The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) (Exclusion of Workers in the Fishing and Shipping Sectors) Regulations 2021, back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, statements on the European digital green certificate, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 3 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the Minister to be given not less than eight minutes to reply to the statements made on this day and then the statements to be thereupon adjourned; No. 3, Education (Leaving Certificate 2021) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 3.15 p.m., to conclude at 5.35 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than eight minutes to reply to the debate.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I wish to raise today the ongoing restrictions in maternity hospitals. A number of Members have raised this, as have I. I am really not sure who is making the rules or what exactly is going on across the country because it appears to be a postcode lottery. We have varying degrees of restrictions, but it seems to be the general rule of thumb that a partner can now attend the anomaly scan but no scan before that; can attend for the birth of the baby but not for the active labour before that; and that there are limited restrictions afterwards. Let us be very clear: this is barbaric, it is cruel, it is unnecessary and it has to stop. We are 14 months into this pandemic and they still have not found a solution to make this happen. A partner is not a luxury at the birth of a baby. They are there for the physical and mental support of the mum, and they are also present for the birth of their child. It is an important point for them. We saw reports last week from the Psychological Society of Ireland that it now has evidence that this is directly impacting negatively on the mental health of women but also increasing anxiety among partners, who are sitting in parking lots waiting for that phone call so they can run up the stairs and hope to make it to the birthing suite on time. This is what is happening every hour of every day in hospitals. I went through this myself last year and I can attest to how traumatic and awful the situation is - to be in a position where one's partner is frogmarched out of the hospital and not allowed back in and one is heading into the birthing suite wondering if they will make it on time. Some people have not.
Yesterday, the HSE chief executive, Paul Reid, made a statement on the matter. To paraphrase his statement, he said that given the way things are with the pandemic right now, restrictions should be lifted entirely. Dr. Colm Henry said he is going to write to all maternity units to advise them of this and to ask them to remove restrictions, yet we know this morning that some hospitals are still reluctant to do this. Who is making the decision? Is it the Minister for Health or the chief executive or do hospitals do their own thing? Who do we listen to? Right now, it feels like we are not listening to women. Once again, we are ignoring the voices of women in the health service. It is not that we are not used to this, it has happened before on many issues, but it is 2021 and the women of Ireland deserve better from their health service. We in this House want to know what is the next step and when the restrictions will be lifted because they should be lifted immediately.
I wish to raise one more issue that is not as pressing. Thank you for your latitude on that particular topic, a Chathaoirligh. Sunday, 9 May is Europe Day. From my party's perspective, we are really proud of our history and our heritage, that we were the party that led this country into the European Union back in 1973, after a ten-year campaign. It was not something that happened overnight. It is important that on Europe Day, as an active and committed member state of the European Union, we celebrate that we are a member of the European Union and that we commit to its core values of democracy, human rights, transparency and espousing progressive and liberal values that the European Union pushes for and holds dear to itself.
As a member of Renew Europe, our sister party in the European Union, I thank my colleagues, Billy Kelleher MEP and Barry Andrews MEP, for their work within that party. It is a centre-ground party with progressive liberal ideas and will be joining with us on Sunday to celebrate Europe Day on behalf of Ireland, one of the key member states.
Anois, leading off for the Independent Group is Senator Rónán Mullen. Before you begin, I express my condolences to you and to all the Mullen family on the sad passing of your father.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his kind words. I will start by thanking colleagues here for the very kind words of sympathy they expressed in this House last Friday after the death of my father. Our family appreciates that very much indeed. Thank you.
Today I would like to say a little bit about the Government's proposed hate speech legislation, the criminal justice (hate crime) Bill 2021, the general scheme of which was published recently. I have concerns around the idea that the penalty for certain crimes increases where satisfactory evidence is brought, for example, of an underlying attitude of racism or any other attitudes towards protected groups. I am concerned that this would create an imbalance in our criminal law with the potential to create a hierarchy of victims. It seems to me that if a person assaults somebody because of a love of violence or hate for the other person's family, it is no more or no less serious than if a person assaults somebody because of underlying racist attitudes. The mistake we are at risk of making is between punishing people's acts, which we must always do, and tackling the evil attitudes that underlie such acts, which are really a matter for education and public education. I do not believe we can legislate to punish people for particular attitudes that society at a particular moment in time wants to condemn. There is a danger that we will create an imbalance or a hierarchy of victims. I believe we need to think about this very carefully. We should have a discussion about it. I assume the proposed Bill will go to pre-legislative scrutiny. I speak in the context of the legislation in the House before Christmas, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020. However important and valid the issues it was seeking to deal with, the legislation went through the House far too quickly and I feel that we did not do our job properly as a legislature in considering the detail of it.
One particular issue in this proposed Bill leapt off the page to me, which is that head 3 proposes an offence of incitement to hatred. Essentially, this modernises and adapts the provisions of the 1989 Act with regard to statements designed to stir up hatred. I am all in favour of that modification of the law but it goes on to say that it shall be a defence where it can be shown that the communications are a "reasonable and genuine contribution to literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic discourse." A notable omission is religious discourse. I find this remarkable because there is particular protection in our Constitution for the practice and free expression of religion. By leaving this out of the acceptable defences it seems to me there is a disease of wokeness around somewhere when such legislation is being planned. First of all, people are not thinking about what the Constitution requires. Second, it does not even accord the same level of protection to religious discourse as it would to political or other named categories of discourse.
There was a troubling video online recently of an elderly man in England who was reading the Bible from a soapbox. He was arrested in a gruff manner by the police under hate speech laws. Nobody was offended by what he had said and people were objecting to what the police were doing. We need to be careful here. Is there to be a hierarchy of people in our society who have the right to free speech? Is there a hierarchy of victims when it comes to punishing crimes? We need a discussion on this issue. I hope this proposed Bill goes to pre-legislative scrutiny. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on this where Members can respectfully exchange ideas and do our work on this very important area that will impact in a big way on our culture.
We are on the cusp of seeing a significant reopening of society and the economy this Monday. Obviously, this is a very exciting development in the context of the pandemic. However, we have no guidance as to when dance, drama or music classes can recommence. I ask that the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, be written to in order to produce that guidance. I do not need to repeat to the House how serious it is for dance, music and drama schools across the country and for their teachers with the lack of in-person classes. These classes have been suspended since the introduction of level 3 restrictions, which go back for the whole country to last October, and for those in Donegal and Dublin to even before that.
It seems we have in this country a very narrow view of or perspective on what is essential education. These classes are vital to the growth, development and mental health of children. That is before we even start talking about needing to feed the creative element in their lives. We need to see the guidance as soon as possible.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 10, the Protection of Employment (Platform Workers and Bogus Self-Employment) Bill 2021, be taken before No. 1. In recent years, we have seen the growth of platform work throughout Europe and the world, including in this country. While food delivery cyclists have very much been the public face of platform work, we know it exists in many other sectors such as media, content production, graphic design, web maintenance and a whole host of others. We have reached the stage that we now need to regulate and recognise platform work as a form of work in this country.
The Labour Party view is that while we should not make all work standard, we need to make all work decent. At the heart of platform work in this country and elsewhere is an enormous imbalance in the power between platforms and workers in terms of how pay is set and the ability of platforms to be able to hire and fire at will. In addition, there is no access to information on how the algorithms manage and pay workers. It is not acceptable in 21st century Ireland that workers are forced to work below the national minimum wage and in what I consider to be bogus self-employment. This means they are unable to access the protections of the State because they are engaged in this type of work. That is why we are introducing this Bill.
The Bill seeks to do three things: regulate and recognise platform work in our labour code; stamp out bogus self-employment, which is why we have a provision for a presumption of employee status for all workers; and change the balance of power between platforms and workers so workers can access information about the algorithms that manage their performance and how work is offered to them.
I recognise many Senators are very concerned about this issue. Considerable work has been done on this by members of other parties, which is to be very much welcomed. I hope we can bring forward this Bill and have a debate in the House on it.
Ballots are being counted at the moment in the UK and I wish my colleagues in the Green Party in England, Scotland and Wales all the very best this week. There are 13 directly elected mayors in the UK so it is an exciting time and a good signal to us in Ireland that we need to step up when it comes to this issue. Much can be achieved by having a democratic process that gives people the ability to vote for mayors, rather than the almost politically orchestrated process we have in this country. To have decision-making at the lowest effective level is a matter the Green Party has led on for a very long time. I wish my colleagues in the UK all the best.
It is obviously exciting for me, and the planet, that we could see the Green Party in government in Scotland, which could also achieve independence. Quite apart from that, this week was the first time 16-year-olds in Wales got the opportunity to vote. Again, Green Party members have been calling for the implementation of this measure for a long time. If we want to engage people in politics, and we do and should, they need to be engaged as early as possible. It needs to go right through our education system, but in order for it to have meaning people must have a vote to express all the things they are feeling. There is no point in providing education for something that might happen in several years' time. The responsibility to vote needs to be imminent and in people's hands. It is an exciting week in Wales.
I echo what the leader of the Fianna Fáil Group, Senator Chambers, said in relation to partners.
This is something I brought up last Friday and the Leader has brought up herself on a number of occasions. I am particularly frustrated at the postcode lottery, which I also raised last week, which is the fact that in Galway partners are allowed in for one hour a day when the baby is born. In the rest of the north west there is no visiting allowed yet in some of the hospitals in Dublin it is three hours a day. There is no real excuse for that other than the fact that we need to support the hospitals and the midwives in order to achieve that balance. There is nothing in the world of a difference between a woman, a baby and a partner in the west of Ireland and in Dublin. Why we cannot show quality on this issue is quite frankly beyond me. We need to step up now. I heard Paul Reid this morning saying that there is no reason not to allow partners in. Whatever the blockage is we need to fix it and ensure that babies get what they need as well from their parents.
Gabhaim buíochas. I call now the leader of the Sinn Fein grouping, Senator Ó Donnghaile.
The informed speculation in recent days that the British Government intends to legally grant an amnesty to its armed forces and to renege on the Stormont House Agreement is a retrospective licence to kill. Although this is shocking it will not come as a surprise to the thousands of relatives grieving for the loss of a relative killed by the British crown forces.
The peace process in the North has brought significant benefits to all of our society and Ireland is a better place because of it but the full benefits of peace have yet to touch the greater number of relatives who lost a loved one at the hands of the British crown forces where it matters most to them, which is in getting the truth and justice for their lost loved one. What matters most to the British Government is to protect the killers and its armed forces and to deny and block relatives from getting truth and justice.
A week does not go by in the courtrooms in Belfast where human rights lawyers are not battling for truth and justice for relatives. They are being opposed with the infinite resources of the British state, including the PSNI, whose reputation among nationalists on this issue is in tatters.
Britain's armed forces killed with impunity and now they could benefit from legal immunity and from amnesty. The pain involved in the search for truth and justice by relatives can be seen practically every day in the media in the North. A snapshot in Wednesday's Irish News reflects the scale of the loss and of the time that people have been waiting for truth and justice. The paper covered the stories of six families, one a schoolboy, Patrick Rooney, aged nine, the first child to be killed during the conflict. It also mentions three others - Hugh McCabe, Samuel McLarnon and Michael Lynch, all of whom were shot dead by the RUC on 14 and 15 August 1969. The Ombudsman's report into the killings this week said "that there was no effective investigation into these deaths by the RUC".
No member of the RUC was arrested or prosecuted for the killings. The newspaper covers the trial of two British soldiers accused of the murder of Joe McCann. He was shot in the back by British paratroopers in April 1972. The case collapsed this week. A former senior British officer, Colonel Richard Kemp, told Radio Ulster that "the families do need justice and I think the families got justice when Joe McCann was shot in 1972". That is typical of the mentality of not just British soldiers. The newspaper also covered the inquest into the killing of Derry woman Kathleen Thompson, aged 47, by the British army in 1971. The Thompson family are facing further delay as those accused claim ill-health and frailty of mind, which is a familiar tactic used as reasons for not attending the inquest and of it then grinding it slowly to a halt, thereby denying justice to the family. These heartbreaking human stories are but a small sample of the thousands of people denied truth and justice but at least the denial is in the media for all to see.
The British Government's plan not only exonerates the killers but it hides its actions from public scrutiny. At all levels from the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, through its military establishment and justice system, justice is being corrupted to protect and cover up state killings. The fact that this announcement is expected to be made on the same day that the findings of the coroner's inquest into the massacre at Ballymurphy are published shows just how callous this move is and just how little regard the British state has for its victims here in Ireland.
I welcome here the statement from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on behalf of the Irish Government that it is as opposed to " a suggestion that the British Government would act unilaterally to legislate to prevent prosecutions, or the possibility of prosecutions happening, related to the Troubles”. He went on to say: “Victims and Northern Ireland must be the priority and the only priority."
I call to the Leader to allow statements on legacy and on the Stormont House Agreement to be held in the Seanad during one of our two sittings next week. It is crucial that victims and campaigners hear a parliamentary response to this from Dublin but it is equally important that the British Government hears one too. I hope that colleagues across the House will support me in that endeavour and that she can make arrangements urgently to facilitate that. Gabhaim míle buíochas.
I thank the Senator for raising that issue. I was with the Senator in Belfast for the Ballymurphy inquest. It is shocking that it has taken so long for inquests to take place into so many killings in Northern Ireland. For anyone to act unilaterally against an agreement between two sovereign states would be "beyond the pale", to use another phrase.
I call Senator Ruane, the whip for the Civil Engagement Group.
Today, I will raise a local issue, something I tend not to do. It is so local that it involves my community in Killinarden. The reason I raise it today is that we have had little progress in trying to deal directly with the Department of Social Protection on the issue, which is the hot school meals programme. Killinarden is one of the largest, if not the largest, housing estates in Tallaght west with some of the highest rates of poverty. The local schools are Sacred Heart junior and senior schools, Cnoc Mhuire junior and senior schools and the Gaelscoil, Scoil Chaitlín Maude. They came together to work collaboratively to apply for the programme as a consortium for all the children, because different age groups go to the junior schools and the senior schools and they might be from the same families. The Department of Social Protection removed one school from the consortium and provided the hot school meals programme to all the other schools. This means somebody could have a child in junior school who does not receive a hot meal while the person's other children in the senior school do, or the person's next-door neighbour whose child goes to the Sacred Heart school does receive a meal and the person's child does not. The Department removed one small school from the consortium. It just picked it out for no apparent reason and decided not to provide the school with hot meals.
That does not make sense. We recognise that these are families who experience poverty and live in consistent poverty. There are many one-parent family households. The schools and the community need those meals, but for some reason this decision was made. The only answer we have received is that the Department can only give it to so many schools and so forth. There is no idea of looking at the demographics or geographics of that community or the implications for just one family household. It does not make any sense. One of the words used in the response is that it is a "lottery" system. It worried me that the inclusion officer would say it is a lottery system. If one is dealing with poverty and its impacts, and if one is assessing schools on the basis of need, it does not make sense that a lottery system would be used to determine how in-need a community is. One should look at the application, the statistics and why that community would require the support.
I do not usually bring local issues such as this before the Seanad, but we have tried a number of other avenues. I ask the Leader for her support and to communicate with the Department of Social Protection to try to create some leeway so we do not create further inequalities in a community that experiences inequality. Removing one junior school from that programme is creating a further inequality in that community.
I thank the Senator for raising that issue. I know it is a local issue, but it is an important one. It might be a matter the Senator could raise as a Commencement matter for the Minister to answer.
When I spoke in the Seanad last week I raised the issue of maternity services restrictions, which is on many Members' minds today. I am glad there was clarification from on high, but there does not seem to be the same clarification in the three maternity hospitals and 16 maternity units around the country. It is beyond time that partners were allowed to attend for scans and the full labour.
I now direct the Leader's attention to the time after childbirth and the first 12 months of a baby's life. Any mother can attest to the wonderful joy, sleepless nights and the challenges this time can bring. Having developmental checks is extremely important for a child aged between nine and 11 months. Understandably, public health nurse visits and screening checks have been curtailed and delayed as a result of the restrictions, but we are at a point now where there is an absolute need for clarity. These assessments are very important because they assess a child's physical development, motor skills, eyesight, hearing, speech development and social and emotional behaviour.
This should be carried out by a public health nurse. I was shocked to learn that 3,235 babies in Kildare and west Wicklow are still waiting on that nine to 11 month developmental check. We all talk about how important early intervention is and this is the time when many of these issues can be picked up. This is adding to the stress of first-time parents and there is an absolute necessity for a plan to be put in place. I call on the HSE to urgently roll out a catch-up programme for Kildare and west Wicklow. I have no doubt it is the same around the country.
I would like to be associated with the vote of sympathy to Senator Mullen on the death of his father. It is not an easy time when one loses a loved one, so I wish the Senator well.
We had a great debate here on tourism with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, a number of months ago but we should have a rolling debate on tourism and the opening up of business, particularly small business in the tourism sector, such as small pubs and small restaurants. I presume it will be a while before they open and some may not open at all. That will cause many difficulties for those small businesses because they will have creditors to pay, there will be lots of bills and there will be staff redundancies. We need a debate on this because it will be a difficult decision for many small businesses whether to open. If they open, can they compete and will their premises be big enough? In many cases, they will not. I can see how the larger premises, particularly ones with outdoor areas for barbecuing and that sort of thing, will survive. Hopefully, the vast majority will survive and grow again but I can see many difficulties for small pubs and restaurants with limited seating and, maybe, no outdoor area. They will face harsh decisions and I hope we have a tourism debate and see if we can do something extra for those people.
I lend my voice to the outcry against the mass purchasing of newly built housing units. The news headlines this past week have been salt in the wounds of many in this country whose hope of owning their own home is fast fading. The complexities of the housing market do not often lend themselves to easy fixes. Surely this makes it all the more important to seize the opportunities we see to put a quick stop to bad practice. In this vein, the recent comments from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Taoiseach expressing their dismay at this occurrence are welcome. However, words come cheap unless they are printed on Oireachtas paper and signed by the President. Let us see the legislation put before these Houses that will see new homes going to new buyers and not overseas speculators.
Houses will solve this housing crisis. The Government recognises this, which begs the question as to why county councils around the country being told to dezone fully serviced sites. Meath could deliver 10,000 homes to the people of the county and yet the Planning Regulator and Minister continue to artificially suppress this number by throttling the ability of the county development plan to meet the needs of local communities and the country as a while. Despite the recent media hype about this phenomenon, the snapping up of hundreds of units is not a recent development. This has been going on for years, ever since these global real estate investment trusts were given free rein via tax breaks in an attempt to taxidermy the Celtic tiger. Now that we see fully the knock-on effects of such practices, let us reconsider.
These funds have been referred to as vultures ready to swoop on investments and as cuckoos stealing the nests of ordinary people. Let us have that system go the way of the dodo and be rid of it for good.
Like others, I believe we have identified what was laid out at the weekend in terms of the housing crisis. The idea of global investment funds purchasing houses that were meant to be for first-time buyers has been responded to with shock. That shock has turned into outrage because it seems this practice is about to continue unabated. I welcome the position that the Taoiseach and the Minister have taken and their intention to move quickly.
I would welcome a debate on housing generally but also on this specific matter, but it would be remiss of us if we were to ignore the issues around the funding of housing. As with everything one wants to purchase, money is at the root of this situation. Indeed, it affects every aspect of it. Our banking system is not fit for purpose. Two banking operations that provided some level of competition are now exiting. With their exit, one wonders what competition will be left. Small, medium and, in some cases, large builders are unable to get funding from banking institutions to build houses in the first instance. They are left with no choice but to seek the support of external funds. Maybe that was all right for a while, but the funds got greedy. They were not happy with the significant interest rates they got from house builders. They wanted to be the providers of equity to assist the builder and, in the early stages, it looked like they wanted to be the facilities providing funds to those who wanted to purchase the houses, but even being the funder on both ends was not enough. They now want to own the properties at the end. This has to be curbed, and I suspect it will be, but we will still be left with a gap in terms of where the money comes from. Unless we reform our banking system in some way, we will be left as we were previously with a lack of houses because builders will not be able to access funding to build them in the first instance. It is a vicious circle. Unless we address both aspects of it, we will have a problem. I suggest that we have a debate on the matter at the earliest opportunity.
I concur with my colleague, Deputy Dooley, on the need for a debate with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on what is an important issue for society, that being, how to ensure we provide enough housing. I spoke about this issue two weeks ago in terms of the cost of building, including materials and labour. In addition to cement and insulation, that the cost of timber has increased by 40% in the past six months and the cost of steel by 48% - the cost of labour has gone that way too - means that houses will become very unaffordable. It is a supply issue. Builders throughout the country cannot get access to cash, so they will not develop sites. That is the unfortunate dilemma. They had been entering into agreements with local authorities or housing agencies to purchase sites. That was the only way they could get their developments off the ground. The knock-on effect was that the number of properties left for first-time buyers was limited. There are so many issues with the housing market that require meaningful debate.
An issue in my part of the world is that stock that was built for residential housing is now being used primarily as Airbnb properties. Their owners will get €1,000 per week for the next 16 weeks, but the properties will be left idle for the rest of the year. There were 300 or 400 such properties on Airbnb's website this morning. That is a deficit in the rental market, which has a major impact on our provision of housing.
The Planning Regulator has an unusual view of one-off housing.
One-off housing is an important party of our society. It keeps rural parishes alive. However, the planning regulator has a totally different view of it. We need a meaningful debate on core issues with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, so that we can get some movement on this issue. This is going to be an issue for the next decade if we do not try to sort it out.
I second Senator Sherlock's amendment. Today, I would like to raise two issues that fall under the health remit. I cannot believe I have to rise again today to raise the issue of student nurses and midwives, but there has been no resolution to the pay issue for them. I brought a Bill on student nurses' pay to the floor of this House, which passed Second Stage, but I am told the Government proposes to let it die on Committee Stage. Despite the accolades and declarations of support for our overworked and undervalued student nurses and midwives no progress has been made on the pay issue. I cannot believe that months on, student nurses and midwives are still getting in touch with me to ask what is happening with the measly €100 per week per week promised to them, about which there was a great deal of coverage. I ask the Leader to inquire of the Minister for Health what is happening with regard to student nurses and midwives and when we will see a resolution to this matter.
The second issue I want to raise has been already raised by a number of other Senators today, namely, the announcement yesterday to lift the restrictions on maternity services. There was much celebration about this online, but, as already highlighted here, there is concern that this announcement has overshadowed what is actually happening. A nominated support partner can attend the 20-week anomaly scan, but the 12-week booking is not included. What is also not covered in the announcement is antenatal appointments and unscheduled care or pregnancy loss. This is not good enough.
I take the issue with the phrase "conditions are right". Conditions were never wrong. As a country, we decided to not go with the World Health Organization advice and thus we caused an enormous amount of undue suffering to pregnant women and their families. I was disappointed yesterday when the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, undermined the HSE leadership in its attempts to bring in minimum standards of care. We cannot continue to prioritise these arbitrary traumatising restrictions. Pregnant people and their partners deserve better. I hope that the Minister for Health will consider offering his leadership in this area, rather than seeking to undermine the work of the HSE.
I hope Senator Hoey's leg will be better soon.
This week, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, proposed to Cabinet the most comprehensive affordable housing legislation in the history of the State. It proposes to change the direction of the State's role in the provision of housing in Ireland. This is an important development, not just for Government, but for society at large. We are coming out of a decade of under-provision of housing and the housing crisis has never been more profound. Radical change is needed. The Bill will do four things. It will cause the State to take the lead in the provision of housing by empowering local authorities to build affordable homes, starting at €160,000; it will create, for the first time in the history of this State, a local authority-led scheme of affordable cost rental; it will support first-time buyers, financially, to purchase homes; and it will double the number of social and affordable housing units provided in every new development under Part V. This is all very welcome. I urge every Member of the House to get behind the affordable housing Bill.
We all are aware that there are still significant deficits and issues in our dysfunctional housing system that need to be addressed. The commitment of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to ban co-living was welcome, as is his commitment to end the strategic housing development, SHD, process and to review the build-to-rent model. I acknowledge that the Minister has committed that from a planning perspective he will bring forward amendments to the planning legislation, but these amendments will only deal with planning issues as they arise on new planning applications. We need an immediate response from a financial perspective. It was a finance initiative that brought the vulture funds into this country. They are now spending €53 million per week here, which is not only undermining first-time buyers and our citizens in securing a home, it is undermining the State. This is an attack on our State and its commitment to provide housing for our citizens. I ask that the Minister for Finance come to this House to make a statement on what immediate action he is going to take to put financial penalties on these vulture funds so that they get out of the way of our first-time buyers and our State's commitment to provide homes for our citizens.
I will start by offering my condolences to Senator Mullen on the recent passing of his father. I wish to discuss the vaccine roll-out programme. While it has been positive in many instances, I have been contacted by two families, one of whom includes a lady in her mid-80s who is bedridden but has still not received her vaccination. In the case of the other family, the mother is her early 60s, is auto-immune suppressed and has chronic respiratory disease. Her consultant has contacted the vaccine roll-out programme, which I have contacted several times as well, but this lady has still not been called for her vaccination. Although these may be small issues, they are not so small for the families and patients concerned. Could the Leader arrange for the Minister for Health to come to the House for a debate on the matter? While the roll-out programme is very positive, there are outstanding issues that need to be raised. When there is no resolution of these issues over many weeks, it is time for that debate.
The situation in maternity hospitals has been raised by many Members. Yesterday was International Day of the Midwife. I know that maternity services in University Hospital Limerick had a celebratory day with their patients and the midwives. The theme of yesterday was "follow the data, invest in midwives". I pay tribute to the many midwives and people on the front line who have contributed so positively during the pandemic.
I also offer my condolences to Senator Mullen. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 12, the Civil Legal Aid (Exclusion of Value of Free or Partly Free Board) (Amendment) Bill 2021, be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business today. I hope the Leader will have no objections to that. I am aware that a review of the entire civil legal aid system is under way, which is welcome, but the issue my Bill seeks to address is time-sensitive. Every day, there are people, mostly women, who are being effectively denied representation in the courts due to the deeply unfair and discriminatory policy of counting the housing assistance payment, HAP, as income. In order to qualify for HAP, a person must meet the financial eligibility requirements for local authority housing. However, due to the failure of successive Governments over the past decade to address the housing crisis, there is a chronic shortage of local authority homes. The HAP was the market mechanism that Fine Gael introduced to address this situation and over 60,000 households are now in receipt of the payment. However, every Member of this House knows that housing assistance payments go directly to the landlord and the tenant never receives that money. Not only that, because the caps on the housing assistance payment do not meet the current market rents, many tenants are bridging the gap from their own resources, which is further depleting their low income. Yet when it comes to accessing justice, the Legal Aid Board counts the housing assistance payment as income and is effectively denying people representation in the courts. This is clearly a breach of the European Court of Human Rights ruling when the formidable Josie Airey took on the State in 1979. That ruling said that it was unreasonable to expect somebody to represent themselves in the court, yet this is what the State is complicit in doing by not changing the regulations. As women who have fled domestic violence are now obliged to represent themselves in the courts when it comes to child access rights and maintenance, I hope we can debate this Bill in the House soon.
Does anyone wish to second the amendment to the Order of Business?
I second the amendment.
Yesterday, we saw a disgraceful act by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The Department withdrew from a 20-year salary scale agreement with county childcare committees across the country - not because it wanted to give childcare autonomy but because it decided it was not going to meet the terms of a Workplace Relations Commission from September that had ruled on an increase regarding pay grades for the staff.
It asked how it would extract itself from this and said that it would say it was not people's employers. It told staff to pay themselves what they wanted but that it would not give them the money to make sure that they were actually paid. It put that in the circular and hammered that home. That agreement would have cost a measly €360,000. When the country was in lockdown and we needed to get front-line staff to their stations, and they needed childcare to allow them to do that, these people orchestrated that. When it comes to honouring an agreement reached in the WRC, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has weaselled its way out of it by walking away from a 20-year-old agreed practice. Why do that? Does it not want these people as public servants even though these are the people who implement Government policy in childcare across the country? It is a sector that is run by voluntary boards and gets plenty of plaudits, but has seen damn all increases to budgets that operate this system over successive Governments, for 20 years. The entire system is operated for the pittance of €11 million.
How can the Department get away with this stroke? Does it think that it can? Is it because 236 of the 240 employees across the country are women? Is that why it thinks it can do this? Would it attempt this if they were men? The Minister need not bother coming in again with flowery language, saying he values the work of the childcare structure in this country after that act of deplorable stroke politics yesterday. He cannot stand over that and he clearly does not value the work of these people after what happened yesterday. It was a full stroke and a slap in the face to the efforts to a determined group of professional women, since it is mainly women, to professionalise the system of childcare in this country. They were given the two fingers by the Department yesterday and it was a disgrace.
The public's response and anger in recent days when people learned that global investment funds were swooping in to buy blocks of houses in areas where demand clearly outstrips supply is fully understandable. Lost in the justified furore was a good initiative by the Government to place the cost-rental model on a legislative footing for the first time. The Vienna cost-rental bases rent on how much it costs to build. It is core Green Party policy. Rent can be 40% cheaper. This year, we are rolling out 440 units. I warmly and unreservedly welcome that initiative in a week which was depressing for first-time buyers. In Maynooth and other places, people demonstrated a significant level of restraint. Some of them had justified grounds for objecting to planning permission applications. They put the country first in the housing crisis. They put their neighbours and their neighbours' adult children first to give them a chance to be afforded an opportunity to buy a house for the first time. They said no to NIMBYism. All bets are off and those developers will be named and shamed but I do not expect anything better. It will take central Government to regulate and ensure there is a prohibition on mass block purchases in areas in this country where demand clearly outstrips supply. I am delighted that the Government has said what it will do but people are watching and expect this to be done quickly.
We have all reasonably and correctly bemoaned the full closure of Ulster Bank and the closure of branches of Bank of Ireland. I want to propose some responses, and request that the Leader bring them to the Government and provide an opportunity to debate them in the House. I start by proposing the empowerment of our credit unions. Credit unions can only lend 15% of their reserves on home mortgages. It should be low-risk, as whoever lends holds the deeds. It is not high-risk lending and it is becoming less so.
The credit unions cannot hold reserves due to cost. If 25% of the Ulster Bank's deposits moved to credit unions they could not cope. They can only take low deposits and they are as low as €15,000 in some instances. They cannot operate proper cheque or debit card business. I believe that the rules of the Central Bank and the Department of Finance are too restrictive on the credit unions and something needs to be done in this area. I appeal to the Leader to bring this matter to the attention of the Government and suggest that we have a debate on this whole area when we can.
There are iconic beautiful buildings in various towns that have been vacated by various banks. They must be bought by the State, local authorities or the Government and used for public purposes, social purposes, public administration, cultural purposes and tourism purposes. These are beautiful buildings that cannot be let go and are central in each town. I ask the Leader to convey this matter to the Government and arrange a debate. It is an opportunity in the middle of quite a problem.
This morning I would like to raise my concerns about the unilateral decision by the British Government to possibly grant amnesty to British soldiers. Yet again, we are standing here in the House speaking about the British Government reneging on agreements and on what we have tried to deliver. We have tried to deliver some justice for people across this island, particularly in the North. It is a deplorable act to give amnesty to people who have committed murders on any side. I look forward to our debate here on Monday night and hope that we will hear from the Minister on how we are going to talk to the British Government about this matter. Most of our unionist and nationalist colleagues in the North share my view on this matter. We must call the British Government out yet again on its deplorable act and disregard for the rights and lives of citizens of this country. I wish to express my complete disappointment on that.
In the first instance, I seek leave of the House to move an amendment to the Order of Business to take No. 11, which is the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill 2021, before No. 1.
The Leader will be aware of recent moves in parliaments throughout the world in terms of Taiwan and China's attitude towards Taiwan. Last night, I attended a meeting of the co-chairs of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and we heard about motions that had been passed in parliaments like France. Last night, the French Sénat passed a motion that called on China to allow Taiwan to be involved in international organisations like the World Health Organization, international criminal policing organisations and climate change organisations, for example, which it is currently being prevented from doing. Similarly, the New Zealand Parliament passed a motion on the Uyghur situation and criticised China for its human rights abuses. At this point, the Parliament of Ireland has done nothing about the situation. I call for a debate in these Houses, and particularly in the Seanad, for us to discuss the issues of Taiwan, China's attitudes towards Taiwan and the fact that China is preventing the involvement of Taiwan in many international realms, to the detriment of the international community. I say that because there is no doubt, for example, in the context of world health, that Taiwan has an enormous volume of experience volume of experience and expertise that would benefit the World Health Organization and all of us around the world, yet it has been stopped from sharing that because of China's attitude.
I ask the Leader to consider arranging a debate on this issue and address the myriad of issues that exist around China's attitude towards the rule of law and towards its membership of the international community. That is something we must address and I ask for a debate on that issue.
I would like to second that.
There have been three requests to amend the Order of Business. To clarify, I can accept the Labour Party's amendment and that of Fine Gael. I am not sure if Senator Boylan meant to finish her statement that she would like the Bill taken after the Order of Business.
I cannot take the Bill after the Order of Business but I can have it added to the Order of Business and taken later today, if that is what she meant. I hope it was. If that is the case, I can accept the three amendments today.
Senator Ward asked for a debate on China and its treatment of Taiwan. I will request such a debate with the Minister at the earliest possible date.
Senators McGreehan and Ó Donnghaile both raised the very unpalatable non-announcement leaked, possibly deliberately, yesterday regarding a unilateral decision of the UK Government to renege on the agreement made at Stormont House. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach both said yesterday that such an action would be an absolute breach of trust and a breach of an international agreement, which would not be accepted. I acknowledge the contributions of both Senators. The heart-breaking human stories Senator Ó Donnghaile raised this afternoon only reflect one side of the debate. It would have been more apt for him to take a more balanced approach because there are many victims and families of victims who have been grieving and seeking retribution for many years on both sides of that debate.
I gave the examples given in one day's newspaper. That was the approach I took.
I do not have an issue with that but there are people with heartbreaking stories on each side who will have been retraumatised by the announcements made yesterday.
There are, of course.
It is not acceptable and I look forward to the debate on the Private Members' motion Fianna Fáil has tabled for Monday evening. It will give everyone an opportunity to say how they feel and how disgusted we would be by such unilateral action, which we will not tolerate.
Senator Joe O'Reilly raised the need for a debate on the future of banking. I am lucky in that I am in a position to say that such a debate has been scheduled for next week. I look forward to hearing everybody's contributions, particularly with regard to the future of the credit union movement and any public banking system the Government may be required to establish to introduce new competition into the market, competition that is sadly lacking at the moment.
A number of colleagues quite rightly brought up the issue of the anger felt not only by the political classes this week, but by every family that has somebody looking to buy a house, whether for the first or second time, at the gazumping highlighted by the Business Post last weekend. I will highlight the need for a debate to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and try to arrange one as soon as I can on behalf of colleagues who raised the matter.
Senator Cassells is rightly angered at the unilateral decision made by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth yesterday. I have four children, and I know the Senator has a number of children too, but I do not think I have ever come across a man looking after children, whether in a crèche or private setting. We might have had a different decision yesterday if this were not the case. I will write to the Minister today and ask him to explain this unilateral decision. I do not believe this will be the end of the issue the Senator raised.
Senator Maria Byrne talked about the vaccine roll-out. A number of people, particularly more vulnerable and elderly people at home or in hospital, are still awaiting news of when they will get their jab. I know of a lady in my own town who did not appear on anybody's list. The lovely lady who answered the 1850 24 1850 number provided us with great assistance yesterday but that was just a one-off. I believe the Senator is referring to far more than a one-off case. I will write a letter to Paul Reid to ask him what the plans are to address the issue of all of the people spotted across our towns and villages who are still waiting for the phone call regarding their appointments. We will see what he says when he comes back to us.
Senator Hoey spoke about the resolution of the issue of student nurses' pay. I will write to the Minister for Health on her behalf and ask him what the plans are to advance her Bill. I read the quote she read out regarding the treatment of her Bill. It dismayed me that anybody would even think that, let alone have a plan of action as to how to deal with her Bill as an Opposition Member. It was highly disrespectful not only to her and her party but to all of the people whom she is trying to represent. I will write to the Minister today and ask him for a response on the plans for the Senator's Bill.
Senators Lombard and Dooley both brought up the issue of housing. As I said, I will reply with a date for the Bill. Senator Keogan also talked about the mass purchasing. I will come back to her. I am aware of the impact of our new planning regulator not just with regard to one-off housing, but in how spatial planning is carried out around the country. It would be interesting to see an audit of all the serviced sites in every county, not only those of the Senator and myself, that are ready to be built on tomorrow but that have been dezoned by local authorities and to ask them to come up with a plausible reason they were dezoned in favour of zoning land that will not be ready for building for years when we are crying out for land ready to be built on now.
I might ask for that to be done and I will then come back to the Senator.
Senator Burke asked for a debate on tourism. We had one a couple of weeks ago but with the advent of society opening up again, albeit cautiously in the next couple of weeks, it is probably time we had another debate. I will try to schedule that.
Senator O'Loughlin referred to the HSE catch-up programme, which is really worthwhile. We should have a debate on health in the House in the coming weeks, not just on Covid and its impact on our health services but also on where we are going into the future. I will try to arrange that.
In response to Senator Ruane, what she referred to is one of the things I did in my three and half years in that Department of which I am most proud. It was the smallest amount of money from an enormous budget, but the money I had to fight hardest for was that aimed at getting the hot school meals pilot programme off the ground. Despite it being the smallest amount of money, it is something I probably get the most thanks for from the principals and teachers because they can see the impact it has on children in their lives. It makes no sense to me that in any consortium that would have put forward a bid, one school should have been selectively taken out. I ask the Senator to give me the details later and I will talk to the Secretary General and try to find some of the answers and resolutions the Senator has not been able to find. I do not know whether I can fix it but I will do my level best to help because it is not on and it is not fair.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly, the leader of the Greens in the House, talked about the elections that are happening in the UK. There is never a dull moment in political life and some of the responses referred to what is happening in Scotland, which is fascinating to watch. It is not too far away from our own shores, and I just wanted to acknowledge that.
I welcome Senator Sherlock's Bill. It is interesting. During my time as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, I think we focused too much on the description of platform workers as being at the lower end of the pay scale. While there definitely are some and I am not disagreeing with that, they are certainly in the minority. The vast majority of people who would be classified as bogus self-employed in this country earn six-figure salaries. That is why it is allowed to continue, not because they are the lower paid on the scale. There is a view that perhaps we need a third status of employment because the terms "self-employed" and "employed" do not quite cut the mustard when it comes to those types of workers to whom the Senator is referring, who absolutely need to be enshrined in employment legislation and employment rights in this country. I wish the Senator good luck with the Bill. I look forward to debating it with her.
Senator Mullen referred to the hate speech legislation. I absolutely assure him that it will go through pre-legislative scrutiny. It is probably time that we have a debate in the House. The committee which deals with communications has had a very meaningful debate this week with regard to abuse on social media platforms. As we know, that extends into real life too. I will try to ignore organise that. I will find out when the pre-legislative scrutiny is going to take place and I will come back to the Senator with a date.
Senator Chambers started today's business with a point raised by many colleagues, which is the very welcome news from the HSE's CEO, Paul Reid, that we will have a national approach to maternity services, now that the timing is right. I suppose that is still not trickling down to all of our hospitals because we can see from photographs on social media that there are still men waiting in car parks to get the news of their little baby arriving. It is just not good enough and is not tolerable. I will write to Mr. Reid today to find out what action is going to be taken by him, or by Dr. Colm Henry, to ensure there is consistency across the country and that newly-born babies can have the joy of seeing both their mammy and their daddy when they are brought into the world.
I thank the Leader. Senator Boyhan is not able to attend today's sitting but he asked me to remind everybody that it is Guide Dog Day. He wanted us to thank, as I do on behalf of the Seanad and Senator Boyhan, all the volunteers around the country who are raising funds for Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind to assist it in its efforts to provide independent mobility and dignity for services users. All charities are struggling at this time to raise funds and we thank all the volunteers for their work.
Senator Marie Sherlock has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 10 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated that she is prepared to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.
Senator Lynn Boylan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 12 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated that she is willing to accept the amendment. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.
Senator Barry Ward has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 11 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated that she is willing to accept it. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.