Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 13 Nov 2019

Vol. 268 No. 4

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 91, motion 8, Private Members' business, to be taken at 12.45 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours; No. 1, Education (Student and Parent) Charter Bill 2019 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 3 p.m.; and No. 91, motion 9, Private Members' business, to be taken at 4.30 p.m. or on conclusion of No. 1, whichever is the later, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh.

I would like to again raise an issue in relation to Dublin City Council's budget. I would like ask formally for the Minister to plug the hole that is going to be left. There is going to be a huge deficit left in the council budget. I understand that on Monday night, the chief executive, Owen Keegan, will be asking the councillors to approve a budget which will result in an increase in parking charges, tolls, social housing rents and commercial rents for next year. In a report that Mr. Keegan has given to councillors ahead of the budget discussion on Monday night, he said there are inadequacies in funding from central Government, and that this means that local councillors are going to have to vote on a different budget which will result in the huge increases I just described. In particular, he said the council would lose income of €8.4 million on Irish Water-owned properties and would not be compensated centrally by Government despite assurances to the contrary given by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. As a result, councillors will be asked to pass a budget which will include a 36% rise in the East Link toll, average social housing rents increases of €160 a year, a rise in business rates of 1.5% and the second hike in on-street parking fines. If all of these hikes come to pass, Dubliners can thank the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, for the hit to their pockets. If the Minister made promises and assurances to Dublin City Council, he should stand over them. This hole should be plugged centrally rather than by giving Dubliners another kick.

The second issue I would like to raise relates to mortgage rates. We know that people pay a lot more in rent than they do in mortgages. However, those who are fortunate to have a mortgage pay nearly twice as much as their European counterparts. Some people in Ireland are on interest rates of up to 5%, and they are lucky to have a mortgage. Previously, I raised the value of switching mortgages but people are afraid to do so. Maybe they have changed jobs or maybe they feel so lucky to have gotten a mortgage in the first place, but people need to know that there can be serious benefits over the term of the mortgage, that lump sums can be provided and that interest rates can be reduced. People need to look at switching. The number of switchers is very low even though there is a lot of value to be had out there.

Many families are paying €2,000 to €3,000 each month on their mortgages, and they are paying €2,000 per month in crèche fees, if they have a young family, so they are really struggling and really squeezed. We need to put a lot more pressure on the banks to explain why rates are so high and why Irish consumers are crucified so much.

I share the concerns raised by Senator Ardagh. One will read in today's national newspapers about the struggles and the concerns of Dublin City Council in relation to balancing its books and budgeting for next year and of the dilemma faced by councillors in Dublin City Council and in other councils across the country in relation to their financial affairs for 2020. We are told Dublin City Council councillors face increasing parking charges, tolls and social housing rents and an increase as usual in the commercial rates, which is totally unacceptable in my book. All this is because of the failure of Government. The chief executive, Owen Keegan, said in a circular to the elected members, which I have seen and read in today's newspapers and in yesterday's The Irish Times, that there is a shortfall of money.

There are a number of issues here. I refer to the constant rise in private property management fees and what was an ill-thought out policy of local authorities acquiring private properties, in particular apartments but also small townhouses in gated developments, from private developers. We know that some of these maintenance fees are €2,000, €3,000 and €4,000, which is far in excess of the rental income coming in from these people who are mostly social housing tenants. That is going to continue to be problem and a burden on all local authorities but it is a particular issue of concern for Dublin City Council.

There is also the loss of the rates in respect of Irish Water. There was a commitment that this whole transfer would be neutral and that no local authority would be left short of rates from Irish Water facilities and plants and all the things that go with rates coming into the local authority. That has been reduced despite the Government's commitment in relation to that issue.

This raises the question on where else we will get income. For far too often the commercial sector in towns and cities around this country have been burdened with funding the administration and running local authorities.

There is also the issue of local property tax. We have been waiting for a long time for the Government to outline what it intends to do in relation to local property tax reform. We were told the local property tax was going to give us extra libraries, extra swimming pools, public amenities and public space but that has not happened. The reality is that the LTP was a substitute for the central Government's subvention, so local authorities made no significant gain.

I am looking for a frank, open and honest debate in this House on how we are going to fund local Government in the future.

What are the Government's intentions in this regard? We need to hear from it. There has been a public consultation and the report is on the Minister's desk. The last I heard it was to be discussed at Cabinet. As legislators, we need to know what the Government's intentions are regarding the local property tax, which is grossly unfair in many ways as it takes no account of people's capacity or ability to pay. I call on the Leader to facilitate at the earliest possible date, perhaps next week, an open and honest debate on the future of local government funding, rates and the local property tax.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I raise the threatened imminent closure, on 29 November, of Cuisle, the national respite centre and holiday resort for people with disabilities. The facility is funded by the Health Service Executive and run by the Irish Wheelchair Association. We have been informed by the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, that the HSE is moving away from using holiday respite care centres towards a new model of using hotels. Yesterday, we had statements on the St Joseph's centre which is also under threat. The Cuisle centre is unique. Millions of euro have been pumped into this facility which offers personal assistance, medication management, 24-hour nurse supports, on-site night staff, accessible facilities, restaurants, bars, jacuzzis, saunas and indoor and outdoor gyms. It is a centre of excellence which is also used by international visitors. We need to have a debate about the substitution of these services with hotel stays. We are giving hotels more public money for profit. How can a centre of excellence for people with disabilities be replicated in hotel rooms? This is shameful. Rather than closing down Cuisle, we need to have more of these facilities. I ask Senators to attend a protest on this issue which will be held outside the gates between 12 noon and 2 p.m.

The second issue I raise is the language that we use in the Houses and what appeared to be the language of racism that was used in the other House yesterday. We all remember our letter from America - maybe not everybody remembers this - and the amount of money that flowed into this country from abroad, mainly the United States, in the 1950s and 1960s. Every household with relatives who had emigrated relied on the letter from America, a euphemism for an envelope with money in it that was used to keep the wolf from the door.

Emigrants' remittances was another euphemism.

Is that how it was known? I prefer the term "letter from America". We need to be careful-----

I often had to deal with them in my earlier education.

The letter from America was part of the culture of the 1960s in most, if not all, households. We need to be very careful. The rise of the right and of racist language is worrying, as is the pointing at others and whipping up of emotions. People who are dispossessed and feel they do not have a stake can react to this. Legislators and this institution should not allow such language to go unchecked. All Senators will agree that our words are very important and we need to be measured when talking about difficulties. Facts are very important as well and Members should not make such sweeping statements.

Yesterday, I referred to Moneypoint and the Derrybrien wind farm issue. Today, we learned that the discharge of raw sewage into our waters presents a serious risk to the environment and public health. I commend RTÉ, our beleaguered and hard-pressed public broadcaster, on its programmes and activities this week and on devoting entire evenings to young and old alike on the issue of climate change.

I concur with Senator Devine on Cuisle. It is very important that the authorities consult the service users. I have already been outside and there are two people there with a big banner already. I am going out again to join them for a few minutes. The service users should be asked what they think.

Tomorrow will be the third Thursday on which Seanad Éireann has not met.

Last week, on what should have been a sitting day, the Seanad Chamber was given over to some group, which I have no doubt was very worthy.

It was very important.

I am sure it was. We should be very careful about guarding this place, which is so important for all of us. There is not a huge amount of serious business being done in Seanad Éireann at the moment.

That is not correct.

We are going to face an enormous rush of legislation coming up to Christmas. Before I provoke a storm of abuse from the Leader, I should say that I am not attacking Fine Gael or the Government, as this has happened during the entire 32 years of my membership of this House. Every year, there is a dearth and then suddenly everything comes in at the last minute and is hurried and rushed through before Christmas. We should sit down and try to order legislative business in a more logical, orderly fashion.

I am sure the Leader agrees and we will look to him to see if something can be sorted out.

Senator Norris will be busy over the next weeks. He should not worry.

That is exactly what I am protesting about. The Leader has put his finger on what is wrong. There is nothing happening. This suggests the irrelevance of the Seanad. Thank God the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, had his brainstorm and tried to abolish the Seanad and we managed to save it. Nowadays, with what is going on here, that would be a hard-fought battle. I look to the Leader to make representations.

On Senator Devine's observations about comments in the Lower House, we are in unison. I am loath to comment because commenting might achieve the result that was intended. Sometimes the charity of silence says much more than comment. We will leave the issue at that.

The Senator might enlighten the Leader in relation to that.

Since Senator Wilson interrupted me, he might just say that again. Out with it.

Senator Conway might enlighten the Leader on the importance of silence.

We will not go any further on that one.

On the Cuisle facility in Roscommon, I have no doubt that our colleagues down there are working hard to come up with a resolution. Three or four years ago, on behalf of the National Disability Authority, I had the privilege of launching a toolkit for tourism providers to make hotels, restaurants and guesthouses accessible to people with disabilities. Our objective should be to allow people to have choice, so that all tourism facilities, venues and accommodation are accessible to people with disabilities. People with disabilities would then have the choice as to where they go and spend their money.

Speaking of people with disabilities, it came to my attention last weekend that there is an issue for personal assistants, particularly those in organisations such as the Irish Wheelchair Association which employ personal assistants. When personal assistants use their own cars to transport clients, they are paid a token amount to cover their insurance costs. I understand this has become a problem and personal assistants are no longer encouraged to use their cars to assist the people with disabilities with whom they are working. Clarification is needed on this issue and perhaps the Minister will provide clarity in his own time. If something needs to be done to rectify the problem, it should be done.

I am still waiting to find out when 13 people will be accommodated in a facility on Achill Island for which we are paying at the moment. This matter cannot be allowed to die. The position is not good enough or acceptable. I have no doubt that the Department is doing its utmost to find a resolution but the clock is ticking. We have an accommodation crisis for people seeking asylum and this facility is not being used. We need clarity on this as soon as possible.

I will be tabling a very important motion after the Order of Business. It relates to the appointment of eye clinic liaison officers to the hospital groups in order to provide advice to the growing number of people who lose their eyesight and have deteriorating eyesight and who do not know whether they are coming or going when they are obliged to face the challenges and difficulties that arise. The use of such liaison officers is being piloted in the Dublin eye hospitals and it is working exceptionally well. The people who are getting the step-down advice, receiving peer counselling and accessing the suite of supports that are offered by the National Council for the Blind, guide dogs and all the other organisations, are benefiting enormously from it. I want to see this service rolled out to the various hospital groups, particularly those that are dealing with sight loss issues. I would encourage those here to come along to the debate because it is important. Members of our ageing population are suffering eyesight loss.

It is important. Senator Conway is correct.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

As a person who suffers with macular edema, I subscribe to what Senator Conway has said.

I presume the Leas-Chathaoirleach will be present for the debate.

I am due to be in the Chair a lot today.

I do not know what is ordered for that period. In any event, I will be supporting Senator Conway.

As others have stated, a protest will be held outside the gates of Leinster House between the hours of 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. by supporters of the Cuisle residential facility in County Roscommon. I raised this issue last week and I asked that the Minister for Health get involved. I understand the Minister met the group to see if a common-sense resolution can be found. Not only are there people travelling here today from Roscommon where the facility is located, there are also people travelling from different parts of Monaghan and Cavan. I applaud them for doing so. It is regrettable that people with disabilities and their families, must take time out at their own expense to travel here today to protest about this imminent closure. I take this opportunity today to impress upon the Minister again the urgent need that this issue would be addressed for the people who badly need that service. It reflects badly on society that these people must travel here today to protest.

It follows on from another example of how badly we are treating our people, especially the most vulnerable who have disabilities. Earlier this year, a €4-a-day charge was introduced by the HSE in respect of users of health facilities in different parts of the CHO 1 area, which comprises Monaghan, Cavan and other counties. It is a charge on the most needy in society. Most of these people are in receipt of disability allowance, which, as I am sure Senators will agree, is minimal. To ask them to take €20 a day out of that amount of money is most unfair. Most of these people would be entitled to a free travel pass card for public transport throughout the area. In the CHO 1 area, including Cavan and Monaghan, public transport is as close to non-existent as does not matter and people do not get any use out of the card. A possible solution to this problem would be that the travel card would cover this charge that is imposed by the HSE because they are not getting much use out of it anyway. I would ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Health to liaise with the National Transport Authority with a view to getting this €4-a-day charge covered by the travel pass so that these people will not have to pay €20 a week to travel to and from this key facility.

I agree with Senators Ardagh and Boyhan about what is happening in Dublin. Dublin City Council is now spending the bones of €1 billion. It has 6,000 employees and has outsourced most of its contractual activities. The circumstances in which the manager can effectively confront the elected representatives and dispute their budget on the basis that the Custom House has cut back the resources available to Dublin city are unacceptable. Dublin City Council needs to be reformed dramatically. Local government in Dublin is a bit of a sham. Many people are doing work which in the past was done by direct employees of Dublin City Council. Staff of the council are supervising other people but we are not getting value for money.

As far as the local property tax is concerned, there are people who live in modest former artisan dwellings up lanes in Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 8 whose homes are one-storey cottages and have a value now, because of pressure on rental space, of maybe €500,000. These are one, two and three-room homes. Those to whom I refer are being asked to pay in some cases twice what somebody living in a Victorian villa 50 miles or 60 miles outside Dublin is asked to pay by way of local property tax. In many cases, they have taken out considerable mortgages on which they are being charged grossly-excessive interest rates by the building societies and the banks whereas the people in the Victorian villa with the loose boxes around the side and the tarmacadam driveway 60 miles from Dublin may not have mortgages at all. The time has come for us to look at the local property tax and to ask if it is fair that people living in those circumstances pay twice what people who are far wealthier and living in objectively far more salubrious circumstances 50 miles or 60 miles from Dublin pay in local property tax.

I also thank Senators for their support in respect of the Cuisle centre in County Roscommon. This is a situation where the Irish Wheelchair Association seems to be doing its own thing. Various Oireachtas Members had a meeting with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, last week. I hope that we get answers to the questions that have been posed. This will inform all the stakeholders of this decision, which was regrettable and which should be reversed. If the decision is not reversed, a stay of one year should be imposed in respect of it. They came in and told the 48 staff that their jobs would be gone by Christmas but this is about the wheelchair users. For the past 20 years, people with disabilities have used the facility. We are proud of it. I look forward to meeting people from Roscommon and further afield to try to resolve this issue. I am delighted that the Irish Wheelchair Association is being brought before the Joint Committee on Health, of which is Deputy Harty is the Chair, in order to answer these pertinent questions.

Last night, I was invited to Westminster to attend an event relating to the integrated education fund. The fund relates to integrated education in Northern Ireland. We should applaud the work it has done over the past 30 or 35 years. In 1978, it was agreed that the fund could bring Catholic and Protestant schools together in the interests of integration. They set up their first school in 1981 and it was attended by 28 pupils. Today, there are 65 such schools and 24,000 pupils. I say this because Baroness Blood, who has retired, is from the Shankill and she believes in this initiative. The baroness states that people should not fear change. The only people who fear change in Northern Ireland are those who do not want it. We need to give as much encouragement as possible to these people. When, despite the fact that four out of five people back moves to transform children's education through integration and that two out of three believe that integrated education should be the main model of education, only 8% of the schools in Northern Ireland are offering integrated education, it begs the question as to why, despite all the work done by the fund, this is the case. I am seeking the support of the Seanad for the great work the fund has done and is doing in bringing communities and families together. The children of the first children who attended these schools are also attending them and this breaks down the boundaries which caused much of the trouble in Northern Ireland and in our country.

Yesterday, I spoke about the brilliant organisation, CareBright, and I mentioned that I had been in Bruff in County Limerick and had visited one of its centres for adults with dementia. I spoke of how extraordinary the centre was insofar as it had tried to create a family atmosphere where people could live independently but in a community, in what was a village within a village. They had their own bedrooms and places to eat, as well as artistry and cooking. They could live their lives even though they were suffering from dementia. I raise it again this morning because the Cuisle group is outside the door looking for funds and speaking about being closed down, while CareBright is at the end of its tether trying to keep open. It has to register as a nursing home because it does not have the facilities and there is no actual model. We have ideas but we do not back up the models financially. CareBright has deficits each week in the money it needs to stay open.

We are running around calling people fascists and racists and if we continue to do so it will become absolutely meaningless. We need to seriously look, internally, at how we treat people as they get older, become feeble and frail and need help. We should not be begging for money to keep facilities open for disabled adults, for people with dementia or those with Alzheimer's disease, and relying on the goodness of people outside the system. They have to be able to pay for themselves and I do not want to hear name-calling across the Houses. People should look in their own kitchen before shouting, roaring and bawling about what others do from the point of view of migration or immigration. My own pathology is that I am becoming an elder of this island and I want it to be a good experience for everybody, including the nursing homes and the people I meet when I visit them. This is extremely important and we keep pounding it and talking about it. I am not saying the Government is doing nothing - it is trying very hard - but it is extremely important that people have the money and do not have to eke out or make up a shortfall every week. The shortfall in Bruff is almost €300 per person per week. The home should not be in that position when it is doing such great, humane and creative work to make people's lives worth living as they face the trauma of losing the sense of their own feet on the ground.

We need to wake up and if I hear the words "fascist", which I heard from a Labour Party Senator in here, or "racist" again I will run for cover. We are neither of those and we are bandying around this language when we should be using the language of profit. Maybe we should be looking at the banks, which are back in profit and hoping we will not fine them any more. It is our profit and our USC but people like those in CareBright are striving and begging for money, making it up with fêtes, buns and other things around the country. The Seanad needs to get its priorities right because this is becoming tiresome. If we have nothing to do on Thursday we could visit Cuisle and, if we cannot find our way there, we could visit Bruff. We can see the brilliant things that are being done, as well as the gaps under the door that need to be filled, instead of talking through our heads about policies. We have a lot of policies but we do not see any practical application and I am sick listening to policy

Hear, hear. That is some passion. Lovely.

I echo many of the Senator's remarks, which I raise on a daily basis. We had a debate last night on St. Joseph's and the lack of funding for dementia sufferers there. It is despicable that we have to continue raising the issue. I wish to raise the question of how we treat our cities and towns. We look for foreign direct investment to create employment, which is delivered through our large cities and towns. I will make the argument for Dublin, though I am sure the Leader will make the argument for Cork very eloquently. We have to take our cities and towns very seriously and we have to fund them in the correct manner. I often ask myself what Dublin ever did to Fine Gael because Government policies have been very much anti-Dublin. Dublin was given a clear commitment that there would be no financial loss relating to Irish Water but we are facing a deficit of €8.4 million. There was a commitment of €4 million for the HSE to fund the fire brigade and ambulance services but the money has not been forthcoming. Dublin raises €65 million in local property tax but it gets to keep €3.9 million from it, according to Dublin City Council figures. People who have been paying property tax since its introduction are living beside a neighbour who has paid no property tax, which was supposed to be changed in 2016 but was not. We need a serious discussion about the funding of local government.

I believe in the local property tax and I make no excuse for saying that but it has to be done in a fair manner. Local government has to be funded and the best way to do it is to fund it locally. For many multimillionaires who lived in my constituency of Dublin Bay South, the only tax they paid was their local property tax as they were able to avoid many other taxes by various means, including living outside the country for a number of years. They were able to own a large house on Ailesbury Road and pay no tax apart from the property tax. We are now having a knee-jerk reaction to the funding of Dublin City Council. As Senator Boyhan said, Dún Laoghaire was crucified with the transfer of Dún Laoghaire Harbour to the local authority, giving it a shortfall of €10 million with no real plan and meaning services were curtailed in Dún Laoghaire. If we were talking about raising car parking and toll bridge fees with a strategic view to reducing the impact of climate change, I would be supportive, but one has to do such things in a holistic manner. We have to make sure people can get into city centres to shop and trade, so that small businesses can continue to pay their rates. If we cut off small businesses at their knees, they will not survive so when raising car parking and toll fees a public transportation policy has to be implemented at the same time, yet this is not happening. I very much support the calls for the Minister to come into the House to discuss the matter and to give his vision and strategy. We have been waiting for these things for three years and they still have not arrived while, in the meantime, Dublin is being crucified by Fine Gael. It is totally unacceptable.

I echo the sentiments of Senators Gallagher, Feighan and Marie-Louise O'Donnell on the Cuisle facility at Donamon in County Roscommon, which is very close to my heart and is a vital cog in providing respite to people with disabilities. I welcome members of the public who are here today to protest and are trying to save the facility. They are from all over Connacht, the midlands and the north west.

It is a really good facility. I also welcome the public representatives who have travelled here. The service users and their families really appreciate this facility. It is not adequate for the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, to suggest that this service could be outsourced to hotels and that these people could be accommodated there. This fails to consider the wealth of experience that the staff have accumulated in providing care for these individuals over the years. The facilities in hotels might be comparable to the facilities in Cuisle, but that does not take into account the wealth of experience staff members have in looking after these people.

I will also comment on the infrastructure. It is a fantastic facility which has a spa, hydro pools and jacuzzis. Much of this infrastructure was made possible by public fundraising over the years. It is a disgrace that it is being closed with only 30 days' notice. This has been parachuted upon staff members and families. There has been no consultation whatsoever. It is simply not good enough.

I want to mention the extensive fundraising for this facility that has taken place over the years. I will also highlight the serious questions that need answering. I brought this up in the private session of the Joint Committee on Health today. That is one of the reasons the Chair and members of the committee have agreed to invite the board of the IWA before it to answer questions. There are governance issues at play. We need to talk about the financial arrangements within the IWA, specifically in respect of the Donamon facility. Are there financial irregularities in this regard? There has been no consultation. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has been lacklustre in his enthusiasm to support the users of the service and their families. It is not good enough. This decision has been rushed. There are serious questions to be answered. I look forward to questioning the IWA when it appears before the Joint Committee on Health. It is important that this issue be highlighted. I thank my fellow Senators for their support on this matter.

I support my colleague, Senator Swanick, in what he has just said. It is a serious issue. I have also received contacts from concerned people in Roscommon with regard to the Cuisle issue. It needs to be addressed and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, needs to come to the House to address some of those concerns.

I wish to raise the issue of today's commentary from the Central Bank around mortgage lending in the Irish market and the fact that Irish retail banks continue to overcharge for mortgages. According to European compiled data, our retail mortgage market is the fourth most costly in the EU, after only Romania, Hungary and Poland, which are essentially emerging markets. Our average mortgage rate is approximately 2.96%. This is way more expensive than mortgages in most other European countries. That average does not really tell the full story because new entrants to the mortgage market since the crash are getting rates of approximately 4.5%. If a young couple is looking for a mortgage of €300,000 from AIB, which would come at a rate of 4.5%, they will pay €1,520 a month over a 30-year period. The cost of servicing that loan will be €247,000; let us just call it €250,000. Will that house be worth that amount of money in 30 years? We can only speculate. We do not know. If the bank was to offer a rate of 2.25%, which would still allow it to make a profit according to the Central Bank, the interest over the lifetime of the mortgage would be reduced to €112,000. That is a difference of €135,000 to the individual over 30 years, or a difference of €374 in monthly repayments.

We have to get real here. The ways banks are allowed to operate in Ireland is absolutely disgraceful. They are getting away with murder. They are charging double the interest they need to make a profit on new entrants to the mortgage market. While the Central Bank criticises this, it is standing idly by. I would like to see us use a Thursday to have the Governor of the Central Bank come before the Seanad to discuss some of these issues. I ask the Leader whether that is possible. If not, I request the presence of the Minister for Finance in the Chamber to discuss this issue. There are many factors affecting the housing crisis. This is only one of them. Young people are going to get themselves involved in a 30-year mortgage, the repayments on which they may not be able to meet over the years. The banks will swoop in, take the house, and sell the loan to a vulture fund. This is what they are doing and they are getting away with it. We need to discuss this. We need to regulate in this area and to ensure that the Central Bank acts on existing regulations.

I join others in expressing concern about the closure of the Cuisle centre in Roscommon. Like others, I have been in contact with those who have been raising their concerns about the closure and about what it will mean for the service users as it is the only fully accessible holiday and respite centre available. I join others in expressing concern in that regard.

I call on the Leader for a debate on aspects of the Law Reform Commission's current work. I was delighted to be at its annual conference this morning. I know colleagues from the Oireachtas were also there. We heard presentations on two areas on which the commission will be focusing in respect of law reform, both of which will be of great interest to us in the Seanad. The first is the issue of regulation of technology and privacy in the digital arena. This is very significant in the context of the regulation of social media and online bullying, but also with regard to new technologies like facial recognition, deepfake technology and so on. We heard some very worrying examples of the ways in which technology has been used for negative purposes, although it has also been used for very positive purposes. I refer particularly to the purposes of harassment, bullying, and so on. We also heard about ways in which we could approach regulation. We might have a debate on the matter in due course.

The other area in which the commission is working is that of sex offence reform. In particular, it is looking at the definitions used in the law on rape and at consolidation of sex offence law. That is again something which we might usefully debate once the Law Reform Commission has completed its work.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for letting me in, I know he is up against the clock. I reiterate the sentiments of my fellow Senators, particularly those of Senator Swanick, who has a medical background, in respect of the Cuisle care centre. As we know, it provides a great service and the staff are second to none. The experience and skills they have gathered over the years are a credit to the whole area. I am aware of people from Mullingar, and people with whom I have been involved through St. Loman's or through one thing or another, who have visited Cuisle and who look forward to their yearly outing. It would be a huge loss to the whole area. The Minister has to address this. I know there is talk of teething problems but the budgets are in place, particularly in health. The Minister will just have to face up to this matter and address it.

As we are smack bang in the middle of climate action week, I would like to address the issue of empowering our young people. We say education is power. Questions of how to relate to issues concerning our environment, how to take climate action without feeling paralysed by the mountain ahead of us with regard to changing from a fossil-fuel based lifestyle to one based on new technologies, and how to become a zero carbon economy and society are very challenging. Young people can be very concerned about this.

One of the proposals in the Government's climate action plan is a short course in the junior cycle in secondary schools to better inform young people so people might make decisions allowing for individual responsibility and take control of the situation, so to speak. We know it is an issue of considerable interest to many young people. We have seen young people get involved in debates and we had young people attending the Committee on Climate Action on which I sit. They all want to get involved and be proactive. We have also seen them protest. I look at it running in the same way as the green schools certificates operated by An Taisce. They are very beneficial in that they give our young people a rounded life experience and an education for life. The better we understand the place we live in and the planet we live on, the better decisions and choices we can make. This is for all generations, old and young.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has examined the curriculum on sustainable development and has made a number of recommendations on how it can be developed. I would like to see an emphasis on this and it being developed and rolled out to our young people in conjunction with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and other key stakeholders. We would be doing them a great service.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to come in at this late hour. I want to speak about the beef industry and the significant news that broke this morning regarding major movement in the Chinese market, which has seen a tenfold increase this year, which is something we need to welcome. The beef industry has gone through turmoil in the past eight or ten months. The news that has broken is significant as we have seen our exports go from €7 million last year to almost €21 million in the first eight months of this year. To see another 14 factories licensed by China to send product there is something we need to welcome. It is a real step forward for the beef industry. It is great news after a very tough year. We need to start talking up the industry. Our beef industry and product is one of the best in the world and we are opening markets throughout the world to deal with an oversupply of beef, mainly because of the Brexit fluctuation we have at present. This is something we need to acknowledge and do more work on to ensure we get more markets. We need these markets to ensure we have a sustainable and progressive meat industry that can supply the meat the world is looking for.

I thank the 16 Members of the House for their contributions on the Order of Business. The issue of Dublin City Council was raised by Senators Ardagh, Boyhan, McDowell and Humphreys. I will facilitate a debate on the future of local government and its importance at the earliest convenience with regard to the Minister being available.

A lot of misinformation has been spread about Dublin City Council this morning. All of us recognise the importance of local government and the need to provide funding to it, but let us have the honest debate people are speaking about and let us not have it in a populist way. Dublin City Council reduced its local property tax by 15%. That is a significant-----

Because it was too high to start with.

Senator McDowell is becoming an election candidate already. If he wants to declare, he should just do so now, put the white flag up and go out of the traps altogether. Let us be fair. Do we want the Government to do everything? Where is our sense of responsibility at local level? Members of Dublin City Council voted to reduce property tax and there is a deficit. That €12 million would have filled the gap. There are issues raised with regard to the local property tax and Senator McDowell has a very strong view on it. The Minister has put the issue back to the committee, which will come back with a report in 2021. The 15% reduction means it went from €80 million to €68 million. Half a reduction would have provided the €6 million.

It was 15% off last year also.

There is the deficit plugged already. Let us have a real debate about the issue of local government and-----

We are not going to have it now.

Does the Leas-Chathaoirleach want to reply to the Order of Business?

I would be happy to sit down.

As Chair, I would love to be able to speed up the Order of Business but it is beyond me.

I will quite happily facilitate the Leas-Chathaoirleach to do that.

I would be happier if the Leader did not have any cross-tackling with the Members opposite during his response, with respect.

The Chair is keeping the Leader right.

With respect. Sometimes the Members opposite are also out of order.

The Chair is very balanced.

We will have the Leader now, without interruption.

If the Leas-Chathaoirleach wants to be fair in his ruling, I have been here since 11.30 a.m. and until 12.23 I had to listen to 16 Members-----

Welcome to the club.

Surely the Leas-Chathaoirleach will let me have the opportunity to reply to them-----

-----and to highlight the inaccuracies in their contributions that I see fit to reply to.

I would hate to try to halt the Leader.

That is the fundamental point. If we give financial powers to local authorities and members, then let them have responsibility. Let us be fair. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell made the very good point that because of the gross mismanagement of the country by the banks and the Fianna Fáil-led Government, we are all paying USC. That is a tax imposed by those people over there on all of us.

I thought you were going to get rid of it.

Are you doing away with it?

We reduced it in recent budgets.

You gave a commitment to get rid of it.

Your election manifesto said it would be abolished.

Let us have a balanced debate on the whole thing.

Let us have it balanced. You said you would get rid of it.

Senators Ardagh and Ó Domhnaill-----

Let us have a balanced debate and let us not be all populist and let us not try to be all things to all people.

I am glad Senators McDowell and Ó Domhnaill are all smiles and in good form, but please-----

Many of you were in government and we know some of you just could not wait to get out of government.

You are caught in a time warp.

Let those of us who want to govern govern.

You cannot go back-----

These are the facts, Senator Wilson. When you left government, there was 15% unemployment-----

I was never in it.

Through the Chair, please.

We are now below 5% unemployment in our country.

I have not been in government yet.

Senator Wilson, please.

Senators Ó Domhnaill and Ardagh made reference to the banks. The remarks of the deputy governor of the Central Bank, Ed Sibley, are worth noting with regard to how the banks behave and treat their customers. The point he makes about the hollow promises made and banks being forced by the Central Bank to bring in reform is one on which we should have a debate in the House, and I would be happy to have that debate.

The issue of Cuisle was raised by Senators Devine, Conway, Gallagher, Feighan, Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Bacik, Ó Domhnaill, Davitt and Gallagher. It is a very important issue and one on which the families and service users deserve answers and respect. It is a service that provides support for people with disabilities, allowing them to lead independent lives, and it is one we all want to see resolved. My information, which Members also know, is that there is either a service level agreement or an agreement on Cuisle between the Irish Wheelchair Association and the HSE regarding the purchase of respite breaks. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has met local representatives and the organisation. It is a matter that deserves to be solved. I understand the concerns of everybody in terms of the adequacy of what is being offered, and I will be happy to try to get the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, to the House as soon as possible regarding the matter.

Senator Devine and other Senators raised the issue of the language Members use with regard to racism. The points made by Senator Devine about words and facts are very pertinent. It is important that we have a measured debate, that our language is measured and that we do not use inflammatory language to polarise society. I do not find anything wrong with Senator Devine's comments. That debate needs to happen, not just here but in wider society. Those of us who are elected representatives have an obligation to lead and I will be happy to have a debate on the matter.

Senator Norris raised the issue of Seanad scheduling. As Members know and Senator Wilson as a former Government Whip knows, last week I took a decision as Leader to facilitate the holding of an international conference in the Chamber and I stand by that decision. This week, the reason we will not sit on Thursday is because two pieces of legislation were promised, but for a variety of reasons they did not materialise and I was not going to bring Members in on a Thursday for half an hour-----

-----when we can do other work on other days. That is why next week we will sit three days and will do so between then and Christmas. Last week we held a very good international conference that made international headlines. It put a spotlight on the role of the Oireachtas and I do not make any apology for it. As Senator Norris knows as father of the House, and as those who have been members of the Government and Government Whips know, we have asked for legislation to be initiated in the Seanad and we will continue to do so.

To be fair, we do our business reasonably well in progressing legislation, with the exception of one Bill that we will not mention now.

We will mention it next Tuesday.

We will. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 will be discussed in the House next week and I look forward to the resumption of that debate.

Senator Conway also made reference to the issue of the personal assistant hours and the issue of the use of transport. I would be happy for the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, to come to the House to debate that issue. I do not have an answer for the Senator on the issue of Achill Island and direct provision.

Senator Gallagher raised the ongoing issue of the National Transport Authority and we will have a debate on transport with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, next week in the House so perhaps the Senator can raise that issue again on that occasion.

I commend Senator Feighan for his role in highlighting the issue of integrated education in the North. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell raised the issue of being in the elder category by referencing her "own pathology" as she said herself. It is an important topic and I know she has been the author of a report on the matter. I would be happy to have another debate on the provision of care. I have already addressed the point she makes on the banks and the USC.

I want to say to Senator Humphreys again that this Government and Fine Gael are not anti-Dublin at all. In fact it is quite the contrary.

I would be happy to have a debate on the work of the Law Reform Commission and the ongoing issues around that as raised by Senator Bacik.

Senator Mulherin raised the issue of climate action in terms of empowering young people and she made some good points. It is important that perhaps as part of the work of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee we would separately look at doing something around the issue of empowering young people. It is a good point.

Senator Lombard commended the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, on the opening of new beef markets in China, where the Minister is on a trade delegation at the moment. I commend and welcome the good news for the beef industry, which has been through a challenging period.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence and I hope I did not go on too long for him.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.32 p.m. and resumed at 12.45 p.m.