Thursday, 17 September 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
On one occasion on which I raised this issue the Tánaiste said my contribution was "quite a diatribe". Perhaps he will be more considered in his response today given that since that time, the Central Bank's investigation, which was prompted by my dossier, found that what I said was true and that dual pricing is being used by the majority of insurance companies. This is a practice that rips off consumers. The Central Bank is so concerned at what it has seen that it has called for immediate action. The courts have found that business interruption cover, which is an issue I have raised with the Tánaiste time and time again, should support the consumer against the insurance industry.
As late as today, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has, in its preliminary findings, found against the insurance industry for what I would describe as cartel-like activity. The commission says there are reasonable grounds now to believe that the industry or a number of companies have broken the law for price signalling. With that in mind I ask the question. The Tánaiste has talked about conspiracy theories. The Minister for Finance put on the record of the Dáil that he has delayed significant parts of the implementation of my legislation for a further year because the insurance industry sat down with him and said they wanted it delayed. Given everything that I have said, given that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has found against the industry, given that the Central Bank is so alarmed that it has called for immediate action and given that the FCA is finding in favour of consumers, will the Government for once stand up for the ordinary people against the industry and implement in full the legislation that was endorsed by Fine Gael and every party in the House? My legislation balances the scales in favour of consumers against an industry.
Ní féidir leanacht ar aghaidh mar seo, a Theachta. Bhí nóiméad amháin ag an Teachta Doherty agus níl sé féaráilte do na Teachtaí eile. Tá mé ag rá é sin le gach Teachta. Deputies have one minute to put a question and one minute for a reply. It is to be fair to all Deputies.
From the way the Deputy is speaking, one would not think that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission was a Government agency. It is a Government agency under my Department that carried out the investigation and released a statement only in the past hour. Rather than criticising us, Deputy Doherty should at least welcome the fact that an agency under my Department took this action. The way Deputy Doherty is speaking one would swear it was some sort of NGO or something.
I am told that at least 22 of the 27 sections of Deputy Doherty's Consumer Insurance Contracts Act are now in operation. That will result in positive changes for consumers. Certain sections of the Act will have a transformational impact on insurers' systems and operations. A further year is provided so that insurers can prepare to implement these sections, taking account of the impact that it will have on systems. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, believes it is a balanced measure and an appropriate way forward for industry and consumers.
I would say to those in the insurance sector that the findings of the Central Bank and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission should be a wake-up call for them. They should get on with making these changes, whether legislatively required to or not.
Despite my raising this with the Tánaiste in June and the Taoiseach in July as well as tabling numerous parliamentary questions, there remains absolute anger and frustration among the workforce of Aer Lingus and other companies in the aviation sector in respect of their social welfare entitlements. The replies we are receiving are not reflected in their experiences in Intreo offices. They are not reflected in their experiences with their employer either. The net result is that workers are taking home pay of €40. There are workers taking home net pay of €200 who are trying to raise families and meet mortgage commitments. They consider themselves the lucky ones. There is major distress and upset.
I hope the Government is talking to the company in terms of connectivity. That needs to be discussed. I ask the Tánaiste and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to engage with the company with a view to ensuring that these workers receive their entitlements and that there are open doors rather than closed doors, continued cloudiness and lack of clarity.
I will certain say to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, that Deputy Smith has raised this again. I have seen some individual queries of constituents of mine who are finding it difficult to access their welfare entitlements. As is often the case, everyone's situation is different and that can complicate matters, but we will try to help as best we can.
The Government really appreciates and understands the extent to which the aviation sector, airports and airlines have been severely hit by the pandemic and the strict travel rules the Government has put in place to protect the health of the country. Aer Lingus has been a major beneficiary of the wage subsidy scheme. It has enabled the company to hang on to many of its staff. It will be a major beneficiary of the employment wage subsidy scheme, which will allow it to keep a lot of its staff on the payroll. We are in engagements with the company to see if we can support the airline in a similar way to other Governments to ensure its survival through the pandemic, because we need the airline and we will need the connectivity next summer.
The Ombudsman for Children has called on the Government to bring forward a referendum to put the right to housing in the Constitution and to address the homelessness crisis as a matter of urgency. The programme for Government commits to a referendum on housing. As we know, since 2014 the Constitutional Convention also recommended such a referendum. When will a referendum be brought forward? Will this referendum be on the right to housing?
The Government is committed to a referendum on the right to housing. That will happen during the term of this Dáil. There is no date set for it. Obviously, we have to agree the wording, because any time we amend the Constitution the wording that we put in is then interpreted by the courts in a way that is superior to any law that we pass here. We need to ensure that we get the wording right when we change our Constitution.
I would issue a word of caution, though. A total of 83 countries in the world have either a legal or constitutional right to housing. They all have homelessness and they all have problems in their housing markets. People find it difficult to pay the rent and get homes. We should not make the mistake of thinking that a legal or constitutional right in itself solves the problem. What will solve the problem is an increase in housing supply of all forms, including social housing, places to rent and places for people to buy. That will not be achieved through a constitutional amendment, but it can be achieved through further Government action.
I want to raise an issue that I have raised numerous times in the term of this Dáil and the last Dáil. It is the lack of progress around the medical cannabis access programme. I see the former Minister for Health in the Chamber. To say parents and patients are extremely frustrated is an understatement. The law was changed last year and many people had hope. Since then, there have been numerous issues with lack of reimbursement and lack of access. When will the medical cannabis access programme commence?
I am afraid I do not have a date on that. I will ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to get back to Deputy Kenny on it. It is something that the Government has committed to doing. We want to get it done both in terms of legislation and the programme itself. I have no wish to give Deputy Kenny an untrue answer without knowing what the answer is. I will certainly ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.
We are on day 84 of the Government's formation and of the term of this Government. There was a commitment by the Government to bring forward certain legislation within the first 100 days of its formation. Will the Tánaiste outline to the House which legislation is being brought forward and, as per the Government's commitment, if it will meet those deadlines?
I do not have it in front of me, to be honest. However, the legislative programme was agreed and published by Government on Tuesday. It includes 30 discrete items of legislation that will be published before Christmas and, with the Deputy's co-operation, perhaps even enacted by Christmas. It includes some major legislation. Examples include the climate action Bill, which is a big part of what we are going to prioritise as a Government, an affordable housing Bill, which I know will be important to many people in the House, and legislation around Brexit, which will be necessary given the fact that the UK will leave the Single Market and Customs Union at the end of the year.
It was acknowledged by the former Minister of State, Mr. Jim Daly, that we have a deficit of 20 mental health beds in south Tipperary. We do not have a single long-stay bed in the county of Tipperary. People in south Tipperary have to go to Kilkenny, where the beds are full, they are not wanted or there is no room. People from north Tipperary have to travel to Ennis. The former Minister of State, Mr. Daly, promised and committed to this, not only at meetings with other Oireachtas Members and myself but in the House as well.
I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, for coming to visit south Tipperary. However, officials have the Minister of State now saying that this was never a commitment and that it was for the south-east region.
Mental health has increased tenfold with the onset of Covid-19. People are being turned away from our general hospital day in, day out and night in, night out. People are desperately suffering with many ending up as suicides Why has the Government stopped collating the self-harm and suicide figures since March of this year? Will the Government honour the commitment to provide long-stay mental health beds in south Tipperary? It is not an add-on extra. It is desperately needed. We need to have those beds and have those patients treated and returned to their families in good health. We had those outcomes for decades. However, since the closure of St. Michael's unit we have no place to go.
They are sent home and many of them end up in their graves.
I thank the Deputy. Everyone in this House appreciates the terrible impact that Covid-19 has had on many people's mental health ranging from worrying about the virus to social isolation to people's loss of their jobs. That is something we specifically mention and put in the Covid plan released on Tuesday. This year, for the first time ever, the budget for mental health will exceed €1 billion, which is a considerable sum of money. From the most recent figures I have seen, although they may be old, as the Deputy said, we have seen a decrease in suicide in Ireland and a decrease in people self-harming. That is very welcome but we have a long way to go.
On the Deputy's specific question about the beds in Tipperary, I will have to ask the Minister to get back to the Deputy directly on that.
The Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, acting as Minister for fisheries, signed a statutory instrument which introduced a penalty points system on fishing fleets a few weeks ago while the Dáil was in recess when we had no chance to debate or stop that or at least submit amendments. Those penalty points have the potential to do major harm to the Irish fishing industry. I remind the Dáil that Fianna Fáil opposed a penalty points system when the former Minister, Deputy Creed, tried to introduce one some time back. What is the standing in law of these new penalty points following the signing of the statutory instrument? Can the statutory instrument be withdrawn by this Government? I call on the Minister, as a member of the Government, to do a U-turn on this and withdraw the statutory instrument so it can come before the Dáil for proper debate. Can he do that for the fishermen of Ireland?
I thank Deputy Collins. I understand it was a requirement under European law that we bring in a penalty points-type system for the enforcement of fishery protection law, so it had to come in sooner or later. I understand that the Taoiseach, in his capacity as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine for a brief period of time, signed those regulations into law. The procedure, as the Deputy knows, is that any statutory instrument can be revoked by this House but it would be up to the Opposition, if it wishes, to insist on a debate and a vote on it. I think it would have about 21 days to do that. My understanding, however, is that this is a long-standing European obligation to bring in this system as an alternative to court prosecution. It is all about protecting our environment and our fisheries to ensure that we have fisheries and fishermen into the future.
From Monday, 85,000 students will attend universities in Dublin. Tens of thousands of those will be criss-crossing the country. The Minister's instructions were that higher and third level institutions should consider enhanced protective measures. What does that mean and what is the Government's plan? For instance, should these students go home at the weekend and is the Minister fearful of them spreading the virus? For students who are being asked to pay for accommodation months in advance, will they get their money back if the levels increase to 3 and 4?
I have been contacted by a student in my area, Carlow, who did her leaving certificate, was disappointed with her results because they were not as high as those awarded in her mock examinations and decided to repeat in November, on which I compliment her. She went to the school, which is an excellent school, and they told her that they do not have any resources and that they did not get any guidance from the Department of Education and Skills on the supports they can give to anyone repeating their leaving certificate on 16 November. That is unacceptable. I contacted the Department this morning and I was told that the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, supports a website for students who want to repeat their leaving certificate. That is not good enough. The school the student has been dealing with is excellent, and by no means would I condemn it, but every school needs supports for their students who intend to repeat the leaving certificate.
We have seen that students have had their points downgraded. I have asked for third, fourth, fifth and six year results for the students who contacted my office. It does not stack up. They have been downgraded by one and two points, from H1 to H2 and from H2 to H3, and have lost out on positions. The teachers' information that is available throughout all the quarterly examinations does not reflect the reason they got downgraded. What can we do for those students who have been downgraded and missed out on their positions by three and four points?
To reply to Deputy Conway-Walsh's question, as the Deputy will know, on 5 August, a very detailed implementation advice regarding public health and the return to third level education was published. A huge amount of work has been undertaken by the sector, including by the Union of Students of Ireland, which sits on a group that meets every Friday that I attend also. It will meet again in the morning. We are now examining the further measures that need to be taken in respect of the latest NPHET advice regarding Dublin and without getting ahead of any NPHET recommendations that may or may not go to Government in the coming days, I draw the Deputy's attention to the fact that it is the balance between what one does on site and what one does online.
In respect of accommodation, we have already brought in a number of flexible options for students to be able to rent a room for a number of nights rather than taking out a long-term lease. I would encourage more colleges to do that.
In respect of the other two issues, they are matters for the Minister for Education and Skills. I know the Minister has been doing an excellent job on prioritising the calculated grades system. I am sure guidance will be produced on the repeat leaving certificate opportunity and I will ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, to follow up on that. The calculated grades system, while imperfect, because every system was imperfect in the pandemic, was genuinely the best, honest and most robust system we could put in place.
On the policing and community safety Bill, I welcome the plan to place a reciprocal obligation on public service bodies to co-operate with the Garda. As we know, preventing antisocial behaviour and the issue of community safety is very important for us all. Many of our areas are suffering, and issues such as fireworks, scramblers and continued antisocial behaviour, including drug dealing etc., have been raised in the House. We need community support and involvement of youth services to support public bodies. Where does the community fit into this Bill? Where do the community safety forums that are established and are working fit into it? We have one in Blanchardstown, the community safety forum, which is part of the Blanchardstown local drugs task force. Are they included in the strategic framework because it is essential that we get community support to support the public services and the Garda?
As alluded to by my colleague, we are all aware of the nightly onslaught of fireworks in our communities and would have received the document I have in my hand from Dogs Trust Ireland in that regard. I will read out a couple of testimonies. One states:
Nothing works for my pup. She is petrified and we have people setting off bangers randomly so you can’t prepare for them.
My dog has been hearing them since August in the distance. [I] can't [get him to] walk in the park [because] he's too fearful.
Safety in our communities is starting to go. What resources are in place to deal with this nightly combat? I have a specific question but the Minister may not be able to answer it. How many breaches of legislation inspections have taken place in respect of the misuse of fireworks?
I thank the Deputies. I will be honest with them and say that I am not an expert on the Bill but I understand that there will be a provision in it for community structures in particular. It is very welcome that the Bill is the policing and community safety Bill. For the first time, we are seeing the words "policing" and "community safety" in the title of legislation and that speaks to the new philosophy around policing into the future.
On the issue of fireworks, I very much agree with Deputy Ward. This is an issue that is coming up a lot in my constituency. It seems that the pre-Hallowe'en fireworks activity has kicked off much earlier this year. I do not know why, and many people are worried about it, not just people using our parks but particularly people who have pets. We need to make sure that the fireworks Act is enforced and that we do not see animals being terrorised or, worse, children or young people having their hands damaged or losing their eyesight. That is the kind of thing that happens around this time of year. It is important that the Garda is supported in enforcing that legislation.
I raised this issue with the Taoiseach on Tuesday. Louth has had the third highest case numbers of Covid-19 and, four times in the past week, Louth has had the second highest number of cases recorded. The acting Chief Medical Officer, CMO, said earlier this week that Louth is showing a particularly concerning trend. This morning, first, second and third year students from a school in Drogheda were told to stay home. One positive case involving a teacher has resulted in up to 30 other teachers getting close contact notifications from the HSE app, meaning that they have to self-isolate for the next two weeks.
In the meantime, Drogheda is still without a Covid testing centre, yet members of the Government come in here day after day and say they are ramping up testing. We need a commitment from the Government that Drogheda, the largest town in Ireland, will get its Covid testing centre. I expect the Tánaiste to pick up the phone today and contact the HSE given that the number of cases is rising in Louth, including Drogheda. He should please not say it is a matter for the HSE. He is supposed to be a member of a Government in charge. I would like a commitment over the next few days on when Drogheda, which is the largest town and whose number of cases is rising, will get its Covid testing centre, and where it will be. Please, no more bullshit. I do not want to have to come in next week and raise this issue again. The Tánaiste says testing is being ramped up. He should prove it and provide a Covid testing centre in Drogheda, where the number of cases is rising daily.
Unfortunately, case numbers are rising daily in most parts of the country, and Louth is one of the counties of concern. It is important that we never read too much into any one day's numbers. We tend to look at seven-day and 14-day averages for very good reasons.
With regard to the specific question on Drogheda, I will see the chief executive officer of the HSE tomorrow at the Cabinet Covid sub-committee meeting and I will specifically raise the issue of Drogheda with him, precisely because, as Deputies O'Dowd and Munster have pointed out to me, it is a very large town in a county with a rising incidence. Therefore, having a test centre there would be a good idea. I undertake to raise that with the CEO of the HSE tomorrow.
I will continue on the subject of testing. It was pretty frightening to hear a report on "Six One News" yesterday about a reagent that is necessary for rapid testing. There is a limited supply. I want to know what the Government is doing to deal with this. We need all Government resources to be put into community testing, as said by Deputy Munster. We need to consider the possibility of mobile testing units that can be introduced where they are absolutely necessary. We need to make sure we do not have staffing problems as people are redeployed to the positions they were in prior to their being deployed to carry out contact tracing and prior to their having been involved in the trace-and-isolate infrastructure. We need to make sure we have the capacity to do the business we need to do or we will shut this entire State down.
As I mentioned earlier, in the past couple of days we passed the 1 million mark. One million Covid PCR tests have been carried out in Ireland. That is a considerable achievement. Once again, I express my gratitude to and appreciation for the HSE staff and laboratory staff given the work they have done.
We do have mobile testing centres. They can be set up quite quickly. One was set up in Castleknock, in my area, not that long ago. We need to be frank with people in that capacity is not unlimited. There are only so many medical scientists in Ireland and the world. Let us not pretend that capacity can somehow be ramped up infinitely. There may be periods, as we go on, during which the criteria on testing will have to be changed so that we can focus on testing those most likely to test positive. Some 98% of test results are still negative. We need to be frank with people about that.
I had stopped watching the BBC news but started watching it again last night at 10 p.m. to see what was happening with Brexit from the British perspective. I was interested to see that the main item on the news in Britain concerned lines of 300 people, or more, queueing to get a Covid test. Their system, whereby one can bypass one's general practitioner and apply for a test online, is breaking down. That is why we need to be careful about how we proceed from here. Things are not perfect. We are coming up against capacity constraints but we need to make the right decisions. Allowing people to bypass the general practitioner seems to have been a big mistake in Britain, even though some academics here are advocating it. Things that work academically do not always work in practice. We need to make sure the demand is met when it comes to the criteria regarding who qualifies for testing and who does not. We will continue to increase the capacity as much as we can but we need to be frank with people that it is not unlimited and cannot be unlimited.