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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 1 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 1

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 1 p.m., and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 2.15 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair; No. 91, motion 2, Private Members' business, motion regarding human rights in China, to be taken at 2.30 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 2, statements on Covid-10 and the new measures from the Department Health, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude no later than 6.30 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, all Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

To clarify, in regard to No. 1, the end of that proposal should read,", which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by Government."

I call on Senator Fiona O'Loughlin.

I support the Order of Business as outlined by the Deputy Leader. I join with Lucy Kennedy and Auntie Bessie in wishing all aunties around the country a very happy aunties' day. I have the privilege of being auntie to 17 nieces and nephews. Aunties play a very important role in our lives, and thanks to Auntie Bessie for heralding that.

I want to raise a number of issues. On Garda numbers in Kildare, and particularly in South Kildare, we have consistently had the lowest number of gardaí in the country and it is telling in terms of the number of crimes and burglaries and the antisocial behaviour that we very sadly have on our streets. To do a very quick comparison on the numbers, Tullamore, a town with 24,951 people, has three inspectors, nine sergeants and 73 gardaí. Portlaoise, with a population of 31,794, has six inspectors, 24 sergeants and 128 gardaí. Newbridge, with a population of 30,645, has one inspector, two sergeants and 44 gardaí, of which 13 are on a national team, so we have only 30 gardaí on the beat. You can imagine, in terms of trying to give 24-hour cover, how that impacts on the patrolling and on stopping criminal and bad behaviour. It is wrong. Athy is short nine gardaí. We have always had the lowest number and it is time we got our fair share of gardaí.

The Deputy Leader facilitated a meeting last night on the National Women's Council and issues that impact on women around the country, and I thank her for that. The National Women's Council spoke about the latest report on vulnerable women, and particularly migrant women, and a point was very well made by Councillor Deirdre Cullen from Kilkenny, on the role of the home school liaison. I am an incredible believer in the home school liaison programme which is fantastic. However, for many vulnerable women, and indeed for migrant women, their only point of contact may be the home school liaison teacher, and that is in only schools that have delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, status.

Every single school in the country should have a home school liaison teacher. It is important to make that call here.

The final point I will make relates to the substitute crisis in schools, which affects Kildare as much as anywhere else. It is making everybody's job in school difficult. The inspectors need to go back into the classroom to teach. There are 200 inspectors. They are experienced teachers, and they can bring a lot to schools, classrooms and staff rooms. They need to be redeployed back into the classroom.

The Deputy Leader is welcome. I call for a debate in the coming weeks on the winter plan that was agreed by the Cabinet and published in recent weeks. Thanks to you, a Chathaoirligh, I raised it in a Commencement debate and at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health. I refer to the situation in the Saolta University Health Care Group and the fact that no acute beds are being provided this winter under the winter plan, despite 205 beds being provided nationally and the fact that one in eight patients on trolleys in the eight-week period leading up to the publication of the plan were in Galway. Despite that, no acute beds were provided.

A related issue is the lack of carers. We are not talking about hours or funding, we are talking about a physical lack of carers to do this very important work in the home care sector. I received a response from community healthcare west stating that due to a shortage of healthcare support assistants, HCSAs, the HSE is currently challenged to cover the extra allocation of hours. I had raised the case on behalf of the mother of a very worthy individual. We often debate issues where the concern is a lack of funding but this is due to a lack of availability of staff. The reply in this case is that the home support manager is making every effort to source HCSAs so that the full allocation can be delivered. The HSE national office has approved an additional 54 whole-time equivalents for healthcare support assistants for community healthcare west. As part of the winter plan, we need a debate on what the Government is doing to source carers to provide the very important work that they carry out in communities. All families at some stage will need the additional supports provided by carers in the healthcare system.

On another matter, I attended the health committee this morning, which addressed the issue of drugs. We were told by the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign in Dublin that the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy is writing the community sector role out of the strategy. At a meeting this Friday, the Department of Health intends to remove community and voluntary networks from their representative roles in the strategy and we were told that it will happen without review, rationale or discussion. It is calling on the Government not to allow this to happen. This is a matter of urgency. At the committee I requested a meeting with the Minister for Health and his officials to explain why this is happening. There must be a rationale for any major change in policy like this. I ask that the Deputy Leader would write to the Minister of State with responsibility for the drugs strategy as a matter of urgency in advance of Friday's meeting.

I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, as is my colleague, Senator Buttimer. We have been speaking to the Coast Guard in recent meetings and a number of serious issues have arisen, some of which I have forwarded on to the Garda, and I will speak with them about more issues today.

Caitríona Lucas, may she rest in peace, was lost in Kilkee. There had been warnings around the time she was lost. Several issues have been brought to our attention concerning Rescue 116 regarding a failure to act on warnings that were given. Today, three issues must be dealt with immediately. I ask that the Minister comes to this House this evening, tomorrow morning, tomorrow evening or Friday. I do not care when it is, but he must know and take responsibility for the boat that is currently operating out of Howth. The boat came from Kilkee to Howth and was refitted when it arrived in Howth. I understand the engines that were fitted are considerably heavier than the ones that were originally designed for the boat, with the result that the stern of the boat was low in the water. To rectify this, lead was put into the bow of the boat. The boat is now operating without the certification to which it is entitled. I am told by experts who operate in this area that, as we speak today, lives are at risk in Howth. Each boat is fitted with two of everything: two radios, two GPS systems and two engines but there is only one isolation switch on the boat. I understand the switch became faulty or was damaged on the boat in Howth, which meant that the boat itself had to be recovered and I understand this is putting people's lives at risk.

The third issue I want to put on the record today is the sea anchor that has been put into service. The function of a sea anchor is to keep the boat head-on into the waves. I understand that the sea anchor that is currently in use turns the boat broadside and all you need is a wave slightly higher than the width of the boat, and it will flip the boat over. We have had serious accidents. We could talk about them all day long, starting in Dingle with life jackets. We know that the life jackets were withdrawn.

I am putting on the record of the House today that there are three urgent issues that must be dealt with immediately. Those boats must be inspected and if the issues that have been brought to my attention are factual, then the boats must be taken out of service and the crews must be stood down until a marine engineer certifies that they are suitable for use. We need the Minister to come to the House because a plethora of other things has been brought to my attention in recent days. These are volunteers putting their lives at risk. I know the Deputy Leader was a volunteer for a long time in the Defence Forces, so she understands the commitment of volunteers. If she does not mind, I ask that the Minister comes in.

Senator Craughwell raises some very concerning reports. I agree with him that the Minister should be brought in, at the very least to hear those issues and engage with them before ultimately, hopefully, speedily addressing them.

I send best wishes and congratulate the people of Barbados on becoming a republic on 30 November. I wonder if you could write to the new President of Barbados, a Chathaoirligh, if you have not done so already. It would not be like you to miss the opportunity.

I am writing already. You might be invited over.

You might send best wishes from the whole of the Seanad, as opposed to just from yourself.

He can quote Rihanna.

You can write to Rihanna too.

Is Senator Ó Donnghaile looking for us all to be invited to Barbados?

That is an entirely different subject altogether, one I will not raise on this occasion. In all seriousness, not only do I commend Barbados on this move but I have really enjoyed and have been greatly informed by the discussions they have been having on their colonial history and how they move positively to a post-colonial era. It has been inspiring to listen to that and I wish them every success for the future.

This week too, we heard from the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in a very hopeful and positive contribution that she plans to hold a referendum on Scotland's independence in 2023.

Would that be a post-colonial matter as well?

Here is hoping. Members will also have seen the correspondence from the Taoiseach's office marking a year of the shared island initiative. He touched on that in his remarks in the Seanad recently. There is merit in us having a very specific focused discussion about the shared island initiative in its first year and the events it is planned to hold in the coming year as well. The weekend's Red C poll showed that 65% of respondents supported the establishment of a citizens' assembly to look at the need for constitutional change.

All of these realignments are happening here in Ireland, close to home in Scotland and far away in Barbados as well. If there is one lesson for us it is that we prepare, engage, include and talk and that we plan. There is positive merit in doing that. We should play a leading role in doing that and look at best practice around the world.

I think that a discussion around our shared island and, indeed, on the future of our shared island would be very appropriate, timely and worthwhile.

I want to raise the issue of the 40th anniversary of the emergence of another pandemic, which is the AIDS pandemic. Today is World AIDS Day and it is important that we mark the day in this Chamber, in particular the stigma that still surrounds HIV and AIDS. When HIV and AIDS first emerged in the late 1980s it was a pandemic that was laden with both moral and social judgment. I am somebody who grew up in the early 1990s in an area of Dublin that was very affected by HIV and AIDS and I believe that it is important to recognise how far we have come, particularly in terms of treatment. If one does not have a viral load and the virus is undetectable then it is not transmissible. We must also recognise that the provision of Covid healthcare means that there has been a drop in the number of people being diagnosed with HIV between 2018 to 2020. Therefore, I ask people to get tested if they suspect they may have HIV. It is an illness that one can live with. One can have a long and healthy life as long as one can access the drugs that manage the virus. On that latter point, it is important to recognise the discriminatory practices that are still in place in some countries.

In terms of people travelling, we saw people lose their heads on Thursday and flights from South Africa were banned because that country was ahead in sequencing the new variant. Somehow flights from a few countries in Africa to Europe have been banned so now it is worthwhile to ask the following question. If the sequencing had been identified in a European country or another country would we have been as quick to ban flights from coming here? It is important that we mark this matter.

I want to raise the issue of the participants in community employment services who were outside this place yesterday. In particular, I wish to refer to the shift from local employment services, a not-for-profit enterprise, to a tender system. The Department needs to examine this matter again. The tenders are meant to go out this month and the local employment services have a stay of execution that lasts 12 weeks. The Department needs to shift its focus and what it considers to fully support local employment services and resource community employment schemes. Unfortunately, the Department seems hell bent on pursuing a privatised approach. This matter was discussed in the Dáil last night and it is important that we have a discussion on the impact on local employment services this month before the tenders are published. People in many communities around this city and around the country are extremely worried about the shift from a locally-based local employment service to a for-profit and per placement service.

I want to raise the issue of the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy, NDS. There are four community voluntary networks and each of them is designated as a core constituent of the NDS. They are all due to be removed from the oversight committee. I think this is one part of what has been, for a number of years, an attempt to dismantle the community voice, dissent, agency and advocacy from all structures within that Department. We say that there is no rationale to it but I feel having listened to people on the ground and in the community that this feels like people are being silenced and a pushing out of community involvement in decision-making. It feels like there has been a concerted effort for many years, and one which seems to have been ramped up very recently, to pull decision-making back so centrally that people are not being empowered to make decisions within their own communities in terms of meeting their own needs.

The aim of removing any kind of independent, questioning or dissenting voice within the community is extremely worrying. That is especially so in a democracy where collective decision-making and input is a key component of who we are and what we do. For me, as someone who comes from the community sector and still works very much in the community sector, I feel that we are the experts. We bear the brunt. We carry the history. We know the knowledge. We know what is needed. We know what basic needs are not being met. We feel the trauma. We bury our loved ones. We respond to the overdoses. However, every single time that we look to involve ourselves in the key structures we are blocked at every move. That is so wrong and worrying. To be honest, it feels that in the past two Governments we have had Ministers who stood by and watched civil servants call all the shots that allowed this to happen. I do not think that is okay. If the civil servants want to run for politics to make those decisions then they should. We need to be stronger, as Ministers, to push back, lead from the front and not be told what happens and how things will happen. The community voice has been diluted so badly that people feel very disempowered and disengaged within their communities. The more one disengages communities the worse the situation will get.

We must be honest about this matter. For many years I have made the effort to be diplomatic and not insult people but now I must set diplomacy aside to save lives and communities. From now on we need to be very clear and honest about what is happening in the drugs sectors and in addiction. I ask the Deputy Leader to schedule a debate on the mid-term review over the coming weeks or as soon as possible.

I would like to welcome my colleagues to Tallaght tonight wearing their football boots and shin guards. When Senator Ó Ríordáin collected the jerseys for us from the FAI one of its officials asked how big our team was and he replied that they are grown adults and we have two years of Covid. The FAI official said, "No, how big?" I do not know whether the FAI has given us jerseys that are suitable for children and I hope that the Senators are all ready to squeeze into some junior jerseys and run around the pitch in Tallaght. Our team will play against a team representing an addiction and counselling service that works with men to help them find new alternatives to how they live life and helps them to flourish. I will finish on that good note and look forward to welcoming the Leader as well to Tallaght this evening.

I thank the Senator for signing us all up for the match. I look forward to seeing the walking wounded come back in here tomorrow morning.

I echo the remarks expressed by Senator Moynihan. It is important that in our battle against one pandemic we do not forget the battle against another pandemic. On World AIDS Day it is important that we remember that the fight against AIDS and HIV is a domestic battle and a global battle.

The Deputy Leader will be aware that the Central Statistics Office this week published a report on the level of educational attainment in Ireland. It is a fact that 58% of 25- to 34-year-olds in Ireland have a tertiary education qualification as against an EU average of 41%, and 53% of all of those aged between 25 and 64 years have a third level education qualification. That means Ireland is the highest in the European Union in terms of the number of people who are graduates and, indeed, one of the highest in the world. It is a fantastic achievement and something that we, as a nation, should be proud of. In the past everyone said that tax was the reason that companies came to Ireland but part of the real reason is talent and Ireland is investing further in apprenticeship programmes. Educational achievement is something about which we do not shout loudly enough. Tied with all of that is the question of funding for higher education, which is an issue that I have raised on a number of occasions. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is on the record as saying that 2021 is the year in which the Cassells report will be addressed. We are now in the last month of 2021 and I again ask for a debate on the question of funding for higher education.

I want to mention Úna Walsh. She is a young woman who is hearing impaired and she played the harp on the "Late Late Toy Show" last Friday night. She is from Wexford and is extraordinarily talented. I want to mention one thing and I know that the Cathaoirleach will be interested in this as well. She has actively campaigned for Irish Sign Language to become a subject at second level. Yesterday, we had a Commencement debate on the issue of the Irish Sign Language Act. It would be good, in the context of second level curricular reform, that we consider the idea of introducing Irish Sign Language as a second level subject.

I received confirmation during the week that construction at Clonmel Garda station is expected to start in September 2023.

It is welcome that we have a timeframe for it but it is incredibly frustrating how slow the process has been. Clonmel Garda station is part of a bundle under a public-private partnership, PPP. The bundle includes Macroom Garda station and the family law complex at Hammond Lane in Dublin. Clonmel Garda station has had planning permission for a while, as has Macroom Garda station. As with all PPP projects, the bundle moves at the pace of its slowest element. In this case, that is the family law complex in Dublin. It is hugely frustrating when we have a site in Clonmel where, under the urban regeneration and development fund, €10 million is being put into developing the old Kickham Barracks into a lovely plaza. Clonmel Garda station is meant to be located on the plaza. We have been waiting for this to be done. Everything is ready to go, including planning permission, but because other things are held up, this project is being delayed on the back of it.

This delay is not fair to the people of Clonmel or the staff working in the Garda station, which is nowhere near fit for purpose. They do incredible work, led by Superintendent Willie Leahy. It is a difficult station in which to be based given the challenges in the area. The staff need a new, modern Garda station. I ask the Deputy Leader to contact the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to emphasise the importance of this project and ascertain whether there is any way of removing Clonmel and Macroom Garda stations from that PPP bundle or including some another element in place of the family law complex in Dublin. That complex is holding everything up for the community in my area. If anything can be done by the Minister, it would be appreciated. It is welcome that there is a timeframe but, Jesus, the timeframe is frustrating.

There was a certain amount of talk about colonisation and post-colonialism at the beginning of this session. I have spoken many times about the subtle influence of money on the policy agendas of governments and international bodies, and the ideological activism that can be associated with that money. As Senators know, within the United Nations, special rapporteurs are regularly appointed to look into particular countries or investigate a specific issue. They are usually lawyers who are considered to be human rights experts and are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.

Earlier this year, the European Centre for Law and Justice, an established and respected NGO based in Strasbourg, published a report which showed some shocking practices in relation to special rapporteurs. The report found that various private foundations, NGOs and, in some cases, governments are spending huge amounts of money to influence these rapporteurs and, in some cases, on recruiting them in the first place. This violates both the letter and the spirit, I believe, of UN rules and anti-corruption legislation but the practice has been silently tolerated for years.

I would like a debate on this with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. Between 2015 and 2019, 121 UN special rapporteurs were appointed, of whom 37 received payments totalling $11 million outside of any UN control from private foundations and NGOs, including the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other anonymous donors. It is a matter of public record that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty was paid $600,000 by the Open Society Foundations in 2018 and 2019 through various grants, yet only declared $5,000 of that to the United Nations. An Irish lawyer has held special rapporteur positions while concurrently being the chairperson of an Open Society Foundations project.

The code of conduct which applies to special rapporteurs calls for "objectivity and non-selectivity in the consideration of human rights issues, and the elimination of double standards and politicization." There is a problem if special rapporteurs are receiving payments from organisations which hold particular views on the issues they are investigating and if they are funding political campaigns on that basis. There is more to be said. I will return to this matter but I place it before the Deputy Leader and ask that the Minister for Foreign Affairs come to the House and address the issue head-on with us.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for bringing to everyone's attention Romania's national day today. I want to give a shout-out because my daughter's best friend is Romanian and we are delighted to have such a mix of cultures in Galway. The other day was my daughter's birthday and I noticed that very few had come from Galway but they are bringing a rich diversity to our communities. It is important that we mention daily the important contributions that people make to our society.

I raise the issue of HEPA air filters. It was difficult for many families this morning to break the news to their children that they would have to wear masks in school. We had an expert group which reported on ventilation in March. Its advice was that we needed HEPA filters and, at the very least, school visits were needed to do a risk assessment. That has not happened. The chair of the group, Professor John Wenger, said not enough has been done. We need to ask some serious questions about why the work has not been carried out. It is not suitable or necessary for every school but we all know school face financial barriers in providing these filters. I have heard of schools where parents are buying the filters.

HEPA filters reduce the number of particles in the air. They are like gas masks and stop most particulate matter from circulating in the air. Covid aside, they are relevant when we look to the future because we do not know what is coming. They are also relevant for air quality in general. Cars idling outside schools has an impact on children inside the classroom. These filters could help with that as well.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of meeting students from Dominican College on Griffith Avenue. I had a great discussion with Dearbhla Lawlor and Toby Long. They are leaving certificate students and among the subjects they are studying are politics and society. As part of their leaving certificate course, they undertook a research project to identify and analyse the social and political implications of an issue that affects society today. The issue they chose to investigate and report on was LGBTQI and youth homelessness. Their report is interesting and I will circulate it to all Members. These young people are to be commended on their work.

There were four main findings to the research. LGBTQI young people experiencing homelessness fear violence, stigma and discrimination and this prevents them from accessing homelessness services. The research also examined the mental health impacts this issue has on young people. The lack of quantifiers is important because we all get the monthly report on the homeless statistics. Last month, there were 6,300 homeless people, of whom 2,500 were 18 years of age or younger, in other words, children. However, there are no statistics that quantify LGBTQI. The students also talked about the challenges and barriers that youth homelessness can present for LGBTQI young people in respect of their ability to engage in and complete education. It is a worthwhile piece of work. I have committed to circulating it to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien and the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Part of the Housing for All plan is to eliminate homelessness by 2030. Dearbhla and Toby both welcomed the €20 billion provided for a State-led house-building programme that will deliver more than 90,000 social homes and 60,000 affordable homes. It is often said that people outside this House are ahead of the politicians. These two young people certainly are. They appreciate that their work will be circulated and considered. They would also like, and I believe it is incumbent on everybody in the Opposition to do so, to stop the opposition to Housing for All and the State-led house-building programme being undertaken by this Government, which can lead us to the elimination of homelessness by 2030.

There is a lot of focus in the media this morning, rightly, on the mica redress scheme and the sliding scale. According to a Fine Gael Deputy on RTÉ Radio 1 this morning, even the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, accepts it is a flawed scheme, despite the same Minister bringing it to Cabinet this week and announcing the details yesterday. Make of that what you will.

I call on the Minister to make a statement as to when we will see the report of the working group on latent defects. This morning, families throughout Dublin are waking up in homes with Celtic tiger defects, such as fire safety issues and water ingress. We were supposed to see a draft redress scheme in June this year in order that it could be considered in time to make proposals on its funding in the budget. Here we are on 1 December and there is still no sign of the findings of that working group or of the draft scheme. Fire safety defects and water ingress, just like mica, are a legacy of the light touch developer-led regulations we have seen from previous Governments. People who bought their homes in good faith are either already significantly out of pocket or are living in substandard homes through no fault of their own.

We need to urgently hear from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about when that working group will produce the draft redress scheme in order that we can ensure that families who are living with the legacy of Fianna Fáil light touch self-regulation will be refunded and given the homes they deserve and have paid for.

I join my colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, in calling for the full implementation of the Irish Sign Language Act and the introduction of Irish Sign Language as a second-level subject. Senator Fitzpatrick was able to give us a lovely presentation on one of the reports done by her constituents who are studying politics and society, which was not available when I did my leaving certificate. We need to move with the times and having the Irish Sign Language as a key subject in the leaving certificate should be made a priority by the Department of Education.

I also join with colleagues in this House - Senators Horkan and Dooley raised this issue and I raised it previously - in asking for a dedicated transport police. Our colleague in the Lower House, Deputy Alan Farrell, witnessed a group chanting "Let's rape her" at a woman on the DART. He has also managed to get statistics indicating that since January, up to €500,000 worth of damage has been done to DART trains. We all know of, and have heard anecdotal stories and witnessed, so much antisocial behaviour and violence on the DART and Luas that a dedicated transport police is required. At one stage, we saw a lot of conductors on buses, when we did not have the Luas, and they were a major deterrent to people acting in an antisocial manner. Perhaps, introducing Luas conductors in some sort of official capacity would be an appropriate first step.

I congratulate Barbados on becoming a republic yesterday.

Today is World AIDS Day. We must as a country, collectively and individually, continue to remove the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. We must also do so in the world of sport, where a parallel exercise is necessary. I ask for a debate in this House, and with the Government, on the criteria used in the selection of host countries for major sporting events, such as the Olympics and FIFA World Cup. It is time we stopped rewarding countries that continue to deny human rights and where members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to live in fear. That must no longer be allowed to continue. It is also important that an audit is carried out of the records of human rights abuses in countries selected to host major international events. It is now time we stop rewarding and elevating countries that have a poor human rights record and continue to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. It is not right. It is wrong and we must stand up against it and stand up to those countries that are not living up to their human rights values.

We are watching games in Qatar, Russia and Beijing. Do any of us in this House watch those events and say, "What if?" Tom Daley and other Olympians led the charge this week. What is our collective role and collective view? I hope that today, this House sends a message to the Government, to governments around the world and to sporting organisations that it is time they stop discrimination and stop rewarding the denial of human rights.

Sport has led against apartheid. We have role models who are hugely important. We must send out a positive message to our role models about human rights. I ask for a debate on this issue because it is high time that we as a House stood up and were counted and that our Government, our Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and our sporting organisation led the way.

I will speak about the new scheme put in place by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, yesterday. I strongly wish to put on record how much I welcome this new scheme. It affects the Deputy Leader's county as well as mine. There has been an awful lot of confusion overnight. I wonder how much of the €200,000 Sinn Féin raised at a golf event in the US over the past number of days has been used by it on social media overnight to confuse the people of Donegal and Mayo about the scheme.

It is very important that people realise an independent organisation has to set the rates of redress. It is not the job of the Government to do so. It has to be guided by an independent broker, which in this case is the surveyors of Ireland. It is they who are setting the rate. The rate we are working off currently is based on the 2020 market. This does not reflect the massive inflation in building prices during 2021 but the new price surveyors will set in February next year will reflect on the inflation we have had in prices and products. We cannot come out and say what that rate will be because the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, has to announce it in February, but we are very confident that quite a significant increase will have to take place to reflect the market increase over this past year. On that basis, we are very confident of looking after all the homeowners in Donegal with 100% redress.

There is a job to do for us all in government to ensure that every homeowner is looked after because, as we know, at the end of the day this issue goes beyond Donegal and Mayo. Other counties are being looked at, such as Tipperary, Clare, Sligo and others. The Minister is also in the process of dealing with those apartments that have fire defects. I have no doubt he will come to the House with a similarly good scheme in turn. I am delighted with the scheme and very glad to back it.

It is unbelievable that at this stage, after the past almost two years, we have such a crisis in the hospitality sector. I experienced a notable increase in phone calls and emails from people in the hotel and restaurant sector, especially on Monday and Tuesday. To say the sector is in a tailspin at present is nearly an understatement. Staff in one local hotel told me that they had a 75% cancellation rate in the run-up to Christmas. Another local restaurant has a rate of 64%. It can be assumed that a cancellation rate of well over 50%, and right up to 80%, is taking place.

I accept that this is about people making their own decisions. We should remember and, hopefully, we can say today, and the Leader will echo what I am saying in her response, that there is nothing against family and friends going out for a meal in a hotel or restaurant. There is nothing wrong in going out to a pub for a drink. We need to support the hospitality sector. Even the Chief Medical Officer has not said it is not safe. It is quite clear that Christmas parties as normal will not take place because businesses and others are deciding they will not have the traditional Christmas party, but I have been told by some of those working in the most outstanding businesses in my locality that they will close if this continues.

Those businesses had to retrain people and now they are starting to let staff go again. We have to get the balance right. This is decision-making by people, but I would hope that we could send out a clear message that not everything is closed. As long as we adhere to the guidelines and continue to wear masks, wash our hands etc. we can go out, even before Christmas, and we can have that time with our family and friends.

Like Senator Blaney, I welcome the scheme in regard to the mica and pyrite issue and I hope it can be finalised. We are close to putting in place a good scheme. I hope that the Minister and all those involved can find a resolution that is suitable to everybody. I note that the Deputy Leader, Senator Chambers, was involved in this and that she is hopeful that we can get a final solution to it.

We should also look at how all of this came about. At the end of the day, the only people who appear to be accountable are politicians. They are the only people to have to resign or they fall. In this case, nobody is accountable. In the case of pyrite and mica anybody has been held accountable. Why were blocks defective and why were there shortcomings in the mix of the concrete? Who was responsible? Was it the manufacturers or the departmental officials and so on? Somebody or some entity is responsible. It appears nobody is responsible and nobody is being held accountable. This is an area that we should look into to identify what happened and to ensure that this does not happen in any of the many schemes that will come on stream. There will be different innovations going forward. This is an issue that we have to get to the root of. I hope that the Government, while currently concentrating on finalising the scheme and bringing it to fruition, will look back to see where the problems arose, how those arose and who was to blame.

Today, I want to raise the issue of electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure around them. I did not realise until last week that without access to a private driveway, you cannot get an electric vehicle charging point. I raised this issue in committee yesterday. Thousands of people live in apartments and in terraced housing in respect of which parking is on-street and so it would not be possible for any of those people to have electric charging points installed. We have no solution as of now as to how to fix that. We are still very much in the tentative stages of charging infrastructure and how it is to be rolled out but we do not have a solution to this problem. We have introduced, by way of new building regulations, that new build apartments must include a number of electric vehicle charging points, which is welcome but for those living in apartments blocks today, or in a housing estate that is in a private development, charging points will only be available if management companies opt to install them but it might only be possible to install three or four of them. If we want to get to the stage where we have 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2030 and yet a huge number of people are excluded from being able to access charging points, how do we expect to do that?

New technology being used in Germany, which the ESB could look into and on which I would like a debate at some stage in the future, enables the charging of an electric vehicle at a lamp post. The technology is being rolled out on a trial basis in Germany. It would be useful for the ESB to look into the possibility of it being used here. I would appreciate a debate in the near future on the infrastructure for electric vehicles and how we hope to roll out substantial charging points across the country.

The Innovation in Politics Awards 2021 take place tonight in Brussels. Politicians from across Europe will be recognised for their creative and courageous political projects that our improve our lives as citizens. The awards are based on the European values of social balance, democracy and human rights. A jury of over 1,000 European citizens have evaluated 413 projects. There are 90 finalists and there will be nine winners. We have an Irish contender in the See Her Elected project, which is a finalist in the democracy category. It is about supporting women to move into local representation, to be a public representative for their communities.

See Her Elected is a community-led, rural initiative, particularly focused on rural and regional areas in regard to how we get women to come forward. The project manager is Dr. Michelle Maher, who will be in Brussels tonight, I am sure on tenterhooks. The project supports women to come forward. Some of the challenges in rural areas, of which, I am sure, the Deputy Leader is aware, include attracting women coming through some of the more sporting networks, which is an area from which many of our male colleagues come to the fore very naturally. How do we support this in our rural and regional areas? In Roscommon-Galway, we have a number of community groups and Tidy Towns associations which are very strong driving forces and at the backbone of which are women who volunteer and give time to improve their communities. These are the groups that we should be seeing coming forward.

I also want to ask that on Friday, when Senators will, probably, be back in their own areas, they would wear purple for International Day of Disabled Persons. Roughly 14% of people in each of our counties, including Roscommon and Galway, have a disability. In Roscommon, RosFM is working with Roscommon County Council on a number of events in that area. If people could support it, that would be fantastic. Many disabilities are hidden as well.

I wish to lend my support to the businesses that are being affected by the pandemic, in particular those in the hospitality industry. As late as this morning, I heard that a small boutique hotel within my own area in Limerick has been hit by a number of cancellations. The owners had employed staff to facilitate what was expected to be a busy weekend. It is people's personal choice to cancel, but because they are cancelling businesses are being affected.

The employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is being reduced today. I compliment the Government in terms of the supports that it has kept in place throughout Covid and I understand that they have to be reduced. In light of the new variant, there is a fear factor out there. I heard from the owner of a small restaurant that on one night this week, 100 people cancelled. It was not a group of 100 but small groups and individual bookings. It is frightening. The restaurant owners have incurred huge cost in terms of employing staff and bringing in food. The Government needs to consider extending the EWSS for another couple of months. The hospitality sector is hitting a very turbulent time and there is a lot of uncertainty there.

I also want to speak about the mica scheme announced yesterday. I welcome the scheme. Limerick was accepted into the pyrite remediation scheme around February of this year. A number of households in Limerick have submitted applications but they still have not received confirmation that their costs will be met. That is frightening given we are almost one year down the road. While they have been accepted, there has been no communication from the Department. I ask the Deputy Leader to raise that with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. At this stage, something needs to happen for these residents.

Law and order and justice are values which my party hold very dear. They are values I share. I am proud that since 2011 we have had a 54% increase in Garda numbers in my own county of Waterford, with a similar, if not greater, increase in civilian staff numbers. We have also seen huge increases in terms of the Garda fleet and the development of specific units within An Garda Síochána. All of those gardaí and civilian personnel have to go somewhere and for that reason we need continued investment in our Garda stations. I am speaking specifically about the divisional headquarters in Waterford, which I visited last week with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan.

The station was state of the art when it was built or further developed some 20 years ago, but it now needs significant investment and an increase in its size in order to meet the demands of the new policing organisational plans in terms of divisions. In fact, the Waterford Garda station will hold the control room for the entire eastern division, with 999 calls from counties Meath, Westmeath, Laois, Offaly, Kildare, Wexford, Wicklow, Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow all being dealt with in Waterford. In order to facilitate that development, the station needs reconfiguration and changes within the existing footprint. It also needs an extension above the single-storey development to be developed in order to cater for the growing needs of the station, division and region. I would welcome a debate with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on the capital plan that is currently being devised between An Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and the Office of Public Works to ensure we specifically pinpoint areas that need critical infrastructure in order to roll out the changes envisaged by An Garda Síochána.

I will be brief. The issue I wish to raise with the Deputy Leader is that of the Trinity by-election to fill the vacancy resulting from the election to the Dáil of former Senator Bacik. It is important in a democracy in which we have elections that we proceed to carry them out. There is an expectation that the seat should be filled. The Labour Party got the full support of the House for a motion requiring the Clerk of Seanad Éireann to notify the Minister of the vacancy. I ask the Deputy Leader to seek for the office of the Leader to contact the Minister and ask him to set out an exact date for the carrying out and putting in place of the necessary arrangement to undertake and proceed with a by-election to fill the vacancy in Seanad Éireann.

Will there be a need for more by-elections after the match tonight in Tallaght?

(Interruptions).

I thank Senators for their contributions. I invite the Deputy Leader to respond on the Order of Business.

I thank the Members who contributed on the Order of Business. Senator O'Loughlin kicked off the Order of Business by informing the House that today is aunties' day, which I was not aware of. I send a shout out to all the great aunties. I have a couple of really good aunties myself. They are all good ones, obviously. It is nice to start on a positive note.

The Senator raised a specific issue in respect of Garda numbers in south Kildare and gave very good statistics on the numbers of gardaí in various areas with corresponding populations. She called for an increase in Garda numbers in the area in which she lives in south Kildare.

The Senator also referred to the recent report from the National Women's Council of Ireland specifically in respect of access to healthcare for women in migrant communities. A small group of Senators, including me, had a briefing on that yesterday. It is a fantastic piece of work. I urge any Member who has the time to read the report to do so. It is not surprising that women, particularly those from migrant communities and vulnerable sectors, find it more difficult to access the healthcare they need. The issue can be a language barrier or a feeling of being dismissed and not listened to or taken seriously. There are key findings in the report and it is one of which we should take note.

The Senator also raised the ongoing issues relating to substitute teachers and the lack of availability in that regard. She requested that teacher inspectors be brought back into the fold and redeployed to schools.

Senator Kyne spoke about the winter plan. He specifically referred to the zero allocation of acute beds in the Saolta University Health Care Group and raised a concern in that regard which I will certainly take on board. He also raised an issue in respect of a lack of carers in the home care sector. The issue is not a lack of funding. The money is there but the ongoing problem is finding people who are available to do the work. I suggest to the Senator that he might submit a Commencement matter on that specific issue. There could be a good debate on that.

He also raised the issue of the national drugs strategy, as did Senator Ruane. I am not fully up to speed on what was discussed at the committee, so what I will say to the Senators is that perhaps they jointly or individually table a Commencement matter on that issue. I am not fully up to speed on what it is proposed to take out of the drug strategy. That is more within the remit of the members of the committee. I certainly take on board the concerns raised by the Senators. In particular, Senator Ruane raised an issue relating to four particular organisations that are to be removed. It is my first time hearing of this. I would share her concerns if the community voice is being removed. The people best placed to make decisions are those living in the community, those who are on the front line and dealing with people who are using services, and those who have recovered and are now helping others. As a lay person in this area, I cannot see the benefit of centralising all control and decision making within the Department. That seems like the wrong path to take. A debate on the issue would be welcome. I am sure other Members would benefit from getting more information on the matter, particularly those of us who were not present at the committee and have not had the benefit of hearing the full evidence.

Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the Coast Guard, as he has on many occasions, the sad passing of Caitríona Lucas in Kilkee and the issues that were raised around R116. All Members are very aware of that tragedy. He raised a specific issue in respect of the Howth boat, as he called it, that was moved from Kilkee to Howth, and referred to alarming concerns in respect of the safety of that vessel. I am not in a position to respond more fully than that because I am not fully up to speed on all of the surrounding issues. I suggest that the Senator write directly to the Minister for Transport on the issue and also submit a Commencement matter on it. If he does not receive sufficient response, I will certainly seek a debate with the Minister for Transport. Such a debate has been requested. It is unlikely that it will take place before the Christmas recess but it is being sought for the first weeks back in January because several transport issues have been raised and we are seeking to get a lengthy debate with the Minister for Transport in January on those issues.

Senator Ó Donnghaile put on the record of the House his congratulations to Barbados on becoming a republic on 30 November. I echo those words of congratulation. I believe the Cathaoirleach has written to the President of Barbados.

The letter is in the post.

Very good. I am sure he passed on the congratulations and well wishes of the House on behalf of all Senators. Senator Ó Donnghaile also spoke about the commitment of the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, to holding a referendum on independence in 2023. He requested a debate on the shared island initiative by the Department of An Taoiseach. I will certainly request that debate.

Senator Moynihan spoke about the 40th anniversary of the AIDS pandemic, as did Senators Malcolm Byrne and Buttimer, and the need to acknowledge the 40 years we have had. As she put it, we have come a long way. I agree with her in that regard. She drew a correlation between that and how we are dealing with the current Covid-19 pandemic and posed a very interesting question in respect of the very swift move by many governments to suspend all flights from southern African nations. She posed an interesting question in respect of whether the same response would have been forthcoming if the variant had originated in an EU member state or another country. I cannot answer that question. Members will all have their own views as to what the response might have been if the variant was found elsewhere. We should commend the medical experts and authorities in the southern African states on coming forward and informing the global community as quickly as they did, knowing that it may have negative repercussions for them. They did the world a good service. There are reports today that the first Omicron variant has been detected here in Ireland. It is only a matter of time before we are trying to curtail its spread. Those experts and authorities did the rest of the world a service by giving a heads-up on the variant so that those preparations could be made.

The Senator raised the issue of community employment services, as she did last week. The advice I have received on that issue - the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, said this on the floor of the Dáil as well - is that the current employment services have been in operation for a couple of decades or maybe a little longer, but there was no formal procurement process then. The advice of the Attorney General to the Government is that there must be compliance with EU and Irish procurement rules and that is why there is a change in the approach. The plan is to expand employment services across the country. I do take on board the concerns of those working in the community employment sector.

As I mentioned, Senator Ruane raised the issue of the drugs strategy. She also spoke about the football match this evening in Tallaght. All Senators are looking forward to it. I have not kicked a ball in several years, so I ask Members to wish me luck. I know several other Senators will be there this evening. I am very much looking forward to it. I thank the Senator for organising it. It is a great initiative. It is good for us to get out of this bubble we are in and get out on the ground and meet people. I think all involved are looking forward to the craic. It may be the case that there will be several walking wounded coming into the House tomorrow, as the Cathaoirleach said, but there is no doubt that we will be the better for it. I say "Well done" to Senator Ruane on organising that initiative.

Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the issue of the Central Statistics Office report on educational attainment at third level.

He outlined some incredible statistics on Ireland's attainment levels in younger cohorts. It is to be applauded that we have the highest educational attainment at third level in the EU and one of the highest in the world. He is correct to say that we often speak about one of the key reasons for the significant amounts of foreign direct investment into Ireland as being our taxation. It is not just about that. It may be an element of it for some companies, but I agree with him that it is more about talent and the educated workforce that we have across multiple sectors.

He also raised the issue of higher education funding, which has been a topic of discussion for many years. The Cassells report has been gathering dust for many years. Multiple Ministers have not moved to enact the report's recommendations or dealt with the overall question of how to fund third level education. Should it be done through student loans or Exchequer funding? It is contentious and there is not full agreement on it. A debate needs to be had. I note the Minister made a commitment to deal with that report this year. We will certainly seek a debate with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, on that issue.

He also paid tribute to Úna Walsh the harpist who played on the "Late Late Show". I thought she was excellent and I wish her well in her future career, which I have no doubt will be a stellar one.

Senator Ahearn raised the delay in the construction of Clonmel Garda station which is delaying further development in the town. He should table a Commencement matter on it. It is quite a niche issue and he may be able to get a satisfactory response through that mechanism.

Senator Mullen raised a very interesting topic and certainly one that requires further debate. It is the influence of money on policymaking specifically relating to EU rapporteurs working in different areas and the level to which they may be influenced by funding coming from certain organisations that have a particular viewpoint or objective they are trying to achieve. If what the Senator has put on the record of the House is correct, it appears that the code of conduct as set down by the EU is not being fully adhered to by all rapporteurs. Much discussion needs to be had on that very interesting point.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly concurred with the remarks of the Cathaoirleach on Romania Day. I also agree with those remarks. She also raised the issue of HEPA filters which has been a topic for discussion. Tomorrow in the House, we will have a debate on Covid and education with the Minister for Education. It would be opportune to ask the question. We also have statements on health this evening. As both Ministers will be in the House this week, there will be an opportunity to discuss that issue directly with them.

There will also be an opportunity for Senators to share their concerns about the requirement for younger children to wear masks. I agree with the comments of the Ombudsman for Children that we need to keep the matter under review every few weeks. It is a very significant ask of our younger people, in particular their curtailment of their social activities and now the requirements for masks in schools, particularly when the rest of us can move freely. We always need to question whether we are doing the right thing, taking on board, obviously, the public health advice and the need to curtail the spread of the virus. We also need to keep this under review. They are young children and these things have an impact. We will have those debates this evening and tomorrow.

Senators Boylan and Blaney asked about the mica redress scheme. As someone who lives in a county where homeowners have been affected by mica, I very much welcome the scheme. It has been a long time in negotiation. It is a significant improvement on the scheme that was announced by the previous Government. Many of the concerns have been taken on board. In excess of €2 billion will be put into the scheme which is a colossal amount of money by any standards. It will ensure that the vast majority of homeowners will be able to rebuild their homes to the best of standards as of today. It is welcome to have a conclusion in sight before Christmas.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, Councillor Martin McDermott in Donegal, Senator Blaney, Deputy Calleary, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, Deputy McHugh, my constituency colleague, Senator Burke, and all those who have worked on it. Many people have given input into this having listened to the concerns of those affected. Many families have endured a very traumatic experience over a long period and many of them had to move out of their homes. I am sure the scheme will be welcomed, despite some people not being fully happy. It is a significant scheme with a large amount of money behind it.

Senator Ardagh raised the issue of the Irish Sign Language Bill that was brought through by the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, in the previous term. She supported the call for it to be a subject in second level schools. She also raised the need for transport police on our public transport, the DART and Luas in particular, because of ongoing antisocial behaviour. It is certainly something to be considered.

Senator Buttimer asked about the process and criteria to select host countries for sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games. He pointed to the need to have an audit on the human rights abuses of countries. Any country that has been found to have been abusing human rights or not adhering to human rights practices and standards should not be a host country for these world sporting events. He made a very good point. What are the criteria for selecting a country? Very often it appears to be money from what I can see. One would have to question the locations of some of the most significant sporting events in recent years. We should not need to have a discussion now about whether we should be sending Ministers and members of our diplomatic corps to the Olympic Games because that should be considered before these host countries are selected.

Senators Murphy and Maria Byrne raised the plight of the hospitality sector. In all the areas where we are living, we are aware of many cancellations. It is nearly worse than when they were closed because when they were closed, they had certainty about the State supports they were getting and they did not need to buy food, pay staff and pay certain overheads, whereas now they are open and are depending on all of us to support them.

Senator Murphy made a very good point that public health advice allows us to go to our local pub or restaurant to have a meal. In line with public guidelines, it is a safe place to go. It is an important message in the run up to Christmas. Many businesses survive on the basis of having a good Christmas which gets them through the quieter months in the earlier parts of the new year. We need to get the message out that it is safe to go out in smaller groups to those settings because the public health advice is clear. Those businesses are running a tight ship and are ensuring their customers are safe. I really feel for those businesses that have bought in food and paid staff, and people are cancelling. I understand the concerns leading to people cancelling. We need to convey the message that it is safe to go out. People should try to support their local hospitality businesses because they may not be there next year if they do not get that support.

Senator Burke spoke in support of the mica scheme. He also pointed out that nobody had been held accountable for this. Who is to blame for this? The politicians of today were not the perpetrators of it. Many people were involved along the way. Questions need to be asked about why everybody was able to walk away leaving the homeowners with nothing. It was then left up to the politicians to try to rescue the situation through an enormous amount of taxpayers' money. This money is being spent out of the public purse. More than €2 billion is a significant amount of money. If it is being spent on this scheme, and rightly so, it means it is not being spent on other public services and investment in capital projects. Those are the decisions governments must make and that is the responsibility that lies with Cabinet Ministers.

Senator Byrne and other Members of the House have made the point previously about the corporate veil and those organisations and corporate entities that may have been responsible. We do not know who knew what or when. We do not know anything about how this happened. We all suspect certain things, but ultimately the taxpayer is footing the bill for this. Significant questions remain to be asked as to who is responsible and where the accountability for this issue lies.

Senator McGahon raised the lack of electric vehicle charging points or infrastructure for those living in an apartment block. It is an area of concern. How are we supposed to get to 1 million EVs without having charging points, given that many people are living in apartment buildings? I was not aware of this until recently; technology exists to allow EVs to be charged at a lamp post. We need to embrace any such technology because we have very ambitious targets to meet in our climate action plan. It will involve all hands on deck and using every bit of technology we can to meet those ambitious targets and objectives.

Senator Dolan spoke about the EU competition. I am aware that See Her Elected has been nominated. I wish those involved well. It has been a fantastic initiative. Some of my party colleagues are involved in the organisation. Women living in a rural area have particular difficulty in getting noticed and getting involved.

We are often asked how we got involved in politics and very often it is because we were asked. We did not push ourselves forward, for the most part. The Senator is right to point out that in rural areas, it was traditionally done through organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association or the GAA, which were, historically, predominantly male. It can be difficult for a woman to break through. The Senator is right that parents associations, Tidy Towns associations and community groups are often led and run by women who then do not make the decision to run for public life. See Her Elected and similar campaigns are, therefore, important and make a difference. Women for Election is another organisation that has done fantastic work over the years to increase female participation by providing training programmes and putting people in touch with different political parties or other public representatives to push women to go forward for election. That is good because we are a much richer and diverse democracy when we are more representative of our communities.

Senator Dolan mentioned that Friday is the day to recognise people with a disability and asked people to wear purple. I thank her for raising the matter.

Senator Maria Byrne raised the issue of cancellations in the hospitality sector. She also spoke about the pyrite remediation scheme in Limerick and noted that homeowners who had been accepted for the scheme had not yet received word. That would be a suitable topic to raise as a Commencement matter with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to seek a response for the homeowners.

Senator Cummins raised the issue of Garda numbers and investment in Garda stations in Waterford. He also spoke about 999 calls being directed through Waterford Garda station. The recent difficulties around that issue are an argument in support of investment in the Garda and ensuring the service operates at full capacity. The Senator sought a specific response from the Minister for Justice. A Commencement matter would be useful in that regard.

Senator Boyhan referred to the Trinity by-election. I am not aware of the timeline for the by-election but the writ has been moved. Perhaps, through the Cathaoirleach's office, I will be able to get further information for the Senator on when the by-election will take place. I agree that the sooner the seat is filled, the better for all of us in the House because it is a vacancy that should be filled.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.52 p.m. and resumed at 1.04 p.m.
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