The Order of Business is No. 2, motion regarding the arrangements for the sitting of House on Tuesday, 5 July, Wednesday, 6 July and Thursday, 7 July, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 3, Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2022 - message from Dáil Éireann, to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 30 minutes; No. 4, motion regarding the earlier signature of Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2022, to be taken on conclusion of No. 3, without debate; and No. 5, Electoral Reform Bill 2022 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 1.45 p.m. or on the conclusion of No. 4, whichever is the earlier and to adjourn at 6.45 p.m., if not previously concluded.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I second the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader. It came to my attention before I came into the Chamber that today is International Day of Parliamentarism. I wish Members a happy international day. It is important to recognise that we live in a country where democracy prevails. It is important also to appreciate and respect that.
One of the issues I wish to raise today is in regard to the disability capacity review. This was published a year ago and detailed the current outstanding, and indeed unmet, needs of HSE funded disability services up to 2032. It is basically a ten-year programme which highlights significant levels of unmet need. This is particularly significant for individuals with complex needs and for their family carers. The action plan to address those unmet needs was due to be published by last December. However, there is still no sign of it. We have to be particularly conscious of this as negotiations are well under way for budget 2023. I call for immediate publication of the action plan to ensure it is contained within the budgetary plan for 2023. That is essential so that another year does not pass with individuals and families left in limbo.
I also wish to refer to the fact the Defence Forces will be called up to work in Dublin Airport. There are not too many professions in which people are not sure where they will be called to day to day. The Army is one of those groups of people who are called in as a matter of last resort. They do that in the service of their country. It is important the training they are currently undergoing is certified appropriately because when anybody undertakes training for something, it is important to get that recognition. More important, I understand Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, will pay the Department of Defence for using the Army but there would be a discrepancy between that and what it would pay its staff. It is important those who serve in that capacity would get that differential and receive the same rate of pay per hour as those who work for the DAA.
It was announced this week that bus route 129 in County Kildare, between Kilcullen and Naas, passing through parts of the Curragh and Athgarvan, will cease operating tomorrow. A private bus operator operates this route with the public service obligation, PSO, levy. I appreciate fuel prices have gone up and that there can be difficulties with drivers but to suddenly pull out of an important service is unacceptable. Connectivity is hugely important. The route is used by school students, elderly people and care providers because it enables them to go between day services in Kilcullen and Newbridge. I have no doubt this route is not alone in the country in being pulled in this way. The National Transport Authority, NTA, must meet with the operators and try to negotiate even a more limited service. It is frustrating that we cannot table Commencement matters about the NTA. We should be able to raise that with the Minister for Transport. I call on the Leader to write to the NTA to see what can be done.
Today is International Day of Parliamentarism. Our House is more reflective of society than Dáil Éireann. Many initiatives have happened along the way in regard to the gender quota.
However, we need a far more diverse Chamber. We need more people with disabilities and more people from ethnic backgrounds in Dáil Éireann.
That is necessary. This House can shine a light in that regard because of its composition. We have much to be proud of but there is also much that we can achieve. We should also strive to do far better.
Earlier this month, the Cathaoirleach kindly accepted a Commencement matter that I put down on the pandemic bonus payment to healthcare workers. I am still getting calls from people working in hospitals who are and were on the front line right through the pandemic but who still have not got their payments. The good is nearly gone out of it at this stage in view of the fact that they have been waiting so long. Why in the name of God is it taking so long to pay people the €1,000 they were promised last January? If the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is coming in here before the end of term, which I doubt because we have not seen much of him lately, he should be asked to explain why it is taking so long to pay the pandemic bonus payment. Truly, everyone should have a date that they know they will have it by. No matter what happens, such a date should be identified.
I agree with Senator O'Loughlin regarding the NTA. We need a debate on transport. Transport is critical for hundreds of thousands of citizens in terms of commuting, especially with the cost of fuel. People now want to look at alternative ways of getting from A to B. We have a situation in my constituency where it is 30% dearer to make a journey from Ennis to Limerick or from Ennis to Galway on the train compared with what it costs to travel a similar distance from Maynooth to Dublin. It is 30% to 40% cheaper to go from Maynooth to Dublin by train than it is to go from Ennis to Limerick or Ennis to Galway. People in Clare who are studying in Limerick or Galway should have the same equality of treatment as people in Kildare who study in Dublin.
We need a standardised fare structure across the board. I would go so far as to say that students should get free public transport. It would encourage them. It would create a culture of using public transport that would benefit the environment and be better for our communities. We need to have a structured debate on equality of transport, both urban and rural.
I now call the leader of the Opposition, Senator Boyhan.
There are three issues I wish to raise today: the Irish Thalidomide Association; scoliosis patients and the waiting lists relating thereto; and the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Bill 2022, which relates to the Order of Business.
First, I want to read a letter which many of the Senators will also have received today. It states:
Today is Thalidomide Memorial Day and if you can at 2pm today pause and think of all those people and their families who have been, and continue to be affected by the Thalidomide tragedy:
The memory of the children who did not survive to enjoy a full and rewarding life;
The memory of parents and loved ones who gave so much in the care of their children;
All who worked so tirelessly in helping and supporting those who sought justice from this episode in history;
We also remember those members of our Thalidomide family who still await recognition of their circumstances.
The letter is signed by Ms Finola Cassidy, spokesperson for the Irish Thalidomide Association, ITA. It would be important, if we had time today, amongst ourselves at any time or at 2 p.m., to pause for a moment. Their cause is not complete. Their campaign is not over and they need support. More than ever, they need our support. I hope that we will use our influence and our political parties and groupings to highlight their continuing campaign.
On scoliosis, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, approved a plan in February. He told us of great ambitions and stated that he would reduce the number of scoliosis patients waiting more than four months from 94 at the end of January to zero by the end of the year - we are nearly halfway through the year - increase scoliosis spinal surgeries by 92 in 2022, reduce the overall scoliosis waiting list from 224 at end January to 128 by the end of year and have additional 107 spina bifida cases treated. Given the time, perhaps the Leader would use her good offices to write to the Minister rather than have the Minister back in here, if he has difficulty coming to the House. These are busy times for all Ministers. I respectfully ask that the Leader write to the Minister on our behalf in order to get an update on these key figures and where matters stand halfway through the year. It is better that we know now how we are doing on these targets in order that they can be met in the second part of the year.
In the context of the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Bill 2022, the Leader has been clear about her position in relation to taking all Stages of a Bill at once. We are coming to the end of the term. It might be helpful for the Leader to explain in response to the Order of Business the rationale for this proposal. There is a rationale in this case but it is something that we should not make a habit of. In fairness, during Senator Doherty's watch as Leader, it is not something we have had to deal with. We need to give scrutiny to all legislation, including the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Bill 2022. In this case, there is a proposal on the Order of Business today. The Leader might explain to the House the rationale for that proposal.
I will begin by highlighting that as we end the month of June, a month of summertime, we have a new record number of patients on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. The new record is 1,829. If we are creating new records of patients on trolleys in June, God help us when it comes to September, October and the onset of winter. I do not doubt that the Leader has requested a debate on the university hospital for me on a number of occasions. I would ask the Leader to do so again. It is not acceptable for the Minister not to come in here and talk to us about the crisis that, in fairness, Senators of all stripes have highlighted, certainly, for as long as I have been here. As for the suffering, I could spend the rest of my three minutes talking about it but I would rather be constructive and ask can we get the Minister in to see what actions he will take right now to try and help alleviate this crisis. There are solutions but the Minister needs to come and be accountable in relation to this issue.
Yesterday, I had the good fortune to attend the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media briefly. The committee heard a set of presentations from Dr. Deirdre Curran of NUIG, the respected and recognised academic expert in relation to the hospitality sector, and representatives from SIPTU and Unite the Union. Some of the statistics were stark. I recognise that we had a good day in terms of hospitality here in the Seanad yesterday in terms of the Payment of Wages (Amendment) (Tips and Gratuities) Bill 2022 - all parties deserve credit for that - but I am not hearing from the Government side of the House recognition that there is a fundamental problem in the hotel sector. Let me spell it out for the House. The following figures are from Fáilte Ireland's report on last year, Tourism Careers: Labour Research. Some 68% of workers in the hospitality sector are paid less than €12 an hour. I have to ask the question, how can one expect people to join that sector with a prospects of a real career in it when one is looking at seven out of ten workers earning less than €12 an hour? We know what the solution is.
I will give credit to Senator Pat Casey, himself a hotelier, who acknowledged here yesterday that we need a joint labour committee established. We need to put a floor of decency in place. We need to put wage progression in place so that when one starts as a barman or porter, one can get wage increases year after year. We need to have proper training in place. We need a floor of decency and the problem is the hoteliers refuse to engage with the joint labour committee process. In the context of the significant support the Government has given to the hospitality sector, it is entirely unreasonable for the hotels to act, effectively using this veto, to not negotiate with trade unions, to not allow a joint labour committee to take place and to not allow decent standards to be returned to the hotels sector. I am asking for an urgent debate on this topic. The hotel lobby is powerful, particularly with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but there are too many people being let down for too long in the hospitality sector. These figures are the Government's. They are undeniable. We need change in the hospitality sector and we need the Government to lead from the front. I ask for a debate on the matter.
On International Day of Parliamentarism we might consider paying our staff a fair wage. We would not be here at all without them and I wanted to remind everyone that issue is ongoing and has not been resolved. It is one that is causing great distress and costing us staff.
I wish to raise two items. One of my favourite topics, outside my beloved students, is the repeal review. I noted that in an exchange this week the Taoiseach said "fatal foetal abnormality works both ways as well". I am not entirely clear what was meant by that. I know and have spoken to people who have lost a much-loved and much-wanted child to a fatal foetal abnormality. They must travel to access the reproductive healthcare they should have been able to access here. I am of the belief, as I think many people are, that we voted to end all travel for reproductive healthcare - I will just say the word - for abortions. It has been said here before but I say again it is immensely frustrating the so-called repeal review now operating is very different to the one promised by the then Minister for Health in 2018. I am not sure that we have been given a good explanation as to why it has changed and why it is in a different format to the one that was explicitly clear. If it was not explicitly clear then a collective of us misunderstood the situation and that includes the people who were in the room when those negotiations and discussions were happening. It is very frustrating when we still have people travelling and still have leaders of the country talking about both sides to something. That is not going to solve the issue of people travelling. That we are so insistent this is just going to be about the operation of the legislation as opposed to the impact it is having is immensely frustrating. I really wish the Minister for Health could come in here and give an explanation for why this is happening or even an indication of how the review is going in and of itself. It seems to have died down quietly. I hope there are lots of things happening in the background.
The second issue I wish to speak briefly about is another I have spoken about before, that is, the issue of care. It is very close to my own heart, not that that is a reason you must have to bring something up. DEBRA Ireland, which is focused on epidermolysis bullosa, EB, a rare genetic condition, had its briefing this morning. For those who do not know, the condition makes your skin paper-thin. It is very fragile and difficult to manage. DEBRA Ireland has extremely modest requests. Sometimes you see pre-budget submissions coming in and there are millions upon millions but these are extremely modest. They include a ring-fenced fund of €786,000 for home nursing care for children and adults with severe EB, funding of €70,000 for an outreach nurse and mental health supports for children at a cost of €80,000. The group's main issue is the provision of staffing. We have talked about this here before. Charities are filling the gap where the Government is not doing it. I wanted to put that on record. These are extremely reasonable requests to support people who are very severely affected. I will be writing to the Minister for Health on this.
As I must leave, Senators might forgive me for scooting out before hearing the response.
That is fine.
Families have faced devastation at Lough Funshinagh with their homes, farms and roads. Lough Funshinagh is a turlough, that is, a disappearing lake that has not disappeared in full for over 26 years. I have met families at Lough Funshinagh over the past while. There are generations of farming families living in Ardmullan, Lisfelim, Ballagh and Rahara, and I have extended family living in the area too. They suffer great mental anguish and exhaustion from watching rising waters, especially coming into wintertime, and knowing that the roads cannot be raised any more. These people know they potentially will not be able to get into their homes or that they could be in their home and be stranded.
Over the past year I have met the committees and local councillors who have showed me the devastation in the area, especially after the last few winters. We had an urgent engineering solution in the form of a 3 km overflow pipe and a €1.7 million investment agreed by the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, to support Roscommon County Council. However, this was halted in the courts. I represent this region, which is suffering from the impacts of climate change, rising river levels and flooding events. I have raised this issue with Ministers and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, who has responsibility for the OPW for his engagement with community representatives and families in the area through all this process.
The turlough is designated a special area of conservation, SAC. However, the floods have destroyed the feeding grounds for birds and wildlife and flora and fauna generally. In Ireland we have SACs in poor condition. How do we balance the restoration of our SACs and the livelihoods of communities? Farmers, through the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the new agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, are leading on agri-environmental schemes. They are working to be custodians of our environment. However, right now homes and livelihoods are under threat in County Roscommon. Next it could be the city centre of Limerick, Cork or Dublin, and what happens when it is 100 homes that are under threat close to an SAC? What do we do then?
A public meeting is being held this Monday, 4 July in St. John’s Community Centre, Lecarrow, at 7 p.m. to meet and listen to people in the area. I am calling on all stakeholders, including Roscommon County Council, the OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and all relevant Departments to work together with communities on the ground to find a way forward to protect homes, livelihoods and to protect our environment and protect the wildlife of Lough Funshinagh for future generations.
We all are very much aware of ongoing brutality of Putin's war on Ukraine. The fact the European Union has stood so strongly together in introducing a range of sanctions is something to be welcomed. However, it is a matter of concern there a significant number of companies continue to do business in Russia and indeed with Putin's regime. The Yale School of Management has conducted an extensive examination of the companies that are interacting with Russia. It is fortunate that any of them based in Ireland have all been found to have withdrawn, so there are no Irish-based companies continuing to interact with the regime. However, it has determined there are 244 global companies where it is effectively business as usual with Russia. Some of these are based in our fellow EU member states but others are very well-known brands. These include Asics, Benetton, Clarins, Diesel, Giorgio Armani, Etihad Airways, Hard Rock Cafe, Lacoste, Patreon, Phillips, Qatar Airways, TGI Fridays, and Turkish Airlines. I wish to especially highlight Emirates, as it is a company that operates a lot out of Ireland. It is very clear the United Arab Emirates, UAE, is becoming a safe haven for both Russian money and for wealthy Russian oligarchs who want to escape the sanctions that have been applied against Russia. It is notable, for instance, that the share of Russian buyers of real estate in Dubai in quarter 1 has gone up by 67% based on purchasing rates.
First, I would like us to call on those companies to take action. Second, I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to call in the ambassador of the UAE and that clarity is provided around what action it is taking against Putin's unjust war against Ukraine and also that, as the Emirates airline is owned by the UAE, that action be taken to stop co-operation between the airline and the Russian regime. There is an obligation on all of us to highlight those companies that are seeking to avoid the sanctions governments are trying to ensure are followed.
I raise two very important issues. Tomorrow is 1 July, when Irish hospitals traditionally change their doctors. It happens because hospitals are massive training locations. You do a year as an intern and when that year is done you move to the next level of training, and so on. Tomorrow, for the first time in the history of Irish medicine, the hospital system finds itself short of first-year registrars. These are effectively the hospital consultants of the future. Why has this happened? I am told it is due to Covid. Covid stopped the travel, so they are only moving out now and no doctors want to work in the Irish system. The cost is too high versus the return. Does the Leader think the Minster for Health is aware of this and its far-reaching social and economic consequences?
The second issue is our national planning framework, published in 2018, prior to the most recent census and the Ukrainian war. The figures arising out of both of these warrant a re-examination of the framework as a matter of urgency. To take just one county, the Leader's and my county, as an example, Meath's development plan was based on a predicted population in 2026 of 216,221, rising in 2030 to 223,531. However, preliminary census figures show the population on 3 April was recorded at 220,295, which is an increase of 12% since 2016.
The growth of the population of County Meath is far outstripping what was anticipated under the national planning framework and the county development plan. It is not alone in that regard when it comes to other counties, least of all Dublin, our neighbouring county, which is at the epicentre of a housing crisis. Taking all of this into account, and in light of his recent clarification that the Government will not acknowledge any logistical-limiting factors regarding the taking in of refugees, the Minister must come before the House and explain to the people of Ireland how it will work. He should immediately suspend the national planning framework and call upon the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to review it in light of last week's CSO figures. The current development plans for Meath and many other counties are now dead in the water based on the figures. A failure to appreciate and act upon this will lead to more drawn-out difficulties and hardship down the line.
I again call on the Minister for Finance to commit to the introduction of a vacant property tax, which would discourage vacancy and encourage the renovation of vacant properties. Recent CSO figures indicate that there are more than 160,000 vacant properties nationally, with more than 30,000 in Dublin. In a housing emergency, it is morally, environmentally, economically and socially wrong to have so many vacant properties lying idle. We cannot let this go unchecked. We have talked about it for far too long.
Since the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage took office, he made significant changes to housing policy. He increased the housing budget from €200 million to €4 billion per year and the funding for affordable housing from zero to more than €600 million per year. We all know that the most efficient and sustainable way to increase our housing stock is to reuse existing housing. Renovating properties will not only increase supply, it will also tackle housing poverty, strengthen communities and reduce carbon emissions. Housing for All rightly provides significant funding under the repair and leasing and buy and renew schemes, as well as the local authority programme for turning voids back into productive use. There is plenty of carrot, but we need some stick. The numbers from the CSO do not lie. We need a vacant property tax. We have debated it in the House and I have called for it many time. I ask the Leader to raise the issue with the Minister for Finance.
On what is International Day of Parliamentarism I join Senator Hoey in calling for us to redouble our efforts to ensure that members of staff in the Oireachtas, in particular secretarial assistants, receive an urgent pay upgrade.
That is something we in this Chamber should all keep to the forefront of our minds.
I would welcome a debate on transport, as requested by other Senators. This morning, the NTA published, for public consultation, details the preferred route options for the 12 sustainable transport corridors under BusConnects in Cork. The consultation period begins today and will run until 9 September. It is about increasing the bus corridor from 14 km to 93 km. I hope the public consultation process will be wide-ranging and engaging for members of the public and business owners, as well as for those who want to see public transport enhanced in Cork. I welcome the initiation of BusConnects' sustainable transport corridors in Cork.
I ask the Leader for a debate to take place before the summer holidays on health, especially the issue of intellectual disability and the Disability Action Plan Framework, which was published by the Department of Health and the purpose of which is to guide the implementation and planning of a disability capacity review. This morning, many of us from Cork received correspondence from the Cope Foundation, an organisation which supports 2,800 people with intellectual disabilities, as well as families, and which employs more than 1,200 people in Cork. The foundation is asking for the pace of planning for the implementation of disability capacity review to 2032 to be increased. It is looking for its inclusion in the budgeting process of 2023 and an accessible budget announcement for disability, which is a very fair request. I ask that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is invited to the House to outline her Department's plan for the disability capacity review to 2032 and that there would be widespread engagement by the HSE. There is a fundamental problem with the HSE in terms of its work regarding disability. To be fair, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, is a very good Minister, but we need the HSE to engage with organisations and families in order that a continuum of care can be provided.
Decisions are made by Departments, particularly in regard to pensions. I know my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, is deeply concerned about what I am going speak about now. The military service allowance is pensionable today but, at some stage, a decision was made that it would not be pensionable for those who were the early recipients of the allowance. Some sort of a deal was struck. The Defence Forces is not the first State organisation within which something like this has happened. In the case of the Garda, a number of officers who retired many years ago were not allowed to carry their pensions forward.
There is also the issue of pension abatement that was originally designed to stop high-paid civil servants retiring during the financial crisis with massive pensions and lump sums and going straight back to the Departments in which they worked or to other Departments and receiving serious salaries. If a private soldier, a corporal or a sergeant who retires from the Defence Forces after 40 years gets a job in the public service, the chances are that he or she will lose his or her pension.
There were two court cases in the State that went as far as the Supreme Court, wherein a pension was declared to be a property right and could not be touched. One involved a prisoner in Mountjoy who had a contributory old age pension. The State argued that the person was a prisoner and would have no pension. He said that he had contributed to the pension and that it was his. He took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that his pension was his. The second case involved a former Cabinet Minister who went to jail. An attempt was made to take his pension and he successfully fought the matter through the courts, wherein it was deemed that a pension is a property right.
I contend, and I think Senator O'Loughlin will agree, that pension abatement is illegal. It is theft of a property right. Pensioners from the Defence Forces and the Garda are most affected by this because they are forced to retire at 50 years of age, in most cases. If they come back into the public service, the Departments do not want to pay them a benefit for getting a second job. If Departments say that they cannot come back and have a full salary, that is fine, but they should not touch a pension. A pension is a property right. All the Members of the House will depend on their pensions when they reach a particular age. It is simply wrong. Let us be honest about it. For a private soldier, a corporal or a sergeant, and right up to the rank of colonel, the pension is not that fantastic. They talk about the golden pensions public servants have. Those are a long time gone. They were hammered in 1996, 2011 and 2013. The way things are going now, young men join the Defence Forces as commissioned officers, get a trip or two overseas and leave. We have to stop the theft of pensions and we have to return the military service allowance to those who had it. It should be part of their pension. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his forbearance.
I take this opportunity to welcome former Senator Jillian van Turnhout to the Public Gallery. I thank her for being here and for her service to Seanad Éireann. She was a formidable Senator. I was recently talking about legislation that she was involved with on banning smoking in cars while children are present, which sounds like a rather minor matter. However, it took two and a half years to pass that legislation. She brought that forward with the former Senator and doctor, Professor John Crown - he had a long title when he stood up in the morning. At the time, it was only the fifth piece of legislation passed by an Opposition Senator, which was quite an achievement. I thank Jillian van Turnhout for all her service. I call Senator Murphy.
I wish to support my colleague, Senator Dolan, in regard to Lough Funshinagh. As the only Government representative living in County Roscommon I am well aware of this issue. The Leader will have heard me raise this before. No matter how many flowery speeches we make they will not solve it. We have a court decision which unfortunately has sided with Friends of the Irish Environment. We have to work on legislation. I acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, is working hard on this. Senator Dolan is right in what she says. I am afraid what could happen now is that any time there is an issue with flooding anywhere in the country, some of these people will refer to the Lough Funshinagh judgment and when there is an emergency the Government will not be able to act. It is in the interests of the State to ensure this matter is settled. We are going to have to go through the EU, we will have to make legislation, it will not be simple but we must do it. We have a massive problem. A meeting will take place on 4 July and hopefully we will get to a situation where this can be solved but it is urgent.
Today is Thalidomide Memorial Day. Up to 40 people in this country are victims of thalidomide who have lived lives in various states of disability as a result of the injuries they suffered in the womb. They have to date received no apology from the State. They have received no proper medical compensation. A compensation scheme is in place from the company in Germany but it is inadequate for what they have suffered. It is unfair that the Government has not moved to compensate and acknowledge those people and the mistake that this State made in not taking the drug off the market in a timely fashion.
As unfair as it is to the people, now in their 60s, who suffered from thalidomide, it is desperately unfair on their mothers, many of whom blame themselves for having taken the drug despite the fact that they did not know they were doing any harm. Many of those women have passed away but their families are there. The brothers and sisters of the people who lived with thalidomide injuries are there. The only fair thing to do would be for the Government to acknowledge that, to apologise and put in place a proper scheme for those people.
I will also raise the issue of China’s complicity in the war in Ukraine. Where western countries have pulled out of buying services and goods from Russia, Chinese companies are stepping into the breach. We need to make sure that the sanctions regime that Ireland has supported at the highest level in Europe and has pushed in terms of punishing Russia for its illegal action in Ukraine, must be extended to include companies in such places as China which facilitate the continued economic expansion of Russia despite the fact that its illegal aggression in Ukraine is putting thousands of people’s lives at risk today, tomorrow and as long as this conflict goes on. The Government needs to step up to make sure that the sanctions regime expands to cover all of those countries and companies seeking to circumvent the proper action of sanctions, sanctioned by the European Commission.
I thank Senator Ward for highlighting China’s complicity in supporting Russia by stepping in to buy the products from Russia that all the other European and international countries have sought not to continue to support. I will certainly raise his issues with the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
I will also touch on the fact that today is Thalidomide Memorial Day which both Senators Ward and Boyhan brought up at the beginning our session today. I join with both Senators, and I can safely speak for most of us here, that it is beyond time for the Government to apologise sincerely to the people who were born with disabilities arising from the drug that the State did not intervene in time to withdraw, even though we knew about it. It is also beyond time that we compensate those people properly. The apology could be immediately effective and would be very much appreciated by the survivors. I thank both Senators for bringing that up today.
Senators Murphy and Dolan both referred to Lough Funshinagh and the recent judgment around the protection of the SAC. I am sometimes mindful in this country that we protect one element of society without any consciousness of the impacts of the effects on other elements of society. While we all obviously need to make sure that we protect our environment, our natural heritage and all our resources, we cannot do that at the expense of people. They have to be equally important in the responses of the State. The meeting on 4 July will hopefully find a roadmap to a provision of a resolution because it is certainly not money that is wanting, it is legal intricacies that are causing it. I extend every good wish to all the members of the community in Roscommon and indeed Senators Murphy and Dolan in their support for their communities.
Senator Craughwell brought up the military service allowance that was negotiated, which is beyond belief, by the military not to be included in the pension allocations and permutations of people who retire in the future. I do not have a response as to how and why that happened but I will make inquiries and see if I can do anything to offer some assistance and information to the Senator. He is absolutely right in regard to the second point he made on pension abatement. We cannot have one set of rules for one part of our civil and public service and a different set of rules for another. I can say that standing here having learned my lesson as a former Minister when I was indeed taken to court and was myself rudely awakened, but correctly so.
Senator Buttimer, along with the opening comments of Senator O’Loughlin, talked about the disability capacity review that was conducted by the HSE and the Department of Health a number of years ago. It is a ten-year strategy that outlines on three levels exactly what is required to service the people in this country and the providers with the State supports that are needed. I only read this a couple of weeks ago because I had the privilege of meeting some senior officials in Prosper Fingal.
When we look at what is required, it is done in three columns. It is done so that in one column it shows that we absolutely need a certain amount to stand still, we need another certain amount if we are going to be ambitious, and if we include all the people who probably are not included in our statistics we need yet another amount.
To put that in context and to support both Senators looking for that capacity review and the plan to be published, 180 inpatient full-time respite beds were required in order to stand still for the year 2022. If we were to look after all the people that would actually need them this year we would have needed finance for 360 beds. In this year’s budget we got 60, so we got one third of what was needed to actually just stand still, and a fraction of what we need to cater for everybody’s real requirements. Therefore, I support the two Members in looking for that framework to be published immediately but also just to highlight the matter - not to be disrespectful to the disability services with the HSE because they can only do what they can with the money they are given.
Senator O'Loughlin is right in that the money that is needed must be put in the budget right now. It is not a case that we can continuously blame our community-based HSE providers or our section 38s or 39s because in fairness they provide a wonderful service to those people for whom they can provide it. However, they can only provide it on the basis of the money they are actually given and not some report that says they should be, when in actual fact they are not. I join with the Senators in looking for that published plan long before we get into the budget negotiations in September. We will all support the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, because she is absolutely committed to providing for this section of the community.
Senator Buttimer also looked for a debate on transport. I am baffled as to why the NTA is not subject to Commencement matters when it reports directly to the Minister.
There is nobody else it reports to. The only mechanism we have in this House is through the Minister because we cannot bring in the NTA itself. I will write to the Minister today to find out what mechanism he proposes through which he can reply to us and respond with regard to the NTA.
Fair play, that is great.
The national framework is not sustainable at the moment and we must have some recourse to be able to question where we are going.
Senator Fitzpatrick asked me to write to the Minister for Finance with regard to introducing a vacant property tax arising from the CSO figures released last week. I certainly will do that.
Senator Keogan highlighted another serious anomaly with regard to the CSO figures. Again I concur with her. This is not unique to Dublin or Meath. I am sure it is infringed in every other county council area in the country with regard to developments and planning for our towns and villages which we want to do in a sustainable and supported way. If we do not even know who we are supposed to be developing our towns and villages for and the correct populations, we are hampering and starting off on the back foot. Senator Keogan is right, the national planning framework needs to be re-evaluated, in particular for all those county councils that are still mid-national development plans and local development area plans. I certainly support that call today.
Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about the 242 international companies that continue to do business as usual in Russia, as if there were no terrorist attacks or atrocities being inflicted on other human beings. I certainly concur with him in that regard. I will write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, today and make the request sought by the Senator with regard to the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates. I will revert to him on that.
Senators Hoey and Buttimer called for the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas to be paid a fair wage. I know all Members of this House support that. The matter is currently before the Workplace Relations Commission and the sooner it is adjudicated upon, the better for us all. What we want to see is the quality we have in all our offices recompensed by a decent wage on which those concerned can afford to live. Senator Hoey also called for the repeal review to be updated. I will ask the Minister to update the House on when the final report will be issued to us. We will organise a debate on it. The Senator also touched on the issue of DEBRA Ireland, which made its pre-budget submission this morning, seeking the relatively small sum of €786,000 to try to address the issue of the people it supports.
Senator Gavan sought a debate on University Hospital Limerick. He has done so on several occasions, as have Senators Conway and Maria Byrne. There is a standing offer of any time that I can allocate for the Minister. I will reiterate that today. The only thing I can say, particularly on behalf of the people in the region, is that I hope the independent review group that has been established will come back very soon with recommendations that will be enacted. Senator Gavan is also seeking a debate on the hospitality sector and the joint labour committee, JLC. He is right to point that out, insofar as the State has really supported that industry in recent years, particularly because of Covid, the very least it can do is to come to the table and have a conversation about a career structure development and pay progression plan for the people on whom it relies to work in the industry.
Senator Boyhan spoke about thalidomide. He also sought an update from the Minister on the plans announced earlier this year in respect of scoliosis patients which do not seem to have come to fruition just yet. The Senator also asked me for an explanation as to why I am proposing to take all Stages of the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Bill 2022 next week. To explain to colleagues, I did a deal, for want of a better word, with them in recent years that we would not take all Stages of a Bill together unless there was an absolute emergency. It appears that such an emergency has happened. There is a problem with the Estimates for the particular organisations dealt with in the Bill. If we do not get the Bill passed and signed by the Minister and the President by the middle of next week, the Estimates will fall and all those organisations will have no money. We need to bring in a new schedule of Estimates and that can only be done after the House passes the Bill and it goes to the President. It is not our fault that it has been left as late as this but I ask for Members’ co-operation in dealing with the Bill next week. Obviously, if they do not wish to co-operate, I will have to come up with a plan B. I am asking them to consider allowing us to do it, given that it is only a money Bill to give extra money to those organisations to ensure they continue to keep the lights on, in effect.
While I am on my feet discussing this, the agenda for the following week is currently being prepared by my office. At this time next week, I will probably be asking Members to take all Stages of two other Bills in the final sitting week. I give them notice of that. The reason all Stages will be taken together is that the Bills have not even been published yet, so I could not attempt to put them on the agenda for next week, even if I wanted to do so. One of them will relate to the €100 charge for children’s hospitals. Patients aged under 16 are currently charged €100 when they go to an accident and emergency department or for an overnight stay. That Bill will come before the House in the week commencing 11 July and I will be asking Senators to take all Stages of the Bill that week. The Department of Justice is bringing forward a Ukrainian omnibus Bill that apparently requires to be finished before the recess. It has not yet been published, however, and I cannot schedule it until I get it. Forewarned is forearmed. Members can come back to me next week and let me know their views, but I ask for their co-operation in respect of taking all Stages of the EirGrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Bill next week. I hope that answers Senator Boyhan’s question.
Senator Conway spoke about the International Day of Parliamentarism and called for a more reflective representation in both Houses. Obviously, this House is a little better than the Dáil in that regard. He called for more diversity, with people reflecting the entire population of Ireland, including from ethnicity and disability perspectives. There is a need to have all walks of life represented. The debate in the Houses would be far more interesting if we had lots of different representatives of communities. Senator Conway also joined the call for a debate on transport and the NTA.
Senator O’Loughlin opened the Order of Business by referring to the disability capacity review. She also raised the issue of the Defence Forces being called in to do emergency support work at Dublin Airport and the need to ensure they are paid properly and, at least, to have the decency and respect to have conversations with the people upon whom we consistently rely so often.
She also highlighted the cessation of operation of bus route No. 129 in County Kildare. She is right that it is not the only bus route that has been ceased this summer without notice. Handing out leaflets on a bus route to say a bus will not be operating for the next couple of months and the company might get back to its passengers in September, as has happened in Fingal and Kildare, is really not the way to do business. We should be supporting all public transport, particularly the services with the PSO levy. I will send a letter to the NTA and the Minister today on her behalf.
The Leader did not deal with an issue I raised. Will she write to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly? On 1 July, there were no registrars-----
I beg the Senator’s pardon. I will write to the Minister.
This is the first year I have heard of there being no first-year registrars in hospitals.
I do not know how I missed that issue. I will write to the Minister. An interesting point I saw raised in the media during the week is that there was a massive shortage of doctors last week because of the significant increase in Covid cases that is being experienced not only in hospitals but throughout the country. That was before the changeover. Doctors were reflecting their concerns in respect of the situation last week and that was before the changeover next week. I will send a note to the Minister today. I apologise to Senator Keogan.