I do not have a specific figure to hand, but it is more than €200 million specifically allocated to tackle waiting lists. This issue, therefore, is to the fore of the mind of the Minister for Health in respect of targeting these waiting lists now that we are emerging from the pandemic. Everybody will agree that this must be a priority. Senator Kyne also raised the issue of Sláintecare and requested a debate on that matter. I am informed by the Leader’s office that this debate is scheduled for 19 November.
Senator Boyhan referred to the Private Members' Bill on legacy issues this evening. I commend the Senator on his work and on travelling to the North with colleagues from both Houses in regard to this issue. I commend Senator Currie in this respect as well. She has been to the fore on this issue. Deputy Lawless and other Members were also involved.
Senator Kyne in raising his matter has helpfully put on the record the colossal waiting lists affecting all the hospitals. I am not surprised to hear that University Hospital Galway, UHG, tops that list. It caters for patients from Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal as well, which is a massive region. As I said, however, a specific announcement was made in the budget regarding funding to address these waiting lists. I am unsure if that will happen through the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. It has been Fianna Fáil policy for many years to use that vehicle to reduce the waiting lists. It would be a good avenue to take as a one-time measure to clear these waiting lists and start afresh. We must try to do this.
Senator Boylan raised the issue of the Stardust inquiry, as she has several times before. It is a major priority for her. I am not sure why the members of that legal team are the only ones not being paid for their work. Something must happen in that regard. It is unfair that every other legal team would be reimbursed but not that of the victims. Surely the reasonable legal costs could be looked at, and I hope that will be addressed.
I was not up to speed with the Ryanair issue until the Senator raised it. I got an update, but I was not previously aware that this was happening. This matter should be looked at, however. It might be an issue to address in a Commencement matter with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. They may be able to shed some light on this issue. From what the Senator has said, however, it sounds quite incredible that a company would do something like this. I am a big fan of Ryanair and its having opened up travel to many people, but customers must also be treated well. This issue requires more investigation.
Senator Sherlock raised yesterday's budget. She said certain things were not mentioned in the speech. It is probably difficult to cover everything in one speech. We must acknowledge that it is incredible that we are in a position to be able to spend the amount of money that we are spending, and to do so in many different sectors, when we are still dealing with the pandemic. Looking at other jurisdictions, including the one closest to us, we see a different story. Spending cuts are being mentioned in those countries, but we are spending more money. It would be difficult to find things in the budget to be annoyed about or to give out about. I appreciate that Opposition Members must find things to highlight that they feel could have been addressed better or further. I think it was a good budget, however. It contained a major package for childcare services. More than €700 million was allocated and we have never seen that level of investment in childcare. In addition, more than €30 million was allocated to women’s health initiatives. Similarly, I have never seen that level of spending before in a budget. The social welfare package was also remarkable, with increases right across the board.
There were also specific youth policies. The Senator mentioned youth unemployment. There will be half-priced travel for young people aged from 17 to 23. The Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant was also increased. Again, I have never seen a budget with so many specific measures addressing young people. Therefore, I, for one, thought it was a good budget. I appreciate, however, that the Senator has a job to do in highlighting certain things that were perhaps not addressed at the level she wanted them to be. I took on board what she said about the level of youth unemployment. Having a level of unemployment of 10% in the country now is not bad, considering what we have just been through. We should be relatively optimistic about that figure and that it is going to reduce.
I take on board as well what the Senator said about youth unemployment being higher. However, it is always higher than the national unemployment rate and that is normal. I accept, though, that we must reduce the level of 17%. Those impacted were generally working in the hospitality and retail areas and those are the sectors still trying to get back on their feet. The Senator will accept and appreciate, however, that the Government supports provided to businesses have been phenomenal. It is not just me saying that but also the representatives of the business community. They have felt very supported. I refer to the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Those supports ensured that people were okay in the last year and a half, that they could pay their bills and stay in touch with their employers. That did not happen in every country and we can be proud of the supports we provided to businesses. Those supports are going to continue as well. Therefore, there are positives in the budget, and not everything can be done in one budget.
Senator Gallagher raised the issue of organ donation. It is important, and I was not aware that there was a 27% reduction in deceased organ donation in 2020. This is an issue that we must address and we must speed up the promised legislation.
Senator Currie raised the issue of obesity. Only a few days ago, I heard the same figure in respect of it being projected that by 2030 some 90% of our citizens will be either obese or overweight. That is a phenomenal figure and an issue we must tackle. It is a public health issue and one that the country will end up paying for and dealing with through the health service. We must tackle it and that must happen at the earliest possible opportunity. We ensure that we are providing healthy meals and exercise opportunities to younger children through the school programme, and in other ways.
Senator Murphy respectfully commented on the passing of Paddy Moloney. Other Senators concurred with his remarks. I pay my respects and send my condolences to his family, his friends and all those who will miss him. The Senator also rightly pointed out that the budget was welcome in respect of its allocation to the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme to enable the expansion of that programme to other schools. The increased allocation of special needs assistants, SNAs, will also make a major difference to many communities.
Senator Seery Kearney raised the issue of migrant children and unaccompanied minors. The timing is apt and important. We have had this debate in recent years. Some unaccompanied minors are arriving from Moria camp, and this will be a recurring issue that the country must deal with. It is going to become more of an issue for us and we will be taking in more unaccompanied minors. We should do that, and we are not even going far enough in that regard. We should be taking in more unaccompanied minors than we are now. It is embarrassing that we are not doing an awful lot more. It is shocking to realise as well that of the 54 unaccompanied minors who have been missing since 2018, only 18 have ever been found. This aspect must be followed up. This is not a legacy issue but an immediate concern. This issue has happened in recent years. A debate with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, would be welcome in this regard.
Senator Gavan concurred with the previous comments and also paid a strong tribute to Paddy Moloney. He referred to his own experience in that regard. The whole House will agree with those comments in respect of the mark that Mr. Moloney made and the legacy he left, not just in Ireland but across the globe. He was a phenomenal musician and a superb ambassador for this country.
Senator Conway spoke about the budget. When he said we all slept on the budget, I had a picture in my mind of him sleeping on the budget book. He was right when he said that there was a bit in the budget for everybody. That has been mentioned as a criticism. I cannot understand why it is a bad thing for everybody to feel that they got something in yesterday’s budget. It should be a good thing that resources were as evenly spread as we can manage. There will always be limited resources, so the issue here concerns trying to target and to tailor spending to protect the most vulnerable. The Senator also discussed the leaking of the budget. I was listening in the car yesterday on the way to work to the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, discussing that subject with Pat Kenny on the radio. Mr. Kenny recalled what happened many years ago when the then Minister of State, Phil Hogan, mistakenly faxed the budget in advance of it being announced. At that point it was a sackable offence, whereas the details of the budget are now discussed well in advance of budget day.
The former Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, also said that it felt as though yesterday was the day after the budget, not the day of the budget. Many people love the budget season and the run up to it. Maybe the big bang of budget day has gone but perhaps the run up to it and the discussions beforehand is where the excitement is now. The Committee on Budgetary Oversight, which I sat on in the last session, and which was referred to by Senator Buttimer, gives us a chance to feed into this process. The committee produces a report with cross-party recommendations for the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance to make them aware of the views of all parties in advance of the budget. I take on board, however, what the Senator said about having that debate prior to the budget itself.
Senator Fitzpatrick referred to the issue of disinformation about the budget. She mentioned in particular the money that is being allocated and which will be spent to address the rental crisis and to help renters. It was an important point. Even if misinformation is done for political purposes, and that might be the accusation, it harms citizens because it scares people into thinking that things are not happening when they are. That is unfortunate.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of farming families and farming communities, as he often does. He referred to the climate action Bill and the need to protect rural communities and to ensure that they are vibrant. The budget contained good measures in respect of agriculture and farming. All the supports are being maintained and there is also an increase in the budget for agriculture. Senator Lombard has long been an advocate for the farming community and he will continue to undertake the role. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is keenly aware of the stresses and strains on farmers in dealing with the climate challenge.
They are very much stepping up to the mark in that regard.
Senator Buttimer raised the issue of the butcher process which I have dealt with, but also the need for a debate on the future of work which would be an interesting debate to have. There are very different views and perspective on it but there is no doubt that work has changed since the pandemic.
Senator Ahearn raised the issue of banking, an issue which he raised previously, in particular the Fethard branch which is of particular concern to constituents of the Senator, and the three Bank of Ireland branches that closed in County Tipperary. Three of them are closing in Mayo also. I understand the concern. It makes things difficult. Very often people think of retail banking as being for individuals but it really impacts on businesses in the town which need that cash facility to be able to lodge at the end of the day. That is of particular concern. A debate around banking services in rural areas is a good idea, including on how we will ensure that businesses have access to banking services in some form. That might be through post offices or credit unions, but the writing is on the wall in regard to retail banking. They are private companies. We have very little control as to where they move their operations and how they work in some regards, but we can assist the post offices and credit unions to step in and provide that service. That could be the way forward. That is a debate that needs to be had, because businesses are very worried as to how they are going to operate. Take Clonmel for example. As a tourist town it needs banking services, and having to travel long distances makes it very difficult for them.