The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the Technological Universities Act 2018 (Section 36) (Appointed Day) Order 2020 – referral to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion re the reappointment of four members of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority and the appointment of one new member, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, statements on living with Covid-19 and an update on level 5 restrictions, to be taken at 3 p.m. in the Seanad Chamber, and to conclude at 4.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespeople not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, the time can be shared, and the Minister is to be given not less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Private Members' business, Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020 – Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m. in the Seanad Chamber and to adjourn after 105 minutes.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
We are well aware that the tourism industry has taken a severe battering since March due to Covid-19. Prior to Covid-19 the tourism industry employed 265,000 people and was worth €9.2 billion to the economy. The tourism industry is resilient and it can recover but we need to do everything we can to help.
Today, I wish to raise the challenges facing St. Patrick's Cathedral, which is undergoing restoration to its roof. I visited the site several weeks ago and saw at first hand the intricate work and detail that is being put into it, with each slate being placed by hand, by experts. Prior to the pandemic, St. Patrick's Cathedral was generally in receipt of no State funding and had planned to pay for the restoration of the roof from the revenues it receives from admission. To date, approximately two thirds of the €9.2 million project cost has been successfully fundraised by the cathedral.
In one year, the cathedral can accommodate up to 600,000 visitors, 90% of them coming from overseas. However, an unintended consequence of Covid-19 has meant St. Patrick's Cathedral has been empty since March, with no visitors, which means there is no revenue. The administrators now face a shortfall of €3 million for the repair of the roof. We all know the cathedral and probably drive by it every day. In terms of its location, antiquity and scale, the cathedral is one of the most important buildings on the island of Ireland. To pause the roof project would entail not only financial risk but a grave physical risk to the future of this historic, medieval building. If we are serious about kick-starting the economy in a post-Covid Ireland, I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to liaise with the board of St. Patrick's Cathedral, with a view to providing the extra funding in order that the cathedral can start welcoming visitors back without delay in the near future once the pandemic ends.
I wish to raise three issues with the Leader. First, I take this opportunity to welcome the news by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, on the payment, two weeks in advance, for the GLAS scheme. For those who are not familiar with such payments, they are the green, low-carbon scheme, GLAS. In the past two years at least, there have been issues about payments being late or back payments. The scheme, which amounts to €138 million, will arrive this week in the bank accounts of almost 40,000 farmers on the GLAS scheme.
I am happy to say I received calls today from two farmers, one in the west and one in Cork, who have received their payments this morning. It is good news, particularly at a time when farmers have had major difficulties with the weather affecting their primary income from farming and also the impact of Covid in terms of access to cattle marts, etc., to sell animals. It has been a particularly challenging year for farmers. As the Minister said in his statement, these advanced payments are at a rate 85% of the full annual payment due to these farmers. This has enormous benefits to them and their families and more importantly to rural communities where the money will be spent. I thank the Minister for setting up a helpline number that will be open this Saturday and the following Saturday at 076-1064451. The email alias is email@example.com.
I also wish to raise the issue of coronavirus in mink, which has been identified in six countries from America to Italy. Six countries have reported coronavirus cases in mink farms amid growing concern about a new strain of the disease jumping from animals to humans. It is of concern in terms of health and people travelling from Denmark and across Europe. According to the World Health Organization, it is a major public health wake-up call for everybody. The Government should proceed with testing. We have three major mink farms in Ireland which now represent a health concern as well as an animal welfare concern. What is the status of the Government's commitment in the autumn legislative programme for a Bill to ban fur farming in Ireland anyway? The banning of fur farms is a proposal in the programme for Government. I would like an update on that.
Would it be possible to extend to the Taoiseach an invitation to come to the House? I say this in November because I know there is a long lead-in time. The previous Taoiseach made two or three visits to address the House. I ask the Leader to extend on behalf of the House an invitation to the Taoiseach to come to the House before Christmas.
Today I will reflect on two issues, both pertaining to gender. Over the weekend the Leader may have seen the hashtag #IrelandTurnsPurple which was floating around social media with many photographs of locations around Ireland lit up with purple lights. It was quite stunning to see images from Cork to Dublin to Galway and everywhere. The reason was that Sunday was International Intersex Solidarity Day. To commemorate the day the Intersex Mapping Study in DCU launched the Ireland Turns Purple campaign. More than 60 landmarks, including Government Buildings and cultural institutions, turned purple to support the intersex community. The idea was to raise awareness and show support for the intersex community in Ireland and abroad. In October Ireland was one of 33 countries that signed up to the international joint pledge to promote and protect the rights of intersex people.
The DCU Intersex Mapping Study is mapping the lived experience of intersex people in Ireland. Hopefully, it will contextualise the existing knowledge of intersex people in Ireland and will inform law and policy designed to protect the rights of intersex people, protect them from discrimination and improve their lives.
According to the United Nations about 1.7% of the global population are intersex. For context, only about 5% of the global population have red hair. Obviously in Ireland the rate is a little higher at 10% with 40% of Irish people having the red hair gene. This indicates that many people are affected by the issue. I hope this weekend will shine a light both here and globally on intersex people and open a conversation about how we can support their lives and needs.
From yesterday until the end of the year the average Irish woman will effectively be working for free because the average Irish woman earns 14.4% less than her male counterparts. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day which ironically highlights the lack of equality in pay. This day is held every year, but the date changes in line with existing gender pay gap figures, getting closer to or further from the end of the year.
According to EUROSTAT, Ireland's gender pay gap fell from 17.3% in 2007 to 14.4% in 2017. This is just below the European average of 14.9%. We still have a bit to go. Many of us who support this campaign recognise that it is quite a blunt tool. There are many different reasons for disparities, for example, certain sectors attract particular genders and women tend to take more caring roles, but that does not mean that we cannot strive to tackle the gender pay gap. One of the main things we could do relates to legislation passed by the Seanad in the last session, which now awaits passage through the Dáil. I call on the Government parties to speak to their colleagues about jigging that along to see if it could be passed through the Dáil quick smart.
Senator Hoey raised the issue of the gender pay gap and I would like to extend that conversation. One of my colleagues on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council yesterday passed a motion to ask the Government and the Minister to extend maternity and paternity leave to councillors. As more than three quarters of our councillors are men, it is time to take stock and look at the gender issue not only as it relates to Senators and Deputies. We have all spoken about that issue and we have also all heard Deputies mention, on many occasions, the problem of not receiving maternity leave. Deputies, however, earn more than €92,000 and receive up to €25,000 in expenses. A councillor earns €17,000 and receives €2,500 in expenses which cannot be used for childcare. This shows how difficult it is for women to get involved at the lowest levels of political life. An awful lot of the nearly one quarter of councillors who are women are not mothers. When I joined the council, there were other women on it but none of them were mothers. When women who are mothers are not involved in politics, we do not have people representing their point of view, which is also that of children. We therefore also see children not being represented to the fullest extent. Mothers know what it is like to look for a comfortable park bench on which to feed a child, to not have any active birth centres in Ireland, to have very little access to facilities for home births and to only have a milk bank in the North of Ireland and none in the South. All of us, but particularly those of us who feel the impact of them, can raise these issues. I ask the Leader to write to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to ask him to extend maternity and paternity rights to councillors.
I will make a quick point on Senator Pauline O'Reilly's contribution. The milk bank in the North was featured in a recent segment on the news. It has been impacted by the Covid restrictions and is seeking donations. It is encouraging mothers who can contribute to do so. The importance of this service is that it provides for babies who are sometimes very ill and very vulnerable in hospital. Given that the Senator mentioned the issue, I thought I would take the opportunity to reinforce the call the milk bank has made.
I echo the congratulations of others for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. As we all know, and has been said here over the course of recent days, the President-elect has deep-rooted connections to Ireland. He is a proud Irish-American. He has been, and no doubt will continue to be, a steadfast friend to Ireland. At this point in time, we need our friends. While I appreciate and fully understand that people here want to investigate as much as possible and, dare I say it, lay claim to his geographical lineage, perhaps with a view to getting him to visit, we have more important asks of the President-elect and the US Administration at this point in time. It is really important to take the opportunities provided to us to again articulate some of those asks. All of us will have the opportunity to speak to friends in the United States over the coming days and weeks.
It is really important we reinforce the message of solidarity that is required for Ireland in these very tempestuous days between now and the end of the transition period.
Our priority must be to continue to encourage the new Biden Administration to stand firm on its very clear and welcome commitment to protect, defend and uphold the Good Friday Agreement. I hope the new Biden Administration will also bring a new era for American foreign policy more generally, which puts solidarity and justice to the fore and which rows back on some of the disastrous and awfully cruel policies taken by the current President, not least with regard to refugees, Palestine, Cuba and many other areas as well.
In finishing, I note the very significant announcement yesterday on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. We are advised it is cause for hope, although not yet celebration. It is important in these days that we have and sustain hope. We will have the opportunity in this House to discuss the Covid-19 level 5 restrictions but it is important to hear and understand any plans that the Government has in place to roll out any safe and medically compliant vaccine that gets to those who are most vulnerable and in need in a quick, efficient and free way.
I will start today on behalf of the Dublin contingent by congratulating Mr. Joe Biden on his election to the US Presidency. I also congratulate Senator Kamala Harris on her election as US Vice President. Mr. Biden is a great friend of Ireland, as we all know, and he has stated categorically that the Good Friday Agreement cannot become a casualty of Brexit. That is a fantastic stance.
The destruction of the homes of 80 Palestinian Bedouins in the occupied West Bank under last week's blanket coverage of the US presidential election must be condemned by all right-thinking people. I invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to the House today to explain the apparent contradiction between his condemnation of the Israeli destruction of a Palestinian village and his refusal to take any meaningful action. Describing the actions as brutal, violent and as clearly prohibited under international humanitarian law will not mean anything unless these words are accompanied by consequences.
Last week's demolition left 74 people, including 41 children, homeless during a pandemic and just as we approach winter. It repeated a grim pattern. Ireland and EU states give badly needed humanitarian aid to build homes and schools but the Israeli army then demolishes them. The Minister previously told the Dáil that EU states have sought €625,000 in compensation for demolished aid but how much has actually been recovered? Will we just repeat the process of giving money and building homes before watching them being demolished and then building them again? Is the definition of insanity not doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?
Does the Minister believe the words of condemnation will be taken seriously? We have been criticising the process for decades but settlement expansion continues. Annexation is the reality on the ground and it has not been postponed, as many wrongly said during the summer.
Fine Gael was wrong to rely on the narrow and misguided opinion of the then Attorney General, Séamus Wolfe, in opposing the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, despite a long list of experts in EU law insisting we could pass the legislation. The Bill would see us move beyond more condemnation and it is badly needed now. The Palestinian people deserve actions and not words. I hope the relevant clause the programme for Government will be implemented before it is too late and the possibility of a Palestinian state has disappeared.
I echo the Leader's praise of RTÉ's coverage of the US presidential election, which exhibited public service broadcasting at its best. I think in particular of the montage piece put together by Jackie Fox, Meabh Kearney and Cliona Higgins. It used some footage of Mr. Biden speaking the words of Seamus Heaney and we are only too well aware of the importance of poetry and the arts in communicating. The President-elect, Mr. Biden, clearly used that to very good effect.
While we are on the subject of media coverage, many people were glued to the "magic wall" of John King who has also professed his Irish heritage. I suggest that the Cathaoirleach invites him for a special visitor's tour of these Houses when he comes down from his electoral high.
I will put him on the list.
Like others, I want to pay tribute to Mr. Paul Roche, an amateur genealogist in Wexford, who discovered that Joe Biden's great grandmother, Catherine Roche, emigrated from Taghmon in County Wexford in the 1840s.
Today is World Science Day for Peace and Development and we all appreciate the importance of science and evidence-based research in tackling the pandemic and also in dealing with issues like fake news. The biggest challenge that we face, which science shows is happening, is climate change. I seek a debate in this House on the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, which will take place in Glasgow next year, particularly in the context of Ireland's approach to climate change. The Government has been very progressive with its Climate Action (Amendment) Bill 2020 but we need to consider not just what we can do domestically but what we can do internationally. In that context, I ask the Government to consider offering to host a future climate change conference.
Unfortunately Longford cannot claim any part of Joe Biden.
I wish to raise the issue of student nurses. These young people have been providing essential care as care assistants during the pandemic. This experience is invaluable to them in their journey to become nurses. It is work which is necessary to fund their college fees and to support them while living away from home. However, a number of issues have come to the fore recently as these young people go on placement as part of their degree with no pay. Many of these students are back living at home and are doing their courses online because it is considered unsafe for them to go on campus and yet they are expected to go on placement to hospitals and care settings and either return home to their families or get accommodation near their placement without any financial support. These young trainee nurses have been asked to give up any part-time jobs they have in other care settings while on placement but there is no compensation for this, which is unfair. We all understand the importance of placement and direct experience but we are asking these young people to work for free during a pandemic when we know this will put them and their families at risk. Student gardaí are in receipt of financial support while training which is only right and proper, but why is this not also the case for student nurses? The Minister for Health will say these placements are part of their education and nobody is disputing that. During this pandemic, however, it is time to show fairness and respect to these young people. We want to keep them in their chosen profession and in this country when they graduate. In that context it is important to highlight their plight, support them and stop exploiting these young people who are on the front line.
The Government-mandated lockdown restrictions are causing immeasurable harm to the most vulnerable in this country. Sadly there has been a dramatic upsurge in the incidence of domestic violence. At the height of the previous lockdown, Women's Aid responded to a 43% increase in calls from women who were trapped with abusers at home. Women's Aid expects that it will be responding to thousands more pleas for help from victims over the course of the current lockdown.
Figures released today by Safe Ireland show that almost 2,000 women and 411 children were in receipt of some support from domestic violence services. Job losses, remote working, self isolation and other measures related to the lockdown are already having an impact on victims. The reality that abusers are at home all of the time is terrifying. Many women and children will spend the next few weeks in suffocating circumstances with their abusers because of the Government-imposed lockdown. This ugly vista is largely out of the public gaze, beyond the long arm of the law and outside the lens of the media. We do not see the evil of domestic violence depicted graphically on the evening news in the way we see stricken patients in ICU gasping for air but it is every bit as tragic and real.
As a woman and parent, I would like to give particular mention to the plight of women and children suffering as a result of this increase in violence. Women and children who are the collateral damage from this Government's inhumane and ill-conceived rolling lockdown strategy. The toll that domestic violence is taking on the health and well-being of women, children and families must be taken into account in the decision to end lockdown as soon as possible. I implore the Government not the turn a blind eye to the ill effects of lockdown. The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Health should have the collective courage and sense to pursue a better strategy to genuinely living with the virus instead of hiding from it indefinitely, all the while ignoring the damage done to the health and wealth of this nation.
Senator Erin McGreehan: I welcome the Cathaoirleach's invitation to President-elect Biden. It is great news for Ireland that we have such a steadfast supporter of the Good Friday Agreement in the White House. As other Senators have said, we need all the support that we can get coming up to a critical time in the Brexit negotiations. As Biden is a Border politician from the Cooley Mountains he will know very well how important an all-Ireland economy is and how important the Border community is.
On a lighter night, the west tried to steal something from the Cooley Mountains a long time ago, and it ended in destruction. We must learn from our past and not relive the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.
On a serious note, I ask the Leader to invite whichever Minister is responsible, whether it is the Minister for Justice or the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, to come into this House and report on the audit on how the responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across different Government agencies. This is mentioned in the programme for Government. It was said that a report would be issued within nine months of the formation of Government. As Senator Keogan has said, this is very important. I am on the board for Women's Aid in Dundalk and we cannot help every family or every women who comes knocking on the door. It really is important that we have a dedicated Department that will take over responsibility for dealing with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
I would like to raise the issue of a survey that was carried out that showed, for the first time ever, that a majority of retail purchases by Irish customers were made online. Research by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, from 2019, shows that clothes or sports goods were the most popular online purchases, followed by holiday accommodation and other travel arrangements such as travel tickets and car hire. That is obviously a different world. While the impact of the pandemic on shopping habits is not fully known, it is safe to say that the type of products and services purchased online this year will have expanded, although differently.
This has pros and cons for businesses but it also has ramifications for town and village centres and even our city centres. Previous research has shown that anything up to 70% of the online spend leaves Ireland. That means a loss of revenue to the State but, more importantly, it means devastating losses to Irish businesses. We should remember that Irish businesses, unlike some of the largest global ones, operate to the highest standards in terms of health and safety, and employee welfare.
The Government, both this one and previous ones, expanded supports and introduced new ones. Supports like the trading online voucher scheme, the restart grant and the Covid-19 online retail scheme have all helped. The latest round of the Covid-19 online retail scheme was announced yesterday by the Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy English. I was delighted to see a dozen Galway businesses among the recipients. With funding of between €16,000 and €40,000, this funding is helping businesses in Galway, Mayo and throughout the country to expand their online presence, compete and, it is hoped, win business. However, there are many more businesses - less well-known businesses - that need support to overcome this existential threat.
I know the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, are acutely aware of the pressure on Irish retailers throughout the country and are working on targeted supports. However, the situation is evolving rapidly, as can be seen by the recent research. For several years we have been working hard to revitalise and regenerate city, town and village centres. A vibrant retail sector is at the centre of these efforts. Walking around any city, town or village centre at the moment, the permanent closure of once thriving businesses is a painful sight, and this has been exacerbated, obviously, by Covid. I call on the Leader for a debate at the earliest opportunity on our town centres with the Ministers responsible for business and planning.
On behalf of the Kildare contingent, I congratulate President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. Obviously, as others have said, they are very welcome to the short grass county when they come to Ireland, and we look forward to that occasion.
Today, I wish to ask for a debate on a couple of housing issues. The first issue that needs to be addressed urgently is what I have previously referred to in this House as "intercounty HAP", basically where a person from one county wants to rent in a neighbouring county. This is particularly a problem in the county where I live and reside, County Kildare, given our proximity to counties Carlow, Laois and Offaly. The Minister has said that it is possible to do this, and he has indeed said that on the record, but unfortunately the housing authorities in those particular counties have a different view of the matter, and they are not allowing people from my own county to cross the border and to receive the housing assistance payment, HAP, in those counties.
A recent example would be an area I have dealt with, a lovely area called Ballylinan. It has a postal address of Country Kildare but is in the Laois local authority area. Recently there was a house for rent there, and I knew a large number of desperate families were looking to rent the property. However, with the experience I have had, I had to tell them that they would not be able to avail of this particular property. I ask the Minister once again to address this issue. I know that he will tell me that it can happen, but as I have said previously, my experience on the ground is that the local authorities are not allowing this to happen.
We also have another issue in County Kildare, whereby we have a number of those entitled to rent through the social rent system coming from Dublin. Because they have higher deposits etc., landlords are taking them on, which is reducing the number of properties available to those who need to rent in County Kildare. Obviously, we are still in a housing crisis, so I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come before the House.
I raise the issue of student nurses in the context of what is happening in Naas General Hospital at the moment. In that hospital, which is my county hospital, 35 nurses and ten healthcare staff are not present due to Covid restrictions, so the existing staff are under huge pressure. Many concerns have been raised about the situation within the hospital itself, for example, within a block of toilets in the hospital where some are labelled "Covid" and others are labelled "non-Covid". The fact that people may be going into a toilet block where there are others passing in and out, using door handles etc. is quite frightening when we consider how contagious we know Covid is. I ask that the Leader would go to the Minister about this issue. I certainly will be raising it on a personal level. It is a very crucial situation there.
In saying that, the issue I want to raise relates to student nurses who have ongoing placements in hospitals. The whole country is very much relying on them, and they are taking exactly the same risks as the qualified nurses. They are not in a position to go and work in care homes, which they would have done before, but obviously because of the danger of cross-infection, that is something that is not allowed, and that is very understandable. I believe, however, that these student nurses, while they are on placements at this time, should be getting paid. It is something we should call for because equality of work and equality of pay for work is hugely important.
Like others, I echo the sentiments in respect of our new President-elect in the United States. RTÉ definitely did excel in its coverage of the event, not just on election day, with its montage and so on, but in the run-up to it, particularly the "States of Mind" podcast with Jackie Fox and Brian O'Donovan. It certainly gave a very light-hearted but yet very informative appraisal in the run-up to the election.
I agree with the sentiments that have been expressed by others here in terms of the equality of pay day that took place yesterday. I also think however, that there is a big issue, and that is equal opportunities to employment for people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, approximately 86% of persons with disabilities find it difficult to get employment, which is much worse than the European average. I would appreciate a debate in early course on employment opportunities for people with disabilities because when we move out of this pandemic, and hopefully with a vaccine we will be post-Covid in 2021, I want to see a different approach to employment opportunities and the creation of employment. Although the targets for employing people with disabilities in the Civil Service are commendable and very welcome and, to a large extent, have been achieved, the same does not happen in the private sector for two reasons. First, because people with disabilities do not have the opportunity to take up such employment and, second, employers do not have the necessary supports to put the right environment in place for people with disabilities to work within their structures. The Government needs to look at providing financial support to employers to allow them to give people with disabilities the opportunity to work. When the pitch is level and the structures and supports are in place, people with disabilities are as capable as their able-bodied colleagues of doing the job.
I commend the comments of Senator Black. I put the support of my party behind her call for a Minister to come to the House on this issue. The indifference of the Government and the previous Government to the apartheid regime that operates in occupied Palestine is, frankly, unforgivable.
I wish to raise the issue of the pension age. As the Leader will know, Sinn Féin was a proud supporter of the Stop 67 campaign. The reason for that support was very simple. We do not believe it is right to tell workers who reach the age of 66 that the State cannot afford for them to retire and draw down a pension and, as such, they must wait another year. It is not good enough to tell construction workers who have worked for 45 years in a physically demanding, backbreaking job that they cannot retire at the age of 66. It is not good enough for retail workers or healthcare workers.
The issue is back in the news because the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, set up a commission on pensions last week and there was real concern about the balance on that commission. Orla O'Connor, the director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, stated:
There is currently no civil society gender perspective [on the new commission]. This means the direct experiences of women will not be reflected on the Commission.
Ethel Buckley of SIPTU stated:
The balance of its membership does not reflect the interests of those directly affected by the proposed increase in the pension age. Nor does it reflect the interests of those workers who rely entirely on the state pension for their retirement income.
Peter Kavanagh, head of communications at Active Retirement Ireland, stated:
We are disappointed at the lack of a voice for women or older people in the composition of the Commission which we believe will undoubtedly skew the conversation and may adversely affect the findings. For those most affected by pension inequality to be absent from the conversation is not the transparent and open process we had hoped for.
There are real concerns that, in effect, the commission will issue a rushed report by June of next year and effectively raise the pension age to 67. I wish to inform the Leader on behalf of my party that we will not allow that to go unchallenged. I am calling for a debate on this issue. There are real economic arguments as to why we do not need to move the pension age to 67 and they need to be aired urgently at this time.
Before I call on Senator Dolan, I wish to explain the order in which Members are being called. I have done so previously. I know Members have noticed Senators coming into the Chamber and being called ahead of other Senators who have indicated. Normally, when Members come in, they go on the rota but, because of Covid-19, we cannot have all the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael Senators, for example, showing up at the same time because there simply are not enough speaking slots or microphones available for them. I have asked the party Whips to send in a list of speakers in advance of the start of the Order of Business in order that Members know when they will be speaking and that seats will be available for them.
As a real advocate for the Mayo Roscommon hospice, I too send congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden. When he visits the Seanad and the Dáil, he will be representing the west of Ireland. Another person to fight for that region is sadly lacking. It is to be hoped that we will have another representative for the region in the Government and Oireachtas. Who knows, we might even ask President-elect Biden to be an honorary Senator. It is wonderful. It lifted my heart when I heard it. He is an immigrant to the United States, with his family coming from Mayo and Louth.
The poem on the Statue of Liberty reads:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
It speaks about the importance of diversity in the US but also in Ireland. We can even see the value and importance of diversity in Germany with the new vaccine brought forward by Pfizer and BioNTech. The two German scientists are children of Turkish migrants so it shows the value of migrants and immigrants coming to our country and the importance of diversity.
Last week, I spoke about the challenges we had in Ballinasloe. I am delighted to see that Galway County Council has returned the application for the permit to operate the waste transfer station. This is an absolute win for Ballinasloe and for the Ballinasloe says No group. I thank everyone who supported the Ballinasloe says No campaign. The council's decision means the application did not meet the validation criteria set out in the waste facility permit regulations and allows the community in Ballinasloe more time to prepare a campaign, as needed, in the months ahead.
I commend the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle for moving so swiftly to invite the Government to consider extending an invitation to President-elect Biden to visit Ireland. They are clearly in tune with the Members of the two Houses and the people of Ireland.
It is with sadness that I convey my sympathy to the people of Palestine, who have lost one of their most prominent politicians, Saeb Erekat. He was their chief negotiator for decades. He was a champion of dialogue and of Palestinian rights. He repeatedly voiced his support for a two-state solution. He was secretary general of the executive committee of the PLO. In my capacity as foreign affairs spokesperson and on behalf of the Green Party grouping, I convey my deepest sympathy to the Palestinian president, the Palestinian people and his family. I have contacted Dr. Jilan Abdalmajid, who is the head of the mission of the state of Palestine in Dublin and is based in very close proximity to Dáil Éireann, to convey to her our deepest sympathies on this very sad occasion for the people of Palestine.
I do not have a question for the Leader but I commend the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle for the speed with which they invited President-elect Biden to visit Ireland. As he is aware, there is an army of genealogists working in Kerry to establish an undoubted connection. We will depend on the Cathaoirleach to make sure that when he does come, he visits the kingdom as well.
I also commend An Taoiseach for his attendance at the commemoration ceremony in the North over the weekend. This was a first for the leader of my party. I know it is not the first overall. I welcome it and see it as a step forward - a small step maybe but all beginnings are small - in the road towards the move towards a shared island, which is starting to capture the imagination of the public and may very well offer a way forward and an alternative to the blind sectarian hatred we witnessed from both sides of the extremes in the North. He is to be congratulated on that.
We have mixed feelings about the future with Covid-19. While one swallow does not make a summer, we should acknowledge that there has been a trend in the right direction of late. There are signs of hope. Naturally, we are all pinning our hopes on the efficacy of the proposed vaccine. People need hope in their lives, particularly coming up to Christmas. In that regard, I have an announcement that will be of major importance to the young people of Ireland. I can state categorically without fear or favour that I have it on the best authority that Santa Claus is coming this Christmas, Covid or no Covid.
He was in Cork last Sunday.
He has made special arrangements and will be in observance of all the rules and regulations.
His name is Mark Keane.
For the young people of Ireland you heard it here first: Santa Claus is definitely coming.
How can that be followed? I have two things to raise this morning. One is that we hear constantly that the HSE is looking for people to work in the area of tracing. An entire army of veterans is available who are only too keen to come back to drive people to medical appointments, do tracing work and anything asked of them. Several of the veterans' organisations around the country are already doing things like shopping for older and vulnerable people using their own cars and paying their own costs. What are we offering them to come back and do something? We are offering them pension abatement. If they come back, we will take their pensions from them. We did not do that to consultants, doctors or other senior people who came back into the service. A private soldier on a pension of a few bob a week, however, will have that taken from him or her if he or she comes back to serve the State. That is wrong.
The second thing I will talk about this morning is gender pay and equality. I am tired of this situation arising. I have eight sisters, a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law and two granddaughters. I think my two granddaughters will probably reach my age before we see pay equality in this country. We are in the Houses of Parliament and we can solve this problem in the morning. Pay equality is in the public sector, so why the hell is it not law and why do we not make it law? By the way, the way we treat our women in politics is absolutely despicable. If a woman in this House has a baby today and she is needed for a vote tomorrow, she will have to come in. That is just wrong in every sense of the word.
Instead of all the hot air we hear about equality, let us actually do something about it. Let us bring in legislation that will force all organisations to pay equal pay. Senator Bacik spoke yesterday about the issue of equal pay affecting some of the highest paid women in this country. They are still 14% behind the men they work opposite, their peers and equals. It is wrong in every sense of the word and we should take responsibility for it.
Our business community has been struggling, particularly in the past two weeks, in dealing with this lockdown. Restaurants, pubs and hairdressers are all working in a very limited capacity, if they are working in all. It has been a tough seven months for the Irish business community. We put major supports in place, such as the wet pub grant, the restart scheme and the restart grant plus scheme. Those supports have all worked to a degree and we must acknowledge that.
The major issue I have been coming across, however, particularly in the past two and half weeks, concerns the banks and how they have engaged with the business sector. I am concerned about the things I am hearing. These aspects include individuals having to go for remortgaging of their premises, and instead of having the 2.4% rate they were getting they are now being quoted up to 6% for these term loans. That will have a huge knock-on effect on the business community in future. People who have gone for overdrafts in the past two weeks have been asked for additional information or have been told that the bank might consider applications if they can apply with all that information. The amount of information being sought is unsustainable. It is not even practical for a short-term loan application. We must have a major debate regarding how the banks are engaging with our business community. If we do not, we will kill off our small to medium-sized businesses and that is becoming the biggest issue for me now.
It is appropriate that we have a debate with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on how he can engage with the banking institutions to ensure we have a level playing pitch. We do not have that now. There was a six months' rebate period in which banks stepped back. That has now ended. The banks are back doing what they did before, and that is being the bully. We need somebody to stand up for the small businesses, because they are not in a place, financially or mentally, to do that. Probably the biggest issue business owners have now is that they are mentally broke. It is important, therefore, that we have a constructive debate with the Ministers on how we can rein in the banks.
I join with other Members of the House in congratulating President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and I support the decision of the Cathaoirleach and Ceann Comhairle to invite President-elect Biden to come to Ireland and address the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I would also like to wish the former Captain of the Guard, John Flaherty, and the former Head Usher, Colm O'Rourke, well. They have given outstanding service to this House over many years. They were always courteous, obliging and helpful in every way they could be. I wish them well in their retirement and I hope they have a long retirement.
I want to ask the Leader about the marine planning and development management Bill and about the area of offshore wind power. The Bill is supposed to be enacted by next March and there are targets the Government and the country have to meet. Will the Government have to buy credits to meet the 2020 targets? The only offshore wind farm we have is on the Arklow Bank, which generates 25 MW. That is a small wind farm in the scale of things. The Government action plan, published in 2019, proposed that there would be 3.5 GW by 2030 and the programme for Government stated there should be no problem in having 5 GW by 2030. The marine planning and development management Bill will have to be enacted before that. I ask the Leader to invite in whichever Minister is responsible for this because it goes across a few Ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Ministry for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is important that we would have a debate on that because all the planned offshore wind farms are on the east coast and there is a huge challenge on the west coast, as well as many advantages. Much could be done there.
I commend the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle on their decision to invite President-elect Biden and I congratulate him and Senator Kamala Harris on their election. I join with Senator Byrne in congratulating John King of CNN on his wonderful exposé of how to carry out analysis of politics and I commend my past pupil, Brian O'Donovan, of RTÉ.
I primarily rise to support Senator Craughwell on the issue of gender pay equality. It is incumbent on us as Members of the Oireachtas to support the WorkEqual Oireachtas group. The 14.4% pay differential is unacceptable and untenable. There is a duty on all of us to work to eliminate that disparity in pay.
I ask the Leader to bring in the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to discuss the issue of the Land Development Agency and Cork City Council developing the Cork docklands. I commend the work of the Land Development Agency and I pay tribute to the former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on the work he did in establishing and pioneering the Land Development Agency. Today, Cork City Council and the Land Development Agency will partner to develop the docklands of Cork city. There is the potential for 25,000 new living accommodation spaces and 29,000 new work spaces for people and that is incredible. I ask that we have that debate. It is an important debate to have. It is about developing our second city and that is what we should be doing. I commend the Cork footballers on their great victory last Sunday.
There was no need for that. The Senator was going so well and then he had to mention that. It was a bad enough year and then that had to happen.
I have no skin in the game between Cork or Kerry but it gave great joy in our house and it was something to shout out at on the telly at the weekend. Sport is definitely something to be welcomed.
A number of colleagues asked for debates and I will put in requests immediately. A number of them are tied together and that might be significant with regard to maybe having a day-long debate on the marine planning and development management Bill and our obligations around climate change, including solar farm development and offshore wind development. We might try to arrange that for a particular day now that we have some consistency in our sitting arrangements between now and Christmas, please God.
On Senator Boyhan's suggestion, there is a long-standing invitation to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. It was one of the first things I did in July of this year.
I will revisit that. An opportune time for the Taoiseach to come before the House would be January. There might be a lot more hope following the announcement by Pfizer yesterday on the development of the new vaccine.
To Senator O'Sullivan, I say I am very pleased to hear for all the children of the country that Santy will be coming.
There were several requests for letters this morning. I will send them today and send the Senators copies.
I concur with the welcome that everyone has given to the lift that not only all Irish people got at the weekend, but which many Americans also felt from the hope given by a new Administration in America. We will probably conclude negotiations around Brexit in the next few weeks. From our perspective, the influence of the result can very much be felt, even in the smallest phrases that are used by significant people in power and the tone that is set, in how things will go forward. We have seen four years of an Administration that has allowed things to be said in a manner and substance that has degraded politics and has allowed societies on both sides of the very large pond around which we live, to be entertained where we would never have entertained such discourse before. I really hope that what happened over the weekend will bring about an enormous change in how we deal with each other politically and on a human level, and that the fake news that we have had to entertain in recent years will be dead and gone once 2021 comes.