Ábhair Ghnó an tSeanaid - Matters on the Business of the Seanad

I think this is my first time speaking in the Chamber since we were re-elected. It feels nice to be back. The programme for Government, as set out, was a great one, and one to which we all subscribed. However, as the Cathaoirleach is aware, there was one huge disappointment for the people of Kerry, insofar as the liquid natural gas project in the Shannon Estuary was effectively dumped. My colleagues in the Green Party saw to that, and while they have their point of view on the issue, I have another, as someone who has been involved in promoting the project for many years. However, we are where we are and we must be positive and move on.

The programme for Government specifies that to compensate for the loss of the expected jobs in the region, there will be a special focus and an all-departmental effort to secure employment in the north Kerry and west Limerick areas bordering the Shannon Estuary.

That effort was to include environmentally friendly job creation and involve the Departments of Transport and the Environment, Climate and Communications. Foynes Harbour, of which I was a director for 16 years, is one of the biggest handlers of bulk cargo in Europe and there is great scope for it to be developed. Will the Government firm up on the commitments made in the programme for Government? Which Department will take the lead on the proposed redevelopment? Will the Leader invite the appropriate lead Minister to the Chamber as soon as possible for a debate on the matter? It is very important. Emigration and unemployment have killed the region in which I live. It deserves a break. Those living in the area were wounded by the removal of the liquified national gas project. I do not believe that project is dead in the water. I still think there is a future for importing gas even though it is a fossil fuel. I do not think we will be able to hit our targets without some sort of fossil fuel being involved in the medium term at any rate. I ask the Leader to revert to me on the issue at a suitable time.

I point out to Members that I did not call on the Leader at the beginning of proceedings - she is more than welcome to contribute - because this is not the Order of Business. This is Matters on the Business of the Seanad and, as such, there are no questions regarding the day's Order of Business. This is a new innovation to allow for questions to the Leader. She has agreed to this new process and has been very much part of making sure that Senators have an opportunity to raise issues on days when the Order of Business is not votable. There will not be a vote at the end of this item. Only one hour has been allocated, so I ask Senators to stick to their time. The Leader was more than welcome to take up her normal spot, but she indicated that she would not do so.

I am glad the Cathaoirleach clarified that. I thought I had been promoted.

The Senator is always promoted in my eyes.

I raise the issue of the Camlin Quarter urban regeneration application by Longford County Council. It is a project to co-ordinate the development of the northern area of Longford town, utilising key assets and connecting the functional area in a strategic way that maximises ongoing and future investment. The plan incorporates an area of more than 55 acres, encompassing the 18 acre Sean Connolly Barracks site, with a new focus on the River Camlin.

Longford has a high ratio of jobs to resident population, which indicates a need to provide suitable and attractive residential development in proximity to those jobs, as well as to develop more sustainable travel patterns and ensure the town derives economic benefit from the jobs it supports. If that is done, the town will be able to provide an enhanced range of services and facilities to the surrounding rural community and associated economises. Substantial investment from Fáilte Ireland under Government initiatives and directly by the local authority have worked towards achieving these aims. The project will represent a consolidation of that investment. The project involves an area in the northern portion of the town covered by the Camlin quarter masterplan. It will be a major investment in the areas of Connolly Barracks, Little Water Street, the mall complex, Abbeycarton and the Providers innovation hub.

The project was a significant priority of mine while I was a member of Longford County Council. Since being elected to Seanad Éireann, I have worked to ensure the continued support of the Government for the project. In December 2018, the then Taoiseach, now Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, visited the area and met members of Longford County Council and local business people who described in detail how the lower part of Longford town had been ravaged in recent years by the closure of a substantial number of businesses. The project is designed to improve the sustainable mobility and physical connection between the major functional areas in the northern section of the town core. It aims to enhance environmental quality and liveability and to provide an environment that attracts and encourages inward investment and increased footfall in this part of Longford town. The proposed works will require detailed design, environmental assessment, planning and, potentially, compulsory purchase orders in some instances. If funding is received for the project, it is hoped that the works will be completed by 2027 at an estimated cost of €13 million.

I ask the Leader to raise this issue as a priority with the Minister so that this much-needed project for our county town is prioritised when allocations are made.

Considerable attention has been given recently by the Oireachtas and the media to the ways in which the State has failed the women of Ireland. From that litany of failures, two examples include the suffering of women as a result of inadequacies in the provision of healthcare, such as the continuing CervicalCheck controversy, and the failure of this State to prevent the abuse of women in mother and baby homes.

On the issue of maternity care, I would like to know from the Minister of Health what concrete progress has been made under the national maternity strategy for the period from 2016 to 2026 to ensure that Ireland has the best and safest maternity services and best supports for women and babies in the world. In particular, I would like the Minister to tell the House whether all women in need of specialised maternity care are currently receiving that necessary care.

I will highlight another matter regarding maternity care which was raised in the other House. This concerns the effective seizure management drug, sodium valproate, also known as Epilim. It is suitable for use by many people with epilepsy but if it is taken by pregnant women, the result can be babies having significant developmental issues, namely, a 10% chance of a physical deformity or a 40% chance of a neurological disorder. Some 1,600 women in Ireland between the ages of 16 and 45 years are taking this drug for epilepsy. Alarmingly, awareness of this real risk is still too low. Studies show that nearly 33% of these women are unaware that when taken in pregnancy the drug can cause learning and developmental problems, with 17% unaware that the drug can result in serious birth defects. The HSE estimates that 1,250 children were impacted by this drug in this way between 1975 and 2015. That is 1,250 children too many. To protect women, the drug must now only be issued by a specialist and its use must be accompanied by a pregnancy prevention programme and the signing of an annual risk acknowledgement form to drive ongoing awareness. A study by Epilepsy Ireland showed that not even 30% of women taking this drug had heard of this mandatory pregnancy prevention programme and only 22% had been asked by their healthcare professional to sign the annual risk acknowledgement form to maintain awareness.

It is important, therefore, that we ask the Minister what is being done to address this urgent and serious risk being posed to these women and babies. Regrettably, the systemic failures of this State in addressing issues facing women continues to this day. As long as those failures continue, it is important for us women to continue to talk about them inside and outside this House. I will continue to do so tirelessly.

I want to take a moment today to reflect on some of the global issues pertaining to human rights. Only two weeks ago, the situation in Nigeria in respect of corruption and other problems was raised in this House. I express my solidarity with the Nigerian community here and also to the people of Nigeria as they continue their campaign against corruption and for peaceful democracy.

I also want to take some time to think about those living in Poland. I refer to the rolling back of protections regarding access to abortion. It is now well-nigh impossible to access an abortion in Poland. The streets in cities there have been teeming in recent days with protesters and there has been global solidarity. I certainly stand in solidarity with those protesting in Poland for the basic and fundamental right to bodily autonomy and to have access to much-needed healthcare and compassion. Polls in Poland seem to show that people power works. I hope that is the case and I express my solidarity.

I also want to reflect on the LGBT-free zones in Poland. As a member of the LGBT community, it is really upsetting and hurtful to see this level of hatred spreading in other countries.

It is very upsetting to see that people who are just living their lives and their truths are being exploited and condemned in this way. There has been much talk in Ireland and across Europe about condemning the LGBT-free zones, but I wish to put this egregious infringement of human rights on the record of the House. I encourage every Member to stand against such things.

With regard to the US, once lauded as the bastion of democracy, I doubt that anybody could not comment on the extraordinary voter suppression and some of the alarming tactics that have been used across the US. We see the potential fallout from that with protests outside count centres. However, it would be remiss of me to cast my eyes across the world and not turn my gaze here. Last week, we had an impassioned discussion about rights and the victims of institutional abuse in Ireland. Our past lingers clearly in the shadows. Ireland has led on gender recognition rights. It introduced the Gender Recognition Act in 2015 with little problem, and people have lived their lives perfectly normally. We achieved both marriage equality and abortion rights by popular vote.

However, we cannot be complacent. There are bad actors in every community. There are some outside the House who are intent on undoing some areas of democracy. There could even be some in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is no coincidence that the out Members of our Parliament, myself included, receive untold abuse online both from bad actors and from people who wish to silence and suppress us, either because we are living our truth out loud or because, hopefully, we are inspiring other people to live their truth. I encourage other Members of the House to be aware of the hard-won democracy we have and to stand against that in our communities and not allow these bad actors to infiltrate and take over what has been a great deal of hard work in Ireland to achieve the level of democracy and rights we have.

I commend the last speaker and agree with everything she said. It is important that we have a debate on foreign affairs. Many things are happening in Europe, not just in Poland but also in Hungary and Bulgaria and, regrettably, with sister parties of Fine Gael in the latter two. I also agree with what the Senator said about the United States. Let us hope that there is a change of President at the end of today or, please God, in the next couple of days. At the same time, we must acknowledge that it was not a good day for the Democratic Party in America and perhaps reflect on the limits of liberalism as a political philosophy. Unless politicians tackle wealth inequality, which is not a liberal but a socialist philosophy, we see what can happen and where politics can slide, unfortunately.

I wish to raise the issue of Debenhams, and I hope I will not be the only Member raising it today. There was a very constructive cross-party meeting yesterday with shop stewards which was organised by Deputy Mick Barry. The workers in Debenhams are on their 210th day of strike action during a pandemic. They are standing in the wind and the freezing conditions facing us this week. They have been left out there without the intervention that is desperately required from the Government. I must be honest that I got boiling mad yesterday at a meeting of the enterprise and employment committee, of which I am a member. We heard about the Duffy Cahill report which is now four and a half years old. It has been sitting gathering dust for four and a half years. It would have prevented what has happened to the Debenhams workers.

There has been all sorts of emergency legislation, much of it necessary. Why have we not had emergency legislation for working people? Why have we not had emergency legislation to deal with strategic insolvencies? That is what we are talking about here. We should not have to remember what happened to the Clerys workers and realise that it is four and a half years later. This is political because both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have failed in this respect. They had the opportunity in the last Government to do something about it and they chose not to. We cannot leave these workers in the lurch. KPMG has said it is prepared to walk away at the end of December. The assets that the workers are trying to defend with a 24-hour picket, day after day, are rapidly reducing in value.

There must be an effective Government intervention. It has to happen, and I call on all Members of the Seanad to play their role. In fact, I believe we should have a special debate on the Debenhams workers. Every Member, regardless of political party, should call on the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to intervene directly with the company. It is clear that the back channels have not worked. We cannot allow these workers to be left in the lurch again, standing in the cold until Christmas.

That is what they are facing at the moment. Then they will head into a second calendar year. Surely to God, all of us, as a political body, are better than that. Let us ensure justice for the Debenhams workers.

Today is a new day, and this morning we received better news on the airwaves when we woke up regarding what is happening in America. Let us hope that by the end of today or tomorrow we will see the return of integrity, decency and honesty to the White House.

I too support of the Debenhams workers. I participated in the online Zoom call with shop stewards and other Oireachtas Members yesterday. The fact that Debenhams itself has walked away from this entire process and that KPMG is threatening to walk away by the end of December is appalling. It is right that the Government should do what it can. I ask the Leader to take that message back.

Senator Gavan spoke about inequality in the United States. Equality is important and we need to learn lessons from it, but another significant threat to democracy there, in this country and in Europe is populism, fake news and mistruths that are spread on social media. We all have to take account of that.

I wish to briefly raise a very difficult, divisive and emotive debate that took place in the House in recent weeks on mother and baby homes. Unfortunately, it ended up becoming a political issue, which it should not have. The unfortunate women and their children who suffered at the hands of the State and the church should have been at the very centre of the debate, in terms of recognising and looking back on that shameful, dark period in our lives.

The commission has published its 4,000 page report, which has been sent to the Minister. There were several delays in recent years, and it is most important that the report be published along with its recommendations on redress. I ask the Leader to take up the issue. It is good that the commission is sitting for another four months to fully consult survivors about having their identity revealed. The Taoiseach, the Attorney General and the Minister have very clearly stated that everybody can have access to their own personal records. It is most important to state that here, loudly and clearly.

I with to raise the issue of BusConnects. I commend all those working in public transport companies who have kept services operating throughout the pandemic, although there have been issues with some services in Galway city that negatively impacted on communities.

It appears that the BusConnects plans for Dublin have been significantly changed following the rounds of public consultation that have taken place. I understand another round of public consultation is set to begin shortly on the revised plans. The substantial consultation with public representatives and communities is to be welcomed and acknowledged. It is a productive approach to take. I also understand the National Transport Authority, NTA, intends to lodge a planning application in March and to start the project on a phased basis in 2022, with a completion date in 2027. While the timeframe seems excessive, the plan is a significant one that involves land acquisition, route changes and new vehicles. During the summer the NTA issued a tender for the supply of 200 electric buses for public transport.

I suggest that the focus on Dublin has been to the detriment of other cities such as Galway. Early last month, a public consultation opened on a cross-city link in Galway city, which aims to introduce a public transport corridor from University Road in the west of the city to the old Dublin Road in the east. Everybody in Galway would agree that this route is badly needed. However, except for this project there has been little progress on other more comprehensive and strategic BusConnects plans for Galway and other cities. That must change, notwithstanding the constraints on the resources and capacity of the NTA.

In February 2018, the Fine Gael-led Government allocated €200 million for transport investment in Galway, including public transport and cycling and walking infrastructure under the national development plan. The launch this week of the review of the plan by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, highlights an opportunity to make more progress on public transport development, including on the BusConnects plan. I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Transport come to the Seanad to debate and discuss the provision and expansion of public transport outside of Dublin in other cities and rural areas.

I welcome this initiative. It is positive that we are using our time in the Seanad to at least highlight matters. I thank the Leader and the Cathaoirleach for arranging it.

I want to raise the issue of local government finance. We are aware that our city and county councils are struggling financially. I especially wish to mention local property tax, LPT. Will the Leader extend an invitation and arrange for the Minister for Finance to come to the Seanad to discuss the LPT? One only needs to look at the website of Fine Gael, the Leader's party, the Government website,and the Minister's website to see the endless commitments and promises to reform the LPT. I am opposed to this tax in principle. I am not opposed to bringing in income to local authorities but the system used is very unfair. A neighbour of mine is a very elderly pensioner on a very low income. She is paying the tax. I spoke to two professionals recently who live in Foxrock and who have an income in excess of €200,000. They do not pay the LPT. This is historical because, since 2013, all new properties are exempt from the tax. It is an absolute shame. It is a disgrace. The system requires urgent reform. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, there are more than 4,000 houses, I will not speculate about what they cost but they are valuable properties and perhaps cost in excess of €500,000. The people involved have never paid the LPT. That is wrong. I do not think we need to convince anyone that it is wrong. In that context, we need to hear from the Minister. We cannot keep putting it off. There have been some suggestions about general elections, certain demographics and why we are not doing anything about it, but that is all speculation. We need to address how we are going to bring in some sort of emergency legislation to at least bring that group into the net. I will leave it at that. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come in to discuss the issue.

As we face into the Christmas period, it is appropriate that we would have a discussion on living with Covid-19. There has been a very genuine effort in the last weeks by most people in Ireland to try to suppress the virus after it appeared to be spiralling out of control. It is too early to predict what the incidence rate will be in December but it is absolutely necessary that the Government sets in train a strategy for managing the Covid-19 response during the Christmas period.

I have been contacted by a large number of elderly people who have sons, daughters and grandchildren dotted around the world. They want to see their loved ones return home for Christmas. They are going the hard yards now and have done the hard yards over the past months to play their part in the suppression of the virus. If I was in any doubt about the sincerity of their concerns, a number of them have put it to me and made it very clear that they have done the work. One elderly woman asked me "What is the purpose of me living anymore and what effort is being made to protect me and my life unless there is something at the end?" For her the obvious end right now is to see her son, her daughter-in-law and their young child return home for Christmas. This is not something that can be decided on Christmas Eve or in the middle of December. People have to make plans, book flights and make preparations. The Government needs to set out, without delay, a clear plan and a strategy that gives some certainty for what is a really important juncture in people's lives.

I acknowledge yesterday's announcement of the Government's intention to undertake a review of company law as it relates to redundancies and insolvencies. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation on the legislative requirements associated with redundancies and liquidations. It is important that we contribute to that review. It is incumbent on the House to make our views known.

For many months the Leader has listened to numerous Members talk about the shameful treatment of Debenhams workers and the fears that so many more workers will also find themselves losing their jobs and trying to access their enhanced redundancy payments in coming months. Debenhams workers on Parnell Street and elsewhere in the country will say they have maintained their presence outside their former place of work for more than 200 days because they do not want what happened to them to ever happen to anybody else. They are doing it for themselves, but also for everybody else.

It is incumbent on us to have a debate in this House. I do not want to prejudge the outcome of that review. Along with other Members, I attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment yesterday at which Mr. Kevin Duffy and Ms Neasa Cahill outlined their recommendations for the review. In response to a question from me, they confirmed that the recommendations in the Duffy Cahill report can be fully implemented within the confines of employment law changes.

I do not want this company law review to be a box-ticking exercise further to the commitment made in the programme for Government. It could happen that they go through what are the perceived changes needed in company law, identify that no changes are needed and then we move on. That will simply not be good enough. We need changes. The Duffy Cahill report was produced four years ago and has been sitting on a shelf waiting to be implemented. There are clear recommendations on how it can be implemented within employment law.

This week I received an email from a very upset business owner. What does the Government have against circuses?

The email was from the operator of one of the largest circuses in the country, which is 250 years in existence.

I rang the bell because the Senator is over time.

Let me just finish.

Not on the issue she is raising.

Up to now they thought they had been forgotten about, but they have been specifically excluded from the Covid restrictions subsidy scheme. It identifies at point 4.11 that circuses are excluded. This is a business and an art form recognised by the Arts Council. The Government needs to do more to support that art form and support that business.

The reduction in the incidence of Covid in recent days has been encouraging. The R-rate is now down below 1, which is welcome. I believe Ireland is in the top five in Europe, which indicates we are heading in the right direction. Irish people in their business and personal lives have paid an enormous price to be where we are today. They have made a significant sacrifice and personal effort to get to where we are.

Further to Senator Dooley's comments, many elderly people have paid an even greater price in having to cocoon and isolate themselves as far back as March. For them and for all of us, having something to look forward to is what life is all about. Many of them are now looking forward to the Christmas season. Many of those people have sons, daughters and grandchildren living and working across the globe. All of them are hoping to return home for the Christmas period. It is incumbent on the Government to be creative and find a way to allow these people to return home safely. The key word is "safely". Testing could be done before leaving the country where they live and if the test proves negative, they could be allowed to continue with their journey. When they arrive in this country, they could be tested again.

That sort of imaginative thinking should not be beyond the Minister for Transport and I am sure it will not be. I call on him to introduce such testing, as a matter of urgency. As Senator Dooley outlined, we cannot do this the week before Christmas. We need a plan put in place today in order that people can plan properly and look forward to being reunited with their loved ones over the Christmas period.

Ballinasloe is a town that has a population of more than 6,500 people. We are again facing another application for a permit to allow a waste transfer station to be located in the town. This means that hundreds of trucks would be driven through the centre of Ballinasloe town to reach the location. Somehow it was considered okay for 30-, 15- and 10-tonne trucks to be driven through built-up areas and driven past schools, a hospital and playgrounds. Being a member of the Ballinasloe Says No campaign was how I got started in public representation. We fought the application three years ago and went to the High Court where we won on judicial review under the habitats directive. Unfortunately, we must fight it again during a time of lockdown. I wish to highlight to people that we will hold a public online Zoom meeting on Tuesday, 17 November at 8 p.m. Anyone can register, get involved and find out about what is happening at: ballinasloesaysno@gmail.com. People can also contact us on any of our Facebook and Instagram pages.

As well as being a Senator, I am the secretary and public relations officer, PRO, for the group because the issue is so important to me. It is important because it impacts on air pollution in the town with hundreds of diesel-powered trucks passing through and affects the health of the people who live in the area.

I ask my senatorial colleagues for their support. I am happy to note that most of the public representatives in counties Roscommon and Galway, including Senator Eugene Murphy, support our objection that we will submit. We have 25 working days to ensure that Galway County Council and its environment section hear our voice and understand that locating a waste transfer station in Ballinasloe, thus lead to hundreds of trucks being driven through the town is not possible, not feasible and will not be accepted.

I welcome yesterday's decision by An Bord Pleanála to reject a co-living development in Harold's Cross.

Last week, we debated the Residential Tenancies Bill here and I raised the issue of co-living in the context of Covid-19. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, did not seem too impressed that I used the debate to raise the issue of co-living. I ask for a debate in this House specifically on co-living and let those who support the model come in, and stand over it.

Even a reporter for the Financial Times described a co-living development in London as a "hobbit home" and when detailing the layout of the room she said, "Imagine a dolled-up Holiday Inn." I think the model is based on greed. It has no regard for the tenants and local community who have come out against the co-living development in Harold's Cross and Fumbally Lane in the Liberties, Dublin 8. It is even less impressive in the context of Covid-19.

In its decision, An Bord Pleanála indicated that developers had not even bothered to stick to the guidelines of where co-living developments should be located. When the people proposing these developments do not even stick to the Government's guidelines that very much exposes the opportunistic nature of co-living developments.

The developers in Harold's Cross originally applied for a smaller number of larger sized apartments. I think they saw an opportunity with the new regulations and chanced their arm. That sums up the motivation for co-living, which is about sweating the asset. We await a decision by An Bord Pleanála about the development at Fumbally Lane in the Liberties and, therefore, we need a debate. As I said, the Minister was unwilling to discuss the issue when we debated the Residential Tenancies Bill and I ask the Leader to schedule a debate.

The Leader will be aware that I regularly raise the question about the social media giants, how they control ever more aspects of our lives and how they respond to consumer behaviour.

I note that this morning WhatsApp introduced a feature that will make messages disappear after seven days. Given recent events, this is a clear indication that WhatsApp is responding to consumer behaviour.

I endorse Senator Hoey's remarks concerning a call for a debate on foreign policy. In addition to raising the very legitimate concerns around Poland and Hungary, we should also extend solidarity from this House to France and Austria given the recent terrorist attacks there. In our debate on foreign policy we need to focus on the kind of values that we have as a country and which inform our foreign policy and our values as a European Union.

I would also like a debate on regional development strategy. This issue is important to Members of this House. I welcome that the global business service provider, CSE, has announced the provision of 75 new high-end jobs in Gorey at the M11 business park. This is a state-of-the-art facility that is ideal to attract this type of employment. It is a vote of confidence in a progressive town like Gorey. I am grateful for the work of IDA Ireland in that regard. It is important, particularly in terms of the remote working strategy and the Government regional development strategy, that we hold a debate to examine the ways in which we can support all of our towns and villages to ensure major developments do not only happen in the cities.

Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar feadh nóiméid faoi chlárúcháin vótála. The deadline for registration on the draft register of electors is 25 November next. It is important to encourage people to register to vote so that they have a say in the next election, whenever that might be. It is also important to remind people that no matter where they come from, as long as they are living in Ireland and they are over 18 years of age by 15 February 2021, they are entitled to be part of that process. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, has responsibility for this area, including for reform which would be welcome.

There are few times in the year when it is as obvious as it is now that there benefits to having an independent election process and an independent voter registration process. We are witnessing in the United States the extraordinary scenario whereby officials who are responsible for administering voter registration or the counting of ballots are also on news channels giving partisan political commentary. This is extraordinary to Irish ears. We are incredibly lucky that we have a system that is independent in that regard. However, it is not a system that does not require reform. The fact that there is one draft register that is completed on 15 February every year is a cumbersome and unnecessary aspect of our voter registration system. By the same token, there is huge duplication within the system. Individual entries are not given individual identifier numbers such as PPS numbers or dates of birth, which allows for duplication. This means, for example, that statistics on turnout are inevitably inaccurate.

I am calling for a debate on reform of that system to ensure it is not only transparent but also accurate and facilitates those who are more mobile than others. Young people in particular do not live for all time at one address. If they are students, they rent properties which quite often are far away from where they grew up. In those circumstances, we need to put in place a system that facilitates their registration and voting in the areas in which they are resident at any given time. We need to have a debate on this matter.

I am seeking a debate in the House on water and waste water charges. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, was to commence the streamlining and standardisation of the over 500 different tariffs for non-domestic water charges and waste water charges but this process has been postponed until 1 May 2021. That is to be welcomed. At the same time, we need details on where the charges will be applied, what charges will be applied and how they will be implemented, particularly at this time, when businesses are going through such a difficult time.

There are a lot of changes in business and how businesses operate and in the charges levied on them, least of all the water and wastewater charges.

Wastewater and water charges are a major cost for businesses and anything we can do should be done to reduce that cost for them. It is important that we would have a debate here in the not too distant future to look at this and to see how it will operate. The CRU is advising people and businesses to go online and see how it affects them. It states that some people may face a reduction in charges of up to €250 but it in some cases it will be €750. However, that €750 reduction will be implemented over a three-year period in some cases and there will be a cap of 10% on the annual bill. While the other charges are complicated, this seems to be complicated as well so I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on this issue.

I want to raise the issue of mica and pyrite, particularly in County Clare. There are 33 houses in the county that we know of that have been declared to have issues with pyrite. As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, pyrite is a harmful mineral found in quarries. Sadly, there are particular periods when houses were built from stone that contained this mineral. Over the past decade or so, in particular, many houses in County Clare had insulation installed and beads pumped into the walls. Unfortunately, when this mineral mixes with moisture, which happens particularly when people put insulation in their houses, it leads to expansion and cracking. In some cases, the houses are deemed unsuitable for habitation and have to be demolished.

There is an active pyrite support group in County Clare that has done a lot of work in this area. It wants the county to be included in the concrete block grant scheme that is available in counties Donegal and Mayo, particularly in parts of Ballina, County Mayo. There is a scheme in Limerick, which is essentially a pyrite grant but that only goes to a maximum of €70,000 and is only suitable for houses that have floors with pyrite. It is not appropriate or suitable in County Clare because most, if not all, of the 33 houses that have been declared to have pyrite will have to be demolished and rebuilt. A grant of €275,000, which is available to citizens and homeowners in counties Donegal and Mayo is what the action group in Clare wants. That is a reasonable request.

I have been in touch with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. As yet, I have not had a significant response. I realise he has been busy with the budget and so on in recent times but this is an issue that will not just affect people in County Clare because there is no doubt that this exists in other counties as well. It would be appropriate that in the coming weeks the Leader would organise for the Minister to come in and take statements on this issue so that we can tease it out with him. Hopefully, we can achieve some justice and a resolution, particularly for the 33 homeowners in County Clare and the many other people who are affected.

I raised the issue of waste water treatment plants and the lack of major infrastructure we have in many of our towns and villages throughout the country during a Commencement debate earlier. Most local authorities are going through a county development plan process where they are examining land, zonings and how small villages and towns can develop. The key issue is the lack of waste water and water infrastructure. Without that infrastructure, these settlements cannot develop. That is one of the key issues Irish Water needs to consider to ensure a sustainable growth pattern throughout the entire country.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it has taught us about the beauty of living in small villages and towns and of living in rural Ireland.

The capacity for Irish Water to deal with these villages and towns is becoming a major issue. There are over 200 different settlements in County Cork now and the majority of these do not have adequate water and sewerage systems. It is very hard for these communities to develop as a result. We all know we are moving away from the model of once-off rural housing but we need to sustainably build our villages and towns. I could speak of places - Ballineen and Enniskean are two examples - which are big towns and villages and which do not have the capacity to develop because of a lack of infrastructure.

We need a debate with the Minister with responsibility for local government in order that he can tell us how he proposes to see this new Ireland develop. This new Ireland must develop around villages and towns, which must have the capacity to develop. It must be a core driver for Irish Water but, unfortunately, it has not yet stepped into the space. It is a major deficit and as a result, we do not have the sustainable rural development we spoke about. I appeal to the Leader to ask the Minister to come before the House and bring forward his ideas on how to bring about the sustainable model that we have all spoken about. Otherwise, we will continue to see what we have now, which is a continuous movement of populations to the cities, including Dublin, which do not have capacity for more development.

I rise to speak about the need for the Government to support post offices. I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, a number of weeks ago on changing social welfare payments to a weekly basis. This is encouraging for a number of reasons. It is much easier for people to get their payments on a weekly basis and some people were struggling when that was not the case. It also brings people back to towns and encourages them on a weekly basis to pick up the payment and then possibly spend on the back of that. For areas like mine in Tipperary, that is really important. It is also encouraging for An Post, which is also important.

We need to support the post office network. A report was completed by Grant Thornton and one of the major recommendations was that the post office network needs approximately €17 million annually to be sustainable. This would protect post offices and particularly rural post offices in areas like mine in Tipperary. As we heard earlier, they are vital for communities. In Cahir, for example, there is a productive post office and it has a knock-on effect for the town. Does the Leader agree that we must support the recommendations in the Grant Thornton report to support post offices? We can look across the water to the UK, where post offices that were previously closed have started to reopen. We do not wish to end up in a position where we regret the loss of the wonderful support and contribution that local post offices make in rural areas like mine in Tipperary. We should encourage as much as we can the support of those post offices.

I take up the point made by a previous speaker blaming the Green Party for closing the Shannon LNG facility. It is not the Green Party's fault that there is climate change or that all of us must take responsibility and act on it. That is why we are in the Government; we are doing the right thing by the people of north Kerry. If we invest in an energy system that will not survive, the people of north Kerry will not have jobs for very long. That is exactly what happened to people in Wales. Investment in coal has really just ended up devastating communities because of the lack of sustainability or long-term vision. We must also think about the children of north Kerry, Limerick and Clare. They want to see a greener future. We are absolutely committed in the Government to a just transition for all the people in the west of Ireland.

I had to rush up the stairs as well but I have had a little more time to recover than Senator Pauline O'Reilly. The Leader heard from my colleague Senator Aisling Dolan about the horrible possibility of a dump or waste transfer station being located in the town of Ballinasloe. The people there have fought this previously. They thought they had won and I warned them at the time of the possibility of it happening again. I endorse what Senator Dolan said. This is a major issue for a town of 7,000 people, where this station may be placed. This matter has been controversial for years. Court actions have been brought on it previously and we cannot allow this to happen in the town of Ballinasloe. I support my colleague in making the Leader aware of what is going on there.

Under Standing Orders, Matters on the Business of the Seanad is scheduled to take one hour and the Leader has ten minutes to respond. We have gone slightly over time so I beg the Leader's indulgence. This business was brought in because Members wanted it and Members and all groups should be here for the Leader's response, out of respect for the House. I acknowledge that not everyone can be here but every group should be represented for the Leader's response.

Wide-ranging and varied debates have been requested by Senators and one can see that although Covid seems to be all-consuming, normal life and normal challenges still exist for all our towns, villages and communities. I take my hat off to Ballinasloe Says No because it won on this issue once previously. I wish Senators Murphy and Dolan and all the community groups down there every success in challenging this plan. Please God they will be successful a second time.

I will request debates on all the issues raised over the coming weeks. The most common request, which Senator Dooley raised earlier, is for the Minister for Health to come in and discuss the plan for living with Covid with us as colleagues. That debate is arranged for next Tuesday afternoon. It is just a coincidence that the Senator raised it again today. It was heartbreaking to listen to him talk about that lady who wants her family to come home for Christmas, which is something so normal that is taken for granted. The heartbreaking bit was when she asked him what in the name of God she has to live for and look forward to if they do not come home. Hope is probably the biggest thing we can instil in all our constituents and citizens in this country because people are doing their absolute level best. The vast majority of people are living by every single rule and doing everything that has been asked of them since March. If we cannot at least give them hope that some sort of normal, sociable Christmas is coming, I do not blame them for wondering what in the name of God it is all for. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure we instil that vision of hope. We will have an opportunity next week to ask questions on what the strategy for living with Covid will be when we come out of level 5 restrictions in the next few weeks.

We need to get back to a sense of normality and have debates on important issues, including waste water, regional planning and the development of our public transport infrastructure. We must also realise that there are very pertinent and immediate issues with regard to climate change. All these matters are important. The delivery of services has been impacted because of Covid and redirection but the debating of them and analysis of our public policy is no less important now than before. To that end, and because we have certainty that we can sit on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between now and Christmas, I will do my level best to have as wide and varied a debate topic schedule as we can over the next few weeks.

Commencement Matters have resumed, which is very important. I have requested that all those who do not get picked for Commencement Matters on Tuesdays and Wednesdays be issued with written responses. Given the climate we are in, where we do not have the opportunity to mix and mingle with colleagues, Ministers or officials the way we would under normal circumstances, the very least we can expect is written responses to the questions we submit every Tuesday and Wednesday.

I welcome today's business. It is new and unusual but it should be an important part of our daily sittings when we cannot have a debate on the Order of Business. I also welcome that we are back in our own Chamber and look forward to many more days ahead.

I thank the Leader and all Members for participating in this new innovation in the Seanad, which allows Members to raise matters of concern in their communities as well as national and international issues. I thank the Leader for her response.

Sitting suspended at 1 p.m. and resumed at 1.35 p.m.