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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 7

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 2, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Tuesday, 28 June, Wednesday, 29 June, and Thursday, 30 June 2022, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 3, Protected Disclosures (Amendment) Bill 2022 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to adjourn at 4.45 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 4, Institutional Burials Bill 2022 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.45 p.m., with the time allocated to the opening remarks of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

I wish to welcome Deputy Cathal Crowe and the students of the Killaloe Boys National School, who are finishing sixth class tomorrow and moving on to big school. I also welcome their teachers, Mary, Frances and Cathal. I hope they enjoy the day. No doubt, Deputy Crowe will look after our guests. I hope the students get plenty of treats and a few ice creams.

Today I wish to raise the issue of the childcare sector. As many other Members did, I had the opportunity to meet with childcare providers yesterday. Having done so, I share their significant concerns over the sustainability of the sector. As we are aware, it is a sector that families across the country rely on and one that is responsible for a significant part of how many of our children develop in their early years, which we know, from extensive research, is incredibly important.

We must address the concerns of childcare providers, strengthen the sector and engage with the problems. If we do not do so, we run the very real risk of a large number of services closing. Should those closures happen, they will not be easily reversed. I urge the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to examine the statements of childcare providers, review the core funding and take action as a matter of urgency. While yesterday's protest was mainly about core funding, having spoken to providers and staff here in Leinster House, I am aware that there is also a wider range of issues that we must address in the short term to effectively guarantee the sustainability of the sector.

A large number of staff employed within the childcare sector are on part-time or 38-week contracts. They have no option but to sign on the live register for the summer months. Having spoken with people, I know that it is incredibly demoralising and damaging from a financial perspective to be in that situation, given that they do such significant work. Many of the people working in the sector have got level 7 qualifications and are dedicated to working in the sector because they love the work. Obviously, they do not go into the sector expecting to get rich, but nor should they have to sign on the exchange for 14 weeks over the summer months.

As I have noted, those working in the sector are essentially looking after hundreds of thousands of children across the country. We must ensure that staff operating in the sector are respected and valued. Otherwise, the great people working in childcare will inevitably go to another sector that treats them better.

It should be noted also that this Government has begun to address the sector in a more comprehensive manner, with the establishment of a joint labour committee, and it has invested in core funding for the first time in budget 2022. However, it is clear that the enhanced investment that is required in budget 2023 must address this, and in advance of the budget we must ensure the sector is sufficiently funded to make it sustainable in the short term. I urge the Leader of the House, Senator Doherty, to request that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, would attend this House and debate and prioritise this matter.

I join with Senator Crowe in welcoming the boys from Killaloe Boys National School in County Clare to Seanad Éireann today, and their teachers, Cathal, Frances and Mary. I am sure they have their hands full with the boys today. No doubt Deputy Crowe will look after them during their visit to Leinster House. I thank them for being here today.

I concur with the comments by my colleague, Senator Crowe, on the childcare sector. I second his call for a debate on the matter. There are issues surrounding core funding. We know the importance of the childcare sector, which is of growing importance in society.

I have spoken previously and requested a debate on the many positives of greenways, blueways and plans for active travel across the country. Unfortunately, being up here, I missed the public consultation in recent days in Moycullen and Oughterard and this evening in the Clybaun Hotel in Galway on the Galway to Oughterard greenway, a project that was mooted as far back as 2013 or 2014. Despite valiant efforts to try to make progress over the years by direct consultation and engagement with landowners, unfortunately, they did not allow for the lodging of a planning application up to now. Those involved have gone back to the start, as it were, and have begun a process of engagement. Part of that is because of the recent agreements to which the farm organisations have signed up. When the former Minister, Shane Ross, was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department initiated a process whereby farm organisations signed up to a protocol on engagement and compensation regarding greenways. That has been a game-changer in terms of allowing this process to go forward. More important than that is the result of the south Kerry greenway decision, which was seen as a template for other local authorities.

I have raised this issue on numerous occasions. Those two pieces: the result of the court case in south Kerry and the landowners' agreement, have allowed for this process to move forward. There is a commitment across the political spectrum. It is important that landowners and homeowners are treated with respect and that we get the best possible route that interferes in the least possible fashion with landowners, but at the same time delivers what would be a world-class piece of infrastructure, which will not only be available for tourists and for locals alike, but would be hugely beneficial in areas like Moycullen, Rosscahill and even as far as Oughterard, in terms of commuting into Galway city. A lot of people in my area in Moycullen and further on who work in NUIG or the hospital, as well as students who are attending NUIG or the new Atlantic Technological University, would commute this way. This would be a game-changer in terms of commuting, tourism and local amenity and leisure. There is a consultation today in the Clybaun Hotel from noon to 9 p.m. Comments and views are to be sent back by 15 July. The website for providing information is galwaytooughterardgreenway@aecom.com. There are a lot of positives happening and it is worthy of a positive debate on such issues across the country. The Leader might raise the matter with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage may well be licking his wounds this morning after Independent Deputy, Carol Nolan, effectively went through him for a shortcut yesterday in the Dáil because of the way he answered her question about social cohesion issues that might arise from the combined challenges of the housing crisis, immigration and asylum issues and accommodating victims of the war on Ukraine by Russia.

In accusing Deputy Nolan of threatening social cohesion, the Minister failed to recognise that it is the job of people in opposition and even Independents - I would argue even people within Government parties - to constantly question how the State, the Government and those who have the privilege of running the country, are dealing with very serious problems. I speak as someone who has always said on immigration matters that I believe in a policy that is generous but structured, structured but generous. That applies not just to those seeking asylum, but also to those who are known as economic migrants, who seek to make a better life for themselves - people who are fleeing poverty and so on. Only a fool would say that there can be no limits to that process. Globalisation has benefited us financially and it is not surprising that First World countries like ours would have a continual stream of people seeking to make a better life here. We have plenty of room in this country. We had 8 million people before the Famine, but the question is whether we have either the plan or the resources. If we are failing our own citizens badly on housing and health and if we present as if we can take endless numbers of people, that is an irresponsible approach. Sooner or later, it will generate problems of social cohesion.

Yesterday in the Dáil, the Minister seemed to have indicated that there is no cap and no ceiling. As far as I can see, that is the first time such a policy has been espoused. What worries me is that there appears to be no plan either. That is what Deputy Nolan was right to ask about. What are our plans? If she is asking quite legitimately if it is intended or foreseen that people will be living on the floors of hotel rooms indefinitely, she is exercising an important responsibility as a Member of the Dáil in challenging the Government about that. I know the answers to these issues are not easy, but the questions have to be asked. If our response to issues from gender to immigration in society is to accuse people who ask the hard questions of somehow seeking to foment discord or to stoke up discontent, that is monstrous. It is always a temptation for politicians, in particular those in power, to try to pretend that problems do not exist, while in fact they may be developing.

I often have the experience where people in a taxi or wherever else say that we have to look after our own people first. I always push back against that, but at the same time I always note it, because it has to be noted. It is not enough to just educate people to have the right attitudes; we also need to reassure people that the plans are being put in place. Irish people are generous once they know that there are common-sense plans.

I would like to provide an update on the Government's plans for gynaecology and maternal health services in the midlands. My colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and his Department are currently working with the HSE's national women and infants health programme to increase capacity and reduce waiting times for women awaiting general gynaecology through the implementation of the ambulatory gynaecology model of care.

This is a very positive development, and I look forward to seeing this model implemented on the ground in the midlands. First, what is an ambulatory gynaecological model of care? Essentially, it is a one-stop "see and treat" ambulatory gynaecology clinic. This model of care is a more efficient and effective use of resources than the traditional outpatient model. An estimated 70% of general gynaecology referrals are suitable for management in the ambulatory setting, and so I welcome the introduction of ambulatory clinics in the midlands and elsewhere, which will deliver a number of outcomes. They will improve access to gynaecology services; reduce the requirement for multiple gynaecology appointments; ensure sustainability of service provision into the future, given the very significant waiting lists for this specialty; and importantly, help improve clinical outcomes.

Investigations available include pelvic ultrasound, diagnostic hysteroscopy, and endometrial biopsy. Nine of these clinics are now operational across the country. A regional hub for women's health, which includes a specialist menopause clinic, was recently opened in Nenagh, County Tipperary. This is the first ambulatory gynaecology clinic to be operational for women in the midlands counties. I am conscious that Nenagh is a considerable distance from much of the rest of the midlands. From my own home in north Offaly, it is more than an hour by car to Nenagh. Therefore, I was delighted to hear that work is already under way on the recruitment, refurbishment and equipping of an ambulatory gynaecology clinic in Portlaoise, which is expected to be operational later this year.

Budget 2022 funding will facilitate the establishment of further ambulatory gynaecology clinics, including in Mullingar and Kilkenny, thereby completing the implementation of the ambulatory gynaecology model of care, bringing the total number of these clinics to 20 nationally. These clinics will be associated with each of the 19 maternity hospitals across the country, as well as Tallaght University Hospital.

On maternity services, specifically in the midlands, funding packages of €223,000 and almost €400,000 were provided in 2021 to Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar and Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise, respectively, for the recruitment of additional staff into maternity services at the hospitals. This included five clinical midwifery managers for both hospital- and community-based services, a medical social worker and healthcare assistants in Portlaoise and an assistant director of midwifery in Mullingar.

These developments are contributing, and will continue to contribute, to greatly improved access to and quality of care for women who need to avail of it. I look forward to hearing from midlands women about their experiences of these services on the ground over the coming months and years.

Last week I read into the record the names of 19 artists’ studios that closed in this city over the past decade. Today another name is being added to that list. I am really saddened that artists at Richmond Road Studios are effectively being shut out of their place of work and creativity as of today. We need to hear from the responsible Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, about what she intends to do about the wider issue of the hollowing out of artists’ spaces across the city.

The report on special needs education, published this week by the Ombudsman for Children, is very important and must be a wake-up call for the whole Government. The lack of planning by the Department of Education and of joined-up thinking between the Departments of Education and Health are simply terrifying. They are terrifying because we know that weeks, months and a few short years matter in the lives of children, particularly those with additional educational needs. What is particularly terrifying is the waiting time for a diagnosis. In Dublin 7, the local children’s disability network team has a waiting time of up to three years, or more, just to access a diagnosis. That is before access to treatments and therapies. Getting a diagnosis is the gateway to so many additional educational supports. The recommendation in the ombudsman’s report is really important in that there have to be other gateways to supports.

Waiting lists are because of huge shortages within the health system in respect of therapists and those who can provide diagnostic services. I call again for the Minister for Health to come to this House to set out in detail his workforce plans. Throughout the country there is a massive shortage and a huge crisis with regard to recruitment in the health service. We have not heard detail from the Minister on how he is going to address the problem.

I, too, would like to raise the report by the ombudsman, Mr. Niall Muldoon. The website of the Ombudsman for Children states it is Mr. Muldoon’s job to make sure the children in Ireland are treated fairly. The report, published yesterday, is probably one we all know and have heard stories about. It is now formally on the Government’s record that children with additional needs are being failed by the Department of Education. The Minister of State in that Department, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister, Deputy Foley, have spent huge amounts on special educational needs. They spent €2 billion extra. They spent 25% extra in the budget. The Minister of State promised yesterday to speed up legislation to ensure the section 37A process will work more effectively.

In the report, the ombudsman said we need to be more imaginative when it comes to education for children with additional needs. It is really welcome that the responsibilities of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will be moved to the Department responsible for equality. This will start in July. I hope there will be a movement on the therapy side.

On the education side, however, it is easy to open up a class but it is not easy to support it properly. If the Minister is to open extra classes, which I hope she will do, we must ensure they receive the right supports, including occupational therapy, speech and language, and psychology supports. Opening up a class in name will just not work out. It would entail an appropriate placement and parents and children would be back to square one, having to stay at home. If we are to move forward by opening up more special classes, it will have to be done appropriately; otherwise, it will just be lip service.

The figures were shocking. Some 15,000 children were travelling outside their catchment areas and not going to the local schools. This is so unfair. They already have additional needs and they must leave their siblings behind every day. I have heard stories of toddlers being offered transport in taxis to go to crèches. It is absolutely unbelievable. The additional-needs environment or framework is all wrong. If anything, the Government needs to consider the wording that Mr. Muldoon included in his report. The system needs to be reimagined and recalibrated because the current system, from therapy and early intervention to school placements at primary and secondary levels, is absolutely broken.

I commend the Leave Our Leave campaign, whose representatives were outside the Oireachtas today. It is a campaign to ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, to amend the maternity legislation to allow women undergoing cancer treatment to defer that treatment until they are ready to take their maternity leave. Many women receiving cancer treatment may have only one opportunity to have maternity leave, given the nature of cancer treatment. I ask everyone to support this.

I welcome the fact that it has just been announced that the leaving certificate results will be available on Friday, 2 September. While it is late and there is no point in saying otherwise, at least the students now have a date. As the leaving certificate examinations draw to a conclusion, I wish all the young people involved a very enjoyable summer. They well deserve it and have it well earned.

Unfortunately and sadly, there have been three suicides of young people in the Traveller community in recent days. One involved a child of nine in the city of Dublin. Therefore, I support the call by the Traveller groups for a dedicated mental health strategy for the Traveller community. Mental illness is a problem in this country anyway. I am aware that much work is being done and that a lot more needs to be done; however, with the prevalence of mental health issues within the Traveller community, it is appropriate at this stage to have a dedicated mental health strategy involving all the stakeholders. It should be properly and effectively funded.

Again, I request a dedicated debate in the House on the issue of long Covid. A long Covid clinic is to be opened in due course. It should be open already. This is a big issue. Unfortunately, a percentage of our population are now suffering greatly as a result of long Covid. I do not believe they are getting the intervention they need to address the deteriorating health circumstances related to long Covid. Unfortunately, as the narrative moves away from Covid and it is not dominating the headlines like it used to, although it still exists in society, I do not want the people who have long Covid to be forgotten about. Unfortunately, it might not be possible to have the debate this side of the summer; however, certainly in September, we need to have the Minister of Health in here to engage in a detailed way on this issue.

I, too, ask for dedicated debate on health. It has become very clear from all the Commencement matters and engagement by Senators on all sides of the House that health is a recurring theme. I request that the Minister - not a Minister of State but the Minister with ultimate responsibility for health - comes to the House. It would be remiss of us to adjourn this summer without a dedicated debate, maybe in three or four modules over a half day or day, on the growing concern over our health services.

I respect that Members are in different groupings and parties in the coalition but one thing I can say is there is a genuine concern across all strands of the political groupings in this House. I, therefore, ask that the Minister come to the House. I raised a number of issues, including scoliosis, over a period of months. There has been no progress on these issues. I do not intend to give the Minister a scalding. That is not what I am about. I want constructive debate but I want to look the Minister in the eye where the Leader is now sitting and put a number of questions to him; I would like if that could be taken on board.

I also thank the Senators who were here last night and who engaged in a really positive debate around the Patients Deserve Better campaign. It showed that the House was united. I thank everyone for their contributions. I received an email this morning from one of the members of the campaign who tuned in as they did not attend the debate. We also had visitors in the Public Gallery as well. This person was highly impressed by the fact that it was a cross-party initiative. This says something about this House. We were at our best yesterday so I thank the people who prepared and were involved in that.

From 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight, the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage will be discussing the general scheme of the Remediation of Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks Bill 2022. What a national scandal it is. No decision has yet been made about whether there will be pre-legislative scrutiny. This is the committee's attempt to bring these groups from Clare and Donegal and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage together over a series of modular meetings to discuss it. If anyone has an opportunity to link in or pass on the link to his or her constituents or those who will be interested, I think it will be a lively and interesting debate. A huge number of people will come to the gates of Leinster House regarding this issue in addition to those coming to the meeting. It will be a good meeting but let us not suspend our call for pre-legislative scrutiny at some point on this critical piece of legislation.

I am sure the Leader will agree with me when I make the following statement. Accurate and timely journalism has never been so important in this country. This was a comment from the Law Society of Ireland as it yesterday awarded its Justice Media Awards for 2022. I compliment people like Mary Carolan, Simon Carswell, Peter O'Dwyer, Catherine Sanz, Michael Doyle, Barry White, Michelle Hennessey and many more. In a local context, I was delighted that my former colleagues in Shannonside Northern Sound won the Justice Media Award in the Broadcast Journalism (local radio) category. I offer my congratulations to Joe Finnegan, Anne Norris, Tommy Stenson, Kevin McDermott, Kevin McGillicuddy and Daniel Considine. They won the award for series of reports entitled "Making and breaking the law". The point I want to make concerns the importance of these people. While we might not always agree with them or might get annoyed with them from time to time, they are the real journalists.

We had a debate here yesterday about the new electoral Bill. There are outside forces - people we do not know and cannot identify and people in social media circles - who are deliberately interfering with our democracy. We should laud these awards and the people who produce these programmes be they national or local. Will Faulkner, Ellen Butler, Sinéad Hubble and Robert Fahy from Midlands 103 got a merit certificate. These people are all doing fantastic work so let us laud them today. Long may they live and continue to do this kind of work.

It is always nice to have a good news story. I know there is a lot of talk about the cost of living and the hardship people are going through. We all meet them. However, we should acknowledge that the Minister for Social Protection has announced the opening of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance scheme worth €58 million. More than 120,000 families will automatically get their entitlements. There is increased funding, which is needed. We should encourage everybody who thinks he or she should get the payment automatically but does not to inquire about it because it will be crucial for families this year.

I begin by congratulating the State Examinations Commission on its announcement that the leaving certificate results will be announced on 2 September. It was long overdue.

I support Senator Boyhan's call for this House to have a rolling debate on health. I made a point yesterday about disability matters. It is not about bringing in the Minister for Health; the Minister for Health, Deputy Butler; the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte; or the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. This House also needs accountability from those charged with the administration of the system of health delivery. That debate would be useful and timely.

In light of the comments by European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union, Mairead McGuinness, who questioned the energy security and supply of Europe in the autumn, I ask as a matter of extreme urgency that we have a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications on energy security. I know the Minister was in the House yesterday regarding annual transition statements but given that prior to the Ukraine war, 40% of European gas came from Russia, it would be an opportunity for this House to hear from the Minister about what our plans as a nation are when it comes to energy security and supply. I know we have 90 days stockpiled but it is important that we give clarity and certainty to people and have this debate as a matter of urgency.

I wish everyone a happy Pride. This year is our first year on the streets since the pandemic so we are looking forward to sharing our love with the city and asserting our right and freedom to be public in this country. It is a protest so we will march and make demands for healthy conversations we approach with sensitivity, respect and a meaningful voice, conversations that affect our lives instead of being a talking point or reliable media controversy. As we continue to make our country a more equal place, let none of us pull the ladder up behind us. Many people are still waiting for their liberation so we must acknowledge that too.

Regarding night-time entertainment, I know the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and the Minister for Justice are committed to overdue reform of our licensing laws and enabling cultural spaces to be better used at night for artistic purposes, events and entertainment. I call for a debate and I might table a motion on the Order Paper to that effect in the coming weeks.

Last night, I had a conversation with Sheila Murnaghan, who is the principal of Monksland National School. The Department of Education approached her in January 2022 to see whether she would like two extra classrooms to cater for pupils with autism. The school jumped at this expecting that it would be for September 2023. The Department came back and said it wanted it for September 2022. Being the professional board it is, the board of management got on it straightaway and got all the information in. I have the paper trail here. It shows that the Department is lacklustre to say the least in approving and acknowledging the information the school was submitting within a matter of hours of being asked. This is something that would be more appropriate for a Commencement Matters debate, which I hope to submit next week because I want to got into the detail of it, but the point I am making is that the Department is coming to a school, asking whether it would like to have extra classroom space for ten children who are already enrolled and nine families come September and then because of bureaucracy and perhaps civil servants not doing the jobs they are supposed to do, they are not getting the proper responses back in time to be able to get this over the line in what is a short period of time in the first place. A bottleneck exists and I would like to go into greater detail about it with the Minister for Education if that is possible.

On the €96 million fine levied on AIB as a result of the tracker mortgage scandal, I heard on the radio this morning that this money is set to go back into the Exchequer. I ask that we have a discussion with the Minister on ring-fencing that money to contribute towards the cost-of-living crisis we are experiencing in this country and across the European Union. This €96 million should not go back into the general Exchequer to be spread all over; it should be ring-fenced and specifically used to help people with the cost-of-living crisis we are experiencing.

I want to pick up on the comments from Senator Mullen earlier on comments made by Deputy Nolan. I do not doubt the Senator's sincerity whatsoever but I am from a constituency where this sort of conversation or tone has been happening in recent weeks. Colleagues might have listened to a disgraceful interview on "Today with Claire Byrne" this morning. Those are not the views of people in Tipperary but I have been hearing an undertone for weeks that we need to have a cap on refugees coming in because we need to look after our own. Those are disgraceful comments and they should not be followed but this has been happening for quite some time and the narrative is that the only reason we do not want the refugees is the accommodation they are being given. That is utter rubbish and it is not true. All anyone has to do is listen to the contributions of the four Ukrainian MPs who were here last week. Lesia Vasylenko has been in nine different European countries and she has said that the treatment that Ukrainian refugees are receiving in Ireland is second to none. They were leaving Ireland to go to the UK to ask the UK to follow what Ireland does to care for Ukrainian refugees. The narrative that people like Deputy Mattie McGrath and others are using is dividing and worrying people in my community and it is creating a narrative that Irish people are being left behind because we are looking after Ukrainians on a temporary basis. This is utterly unacceptable and should not be stood for.

We have a situation that will develop in the coming weeks. The House will remember that when we first took in Ukrainian refugees there was no need for visas and they were allowed in; all they had to do was say they were Ukrainian at the airport. That was the right thing to do and that has been successful. We have an emerging problem in that people want to go home but they cannot do so because they do not have passports or papers. They cannot leave Ireland and because we are not in the Schengen zone, they cannot travel through the EU to get back to Ukraine. We need the EU or the Minister for Foreign Affairs to bring in measures so that people who want to leave Ireland to go home can do so. We have a crazy situation where they have to apply for passports, which will take six months, or they can get a certificate people would normally get if they lost their passport or something like that. However, because of the conflict in Ukraine and the challenges we know the embassy is having in Ireland, those certificates cannot be got either. We have a crazy situation where people want to go home but they cannot leave Ireland. That needs to be resolved and that would help with all the other problems we have.

Instead of talking in a narrative of comments that border on the line of racism, we should look at solutions to help these people, including people who want to return home. We should do that rather than dividing people and almost saying we should not be looking after them. If we were not looking after them, who is it suggested should look after them?

That is not what is being said.

I would like to return to the issue of violence against women, which is an issue we have discussed in the Seanad. Yesterday, together with my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, and other members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, and with the support of Jason Poole, we launched our policy on tackling violence against women. The document is written from the perspective of the victims and their families. It is a comprehensive document that talks about the supports that should be put in place and the responses that are needed from the courts, the Garda and all the other statutory agencies. It is a commitment from this Government and the Minister for Justice to bring forward a third strategy on violence against women and on gender-based violence. We know from the research done by Women's Aid that one in four women in Ireland experiences some form of violence. Typically, that violence is intimate and it is from someone they know closely. More than 50% of those who experience that violence are under the age of 18. It is an issue that largely affects women and young women. I ask that the Leader urge the Minister to bring forward the new strategy.

I would also like to commend those who were raising the issue of the early childhood years challenges outside yesterday. The Minister and the Government have committed €220 million of funding this year, which is welcome, and they have also made a commitment, most importantly, to get to €1 billion in funding by 2028. We need a childcare service that delivers for children, families, workers and employers. I urge the Leader to ask the Minister to come back to this House and update us on his strategy for the provision of childcare.

I wish my colleagues a happy Pride and I hope the weather is as good on Saturday as it is today. I concur with Senator Murphy's comments on Shannonside and Midlands 103. We are blessed with quality journalists in both of those radio stations in our area.

I concur with the comments of Senator Fitzpatrick and I second her proposal that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth would come in here. We have a serious disparity in the funding going into the early years sector, where those that are solely in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme are receiving low capitation compared with those that have full day care, making it extremely difficult for them to survive. Another issue is that those who work in the sector also have to sign on the live register during the summer months outside of the 38 weeks. Yet, we have a situation where we are struggling to get schools to provide the July provision. I propose that we look at those workers who are qualified and who have level 5 and level 6 qualifications in childcare. They should be employed in the summer months and the summer provision should be given to the children who most need it. I would expand on that and we should look at bringing in third or fourth year students in our third level colleges who are doing speech and language therapy and occupational therapy to do their work experience through the summer months, given the services that are needed and lacking for the children. I concur with Senator Fitzpatrick's comments and in asking for the Minister to come in to spell that out.

I also wish to speak about free legal aid. In recent days in my county we had a situation where an individual was arrested following a stabbing incident. They were brought to court, bail was objected to by the local gardaí but bail was granted, as was free legal aid. They went back to the courts looking for the bail to be relaxed so they could go for a medical appointment in Turkey and proceeded to have a lovely sun holiday at the expense of the taxpayer. That is giving two fingers to the people of my county and my county town, which is not acceptable. I have a situation with another young 18-year-old lad whom I know. He is being brought to the High Court in a case attached to an incident that happened with a school. He has to go to the High Court to try to defend himself. He is working part time and because of that he is not eligible for free legal aid. He is €1,700 over the limit and this situation is not acceptable. This needs to be reviewed. We are talking about this for years and it is not acceptable.

I welcome the intervention, at long last, from the Minister for Health on University Hospital Limerick. I welcome the fact that he met senior officials in the HSE yesterday and that he has put together a crisis management unit that is to go to the hospital and work with senior people in the HSE and in the hospital. There also needs to be some independent people brought into this because it needs an independent eye. This is going on for far too long. I sound like a broken record and I am sure the Leader is sick of listening to me harping on about it but it is at crisis point. An extra 200 beds are needed and procedures are being cancelled and all these issues need to be addressed to make it a safe place, not only for the staff but for the patients in Limerick and in the mid-west.

I also support the call for the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to come in. I recently hosted a meeting on childcare and many of the issues that are being highlighted by the childcare providers. I met some of the childcare providers from Limerick outside the gate yesterday. I recently hosted a meeting on childcare and many of the same issues kept coming up with some of the childcare providers and parents who attended my meeting.

There is a disparity really it terms of provision of funding towards some units. It depends on how many children there are. While I know the Minister has done a lot, I believe he needs to come into the House in order that we can have a proper debate on the matter

The preliminary results from the census have just come out and for the first time since 1841, we have 5.1 million people living in Ireland, which is pretty incredible. It is really crucial that we see Ireland as a country, State and democracy that is standing tall on its own two feet.

The initial preliminary census data takes into account more than 2.1 million homes, which is an increase of 120,000. It also gives details on the vacancy rate, which is close to 8%. I think it is 7.8% in terms of vacant homes, which is approximately 160,000. It states that is a drop of nearly 9% from 2016, however.

I call for a debate on the Croí Cónaithe or towns fund, which is separate to the cities fund. The Croí Cónaithe is about above-shop living in our rural towns and villages. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, came to Ballinasloe and visited businesses in the area. There is such demand because there is real potential for so many shops and vacant areas in our towns to perhaps make those above-shop areas residential and support businesses to give them an incentive to do that.

I wish everyone a happy Pride and hope that we all have a great weekend. The festival is in Dublin this weekend. The Galway Pride Festival is on in August so we might invite all of our Dublin brethren to come down to the west and celebrate with us.

I rise today to raise the issue of childcare and the understanding regarding the forthcoming core funding changes in payments, concerns that have been raised around early childhood care and education, ECCE, funding and also awareness of the sustainability fund. In that regard, I ask that we have statements on childcare funding with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. It is important that this House has that debate and that we get an opportunity to express the concerns and hear from the Minister about issues regarding the childcare sector.

We need to consolidate the services that are in place and ensure that we hold on to those childcare provisions that are essential for the holistic development of the child and also in support of families. Also in that regard, however, we need to address ensuring that we have a capital fund to attract others into the area and into the childcare sector. We need to ensure that providers are supported as the employment regulation order, ERO, comes into being to safeguard and protect workers in the industry and the very dedicated childcare professionals who have a right to their rate of pay, and that it is coming very soon. We need to allay the fears of childcare providers but we also need to look at the capacity.

At the moment, under large-scale housing developments and under the previous housing schemes, once there are 75 units, childcare services must be put into the construction. However, many developers get to sideline that by saying there are a certain number of providers in an area. They get to set aside the obligation that was in place to ensure that we have childcare places and construction in the provision. It is really important that we get the Minister to act on that and put pressure on the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure this is not allowed to be excused.

We know that childcare places are in very short supply. If the Minister does not address the concerns of the likes of the ECCE providers, they will continue to be in short supply and may be in even shorter supply in the future. Ensuring we maximise the construction of crèches and childcare facilities around the country is really important. I ask that we have a debate and statements on that issue in the House.

A number of colleagues this morning, namely, Senators Seery Kearney, Maria Byrne, Fitzpatrick and Kyne, led today by Fianna Fáil's Senator Crowe, sought a debate on childcare. It is very welcome that we will get significant investment this year, particularly to support subsidies for parents for the costs associated with childcare. We all know and very much welcome finally an ERO for the sector to make sure there is a proper structured career and payment schedule from a salary perspective for the people who work very hard in that industry, particularly the providers, in order that we will see clarity on the capitation and core funding grants. Senator Seery Kearney's contribution is actually the first time I have heard it mentioned that developers getting out of providing bricks and mortar accommodation for the provision of services was actually possible; it should not be possible. I will organise that debate for colleagues.

We have an incredibly busy schedule for the next number of weeks. I will put everybody on notice that after next week, I will probably be telling Senators that we will need to work on a Monday and Friday to get through the amount of legislation we must pass between now and the end of July. I will try to find some time in our schedule and that of the Minister for this really important debate. Trying to have it at the end of September would be too late with regard to this year's budget provision. I will, therefore, try my very best to organise that debate between now and the end of July.

Senator Dolan spoke this morning about the census results. It is lovely to see our country thriving notwithstanding all the difficulties and issues we discuss in here every single week. It is absolutely lovely to see not only the number of people who want to come to Ireland to live, work and rear their families but, indeed, our own population also growing. It is very welcome.

Senator Maria Byrne could never be accused of coming in here and boring us. It is an awful pity that she has to come in here week after week, month after month, to talk about the crisis that exists in University Hospital Limerick, as, indeed, our other colleagues have done. It is really strange that we had to wait for a HIQA report this week and an announcement to say the hospital is absolutely unsafe in order for the State and the HSE to respond. That is a real pity but we now have a crisis management team. I really hope we will get a response and recommendations for change because that is absolutely needed in Limerick very soon. I thank the Senator for her constant contributions and highlighting of that particular issue.

Senator Carrigy asked for a review of free legal aid and pointed out some very glaring and obvious discrepancies and inequalities in the system currently. We will look into that.

Senator Fitzpatrick spoke yesterday about the launch of Fianna Fáil's policy on violence against women. I heard Mr. Jason Poole on my radio first thing yesterday morning, at lunchtime and then on TV3 late last night. He is one of the most impressive young men I have come across in a long time. The passion he displays for a topic that is obviously so personal to him and his family is a real credit and will provide a real and lasting legacy for the tragic death of his sister. I wish him well and wish Fianna Fáil well in its input into the third strategy, which will be launched by the Minister in the next couple of months.

Senator Ahearn spoke this morning about refugees, as did Senator Mullen. The Ukrainian omnibus Bill will be before the House in the next number of weeks, which I believe will resolve the issue he touched on this morning. Again, I am always mindful that there are always different opinions in debates. It does not need to be divisive for people to express their views. What we absolutely need is to have a plan, as we do, but we must also reassure people that looking after our own, which is a term I hate, and looking after and being humanitarian to other people who have needs are not mutually exclusive. We can certainly do both and we need to reassure people that we can do both. Irish people are some of the most generous people in the world. That is not going to change. It is really time for the State to be generous to refugees, particularly those who are fleeing an awful, horrendous situation in Ukraine. I thank both Senators for raising that issue this morning.

Senator McGahon talked about Monksland National School and the bottleneck of decisionmakers and information flow going back and forward to open those two special classrooms for September. I fear to tell him it is not the only school that experiences that difficulty.

A school in Donabate is in exactly the same position, but we will keep on plugging. However, there are some major deficiencies with regard to the responses from the Department of Education.

Senator Warfield, among others, wished us a very happy Pride. I am looking forward to a very successful day and good vibes on Saturday, please God. Hopefully, we will see all the Senators there. The Senator is also seeking a debate on night life and the pending licensing laws improvements. I will try to organise that as quickly as possible.

Senators Buttimer and Boyhan asked for a rolling debate or a significant lengthy debate on a number of modules with regard to the provision of healthcare in this country. I cannot honestly say I will be able to find time for such a significant debate between now and the end of July. If I can, I will. If not, it is certainly something I will organise immediately on our return in September.

Senator Murphy highlighted the awards that were given yesterday for journalism on justice, the Justice Media Awards. It was lovely to see some of the significant stories that were broken by colleagues in the media being rewarded. The overall premise of what the Senator said is that journalism, both locally and nationally, really matters. I have had my fair share of being the subject of stories that are not something to be too proud of-----

-----but that does not mean I do not respect the media and journalism. At the end of the day, they are only doing their jobs in the same way we are trying to do our job. However, the transparency with regard to how they report and what they report on is vital to a functioning democracy, so I thank the Senator for raising that.

Senator Boyhan highlighted not only the Patients Deserve Better campaign, which he applauded, but also the significant debate taking place in the housing committee for seven hours today to discuss the pending mica and defective blocks scheme. I remind everybody of that.

Senator Conway asked for a debate on long Covid. He also asked for statements, and particularly a strategy, on suicide in the Traveller community. I acknowledge, and pay our respects on, the passing of the three people who died in the last number of days.

Senator Ardagh spoke about the Ombudsman for Children's report, as did Senator Sherlock, with regard to special educational needs. For the first time in the history of the State we have a Minister of State who is responsible for the €2 billion we spend on this. While that is wonderful, it certainly has brought to the fore the challenges we face as a society with regard to the provision of special education. I have to be honest, however, that there is no better woman than Deputy Madigan to make sure that the issues are highlighted and therefore resolved. I wish her well in her job.

I am sorry to hear from Senator Sherlock that another artists' studio has been closed. One has to wonder what is going on. It cannot just be a lack of funding because if it was that simple, it should be very easily be reversed. I sent a note to the Minister asking for a response when the Senator raised it previously, but I have not yet received the response. I will follow up on it again today. I thank the Senator for raising it.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, raised the new ambulatory gynaecology clinic in Portlaoise, which is very welcome.

Senator Mullen spoke about the humanitarian responses on behalf of the State and said they require planning.

Senator Kyne was one of the Senators who requested a debate on childcare. He is also seeking a debate on greenways and blueways with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I will try to organise that.

As I said, Senator Crowe opened the discussion today seeking increased subsidies for parents and an employment regulation order, ERO, and increased capitation payments for providers. He requested a debate with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to discuss our views on that.

Order of Business agreed to.
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