Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 23 Oct 2019

Vol. 267 No. 14

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the HSE capital plan for 2019, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude at 4 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than six minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4 p.m., with the time allocated not to exceed two hours; No. 3, Family Law Bill 2019 - All Stages, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, with the contribution of group spokespersons on Second Stage not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and Committee and Remaining States to be taken immediately thereafter; and No. 4, motion for the earlier signature of the Family Law Bill 2019, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 3.

At 12.45 p.m. we will have tributes to our former colleague and friend, Senator Feargal Quinn, who died recently. I propose that contributions of Members of the House do not exceed six minutes.

Is that agreed? Agreed. Before I call on Senator Swanick, I welcome the school group from Tralee, who are in the Public Gallery. They are from the county capital, while I am from the tourism capital.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency's 57 air quality monitoring stations found that while air quality in this country is below EU limits, it is above the stricter World Health Organization air quality limits for fine particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. The introduction of a nationwide ban on bituminous or smoky coal was promised by the Government back in 2017, but it is being held up due to threats of legal action by suppliers. Since the introduction of the smoky coal ban in Dublin in 1990 by Mary Harney, it is estimated that a staggering 8,200 deaths have been prevented in the capital. A number of councils around the country are taking independent action on air pollution to protect their communities and are tabling motions to ban smoky coal in their areas. Sarah O'Connor, CEO of the Asthma Society of Ireland, stated last month:

Air pollution is a public health concern, with potentially harmful effects on all. Children face even higher risks, both to their health and to their development. Those with chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma are particularly vulnerable.

One in 13 adults and one in ten children in Ireland have asthma. The rate of deaths from asthma, contrary to international trends, are on the rise, up from 39 deaths in 2012 to a staggering 63 deaths in 2016. Three separate Ministers have dealt with this issue, which is not confined to one party. It warrants cross-party support as it is an important health and climate issue. To that end, I would be grateful if the Leader would arrange a debate on the matter in the coming weeks.

Fianna Fáil tentatively welcomes the fact that an agreement was reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom on the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. While the agreement is preferable to a no-deal Brexit, if it is passed it will nevertheless represent a hard Brexit, with the backstop provided for in the previous agreement removed and replaced with a rolling consent mechanism. However, despite an agreement being reached between the EU and the Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, the latter has decided to pause the withdrawal Bill due to the decision of MPs not to vote in favour of the timeframe set aside for the Bill. Fianna Fáil favours an extension to Article 50 if it avoids a no-deal Brexit and, amid the ongoing uncertainty and political chaos in Westminster, we will continue to act responsibly, to provide certainty and stability, and to put Ireland's interest first.

I encourage everybody to avail of the seasonal flu vaccination. Flu is a very serious condition.

Over 1,000 people die from influenza in Ireland every year. Every winter, influenza is responsible for more than 4,800 admissions to our acute hospital sector at great cost to the health service. Young people also die from influenza. I encourage those in at-risk groups, namely, those over 65 years and those with a chronic disease, as well as carers, to attend their GP or pharmacist to avail of the flu vaccine.

I echo Senator Swanick's points about the flu inoculation. On my way to the House, I picked up my form and will follow his advice, which is always very careful, to get the jab.

I have had it already.

The Land Development Agency Bill has not yet been seen in these Houses. It is a matter of considerable worry to many that this body is claimed to have been established even though the legislation for its existence has not yet been passed. As I travel through this city every day, I see student residence buildings running up rapidly all around. I see hotels being built everywhere. I have no doubt that tax incentives lie behind the student accommodation boom. However, there seems to be little or nothing happening in the city centre in respect of building living accommodation for ordinary people who want to live and work here. I am not making a partisan point. I want the Leader to know I am not trying to score any points. I am merely saying that we must have this dealt with as an emergency. Homelessness is an emergency, high rents are an emergency and the amount of money being poured into landlords' pockets in inflated rents through HAP is an emergency issue. The shortage of decent accommodation is an emergency and it should be dealt with as such. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come to the House for a reasonable discussion with Members as to when we can envisage this legislation being brought through the Houses and how the agency will deal with the matter. The market does not work.

It has never worked in building any city anywhere in the world. The market has never worked.

And this is coming from the right wing.

The Custom House should be aware that one cannot rely on the market. No great city was ever built by market forces alone and no housing crisis of the kind we have will be dealt with by the market alone. That is a different matter.

I refer to Senator Swanick's remarks on the EU and where it is going. There is very little the Irish Government can be seen to do at this stage without opening itself to the accusation of interfering in English domestic politics. If one looks at the Theresa May deal and the Boris Johnson deal, one should not be under any illusion but that trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is going to be adversely affected by the measures proposed. I am not relying on my own instinct in relation to that. I have listened to BBC radio and some of their economic, industrial and business organisations are expressing concerns about that. Whereas some in Ireland may think this is the DUP getting its just desserts, if one wants Northern Ireland to prosper, as we all in our hearts do for without prosperity there will be very little chance of reconciliation, the so-called "compromise" worked out is worse for Northern Ireland than the original deal the DUP opposed and brought down by its alliance with the European Research Group. It is not as if the new arrangements for Northern Ireland are good for the North. They are not. The DUP must share part of the blame for that while we should recognise the truth that this is not an ideal outcome.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach apologised to women and families affected by the operation of the cervical screening programme. Certainly, I welcome that apology and it was welcomed by those who were most affected. However, those words must be followed by action. We saw yesterday also that another seriously ill woman is being dragged through the courts. While the State must fight different claims, the Taoiseach promised that these women would not be dragged through the courts. I ask the Government to stop immediately and for the Taoiseach to fulfil the promises he made.

Dr. Scally said there was a complete failure from top to bottom in the cervical screening programme and that some women and their relatives were treated appallingly. The Leader knows as we do that the State has failed these women and that the outsourcing of smear tests has played a role in the scandal. There must be collective Cabinet responsibility for the decision made to outsource cervical screening in the first place. The name of the person in charge was mentioned earlier. What bothers me is the question of whether it could happen now. Could there be a collective Cabinet decision again where there is medical advice? One clinician resigned at the time because he felt so strongly and he predicted exactly what would happen. The decision made around that table was a fatal one for these women and their families.

We need to see additional funding to ensure the recommendations of the MacCraith and Scally reports are implemented. I was disappointed that the budget did not include a ring-fenced sum prior to the apology for cervical screening. We need to have screening repatriated. We need to have control. We need to reverse the bad decision that was made. We cannot let any other women down as we let Emma Mhic Mhathúna and Vicky Phelan down. We must assure women that our screening process is safe, reliable and fit for purpose. We must fix it and fix it fast.

We sometimes make the greatest mistake of thinking a public or State apology means everything is okay and the doors are closed. However, we have far to go to generate confidence in the cervical screening process. We must do that with actions rather than words. I thank the brave women and their families, including Emma Mhic Mhathúna and Vicky Phelan, Stephen Teap and his wife, Irene, who had the courage and determination to speak out and for others. We must not let them down. We must ensure the journey they started when they spoke out and their actions make a difference and that we make them count.

There has been a fundamental change in the building programme of the Department of Education and Skills. The previous Government had, rightly, started to look forward at future demand for school places. It looked at census figures and children's allowance claims and started to develop a programme to build schools so that they would be in place in time for young people to start in education.

Unfortunately, a frightening development has emerged in that a developing school is required to have 281 students for a 11-class teacher school while a developed school is only required to have 276 pupils. Those different schools do not have the same pressure in terms of enrolment numbers. A developing school that has recently opened that is striving to develop its student cohort would be under excessive pressure.

A local school, Shellybanks school in Sandymount, located not far from my home, which has moved into brand new prefabs has a fire safety certificate to have 33 pupils in each classroom. The Department, in its wisdom, decided to reduce its teacher allocation by one, which means the pupils in one class will have to go into several other classrooms but that will put the school dangerously close to breaching its fire safety certificate. The pupils in one of its classes are being spread across several classrooms. If a teacher is absent, the principal no longer has the flexibility to spread the pupils in that class across a number of classrooms, which would result in a number of pupils being sent home on the day or the school being closed. That is simply not sustainable.

I planned to propose an amendment to the Order of Business asking the Minister for Education and Skills to come into the Seanad today to examine if consideration can be given to providing flexibility in that regard, not only with respect to the Shellybanks school, but every developing school across the country, as they are under particular pressure as they develop. I will put forward an amendment to the Order of Business in that regard.

I commend Senator Swanick on raising the issue of air quality. He is correct in highlighting it is an issue not only in Dublin but in small towns across the country where dirty coal has not been banned. Exhaust pollution from diesel engines poses a particular problem in our cities.

Is the Senator proposing to move that amendment to the Order of Business today?

I am moving that amendment today.

Will the Senator clarify his amendment?

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Minister for Education and Skills would come into the House today to discuss that issue.

To spell out what?

To spell out the way developing schools are being treated compared with established schools with respect to pupil-teacher allocations.

I am sorry for not being clear enough on that.

We have already exceeded the limits set in the World Health Organization's air quality standards, particularly in terms of exhaust pollution from diesel engines. My information is that we will exceed the European standards in January with respect to those limits. There is no question of our exceeding them, that is definite. I have talked to the Environmental Protection Agency about its additional monitoring. We are already in breach of those standards. The data on that has just not been delivered. We will be open to hundreds of millions of euro in fines from the EU as standards have been laid down. We need to move quickly on this issue. I welcome the raising of the issue today.

What Senator McDowell said about the housing crisis is correct. I am delighted he is moving closer to Berlin than Boston in his economic outlook because it is very true that-----

Where is Victor going?

-----one cannot build communities, houses and cities-----

-----by having only a market economy.

The Senator will be going forward for election.

I call Senator O'Reilly.

I firmly believe the school meals programme, particularly hot school meals, is extraordinarily important for students' general nutrition, personal development, general well-being and also for learning. While it is an intervention to provide for children in more vulnerable situations insofar as the country can afford it, it should be a priority to extend that programme. It is not necessarily only the students in the traditional disadvantaged schools that need this programme. There can be a real need for it elsewhere.

The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection took an initiative this year to provide hot school meals in 36 schools that did not have them, with one third of those being DEIS or disadvantaged schools. This will take in 7,200 children. It will cost €1 million this year and €2.5 million in a full year. That is in addition to €57.6 million spent on school meals in general in a given year. I believe that figure should be expanded. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to the House to discuss how the programme could be increased incrementally every year to capture as many schools as possible. As a former teacher and from general observation, I firmly believe it is one of the greatest possible interventions that can be made for young children. It is a direct measure. It is not always by cash payments that we can achieve equality, fairness and societal development.

Sometimes other interventions are much more appropriate and this programme is one of them that is very good.

A related and important measure, but one that is of secondary importance compared with the school meals programme, is the piloting of an idea in which the Taoiseach has a personal interest and which we need to develop further, namely, giving free books to students in schools rather than providing the social welfare support of the free book scheme. That should be examined. Those two interventions would have a major effect and potentially could have a great impact on education. To revert briefly to the school meals programme, it makes for nutritionally healthy and properly developed young people, gives them a quality of life, enhances their personal and holistic development and leaves them in a position to learn. Teachers throughout this country or any country would advise that the greatest obstacle to learning is children who come to school on an empty stomach and remain that way during the day and, in some instances, perhaps have only junk food. That is very sad. I appeal to the Leader to take this up as a serious project. This is the House where these issues should be properly aired. I ask the Leader to also take up the matter of the school book scheme.

The issue of the serious and continuous underfunding of basic public services is one that is raised almost on a monthly basis with local authority members in Monaghan and Cavan and in many parts of rural Ireland. I was contacted recently by a local councillor in the area, Councillor P. J. O'Hanlon, who put forward some figures to clarify how bad the situation is. He told me that based on the current level of funding required to repair footpaths in the Castleblayney-Carrickmacross municipal district, it would take 20 years to carry out the repairs. With respect to the allocation for public lighting, based on current national allocations, it will take 24 years to repair the public lighting required in the Castleblayney-Carrickmacross area. Another councillor in the Ballybay-Clones area, Councillor Séamus Coyle, told me that based on the current levels they would need about €600,000 to carry out the works on the roads that are in bad need of repair but they will only get €130,000 this year to repair the roads network in that area. When one factors in that the cost associated with repairing roads has increased, that indicates the scale of the problem that confronts them.

Apart from the everyday community use of roads, Monaghan is quite unique in that quite a number of small enterprises are located up small boreens, small local roads and off regional roads. In a recent study conducted it was found that the local road network in County Monaghan was one of the worst in the entire country.

I was depressed to hear from councillors in the area generally that when a community is bereaved, the local councillor is contacted and asked if the local authority will fix the potholes for traffic travelling to the wake. This is a sad reflection of how bad the problem in that particular area is and highlights the chronic need for increased funding for public roads and infrastructure in Monaghan, Cavan and many other counties based on the information I get from local authority members. I would welcome it if the Leader would ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House in order that we can emphasise to him the importance of additional funding for counties such as Monaghan and Cavan.

I wish to raise the issue of strategic housing development, SHD, which has been much talked about in the media in the past 24 hours. It involves the fast-track planning of developments involving more than 100 units. We see major implications arising from this. There are implications for the Aarhus Convention in terms of public consultation, access to environmental information, which is set down and directed by the EU, and the principle of subsidiarity. In no democracy in Europe does an independent planning appeals board such as An Bord Pleanála act as judge and jury in its own cause. In effect, what this legislation has done is allow developers who advocate the development of more than 100 units to go direct to An Bord Pleanála thereby bypassing their local authorities, who are the statutory planning authorities. As a result, the citizens in those communities and the city and county councils in those areas do not have any official statutory input into the commentary around these applications, although they may have input on the side. I am not against the development of houses. We need to build more houses and we need higher densities but we must also have regard to existing residential amenity and communities. As politicians, we all know that we have made legitimate representations on behalf of our communities, which is our given right. The removal of a third-party appeal process has serious implications for public participation in decision-making and that is something over which we cannot stand. We should encourage rather than stymie the engagement of communities and local politicians in planning processes.

What is at stake? The SHD scheme is under review by the Minister. He held a public consultation that went on for some months and a report is now sitting on his desk. Ultimately, he must make a decision. I understand - I have yet to receive clarification in this regard - that he may need to come back to the Houses of the Oireachtas in respect of this matter. I do not have exact details on that but I have made some inquiries. I ask that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government be asked to come to the House before he agrees the period for another two years, which is his prerogative that I understand he is considering. He may consider it with some adjustment, which should be encouraged, but the reality is that I do not think it is right that we as elected politicians who support local politicians who are also elected support any system that blocks or curtails their right to engage and advocate on behalf of citizens with regard to the proper planning and sustainable development of their communities. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come to the House to share his rationale for an extension if that is what he is going to do and to listen to our concerns and feedback regarding this scheme before he makes his decision.

I wish to voice my serious concern in response to the data published by the child and adolescent psychiatry surveillance system. This is a surveillance system used in child and adolescent mental health services in the UK and Ireland. Today, we are told that up to 4,000 children and adolescents in this country between the ages of eight to 17 may be suffering from anorexia nervosa. It is clear from the figures that the problem is escalating. The figures have doubled since 2006. I have dealt with a number of families with a child suffering from this condition. I can only describe it as one of a parent's worst nightmares because there is a great feeling of helplessness on the part of the parent as he or she looks on at a child who will not and cannot eat and is damaging not just his or her mental health but his or her physical health in the process. Parents need assistance and support. The escalation of the problem is reflected in the increase in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, provided by the HSE, where there has been a 40% increase in referrals since 2011. Unfortunately, staffing and resources are clearly an issue with only 57% of posts filled compared to the figure recommended by A Vision for Change. I know there is a particular problem with acute services. We sometimes see children admitted to hospital in a critical state and put in paediatric wards beside other ill children. They must be supervised. Getting counselling or dieticians is very difficult. Could we have a debate because this is clearly a societal problem? We hear glib comments about meat in the climate change debate. We must be far more responsible. We know there is a lot of pressure on young people with regard to their self-employment that they pick up from social media. I am not an expert in this field but I feel for the children and young people and their families, as can we all. We need a debate on attitudes to food, recognising symptoms earlier and correcting attitudes that are leading to this terrible condition to give some hope to people that they might learn that there is a way to break through and get over this condition. We must take this terrible affliction very seriously so that we do not lose young people who have their whole lives ahead of them to it.

If Senator Mulherin was in government, she might be able to do something about the insupportable CAMHS waiting lists that are leading to the neglect of our children and their health and well-being but sin scéal eile.

I wish to raise the Shannon LNG project. It is on the list of projects to be confirmed today by the EU. Along with other members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change, we have requested that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment take it off the list so that it is not given the go ahead by the EU because this country does not want it to be given the go ahead. We are taking in fracked gas that has been deemed a major risk to public health. It is now called a stranded asset because the mayor of New York made the very brave decision some years ago because of the evidence of the effect on public health. Senator Swanick spoke about that previously. It has been linked with premature deaths because of the pollution caused by fracking. We are going to take second-grade pollutants all the way from the US, where they constitute a stranded asset. They have looked around to see where they can try to sell it and decided to sell it to Ireland and to that end, to set up a receiving port down in Shannon. I would be most grateful if the Leader could ask the Minister if he is cognisant of the letter to him asking him to remove this project from the list of projects of common interest the EU will decide on today.

The next issue is the failure of Ministers to come to the House to take Commencement matters. We are told at the last minute by email that Ministers will not be attending. This happened to me on two occasions. The Commencement matter I wish to raise focused on the consultant position relating to sarcoma at St. Vincent's University Hospital, which has been left open for 2.5 years, but the Minister for Health has not been available. I also raised this matter in the Seanad on 10 October.

I discussed with the Cathaoirleach the disrespect that is shown to this House when Ministers appear to be hiding. No Minister of State at the Department of Health was available to take the matter. On the last occasion, 10 October, I told the Minister's private secretary that I would prefer the Minister, Deputy Harris, to come to the House to discuss it. I believe the matter was chosen in the belief that he would come to the House, and 9 last night was quite a late time to be told that nobody would be available.

There is no obligation on Ministers, unfortunately.

I wish to comment on Senator Mulherin's contribution regarding anorexia. A debate on that issue would be very appropriate. We have all seen the issues in our communities as a result of it. There is also the issue of getting treatment through the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. That is a worthy debate which we should consider.

I wish to raise a fantastic project that was held in the audiovisual room by the I Wish campaign between 9. a.m. and 10 a.m. today. It is a unique campaign that was set up to encourage women in school to take up the STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - subjects. It has launched a survey and is trying to make us aware of the issues for females taking up science subjects. It is something we should debate with the Minister for Education and Skills. He attended the presentation this morning and it was welcome that he turned up. That 93% of teachers believe that confidence is a problem for the female population in school taking up science subjects is a major issue. We must grapple with it and find a solution. I hope a debate with the Minister in the Seanad would go some way towards setting out a template whereby we can increase female participation in science subjects. It is a worthy debate. I compliment the I Wish campaign. It is a unique campaign to visit the Oireachtas. It brought speakers and fourth year students from throughout the country. Hearing their stories was inspiring. We must move forward on this. We must invite the Minister to the Chamber and afterwards we must put a policy in place to deliver on this.

We seem to have two different rules. We are allowed to serve in the Houses of the Oireachtas when we are aged over 70 years, yet I have a colleague in Carlow who is not allowed to drive a school bus. Bus Éireann operates the school transport scheme and has a system whereby bus drivers who reach the age of 65 years and express a desire to continue to drive can work for a further five years if they pass the medical reviews. However, when they reach 70 years of age, they must retire from that employment. This is ageism and discrimination. A great driver in my constituency of Carlow is particularly aggrieved by this rule.

Will the Leader ask the Minister why this appears to be acceptable in Ireland today? We are living longer and are certainly able to work for longer. The absence of legislation on health checks for public service drivers should be addressed as a means of dealing with this. We must examine ways of allowing people who want to work and are able to work to do so. A person does not reach the rubbish heap in his or her 70th year and we should not make anybody feel that this is the case. It is unfair to have a system in which a person is not allowed to drive a Bus Éireann school bus when he or she reaches the age of 70 years, yet that person can be a Member of the Oireachtas at any age, which is good and welcome. It is not right and we must ensure it is not allowed to happen. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House to address it. I also ask him to bring this matter to the Minister's attention.

I am glad the Senator is not trying to stop any of us driving.

I have just returned from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport at which representatives of the Irish Aviation Authority gave a presentation on the issue of drones near airports. It was clear from the debate that the legislation is only catching up with the development taking place in this area and is way behind what is necessary. We all know there is massive potential for good and that most owners of drones are law abiding, but we are also aware of the havoc caused at Gatwick Airport last December. There was an incident in Dublin Airport last February, and in an incident that took place in Dubai, the cost to the airport and the economy of flights delayed was $86,000 per minute of disruption.

There is an urgent need to fast-track legislation and for greater enforcement and greater penalties to be imposed on those who use drones in a negative and sometimes criminal way. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the House at a convenient time to discuss this and outline the process that must be put in place? It might have only started but it is clear from the discussion this morning that it must be done. Doing nothing or not doing it fast enough is not an option.

To pick up briefly on what Senator McDowell said and the response of Senator Humphreys, it is clear that politicians on all sides have failed to help ordinary people to access the basic requirement of adequate and decent housing. The answer is not to drive down standards but to look creatively at what the State and public agencies can do to solve this problem. Such creative thinking is long overdue. Purely market-driven thinking is not working. I am conscious of conversations I have had recently with housing placement officers in urban county councils and city councils. They told me how desperate it is for people. People in the low to medium income bracket cannot get housing as they cannot afford rents or mortgages. We must continue to debate this and have much more adventurous thinking.

The issue I wish to raise is one which Senator Murnane O'Connor touched on briefly yesterday, which is our elderly population and loneliness. She mentioned the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, TILDA, whose latest report was published recently. I am also conscious of the good work done by Senator Swanick in this area. It would be useful to have a further debate on loneliness and how it can be addressed in our society. We are generally a social and sociable people. We know people need other people and thrive on human connections, but in the modern world social bonds are breaking down. We are all experiencing this. As Senator Swanick said previously, loneliness among older people is a hidden public health crisis. There is a certain taboo around the subject. We should have a debate and consider what the TILDA report tells us, which is that loneliness can be exacerbated by things such as bereavement, the loss of a partner, retirement or living alone. It is not a surprise that these matters are more of an issue as people get older, but it is interesting to see that it is as much a problem in urban areas as it is in rural areas. The study found that 6.5% faced serious loneliness in rural areas, but it was 10% in Dublin city and county.

One can understand why that might be the case. As the report said, there are still some of the bonds of community and church to be found in rural areas. For those who are interested in the important positive contribution faith and faith communities can make to civic life, it is interesting to note that the study states that where people have greater involvement in their local church and the practice of faith, it can help. Mental Health Ireland has said that this can help people maintain good mental health, cope with daily stress and keep them grounded.

Today, I met a woman who is involved in one of the small Protestant churches in Dublin. She is getting on in years yet she is taking care of the children of a single mother, who is one of what is called the new Irish and who lives in that church. The father vanished from the scene rather early. That is all too much of a problem in Irish life that we do not discuss much.

This person was found through this particular church network. Of course, people do not only find help through church networks, but these are the hidden heroes who are reaching out and going beyond themselves. I am not referring to this particular person, but perhaps some of these people address their own risk of loneliness by reaching out to others. They help fill a real need in people's lives by taking care of children and helping out, in order that those people can do better for themselves and their families.

The Senator is well into injury time.

I would like the House to continue debating this. I thank the Leas-Cathaoirleach for allowing me to continue.

Ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi thoscaireacht ón Seanad a bhí i mo chathair féin, Béal Feirste Cois Cuain, an tseachtain seo caite agus cé chomh dearfach agus fiúntach a bhí an toscaireacht sin. I want to reflect on last week's visit by a cross-party delegation of Senators to my home city of Belfast. It was a very positive and worthwhile engagement, building on a series of engagements between the Seanad, the first citizens of Belfast and, by extension, Belfast City Council. I thank and commend Senator Joe O'Reilly in particular for his eloquent and positive words to Lord Mayor John Finucane on our behalf during that visit to Belfast City Hall. Encouragingly, he extended an invitation to members of Belfast City Council to come back down the road to re-engage in a spirit of collaboration and positive and mutual co-operation moving forward. It is important at this time that we embed and sustain those positive links right across the entirety of our island. I want to reflect on the positive nature of that visit. We also visited the Somme Heritage Centre in Newtownards, run by Carol Walker, and the new James Connolly visitor centre on the Falls Road, where the manager, Séanna Walsh, looked after us. Both centres were very informative examples of our sometimes contested but shared past and experiences. That is also true of the last couple of days, during which the Leas-Cathaoirleach and I both attended the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA. It is important that we continue those dialogues, the process of reconciliation and the quiet and respectful conversations which are taking place despite some of the hot air and reflections elsewhere. As an institution, the Seanad must support and participate in those crucial and important conversations.

I, too, want to briefly mention the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which was attended by many Members of these Houses, including the Leas-Cathaoirleach, Senator Ó Donnghaile and me, as well as members from Westminster, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

They had to beat a hasty retreat to Westminster.

The Leas-Cathaoirleach was not too bad himself.

I did not have to.

Unfortunately, we did not have the pleasure of their company for the full two days due to proceedings in Westminster. They could have stayed a bit longer, although they did not know that at the time.

That is for sure.

I intended raising another topic but no one had mentioned the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which is an important body. It was useful to have quiet meetings and side meetings. I know the Leas-Cathaoirleach has been distracted by Senator Devine but BIPA will be 30 years old next year, and it has been a very useful body. I do not know whether the Leader was ever a member of that assembly, but it is well worth the twice annual visits in Ireland and the United Kingdom, where people can have brief discussions and private talks about what is going on and find out things that people might be uncomfortable saying publicly. There are obviously sessions in public as well.

I would like to raise the issue of BusConnects with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. There are two aspects to BusConnects. The first is the highly controversial bus lanes and the removal of trees, grass verges and so on, while the second is the network redesign. BusConnects published a second version of the network redesign yesterday and many public consultation sessions will be held in November which I am highlighting in order to let the public know about them. The Minister might come in and explain to us how he intends to deal with the significant congestion in Dublin as well as the physical aspects of changing footpaths, roads and grass verges and the destruction and removal of trees. Equally, there is the question of the network and service redesign, which many people will find challenging initially. It may provide a better service. I am not saying it will not, but there will be winners and losers, and it is up to individuals to investigate what is happening in their areas and make a submission about it. To be fair to the National Transport Authority, NTA, it has listened and taken on board many of the observations it received, but it can do much more. It is important that people look into this to see what is happening to their service and whether it is getting better or worse. Half of it might get better but for the other half there might be connections or bus changes involved, which may not suit. People should have their say, and make their contributions and submissions at the sessions which are taking place throughout November at eight different locations. This does not just affect Dublin, but the entire Dublin Bus network, which extends out to counties Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. I ask the Leader to schedule a discussion with the Minister, Deputy Ross, sooner rather than later, on BusConnects, public transport provision and congestion in Dublin more generally.

Before calling the Leader to reply, I welcome Senator Devine's niece, Ms Anne Mongey, to the Chamber, as well as Áine, Leah and Saoirse.

I thank the 15 Members of the House who made contributions to the Order of Business.

Senator Swanick and others raised the issue of air pollution and the related public health concerns. It is a huge issue with which we have to grapple, as Senator Swanick quite rightly said. Since the implementation of the smoky coal ban in Dublin and other major urban areas, lives have been saved. We must continue to grapple with this in order to ensure this practice ends, as the Asthma Society of Ireland has done. The Taoiseach and I have both noted there is a potential legal challenge involved, but I commend the Senator on the work he is doing in highlighting this and advocating for better air quality on the basis of public health. I also commend Sarah O'Connor of the Asthma Society of Ireland. World Lung Day was held recently and we learned that 4.2 million deaths occur worldwide from air pollution every year. It is important that we continue to promulgate and promote an alternative.

Senator Swanick also referred to Brexit, as did Senator McDowell. Much is being said, written and speculated about Brexit. We have not yet reached the end of the Brexit process, although I hope it will come soon. As I have said previously, and as Senator McDowell noted in his comments this morning, there is no good outcome from Brexit. Brexit is bad, full stop. There are no winners in Brexit. The Government has represented the people and tried to ensure that the island of Ireland is represented.

Senator Swanick and others mentioned the flu vaccination. Members and staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas have an opportunity to avail of the flu vaccine today, and I hope people will do so. As part of the winter readiness campaign, people should seek an alternative to visiting GP practices, and we should all support flu vaccinations.

Senator McDowell raised the issue of the Land Development Agency, as Senator Boyhan has done previously. As I have said in the House, the legislation in question is on the Government's priority list to be published this term. The Land Development Agency is up and running, as Senators know, and is working on eight sites with seven more in the pipeline. John Moran has been appointed as chairman of the interim board. The Land Development Agency's focus in recent months has been on delivering on those eight sites. It has already engaged in advanced preliminary feasibility work on all eight sites which have a capacity to deliver 3,000 homes. Having completed the feasibility aspect, the professional teams now must go ahead and apply for planning permission. The sites in Skerries in County Dublin, the former St. Kevin's Hospital by the Lee Road in Cork city, and the former Devoy Barracks in Naas can provide 250, 200 and 200 homes, respectively. In addition, the agency is also looking at other areas around Dublin. I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss this. The Bill is one part of addressing this issue but work is continuing.

As Senators McDowell, Mullen, Humphreys and others stated, we must examine different models for the delivery of houses. That could be the Berlin model or what is being worked on and achieved in Vienna, which Senator Boyhan and I recently visited with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe - Parliamentary Assembly, OSCE PA. I had a good engagement on housing when I was there. Whatever model we look at, however, it must be able to deliver a variety of houses. Senator McDowell has pointed out that we are spending an inordinate amount of money on HAP and rent allowance that could be used in the acquisition and development of housing. We should have that debate and I would be happy to facilitate it.

Senator Conway-Walsh referred to CervicalCheck and the apology made by the Taoiseach yesterday on behalf of the Irish nation. It was an important day and not just about words. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has put in place a system of building blocks for the families and the victims. We have to ensure this type of tragedy never happens again and the Minister and the Government are committed to that.

Senator Humphreys proposed an amendment to the Order of Business. I do not think another Senator seconded it. To be fair, Senator Humphreys made an important point. I will have the Minister contact the Senator, as a matter of priority, after the Order of Business because the matter of the school building programme is important. As the Senator stated, there seems to have been a change of philosophy in how the programme operates. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, has a list of emerging needs. The point the Senator made about the Shellybanks school and emerging needs is important, however, and will affect all of our areas. I will endeavour to have a conversation with the Senator after this session and have the Minister speak to him as well.

In light of the Leader's comments, I withdraw my amendment to the Order of Business.

I will be dealing with the proposed amendment later.

Senator O'Reilly referred to the school meals programme, which is an important initiative in our education system. All of us recognise the importance of nutrition. In the context of the development and well-being of young children in schools, it is critical that they are properly fed. Some 36 schools were part of a pilot programme run by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection last year. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has flagged that by 2020 there will be 45 childcare settings in which hot meals will be made available. Senator O'Reilly also referred to the school book scheme. I would be happy for the Minister to come to House to debate that issue.

Senator Gallagher made reference to the funding of public services. I am sure every local authority would love to have more money. I am happy for the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, to come to the House to highlight the amount of money that he has spent in this area, and for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to do likewise. This important issue also relates to the area of transport. I am happy to have that debate.

Senator Boyhan raised the issue of SHD and fast-track planning. He raised these points yesterday in a very good meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. Senator Boyhan is correct when he states that we must achieve a balance between powers, third-party appeals and fast-tracking. The scheme is due to end this year, but it can be extended to 2021 by the Minister. He stated in the Dáil earlier this month that he has the report and that there will be changes. The points made by the Senator are important because there is a feeling of disconnection in local communities and local authorities. A variety of speakers appeared before the joint committee yesterday, including some from the Irish Planning Institute. I am happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss the matter and there is merit in the Senator's suggestion.

Senators Mulherin and Lombard raised the issue of CAMHS, eating disorders and self-image. That is an important matter about which we as a society must continue to have a conversation. I am happy to have the Minister come to the House.

Senator Devine raised the issue of the Shannon LNG project. That matter was debated during the Order of Business in recent days. I will not repeat what has already been said.

Commencement matters are important and it is essential that all Members have an opportunity to put one forward. It is disappointing if Ministers do not come into the House. Some Ministers want to take debates and are only too happy to do so in person. I will speak to the Government Chief Whip regarding this matter. There may be diary issues involved, but it is not good enough to have no Minister present to address Members' Commencement matters and that Ministers cancel at short notice.

Senator Lombard referred to the important I Wish campaign being undertaken and spearheaded by Ms Gillian Keating and Ms Caroline O'Driscoll from Cork. There was an excellent presentation this morning in the audiovisual room on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects and the need for young girls and women take them up in schools. I am happy to have that debate.

Senator Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of drivers who are more than 70 years of age. Bus Éireann has a policy centred on drivers reaching the age of 65. That is extended for part-time and private workers. There is a facility for those drivers to continue beyond the age of 70, provided they have licences and are certified by their doctors. The Bus Éireann age limit was extended. This might be more appropriately dealt with by means of a Commencement matter to which the Minster for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, could reply.

Senator O'Mahony raised the issue of the Irish Aviation Authority and the importance of a policy on drones. We saw what happened in respect of this issue last February. I am happy for the Minister to come to the House.

Senator Mullen referred to the Irish longitudinal study on ageing and the matter of loneliness raised yesterday by Senator Murnane O'Connor. Loneliness is the unspoken issue for many middle-aged and older people. I would be happy to have that debate.

Regarding the matter raised by Senator Ó Donnghaile, I thank Senator O'Reilly for deputising for me last week in Belfast. I regret that I was unable to be there because of a diary clash with an event where I was speaking in Cork. It is important that links are forged in this regard and I know that Senator McDowell's group was in Belfast before the summer recess. It is important for the Upper House to have links and build relationships, and we are very well represented by Senators Ó Donnghaile and Marshall in the North. I hope we can develop those links further.

Turning to Senator Horkan, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly will be 30 years old next year. Regarding BusConnects, we will have that debate in due course. An interim report was published yesterday, so I am sure there will be much lengthy debate in the next couple of weeks.

I thank Senator Humphreys for withdrawing his amendment. I welcome the Leas-Chathaoirleach's daughter and granddaughters to the House. They should be very proud of their dad and grandfather because he is a magnificent person and we are very proud of him. He has done a great job as a Member of this House. Beir bua.

Is the Leader trying to embarrass me?

The Leas-Chathaoirleach is lost for words.

Senator Humphreys has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on differences in pupil-teacher allocations between developing schools and established schools be taken today". The amendment was not seconded during the debate and, consequently, falls. The Senator had already kindly withdrawn it, however. Is the Order of Business agreed? Agreed.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.38 p.m. and resumed at 12.40 p.m.