Wednesday, 8 July 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Access to affordable housing was, arguably, the biggest topic during last February's general election campaign. It is little wonder, given that people had endured years of failed policy that left them paying extortionate rents and there was an inability on the part of practically an entire generation to access affordable housing and precious little council housing. This was an approach by a Government that the Taoiseach's party supported fully for a number of years so it is probably not all that surprising that the commentary on housing in the programme for Government is so lame. It represents more of the same, it is disappointing and it is a recipe for failure.
Last evening, the Government voted against a motion brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, that set out real solutions to affordable housing and the bones of a plan for the most ambitious public housing programme in the history of the State.
Be in no doubt that this is the scale of ambition required to deliver affordable housing to our people. I have a question for the Taoiseach. On the basis of what the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government stated last night, why is it that people will have to wait until September to see the new Government's plan for affordable housing? Why is it that the Government will lose so many weeks and months on this-----
-----given that the Taoiseach has said he understands the immediacy of the matter and that he has not wasted a minute since coming into office? Why is there such a delay on this? Why face down the fully reasonable and ambitious plan articulated by our housing spokesperson last evening?
I welcome the conversion of the Deputy and the Sinn Féin Party to affordable housing, especially as, during the lifetime of the previous Dáil, Sinn Féin voted against a Fianna Fáil motion on affordable housing. The programme for Government-----
I have the floor for just a minute. I know the Ceann Comhairle is very anxious that I do not overstay my time in responding to this question. The key point is that the programme for Government is very comprehensive on the matter of affordable housing.
It is a core part of our policy to enable people to get to a position where they can afford houses. The State will be far more involved as a result of the programme for Government in providing the wherewithal, either through the local authorities or the Land Development Agency, to provide affordable housing. It is something to which we are very committed. There are a number of schemes outlined.
The programme for Government contains a commitment in respect of ensuring that sufficient supports will be in place for mortgage holders who have repayment difficulties. I am conscious of all of the Taoiseach's commentary on this matter while he was a member of the Opposition. The Government of the Central Bank and the European Banking Authority have clarified that interest does not have to be charged on 80,000 mortgages where a payment break has been taken due to Covid-19, once the amount concerned is less than 1% of the entire interest bill. Other European countries have acted on this and put in place certain strategies, including interest and payment breaks, etc., as, over the life of a mortgage, significant costs of thousands of euro can be added.
We will move a motion in Private Members' time tonight by means of which we are seeking to stop the banks from imposing penalties and surcharges. Given the statements from the Central Bank and the European Banking Authority, as well as clarifications and comments from the Taoiseach and colleagues on similar concerns, what is the immediate plan of the Government to ensure mortgage holders will not be met with thousands of euro in excess charges? How will it prevent this from happening?
The European Banking Authority has clarified the matter of application of interest in cases of payment breaks that people have received from banks. It is worth pointing out that approximately 140,000 payment breaks have been issued in respect of approximately 78,000 mortgages. These are popular initiatives and many people have availed of them and found them very helpful. The Minister for Finance will now engage with the banks on this latest clarification from the European Banking Authority and the comments of the Governor of the Central Bank. The key issue with existing banking rules was to ensure the creditworthiness of individuals was not impaired by availing of these particular schemes. Another key principle was that banks would not profit from these forbearance measures. The Minister for Finance will engage actively on this matter and is reviewing it in light of the statements.
With the onset of Covid-19 has come the realisation, at long last, across all sectors of society that broadband is now as important as electricity for every home in Ireland, regardless of location. Before the end of this year, we will see a basic fibre broadband offering in our cities, as well as villages and rural areas, of 500 Mbps.
That is a far cry from the original proposal of 30 Mbps. All of us who are directly involved in the national broadband plan know that this project can be delivered far quicker than currently planned, and a commitment provided for in the new programme for Government reflects that. However, families need broadband now and we have the opportunity to capitalise on the move to remote working. I ask the Taoiseach when we will see the funding committed to accelerate urgently the roll-out of the national broadband plan.
It is a desire of Government to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan and to encourage and facilitate remote working, for example, which I believe could be a big game changer over time in terms of both the quality of life for people but also enabling greater economic activity in rural Ireland. I have seen it at first hand with the Ludgate development in Skibbereen, for example, and the way that acted as a catalyst for employment growth and facilitating companies to develop and grow out of that high-speed connectivity. That was the result of a combination of voluntary, community and private sector engagement. My understanding is that the Minister will be engaging with the company to see how this can be rolled out quickly.
The programme for Government specifically mentions older people, and the Government has a Minister with responsibility for older people. I note he will have an examination of the issue of increasing the pension age. Our older citizens have made this country what it is and they have been severely punished with the lockdown. Even worse, they have been excluded from any source of payment. They were not looking for much. All they looked for many times was perhaps the difference between their pension and the €350 payment. They have been badly let down by the previous Government and I hope that the Taoiseach will rectify that because those people suffered as much if not more than most during the lockdown. They were locked away from their families and loved ones. Some of them were sick. There needs to be specific support for them, and pious platitudes in the programme for Government will not do it for them. They need to be recognised for the part they played in the development of our country and the part they continue to play in rearing and supporting their families and their grandchildren, and in supporting their communities. They need to be supported. It is a shame that the Covid pandemic payment, or even a portion of it, is not being paid to them.
To be fair all round, the pandemic unemployment payment was at the time, and all parties leaders were engaged in consultations with the then Government on it, an extraordinary intervention in terms of supporting people's livelihood and incomes.
I know that. There are limits to what the State can do in terms of expanding that payment or wider supports. The next phase will involve a targeting of resources to make sure we can get people back to work and create alternative employment opportunities for people who have been laid off. Obviously, we will be borrowing for quite some time, but there is an obligation on us all to make sure that what we borrow enhances the productive capacity of the economy in the medium to longer term. That will mean targeting the funding to areas where we can create employment and create opportunities for people who are currently unemployed.
Phase 3 brought the further opening of the economy, with more workers going back to work, and one of the ways they go back to work is on public transport. I have noticed, and people have come to me saying this, that fewer than 50% of people are wearing face masks on public transport. We reduced the 2 m social distancing rule to 1 m on public transport, yet we are lagging behind on the legislation to make the wearing of face masks mandatory on public transport and in terms of how we enforce that. I ask the Taoiseach what the Government intends to do on that issue.
My understanding is that work is under way regarding the regulations on public transport. The point the Deputy has made is a very fair one. In my view, masks have to be worn on public transport and should be worn more frequently in enclosed areas, particularly in shops. All of us have to get into the habit of wearing a mask in enclosed environments and on public transport in the interests of safety for our fellow citizens.
If we are to have any relevance here in Dáil Éireann, we must represent and talk for the people who cannot talk for or represent themselves. I am very concerned about people not being allowed into nursing homes to visit their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters or other loved ones because in many instances those residents cannot talk about or highlight issues for themselves and they need family members to do that. I recognise that most nursing homes are positive in that regard and are doing whatever they can for the people in their nursing homes but, sadly, we see where one man was totally neglected, and one man is too many to be neglected in this country. I am asking the Taoiseach to ensure that family members or some other loved ones can go into the nursing home to check that everything is fine with the residents who cannot talk for themselves.
That is a fair point. In most nursing homes that I am aware of families are allowed to visit their loved ones, albeit in restricted time limits and circumstances. In regard to the specific case the Deputy referenced, my understanding is that HIQA has compiled a report regarding that individual case. The overall point the Deputy is making, however, is that people need an advocate or a family member to speak up for them to make sure their well-being is optimal. That cannot be argued with and it is something we will ensure continues to be policy that is operated by nursing homes generally across the country.
The Garda Síochána compensation Bill has been promised legislation for some considerable time, an issue that has been brought into sharp focus by the recent tragic killing of Detective Garda Colm Horkan. In the current circumstances, and given that during the Covid-19 crisis gardaí were the subject of a certain number of attacks and threats in the course of their work, and that almost 5,000 gardaí have been laid off duty as a result of injuries incurred during the course of their duty, I ask the Taoiseach if that compensation Bill is likely to be brought before the House at the earliest possible date.
I thank the Deputy for the points he has raised. That legislation will not be brought forward in this session, but we will see how soon we can bring it in. I will check that with the Minister for Justice and Equality. The more general point the Deputy has made is apt given the role gardaí played in the implementation of the various legislative measures around Covid-19. It has to be said that the number of attacks on gardaí was very low in comparison with the volume of engagement and work done by them. Nonetheless, some gardaí were subject to disgusting and very nasty attacks such as people spitting at them, and that called for proper protocols to be in place in terms of testing and supporting gardaí in such situations. I came across a case in that regard and I would be fully aware of the anxiety it causes a Garda family. We have to be clear and unequivocal not just in our condemnation of those attacks but also in supporting the gardaí who are carrying out their duty on behalf of all of us.
I want to bring the Taoiseach's attention to page 56 of the programme of Government, which references a commitment to resource harm reduction and education campaigns in regard to drug misuse. That is around nitrous oxide, or laughing gas as it is commonly known, in particular. One only has to walk around my area of Dublin Mid-West to see discarded silver canisters and silver bullets in our parks and on the ground where young children are starting to experiment with these drugs, which poses a danger. This substance gives these young children a very quick high. They are playing Russian roulette with it. They do not know how it will affect them until they take this drug.
I welcome the news that as of this week it has been added on to drugs.ie after I asked the previous Minister to look into it. This will give parents and children factual and relevant information. Will the Government commit resources to an education campaign on nitrous oxide in schools?
I cannot see the Deputy in the hall. I will take what he says on board. As I said yesterday, my own view on drug and alcohol abuse where children and young people are concerned is that the most effective defence is the development of self-esteem and self-respect in children at the earliest age. Programmes designed to facilitate that are the most effective approach. That is what psychologists and the people involved say. Highlighting one particular drug does not tend to be effective in the long term. That said, I am happy to work with the Deputy to see what types of programmes can be pursued in local schools to address specific forms of substance abuse. There must be a community-based response to the emergence of drug abuse of this kind.
The programme for Government commits to the extension of the moratorium on the termination of tenancies in line with public health advice. As the Taoiseach knows, the current emergency ban on notices to quit, evictions and rent increases expires in 11 days. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of renters who are very uncertain about what their future holds. Does the Government intend to extend the ban on notices to quit, evictions and rent increases until the end of the year? Moreover, does the Government intend to put a mechanism in place to deal with the very substantial rent arrears debt burden that will accrue as a result of renters losing their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The Government will be considering this in the coming week, in advance of the date the Deputy has identified. It must also take legal advice on the issue of notices to quit. I accept that people need certainty on that. Research on the rent arrears issue will inform our assistance to people in difficulty in that situation.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to the provision of a statutory home care service. Will the Taoiseach outline a timeline for the introduction of same? Home care is the ideal form of care for older people. Older people need a statutory entitlement in order to pay and access this urgently needed service. This will keep people out of institutions like nursing homes.
That is a commitment in the programme for Government. Some work still has to be done to ensure that when the statutory commitment is made, the capacity to deliver it efficiently and properly is available. The legislation will probably be introduced in the autumn. We will finalise the autumn legislative schedule in due course.
It was announced in budget 2020 that the weekly income limit for medical card eligibility for people over 70 would be increased by €50 for a single person and €150 for a couple from July 2020. The legislation to increase the income limit has been published but it has not been enacted. When will this be signed off and when will we see it enacted?
I will have the commitment to those over 70 and the associated legislation examined. There is also legislation under way concerning access to GP care for children under 12. I will check if something can be done before the end of July and I will come back to the Deputy.
I wish to raise the very serious issue of mesh implants. Under the heading "More compassionate care" on page 48 of the programme for Government, there is a reference to patients' voices being heard. A government report issued in the UK this morning stated that the UK Government should issue an immediate apology to those suffering due to mesh implants. Women have been traumatised, experiencing crippling pain, destroyed relationships and financial ruin as a result of paying for operations. Will there be a State inquiry into this practice in Ireland? Will there be a State apology?
I will have the question of an inquiry and an apology examined and discuss it with the Minister for Health. I will come back to the Deputy and the House on this issue.
My question also concerns the Health (General Practitioner Service and Alteration of Criteria for Eligibility) Bill 2020. This is really important legislation which would increase the income threshold for those over 70 years to become eligible to receive a medical card. I too have received many queries on this matter from people in Lucan, Rathcoole, Palmerstown, Newcastle, Saggart, Brittas and Clondalkin. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could outline when the Bill will be scheduled for First Stage and Second Stage and whether it is expected to pass all Stages in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann this year.
With the co-operation of the House, we hope to have the Health (General Practitioner Service and Alteration of Criteria for Eligibility) Bill 2020 passed before the end of the month. As I said to Deputy Browne, that encompasses both access to GP care for children aged 12 and under and increases in the gross income limits for medical card eligibility for persons aged 70 or older, in line with the budget announcement of 2020. We hope to get it through before the end of July.
SI 120/2020 - Health Act 1947 (Affected Areas) Order, made on 7 April, provides: "It is hereby declared that the State (being every area or region thereof) is an area where there is known or thought to be sustained human transmission of Covid-19". While it may have been the case on 7 April that there was known or thought to be sustained human transmission in every area or region, it is obvious that this is no longer the case. Deputy Michael Collins, a member of our group who is on the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, sought a review of that order. He was told by the Department of Health that these orders could be annulled by the Dáil within 21 days of being laid and that this constituted sufficient parliamentary oversight. However, if there is a spike or resurgence of Covid-19 that needs to be restricted, we will require a new order, not one affecting the whole State.
Section 45(2) of the Health Act 1947 provides: "An order under this section may relate to an area consisting of either the whole or part of the State". There is no such provision in the statutory instrument relating to Covid-19. Therefore, for the order to still be valid, there would have to be transmission in every area or region of the State. That is not the case. As today is the 21st day, the last day when this can be done, will the Taoiseach and the Government allow a motion to be introduced whereby Dáil Éireann will annul SI 120/2020 - Health Act 1947 (Affected Areas) Order 2020? Surely the Government should agree to that.
The answer is "No". The Deputy presented this just prior to this session. We need to be very careful about annulling anything without the proper detailed consideration and examination in the context of Covid-19. Further transmission of the virus in affected areas is still possible. We need to consider any change to legislation concerning Covid-19 in the round. We certainly should not do it in a hurry via a motion tabled minutes before a session of the House. We have to be far more considered in changing legislation designed to protect people from the virus.
Page 40 of the programme for Government is entitled "Just Transition". It has come to my attention that the funding for bog rehabilitation has not yet been signed off on. This is of great concern as work on bog rehabilitation in the midlands was due to commence in October. Will the Taoiseach ensure that this funding is signed off on urgently?
I certainly will talk to the relevant Department and have the issue examined to see if we can get it resolved. Just transition is a very important part of the overall climate change agenda.
The Taoiseach was Minister for Education and Science in 1999 when Holy Family national school, also known as Curraghmore national school, first applied for a new building. That €5 million project is now 37 months into a 12-month contract and there is no confirmed completion date. The buck-passing between the builder, the local authority and the Department of Education and Skills is not good enough. The rate of progress on the site is not good enough. There are 357 pupils and their families who desperately need this building project to be completed before school returns in September.
There are 16 classes in the school but only ten rooms. The problem for this school is not social distancing but where the children physically will sit to be educated. Last year, they were educated on three separate sites. One of those sites was in Kinnegad, which is a 40 km round trip for pupils. Since the Taoiseach was Minister for Education and Science in 1999, there have, by my count, been a further ten Ministers with the education portfolio. This is a national shambles, not a local crisis. I am asking the Taoiseach to intervene directly in this matter. If no solution is offered, I ask him to come down and explain to the parents of the children in those six classes what the plan is to educate them next year.
First, I certainly will have that matter examined. From my experience, one of the greatest difficulties in getting schools built has been around site acquisition, planning and other issues locally. I do not know the full history of this particular school since 1999, but there clearly are issues and there must have been hurdle after hurdle put in the way. The situation is not acceptable for the pupils, families, teachers or the community. I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills to give me a full report on the matter so that we can see what could be done in the short term as we look to the reopening of schools at the end of August.
Last night, the report of a review in the UK led by Baroness Cumberlege into certain medical treatments, including sodium valproate, was published. In respect of sodium valproate, Baroness Cumberlege said:
I have conducted many reviews and inquiries over the years, but I have never encountered anything like this; the intensity of suffering experienced by so many families, and the fact that they have endured it for decades. Much of this suffering was entirely avoidable...
The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, gave a 100% commitment that we would have a public inquiry into the effects of sodium valproate. Will he and the Taoiseach keep that promise? Will the Taoiseach agree to allow time at the earliest possible opportunity for a full debate in this Chamber on the sodium valproate issue?
I have not yet read the report to which the Deputy referred but we can, of course, allow time for a substantive debate on this issue. The Chief Whip will engage with the Deputy in this regard. It may not be possible to have the debate in July given all the emergency legislation that has to be got through to facilitate the economic recovery and so on. However, that report and the wider issue certainly needs very detailed consideration because it has created a lot of suffering and undue trauma for many people.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to review and update the national carers strategy, the most recent version of which was published in 2012. We know the enormous contribution carers make in looking after some of our most vulnerable citizens every day of the week. We know the impact Covid-19 has had on those carers. When will the review and update of the national carers strategy happen? Unlike in 2012, will funding be ring-fenced to ensure the strategy is implemented correctly?
That review will commence shortly but I will come back to the Deputy with an exact timeline. Underpinning all of this is the role of carers in our society and their centrality in assisting people and communities. Recognising their role will be a key part of the implementation of the programme for Government.
Patients using private hospitals are now facing a fee for Covid-19 testing before they go for a procedure. These are the hospitals that got millions of euro in taxpayers' money during the pandemic. I got a telephone call this morning from a constituent whose daughter has cancer and has to go to one of these hospitals regularly. She has been told that at every visit, whether for a check-up or chemotherapy, she will be charged €250. This fee is being charged in respect of children's appointments. We need clarity on this issue and we need the Taoiseach to intervene and sort it out once and for all.
Both I and the Minister for Health are on record as saying that private hospitals should not be profiteering out of Covid-19. What the Deputy is referring to are excessive charges and they are wrong. I will talk to the Minister for Health with a view to engaging with the private hospitals in regard to this practice.
Pages 26 to 28 of the programme for Government set out commitments around the capital programme, including a €6.1 million grant for Shannon Airport. There is reference to engaging with other EU member states on specific funding supports for aviation and looking at flexibility around state aid rules. There is also reference to the Tourism Ireland regional co-operative marketing fund in respect of supports for route development for airports outside Dublin. The Covid crisis has had a detrimental impact on the aviation industry and on all airports in Ireland, but it has impacted exponentially on Shannon Airport. We are probably going to see a reduction in traffic numbers out of Cork and Dublin collectively of some 40%. At Shannon Airport, we have seen a 96% reduction to date and will probably see a 70% decrease by the end of the year. Yesterday, airport management announced a voluntary redundancy package which has created great anxiety among the 230 staff. I bring this up in the context of the programme for Government and the aviation task force that was established. When does the Taoiseach expect that task force to report to Cabinet? Will its report be made public and will the Government commit to acting on its recommendations? Shannon Airport has no Heathrow connectivity at the moment, unlike Cork and Dublin airports. Will the Taoiseach undertake to give Shannon the supports it needs?
My understanding is that the task force reported the week before last. There is no question that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on aviation. I have read the figures and reports in regard to Shannon. As the Deputy said, the incredible drop in traffic volumes and so on is devastating for the airport. The Government is very conscious of the wider aviation challenge. In terms of regional policy, the role of airports like Shannon in the regions is critical. There is an enormous challenge for our airports and airlines and that challenge is further impacted by the public health advice that, for now, people should not travel for non-essential purposes in order to curb the spread of the virus. We understand the enormous challenges facing aviation and the airports and we will be alert to them and respond to them in the context of the forthcoming support packages and so on.
The programme for Government includes an undertaking, which was also given by the previous Government, to legislate for a special fund for community centres to enable them to deal with fire safety and other health and safety issues that emerged in the past 12 to 15 months. Will this fund cover the entire works required to allow those centres to open and remain open?
In my area, two centres in Hartstown and Huntstown have each raised tens of thousands of euro from the local community, but, as we know, that well has dried up. One can only go to the well a certain number of times. These community centres are not under the local authority and, as such, rely exclusively on funding they raise, as well as fees collected from those who use them. That income will be significantly impacted upon. The centres are more than 30 or 40 years old and in dire need. This is not just a local issue in the constituency of Dublin West, it affects centres throughout the State.
I am not in a position to sanction grants for specific community centres, but the wider point made by the Deputy is valid. One of the reasons we are creating the idea of a community centre fund is that, historically, sports and other organisations had access to funding, but community centres often had difficulty accessing funds outside of local authorities which might provide some funding. It has always proved very difficult for community centres in general to access a direct channel for applying for a capital grant, for example. We would like to develop a fund to facilitate that in a more transparent way. One of the newly appointed Ministers of State will have responsibility for urban affairs and there may be avenues through which support can be provided to the centres identified by the Deputy.