First Senator to speak from floor of new Seanad chamber

I had the great honour of being the first Senator to speak from the floor of the new Seanad chamber in our new temporary home in the Ceramics Room of the National Museum.
Great credit is due to the staff of the National Museum of Ireland the Office of Public Works – OPW the staff from the Houses of the Oireachtas under the guidance of Ceann Comhairle Sean O’Fearghailand Cathaoirleach Denis O’Donovan for recreating the new Seanad chamber, while the original one has essential repairs completed.

Photos from Houses of the Oireachtas

The need to increase services delivered through the An Post network

DroghedaPostmanJohnWoodsloadsatrayofmailintohispostvan

As the Minister will know, there are 1,100 post offices throughout the State and reports have claimed that An Post intends to close 400 of these, in particular in rural areas. This is a frightening reality for many people in rural Ireland who are already witnessing a decline in the services offered to them.

In Mayo, just before the summer, there was great anger over the closure of an Ulster Bank branch in Ballyhaunis which came just a couple of years after the closure of the AIB branch in the same town. It was commonly remarked at that time that older people in particular were disproportionately impacted by the decisions, as many preferred to go into their branch and deal with people rather than use online banking. That is, of course, understandable, especially in the older cohort of people. They now have to travel further afield to do their day-to-day banking. The exact same thing is going to happen with the post office network and there is going to be very real distress imposed upon people if the reported closures go ahead.

The Post Office Network Business Development Group, under the chairmanship of businessman, Bobby Kerr, looked at a range of additional services that could be delivered by the Government through the existing post office network, if the Government and indeed An Post were willing. Ample measures could be taken from the report. One of the recommendations related to the introduction of the option of paying for motor taxation in post offices. I know that this matter is under deliberation and I would like to know where the Minister’s Department stands on this issue. The An Post network itself acknowledges that it provides many services for Departments and agencies but it believes that many more Government services can be provided through the post office network. Just the other day, the Irish Postmasters Union general secretary, Ned O’Hara, said:

The post office network is under huge pressure as postmasters’ incomes are falling dramatically. The IPU’s aim is to keep as many offices as possible open, to introduce new services and to develop the network’s social function within communities.

The appetite to offer new services is there, the network is well established and the infrastructure in place. I commend my Fianna Fáil Party colleague on Kerry County Council, Councillor John Lucid, who has proposed that the National Driver Licence Service be asked if driving licence renewals could be made available through the post office network. In his own county, Tralee is the only location where one can renew one’s licence. For some people that is a three-hour round journey.

As I have said, certain cohorts of people are being disenfranchised, especially the elderly community.From my own neck of the woods, Belmullet, it is at least an hour’s journey to Castlebar. From Blacksod it is a three-hour round trip. It is something that needs to happen. I urge the Minister to consider the idea of the National Driver Licence Service being located in post offices.

Homelessness is destroying young lives in Ireland

Senator Keith Swanick 21.3.17I think we are all in agreement that homelessness is destroying lives in Ireland. As many as 3,000 children now live in emergency accommodation, which is profoundly shocking because we have been told that resources are not an issue for this crisis.
As a physician I have considered the human cost of this crisis, including research from Harvard University. I have learned that the type of scenarios that many of these children face can be toxic to their developing brains. First, the research is clear that “strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences” lead to excessive cortisol and disrupts developing brain circuits.
Second, and significantly, early adversity can lead to lifelong problems, developmental delays and a “cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health”. Of course, stigma goes hand in hand with homelessness.
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. All of us will remember a time when we felt extremely self-conscious. We worried whether anyone would notice that one had the same schoolbag, pencil case or, indeed, uniform that was handed down from an older sibling or cousin, or that one stayed outside at lunchtime because one had no money for the tuck shop and all the while hoping nobody would notice. Thankfully, these experiences for many of us were transient and short lived.
Let us imagine how it feels to be a homeless child. What does that do to one’s self-esteem? There would a stigma due to being unable to invite one’s friends back to one’s house for a game of football. That stigma is corrosive to a young brain.
In 2013, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, apologised unreservedly to the women who suffered the stigma of the Magdalen laundries. In 1999, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, apologised unreservedly for the stigma of those victims of institutional abuse.
Who will be the Taoiseach when an unreserved apology is given to the children trapped in homelessness? That day will come unless we, as legislators, act swiftly and decisively. In many cases these children need immediate psychological support because the damage being visited upon them by this stigma is profound. It will last a lifetime and it will, undoubtedly, leave indelible mental scars.
I call on the Deputy Leader to facilitate a debate on homelessness, how it pertains to young children and the psychological effects on same.
Seanad Éireann 3rd October 2017

 

Catalan Referendum – 1st October 2017

In relation to the Catalan Referendum, the heavy handed tactics of the Spanish Government and authorities has no place in any democracy, let alone the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon First Minister of Scotland summed it up when she said that she was “Increasingly concerned by images from #Catalonia. Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed.”

When I spoke on this issue last week in Seanad Éireann I warned that it appeared that Spain was reverting to a ‘General Franco style response’ to the threat posed from the pro Independence movement in the Catalan region.

Some of what we witnessed today on our tv screens and via social media is truly shocking and will do nothing but inflame tensions and harden attitudes. A basic understanding of history tells you that a response like that from the Spanish Government seldom helps the situation. Dialogue is required not the firing of rubber bullets.
#CatalanReferendum

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – Seanad Éireann 26th September 2017

Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week

Senator Dr Keith Swanick: Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Is mór an onóir dom labhairt anseo tráthnóna mar tá an seomra seo speisialta, stairiúil agus ornáideach. Ba mhaith liom moladh a thabhairt don Chathaoirleach, an Seanadóir Denis Ó Donnabháin; don Cheann Comhairle, an Teachta Seán Ó Fearghaíl; agus do Choimisiún Thithe an Oireachtais. Our temporary move to the Ceramics Room of the National Museum will in no way inhibit the work of Seanad Éireann, and I congratulate all the staff, d
esigners, builders and technicians who have created our Chamber.

I thank the Minister of State for joining us to discuss this very timely issue. The dangers associated with carbon monoxide are promoted this week through Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week. The dangers are so immense that there is a need for constant vigilance in this area. I am increasingly concerned about landlords across the rental sector who are failing to carry out annual servicing of boilers such as oil and gas. All heat producing carbon monoxide emitting appliances need to be serviced annually. According to the HSE, on average six people die unnecessarily from carbon monoxide poisoning each year, and countless more present to their GPs and other health professionals with other symptoms from carbon monoxide poisoning, such as nausea, headaches, breathlessness and vomiting.

Owing to the fact that it is a colourless and odourless gas, carbon monoxide is highly dangerous and can kill in minutes if levels are high. In addition, large numbers of people are living in properties with poor health and safety measures in terms of heat producing, carbon monoxide emitting appliances. My Fianna Fáil Party colleague, Deputy Cowen, recently outlined a plan for an NCT-style system for the entire rental sector, and it is something which I believe is badly needed. There are regulations in place concerning gas safety and that new homes must have carbon monoxide alarms, but we need a more coherent approach from the Minister of State’s Department.

In 2017, the 31 local authorities have budgeted to collect over €435 million in rent from local authority tenants, making the State the largest residential landlord. Throughout the year I have looked into the major ambiguity that exists with the mandatory servicing of oil and gas boilers across local authorities because there appears to be some confusion surrounding this issue. I followed up directly with the chief executive of each local authority late last year and asked for the number of local authority homes in each area and the corresponding number of boilers serviced. Some of the local authorities refused to answer the questions and others failed to respond despite repeated queries from my office and from elected councillors. Some said that it was not their responsibility. Others have an excellent system in place.

To give the Minister of State an indication of the level of ambiguity, let me read just two conflicting responses from two local authorities. Meath County Council directly manages a housing stock of approximately 2,870 units, of which 1,179 contain a gas boiler and 620 an oil boiler. In the servicing regime for the said boilers, gas boilers are serviced annually while oil boilers are serviced biannually. On the other hand, Mayo County Council’s tenant handbook, which forms part of the tenancy agreement, requires all tenants of houses provided by Mayo County Council to ensure that a yearly servicing of boilers is carried out. The council is not legally required to carry out annual servicing of boilers. This is nonsensical. We have two totally conflicting and divergent situations in two different local authority areas. If this is the case where the State or local authority is the landlord, what is it like in the private sector? The Minister should query this directly with each local authority and with landlord associations, housing associations and other relevant groups. Ideally, I would sit down with the Minister and his officials to discuss this matter further as I feel there are real and practical approaches that can be taken. In Ireland, on average six people die unnecessarily per year from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy John Paul Phelan):

I welcome the opportunity to answer the important query raised by Senator Swanick and I am glad to be here for the first sitting of the Seanad in its new building. I am looking at the roof and see alarms on the ceiling, though I do not know if there are also carbon monoxide detectors. It is a fantastic room and I wish Senators well in their time here. I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who is in the Dáil Chamber at the moment. This matter is particularly topical because – something I did not know until this morning – this is carbon monoxide awareness week. Perhaps that is what has prompted the Senator to bring it up as an issue today.

The presence of carbon monoxide in the home is recognised as a critical health and safety risk for households, which is why it was included as one of the new measures introduced under the revised minimum standards for rental accommodation, that is the housing standards for rented houses regulations 2017 which came into effect on 1 July this year. Article 6.6 of the regulations, on heating facilities, states that each house shall contain, where necessary, suitably located devices for the detection and alarm of carbon monoxide. The regulations also specify requirements for a range of other matters, including structural repair, sanitary facilities, heating, ventilation, fire, natural light and the safety of gas and electrical supply. With very limited exemptions, the regulations apply to local authority and voluntary housing units as well as private rented residential accommodation. All landlords are legally required to ensure that their rented properties comply with these regulations. Responsibility for enforcement of the regulations rests with the relevant local authority, supported by a dedicated stream of funding provided from part of the proceeds of the tenancy registration fees which are collected by the Residential Tenancies Board. More than €32 million has been paid to local authorities since 2004 to assist them in the performance of their functions under the housing Acts, including the inspection of rented accommodation. Since then, in excess of 185,000 inspections have been carried out.

To assist local authority inspectorate staff in determining compliance with the new standards, comprehensive guidelines have been developed and were issued to all housing authorities in August 2017. Carbon monoxide requirements are covered in much greater detail in these guidelines. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 gave local authorities legislative power to enable them to issue improvement notices and prohibition notices where landlords are in breach of their obligations. Fines for non-compliance with the new 2017 regulations were increased, with a maximum fine of €5,000 and a daily fine of €400 for each day the offence continues.

Anecdotal evidence from local authority inspectorates to date indicates that landlords, generally, have been proactive in fitting carbon monoxide detection devices in their rental properties. The strategy for the rental sector, published in December 2016, also prioritises the strengthening of the inspection capability of housing authorities to increase the number and frequency of inspections of rental properties. In addition to the updated regulations and guidelines, procedures for a more efficient, standardised and transparent inspections and enforcement approach across local authorities will be introduced, with specific ring-fenced funding for inspections provided from 2018 onwards. The target is that by 2021, 25% of all rental properties will be inspected annually.

Senator Swanick’s referred to the divergence in this respect across local authorities. The only commitment I can give here is that contact will be made with the local authorities. It is the case that in service provision across a number of sectors, local authorities vary from authority to authority in the way such provision is actioned on the ground. The prevention of carbon monoxide exposure and poisoning is an issue of such importance that there should be a more uniform approach to addressing it across the country. The Senator’s suggestion is not unreasonable.

Senator Dr. Keith Swanick: When the Minister, Deputy Naughten, was in the Seanad last December, he said: “Taking off my energy hat and putting on my climate change hat, it is important that all boilers are serviced on an annual basis because that improves their efficiency”. There is a simple solution to this issue. During the summer I drafted proposed legislation, the health and safety carbon monoxide Bill 2017. I would be happy to work on it with the Minister of State and his officials with a view to producing a solution to this issue during this important carbon monoxide awareness week.

Deputy John Paul Phelan: I will contact the Senator directly and we can meet up.

Life Saving Equipment Bill 2017

Life Saving Equipment Bill 2017 .001Shortly before the summer recess, on July 5th 2017, I introduced the Life Saving Equipment Bill in Seanad Eireann. On that same day, a briefing was held for Oireachtas members with guest speakers including Cathal Joyce, a young man whose life had been saved by a defibrillator when he suffered a cardiac arrest whilst playing football, John Fitzgerald and David Menzies of the Community First Responder Network and retired Lieutenant Commander John Leech of Irish Water Safety. The purpose of the briefing was to better inform Oireachtas members of what it is the Bill is trying to achieve and to seek their support in its passage through both Houses.

The Life Saving Equipment Bill, 2017 seeks to make it an offence to steal or damage life-saving equipment such as defibrillators and lifebuoys. If passed, the Bill imposes strict new penalties, including a fine of up to €50,000 and a jail term of up to 5 years for anyone convicted of interfering with life-saving equipment. Routinely we hear of incidents across the country where defibrillators have been vandalised or destroyed, which is completely unacceptable behaviour and putting lives at risk. Similarly there is a serious problem with life rings and lifebuoys going missing at lakes, rivers and beaches. This legislation underpins the importance of these devices and will see a zero-tolerance approach to vandalism and theft.

A petition, calling on the Government to support the Life Saving Equipment Bill, 2017, was created on August 24th and has gathered just under 14,000 signatures so far. The support received has been overwhelming and illustrates clearly, the appetite there is for legislation to protect vital life-saving equipment. Two of the Independent Ministers in the Government have already pledged their support for the Bill. Similarly, Seanad Leader Jerry Buttimer has welcomed this legislation.

The petition can be signed here:

https://www.change.org/p/oireachtas-support-the-life-saving-equipment-bill-2017