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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Vol. 284 No. 1

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Technological Universities Act 2018 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) (No. 2) Order 2022 - back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to adjourn at 5.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; No. 3, statements regarding impacts on the farming sector arising from the situation in Ukraine, be taken at 5.30 p.m. and to conclude at 7 p.m. with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, the contribution of all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Animal Health and Welfare and Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 7 p.m. and to adjourn at 10 p.m., if not previously concluded.

I will raise three matters. Today, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announced a series of welcome reforms to the leaving certificate. I ask for a debate on those reforms in the very near future, which I am sure can be facilitated. I particularly welcome the introduction of two new subjects, one in the area of drama, film and theatre studies, and the second in the area of climate action and sustainable development. The latter subject is the critical global issue of our time and many students will be interested in it. The greater emphasis that will be placed on the arts in our school system is also welcome. The introduction of a new subject in the form of drama, film and theatre is very welcome.

Any passenger who has travelled through Dublin Airport recently, and I know several, will have complained of the long delays at security. These are not just long but completely unacceptable delays. When people ask if they turn up two hours in advance of their flights, and short-haul flights at that, whether they will be guaranteed to get through security and catch those flights, and Dublin Airport authorities cannot guarantee it, that is not acceptable. In a progressive country such as ours, to send out a message that Dublin Airport is incapable of ensuring there is a sufficient number of security staff to be able to process the large number of passengers that can be expected is just not acceptable. We know we are coming towards the Easter holidays when we will see an increase in the numbers and will be moving into the much busier summer season. I ask the Acting Leader to raise this with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as a matter of urgency, and that he receives guarantees from the authorities at Dublin Airport that they can ensure passengers who are there do not have to wait an unreasonable length of time to go through security.

I will raise the matter of the census. I encourage everyone to fill it in this coming weekend. I ask that we consider, for the next census in 2026 and beyond, moving it onto blockchain, and that we look at having a dynamic blockchain-enabled census and new ways for the State to gather and utilise data.

In addition, I wish all the census enumerators the very best of luck as they knock on doors and try to gather census forms. I am aware of a small minority of muppets who are trying to cite some nonsense that the census does not apply to them. One of the things we need to remember in this State is that we have many rights as citizens, but we also have responsibilities. It is an individual's responsibility to fill in his or her census form. I ask that we stand in solidarity with those small number of census enumerators who have received abuse on the doorsteps and that the full rigours of the law will be faced by those who refuse to fill in their census forms.

I also rise to call for a debate on the reform of the leaving certificate. I was education spokesperson in the previous Seanad and have a keen interest in the area. I support Senator Malcolm Byrne's call.

The main reason I rise is to raise a matter relating to the Revenue Commissioners. I have been inundated with calls from people who cannot get through to Revenue. There is a helpline open. Revenue closed its offices to the public at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and its offices are still not open for in-person meetings. Every other public and private sector organisation is open. It is fine going online but it is not everybody's cup of tea to manage their affairs online. Some people find that if they have a technical issue, they are not able to resolve it through the online service.

I visited the office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin today. I visited the office in Limerick on Friday. Neither of the offices was open. Revenue is taking calls in the morning but trying to get an appointment online or a place in the queue is very difficult. It is a difficult situation. It is not easy for older people or for people in general. I am looking for the support of this House. We should write to Revenue and call on it to go back to in-person meetings. This has happened in every other private and public sector organisation. It is time for Revenue to reopen its doors.

I note that today marks the funeral of Pierre Zakrzewski, who was an Irish citizen and journalist murdered by Russian forces in Ukraine a few weeks ago. Today is the day of his funeral. He was educated at St. Conleth's College, approximately a mile from the House. He discharged his function has a journalist with great bravery until he was murdered by Russian soldiers as part of Vladimir Putin's murderous, illegal and criminal invasion of Ukraine. It is important this House notes the occasion. An Irish citizen was murdered by the Russians. We should never forget who was responsible for this and who took the decision to unleash that savagery on the people of Ukraine. To all of Mr. Zakrzewki's friends in Ireland, I express my deepest sympathy and condolence.

I raise the need for a debate in this House on the provision of private rented dwellings. A foolish decision was made last year when it was decided that all tenancies which last more than six months should become tenancy contracts of indefinite duration. This came from a Department that is blighted by making stupid decisions. The same Department wiped out bedsits with a four-year delayed proposal when then Minister, former Deputy John Gormley, was in charge. That was a so-called reform in the interests of improving the standards of tenancy accommodation. We now have shared accommodation, which reverses the entire thrust of that initiative.

The point I want to make is that if anyone wants to know why private landlords are now deserting the rental market in droves, it is because we have stupidly and at the behest of the same Department introduced a law to the effect that all tenancies which last more than six months cannot be terminated except on one of four statutory grounds. The consequence of that is that people who simply wanted to let a house for five years with no questions asked and no reasons given, one way or another, cannot do so anymore. They must have one of the statutory grounds for evicting their tenant in the long run, whether their relationship with the tenant is good or bad, or antagonistic, no matter whose fault the antagonism is. Those landlords are stuck with those tenants forever unless one of the four statutory grounds exists.

I am not a slave to market ideology, but we intervene in markets at our peril. We did this with bedsits and we saw the consequences when 10,000 to 15,000 dwellings for the most vulnerable of people were annihilated. Now, we are doing the same again. We are driving private landlords out on the presupposition that they are all in the same category as real estate investment trusts investing billions of euro in Ireland and that they can take tenancies of unlimited duration in their stride. They will not. As a consequence, a very serious mistake has been made. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister to come back to the House to explain why it is necessary to have contracts of indefinite duration and what the consequences of that have been for the supply of private rented dwellings owned by private landlords.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend a fair bit of the conference being held next door by Sadaka today. The theme is dismantling Israeli apartheid and developing Ireland's strategy. The keynote speaker was Michael Lynk, who is the UN special rapporteur on human rights for the occupied territories. He has written six reports and he was absolutely clear today that Israel is an apartheid state. In making that statement, he joined not only Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch but 450 human rights organisations across the world. He set out very clearly the legal case proving the statement to be true. As part of his presentation, he shared some quotes from Israeli politicians. I thought it would be good to share them with colleagues here today. I will start with the current Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett. He says: "I oppose a Palestinian state, and I am making it impossible to conduct diplomatic negotiations that might lead to a Palestinian state." Israel's current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid, is due to take over as Prime Minister in 18 months. This is an interesting quote from him: "My principle says maximum Jews on maximum land with maximum security and with minimum Palestinians". That is pretty clear, is it not? I should not even need to bother with this quote from Benjamin Netanyahu.

He probably said to let him out of jail.

He has said:

A Palestinian state will endanger our existence ... I will not divide Jerusalem, I will not evacuate any [settlements]

The one disappointing part of the engagement with Sadaka today was the fact that every political party was invited to send representatives. Just two parties did not bother. It will not surprise anyone to learn those two parties were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I commend Senator Martin, who did attend and spoke very ably on the issue. I want to say very directly to the Acting Leader that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are standing on the wrong side of history when it comes to this issue. Thanks to Senator Black, we have the occupied territories Bill. It needs to be passed because otherwise the record will show that this Government did not take the steps required to challenge apartheid as it exists today.

One of the other things Michael Lynk said was that, when looked at in detail, apartheid as applied in Israel is much worse than the apartheid regime in South Africa. For example, in South Africa they did not say only these people could walk on particular roads but they do that in occupied Palestine. I appeal to the Deputy Leader for a further discussion on this issue. I would also like an explanation as to why neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael bothered to send a representative to that conference today. It was appalling and it went down like a lead balloon. It is time we all took a stand for justice. We should remember how we tackled apartheid in South Africa back in the 1980s. We came together to apply sanctions. We have a route to do that via the occupied territories Bill and we should do it. There are no excuses for the Government not to act on this issue.

I want to raise a number of matters. There has been a lot of talk in the past number of weeks about our Defence Forces and what future they should or might have within Europe and on the world stage. The desperate and unjustified attack by Russia on the sovereign state of Ukraine has concentrated many minds on this subject. I read yesterday that Cabinet is discussing increasing our defence budget to €2 billion from the current expenditure of approximately €1 billion. In any conversation about the future of our Defence Forces, serving members and their representative associations must be to the forefront.

A number of public representatives have called for those representative associations to be allowed to affiliate to ICTU and many of us have been doing so for a number of years. Indeed, the recent report by the Commission on the Defence Forces recommended such an affiliation. The Minister could immediately allow the Permanent Defence Force Other Rank Representatives Association, PDFORRA, and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, to affiliate and to position themselves for forthcoming public pay talks. I appreciate that a debate on this issue has previously been requested. I chaired a Commencement matter in the House recently in response to which the Minister indicated he would return to the House for a discussion on the report on the future of the Defence Forces. It is beyond time that debate took place and I ask the Acting Leader to request that debate as soon as possible.

Separately, I welcome a report published yesterday by Kildare County Council entitled Local Just Transition Plan for West Kildare and recognise the importance of it to so many people who live in that part of my home county. The plan sets out to identify projects to support and advance sustainable social, economic and environmental development in the transition to a low carbon future in west County Kildare. Given the historical dependence of this region of Kildare on Bord na Móna and given the many great bogs in the area, this report and the way in which its recommendations will be supported and implemented will be crucial to all those who live there. The economic and social indices of this region need the urgent supports outlined the report. I look forward to working with Kildare County Council and the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly on the needs of this region. The many great communities of west County Kildare, including Kilberry, Kildangan, Monasterevin, Rathangan, Ballyteigh, Milltown and Carbury, need the support of this report. They need investment urgently and I look forward to working with the House and Kildare County Council in that regard.

Finally, I again raise the issue of secretarial pay. The Acting Leader, as a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, has spoken about this previously. We had a debate in the House a number of months ago about the urgent need to justify the pay of our secretarial assistants. I have not heard much recently, other than having read about it in national newspapers. Will the Acting Leader or the Cathaoirleach update us on the issue?

I too raise the Sadaka conference, which it was a privilege for me to attend. It was hosted by Sadaka, the Ireland Palestine Alliance. As my colleague, Senator Gavan, said, Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, presented some stark findings from his latest and final report on Palestine. His assessment is damning. He concludes, in agreement with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organisations, that Israel is an apartheid state subjugating the Palestinian people and denying them dignity and the right to self-determination.

Crucial to this assessment is Israel's construction of 300 illegal, Jewish-only settlements in occupied-territory housing for more than 700,000 people. Not only does this expose Palestinians to daily acts of violence from settler extremists, who represent the most radicalised section of Israeli society, but it precludes the formation of any spatially and demographically coherent Palestinian state, which is a key part of the peace process. For the Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid, life is fraught with physical violence and state oppression. Checkpoints are erected in a random and arbitrary fashion, which impedes Palestinians’ movement and leaves them subject to aggressive colonial policing by Israel Defense Forces, IDF, soldiers. Israeli citizens, including settlers in the occupied territories, enjoy the protection of a civil court system, with fair procedures for those accused of a crime; Palestinians are subject to an alternative justice system comprising military tribunals, with a 99% conviction rate.

For the Palestinians living in Gaza, conditions are even worse. Israel restricts the entry of food and the supply of electricity and medicine. The former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, hardly a radical, has described Gaza as an open-air prison. Indeed, it is an open-air prison that is periodically carpet-bombed by the Israeli military in an unjustifiable, disproportionate response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants.

I believe they call it "mowing the lawn", and that is in an open-air prison. That is what they are doing. It is half the size of County Louth and what is happening is horrendous.

It is not only Amnesty International but Human Rights Watch and the UN special rapporteur also used the term "apartheid", as did a former Shin Bet director, Ami Ayalon, a former Attorney General of Israel, Michael Ben-Yair, former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, and, most importantly, people who have lived through and defeated apartheid in South Africa, including, the Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor. In diplomacy and international law, language matters. If a Member of the Oireachtas referred to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a "skirmish", we would rightly rebuke him or her for failing to capture the gravity and magnitude of the crimes being committed. We cannot be coy about this. I feel frustrated, as the Deputy Leader can imagine, and I ask that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, come in and discuss these findings by Michael Lynk. I am happy to hear that the Minister will be meeting Michael Lynk tomorrow, but I would like it if a representative from Fianna Fáil would also meet him. I call on somebody from Fianna Fáil to have a meeting with Michael Lynk in order to hear about his report.

I ask the Acting Leader to invite the Minister for Transport to the House to discuss the ongoing delays experienced by passengers at Dublin Airport as a matter of urgency. With the collapse of the aviation sector during the pandemic, we all accepted that there would be some recovery time needed but what passengers at Dublin Airport experienced last weekend was unacceptable. I appreciate that the Dublin Airport Authority is taking necessary steps in hiring and training the necessary staff but it is unbelievable that we have airlines asking passengers to come to the airport three and a half hours before their appointed departure times, even for short-haul European flights. Something has gone dramatically wrong. I ask that the Minister would come to the House to provide an update on the situation. I encourage people to use Cork Airport as a means of flying to Europe and the United Kingdom because it is a passenger-friendly facility and the queues there are much smaller than those at Dublin Airport. Notwithstanding that, it is important that the Minister come to the House.

I ask that the Minister for Education would also come to the House to debate leaving certificate reform. All of us who have been involved in education, as the Acting Chairman has, welcome the changes announced today. We welcome the fact that the written examination will be worth no more than 60% of a student's exam results at the end and the fact that some students will be able to sit a particular exam in fifth year. The initiation of change is one part but clarity, engagement, consultation and delivery of the final piece of the leaving certificate reform are why the Minister should come to the House. I ask the Acting Chairman and the Deputy Leader to ask her to come to the House as a matter of urgency.

I commend each person in Ireland who is helping those fleeing the war in Ukraine. We will never know the true extent of the efforts of volunteers around the country but they are at work everywhere and I thank all of them. We are sorely aware, however, that injustice and suffering continue the world over. In Afghanistan last week, the Taliban reneged on a promise to allow girls to attend secondary school, with thousands of girls turned away from school gates. One girl, who spoke to the Afghan news outlet TOLOnews, burst into tears as she described being "turned away after waiting 186 days - she had counted - for school to resume. She asked: "What is our crime? That we are girls?"

On the other side of the world, a so-called liberal democracy shows similar signs of authoritarian leanings. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received a wake-up call in the European Parliament last week when he addressed it on the topic of growing threats to democracy and failed to count himself among those threats. Last month, I spoke about Mr. Trudeau being the first Prime Minister in Canada's history to invoke the powers of the Emergencies Act, which were used to violently quell a legitimate protest. At the European Parliament session, it was stated that the world had watched how, under the quasi-liberal boot of Trudeau, women were trampled underfoot by horses and how the bank accounts of single parents were frozen so they could not pay for their children's education and medicine, for utilities or make mortgage repayments. I received, as I am sure many colleagues have, correspondence from an Irish citizen living in Canada.

This one is from Paraic, who is originally from Connemara. It states:

I cannot board a plane in Canada to fly to Ireland because I am not vaccinated. The Government of Canada has set a mandate that states that no unvaccinated person shall board a plane, train or bus, whether to travel domestically or internationally. I believe it is the only country in the western world that has imposed this sanction on the unvaccinated population. Although I was able to be medically exempt from this by my doctor because of a PCR test, the parameters that the Canadian Federal Government set out to the no-travel rule does not allow me, and likely does not include most people. The Canadian Government has set the following terms as to what is not an emergency and urgent travel. These are: travel to visit family, attending weddings, funerals and attending to personal matters, such as buying a house, seeing or caring or sick family members, discretionary travel, such as for a vacation or recreation and situations where activity can be held virtually.

These are our citizens who are locked up in another country and who cannot travel back to their own native homes. This requires immediate intervention by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. I ask the Acting Chair to bear with me as I am nearly finished.

The Senator has gone well over time.

The issues of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, free from Government suppression, are timeless pillars of a free and functioning society. Yet, this is timely. As our media flirts once again with restrictions, the debate about proportionality of the extreme and unprecedented measures taken to combat Covid-19 must remain free and open. I ask the Acting Leader if we can count on him to combat these injustices on either side of the world.

I would like to ask if the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, could come into the House for a discussion on energy. The two big main players in this country at the moment are the ESB and Coillte. We should know their plans going forward. This behoves the Minister to come into the House to outline that to us.

The other issue I would like to raise is on the tariffs that are being paid to domestic customers. I feel that that tariff should be raised. This is because the ESB is enjoying free electricity from people who are putting some energy into the network and no tariff is being paid at the moment. They have raised the price of the charges that they are charging for the ESB. The gas companies have, too. Yet, the tariff does not seem to have gone up. The tariff that has been set, or that has been proposed to be set by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is 10 cent per unit. That tariff should be raised. It should be paid to the domestic customers immediately, because they are supplying into the grid as it is.

I would also like to raise the issue of battery packs. There is some ambiguity about whether you need a battery when you have a smart meter. Some people are saying you do need a battery. We need the Minister to come in here as a matter of urgency to deal with all of those issues. We are in a great position here to produce energy. We will have long days from now until September. The domestic input can be quite sizable, as well as the main production, whether it is onshore or offshore, or whether it is the ESB or Coillte, or the ESB and Coillte working hand in hand to produce a resource that we have in abundance in this country. We should be tackling this on all fronts.

Today, the Government announced the auto-enrolment scheme for pensions, which I welcome. Nobody has ever accused pensions of being sexy, but there is the reality in the demographics in Ireland and in the changes in the population that mean that we have to prepare for a pensions crisis that is coming down the road. It is entirely appropriate therefore that the Government would put this scheme in place. I welcome the fact that employees will benefit both from contributions from their employers and from the State. It is perhaps the most effective way that we can prepare people for retirement and we can prepare the State coffers to deal with the fact there will be a huge number of people who will be pensioners and who will essentially be paid for by people who are working.

The question I have, and this is why I think we should ask the Minister to come into the House for a debate on this, is on how this will function for self-employed persons. People who are self-employed do not have the benefit of an employer paying into their pension.

There is no auto-enrolment for them and yet we have said so many times self-employed people are the backbone of the economy. They are the backbone of employment within this economy. Small businesses and people who take the initiative to set up businesses and take on the burden, risk and responsibility of being an employer will apparently not benefit from this auto-enrolment scheme. May we therefore have a debate whereby we talk about how this scheme is also going to work for small business owners, self-employed persons and sole traders? How is it going to work for them? What is the State going to contribute to their pensions so they are not left behind when the time comes?

I raise the recent changes in the blood donation policies. As the Acting Leader may know, the new four-month deferral policy is now in effect but it seems that, contrary to assurances from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service during a Newstalk interview on 22 December of last year, the service has suddenly decided to continue to include oral sex between men as grounds for deferral. Women who have had sex with bisexual men will also continue to be deferred for four months instead of the previous 12 but again, the man in this scenario may be free to donate during that period while the woman is prevented from doing so. No explanation has really been given for these and saying it aloud it all seems a little topsy-turvy and does not follow logical sense.

Due to a freedom of information request from a member of the public, my understanding is the initial plan was to move to a three-month deferral for gay and bisexual men. However, during one of the meetings, one of the attendees suggested a four-month deferral and it seems this was just accepted. No scientific or other kind of basis for this suggestion was given during the meeting, beyond simply that France was implementing a four-month deferral at the time. In the meantime, Ireland was importing blood from England despite the latter never having a four-month deferral. It has instead moved from 12 months to three months and is now at an individualised assessment for all donors. It seems this four-month period was plucked out of thin air to mimic France and even France has moved away from it. It seems every piece of evidence shows this new deferral policy has zero basis in science or medicine and is instead purely ideological. That is no way to run a national blood service, especially when the scientific alternative, namely, individualised risk assessment for all donors, is available and easily implementable. It is in use in Northern Ireland and Britain, from which we are currently importing blood. They do not have this deferral system.

This is not the first time the issue of blood donation has been raised in the House. It is not good enough we are running our blood donation service based not on scientific reasoning but instead on a seemingly ideological basis. I wanted to raise it in the House because doing the above is not good enough. Blood is a vital service. It literally saves lives. Our blood service still seems to be using this unscientific method despite assurances year after year and I believed, from the programme for Government, that this was going to change.

I raise the crisis in the pig industry. Since last September, the industry has seen huge losses on a continuing basis. I was talking to pig producers in Barryroe on Friday evening. They have been losing up to €50 per pig on a continuous basis since last September. These are multimillion euro losses. It is affecting both the milling companies and the manufacturing of the product itself at the other end. It is a high-input product where a low value is put on the meat itself at the end of the process, which is disappointing. The real issue is that this is our third biggest sale of product going out of Ireland from the agricultural industry. It is third behind milk and beef.

It is a very important entity in west Cork, in particular. We have Staunton Foods and we have 40 pig farmers there. That is 40 families attached to this industry for decades. They do it to the very best of their ability and are renowned throughout the world for what they do. This industry is on the brink at the moment. Unless we have really significant investment by the Government, we could lose our pig industry, which is one of our most important entities. We are looking at a scenario where the cost of feed has gone up by 90% since last September. The costs of energy and transportation have increased dramatically. We are looking at 10,000 jobs and €1.8 billion in sales to the economy. We could lose one of our real prime cuts, which is what our pork and pig industry means to our economy.

Unless we step into the market now and support it, we will lose these people. Just today I was told by pig farmers protesting outside Leinster House that they will have to stop breeding their next lot of young pigs. If farmers start culling sows now, as is being proposed at the moment, they will not have the breeding stock to bounce back when the market returns. In that situation, we will lose vast numbers of pig farmers. They are literally going into liquidation. It is appropriate for this House to have a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine as soon as possible because we are facing a scenario in which the Irish pig industry is lost forever.

I want to add my support for Senator Hoey's comments on blood donation. I agree that we must have a science-based policy approach. Last week I asked the Minister for Health to give confirmation of when we will move to the individual assessment approach but was just told that it would be by the end of this year. The Minister also needs to justify the use of a four-month rather than a three-month delay period and to explain the basis for same.

I also want to raise another issue related to the health service, that is, the excessive waiting times in accident and emergency departments and the number of people on trolleys. Yesterday there were 583 people on trolleys across the country. We are heading back to the pre-pandemic days of overcrowded emergency departments due to the failure of the Government to properly resource hospital capacity expansion. We can only increase capacity if we properly resource enough beds and the staff to safely manage them.

Earlier this month a full-time carer spoke of his ordeal in Tallaght Hospital where he waited for 24 hours to be seen with his son who had suspected appendicitis. While he waited in the accident and emergency department with is sick son, he had no choice but to leave his disabled wife and their daughter with autism home alone. As he said himself, every nurse and doctor he met was fantastic. They were caring, deeply apologetic and fed up to their back teeth with the systemic issues and working conditions. He spoke of how there were not enough seats for people to sit on. Even well people accompanying others cannot be expected to stand for 24 hours. With another Covid surge upon us which will inevitably increase pressure on the already exhausted healthcare workforce, the Minister for Health needs to outline how he intends to increase capacity in our emergency departments. I would also like the Minister to explain the four-month delay and to confirm the date for moving to the individual assessment process for blood donations.

I rise to discuss special needs assistants, SNAs and the front-loading of SNA allocations. Like many of my colleagues, I have received emails as part of a campaign expressing concern with regard to the front-loading model of SNA allocation.

I have discussed this with officials in the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and believe it is a really good idea. It is right to have SNAs in place when a child comes into a school, with the school given discretion with regard to the allocation of hours in response to the need. There is an equality of access that comes with that which is very important. It means that every child, regardless of whether he or she has a diagnosis, can be allocated a certain number of hours if his or her parents express a need for same.

However, I also appreciate the concern that with this model a lot depends on the competence, efficiency and effectiveness of the special needs co-ordinator in a school, whether he or she is communicating well with parents, is in receipt of the education passport and has spoken to either the pre-school, in the case of children starting primary school, or the primary school in the case of children transitioning to secondary school. The latter is important to ensure the proper passing over of information. There was a time when SNAs in post-primary schools went back to visit SNAs in primary schools but again, that comes down to the effectiveness, passion and willingness of the special needs co-ordinator in a school and whether he or she is thorough and comprehensive.

There is a concern out there and I am sure many in this House would like to have the opportunity to contribute to a debate on these matters and to express some of the concerns of those who are emailing us. I ask that we invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House for a debate on this matter.

In this regard, I support this front-loading model. However, I would like an opportunity to ventilate the concerns on it.

First, I welcome the fact the Taoiseach has asked the Russian ambassador to expel a number of officials from this country. Sadly, it is only four. We are not following the example of other countries across Europe. That leaves somewhere in the region of 28 or 29 still here. Why we need that many in this country I do not know.

It is not unknown that I am pretty active on social media. This weekend somebody decided to attack, using my wife's name and my children's names. That, to me, is totally unacceptable. I contacted Twitter and told them what had happened. Twitter came back to me and told me no rule was broken. I am used to people attacking me on a regular basis because I am a former member of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers. I served with more than 1,000 Irishmen. They were all proud Irishmen - Catholic, Protestant from North, South, east and west. All of us were proud of what we did. I will never be anything but proud of it. The day I got elected to this House the first people to welcome me were from Sinn Féin. Deputy McDonald was asked how she felt about a former Brit being elected by members of Sinn Féin and she said the world had moved on, which it has. Every day of the week somebody has a go at the fact that I am a former Brit. Here we are in this House. I am a former Brit. I served in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers and I am damn proud of it. I was a bloody good soldier when I was in it, but I will not stand over the likes of Twitter allowing my family to be used as a weapon to try to beat me. My wife and my children are private citizens. They never ever come into the public domain. They never speak publicly on anything, and nobody has the right to use their names. It is time that we curtailed these social media platforms with respect to being able to identify who it is that is speaking. My colleague, Senator Ward, mentioned this only the other day. I have no difficulty with somebody having a pseudonym, but I must be able to identify who they are, where they are and what they are about. I deeply resent the fact that this clown decided to use my family. People can attack me any day they want. They can meet me outside the gate and talk to me if they want, but they must never use my family.

Today we have an announcement on the reform of the leaving certificate Equity and Excellence for All: where the student is at the centre of their Senior Cycle experience. We have seen that over the past year. We have seen the Irish Second-Level Students' Union being part of the process to decide how we do accredited grades the year before last and how we manage the leaving certificate. Today, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announced measures to support students with this reform. I also acknowledge the former Minister for Education, Deputy Bruton, who initiated this review, and officials from the Department of Education and the State Examinations Commission, along with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. There has been a body of work around this, including at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which has been working on a report on leaving certificate reform. The first major change is 40% of exams will be by continuous assessment. That means only 60% of all subjects will be by written exam. It will support many students. It will be fantastic for students who do not feel at their best on the day of their exam to know that not 100% of their grade is riding on it. It also allows for a wider review of student skills to excel. There will be easier access to third level because if students are able to explore and do more practical assessments through continuous review, it means that there will be a lower level of drop out. Students will know more about the choices they want to make in terms of their career. Second, new curricula and subjects have been added to develop the arts and culture area as well as the climate crisis. Drama, film and theatre studies are being added to the curriculum. Another addition is climate action and sustainable development, which again will help to prepare students to deal with the climate change challenges ahead. New qualifications have also been added. There will be a new exam at junior cycle level for students with special educational needs. Even better, we will see a revised transition year programme and greater access for transition year students.

This is important. I might highlight that at the Department of Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Minister, Deputy Harris, is currently running six pilots in secondary schools that are looking at doing pilots of apprenticeships. In other words, students are getting an opportunity in transition year to try out some of these apprenticeship programmes. We currently have about 64 apprenticeship programmes ongoing. This will be a fantastic way for students to get an opportunity to test these out.

I thank all Senators for their contributions this afternoon on a wide array of subjects. Senator Malcolm Byrne, supported by Senators Maria Byrne, Dolan and Buttimer, talked about leaving certificate reform and the welcome introduction of two new subjects, namely, climate action and sustainable development and drama, film and theatre, from 2024. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has set out a vision and a work programme that encompasses a range of areas including a new curriculum, new subjects, changing the final assessment procedure to significantly reduce reliance on final examinations and the introduction of a teacher-based assessment component. There is much very welcome reform and I acknowledge the work of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and all its members, in their engagement with the Minister. We also will ask her to come in and debate what I believe to be a welcome and good news story.

Senators Malcolm Byrne and Buttimer also spoke about the long delays in Dublin Airport. We have discussed the collapse in aviation over the past two years because of Covid-19. Now that the industry is back up and running, it is absolutely not acceptable that people are suffering the delays that they are suffering in Dublin Airport. While Senator Buttimer is right to welcome people to Cork Airport, as I am sure many people would, and indeed to Ireland West Airport Knock and Shannon Airport as well, it is not a laughing matter for anybody who was caught up in the unacceptable delays at Dublin Airport. I will certainly invite the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan and Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, in to discuss this matter.

The census is a hugely important time. Going back to the time of Herod, we heard about the census. It is important that people are counted. The data are used for each district electoral division for the country to plan in regard to healthcare, education and all aspects of society. Nobody should be abusing any public servant and census enumerators who are doing their job should not be abused. Certainly next year, as I understand it they are moving to an online system. I am sure there will still need to be a follow-up system as well in certain cases.

Senator Maria Byrne talked about the offices of the Revenue Commissioners being continuously closed. That is not acceptable. It is important that the Revenue gets back to pre-Covid-19 days, notwithstanding the present increasing numbers of cases, and that there are in-person meetings with people who need to engage with the Revenue. I will ask the office of the Leader to write to the Revenue Commissioners to ask them to expedite the reopening of offices of the Revenue Commissioners throughout the country.

Senator McDowell rightly discussed the funeral today of Pierre Zakrzewski, an Irishman who was educated in Ireland and whose family live in the locality in Dublin, who was a journalist and biographer. He is just one example of the savagery of the unjust war within the Ukraine. We remember Pierre this afternoon. Senator McDowell also asked for a debate and I will request a debate in relation to issues on the housing matter, housing and renting. We have all come across landlords who are getting out of the industry or are planning to so do because they consider it is not worth it. Certainly that would have knock-on effects, exacerbating the crisis that we have within the rental sector and of homelessness. I accept that bedsits were fine for a certain cohort of people and once you remove those, you remove valuable accommodation. They had to be of a proper standard and up to scratch but removing those was a mistake. I will invite the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien.

Senators Black and Gavan talked about the Sadaka conference in regard to Palestine and Israel. I will invite the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to come in to debate the issue of Palestine. I am not aware of who exactly was invited to the conference or where that letter or email went to.

Normally it would go to Government. I am not sure to whom it was sent, if it was the Minister. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to come into the House to provide an update on ongoing issues regarding Palestine.

Senator Wall spoke about PDFORRA and RACO and their ability to affiliate to engage in collective bargaining. I have previously urged the Minister to come in to discuss all defence matters as with the review of the Defence Forces, the substantial body of work done by the independent Commission on the Defence Forces and all that goes with it, there is enough material to have a large-scale debate on the future of our Defence Forces, having regard to all that has gone on, whether it be pre-conflict with respect to the manoeuvres off the south-east coast and all that has gone on since then regarding the provision of aid to Ukraine, our neutrality, NATO and associate membership and all that goes with it. There is much to discuss in that very important sector. I will ask for a debate on it.

Senator Keogan raised the situation of girls in Afghanistan. Education is such a fundamental right. Afghanistan, to be best of my knowledge, is still a member of the United Nations. We will contact the Minister and the ambassador to engage on this matter. It is extremely important.

The Senator also mentioned Canada. It is very much a democratic country. It had an election last September and Prime Minister Trudeau was re-elected. We have had debates in this House on our Covid-19 laws and not everyone was happy with them. I am sure not everybody in Canada was happy with their Covid laws but it is a democratic country. It is very welcoming to Irish and other immigrants from around the world. If there are specific genuine issues the Senator has, and she mentioned a man from Connemara which sparked my interest, I suggest she raises those concerns with the ambassador to Canada in the first instance and take it from there.

Senator Burke raised the energy issue and Coillte and asked that we invite the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to discuss the energy issues we have had. We recognise the major impact that rising energy prices are having for Irish people. There were announcements two weeks ago on fuel, excise and VAT and it is important those be kept under review. The Council of Ministers meeting last week that the Taoiseach attended considered the whole area of VAT on fuel. That is extremely important. Under the present rules, any temporary reduction would result in that VAT going back up to 23% thereafter when the change was reversed. That would be a major change. It is important to examine the changes that can made.

Senator Ward spoke about the auto enrolment scheme for pensions. We know the pensions issue is a major concern for people. Often people leave it too late in life to think about or engage in providing for a pension. It is important we consider auto-enrolment. The Senator is right to say there are areas where that might not happen under the system. I will invite the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to come into the House to debate the issue of auto-enrolment and the overall pension plans. She has asked the sectoral committee to examine the issue. I will certainly invite her to come to the House to discuss that scheme. The Minister has said participation in the new scheme will be voluntary and workers will have the ability to opt out. The scheme includes a matching employer contributions and State top-ups. For every €3 saved by a worker, a further €4 will be credited to their pension savings account. When fully established, a worker earning €35,000 per annum will accumulate a fund of €293,000 over his or her working life. This is an important area but certainly we need to ensure people are aware of it and that any issues are ironed out in advance.

Senators Hoey and Boylan raised the blood donation policy. I understood there were positive announcements on this a number of months ago. Perhaps if they tabled a Commencement matter they would get an early definitive response and if they tabled it jointly, the issue might be more likely to be selected by the good offices of the Cathaoirleach. Other than that, we can request the Minister to come into the House to discuss the issue. This is an important area. Blood is often in short supply . There is no reason we would have different policy vis-à-vis other parts of the island, the UK or mainland Europe. It should be based on science.

Senator Lombard talked about the crisis in the pig industry. The IFA highlighted the issue outside the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Senator is right that the pig sector is intensive. It is a high input cost sector due to the use of energy, feed and transportation so is particularly prone to the higher energy, fuel and feed costs that we have seen over the last period. I will ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine to come to the House to discuss this very important issue.

Farmers taking decisions to stop putting sows back into pig would have further long-term impacts on the sector and a possible culling of the sector. While there is always what is called a pig cycle in terms of prices, the industry is in a very difficult situation. If an industry like this one collapsed entirely then it would be very difficult to gear it back up again, which we have seen before in certain areas like sugar beet. The pig industry is worth protecting in terms of the number of jobs involved and the product so I will ask for a debate.

Senator Boylan raised the issue of blood donations, and the waiting times in accident and emergency departments. The Joint Committee on Health is doing a body of work on this issue. Recently the committee had before it representatives of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, Fórsa and SIPTU to discuss overcrowding. I know that we are to invite in representatives of some of the hospital groups as well. The issue must be continuously kept on the agenda. If there is a specific issue of an individual hospital or group then I urge the Senator to table a Commencement debate.

Senator Seery Kearney talked about the modelling of SNAs. There is no perfect model because the work is demand-led. Sometimes when a school has an SNA and suddenly does not have the children then the school loses the SNA, which is a matter of great concern to that school. Certainly there were issues with the existing model. I will invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in to speak on the issue.

Senator Craughwell welcomed the expulsion of a number of officials from the Russian Embassy, and I am sure the matter will be kept under review. He also talked about the scurrilous attack on his wife and children of which I was unaware and my sympathies go to them. As he rightly said, they are private citizens as are all of our family members. The cut and thrust of politics is one thing and we are all subject to attack. Some of it is unjust and some perhaps just, but that goes with the job. Nobody forces us into these jobs but family members should be out of bounds in terms of any sort of attacks. It has become too easy and prevalent for anybody to type something anonymously. This matter has been raised within the Houses of the Oireachtas and meetings have taken place with Twitter, Facebook and a number of companies. They have all said that they are private companies that are there to make money. However, at the same time, they too easily allow people to run fake accounts to say whatever they like. The worrying thing is that the individuals who receive comments do not know the identity of the sender. It could be somebody that they know who uses a fake account. The recipient could be quite familiar to these people yet they are not brave enough to say who they are or show who they are.

I think that I have covered all of the contributions made by Senators.

Order of Business agreed to.