Thursday, 30 July 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
A fortnight ago, when I raised with the Tánaiste the issue of pubs reopening he said that NPHET had not at that time been asked to advise on my suggestion that pubs could potentially reopen on the same basis as restaurants, that is, with social distancing, time limits and table service. They would be acting as restaurants but without having to serve food. This is particularly important for rural pubs where, as the Tánaiste knows, numbers at the best of times are low and in many areas pubs are the hubs of local communities. Has NPHET had time in the meantime to consider that work or has it been asked to do so? Can the Tánaiste tell us when a decision is likely to be made on this?
The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday next week to make a decision on whether we can move to phase 4 or something like it. We do not have the formal advice from NPHET on that yet. That depends on two things, first, the numbers of new cases of the virus over the last couple of days and the next couple of days and, second, any particular bespoke arrangements or guidelines that might be put in place to allow particular sectors to open. We would all like to see the pubs opened with social distancing and to see people able to attend much bigger outdoor gatherings, particularly football and hurling matches. We are all keen for that to be possible but we will have to take into account NPHET advice on those specific settings and on how we are doing in terms of the number of new cases, clusters and so on. We will not have that advice until just before the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and we will be able to make an announcement at that point.
I have been raising the issue of the Minister, Deputy Coveney's, State car. In relation to that, the five things we now know are that the Tánaiste made the request for this when he was Taoiseach; the current Taoiseach knew nothing about it, even though it was actioned while he was Taoiseach; the Minister for Justice and Equality knew nothing about it; the Government decision from 2011 regarding the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality having State cars still stands and has not been changed; and there is no paper trail and all of this has been done orally. I have some questions for the Tánaiste. How could he, as Taoiseach in the previous Government, make a request for a State car for a Minister in a Government that had not yet been formed? How is that constitutionally possible? Did he make this request in the full knowledge that Deputy Coveney would be the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in a Government that had not yet been formed?
There is no mystery and no conspiracy here and the Deputy can exaggerate it and all the rest. I am happy to be very clear about this. There are particular security protocols when it comes to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade travelling to Northern Ireland. When that Minister, whoever he or she may be, travels to Northern Ireland, that person has to have a Garda car and Garda protection, that is, an armed driver. They are met at the Border by the PSNI which escorts them throughout Northern Ireland. That has been security protocol for the best part of 20 years. For most of the past ten years, the Tánaiste has also been the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade so this has not been an issue. However, it happened on occasion, when the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was not the Tánaiste, that they had to have civilian drivers south of the Border and also had to have use of a Garda car when going to Northern Ireland. That was the situation that the former Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, dealt with. When I knew I was to be the Tánaiste and that, therefore, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in the next Government would not be the Tánaiste, I asked the Secretary General of the Government to look into the matter and decide what was appropriate. That was the beginning and end of my involvement in this. The Secretary General made inquiries and the Garda Commissioner advised that it would be appropriate for the current arrangements to be maintained.
The programme for Government "seeks to move beyond division and discord and find shared solutions". The Social Democrats have committed to providing a constructive Opposition in this Dáil term. It beggars belief that the Government has come together as one with Sinn Féin to exclude voices of the Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit and Independent groupings from the speaking times.
It is important that we can all represent our constituents. We cannot be squeezed out of our speaking time. I ask that the Tánaiste and Sinn Féin reconsider this decision because it does not bode well for the future of this term if dissenting or Opposition voices will be squeezed out of the discussion.
I am not au faitwith the details of this matter but the Deputy Chief Whip, Deputy Griffin, tells me that what has been said is not accurate, and Deputies will have 20 minutes of speaking time. What we are endeavouring to have in this Dáil, which is entirely appropriate, is that speaking time should be proportionate. Every Deputy elected to the Dáil has a mandate, and every mandate is equal. We had a situation in the previous Dáil where Government backbenchers could not get speaking time. Independent Deputies and people from micro parties got more speaking time than Government backbenchers did. That was not fair.
Deputies opposite can try to shout us down as much as they like but we are going to re-establish democracy in this House. This means that every Deputy is equal, every Deputy should have an equal right to speaking time and there should be no preferential arrangements for Independent Deputies or micro parties.
The programme for Government commits to ending the direct provision system and replacing it with a new international protection accommodation system based on a not-for-profit approach. Currently, in the Skellig Star accommodation centre in Cahersiveen, 32 people are facing their third day without food. They have gone on hunger strike, which is a drastic decision to take, to force the issue of their need to be moved out of that rotten accommodation. The owner of the company that runs the centre, Paul Collins, has rationed their water to 1 litre a day. They would do better in a refugee camp in Lebanon. This centre has the disgraceful record of being, according to a consultant in public health medicine, completely inappropriate for accommodation during a pandemic. The residents need to be moved out. Their demand is simple, namely, that they be moved to own-door accommodation, which is available in Tullamore and Mosney. The Department of Justice and Equality is once again letting these people down. That they are on their third day of a hunger strike deserves a response from the Government.
I understand officials from the Department were in Cahersiveen yesterday trying to resolve this issue. We do, of course, want it resolved but before somebody can be moved to alternative appropriate accommodation, we have to find that accommodation. There is a difficulty in this regard and I think everyone appreciates that. The Deputy named somebody who is not a Member of the House and made an allegation against that person. I do not know the person and I do not know whether the allegation is true, but I am pretty sure it is a breach of the Standing Orders of the House for a Deputy to name somebody in the House and make an allegation about that individual. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle may wish to take that up with the Deputy.
Publicans are extremely worried about the long-term impact of Covid-19 on their businesses and their future. Many business owners feel they will not be in a position to open properly until a vaccine is found and they will require major financial support until that time. Social distancing is extremely difficult to maintain in a pub setting, but keeping pubs closed indefinitely is resulting in a massive surge in home drinking and uncontrolled house parties. This is contributing to the spread of Covid-19 and an increase in domestic violence, and it is building up a host of future health and social problems. Many publicans are over 66 years of age and do not qualify for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. A large number of pubs and bars were struggling to remain open prior to the start of the pandemic. The pub provides a very important focal point in towns and in rural and isolated communities. In many cases, it is the only social outlet available to vulnerable or elderly people who live alone. Its social importance cannot be overestimated. I ask the Tánaiste to introduce a package of significant measures under the July stimulus package to help publicans remain viable until a vaccine is found.
I support Deputy Grealish's. In my own constituency, as is the case for many other Deputies, the issue of whether pubs can remain viable in the long term is a cause for concern Even if they do reopen under the next phase, when one takes into account the social distancing requirements, for a lot of pubs, especially smaller ones, reopening might not be feasible. Pubs and bars employ more than 50,000 people and we need a package to support publicans to get them over the next 12 months, by which time a vaccine will hopefully be available, and enable them to remain viable. Otherwise, we will have mass closures of bars and pubs, which are needed in our communities.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I share their sentiments. I too would like to see pubs and bars open on 10 August if it is possible for them to do so within the public health guidelines. I hope we will be able to make that decision in the affirmative next Tuesday but I cannot guarantee it at this stage. I totally agree that pubs offer significant employment throughout the country and are also really important to our social fabric, not just in rural areas but in urban areas too. A package will be in place to support them. In fact, it is here already and it includes no commercial rates for six months, a restart grant of between €4,000 and €25,000 for every pub, the wage subsidy scheme to allow publicans to take back or take on staff and have their pay subsidised by the State, a VAT cut of 2% applying to alcohol beverages, and the spend and save scheme, which will apply to food. Will we consider doing more? We can do so, but I think there is already a substantial package in place. The problem is that the pub owners cannot open and I hope that question can be decided in the affirmative next week.
I want to highlight the plight of carers of people with physical and mental disabilities. Elderly parents who are caring for their grown-up children have no access to day care centres or respite. It is the same for carers of people with Alzheimer's disease. The Rockmount centre in my own town of Kilgarvan, a wonderful facility caring for people with that disease, is closed. These carers are strangled, torn and worn. They have no respite and no day care centres to help them care for their loved ones. I am asking the Government to do something for these people, who are the worst hit by this crisis in our communities.
On the same issue, parents of children with disabilities are pleading for some services to reopen. In west Cork, parents were asked to seek out local hubs and many of them have found suitable buildings, including one in my own community in Schull. No matter how they try, however, they cannot get the doors open to take these young children. I have tried to speak to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, several times this week to explain this issue but it has not worked out. These parents and children deserve better. Will the Tánaiste ensure that the hubs can open?
I would like to raise the issue of personal assistant hours for people with disabilities. I have been dealing with a gentleman, Liam Mulcahy, who lives in Ennis. Liam is classed as one of the lucky ones as he has independent living in a council house, but he requires full-time care and assistance to ensure that can continue. He has been assessed and told he needs more hours but he will have to wait until January before he receives them. I would like to know why he has to wait for six months. It is far too long and it is not good enough.
I want to raise the same issue. Yesterday, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, met the Enough is Enough group, which is campaigning for services for adults and children with disabilities. It was very moving to hear from families who have really been affected by the strain and stress of the past few months. Many of them feel they have had no support. I know the Minister of State is going to work with them, and it is important that she does, but there are more than 5,000 cases today of children waiting for tests for autism. That is unacceptable in 2020. The average waiting time for those tests is 19 months, despite a statutory requirement that they be provided within six months. These difficulties may be further compounded by the delays resulting from Covid-19. I ask that this be looked at and dealt with because these people cannot wait any longer and are having to deal with many difficulties.
We are very keen to see disability services reopening as soon as possible. We want it to be done in a way that is safe for the staff and the service users.
Many families are now at their wits' end. This has gone on for so long, since the pandemic started in March. In some cases, service users are regressing and going backwards, which is a matter of worry and concern for all of us. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has informed me that adult day services will gradually resume throughout August and service providers are working to get day services ready to reopen safely, in line with public health guidance. Service providers have been getting in touch with all families and service users during July to discuss when they can expect the resumption of their service and what that service will consist of. An information portal has been established, which will include the dates on which the 1,000 or so different service locations will reopen. After 4 August, service users and families will be able to access this information on .
I raise the matter of children being placed in adult mental health units, which is mentioned in the programme for Government and the Sharing the Vision policy. This issue has been highlighted in Wexford over the past few years and as recently as last week. Will the Tánaiste commit to looking at the budget allocations regarding access to appropriate inpatient units and out-of-hours services? Has the Government taken into account the existing shortages in staff levels and the pending problem of retirements in the next five years, in order to end this bad practice of placing children in adult mental health units?
Unfortunately, this problem has been going on for a long time and we have struggled to deal with it. In some cases, there might be 16 and 17 year olds in an adult unit, while in other cases a decision is made in consultation with the family to put a child in an adult unit nearer to home rather than a children's unit far away. Still, it is not a satisfactory practice. As long ago as when I was Minister for Health and Kathleen Lynch was Minister of State with responsibility for this area, we worked very hard on this issue and were able to reduce the numbers, though not eliminate them. I am determined that this Government be the one to deal with this once and for all and I will be discussing it with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in the weeks ahead. I thank Deputy Mythen for raising this issue.
My thoughts are with the family in Dundalk who are burying a man today. He was a husband, father and brother who was hugely involved in the community. On Sunday, we heard the sad news of his suicide. This is not the first time I have dealt with this issue. I spoke with the family and they said that the difficult part was that this man presented himself to the mental services in Crosslanes, Drogheda, on the Wednesday before last and sought help. He was not admitted. I accept that hospitalisation and residential care are not always the most suitable options and I am not a medical expert. However, I am told that the home care team made a call the next day and stated that it would be a few weeks before it could deal with him, due to Covid-19 and, I must assume, a lack of resources. I am not looking to vilify services but I call on the Government to assess protocols and resources to ensure there is no wrong door when someone presents for mental health help and that the necessary care and connections are put in place. We need a full audit of mental health services. We also need to deal with the chronic underfunding and a system that is failing our people.
Over the last number of years, when the Tánaiste was the Taoiseach and Jim Daly was Minister of State in the Department of Health, I raised the situation in the psychiatric unit in Crosslanes. I have visited that unit numerous times with people from Dundalk and the surrounding areas and the service there was absolutely dreadful. I once brought a young fellow up there with his mother and six hours later he was running around a car park in the nude. We ended up in the Garda station and we had to get a doctor to section him. Two years ago, I also went there with the man to whom Deputy Ó Murchú referred and his sister, who was having serious problems. We have spent millions of euro in Crosslanes and we are getting nothing. It is a five-star treatment centre and yet a man is being buried today, as have other people in the area. It is about time someone conducted a national audit of the situation, including how many people have been in there in last number of years and how many of them committed suicide since they left the unit.
On the same issue, there was also a tragic incident over the weekend in the constituency the Tánaiste and I represent. I have spoken with the Garda, the local authority and local people about it. I am not going to go into it because it is fresh in the mind. I worked for Tusla and the HSE for a number of years and on many occasions, I have seen young people and adults presenting themselves to hospitals in dire straits. Their mental health had completely collapsed and they went to those hospitals looking for help. They are sometimes waiting upwards of 24 or 48 hours. Two weeks ago, up to six people were waiting 16 hours to see a psychiatrist. The programme for Government contains huge promises in this area and I appeal to the Tánaiste to follow through on them. People are in dire straits across the board. They are looking for help and they need it now.
I do not know the details of the individual case raised by Deputies Ó Murchú and Fitzpatrick or the particular service that was mentioned but I am sorry to hear that story and my heart goes out to that man and his family. I wish to pass on my condolences to them at this time. I will not comment on the individual case or the service as I do not know anything about them but I will let the Minister know this was raised in the Chamber today. We have made a huge progress on mental health and suicide prevention in recent years. For the first time ever, the budget for this year exceeds €1 billion and the national anti-suicide strategy is being implemented. In fact, the number of people taking their lives in Ireland in the last year or two is around 30% lower than it was ten years ago. We are going in the right direction in that regard but that is no comfort to any family that has recently experienced suicide. It is worth putting on the record of the Dáil that that progress is being made.
We need to be careful what we say about services and staff. I have worked in healthcare and with patients with mental illness. It is very hard to assess whether or not people will take their life if one does not admit them, or after they are discharged. There is no X-ray or blood test for it so it is not like other areas of medicine. It based on a clinical judgment and we should be very careful that we never stray into blaming doctors, nurses, psychiatrists or particular services for bad outcomes. It is unfortunately not that simple.
The Government is going in the wrong direction in the delivery of Sláintecare and of healthcare based on need, rather than ability to pay. There are over 12,000 people on the waiting list for Mayo University Hospital today. Some 9,484 of those are outpatients, 1,171 have been waiting for more than three years, and 2,654 are waiting for inpatient procedures. The Tánaiste said last week that this was not about beds, but I beg to differ. The queues for the pain management clinics are getting longer. Those clinics are greatly reduced and there is an 18-month waiting list to get to them. The Government says it has spent €2 billion on the HSE during the Covid pandemic but it is certainly not getting to the people of Mayo. What message does the Tánaiste have for all those people who are waiting in pain for procedures?
I did not say it was not about beds. I said it was not just about beds. There is more to healthcare in Ireland than hospital beds. Many services can and should be provided through general practice and in community settings. The Deputy can feel free to misrepresent me for the next five years. It is in the nature of her party to do so-----
We had been making significant progress on waiting lists prior to the pandemic.
For many months, if not for more than a year, we were seeing reductions in the number of people waiting for an operation or a procedure and reductions in the number of people waiting to attend an outpatient clinic. It was still a bad situation but we had been going in the right direction and then came Covid-19, which changed everything. It meant that much normal healthcare had be suspended to prioritise Covid-19 care or because it was not safe. We need to get all that back on track again now, but it will not be easy and it will take time.
I want to ask about commitments outlined in the programme for Government regarding a new way of measuring economic progress. I refer specifically to the commitment to establish a set of well-being indices to move towards creating a holistic, well-rounded view of how our society is faring. The programme for Government promises to use new well-being indices and balanced scorecards in the development of Government budgeting.
Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and its far-reaching impact beyond just economic consequences, the time is right for the Government to begin its work on addressing the broader needs of Irish society. Will the Tánaiste tell me what plans, if any, have been put in place to begin the Government's work on measuring well-being as a means of improving Ireland's understanding of our social and environmental progress? Is there room to include, for example, sustainable development goals in this work? Does the Tánaiste have any information concerning what experts and stakeholders can be brought in to support the Government's work in this area and what other countries we might be looking to when framing this work?
I do not think we have got started on that aspect yet, but it is in the programme for Government. It is something that the Government and all three parties in government are committing to doing, because we need an accurate way to measure well-being in our society that is about more than GDP and about more than trolley numbers. We need something more sophisticated than any of those metrics. Regarding looking to other countries, New Zealand has done some good work in this area and our new Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland was the man involved with those well-being indices and budgets in New Zealand, so perhaps that is one country we can look to.
We should not forget, however, that some well-being indices already exist. For example, the United Nations Development Programme produces a human development index, HDI, every year. That looks at health through life expectancy, educational attainment and economics, and that index ranks Ireland as the fourth-best country in the world in which to live. Deputies would be forgiven for not believing that, but it is the truth.
While we all recognise the urgent need to continue with best safety practice regarding Covid-19, in the event that regulations might be lifted to allow the opening of pubs in mid-August, would it be possible to ensure that all pubs can open simultaneously, provided they can implement social distancing?
The Government will make this decision at our Cabinet meeting next Tuesday. It will depend on two things. The first is advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on how we might manage social distancing in pubs and open them safely, which will be difficult to do, but not impossible. Second, it will depend on the epidemiological data on how we are doing with the virus. We do not have those numbers yet but we plan to make a decision on this issue next Tuesday. I hope it will be a positive decision, but I cannot make that commitment now.
Public consultation is mentioned frequently in the programme for Government, as well as engagement with citizens. In north Kildare, it has been suggested that the water supply will be moved from the Poulaphouca reservoir, the water from which is six times softer than water coming from the River Barrow. This has caused consternation and upset for people living in north Kildare. Swopping from a high-quality drinking water supply from the Poulaphouca reservoir, and doing this over people's heads, should not be the way of any Government. Irish Water states that quality is not an issue, but water that will be six times harder than the supply from the Poulaphouca reservoir will be a major change in people's live, for example, in respect of their electrical goods. What is the Government's plan for the water supply in north Kildare regarding public consultation and quality?
I do not doubt that this is an important issue for north Kildare but I do not have any information on it. If Deputy Cronin would like to raise this issue with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, by means of a parliamentary question or special notice question, I am sure he will respond.