Thursday, 9 July 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The Tánaiste said to me earlier that representatives of the banks told him at the meeting on 11 May, despite what the official minutes claim, that they could waive interest on mortgages during the payment break. Can he explain why his former colleague, Brian Hayes, who is now the chief lobbyist for the banks, has defended the banks' comments in the minutes where they state that they had to charge interest because the Regulator asked them to do so? Mr. Hayes's defence was that the rules only changed on Tuesday. Was Brian Hayes in a different meeting with the minute taker and why are there are so many different versions of the Government's meeting with the banks? Will the Tánaiste clarify his earlier comments in this regard, because they simply do not stack up?
As I said to the Deputy earlier, I have not seen the minutes and I am not a spokesperson for Brian Hayes. I related to the Deputy my recollection of the meeting and I related to him what I think is the most important thing here, namely, that the banks should not think that they can in any way make an extra profit or get some type of bonus or premium out of the fact that some people are getting a payment break or loan break on their mortgage. That is the key point in all of this. The banks are claiming that by extending loans by six months or a year, there is an additional cost to them and that cost has to be covered by those who benefit from that payment break, rather than its being passed on to other people or taken out of profits that do not exist any more. However, if it is the case that they misled us and that somehow the banks or other financial institutions are going to make a bonus out of this or an additional profit over and above what they would have made anyway, then that, in my view, is a very serious matter.
Under the programme for Government, there is a commitment to establish a sectoral task force on the new national economic plan. It is a very sad reflection of the programme for Government that there is literally nothing in it on workers' rights. An issue of deep concern, as the Tánaiste is well aware because it is now his area of responsibility, is the High Court judgment in regard to sectoral employment orders. We in the Labour Party have produced a Bill to reinstate those orders for the electrical, construction and mechanical engineering sectors. The Tánaiste is the Minister with responsibility in this area. There are thousands of workers dependent on sectoral orders, which were introduced by our colleague, the then Minister of State, Deputy Nash, when the Tánaiste was a Minister alongside me in government. The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, has written to the Tánaiste on this issue. What is he proposing to do about it? Will he introduce new legislation or appeal the judgment?
The Tánaiste should remember that this situation is creating a dangerous precedent. Thousands of workers are depending on him to ensure that they are protected.
This is a very important issue for those whose pay and terms and conditions are governed by sectoral employment orders, including electrical contractors, construction workers, some engineers and contract cleaners. I have considered the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy English, and sought the advice of the Attorney General. I can confirm to the House that it is our intention to appeal the judgment to the Supreme Court. We have until 14 July to make that appeal and will be making it. I wish to send a clear message from this House to all affected workers and their employers that until the case is heard by the Supreme Court and a judgment is made, there must be no unilateral diminution of the workers' terms and conditions by any employer. It is important that that is known.
I echo some of the sentiments expressed by Deputies regarding disability services. The Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016, which lapsed with the dissolution of the previous Dáil, aimed to give further effect to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in areas such as assisted decision making and voting and with regard to the National Disability Authority. The programme for Government commits to strengthening rights through the convention as well as improving support and diagnostic services. In light of the importance of a rights-based approach being taken to address immediately the ongoing disservice done towards people with disabilities, when will the legislation be advanced? Will the Tánaiste assure the House that the Government will do everything in its power to implement the convention as soon as possible?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I know she will acknowledge that this is a new Government and we are all still finding our feet. The Government, working with the Business Committee and the relevant legislative committee, should be able to clarify in the coming weeks which Bills will be brought forward. The Bill to which she referred will form part of that consideration.
I am glad to hear that the Government will appeal the sectoral employment order. It seems to me that there are very strong grounds for that appeal which, as was stated, will affect thousands of construction workers and, potentially, hundreds of thousands of other workers in sectors where SEOs or sectoral agreements maintain some kind of minimum standard of pay and conditions. The Tánaiste stated that people should not try to breach those orders or agreements prior to the appeal. It is important that that sentiment be enforced because I have already heard reports from construction workers that some contractors are taking advantage of the striking down of the order and are essentially trying to undercut the minimum rates. It is important that the orders are enforced. Construction workers will be protesting outside the headquarters of the Construction Industry Federation at 12.30 tomorrow to highlight their significant concern on this matter. Much as I welcome the Tánaiste's comments, how will the orders be enforced? Will the Government, on a parallel track, consider plan B legislation that will deal with possible loopholes to ensure that, in the event of the appeal failing, we will immediately have something in place to ensure that pay and conditions and minimum rates can be set through orders and by actions of the Dáil?
As I understand it, the pay and conditions of existing workers in these sectors cannot be diminished unilaterally by their employers. As such, the orders stand until such time as the Supreme Court hears the appeal and adjudicates on them. Obviously, labour rights are enforced in the normal way and should be enforced fully. As is often the case when the Government is appealing a decision of the High Court, work will be taking place in the background on a plan B, as the Deputy described it. However, that can never be done perfectly because we cannot predict the outcome of the Supreme Court case or know what loopholes may be identified. To answer the Deputy's question in short, of course work will be done on contingencies that might arise from a judgment of the Supreme Court, but none of us know for sure what that judgment will be.
Age Action is a wonderful organisation. In response to the Covid crisis, it developed a hardship fund for older people throughout the country who are finding it impossible to make ends meet. Some 21,000 older people applied to the fund, but there was only enough money for 1,000 grants. It is interesting that Fine Gael Deputies and councillors throughout the country tweeted about the fund or posted about it on Facebook. Some took out adverts in their local paper and put the fund next to their photograph. However, it is not a State-backed fund, which is why it ran out of money so quickly. The number of applications to the fund underlines that there is no flexibility in the pockets of those on the State pension. Many of them have been driven into hardship by the Covid crisis. There is a mismatch between the resources that have been allocated and the need that exists among older people. I ask the Tánaiste to step in and ensure the Government contributes to the fund to make certain that the 21,000 older people who applied to it will receive money to help them through the current situation.
I had the privilege of visiting Age Action a few months ago, in the early phase of the pandemic, to see the work it does and to thank its staff personally for their work. I think State funding was provided to the fund, but I will have to double-check that. If my recollection is correct, State funding was provided. The Government can certainly give consideration to whether additional funding could be provided. I would have to discuss the matter with the Minister responsible.
Schoolchildren have been severely affected by the Covid crisis. They are now on holidays and looking forward to going back to school at the end of August. Teachers and boards of management are doing their best to get that organised. However, there are difficulties with regard to the school bus transport system. Contractors who are with Bus Éireann are getting 50% payment, which may help or enable that cohort to provide a service in rural Ireland. However, independent providers, those operating outside the auspices of Bus Éireann and whose services are often organised by parents or parents' councils, are vital to ensuring that children in their areas are brought to school. They will not be there to bring children to school in September because they have not received a penny from any fund. They have been refused assistance and they have been neglected. They provide a tremendous service. They are obliged to have their buses impeccable and organised and they meet that obligation. However, they will not be able to sustain the losses they have incurred. They have not received any income since schools closed. Will they be able to bring children to school in September? Will families be left without a means of getting children to school? This is a significant issue that affects all parts of the country, not just Tipperary.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, and her team are working on this issue. We wish to ensure that all children return to school in August and that they have a means of getting there, which of course involves the provision of school transport. There will be real difficulties because capacity on school transport may be considerably reduced compared with previous years. The Minister and her team have a few weeks to get this right. They are working on it.
Hotels, cafés, restaurants and pubs are the main contributors to the tourism industry and they are massively struggling. The decision by the previous Government, supported by Fianna Fáil, to increase the VAT rate from 9% to 13.5% was a significant mistake that damaged many businesses in rural Ireland. Several restaurants, pubs and other facilities in west Cork and elsewhere in rural Ireland closed prior to Covid as a result of the VAT increase. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had no concept of the damage they were doing to the tourist industry in rural Ireland. They refused to listen. The damage will take a long time to reverse. Will the 13.5% VAT rate on tourism be reduced to zero? If that is not possible, will it at least be reduced to 5%? Similarly, the 23% VAT rate on alcohol should be reduced to 5% to provide a lifeline for struggling pubs and the tourism industry. That must be done immediately.
I think the Deputy indulged in some selective history-making there. The VAT rate on tourism and hospitality was 13.5% for a very long time and was reduced to 9% by a Fine Gael-led Government on a temporary basis to get the tourism and hospitality sector going again.
In the year in which tourism reached a record high, it reverted to the previous rate of 13.5%. Those are the facts.
We are working on the July stimulus package and considering all matters. We know that the tourism and hospitality sector, including hotels and restaurants around the country, have been badly hit by this crisis. In many ways, it was the sector that was hit first and worst and will be affected for the longest, along with arts, entertainment and leisure. No decisions have been made yet but we are considering actions that will assist that sector to reopen, stay open and return to profit.
Page 84 of the programme for Government refers to broadband. Never has it been more evident than during Covid how important it is to roll out the national broadband plan. The programme for Government refers to facilitating remote working and innovation opportunities. In large areas of north-west Meath in my Meath West constituency, including Oldcastle, Athboy, Ballivor, Kildalkey, Delvin, Collinstown and Castlepollard, broadband is very poor, with little or no access. This makes it nearly impossible for local businesses to trade or conduct their day-to-day business. It is impossible for people to work from home. Leaving certificate students found it nearly impossible to do their school work during Covid. The national broadband plan was signed in April 2017 with a guide of seven years. We are nearly halfway through this plan and we have no definitive timeline for when it will be implemented in all rural areas of the country. Will the roll-out plan begin any time soon in Meath West? Businesses are moving out of rural Ireland because of this.
I thank the Deputy for the question. The contract for the national broadband plan was signed last year. I was in a rural part of west Wicklow to sign it. I remember my Secretary General saying to me at the time that I had got a lot of abuse about it and there had been a lot of controversy, but I would never regret signing the contract. This national broadband plan will bring high-speed broadband to more than 1 million people in 500,000 premises across rural Ireland, including every home, farm and business. It will cover about 100,000 premises each year, starting next year. It will take seven years to do it but we will try to do it quicker if at all possible. The Deputy's party was wrong to oppose it. Sinn Féin opposed it, so do not pretend that it was in favour of bringing broadband to rural areas. It was against it and came up with no other alternative.
It was announced in the budget that the income limits for medical card eligibility for people over 70 would be increased to €550 from €500 for single people and to €1,050 from €900 for couples. Will the Tánaiste tell me when legislative effect will be given to this decision? It was meant to be introduced in July and we are already in July.
I thank the Deputy. Primary legislation is required to change those income limits upwards for people over 70 and also to provide for the expansion of free general practitioner care to children up to the age of 12. That legislation has been approved by Cabinet. It is intended to take it through the Dáil and Seanad before the recess, to get it done this month. That will allow the Minister for Health to bring those changes related to people over 70 into effect later in the year. It is more complicated for children and will take a bit longer, requiring discussion with general practitioners.
The programme for Government contains a promise to tackle the scourge of scramblers and quad bikes. This issue is not only anti-social but there is also a significant criminal element involved. These vehicles wreck our community, open spaces and parks. The Tánaiste will know some of the ones I will mention, which have been scourged over the last month, including Hartstown Park, Royal Canal Park in Ashtown, Ladyswell Park, Hazelbury Park, Littlepace, and Corduff park and grove. Those are just some of the areas about which people have been in contact with me about quad bikes and scramblers. Unfortunately, when these bikes come out, parents take their children in and they cannot go out to play. I also raise the deep frustration of gardaí who tell me they feel hamstrung not only by the legislation but also by Garda instructions not to challenge these people when they are out and about. The British police forces have a completely different attitude to this. I have seen actions that they have taken about this in the last months, because it has become such a significant problem. Will the Tánaiste indicate a timeline for the promised legislation to tackle this scourge in our communities?
I thank the Deputy. I agree that this is a problem in our shared constituency and indeed in other parts of the country. We are working on the legislative schedule. It will not be possible to bring in legislation on that matter in July but we are working towards the possibility of having that legislation for the autumn session.
The front page of the Irish Farmers' Journaltoday features an article stating that the Irish Farmers Association is seeking evidence of uncompetitive practices in the meat processing sector. Almost anybody who looks at this objectively will know that cartel-like practices are being engaged in. It should not be left up to a farmers' organisation to investigate these matters. The people who should be doing this are in the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, which has said that it will not investigate it because it does not have evidence. That is crazy because clearly one needs an investigation to gather evidence. Will the Government ascertain whether there is a need for additional legislative powers for the CCPC to conduct such an investigation or if it would be better for another body to be tasked with that role? Does the Tánaiste agree that the concerns raised with regard to the meat processing sector are so grave and numerous that it is now time for an independent beef regulator to be legislated for?
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, formerly the Competition Authority, falls under my Department. I am still finding my way around the brief in the Department so the Deputy will forgive me if I am incorrect in saying that I think there was a competition investigation carried out. Perhaps it was years ago and it did not have adverse findings. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission acts on complaints, which have to be backed up by evidence, as is the case for most things. I will check into it further and get back to the Deputy with a better reply than that.
I raise the issue of University Hospital Limerick where, as the Tánaiste is aware, 14,000 people lingered on trolleys last year. The position did not get any better in 2020. We saw increases of 25% in January and 32% in February. The figure increased each day in March until Covid arrived and people stopped attending the emergency department in huge numbers for a variety of reasons for the rest of March, April and May. Unfortunately, in July, the numbers are increasing again. There are already 266 people on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. There was a plan to build three separate units, with a 24 bed unit, a 60 bed unit and a 96 bed unit. Will the Tánaiste advise us when these units will be operational? Has the HSE spoken to staff in the units to ensure they are not just built but staffed and operational?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I will ask the Minister for Health to provide him with an accurate update about the progress of the projects to expand capacity in University Hospital Limerick in correspondence.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to consider the report on the future of the western rail corridor and to take appropriate action. That report was commissioned by Irish Rail and carried out by EY-DKM. It was assessed again by Irish Rail after the report was produced and assessed by officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. It has been resting on the desk of the former Minister, Shane Ross, since last October. This infrastructure is critical to the development of the western region in the future. It has been lying idle for 40 years.
We urgently need to see the report so we can act on its findings and bring this infrastructure back into use again.
I guess that report is now lying on the desk of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I am sure he will want to bring it to Government and make it public as soon as is feasible. I will get my office to check in with his after this.
It is simply unacceptable that banks are halting lending to those in receipt of the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment. Reports also that extra scrutiny will be applied to so-called high-risk workers certainly do not help matters. At a time when all sectors of society are pulling together to aid our recovery from the pandemic, the banks' actions are simply unacceptable. We need to encourage and incentivise investment post Covid to stimulate our now fragile economy. The banks owe this to the public. We bailed them out in the recent past and they must now step up to treat customers fairly. How does the Government intend to deal with this decision? What legislation, if any, will be introduced to aid it?
The role of the banking sector, credit unions and other non-bank lenders in our economy and society is to provide credit in the form of mortgages to people who want to buy a home, credit to businesses, and loans to people who need them. However, they also need to be prudent. Banks and lenders need to know the money will be repaid or at least in almost all cases the money is repaid. Banks and other lenders need to be prudent in that regard because if they make loans that are not repaid, there are serious consequences for everyone else in society. We need to bear that in mind. No legislation is proposed.
The programme for Government makes a commitment to ensure no homes are flooded and that flood relief measures are put in place throughout the country. During the recent heavy rain, we had incidents of very serious flooding in north Leitrim, north Sligo and other areas. Last Monday I visited a house outside Dromahair which was under 2 ft of water the day before. The furniture and other belongings were thrown out outside. A lady who was driving when that flooding happened had to get out of her car and wade waist-deep through water. She was fortunate because if she had gone off the road there could have been a tragedy. That is what is awaiting some of these areas if flood relief measures are not put in place immediately.
The river Bonet, which goes from Manorhamilton right through Dromahair, is in serious need of drainage works. Drainage works are also needed in other areas across north Sligo and north Leitrim. The Office of Public Works, which has responsibility for this, has come out and looked at all of this. It has published reports, but very little work has been done. The local authorities, which in some instances have responsibility, get very little funding for that. The Government needs to make a commitment not to have more engineers' reports but to have actual work done because that is what will save people's lives and prevent their homes from flooding.
I am aware of the mudslide that occurred in Leitrim and the flooding that occurred in Wexford a few weeks ago. My sympathies go out to the communities and the people who were affected. I want them to know that Government is here to help them through the various schemes we offer, particularly through the Red Cross. Flood works are now a matter for the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. I will ask him to correspond with the Deputy on those flood works. I will let the Minister of State know that the Deputy raised it in the Dáil today.
Saturday will mark the fourth anniversary of the publication of the Cassells report. The commitments in that report have not yet been implemented and are now beyond urgent. Many families are being pushed into poverty because they are excluded from the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants. With the Covid crisis, will the Government assess SUSI to allow for the changes in families' financial circumstances so that they are not based on last year's figures. This especially affects the self-employed. A widow bringing up three children has just had her business closed down. She is only on half a grant. Her Covid payment has now been reduced to €203 a week. Will that woman and people like her get full access to SUSI?
The Deputy has raised a very relevant question. Many people's financial circumstances are dramatically different now from what they were last year. People who previously would not have qualified for medical cards now will. People who do not qualify for SUSI grants now probably should. Obviously budgets are limited, notwithstanding the extent of borrowing that is happening. However, it is a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills, and I will let her know that the Deputy raised it here today. We will see if there is anything we can do about it. It may be now be a matter for the Minister with responsibility for higher education. I will have to double-check that.
Is the Tánaiste aware of the British independent medicines and medical devices safety review which was published earlier this month? The review sets out nine major recommendations to address the serious medical deficiencies and anguish caused to patients who received pelvic mesh implants. Will the Government do the same or something similar to address the serious issue in this country?
I know the Tánaiste is aware of this issue because it was raised with him several times when he was Taoiseach. A number of different drugs were examined here: Primodos, sodium valproate and pelvic mesh. When in opposition, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, called for an independent inquiry into these three medical interventions. We now have a report from Britain. The Government needs to establish an expert panel to look at that report so that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. These women want action. A number of interventions that can be made should be made by the Government very quickly. Will the Government establish an expert panel to look at the UK report and make recommendations so that these women can get justice?
I am aware of the issue. I am not aware of the specific report although I did see the news from the UK yesterday. It is my view that Irish women who had an operation involving this mesh and experienced very severe pain and life-changing difficulties as a result should certainly be treated no less favourably in Ireland than they are being treated across the water in Britain. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, will give urgent attention to the matter.
Unfortunately, the clock has caught up with us and there are still 14 Members on the list. I will recommend them to the Ceann Comhairle for favourable consideration on the next occasion, but there is no guarantee.