Thursday, 12 July 2018
That concludes Question Time. Before moving to Leader's Questions, I am conscious this is our last sitting of the term. We can be reasonably satisfied with the work transacted during the term. We had 68 sittings and, between the Dáil and the Seanad, 79 Bills have been published - 58 in the Dáil and 21 in the Seanad. By the time the Seanad rises, we will have enacted 23 Bills. On behalf of the Members, I extend our thanks to the Secretary General and the members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service in the House for their unfailing support and assistance to us all throughout the year. I thank the members of the press corps as well for their assiduous reporting on most of the things that transpire here.
I wish everyone a good summer. We have certainly been having it up to now. I recommend that Members try to find some downtime for themselves in the summer period.
The cynics out there believe we are embarking on a two month holiday. Those of us who live the life know the situation is quite different and to find time for oneself and one's family can be difficult, so please do attend to that. I call Deputy Dara Calleary.
On behalf of my party, I join the Ceann Comhairle in thanking every member of the staff here for their assistance during the past term. A number of members of staff are retiring during the recess. I wish them health and happiness and thank them for their service. I thank the Ceann Comhairle, and the acting chairmen, for their infinite patience which is tested everyday. I wish colleagues a productive recess and hope they all take a little holiday during the recess, and particularly for the benefit of our colleagues - who may not be with us at the moment - in the Press Gallery.
Back to real business and the housing and homelessness crisis is continuing apace. There are 6,000 adults and more than 3,500 children in emergency accommodation. Those figures is not changing. The cost of rent has never been as high, despite the introduction of rent pressure zones, RPZs. We all know the problems and challenges this causes people daily. It is having a particular impact on the provision of student accommodation. The Government today published a report outlining what it calls "progress" in providing student accommodation. The report states there are 18,600 bed spaces in various forms of planning and that by the end of this year 5,500 of those will be completed. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, described that as a healthy pipeline of student projects.
Once again, the Government is patting itself on the back while wilfully ignorant of the reality on the ground. Much of this accommodation is being built privately and rented out at exorbitant rates. Many people are having to make a choice between cancelling their place in college, turning it down or leaving college, because they cannot afford accommodation. Ms Síona Cahill, the president of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, said today that international students are being targeted by colleges, which see them, to use her phrase, as "cash cows". For students who come from middle or modest class backgrounds, those rents of €1,000 or €1,400 a month are exorbitant and out of reach. That is the average going rate for student accommodation.
Families cannot afford that. That is not affordable for a working person, never mind a student. On the northside of Dublin city, students are faced with a 30% increase in rental costs for next year. We are all aware of the case of Shanowen in Santry where students will be hit with a 50% increase in rent, which follows a 30% increase last year. The same is happening in Cúirt na Coirbe in the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, and throughout the country. The Government can act and take measures now which do not need all of us to be sitting. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have provided a Bill and a pathway for the Government to take those measures and reduce the accommodation and rental burden on students and their families.
Why does Government not introduce amendments to the RPZs? Why does the Government not ensure student accommodation, such as Shanowen and Cúirt na Coirbe, is deemed under licence so that the tenants within them are treated in the same way as regular tenants and leases? What is the Government's plan to deal with the crisis facing student renters?
I join the Ceann Comhairle and the Deputy in wishing everybody a good time off this summer. This has been a busy political period and politics will continue through the summer months. It is important though that people take time off with their families to recharge mentally and physically from the pressures of this job. I also thank everybody working in and linked to this House, and in particular those who are retiring. The relationship between the Members and those who work here is a good one and that needs to be recognised before we break for the summer. I expect we will have a particularly busy term when we come back, so recharging is in the country's interest as well as our own.
On the serious issue of student accommodation, as the Deputy mentioned, the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, released the end of quarter two progress report on the national student accommodation strategy. That strategy complements the initiatives being taken by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to increase housing supply under Rebuilding Ireland. The national student accommodation strategy includes eight key targets and 27 actions to support the delivery of increased levels of supply, which is the key problem. The target set out in that strategy is the provision of 7,000 bed spaces by the end of next year and a total of 21,000 additional purpose built bed spaces by 2024. We remain on track to achieve, if not exceed, that number.
I am very much aware of the pressures many students face, particularly in trying to find accommodation in Dublin. Some existing student accommodation does come under RPZ legislation but much of the purpose-built student accommodation does not. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and his Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, have made it clear they are looking at ways we can ensure students are not being ripped off. At the same, however, we need to ensure supply increases because, ultimately, a dramatic increase in the supply of student accommodation provision is what will address this issue in the medium term. We are focusing on supply increases and it is working. As of the end of quarter two of 2018, 2,990 purpose-built bed spaces have been completed, more than 7,000 were under construction, more than 7,000 more had planning permission granted and in excess of 1,200 were at a planning application stage. We are seeing Ireland move from dramatic under provision of purpose-built student accommodation to catching up rapidly. That is taking place and the figures show it.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government promised last year that there would not be any emergency accommodation. It is still happening. The same is going to happen with student housing. The Tánaiste is promising everything but in September and October, students and their families will be faced with a bill every month of €1,400 or €1,500. The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill 2018 was promised this session but it has not been introduced. He can utter all the words he wants, all the promises he wants, lay out all the action plans he wants and issue all the self-congratulatory reports he wants but come September and October, what will he say to students, their parents and their families who will be faced with paying €1,400 every month for student accommodation?
There is no sense in telling people to turn down a place at a university or third level institution or to turn down the opportunity of education because an apartment will be available for them next year. Next year may be too late for them. The Tánaiste could take action now to recognise the urgency of the situation and to say to those providing student accommodation that students are not cash cows. The places the Tánaiste has mentioned are being provided by private operators at exorbitant, profitable rates. They are making profits on the backs of Irish students while the Governments stands back and talks about it.
There is no self-congratulation going on here. This is about trying to make things happen. We are providing factual information about what is happening. One of the features of this Government is that it sets targets regularly.
On student accommodation we are actually exceeding those targets. Students are not feeling the benefit as a result of that yet; that is true. In the interim we are talking about encouraging more digs-type accommodation, promoting rent a room schemes etc. The practicality of this means that it will take time to build significant numbers of student accommodation. That is underway. Almost 3,000 student rooms have been completed, some 7,000 are under construction, another 7,000 have planning permission and over 1,200 are in the planning system.
-----a significant increase in the delivery of supply and in the short term, recognising the reality that there are still pressures, we need short-term solutions. The Government also wants to ensure that students are not being ripped off in terms of the accommodation that is available and is looking at ways of preventing that.
Ba mhaith liom cur leis na focail a dúirt an Ceann Comhairle ó thaobh an tsamhraidh agus tá súil agam go mbeidh achan duine ar ais anseo í Mí Mheán Fómhair i bharr na sláinte agus fosta gabhann Sinn Féin ár mbuíochas don foireann anseo i dTeach Laighean, go háirithe le cúpla seachtaine anuas agus muid ag suí go mall.
I want to raise the issue of the cervical check scandal and in particular the cut-off point imposed by the Government of 11 May in respect of the payments of expenses that can be claimed by victims of this scandal and their families. This was confirmed by the Taoiseach during Leaders' Questions yesterday when he said it is not possible to claim for retrospective expenses. That is absolutely unacceptable. The Tánaiste and his colleagues in government are well aware that the impact of the cervical check scandal stretches much further back in time than the 11 May cut-off point imposed. The imposition of a cut-off date means that no account is being taken of the costs incurred by those at the centre of this scandal. They have been incurring costs for many, many years. Victims and their families, who incurred considerable medical and other expenses, including loss of earnings, prior to 11 May might have to wait for a final settlement in order to be compensated for these costs. That means that victims and their families are forced down the legal route, potentially into the courts, in order to recoup expenses incurred. Any fair minded person will say that is simply unacceptable. It represents shocking treatment by this State of people it has already failed. It is not right and the cut-off point should be scrapped.
Mr. Stephen Teap said yesterday that the cut-off date is unacceptable to the 18 bereaved families still paying off expenses, as well as coming to terms with their battles with cancer. Other victims are in a similar situation. I know the Tánaiste has previously met Mr. Teap and that he has acknowledged previously that it was the contribution of that man, in seeking support, that influenced the way in which the package was shaped and support was provided for individuals and their families. The Tánaiste also told the Dáil on 17 May that no victim should be treated in a way that adds any further to the trauma that he or she has witnessed. I understand that a meeting of the steering committee is taking place today. That committee is comprised of officials from the Department of Health and the HSE, and has been established to oversee a range of concerns that have arisen as a result of this scandal. It strikes me that it might be appropriate to deal with this major issue at the meeting of the steering committee.
Will the Tánaiste agree that the arbitrary cut-off date of 11 May is cold, clinical, callous and unacceptable? Will he commit to ensuring that it is scrapped and that the families can be adequately compensated for the expenses they have incurred without having to go through the legal process.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, because he has given me an opportunity to provide some necessary clarity. I listened to Mr. Stephen Teap on the radio this morning and I understand the points he has made. I also spoke to the Department of Health this morning on this issue. There is no definitive cut-off date here. The scandal effectively broke on 11 May. The Government response and services offered can be dated from then. Since then, each victim of this scandal has a dedicated liaison person who is talking to him or her. There have been many meetings between the liaison people and the families and victims affected by this. We are now trying to establish the detail of the kind of costs incurred pre-11 May so that the Government can respond appropriately. The truth is that many people and many families have different stories to tell here. Some have detailed records in terms of costs incurred and some do not have any records at all. However, they all have stories that must be listened to. We are acting through the Department of Health and the HSE. A political decision will have to be made as to how we respond to pre-11 May costs incurred by families who are victims of the cervical checks scandal, and how that is appropriately addressed. Do we acknowledge the costs via an ex gratiapayment? Do we meet only those costs that are linked to paper work? We have to decide how to act. We are in the process of deciding on that currently. One of the discussions I expect to happen at the steering group today is on that very particular issue. I know that Mr. Teap will make a very strong case because he is a very strong individual and he is correct to make such a case because he represents many families who are relying on him. I assure the Deputy that the Government and the Department want to respond in a way that is generous and appropriate and which does not add to the trauma that people already have had to live through, particularly since 11 May. There is no strict arbitrary cut-off point. We are making an effort to try to understand the complexity of the situation. We are talking to all victims and getting an understanding of the kinds of costs incurred and are considering how the State can reflect that in the supports it will put in place, which will be tailor-made for individual families and victims.
The date of 11 May is arbitrary. The case of Ms Vicky Phelan came into the public domain on 25 April. That date has been plucked out of the air. Yesterday the Taoiseach responded to Mary Lou McDonald and told us that 11 May is the date from which claims can be submitted. Claims before that, we were told, cannot be dealt with because they are retrospective. They would have to be dealt with through the court process or the mediation process. We are now getting a different message. Stephen Teap said this morning that he was shocked when he heard what the Taoiseach said. He has made his claim, I understand, for the expenses incurred on behalf of his wife and his family. Victims want to have certainty. The Tánaiste said he wanted to be generous and appropriate, but a cold, clinical and callous approach is being taken here.
It is. I am telling the Tánaiste what I believe. I am also saying that, as Stephen Teap said, it is unacceptable to the 18 bereaved families. We need certainty here. Those families who have incurred costs and who have already been failed by the State, need a clear statement that the date of 11 May no longer applies. They need to be told that they can submit their claims for expenses and that those expenses will be paid by the State. A different message was given to the victims of this scandal by the Taoiseach.
I am trying to give the Deputy an update on the position but more importantly, I am trying to give a clear message to those outside of this House who are listening closely because they and their families have been affected by the CervicalCheck scandal.
There is nothing cold or callous about the Government's approach. We are looking to try to support families and individuals in a generous and supportive way. That is why we have put case officers in place to try to provide the supports that are needed in a personal way, on the basis of individual cases. I have of course heard Stephen's story. It is a very tragic one for him and for his family and there are many others like that. However, we have to ensure that we propose a way of responding to expenses that were incurred prior to May of this year in a way that can apply to everybody, not just to those who have the paperwork necessary to make a claim and so on. What is needed here is a detailed discussion between the HSE, the Department of Health and Stephen Teap and others who represent the families involved on the steering group, in order that we can put an appropriate support package in place to deal with expenses that have incurred both in recent months and before that as well.
I made visits this morning to picket lines at Dublin Airport and at LloydsPharmacy in Coolock. I am going to try to bring a little of the spirit of those picket lines to this Dáil exchange. In October 2016, Michael O'Leary attended a fundraiser breakfast in the Shelbourne Hotel where he made an attack on trade unionists, making reference, for example, to RTÉ as a "rat-infested North Korean union shop". Little did Michael realise at the time that within a year, his own company would be turned into a union shop. Is it not ironic that he made reference to a dictatorship, when the precise reason he is in trouble today is his attempt to run his own company as a dictatorship? There is no master seniority list for pilots in order that they might know in advance in what country they were going to live and for how long or in order that they might be able to organise their holidays. There is rule by fear; refusal to recognise unions and then when forced to, refusal to engage seriously. There is low pay in the era of crazy rents and bogus self-employment on a massive scale, facilitated by successive Irish Governments including the one in which the Tánaiste sits.
They say that workers cannot stand up to multinational corporations. Well they can, and Ryanair workers are showing precisely how. Cabin crews now plan to strike in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium and are joining the union here as well. International workers' organisation and action can beat the multinationals. Karl Marx was right: "Workers of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains."
Another dictatorship, LloydsPharmacy, made nearly £500 million in profit in the UK alone in the last two years. Does it recognise unions here for its workforce, more than 90% of which is female? No. Does it exploit these women with zero-hour contracts? It does indeed. Does it operate a proper sick pay scheme? It does in my neck. Can the Tánaiste imagine that? A pharmacy that does not allow its workers a sick pay scheme. We have seen a one-sided civil war in many workplaces in recent years. In these two workplaces however, workers are fighting back. I hope their example inspires others to do the same. Capitalism, and right-wing Governments like the Tánaiste's that serve its agenda, go hand in hand with low pay, the gender pay gap, zero-hour contracts and attacks on unions. This race to the bottom should have no place in Irish society. Can the Tánaiste agree that this race to the bottom should have no place in Irish society, and that workers who fight back against it have right and justice very much on their side?
-----in trying to blame some kind of capitalist system for every dispute that occurs. What is happening here is a dispute between Ryanair and some of its pilots. Our concern is that this dispute is resolved quickly and the travelling public is not discommoded in a significant way. As such, it is regrettable that the dispute was not solved yesterday when the two parties and their representatives engaged with each other. Our perspective on this as a Government is that we want to encourage both sides to find a resolution as quickly as possible. A lot of people rely on Ryanair to travel, for business, holidays and other needs. We want to see the travelling public respected by both sides by being informed in time if flights are going to be cancelled, which by and large has happened to date. We do not want to see a further escalation that discommodes the travelling public. What we want to see is a fair dispute resolution that is fair to workers and that can be agreed to by a company that is providing a hugely important service to the travelling public. The same goes for the LloydsPharmacy dispute.
The Deputy's description of an Ireland of very low pay under some kind of negative capitalist system does not reflect reality. Pay has actually increased by 2.5% on average over the past 12 months. We are now down to an unemployment rate of just over 5%.
However disputes will occur, and we have a significant one at the moment in the largest airline in Europe. Of course we want to see it conclude as quickly as possible but it is primarily a matter between the airline and the workers' representatives involved.
I too regret the stranding of passengers. However, unlike the Tánaiste, I put the blame where it belongs; at the feet of Ryanair and Mr. O'Leary. I also place blame at the feet of the Government. Who facilitated Ryanair's bogus self-employment practices? Who stood back while workers in Ryanair uniforms flew Ryanair planes, yet were officially declared to be self-employed? Who allowed Ryanair to save a fortune in taxes and to cheat their workers on sick pay, holiday pay and pensions? The Government did - the same Fine Gaelers who hosted that breakfast for Mr. O'Leary in the Shelbourne and who laughed and cheered him as he attacked unions. I believe the Tánaiste was there himself. He might remember it. The weather has been fairly good of late but the class struggle is hotting up now. Maybe, just maybe, the one-sided civil war is not going to be so one-sided any more.
-----talking about class warfare and so on, is certainly not going to make a positive contribution to society generally in Ireland right now and is certainly not going to help find a resolution to a dispute between pilots and Ryanair.
It is a story of which many Irish people are proud. It is a company that has recently recognised trade unions and is now in a dispute and in negotiation with trade union representatives, as many large companies sometimes are, thankfully not that regularly. As a Government, we want to see this dispute resolved quickly. We certainly do not want to see the kind of approach the Deputy is recommending, which is to turn a dispute into some kind of class warfare and which reflects the kind of politics he brings to this House.
I want to thank the Ceann Comhairle for his kind remarks at the start of this session, and I want to thank him and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the professional way that they run this Chamber. Indeed, I thank all the Oireachtas Members from all sides and all the people around the country who work and strive to keep Ireland ticking over, from the highest-paid executive to the people on the community employment schemes.
They all deserve credit for the great work they do. Of the men and women who get up in the morning, 99% of them do so with the notion of doing well for everyone.
Yesterday I assisted into the audiovisual room people from all over the country who wanted to highlight the need for tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, and medicinal cannabis to be made available to them to improve their lot and assist them in counteracting the medical conditions they have. They included Noreen O'Neill from Kilgarvan, whose people's farm is separated from mine by the Roughty river and who has a little boy, Michael, who will be two in August, as well as Rosemary Clough, whose son, Gerard Darlington, is in a wheelchair. I asked him how he was and he told me he was not good. Also there were Deirdre Coughlan and her son Stephen O'Mahony and Caroline O'Sullivan and others.
I thank all of the Members and their secretaries who attended the presentation on behalf of men, women and children who asked for the availability of THC and medicinal cannabis to minimise pain and increase their chance to live a normal life. The Minister for Health has stated licences can be granted to allow for prescriptions to be given out but consultants and doctors are reluctant to sign applications to apply for this licence. Only seven have been granted up to now. It is clear that doctors and consultants have a difficulty in applying for the licence because they do not have the backing of the HSE and they are not indemnified by the HSE. They are afraid of liability being attached to them.
I ask for the Government to deal with this. We are all going on holidays and Noreen O'Neill is terribly afraid her little boy will not survive. She drives to Bantry for THC and pays €180 for a bottle that lasts for 12 days. She pays for it out of her carer's allowance. Other countries have dealt with this and legalised it. Why are we lagging behind? It has been going on here for a year and a half or almost two years. Some people have it but it is not available and we need it.
I thank the Deputy for his kind comments at the start. I also thank Opposition Parties in particular who have worked with the Government to bring through a really busy legislative schedule. The House has been able to do things many people felt we would not be able to do in the context of a minority Government situation. I thank Fianna Fáil in particular for its constructive co-operation. We do not always agree, in fact we disagree a lot, but we have worked in a professional manner to get a lot of important legislation through.
This is an important issue and Deputy Gino Kenny has raised it with me also. The position as it is at present is that in order for a cannabis-based medicinal product to come into the country it needs to come in under licence. The Minister of Health has not refused any application that has come from consultants on behalf of their patients to import medicinal cannabis or THC. A total of 13 licences have been issued for the treatment of seven individuals. This will continue.
Separately to the ministerial licence scheme, on foot of the Health Products Regulatory Authority report, Cannabis for Medical Use - A Scientific Review, the Minister announced his intention to establish a medicinal cannabis access programme to facilitate access to cannabis-based products that are not authorised as medicines but are of a standardised quality and meet an acceptable level of quality assurance. What people are asking for and campaigning for, and what some are looking for legislation on, is to be able to bring medicinal cannabis into Ireland without a formal licensing system on which the Minister needs to sign off. The Minister and the Oireachtas committee were concerned about Deputy Gino Kenny's Bill and the committee recommended it should not proceed. As the House subsequently voted that would not be the case, this is an ongoing discussion. The primary issue has to be about the healthcare of patients and the people who are best placed to make those decisions, in terms of the importation of products, are doctors and consultants and not politicians. That remains the position of the Government.
I thank the Tánaiste. I agree with him that consultants and doctors have the knowledge but they are prevented from signing the applications because it looks like they are not indemnified by the HSE and that liability will fall to them. Time is not on the side of many of these patients. I am asking the Government to do something, by statutory instrument or whatever, to allow the consultants and doctors to sign the applications. Doctors prescribe medicine. They will not prescribe an item that remains a Schedule 1 banned substance. It needs to be rescheduled to Schedule 4, in order that doctors would be prescribing a designated medicine. The time and effort required to make a single application, let alone a consultant having to apply for multiple patients, is logistically impossible. In the interim, the Government can bring in all the laws and legislation it wants but it should do something and sign some statutory instrument to allow this medicinal cannabis to be obtained. I am not looking for cannabis for any reason other than medicinal purposes to be administrated through our chemists and doctors.
This has been an ongoing debate for some time. An expert reference group has been established by the Minister for Health and it is drawing up clinical guidance for healthcare professionals treating patients through the access programme. The guidelines will be published shortly on the Department of Health's website, which will be helpful. There are certain products that are clearly medicines and there are other products that may have a medicinal purpose and may be cannabis-based. They are the products the access programme will address. The key issue is that for many children or families looking for better healthcare treatment and who think they can get better results from medicinal cannabis products, there is an avenue through the recommendation of a consultant or a doctor to be able to import those products to Ireland and get it done reasonably quickly. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is committed to this but he wants to make sure, as I said earlier, that key decisions on healthcare provision and support are being made by doctors and not politicians.