I call the Deputy Leader, Senator Noone, to outline the business of the day.
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motions regarding judicial and extrajudicial documents in civil or commercial matters and co-operation between courts of the member states in the taking of evidence in civil or commercial matters - referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 1a on the supplementary Order Paper, Mental Health (Renewal Orders) Bill 2018 - Report Stage amendments from the Dáil and Final Stage, to be taken at 12.45 p.m.; No. 2, motion regarding earlier signature of the Mental Health (Renewal Orders) Bill 2018, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, Data Sharing Governance Bill 2018 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 or at 1 p.m., whichever is the later and to be adjourned no later than 3.30 p.m. if not previously concluded; No. 4, Copyright and Other Intellectual Property Law Provisions Bill 2018 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to adjourn no later than 4.30 p.m., if not previously concluded.
I wish to raise commitments in the realm of justice that were promised under the programme for Government. Last week, I raised the issue of violent muggings and burglaries on the streets of Dublin. We also learned last week of the horrendous rapes of three college students in Cork, of how they had not reported the incidents to their colleges or to the Garda and of the fact that two of them have dropped out of college as a result of trauma and personal violation. In response, the Government agreed to set up a forum locally so that there could be a central focus by the Garda, the HEA and the presidents of the various colleges involved. The recently published CSO report shows increases in nine of 14 categories of crime. While recognising the work of the Garda in respect of gangland crime, in the sexual offences category there has been a 10.2% increase. This means that approximately 3,000 sexual offences were committed between June 2017 and June of this year. This frightening statistic cannot be ignored. There were also increases in theft offences and a 10.7% increase in weapons and explosives offences. All Senators have heard of increased anti-social behaviour and increased crime in rural and urban areas. The CSO report confirms what we have been hearing.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to consider the introduction of mandatory sentencing for robbery in the home involving violence. Is this mandatory sentencing ever going to be introduced? There is also a commitment to resource the courts, particularly the Circuit Court, to deal with increased non-summary prosecutions of serious crimes. Will this happen? I ask the Deputy Leader to provide an update on these commitments.
I take this opportunity to convey my sympathies, and those of the Fianna Fáil group, to the family of a woman who died in tragic circumstances on Tuesday when she was run over by a lorry on a residential street in Inchicore. This was a freak accident but it should not have happened. I urge vigilance on the part of those driving articulated lorries or other motor vehicles in residential areas in our cities and towns. This tragedy could have been avoided. My heart goes out to the woman's family.
I wish to place on record my thanks to all the Irish support organisations around the world that assist, on a daily basis, Irish people living abroad with many issues of concern. These organisations provide general information and they also assist people in dealing with serious personal difficulties and tragedies. The support they offer to Irish communities goes mainly unrecorded but their work is invaluable. In the United States, the Irish support organisations offer a variety of services ranging from crisis intervention and management, supportive counselling with solution-focused orientation, information, advocacy, accompaniment to court - when required - and inter-agency liaison.
This year, in the Boston area, the Irish Pastoral Centre provided advice and support to at least 15 prisoners. The figures on undocumented Irish in detention for deportation nationwide are relatively low year on year but the level of support being given is placing great strain on the limited resources. Due to policy changes in US immigration, the toxic atmosphere is causing severe stress, particularly among the undocumented community. This has resulted in an increased demand for counselling services due to increased anxiety, a siege mentality and insular lifestyles.
This summer, an example of the assistance given by Irish organisations was highlighted by a serious case that came through my office. It was of a young person who was travelling throughout in the US and had not made any contact with home for months, and the family were desperately worried. When the person was found, his mental health was in a fragile state and he needed urgent assistance. I contacted the local Irish Community Services, a not-for-profit immigration organisation, and it made contact immediately with the place where this person was staying. Through sensitive and gentle discussion, he allowed them access. He was in a bad state, both physically and mentally, and was brought immediately to a hospital where he received the urgent medical care required. A few days later, he was able to return to his family in Ireland accompanied by his brother. Only for the professional and sensitive approach from members of our Irish support organisation, this could have had a different and tragic outcome. This type of assistance is replicated in communities throughout the US and elsewhere across the world.
The Government, through its embassies and consulates, provides significant support to Irish support agencies and organisations and we thank them sincerely for their excellent work. The recent increase of crisis cases has reinforced the importance of having an interconnected web of agencies, providing holistic support to the global Irish community.
The Government must do more, through exploring how these non-profit organisations can be further financially supported and I call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure the Department continues to fund them to ensure they can continue to provide the excellent assistance they do. Our global diaspora, particularly those who are undocumented, need and deserve the full support of the Government in every way.
I condemn the comments made by the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster MLA, earlier this week when she dismissed the Good Friday Agreement and suggested that it could be altered at the whim of the DUP. That should not be surprising to us because, in 2003, Ms Foster left her own party because of her opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. Her party supports Brexit. It is important that Ms Foster understands, as she does not seem to understand, that this is an international treaty between this State and Britain and it is lodged under the United Nations. She needs to get to grips with that. As co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government and the British Government need to make sure that is upheld as well.
Members of this and the other House have asked why we do not just set up the institutions in the North and have commented that there are no preconditions. However, it is a precondition of any government to treat all of its citizens equally and it is not right for people here to advocate the setting up the institutions where there are not LGBT rights and where there are not rights for everybody in society. For example, people have had to wait decades just for the truth through legacy inquests. While we desperately want the institutions to be up and running, we could certainly never advocate the setting up of the institutions under such an arrangement. Perhaps all of this gives people down here a better insight into exactly what we have to deal with in the North.
Today, I commend the Sinn Féin alternative budget to the House. I commend my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, and others who have worked so hard on this. This is an alternative budget and it is about lifting the burden from the ordinary people of the cost-of-living crisis and investing in their full potential and in the public services they deserve. It has been fully costed and it takes into account the cost of living. The cost-of-living crisis, we must remember, exists because of Government policies and priorities.
We have presented this budget. We have shown how, through increased investment in education, housing, health, and agriculture and support for enterprise and development and job creation, we can have a different type of society. The additional revenue raised by closing tax loopholes, increasing betting tax and introducing an income levy on those earning in excess of €140,000, among other measures, could be used to open hospital beds. Contrary to some of the nonsensical statements that are made by Members who desperately need to appease their vested interests and those who control their thinking and the actions of those in power, 99% of workers will pay no additional tax under a Sinn Féin budget or a Sinn Féin Government. That is a fact. I accept 1% of the wealthiest in our country are asked to pay a little more but does anybody think that those earning €140,000 a year should be entitled to tax credit? Does anybody think that banks, which made €2.6 billion last year, should continue to be given a tax holiday? If Members think that, this is not the place for them. There is an alternative and that is the Sinn Féin budget.
Today, I would like to raise the housing crisis and the serious inadequacy of the State's response to a crisis affecting every sector of society. I have no interest in scoring political points but, at this stage, it has to be accepted that the current strategies, whether it be Rebuilding Ireland or the array of other initiatives attempted by the Government, are just not working. The housing system is not experiencing a temporary blip or market correction, as stated by housing experts in The Irish Times last week. The system in freefall as a result of years of underinvestment, structural deficiencies in housing and planning policy, and a market-focused ideology that thinks the market can be relied on to provide the social good that is secure, safe and appropriate shelter for people in Ireland. It can no longer be denied that this approach, and this philosophy, has been a complete and abject failure.
There needs to be a fundamental transformation in how we tackle the crisis and housing policy in general. We cannot wait for the initiatives announced today to be implemented in two to three years' time when our citizens are being evicted from their homes right now. I strongly support the cross-party motion that will be debated in the Dáil later and I call on all Members to attend the Raise the Roof demonstration outside Leinster House at 1 p.m. People are assembling to express their hopelessness because they spend an inordinate amount on rents. Home ownership is increasingly out of reach for a vast number of people while increasing numbers of people, including children, are in emergency accommodation or sleeping on our streets.
We need to declare a national housing and homelessness emergency; dramatically increase spending on, and supply of, social, affordable and cost rental housing through a significant increase in capital expenditure; prioritise the delivery of public housing on public land; and work harder to bring vacant and derelict properties back into the supply as we proposed in the Civil Engagement Group in this House in February 2017. We should pass emergency legislation by the end of the month banning all evictions as an emergency interim measure where an eviction will directly lead to homelessness.
We need rent controls without the wide expectations of the current rent pressure zones, with rents to be linked to inflation. We need targets to end long-term homelessness and we need to amend the Constitution to include a right to housing. These are radical calls but they are an appropriate response to the seriousness of the current crisis. I hope to see as many of the Members as possible outside the gates at 1 p.m.
I welcome the decision yesterday in Washington DC to introduce legislation to regulate Airbnb or short-term lets, an issue I raised in this House on a constant basis over the past 18 months and on which I have been promised action over and over again.
The then Minister, Deputy Coveney, set up an internal committee between his Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that sat for nearly a year and never published the recommendations. This year, the current Minister promised action and that he would publish proposals in June. He also said in August that he would bring forward legislation or regulations to the Cabinet in September. We are now well into October and nobody has seen the regulations or legislation. Why do I raise this issue so frequently? It is because, at a minimum, it would bring 1,000 units back into the rental market for working people in this city and many other areas. Where did I get the figure of 1,000 from because I believe the number is far higher? It came from the Minister's own research, which states that the legislation he will propose will bring those 1,000 units back into the market. I am frustrated because this has been highlighted for over two years. The Minister has promised action on numerous occasions yet he has not taken any action or published any legislation or statutory instrument relating to this. The Minister says that supply is the problem. If supply is the problem, why has he not taken action with regard to these additional 1,000 units that he could return to the market very quickly? I am putting the Leader on notice that if the Minister does not bring forward proposals to Cabinet next week, I will request, through an amendment to Standing Orders, that he attend this House. I am not seeking that he attend today but I am putting the Leader on notice that if the Minister does not bring forward and publish proposals to Cabinet next week, I will request, through an amendment to Standing Orders, that he attend this House.
I welcome Mr. Paddy McGowan and Mrs. Mabel McGowan, who are visiting the House for the first time, to the Public Gallery. I hope they have a very enjoyable day.
Like many other Members, I refer to the protests that are taking place outside. There is a housing protest and a protest from the agricultural community regarding beef prices. The beef forum met today at 10.30 a.m. It is important that the House acknowledge there is a significant issue with the beef industry. The meeting of the beef forum today is an important one that will be attended by the processors, some farming organisations and the Department to work out what is happening in the beef industry. I attended a meeting in Skibbereen last Monday week that was attended by approximately 400 beef farmers. One could feel the disquiet, to say the least, among the community about where the beef industry, particularly the suckler industry, is going. This morning's meeting is very important. I realise that there is pressure on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department to try to ensure that appropriate prices are paid at the factory gate for the beef product. This will be the significant challenge. The beef processors' control over the industry is the biggest issue. How we formulate a plan to ensure that the farmers get an appropriate price for their product when they go to slaughter is very significant. The Minister needs to engage with the processors to ensure this happens.
I am sure this will be a winter of discontent in the beef industry. From talking to the farmers, I understand that the prices at marts and in the factories have collapsed even though prices in the UK have gone up. I can tell the House the actual price it costs to take an animal all the way to the factory but after that it goes into a black hole and we do not know where the costings go until the product actually ends up in retailers' fridges. These are important issues. I propose that we schedule time for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come to the House to discuss the beef industry. Time needs to be allotted to the beef industry. We need a real debate on it and to identify solutions. More important we need to see what legislation needs to be changed to ensure farmers get what is appropriate at the farm gate. What we really need is a labelling system. We need to ensure that everyone knows exactly how much the farmer gets paid on the label. The knock-on effect will be that we find out the margins the retailers and factories get so we know who is getting what out of every side of beef.
As I stand here, we have a team competing at the IGBA Handa World Blind Golf championship in Rome. I wish the team well.
I raise the matter of the the leaving certificate - words that fill most of us with fear and dread, even the teachers in this room. We have an extraordinary education system. Some of the brightest minds in the world are born, study, invent and shine here but something is very wrong in our education system when those bright minds are being dulled by an unfair system. The State Examinations Commission was defeated in court this week over its role in the incorrect totting up of leaving certificate marks for a Wexford student. That was a win for that student but at what cost? Not only did she have to fight in court, the case could be appealed if full written judgement issued next month gives the State Examinations Commission cause. Thankfully, the student took her deserved place this week and will not suffer from having to play catch up but that is just one good news story. Mr. Justice Richard Humphreys ruled that the current appeals process for leaving certificate students is not only highly unfair, it is not fit for purpose and causes untold stress to students. I was contacted at one of my clinics by students from Carlow and Kilkenny with similar issues concerning a process that causes massive stress. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills has said that he will look at speeding up the appeals process for leaving certificate examination students to ensure they do not lose out on potential college places but we need to have a good hard look at the process and also put pressure on the State Examinations Commission to get things right in the first place. It is wrong that a student must go to court to get a college place in time - a place she earned. The future of several hundred students is in the air because they know they need to ask the questions and need to know their results. They could be doing a course they thought they had to do because their points were tallied incorrectly. More students who knew their points were incorrectly tallied have been stuck waiting a year to take a college place that should have been rightfully theirs. A year is an enormous amount of time in a young adult's life and while some choose that route, others do not come back from it. There is a need for a radical overhaul of the leaving certificate because a year is too long. We also need to make sure that we are not putting students under immense pressure.
I return to the topic raised by Senator Ruane, namely, homelessness and the housing crisis that exists in this country. It is about time that we realised a few basic facts. First, there is no prospect of resolving the housing crisis unless the supply of social and affordable housing is increased. Second, that supply will only increase if the Government takes direct action. Third, the market will not solve this problem if left to itself in the short, medium or long term. Fourth, the Government has had plenty of time to consider all of the underlying trends and issues such as market and land availability issues and has not done its duty by the people and addressed this issue properly. It is very evident to anybody who travels around this city that the cranes are on the skylines. Hotels are being built and great projects are in progress but social and affordable housing is not being built to any appreciable extent in Dublin. It is impossible to believe that the Customs House as a Department of State, and I am not going to personalise this, can possibly have its hands on the levers of power or be resourcing local authorities adequately when pitiful results concerning the construction of social housing in particular are trickling in every year. The former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government was appointed with responsibility for this and made some efforts to deal with the issue of rising rents, which is a symptom of the shortage. He then became Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The current Minister has had a number of years to deal with this. Every so often, we hear of initiatives which, to use the phrase thought up by the spin masters in Government Buildings, are game changers. The first thing to say is that this is not a game. It is deadly serious.
We are told there is to be a new agency. There should be a new agency and it should take direct action but where is the legislation for it? Will we see it this year, next year or the year after? Does anybody take this issue seriously? Above all, does the Department and the Government intend doing anything or does it just intend to continue spinning and spinning and spinning, appearing to be concerned while doing nothing?
I was very upset to read in the newspapers over the weekend about a report from Focus Ireland on the growing number of young people leaving State care and becoming homeless. Many young people leave State care and transition successfully into independent living but it is not good enough that any child finds himself or herself homeless. Focus Ireland is calling for money to be ring-fenced for accommodation for care leavers. Focus Ireland and the Irish Aftercare Network have been seeking a meeting with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, but to no avail. I would like the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate on what is happening in the context of providing care and homes for young people. It is not good enough that an 18 year old can leave care and be put out on the streets.
I commend the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on organising the Raise the Roof protest today. I think it will be a momentous protest and I am looking forward to taking part in it. I acknowledge the fact that all of us on the left are co-operating today. Sinn Féin, which is the leading party on the left, the Labour Party, the Green Party, the Social Democrats and Independents on the left are all behind this. We need to think about the potential the left has when it works together and we should focus on what we have in common, rather on what divides us. We should all agree on something as regards next week's budget before it takes place. We all know there is a crisis in child care and that budgets have not addressed the crisis to date, either for parents who have to pay for it or workers in the sector. We have a simple proposal in our alternative budget, which has been costed by the Department of Finance. We could raise the pay of every worker in the child care sector to a living wage of €11.90, which would immediately address the crisis in terms of turnover of staff and would give hope to the workers in the sector. It would cost just €15 million. For years my union, SIPTU, has been campaigning for a sectoral employment order for child care workers and this is what we need to have. It will not happen immediately but our proposal could happen immediately. It is the smallest of asks but it would make a huge difference, both for the workers involved and for the sector. I call on the acting Leader and on Fianna Fáil to acknowledge that it is a reasonable proposal and has been costed and to get behind it to make sure it is in next week's budget. Let us do something today that will stand to those child care workers. They are always forgotten about when we talk about child care and its costs
Yesterday morning I attended breakfast at a fringe event of the Conservative Party conference, while a week before I was at a breakfast for a fringe event of the British Labour Party conference. I was very concerned to hear statements that the Good Friday Agreement could be changed. The Irish Government will stand up for the Good Friday Agreement and it is not up for negotiation. We want a good result in the Brexit negotiations and we look forward to proposals being put forward by the United Kingdom in the coming weeks. However, it is a very difficult time and I hope the negotiators on all sides can come up with some solution.
An issue concerning the Irish diaspora was raised with me. There is talk of a relief road just off junction 6 of the M42, close to Páirc na hÉireann in Birmingham. This will cause huge problems to the Warwickshire county board. It has gathered 12,000 signatures and I ask the Irish Embassy and Minister for Foreign Affairs to liaise with their UK counterparts to ensure these people have a voice in this matter. They are very concerned but they are hopeful that a solution will be identified. My good friend and colleague Conor McGinn, the Labour Party MP for St. Helens North and chair of the all-party group of the Irish in Britain, has asked me to raise it. I wish to show some solidarity with our colleagues in the UK and hope a solution will be found so that Páirc na hÉireann will not be impacted by these proposed works.
I agree with Senator McDowell's sentiments about the march today. I am on record from two and a half years ago when the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke here, as saying his plan was doomed to fail before it started. This was mainly because of the lack of specific numbers. We had to tell each council to build a certain amount of social housing units because without a target they will not know what to do. They muddled along and eventually got an inventory of the lands they held but the single biggest disconnect has been the building of social houses, which the Government has totally neglected. Until it starts doing this we will go nowhere with this issue. Talking about rent guides, rent caps and pressure zones is all a load of rubbish as the market will do what the market will do. Social housing is where the problem started and social housing is where the problem will finish.
With the budget on our doorstep we should look at the constructive use of co-operative organisations which have had great success in Britain, particularly on the outskirts of London in places such as Kent. Villages in rural Ireland have been cut adrift, although this is not all down to Government policy. Rural Ireland has to be sustained.and the co-operative model could progress that and keep open the local shop, the local newsagent, the local coffee shop or public house. I implore the Minister to make funding available for co-operative activity in rural Ireland so that we do not leave our villages to the wolves. If there are grants for these places the communities will come together and make them a success
I organised a meeting of MS Ireland in the AV room today and there was a huge attendance so I thank all the Deputies and Senators who were there. I ask everyone in the Seanad to use their contacts, within and outside political parties, to reinforce the call made by MS Ireland on the Ministers for Finance and Health for €600,000 to sustain a full 52-week respite care service. The MS Ireland care centre offers a range of therapeutic and neurological services and it is an important organisation. It is not a big ask. I acknowledge the attendance of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath. We should impress upon the Minister the need for this money. It is a worthy cause and should be supported.
Earlier this week I met a number of young consultants who were working in our public hospital in Castlebar.
They outlined an issue that gives me great cause for concern because of the ramifications for our health system. It is basically a matter of pay equality. After 2012, all new consultants were on 30% less than their counterparts registered before 2012. This means younger consultants are working alongside people registered before 2012 for significantly less remuneration. On top of that, numerous locums are being brought in to fill vacancies or cover, and they are on significantly more money than these young consultants, notwithstanding the fact they are less qualified and not registered or qualified in the same fashion as the younger consultants. These locums are brought in with any walk of life but it is pretty much an industry at this stage because of the number of vacancies across different disciplines for consultants. I know there are vacancies in Mayo University Hospital in Castlebar and it is the case throughout the country.
I am particularly concerned as in just a few years there will be senior consultants and surgeons in Castlebar who will retire so how will we fill these positions? As I understand it, it costs €100 million to pay locums. We need to look at a better way to spend money and retain our Irish-qualified doctors and consultants in the system. If the matter is not tackled now, the problems will only get worse and I am worried about my local hospital. I am sure that throughout the country people will be worried about their own acute hospitals. We need to act now and I ask that the Minister for Health be brought in to discuss this, along with a number of other pressing health matters.
I have raised the following matter a number of times in this Chamber. I raised it as a Commencement Matter and I will raise it again today with genuine and deep regret. It is the matter of the three-school campus for Buncrana in County Donegal. We have two secondary schools and a primary school. We have Crana College, which is a fantastic school but it is packed to the gills. It is using space that should be for physical education to educate in prefabs. It is completely unacceptable. Gaelscoil Buncrana and Coláiste Chineál Eoghain are on community development sites and whereas people are very grateful to be able to use them, they are not appropriate for children's education.
Many years ago - over a decade at this stage - the boards of management of those three schools came together and generously agreed to go for a three-school campus, meaning there would be one location for all three schools. One would have thought it was a straightforward proposition. Initially the vocational educational committee in Donegal was tasked with this and, more recently, it was Donegal County Council on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. Yet again, the same sites have been identified in the new process, and there have been negotiations on the site for years. There is no deadline. What happened in recent days is truly shocking, as it has been confirmed that the site has been sold to a private sector third party. That has left a process that was apparently close to conclusion in complete disarray, despite the parties waiting on this for more than a decade.
Donegal Oireachtas Members have requested a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, but we have not heard from his office about the meeting being confirmed. This is an urgent matter. The boards of management acted in good faith. They did not bring people out in the streets or protest. They have acted patiently and in good faith, and they have waited for the deal to be done. Now the entire deal is up in the air. The Minister and the Department of Education and Skills must answer serious questions about what has gone wrong and they must reassure us that a solution will be forthcoming immediately. I ask the Deputy Leader to relay to the Minister the need to meet Donegal Oireachtas Members urgently and find a resolution to this.
Recent information from Galway City Council demonstrates that more than 150 lifesaving buoys are stolen from Galway city every year. We know it is not a problem unique to Galway and Cork City Council has a similar problem. It had to replace 300 lifebuoys last year due to theft or damage. This forces the State to replace these lifebuoys at great cost. In 2015, a 15 year old boy, Caolan Seoige-Webster, got into trouble when he went swimming with friends in Athlone, County Westmeath. The youngster's friends ran to get a lifebuoy from the station but, unfortunately, it had been stolen the night before and Caolan lost his life.
The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, spoke about this vandalism in County Galway and appealed to the public to help gardaí clamp down on lifebuoy vandals by reporting any incidents they witness to the Garda. However, it is not tenable to deal with these types of crime under the Criminal Damage Act 1991 any more. The thugs who damage lifesaving equipment need to know they will be dealt with harshly. I disagree with the Minister, who has said the offences are already provided for in legislation dealing with criminal damage and theft in a general way. The penalties set out in the Life Saving Equipment Bill 2017, which I drafted, would send a clear message to these thugs that they will not get a slap on the wrist but rather a significant fine and the very real possibility of up to five years in prison. I ask the Deputy Leader to make it a priority to bring the Life Saving Equipment Bill 2017 before the House for Committee Stage. I would like an update on when that may happen.
I received my booklet from the Referendum Commission this morning relating to the blasphemy referendum, although I have not had time to look at it. I am sure it is fine. I have raised the issue of the scandalous waste of €3 million of public money in running a referendum to solve a problem that simply does not exist. We heard from our colleague, Senator Boyhan, about the presentation from MS Ireland. I made it along to the end of that fine presentation. The organisation is seeking €600,000 to ensure year-round running of its respite care service, which is a fifth of that €3 million. That is what could be done with that kind of money instead of wasting it on pointless referendums.
This morning I wanted to raise the matter of elderly care on foot of disturbing information recently released by HIQA. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd in the other House got a report indicating serious deficiencies in care centres for disabled and elderly citizens. It indicates 51 disability centres were threatened with closure last year, of which three were shut and 18 showed sufficient improvement in care. This report raises serious questions that need to be addressed by the Minister about the management of abuse allegations within the centres. What is to happen with the 30 disability centres operating in spite of HIQA concerns about the standard of care for which no sufficient improvement has been reported?
We must learn what are the procedures in place to ensure these centres come into line with HIQA guidelines in a prompt manner, and what happens if these centres are unable to show improvement? How long are people with disabilities expected to stay in or use these centres if they are not in line with HIQA guidelines? In the reports for each centre, dates of compliance are listed for each breach of regulation. For centres highlighted by HIQA as having serious deficiencies, what period is allowed and how long do these centres have to operate in an inadequate fashion before they are finally shut? Does HIQA have enough funding and resourcing to monitor all this? We cannot just say that because this information has come out, it shows that things are being monitored and all is well.
One report into a care facility in Dublin, the CASA breakhouse, recorded that eight of the nine action points from the previous visit were reissued to the centre with serious concerns over oversight arrangements. There was an absence of fire safety training and wholly inadequate safekeeping of medicines. People need to know how the Government is responding or has responded to the closure of the three disability centres and if there are contingency plans if some of the remaining 30 disability centres have to close because of non-improvement. Have the services of the three centres already closed been reallocated?
There has been a succession of scandals in recent years regarding the care of elderly and disabled citizens and I do not need to recount them here. This is very worrying and the Minister must urgently investigate the matter to ensure services are adequate and people are not at risk.
There are two matters I wish to raise with the Deputy Leader. There is an award from the National Adult Literacy Agency relating to plain English. Plain English is a concept that has operated internationally.
Departments and organisations of a similar vein are encouraged to use plain English in their documents and pamphlets so that more people can understand and get the context of what is being proposed or described. English can often be written in a convoluted manner and while some people are able to digest it, others cannot. To ensure Government and other documentation is accessible to as many people as is possible, plain English is desirable. In the good old days when there was a decent President in the United States, former President Obama introduced a plain writing Act which has been of enormous benefit to people with literacy challenges in the United States. The awards are being promoted. I encourage people who come across documents that are complex to ask that they be rewritten in plain English.
The second issue is one I have raised previously with the Leader, namely, gazumping. As the economy improves and house prices spiral, once again buyers who have paid a booking deposit and sale agreed a property are having deposits returned to them a few weeks later and the properties are being put back on the market at increased prices. In most other countries, this is illegal. It should be illegal here too. I suggest that gazumping should be outlawed as part of the suite of measures to deal with the housing crisis affecting so many families.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus a Leas-Cheannaire. Ba mhaith liom ábhar a lua atá luaite ag comhghleacaithe cheana féin. I rise to express what is, I am sure, a shared concern at the public utterances of the leader of the DUP yesterday in regard to the Good Friday Agreement. As has been stated by colleagues across the Chamber, the Good Friday Agreement is an international, binding agreement. It is not up for negotiation in the context of Brexit, nor should it be. It is only by dint of the will of the people of Ireland we can subject that agreement to change.
I understand why Government colleagues and Ministers who have come to this House have erred on the side of caution in regard to the Brexit negotiations. I appreciate that they have be sensitive to the live nature of those negotiations. However, as I and other colleagues have said, the Good Friday Agreement is not up for negotiation and we should not be behind the door in defence of it.
I note and commend the remarks of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste yesterday in defence of the Good Friday Agreement. It is important to remind Members that when we hear such dangerous, reckless public utterances, be it those uttered yesterday about the Good Friday Agreement not being sacrosanct or it being open to change, or today's latest statement about blood red lines in regard to Brexit, not only should we remain united in our constitutional obligations to the Good Friday Agreement and its delivery in full but, politically, we should defend the people North and South who mandated all of us to live up to and fully implement the agreement in its entirety.
Last week, I called for a debate on Brexit. There is also merit in having statements on the Good Friday Agreement and the importance of it such that the Government can reiterate its position in defence of the agreement in order that we can move forward. I ask that the Deputy Leader schedule that debate.
Today I raise the current crisis within the Defence Forces. Yesterday, I listened to Mr. Gerard Guinan, general secretary of PDFORRA, outline the extent of this crisis at the PDFORRA annual conference in Castlebar, County Mayo. He spoke of how the Minister of State had given a strong commitment to PDFORRA that the strength of the Defence Forces would not fall below the level of 9,500. I am disappointed to say that this commitment has fallen 600 short such that the current strength of the Defence Forces is 8,900. Members are walking away from the Defence Forces in droves. This year, 173 of them paid a large amount of money to walk away from the Defence Forces. In 2017, over 700 people left the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces are in crisis. PDFORRA recognises this crisis and the wives and partners of Defence Forces members recognise it is a crisis but, unfortunately, the Minister of State and the Government refuse to accept it. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange for the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to come to the House for a discussion on this important issue.
Yesterday, two reports on the North-South interconnector were published, one of which examined the technical feasibility of undergrounding the cables while the other examined compensation levels for those affected. I am not surprised at the outcome as I have spoken in this House on several occasions about the credibility of these two reports. As far as the three affected counties - Monaghan, Cavan and Meath - are concerned the credibility of EirGrid and the Department on this issue is in tatters. I call on the four Ministers currently living within those three counties to listen to what the local people are saying. As far as they are concerned, there will be no pylons built on their lands. I plead with the Ministers concerned to listen to the people and to bring their views back to their Cabinet colleagues.
I thank all Senators who raised issues on the Order of Business. Senator Ardagh raised the issue of crime and highlighted a number of worrying statistics, particularly in the area of sexual offences. They are frightening statistics, as far as I am concerned. I do not know when mandatory sentencing will be introduced but it is something in which I would be very interested. I agree with Senator Ardagh that it is necessary. The Senator also expressed sympathy to the family of a lady who was killed tragically in her constituency. We all extend our sympathies to the family concerned.
Senator Lawless raised the important issue of organisations that support the Irish diaspora abroad and he spoke very eloquently about the services that they provide to many vulnerable people and, in particular, the undocumented. There is great uncertainty among the undocumented in the US under the Trump Administration, which is very worrying for individuals on a daily basis. It is vital that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade increases the funding to those worthwhile organisations.
Senator Conway-Walsh and others raised the issue of the Good Friday Agreement. We are all at one in that regard. As stated by Senator Ó Donnghaile, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have been very strong on the issue. Ms Arlene Foster, MLA, and her hard core DUP supporters are on a solo run. Nobody on the island of Ireland supports what she said. The Good Friday Agreement is internationally recognised as having been a success and it is not up for negotiation.
Senator Ruane raised the housing crisis. Homelessness is one of the greatest challenges facing this Government.
It goes without saying that nobody wants to see people homeless. That is why there is a massive social housing programme under way at the moment. Under Project Ireland 2040 the Government is committed to providing 100,000 new social homes over the next decade. Since 2016 more than 15,000 new social homes have been provided. We are on track to have almost 8,000 new social homes provided this year, 9,500 in 2019, 11,000 in 2020 and more than 12,000 in 2021 and we are committed to keeping the level of new social home provision at 12,000 per annum thereafter. This is a level of social housing provision that is unprecedented in recent decades. It is obviously very much needed and something to which the Government is committed. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is working with local authorities to bring a number of additional hubs on stream in 2018, details of which will become available as projects are finalised by housing authorities. Given the continuing numbers of families presenting to homeless services, as well as the continuing use of hotels, early in January the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government commenced a rapid hub programme that will see additional family places added to existing hubs. Family hubs offer families living arrangements with a greater level of stability. All of the indicators are now showing some improvement but obviously it is still a monumental challenge and one which the Government is committed to meeting.
Senator Kevin Humphreys raised the related issue of regulating Airbnb. It is my understanding that an announcement will be made in that regard in a number of weeks. I was in touch with the Minister about that very issue yesterday and while he did not give me an exact timeframe, he said that there are variables relevant to the budget which he is trying to work out. I would expect an announcement very soon but if I get anything more concrete on that, I will pass it on to Senator Humphreys who has been raising this issue consistently in the House.
Senator Lombard raised the issue of beef prices and the beef forum that is taking place today. He spoke of how much commercial enterprises control the food environment including in the fruit and vegetable and tillage sectors. Food production in so many areas is very much commercially driven. Labelling is important, not just from the perspective of knowing the source of food but also in terms of knowing who got what along the way. That would be very helpful because some supermarkets drive down the prices so much that it is just not sustainable for producers to continue producing.
Senator Murnane O'Connor referred to the leaving certificate and the State Examinations Commission. I was also shocked to see that the case involving a student from Wexford went as far as it did and that she had to go to the High Court. It is simply not good enough. Senator McDowell also raised the homelessness issue and the supply of social and affordable housing. His point was highly appropriate and I have already addressed the issue in my response to Senator Ruane. Senator McFadden raised the issue of young people in State care. She spoke about those leaving State care at 18 being put out on the street, which is appalling. It raises the question as to how we handle that type of situation and what guidance those young people are given as they approach their 18th birthday. It would be worthwhile having a debate in the House on the matter with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone. I will ask the Leader to arrange such a debate sooner rather than later.
Senator Gavan raised the issue of childcare, on which I have done some work in recent years. It is an issue that comes up all of the time because parents are finding it very difficult to afford childcare. It is regrettable that on the last occasion there was an increase in the minimum wage, the cost was passed on to those who were procuring childcare services. At the end of the day, childcare is one of the worst paid sectors and getting the balance right is difficult. It is an area that has been neglected traditionally. In fairness to Fine Gael, it was the first party in government to put in place a dedicated Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Progress has been made in the area but I and many of my Fine Gael colleagues would agree that a lot more needs to be done. Obviously there is a balance to be struck between the rights of workers and those who need childcare services. I hope the Minister will be mindful of that when increasing childcare supports. Hopefully there will be some positive announcements in that Department in the budget.
Senator Feighan raised the issue of Brexit and Páirc na hÉireann. I agree with his comments on the latter. It does seem like a very worthwhile organisation that is deserving of support. It is very supportive of the Irish in the UK, in the same way as similar organisations are supportive of the Irish in the US, as outlined by Senator Lawless. Senator Davitt raised a couple of issues, including homelessness which I have already covered. On rural Ireland, it must be remembered that there is a Minister for Rural and Community Development which demonstrates the Government's commitment to rural Ireland. If we manage to curb the trend towards urbanisation, we will be the first country in the world to do so but that is not to say that we should not be trying to ensure that rural areas are well supported. The co-operative idea is a good one and if money is available in the budget for that, it should be supported.
Senator Boyhan referred to Multiple Sclerosis, MS, Ireland and I congratulate him on organising an event in the AV room today. I agree that €600,000 does not seem to be a lot to continue that service and I hope that the current level of funding will be maintained in the upcoming budget. Senator Mulherin raised the issue of pay equality for medical consultants, which is a huge issue. She referred to the fact that some locum doctors are being paid more than consultants who qualified after a certain date. It is a very hard pill to swallow for people who have so many choices internationally in terms of where they can work. It is no wonder that we are finding it difficult to retain consultants, especially those at a certain qualification level.
Senator Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of the three-school campus in Buncrana. He gave a very articulate explanation of how that situation has evolved. While I cannot comment on it, I will relay the Senator's concerns to the Minister when I meet him later at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting. I am sure the Senator's concern is shared by the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy McHugh, who would also be keen to see the meeting referred to by the Senator taking place. I will certainly relay Senator MacLochlainn's desire for the meeting to take place as soon as possible to the Minister. It seems entirely reasonable that the Donegal Members of the Oireachtas would ask for such a meeting.
Senator Swanick asked about the status of his Lifesaving Equipment Bill, which sounds like very good legislation. I will find out when that Bill is due to come before the House and ask the Leader's office to respond to the Senator on that. It is a difficult crime to understand and is probably mostly perpetrated by vandals who do not know any better. Certainly, promoting a greater awareness of the harm caused by damage to lifesaving equipment would be a good idea, in tandem with legislation like that referred to by Senator Swanick.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of the forthcoming blasphemy referendum. It is important to say that if it was not being held with the presidential election, it would cost considerably more. While it may not be a day to day problem in most people's lives, many people feel that it would be preferable for it not to be in the Constitution. Elderly care is another issue which Senator Mullen raised in the context of the publication of a report on the matter. It is an important issue and one which we should debate in the House. Indeed, it is too serious an issue not to be discussed in more depth with the Minister in this House as soon as possible. All of us abhor the findings of the report, much of which was so difficult to read. Senator Mullen is right to raise it in this House and I will suggest to the Leader that we have a debate on it sooner rather than later.
Senator Conway raised the plain English initiative. Lawyers and many other professionals are guilty in this regard because they believe that if they express something in verbose language, they will sound like they know what they are talking about whereas there is a greater skill in being able to put across a complicated idea in simple language that people can understand. In that sense, the initiative is worth highlighting. Senator Conway also raised the issue of gazumping which I thought was illegal. If not, clearly it should be and I suggest that the Senator consider drafting legislation on the matter.
Senator Ó Donnghaile referred to the Good Friday Agreement and the Brexit negotiations. We should have a debate on Brexit - possibly with a discussion on the Good Friday Agreement. It would be timely. It never seems as though we are going to be finished with or tired of discussing Brexit because it is just so important to us. A further debate on the issue in the next few weeks would be a good idea.
Senator Gallagher referred to the Defence Forces. The Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces has described what is happening as a challenge, not a crisis. Nevertheless, there are significant problems. I think the Minister for Defence should come to the Seanad to discuss this issue. Senator McFadden tabled a Commencement matter in respect of this issue last week and I know that, along with Senator Craughwell, she raises it consistently. It is something we should discuss in the House in the near future. It is an issue that will not go away and that clearly needs to be dealt with.