Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
We will move to Questions on Promised Legislation. Before the clock starts ticking, I want to advise Members that 37 Deputies have indicated. A number of those have been carried forward from yesterday.
We will start with the party leaders and group leaders. It is highly unlikely we will get to all 37 speakers but I ask Deputies to be concise. I call Deputy McDonald.
I wish to voice my disappointment and dissatisfaction at the fact that the Taoiseach has consistently failed to answer the very simple questions put by me and Deputy Paul Murphy.
The Taoiseach may think that is clever but it is not clever at all. It is disingenuous and unhelpful to the people we represent.
The Enough is Enough - Every Voice Counts campaign has been raised this afternoon and I wish to return to it. The stories have been set out of those whose day-care facilities have been closed and the kind of devastation that has meant in their lives for them, their carers and their families. I spoke to families who reported regression, depression, isolation and loneliness and a real desire, in an urgent and immediate way, to have their services reopened.
I welcome that the €20 million cut to disability services will not now go ahead but I want the Taoiseach to clarify the position because I was unclear on this point. Is he saying that cut will not go ahead, full stop, or did I hear him hint at the need for business cases to be submitted by service providers to ensure the cut will not be made? I would like clarity on that point and I imagine service providers would like clarity on it too.
To be fair, I gave a clear answer today to Deputies Kelly and Shortall regarding that cut not going ahead. It is not going ahead. As Deputy McDonald knows well because she heard it, the business case relates to the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business and what it takes for each individual service provider to be in a position to reopen the services for those who badly need them. I agree with all three Deputies and, like Deputy McDonald, I want these services reopened and the timeline for doing so.
Yesterday, I raised the insistence by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on having a Garda car and drivers. The Taoiseach answered that there had been no Government decision taken on the issue. As such, the 2011 Government decision still stands. Now we have a Minister travelling around in a Garda car at a cost of €200,000 per year without permission because there has been no Government decision on the matter. I want to ask two specific questions about this. The letter sent to me stated the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach rang the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality who rang the Garda Commissioner. Was the Taoiseach aware of that and did he give his Secretary General permission to do so? It would be deeply concerning if he did not give permission. Did the Taoiseach give his Secretary General permission to do that? It is a very interesting question so the Taoiseach should think deeply about it. Where did the Taoiseach ever hear of an audit on the security of a Government Minister being given orally over the phone to justify such a decision?
First, this communication happened before I became Taoiseach. The Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality received a query from the Secretary to the Government on Sunday, 28 June as to whether it was appropriate, on security grounds, for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to retain his Garda driver. The security assessment is that it is important.
No, the security assessment from the Garda to the Department of Justice and Equality is that it the Minister should retain a Garda car on security grounds. I am not getting involved in any security appraisal.
In 2017, a Bill was introduced to provide paid maternity leave for city and county councillors, which, incredibly, does not already exist. This Bill has since lapsed. When I tell people this, they do not believe me. Maternity leave is not a perk or a pay rise but a human right. Female dominated sectors are often undervalued and underpaid. They including professions such as nurses and carers but I could go on. We must ask whether, if more women were at the decision-making table, this would be the case and, if there were maternity provisions for politicians, there would be more women at these decision-making tables. There are 36 female Deputies and 124 male Deputies in the Dáil. It is an absolute disgrace. The Taoiseach's party returned five female Deputies out of 37. We cannot scratch our heads after every election and wonder again why we have not achieved greater equality when there is this glaringly obvious barrier for women. I know there are complexities. It is an unusual job in terms of its nature, the need to vote and so much more but, of course, there is a way. Will the Taoiseach commit to finding a way to provide councillors, Senators and Deputies with maternity and paternity leave?
I will. The Deputy makes a fair point. Maternity and paternity leave should be provided as it is in other jurisdictions. Politics should not be an exemption in that regard so I will follow that up and keep in touch with Deputy Cairns on it.
The programme for Government pledges to review the legal provisions for collective redundancy, something that is long overdue. We have seen how workers at Clerys and now Debenhams are suffering under liquidation laws that were framed by the Taoiseach's party and Fine Gael when it was leading the Government. This day last week, the Tánaiste met Debenhams workers and their union representatives and undertook to take steps to try to improve the package available to them. My question is twofold. Will the Taoiseach report to the House what progress, if any, the Tánaiste has made on this front over the course of the last seven days? If he does not have that information to hand, will he commit to speak to the Tánaiste today and ask him to report to this House tomorrow before the recess takes place?
I thank the Deputy again for raising this important issue. In my view, the workers have been treated badly. I will meet worker representatives tomorrow and I will engage again with the Tánaiste on the matter. He spoke to me last week about his meeting with the workers and their union representatives. I have not had an update since but the Tánaiste was pursuing certain lines of inquiry in terms of how to be of assistance to the workers concerned. It is a work in progress on which I will revert to the Deputy.
I request that legislation be introduced to strengthen powers and increase penalties to address the scourge of illegal dumping which is rampant across the country. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many changes in our country and, unfortunately, it has significantly increased the amount of illegal taking place both in cities and rural areas. There is scope under the current waste management legislation to seize vehicles or equipment involved in illegal dumping activity and have these vehicles disposed of as the competent authority sees fit. Unfortunately, for various reasons, these laws are not being enforced. Without proper and significant penalties, this problem will get a lot worse. I ask that a special task force be set up by the Government comprising An Garda Síochána, local authorities and all relevant parties to tackle this problem with enhanced powers to deal with his serious issue.
Something wonderful is happening in Ireland right now as people start to discover their country for the first time. They are heading to the coast and our coastal communities, our beaches in Inchydoney, Long Strand, Barleycove, and the Taoiseach's beloved Broadstrand. These are great places to social distance and holiday safely but, unfortunately, a small percentage is ruining it for everybody by littering, dumping, leaving behind cans and lighting bonfires in special areas on conservation. This needs to be stamped out. Page 37 of the programme for Government refers to what we will to do to tackle plastic pollution and waste. I ask that we give adequate resources local authorities to deal with issues. There is a single litter warden, for example, for that whole geographical area I mentioned. We need to give local authorities resources so we can stamp out this scourge once and for all.
I thank Deputies Grealish and O'Sullivan for eloquently and articulately presenting a very strong case on illegal dumping. Without question, it is a scourge in our society and across the countryside. It needs to be dealt with robustly and I will take on board the suggestions both Deputies have made. I will talk to the Ministers responsible about putting together a task force and, in the case Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned, about additional resources for local authorities in dealing with the issue. Many community groups have responded on the beaches with do-it-yourself collections of plastic and other litter. Both Deputies have made a fair point.
In the same vein, the OPW is giving out mixed messages. The Government is giving out many mixed messages since the people have been restricted during the Covid crisis. The Taoiseach was in the beautiful town of Cahir with me some years ago when I was a fellow traveller of his. He knows the town well. It is a beautiful town with a wonderful organisation, Cahir Development Association, leading its tidy towns efforts. It has many businesses, one of which, John Quirke Jewellers, celebrates 45 years in business today. Cahir House Hotel celebrated 13 years in business yesterday and there are many other small community businesses.
The castle site is closed, as is the wonderfully artistic and scenic Swiss Cottage. Those facilities have wonderful staff and I want them to be safe. Surely the sites can be opened for outdoor tours and not have the gates locked. Tourists are flocking to Cahir, which is a wonderful town. The town has done what other people have suggested as regards cleaning and eliminating litter and enhancement schemes. There is a wonderful community. Surely these sites should all be open on a restricted outdoor basis to allow people to get a view of those beautiful buildings.
Cahir is a beautiful, picturesque town with a wonderful streetscape. Since the opening of the motorway, we do not get through it as often as we would like.
I know that. The stimulus programme provides some funding for the reopening of heritage sites. We should explore whether that can be availed of to enable the Deputy's proposals to come through.
A number of weeks ago I raised the concern of the 12 patients aged under 18 awaiting Spinraza. I knew the Taoiseach would be concerned because he was so involved in the campaign last year. I have not heard anything back from his office. I was hoping that he would respond positively. I got a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled along with other Deputies, which stated Children's Health Ireland, CHI, confirmed that it is in a continuous engagement process with families regarding their child's individual plan for the administration of Spinraza. I talked to Lauren from my constituency this morning who raised it with me. There has been no contact. There was a general contact with the advocacy group. I am concerned that I will not be able to raise the issue again for another six weeks. These patients are waiting in pain for their care even to be set up. I ask the Taoiseach to respond.
I apologise to the Deputy for not getting back to her on it. As she knows, approximately 35 patients with spinal muscular atrophy, SMA, aged 18 or under are deemed clinically eligible for treatment with Spinraza. To date, 34 patients have been approved by the HSE for use of Spinraza. The HSE has confirmed that a new patient commenced treatment on Spinraza last week, bringing the total number of patients receiving treatment with Spinraza to 19. For patients who had commenced treatment on Spinraza, the service has continued during the Covid crisis but a number of patients who were waiting to start treatment have been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
CHI has confirmed that a clinical nurse manager will commence at the end of July. It is working to accommodate the remaining patients bearing in mind Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. Individual treatment plans are being worked out for each of the remaining patients. CHI has informed the Department that it has identified a small number of SMA patients whose cases are extremely complex given the severity of their respiratory failure, the non-invasive respiratory support they require and the severity of their scoliosis. This already complex procedure in administering Spinraza is even more involved with these patients who will require Spinraza to be administered by specialised technique, using interventional radiology. They will require some degree of sedation to tolerate this procedure.
I can forward to the Deputy details of the complexities relating to some of the patients.
On 20 June, the Government set up a task force to report to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Government on the restructuring of the aviation sector. The task force report was sent to Government on 10 July. How is it proposed to deal with the task force's recommendations? Are they to be referred to a special committee or dealt with by the Covid-19 committee? If they are referred to a different committee, which Department will oversee its work? Will there be an opportunity for interested bodies to be heard? When are the task force's recommendations expected to be acted on and implemented? As this is a critical national issue, I ask the Taoiseach to take a personal interest in the matter in view of the importance for Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Knock, and for Ireland as a whole.
On the same issue, I raise the future of the aviation sector. We have all received correspondence from airline pilots, particularly in regard to Aer Lingus, our national carrier. There is a real conflict between the interests of the aviation industry and the interest of public health. It is important for the State to step in to support our national carrier. Some aviation workers feel vulnerable regarding the future prospects of the sector and their own jobs. It is a major employer and of considerable strategic importance. Those workers need every support. The future of the aviation industry cannot be built on targeting people who have flights booked but who are not in a position to travel while heeding public health advice. I ask the Taoiseach to step in on behalf of the workers.
We need to be honest here. There is a fundamental issue in the travel debate and the implications for the aviation industry. I take the Deputies' point that the Government is there to support all sectors of the economy, including aviation. However, the aviation task force had no public health representative or anyone giving a public health perspective on it, which I think was a mistake.
Fundamentally to keep the economy going, we need to be very cautious on the travel issue. Figures this morning from France, Germany, the UK and Spain show spikes in numbers. I think Spain had 14,000 last week.
They are really. Last week it was all attacking over green lists and everything else and this week it is different. I take the Deputy's point. People need to come to a position on this. The fundamental problem with the aviation and hospitality sectors is that travel has collapsed, understandably because of Covid-19. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is, of course, concerned about the survival and continuation of the industry. We need to take note of what is happening. The most effective way we can keep the economy at its current level is to continue to suppress the virus. I regret that travel is an issue in that.
Page 86 of the programme for Government contains a commitment to tackle the issue of human trafficking while page 98 makes reference to equality and the inclusion of marginalised groups. Do these commitments mean that those affected by the horrific events in mother and baby homes will see the report brought forward as a result? What went on in these homes through the decades was human trafficking with babies being stolen from mothers and sent mainly to America.
I have been working with members of the Seán Ross Abbey in Roscrea, especially Teresa Collins and Mike Donovan, and they deserve answers. At first, they were told that a small number of deaths took place in these facilities, but now it is accepted that more than 1,000 children died in Roscrea, some in very dubious circumstances. They are being told that more than half of the 1,000 died from heart attacks. I ask the Taoiseach to give a commitment to carry out further ground scans of the area around Seán Ross Abbey to allay people's fears that other unmarked sites contain more bodies.
The former Minister, Katherine Zappone, was to publish a report on two different occasions but, as with many other reports, this was delayed.
It is scheduled to be published by 30 October at the latest but can we expect it earlier? Will the Taoiseach make a statement on this matter and assure these families that there will be no more delays?
The long-awaited report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has been subject to numerous delays. Many survivors and victims have contacted me in recent days and even this morning. They are asking for a commitment from the Taoiseach that the final report, which is promised to be published in October, will not be delayed any further. I ask the Taoiseach for a concrete commitment that the report will be published in October, as promised, in order that the survivors can read it.
I respect the Deputies' genuine concerns in this regard. I cannot speak to the accuracy of the figures to which Deputy Martin Browne has referred with regard to deaths at the home at Roscrea or at any other particular home. I will check the status of the report and I will talk to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs about it to get a response for the Deputies.
In 2017, the then Minister for Health said on an RTÉ programme that by the end of that year, no child would be waiting for longer than four months for a scoliosis procedure. In July 2020, children with scoliosis are still waiting longer than four months. I was contacted by the parents of a wonderful and brave 11 year old named Sophie Redmond. She has scoliosis resulting in a 70% curvature of her spine, which is pressing on her lung. When will children who, like Sophie, have scoliosis get the treatment they badly need? It is an emergency and this is a time-sensitive condition. These treatments are needed as soon as possible.
I accept the gravity of the situation and the need for Sophie to have her operation carried out as quickly and as safely as possible. There is no doubt that Covid-19 has had an impact on non-Covid strands of medicine. Surgery has been very significantly impacted. That is a growing challenge for us as we resume services while the virus continues to be prevalent and while the measures that had to be taken in hospitals to protect against its spread are still in place. Doing operations safely is a challenge in this context. Having said that, time is important for scoliosis interventions. The early delivery of surgery can have a significant positive impact for patients. I will check out the specific case with the hospital concerned and look into the broader question of scoliosis services. I know the Minister is aware of the situation.
The Supreme Court recently issued a decision on various issues with regard to the legality of the leave to apply for substitute consent process. Substitute consent allows applicants in exceptional circumstances to make a retrospective application for a project on which an environmental impact assessment should have been carried out before being undertaken but where that assessment was not carried out. The exceptional circumstances pertaining must be set out in a leave to apply application to An Bord Pleanála. The board determines whether the circumstances are sufficiently exceptional to allow the applicant to be provided with the opportunity to apply for substitute consent.
The Supreme Court has found that the legal provisions on substitute consent do not sufficiently implement the directive on environmental impact assessments in light of various decisions of the European Court of Justice describing how the elements required by Irish law for an application for leave to apply for substitute consent could not be described as exceptional. Urgent amending legislation is needed to deal with that issue. When can we expect such legislation to be brought before the House?
I will revert to the Deputy in that regard. My understanding is that legal advice to Government on this issue is being considered. I will come back to the Deputy with a more comprehensive reply.
I congratulate the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Foley, on a very comprehensive and detailed roadmap and on the financial package of €377 million to reopen our schools. The additional teachers and support staff, the enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures, and the extra psychologists and guidance counsellors will go a long way in supporting our principals and teachers.
I will speak on the important matter of social distancing and the associated physical implications and need for extra classroom space. Bailieborough community school has an enrolment of 650 students. It is a victim of its own success and has exceeded its physical capacity and therefore needs more space in the form of prefabricated buildings. Will the Taoiseach outline the elements of the Government's plan which deal with the delivery of such buildings to allow for the reopening of our schools in September?
We have been looking for a roadmap since April, so it is welcome that we now have one. There are, however, deficiencies. Parents of children with special educational needs and those who work in the area, including teachers and special needs assistants, have concerns. I know the Taoiseach has often talked about this issue. I am not here to criticise him but to ask him to fix something in the coming weeks. There is concern that yesterday's circular opened the door to special education teachers being used as substitute teachers. They are also to have a significant role in delivering remote teaching to students who cannot attend school. A dedicated resource should have been provided for this. I am concerned that special education teachers will be pulled from pillar to post to cover absences, breaks and remote learning. Specific resources are needed. Special education teachers' hours need to be ring-fenced for special education. Children with special needs lost out the most. They need greater attention than they are receiving under this package.
I also welcome the package for the reopening of schools. It is very important. One of the biggest issues relates to social distancing for students in third to sixth class. That has become a big issue and many schools have contacted me in that regard. The Minister has asked all schools at what stage any planning applications they have made are. The Taoiseach will know that there are about 20 stages involved in making a planning application for a school building through the Department. The time it takes to complete these stages is now very long. A school applies to the Department, then goes to the planner, then goes back to the Department again. Could these particular builds, which are urgently needed, be fast-tracked because there are a lot of them? I know the Minister is waiting on word back from all the schools that have made such applications as to the stage they are at. Can we fast-track these projects? It is a very important issue and this measure would be a great help.
I also welcome the safe reopening of schools. One of the biggest issues on which I am being contacted by the people of Cork North-Central is that of children's access to autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units. There is a complete shortage of such units at the moment. This morning and yesterday, parents have told me that, although schools are to reopen in four weeks' time, their children have nowhere to go. There are no places for them. I ask that new units be set up urgently in Cork city and particularly in the constituency of Cork North-Central.
The severe overcrowding in St. Brogan's College has been of great concern to the people of Bandon for quite some time. What will the situation be for children going into secondary school in Bandon in September? Will extra Portakabins be put in place? What is the situation in that regard? Parents were last year advised to send children to Cork rather than to send them to school in Bandon. This is still an issue. There are plans for new accommodation down the road. What is the status of those plans? Parents need answers.
A range of queries were raised with regard to the reopening of our schools.
Fundamentally, there is always and will be a significant degree of local autonomy to be deployed by the schools themselves in terms of the configuration of their own schools and the utilisation of the minor works grants in terms of reconfiguring classrooms and so forth.
The capital programme is a separate programme. I discussed it with the Minister last week. What I have said to departmental officials is that we would like to accelerate any provisions for special needs education in terms of units within schools or special schools themselves. In my view, their capital works should get priority and they should be accelerated. Specific measures will be required for specific schools where there are issues in terms of numbers, in particular in urban areas. The health advice is clear about the application of common sense and balance in terms of social distancing. The roadmap is grounded on that.
In terms of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's concern, that is not envisaged at all. The plan is very clear. For primary schools it is about special schools and special education and it is about post-primary schools. It is not envisaged that special needs teachers or assistants would be used to substitute elsewhere. That is not the philosophy behind the roadmap at all. In some instances, if a particularly strong relationship had developed between a child with special needs and a teacher, one would like to see that continue even if the child is at home, so that some level of contact would be maintained.
That can be useful and important. Deputy Gould raised a point of which I am aware in terms of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units in Cork and the need for greater provision. A lot of work has been done over the summer in terms of the provision of some units. Work is under way to assess the need for additional capacity in ASD units and in special schools in the general Cork area.
I take on board what Deputy Michael Collins said about school accommodation.
That concludes questions on promised legislation. Twenty two Deputies have not been reached, including eight Deputies carried forward from yesterday. We will carry the 22 forward to tomorrow and I will not be minded to take any new speakers tomorrow.