Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 1 Dec 2016

Vol. 248 No. 14

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Finance Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and that of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.

I wish to raise two issues. The first is the fear felt by residents of Inis Mór in County Galway over the loss of a ferry link to the mainland. Island Ferries, which runs the service from the south Connemara town of Rossaveal, has said it will cease sailings until 17 March 2017. The row between Island Ferries and Galway County Council arises from a by-law passed by the council in 2011 stipulating that a harbour levy must applied in respect of passengers to and from Inis Mór. Island Ferries, which is the sole operator, has said it has no choice but to withdraw its winter service due the difficulties in paying this levy, which it says is too high. I ask the Government to ensure this matter is resolved so that residents of the island are not left without a service this winter.

I call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to address the question of why he has not filled vacancies on certain State boards. He admitted on radio that he has been provided with shortlists by his Department yet he is still unable to make these decisions. There is particular concern about vacancies on the boards of the Road Safety Authority, Dublin Bus, Fáilte Ireland, Bus Éireann, daa, the Irish Aviation Authority and Shannon Group, to name a few. These vacancies are stifling the work of many of these boards in making decisions and planning for our future. It is particularly important that these State companies are on top of their game given the uncertainty caused by Brexit. This country must be in a position where we are thinking ahead and operating in a competitive and organised manner as a State.

I would like to propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 6 be taken before No. 1 today. A number of months ago, I asked the Leader if we could invite the Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland to address us. It is more pertinent in respect of Brexit. Could the Leader raise the matter with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges?

I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom rud a nótáil ó thaobh rialacha an Tí seo. We had a debate yesterday evening where it came to light that when people want to abstain without having to press a walk-though vote, no record is kept of the abstentions on such a vote. This might be something that requires consideration through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. There was a motion here on voting rights in presidential elections yesterday. An amendment was put forward by the Government, which had a right to do that. It was our intention as members of the Sinn Féin group in the House to abstain on that vote and have it recorded but apparently there is no mechanism to have that recorded. I ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to consider that because there is a recording mechanism for it other parliaments.

Ba mhaith liom tacú go huile is go hiomlán leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Ardagh ar maidin maidir le cás mhuintir Árann. Tá géarchéim damanta anseo. Tá sé ardaithe agam roinnt mhaith uaireanta leis an gCeannaire. The situation in Inis Mór this morning is diabolical. Hundreds of people are protesting on the pier because they have no ferry service. It is disgraceful that it has not been sorted out. I have raised the matter again and again in these Houses. I raised it when we had a meeting with the Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs and natural resources, Deputy Kyne, and the officials from Galway County Council. I also raised it when we met with officials from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. I know the matter has been raised with the Minister of State but it is time somebody got all of the players around the table and banged a few heads together. There will have to be a compromise. A Senator from the Government side used a very good metaphor in respect of this. If a bridge had broken somewhere in County Galway and the CEO of the county council was asked to go out there and act, he would be out there first thing in the morning to get it fixed. For the people of Inis Mór, this is the same as having a bridge. It is a lifeline for the islands. It affects people who need to go to hospital, teachers trying to get in and out to teach in schools, people who are working on the islands and the tourism industry. It is unacceptable. I call on the Minister of State or the Taoiseach to intervene and say, "Lads, get around the table. Let's find the compromise." There needs to be a compromise between Galway County Council, the ferry operator and the Department to find a resolution. For more than a month, I have been calling for the Minister of State to tell us what his plan B is. There appears to be no plan B. He is depending on some kind of deal being cobbled together today such as the council passing a motion at its budgetary meeting today to edge forward a couple of weeks or days. That is not acceptable either. We need to know whether the Department of Defence has been contacted as to the use of a naval vessel to bring people in and out of the island. Sinn Féin took it upon itself to ask the Minister of State with responsibility for defence. I ask the Leader to use his good offices to ask him whether he will intervene and provide an essential transport service on a daily basis for the people of the Aran Islands so that they are not left stranded on Inis Mór.

I wish to address the mystery of the stamp people pay through the social protection system. From time to time, we all get our P45s and P60s. You would need to be Mystic Meg to look into the corner to see the little section that might be lightly glazed over with a piece of ink and marked class K or class S stamp or whatever class of stamp you pay. However, that piece of paper does not tell someone what their stamp entitles them to. Down through the years, there has been so much confusion with the self-employed. When we had the debate on the Social Welfare Bill yesterday, Senator Norris asked about pensions for the self-employed and whether the class S stamp covers that, which it does.

It is the only thing it did at the time. There are so many people who really do not know what their stamp entitles them to. When they lose their job, have a disability or get into difficulty, they fill in forms in their social welfare office but could be waiting 12 to 26 weeks only to hear then that their stamp does not cover what they are looking for. We need a new system. Every document sent out by the Department of Social Protection should have written on it the stamp one is paying and what it entitles one to. This would be very simple and prevent a lot of confusion.

When I became a Member in 2011, I had paid a class S stamp as a self-employed person for 24 years. I did not know I was entering a new system in here. After 12 months, an accountant who was also a Deputy asked me whether I kept paying my class S stamp. I said I did not in the belief that it was being automatically taken from my wages. It was not; it was stopped. I had only six months in which to go to the Department of Social Protection to arrange to keep up the payment so it would not be gone. Unfortunately, I will lose the years in which I have been a Member when I seek my contributory pension. I would have had no problem paying the €550 per year had I known. There is a considerable issue owing to people not knowing what their stamp entitles them to. A new system has to be brought in through the Department of Social Protection. It would involve a simple measure. A P45, P60 or any other document from the Department of Social Protection should state exactly what stamp one is paying and what one is entitled to.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is much in discussion owing to its being considered in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I was dismayed and shocked to hear recently that a pub in Cork has been granted a licence although it is using a loyalty card scheme, despite Garda objections. We are trying to discourage harmful drinking and reduce the amount people drink with the introduction of the Bill and other such measures. The licensing decision encourages harmful, excessive drinking. Such a business model will inevitably cause further harm, with the possibility of public order offences and other problems arising.

Section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 permits the making of regulations in the interest of public health and safety but no regulations have been made to date. This is totally unacceptable. As has been said in this House on numerous occasions, alcohol consumption has trebled since 1960 although there have been slight reductions in various areas. Overall, we are drinking in a more harmful way. A loyalty scheme is completely against everything we are trying to work on at present. The figures are truly alarming and, as such, we must do all we can to prevent excessive drinking, not encourage it. Section 16 is due to be repealed and replaced by the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and, as such, we must do all in our power to ensure this section is enforced by introducing regulations that would prevent such initiatives as the pub loyalty card scheme. Imagine circumstances in which the Garda is saying a pub should not be given a licence because of what it is proposing but it still gets the licence. That is completely unacceptable.

I pay tribute to be Irish Hospice Foundation and the various hospice groups around the country, which provide the best end-of-life care to patients. Many people are not aware that the Irish Hospice Foundation, Mayo Roscommon Hospice and various other hospices raise money and build vital facilities. They work very closely with the Department of Health. Yesterday, I saw at first hand the co-operation between Mayo Roscommon Hospice and the Department of Health and the Minister, Deputy Harris. Hospices are built around the country but it is the Department of Health that funds the staffing of these facilities. It is great to see co-operation between the health service and voluntary organisations to provide the best care for patients who are at the end of life. I saw at first hand yesterday the Department allocating funding to staff the hospice, when built. A partnership between voluntary groups and the Department of Health is the right model for the country.

Today, 1 December, marks the second anniversary of the death of Jonathan Corrie, a homeless sleeper, just yards from this House in which we are sitting this morning. The country and public representatives were outraged at the time, and rightly so. The previous Minister outlined at the time that street homelessness would be ended. The purpose of my raising this topic this morning is not to score political points. I acknowledge and am not naive enough to believe that every person sleeping rough in Dublin can be taken off the streets. The issues some of these people are going through are frighteningly complex. Sleeping rough is an unfortunate choice for some.

A street count on 22 November found 142 rough sleepers in Dublin. On 9 December, 230 emergency beds will be made available, which is welcome. It is my worry that the number of rough sleepers located on 22 November does not give a full picture of the number on the streets. There are people sleeping rough in every single neighbourhood in Dublin. We have to accept this is an epidemic and that it is getting worse.

To be fair to the Minister, he is trying and I wish him the best. I suggest that, as a collective cross-party Seanad team, we contact one of the homelessness agencies and go out together some night over the next two weeks to talk to the homeless people, gain face-to-face experience of what they are enduring and determine whether there is anything else we can do. We know how cold it is at present. The Christmas season really begins today. Let us try to prevent the death of another poor person on our streets and remember Jonathan Corrie for the troubled yet brave man that he was.

I have a very straightforward question this morning. When will I, another compliant taxpayer, get my water charges money back? This is the question on the lips of every compliant taxpayer this morning, or at least the 1 million people who have paid their water charges. The idea that has been floated over recent days, that those who have not paid their water charges will be pursued and made pay the money still owed, is a complete nonsense. Fine Gael knows that. We all know it is an impossibility. Of course, nobody likes paying new taxes or charges - that is human nature - but the majority of people paid and are paying for water. This is evident in rural areas, for example. Many of those who have paid their water charges have done so through gritted teeth and in difficult circumstances. They expect that a party that prides itself on its role in founding the State and on supporting compliant taxpayers and those who comply with the law will support them. That party is Fine Gael. Given the recent approach of the Government to the idea of water charges, Fine Gael can no longer be relied on to be the party that vindicates the rights of compliant taxpayers and those who abide by the law.

This morning there were a lot of very worried Fine Gael Deputies and Senators taking calls in their constituency offices and in the House and meeting constituents face to face who are concerned that they have paid their water charges while others have not. The message being sent now is that it is fine if one does not pay a charge passed by these Houses, albeit in difficult circumstances. That quick fix is not acceptable to anybody.

Citizens who have paid their water charges need clarity now. As a compliant citizen, I want to know when I will be refunded the water charges I have paid and the people I represent want to know too. The cynical, political time-buying exercise that was the commission which reported this week - a report which has been kicked to a committee of these Houses for further consideration - will not buy sufficient time for the House to come to a conclusion that will be acceptable to anyone. It cannot be used as an excuse to fudge this issue any longer. The issue will have to be resolved before March when the committee reports. The Minister needs to come to the House today to explain what his position is. It is clear to me that the Fine Gael Party is divided on this issue. The people who paid their water charges need to know when and how they will be refunded.

This morning, international headlines are advising us that the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil has gone up. Since yesterday morning, it has gone up by 12%. This arises from the agreement of OPEC countries to restrict the supply of oil on the market. If anything, it is an international story, but it tells us in Ireland that we are not rich in fossil fuels. The fortunes of our people and businesses are out of our hands and in the control of OPEC, which can cause misery to suit itself and the oil industry. OPEC can either let the oil flow or restrict it, which has massive ramifications for us. If ever a case underpinned the need to diversify from our dependency on fossil fuels, we see it there. We do not want to be the puppets.

Coming closer to home, I note the recent publication of the EPA's Ireland's Environment 2016 document. While we are talking a lot more about the need for a reduction in carbon emissions and to invest in renewables, the figures published by the EPA are still paltry. Only 23% of our electricity in 2015 came from renewable energy sources. I compare that with Scotland where 97% of electricity comes from wind generation. My mind boggles at that because I know the wind does not blow all the time, but they obviously have a lot of solutions for storing the electricity generated from wind. Equally, in respect of our binding EU 2020 targets, only 8.5% of our total energy requirement is being met from renewable sources. We need to be at 20% by 2020.

One of the suggestions in the EPA report is that we should stop subsidising fossil fuels. This means the winter fuel allowance paid to social welfare recipients. We need the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to come to the House to discuss how we are going to chart our path. Substantial investment in this area is required and somebody is going to pay the price. Obviously, we cannot push those who are already hard-pressed into further fuel poverty. It is an opportune time to have this debate with the Minister and to ensure that all our citizens are on board in the context of a national dialogue on what we need to do to become less dependent on fossil fuels.

I note to Senator Nash that Fine Gael is having a very open and frank debate on water charges and everything that surrounds them.

I read that in today's newspapers.

We will be making our decision in due course.

If it is open, Senator Burke can share it with us.

We are all friends here.

We have good leakers, if Senators will excuse the pun.

Senator Burke, without interruption, please.

I am not quite sure what the Leader said yesterday about an official of the House who has spent almost 30 years as Clerk of the Seanad and who has given outstanding service to the Oireachtas, namely, Ms Deirdre Lane. I hope that at some stage in the future we will have a dedicated period to pay our tributes to one of the most outstanding Oireachtas officials. She led the House for nearly 30 years during good times and very difficult times, through debates that lasted all night long and during the period in which there was a referendum on the abolition of the House. She gave great advice to the House in very difficult circumstances and I hope the Leader will clarify the position in relation to providing some time to pay tribute to an outstanding official.

I ask the Leader also to provide time for a debate on funding for third level education. In my county, the GMIT campus in Castlebar is going through a very difficult period mainly because the parent college, GMIT in Galway, has bullied its way and taken all of the good courses, which it is not willing to share. I would like the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, on the funding of all third level institutions with a particular focus on outreach campuses attached to the main colleges. I have seen first-hand what has happened to the Mayo campus of GMIT. It has never got any fair play from Galway and has been bullied. We would like to get some answers and I hope the Leader will arrange the debate in the very near future.

I thank the ten Senators who raised matters this morning. I join Senators Ardagh and Ó Clochartaigh in appealing from the Chamber to the people who are involved in the dispute around the ferry service to cop on and get together to provide this essential link for the people of the island. I have been speaking to the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, today and yesterday and he has been in touch with the Minister for Defence and the Secretary General of that Department regarding the matter. The Minister of State is very much involved and has offered his services to mediate and facilitate the resolution of the matter. Like Senators Ardagh and Ó Clochartaigh, the Minister of State is deeply concerned regarding the stoppage of the ferry service. It is fair to say that it is not a departmental issue but one where Galway County Council and the ferry operator should sit down with a third party to thrash this out and arrive at a conclusion.

It is unacceptable that people are being deprived of a service. As Senator Ó Clochartaigh said, it is their bridge and their link and it is important that the service resumes and continues. The Minister of State and the Department are working on the matter and the Minister of State has had a series of meetings and conversations with the local authority CEO and the people involved. I hope the discussions can resume and that there can be a resolution because it is important that there is. I would be happy to have the Minister of State come to the House to discuss the matter next week if there is no resolution in the interim.

Senator Ardagh referred to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and board appointments. It is important to understand that there is a need to fill vacancies on boards. In some cases, it may be that the Minister is correct that there are too many people on boards and that the size of those boards should be reduced, but we need to have people on boards in general. In particular, we have a vacancy on the Dublin Airport Authority for a Cork representative and it is important that the position be filled. It is fair that the Minister is filling vacancies and going about his work.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised an issue about the abstention button, which is a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I hope it is part of the new suite of arrangements in the temporary Chamber and that when we move back in here, we can accommodate, like the Dáil Chamber, an abstention button. If it is in the Dáil, there is no reason it cannot be here.

Senator Butler raised the very important issue of the classification of social protection stamps. That is a conversation we need to have and an information campaign is required, to which I expect the Minister for Social Protection will be open. The Senator has been very proactive on the issue of PRSI and pension entitlements for the self-employed.

Senator Noone spoke about a pub in Cork which was introducing a loyalty card scheme. I am not familiar with it, but the Senator is correct to highlight the fact that we must collectively work to reduce the harmful effects of an over-emphasis on drink in our culture. That is an issue we will revisit. I hope we will have the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill back before the House after Christmas to have it passed.

Senator Feighan paid tribute to the Irish Hospice Foundation. I join him in praising its work. The amount of work it does is to be commended, in particular, its Think Ahead campaign, one to which we should all pay attention. We should get involved with it in our work as politicians and in our communities as volunteers, neighbours, friends and family members because it is a conversation we all need to have. One thing of which we can all be guaranteed is that we will all pass from this life at some stage. The Irish Hospice Foundation is doing Trojan work and its Think Ahead campaign is one we should all support and embrace. We must have that conversation in order that people will be ready for death and that there will be preparedness in terms of finalisation of their affairs. It is a morbid topic, one about which we do not want to talk, but the Irish Hospice Foundation deserves our support.

Senators Nash and Paddy Burke raised the issue of water charges. I say to Senator Nash that, thankfully, the Fine Gael Party's position on the issue has been very consistent. It is that people must pay for water. That was our clear position in our submission to the commission and in government with the Labour Party. There is a process in place. I again commend Senator Ó Céidigh for taking up the position of cathaoirleach of the committee and wish him well. He will be busy in the time ahead. As someone who chaired a contentious committee, I can tell him that he will have a lot more grey hairs and that perhaps he might lose some of his hair. The grey hairs will be even greyer.

He might get some hair dye for Christmas.

I wish him well. There can be no ambiguity. Those who paid for water through Irish Water or group water schemes or those with a private well who have been fully tax compliant must not be let down by the State. I assure Senator Nash that I am very confident that the Government will not be found wanting in that regard. We must ensure, as citizens of the State, that we will continue to be compliant with the laws of the land. Those who paid for water in a variety of ways must not be let down by the Government and if that means that they must be reimbursed or receive a tax credit, so be it. A process must be put in place.

Senator Mulherin raised the issue of fossil fuels. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, will be in the House next week to discuss the matter.

Senator Paddy Burke referred to the Clerk of the Seanad, Ms Deirdre Lane, who has retired. I hope we will be able to facilitate tributes to her. The Senator also raised the matter of third level education in Castlebar. The Cassells report is being discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, from where I am sure we will see it progress.

I am happy to accept Senator Ó Céidigh's proposed amendment to the Order of Business. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges has discussed the invitation to the Minister for Finance in the North, Mr. Ó Muilleoir, and the issue is being progressed with a view to having other speakers. I am confident that we will see it happen in the new year.

What about homelessness?

I am sorry. As somebody who has taken part in the Focus Ireland sleep-out on a number of occasions, who engages with Cork Simon Community and who has seen past pupils become homeless, I will be happy to join Senator Gavan and other Members in doing what he suggested, but I would hate it to become a media circus. I would prefer if we were to do it quietly, away from the glare of publicity.

The Senator is correct. This day two years ago Jonathan Corrie passed away and it is important that we remember him. It is also important to recognise that the Government is taking action to help rough sleepers and devising a strategy to tackle homelessness.

I acknowledge that.

It is something on which we could work with Focus Ireland, not as a publicity stunt but as part of its sleep-out next year.

Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 6 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has kindly indicated that he is prepared to accept the amendment. Is it agreed to? Agreed.

Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.