Header Item Prelude
 Header Item Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad
 Header Item Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
 Header Item Motorised Transport Grant
 Header Item School Enrolments
 Header Item Army Barracks Closures
 Header Item Vacant Properties
 Header Item An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
 Header Item Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019: First Stage
 Header Item Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2018: Committee and Remaining Stages

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 263 No. 7

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Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10:30:00

Machnamh agus Paidir.

Reflection and Prayer.

Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I have received notice from Senator John O'Mahony that, on the motion for the Commencement of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to introduce an alternative scheme to replace the motorised transport grant.

I have also received notice from Senator Kevin Humphreys of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education and Skills to reconsider the catchment area for the new secondary school in Harold’s Cross, Dublin 6.

I have also received notice from Senator Diarmuid Wilson of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks in Cavan town is retained in its present layout in the event that accommodation is needed for the Permanent Defence Force in the central Border region.

I have also received notice from Senator Gabrielle McFadden of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to provide an update on the measures proposed to bring vacant dwellings back into use.

I have also received notice from Senator Colm Burke of the following matter:

The need for the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works and flood relief to outline the number of residential properties which are owned by the OPW and currently vacant and the proposals to bring same back into use.

I have also received notice from Senator Tim Lombard of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to investigate the option of developing an affordable housing scheme in Kinsale on the land under the ownership of Cork County Council.

I have also received notice from Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Finance to undertake a review of the criteria surrounding eligibility for a primary medical certificate.

I have also received notice from Senator Maria Byrne of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to consider implementing a BusConnects plan for public transport in Limerick city.

I have also received notice from Senator Ivana Bacik of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide an update on progress made to date in the conduct of the three-year review of the operation of section 7A of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, as required under section 27 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017.

I have also received notice from Senator Michelle Mulherin of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to review the legislation governing the energy regulator.

I have also received notice from Senator Frank Feighan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to provide an update on the N5, Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge, project.

I have also received notice from Senator Paudie Coffey of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Employment and Social Protection to make a statement on the changes proposed to self-administered and private pension schemes; and the impact the proposed changes will have on schemes with fewer than 100 members.

The matters raised by the Senators are suitable for discussion. I have selected the matters raised by Senators John O’Mahony, Kevin Humphreys, Diarmuid Wilson and Gabrielle McFadden and they will be taken now. The other Senators may give notice on another day of the matters they wish to raise.

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Motorised Transport Grant

Senator John O'Mahony: Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony This is the umpteenth time I have raised the issue of the motorised transport grant which was suspended in 2013 and due to be restored within a few months but which has not yet been replaced. There is an urgent need to assist families who are caring for loved ones at home, particularly in rural areas where public transport is not available.  A builder in my area was struck down with viral encephalitis in 1995. It has caused brain damage, epileptic seizures and aneurysms. His wife, particularly, and family have cared for him 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past 24 years. He wants to be cared for at home and his wife brings him to hospital appointments, stays at his bedside when he is admitted to hospital with serious illnesses and brings him out for a daily drive to a local café for a cup of tea as therapy, as recommended by his consultants. Until 2013 when the scheme was suspended, she received a small grant of a few thousand euro to buy a second-hand car, but this support was taken away in 2013. Now she is driving an old car which has broken down numerous times on motorways and elsewhere. There would be a public outcry if the man had suffered any serious setback on his way to a hospital appointment.

  I have spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on this subject. The first time I raised the issue, I was in the Dáil when the Taoiseach was Minister for Health. There has been a big increase in funding for the health service. I appeal that some comfort be brought to this family and, I am sure, a small number of others. That would show that the Government cares and appreciates money saved because if this man was not being cared for at home, his care would have cost the State many thousands over the years. I am appealing for some human nature to be shown in this case.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I am taking on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. I am pleased to provide an update for this House on progress on the health (transport support) Bill since the closure of the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant schemes in 2013. Senators will be aware of the background to the closure of the schemes. In summary, the Government decided to close the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant schemes in February 2013, following reports of the Ombudsman in 2011 and 2012 which found that the schemes did not comply with the Equal Status Acts. A total of 300 people per annum were in receipt of the motorised transport grant when the Government closed the scheme. The Government has directed that the Health Service Executive, HSE, should continue to pay an equivalent monthly payment to the now 3,790 individuals who were in receipt of the mobility allowance, pending the establishment of a new transport support scheme.

  In line with the Government decision of November 2013, the Department of Health has been working to develop legislative proposals for a new transport support scheme. A Programme for a Partnership Government acknowledges the ongoing drafting of primary legislation for a new transport support scheme to assist those with a disability to meet their mobility costs. A general scheme and heads of Bill were completed in draft form and have been subject to detailed legal examination, given the complex legal issues which arose in the operation of previous arrangements. The legislative proposals for the scheme sought to ensure there was a firm statutory basis for the scheme's operation, that there were transparency and equity in the eligibility criteria attached to the scheme, that resources were targeted at those with the greatest needs and that the scheme was capable of being costed and affordable on its introduction and an ongoing basis.

  In December 2016 the draft general scheme and heads of the Bill were circulated to other Departments and the subject of consultation between officials in the Departments of Health and Public Expenditure and Reform. The House will appreciate that it has been necessary to estimate both the numbers likely to qualify for payment and the likely overall cost of the proposals. In May 2018 the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, brought a memorandum to the Government on proposals for a new transport support payment scheme. Following consideration of the matter, it was decided to withdraw the memorandum from the Cabinet agenda at the time. The Ministers intend to revert to the Government in due course with revised proposals. These proposals will reflect the discussions at the Cabinet and further discussions between both Ministers on the best way to progress the transport scheme. It is important to note that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concessions scheme operated by the Revenue Commissioners remains in place. Specifically, adapted vehicles driven by persons with a disability are also exempt from payment of tolls on national roads and toll bridges. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has responsibility for the scheme. Under the national disability inclusion strategy, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for the continued development of accessibility and availability of public transport for people with disabilities.

Senator John O'Mahony: Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony I am very well aware of the circumstances, but, without being personal, the sixth anniversary of the suspension of the scheme is coming up. It is not good enough. I am aware of the legal difficulties and all the rest, but the legislative proposals the Minister of State mentioned sought to ensure resources were targeted at those with the greatest need. There is no greater need - I would bet my life on this - than the case I have mentioned. I have come across others, but I wanted to highlight this very difficult case.

  What I read in the Minister of State's response is just kicking the can down the road again. This is not personal. It is an appeal. I know that the Minister of State has a great personal sense of wanting to help people who are in real need. The example I have quoted is of a person in real need who is driven to distraction. This person won the carer of the year award in Ireland some years ago. I do not mind what scheme it is, but it would qualify under any scheme from the point of view of treating people with equity. I appeal to the Minister of State to bring it to the Minister's door and those of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Taoiseach because I have been at all of those doors too.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I acknowledge the importance of the point raised by the Senator and the urgent need to reintroduce the scheme, particularly for people living in rural communities, as he stated. I know many people who live in Dublin who have transport needs and are the lifeline for many with disabilities. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, have been in conversation to try to resolve some of the issues. I will, however, pass on the Senator's deep concerns and his compassion in dealing with people. There is a human cost when people look after people with disabilities. We should give them every possible support, including home help and in transport and other areas. Many people who live in rural areas and isolated communities have a great need because the local public transport system does not reach their doors. I will bring the Senator's concerns and frustration back to the Minister and the Minister of State and ask them to respond to him. I believe this is a human rights issue.  We need to accept that there are people who, on a daily basis, are caring for people with major disabilities in their homes. Without carers' help and support, many of the facilities in nursing homes, hospitals and other areas of community nursing would come under serious pressure. They are under pressure as it is, but the pressures would only be compounded. I will bring all the necessary and relevant issues raised back to both Ministers.

School Enrolments

Senator Kevin Humphreys: Information on Kevin Humphreys Zoom on Kevin Humphreys For the sake of the Minister of State, I will set out a brief history of the matter I raise. When the greyhound track in Harold's Cross closed, Councillor Mary Freehill and I ran a campaign for the site to become an educational campus for primary and secondary schools. It was always our intention that local children would be able to attend the secondary school rather than have a system drawn up based on postal codes. Unfortunately, what we are starting to see is that local children from Dublin 8 and 12 will be excluded from the secondary school, even though they will attend primary school and preschool with their neighbours and friends. On account of a mandatory line drawn on a road, they will be excluded from the secondary school.

  In the case of children in Dublin 8, the alternative is an Educate Together school on Beach Road in Sandymount, which is approximately 5 km away. It may as well be 50 km, given Dublin traffic. It is almost impossible to shift a child across the city against the natural flow of traffic. It is inhuman to put such pressure on parents and forcibly break up long-term friendships that develop as children go through primary school by sending them in different directions.

  An educational campus will be developed on the Harold's Cross site. Parents and children will be able to walk out their front doors and see this new campus but will be unable to send their children to its schools. That is entirely wrong. It was not the intention of Councillor Mary Freehill and Senator Ivana Bacik or mine when we fought the campaign to have a school provided in the location. We now see parents whose children will go to secondary school in 2020 or 2025 in major distress. This issue affects substantial numbers of children. Up to 150 children leaving Educate Together schools will not have an opportunity to continue friendships and partnerships with children with whom they started in junior infants class. It is a disgrace.

  I have been raising the matter in this House since 2017 and it needs to be addressed. It greatly affects the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Byrne, who was just here. It is not a Dáil constituency issue. It is a human issue and we have to find a solution to the problem.

  I call on the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy, to raise this matter with the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister should sit down and talk because we need to find a solution now. The alternative for the parents is to send their children to fee paying schools. There are no other schools in the area that provide co-educational multidenominational education at secondary level. In this day and age, we should not be trying to force parents to choose fee paying schools. Parents will sacrifice everything they can for their children, but we should not ask them to make this particular sacrifice, especially when we are developing a 1,000 pupil campus in Harold's Cross. I appeal to the Minister of State to make the case strongly. We have to keep communities together. We have to give lifelong friendships that develop in schools a chance for the good of the children and the community. I am calling for this issue to be looked at closely.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Michael D'Arcy): Information on Michael D'Arcy Zoom on Michael D'Arcy I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It gives me the opportunity to set out to Seanad Éireann the position on the new post-primary school to be established in 2020 to serve the Dublin 6, Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W school planning areas.

  To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data the Department of Education and Skills divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system which uses data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. With this information, the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level. Where data indicate that additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision may be provided through one or a combination of the following measures: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; or the provision of a new school or schools.

  All new schools established since 2011 to meet demographic demand are required to prioritise pupil applications from within the designated school planning area that the school was established to serve. This does not preclude schools from enrolling pupils from outside the designated school planning area where they have sufficient places. Rather, it reflects the need to accommodate, in the first instance, the demographic for which the school was established. The Department's priority is ensuring all pupils have access to a school place, although, unfortunately, this may not always result in a school place that is the first choice of a pupil.

  As the Senator is aware, in April 2018 the Government announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools in the four years from 2019 to 2022, including a new 1,000 pupil post-primary school to be established in 2020 to serve the Dublin 6, Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W school planning areas as a regional solution. The announcement included a new 600 pupil post-primary school to be established in 2021 to serve the Dublin 2 and 4 school planning areas, which are adjacent to the Dublin 8 school planning area. In addition, the Senator is aware that in 2018 a new 1,000 pupil co-educational multidenominational school under the patronage of Educate Together was established to serve the Dublin 6 school planning area, with the Dublin 2, 4, 6 and Clonskeagh school planning areas, as a regional solution. These schools will further reduce pressure on schools in the adjacent school planning areas, including those in the Dublin 8 and 12 areas.

  In addition to the new schools announced, a need for further school accommodation is addressed through either planned capacity increases in existing schools, additional accommodation or extensions to existing schools. Approximately 40% of school places are delivered by extending existing schools.

  I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position on the new post-primary school to be established in 2020. I will put the matter more succinctly. While a school may be established on the basis of those demographics, there is nothing to preclude someone from attending the school. That is the position nationally and it is the way it should be. Parents and pupils require choice. I am in agreement with the Senator that choice should not be excluded because of a line on a map that is imaginary. Perhaps it is not imaginary, but it has been drawn for a demographic reason.

Senator Kevin Humphreys: Information on Kevin Humphreys Zoom on Kevin Humphreys I am very disappointed with the answer. For two years now, parliamentary questions have been asked about this matter and I have raised it in the House on many occasions, as has Senator Ivana Bacik. The system of postal codes is not the proper way to decide on demographics. It simply does not work in this case. The Minister of State referred to creating options for children in Dublin 8 and 12 and reducing demand. There is no option. There are private school options, but if a person wants a particular type of education, for example, multidenominational and co-educational, the only choices are private schools in those areas. That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable to break up lifelong friendships that children are developing in schools or to tell a child that he or she has to travel 5 km in heavily polluted traffic for over an hour to the Sandymount Educate Together school. They are not real options.  What is very clear is that we are trying to get one size to fit all, but it does not work that way in Dublin. Some children who will be able to see the secondary school in Harold's Cross when they walk out their front door will be asked to travel for one hour to an alternative school. That is not an option.

  We will not resolve this issue in a discussion in this House because I will get more angry by the minute and the Minister of State will not understand why this is such an emotional issue. I ask him to request the Minister for Education and Skills to meet the Educate Together group in Harold's Cross to discuss this matter in a calm and rational manner. The facts stand up. There is a need for access to the second level school in Harold's Cross for students from Dublin 8 and 12 and surrounding areas. Let us have a proper discussion. We had such a discussion when the Shellybanks Educate Together primary school was established. We were able to have such a discussion when we fought for an educational campus on the Harold's Cross greyhound site. Now is not the time to exclude children from a school that they can see practically from their front doors.

  I reiterate my request to the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to meet the Educate Together group in Harold's Cross to see whether together they can resolve this matter in a practical manner that will give confidence to parents that there will be places in secondary schools for their children when they leave primary school. Parents make decisions now, not next week or next month. They have to make a decision on where they will send their child to school in September and how that child will progress through primary school and into secondary school. Parents are deciding that they want co-educational multidenominational schools and we have a responsibility, as legislators, to ensure that option is available to them.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Hear, hear.

Deputy Michael D'Arcy: Information on Michael D'Arcy Zoom on Michael D'Arcy I will ask the Minister to meet the group in question.

Army Barracks Closures

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, who is a good friend and colleague and no stranger to this Chamber. I understand he is taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, who is attending a number of funerals in Magheraroarty, County Donegal. I extend my sympathy to the families of the four young men who lost their lives. I know the area very well and understand why the Minister is not present.

  In 2011 the Government, in the face of major opposition both locally and nationally, decided to close Dún Uí Neill Army barracks in Cavan town. There had been an Army barracks in Cavan since the 1700s. In 1990 soldiers moved from the oldest occupied barracks in the world to the most modern in Europe and the only purpose-built barracks in the history of the State. In 2012 the complex was purchased by the then County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, now known as the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. Plans are in place to demolish part of the complex and construct a new building on the site to meet the needs of both Cavan Institute and the training service of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. I take the opportunity to compliment everybody involved in the former vocational education committee and the current Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB. Since the foundation of Cavan College of Further Education, as Cavan Institute was then known, spearheaded by the then chief executive officer, the late John J. McKay, and ably assisted by the then chairman, the late Andy O'Brien, and Councillor Clifford Kelly, the institute has been a huge success. It has grown to have 1,200 full-time students and more than 500 students attending adult education classes. It is a major success.

  With Brexit and the significant uncertainty we are facing, it is clearly necessary to make preparations for the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union without a deal. It is also important that we secure the State and to do so, it is my firm belief we need to reopen the barracks. Today, we hear from various Ministers in the British Government that they may need an extension to Brexit. The uncertainty will continue for many years to come. Unfortunately, it will have negative consequences for the economy and the security of the State. I am aware that officials from the Department of Defence have been in County Cavan and are looking at accommodation in the event of a hard Brexit. I believed they visited warehouses in Cavan town and Ballyconnell. It is ludicrous, when we have a modern purpose-built Army barracks in Cavan town earmarked for demolition, that officials should be trying to secure accommodation for the Defence Forces in warehouses. That is not good enough.

  I ask the Minister of State to request the Minister for Education and Skills to give a commitment that the former barracks will not be interfered with until we have at least been given an indication as to what will be the outcome of Brexit. This would not hold up the plans of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. There are plenty of greenfield sites around the town that could be investigated and considered. It makes absolutely no sense to knock down a purpose-built Army barracks and then try to secure alternative accommodation that will cost hundreds of thousands of euro.

Deputy Michael D'Arcy: Information on Michael D'Arcy Zoom on Michael D'Arcy I thank the Senator for providing an opportunity to clarify the current position on the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks in Cavan town.

  In March 2012 Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, acquired the former Dún Uí Neill Army barracks, with a view to refurbishment and adaptation of the site and buildings which would provide an opportunity for the CMETB to centralise its further education and training service provision and create opportunities for expansion. The barracks site was also earmarked as a permanent home for Cavan College of Further Education, a dedicated co-educational post-leaving certificate, PLC, college operating under the aegis of the CMETB. The development of the Dún Uí Neill site will give the CMETB an opportunity to centralise PLC and further education provision and eliminate the need for various rented temporary accommodation around Cavan town.

  As the Senator is aware, a building project for Cavan College of Further Education is included in the Department's six-year construction programme and the CMETB has recently submitted a schedule of accommodation in that regard. In the context of progressing this building project, officials from the Department’s planning and building unit will liaise with the ETB, with a view to progressing the project as quickly as possible.

  I appreciate that the Senator is clearly looking at the impact on the Border in the context of a no-deal exit from the European Union by the United Kingdom. I take the opportunity to reiterate that the Government remains firmly of the view that the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement endorsed by the European Council and agreed with the British Government.  The European Council has made it clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement and that it is not up for renegotiation. The agreement, with its backstop provisions, is the only one on the table that provides the essential legal guarantee to avoid a hard border in any circumstance, as well as protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.

  Naturally, we must monitor developments and recent events in the UK Parliament. The Government is not preparing for a hard border. There is no secret plan. Ireland and the European Union are at one on the issue. The Commission has clarified its statement, making it dear that the European Union is determined to do all it can, deal or no deal, to avoid the need for a border and protect the peace process. The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, repeated these reassurances in a telephone call to the Taoiseach last Thursday.

  We will all have our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As a representative from the Border region, the Minister for Education and Skills is acutely aware of the many benefits which have been delivered by the Good Friday Agreement. He will ensure his Department will continue to build on the valuable and extraordinary level of co-operation between education institutions, North and South.

  We will still have to work together to ensure we deliver on the shared goal of avoiding the return of a hard border, deal or no deal. We are committed to doing all in our power to ensure that goal is met. It is preferable for us all to resolve the issue now as set out in the withdrawal agreement.

  I will have a discussion with the Minister about the building on the site and ask him to meet the Senator directly. I do not have the in-depth local knowledge he has. That would probably be the best option, rather than passing on information through me.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The reality is that the Government is preparing for a hard border. It is looking to rent warehouses in Cavan in which to accommodate soldiers in the event that there is a hard border, while there is a purpose-built Army barracks being used by Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board which is headed by Mr. John Kearney, chief executive officer, whom we are lucky to have and want to hold on to. The Government should be looking at maintaining the existing Army barracks in Cavan. There are only two other barracks along the Border, namely, those in counties Donegal and Louth. As Senator McFadden knows, the barracks in Mullingar was closed, while the nearest barracks to Cavan is in Athlone. Anyone with knowledge of the geography of the area in question will know that in an emergency it would take at least three hours to get to Cavan. Will the Minister of State seek an assurance from the Minister for Education and Skills that the barracks in Cavan will not be demolished until such time as we know the outcome of Brexit?

Deputy Michael D'Arcy: Information on Michael D'Arcy Zoom on Michael D'Arcy There is a great difference between planning for a hard border and a no-deal Brexit. Contingency planning has moved from contingency stage to implementation stage for a no-deal Brexit, but that is not the same as planning for a hard border.

Vacant Properties

Senator Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

  While most logical people understand the difficulty in reviving the building industry after the carnage wrought on it by the disastrous Fianna Fáil-led Governments, it is good to finally see real growth in the numbers of new houses being built. However, when many members of the public pass a vacant dwelling, they reasonably ask why it cannot be brought back into use to help those who are living in emergency accommodation or seeking to buy their own home. It is a question I often ask myself and I hope the Minister will provide some answers.

  In preparing for the debate on this Commencement matter I started to look at housing statistics in County Westmeath. According to the 2016 census, the total housing stock in the county was just under 37,000 homes, of which 3,728 were classed as vacant. However, in 2017 GeoDirectory, compiled in conjunction with An Post, gave a figure of fewer than 1,500 that were vacant. Therefore, the vacancy level in County Westmeath might either be 10% or 4%. To compound the problem, Westmeath County Council estimated that two thirds of the homes listed by GeoDirectory as vacant were actually occupied. Of those that are left, half are either in probate or the owner is living in a nursing home. This suggests the real vacancy rate is less than 1%. What is the correct figure?

  Answering this question is not just an academic exercise but has real-life implications. Could it be that there is a considerable under-response to the census? If that is the case, much of the social planning for housing, schools and health services could be based on flawed figures. Could it be that many of the policies put in place to bring vacant properties back into use are failing to deliver because they are based on notional vacant properties which do not exist? Is there a case to be made that local authorities are using different sets of definitions to minimise the extent of the problem and, therefore, their duty to respond? Does the Department have a current register indicating how many properties are vacant? If so, how is "vacancy" defined? What is the number and how has it been arrived at? Has the Department compiled an audit of the reasons for vacancies and the possibility of returning properties to use? How many properties fall into each category and what can be done to bring these homes back into use? Are there restrictions or impediments, the removal of which could be helpful? To what extent is Government funding, or the lack of it, a limiting factor? What best practice in better performing local authorities could be shared with others? Are there sanctions imposed on local authorities which are not fulfilling their responsibilities?

  I keep coming back to the simple question that comes to my mind, as I am sure it comes to the minds of many others, when I see vacant properties. Why can we not use these properties to house people who do not have a home? Last year Westmeath County Council spent €660,000 in providing private emergency accommodation. That money, if used to find and upgrade existing properties, could have been used to provide permanent homes for a dozen families. What has been the uptake of schemes such as the repair and lease scheme? How can they be better promoted? Should we advertise them in local newspapers, as well as on local and community radio stations?

  I know that the Minister is familiar with the west side of Athlone because he walked it with me last year when I was seeking funding for an urban regeneration project. He saw that as many as one in three properties was vacant or had vacant units overhead which could be used to house families. This area is no different from many others. The urban regeneration scheme would help areas such as this and I am grateful that the west side of Athlone was among those chosen to receive funding. However, it is a medium to long-term project. What can we do in the short term to put people into homes? How can we free up vacant properties to provide accommodation? If Government funding is not a mitigating factor, the delays and difficulties must be systems failures. I am keen to hear from the Minister on what we can do to alleviate them.

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy Eoghan Murphy): Information on Eoghan Murphy Zoom on Eoghan Murphy I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I was in the Chamber yesterday debating the issue of housing for two hours. I had to yield the floor to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, to begin a separate debate on housing for the elderly. With this Commencement matter, I appreciate the time Senators are giving to considering the challenges we face in housing provision. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline the work the Government is doing with local authorities to address the issue of vacancies.

  Rebuilding Ireland sets out a range of measures to assist in meeting housing needs by ensuring the existing housing stock is used to the greatest extent possible.  One action within pillar 5 is a national vacant housing reuse strategy. This strategy which I published last July strives to provide a targeted, effective and co-ordinated approach to identifying and tackling vacancies across Ireland and draws together all of the strands of ongoing work in one document with a clear vision for moving forward in the next few years. It builds on the significant work already begun by the various stakeholders, including the Housing Agency, local authorities and approved housing bodies in 2016 and 2017 in order to meet our goals in respect of vacancies.

  We have been very proactive in dealing with vacant properties. There are a number of schemes available to incentivise reactivating suitable dwellings into liveable housing stock. This again relates to the frustration about which the Senator spoke. People see an empty home and want to know why it is empty and how it can be brought back into use. That is what the strategy is about. Each local authority has prepared a vacant homes action plan and submitted it to my Department. They have also appointed vacant homes officers to co-ordinate local actions needed to look at the vacant residential stock in their areas. We are continually examining new ways of reducing the number of vacant homes.

  The initial national roll-out of the innovative repair and lease scheme did not yield the results for which we had hoped. We examined it and made improvements and are now seeing more homes being brought back into use through the scheme. Corresponding to it is the buy and renew scheme which also has strong potential. We have seen a number of homes that might have been brought into the repair and lease scheme brought under the buy and renew scheme instead. Under this scheme the local authority buys the home outright, renews it and puts it into use for social housing. The two schemes work very well together and we are now seeing greater interest in them. We have also advertised them and can roll out further advertisements, if that is seen to be necessary. As an alternative to these schemes, the long-term leasing initiative allows owners of vacant properties that are in good condition to lease their properties to local authorities. Leasing under this scheme takes the uncertainty out of being a landlord for as long as ten or 20 years. It gives certainty to the person who owns the property.

  Aside from the wide range of incentives available, local authorities are also being encouraged to utilise their legislative compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers in order to bring vacant and derelict properties back into use. This approach can result in the delivery of housing more speedily and at much lower cost than new builds, often without having to go to court. Simply invoking the CPO powers and giving notice that it is intended to use them can bring properties back into use. We have seen that happen very effectively in Dublin and County Louth.

  Away from the centrally funded schemes, my Department has made legislative amendments that will support the reactivation of vacant properties. For example, new exempted development regulations came into operation this time last year. They allow for a change of use of vacant properties above shops, below a certain amount of homes, without a requirement for planning permission in order to bring them back into use. We also introduced regulations for the application of disability access certificates to existing buildings when brought back into use and other such matters.

  Work undertaken by local authorities, drilling into the available vacancy data, coupled with the initial results of the first wave of visual inspections by six local authorities, are getting us closer to the actual number of vacancies in the country. Initially, when looking at the high numbers from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, people thought that it was low-hanging fruit. It is not that the CSO data are incorrect, it is that when one looks at what is actually counted, which includes holiday homes, homes that are for sale and homes that are between lettings, they are not vacancies as we would understand them. The work with the local authorities and their teams continues and it is starting to bear fruit. Whenever we talk about housing, we should talk about supply and the improvements we are seeing but also about how we are using existing stock and getting it back into appropriate use.

Senator Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden I thank the Minister. I appreciate the fact that he is here again. I know how hard he is working on housing and homelessness. There are a lot of things I would like to mention, but I do not have time for everything. One of the things at which I always look is houses that are in probate and sitting idle while the bereaved family go through the necessary procedures. Could there not be an incentive for that family to lease the house to a family that is living in a hotel? Surely an incentive could be offered. It would be a win-win for both the family dealing with probate and the family in a hotel.

  The Minister talked about advertising. We should be advertising the schemes all of the time. We have community radio in Athlone, which is part-funded by Pobal. Why is the Department not using that radio station to advertise the repair and lease scheme? I was reared on Connaught Street, to which I brought the Minister when we were looking for regeneration money. When I was a child, there were 70 families living on that street. It did us no harm to live over a shop. It might have made me a little bit cheeky, but I do not think it did me any harm. Many of those premises are vacant. The county council should be advertising the scheme and putting families into these premises.

  I know that we have a vacant homes action plan and vacant homes officers in the county councils, but one vacant homes officer is not enough for the whole of County Westmeath. It is not enough even for Athlone. These officers should be going from door to door to find out exactly why premises are empty and see what can be done to bring them back into use.

  The other worry I have is that developers are buying properties and sitting on them. They are holding on to them until they can get enough adjacent properties to develop a site. Councils are doing this with CPO purchases also. That needs to be looked at. There are several such situations on Connaught Street, but there is a lot we can do. I know that a lot has been done, but we are in a housing crisis and need to take drastic measures immediately.

Deputy Eoghan Murphy: Information on Eoghan Murphy Zoom on Eoghan Murphy I thank the Senator for the follow-up questions. On the initial question about properties in probate, it is very difficult to enter into new legal agreements in respect of such properties because they are in probate.

Senator Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden Could we introduce legislation to allow for it?

Deputy Eoghan Murphy: Information on Eoghan Murphy Zoom on Eoghan Murphy Local authorities have budgets for advertising. If a particular local authority is having difficulty in making money available to advertise available schemes, we can absolutely support it. To look at Westmeath County Council and its vacancy statistics, as the Senator pointed out, the CSO stated the vacancy rate in 2016 was 10%. In 2018 the GeoDirectory showed us that it might have been closer to 3.6%. The information I have received from the local authority tells us that it is lower again. That brings us back to the point that this area is not the low-hanging fruit we thought it was. Nevertheless, we still have to pursue it because, while it might not yield as many homes as we thought it might, they are homes in the right areas. They are homes in the centre of towns and villages. That is what we want to get after.

  We have Westmeath County Council's vacant homes action plan. The council has mapped the potential vacant homes identified on GeoDirectory and vacanthomes.ie, removing duplicate entries. It has also mapped the CSO vacant homes data and colour-coding in that respect. I will show the Senator the maps if she would like to take a look at them. The vacant homes officer is in place and using the mapped data systematically to identify potentially vacant homes. Once vacant homes are identified, they are inspected and, where appropriate, the process of identifying ownership, engaging with the owner and establishing the potential to reactivate and recover the vacant homes commences. Additional funding of €100,000 was provided for Westmeath County Council in 2018 and 2019 for the vacant homes office.

  To the end of last year, 176 homes were identified as vacant and inspected. Of these homes, 108 were confirmed as vacant, while 68 were occupied. Again, we are getting into the data and seeing the true level of vacancy. Details of ownership were identified for 13 of the vacant homes. It can be difficult to identify ownership. The council has had positive engagement with the owners of nine of these properties and the owners have indicated their potential willingness to consider either the repair and lease scheme or the buy and renew scheme. In addition, one further property has now been identified for a CPO. As part of the work it is doing, the council is in discussion with a number of local estate agents to identify properties that are vacant and that could be recovered as part of the scheme. The officer is in place and working. Funding has been made available to the officer. The mapping has been done and the officer's plan given to the Department. The officer is pursuing the properties, but, of the 176 identified and inspected, 68 were occupied. The officer is pursuing the others and CPO processes are under way.

  Sitting suspended at 11.29 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer The Order of Business is No. 1, Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2018 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 12.45 p.m.

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan I thank the Leader for outlining the Order of Business today.

  Regarding the nurses strike yesterday, another three days of overtime bans are planned for 5, 6 and 7 February and further strikes from 12 February if there is no resolution. Will the Leader update us on what progress has been made and what is happening? I understand the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, will have to look at all requests for money. Perhaps a way to look at this might be to examine the pay and conditions of nurses here vis-à-vis those in other countries where some of our graduates may be going. I understand time served abroad is not recognised when people come back here and that certain qualifications for which nurses are paid abroad are not paid for here. Without reopening the entire public pay process, perhaps there might be clever ways of looking at the system in place and the allowances nurses receive. There might be a way to improve their terms and conditions without reopening the whole public sector pay process.

  I am conscious that four funerals will take place in County Donegal today. I again pass on my condolences and sympathy to all of the people in County Donegal, the families of the victims, their friends, colleagues and neighbours. It is a really sad and awful occasion. The loss of any life is terrible but particularly the loss of young lives. I remember the people of County Donegal this morning, especially those in Gweedore, Gortahork and Falcarragh.   I know that in the next few weeks, months or however long it takes, time for the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill will be allotted until it is completed, but every day or every week we need a specific headed item on Brexit. Yesterday a German Minister outlined that the German economy would grow at its slowest rate for many years. It is predicted it will be 1%. The Minister stated the impact of Brexit would affect not only the UK and Ireland, which it obviously will, but also many other countries in the EU. I appreciate all the work the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, are doing and the whole-of-government approach, but the House needs regular updates from the Minister, the Minister of State and others on the level of preparedness for whatever will happen. I appreciate that this is difficult in terms of not knowing what to plan for, but the House requires regular updates.

  I remember, in particular, the people of County Donegal today.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I have been silent on that issue, but, as Cathaoirleach, I convey my sympathy and condolences to the families in County Donegal on the appalling tragedy that happened. It must be a very sad and difficult day for many families and the community in north-west Donegal as a whole. I add my voice to the expressions of sympathy made by many Senators in recent days.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I thank the Leader for the copy of the Order of Business we received this morning.

  Last Tuesday night, for those who do not know, the 64th annual general meeting of the Irish Farmers Association took place. The Taoiseach turned up and was received well, despite some commentary afterwards in the media. I echo what Senator Horkan said. In the coming weeks, if possible, we should have a number of debates to deal with sections of Brexit because the subject is so big and vast. Brexit is the greatest political challenge of our time. I particularly want to talk about agriculture. It is a time for cool heads and steely determination and I wish the Taoiseach well. I also compliment Senator Richmond who chairs the Seanad committee on Brexit on his very professional performances, particularly on British television. I have also seen him on other media. It is something of which the House can be proud that a Senator is articulating a view and that there is consistency in the Government's approach. That is important.

  Irish farmers want unfettered and continued access to what effectively is 90% of their market in the UK. We need to develop new markets in Asia, China and throughout the world for beef, fish, horticulture and food. We need to address this issue and it is one of the modules I will suggest for our debates. The Leader plans to bring the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House to make statements and that issue will be important.

  The president of the IFA, Joe Healy, stated it was important to keep pressure on London and that unless the UK adjusted its red lines and came forward with something better, the backstop would remain. I am firmly of the view the backstop should remain regardless and believe that is the Government's approach. Mr. Healy stated Irish farmers had suffered savage cuts and would continue to do so if there was a break-away from Britain. That is clearly inevitable at this stage. We need to look at CAP reform because it will be very important. I call for a Brexit debate specifically on agriculture, horticulture and fisheries.

  Yesterday we had very good engagement with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on housing. He indicated to the House that he did not have sufficient time to answer the questions he was asked. He also indicated to the House that he would be keen to return. I hope that can be facilitated in the short term. It was a good engaging debate, as the Minister acknowledged, but we did not have enough time. I ask for a slot at some stage in the very near future to facilitate the Minister in order that he can continue his response to Senators. It would not be to reopen the debate but to facilitate the Minister, as he did not have an opportunity to respond to a number of questions. It was a good and meaningful debate and I thank the Leader for organising it.

Senator Rose Conway-Walsh: Information on Rose Conway-Walsh Zoom on Rose Conway-Walsh I send our thoughts and prayers to the families of Mícheal Roarty, John Harley, Shaun Harkin and Daniel Scott today for the unimaginable grief they are going through, as are their friends, wider families and all of the people of County Donegal.

  I raise the issue of the pension entitlements of community employment supervisors. This issue has been raised previously and a motion calling on the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to take a personal interest in it was passed by the Dáil last April. It is more than ten years since the Labour Court ruled in favour of community employment supervisors regarding their pension entitlements. The recommendation was very clear. It ordered that an agreed pension scheme be put in place for community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors. It is ironic that yesterday the Minister for Health was calling on nurses to go back to the Labour Court, but the Government ignores recommendations it does not like. The fact that it has thus far ignored the recommendation of the Labour Court and a motion of the Oireachtas tells us a lot about its attitude to the community employment scheme.

  The Department has lost sight of the community employment scheme's original purpose and wants to hive it off to JobPath and Tús and not have it on the books any longer. This pensions issue is directly related to that agenda. I know of many schemes where the workers have given long years of service and reached the end of the road on this issue. Many of these workers are loyal to their communities and have spurned other employment opportunities to continue to contribute positively to their communities. They are an absolutely essential and integral part of communities the length and breadth of the State, not only because of the work they do but also because of the leverage they provide to activate other initiatives and the social and economic benefits to communities.

  Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to tell us how he can continue to ignore the Labour Court ruling and the successful Dáil motion to provide community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors with their pension entitlements? This cannot go on any longer. I commend the work of SIPTU and Fórsa on this issue, but we have run out of road. This is an economic injustice for community employment supervisors and assistant supervisors who can no longer continue. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come into the House next week to deal with this issue once and for all.

Senator Kevin Humphreys: Information on Kevin Humphreys Zoom on Kevin Humphreys I echo the sympathy to the families in County Donegal on the very sad occasion of the deaths of the four young men. It is very difficult for the families and the community. I certainly wish them the very best.

  I echo the request that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, return to the House to discuss the issue of housing. He indicated yesterday that he would like to have an opportunity to return and answer the questions in full. Time was quite limited by the time it came to his response. I recognise that he was quite willing to engage. In particular, he did not get an opportunity to respond to the issue I highlighted on the build-to-rent trend and the impact it was having on the Dublin market. Research has identified that it will soon have a huge impact in Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway. Approximately €5 billion is available for investment in the build-to-rent market. It is important that we have a group of professional landlords who make available housing stock to rent, but we must also be cautious of the impact it will have on the market as far as the ability of young people to purchase a home is concerned. Yesterday I pointed out to the Minister that in Dublin in the third quarter of 2018 approximately 80% of all apartments purchased were in the build-to-rent model, although when the planning applications were originally made, they were to be made available for people to purchase as homes.  Young people were rightly angered. They were looking at apartment blocks being built in Dublin and hoped to have an opportunity to purchase, but these investment funds purchased at above market prices as an investment and received preferential tax treatment. There is a need for a level playing field where young people have an opportunity to get on to the housing ladder.

  Before Christmas, the Leader indicated that he would organise a debate on the TV licence fee, broadcasting in general and its future in Ireland. I know that a working group is looking at the licence fee, but the discussion has to be wider than just it. It must concern the future of broadcasting. I hope the Leader will be able to organise such a debate at his earliest convenience.

Senator Frank Feighan: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I also join my colleagues in remembering the four young men who died tragically in County Donegal last Sunday in that tragic accident - Shaun Harkin, Mícheal Roarty, John Harley and Daniel Scott. Our thoughts go out to their families and friends and indeed the communities of Gortahork and Gweedore that are saddened and numb today.

  We are moving into a very interesting and dangerous time with Brexit in the next few weeks and months. We called it right. We need nerves of steel and to watch what we say because everything will be taken as a sign of weakness or strength. The utterances of the former UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, in leaking inaccurate material, were very unfortunate and must be called out. It is not the right thing to do at this very difficult time.

  We are in Dublin where the weather is cold and wet, but I remind people that most of the areas along the west coast are now covered in snow. It is a difficult time for farmers and communities. Many schools are closed. Sometimes one would not think it from the national media because sometimes they do not realise that the weather in areas beyond Maynooth is so bad. One thing people do not realise is that it rains twice as much in the west as it does on the east coast. Whenever I ring home from my office here, it is sunny in Dublin and raining down at home. Perhaps the Government might look at some form of grant because we take everything coming in off the Atlantic Ocean and save Dublin people on the east coast from getting wet. It is sometimes an issue when it comes to mental health. When it rains, it does affect people on the west coast. It is just something I had not realised. If we look at the figures, we can see that it rains twice as much on most of the west coast as it does on the east coast.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Perhaps the Senator should relocate to get more sunshine.

Senator Frank Feighan: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan I can take flights from Knock to Malaga.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson That is one of the benefits of being a Senator. One gets to experience every one of the 26 counties. We look forward to the day when we can experience the 32 counties. Thanks to the good offices of the Cathaoirleach and the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I had a Commencement matter this morning regarding Dún Uí Néill Army barracks in Cavan which was closed in 2011. I am calling for it to be reopened in the light of the uncertainty caused by Brexit. I firmly believe Brexit is probably the most significant challenge facing the country since the Civil War. In that vein and bearing in mind that we are all wearing the green jersey, the pure green jersey of Ireland, and have cool heads, I would like the Leader to invite the Taoiseach to come to the House in order that we can hear what he has to say about Brexit. In saying this, I am bearing in mind the sensitive situation we are in, but he is the Taoiseach of the country and it is time he came to the Upper House of the Oireachtas to address us on Brexit and his plans with regard to same.

Senator James Reilly: Information on Dr. James Reilly Zoom on Dr. James Reilly Last week we had a debate on climate change and the need for Ireland to take action. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment was comprehensive in his statement in outlining the areas he would address and stating it would be an across-government approach. During my contribution I raised the fact that there was no charging point for electric cars in the Oireachtas. I was told last week that there would be one the following day, but as I stand here today, there is still no charging point for electric cars. I am aware of at least three other Members of the two Houses who have electric cars and hope to take delivery of one shortly. If we are to show leadership and ask people to be mindful of the environment, make life changes and consider using electric or hybrid vehicles, we must lead by example. The fact that the Oireachtas does not even have charging points for people who work or might be visiting here sends such a poor message. I hope this issue will be taken seriously and acted on a little more expediently than it has been to date.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield I start by sending love to County Donegal where the funerals of four young men will take place today. It was an appalling tragedy and my sympathy is with the families, friends, neighbours and community at large.

  I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 15 be taken before No. 1. It is the Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019, a Bill designed to curb the advertising of unfit lettings and rental properties that do not meet legal rental standards, including overcrowding and fire safety regulations. The Bill would allow people to report advertisements of unfit rental properties to the Property Services Regulatory Authority and give the authority the power to instruct letting agents and online platforms to remove advertisements for rental properties in breach of regulations. Rental properties posted on the likes of daft.ie, rent.ie or spotahome.com that in no way meet the regulations in place have become a constant story in traditional and social media outlets. These are regulations that ensure rental properties are fit for purpose and fit for the rental market. We know that some of them range from overcrowded dorm rooms to apartments that are no more than converted hallways or sheds. It is astonishing that even after media attention is drawn to these lettings, the advertisements remain online, despite being in clear breach of the regulations. They only remain online because of the ongoing rental crisis in cities and towns. Advertisers are aware that such lettings may still be rented owing to people's desperation and the extent of the housing crisis. Letting agents and online platforms also have a role to play in ensuring the rental market is not undermined, standards are upheld and renters - I am thinking of many young people - can interact with the rental market with dignity and respect. Websites should not be providing space for the advertising of rental properties that are in clear breach of regulations.

Senator Colm Burke: Information on Colm Burke Zoom on Colm Burke To follow on from what Senator Horkan said, it is important that every effort be made to resolve the nurses' dispute. I think everyone here acknowledges the dedication and commitment of nurses in the health system. When one thinks of the volume of people who go through the health service, we can see that 63,000 people go through outpatients departments per week, while another 23,000 go through emergency departments per week. In addition, the system deals with a large number of inpatients every day.   It is important that we find a solution at an early date, but we must be mindful of the fact that between 2000 and 2008 the cost of public pay increased from €8.2 billion per annum to €16.2 billion per annum. We must also recognise that the Public Service Pay Commission recommended pay increases for nurses late last year, a recommendation which is being implemented at a cost of €20 million. For instance, the annual salary for a newly qualified staff nurse will increase from €29,056 to €36,196, an increase of €7,140 or 25%. The annual salary for a staff nurse on point 6 of the pay scale has increased from €36,383 to €43,356, an increase of €6,973 or 19%. Clinical midwife managers were not given recognition previously for their expertise and it is important to give them recognition. The annual salary for a clinical midwife manager has increased from €48,361 to €52,611, an increase of €4,251. The Government has introduced salary increases following the recommendations made by the Public Service Pay Commission, but we need to consider other areas to deal with the industrial dispute. We must take on board the issues that I raised yesterday such as the recognition of qualifications and adequately compensating anyone who takes time off as study leave to improve his or her skills.

  There is a set figure for public pay. The one challenge, as I have stated repeatedly, is that a person pays the higher rate of tax at a very early stage in Ireland compared to the UK where a person can earn £50,000 before going onto the higher rate of tax. Many people in other political parties have resisted that change, but if we want to make progress in this country and while I agree that people must pay their fair share of tax, they should not be penalised for getting a qualification and providing a service that is needed in this country.

Senator Paul Daly: Information on Paul Daly Zoom on Paul Daly I support the call made by my colleague, Senator Wilson, for the Leader to invite the Taoiseach to the House to address us on his recent statement. Not only is Deputy Leo Varadkar the Taoiseach, he is also the Minister for Defence and it could be one of the lead ministries if Brexit goes in the wrong direction.

  I raise the issue of tolls for small, light commercial vehicles such as the Volkswagen Caddy vehicle which is a necessity for self-employed persons such as painters who work as a one-man operation. One must pay €4.40 on the N4 toll road for a Volkswagen Caddy or similar vehicle that has the capacity to carry two passengers and has a very small load capacity. Let us say a painter took on a job on the north side of Dublin and that he or she also had to pass through the M50 toll booth. The total cost for tolls would be €84 per week. That is a lot of money for one person to pay who is trying to run a very small business, particularly as the majority of work seems to be available in Dublin. If he or she used his or her family or domestic car, the toll would be less than two thirds. It does not make sense to charge such people so much for using toll roads. These entrepreneurs are trying to survive by keeping their charges to a minimum. It is unfair for the Government to impose an extra cost on them every week in addition to them paying for diesel, insurance and motor tax. The passenger capacity of such vehicles is only two persons and the load capacity is very small. I have no problem with HGVs or larger commercial vans paying a bit extra because they transport more goods or whatever else. For the small Caddy-type van that is mostly used by painters, plumbers and one-person operations, the weekly outlay in toll charges is serious. We must consider the differential between the charge on small vans and cars, especially as cars are a lot larger, can carry up to five passengers and have a higher engine capacity. I call on the Leader to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to consider the matter when setting future charges for toll roads.

Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Warfield.

  Today my thoughts and prayers are with the Gaeltacht community of west Donegal as they bury four of their young people. It is a desperate tragedy.

  I raise again a funding issue which I had not planned to raise. I refer to funding for the Inishowen Children's Autism Related Education, ICARE, organisation located on the Inishowen Peninsula and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation in south Donegal. Both organisations have not received State funding, yet they provide vital services for young people and children with disabilities in south Donegal and on the Inishowen Peninsula.

  Senators might recall a major controversy last year concerning the Ability programme which provided €16 million for disability organisations throughout the State. The programme was EU co-funded, yet when one looked at a map of the Twenty-six Counties, there was a line, which we call the Galway to Dublin line, above which it could clearly be seen that only one organisation, in Roscommon, that received funding. In County Donegal ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation came together, applied for funding with an organisation called Extern, but funding was refused. Both ICARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation received some funding last year in response to the controversy. We had hoped that by now they would have a service level agreement with the HSE to have guaranteed funding in order that families could have stability and knowledge that they would have supports. The families who are members of the committees of these organisations, many of whom have children and young people with disabilities, are trying to cope and fundraise constantly. We had hoped that by now they would no longer have to fundraise. Last week we were assured that funding would be provided. In the past week I have tried to get clarification from the HSE on whether it will be provided. As I stand here, both organisations yet again have not received clarification.

  Will the Leader contact the office of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, who has responsibility for disability issues? He is very aware of these issues. I will, with the permission of the Cathaoirleach, table a Commencement matter next week if I do not get clarification before then. We need clarification for these two organisations. ICARE has been in existence for 18 years and funded itself by holding all sorts of fundraising event throughout the year, but it cannot keep doing so. ICARE provides a service. The HSE does not provide the service and refers children and young people to ICARE but then does not provide funding. That is outrageous and must stop. This has to be the last year that that goes on. I ask the Leader for his help and assistance on this issue.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I thank the 11 Members who spoke for their contributions on the Order of Business. I dtús báire, ar mo shon féin agus ar son an Rialtas, bronnaim mo chomhbhrón le muintir Dhún na nGall agus go mórmhór leis na clanna Roarty, Harley, Harkin and Scott on a very tragic day for their families in Donegal. We send them our sympathy and deepest thoughts and regards. The tragedy is unspeakable. I thank the community in County Donegal for their support and rallying around the families.

  I welcome to the Public Gallery a very good friend of all of us here in the Oireachtas, Mr. Mike Carroll, who is from New York. He is very welcome and I thank him for being here.

  The issue of the nurses' strike was raised by Senators Horkan and Colm Burke. I reiterate the points I made yesterday. All of us hold all nurses in high regard. We value their role, professionalism and the commitment they bring every day in pressurised areas of work, for which we thank them.  A solution and a resolution are needed and the Government is determined to work with the INMO to ensure there is a resolution. Yesterday Senator Devine spoke about 1999 and the nine days of strike action, of which none of us wants to see a repeat. There is, however, a public sector pay deal, of which there can be only one. Notwithstanding the legitimacy of the concerns and issues that need to be resolved, the Government cannot break a public sector pay deal because it would have a knock-on effect on other sectors and workers. Equally, if the Government broke the deal, some of the Senators sitting opposite me would express a very different view. The cost of meeting the nurses' demands is projected as €300 million. Senator Colm Burke made a good point that the Government had established the Public Service Pay Commission and that it had made €20 million worth of recommendations for the nursing sector, which will be implemented because the Government has accepted them in full. Rather than giving an adversarial reply, we all agree that there needs to be a resolution. Senators Horkan and Colm Burke made strong points about perhaps finding a roadmap to consider various postgraduate qualifications and the recognition of different specialisations. The Government has recruited more nurses. There was an increase of 800 last year and 3,000 in the past few years, which is significant recruitment. Nobody wants to be in a position where there is a protracted strike. I hope the machinery of the State, including the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission, will become part of the process to save the country from more cancellations of appointments and inpatient procedures.

  Senators Horkan, Boyhan and Feighan raised the issue of Brexit. I join them in commending and paying tribute to our colleague, Senator Richmond, Chairman of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, which met last week. I do not mean to be patronising, but the performance of Senator Richmond, in his role on the Seanad Brexit committee and media appearances outside Ireland, conveys a positive message and augurs well for the Chamber. I thank him for it and his wider work. As we know, Brexit is not our fault, but it is in an issue with which we must contend, by virtue of the vote. As Senators will know, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, spoke to each other yesterday. It is important that the lines of communication be kept open and the dialogue among Ministers and British Cabinet Secretaries continue. It is welcome that all European leaders and the people in key positions have stood with Ireland and continue to do so. Another pivotal day will be 13 February, but our position has not changed and I do not intend to return to the same points I have already made and by which all of us stand. I offer the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, our support and wish them well.

  To answer Senator Boyhan's question, there will be statements on agriculture the week after next. The Taoiseach was well received at the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, dinner and annual general meeting on Tuesday night. I note that he ate beef, in case some people heckle me in that regard. Joe Healy, the president of the IFA, is a member of the Brexit stakeholders' forum and attends the meetings. He is an important player and if one reads his speech or those of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, at the conference, one will see that on this matter, the Government is determined to work in partnership with the farming organisations. Agrifood exports are critical to the country and account for 8% and 11% of national income and exports, respectively. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, are working on the issue of CAP, on which there will be a debate, I believe, the week after next.

  Senators Boyhan and Humphreys spoke about housing. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will return to the Chamber next Tuesday to finish the debate on the subject. I will accept Senator Warfield's amendment to the Order of Business to accommodate his Bill. We will have the debate on housing at another time.

  On the points made by Senator Horkan, it is my intention as Leader to schedule debates on Brexit contingencies and sectoral or departmental issues in the coming weeks. They will form part of our response.

  On the community employment scheme, an issue raised by Senator Conway-Walsh, I am not sure why she said Senators on this side of the House did not value community employment schemes. I was chairman of my GAA club for six years and involved in my community association. I fully understand, as do all my colleagues on this side of the House, the intrinsic value the schemes bring to our communities. I praise those who work on community employment schemes throughout the country and their supervisors. I recognise that without community employment schemes, voluntary and sports organisations in the community could not function and that they also help people in going back to work. As Senators will be aware, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is chairing a forum established to consider the issue. The plan to concede pensions to the scheme has the potential to cost the sector €188 million. Nevertheless, I will be happy if the Minister appears before the House in the coming weeks.

  Senator Humphreys asked for a debate on the television licence fee and broadcasting. We hope to arrange that debate.

  Senator Feighan raised the issue of weather, which is important. In the north east of the USA, from where Mr. Carroll comes, temperatures are plummeting owing to a polar vortex. Senator Lawless's city is in the middle of an icy cold spell . In this country, it is important that the local authorities work with the national directorate for fire and emergency management to ensure the roads are gritted and paths are clear. We must also check on our elderly neighbours, relatives and friends. When we see weather warnings, we often think, "Here we go again," but Met Éireann issues them for a reason and it has put a yellow warning in place until Saturday. I ask Senators to promulgate these weather warnings on their social media or websites.

  Senators Wilson and Paul Daly referred to the invitation to the Taoiseach. Senator Boyhan also raised the matter before Christmas. I had previously issued an invitation to the Taoiseach to come to the House and we are working to find a date on which we can accommodate him. I will inform Senators of the date when it is decided. Brexit is an important issue. It is also important that the Taoiseach appear before the House, not because he is the Minister of Defence, as Deputy Kehoe is the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, but because it is good that the Taoiseach speaks to us. I hope that will happen in the coming weeks.

  Senator Reilly raised the matter of electric car charge points. I am not sure with whom I should take up that matter, but it might be one for the Superintendent of the Houses. The Senator made a good point that if we, as Members of the Oireachtas, asked the Government to make changes, we should also make changes.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Perhaps the Leader could write to Coimisiún Thithe an Oireachtais.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer Yes, I will raise the matter.

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan The Leader could write to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer One could. However, to be fair to the Minister, the Senator can blame him for many things, but his jurisdiction does not extend to charge points in the car park of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan The Leader was speaking about Senator Warfield's amendment.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I accept Senator Warfield's amendment to the Order of Business.

  Senator Paul Daly raised a good point about toll charges. As Senators will know, last year the Government introduced an incentive for the owners of electric cars.  We need to consider toll charges and some of the prohibitive costs that accrue for people, be they businesspeople or others going to work or doing their business. I would be happy to have a debate on it. The point the Senator made is valid. We have signed public private partnership contracts for some roads, but I believe there comes a point when the charging of tolls needs to be considered. The point made in that regard was fair.

  I do not have the answer to Senator Mac Lochlainn's request. If he e-mails me the details, I will send them to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, after the Order of Business. It is disappointing that some of the organisations mentioned by the Senator which may have a service level agreement with the HSE are not getting funding.

  I thank the Members for their contributions. I will accept the amendment proposed to the Order of Business.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Senator Fintan Warfield has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 15 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has kindly indicated that he is prepared to accept it. Is the amendment agreed to? Agreed.

  Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.

Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019: First Stage

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Property Services (Regulation) Act 2011 to provide for the removal of advertisements of unfit rental lettings and to provide for related matters.

Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn I second the proposal.

  Question put and agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan When is it proposed to take Second Stage?

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield Next Tuesday.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Second Stage ordered for Tuesday, 5 February 2019.

  Sitting suspended at 12.25 p.m and resumed at 12.45 p.m.

Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2018: Committee and Remaining Stages

Acting Chairman (Senator Ned O'Sullivan): Information on Ned O'Sullivan Zoom on Ned O'Sullivan I welcome the Minister.

  Sections 1 to 4, inclusive, agreed to.

  Title agreed to.

  Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.

  Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh: Information on Pádraig Ó Céidigh Zoom on Pádraig Ó Céidigh The Minister is more than welcome. I wish to make some general comments that might be useful or helpful. I congratulate the Minister on this important Bill. Until now, the consumer holding and the business offering a gift voucher had no clarity on the stopgaps and their respective responsibilities and entitlements. This area falls under various consumer and EU legislative measures and we are awaiting an EU directive to stabilise the matter further, but I appreciate the Minister's initiative. She has taken the bull by the horns and decided to do something here and now. I agree with that approach.

  A couple of issues are worth mentioning. Consumer protection is a particular issue for receivers or liquidators of companies, particularly companies in the retail sector. There could be a couple of hundred or a few thousand gift vouchers in circulation, yet there is no proper record of them. It is often the case that businesses do not keep a full record of to whom the salesperson gave a gift voucher or, if part of it has been cashed in, how much remains outstanding. In a receivership or liquidation it is difficult to analyse these aspects and establish the true liability. In some cases, the receiver or liquidator will actually have to advertise in newspapers asking any member of the public who has unused gift vouchers to make a claim. In most instances, those claims will be reasonable, realistic, true and fair. However, in some instances, that might not be the case, putting the receiver or liquidator in a predicament. I know of at least one case in which the liquidator had to get the support of the courts to close the books.

  The consumer is an unsecured creditor, which means that he or she is down the line. I was about to say "last in line", but consumers are second last in line. The last is the owner of the business, which is always the case. When a retail store in Dublin closed its doors a number of years ago, the liquidator from what was then Ernst & Young discovered that a trust fund had been put aside for holders of gift vouchers. That money for voucher holders was protected to some degree. Greater robustness would help to support consumers better and facilitate professional practitioners working in this area to codify or allocate particular costs to vouchers.

  I do not have much time to get into the related issue of regulated and unregulated, but I support the five-year period. If someone redeems part of a voucher or tops it up, does the five-year period start again? As the answer seems to be "No", it is good to know that.

  I would like to make a few more comments, but I will leave it at that. I thank the Minister.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Heather Humphreys): Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys I thank Members for their support for the Bill. As I stated on Second Stage last week, the Bill deals with an issue of considerable importance for consumers and businesses. Most of us have given or received a gift voucher at some stage. A great many retailers and service providers in all parts of the country issue vouchers and view them as an important element of their business. Therefore, it is vital that consumers who buy or receive vouchers are adequately protected from unfair practices.

  The Bill provides a number of necessary protections in a fair and balanced way. Although no amendments have been tabled by Senators, a number made some interesting points during our debates last week and today. I have invited Senators to make me aware of unfair practices related to gift vouchers that are not addressed in the Bill. I take Senator Ó Céidigh's point about what happens in the event of a company going into receivership or liquidation. While I do not believe I can address it in this Bill, I will examine the matter. I want to extend the expiry date for gift vouchers to a minimum of five years, but I would still urge consumers to cash those gift vouchers instead of holding on to them. They should use them. There are no guarantees that the company will still be in business when someone wants to use a voucher. That is the risk in not cashing vouchers. If I can introduce further amendments to protect the best interests of consumers, I will consider doing so.

  I thank Members for their co-operation and look forward to bringing the Bill through the Dáil.

  Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairman (Senator Ned O'Sullivan): Information on Ned O'Sullivan Zoom on Ned O'Sullivan When is it proposed so sit again?

Senator James Reilly: Information on Dr. James Reilly Zoom on Dr. James Reilly At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday.

  The Seanad adjourned at 1 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 5 February 2019.

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