Header Item Prelude
 Header Item Teachtaireacht ón Dáil - Message from Dáil
 Header Item Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad
 Header Item Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
 Header Item Health Services Reform
 Header Item Health Services Funding
 Header Item Disability Services Provision
 Header Item Vaccination Programme
 Header Item Higher Education Institutions
 Header Item School Accommodation
 Header Item An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
 Header Item Extension of Reporting Deadline for Seanad Committee on Public Petitions: Motion
 Header Item Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Motion
 Header Item Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016: Restoration to Order Paper
 Header Item Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020: Order for Second Stage
 Header Item Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
 Header Item Family Leave Bill 2021: Order for Second Stage
 Header Item Family Leave Bill 2021: Second Stage

Friday, 12 March 2021

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 275 No. 3
Unrevised

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Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10:30:00

Machnamh agus Paidir.

Reflection and Prayer.


Teachtaireacht ón Dáil - Message from Dáil

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Dáil Éireann has passed the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2020 on 11 March 2021, without amendment. Dáil Éireann has agreed on 11 March 2021 to the amendments made by Seanad Éireann to the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Bill 2020. Dáil Éireann passed the Criminal Procedure Bill 2021 on 11 March 2021 to which the agreement of Seanad Éireann is desired.

Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I have received notice from Senator Mary Seery Kearney that, on the motion for the Commencement of the House today, she proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to make a statement on the commencement of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015.

I have also received notice from Senator Rónán Mullen of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the conditions applied by the Department and by the HSE on the provision of funding to charitable, voluntary and community organisations; whether such conditions include compliance with company law requirements, including the filing of audited accounts, with reference to the case of a particular organisation, details of which have been supplied, which has continued to receive funding despite allegedly not being in compliance with company law filing requirements.

I have also received notice from Senator Marie Sherlock of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the implementation of the recommendations of the report of the national advisory group on specialist supports for deaf children to national progressing disability services which was published by the HSE in 2017.

I have also received notice from Senator Timmy Dooley of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to include family carers as a priority group in the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

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

The need for the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to make a statement on the full economic cost of a higher education student in full-time education and if he will provide an update on the implementation of the Cassells report on higher education funding.

I have also received notice from Senator Martin Conway of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education to provide an update on the new Educate Together school in Ennis, County Clare.

I have also received notice from Senator Robbie Gallagher of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport to make a statement on the potential impact on road budgets, future funding and completion of roads projects for 2021.

I have also received notice from Senator Jerry Buttimer of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Finance to make a statement on the Living City initiative in Cork city with the impact on the use of office and retail spaces as a result of Covid-19 in particular.

I have also received notice from Senator Victor Boyhan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make a statement on the re-establishment of an Irish diplomatic presence in Iran.

I have also received notice from Senator Aidan Davitt of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to extend the expiry date of all extended planning permissions for a period of two years.

I have also received notice from Senator Garret Ahearn of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to provide an update on the progress of St. Anthony’s nursing home, Clonmel, County Tipperary.

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

The need for the Minister for Education to provide an update on the provision of a permanent extension for the Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty, County Cork.

  The matters raised by the Senators are suitable for discussion and I have selected Senators Seery Kearney, Mullen, Sherlock, Dooley, Byrne and Conway and they will be taken now.  The other Senators may give notice on another day of the matters that they wish to raise.

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Health Services Reform

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney Ba mhaith liom i bharr fáilte a chur roimh an t-Aire go dtí an Teach inniu. That is my little bit for Seachtain na Gaeilge. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today. This week the Joint Committee on Disability Matters heard very compelling advocacy from members of the disability committee in the National Women's Council of Ireland and from Amy Hassett of Disabled Women Ireland. It was really quite an extraordinary and very powerful meeting of the disability matters committee. Ms Hassett's statement included a reference to the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the fact that it has not commenced, while also noting elements of the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and the Sign Language Act have not been enacted. I know the Cathaoirleach, in particular, has advocated for sign language. I appreciate the Minister of State is not here to talk about those matters, but I am sticking them in as a reminder.

  I note that Inclusion Ireland highlighted that the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act states that everyone is presumed to be able to decide for himself or herself, unless the opposite is shown. That is important. The Act and the law set out ways to support people who lack capacity in making decisions. The Act also provides for a move away from the idea of best interests and a move towards a rights based decision-making capacity. It is designed to meet the standards of respect and the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities, for people with decision-making ability who have been affected perhaps by traumatic brain injury and for older people with diminished capacity or dementia.

  I acknowledge the thrust of this Act is already in operation in the form of guidelines and great moves have been made in that regard. I have been involved in it from the privacy and general data protection regulation, GDPR, end, in training and in assisting people and ensuring their capacity is to the fore. Sage Advocacy has noted the commencement of this Act will also ensure that information is imparted in a way that people can receive it and are best informed and assisted in making their decisions.

  We see the thrust of all our legislation. In the last year, in particular, since I have been in the Seanad and prior to that, I have noticed the move away from a paternalistic approach and very much towards the person who is most affected being party to a decision. We have seen many actions on the Statute Book that move in this direction and they are to be commended.

  The difficulty here, and why it is particular to this week, is that women tend to survive to old age in greater numbers and can be particularly affected as a consequence. They disproportionately comprise an older age cohort and are more likely to be affected by diminished capacity as a result. There is a need for urgency in bringing in commencing this Act.

  I believe that when it is commenced, we will need an information campaign to ensure everybody knows about it. I tend to get calls when people assume they have legal status as next-of-kin and do not quite understand the implications of enduring power of attorney and so on. When this comes in, it will be important because, naturally, if the decision-maker is the person most affected, he or she will have a power and agency not there heretofore. I would urge that is noted also.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Anne Rabbitte): Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the commencement of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and its importance for women with disabilities.  It also shows the relevance of the newly formed Committee on Disability Matters when we are getting into the nuts and bolts of discussing persons with disabilities and, on International Women's Week, bringing in such groups to show the impact of not having the proper legislation in place and how it is restraining them. I acknowledge that its commencement will benefit women with disabilities who have capacity difficulties and I assure the Senator that everything is being done to ensure the commencement of the Act by June of next year.

  The Act is very important legislation that changes the existing law on capacity from the status approach of the wardship system to a flexible functional approach, whereby capacity is assessed on an issue and time specific basis. This addresses everything the Senator has spoken about. It will abolish the wards of court system for adults by repealing the Lunacy Regulation (Ireland) Act 1871. Adults in wardship will transition to the new decision-making support arrangements on a phased basis over three years from the date of commencement.

  The Government made a commitment in the programme for Government to commence the Act, recognising the importance of the much-needed reform it represents. The delays in commencement of the Act arise from two principal factors. The decision support service, which will operate the progressive provisions of the Act, has yet to become operational. It will then be able to respond to the complex decision-making needs of people with capacity difficulties. Amendments are also required to the Act before full commencement can take place. Work is actively taking place on an assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill, which we expect to have enacted by year end. These amendments will streamline the processes in the interests of those using its provisions. They will also strengthen the safeguards included in the Act.

  Some provisions of the Act have been commenced to enable the recruitment of the director of the decision support service, the establishment of a multidisciplinary working group on advance healthcare directives and, most recently, on 1 February, the repeal of the Marriage of Lunatics Act, which means that a ward can now marry if she or he has capacity to do so.

  The decision support service has made considerable progress in putting in place the administrative and IT systems needed to operate the Act. To this end, a budget of €5.8 million was secured to help fund the decision support service. A high-level steering group, chaired by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, meets monthly to oversee and drive progress towards full commencement. The steering group comprises senior officials from the Department of Health, the Mental Health Commission, the Courts Service, and the decision support service. This is in recognition of the fact that successful operation of the Act will involve multiple stakeholders. It is working towards commencement of the legislation in June 2022, with the decision support service opening for business immediately thereafter. To be honest, all of the heavy lifting is being done at the beginning so that when the Act is commenced the decision support service will be open and ready for operation, with the staff in place and the ICT system ready to run.

  I recognise the frustrations of all the groups that have come, and will come, before the Committee on Disability Matters. They will tell us how this is restraining them. However, the Senator now has a good understanding of the work being done. It is also important that we develop robust systems in the decision support service that respond adequately to the needs of those with capacity difficulties and of their families. I am confident that the time that we devote now to getting this process right will give us a person-centred approach and will pay dividends in the end.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I thank the Minister of State. It is very heartening that we have a locked down timeframe. It is really good. It is also really good to hear of the monthly meetings of the steering group. One of the things I really regard and respect in the Act is the complete abolition of the horrible names of the Acts of the past. We both recoiled, the Minister of State in saying them and me in hearing them. Moving to that place of absolute respect for the integrity of the individuals and their rights to make decisions about their lives is to be welcomed. I thank the Minister of State.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I assure the Senator that everything that can be done is being done and we have a timeframe and it will be measured. At the end, it is all about communication and it is exactly about how we can empower people so it is completely person centred.  Believe it or not, this is the only Commencement matter I will be taking that is from my brief. In this women's week, I also acknowledge the disabled women who were before an Oireachtas committee. There was a fantastic hashtag used on Twitter, which was #DisabilityIsNotADirtyWord. I commend them on this and it got many people talking during the week. They also asked some poignant questions. I compliment the disabled women's group for bringing disability to the forefront this week.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I note the Minister of State is replying to all the Commencement matters today, which is unprecedented. I thank her on behalf of the Seanad for taking time out of her busy schedule to come here to reply to the six matters today.

Health Services Funding

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach faoi dhó agus fearaim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus míle buíochas di as a bheith inár measc agus guím Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona di, ar ndóigh. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sí taitneamh as cibé beagáinín de shaoire a bheidh aici ar an lá sin.

  It is now five years since the controversy surrounding charitable and voluntary organisations such as GOAL, Console and the Central Remedial Clinic. As the House might recall, taxpayers' funding that was given to these organisations, as well as funds donated by ordinary citizens, were abused and misappropriated. This behaviour went unchecked due to poor corporate governance, shoddy accountancy practices and the lack of proper oversight by government and particularly the Departments that provided funding. I hoped we had moved beyond that culture. I thought, as I am sure other Senators had thought, that strict governance and accounting conditions now applied before any State funding would be given to voluntary organisations.

  I was surprised to read a report recently about an organisation called Transgender Equality Network Ireland, a company limited by guarantee, or TENI.

Acting Chairman (Senator Mary Seery Kearney): Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I urge the Senator to be cautious in referring to persons or naming any organisation outside the House.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen Absolutely. I understand those concerns. In the preparation of this matter I supplied the details of this to the Government. I take this opportunity, for the avoidance of doubt, that it does not matter to me what organisation is involved but it is the principle when it comes to using almost €750,000 in taxpayers' money over a period of years. It is of no concern to me what organisation is involved, what it does or what it stands for. It is the principle of how taxpayers' money is disbursed that is my only concern in bringing this matter before the House. What I have said so far is on the public record.

  In January this year this group filed accounts for 2018 at the Companies Registration Office, CRO, and as I understand it this was almost two years beyond the point where they were due to be filed. The accounts for 2019, due to be filed with the CRO in early 2020, are still outstanding, and the accounts for 2020, due to be filed with the CRO earlier this year, are still outstanding. These filings are a matter of public record at the CRO, and despite apparently failing to file audited accounts for 2018, 2019 or 2020, this organisation received €326,000 from the HSE in 2019 and €180,000 in 202. Moreover, it has been given a commitment to get €230,000 in 2021. Is it not extraordinary that a group three years behind in filing audited accounts continues to receive funding like this?

  For the benefit of the Senators who represent political parties, I point out the following by way of contrast. Section 40 of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 introduced a requirement that political parties would receive no Exchequer funding in any calendar year unless audited accounts for the previous year had been submitted and signed off by the Standards in Public Office Commission. In other words, if a political party did what this group has done, it would not have got a single penny for 2019, 2020 or 2021. This organisation has had nearly €750,000 doled out to it by the HSE in that time. To put that in perspective, it is nearly double what the Labour Party got in Exchequer funding last year and this year.

  I am not for a moment suggesting this organisation or any person in its management has committed any wrongdoing. I stress here again that my position here is that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. However, one of the reasons we provide funding in the first place is so these organisations can pay to put adequate systems of accounting and financial controls in place.  This seems to me to be totally unacceptable and I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and it is his script I am responding with. I thank Senator Mullen for raising the issue and giving me the opportunity to outline the position to the House.

  The Department of Health's role is to provide strategic leadership for the health service and to ensure that Government policies are translated into actions and implemented effectively. This includes governance and performance oversight to ensure accountable and high-quality service. Any proposal to provide Exchequer funding would require detailed consideration of the service need and potential costs and the decision would then be subject to public procurement rules. Any organisation funded from the Exchequer is required to conform to the Government principles as outlined in the service arrangement and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Circular 13/2014, Management of and Accountability for Grants from Exchequer Funds. This circular outlines the public financial management principles, procedures and additional reporting requirements to be followed in the management of grant funding provided from public money, as well as the reclassification of grants and grant-in-aid.

  The overall principle is that there should be transparency and accountability in the management of public money, in line with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. In general, good governance is central to how State agencies direct and control their functions and relate to their stakeholders to manage their business, achieve their mission and objectives and meet the necessary standards of accountability, integrity and propriety. All bodies that fall under the Department must comply in full with the code of practice for governance of State bodies.

  In relation to HSE-funded services, sections 38 and 39 of the Health Act 2004, as amended, provide for the HSE to contract with a non-statutory body to provide health and other allied services on its behalf. As part of a HSE-wide initiative to improve governance arrangements for the funding of non-statutory agencies, a national compliance framework has been developed to ensure a consistent approach.

  Where the annual funding allocated for the contracted service is less than €250,000, the oversight and governance arrangements are defined via a grant aid arrangement. Where the annual funding allocated for the contracted service exceeds €250,000, the oversight and governance arrangements for the contracted services are defined via a service level agreement signed between the HSE and the voluntary agency. The provider is required to provide an annual report to the HSE in respect of the service no later than 30 September each year.

  For all section 38 funding arrangements, as well as those section 39 funding arrangements in excess of €3 million in annual funding, an annual compliance statement is required to be submitted to the HSE compliance unit by the agency, which relates to compliance with corporate governance requirements for the prior year. Within the HSE, the non-statutory sector compliance unit evaluates the annual compliance statements received from the section 38 and section 39 agencies that are required to submit such a compliance statement and the compliance documentation and guidance are reviewed and updated annually, as required.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I thank the Minister of State for her reply but she is in the unfortunate position, as Ministers often are here, of having to deliver a speech on behalf of another Minister. I listened carefully but did not hear the answer to the core issue, which is whether an organisation that has not submitted audited accounts should be getting State money. The serious questions I have remain, namely, whether it is common practice that the HSE or the Department of Health would commit funding to organisations that have not filed audited accounts in successive years, whether the timely filing of audited accounts is not a condition of receiving funding in the first place and whether this is the only organisation that has been treated this way, which I would find hard to believe. Surely we all agree that every euro of taxpayers' money must be subject to the same controls and safeguards. It is no fault of the Minister of State but I am not happy that I have received any kind of response to the substance of the questions I have asked.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte Perhaps the second concluding part of it will address that. I am scanning over it in the time allocated.

  Additionally, it should be noted that, in accordance with the above, all providers in receipt of funding are contractually obliged to adhere to all relevant legislation, which includes company law legislation as applicable to other organisations.  HSE national mental health is aware of the Companies Registration Office, CRO, audited accounts filing by the company that has been referenced by the Senator. The reason these documents were late was due to a staffing issue, which has now been resolved. The 2018 accounts were filed with the CRO in December 2020 and were reviewed. The 2019 accounts are complete and are in the process of being signed by the directors and will be filed thereafter. The 2020 audit will commence shortly and will be filed on time from this point forward. The HSE is in constant communication with the group and receives regular finance and service updates. At no stage was there a reluctance from this organisation to engage with the HSE and all explanations were furnished. This addresses the point that the HSE has been continually in contact with the group. There was a staffing issue but files have been lodged. That is my understanding from the information given to me by the Minister.

Disability Services Provision

Senator Marie Sherlock: Information on Marie Sherlock Zoom on Marie Sherlock I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for coming to the House and for making herself available for this important question. As the Minister of State knows only too well, the HSE is currently rolling out its reconfiguration of disability services for children and it hopes to complete the centralisation of services July of this year. I understand that when there are waiting lists as long as 25,000, and indeed a family in my area has been waiting for four and a half years for access to therapies, the HSE has to do something. When a school such as the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra is told that it is to lose its on-site specialist speech and language therapy service to resource the development of another service, then the children, the parents, the staff and the principal all deserve answers as to why they are to lose their service.

  My question is very much about the research, the evidence-based policy and the clinical framework that says it is better for children to access services in the community, which in reality is effectively them joining a long queue along with many other children in the community, when they already have timely access to a vital service within their school environment. A report produced by the HSE in 2017 related to the national advisory group on specialist services for deaf children. There were nine specific recommendations in the report but it has been there for more than three years at this stage and is gathering dust. The recommendations have been actively ignored by the HSE's current reconfiguration plan for disability services for children. Where is the leading role for specialist deaf services? Where are the specialist mental health services for children who are deaf and their families? Where is the automatic referral for those with severe or profound hearing loss? Where is the expertise in training within primary healthcare and within the community-based teams for children who are deaf or hard of hearing?

  This school deserves to hear the rationale as to why it is losing its service. It seems like a retrograde step. The impact of this on the children in the school will include lost days out of school. Children come from as far as Monaghan, Longford, Meath and Kildare, as the Minister of State knows only too well. What are we saying to them with regard to their right to access a comprehensive and full education in this State that they must stay at home to access a service where they reside and not go to school on those days? It is shameful we would have to tell them to miss school. It is about providing a consistent support service to them. Any family that has a child with a disability will say that it has to be consistent as opposed to meeting a different clinician or therapist on each day. There is also a cost to the HSE.

  In my conversations with the Minister of State on this I know she is concerned. The Taoiseach has also spoken publicly about this. The school and I received correspondence from the HSE on Wednesday. It was a series of justifications for why it is doing this, which is nothing short of shameful. The HSE has sought to rely on the Ombudsman's report on unmet health needs for children with disabilities. The HSE is relying on that report to justify what it is doing.  It is saying that the report states that we need to review the access path and criteria for accessing services. Is the HSE saying that the children in the Holy Family School for the Deaf do not currently need access to speech and language therapy services? That is what it said in its letter. I want to hear the HSE's justification. If this goes through, it will be a hugely retrograde step for the children in this school. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I do not know whether to start with the opening or concluding statement at this point. I have an answer but I would like to give the Senator the opening piece on the HSE first. I will then show how I have intervened, as a follow-up to the emails and the conversation the Senator and I had at back of the Chamber last Monday, and the work that has happened in the last four days. The Senator must recognise that what I have been trying to do in four days actually started in 2016. I am coming in at the tail end of a project that has started and been unleashed. I am now trying to manage it. I will put it in that context. I will read the opening script, which outlines where we have been over and back with the HSE prior to my intervention. It is important that I put this on the record because it gives parents who are watching an understanding of how we have come to this space. I will then address the issue about which the Senator has asked. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to do this.

  In October 2017, the national progressing disability services, PDS, working group signed off on the report it had received from the national advisory group on specialist supports for deaf children. The report recommended a model of national specialist support to be delivered through a three-tiered approach: training for front-line staff in primary care and children's disability network teams; consultation with staff regarding individual children; and individual specialist assessment only in the very small number of instances when all efforts for assessing a child's needs have been unsuccessful.

  The proposed model, as outlined, is in line with the PDS model and the 2016 report regarding guidance on specialist supports. A working group was subsequently formed under the integrated care programme for children to focus on services for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. The national PDS steering group was represented on this group. The findings and recommendations of the PDS national advisory group informed the deliberations of the working group. The national working group for integrated care for children who are deaf or hard of hearing incorporated the relevant PDS recommendations regarding specialist support into its draft report. A draft version of the group's report was circulated in March 2020. However, the subsequent onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted the work of the group. It is expected that the group will resume its work as soon as practically possible.

  At this intervention, it is important for me to say that the remodelling of the PDS network has started and is rolling out. We are still going to reconfigure to have a meeting of the steering group. Therefore, the horse has bolted on this one. I am trying to get a hold of it at the moment. I acknowledge and totally understand the concern, upset and frustration of the parents and staff in the school about which the Senator spoke. I would like to be able to tell her that this school is an isolated incident, but we have many of these schools around the country. Certain things are happening and the programme is being rolled out. As the Senator will be aware, the HSE is currently rolling out the PDS programme, which requires a reconfiguration of all current HSE and HSE-funded children's disability services into 91 children's disability networks across the nine community healthcare organisations, CHOs.

  The programme aims to achieve an equitable national approach to service provision for all children based on their individual need and regardless of their disability, where they live or where they go to school. A really positive piece of work is going on right across the country. The reconfiguration of services under the PDS programme is in line with the health service reform and implementation of community health networks under Sláintecare. I have discussed the issue of the PDS with the HSE a number of times over the past week to air some of my concerns, which have been brought to my attention by parents and Members of the Oireachtas. I believe the PDS is the best way forward. I have more to contribute in my concluding remarks, but I get the Senator's point.

Senator Marie Sherlock: Information on Marie Sherlock Zoom on Marie Sherlock I thank the Minister of State for her response and I understand that she understands the seriousness of the issue. Any of us who have dealt with families and children with a disability who are waiting know the distress involved. I understand what the HSE is doing across the country but not for the schools where there is already a good service in place and this had caused the greatest distress to me. There is already a good service in place and the HSE is seeking to remove that. So we are robbing Peter to pay Paul and we simply cannot allow that to happen. The Minister of State is right in that the Holy Family School for the Deaf is not an isolated school. The Carmona School in Glenageary was in contact and there are other schools across the country, including a school for the deaf in Cork.

   I plead with the Minister of State and the Government because this is an education and health issue. It is not just a health issue. I understand that the HSE must do what it must do but I ask that the Government takes control and creates an initiative now to protect the education of these children. These children are in mainstream education. We need to protect that and ensure they do not suffer a loss because of a HSE action.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte The Senator is right because I have been approached by my colleague, Deputy Cormac Devlin, and Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill has come to me about the Carmona School. I have heard about it from all over the country. The Government has taken control of this issue. I took control of it last Monday and I have continuously engaged with the HSE for the past week.

  I will now read an important piece. In the context, the HSE introduced the national policy on access to services for children and young people with disability and development delay to ensure that children are directed to the appropriate service based on the complexity of their presenting needs rather than based on diagnosis. So the child who travels from Galway or Donegal to attend a special school for deaf children or the hard of hearing that is his or her specialist school. So it is up to every CHO to understand the national policy, and how they implement it and how they communicate it. It is very clear to me regarding communication within the HSE that while I am dealing with the best of people at the top they are not understanding the policy at a CHO level. I rest my case.

Vaccination Programme

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley As the Minister of State well knows, family carers are an invaluable but undervalued element of the healthcare service in Ireland. Over 350,000 carers provide essential care on a daily basis to over 400,000 people saving the State an estimated €10 billion a year, which is very significant. Many of these carers devote a major part of their lives to caring for a loved one in situations that are often, let us be honest, very lonely. These carers remain silent and isolated. They accept their lot and get on with the task in hand. If it was not for the sacrifice made by family carers, many of those who are cared for would have to be provided with long-term State care that would cost multiples of millions of euro, which would place an intolerable financial burden on the State.

  Like many other politicians - I talked to Senator Malcolm Byrne on my way in about this matter and he recognises the same problem - we have all been inundated with calls from family carers wondering why their work is any less valuable than other front-line workers in the health service or elsewhere. This is not about pitting one worker against another in a race for people to get vaccinated. The practical question is as follows. Who would mind the person who needs the carer if the carer is struck down with Covid? That is a very simple question for the Minister of State, for me and for everybody else.

  We know that younger carers have a lower risk of hospitalisation or death if they contract Covid. However, we have being continuously told by NPHET and others, and rightly so, that this disease can have very serious implications across all age groups.

  Many family carers are frantic at the thought of contracting the virus because they do not have a plan B to provide care for the people or individuals who they are caring for. Let me give an example. Yesterday, I spoke to two different carers. One is a teacher in her 50s. She is a single woman and she provides critical care to her three elderly relatives in the early morning, at lunchtime, in the evening, at night and at weekends.  That is her task. They are her parents and her aunt. The four of them live together. She is back in school and, consequently, is more susceptible to contracting the virus but she is doing her duty at both ends, as a teacher and as a carer. While her mother, her father and her aunt who she minds at home have been vaccinated, the carer, who is just over 50, is unlikely to be vaccinated for the next couple of months. She is worried sick that if she comes down with Covid-19 she has no one to turn to for help. She asked me a simple question: where will her parents and her aunt go? They suffer from various illnesses, have very poor mobility and certainly could not manage 24 hours on their own, let alone a week or two, if she were to be out of commission. If she contracts the virus, she is in the house and no one else can come into it. As a result, she is in an intolerable position.

  Another very sad case involves a single mother who was in contact with me. Her husband died in tragic circumstances two years ago. She has three children under the age of ten. Two have autism and are at the severe end of the spectrum. She does not have any family locally so therefore has no support. She is petrified that she will be infected. She is concerned about the older child who is in school and might bring the virus home. She has no idea where she would turn to in the event of falling sick with Covid.

  Those are just a sample of the cases that have been relayed to me daily but, in particular, over the past couple of weeks. We need to do what is right by these people who provide an enormous service to the State. They usually ask for nothing. They carry their burden with dignity and always in silence. It is time we recognised their plight and prioritised their vaccinations.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I thank Senator Dooley for raising this matter. He is right. He and I and Senator Byrne have had these conversations. For a few minutes, it felt as if we were having a parliamentary party meeting, with just the three of us having the conversation until Senator Conway came along. To be honest, I have to read this answer as it is the answer from the Minister for Health. However, I hope time will allow me to give my personal input because, ultimately, I am representing people with disabilities and that vulnerable group the Senator spoke about so eloquently. He has laid out the position very clearly. All of us recognise the invaluable work that carers do and if we take them out of their role as the cog in the wheel, so to speak, who will look after the most vulnerable? That is the concern. We can talk about the child who might never be vaccinated because he or she is under 16 years of age. The parent who is under 65 years of age is happy and healthy but if that parent or, God forbid, the two adults in the house, were to contract the virus who will mind the child? The child might not be an only child. There may be other siblings in the house. The complexity of issues within a household is unbelievable.

  The daily needs of the older relatives of the teacher the Senator mentioned are different but they must also be attended to. If that teacher comes down will the illness, not only is a classroom down a teacher but, importantly, the vulnerable relatives who are dependent on her from a feeding, shopping, going to the post office and medication point of view are also affected.

  I acknowledge that what the Senator has outlined is very important. I will give him the answer but I wanted to explain to him my understanding of what I am articulating daily with NPHET. I met Paul Reid only two weeks ago about this issue. I have spoken also to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I have to lay out the position in the answer.

  The Covid vaccination allocation strategy sets out a provisional list of groups for vaccination. The strategy was developed by the national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, and the Department of Health, endorsed by the public health emergency team, NPHET, and approved by the Government on 8 December but it is important to say that a lot has happened since 8 December.

  Vaccination allocation is a matter for the Department of Health and it is rolled out by the HSE. The aim of the Covid vaccination programme is to ensure that the vaccines will become available over time to vaccinate all of those for whom the vaccine is indicated. Given that initially there will be a limited number of vaccines available it will take some time for all to receive them and it has necessitated an allocation strategy. All of us recognise that because the most need was in the nursing homes and our front-line staff. However, we are now into the parallel approach.  This is very welcome. What we have managed to see is the reprioritising of the medically vulnerable and of the 60- to 65-year-old citizens within the disability groupings or under other conditions. What the Senator is saying here today is that as the allocation of vaccines comes on stream, perhaps the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, will need to come go back and look at this again. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is continuously doing that. When we have 250,000 vaccines arriving from 1 April, with the help of God, perhaps we can have another parallel group. If I am hearing the Senator correctly, that is the group that he is speaking about. Senator Byrne and I have always said that the vaccine could be allocated to them as key workers. They should be moved to the current cohort 6. It is not in my discretion but I have a clear understanding of the request that Senator Dooley has made. As NIAC undertakes reviews and as allocations of vaccines become available, we should continue to make the case that the carer group should be within that grouping.

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I thank the Minister of State and welcome her very honest appraisal. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is simple. The numbers may not be that great when it comes down to it. There are many family carers who are elderly. A husband or a wife who is looking after his or her spouse is likely to be in or around the same age, or a little younger in some cases. These people will be addressed in the over-70s grouping. They are being addressed. That is being resolved. I am aware that in certain medical practices where there may be a little vaccine left over at the end of the day's vaccinations, there is a practice of looking after spouses who are within or close to the age group.

  We must target those who might be considered to be younger carers. Those who could be waiting for the next two, three or four months to get vaccinated do not see light at the end of the tunnel. We need to help them because they are the people who will suffer most.

  I will conclude by returning to the comparison between a key worker and a healthcare worker. Healthcare and front-line workers were vaccinated in order that they would be in place to deal with people in hospitals. That was the right thing to do. If we do not address these carers, the people for whom they care will create an intolerable burden on our hospital services. I thank the House for its patience.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte We have all spoken to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. To be fair, he has been very open in his approach. As we are limited in our supply, there has to be a strategic approach. The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, have directed the supply towards the areas of greatest need, as demonstrated over the past 12 months. Of the 110,000 medically vulnerable people who have been moved to cohort 4, some 10,000 will get a vaccination this week. This is very welcome progress. As supplies come on board, the next step is for the cohort of people who give support to, for example, children who might never receive the vaccine to be deemed to be a significant priority. We must signal that we recognise the valuable work they do and the contribution they make. I will bring this question back to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

Higher Education Institutions

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne Cuirim fáilte roimh mo chara, an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Rabbitte. Gabhaim buíochas léi as an ábhar seo a ghlacadh ar son an Aire Oideachais. I endorse the remarks of my colleague, Senator Dooley, about the importance of designating family carers as key workers. I know that the Minister of State is very passionate about doing this as well.

  I am raising the issue of higher education funding. This country's economic success and many of its social developments have been built on the fact that we have a highly educated citizenry and workforce. If we look at some of the statistics, we will see that other countries are almost jealous of us because a majority of people in their 20s and 30s in this country are graduates. This year, approximately 50,000 new entrants will go into our higher education institutions and approximately 70,000 graduates at different levels will come out of them. We have nearly 200,000 people studying at undergraduate level in this country, as well as 45,000 postgraduate students. These are statistics to be celebrated.  The problem has been chronic underfunding. As we continue to expand the system and provide more opportunities, and the technological changes we will face over the next decade mean there will be greater demands on us to upskill and reskill, we need a higher education system that is fit for purpose and is adequately funded. No one should be in any doubt about the challenge of some of those costs. Part of the problem has been that despite the continued dramatic increase in numbers over the last decade, the level of public funding until recently has continued to be cut. This year, we are finally beginning to see additional investment in the area. I asked about the full economic cost and how much it costs in every case, so that we get an idea of the scale. I understand the estimate is around €8,000 to €10,000. We need to provide that sum every year to ensure we can provide more of the quality graduates for which this country is well known and we need to have the capital and research investment, particularly in the emerging technological university sector.

  Five years ago this month the Cassells report was published. In many ways, it did not tell us anything that we did not already know. The problem has been that the can of university funding has continued to be kicked down the road since then. It was sent to a joint committee, views were sought from Europe and there were various reports, none of which told us anything different. Cassells outlined the three possible models to funding our higher education system. I favour a publicly funded system for the most part, that we, as a State, should invest in our future because education is what matters. A potentially big achievement of this Government, and it resulted from Fianna Fáil input into the programme for Government, is the creation of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. That is not just an administrative Department; it has to drive Ireland's economic and social development and our recovery coming out of this Covid period but that can only be done if we have a properly funded system.

  The Minister, Deputy Harris, said the time for reports is over. We need to make a decision now. We need to ensure we have a proper, publicly funded higher education system and that it is fit for purpose to be able to meet the technological changes we are going to face over the next decade.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Collins. It is wonderful that we have this Department. It puts a strong emphasis on higher education as a stand-alone where a Minister and Minister of State work with a team in the Department.

  The full cost of a higher education place can vary depending on a variety factors, including the type of course and the specific arrangements for course delivery. At present, there is some differentiation in the costing approach within the sector. The university sector collects full economic costing data. The institute of technology and technical university sector collects unit cost data which involves a different methodology to full economic costing, FEC. Details provided by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, give a sample of both the costs in various disciplines. For instance, laboratory based undergraduate disciplines, such as science or engineering, will have a greater cost at around €10,000 to €11,000 per student than non-laboratory disciplines such as arts or business courses, which cost in the region of €7,000 per student. Taking all disciplines into account the average undergraduate cost for a student would currently be in the region of €9,000 or €10,000 per student per year, as the Senator said.

  The latest university FEC data for 2016-2017 indicates that the average cost for a laboratory-based postgraduate taught student is circa €15,000 per student per year while the average cost for a non-laboratory postgraduate taught student is in the region of €12,000 per student per year. An average cost for a laboratory-based postgraduate research student is approximately €18,000 per student per year. An average cost for a non-laboratory postgraduate research student is circa €21,000 per student per year.

  The Department is very much aware of the need to understand the costs of higher education course provision. In 2016, the HEA appointed an independent expert panel to review the current allocation model for funding higher education and to make recommendations on the most appropriate funding model for the future.  The completed review recommends reforms to the Higher Education Authority funding distribution model. A key recommendation of the review of the allocation model, RFAM, report is the development of a costing model to be applied consistently across higher education institutes. At present, there is some differentiation in the costing approach as between universities, technological universities and institutes of technology. Deloitte was appointed by the HEA in 2019 to undertake a scoping exercise on an appropriate model. In 2021 the HEA, working with the Departments of Education and Public Expenditure and Reform, the Irish Universities Association, IUA, and the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, will commence development of a conceptual framework on the journey towards adoption of a universal costing system applying across the entire higher education sector.

  Regarding the implementation of the Cassells report, the expert group report of 2016, Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education, confirmed that higher education makes a hugely positive contribution to the development of individuals, employers, society and the State. The report concluded that the current approach to funding was unsustainable and that substantial increases in investment in higher education must be made to ensure that the sector can remain viable and provide the capacity to meet the major increase in student demand projected up to 2030. The expert group report has opened up an important debate in Ireland on how our third level education system should be funded.

  The report made three major proposals, namely, a predominantly State-funded system; increased State funding with continuing student fees; and increased State funding with deferred payment of fees through income contingent loans. The development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential in light of the centrality of higher education to our progress as a country. The future development of Ireland as an inclusive society and a knowledge economy, against the backdrop of the rapid technological changes referenced, will be critically dependent on the quality of our graduates.

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne I thank the Minister of State. We all know how important higher education is. I accept that the Government has made a good start with the new Department and increased public funding. However, while it talks about the scale of the ambition, we have to be able to put the resources behind that. I plead with the Minister of State to take back to the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and the Minister, Deputy Harris, that we finally have to address this funding question. We could commission many more reports and they would all tell us the exact same thing. The sector is responding as effectively as it can. There is little more that can be trimmed back in the sector. If we are going to continue to provide the opportunities, expand and meet the technological challenges we are facing, we have to address that funding question. The Cassells report cannot be left to be kicked down the road any further.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte The Department is working closely with the European Commission and the independently appointed consultants on this matter. The completion of this work will allow for an informed debate on the appropriate policy approach to future planning and funding of higher and further education provision, which is fundamental to Ireland's economic sustainability. The universal costing system and the work being done on it will lay the foundations for how to fund the sector fairly and equitably across universities and technological institutes. To be fair to the Minister and the Minister of State, that is what the Department is focusing on at the moment, because if we do not invest, it will not work at all. It is a broken system.

School Accommodation

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. As this is my first time addressing the Minister of State in the House, I wholeheartedly congratulate her on her appointment. She is a very strong female voice in the west of Ireland and it is good to see that. I have tabled this matter on behalf of the community of Ennis that attends the Educate Together school there. Educate Together is a wonderful model of teaching young people. It is non-denominational and there is no involvement of the church or any other institution in it.  It is an excellent model, the type of which we need to see going forward. Educate Together in Ennis is a particularly good school with excellent teachers. It has an excellent autism class with young autistic students who are doing exceptionally well. It is a small but an effective school.

  The problem, however, is that the school needs a new building. It currently operates in prefabs and bits of extensions. The Department of Education has provided several new schools in Ennis and across County Clare in recent years. I welcome the amalgamated secondary school in Ennistymon, my own home town, which is making significant advancement. This particular national school in Ennis badly needs a new building.

  Where are we at with this project? Are we in a position to significantly advance it? What type of a timeframe are we looking at?

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte  I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. She has provided a comprehensive reply which will address the concerns of the parents and children of the school in question eloquently raised by the Senator.

  In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographical information system which employs data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. Where data indicate that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case. It also may, depending on the circumstances, be provided through one or a combination of the following options, namely, utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools, extending the capacity of a school or schools or the provision of a new school.

  As a result of analyses, it has been determined that a new school building will be required for Ennis Educate Together National School. Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department continues to make progress to increase the infrastructural capacity in the schools sector in order to meet demographic and other demands. The capital programme details the school projects being progressed under Project Ireland 2040. The current status of large-scale projects being delivered under Project Ireland 2040, including projects in County Clare, may be viewed on the Department's website, www.education.ie, and this information is updated regularly. In addition, a list of large-scale projects completed from 2010 to date may also be viewed on the website.

  The capital programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms, including accommodation for pupils with special educational needs, if required, for schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified. Details of schools listed on this programme can be found on the Department's aforementioned website. The Ennis Educate Together primary school has an enrolment of 35 boys and 29 girls. The school is operating on a Clare County Council-owned site at Gort Road, Ennis, in temporary accommodation. It has been determined that a new school building will be required in order to cater for the permanent accommodation needs of the school. To this end, a site acquisition process is under way in order to acquire a site suitable for the school's needs. A new site will be required for the subject school and the Department is at an advanced stage in the process of acquiring a suitable site for the new school building. This site acquisition process has been progressed in respect of the requirement in question and in line with standard acquisition protocols. The Department is liaising closely with Clare County Council under the memorandum of understanding between the Department and local authorities for the acquisition of school sites with a view to securing a suitable site for this school.  The Department has engaged the services of a site acquisition consultant to assist in technical matters in this analysis. Arising from this exercise, the Department has identified a preferred site and is working with Clare County Council to bring this process forward to the legal conveyancing stage. The Senator will appreciate the commercial sensitivities attached to a site acquisition such as this and given that negotiations are at a critical point, the Minister, Deputy Foley, is not currently in a position to disclose further information. Should agreement on the proposed acquisition be reached, the process will advance to the aforementioned legal conveyancing stage, when draft contracts are prepared and legal due diligence is undertaken in respect of the proposed transaction. It would be expected at that stage that the project to deliver new school accommodation can simultaneously progress to architectural planning. I assure the Senator that the school authorities will be kept apprised of the situation and will be informed of the permanent location for the school as soon as possible.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I welcome this update about the future of the Educate Together school in Ennis. It is comprehensive. It is accepted by all parties that a school is needed. I welcome the fact that negotiations and the necessary work to acquire a site are at an advanced, critical stage. I understand that there are commercial sensitivities but I think that, on the record of the House today, we have it confirmed that we are at an advanced stage. Councillor Ann Norton, who is chair of the board of management, will welcome that, as will David Quinn, who is the principal of Educate Together in Ennis. Most importantly, it will be welcomed by the parents of the pupils who are attending the Educate Together school in Ennis. The Minister of State might come back to the House and update us in due course, when there are further developments and more details available.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I will. I will pass on the Senator's acknowledgements to the Minister, Deputy Foley.

  Sitting suspended at 11.42 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I want to wish everyone on the Emerald Isle and, of course, the over 70 million people of Irish heritage living abroad a happy St. Patrick's Day. Article 2 of the Constitution states that the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish heritage living overseas. This St. Patrick's Day we will celebrate every member of that global Irish community. From the home of the Parliament of the people of Ireland and from the Irish nation, beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir.

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty Guím Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona ar mo chairde go léir agus ar an diaspóra atá ag dul i méid i gcónaí ar fud na cruinne. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as an mbronntanas seamróga. Iontas álainn a bhí ann.

  Is é seo a leanas an tOrd Gnó inniu. The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the extension of the report-back deadline for the Joint Committee on Public Petitions, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion re the extension of the report-back deadline for the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, motion re restoration of a Bill to the Order Paper, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3.30 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 no less than six minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 5, Family Leave Bill 2021 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 3.45 p.m. and to conclude at 5.45 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 no less than six minutes to reply to the debate.

Senator Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I support and welcome the Order of Business from the Leader. On behalf of my party, Fianna Fáil, I extend our gratitude to the Cathaoirleach for the good wishes he extended to the global diaspora and I extend our greetings to those who live abroad.

  I wish to raise a number of matter. First, I will talk briefly of the 5,000 acres that comprise the Curragh Plains. I have spoken often in this Chamber about the illegal encampments and illegal waste which, sadly, has been left all around the Curragh over the past number of years. I was glad when a consultation on the future management of the Curragh Plains was announced yesterday. This will start on Monday. Kildare County Council is working with the Department of Defence on drawing up a plan to ensure that we preserve appropriately the archeological and the geological and, of course, to work with the Curragh Racecourse and with the Department of Defence. This is an important consultation. I recommend and encourage people to get involved.

  I wish to refer to another ongoing consultation relating to the Defence Forces. That consultation is due to close on 19 March. The Defence Forces have been to the fore in supporting Ireland during the Covid crisis. There are many different tasks that they have undertaken and they deserve our gratitude. There are two particular matters that I would like to mention. The first relates to an ongoing story that I have been following in respect of which KFM has done a good job. I refer to sexual assault within the Army and at the Curragh Camp. It was quite shocking to listen to Jonathan O'Brien. Dr. Tom Clonan has written about this matter in the past. There needs to be an independent investigation into the matter and I am calling for that today. In terms of the consultation, I also want to mention that it is so important that recruits have the opportunity to have an affiliation with a union, and PDFORRA makes that case eloquently.

  The final point I wish to raise also, funnily enough, relates to the Curragh.  I refer to the secondary school in the Curragh. I do not know what genius in the Department of Education thought up the idea of contacting the Curragh Post Primary School to ask it to increase its intake for next year by over 100% by taking in 167 pupils on top of the 125 pupils at present. It is absolutely ridiculous. There are no facilities or place for a prefab. It brings us back to the urgent need for a secondary school for the Newbridge-Curragh-Kildare axis, which I have raised here before. Enough is enough. We need some decision on the size specification.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I am conscious it is coming up to St. Patrick's Day and would like to take this opportunity to thank our overseas missions and embassies that represent us, our diaspora and more importantly, our interest, throughout the world. I single out the ambassador, Dan Mulhall, based in Washington. I also refer to our ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, in Austria, as well as our Irish ambassador to Austria, who is also based in Vienna, Austria. We are unique in having two ambassadors there representing different aspects of the Government.

  It is time to acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, went to Tehran last week. It is important and significant for a number of reasons. It is important we develop our trade. When one builds relationships, one builds opportunities. The Minister's trip to Tehran last week was significant in that he met President Hassan Rouhani. He had many discussions about many matters in terms of the United Nations and nuclear issues but I will not go into them today.

  It is important we use our links, in Iran in particular, to increase trade. We had an enormous trade in beef prior to the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE. That trade had to be dropped because of that issue and international sanctions were also an issue. We are now getting back to normality and there have been developments. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, announced the Government's intentions to open up an embassy in Tehran in the next two years. It is important.

  Iran is eager to do business with us. As Members are aware, it has an embassy in south County Dublin. It is keen to do business. We should build on those relationships. We are unique people. Together with the Middle East generally, the Iranian people are supportive and sympathetic to Ireland and have a special place in their heart. I have Lebanese relatives so I am familiar with the Middle East. I am familiar with their commitments to Ireland and the Irish people. It is significant and we should tap into it. Our mutton and dairy products are in demand out there. I thank the Minister for that significant trip. As he led a successful agricultural trade mission to Tehran some years ago, he has the experience and knowledge and will build on that.

  I thank the Cathaoirleach for the presentation of his shamrock today. As a horticulturist, I checked out that this is Irish grown. It was not grown on Irish peat for anyone who has a concern about Irish peat. It was grown hydroponically, that is, it was grown through a solution. I will conclude by noting it is a trifolium with three leaves. It has much significance for different people, whatever their belief or ethos. It is significant and is Irish. As Bord Bia will tell one, all over the world, this trifolium symbol is embossed on our products. It is synonymous with Ireland, the green island. I would welcome a debate about Ireland, the island of Ireland initiative and how we can expand our exports of agrifoods across the Continent and the world. I wish everyone a happy and enjoyable St. Patrick's Day.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly It is grown in a solution that was developed by NASA. I thank the Senator for the horticultural lesson and his kind words.

Senator Rebecca Moynihan: Information on Rebecca Moynihan Zoom on Rebecca Moynihan I will follow everybody else in wishing everybody a happy St. Patrick's Day next week, including Irish people living abroad. It will be a little bit different because people are not travelling this year. St Patrick's Day is often used as an opportunity by Ministers to lobby for the undocumented Irish in the US. I ask that next week, people do not forget those who have come to Ireland and who have ended up being undocumented here. Many of them came here to work but fell into undocumentation through bad employers or the loss of jobs. This affects up to 17,000 people and I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government, in the inclusion of which was led by the Green Party, to give these people a pathway to legal residency. The Labour Party stands in solidarity with the undocumented in Ireland. I ask that we remember them next week as we extol the virtues of us moving around the globe in search of a better life, and realise some people come to Ireland to do that too.

  I raise the issue of the extension of the eviction ban until the end of 2021. When the 5 km limit is lifted, many of us will be relieved. We will be able to see friends and travel. However, there are people for whom the lifting of the 5 km will mean they are facing potential homelessness. There is no political or legal reason that was tied together in the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act. We tried to give the Minister the opportunity to extend the eviction ban, for health reasons, without linking it to the 5 km.

  In the two months after the last eviction ban was lifted in August, more than 360 people were served eviction notices. There is a build-up of evictions waiting to happen. I know of two and will give examples. A man with two children is going to be evicted due to substantial renovations. He does not believe that is the reason but by the time it is heard by the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, he, his wife and his two children will be out on the street with nowhere to go. It is very difficult to see how they will be able to find alternative accommodation in the middle of a pandemic. In another case, I know of a woman whose landlord has begun to make noises about moving to Spain as a result of the pandemic. She is in receipt of housing assistance payment, HAP, and has lived there for eight years.

  I checked the property price register for that particular house. Both these people live on the same road. The landlord paid under €100,000 for the property which has been made back many times since. It seems fundamentally unfair that two families are potentially facing eviction, when the landlord could potentially make three times what he paid for the property if he sells it. Substantial renovations are not an adequate excuse.

  I ask the Minister to consider extending the eviction ban until the end of 2021, giving families living in the private rented sector certainty in the middle of this global pandemic.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the undocumented, both in the United States and Ireland. I call ceannaire an Chomhaontais Ghlais sa Seanad, an Seanadóir Pauline O'Reilly.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I am delighted to welcome and announce funding on behalf of the Government, together with my colleagues from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, of over €60 million for Galway city. This funding will transform our city in respect of things for which people have spent years working. Local communities in Wood Quay have been looking for regeneration to have public realm space in Wood Quay, Eyre Square and across the city. We are also spending €10 million on Oranmore train station and preparing Ceannt Station in order that we can finally see double-tracking from Athenry to the city. With the support of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I believe we will see this.

  The old stumps of the Clifden railway line have been an historic sight across the Corrib. They will be transformed into a cycling and pedestrian way that will link the university with Wood Quay. It will be something magnificent to come to Galway for, as if there is not enough to come there for already. There will also be a start to the Moycullen to Galway part of the Connemara greenway. I woke up with a spring in my step. This is a good day for the west and I am delighted to welcome the funding.

  Turning to another matter, I received an email, as other Senators have, which was quite disturbing.  It relates to a fourth class English book. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for Education to investigate it. It is quite shocking to read some of the things in this fourth class English book about autism and young people. It could have a deep impact on mental health at a very young age. The book states:

My own hands squeeze to fists. Sometimes I wish someone would invent a pill so David'd wake up one morning without autism, like someone waking from a long coma, and he'd say "Jeez, Catherine, where have I been". And he’d be a regular brother like Melissa has.

Imagine putting that into the hands of small children. We are trying to teach people about tolerance and self-worth. I would like to investigate whether this is in fourth class classrooms and, if it is, we really need to have a conversation about what it is that children are being taught.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Guím beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ar an Cheannaire, ar mo chomhghleacaithe agus ar na daoine ar fud na tíre agus ar fud an domhain. It is an important opportunity, as we approach St. Patrick's Day, for us to remember and recognise the very important bond and link we have with our diaspora throughout the world. It will come as no surprise to colleagues in the House that I would use the opportunity again to call on the Government, once it is safe to do so and once we have navigated safely through the Covid restrictions and we are in a place where we can, to bring forward the referendum Bill on extending the franchise in presidential votes to citizens across the island and to those who qualify throughout our diaspora.

  I want to draw the attention of the House to a statement released by my party colleague in the North, John Finucane, MP, who has said the Council of Europe has reopened the investigation into his father's killing. He says that it is a significant move, that the British Government has been criticised internationally, including in this House, for its failure to establish an inquiry, and that this level of scrutiny is vital to help ensure the truth about his father's murder can finally emerge.

  On a separate and final matter, 50 years ago this year a handful of families on Shaw's Road in Belfast established the first Irish-medium primary school in the North. At the time, the unionist Government at Stormont threatened them with internment if they did not cease and desist from their activities educating their children. The House can imagine my delight, as a product of the primary school, when it was announced by Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta that at present, for the first time, more than 7,000 children in the Six Counties attend Irish-medium education. It is a wonderful cause for celebration, not least in the context of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Real lessons can be learned and shared about best practice in developing and growing our Irish-medium sector throughout the island. I also note the efforts to establish an Irish-speaking naíscoil by Linda Irvine and the Turas project in east Belfast. It just goes to show how the language is flourishing, in particular in that sector, in the North. I ask for dedicated statements from the Minister for Education relating to the Irish language sector - how we assist it to grow, how we ensure it can be supported and helped with the problems it faces and, crucially, how we ensure best practice.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Sin nuacht iontach ar na daltaí atá learning through the medium of Irish in primary and secondary schools sa Tuaisceart.

Senator Erin McGreehan: Information on Erin McGreehan Zoom on Erin McGreehan I extend my best wishes to everyone on St. Patrick's Day. It will be a different St. Patrick's Day this year, like last year, but hopefully we will make the most of it.

  This morning, I want to raise the issue, again, of gender-based violence. This week, like most weeks, we have heard horrendous stories about women being raped, sexually assaulted and beaten up.  The victim might then be blamed if people say she should not have been walking down that road or out in the first place.

  The problem is not about somebody walking home, having too many drinks or being in the wrong clothes. The problem is that our streets are not safe. Female politicians attend public meetings and I presume we are all the same in that if we go into the car park after such a meeting, we have our keys and phone in our hands. We might see a man across the car park and I presume our male colleagues do not have the same experience as to another man, that does not seem like a threat. For women in the car park on their own, somebody else in that car park would be automatically seen as a threat. I always take a deep breath and move as fast as I can. I would be ready to make a call on the phone while I get to my car. It is a normal approach for most women.

  I would appreciate it if a member of the Government could come to the Chamber to outline how we are going to formulate concrete measures to deal with this. This should not be about victim blaming and it is not a victim's fault if an assault happens. It is the fault of the person who instigated the assault. We must ensure we can have safe streets. That might involve more closed-circuit television, more public lighting, proper deterrence and a fairer court system for victims.

Senator Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne Beanachtaí na Féile Phádraig daoibh go léir. I also mention the excellent news of €62.5 million of investment announced under the urban regeneration development fund by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, this morning. This fund was put in place a number of years ago by the then Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and this is the second call for funding. It is certainly welcome news and a massive boost for walking and cycling facilities, with approximately €23 million being spent, including €11 million on the new cycleway over the abutments of the Galway to Clifden railway line and a further €12 million for the city cycle network. Funding is so important as it will make the city safer for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, as well as drivers, as part of the Galway transport strategy, supported by both city and county councillors.

  There are many funding streams available through Departments for community, sport and leisure. They are funded by taxes, such as VAT, corporation tax and rates levied on businesses and citizens. There is also funding from the European Union. I speak of funds such as LEADER, the sports capital programme, CLÁR, Pobal, the rural recreation fund, the urban regeneration development fund, the rural regeneration development fund, the town and village schemes, local authority grants, Roinn na Gaeltachta grants, education and training board and sports grants. I am sure there are many more.

  One of the groups in the community I have difficulty advising are those looking to build a sports or community centre. Many of the smaller projects can be funded under LEADER but for the larger projects valued at between €3 million and €5 million, there is no one Department to go to. Some of the more well-off local authorities may be able to fund such a project through a rates base or whatever but many communities cannot do this. Senator Pauline O'Reilly and I, among others, are dealing with the community in Newcastle in Galway city and the Moycullen community in my area and no one Department is dealing with this.

  I have spoken with the Tánaiste about this and it is time for a single fund administered or applied by local authorities to a Department, possibly the Department of Rural and Community Development, for community centres. This could be confined to scheduled towns, cities or areas where there is a town plan because there would be a demand. It is something that is needed and vital. These are costly projects and built to such high specifications with environmental and sustainability concerns in mind. There are also costs arising from health and safety measures. Communities cannot deal with such projects without a single government fund. I hope we can engage with the Government to provide such a fund.

Senator Sharon Keogan: Information on Sharon Keogan Zoom on Sharon Keogan I hope everybody has a wonderful St. Patrick's Day. I will again address the question of the Covid-19 pandemic and the State's vaccination programme, which is, to be frank, progressing at a snail's pace. Yesterday the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, admitted he was to miss the modest target of 1.25 million doses to be administered by the end of March, yet another abject failure.  We also learned that the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have no plan to source vaccines outside the European procurement system so we have to wait and wait while people suffer. What kind of a plan is that? Is that what this Government regards as leadership? That is unacceptable. The people deserve better than that. Meanwhile, this Government is giving massive pay hikes to senior officials, including the €81,000 pay hike to the Secretary General of the Department of Health. That is a 40% pay increase. What has the Government promised the nurses? A mere 1%. The CEO of the HSE is paid €363,000 while student nurses who have been on the front line receive nothing. Is that fair? The Director General of the World Health Organization is paid €100,000 less than our head of the Department of Health. The Government tells us this is the right decision and it has to pay this amount to get the right applicants for the Department. Are we getting the right results to justify this expenditure? As things stand, we have inoculated fewer people than there are in Cork alone. We have administered one tenth of the number of vaccines they have in Israel and less than a third of the number in Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable. They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned. While this Government fiddles, lives and livelihoods are being destroyed and the nation is trapped in a lockdown that is seemingly without end.

Senator Catherine Ardagh: Information on Catherine Ardagh Zoom on Catherine Ardagh I will speak on the issue my colleague, Senator McGreehan, raised in relation to the conversation about women feeling safe on our streets. The conversation arises after the tragic death of Sarah Everard in the UK. We should be asking ourselves what we can do about this in this House. We could look at our sentencing laws to start with and outlaw any sort of concurrent sentencing for sexual offence-based crimes. It is outrageous that if someone rapes ten people they will serve one sentence. It should be the case that they know if they rape ten people, they will get their full consecutive sentences and will have to serve every day of them. We could also make sure we have more gardaí on the street and the councils could have more street lighting. Ultimately, as a society and as a mother of two sons, we have to rear our children better and have a better and more open discussion about consent. We need to do much more when it comes to sexual education and we need to be more informative towards our children so we rear the children of this nation better and we do not end up revisiting these situations.

  I was speaking to colleagues and friends about this. When I was in my 20s, I lived in town and would walk home every night I was out and felt semi-safe doing so. They say that at the moment they would never do that and if I am going out at night-time now, however many years later, I will be scurrying around like a rat trying to not make myself look in any way like a woman. I put a hat or hoodie up and go about doing my messages.

  It is something we need to have a debate on in this House. It is really important because women do not feel safe out there at night time. It is up to us, as legislators, to do better.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I wish people the very best for the upcoming St. Patrick's season as well. I rise today because I was taken aback and disappointed with the statement the Future of Media Commission released a couple of days ago concerning Alan Rusbridger and his continuation as a member of that body. I do not believe it is appropriate for that man to continue in that position and-----

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Gabh mo leithscéal. There is an issue in relation to privilege in this House. We all know about the new Standing Orders that have been brought in in this House on foot of legal action taken against Members of the Oireachtas.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway That is fine. I understand that but I am speaking about-----

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I want the Senator to be aware that is an issue on the topic he is talking about.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway That is perfectly fine. I will make my point about the Future of Media Commission. We have to have confidence-----

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly To be clear, anyone is entitled to raise issues in this House and that is what this Parliament is about but there is a counterbalance in relation to individual rights and we must be very aware of those rights. Ar aghaidh leat.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway One hundred percent, but I believe that this House and the Members of this House need to have confidence in the Future of Media Commission. The role of the media and the work it does in the State is extremely important. We as a Chamber and as a body need to have full confidence in the work the commission does. At this moment in time I do not have confidence in that. It is incumbent on the commission to actually restore that confidence. If it does not, I believe it is appropriate for the Minister to intervene and restore that confidence. I will leave it at that. This is a very important issue and people see it for what it is. It is not appropriate and it is not good enough. It should not be tolerated.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Guím beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ar na Seanadóirí go léir. Gabhaim buíochas as an nGaeilge agus as na seamróga. Happy St. Patrick's Day to all. I also wish colleagues a happy International Women's Week, given the week that is in it. I thank the Leader for hosting Monday's debate on International Women's Day. On that day I spoke about women's representation and the need to ensure we do not perpetuate obstacles to women's representation. In that vein I welcome the news that the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, will be able to take maternity leave. Clearly in the Constitution there is provision for us to legislate to provide for maternity leave. We do not need a constitutional amendment. The Constitution should not be seen as an obstacle to enabling women's participation in politics. It is Article 28.12 of the Constitution. That is very clear.

  Further obstacles lie in all sorts of other issues. To address some of these, the Labour Party and I have brought forward a reproductive health-related leave Bill that we look forward to introducing in the Seanad on 22 March. I will be asking for Government support for this to provide for a short period of paid leave for those employees, both women and men but predominantly women, who must avail of time off work for IVF or other reproductive health-related reasons, or for women who suffer early miscarriage, for which there is no specific statutory provision yet. I have worked with the INTO and with Councillor Alison Gilliland on this over a couple of years. It is long overdue. The lack of any specific recognition of reproductive health matters is another barrier to women's participation in the workplace and we need to see legislation on this.

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I support my colleague's call for the intervention of the Minister to address what I believe to be a very serious issue around the Future of Media Commission, which includes public service broadcasting. The Minister was not slow about intervening with regard to the travel by members of the board of Bord Fáilte when, in the minds of some, they transgressed the restrictions at the time. It is really appropriate now, when one considers what is at stake, that this issue is addressed without delay.

  I want to raise the issue of eating disorders. I call on the Leader to have the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, come to the House at the earliest opportunity to discuss the difficulties that have arisen in that area. In 2018 there was a commitment in a plan published by the HSE to put in place specialist hubs nationwide, to be done over five years, offering specialist multidisciplinary teams of clinicians. Unfortunately, that commitment did not come to pass. Effectively, nothing happened. In fairness to the Minister of State, she is addressing the issue and has made commitments. I believe that we need a wider debate in the House on the whole issue of eating disorders. It creates and poses an intolerable burden on so many families. It is one of those issues that is addressed silently and does not come to the fore. It also places an intolerable cost burden on many families because the appropriately trained doctors are not available within the public health system. Many families beg, borrow and steal to get services in the private sector and some must travel outside the State to get access to specialist treatment. While I welcome the approach being taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, I believe that wider society would benefit from a full, open and frank debate in this House about this silent killer that is associated with eating disorders.  All the evidence shows that people get through it when appropriate intervention is taken at an early stage. They get to live their lives and recover. For those who do not have access to that specialist treatment, however, unfortunately, in many cases, it ends in death. I believe we owe it to all those concerned to address that issue.

Senator John McGahon: Information on John McGahon  Zoom on John McGahon  On this morning 47 years ago, in a field outside Clones in County Monaghan, the body of Senator Billy Fox was discovered with a single gunshot wound through his upper back. He was killed instantly. The night before, he was visiting the home of his fiancé, Marjorie Coulson, at her family home; a Protestant family from a Border area. As he went down the dark laneway that night, he was confronted by 12 IRA gunmen who were in the process of searching the Coulson home. They were wrongly tipped off and lied to, and told that the Coulson family were hiding arms for loyalist paramilitaries. It was a total and utter lie and a stain upon the Coulson family. Billy Fox confronted the 12 men and then tried to escape. He got 1 km away and was shot at the bottom of a field. Subsequently, the Coulson family home was burnt and the family were put out onto the side of the road.

  Billy Fox was one of the most courageous politicians this House has ever seen. He was an outspoken critic of the British military campaign in the Border region and of the British policy of cratering Border roads, and yet, he was still murdered. He took CS gas canisters and rubber bullets into this very Chamber to protest against the then Government's policy on Northern Ireland and had to be forcibly removed by the ushers of this House. That cost him his Dáil seat in the subsequent general election and it cost him his life the following year.

  Very few Members of the Oireachtas have been assassinated. Before Billy Fox, it was Kevin O'Higgins in 1927. Now, on the 40th anniversary of his murder and as we approach the 50th anniversary, I believe it is incumbent that this House recognises Senator Fox as an assassinated Member, and that we erect some form of plaque or memorial to him in Leinster House. I suggest that everyone who has the opportunity today should google "Rumours from Monaghan", an excellent RTÉ radio documentary that starts off on a September autumn morning with the birds chirping as the presenter stands by the grave of Senator Fox in Aughnamullen cemetery in County Monaghan. We need to remember Senator Fox in an appropriate way in this House.

Senators: Information on John McGahon  Zoom on John McGahon  Hear, hear.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Senator for raising the memory of Billy Fox and his courageous service to the State, which cost him his life. I know that Coillte has a memorial forest for him in his home county. On this occasion, it would be fitting for Members to reflect upon Members who have gone before us. As the Senator has stated, however, very few had to make the ultimate sacrifice because they were public representatives who stood up for what they believed in and spoke out against injustice on all sides. Senator McGahon's suggestion that this House should mark Senator Fox's sacrifice is appropriate. I will raise it at the next Oireachtas commission meeting. I thank the Senator. I call Senator Warfield.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield I thank the Cathaoirleach for the shamrock. I do not believe I have worn shamrocks since I was very young.

  Last Monday, the House debated a Sinn Féin Private Members' business motion on the private rental sector. The Government proposed an amendment which referenced the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I did not mention it on the night as I did not want to pay any disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who turned up. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, failed to turn up, however. It was reported in the media that he was on a cross-county trip announcing funding for various projects, something which, I believe, could have been done by a short video or press releases, as has been standard over the last year.

  Sinn Féin engaged with the Seanad Office on what Private Members' business we were presenting and what it was likely to cover. The officials, therefore, had time to clear their diaries. We have two Private Members' business slots every term. When the Opposition, or any party in this House, brings forward a Private Members' business motion, the Seanad Office should intervene if the Minister offers no viable excuse for not being able to attend.  It sends a message to this House and it is contrary to the commitment that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has given to this House on numerous occasions when he has been here for legislation.

  The Taoiseach has said he supports lowering the voting age to 16. We understand from reports in the press that Fianna Fáil want this on the agenda. It is necessary, prior to any referendum, that we legislate to lower the voting age for local and European elections. To show our support and to thank the Leader, we in Sinn Féin have retabled our vote at 16 years Bill for debate on Committee Stage. I thank the Leader for that. This is the change young people deserve and it is supported by organisations that support young people. I thank the Civil Engagement Group for working with me in the past on lowering the voting age.

Senator John Cummins: Information on John Cummins Zoom on John Cummins In December, I raised on the Order of Business the matter of Waterford City and County Council's application to the urban regeneration and development fund, and I do so again this morning to highlight the necessity of Government support for what I believe will be a transformative regeneration project for Waterford city centre, focusing on 22 projects across the Viking triangle and cultural quarter areas of the city.

  In November, the Government brought forward a decision on Waterford City and County Council's application for the north quays, and €110 million in Government support was given to the Waterford City and County Council to bring forward its plans for the 7 ha waterfront site. A project and application that has gone under the radar is the application for €27.6 million in support towards a €48.5 million plan to bring derelict and underutilised buildings back into productive use as incubation hubs, creative spaces, modern usable accommodation and areas where the community can meet and relax. In addition, there are public realm upgrade plans for O'Connell Street across to the new distillery on Mary Street, and a new plaza and park areas are planned for the entrance to the city in the area of the Beach Tower and along Spring Garden Alley to open up views of the medieval city walls. There are also plans to create a new square that links Greyfriars and Bailey's New Street, which would create new accommodation and expanded commercial space at ground-floor level.

  As someone who lives in the city centre and is very passionate about the city centre and the plans to grow Waterford in the context of the 2040 plan, I believe this project is essential to realise my vision to make my city the best place in which to live, work and grow old. Will the Leader indicate when a decision and announcement will be made on the Waterford and projects in the south east? I understand they are going to be made for the south east at some point. Some clarity on that would be appreciated.

Senator Garret Ahearn: Information on Garret Ahearn Zoom on Garret Ahearn I welcome the announcement by the Government yesterday allowing visits to nursing homes from 22 March. This has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone in the country, but it has been most difficult for residents in nursing homes and their families, not being able to have the weekly visits and the comfort they would receive from family members. I welcome the fact visits will now go ahead. There has been an awful lot of talk about the vaccine roll-out and the challenges we as a country have had, but one of the successes we have certainly had has been the vaccination of everyone in nursing homes and their now being secure and safe places for residents and staff.

  In terms of long-term residential care, I am beginning to see an upcoming issue relating to insurance costs. I spoke recently to a residential care provider in Tipperary who is in the process of renewing insurance and was quoted an increase of 130% on last year's premium. Last year, they paid €30,000 in insurance for their premises and this year they have been quoted €70,000. They now have to take out a loan to pay for their insurance costs.  The insurance period for most residential care centres ends in June. The residential care centre to which I refer had no Covid-19 outbreak in the past year and no claims in the 20 years it has been operating yet there has been a 130% increase in its insurance costs. We can imagine what it will be like for all the residential care centres that have had Covid outbreaks and claims in previous years. We have seen what spiralling insurance costs have done to other sectors in recent years. We need to get on top of this issue as quickly as possible. The Minister should come into the House as a matter of urgency to outline how that will be rectified because an increase of 130% in insurance costs on any business, but particularly residential care centres, is not acceptable.

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I thank my colleagues. I agree with Senator Ahearn. I very much welcome the announcements by the medics yesterday that we can resume nursing home visits. All of us are aware of the pain and suffering of some of our elderly relatives caused not only by Covid but also by the loneliness they have experienced in the past 12 months. Anybody who has spoken to someone they know about loneliness knows it is a pain far greater than any physical pain he or she has to endure so the news is very welcome because it gives us hope and represents some light at the end of a very long tunnel. Today marks the 12-month anniversary of the then Taoiseach's speech from America. I said to somebody this morning that in some ways it feels as if he made that speech five years ago and in others it seems that the year has passed very quickly. It certainly has not passed quickly for some of the residents living in nursing homes up and down the country so the news is very welcome.

  I will bring the Senator's concerns with regard to insurance costs and that industry to the attention of the Tánaiste because if the increases are as a result of Covid, it is very much an issue that needs to be tackled by the industry and the Tánaiste's Department. It will reflect in any of the fair deal funding we have so it is something the Government should be very aware of and instructive in immediately.

  This is the second time Senator Cummins has so beautifully described with pride his plans for Waterford city. He really makes us envious. I am aware that the Minister will be in his neck of the woods, in Carlow, on Monday so I wish him and all of the people behind the project every success. All of us will be keeping our fingers crossed that he will get a positive announcement and all of the funding required to make Waterford city the best place in which to live, work and grow old.

  It is an absolute privilege to be able to reinstate Senator Warfield's Bill. I know Sinn Féin will be very hopeful that many young people aged 16 and 17 will be supportive of its policies. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we speak the language and talk about the topics in which our young people are interested. If we do not, we will be left wondering and scratching our heads as to the reason they do not express an interest in politics. When we talk about the topics they want to talk about, and listen to the issues they want us to hear about, they are very much engaged. I look forward to the debate on Committee Stage.

  With regard to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage not being in attendance on Monday last, to be fair, it is true that all Ministers, if their diaries allow it, facilitated every debate we have had in this House for the past number of months. I am very grateful for that because they are busy and times are different. Obviously, the Minister's diary did not allow him to attend but the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, was very welcome here on Monday.

  I do not think Senator McGahon had a note when he spoke so passionately about the late Senator Billy Fox. I thank him for putting that on the record of the House. I would be very much supportive of it if a proposal could be made to either the commission or the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to remember our former Member in all his glory and for everything he represented.

  Senator Dooley referred to eating disorders. Sometimes we think that these niche issues only affect a very small number of children and adults. If everybody who has been affected by an eating disorder stood up, we would be shocked by the extent of the issue. In the entire country, we have six beds to look after people dealing with the issue. We have spoken about this previously in terms of issues relating specifically to maternal health. If we do not put resources behind this issue we are sending out the message that we are not serious about dealing with it. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, is very serious about it. She has made significant inroads in her Department despite the fact that she has only been in it for the past seven months so I look forward to her having an impact. However, I will request a debate on eating disorders and the associated supports that are needed.   Senators Dooley and Conway raised the recent furore around the retention of personnel on the Future of Media Commission. Without naming any names, I am on record as having an issue with it and I have written to the Taoiseach about it. We need a fair, transparent, open, ethical and supported media to support not only the flow of truthful information and to dispel the disinformation that is so prevalent in Irish society today, but to support our democracy. If anything undermines the body of work that this commission is undertaking then it is incumbent on the person to reflect on their position and to think more about the body of work, ethics and the recommendations that are going to be made.

  I sent an email to Senator Bacik yesterday saying "Bravo". Some of the Bills coming from the Labour Party are very thoughtful and considerate. I wish her every success and hope everybody gets behind her Bill. One of the first things that struck me when I had the privilege of becoming the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection was the case of young woman whose baby had been born prematurely and who had remained in hospital. She did not even have the opportunity to push her baby in a pram in the sunshine before her maternity leave had run out. Our answer to her at the time, and as it is in this House, was to go on sick leave and get a doctor’s certificate. We find workarounds for problems women apparently bring to society. We do not need to find workarounds; we need to fix the problems. I wish the Senator every success with her Bill and I hope she will get full support from everybody for it.

  Senator Conway, as I mentioned, brought up The Future of Media Commission. Senator Keogan brought up the frustrations over vaccinations and we probably all share her frustrations. The slow pace is a real frustration for everybody, particularly for those who are in the queue waiting for their dates. It is unfair, however, to blame the slippages in delivery on any member of NPHET or on the HSE because, to be fair to them, we have had 17 different slippages of deliveries in the past number of months. Every time that information changes, the health authorities change their plan, which is the best they can do. This is frustrating for people because they think that they are going to get the call next week or next month and then it slips and they do not know when they will receive their call. I do not know how this can be managed in a better way, other than to keep people updated once the information changes. I believe Paul Reid is doing his absolute best on that. When the flow starts, it will fill us with inspiration and confidence that we will be getting out of this hole, which we have been in for the past 12 months, very quickly.

  Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke with pride about the 7,000 young people in Northern Ireland who are learning through the medium of the Irish language. I look forward to the day when citizens in the North will have secondary schools like we have in the Republic. The Irish language is something that should be cherished and taught differently, and perhaps the whole immersion model is one that works very well. What is very clear to me, and is the opinion of many people in the Republic of Ireland, is the fact that we spend 13 to 14 years in school learning Irish but at the end of it, some of us are not capable of speaking two sentences or with the right pronunciation. That is a real testament that we must be doing something wrong. I congratulate the Senator on the 50 years Irish-medium primary school achievement and on his beautiful use of the Irish language.

  Senators Pauline O’Reilly and Kyne both raised the very welcome funding urban regeneration. This is a real sign this Government, as was the last one which brought about Project Ireland 2040, is really intent on ensuring that we have balance in development not just in our major cities but in the regions. Senator O’Reilly also spoke about projects. Senator Kyne must have been up very early this morning because the video he had was out at cock crow, so he was probably up before the birds. This again shows how immeasurably proud he is of his towns, villages and the developments and I wish him every success in the completion of those projects.

  Senator Moynihan’s spoke about the undocumented in the US. The Cathaoirleach and I had the pleasure of meeting with American legislators this week and this was a topic that came up on a number of occasions. Senator Moynihan reflected on the undocumented in Ireland. This is something which different groups try to address and which was brought home very powerfully and clearly to me when we closed down the country this day 12 months ago. A large number of people arrived at Intreo offices who did not even have personal public service, PPS, numbers and who did not exist as far as the State was concerned.  Yet, we looked after them. I thank the staff in the Intreo offices for making sure they were looked after. Some 7,000 people came to the offices but that tells me that some 7,000 more were probably afraid to come. We do not know how they survived, or what they survived on, for the past 12 months. We need to get serious about recognising all of them and addressing this issue.

  Senator Boyhan talked about the Irish diaspora, all of our ambassadors and the increase in trade. He spoke specifically about Iran and Tehran but it was also a reflection on how we can increase our trade in many different places in the world. I look forward to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, coming to the House to talk about the plans for the future.

  Senator O'Loughlin spoke about the Curragh. I encourage everybody to give their thoughts and advice to the consultation as to how to better use the plains and protect them. She also raised the need for a secondary school there.

  Two of our female Senators brought up the very sad passing of Sarah Everard. There has been much talk in the last few days about it not being all men and that there are a tremendous number of good people in the world. That is true. However, the difficulty for women is that men do not go around wearing red hats and blue hats. We do not know the difference. What we have to do as women is make sure we protect ourselves. On Twitter the other day, Dearbhail McDonald said, "If it’s too unsafe for women to walk alone, day or night, the problem is not women". We all need to reflect on that.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Leader. The final item she raised is an important issue for this House, and this country, to address. I thank Senators for raising these issues.

  Order of Business agreed to.

Extension of Reporting Deadline for Seanad Committee on Public Petitions: Motion

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I move:

That, in relation to the review by the Joint Committee on Public Petitions of its Orders of Reference, the instruction agreed by Order of the Seanad of 25th September, 2020, is amended by the substitution of ‘on or before 31st March, 2021’ for ‘within three months of its first meeting in the current Seanad’.

  Question put and agreed to.

Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Motion

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I move:

That, in accordance with the recommendation of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, the Order of the Seanad of 16th October, 2020, as amended on 18th November, 2020, in respect of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, be amended by the deletion of paragraph (7) and the substitution therefor of the following:
‘(7) The Committee shall make an interim report to Seanad Éireann not later than 30th July, 2021, and shall make a final report to Seanad Éireann not later than 31st December, 2021, and shall, on the making of its final report, stand dissolved’.

  Question put and agreed to.

Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016: Restoration to Order Paper

Senator Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I move:

That, in pursuance of Standing Order No. 169 of the Standing Orders relative to Public Business, the Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016, which had reached Committee Stage prior to the Seanad General Election, March 2020, be restored to the Order Paper.

  Question put and agreed to.

  Sitting suspended at 1.03 p.m. and resumed at 1.38 p.m.

Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020: Order for Second Stage

Bill entitled an Act to amend the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 to amend the eligibility criteria for Debt Relief Notices; to make provision for the holding of certain meetings under that Act by remote means; to make further provision in relation to the maximum duration of a Personal Insolvency Arrangement; to provide for the performance of certain functions of a Personal Insolvency Practitioner by other persons in certain circumstances; to provide for the extension of the period of a protective certificate in Debt Settlement Arrangements and Personal Insolvency Arrangements; to extend the time limit for applying for a court review of a proposed Personal Insolvency Arrangement; to amend the conditions for a court review of a proposed Personal Insolvency Arrangement; to make provision for the making of confirmations of truth; and to provide for related matters.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward I move: "That Second Stage be taken today."

  Question put and agreed to.

Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage

  Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, to the House. He is a regular visitor at this stage.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who very much regrets that she is unable to be in the House today, I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020.

  The Bill's purpose is to make several urgent amendments to the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 which make it easier for insolvent persons, including those in financial difficulties arising from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, to avail of the legislation effectively. A person is insolvent under the Act if he or she is unable to pay their debts in full as they fall due. The 2012 Act established three statutory mechanisms for resolving unsustainable debt. First, the debt relief notice for an insolvent person with little income or assets and the debts not exceeding €35,000. Second, the debt settlement arrangement for an insolvent person with unsecured debt only. Third, the personal insolvency arrangement for an insolvent person with secured debt such as a mortgage. It can also include unsecured debt.  All three mechanisms must be initiated and agreed by the debtor. A proposal for a debt settlement arrangement or a personal insolvency arrangement also has to be agreed by the necessary majorities of the creditors.

  The Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Act 2015 added that if an insolvent debtor proposes a personal insolvency arrangement which includes resolving his or her home mortgage arrears, and his or her creditors reject that proposal, the debtor may apply to court for a review of the proposal and of the refusal. If the court is satisfied, after considering a number of balanced statutory criteria, that the proposal complies with all the statutory requirements, provides a better return to creditors than the available alternatives, and is overall fair and reasonable to all parties, the court has power to impose the rejected proposal on the creditors, allowing the debtor to remain in his or her home. This is the personal insolvency court review, now section 115A of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012. I will be returning to it shortly in the course of my remarks.

  The main changes made by the Bill fall into three groups. There are two amendments to remove potential obstacles to an insolvent debtor being eligible to avail of the Personal Insolvency Act. Section 14(c) of the Bill is a key amendment. Currently, an insolvent debtor is only eligible under the Act to apply for the personal insolvency court review, if his or her home mortgage was already in arrears before 1 January 2015. That condition perhaps made sense in 2015, when home mortgage arrears had become a steadily declining legacy from the last recession. Post Covid, it will mean there will be a risk that anyone whose home mortgage arrears first arose from the economic impact of the pandemic will be ineligible to access the court review, which is a key protection for homeowners at risk of losing their homes due to mortgage arrears. The amendment therefore removes the requirement that the home mortgage arrears must have been first incurred before 1 January 2015 or indeed before any set date.

  Another amendment concerned with eligibility is section 2, which increases the upper limit in the Act relating to personal assets, including savings, for an insolvent debtor to be eligible to propose a debt relief notice to his or her creditors. The increase is important because certain social protection payments, such as fuel allowance or carer's allowance, are paid in annual or semi-annual lump sums that exceed €400. Increasing the ceiling to €1,500 will remove this problem. The Bill allows a short extension of time to key deadlines under the Personal Insolvency Act, providing more flexibility to deal with last-minute events or exceptional circumstances, and more clarity and certainty for all parties concerned.

  Section 14(a) extends the 14-day time limit for a debtor to apply for a personal insolvency court review. Sections 10 and 13 allow the Court to extend, in certain circumstances, the protective certificate, which is the 70-day period during which a debtor is temporarily protected against creditor enforcement, in order to facilitate his or her personal insolvency practitioner to put together an arrangement to resolve his or her debts which is likely to be agreed by the creditors or, under section 115A, upheld by the court.

  The Bill makes a number of practical changes to procedures to help debtors and their financial advisers to manage the personal insolvency process more effectively. Sections 3 and 5 allow key advisory meetings between the debtor and their statutory financial adviser to take place remotely, subject to certain conditions. Sections 7 and 17 provide a framework for a personal insolvency practitioner to delegate work to another person working in the same firm, subject to certain conditions. Sections 15 and 16 provide for a simpler, less formal and less costly alternative option to a statutory declaration, for debtors to solemnly confirm the facts of their financial difficulties.

  Many of the amendments contained in the Bill arise from submissions made by stakeholders to the public consultation on the statutory review of the personal insolvency Acts. It was decided to bring them forward in this Bill because of their relevance to the economic impact of the pandemic, to its particular health risks, and to the logistical challenges arising from necessary public health restrictions. There has been further detailed consultation during the preparation of this Bill, particularly with the Insolvency Service of Ireland, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, the Courts Service, and associations representing personal insolvency practitioners. I emphasise that the Bill does not limit the amendments to the duration of the pandemic, as they are considered valuable beyond that period.

  I will now address the main provisions of the Bill. Section 2 increases the limit on personal assets for an insolvent person to be eligible for a debt relief notice from €400 to €1,500. Sections 3 and 5 amend sections 27 and 49 of the Act to allow the key advisory meeting between a debtor and an authorised financial adviser to be held remotely via electronic communications technology, subject to certain conditions, as an alternative to meeting in person.  Sections 4, 8, 9, 11 and 12 are consequential provisions regarding the new option of a "confirmation of truth", instead of having to make a statutory declaration.

Section 6 corrects an erroneous cross-reference in section 54(d) of the Act to the maximum permitted duration of a personal insolvency arrangement, which is wrongly mentioned as five years. In fact, the maximum duration is six years, as set out in section 99(2)(b) of the Act.

Sections 7 and 17 allow a personal insolvency practitioner, PIP, to delegate the performance of his or her functions, subject to certain conditions, to his or her employee or colleague working in the same firm. The delegating PIP remains responsible for the performance of the function by the person to whom it is delegated. The Insolvency Service of Ireland is empowered to make regulations to govern any such delegation.

Sections 10 and 13, as I outlined earlier, clarify the grounds on which a protective certificate may be extended. They also introduce a new additional ground where the court considers that it would be just to extend protection by up to 40 days by reason of exceptional circumstances or other factors which are substantially outside the control of the debtor or the PIP.

Section 14 makes three changes to section 115A of the Act. Section 14(a) extends the deadline for the debtor's PIP to apply for the personal insolvency court review, from 14 to 28 days. Section 14(b) clarifies that where a debtor's PIP applies for the court review within that 28-day period, whether before or after the expiry of the debtor's protective certificate, the debtor's protective certificate is continued in force until the court has decided the court review application. This provides more certainty and clarity to both debtors and creditors. Section 14(c), as already mentioned, removes the current requirement that to be eligible for a personal insolvency court review, the debtor's home mortgage must have been in arrears before 1 January 2015.

Sections 15 and 16 create the new option for a debtor to sign a "confirmation of truth", instead of having to make a statutory declaration, when applying for any of the three debt resolution mechanisms.

It is the Minister's strong view that this priority Bill is a much-needed measure to make debt solutions more accessible to people in serious financial difficulties, and is one which will bring benefits to debtors, creditors, and our economy and society more broadly. The Minister hopes that, with the co-operation of all sides, we can facilitate its swift passage through this House with a view to early enactment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Teach agus gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht an méid atá ráite aige fós faoin mBille freisin. On behalf of Fine Gael, I welcome the Bill. It is important amending legislation that corrects a number of aspects of the personal insolvency legislation but also adds to what is there in terms of practical solutions to some of the issues have arisen in the past decade or so.

  The Minister of State correctly referred to the timeline of legislation in this area from 2012, including the amendment Bill of 2015. It is important to look at why that happened. After the crash in 2010, or around then, we as a country got to a stage where we had an exceptional number of mortgage arrears, particularly relative to other countries within the OECD, and it was important for the Government at that time to put in place measures to deal with that. The 2012 Act was very much that solution and it worked in many ways. Ireland was behind the curve in dealing with personal insolvency and bankruptcy. Many people who found themselves in insurmountable difficulties with their finances had to leave Ireland, usually going to the UK where there was a much more reasonable and more modern approach to insolvency than there was here. As a result we lost many people, and some of those still have not come back. They stayed and re-established themselves in the UK. It is not the way to treat our citizens because the reality is that debt can occur to anyone. There is no shame associated with it but there is a great deal of difficulty.

  I have heard people, primarily, I suppose, in particular financial sectors, being critical of the regime we have here, but nobody should be under the misapprehension that entering into a personal insolvency arrangement or other of the systems provided for in this legislation is in any way an easy way out. It is not. It is something that, no matter what, will follow people at one level or another for the rest of their lives, but it is an important mechanism by which we allow people to re-engage in a functional way with society. If we tar and feather those who are in debt difficulty or who have become bankrupt, often through no fault of their own, then we have a situation where they are essentially excluded from being a functional part of society. That was wrong. It is important we changed the measures.  It is important we change the measures. I was glad we did that in 2012. The 2015 amending legislation furthered that regime and improved things in many respects.

I welcome this legislation. It has a number of common sense aspects to it. The Minister made reference to a number of them. The affirmation of truth follows on from the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 in relation to court proceedings and allows people to move away from the necessary requirements to sign affidavits or swear on oath. As a modern democracy, we need to consider solutions like this and it makes perfect sense. It does not mean it is a less powerful affirmation of the truth or that they are less liable to issues arising from mistruths or lies. That is not the case. This is a modern and progressive way of dealing with issues that have arisen, during Covid-19 in particular.

Sections 3 and 5 dealing with remote meetings with the personal insolvency practitioner is a common sense measure that deals with our new reality. It is a horrible phrase but a nonetheless pertinent one in the context of Covid-19. More of us are having online meetings, often one after the other during the day. It is wonderful in many respects because it allows us to connect with people in many different places in a short period of time. However, it is tiring and impersonal and one loses the benefit of meeting in the margins or speaking to someone after a meeting.

In the context of this Bill, it would be a mistake to frustrate the operation of the personal insolvency practitioner, PIP, scheme which allows that person to deal with the client online so I welcome the provisions in sections 3 and 5.

I have a few issues with how the Bill is phrased and I am aware the Minister has outlined the primary changes. I want to consider in the first instance section 14(c) of the Bill which amends a section of the 2012 Act. It removes a sunset clause that had been in existence from the genesis of this stream of legislation which required the arrears to have accrued before 1 January 2015. It meant that only a certain category of mortgage was eligible to be in the process and benefit from the provisions of this legislation.

I have frequently been critical of the banks in this Chamber and elsewhere. I maintain the banks are less about serving the people than serving themselves. Banks are bodies that give one an umbrella on a sunny day and ask for it back when it starts raining. It is the experience we have had banks and it is unfortunate. I have met with the banks over situations relating to mortgages. It is insanely difficult for young people in particular to get mortgages or to get them at the level they need to buy houses or apartments where they want to. It is also a function of the cost of property and we must deal with that.

In that context, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, today published figures which show that Blackrock, which is my area, has the highest property prices in the country. It is wonderful for people who own houses in Blackrock and I understand that. However, it makes it difficult for their children to buy houses in Blackrock.

As someone who is applying for a mortgage at present, the experience of dealing with the banks is difficult. The manner in which they approach it is almost obstructionist. Part of it is a function of the magnitude mortgages have gotten to and the rules the Central Bank imposes on them and that is understandable. However, I think banks are unwilling to engage in any kind of risk.

The problem I have is that if we remove that sunset clause, as is proposed in section 14(c), all mortgages will come under the provisions of this legislation. That means that, according to Central Bank rules, banks will have to put in place provisions for the risk attached to all mortgages they give henceforth. The danger is it will increase mortgage rates and decrease the amount of money the banks give out in mortgages. There might be an unintended corollary effect, which would be unfortunate for young people applying for mortgages to live in the places they are from. Has the Minister considered what that is? Could another sunset clause be put in at a date henceforth, perhaps at the conclusion at the restrictive measures because undoubtedly Covid-19 will result in people going into arrears?  Is the blanket removal of the sunset clause wise in all the circumstances?

  I mention section 115A which extends the period within which an application can be made to a bank from two weeks to four weeks. That is very welcome. The 2015 Act removed the essential veto the banks had and that is a good thing. It is good that we will also extend the period to allow people to make those applications.

  This is a good and important Bill which makes important changes. I wonder if consideration has been given to the ancillary effects it might have on the lending and mortgage market to ensure we do not further cripple young people who are trying to get mortgages.

Senator Robbie Gallagher: Information on Robbie Gallagher Zoom on Robbie Gallagher Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach tráthnóna. I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this very important legislation. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I very much welcome the Bill which reforms personal insolvency legislation to help borrowers hit by Covid-19 and offers those borrowers whose income has been severely affected the protection of the personal insolvency Acts. The measure will also help borrowers at risk of losing their homes and that is vitally important. I am delighted there is a commitment in the programme for Government that the Government will address the issue of personal insolvency with a view to bringing in reforms. I welcome the Government standing over that reform.

  The burden of debt is a huge issue for many families, causing great stress, not just on the borrower but on the entire family household, including children, both from an mental health and physical health perspective. I have recently seen figures from the Insolvency Service of Ireland. Since that service was launched, almost 11,000 protective certificates have been issued and 7,659 settlements have been reached with individual borrowers. That is very much welcome as it allows them to get their lives back on track. As Senator Ward outlined in his contribution, it will stay with borrowers forever, but at least it gives them a second chance to get up and running and to lift the stressful burden of debt that hangs over them and the entire household.

  The Personal Solvency (Amendment) Act 2015 introduced a key protection for insolvent homeowners who were struggling to pay their mortgage debt. It allowed them the right to seek a review by a court of a mortgage lender, or other creditors, where they refused even a proposal for a personal insolvency arrangement. That was very much welcome. However, the protection currently only applies to home mortgage arrears dating from 1 January 2015. This Bill will address that particular condition in that mortgage arrears must predate 1 January 2015. Post-Covid, that condition means a person who now finds himself or herself insolvent and in home mortgage arrears arising from a unforeseeable loss of income will be shut out from accessing this vital core protection. The last thing in the world we want to do is close the door to any debtor or family who find themselves in this position. The Bill also removes an obstacle for an insolvent person with very little income, or assets, to resolving their debts under the personal insolvency Acts by means of a debt relief notice.

  It has a number of other conditions, one of which is in line with Covid, where meetings will be allowed to take place remotely. That is a sensible, realistic step based on the times that are in it. It helps to move that process on and that is very much welcome. It also adjusts the asset ceiling for an insolvent person applying for a debt relief notice, the debt restructure designed for people with very little income or assets to remove an obstacle for recipients of lump sum payments under some social protection allowances - for example, fuel allowance, carers support and so on.

  This Bill has, thankfully, been welcomed by the Insolvency Service of Ireland which has been very complimentary about it. It stated that the Bill will assist many people who are struggling with unsustainable debts, which the economic impact of Covid-19 has only exacerbated as well as creating a new debt problem for many families.  Many families were struggling with debt burdens prior to Covid-19 but this has been further exasperated by Covid-19, with a reduction in income for these unfortunate individuals.

  The Bill has also been welcomed by the Citizens Information Board, which is very happy with it, particularly in the context of the increase in the asset threshold from €400 to €1,500 for a debtor. This will make the threshold more accessible to many people who have debts up to €35,000 written off.

  There are other provisions in the Bill. Section 2 increases the personal assets ceiling for a debtor to be eligible for post-debt relief from €400 to €1,500. Again, this is sensible and a practical step forward and I welcome it. In addition, a debtor must also have total debts not exceeding €35,000 and net disposable income not exceeding €60 per month, including social welfare payments other than child benefit but excluding reasonable living expenses, and no likelihood of the financial situation improving in a three-year period. In a case where the financial situation improves in a three-year period, there is a mechanism in place whereby it can be revisited.

  Senator Ward touched on the burden of unsustainable debt and the effect it has on debtors. Earlier, I provided some statistics. Behind every one of these statistics is a family who, I can only imagine, is stressed out beyond comprehension in trying to lift this burden of debt that is upon them.

  An aspect that has been brought to my attention, and on which I would welcome the comments of the Minister of State when he is summing up, is with regard to debt that is not attached to a principal private residence. The family holding of a farmer could be incorporated in the farmland. There may be no debt attached to someone's principal private residence but, nevertheless, there is debt attached to the land and the land is the only form of income the farm family may have. This particular situation is not addressed in the Bill and I would welcome an amendment at a later date. I am sure there are many others outside of the farming community who have debts and whose principal private residence might not be burdened, as such, with debt but perhaps other debts that need to be addressed are a burden to the particular borrower and family. I would welcome if this issue could be looked at with a view to bringing forward an amendment at a later date to try to address it.

  I compliment the Minister of State on bringing forward the legislation and I look forward to its speedy passage through the House.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin The Green Party also welcomes the Bill. It is apt, timely and pressingly required. A few short years ago, if I can turn back the clock prior to enactment of the 2012 legislation, which was groundbreaking for Ireland, personal debtors were in a very dark place. There was chaos. They were being pushed around and intimidated by lenders. They had nowhere to go and no place to turn. There was no civil legal aid for them. The fallout was horrendous. This scars and suffering of those families, some of whom lost homes, will always be with us. It was a dark moment for society, particularly when one considers that we let the banks of the hook. We bailed out the banks but we forgot about the private dwellers. In fairness to the Minister of the day, Alan Shatter, he brought into being a very complex Act. At the time, like many, I was involved as a proud co-founder of New Beginning, a group of lawyers, which lobbied the then Minister to bring us up to a modern European standard with a little NAMA for personal debtors.  Thereafter, his successor as Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, introduced the groundbreaking section 115A, which put down a marker that banks would not get it all their own way. I am told there were a thousand of those cases last year and at least 50% were successful. These were cases where the banks refused to negotiate and had to be hauled through the courts. I would like to see the number of debt victories increase further for the personal debtor.

I will also mention a former Member of the Oireachtas, now back in the Law Library, former Deputy Willie Penrose, who did revolutionary work on the bankruptcy regime in Ireland bringing it in line with the UK. The first head of the Insolvency Service of Ireland, Mr. Lorcan O'Connor, also did mammoth work.

I welcome the fact this restores a level of fairness. Up to now arrears had to exist or pertain before 1 January 2015 but this was an unfair and restrictive threshold. I commend the Government on grasping the reality of the position, as with this legislation, we will be saving family homes. This is not fallout from the first Celtic tiger crash but rather, it involves people who through no fault of their own have suffered due to the economic downturn of the pandemic. They can at long last turn to a system that can protect them.

Heads 2 and 3 of the general scheme of the Bill are to be welcomed as they introduce remote communications meetings. It was not clear in the principal Act that these should not happen but a very learned judge taking the bankruptcy list interpreted that face-to-face meetings were essential, although that was not expressly in the Act. That was later made a rule of the High Court. This will be music to the ears of big insolvency houses, including respected houses like McCambridge Duffy in Donegal and IRS Ireland in County Waterford. Good luck to them if it is more convenient. If it is more convenient, it will be more accessible. Most of all, it will mean stressed debtors will not have to travel the length and breadth of the country to have that essential first meeting, certificate and opinion from the personal insolvency practitioner.

Head 10 of the general scheme of the Bill proposes the making of a statement of truth. It would replace the archaic affidavit or statutory declaration. Only a couple of days ago a learned judge, Judge Lambe, adjourned a matter. I am not making a criticism and she probably read it carefully but she felt her hands might have been tied by the current Act's provisions for a statutory declaration. That example from only a couple of days ago indicates the protection of debtors has been stalled due to no fault of the judge. Especially in this regime, there must be rigid interpretation of the statute.

Head 1, relating to debt relief notices, indicates the asset ceiling is rising from €400 to €1,500. This may not affect many people but is there room to push this further? This will not go to the heart of saving family homes because these are unsecured debts but why has this stopped at €1,500 and not a greater sum?

I know personal insolvency practitioners throughout Ireland would like to see section 91(1)(a) of the principal Act removed as to qualify for a personal insolvency arrangement, the aggregate of the debt of the debtors that are secured must be less than €3 million. This will not be considered by the Seanad today but has the Minister and Department formed a view on this? The reality is that receivers are supposed to receive a property to sell it and not become accidental short to medium-term landlords.  However, the reality on the ground is that receivers, for one reason or another - sometimes it is due to an asset becoming inadvertently lost while at others it is a protracted matter in the court - do not sell on the debt and there is a ratcheting up of the fees the receivers charge for holding these assets. They do not sell them promptly. In other cases, one secured aspect of the debt can survive and that holds the debtor over a barrel and he or she cannot access this wonderful protective legislation. I only care about the family home and that is what this addresses more than anywhere else in Europe. We have the pre-eminent position of the private dwelling in the Constitution and that is reflected in this legislation. I welcome that.

  I emphasise that this system is for everyone, regardless of whether one is famous or not famous, unpopular with the media, known, unknown, a known unknown or whatever. The judges do not judge if a person is a celebrity. Everyone has equal access to the law but, at the moment, lenders do not contract out. If all lenders for secured debt contracted out, the threshold of less than €3 million would not apply but that is not the case at the moment.

  A further reality is that it is outside the control of the debtor because the debtor has long since lost control of the asset but cannot seek refuge within the threshold of the €3 million at the moment. There are reports from PIPs that the Minister of State is considering legislation in that respect, hopefully later this year.

  I can safely say that all Senators will agree that everyone is equal before the law. The mechanisms we apply and the protections we provide for debtors must be fair, transparent and equitable and this Bill goes a long way to making personal insolvency protections more accessible and readily available to more people. I unreservedly welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State. I ask him to pass on to the senior Minister the wishes of the Green Party. We wish her the best of luck and happiness.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Tá fáilte is fiche roimh an Aire Stáit chuig an Seanad don phlé inniu. Sinn Féin will support this Bill to the next Stage as it represents an important legislation in the context of the pandemic. Our general approach has been to facilitate changes to the law which are sensible and address the outworkings of Covid and the attendant restrictions within wider society. The Bill falls into this category and it is interesting that we would have supported some of these measures regardless of the pandemic.

  I will begin by speaking to three provisions within the Bill. The first is section 2, which relates to the thresholds for receiving a debt relief notice. This section increases the calculated assets which an eligible person can hold from €400 to €1,500. This is an important expansion as many people would meet the income criteria but would hold negligible assets, which would disqualify them from getting a debt relief notice.

  The second is section 3, which allows for remote meetings between debtors and personal insolvency practitioners. There have been a number of amendments across the legal code to allow for remote meetings, which are important to facilitate people in staying safe. It is notable there are extensive factors outlined to decide where such a remote meeting can take place. Many people do not have the ability or experience to deal with such matters over video calls so the balance on paper looks good. I would be interested if the Minister of State could take steps to ensure the practice does not become entirely remote-meeting focused and those who need to access face-to-face meetings can do so with the appropriate measures put in place.

  The final specific provisions I wish to speak to are sections 10 and 13, which allow courts to take into account exceptional circumstances when adjudicating on the granting of a protective certificate. This is intended to address the pandemic and the obvious difficulty a debtor may have in coming to a resolution that satisfies their creditors. However, it can equally apply to the prevailing macroeconomic conditions.  People will tend to borrow when times are good and they feel that they can pay back a loan or meet a financial obligation. They are, however, often at the mercy of developments in the wider economy too. With employment becoming more and more precarious, it will be interesting to see how this amendment will apply in reality.

  While the Bill is welcome, it does not, as is the case with all law reform, operate in a vacuum. The pandemic has had the effect of polarising income equality. The State had the sixth highest level of household debt in the EU in 2019. Although banks' savings and deposits have gone up overall, it is not the case for certain professions that have been hit hard by the necessary restrictions. Hospitality and retail workers in particular were badly affected and we in Sinn Féin strongly oppose the reduction of the pandemic unemployment payment given that it would place many households in severe financial difficulty through no fault of their own. People want to do the right thing, which is to stay home and protect the most vulnerable in our society and they should not suffer financial ruin as a result of doing that.

  At times, the Government has acted as if we all have access to the same resources in terms of finance and housing. that is simply not the case. At the start of the pandemic, Cabinet Ministers talked about growing vegetables or rooting around in attics, which is not really possible for renters or those in smaller houses or flats. The latter demonstrated how out of touch Government can be. The reality of the pandemic, nearly

  The other important thing to note is the influence of mortgages being transferred from the traditional pillar

  The withdrawal of Ulster Bank from operations in the Twenty-six Counties will lead to serious consequences. As highlighted by Teachta Pearse Doherty, the vulture fund Cerberus is circling Ulster Bank's entire €20.5

  Before I conclude, I must apologise to the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Minister of State because, unfortunately, I have a clash and will not be here for the remainder of the debate. I commit to reading the debate for the Minister of State's response and I look forward to engaging with him on the next Stages of the Bill.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly Tá sé sin ceart go leor. Níl deacracht leis sin.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I thank the Minister of State for being here today. I really welcome this Bill and the updates of the provisions within personal insolvency. They are very much needed and they get my absolute and entire support.

  I had the pleasure of meeting Senator Martin for the very first time when I was newly called to the Bar and I volunteered with New Beginning in its early days. Perhaps much of my perspective around this matter is framed by the extraordinary line of people who came in seeking support. I would sit in with Senator Martin or others for consultations and listen to the sheer plight of people who found themselves, in many cases through absolutely no fault of their own, in horrific circumstances and with the risk of losing their home. I view everything through that lens and have done since. I have gone on in a voluntary capacity, in other guises and through FLAC, other organisations and on a one-to-one basis, to supporting families as they have navigated this.

  It is a really sad situation we find ourselves in that we are looking at an economic or other set of circumstances where another whole cohort of people will be relying on these provisions and looking to this to afford themselves an opportunity for a restart. I thank all of the people in Money Advice and Budgeting Service who do a fantastic job all of the time in supporting individuals and families, and I also thank FLAC for what it does.

  I acknowledge all of the really great changes in this proposed legislation, but one thing remains that I have a distaste for, which is the expenditure norms that are set out in the updated document for reasonable living expenses, background information, last published in August 2020.  Anyone wishing to engage with the provision of the primary legislation here must compile a budget and outline detailed reasonable living expenses. They must go down that route in the document set out by the Insolvency Service of Ireland.

  Nobody looks down the barrel of insolvency lightly. By the time a person makes the decision to engage a personal insolvency practitioner, PIP, he or she has probably tried every other possible avenue within his or her control. The idea of a person putting himself or herself in a regime for anything up to six years can be quite onerous. He or she does it as a last resort. I am sure, therefore, the process of detailing all one's expenses on paper and eliminating what costs can be eliminated must be quite an experience of mourning and loss.

  Appendix B of the Reasonable Living Expenses Background Information: Tackling Problem Debt, Together document sets out the reasonable living expenses and to be honest, I find them quite extraordinary. The costs detailed within the table in appendix B are set out as monthly costs. Food, clothing and personal care are perhaps reasonable for a couple of people, and perhaps children, in a household. I can see how that can be reasonable. However, heating at a cost of €70.80 per month and home insurance at €12.25 per month amounts to €147 per year. Car insurance at a cost of €24.25 per month amounts to €291 per year. I have brought this up several times in this House. I have written to the Minister previously about it. I would sincerely like to meet the people who set these as budgetary norms. I would like to hand them my finances and let them give me back all the amazing savings. I would be in a better position if I could live within those norms. They are completely out of sync with the average cost of car and home insurance. They bear no resemblance to reality and cause much hardship for people with whom I have spoken.

  The table sets out a personal cost allowance of 97 cent per month, which is €11.64 per year; let us go really mad and call it 23 cent per week. I am not sure what was behind setting that out in the table. It is, however, thoughtless and careless to the plight and real experience of people as they sit down to use this as their navigating document.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin Hear, hear.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I believe we can do better.

  I completely appreciate the need for the State to ensure that nobody does this lightly, and that the insolvency regime is not exploited or easily engaged in. However, setting expenditure levels like that is completely disingenuous to those most in need of them. I ask that they are reviewed and proofed against real and established living costs.

Senator Paddy Burke: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020. It is a very important piece of legislation. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish him well with the new Bill and with the extra portfolio he will get for the next couple of months.

  Before I start, I wish to be associated with a proposal that was made by Senator McGahon earlier during the Order of Business regarding a plaque being placed within the precincts of the Leinster House complex in honour of former Senator and Deputy, Billy Fox, on the anniversary of his murder. He is only the second person to be murdered, by political assassination of a Member of the Oireachtas and of this House, in almost 100 years since the foundation of our State. Therefore, I support that proposal.

Senator Vincent P. Martin: Information on Vincent P. Martin Zoom on Vincent P. Martin Hear, hear.

Senator Paddy Burke: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the Bill, particularly section 14(c), which removes the requirement that an insolvent debtor is only eligible under the Act to apply for the insolvency court review if his or her home mortgage was already in arrears before 1 January 2015.  The amendment removes that from the Bill, which is very welcome.

  I will not go over what other Members of the House have said. However, I agree with everything that Senator Seery Kearney said about the budgetary norms, as laid down, being completely out of date. One could not agree with these norms and the Minister of State must personally intervene.

  Senator Martin complimented the former Ministers, Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald, for starting out on the road to this insolvency Bill for which I compliment them. I was a member of the finance committee during that period, when many people wrote to us about their cases. We heard about harrowing situations where people were in ferocious debt and losing their houses, which led to family break-ups and so on. It was an horrific time. I am sure there will more such cases after the pandemic we are going through at the moment. This Bill is very welcome at this point in time. I hope it will bring some finality to the predicaments in which some people find themselves.

  I would like to raise an issue that is not mentioned in the Bill but is one that I have raised in the House on a number of occasions. What happens if self-employed people and sole traders who employ people lose their business for some reason or other and must close down? We saw such cases during the financial crash, we are seeing them now and we will see more of them because of the pandemic that is taking place. When such a business closes down, there is a requirement that the employer must pay two weeks' redundancy per year for each member of staff. It is right that staff should get their redundancy. I have no problem at all with that. If the employer is unable to pay the two weeks' redundancy per year, he or she can plead inability to pay. In such circumstances, the State steps in to pay the redundancy to the employees. However, the Department of Social Protection then goes after the employer for the two weeks' redundancy per year. If he or she cannot pay, the money is eventually taken from his or her estate, which means the family home.

  Given that this legislation is about protecting the family home, I think the Minister of State should consider this matter. I am preparing a Private Members' Bill that would exclude the family home from any charges that would be brought by the State due to an inability to pay the two weeks' redundancy per year to members of staff. Many people have lost their businesses and the State has had to pay the redundancy. While the State has not put any charges on any estate so far, a day of reckoning will come. There are many cases of families having a sick child or whatever. Such families may always have felt that when the parents died, the family home would be there for this particular son or daughter, thereby giving them a sense of security in respect of the family member concerned. This area should be looked at. Maybe it could be included in this Bill at some stage.

Senator Martin Conway: Information on Martin Conway Zoom on Martin Conway I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish him well in his work, which will get busier from next month on. I would like to take this opportunity to support the proposal made by my colleague, Senator John McGahon, that a plaque in memory of the assassinated Senator Billy Fox would be erected in the precincts of Leinster House. I believe that is appropriate.  Billy Fox was murdered by the IRA. He was a serving Member of this House at the time. I believe we should honour his memory by erecting a plaque in the precincts of Leinster House, given that he was murdered 47 years ago yesterday, 11 March.

  I welcome this legislation, which is an improvement in terms of personal insolvency. The sunset clause was a difficulty and a challenge, of that there is no doubt. The removal of that sunset clause facilitates other people who may find themselves in financial difficulty in accessing the personal insolvency structure.

  I believe this area is a moveable feast. When we move to the post-pandemic period there will be people caught up in serious financial difficulties. We have seen hundreds of thousands of people on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Unfortunately, some of them will not be able to return to their jobs. Some will find themselves in financial difficulty. We have a duty of care to ensure that those people get the helping hand they need to restructure their finances and their lives to allow them to continue to make a meaningful contribution to society.

  We have been very much behind the curve when it comes to giving people options to get out of financial difficulty. We have seen many things done to help corporations and financial institutions restructure and prosper. We need to do more to allow people who, through no fault of their own much of the time, end up in financial difficulty. They, too, should be allowed to restructure and prosper.

  This legislation is not the panacea that will resolve all the problems but it is a clear, incremental step in the right direction. I would say to the Minister of State, however, that it has to be constantly reviewed. We have to constantly identify ways of assisting people. Nobody expects every debt to be written off. Personal responsibility is certainly a key component but when people are prepared to take personal responsibility the building blocks and the structure should be available within the State to give them all the assistance possible to allow them rebuild their lives, their future and, ultimately, play their part in rebuilding society and our country.

  I very much welcome this legislation. I sincerely hope it is dealt with by the Houses swiftly and that there will be no delay in its passing because it is necessary. I again thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. It has been a constructive debate and I look forward to seeing this legislation become law in the not too distant future.

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan I welcome the Minister of State here today and wish everyone Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona. I almost forgot that St. Patrick's Day will be next week.

  I support this Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill and the amendments. As the Minister of State mentioned, it is a priority Bill to reform the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 and the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Act 2015 to support people facing personal debt. When we are talking about personal debt it could be people simply facing credit card debt as well as those facing mortgage debt. The Bill is to support people with all levels of debt.

  I welcome that the Bill will support people in a time of immense stress and anxiety as a result of the pandemic. One aspect I particularly welcome in this Bill is the debt relief notice. If someone has debts amounting to less than €35,000 and a low number of disposable assets, the asset amount that can be considered is increased from €400 to €1,500, which is phenomenal. Many of the support agencies see that as an important measure.  This allows more people to be eligible to apply for this debt relief notice. As I mentioned, this could be for people with debts less than €35,000, so, therefore, for a lower amount of debt.

  The option is there as well to apply to court if creditors refuse to accept the arrangement. I know that the Minister of State has suggested here also to extend the time to apply to court from 14 to 28 days. This is in the case where creditors have unreasonably refused personal insolvency arrangements.

  Another really key point is that mortgages which go into arrears after 2015 can now be eligible. This is so important, particularly for people who have lost their jobs in the recent past, particularly those at the lower socioeconomic level. We can see that there are more women who have lost jobs in this category. Families and particular groups are struggling.

  I also welcome the debt settlement arrangement and the protective certificate that can be extended for up to 40 days and also to the bringing in of remote working. We are seeing this happening everywhere. It is also important to bring it into legislation to allow personal insolvency practitioners to be able to meet with their debtors.

  The goal of these personal insolvency measures is to protect people and that is what we need to do. That is what we have been doing with emergency priority legislation over the past number of months and what I have seen since I have come here to the House.

  One thing I would like to advise and to remind people of is that the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, is a key support and a crucial service that supports people in managing their budgets. It is free, confidential and it is worth noting that there are 60 offices around Ireland and that people can call, email, log in and do a live-chat.

  There are many supports out there and people should not feel that they are on their own when dealing with debt and with difficult circumstances. People should know that there are people to talk to, where they can get advice and that it is independent and confidential. I thank the Minister of State and very much welcome the amendments in this Bill.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I will try to address a number of the points and we will have a greater opportunity on Committee Stage to get into more detail.

  Senator Ward raised a number of points. There were extensive consultations both with the Department of Finance and with the Central Bank and at no stage was any objection raised but I hear the Senator’s concerns on whether there could be an unintended consequence or negative effect on young people being able to avail of a mortgage. The scheme of the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill will be published at the end of this year but before that, in the second quarter of the year, a full and extensive review will be undertaken of all of the different provisions within the insolvency regime. I certainly hope and expect that the point made by the Senator of a potential negative consequence will be considered within that review. Our only real reason for bringing forward these particular provisions is because of the pandemic and its potential impact, which is why we are moving quickly on this, together with the continued economic uncertainty.

  Senator Gallagher raised the issue around secured debt on farmland. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I had a meeting with the IFA earlier this week and this very issue was discussed and considered. There are two challenges here. There are very real concerns for the farming community, especially as some vulture funds are now taking on secured debt from other financial institutions. One of the challenges concerns the Constitution which, of course, is very important, and the issue of property rights, where people have secured the debt of businesses with financial institutions and they have property rights. We have to be very careful not to risk the entire regime.

  The second issue is around secured debt. If one has property as a member of the farming community, it is very important to be able to use that property to leverage funds as needed. If lending institutions were of the view that they may not be able to get repayment on that debt by way of their security this may make it more difficult again - in a somewhat similar way to the concerns raised by Senator Ward - to secure lending in the first place. This is something the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I have discussed with the IFA and we have undertaken to give further consideration to those issues and will do so over the coming months.

  Senator Martin also raised a number of important issues, one of which was why the asset limit was increased to €1,500. There are, of course, a number of other assets that are also taken into consideration such as household goods, a motor car and a piece of personal jewellery, which one may also add up together. MABS was consulted on this and was satisfied with this particular figure. However, with the broader of review that is happening in the summer, this issue will again be taken into consideration. This review will not involve just past legislation but will consider this Bill also.  Again, the €3 million cap on secure debt is also part of the broader consideration in the review. All those broader issues will be taken into consideration.

  A number of other matters were raised. Senator Seery Kearney referred to the specific figures. I will raise that with the Insolvency Service of Ireland and seek an explanation on how it all ties up. Personal insolvency is a very complex process. It was made to be that way initially because of fears of constitutional challenges but that has made it very difficult due to the set of procedures and the legalese relating to it. There will be an attempt with the second Bill to streamline it and make the procedures more straightforward and easier to attain because it is a very complex situation. I understand the reasons it was made so complex but it is much more settled now and we can have more confidence that we are making necessary changes, without the risk of the process being found to be unconstitutional because of the property rights issue.

  We can consider anything I have not touched on in detail on Committee Stage. On my behalf and on that of the Minister, who sends her apologies for not being able to be here, I thank the Senators for their contributions and clear support for the intent behind the Bill. It is a positive and important amendment that will give relief to people who are in a very difficult situation, often through no fault of their own. The Bill responds to needs across our economy and society and forms part of the Government's commitment to introduce necessary reforms to the personal insolvency legislation. It will ensure that sufficient supports are in place for those in serious financial difficulties, including mortgage holders with repayment difficulties. With the co-operation of those on all sides of the House, we believe we can get this amending legislation through the Houses as quickly as possible and help give relief to people who are in very difficult situations.

  Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Senator Barry Ward: Information on Barry Ward Zoom on Barry Ward Dé Luain seo chugainn.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Pauline O'Reilly): Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 22 March 2021.

  Sitting suspended at 2.48 p.m. and resumed at 3.45 p.m.

Family Leave Bill 2021: Order for Second Stage

Bill entitled an Act to amend the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to enable a couple who jointly adopt a child to choose which member of the couple is to be entitled to employment leave under that Act for the purpose of the adoption; to amend the Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to extend the period to which a relevant parent is entitled to leave from his or her employment under that Act and to extend the period in which such leave may be taken; for those purposes to amend the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and certain other enactments; to amend the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to increase the number of ordinary members of the Board of the Child and Family Agency to nine; and to provide for related matters.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I move: "That Second Stage be taken today."

  Question put and agreed to.

Family Leave Bill 2021: Second Stage

  Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (Deputy Roderic O'Gorman): Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman I am pleased to address the Seanad on Second Stage of the Family Leave Bill 2021. This Bill will help fulfil a number of commitments in the programme for Government, including extending paid parental leave and providing adoptive leave for male same-sex adoptive couples. The Family Leave Bill 2021 has three elements. The first is to amend the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to extend the entitlements to parent's leave for each parent of a qualifying child from two to five weeks and to provide for this leave to be taken within two years of the child's birth or adoptive placement.

  Covid-19 has had a serious impact across society and on working parents, especially those who have had children during the pandemic. They have had to bear a heavy burden, often without the support of family and friends. The extension to parent's leave and benefit is intended to provide them with an additional period of leave to spend with their child. An important facet of parent's leave is to encourage the sharing of childcare. I hope this additional period of leave will support and enable fathers in taking a more prominent role in the care of their young children. I am aware that many parents have been awaiting the provision of this additional leave since it was announced as part of the budgetary process. I am happy that I can now take this legislation forward and make the necessary legislative changes.

  The Bill also amends the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to enable adoptive couples to choose which parent may avail of adoptive leave. In doing so, this will rectify an anomaly in the current legislation which left married male same-sex couples unable to avail of adoptive leave. The proposals will also remove the presumption that the adoptive mother be the primary caregiver and permit families to choose the best option for their family. Currently the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 provides for an entitlement to 24 weeks' leave for an employed adoptive mother or single adopting father. The 24 weeks start from the date the child is placed in the adopting parent's care. An adoptive benefit is available to qualified parents. An additional 16 weeks may also be taken but the adoptive benefit is not available for this period.  This Bill provides for all adopting couples, same-sex and opposite-sex, to be able to choose who should take the adoptive leave. The new provisions would enable either the adopting mother or the adopting father to be eligible to take adoptive leave once the choice has been made by the couple. The parent who does not avail of adoptive leave is entitled to paternity leave. This is a significant amendment for married male, same-sex adoptive couples who were excluded from availing of this leave due to a legislative anomaly. I am happy that we can now rectify this.

A further amendment made by the Bill is to the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, to provide for an increase in the number of ordinary members of the board of the Child and Family Agency from seven to nine and for a number of consequential amendments. The board of Tusla is tasked with overseeing the appropriate, efficient and effective use of resources with the aim of ensuring that the State meets its obligations to the safety, protection, well-being and resilience of children, families and communities in Ireland. The members of the board are collectively responsible for leading and directing Tusla's activities within a framework of prudent and effective control as set out in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, and the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies from 2016. The work of Tusla's board places a huge demand on the personal time of board members who have to exercise a degree of flexibility in order to carry out board functions. The committees of the board have substantial workloads and can be rendered inquorate in the absence of a member. An increase in the ordinary members of the board will facilitate the work of the board.

I thank the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration for conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill as a priority. In its report, the committee identified a number of key issues related to this legislation and, while I do not feel that they require specific amendments to the Bill, I will give them due consideration. One of the recommendations made was that I should consider how best to target those parents who may not have benefited from the leave and associated benefit during their child's first year or first year of placement following adoption. I am pleased to inform the House that parents of a child born or adopted since 1 November 2019 who have not yet availed of their entitlement to parent's leave will now be able to avail of their full entitlement within two years of the child's birth or adoptive placement.

A further recommendation was that the Bill should make clear provisions for the arrangements for access to retrospective payments of parent's leave from before 1 April 2021 and I am pleased to inform the House that the necessary amendments to the social welfare IT systems have now been put in place and the benefit will be paid from the date of enactment of this legislation.

Another recommendation was that priority should be given to legislating for the right to request flexible working arrangements in order to provide care, as outlined in European Directive 2019/1158, especially in the face of the challenges posed by Covid-19. The right to request flexible working arrangements under Directive 2019/1158 is being considered as part of the broader consideration of the transposition of the directive. The commitment in the national remote work strategy to introduce a right to request remote work will be relevant in this context.

I will outline the main provisions of the Bill. Part 2 of the Bill provides for amendments to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995, in section 5, replacing references to adoptive mother and single male adopter with a new definition of "qualifying adopter", which is:

(a) where a child is placed, or is to be placed, in the care of a couple (of whom neither is the mother or father of the child), with a view to the making of an adoption order, or to the effecting of a foreign adoption or following any such adoption, the member of the couple who is—
(i) an employee, and

(ii) chosen by the couple to be the qualifying adopter for the purposes of this Act
(b) in any other case, an employee, who is not a surviving parent in relation to the child, in whose care a child has been placed or is to be placed with a view to the making of an adoption order, or to the effecting of a foreign adoption or following any such adoption;

In practice, this means that adoptive couples may choose which of the couple avail of adoptive leave, regardless of gender. This will remove any presumptions regarding the gender of the primary caregiver. Section 5 also provides for definitions of "qualifying adopter", "surviving parent" and "adopting parent", which give effect to the proposals as set out above. Section 6 provides for the adoptive parent to have an entitlement to paternity leave if not availing of adoptive leave, which is also set out in Part 7.

  Part 3 inserts a definition of "adopting parent" into the Parental Leave Act 1998. Part 4 provides for the consequential amendments required to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, to provide for the payment of the relevant benefits as a result of the proposed changes in this Bill, including their extension to the self-employed.

  Part 5 amends the Child and Family Agency Act to provide for an increase in the number of ordinary members of the Tusla board.  The board currently comprises a chair, a deputy chair and seven ordinary members and under this Bill, the number of ordinary members will increase to nine.

  Part 6 provides for amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 2015 consequential to the provisions of Part 2. Part 7 amends the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 to provide for an entitlement to paternity leave for the parent not availing of adoptive leave and amends the definition of "relevant parent". Part 8 amends the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to provide for an extension of the entitlement to parent's leave and benefit for each qualifying parent from two weeks to five weeks and to extend the period in which parent's leave can be taken to not later than two years after the birth or adoptive placement of the child. This Part also amends the definition of "relevant parent" to provide for entitlement to parent's leave and benefit to an adoptive parent or parents, and his or her spouse, civil partner or cohabitant. The Schedule sets out the consequential amendments to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 which are a necessary consequence of the amendments in Part 2.

  I would also like to inform the House that I intend to bring forward some technical amendments on Committee Stage to allow for the orderly coming into effect of the new personal injuries guidelines adopted by the Judicial Council on 6 March. These will amend the Judicial Council Act 2019 and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 to provide that the guidelines will apply to applications already made to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, except where an assessment has been made.

  The guidelines replace the book of quantum for those claims but the book of quantum will continue to apply where the PIAB has made assessments or where proceedings are already before the courts. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has pointed out that the operative date being set addresses both the urgency in tackling high insurance costs and the need for fairness for claimants and defendants alike.

  I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on the provisions of this Bill and I thank the House for facilitating this Bill being heard as a priority.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I thank the Minister for coming in today. Deputy O'Gorman is very busy with an awful lot on his plate these days. We very much appreciate the time that the Minister gives us here, but also the amount of work that he is doing to put in place everything that is needed for us throughout the pandemic and for the future. It came to light during the pandemic that people were not able to spend quality time with their young babies, but to be able to put this into place for the future is hugely beneficial.

  I would like to start by talking about this burden of childcare that people talk about. I feel strongly that childcare is not a burden. Childcare is the care of children, and children are at the heart and the centre of all of this. The burden is actually a burden that society places on us as parents in trying to be with our children. A lot of the reason that I am here in the Seanad, I suppose, and on the labour panel, is because of unpaid caring work that many people do. Whether one is working outside or inside the home, it is very much unrecognised.

  The Minister mentioned about the work-life balance directive. This is about adults' work-life balance, but where is the time that children spend with either their adoptive parents or their birth parents? That has to be at the centre now when we are talking about anything to do with childcare. Whether it is in crèches, with childminders or with parents, it is not only about the rights of workers, which is us as the childcare providers. It is also about the rights of the people being cared for to have an unhurried life. I refer to a life where we are not running to stand still, where we are not dropping children first thing in the morning or, in many cases here, for several days and coming back to them, but where we are looking at ways to put in place this Bill, which is hugely important in changing the entitlement to parent's leave and benefit from two weeks to five weeks, and that both parents would be given this where there are two parents or adoptive parents. That anomaly that is being addressed regarding adoptive parents is hugely important.

  One issue that people may look at and see may be missing concerns domestic violence leave.  The Minister has spoken in the House previously on this issue and I would like him to say a word at the end on what he intends to do. Domestic violence impacts on a lot of parents particularly, and it is appropriate to bring it up now.

  I will take this opportunity to say I am supportive of the Labour Party's reproductive leave Bill and I hope the Government will support it. It goes to the heart of this issue. There are many reasons in their reproductive lives that people may need to take leave. We need to recognise this reproductive part of ourselves and it is being recognised by the Bill.

  I know I am going slightly off the Bill itself but Article 41.2° of the Constitution is important. It is one of the reasons I got involved in politics. I came before the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality before I was ever involved in the Green Party. Perhaps I was involved in the Green Party but I was not running for office. In the report produced at the time the recommendation was not to remove Article 41.2° but to look at maintaining a right to care in the Constitution that is shared. This is a right and an obligation that is shared throughout society and the Minister is playing his part as the Minister with responsibility for children. All of us in our communities need to be supported and this means we need the economic means to be able to provide that care.

  Some of the tax credits do not go anywhere near where they should to help people stay in the home if that is what they want to do. I know the Minister knows this. This needs to be addressed. The Bill speaks about family leave when working but there are those who are at home and who find it incredibly difficult economically to keep going. I would love to have more conversations about what we can do on this but for a start if we remove something from the Constitution that recognises this care we would be doing a disservice to those who have cared for a very long time and the people who are cared for.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I welcome the Minister to the House. I feel somewhat overdressed on this occasion. If it were not for Mr. Groves I would be the only creature in the Chamber wearing a tie. This is not a criticism.

  I welcome the news that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, will remain in Cabinet for the duration of her maternity leave with her duties to be taken over by a colleague. I am glad that a means to facilitate this was found. I would, of course, welcome any constitutional or legal change that would bring about a more permanent way of dealing with maternity leave among Ministers in future. Above all, I wish her, her husband, Paul, and their new baby the very best for the coming months and years.

  I welcome the Bill, in particular some of what the Minister said in the course of his speech. I welcome any measure or initiative that allows parents to spend time raising their children. I would add that to the greatest extent possible the State should stay out of how parents choose to raise their children, with due regard, of course, to the constitutional safeguards, while providing the best possible legal framework for parents to make the best decisions with, and for, their families.

  While our national policy pays lip service to this goal it is only facilitated in a partial and piecemeal way. The problem at the heart of family policy in Ireland is that every Government for the past 20 years has been devoted to conscripting mothers and fathers into the workplace, particularly women and mothers, when it has been clear in these families that they would prefer that one of them would stay in the home caring for their children.  More often than not, that might be the mother but that is not exclusively the case. A survey by Amárach Research a few years ago indicated 48% of parents would prefer to care for their children at home rather than resorting to expensive childcare but many cannot do so because they cannot survive on just one income and the State makes it as difficult as possible for them to do so through our taxation system and the obsession of policymakers with high-cost childcare. We do not even speak much about tax individualisation now but I remember when a former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, introduced this in a budget. I was one of many people criticising that and what it meant for single income families, with a shift away from the important needs of parents in families to have one of the parents stay at home if that was the wish.

  I saw a headline just the other day that Covid-19 has caused a fall in demand for crèche places and that crèches seem to believe this will lead to closures and a rise in crèche fees. I am not an economist but normally one expects a fall in demand will lead to a fall in the cost of a service rather than an increase. Childcare and crèches seem to be one of the sectors in Irish life where the costs faced by ordinary families follow a one-way, upward-only ratchet, where the ratchet is relentlessly driven by State policy. We saw this with the previous Government and the bizarre childcare plan of a former Minister, Katherine Zappone, who sought to give cash incentives to parents who chose to put their children into day care while not giving a penny to parents who chose to stay at home to care for their own children. In other words, it was an effective financial penalty for parents if they chose to stay at home with their children. That demonstrated a morally bankrupt family policy.

  Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are driving this Government with support from the Green Party and it is worth noting that one of the core values of the Fine Gael Party is that it "believes individuals and families know best how to organise their own lives and make decisions for themselves". How can that be true when successive Governments involving that party have tried to make decisions for parents by standing over policies such as the Zappone childcare plan?

  National policy on any matter should start with the end goal we want to achieve and work backwards from this with the policy measures that can bring that about. Too often we seem to be wedded to the policy measures themselves and we lose sight of what we are trying to achieve. Something ought to change in this respect. We must work to bring mothers and particularly fathers into their children's lives in a meaningful way. We have seen in the UK and further afield how the absence of fathers in households has proven negative effects on the happiness, health and life prospects of their children. We could well go in the same direction if we do not take measures to pre-empt and prevent that trend.

  I welcome the Minister's comments that an important facet of parent leave is to encourage the sharing of childcare and that he hopes an additional period of leave will support and enable fathers in taking a more prominent role in the care of a young child. Those are very welcome words. In that regard and reflecting on what has been said about Article 41.2, the constitutional provision on mothers in the home, I contend it is a very misunderstood provision. In its time it was good and positive, particularly in view of the patterns then prevalent in Irish life. The problem has never been about the provision but rather that it is now unduly specific about the parent to which it pertains. I support a change in the wording but the principle is of parents giving care in the home. I know some question whether the principle should be broadened to the giving of care in the home in general. I support that but there is something in particular to be said about the role of parents giving care in the home.

  The Bill introduces adoptive leave for male same-sex couples and this follows from changes in the law at the time of the marriage referendum with the children and family relationships legislation. The logic of the legislation must be followed. I remember debating with the former Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, and she indicated there is no hierarchy of families. I remain of the view, along with many others in this country, that policy should always aim to help children to be brought up by a father and mother and, where it is possible, their father and mother. I strongly believe our policy should always have that preference built in, even while recognising there will be different and unusual positions that must be provided for by law.  Nobody should apologise for having that view because it is grounded in reality. Many people still want to restate it in the most respectful way possible and hope we can move towards that position in our social policy.

  The Minister has had a difficult job in recent times, and I sympathise with him, around the mother and baby homes and adoption. I am mindful of the recent documentary in that area. We all have to realise that there were practices in the past that cannot be stood over, including the falsification of birth records. The idea of closed adoption is not something we would endorse today. We also have to acknowledge that sometimes adoption causes pain for the birth mother and sometimes the experience of fostering and adoption has been painful for the children. However, adoption itself is a good thing and can be a good and generous thing. When we consider the tragedy of 6,666 abortions taking place since the legislation, I hope for a day when we can reopen the debate about promoting adoption in the right context, as a good and generous thing that is not without challenges but which at least gives people the chance of life and of a life. I hope our social policy can be generous enough to rediscover that truth.

Senator Erin McGreehan: Information on Erin McGreehan Zoom on Erin McGreehan It is great see the Minister in the House again to discuss this positive issue. It is timely that this Bill is before us on international women's week. Many parents have been contacting us about increased adoptive leave so it is great to be able to give a timeline to them.

  To respond to Senator Mullen's comment that a family is founded in reality when it is a man and woman, that view is founded in a reality of prejudice. A family is a family, whatever way the child is brought into the world, loved and taken care of. We are leaving that prejudice behind and creating a new form of family. That is founded in reality.

  I welcome the Bill. It amends the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to enable one partner in a couple, regardless of sex, who have jointly adopted to avail of adoptive leave. It also amends the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to increase the duration of the leave and the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to increase the number of board members of Tusla.

  The Bill is a positive move towards creating a fairer and more gender-balanced society. Those of us lucky enough to have a child, regardless of how it comes to a family, whether through physical birth or adoption, need to know the State recognises that every parent deserves time off to spend with the new baby, supporting each other and getting to know that little person for whom they are now responsible. It is a wonderful time. As a mammy whose partner was not able to take time off after the birth of our children, I know it would have made things much easier for us if he had that opportunity. It can be a difficult time for many reasons, including health reasons, and the support parents give each other in that time is important.

  Family leave policies are intended to bolster and support gender equality and are integral to supporting child, maternal and paternal health and welfare, as well as birth rates and female participation in the labour market. The goal of all of us here is, I believe, to create a society where child-rearing is a gender-neutral activity. It is part of increasing women's participation in the labour market and reducing the gender pay gap. Bills such as this one and measures providing for non-transferability of entitlement are moves to create equity. Equity is not automatic and requires policy interventions such as this legislation. This and other legislation such as the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019 will create the equity we need to realise the idea of gender-neutral child-rearing. By recognising societal differences, we can create a new normal and reduce gender inequality by addressing the unconscious bias that women should have to care in the home.

  I agree with Senator Pauline O'Reilly's call for an amendment to Article 41.2.  I do not believe it should be deleted. The amendment to recognise the care that men and women give to our country and our society is really important. It will also herald a new attitude towards care. I mentioned to the Minister on Monday that we really need to look at the economic value of care and what it means in monetary terms to the State. It has a huge economic value that is not accounted for.

  On the inequality of unconscious bias, this prejudice does remain to be fixed. We must tackle this. On Monday I also I referred to my running for election in 2019. I could not remember the number of times I was asked who was going to look after my children. It is an absolutely bizarre attitude. I responded that they have a father and they are grand. I said, "They are free range and will roam the Cooley Mountains". Thankfully, they are very well taken care of.

  To date, research in Ireland shows that all forms of parental leave, except maternity leave, has been mixed. The research says that the challenges to taking parental leave, including paternity leave, relate in the main to the low compensation levels. The ability for a father or a mother, or the main bread earner, to take that parental leave is a difficulty if there is a gap. It is a stumbling block to people availing of it. The lack of flexibility on the timing is also an issue as are the cultural norms, as I mentioned earlier. This extension of two weeks to five weeks is very important. I am really glad that the Minister has extended it for the first two years. It makes it more flexible and more available to parents. The Government is very committed to ensuring that every child gets the best possible start in life. Supporting parents to spend more time with their children is a huge part of that. This five weeks will help mothers and fathers to take that precious time with their child in the first couple of years.

  We need a stronger State childcare system. What part of our children's lives do we put out to private care? We do not do that with education in the main or at third level unless it is the parents' choice to put the child through private education. This has been the issue from the beginning of the State. Our Constitution says that the mother's place is in the home and they are the home carers, so why would we ever have created a childcare system to allow women to go out to work.

  I welcome another commitment today by the Government and by the Minister to early learning and care, ELC. It is very clear that the Government has that commitment. The announcement today regarding the establishment of a joint labour committee for ELC and the school-age childcare sector is another step along the way. Our childcare workers are usually women and they deserve the best quality and the best career progression. As the Minister said earlier, there is always a distance to travel. This measure, however, marks a very important milestone towards improved pay and conditions for the workers in that sector.

  The Bill responds to a specific commitment in the programme for Government and it is very welcome. It is a lot done but more to do, as was said on a few occasions. It is a very progressive step forward and I look forward to this growing in order to ensure that parents are looked after, supported and encouraged to do whatever they want, be it in the home or at work. I thank the Minister.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I support the Minister in not wearing a tie. I have gone all my adult life without wearing a tie and it has not impeded my competence and capacity.

  I really welcome this Bill. It corrects and extends the benefits that are much needed. The Bill is essential. I am delighted that we are bringing parents' leave and benefit to five weeks, that we are extending the claim period up to two years, which is very progressive, and that the Minister is bringing it into being really quickly, which is to be welcomed. I know that people are relying on it for after Easter. I have had lots of emails from people asking if this will be in by Easter, so they will be delighted with this news.  I know that same-sex parents of adopted children were inadvertently omitted previously and that we are catching up on the outcomes of the marriage referendum. I acknowledge that this was hurtful. I am really delighted that we stand in a place of equality today and that same-sex male parents are getting exactly what they deserve through that recognition.

The entirety of the Bill, therefore, sensitively extends leave and transforms it into a child-centred, equality-based provision. All leave provided with regard to a child coming into the life of his or her parents, either by birth or subsequently by adoption, is centred around the care of the child. Its purpose is to bolster and support equality of caregiving by the parents of that child.

In a week when we marked International Women's Day, it is particularly welcome that we are introducing a Bill which will ensure an entitlement to leave is shared among both parents. Indeed, the provisions of the Bill allow for up to four people to obtain State-aided leave with regard to a child, including the parents and their partners, if the parents are in new relationships within the requisite timeframe. Such provisions encourage the re-entry of women into the workplace and set a societal norm about fathers being liable for the care of their children. My husband has never referred to his care of our child as babysitting. He is probably reasonably unusual in that because I have heard men all too frequently referring to the care of their own children as babysitting. The care of the child is an obligation of both parents, regardless of gender. Just because a one gives birth to a child, it should not render any obligation of sole care.

The Bill is about transposing that EU directive of the work-life balance for parents and carers. It is needed, regardless of our EU obligations. I note that we are going beyond the requirements as per the set-out timeframe in transposing this into law here and now. We are not obliged to transpose it into domestic law until August 2022, and there is a two-year extension for its implementation. We still have some work to do on it. I am not ignoring that at all. I appreciate that we are not time-wasting either. We are moving quickly on it and implementing the requirements well in advance of the obligations. Therefore, I look forward to when its provisions are put in to their fullest extent.

I note the original directive states that:

Work-life balance policies should contribute to the achievement of gender equality by promoting the participation of women in the labour market, the equal sharing of caring responsibilities between men and women, and the closing of the gender gaps in earnings and pay. Such policies should take into account demographic changes including the effects of an ageing population.

I will leave it to my colleague, Senator Currie, to speak about this because it is, by far, her area of expertise. It is good to note that, however.

  I will end on a highlight, although I have one problem. First of all, the rate of benefit inhibits people from taking this up. We will have a problem here. I have reservations about people actually benefiting from the leave because the rate of parental benefit is reasonably low. It would, therefore, prejudice the income of a family who were to avail of it if the provision were not there within their workplace. From that point of view, we need to look towards that in the long-term. While this Bill is progressive, we still need to consider that.

  My biggest disappointment is that there is no provision in the Bill for lone parents. The provisions for parental leave can be claimed by up to four other people, that is, biological parents and their partners in circumstances where the biological parents are no longer together. I appreciate that the objective is to ensure the care is shared and does not fall to one parent. The criteria for claiming parental leave seem to set a pretty low bar if we look at cohabitees or civil partnerships. In fact, the provision for proving that the child is actually being cared for by a person not availing of the leave in circumstances where the parents are no longer living together is questionable.   The threshold for parental leave is extraordinarily low when more than one person is claiming it but a lone parent who seeks more than five weeks is denied the leave. That provision appears to be a paternalistic provision that has been put in place to make sure that more than the mother takes leave, and I respect the fact it is an EU driven provision and not one that belongs to the Minister. However, if the mother needs the leave to care for her child, then she cannot avail of it. In the main, I completely acknowledge that one-parent families can be both male and female led but the vast majority of them are women. With the two-year extension, we have mothers who need to avail of the additional leave and who are parenting alone for a multiplicity of reasons. It could be that this includes women who have stood up to domestic violence, suffered a bereavement or a relationship break-up where the child has been weaponised by the other parent, which is all too frequent an occurrence. In those circumstances that lone parent is confined to five weeks with no supports and cannot nominate a mother or a co-habitee who they are not in an intimate relationship with to benefit from the extra five weeks. I think the criteria are a little unfortunate and I implore that if we are to liberate mothers, we ensure we do not inadvertently discriminate against them. I think also that this legislation is a lost opportunity. Throughout the pandemic I have heard from and engaged with individuals, and the organisations that represent them. One Family has been the main one and it has been extraordinary in advocating for a balance to be struck.

   My colleague is going to identify the following issue but I want to mention it. While I am critical of the threshold and of who else can avail of the leave, and I stood here last Monday and gave out about the situation around surrogacy and the Minister was very kind and tolerant about it, the chink of light that I have found is if one is a spouse, co-habitee or civil partner of the biological father, then one will be able to avail of leave under this legislation that people, heretofore, for their surrogate-born children have been unable to avail of. For the first time, I see a possibility that the intended mother in these situations will get five weeks leave by virtue of their relationship with the father. I want to acknowledge and put on record my appreciation of that positive measure.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I welcome the Minister to the House. On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the Bill of which we are very supportive. Indeed, the Bill has cross-party support, which is very welcome. As Senators said, and the Minister has acknowledged, the legislation is eagerly awaited and anticipated, in particular by parents who look forward to parental leave being extended from two to five weeks paid leave and, of course, to the expansion of the category of children who are covered from the first year to the first two years of their lives. Those are very welcome changes. The other changes the Minister outlined are also very welcome. The Bill will rectify, as he said, the anomaly in the current legislation that left married male same-sex couples unable to avail of adoptive leave. Indeed, also welcome is the removal of the presumption that the adoptive mother is the primary caregiver. That is a very positive and progressive change, on which I commend the Minister.

  It is unfortunate that we have had a short time to consider the legislation given how recently it was published and the changes made. I wish to express my thanks to the Library and Research Service. I am sure that all of us have found its briefing very helpful. The service has certainly given us a good contextual background. Many of us are very conscious of the background to this legislation.

  The Minister indicated that he will table amendments. Perhaps he might clarify whether it will be on Committee Stage in the Seanad or at a later Stage that he will table amendments to bring in the personal injury guidelines. In keeping with comments I and others have made during many debates on legislation, it is unfortunate that we are going to see totally unrelated amendments included in this very important Family Leave Bill. I know that these are pressing matters. We certainly will not oppose the amendments because we recognise their urgency and, indeed, recognise the urgency of this legislation itself. However, as a matter of good legislative and drafting practice, it is not ideal that these amendments would be in a different and unrelated Bill.   Others have pointed out that this Bill is being introduced in International Women's Week. It is an important measure for gender equality although I agree with Senator Pauline O'Reilly's comments that childcare should not be seen as a burden, and nor should it be seen as a burden for women. It is frustrating that that language tends to creep in. We know that across the EU generally, men have a lower uptake of parental leave than women where it is available to both. It is positive that parent's leave is available on a gender neutral basis but we know that men have a lower uptake than women and we might say it is due to the two "Cs". Cash and culture are the two big issues that tend to create a situation where mothers are more likely to take the leave than fathers. The culture is that it is less common for fathers to take leave. The fact that men tend to earn more than women means that it is more of a financial loss, certainly to a heterosexual couple, where the man takes leave and the woman does not. That raises issues about the rate of pay of the leave.

  While I welcome this legislation very much, we need to recognise the need for other changes, including a cultural change. I ask the Minister if the Government has a proposal to highlight the fact that this leave will be available on a gender neutral basis, to try to challenge stereotypes whereby childcare is always seen as a woman's responsibility and, in parallel with that, to address the cultural barriers, and the cash barrier, to men taking parental leave. I am very glad that the Minister indicated in the Seanad on Monday that he will be bringing forward the amendments to the gender pay gap information legislation within the next two weeks because that is a real gap in our laws at present. We simply do not have a legislative means for tackling this ongoing issue where women are paid less than men.

  I want to address a couple of other issues around family leave more generally. I was recently involved in the Athena SWAN gender equality benchmarking process at third level, in Trinity College. One of the issues that arises across all third level institutions, although it is not unique to third level, is the issue not just of a right of return to work after availing of parental or maternity leave but how employees are treated when they return. That is crucial. We see in academia, for example, a pattern whereby those who return from family or maternity leave, typically women, miss out on promotional opportunities because they lack research time. They are straight back into full teaching and administration loads and they lack the time to carry out the research. Particularly when people are in their 30s is what makes the difference between promotion or non-promotion in academic settings.

  That is just one example of a particular workplace setting but, undoubtedly, across different professions, from research I and others have done in law, we have seen the phenomenon of postponed parenting. Women are putting off having children until their career has got to a certain stage but then missing out on promotional opportunities because while rights to return to work are enshrined in law, there is no right to any phased or incremental lessening of duties on return. I put that out there. I am not sure if legislation is the appropriate place in which to make provision for that. There is a real awareness about this in the Athena SWAN charter and a growing tendency now for different institutions to adopt measures to facilitate women returning from maternity leave, or employees returning from parental leave, to buy out teaching time or to make some provision to ensure they have not missed out on promotional opportunities because they took leave. That is about culture also and it is a difficult one to address through legislation.

  I want to address the issue that Senator Pauline O'Reilly mentioned. I thank her for expressing her support for a Bill I introduced in the House on Monday, which I hope we will have time to debate over the next month or so. It is a new reproductive health related leave Bill that I introduced having been inspired to do so by the work of Councillor Alison Gilliland and the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. I spoke about this on Monday. This is a Bill to provide, for the first time, specific recognition for those employees who need to take time off work because they have suffered early miscarriage or for other reproductive health related reasons, for example, to undergo IVF treatment.  While our Bill is gender-neutral in its framing, this is a gendered issue because it impacts more upon women. We know from European Court of Justice case law that it is unlawful gender discrimination to discriminate against a woman who has taken sick leave to undergo IVF treatment. The INTO research shows there is a need to give specific recognition to this. We have, therefore, brought forward a Bill to provide for up to ten days' leave for reproductive health-related reasons and up to 20 days' leave for early miscarriage which, prior to the 24th week of pregnancy, is not recognised specifically in law. I ask the Minister to look favourably upon this matter. Senator Doherty has spoken favourably about this principle and we would be very happy to work with the Government in trying to get it into law, as will the INTO.

  I very much welcome that we will see provision in law for Ministers to take maternity leave. I do not believe there is any need for constitutional amendment. Article 28.12 of the Constitution gives ample scope for this to be done simply through legislation. This is a progressive step and is in keeping with the spirit of the Bill, which I again welcome.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield I welcome the Bill and the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, to the House. Given its length, we were not given much time with the legislation, which was only published yesterday. I am concerned that Members were only given a day to look over it. While we were given notice, the Bill was not provided to Senators until yesterday.

  In October 2019, the House debated the Parent's Leave and Benefit Bill. A number of Senators were present, including Senator Norris who, unfortunately, is not here today as I know he is interested in this issue and has been outspoken on it. At the time, we were told by the then Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, that provisions to remove the anomaly whereby same-sex couples were unable to claim State benefits could not be included in the Bill. Unfortunately, the Government had announced such a measure approximately six months previously, as reported in an article in The Irish Times. According to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, it was not included in the Bill because the Government wanted to get key provisions that had been announced in budget 2020 that same month signed into law and operational by 1 November of that year. While acknowledging that the anomaly existed, the Minister of State admitted that those who were still affected would have to wait. I thought it was ironic that the Minister of State’s explanation centred around not wanting to keep other parents waiting for promised increases that were announced in the budget of that year. In the lead-up to that debate, as I mentioned, there were widespread reports in the media that the anomaly affecting same-sex couples from accessing parental leave would be addressed. It was only on that day, in unscripted remarks by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, that Senator Norris and I learned that this was not to be the case. We were faced with supporting a Bill which had obvious good points but which would also result in same-sex couples having to wait for full equality yet again.

  The 2019 debate took place four years after the marriage equality referendum and I believe the issue was raised six times only to come to nothing. In November 2019, we were told the anomaly would be remedied within a short number of weeks in a civil law Bill, but that did not happen either. For this reason, I commend the Minister on bringing this measure forward and giving it the priority it deserves.

  I did not come here to give a history lesson but to set out what happened because we need to learn the lessons of the past. Long after the photo shoots for marriage equality, people’s rights still need to be recognised and sometimes that costs money. Whether it is this issue or the ancillary recommendations of repealing the eighth amendment, we need to finish the job.

  One of the key provisions of this Bill, the extension of paid parental leave from two to five weeks, was announced in last year's budget.   We have been waiting five months for this legislation to emerge. Options such as leaving children with elderly relatives or neighbours have not been available due to the pandemic. Even when childcare providers are open, they mostly do not cater for children under the age of one. I do not need to tell anyone, particularly parents, that this has been a hard time for families. This delay has had a major impact on parents and some of them have taken unpaid leave. The Minister mentioned, according to media reports, that the Bill is to apply retrospectively. We welcome that. Am I right in saying that most people who had children in the past two years, and who have already taken the two weeks of leave introduced in November 2019, would be entitled to additional weeks if their child was born in late 2019 or 2020? I see the Minister nodding his head in agreement.

  We agree with the proposal to add two new members to the board of Tusla. That measure has to be matched by increased accountability, being cognisant of the conduct of Tusla in the past which has impacted on public confidence in the organisation. There is a job of work for the board to do in improving transparency and accountability across the whole organisation. As we all know, many dedicated people work for Tusla who do incredibly important work in supporting and shaping our young people's lives. The board has a responsibility to all those who use their service and their employees to lead an organisation that is fair, accountable and transparent.

  In the week of International Women's Day, I have heard some people say that the necktie is a noose around their necks and an arrow to draw attention to the crotch area. I personally think that ties can be stylish. I often wear one but when I do not, I do not feel any less like a man and I do not feel the need to wear one because I am a man.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Sharon Keogan): Information on Sharon Keogan Zoom on Sharon Keogan The Senator is always confident in his style. I call Senator Currie.

Senator Emer Currie: Information on Emer Currie Zoom on Emer Currie I welcome the Minister. It has been so long since I have seen him. There are many positives to focus on in this Bill and there are areas to build on as well. On the positive side, it extends parental leave from two to five weeks' paid leave, and that will include the first two years of the child's life in order to cover the parents who had children during Covid lockdown and restrictions. We certainly owe them recognition for what they went through. The Bill fixes a gap in the legislation for same-sex marriages and gives parents a choice as to who takes adoptive leave. Parental leave is the kind of support we need more of in legislation because bringing that in begins to acknowledge some of the barriers women face when they become mothers.

  I say that against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the stubborn social norms it has highlighted. It has shown us that women still take on the bulk of unpaid work and care and that that has a knock-on effect on their economic participation and equal opportunities. Some 94% of those looking after homes or families in 2019 were women. Figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, tell us that just over 9% of women, compared with 0.4% of men, took unpaid leave during the pandemic. Some 45% of women provide care for children and older adults, compared to just 29% of men. Across the EU during the pandemic almost one third of women with young children found it hard to concentrate on their work, compared to just over one sixth of men in the same household situation. Women are more likely to feel tense, lonely and depressed than men in the same age range who have children. They are more vulnerable to unemployment and redundancy and the past year is more likely to have impacted on their career progression.

  Ireland has serious issues when it comes to sharing the care and we need a variety of initiatives to change that. No one single policy will do it but things like a willingness to prioritise families and parents, maternity, paternity and parental leave, work flexibility, accessible and affordable childcare across the board and local planning and transport all matter.  I advocate for flexible workplaces because they move away from a one-size-fits-all model of work that juggling parents cannot always mould their lives around. Flexibility should be a right, not a perk, that comes with boundaries and respects the work-life balance.

  If we are going to level the playing field in work, we will have to level the playing field at home too. I commend the purpose of the legislation to facilitate parents who are employees to balance paid employment and their responsibilities to their children in a fair and equitable way. I commend it on promoting the participation of mothers in the workforce and enabling relevant parents to share the responsibility of providing or assisting in the provision of care on an equal basis.

  I had hoped there would be an opportunity to do more directly for lone parents and to provide them with the additional leave of two parents when they are doing the job of both. I understand that the leave is for parents in their own right, regardless of whether they are in a relationship, and that it is for the individual parent rather than allocation per family. Can we treat all parents the same, however, when their circumstances are not the same? Lone parents in Ireland are five times more likely to experience deprivation than two-parent families, a rate that is the second highest in Europe. Up to 85% of lone parents are women. Lone parents will only face more hardship and poverty but they are less likely to remain in the workforce.

  I have spoken to the Minister about this quite a few times. I thank him for his time and consideration. I know the Department's view is that the legislation cannot be amended to give additional direct leave to lone parents. I am disappointed that it cannot but I recognise the flexibility that up to four parents can avail of it. In some European countries, leave in the context of lone parents can be taken by a family member such as a grandparent. Like my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, has said, what other flexibility could be there to open that up? What can be done to provide more support to lone parents, as other European countries are doing?

  The reports yesterday about the impact of home working and crèches were a bit alarmist. Remote working is not a substitution for childcare. If anything has shown that, it is the experiences of women over the past year in trying to juggle everything. Senator Mullen asked what is the end goal that the Minister is trying to achieve. The end goal is choice for parents in how they raise their children and lead their lives. Choice is backed up by equal opportunities, respect for diversity and rearing children in a loving environment where everyone gets to reach their full potential.

Senator Garret Ahearn: Information on Garret Ahearn Zoom on Garret Ahearn I welcome the Minister to the Chamber today and thank him for the work he has been doing on this matter over the past number of weeks. I also want to thank him for facilitating Zoom meetings and briefings he gave beforehand. They were very helpful and more Ministers should be encouraged to do this.

  I welcome this Bill to increase a parent's leave from two weeks to five weeks over a 24-month period. Most importantly, it includes same-sex couples as part of this provision. This was long overdue and is very much to be welcomed.

  I must declare a personal interest in this issue. This leave for parents will be backdated to 1 November 2019. I had my first child on 11 December 2019. I timed it well, as I said to my wife. This has been a hot topic for a constituent of mine who lives in our house. She has been bringing it up constantly about when this measure will come into force. She, like many mothers, has had a difficult time over the past year of not having what one would describe as a normal maternity leave.  What has been brought in today is recognition of that as well as recognition of joint parental leave between two parents. It has been an incredibly difficult time for parents and support such as this will be welcomed. Listening to anyone I have spoken with and the way I look at it myself, this leave is for the child, not really for the parent. I do not know of any parent who says "Jeepers, I have got five weeks off, that is brilliant". It is not about that but about connecting with the child. Other Senators spoke about how it is predominantly seen as something done by females. There is sense in that. When we talk about this leave, I am entitled to it myself but I have not thought about taking it. It is nothing to do with the stereotype of the father just not taking the time off but more to do with politics in general. I suppose most people in this Chamber would relate to that. It is there for the child. Senator Currie spoke about parental leave if one is a lone parent, so that five weeks would become ten weeks. That is how we should look at this leave, in that it is for the child rather than for parents.

  The Minister might comment on the other matter I wish to touch on, which we might need to look at in the future and relates to shared parental leave over a longer period of time. It is done in other countries, including the UK, where there are 50 weeks of shared parental leave, 37 weeks of which are paid. It is done in Germany where there are 12 weeks of maternity leave but up to 24 months of shared parental leave. In Spain, men used to have 12 weeks but now they have 16 weeks of leave. There is substantial support for both people in a relationship. I know a number of Senators have talked about how sometimes certain people feel like there is an obligation to babysit their own child. I know where that argument is coming from but I do not understand how men could see it as such. It is now 4.55 p.m. and my main concern, once I sit down, is when this debate will finish and whether I can get home before Jamie goes to bed at 8 p.m. I do not understand how people could see it as babysitting or anything like that.

  If we look at this as shared parental leave going forward for a longer stretch, it has a knock-on effect in the shape of unconscious bias for employment of staff. When looking at a male and a female looking for a job, there is an unconscious bias, but if there was shared paternity leave for a longer time, that would have a positive impact for women. We should look at what other countries have done and the positive impact this has had in other countries. I think it would be the same in Ireland. I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill. It is welcome in my family.

Senator Mary Fitzpatrick: Information on Mary Fitzpatrick Zoom on Mary Fitzpatrick I am delighted to support this Bill. It is important that the Government is extending parental leave and adoptive leave for married same-sex couples and that we are supporting the work of Tusla by increasing the board membership. Having a child is the greatest life-changing thing that any of us can do and the riskiest and most ambitious thing that any of us can aspire to. I think it is important, as a republican, that every child has an equal opportunity for the best start in life.  That we are supporting parents to try to give their children the best start in life is to be welcomed and I hope all parties will support it.

  In the short term, once this Bill is passed, parents will be immediately able to avail of it over a two-year period - I appreciate and welcome it is being backdated - but in the longer term, we will see the benefits of this because it will start to change the dynamic and the way society thinks about who is doing the caring. I questioned the Minister on whether the care - the extended three weeks - could be given all to one parent and he explained that it is deliberately being given to both parents to deliberately enable both parents to avail of or lose it. That is a really positive intervention in terms of this legislation because it is only when one has had to mind a child for 12 or 24 hours, seven days a week, with the unpredictability, the entertainment and, honestly, the exhaustion that comes with it, that one gets an appreciation of what is involved in minding another human being. It can be the most rewarding, frustrating and exhausting experience but, truly, it is something that all of us as adults should be, I think, obliged to take on because if one can manage to look after a young child, take care of him or her, and ensure that the child is happy and healthy, one will have no greater reward in life.

  I commend the Minister and the Government on delivering on this promise and I wish him well with the Bill.

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan I welcome the Minister. It is great to see this Bill before us and I am delighted to support it. What we are looking at here is increasing the duration of parents' leave from two to five weeks' paid leave for parents of children under the age of one. It shows the Government's support to young families. I also welcome the support for same-sex couples to avail of adoptive leave.

  The Minister also mentioned increasing the number of board members of Tusla from five to nine. Out of curiosity, I would be interested to know the gender balance there. I assume it will be a positive, balanced one. The Government is trying to reach 40% female participation across all its boards.

  This is in our programme for Government and it is in budget 2021. It shows our commitment to supporting families, particularly during this special time in their lives. We are supporting both men and women and we are changing our working lives to make sure that we have a better work-life balance. It means that jobs are protected when parents take this leave. What it comes down to is that one will not lose one's job by taking leave that one needs to take.

  As a member of the Joint Sub-Committee on Mental Health, I am conscious that well-being is so important and how, after a person has this life-changing moment of having a child or adopting a child, one should be given support by society to do the best that one can and have the time to do it, and to enjoy that special time. I am sure there is much recovery involved as well in trying to deal with something new. It is important, from a well-being and mental health point of view, that we are doing this.

  It is also about reducing the gender pay gap, which Senator Bacik mentioned. I am looking forward to the seeing information that Senator Bacik referenced on the gender pay gap.

  I am also my party's spokesperson on education and further and higher education. It is difficult at third level. There are so many who are in contract positions and when one is funded through an award of non-Exchequer funding, sometimes that does not include maternity leave. This is something crucial that we must look at. When the Minister spoke with us here on International Women's Day on Monday last, he talked through everything that is being done in a number of Departments to promote and encourage positive practices in the workplace that will encourage and support women, in particular. Of course, men too, but here I believe that it is the case that it negates against women.

  We talked about teaching buyout, which Senator Bacik mentioned. Teaching buyout is something I am very interested in as well at third level to support women, in particular, doing research and how to focus their time doing research. I am speaking to this because I worked previously in NUI Galway. I would have known many people in the research area and I am sure that this applies to many different roles as well. How do we ensure, when people are taking leave and when they come back into work, that the key things they need to do to ensure their career progression are done?  We also talk about leadership roles for women. That must also be looked at when they come back into work. When engaged in third level education, for example, one must be able to conduct research. If a people do not have research or peer-reviewed papers to their name, it will be harder for them to progress into professorship roles. This applies to many parts of business. A person may have been out of the loop, perhaps for a couple of weeks, and then suddenly, in pre-Covid times, that person was unable to go to a conference or his or her name was not down for it. In our businesses, we need to make sure diversity and equality practices within work are being maintained.

  Finally, I support this Bill and that childcare be more balanced. My colleague, Senator Currie, spoke in detail about how childcare is not particularly just for one parent but is for both and that our cultural and societal norms will change. In introducing this Bill, the Minister is part of that changing of our societal and cultural norms. I hope it will happen swiftly. The Minister mentioned that it will be April 2021. I very much welcome it. My areas of interest are in how we support women when they come back into work. Perhaps, therefore, considerations around that too would be interesting.

Senator Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin The Minister is very welcome to the Chamber. At the outset, I thank him for giving us his time yesterday for an update regarding the legislation. It was certainly very welcome.

  I welcome this legislation as a step forward in offering help to families in terms of balancing work and family life. As we know, this legislation extends parent's leave and benefit from two weeks to five weeks for each parent and, of course, takes on board other circumstances where there may be another co-parent, or indeed, two co-parents within a situation.

  It extends the period in which leave can be taken from the first year of a child's life to the first two years, dating back to 1 November 2018. I know many of us have received correspondence and emails over the last ten months, particularly from young mothers who really felt they needed the opportunity to have some extra time. None of us can consider the last 12 months as any type of normal time.

  As we know, this leave is non-transferable. It is aimed at supporting working families with additional leave at an incredibly busy time for everybody involved. It is also important to note that it is there to encourage parents to share the childcare burden and ensure that dads also get to spend time with their newborn children in the crucial early years.

  It is really important to note that included in the proposals are amendments to the adoptive leave legislation, which address the present anomaly whereby married male same-sex couples are excluded from the leave. I thank the Minister for his work in that regard. In terms of equality, we must absolutely make sure that everything is equality proofed.

  It is particularly timely that we are discussing this today, having just marked International Women's Day on Monday and having had the opportunity to spend two hours in the Chamber speaking about the impact Covid-19 has had on women. There is no doubt that it has had a disproportionate and profound impact on women, particularly in the areas of work and care. It has most certainly exacerbated many existing inequalities in society, including inequality that disadvantages women. The assumption that the majority of the childcare burden falls on the mother has held women back for far too long. We are facing a situation, although it has been rectified at this moment, where our Minister for Justice had no legal access to maternity leave. However, we spent last Monday telling women that they can achieve their dreams if they get up, dress up and show up etc. It is, therefore, really important that we are looking at this now. It is important to note that we cannot just utter those platitudes once a year and then leave women to shoulder a disproportionate caring role for the other 364 days of the year.  In April 2020, a CSO survey found that 22% of women, compared with 15% of men, are caring for a dependent family member or friend and have increased childcare because of the Covid-19 pandemic. CSO data published in February 2021 showed 46.9% of female respondents reported low overall life satisfaction, which was over 10% higher than the male rate, which was 36.2%. There is an urgent need to match our policies to the reality of people's lives. Further work on developing family leave options will encourage greater sharing of the care load and will assist with addressing the assumptions that women are always the primary caregiver.

  As I mentioned earlier, it is important that this law will also give leave to male same-sex couples who previously had been excluded from this benefit. LGBT Ireland has been vocal in calling for this amendment to be made because excluding a section of citizens in society is completely intolerable. I am glad to see the situation finally being rectified to reflect the diverse society in Ireland in 2021.

  I agree with the comments that have been made about the financial aspects of this leave and the fact that we need to do more for lone parents who are raising their children. However, all in all, I think it is a good, progressive Bill and I commend the Minister's work on it.

Senator John Cummins: Information on John Cummins Zoom on John Cummins Before I start, I had better assure my Government colleagues that I have not joined the Opposition benches; it is just the seat I have been assigned.

  I welcome the Minister to the House. It is the first time I have had the opportunity to engage with him on legislation and I join with others in complimenting him on bringing forward this Bill, which is going to have a positive and profound impact on many families and individuals who are fortunate enough to welcome a child into their care, be it through birth or adoption. As has been said by others, the legislation will provide for a welcome increase in the amount of paid parents' leave and benefit from two weeks to five. It will also make provision for male same-sex couples to avail of adoptive leave for the first time and will allow every couple to nominate a partner to avail of adoptive leave that is presently only available to the female partner within the couple.

  While my wife and I do not have any kids, at least not yet anyway, many of my friends, colleagues and people with whom I have grown up do and there is no doubt in my mind that the last Government and this Government have been committed to trying to improve things in this area to ensure that children have the best possible start in life. It is important to pause and reflect on from where we have come. The changes that have been made in this area over the past number of years are positive. We now have two weeks' paternity leave, introduced in 2016, and which can be taken at any time in the first six months after birth or placement in the case of adoption. We have two weeks' parents' leave, which was introduced for both parents and is now being extended to five weeks as part of this Bill. We also have unpaid parental leave, which was extended from 22 to 26 weeks last September. That can be availed of until the 12th birthday of a child or 16th birthday in the case of a child with a disability. Extraordinary progress has been made, and not before time, but we cannot stop there. I know that we, as a Government, are not going to stop there but are going to continue to make strides in this area in the years ahead. I look forward to engaging with the Minister and other colleagues to improve the lot of individuals and families even further in the years ahead.

  The pandemic has been an exceptionally difficult time for all, not least for couples and individuals who have had children.  Restrictions placed in hospitals when mothers are having their children have been very difficult for many who have experienced it, particularly where there may have been Covid outbreaks in hospitals. There is also the issue of not having the support network and bubble of family and friends around them at what should be such a joyous time. It is only right and proper that it is being backdated to 1 November 2019. It is welcome that, as the Minister said in his opening address, the IT systems are being put in place to allow for these retrospective payments once the legislation comes into force.

  Before I finish I want to comment on what Senator Bacik mentioned earlier with regard to the Bill being brought forward on leave in the case of miscarriage. It is something we need to make progress on as a Government. It is a very traumatic time for couples who are devastated by the loss of a child. I would like to see progress in this area. This is a very important and welcome Bill. It will have a profound and positive impact on so many families and I commend the Minister on his work in this area.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank Senator Cummins for the clarification of his situation. Some of his erstwhile colleagues had assumed he had become Leader of the Opposition as a prize.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney We were impressed by his promotion.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (Deputy Roderic O'Gorman): Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman I thank the Senators for their contributions and for the positive way in which they have responded to this legislation. I agree that it is very positive. It is a clear step forward in a direction towards supporting all families, recognising our understanding of the role, and that the joy rather than the burden of caring for children should be shared between parents where there are parents, and that parents should be facilitated in as much as possible in doing this. It is something we should seek to achieve.

  I want to address a couple of the issues Senators raised. Senators Seery Kearney and Currie raised the issue of lone parents. Senator Currie made a detailed submission to the pre-legislative process and I thank her for it. I have listened carefully to the submissions and I want to make clear that at the heart of the EU work-life balance directive is the idea of non-transferability. What we are doing with this Bill is transposing the directive. As Senators know, when we transpose EU law we are bound to work within the confines of that law. The idea of non-transferability is fundamental to what the work-life balance directive is about, as is the idea that there must be reserved time for each parent. The reason behind this is that if it is given to both but with transferability we can all guess what will happen quite quickly. Unfortunately, it seems to follow that in the vast majority of cases, it ends up being transferred to the mother. This is what we want to mitigate. This is central to the directive. We are transposing the directive with this legislation so we were bound by the non-transferable achieve element.

  I am very aware of the additional challenges faced by one-parent families. I had a very good meeting with the One Family organisation. We discussed this issue and certain parts of the national childcare scheme, which falls directly within the ambit of the Department, with regard to how they disadvantages certain one-parent families. It is something I am committed to working on. It also highlighted to me that the way certain elements of labour market activation are designed is almost punitive towards one-parent families.  That is something we as a Government and an Oireachtas should consider addressing. We know one-parent families are at greater risk of poverty. We need to continue to address that through our taxation and welfare systems and the range of services we provide. I am very happy that within the programme for Government there is a commitment to work on the Report on the Position of Lone Parents in Ireland, which was produced by an Oireachtas committee. One Family wanted to see that commitment in the programme for Government and it was included. To the extent that the matter falls within my Department, I will work with Senators across the House to support one-parent families as we go forward. I am conscious that more needs to be done in that area.

  As regards Tusla, which was raised by Senator Dolan, currently there are nine members on the board, seven ordinary members, the chair and deputy chair. The ratio of male to female is 5:4 and it has a male chair and female vice chair. As Members will probably know, the chair is Pat Rabbitte, a former colleague of Senator Bacik. The chief executive officer is Bernard Gloster, who has appeared before the joint committee on children.

  Senator Warfield raised concerns about issues that have arisen with Tusla in the past. Tusla is an organisation in transition. It has gone through some very difficult times but I am very confident in its transition. Pat Rabbitte and Bernard Gloster provide strong leadership, with Mr. Gloster focused on the day-to-day running of the organisation and Mr. Rabbitte focused on the higher level of governance. Governance is absolutely key to this. Tusla is dealing with children in the most vulnerable of circumstances, as well as adults in various circumstances, including domestic and sexual and gender-based violence. That is why governance of the organisation is so important. It is also important that we provide additional members of the board to support that governance. It is a huge burden and the board must deal with highly complex issues. All of us have probably served on one or two boards in our time, with some of us having probably served on many boards. Given the complexity and seriousness of the issues the board has to deal with, Mr. Rabbitte requested that we provide additional support and I am happy to do that.

  The reform agenda in Tusla is a matter on which I have felt strongly since my appointment as Minister in this Department. We provided an additional allocation of €61 million to Tusla this year, the largest increase in funding the organisation has ever received. Over the previous three budgets, it had recorded a deficit every year and had been underfunded. We have addressed that, recognising the importance of Tusla’s role in helping vulnerable children, supporting families and supporting those who have been victims of the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, particularly during the Covid crisis. We have been able to put those additional supports in place. Tusla funds the sector dealing with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence sector, which will spend the highest amount ever next year. Between 2020 and 2021, an additional €4.7 million will be spent on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services, about which there much concern among Senators.

  Senator O’Reilly referred to domestic violence leave. We are not ready for the legislative stage of that. We have engaged in consultations with the social partners, employer groups and trade unions in recent weeks. We met representatives of ICTU and meetings are also taking place with groups working in the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence to understand what domestic violence leave and pay benefit legislation will look like and how to design it. Sinn Féin has a Private Members' Bill on that point. We are working hard to develop proposals in this important area and we will publish them later this year. We recognise that poverty is often a barrier to people leaving situations where they are at risk. Even the loss of one week's or two weeks' wages can be a determining factor. If we can take that burden away from victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, that will be a small step.

  I note the comments of Senators Warfield and Seery Kearney about the hurt caused by the inequality that existed in the law by which male married same-sex couples were excluded from adopted leave. I do not think that was done deliberately.  It does not take away from the exclusionary nature of our law. As Senator Warfield said, we all celebrated. We all, no doubt, have pictures of ourselves on the day the referendum was carried, or campaigning on it. However, this discrimination was allowed persist, and it is important we are addressing it today. It was very valid of Senator Seery Kearney to recognise the hurt created for some by that inequality persisting.

  Regarding the amendment to the personal injuries legislation, Senator Bacik has asked for clarification. We will provide that on Committee Stage. I take the points she made. There are occasions when something needs to be done at speed, but I take her point. I also take Senator Warfield's point about not having a great deal of time to go through this legislation. It did go through detailed pre-legislative scrutiny but there is obviously a difference between heads and the Bill. We are very conscious we want this passed by the Easter recess. Everyone is in agreement on that.

  I am very conscious that people are waiting for this. I have number of friends who are texting me on a weekly basis to ensure, as their pregnancy continues, it will be available for them. We are very conscious that families and parents are waiting for this and they need to have certainty in being able to plan their leave schedule. I am delighted that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, was able to confirm that leave and benefits will be payable immediately. Once this legislation is passed, we will be able to provide for both leave and benefit.

  There was discussion about my tie and it rolled on a bit. Everyone seemed to put a political statement around ties. To disappoint everyone, it is a product of a laundry crisis in the O'Gorman-Healy household caused by my failure to engage in necessary ironing last weekend. There is no greater reason than that. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and look forward to continuing to work with the Seanad as we pass this legislation.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly That is the second important clarification today. We are all being very open. I thank the Minister for his response to the debate.

  Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney On Monday, 22 March.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 22 March 2021.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly When is it proposed to sit again?

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney At 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 22 March.

  The Seanad adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 22 March 2021.


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