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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 2022

Vol. 283 No. 12

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Consumer Protection (Regulation of Retail Credit and Credit Servicing Firms) Bill 2021 – Second Stage, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to conclude at 2.30 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes and the contribution of all Senators not to exceed six minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

I second the Order of Business. I also wish to be associated with the sympathies expressed on the death of the former Senator and Deputy, Dermot Fitzpatrick. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I extend condolences to our colleague, Senator Mary Fitzpatrick, and to Niamh, who works in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I had the opportunity to meet Dermot a number of times. He wore his wisdom very lightly. He was such a lovely man to meet. He was always interested in people and the human story. That was what made him an excellent GP and an excellent parliamentarian. He served his community and country extremely well. Of course, our sympathies are with his beloved wife and children today.

I wish to compliment our colleagues in Government, the Ministers, Deputies Foley and Michael McGrath, in terms of the historic decision reached yesterday in regard to school secretaries. This was a glaring injustice to school secretaries. When I was Chair of the education committee, I put a strong focus on this issue. I could not believe that secretaries, who are the heartbeat of our schools in our communities, were treated so badly by the State considering the tremendous service they have given.

Since the programme for Government was put together, I know that both Ministers, Deputies Foley and Michael McGrath, were committed to ensuring this injustice would be righted. Of course, Fórsa played a big role in terms of the negotiations and I congratulate its members and the school secretaries. Of those who were balloted, some 95% agreed to take this offer, which included that their pay scale would be aligned with the clerical officer grade 3 pay scale and be backdated, importantly, to 1 September 2021, as well as the ending of the practice of school secretaries signing on over the summer months. That is really important. We can now move on to dealing with the caretakers.

I wish to briefly raise the CSO census of 2022, which we know everybody will be taking part in on 3 April, and I encourage everyone to do so. On the issue about citizens' gender identity, while a person's sex is included, gender is not. The options are just "male" and "female". I heard on the radio in recent days that people have the option of ticking both boxes if they are transgender or non-binary, although the CSO will decide whether that is male or female. That is sending out the completely wrong message. People who do not identify as male or female should have the option, if they are identifying, to tick both boxes or tick neither box, and that this would be taken as non-binary or transgender. The results that come from the census inform public policy in the following years, in terms of health needs etc. Some clarity needs to be brought to that issue.

Senator O’Loughlin mentioned Fórsa. In another context, I see that Fórsa raised €250,000 for the Ukraine appeal among its members, and that was topped up by a further €250,000, amounting to a €500,000. I say "Well done" to Fórsa and its members.

The Senator raised a good point about the census. Although there is another dimension to this which is, under the legislation, any person who knowingly provides false information may be subject to a fine of €44,000. There is no exemption in the Act for people who are uncomfortable with a particular question. Decide upfront what the question will be, but do not come up with this disgraceful solution of basically encouraging people to provide false information and then leaving it to the CSO to randomly assign it. That is a complete mess. It is an issue I wanted to raise today, and there are other issues I want to raise about the census in due course.

An urgent matter has arisen that I need to address. In recent days, I have been contacted by several constituents of mine regarding issues they are experiencing with the public consultation process of the three-year review of the abortion legislation. It seems that it is being conducted in an extremely rigid manner through an excessive focus on the Act's operation in a way that is not conducive to gathering the views of a full spectrum of public opinion. Respondents have been told that their submission should be in the form of a completed questionnaire set out by the Department of Health. It asks whether the ambiguous objectives of the Act have been achieved and how the respondent feels the law has operated, both effectively and ineffectively. In essence, the public is being asked to outline how the Act could operate more effectively.

I recognise that legislation specifically provides for a review of the law's operation but it was not necessary for the Minister to interpret that in the narrowest sense possible. By framing it in such a way, respondents are prevented from highlighting several particular failures relating to the operation of legal abortion.

Several constituents are finding it difficult to detail issues such as the lack of precautionary pain relief for unborn children in late-term abortions or the shortcomings evidenced in the recent tragic and scandalous baby Christopher case in Holles Street hospital, which was a disgrace on all of the medics who were involved in its handling. How can the public consultation process truly reflect the views of the public at large if these important issues are potentially considered as being outside of the scope of the review? In other recent public consultations, such as the review of ethics in public life that was launched by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in November 2021, respondents were asked to respond to several open-ended questions and were not obliged to complete a pre-set questionnaire. Why does the abortion review have to be so different?

The constant inability and refusal of the Minister and his officials to engage with people on the other side of the argument from the side that he happens to prefer is an indictment of their democratic credentials. The Minister has to listen to people and let them contribute. When consultation is carried out, it has to be done in a broad and generous way. As it is, members of the public are feeling discouraged from engaging with the review. That is not acceptable; there is a lack of clarity and I ask the Acting Leader to relay to the Minister my view and hope that he will address this and clarify that free-form submissions will be accepted in the conducting of this review process.

I join with others in sending my commiserations and condolences to the family of the late Senator Dermot Fitzpatrick and to our colleague, Senator Mary Fitzpatrick. It is sad news.

Along with others, I regularly raise University Hospital Limerick. The figures continue to be frightening, with 100 patients on trolleys yesterday. We are looking at our worst ever March. The worst March ever was last year with 1,059 patients on trolleys but so far in March, with another week to go, it is already at 1,245. These are real people lying on trolleys for 24 hours at a time, sometimes in the worst of circumstances. The pressure on the staff and patients is horrific. We urgently need a specific debate on University Hospital Limerick because this has been going on for years and each year it gets worse, not better. We need to see radical change at the top in University Hospital Limerick. I ask for an urgent debate on that matter.

I was genuinely shocked yesterday. I raised a Commencement matter on the awful war that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been waging on Yemen for the last seven years. Some 400,000 Yemenis have been murdered in the course of this war. I raised it with the Minister of State who came in for the Commencement and I was shocked because in his response there was not one word of condemnation of Saudi Arabia. I then went back to look at other responses in recent years and I discovered that on no occasion has a Minister for Foreign Affairs, including the current Minister, been willing to say one word in condemnation of Saudi Arabia. I remind the Acting Chairperson that this is a regime that beheads gay people and tortures people as a matter of course. It brutalises women and in the words of Hillary Clinton it provides "clandestine, financial and logistic support" to terrorists. This is a regime that chopped a journalist into pieces in a foreign embassy and incinerated Yemeni children travelling on a school bus on their way back from a picnic. The war in Yemen dwarfs the horrors that we are watching happen to the poor people in Ukraine; that is how bad it is. A minimum of 10,000 children have been murdered and yet this Government does not have one word to say about it. It is worse than that because two weeks ago the Government sent a Fianna Fáil Minister out there to tout for more business. He was out there touting for business a few days before Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in one day. I ask the Acting Leader to tell me where this Government’s stance on human rights in Yemen is. As she has the opportunity to do so, will the Acting Leader clearly condemn the Saudi dictatorship for the ongoing horrors and murders inflicted on the Yemeni people?

I commend all involved in the Daffodil Day fundraiser this morning and I hope everybody can support Daffodil Day tomorrow. As we know, the Irish Cancer Society provides huge support to families and people with cancer. I commend Averil Power and her team on the work they do.

Today is also an auspicious day. In the audiovisual room we saw the launch of the home care providers alliance. For the first time all the carers organisations have come together to form an alliance. I ask the Acting Leader to facilitate a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on carers and on the need for the State to support the work of family carers. It is extraordinary that today, for the first time, we have had a coming together of the different groups to form this alliance. I welcome the launch, I commend our former colleague in the Seanad, Deputy Colm Burke, on facilitating that and I welcome the involvement of Tony O’Brien, the former CEO of the HSE, and of the former Minister of State, Jim Daly, as part of the alliance. We have 4,787 people waiting for home care packages. That is far too many by any stretch of the imagination. We have people waiting to be cared for and to avail of a home care package. All of us want to see people looked after in their homes. Jim Daly told us this morning that the UK National Health Service, NHS, is trialling hospital beds being brought into people’s homes so that people can be looked after in the comfort and privacy of their homes. I ask that the Acting Leader facilitate a debate with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on carers and home care packages as a matter of urgency.

I also extend my condolences to the Fitzpatrick family on this very sad day. I agree with my colleague, Senator Gavan, on the Yemen situation, which is horrendous. I would love to see a debate on the issue and I would love it if the Minister would come in to discuss it.

Yesterday, members of the Joint Committee on Health heard from researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who have brought out a report on hospital doctor retention and motivation. They surveyed and interviewed almost 1,200 hospital doctors working in the health system about their experiences and they interviewed 51 Irish-trained doctors working in Australia on why they had left Ireland and if they planned to return. The findings are shocking and I was shocked. Even though I knew it was bad I did not realise how bad it is. The report found a workforce that is completely burnt out, demoralised and unwilling to speak up publicly for fear of personal and professional reprisal. This destructive culture of poor treatment and overwork is a key reason Ireland exports so many of its doctors to places like Australia.

One researcher remarked that the Irish emigrant doctor who returns to Ireland does so for purely personal reasons. Many non-consultant hospital doctors are on short-term contracts and their precarious situations make them feel like they are unable to rock the boat, which is completely and deeply demoralising. When asked about ways to facilitate these doctors' complaints, the witnesses referenced the National Guardian's Office in the UK. This office oversees a network of individuals across the NHS who are tasked with listening to and amplifying the concerns of their colleagues to advance the interests of both healthcare workers and patients. The introduction of such a model or of some other kind of independent complaints mechanism has to be explored because I am concerned that the HSE’s existing grievance policy is not functioning adequately.

We heard from the researchers that over 2,500 non-EU doctors work in the Irish healthcare system and that this system would collapse without them. Yet many of these doctors are on short-term contracts and do not have access to the training necessary to progress their careers to consultant level. Despite the Government’s stated commitment to consultant-led care, over 800 consultant positions are either empty or are filled by doctors on temporary contracts. The impact this has on the workload of doctors, the training of new doctors and service provision for patients is completely and utterly disastrous. They are all overworked and burnt out. Non-EU doctors, who have given so much to the Irish healthcare system, need greater access to postgraduate medical training and other supports. We need a real plan for the implementation of the European working time directive to retain Irish medical graduates who want a healthy work-life balance. This would motivate Irish emigrant doctors to return home. This matter is central to the sustainability of our healthcare system and to the welfare of its workers and the patients it cares for.

I ask the Acting Leader to invite the Minister for Health, who is not well and I hope gets well soon, into the Seanad in order that he can inform us about the work being done to rectify the issues raised in this research, particularly around the workload and work-life balance for doctors who are now working in an emergency much of the time.

I join the Acting Chairperson in extending my sympathies to our colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, on the death of her father and our former colleague, Dr. Dermot Fitzpatrick. It is a sad time for her and all her family.

Last Sunday, I was in Ennis watching the re-emergence of the great Meath football team and I thought to myself, God, the last time I was in Ennis was two years ago when the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, made his address from Blair House. I reflected on how the world has changed in that period. As I sat in the stadium last Sunday, I thought about how great it is to be back in football stadiums enjoying moments like this and doing normal things again. However, the coverage on the radio this morning of the warnings from the HSE chief operations officer, Ms Ann O'Connor, brought us all back to reality if we were not there already. At 8 a.m. this morning, there were 1,425 Covid-19 patients in our hospitals. The most frightening thing was the advice from the HSE to hospitals in respect of cancelling elective procedures. We already saw the backlog that arose from the last two years. We cannot have this again. We need swift action from the Government in this respect.

I welcome that fact that statements have been made on the establishment of a new advisory council and the swift action in this regard. Having emerged from this period of prolonged lockdown, we cannot see regression and a reversal. We have already seen consumer sentiment damaged because of the war in Ukraine. We certainly do not need to see any more damage to our economy because of another regression towards lockdown. That leaves aside any of the impact in terms of mental health as well. I ask the Acting Leader to confirm that we will have swift action from the Government in this respect. We should take the warnings from Ms O'Connor this morning very gravely.

I wish to express my condolences to the Fitzpatrick family and especially to my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick.

Yesterday in Belfast, some food delivery workers from Just Eat, Deliveroo and a number of similar services went on strike. They withdrew their services on the basis of their terms and conditions. They work in what is euphemistically, and supposedly excitingly, called the "gig economy". I have spoken about this on several previous occasions. Companies like Deliveroo decide they will set up a piece of technology and a platform in order that restaurants can access the public and, in theory, that is a really good idea. Back in 2014, we probably all welcomed it as a very good idea. There are consequences of this for people's employment rights, however. People are out working on their bicycles and in their cars, not even getting the minimum wage for the sheer extent of the hours they work. They take risks with their own lives in order to satisfy an accumulative number of deliveries. They have no holiday pay or public holiday pay. They do not get extra time for having worked on the bank holiday last weekend. They do not get any of those things because they are considered by the likes of Deliveroo as self-employed independent contractors. Because a company can put somebody else in instead of those workers on an evening, there is no mutuality of obligation. This undermines any of the protections that come with employment rights and being designated an employee. There is an increase in the pursuit of flexible working and in this gig economy model. The time has come when this House needs to debate the suitability of the employment models in our State. We have a race to the bottom insofar as people's employment status and all the protections that accrue with that, which were fought for very hard over a very long period, are concerned. I ask for a debate on that issue.

I, too, send my deepest condolences to the Fitzpatrick family and our colleague, Mary, on the death of our former colleague, Dr. Dermot Fitzpatrick. It is a very difficult time for all of them.

I stand today to call for a debate on energy security and the cost of energy. I would like the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to come to the Chamber to talk about what the Government is doing and can do to support families. I know it is a really complex issue in one way but there is also a moral issue. We must have a discussion on the energy we waste. We waste millions of euros of energy in this country every single year. It is wrong that we dump so much energy off our grid. I recognise there are technical and electricity grid-based challenges that need to be addressed. We all know that with regulatory and political will, however, these things can be achieved. In the short term, I urge all Members to look into EnergyCloud, which is a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to create solutions to divert surplus renewable energy into Irish homes, with a primary focus on fuel poverty. This is something that can be done. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has a pilot project with Clúid Housing and EnergyCloud. It is about getting excess energy - that will otherwise be dumped, in fact - into lower socioeconomic homes. I would really like the Minister to come here and talk about these things to create the framework and listen to the ideas of Seanad Éireann on how we frame a positive sustainable way out of this energy nightmare.

I wish to offer my sympathies to Senator Fitzpatrick. I was not aware when I made my earlier contribution. I had the pleasure of knowing Dermot, who was a gentleman. I wish her and her family my deepest sympathies.

At the outset, I will be proposing a motion with regard to the former Deputy and Senator, Dermot Fitzpatrick. I will read that at the end of the Order of Business, after which we will stand for one minute's silence. There were obviously many expressions of sympathy, which we will get to later. I have already indicated my own sympathies on behalf of the Government. I did not know Dermot but from everything I have heard over the short while since we discovered that, unfortunately, he has passed away, he sounded like an amazing colleague to many Senators here and a father to Mary and Niamh, who also works here. I would also like to extend my sympathies to his wife, Mary.

Senator O'Loughlin raised yesterday's momentous decision that school secretaries will finally be given their dues, will not have to sign on for summers and will have a pay grade that is commensurate with the work they do. I welcome that. As Senator O'Loughlin pointed out, however, we need to do something for caretakers as well. That is really important. A school community is made up of so many people who go into providing a caring and nurturing environment for children.

The issue around the census, which was brought up by Senators Mullen and O'Loughlin, is shocking. It was to be a no-change census but given the length of time between censuses, I do not know why changes would not be made to fully reflect society. Senator Mullen made a very good point that it basically encourages people to break the law, which is a bizarre situation. I will bring back the Senators' sentiments.

Senator Mullen also raised the issue of the abortion review. As the Senator knows, this is a review of the legislation, not of the decision taken by the people of this country with regard to abortion. We had a referendum. My understanding is that this is where the consultation comes from.

Various healthcare issues were raised today. Senator Gavan referred to the shocking number of people on hospital trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. In my constituency in Galway, the numbers are equally shocking. When we think about all those Ukrainian people who are now coming into the country, healthcare will be a critical part of what we need to provide for them. They are incredibly welcome, but it is an emergency.

Elective surgery was raised by Senator Cassells. Sometimes the word "elective" makes it sound like it is a choice. Very serious operations have been cancelled throughout the pandemic. We have all raised that, but it is important to raise it again here today.

Senator Black also raised an issue relating to healthcare, namely, the report on the working conditions for doctors and their own views on it, which are shocking to see. Given all the various contributions regarding healthcare, it would be appropriate to ask the Minister for Health to address some of those issues. I thank Members for raising them.

Senator Gavan raised the issue of Saudi Arabia. I share many of his sentiments on the conditions and treatment of people there. I have not spoken to the Minister for Foreign Affairs but I will bring the issue to his attention. Yemen is connected with the issue, which Senator Black also raised. I will ask the Leader's office to write to the Minister to raise those issues.

In response to Senator Buttimer, we are all wearing our daffodils today in recognition of Daffodil Day. I joined some Senators in having coffee downstairs and contributing to the efforts to raise cancer awareness. I thank the former Senator, Averil Power, whose secretarial assistant now works in my office, so we do have connections there which worked very well.

I assure Senator Buttimer that carers is an issue close to my heart. It is very welcome that there is an alliance now, but as he points out, the home care packages have been an issue for a long time. I am Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on Gender Equality and much of what came out of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality related to care. It probably came to the fore because we were in the middle of a pandemic, in terms of how much care goes on in society. I would welcome any opportunity to discuss it because it touches all of us at various points in our lives, from young, to old, to vulnerable and somewhere in the middle.

Senator Seery Kearney raised the gig economy, which as she said, sounds like something very exciting, but has devastating consequences for those working in it. I know that she has raised the issue a number of times. It is important to state that, as with many issues, the legislation is often behind where society is. The same can be said for employment. I would welcome a discussion on that because we are going to need to change how we manage society.

Senator McGreehan raised energy security and cost. We are all with her on the concerns people have. The situation in Ukraine and in Russia is having an impact right across society. A couple of issues have been raised, such as healthcare, but we would all welcome a conversation around the cost-of-living piece. A lot has been done up to now and various measures have been put in place, but we are looking at an increase in inflation. I do not know about EnergyCloud but I thank the Senator for raising it. A lot of work is going on in demand management and battery storage at the moment. It is a very exciting area but there is an urgency around it. I think I have dealt with everybody's contributions.

Order of Business agreed to.