The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice entitled Report on Victim’s Testimony in cases of rape and sexual assault, to be taken at 1 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours and, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the contribution of the proposer of the motion shall not exceed five minutes, the Chair of the committee being a Member of Dáil Éireann, or another Member of Dáil Éireann in the Chair's stead, may attend and speak to the motion for a period not exceeding 12 minutes, contributions by all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and the Chair of the committee shall be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements on the Northern Ireland protocol, to be take at 3 p.m. and to conclude at 4.30 p.m. if not previously concluded, with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes, all other Senators not to exceed four minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, Private Members' business, Criminal Justice (Public Order) (Amendment) Bill 2019 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 5.15 p.m. if not previously concluded; and No. 4, Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 5.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
We will be speaking about the Northern Ireland protocol later. There is a broader issue on the building of trust between the EU and the UK and all parties on these islands. The Brexit committee, of which the Deputy Leader is Chair, has been doing a lot of work on these issues. It is very clear that we need to have greater co-operation, North-South and east-west, among parliamentarians and diverse elements of civic society. I hope we can have this debate or discussion, particularly in the context of discussions in the shared island unit on how we can build trust, North-South and east-west, between civic groups. There is far less engagement taking place now than there was at the time of the Good Friday Agreement and beforehand. It is important.
February will mark the centenary of the founding of the Civic Guard which became the Garda Síochána. I hope the House will mark the centenary of the Garda and acknowledge the contribution of the force over the past 100 years, in particular, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives in the service of the State. It is appropriate that we have a debate on the future of policing and look at policing on this island. If we are to move towards a new constitutional arrangement on the island, what will an all-island police force look like? These are the discussions we need to start to have. How will we deal with cyberterrorism, cybersecurity and some of the new threats that society faces? Perhaps as part of our schedule for next year, we can look at events to mark the centenary of the Garda and acknowledge its contribution. We need to have a debate on the future of policing.
It is only fair to comment on the announcement last night. It is unfortunate that we are moving in a particular direction. Much Government policy had been based, correctly, on our vaccination programme. We have had a very successful vaccination programme. The Government needs to stand up for those people who have been trying to do the right thing. We need to ensure we put first the interests of people who are vaccinated and the interests of our health service. It is very clear that people who are unvaccinated are six times more likely to end up in ICU than those who are vaccinated. We need to reward and recognise those people who are doing the right thing. I do not believe it is right that we should be closing late-night facilities, provided the publicans and venues are enforcing the Covid certificate rules on the door. We need to reward and recognise those who are doing the right thing. I know some people are not able to receive the vaccine. We have to recognise and protect them. To those who are unvaccinated and who are being so selfish, the message from the Government has to be that we will stand up for those who are being responsible.
Following on from the previous speaker, we should invite the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to the House to discuss the decisions taken at Cabinet yesterday. There is a sense of frustration in the country. The Government makes its decision based on best advice but it would be timely to have a debate on yesterday's decisions, the huge success of the vaccination programme and the need to progress the booster roll-out.
I will touch on the issue of rural housing, which has a special place in the hearts of many rural people. I have no doubt that in the Deputy Leader's home county of Mayo, and certainly in Galway, it is part of our history. We can see many old homesteads and famine cottages that are a throwback to how and where we lived. Perhaps it is also evidence of land ownership in this country. When we did get control of our land it was often small parcels of land and small strips of land. Very often, it was scattered in different areas. A family's right to build on its own land is something many rural people hold dear. It provides supports in the community, with sons or daughters living close to parents or grandparents and providing family support.
We are talking about small numbers in many rural areas.
I have a concern that if we left these matters to the Custom House, there would be a total clampdown on rural housing. It is important that we debate this issue in advance of the new guidelines on rural housing. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, is working on those and I understand there will be a period of consultation next year. I call for a debate with the Minister of State on the guidelines and how they are feeding into the national planning framework and how this framework is feeding into the county development plans.
It is important that we allow families to continue to build on their own lands. This brings me to the Flemish decision in the courts, restrictions in relation to the Irish language and the strict environmental conditions that apply to building and high scenic amenity areas. There is a whole array of areas in respect of rural housing. It is an expensive process and there is a large number of refusals and appeals. It is important that we have an input on policy and that we hear from the Minister of State on the consultation that will take place in the coming months.
I thank the Deputy Leader for setting out the Order of Business. I also thank the Cathaoirleach, the Seanad staff and the staff of the Oireachtas for facilitating a very late debate in the Seanad. We will not sit until 1.15 a.m. tomorrow but we did so yesterday to deal with important legislation, the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill. It was a good debate, which there is no point in revisiting now. We move on and we will have other opportunities next week. I acknowledge the staff, the Cathaoirleach and the Senators who were or could be here and engaged in the debate.
Let me put down a marker. We talk about a family-friendly Parliament. I am not here to define what a family is - there are very mixed groupings - but people have family commitments. It is not right or proper that we sit until 1.15 a.m. to deal with legislation when we have a half-day on Tuesdays. The issue is one for discussion on another day in another forum and I will take it up again. Nonetheless, I want to put down a marker. I am always conscious that this is a public forum. Members of the public listen and see us on Oireachtas TV. I use this opportunity to communicate my messaging and I never apologise for that. This is not the way to run a Parliament. We should all take away that message, think about it and use our contacts and energy to focus on how we can reschedule our business in a way that is supportive of people. A number of Members could not be here last night because family members were sick. We need to bear that in mind. I will leave it at that.
I ask for a debate on the mother and baby institutions payment scheme announced by the Government yesterday. There are clearly some anomalies and shortcomings in the scheme. As The Irish Times stated today, there are some notable exclusions as regards eligibility. I do not intend reading out the relevant article. Suffice it to say, it is in that newspaper today and people can read it for themselves.
Yesterday, I raised illegal adoptions and birth registrations, which are very serious issues. We have to find out what happened, who can be held accountable, what institutions were involved and what was the role of the State. We often talk about the role of the church, in the broader sense of the word, but the State had a significant role in all of this. We need a frank discussion of these issues.
On the issue of illegal adoptions and birth registrations, we know the Minister has a report on his desk setting out proposals for the State response to illegal birth registrations, which he commissioned from Professor Conor O’Mahony. We need to see that report. We also need to have a frank discussion and question and answer session in the Seanad, this public arena I talk about and value so much. I ask the Deputy Leader to facilitate this. I know there are many demands but this is critically important for the people involved.
Many Senators will know Samantha Long, the administrator for the Independent Group and assistant to Senator McDowell. She was on the radio last night and also featured on "Six One News". Everyone should have a look at that programme. Ms Long, somebody who works with us and walks the corridors of this House, is telling us her story. Many people want that opportunity. As legislators and politicians, we need to ask some hard questions of the Minister. I acknowledge his commitment to first engaging with the people directly involved, the survivors, which is critically important. The sooner he comes to the House to discuss these the two issues, the better. I ask that the Deputy Leader facilitate this.
I thank the Senator for his comments on the staff of the Houses and the late hour everybody worked until last night. I pay tribute to the Senator and also to Samantha Long for articulating her story and also the stories of so many thousands of people who were failed by the State, its institutions and the churches, in the broader sense.
I will talk about transport today. We have very welcome news that there will be a 90-minute fare for Dublin. This is of great importance because we know that the transition must also mean we have a transition in transport. I do not see why we cannot have a 90-minute fare in every city. We would certainly welcome it in Galway. It costs €6 each way to travel between Galway and Athenry and people may then have to hop on a bus. There are no joined-up fares in most of our cities. I ask the Minister and the Deputy Leader to progress this issue because it is very important. It will make people get on board with the transition to a climate-just future.
Connecting Ireland was announced a couple of weeks ago. That will see a significant increase in public transport across the country. Currently, 53% of people have access to buses, which is quite a low figure. We have a very dispersed population, which speaks to the issue raised by Senator Kyne. One of the issues with one-off housing is that it is difficult to connect it from a transport point of view. With Connecting Ireland, 70% of the country will be connected, which will be a major improvement. This was part of what we included in the programme for Government.
Let us not forget that cost is a huge contributory reason for choosing a car instead of a bus. When it is cheaper to travel by car with children and then to park, it stops an awful lot of people from taking the bus. It is not just the lack of access. Let us address the two issues at the same time. This issue has been raised for years and is being addressed right now in Dublin. We have to ask when is it will be addressed in the cities outside of Dublin?
I will raise two issues. The first is the ongoing and horrendous plight of patients and staff in University Hospital Limerick. We hit a new record yesterday when there were 95 patients on trolleys and chairs. For 11 years, we have had this ongoing story of failure. Let us be absolutely clear about that. The situation continues to get worse. The numbers do not really tell the story. I had a call from a lady last week, a trade union colleague, who endured three days on a trolley before getting a bed. She then had an urgent procedure and was sent home, only to have to be readmitted on the same evening, when she faced another 24 hours on a trolley. In another example, a woman took up a bed for eight days because it was the only way she could get an MRI scan. This tells of the level of dysfunctionality in the system that is ongoing.
In theory, we are all signed up to Sláintecare. We know, therefore, that the emphasis has to be on rapidly enhancing primary care but that has not happened. A number of the people heading into the accident and emergency departments should be going somewhere else entirely. However, the failure of successive Governments to provide sufficient resources for primary care means they all end up in accident and emergency departments.
To be frank with the Deputy Leader, we need more than a debate on the matter. I would like to hear some accountability from Government politicians. Fine Gael in particular has failed the people of Limerick year on year, and the situation continues to get worse. I am really afraid we will hit the 100 mark over the coming days. All this could have been foreseen. Five months ago anyone could have told the Government we would have an extremely hard winter in our hospitals, but no plan and no significant additional resources have been put in place. It is an ongoing disaster failing the people of Limerick. I call for a debate on the matter.
The second issue I wish to raise is the Government's decision to continue to privatise local employment services. This is absolutely outrageous. People are now losing their jobs. I will quote from correspondence a lady sent to me and all other Senators. She works in Galway City Partnership. She says:
I do not want to be made redundant by the actions of ... [the Department of Social Protection] ....
I have been working with the Galway City Partnership for 7 years and I am really worried about being made redundant in 2022 by the same Department that I have effectively been working for all these years, as it seems that those at the top of the Department ... have now deemed that we in the ... Jobs Clubs are simply surplus to their requirements.
The new model the Government has put in place is a privatised model of employment services. Why are the people in this room not standing up and stopping this? We have a Minister hell-bent on privatising services across the State, and nobody on the Government side is prepared to shout "stop".
I often say when I rise to speak after a Sinn Féin Senator that I have the same issue to raise. I will also raise the local employment service because the issue is affecting the whole country and there is a time-sensitivity to it. I understand that local employment services have received an extension to their current contracts until the new year, but after the new year they are unsure where they will be. The Department of Social Protection has said to them that salary costs are too high. It seems extraordinary to me that the Department of Social Protection is saying that having decent, well-paid jobs is problematic for it. Essentially, the Department is trying to replace what is a community and individual-driven model of trying to place people in local employment with a commercial tendering model. There are certain causes of this. It will be a pay-per-placement, commercial, cost-driven model for people on the register. People coming into local employment services may have lost confidence, may have lost a job, may not have been in the workplace for a long time and may have been a carer. They will suddenly be told they have to go into inappropriate jobs for which they might not be ready or able for because the Department of Social Protection has decided to replace the current model with a commercial tendering model. One of the key parts of this is that the services are not allowed to take walk-ins. Rather than the people using the services and the staff, the services will be driven by key performance indicators, KPIs, and a bureaucrat looking at a number of indicators and ticking off boxes. That does not recognise the huge contribution local employment services have given this country over the years or the humanity of people using them. Therefore, preferably before Christmas, we need a debate on the local employment services. The issue is affecting my area particularly but other areas around the country as well.
I also wish to raise the evolving humanitarian crisis on the EU Polish-Belarusian border. It is shocking to see, in 2021, scenes from an EU member state of water-cannoning, and in some cases there are reports of tear-gassing of refugees who are trying legitimately to claim asylum from the Middle East. There is a shrugging of shoulders and comment to the effect that this is an act on the part of Belarus and of Lukashenko, who is trying to get at the EU. I do not care what Lukashenko's reasons or rationale for doing this are but I do care about the thousands of migrants on the border. Fortress Europe is not only turning them away but in many cases, it seems, violently doing so. The Polish Government has refused to engage with Frontex, the EU border agency. We need to have a debate about this here because in 2021 the way in which the European Union is treating people claiming legitimate asylum coming from the European border is an absolute disgrace. It will be a shame and a stain on us if we allow Poland to continue doing this.
I wish to speak again about the music and entertainment industry, more specifically the impact this dreadful pandemic is having on the lives of individuals employed in that industry in Ireland and, ultimately, on our heritage and our culture. I understand totally that we need to take action to curtail the spread of Covid-19, but I believe that the music and entertainment sectors have shouldered more of the burden than any other sector in this society and that this treatment is unfair. More significantly, it risks sounding the death knell of a hugely important part of Irish life. The music and entertainment industry was the first sector to close and the last to reopen.
It has been less than four weeks since restrictions were eased to such an extent that the industry felt that a lifeline was available to it. While the Government may still hold the view that the sector as a whole remains open, yesterday's announcement completely contradicts that assertion. In recent weeks, Government advice has been for individuals to take action to reduce their social contacts. Many formal settings in which people socialise have felt the knock-on implications, with many gigs seeing fewer attendees, venues seeing fewer tickets sold and some gigs being postponed or cancelled outright. The Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, reports that confidence within the industry is at an all-time low and that there is huge concern about its continued viability in light of yesterday's announcement. Musicians and entertainers who are employed in these sectors are still available to do their work, but the opportunities for them to do so are eroding week on week.
Live music in Irish pubs and restaurants does so much more for Irish society than just provide places for people to gather, to drink and to eat; it provides space for connection and conversation through stories and songs for the benefit of health and happiness and for life and love. They are a fundamental and invaluable part of the ecosystem of music and entertainment, of the arts and of our culture. Over the course of this pandemic the Government has failed to recognise the full contributions of these industries to Irish life, and that needs to change. We must not allow for their full value to be recognised only when they no longer exist.
An Taoiseach advised yesterday evening that he was of the view that these latest restrictions would not be hugely impactful on the levels of employment in the sector, but changing opening hours impacts the viability of these businesses and, therefore, the livelihoods of the people employed in them. It was also advised in the Dáil Chamber yesterday that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, will not be restored for those individuals put out of work by these latest restrictions. I cannot get my head around that decision, and I call on the Government to revisit it as a matter of absolute urgency. These businesses and their employees are real but at present they do not feel seen by our political decision-makers.
In recent speeches I have called for co-operation between the Government and stakeholders in the music and entertainment industry. I request that the Minister have an urgent meeting with all the stakeholders of this industry to discuss the implementation of essential support needs for the industry. These stakeholders need to be at the table. We have to listen to them and hear their voice. An Taoiseach invoked the old Irish seanfhocal, "Ní neart go cur le chéile", in his speech yesterday evening, and there can be no strength without unity. However, how leaving a hugely valuable part of our Irish society out in the cold can be viewed as unity is just beyond me. I call on the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to come in here and talk to us about the PUP, particularly for the music and entertainment industry and how it is being cut.
I wish to be associated with Senator Boyhan's remarks in complimenting and thanking the staff for facilitating the debate last night. However, I cannot let the occasion go, in commenting on his remarks as to why the debate went on for so long and what happened, to say I am blue in the face listening to arguments here about Bills being cut short and guillotines. On the one occasion on which we did allow seven hours to tease out legislation, I do not like hearing back that it should not have happened, and I wish to put that on the record.
Yesterday's announcements and the unfortunate rising numbers associated with Covid have been mentioned already.
We might need the Minister to come in that regard. In addition to asking for a debate on the situation with Covid-19, however, I want to speak about the idea of a booster vaccination and its efficacy. With increasing numbers in the categories that will receive a booster vaccination, the people concerned want to know the when, the where and the how of the process. There is an urgency here because almost everybody now knows of people who were doubly vaccinated and then contracted Covid-19. To be sure to be sure, then, everybody wants a booster vaccination as soon as possible.
Before I raised this subject, however, I did some research and it is not clearly stated anywhere when a booster vaccination is most effective. Is it a case of getting the third vaccination into people’s arms as quickly as possible or is it more effective if the jabs are given five or six months after the second vaccination? That is not clear now and it needs to be. A debate in this House may not make it any clearer for people out there, but there certainly must be an awareness campaign and this point must be clarified as part of it.
People who were vaccinated in June want their third dose now because it is available to them, or they think that it is. Would those people be better off waiting until December when it will be six months after their second vaccination and will it be the same for those who were vaccinated in the subsequent months? This aspect must be made very clear to people because there is an urgency in this regard. This is especially the case given there is so much awareness now of doubly-vaccinated people picking up Covid-19. People want their third booster shot as soon as possible. That might not be the most effective thing to do, however, and perhaps they should wait for the full six months, but people must be made aware of that fact.
I welcome the appointment of Kieran Mulvey to help in resolving the dispute in the Doolin Coast Guard unit. As my colleagues will be aware, that unit was stood down two weeks ago, primarily due to HR issues and the resignation of several members. Now that Kieran Mulvey has been appointed, I call on all parties to engage meaningfully with him with the objective of getting the Doolin Coast Guard unit back up and running to allow it to continue doing the vital work it has been doing for many years off the coast of Clare.
I am also deeply concerned about the situation in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, where 95 people are on trolleys. As was said earlier, this has been going on for years. The last Government responded to the situation by investing more than €25 million in a 60-bed modular unit, which was supposed to reduce the number of people on trolleys in the hospital. That unit is now up and running and fully commissioned, yet we are in a situation where we have 95 people on trolleys in the hospital in Limerick. Something is wrong somewhere.
I have called before for some independent mediator or reviewer, or somebody, to go into the hospital to find out where the stoppages are. Is it a case of people just not being discharged quickly enough, or where is the problem? I ask that because it seems to be worse in Limerick than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, I request that the Minister for health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, come in to debate the specific issue of the accident and emergency department in UHL. I would like him to come in even for just one hour some day, and to make a statement and take questions from the Senators based in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. Those are the areas where people are affected by this issue in the hospital and Senators from the region are receiving phone calls daily from people on trolleys and who are suffering greatly. It is not good enough and it is not acceptable. Accident and emergency departments around the country face challenges, but the problem has been constant in Limerick and it has been going on for years.
Yesterday, €800 million was allocated to the mother and baby homes redress scheme, and rightly so. What have we learned as a nation, however, and are the mistakes of today going to be our horror stories of tomorrow? Last week, I was horrified by the report from the national review panel on children and young people in State care. Since 2010, 236 deaths have been reported, and 56 of these were through suicide. Last year, 30 children died in care, seven through suicide. One of these, whom I knew through the emergency services, was in a residential placement home, while six were in after-care and 23 of the young people lived in communities and were known to Tusla with supported services.
Let me explain emergency services in this context. I was part of these emergency services for several years, where people spend one week on call and the next week off, before being on call again for another week. People on call for a week might get a child in the middle of the night and they keep the child for three nights. There will be somebody else to take that bed in the following three nights. These are young teenagers, unloved and unwanted, who then go into residential placements. Those placements are in a residential home, where social workers look after these children. There is no family unit or love and support network there. Children are dying today because of neglect by the State.
There are some fantastic foster parents and foster families out there, so I plead with our nation and with those who have homes, beds and spare rooms in their houses to please consider fostering these children. They come with their trials and their baggage, but there is no child that we cannot help. We must give these children every possible support. It is wrong that children are dying in the hands of the State. It is absolutely wrong that they are taking their own lives because they see no way out of the system they are in. They might be coming into that system with a plastic bag full of their belongings. This is 2021, and here we have children coming into us with a plastic bag, having left home with not even a suitcase. They are revolving through the system and may end up in care for a year and a half before finding a placement, and in that time going from house to house without getting a permanent home. Therefore, we must learn about the mistakes we made in the past, but these are the mistakes we are making today. I hope the Leader can press people to consider fostering and opening their houses and their hearts to a young person.
Senators will understand that I allowed more time for that topic because of Senator Keogan's personal involvement in this area and her commitment to helping the most vulnerable children in our community by raising a topic that many people would not be aware of regarding the number of children dying in the care of State. I thank her for raising this issue. I call Senator McGreehan.
I acknowledge the publication of the mother and baby homes institutional payment scheme. I welcome the scheme, and I ask that we have a debate on it, its importance and what went into the making of it. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, undertook a great deal of work to get that scheme published yesterday. I refer as well to the consultation he has been doing since he took up office to get this scheme over the line.
I reiterate the importance of the church paying up in this regard. We have provided €800 million to these worthy women and children. The church owes them an acknowledgement and it also owes the State. The church should pay up for the wrongs that were done unto these women as well. Let us not forget that every single woman was paid for by the State. These institutions were paid to look after these women and children. Each one of them had a capitation price on their heads. Not one worker in those homes was hungry. They were all fed. Those homes might have been classed as charities, but they were in no way charities. They tortured and abused these women, and the women and children deserve every single cent they get.
I also highlight that GlaxoSmithKline also benefited from clinical trials done on children in those homes and that company should also be paying up. We do not know how much money it gained from these illegal trials and that company deserves to be answerable in that regard.
I echo the comments made by Senator Keogan in respect of encouraging people to get into foster care. I had an opportunity to meet many foster families in Tipperary when I was a councillor. The work they do is incredible and the love and support they give to these kids is phenomenal. The Senator does a great deal of excellent work in that field and I support her call.
I ask that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, be invited to the Chamber at some point to speak about cycleways and walkways around the country. The Government is investing a significant amount in cycleways and walkways. The Deputy Leader will know from her own area how this benefits a region. In Mayo, the greenway is very well known, as is the one in Waterford. In Tipperary, we have what is called a blueway, which goes from Carrick-on-Suir to Clonmel. It has been very beneficial since it was opened, which was just before Covid, two years ago. The mayor of Carrick-on-Suir, Councillor Mark Fitzgerald, and I are doing a lot of work in conjunction with Tipperary County Council and Waterford County Council to join the blueway and greenway together. The greenway is going to be extended from Waterford city to Portlaw, which is about 12 km from Carrick-on-Suir. Connecting the greenway to the blueway in Tipperary will be advantageous in the promotion of the towns of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel and the wider region.
I live on St. Declan’s Way, a walkway from Cashel to Ardmore in Waterford. The promotion of that route over the past year has been dramatic. I have seen so many people walking past my house every day with hiking boots. They go up the Knockmealdowns and on towards Waterford. If we can promote the cycleways that are being developed and constructed as attractions for foreign tourists, there will be a great advantage for the country. I refer to the promotion of the scenic areas outside Dublin so we can bring tourists to towns such as Clonmel, Cashel, Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford. If, as a Government, we harnessed an approach in this regard, I would be very grateful.
I want to raise the supports being offered to businesses affected by yesterday’s announcement. The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, currently makes businesses that receive restart grants ineligible for further payments, as the majority of Members of this House will be aware. That needs to be changed as a matter of urgent priority, within the next 24 to 48 hours. Effectively, premises with late-night licences, such as nightclubs, will have to close due to yesterday’s decision, and others will have their incomes severely reduced. The CRSS restriction affecting businesses that have received restart grants must be removed. We must make the CRSS open to businesses immediately.
The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, must be restored for impacted employees of these businesses. As Senator Black outlined, the live music sector must be included at once. The sector has been hammered by Covid, and thousands of small businesses face a genuine battle to survive a crisis not of their own making. After yesterday’s announcement, some businesses had been shut for over 500 days before having been open for just 27 days. We must make every effort and provide every support possible to ensure these businesses have a fair chance of survival. The employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, needs to be extended for at least the first quarter of next year for businesses in the sector. It simply cannot be accepted that other sectors rightly had the opportunity to avail of the scheme for over a year as they rebuilt while businesses in the music sector had 27 days in which it could be used. In general, the hospitality sector needs critical support. I call on the Government to offer this at once.
I want to talk about antigen testing. This is an issue I have raised on many occasions in the House. I welcome the extension of antigen testing to schools, but I feel it is not going far enough. In the UK an individual can order seven antigen tests and QR codes for a household and report the results of the tests. We are just not going far enough. I realise there is a great cost involved. The cost is not as much as that associated with PCR testing, but if we invest in antigen testing we will be able to keep our economy open and we will not need lockdowns of the kind we had before. Ultimately, people need to take personal responsibility. Many people are doing that. In this building, for instance, we are not allowed to bring in stakeholders or to have meetings on the premises. If we had access to antigen testing, we could be facilitated in going ahead with our business. We have to continue governing, scrutinising and legislating. Antigen testing in this climate would play a huge role. I urge the Cathaoirleach to raise this with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission so we will not have to go back to the conference centre. Ultimately, this would save money for the Exchequer as there would be no rental cost. Antigen tests have a huge role to play. We are not doing enough. I encourage the Government to roll out antigen testing on a much more widespread basis.
It is World Prematurity Day today. I thank all the nurses and doctors working in neonatal intensive care units and special care baby units around the country. It is amazing that babies weighing as little as 500 g now survive and have a great chance, thanks to science, awareness and the contributions that many medics and scientists have made. I congratulate the parents of premature babies. The babies are hard to mind and have to be fed, watered and cleaned every two hours. It is a huge task for parents.
As the pandemic goes on, many sectors will have been affected. Many Members have spoken about how the entertainment sector and late-night bars will be affected, but in the past ten days I have become aware of how the charity sector has been grossly affected by the pandemic. Local branches of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and local parishes may have two ways of raising money, one being raffles and the other being church-gate collections. As the House is aware, church-gate collections have been ceased over the past 18 months. This is a busy time of the year for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It is dealing with the vulnerable and others who need help and support. Unfortunately, the society’s funds are depleted because of the pandemic and the inability to collect money. Members of this House could do a body of work to help to promote the cause and the idea that the next six weeks will be an important six weeks for society. There is great need in society. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has a great understanding of where that need is. At parish level, it knows exactly who is vulnerable and needs support. I see this in my own parish. It would help if we could do a body of work in the next six weeks to promote the good work of the society, particularly at parish level, so it can identify the people who require help so they may have, I hope, a peaceful, safe and prosperous Christmas. The society buys fuel and Christmas presents and gives food vouchers. I call on the House to do everything it can to help the society to raise its profile, particularly in the next six weeks.
I support Senator Ardagh’s call, on World Prematurity Day, for us to commend all who work in our hospitals and to support the parents – the women and their partners – who require considerable support. There is an urgent need for us to have an updated premature baby strategy. As Senator Ardagh said, medical science has evolved and babies as light as 500 g are now surviving and living to tell their story. That is to be commended.
It is important that we have a genuine debate on living with Covid. I spoke yesterday in the House on the HSE’s winter plan. Yesterday the Government announced changes to the framework. There are legitimate concerns over the night-time economy, which includes pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. There is a huge lacuna regarding antigen testing and its roll-out. Those of us who are members of the transport committee have been calling for the introduction of antigen testing since the summer of 2020. There is an issue in our schools that needs to be addressed in respect of contact tracing, the role of teachers and the question of whether they stay out or come back. There needs to be communication and messaging by the Government on that issue.
I ask that next week we set aside time to start a rolling debate with the Minister for Social Protection on the pandemic unemployment payment. The debate should also involve the Ministers with responsibility for jobs, education and health. It is important we do that because this is something we must get right. The people have responded to the guidance of the Government in the past and they will this time too. How is it, for example, there was no guidance given on the wearing of masks or face coverings for sporting events? We all know county finals are happening in every county this month. Why was no clarity given on that yesterday? It is important we have a rolling debate on living with Covid-19.
Yesterday, I spoke about the frustration I was experiencing with respect to vaccine boosters. I was contacted shortly afterwards by a member of the public who heard what I said and he was, in effect, a facsimile of my case as his underlying conditions mirrored mine. His consultant told him to contact his GP and get vaccinated. He contacted the GP but was not on any list he could find so he contacted the HSE helpline. By the time he contacted me yesterday, the man was extremely angry. I said I would try it myself today and I rang the number this morning. I had to ring twice because I made a mistake in one of the number of options. It was 34 minutes and 32 seconds before I got a reply from a human being, and that is simply not good enough.
Older people who are concerned or worried about their condition and vaccine booster cannot be left for 34 minutes on the phone. The person who contacted me was a lot longer on the phone and he claimed he had been somewhere close to an hour on the call. At the end of the call, all I got was that my name would be put on a list. That was after 34 minutes and 32 seconds and it is bloody well not good enough.
The Deputy Leader is a former member of the Defence Forces and will understand what I am about to mention. There has been €40 million saved by the Exchequer because we are not promoting people in the Defence Forces. There are almost 700 non-commissioned officer vacancies that remain unfilled. We can add to this the number of people we have not recruited, and all this brings us to the €40 million. One wonders if we are saving money on personnel to buy hardware such as ships and the like. Just think of what that €40 million would do for the families who are struggling. The Deputy Leader knows the rank system better than I do so she would have some sympathy with those who serve in the Defence Forces on that. I hope we might use that €40 million in a better way.
I rise today to follow up the conversation we had yesterday on University Hospital Limerick. I know it has been raised in the House a couple of times already today. I know it has been suggested there are a lack of resources and investment from the Government, particularly the Fine Gael Government, but I remind Senators on the other side of the House that more than 110 beds have been provided in the past 12 months at University Hospital Limerick. This is not about resources and there is something wrong at University Hospital Limerick. I feel so sorry for the patients and worry for their safety. I also think of the staff and their working conditions.
Major investment has been made at the hospital, with two extensions made to the building. There have been almost 900 people on trolleys over the past 12 months, and there are 75 people on trolleys today after 95 people being on trolleys yesterday. There is definitely something wrong. Are people not being discharged quickly enough? Examples have been given here of people attending unnecessarily or perhaps just to get on a waiting list. There must be an approach from the bottom up or the top down. I asked yesterday and several times before that the Minister be brought in to discuss the matter.
At this stage I support the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, which has called for an independent review and for somebody to be brought in from outside to look at what is happening in the hospital. Maybe there could be a fresh approach. I am not condemning anybody working there or anything like that because everybody is doing their best. I really feel we need a fresh approach and way of looking at University Hospital Limerick. That is for the safety of patients and the people accessing those services. There are 562 beds in the hospital alone and there are four other hospitals in the same group with more than 200 beds. We need an independent assessment now.
I have two matters to raise and the first is in respect of vaccines. Other Senators have mentioned the importance of the booster programme, but there are certain people falling between the cracks. For example, I am aware of one individual who was hospitalised and therefore missed the appointment with her GP and did not have the opportunity to avail of the booster vaccine from her GP. Those vaccines do not appear to be administered in hospital, so can something be done to ensure people do not miss out because of that and to ensure we have the greatest possible coverage? I agree with colleagues who have said we must advance this process and progress it as much as possible.
The second matter I wanted to mention is the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year. We as a House and as part of the Legislature should be making clear our difficulties, as indicated by several Senators, with the manner in which China conducts its business on the international stage. The Olympics next year will be an opportunity for us at the diplomatic level to make a very clear statement that we diplomatically boycott those games and send the message that Ireland, while not affecting its competitors, will not at an official level support the Chinese hosting of these games. Were there to be such support, with it would come an endorsement of Chinese activities around the Uighur minority and the attitude to freedom of speech and expression in Hong Kong, not to mention the country's attitude to Taiwan etc. I call for a debate on the matter so we can make a very clear statement on this as a House and as legislators that we have serious difficulty with this. We should call through that debate for a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics next year.
I associate myself with the remarks from Senator Ward on China and the Winter Olympics next year. I rise today to speak to two related matters, both concerning our attitude to public transport, its provision and how the National Transport Authority, NTA, engages with communities.
On 28 November this year there are changes in bus routes being effected under BusConnects in Dublin city. One example is the changes that will occur in Chapelizod and such places. In town, people have a variety of bus routes to get to Chapelizod but from 28 November they will only have one. The connectivity between Chapelizod and Lucan, where many children go to school, will be broken because the direct route has been broken.
I have throughout this process challenged the NTA's engagement with the public and its public consultation has been deeply flawed. One cannot have proper public consultation when people have not been able to mingle or get out and about and when there was a very controlled Zoom environment. Communities have repeatedly put forward their case and explained it. There have been some minor amendments to try to plámás people but there has been no real engagement with the community and its needs.
A community like Chapelizod has had connectivity for the children but after 28 November people will have to choose to get into their cars to drive. We have huge momentum in the transferring of modalities to public transport from private transport, but at the same time we are creating a position where cars are going to be essential for the movement and collection of children who are too young to get two buses when they can get one now. It seems ridiculous.
I appeal for the Seanad to write to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to demand he makes the NTA connect with communities and listen to them effectively. They have a right to be heard.
I join others in acknowledging the staff who facilitated the late sitting last night.
I will put on record my thanks to Tegus, which is a US-headquartered company that announced this morning that it is locating its headquarters for the Europe, Middle East and Africa, EMEA, market in Waterford city with the creation of up to 100 jobs over the next two years. This is a great vote of confidence in Waterford city as a location for inward investment and a further shot in the arm for the growing technology sector in the south east. It is another announcement of jobs backed by the Industrial Development Authority, IDA, on the back of recent announcements by Bausch and Lomb, Repligen and Horizon Therapeutics. More than 410 jobs have been announced for Waterford city over recent months and that is very welcome. What makes this announcement stand out a little more than the others is that Tegus is a new IDA client company entering Waterford. I heard the vice-president of the EMEA operation on local radio this morning and he said that Waterford was chosen over Dublin for the EMEA headquarters and the associated jobs on the basis of the quality of life in Waterford, the lower cost of living for employees and the ability to get high-quality staff within the region. It is a very welcome boost. It is important to say that, over the last decade, the number of IDA jobs within Waterford has increased from 5,217 to 7,875 as of the end of last year. I look forward to that upward trend continuing among the client companies of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland.
I thank all of the Members who contributed on the Order of Business this morning. Senator Malcolm Byrne kicked off the debate this morning. He spoke about the work the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU has been doing to build trust between the EU and the UK and between Ireland and the UK throughout the Brexit process. It is incumbent on all of us to build that trust. He also spoke about the need for greater co-operation. I fully endorse his comments and agree with him on that. There is a greater role for the Seanad in that. We should link in more and better with our colleagues in Northern Ireland and across the water. We have the ability to do that and we probably need to reach out a little bit more. We have begun that work in the committee and we can certainly continue with it.
I concur with the Senator's remarks on celebrating the centenary of An Garda Síochána. Perhaps we could put that matter on the agenda for discussion at the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight to see what the House can do to commemorate that point in history.
With regard to restrictions and the vaccination programme, I agree with the Senator on putting vaccinated persons first. Perhaps late-night venues were the low-hanging fruit. There are other areas where people are mingling and meeting each other. It is down to personal responsibility but those who have been vaccinated absolutely deserve credit for doing the right thing and protecting themselves and, more importantly, protecting others.
Senator Kyne requested a discussion with Deputy Stephen Donnelly with regard to the restrictions and a debate on matters relating to health in general. The idea of a general debate on health was also raised by Senator Buttimer. Other Senators, to whom I will come later, spoke about the booster programme. A request has been made to the Minister to have a debate on health before the Christmas recess. He will be in the Chamber next week to discuss matters related to scoliosis but that debate will be too short to expand into other issues. We will try to get a second debate with him. His office usually facilitates his coming to the House. I hope to have that debate before the Christmas recess.
Senator Kyne also raised the issue of rural housing. I fully agree with his remarks on the importance of the right to build on family land and how important that is to people in rural communities. I will certainly make that request to Deputy Peter Burke, the Minister of State responsible for local government, with regard to the guidelines on rural housing we are expecting. I may also request a further debate with the Minister on the national planning framework and how it impacts on county development plans.
Senator Boyhan thanked the staff for facilitating last night's late sitting. Other Members concurred with those remarks and I will also join in them. I thank the staff for facilitating the House in sitting until almost 1.30 a.m. last night to deal with really important legislation. It was a late sitting. The Senator raised the issue of the family-friendly forum. A report has been published in that regard. Members of this House sat on that forum, which was put together by the Ceann Comhairle. Recommendations have been made as to how we can make this House and the other House more family-friendly. I hope those recommendations are acted upon in the near future.
The Senator also spoke about the compensation scheme for survivors of mother and baby homes that was announced yesterday by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. He also spoke about the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2021, which is due before the House, and the contributions of Samantha Long, whom all of us in this House know and are very friendly with, on "Six One News". I commend her on her comments and contribution. We have to take stock and listen to those who have been directly impacted by this. We believe the Bill will be initiated in the Seanad. We hope to have a debate on it in this House before Christmas. A separate debate has been scheduled with the Minister for Tuesday, 30 November, on the scheme that was announced. We will have full debates on both of these issues in the House before the end of the year. Senator Keogan and Senator McGreehan also raised the issue of the mother and baby homes. That debate is happening.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the 90-minute fare for Dublin and asked why we are not extending that policy beyond Dublin city. That is a very pertinent question. The Senator put some striking statistics before the House such as the fact that only 53% of the country is connected by bus. Connecting Ireland, the new policy on bus connections for the country, will increase that figure to 70%, which is very welcome.
Senator Gavan spoke about an issue in University Hospital Limerick, as did Senators Conway and Maria Byrne. The situation is grave. I am familiar with it. It has been widely publicised. I concur with the comments of all the Senators on the difficulties facing staff and particularly the patients who are in that situation. I do not know what is going on. Money has been put into the hospital. I know that from the last term, although I was not in government at that time. There has been investment so something else must be going on there, although we do not know what that is. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation is calling for a review and that could be welcome. I am not sure how having statements in this House as the first port of call would benefit the situation. I suggest that the Senators who have raised the issue seek a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, as a group. They might also invite hospital management. They need to get around the table with management, the Minister and the representatives for that area. That might bear more fruit. When representatives for Mayo and I had a meeting with the Minister and the management of Mayo University Hospital, it was really useful. We got a lot out of it and got down to the nitty-gritty of the issues. Perhaps the Senators could do likewise but, if they are still requesting a debate, we will certainly put that request in. I just make that suggestion to the Senators who mentioned the matter this morning.
Senator Gavan also raised issues regarding the local employment services, as did Senator Moynihan. I am not fully up to speed on all of the local employment services across the country. There are different issues in different counties. However, I know the Attorney General advised in the last term that there had to be a tendering process. I accept that may not be the answer the Senators want to hear but that is what I have been informed of. There was an examination of whether the status quo could be maintained. I have been contacted by my local employment service so I know it is a really important issue for those working in the service, who do a fantastic job. Perhaps the Senators could initially table a Commencement matter to see if we could get a direct response on the matter. A further debate may then be required.
Senator Moynihan raised the issue of the local employment services and then spoke about the issue of the Polish-Belarusian border, which I raised yesterday, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis there. I concur with the Senator's remarks. It is simply not okay for Poland to take the actions it is taking. I appreciate it is under pressure and it did not bring this situation upon itself but this is still a humanitarian crisis. There are people, human beings, at that border who need to be cared for and looked after. It is a European Union border and other member states need to step up and assist Poland as a friend and fellow member state in dealing with that situation. It must be a priority to look after the welfare of those in that situation and at that border. The Senator made a very good point.
Senator Black spoke about the live music and entertainment sector, as she has often done in this House. She spoke very passionately about the area. I have no doubt those who work in the sector are reeling after the imposition of restrictions and an early closing time yesterday. It is just not possible to run a nightclub that closes at 12 midnight. It is not practical. It is a really difficult situation for those who work in entertainment, including artists, singers and musicians. It is incumbent on the Minister for Social Protection to engage with that sector specifically and to see what supports are appropriate because it is just not that easy for those who work in it to get other employment.
I also take on board comments from the retail and hospitality sectors, which are really struggling to get staff. It is a matter of striking the right balance. Rightly or wrongly, representatives of these sectors have suggested that the pandemic unemployment payment is a factor making it difficult to get staff where there are vacancies. Another solution could be found but the Minister has to engage with the sector and find out how to help those working in it, who cannot simply get another job.
They are artists who are working in the live entertainment sector. They are in a unique position and have been for a very long time. I appreciate how difficult that is.
Senator Paul Daly raised the issue of the vaccine programme, especially the booster vaccine and the clarity required in that regard. Senator Ward raised a similar issue. We requested a debate on health with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, which will hopefully take place before Christmas. That issue about the vaccine programme, particularly booster vaccines, could be discussed with the Minister.
Senator Conway welcomed the appointment of Kieran Mulvey to the dispute relating to the Doolin Coast Guard unit. We all join with him in that and hope that the issue can be resolved expediently now. The Senator also raised the issue of Limerick hospital.
Senator Keogan, aside from raising the issue of mother and baby homes, spoke about the fostering situation. I was struck by what she said. I know she has worked in that area and helped many children over the years. I agree with her. I have some knowledge of that area from local issues. Not enough is being done. There should be a recruitment campaign to the wider public. I do not believe I have ever seen information on how to become a foster parent or what is involved. There should be a call put out to the public, as the Senator did this morning. I have not seen that done in the mainstream media or local spaces. There is a job for Tusla to do in reaching out to the public and having a new campaign around fostering in order to try to get more people into the system. The Senator is right. The numbers she highlighted, namely, 30 children dying in the past year alone, seven of them by suicide, represent an absolute failure on the part of the State to look after those children in their most vulnerable time. I have no doubt the Senator is correct in that the fact they do not have loving, stable homes is the primary reason that these children are in that desperate situation. It is a black mark against the State, and we have to do something about it. The figures speak for themselves.
Senator McGreehan spoke about and welcomed the mother and baby home scheme. She acknowledged the work done by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in putting that scheme together. There are challenges being faced and we will wait for the debate on that to hear what the Minister has to say. We will get contributions from all Senators on that scheme and see how it is received in the days and weeks ahead.
Senator Ahearn raised the issue of transport and asked for a debate with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on greenways and walkways. He spoke about a blueway and a greenway connection between Waterford and his area of Tipperary. It is an exciting project. Senator Seery Kearney also raised the issue of transport. A debate with the Minister is definitely required because there are many developments in transport, be that in rural transport, BusConnects, Connecting Ireland or the changing of routes. There is a lot happening and, I agree with the Senator, there has not been a proper public consultation because it just was not possible. We need to listen to communities because, at the end of the day, we are there to serve communities and not just foist a new system upon them that may not work for them.
Senator Crowe spoke about the need for supports for business following restrictions, which linked in with what Senator Black raised. Senator Crowe spoke, in particular, about the CRSS and the restart grants and the anomaly that is these are as easy to access. The Senators is looking for that matter to be resolved.
Senator Ardagh spoke about antigen testing, the need to extend it more broadly and to remove the cost barrier to antigen testing. She also spoke about today being World Prematurity Day, as did Senator Buttimer. We commend the staff working in the neonatal units and the parents of premature babies, and acknowledge their work today.
Senator Lombard spoke about the charity sector and the difficult period it has experienced in the past year and a half. He put out a call to people to support their local Society of St. Vincent de Paul and local charities at this difficult time.
Senator Buttimer asked for a specific debate on living with Covid. Again, we could tie that in with the debate with the Minister for Health that we hope to have before the end of the year.
Senator Craughwell spoke about the booster vaccine. He also spoke about the extensive vacancies within the Defence Forces. There are 700 non-commissioned officer, NCO, vacancies and many others in the officer ranks. According to his calculations, that amounts to a €40 million - what could be termed as a saving - lack of expenditure by the Department of Defence due to those positions not being filled. There are issues around a lack of NCOs and officers in the context of just running the organisation and discipline within it. When one sees reports such as that in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times, one can see that there are definitely problems in the Defence Forces which need to be addressed.
Senator Maria Byrne spoke about the hospital in Limerick, which I have dealt with. Senator Ward spoke about the vaccine as well as the Winter Olympics in Beijing and requested a diplomatic boycott. The Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, has already indicated that neither he nor officials from his Department will attend the Olympics and that he is awaiting a response from the Department of Foreign Affairs, which we expect to receive in the near future. I concur with the Senator's remarks in that we cannot be seen to be endorsing what China is doing on human rights violations, a lack of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and on its actions in respect of Taiwan.
Senator Seery Kearney spoke about public consultation not taking place, especially in the context of an issue that arose in Chapelizod which I am not personally aware of. I take on board what she said about the loss of connectivity for that area. It seems quite stark. Those involved seem to have got that wrong and need to go back to the drawing board on it.
Senator Cummins spoke about the company in Waterford, Tegus, that announced 100 jobs for Waterford. That is fantastic for Waterford city. I say "Well done" to the company and I wish the area and the people who will take up those jobs well. There have been more than 400 job announcements for the city. It is fantastic to see the regeneration and renewal of the city and surrounding areas. It is great for the south east.