Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 6 Mar 2019

Vol. 264 No. 4

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Radio Broadcasting

Community and local radio stations play an important role in this country by providing information, giving local news and dealing with issues as they arise in the community. They give opportunities to people to express views and while Members may not agree with them, there is freedom of expression in this country. It is important that there should be a fair and balanced approach to how local radio stations are funded and to the levies imposed on them. There is a need to ensure they continue to provide a service and that radio stations are not on such tight budgets that they do not have the opportunity to do research on issues in their own areas or come forward with positive ways of progressing the issues that arise.

A report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment in November 2017, concerning the future funding of public service broadcasting, was debated in the Dáil on 29 March 2018. I need some clarification as to how the Government sees this matter progressing and how it proposes to deal with the issue independent broadcasters have raised.

I was asked by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Richard Bruton, to address the House to clarify the current position regarding the proposed amendments to the broadcasting levy.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is understood throughout this House that local and national radio contribute an enormous amount to our society, not only by creating jobs and supporting businesses but by being an invaluable cog in the wheel of our democracy. My own local radio station, Louth Meath Radio or LMFM, is listened to and enjoyed by thousands of people every day, provides an invaluable service and holds us accountable. We have all had lively debates on our local radio stations and they are part of the democratic system.

The Government recognises that independent journalism, pursuing truth in the public interest, is an essential component of democratic accountability and any threat to the viability of the independent radio sector, where many prominent journalists are located or began their careers, has the potential to cause serious damage to our democratic processes. Commercial radio revenues have significantly declined in recent years and the Government notes that the ability of independent radio broadcasters to invest in uniquely Irish content is dependent on their ability to generate sustainable revenue in an environment where online social media and search engine platforms are taking a larger percentage of such revenue.

Regarding the broadcasting levy, it is the Government’s intention to allocate funding to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, from television licence receipts. The current proposal is that this would provide up to a maximum of 50% of the annual cost of the BAI levy, in turn reducing the levy burden on broadcasters by up to 50%. It also proposes to give the BAI greater flexibility to grant exemptions, deferrals or reductions in the levy for individual broadcasters or classes of broadcaster. This cannot, however, take place until the broadcasting (amendment) Bill containing these amendments is enacted. While I appreciate that this Bill is highly anticipated by the independent broadcasting sector, as well as many in this House and elsewhere, due to the complex nature of matters contained in this Bill, it is also of the utmost importance that proper due diligence is done and that it is robust. It is for this reason that it is currently still in the advanced drafting stage with the Parliamentary Counsel. I would also like to take this opportunity to caution that the BAI will still be required to make a revised levy order after the enactment of this Bill and, as such, any reduction will not be immediate.

It is expected that the Bill will be finalised and published in quarter 2 of this year, at which point it will then be brought through the legislative process in these Houses. In addition, to support local and community radio the Bill contains proposed amendments to the provisions of section 154 to allow for the creation of a new funding scheme that provides for the granting of bursaries to journalists in local or community radio stations. Independent radio stations have benefitted from the BAI sound and vision scheme. Funded from the licence fee, the scheme provided more than €494,000 to 77 different radio projects for broadcast on independent commercial stations in 2018.

I thank the Senators for the opportunity to discuss this issue. It is in the best interests of the State and our democracy that independent national and local radio is facilitated to invest and to continue to represent the interests of communities. That is why the Government has committed to the reduction of the current levy on independent broadcasters. The reduction in the levy will allow the independent broadcasting sector to continue its work informing the citizens of our nation, holding the institutions of State to account and creating a forum for healthy debate. Local radio, in particular, ensures that individuals and communities in isolated areas are catered for with tailored public service content. The onset of Storm Emma last year was an obvious example of when these stations came to the fore in providing local weather updates and keeping communities informed of road closures and service provision. The Department is engaging with the Parliamentary Counsel to ensure that the changes being made to the legislation are progressed and that the necessary assistance is provided to this vitally important sector.

I thank the Minister of State for a comprehensive reply. I hope this matter will be dealt with at an early date and that the issues which local and community radio stations have raised will be dealt with as soon as possible.

The Minister is very much aware of the urgency of this and we hope the legislation will be moved through the Houses and enacted as soon as possible.

EU Migration Crisis

The EU's deal with Libya is "sentencing refugees to death". They are not my words, but those of Irish journalist, Sally Hayden, who has been reporting for al-Jazeera on the situation in Libya for several months now. The Minister and the Government are part of that deal. With the support of the EU, in February 2017 Italy and Libya signed a deal to stem the flow of migrants from north Africa to Italy. According to the deal, costing tens of millions of euro, Italy and the EU were to provide support for the Libyan coastguard while authorities in Tripoli would stop people from leaving its shores for Europe. The EU, presumably including Ireland, pays large sums to Libya to take care of the problems so that we do not have to see these people or worry about them. In turn, they are imprisoned, sold, tortured, raped, mutilated and killed. They are imprisoned in conditions where they speak of going days without food and drinking toilet water to survive.

Some have stopped speaking. They have forgotten their families. According to witnesses, they sit crouched in a corner and wet themselves from trauma. It is estimated that 640 children are suffering in these conditions. In one centre, Triq al Sikka, infected detainees are locked with others in a dark room and have been repeatedly left without tuberculosis medication, in one case for more than a month. Last October, a 28-year-old Somali set himself on fire and burned to death after saying he saw no other way out.

On Monday of last week, Channel 4 News led with a story of horrific torture meted out to migrants who had been sold by smugglers to the Libyan coastguard. The film showed Eritreans being tortured, having hot molten plastic applied to their backs and having concrete blocks placed on their backs while they lay in chains on the floor, screaming in pain. The reason this is happening is the criminals that have taken these men and women hope to extort large sums from their families in Eritrea. Earlier this week, as many as 30 refugees and migrants in Libya, including minors, are believed to have been brought to an underground cell and tortured for breaking out and holding a protest. An estimated 150 male detainees escaped on Tuesday from the main cell in Tripoli's Triq al Sikka detention centre where some have been held for more than a year.

Last month, more than 50 human rights organisations, including Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières, wrote an open letter stating, "EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes". I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. I appreciate that she will have a scripted response, but I ask her to address them. Is our Government making a financial contribution under permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, to the funding of this disgusting abuse of human rights? As a supporter of PESCO, does the Government accept any responsibility for this shameful EU deal? Have ships of the Irish Naval Service provided support to the discredited Libyan coastguard? Have Irish Naval Service ships handed migrants over to the Libyan coastguard? Will the Minister of State condemn this shameful EU deal and the ongoing funding of the totally discredited Libyan authorities? Will she call for an end to the EU's financial support for the Libyan coastguard? How many migrants trapped in these death camps has the Government offered asylum to? Will the Minister of State call for and take a lead on a policy of active placement of these migrants in the European Union and ensure that the death camps are closed? Finally, when will the Minister of State and her EU colleagues heed the call of humanitarian agencies such as Médecins sans Frontières for these refugees and migrants to be released and moved to safety?

I thank the Senator for raising what he has rightly described as a serious and important issue. We are all troubled by the persistent and ongoing human rights abominations taking place not only in Libya but in many other places as well. I have a script but I will answer the questions. Some of the answers are contained in my prepared response, but it is important to highlight a number of important issues. First and foremost, the instability at both national and regional level in Libya has meant that for many years the country has been a destination for migrants. It has become a major transit country. Adding to the complication for us and for the European Union as a whole is that no single government has had control over Libya since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi. Currently, there are a number of competing governments in Libya, none of which has control of more than one portion of the territory. It is the main point of embarkment for irregular migration along the central Mediterranean route from north Africa to Europe, with people smugglers exploiting the unstable situation to ply their trade for their own gains, as the Senator has identified. The precariousness of the humanitarian, economic and security situation complicates the EU's engagements with the Libyan authorities. This includes the issue of migration. The conditions in detention centres, as the Senator outlined, are appalling.

EU support for Libya is primarily provided through the EU emergency trust fund for Africa. Support to the Libyan coastguard is included in the €91.3 million programme of support to the integrated border and migration management programme. The programme provides training, including in human rights and in equipment, especially communications and rescue equipment, as well as the development of institutional capacity. The programme also aims to ensure that the Libyan authorities themselves comply with human rights standards in the search and rescue operations. Through the trust fund, country-level funding totalling €282 million has been approved for Libya to date. The EU is actively working to provide protection, assistance and alternatives to migrants, refugees, internally displaced people and host communities in different locations inside Libya, in particular inside detention centres, at disembarkation points and in urban settings.

At the same time, the EU recognises that conditions in these detention centres are a matter of great concern and this informs the approach taken in designing programmes funded through the trust fund. Funded actions in detention centres run by the Libyan Department for Combating Illegal Migration have a twofold focus. These actions aim to improve conditions for detainees, which the Senator outlined, and to assist detainees with voluntary humanitarian repatriation to their countries of origin. Key partners are the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, with which we work closely, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. The trust fund supports the provision of emergency medical care and life-saving services to detained migrants. This includes psycho-social support. Support is provided for improving sanitary and hygiene conditions, including the provision of toilets, showers, storage facilities and distribution capacity for drinking water, sewerage systems and the distribution of essential non-food items to detainees.

While many inhumane actions are taking place, the funding we provide and much of the work we do through these organisations aims to ensure this money gets to the people that need it. The trust fund also supports the provision of human rights and protection training for detention centre personnel. These people are given a clear mandate to support and work with those who need their help. Regarding voluntary humanitarian repatriation, the trust fund works in close cooperation with the IOM in helping migrants both inside and outside detention centres to return to their countries of origin.

Regarding Ireland's position in all of this, we have committed to paying €15 million between 2016 and 2020. That increased from €3 million to 15 million last year. This supports initiatives across the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, the Lake Chad region and north Africa. To date, funding of more than €530 million has been approved through the north of Africa window, of which Libya accounts for approximately 53%.

Irish participation in Operation Sophia was approved in by the Government and by both Houses of the Oireachtas. The participation of LE Niamh in Operation Sophia between October and December 2017 represented the first involvement by the Naval Service in a multilateral security operation under a UN mandate. In February 2018, the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia. This involved a total of two naval vessels deployed consecutively from 15 April to 27 October 2018. In addition, a total of five members of the Defence Forces were deployed in the operation's headquarters during 2018 and to date in 2019. Operation Sophia is mandated to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting the smugglers' business model, which the Senator has referred to. I must be clear in pointing out that at no point in these rescue missions or during the work undertaken under Operation Sophia have any of the migrants rescued by Naval Service vessels been returned to Libya. They are disembarked at an Italian port.

A number of articles outline the structure of PESCO and our connection with it. Article 42 of the treaty clearly outlines that it shall not affect the provisions of Article 43, which is the basis on which Operation Sophia is taking place. When we joined PESCO, we were clear in outlining our own mandate as a neutral country and, most important, where we wanted to focus our priorities. To date, we have taken part in two programmes under PESCO. One concerns maritime surveillance and the other is a training mission competence centre in Mali where we have 20 troops. Our involvement in PESCO is separate to, and independent of, Operation Sophia.

However, as outlined, none of the migrants who have been rescued and taken on board the Naval Service vessels has been returned to Libya. They have been returned to the Italian coastguard. We are working with the International Organization for Migration and the UNCHR and co-operating with the High Representative, Ms Federica Mogherini. The purpose of all of the funding we are providing is to ensure that those who are most in need of support receive it. I acknowledge that there is still a great deal of work to do and that serious human rights violations are taking place. All we can do is to continue working with these organisations and those on the ground, as well as with journalists who are giving us this information. I greatly respect the work of the journalists on the ground in ensuring these difficult cases are highlighted. However, we must ensure we provide financial support and assistance and do everything we can to support the people who need it.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I welcome her confirmation that our naval forces are not handing people over to the heinous regime in Libya. I heard first-hand testimony from Sea-Watch in the Council of Europe about just how appalling the Libyan coastguard is. However, the fundamental problem remains. We are funding organisations such as the Libyan authorities and its coastguard, which are nothing less than gangsters carrying out the most horrendous of human rights abuses. The clear solution to the Libyan crisis, which is not simple, is to evacuate the camps and place the 6,000 people who are in them. Done across 27 countries, that would only amount to 200 people per country. The Government should take a lead on this. To be honest, we have not done enough. I will conclude by quoting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." This issue matters enormously and the Government has not yet called for an ending of funding to the Libyan coastguard. Surely, as a matter of urgency, our Government must do that.

As the Senator rightly said, this is an extremely complex issue. Libya needs a functioning coastguard to protect its coasts and rescue people in danger at sea. It is absolutely unacceptable that those who are supposed to be working with and supporting these migrants might not be doing so. I call on the Libyan coastguard and authorities to ensure they adhere to international law at all times and where there are violations of human rights that these are addressed. We must ensure that there is oversight of the detention centres. There is some oversight at present but it needs to be greatly expanded and significant improvements are required given the financial supports and assistance we are providing. All parties, including those with de facto control of the territory, also have responsibility to ensure we adhere to international laws at all times. We need to ensure they take responsibility for trying to eliminate the ill treatment of migrants at all times and to facilitate access by the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations to the detention centres in order that we can reach the people who need support. I assure the Senator again that we are doing everything to ensure the financial support we provide gets to the people who need it. Our naval vessels and missions are operating in the most humane manner. They are protecting and rescuing people at sea, not returning them to the Libyan coastguard.

Ireland has always opted in when it comes to taking in migrants. We have not been mandated to do so but where there have been issues with particular vessels not being allowed to dock or migrants not being allowed to disembark, we have taken in many of the migrants affected. We have always worked with other member states and will continue to do so, whether it is specifically with navy vessels or otherwise.

Ambulance Service Provision

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be here. We all know and appreciate the great work the ambulance service does on behalf of all of us, sometimes in very trying and difficult circumstances. It is disappointing that 500 ambulance service personnel who belong to the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, are currently in industrial dispute with the Health Service Executive, HSE. Last week saw two days of strike action where the stations were picketed. The trade union is looking for something quite simple, on the face of it. All it seeks is the right for workers to join a union of their choice. rather than have one imposed upon them by the HSE. The HSE's position is difficult to understand as it has recognised the Psychiatric Nurses Association as a licensed trade union since 2010. However, it has now decided no longer to do so. This is one of the reasons for the dispute. Mr. Peter Hughes of the PNA has written to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, asking him to personally intervene. The PNA has been in contact with the HSE on a number of occasions but the HSE has refused to engage with the Workplace Relations Commission. I wait to hear from the Minister of State whether the Minister will personally intervene in this case so that the dispute can be resolved. It does not appear to be a serious dispute which would be difficult to resolve. I implore the Minister to intervene.

The other issue relates to ambulance personnel on duty, particularly in the north-east region. Last week, for example, in the nine ambulance stations across the north east, 22 staff were rostered for duty. Unfortunately, only 12 staff, in most cases on a single basis, were rostered on. That meant that in Castleblayney, for example, where there should have been two staff on duty for an ambulance, only one was rostered. One person alone cannot take out an ambulance with the exception of cases of cardiac arrest. However, for all other call-outs, they cannot move alone. This is a serious problem. People in County Monaghan have experienced cases where ambulance response times had devastating consequences for the families involved. People fear that the chronic shortage of ambulance personnel means that a serious accident would see such a delay that it would have serious consequences for those involved. Part of the problem is the introduction of a new system of rostering by the HSE. The six new staff members that were promised to fill the gaps have not materialised and this has caused great angst among the general public. When the hospital was removed off call, County Monaghan was promised a top class ambulance service as a means of replacing the lost services. Unfortunately that has not proved to be the case. Based on the statistics I read this morning, Monaghan has a serious problem with ambulance cover. I hope the Minister of State will give some solace to the people of Monaghan and the north east generally that this problem will be alleviated sooner rather than later.

I thank Senator Gallagher for the opportunity to address this matter today. Industrial action was taken last Thursday, 28 February, and Friday, 1 March, between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. by a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association called the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA. The HSE has not being advised of any further days of action.

By way of background, NASRA represents approximately 350 front-line ambulance personnel out of a total National Ambulance Service workforce of 1,800. I understand that most are mainly based in Cork, the south east and Tullamore. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have confirmed that robust contingency planning was again in place last week to ensure there was no risk to the health and safety of health service users despite this escalation in action. This escalation by the union to two consecutive days of industrial dispute was an increased challenge. The HSE has confirmed that full emergency cover was provided during the action. This means that all emergency calls were responded to. The Department of Defence made crewed ambulances available and a number of these were deployed. National Ambulance Service management closely monitored service demand and delivery on the days of the industrial action. The service has confirmed that there was no negative impact on the ability of the service to provide patient care and service delivery.

It is important to restate the factual position in respect of this dispute. NASRA, which is affiliated with the PNA, is a group which is not recognised by the HSE and which, therefore, does not have negotiating rights. In addition, the PNA does not have negotiating rights for ambulance personnel. The legal position is very clear. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service have no obligation to recognise NASRA or the PNA in the context of ambulance personnel. The PNA, which is a not affiliated to ICTU, does have negotiating rights for nurses working in psychiatry and intellectual disability sectors. The main union that is recognised by the HSE for ambulance front-line grades is SIPTU. Fórsa and Unite also represent ambulance grades. The HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff who are members of SIPTU, Fórsa and Unite. This is consistent with the fact that these are the unions that are recognised as representing ambulance grades. The HSE does not carry out deductions for subscriptions to NASRA because it is not recognised.

It should be noted that facilitating deductions at source is not a legal right; rather, it is a concession granted to recognised unions. Of course, individuals have a right to membership of any trade union. They do not, however, have a right that such membership is facilitated or recognised by their employer. The Minister stated in the Dáil on 13 February that he would ask his officials to engage with HSE management to explore ways forward and to see if a resolution to this dispute can be progressed. These discussions are still ongoing. Any recognition of the PNA in respect of ambulance personnel could have a serious and detrimental effect on the current state of industrial relations in the health sector. This is a complicated situation which must be managed very delicately.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I note the comment to the effect that "The Minister stated in the Dáil on 13 February that he would ask his officials to engage." I understand that this has not happened yet. Perhaps the Minister of State might chase that up for me today in order to ensure that it does happen.

The other issue is ambulance cover in the north east generally and the lack of manpower there. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could perhaps assist in organising a meeting with the ambulance personnel responsible for that area in order that we might give some comfort to the people of the north east, particularly County Monaghan, that there is adequate and sufficient ambulance cover there to cater for all needs and eventualities.

I will be happy to pass on both of the Senator's requests to the Minister.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.